Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more…]

Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate

cyclopsOdysseus was the hero’s hero. King of Ithaca, he sailed to Troy with an army of men to liberate the princess Helen from the Trojans. Odysseus’ leadership and prowess at Troy made him a legend among his fellow Greeks. Yet, Odysseus had a fatal flaw, and this would be his undoing. Odysseus could master a chariot and a phalanx of soldiers, but he wasn’t always the master of himself. Every now and then, his pride would get the better of him and he would become wild and unchecked, a primal force of passion and fury.

In these moments, Odysseus would forget the limits of his powers. He would believe that he was god-like and untouchable, the master of fate and destiny. He would lose his grip on reason. He would overreach himself and get himself into all kinds of scrapes.

Finally he messed up big time. The epic misfortunes of Odysseus’ life, dramatized by Homer in The Odyssey, hinged upon a single lapse in self-control. Odysseus’ error presents valuable insights into the kind of self-control that we need to deal successfully with change. Most importantly, it indicates how pride, or hubris, constantly undercuts our attempts at self-mastery. We believe that we are masters of the world. We overreach ourselves and wind up victims of the world instead.

Homer describes Odysseus as a master strategist – a ‘man of twists and turns’. It was Odysseus, at the siege of Troy, who devised the plan for getting the Archaean army into the city. Disguising himself as a beggar, ‘searing his body with mortifying strokes and throwing filthy rags on his back like a slave’, Odysseus stole into Troy and read its defences. The princess Helen, prisoner of the Trojans, recognized him and demanded that he tell her his plan. Odysseus gave it up reluctantly. The Archaeans would build a giant horse and put soldiers in its belly, giving it to the Trojans as a gift. It was a crazy scheme but it just might work! Under the cover of darkness, the soldiers would creep from the horse and throw wide the city gates and the Archaean army would come pouring in. This is how Odysseus, ‘master of any craft’, facilitated the conquest of Troy and liberated Helen. [Read more…]

Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

[Read more…]

See like a Stoic: an ancient technique for modern consumers

Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) grew up surrounded by beautiful things: great art and architecture, sumptuous foods, fine wines, and artfully tailored robes. When he assumed the title of Emperor of Rome, he had everything that he could possibly desire. Marcus, however, was a Stoic philosopher, so he knew that the law of life is change and that one should never let oneself become too attached or invested in material things. To maintain his composure in the midst of plenty, he would seek to transform the way that he saw the things that he desired. This helped him get a grip on his desires and achieve Stoic peace of mind.

Marcus’ approach to consumables and other possessions provides a handy guide for modern consumers who seek to overcome the allure of products that they want but don’t need. Instead of looking at clothes, jewelry, food, and art through the lens of desire, Marcus advises that we view these things as pure material objects and evaluate them accordingly. He outlines this technique in The Meditations as follows:

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).

The best way to follow Marcus’ approach is to treat it as a practical exercise. This is the approach that I take to philosophical concepts in Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.

[Read more…]

When (too much) passion is not enough


I read a great post today on Venessa Miemis’ blog, Emergent by Design. The topic was passion and whether it is all it’s cracked up to be. I happened to be writing on the Stoic approach to passions, so I ventured a response. Here is an edited version of what I said.


Following one’s passion is important. But passion can easily become an end in itself. This can be a disaster. To ensure that we stay focused on realistic goals and achievable tasks, we need to keep our passions in check. This is not easy, with so much in the world to feel passionate about. And it doesn’t help that, in the workplace, we are constantly incited to fire up our passions.

Motivational culture is a cornerstone of post-industrial society, and it feeds on passion. Pick up a book like Drive, by Daniel Pink, and you’ll learn about the value of passion. Professionals are no longer satisfied with money and status – they want meaning, intrinsic value, and a big passionate experience of life. Cultivating a powerful sense of passion can take you a long way, and to some pretty interesting places as well. But it’s a mistake to think that passion is some kind of magic carpet ride, destination Xanadu. Nikolas Tesla was passionate about his breakthrough inventions, but he died in poverty. Romeo and Juliet epitomize passion, and we all know how that story ends.

If we want to achieve our dreams, we need to check our passions against reality. We also need to check our passions, because they have a way of taking control of us. This is something we don’t tend to acknowledge, because we are constantly told that it is important to feel passionate about things. Passion is important – it is vital. But it is also vital that we don’t let ourselves be consumed by passions, so that the passion (as opposed to the goal) becomes the meaning of life. [Read more…]

RIP Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

‘No one wants to die. Even people who want to get to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is a destination that we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be. Because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old and makes way for the new. … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become’.

Socrates, Seneca, Heidegger, or Sartre never said it better: ‘Remembering that you are about to die is the best way of I know of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart’. Powerful words and true from one of recent history’s most inspiring innovators and entrepreneurs.

Stoic happiness: a pagan apotheosis?

Psychologists and self-help gurus link happiness to positive emotions and feelings. To be happy, you need to go about maximizing your positive responses to life. It is true that happiness involves positive emotions and feelings. But the relentless pursuit of happy experiences can easily lead to unhappiness, which suggests that positive feelings are not the original cause of happiness itself. A better way of thinking about happiness is to see happiness as the product of the flourishing life.

Mark Vernon, author of Wellbeing, argues that happiness is, or ought to be, a by-product of a life lived well. This view has an impressive pedigree, running all the way back to ancient times. It is first articulated in Aristotle and the Stoics.

The Stoics have a fascinating account of how happiness binds us to the natural world. Like other ancient philosophers, the Stoics see the point of philosophy as being to achieve a state of happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). But the way that the Stoics understood happiness or flourishing is quite different to how we’d understand it today. [Read more…]

Are you ready for change?

When a senior politician is charged with adultery today, we expect them to issue a press release, either in self-defence or contrition. Exiled to Corsica on the charge of extra-marital relations with Julia Livilla, sister of the emperor Gaius, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a letter to his mother, offering philosophical consolation for her grief at being parted from her son. In Stoic style, Seneca emphasises the importance of preparing oneself for change in life, so that one is not unseated by the shock of its arrival. One must be like a sentry on guard, he advises, always ready for sudden attack. For drastic change, like an enemy ambush, “scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict … easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent” (Letter to Helvia, 5).

In my seminars on Philosophy for Change, I’ve found that Seneca’s Stoic approach to change resonates with people of various ages and walks of life. This is not surprising given the times we live in. The global financial crisis has compounded the sense of anxiety that pervades society at the end of a tumultuous decade of terrorism, war and epidemics. When we add to our list of challenges the existential threat of runaway climate change, the future begins to look grim indeed. It is already clear that the Copenhagen talks this month will be full of trade-offs and compromises, but it is imperative that they result in a genuine plan for reducing global net greenhouse gas emissions. The hard work of figuring out how to achieve these changes on the ground will fall on governments and civil societies across the planet. Stalling will only make things more difficult after 2020, when the modest targets must be ramped up to meet the goal of cutting global emissions by 80 per cent or more from 1990 levels. One doesn’t have to be a futurologist to see that there are major social changes on the horizon. [Read more…]

Beautiful things: a Stoic cure for consumerism

MarcusAureliusThe Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius was used to being surrounded by beautiful things. But all too often, the affairs of the Empire would take him away from Rome, to defend the borders against the Goths, the Parthians, or the Persians. For the greater part of his life, Marcus was forced to endure the rigors of the battlefield, where beauty was rare and brutality the order of the day.

To maintain his composure through these years of hardship and toil, Marcus sought to transform his perception of the objects he desired. Rather than think of beautiful things – clothes, jewelry, food, art and architecture – in the manner that they were commonly perceived, he sought to see them as simple material objects and evaluate them accordingly.

In his notebook, Marcus presented this as a simple technique:

‘When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).

Towards a Stoic revivalism

The 20th century was an age of ideologies. People lived and died for their beliefs about human nature and the nature of society, its destiny and future. ‘Capitalism’ and ‘communism’ were totemic code words for opposing visions of the good life.

The 21st century is unlikely to witness the same ideological fervor. This is not because people have outgrown the need for ideas expressing the truth about human nature. It is because climate change has placed the destiny and future of our societies in question.

Rather than a new ideology, our century needs a Stoic revivalism. Like us, the Greek and Roman Stoic’s lived in an age of crisis. The ancient city-states had yielded to war and empire. The old gods had survived, but failed to inspire a living faith. Political leaders bickered and fought without any social vision. Anxiety was the order of the day.

Stoic philosophy was shaped by all this. In a world of constant change, the Stoics sought to develop a philosophical account of the challenges presented by change. This is what makes the Stoics relevant to us today.

The Stoic thinker is beset by a world beyond their control. Like a sailor on a stormy sea, they must find out what is within their control, and tie themselves to that mast for the sake of their survival. Here is the crux of it: according to the Stoics, the only thing you and I have any real power to control is the way that we respond to the world, our emotional and intellectual responses.

The Stoic philosophy-as-life hinges on cultivating the power within.

The Stoics may have been optimistic about the extent of control that is granted by reason (significantly, they don’t have a concept of the unconscious, as we’ve had since Nietzsche and Freud). But their influence on medieval and modern thought is decisive. To cope and endure in a world of change, the inner life of reason must become a sanctum against the world, sealed off against storms and upheavals, sheltered from the blows of fate. To negotiate and even flourish in a world of change, we must become guardians of our inner world, champions of our rational tranquility.

The Stoic rule is:

‘There is one thing I know I can control, and that is how I respond to events’.

The Stoic lesson is:

‘To find tranquility in the midst of change, and fulfillment in relation to the challenges of fate, cultivate the power within’.