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Beyond Binary

2020-09-20

As political polarization proliferates, it's beneficial to explore realms of thought that are not limited to left vs. right and us vs. them. Personally, I'm partial to philosophy: it's impossible to reduce all of philosophical thinking to, say, Epicureans vs. Stoics without ignoring the deep and unique contributions of Platonists, Aristotelians, Taoists, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, Christians, humanists, skeptics, existentialists, and many more.

Matters are similar in psychology, populated as it is by Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians, behaviorists, cognitivists, humanists, and adherents of more recent trends like evolutionary psychology and positive psychology.

Or consider music, with its many genres, sub-genres, and practitioners. Even in, say, jazz music you can experience ragtime, dixieland, stride, swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, chamber jazz, Latin jazz, gypsy jazz, bossa nova, and many more. The landscape is similar in literature, film, painting, sculpture, and other art-forms.

Yet in the world of politics - especially American politics with its two-party system - we are experiencing what Lee Drutman recently identified as a partisan death spiral. Although his recommended remedies are worth trying, I'd like to suggest something even deeper: ignore politics and immerse yourself in human phenomena that aren't merely two-sided. Philosophy, psychology, and the arts are fine places to start, especially because each one has its own kind of healing powers and yields its own kind of wisdom. Perhaps if we all became more attuned to finer shades of difference in these domains we'd be less likely to tolerate polarization in politics, too. Or so we can hope.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Aristotle Research Report #14: The Faults of Aristotle

2020-09-05

Although I think Aristotle was the greatest mind who ever lived, he did have his faults. In modern times, he is especially criticized for supposedly being anti-science, anti-democracy, pro-slavery, and anti-women. Let us briefly consider these charges.

Naturally, some of his attitudes can be traced to the culture in which he lived (the classical Greece of 2400 years ago), his social class (aristocratic), and the like. However, in general I think that what we consider his errors would been self-correcting because of his inductive approach to knowledge. Life is very different today than it was back then, and at his best Aristotle would have adjusted his views and theories to match the human experience.

As to science, Aristotle it's difficult to say that he was anti-science given that he was the founder of zoology, of biology, and perhaps even of science itself (cf. Leroi, The Lagoon). However, it's true that he did not have the concept of an experiment, missed some basic facts, speculated needlessly (e.g., about self-generated animals), and was overly attached to some of his theories.

As to democracy, Aristotle thought that a constitutional republic was better than pure populism and advocated the rule of law over the rule of men. Indeed, many of his insights form the foundation of modern constitutionalism. However, I still need to read a number of books about Aristotle's Politics to determine the extent of Aristotle’s aristocratic leanings.

As to so-called "natural slavery", the jury is out on exactly what Aristotle meant. Some scholars have argued that the criteria Aristotle defined - a person must by nature lack basic human capacities like foresight in order to be considered naturally servile - actually form a critique of ancient serfdom. Such a judgment should be a question of innate capacities, not their realization (which could be thwarted by lack of opportunity); however, much depends on enculturation: Aristotle might have argued that by nature all barbarians are slavish, yet when fully assimilated to Greek culture a non-Greek could be prepared for freedom.

As to women, Debra Modrak argues persuasively in her article "Aristotle: Women, Deliberation and Nature" that he did not hate women (as should be clear to anyone who has read his will, where he exercises great care over his wife and daughter). However, Aristotle seems to have had an unjustifiably low opinion of the deliberative powers and emotional constitution of women, and thus seems to have been unable to break free from opinions prevalent among the men of his time and place.

These are all complex issues and require greater study than I have given them so far, but I wanted to make clear for the record that I am not unaware of them.

(By the way, although at the end of 2019 I thought I was done with the first phase of research on this project, I keep finding more books and articles of interest, which I hope to finish reading sometime next year.)

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Compounding Wisdom

2020-08-28

This weekend, in honor of Warren Buffett's 90th birthday, I'd like to consider the phenomenon of compounding. It's a little-known fact that Buffett earned almost 90% of his $82 billion fortune after the age of 65. Yet supposedly he has been fascinated by compounding since the age of 10, when he had an epiphany about how wealth could grow over time through the steady effects of return on investment.

While it's true that money compounds, I'd like to argue that wisdom does, too. At the age of 9, I had an epiphany of my own and concluded that there is no omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent god overseeing the universe and the fate of humanity. (Hey, I beat Buffett by a whole year!) This was the first step on my path to wisdom; ever since, I've continually sought to learn more and more about how to achieve success - not just success in work or career or making money, but success as a human being. It's a big job!

Here too, I find that investing in an examined life yields ever-increasing returns as I immerse myself in different wisdom traditions, explore history and philosophy and psychology and literature and the arts and sciences, make connections among these disparate fields of inquiry, engage in never-ending self-improvement, build relationships with a wide range of people and especially with those who are dear to me, make decisions and take action in the world, learn better practices and acquire better habits, and endeavor to live up to my ideals in the face of misfortune.

Although there is great financial value to be gained in recognizing the wisdom of compounding, there is even greater human value to be gained in recognizing the compounding of wisdom.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


Speaking Freely

2020-08-26

Emerson was really onto something when he spoke about the high freedom of great conversation. I've been thinking about two more aspects of such freedom.

First, great conversation requires great spontaneity. Although when conversing we might have a deep goal of sharing and discovery, our conversation doesn't have an agenda or a script and we can't confine it to a narrow channel or actively direct it toward that goal (this is very Taoist: we have to approach the goal from the side, not head-on). Instead, we co-create it in an improvisatory way, with the freedom of a jazz duet.

Second, we must have the mutual trust and mutual benevolence to speak freely. The ancient Greeks had a special word for this: parrhesia (παρρησία). The Epicureans especially stressed the importance of speaking freely: of being open to correction by a friend or teacher, and also of correcting one's friends for their own benefit. Indeed, the ancient Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemos wrote an entire book on parrhesia, which unfortunately survives only in fragments. In line with the aphorism of Epicurus that "a philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind", Philodemos taught that a friend of mine must be honest (though not brutally so) and must help me to improve and to live a happier life. On this model, conversation is a kind of watering and pruning in the garden of life (thanks to Hiram Crespo for the image).

Montaigne, that curious combination of Skeptic, Stoic, and Epicurean, captured this concept beautifully in his essay On the Art of Conversation:

When any one contradicts me, he raises my attention, not my anger: I advance towards him who controverts, who instructs me; the cause of truth ought to be the common cause both of the one and the other. What will the angry man answer? Passion has already confounded his judgment; agitation has usurped the place of reason. It were not amiss that the decision of our disputes should pass by wager: that there might be a material mark of our losses, to the end we might the better remember them; and that my man might tell me: 'Your ignorance and obstinacy cost you last year, at several times, a hundred crowns.' I hail and caress truth in what quarter soever I find it, and cheerfully surrender myself, and open my conquered arms as far off as I can discover it; and, provided it be not too imperiously, take a pleasure in being reproved, and accommodate myself to my accusers, very often more by reason of civility than amendment, loving to gratify and nourish the liberty of admonition by my facility of submitting to it, and this even at my own expense.

Sadly, the high freedom of great conversation does not come easily to us because too often we are artifically constrained by the desire to please and the fear of offending (we can add this to the unhealthy "dyads" I identified in my book Letters on Happiness). Only by having the courage to break free of such constraints can we reach the heights of human interaction.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Fascinated with Conversation

2020-08-21

Since posting about Emerson's thoughts on friendship and conversation a few weeks ago, I've continued to reflect on the actual practices involved (spurred by an email exchange with my friend Adrian Lory). Beyond just good listening, what can we do to cultivate the high freedom of conversation?

The authors of the book Co-Active Coaching emphasize the importance of being curious about your conversation partner. I'd go a slight step further and use the word fascination. Nothing makes you open up so much as talking with someone who is fascinated with you!

The idea of being "fascinated with" has a dual meaning: that I find you fascinating, but also that we are both of us fascinated by a possibility. In the context of a coaching or therapeutic relationship or of a true friendship, this possibility is a vision of what your life could be, of your highest potential. Part of what makes the relationship so special is that realizing this vision is a shared pursuit among the parties involved.

Yet I think that an even deeper shared pursuit underlies and animates this relationship: the co-creation of a culture of human fulfillment. It's not just about you as an individual, for we are working together to achieve the greater goal of a world in which the vast majority of people can achieve meaningful lives.

In my experience, I feel the deepest connection with people who share this greater goal because we are walking in the same upward direction, albeit on parallel paths.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Philosophy and Money

2020-08-06

Some great thinkers - Plato, Aristotle, Gautama Siddhartha, Epicurus, Thoreau, Rand, and many more - have reflected deeply on the place of money and wealth in human life. The reasons are not hard to find:

And the list goes on. Clearly there's plenty of material here for practical philosophizing!

Several of the questions that arise from the foregoing human phenomena can be answered, at least for yourself, by thinking about the purpose of wealth. Is it an end in itself, or a means to an end? If the latter, which end?

A thought experiment can help clarify these matters: if you had enough money that you never needed to work again, what would you do with your life? Travel the world, chase whatever you find fun or pleasant, impress your friends, climb the social ladder, invest in business ventures, run for political office, engage in philanthropy, become a patron of the arts, pursue cherished hobbies, scratch a creative itch, study the great writers and thinkers of history? (The ancient Greek philosophers identified three primary ways of life: the pursuit of pleasure, political leadership, and intellectual research; in modern times we have more options.)

Few of us are born into that kind of money, so we need to earn it. Thus the scale of your dreams helps determine the extent of your wealth-building efforts.

If your preferred lifestyle is relatively modest - say, time with family and friends, a bit of travel, and pursuing a hobby like writing or woodworking - then you don't need a great deal of money to achieve your dreams. (A good example is Henry David Thoreau, who was more entrepreneurial than we usually give him credit for but who didn't allow his commercial activities as a surveyor and contributor in the family business to divert him from his chosen course.)

If you have bigger ambitions - say, becoming a CEO or a major philanthropist - then your work could easily consume most of your energies. Is that what you want?

As in so many areas of life, most people find that achieving the right balance is key. However, "the right balance" is different for every individual, and is nearly synonymous with the distinctive philosophy of life that you create for yourself through experience and reflection. Only you can find the answers for yourself.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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