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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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How Useful Is Philosophy, Really?

2020-08-03

It's a commonplace of research into human behavior that most of what you do is caused by your inborn personality traits, your underlying biology, the society and location and class and family into which you're born and in which you're raised, and so on - plus a smattering of luck and chance events. It can seem that all these causes conspire to leave little room for your ideals and aspirations and worldview and conscious choices to have much of an impact.

Once upon a time I thought that philosophy makes all the difference in life. The evidence indicates that's not the case. Yet that doesn't mean the love of wisdom is useless.

First, I suspect that more of the foregoing causes are changeable than might appear at first blush. For instance, there's quite a bit of evidence that personality can and usually does change over the span of a lifetime: in terms of the five-factor model, people tend to become more conscientious and emotionally stable (because career responsibilities and human relationships require these qualities).

Second, gaining wisdom enables you to adjust to the realities of your life, and to live with them better. As a simple example, understanding your own biology (say, your stimulation threshold or your sensitivity to sugar) can help you to make better choices and, as Aristotle points out, to steer in the opposite direction.

Third, there are plenty of people in the same general situation as you in terms of nature and nurture. How do you differentiate yourself from them? Here I think philosophy can be something of a secret weapon, because it gives you a long-term life plan, it guides your actions and initiatives large and small, it provides a greater degree of consistency and integrity in your behavior, and it helps you maintain equanimity and perspective in the face of unexpected trials and triumphs.

Furthermore, beyond these practical benefits can be found the less tangible delights of exploring the deep and beautiful worlds of the intellect. But I'll admit that's a tougher sale these days...

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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The High Freedom of Great Conversation

2020-07-25

Aside from Montaigne and perhaps Plato, few philosophers have reflected deeply on conversation, especially the one-to-one, heart-to-heart exchange of thoughts between friend and friend. A shining exception is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote as follows in his essay on friendship:

Friendship may be said to require natures so rare and costly, each so well tempered and so happily adapted, and withal so circumstanced (for even in that particular, a poet says, love demands that the parties be altogether paired), that its satisfaction can very seldom be assured. It cannot subsist in its perfection, say some of those who are learned in this warm lore of the heart, betwixt more than two. I am not quite so strict in my terms, perhaps because I have never known so high a fellowship as others. I please my imagination more with a circle of godlike men and women variously related to each other and between whom subsists a lofty intelligence. But I find this law of one to one peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.

Can conversation with your coach, counselor, or personal philosopher reach this same height? Although some might argue that conversation requires a long-term relationship to flower so beautifully, I posit that a deep connection between two persons is more a matter of affinity and aspiration than of mere time. Yet there is much wrapped up in these words "affinity" and "aspiration"; we don't understand these phenomena very well because they involve aspects of life that are both vague and fragile, such as values, idealism, personality, character, thinking styles, openness to experience, vulnerability, attunement, fellow-feeling, true listening, trust in self and other, yearnings for self-knowledge and interpersonal connection, etc.

When a deep rapport takes root, conversation and consideration are not forced but utterly natural; as the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu wrote many centuries ago, no special effort is required:

Tzu Sang-hu, Meng Tzu-fan, and Tzu Ch'in-chang were friends. They said to each other: "Who can live together without any special effort to live together and help each other without any special effort to help each other?" ....The three looked at each other and smiled, completely understood each other, and thus became friends.

Even though such rapport might seem magical, I suspect that there are specific skills and practices involved, which can be deliberately honed over time. Although some of these are fairly well defined (e.g., listening skills), others have been barely explored and rarely analyzed. The work of the soul is neverending and endlessly fascinating.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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The Power of Reflection

2020-07-13

In a journal entry composed a few years ago on philosophy as a way of life, I observed:

What Thoreau, the Stoics, and the Vedics essentially advocate is to be present with complete attention by, where needed, interposing the judgment of your mind between desire and deed, between impulse and action.

Unfortunately, no one ever said this was easy - especially, as I went on to write, in the heat of the moment.

Yet inevitably that heat is followed by a cooler time which affords the opportunity for reflection. One of the wonders of the human person is that we are able to look back on our past actions and reactions with a critical attitude, places ourselves in another person's shoes, imagine and plan a better future, and change our attitudes based on what we learn.

In two recent posts I've used the example of anger, so let's stick with that. As with all emotions, this one comes in many forms: from mild annoyance to deep outrage, from a slow burn to an immediate reaction, etc. As my friend Eric asked, how can one best manage the flash of anger you might experience when some cuts you off on the highway?

Naturally there are situations in which it's difficult to avoid that flash of anger - and at some level it's not necessarily healthy to suppress any emotional reaction you might experience. Yet in a more reflective moment, whether minutes later or the same evening before you go to sleep or days later, you can think about the situation: Was it really that serious? Were you really being threatened? Does it make sense to expect everyone you interact with to behave well? Was there perhaps another explanation for what happened? Is it possible that the person was just having a bad day? Have you ever done something similar? And further: Did it feel good to get angry or did you feel somewhat sickened by the rush of anger through your body? Is that how you want to feel? Do you want to be an angry person? Can you imagine a healthier reaction, such as laughing it off or shaking your head in disbelief? Next time can you try to model a more positive behavior instead of immediately getting angry?

You can't always (or even ever!) interpose all these thoughts between what you experience and feel "in the now" - but you do have the ability to reflect afterward, plan ahead for the next time something similar happens, visualize reacting in a different way, and slowly improve your emotional practices.

I'll admit that I speak from experience, because when I was young I had a wicked temper, which it took me years to tame. It can be done, but it might not happen quickly!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Justifying Anger

2020-07-08

In my last post, I extrapolated from the philosophy of Epicurus to indicate how to avoid unjustified anger and its less virulent siblings (annoyance, frustration, disappointment, etc.). Indeed, Epicurus seems to have been the first person to identify what centuries later became the seven deadly sins - one of which was anger.

Aristotle, by contrast, recognized that sometimes anger is the most appropriate reaction to what happens in your life - say, a reaction to blatant injustice. (No, Aristotle never said "moderation in everything"!) The key is differentiating between justified anger and unjustified anger.

The requirement for justification introduces considerations that philosophers call epistemic: how do you know that anger is the correct thing to feel and act on in this situation, with this person, to this extent, etc.? This is hard because it requires reflection, good judgment, the ability to formulate a true account of what's happened, awareness of the conceptual appraisals underlying your emotions, the ability to interpose thought between your immediate reactions and the actions you take, as well as long-term self-training and self-improvement in each of these activities. It's much easier to just go with your immediate feelings, isn't it? Unfortunately, that wouldn't be consistent with philosophy as a way of life.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Philosophy and Anger

2020-06-19

The world is full of anger, both well-founded and ill-founded. In a future post I'll talk about well-founded anger, but this time I'll provide some reflections on ill-founded anger.

In Chapter 10 of my book Letters on Happiness, I perceived an insight from Epicurus into the nature of anger (although this is an extrapolation from what he says about other emotions):

The fear of being disappointed leads to anger - the desire that other people act as you want them to. Yet the ideal is not feeling that others must conform to your expectations, but accepting others as they are and maintaining your inner serenity.

There are so many examples:

And so on, nearly ad infinitum. Fear and loathing of The Other is a deep well that never runs dry.

Yet do you really know why someone is other than you along any particular dimension? More pointedly, do you really know why you are the way you are, why you think what you think, why you feel as you feel, why you act how you act? Did you really reflect on and choose your way of being? How much of your self-understanding is really just self-congratulation and in-group psychology?

The worst of it is that anger can feel so good, because it affirms your superiority over others. Yet difference is not superiority. Wisdom comes from working to truly understand others; but, as always, such wisdom is hard-won.

Oh, and if you've achieved such wisdom, don't be angry with those who haven't achieved it yet.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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