Build on past insight (but make up your own mind)

Over the centuries, there have been entire traditions of philosophy, dedicated to excellence in thinking through things, searching for genuine insight in complicated matters, striving to accommodate results from empirical observation and to eliminate logical and conceptual mistakes. (Also, most of the natural and social sciences which are distinct subjects today have started historically as branches of philosophy.) To study their approaches and compare them with each other is rewarding in itself, even though it takes some time and discipline. It also gives you an idea of where to locate yourself and your views in the space of possible philosophical positions.

In philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism, thinkers have built on each other's work and advanced a coherent system of ideas, suggesting and scrutinizing solutions for problems and inconsistencies on the way. Sometimes elegant and comprehensive theories have evolved from this; sometimes internal tensions between fundamental assumptions have driven permanent re-combination and re-arrangement of elements into new wholes. You'll notice similar patterns in your own reflections. You may also find that you develop an affinity for a particular tradition or school of thought. (Be wary of affinities that were already there before you even started studying them, however. It's doubtful that these have originated from your own considered thought; more probably, they were suggested to you by others' opinion.) Or perhaps you're rather eclectic, picking up ideas from various sources; you can increase the richness of your background that way, of course, but there is also a higher risk of inconsistencies and gaps in it.

In any case, you should decide yourself what to think, however much it will be based on insight learned from others (or books). And it matters for what reasons you accept a view. Beware, for instance, of taking them on mere authority. Even the masters of the field have erred; more frequently, their view may be based on premises you wouldn't agree with; and generally, only an insight which you have reached yourself by thinking through a matter (guided by someone else or not) is a genuine and potentially stable insight: you don't really know what you merely believe because it is someone else's doctrine. A fruitful relationship to a philosophical view won't take the shape of blindly following the lead of a guru — it's rather one of critical examination. It's also a two-sided one: a philosophical position, even one out of a book by a long dead author, benefits from your efforts in trying to understand it, from your interpreting and discussing it with others. Just taking over views on faith does nothing for making them better understood. It merely adds a disciple; but excellence is not measured by counting devotees — it's a much clearer sign if critical minds have systematically reflected on a view and found good reasons to agree. Take care.

Philosophy as good advice

Philosophy has always been an art of conversation. Much of what we know about the thoughts of philosophers in the past we can only read in their books, but rarely have they lived purely reclusive lives, without any contact to others. At the very least they were engaged in a silent discourse with their predecessors; most had teachers, students and like-minded friends whose works they followed, and with whom they have discussed their own ideas; many had lively exchanges with the broader public. Philosophy in general, and reflection on ethical questions in particular, benefits greatly from honest and intense dialogue with those who share our estimation for it.

Especially in important matters, like how one should live, your ways of sharing your insights should reflect the insights themselves. If you think that you have gained by reflecting, then do respect the capacity for reflection in others: accept that they can, and will, think and decide for themselves. You may suggest and advise, but the choices are theirs.

There is more value in advising someone than in missionizing them — it simply shows more respect for the reason and intelligence of who you talk to. It still leaves it their decision what to think, and how to feel. (If, on the other hand, you try to decide for someone else, you attempt to take choices away from them. In a sense, you act to restrain, not to empower them.) And respecting their decision is not just more honest and helpful towards them: if you think about it, it is also more valuable for you. Partly that is because a considerate and respectful attitude towards others is in itself an honorable quality; partly it is because an inability to respect diverging views in others, even if you have good reason to believe them false, might indicate a questionable element in your own personality.

What does it mean if you find yourself hesitant to accept that someone thinks and feels differently than you do? Do you find a delight in getting others converted over to your own position? Do you see this as a game, or contest? Or is there a fear behind it, are you perhaps afraid that their differing views may influence you? An uncertainty may be at work here that you have about your own views, and possibly you should scrutinize them. You may have to correct them; perhaps add some qualifications, make them more nuanced; or you might confirm them, providing them with a firmer basis — in any case, you'll gain from the exercise, and you are better off having done it than you would have been if you'd just ignored your doubts.

If you find yourself compelled to press someone on a subject where you've given advice that hasn't stuck with them: ask yourself why it should be so important to you to change their mind. Take care.

Being surprised at yourself

Sometimes I find myself being surprised at my own actions. It's not a good sign: after all, shouldn't I know myself well enough to be clear about what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it? And yet I frequently realize, immediately after saying something, or making a gesture towards somebody, that I've been acting from impulse, and certainly not an impulse that is in tune with my considered opinion. I look back and have to ask myself what's come over me just a second ago; it's revealing that more often than not, I even hesitate to honestly identify precisely what affect was behind my behavior (they're foolish enough to be ashamed of).

What's so bad about this is not only that it is irritating, experiencing yourself as acting differently than you think you'd act. It's also somewhat shameful: after all, these are still your actions, with all the responsibility that comes from them — you're not excused from the consequences of what you're doing just by saying: "Oh, I didn't mean to do that, it was just an impulse!" An impulse it may have been, but it was your impulse; you have to own up to what flows from it just the same.

And even more importantly: each time you are commanded by an affect you're not making the best out of your possibilities: you're letting weaknesses, bad habits, and external circumstances dictate where it should rather be yourself who is in charge. So you'd better train your reflexes to be in accord with your values and goals; your impulses should be shaped by what is the right thing to do in the situation; you should be motivated from what reflection tells you is the way to go. Take care.

Character and fortune

Things happen. Some of them are initiated and controlled by ourselves, but others just happen. There may be pure chance involved, or the will and influence of someone else; we may be able to see it coming, or it may take us by surprise entirely; possibly we tried to counteract — and failed. The complexity of the world around us (in particular the many other people we deal with all the time) makes our lives unpredictable to some degree. No matter whether we believe that everything is chaotic, a random mess, subject to blind forces constantly colliding and bursting away from each other, or whether we think that there is a strict, deterministic formula by which all of this is unfolding, a would-be spectacle for those in possession of the means to understand the formula, but inscrutable and overwhelmingly perplexing for us: we have no way to be in control of the many things that just happen.

There is one thing, however, which is within the range our powers, and always so: your character doesn't have to be a plaything of the accidents in your life. True, much of it has been molded by events in previous years, key experiences may have formed it much without asking your permission. And what's happened can't be made undone. But at no point you'll be obliged to accept a character thus shaped by influences outside your informed decisions. You can change your character; and there are ways to improve it even against deeply ingrained faults and weaknesses. The future doesn't have to be the same as the past. Fortune has no jurisdiction where your reasoned, conscious will takes charge. Take care.

Welcome reality checks

Do you remember those situations when you were in a dark room and had to grope your way through it, only vaguely sensing where you are, perhaps not even really knowing the right way? And have you noticed how weird it feels when you suddenly realize that you are much closer to the wall than you have assumed for some time? The sudden reality check has an irritating quality, and perhaps that's why we have a slight dislike for it, although it actually is helpful in getting us closer to our goal.

Perhaps you were surprised (I certainly was), when you started reflecting systematically, how quickly and how frequently we can get out of touch with the actual facts in the world. It can happen in many ways: we can fall for foolish hopes and opinions; what we take in about our situation can be colored by false emotions (such as anger and fear); and the ever going autopilot drives us along a path that may have been right once, but isn't so anymore (hasn't been for a while). And here, too, there are reality checks. You can avoid some of them, but not many, and not for a long time.

Why should it be so important to keep connected to reality in what we do, think or feel? Couldn't it be, quite to the contrary, that a few little deceptions would rather help and encourage us, leave us feeling happier, making it easier in general to decide how to act and what to believe? True, we'd go wrong from time to time, but that may be little price to pay for a generally more pervasive (albeit misguided) positive feeling.

Possibly; but it's not principally the balance of pleasure over pain that makes a life good. A life should have a coherent structure, a goal and direction, one or more threads that run through it and hold it all together. There are always more important things to consider than just how you feel at some given moment. And running out of sync with reality puts that life story at a severe risk, not least because it damages your character. Also, accepting delusion in yourself (because it makes it easier for you) would imply that it may be right, under some circumstances, to delude others as well, in order to make it easier for them, to spare them the little nasty tickle of confrontation with reality. And both when you're doing that to yourself and when you're doing it to others, the distancing from reality has a self-reinforcing effect — one lie breeds other lies, one foolish hope leads to another, and giving false emotions free reign only makes them stronger and increases our proclivities to get entangled in them. So we should welcome, even seek out reality checks in what we are doing: a life out of touch with reality is not worth living. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.