Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy, for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready, too-ready to understand heaven and earth.
-Marcus Aurelius -Meditations book 3, #13.
Serious philosophy – the real stuff – changes your life from the inside out. You make bigger gains faster. You will keep the gains you make. Once you reverse the insane momentum and move things in the right direction. You never achieve superhuman perfection, but you get closer to the man you want to be.
An aside – we aren’t studying philosophy to ‘make gains.’ We study because we need to find a way to live our lives that is in sync and harmony with reality. We study to not be a bitch to whatever emotion we happen to be experiencing in a given moment. We study philosophy so that our actions make us proud.
Philosophy isn’t GTD or Personal Development
I’m not talking about GTD-style life hacks. Basic competence has its place, and I love the book Getting Things Done. But it doesn’t change much. It gets things done. You might plow through your work faster, but at the day, you’re still succeptiable to blowing up with anger at your wife, then eating through 3 bags of Oreos.
More importantly, you don’t know why the hell you did this.
We got more done, but we also didn’t act in a way that makes us proud. We have moments where we skew away from the character we want.
Philosophy Makes You Into Who You Should Be
Real philosophy makes us live lives we can be pleased with and proud of. Applying it evicts the defects from our character. This means when someone happens to come across an Instant Message that is somehow preserved it’s not going to be a scandal or a surprise. Your character is the same everywhere you go.
You can’t be blackmailed. You are your own man. You have philosophy. You don’t worry about whatever.
You have wisdom to deal with routine and non-routine situations. You are in charge of your reactions and don’t wish for so many ‘do-overs’.
The first philosophical passage that really hit home for me was in meditations, book 2:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil….and so none of them can hurt me. N one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
In this passage, Marcus Aurelius says what we already know. Oeople we deal with are meddling, dishonest, ungrateful, etc. Because they are like children and simply haven’t studied philosophy before, learned good and evil. Despite their defects, we must work with them.
We don’t need to point things out, obstruct the work, or get mad over things that are as normal as breathing. We simply get our job done and work with the people that aren’t perfect.
We don’t gossip about them. We offer grace.
We don’t act all astonished when someone fibs, acts like a jackass or worse. Why be surprised? It’s going to happen today in some capacity. You gotta do what you gotta do to get the work done.
This is philosophy. That is power.
You Are Freed Become Your Real Self
You study the real stuff to be free to live the life you want. You’re free from worring if your boss, parents, etc. approve. You work with them because you choose to, but everything is a choice.
You’re not trapped by a baby, you choose to live with honor- without making a self aggrandizing blog about how great you are.
You understand the world. You can observe events, figure it out, and then respond as you will.
You become a complete being unto yourself, not merely governed by fashion or the mood of the mob. As you study, you accumulate options over time. You learn that you don’t have to react to a snarky remark, or that it’s your fault.
You learn what’s important, how to prioritize and execute better through the serious study of philosophy.
When a new situation comes up, you have studied what good and bad is, and you execute the option that is congruent with your philosophy. You can only know when you study up.
I’m not perfect. I never will be. I don’t live as close to “this ideal” as I might be making it sound. But I’m closer than I was 3 years ago. I’ve achieved “marginal competence.”
It’s translating to me being a better dad, a better business owner, etc.
Principles Versus Reactions
Let’s jump into a situation from, say, elementary school. People are making fun of the smelly kid. Do you join in, leave him be, or defend him? What if the smelly kid is also kind of a jerk? Does that matter? What if a good friend of yours is doing it? What if you’re the only one not doing it?
You’ll be able to observe, discern and act in the way that fits what you’ve decided. Regardless of what the others do. We’re more insulated from peer pressure. When you study philosophy, you can make a decision based on your understanding of the facts…not your mood and feelings.
This is what philosophy does. You don’t have conflict or anxiety over what to do next. You execute options that you seem to already know, based on who you are. You’ve created a personal framework. You execute options.
Less and less, your moods don’t determine your productivity. You can work harder, feel better and get closer to achieving your potential.
Study The Genuine Article
There’s a ton of crap out there: The Secret, or Think and Grow Rich, or the whole of the Rich Dad Poor Dad crap. (I’m sorry I sent my poor brother those at the height of my delusions). That’s not philosophy, it’s priming you to participate in scams.
More utilitarian industrial age and oriented around an outdated model. It’s useful yet limited. This would be Getting Things Done or 7 Habits. Self-help isn’t philosophy. Nor are life-hacks. Nor is professional information.
The genuine article is different, it reveals what we already know to be true, deep psychological truths that seem to be confirmed by neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Here are some genuine articles to study. This is the “real” stuff. You’ll not go wrong by reading and rereading any of the stuff below. There are many other good things to read.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius - Probably nothing written has my day-to-day life and trajectory more. I quoted it above. I usually read a “book” here per day, and I still find stuff that seems as if it’s written today, that I never saw before.
The Bible: Your metaphysics may not be in line with mine. You might associate the Bible with the garbage culture war that preoccupies most American Christians. But the Bible is grounded in wisdom and philosophy. Ryan Holiday calls it The Fucking Bible (in a fantstic post). post. It’s a place to start, and it may be familiar to you.
Still, set aside for a moment whatever you may think about the culture war. The teachings and applications are sound:
“When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets so that they me be honored by men. Truly I say to you: they have received their reward in full” (Matt 6:3)
We learn that trying to brag about our virtues is the same as dissipating it. There is much to learn when you read the Fucking Bible.
Sun Tzu: The Art of War: The study of warfare is a form of thinking that’s unlike everything else. War strategy is a category that I’ve not read deeply enough: I’ve read a few, and loved ‘em all. But I am not qualified to say much here but to echo other’s endorsements. It meant a lot to me, and I should reread it soon.
The War of Art: It’s good stuff. Not the source material, but it’s informed by the Greeks, and the nature of the enemy we all face. If you’re not ready for Meditations start here.
The Dip: Fantastic book by Seth Godin. His best work, and it’s a companion for The War of Art in many ways. You have to realize that things that are worthwhile are hard. And you realize that powering through trough. It’s not complete philosophy, and should be read after you grab some of the sterner stuff.
We The Living, Ayn Rand: Miss rand has a lot of “bathwater” to throw out. There is a great deal of shrill, absolutist nonsense. But, beyond that, there’s virtue. Not wanting others to live for you – and vice versa – is good creed. Taking positions to extremes makes some sense.
Philosophy not a push button quick fix.
If you’re a friendless asshole, tomorrow, when you wake up, you’ll still be one. Even if you read ten hours of philosophy.
If you’ve made a mess of your life, it’ll still be a mess. But gradually you’ll get the tools to learn that you can fix it, change it and that you have more choices.
Gradually, you’ll feel different about what you can and should be doing. You’ll put study and work into a valuable skill. Gradually it’ll happen for you, and when it does, that’s when things get strange.