I'm thrilled to be on SETT, so we can get more discussion going, more input, and good threads.
Today I'd love your thoughts on a tradeoff I think about -- being philosophically disposed vs. being focused on winning above and beyond all.
What a philosophical disposition? It's hard to define, but easy to recognize. It's something like an orientation around placing your internal happiness and satisfaction on developing your values and living in accord with those values you developed.
It's maximizing your internal self and your gearing around what you believe in, and resting your happiness and health on that.
It has many advantages, and it lets you endure many trials. A great number of successful people have had the philosophical disposition. Fortune comes, fortune goes... you endure and keep living in accord with your values. You fall into fashion or favor, you fall out of it, you keep going. The external circumstances are fleeting.
And yet -- isn't it true that oftentimes the man oriented around winning, winning, and winning exceeds the philosophically disposed man?
Take Boetheius as an example. In the year 524, Boethius was a loyal member of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric's court. Boetheius was a hard-worker, an intellectual, he was intensely anti-corruption and pro-humanity... and then, due to politics, he was falsely denounced, falsely imprisoned, and executed on specious charges.
While in prison for a year before his execution, he wrote "The Consolations of Philosophy" -- a beautiful and brilliant work that's worth reading, something that a man can rest his heart and mind on during hard times.
And yet -- Boetheius was executed. He didn't escape, he wasn't able to counterattack, counter-denounce, or otherwise win his freedom.
Is this the higher way? Boetheius consolated himself to his fate that he was a good and just man... and then died, horribly. The work he left behind is incredible, but wouldn't it have been better for Boetheius to escape somehow? To bribe a jailer, to get the right petitions written, to have a sword or dagger smuggled into his prison and to fight his way, or to at least die trying? Philosophy be damned if they want to execute you, no? Isn't an orientation around achieving, and winning, going to produce more of that?
So there the goes the tradeoff. Where do you stand with it, when you can orient yourself fully around philosophy, or fully around results, or somewhere in between?
My take on this is that living focusing on what happens in the outside without ever thinking about how we feel about ourselves is a recipe for misery and a deep lack of satisfaction in life, both in ourselves as well as the people around us. I wouldn't trade my philosophical disposed nature to get more power, wealth or fame, I don't think is worth it.
But it is also true that the people surrounding us (our competition) isn't limited by those strict guidelines and values that we may have, they usually do whatever it takes to get what they want which clearly put us in a disadvantaged position. Maybe the key would be to try to appear hard in the outside so others think twice before they try to fuck with us while we keep guiding our lives with our internal values without they knowing.
This is something I think about a lot, mainly because I'm way over to the side of principles. A couple examples:
When you're "involved" in the pickup community, any girl you date is going to find out about it. The optimal thing to do is to wait as long as possible to tell her, because then by the time she finds out, she's comfortable enough with you that she can put it in context and be okay with it. But I, without exception, always told every single girl before I kissed her. Made things harder for me, and probably isn't actually better in the long run, but, you know... principles.
I have about 3000 twitter followers right now. For some trivial amount of money I could buy 10,000 fake followers. Because I have a pretty popular blog, it would be assumed that they are legitimate, so this would build my credibility. But, of course, I don't do that.
I think the main reason I'm so far over to this side isn't because I think it's really optimal, but because it's very difficult to define a middle position. Always acting on principle is very easy. So is winning at all costs. But how do you set up a group of heuristics to define a middle position?
I like your comment on heuristics. I come down hard on the principles side too, but I was purely Machiavellian when I was younger-- until I realized that the wear and tear on my psyche was extremely damaging, and the potential benefits of leveraging every advantage are not worth the drawbacks.
So I retain just a dash of expedience with my principles; occasionally I'll examine my principles and see if they're points of dogma. There's nothing wrong with dogma, per se; it is itself a mental shorthand, but if it's disadvantaging me, I have to see if I'm merely refusing to act.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”
~ Lao-tzu (Tao Te Ching, Mitchell translation). And then when that moment arrives, will you kick ass with all your might?
Yin and yang - action and contemplation are two sides of the same coin. Either by itself is incomplete, and with both you realize more of your potential. I say Boetheius should have written his book and then died (or lived!) fighting his way out. The "higher way" is thinking or doing at the right time, and the lower way is doing either to excess or at the wrong time.
Have you read The Apology of Socrates, which is Socrates's supposed last speech to his accusers before his execution? This post reminded me of it.
This is one of the last beautiful statements he made:
But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live ... And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer thep enalty of death, and they, too, go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; and I must abide by my award- let them abide by theirs. I suppose that these things may be regarded as fated, - and I think that they are well.
And this is Socrates's answer to your question: "Wouldn't it have been better for Boethius to escape somehow?"
Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue,and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command,and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living- that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true,although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Moreover,I am not accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment. Had I money I might have proposed to give you what I had, and have been none the worse.But you see that I have none, and can only ask you to proportion the fine to my means.
Your post poses an interesting question, and is one that I have contemplated for a while, but more intensely since moving to the city. Is it better to be quiet with one's principles and philosophy? In my hermit stage, I would have said no. But it seems to me that this may be the better way: to live one's philosophy by example rather than by one's ability to discourse, the former being more respected by others. When one discourses in philosophy and declares one's principles, others become defensive, insecure, and/or think you are trying to change or attack them.
So I am now reserved in manner, and deflect questions about myself, preferring to be as a blank slate to others (excluding those who are close to me and those who have expressed interest in serious philosophy), and to rather live my philosophy than to declare it.
That said, I will always stand by the man/woman who declares their principles against their accusers, the Socrateses, the Jesuses, the Galileos, for such a disposition is rare; they are the movers and shakers of the world, the bringers of ideas, revolutionary and noble; they are the scientists, the philosophers, the builders, and they ought to be defended against the ignorant majority who persecutes their philosophical giants, those who show a new path.
It's been ten years. I ought to re-read it, thank you.
I would make one counterpoint. If we're discussing eudaimonia -- human flourishing -- I think Hakuin had some important things to say on the topic, there are gems in Wild Ivy --
All the modern Japanese schools of Zen trace their lineage through Hakuin; he was very important there. You could take him ranting about how priests are delusional, are thieves, and don't actually do anything and replace "priest" with "philosopher" and have some important points.
Hakuin was largely opposed to what he called "do-nothing Zen" where people just sat around, and didn't express their philosophy through works of good. That's one reason I find Boethius's life so praiseworthy -- in addition to being a philosopher, he did a lot of other worthwhile things. Socrates did too of course, but I find a common error pattern to be the "pure philosopher" who doesn't get involved in worldly affairs... I won't make my own points on it, and would instead just point to Hakuin as funny, enjoyable, and insightful on the topic.
Looking at Hakuin's life, what was he but a philosopher?
And it seems that he did not dismiss all priests as delusional or as thieves, but a specific sect -- the "do-nothing" sect. For he says of priests:
“The priest, in order to assist others to attain salvation, kindles a great burning faith in his heart. He opens the matchless eye of wisdom through the experience of kensho, and then he works tirelessly to bestow the great gift of the Dharma, leading his fellow beings toward salvation in place of the Buddha patriarchs.
“Priests and laity are thus like the wheels of a cart: they move forward in unison. But the sad assortment of today's priests we see spending their lives sitting like wood blocks in the complacent self-absorption of their “silent illumination” are incapable even of freeing themselves from birth-and-death. How can they possibly hope to assist laypeople to achieve a more favorable karma? Without giving so much as a thought to that, however, they freely and willingly accept donations from the lay community. Without a single scruple. I ask you, if they aren't thieves, what are they?
“It's all because of these counterfeit teachers with their plausible doctrines. They sink their hooks into people's fine, stalwart youngsters, and they turn them into a pack of blind and hairless dunces. The evil they wreak is truly immense. … Preaching the Buddha's Dharma is a truly awesome responsibility. Something to be undertaken only with the greatest circumspection.”
The flavor of priest he is talking about is ones who preach the “do-nothing silent illumination” ones, which is preaching, quite literally, just “sitting there”, which, I quite agree, is useless.
“The virtous priest?” she replied. “What a lame joke that is. He and his endless talk of 'do-nothing silent illumination' Zen have led countless young sons and daughters to their ruin.
"One of Hakuin's major concerns was the danger of what he called "Do-nothing Zen" teachers, who upon reaching some small experience of enlightenment devoted the rest of their life to, as he puts it, "passing day after day in a state of seated sleep". Quietist practices seeking simply to empty the mind, or teachers who taught that a tranquil "emptiness" was enlightenment, were Hakuin's constant targets. In this regard he was especially critical of followers of the maverick Zen master Bankei. He stressed a never-ending and severe training to deepen the insight of enlightenment and forge one's ability to manifest it in all activities. He urged his students to never be satisfied with shallow attainments, and truly believed that enlightenment was possible for anyone if they exerted themselves and approached their practice with real energy."
I find that to be accurate.
I thought of the following while walking just now: one of the reasons I appreciate/value your blog so much, is that you don't divorce theory from practice (in fact, you had even coined a word for it, intek). Effective strategy is a happy marriage between theory and practice, or between philosophy and action, and an effective leader is one who officiates the ceremony (cheesy metaphor? Maybe.. oh well.)
One more passage to add, from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations:
"What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man's doing or not doing anything..."
> Effective strategy is a happy marriage between theory and practice, or between philosophy and action ...
After spending some time with it, I came to the following dichotomy --
Philosophy dictates strategy. By philosophy, I mean the code people choose to live by, consciously or subconsciously. In Carlyle's On Heroes, he talks about how every man has a religion, and it's not the one they proclaim in church, but rather what they value most deep-down. For many people, that's comfort or pleasure. That's their religion, effectively. But for others, they consciously formulate what they value and adjust it over time.
When you know what you want (philosophy, values, strategy, whatever... I call it "philosophy") -- then comes strategy, which is the large and broad way of pursuing what you want. So if you thought that preserving Planet Earth was the most important thing (philosophy), you'd still have to strategize about what areas of impact would be most worthwhile, where to start, what order to go in, how to prioritize, tradeoffs, etc.
Out of strategy comes tactics. Tactics are individual actions to drive towards your strategy. So if you thought that reforestation was the most important thing, what areas would you reforest? Would you plant trees yourself, or try to get groups of people together to do it? Who would pay for it? In areas with drought, would you run irrigation too as part of tree-planting? These are tactics.
What I learned -- largely the hard way -- is that even excellent philosophy, strategy, and tactics by themselves don't lead to much. A consistency of action that leads to getting additional multipliers together is necessary. Having great customer service erratically and haphazardly doesn't build a great reputation; a great reputation is built through consistently and always having great customer service.
That goes beyond strategy and tactics -- into operations.
I call operations "the coordination of tactics over time" -- which reflects that even excellent tactics, by themselves, might not harmonize and lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Operational excellence is almost always useful to a greater or lesser extent, but excellent operations without a good strategy can easily lead to "won the battle, lost the war" -- or executing very well on policies that are actually ineffective.
There is, of course, a feedback loop between all of these. I realized somewhat early that strategy and tactics were worthless if you didn't know what mattered to you (philosophy), but I realized somewhat late that being able to sustain and build upon working tactics (operations) is critical. It's great operations that lets us repeatedly do winning actions and consolidate the gains from them.
You might have seen that reflected here over the last few months. I'd get things tactically correct for a while, but then they'd fall off. Operational skill is the largest thing I'm driving on right now; I decided around two months ago that it was worth spending a lot of time and energy to start training towards world-class in it. The early returns from doing so have been very promising.
However, perhaps I skipped past your essential point, and so I ask:
Can one live successfully yet live tucked away as a hermit and not be involved in worldly affairs, if such is their eudaimonia? Or do you see such as useless? Is the purpose to serve society and seek the "greatest good" primarily, or to serve yourself and so seek your own "eudaimonia" primarily?
> Can one live successfully yet live tucked away as a hermit and not be involved in worldly affairs, if such is their eudaimonia?
We all get to set our own values. Under mine -- no.
True that everyone can create, and does, in fact, create, their own value system. And the beauty of discoursing with someone who values rationality, is that they have reasons for their values.
And so, if you have the leisure to explain further, I am curious as to why your conclusion is no, because this is likely one of the most fundamental differences between our value systems.
Ayn Rand put it (the problem of the theory-practice dichotomy) much more clearly than I:
[Consider the catch phrase:] “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” What is a theory? It is a set of abstract principles purporting to be either a correct description of reality or a set of guidelines for man’s actions. Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standard can it be estimated as “good”? If one were to accept that notion, it would mean: a. that the activity of man’s mind is unrelated to reality; b. that the purpose of thinking is neither to acquire knowledge nor to guide man’s actions. (
I will take a look at Wild Ivy. However, I wanted to comment, first, because I agree-- what good is philosophy if it is devoid from practice?
I have a friend who likes to ask people while discussing philosophy (in one of those dying-out, great Brooklyn accents that always makes me smile): "So, how's it working out for you?" Meaning, if one is miserable or not successful in their life, then their philosophy is clearly not working out for them.
There is a commonly referred to dichotomy between theory and practice, as though one could have either one or the other, but such a dichotomy need not exist. Theory devoid from practice is useless, and practice devoid from theory is misguided.
The word philosophy is said to have been coined by Pythagoras in response to the Sophists. The word sophist comes from the Greek sophos, which means "the wise." Pythagoras said, "We are not wise, but we are in pursuit of wisdom." Such is how I see the distinction between armchair philosophers, and those who see philosophy not as an end in itself, but as a means, a means or a tool to live wisely.
I define wisdom as the courage to ACT in accordance with right knowledge.
What good is knowledge if you just sit on it? To show off to others? To feel smug and self-satisfied that one is clever?
What are we here for? To sound smart? Or to discover how to live well, which I think is what Socrates meant by the greatest good of man being "to daily converse about virtue?"
This distinction between knowing/doing is also illustrated in the historic difference between the word "science" (which comes from Latin scire meaning "to know", and later "book-learning") and "art" (which comes from Latin artus meaning "to do", and later "a practical skill").
Thus, my way is that of the Warrior-Scientist-Artist-Philosopher (in training, of course, but such is the goal).
How ought we to live? I think that is the question philosophy ought to answer.
I define virtue as excellence in action. And that is what I seek via method, the method being discovered through developing one's own system of philosophy.
One need not separate from worldly affairs to be Virtuous. A businessman who (via method*) seeks excellence is virtuous, a janitor who seeks excellence is virtuous, a mother who seeks excellence is virtuous.
*I say via method, because many people say they want excellence, yet seek not out the path to get there. Wanting is not enough. One has to actively pursue.
I guess the whole thread has everyone coming down on the philosophical side. Not that I disagree, but most people seem to argue simply the pros, rather than addressing the cons of the ambitious side. I think the ambitious side is simply too linear; it doesn't allow for that cock-eyed, roundabout way that life works out. Plus, if your plans for ambitions don't work out, you either wind up being a failed ladder-climber (e.g. Death of a Salesman) or you turn to philosophy. As Tynan below mentions, the "best" path is probably somewhere between the two, but it's hard to say where, exactly.
Interesting, I actually had quite a similar conversation with my roommate recently, while talking about the life of Hannibal. My roommate felt that Hannibal's fate was sad. I disagreed. I believe that he lived and died by his principles, and that a man living by his principles is happy. Well that's what the Stoics preach, more or less.
I read your book [ikigai] recently, and one particular point got me thinking a lot. You say that seeking "happiness" per se isn't really a worthy life goal. It did sound weird but resonated with me, and I realized that deep inside I agreed, even though I could not explain how, why, or more importantly, what was a worthy goal. My answer for now is that what I'm seeking is to always push my limits as a human being. I did not specify a specific goal, because I don't believe in destinations, but rather in journeys. I don't want to ever stop improving, getting better, stretching my abilities. Whenever I am doing something that significantly improve my skills as a human being, I feel this deep satisfaction, this genuine happiness.
Now does it mean that achievements are meaningless? No. Because they serve as validations. It sounds superficial: do we really need external validations? Well yes you do. Suppose that you set yourself to improve how fast you can run a 100m. Well you'll never know if you're improving unless you actually time yourself, and take the risk to realize that you haven't improved much. So achievements are like a timer that let you know if you're improving. But that's not all there is to it. Another important role of achievements is that they build confidence. We're only humans, and however drived we are (some more than others), we can always do with more motivation. And what boosts your motivation more than a franc success? I usually don't over-celebrate achievements, but instead I store them in a part of me, and tap into them when I feel down or de-motivated.
So: Philosophical Disposition vs Results Disposition. I say: Philosophical Disposition as the basis of everything. I tend to agree with the Stoic principle that one should not base his self esteem and/or happiness on anything that is independent of himself. But achievements play an important role too. I think the two concepts can go together.
Everyone should be result orientated in this day and age. But it is true they exist. The carefree who say things like "just enjoy the ride." I laugh, but there is definitely space for those sheep. Still, I don't see these two positions being at odds with each other. Some philosophical systems focus like a hawk on the results (see Aristotle). In fact, I'd say the exemplars of humanity have been the great consequentialists. But if you want to look at a philosopher who didn't necessarily share that disposition, look no further than Thomas Aquinas. How can one say he wasn't result orientated. His life is nothing but achievements. The "Summa" is an epic result. How many pages? It claims to synthesize Aristotle and Christianity (surely it doesn't), but the sheer massiveness of that crap is only capable of being produce by those of your latter disposition. And look at the others. Plato, Hegel, Russell, etc., all were machines. And I believe that even people like Alexander the Great, Napolean, and Caesar were both philosophical and result orientated. In our own day, I personally believe that George Soros will one day be looked at as a great philosophical thinker. It has already been mentioned that there is a time and place for each of these dispositions. You don't want to try to figure out your philosophical beliefs in the middle of the battlefield. It is important to realize that being philosophical doesn't mean being ultra skeptical. I think being philosophical is means being bold enough to believe things about the world (morality, epistemology, metaphysics, and practicalities) based on reasons..., being autonomous in your beliefs (taking responsibility of your beliefs), and going where ever the cold harsh logic takes you. What's the real alternative to the philosophical disposition? Mere acceptance of what has been handing down to you, never entertaining any doubt, and not caring about why. There are people who believe the roads have always been here. I don't think it matters if you are either philosophical or not, your best bet in this world is to be result orientated. Why? We live in a world with limited resources. And time is among the most limited resources. Nobody wants to merely experience things. We want to do! And if we are being completely honest we all want to be remembered by at least someone. No bridge ever got built by those people who sit around saying "I just want to experience the ride." Sure they drive across the bridge. Sure that bridge saves them months of wasted time canoeing the damn river. But they are free-riders. Somebody has to carry those free-riders damn it.
This is actually the first time I post on your blog (even though I have read your book):
I did never think about the concept you wrote about before and yet it makes so much sense to me - I am clearly and utterly philosophically disposed.
Sometimes It feels like it is the opposite of a blessing and more than often I wonder whether my strong commitment to "my values" is a rather bad idea. Sometimes I wish I was ruthlessly outcome-orientated.
Just recently I finished an entire information product setup with a partner, we even had the first customers signing up for our sales-funnel and then I realized that the whole thing "isn't in alignment with my values" and just got out of it. Basically, all I had to do at this point is to wait, do some optimisation and earn the profit, but no, something felt "off".
What's your take on this, Sebastian? Would you say that one could be TOO philosophically disposed? Can more result-orientation be trained?
We must be careful when we say we are living our lives according to our "values". Sometimes quitting or simply not doing something may be the right call, but there are also a lot of times when because of fear we use our values as an excuse to give up and not push through the difficult times while at the same time feeling in our head that we took the "virtuous" path.
Only a good knowledge of who we are gained by a lot of experiences and meditation can decide if the path we chose was the virtuous one or the one based on fear. Is not always clear which one is it and we will only learn when we see the future consequences.
> What's your take on this, Sebastian? Would you say that one could be TOO philosophically disposed? Can more result-orientation be trained?
I've certainly had less prosperity at times by following values or philosophy. It also depends to what extent you put a value on pragmatism *itself* -- is it better to be 100% in-line with highest-order values, but no resources, or to be, say, Steve Jobs... not a saint, but a guy who did a tremendously lot of good for the world?
This is really interesting. It's like if you find your peace in philosophy, the normal reason for doing things disappears. If someone's rooted in philosophy, isn't afraid of death, and thinks there's no difference between 3 days and 3 generations, than what's his motivation for a counterattack?
Maybe there is a deeper reason one can find to go after results, which is rooted in their philosophy. The reason I don't jump to saying being disposed to results may be better, is because what would you base the motivation of your results on, and how would you face trials without philosophy?
A few days ago, I wrote an open letter to a good friend of mine - "I Think Greatness is Something You Are, Not Something You Do" - I said to him, I'm not a great man, just a normal man working on great things. Greatness is something you do, not something you are.
To give you some background, my friend Brendon is just one of the most amazingly good people in the world. He takes care of everyone around him, his mind, body, and spirit are sharp. He's a black belt, an excellent programmer, a philosopher, a Shodan in Go (actually, even stronger than that - he's a Shodan under the Asian rankings, so probably even higher in America), a hard worker, extremely loyal, a clear and free thinker, widely read and knowledgeable, and again - an amazingly good guy. I've learned a lot from him (notably, he taught me how to play Go, sysadmin Linux, understand basketball at a very high level, improve at martial arts, improve my fitness, and other good stuff - we'd usually go drink green tea and play Go at Samurai Restaurant in Boston, go fight in the park, talk philosophy out at nightclubs, do stuff like that).
He wrote back to me about greatness and humility. I think this is a really beautiful piece, so I asked him if I could gently edit it and put it up. He graciously agreed. It's long, but go ahead and just start it and give it whatever time you have - there's a lot of amazing insight in here.
A Quick Favor Request - if you learn from this or it helps you, please send Brendon a quick email to email@example.com - he was actually a little gun-shy about having such a personal piece put up with such raw power in it. He only agreed when I told him how many people it could help - so please, drop him a short line to say thanks if this teaches you as much as it did me.
Without further ado...
Happy new year!
I am hoping you would share your resources for your reading on Japanese history. Book titles and/or urls would be very helpful.
I got that a week ago, and I kind of sat there staring at the email. Japanese history is some of the most confusing to start to learn, because different elements of Japanese history and culture all play on and influence each other. I could run you through the military history of Japan from The Battle of Okehazama to Sekigahara to the Boshin War, from there into Dai Nippon Tekoku Era, from there into defeat and the Occupation under McArthur, and then we could do a little post-war history.