Philosophers: practicing what you preach

Children are a spectacular audience in that they have a great BS filter. It is quite common in paediatrics for kids to be very skeptical of advice. I recall an overweight doctor working in paediatric endocrinology giving dietary advice to a diabetic child. Let’s just say, the poor doctor was informed of the value of giving advice that they themselves don’t follow.

Through the years, I’ve met many smoking surgeons, neurotic psychiatrists and overweight dieticians (but never a less than glowing dermatologist). It’s not necessary to practice what you preach to give good advice. However, going directly against what you preach, what you are meant to be good at – does raise authenticity and competence concerns, not always fairly, but we would be worse off without this filter.

Whatever about overworked doctors, my real question is about philosophers. Schopenhauer is widely regarded as having been an intolerable hedonistic psychopath and a chauvinist. It is well known that he nearly pushed a woman down the stairs – for being annoying. He bailed on a woman who was pregnant with his child. Hegel did something not entirely dissimilar. Nietzsche didn’t have much of a social life, except for in brothels (not unlike Schopenhauer, actually). Kant didn’t have one at all. Gazillionaire Seneca denounced worldly possessions. He was clearly preoccupied with a fear of poverty. At times, in his letters to Lucillius, he sounds like he’s trying to calm himself down more than anything else. I strongly believe he has what modern day psychiatrists would call a passive death wish. Marcus Aurelius was born into being arguably the most powerful man in the world – and so his advice sounds good, but it’s not clear of how much use it was to him. Seneca’s and Marcus Aurelius’ explanations often reference two separate entities: luck an the gods, without really examining the nature of these. Machiavelli, regarded by many as the ultimate weasel and plamaser, didn’t exactly fare so well at court. Freud came up with a theory that is to philosophy as Newtonian physics is to physics. Nonetheless, there is some outrageous stuff in there too. And if you say enough – some of it is going to be right, a bit like a broken clock is right twice a day.

Two quotes come to mind. Both from Seneca. The first I will use as a disclaimer:

“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good”.

The second, the one I am actually interested in is:

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

What if replace the word religion with the word philosophy? Let’s be honest, philosophy is nearly more powerful than religion – because it spreads more insidiously. There’s no discrete baptism, no conversion, no point of no return – just silent incremental exposure. And so, I wonder, we treat philosophy with such reverence, but should we?

philosophy practice what you preach

Playing the long game vs living every day like it’s your last

Go about every action as thy last action

Marcus Aurelius

The conundrum between dreaming big versus having zero expectations has bothered me for a long time. Alongside it is a similar conundrum: playing the long game versus living every day like it’s your last.

Stoics are obsessed with death. Their philosophy is gaining momentum in my generation. While Seneca and Marcus Aurelius’ renouncing of worldly possessions seems at least to some degree hypocritical, their reasoning is so clear and sound, it’s infectious. Seth Godin’s recent blog asked about the things we do every day: what if it is the last time we are doing them?

Living every day like it’s your last sounds good on many levels. You surely aren’t going to do anything you will be ashamed of – anything that  you won’t feel that you’ve enough time to make up for. It is easier to perceive everything as having consequence. This is the key – people are drawn to anything that has meaning. This essay by Kevin Simler discusses what it is that gives us the feeling of meaning. He argues that it is consequence. For example, a wedding has a lot of consequences, hence, it is meaningful. On the other hand, standing in a queue for your coffee seems to be inconsequential, hence, it lacks meaning. It seems that millennials are especially drawn to meaning. Victor Frankl argues that meaning is the one thing that makes a difference in our lives.

stoic philosophy vs nihilism

Living life as if you have a gun to your head has a few advantages. You won’t delay. You will only focus on what’s important. You will take bigger risks.

While meaning is enhanced through this “every day is your last” philosophy, there are vast parts of life that are annihilated by it. If today is your last day, surely, you won’t be starting any projects that involve huge uncertainty – even if you feel it is the right thing to do. You won’t put yourself in positions of leadership where everything depends on you. It is just like making an investment decision. You certainly won’t be signing up with a pension fund if you are believe in Stoicism! On a more practical level, even I think that I might die within the next 3 years, it leads me to make decisions that are short-term. It’s hard to be creative when you think that your life is nearly over. It’s hard to have patience and keep investing into things that take time to develop.

There is another reason why Stoic philosophy has become popular in my generation. It’s easily confused with nihilism. Stoics portray dealing with luck as a pointless affair. Almost everything, except getting to understand yourself is pointless according to Stoics. Nihilism is a delightfully comfortable place. If nothing matters, one can stop striving – and no longer feel the pain of striving. And we all love a good painkiller. Floating downstream has nothing to do with Stoic philosophy, however.

Ultimately, Stoics want the best of both worlds. They urge us to live every day like it is the last while making investment decisions that will impact generations.