Some Philosophical Aspects of New Year’s Resolutions

There is a lot of advice on making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. A lot of it is conflicting. Some say resolutions made at the turn of the year could work, some say they’re doomed to fail. Some say we should aim for small changes in our lives, one at a time, others that we should aim for ambitious all-encompassing change. Some say we should tell other people about our resolutions, others say we should keep them to ourselves and work on them quietly. Some say we shouldn’t even bother making resolutions, others argue we should make them more frequently, suggesting, for example, that we look about every four months at what we want to change and what our targets might be. Do philosophers have anything to say on New Year’s resolutions?

Plato and the State of the Mind

Plato argues that the self or the mind is like a city state. The mind has three parts: a) reason, b) passion / motivation and c) appetite / desire. These are equivalent to three parts of a city state: a) rulers, b) soldiers and c) labourers. And as in the city state, order needs to be established by creating the right kind of hierarchy between the three parts. Self-control or self-mastery, the sorts of things one might need in order to implement a New Year’s resolution is given when the passionate or motivating part of the mind is only in the service of reason, not in the service of appetites or trying to do its own thing. Reason needs to rule, passion / motivation needs to help it implement its policies and jointly they need to lord it over the appetites and desires. If that correct hierarchy is established and if each part of the mind does its own work and doesn’t develop ideas above its station, then the person whose mind is thus structured will live a self-controlled and good life.

Conclusion: the only resolution worth making is to ensure the mind is correctly structured. The way this happens is through education and practice. We shouldn’t expect suddenly to be able to do the things we haven’t been able to do, just by making a resolution. Rather we will have to spend time on getting the mind into the right shape. Being clear about our reasons for wanting to keep a resolution, the strength of our motivation and the desires that might conflict with them will also help.

The Stoics and Things Worth Focussing On

The Stoics teach us not to worry about things outside of our control and to focus only on the things internal to us that we can control. In the former category are things like good health / ill health; good looks / ugliness; life / death; riches / poverty; power / powerlessness; being liked / not being liked; and so on. In the latter category is only whether we have virtuous character. Having a resolution to make more money, or to lose weight, or to have more friends would therefore be pointless, if they are not properly thought through. It makes more sense to think about what virtues we would need for a chance at them. We should then aim to develop the virtues of industriousness and frugality instead of making a million dollars; self-control and maybe a certain abstemiousness instead of losing weight, and so on.

Conclusion: the only resolutions worth making are about developing the virtues as only our character is under our control. Any specific targets regarding the outcomes we want to achieve might be blown off course by things outside of our control. Work on our attitudes and habits should be the focus.

Derek Parfit and Future Selves

Derek Parfitt, who was called the most influential philosopher of our times, died in 2017. One of his biggest contributions in philosophy was on questions surrounding personal identity and the self. He argued that personal identity was a question of certain physical and psychological continuities, but that there was no special further ingredient. His views were sometimes likened to Buddhist views that there is no stable self over time. He talks about past and future selves who have separate interests to the current self. Resolutions then would be attempts of a current self to impose certain ways of behaving on future selves, in order to achieve certain things for an even further future self. To aim to do so is perfectly reasonable for the current self. But future selves will look from their perspective as to whether the resolution made by a (now) past self is still one that they have reason to honour.

Conclusion: Not keeping a resolution may not be simply a question of weakness of will but may be a legitimate evaluation of the interests of the current self compared to those of the past self.

Bernard Williams and the Things that Propel us into the Future

Bernard Williams took the view that “an individual person has a set of desires, concerns or, as I shall call them, projects, which help to constitute a character”; these “ground projects [provide] the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living.” For Williams this was a strong argument to critique ethical theories that demanded of people that they should abandon their desires, concerns, commitments, relationships or projects when universal ethical considerations required it. For Williams, our “projects” were not co-incidental fancies, but the very things that are central to being who we are and that make our ives worth living. New Years Resolutions could then be seen as an exercise to audit where we are with our “projects,” what is really important to us, what are our reasons for living and to re-focus our attention on those “projects.”

Conclusion: New Year’s Resolutions could be far more than an unrealistic exercise in setting targets for oneself. They could be a useful audit of what really matters to us and a re-focussing of attention.

 

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On Tim Ferriss’ Porch

The other day I watched this TED talk by Tim Ferriss.

He talks about a time when he was feeling suicidal, not helped by a family and personal history of bipolar disorder. He then describes a method of getting things done more efficiently and effectively by addressing your fears head-on. This is meant to be useful as a productivity method even for people free of manic depressive tendencies.

The talk is ok, but something caught my eye and I haven’t been able to let go. Tim recommends a Stoic attitude. In doing so he explains the origin of the name of that particular school of philosophy as being derived from the Greek word “stoa.” He says that “stoa” is Ancient Greek for porch and shows this picture for illustration.

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He says that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, taught in a porch.

Now as it happens, Zeno taught his philosophy in a very specific “stoa” in Athens, the Stoa Poikile  which could be translated as “the painted porch.” But it’s a porch in the sense of a portico, not in the sense of the bit outside someone’s secluded forest retreat, or even just outside someone’s house. It looked more like a more colourful version of this than Ferriss’ porch:

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And at the time when Zeno taught it was by one of the main public spaces in Athens.

I’m worried that my motives for raising this could easily be misunderstood. So let me just address a couple of points: First of all, this isn’t just a case of me being elitist. I don’t think that you’re only entitled to talk about ancient philosophers if you have a degree in ancient languages and philosophy. I’m quite happy about the current level of interest in Stoic philosophy and the many people who feel inspired by it. I am happy that they find the teachings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and others readily available in translation and am not generally worried that they might be missing facts about the nuances of the Greek language and architecture or the history of Roman philosophy.

Secondly, I’m worried that it could be argued that I’m just jealous that millions more people read everything Tim puts out on his blog, podcasts and books, than read this blog and that I’m just jealous. This TED talk alone has already had more than three million hits. So here are some quotes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, whom Ferriss also quotes. In fact, Seneca is quoting some other people here:

Democritus says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.” The following also was nobly spoken by someone or other, for it is doubtful who the author was; they asked him what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few. He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.” The third saying – and a noteworthy one, too – is by Epicurus, written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards. Farewell.

So, why would it matter if Ferriss is a bit loose with the illustration of a porch. Maybe he just thought the Athenian Stoa Poikile looked a bit boring? Isn’t it worth it if he can make millions of people more effective, less anxious and less depressive?

First of all, when he talks about Stoicism, Ferriss explains that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not about being like Spock, the emotionless character from Star Trek, nor about being like cattle dimly indifferent to rain. In doing so, in de-bunking possible misconceptions about Stoicism, Ferriss sets himself up as someone whose knowledge of Stoicism is of a higher order. He has gone beyond the surface level.

Then he should know that in Stoicism it is important that the Stoic stays involved in public affairs. In contrast to the Epicurean school of philosophy which would have been keener on the forest retreat, the Stoics taught that it it important to stay involved in political and public life. It is important that Zeno’s “lecture hall” was a busy public space, not a secluded private porch. It also meant his philosophy was publicly available.

And if Ferriss – whilst giving the impression that his expertise in Stoicism goes beyond the popular surface-level appreciation – misrepresents the porch where Zeno taught, how much can we trust him to get the other stuff right?

When he correctly states that the Stoics taught us to differentiate between the things we can control and those we can’t, can we trust Ferriss to tell us which things are in which category? Does he know that life / death, good health / bad health, riches / poverty are some of the distinctions the Stoics taught us to care little about because the only one we could really do anything about was our own good or bad character? Can we trust him to teach us, with the Stoics, that our goodness, our development of virtuous character is the only thing really worth focusing on?

Does he understand that the Stoic exercise of praemeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils) is meant to strengthen people to be in equanimity when bad things occur, not to make better plans for avoiding them?

In other words, can we trust him to present Stoic philosophy as what it is, not just another life-hack or “get rich quick” scheme?

Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.