Partisan Tribalism

You’ll occasionally hear someone or other point out how unreasonable it is for a person to believe something just because it’s what conservatives believe or just because it’s what progressives believe.

They note that it’s astonishing how often a person’s views on questions about guns and climate and conscience and equality and life issues and taxes will all seem to coincide with one side of the culture war division, even though the different agendas are not obviously connected to each other apart from their happening to coexist in parties that represents the “right” or the “left” for a political community at a particular moment.

Those people are quite right. If our policy conclusions seem largely to overlap with whatever our favourite political orientation happens to be hyping up at this moment, we should probably question whether we’re really as clever and clear-thinking as we’d like to believe. More likely, in that case, we’re just easily manipulated, and we’re being influenced to support some larger agenda which we don’t understand and which we wouldn’t appreciate if we did.

This definitely happens on the left end of the political spectrum, but the right is more where I live, and so it’s a bit easier for me to talk about the biggest warning signs of not thinking for oneself on the right.

First though, the most obvious warning sign, for anyone really, is a double standard. If something is fine for our side and not for the other, then we are not thinking for ourselves, but are thinking what we’re told to think. Both sides do it. It’s always easier to see it when the other side is guilty, but still, it’s really not that difficult to notice it in ourselves. Just try.

And then some special warning signs for my friends who lean to the right.

Anti-science and anti-experts. This is an easy one. If we have to go against a scientific consensus to hold a political opinion, or if we have to say “Well it’s not really a consensus because I found someone on the internet who’s really smart who doesn’t agree with everyone else,” then we need to stop and think twice, especially if many of our friends happen to question the same bit of science.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s actually good to have an intellectual distance of sorts from science, to recognize that it’s conclusions are always impermanent and changeable, and to remember that science is not the final arbiter of meaning and truth over all other ways of knowing. This theoretical distance enables us to see the structures of knowing and the structure of reality more clearly, and it’s a rare and valuable perspective today.

However, that’s different from the people who say that they know better than the scientists about scientific matters, that they’ve found some dissenting opinion online which shows that their conclusion is better than the scientists’ consensus.

In that case, you’re probably just falling prey to a propaganda effort orchestrated by some large, profit-driven industry like oil and gas, or big agriculture.

I believe it’s possible to be conservative and also to be intelligent and informed.

Anti-morality. The only good reason to be a conservative is because of morality. I do know the progressive movement has some wonderfully moral causes, and many other intuitions which, though perhaps ultimately wrong, are also motivated by a desire for justice and flourishing. Still, plenty of people today find themselves drawn to the conservative movement as a place that is more protective of traditional morality and less prone to the moral chaos of the passing fads of progressivism. I am sympathetic.

However. When conservative leaders and thinkers claim not only that the world is cruel, but that we must be cruel, must form the world for cruelty by our decisions and plans, that stance represents a worthless conservatism in my view. I have in mind, for instance, the sort of hardline “fiscal conservatives” who would say that poverty, and staggering household debt, and subsistence wages, are a necessary evil, or even a good thing, and that excessive and unnecessary concentration of wealth in a few hands is protected by basic human right and is beneficial to all of society. If we are not setting up society to help those most in need of help, then shame on us.

A conservatism that exists for good is a wonderful thing, but a conservatism that tolerates and promotes evil deserves all the condemnation that the left can conjure. If we’ve been convinced that in order to be conservative we must be able to celebrate suffering and injustice, then that’s a huge flashing warning sign. Don’t go that direction.

Wishing for Latin

I’ve met a good number of people who want to learn Latin, and a much smaller number who have succeeded in becoming proficient in it.

I count myself in the former category for now, though I am hopeful that someday I will graduate to the latter. Surely just about everyone who gets proficient was at one time only wishing to become so.

For me, part of the desire to learn Latin originally comes from, and is always reignited by, learning about the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, Latin was a sign of erudition and was really the only way to be able to understand and investigate the greatest questions, and to participate in the community of those who seek knowledge.

The only other language at all like it for us in “the West” is Greek, also worthwhile and desirable but somehow simultaneously more distant, almost insubstantial in its command of the contemporary imagination by comparison with Latin.

There are of course other languages that hold a similar status in other civilizations further afield, such as classical Chinese or Arabic. For any that have trouble understanding the appeal of Latin for the people who are more or less directly derived from the European Middle Ages, it might be helpful to look at something less familiar for comparison and consider the status of those other foreign classical languages among their present-day descendants.

Learning Latin is pretty tough, and the tangible benefits for most of us will be slim indeed. Still, even if only as a mostly symbolic act, I suspect it can be a powerful achievement.

The Many-Gods Objection

I’ve annoyed many of my less-theistically-inclined friends over the years with my desire to discuss the arguments for and against God or religion with them.

Originally, this probably had a bit of a proselytizing aim to it, but from the beginning, and increasingly over time, there was another reason for the activity as well: it’s a chance for me to explore more about myself and my beliefs, and my reasons for belief.

I’m convinced that there’s a God, and that it matters if we live and think like there’s a God. It’s a conviction that I arrived at after much consideration. For a couple years in my early twenties this was very much an open question for me, and doubt was even winning the day for a considerable time. It was in no small part through my focused reading of texts from the history of philosophy (especially ancient philosophy) that my mind was eventually changed and led to my current conclusion.

And it’s a question that still deeply interests me. Just a few years ago I published a small book titled The Gentleman Atheist, in which I discuss some of these arguments from different angles.

So when I have an intelligent friend who’s reached a different conclusion, on this question that seems so important to my mind, I’m often interested to converse about it, if the other person is willing and if the conversation doesn’t look like it’ll go in too cantankerous a direction.

I couldn’t necessarily even articulate why (perhaps I’ll try in a future post), but I love thinking through the constellation of questions that attach to this discussion.

One point that usually comes up sooner or later (generally sooner) is the “many Gods” or “many faiths” objection. Even if an atheist wanted to believe in God, the question goes, which God should be chosen? Which religion?

I was reflecting on this objection recently, and since it comes up so often in such discussions, and appears so compelling in a way, I thought it might be worthwhile to write up a few thoughts I have on the subject.

Let me lay out a few analogous exchanges to introduce some of the directions I’d like to take this discussion, and then after anticipating and answering a predictable response to my analogies, I’ll make explicit the significance I intend in each case.

1. Okay, so in the first place how about we imagine someone saying, “I don’t believe in ties. After all, the word ties can have lots of meanings. Do you mean a bow tie, or a tied game, or a railroad tie? So I just don’t believe in them.”

(I know what you’ll say … but just hold on and let me get a few more of these out!)

2. Second, we can imagine this person: “I don’t believe in lions. After all, I’ve heard stories about lots of different lions in this jungle, and I don’t know which one I might meet, so I just don’t feel the need to believe in any of them. I just walk around the jungle as if there’s no such thing as lions.”

(Stay with me! I know these seem ridiculous, but this is how the many-gods objection sounds to me, and I’ll explain why soon.)

3. Third, how about this person: “I’ve turned off the lighthouse because I don’t believe in boats. After all, different people describe lots of different kinds of boats, and I don’t know which of them will see the light, if any. So I just leave the light off as if all boats are fictional.”

4. Fourth, this one: “I don’t try to communicate with people anymore. I never know if my messages will reach their intended recipient, and even if they do I can never know if the intended recipient was the right person to speak to in the first place. So I don’t try anymore, and furthermore, while I’m at it, I also might as well deny that there are people out there who could hear me even if I did try.”

5. And then last, we could imagine a person like this: “I don’t believe in houses anymore. After all, some people talk about walls, other people talk about doors, other people talk about windows, other people talk about ceilings, or carpets, or roofs, or rooms, and then there’s this confusing business about residences, or homes, or abodes, or mansions. I just don’t know whom to believe anymore, so of course I have to disbelieve all of it.”

Okay, we made it. Now, the foreseeable rebuttal to each one of these, which I know has probably been bursting out of all of us from the very beginning, is:

“But it’s not like that at all, John, you smug little sophist!”

That’s the tried and true defence against any opportunity to learn from a comparison or analogy. “It’s not the same!” And of course it’s not. That’s the whole point. But it’s intended to be instructive.

Let me just promise that it is possible to find an instructive similarity, in each of the above five analogies, something to give us a different angle on the ways that the “many gods” objection might be problematic. If you read my explanations below and then still want to take issue with the analogies, I’m all ears!

1. Okay, so the word “God” has a lot of meanings. Those meanings might all refer to real and meaningful things, or maybe none of them do. But in any case, the number of meanings attached to the word will tell us nothing about whether belief is possible or if people should find themselves perplexed about what to believe.

2. If we’re asserting that there is a whole pack of possibly existing deities out there, any one of which or any number of which could hold the power of life and death, misery and happiness, I can’t see that it really makes sense to say, “and therefore I’ll live as if none of them are real.” Surely it makes at least as much sense, and probably a great deal more, to draw a conclusion like, “and therefore I will live the sort of religious life that in my estimation will provide the best possible chance for them to be more favourably disposed toward me, just in case I do ever find myself needing their help or their mercy.”

3. So let’s say we’ve chosen to forego praying and worshipping and living religiously, because we don’t know if it’s Allah or Zeus or the Trinity (etc) who’s out there listening and seeing, or perhaps none of them, or perhaps somehow a combination of the different options. Here’s the problem. How does one start with “I can’t be sure who’s paying attention, how many or how few or what kind” and then get all the way to “I’m pretty sure I should act as if no one is paying attention.” We can turn off the lighthouse if we like, stop up the prayers and the gratitude and the piety, but we’ll have to realize that the reasoning which got us there is about as solid as a rotting log.

4. Say we don’t know who’s getting our prayers. We’re worried that if we pick a religion and enter it, it will be the wrong one and so the real deity won’t give us the goods that we’re looking for, whether that be inner peace or miracles or everlasting joy or all of the above. But consider that maybe the God we’re praying to is the real one. Or maybe it’s not, but the real one doesn’t hold it against us and so listens to our prayer anyway, just as if we had addressed our prayers to the right one in the first place. There’s no reason to think that we have to have everything figured out before our prayers will be heard. Even if there were reason to think so, we still wouldn’t be justified in saying, “well then I guess that means I shouldn’t pray at all.” Better to start somewhere, and then adapt over time as our knowledge (of our faith and of other faiths and of the philosophy of religion) increases.

5. Most religions admit that other religions possess some part of the truth. This means that even if the religion we become a part of does not possess the whole truth, if it has part of the truth then it will bring us closer to truth than we could have been had we remained entirely irreligious and disbelieving.

This list is not meant to be a systematic or all-encompassing response to the many gods objection. It just brings together some of the intuitions that were floating about at the surface of my mind just now as I was reflecting on it, after having thought about these things over the course of many years. To me, the many-gods objection seems deeply flawed and unconvincing, and from multiple different angles. This list brings together just a few examples of why that is so.

If anyone wants to help me continue to think through these questions, please feel free to chime in below, in the comments! I look forward to learning from you.

Falling Asleep to Languages

I like to experiment with different ideas that come to me, and see which ones work out. Sometimes they end badly (a word to the wise: putting herbal teabags into the wash with your laundry doesn’t actually make your clothes smell like peppermint or chamomile or whatever you expect it to do).

Usually the ideas end up taking a lot of refining and reframing before they come anywhere close to working. But often, the results do end up being worth the time spent in self-experimentation.

I recently started listening to foreign languages while falling asleep. This combines two strands of experimentation: listening to text while falling asleep, and learning languages. Let me quickly say something about the first of those two.

I discovered in college that I can generally fall asleep more quickly when I am listening to an audiobook or a lecture or a podcast or something along those lines.

I also discovered that it has to be just the right program, though. I have to be interested in what I’m listening to; if it’s something I find boring or irrelevant, it becomes an annoyance, and it keeps me from falling asleep. It can’t be too interesting either, though; if I’m listening to a Dan-Brown-esque page-turner of a story, then I can be up all night wanting to know what happens next. And it can’t be too challenging; if I’m listening to the Critique of Pure Reason and trying to understand each word and keep track of each step in the argument, then I’ll be working much too hard to be able to slide away softly into sleep.

And finding the listening material that is just the right balance is always tricky, because for some mysterious reason, it changes from one night to the next. The very same book that was perfect for putting me to sleep yesterday might have somehow become too boring or interesting or challenging to work tonight.

Still, most of the time it only takes a few minutes of browsing and sampling to find the right book, and most of the time I do fall asleep much more quickly with the right book than I do without it, so in the end it’s still worth it and I continue to do it.

So that’s the story with listening to texts before bed.

I’m also trying to learn some languages. I’m focusing on German right now, but also dabbling a bit here and there with French, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian. Mostly that means using two apps, Duolingo and Drops. I do a little bit of reading as well, slowly and laboriously and with a dictionary for now, though hopefully not forever.

I have fairly poor listening comprehension for anything beyond the most basic sentences. I remember last summer I tried listening to John 1 in Greek, at about half speed. My brain still ached from trying to keep up with it and make sense of it.

Last week though, I had an idea. What if I tried listening to something in a foreign language while falling asleep, without trying to understand it?

So for the past several days, that’s what I’ve done. I listen to Rousseau in French, or Nietzsche in German, or the Old Testament in Hebrew. (And all for free, on LibriVox! What a marvel.) I just let it wash over me. I do catch some words or phrases, even the occasional short sentence. But mostly I just hear the rhythms of the language, and the patterns within the sounds that it tends to use.

First off, I’ve found it to be great for falling asleep. It holds my attention (so far — we’ll see how long this lasts), and doesn’t have me eager to hear what’s next or straining to keep track of what’s come before.

There’s even a sort of meditative feel to it once I get into the flow of the reading. I’m listening pretty intently, enjoying the sound of it, but I’m also not understanding what I hear, just calmly resting in the moment.

And secondly, I think this might eventually help my brain start to wrap itself more fully around these languages that I’ve already begun studying. I can’t give any proof of that possibility, but observing what was going on in my mind during the time when I was listening in the last few days, I did feel like my brain was gently seeking to make meaning out of this half-familiar wash of sound.

After all, that’s primarily how our brains relate to language, as far as I can tell: through the ears, trying to find meaningful patterns. That doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it gives me hope that maybe this could be helpful in time.

Now, maybe foreign languages will become a hindrance to sleeping, an annoyance, and will also not help me learn the languages. Or maybe it will not help me learn but will nonetheless continue to be a pleasant and effective way to find sleep.

In the first case, I can just go back to what I was doing before and I haven’t lost anything. In the second case, I’d probably thank my lucky stars and go on sleeping well.

But maybe this idea will both help me sleep and also help me learn the languages. That’s what I’m hoping for! How amazing would that be? Wish me luck. I’ll plan to provide an update in a future post, once I have some more experience with it.

Before Philosophy and Theology

There’s something more primal than either philosophy or theology.

Philosophy and theology each have their own proper fields of investigation. For instance, questions of a purely epistemological nature would seem to rest entirely in the domain of philosophy, whereas the doctrine of atonement is more a theological area of study.

There is a place where the two do extensively overlap, which is in the discussions of what is called natural theology. What can be known about the divine and its relation to our existence through reason and the observation of natures and that sort of thing? In this case, philosophers from their side and theologians from their side can ask the same questions and ultimately will have their answers judged by the same criteria.

But when I speak of the something that is more primal, I’m not thinking of natural theology. I am thinking of what comes before natural theology, and makes natural theology possible.

I mean the reality toward which the experiences of the mystics direct us.

Among philosophers and theologians alike there is often a bit of an embarrassed silence on the subject of mysticism. That’s not to say everyone is silent — certainly not. There is a thriving literature on the subject, in philosophy and theology alike.

But outside that narrow discussion, there is plenty of silence.

Philosophers writing on any subject would not be shy to invoke contemporary discussions of ethics, or ontology, or logic, if they felt it was relevant to what they were trying to say. These are tools of the trade, after all!

Likewise, theologians writing on any theological subject would not hesitate to bring up the doctrine of Scripture, or of soteriology, or of creation, if there was a valid connection.

For the most part, however, we seem to prefer that mysticism would just stay in its room and not come out to disturb anybody.

I’m speaking too broadly. I’m sure there are some circles where what I’ve said will be untrue, or at least where things are beginning to change. But I do have a sense that overall, what I’ve said here does have some truth in it.

What is beyond philosophy and theology? It is the unified, abundant reality that surpasses all speech. It is that which is somehow like thought but also completely above thought, and without which we could not think.

If our deepest thoughts are like roots, then I am speaking of something like the soil around those roots, the thing which never in itself enters fully into our thought, but which is nonetheless also the source and the sustenance of all thought.

Theology must study God insofar as it is possible to do so in human words, but theology itself has to admit that God, as God, is always outside the reach of human words (or at least our comprehension of our own words), and thus that theology is always pointing past itself to something beyond speaking, even perhaps beyond thinking. I believe something similar could be said of philosophy, mutatis etcetera.

We lift up our hearts.

The History of Philosophy and Making Sense of the World

I wrote somewhere previously that a knowledge of philosophy is valuable for helping us understand ourselves, products as we are today of a social arrangement that was shaped through centuries of philosophical reflection and dispute.

I certainly believe that’s true, and greater self-understanding has indeed been a beneficial product of my studies of philosophical history.

However, it occurred to me that that’s not actually why I started studying the history of philosophy, and that it probably would not have been sufficient reason for me to do it if someone had proposed the idea in that light.

I wanted to understand the world around me, my experience of the world, the nature of reality, the social and political and logical connections between different things, and over time I became convinced that studying the history of philosophy was the best way for me to do so.

Now, there are two questions which can’t help but arise at this point: why the history of PHILOSOPHY, and why the HISTORY of philosophy?

In other words, why focus on the study of philosophy, rather than on science or political history or social science or literature or myth? And secondly, why focus on philosophy under the aspect of its development through human history, rather than focusing specifically on only one moment of philosophy’s history (namely, the present moment)?

I realize that the natural sciences sometimes seem to have all the answers these days, but philosophy has the advantage of reckoning with our prescientific experience and understanding of the world, the framework of thought on which natural science is constructed (both historically speaking and also conceptually). Philosophy also stretches further than natural science can, posing questions that science is not equipped to answer and using tools that science has no familiarity with.

And studying literature or history or religion can be very worthwhile, but it doesn’t take long to see how making sense of them requires in turn an engagement with philosophy. As much as their study might illuminate or complicate the philosophical approaches that intersect with them, a thorough study of any one of them will ultimately demand a knowledge of and engagement with philosophy.

Well, fine then. But why the whole history of philosophy? Why not just the philosophies of the present moment, which is what the scholars in other disciplines tend to interact with anyways?

It is because there are no philosophers who can be properly understood apart from the philosophies that formed them and against which they were reacting, and this is true in a chain that stretches all the way back to the first beginnings of philosophy in the ancient world.

And it is because there are no terms or concepts of any importance today which can really be understood simply, directly, apart from their history. There are certainly some today who will try, who attempt to answer purely formulated questions through the careful manipulation of ahistorical notions. It’s a worthwhile goal, but to me it seems like trying to sail around the world without a map; it might be doable, but failure or massive inefficiency is a far more likely outcome.

And so wherever your starting point, if you truly seek to understand, you will find yourself drawn into the study of philosophy, and then into the study of the whole history of philosophy.

And eventually, we won’t be seeking to understand that field of knowledge so much as a means to an end, anymore — its study will have revealed itself to be a satisfying and abundantly beneficial end in itself.

Preparation Before It’s Needed

I’ve found it helpful to think about growth in virtue as a preparation for an unknown deadline.

It’s hard to train for something when there’s no need for it. Most of the time, we wait until there’s a threat of some sort looming, and then we begin preparing to address it.

We get a scary diagnosis and then start trying to eat healthier foods. We see a relationship crumbling and then get serious about solving that addiction. We are jobless and then start learning new skills. We get talked into signing up for a marathon and then begin trying to find time to go for jogs.

And how much easier is it to put off more intangible goals like wisdom, moderation, courage?

Let’s use athletic training as an illustration. It can take months to start from scratch and become a decent long distance runner. It takes years of consistent work to reach the limits of how much we can benefit from strength training.

If we wait until we need one of these abilities and then start training for it, there’s a good chance we won’t have time to prepare well, and the opportunity will have passed us by.

So what if we instead started training before we need it?

One benefit of that approach is how we can find ourselves utterly unhurried. Start training now, but assume a nice slow timeline. “I want to be able to run a marathon three years from today.”

All of a sudden, training is easy. We never have to push ourselves to levels of discomfort that would make us want to quit. We see small, consistent, effortlessly attained improvements, and it’s exciting. It’s addictive. We might very well end up hitting our goal long before we had planned to.

The discouraging voice in your head may object. “Three years? What if something unexpected comes up in a couple months, where I’ll need to be a good athlete already? Two months of training won’t have gotten me very far. This plan is as good as useless!”

And yet, being two months into a training program, even an unambiguous program, is unimaginably more advantageous than being zero months into one. Your body is adapted to the initial aches and pains. You’ve got a training habit in place. You’ve got a foundation in place for a more intense training phase if one is needed.

And probably you won’t suddenly, urgently need to be an ultramarathoner in two months. Remember, your life has been (in this hypothetical scenario) designed to accommodate a relatively low level of fitness.

More likely, in six months or a year, some opportunity will appear which is not unavoidable, but which might be beneficial to be a part of if you’re able, an opportunity that is well within your abilities now that you’ve been training, but which you otherwise would have had to miss out on. Maybe that opportunity opens a door that sets off a chain reaction of further opportunities.

Or maybe, the day when you need to be super fit doesn’t arrive until half a decade later. That day, you race down the street, block after block, arriving just in time to save a life, or salvage a relationship, or preserve a career. You didn’t know the day was coming. You couldn’t have designed a training program for it.

You’re just glad that you prepared, at a time when you had no idea what you were preparing for.

And that applies to all different ways of improving ourselves.

So then, start now. There’s no better time.

Choose one thing. Don’t start running and a diet and a language and a reading project and a writing project and trying to kick that bad habit and being more encouraging all at the same time. Start one thing, and start it slowly. It’s better than nothing, and maybe, just maybe, it will lead to many good things.

Does Power Corrupt?

There’s a common idea we encounter, that having a little bit of power can corrupt us, make us worse people, and that if we come into possession of a lot of power, it will make us truly untrustworthy and immoral.

Interestingly, the lesson derived from this principle is not what might be expected. The lesson is, “Don’t trust the people in power,” and even, “Make sure you have enough power to protect yourself from those people in power.” The lesson we take away is generally not, “Embrace powerlessness,” as we might be led to anticipate from the stated premise.

In this post, I want to reflect briefly on why I think it’s not generally quite accurate to say that power corrupts, and also why I think it is that although we’re all convinced power corrupts people, we have no particular aversion to becoming more powerful ourselves.

On the first point: When we say that power corrupts, what we really have in mind is the idea that people are bad, and the only way we can be kept from acting badly is by lacking the opportunity.

We don’t really mean that the person who is now more powerful and is suddenly a nasty personality was a good fellow all along and then the influx of power caused a change of character.

Rather, the jerk was hidden inside all along, starved for opportunity, waiting for a chance to stop pretending.

When we say that power corrupts, we really have in mind that power reveals. Power shows what was inside a person from the start, suppressed but waiting.

Think of Plato’s story of the ring of Gyges. A man comes into possession of a ring that makes its wearer invisible. This is power. Suddenly the man can do what he wants without being restrained, opposed, judged, punished. He becomes rich from stolen wealth, and sleeps with any beautiful woman who was previously just an unattainable fantasy. The point of the story is evidently that all people are like the man with the ring, though Socrates goes on to argue against that conclusion in the remainder of that dialogue.

The reason why we say that power corrupts, rather than saying that power reveals, when we surely mean the latter, is because we prefer not to dwell on our belief that all people are selfish and nasty and only ever one promotion away from showing that inner nature more fully.

We believe that we ourselves, and our friends and our family, are secretly like that. It’s easier not to dwell on it. But that doesn’t stop us from believing it.

And as I was saying earlier: although we are quick to blame the powerful who benefit themselves at our expense, we don’t mind the thought of being more powerful ourselves or of having a good relationship with someone who has power.

Clearly, the only reason for this can be that we’re convinced it’s a zero-sum game and a race to the bottom. Cheat or be cheated. If someone’s got to have power, it might as well be me and mine, or so we find ourselves thinking.

I truly believe we can find all this hidden in the common saying that power corrupts. And I think it’s all wrong — or at the very least, it’s certainly not obviously true.

There are two central reasons this belief is so widespread: because it can’t be disproven, and because we don’t want to play the ridiculously naive and trusting buffoons.

It can’t be disproved. It doesn’t matter how many examples you produce of people who had power or money and didn’t use it for evil ends. What if they were just good at hiding their tracks? Or maybe they just weren’t yet powerful enough to feel secure letting their true selves come out for all the world to see.

And we might make fun of theories that can’t be proved wrong, but in reality I’ve found that those are people’s favourite kind.

But even though it can’t be disproved, it also can’t be proved, and that’s what is always forgotten.

It is at least reasonable to be agnostic about whether everyone is deep-down evil.

I know there are people who are not so virtuous, people who only pretend to be good because they’re afraid of the consequences that attach to evil. I know this not only because history has furnished apparent examples, but because I can look into my own heart and see the terrible things I might have done at moments in the past if I could have gotten away with them.

I also know that there might be people who can become good enough to do the right thing, even when there would be no consequences for doing the desirable wrong thing.

Again, I know this not only because history has apparently experienced this (of which we can find many examples, for instance, among the lives of the saints).

Rather, in part I know it because I can look into my heart and remember the times when I have made the difficult choice to do what was right, and I can cast my mind back to see how those good choices are more frequent when I sincerely seek to become better, and work to that end.

Enjoy the Day

There are two ways to be able to increase your odds of enjoying a given day, even if the day is full of things that normally seem not that enjoyable.

And who doesn’t want to enjoy the day? Who doesn’t want to go to bed feeling good about life?

The first is to change our thinking.

Just the other day I was rereading Epictetus where he says that it’s not death that frightens us, but the ways we think about death. If that’s true of death, how much more of all the lesser evils that assault us from day to day?

Changing our thoughts, our mental habits, our modes of interpretation and reaction — it takes time and work, but it can be extremely effective.

The second is to change the proportion of good things and bad things in a day.

It sounds simple, but we can try to reduce the number of bad things and increase the number of good things.

Some of the bad things will not be within our control, but some will. If there are unhappinesses brought upon us by laziness or cowardice or by an immoderate desire for pleasure, then we can change the ways we act.

Perhaps it will take time and our habits won’t all change overnight, but if we choose, we can change them. All of them. Setting our minds to it, we can change.

And add in good things. Books. Friends. Engaging goals. Healthy food. Fresh air. Language learning has been a favourite of mine these past couple years.

This second strategy won’t be in everyone’s power every day. But for the great majority of people, in the vast majority of days, this is doable.

The case could be made that it’s fine to have miserable days in the service of some greater good — of earning a degree, or earning a paycheque, or maybe helping others. There is a sliver of truth here, and in rare cases this may be the whole truth.

But most of us (all of us?) ultimately want to be able to enjoy our days. Why not start now?

We can fool ourselves into believing that if we’re happy then we’re wasting our time, and that misery is the cost and the sign of the fact that we’re getting things done. But it’s not true. I promise. The truth is closer to the opposite.