Preparation Before It’s Needed

One way I’ve found it helpful to think about growing in virtue is as 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 working.

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? 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, 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 opens a door of opportunity that sets off a chain reaction.

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. 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, when you eventually need it, you’ll be ready.

Does Power Corrupt?

There’s a common idea we encounter, that 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.

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 not, “Embrace powerlessness,” as we might be led to anticipate.

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 that all people are like the man with the ring, though Plato argues against that conclusion.

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, we find ourselves saying.

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, I know 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 be beyond 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.

Writing a Blog

Today I wanted to reflect on my writing a tiny bit, since I see it as part of this project of virtue that I am trying to engage in, even as it is simultaneously seeking to describe that same project.

I didn’t originally plan for this blog to focus on virtue, though so far that has definitely been the central theme for most of my posts. The goal, rather, was discovery.

I wanted to learn what I would write about when I gave myself permission to write about anything, in a space where anyone could look in, and built up a habit of writing (twice a week so far, though the frequency might change in the future, either to more often or to slightly less often).

It didn’t go quite as planned. I turned on the tap, but before the ideas could start flowing freely, there was some material which had clogged up the end of the pipe which needed to come out first.

I had a backlog of ideas for things that I once wanted to write, or that I wanted to want to write.

They weren’t necessarily written down, or if they were, it wasn’t because they were written down that I had to write them up.

Rather, it was that they were somehow hanging over me mentally. When I thought about writing something, they were the first thing that came to mind, even if they were the things that I actually am interested in writing about, and I somehow couldn’t write anything else until I had given them voice.

So I turned on the faucet and watched at first as sediment came out, and continued to watch as the outflowing began to seem more pure and clear.

That’s not to say that the earlier writings were worse than the later, or less true to me, or anything like that. I was still the one writing them and finding the words to express them.

Rather, what I mean is that with reference to the goal of discovering how I write and what I want to write about, my own sense is that the later writings are more helpful to me.

After the first few months of writing this blog, then, I look back and find that it has been helpful for two things, one expected and intended, and the other a surprise.

What has fulfilled (and exceeded!) my expectations is the way that blogging has helped me see what I am interested to write about. I know that much of what I write is pretty unpolished and artless, given that as a stay at home dad with a number of hobbies these entries are often pretty rushed and poorly thought through. Still, it’s helped clarify for me what I am able to write about with confidence and with some competence. It is also helpful for showing me the gaps in between the things I’ve gravitated toward writing about, areas for further elaboration and exploration.

The unexpected benefit is the one I have spent most of this entry reflecting on: the clearing out of expectations and plans and assumptions which were more of an obstacle to my goals as a writer, even though they were accumulated over the course of years spent thinking about the desire to write.

I have no particular plans for the future of this blog, but I have a couple guesses about where it might go.

For the time being, I’ll keep writing whatever comes into my head to write, seeking to sustain and strengthen my writing habit, and in the process build up a body of writing for which I might someday find a use.

In the meantime I will wait for motivation to strike, and then at that point I’ll probably move in one of a couple directions.

I might try to look back through old posts and consciously try to fill in ambiguities and form the connections between different thoughts to make these writings more coherent and full.

Or I may try to bend my output toward some specific goal. I might pick a theme or an author or a question and begin focusing on that with the goal of bringing it together into a single directed piece of writing.

But it’s also possible that neither development will happen anytime soon and that’s okay with me too. For the foreseeable future, just keeping the habit going instead of letting it lapse is all the success I need. As long as the habit exists, the possibilities of where it could go are practically limitless.

A Beneficial Filter

Our minds are very good at filtering information based on a small number of variables.

What we spend our time thinking about is what we’ll have quick insight into when we encounter a new situation. Are you obsessed with money? You’ll immediately notice if there are opportunities for profit. Power? Reputation? The facts will arrange themselves to suit your burning questions.

Sometimes, too, the facts will arrange themselves to match someone else’s questions. If you know someone well and they are fellow observers with you, you’ll be able to anticipate some of their reactions.

It’s like picking up an imprint of someone else’s spirit. You know that they always demand that you justify your ideas in light of one particular filter, and so you begin to see through that same filter.

My recommendation is to learn to read situations in light of the possibilities for growth in virtue, wisdom, happiness. Look for those paths first. That’s the very best way to get the most out of every new scene that arises. And precisely by gaining that filter, we have already made one of the biggest advances we can make on the road toward wisdom and virtue and happiness.

And it will spread from us. It will grow slowly, but the people who spend time with us will eventually come to see things differently than they did before. We don’t need to preach, cajole, convince.

We just need to learn to see things in a different way, and then wear those lenses into every conversation, every new moment. The changes around us will be slow but inevitable.

And if you think you know others who already think in this way, it’s never a bad idea to spend time with them when you can, and to try to let them have the same influence on you that you hope to share with others.

Why Keep Studying Philosophy?

Is there any point to studying philosophy endlessly? I believe so, although I am quick to concede that even a small amount of philosophy is sufficient for happiness.

Now, there is a minimum level we’ll want to reach once we’ve embarked. Too little philosophy, and we’re liable to make ourselves and everyone around us miserable, thinking we understand more than we actually do.

Still, there is a point beyond which more philosophical knowledge does not make us much happier. The question then becomes, why would anyone study philosophy beyond that point?

Given a little Plato, a touch of Aristotle, maybe some Boethius or Augustine or Dionysius, and of course the occasional dose of Epictetus, the determined learner will be able to cultivate a soul and a life that is as close as possible to a happy earthly existence, especially if comforts are many and sorrows are few, but even in times of uncertainty or distress.

I hope for as many as possible to have this sort of education, although there are few I’ve met who even know that such an experience is available, or who are open to the thought that it could anything else than a naive bit of ancient superstition and ignorance. (We moderns are much too smart to risk a life of sturdy happiness.)

I want as many people as possible to have it, and I could never condemn any who were satisfied with it and progressed no further in the study of philosophy. Indeed, that sort of self-restraint and moderation would be evidence of a praiseworthy disposition. It would mean that the person was studying philosophy for the right reasons, and only the right reasons.

However, I do think it is also possible to study philosophy beyond that point in a way that is consistent with virtue.

I don’t find that philosophy is like money, where taking more than you need is eventually a sign of an avaricious malady of the heart.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom is never fully attained in this life. We will all fall short, and we must all be content with falling short, but with that said, the pursuit of wisdom is an endless source of joy and pleasure for the person who loves it.

And there’s a secondary benefit as well that’s very powerful. By studying the history of philosophy, we have the chance to reflect on the philosophical and terminological layers of sediment that have accrued up to the present day.

Today all of us, no matter how much or how little we know of philosophy, are heirs to ten thousand half-digested bits of philosophical debate that have worked their way into our words and our conversations.

In this way, studying philosophical history helps us understand ourselves better, and our contemporaries likewise. And over time, it helps show us how to escape the quandaries and errors into which we’ve been thrown, and how to help others out of those same traps.

It’s not an indispensable part of the happy life, but for those with the capacity and inclination, it is certainly a good way to spend our time.

Embrace the Mixed Motivations

I have a clear recollection that when I was younger, I was really troubled by the possibility of doing good but with motives that were not themselves clearly good.

“What if part of the reason I’m being kind to others is because I like being seen as kind? Is that still good?”

“What if part of the reason why I’m praying before bed is because I know it helps me fall asleep? Isn’t that terrible?”

Can we ever know that our motivations are pure? I’m sure these perplexities came from a commendable desire to be authentic or something of the sort, but I have reached a place now where these aren’t so concerning to me.

I think it is worth it to accept the mixed motivations that can help carry us down the path to becoming the people we want to be.

Let’s focus on the people we’re becoming and the ways we want to spend our time. It’s hard enough to develop those virtuous habits. Why worry about the motivations when in the end, motivation will fall away and all that will be left is the habit.

Even some motivations that might seem a bit awful could have a place on the road to virtue.

“I’ll show him! Next time it won’t go the same way, I can tell you that.”

“Oh, if I can do this they are going to hate it, they’ll be so jealous, and they’ll have to stop saying those things about me.”

“You know what, not only would this make me look more impressive, it could save me some money too!”

There’s a place for mixed motivations. Let’s just make sure we have at least a small amount of good motivation mixed in with the more shameful reasons.

Without some real desire for virtue mixed in, we probably won’t become actually more virtuous. We also aren’t as likely to succeed, if my experience is any guide.

Where to Begin

In the past while, I’ve enjoyed focusing on goals that will take me years or decades to master. Language learning. Knowledge of history. Knowledge of the history of philosophy. Physical health and strength and endurance.

It occurred to me recently that I probably wouldn’t recommend any of these to someone who’s on the brink of death, whether because of old age or illness or injury.

If it were up to me, and if they had the capacity, I’d recommend that they should start where I myself had the good fortune to begin, soon after I finished my undergraduate studies.

It’s where perhaps everyone should start. After all, while some people can be pretty confident that their death is imminent, no one can be entirely sure that theirs is not.

The place to begin, in my view, is with the study that revolves around questions of happiness, virtue, divinity, truth, existence, humanity, beauty, eternity, goodness.

It’s the study that springs from the thoughts of such wonderful minds as Plato, Epictetus, Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite.

It’s the study that Socrates spoke of as a preparation for death.

Paradoxically, I have found that it is the thing that can help us feel most at home in this world during our time here.

With this philosophical “preparation for death” accomplished, we are freed to focus on the life ahead of us.

It is not good to strive for a beautiful body when we have not yet resolved to address the ugliness we find in our heart.

It is not beneficial to develop an impressive intellect when we have not yet ourselves been awed and inspired by the greatness of the things that are within humanity, and of the things that are above us.

It’s no use training to lead or help others when we have not yet learned to lead or to help ourselves.

First, let’s pursue this most important knowledge, however long it takes — and then, if there’s time, we will pursue every other good thing under the sun.

Relentless Patience

I believe that the most powerful tool available to a person can be the patient and determined pursuit of a goal.

In the last few years, I’ve gotten into the habit of using a formula like this when setting goals for myself:

I want to accomplish ____ as quickly as possible, no matter how long it takes.

As quickly as possible

In making progress on a goal it’s important to be focused, determined. Practically speaking, in the short term there’s not so much of a difference between “I’d like to do this someday” and “This is something I’ll probably never do.”

It’s good to be even more specific. Is it thinkable that the goal is attainable within five years? Three? One?

And then subdivide. If it’s a three-year goal, what will need to be done by the end of the year? And to get there, what’s a good goal to aim at for the end of the month?

We don’t want the goals to be too ambitious, certainly not anything unrealistic, but be honest about what might be possible and start working toward that.

No matter how long it takes

It’s easy and fun to set exciting goals, and they do give a boost of motivation. By themselves, however, they lead to frustration and failure.

Goals need to be balanced by patience.

People like to say that patience is a virtue, and it is, but it’s so much more than that.

Patience is basically a superpower.

With enough patience, we can accomplish unbelievable goals, can defeat almost anything. And we can feel good in the process.

Let’s say the goal is to read twelve big impressive books by the end of the year, and toward the end of the first month it’s becoming clear that you can’t even hit the halfway point of your first book by the time you wanted to be finished the first one.

The goal sounds like it was a good one. Without patience, though, the project would come to an end. “There’s no point!” So the whole project would amount to a third of a book finished, and nothing more.

The patient person can take stock and reevaluate. “Clearly a book a month wasn’t as attainable as I thought.” The goals will change.

Maybe the new goal is six books finished this year. Or maybe, to make for a challenge, eight books. Or maybe the first month was a month of sloth, and the original goal wasn’t overambitious; then the new goal might be eleven books this year.

Keep on adjusting. Keep on forgiving yourself. Keep making new goals as you learn and progress.

And keep remembering how much has been accomplished already, which wouldn’t have happened without those goals. That’ll be an enticement to keep on reassessing and reformulating the failed goals, rather than giving up on them altogether.

Choose a few things to focus on in this way (it’s hard to do much more than that), and see how much relentlessness can accomplish.

Virtue and the Economy

It is possible to be virtuous, and to pursue virtue, in any economy, no matter how it runs or what legal restrictions are placed on it. You can be virtuous in the context of communism or unfettered capitalism or feudalism or anywhere in between.

However, that doesn’t mean that the economy is irrelevant to the question of virtue. Indeed, the increase of virtue, I would claim, ought to be one of the overriding considerations in light of which an economy ought to be given its structure.

In any given time and place, the economy is the thing that determines for the greatest number of people what we will spend most of our time doing, and thinking about.

What this means is that a well-designed economy may encourage or facilitate (though not necessitate) the increase of virtue.

Much more often, however, the economy will be a force that must be resisted in the development of virtue. A shapeless or poorly designed economy lends itself to the flourishing of vice.

There are a number of directions I could go with this thought, but for now I’ll limit myself to reflecting on a couple basic positive recommendations about what can help keep an economy moving its people in a good direction.

First, private property. Publicly owned spaces and resources can be a great good as well, but private property, most of the time, will be the sine qua non for a virtuous regime.

And I don’t mean merely the permission for private property to exist. I mean an economy designed to make probable the accumulation of a reasonable amount of property by the great majority of those who want it.

I’m thinking of an economy that prioritizes the ability of a family to own a house, or of an individual to start a small business, in a way that strengthens them against the natural advantages of the big businesses and the big landlords.

People make a big deal these days about income inequality, but I think that is largely a misplaced focus. An income, no matter how large, can be interrupted, at which point anything depending on that income will likewise come crashing down. Something owned, by contrast, will provide security even if a source of income were to be cut off (and I mean something owned outright, not something financed, though financing can of course be an important step on the road to ownership).

Secondly, opposition to the extremes of poverty and wealth. It is counterproductive for the moral health of a regime, and of its citizens, if there are people living without enough money to subsist properly, and likewise if there are people whose wealth is grossly disproportionate to what they could possibly need.

The causes of poverty, and also the causes of greatly excessive wealth, are manifold and complex. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to either. But taking steps to resolve these problems should, it seems to me, help bring about an economy that is not opposed to the life of virtue.