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052 - On Role Models - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Those who see much while believing they know little are much rarer and more valuable than those who believe they know much and consequently see little.
Alp farms dotted in green landscape - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Like hikers caught in a sudden snowstorm, Deuteros, we are easily led off the path we wish to follow. Despite strenuous effort and determined gait, we can find ourselves after a lengthy march only to have wandered in a great circle and ending up back where we started. When it comes to matters of desire versus reason, wishful thinking is no guide at all. What we need is the philosophical equivalent of a satellite high up in space, untouchable yet reaching out to us with a steady signal to remind us at all times not only of our current position, but our heading and speed as well. Where are we to find such GPS guides for the soul?

Consider first whether the truth of a proposition depends on who is propounding it. This is not as easy to see through as it seems, so let’s spend some moments here before we move on. At one extreme we have acknowledged experts, which is to say people who have devoted serious time and attention to a topic. You will identify them by their credentials and degrees. Surely, we should grant the expert the greatest degree of credibility? I am reminded of what Napoleon supposedly said about the practice of law, namely that it sharpens the mind by making it narrow. Those who see everything through a single lens miss all that is outside their immediate gaze. It is when you are in the midst of the most credible, my dear Deuteros, that you should most hold fast to your credulity. Experts are among the easiest to fool, not least when they are fooling themselves in pursuit of publishing. Thus forewarned, you will more clearly see the signs of their folly, which are to be found in the fact that they are either speaking or writing.

At the other end of this uneven seesaw, we find the great mass of humanity. I do not doubt that many have the talent and ability to uncover truths if they would but put in the effort. Alas, the easiest road to travel is the one that leads down the path of least resistance. So not having the inclination to study a subject deeply themselves, they incline to the best available proxy: what does everyone else think? If we can find it on the front pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post, why should we tax ourselves to travel a step further?

The absolute truth of a matter is irrelevant if everyone in your neighborhood believes the opposite. This is how we find supposedly serious people debating which way the weight of consensus opinion tips. As if such light things as opinions could be tallied up to create something of substance! A googol of zeros does not add up to more than one hundred ones multiplied by one another. And yet a single dissenting voice can reveal a previously unseen flaw that renders entire foundations of science unstable.

Who are these few who can, with a word, end debate? Or if they do not bring it to its terminus, who can shift the train of discussion in an entirely new direction? The truly wise do not come in common guise, Deuteros, although we can call forth some common properties among them. One who sees much and says little is more likely to scatter treasures after them than trifles. The Buddha identifies their opposite number when he reminds us:

One is not wise because one speaks much.

Those who see much while believing they know little are much rarer and more valuable than those who believe they know much and consequently see little.

In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu describes the clever fighter as

one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for his courage.

If you have clawed back from the brink through mighty effort, but it was your own actions that placed you first in peril, why should we celebrate your heroics? If you agonize over every choice and second-guess yourself the moment you decide, are you a better arbiter than the one who silently chooses the correct path and simply implements?

The most virtuous role models are not calling out to lead. They do not call out at all, because they do not believe their right to speak outweighs any other’s. You will see their handiwork in their actions, not their proclamations. They know that they are no farther than a single step from a fall, so do not claim to be perfect. This, even though you never see them place a false step.

“But you still have not told me,” you cry, “where and how to find these gurus. If they are not among the ranks of experts, nor to be found among the bestsellers list, where should I turn to for guidance?” I have two suggestions, Deuteros, and you will not be surprised at the first, which is to look within. All that is good (and not coincidentally all that is bad), is discerned by your reason. You are your own most trusted guru, for none knows you better. If you slow down enough to query the truth of your honest heart and your well-ordered mind, you will know the wisdom of your actions before you lift a finger. But we rush to action without thought when we should be rushing to pass judgment on our actions.

If you must look without, then look to that which has passed the test of time. I don’t mean what passes for consensus opinion, but rather that which bears up under the weight of the ages. Human nature bedeviled our ancient forebears as much as it bedevils us now. And because they had both great tribulations and few distractions, our ancestors busied themselves with the enduring questions of what it means to live a good life in accordance with one’s nature and reason.

And if we find ourselves still returning to their answers more than 2,000 years later, the chances are good they gave good answers. Again I caution you not to be misled by a name. As much as Seneca illuminates, he sometimes sheds light where it does not help us. As poignant as are Marcus Aurelius’ meditations, he was reminding himself of some things that we do not need repeated. And even the sayings of Confucius and the Buddha are but map and guidepost, not the territory itself. Study the greats carefully so that you can imagine them standing before you when you are contemplating your own actions. Look to them as role models, not for what they say, but for how they would act.

Be well.

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