094 - On Precepts (Sayings) - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You know that I have at times made comments critical of psychology. I should be as critical in my comments of philosophy, Deuteros, for the root cause of the problem in both cases is the nature of people. In both fields, our mistakes in both theory and practice come from assuming that two people in the same situation will behave in the same way, or that even a single person will act similarly when the same situation is repeated.
Psychology at least has gained popular attention and broad appeal while Stoic philosophy remains the dusty preserve of the solitary academic. Why the difference? Both are after all concerned with the workings of the mind and with understanding the motivations behind our actions. They spring from the same deep-seated sense of wondering, “If only we could understand why we do what we do, could we find a way to be enduringly happy?” If we begin with similar topics and we pursue similar aims, the conclusions of the two fields and our corresponding prescriptions to adherents surely differ. Psychology tells us that nothing is our fault, while philosophy tells us that everything is.
The psychologist will say that we are creatures formed as a result of our environments, starting with our childhood experiences and traumas and continuing on through to the inputs and stimuli we receive every day. The path to happiness lies in first making sense of our pasts and then in carefully controlling our environments to ensure we are confronted only with surroundings that lift us up. At a minimum, we shall avoid people and situations that bring us down.
The philosopher says that we are creatures formed of our minds, and that the path to happiness lies in ordering our minds to follow reason in any environment. People should not seek to control their circumstances but to control their thinking about circumstances. We do not flee from hardship. Rather we see that overcoming hard times can be more beneficial to wellbeing than being surrounded with ease and luxury. Is it any wonder that philosophy molders while psychology thrives?
Which doctors are more eagerly greeted by their patients? The ones who say sternly “You need to make some serious lifestyle changes, because the path you’re heading down is going to lead to inevitable sadness, sickness, and decay,” or the ones who whip out their prescription pads with a smile, saying “Good news! You currently show signs of A, B, and C, and in a few years left untreated you will almost certainly develop X and Y. But I can prescribe you this small army of pills, taken twice daily with meals, and you’ll be right as rain.”
Do you doubt that most people would rather take a pill that merely conceals their symptoms than undertake a course of treatment that will result in their lasting cure but only if they put in serious effort? I say for all their wisdom, philosophers have fundamentally misunderstood human nature if they think their bitter medicine will be easily swallowed. Is this the reason that sayings and precepts are in such widespread use when we talk of philosophy to the masses? If our whole treatment is too much for the patient to take at one time, perhaps we can dole out our medicine in bite-sized pieces. Taken individually, the maxims of philosophy are lighter fare, and easier to consume, remember, and repeat.
And so now we come to the question whether these treatments are any real help against the underlying maladies humankind suffers from, or whether we too are quacks purveying snake oil to unwitting rubes at the country fair. When we dispense philosophical precepts, do we only smooth over symptoms and leave our mortally ill patients not only uncured but unaware that they are still terminal?
We can approach our answer from two sides, top down and bottom up. Starting first from the lofty heights of the philosopher who has achieved wisdom. This person knows that reason is the only virtue, and that following the judgment of their well-ordered mind is the path to happiness. Such a person has no need of maxims, because they need but consult their reason to know the true value of all things in every situation. Their course of action is not prescribed by others because they are the physician of their own soul at all times.
The point of sayings is not to cure the philosopher who has attained reason, but to help raise up all others who are not yet safely underway. Let us thus consider the situation from the bottom up, from the perspective of the condition we all find ourselves in much of the time, which is that of needing help. To one who needs help seeing, to say nothing of acting, does a simple saying provide valuable guidance by lighting the way?
I assume for the purposes of our discussion, dear Deuteros, that our patients are desirous of seeing their way out of suffering and troubles. I say this knowing all too well that there are none so blind as those who do not want to see. But for the willfully blind neither precept, nor theory, nor practice in any discipline will bear lasting fruit. So I limit myself to the case of the willing student with an attentive ear.
For such students, sayings are a sweet starter that whets the appetite. Not fully satisfying in themselves, but providing encouragement to consume more. We should all be encouraged to think on useful topics and be given a helpful nudge in the right direction. The hardest part of many tasks is to start, and if the saying prompts us into motion, then it has already served a useful purpose.
Once started, we benefit from support along the way. Give me a tip on how to improve my running form while I am running, and I am delighted to hear it. Tell me how to conserve energy, improve my endurance, stand straighter, step quicker – there is no end to the advice on many small things that I will gladly take on if I have the slightest sense it will help me in my current pursuit. Though neither a new running shoe with a carbon sole, or a T-shirt with sweat wicking fabric, nor a new electrolyte drink will make me into a champion by themselves, they each give me a helpful push to continue. And if that push is only in my mind, but prompts me to start, then is that not where the proper motivation to undertake any great deed ultimately begins?
A saying will not do the hard work for you. It can only offer support. But though sayings are not complete, and we ourselves have to lift and put one foot in front of the other, who does not welcome support at every stage? Whether you’re just starting out, or nearing the finish line, you still appreciate the clapping and calls of encouragement during the race.
It is no doubt most beneficial to have good examples in the form of other people, personal teachers as it were, to show us the way. The next best thing to having good examples by your side is to have precepts never far from mind. These are the written condensation of the best examples of people across time. We no longer have access to Plato and Socrates, or to the painted porch of the Stoics, but we have access to their sayings. If it helps you to think on the wisdom behind the words, then imagine someone saying them aloud to you, and having a conversation with them in your head.
Learning to follow reason more often than emotion is a race we must run slowly and steadily. I always say that it is not your speed that matters but simply that you continue to progress. Your steps will fall more lightly the more you practice. The more you are reminded to practice, for example by keeping a saying close to hand, the more you reinforce and stay your course.
Will a life lived purely by sayings result in your becoming wise in all things? Or is more required, for example the study of doctrines, or theories, underlying our philosophy? I will take up this topic another time. For now, I want to sound a note of caution in case I have made the path to progress sound easy to find and trivial to maintain.
Look around, Deuteros, and ask yourself how comfortable you feel that humankind is safely out of range from the barbarism we have descended to over and over throughout history. Take these words of Seneca from 2,000 years ago, and ask if he could not have been writing in 2020:
There are many who set fire to cities … no one withstood their attack; but they themselves could not withstand desire for power and the impulse to cruelty; at the time when they seemed to be hounding others, they were themselves hounded. Do you believe that the man was in his senses who could begin by devasting Greece, the land where he received his education?
Replace “Greece” with “the United States” and you have your description of modern critical theory, Antifa, BLM, QAnon, and cancel culture.
When Seneca reminds us that the path to happiness is never found in making others unhappy, he is admonishing us to heal ourselves before looking to change the world. When we are surrounded by burning and chaos, we should avoid the flames and consume the good advice that philosophy so abundantly offers in the form of sayings.