101 - On Making Plans - Moral Letters for Modern Times
If I have asked you to remember anything, it is that we cannot control our fates. Fortune gives and Fortune takes away, from health to wealth to life itself. Because we do not have the ability to control much that will happen to us, the Stoic philosophy is to focus on what you can control. This, we say, starts with our thoughts.
We may not be able to control the weather, but we can use our reason to determine that we will not be downcast because it is overcast, that we will not weep bitter tears because it rains. Following the chain of logic to its ultimate conclusion, we will not weep at the end of our own lives or prevent fear from living our lives.
If we do not need specific conditions for happiness, Deuteros, and we concede that the future is uncertain, does this same logic dictate that it is futile to plan for the future? I could give you a hundred examples of well-laid plans gone awry, and you could give me a hundred of your own in return. Friends cut down at the peak of their powers, others deserving but never achieving success. The healthiest-seeming companion carried off at a stroke. To put it bluntly, you could die today so why worry about tomorrow?
I think there are two reasons to be less strict than the Stoics, even though we agree with the starting proposition that only death is certain, and everything else is subject to the whims of chance. But are we so fragile that we cannot live with uncertainty? Does the fact that tomorrow will be different from today in unpredictable ways offer up hope as much as it does despair? Luck comes in many flavors, and good luck, great luck, and the best of luck are among those in abundant evidence. When we say that Fate can be cruel, are we being too harsh in our judgment if we do not also admit that Fate can be kind?
So yes, I do not need my luck to turn for the better to be able to live a good life, but I am open to the possibility that I will be lucky in some things. And just as I will not permit the bad luck I am sure to receive ruin me, nor will I be undone by the favors of Fortune that come my way. I will use the same well-ordered reason to place the proper value on external things. Just as I do not fear death, I do not shun success, good luck, and prosperity.
“But you have not answered the question,” you object, “and are only talking about dealing with events outside our control, whether they be good or bad.” You are right, my dear Deuteros, and I appreciate your keeping me on track. The question was whether to plan for the future, knowing that it is unpredictable. I needed to lay this additional foundation for my answer, but I am now ready to continue.
You would readily concede, I think, that people can make their situations worse by their actions. Would you be so stingy as to refuse them the ability to make things better? And if we can make situations both better and worse, surely there is no rationale to strive for anything but the best, is there? The fact that you may not achieve all that you plan for is reason only to be prepared for failure, not failing to plan and refusing to try. Knowing that we can make things worse by inaction as much as by our actions, I say it is our duty to plan for the future and to do our best in all things.
Particularly when we raise our eyes from ourselves and remember that we have an influence on those around us, we should be spurred to action. Provided we have helped ourselves by coming into possession of our well-ordered minds, we can help countless others and make the world a better place. Who has potential to do more good in the world: the monk who shuts themselves in a cave and achieves perfect peace of mind, or the flawed but striving amateur who directs their efforts to aiding broader society of which they are a part?
“You have convinced me on the first point,” you say, “that uncertainty itself is no reason to retreat into inaction. But you said there were two reasons to be less strict than the Stoics. Have I missed the second?” Nothing escapes your attention, Deuteros, though mine obviously wanders. The second reason is that we live in vastly different times than those of 2,000 years ago.
To read Seneca, Aurelius, and Plutarch is to read of unending human hardship: torture, exile, the gladiator games, plots and murder, sickness and suicide. And this was not the fate of just the ancients. After the fall of Rome there followed a thousand years of darkness before the embers of enlightenment rekindled. In the middle of the 17thcentury, Thomas Hobbes spoke truly when he described the natural state of humankind without political community:
continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
It was not my point to depress you here, but to lift your spirits, so let me get back on track. The condition for the great majority of people alive today could not be more different than that of our ill-treated ancestors. Most of us can expect to live much longer lives, free of disease, and free of the predations of our fellow people that plagued humanity for so long. Am I so bold as to say we have conquered chance? Not at all, and you know me better. We are still subject to all the same whims of Fate, but with one important difference, which is that our odds are so much better.
Here is where we must take the statistician and actuary to our sides. To be a Roman emperor was a most dangerous wish. They had a better than 60% chance of being murdered on the job. Today a person living in the U.S. has something like a 1 in 20,000 chance of being murdered in a given year. Certainly not nothing, but better than an emperor. Reading the tea leaves by using the distributions of large numbers, our actuaries prepare life tables telling us our probability of death by age. What a wonderful and revealing table it is.
Let’s say you have reached the age of 39, which is the average age reached by the great mass of humanity across time. Today, your odds of dying in your 39th year are just 0.2%, half that if you are female. You can take a full two further decades before your odds of dying in a year reach double digits: at 59, your chances rise to 10%, 6% for females. And you can add yet another twenty years before you are facing the coin toss that Roman emperors would have gladly taken because it was an improvement on their odds: at 79, you have a 52% chance of dying that year, 38% if you are female. Writing these figures to you, I am forced to conclude that your only legitimate modern complaint is to be born male, at least when it comes to longevity and risk of death. Why even the centenarian has but one chance in three of dying, the same chance a Roman emperor had of surviving their reign. No, we are not in a position to complain about our portion of life.
So to recap the argument and conclude before I have too greatly increased the risk that you stop reading. We have excellent chances of living long lives. Those lives are still beset with uncertainty, but it is not the kind that our ancestors faced. We can do both good or harm by our actions, and the only choice following right reason is to seek to do good. If we plan for the future we may see our plans thwarted but we may also see them succeed. The greatest good can be accomplished by setting great plans. Thus it is our duty to plan for the future.