Saturday, April 25, 2020

Finding happiness in lockdown

The wise country of New Zealand, which I currently call home, has been locked down for the last few weeks. It reminds me of the time we locked ourselves within the walls of Athens to protect ourselves from Sparta.
How many times I have argued that happiness is not to be found in shopping malls and other materialist pursuits, I cannot recall. Over the centuries I have talked to many people about seeking happiness in simpler pleasures. And now we have that opportunity. It seems to me that if we can let go of our attachment to material things, true happiness can be found.
Let us not cling to the things that we can no longer have. Bringing those things back is beyond our sphere of control. Let us focus instead on what we can control. Walking in the sun. Talking with friends. The things that make us truly human.
One day those other things will come back -- brought back by people who control them. And when they return, we may find that we don't need them as much as we once thought.
- S

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sphere of control

Living in times of trouble can bring out the best and worst in people. It can also reveal emotional reasoning that leads to anxiety. I have been meditating on this, and today my friends, if I may have your patience, I shall share my thoughts.

Consider the anxiety you experience if you have to perform in public. Perhaps you have to make an important speech. But why are you anxious? Usually it is because you are worried about what other people will think. You may believe that if something goes wrong, then people would think badly of you. And if they think badly of you, you would be a less worthy person. The emotional reasoning can be expressed quite simply.

1. If I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person

2. I don’t want to be a worthless person

3. So I must have the approval of others (from 1, 2)

4. Because I must have the approval of others, If something could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others, then I must constantly think about it and not relax

5. My speech could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others

6. So, I must constantly think about it and not relax (feelings of anxiety) (from 4, 5)


But why be anxious over something that is beyond your control? We have very little influence over the thoughts of other people. They will think whatever they like, and they are free to do so. Now, you don’t know that your speech will go wrong, but if it does, who is to say that you would lose the approval of the audience? They may admire your courage. And consider the thought that you’d be a worthless person if you don’t have the approval of others. Why base your reasoning on this rule? It can be easily refuted. For example, I imagine during World War 2, someone who hid Jewish people in their attic would not have had the approval of the Nazis, but they most certainly would be a worthy person. And very courageous. So the rule: if I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person seems to be questionable.

Another way to look at your speech would be to accept that the audiences’ thoughts are beyond your control and you should instead focus on what is within your control. Write the best speech you can. Speak as clearly as is within your ability. Then walk away knowing that you did your best. If someone makes a negative comment, you can control your response to their comment. Smile and say “you should see me on a bad day”. But also learn from their comment, if it is reasonable. Learning is within your control. Your interpretation of the situation is within your control.

Consider this. I might say that people shouldn’t die from viruses. That there should be a cure. That scientists should be working faster and politicians should do something different. And I might get very upset while making these statements. But these are all outside of my sphere of influence. Who am I to demand that the world is such that people don’t die from viruses? The world is as it is. My statement is a symptom of the demand for perfection. But if I demand perfection from an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, then disappointment will be my friend. Instead, I should accept that the world is not always going to be the way I want it to be and that a great many things are beyond my control. But I do have control over my own responses to these issues. I can avoid public places and do my best to avoid catching the virus and slow its spread.

Some people might respond to this position by suggesting that in accepting imperfection, we slow or stop improvement. After all, we want to make the world a better place, right? Such wise people make a good point. I respond by agreeing that we should try our best to improve the world. But that we should work within our sphere of influence and not ruminate on things that are beyond our control. Recognize what you can do and accept that there are things that our not within your control.

- Socrates

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Finding happiness during a pandemic

I recall, many many years ago, a troubled time in Athens. The Spartans were on the March and we had been ordered to retreat within the city walls. You moderns would call this a ‘lockdown’. It seemed to Pericles to be our best chance of surviving. However, many didn’t. And not because of Sparta. Our dear city was ravaged by a disease. A plague.

I believe 100,000 people died in the outbreak. By the gods, I can still see the look of worry on the faces of my friends. Nobody understood what was going on. Tyche, (Fortuna) was not smiling on us at that time. But we got through. The plague ended and we rebuilt. Insofar as the future can resemble the past, the same can be true today.

You are more fortunate than we Ancients. You have an understanding of how disease spreads. We knew nothing of this. If we had your knowledge, perhaps more of us would have survived. The idea of keeping physical distance may be contrary to our human nature, but your knowledge tells you that it is the best thing to do in this situation.

Many folk try to find happiness in a shopping mall. Now that you can’t seek it there, you may feel saddened. But is happiness really to be found in the mall? Perhaps we have been over estimating how much happiness consumer pursuits can bring. And perhaps we have been under estimating how much happiness can be found in a simple walk in nature or game with a loved one.

I know many people cannot currently walk in nature. We are locked down. Under curfew. But I believe some lockdown rules allow for a walk around the street for exercise. No congregations, of course. Use this time for quiet contemplation. Enjoy the fresh air.

There is no rush to be anywhere during a lockdown. Is this not the most fortunate way to be? You can read a book. You can stay up late and look at the stars. You can immerse yourself in music. Learn how to appreciate a symphony.

We are undoubtedly finding this time challenging. And much of this is out of our control. And so be it. Let the universe be what it will be. Trust that it inclines towards the good and spend your time focusing on what is within your control. Your impression of things is within your control. Your decision on how to spend your time at home is within your control. Your happiness is within your control.

Scientists are focusing on what is within their control; running experiments and developing treatments.

During our Athenian plague we learned a lot about how fragile a population can be. You are being reminded of this. But you can survive. Stay at home and fill your time. Let go of the consumerist route to happiness. You can find it within yourself.

- Socrates

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Can you lose at life?

I have been carefully examining the language you moderns use in day-to-day life. As I am a slow learner, I have found myself confused in trying to understand how you view the world. It seems to me that you consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. You speak of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life. And when someone ‘wins’ you often deem the win to be deserved. For example, I have heard people say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose it follows that the poor also deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? We ancients didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, we wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead we would suggest that the will of Tyche, our god of fortune, had not been in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Their name for Tyche was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, we would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than a losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. We wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves his win. After all, to win he must have played the game better than his opponent. And we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces and played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem to be overstating things to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, let us speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

— Socrates

Friday, November 22, 2019

Does technology make us more intelligent?

I recently engaged a wise young man in a discussion about technology. He asserted that technology is making people more intelligent. As always, I was eager to learn more. The following is a recollection of part of our dialogue...

- Socrates

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sombre Sports

This morning I noticed a sadness in the city. As it so happened, the country’s team did not win an important sporting game. I found it interesting to observe the extent to which people’s happiness was dependent upon the actions of a sporting team so many miles away. An event which we have no influence over. It is almost as if people are thinking that a loss is not how the world *should* be. Such a thought, accompanied by the reality of a loss seemed to result in a dissonance and a sense of loss and general sadness.
It seems to me that demanding that the world ought to be a certain way is guaranteed to produce disappointment. And demanding perfection from an imperfect sports team is rather foolish. There are no perfect sports teams, for if there were, sport would not exist.
Perhaps people should seek happiness in things they have more control over, like going for a walk and enjoying fresh air. Better than leaving it in the hands of Tyche or Fortuna.
— Socrates

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Agree to disagree?

My friends! Yesterday I was presented with a common response to a line of questioning. It is a response I have encountered many times during my long search for wisdom. And I believe it hinders our progress. During a dialogue with a friend, I was asked to “agree to disagree”.
We had been debating a certain metaphysical claim–a claim that I did not find entirely convincing. I had proceeded to examine the claim in the manner of which I am most familiar: by asking questions. My interlocutor had interpreted my questioning as a belief in the falsity of his claim–perhaps a belief in the opposite of his claim–and after finding himself unable to provide answers, he had suggested that we “agree to disagree” about the issue. I was unsure what he meant, but I took his request to mean that we abandon our dialogue. And so it was. We each walked away carrying with us our existing beliefs about the issue. But if, as implied by the request that we “agree to disagree”, we cannot both be right, one of us must be wrong. Which one? We may never know.
Now, if my friend is unable to convince me that his belief is true then either it is false or he needs more convincing arguments. Either way, progress could have been made by continuing our dialogue. Simply abandoning our discussion by suggesting that we “agree to disagree” seems to me to leave us no wiser than we were at the start of the dialogue.
I have, for my entire life, maintained that I know nothing. But like everyone else, I have beliefs. And many of those beliefs are likely to be false. It is through dialogue that I test my beliefs and the beliefs of others. And I do this to move closer to knowledge. If knowledge is good, then I claim that we should continue our discussions and not simply defer examination of important issues by suggesting that we “agree to disagree”.
— Socrates

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Objective Good

My time over the last few months has been spent conversing with a variety of people. Many people make bold claims about a subject that I believe to be most important: ethics. The claims some people make are similar to the claims made by an old acquaintance of mine, Protagoras. Put simply, they are moral relativists, believing that there is no objective good and that matters of right or wrong are no more than personal opinion.
It seems to me that following this thought may lead to the view that the actions of people do not really matter. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then we cannot say that it truly matters if a student cheats, or if thief steals property, or if a murderer goes on a killing spree. But when I make this proposal to the wise people with whom I converse, they object and declare that these things do matter. So what can we deduce from these two premises? Perhaps a tension in the relativist position. Let us take a closer look:
  1. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter
  2. Our actions do matter
  3. Therefore, there is an objective good, or right, or wrong
This argument is valid, but if one of the premises is false, it is unsound. So, is premise #2 true? Well, the people I have been dialoguing with believe that our actions do matter. So, they think premise #2 is true. If my friends maintain that there is no objective good, they must therefore refute premise #1. In other words, they need to show that it is false that if there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter. To do so, they need to find an example in which our actions matter and yet there is no way to objectively measure an action's goodness.
But if an action matters, then it must be good or bad, correct? Otherwise, it wouldn't matter. So finding an example in which our actions matter, while there is no way to measure an action's goodness, is to find an example in which our actions matter when there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. But we cannot find an example in which our actions matter if there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. So something may have gone wrong. Either the relativist position is problematic, or my reasoning is mistaken.
I shall continue my dialogues with my wise friends and allow them to educate me. I know nothing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Thinking makes it so

Reading through some texts, I found an interesting passage. It appears in a play by an author named William Shakespeare. The quote reads: "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so". This sounded familiar to me, and with good reason. A philosopher closer to my time named Seneca said the same thing. But what does it mean? It sounds suspiciously relativist and reminds me of a similar claim made by Protagoras, who lived during my time in Athens. He said "Man is the measure of all things", meaning that truth or falsity is dependent upon one's subjective point of view. Now, Seneca was not talking about objective truth. He was talking about moral action and values. And I agree with his statement, in a sense, but I do not agree with relativism. So I worry that there is tension in my beliefs. Consider this syllogism:

P1. (premise) If there is no objective good or bad, then good or bad is based on subjective thought

P2. (premise) There is no objective good or bad (Seneca)

C. (conclusion) Therefore, good or bad is based on subjective thought

But I think the conclusion is false. I have argued many times that moral good or bad is not subjective, which means it is objective:

P1. (premise) If there is no objective good or bad, then good or bad is based on subjective thought

P2. (premise) It is not true that good or bad is based on subjective thought

C. (conclusion) Therefore, there is objective good or bad.

So, I wonder what Seneca meant. How can I reconcile my belief that there is objective good and bad with his claim that "thinking makes it so"? Perhaps he was merely talking about the feelings we have towards certain events. An event may be objectively good or bad, but my feeling about the event is subjective. It is up to me to respond to the event. So I believe he meant that whether we feel angry or upset about an event is the result of our thinking about things.

-- Socrates.

** Update:
To answer a question that was posed "How do I know that the world is divided into objective and subjective things", I answer that I do not know. I know very little. But here I am analyzing the relativist's claim that there is no objective good and that good and bad are subjective. I am testing my beliefs against this claim. My beliefs are not yet knowledge.
- S


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Accounting for accountability

Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby



I have noticed that you moderns are constantly having to defend yourselves. It appears to happen in many workplaces -- even within the admirable teaching profession. But you don't use the word defence. You use the word accountability. Employers command that their workers are held to account for their time and actions. Accountability means being held to account. When a worker is in the process of being held to account, he or she is essentially defending his or her activity and use of time.

It seems to me that I shouldn't need to defend myself unless I am under attack or being accused of something. Therefore, implicit in modern accountability is accusation or attack. I am no stranger to this. My life ended after I failed to defend myself adequately to a jury of 501 citizens. They held me to account for my actions in Athens and found me guilty.

When I hear employed people talking about accountability in their workplace, I wonder about the nature of the accusation or attack that they must defend themselves against. Often it appears to relate to their use of time and the decisions they make. These poor workers are instructed to collect evidence to justify their activities because modern workplaces are built upon accountability. An implicit accusation exists against workers. Your workplaces seem to be based on low trust and suspicion.

P1. (premise) If we worked in high trust environments we wouldn't have to gather evidence to cover ourselves against implicit accusations against us.

P2. (premise) We do need to gather evidence to cover ourselves against implicit accusations against us.

C. (conclusion) We work in low trust environments


The more time I spend with you moderns, the more questions occur to me. I wonder whether basing work environments on accountability leads to happy workers who are willing to take risks, accept responsibility, and love their jobs; or whether it leads to nervous workers who play it safe, and dislike their jobs. What traits do employers desire in their workers? As an unknowledgeable man, I am eager to learn more.

-- Socrates