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I Want To Read More About Philosophy…Where Do I Start?

Hello everyone.

I got an email from a listener who’s interested in reading more about philosophy, but felt that sense of dread when they gazed down into the yawning abyss of the Barnes and Noble philosophy section. The kind of dread that makes you want to watch some kind of pawn shop related reality TV show and never think about philosophy again. It’s a good question — where is the best place to start reading independently?

Here’s what they said:

 

Hi Mr. West,
I’ve been listening to your show for about a year now, and I absolutely love it! Philosophize This is the only podcast I follow religiously, and I’ve worked up the courage to ask a question. I’m a high school senior in Illinois, and my small school doesn’t have the resources to field a philosophy class. I plan on attending college next year, and I would like to practice reading some philosophy before I leave. I tried to dive right in, but I found myself getting lost in the language. Do you have any suggestions on how to get started? Thanks for making your show. I really appreciate it.

 

I’ve been there before. This is me diving into most topics:

 

When this listener told me the book they tried to pick up and read was The Prince by Machiavelli, things started to come into focus. I’ve made this mistake so many times I’m pretty sure either Barnes OR Noble has an extra wing built onto their third home thanks to me.

 

Here’s what I said:

Knowing where to start can be tough, but in my opinion one thing is for certain: don’t start with source texts! 🙂
 
What I would give to see the number of curious, open-minded youngsters over the years that decided they were going to try reading some philosophy, only to have a boring professor or a book written 400 years ago make them wish they could frisbee-throw a 400 year old book at a professor’s face.
 
My advice is to stay away from original sources for at least a good year. In reality, depending on how much you’re reading, it’s more like two years. The reason is: these books weren’t written yesterday. These things have been translated and re-translated and interpreted and honestly were originally written by people that lived hundreds of years ago that think about everything in the world in a very different way than you or I do.
 
Of course there are exceptions to this; you can point to a sporadic, exceptional thinker that tried their hardest to make their work digestable to people that weren’t necessarily philosophy professors– but you still don’t get the whole story. At best you don’t understand everything and at worst you may misunderstand everything! Most of the time to get anything meaningful and accurate out of a source text, it’s crucial you understand a TON about a lot of auxiliary stuff that may seem to have little to do with what was actually being written about. Things like:
 

What questions were being asked in philosophy at the time?
What were the specific connotations of the words used at the time?
What did the author THINK those connotations were?
What questions did the author think were worth answering?
Where did the author get their information? Was it accurate?
What major historical events were going on? What minor, highly specific events were going on locally?
What was the author’s personality like?

 

I’ll stop listing these because I think you get the point. So many times I’ve been stoked about picking up a new book and learning about a thinker and it’s so tempting to say to myself, “Oh Machiavelli is living during the age of post-Medieval city-state building and is writing a field manual for getting things off the ground…I GOT THIS!”
 
But there is so much more subtext that a modern reader is conferring onto these thinkers that they don’t realize– so many assumptions we make as though these thinkers are writing their work in the 21st century. I guess this is a long winded way of saying that reading source texts are a waste of time anyway until you reach a certain understanding of the general themes of history and philosophy– so don’t feel bad!
 
Where specifically to start I think comes down to the level of understanding you already have about philosophy.
 
If you are JUST starting out, you should read books that talk about philosophy merely as an institution. Something that looks at it broadly as the history of human thought. The reason I say this is because I’ve found it’s really helpful to have some sort of skeleton in place that you can add meat to– an understanding of the broad movements in philosophy. Otherwise, it’s almost like reading the dictionary. Nothing you read has any context. It just becomes this flurry of random facts that you don’t care about. The trick is CARING about what you’re trying to learn. A couple examples of books like this are:
 

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

 
Once you have a general idea and want to start tackling specific topics that interest you, my advice would be to try reading modern authors who have written contemporary books about these older thinkers. Reason being: for every philosopher out there, some desperate ex-philosophy student on welfare has built a career out of knowing practically everything there is to know about them. These people throughout their entire lives have largely done the leg work that I referenced before, and they can be an enormous help when it comes to avoiding misunderstandings and knowing which ideas were important.
 
At that point, once you’ve listened to enough of these people give commentary on a topic, then I think it’s fun to go back and read the source. It’s so fun, it’s all I ever do. Just kidding, I don’t read.
 
Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.
 
Stephen

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10 Things The Stoics Can Teach You About Being A Happier Person

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After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his giant empire broke into pieces and descended into a long period of political turmoil with rulers constantly jockying for power. This period, known as the Hellenistic Age, saw the rise of multiple schools of philosophy, all of which had at their core the task of trying to quell the anxiety caused by the political events that they had no control over. Stoicism was one of these schools.

 

Stoicism was for everyone. If you were making a late night infomercial trying to convince people that Stoicism was right for them, no matter which walk of life they came from, you couldn’t ask for three people with more diversity between them than Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to plead your case. Known as the three “crown jewels” of Stoicism, these men dedicated their lives to applying Stoicism to the adversity that faced them, and their brilliant insights and techniques can teach us all something about the human condition.

 

1. Don’t Enslave Yourself to Annoying People

 

There aren’t many people more qualified to talk about feeling enslaved than the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus; he spent his entire childhood as a slave in the city of Rome. For most people, the thought of being enslaved is the kind of thing that makes you want to curl into the fetal position. To be forcefully put to work and treated as the property of someone else is one of the worst things that could ever happen to you. This is why it baffled Epictetus that everyone around him voluntarily puts themselves into slavery dozens of times per day. Epictetus said:

 

“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

If someone dropped a coconut on your head, tied your body up and forced you to be their slave, you would probably be pretty upset about that–you’d at least leave them a bad review on Yelp. Yet, as we go throughout our lives and people inevitably do things that inconvenience us or say things that annoy us, we allow them to mentally enslave us. We react to them. We argue with them and tell them how wrong they are. We try to find some way to “get back” at them. Just as a slave master would chain your leg to a drain pipe, we allow these random people to chain our minds to a certain distressing train of thought. But make no mistake: You have a choice!

2. Choose Reasonable Expectations

Marcus Aurelius said,

 

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!”

We all know someone who is a die hard sports fan. This guy has been a fan for years; they know all the players, they have their own autographed jersey, and every once in a while they like to paint their stomach blue and scream like an absolute lunatic. We’ve all seen this guy erupt off the couch in excitement when their favorite player hits the game winning shot, but we’ve also seen this guy scream red-faced at the TV or treat the people around him differently out of frustration.
The problem is, this guy is allowing himself to be made either happy or angry by the decisions of a select few people that don’t know that he’s a fan, they don’t care about his opinion, and they would trade his favorite player in a heartbeat if it meant a better bottom-line for them. The Stoics would point out that he has absolutely zero control over anything that’s happening on the screen, so why would he allow himself to be so negatively affected by it? They would say that his frustration comes from unrealistic expectations. When the referee makes a bad call, he reacts with anger because he holds the referee to an impossible expectation–that the referee will never make a mistake. The Stoics would point out that this guy yells at the TV, week after week, knowing that referees sometimes make bad calls, but pretending as though they don’t. And to what end?

3. Pre-Meditate Those Expectations

Lucky for us, the Stoics offer a solution. Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Philosopher and the once Emporer of Rome, wrote a nice summary of this commonly practiced Stoic solution. He wrote:

 

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Have you ever seen a Buddhist sit quietly and meditate as an observer of their own thoughts in an attempt to understand them better? The Stoics propose something extremely similar, but more proactive. We know adversity is going to hit us. We know little annoyances sting us all day long. If we know that some people are bad drivers, why do we still get angry when they inevitably cut us off on the freeway? The Stoics recommend that every morning you should wake up, sit quietly and be incredibly pessimistic.

 

Repeatedly tell yourself about how the person on the freeway is going to cut you off and that the referee is going to make a bad call and cost your team the game. By doing this, they thought you could retrain your mind to have more realistic expectations. Think about it: if you expect the ref to make a bad call, and he does, you feel the same; if you expect the ref to make a bad call, and he doesn’t, you are pleasantly surprised. The idea of taking a realistic look at what we can or can’t control is a hallmark of Stoic ethics.

4. You Are a Mind That is Operating This Bag of Chemicals You Call a Body.

As humans, we are survival oriented creatures. We like stability. We like predictability. This is why people typically have a fear of the unknown. We like to think that we are in complete control of things like our body or our bank account balance or our reputation, but the Stoics thought we should recognize how tremendously out of our control those things really are. Someone could run a smear campaign against you and ruin your reputation. Someone could steal your identity and take every penny in your bank account. Your body could have a brain aneurism at any second of the day, and basing our happiness on something that we ultimately have little control over is a recipe for failure.
Epictetus said,

 

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”

Stoicism teaches that we don’t have control over anything external to us. The only thing we can control is how we react to what happens. The ultimate goal is to acheive a state of complete mental tranquility and the key to acheiving it is virtue. The ultimate goal of Stoic virtue was to live in accordance with nature. But to the Stoics, being in agreement with Nature doesn’t mean that you go to Yellowstone national park and pick up trash–Nature is God. The Stoics were a pantheistic philosophy. They believed that God is the universe. This idea of God is very different than what most modern readers will be familiar with; but they thought that God is nature and the reason that governs all things.
An early Stoic philosopher Chrysippus said,

 

“The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence”

Nature is God and the reason that governs nature is the way that God takes action. As humans who possess a unique abilily to reason, we can think of ourselves as miniscule fractions of the reason that governs all things that are occupying a body. By using that reason to understand things the way they truly are, we are living in harmony with nature.

5. Stop Pretending You Know That Things Are Bad

Let’s go back to our sports example from before. The sports fan is wrong for reacting angrily to something that is out of his control, but that’s not the only place the Stoics take issue with him. He also made a judgement that the referee’s call was a bad one; the Stoics think he is in no place to do that. They seperate qualities down into two types: preferred indifferents and unpreferred indifferents. Let me explain.

Most people would call things like health or a large bank account as “good”, but these things are not good in themselves. This idea goes back to an early Greek philosopher named Plato who said in his work Phaedo that for something to be truly good it could never even assist something that is bad. So to the Stoics, even something like good health was considered not intrinsically good because it is only as good as the person or thing it is making healthy. For example, the good health of Adolf Hitler in 1939 was not a very good thing.

Because of this, all that a truly wise person can say about good health is that it is something that they are indifferent about, but they would prefer to have it because the outcome is typically good for them. They called these sets of qualities preferred indifferents. The significance of this is that very little is intrinsically good or bad and that our job is not to worry about making judgements about things, but to use our ability to reason, control how we react to situations and be in harmony with nature.

6. You were put here to reason, so use it already.

If there is one thing you can do right now that the Stoics are certain will instantly make you a happier person, it is to use your ability to reason. The Stoics talk about the idea of a human being’s Oikeiosis. This word is an adaptation of the Greek word Oikos you might recognize as a type of Greek Yogurt in the supermarket, but the word itself means house or orientation. The Stoics were referring to the idea that each thing, whether it is an insect, a rock, an elephant or a human for that matter, all of these things have a certain thing it was put here to do assigned to it by Nature.

For an animal like a cow, it’s easy– chew grass, sleep, reproduce. For humans, it was all of those things (replace grass with pizza), but we were assigned more. The thing that seperates us from all the other animals in the animal kingdom, and what we were assigned by nature to do, was reason.

Have you ever seen one of those reality shows where a really young, drunken guy will blankly stare into the testimonial camera and say, “Hopefully I won’t cheat on my girlfriend tonight. We’ll see what happens.”

Behold! The Stoics would see this human as one that’s acting like it has the oikos of a cow, or any animal for that matter. These people don’t see themselves as creatures with an oikos of reason– with the ability to make rational decisions that are in harmony with nature–they see themselves as passengers. Whatever happens, happens. A lion is happiest when it does what lions do. A dolphin is happiest when it does what dolphins do. In this same way, humans are happiest when they exercise their ability to reason: their oikos and what they were assigned by Nature to do.

Marcus Aurelius says,

 

“Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. Man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”

7. Life is NOT too short.

Seneca famously said,

 

“That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away.”

How much do we worry about death and worrying that our life will be cut short in some tragic way? This is the area of Stoicism that Seneca really excelled in. He has a treatise called “On the Shortness of Life”. Seneca thinks that the idea that life is too short is a common human misconception. It’s not that we weren’t given enough life to live, it’s that we waste so much of it.

He tells a story about a prisoner who was locked up in his cell, awaiting his punishment for a crime, The emperor of Rome at the time, Caligula, sentences him to death and when the guards come to get the prisoner from his cell to kill him, he’s lounging around playing a game with the guard that was assigned to watch over him. So, these other guards show up and tell him he’s sentenced to death and they start dragging him away to be killed and as these guards are dragging him away he says to them, “You guys are my witnesses! I was up by one piece there! I beat him!”

Don’t spend what little time you have agonizing over when your life will end; you weren’t entitled to it anyway. Enjoy life while you can and thank Fortune for what she has given you.

8. Feel Your Emotions Like The Stoics Would

Seneca talks a lot about the idea of regulating emotions. He says that the idea of “moderate emotions,” is about as realistic as the idea of “moderate insanity”. He thinks emotions themselves are irrational. Why try to moderate them? We should train our brain to think rationally. The important part is this: Don’t let a single positive or negative emotion affect you too much. Don’t let a single compliment go to your head and make you grow complacent, and don’t let a single insult get you down and make you think you’re a loser. As it pertains to our sports analogy: don’t let a single win let you think your team is destined to win the championship and don’t let a single loss let you get down on future prospects.

9. Anger is a choice.

A common rebuttle to the Stoic doctrine is that feeling angry about something is not a concious choice that someone can make. Seneca completely disagrees. He wrote an entire treatise titled, “On Anger”, where he describes in detail what happens when someone gets upset about something. One key point to take from it is that even though the time that elapses between when something bad happens to you and when you feel angry seems instant, Seneca argues that anger is actually a four step process.

1. Realization: The moment you realize the ref made a bad call.

2. Indignation: The feeling of contempt for the ref that made the bad call.

3. Condemnation: You saying he should keep his ref uniform and work at Foot Locker.

4. Retribution: You doing something to exact revenge.

Seneca compares anger to truly involuntary instant behaviors like shivering when cold water is sprinkled on you. The significance of this is that we are empowered at any point within this long four step process to accept that the ref’s call is external to us and therefore out of our control.

10. When it comes down to it, we are dogs tied to the back of a cart.

The idea of having realistic expectations is definitely powerful, but what if we change our worldview to contain reasonable expectations and even those expectations aren’t met? The ultimate happiness lies in acceptance of fate, but when the Stoics talk about fate, they aren’t referencing anything magical or spooky. They are what is known in philosophy as compatiblists. Put shortly, they believe that free will and determinism are not mutally exclusive. For the case of our article today, think of determinism as fate.
Stoics believe that understanding our place in nature and accepting whatever Nature has in store for us is crucial. Early Stoics compared humans to a dog tied to the back of a cart. We don’t control where we go; the only thing we control is how much we whine and struggle along the way.

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An Appeal to Reason for All the Militant Atheists Out There

Religious people and atheists agree on at least one point: leading a moral life yields positive results. The difference between them is how they perceive those results; religious people see them as a reward bestowed upon them by a supernatural God — a colorful sticker on their report card, while atheists see them as the natural byproducts of living ethically.

The Islamic philosopher Averroes would have recognized this. He didn’t think everyone was capable of thinking philosophically. In fact, he thought that only a handful of the most educated and intellectually gifted should even try, and the rest of the population, the “masses” as he typically calls them, should study religion. To Averroes, the Qur’an didn’t give an unquestionable account of the truth; it gave the average person a reasonable facsimile of the truth portrayed in a metaphorical, storybook way, because that was the best they were ever going to do.

He says:

The religions are, according to the philosophers, obligatory, since they lead towards wisdom in a way universal to all human beings. Philosophy only leads a certain number of people to the knowledge of intellectual happiness, and they therefore have to learn wisdom, whereas religions seek the instruction of the masses generally.

I don’t agree with Averroes that certain people are incapable of understanding philosophy; I can’t. After all, I make my living doing a show about philosophy where I try to break down abstract philosophical concepts into bite-sized, digestible pieces that anyone can understand. Maybe what Averroes would say if he lived in modern times and was exposed to modern science is that most people are not incapable of understanding philosophy; they’re just unwilling.

Humans often take the path of least resistance. From a survival-oriented perspective, it makes sense. If you need water and you have two choices: the stream directly in front of you or the stream on the other side of that dangerous chasm over there, which one is more reasonable?

In today’s world, we live in a media maelstrom. With all of the TV shows, movies and video games at everyone’s fingertips, is it reasonable to expect most people to contemplate the nature of existence? Is it reasonable to expect them to contemplate each individual virtue and arrive at their own personal ethical doctrine? Again, the question isn’t whether most people are capable; the question is whether they are willing to.

Religion is typically made up of two parts. First, an ethical doctrine. Second, an incentivisation scheme (if you don’t follow the ethical doctrine, here are the terrible things that are going to happen to you). The atheists I’ve met usually don’t disagree with the ethical doctrines of most religions; they disagree with the incentivisation scheme. If most people in today’s world are either unwilling or too busy to weigh the pros and cons of each individual virtue and independently arrive at their own conclusions, is religion really an institution that needs to be abolished?

I know what you’ll say. “You can’t point out all of the good and none of the bad! What about the intolerance and brutality carried out in the name of religion?” I would say that that same intolerance and brutality is carried out in the name of other things too. Innocents bombed in the name of the United States. Black people hung in the name of white supremacy. Red Sox fans beaten in the name of New York Yankees fans. I would say that what you are truly against is tribalism, and people using it as an excuse to marginalize other groups of people, neither of which is a requisite of being a religion.

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How Access to Information Enabled a Polymath Genius to Change the World

There’s an Islamic saying, “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr,” and nothing embodies it better than 9th century Baghdad. It was a cultural Mecca, owned and operated by the people that pray to the actual Mecca.

Imagine a culture of people in which one of the top priorities was translating all of the world’s collective knowledge into Arabic. Turns out it was a good move for them. While the west was trapped in the Dark Ages searching for a flashlight, the Islamic world was making monumental leaps forward in almost every single discipline — mathematics, medicine, architecture, science and most importantly for us, philosophy.

Thinking of medieval philosophy in the Islamic world reminds me a little of listening to Adam Carolla rant in recent years. “Don’t you just hate it when you’re so talented, successful and rich that your personal maid hides your remote control from you, and you can’t find it for twelve seconds? What a terrible inconvenience.”

Well, that’s kind of how the Caliphate was feeling in 9th century Baghdad. They were having problems dealing with the quandaries that came with having a sprawling empire that was as big and influential as Rome was at its height. Being under the rule of the Caliph meant being under a strict, centralized culture, and not being under the Caliph meant you had very little access to their strict, centralized culture. As they focused on the problems in the rest of their empire, their cultural and political grip loosened on the city of Baghdad. This allowed people living in small towns near Baghdad to gain increased access to Greek philosophy translated into Arabic.

One of the people from one of these small towns was named Avicenna. Avicenna, to put it lightly, was a polymath genius. He’s almost unanimously considered the greatest mind of his region and time period. Not because there weren’t any other smart people around, he was just that good. He wrote almost 500 books. He wrote more books than James Patterson pretends to write. Not only did he fundamentally shift philosophy in medieval times, he somehow found time to write a series of medical books that were so far ahead of their time, they were still being referenced in the 17th century.

The craziest part about it is that he almost didn’t even exist. What if he never had access to the Greek philosophy that allowed his mind to reach its full potential? Simply having the information available to him gave him opportunities he would’ve never had otherwise.

Fast forward to modern times. In terms of making information accessible, the internet is the greatest invention in the history of man. If you had stock in printing presses in the early nineties you’re probably reading this from under a bridge somewhere. If Avicenna only had access to Hellenic philosophy and became the greatest thinker of his age, imagine what humanity will gain from the limitless access to knowledge that the internet provides. Google is the modern day 9th century Baghdad, and I wonder how many Avicennas have been flipping burgers and digging ditches over the last thousand years.

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How to Tell a Facebook Flatterer From a Facebook Friend

Have you ever been invited to a friend’s house and discovered immediately after stepping inside that it smells like an episode of Hoarders? Maybe it’s dirty clothes, maybe it’s last night’s Panda Express, maybe it actually is a dead animal somewhere inside the walls, but in any case, you wonder the same thing: Can he not smell this?

Well, no he can’t. I believe the saying is, “A fox can’t smell its own hole.” Fact is, to him, his house just smells like air. He’s immersed in it! It’s difficult to notice incremental changes that occur over time within the only environment you’re exposed to. But to an objective outsider, as you are to your friend, these changes are obvious. Should you tell him? What exactly is your duty as a friend? Is it to always do and say what makes him happy? What if it’s going to make him feel bad?

This brings me to the philosopher Plutarch. Everybody wanted to be his friend. He was a rich man who had a prominent standing in local politics during a time when most people lived in chaos and uncertainty, making him comparable to the cow that was lowered into the Velociraptor pit in Jurassic Park. A lifetime of disingenuous friendships levied by people trying to take advantage of his stature in society left him with a lot to say on the value of friendship. In his essay “How to Tell a Flatterer From a Friend,” he makes the case that friends are absolutely crucial for realizing our potential in every area of our lives, including happiness.

Plutarch said that it’s easy to delude ourselves; we do it all the time. Your friend doesn’t realize that his house smells like the city dump because he is immersed in it. Similarly, we can be immersed in our own inefficient or destructive patterns of thought to the point that it takes an objective outsider to tell us we’re being an idiot. Who else can we truly rely on to be an objective voice without exception?

Sometimes we need someone to look at us and say, “No, you’re not going out in public wearing that leather fanny pack. I don’t care if you’re trying to be ironic.”

Imagine if the only things you were ever able to improve on were things that you were not only perceptive enough to notice, but honest enough with yourself to acknowledge. To return to our example from before, not only would Plutarch say that you should tell your friend about his house, but also that if you don’t, you run the risk of being the opposite of a friend: a flatterer.

If the value of a friend lies in his honesty and the various ways that honesty enriches our lives, then the danger of a flatterer lies in his dishonesty and the various ways that dishonesty destroys our lives.

Plutarch thought of flatterers as parasites. By definition, a parasite is an organism that lives by consuming nutrients at the expense of its host. This really is the difference between a friend and a flatterer to Plutarch; it was a question of motives. A true friend always acts in your best interest, no matter the cost to you or them. A flatterer always tries to please you, regardless of whether or not it’s in your best interest, because they want something from you.

Plutarch writes, “The flatterer is always covertly on the watch for some emotion to pamper. Are you angry? Punish them. Do you crave anything? Buy it. Are you afraid? Flee. Are you suspicious? Give it credence.”

In modern times, our definition of friend changes based on the context in which it’s used. If a flatterer is someone who falsely represents themselves for personal gain, then we’ve created a social media landscape that actually encourages their existence. We encourage people to post only complimentary, smiling pictures of themselves as though they never experience pain. We encourage people to stand up for what they believe in and click a pixelated “Thumbs Up” to show their undying support for the most recent bout of activism posted by people not sitting on their couch. We encourage the creation of a webpage that’s a false representation of yourself — an alter-ego — so that you can control it, and interact with the alter-egos of everyone else.

Plutarch would have pointed out, “Yeah, this person has 900 friends on Facebook, but how many of those people are being totally honest with them? How many of those people can they truly say are always working in their best interests, and how many of them are just parasites that occasionally please them?”

One week of correspondence with someone who is truly your friend will contribute to your personal growth more than the sum total of every New Years resolution you will make for the rest of your life.

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Winning the Lottery Is the Worst Thing That Can Ever Happen to You

A wise man once told me that if he could wish one thing upon his worst enemy, it would be that he was forced to receive whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. Your first thought is probably, “This guy sounds like the best enemy ever. Let’s tie him to the nearest set of train tracks and get the ball rolling.”

But not so fast. Yeah, on the surface this sounds great. You might imagine yourself diving into a swimming pool full of money like you’re Scrooge McDuck. Or maybe you imagine yourself driving a car with really big, shiny wheels! I imagine myself having much more pronounced cheekbones, because lets be honest — Don Draper is an attractive guy. It sounds like paradise, right?

But then I started thinking. What am I missing here? Is there any situation I couldn’t handle if I had anything I wanted? What tribulations could life possibly throw at me that I couldn’t overcome with a snap of my fingers? And then it hit me.

I’m convinced this condition would be awesome for about the first year or so, but then with each progressive day it would feel more and more like a curse, albeit a strange one. We appreciate the things we want because on a personal level there is a scarcity of them. Have you ever had to go to the bathroom so badly that your kidneys actually started hurting? Maybe you were driving, needing to go so badly that you were sweating, your kidneys were screaming “Are we there yet?!” from the backseat, and filled with desperation, you reached for that empty bottle of Diet Peach Snapple on the passenger side floor board. In that context, you feel an unusual appreciation for bathrooms. But if you matched that level of enthusiasm every time you saw a bathroom under normal circumstances, you’d look like an outpatient from the local mental hospital.

And this applies to everything. A sixteen-year-old kid who works all summer to save up for the down payment on his first car will appreciate it, wash it, vacuum it out, and hang a little pine tree from the rear view mirror for good measure. A sixteen-year-old kid whose rich parents buy him his dream car is left with no sense of appreciation and oftentimes a sense of complacency.

If every time you ever wanted something it just appeared in front of you, think of all the great feelings you would miss out on over the course of your life. Absolutely everything would lose its value. You’d never again feel a sense of achievement or satisfaction, and that sounds like a great thing to wish upon your worst enemy.

The ancient philosopher Pyyrho would have loved this irony. He lived during the Hellenistic Age, a time of chaos and political uncertainty; his aim, like many other philosophers of the Hellenistic Age, was to create a method for the average citizen to cope with this chaos and uncertainty. Pyyrho’s method was called Skepticism. He asked questions like, “How can we know what is truly good in reality?” and “How can we know we aren’t falsely deeming something as ‘good’ just because it seems like it should be?”

According to Aristocles, “Pyrrho declared all things to be equally indifferent, indeterminate and un-judged and that for that reason neither our senses nor our opinions are reliably true or false.”

When applied to the lives of regular people, the goal of skepticism was to achieveataraxia, a word that the Greeks used that meant a “complete freedom from disturbance.” Pyyrho thought that having negative feelings when things happen to you comes from making negative judgments about those things. But how can we be so arrogant as to assume that we know for certain whether these things are going to be bad things in the long run?

Pyyrho said to suspend all judgments. Because by suspending all of them, you suspend the negative ones, and by suspending them you are impervious to them. Think of all the ways this applies to you! You got fired from your job? Seems bad, but in six months you might find a job that is twice as fulfilling as your last job. Your spouse leaves you? Seems bad, but you might meet the love of your life the next day. You contract a terrible illness? Seems bad, but what if it motivated you to live a healthier lifestyle and made you appreciate every second of life after you beat it? Was that illness still a bad thing?

Something that seems good is not always good. Something that seems bad is not always bad, and even if it is bad, adversity is what strengthens you to better navigate future problems in your life. Your level of success is not determined by whether there are hurdles in your path, but by how well you jump over them.

Philosophize This! Has something ever happened to you that seems terrible at first, but ends up being something great?