Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for. – Socrates
What book would you choose to help you start this new year?
I’ve stumbled across Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy and I think this is one to study over the next six days or so.
It’s a collection of essays that address six human concerns – ageless ones.
de Botton enlists the help of philosophers to explore the topics of unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties.
Socrates is his first philosopher and he helps us understand what is right – and that what is right is not necessarily the same as what is popular.
What is important is whether it makes sense – and that’s something that we, as individuals, need to think through for ourselves.
This is important because in our short lives we are going to be exposed to many ideas – some from powerful people.
And these ideas have an impact – they have consequences.
From the views of politicians on climate change or whether to be part of a federal system or not to whether you should eat carbs or meat – it’s increasingly hard to make sense of it all.
The problem has to do with logic – or more accurately the lack of it.
And thinking logically is not that hard – de Botton claims – and gives us a six step process to follow.
- Select a rule that is considered common sense
- Imagine it’s false – look for exceptions
- If an exception is found the rule must be wrong or imprecise
- Modify the rule – add nuance to address the exception
- Goto 2
The sixth statement is that the product of thought is superior to the product of intuition.
And now we have a problem.
Let’s take that sixth statement – is it common sense?
Except we know it’s wrong in the case of what to do when you see a hungry lion heading in your direction.
In that case your intuition – your animal brain takes over and you run for cover or climb a tree.
Standing there thinking logically about the situation is not going to help you.
So there we have an exception – and one that we don’t really need to explore – it’s pretty much set out in Thinking, fast and slow by Kahneman.
Last year I did a lot of reading – browsing through books looking for nuggets, insights – something interesting that I could use or adapt in my own life.
And when you’re doing this it makes sense to be expansive – to collect without discrimination because there are things everywhere.
But then you have to see which of these ideas make sense – which ones you might choose to incorporate into daily life.
That’s where another one of de Botton’s observations is useful.
There are things you know that are right – but you don’t know how to respond when other people raise objections about this thing you know.
Socrates called that a “true opinion”.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is when you know why something is true and why it’s alternatives are false.
But to do that you must know the alternatives – you need to have studied them as well.
And this is where we come to why people don’t do that.
de Botton points out that some things are hard and they look hard as well.
Become an expert painter or potter or sculptor is that kind of thing – it takes time to learn how to do such things.
Then there are things that are hard to do but look easy.
Deciding how to live your life is one of those things.
After all, you could just follow the teachings of your church.
Or you could follow the laws of your state.
Or you could listen to your mum and dad.
There is no shortage of people lining up to give you advice on the best way to do things – hacks and tips and shortcuts and goals and targets and strategies.
Listen to them all.
But also learn how to work out which of those ideas make sense.