How to lead a good life?
We spend years in school, learning technical skills, but are pretty much alone in figuring out the most existential questions: How can we learn to accept what we cannot control? How can we manage the competing passions we carry within ourselves? How can we make sense of the seeming futility of existence? How can we deal with the discrepancy between our expectations? And how, in light of all these struggles, can we treat ourselves and those around us with grace and kindness?
November’s reading recommendations are dedicated to these questions. It’s the most personal collection of essays and articles, I’ve shared to date. I hope you enjoy them and am interested to hear from you how you find virtue and solace in your lives. Find the links here and excerpts below:
1. What is the connection of David Hume's moral philosophy and Buddhism? And how did David Hume help cure the depression of a professor who lived almost three centuries after him? A fantastic, personal essay by Alison Gopnik in the Atlantic (2015): "[Hume] argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no 'I.' "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," he wrote in the Treatise, 'I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.' ... Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don't matter. Experience is enough all by itself… In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people." Read the full text here.
2. Viktor Frankl's existentialism: Michael Scully's 1995 essay on a truly admirable man - survivor of Auschwitz, legendary psychiatrist, and founder of logotherapy: "Logotherapy amounts in nearly all situations to the advice, “Get to work.” Other psychologies begin by asking, “What do I want from life? Why am I unhappy?” Logotherapy asks, “What does life at this moment demand of me?” Happiness, runs a favored Frankl formulation, “ensues.” “Happiness must happen.” Life should find us out there in the world doing good things for their own sake. Even “if we strive for a good conscience, we are no longer justified in having it. The very fact has made us into Pharisees. And if we make health our main concern we have fallen ill. We have become hypochondriacs." Read the full text here.
3. A short portrait of Irvin Yalom's thinking - the great existentialist psychiatrist (put together by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings, excerpts from Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy ): "If death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, ... , if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life? … Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter." Read the full text here.
4. A.A. Long on how we can learn to be free and wise from the stoicists (LitHub, 2018). "If wisdom is the true criterion of freedom, the principal burden of slavery shifts from the outer to the inner, from the physical to the mental, and philosophy not manumission becomes the source of liberty. You are enslaved, according to this uncompromising doctrine, if you set your heart on anything that is liable to impediment, whether because your body lets you down, or passions and emotions have you in their thrall, or you attach your well-being to things that depend on others—people, property, popularity, or simply luck." Read the full text here.
5. Henry Martyn Loyd on why we shouldn't invoke a strict dichotomy between reason & the passions, and why we shouldn't privilege one over the other. "Some thinkers did invoke a strict dichotomy of reason and the passions, and privilege the a priori over sensation – Kant, most famously. But in this respect Kant was isolated from many, if not most, of his era’s major themes. Particularly in France, rationality was not opposed to sensibility but was predicated on and continuous with it." Read the full text here.
6. Martha Nussbaum on the political implications of the pitiful management of our own emotions - as masterfully captured by Rachel Aviv ( New Yorker in 2016): "For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, [Nussbaum] argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives. She believes that the humanities are not just important to a healthy democratic society but decisive, shaping its fate. She proposed an enhanced version of John Stuart Mill’s “aesthetic education”—emotional refinement for all citizens through poetry and music and art. “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another,” she wrote. “Public culture cannot be tepid and passionless.” Read the portrait here.
7. Raj Raghunathan on the futility of comparing oneself to others and on the liberating effect of letting social comparisons go (Interviewed by Joe Pinsker, the Atlantic): "When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people..." Read the full interview here.
8. While (on average) we lead longer, healthier, and safer lives than ever before, we struggle to match our expectations with the inherent unpredictability and randomness of existence. The School of Life identifies some of the ills of modernity - such as perfectibility, meritocracy, and anthropocentrism - and proposes a range virtues that can help us counter them:
"The conditions of modernity are in many ways profoundly better than those under which the vast majority of humanity lived for more or less the whole of history. But, along with its manifest benefits, modernity has brought a special range of troubles into our lives which we would be wise to try to unpick and to understand." Read the full text here.
9. Nine life lessons from my all-time favourite comedian-philosopher, Tim Minchin. Incredibly wise. Incredibly funny. Watch the video or read the transcript: “You don’t have to have a dream. Don’t seek happiness. Remember, it’s all luck. Exercise. Be hard on your opinions. Be a teacher. Define yourself by what you love. Respect people with less power than you. Don’t rush. Fill your empty existence.” Watch his speech here or read the transcript here.
10. Alain de Botton proposes to follow ten key virtues for the modern age. A highly recommended practical guide: "There’s no scientific answer [as to which are the right virtues to pursue], but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters... I propose ten [virtues]: Resilience. Empathy. Patience. Sacrifice. Politeness. Humour. Self-Awareness. Forgiveness. Hope. Confidence." Read and download the beautifully-designed decalogue here.