We are programmed to find comfort. It’s natural. We seek pleasure and avoid pain because that’s what our brain is trained to do, through years and years of evolution. Putting ourselves through exhaustive or exertive circumstances is a fight against ourselves. Everything our brain has been programmed to search for savagely is at hand-food, water and (potentially) sex. It’s easy to sink into a state of doing nothing, since all our needs, says our brain, are fulfilled, and so we don’t need to do anything else. Our brains are right, but they’re also wrong. All our survival needs are met, but that does not mean we, as people, are satisfied. The things which we want to achieve are usually hard work to attain, and this involves a battle between your will and what your brain wants. Your brain wants comfort and pleasure, but you want to push yourself, to experience hardship now for the sake of gain later. This is what you must do then-fight yourself. Battle against your brain’s instincts and if your will is strong enough, you will win.
The opinion of others is something that is usually heralded as crucially important to any sane person, and what others think about us has become the reason for acting in certain ways-for getting that job, for posting that photo on Instagram, for buying that car, or for keeping quiet when we should speak up. We value others’ opinions highly, and what other people will think about us influences our decisions heavily. It’s not that other people’s opinions do not matter (they do), but it may be the case that we value what other people think too highly. It is a problem when we do not act in the way we should or the way we truly want because we fear what other people will think. It is a problem when we act solely so that people will think good of us, regardless of what we genuinely want to do. We make the mistake that if people have a good opinion of us, our power will increase, as will our satisfaction. This kind of deluded thinking has the opposite effect, since relying on the external for power and satisfaction usually means the opposite occurs, since most people do not care what you think or do. With this kind of thinking, whether we are satisfied is up to other people-we are completely powerless. Acting how you think you should, and realising true power comes only from within will result in more control, and, most likely, more satisfaction. We need to stop caring about what other people think. It makes us powerless and weak, stopping us from speaking when we should, doing what we truly want, and being the person we want to be. Ceasing to care what others think will result in liberation-liberation from anxiety, as well as liberation from the mask that we all wear around each other, a mask that prevents us from being ourselves. Take off the mask, and be free.
Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, the teacher of Alexander the Great, and he wrote extensively on many various subjects, including logic, biology, music and rhetoric. Aristotle’s work on logic was a great foundation for human logic, and the work he recorded was the work used by philosophers who lived thousands of years on, such as Immanuel Kant. Aristotle’s logic is based on the syllogism, which is, at its simplest, one conclusion from two premises:
P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Socrates is mortal.
This is deductive logic, and if one accepts both the premises, then one must accept the conclusion that follows. To therefore attack the conclusion, one must attack the premises. There is so much that one could potentially say about Aristotle, so I will mention only a couple of his key ideas.
Aristotle believed that everything has a nature and a ‘telos‘ (end or goal) to fulfil. His idea was that ‘essence precedes existence’-something’s nature is defined before it exists. He argued that, like all other beings, humans also have a nature and a telos. For Aristotle this was eudaimonia, or flourishing, and this is attained by using all one’s talents and becoming balanced through the golden mean, avoiding excess and deficiency. To attain this, we should enhance our practical reasoning as well as our intellect. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Aristotle asked himself, to which he answered, ‘To do good and serve others.’
Aristotle had a certain idea of excellence, and it was that it is attained through training and habituation. Like all virtues, Aristotle believed that to become excellent took time, and required consistency and balance-we cannot hope to be something if we only act in that way rarely. Rather, we should act that way as much as we can, and through this repetition we will train ourselves to become what that virtue is.
The influence of Aristotle is magnanimous. He influenced many, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant. To the foundations of logic and to the influential ethical and political theory we owe Aristotle a great deal.
The concept of the will to power is more apparent today perhaps more than ever before. This is clear from the prevalence of social media. The majority of social networks are founded upon this principle of will to power, and social media taps into our will for power-it is what draws us in. Power is the reason photos are posted on Instagram and why videos are posted on Snapchat. The question is not whether social media appeals to people because of the supposed power it claims it brings (that is obvious), but whether we should partake in it or not. Another question is whether it is possible to avoid our will to power-is, for example, the denial to use social media just another form of the will to power because one believes that abstaining from social networks brings power with it? We must ask ourselves whether we want to fight for power, to (perhaps pointlessly) strive for attention and recognition. No, it cannot be. It is not that we should try to abstain from the will to power, for this may not even be possible, but to come to realise the best way to attain power-from within. Social media fools us by baiting us to look for power from people other than our own selves. By posting photos and videos with the hope that people will see them and think better of you or be jealous of you, that is not a sign of power, it is a sign of weakness. Social media relies on you relentlessly caring about the opinions and thoughts of others. Power can be attained, but not through the external. Real power comes from within, realising that we don’t need the recognition of others to remain in a serene state.
Parmenides of Elea was born in around 515BC, and he proposed that change is an illusion. He said that everything which exists is a being and that the one common thing between all things that exist is that they are-they are all being. So if something is not being, it does not exist, and therefore is nothing. So you have being and nothing. Parmenides held that for change to come about, being has to come together with something other than being (which is nothing), and therefore change is impossible and an illusion. Parmenides also held the view that fundamentally reality is one, unchanging being. This is because, he argued, everything is being, whether it is a chair or a cat or a person, it is all being and so reality is one. Change is merely an appearance, then, and Parmenides thought that it is our senses that deceive and trick us into thinking that things change. He wrote about this idea in his poem, On Nature, and wrote about what is real in the part called the ‘way of truth’ and appearances in the ‘way of opinion’. Parmenides influenced many, including the atomist Democritus and Plato.
Pythagoras lived from c. 570—c. 495 B.C., and is perhaps most famously known for his theorem (a2+b2=c2). He was originally from Samos but moved to Croton to avoid being ruled by a tyrant. There he set up a school of people dedicated to scholarship. He posited that there are three types of men (he used the example of the Olympics)-those who buy and sell, those who compete, and those who look on, and Pythagoras believed that those who look on are the best type of man. The Pythagoreans spent a lot of time studying numbers, and came to conclude that the world is made from numbers, and that reality was founded and based upon numbers. A famous comparison was made that the body is like a musical instrument. Just as a properly tuned and looked-after instrument produces good music, a properly cared for and healthy body produces the means for a good life. Moreover, our bodies, like instruments, can easily become out of tune, and so we should tune ourselves regularly. Moreover, it was a Pythagorean idea that music is a medicine that can heal the soul. Such was the power of music for Pythagoras. As Pythagoras’ ideas developed, two schools developed, the mathēmatikoi (μαθηματικοί meaning “teachers”) and the akousmatikoi (ἀκουσματικοί, meaning “listeners”). The former emphasised mathematical and scientific development, whereas the latter honed in on the religious aspects. Overall, it seems that Pythagorean thought was dominated by mathematics, and it was maths which the Pythagoreans based their outlook and their ideas about the world. We are indebted to Pythagoras for his work on numbers, as well as his ideas about man-ideas which influenced Socrates and Plato.
Why do we become angry? Epictetus says. Because we attach value to external things not in our power. To refrain from anger, we must give things up, such as attachment to our clothes, so that we count them as nothing, and then if they are stolen, say, then we will no longer be angry. Moreover, Epictetus says, as long as we attach value to these things which are not in our control, we should be angry with ourselves, rather than the thief who takes our clothes. This idea of attachment is key to Epictetus, and he says that ‘one can only lose what one has…our losses and our pains only affect things that are in our possession.’ What does he advise to cope with the difficulties of life? He uses the Socratic idea-know yourself.
He goes on to say that we should not give expression to grief (an idea which seemed to influence Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about suffering in silence), and that the invincible human being is ‘one who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’ This relates back to Epictetus’ key idea that we must know that some things are in our control, while others are not. We must remember that ‘it is our own judgements that disturb us’. He uses this example to illustrate his point:
‘For when the tyrant says to someone “I’ll have your leg shackled,” one who attaches value to his leg will reply, “No have pity on me,” while one who attaches value, by contrast, to his choice will say, “If you think that will do you any good, chain it up.”-“You don’t care?”-Not in the least.-“I’ll show you that I’m master.”
We must, therefore, detach ourselves from what is not in our power or control, while, perhaps, simultaneously expecting rather poor outcomes to circumstances. We must not outwards for coping mechanisms-the only mechanism that guarantees success is the one inside us-our mind.
Epictetus was a Greek philosopher of Stoicism who lived from 50-135AD. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus, another Stoic philosopher. He was set free at some point in his life and from there became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote little, if anything, in his lifetime and so the majority of Epictetus’ teachings are from his pupil Arrian.
In the Discourses, Epictetus focuses on the things which are in our control and the things which are not. Distinguishing between these two is crucial, and it is this distinction which is the first step to serenity. Epictetus prioritises the mind over the body (‘why do you attach yourself to what is mortal?’), and inherits the Platonic idea that the body is a hindrance to the mind (‘these chains attached to us-the body and its possessions’). Furthermore, the influence of Aristotle can be seen when Epictetus writes of one’s ‘proper end’ and of acting according the human nature-Epictetus seems to use natural law as an argument for how to act (through reasoning-phronesis).
A key idea of Epictetus is of the external and the internal. Most fundamentally, it is our own internal judgement and opinion which causes our acts and our world view, rather than the circumstances around us-he believes we have control over how we view the world and life in general (a main Stoic idea). He says that tragedy is the portrayal,, in tragic verse, of men who have ‘attached high value to external things’. We must not attach ourselves too greatly to the external, but rather focus on what is inside us. Moreover, he emphasises that rather than discussing principles and discussing certain actions, we should act and put our principles into action, as well as aiming to solve problems rather than to complain about them. The human good, Epictetus says, ‘lies in a certain quality of choice.’
Whenever you cannot be bothered or decide to say no to an opportunity out of fear or because you do not wish to put yourself at risk, remember that one day you won’t ever be able to even make such a decision, and that when that day comes, you will have wished that you took the risk. Take the risk, become closer to knowing what it means to be alive, and live on the edge, since a life of risk is the only life worth living.
To the Buddha, it was desire which causes suffering. Being alive, however, means to desire, and so he concluded that life is therefore suffering. Our brains have evolved to the extent that we are continuously desiring. Once a desire is fulfilled, another desire comes along, perhaps with an intermittent stage of boredom. Our brains evolved like this for survival. Maintaining a continuous flow of desire means maintaining existence which is, ultimately, the goal of the brain-to preserve the human species. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on the suffering of the world, and argued that life ‘swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ We may at times find ourselves either bored or dissatisfied with life, or both simultaneously. How, then, can we remove unnecessary or unwanted pain? First, we should remember that some pain is necessary and useful, but if pain is truly unwanted, and we believe that the pain will not benefit us in the future or aid us in achieving future goals, then there are few things which we can do:
Tyler Durden of Fight Club said that ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ Even if we do not want to lose everything, we can still remove the things in our life which we do not want or enjoy or need. We should also recognise that the time that matters is here and now, and that although the future is important to some extent, it doesn’t even exist yet, and so we should, perhaps, focus on today, rather than worrying about tomorrow. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remind ourselves, when times seem bad, that it could be much, much worse. Yes, it could be better, but reminding ourselves that it could be worse may give us a slightly more objective viewpoint which may help put things in perspective. Another point is that, eventually, one day, you will be dead. None of this pain or boredom now will not matter to you. Nothing at all will matter to you when you’re dead, and on the spectrum of the universe, death is going to come pretty soon, so perhaps reminding ourselves of death’s nearing hand may, strangely, cheer us up since we know that petty complaining and suffering may seem to matter now, but once you’re on your death bed, will you regret allowing all that worry and pain and stress to get to you, rather than enjoying life while it allows you to?
Schopenhauer himself may have advised turning pain into knowledge, and using suffering as a tool for achievement. We may now, though, conclude that a great deal of our suffering, pain and boredom can be dealt with simply by altering our perspective and the way we see the world, existence, and ultimately, our own selves.