9 Eminents' Wisdom on the Life Well-Led
Quotations plus yes-ands and yes-buts.
Posted Jan 17, 2020
Quotations, especially from the preeminent, can yield much benefit per moment of reading. To that end, here are 10 such quotations plus my humbly offered yes-buts and a one-liner of my own. They’re presented in chronological order.
Confucius, 551 BCE-479 BCE: The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential... these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.
Yes, but that black-and-white dictum needs nuance. Even if the "will to win" is key to personal excellence, it too often pushes people to do unethical things and/or to step on others for personal gain that may yield a net loss cosmically or at least societally.
Plato, 428-348 BCE: People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.
Yes, but it’s difficult to act on that warning. It’s often tough to extricate yourself from some people, most often a family member. In many cultures, it is believed that “blood is thicker than water” and so a person pays a heavy price for reducing, let alone eliminating, involvement with a member of your family of origin. Extrication can be difficult even from someone you’ve chosen to be with, for example, a spouse. Familial, cultural, and legal shackles can make extrication difficult. It’s difficult even to separate from a bad boss or coworker. Unless you’re a star who can easily find a better job, you may feel stuck.
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180: You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.
Yes, but that’s far easier said than done. Most people know to focus on what they can control and to let go of the rest. But human beings have emotions that can be stronger than will. For example, imagine that you have to wait a week for the results of your biopsy. The results are an “outside event.” Yet few people’s "power over your mind” is strong enough to not worry.
Nagarjuna (preeminent Buddhist philosopher), 150-250: There are pleasures in worldly desires, but to be without desires is more pleasurable still.
Yes, but this advice is even more difficult to adhere to than the previous one—relinquishing all worldly desires in favor of being without desires? Not only is that difficult, how clear is it that a life with no material, no sexual, and no altruistic desires is net better for the individual, let alone for the world? That's not clear to me, but then again I’m no philosopher, let alone a legendary one.
Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804: Nothing is divine but what is agreeable to (based on) reason.
Yes, but a sense of the divine, the spiritual, even if not real, can inspire people to achieve beyond the quotidian. Also, Kant’s entreaty implies that intuition has no value. Of course, an intuitive decision based on nothing, for example, picking a roulette number to bet on, is silly. But expert intuition amalgamates years of reasoning. So that quote shouldn’t be interpreted as denigrating that type of the “divine.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860: A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
Yes, but we cannot totally dismiss many humans’ craving for company. We are, at least in part and at times, social animals. Yes, other people constrain our freedom, but it seems that the core question is, “In each slice of a person’s life, how much solitude yields the most net good?”
Karl Marx. 1818-1883: The theory of Communism can be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.
Yes, but an edict far from ensures compliance. As was learned with communist experiments from the USSR to the Israeli kibbutzim to the Berkeley collectives, it’s far easier to renounce materialism than to practice it. In the real world, a large enough percentage of people want to win, to acquire, to have more, or at least not consistently do unpleasant but necessary tasks. It may be unrealistic to expect sufficient compliance with Communism's idealistic model.
Ayn Rand, 1905-1982: Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think.
Yes, but wealth too often is affected by other factors, for example, connections, poor ethics, mental and physical health, and luck.
Simone De Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex and wife of Jean-Paul Sartre), 1908-1986: I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.
Yes, no one should surrender all their agency. But as with Schopenhauer’s view stated above, it is too extreme to say, “I have only myself.” I think Hillel’s aphorism is wiser: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?"
I’m no philosopher, let alone one who even belongs in the same room as the aforementioned, but it can’t hurt to offer a one-liner of my own:
The key to a well-led life is maxing your contribution. Happiness, less key, is most likely found in simple pleasures. That too warrants yes-butting: It’s too black-and-white a statement. Many people’s potential contribution is small and so for them, the pursuit of happiness, as long as they don't hurt others in the process, may be at least as wise.
The meta-message here is that even revered, time-honored thinkers’ pronouncements may bear scrutiny, revision, and even replacement.
I read this aloud on YouTube.