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The Scipionic Circle 91: Using Time Wisely, Understanding Human Behavior, and The Power of Judgements
"What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has or how he is regarded by others." — Arthur Schopenhauer
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle — I hope you find something of value.
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Food for Thought
I. Mastering Control: Epictetus' Wisdom on the Power of Judgement
"The Handbook of Epictetus opens with a fairly blunt account of what things he thinks are and are not ‘up to us’. The things that we can control – the things in our power – include our judgements, impulses and desires. Pretty much everything else is, Epictetus suggests, ultimately out of our control, including our own bodies, our material possessions, our reputation and our worldly success. He goes on to say that much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t.
"This division looks like it might involve a distinction between things that are either internal or external: we can control our minds but not the world around us. Or we might think of it as a distinction between the mental and the physical: we can control our thoughts but not material things such as our bodies or possessions. Neither of those ways of thinking about it are quite right, although both do capture something of what’s going on. Epictetus does not say that we have control over everything internal to us or over all of our thoughts. Instead he claims that we have control only over a certain set of mental actions. To be more precise, he thinks that all we really have control over are our judgements, along with things that derive from our judgements. We don’t have complete control over everything in our minds; we don’t choose the sensations and memories that we have, and we cannot switch on and off our emotions (we’ll come back to emotions in the next chapter). No, all we have complete control over are our judgements, which is to say what we think about the things that happen to us.
"Now, our judgements are hugely important because, among other things, they determine how we act. As Epictetus put it, they control our desires and impulses. We might see something, make a judgement that it is something good, which creates a desire for it, which in turn prompts us to pursue it. Depending on what the thing is – a dream career, an expensive house – it might be a long and arduous pursuit, carried out at great cost to both ourselves and others. But the whole process begins with a simple act of judgement.
"So, judgements are fundamental, and we neglect them at our peril, but we often make them so swiftly that we don’t even notice that we are doing anything. We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s all just matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an avid reader of Epictetus, often tried to remind himself of this by pausing to think about the physical nature of seemingly desirable things before passing judgement on them: a fine meal is merely the dead body of a pig or a fish. Equally, the expensive gadget or executive car is just a lump of metal and plastic. Whatever value these things might seem to have is value that we attribute to them with our judgements, and not anything inherent in the things themselves." — From Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us About How to Live by John Sellars.
II. Understanding Human Behavior: Hanlon's Razor and the Art of Benevolent Assumptions
"Another way of giving people the benefit of the doubt for their behavior is called Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness. Like Ockham’s razor, Hanlon’s razor seeks out the simplest explanation. And when people do something harmful, the simplest explanation is usually that they took the path of least resistance. That is, they carelessly created the negative outcome; they did not cause the outcome out of malice.
"Hanlon’s razor is especially useful for navigating connections in the virtual world. For example, we have all misread situations online. Since the signals of body language and voice intonation are missing, harmless lines of text can be read in a negative way. Hanlon’s razor says the person probably just didn’t take enough time and care in crafting their message. So the next time you send a message and all you get back is OK, consider that the writer is in a rush or otherwise occupied (the more likely interpretation) instead of coming from a place of dismissiveness.
"[Hanlon’s razor is an attempt] to overcome what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, where you frequently make errors by attributing others’ behaviors to their internal, or fundamental, motivations rather than external factors. You are guilty of the fundamental attribution error whenever you think someone was mean because she is mean rather than thinking she was just having a bad day.
"You of course tend to view your own behavior in the opposite way, which is called self-serving bias. When you are the actor, you often have self-serving reasons for your behavior, but when you are the observer, you tend to blame the other’s intrinsic nature. (That’s why this model is also sometimes called actor-observer bias.)
"For example, if someone runs a red light, you often assume that person is inherently reckless; you do not consider that she might be rushing to the hospital for an emergency. On the other hand, you will immediately rationalize your own actions when you drive like a maniac ('I’m in a hurry').” — From Super Thinking: Upgrade Your Reasoning and Make Better Decisions with Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann.
III. Using Time Wisely: Seneca on Embracing Life's Fleeting Moments
"In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca says that, for many of us, by the time we are really ready to start living, our lives are almost over. It’s not that our lives are too short; the problem is that we waste so much time. We procrastinate, pursue things of little or no value, or wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus. Some people strive to achieve success so that they can be wealthy enough to buy luxury goods that will end up discarded in a rubbish bin long before their lives are done. In so doing they waste the greater part of their lives. Others strive for nothing, just going through the motions of daily routines without any sense that the most valuable commodity they have – time – is slipping away. Some people have a clear idea of what they want to do but, paralysed by fear of failure, put off and delay things and conjure up excuses for why now is not the time to act. All these different types, Seneca says, fail to live.
"Seneca mocks the person who postpones all their plans and dreams until retirement. Do you really know you’ll make it to then? If you do, are you sure you’ll be in good enough health to do whatever it is that you’ve been postponing for so long? But even if all goes well, why postpone life until the bulk of it is already over?
"But it is not just the demands that come with success. It is all too easy to live in a perpetual state of distraction, never fully attending to what it is that we should be doing, what we really want to be doing, or even the sheer experience of being alive. Constant noise, interruption, news, media, social media – all these things can demand our attention to the point that it becomes difficult to focus enough to complete anything. As Seneca puts it, ‘living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man’. They are effectively taken up with doing nothing. Once this habit develops they fall into a continual state of restlessness, unable to relax or to concentrate on anything. Such people become fully conscious of the value of life only when it is almost over.
"If we don’t address these issues, Seneca argues, it doesn’t matter how much longer our lives continue. Even if we lived for a thousand years, we’d fritter most of the time away. The task, then, is not to strive to make our lives last as long as possible; instead, we ought simply to make sure that we enjoy and make full use of each day as it comes, not forgetting that it could perhaps be our last.
"Learning to live well is, paradoxically, a task that can take a lifetime. The wisest people of the past, Seneca adds, gave up the pursuit of pleasure, money and success in order to focus their attention on this one task. Although they might not have agreed on an answer, Seneca insists that preserving one’s time and devoting it to oneself is essential:
"Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day." — From Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us about How to Live by John Sellars.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Friedrich Nietzsche on the struggle of self-reflection:
"It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!"
II. Arthur Schopenhauer on inner being vs external recognition:
"What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has or how he is regarded by others."
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Thank you for reading,