The subject of the meaning of life and philosophy of it all is one that has popped up a few times in past weeks and its one I actually spend some time contemplating. The idea of combining the search for the meaning of it all and one of my little writing and thought exercises is somewhat appealing so I thought I would tackle it. Just for shits and giggles I am going to see what kind of spin and twist I can put on the quotations of some of the great and not so great philosophers of our time. It may or may not be useful but it just might be entertaining.
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
We might as well start off with a heavyweight. Although Aristotle had a somewhat different view of happiness that I might adopt he is right in this quote. We hear all kinds of self-serving BS about our purpose in life. We are told that our purpose is to serve others, to serve God, to serve our nation, or some other grand and glorious cause. Rest assured when you hear that drivel that what you are serving is someone else’s self-interest at your own expense. We are told that our purpose is to breed and carry on the species or to leave the world a little better than we found it. Its all crap.
Our purpose is to be happy. The caveat here is that you have to find achieve and support your own happiness. Don’t ask me to pay for your happiness. Finding what makes you happiest in life and doing so with zeal and exuberance is the single purpose of your life. In the “isn’t it ironic” category it is also the best way to serve your society, the Deity of your choice and leave the world better than you found it. If you love being a parent and raising children then you should do so and you will raise better kids than someone who did it out a sense of convention. If you love designing and building things you will leave behind better buildings and monuments than one who does it as a job. Life is short but full of beauty and wonder. Your job in life is to find that which makes you happy and embrace it. Serve yourself first and your contribution will be far greater than any of those “serve others first folks” could ever hope to achieve.
Do what makes you happy. If you want to marry someone, marry them. If you want to write the great American novel, write it. If you want to run a great business, go build it and run it. If you want kids, have them and raise them well. If you want to be a farmer and work the land, then do that. If you want to sit around and think great thoughts then by all means do that. Do whatever makes you happy as long as you pay your own way. A final thought to keep in mind is that your right to happiness ends right where it may harm someone else’s.
In order to please others, we lose our hold on our life’s purpose.
Epictetus is one of those overlooked philosophers who really came close to nailing the meaning of it all in my opinion. He was in some ways the Nassim Taleb of his time believing that most external events are randomly determined by fate but we can be responsible for our own actions and responses to the hand we are dealt by that fate. In this one sentence he nails the single biggest factor for most individual misery and unhappiness. We care too much about what others think and want and too little about what we want.
It starts early in life and unfortunately most of us carry that shit to the other end. We worry what others think about our career choices, our lovers, spouses and friends. We allow others to tell us how we should think, dress, talk, love and live. We do things to please our boss, our parents, our teachers and so many others in life. Screw them. Stay true to your purpose and make the choices that make you happy. It doesn’t matter if your parents like your spouse if you love them. It doesn’t matter what the nosy neighbor thinks of your life as long as you like your life. Find your own way through life and seek only the counsel of those you admire and trust. To hell with what everybody else thinks. You are the only one who has to answer questions about your life when you lay facing death someday. No one else will be there. Live your life so those answers please you and allow you to leave with a smile.
There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
Socrates is best known for his death but according to Plato and Xenophon he had much to say while alive and this may be the best of it. Knowledge is to be found everywhere and so few take the time to look for it. It is ironic that in the information age knowledge is so readily available and yet so rarely sought. A mind that is not always seeking and processing new information might as well already be dead. You do not have to sit amidst a stack of dry dusty encyclopedias to find new knowledge or expand your mind. There is knowledge in fiction, in painting, in music, in nature, in conversation and in most activities that involve the mind. It seems to me that most would prefer to spend their time and brain cells observing honey boo-boo and other such garbage. It is sadly ironic that the greatest tool for expanding knowledge in the history of the world is used more for angry birds and sharing cat videos. The quest for knowledge is the quest for life itself.
One has only to look to our political system today to understand the evil of ignorance. It is far better to let party leaders tell you what to think than investigate and develop informed opinions. I hear people speaking passionately speaking about immigration, abortion, gay marriage, wealth redistribution and other such matters without so much as a single fucking clue what they are talking about. We believe and repeat what we are told based on the mark on our voters registration card.
Our schools and universities are no long places where people go to gain knowledge. We teach today to standardized tests. Individual thought and exploration seems to be discouraged. We teach a sanitized version of history that leaves out all the blood, piss and vomit that make up the story of the world. I am appalled by kids who can tell you we had a revolution but cannot tell you what the founders believed. I talk to high school kids who have no clue who Eisenhower was, or what the Federalist papers are, or why Vietnam happened or even where it is and what it was. We teach to a test and no one learns. As Richard Feynman once pointed out falsehood and evil can be taught as easily as good and true. Unfortunately this is far too often the case.
Ignorance breeds contempt and hatred. If you do not understand people who look, feel, or love differently than you it is easy to hate them. Not taking the time to learn about another’s religion has been the cause of more death that anything else in the history of the world. Ignorance is the cause of evil and evil in and of itself. It lacks any excuse as it is so easily cured.
Which of course brings us to Descartes and his opining that “ I think therefore I am”. Many people better hope this is not so because if this maxim is true they simply aren’t.
The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.
This one comes from what one would assume to be an unlikely source for such a touchy feeling statement. Those who toil in the world of physics and science are not usually noted for things like laughter and compassion. Of course most of them do not play the bongo drums or hang out doing equations in strip clubs like Richard Feynman did either. The man who exposed cargo culture, worked on the atomic bomb and figured out why the space shuttle exploded was one of the greatest thinkers of this or any other age. Along with the hard science he figured out physics was not the most important thing. Love and compassion are. The book of his letters over the years, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, shows a deeply compassionate and passionate man.
The lack of compassion in the world bothers me deeply. We hate what we do not understand and even the simplest forms of polite behavior escape so many today. Why snap at the clerk who made a simple error instead of understanding that no one is perfect and she may be having a very bad day of her own. Maybe that waitress that was a little slow with your food is working a double shift to pay medical bills for a sick child who is home with a sitter. I guarantee you that homeless person you stepped over is not having a great fucking day and is not worthy of your anger and disgust. I wrote the following a few years ago on the subject of compassion and it seems unnecessary to reinvent the wheel:
This is something that those of us who call ourselves libertarians fuck up beyond belief. While I deeply believe that government redistribution of wealth, uneven taxation and handouts is wrong this does not mean that there should be no compassion. Believing in myself and taking responsibility does not excuse me from giving a shit about those with whom I share the planet. I should not have an obligation to give my money to anyone I do not want to. However I should want to help some of those who have struggled along the way. If life has smiled on you why not help those who feel frowned upon right now.
Why not give money to help spread literacy? We have far too many people in our own country that never learned to read. What contribution might they make to the world or their own life if we open that door for them? Is giving the mentally handicapped the chance for a job or the ability to take some measure of direction over their life a handout or a hand up? Do you know what horrible circumstances led that mother and child to be homeless? Are you so perfect you get to judge? The five bucks you give her might go to the crack pipe, that’s true. It might go to feed the child for a day. Since you tip more than that for an overcooked burger and a beer at the bar why do you give a shit? The chance she feeds the baby is worth taking the risk in my feeble mind. You are right. I do not owe it to anyone to help them. I owe it to myself.
Buy the Ticket, take the Ride.
This of course comes from one of the greatest philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, Hunter S. Thompson. You may not agree with all the choices the good doctor made but you cannot deny that he rode the ride of life about as fast and as far as anyone possibly could. He figured out early that you could embrace life and live on your own terms or hunker down in fear and settle for the middle mundane path. He took the ride.
The ride of life is right there but you do have to buy the ticket. You cannot be afraid to try. To risk, to love, to laugh, to scream down your fears and delight in the high speed passage is to really experience life. You cannot live a loveless life in which you take no risks, try nothing new, not laugh at the absurdity of it all and say you have lived. To truly live is not for the timid but it is the right way to live.
As the poet Baudelaire advised be drunk on life, on wine on virtue and on poetry. “So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.” Drink of life with great thirst and slam the glass down spilling drops of grape in all directions and demand more. Odds are you will get it.
We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
As someone who was tied up with Caligula, Claudius and Nero Seneca The Younger had to have learned plenty about fear. The poor bastard was constantly being exiled or accused of some damn thing or another. But somewhere along the way he gave many nuggets of wisdom and this is probably his most important of all.
Fear is the fucker of life. Fear will freeze you, bind you and keep you from being who you can be and gaining what you desire. It is the bully in the playground and the bouncer in the bar of life. I have seen people walk away from incredible opportunities because they were scared to leave their nine to five job that they hated. I have seen people not ask out their dream girl for fear she would say no. I have seen people pass up on so much of life because they were afraid of the unknown. I have known people who lose sleep because they are afraid of this or that or the other. Fear unconquered is a waste of time and killer of life.
Here is the thing about life. Sometimes it sucks and bad things happen. They happen just as much to nice people who go to church and help the poor. Now I have always lived fairly aggressively and from the days of my misspent youth up through today I have had lots of bad things happen to me. I have had people I cared about die. I have been fired. I have lost all my money. Not so long ago I had the IRS take all my money. I have been beat up. I have been locked up a time or thirty in youth. I have had my heart broken. I have had horrible mistakes. I have had friends steal from me. I have had broken bones, stubbed toes and everything in between. They all hurt. They all heal. Here’s the thing about bad shit and why you should not be afraid of it. If it happens and doesn’t kill you, you get over it and can recover. If it kills you, you won’t care anymore anyway. If it doesn’t happen you spent a lot of time being afraid of the boogie man for no damn reason.
If I let fear dictate my life I would have never quit my job as a broker and found a career I really love. If I let the broken hearts of the past keep from loving I never would have found Erin and the happiness we have found together. If I was afraid to drink too much I never would have had children. If past injustices made me harden my heart I would not have all the friends I have today. Bad shit does happen but so does good shit. Money can be made back. Love can be found and life can be worth living. But if you are afraid to try none of the good shit can happen.
I am by no means a great philosopher but I have learned a few things along the way.
History will not recall me as they do Cato the younger, the older or even Cato the village idiot but I have learned a few things along the way that have served me well and seem worth mentioning.
It costs nothing to be kind most of the time.
Love does indeed matter more than physics, markets, business and even baseball.
Read a lot. Read everything.
Be open to other points of view. Be honest with yourself that given all the stupid shit you have done no one else knows about and admit there is no way you have figured out everything. Don’t fall into the “not invented here” syndrome. Other people have good ideas too and there are lots of people smarter than me and you.
Live with abandon. Don’t be afraid of anything but the mediocre and the mundane.
Be responsible for yourself, your failures and mistakes as well as your successes.
Unless they piss in your drink, over tip.
Educated risks where you have a definable edge are not gambling. Go for it. If you lose go for it again as long as the edge exists.
If you can help someone, do it.
Try not to fuck up any more people than you have to as you go through life. You will make mistakes and hurt people; it is part of being alive. Try not to do it too much.
Don’t let fear dictate your choices. As I said If it doesn’t kill you, you can recover .If it kills you, you won’t care anymore
Once in a while throw a bum $20 without worrying how they spend it. To be honest if they are down to living on the streets booze might be the best expenditure for them.
Read some more.
Wine polishes the good and blunts the bad.
Baseball is the game of the mind and worth watching often
A good spouse makes the journey livable. A great one makes it a sparkling journey of excitement and passion. Thankfully I have a great one.
Be skeptical of self-proclaimed geniuses. Quite often they are just undiscovered idiots.
Never trade your dreams for someone elses.
Don’t worry what other people think. Worry what you think and how you feel about your actions.
Live on your own terms and do what you will with your life with great passion and effort.
Keep in mind your right to happiness ends where the other guys starts. You can’t find your dream by crushing someone else’s.
Be fucking nice when you can.
Avoid all idiots, charlatans, fools and imbeciles. Should they wander into your life remove them, violently if necessary. Ignorance is not only evil it is often contagious.
Learn from Ben Graham. Not just in picking stocks but in his desire to do something foolish, something creative, and something generous. In a lifetime of saying some really smart things this is the smartest he ever said.