Tag: Friedrich Nietzsche

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge

Today’s title comes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which regular readers of my writing will know I read on repeat. George Herbert, the English poet, wrote something similar to this in “living well is the best revenge”.

But what do these things actually mean in practice?


One of my favourite episodes of Frasier (the only sitcom I’ve ever really enjoyed) is when Niles has to confront his childhood bully. It leads to this magnificent exchange:

Frasier:
You know the expression, “Living well is the best revenge”?
Niles:
It’s a wonderful expression. I just don’t know how true it is. You don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots. “Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well.”
Frasier:
All right, Niles.
Niles:
“Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act again by living even better than the Duke.”
Frasier:
Oh, all right!

In other words, it often doesn’t feel that ‘living well’ makes any tangible difference.

But let’s step back a moment. What does it mean to ‘live well’? Is it the same as refraining from imitating others, or are Marcus Aurelius and George Herbert talking about two entirely different things?


During an email exchange last week, someone mentioned that they weren’t sure whether my segues between topics were ‘brilliant’ or ‘tenuous’. Well, dear reader, here’s a chance to judge for yourself.


In a recent article for Fast Company, ostensibly about ‘personal branding’ Trip O’Dell gets awfully deep awfully quickly and starts invoking Aristotle:

Aristotle is the father of Western philosophy because he didn’t focus on likes, engagement, or followers. Aristotle focused on the nature of authenticity; what it means to be real but also persuasive. He broke the requirements for persuasiveness into four simple elements: ethos (reputation/authority), logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and kairos (timing). Those four elements are required to argue persuasively in any context. However, the stakes are higher in business. Confidently communicating who you are, what you stand for, and why you’re great at what you do is not only essential, it’s liberating.

Trip O’Dell

What I particularly like about the article is the re-focusing on ‘personal ethos’ rather than ‘personal brand’. Branding is a form of marketing, of changing the surface appearance of something. It’s about morphing a product (in this case, yourself) into something that better fits in with what other people expect.

An ethos runs much deeper. It is, as Aristotle noted, about your reputation or authority, neither of which are manufactured overnight.

The hardest part of establishing a professional ethos is describing it; it takes work, and it isn’t easy. The process requires a level of maturity and self-awareness that can be uncomfortable at times. You’re forced to ask some essential questions and make yourself vulnerable to critique and rejection. That discomfort is the tax that is paid to eliminate self-defeating habits that hold many people back in their professional lives.

Trip O’Dell

This is where that magnificent word ‘authenticity’ comes in. No-one really knows what it means, but everyone wants to have it. I’d argue that authenticity is a by-product of reputation and authority. Easy to destroy, difficult to build.


Let me set my stall out by saying that I think that Marcus Aurelius (“To refrain from imitation is the best revenge”) and George Herbert (“Living well is the best revenge”) were actually talking about much the same thing.

I don’t know much about George Herbert, but Wikipedia tells me he was an orator as well as a poet, and fluent in Latin and Greek. So I’m surmising that he at least had a passing knowledge of the Stoics. The chances are he was using his poetic flair to make Marcus Aurelius’ quotation a little more memorable.


Revenge can be dramatic and explosive. It can be as subtle as tiny daggers. Either way, revenge involves communicating something to another person in such a way that they realise you’ve got one up on them.

Malice may or may not be involved; it’s probably better if it isn’t. The pop diva Mariah Carey is the queen of this, claiming that she “doesn’t know” people with whom she’s allegedly having a feud.

But, back to the dead white dudes. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson explains that the Stoics saw that both way we live and the way we communicate as important.

The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately. Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument. He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him. He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner.

Donald J. Robertson

In other words, you don’t need to imitate other people’s anger, irritability, or lack of patience. You can ‘live well’ by being comfortable in your own skin and demonstrate the calm waters of your soul.

This, of course, is hard work. Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying:

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Feel free to substitute ‘internet trolls’ or ‘petty-minded neighbours’ for ‘dragons’. The effect is the same. Marcus Aurelius is reminding us that refraining from imitating their behaviour is the best form of revenge.

Likewise, George Herbert is telling us that ‘living well’ is (as Trip O’Dell notes in that Fast Company article) about having a ‘personal ethos’. It’s about knowing who you are and where you’re going. And, potentially, acting like Mariah Carey, throwing shade on your enemies by not acknowledging their existence.

Only thoughts conceived while walking have any value

Philosopher and intrepid walker Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for today’s quotation-as-title. Fellow philosopher Immanuel Kant was a keen walker, too, along with Henry David Thoreau. There’s just something about big walks and big thoughts.

I spent a good part of yesterday walking about 30km because I woke wanting to see the sea. It has a calming effect on me, and my wife was at work with the car. Forty-thousand steps later, I’d not only succeeded in my mission and taken the photo that accompanies this post, but managed to think about all kinds of things that definitely wouldn’t have entered my mind had I stayed at home.

I want to focus the majority of this article on a single piece of writing by Craig Mod, whose walk across Japan I followed by SMS. Instead of sharing the details of his 620 mile, six-week trek via social media, he instead updated a server which then sent text messages (with photographs, so technically MMS) to everyone who’d signed up to receive them. Readers could reply, but he didn’t receive these until he’d finished the walk and they’d been automatically curated into a book and sent to him.

Writing in WIRED, Mod talks of his “glorious, almost-disconnected walk” which was part experiment, part protest:

I have configured servers, written code, built web pages, helped design products used by millions of people. I am firmly in the camp that believes technology is generally bending the world in a positive direction. Yet, for me, Twitter foments neurosis, Facebook sadness, Google News a sense of foreboding. Instagram turns me covetous. All of them make me want to do it—whatever “it” may be—for the likes, the comments. I can’t help but feel that I am the worst version of myself, being performative on a very short, very depressing timeline. A timeline of seconds.

[…]

So, a month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. Maybe even a protest. I wanted to test hypotheses. Our smartphones are incredible machines, and to throw them away entirely feels foolhardy. The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. To bask in serendipitous surrealism, not just as steps between reloading my streams. I wanted to experience time.

Craig Mod

I love this, it’s so inspiring. The most number of consecutive days I’ve walked is only two, so I can’t even really imagine what it must be like to walk for weeks at a time. It’s a form of meditation, I suppose, and a way to re-centre oneself.

The longness of an activity is important. Hours or even days don’t really cut it when it comes to long. “Long” begins with weeks. Weeks of day-after-day long walking days, 30- or 40-kilometer days. Days that leave you wilted and aware of all the neglect your joints and muscles have endured during the last decade of sedentary YouTubing.

[…]

In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.

Craig Mod

I find that when I walk for any period of time, certain songs start going through my head. Yesterday, for example, my brain put on repeat the song Good Enough by Dodgy from their album Free Peace Sweet. The time before it was We Can Do It from Jamiroquai’s latest album Automaton. I’m not sure where it comes from, although the beat does have something to do with my pace.

Walking by oneself seems to do something to the human brain akin to unlocking the subconscious. That’s why I’m not alone in calling it a ‘meditative’ activity. While I enjoy walking with others, the brain seems to start working a different way when you’re by yourself being propelled by your own two legs.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not ‘keeping up’ with work, with family and friends, and with the news. The truth is, however, that the most important person to ‘keep up’ with is yourself. Having a strong sense of self, I believe, is the best way to live a life with meaning.

It might sound ‘boring’ to go for a long walk, but as Alain de Botton notes in The News: a user’s manual, getting out of our routine is sometimes exactly what we need:

What we colloquially call ‘feeling bored’ is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.

Alain de Botton

I’m not going to tell you what I thought about during my walk today as, outside of the rich (inner and outer) context in which the thinking took place, whatever I write would probably sound banal.

To me, however, the thoughts I had today will, like all of the thoughts I’ve had while doing some serious walking, help me organise my future actions. Perhaps that’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that only thoughts conceived while walking have any value.


Also check out:

  • One step ahead: how walking opens new horizons (The Guardian) — “Walking provides just enough diversion to occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the surface.”
  • A Philosophy of Walking (Frédéric Gros) — “a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us.”
  • What 10,000 Steps Will Really Get You (The Atlantic) — “While basic guidelines can be helpful when they’re accurate, human health is far too complicated to be reduced to a long chain of numerical imperatives. For some people, these rules can even do more harm than good.”