Tag: Seneca

It is the child within us that trembles before death

So said Plato in his Phaedo. I’ve just returned from a holiday, much of which was dominated by finding out that a good friend of mine had passed away. It was a huge shock.

A few days later, author Austin Kleon sent out a newsletter noting that a few people he particularly admired had also died, and linked to a post about checking in with death. In it, he quotes advice from a pediatrician who works with patients in palliative care:

Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.

These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details.

Oh… and eat ice-cream.

Alastair McAlpine

Despite my grandmother dying last year, I was utterly unprepared for the death of my friend. I had thought that by reading Stoic philosophy every day, and having a memento mori next to my bed, that I was somehow in tune with death. I really wasn’t.

I shed many tears for the first couple of days after hearing the news. While I was devastated by the loss of a good friend, I was also affected by the questions it raised about my own mortality.

I’m thankful for the strong support network of family and friends that have helped me with the grieving process. One friend in particular has a much healthier relationship with death than me. They said that they’ve come to see such times in their life as a useful opportunity to re-assess whether they’re on the right course.

That makes sense. I don’t want to waste the rest of the time I have left.

Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly – so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.

Seneca

Some people seem to pack several lifetimes into their short time on earth. Others, not so much.

When I studied Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was always puzzled by Aristotle’s mention of Solon in the Nichomachean Ethics. He thought events and actions after a person’s death could affect their ‘happiness’.

On reflection, I think it’s a way of saying that the effect that someone has during their time on earth ⁠— for example, as a teacher — outlasts them. Their lives can be viewed in a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ light based on how things turn out.

When someone close to you dies before they reach old age, we also mentally factor-in the happiness they could have experienced after they passed away. However, after the initial shock of them no longer being present comes the realisation that they (and you) wouldn’t have been around forever anyway.

Back in 2017, Zan Boag, editor of New Philosopher magazine, interviewed Hilde Lindemann, Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University. In a wide-ranging interview, she commented:

Premature death is a tragedy, but I don’t think death at the end of a normal human life span should be met with anger and indignation. We humans can only take in so much, and in due season it will be time for us all to leave

Hilde Lindemann

As a husband and father, perhaps the hardest teaching from the Stoic philosophers around death comes from Epictetus in his Enchiridion. He expresses a similar thought in several different ways, but here is one formulation:

If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own… Exercise, therefore, what is in your control.

Epictetus

There are some things that are in my control, and some things that are not. Epictetus’ teachings can be reduced to the simple point that we should be concerned with those things which are under our control.

Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations we should remember were designed as a form of practical philosophical journal, also mentioned death a lot.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.

Marcus Aurelius

I think the best thing to take from the experience of losing someone close to us other is to begin a life worth living right now. Not putting off for the future right action and virtuous living, but practising them immediately.

It’s certainly been a wake-up call for me. I’ll be reading even more books, giving my family more hugs, and standing up for the things in which I believe. Starting now.

Aren’t you ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnants of your life and to dedicate to wisdom only that time can’t be directed to business?

Once you remove the specific details from the lives of the ancients, their lives were remarkably like ours. Take today’s title, for example, which is a quotation from Seneca. He knew what it was like to be so busy doing ‘productive’ things to the exclusion of almost everything else.

My good friend Laura Hilliger wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the most no-nonsense person I know. By observing the way she lives and works, I’m learning to set limits and say exactly what I think:

Alright. I give up. #protip - If you are unable to be productive, forcing yourself to try and be productive is making you even more unproductive. Read a book or something instead.

The thing is that western society, implicitly at least, assumes that people are ‘fixed’ in terms of their personality and likes. But that’s just the way that we choose to see ourselves:

Diagram showing The Socialised Mind, The Self-Authoring Mind, and the Self-Transforming Mind

I feel that the biggest thing that constrains us is our view of how we think other people see us. That perceived expectation becomes internalised, creating a ‘psychic prison’ which becomes an extremely limited playground. For better or for worse, we perform the role of how we think other people have come to see us.

One way many people find to avoid responsibility for their life choices is to play the ‘busy’ card. They’re too busy to make good decisions, to look after their mental and physical health, to ensure that they’re doing your best work.

The trouble is, that’s simply not true. We’ve got more free time than our parents and grandparents:

Chart taken from The Atlantic

As the above chart demonstrates, it’s not true that we actually work more hours. Instead, I think, it’s that we’re so concerned about how other people see us that we spend time doing things that feel like work but are mostly to do with presentation of self. Hence the amount of time spent on social networks like Instagram trying to create the highlights reel of our lives to show others.

One way of viewing this is that we’ve collectively internalised capitalism. The logic of the market has become as invisible to us as an ideology as water is to fish. In fact, some people say it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism!

How to know when you've internalised capitalism
- you determine your worth based on your productivity
- you feel guilty for resting
- your primary concern is to make yourself profitable
- you neglect your health
- you think 'hard work' is what brings happiness

Of course, it’s become something of a cliché in our pseudo-enlightened times to talk of capitalism as the meta-problem behind everything. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

Probably one of the biggest unacknowledged impacts of capitalism on our life is the artificial scarcity of time.

Without capitalism, we could all work less. We could rest more. We could let selfcare, play and creation come intuitively. A lot of things don’t need to be scheduled. 
We could just let time happen without any obligation to make a particular use of it.

When we act as if we’re in a rush, things aren’t properly scrutinised. Yesterday’s news (and opinions, and facts) don’t matter. It’s all about today. Our politicians have no shame, and ethics are entirely subjective.

Existential Comics - Marx on Business Ethics (1)
Existential Comics - Marx on Business Ethics (2)
Existentialist Comics

Our identity is mediated by the market, by what we produce instead of who we are. I keep coming back to a fantastic episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast entitled Who Are You Without The Doing? in which she explains that we should learn to ‘sit with ourselves’, learning that change comes from within:

You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.

Jocelyn K. Glei

Derek Sivers uses the metaphor of ‘doors’ to explain where he finds value and wants to spend time doing. Some doors he opens and it helps him grow as a person and fosters positive relationships.

But one door is really no fun to open. I’m horrified at all the shouting, the second I open it. It’s an infinite dark room filled with psychologically tortured people, trying to get attention. Strangers screaming at strangers, starting fights. Businesses set up shop there, showing who’s said and done bad things today, because they make money when people get mad.

Derek Sivers

We keep wringing our hands about people’s behaviour online, but it’s that way for a reason. Hate is profitable for social networks:

Massive platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “optimize for engagement,” and make automatic, algorithmic suggestions for every bit of content or action. From “you might also like” to “recommended just for you” to prioritizing things — anything — that will get you to click, comment, or share.

[…]

They know what will catch your attention. They know what will get you “engaged.” They know what will be more likely to lead you deeper into a rabbit hole, and what will make it harder to climb back out. Is it a literal, iron-clad trap? No. But the slippery, spiral path that leads people to the darkest corners of the internet is not an accident.

[…]

Hate is profitable. Conflict is profitable. Schadenfreude and shame are profitable. While we smugly point fingers, tsk-tsk, and think we’re being clever as we strategically dole out likes and shares, we forget that we are all just gruel-fed hamsters running on wheels deep inside giant, hyper-engineered, artificially intelligent, fully gamified, corporate-controlled virtual worlds that we absurdly think belong to us.

Ryan Ozawa

This all comes back to the time equation. Because we feel like we don’t have enough time to curate things ourselves, we outsource that to others. That ends up with handing our information environments over to others to manipulate and control. It’s curate or be curated.

Nobody cares about how much money you earn. Nobody cares how productive you are. Not really.

Also, without sounding harsh, nobody else cares how productive you are. Of course, productivity is important for important things, and “getting stuff done” or whatever, but it doesn’t define you in any way. What does is things like your sense of humour, where your passions lie, how you comfort a friend who’s upset, and that weird noise you make when the delivery guy calls you to say he’s outside with your food.

Leila Mitwally

The trouble is that we don’t want to have this conversation, because it questions our identity, and everything we’ve been working for over our careers and throughout our lives:

But we don’t want to hear that because accepting this truth means asking a lot of complicated questions about our society, in which work is glorified as the pinnacle of self-expression, and personal earnings are viewed as a measure of merit and esteem.

Instead, we would instead read about buy into the idea that success in our work life is a merely a matter of being more productive. If you just follow the ‘right’ set of algorithms or rules, you too can achieve ‘success’ in your work life, along with fame and recognition and a fat bank account.

Richard Whittall

So, to finish, let me revisit a link I shared recently from Jason Hickel. We can choose to live differently, to recognise the abundance of time and resources we have in the world. To slow down, to take stock, and reject economic growth as in any way a useful indicator of human flourishing:

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can call a halt to the madness – throw a wrench in the juggernaut. By de-enclosing social goods and restoring the commons, we can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life without having to generate piles of income in order to do so, and without feeding the never-ending growth machine. “Private riches” may shrink, as Lauderdale pointed out, but public wealth will increase.

Jason Hickel

It doesn’t have to be difficult. We can just, as Dan Lyons mentions in his book Lab Rats, decide to work on things that ‘close the gap’ or ‘increase the gap’. What that means to you, in your context, is a different matter.

One can see only what one has already seen

Fernando Pessoa with today’s quotation-as-title. He’s best known for The Book of Disquiet which he called “a factless autobiography”. It’s… odd. Here’s a sample:

Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

Fernando pessoa

I’ve been reading a lot of Seneca recently, who famously said:

Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.

Seneca

The trouble is, we try and predict the future in order to control the future. Some people have a good track record in this, partly because they are involved in shaping things in the present. Other people have a vested interest in trying to get the world to bend to their ideology.

In an article for WIRED, Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab writes about ‘extended intelligence’ being the future rather than AI:

The notion of singularity – which includes the idea that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, making everything we humans have done and will do insignificant – is a religion created mostly by people who have designed and successfully deployed computation to solve problems previously considered impossibly complex for machines.

Joi Ito

It’s a useful counter-balance to those banging the AI drum and talking about the coming jobs apocalypse.

After talking about ‘S curves’ and adaptive systems, Ito explains that:

Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines – not artificial intelligence but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems.

Joi Ito

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing some of the ideas put forward in The Weight of Light: a collection of solar futures (which is free to download in multiple formats). We need to stop listening solely to rich white guys proclaiming the Silicon Valley narrative of ‘disruption’. There are many other, much more collaborative and egalitarian, ways of thinking about and designing for the future.

This collection was inspired by a simple question: what would a world powered entirely by solar energy look like? In part, this question is about the materiality of solar energy—about where people will choose to put all the solar panels needed to power the global economy. It’s also about how people will rearrange their lives, values, relationships, markets, and politics around photovoltaic technologies. The political theorist and historian Timothy Mitchell argues that our current societies are carbon democracies, societies wrapped around the technologies, systems, and logics of oil.What will it be like, instead, to live in the photon societies of the future?

The Weight of Light: a collection of solar futures

We create the future, it doesn’t just happen to us. My concern is that we don’t recognise the signs that we’re in the last days. Someone shared this quotation from the philosopher Kierkegaard recently, and I think it describes where we’re at pretty well:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.

Søren Kierkegaard

Let’s home we collectively wake up before it’s too late.


Also check out:

  • Are we on the road to civilisation collapse? (BBC Future) — “Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.”
  • Fish farming could be the center of a future food system (Fast Company) — “Aquaculture has been shown to have 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions of beef when it’s done well, and 50% of the feed usage per unit of production as beef”
  • The global internet is disintegrating. What comes next? (BBC FutureNow) — “A separate internet for some, Facebook-mediated sovereignty for others: whether the information borders are drawn up by individual countries, coalitions, or global internet platforms, one thing is clear – the open internet that its early creators dreamed of is already gone.”

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present

Thanks to Seneca for today’s quotation, taken from his still-all-too-relevant On the Shortness of Life. We’re constantly being told that we need to ‘hustle’ to make it in today’s society. However, as Dan Lyons points out in a book I’m currently reading called Lab Rats: how Silicon Valley made work miserable for the rest of uswe’re actually being ‘immiserated’ for the benefit of Venture Capitalists. 

As anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow will know, there are two dominant types of thinking:

The central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman’s own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to people’s tendency to replace a difficult question with one which is easy to answer, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgement.

WIkipedia

Cal Newport, in a book of the same name, calls ‘System 2’ something else: Deep Work. Seneca, Kahneman, and Newport, are all basically saying the same thing but with different emphasis. We need to allow ourselves time for the slower and deliberative work that makes us uniquely human.

That kind of work doesn’t happen when you’re being constantly interrupted, nor when you’re in an environment that isn’t comfortable, nor when you’re fearful that your job may not exist next week. A post for the Nuclino blog entitled Slack Is Not Where ‘Deep Work’ Happens uses a potentially-apocryphal tale to illustrate the point:

On one morning in 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was composing his famous poem Kubla Khan, which came to him in an opium-induced dream the night before. Upon waking, he set about writing until he was interrupted by an unknown person from Porlock. The interruption caused him to forget the rest of the lines, and Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed.

Nuclino blog

What we’re actually doing by forcing everyone to use synchronous tools like Slack is a form of journalistic rhythm — but without everyone being synced-up:

Diagram courtesy of the Nuclino blog

If you haven’t read Deep Work, never fear, because there’s an epic article by Fadeke Adegbuyi for doist entitled The Complete Guide to Deep Work which is particularly useful:

This is an actionable guide based directly on Newport’s strategies in Deep Work. While we fully recommend reading the book in its entirety, this guide distills all of the research and recommendations into a single actionable resource that you can reference again and again as you build your deep work practice. You’ll learn how to integrate deep work into your life in order to execute at a higher level and discover the rewards that come with regularly losing yourself in meaningful work.

Fadeke Adegbuyi

Lots of articles and podcast episodes say they’re ‘actionable’ or provide ‘tactics’ for success. I have to say this one delivers. I’d still read Newport’s book, though.

Interestingly, despite all of the ridiculousness spouted by VC’s, people are pretty clear about how they can do their best work. After a Dropbox survey of 500 US-based workers in the knowledge economy, Ben Taylor outlines four ‘lessons’ they’ve learned:

  1. More workers want to slow down to get things right — “In reality, 61% of workers said they wanted to “slow down to get things right” while only 41%* wanted to “go fast to achieve more.” The divide was even starker among older workers.”
  2. Workers strongly value uninterrupted focus at work, but most will make an exception to help others — “The results suggest we need to be more thoughtful about when we break our concentration, or ask others to do so. When people know they are helping others in a meaningful way, they tend to be okay with some distraction. But the busywork of meetings, alerts, and emails can quickly disrupt a person’s flow—one of the most important values we polled.”
  3. Most workers have slightly more trust in people closest to the work, rather than people in upper management — “Among all respondents, 53% trusted people “closest to the work,” while only 45% trusted “upper management.” You might assume that younger workers would be the most likely to trust peers over management, but in fact, the opposite was true.”
  4. Workers are torn between idealism and pragmatism — “It’s tempting to assume that addressing just one piece—like taking a stand on societal issues—will necessarily get in the way of the work itself. But our research suggests we can begin to solve the two in tandem, as more equality, inclusion, and diversity tends to come hand-in-hand with a healthier mindset about work.”

I think we need to reclaim workplace culture from the hustlers, shallow thinkers, and those focused on short-term profit. Let’s reflect on how things actually work in practice. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says about being ‘antifragile’, let’s “look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time”.


Also check out:

  • Health effects of job insecurity (IZA) — “Workers’ health is not just a matter for employees and employers, but also for public policy. Governments should count the health cost of restrictive policies that generate unemployment and insecurity, while promoting employability through skills training.”
  • Will your organization change itself to death? (opensource.com) — “Sometimes, an organization returns to the same state after sensing a stimulus. Think about a kid’s balancing doll: You can push it and it’ll wobble around, but it always returns to its upright state… Resilient organizations undergo change, but they do so in the service of maintaining equilibrium.”
  • Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus (HBR) — “The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.”

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage

Thank you to Seneca for the quotation for today’s title, which sprang to mind after reading Rosie Spinks’ claim in Quartz that we’ve reached ‘peak influencer’.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

Thank goodness for that. The selfie-obsessed influencer brigade is an insidious effect of the neoliberalism that permeates western culture:

For the internet influencer, everything from their morning sun salutation to their coffee enema (really) is a potential money-making opportunity. Forget paying your dues, or working your way up—in fact, forget jobs. Work is life, and getting paid to live your best life is the ultimate aspiration.

[…]

“Selling out” is not just perfectly OK in the influencer economy—it’s the raison d’etre. Influencers generally do not have a craft or discipline to stay loyal to in the first place, and by definition their income comes from selling a version of themselves.

As Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, explains the problem isn’t necessarily with social networks. It’s that you care about them. Social networks flatten everything into a never-ending stream. That stream makes it very difficult to differentiate between gossip and (for example) extremely important things that are an existential threat to democratic institutions:

“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.”

It’s easier for me to say these days that our obsession with Twitter and Instagram is unhealthy. While I’ve never used Instagram (because it’s owned by Facebook) a decade ago I was spending hours each week on Twitter. My relationship with the service has changed as I’ve grown up and it has changed — especially after it became a publicly-traded company in 2013.

Twitter, in particular, now feels like a neverending soap opera similar to EastEnders. There’s always some outrage or drama running. Perhaps it’s better, as Catherine Price suggests in The New York Times, just to put down our smartphones?

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

Depending on how we use them, social networks can stoke the worst feelings in us: emotions such as jealousy, anger, and worry. This is not conducive to healthy outcomes, especially for children where stress has a direct correlation to the take-up of addictive substances, and to heart disease in later life.

I wonder how future generations will look back at this time period?


Also check out:

What we can learn from Seneca about dying well

As I’ve shared before, next to my bed at home I have a memento mori, an object to remind me before I go to sleep and when I get up that one day I will die. It kind of puts things in perspective.

“Study death always,” Seneca counseled his friend Lucilius, and he took his own advice. From what is likely his earliest work, the Consolation to Marcia (written around AD 40), to the magnum opus of his last years (63–65), the Moral Epistles, Seneca returned again and again to this theme. It crops up in the midst of unrelated discussions, as though never far from his mind; a ringing endorsement of rational suicide, for example, intrudes without warning into advice about keeping one’s temper, in On Anger. Examined together, Seneca’s thoughts organize themselves around a few key themes: the universality of death; its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage; its part in purely natural cycles and processes; and its ability to liberate us, by freeing souls from bodies or, in the case of suicide, to give us an escape from pain, from the degradation of enslavement, or from cruel kings and tyrants who might otherwise destroy our moral integrity.

Seneca was forced to take his own life by his own pupil, the more-than-a-little-crazy Roman Emperor, Nero. However, his whole life had been a preparation for such an eventuality.

Seneca, like many leading Romans of his day, found that larger moral framework in Stoicism, a Greek school of thought that had been imported to Rome in the preceding century and had begun to flourish there. The Stoics taught their followers to seek an inner kingdom, the kingdom of the mind, where adherence to virtue and contemplation of nature could bring happiness even to an abused slave, an impoverished exile, or a prisoner on the rack. Wealth and position were regarded by the Stoics as adiaphora, “indifferents,” conducing neither to happiness nor to its opposite. Freedom and health were desirable only in that they allowed one to keep one’s thoughts and ethical choices in harmony with Logos, the divine Reason that, in the Stoic view, ruled the cosmos and gave rise to all true happiness. If freedom were destroyed by a tyrant or health were forever compromised, such that the promptings of Reason could no longer be obeyed, then death might be preferable to life, and suicide, or self-euthanasia, might be justified.

Given that death is the last taboo in our society, it’s an interesting way to live your life. Being ready at any time to die, having lived a life that you’re satisfied with, seems like the right approach to me.

“Study death,” “rehearse for death,” “practice death”—this constant refrain in his writings did not, in Seneca’s eyes, spring from a morbid fixation but rather from a recognition of how much was at stake in navigating this essential, and final, rite of passage. As he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and—perhaps you’ll find this more surprising—a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.”

Source: Lapham’s Quarterly