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  • feedwordpress 10:00:32 on 2019/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: Aristotle, , , Edith Hall, Greek and Roman philosophy, , Stoicism   

    “People Need to Find When Their Brains Work Best and Fit Their Schedules Around That.” 

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    Interview: Edith Hall

    I love Edith Hall's short biography: "Edith Hall is a London University Academic who specialises in putting pleasure into the history, literature, theatre, myth and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and their continuing impact in the modern world."

    It manages to convey not only her expertise but also her enthusiasm for her subject, and her passion for teaching others to appreciate the ideas and history that absorb her. (Also, from the spellings we know she's British.)

    Given her biography, it's very fitting that Edith Hall's new book is Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life

    "Read Aristotle" was one of the elements in the extremely long subtitle for my book The Happiness Project, Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. (I love long subtitles, plus, ever since childhood I'd wanted to write a book with an "Or" title.)

    I couldn't wait to talk to Edith about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Edith: Daily switching off all social media and walking my dog in the local woods for an hour. Weekly cooking a full roast dinner with lots of interesting vegetables on Sunday for family and friends. Insisting everybody switches off all social media while we eat together.

    What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Being very judicious about whose opinion I care about. Women are trained culturally to want to be liked by everyone. But that is impossible because sibling rivalry, transferred out to our entire peer group in the world, makes envy such a motor in human life.

    There are some people whose opinion of you really, really matters. Building good long-term relationships is central to happiness, and it is essential to listen attentively to any complaints or criticisms from those whom I respect and want to live my life closely with. But there is a very large problem of envy and malice out there, which has become worse in the age of social media, and I, like many other people who try to do something creative with their lives, have suffered from a good deal of (what seem to me) unjustifiable attacks.

    But Aristotle says that if you are seriously trying to be the best version of yourself, and never damage people knowingly, then people who criticise you are inevitably motivated by envy, so their opinion really doesn’t matter at all. This realisation is incredibly liberating!

    You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

    I was amazed when I first started reading ancient Greek and Roman philosophy when I was an undergraduate to discover that between about 400 BC and 300 AD there was a whole tradition of non-religious discussion of the right way to live, morality, and the best routes to contentment. The ideas not only of Aristotle but of Socrates and Plato, the Stoics and other philosophers, can be adopted by anybody today, regardless of their religious or cultural or ethnic background. What’s more, they really work!

    When I talk to people of all ages about Aristotle’s recipe for deciding to live a happy life, they often write to me to say they can’t believe how modern and fresh and in tune with their own instinctive beliefs his method is.

    Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Fronting any problems with my family and close friends very swiftly and not stopping until they are resolved. I can’t work at all when emotionally disturbed or worried about those I love.

    Having a flight booked to go somewhere sunny soon when the dark November days draw in.

    I am an early riser and get twice as much work done, of any kind, between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. than at any other time of day. This does mean not going out late on weekday evenings, but it pays off tremendously. People need to find when their brains work best and then fit their daily schedules around that.

    I have always kept a cat and write best with one purring beside me. I love the way animals don’t judge you and just provide perfect, uncomplicated companionship.

    Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    I struggled with my weight from childhood, as did my mother and sister. There was far too much instantly edible food in the fridge. After my pregnancies, when I ended up far heavier than I had ever been, I ditched all diets and just moved to only two meals a day, one of them light, and if I’m not hungry I don’t even eat those. But I don’t then obsess at all about what’s on the menu. I’ve been the same OK weight for years.

    I like cooking meals from scratch and make big pans of vegetable soup with. I gave up snacking completely, and, just as Aristotle says about habits, what seemed like hard work at first just became an unconscious reflex. Even on autopilot I genuinely don’t like sweet things now, and find I think and write better on a fairly empty stomach.

    The other habit was choosing hopelessly inappropriate men. In my late teens and twenties I dated people because they were handsome and exciting. This was not compatible with looking for a co-parent to raise the children I so badly wanted with! In the end I got lucky (or rather, more discerning) and found someone who is both stimulating and a great dad. But it took some very tough self-analysis to get there!

    Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

    Very definitely a Questioner. I did the quiz! But I think I am a reformed Rebel. As a young person I often did just do the opposite thing from what authority figures of the rules of systems dictated. I do think that personal autonomy is an important part of happiness: there are terrible figures about the depression that results from having a bad boss.

    But I now don’t just rebel for the sake of it. I think hard about every rule and system, and often they are the way they are for extremely good reasons, like wearing a seat-belt in a car. As an Aristotelian, I am a ‘moral particularist’, which means that every single circumstance and every single situation will be different, and you have to exercise your judgement in every single case. Blanket acceptance of rules is not the most constructive approach.

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties)

    Travel is extremely disrupting to healthy eating. This is partly why I only eat two times a day and avoid the snacks. You can often buy better food at an airport/train station than what you are given on the plane/train. Bad weather and the mud it causes in winter is also really discouraging, as my main exercise is striding around in our lovely countryside, and I just don’t take well to indoor gyms etc.

    Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Several times! At 13 years old, when a priest was blaming the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus of Nazareth at Easter, I lost my faith altogether. The priest seemed so unsympathetic to these ordinary men in an army to which they had probably been conscripted, having to do what their superior officers commanded and terrified of punishment themselves. It made me realise that life was incredibly complicated, morally speaking, and that religion wasn’t helping me, personally, to find the answers to the big questions.

    The second was my 30th birthday in 1989 when I looked in the mirror and had to admit to myself that my first marriage wasn’t working since my then husband didn’t want a family. It took me a few months to pluck up the courage to go, but I did the night the Berlin Wall came down later that year. I suspect many other people took important decisions that night. The example of those brave East Germans scaling the concrete was so inspiring!

    Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

    “Onwards and upwards.” [Gretchen: How great! That's the signature sign-off line for my podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.] There is also a modern Greek proverb I like, “You help me and I’ll help you and together we’ll climb the mountain.” But it sounds better in Greek, like a line from a song.

  • feedwordpress 10:00:16 on 2018/12/13 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Stoicism, The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth   

    “Stoics Generally Are a Humble and Good-Natured Crowd.” 

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    Interview: Ward Farnsworth

    I got to know Warn Farnsworth during the year when we were both clerking for the Supreme Court; I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and he was clerking for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    I've strayed far from law, but not Ward. He's dean of the University of Texas Law School and has held many important legal positions over the years. Not only that, he's written many interesting books on law, rhetoric, philosophy, and chess.

    For a long time, I've been meaning to read his book Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor, and while I haven't read it yet, I recently finished his terrific new book The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual.

    It's a clear, accessible, enjoyable, and thought-provoking look at Stoic philosophy—which, as Ward makes clear, has much value to us today.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Ward about the relationship between happiness and stoicism.

    Gretchen: To most people, Stoicism doesn’t sound like it has much to do with happiness—more like the opposite, right?

    Ward: Yes, that’s the first thing to know about Stoicism—the word is misleading. In ordinary modern English it means something like “suffering without complaint.” But Stoicism as an ancient philosophy was a way to think about every aspect of being human, including happiness. The Stoics were deep analysts of happiness—in my view, the most interesting students of that subject who ever lived—present company excepted, of course. One of Seneca’s most important essays was called “On the Happy Life.”

    Gretchen: So what are some of the things they have to say about being happy?

    Ward: Well, I’ve written a new book—The Practicing Stoic—that presents the teachings of the Stoics in way that is meant to make sense for us now. Lesson number 1 is that we don’t react to events or people or anything else in the world. We react to our thoughts about them. And the thoughts are up to us.

    Gretchen: Hmmm. What’s an example?

    Ward: Let’s say that others are criticizing you—on Twitter, maybe—and you’re feeling down about it. The Stoic would say: you aren’t unhappy about what they said, at least not primarily. Your being upset arises from beliefs you hold—that you care what the critics think, for example, or that their opinions are worth worrying about for some other reason. If you didn’t hold those views, you wouldn’t be unhappy. So then the Stoic would spend some time asking why you care what some idiot on Twitter said, and after a while you would probably feel better.

    Gretchen: Definitely useful. But aren’t some reactions harder to see that way?

    Ward: Yes, I picked an easy example. But the Stoics think everything works roughly like that. If you’re mad about something, it’s because of your judgments, not the thing you’re mad at. If you’re afraid of something, it’s because of your thoughts, not because of the thing itself.

    Gretchen: But sometimes we should be mad or afraid, shouldn’t we?

    Ward: The Stoic would just ask: how does the anger or fear serve you? It probably makes you worse off. If something is dangerous, by all means avoid it; but how does the feeling of fear help? If something makes you angry, by all means consider fixing it or rectifying it; but how does getting angry help?

    Gretchen: But it isn’t that easy to decide to stop being afraid of some things.

    Ward: Yes, of course—sometimes it’s harder than it sounds. But sometimes it’s easier than it sounds. You realize that your fear comes from the way you talk to yourself, so you knock it off. But anyway the Stoics don’t just tell us to take responsibility for our thinking and leave it at that. They offer lots of ways to take apart a fear or a source of anger or whatever else and dissolve its effects—ways to replace thinking that probably doesn’t help with thinking that does.

    Gretchen: All right, but then let’s go back to happiness. How does that figure in?

    Ward: Of course reducing anger and fear is a great help towards happiness for most people. But the Stoics also talk a lot about gaining more happiness as such. Basically they think you can’t gain real happiness through direct effort. If you try to make yourself happy by satisfying your desires, for example, you find that they never really end. The way to find happiness is by focusing on things larger than yourself—on serving others and the greater good, on the love of truth, or (in a word) on virtue. The Stoics think of happiness as a byproduct of that way of life. It’s like sleep. You can’t fall asleep by working hard at it. You fall asleep by focusing on other things. The Stoics think happiness works in roughly that way.

    Gretchen: You talked about “Lesson 1.” What are some other Stoic teachings that are useful in trying to find happiness?

    Ward: Lesson 2 is the difference between things that are up to us and things that aren’t. The Stoics thought that most people waste a great deal of energy and misery worrying about things they can’t control. The Stoic approach is to never get worked up about them, and to focus on the things in life that are up to you. This turns out to be a very versatile and helpful idea.

    Gretchen: Again, how about an example?

    Ward: The simplest example, and a case everyone can understand, is spilled milk. Once something you don’t like has happened and can’t be helped, the Stoics would say it’s a mistake to spend a moment agonizing about it. It’s done. If you can learn something from it, great, but otherwise forget it. It’s the same if you’re stuck in traffic. If you can’t change it, shrug it off. These examples are understood by all of us at least some of the time. But again, the Stoics take that attitude toward everything in life that they can’t control. One can’t control one’s partner, as you’ve emphasized in your own writings; you can’t control other people in general, and what they say or think, or the fact that you’re going to die eventually. So Stoics don’t worry about that stuff.

    Gretchen: Does that mean that Stoics don’t care about politics?

    Ward: No, that’s not quite it. The Stoics thought participating in public life was important. And some of the greatest Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, were important public figures in Rome. The Stoics believed we should each regard ourselves as individually small but as parts of a whole, so doing one’s part is important even if it’s a small part. But if some politician did something that they couldn’t affect, Stoics wouldn’t let it disrupt their equanimity. That’s an important idea in Stoicism in general. Stoics have preferences about things like anyone else does. They just don’t let their peace of mind depend on them.

    Gretchen: Do you think of Stoicism as a kind of psychology or philosophy?

    Ward: It’s both. The old Stoics did their writing at a time when those two disciplines weren’t separated the way they are now. Sometimes they do talk about the same themes you would find in modern books about psychology. For example, they’re very interested in what we now might call adaptation—the ways that we get used to things, and how this affects the way we feel about them. We tend get used to the good things in our lives, and so lose the ability the appreciate them. We also tend to get used to the bad things, which prevents them from always making us miserable. Stoics try to undo the bad kind of adaptation by staying grateful for what they have. And they try to cultivate, or simulate, the good kind of adaptation. When they deal with some sort of adversity, they try to approach it as they would if they had dealt with a lot, not like amateurs.

    Gretchen: So do you think the ancient Stoics were happy?

    Ward: I think their Stoicism made them happier. For them, “happiness” had multiple meanings. It usually meant eudaimonia—the good life, rather than the good mood. But they also cared about simple peace of mind and pleasures they considered natural. Most people who study Stoicism end up with a least a little more of those things. People nowadays think of Stoicism as a kind of grim resolve. But Stoics are more likely to find mild humor in things that everyone else regards as grim. They find the comedy in things that made everyone else mad. Stoics generally are a humble and good-natured crowd.

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