The Philosophy of Lao Tzu

Many of the world’s ancient philosophies are timeless in their wisdom and utility. One can read the writings and teachings of Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Siddhartha, and other centuries-old thinkers and find a lot of familiar and still-relevant observations.

This is especially the case with Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi or Lao-Tze), best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism. Though well over 2,000 years old, his thoughts, reflections, and prescriptions remain as vital today — if not more so — than they did then.

The School of Lifeone of my favorite YouTube channels, offers a quick but informative guide to the sage, who is revered as a prophet and deity among religious strains of Taoism and Chinese folk tradition.

If you really like broadening your horizons on a wide range of topics, I highly recommend you subscribe to the channel, which offers a wealth of knowledge on everything from philosophy and literature to psychology and self-improvement.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Great Philosophy Podcasts to Consider

Whether you have a deep passion for philosophy, or have just started exploring it, I think the following podcasts are well worth your time (especially if, like me, you deal with long commutes during the week and could use some mental stimulation to make the most of it).

History of Philosophy 
An extensive but digestible overview of the different developments, major thinkers, and schools of thoughts regarding philosophy across the world.

Ethics Bites
A series of interviews and discussions covering a broad range of moral and ethical topics, including climate change, animal rights, euthanasia, corporate responsibility, plagiarism, in-vitro fertilization and art, pornography, censorship and free speech.

Philosophy Bites
Concise but detailed reviews of different philosophers and their ideas, from ancient times to the present.

Oxford Center for Neuroethics
This newer field of research concerns the ethical, legal, and social impact of developments in neuroscience and technology, such as the implications of altering human behavior or implementing cybernetics. Also deals with contemporary ethical issues.

Very Bad Wizards
A philosopher and psychologist come together to discuss matters related to morality, ethics, social psychology, experimental philosophy, and more. It has a very lighthearted and at times irreverent tone.

The Partially Examined Life
Episodes entail informal round-table discussions between philosophy buffs concerning a major philosophical question, concern, or idea. This is one of my personal favorites, and a great choice for those new to philosophy.

I am certain these are just a small sample of the many great resources out there, so please feel free to provide your own. If you are familiar with any of these, then also feel free to provide your thoughts and feedback, especially as I have not heard all of them too deeply. 

Hat tip to my friends Josh, Lance, and Anthony for informing me about some of these.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

A Brief Amateur Guide to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a universalistic consequentialist ethical theory that judges the moral worth of an action based on its results. An ethical theory is any system of thought that provides a process for developing moral rules and guidelines and that establishes criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Like every ethical theory, utilitarianism emerged in a particular context which influenced its foundation and development; specifically, 19th century Industrial England. In this era, economic, commercial, and technological innovations were allowing a growing number of people unprecedented access to goods, services, and wealth. At the same time, however, there was widespread inequality, labor exploitation, and social stratification. The potential for achieving individual and societal prosperity was higher than ever, but people remained disenfranchised and abused in order to perpetuate the early industrial and capitalist system. Society was being radically restructured.

Continue reading

Learn Self-Help From a 2nd-Century Roman Emperor

One of my favorite and most personally influential philosophers — who I’ve written about before — has just become the subject of an article at HuffPo, where his timeless wisdom is being shared for its relevance two thousand years later.

In 167 AD, [Marcus] Aurelius wrote The Meditations, a 12-book compendium of personal writings, originally written in Greek, that reflect his extensive study of Stoic philosophy. Aurelius is now regarded as one of the most famous proponents and philosophers of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman school of thought originating in the Hellenic period concerned with how to cultivate a mindset to deal effectively with any events or emotions.

Meditations is based around a single, simple precept: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius ruled over Rome for 20 years until the time of his death in 180 AD. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history.

“Marcus Aurelius was a true paradox — an emperor with almost unlimited power to control his world and circumstances, who nevertheless had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world,” Arianna Huffington writes in her forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder.

Meditations is “undoubtedly one of history’s most effective formulas for overcoming every negative situation we may encounter in life,” Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is The Way.

If you haven’t read The Meditations, which I strongly recommend, the article shares five key tidbits to keep in mind:

1. Your own happiness is up to you.

Life’s happiness, Aurelius said, “depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

The crux of his philosophy is the notion that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control our reactions to the events of our lives — and this gives us immense strength and freedom.

It’s easier said than done, yes, but Aurelius’s own life is proof positive of this maxim. The emperor faced great struggles throughout his life, and his reign was marred b ynear-constant warfare and disease. His brother and parents also died at a young age.

Aurelius learned how to live within his soul — or “inner citadel,” as he put it — a place of peace and equanimity. Living from this space, he believed, gave him the freedom to shape his own life by controlling his thoughts.

2. Life may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.

Aurelius accepted that trials and challenges were an unavoidable part of life, but his belief that life and the universe were fundamentally good helped him to accept the tough stuff. The argument goes like this: Because life as a whole is as good as it can be, the parts of life are as good as they can be, so we should love, or at least accept, every part of life.

But Aurelius took it even one step further, arguing that obstacles are actually our greatest opportunities for growth and advancement. They force us to re-examine our path, find a new way, and ultimately empower ourselves by practicing virtues like patience, generosity and courage.

“The impediment to action advances action,” he wrote. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

3. There is good in everyone.

Aurelius isn’t expressing blind optimism when he advises his readers to find common ground with others and seek the good in every person they encounter. In politics and life, Aurelius had experienced how people could be selfish and hurtful to others — he lived through wars and uprisings — and yet, he chose not to let the actions of others get to him. Instead, he always remembered that there is some of the “divine” in each of us:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.

 Aurelius believed that all men are made to cooperate with one another, like the “rows of the upper and lower teeth.”

4. True peace comes from within.

Many of us live frantic, high-octane lives — and we may fantasize about getting away from it all by going on a meditation retreat or taking time off from work to travel. But, as Aurelius strongly believed, you don’t need to escape your environment to find a sense of calm. We can access serenity any time in our own minds.

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills,” Aurelius wrote. “There is nowhere that a man can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind … So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”

Taking a “mental retreat” through a meditation practice — or simply by bringing more mindfulness into your day — has been linked to mental health benefits. Meditation has been shown to improve memory and attentionlower stress levels, enhance emotional well-being and sleep quality and boost creativity and productivity.

5. Treat life as an “old and faithful friend”. 

Perhaps the most memorable passage of Meditations encourages us to view life as being, in the words of the poet Rumi, “rigged in [our] favor.” It’s a powerful way of reframing any obstacle we encounter. Aurelius wrote:

True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art — and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?

As you can see, these prescriptions remain as applicable and necessary now as they were in Aurelius’ time, which says a lot about the human condition and our inherent struggle to improve it. As many of you may have noticed, there are many similarities between the philosophy of the Stoics and those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern faiths (for that matter, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each have schools of thought that overlap with Stoicism, especially with regards to mindfulness).

I think that the universal nature of these ideas further underlines their accuracy and importance to everyone; in any case, many of you may find such approaches to be intuitive or even already present in your lives without realizing it. Regardless, they’re vital, and while there’s obviously more to improving ourselves — as individuals and as a species — than just practicing meditation or creating an inner citadel of the soul, it’s a great and valuable step that should nonetheless be studied and implemented.

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions.

Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?


Have Young Americans Lost Their Moral Compass?

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

The article is a pretty engaging read, and I recommend reading it and deciding for yourselves.