At the turn of the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was living in an era often referred to as the “Pax Romana”. This was a time of relative calm and prosperity, when most inhabitants of the Empire experienced long periods of peace.
The foundation for this era was laid under the Emperor Augustus, but it reached its height a century later. This was largely due to the rule of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”. Edward Gibbon, English historian of the 18th century, in his monumental work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” described this period in glowing terms:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.
The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect.
The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”
While the previous generations of Romans knew war up close and personal and many of the males had participated in battle, during the Pax Romana, there were several generations that grew up without getting anywhere close to fighting. This encompassed also many of the other peoples that were living under Roman hegemony, such as the Greeks.
During this time, a class of distinguished gentlemen arose that never knew the taste of battle, but instead had enough time to turn their energy to more intellectual pursuits. One of these was Plutarch, now known chiefly as a historian, biographer and writer of extensive essays, but who throughout his lifetime also served in several other positions like a magistrate or priest at Delphi.
Plutarch is best remembered for his “Parallel Lives”, a series of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, which was meant not only to teach history, but also moral ethics and character. He also wrote “Moralia”, a series of essays on different topics of morality and daily life. One of these was “On Tranquility of Mind”.
In many ways, the problems of that era paralleled many of the modern era. After all, the human mind works in similar ways. While most people were free of the dangers of war, the typical problems that make people anxious, angry, or moody persisted.
The world might have been more peaceful than before, but it was still turbulent. Rome was a megalopolis full of crime and infestation, trade brought it many goods from the outside, but also led to a hectic lifestyle.
The provinces also had their share of problems, and the lives of their inhabitants were not stress-free. Merchants worried about losing their cargo, magistrates were concerned about keeping the bureaucracy running, and in a world where medicine was still rudimentary, everyone faced the prospect of losing their loved ones early.
What many people were looking for was a peace of mind, calmness and tranquility. They wanted to know how to keep a cool head in a turbulent world.
Plutarch came with some answers. His essay “On Tranquility of Mind” offers solutions to the perennial problem. Addressing his friend Paccius, he outlines his thesis that the way to keep a cool head in a hectic world is to turn to self-knowledge and self-control. By having your reason rule over your emotions, by setting the right priorities, and not being daunted by setbacks, you can navigate through turbulent waters.
Plutarch was a Middle Platonist (follower of Plato) with some Peripatetic (meaning follower of Aristotle) leanings. This heavily influenced the arguments he makes, which can sometimes differ from those of some of his contemporaries (like the Stoics or Epicureans). However, the bulk of his message is universal and still valid for any age.
Lesson 1: Use your brain to check your emotions.
Modern researchers have determined that the way you make decisions is based on an interplay between your emotional brain and your rational brain. Daniel Kahneman calls the emotional brain System 1 and the rational brain System 2.
These concepts are very similar to the ones that the Ancient Greeks and Romans used in order to describe the drivers of human behavior.
They noticed that humans often succumb to passion and are under the sway of emotions when doing things. However, humans can also get around these emotions through their ability to reason.
In an interesting passage from his work “Whether the Affections of the Soul are Worse than Those of the Body”, Plutarch tries to show what problems arise when people don’t use their rational brain and instead fall for emotions:
“But why need I recount the multitude of the soul’s maladies? The present occasion of itself brings them to mind. Do you see this vast and promiscuous crowd, which jostles and surges in confusion here about the tribunal and the marketplace?
These persons have come together, not to sacrifice to their country’s gods, not to share in each other’s family rites, not bringing “to Ascraean Zeus the first-fruits of Lydian harvests,” nor, in honor of Dionysus, to celebrate his mystic festival on sacred nights with common revellings.
As it were, a mighty pestilence drives them together here with yearly visitations stirring up Asia, which must come for law-suits and litigation at certain stated times; and the overwhelming multitude, like streams flowing together, has inundated this one market-place and boils with fury and dashes together in a tumult “of destroyers and destroyed.”
What fevers, what agues, have brought this about? What stoppages, or irruptions of blood, or distemperature of heat, or overflow of humors, have caused this?
If you examine every lawsuit, as though it were a person, to discover what gave rise to it and whence it came, you will find that obstinate anger begat one, frantic ambition another, unjust desire a third . . .”
Plutarch starts by describing a big crowd gathering in a marketplace. However, these people are not there to celebrate a festival or for some religious ceremony. Instead, they are there to sue the shit out of each other.
And what caused these lawsuits? If you go back to first principles, you will see that at the beginning of each of these problems was the mishandling of emotions.
People at their lowest levels are not rational beings, but often succumb to passions. Many times, they don’t even know what is important in life and instead strive for empty things, thinking that it will make them happy.
In “The Tranquility of the Mind”, Plutarch notes that people seek fame or money, but for the wrong reasons. These can help us to lead a better life, but you should not miss them if you lose them:
“For what power is there in money or fame or influence at court to help us to gain ease of soul or an untroubled life, if it is not true that the use of them is pleasant to us when we have them and that we never miss them when we have them not?
And how else can this be achieved except through reason, which has been carefully trained quickly to hold back the passionate and irrational part of the soul when it breaks bounds, as it often does, and not to allow it to flow away and be swept downstream because it does not have what it wants?”
This passage notes that you can train your brain to use reason to hold back irrational thoughts. In another work of his “On the Control of Anger”, he describes how to do it:
“Now the continuance of anger and frequent fits of it produce an evil habit in the soul called wrathfulness, or a propensity to be angry, which oft-times ends in choleric temper, bitterness, and moroseness.
Then the mind becomes ulcerated, peevish, and querulous, and like a thin, weak plate of iron, receives impression and is wounded by even the least occurrence; but when the judgment presently seizes upon wrathful ebullitions and suppresses them, it not only works a cure for the present, but renders the soul firm and not so liable to such impressions for the future.
And truly, when I myself had twice or thrice made a resolute resistance unto anger, the like befell me that did the Thebans; who, having once foiled the Lacedaemonians, that before that time had held themselves invincible, never after lost so much as one battle which they fought against them. For I became fully assured in my mind, that anger might be overcome by the use of reason.”
The first thing that you need to do is to use your willpower and whenever you feel a bout of anger (or some other negative emotion) coming up, try to stop it. Once you have done this several times, it becomes a habit and much more automatic.
Controlling your anger and using your reason can be improved through deliberate practice. You start off deliberately, but then turn them into habits.
This use of willpower initially is very important. If you don’t do it, then in the same way you can create a negative habit of constantly becoming angry or emotional for stupid reasons.
The positive application of willpower can induce the winner effect. Plutarch compares this to a time when a Theban force defeated a Spartan force. This gave them so much confidence, that they never again lost to the Spartans, always beating them on the battlefield.
This type of winner effect is a way to drive good habits. However, you always need to be mindful and keep on practicing, never resting on your laurels.
“So also with such reasonings as give help in controlling the passions: wise men should give heed to them before the passions arise in order that, being prepared far in advance, their help may be more efficacious.
For as savage dogs become excited at every strange cry and are soothed by the familiar voice only, so also the passions of the soul, when they are raging wild, are not easily allayed, unless customary and familiar arguments are at hand to curb the excited passions.”
Practice makes perfect. When you have been in that situation before and handled it well, it is much more likely that you will do so again. For example, Special Forces soldiers or firefighters train make-believe situations all the time in order to be ready for when the time comes and they have to do things for real.
To use another example, Buddhist monks are experts at controlling their emotions. They can meditate for hours with no distractions. However, most of them were not born with this ability. They had to spend countless hours practicing keeping control, often failing, but keeping at it until they mastered their thoughts.
The idea here is not to get rid of emotions altogether, since according to Plutarch they were both natural and necessary, but instead to achieve a balance between emotions and reason.
You should not let them rule your life, but instead only use them when they are beneficial. You should always, however, have ways of stopping emotions at times when they can be harmful, and have your reason take the lead.
Lesson 2: Most distress comes from false opinions of things.
Plutarch’s approach towards mental pain is similar to that of the Stoics. In Chapter 17 of his essay, he says that while some things that happen to you can bring pain and distress, it is how you perceive these events that will determine whether they bother you or not.
“And, to speak generally, although some of the things which happen against our will do by their very nature bring pain and distress, yet since it is through false opinion that we learn and become accustomed to be disgruntled with the greatest part of them, it is not unprofitable to have the verse of Menander ever ready against the latter:
“No harm’s been done you, if you none admit.””
If you don’t let negative events bother you, then they won’t.
“For what, he means, if they touch neither body nor soul, are such things to you as the low birth of your father, or the adultery of your wife, or the deprivation of a crown or of front seats, since when these misfortunes are present a man is not prevented from having both body and soul in the best of condition?”
There are things that you cannot control, but there are things that you can control. While you cannot control luck, you can control how you use your mind. You should always look at things from the rational point of view.
“We ourselves are masters of the better part, in which the greatest of our blessings are situated — right opinions and knowledge and the exercise of reason terminating in the acquisition of virtue, all of which have their being inalienable and indestructible — knowing all this, we should face the future undaunted and confident and say to Fortune what Socrates, when he was supposed to be replying to his accusers, was really saying to the jury,
“Anytus and Meletus are able to take away my life, but they cannot hurt me.””
Lesson 3: Human nature is what it is, learn to live with it and don’t try to straighten people out.
People often get upset over what other people do or what they think of them. Bad people will make fun of you for whatever reason. Plutarch mentions that even a person like Plato was belittled by some of his contemporaries. So if something like that happens to you, you should not be bothered by it.
“Have you, by reason of slander or envy, become the butt of jeers and cat-calls? The breeze is favoring that bears you to the Muses and the Academy, as it was Plato when he was buffeted by the storm of Dionysius’s friendship. For this reason it will also help greatly toward tranquillity of mind to observe that famous men have suffered nothing at all from evils the same as yours.”
If you find yourself being down after someone makes fun of you or puts you down, then just remind yourself that this has happened to almost everyone.
Plato is now remembered as one of the greatest philosopher of Antiquity and many people know about him millennia after his death. Yet during his lifetime there were many people who put him down.
Plutarch wrote quite extensively on the general nature of people:
“But most people are pained and exasperated by the faults, not only of their friends and relatives, but also of their enemies.
For abuse and rage on their part, envy and malevolence and jealousy, coupled with ill-will, are the bane of those who are subject to these faults, but it is fools whom they trouble and exasperate — as, for example, neighbors’ outbursts of temper and friends’ peevishness, and certain acts of dishonesty on the part of state officials charged with administration.
By these things you yourself seem to me to be disturbed as much as anybody, and like the physicians to whom Sophocles alludes: “With bitter drugs they purge the bitter bile.”
So you become angry and bitter against these men and suffer from their passions and infirmities; but this is irrational.
For even in the execution of matters committed to your personal care, most of them are in fact administered, not by simple and excellent natures, men naturally suited to be another’s instruments, as it were, but by jagged and crooked ones.”
So what should you do when you encounter these types of people? Don’t try to straighten them out, because it will be counterproductive:
“Do not, therefore, consider it your business to straighten them out, and it would not in any case be easy to do so. But if — dealing with them as being what they are by nature, just as a physician uses forceps for teeth and clips for wounds — you show yourself as gentle and self-controlled as you can, you will have greater pleasure in your own state of mind than distress at the unpleasantness and villainy of those others, and you will think that they, like dogs when they bark, are but fulfilling their nature.
And no longer will you unwittingly gather into this present captiousness or infirmity of yours many grievances, like offscourings which drain into some hollow and low-lying ground, thus letting yourself be infected with the vices of others.”
If you try to straighten these people out, you will just cause yourself more trouble. One reason for this is the backfire effect, a cognitive bias where people faced with overwhelming evidence against their position, bucker down against all logic and their belief becomes even stronger.
One example of this is from a UFO cult. In the 1950s, two researchers joined a cult undercover in order to examine it up close.
The cultists believed that the world would end on the 21st of December 1954. They prepared themselves for this, but then the day came and passed.
For most of the cultists, this did not lead to them abandoning their belief, but instead in belief persistence. Many of them in fact ended up believing the original theses of the cult even more and tried to rationalize away all the evidence against it (including the fact that the world did not end as predicted).
That is why it is hard to argue with people, especially when it concerns issues related to their worldview. You can present as much evidence as you want, but they will still persist on believing their own BS.
It is usually a waste of time arguing with these people. Don’t become angry, just accept it and move on.
“Just consider, then — how can it be anything but irrational to allow ourselves to become vexed and troubled because not everyone who has dealings with us or approaches us is honorable and cultivated?”
You should also not become vexed when you deal with dishonest people. Yeah sure, it can be disheartening, but that’s just the way things are. Most people are dishonest and ego-driven to at least to a certain extent. Some more than others. Keep that in mind, but don’t let it get to you.
Lesson 4: Life has its high points and its low points.
Life has its high points and its low points. However, people tend to focus on the bad things, instead of the good things. Sometimes people just end up wallowing in self-pity. Instead of doing something about their life, they just complain and remain miserable.
“This, then, is a matter disturbing to tranquillity of mind; and another, even more disturbing, arises when, like flies which slip off the smooth surfaces of mirrors, but stick to places which are rough or scratched, men drift away from joyous and agreeable matters and become entangled in the remembrance of unpleasant things.
Or rather, as they relate that when beetles have fallen into a place at Olynthus which is called “Death-to Beetles,”they are unable to get out, but turn and circle about there until they die in that place, so when men have slipped into brooding upon their misfortunes, they do not wish to recover or revive from that state.”
What you need to do is to put the positive experiences in the foreground and focus on those. It is virtually impossible to forget the bad experiences, but they should not drive your existence.
“But, like colours in a painting, so in the soul it is right that we should place in the foreground bright and cheerful experiences and conceal and suppress the gloomy; for to wipe them out and be rid of them altogether is impossible.”
Things in life are a mix of the positive and the negative. Oftentimes, you can’t really separate them.
“For the harmony of the universe, like that of a lyre or a bow, is by alternatives,” and in mortal affairs there is nothing pure and unmixed.
But as in music there are low notes and high notes, and in grammar there are vowels and consonants, yet a musician or a grammarian is not the man who dislikes and avoids the one or the other, but rather the man who knows how to use all and to blend them properly, so also in human affairs, which contain the principles of opposition to each other. Since, as Euripides has it:
“The good and the bad cannot be kept apart, but there’s some blending and all is well.””
Lesson 5: The unhappy mind always finds a reason to be unhappy.
Throughout the ages, people have noted that people often cause themselves to be unhappy. Just think of all the rock stars or millionaires who seem to have it all, yet succumb to drugs and end up killing themselves.
Plutarch wrote that your mind has a tendency to focus on the bad and painful things:
“We strain the mind toward painful things and force it to dwell on the consideration of disagreeable matters, all but dragging it by compulsion away from those which are better.”
This is something that modern researchers have noticed as well. Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University says that people tend to remember the negative experiences more than the positive ones:
“This is a general tendency for everyone. Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”
For example chimps seem to display it too. This means that the origins of negativity bias arose among our primitive ancestors in times deep in prehistory.
Different studies conclude that people actually have a preference to transmit negative information over positive information to others. Negative news tends to travel faster and gets more widespread than positive news.
Negative information also plays a much more important role in decision making. A study looking at negativity bias concluded that negative information tends to influence evaluations more than positive information.
The reason for this is likely found in evolutionary psychology. Bad things often meant a danger and therefore it was beneficial for survival, if these bad things were kept in mind.
Plutarch also tried to give some solutions on how to move away from this negativity bias. In order to combat this tendency, you need to start focusing on what is good:
“And so it is conducive to tranquillity of mind, in the midst of happenings which are contrary to our wishes, not to overlook whatever we have that is pleasant and attractive, but, mingling good with bad, cause the better to outshine the worse.”
Lesson 6: Appreciate what you have, instead of looking at other people.
Often, people complain about what they don’t have, but don’t really rejoice at the things that they do have.
“”And what,” someone may say, “do we really have and what do we not have?” One man has reputation, another a house, another a wife, another a good friend.”
One source of anguish is that people compare themselves to other people. They complain that they don’t have what others have.
“Yet there are others, Chians, Galatians, or Bithynians, who are not content with whatever portion of either repute or power among their own fellow-countrymen has fallen to their lot, but weep because they do not wear the patrician shoe; yet if they do wear it, they weep because they are not yet Roman praetors; if they are praetors, because they are not consuls; and if consuls, because they were proclaimed, not first, but later.”
Another thing that people do is that they think that there is always one type of lifestyle that is free of trouble and pain. It’s just not theirs:
“To those who believe that one quite special kind of life is free from pain, as some do the life of farmers, others that of bachelors, others that of kings, the words of Menander are a sufficient reminder:
I used to think the wealthy, Phanias,
Who have no need to borrow, would not groan
Of nights, nor tossing up and down would cry
“Ah, woe is me!” but that they slept a sweet
And tranquil sleep.
He then goes on to relate that he observes that even the wealthy fare the same as the poor:
Is there then kinship between life and grief? Grief’s in a famous life; with a rich life. It stays; with a mean life it too grows old.”
The grass is always greener on the other side. Everyone complains, no matter their situation in life.
People think that if they just change their situation in life, they will be happy. If they just get this car, this house, become a millionaire…
Plutarch compares this to people at sea, who think that they will escape sea-sickness just by transferring to a bigger boat:
“But like people at sea who are cowardly and seasick and think that they would get through this voyage more comfortably if they should transfer from their little boat to a ship, and then again from the ship to a man-of war; but they accomplish nothing by the changes, since they carry their nausea and cowardice along with them.
So the exchange of one mode of life for another does not relieve the soul of those things which cause it grief and distress these are inexperience in affairs, unreasonableness, the want of ability or knowledge to make the right use of present conditions. These are the defects which, like a storm at sea, torment rich and poor alike, that afflict the married as well as the unmarried.”
Becoming a millionaire will not cause you to become happy by itself, if you keep the same mindset. Mental anguish is a state of mind and the unhappy mind will always find reasons to be unhappy.
While you may think that other people have it better than you, there are others who wish to be in the same place that you are at now:
“Now at Olympia you cannot win the victory by selecting competitors, but in this life circumstances permit you to take pride in your superiority to many, and to be an object of envy rather than envious of the others — unless, indeed, you make a Briareus or a Heracles your opponent.
Whenever, then, you are lost in admiration of a man borne in his litter as being superior to yourself, lower your eyes and gaze upon the litter-bearers also; and whenever you account happy, as the man of Hellespont did, that famous Xerxes crossing his bridge, look also upon those who are digging through Athos beneath the lash, and those whose ears and noses are mutilated because the bridge was broken by the current.
Consider also their state of mind: they account happy your life and your fortunes.”
The way to cure your envy of others is to remind yourself of the fact their life is not perfect, but has many problems of its own. You just have to look under the rug.
“Yet since, however, through our folly we have grown accustomed to live with eyes fixed on everyone else rather than on ourselves, and since our nature contains much envy and malice and does not rejoice so much in our own blessings as it is pained by those which other men possess, do not look only at the splendor and notoriety of those you envy and wonder at, but open and, as it were, draw aside the gaudy curtain of their repute and outward appearance, and get inside them, and you will see many disagreeable things and many things to vex them there.”
The solution is not to look at what others have, but instead focus on yourself.
“And yet one might adapt here not inaptly the remark addressed to the meddlesome man:
Why do you look so sharp on others’ ills,
Malignant man, yet overlook your own?
Why do you scrutinize too keenly your own trouble, my good sir, and continue to make it ever vivid and fresh in your mind, but do not direct your thoughts to those good things which you have?”
Here Plutarch reuses the famous phrase about not looking at the faults of others, but instead noticing the splinter in your own eye, and puts it in another context.
He says that why do you always scrutinize your own troubles, instead of focusing on the good things that you do have?
Lesson 7: Don’t take the small things for granted.
In one of his examples, Plutarch talked about a man on his deathbed who when recalling the good things in his life, did not overlook even the little things:
“Antipater of Tarsus, on his deathbed reckoning up the good things that had fallen to his lot, did not omit even the fair voyage he had from Cilicia to Athens; so we should not overlook even common and ordinary things, but take some account of them and be grateful that we are alive and well and look upon the sun; that there is neither war near factious strife among us, but that both the earth grants cultivation and the sea fair sailing to those who wish it; that we may speak or act, be silent or at leisure, as we choose.”
The technique to remind yourself of how important these little things are is to imagine yourself without them:
“These things when they are present will afford us greater tranquillity of mind, if we but imagine them to be absent, and remind ourselves often how desirable is health to the sick, and peace to those at war, and, to an unknown stranger in so great a city.”
Another thing that you can do is to take things as relative. Plutarch mentions the wisdom of a guy named Aristippus, who while he lost a large part of his estates, saw things on the bright side and determined that the parts that are still in his possession are much bigger than the property of most people.
“Aristippus, however, was not one of these, but was wise enough, like one who weighs things in a balance, by weighing the bad against the better, to rise above the conditions in which he found himself and thus to lighten his spirits.
At any rate, when he had lost a fine estate, he asked one of those who made a great pretence of condoling with him and sharing in his ill humour at misfortune, “Isn’t it true that you have only one small bit of land, while I have three farms remaining?”
When the person agreed that this was so, Aristippus said, “Should I not then rather condole with you?”
For it is the act of a madman to be distressed at what is lost and not rejoice at what is saved, but like little children, who, if someone takes away one of their many toys, will throw away all the rest as well and cry and howl; in the same way, if we are troubled by Fortune in one matter, we make everything else also unprofitable by lamenting and taking it hard.”
This positive mindset does not come naturally to most people. This is due to the way your brain is wired and what it perceives as important.
Whenever you get something it is always hard to part with it. One very common cognitive bias is the endowment effect, where people ascribe more value to an object just because they own it.
Richard Thaler, behavioral psychologist and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics defines the endowment effect as:
“The fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it.”
For example, in tests people were willing to pay more to get back something that they already owned before than to get something new.
This is due to two main reasons: loss aversion and the identification of your possessions with your identity.
People on average are loss averse. They don’t want to lose something that they already have in their possession. This means that they tend to overvalue the things that they own.
Sometimes, they even form emotional attachments to these things. In a study conducted to measure this effect, researchers Sara Dommer and Vanitha Swaminathan concluded that:
“Loss aversion is typically accounted for the endowment effect, but an alternative explanation suggests that ownership creates and association between the item and the self, and this possession-self link increases the value of the good.”
This means that your possessions often become a part of your identity. You can probably point to some experiences of your own that demonstrate this. It might be the pain you felt when you lost an old toy that you had as a kid, or the pain of selling the house you grew up with, or having to part with that junky old car that you had for years.
Your possessions grow on you and become a part of your identity and that’s why the endowment effect is so powerful.
Lesson 8: Even in unfortunate circumstances you can find things which suit you and can be useful.
There is the classic saying that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. Even in unfortunate circumstances you can find things that you can use and that can help you move forward.
What you think is a bad circumstance initially, can become a blessing in disguise.
“This, then, we should practice and cultivate first of all, like the man who threw a stone at his dog, but missed her and hit his stepmother, whereupon he exclaimed, “Not so bad after all!”
One example that Plutarch gives is a humorous one. He talks of a guy who wanted to throw a stone at a dog, missed, but instead hit his stepmother. Even though she wasn’t his initial target, the result wasn’t that bad.
In more serious examples, Plutarch talked about a few people who experienced misfortunes, which ended up being blessings in disguise. Diogenes was driven into exile and Zeno of Citium was a merchant who ended up losing all his cargo when his ships sank.
Both turned to philosophy and became famous philosophers. Had they stayed in their previous positions, they would never have achieved the things that they did and would probably have been forgotten rather quickly. Instead, their names and ideas live thousands of years after their deaths.
“For it is possible to change the direction of Fortune when she has given us things we do not wish. Diogenes was driven into exile: “Not so bad after all!” for after his exile he began to lead the life of a philosopher. Zeno of Citium had one merchantman remaining; when he learned that this had been sunk at sea and lost with all its cargo, he cried, “Much obliged, Fortune! You also drive me to the philosopher’s cloak.””
Most people don’t know how to live and are at the mercy of their luck. They have no endurance or mental toughness. They are happy when they have good luck, but get depressed when the going gets a little bit tough.
“For those who are without skill and sense as to how they should live, like sick people whose bodies can endure neither heat nor cold, are elated by good fortune and depressed by adversity; and they are greatly disturbed by both, or rather by themselves in both and as much in what is called good as in the bad.
Theodorus, called the Atheist, used to say that he offered his discourses with his right hand, but his audience received them with their left; so uninstructed persons, when Fortune presents herself adroitly on their right, often gauchely substitute their left hands in receiving her and cut a sorry figure.”
However, smart people know how to turn things around. They are not swayed by the fickleness of fortune. Always try to reframe your bad circumstances. For example if you fail, use it as a learning opportunity.
“But men of sense, just as bees extract honey from thyme, the most pungent and the driest of plants, often in like manner draw from the most unfavorable circumstances something which suits them and is useful.”
Lesson 9: Life is like a game of dice, hope for the best, but once the dice are thrown, you need to make due with whatever turns up.
The Ancients often used the game of dice as a metaphor for life. They acknowledged the big role that luck plays in all things and compared it to throwing dice.
You don’t know what number you will roll. You hope for the best, but once the number is rolled, you need to make do with what you have.
“Plato, for instance, compared life to a game of dice in which we must try, not only to throw what suits us best, but also, when we have thrown, to make good use of whatever turns up.
But with circumstances, though it is not in our power to throw what we please, yet it is our task, if we are wise, to accept in a suitable manner whatever accrues from Fortune and to assign to each event a place in which both what suits us shall help us most and what is unwanted shall do least harm.”
Don’t be shaken up or afraid of adversity. Embrace it and become comfortable in it. Take the bad with the good.
“We should not be disheartened or despondent in adversity, but like musicians who achieve harmony by constantly deadening bad music with better and encompassing the bad with the good, we should make the blending of our life harmonious and conformable to our own nature.”
It is up to you what you will do with the numbers you role. Your disposition determines whether you see the glass as half empty or as half full. If you want to succeed you need to change your disposition.
This can be quite hard, but impossible. You have a tendency to think in certain ways and your mind forms certain meta-programs for this. These are processes that guide your behavior.
They have a huge impact on how you do things. They determine your habits and your responses to outside factors.
For example, one meta-program is called towards or away. This is a tendency to focus either on what you want or on what you don’t want.
Some people tend to think in a “towards” manner. They might say: “I want this.” Some people on the other hand have a tendency to think in an “away” manner. They might say: “I don’t want this.”
This type of a mindset can have a huge influence on how you behave, including what choices you make and your risk-taking behavior.
Some other meta-programs include being an optimist or a pessimist, an introvert or an extrovert, or having a disposition that is centered either on yourself or on others.
These meta-programs are hard to break, but not impossible. If you practice and focus on changing your behaviors, you can to a certain extent change your prevalent meta-programs.
“So, just as the shoe is turned with the foot, and not the contrary, so do men’s dispositions make their lives like themselves. For it is not, as someone has said, habituation which makes the best life sweet to those who have chosen it, but wisdom which makes the same life at once both best and sweetest.
Therefore let us cleanse the fountain of tranquillity that is in ourselves, in order that external things also, as if our very own and friendly, may agree with us when we make no harsh use of them.”
Don’t rage at your circumstances, but take things in stride. The people who do the best in life are those who makes the best use of whatever they are given.
“It is no good to rage at circumstance. Events will take their course no regard for us. But he who makes the best of those events, he will do well.”
Lesson 10: Seek a purpose for yourself.
Many of the Ancient philosophers saw having a purpose in life as a very important driving factor for your activities.
“Furthermore, we see that Nature also admonishes us; for just as she has provided different foods for different beasts and has not made them all carnivorous or seed-pickers or root-diggers, so has she given to men a great variety of means for gaining a livelihood.”
There are different ways of gaining a living. However, sometimes one type of job is more suited to one type of person. For example, if you are a short person, most likely it will be very hard for you to become a professional basketball player. Or if you like outdoor pursuits, it might be difficult for you to sit in the office all day.
“We should, therefore, choose the calling appropriate to ourselves, cultivate it diligently.”
There is one interesting technique coming from the island of Okinawa in Japan, that the people there use in order to choose their calling. It is called ikagai.
According to Philip Perry, the thing that you should do in life or your calling, lies at the intersection of societal needs and your own interests.
In order to find it, you should ask yourself these four questions:
1) What do you love?
2) What are you good at?
3) What does the world need from you?
4) What can you get paid for?
The point where the answers to these four questions overlap is your ikagai, or calling in life, and that is what you should pursue.
One thing that I disagree with is that Plutarch seems to imply that there is one calling predetermined for a person. This is based on his quote:
“Therefore not all pursuits are for everyone, but one must, obeying the Pythian inscription, “know one’s self,” and then use one’s self for that one thing for which Nature has fitted one and not do violence to nature by dragging one’s self towards the emulation of now one sort of life, now another.”
I tend to think that the 10 000 hour rule or deliberate practice can beat out talent at the end, so you do have a larger variety of options. However this comes with a caveat that is implied in the quote above.
There are particular predispositions of different people towards different things. If you are short, you probably won’t make it into the NBA, even if you try really hard. On the other hand, I read somewhere that if you are American and over 7 foot, your chance of playing in the NBA is around 17%!
So this call to “know thyself” and then pick your job based on that is true, but only up to a point. You are not hemmed in by some sort of an inner purpose that you need to discover. In my opinion, you do have much more of a choice.
However, the rule of deliberate practice implies that you do need to spend a considerate amount of time focused on improving your skills in that one discipline you picked, if you want to be really good in it. You cannot hop from “one sort of life” to another.
This means that you have to set goals and follow through on them. Goal-setting was an important part of human activity according to the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Since Plutarch was a Platonist (but also influenced by Aristotle and the followers of Aristotle, the Peripatetics), he also saw this need to set goals, which are driven by a purpose.
Lesson 11: You need to do things, not just sit around.
“And yet it is true that a state of bodily stupor is a bad remedy for insanity; but no whit better as a physician of the soul is he who would relieve it of its disturbances and distress by prescribing idleness and softness and the betrayal of friends and family and country.”
There is a lot of stress and other disturbances in life, but you won’t relieve of them just by sitting around and being idle. You need to do things. You need to be active.
For some people, inactivity can cause a lot of mental anguish:
“And for some persons, even inactivity itself often leads to discontent, as in this instance: “The swift Achilles, Peleus’ noble, son; continued in his wrath beside the ships. Nor would he ever go to council that ennobles men, nor ever go to war. But wasted his heart, remaining there, always longing for tumult and for war.”
Achilles was greatly distressed with this state of affairs and said to himself:
“But here I sit beside my ships, a useless burden to the earth.”
You need to do things. Idleness will make most people unhappy. Not only will they lack a sense of meaning and purpose, but they will view their life as lacking value and significance.
However, on the other hand, people also like to procrastinate and be lazy. Plutarch noted that people have a tendency to shun hard things, and instead retreat only to things that are pleasant.
“For languor and flabby softness are implanted by that self-indulgence of the soul which ever occupies itself with the easiest way, and retreats from the undesirable to what is most pleasant.”
This is something that is very evident in our modern society. Many people, instead of going out and doing hard things prefer to sit on their ass and BS around (selfie time!).
What you need to do is not sit around and talk about doing things, but actually go out and do them. In another part of “Moralia”, Plutarch quoted the wise words of Democritus concerning action:
“Words are just the shadows of actions.”
Lesson 12: Self-reflection is the basis of action.
The ancient Delphic Maxim “know yourself” is the basis of any action. At a later stage in his life, Plutarch became a priest at Delphi and so would be reminded of this wise saying every day. It was written at the front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and clearly visible to everyone entering the temple.
Plutarch based most of his life’s work around helping people explore this question for themselves. His “Parallel Lives” were meant to force people to reexamine their lives in terms of their life values. When reading the biographies of famous men, the reader would use their stories to reflect on their own life.
Based on this examination of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses and your values, you can proceed to drafting a course of action for yourself.
A good instrument to help you do that is to create a Vision for yourself. This implies not only examining where you want to be, but also where you are now.
“And though men delight in sweetly sounding instruments and singing birds, and take pleasure in seeing animals romping and frisking, and, on the contrary, are displeased when they howl and bellow and look fierce; yet though they see that their own life is unsmiling and dejected and ever oppressed and afflicted by the most unpleasant experiences and troubles and unending cares, they not only do not provide themselves with some alleviation or ease.
From what source could they do so? Even when others urge them, they do not accept a word of admonition by following which they would acquiesce in the present without fault-finding, remember the past with thankfulness, and meet the future without fear or suspicion, with their hopes cheerful and bright.”
However Plutarch noted that people often go about self-reflection in the wrong way.
If you go about it the wrong way, it can turn into needless self-punishment. This can be a great source of mental anguish. Examine yourself, but don’t be too harsh.
Lesson 13: You have the freedom to make your own choices.
There are some things that are given, and some that are not. Circumstances might force you down in one direction, but you are still free to make choices for what path to take.
“Fortune, in fact, can encompass us with sickness, take away our possessions, slander us to people or despot; but she cannot make the good and valiant and high-souled man base or cowardly, mean, ignoble, or envious, nor can she deprive us of that disposition, the constant presence of which is of more help in facing life than is a pilot in facing the sea.”
This is an attitude similar to that of Viktor Frankl, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” a book on how he survived life in concentration camps by finding a purpose and then making choices based on that purpose.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one things: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose one’s own way.”
Another quote from Frankl further could be used in conjunction with what Plutarch wrote in order to illuminate the way you reflect upon and make choices:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Plutarch states that you cannot say that you will never suffer some sort of a bad thing, since luck will not always be on your side.
“And yet many shudder even at the verse of Menander,
“No man alive may say, “I shall not suffer this,””
since they do not know how much it helps in warding off grief to be able by practice and study to look Fortune in the face with eyes open, and not to manufacture in oneself “smooth, soft” fancies, like one reared in the shade of many hopes which ever yield and hold firm against nothing.
We can, however, make this reply to Menander: “True, no man alive may say, ‘I shall not suffer this,’ yet while still alive one can say, ‘I will not do this: I will not lie nor play the villain nor defraud nor scheme.'”
For this is in our power and is not a small, but a great help toward tranquillity of mind. Even as, on the contrary again,
“My conscience, since I know I’ve done a dreadful deed,”
like an ulcer in the flesh, leaves behind it in the soul regret which ever continues to wound and prick it. For the other pangs reason does away with, but regret is caused by reason itself, since the soul, together with its feeling of shame, is stung and chastised by itself.”
You don’t control outside events, but you can choose how to respond to circumstances.
Luck might keep you down at times, but there are some things which you can say to yourself you will never do. This you have control over.
“And so it is that no costly house nor abundance of gold nor pride of race nor pomp of office, no grace of language, no eloquence, impart so much calm and serenity to life as does a soul free from evil acts and purposes and possessing an imperturbable and undefiled character as the source of its life, source whence flow fair actions which have both an inspired and joyous activity joined with a lofty pride therein, and a memory sweeter and more stable than that hope of Pindar’s which sustains old age.”
In fact, it is the pride that you made your choices for the right reasons that can help you overcome the pain brought about by bad fortune.
Lesson 14: Don’t let your impulses go into overdrive, but be realistic with what you can and cannot achieve.
Sometimes people just try to do too much. They want to be the best at everything. This is usually impossible.
Plutarch gives the example of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, and his wish to be not only the greatest politician of his age, but also the best athlete, the best poet, the best philosopher:
“The elder Dionysius was not content with being the greatest tyrant of his age, but because he could not sing verses better than the poet Philoxenus or get the better of Plato in dialectic, enraged and embittered, he cast Philoxenus into the stone-quarries, and, sending Plato to Aegina, sold him into slavery.”
Instead, you should be aware of your strengths and weaknesses:
“Alexander was not of this temper, but when Crison, the famous sprinter, ran a race with him and appeared to slacken his pace deliberately, Alexander was very indignant. And when the Homeric Achilles had first said, “Of the bronze-clad Achaeans none is a match for me,” he did well to add, “in war, but in speaking others are better than I.”
You can’t always be the best at everything. The primary rule of goal-setting is not to set too many goals. At any given moment, you should only focus on a small set of goals and not a huge amount of them.
One technique to do is to write down a list of all the things that you want to achieve, then pick the top 3 (or less), focus on them, and forget about the rest until you have achieved the top 3.
Be realistic with what you can achieve. If you set yourself with unrealistic goals, you will be disappointed. That’s why you first need to set up achievable goals and slowly build upon those.
One of the things that the Ancients warned about is falling for hubris, thinking that you are the best thing since sliced bread. Instead, a little bit of modesty can go a long way. Always be realistic with yourself.
Lesson 15: The absence of fear is important.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. The absence of fear is incredibly important in order to have tranquility of mind.
People are usually afraid of things, which includes death. In the Ancient World, death was ever-present, so this was a very important topic to address.
Everyone will die eventually, so you should not fear death.
Lesson 16: It is not the quantity of accomplishments that counts, but the quality.
Plutarch was a Middle Platonist. He believed in Plato’s Theory of the Forms, which basically means that there is an ideal version of everything. For example, there is an ideal version of justice. If you want to be a just person, your role is to try to get as close to this ideal form as possible.
If you want to get as close to the ideal form as you can, you can’t do things half-assed, but really need to focus. For example, if you are a writer, it is more important to produce one quality work, instead of a bunch of mediocre works.
This one masterpiece can ensure your legacy much better than a thousand crappy books that you churn out. Quality beats quantity.
Lesson 17: Luck will play a huge role in your life, but if you prepare for it, it won’t affect you as much.
“For he who said, “I have anticipated you, Fortune, and taken from you every entry whereby you might get at me,” encouraged himself, not with bolts or keys or battlements, but by precepts and reasoning in which everyone who desires may share.”
If you realize that chance can strike at any moment, then you won’t be taken by surprise as much. Better yet, if you practice for the many potential ways that chance can strike, then when one of these things does come to pass, you will be prepared.
The practical way to proceed is to always look at the many possible courses that an action can take, and prepare for all of them. Take a page from the book of the Special Forces. Examine scenarios where things go wrong and practice how you would respond.
A practiced mind is a calm mind. It has been there before, it has faced challenges and it has overcome them. The more obstacles you overcome, the more confident you will be that when that next problem comes, you will be able to resolve it successfully.
You can read Plutarch’s “On Tranquility of Mind” for yourself:
Plutarch: On Tranquility of Mind.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the responses to the difficulties of life by people coming from different ancient philosophical school. Plutarch was a Middle Platonist and while he was also influenced by other schools of thought, he relied primarily on responses coming from that school.
Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius lived in roughly the same period as did Plutarch. The Epicurean Diogenes of Oinoanda did as well.
While there are different approaches to life stemming from each school, there are also quite a few similarities. So you can learn from all of them without necessarily picking a side.
However, if you do feel that one of these approaches fits you more than others, you can decide to follow that one a bit more closely. For example, in this selection of quotes from Plutarch’s work, I deliberately left out the parts which dealt with the more metaphysical things (like Plato’s Theory of Forms) and discussions on gods. If you are interested in these things, I encourage you to go back to the original sources and delve more deeply into their study.
What I would encourage you to do is to read about the solutions provided by people like Marcus Aurelius or Diogenes of Oinoanda.
In order to learn more about the system of Marcus Aurelius and a more Stoic response, begin by reading my summary of his thoughts:
Then go into my series on describing the Three Stoic Disciplines:
Diogenes of Oinoanda and the Epicureans also had answers which might be a better fit for some people:
Life of Pleasure and the Absence of Pain.