5 Quotes from Major Philosophers Guaranteed to Make You Think
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
Thus says Epictetus, one of the great Stoic philosophers who lived shortly after the time of Christ. Epictetus began life as a slave, and was able to obtain his freedom when it was realized how smart he was. If I recall right, his former slave owner became one of his disciples.
The basic ideas are that there are things we can control and things we can’t, and that we have a better and more peaceful life by not banging our heads against the wall (figuratively or actually) trying to control what we can’t.
You cannot, and will never, control what others think, say, and do. You cannot control what motivates others. At most, you can learn what is motivating them and adopt your conduct accordingly. You can influence them, that is. Influence is not control.
What can you control? Your own attitudes, thoughts, motivations, and especially your reactions to events. We are harmed, Epictetus continues elsewhere, not by what others say to us but by our reactions to what others say to us.
We are harmed not by events but by inadequate emotional responses to them — perhaps because we did not prepare for them with the right mindset.
We should work to change for the better what we can control, and accept what we can’t.
Do you know anyone who gripes incessantly about the weather? It’s either “too hot” or “too cold.” “It’s raining again???” Etc.
Is she being made miserable by the weather or by her complaining about it?
Exercising mindfulness, control of one’s thoughts and attitudes, was a sound idea when Epictetus counseled it back in the days of the Roman Empire, and it is sound today in our advanced, technological, and largely anonymous society.
We may we control more things through technology, but there are vast numbers of things we will never control.
The takeaway thought here: be mindful of what you control, versus what you can’t. You can increase your level control by understanding how systems work and then using them to achieve your goals. You can’t control others. You shouldn’t try. You can’t control the weather. But you can remember to pack an umbrella.
“Act always so as to treat all others as ends, and never as a means only.”
Thus said Immanuel Kant, the pivotal German philosopher (I am paraphrasing slightly). Kant called this the categorical imperative, which had two other formulations.
All persons are ends, which is just another way of saying, we all have intrinsic worth or value — value that comes from no other source than what we are: human beings, living, reasoning, feeling, children of God, however you want to look at it.
To treat a person as a means is to treat him or her as an object — a thing — instead of a person.
It’s not to acknowledge, or refuse to acknowledge, the reality of who and what the person is.
There are things on my desk as I write this: my cup of coffee, my stapler, my things-2-do list for the day, a couple of flash drives. Each is a means to some end I might have. And appropriately so.
Persons are not objects. They are not yours to be used.
Nor are they to be ignored.
If I’m out on the sidewalk and there’s a discarded chair in my way, I’ve no problem moving it to one side.
But if instead of a discarded chair there’s a homeless man lying there, I’m not free just to move him to one side. If he begs me for a few coins and I refuse because doing so would inconvenience me, I’ve treated him as an object — a means. I’ve still acted like he was no different than a piece of discarded furniture, not a living, breathing man like myself.
Kant says it’s not sufficient just to do the right thing. We must do the right thing for the right reason. He called this duty.
If I give the homeless man money because it makes me feel good, he’s better off but I’ve still used him as a means to one of my ends, which may be to bolster my ego, what a good person I am because I gave this homeless man some money.
Others might not know this, but I do.
If I give him money, it’s not to benefit myself. It’s done from duty. He won’t experience any inner feelings I might have. He’ll only experience his own.
So the right thing to do is to give him the money because I have a duty to do good in the world. Whether it benefits me or not.
“If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence.”
Thus stated Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian usually credited with being the first existentialist.
His words, too, are relevant today even if he wrote them in the early 1800s.
We go through life surrounded by noise and distractions. We even welcome them. We get addicted to them. How many of us can’t go 15 minutes without checking our phone for messages, or our email?
Is God trying to speak to us?
What? You don’t believe in God?
If He believes in you and tries to speak to you, will you hear Him?
Can we turn off, tune out, all the noise and distractions long enough to listen … just in case He is speaking with that quiet, still voice?
Or just to hear the universe.
One of the best things you can do is get up early. Gallons of ink have been spilled on morning routines, and for a good reason.
But why do they work?
It’s more than just the planning that goes into them.
It’s the quiet.
Mornings — before it gets light outside and traffic noise starts — are your best times to create an ambience of stillness around you.
And have a space to think, to meditate, or to write.
And then to get things done.
Every creative will tell you, really interesting things happen in the morning.
Mornings don’t have to be about work, of course.
You can listen for that still voice.
It just might be the voice of God.
So get up early. Create that silence. And listen.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Friedrich Nietzsche may be the most quotable philosopher of all time. There are dozens of Nietzsche quotes, many of them quite powerful. I sought one that speaks powerfully to our times and circumstances.
So many people, it seems, are on crusades of righteousness of one sort or another. Many are political. For Trump or against Trump — or for or against his opponents.
Defending a supposed right to an abortion — or going against the idea.
Defending a presumed right to own guns — or ready to take all guns away from private citizens.
There’s Antifa. Then there are the Proud Boys.
Different people have different ideas about social evil.
Come to think of it, that’s kind of a no-brainer. If it weren’t obviously true, would we be seeing the battles we’re seeing as this strange decade comes to its close?
Let’s look at this a little differently.
Consider the celebrity (her name escapes me, fancy that) whose response to Trump was to hold up before television cameras a depiction of the man’s severed and bloodied head.
Even absent the implied threat of horrific and deadly violence against the man, did that gesture really get us anywhere?
The man whose response to abortion is to bomb a clinic, or shoot a doctor who performs abortions.
How does that help?
How does it help when those who say they oppose a fundamentally violent ideology — fascism — themselves become violent?
Historically, those who have been oppressed, or see themselves as victims, sometimes become the next oppressors. The next victimizers.
Sometimes doing so more efficiently and effectively than their predecessors.
As if justice were simply about payback, instead of building a better world.
So here’s the challenge:
Whatever evil you’ve chosen to fight, can you fight that evil without becoming some version it? Without become the next edition of the very thing you’re fighting?
“Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
Thus observed the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Born in Austria, he came to the U.K. to study under Bertrand Russell and eventually changed the entire philosophical landscape.
Language and its uses became his central obsession. And for good reason.
It’s a tool, and not just for communication.
It can be used to steer people in specific directions. They can be directed to think certain things, and not others.
George Orwell understood this clearly, which is why he wrote 1984 as he did, with words like newspeak creeping into our subsequent vocabulary.
Language does bewitch our intelligence, especially in the hands of those who know how to use it.
Philosophy, Wittgenstein believed, was the best cure for that.
Being aware of how specific words and phrases are being used, especially in major media or by politicians (or someone seeking, say, a promotion), is always a good idea.
What’s unspoken is sometimes more important than what’s spoken.
What’s unspoken is often the assumption behind what’s spoken.
The warning is to be careful. The speaker or writer may be trying to slip things past you that you wouldn’t accept if they were stated openly.
Or as an attorney would say, assuming facts without evidence.
Language can be weaponized. That is to say, it is easily used as a kind of club to keep your thoughts on the straight and narrow, so to speak.
Reading this, can you think of any weaponized words or phrases?
Any words or phrases that come with built-in assumptions? That seem designed to compel you to think a certain way, either favorable to some agenda or against someone else’s agenda?
Or to target and sabotage someone’s idea prior to your hearing that person out?
I can think of well over a dozen, but one of my goals here is engagement.
So I invite you to submit your examples in the comments section below.