Lessons From Stories: The Plague

The Plague is a story written by Albert Camus and it details the spread of pestilence in the city of Oran and the response of the civilians. The story stands as a reminder of the inevitable, death, which can linger in all moments but it is also a reminder of the decency, goodness, and selfless actions human beings can take in the face of such inevitability. 

The Lessons

On Life – Be Prepared For The Worst Case Scenario

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Rarely does anything happen in the world for the first time. Human history is rich and can be cited whenever a seemingly new event occurs. Yet, we are quick to forget the past, quick to forget what has happened and what has gone wrong in our timeline. The Plague concentrates on pestilence and on death in general as a reoccurring theme of life which is often pushed into some deep corner of the mind so that we don’t have to think about things that make us uncomfortable.

This uncomfortable reality was something the Stoics believed we should meditate on. One aspect of Stoic philosophy is that we should constantly think about what could go wrong in order to lessen its effect on us.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. (Seneca)

The bad will always exist. That is part of life and that is part of nature. It’s better to confront this reality so we can be prepared instead of shying away from it which in turn amplifies the damage done.

How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

On Mindset – Hardships Are Opportunity For Growth

“However, you think, like Panelous, that the plague has its good side; it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought?”

The doctor tossed his head impatiently.

“So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

A mindset that seeks growth and possibilities rather than a mindset that wallows in sadness, blaming the circumstances or other people. The latter leads nowhere but to further despair, while the former can help the person come out of hardship as a more capable individual.

On Character – Do Your Duty

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

“What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.

“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”

To do your part in a crisis means to show common decency towards your fellow human beings. Common decency for the doctor means to do his job the best he can. Common decency for other civilians would be to abide by the health guidelines. It may also be to show sympathy and care, two elements that can easily be forgotten during a crisis because our own ego takes over and we come to think about ourselves first.

On Life – Attaining Peace

Torrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.

“Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.”

Commonly sympathy is used for other people. We sympathize with our loved ones or our neighbors or maybe even strangers when we see them going through hardship. But we rarely sympathize with ourselves. When we make mistakes we respond to ourselves with harshness and judgment rather than sympathy. But in order to attain peace, that sympathy we show others must also be used on ourselves because we are flawed beings, imperfect, so the occasional mistakes are bound to happen.

On Character – Self Reflect and Think For Oneself

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

One way to fight against ignorance is to apply the Socratic method as demonstrated by Alain de Botton in his book The Consolations of Philosophy.

The Socratic method of thinking can help you examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of your own but those of the society you’re living in:

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

A Reminder About The Nature Of Life

“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”

Rieux’s face darkened.

“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

“No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.”

“Yes. A never ending defeat.”

Tarrou stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned and tramped heavily toward the door. Rieux followed him and was almost at his side when Tarrou, who was staring at the floor, suddenly said:

“Who taught you all this, doctor?”

The reply came promptly:

“Suffering.”

Nothing lasts. Struggle is part of life. Defeat, which is death, is inevitable. There is suffering. Yet, we have a choice in how we act and respond to all of this. The character of doctor Rieux demonstrates this. Faced with this knowledge, he goes about his life still trying to help his fellow human beings.

Great Lines or Quotes

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. […] that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

 

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”

 

“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”

 

That a man suffering from a dangerous ailment or grave anxiety is allergic to other ailments and anxieties.

 

And to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

 

 

Stoic Lesson: The Importance of Journaling

Our current age is so fast-paced and there is so much information out there that it feels like you are just jumping from one thought to another without completely digesting the message. We get all this information which we never unpack and see if it’s useful or not.

For Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor and a Stoic philosopher, this unpacking of information was done through his writing. He kept a journal that we now know as his book ‘Meditations‘. The book is essentially comprised of personal notes, each one reminding him of something that he considered to be important, some principle to remember and live-by. Rather than adding information, Marcus Aurelius refined what he knew and tried to live by it.

Which is the point of philosophy. Philosophy isn’t simply to contemplate whether we exist or not or what logic means but rather, philosophy is about how one lives and for Aurelius, he was able to embody his philosophy by constantly reminding himself of what was important.

From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All. (Pierre Hadot)

The essential reason why Aurelius wrote was to control his inner discourse. By that, it is meant his thoughts. If you allow your mind to be completely free, it is likely to fill your head with anxiety and fears or, it’ll distract you from the right action by leading you towards some immediate gratification. But by repeatedly reading and writing the principles that you want to live by, you bring those ideals to the forefront of your mind and then your action follows.

It is not enough to reread what has already been written. Written pages are already dead, and the Meditations were not made to be reread. What counts is the reformulation: the act of writing or talking to oneself, right now, in the very moment when one needs to write. (Pierre Hadot)

This is an important thing to understand. If one reads the ‘Meditations’ what they will find is that Marcus Aurelius is basically repeating the same handful of principles over and over again. The reason for this is that the book was never meant for public eyes. Rather it was his personal journal. But what we can understand from this action is that we need reminders. We need to remember to stay on the right path. This is done through daily practice. Every day you have to hammer it into your mind what you want to be, how you want to act, how you want to represent yourself. Writing is one way to do this. Because the act of writing alone causes you to concentrate on the thoughts which are formulating into the words in front of you.

Marcus writes only in order to have the dogmas and rules of life always present to his mind. He is thus following the advice of Epictetus, who, after having set forth the distinction between what does and does not depend on us —- the fundamental dogma of Stocisim —- adds:

It is about this that philosophers ought to meditate; this is what they should write down every day, and it should be the subject of their exercises (I, I, 25).

You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them (III, 24, 103). (Pierre Hadot).

These principles depend on the individual. For the Stoics, the main principles were to understand how little control we have in life, how we do have control over our reason and attitude, how death can approach at any moment and how we must align ourselves with the universal purpose.

This may not be how you wish to live. But whatever you consider to be important, whatever principles you wish to follow require constant attention. You just have to remember to reinforce these principles on a consistent basis.

The practical nature of stoicism is one of the reasons why this philosophy is still relevant. It acknowledges how easy it is to be overwhelmed or to stray off the path but it also provides a solution in the form of journaling. Simply by writing for ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and maybe even in the afternoon, it can act as a reminder and help you to carry yourself with grace, to think of the right things and to act in the correct manner. The repetition of such can then slowly transform your character to the point that you begin to embody the philosophy by the way you live as it did for Marcus Aurelius.

Book referenced: The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot


Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

Stoic Lesson: Epictetus On Progress

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful


Youtube: Learned Living

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/learned_living/

Poem: The Old Rebel

Article: Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

Short Story: The Bus

 

Athena’s Advice To Telemachus

The Odyssey by Homer is often thought of as the heroic story of King Odysseus as he attempts to return to his homeland after the Trojan Wars. Although this journey is at the forefront of the story, there is another character going through his own hardship and transformation and this individual is the son of Odysseus, Telemachus.

When we first encounter the boy we witness that his life is infested by strange men who are trying to win his mother’s hand in marriage. As the queen makes her suitors wait, the men plague the house, eating all the food, spending the coin, drinking wine, taking for themselves what King Odysseus had left behind for his wife and infant son.

At a time like this, one would expect the King’s son to take action and bring order back into his home. However, this is not the case. Telemachus sits idle, waiting and hoping for his fathers return.

“Dear stranger, would you be shocked by what I say?

Look at them over there. Not a care in the world,

just lyres and tunes! It’s easy for them, all right,

they feed on another’s goods and go scot-free—

a man whose white bones lie strewn in the rain somewhere,

rotting away on land on rolling down the ocean’s salty swells.

But that man—if they caught sight of him home in Ithaca,

by god, they’d all pray to be faster on their feet

than richer in bars of gold and heavy robes

Telemachus is reliant on his father, as all young boys often are and additionally, Telemachus is plagued by self-pity and this poor attitude and mindset makes him inactive.

He’s left me tears and greif. Nor do I rack my heart

and greive for him alone. No longer. Now the gods

have invented other miseries to plauge me.

Often times in archetypical stories, a hero requires the aid of an outsider to push him or her into activity. One has to look no further than Tolkein’s Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf sets Bilbo and Frodo in motion. This common motif is even present in this ancient story where Telemachus finds himself conversing with an individual who is actually the Goddess Athena. Athena comes to Telemachus’ aid and provides him with sound advice for, after all, Athena is the Goddess of wisdom.

I have some good advice, if only you will accept it.

Fit out a ship with twenty oars, the best in sight,

sail in quest of news of your long-lost father.

Someone may tell you something

or you may catch a rumor straight from Zeus,

rumor that carries news to men like nothing else.

Essentially, Telemachus must act and he must move. It is simple and yet much-needed advice. Once you begin to help yourself, perhaps then others may help you.

Athena goes on to say:

You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—

it’s time you were a man.

So, Telemachus is to become a man by taking on responsibility. He is to become a man by taking ownership of his life. He is to become a man through action.

“Telemachus, you’ll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on,

not if your father’s spirit courses through your veins

now there was a man. I’d say, in words and action both!

Telemachus must cultivate his character. Although his father is a great man, this does not mean he will be great. No one is born a hero, one must mold themselves into such a being. This is why Telemachus’ journey and transformation are so important. He goes from a timid boy, who is shy and who lacks the courage to deal with individuals who are causing his mother pain. No one wishes to be like this individual. However, although Telemachus starts from this bottom position, through action and responsibility, he is able to create for himself a man who encompasses what a hero is supposed to be. This creation is aided by others but ultimately, it is Telemachus who must act.

So, it is this simple advice that Athena imparts on Telemachus. In order to grow, one must take on a burden, take on responsibility and through such actions, one is able to become the individual who is capable of handling hardship and furthermore, an individual who is able to overcome hardship.

Reflections: Need To Hold Oneself To A Higher Standard

Recently I have thought a lot about where I aim. What I mean by this is in order for me to become the individual I wish to be, I need to have some kind of target which I aim at otherwise I would be lost. Without a target, I would lack a sense of direction. So, having established a need of a target, the natural question arises is simply, what kind of target is this? What is my aim? Who do I wish to be?

The simple answer is, I wish to be great. To be all that I can be. My aim is high and not low for a low aim seems to be a waste of life’s opportunities and experience. A small aim seems petty, it seems concerned with petty pleasures and desires and with it, the accomplishment of small aims seems to lack a true feeling of fulfillment for I know that this accomplishment is cheapened by my lack of effort that is required.

This is an easy notion to understand because there is a clear difference in accomplishment when you finish something that you found difficult in comparison to finishing something that was easy.

Attempting to do something great is accompanied by a sense of fear or stress because there is a chance of failure. When you aim low that chance of failure lessens and with it, the fear and stress also go down. But when the aim is high, then not only is there the notion of failure but also of effort. Reason being, a high target cannot be reached through minimal effort. It requires the sacrifice of comfortable things and a comfortable attitude and this in itself is a deterrent to a higher aim.

However, if the aim is high and one is able to reach it and accomplish something that is truly difficult for that individual, the reward is equally as high. What I mean by reward is not necessarily material or external but rather it is the internal reward that I aim for. The knowledge that I can accomplish a difficult task. That may seem like a simple understanding but what comes with this accomplishment is a molding of one’s character that becomes more disciplined and seeks to work rather than shying away from such a thing. The reason being, higher aims require one to develop and change their character to meet that aim.

These aims then become a higher standard by which you live your life by. The standard which is kept simple and straightforward and easy to understand. This standard is one that involves sacrificing the pleasures of the present in order for the development of a good future. In order to stay firm on this path of sacrificing petty pleasures, one has to be disciplined and equally important, one has to control the thoughts that enter and leave their mind. For negative and pessimistic thoughts lower ones aim. Hence, the standard now involves discipline of action and thought and additionally, an optimistic view that one’s effort will result in a better future and a sense of trust that the sacrifices in the present are worth making. Another standard that is required is a constant attempt to seek the uncomfortable. The reason for this that by staying comfortable, you only change minimally, if you change at all. The comfortable approach is one that is aimed at the low. When you become uncomfortable and attempt something new and difficult, you challenge your mind, which will be coming up with a million different reasons as why you should abandon this cause and stay comfortable, and when you can overcome this, you are able to tame or at the very least, resist the mind, then you come to a realization that this things that you were avoiding, that made you uncomfortable, were not all that bad, this realization opens up the world to you and with it more experiences that result in a fulfiller experience of this finite life.

So, the way I see it is that if you keep your standards low, you will adapt to meet them. If you keep your standards high, you will adapt to meet them as well with effort. However, it is the internal growth that differentiates one adaptation from the other. The internal growth is what is accomplished when that target is high and the aim is constantly readjusted towards this higher target.

Jordan Peterson on Telling the Truth and Building Character

There are two types of ambitions. One is external where you try to gain power, status, financial rewards and things of that nature. The other is internal where you try to build discipline in your life, work ethic, consistency and be truthful and reliable. Of course, external ambition may require the development of things like discipline and consistency. However, it is the mindset behind it that matters. A mindset where your end goal is internal development and not external.

Why do you do the things you do? What is the reason behind your actions? If the why is external rather than internal then, you may find yourself externally happy but not internally.

One of the rules, in Jordan Peterson‘s book 12 Rules For Life, is, tell the truth, or at least don’t lie. In this chapter, Jordan Peterson explains how as a young psychology student, he worked at Douglas Hospital where he observed and interacted with individuals with mental disabilities, patients suffering from issues like being bipolar, having schizophrenia and other psychotic episodes. In this environment, Jordan Peterson found the value of telling the truth, and how through truth one gets to know themselves.

I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke, and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged. I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practice only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practice telling the truth – or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.

To accept the truth means to sacrifice – and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrifical debt.

Ambition to develop one’s character. The focus should be aimed internally, consciously and objectively ripping apart the things that you don’t want to be and constructing the ideal you.

Or else you may find yourself to be a stranger or even worse, someone who conformed to other people’s influence.

Set your ambition, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status, you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Knowing this, tie a rope to a boulder. Pick up the great stone, heave it in front of you and pull yourself towards it. Watch and observe while you move forward. Articulate you experience as clearly and carefully to yourself and others as you possibly can. In this manner, you will learn to proceed more effectively and efficiently towards your goal. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself.

External things come and go. Nothing lasts forever. So, if you tie your self-worth and your happiness to things that are outside of your control then you play a dangerous game because when those things go, so does your peace of mind.

But if you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the reflection, no matter how the world changes around you, you can always find peace. Things that bother me have always been my lack of disciple or work ethic, finding excuses when I failed at something due to my lack of effort. Anytime I’ve achieved anything that was difficult, that required me to overcome my deficiencies has always been more fulfilling even though it may not be externally rewarding.

Like everything, a balance can be achieved. The internal and external ambition can live in harmony together. There is nothing wrong with wanting financial freedom. Materialistic ambitions are neither good nor bad. They are simply ambitions. It is our intent that places feelings of good or bad upon them. If our intent comes from a higher place, then the balance can be made.

Perhaps it is better to conceptualize it this way: Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal – an ambition and a purpose – to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.” This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.

This is a pursuit of ambition without compromising your character. First, one needs to build their character, to know their limits and lines that they will not cross or be pushed back from. Then, one can join external ambition along with that character and achieve what one wishes to achieve in life. The external always being kept in check by the internal through the process of objective reflection.