Lessons From Books: How To Live

How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, by Sarah Bakewell maps out the life of the french philosopher, Montaigne, and the life lessons he accumulated and expounded upon in his famous work, The Essays. In doing so, she provides the reader with a vivid experience of who Montaigne was, how he thought and behaved, and why it is worthwhile to listen to and examine his ideas.

How to Live? This is the central question that plagued Montaigne’s life. The question concerns all human beings to varying degrees, and this is why Montaigne’s work is still relevant centuries after it was written. When you read his essays, you feel as if you are talking to an old friend.

Stefan Zweig summed up what it is like to read Montaigne in this one quote:

Here is a “you” in which my “I” is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.

Certain aspects of being human are universal. You may not relate to Montaigne because he’s a well-to-do philosopher, however, you can find common ground because Montaigne was trying to figure out the best way to live while he dealt human universals like anxiety, death, love, friendship, anger, and aging, all the while living in a complex and ever-changing political and societal situations.

 

The Lessons:

 

Don’t Worry About Death

Concerning death, the Stoic philosophers recommend contemplation. They believe that meditating on death lessens its anxiety. Montaigne also trusted this notion and believed it to be true.

Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death.

However, the more he thought about and contemplated it, the more anxious he became. After almost dying when he fell from his horse, he had a perspective shift because as he was on the brink of death; he felt at ease.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

After this experience, he had the following to say on the topic:

Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life[…] it is not worth wasting any anxiety over.

Don’t over-complicate the simple aspects of life. By thinking too much about the inevitable, we cause needless stress. Instead of trying to control what is outside of our influence, we need to learn how to let go.

For Montaigne, death became a thing that didn’t concern him anymore because all the time he spent worrying about it didn’t matter when that random, absurd accident happened and he almost lost his life. None of the self-inflicted stress came into play at that moment. So, by not caring or worrying about death, we just have one less stress in our life and we can instead spend that time concentrating on the living.

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

Learn To Live With Yourself

We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.

Let us cut loose from all ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease.

We will know no one as well as we know ourselves. We will never spend more time with anyone as we will with ourselves. We don’t have the luxury to not be with ourselves. So, it’s best to make friends with who we are as we’re stuck with that person.

I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself…I roll about in myself.

One benefit that arises when we listen to ourself is clarity. Our mind is constantly working and trying to figure out things that bother us. Often, the answer to many of our stresses lies within ourselves. This is what Montaigne noted. He began watching and questioning his own experiences and writing what he observed. In doing so, he could simplify his life and figure out exactly what he needed.

Solitude is where the answers can lie. But too many of us avoid such a place because we aren’t comfortable with ourselves.

One Way To Practice Living in the Moment

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience – but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are.

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me. (Montaigne)

What we need to live in the moment is the skill to focus. It doesn’t come naturally to most people. Even someone like Montaigne needed to remind himself and create practices to hone this ability to live in the present.

This notion is both good and bad. Good in the sense that we can improve and get better at living in the moment. But also bad because this skill deteriorates if we don’t use it, as all skills do. So, we must practice often to sharpen this skill.

Accept That You Are Human

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know. (Montaigne)

That final coda — ‘thought I don’t know’ — is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this one paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.

Humans are rational and irrational. Logical and illogical. They are lead by reason but also by feelings and emotions. There will be times when we behave well and other times when we behave poorly. Mistakes and correct judgment go hand in hand. This is the human condition and as Montaigne put it to ‘get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.’

Our being is cemented with sickly qualities…Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

What we need is to show kindness and sympathy not just towards others but also towards ourself as we are bound to mess up often but life moves on and we can too.

I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.

Be Slow-Witted

‘Forget much of what you learn’ and ‘Be slow-witted’ became two of Montaigne’s best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led — which was all he really wanted to do.

This notion helped Montaigne to disassociate himself from all ideas and beliefs. He wasn’t married to one way of thinking or to one ideology. He could flow and change as life changed. His thoughts were boundless. They took shape of whatever he was feeling at that moment. This is why he has essay’s which contradict his other works. But that’s fine. But the freedom to be who we are at this moment in life can’t be experienced if we are bound by our past self.

Avoid Arguments

Pyrrhonians (skeptics) accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this manoeuvre: in Greek, epokhe. It means ‘I suspend judgement’. Or, in a different rendition give in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: ‘I hold back.’ This phrase conquers all enemies.

One person has an opinion they believe to be true, and another has their own opinion which they believe to be true, and when they clash, there is an argument. People cannot suspend their belief and entertain the possibility that the other person could be right.

This is more evident than ever before because of social media. All platforms are riddled with people arguing with each other for hours on end. People will go out of their way to start an argument with someone. When in reality, most of it just nonsense and it doesn’t really matter.

This is where the Pyrrohnian words ‘I suspend judgement’ comes into play. Three simple words that can allow us to navigate the useless clatter of life and keep on moving.

Montaigne took this practice a step further:

(He could) slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgement.

In doing so, he could detach from his own beliefs and opinions and allow himself to be flexible.

Be Moderate

Moderation see itself as beautiful; it is unware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.

Montaigne even went as far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found ‘in mediocrity’.

This can be a hard concept to understand, especially in our goal-centered culture. People have grand ambitions and crave a passionate living, but Montaigne advised against such a thing.

Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions: for him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman.

Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition.

We need direction in life, and goals often provide us with a path to move forward. However, we shouldn’t get lost in chasing these goals. There is a possibility that we won’t accomplish everything we aim for, which is why a passion-driven life can cause suffering because our highs are really high and our lows are really low when passion is leading.

Montaigne and many other philosophers believed moderation was key to life. You can control your actions, but not the results. Perhaps then the balance lies in having moderate expectations while we work passionately.

How To Travel

What he loved above all about his travels was the feeling of going with the flow. He avoided all fixed plans. ‘If it looks ugly on the right, I take the left; if I find myself unfit to ride my horse, I stop’ […] It was an extension of his everyday pleasure in letting himself ‘roll relaxedly with the rolling of the heavens’, as he luxuriously put it, but with the added delight that came from seeing everything afresh and with full attention, like a child.

But Montaigne would say it was impossible to stray from the path: there was no path.

Similar to life, Montaigne went with the flow when it came to travelling. There is a sense of freedom in this viewpoint. That no matter where we go, we are going the right way. This also allowed him to view each path as unique and important.

Stefan Zweig’s Lessons From Montaigne:

Be free from vanity and pride.

Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions and parties.

Be free from habit.

Be free from ambition and greed.

Be free from family and surroundings.

Be free from fanaticism.

Be free from fate: be master of your own life.

Be free from death: life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.

 

Great Lines/Quotes:

From now on, Montaigne would live for himself rather than for duty.

 

How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely? (Euripides)

 

Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.

 

Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from up close. (Pliny the Elder)

 

To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.

 

At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others. (Montaigne)

 

For not only inconvenient things, but anything at all, however ugly and vicious and repulsive, can become acceptable through some condition or circumstance. (Montaigne)

 

Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world? (Montaigne)

 

Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep inducing. Jumping to a different perspective us a way of waking oneself up again.

 

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. (Montaigne)

 

 

Lessons From Books: Heroes of History

Heroes of History by Will Durant attempts to compile the lessons and ideas from some of the greatest figures in human history. The book uses the wisdom of philosophers, religious figures, artists, and scientists in order to tackle everyday issues people face such as finding happiness, dealing with the idea of death, finding peace, how to overcome obstacles, how to manage the ups and downs of life, seeking beauty, and so on.

There are many lessons in the book and depending on what phase in life you are in and/or what you are going through in your personal/professional life, you may find something specific and practical to help you through your difficulties.

The following are the lessons that I found important at the moment. 

Life Lessons:

On Action: Do Your Duty and Love Your Fate

All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their blood each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfillment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom. (Lao-tze)

In nature, there are no prizes or pats on the back. The ecosystem is ongoing and each thing has its role to complete and when completed, you transition to the next phase which may simply be to die and become nutrition for another part of nature.

The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius also had a similar notion about life and the point of living.

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present – I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?

Wake up, do your duty, and then rest. There is nothing more.

On Mindset: Be Good, Regardless 

If you do not quarrel, no one on earth will be able to quarrel with you…Recompense injury with kindness…To those who are good I am good, and to those who are not good I am good; thus all get to be good. To those who are sincere I am sincere, and to those who are not sincere I am also sincere, and thus all get to be sincere…The softest thing in the world…overcomes the hardest. (Lao-tze)

Many things in life aren’t in your control. However, how you react to other people and how you view other people is up to you. You can either add more negativity to the world or you can choose to add positivity regardless of the negativity you face. It’s in this choice that your character shines through.

On Character: Cultivate Your Character First

The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigations of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy. (Confucius)

The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has a saying where he urges people to start by cleaning up their room before attempting to make large societal changes. The idea behind it is that first, you have to manage yourself before you can manage others. Similarly, Confucius’ advises to first attain knowledge that will make your thoughts sincere before attempting to order society. Cultivate your own character first, overcome your own deficiencies first, master yourself first before pointing the finger at other people or institutions.

On Peace: One Way To Attain It

If one could still all desires for one, and seek only to do good for all, then individuality, that fundamental delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire!—and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could ever know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, not hereafter, as many believe: only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, which is Nirvana. And so, after seven years of meditation, Guatama went forth to preach Nirvana to mankind.

When we see ourselves as parts of a whole, when we reform ourselves and our desires, in terms of the whole, then our personal disappointments and defeats, our griefs and pains and inevitable death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before; they are lost in the amplitude of infinity. When we have learned to love not our separate selves but all human things, then at last we shall find Nirvana—unselfish peace.

One way to find peace is by focusing on the collective instead of the individual. It is a shift in the mindset where instead of asking what you need most or what you desire most, you turn your attention towards your neighbor and/or your community and ask what will benefit them. What actions can I take right now that will improve their quality of life? This way you become part of the ecosystem and so as the system does better, you do better.

On Life: The Good Shall Pass. The Bad Shall Pass

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose… All rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

It too shall pass is a mantra that can bring peace of mind. Often times when we are in the thick of it when things aren’t going as we planned, we may think that this moment will be forever. But the sun will rise again. The bad moment will pass and with it, the good will come but we can’t fall into the illusion that the good will stay. It too shall pass. The good making way for the bad and then the bad overcome by the good, this cycle is everlasting. That’s how life works.

On Life: It’s Constantly Changing

Nothing is, everything becomes; everything is always ceasing to be what it is, and is becoming what it will be; “all things flow” (panta rei), and “you can never dip your foot in the same water in a flowing stream”; the universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless “Becoming.” (Heraclitus)

Life is constantly changing. There is no stagnation. Even if you’re passive, the world around you will change and that change will cause a shift inside of you. The same thing happens if you’re active. The only difference is that when you are active, you can have some kind of influence on your own “becoming” rather than living passively and becoming what other people or life itself makes you.

On Life: Finding Beauty

This feeling for order and proportion, for form and rhythm, for precision and clarity, is the central face in Greek culture.

“We love beauty with extravagance,” says Thucydides’ Pericles. The purpose is not to represent indiscriminately the myriad details of the real, but to catch and hold the essence of things, and portray ideal possibilities of form and life.

In order to make life more vivid and clear, an attempt to find beauty is valiant. Too many people associate beauty with great art pieces or sunsets at some tropical island. The Greeks, on the other hand, perceive beauty with form, rhythm, precision, and clarity. Elements that can be found in everyday life.

This is similar to the idea of the writer Marcel Proust. Proust attempted to see the beauty in the everyday. To observe an apple and find beauty in its harmonized shape, touch, feel, smell. This way, life becomes beautiful.

On Life: Make Your Weakness Your Strength 

[The Story Of Demosthenes] His father left him a moderate fortune, but the executors consumed it. He made his own fortune as a rhetor, writing speeches for litigants; something, according to Plutarch, he prepared pleas for bother parties to a dispute. He could compose better than he could speak, for he was weak in body and defective in articulation. To overcome those handicaps he addressed the noisy sea with his mouth half-filled with pebbles or he declaimed while running uphill. After years of effort he became one of the richest lawyers in Athens, flexible in his morals, but fearless in his views.

The lesson is simple and straightforward. Your limitations, your weakness, aspects of yourself that cause you to struggle don’t have to remain that way. Granted, not everything can be fully overcome. However, there is always room for improvement. What is required is discipline and work ethic and Demosthenes is an example of this.

On Art: The Art Of Poetry

The rules of good writing: clarity, directness, mingling the useful with the pleasant. Art assumes feeling as well in the artists as in the recipient: “If you wish me to weep, you must first grieve yourself.” But art is not feeling alone; it is feeling conveyed in disciplined form—“emotion remembered in tranquility.” (Horace)

A reminder for good writing: Keep it simple and convey true emotions.

On Life: Dealing With Bad People

He reluctantly concedes that there are bad men in the world. The way to deal with them is to remember that they, too, are men, the helpless victims of their own faults by the determinism of circumstance. “If any man has done thee wrong, the harm is his own…forgive him.” Does this seem an impracticable philosophy? On the contrary, nothing is so invincible as a good disposition, if it be sincere. A really good man is immune to misfortune, for whatever evil befalls him leaves him still his own soul. Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance. (Marcus Aurelius)

It is difficult to be compassionate when emotions are riled up. But compassion is what is needed in order to bridge the gap between one individual and another. Reminding yourself to forgive and at the same time, guarding your reaction and attitude against the negativity of others is a good place to start.

On Art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Thoughts

His basic precept is that the student of art should study nature rather than copying the works of other artists. “see to it, O painter, that when you go  into the fields you give your attention to the various objects, looking carefully in turn first at one object then at another, making a bundle of different things selected among those of less value.” Of course the painter must study anatomy, perspective, modeling by light and shade; boundaries sharply defined make a picture seem wooden. “Always make the figure so that the bosom is not turned in the same direction as the head”; here is one secret of the grace in Leonardo’s own composition. Finally he urges: “Make figures with such action as may suffice to show what the figure has in mind.”

On Life: The Harsh Reality Of Being Alive

In Othello (1604), Iago stands for evil, falsehood, and treachery, and triumphantly survives; Desdemona is goodness, honesty, and fidelity, and is murdered.

The murderer in Macbeth judges life mercilessly:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Life is not fair. Your multitude of goodness will not likely be reciprocated. Sometimes bad things happen and keep happening and they happen to good people. And life is largely pointless and meaningless, signifying nothing. Yet, we need to keep acting and moving forward with the attempt to make life more bearable for people we care for and also for our fellow neighbors. There is no need for the individual to add hardship to what is already difficult.

We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us—we should work undiscourageable to lessen them—but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance.

On Life: Full Acceptance 

Men must endure their going hence,

Even as their coming hither;

Ripeness is all. (King Lear 5.2)

Maturity, not eternity, should be our goal. (Durant)

To be alive means to die one day. That can either be accomplished with your head held high or by kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum like a child. Maturity means to accept the inevitable. To accept all that you have no control over and to keep your head high when the inevitable comes your way.

The individual soul is a passing tongue of the endlessly changing flame of light. Man is a fitful moment in that flames, “kindled and put out like a light in the night.” (Heracleitus)

Great Lines Or Quotes:

Those about whom you inquire have molded with their bones into dust…Get rid of your pride and many ambitions, your affection and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing at all from all these. (Lao-tze)

 

Sin is selfishness, the seeking of individual advantage or delight; and until the soul is freed from all selfishness, it will be repeatedly born.

 

“Man is the measure of all things.” (Protagoras)

 

Normally the philosophy of one age is the literature of the next: the ideas and issues that in one generation are fought out on the field of speculation or research provide in the succeeding generation the background of drama, fiction, and poetry.

 

Virtue lies not in the fear of the gods, nor in the timid shunning of pleasure; it lies in the harmonious operation of sense and faculties guided by reason: “the real wealth of a man is to live simply with a mind at peace.” (Lucretius)

 

“No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” (Sulla)

 

“I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze, loftier than the royal peak of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die.” (Horace)

 

Freedom is luxury of security.

 

We cannot know what God is, not understand a universe so mingled of apparent evil and good, of suffering and loveliness, destruction and sublimity; but in the presence of a mother tending her child, or of an informed will giving order to chaos, meaning to matter, nobility to form or thought, we feel as close as we shall even be to the life and law that constitute the incomprehensible intelligence of the world.

 

“Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest.” (Francis Bacon)

 

Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance.

Lessons From Stories: Zorba The Greek

Zorba The Greek is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was first published in 1946 and it is essentially an interaction between the narrator, who has learned about life through books, and Alexis Zorba, who has learned about life through actual experience. In the course of the story, which centers around the re-opening of a mine in Crete, practical philosophical questions such as how to live life, what is happiness, what it means to be free, how to reduce anxiety, how to be yourself and many more are discussed.

Lessons:

Live in the moment:

“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

[…]

I kept silent. Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing. But when Zorba asked me the question, I did not know.

[…]

“Everything in good time. In front of us now is the pilaff; let our minds become pilaff. Tomorrow the lignite will be in front of us; our minds must become lignite! No half-measures, you know.”

Two paths that lead to the same peak, meaning either way what is being taught is to live in the moment. Whether you achieve this clarity by reminding yourself of death every day or you reach it by forgetting that death even exists, it is the same.

Pilaff now. Lignite tomorrow. Whatever you have to focus on in the present moment is life. In this manner, life is also simplified.

“A fresh road, and fresh plans!” he cried. “I’ve’ stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening today, this minute, that’s what I care about. I say: ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Well, sleep well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘Well, work well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m kissing a woman.’ ‘Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you’re doing it; there’s nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!'”

How To Find Happiness:

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”

To leave the rat race behind. To get off the track of materialistic pleasure, which forever seeks the new thing that will bring short term gratification. Instead, lose yourself in what you are tasked with, enjoy the company of your neighbor, and build a refuge within yourself that you can always go to.

We stayed silent by the brazier until far into the night. I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

Happiness is a constant search. You have to seek the small, minute, frugal things like eating roasted chestnuts and find happiness in that fleeting moment. If you tie your happiness to grand moments like a promotion or buying something expensive or achieving a long-term goal, then in your entire life you will only have a handful of happy moments because those grand experiences are few and far between. While searching for happiness in the everyday occasions can result in a handful of happy moments daily.

Be Passionate:

“You can’t understand, boss!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I told you I had been in every trade. Once I was a potter. I was made about that craft. D’you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round, as if it were possessed while you stand over it and say: I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devils knows what more! That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!”

Live with passion. Whatever you are presently doing, you should do it with your entire existence. The aim is to achieve a flow-like state where an entire day passes, but to you, it feels like it has only been a few minutes. That’s when you know that time was spent wisely.

“Throwing yourself headlong into your work, into wine, and love, and never being afraid of either God or devil…That’s what youth is!”

Be Yourself:

“As for you boss,” he said, “I think you do your level best to turn what you eat into God. But you can’t quite manage it, and that torments you. the same thing’s happening to you as happened to the crow.”

“What happened to the crow, Zorba?”

“Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly–well, like a crow. But one day he got it into his head to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn’t for the life of him recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don’t you see? He just hobbled about.”

Much of life can be uncertain which causes us to seek other people to follow and be like them. Although this isn’t inherently a bad thing, you still have to be careful not to abandon your own individuality in order to gain comfort. It’s easy to do and mimic what other people say. It’s much more difficult to trust your own way of walking. You don’t want to spend so much time being like someone else that you forget who you are.

How To Live And How Not To:

“Life is trouble,” Zorba continued. “Death, no. To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble.”

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

The truth is that by being active you open yourself up to trouble. By acting you have to face the possibility of failure, disappointment, and even humiliation. However, the passive way of life is no way to live. You are merely an observer when you live passively. And passivity isn’t a habit you want to master, for like all habits, it will be difficult to break.

What It Means To Be Free:

That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.

Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the higher the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?

To be better than who you were yesterday is the beacon of light that we need to move towards. We have to overcome ourselves, constantly, to overcome lowly passions which pleasure drives in order to achieve higher passions which enrich our souls and our lives. These high passions have to be tethered to our souls rather than to a concept or idea made up by others. That can allow us to escape slavery.

Simplify Life and Thus Reduce Anxiety:

That man has not been to school, I thought, and his brain has not been perverted. He has had all manner of experience; his mind is open and his heart has grown bigger, without his losing one ounce of his primitive boldness. All the problems which we find so complicated or insoluble he cuts through as if with a sword, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to miss his aim, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground but the weight of his whole body. African savages worship the serpent because its whole body touches the ground and it must, therefore, know all the earth’s secrets. It knows them with its belly, with its tail, with its head. It is always in contact or mingled with the Mother. The same is true of Zorba. We educated people are just empty-headed birds of the air.

The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weight, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.

Often stress and anxieties are man-made. We overthink and over-complicate our lives. We give in too much to the mind and don’t use our bodies to feel.

“Boss, everything’s simple in this world. How many times must I tell you? So don’t go and complicate things!”

Our mind gets overwhelmed easily, especially in our current information age. In reality, what we need is simple, the basics, and if you listen to your body and feel life it’s easy to realize this.

Many are the joys of this world—women, fruit, ideas. But to cleave that sea (Aegean Sea) in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.

You Only Have One Life:

Once more there sounded within me, together with the cranes’ cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

A mind hearing this pitiless warning–a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate–would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Great examples come to your mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

Simply put, you have one life and it can go quickly so don’t waste it chasing petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.

Great Lines/Quotes:

“As far as I can see, your lordship’s never been hungry, never killed, never stolen, never committed adultery. What ever can you know of the world? You’ve go an innocent’s brain and you skins never even felt the sun.”

 

Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

 

At the far end of the room a ladder or a few wooden steps lead up to the raised platform, where there is a trestle bed and, above it, the holy icons with their lamps. The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.

 

“Ha! Man is a wild beast,” Zorba said suddenly, overexcited with his singing. “Leave your books alone. Aren’t you ashamed? Man is a wild beast, and wild beasts don’t read.”

 

“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”

 

When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.

 

I walked rapidly along the beach, talking with the invisible enemy. I cried: “You won’t get into my soul! I shan’t open the door to you! You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tup me over!”

 

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.

 

 

Lessons From Books: How Proust Can Change Your Life

In the book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton etches a narrative of self-help and self-improvement which he found in the works of Marcel Proust. Proust was a novelist known most famously for his work In Search of Lost Time, which spans seven novels and tackles themes of friendship, success, love, relationships, and much more.

At the core, the book tries to answer the question of what is the best way to live life? Although the answer varies from individual to individual, Alain de Botton puts forth some practical ways to live one’s life and of course, as Proust was one of the most influential writers, the book is also rich in literary advice.

The lessons:

On Life – Learn To Be A “Good Sufferer”

We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. (Alain de Botton)

Life is hard and an important aspect of living is to be a good sufferer. You must be able to detach from grief and to understand why something hurts you or harms you.

Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our hearts. (Proust)

When we can learn from grief, then the pain subsides. In order to learn from it, we must accept it at first and not avoid it.

Perhaps the greatest claim one can make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry—possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused. (Alain de Botton)

I found this to be similar to Jocko Willink‘s “Good” method of dealing with hardship.

On Life – Be Observant

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. (Proust)

Daily life can seem mundane and unimportant. We are too busy living for the weekend or for the summer vacations that most of our life can drift by without notice. Which is why Proust emphasized searching for the unique or the precious in everyday life. This mindset requires one to be observant, to look at your everyday life with new eyes.

When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like Chordin. (Proust)

This is similar to Walker Percy’s idea of The Search which he explored in his novel, The Moviegoer. This can make the everyday special and unique.

Aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know. (Proust)

In the train rides or bus ride, while waiting in lines at convenient stores or walking around in malls, if we are observant enough we can find people we know and love because humans share similar features, traits, and habits.

For appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.” (Proust)

On Writing – Be Original and Care Deeply

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone. (Proust)

An artist should not have an obsession with continuing the style that has been going on but rather he or she should study it and then adapt it to him or herself instead of them adapting to the style. In order to do this, the artist must have faith in their own abilities.

It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull. (Proust)

Proust says that what makes something great isn’t the subject matter but rather the quality of care given to that subject. Cliches show a concern for the end product rather than the process of creation. The process of creation requires patience, attention, and care.

Remainder to myself: Write without care and edit with an abundance of it.

 

Great Lines or Quotes:

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. (Proust)

 

Everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensees. (Alain de Botton)

 

Those who love and those who are happy are not the same. (Proust)

 

When we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons. (Proust)

 

Our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts. (Alain de Botton)

 

We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel’ it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so. (Proust)

 

To make (reading) into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it. (Proust)