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: 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.

 

 

Reflections on Fear

Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of success. Fear of responsibility. Fear of action. Fear of passivity. Fear of being let down. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of emotional pain. Fear of physical pain. Fear of being yourself. Fear of reputation. Fear of expectations.

Fear of … fear of … fear of …

Fear has many faces and everyone is afraid of something. Some fears are rational, others are irrational, many are debilitating, some are paralyzing and yet, all can be conquered, if you wish it so.

Fears are often based upon action. When we wish for a certain outcome to take place and so, we start to make plans of how we can turn that wish into reality but then, our minds automatically begin to think of scenarios where our actions will lead to a different event, a painful, embarrassing event, where failure can occur and hence, fear builds upon successive thoughts and we find ourselves at the mercy of fear. Unwilling to act because we are afraid of a possibility that may occur.

Should I still act? Or should I do something else?

She’s going to say no, so let’s do something else. Don’t bother, you won’t get the promotion, let’s go a different way. You’ll never be able to do that, it’ll be a waste of time.

In order to deal with such fears we often lower our gaze, set our sights to something smaller, something manageable which we can achieve with little risk and so, we settle due to fear.

Pain is another cause of fear. Most people don’t like to get hurt. They rather avoid pain, whether it is physical or psychological. We rather be comfortable and repeat pleasurable actions which have a small chance of hurting us. This is why when we think of taking action that will cause us to be uncomfortable and go beyond our perceived limitations, fear begins to kick in.

A marathon would be good to run but think of the last time you tried to run and the pain it caused your feet. To create a piece of art would be fulfilling but think about the pain of rejection. It’d be good to join a group but think about the awkwardness that could take place.

Once more, we bow to fear and do not attempt something great, something meaningful and we mistake our timid actions for actions but in reality, you are still living passively, not living life as it is meant to be lived for you allow fear to manipulate your wants and needs.

What to do then? What to do when you are afraid?

The answer is simple.

Act anyway.

Fear is imprisoning. If you allow it to dictate your life, your emotions, your actions then you will never be free. You will remain a mass of unfulfilled potential, inexperienced being, alive and yet not living.

We have to understand what Frank Herbert understood about fear. In his classic novel, Dune, Frank Herbert uses the analogy of death when he speaks of fear. When you allow fear to manage your actions, you have just experienced a little death and as time goes on and you make more decisions due to fear, you experience more little deaths and eventually, obliteration.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Fear lives in the future. Where something could happen. Or it may not. What you fear may come true or it could not. Perhaps if you still act in the face of fear, you’ll realize that even in failure, your perceived trauma greatly outweighed the real consequences. Understand that pain is temporary, that the discomfort will go away but the accomplishment of acting even though you were afraid will stick around, you will look back and think of what you achieved rather than the pain you felt.

That painful moment, that fearful moment becomes a fond memory. It can turn into a catalyst of the simple and powerful thought “what else can I do?”.

An additional thought begins to occur “What else am I afraid of?”.

When you act regardless of fear you begin to make changes in your habits, in the way you think, in your character. You stop your life from being led by something else and you begin to lead your own life.

Through fear you get freedom, otherwise, it’s obliteration.