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.

Poem: Reflect On The Self

Eyes only for the bad leaves a darkened heart,

seeing, watching, consuming all that is wrong.

Eyes only for the good leave an ignorant heart,

overlooking, bypassing, ignoring the realities of life.

 

To neither be dark or ignorant,

to neither be cynical or idealistic,

rather, be aware of the self which is all of that and more,

through awareness, decency follows.

 

Eyes turned inwards,

peering into the shadowy pockets within as orbs of light shine and dim,

eyes outwards looking into the mirror,

the reflection shows all of mankind,

the shadow and light within mirrors all of mankind.

 

Consume enough hate and you’ll become hateful,

consume enough fear and you’ll become fearful,

consume enough goodness and you’ll become good,

consume enough knowledge and you’ll become intelligent.

 

Reflect on the difference and you’ll become different,

reflect on the similarities and you’ll become similar,

reflect on yourself and you’ll be one with mankind.

 

 

Poem: Trying To Find That Me

There are three of me,

one is who I am,

the other is who I want to be,

and the third is what you think I am,

all three never aligned.

 

One of me is chained to the past,

constantly trying to break free,

the shadow is heavy,

unrelenting,

always following, always reminding, always showing,

what I’m trying to overcome.

 

The other me is strapped to a conveyor belt,

shaped and molded by foreign hands,

but it’s the loving touch that hurts the most,

that conforms the most,

for to disappoint love is hellish,

rather disappoint the other me.

 

That me who is free,

who wanders through the dimly lit path,

traversing the unkept road,

content,

self-content,

(om)

broken chains, disfigured parts,

(om)

peace at heart, peace with love,

(om).

 

Who I am

wanders around

trying to find

that

me.

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

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not venture as yet to assure you, or even to hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally, there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of a change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people, it is a matter for congratulations when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick. (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

How many among us walk around with sickness without realizing it? Part of the issue is the everydayness of life. People have to look after their children, work most of their waking hours, pay bills, sit in traffic, be surrounded by people they don’t like and so on. Just the simple act of smiling can be tough let alone the need to take care of oneself physically. Just exercising for 30 minutes can be seen as a win. After all of this, where do you get the time to take care of yourself mentally? To be reflective? To realize that you may be sick?

I think many of us understand that we could be better than what we are but just don’t know how to navigate life properly in order to become better. The day to day breaks us down, grinds us into these beings who aren’t fulfilling their potentials.

We accept this individual that life has made us and believe that person is you. We tell our children about growth and change while we stay the same. We feel as if a word like ‘potential’ is reserved for those who haven’t been molded by life.

However, such belief and acceptance is usually the result of not being reflective, of not controlling your mind and allowing your mind to control you. Your mind is great at manipulating your thoughts to rationalize the person you are. It doesn’t want you to grow because that requires effort which is accompanied by struggle. The mind wishes to be comfortable, the path of least resistance and so, we too walk this path and will keep on walking this path.

Life would be so much easier if someone could come along and fix all your issues with a snap of their finger. A genie of some kind but that’s not how life works. In reality, apart from your close family and friends, no one really cares what you are going through. That’s because everyone is going through something. So, if you want to improve, regardless of the stresses of your life, the first step has to be reflective, to acknowledge that you are sick.

One way to achieve this reflective nature is by cleaning your room, as Jordan Peterson often says. Too many times people point the finger outwards and blame others for the way their own life is. You can’t improve as an individual if you are constantly blaming others. Once you turn the eye inwards, look at yourself, see the mess in your room, see the symptoms of sickness and start to take ownership for them, you can slowly see the change in your character.

In the same vein as clean your room, Jocko Willink‘s concept of extreme ownership also makes you confront your own actions. Extreme ownership essentially says that everything that isn’t right in your life is your fault. This may be harsh and perhaps untrue in some cases but by taking on this responsibility you feel a sense of control. If it is all your fault then you are also able to change it. Your actions caused the sickness, your actions can cure it.

Another way can be through mental warfare. To go to war with yourself, as David Goggins did, to push your limitations through such extreme pressure that you only have two choices: Improve or quit. Goggins initially did this through his rigorous studying schedule which included writing out whole textbooks by hand over and over again in order to overcome his learning deficiencies. Discipline and work ethic built through such a task then helped him physically overcome the barriers of Navy Seal training and ultramarathon running.

Goggins was able to shape his mind through work but it was only after he understood that he was sick and that the only person that can cure him was himself.

Perhaps the end goal is to become a friend to yourself. A good friend, a true friend call you out on your mistakes, tells you you’re acting poorly, makes sure you know that someone cares for you, that someone is holding you up to a certain standard, someone who is pushing you past your perceived limitations and that someone can be you. You can keep yourself in check if you are strong enough mentally. But before strength comes the acceptance of weakness, before you can get the medicine, you have to know that you are sick. But once that is known, you must also understand that you are the strength, the cure, the medicine.

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all. (Seneca)

 

Socrates & How To Think For Oneself

To think for oneself can be a difficult process especially if you harbor self-doubt, as many people do. Self-doubt causes us to conform to the opinions of other people. When you are unsure about yourself and your own reasoning, you naturally flock to the group consensus. Such actions are even stronger when the group consensus is what is considered to be the norm or “common sense”. The sheer number of people supporting one argument is enough for you to doubt anything contrary.

However, if one is to have an “independence of mind” as Alain De Botton puts it, we cannot take what we are told without critically examining it. It is the reason behind a statement that is supreme and not the number of voices speaking. It is reason that allows us to oppose socially sanctioned practices and ideas.

Many people adopt the beliefs and opinions of others without reason.

Other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. The reason for this simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically.

How does one examine beliefs logically?

The answer lies in the life of Socrates. He was an individual who used his love for wisdom, for philosophy, as his guide. Such love put reason at the center and not traditions, norms, opinions, popularity, etc. His process was simple but it required a disciplined individual to practice it on a daily basis, hence why so many people rather divert such responsibility and adopt other people’s beliefs. But in order to be an individual, one must examine life for him/herself and see what they believe to be right and what is true to them.

The following method is known as the Socratic method of thinking and it can help one to examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of their own but those of the society they are living in as well.

  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.

(The Consolations of Philosophy)

Often times the truth is discovered by finding out what something isn’t. What statements are not true, what beliefs have exceptions, what opinions are based on falsity and so on. Through such critical thinking, you begin to formulate your own thoughts and understandings and hence, begin to think for yourself.

 

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