Your Greatest Risk
by Alexander Green
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Ask someone what he or she wants out of life and you're likely to hear a familiar litany: a great job, a loving family, a nice home, a comfortable retirement and so on.
But what are you living for? Of all the things you might pursue in life, which is the most valuable?
"Most people have trouble naming this goal,"
writes William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at
There was a time when great thinkers sought to answer these questions. But no longer.
Modern philosophy has evolved into a specialized academic discipline that pursues arcane questions of no real interest to the general public. When was the last time you read or heard anything from a living philosopher?
Yet the ancient Greek and Romans obsessed over these questions. They strove to learn what was most important and how to achieve it. In sum, they wanted to discover how best to live.
Their answers evolved into stoicism, a philosophy that is not widely understood today.
The word stoic is used to describe someone unmoved by joy or grief, someone without passion. Yet that is not the stoic philosophy.
Stoicism is about pursuing a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling. It's about healing the inevitable suffering in life - and achieving tranquility.
How is this done? Ancient stoic philosophers advised:
* Contemplating the transitory nature of the world around you
* Living in the present without fear of the future
* Banishing negative emotions
* Living according to your own nature
* Pursuing virtue
* Seeking courage and wisdom
* Living simply and frugally
* Mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so
Sounds simple enough. But that's deceptive, really. These tenets require work.
Living in the present without fear of the future, for instance, may seem impossible when we consider all the sad and tragic news that surrounds us.
Yet the stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us that most worldly events are beyond our control. What disturbs our minds then is not the events themselves but merely our judgments about them.
And we can change these.
After all, there is little you can do to stop nuclear proliferation, global warming, the specter of terrorism, or The Great Recession. Yes, you can speak your mind, cast your vote, organize.
But worry? That solves nothing.
Likewise, the stoic advice to live simply and frugally could have saved millions of Americans who overreached a ton of heartache in recent years.
Limiting your material desires and craving for luxury enables you to save and invest more of your after-tax income. Paradoxically, the shortest route to financial freedom is to fight the acquisitive instinct and the desire to appear wealthy.
Too many imagine that if they just earn enough they can finally fulfill - and ultimately eliminate - their desires.
Yet nothing ever does. New desires spring up to take the place of old ones.
Recognize this and at least you can make honest choices in your life.
This point was made more than two thousand years ago in a well-known dialogue between Alexander the Great and the Greek philosopher Diogenes:
Alexander: Diogenes, you are a man of great repute. Yet you spend your days untroubled, unperturbed, indulging in conversation and the pleasures of life.
Diogenes: Tell me what is so much better about the life of Alexander the Great?
Alexander: I am a conqueror of nations!
Diogenes: So, conqueror of nations, what are you going to do next?
Alexander: I will conquer
Diogenes: Yes... then what?
Alexander: I will conquer
Diogenes: Alright... then what?
Alexander: I will conquer the rest of the world!
Diogenes: And then?
Alexander: Then... I plan to relax and enjoy life.
Diogenes: So why not relax and enjoy it now?
He must have made an impression. The great conqueror once remarked, "Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."
Diogenes lived according to his own nature, caring little for reputation, luxury or material possessions. Few would subscribe to his brand of extreme asceticism. But at least he had philosophy of life - and lived it.
Most of us never take the time to consider our grand goal. Instead, we choose society's default position: the pursuit of affluence, social status and pleasure.
The problem with doing what everyone else is doing, however, is that you may mislive.
Instead of pursuing and enjoying what matters most, you could wake up one day to find that confusion and distraction have caused you to squander your one precious life.
And who really wants to take that risk?
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