What Not to Do
Popular sages and life-advice dispensers are very good at issuing ready-made, one-size-fits-all commandments on how to live well. They tend not to be quite so good at following their own advice, however, partly for the obvious reason that most easily-synopsized “rules for living” must be kept so nebulous or generic in form that one who is clever enough, and motivated enough, will always be able to concoct convenient exceptions to, or self-serving interpretations of, such rules, and partly because telling other people how to live presumes a level of certainty (“expertise” as we call it in political discourse) that no one actually has, such that even these “do-as-I-say” advisers to the universe tend to find their own advice less applicable in reality than it appears when confined to the context of a self-help manual or a paternalistic press conference.
Perhaps, then, rather than telling strangers what to do, either in overly generalized ways, or conversely in ways so specific as not to admit of legitimate contextual exceptions, it would be more reasonable to stick mainly to advising an audience comprised of dissimilar strangers on what not to do.
This would be a more sensible educational path under most circumstances anyway, given that, as noted above, it is likely that no one possesses the kind of wisdom that should allow him to feel worthy to tell others exactly how to live. (Progressives and other world-saving busybodies take note.) On the other hand, a rational and experienced teacher/adviser should have learned enough of the negative theology of life to be able to play the role of Socratic gadfly in the souls of those who are open-minded enough to seek serious help with life’s fundamental questions.
In fact, Socrates himself famously spoke, with some genuine mystery, of a personal daimonion, or “little spirit,” which often interceded at significant moments of decision in his life. But he was always careful to emphasize that this spirit never told him what to do, in a positive sense, but rather only stopped him from doing certain things. In other words, his inner voice, or quasi-divine messenger, only said “No.”
In this Socratic spirit, then, I humbly suggest the following “No” responses for some of the standard and all-too-human temptations of life.
1) Do not rest with confidence on any belief that would make the most comfortable, convenient, or emotionally uncomplicated match for your current life, premises, or social conditions. If something is easy to believe, in the sense of being well-adapted to your subjective conditions of practical comfort with yourself, your life, your friends, your society, your habits, or your judgments, then question it.
Simple examples of this would be those American Trump critics on “the right” who have gradually convinced themselves that “Trump has been better than I expected,” as a rationalization for returning to their comfortable tribal identity as Republican voters — or, conversely, those “conservatives” who find merit in every progressive or mainstream media criticism of Trump (Trump caused coronavirus, Trump is a racist) as a rationalization for having chosen to self-identify as NeverTrump.
2) Do not idolize people you do not know. Everyone you admire is you, idealized. If you do not know the person, then precisely to the degree that you elevate him in your imagination, you are very likely using him as a means of idealizing — or rather excusing through exaltation — your own worst traits or tendencies.
Examples: Trump supporters who lap up his vulgarity and revel in the childish insults he hurls at opponents (“He fights!”). Also, more generally, those who admire, or become fascinated with, popular entertainers who make their living by being “so sexy,” “so glamorous,” or “so cool” — exactly the kind of qualities that every decently raised human should have learned not to value.
3) Do not rush to make important decisions when patient deliberation is possible, or in general prioritize efficiency over perfection. There is in most cases no benefit in deciding “ahead of the deadline,” and there may be a great deal of harm in doing so. By finishing the work, the development process, or the deliberations “early,” you unnecessarily forfeit the extra time you might have spent mulling it over, putting it aside to ferment for a while, or reconsidering the whole thing based on subsequent new information or added perspective. The person who consistently takes pride in being ahead of schedule, or boasts of finishing his tasks before others have finished theirs, is essentially saying that getting things “done” is more important to him than doing them well, or at least that he has confused early completion with good work, two things which are theoretically unrelated, and in practice often contraries. To rush to completion is to give in to fear of the approaching deadline, which is to say to cower before the threats of the soul’s great enemy, The Clock.
This rule, in fact, is basically a subordinate case of moderation, which involves thinking matters through as fully as possible in order to avoid precipitous or emotional choices that might lead to less satisfying outcomes than if one had resisted the urge to act immediately, and instead taken full, patient advantage of the available time to be more certain.
4) Do not mistake anxiety or uncertainty as evidence against anything. Your subjective emotional response to a situation — including your own practical situation — is by definition not a rational judgment. Furthermore, and this is the most important point, it is perhaps impossible to pursue any endeavor aimed at real self-development without feeling, at some point along the way, that you are inadequate to the task, and therefore that failure is inevitable.
To seek self-improvement is by definition to attempt what you have never achieved, or to discover what is hitherto unknown to you. And to step into the genuinely unknown is to experience things you have never experienced before, or to face problems that you have not yet proved yourself capable of solving. Therefore, a shiver of self-doubt, or even an episode of extreme anxiety, in the midst of such an attempt is no evidence of failure, but rather merely evidence that you have chosen an adequate challenge. In fact, it is probably fair to say that if you never feel such a shiver of doubt during a process — that is, if your basic sense of comfort is never at risk — then no significant self-development is at issue, and none will be forthcoming. For you have not really challenged yourself at all.
When Socrates concludes, during his trial defense, that he is the wisest man in Athens precisely because he knows that he knows nothing, whereas other men believe they have knowledge though they do not, he is saying, in part, that living one’s life in a state of perpetual uncertainty — and specifically uncertainty about the most essential things — is a condition to which he has reconciled himself. His critique of his fellow Athenians is in effect that they reject the pain of acknowledged lack and need, in favor of the easy comforts of false self-assurance and presumed knowledge. The aporiae with which Socratic conversations typically end is a twinge of painful doubt inserted at the conclusion of all reasoning, as though to teach us that the philosophic life fundamentally means nothing but the courage to step into the disorienting discomfort of the unknown, and stay there. Time, fear, and the human weakness for comforting certainties of all sorts, be damned.