Tag: Stoicism

A Parable of Contentment and Happiness

“Who is rich?
He who is satisfied with his lot.”
— Ben Zoma

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A short parable on contentment today, from Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, one of a series of biographies by the great Greek historian Plutarch that were later collected as Plutarch’s Lives.

Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus, a region of Greece. As he lays out his plan for a conquest of Rome, his advisor Cineas decides to take a step back and help Pyrrhus see himself in a mirror — to do a second-order thinking on his goals. Contained in that conversation is a great deal of wisdom about life. We suggest thinking deeply about what it means for your own.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permit us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“You ask,” said Pyrrhus, “a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy, the extent and resources and strength of which any one should rather profess to be ignorant of than yourself.”

Cineas after a little pause, “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus not yet discovering his intention, “Sicily,” he replied, “next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; for since Agathocles left it, only faction and anarchy, and the licentious violence of the demagogues prevail.”

“You speak,” said Cineas, “what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”

“God grant us,” answered Pyrrhus, “victory and success in that, and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to fly from Syracuse, and passing the sea only with a few ships, had all but surprised? These conquests once perfected, will any assert that of the enemies who now pretend to despise us, any one will dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, “for then it is manifest we may with such mighty forces regain Macedon, and make an absolute conquest of Greece; and when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”

Said Pyrrhus, smiling, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

When Cineas had led Pyrrhus with his argument to this point: “And what hinders us now, sir, if we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand without trouble all those necessary things, to which through much blood and great labour, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others, we design at last to arrive?”

Cineas is saying, in so many words: Why go to all the trouble of trying to own the world when you can be happy and content right now? Unfortunately, Pyrrhus fails to heed the advice.

The great Scot Adam Smith, after recounting the above story in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, uses it as a way to remind us to be very careful with our continual discontentment:

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.

The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

Wherever prudence does not direct, wherever justice does not permit, the attempt to change our situation, the man who does attempt it, plays at the most Unequal of all games of hazard, and stakes every thing against scarce any thing.

(H/T to the economist and interviewer Russ Roberts for pointing out this wonderful parable in his magnificent short book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.)

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Still Interested? Check out some other thoughts on human happiness.

Montaigne’s Rule for Reading: The Promiscuous Pursuit of Pleasure

montaigne-anon-ca-1590

“His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: Pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,’ he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.’”

— How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) might have been the original essayist. George Orwell before George Orwell. Montaigne was well-read, smart, critical, and possesed a tendency to write in a personal tone—with references to and reflections on—his own thoughts and his own life.

Montaigne was known as a well-born French statesman during the time of the Reformation in Europe, when Catholic and Protestants were viciously fighting one another over the “one true church.” (The strong, violent ideologies at play ring familiar to those of us observing extreme religious terrorism today.) A century after the delivery of the printing press to the West, the Wars of Religion coincided with two historical periods that we now consider monumental —  the Renaissance and the Reformation. Such were the times molding a young Montaigne.

The son of a wealthy businessman, Montaigne was born on a chateau near Bordeaux (rough life) although his father did his best to keep him grounded — he forced Michel to spend some of his early years living with peasants in a cottage.

After a fairly rigorous education in the classics initiated by his family, a stint at boarding school, and a formal legal education, Montaigne went on to a career as a court adviser at Bordeaux Parliament, and then retired to his extensive personal library where he would begin to write. His personal essays — on topics ranging from death and the meaning of life to the cultural relativism inherent in judging Brazilian cannibals — would go on to influence every generation hence, starting with Shakespeare.

Montaigne became well-known for his devotion to skepticism in the tradition of the Pyrrhonians. In short: A constant withholding of judgment, a deep distrust of his own knowledge, and a desire to avoid ideology and overreaching.  In fact, one of the pillars of the Pyrrhonian style of thought was to construct both sides of an argument as cogently as possible before leaning one way or another, something reminiscent of Charlie Munger’s work required to hold an opinion and a foundation of modern legal training. This devotion of Montaigne’s, combined with the personal feel and wide-ranging topics of his writing, made him the first of his kind as a writer.

The Books That Influenced Montaigne

In the wonderful biography How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell, we learn a bit about the books that influenced Montaigne himself. As would have been the case for most of his contemporaries, his primary influences were classics from Greece and Rome. He started with the 16th century’s version of the Grimm Brothers: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then moved on to Virgil’s Aeneid and some modern comedic plays. In other words, Montaigne started out with works of fiction:

One unsuitable text which Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tumbling cornucopia of stories about miraculous transformations among ancient gods and mortals was the closest thing the Renaissance had to a compendium of fairy tales…In Ovid, people change. They turn into trees, animals, stars, bodies of water, or disembodied voices. They alter sex; they become werewolves. A woman called Scylla enters a poisonous pool and sees each of her limbs turn into a dog-like monster from which she cannot pull away because the monsters are also her….Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil’s Aeneid, then Terence, Plautus, and various modern Italian comedies. He learned, in defiance of school policy, to associate reading with excitement.

From Fiction to Non-Fiction

As he got older, though, Montaigne turned more and more to non-fiction, to works of real life. In his words, reading non-fiction taught you about the ‘diversity and truth of man,’ as well as ‘the variety of ways he is put together, and the accidents that threaten him.’

The best material he had available to him were from the classical stylings of writers like Tacitus, historian of the Roman periods in the early years after Christ; Plutarch, the biographer of the eminent Greeks and Romans; and Lucretius, the Roman philosophical poet. In Bakewell’s biography, we learn what it was he loved about these authors:

He loved how Tacitus treated public events from the point of view of ‘private behavior and inclinations’ and was struck by the historian’s fortune in living through a ‘strange and extreme’ period, just as Montaigne himself did. Indeed, he wrote of Tacitus ‘you would often say that it is us he is describing.’

Turning to biographers, Montaigne liked those who went beyond the external events of a life and tried to reconstruct a person’s inner world from the evidence. No one excelled in this more than his favorite writer of all — the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived from around AD 46 to around 120 and whose vast Lives presented narratives of notable Greeks and Romans in themed pairs.

Plutarch was to Montaigne what Montaigne was to many later readers: a model to follow, and a treasure-chest of ideas, quotations, and anecdotes to plunder. ‘He is so universal and so full that on all occasions and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work.’

[…]

Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch’s own personality that comes across in his work: ‘I think I know him even into his soul.’ This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries. Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them — much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us.

The last point is, of course, fascinating. When we think about Montaigne, he seems a whole world away. 16th century France is a place we fill in our imagination with velvet cloth and kings and queens and peasants and history class. Impossibly far in the past. But that period was only 450 short years ago; Montaigne himself was reading authors 1,500 years or more before him! A far greater gap in time. Yet he felt their insights were as relevant as when they were written — a lesson we should all learn from.

The Lazy Reader

We can also get a glimpse of the kind of reader Montaigne considered himself: A pretty lazy one.

I leaf through now one book, now another,’ he wrote,’ without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments.’ He could sound positively cross if he thought anyone might suspect him of careful scholarship. Once, catching himself having said that books offer consolation, he hastily added, ‘Actually I use them scarcely any more than those who do not know them at all.’ And one of his sentences starts, ‘We who have little contact with books…’

His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,’ he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.’

Although Bakewell, and we, suspect he was feigning some humility as far as his laziness; of the second point on pursuing pleasure, Bakewell writes that Montaigne took this philosophy of gentleness and freedom and, “Of this, Montaigne made a whole principle of living.”

Still curious? Pick up Montaigne’s Essays and Bakewell’s biography for more.