Wednesday, 1 October 2014

How to overcome stress and increase your personal effectiveness by focusing on truth

The self-protection advice presented by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) in the “Adages” possesses extraordinary value, even if Erasmus never took the trouble to systematize his recommendations, so that readers would find them easier to implement. On the contrary, he seemed more interested in compiling variations of the same proverb than in making sense of the underlying principles.

My purpose today goes exactly in the opposite direction. I have gone through Erasmus' four thousand citations, and extracted those that provide the best advice on self-protection. The first of these themes is the distrust of pompous words and meaningless formalities. 

Discard distractions, focus on truth

After his ordination in 1492, Erasmus remained a Catholic priest all his life, although a free-thinking one. This aspect of his personality prompted him to write against the exaggerated pomposity and formalism of the Church, two elements that he regarded as distractions from truth.

Erasmus never conceived the idea of embracing another religion, but his loyalty to the Catholic faith did not render him blind to the errors committed by bishops, monks, and priests. Throughout the decades, Erasmus remained convinced that the affirmation of truth is the most essential moral commandment, and that anyone who tries to dilute principles into meaningless rituals does not understand the purpose of morality.

Yet, while Erasmus was conscious of the dangers of empty rituals, he also realized that most people regard morality as a collection of meaningless formalities unconnected to higher principles. This explains why so many individuals pay inordinate attention to irrelevant details, instead of trying to understand the underlying ideals. Another negative consequence of this approach is that it leads people to give up morality altogether, once they realize the impossibility of complying with thousands of arbitrary rules.

Rational living, rational working
Choose substance over empty rituals

In his collection of proverbs, Erasmus includes “Quod homines tot sententiae,” which means that, if you ask several people about a certain subject, you are likely to get discordant or contradictory opinions.

The existence of such diverse opinions cannot be contested, but this does not make them all equally true. You should not use other people's inconsistencies as an excuse for taking refuge in meaningless formalities, and escaping the responsibility of figuring out the truth.

To make things worse, the attempt to reduce moral ideas to empty rituals typically leads to manipulation, mystification, and social disintegration. Unless you are determined to banish meaningless formalities from your life, you are going to be exposing yourself to risks that will substantially undermine your self-protection.

Empty rituals prevent people from thinking, render them passive, and waste their energies and resources. They make people believe that, as long as they comply with some meaningless formalities, they can do whatever they want without suffering any negative consequences.

Calling things by their names

Such doctrine is so manifestly false that one can only wonder how it is possible that millions of individuals still consider it valid. Erasmus strongly rejected empty rituals and pompous words, and emphasized that ethical principles should be clearly identified, and all things should be called by their real names.

For example, he underlined the importance of men being honest and reliable in every situation, beneficial or adverse, irrespective of their willingness or not to comply with meaningless rituals. His proverb “ficus ficus, ligonem ligonem vocat” can be translated as “you should call a spade a spade.” Good persons should focus on the facts of reality, disregard misleading advice, and ignore the surrounding noise.

Never waste your time trying to distort reality in order to please yourself, or other people. Misrepresentation, instead of solving problems, only makes them worse. If you want to make correct decisions, you have to start by calling things by their names. You have to start by avoiding empty rituals, and focusing on the substance.

If someone tries to convince you to pay exaggerated attention to meaningless formalities, you should not only ignore his advice, but make sure that you never listen to that person ever again. If you want to find happiness and success, you have to focus on principles and ideals, not on irrelevant details.

Pomposity and ritualism are two types of intellectual cancer that can destroy a man's integrity and ambition quicker than you can imagine. What is even worse, anyone who falls prey to pomposity and ritualism is unlikely to recover without exerting a massive effort.
Rationality is the way to happiness
Loyalty to principles

Erasmus expressed this idea very beautifully in his citation “lignum tortum haud unquam rectum,” which means that nobody can straighten a twisted branch. Malevolent people will seldom become kind and friendly, no matter how long you wait. Crooked minds never improve, or at least, they improve so rarely that you should not expect to see many of such cases in your lifetime.

If you discard formalism, and focus on truth, you will be making a major contribution to your self-protection. By remaining loyal to principles and ignoring empty words, you will be reaffirming the facts of reality over delusion and wishful thinking.

The ability to remain focused on truth will increase its value over time. While people obsessed by formalities are going to spend their lives running in circles, those who guide themselves by principles will be able to make accurate decisions, and implement them consistently.

Erasmus considered the rejection of pomposity and formalism so crucial that he kept coming back to this subject in every book he wrote. In life, few things matter as much as truthful ideas and principles. If you follow Erasmus' recommendation and reject empty rituals, your personal effectiveness is guaranteed to increase over time, and your stress to vanish in thin air.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living


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Consistency: The key to permanent stress relief

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Self-empowerment through rational living

Here is a summary of the notes that I have published this week in Yahoo Answers:

QUESTION: A woman feels depressed because she cannot find a job.

ANSWER: The problems are solvable, but it's going to take some work and, above all, patience. A job can always be found if you search persistently, and remain flexible about hours and location. However, in order to improve your morale and motivation, I strongly recommend reading philosophy and history. It will help you gain perspective, self-confidence, and resilience. 

QUESTION:  Why are we not happy all the time?

ANSWER: Constant happiness would be a sign of mental paralysis, comparable to having taken some mind-altering substance. Human beings naturally want to improve their situation all the time, and this is a natural source of relative unhappiness. When you achieve A, you want to try to achieve B, and then you want to achieve C. Real happiness is never static. It is a dynamic feeling of satisfaction that comes from the pursuit of worthy, challenging goals. 

Rational living, rational working  
How to deal with a hostile environment

QUESTION: A young man hates his life, finds the environment around him hostile, and the people unfriendly and unreliable.

ANSWER:  The problem is solvable with some effort. First, check your values and make sure that they are rational and consistent. Second, define your long-term goals, not just for next year, but for a lifetime. Third, start moving towards those goals right away. If you do that, you will never again be bothered by people who are confused, negative, or erratic. Just follow your own way quietly and effectively, and you will do great. 

QUESTION: A man experiences sudden mood changes that make it difficult to him to lead a normal life.

ANSWER: Sudden mood changes can often be attributed to philosophical inconsistencies. Unless you check your premises and align your values, chances are that the mood oscillations will continue. The best way to attain a balanced, steady personality is to adopt a rational philosophy, but this takes some effort and dedication. 

QUESTION:  A young man feels extremely sad and cannot find a way forward.

ANSWER: I am convinced that you can massively improve your situation in the future, but it is going to take some effort. You may be able to improve your health through some natural treatment (herbal, vitamins, diet, exercise), and also improve your mood by studying philosophy and history. Do not be discouraged if you cannot turn the situation around right away, but with some effort and patience, chances are you will do better than can possibly imagine today. 

No need of exaggerated stress

QUESTION: Are worries and stress ever justified in life?

ANSWER: Yes, a reasonable level of concern for current and future problems is perfectly justified. However, you have to draw the line between reasonable concern and exaggerated stress. For this purpose, a rational philosophy is indispensable. Your long-term goals provide the criteria for assessing how much you should care about today's random noise and assorted little problems. 

QUESTION: What is the purpose of living? What is the point of life?

ANSWER: Happiness is the point, a deceivingly simple answer. Most people are only going to find happiness in the pursuit of an absorbing, fascinating long-term goal. Other aspects of life can be also enjoyable and pleasurable, but I would not bet of them as sources for long-term happiness. This explains why a teleological system of ethics is essential for allocating your time, interests, and efforts. 

QUESTION: How long does it take to find a romantic partner?

ANSWER: It depends on how hard you work on it. Most people cannot devote much time to dating and meeting new friends, and the whole process is somewhat driven by random events. How long does it take to find the right person? Between two weeks and two decades. If you want to shorten the time, look for the right environment, the right kind of people, and become socially active.  

Rationality is the way to happiness 
The key to long-term happiness

QUESTION:  What makes you feel happy in life? What are your best moments?

ANSWER: If you ask the question in subjective terms, it would not be of much value, since you would only get anecdotal responses. I would reformulate the question as: "What makes human beings happy?". Then I can answer that, in most cases, the greatest happiness is drawn from the pursuit of difficult, but achievable long-term goals. This explains why a system of teleological ethics is the most conductive to happiness. 

QUESTION: Why I am losing interest in life? Why do I feel void inside?

ANSWER: The key issue is to develop a long-term vision, a clear idea of where you want to be in the next decades, what you want to do. Without this perspective, it is just not possible to allocate your time rationally, and deciding whether you should be spending your time doing A, working on B, or pursuing C. 

QUESTION: A young man feels completely demotivated and doesn't know what to do with his life.

ANSWER: To a great extent, motivation is a myth. Having a rational philosophy, values, and self-discipline play a much more important role in getting things done. Without long-term goals, it is easy to lose the overview of where you are going. The real question is not about getting out of bed today, but figuring out where you want to be tomorrow, next year, and in the next decade. 

Zero anxiety about the future

QUESTION: A teenager feels anxious because he has no clear idea of the future. He doesn't know what he wants to be in life.

ANSWER: Fourteen years old seems to me a bit too early to choose a profession. At that stage, I would focus my efforts on acquiring a good foundation in philosophy, history, and sciences. Time will tell which path will be the best, but if you develop your intellectual skills, you will have no problem in finding the right place. 

QUESTION: Someone with an introvert personality wants to find a suitable occupation, a job or profession where he doesn't have to do things he doesn't feel comfortable doing.

ANSWER:  There are dozens of occupations where introvert people possess an advantage over extroverts. Jobs or professions related to knowledge management, design, planning, trend analysis, or investment might be particularly interesting. Otherwise, gardening, agriculture, and machine installation and maintenance would also fill the requirement.
For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living


[Image by Fr Antunes under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

The 10 Principles of Rational Living

Monday, 29 September 2014

Success is the best revenge against unfairness

Unfairness is everywhere and, if you care to look, you will detect more than your equitable share. Some people are born in the right environment, others possess powerful connections, inherit better looks, or simply draw the lucky number in a lottery.

Occasionally, your valuable work won't be appreciated and, instead, people will praise worthless nonsense. You may at times have to endure discrimination or ostracism, with the accompanying financial drawbacks. Disappointment, self-pity, and envy are frequent reactions to those situations.

Those negative emotions result from complex thought processes, which are as widespread as they are illogical. Imagine, for example, the case of an inexperienced person who is appointed to a high position within a bank thanks to his family connections to the detriment of a much better-qualified candidate.

The Philosophy of Builders
How to stay emotionally healthy

What will be the feelings of the person who has seen his rightful expectations evaporate in a cloud of unfairness? On the one hand, irritation and perhaps anger. In addition, discouragement or even depression. Finally, envy, together with an overall sensation of futility. Let us examine in detail the thought sequence that generates these feelings:
  1. The open position should be filled with the most competent candidate.
  2. The people who will make the choice should strive to identify who the best candidate is.
  3. The selection should be made exclusively on the basis of rational criteria.
  4. People should display extra care when they make such crucial decisions.
  5. When someone makes important choices for an organization, he should not let himself be influenced by personal interests and family connections.
  6. Since I am the best-qualified candidate, I should obtain the appointment.
  7. If a less experienced person is selected for the job, that would constitute a terrible injustice.

The ideas described above seem irrefutable at first sight, but they fall apart if we subject them to rational examination. In reality, we all know that some people carry out their duties in an exemplary manner while others are as negligent as you can be. For every person who possesses a strong sense of justice, how many will you find who prefer to look the other way?

Viewing mistakes in perspective

Even if you happen to be the best-qualified individual for that particular job, how much of that is the result of luck anyway? If you are reading this, I bet that you have not been born in appalling poverty, deprived of access to basic education, and neglected by your parents to the point of near-starvation. Do take a minute to assess if at least part of your success is the result of pure coincidence or good fortune.

My point is not to state that everything is relative, which is not. Equally, I am not trying to tell you that you shouldn't have ambitions, which you should, by all means. What I am arguing is that envy, a deep feeling of misplaced disadvantage, is mostly a logical illusion.
When everything  fails, try this
The rational response

In a world where millions of people are ignorant, thoughtless, and driven by nefarious ethics, what sense does it make to focus on the unfairness of the day? Lamentations and wishful thinking can bring about certain psychological relief, but they are essentially a waste of resources.

The rational response to unfairness is not envy, but relentless action. Given sufficient time, intelligent persistence tends to weigh off the influences of inheritance and chance. In our example, the person who has not been chosen for the job would do better to put on a good face and start to look around, discreetly, for a better position for himself at a rival bank.

Your time on earth is limited and should be used promoting your own cause in front of rational, fair individuals. For what concerns other people's mistakes, prejudice, or arbitrariness, you will be better off if you shrug your shoulders and move on. In the long-term, life often has its own funny ways to settle accounts without your intervention.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living


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Sunday, 28 September 2014

How to develop self-confidence by identifying promising opportunities

If you want to guarantee your personal safety, and that of your family and friends, the best you can do is to look for inspiration in the writings of a man who turned self-protection into his life purpose, a man who wrote thousands of pages explaining how people can avoid physical and intellectual predators. His name was Desiderius Erasmus, but he is better known as Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).

In the first year of college, philosophy students are presented with the Latin citation “Homo hominis lupus,” which means “man is a wolf to other men.” This citation, which is commonly attributed to the English author Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), was actually first formulated by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the early 16th century. 

A compilation of effective principles

The theme of self-protection against all kinds of predators permeated Erasmus' work and life from beginning to end. In fact, one could summarise Erasmus' writings as an attempt to compile and formulate the principles of effective self-defence. 

Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a priest living in Gouda, a town located in the centre of Holland, and his mother the priest's housekeeper. After becoming pregnant, she left Gouda and retired to her parents' home in Rotterdam, where she gave birth to Erasmus in 1466.

Later on, she returned to the priest's house in Gouda, carrying the baby in her arms. Despite the fact of being an illegitimate child, Erasmus was then raised and educated by his parents. At an early age, he was taught by his father how to read, as well as the rudiments of Latin, but that was as much knowledge as he could receive at home.

When Erasmus turned nine years old, his father found him a place in a Latin school in Deventer, a Dutch town located a hundred kilometres east from Gouda, close to the German border. At the Latin school, Erasmus followed the classical curriculum in grammar, rhetoric, history, and arithmetic.

Rationality is the way to happiness  
Identify your most useful asset

From all the things he learned at school, Latin was by far the most useful. At that time in history, Latin was the lingua franca in Europe, the language written and spoken by cultivated individuals in all European countries, used in all public records and official correspondence.

Learned individuals in England, Italy, Germany, and France were all able to read Latin, and compose letters, although in relatively simple sentences. Bishops, priests, and even lowly monks and clerics, all possessed a reasonably good command of the language inherited from ancient Rome. 

Erasmus made a very good use of the years he spent in the Latin school. All in all, his education had consisted of learning Latin grammar, repeating aloud what Roman writers had composed a thousand years earlier, and translating paragraphs for their books.

Indeed, the methodology of Latin schools was based on learning by rote, however boring and suffocating that may sound. Nonetheless, the dispirited methodology did not prevent Erasmus from attaining excellence in writing and speaking Latin.

After he finished school, he spent five years as a private teacher, but after realizing that the only way to secure a steady income was to become a priest, he opted for pursuing a religious ordination. For this reason alone, Erasmus became a priest in 1492, shortly after his 26th birthday.
Escape unworkable situations

Nonetheless, it only took him four years to develop a profound abhorrence of the priestly condition, and return to a scholarly life. In 1496, Erasmus convinced his bishop to grant him a scholarship to study in Paris, where he happily settled down as a theology and philosophy student.

By that time, Erasmus had already managed to read a large number of books in Latin, and was familiar with most titles available in bishopric and monastic libraries in southern Holland. After his arrival in Paris, he expanded his reach thanks to the Sorbonne library, which housed the latest theological treatises written in France, Italy, and Spain. 

It had not taken long for Erasmus to realize that it was much more interesting to spend his life reading books and philosophizing than working as a priest in the Dutch countryside. In Paris, he met students from all over Europe, exchanged ideas with them, and conceived a plan for earning a living as an independent scholar. 

When Erasmus reflected about his possibilities of earning an income outside the Catholic Church, he came to the conclusion that his best asset was his knowledge of Latin. Unsurprisingly, since he had devoted fifteen years of his life to learning and practising Latin, orally and in writing, he regarded his linguistic skills as his most promising source of income.

Facing an enormous challenge

Nonetheless, his plan to earn an independent living represented a major leap of faith, since you have to realize that, in the late 15th century, most teachers and professors were appointed directly by the Catholic Church. Despite Erasmus' optimism, it was actually very difficult to earn a living as a self-standing scholar. 
Undaunted by the enormous challenge, Erasmus came up with a brilliant idea in his early thirties, an idea that would allow him to earn money as a writer, at the same time that he continued his higher education. 
During his studies, Erasmus had realized that most people's interest in Latin was limited to memorizing a few citations to add weight to their arguments, impress their colleagues, and mystify their friends. 
Even Catholic priests, who were supposed to know Latin fairly well, were often unable to understand complex sentences, even if they were always trying to show off by citing ancient Roman authors in front of ignorant peasants.

Rational living, rational working   
Take advantage of the trend

Realizing the popularity of Latin quotations, Erasmus conceived the project of compiling several hundred of them them in a volume. And since he had access to the Sorbonne library, one of the best in Europe, he rightly concluded that finding Latin citations was not going to be a problem.

All he had to do was to avail himself of paper, ink, and a feather, and copy Latin citations one after the other. And that's exactly what he did. Erasmus sat for two months in the Sorbonne library, copying as many Latin proverbs and citations as he could find. By the time he had finished, he had compiled eight hundred classical quotations, more than enough to fill a hundred-page book.

A year later, precisely at the turn of the 16th century, Erasmus succeeded in having his collection published under the title “Adages.” The volume quickly attained great success, and became a standard textbook in Latin schools and universities across Europe. 

The “Adages” went thorough three editions in Erasmus' lifetime. In the second one, published in 1508, he amplified the collection to three thousand citations, which he continued to expand until they reached four thousand in the third edition, published in 1536. The “Adages” quickly became a classic of European literature, even if the book was nothing but a list of citations without much order or explanation.

 A clear list of priorities

All his life, Erasmus was a lover and collector of books. His passion reached such an extent that, on many occasions, he would confess to his friends that books constituted his most treasured possession, and that if he had to choose between purchasing new clothes or new books, his mind was already made in favour of the latter.

The “Adages” provide intelligent, entertaining, and often paradoxical advice on various fields of human activity, but the major theme that dominates the collection is the theme of self-protection. If I was asked to summarize Erasmus' entire collection of proverbs in one sentence, I would say that the best way to protect your life, family, and possessions against predators of all kinds is to learn the principles of effective self-defence.

In a sense, Erasmus Latin citations are nothing but a summary of lessons drawn from other people's mistakes compiled for the purpose of teaching readers how to behave. The “Adages” refer in particular to mistakes made by individuals in ancient Rome and Greece, but the conclusions remain universally valid. 

I regard the “Adages” as a masterpiece of self-protection advice because its usefulness, broadness, and beautiful language. Indeed, not all recommendations made by Erasmus are consistent, but they have the advantage of covering many different situations, and providing profound insights about human nature. 

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living

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Consistency: The key to permanent stress relief

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Building self-confidence in a hostile environment

I am always amazed at people's willingness to believe nonsense. This willingness seems almost infinite, virtually universal, and does not know any limits or restrictions. How is it possible that millions of individuals endorse ideas that are manifestly false? Who is forcing them to adopt strategies that are obviously doomed to fail? This is not a rhetorical question, but a major practical issue. You have to realize that those who support false ideas are not only contributing to their own demise, but also causing trouble for other men and women.

When people find themselves in deep trouble, it is usually because they have made some large mistake in the past, a mistake that needs to be recognized and remedied. Of course, when someone finds himself enmeshed in deep problems, it is not the right moment to engage theoretical discussions and make unproven recommendations.

Before problems become overwhelming

Yet, if you wait until your problems become overwhelming, you run the risk of getting severely hurt, financially, physically, and psychologically. Unfortunately, people will all too often begin to address their concerns only after those have reached a critical level, and have become almost unmanageable.

It never ceases to astonish me that so many individuals are ignorant of the basic principles of self-protection, and instead, they prefer to adhere to invalid ideas that are convenient in the short term, but disastrous for the future.

It goes without saying that self-inflicted blindness never delivers good results. Waiting for catastrophes to happen, and then trying to reverse them is a horrible way to live. In contrast, wise men learned long ago that disasters should rather be avoided, dangers averted, and crises prevented.

If you ever find yourself in a critical situation, you have to employ your resources to overcome immediate threats, and at the same time, make sure that you draw the right conclusions from the story, and learn to protect yourself in the years to come.

When everything  fails, try this 

A hugely underrated discipline 

Self-protection is a hugely underrated discipline. When people speak about self-protection, they usually mean a set of skills for close physical combat, or the practice of martial arts such as judo or karate. Those are very narrow conceptions of self-defence, conceptions that render the term almost useless. If you limit the concept of self-defence to learning to fight in the street, you turn the whole idea into something ridiculously dangerous.

Besides, even if self-defence is crucially important to get you out of dire situations, it plays even a more critical role in helping you avoid those situations in the first place. When it comes to self-defence, the kind of expert that is worth listening to is precisely the one who never engages in physical combat because he systematically succeeds in avoiding aggressiveness.

You definitely don't want to learn self-defence from someone who spends his weekends quarrelling with drunkards, fighting juvenile gangs, or engaging in other kinds of irresponsible behaviour. Aggressive people should not be your role models for learning how to protect yourself.

The role model you need

Instead, you should be learning self-protection and conflict prevention from people who know how to stay out of trouble. The principles you can learn from those experts are going to help you stay safe, and overcome whatever problems you might be facing.

Conversely, the kind of expert that teaches you to kick your opponent between his legs is making you believe that it's a good idea to engage in physical combat with aggressive people. My contention is that such an approach to self-defence is not only impractical today, but suicidal in the long term.

Wise individuals do not conceive self-defence as a set of techniques for fighting at close range, but as the science of staying unharmed, no matter what. From this perspective, the best fighters are the ones who discourage enemies from attacking, and systematically steer out of trouble.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image: photo taken by John Vespasian, 2014.]

The 10 Principles of Rational Living