Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Beware of the delusion of universal benevolence

At the beginning of the 16th century, life expectancy in Europe was much shorter that nowadays. Typhus and tuberculosis were fairly common. Influenza and common colds were lethal for undernourished peasants plagued by vermin and lice. Large numbers of deaths took place every winter.

Opportunity and risk

Medicine at that time was evolving from mysticism into science. Renaissance physicians took over the knowledge from ancient Greece and Rome, developed their own ideas, and began to experiment with new treatments. The sale of curative herbs and potions was a booming business, although few of those remedies actually proved beneficial to patients.

When wealthy merchants became sick, they had the means to pay for the services of the best physicians, from which there were only a few in each city. Since Universities produced small numbers of graduates, tending to the sick was a lucrative and prestigious occupation.

The discovery of new medical knowledge generated opportunity and risk. On the one hand, innovative cures benefited patients and created the basis for further research. On the other hand, new remedies disrupted the established business of physicians and pharmacists.

Medical practitioners had little incentive to abandon useless treatments for which they could charge hefty fees. The discovery of inexpensive natural remedies undermined their incomes and reputations.

Ignorance and prejudice

Historical distance allows us to contemplate the 16th century with a feeling of superiority. When we read about the beliefs that people upheld five hundred years ago, we react with amusement. Why did knowledge evolve so slowly? Why did ignorance and prejudice persist for so long?

The best minds of the 16th century asked the same questions. Paracelsus (1493-1541) offers a striking example in the field of medicine. His real name was Theophrastus von Hohenheim, which he changed himself to Paracelsus. The philosophical lesson to be learned from his life goes far beyond the scope of medical techniques.

We know little of Paracelsus' infancy. Like many middle-class youths of his time, he must have picked up the rudiments of Latin through private lessons. A knowledge of Latin was the only formal requirement to study at European Universities. The choice of subjects was mostly limited to theology, medicine, and law.

While Paracelsus completed his medical studies in Ferrara (Italy), the pest broke out and began to decimate the population. Those who could afford it left Ferrara for the countryside in order to avoid contagion. The poor remained in town and the epidemic wiped out complete families.

The municipality hired men to remove the sick from their houses and transport them to a closed camp outside the city wall, where they would be abandoned to die. Paracelsus, who was still a medical student, soon understood that medieval treatments, such as bleeding patients, were ineffective against the pest.

This realization led him to experiment with alternative methods. When the pest receded and normal life returned to Ferrara, Paracelsus presented his new ideas at the University. To his surprise, his views were met with scepticism and hostility. The professors in Ferrara did not welcome suggestions that contradicted inherited knowledge.

After graduation, Paracelsus travelled extensively throughout Europe. Sometimes, he would settle down in a city to practice medicine for a year; on other occasions, he would take up a position as surgeon in one of the armies involved in the wars that ravaged the Renaissance.

An important lesson

As his medical knowledge and expertise grew, so did his irritation with the incompetence of fellow physicians. Thanks to his wide travelling, Paracelsus had accumulated impressive surgical skills and long experience in the use of herbs and minerals for curative purposes. In contrast, the average medic in the 16th century possessed only the little knowledge that he had acquired at the University.

Paracelsus' effectiveness increased his fame, but his criticism of ignorant doctors made him many enemies. His conflicts with colleagues became extreme after he was appointed to teach medicine at the University of Basel (Switzerland).

With the perspective of five centuries, we can clearly see how unrealistic Paracelsus' expectations were. It was undeniable that he had acquired more knowledge than other physicians; nevertheless, it was chimerical for him to expect his colleagues to make way for truth when innovation undermined their livelihoods and reputations.

Is it not unfair that Paracelsus had to face such a strong resistance? Was his indignation at his ignorant colleagues not well justified? My point is that these questions are irrelevant because they are based on incorrect assumptions.

Unrealistic expectations are hard to discard because they are based on delusions of entitlement. Paracelsus felt wrongly entitled to reshape the world according to truth and innovation, even though the great majority of his contemporaries had vested interests in clinging to the past.

As a result, Paracelsus was forced to quit his position at the University of Basel a year later and return to his itinerant life. Although he was one of the best physicians of his time, he died in poverty before his 48th birthday.

The fact is that knowledge, expertise, or desire do not grant magical powers to anyone. Unrealistic expectations lead to waste and decay. A workable plan is worth a million debates. Let go of chimerical projects and focus on what can be reasonably accomplished. Stay away from grandiose undertakings and concentrate on entrepreneurship, which is the practical way to achievement.


Image by Simon Doggett under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

The Philosophy of Builders

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Do not let wrong ideas slow you down for years

How much of what we believe about the world holds true upon detailed examination? Are our convictions solidly based on facts? What about our ethical values and fundamental goals? Do we resort to prejudice in order to hide irrational fears? Do we appeal to tradition in order to safeguard inefficiency?

Resistance to change

It takes a strong will and massive efforts to modify, for instance, the way we eat. On many occasions, men and women undertake such changes only as a last resort, for instance, after having suffered a heart attack or being diagnosed with cancer.

Embracing a better diet becomes a major challenge when individuals endure constant social pressure to behave irresponsibly. Business meetings in Russia are still being closed with rounds of vodka. When colleagues and customers push you to drink, it is very difficult to resist, even if you are conscious of the negative consequences of your actions.

Inferior food and excessive alcohol undermine our health. Falsehoods sabotage our interests and place heavy burdens on our shoulders. Misrepresentations can be pleasant and enticing despite their lethal consequences.

The bigger the falsehood, the less that will remain of your independence. If you subscribe to misrepresentations, they will erode your entrepreneurial abilities. You will forsake your initiative and become psychologically dependent. How can you replace common myths by effective truths?

Constructive action

Do you ever tell yourself that someone, somewhere is going to recognize your talent? Good things do not necessarily happen to those who wait long enough. The effective truth is that, if your talents are underutilized, you'd better take action to promote them. It is up to you to improve your situation.

Imagine that, after suffering some minor abuse or discrimination, you become enraged, lusting for revenge. Is someone going to come to fix the world and put an end to unfairness?

The truth is that everybody makes mistakes. It is seldom worth it to devote your time to correcting other people's minor faults. Put the unpleasant story out of your mind and move on. Apply your efforts to pursuing your goals, not to telling people off.

Take the initiative

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who gets divorced in his mid-forties. For this man, it feels good to hang around his old friends and be comforted for the difficulties that he is encountering, but is this an effective behaviour?

Maybe they will introduce him to someone nice who will put his life back on track. Otherwise, he will just have to get used to loneliness, won't he? The truth is that he needs to make a workable plan to rebuild his life. Should he join a health club? Should he use on-line dating to meet a new romantic partner?

No more hesitation

Imagine that you practise a beloved hobby that you would like to turn into a source of income. Unfortunately, everybody is telling you that you should not take risks at your age. You hear that your best chance of success is to stay put in your job until retirement age.

The effective truth is that it takes a long time to establish any sort of business. The sooner you start your entrepreneurial career, the better off you will be in the long term. Postponement does not reduce risk. A sensible approach would be to start up your business on the side, devoting your evenings and weekends to it.

Do not allow wrong ideas to slow you down for years. Do not be contented with bromides that waste your life. Throw away misrepresentations and adopt an entrepreneurial attitude based on facts. Waiting only keeps you down. Action solves problems.


Image by robstephaustralia under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

For for information about rational living, I refer you to my books

Rationality is the Way to Happiness

Friday, 13 November 2015

Keep your common sense in all circumstances

The magazine "Fast Company" just published on their website Lisa Evan's article "Five personal development myths," where she quotes me on the subject of personal growth. Lisa's article presents some of my favourite ideas: Do not fall prey to wondrous promises of overnight personal transformation. Keep your common sense in all circumstances. Never relinquish your ability to think for yourself.


Image: Photograph of classical painting taken by John Vespasian, 2013.

For for information about rational living, I refer you to my books

When everything fails, try this

Thursday, 12 November 2015

One thing you can surely do better than Aristotle

Aristotle was a great philosopher, but entrepreneurship was one thing that he never managed to understand. In the "Nicomachean Ethics," his essay on justice and morality, he views society as a market where human desires are stable, where the demand for each product is constant, and each purchase has a predictable price.

Changing conditions

You don't need to look at the world for long to rate Aristotle's view as highly unrealistic. The truth is that, in the field of work and commerce, prices vary incessantly. New products appear daily on the market. Growing ventures create jobs, while old-fashioned industries are reducing the number of their employees. Trading conditions change, markets move, and money circulates.

Businessmen are conscious of the fact that initiative leads to success. Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of innovation. Economic growth begins with one person making the first move and showing the way. In order to surpass average results, a man has to step out of the routine.

In the world of business, clients and profits are the result of entrepreneurship. A company that has profitable sales can always borrow money. Bankers seldom refuse a loan to businesses that generate positive cash-flow. Personal initiative fuels innovation and drives companies to higher levels of performance.

Take the initiative

The situation is not much different in the area of relationships. Friendship and love grow stale without personal initiative. Developing a happy social life requires a certain type of entrepreneurship. This is a factor that cannot be replaced by any amount of wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, the entrepreneurial factor in love and happiness is frequently underrated or denied. Television repeatedly shows stories where success happens by chance. Films love to portray heroes who attain happiness by coincidence without any effort from their side. Those tales are mostly made-up and a wise man should never take them as a fair representation of reality.

Entrepreneurial activity involves shifting resources through time and space. A businessman might, for instance, borrow money at 6% interest in order to invest it for a 10% return. If he does that several times with growing sums of money, chances are that he will become very wealthy.

The princople can also be applied to the field of relationships. If you wish to enjoy a great social life in the future, you should make the effort to establish new contacts regularly. Even if you just meet one new person per week, sooner or later, you will get to know a few individuals who share your values.

Fresh opportunities

Friendships and love relations can begin in the most unusual circumstances. The key requirement is that individuals should be open to an initial contact. Brief introductions may lead to further interactions that develop into long-term relationships. This is why entrepreneurs are always alert to fresh opportunities to meet new people. You will observe the same attitude in those who enjoy happy social lives.

Entrepreneurial minds can be spotted by their extreme impatience at school or during their apprenticeship. They dislike slow motion and are driven towards activities that produce tangible results. They want to lead a life of growing improvement and continuous progress. They view speed as a synonym of efficiency.

Interesting people

Let me encourage you to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude in the area of personal relationships. Everybody has constrains in terms of time and resources, but those limitations should not prevent you from seeking out opportunities to meet new people whom you might find interesting.

Conferences that revolve around your favourite subjects constitute great places for meeting like-minded individuals. In the majority of cases, those initial contacts will not lead to friendship or love and that is precisely the way it should be.

Entrepreneurs are only interested in opportunities that are right for them. They know that, before they can embrace one successful idea, they will have to discard many others that lead nowhere. Resources are always limited, but p
ossibilities are infinite.


Image by PlaitsandBows under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

For for information about rational living, I refer you to my books

When everything fails, try this

Friday, 6 November 2015

Happiness calls for steady purpose and continuous action

Relinquishing individual thinking and embracing blind conformity brings enormous advantages. For instance, it can save you time when making decisions. It will also spare you the occasional embarrassment of having to hide the truth. However, conformity cannot provide the basis for good relationships.

Two mistakes to avoid

Conformity occupies one end of the psychological spectrum. The opposite side is occupied by non-conformity, which often boils down to blind loyalty to some rebellious idea or lifestyle. For instance, non-conformists prefer to practise dangerous sports instead of spending their holidays on the beach.

The hobbies of non-conformist may include playing exotic games instead of watching films. These are the kind of people who seldom go for a walk in the park, but they might spend a fortune on a tour of the tropical forest. The clothes of non-conformists, instead of being clean and well-ironed, tend to be messy and torn.

Whether you choose conformity or non-conformity as basis for your relationships will make little practical difference. In both cases, your years will be filled with colourful or predictable souvenirs, but not with happiness. Imitating distorted pictures is not the way to create a great painting.

Adopting values that make no sense will not move you towards success and happiness. The exaltation of inconsistencies will not render your feelings more intense. Walking a downtrodden track leads to a dejected spirit. In the field of love and friendship, thoughtlessness is not a workable path.

Elements of wisdom

Rational values are the key to satisfactory relationships. If you embrace logic, you won't need to spend your days wondering which sub-culture to join. Wisdom consists of identifying the universal principles of human relations, applying them in our daily lives, and correcting mistakes when they occur.

Seeking out thoughtful persons as friends (or when choosing a spouse) plays a crucial role in attaining happiness. Sound choices are the result of a rational evaluation of people and events. Achieving success and happiness requires deep involvement with human beings who respect logic and consistency.

In order to develop happy relationships, we must allow our minds to filter out the noise of fashion. We need to stop believing in myths. Neither specific clothes, nor gadgets, nor living in a specific location can provide the basis for good personal relations. Only individuals who share rational values are really able to communicate, understand, and appreciate each other.

The importance of consistency

Large number of people have no moral standards, but you are not obliged to imitate their foolishness. As your friends or spouse, you should seek out exclusively individuals who can think for themselves, and who can choose a good course of action, and follow it consistently. 

You also need to abandon contradictory goals yourself. Do not get involved with persons whom you know to be erratic, since they are unable to maintain good personal relationships. Unpredictability is synonymous of inconsistency. False ideas inevitably conflict with facts and with each other. People who pursue contradictory goals condemn themselves to a life of high stress.
Perspective is essential

Anxiety is the mark of people who move at random, people who have no destination. Animals do not need perspective, but humans do. In order to achieve great personal relationships, you need to determine your direction. A wise person cannot be satisfied with short-term relationships and short-term goals. Superficial personal bonds and superficial goals take a disproportionate amount of time, and cannot provide the pleasures of deep psychological involvement.

Rational values embody principles that are common to all thinking human beings. Those values are distilled from reality by means of observation and logic. In contrast, irrational people cannot establish steady relationships because their behaviour continuously clashes with facts.

The law of cause and effect, the fundamental principle of existence, also governs the relations between men and women. The relations that you build today will determine how your future plays out. Your choice of friends and spouse are going to play a key role in your happiness.

Reason is the best tool to live our lives effectively, to decide whom to befriend, and who is worthy of our love. Use reason to establish your priorities also in the field of human relationships. Other approaches (such as blind conformity or non-conformity) can provide short-term contentment, but not real happiness.

Taking the long-term view

Superficiality tends to add much expense and deliver little value. Do not fall into that trap. Shrug your shoulders at short-sighted advice. Ignore invitations from irrational people. Do not associate with them, neither as friends nor as love companions. If you steer away from fools, you will spare yourself enormous costs and trouble.

In your choice of spouse, do not sell yourself short by giving up your rational values. Adopt logic and consistency as your only criteria for love and friendship. Happiness calls for steady purpose and continuous action. Choose the way of reason, and adopt a set of consistent values. Developing relationships with other rational individuals can be a slow process, but it is extremely rewarding. It will enable you to lead a successful life, and enjoy the company of the best of humanity.


Image by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

For for information about rational living, I refer you to my books

When everything fails, try this