Saturday, 11 October 2014

Building self-confidence: the practical implementation

The self-protection advice presented in the “Adages” possesses extraordinary value, even if the author, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), 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. In addition, I have grouped them in a few major themes that can guide anyone who wants to stay out trouble, and overcome the problems he is facing.

The first of these themes is the distrust of pompous words and meaningless formalities. 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.
The 10 Principles of Rational Living
The affirmation of 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.

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.
Rationality is the way to happiness
What prevents people from thinking

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.

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.
Rational living, rational working
The metaphor of the twisted branch

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. 

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 by Alan.V under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]
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