Monday, 23 January 2017

No reason for pessimism: A crucial lesson from Ancient Greece.

In these times of turmoil, it is useful to take a step back and take a look at the big picture. While the daily news make us stressed and anxious, a historical and philosophical perspective can greatly contribute to enhancing our effectiveness and peace of mind.

While researching Ancient Greek history and philosophy for my latest book, I came across the work of Pyrrhon (360-290 BC), a participant in the campaign of Alexander the Great in the Middle East and Asia.

Like many people nowadays, Pyrrhon had to face large threats and disruptions in his life, and was struggling to make the right decisions and find a way forward.

Facing uncertainty

The historical context has changed, but Pyrrhon's troubles are essentially the same we are facing today: How can we build a good future in the middle of deep uncertainty? Should we worry ourselves to death due to potentially lethal threats?

Pyrrhon' reasoning shows that he must have met Aristotle while Aristotle was in Macedonia, working for King Philip II as a tutor of the young Alexander. Pyrrhon realized that the level of uncertainty he was facing prevented him from drawing accurate conclusions.

Aristotle would have favoured a thorough analysis of the factors involved, but what can you do when the picture is incomplete? How can you preserve your peace of mind when you are facing a many different threats?

Pyrrhon understood that Aristotle's demand for accuracy was unsuitable in highly uncertain circumstances: When you are facing complex threats, you may be unable to figure out all the consequences. When you are encountering deep disruptions, you might lack the time to study all details.

Luckily for us, Pyrrhon figured out what works and what doesn't. And he did this while he was travelling with Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) through Syria, Egypt, Persia, and India.

A solid approach

First, Pyrrhon realized that searching for perfect accuracy in uncertain situations is a fool's game. Such an attempt is doomed to failure, and can only generate stress and anxiety.

Second, he figured out that accuracy is anyway unnecessary in most cases. Pyrrhon came to the conclusion that, when he was confronted with uncertain circumstances, he could obtain good results by taking decisions on the basis of probability.

"Even in uncertain circumstances," wrote Pyrrhon, "a man can often succeed by choosing what seems to be his best option." For sure, he will make mistakes sometimes, but in the long term, he is likely to obtain overall good results by following this strategy.

The approach of taking decisions on the basis of probability leads to self-confidence, increased personal effectiveness, and peace of mind. It constitutes a workable, solid philosophy whose psychological benefits should not be underestimated.

Stress and anxiety 

So what would Pyrrhon do in today’s circumstances? Would he feel pessimistic, stressed, and anxious like millions of people feel today? Would he feel overwhelmed by the problems we are facing?

Absolutely not. Pyrrhon would take notice of the present challenges, acknowledge them fully, and then look at the big picture, which is profoundly positive.

Problems do indeed exist, but the overall outlook remains clearly favourable. Risks cannot be ignored, but things are most likely turn out right.

When looking at the big picture, Pyrrhon would not have missed the fast technological innovation, the entrepreneurial spirit of large segments of the population, and the benevolent attitude towards other cultures that results from increased international exchanges. Those major positive factors are firmly established, and likely to remain with us in the foreseeable future.

Alertness and focus

From looking at the big picture, Pyrrhon would have concluded that there are no reasons for pessimism, at least for the next decades. Despite occasional disruptions and reversals, things are most likely to turn out right. Despite the existence of risks, a positive trend is firmly established, and unlikely to change in the near future.

The central idea of my latest book is that what made the Ancient Greeks so successful in good and bad times was their rationality. Their alertness, pro-activeness, and focus were based on their willingness to look at the big picture, and make good decisions consistently. And when a threat materialised, the Ancient Greeks simply chose the best option available, and moved on.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (455-400 BC) pointed out that the armed conflict could have been prevented altogether if the Athenians and Spartans had not blown their differences out of proportion. If they had looked at the big picture, they would have easily found a peaceful settlement, instead of falling prey to prejudice and fear.

The lesson from one thousand years of Ancient Greek history is unmistakable. It is only by looking at the big picture that we can avoid the temptation to succumb to worries and pessimism. It is only by making good decisions, day after day, that we can keep problems at bay, and build a better future.


[Image: photo of ancient sculpture; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016]

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

Friday, 20 January 2017

Why we have an insatiable thirst for inspiring stories

Here are the links to three interviews, just published, about my latest book "Thriving in Difficult Times: Twelve Lessons from Ancient Greece to Improve Your Life Today."

You might be surprised to learn that, for a substantial part, comic-book readers are neither children nor teenagers. Enthusiastic collectors know every Spiderman adventure by heart and, nowadays, internet sites allow people to trade old editions of Superman adventures. We cannot tell exactly how many adults are still burning with that flame, but the number goes into the thousands.

The search for inspiration

Romantic movies and pocket books are steadfastly consumed by many women from the cradle to the grave. The details portrayed in sentimental tales have become more explicit in the last decades, but the old feelings are still there. The size of the market, if we include romantic TV serials, amounts to billions of US dollars per year.

The demand for stories continues to grow worldwide, 24 hours a day, never taking a single day of vacation. Since Ancient Greece, the three acts are still played out relentlessly, as though the world had never changed. The discovery of a kindred spirit, the abandonment to passion, and the victory over difficulties fill our television screens, movie theatres, bookshops, and popular magazines.

What lesson can be learned from this flood of adventure and everlasting hope? If you think that this is a meaningless phenomenon, please pause and make a list of the people you know who never watch such films, buy such books, or follow such stories on TV. Chances are that your list will be short. Here is why:

  1. Directness: An important segment of the population draws their ethical convictions from popular fiction, whether in the form of novels, films, or television episodes. Intellectual approaches to morality, philosophy, and happiness are as rare as purely rational investors.
  2. Immediacy: There are good reason why human beings prefer to take their ethical cues from fiction rather than from professional philosophers. If only because movies, TV films, and comic-books are more fun, cheaper, and more readily accessible than sophisticated moral discourse.
  3. Speed: Amongst a wide variety of abstract ideas, it is difficult to tell which one is true. On the other hand, fiction can be quickly judged as entertaining or boring, satisfying or disconcerting. Well-constructed stories present self-contained value assessments that can be instantly apprehended.
Stories convey philosophy

The conclusion is not that you should discard organized thinking and research as tools for establishing the truth. By all means, push your intellectual and business pursuits forward, but do not underestimate the difficulty of communicating complex chains of thoughts to unfamiliar audiences.

My point is that stories offer a short-cut for presenting philosophical ideas. A dry exposition will always lose against a sequence of dramatic images held together by clear motivation. Making your argumentation easily accessible is frequently as important as ensuring that you are building your thoughts on consistent premises.

When it comes to the ability to show what is right and wrong, comic-book characters and romantic heroines form the most effective group of teachers to learn from. Let us acknowledge the power of sharp story-telling, extract the best it has to offer, and use it to our advantage.


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

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


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Teachings from Ancient Greece to improve your life today

Here is the link to the interview by Chris Shea on his podcast "On Finding Peace" about my latest book "Thriving in Difficult Times: Twelve Lessons from Ancient Greece to Improve Your Life Today."


How long will it take until you have to face an emergency? Earthquakes are unusual in most parts of the world, but few men are exempted from the risk of fire at home or at work. How would you react if you were attacked by a tiger? What would you do in case of a flood?

Misfortune tends to hit at the most inconvenient moments. When bad luck runs wild, it may cut its path across our lives and destroy the work of decades. Do you have a system to deal with emergencies? Have you prepared a back-up plan for cases of catastrophic failure?

A forgotten lesson

Most people who study Socrates (469-399 BC) as a philosopher retain few teachings of substance. This Ancient Greek philosopher is reputed for his skill at asking long series of questions aimed at revealing contradictions, discarding fallacies, and establishing truth. However, the most interesting lesson from his life is seldom pointed out.

According to Plato (428-347 BC), Socrates loved to question what everybody else considered self-evident. He would engage debates with prominent Athenian citizens and use his sharp mind to demonstrate the immorality of some comforts, the inconsistency of certain principles, and the difficulty of many truths.

Most of what we know about Socrates concerns his death. By the time he turned 70 years old, he had accumulated many friends but also a substantial number of enemies. While a minority of citizens appreciated Socrates' passion for philosophical conversation, he was detested by the subjects of his constant criticism. At one point, his opponents raised charges against him and demanded that he was put on trial.

Although the accusations against Socrates did not make much sense, the important point is that such trial could lead to a death sentence. If we trust Plato's recollections, the charges must have not taken Socrates by surprise. He had spent most of his life in Athens and was well acquainted with its customs and procedures. He knew what he risked if he was convicted.

High levels of stress

The fact of being indicted causes great distress to any human being even if the complaints against him are false. One can hardly imagine an emergency most pressing than having to face a jury invested with the power to weigh your every word and put an end to your life in this world.

Plato's account of the trial describes Socrates' eloquent and passionate defence. The old philosopher countered the charges against him with facts, logic, and courage. He argued for his innocence and invoked his previous services to Athens. He pleaded with arguments that appealed to reason and emotion, expecting to be acquitted or, at worst, mildly reprimanded.

Even so, despite all his strenuous efforts, Socrates was condemned to death. The sentence was executed by making Socrates drink a mixture of hemlock, a Mediterranean plant whose poisonous effects are similar to those of curare: the muscles of the victim become progressively paralysed until he can no longer breathe.

What makes the story fascinating is that Socrates had the possibility to flee but refused to do it. This aspect is so intriguing that Plato devoted one of his works to explain why Socrates agreed to face his accusers at the peril of his life.

Crito, an Athenian businessman, was one of Socrates' friends who stood by him at all times during the trial. When Crito proposed a plan to escape jail, Socrates did not consent. When Crito volunteered to bribe the prison guards, Socrates did not accept.

A surprising decision

Twenty-four centuries later, Socrates' decision seems as incomprehensible as it must have been in Ancient Greece. If you ask anyone in the street about what to do in case of fire, he will tell you to run. When human beings face emergencies, survival instincts often prove more reliable than a hundred essays on ancient philosophy.

Although Plato wrote extensively to explain why Socrates did not flee, the truth is that we have no idea. Xenophon (430-354 BC), an Ancient Greek historian, argues that Socrates was too old and had lost the will to live. How accurate is this theory?

Defeatism, which might apply to those who are terminally ill, seems difficult to conciliate with Socrates' energetic defence during the trial. If he had given up on life altogether, why did he bother to refute the accusations? Why did he try to convince his opponents of his innocence?

Even though we'll never know which version of the story corresponds to the facts, there is a crucial lesson to be drawn. What would you have done? Would you have accepted Crito's offer to escape jail? Would you have fled your city and gone away?

The healthy reaction

Irrespective of the soundness of the charges against Socrates, the tale of his trial might denote a negative aspect of the great philosopher's character: vanity. Did Socrates' desire to demonstrate his innocence and prove his point prevent him from running for safety?

Plato's account shows that Socrates must have been aware that he could not expect a fair trial. How can we understand Socrates' unhealthy reaction to such an emergency? If given the possibility, any rational man would have fled, stabilize his situation, and later tried to erase his accusations.

Taking swift protective action is the proven system for dealing with emergencies. Once you are safe, the next step is to achieve stability and come up with a recovery plan. We cannot ascertain if vanity did Socrates in, but the principle is valid all the same: when an emergency breaks out, put your pride aside and take the necessary action.


[Image: Photograph of ancient vase; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016]

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

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Train yourself to be more entrepreneurial in 2017

You can win big in 2017 by adopting an entrepreneurial mentality because it will allow you to overcome problems that other people find insurmountable, enabling you to detect hidden solutions and opportunities in difficult situations.

How can you train yourself to be more entrepreneurial? Taking risks, staying alert, and being quick at exploiting chance encounters are things that do not come naturally to most of us. Nevertheless, like any other skill, entrepreneurship becomes sharper through practice or by reading The John Vespasian Letter

The best approach is simply to make a list of those traits that you wish to acquire and work constantly at improving the quality of your thinking. What are the characteristics of the entrepreneurial mind? My own list contains five points.

1. TOLERANCE: What does a moral virtue have to do with entrepreneurship? Everything. Intolerance and inflexibility are deadly poisons when it comes to detecting opportunities and taking initiative. Unless you push yourself to tolerate uncertainty and risk beyond normal levels, your mind will never operate on a high entrepreneurial gear.

2. INDEPENDENT THINKING: Start questioning things that seem self-evident. Why should you follow traditions that make no sense? Can things be improved? Why do we have to wait in line to purchase certain products or services? Is there a better way? When everything is expensive, try cheap. When everything is cheap, try borrowing. The best opportunities lie always below the surface.

3. CONSISTENT AMBITION: There is moral ambition and there is the search of wealth. In addition, many others are embarked in a quest for honours or simply desire to make the world a better place. Pick your choice and keep it present in your mind. What really counts here is consistency. Random changes in your goals will block your entrepreneurial vision. Confusion generates chaos. Consistency of purpose sharpens the mind.

4. DETERMINATION: Whatever path you take, you will face opposition and criticism. Ambition is worthless unless it is accompanied by an iron determination to persist, to try again, to stand up and push repeatedly until the wagon moves. Why do different people possess unequal levels of determination? Personal philosophy plays a major role in this. Those who have a stable, rational, and integrated view of the world tend to advance faster on the entrepreneurial road.

5. A FEELING OF DISSATISFACTION: Contented souls seldom have the drive that is necessary to challenge the way things are. On many occasions, entrepreneurship is linked to personal dissatisfaction with a product, service, or environment. Annoyance and irritation can fuel the motor of change. A strong wish to turn the present into a better future is the thread line of many entrepreneurial careers.

Make your own list of the traits that you want to develop in 2017, and place it in a visible place in your kitchen or bathroom. The world of tomorrow is shaped by those who reflect on their life's purpose while cooking and brushing their teeth.


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

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