That’s easy! I had to think about that for about 5 seconds. My biggest failing is inertia – a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.I said that!
It seems to stem from a lack of self-discipline and a tendency towards laziness and judging from the amount of internet pages dedicated to the subject it is not an uncommon problem. So perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up over it too much.
A more ancient word for inertia is sloth. According to Wikipedia sloth is a translation of the Latin term acedia and it means “without care”. This is in turn synonymous with apathy, a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. It is a state of indifference and mediocrity. Sloth includes ignoring the seven gifts of grace which are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. Such a disregard may lead to the retardation of spiritual growth and a neglect of the manifold duties of charity, a refusal of joy and the development of animosity towards others. Sloth then is not to be recommended. It is, in fact, one of the seven deadly sins. (Wikipedia 2006)
The Ancient Greek word for “sin” was originally used when a javelin-thrower at the Olympic games fell short of a mark that was drawn upon the ground as his target. A competitor whose javelin fell short of the mark (ie. did not realise his potential) was said to have “sinned”, and failed to go through to the next stage of the games. (Darlow, 2006) “Sin” in a secularised form, is often understood as failing to achieve one’s potential, to develop, to reach maturity, or to make progress.
Inertia, sloth, or apathy is a sin that leads us to “sin”, to unfulfilled promise or potential and into the realm of self-pity. Self-pity is a form of selfishness, a tendency to dwell on negative events and to carry forwards bitterness and resentment. Having self-pity is to blame others or negative circumstances for ones place in life and to give up one’s own agency and responsibility.
If you are not the main character in your own story you are an extra in someone else’s story.Unknown, but I think it paraphrases Jordan B. Peterson
I have recently become a fan of Jordan B. Peterson and this post is inspired by my reading and listening to Peterson’s books and podcasts. Peterson has this to say about self-pity:
Life is tragic; everything ends in death; everything you have will be taken away from you; you’re weak and breakable and prone to fits of impulsivity and malevolence. How could you not have self-pity?
Despite all that, you have to rise above it because if you don’t it makes everything worse, you and everything else. And Being itself. So, you have to live a good life, to live the best life you possibly can, to live a life that is so noble that all of those things are justifiable.Peterson Video Cast 2018
Well if sloth is a “sin” then the solution must be “repentance”, no? Repentance derives its meaning from the Greek word “metanoia” which has the meaning “change of consciousness” (Darlow 2006). It describes the healing process of mental transformation that occurs when we realise our shortcomings, and beyond that, when we achieve our wider potentials through the development of our strengths of character. The question remains if nobility, as Peterson suggests, is the antidote to sin and self-pity, what do we understand by “nobility”? what does “a noble life” look like? and how are the habits of moral excellence attained?
According to Aristotle people have a natural capacity for good character, and this capacity is developed through practice. A capacity does not come first (i.e. it does not precede and action) – it is developed through practice. This is the concept of self-mastery, the ability to contain and control your passions and desires in order to achieve a particular end, in this case “nobility” and “a noble life”. I think this is related to what Jordan Peterson explains as the practice of sacrifice, the human ability to make a bargain with the future, to forgo present passions and desires, or give up something of value in the present so that we can improve the future. To me this sounds like a pretty good definition of work too, sacrificing time and effort now to achieve mastery of your talents, vocation and to profit in the products of that mastery at some future time.
So nobility and the noble life is achievable through practice, sacrifice and work. Or one might say that a powerful antidote to sloth is focusing our attention on our talents and gifts, setting future goals, making appropriate sacrifices in terms of time, effort and practice, in striving for our goals and applying enthusiasm, an intense and eager enjoyment and interest to our life’s work.
The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
So far so good. However I have also been reading and listening to Alan Watts quite a bit and he has a very different take on all of this. According to Watts there are strict limitations to self-discipline or self-control. Watts tells us that we cannot control our thoughts or our feelings because there is no controller, we ARE our thoughts and our feelings.
“I” do not think or feel, thoughts and feelings are “happenings”. “I” do not do them, they spontaneously happen and all I can do is observe them.
Watts’ position is that we cannot control our minds because there is no controller. What we take to be the “thinker” of thoughts is just one of the thoughts. The play of thought and feeling just goes on by itself as a happening. Through meditation one is able to observe this flow and “see the world as it is” and in doing so one begins to understands that there is no past or future, only the eternal now and that there is no difference between ones self and the rest of “what there is”, it’s all connected.
Watts tells us we cannot improve ourselves because there is no self and contrary to Peterson’s thoughts on sacrifice there is no use making sacrifices to the future because there is no future. There is only the eternal now. There is no possibility to master the self because the self is an illusion. Watts encourages us to accept that we are, this that there is and that there is no possibility to change or improve that.
This, I think, will take me a long time to unravel. In some ways it is a very appealing idea, especially to my sloth self. “Go with the flow” is my sloth self’s favourite t-shirt but if we are to accept that we have no ego, no individual free will, that the universe is deterministic and that all we can do is “go with the flow” what about setting goals, sacrifice, practice and work and what about nobility and “the noble life”? Watt’s says it is all a fraud. I am definitely going to have to do some further reading to get my head around that but for now, let’s proceed as if I’d never heard of Alan Watts.
So what of nobility and “the noble life”? According to Tocqueville a “noble soul” is a free man, an aristocrat, one who lives a life of independence, capable of governing himself, one who attempts to obey God’s will and not his own capriciousness.
In contrast, the “mediocre souls” are the commonplace persons, who know themselves to be mediocre; who have the impudence to assert their rights to mediocrity and go on to impose it on themselves wherever possible. Tocqueville’s notion of the “mediocre soul” relies upon Aristotle’s claim that many people are enslaved souls, who are by nature incapable of governing themselves due to their passions that forge their fetters, and whose minds are intemperate. The “mediocre soul” is not so much enslaved by an external force but by an internal force. The “mediocre souls” are enslaved because they prefer it. They are spiritually weak, lacking will, courage and principle enough to guide and govern themselves. (Ossewaarde, 2004, p85)
Tocqueville’s “mediocre soul” reminds me of Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941). Fromm writes:
Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.Fromm (1941)
To live a “noble life” one must first be free and independent and have the strength of will, courage and principle to overcome the unbearable isolation of modern life and then to seize upon the positive freedoms which result from the uniqueness and individuality of man, take responsibility for ones own thoughts and actions, speak and act in truth and strive to create a better future by creating order out of chaos.
Yes, I am parroting J.B Peterson again, especially the creating order our of chaos bit. I am still absorbing these ideas and not yet ready to think about the critically. I need to read more and think more about these ideas before I can assimilate and analyses them and writing this blog post is part of that process.
Finally I want to enquire as to the ideal thoughts, attitudes and behaviours someone living “a noble life” might aspire to and practice. I found a reasonable answer to this question on Quora.com:
- Inspire confidence in and from others;
- Work to increase value in people and in situations;
- Focus on good works, never on harm;
- Select from life resources with eagerness to meet needs, those of self and others, addressing basic needs first;
- Invest and re-invest, starting with the lives of people;
- Work productively with energy, purpose and a plan;
- Thrift and temperance – resist the temptation to overspend, squander or overindulge;
- Put in a full, quality day;
- Invest available time in positive, purposeful activity;
- Benevolence towards those in need;
- Leniency in judging others;
- Forbearance (patient self-control, restraint and tolerance)
- Develop loving, respectful relationships with other people built on high quality input;
- Strive for quality, excellence and mastery.
This certainly isn’t what Tocqueville or Nietzsche had in mind when they wrote about the “noble soul” but having read J.B. Peterson and listened to several of his lectures I think that many of these would feature in what he had in mind when he suggested that living a “noble life” is the antidote to self-pity and I think it is also a good place to end this blog post.