Have a Philosophical New Year
As the calendar turns, it is natural to take stock of our lives. Reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions is a philosophical activity. The ancient philosophers also made lists and resolutions as part of the effort to live mindfully.
The key to a philosophical life is to try to see things as they actually are. We are often deceived by idealism, ideology and emotion. Our hopes lead us astray. Our fears disempower us. And our fantasies confuse us. The solution is to get in touch with reality.
Consider diet — a typical focus of New Year’s resolutions. We fantasize about food and drink, as if a cocktail or a bag of chips has the magic power to produce happiness. A philosophical diet focuses on the reality of eating and drinking. These are merely biological functions, not fantastic cures for spiritual poverty.
Or consider what we learn from typical year-end lists. These lists show us, as they do every year, that human beings are mortal and imperfect. Some people died. Others were born. Heroes inspired us. But violence and war continue to exist.
For every genius, there are a hundred fools — for every murderer, a hundred lovers. Human nature is neither perfectible nor unredeemable. Optimists don’t like to hear the bad news. Pessimists are unable to see the good. But the truth is in the middle.
We live in a changing world. Our characters are not fixed. We make progress and improve. We backslide and degenerate. Life is a project to be lived. That’s why resolutions are useful: they remind us of who we want to be.
It’s a shame that we waste our resolutions on trivial stuff such as losing weight or making money. It would be better to resolve to be more caring, more intelligent, more courageous, more just and more mindful.
Here are a few reminders and resolutions distilled from the teachings of the ancient philosophers. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it. Do nothing inconsiderately. Remember that no evil lasts forever, including pain. Understand that nothing is entirely in your own control, even your own emotions. Acknowledge that everyone, including you, eventually dies. Bear in mind that you have no power over what other people say or do. Understand that human beings share much in common. And see that we all benefit from compassion and justice.
The ancient philosophers emphasized taking active steps to improve life. Those who wait for the world to change may wait forever. The Roman philosopher Seneca once explained that the problem is not that life is too short but that we waste too much of it. Life is long enough and rich enough, if you make a constant effort to live it well.
Of course, not everything works out for the best. Sometimes tragedy occurs. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we cannot give up because of tragedy or fret over our mistakes. Strength, courage, resilience and tenacity are required at all times.
The key is to accept the things we cannot change and focus our effort on the things we can improve. Another Roman philosopher, Epictetus, said that we should stop wishing that things would happen as we want them to happen and learn to accept the world as it does happen. This is a useful strategy, when things don’t go right. But resigning yourself to fate does not mean giving up on the effort to live as well as you can in the life that fate has given you.
The world won’t change until you make it change. And you won’t become better until you put forth the effort. Wisdom, courage, and intelligence are needed to negotiate a world in which every noble and beautiful thing will eventually fade. Enjoy the good things while they last. Grit your teeth through the bad times. And keep yourself open to opportunities for improvement.
The philosophical approach is demanding. There are no quick fixes or super-human saviors here. This is your life, the philosophers teach, your one and only chance to live well. Each new year — each new moment — is a chance to excel. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you