Spy on the Wise

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“Examine men’s ruling principles, even those of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind they pursue.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.38

We can learn a lot about people by examining how they think. Not literally how they think, no one can see your thoughts or your reason, but we can see the outcomes of how people think and reason, and guess, sometimes well, sometimes less well, why they’re behaving the way they are. We should do this with those we perceive to be wise (first because we may be wrong, and second because they may actually be wise and studying them might give us insights), and also of those we view as not (for the same reasons!).

What are they choosing to do, and what might we guess about why they’re choosing to do it? Perhaps we admire someone, we think they are wise, and we look at their behavior and we see that they have decided to delete their social media accounts. We think, “Why would they do this? I think they are wise, is this a wise thing they’ve done? I wonder what the impact of doing this is. Perhaps I should try this… if this person I consider to be wise is making a choice like this, perhaps the choice is wise.”

Of course, it’s no guarantee that the choice is wise or not, or that the wisdom of such a choice isn’t specific and strictly limited to that one individual. I quit Twitter, the choice has seemed beneficial as I now invest time in what I view as more worthwhile and valuable things. So, for me, quitting Twitter seems wise. I also deleted Facebook. Doing this has forced me to be more intentional in reaching out to my family, and more selective about what so-called friends I invest time in staying connected with. As a result I have fewer superficial relationships, and the ones that remain seem more meaningful, more regular, and more real. Was this decision wise? It seems like it was for me, but would it be wise for you? I don’t know. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook, and other forms of social media, are things you leverage exclusively to stay in touch, to manage meaningful relationships, and to support those you love… if you quit these things that might not be so wise.

But if your relationship with these things are more like these endless scroll-holes that fill you with anxiety and waste whole hours of your time, then, if I were looking at you, and observing your behavior, and attempting to suss out how you were thinking and how you were reasoning in regards to your use of these things, what would I think?

I think I would think that you weren’t thinking much about this behavior. That you were allowing your chaotic mind to run your life, and that you had given up the reins. I would reason that you were not acting wisely.

I’m not judging. I quit Twitter and Facebook only a few weeks ago. I became a vegetarian only a couple of months ago, I stopped drinking but for a glass of champagne here and there for birthday parties or holiday parties—before two months ago I was doom scrolling, drinking to much, eating mindlessly, and if you were watching me, then, you would have thought, “Tanner is not thinking much about his behavior. He is allowing his chaotic mind to run roughshod over his actions and decisions. He does not seem very wise in these regards.

And you would have been right.

The New Year’s Eve episode featured a question from listener Joseph, it was about the difficulty of changing one’s behavior because doing so changes ones’ relationships with others, and your life changes dramatically when you go from hanging out with these 10 people over here to these 10 people over there, and change is, and I’m going to swear here so ear muff your kids if they’re in the room… 3…2…1 change is fucking hard. It’s not hard to quit social media, it’s not hard to start exercising, it’s not hard to change how you eat, it’s hard to navigate the new reality this change will absolutely plop you into the middle of without warning when make it.

Change, in the early stages, is like choosing to feel like an incompetent idiot who is failing everything all the time at every turn in every direction. Who the heck wants to feel that way about anything? We’ve spent our whole life learning to navigate a really unjust, unvirtuous existence and we’ve got friends who like us, and people who understand us, and plenty of relationships in this existence we’ve spent our entire lives crafting at this point…

But when we look at that life, after considering the behavior of those we do and do not consider to be wise, and we find that it is lacking in wisdom and we want to change, we’re confronted with a terrifying proposition: the life we’ve built up to now is comfortable, and it’s well worn as the reliable track that we run on every day, and this new thing, this change, well, damn, I can’t even see a track over there. I just see really dark woods and overgrown paths, and I don’t know what’s waiting for me in there… and I’m scared. The unknown is scary, I don’t care how tough you are, when you decide to upset your whole life, even when it’s for good reason, your first few steps are into an unfamiliar landscape that looks to you as a cubist painting created by a madman on lithium.

But look to others, look to the wise and the unwise, and see how they behave, and see that they’ve wandered into those surreal landscapes and either benefited greatly by doing so or didn’t. Then reason which new landscapes are worth venturing into, for you, which changes seem to be ones worthy of your risking your time, energy, and effort. But don’t be too careful in that reasoning, because if you over-reason you may reason yourself out of making any choice at all. If you find yourself in that situation, return to the thing that caused you to think about changing in the first place. Is it still there? Does it still negatively impact your life? Then turn back from it, and back into the overgrown woods—things may get ugly in there, but chances are you’ll discover a better way of being.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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