EXTRACTS

The real tragedy of life is not in what is or what is not, but in what could have been if only they had been slightly different. Without imagination, there would be no tragedy, and those with the deepest imagination feel the tragedy most deeply of all. —Plato: Letters to my Son


My cough is much worse at night and often prevents me from sleeping. It is not so much the daytime tiredness that I resent, but the inability to proceed uninterrupted with my dreams, to run and play with my fancies, and, at last, in the early hours of the morning, to be visited with visions like a holy madman. The dreamer is like a Delian diver, fishing for pearls from the depths of our inner sea of knowledge; and I must have solved, or rather resolved, many more problems in my sleep than in my conscious hours. —Plato: Letters to my Son


The disease of the soul is both more common and more deadly than the disease of the body. Just as medicine is the art devoted to healing the body, so philosophy is the art devoted to healing the soul, curing it of improper emotions, false beliefs, and faulty judgments, which are the causes of so much hardship and handicap. To heal the body one turns to the practitioner of the art of healing the body, but to heal the soul there is no doctor to turn to, and each of us is left to become that doctor unto himself. Yet, this need not stop us from exhorting others to imitate us in the godly art, in the forlorn hope that they might transform themselves into better citizens for Athens and better companions for us. —Plato: Letters to my Son


I do not deny that the theory of the forms has its logical limitations, but then, as I have been saying, logic itself has its limitations. The true appeal of the theory of the forms is not in its ability to resolve philosophical problems, but in its ability to reflect a profound truth about human experience. Man may have his feet on the ground but his head is far up in the clouds, constantly searching for something higher, something purer, something that is able to transcend all time and existence. God, love, and beauty are only so many aspects, so many forms, of this, his ideal. —Plato: Letters to my Son


Philosophy is a bitter medicine with many fearsome side effects, but if you are able to stomach it, it can cure your soul of the many ills and infirmities of ignorance. Given the choice, most men prefer not to take it, and many of those who do soon find that they cannot carry on with it. In the end, they choose what is more pleasant over what is more wholesome, and prefer the society of those who encourage them in their follies to that of those who admonish and improve them. You, on the other hand, appear to be minded otherwise, for when a young men sets for himself the highest standards of education and conduct, he naturally shuns the company of mindless nobodies and boldly seeks out that of the singular men who are prepared to teach him and challenge him and exhort him to virtue. In time, by his strivings, he will come to realize that it is from the hardest toil and noblest deeds that the purest and most persisting pleasures are to be had, and, taking pity on other men, and thinking also of the gods, he will do everything in his power to share this precious secret. —Plato: Letters to my Son


According to the Buddha, the failure to recognize the illusion of the self is the source of all ignorance and unhappiness. It is only by renouncing the self, that is, by dropping his ego defences and committing metaphorical suicide, that a person can open up to different modes of being and relating and thereby transform himself into a pure essence of humanity. In so doing, he becomes free to recast himself as a much more joyful and productive person, and attains the only species of transcendence and immortality that is open to man. —Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception


It seems to me that there are three principal scales of time, the present moment, a human lifetime, and the eternal. The problem with modern man is not so much that he situates himself in the future of a human lifetime, since he fears death far too much to do that, but rather than he does not situate himself in any of these three scales of time. Instead, he is forever stuck somewhere in-between, this evening, tomorrow morning, next week, next Christmas, in five years’ time. As a result, he has neither the joy of the present moment, nor the satisfied accomplishments of a human lifetime, nor the perspective and immortality of the eternal. —Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception


For centuries the study of Plato and Aristotle formed the backbone of any higher education in Europe and beyond. As I hope to have demonstrated here and there in this book, one cannot possibly underestimate the individual benefit of this study, nor overestimate the social loss of having had it expunged from curricula. In The Art of Failure, I argued that the best education is not that which enables a person to make a living, nor even that which enables him to make a social contribution, but that which inspires and enables him on the path of freedom and individuation, and which, in the longer term, leads to the fullest living and the greatest social contribution. —Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception


The classic example of idealization is that of being infatuated, when love is confused with the need to love, and the idealized person’s negative attributes are not only underestimated but turned into positive attributes and thought of as endearing. Although this can make for a rude awakening, there are few better ways of relieving our existential anxiety than by manufacturing something that is ‘perfect’ for us, be it a piece of equipment, a place, country, person, or god. But even a god is not enough… —Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception


Self-deception is a defining part of our human nature. By recognizing its various forms in ourselves and reflecting upon them, we may be able to disarm them and even, in some cases, to employ and enjoy them. This self-knowledge opens up a whole new world before us, rich in beauty and subtlety, and frees us not only to take the best out of it, but also to give it back the best of ourselves, and, in so doing, to fulfil our potential as human beings. I don’t really think it’s a choice. —Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception


One of the central tenets of the Western worldview is that one should always be engaged in some kind of outward task. Thus, the Westerner structures his time—including, sometimes, even his leisure time—as a series of discrete programmed activities which he must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or virtual list. One need only observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or gruelling exercise routine to realise that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down a never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile, and something along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you – very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy. In contrast, most people living in a country such as Kenya in Africa do not share in the Western worldview that it is noble or worthwhile to spend all of one’s time rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are wont to do, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of ‘mzungu’, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal translation of ‘mzungu’ is ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’. —The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide


If I am to believe everything that I see in the media, happiness is to be six foot tall or more and to have bleached teeth and a firm abdomen, all the latest clothes, accessories, and electronics, a picture-perfect partner of the opposite sex who is both a great lover and a terrific friend, an assortment of healthy and happy children, a pet that is neither a stray nor a mongrel, a large house in the right sort of postcode, a second property in an idyllic holiday location, a top-of-the-range car to shuttle back and forth from the one to the other, a clique of ‘friends’ with whom to have fabulous dinner parties, three or four foreign holidays a year, and a high-impact job that does not distract from any of the above. There are at least three major problems that I can see with this ideal of happiness. (1) It represents a state of affairs that is impossible to attain to and that is in itself an important source of unhappiness. (2) It is situated in an idealised and hypothetical future rather than in an imperfect but actual present in which true happiness is much more likely to be found, albeit with great difficulty. (3) It has largely been defined by commercial interests that have absolutely nothing to do with true happiness, which has far more to do with the practice of reason and the peace of mind that this eventually brings. In short, it is not only that the bar for happiness is set too high, but also that it is set in the wrong place, and that it is, in fact, the wrong bar. Jump and you’ll only break your back. —The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide


For Aristotle, happiness involves the exercise of reason because the capacity to reason is the distinctive function of human beings. However, it could be argued that the distinctive function of human beings is not the capacity to reason but the capacity to form meaningful, loving relationships. Plato reconciles these positions by blending desire, friendship, and philosophy into a single total experience that transcends and transforms human existence and that connects it with the timeless and universal truths of the eternal and infinite. For Plato, truth and authenticity are a higher value than either reason or love, which aim at them, and a higher value even than happiness, which is merely the manifestation of their presence. —The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide