by Maya Talisman Frost
It was Socrates who said that the purpose of philosophy is to help each of us become “an excellent human”. That seems like a respectable and reasonable big-picture goal for every person on the planet.
But what about the specifics? How do we become excellent humans? How can we use philosophy in our everyday lives to help us succeed in this most important goal as homo sapiens?
The surprising thing about philosophy is that it is incredibly user-friendly if you take it in small doses. No, really! For thousands of years, thoughtful individuals have contemplated the meaning of life. Many of the greatest philosophers spoke eloquently about the challenges we all face today in words that are easily understood and truly inspiring.
Don’t believe it? Let’s start with a few thoughts from Aristotle. The student of Plato, who was the student of Socrates, Aristotle lived in the third century B.C. But don’t hold that against him! Aristotle was full of interesting ideas, and he had quite a sense of humor as well. He’s a guy you could imagine sitting in your kitchen, engaging in a memorable conversation over a shared bottle of wine. Think of him as a really wise friend, and use his ideas to help you become a more excellent human.
Aristotle believed that everything had a purpose. He stated that our purpose as humans is to think in order to live a good life. That’s it. As long as we continue to contemplate the universe and our role in it, we are fulfilling our purpose.
So, to help you contemplate the universe today, here are five inspiring thoughts from our friend, Aristotle:
Thought #1: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Hmm. What is that you repeatedly do? Greet people on the street, let another car into a busy street in front of you, leave nice tips for frazzled waitpersons, read to your children, phone your elderly aunt? What do your habits say about you? Is that the message you want to send?
How can you change your habits or adopt new ones to reflect your desire to become more excellent? What excellent acts can you do repeatedly so that they become a habit? What can you do TODAY to intentionally start a habit that will lead to excellence? Pick something simple and just get started.
Thought #2: “Education is the best provision for old age.”
What are you learning these days? How are you spending your free time? Take a look at how you are including learning in your daily life. Do you read? If so, are you learning from it? Do you watch television? Yes, it can be educational, but seriously analyze your viewing habits and see if you can’t incorporate more learning and less vegetating.
Don’t pick something boring. Choose ways to learn that excite and inspire you. A cooking class through your local community college? A new sport? A stack of library books on a country you’re hoping to visit someday? Pursue your interests with a passion, and you will always continue learning. This definitely qualifies as a habit that leads to excellence! Promise yourself you’ll always have interesting things to talk about when you are old—and I don’t mean ailments and treatments! Learn now how to ignite your own curiosity and pursue learning as a lifelong adventure.
Thought #3: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
We all do it—-we hear an idea, and we immediately attach ourselves to an opinion about it without really giving it the time it takes to form a reasoned conclusion. The problem with smart people is that we tend to use our intelligence to argue in defense of our chosen opinions. We’d be a whole lot wiser if we did less arguing and more thinking!
The next time someone makes a suggestion you don’t like or states an opinion you disagree with, try this: Wait three minutes before denouncing it. Now, I don’t mean that you should just sit there, fuming or smug or disinterested. Instead, “entertain” the thought. Ask questions. Show interest. Be open, engaged and nonconfrontational. When your three minutes are up, you can feel free to express your original opinion. More often than not, your original opinion will have changed a bit because you have spent some time holding a thought without attacking it.
The trick here is to separate the thought from the thinker. Are you sure you don’t dislike the thought because you dislike the thinker? We all have people in our lives who push our buttons. Take the high road. Entertain the thought. Your eventual rebuttal will be more easily accepted after you’ve shown that you have carefully considered the concept. Try this at work, try it with your friends, try it with your family. I guarantee that this is a surefire path to excellence!
Thought #4: “What lies in our power to do, also lies in our power not to do.”
Ah, yes. Those bad habits? You can change them. If you had the initiative at some point to do something, you can choose to stop doing it. This goes for overeating, smoking, drinking, and all the usual bad habits.
It also hold true for things we don’t even think of as habits anymore—watching too much television, driving instead of walking, reading nothing but celebrity magazines, gossiping, spending too much time shopping, etc. If you haven’t always done it, you don’t have to continue doing it. You do have the power to make changes.
Thought #5: “Well begun is half done.”
I love this one, and not just because my father-in-law, an attorney, used to say it a lot. We all understand that setting a goal, doing the research, and making a plan will increase the likelihood that our chosen task will be successfully completed. Whether it’s a home improvement project, a vacation schedule, or a tricky new recipe, proper preparation will save us a lot of time and effort.
Start using Aristotle’s ideas today to help you become an excellent human. Make your best acts your best habits. Learn something new each day. Entertain contrary thoughts. Begin to undo bad habits. Prepare yourself for excellence.
Aristotle would be so proud.