On the joys of learning French and other language exploits

Several years ago, before my first trip to Prague, I picked up a Berlitz Czech phrasebook and began what seemed like an innocent attempt at learning a few words and phrases.

However, like a lot of things I dip my toes into, learning Czech became somewhat of an obsession. Thus begun a fascination with learning languages and the constant bewilderment that acquiring a second language is so undervalued in New Zealand.

It is true to a large extent that to know the people and the country you really need to know the language. I have found the intricacies and idiosyncrasies in languages reveals a lot about how native speakers think and evaluate life, along with the history of the people.

My impediment was this strange notion that “I’ll learn another language when I’ve learned English properly first”. Yeah it’s silly, especially considering the fact I have more of an appreciation for English because I have studied another language.

French impressions — at 3 weeks

If you climbed a mountain then the surrounding hills will seem like a doddle. Czech was the mountain for me. It’s so completely different in structure, pronunciation and scope than English. Czech is highly inflected language — nouns are declined more often than not. Verbs are all conjugated to the point where personal pronouns are largely unnecessary and adjectives, pronouns vary according to which of the 7 cases you are using. It can appear to be a mammoth task to learn Czech, especially straight out of the gate as your second language.

So to my delight, French has been a walk in the park. I can see there is a lot of complexity in the language going forward but right off the bat, French has similar sentence structures to English and of course English is basically a mix of French and German that has evolved over the past 1000 years.

There are plenty of words in French that have similar meanings in English (cognates). I am finding that learning these cognates can be a great way to acquire French quickly.

The really fun part about French, in my humble opinion, is the pronunciation. As a dabbler in languages over the years, I love pronouncing Italian words and sounding Italian when I speak. The entire word is spoken definitively whereas in French the words flow off the tongue (and the back of the throat in the case of the ‘r’ sounds) much more delicately. For the most part, the ends of French words are silent and soft. It really is a joy to speak.

The magic of auxiliary verbs

I share the observation by Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months fame) and Tim Ferriss that a great way to get a grasp on a lot of a language early on is to master auxiliary verbs combined with the infinitive of the verb you wish to convey. That way, the only conjugation you’ll need is for the initial verb, which is easy to remember and master early on.

Auxiliary verbs convey a sentences function, which could be tense, modal aspect… In our cases, the modal verbs are: I must, I can, I will, I may.

English French Czech
I must go to the cinema Je dois aller au cinema Musím jít do kina
I can eat the meat Je peux manger la viande Můžu jíst toto maso
You must listen better! Tu dois mieux écouter! Musíte naslouchat líp!
Can we have some water? Nous pouvons avoir de l’eau? Můžeme dostat nějaké vody?

The initial modal verb in the sentences above allows us to use the infinitive verb to convey the meaning we want. In the first example, I merely have to conjugate the I must verb. I could say I must go, I must eat, I can drink, can I drink… Numerous meanings and sentences by memorising the conjugation of a handful of verbs and then tagging on the infinitive (eat, drink, watch, go…)

In French the verbs to go (être) and to have (avoir) have numerous functions as auxiliary verbs by forming the immediate past (passé compose). Instead of the infinitive verb, and easy to grasp past participle is used instead (as is the case with English also):

I ate breakfast -> J’ai mangé le petit déjeuner
Here, the J’ai is the present tense of the to have verb. Mangé is the past participle of to eat, so the sentence literally says: I Have eaten Breakfast.

I went to the restaurant -> Je suis allé au restaurant
In this example the past participle of to go (allé) is used to convey the meaning I went.

The simple future tense is also easily formulated from the verb to go:

We are going to the market -> Nous allons au marché
As we say it in English, the nous allons refers to we go

I’m not going to let that happen! -> Je ne vais pas permettre ça !

That’s my experience with French after only three weeks. Here are some cool resources that I am using :

  • Memrise — A spaced repetition app that keeps you locked into the daily revision and learning targets with a points system. Social networking also a key feature.
  • FluentU — a range of video, audio and flashcard resources designed to teach you in a more dynamic way than just books and CDs.
  • Coffee Break French podcast — superb resource with lots of free lessons and a premium feature. Progresses season by season from beginner to advanced French.
  • Benny’s insights into French — Straight from the Irish Polyglot’s mouth!

Concluding thoughts

Clearly, French is a popular language with a lot more complexity and richness than presented here by a mere newbie, but I have to say it is proving to be a rewarding experience.

In many ways I’m glad I studied such a relatively difficult and completely foreign language first. Czech is still my first love and I enjoy it immensely. As Benny Lewis is fond of saying, you’re first language will be your hardest because you’re learning how to study a language as well as the language itself.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.

Putting and end to being offended

In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.

Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”

“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.

But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.

Two things are at play here:

(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked

Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.

The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense  is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.

Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.

(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended

In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.

But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.

You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.

If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.

It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.

Be not offended

Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.

Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.

Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.

This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.

How the Stoics handled insults and criticism

As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.

Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”.  People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1

Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.

We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.

Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7

The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.

Epictetus says it much more eloquently:

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5

Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do

In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.

Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.

This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.

However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.


Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.

The main take away points:

  • Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
  • Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
    Ideas don’t have feelings.
  • Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
  • Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
  • Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
  • Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.

Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.


The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.

Bodyweight training book review — Convict Conditioning

Convict conditioning.

Anyone interested in bodyweight training would have no doubt come across Convict Conditioning somewhere on the Internet. In this review, I’ll outline why I think the book is the best all round, tried and tested hardassed bodyweight training manifesto out there.

If there was one book that defined the bodyweight training ethos better than all the rest it would be Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade. Those who don’t know the back story, Paul Wade was an inmate for more than 20 years in notorious prisons like San Quentin, Angola Penitentiary. For obvious reasons, Wade keeps out of the limelight but has done interviews before and has corresponded with calisthenic legend Al Kavadlo. I say this because the veracity of the stories Wade tells in the book, indeed even his existence have been questioned by some.

Despite that side issue, the content of the book is exceptionally good. Enough to say his workout plan and progression is the best there is out there. If you buy one book on bodyweight training this is it. **The book used to be relatively expensive on the Kindle but has been recently reduced to a more reasonable Amazon price level. See for yourself.**

My favourite part of the book is the story Wade tells of old school calisthenics. The first chapters are devoted to hammering home an important fact: weights and machines are unnecessary to build mass and strength. This part of the book has received criticism for being too overly evangelical about calisthenics and that it isn’t a true reflection of prison training. However, I think he is really trying to counter the pervasive idea that athletic training and conditioning requires manual resistance like weights.

The Big six

Getting down to the business of eliminating weakness from our lives, Wade turns his attention to training like a convict. His focus is on 6 core movements he terms “the big six”. These are: Push ups, Squats, Pull ups, Leg raises, Bridges, Handstand push ups.

The focus here is not on pumping through a few half-hearted push ups and a few air squats like you’ll see a low rent aerobics studio. Instead, Wade lays out 10 steps, which takes a trainer from where they are to the step 10 — the “master step”.

Step 10 in each progression is an exercise very few people have the strength to perform. Be that 50 single leg squats or 20 one arm push ups — trainers who have the patience and passion to progress through the 10 steps will be richly rewarded with strength that will probably qualify them for a place in a circus act. That kind of strength will set you up for a much more able-bodied life, lowering the risk of insidious ailments like crook backs, pot bellies, hunch backs and many other maladies you see inflicting men and women post-40.

Even if you have no desire to pull up your own weight using one arm for multiple reps, the regular exercising of your body’s functional movement patterns will ensure your muscles, joints and soft tissue are well-oiled and ready for what life throws at you.

Bodyweight versus external resistance

Wade points out rather forcefully that there is a fundamental difference between moving your body through space rather than hoisting an external weight to create muscle tension, strength and growth.

The first and most important distinction is natural movement. A push up allows your body to move through a more natural, safer arc than does a bench press. With weights, you’re always constrained by the fact that the weight is pushing directly downwards while forcing your limbs into less optimal positions. Flaring out the elbows on a military press is a good example of an external resistance forcing you to adopt an injurious position.

With bodyweight only movements, you’re pushing or pulling your body through space which allows for an optimal, more comfortable movement pattern. In popular parlance we call this “functional” but really it is simply the ability to move yourself more efficiently.

Another important difference between weight training and bodyweight only movement can be seen in the fact that weight training can produce muscular imbalances and movement inhibition. This is a side effect of the “muscle group” training approach and the idea of muscle isolation. By isolating muscle groups the bodybuilder is taking the synergistic muscles out of the equation to produce a greater “burn” in the target muscle. This isn’t good or bad it just isn’t the way to train if strength and movement efficiency are your goals.

With calisthenic training your muscles will develop in size and strength in a natural way to produce better movement. Wade recalls images of bodybuilders unable to brush their teeth properly because their arms are so big that normal movement becomes impossible.

Here’s the important point here: Because calisthenics develops muscles by putting them through the very movements they will be used for in everyday life, muscles develop with respect to movement rather than overdeveloping to the point where movement is inhibited. Also, with only your bodyweight as resistance you’re getting a workout that is tailored to your current size. The increase of weights in muscle group focused training is a good way to overdevelop muscles relative to their function.

Conclusion — Hands Down the best book on the Calisthenics

As I alluded to in the introduction — Convict Conditioning is, in my opinion, the best book you’ll find on bodyweight resistance training. I’ve read all the reputedly best books in the field and no other tops this one for both training philosophy and programming. It has all the exercise progressions and training tips you’ll need to bust through weakness and it has a bunch of supplementary exercises to keep things fresh.

The Convict Conditioning program is how I structure my workout progressions, and while I take ideas from other books, this is the one I keep returning to in order to stay on track.

If you like the book, take a look at Convict Conditioning 2, where Wade goes in depth on the smaller muscles, including the neck and grip muscles, as well as extensive instruction on mastering variations of the Human Flag. Great stuff also!