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Question of the Month

What’s Your Best Advice or Wisdom?

The following responses to this sagacious question each win a random book.

Imagine if Alice hadn’t followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. She would then not have drunk the potion (or was it ate the forbidden fruit?) and met the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. My best piece of wisdom is therefore for us not to lose our sense of wonder about the world around us. If not for our inquisitiveness, we would still be living with the Flintstones. Evolution did not have in mind a Buddha or a Beethoven; we nevertheless went on to discover fire, invent the wheel, and to write Hamlet. An inquiring mind led us also to relativity, quantum physics and all the natural laws. If we had not uncovered them, we would still be conflating acts of nature with acts of God.

All animals may be curious in their own way. However, their curiosity is chained to their survival needs. Humanity may be the only species that exhibits curiosity for curiosity’s sake. Our zest for inquiry may therefore be unique, in a way – another reason why we should cherish it. Moreover, just as language “makes infinite use of finite means,” as Wilhelm von Humboldt found, we can derive unbounded use from our sense of wonder too. Considering that we may be the most intelligent beings on the planet, we have a moral imperative to use that intelligence to better the world. Such an action would give us also immense satisfaction and pride. As Francis Bacon exhorted, “all knowledge and wonder… is an impression of pleasure itself.”

Curiosity of course occasionally kills the cat. Hence the need for it to be tempered with common sense. Nevertheless, it is preferable to dare to explore Icarus-like rather than die ignorant. As astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar said in a tribute to the great scientist Arthur Eddington’s spirit of discovery, “let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.” And when we pass on, we leave behind – somewhat like the Cheshire Cat’s surreal grin – the fruits of our wonder.

Venkat Ramanan, Parkinson, Australia

Constantly be mindful of your own fallibility. It is generally easy to be aware of the many imperfections possessed by others, but (for some of us at any rate) knowing your own limitations is a little more difficult. Charles Darwin summed up one of the key problems here (and anticipated the concept of confirmation bias) when he wrote that when he came across a published fact, observation or thought that was opposed to his general results, he would “make a memorandum of it without fail and at once” for he had found that “such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones.”

The roots of error are many. A partial list includes the inherent and usually unconscious biases to which we are all subject, as well as ignorance, inexperience, the irreducible complexity of many real-life situations, tiredness, stress, illness, stubbornness, and ego. Recognising that these influences are universal and inescapable engenders a certain humility.

Why should it matter? In daily life the consequences of being overly certain may be no more than to cause annoyance to friends, relatives and colleagues. However, you don’t have to look far in the world to see the tragic consequences of too much certainty. Few atrocities are committed by those prepared to admit at least the possibility of another’s point of view having merit. Moreover, in order to learn, it is necessary to admit ignorance. Scientific progress depends on a tacit admission that the current state of knowledge is provisional and incomplete – underlining Karl Popper’s view that real scientific theories are falsifiable.

An admission of fallibility need not imply paralysis when making decisions, but allows for more considered thought, and the possibility of avoiding a damaging course of action if an error becomes clear. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Bearing this in mind may help us to realise that when others disagree with us, they are not necessarily fundamentally misguided. They may even be right. Although I can’t be sure about that, of course.

David Bourn, Whickham, Newcastle upon Tyne

There are different forms of wisdom. First there is the kind that is directed towards enhancing the inner life of the individual, as propounded by teachers such as the Buddha. It generally counsels self-control and detachment from everyday pressures. The other kind of wisdom I would call worldly wisdom, and it concerns itself with handling other people in order to achieve safety and perhaps social promotion. Typically, this wisdom counsels wariness – ‘Neither a lender or a borrower be’ – and the need to dissemble. So the Sixteenth Century courtier and author Castiglione tells us to work hard but not let others see that we are doing so. Or the Jesuit philosopher Gracian says, “know how to be all things to all people.” There tends to be a cynical side to worldly wisdom which wants to exploit human foibles to one’s advantage: “Find everyone’s weak spot” (Gracian again). There is even a dark side to it. So the Florentine diplomat Machiavelli says it is better for a ruler for him to be feared rather than loved.

These two forms of wisdom are not incompatible. I think Dale Carnegie advocates both in his book How to win Friends and Influence People. He believes that happiness depends on ‘inner conditions’ not outward conditions, but also advocates a concern for others and a sincere interest in their affairs in order to win their friendship. But there is a cynical side here too: “Talk to somebody about themselves and they will listen for hours,” he says. To him you must be sincere and honest, but an insight into the nature of people can be used for personal gain. But students of Dale Carnegie, beware of looking too good or talking too wise. Lofty and eloquent statements can be undermined by parody or irony. So wisdom needs to protect itself by casting itself in the mould of wit, using incongruity and paradox as commonly understood. Besides, jokey epithets stick in the mind. So if I were to dispense unsolicited wisdom, I would try to protect myself with this paradox. In this spirit I offer the following pearl: Don’t listen too much to the big things people say – observe the little things people do. That way you will understand them better. For instance, the news item showing Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, wearing a ten thousand pound wrist watch, should make us think just as much as what he says, if not more.

Chris Gould, Norwich

Using the definition of advice as ‘an opinion offered as a recommendation worthy to be followed’, it becomes necessary to decide what would make an opinion meet that criterion. Noting that the question also asks for my wisdom, and putting those two ideas together, it seems to me that what I am being asked for is wise advice.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines wisdom as having ‘knowledge of what is true or right, coupled with just judgement as to action, sagacity, prudence, or common sense’. In the ancient world, wisdom was also thought of as the type of knowledge that people needed to discern the good, and live a good life. If wisdom, and therefore wise advice, is knowledge about living a good life, the answer I give needs to be underpinned by knowledge of just that sort. Therefore wise advice would be based on the truth; that is it would be accurate, and would recommend actions that are discriminating and prudent. However, what constitutes a good life for me may not be right for someone else. Giving, and getting, wise advice is thus fraught with difficulty.

Personally, I have always found it more useful to ask advice from those who have demonstrated that they have knowledge of the area about which I am seeking an answer. For example, if I want to know anything about my mobile phone, I ask my gen Y children, not my elderly mother. So this is probably my best advice: Look for wisdom from someone who has demonstrated that they have the sort of knowledge about living well that you seek – someone whose life reflects that knowledge, or who has the education and training that would give them that knowledge.

Lorin Josephson, Sydney

Like Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet, my best advice would be To thine own self be true, for the same reason he gives: “Thou canst not then be false to any man.” But what does it actually mean? It’s certainly up for interpretation, but this is what I think it implies.

In human affairs, it is often best to express yourself fully and avoid dishonesty, especially when revealing to others your thoughts, opinions and natural inclinations. For example, in a job interview, it is wise to recognise that you should answer questions truthfully and not hide important details about yourself, because the truth will eventually out. But this is not the entire picture. Saying you should be true to your own sense of self-identity also implies that you should adhere to your deepest ambitions and desires, seeking to achieve them and not be dissuaded from them; for, arguably, if you don’t, they were never your true ambitions and desires. It also suggests you should aim to craft an identity you find fitting, for the achievement of the goals you set yourself – therefore acting as a catalyst for self-improvement.

Conversely, what if you are naturally horrible and/or selfish – an instinctively unpleasant person? By acting openly horribly and selfishly, people will know how unpleasant you are. However, you have not acted duplicitously – you have been true to yourself – and arguably, have acted in a wise and – of sorts – honourable manner. People will respond accordingly, and probably shun you. But again, such an outcome may act as a catalyst for change, as you observe the undesirable effect of your own disagreeable character and behaviour upon others’ behaviour towards you.

Consequently, it seems that being true to your own self is, indeed, good advice, and Polonius appears, in this instance at least, to be offering sage guidance.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire

As far as received wisdom, I would quote either Russell or Whitehead (I’m not sure which): “Humble yourself or the world will do it for you.” As concerns the creative act, the best advice I ever received was from a famous cook – that the main ingredient (excuse the pun) of a good cook is a good taster. To this I would add that, more than we are what we eat, we are what we take in. As far as crisis situations, the best advice I ever heard was the survivor’s words from a documentary on people stranded in snowstorms: don’t waste energy on assigning blame, accept that you have a situation, and that if you just trudge on, one way or the other, it will pass. From this I would say that faced with adversity or anxiety, sometimes the only way out is through. And have confidence in the face of uncertainty, courage in the face of the absurd.

On the other hand, gun to head, I would suggest that although we believe in things like afterlives, higher powers, and higher principles, our point A to point B is pretty much a given. And what better could we do with what we have been given, than see what consciousness can experience, and our minds can do?

But there is no gun, and I refuse to be taken seriously. So if I had to crown any advice, it would be the three assumptions by which I work, which also underlie all the offerings above:

1. Everything takes its natural course. Even when we intervene, it merely becomes part of that course.

2. Everything must be questioned – including, and most importantly, ourselves.

3. Assumptions are made to be broken.

D.E. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska

My first advice is not to give unsolicited advice. People find it annoying and take no notice anyway. My second advice is to accept the ideas that you are alive (not in a vat) and that you have the freedom (your life is not predetermined) to give meaning to your life. My final advice is to get out there and give your life meaning. But… but… you say – what about my obligations to x, y or z? Careful rational analysis of these buts and obligations will reveal that you really could just get the next bus out of town and exercise that freedom. On the other hand, failure to exercise your freedom will mean a life unfulfilled and a deathbed regret. You will not get a second chance at life, and your life’s meaning is something that comes only from you.

Gordon Conroy, Pennant Hills, New South Wales

The best advice is the positive Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This entails the negative rule, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you’. The positive rule encourages us to do good; the negative, to do no harm. What more could you ask for? The Golden Rule has its limitations, but who ever said it was the only advice? It has its critics, but what general moral maxim doesn’t?

It may also be said that this advice is trite, but that only illustrates its value. The most important question is the ethical question, ‘What should I do?’, and the Golden Rule well answers it. The best advice should be practical, not theoretical. It should be something that one can act on, not just think about. It should be something that improves both the person and society. The Golden Rule does all that.

The best advice also addresses the young and provides good enculturation. Young children have basic needs and want immediate satisfaction. They are selfish and need to be socialized. They need to ‘get out of themselves’ and learn that there are others. The Golden Rule enables that process. The young also need something easy like the Golden Rule that provides fundamental moral insight but teaches them empathy, compassion, and fairness.

The Golden Rule rests on the idea that others are fundamentally like oneself, and that this provides a basis for fruitful relationships with them. It assumes a common human nature, and that by and large what hurts me hurts you and what benefits me benefits you. It provides the basis for fundamental human equality. We are all equal in fundamental aspects, and what is fair for me is fair for you. With developing maturity we also realize the importance of individual differences within this context of equality. Because I do not like to be embarrassed, I should not embarrass you; but in time I learn that what embarrasses you is different from what embarrasses me. The process of maturation is that of building good character, which is essential to civilization. So the best advice to anyone, but especially the young, is practice the Golden Rule.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

If we want to share some good advice with the world, we need to find something that not only are we deeply convinced of, but which can be useful for people from all walks of life and with different skills and cultural backgrounds.

With that in mind, my advice is, write down something about your day, every day. It can be done by pretty much anyone – you don’t need expensive equipment, pencil and paper will suffice. But it’s useful because it will help you have a clearer picture of where your life is going, and will prevent you from wallowing in self-pity in the incorrect assumption that things have never been so bad before. It will allow you to look at what you were years ago, and realise how much you have changed and grown up. It will give you the chance to preserve your bright ideas and not let them dissolve into thin air. Not to mention the fact that it will nurture your ability to express your ideas in writing.

In our world, where the present is all too ephemeral and the future doesn’t exist yet, our identity is based largely on our memory of the past. But our memory can be inaccurate, incomplete, and affected by our mood and mental state. Only a daily record will allow you to maintain a global perspective on your past and, ultimately, on your own personality.

Enrico Sorrentin, Oxford

The following are offered as pieces of good advice for budding philosophers. The more experienced lot should have figured it out by now:

Get a nail clipper. You will need it to avoid biting your nails off your fingers when dreading that you are the only mind in an external world that may not exist.

Cultivate your transparent gaze. People will expect it when trying to understand if you mean the bizarre things you say: “What do you mean I do not exist?”

Have a toothbrush handy. Too much candy will serve your brain well when pondering the origins of knowledge, but it will eventually ruin your smile.

Open the windows. You will need some fresh air when thinking whether the set of all those sets that do not contain themselves contains itself. What did you say, Bertrand?

Buy yourself a comfortable armchair. You will need it to doze away the afternoon thinking about beauty by imagining some beauties. Good head-support is required, and a place away from open windows. No need for fresh air here. Beauty should not be a paradox, and you do not want to catch a cold.

Use as many of Ariadne’s threads as you can. Else you’ll lose your way in those classics of philosophy. Nowadays we call them bookmarks.

Keep strong! I mean, keep some strong coffee available at arm’s length from your armchair. Your attention span will evaporate in a few pages and you need to recharge your circuits.

Have a nice pair of walking shoes always available. When solutions refuse to show up at your armchair, it’s time to hit the road. Aristotle did it. They called it the Peripatetic School of Philosophy. You can wear sandals instead of shoes if you want.

Finally, two things you won’t need:

Get rid of your wristwatch. Philosophy is timeless and thus there is no need for a timetable. Listen to Ludwig, and always greet yourself with a “Take your time.”

Get rid of your clothes. That’s what Diogenes the Cynic liked to do. It freed up his mind. He went public, you should go private. You have been warned!

Dr Nikos Eleftheriadis, Thessaloniki

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: Is Morality Objective? Please both give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 13th June 2016. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Thanks.

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