“‘You kids think you invented sex,’” my mother was fond of saying. But hadn’t we? With no instruction manual or federally enforced training period, didn’t we all come away feeling we’d discovered something unspeakably modern?” - David Sedaris, Naked
Stoicism, Taoism, and revolution.
You did not invent sex. Your ancestors have been doing the dirty since they sprouted legs and crawled from the primordial goop (and had been for about 3.5 billion years--even though in the early days we were just dancing with ourselves).
Still, despite the fact that every being since the first single-celled organism is little more than promiscuous progeny, it doesn’t feel like anybody ever taught us about it.
I mean, I had the classes in fourth grade, too. The girls and boys were split into separate rooms and we stifled our giggles as some underpaid adult lectured us on the relative functionalities of penises and vaginas (snicker). But there is knowing a thing and then there is knowing a thing.
We discover sex on our own.
The right environment
Each idea is a seed. On its own, it is inert. It might fall from a tree or be carried on a breeze, but without a fertile patch to land in, it will be lifeless.
Given the right environment, though, ideas can germinate. They can take root and--with proper nourishment--grow large and populate.
Ideas have the power to transform.
Nothing new under the sun
This is great news for you. You live in a world where ideas are fucking everywhere. You have ready access to the best that mankind has to offer.
Not only that, but the information age has given new life to ideas that have been sitting in the corner gathering dust for ages. Many of them have been around for millennia, but--like TGIF in the summer would say--if you haven’t seen them, they’re new to you. Entire online communities have sprung up around the extreme frugality of your great-grandparents, the homesteading of this country's settlers, and philosophies that were kicking around when the Western world was in its infancy.
Many ideas come in and out of vogue, but I’d like to make a brief argument for three that I think are particularly relevant in today’s world.
Stoicism (300 BCE)
"You shouldn't give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don't care at all." - Marcus Aurelius. Meditations, 7.38.
Two years ago I only knew stoics as the unsmiling romans portrayed in popular culture. In the time since, though, the stoic philosophy has exploded in my life. I came across it first when a friend recommended A Guide to the Good Life.
At its very core, Stoicism is a practical philosophy that teaches adherents to overcome the turmoil of the world around them by understanding and embracing only what is inside of their sphere of control. The stoics reason that:
“...unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one's own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.”
It’s the thinking man’s philosophy--believing that virtue was a practical skill and that arguing that the best way to attain it was through leading a well-examined life. How? Through obsessive reflection, of course, and deliberate practice.
Taoism (400 BCE)
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you’re heading” - Lao Tzu
“An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.” Lao Tzu
The Tao is literally translated to ‘the way.’ It teaches followers to live life in accordance with the laws and cycles of nature. It shuns the clunky machinations of mankind. It believes man is a natural being and ought to fucking act like one. Taoist ethics emphasize simplicity, spontaneity, and effortless action and strive to apply them to body, thought, and spirit.
I say strive, but that is a terrible verb when speaking of Taoism. Taoism should be effortless. It throws off the shackles of the modern world and focusses only what is natural.
Buddhism (500 BCE)
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
The most well-known (and broadly followed) of the three, Buddhism is also the oldest. It has splintered over its ~2500 years of existence, but at its heart, Buddhism teaches that life is suffering--even when things are good.
This is because the human mind is never content. When experiencing pain, it longs for the pain to go away. When experiencing pleasure, it demands more.
What follows is a practical philosophy that teaches adherents to break away from the cycle of suffering.
The amazing thing about all three of these is how fantastically modern they feel. All three sprang up as the comparative simplicities of ancient world gave way to a world that was decidedly more complex. These ideas were a way for thinking men to search for meaning in a world that was too complex--and too large--to value the individual. What came out were philosophies that could have been born in the 21st Century: ones that focussed on self-control, critical thinking, reflection, and shedding the constraints of society to focus on living in a way that felt natural.
An idea whose time has come
Sometimes a new idea can disrupt the world.
The American Revolution is the favorite son of the 18th Century, and was quickly followed by revolutions from the French, Haitians, Dutch, and the Irish. This is old news, but it was these same ideals that led to the Arab Spring 234 years later.
Ideas can disrupt the world--but they don’t always have to be new ideas.
We think of seachange as the brainchildren of great men, but this is the unique and dangerous fallacy of history books. Radical changes in the course of mankind are a product of the time they come from. A revolutionary wave swept through the 18th century because of new and radical ideas stemming from the European enlightenment (which itself stemmed from the scientific revolution). The wave struck shore again in the 21st Century arab world when a disenfranchised youth recognized that the system in place did not speak for them. It was leaderless, connected, and contagious.
As the world grew and changed, these ideas became ripe and low-hanging. To change the course of humanity, they simply needed to be plucked from the air.
Ideas play a similar role in your own life. As you grow and change, ideas that never found fertile ground in your mind before can suddenly blossom. They simply need to be plucked from the air.
This is why we all independently discover sex. It is why so many teenagers experiment with atheism. It’s why adults, staring down the barrel of a long and meaningless career (and no longer sold by a life of mindless consumerism), are increasingly turning their attention to extreme frugality, financial independence, unconventional living, and early retirement. It’s why ancient philosophies--first hatched to deal with a busy mind in an increasingly complex world--feel perfectly at home in the information era.
You live in a system that does not speak for you. This is why your only job is to tend a fertile mind. It is your job to cultivate, and nourish, and populate, and weed, and do all of the other grueling mental labor that keeps your mind a well-tended garden.
Ideas, when they find a fertile patch of land, can explode.