They say there is nothing new under the sun and so when I started thinking more deeply about philosophy, The Meaning of Life, etc. a few years ago I should not have been surprised to find myself drawn to a philosophy developed over 2000 years ago!
Today I encountered this quote from the philosopher Epictetus:
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.
This is something to meditate on as an investor as well as an individual. As you go about your day, think of all the people and ideas you dismiss out of hand.
Are you dismissive about these people and ideas based on reasoned thinking? Or are you just making snap decisions for convenience?
How many people and ideas do you write off each day for no reason other than that they offend your preconceived notions of how the world works?
When you think about things this way, you will quickly discover surprisingly little of what you believe is reasoned from first principles. This isn’t something to be ashamed of! In fact it is intensely liberating. It means that life is not a test you pass or fail. Rather it is unknown territory for exploration. Life is an adventure, and you are the hero! What is more exciting than that?
I am a fan of parsimony, in both financial modeling and life. In the spirit of parsimony, I think I can distill my core values down to three quotes from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:
Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, “How unlucky that this should happen to me!” Not at all! Say instead, “How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.”
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.
Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone’s lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.
Here is how I read and apply these as core principles for living:
Quote #1: Strive to stand strong in the face of the chaos and tumult life inevitably brings. This striving creates meaning, and allows you to shape your sense of self.
Quote #2: All human beings are worthy of dignity and respect. At the extreme, even those who seem “bad” or “evil” share many of our traits. On a less extreme level, those we disagree with generally have good reasons for believing the things they do. Strive to empathize and understand a person’s reasoning before rushing to judgement. In doing so you will develop a richer understanding of the world and the people around you.
Quote #3: Wealth, power and status are at best impermanent. It is nice to have them, but they do not create meaning in and of themselves. Wealth, power and status are all subject to the wheel of fortune. They are impermanent. Ask yourself: in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where wealth and status are irrelevant, how would I create meaning? (see also: The Road by Corman McCarthy)