Substitutes for Good Thinking

It is indeed difficult to unite and combine… the carelessness of the man who is devoted to material things and the steadfastness of the man who disregards them, but it is not impossible.—Epictetus

When surveying various worldviews one often encounters errors of excess or defect. The latter includes philosophies of compromise and expediency. We commonly chalk this up to moral apathy. Yet in their own way, extremist attitudes, though filled with strident zeal and commotion, are the product of ethical slothfulness. In the short term it is easier to embrace extremes than the mean. It is superficially more appealing to be an outright hedonist or adopt an absurdly idealistic posture than to lead a balanced life.

Plutarch says that some people mistakenly “think that freedom from distress resides in one way of life in particular,” as if a new intellectual or social arrangement, like a fad diet, is the answer to happiness. Often enough, these philosophical whims are swapped out for new ones as the novelty wears off or one tires of patiently following a disciplined regimen. But the underlying mentality does not change. Individuals fixated on externals cannot mend things around them when the things inside of them lie neglected.

A related short-coming is stubbornness. It is a substitute for rational commitment. One does not have to be an extremist to indulge in obstinacy, but enthusiasts and fanatics are usually guilty of it. By blindly adhering to some system, and neglecting one’s critical faculties, a person is freed from having to make difficult decisions. As Epictetus points out, some people “fancy that whenever they have formed a judgment they ought to stand by it immovably. And yet the first requirement is that the judgment formed be a sound one.” Stubbornness is deceptive because it provides a semblance of dedication and perseverance, whereas it is really a mulish fixation on trivialities.

One failed leader in history who always stands out for his obstinacy (though he was certainly no fanatic) was Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar. He clung naively to certain prerogatives as if they could make up for his lack of decisiveness. Momentous judgments were deferred until too late or else were arrived at hastily and without forethought. Often he would change his mind, but in a haphazard, temperamental way, even as good advice (and good advisors) were dismissed with irritation. Such people are exploited by quacks and unscrupulous individuals. In the case of Nicholas II, he made attempts at necessary reform grudgingly and often when it was too late and the opportunity to fix things had passed.

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