A Rule to Live By: Know Thyself, Help Thyself

Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel by the Coëtivy Master, about 1460 - 1470, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment | The Getty Museum

The Rule of Life: Or A Collection of Select Moral Sentences, Extracted From The First Authors, Both Ancient And Modern, And Digested Under Proper Heads.

Revised by Watson Adams. With Additional Selections

Hartford. Published by Parsons & Hills. 1834

 

Know Thyself. Delphic Oracle.”  This famous call to the examined life that Socrates answered and passed on to the world is reprinted on the title page of The Rule of Life, a forgotten but extraordinary book published in 1834. The book reminds us that a genre of popular literature, collections of moral maxims, helped keep alive the Socratic tradition of the examined life.

The ancients interpreted the oracle’s injunction as a call to “self knowledge.” Later, educated Europeans returned to the idea as “self-improvement.” Today, thanks to Samuel Smile, a Scottish author who penned a 1859 best-seller called Self-Help, we have our own—much maligned—version: “self-help.” Perhaps we can connect these three formulations to say that one should “know thyself in order to help thyself.”

 

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Title Page to The Rule of Life (1834) | Google Books

 

Although miseducated snobs look down on it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the self help genre. In the Roman Empire, the Stoic Epictetus asked “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” The question is still valid today. It shows that self help was built on some solid foundations. We should improve, not mock, the genre.

Retold in The Rule of Life, there’s more wisdom in one aphorism from Seneca than in most modern departments of philosophy.

Philosophy, says Seneca, is turned to philology, and that through the fault of both masters and scholars. They teach to dispute, not to live; and these [scholars] come to them to mend their wits not their manners.

Even as first practiced in antiquity, philosophy was always in danger of degenerating into a game of words. And today it has become a competition over professional standing rather than self understanding.

Refreshingly, and without regard to historical context, The Rule of Life piles up anecdotal wisdom wherever it can be found.

Plato, speaking of passionate persons, says, They are like men, standing upon their heads, they see all things the wrong way.

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Coëtivy Master Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel, about 1460 – 1470, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment | The Getty Museum

When tragedy strikes, these anecdotes are easy to recall and bring solace.

The Rule of Life is packed with ideas for living philosophically, offering readers a steady supply of practical wisdom.

When Anaxagoras was told of the death of his son, he only said, I knew he was mortal. So we in all casualties of life should say, I knew my riches were uncertain, that my friend was but a man. Such considerations would soon pacify us, because all our troubles proceed from their being unexpected.

Image of Anaxagoras
Anaxagoras
Woodcut from the workshop of Michel Wolgemut (1493) | The Rijksmuseum

Although undoubtedly apocryphal, this anecdote about Anaxagoras demonstrates perhaps the most valuable Stoic philosophical exercises: the premeditation of evil (premeditatio malorum). By visualizing the tragedies that could befall them, the Stoics prepared themselves for disasters like losing wealth or friends, family members, even their own life.

Rather than practice positive thinking, Seneca thought about all the things that could go wrong. He regularly reminded himself the everything he had, including his own life, was “on loan” from Fortune and could be taken from him at any moment.

A wise man, says Seneca, is provided for occurrences of any kind; the good he manages, the bad he vanquishes; in prosperity he betrays no presumption, and in adversity he feels no despondency.

Although fantastically wealthy and fabulously powerful, Seneca (4-65 CE), the Roman philosopher and statesman, knew he would not escape tragedy. And he didn’t. The Emperor Nero, who came to believe that the philosopher had betrayed him, ordered the Stoic to commit suicide.

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A medieval illustrator couldn’t resist compounding the horror by adding in the extra detail of Nero cutting open the belly of the Seneca’s mother. Detail from Unknown, illuminator, Seneca Murdered in His Bathtub; Nero Cuts Open His Mother’s Belly, German, about 1400 – 1410, Tempera colors, gold, silver paint, and ink on parchment | The Getty Museum

Stoic practical philosophy was popular because it worked.

Self-help, self-improvement, self knowledge. Whatever the hell you want to call it, the ancients practiced it without shame, and to great benefit, and so can we.

 

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Frontispiece to The Rule of Life (1832) | Google Books