Know Thyself: How to lead an examined life

5 mins

2019 is nearly upon us. Here’s a round-up on influential books that have made my list in the past year, as well as some thoughts on philosophy and the law.

If you’re a voracious reader of books—a difficult thing to keep up these days with ever-pinging mobile phones—you might fall into two possible camps. Camp 1 views professional development books as a blight on the landscape, or non-essential reading. Camp 2 sees them as much needed guidance on how you can go about your life.

I have a secret. I used to be that person who scoffed at anyone who made a beeline for the self-help book aisle. Especially at airports. It so turns out that I’ve started reading some of those books of late. It might mean that age has finally caught up to me.

When you think about it, works of the self-help variety have existed for a very long time. What we now know as Philosophy these days is a genre of self-help. Except our great philosophers didn’t see things that way.

The earliest philosophical thinking in the Western world (at least from the Ancient Greeks) was non-religious. It asked the big questions about life:

  • Where did we come from?
  • Who are we now?
  • Where are we going?

Our early philosophers obsessed over living better, more meaningful lives. It meant deep introspection into our inner selves. You would have heard of the Ancient Greek aphorism, ‘know thyself’. These simple but powerful words made their mark in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. This was later expounded on by Socrates:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

Socrates uttered these words after he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death for impiety (not believing the gods of the state) and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens. He tells the jury he could never keep silent, because ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. It’s a legal echo from history that still holds relevance 2,400 years later.

The following commentary, while wordy, sums up the sentiment so well:

‘We find here Socrates’ insistence that we are all called to reflect upon what we believe, account for what we know and do not know, and generally speaking to seek out, live in accordance with, and defend those views that make for a well lived and meaningful life.

… We find here a conception of a well-lived life that differs from one that would likely be supported by many contemporary philosophers. Today, most philosophers would argue that we must live ethical lives (though what this means is of course a matter of debate) but that it is not necessary for everyone to engage in the sort of discussions Socrates had everyday, nor must one do so in order to be considered a good person. A good person, we might say, lives a good life insofar as he does what is just, but he does not necessarily need to be consistently engaged in debates about the nature of justice or the purpose of the state. No doubt Socrates would disagree, not just because the law might be unjust or the state might do too much or too little, but because, insofar as we are human beings, self-examination is always beneficial to us.’

(Source: James Ambury, King’s College, USA)

Of course not all philosophical thinking was based in good intentions, take Heidegger for example. But for now, let’s trundle along on the assumption that most philosophical thought is of net benefit to society.

Ask. More. Questions. Anyone?

It appears that we’ve lost the magic of philosophical thought in many areas of our lives. This is the case in the commercial legal world. My thoughts on this are inspired by a friend’s sagely thoughts over a coffee run this week. It got me thinking about how as lawyers, we tend to operate on a restricted worldview—when it doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s an apt Chinese saying which describes this situation. It’s being the ‘frog at the bottom of the well’. The frog presumes that the sky is a small blue round circle, because it doesn’t know anything different. As is obvious, this describes people who can’t get away from their tunnel vision.

For lawyers and to-be-lawyers, it’s difficult to avoid being that frog. From an early stage, we learn about legal principles and ‘accepted modes of practice’. As we adopt these well-established practices, our worldview calcifies and hardens. Our imagination of the possible becomes smaller and smaller over time. It is a tragic loss when we are so bound up by the framework that you lose perspective on the wider picture. A career in law can be particularly hard on those who have an inner creative soul.

Can we change our thinking?

Corporations law is one classic area where our legal framework dictates our thinking. Why do we readily accept corporations as legal persons, with the same rights and obligations of individuals? While in the same token, we find it difficult to argue for the existence of a client Earth? The latter is far more real and present than a corporation, which is at its core a legal fiction.

This has real world consequences when it comes to environmental pollution. There is no legal recourse in general law against a corporation when we are unable to prove ‘harm’. This ‘harm’ is in the form of direct damage, whether to human health or someone’s property rights. It is often quantified in monetary terms. We know that the loss of ecosystems through excessive deforestation is a harm. But this is impossible to prove harm to the required legal standard if no one is visibly affected.

Instead, we resort to blunt regulatory instruments (known as legislation) to go after bad behaviour. Unfortunately it means that society depends on regulators to pursue cases. This is a problem when regulators have to pick their cases based on available funding.

This is the kind of area where wisdom from elsewhere can help our thinking about the legal framework. On matters of the environment, the best wisdom comes from indigenous peoples:

‘It is only after we have caught the last fish, felled the last tree and poisoned the last river that we will realise we can’t eat money.’

– Native American saying (Alanis Obomsawin)

Our thinking about environmental law might be different if we started with this premise. As usual, the Europeans are light years ahead in the environmental law arena. For more reading in this space, check out the legal work that the NGO ClientEarth is doing.

Reading outside the box = Thinking outside the box

So how do we get better at questioning the status quo? One answer is to read more, but not just anything—it should be outside of our usual box.

Lawyers (and most people) often don’t have the time or energy to read outside of their job description. Not everything worth knowing can be learnt from a book. But you can experience a lot more by seeing through the eyes of someone else.

For a couple of years during law school and in legal practice, I stopped reading outside of my box. I’m not sure why, but part of it was the time-poor self one acquires when working in a law firm. This was a period of intellectual darkness. No new ideas, no creativity. There is only one way to describe it—garbage in = garbage out.

I’ve since had the opportunity to rectify this problem and it remains a work-in-progress. The good news is that reading beyond your box is rewarding. It’s given me a lot more ideas. I’m only sorry that I didn’t start earlier.

Back to the frog analogy… A common critique of lawyers is that we are all frogs in wells. It’s a common client complaint—’my lawyer doesn’t understand my reality!’ Solving legal problems isn’t about spewing legal principles left, right and centre. We should be equipping ourselves with wisdom from elsewhere. We would be much better lawyers in the process.

So for my favourite part…

Here are some of my top reads outside of the law that have made my non-fiction list in the past year. I have been talking to friends about them and I’m excited that I can now share them with you. They have expanded my worldview by leaps and bounds:

1. History, beautifully written

A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor)

2. Philosophy, in simple language

Great Thinkers (School of Life)

3. Politics

Putin’s Russia (Anna Politkovskaya)

4. Personal finance / Investing

The Barefoot Investor (Scott Pape); Motivated Money (Peter Thornhill)

5. Business

Foundr Version 1.0 (Foundr Media)

6. Leadership, although some examples are outdated and questionable

Good to Great (Jim Collins)

7. Overcoming procrastination and setting goals

Eat that Frog! (Brian Tracy)

8. Getting more organised

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Daniel Levitin)

Happy reading!