Think and be rich

In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich, a book that would sell millions of copies. In it, he writes that he has learned the key to becoming rich from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Hill writes that we have complete control over only our own thoughts and must begin our journey to riches by using that control to inflame in ourselves a desire for money. With characteristic exuberance, he concludes,

The Master Key is intangible, but it is powerful! It is the privilege of creating, in your own mind, a BURNING DESIRE for a definite form of riches. There is no penalty for the use of the Key, but there is a price you must pay if you do not use it. The price is FAILURE.1

Hill prescribes a daily practice that will keep the flame burning. He instructs readers to write down the amount of money they want, when they want it, and their plan for getting it. The statements are then to be read aloud twice per day, once after waking in the morning and once before sleeping in the evening, while readers visualize themselves in possession of the money.

If you truly DESIRE money so keenly that your desire is an obsession, you will have no difficulty in convincing yourself that you will acquire it…. You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities, UNLESS you can work yourself into a white heat of DESIRE for money, and actually BELIEVE you will possess it.2

The valuable insight at the heart of the book is that our desires do not simply happen to us. Hill saw that we can shape our desires, and by shaping our desires, we can shape our circumstances. However, the idea that we can shape our desires long predates Hill, and some of the implications recognized by others are in tension with his guidance. Continue reading “Think and be rich”

Good versus evil versus good

The philosopher Confucius advised rulers in ancient China, emphasizing the role of virtue in a flourishing society. The Analects record an exchange in which the Duke of She describes to Confucius a man of outstanding virtue, saying, “Among my people there is one we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.”1

The response from Confucius must have been as surprising to the Duke of She as it was to me. Instead of complimenting the integrity of Upright Gong, Confucius replies, “Among my people, those we consider ‘upright’ are different from this: fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ is to be found in this.”

Political debate often involves moral claims, and political causes are increasingly characterized as demands for justice of one kind or another. Confucius promoted an approach to governance based on moral evaluation, and we see an illustration of Confucian moral reasoning in the story of Upright Gong. Although some aspects of the story reflect specifically Confucian values, the story also illustrates a style of moral reasoning useful for evaluating modern demands for justice of various kinds.

Continue reading “Good versus evil versus good”

On difficulty

Accept difficulty as an opportunity
This is the sure way to end up
with no difficulties at all

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 63

Hanlon’s Razor

In philosophy, a “razor” is a simple rule for cutting away potential explanations. The most famous razor is Ockham’s, named after a Franciscan friar of the fourteenth century, which holds, roughly, that simpler theories are better. Similar principles were endorsed before William of Ockham by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and after him by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Of less distinguished intellectual pedigree is Hanlon’s Razor, which first appeared in Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! Murphy’s Law is, of course, the principle that if anything can go wrong, it will. The book is a collection of similar principles, the second book in what became a series, and begins with DiGiovanni’s Law in the preface: “The number of Laws will expand to fill the publishing space available.”1

Hanlon’s Razor was submitted by Robert Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania as part of a contest; his prize was ten copies of the book. Like Murphy’s Law, it is something of a joke, but, like many good jokes, it is one with a kernel of insight. It is a principle for choosing among potential explanations for the behavior of others: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”2

The management of ambiguity is a central challenge in science and philosophy. Evidence is often amenable to a wide range of explanations, and we must choose how to allocate our attention among them. Rules like Ockham’s Razor help us to identify the possibilities that warrant the most attention.

The management of ambiguity also plays a central role in our relationships. The same behavior can arise from good or bad motives. Hanlon’s Razor is a rule for allocating attention among potential explanations for the behavior of others. Care about the motives we impute to others can improve our relationships with them. By changing how we assess their choices, care about the motives we impute to others can also, like Ockham’s Razor, improve our understanding of the world. Continue reading “Hanlon’s Razor”

On self-cultivation

…The gentleman maintains his own self-cultivation and so the world is at peace.  The problem with other people is that they abandon their own fields and weed the fields of others.  They demand much of others, while putting little responsibility on themselves.

Mengzi, 7B:32

On courage

Zilu said, “Does the gentleman admire courage?”

The Master said, “The gentleman admires rightness above all. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would become a bandit.”

Confucius, Analects 17.23

On archery

The archer is in some ways similar to the superior man.  Upon missing the target they turn their gaze inward and seek the cause within themselves.

Confucius, Maintaining Perfect Balance

On anxiety

Sima Niu asked about the gentleman.

The Master replied, “The gentleman is free of anxiety and fear.”

“‘Free of anxiety and fear’ – is that all there is to being a gentleman?”

“If you can look inside yourself and find no faults, what cause is there for anxiety or fear?” 

Confucius, Analects 12.4