Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.
These 'life hacks' make up the titles of click-bait articles everywhere, and seem to draw repeat offenders to the same boring, hackneyed articles that never provide an iota of useful advice. These books and articles don't give any useful life advice, but there are places where the average person can get quality life advice.
Recently, I've turned to reading older books on the meaning of life, growing old, raising a family, governing the state, and more. Reaching across time, I've realized that our intellectual forebears have more to say about life than we often give them credit for. Socrates and Marcus Aurelius have plenty to say on the philosophy of living the good life, but there is also practical advice among ancient Chinese thinkers, like Lao Tzu and Confucius, as well. There is also a wealth of insight to be gained from thinkers in the recent past, in the last 100 years.
Below are just a few ancient people and ideas that can still inform how we live in the 21st century. I'd like to encourage you to look back to the past for more answers to life's questions. If there are no answers, perhaps there is at least some good advice.
The Way: Taoism (道教)
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
No school of ancient philosophy has more to say about opposites and interdependence than Taoism. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left a short text named the Tao te Ching (or Classic on the Way). In this work, Lao Tzu lays out a philosophy of Way (translated from the word Tao). Way is a passive, cosmic force that works through everything. Things come into existence through Way, and things cease to exist because of Way.
Way is the foundational metaphysical concept in Chinese thought, and remains important through the millennia. For Taoists, the wise man, or sage, emulates Way. Rather than forcing one's presence on the world, a sage influences the world by first understanding nature, and then following mode's way, or helping the world fulfill its own Way. Brute force or control only work temporarily, and go against Tao. In a nation, the dictator can only squeeze the will of the people for so long. As soon as his grip lessens, which it inevitably does, the people revolt. Rather, if you lead the people by example, and show them how to live with Way, the country will remain peaceful, and the people will do what is required, whether you ask them or not. Like water, the sage works around rocks and obstacles.
Lao Tzu provides a practical philosophy, boiled down to a few essential ideas that can help rulers and as well as common people lead their life.
The Tao te Ching is filled with paradoxical prose. Like other ancient Western philosophers, Lao Tzu draws on opposites. Unlike Protagoras, though, he uses these opposites to show that, due to how Way operates, one often must act in a counter intuitive way to achieve her goals. At first glance, these statements seem like mystic aphorisms: self-reflection prevents enlightenment; one gains by giving up things, and losses by seeking gain; silence contains more meaning that spoken language; rulers obtain power by placing themselves below the people; the greatest warriors win battles before they happen.
To quote the opening chapter of the Tao te Ching,
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
Despite the seemingly mystic language of the Tao te Ching, one should not mistake the passivity that is prescribed as inaction. On the contrary, the Way acts upon anything and everything, yet is also acted upon. In this sense, the Tao is not some force in the universe, controlling things in the world or influencing events to a certain end. The point of Taoism isn't to sit back and just watch things unfold. A true sage should observe the world, take into account how it works, and then act in such a way that she utilizes the Way of the world to help achieve her goals. Furthermore, by understanding Way, she can determine what her goals should be in the first place.
As ancient Chinese philosophy evolved, the concept of Way was used by other thinkers in a much more pragmatic and direct manner, used to help cultivate proper conduct in public and private life to achieve life goals continues.
Recommended Further Reading for Taoism
The Role Model: Confucianism (儒家)
If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.
In The Analects of Confucius, many of the short quotes do start with something like "Confucius said..." or "The Master said..." or "Confucius was speaking..." These anecdotes also come from contemporaries and students of Confucius, and not just Confucius himself. However, instead of ending on a punchline, Confucius goes on to discuss how the the common person should live. How should an ruler treat the people, how should the people treat the emperor, how should fathers and mothers treat their children, and how should children treat their parents. Confucius taught that in order to have a prospering nation, one must create prospering relationships. There is a humanism behind Confucianism that is often missed by people who study his philosophy in passing.
The Master said: "In youth, respect your parents when home and your elders when away. Think carefully before you speak, and stand by your words. Love the whole expanse of things, and make an intimate of Humanity. Then, if you have any energy left, begin cultivating yourself."
Master Tseng said: "Each day I ask three things of myself: Have I been trustworthy in all that I've done for other people? Have I stood by my words in dealing with friends? Have I practiced all that I've been taught?"
The Analects dive deeper into concepts of Duty, Ritual, Way, Humanity, and much more. I advise everyone to read through The Analects at least once in their life.
Recommended Further Reading for Confucianism
Logos: Stoicism (ἡ ποικίλη στοά)
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together...
Take death, as a morbid example. There is no escaping the reality that one day, you are going to die. It is a truth that I myself have trouble confronting. Yet it is a truth that one must confront. How is one to approach death and dying, when we know there is no possibility of escape? The immediate reaction might be to grieve, fall into despair, point out the meaningless of all life, and listen to Kansas's famous track Dust in the Wind on repeat. The Stoic would argue that this is a terrible way to respond to the idea of death. In order to confront death, we should first understand what death is. Clearly, by definition, death is not something we will ever actually 'experience.' There are moments that lead up to death, but from death onwards, there is no 'I' there, no experience, nothing. Knowing this, we can start to realize that death is not something to fear, but something that will one day happen. By thinking about death, we can realize that life is something that many people no longer have, and that it is something we should appreciate.
Check out the short video below, where Massimo Pigliucci, a modern advocate and practicing Stoic, explains how the Stoics faced questions of death and dying.
In the last 10 years, there has been a modern revitalization of practicing Stoicism. There are even websites that give Stoic meditative exercises and
There are some great editions of Seneca's Letters from a Stoic that you can find at almost any local bookstore, especially in used bookstores. Other great Stoic thinkers are Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Xeno.