Great Thinkers | The School of Life

Summary of: Great Thinkers: Simple Tools from 60 Great Thinkers to Improve Your Life Today
By: The School of Life


In ‘Great Thinkers: Simple Tools from 60 Great Thinkers to Improve Your Life Today’, The School of Life provides valuable lessons from influential thinkers throughout history. This book summary delves into the wealth of wisdom from philosophers such as Seneca, Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith, and more. For each of these great minds, the aim is to extract practical tools we can apply to our own lives, whether it’s finding serenity in the present moment, understanding the role of the mind in shaping gender, fostering personal growth through relationships, or enriching our urban landscapes.

Embracing Stoicism in Everyday Life

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy, urges individuals to seek virtue above all else and remain resolute in the face of life’s challenges. By relinquishing high hopes and confronting our deepest fears, we can keep anxiety at bay, and through accepting the unpredictable nature of fate, we cultivate serenity and humility in our lives.

Originating in ancient Greece and Rome, Stoicism is a philosophy that encourages steadfastness and bravery amidst life’s adversities. Pioneered by thinkers such as Seneca the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism promotes virtue as the ultimate source of pleasure, discouraging excessive emotional reactions to life’s highs and lows.

Among its many benefits, Stoicism offers an approach to help alleviate anxiety. Rooted in either elevated hopes or immobilizing fears, anxiety can often overwhelm us. For instance, simultaneously dreaming of becoming a movie star and fearing the loss of a stable job can result in debilitating stress. Conventional wisdom suggests countering these negative thoughts by reassuring ourselves that everything will work out in the end. However, Stoicism recommends facing our worst fears and relinquishing unrealistic hopes to attain peace of mind.

To illustrate this concept, imagine confronting the fear of homelessness by voluntarily spending several days in difficult conditions. By acquainting ourselves with our worst-case scenario, we diminish its power to scare us.

Another valuable lesson Stoicism imparts is the attainment of serenity in the present. The Stoics believed in fate, exemplified by the Roman goddess Fortuna, who could scatter blessings or misfortunes indiscriminately. Unlike karma, good or bad actions do not always determine your destiny in Stoicism.

This worldview can lead to a newfound sense of humility and acceptance. By acknowledging that life’s outcomes aren’t entirely within our control, we cease to blame ourselves for failures or grow arrogant in the face of success. By embracing the Stoic way of life, we can ground ourselves in serenity, humility, and resilience, better equipping ourselves to navigate the vicissitudes of life.

Bridging Science and Faith

Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Italian monk recognized for his sainthood and visions, was also a philosopher. He played a significant role in uniting faith and reason during a heavily religious era. Aquinas emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind and valuing the knowledge contributed by those beyond the Christian faith. In his philosophy, Aquinas identified two laws: natural law, understood through reason, and eternal law, requiring faith. Today, with the authority once placed in the church now bestowed upon science, there is a risk of dismissing different perspectives, especially those stemming from humanities and individual insights. Thomas Aquinas’ approach encourages a broader understanding of the world by welcoming various methods and viewpoints.

Job Specialization: Boon or Bane?

Puzzling job titles might make small talk a challenge, but they’re actually the result of job specialization, which has been around since the eighteenth century. Scottish philosopher Adam Smith first identified this phenomenon and recognized its benefits as well as its downsides. Nations with specialized workforces can achieve great wealth and efficiency, but workers may feel disconnected from the final product they contribute to. Smith advised managers and CEOs to keep their workforce well-informed and to ensure they understand the significance of their roles. He also championed capitalism that supports social programs, emphasizing investment in meaningful products and services for society’s well-being.

The bewildering complexity of modern job titles can stump even the most seasoned professionals, but such complexity is not a new trend. Rather, it results from job specialization, which harks back to the eighteenth century with Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith.

Smith witnessed the shift from communities with distinct families performing essential tasks to individuals specializing in one specific job. This endowment allowed entire communities to benefit from their expertise. However, Smith astutely noted that this unprecedented advancement came with both advantages and disadvantages.

Nations with specialized workforces reached unparalleled efficiency and wealth, a prediction that still holds true today. However, as Smith foresaw, many workers increasingly perceive themselves as mere cogs in a vast machine, unable to connect their efforts with an overarching purpose or the final product.

To address this, Smith offers sage counsel to modern managers and CEOs: regularly inform and remind employees of the importance of their individual contributions to the organization’s overall success.

Moreover, Smith staunchly defended capitalism, particularly when the profits were directed towards vital social programs. During his time, criticism was already being leveled at consumer capitalism for allocating excessive funds and labor to frivolous luxury items. To Smith, these ostentatious displays of wealth could coexist with social support, provided that surplus resources were channeled into uplifting the less fortunate members of society, through avenues such as hospitals and schools.

Smith’s thought also encompassed improvements to the system by encouraging investment in meaningful products and services that serve society’s well-being. For example, focusing on beneficial endeavors like psychotherapy not only contributes to a nation’s prosperity, but also caters to the mental health needs of its citizens.

In essence, Smith’s observations on job specialization still carry weight in today’s age of economic progression, with the balance between efficiency and humanity being a determining factor. By adhering to the timeless wisdom he shared, modern day organizations and economies can ensure prosperity, while taking care of their citizens’ well-being.

Embracing Life’s Natural Rhythm

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher shrouded in mystery, has teachings that continue to hold a significant influence today. His philosophy presented in the Tao Te Ching emphasizes embracing the natural flow of life, finding simplicity in a complex world, and surrendering to life’s rhythms for a harmonious and sweet existence.

Lao Tzu was a prominent Chinese philosopher, believed to have lived during the sixth century BC. Not much is known about his life, but his teachings remain influential in today’s world. A popular story featuring Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha at a vinegar tasting ceremony captures the essence of his philosophical ideas—while Confucius found the vinegar sour and Buddha found it bitter, Lao Tzu perceived it as sweet. This parable mirrors the teachings in his magnum opus, Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching imparts that life can be sweet if we follow its innate flow. Although the surface may appear chaotic, there’s a harmonious world beneath, and aligning with the Tao, or “the way of the world,” enables us to connect with this peaceful state. Lao Tzu’s instructions offer actionable guidance on embracing these abstract concepts.

A key aspect of Taoist philosophy is recognizing the simplicity in a seemingly complex world by quieting the mind. Through contemplation and mindfulness, we can attain wisdom and lead a beautiful life. To achieve this state, we must let go of our busy schedules and truly immerse ourselves in the world around us.

According to Lao Tzu, we must also understand and follow the rhythms of nature instead of resisting them. By yielding to the Tao, events in our lives will unfold at their natural pace, making it unnecessary to hurry or worry. Instances such as the grieving process, learning experiences, or the development of relationships are examples of the areas in which we should relinquish control and accept life’s natural course – allowing things to happen in their own time.

Surrendering to life’s rhythm alleviates stress and strain, resulting in a tranquil and balanced existence. Lao Tzu recommends observing nature to attune ourselves to its cadence. Thus, instead of rushing through our days, we should pause to admire the splendor of the trees or the vastness of the sky.

By embracing the teachings of Lao Tzu and the Taoist philosophy, we can learn to live a life filled with sweetness, simplicity, and harmony, finding solace in the natural rhythms of the world.

Beyond Black and White Thinking

The world isn’t simply black and white – modern technology is not exclusively good, and past societies weren’t completely negative or useless. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, exposes the drawbacks of Western perspectives on sexuality by comparing them to freer attitudes in Samoan culture. She discovered that Samoan teenagers experienced less stress and anxiety around sex, suggesting that modern conditioning limited healthier attitudes. Furthermore, Mead’s research in Papua New Guinea revealed that gender roles are flexible and shaped by cultural context, further emphasizing the importance of appreciating diverse cultural experiences.

Margaret Mead, a renowned anthropologist, illuminated the value of examining traditional societies to uncover healthier perspectives on various aspects of life. Her groundbreaking book, Coming of Age in Samoa, highlighted the differences between Western and Samoan cultures, especially regarding sexuality. Mead found that, unlike their American counterparts, Samoan teenagers were open and relaxed about sexual matters, with no sense of shame. She concluded that the stress experienced by Western teenagers is attributable to societal conditioning and repressive attitudes towards sex.

Samoan culture also had a more tolerant viewpoint on adultery. If a man was unfaithful, forgiveness was typically granted and celebrated through a community gathering. Mead’s findings emphasized the stark contrast between Western and Samoan perspectives on relationships.

Additionally, Mead’s research in Papua New Guinea showcased the cultural influence on gender roles. She discovered that expectations varied across tribes, shattering the belief in fixed or universal gender norms. The Arapesh tribe exhibited nurturing behavior from both males and females, while the Mundugumor tribe demonstrated aggression in both genders. In the Chambri people’s tribes, women played the dominant role, while men were perceived as more dependent and requiring emotional support.

These observations serve as a reminder that our understanding of the world can be enriched by examining and appreciating the diverse cultural contexts of traditional societies. This timeless wisdom reinforces the notion that complex issues cannot be viewed solely in black and white terms.

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