Who can benefit from this blog?
Anyone who can read. While this blog often use ideas, stories, or excerpts from ancient stories and philosophy you don’t need any knowledge of ancient stories or philosophy to read, enjoy, and benefit from a Mirror for princes[ses]. But, even if you are familiar with ancient stories or philosophy, a Mirror for princes[ses] is written for you.
A Mirror for princes[ses] is a place where you can read about how to better practice friendship, relationships, love, social skills, and self awareness.
This blog is for anyone interested in creating, maintaining, and repairing their personal character through habitual action, friendship, and self awareness.
What’s behind the name of the blog?
The same education and habits that make a good person also make a good leader.1 -Aristotle
The only thing modern about self help is the name and the ways we share it.
The idea that people can improve their: character, habits, social skills, and self awareness for the sake of both themselves and others is not unique to any culture: ancient, medieval, or modern.
Throughout history, wherever humans make homes with other humans, you can expect them to search for actions they can take to more effortlessly improve, themselves, their society, and the world around them.
I find that across most cultures and eras, however diverse or homogeneous their social order, certain questions always end up asked in one form or another, such as:
- How can we live a good, exemplary, excellent, noble, virtuous, or happy life?
- How should we relate (or not) to our competing desires and duties, as well as the complex desires and duties of others?
- How should we respond to fortune, chaos, disease, suffering, and absurdity?
Historically, the self help genre of Mirrors for princes helped people come up with answers to these questions by sharing stories, ideas, and wisdom from the past. Mirrors for princes taught people how to imagine, reflect, and act, not what to think.
Mirrors for princes are of interest to us all because whether or not we are princes we all must at least lead ourselves through life.
Those who lead themselves well will -via the virtuous power of their own example- inspire others to leader better lives.
Just as surely, slowly, and softly, as the grass bends when the wind blows; just as the moon indirectly but inevitably shapes coastlines through years of ceaselessly alternating tides; just as a seeded plant arises by constant, total, and inconceivably gentle pushing through a hard crust of frosted soil.3
We are all princes[ses] of the present training to be the heirs to the throne of our future self.
Whether it be in the form of a friend, story, metaphor, or philosophy we all need friendly external ‘mirrors’ to help us find ourselves and answer these questions because:
We cannot see ourselves as we really are, truly and completely, except in a mirror as a reflection, flattering or otherwise. We have to stand back to look at ourselves, our conduct and our actions.
Since we [tend] get overly involved in the daily motions of living, we do not always see a pattern and meanings in events and circumstances until we view [them] presented before us. And what is more, we see and understand [things] better when they are presented as happening elsewhere to others.4
This blog is intended as a modern Mirror for princes[ses] which can help a reader improve their character, habits, social skills, and self awareness.
But what can ancient sages or stories from strange cultures say to us today?
The most striking difference between us and the people of the past is the most misleading.
Smart phones, airplanes, and satellites may seem to make irrelevant ancient stories and teachers of social skills like Confucius, Epicurus, or Socrates. What could ancient sages or stories teach us when we lead such different lives than them?
Our technology and culture change in rapid lock step, they disturb and provoke each other in a dance whose tempo only ever seems to increase. Confronted by the ever widening cultural, political, and technological gap between us and the past, it is wise to wonder how learning from the past can matter in the present.
Generally, a history of an era reveals that human societies have always seen themselves as struggling with the opportunities, threats, and disruptions caused by new technology, customs, or environments.
Societies: ancient, medieval, and modern tend to share another common fantasy as a result of their grumpy feelings about change; they like to imagine themselves in a new era, sometimes even an end of times, and if they’re feeling particularly apocalyptic they’ll even say they live in a dark age of moral confusion.
As a species, we have often un-reflectively seen ourselves as hurtling forward into a brave ‘new’ world of strange customs, stranger foreigners, and alienating technology.5
We delude ourselves if we imagine the present is essentially different than the past because of ‘our’ cutting edge technology, progressive social customs, or unprecedented global multiculturalism.
As a social species of mortals we have needed and will always need ways to improve our habits, social skills, and self awareness because in each generation we must learn for ourselves anew and mentor others about how to live in mutually beneficial ways.
All we do is bind ourselves to our current ways of living and blind ourselves from seeing other, and perhaps better, ways when we abandon the wisdom of the past.
Self awareness is always the necessary first step in any serious process of self or societal improvement, and learning about the habitual assumptions of our person and culture is key in any attempt to cultivate self awareness.
When we learn about someone or some culture that does not share our assumptions, our own inconsistent prejudices, questionable metaphors, and delusional fantasies become obvious and unacceptable.
By learning from the ways diverse societies: ancient, medieval, and modern have answered (or not) the questions problems we ask today we can get better at sharing different ways to answer these timeless questions for ourselves, each other, and our own society.
When does a Mirror for Princes[ses] update?
Whenever. Don’t expect a regular schedule for now. If one develops, I’ll change this answer to reflect that fine sounding way of doing things. Don’t hold your breath.
You can stop holding your breath. Once you’ve stopped hyperventilating head on over to the Ask A Confucian Philosopher advice column which updates once a week.
Really? I don’t believe this FAQ. This blog is for anyone? There must be a specific intended audience!
Well, you’re right. But skip this section for now, because it ain’t done yet.
- A paraphrase of Aristotle’s Politics.
- One great example of a medieval Mirror for Princes is the Secretum Secretrorum or, ‘Secret of Secrets.’ The Secret of Secrets (falsely) claims to be the secret advice Aristotle gave Alexander the Great, which Alexander then used to cultivate himself and conquer most of the known world. In other words, the Secret of Secrets was a how to succeed guide that claimed to be written and then proven by a famous intellectual and military conqueror. While we know today that the Secret of Secrets was a forgery, this hardly mattered to those who read and cherished it in the past. The Secret of Secrets was wildly popular in medieval Europe, secret forgery or no, people turned to it to learn how to live well.
- The metaphor of the wind and grass I have borrowed from Confucius and Mencius, and the metaphor of the plant in winter comes from Emerson’s lecture Man the Reformer. I know not where I found the metaphor of the moon and tides.
- Taken from page xxv of Chandra Rajan’s introduction to her enjoyable and excellent translation of the Pancatantra. The Pancatantra is a crazily influential collection of ancient Indian stories that serve as a model for many other stories and collections of stories in the Mirrors for princes genre.
- Why do we so often see ourselves in a brave ‘new’ world of self important doom? My tentative guess is that cultures, like people, must constantly renew themselves, their habitual mindsets and practices, otherwise they suffer from chaos and or anomie which undermines their moral, political, and economic landscape. There are, as I see it, a minimum of three constant elementary pressures on any cultures social order. (1) Pressures from outside a culture. Other cultures can: impose through invasion, suggest through competition, or imply by their mere existence different ways of life. ‘New,’ ‘foreign,’ or ‘radical’ ways of life can (or may just seem to) undermine ‘traditional’ values and ways of life. (2) Pressures from within a culture. Reform or ‘traditionalist’ movements within a culture pressure a social order to reorder for certain way(s) of life or ideals. (3) Pressure from the second law of thermodynamics. Like any other complex system, social orders tend towards entropic decay and chaos unless we actively renew, renegotiate, and reorder them.