Great Thinkers: Simple Tools from Sixty Great Thinkers to Improve Your Life Today.

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Category: Philosophy
Publisher: School of Life
Published: 1/30/2018
Typically, great thinkers have been included in encyclopedic works on the basis of reputation and historic influence. The School of Life takes a different approach, focusing instead on the thinkers whose ideas are the most helpful to our lives now. This is a collection of sixty of the most important and most useful ideas of Eastern and Western culture.

Book Summary - Great Thinkers: Simple tools from sixty great thinkers to improve your life today by The School of Life

Key Insights

Are the thinkers of today better than the thinkers of previous eras? Not necessarily. Many problems in modern society can be faced by relying on old wisdom.

Sure, society has made great progress in science and technology since the days of Plato, Adam Smith, and Jane Austen. But issues like anxiety can’t be fixed with an app or a quantum mechanics equation.

Great Thinkers distills the ideas of the most revered individuals from the fields of philosophy, political theory, eastern philosophy, sociology, psychotherapy, art and architecture, and literature.

While many things have changed about society since the times of each of these thinkers, their ideas still apply. Superficial changes don’t cancel out the validity and impact of their ideas.

From each field of Great Thinkers, there is something you can apply to your life or to society as a whole.

Key Points

You can use the principles of stoicism to deal with anxiety.

Among the great thinkers in philosophy are the stoics. The movement of stoicism can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman societies in the third century BC.

The basic notion of stoicism is to not be shaken by all of the bad things in life. You act with virtue and you don’t let the day-to-day fluctuations affect you. No matter how much your circumstances may change, or the good or bad, you can’t get too emotional.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from a stoic personality is an anxious one. According to stoicism, anxiety comes from hoping for something good or fearing something bad. In either situation, you’re anxious about what will come.

Stoics believe in the goddess Fortuna. With Fortuna, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been good or bad. It’s not like karma where there are consequences for how you’ve behaved. Instead, something good or bad could happen to anyone regardless of their character.

By understanding that your fortune isn’t in your control, you can let go of your anxiety and just let things happen as they may.

Confronting your worst fears can reduce their power over you.

Even if you know you have no control over what may or may not happen, the worst-case scenario may still make you anxious. The stoics offer sage advice for handling this issue.

Face your fears and they won’t seem as terrible. If you try to experience what it may be like if your worst fears come true, you won’t be as scared of them. You can think about how to handle losing your job or home. You can try handling the spider that scares you. Whatever the situation, jump into what scares you.

Meanwhile, don’t focus on your hopes and dreams. If it happens, it happens thanks to Fortuna. If the worst happens, you’re ready. Just center yourself and charge on with stoicism.

Faith and science are not mutually exclusive.

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian monk who lived during the thirteenth century. He also received sainthood. His religious pedigree may not seem ideally suited for modern times, but the battles between science and religion can be settled with the philosophy of this great thinker.

While Aquinas was a religious man, he was also surprisingly open-minded about ideas that didn’t come directly from faith-based teachings. At the time, the majority of power was held by Christian institutions. This made him groundbreaking in his time because he believed that it was possible to have both faith and reason.

Back then, if the Pope didn’t approve, most people wouldn’t accept it. Now, it’s the opposite. While religion was king in the time of Aquinas, now science is largely the superior discipline. Without scientific proof, many people are wary to believe in anything.

To avoid becoming so narrow-minded that you cannot see more than what is in your one acceptable discipline, you can learn from Aquinas. He believed that there are two general ways in which you can think about the world: natural law and eternal law.

Natural law comes from reason and science. This is what you can see with physical proof. As we learn more about the way works, this field expands. Still, there is so much you cannot explain by natural law alone.

Eternal law is all that you can’t prove or explain. You have to rely on faith for its existence. These are the principles and values that guide you. They may come from organized religion or something else that you just believe to be right without having scientific proof.

Taken together, you can be open to ideas from all disciplines. You become willing to consider something even before you have proof of it. Aquinas brings a peaceful coexistence between faith and science.

Job specialization can lead to disengagement.

From the field of economics, Adam Smith offers some great ideas that continue to be applicable today. This Scottish thinker was also a philosopher and was around in the eighteenth century.

Smith observed changes in the way people worked as societies changed. In early societies, a community ran on family-based trades. One family may have baked all the bread and another family may have trained each generation to build houses.

Later on, this changed. More and more jobs have become specialized. For example, instead of building houses, you might become really good at laying bricks. This means that each person is better at their niche job than the entire trade.

Smith observed that the move to job specialization was integral to rich nations. The specialized workforce is more efficient and capable of doing more and better.

But job specialization could also be detrimental. The more specific each person’s role gets, the further they get from the end goal or mission of a company. This can create disengagement for workers that might feel lost in the overall machine.

The solution? Smith suggests that you keep your workers as informed as possible. Make them realize the importance of their contributions to the overall goals and help engage them.

Capitalism isn’t evil if it’s done right.

It’s easy to think that capitalism can be problematic. There’s messaging about greed, inequality, and loss of other important values. However, Smith didn’t believe that capitalism had to be inherently evil.

A capitalist system can be a good motivator. It shows people that there are incredible possibilities available if you work hard. Those that perform best in a capitalist economy create a surplus of wealth.

Of course, not everyone has the same opportunities. Smith suggests that at least some of the surplus of wealth needs to be put towards social programs. For example, profits made of luxury goods can help fund schools and hospitals.

Capitalism can also create incentives to focus on the things that people need and want. People are willing to pay for something beneficial, like therapy. If that’s your endeavor, you can profit. If you do it really well, you can profit even more. A capitalist system encourages people to do what others want and need, and to do those things as effectively as possible.

Go with the flow. It makes everything easier.

Eastern philosophers come from different cultures, belief systems, and societies that western philosophers. But they still offer relevant advice for modern society. Lao Tzu is a famous Chinese philosopher from the sixth century BC. While little else is known about this great thinker, his ideas continue to apply today.

If you are willing to appreciate life’s beauty as it comes, you can find much more pleasure. This means that you have to shed your expectations and baggage in order to see the joy in front of you.

There is a story about Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha sitting down for a vinegar tasting. Confucius sees corruption in people and tastes the sourness of the vinegar. Buddha sees the world’s suffering and tastes bitterness. Lao Tzu looks for beauty and tastes sweetness.

While it may not seem like vinegar is an inherently sweet item, the message is that you can’t project your perceptions and organization on the world around you. There is a natural way to the world and it is beautiful.

Think of an ocean. It may seem like a chaotic constant of waves and tides. But below the surface there is a serene world of beauty. If you go looking for chaos, you’ll find it. On the other hand, if you go with the flow, you can enjoy the beauty.

Appreciate the world around you in order to be able to integrate yourself.

Lao Tzu comes from a Taoist philosophy. A central endeavor of Taoism is working to still your mind in order to still the world around you.

In order to find the natural flow of the world, you need to be able to observe and join it. You can’t demand that the world will give you what you want when you want it. So why force things with busy plans and stress?

Taoism suggests that you surrender to the natural rhythms. For example, if you are feeling heartbreak after a lost relationship, allow yourself to contemplate. You can’t jump straight into a new relationship. But if you calm your mind and know when you’re ready, you can be open to the right relationship when it comes along.

Calming your mind isn’t easy, especially in modern society. But nature can help. Give yourself time outdoors to appreciate what nature does on its own. Enjoy the beauty and the flow.

Different cultural and societal norms can inform your own life if you’re open to them.

In 1928, Margareat Mead published her book about teenage women growing up in Samoa. Her anthropological studies of these communities showed her what was considered acceptable in other places that would be a taboo discussion in America.

Teenage girls in Samoa weren’t perceived or described as being hormonal. Sexuality was also a more relaxed issue. Much of the stress that repressed societies have wasn’t present in Samoan society.

Samoan women learned about sexuality from a young age. Masturbation was not shameful and neither was homoseuxality. Most teens had even seen adults engaged in intercourse. None of it was considered taboo and it was acceptable to discuss.

Even adultery was a more relaxed idea. If a man had sex with a married woman, it was considered wrong but forgivable. Customs dictated that the man get on his hands and knees and beg the married woman’s husband to forgive him. The custom for the husband was to forgive by nightfall and the community could then throw a party.

In addition to sexuality in Samoa, Mead had observations from other societies. American gender traditions may have viewed men in a dominant role and women in a subservient role. But tribes in Papua New Guinea showed that gender roles could vary.

The Mundugumor tribe had dominant, aggressive males and females. The Arapesh tribe had peaceful males and females. And the Chambri tribe had men looking to women for dominance and emotional support.

You can’t just ignore your impulses. You have to deal with them.

Sigmund Freud is a name you’ve probably heard of. He is a great thinker from the fields of psychology and psychiatry. His ideas continue to have applicability in modern times.

All humans have impulses. Your impulses can be reduced to the desire to increase pleasure and decrease pain. The actions that result in pleasure and pain may vary, but that’s a general concept.

As a child, it’s easy to just do what makes you happy. But as you grow up, the rules change. You have to control your impulses because of the rules of society. Even if it feels like fun to push someone, you can’t just go and do that.

According to Freud, ignoring your impulses can be problematic. He believes that if you’re not satisfying your impulses or otherwise coping, you will suffer consequences. People can develop neuroses as a result of impulse suppression.

Think of a relationship in which one person is attracted to another person besides their mate. They suppress the attraction because society tells them that infidelity is wrong. The person who is suppressing their impulses then develops overwhelming jealousy, maybe believing their partner also has inappropriate feelings towards others.

Freud believes that you have to find a way to do more than just ignore your feelings. Repressed impulses will develop into other problematic behaviors.

The best cities are planned like a balanced ecosystem.

Jane Jacobs was an architect who considered the designs of cities. While cities may generally be associated with crowds, hustle and bustle, and skyscrapers, it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.

Jacobs was informed by New York City in the middle of the twentieth century. Living there, she could not fathom just developing it with anything but skyscrapers and highways. This development strategy was the work of another well-known architect of the time, Edmund Bacon.

Bacon was thinking of city planning in terms of function. You needed to fit more people and businesses in less space. People needed to be able to get in and out efficiently.

Beyond function, Jacobs considers the city to be like an ecosystem. They need to have a balance of resources to have a thriving community. Jacobs also considers the social aspect of a neighborhood to be important.

To create this balance, Jacobs highlights the things that a neighborhood needs. First, there should be places to work. Second, you need food establishments, Third, there should be nighttime entertainment.

By offering an ecosystem that meets all the needs, you create a social balance where a variety of people can come together. As they go through the neighborhood throughout the day, they can socialize and exchange ideas.

Other architects emphasize the importance of building in open spaces. But Jacobs disagreed. She thought the appeal of cities was to build social capital. You can always bump into exciting people.

So, neighborhoods should be dense and busy, but still be insular in a way that enables people to get to know their neighbors.

People can grow and evolve in a relationship. Each partner cannot be expected to start off perfectly.

Literature may be stories from an author’s imagination, but there are often observations about human nature that can be taken away from books. Jane Austen, a prominent author of novels portraying life in the early nineteenth century, was a great thinker with ideas about human relationships.

Her books share that people can grow and evolve in relationships. More importantly, they should do just that. In the best relationships, each partner teaches the other things so they can become better people

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen has two protagonists that start by disliking each other. Elizabeth Bennet brings her candor to Mr. Darcy. She calls out his air of superiority while also softening his cold exterior. Mr. Darcy shares with her some of the cultural knowledge that he has.

In the end, the two fall in love. Austen’s message is that you don’t have to love a person from the start nor can you expect perfection. You make one another better over time.

Try to learn a person’s character instead of relying on superficial judgment.

Austen also shares a lesson in how to judge people. Or, more importantly, to not judge them.

Mansfield Park is about a girl named Fanny Price. She is a humble woman who moves in with her wealthy relatives. The superficial standards of that society cause them to look down on Fanny. She doesn’t have the money, the clothes, or the right pedigree.

Fanny’s character is more important than these snap judgments made about her. Feeling superior based on surface-level qualities is not the way to think about other people. Fanny retains her good qualities and she is rewarded.

In the end, Fanny is a good person on the inside and she gets to become the new mistress of the estate of Mansfield Park.

The Main Take-away

The great thinkers came up with many important ideas throughout history, many of which are still relevant today.

From a variety of disciplines, there are lessons that can be applied to your life. Philosophers can help you get into the right frame of mind. Literature and anthropology can help you learn from other people and cultures. Economics and architecture helps you think about cities and systems. Just keep an open mind because old ideas may not be outdated.

About the Author

The School of Life is an organization that uses a variety of mediums to help people improve. With physical spaces around the world as well as an online presence, the School of Life offers workshops, books, and films.

Subjects addressed by the School of Life include relationships, self-improvement, career advice, and wellness. In 2016, the School of Life Press was created to share many of these ideas.

Alain de Botton, the founder of the School of Life, is the series editor for the books from the School of Life Press. Alain de Botton is philosopher born in Switzerland who also has British nationality.

De Botton has degrees from the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, and Harvard University. In addition to his work with the School of Life, he has written several fiction and non-fiction books. His philosophy background was used for a television series sharing lessons from philosophy on how to be happy.


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