The Corrupt Mind

In The Republic, there is a passage that describes what qualities a judge should be endowed with. The conversation takes place with Socrates.

Socrates: ‘The best way for a doctor to acquire skill is to have, in addition to his knowledge of medical science, as wide and as an early acquaintance as possible with serious illness; in addition he should have experienced all kinds of disease in his own person and not be of an altogether healthy constitution. For doctors don’t use their bodies to cure other people’s bodies – if so, they cannot allow their health to be or become bad – they use their minds; and if their mental powers are or become bad their treatment can’t be good.’

‘But with a judge it’s a matter of mind controlling mind. And the mind should not be brought up from its youth to associate with wickedness, or to run a whole range of crimes in order to get first-hand experience on which to be able to judge them quickly in other people, as the doctor does with diseases of the body: on the contrary, the mind must, while it is still young, remain quite without experience of or contact with bad characters, if its condition is to be truly good and judgments just. That is why people of good character seem simple when they are young, and are easily taken in by dishonesty – because they have nothing corresponding in themselves to give them a sympathetic understanding of wickedness.’

The point that is being made here is that a mind that is not corrupt should remain so to be able to be a good judge, since early exposure to wickedness would disrupt its proper functioning and interfere with it.

When you are young, you are yet to be impressed upon by the world. Your assumptions about people are good. It is only when you get older that you see the maliciousness in others, and even in yourself.

But this innocence that Plato talks about, the good person who in their youth seems simple, is not something that is washed away by the transition from childhood to adulthood. There are many people who maintain this innocence of character despite their encounters with malice. They are either not exposed to an extreme enough event, or they are working hard to preserve their mental model of the world.

They prefer to remain where they are, trapped inside a simplistic understanding of people, for such an understanding allows them to trust, to take risks, and to form relationships. There is no good that can be gained from extreme skepticism – even if merited.

You should not distrust people, and avoid them at all costs – it is not pragmatic. You should instead understand them. And once you have acquired a sophisticated understanding of human nature, it is then time to integrate this knowledge into your belief system. To reconcile your cognitive dissonance, to accept that each individual is both virtuous and sinister. That each individual aims for the good, but is selfish and has destructive motivations.

The problem in politics can be summarized as follows: each side refuses to acknowledge their own dark sides. They frame the other side as evil, while thinking of themselves as good. And it is the same in social life. You have those who presume their own innocence indirectly when they cast aspersions on others. Social shaming induces guilt which can lead to reform, so it cannot be said that casting aspersions is altogether fruitless, but when it is done pathologically, without properly considering the situation in its entirety, without holding one’s own self culpable, without taking stock of one’s own lack of self-control and lack of virtue, then there can only be net negative consequence.

The simple, innocent youth who grows up to be an adult does not remain young, nor innocent, but in their minds, they often do. And it is this mismatch between reality (what is) and what is perceived that results in both internal tension and external hostility.

It seems like cliched advice to always look at oneself before criticizing others, but it is necessary to do so, to avoid self-deception. The person you should fear most is yourself, not others who you may or may not encounter. You are permanently attached to yourself, you cannot escape your own mind or body, and so it is important to know what you are, and what you are not.

How to Build Self Control?

Napoleon and Talleyrand
Napoleon and Talleyrand (far-left)

The Power of Silence

If you have ever experienced regret after an encounter with someone, where you may have said too much then you understand how easily your emotions can get the better of you. The truth is that no matter how rational you think you are, your emotions are much more powerful. When a certain screw has been twisted, you will enter into a frenzied state, where all calmness and rationality has left you.

In fact, losing your cool is such a common phenomenon that people have happily exploited it for ages. If you personally want to find out what someone else is hiding from you, driving them to their emotional breaking point is a very effective way of doing so. Assume that this person harbors hidden feelings of resentment towards you, assume this person is someone you consider a close friend. Because of your history, you will not normally suspect any malicious thoughts from their side and behave accordingly, never provoking them or pressing them. But if one day, you have an argument, and you push them towards the edge, their true emotions will shine through. It is almost impossible for them to remain in control of their words. The more room you give them to maneuver, the more rope you are giving them to hang themselves with.

If you suspect your girlfriend or boyfriend is cheating on you, do not stupidly accuse them of anything explicitly, but patiently prod them until they make an error. They will give you contradictory responses. Women are excellent at doing this, it is almost a natural tendency for them. It is the indirect pursuit of truth, and for the simple minded and naive, it is an inconceivable tactic, yet it is the most effective.

You must train yourself to never say more than necessary. There’s a saying in arabic that translates to: “Say less words, make fewer mistakes.” If you are unpracticed in the art of concealing knowledge and you are the type of person who doesn’t know how to meticulously craft the right words for every occasion, then the best defensive tactic you can use is to keep quiet.

Train yourself to listen. It is a truly underrated skill to be silent.

“Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful. Therefore benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.” – Lao Tzu

In the same way, think of a conversation as a physical object like a vessel. How useful and fruitful a conversation is depends on the pauses of silence that both parties are charitable enough to give each other. You do not only want to train yourself to listen so that you can extract hidden truths from the other person but because you want to know what they really think. You want to know what they really think because if lies persist into the future, then resentment will build up, and you will experience much more damaging manifestations of their built up resentment in surprising and undesirable ways.

The remedy is simple: silence. Pay attention to what they have to say, listen to every word. Do not interrupt them. Do not continue their sentences – that is your ego getting in the way, that is just you trying to still feel relevant to the conversation. It is you saying ‘I’m here, don’t forget about me, I have opinions too’! Don’t fall for your own childish compulsions. Instead, focus on what the other person has to say and do not respond until you have formed in your mind a coherent thought. Do not rush.

The other thing you must train yourself to do is to prepare yourself mentally before the conversation. If there is someone who knows how to push your buttons and provoke you, it is only because you trust their opinion. But this is highly irrational. Why take their opinion seriously? Think about how many people there are in the world, think about how many highly intelligent and knowledgeable people fail to agree on even the most fundamental issues. If you take your friend’s opinion seriously, it is not because they are a superior judge of character, but because you have an emotional connection to them. What they think matters to you. But once you acknowledge that your trust in them is purely emotional, then you are now better prepared than before.

Whereas you used to ruminate on what words were said, now you have a more reasonable estimate of their incompetence, you can take them less seriously, and this will allow you to be more calm and rational when speaking to them.

The Prepared Mind

People often get frustrated when the other person is too clam, and this I find very amusing. The irritated and the out of control hate it when they encounter someone who can keep their emotions in check. Talleyrand, the French politician, endlessly amused himself and his colleagues by provoking Napoleon. And he eventually succeeded in getting Napoleon to self-destruct.

The frustrated and the emotional are unprepared, they are untrained. Do not make the same mistake. Alfred Hitchcock used to make sure that every single detail in the film he was shooting was studied thoroughly beforehand. He did this because he hated having to endure the endless squabbles among the people he was working with. So he quietly did his job and once he was confident in the end result, he paid no attention to the bickering and the petty fights that happened around him. He was unfazed because he was experienced enough to expect these emotional outbursts to occur, and he knew that he was getting what he wanted – his own vision implemented.

Don’t allow the Talleyrands of the world to get the better of you. Always be cooler than they are. And like Hitchcock, never leave things to chance. Do not get involved in petty politics, it will only distract you and cloud your judgement. Make the tendency to become emotional, to say more than necessary, to lose your temper a fault that you can exploit in others, rather than a personal vulnerability. This can happen through repeated exposure and a changed mindset.

A novice poker player can’t help but react to his hands. He will sit relaxed with a joyful attitude through many rounds, leaning back on his chair and stretching his legs out nonchalantly. But once two aces show up, he shoots straight up, his hands automatically fold on each other, the smile on his face is immediately replaced with a somber look, and he suddenly becomes very quiet, making as little conversation as possible. He means business!

In life, you start out as a novice poker player, revealing everything that you think and feel. Children are notorious for spilling the family secrets because they are untrained. Yet many adults are no better, and worse, the secrets they know about are more dangerous. But they cannot contain themselves, they have not practiced enough. Don’t make the same mistake.

Blindly Furious Diligence

Blindly furious diligence, for example, the typical virtue of an instrument, is represented as the way to riches and honour, and as the most beneficial antidote to tedium and passion : but people are silent concerning its danger, its greatest dangerousness. Education proceeds in this manner throughout: it endeavours, by a series of enticements and advantages, to determine the individual to a certain mode of thinking and acting, which, when it has become habit, impulse and passion, rules in him and over him, in opposition to his ultimate advantage, but ” for the general good.” How often do I see that blindly furious diligence does indeed create riches and honours, but at the same time deprives the organs of the refinement by virtue of which alone an enjoyment of riches and honours is possible; so that really the main expedient for combating tedium and passion, simultaneously blunts the senses and makes the spirit refractory towards new stimuli!

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Don’t get stuck in one path for too long, especially if it gives you what you want. The most powerful form of self-deception is the one you trust the most.

Nietzsche describes an individual that is too familiar; the lawyer who has spent too many years honing his craft, training his mind to think and feel a certain way. Careful and analytical, he becomes blind to life’s pleasures, and to the things that can justify his sacrifices.

The foregoing of too much for too little is not a typical problem – it is usually the reverse for most people. But if you belong in the former category, you usually have no way of knowing how you are being blinded by your own diligence. An instrument is suitable for this kind of intensity, but not so much an agent – that is, if you wish to remain an agent. The person that wants to be free must not be too efficient, otherwise, they become nothing but the tool. Their identity becomes inseparable from their function.

You may be effective to society and gain the material rewards you crave, but you have forgotten how to enjoy them. Your laborious lifestyle has subdued your senses. This doesn’t mean that you should not work hard or pursue a challenging career, but it is important to routinely break away from routine.

When you disrupt the regular flow of activity that you are engulfed in, you gain a fresh perspective, and a new appreciation for life. It is the antidote to one of the most pernicious forms of self-deception.