19 Nov Embrace The Idiotic Nature of Being Human
Socrates. Albert Einstein. Benjamin Franklin. What do these historical figures have in common?
They were geniuses, some of the most brilliant human beings to ever walk the face of the earth. Also, I’m sure they’d agree, they were idiots.
“We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past and we will be idiots again in the future — and that is OK,” writes author and public speaker Alain de Botton in The School of Life.
“There aren’t any other available options for human beings.”
That should hearten us. That should make us smile, laugh, enjoy this life and take risks; but we don’t. We expect perfection when, in reality, we’re all just hanging on, doing our best with what we have and what we know.
Who am I to judge Socrates, Einstein, and Franklin? Not just humans of the past but titans who paved the way for the future? These men shaped the fabric of reality and the orientation of humankind.
In doing so, however, they neglected the people that needed them.
Rather than cast judgement from the comfort and convenience of the modern day, I hope to illustrate how these men were just people, and people are anything but perfect.
We’re idiots, and while this undeniably makes life painful, it also makes it a heroic adventure full of mountains and valleys worth wholeheartedly embracing.
Called the wisest man of ancient Greece by the Oracle of Delphi, the philosopher Socrates is credited with the quote:
“By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will be happy. If you get a bad one, you will be a philosopher.”
The relationship between Socrates and his wife Xanthippe was fiery and lacking love, for it’s believed that Socrates married Xanthippe not because he truly wanted to be with her, but because her combative personality made her a worthy philosophical sparring partner.
He also had no job, denying payment for his sagacious guidance on principle; commendable, but less than prudent for a man with a wife and three kids.
The American founding father and polymath Benjamin Franklin departed for England where he remained for fifteen out of seventeen years away from his wife, Deborah Franklin.
Franklin enjoyed his time in England and made excuses when Deborah Franklin asked for his return, clearly avoiding a disintegrating and painful family life back in America; Deborah Franklin suffered a stroke and died while he was away in 1774.
While it’s easy to judge, we should instead consider how heavily staying across the pond weighed on Franklin’s consciousness, disrupting what he posited as one of the thirteen necessary virtues, his tranquility.
We must recognize how those who hurt have been hurt themselves.
It’s common to jump to conclusions, uncommon to discern the torment the individual under scrutiny endures; nobody knows the demons which dance as shadows on the ceiling of our consciousness as we lay awake at night.
Nobody but us.
What brings true tranquility is not looking good in the eyes of others; not being right, perfect, squeaky clean or, as Franklin states as his definition, being undisturbed by accidents or trifles.
It’s the complete understanding that we are sincerely trying our best. That our intentions are pure. That if and when we fail, because we are human, we will make things right.
That’s something only we can know, a sense which isn’t static, but evolving and limitless. It means that with courage we can always improve; we can move forward and ultimately fly, no matter how far we’ve fallen.
The physicist Albert Einstein, one of the most ingenious thinkers in all of human history, wasn’t a perfect man by any means, often running from his own personal problems by burying himself in his work and thought.
He was aware of his imperfections, writing to the son of a friend who had died:
“What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.”
Were Socrates, Franklin and Einstein bad people?
I’m clearly not one to make that judgement, for life is complex and afflicts us all in different ways, causing us to do things we might look back on with heavy hearts and regret.
To say these men were bad people because in the public eye they were thoughtless husbands is naïve. There’s so much we don’t know.
What history gives us, if we’re willing to study it, is not a privilege to judge and tear down those that paved the way to our modern day, but an opportunity to illuminate our human nature.
Human beings are dynamic creatures who are and have always been flawed, nuanced, beautiful in our darkness and light; the media paints individuals so conveniently as black and white, yet every one of us is good and evil comprised within a single soul, a heart capable of growth, pain, and ultimately if we choose it, love.
In our pursuits to understand love — the underlying reason we do anything at all, for we all just wish to be loved — we will do things we regret.
We’ll say things we wish we could take back. We’ll stumble through the roadblocks and seasons of life, making mistakes and perhaps even garnering victories. We’ll take steps forward just to fall from an unseen cliff.
I have my flaws. I’ve made my fair share of blunders, things I’ve said or done which, even if not outwardly admonished by others, kept me up at night.
That’s how I knew I could be better. I could try again and hopefully, would be.
We will be what we are — fools — prone to folly and foibles and fallacy, striving somehow to navigate success, love, pain, culture, personal ambitions and those of the greater good.
Is this an excuse to do whatever we want, whether hurting, neglecting, or mistreating others without fearing the consequences? It’s anything but.
It seems improbable, but there are countless examples in our modern world of those who have pulled off the successful career, the stellar family life, the virtuous and meaningful existence.
Matthew McConaughey, Joe Rogan, David Beckham, Ryan Holiday, Jay Shetty, and, well, my dad for example. I name men because these are my modern heroes, guys I aspire to emulate as I get older and wiser.
They hold themselves to high standards, putting love, family, kindness and virtue above all else. We should strive to be the best that we can be, holding ourselves — and only ourselves — to the highest standards, as the Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Does that mean these men are perfect? That they haven’t made and won’t continue to make mistakes? Of course not. Our heroes aren’t meant to be immortalized.
Each of them has endured seasons of regret, sheer stupidity, immaturity and neglect. Nobody gets out of this life unscathed; all we can do when we inevitably succumb to our lesser nature is move forward and use our mistakes to be better.
Be easy on yourself — be easy on others, especially those who seem to know what they’re doing. They don’t. We don’t.
Let go, flow, cherish the ride and all that being human entails. Go for the thing that you’re scared to do, say, make or change — go for it with every fiber of your being.
It might fail. You may look dumb. That’s okay. It means you’re on the right track, that you’re in the ring while those who judge, squeaky clean behind the facade of perfection, merely watch from the sidelines.
In the words of Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s the very chance of failure which makes this life worth living.