Law 1: Master Your Emotional Self (The Laws of Human Nature)

The Law of Irrationality

“Trust your feelings!”—But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of . . . inclinations, aversions. . . . The inspiration born of a feeling is the grandchild of a judgment—and often of a false judgment!—and in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings—means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Story of Athens and Pericles

Athens had a bitter rivalry with Sparta. The latter were their opposites in terms of weaknesses and strengths, values, strategies, and leadership. Athens was a democracy while Sparta was not, Athens prized culture and art, while Sparta cherished simplicity and war.

Pericles was an elder statesman in Athens, but he was unlike the rest. He did not depend on eloquent speeches to garner support, but used careful, reasonable arguments that pulled people to his side, including politicians, who appreciated his value more over time. His rhetorical style was captivating and unique, and it had calming and compelling effect on his audience. He was thought of more as a philosopher than a politician.

When Athens had a surplus of wealth, Pericles commissioned temples, theaters, and art – he promoted rationality and beauty, he helped shape Athenian culture.

Pericles also argued against expanding Athen’s democratic empire, he wanted to limit the loss of lives by launching small maneuvers rather than large scale wars. With such a policy, Athens entered into a prosperous and peaceful age.

Pericles believed in a form of defensive, limited warfare against the Spartans, and he argued strongly for it. He did not fear the enemy but the mistakes that would come from the Athenians themselves if they overreached.

Allowing the Spartans and their allies to waste resources and men would eventually make them bicker among themselves and would discourage them to continue the war. This sparked debate among the Athenians, but finally, his strategy was approved.

In the beginning, the Spartans grew bolder, and the Athenians were discouraged – the latter saw their villages being destroyed and did not retaliate. In the second year of war, a powerful plague shocked Athens. Pericles himself died from it. This was the statesman’s biggest nightmare, everything he had worked so hard to build finally unraveled.

The Athenians denounced Pericles and his policies. They blamed him for all the misfortune that Athens faced. The Athenians plotted to overtake Syracuse – this would deprive the Spartans of key resources. Despite the excitement the Athenians had for this plan, things did not go as expected. The Spartans successfully defied them.

This was a turning point that put an end to Athenian prosperity. Pericles, who managed to curb the biggest enemies of human reason: aggression, greed, selfishness, was now a distant memory. They forgot about what he had taught them, and Athens suffered many consecutive blows because of it.

What consumed Pericles as a thinker and politician was how to get out of the trap of irrationality, how to operate in an arena dominated by emotions. His idea was unique and incredibly powerful. He thought that the human mind had to worship something. For most people, it was ego, for others, it was their god, or their family, or their nation.

Pericles found something different to worship: “nous.” This was the ancient Greek word for “mind” or “intelligence.” Nous is a force that creates order, and the human mind is naturally attracted to it. The figure of Athena would embody this ideal.

The Cultivation of Reason

You are eternally susceptible to the loss of reason, to the descent into irrationality and chaos. Reason is not something that you have, it is carefully cultivated after considerable practice.

People, in every age, even in this technologically advanced age, are ruled by emotions. Do not think that the advent of computers has made us any less irrational. Many of the ways in which we use this new technology is irrational – that is, the technology perpetuates our irrationality on a mass scale. This should be the strongest argument for why we should be more aware of the forces that are antithetical to reason within us.

Our irrationality is more dangerous to us than it ever has been. People are often ruled by their emotions and their greed and their ego. By interacting with them, you will feel like you are being pulled in many different directions, all in favor of their compulsions, and rarely for your benefit. This will cause you to lose focus, it will allow the irrationality that exists within you to become dominant. Like Pericles, you must work relentlessly to avoid being infected by those that swarm around you.

The Difference between Rational and Irrational People

The difference between rational and irrational people can be observed through their patterns of behavior over time. Rational people learn from their mistakes, they adjust their strategy when it fails, and they constantly achieve victories across their life. Irrational people repeat the same mistakes, always finding excuses for their behavior, and never trying to look for the root of their problems.

Rational people hire employees because they have demonstrated high levels of competence. Irrational people hire employees because they were charmed by them or had a good feeling about them.

How to counter the influence of your emotions?

Constantly ask yourself why you feel this way or that. This will melt away your irrational fixations. This must be practiced and made into a habit. This is, in a way, the point of meditation – to learn how to detach yourself from emotions by rationally observing them for what they truly are, and not what they appear to be.

We are tempted to look for explanations for everything. For example, after the 2008 financial crash, people blamed greedy banks, bad regulators, a broken system etc… but in reality, it was just millions of people making bad investment decisions. There is no explanation other than many people behaved irrationally. There were many people who warned that the crash would happen, but people simply didn’t listen.

It’s just as though one’s second self were standing beside one; one is sensible and rational oneself, but the other self is impelled to do something perfectly senseless, and sometimes very funny; and suddenly you notice that you are longing to do that amusing thing, goodness knows why; that is, you want to, as it were, against your will; though you fight against it with all of your might, you want to.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Raw Youth                                    

Recognize all the cognitive biases that you have and work hard to fight against them. The struggle for rationality is a long process that will involve years of hard work. It will not come easy, and during this time, it will constantly be under threat.

Becoming aware of our own irrationality is merely the first step, but a critical one.  

Read The Laws of Human Nature

If you’re interested in exploring the darker parts of human psychology that most people ignore, consider reading this short book The Dichotomy of the Self.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian