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My Code

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Four Philosophers," with a bust of Seneca, 1611-1612 [1]

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Four Philosophers,” with a bust of Seneca, 1611-1612

3,739 words

German translation here [2]

A few years ago, I decided I needed a code to live by: a set of principles to guide my life. Now, it’s not as if I hadn’t already discovered some principles that seemed right to me; it wasn’t as if I was flying blind, without any convictions. But I had never sat down and reflected on exactly what my “code” consisted in, and put it all on paper. So, I decided one day to do just that.

But nothing I do usually turns out to be easy or simple. And my little exercise in reflection actually turned into a research project. I wound up spending days culling various sources for little nuggets of “practical wisdom.” These included Aristotle (from whom I borrowed quite a lot), the Stoics and Epicureans, the Eddas and Sagas, medieval Chivalry, Japanese Bushido, Tyler Durden, G. I. Gurdjieff and various other mystics, swamis, and gurus – and even Indian Shaivism (as represented to the West by Alain Daniélou).

And when I was done I finally had “my code” – one that expressed principles I was already living by, as well as others I wanted to commit myself to. I felt kind of like Doc Savage, who has always been one of my heroes. This is his code:

Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

The virtue of Doc’s code is that it’s easily memorized; easy to recite in front of the mirror every morning. The trouble with my code, once all the research and the typing was done, is that it consisted of more than fifty “aphorisms.” Memorizing it would tax the powers of a Druid. And I just don’t have an hour every day to set aside for reading the thing aloud. Nevertheless, it’s my code and I’m sticking to it – when I can remember what’s in it, that is. I am loath to edit it down, because all kidding aside I really do think it is a very nice summary of all the principles one really needs to be a good man.

Now, I really do mean good man. There’s a lot here that both men and women can benefit from. But a good bit of my code has to do with good, old-fashioned manly virtues. To draw on a distinction Jack Donovan makes in The Way of Men [3], my code comprises the principles necessary to “be a good man” and those necessary to “be good at being a man.”

So, what I’d like to do is to share a few of my aphorisms with you – and perhaps some more in a later essay. There’s no particular order to the list, and I’ve not arranged things thematically. Without further ado, here are ten principles I live by:

1. Do not act out of fear or anger.

There’s an old story about a samurai who sought vengeance against the man who had killed his master. Finally, after a long search, he caught up with the guy and drew his sword, ready to strike the villain down. The other fellow cowered in fear – then, just as the samurai was about to strike, he spit in his face. The samurai calmly sheathed his sword, and walked away without harming the man. Now, why did he do this? Because if the samurai had struck the murderer down after this man had spit in his face, no one – not even the samurai – could be sure what his real motivation was. He wanted to kill the man to serve justice. But after the man spit in his face, would the killing be motivated by the desire for justice, or by anger over his wounded vanity?

The samurai knew that a deed motivated by nothing more than anger is a deed without honor. To act out of anger is as bad as acting out of fear. In both cases, men allow themselves to be possessed by emotions – they lose control, in other words. There is honor only in doing what is right.

Now, doing what is right may sometimes be accompanied by justifiable fear or anger. But if it is fear and anger alone that spur us to act, we are not in control of ourselves, and not acting from virtue. A real man is in control of himself and his emotions, and does what he knows to be right, solely because he sees that it is right.

2. Do not trifle over small matters.

This is one of the characteristics of Aristotle’s “great-souled man.” Small men have small concerns; big men overlook the small things. I remember once years ago I had to borrow a dollar from a coworker in order to buy something at a food court. I forgot to return the money, and days later I found he had gone to the trouble of writing out a note and sending it through inter-office mail, reminding me that I owed him $1. I paid the money back with considerable amusement – and a newfound contempt for the guy. Losing that dollar was apparently more important to him than losing the respect of his coworkers. (Because, believe you me, I told everybody about this – but see principle #5 below.)

It’s important for your own self-respect and peace of mind to not trifle over minor things. And it’s important to be seen as someone who doesn’t do so. Now and then in my life some jerk has apologized to me for something jerky that he said or did. And often I have responded graciously and pretended that I had forgotten the incident. This is a nice way of showing that you’re big-souled, not small-souled. And it’s a nice way of subtly communicating to jerks that they matter so little to you, you can’t even be bothered to remember their slights.

3. Honor your commitments – let there be no conflict between your words and deeds.

This is about dependability, and integrity. And it’s obvious why these are important virtues. You will get nowhere in life if you are perceived as the sort of person who doesn’t follow through, who can’t be counted upon, or who says one thing and does another. Sometimes it’s even necessary to stick with something or someone, even when you’ve realized that you may have made the wrong choice. Sometimes, quitting or backing down is worse than sticking with a bad idea.

And I am not just suggesting this because there is a “social cost” in breaking commitments, or changing your mind. In life we acquire a reputation with others – and with ourselves. Others observe our actions and generalize, judging us dependable or undependable, etc. But I observe my actions too – and I generalize from them, continually asking myself, in effect, “What kind of man am I?” And “What kind of man do I want to be?” If I continually see myself breaking commitments or lacking integrity, I will judge myself accordingly. The reputation I acquire with myself is far more important than the one I acquire with others. I can fool lots of people – but it’s pretty damned hard to fool myself. Which brings us to . . .

4. Do not indulge in vanity, pretentiousness, or show. Be rather than seem.

There’s an old German saying: besser sein als Schein, better being than seeming. Appearances are important, and we look down on those who take no pride in their appearance. But then there are those who seem completely preoccupied with the sort of appearance they are projecting to others. These people are called narcissists. (Now, yes, I do remember writing an essay called “I am an Off-the-Chart Narcissist [4],” but that was really a critique of how narcissism is measured – and defined – by psychologists.) Narcissism really exists on a continuum, and everyone has at least a little bit of it. We’ve all met those who have more than their share – American society is filled with them.

I try to police my behavior for instances where I am clearly saying or doing something just to “make an impression.” I will catch myself, for example, sometimes making a pedantic point just so as to, in effect, tell the other person “I’ve been to school – a lot of school.” I mentally flog myself over such lapses, and I’ve found that as I get older I fall into this sort of thing less and less.

We have contempt for people – especially men – who are preoccupied with projecting a phony image; or who are caught up in playing “their role” (what Jung called the “persona”). And such people can’t fundamentally respect themselves. They might be able to fool others, but they can’t fool themselves – not forever.

5. Do not speak unnecessarily.

This one comes from the Knight’s code; from the code of medieval chivalry. Specifically, I got it from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (early thirteenth century). Actually, it’s this principle that gets young Parzival into trouble, when he fails to act on his feelings of compassion and to ask the Grail King what ails him. “A knight should not speak unnecessarily,” he thinks to himself – and thereby fails, for the moment, in the Grail quest.

Wolfram is suggesting that sometimes codes can get in the way. When they are followed too rigidly they can actually defeat their purpose and cause us to do wrong. Sometimes, as in Parzival’s case, we have to bend rules and act from our own natural instincts and sentiments. Indeed, this is one of the most important things I can communicate to my readers about having a “code.”

It’s not enough to have rules, one has to know how to apply them intelligently and humanely. And sometimes, that means breaking rules. But the knowledge of when or how it’s okay to do this can’t come from a rule: it is acquired through experience. One develops, in a sense, a “knack” for knowing how to use a code.

The rule “don’t speak unnecessarily” is, generally speaking, good advice. Nobody respects a chatterbox – or, worse yet, a gossip. When I was younger I found that I often succumbed to this vice. This meant that some people didn’t trust me. People who talk too much and who talk unnecessarily are not taken seriously, or entrusted with secrets or major responsibilities. It’s much better to be a man of few words. So shut up, kiss your horse, and ride on.

6. If you lack faith, pretend to have it.

This is admittedly an odd one, from an admittedly odd source: the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. If I find myself lacking faith, why on earth should I pretend to have it? And pretend, to whom? The answer is: to myself. There’s much in life that requires faith.

For instance, if I have certain goals pertaining to career, monetary status, etc., in order to achieve them I must have faith in my abilities, to the point of having a sense of “destiny”; a conviction that everything will work out okay in the end. This is true for a very obvious reason: if I lack faith I will lack the confidence to act. Even if I can succeed, I won’t take the risks necessary to do so. I will waver.

Thus, if you find yourself in a crisis of faith, it is important to do two things: (1) banish your doubts — simply refuse to think about them; distract yourself, tell yourself that this is a phase and that you can’t trust your judgment right now; and (2) do everything that you would do if you had faith. Ask yourself, “What would I do if I had faith, if I weren’t going through this crisis?” And then do that. This takes a certain amount of mental discipline, and a certain amount of willpower. If you lack one or both of these, then you will get nowhere in life, and I cannot help you.

7. Always be keenly aware of the impermanence of things.

This one comes from the teachings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135 C.E.). Epictetus actually advised us, “If you are holding your child in your arms think, ‘tomorrow you will die.’” In other words, be aware that nothing in this life is permanent, especially the lives of friends and loved ones. This may seem obvious – but it really isn’t, not to most people. Most of us go around acting like we are going to live forever, and we take for granted the things and people that we value.

When I talk to friends and loved ones I sometimes have arguments with them, as all of us do. But I always make a point to at least try to end a conversation on a positive note – and, if possible, to bury the hatchet. The reason, quite simply, is that I am keenly aware that that person whom I love could be hit by a bus tomorrow. And I would then have to live with the knowledge that our last conversation was a quarrel. Living with full awareness of the impermanence of things is a way to truly come to appreciate what you have – and to minimize your regrets in life.

8. Transmute negatives into positives.

This sounds like it belongs on a motivational poster, but actually it’s my distillation of one of the basic precepts of Spinoza’s ethical philosophy. The idea here is to try as much as possible to see how something negative may in fact be positive, or lead to something positive. It’s sometimes difficult to see this at the time that the negative thing is occurring. But when we look back over our lives, it is often the case that we realize that something we had perceived at the time as a “disaster” actually paved the way for something good. “If X hadn’t happened, Y wouldn’t have happened.” “If I hadn’t broken both legs in that car accident when I was nineteen, I would never have met that doctor who convinced me to go to medical school,” etc.

Crises, disasters, and losses of various kinds can be opportunities for growth. The challenge is to see them this way when they are happening. Admittedly, this can be very difficult in some cases – as when the loss in question is the death of a loved one. And in such cases trying too hard to “see the good in all this” can be a recipe for emotional repression. Better to leave such reflection for later on. But in most cases, it is quite possible and quite therapeutic to attempt to see how the bad is paving the way for the good.

I find that I tend to think of myself as having a destiny, and of things in my life as all “part of a plan.” I admit I have little rational basis for believing this, but it is a healthy attitude to take. Much better than the attitude of those who think their lives are just a random series of calamities, over which they have no control. Transmuting negatives into positives is a way of taking control of our lives.

9. Observe your negative emotions – after a while they will change.

This is a tremendously important psychological insight that I learned from Gurdjieff and the “Fourth Way” school. Suppose you regularly experience negative emotions such as anxiety or self-doubt (if self-doubt can accurately be described as an emotion). It is very difficult to will yourself not to feel these things, or even to talk yourself out of them. In fact, for some odd reason this sometimes results in strengthening the negative emotion (this is particularly true if you try to will yourself into not feeling it).

The alternative is not to fight the emotion but to observe it: to adopt the position of a detached observer who watches the emotion and the effect that it has on your thinking and on your body. Except in the case of very overpowering emotions, such as terror, this is always possible (and, with practice, possible even in the case of terror). It is as if you activate a “higher self” who watches the rest of you. This may sound odd, but you have already done it many times.

Haven’t you ever had the experience of being in a situation, a social encounter, for example, and all the while you were moving and talking and reacting you found yourself noticing your own behavior and internally commenting on it? Negatively: “Gee, that was a stupid thing to say. I can’t believe I just said that.” Or, positively: “That joke really wowed them. Tell more. Keep it jolly. You know how that appeals to fat people.”

Well, I’m simply asking you to do something similar. When negative emotions come upon you, play the part of the detached observer: “Ah yes, it’s that one again. I get that whenever I think about X. And yes, just as I would have predicted, I’m now imagining an argument with my boss. And now comes the rapid heartbeat. Just as always . . .” You are not judging your feelings; you’re not saying “I shouldn’t be feeling that! I won’t feel that!” You are merely observing.

Now here’s where you’ll need to take my word for things: if you do this enough, your negative emotions will change. Slowly, they begin to have less of a grip on you. It is as if, by adopting the perspective of the observer and refusing to be completely overtaken by them, you disempower these emotions. But it is only pure observation that works: not repression, denial, or “willing” yourself to feel differently. Don’t try to cancel the emotion. Observe it and it will change.

10. Focus on the Cause: Nothing else matters.

In dealing with life’s troubles, it helps to have something that’s more important than any of them, and, indeed, more important than life itself. We know what our Cause is, and that the crisis we face as a people dwarfs any of our petty, personal problems. In any other time, the highest purpose of our lives might be simply to enjoy them, to cultivate ourselves, and to bring other lives into the world. But living in this time and place, under this set of historical and social circumstances, forces on us a new moral imperative – a moral burden which our ancestors did not shoulder, and from which we wish to free our descendants.

Today, for men and women like us, a good life must be a life in which we do something to advance the Cause. The ideal here, in fact, is for all life to be arranged in a pyramid fashion – with everything converging toward the highest value, and highest imperative. (This is, in fact, the moral lesson of yet another philosopher: J. G. Fichte.) Yes, we can enjoy ourselves and cultivate ourselves, but we do this so that we may be strengthened in our resolution. (All revolutionaries, after all, need R&R.) And all that which constitutes a negative distraction from our mission must either be eliminated, or – if this is impossible – we must detach from it as much as we can, physically or psychologically. Focusing on the Cause is a great way to rid yourself of the bullshit that’s bothering you. But that’s not why you focus on the Cause. You focus on the Cause because for folks like us, who are awake, it is that than which no greater can be conceived.

A good deal that I’ve discussed so far might seem more like psychology than ethics. And after all, didn’t I promise at the beginning that this was an ethical code? Yes, but it’s a code in which Aristotle and Kant (or Fichte, Kant’s interpreter) converge. “Being a good person” for Aristotle didn’t mean following a set of commandments. It meant doing the things necessary to be a well-functioning, happy, well-adjusted, and admirable human being. The aim of life, for Aristotle, was happiness, conceived in the most profound and non-frivolous sense of the term. So, a “rule” (or “rule of thumb”) like “transmute negatives into positives” sounds like it is just advice on feeling good – but for Aristotle, feeling good is part of being good: leading a good life. However, in my ethics, everything converges on #10 above: the Cause. In this day and age, for our people, being happy is good because the happier and better adjusted we are the more effectively we can fight (in one way or another) for what we believe in, and – hopefully – avert disaster.

In this world – in the midst of the present crisis – “pursuing happiness for its own sake” is unforgivably selfish. Aristotle could be content with encouraging his students to pursue happiness more effectively, because he lived in a society that was far, far more healthy, functional, and cohesive than ours. Advising our people to “pursue happiness” sounds like a recipe for encouraging them to “cultivate their own gardens,” or build their own bunkers, and do nothing. Under the present set of circumstances, that’s not an ethically-defensible course. So, I’ll leave it at this: pursue happiness, pursue the good life, but let all the good that results from that – health, wealth [5], peace of mind, and so on – be operationalized (or, metaphorically speaking, weaponized). Let it serve to advance something greater than yourself; and let that be the purpose of your life and your happiness.

In this essay I’ve shared with you ten of the principles I try to live by – and I’ve shared with you the philosophy that unifies them, and my entire code. If you are interested, I’ll share other parts of the code with you in future essays. Doing so is itself an ethical act. These principles have made me a better person, and a better soldier for the Cause. I hope they help you as well.