Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.Carl Jung
Virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.Aristotle
After exhausting my music and podcast options, I have been searching for quality audio books to listen to while I am on the treadmill each morning. So far, I have listened to Jordan Petersen’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; Victor Davis Hansen’s Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom; and James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. All of these have been excellent and thoughtful books. Beyond that, they have all been so engaging to listen to that the miles pass by without my even noticing.
Until recently, I have never considered myself to be of the “self-help book” persuasion. To say I find women like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sheryl Sandberg annoying would be an understatement. Every time I hear a woman complain about how she gets paid less than men, I want to walk her down the aisles of pseudoscience and crank psychology books marketed (with great success) to women in bookstores. Keto cures cancer and autism, you know. Measles can be treated with lavender oil. Micro-dosing on psychedelics will help you with mood swings. You should shove rocks up your vajayjay. (And be sure to call it your vajayjay, because nothing says feminism like communicating in baby talk.) The only thing keeping you from material success is scribbling affirmations on your mirror with your lipstick. Exactly the kind of person you want in the corner office, right?
But listening to Atomic Habits had me thinking about all the psychology books I have listened to or read recently that are fantastic critiques of our culture.
Atomic Habits is a great book – I highly recommend reading it – but it’s also simply a reworking of the philosophy of Aristotle. The author’s main thesis is the most effective way to change your habits is to focus on the kind of person you want to be (I want to be healthy), rather than dwelling on discrete outcomes (I want to lose 15 pounds). Most of the book focuses on manipulating how you respond to unconscious cues, how your practices relate to the mechanical, biological organization of your mind (what you might consider your “self”).
This is essentially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Whether or not someone is happy or flourishing is the cumulative effect of their habits. A virtuous person is a person with good habits. To be a good person, you don’t need to hang out in the agora talking about goodness in the abstract. You simply need to start acting like a good person acts here and now. If you want to be courageous, put yourself in positions that demand courage. If you want to be charitable, start working toward a cause. If you want to be a reader, be the kind of person who goes home and opens a book every day instead of turning on the television or mindlessly scrolling Instagram. Good habits become your identity and that is how you flourish over time.
In many ways, some of these more thoughtful psychology books are reclaiming philosophy. Jordan Petersen is expanding on Freud and Jung. Victor Davis Hansen talks about being a classicist as a lifestyle rather than professional curiosity – not just studying Greek, but preserving Greek-ness. I even saw a book called Unfuck Yourself, which revisits stoic philosophy like Marcus Aurelius.
Academia has pretty much destroyed the real human value of philosophy as a discipline. There are plenty of academics who go around calling themselves philosophers, but what they are doing is not philosophy anymore. You open up academic philosophy journals now and you see articles like Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression (The Monist), Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism and the Challenge of the Exotic (British Journal of Aesthetics), and Refugees, Safety, and a Decent Human Life (The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society). At best, these articles are simply Twitter-esque political blathering with some philosophical sounding wordplay. There’s not a lot of love of wisdom happening in the academy these days. The citizens of Athens would not recognize or promote this activity.
Philosophy as a durable human project is not dead, but is now coming from improbable places. It’s on YouTube. It’s in podcasts. I’m not sure I should be surprised by this. Just as Aristotle trained generals, Clear is training folks in the business world.
At any rate, if you know any good audio books, please pass on their titles.