Insights from Our Ancestors

Insights from Our Ancestors

In the late 1980s I was invited to Singapore to help their Curriculum Development Institute develop a program in critical and creative thinking. I first visited classrooms to observe teachers and students at work and also spoke with students outside of class. I was impressed by their desire to learn and enthusiastic participation in class activities. In my conversations with them outside of class, they paid close attention to my every word and their comments and questions were thoughtful. Clearly, their attitude toward their subjects and their teachers was much more positive than the attitude of many of my college students. I could not help lamenting how we Americans had failed to cultivate a better attitude among our young people.

That was over 45 years ago. What we have done to our young people since then is considerably worse—indeed, more shameful—than what we did then. We have taught them that there is no need to strive for knowledge and wisdom because they already possess both, and that feeling good about themselves is not something earned by achievement but their birthright. Those teachings have led to young people’s contempt for their parents’ and ancestors’ insights and to disinterest in the study of history. This view is the very opposite of the view Singaporeans (and other Asian peoples) have of their forbears. Little wonder that American students’ achievement in reading, math, and science is below that of their counterparts in Singapore and a dozen other countries around the world.

It is impossible to measure the magnitude of the loss several generations of American youth have suffered from their contempt for the wisdom of the past, but the following quotes are a sample of the profound and in many cases life changing ideas they have missed.

Thoughts on Understanding Ourselves

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Socrates, Greek Philosopher (470-399 BC) Comment: This observation is among the most fundamental insights into human nature and development. To be wise means “having experience, knowledge, and good judgment,” all three of them dependent on employing  mental skills, which must be developed before they can be employed effectively.

“The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.” Sophocles, Greek Philosopher (497-406 BC) Comment: this fact is unpleasant to acknowledge—we are tempted to blame others for our misfortunes—but acknowledging it is essential for self-development. Without that acknowledgment we remain unmotivated to improve.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.” Epictetus, Greek Philosopher (60-110 AD) Comment: A moment’s reflection on this idea, in light of the previous two, suggests that knowing our strengths and weaknesses is not enough. We must also gain control of them.

“A human being can alter his life by altering his state of mind.” William James, American Philosopher (1842-1910). Comment: State of mind may be defined as “thoughts and feelings at a particular time or habitually.” The key word in this quotation is “altering.” It adds an important detail to the insights of the Greeks—that knowing and mastering ourselves is most fruitful when we have good habits.

“All men should strive to learn before they die—what they are running from, and to, and why.”  James Thurber, American Author (1894-1961). Comment: This statement identifies three valuable kinds of self-knowledge and self-mastery that can improve our lives.

“Thoughts lead to words, which lead to actions, which lead to habits, which form character, which create destiny.” Adapted from a quotation attributed to Ajahn Chah (1918-1922), among others. Comment: The observation here is that there is a natural progression of self-improvement or self-decline and its direction depends on our degree of mindfulness. From this perspective we can see that emotion without thought is a handicap to growth. (And yet our young people have been taught the opposite—that emotion is preferable to thought.)

My comments on the previous quotations explain the help they provide in understanding and improving ourselves. The more we revisit and ponder them, the more we can profit from their insights. Following are some additional quotations (without comment) for you to ponder.

Thoughts on Behavior Toward Others

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Aesop, Greek Storyteller (620-564 BC).

“Life is made up of little things. True greatness consists in being great in little things.” Samuel Johnson, English writer (1709-7184).

“Humility is the most difficult of all the virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.” T.S. Eliot  Poet/Essayist (1888-1965)

“Your true character is most accurately measured by how you treat those who can do nothing for you.” St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997 )

“We never think of connecting violence with our tongues. But the first weapon, the cruelest weapon, is the tongue.” St. Teresa of Calcutta

Thoughts on Happiness and Peace of Mind

“Happiness does not consist in having what you want, but wanting what you have.“ Confucius, Chinese Philosopher (551-479 BC).

“You’ll never find happiness until you stop looking for it.” Chuang-Tzu, Chinese philosopher (369-286 BC)

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Antonius, Roman Emperor and philosopher (83-30 BC).

“Our fears are more numerous than our dangers, and we suffer more from apprehension than in reality.” Seneca, Roman Philosopher (4 BC- 65AD)

“All unhappiness is the result of excessive expectations.” Buddhist saying.

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its joy.” Author unknown

I am sure you have noted while reading these quotations that almost all of them were written more than a century ago and a good number were written more than 2000 years ago. You may also have noted that every one of the quotations is relevant to our lives, regardless of when it was written. Each one has a valuable message, no matter the centuries or millennia that separate the authors from us. The reason is simple—all were writing about our shared human nature and human condition. The fact that 2000 plus year-olds can speak meaningfully to today’s young people dramatically  exposes the fallacy that 50 or 60 year-olds cannot.

If this brief encounter with our ancestors’ insights has been helpful, you may wish to continue it. There are many collections of quotations to choose from. I recommend, for starters, Gary W. Fenchuk’s Timeless Wisdom, and Albert M. Wells, Jr’s Inspiring Quotations.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero