By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Taking the Good Hint

I want to focus on the need to take good hints! Ironically, we, the very rational Homo sapiens, often take every hint except the ones that are the most favorable. I was reminded of this irrationality by a commentary by classicist Clyde Pharr (by the way, I highly recommend his old, annotated edition of the first six books of the Aeneid). Pharr comments that the Roman custom was to explicitly accept an omen: "Omen accipio"/"I accept the omen." (The Romans, very sensibly, ignored unfavorable omens, according to Pharr. See his comments at Aeneid V.530-31.)

We can learn from this Roman custom: accept what is favorable. But to do so, we must first be vigilant and on the "look out" for what is favorable. Even here, our irrationality loves to play games: many of us tend to question favorable signs until we have come up with an explanation that ends up making "unfavorable" what is reasonably viewed as favorable.

So, the lesson is this: when a favorable sign in your life occurs, accept it, Roman-style, before your doubts rush to distort the rationally favorable into its irrational opposite. This approach is a way to defuse our own habits of self-sabotage.
(Image in public domain)


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

We have all heard this phrase--I think that I may have found its origin in Vergil. Here is the scene in Book V of the Aeneid: a bulky wrestler named Dares boastfully challenges his fellow Trojans to a wrestling match. When no one dares to take up the challenge, Dares walks right up and grabs the bull by the horns--he grabs the bull that was promised by Aeneas to the winner of the anticipated wrestling match. Eventually, an older man, Entellus, is coaxed to take up the challenge and, with dramatic twists and turns in the match, ends up beating boastful Dares. You can read the entire episode at Book V, lines 362-484 (see link).

But the point I want to focus on is the phrase "take the bull by the horns." What Dares does is, as we also like to say, to "bring matters to a head." His brazen grabbing of the bull by the horns eventually provokes a challenge to him; and so the match takes place, after all.

In life, we often need to take the bull by the horns: to take that step that tests and probes our circumstances, in effect, investigates our circumstances to find out where people stand. You can think of innumerable examples: the attorney who proceeds to trial to see if the other side is serious about going to trial or not, the child who tests the limits of the parent, the person who seeks to bait or provoke another to see if the other can be toyed with or has great reserves of self-control, or the person in love who seeks to find out if there is any chance of reciprocity.

We see that "taking the bull by the horns" can be productive of good or can be a method of manipulation. Sad to say, it is often those with bad intentions who seem more ready to take the bull by the horns than those with good intentions. Those with good intentions should take a lesson from the boldness of the unscrupulous: often you must take the bull by the horns in order to break the logjams of life.

(Image via Wikipedia)

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Power of Success

Dragon Boat Races
Dragon Boat Races (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)
I won't quote Norman Vincent Peale or Dale Carnegie. But rather we can look to Vergil in Book V of the Aeneid (lines 227-31):

Tum uero ingeminat clamor cunctique sequentem
instigant studiis, resonatque fragoribus aether.
hi proprium decus et partum indignantur honorem
ni teneant, uitamque uolunt pro laude pacisci; 
hos successus alit: possunt, quia posse uidentur.

"But then the shouting redoubles and all the onlookers urge on with zeal the pursuing boat, and the air resounds with the roar.

These men [in the lead] are angry lest they fail to hold on to their own glory and their already gained honor, and they even wish to trade their life for the sake of praise; on the other hand, success nourishes the others who are in pursuit: they are able, because they seem to be able" (my non-literal translation).

What is the context? The context is a friendly boat race among the Trojans. Vergil first describes the indignation of the leading boat which is in danger of being overtaken by a pursuing boat. The men in the leading craft naturally do not want to lose their lead. At the same time, the pursuing vessel is confidently elated because it has managed to make up so much lost ground--its success in closing the gap spurs it further onward.

In short, success breeds success. That is why many advise us to become more mindful of what we have actually accomplished thus far and be thankful for it: that thankful awareness spurs us onward to greater achievements, as the dramatic advance in the boat race spurred the men advancing from the rear to try to surpass even the leading boat. Yet, in the end, this pursuing boat still came in second place. The leading boat did keep its lead and its glory. Yet, second place is very good for a boat that started the race at the rear of the pack. With due respect to Coach Lombardi, winning first place is not everything. Sometimes winning is just closing the gap with which we began the race.

(Translation consulted, which also provides the broader context of the famous boat race: .)

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Friday, January 25, 2013

The Perry School in Ypsilanti: Character Over IQ

A recent NPR report noted a study of preschoolers in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which showed that preschool made a significant difference in the long-term future of kids by yielding greater educational achievement and freedom from criminal activity. Nobel winner James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has studied this phenomenon and argues that our educational system overemphasizes IQ and other test scores when, in fact, life skills such as self-control and persistence are what make the difference in the long run. One of the signature traits, for example, of the Perry preschool in Ypsilanti is that the kids planned their activities, engaged in them, and then reviewed them. Well, if more adults reviewed some of their activities on a daily or weekly basis, I firmly believe life would be better for all of us. Adults, even highly educated adults, even adults with high IQ scores, go through life repeating the same inane behaviors that lead nowhere. A little daily review just might lead to changes in course that will benefit everyone. Recently, the New York Times ran an article illustrating how self-awareness can be a key to success in life (see Reviewing our activities is self-awareness. There was some Greek from long ago who said something about the unexamined life.

I have always been suspicious of the cult of IQ scores. Human nature and human intelligence are too complex, rich, and variable to be reducible to such crude measures, although many love to draw excessive inferences from IQ scores. Human nature loves to classify people and loves to rank people. IQ scores feed into that distorting predisposition of who is better than whom. The better predisposition is to ask: how can I make myself and others better?

The lessons from Heckman's work are that character counts and that good character traits can be encouraged and taught and can make a big lifetime difference. We are not constrained by IQ scores but only by our openness and daring to improve ourselves and others.

Here are some links to follow this story: .

Monday, January 21, 2013


This post is another in my off-and-on series on interesting Latin words that I come across in a semester of reading several Latin authors. Today's Latin word is "addictus" from the Latin verb "addico." If you look it up, here are some of the meanings (with sources) that I came across: "bound, pledged" (Cassell's); "enslaved, doomed" (Whitaker's); "one who has been given up as servant to his creditor" (Lewis & Short).

Wow. An addict is enslaved and doomed. His or her happiness and well-being depend on another. Wise teachers have told us that the key to happiness and peace is not to allow ourselves to be addicted to anyone or anything. The dictionaries reflect that wisdom.

People in search of romantic love (that means most human beings!) have to be very careful here. The goal is to transform the addictive phase of early attraction into a genuine love that uplifts both parties. The path to that healthy love is to allow freedom to each other, a freedom to return to each other voluntarily and without pressure: the freedom of non-addiction. Thus, ironically (so much that is true seems to be ironic or, maybe better said, nuanced), we must "detach" ourselves in order to be in a permanent and healthy relationship. Maybe, that intelligent distance is what another generation long ago called "chastity" between the sexes in both the narrower and broader sense of the term.

(Image in Public Domain: slave from Pompeii via Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

To Rest or To Struggle: A False Choice?

Small things can spark reflection. As I make my way through pages of Latin reading, I try to find ways to intuitively remember the vocabulary I come across. At times, my intuition is stretched!

For example, the verb "nitor" can mean both to rest upon something and to rise up and struggle (check the online Lewis & Short Latin dictionary). What were they thinking? But, then again, language is not something drawn up artificially to make rational sense. Rather, language develops organically and by trial-and-error, much as the common law or other customs of our culture did.

In any event, whatever the sources of this etymological mystery (at least a mystery to me), two ideas are juxtaposed that we would normally not put together: to rest and to struggle. Are these two ideas really at odds?

In a world of hectic activity, especially in American culture, it may actually be a struggle to rest on something, especially if you cannot find that something. Rest can be a sign of strength and maturity. The person who rests has the grace to resist the pressure to be mindlessly busy and can use that rest actively to contemplate what he must do next. In a way, all our struggles should begin with resting on something and should end with resting on something. What is that something? It must be something that enables you to rise up again and again to engage in the struggle of life. And so our mission is to find that something to rest upon that enables us to rise up! Maybe, there is a method to the different dictionary meanings: to rise up requires that we get a foothold on a rocky ledge as we climb up. So, possibly the two meanings came together: gaining a foothold is struggling upward.

(I am reminded of a recent book celebrating how Sherlock Holmes would calmly meditate before solving a mystery; while others, like Watson, would run around like chickens with their heads cut off.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Optimism is Rational

We often hear people concerned not to raise "false hope" among other people. If the intent is not to lead people to waste their time or efforts or money, I agree. For example, if someone thinks they are getting into Oxford but in fact have no chance, then it makes no sense to sell your house and move to England because you believe you are getting into Oxford. In the legal world, we refer to such costs as "detrimental reliance"--your false hope has led you to rely on an illusion that is incurring real and major costs, not just direct costs but the indirect opportunity cost of foregoing more promising alternatives.

But optimism is not false hope when there are no such costs involved. And, often, there are situations where optimism imposes no major direct or opportunity costs or just imposes trivial costs. Let's take an example from the social world. For some of us with Latin backgrounds, the coldness of American culture is amazing. We see people ignore so many opportunities for friendly interactions with others that impose no costs at all: no significant costs and, perhaps, a great benefit, such as a job offer, a future recommendation, a friendship, or even romance. Yet, people bypass such opportunities all of the time by being aloof from others around them, even those others whom they see often and with whom they interact frequently, to some degree or other. The optimistic approach would be to simply be a warm and friendly person because of all the potential benefits involved.

Of course, if you have a warm and friendly personality, you will do this anyway. But, if you need some extra motivation, then do a rational "optimist" analysis as above. The same analysis is applicable to many other situations: what are the direct and opportunity costs of doing something? What are the potential benefits? And then be optimistic in your approach, because it is rational to be so!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Nirvana logo (yellow). Derived from the cover ...
Nirvana logo (yellow). Derived from the cover of the compilation album Nirvana by Nirvana. Published in 2002. The Nirvana wordmark might be trademarked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What a great and old insight--attributed to Voltaire!

I have often been in political discussions where one party dismisses a reform or proposal because it will not solve all problems. The unspoken assumption is that enacting one reform somehow excludes other reforms to be enacted "down the line" or even reforms to be enacted relatively soon. One of the common arguments is that a specific reform or proposal does not address the problems profoundly and so is not worthy of consideration.

As you can see, such objections are rooted in often unconscious and false assumptions:

1. You can enact only one reform at a time;

2. Enacting one reform precludes additional reform;

3. We should never enact piecemeal reforms;

4. The perfect solution is within our reach;

5. We have plenty of time to find the perfect solution;

6. There is no cost to the delay in finding the perfect solution.

In short, the objections assume we live in a utopia where we can find the perfect solution to a problem or need without incurring the costs of delay.

For example, some object to school vouchers, while ignoring the high human cost of inner city kids who grow old every day in a state of ignorance. This insight is also relevant in discussing gun control legislation in the wake of various school-related disasters in the past few years.

We are mortal. We have a limited time to live. We do not know and will never know everything we need to know. We will rarely find the perfect solution, if such a thing even exists in an ever-changing world.

Next time you are at an impasse with yourself or with someone else on what to do about a personal or social problem, consider the old saying: the perfect (or our illusion of the perfect) can be the enemy of the good. (Some refer to the fallacy of perfectionism as the "Nirvana fallacy" or the "perfect solution" fallacy.)

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Reinventing Yourself

Fountain of Youth
Fountain of Youth (Photo credit: Heather Culligan)
That is a very American tradition--as a nation of immigrants (I include African-Americans in that group since many of their families were part of the great internal "immigration" from the South to other parts of the country), we or our forebears have reinvented ourselves at some time or another.

As a reader of the Spanish language press, I came across this human interest story about an 87-year-old Spaniard (specifically, Catalan--in Spain, regional identities are, to say the least, significant) who just acquired his doctorate in law ("derecho" in Spanish).

His advice: "hay que reinventarse. Mira qué puedes hacer y ponte a hacerlo"/"you must reinvent yourself. Look around for what you can do and start doing it." He already had a successful career as an economist with a doctorate in economics. He also reminds us that "one retires from work, but not from life."

Here is the link to the Spanish language news article. Even if you do not read Spanish, you can enjoy the photo of our eighty-something friend with a zest for learning and life. May we be bold enough to follow the example of Joan Amat ("Joan" is Catalan for "Juan")!
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Friday, January 11, 2013

Festina Lente

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...
Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor Augustus in Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican, Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
That was, supposedly, the motto of the Emperor Augustus: "Make haste slowly." This motto reminds me of what the federal courts used to say during the era of litigating school integration: "with all deliberate speed."

These mottos repeat a basic truth considered in this 2012 book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by math professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird (of Great Courses fame):

Consider some complex issue in your studies or life. Instead of tackling it in its entirety, find one small element of it and solve that part completely. . . . Choose a subproblem small enough that you can give it this level of attention. Only later should you consider how your efforts could help solve the larger issue.

Burger & Starbird, Kindle Location 1608.

The book is full of worthwhile insight, most of which you already apply in some form or another in your life and in your work.

This one basic point of concentrating on one small element of a larger web of problems is especially vital because all too often, in an often amazing way, the relatively small things are what keep people paralyzed in their jobs. Someone may not be able to get a better job for no better reason than the lack of equipment to produce or revise a resumé. Some cannot get a business off the ground because of the lack of investment capital or credit. Another cannot go to school because of the failure to find financial aid. Still another may not be able to repay a student loan because of unfamiliarity with special programs specifically designed to aid him in paying off the loans. 

Often, the big changes and improvements in our lives depend on one, relatively small step. Concentrate on that step and many good things will then follow and make still other good things feasible and doable.

Oh, and by the way, Rome wasn't built in a day!


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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Buddhist Insights & the Christian Difference

As a Christian reading the Dalai Lama's reflections on the Buddhist approach to compassion, I am amazed at how such different cultures as the Western and the Buddhist grapple with many of the same questions. In one of the Dalai Lama's many books (see Amazon link below), he circles around the difficult philosophical questions about the ego and the extent to which the ego is dependent in its existence on its circumstances. Anyone familiar with the history of Western philosophy will see that the Dalai Lama is wrestling with many of the controversies that beset Western Idealism in the 20th century, as Westerners such as José Ortega y Gasset tried to clarify how the "I" exists. Ortega summarized his view as "I am I and my circumstance"--the ego is never an isolated monad.


As to the specific issue of cultivating compassion for others, the Buddhist view seems predicated on the metaphysical notions of cyclic existence and of the lack of inherent existence of things, including the self, in the world. As Christians, we get to the same result, the urgency and necessity of compassion, without the baggage of cyclic existence and without needing to view the self or objects in the world as somehow illusory (although we do agree on the transiency of what we see around us).

For the Christian, the ups and downs of cyclic existence (reincarnation) are the ups and downs of our one life on earth. From a Christian point of view, the idea of reincarnation is a purely symbolic, non-realistic fable or story that communicates a truth about this one life on earth: our good and evil actions have real consequences. The Dalai Lama focuses on the need to cultivate compassion because we have gained the insight that all of us are caught in the same web of suffering and that all of us desire happiness.

The Christian approach to the same conclusion (compassion and solidarity with others) lies in the very character of the God who created and sustains the universe: the deity is love. As such, the law of our own being as creatures of that deity is also love. Our true identity is to be gift to the other. In being gift to others, we find our authentic worth, mission, and happiness. We find our escape from our own suffering. The Christian metaphysical underpinning of compassion does not depend on believing in reincarnation and does not depend on emphasizing the illusory nature of existence. Rather, the Christian underpinning is based on the law of love inscribed in our very being in a world whose engine is love. I highly recommend that Christians take a look at how Buddhism celebrates compassion and see how the Christian tradition in a different way comes to the same conclusion: the key to our existence is cultivating compassion for others.

Ultimately, the question we need to ask every day is this: am I--in what I habitually talk about and in what I habitually do--being "gift" to others or a burden? Being gift is to be Christ, being a burden is to be an Antichrist. We do not need any more Antichrists.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Fear Itself

FDR said it in the midst of the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The phrase has long been iconic: but do we really apply it?

Look first where we show no fear at all: we fearlessly waste our time and energies and thus our lives on the mediocre and the frivolous, whether the mediocrities are our pursuits of mindless distractions or intimate association with mediocre people.

Our vanity and insecurity attract us to the mediocre. We do not have to fear challenge. We do not have to fear failure or rejection. If we stick with mediocre pursuits and mediocre intimates, we are safe--we know that losers, whether the losers are certain unchallenging activities or actual individuals, do not endanger us.

We thus fear precisely what is best for us. We fear the job or career for which we were created. We fear the significant other who really loves us or whom we can really love. We run away. And, in the meantime, the energies that could be poured into the excellent calling or the excellent relationship are dissipated on trivial activities and trivial people.

What is the solution? Logic can help. If you really can't do X or really can't have a relationship with X, you will soon find out anyway. If, on the other hand, X is really doable, it is logical to try it. You have nothing to lose. If more of us would exercise simple logic--often a very simple decision tree in our minds, we would live up to more of our potential.

I am reminded how in one of the Narnia books the professor remonstrates with the children that no one uses simple logic anymore. Simple logic is considering all possible alternatives one by one. Most often, the result of applying such logic is to label any fear irrational. The exercise of logic often takes less time than texting that next frivolity you are about to text to someone.

(Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Capacity for Friendship

What I am about to write has probably been much better stated by some writer centuries ago with whom I am not familiar. I hope that is true and that someone sends me what another has written so I can learn from that writer. But here goes my take on the capacity for friendship.

Everyone has problems and issues. But the one out of  "the everyone" who has the capacity for friendship is able to bracket those personal challenges and go out of herself and reach out to the other. The one with a capacity for friendship is able to see the struggles and desires of the other and chivalrously, generously, and magnanimously assist the other to overcome, to achieve, and to fulfill those healthy desires. If you meet someone like that, you will make that person your friend in no time; and you won't let go unless you have really taken leave of your senses.

And the unoriginal insight is that to gain a friend is to be that type of friend--the magnanimous facilitator of all that is good for the other. Once a friend is revealed as someone who stands in the way of your happiness or sabotages your happiness or is unsympathetic to your struggle for happiness, the capacity and very reason for the existence of friendship are lost. Many who lose friends just do not understand this reality at all and remain puzzled.  This type of friendship--what I consider authentic friendship--requires a selfless intuition: to see what the other needs which may be very different from what you think the other needs or should need. Without that intuition, what passes for friendship is mere co-existence in the same space-time coordinates.

CC license via Wikimedia Commons