On wisdom guiding the action

The following is an excerpt of an email exchange where I told the other person, whose identity shall remain hidden, how they should disinvest from their projects, commitments, desires, etc. in order to keep a sense of perspective and not develop tunnel vision that inevitably leads to calamity (e.g. read my Why it is not yours (2022-01-16)).

To me, non-commitment is as important as Stoicism’s dichotomy of control. I can’t thank you enough for helping me learn non-commitment, so that I can see and seize new opportunities!

I am happy this exchange has helped you.

There is an ancient Greek saying that people still use: “συν Αθηνά και χείρα κίνει”. It translates as “with Athena (the goddess), move your hand”. That loosely means that you still have to put in the work even if the goddess is by your side. I would phrase it in secular terms as having an initial two-fold meaning:

  1. Talent is worthless without the accompanying hard work and commitment (Athena on her own will not do anything).
  2. You focus on putting in the work, with the understanding that a whole range of factors is determined by external forces (so even if you move your hand, Athena must be there to help make things happen).

Which brings us back to what we have already discussed: try to be the best version of yourself. Be happy with yourself for the sincere effort you put in. Say “I did the best I could and I am proud of that”. Never blame yourself for variables you cannot control. And never belittle yourself when you know that you tried in earnest.

The only time to be self-critical is when Athena is by your side but you are not moving your hand; when you have the talent but are wasting it; when conditions are favourable yet you remain idle. If you are in such a position of wastefulness, don’t rationalise it as you being worthless—that would be the lazy way out or, rather, idleness doing the talk. Instead, analyse the situation and try to identify the factors that contribute to your inertia. Self-criticism is more like putting cold water on your face to wake up: it is not an attack against you. When you harm yourself, you are no longer engaging in criticism: you are being cruel and unfair. That is a form of hubris, as I have written in recent publications:

  1. Why I learnt to let go (2021-09-20).
  2. Why you should not worry (2021-12-23).
  3. Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism [video] (2022-02-16).

Which brings me to the final point of why I think the saying mentions Athena in particular: the goddess of wisdom. We often “move our hand” for the wrong reason. We act without thinking things through. Perhaps we try to achieve something that is socially desirable even though we don’t truly want it. (I find that we role-play by default, unless we take decisive measures to take the initiative—another topic I have covered in recent publications.) Or we are emotionally invested in an unrealisable desire. Or maybe we expend a disproportionate amount of energy on some trivial task, when we should be aiming for a balanced lifestyle instead. There are many cases where we lack perspective; where we do not have wisdom guiding our actions. When wisdom is absent, whenever we fail to look at the bigger picture, our actions are likely to be misguided. Even if they yield results, those will not be the ones we truly need. Like having your neighbours “respect you” for your fancy car, while you are either dead inside because you turned yourself into a robot of the capitalist order or failed to treat yourself as a fully fledged human being… Whatever the specifics, we must find the measure and avoid the excesses. The hand must be guided by wisdom.