The glaring flaw of personal development, revealed by Plato
INTERVIEWER: “We’re joined today by Plato as we continue our series on the personal development industry. Mr. Plato, thank you for being here.”
PLATO: “It’s my pleasure. And just Plato is fine.”
INTERVIEWER: “Very well. So tell us, Plato: What is your take on the personal development industry?”
PLATO: “It has largely removed itself from its original foundation, and has thus lost context.”
INTERVIEWER: “And what foundation are you referring to?”
PLATO: “Yes, virtue. What we Greeks would call arete, or moral excellence.
INTERVIEWER: “But don’t all personal development authors speak of excellence?”
PLATO: “Yes, but in the context of skills, not virtue. For example, your Napoleon Hill has taught millions how to use the power of thought to create wealth. That is a skill. But never did he teach why to create it and how to use it once you have it. Those questions are the realm of virtue.
“All personal development gurus speak of unleashing the power within. The practices for doing so are learned skills. But surprisingly few gurus speak of what you should do with your power once it is unleashed. That is the role of virtue.
“All self-help gurus teach that you have the power to choose. Embracing that truth is a skill. But choosing wisely is determined by virtue.”
INTERVIEWER: “But isn’t it a virtue in and of itself to strive for excellence in any endeavor? Would you not agree that the act of improving one’s skill is virtuous by its own right?”
PLATO: “Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler were both highly-skilled, excellent orators. But were they both virtuous? C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, skilled writers both. But it is not their writing skill that determines their virtue, or lack thereof.
“One can be an excellent baseball player but a reprehensible human being. Let me put it a different way: Would you rather your car mechanic be honest or competent?”
INTERVIEWER: “I see your point. A car mechanic can be excellent at his work, but if he’s dishonest, we could hardly call him an excellent human being.”
PLATO: “Correct. But unfortunately, your culture worships skills above all else, with no context of virtue.
“This is why your children grow up dreaming of becoming professional athletes and celebrities — they want to be famous for being good at something, but they think little of being moral.
“This is why your educational system is built around practical job skills, versus character development and philosophy. It is why you value money more than wisdom. It is why you focus on making a living, not on making a life, and on striving to gain, but not on striving to become.
“It is why the personal development industry largely focuses on skills, such as how to become a better public speaker or how to do online marketing, versus virtue, or how to become a better, wiser, kinder, more loving, less selfish human being.
“And it is why your personal development and self-help gurus become rich and famous by appealing to your self-interest, rather than by urging you to attain self-mastery. This explains why the so-called ‘law of attraction’ is so popular — you will buy anything from anyone who tells you that you can have anything you want. And so The Secret flies off shelves while my Dialogues collect dust.”
“And I can’t help mentioning that while Napoleon Dynamite laments his lack of great skills, I lament the millions of people with great skills but very little virtue.”
INTERVIEWER: “Plato referring to Napoleon Dynamite. Now we’ve heard everything.”
PLATO: “You think I just sit around philosophizing all day? I get bored with listening to Socrates yammer, same as you.”
INTERVIEWER: “Okay, so in your view, we should focus more on developing our virtue than on improving our skills. So what can you tell us about developing virtue?”
PLATO: “First of all, I would refer you to the Four Cardinal Virtues, which I explain in my book, The Republic. Now, I must give credit to the Romans for the word ‘cardinal,’ which came from the original Latin cardo, meaning the hinge of a door. Thus, the cardinal virtues are pivotal virtues — all other virtues, all ultimate results in life hinge upon them.”
INTERVIEWER: “And what are the Four Cardinal Virtues?”
PLATO: “The first is PRUDENCE, or wisdom. This is the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time. Viktor Frankl summed this one up nicely when he said, ‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.’
“Second is JUSTICE, also called fairness. This is the perpetual and constant will of rendering to each one his right. It is being honest in our dealings.
“Third is TEMPERANCE, or restraint. This is the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation — in other words, tempering appetites.
And the fourth is COURAGE, also called fortitude. This is forbearance, strength, endurance, the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.”
INTERVIEWER: “But how would personal development authors and gurus make any money if they focused on these virtues?”
PLATO: “Yes, well, that is the point. Living and teaching these virtues has nothing to do with money. These virtues are such because they are good in and of themselves. The wise man does not live them in order to derive byproducts, like money or happiness. He lives them because it is the right thing to do. He lives them because he seeks to be good, not to simply have good things.
INTERVIEWER: “And with that, we’re out of time. Thank you again, Plato.”
PLATO: “Thank you.”
INTERVIEWER: “Stay tuned, because up next we have a famous guru we all know and love who will reveal how you can have anything you’ve ever dreamed of, faster than you ever thought possible.”