I’ve recently been reading Charlie Munger’s Poor Charlie’s Almanack. In it, he talks about this idea of admiration-based love. That you can love someone and have deep admiration for them whether they are alive or not.
I mostly interpret this as Charlie’s love for reading and thus how he converses with the dead. Throughout many of the titles I’ve read, the most notable philosophers instruct their students to learn only from the best.
When the students get confused as to who is the best given they thought they are learning from the best living philosopher, the wise philosopher mentions that they are not accounting for the eminent dead surrounding us with the many gifts they left us.
For Munger, you can tell that Benjamin Franklin heavily inspired his life of modeling honesty, self-improvement, and a bit of witty humor. His book is even inspired by Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack which includes all sorts of information that interested Franklin under the pseudonym “Poor Richard” or “Richard Saunders”. This usually encouraged thriftiness, courtesy, and a dash of cynicism.
I’ve been inspired by similar characters in my life. While Franklin is a top contender, my personal pick is Marcus Aurelius. Me and Marcus have got through some tough times together and I keep a copy of Meditations on me everywhere I go. Embarrassingly enough, I even wear a necklace with his portrait everyday as it reminds me what a privilege it is to be alive each new day.
Many of these figures like Benjamin Franklin or Marcus Aurelius cast deep shadows for those who follow their footsteps. The unique part about life is that you don’t have to follow anyone. You can blaze your own trail with the eminent dead as your guide.
They have already figured out many aspects of life. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of being original when we can master the best of what they have figured out.
You’ve probably even heard the famous quote that we can be “Standing on the shoulders of giants” in reference to using this understanding gained by the eminent dead.
As with everything in life, there will be a time where we do not understand them but we are still drawn to their work for some reason. When I was in high school, I could care less about reading philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But I had an affinity to them. Why?
Approaching my mid 20s, there felt like something was deeply missing in my life. I was too “busy” working to read. As I started to read out of desperation for what was deeply missing, I realized it was learning from the giants of the past.
It took me multiple years to see why this natural attachment was there. As I would get into reading stoicism and greek philosophy that came before, it reminded me of my midwestern upbringing similar to Munger. All of these lessons I was taught as a kid and the very ones I am teaching my kids are rooted deeply in the inspiration of these giants.
To use a cliche Socrates quote perhaps incorrectly, my wisdom would begin in this wonder. Wondering about the roots of my upbringing. Wondering about why I was attached to these giants. Wondering why I hadn’t invited the eminent dead into my life earlier.
Xenophon said that Socrates would often tell his students that in good systems of education, there is a certain limit you should not go beyond. In geometry, he said, it is enough to know how to measure the land when you want to sell it or buy it, or how to share an inheritance, or to divide work among workers. He did not like too many sophisticated sciences; though he knew all of them. He said that sophisticated knowledge requires an extra effort that takes the student’s time from the most basic and the most important human pursuit: moral perfection.
Learning economics from Adam Smith, physics from Sir Isaac Newton, or government from Cicero will surely teach you these limits that Socrates suggests. You’ll know the core ideas of each of these subjects without having to do any trading, mathematics, or politicking.
To end, I’ll leave you with a Marcus Aurelius idea on the logos. The logos is the way Marcus Aurelius and many Romans made sense of the world’s events in their lives. One of the meanings of logos is to gather things together so they belong together. But also that they are made intelligible to us. So they come into our speech, so they can come into our thoughts. This living intelligibility becomes possible when you include the eminent dead.