Like everyone else, I was grabbing for terra firma during the pandemic, particularly eager to lay my hands on a set of ideas that I could hold on to in the night, when I felt tossed by the high seas of change. As 2020 would have it, I found what I needed in an online class made available by Yale called the The Science and Philosophy of Human Nature taught by woman named Tamar Gendler.
At first I’d listen while walking. But at some point, maybe during lecture 3 of 26, I found I needed to be seated so I could take notes. The act of student-ing, after two-plus decades outside the classroom, was invigorating. [Adulting is tiring, all those decisions to be made and consequences to be endured.] And there’s something youthful about entering a subject with almost no knowledge.
Meanwhile, in my grown up life, I had podcasts to record. George Saunders and Margaret Atwood were on the schedule. The plan was to talk about their latest books but the deeper I got into my human nature course, the more I needed to know: what did George think about human happiness? What would Margaret say were our most fundamental needs? I bagged the book talks and asked for their observations and experiences with virtue and vice, happiness and regret, friendship and flourishing. I tracked down Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror, must read) and Brit Bennett to get them in on the act.
After recording those long rich conversations, I dropped a generic email to Tamar Gendler herself. Since recording that course, she’d been promoted to Dean of Arts + Sciences. Would she make time to tutor me through these ideas? Would she even see my email? Yes she would. A week or two later, we recorded for nearly two hours and my clever producer, Susan George, whittled it down to a cool 51 minutes.
The question underneath every beat of the conversation was: what is true of all of us ? This conversation energized my thinking and calmed my nerves. Here is the incredibly useful, immediately applicable capstone conversation with Tamar, what she calls the five ancient secrets to modern happiness, and my notes in summation:
1. Socrates wants us to remember our limitations. We misunderstand ourselves and our motives all the time.
2. Plato wants us to know that we are made of parts — reason, spirit and appetite — that often conflict and that a worthy goal is to align those parts such that they work in unison.
3. Aristotle, the world’s first CBT therapist, wants us to keep in mind that we are what we repeatedly do so if you want to be brave, do brave things. If you want to be kind, do kind things.
4. Cicero wants us to see that friendship works. It doubles our joy and divides our grief. [In other words, all this campaigning I’ve been doing for meaningful connection to others is backed up by social science and ancient philosophy.]
5. Epicteus wants us to be careful where we spend our energy. He wants us to see clearly the difference between what is within our locus of control and what is outside it. “To mistake one for the other is to be doomed.”
I welcome you to enjoy the series and hope it does for you what it did for me: root me in an understanding of our nature that we’ve known for a couple thousand years now.
Kelly Corrigan is the author of five books and the host of Kelly Corrigan Wonders.