Gregory B. Sadler: Don’t Cheat Yourself

Dr. Gregory B. Sadler is the author of Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France and the president of ReasonIO, a company dedicated to helping others put philosophy into practice. He takes resources from complex and often difficult philosophical texts and thinkers and makes them applicable to everyday life– transforming ancient philosophy intro useful tools for reflection, decision-making, and action.  

His main areas of study are the History of Philosophy, Ethics and Moral Theory, Critical Thinking, Philosophical Counseling, and Existentialism. He also teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, is the co-editor of Stoicism Today Selected Writings Volume 3, and has created over 1,500 videos on philosophy in his popular YouTube channel.

How did you become interested in this area?

There’s a complicated answer to that one!

It didn’t happen all at once, and there were different areas and aspects of philosophy that I got interested in along the way. The shortest answer would be, I suppose, that since childhood I’ve found asking the questions about why very captivating. I discovered later that philosophy was a field where – at least in theory, and in some of its representatives – asking that question, and working out answers wasn’t discouraged.  Then again, there’s more than one kind of why, isn’t there? We can ask not just “Why is this matter the way it is?”, but also “Why should it be that way?”, and a number of other related questions.

The first book of philosophy I read was Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. My uncle had a copy, and since I was interested in Greek mythology, I asked him if I could have it. I maybe understood a tenth of what was in it back then! At the Catholic high school I went to, I actually had a philosophy class, and it was pretty awful! The instructor basically taught from a textbook, expected us to memorize the answers he liked (even for essay questions), and there wasn’t any real discussion. 

By contrast, I lucked out when we got a last-minute substitute for our Sacraments class, a little monkish guy who was very much into St. Augustine. He reasoned that in order for us to understand Augustine, we’d need to learn a good bit about Plato, Aristotle, ancient cosmology, attempts to resolve the problem of evil, and a host of other topics. The other students didn’t like the class because it was him giving us some ideas and then a lot of open discussion. But I loved it.

When I was in the Army, I remember buying a few books that had to do with philosophy at the PX (post exchange – a kind of shop on base), and I gleaned some ideas from them.  After I got out, worked a while, and then decided to go to college, my mother’s old boyfriend gave me a bit of advice: “Declare a major right away, so that you get in with the professors and other students in a department”. And that’s what I did.

Without knowing much about it, I decided on a philosophy major, and just kept on taking classes, reading works in the discipline, and getting into conversations with people. And by a kind of inertia, perhaps reinforced by an affinity with some of the key authors, ideas, texts, and approaches of philosophy, I just kept on going.

Now I’m more than 30 years past that decision to major in philosophy, and I can say I’m pretty happy with the way my life, my work, my studies, and my relationships have gone because of it.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Well, that’s a very interesting one!

I was tempted at first to say that there isn’t any one single “most important” concept or idea for me, since I draw upon a lot of them from a number of different sources and traditions. Even just with Stoicism, I’m often the person saying to others: “Hold on there with those claims that X is the absolutely most central idea. Stoicism is a complicated network of ideas, practices, insights and so on, like Seneca himself tells us.” Being the eclectic that I am, there are even more ideas or concepts packed away in the proverbial philosophical toolbox. And yet. . . there is a very powerful practice and a capacity that I do see philosophy as particularly strong in. And that is making needed distinctions well, at the right time, in the right manner

It’s not as if philosophy has the market cornered on making good distinctions. (And there are plenty of people in the philosophy field who don’t do this well) However, it does seem to me that when one studies and practices philosophy in productive ways, one does get better at making distinctions that wind up being helpful; in the course of trying to figure something out, or even in the middle of seemingly intractable arguments. 

I do this all the time when I’m working with my clients on their personal or organizational problems, explaining something to confused students, working through things in committee or board meetings, or even just figuring out what a tricky passage from a philosophical text actually means. There’s definitely a set of skills involved in knowing when to point out that a term is being used by different people in different ways, or to say “if you look at it this way, then you’re right, but if you look at it this way, you’re off-base”.  There’s nothing magical about this, but it is pretty remarkable how very intelligent people from all sorts of disciplines and walks of life get mixed up and into conflicts by not recognizing when a distinction can be helpful.

So is there an idea or concept that corresponds to this skill, capacity, or practice?  Maybe it would be the notion that things are often more complicated than we realize, and that we’d do well to make good distinctions when we’re working through things?  These would be distinctions that aren’t just quibbling or unnecessary classification, but which really get to the heart of the matter, and divide things along lines that make sense.  Now, do I teach people this concept?  Well, yes and no, to introduce a distinction. . .

You put the two of these together – rationality and will – and you’re at the core of what human being is, and not just in the abstract, but in ways that we can relate to throughout our day-to-day practical life.

Gregory B. Sadler

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

That’s also a really tough one to answer! 

I suppose that since a significant part of my work is oriented around the problems and processes of integrating our emotions, our rationality, the habits we make and break, and our capacity to choose, there is an insight that I find myself pointing out over and over again. It turns out to be illuminating in a variety of frameworks, ranging all the way from discussions with fellow researchers at academic conferences to very practically-focused group discussions or client work.  You could express it in a very simple way like this: Working on yourself through practical philosophy involves deliberately using the parts of yourself we traditionally call your rationality and your will upon themselves to make them progressively less and less screwed up.

Unpacking that formula or catch-phrase into something a bit more meaningful requires saying a lot more, just a bit of which I’ll do here.  If you spend much time reading in ancient and medieval philosophy, and you’re really paying attention to what’s being worked out in those texts by those thinkers, one of the things that will jump out at you is how central our intellectual or rational capacity is for distinctively human beings, as opposed to the more general kind of thing we are, animal being. You’ll also find the progressive articulation of something that eventually comes to be identified as the will, which you can think of as the faculty of choice, though “choosing” is just one of its activities and functions. You can call this prohairesis, as Epictetus did, you can call it voluntas as Augustine did, or whatever else you like.  You put the two of these together – rationality and will – and you’re at the core of what human being is, and not just in the abstract, but in ways that we can relate to throughout our day-to-day practical life.

Another key insight of the ancients and medieval – and there’s many (perhaps complementary) ways to think about this – is that our rational faculties and our wills are not only parts of ourselves that have to develop themselves over time. By the time we start paying close attention to them, they’re usually messed up in one way or another – if we’re lucky! More often, they’re messed up, they have mis-developed, in more ways than we actually realize when we start looking at them. And this is where practical philosophy comes in and can help us out quite a bit. We need models of what it would look like to screw up less with respect to our rationality and will. The “sages” that some schools of ancient philosophy talk about provide some such models, but we can actually find others closer to where we are in those philosophers themselves who openly tell us that they aren’t sages. If we’re paying attention, we can also find myriad useful insights, distinctions, concepts, practices and the like in those philosophical works.

Rationality and will are not just higher parts of ourselves, in ancient and medieval thought. They are parts of ourself that extend and apply to, even govern you could say, other aspects and dimensions of ourselves, our relations to others, our engagements in the rest of the world.  Realizing that can be quite liberating or inspiring, but there’s another insight that is even more so. Rationality and will are reflexive, that is, they don’t just apply to everything else, but also to themselves. Again, this is something that Epictetus is crystal clear about. The rational faculty is one that governs itself. The prohairesis, which is what he says we are, determines itself. Even when other things do determine it, that is because prohairesis in some way allowed, chose, or gave in to that.

Put all these things together, and notice what you get as a result. We realize we’re messed up in complicated ways, and practical philosophy can help us extricate ourselves from that mire. How so? In a lot of ways, one of which is to show us that there are higher parts of ourself that can “run the show”, so to speak. But those parts are themselves all messed up as well. Yep, that’s true. But we’re lucky that they can also work on themselves, fix or replace the bits that are broken, improve and strengthen the parts that are running more or less right. And that’s us working upon ourselves through doing practical philosophy.

…a person doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue in order to be on the whole good, to impress that goodness upon others, and to provide a kind of needed orientation or example.

Gregory B. Sadler

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I guess I do, but it doesn’t come from philosophy as far as I know.  It’s actually something that my gym teacher and track coach used to say to us when I was in high school. It’s a very simple phrase: Don’t cheat yourself!

I think that phrase probably wouldn’t have made the impact it did upon me if the guy who said it, Chuck Bova, wasn’t, upon retrospect, a pretty virtuous person.  I won’t make the claim that he was an exemplary individual in every respect – how would I know that, after all? But coach Bova was certainly a pretty good guy, as I got to observe in classes, practices, conversations, and other interactions.  And as Cicero and Seneca tell us – this is something I think is really important – a person doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue in order to be on the whole good, to impress that goodness (in however confused a way) upon others, and to provide a kind of needed orientation or example.  I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but looking back, I saw Bova display and act on those virtues that have long been recognized as the cardinal ones – wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.

“Don’t cheat yourself” was the mantra he would say to us when he could tell we were tempted to do precisely that, when we were flagging.  It might be when we were lifting weights, running laps, doing sprints, running hills, or anything else. And he meant exactly what he said. It wasn’t about us as his students or athletes. He didn’t take our performance, good or bad, as reflecting upon him, because he knew he was already doing his part. He genuinely cared about us as people, and wanted us to put in the work required to develop ourselves. So not cheating ourselves was something he wanted for each of us. 

I’ll just say two more things about Bova here…

The first was that not every student was gifted athletically at that age, and I saw him tailor his expectations of each person in his class to what they could realistically achieve at that point. A level of effort that might count as “cheating myself” for me might be more than enough for one of my classmates. That was an exercise of prudence on his part. The second is that what he was teaching us – what really stuck with me at least – was how to persevere. For some of us, perhaps it was even more basic – that we could persevere.  As ancient virtue ethicists recognize, this is something absolutely central to personal development.  For the Stoics, it is a key aspect of courage. For Aristotelians, it is an analogue of self-control.  This lesson of perseverance, and that quote – or better put, maxim – “Don’t cheat yourself”- is applicable to pretty much every aspect of our lives, careers, relationships, and education.

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What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I’m pretty easy to find on the internet. If you search on “Gregory Sadler,” a lot of entries will pop up.  The top listings will generally be my social media profiles, my YouTube channel and videos, my Sadler’s Lectures podcast, my writings in various blogs (especially Medium), and interviews with other people and platforms (like this one here!).  I’ve been on YouTube for over a decade now, and have produced well over 2,000 videos on all sorts of topics, mostly within the field of philosophy broadly speaking, but also a good bit in religious studies and literature.

I have my own business, ReasonIO, whose motto is “putting philosophy into practice”.  I offer a number of services to individual and business clients, including tutorials, academic coaching, consulting, and philosophical counseling (my certification for the latter is through the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.)  Another one of the services I provide (and particularly enjoy) is public speaking, providing talks and workshops for academic institutions, businesses, professional organizations, libraries, religious organization, and even restaurants.

Over the last two decades, I have taught at a number of colleges, universities, and academic startups, so you’ll find quite a few references to those when you search for me.  In recent years, I’ve been paring back on that, so I can focus more on my work in public and practical philosophy. The one academic institution I still routinely teach for is Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and you can find my faculty webpage here.  As an academic, I have engaged in research and scholarship, culminating at this point in one book, Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France, and dozens of academic articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries.

In 2016, I joined the Modern Stoicism team as editor of Stoicism Today, where we publish weekly pieces of interest to the modern Stoic community.  Last year, I also co-edited Stoicism Today Selected Writings Volume 3, a book bringing together some of the best essays from Stoicism Today in recent years.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. 

I’d feel grateful and honored to be asked, excited to travel to an original home of philosophy, and happy to share useful ideas with attendees!  One of the great things about philosophy is that it can be studied and practiced anywhere in the world, with relatively few material requirements. And in the age of the internet you can access resources, participate in workshops, listen to lectures, and connect with people all over the globe. And yet. . .  there’s something about being in a place that has a history, isn’t there?

What precisely I’d talk about, I don’t know off the top of my head. There are so many topics that I’ve covered in the talks and workshops I’ve given just in the last decade, and I’ve got so many different research projects going right now. I suppose I’d see what the Plato’s Academy people thought might be most appealing to their students and attendees.

I will say, to bring this to a close, that giving talks in-person is something that I have missed during these last two years marked by the covid-19 pandemic.  Last month, I was invited back to one of the local libraries I partner with, to give a face-to-face, though masked up talk in the Philosophers In The Midst of History series, this one specifically on the Middle Platonist Plutarch.  I really enjoyed getting to engage with the audience in the same room, rather than over Zoom!  So, here’s hoping we’ll have a lot more of that, both at Plato’s Academy, and everywhere else, in the coming years.

What do you think?