Alfred Adler, a psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, advanced ideas which, very unlike Freud’s, strongly presage today’s commonplace understanding of mindfulness and acceptance, boundaries, and ethics. Ichiro Kishimi integrates Adler’s psychology with Greek philosophy and, with Fumitake Koga in The Courage to Be Disliked, writes the way Adler and Socrates taught, in the form of a dialogue. Here I borrow freely from the book, paraphrase freely, and add further, closely-related content specific to politics, giving a sense of the book’s flow, ideas, and strong application.
On the outskirts of the Gateway to the West lived a philosopher who taught that politics was simple and that honor was within the reach of every politician, instantly. A young politician who was dissatisfied with politics went to visit this philosopher to get to the heart of the matter. This youth found politics a self-sustaining critical mass of crony relationships and, in his anxious eyes, any notion of honor was completely absurd.
Youth: I want to ask you: do you believe that politics is, in all ways, simple?
Philosopher: Yes, politics is astonishingly simple, and honor is, too.
Youth: How can politics and honor be simple? What makes them simple?
Philosopher: As Alfred Adler taught, “All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.”
Youth: Yeah, right. Interpersonal relationships are complicated!
Philosopher: Not at all. Relationships happen moment by moment. At each moment, the people in a relationship focus their attention on a single task. And in Adlerian psychology, each task is simple, because we consider it from the perspective of “Whose task is this?”
Youth: Okay, let’s say you’re right. What chance is there that people agree on whose task this is? If they do agree, what chance is there that the person whose task it is will do his part? For that matter, why is it that the responsibility for the task at hand isn’t shared in some way among the people in the relationship?
Philosopher: In general, all interpersonal-relationship troubles are caused by you intruding on other people’s tasks, or by others intruding on your tasks. You will change your interpersonal relationships when you separate each task in the relationship. And you can separate tasks—and indeed you must separate tasks—by yourself, on your own initiative.
Youth: When you say that I must separate tasks, you mean I must set boundaries, one task at a time, in each task.
Youth: Well, that just won’t work. Other people aren’t going to agree with the boundaries I set.
Philosopher: Some will not. Maybe many will not. But setting their boundaries is their task, not your task. When they don’t agree, and when they cross your boundaries, your part in the relationship is to take care of what is in your control. Your part is to separate your contribution to each task. You complicate politics whenever you concern yourself with their actions that you don’t control. You simplify politics whenever you just concern yourself with your actions that you do control.
Youth: OK, that does sound simple, kind of. At least I can get started on my own.
Philosopher: Yes. The way Adler put it, “Someone has to start. Other people might not be cooperative, but that is not connected to you. My advice is this: you should start. With no regard to whether others are cooperative or not.” And the way you get started is by ascertaining which things you can change and which things you cannot change. It is not only other people’s tasks that it’s not your task to change, it is also your own innate talents that it’s not your task to change. Your task is to accept that others have their own tasks and to accept that you have your innate talents, to accept all those things that you cannot change. And to have the courage to change those things that you can change, to have the courage to change what use you make of your innate talents.
Youth: So if I believe that others won’t pass a bill if I champion it, my task is just to champion it.
Youth: So if, in my independent evaluation, a statute is unconstitutional, then even though I believe that everyone else would execute the statute, and that the media would attack me, and that others would sue me, and that voters would reject me, my task is to not concern myself with what others could do but just to not execute the unconstitutional statute myself.
Youth: How can I do this?
Philosopher: This takes courage, of course. But everyone has courage, and everyone simply uses their courage for different purposes. It would take no courage to not champion a bill you believe others would not pass, or to execute a statute you evaluate is unconstitutional, but at the same time it would take some courage to by doing so, not deliver to voters what they want; and yet you would expect to summon the courage to do the latter. The courage to support the Constitution is certainly within you. The guiding star is honor.
Youth: This is a hard teaching.
Philosopher: Perhaps at first it sounds hard, but in fact it is simple. Generations past have sought honor, and have earned it. Each politician also can seek honor now, in each task, in each moment. If you attempt to control outcomes, if your partners in your political relationships attempt to control outcomes, each of you interacts in a constant state of distrust.
Being in the same space with someone who distrusts you isn’t a natural situation that one can put up with, is it? As Adler says, “If two people want to live together on good terms, they must treat each other as equal personalities.” If you simply do what you know is honorable, you can be in a state of not feeling inferior and not feeling superior, you can simply be calm and in a quite-natural state. You can think, I can behave very freely. Further, as the Bible’s writers observed, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
When you seek honor, and you accept that others may not, each of your actions constantly functions like a seed crystal. Others’ actions may continue to swirl about yours, so that others themselves may continue to not find rest in honor. But you will constantly lay the foundation that provides the best path that others could follow. Building upon the foundation of your actions will always be the most-restful state for everyone’s actions to settle into. And in truth, one thing does lead to another. Honor attracts honor. When you change, the world changes.
The young politician slowly tied his shoelaces and left the philosopher’s house. On opening the door, he found a snowy scene spread out before him. The full moon, its floating form obscured, illuminated the shimmering whiteness at his feet. What clear air. What dazzling light. I am going to tread on this fresh snow, and take my first step. The young man drew a deep breath, rubbed the slight stubble on his face, and murmured emphatically, “Politics is simple, honor is simple, and the world itself has a simplicity that’s beautiful.”