Friday, February 2, 2018


There is an age-old debate that has been travelling through the centuries, without often enough being explicitly laid out.  This is the argument between internal discipline and external environment, and deals with the issue of which should predominate in self-development.

This dilemma is hidden in other debates, such as the nature-nurture debate.  Is our character innate, or does our environment somehow imprint our character on us?  This is probably the most common modern version of the argument, but perhaps we can take a step back, and remove the politics from it.  The nature-nurture dilemma often has behind it a wish to influence the political debate around social care.  Those who favour nature might prefer to hold individuals responsible for their own internal discipline, a right wing view.  Those who favour nurture might prefer to hold the state responsible, a left wing view.

But standing back from it all and distilling the debate into a more individualistic dilemma, what is the question we are left with?  Maybe it's this:

In a given situation, when is it right to rely on our own inner discipline and resources; and when is it right to rely on external influences such as a good environment, and externally-imposed discipline?

Perhaps the ascetic approach is the one that favours self-discipline.  The argument goes that it is usually best to improve ourselves as a stand-alone unit, to the point where our powers of endurance make us as independent as possible from circumstance.  Only then, the argument would go, can we truly stand up for ourselves.

And maybe the opposite corner of the battle is represented by interdependence.  The argument here is that we cannot escape from our interdependence; that we were born into a web of interrelated activity that never ends.  We have no choice but to learn to work with our surroundings.  Our welfare depends on putting ourselves in favourable environments, and keeping away from unfavourable places.

A quick answer to the dilemma is to take a view that to be wise, is to know when to stand alone, and when to rely on others or your environment.  In that sense, perhaps a best answer is to take a contextualist stance.  To say: I can't say whether internal self-discipline or a positive external environment is most healthy.  I will have to evaluate every single situation I find myself in, and make a choice depending on that.

To take an extreme example, a person in the last minute of their life would be silly to continue to develop their self-discipline.  They don't need it for anything more, and so might choose to be with friends in their last moments, enjoying the positive influence they bring.

At the other end of the scale, before a long journey, a person would be wise to build up their powers of endurance, as they do not know what environments will come to pressurise them along the way.

This is a short article, but it covers an important dilemma we all face.  Whether, in self-development, to build up our internal resources (resilience), or to build up our external environment (support).  The suggested answer is that wisdom is the ability to contextualise the debate, and to match the choice to the situation.  If resilience is unnecessary, don't build it.  If it is necessary, in order to do good, then build it.