Sunday, February 3, 2008

Retirement Planning and the History of Medicine


Retirement Planning and (a very brief and incomplete) History of Medicine

History doesn’t so much repeat itself as it traps us inside repetitive motions, sentencing us to do the same kind of things over and over, whether it is the best method or not. Unfortunately, this foible of human existence is not just a hapless mistake when it comes to retirement planning, but also something that can take quite a few years to correct. When it comes to medicine, established thinking remained unchanged for thousands of years.

At the beginning of chapter seventeen, I discuss just such a history and the influence it had over two millennia of medicinal practice. The chapter opens with a conversation about humors, often referred to as the study of body fluids (not so appetizing of a subject) is important for two reasons. It gives us a chance to examine some of the notions that you might have about investing and how those ideas have affected your retirement plan.

To add credibility to a subject, you must first be famous, something that wasn’t invented with the advent of paparazzi and if that fame was because of your associations, even more truth-in-wisdom worship was heaped upon you. Plato’s success was largely due to his place in history, before Aristotle and after Socrates.

I mention Aristotle (who believed the every soul knew everything and that we simply forgot what we knew at birth, and for the rest of our lives, we try to reawaken that knowledge), Plato (a student of Aristotle who opened the Academy in Greece to discuss and engage students about ideas and ideals, how the world was created and what makes a man – matter and free will) and Socrates (a student of Plato who pretty much invented modern logic with his causes: “material cause or what something is made of, efficient cause or the motion or energy that changes matter, formal cause or the thing’s shape, form, or essence; its definition and lastly the final cause or its reason, its purpose, the intention behind it) because this is a study in how things get passed along from one person to another. It was what one taught the other that allowed the other to make discoveries, conclusions and eventually, hypothesis. One of those passed along ideas was Plato’s notion of elements.

The classical Greek version attaches each of these elements to a specific god: Zeus is Air, Hera is Earth, Hades is Fire and Nestis (Persephone) is Water. Aristotle basically drew the organic line between all of them, giving them form. As John Opsopaus of the Computer Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee Knoxville writes: “Earth is predominantly Dry, Water predominantly Cool, Air predominantly Moist, and Fire predominantly Warm.

The dominant Power is the one in a counterclockwise direction from the Element in the Square of Opposition; thus the arrow by each Element points to its dominant Power. The vertical axis represents the active Qualities (Warm, Cool), the horizontal represents the passive (Moist, Dry). The upper Elements (Air, Fire) are active, light and ascending, the lower (Water, Earth) are passive, heavy and descending. The Elements on the right are pure, extreme and absolutely light (Fire) or heavy (Earth); those on the left are mixed, intermediate and relatively light (Air) or heavy (Water). The absolute Elements exhibit unidirectional motion (ascending Fire, descending Earth), whereas the relative Elements (Air, Water) can also expand horizontally. The Organic Cycle (the cycle of the seasons) goes sunwise around the square.

When Hippocrates made the leap from observed sciences and gave these definitions of the elements to the human body, did we enter a dark age for medicine. Even as more and more new discoveries were being made in the subsequent centuries, many of those discoveries were shaped (almsot hindered) by these ingrained notions that, if some fluid was involved, it pointed to a certain malady.

Much of what you know about retirement planning revolves around ideas that may be more antiquated than useful. Just as doctors, right up until the middle of this century associated these elements as precursors for their decisions, the way we focus on retirement has changed. None of what you may know, stocks to bonds protectionism, a balanced attack, shifting as we get older, is what we need in this day and age.

In the perfect retirement account, one that is not an investment but an investment in the future, I believe that stocks should always be held, right up until you retire and often beyond. But because the book doesn’t necessarily go beyond the point of retirement – if there is an actual definitive date for that event – the focus on what you should do up until that point is much different that what you have heard before.

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