This is a book review of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book may be of interest for philosophically inclined people who are into self-realization, self-actualization, and self-help type personal development, or are interested in Toltec philosophy and spirituality.
All Book Reviews
In this book review I will be reviewing my old copy of The Four Agreements, which I bought many years ago. Exactly when, I don’t remember: it could have been just before the millennium shift, or slightly after.
Unfortunately, there is no exact printing information anywhere inside the book. But at least it says (on top of the copyright page) that the copyright year is 1997.
And I’m not alone in my search for a real printing date. I just searched through SOLO (the search engine used to search Oxford Libraries Online), and they say the same thing as I do, in terms of its actual printing date, or publication date: “1997?” (repeat my search yourself: search “The Four Agreements” at SOLO).
Whether or not there is an actual printing date may not be very important if there is only one printing, or if there is only one edition.
But it seems that there may different editions. And that is not the only problem. Another problem seems to be that they are sharing the same ISBN number.
For on the British Amazon site, there is an edition called “10th Anniversary ed. edition”, dated 10 July 2018, which has the same ISBN number as my copy does.
Of course, one may argue that Amazon perhaps is wrong in terms of the ISBN number. But as it turns out, Amazon seems to use the same ISBN-13 number as Amber-Allen is using. For on the back cover of the Preview of the so-called “10th Anniversary ed. edition”, we can clearly see: “ISBN 9781878424310” (i.e. the same as in the old edition).
The new edition is very different, compared to the old one. First of all, the typography is different. The font is different, and the leading is different. And the amount of text on each page seems to be more dense than in the old edition.
A second thing that is different is that the physical format seems to be 15.2 x 22.9 cm, according to the listing on amazon.co.uk. The old edition’s format was 12.8 x 18.9 cm. So the new edition is now 2.4 cm wider, and 4 cm taller.
A third thing is that the number of pages is different. This is according to the “Preview” supplied by Amazon. According to the new “Table of Content” in that Preview, the last section of the book, “Prayers”, seems to end at page 88 (the “Prayers” section in my copy ends at page 138).
When I compare the page numbers , however, it may be slightly misleading. For in the new edition they also have renumbered the pages in the beginning of the book, to use regular digits, instead of small letters. So the pages i-xix in my old copy are now, in the new edition, instead starting at page 1.
Let’s now look at the “real” number of pages in my copy. My old edition had 19 introductory pages plus 138 main pages, which is 157 pages (that is, the “Prayers” section in my copy actually ends at page 157, if we count the introductory pages).
So this means that the new version only has half as many pages as the version that I am having. Thus, it will then be no surprise to the reader to hear that the text content in the new version is more “packed” and “compressed” in terms number of words on each page than what it was in the old edition.
1. Physical Format
My copy has a very nice feel to it. It may be a little too heavy for my taste (since it’s almost 160 pages), but the physical format is very friendly. I like it very much, because it is very portable.
And the reason I like “portable” is because I often bring books with me in one of my bags, to various places where I do parts of my reading. So at least for me, portability may be the difference between actually getting a book read, or not.
2. Paper, Printing, and Binding Quality
The production quality of this book is outstanding. The paper seems to be acid-free, the printing is impeccable, and the binding quality is very good. After many years in my collection, even with several readings, it still looks almost as new.
3. Layout, Design, and Typography
I like the whole feel of the book, including its layout, design, and typesetting. The only small thing is that some of the typeface(s) are on the limit in terms of their “thinness”. So, for example, the running heads on the top of each page are somewhat hard to read, because the thinnest strokes of the printed characters are somewhat too thin.
But other than that, I think the typography, as a whole, is very nice, with big enough leading that the text doesn’t feel “compressed” or “impregnable”, or anything like that. Overall, the typography is very inviting to read.
And I am also including here the actual layout of each page: for I think there is a very good balance between the margins and the text itself: the text feels inviting and harmonic and does not present itself to be too intimidating to get into.
The front cover illustration is very beautiful, and there is a nice photograph of Don Miguel Ruiz on the back. The coloring scheme is excellent.
Another good thing about this book is that it is somewhat illustrated. By “somewhat” I mean that it contains some graphic devices that “beautify” the text. There are basically two such devices.
The first one is an illustration of a flower, which is approximately one inch high, and this is repeated at the beginning of each chapter. The second one is a very small flower (approximately as high as the characters in the regular text), that is sometimes used as a divider in between sections of the text inside a chapter.
All these design elements work very nicely together, and they create a very attractive-looking book that may be hard for many buyers to avoid buying (like it was for me).
4. Basic Content
I think the back cover does a great job of telling the presumptive buyer what the book is all about. I agree that the book is about limiting beliefs and about the identification of these. I also think it is correct to say that the book is about the four agreements, which are “codes of conduct” with the aim of transforming our lives.
However, I do think that phrases such as “rapidly transform” or “powerful code” are inaccurate, and promising (much) too much.
5. Writing Style
Don Miguel Ruiz writes well, in the sense that he is using a simple language, and he talks in a way that people in general can relate to. By this I mean, there is none of that “academic lingo” that so many writers use. His style is personal, as if he is talking to the reader. So, on that level, I think it is very good.
However, I do think that there are other aspects of his writing that are not equally good. Although there may be many points here, I am just going to quickly point out that “the overall mood” of this book is not entirely positive, in my opinion.
There are several reasons for this. But one important aspect is that he seems to like using “strong” words and expressions. Thus, he writes about “black magic” (p. 37), “all this poison” (p. 43), “the dream of hell” (p. 109), “The Initiation of the Dead” (p. 118), “The angel of death” (p. 119), “The Discipline of the Warrior” (p. 111), the “presence of the parasite” (p. 129), etc.
In his defense, one might argue that some of these words and concepts may actually come from Toltec philosophy. And if one is, as Ruiz is, writing a book that is about Toltec philosophy, it might be hard to avoid such words and concepts. So one could explain it like that.
Although this book has been many months on the New York Times Bestseller list, I must confess that I am not very impressed in terms of the philosophy of the four agreements.
In general, he has many good individual points throughout the book, appearing in each of the four chapters of the agreements. But in most cases, he does not really succeed in formulating the four agreements in an exact way, so that they are easy to understand and use.
The reason for this may be that he has “inherited” the principles of the four agreements from his philosophical tradition, and that he doesn’t want to change them. In any case, they are, in my opinion, too general to be helpful.
1. First Agreement: Be Impeccable with your word.
One difficulty here is that he uses the word “word” to mean different things (or so it seems, sometimes). As I read his book, the word “word” can mean either “spoken word” or “written word”, or “unspoken word”.
So the “trick” then, for the reader, is to decipher the word “word” to really get his point, which is (presumably) that not only the spoken word, but also the written word, and the thought word, are important. In other words, although he seldom uses the word “thought” (if ever!), his account, I believe, must be understood to have that as a basis.
Thus, it seems, the whole idea is not about “your word” (as understood in a straightforward sense, as “spoken word”), but about thoughts. For normally, spoken words are a function of thoughts and beliefs (as well as of habits, formed by previous thoughts and beliefs, etc). Thoughts and beliefs are the start; then comes the spoken words.
There are also problems with the idea of “the truth”. According to Ruiz, “The truth is the most important part of being impeccable with your word” (p. 37). But then we might ask “Which truth?” Are all truths equally beneficial to focus on, or are there some we must avoid, or must include?
And then, in the example on page 32 (in which a person sees another and calls him stupid), Ruiz seems to think that that is not an impeccable use of the word. But if the person really thinks that that other person is stupid, isn’t that the truth?
Ruiz does not, what I can see, discuss it from that angle, but instead redefines “impeccability” with one’s words to be about “not using the word against yourself”. And the idea seemingly is that if you say things that harm others, they will start harming you. So it’s a loop, of sorts.
Instead he proposes that we should start loving ourselves, and when we do we will love others too, and interact with the impeccably. That’s all fine and good. But what we do in the meantime, before we get there?
How do we get from “you are stupid” to “you are fantastic” or “I love you”, if we really think that the other person is stupid? Should we tell him a lie? Or should we avoid speaking to him? Or should we avoid him altogether? How should we develop ourselves into loving beings?
So then the first agreement isn’t really about “the truth”. At least not in some cases. So the first agreement seems to be a somewhat “confused” principle or code — a “mishmash” of ideas.
2. Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally.
In the chapter of the second agreement he has, as usual, many single points that are good. Some of these are, “it has nothing to do with you” (p. 49), and “All people live in their own dream, in their own mind” (p. 48).
Other good points are on pp 52-53, about loving, and about living without fear. These are points about how loving yourself is so important, for then you will act lovingly also in the world. However, he doesn’t tell you how to get there. But once you are there, everything becomes better.
An objection may be made here, saying something like this. But even if Ruiz is not explicitly mentioning it, the assumption is naturally that it is the “don’t take anything personally” agreement that will accomplish the change in attitude or behavior.
My reply to such an objection is simply that it seems far-fetched to believe that an attitude of “don’t take anything personally” on its own will contribute to any development of love, either in oneself, or in others.
It may contribute to some “streamlining” or “harmonizing” of certain conversations or situations, avoiding negative feelings and reactions from both ends. But I have a hard time seeing that such a practise would actively foster any love, for any of the parties involved.
Another problem is this. The second agreement says, “Don’t take anything personally”. But isn’t “being a person” (or personhood) more or less the ONLY thing that people in general are interested in?
I mean, how can we live in a world where we don’t care about (i.e. ignore) what people do to us, or say to us, etc.? Why would we, at all, be interested in associating with people who don’t care about us? If no-one is acting because I am “I” (a person), what is the meaning of living in this world, with other people?
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
This is not a very good chapter. Ruiz’s main rule seems to be that we should not make assumptions. But that’s way too general. For we all must make many assumptions, all day long, about the world around us. We must assume that the sun rises as usual, that the daylight comes, that the air outside is still breathable, that the gravitation still works as usual, that our VISA cards still work, etc. etc.
Thus, Ruiz’s rule here is much too broad. Maybe the rule instead should have been named: “Don’t make assumptions about other people” or something along those lines. For it mostly seems to boil down to assumptions about other people, that will produce trouble of one kind or other. So this is why he talks about blame, and chaos, and all those things.
So the basic principle at work here seems to be something like: Mind your own business, and don’t speculate about what other people think of you (or of other people).
4. Always Do Your Best
This principle seems strange. The principle says “Always Do Your Best”. But how in the whole world will we know when we actually have done our best? Seemingly there is no easy way to measure it. And if there’s no way to measure it, how can we know that we are doing our best?
And it becomes even more strange when he says “no more and no less than your best” (78). For then questions like these may be raised: “What is ‘more’ than one’s best” and “What is ‘less’ than one’s best?”
In any case, the point seems to be about, on the one hand, not overdoing it and avoiding depletion of your energy (and depletion of your enthusiasm, perhaps), and on the other hand, avoiding frustration, guilt, etc. So maybe the principle could instead be stated as “always stay in the zone where you have control of your emotions”, or something like that.
This book is very nicely produced: its cover, its typography, its paper, and its printing are all first class. Also, it is reasonably short, which always is a plus (for me, at least).
This book may be interesting to several readers. It may serve as an easy introduction to Toltec philosophy and spirituality, and may interest people who are interested in history, philosophy of religion, comparative religion, and ethnographers (or social anthropologists), etc.
This book may also be useful for persons who are of a philosophical bent. The book contains various tips and scenarios regarding “particular problems of life” that one might want to address in one’s own life. But since the principles are not, in my opinion, not very precise (or even correct), a philosophically inclined person might find it interesting to study them, in order to come up with something (much) better.
However, because of these problems with the four agreements themselves, I cannot really recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers who are interested in a good “self-help” type of book. So potential readers who want “easy, actionable advice” using “proven methods” might not always find the principles in this book specific enough, or palatable enough, to apply in their daily lives. For such people, I would much rather recommend other, really inspiring books, such as Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.
Title: The Four Agreements
Author: Don Miguel Ruiz
Publisher: San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing
Format: 5 x 7.2 inch (12.8 x 18.9 cm)
Pages: xix + 138 pages
ISBN-10 (a): 1-878424-31-9
ISBN-10 (b): 1878424319
ISBN-13 (a): 978-1878424310
ISBN-13 (b): 9781878424310