Monday, February 19, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:3

There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own. So, if you separate from yourself - that is, from your mind - all that others say or do, all that you yourself have said or done, all that troubles you for the future, all that your encasing body and associate breath bring on you without your choice, all that is whirled round in the external vortex encircling us, so that your power of mind, transcending now all contingent ties, can exist on its own, pure and liberated, doing what is just, willing what happens to it, and saying what is true; if, as I say, you separate from this directing mind of yours the baggage of passion, time future and time past, and make yourself like Empedocles' 'perfect round rejoicing in the solitude it enjoys', and seek only to perfect this life you are living in the present, you will be able at least to live out the time remaining before your death calmly, kindly, and at peace with the god inside you.

This is one of the more important passages from Meditations, in my opinion.  In it, Marcus marks important boundaries in the human mental model.  He breaks down the human into three parts: our bones and muscles and blood and water compose the body; our lungs supply us with the air we need and then our mind allows us to think and act.

We have a responsibility to take care of our body and breath, but they are not entirely in your control.  External things and events can easily and quickly take away our breath and body.  Our physical brain falls under the domain of the body.  But to the extent that the body and brain "work", then how we use our mind is entirely up to us - we have ultimate control over our mind.

In the domain of our mind and thoughts, we get to control what bothers us, what we say, how we act.  And everything else outside of this domain (the past, the future, what others do, events, our health and our possessions) is out of our control.  If we all could remember that delineation - that border - all the time, we would make great progress on the pathway to becoming a sage.  All things become a swirling vortex around our singular mind, and in the midst of it all, our directing mind can "exist on its own."  It becomes detached and liberated to think clearly and justly and lovingly embraces all that happens around it.

Marcus then references Empedocles' Sphairos - which is a perfectly round sphere, untouched by external things and events and it is perfectly content and rejoices in its own existence.  As he describes this, I can't help but think of an eye of a hurricane - where all around that eye is a ravaging storm of destruction and in the center is perfect calm.  To reach that state of mind, in my opinions, is the perfect resilience - the perfect state of mind - to live in the present; to live calmly and kindly and to be at perfect peace with yourself.

(see also Citadel p. 55, 112-113, 134-135, 237, 265)


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:2

God sees all our directing minds stripped of their material vessels, their husks and their dross. His contact is only between his own intelligence and what has flowed from him into these channels of ours. If you train yourself to do the same, you will be rid of what so much distracts you. Hardly likely, is it, that one blind to the enveloping flesh will spend his time eyeing clothes, houses, reputation, or any other such trappings and stage scenery?

What truly is important and what matters is our mind.  Take away the home, the cars, the clothes, and even the flesh and body and what is left is the mind.  The mind, and the proper development of the mind, is what we ought to focus on.  What makes humans unique from all other living things, is the capacity to think and act on our own.  This is why I recommend to people that they need to focus on developing their mind first, instead of developing their body first.  On any given day, I'd choose to work with a dozen intelligent, rational people (but physically weak) over a dozen fitness fanatics and body builders.  Our intelligence is what has uniquely "flowed" to us.  Our bodies are simply a vessel and expression of the thought.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:1

All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now - if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it was Nature that brought it to you and you to it. To justice, so that you are open and direct in word and action, speaking the truth, observing law and proportion in all you do. You should let nothing stand in your way - not the iniquity of others, not what anyone else thinks or says, still less any sensation of this poor flesh that has accreted round you: the afflicted part must see to its own concern.

If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth. You will no longer be a stranger in your own country, no longer meet the day's events as if bemused by the unexpected, no longer hang on this or that.

If you are reading this commentary, pause and really take the time to read chapter 1 of Book 12; read it again and again if you have to.  Marcus gets to the heart of the matter of philosophy and Stoicism in this chapter.  He talks of all three disciplines and he even gives you a measuring stick to see if you've been "worthy" of living or not.

He first focuses on the past, the present and the future.  Leave the past behind.  There is nothing that can be done to change it.  The past is out of your control.  Therefore, leave it where is remains forever.  No anxiety or worry or anger or happiness or love.  It is gone.  Similarly, the future is out of our control.  We are blind to it.  We cannot know whether we will be rich or poor, alive or dead, healthy or ill.  The future is a bridge we have not yet encountered and we only waste time by thinking about it.  Indeed do all you can to plan, but ultimately, don't hinge your contentment on the future.

This leaves the present: the one point in time, out of the infinite number of points in time, over which we have control.  How do we best use this gift?  We live it justly (discipline of action) by doing right; living right; living with integrity; helping others; by being open and direct with all people.  We live the present moment reverently (discipline of desire) - which means we love our lot in life.  This is as close as Marcus comes to saying amor fati.  Love this unique-crafted-especially-for-you moment.  It is yours and no one else's.  And if you focus on the one thing you can control (your attitude) in this moment that belongs to you, you will find contentment.

Don't let all those other things stand in your way of having a positive, learning, fulfilling experience now.  Don't let others' iniquity, or thoughts or opinions or words stand in your way.  Don't let your body, which is little more than gelatinous mass, stand in your way of having a good attitude.

If you are able to accomplish all this, and, when you near your death, the only thing you value is your hegemonikon's ability to stay true to the divine, then you will have lived a good life.  Also, if you get to the point of not fearing death, but rather, your greatest fear is that you never were able to start living a life according to nature, then you will be worthy of your existence - you will have found your home - your country.  You will no longer be surprised by anything, you will no longer care about this indifferent thing or that indifferent thing.  You will have transcended all of it.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:34-39

Epictetus used to say that when you kiss your child you should say to yourself: 'Tomorrow you may be dead.' But these are ominous words! 'No,' he replies, 'nothing is ominous which points to a natural process. Otherwise it would be ominous to speak of the corn being reaped.'

Grapes unripe, ripened, raisined: all changes, not into nonexistence, but into not-yet existence.

'No thief can steal your will' - so Epictetus.

Another saying of his. 'We must discover an art of assent, and in the whole field of our impulses take care to ensure that each impulse is conditional, has a social purpose, and is proportionate to the value of its goal. We must keep absolutely clear of personal motivation, and at the same time show no disinclination to anything outside our immediate control.'

Again. 'So this is not a contest for a trivial prize: at issue is madness or sanity.'

Socrates used to question thus. 'What do you want to have? The souls of rational or irrational beings?' 'Rational.' 'What sort of rational beings? The pure or the lower?' 'The pure.' 'Why then don't you aim for that?' 'Because we have it.' 'Why then your fighting and disagreements?'

As morbid as it may seem, we must all prepare for any event, including the death of our children.  This is called premeditatio malorum.  And even that term is a misnomer.  Preparing for "bad" things accomplishes two things.  1) when a "bad" thing happens, we won't be surprised.  2) secondly, begin to realize these aren't "bad" things, rather they are just natural events, in many cases.  In this specific case, the "bad" thing is your child dying pre-maturely.  We think this is bad because we expect something to happen that is out of our control.  When in reality, children and humans die all the time.  Corn ripens and is picked and eaten.  Is this bad?  No, it is natural.  Humans die - it is natural.

I often tell my wife, when speaking about one or all of our children (when they do something no-so-smart), "this is not the final version of  ..."  The idea is that we are always changing and learning.  A grape may be a grape today, but tomorrow it will be a raisin.  Nothing good or bad about a grape or a raisin.  They are composed of the same material, but just at a different stage of development.  So too with humans.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."  The only one who can harm my will is me.  Thieves break into my home, but they can never break into my mind.

The art of assent (the discipline of assent in modern Stoic terms) - is the ability to control our impulses.  Not only should we work to control our impulses, but we should ensure our impulses have a social purpose.  And always ... always ... keep in mind what is in your control and what is out of your control.

What is at stake with philosophy?  You will either be mad (in some sort or fashion) of you will be mad (in some sort or fashion).  I'd prefer to be sane.

The aim, according to Socrates, is to be rational, pure and content.

(see also Citadel p. 66, 68, 70, 188, 206-207, 215)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:28-32

Think of Socrates in his underclothes when Xanthippe had gone out with his coat: and what he said to his friends retiring in embarrassment when they saw the state of his dress.

In writing and reading you must learn before you can teach. Yet more so in life.

'You were born a slave: you have no voice.'

'And the heart within me laughed.'

'They will pour scorn on virtue and sting with their abuse.'

In these five chapters, Marcus writes a couple of thoughts along with some quotes from previous Stoics. 

The first one is a thought about Socrates.  It is a bit cryptic, but seems to allude that Socrates felt no embarrassment about his natural state.

In the second one, the idea is to learn to walk before you run; to learn to read and write before teaching others.  Therefore, one should learn to live (learn philosophy) before actually living.

In chapter 30, a reminder that we are all slaves.

In chapter 31, another cryptic one - perhaps a laugh at all the vain ambitions of others; and being content with knowing the Truth.

In chapter 32, contempt for those who do not think virtue is the sole good.




Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:23-27

Socrates used to call the popular beliefs 'bogies', things to frighten children with.

At their festivals the Spartans would put seats for visitors in the shade, and sit themselves wherever they could.

Socrates to Perdiccas of Macedon, declining the invitation to visit him: 'to avoid dying the worst of deaths' - that is, the inability to return in kind benefits received.

In Epicurean writings there is laid down the precept that one should continually keep in mind one of those who followed the path of virtue in earlier times.

The Pythagoreans say, 'Look at the sky at dawn' - to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.

"Bogies" frightened children in Socrates' day.  Things that may frighten children these days would be monsters under the bed or closet, a test in school, a teacher, a mythical clown who lives in the sewer drains or demons.  None of these things are real - they are made up - imaginations in our heads.  Popular beliefs are similar.  The idea that riches, possessions, a bigger home, more cars and clothes will bring you happiness, is false - it is made up in our heads.  The same goes for finding fame and achieving immortality before your body dies.

Being kind to others and putting others first - this is what the Spartans did with regard to their festivals.

Socrates would decline invitations if he could not repay in kind.

How useful to always kind in mind a sage or someone who is close to becoming a sage.  Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus are good examples.

The stars keep order and do their duty.  Humans should do likewise, without pretense.

(see also Citadel p. 58)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:21-22

 'The man without one and the same aim in life cannot himself stay one and the same throughout his life.' The maxim is incomplete unless you add what sort of aim that should be. Judgements vary of the whole range of various things taken by the majority to be goods in one way or another, but only one category commands a universal judgement, and that is the good of the community. It follows that the aim we should set ourselves is a social aim, the benefit of our fellow citizens. A man directing all his own impulses to this end will be consistent in all his actions, and therefore the same man throughout.

The hill mouse and the house mouse - and the frightened scurrying of the house mouse.

The aim (goal) of all our actions is social.  Some people will think the purpose and aim of life is to live a life of pleasure and ease and avoidance of pain.  Some people may think the purpose is to "win" at everything - to win the most possessions, to win the biggest promotion, or to be a champion.  But all these ring hallow.  The best aim in life is to help and serve others (a social aim) - to benefit our fellow citizens.  Some may spend their days feeding the hungry, some may teach children and students.  Some may govern and others may work to provide good infrastructure to life the quality of life.  However we decide to spend our time, be mindful of the purpose.

Marcus Aurelius spoke of two mice - the one from the city and the one from the country.  The house mouse, who lives in the city, scurries about trying not to die from the home-owners, while also trying to live off scraps of food.  The hill mouse has less worries, may find food - may have to work a bit for it - but does not worry about residents trying to kill him.  Indeed the metaphor isn't spot on, as the hill mouse may have to worry about predators.  But the principal is about priorities.

(see also Citadel p. 301)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:20

All the elements of air and fire that are mingled in you have a natural tendency to rise, but nevertheless obey the dispensation of the Whole and are kept waiting here in the compound of the body. And all the elements of earth and water in you, whose tendency is to sink down, are nevertheless raised up and stay in a position unnatural to them. So even the elements are obedient to the Whole: assigned their place, they are forced to stay there, until the signal authorizing their dissolution once more is given from that same source.

So is it not strange that it is only your intelligent part which rebels and complains of the place given it? And yet there is nothing forced on it, only what accords with its own nature. But still it refuses to comply, and sets off in the opposite direction. Any movement towards acts of injustice or self-indulgence, to anger, pain, or fear is nothing less than apostasy from nature. Further, whenever the directing mind feels resentment at any happening, that too is desertion of its proper post. It was constituted not only for justice to men but no less for the reverence and service of god - this also a form of fellowship, perhaps yet more important than the operation of justice.

The elements don't rebel against their nature.  They each have a job to do and they do it.  Elements in the human body, such as carbon and water, carry out their mission.  They stay composed and "keep" the human body in its form.  Then when the signal is made (death), they dissolve.  They simply carry out their mission and do no rebel.

Now, let's talk about what makes humans unique.  We have this rational mind that has all sorts of tugs and pulls at it.  A lot of these tugs and pulls have to do with things that are not under our control.  We may complain it is too cold or too hot (it's out of our control).  We begin to worry about having to deal with a certain person at work (it's out of our control).  We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic or is talking loudly in a movie theater (it's out of our control).  We fear we will lose all our money in the stock market (it's largely out of our control).  Our duty, as humans, is to focus on things that are in our control (our attitude, our love of virtue, helping other people).  And our duty with regard to all those other things, is to love it - to love what comes our way.  In summary, if we focus on becoming more disciplined in our desire (love our fate) and if we focus on becoming disciplined in our proper, right actions (love and help for others), then we are doing our duty as rational, social beings.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:19

There are four particular corruptions of the directing mind for which you must keep constant watch, and eliminate them whenever you detect them, in each case applying one of these formulas: 'This mental image is superfluous'; 'This could weaken the bond of community'; 'This would not be yourself speaking' (to say what you do not feel should be regarded as the height of contradiction). And the fourth case for self-reproach is that in which the more divine part of you loses the contest and bows to the lower, mortal part, the body and its gross pleasures.

More excellent advice from Marcus Aurelius with regard to checking our mental assumptions.  The first part is trimming out all that is not needed in thought.  Thinking about trying to influence things that are not in your control would be superfluous (unnecessary).

The second part deals with the discipline of action and any thought that would harm the community or weaken the brotherly love we have towards others.

Thirdly, our thoughts and actions and feelings ought to be aligned and in harmony.  When we say something that we do not feel, this creates discord and begins to break your integrity.

Lastly, we ought to keep our directing mind (hegemonikon) focused on virtue, rather than the pleasures.  We "lost the contest" when we give in to the "lower."  In sum, take the high road in thought and deed.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:18

This is a really long passage and does not require much explanation.  Marcus outlines nine and even ten suggestions and guideposts to remember when dealing with people.

1. what is my relationship with them?

2. don't be intimidated by them

3. if they are right, great.  if not, attempt to teach

4. check your assumptions; you may be at fault and you should give others the benefit of the doubt

5. keep checking assumptions and be sure to have all the context - life is complicated

6. if you really lack patience with people, remember it'll all be over soon

7. ultimately, your opinion and reaction is your own regardless of what others think or do

8. when you are angry, you're just doubling down on pain

9. you can "kill" the orneriest people with kindness

10. BONUS ADVICE: a copperhead snake is gonna bite; ain't no way around that.  you don't get a special pass - there is no such card that you can present to a copperhead, which will prevent it from biting you.  Apply this to people: she is going to act that way.  It's wild to think that she will act toward you differently that she acts towards everybody else.  In short, don't be surprised.

And with that, read chapter 18 of Book 11 and see what else you can glean from Marcus Aurelius' advice.

First. How do I regard my relation to them, and the fact that we were all born for each other: and, turning the argument, that I was born to be their leader, as the ram leads his flock and the bull his herd? But start from first principles. If not atoms, then nature governing all: if so, then the lower in the interests of the higher, and the higher for each other.

Second. What sort of people they are at table, in bed, and so on. Most of all, what sort of behaviour their opinions impose on them, and their complacent pride in acting as they do.

Third. If what they do is right, no cause for complaint. If wrong, this is clearly out of ignorance and not their wish. Just as no soul likes to be robbed of truth, so no soul wants to abandon the proper treatment of each individual as his worth deserves. At any rate these people resent the imputation of injustice, cruelty, selfishness - in a word, crimes against their neighbours.

Fourth. You yourself have many faults and are no different from them. If you do refrain from some wrongs you still have the proclivity to them, even if your restraint from wrongs like theirs is due to the fear or pursuit of public opinion, or some other such poor motive.

Fifth. You are not even sure that they are doing wrong. Many things are done as part of a larger plan, and generally one needs to know a great deal before one can pronounce with certainty on another's actions.

Sixth. When you are high in indignation and perhaps losing patience, remember that human life is a mere fragment of time and shortly we are all in our graves.

Seventh. It is not their actions which trouble us - because these lie in their own directing minds - but our judgements of them. Well, remove these judgements, make up your mind to dismiss your assessment of some supposed outrage, and your anger is gone. And how to remove them? By reflecting that no moral harm is caused you. If moral harm were not the only true harm, it would necessarily follow that you yourself are guilty of causing much harm, and become a robber, a rogue!

Eighth. The greater grief comes from the consequent anger and pain, rather than the original causes of our anger and pain.

Ninth. Kindness is invincible - if it is sincere, not fawning or pretence. What can the most aggressive man do to you if you continue to be kind to him? If, as opportunity arises, you gently admonish him and take your time to re-educate him at the very moment when he is trying to do you harm? 'No, son, we were born for other purposes than this. There is no way that I can be harmed, but you are harming yourself, son.' And show him delicately how things are, making the general point that bees do not act like this, or any other creatures of gregarious nature. But your advice must not be ironic or critical. It should be affectionate, with no hurt feelings, not a lecture or a demonstration to impress others, but the way you would talk to someone by himself irrespective of company.

Keep these nine points in your mind - take them as gifts from the Muses! - and begin at long last to be a human being, while life remains. You should avoid flattery as much as anger in your dealings with them: both are against the common good and lead to harm. In your fits of anger have this thought ready to mind, that there is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile. It is the gentle who have strength, sinew, and courage - not the indignant and complaining. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power. Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. Both have been wounded, and have surrendered.

Now, if you will, take a tenth gift from the Leader of the Muses - the thought that it is madness to expect bad men to do no wrong: that is asking for the impossible. But it is cruel tyranny to allow them such behaviour to others while demanding that they do no wrong to you.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:16-17

Live through life in the best way you can. The power to do so is in a man's own soul, if he is indifferent to things indifferent. And he will be indifferent if he looks at these things both as a whole and analysed into their parts, and remembers that none of them imposes a judgement of itself or forces itself on us. The things themselves are inert: it is we who procreate judgements about them and, as it were, imprint them on our minds - but there is no need for imprinting at all, and any accidental print can immediately be erased. Remember too that our attention to these things can only last a little while, and then life will be at an end. And what, anyway, is the difficulty in them? If they are in accord with nature, welcome them and you will find them easy. If they are contrary to nature, look for what accords with your own nature and go straight for that, even if it brings you no glory. Anyone can be forgiven for seeking his own proper good.

With each object of experience consider its origin, its constituents, what it is changing into, what it will be when changed and that no harm will come to it.

Stoic indifferents are things that people have no control over.  When we speak of indifferents, we are talking about our health, wealth and possessions, our fame, our avoidance of pain, seeking of pleasure and anything outside of our control.  We have no ultimate control over these things.  What we can control with regard to indifferents is our attitude toward them.  We can be indifferent to things indifferent.  These indifferents have no ability to bust open our mental door to our brain and force us to think and act a certain way.  Rather, it is ourselves who allow our minds to be swayed by these things.  I can look at all the things that happened in the year 2017 (snake bite, death in family, heart operation, home flooding) and I could allow these things to determine my happiness.  Or not ... I could focus on exercising virtue and the discipline of assent and in a sense, create a story to turn these obstacles into valuable lessons.  I hope I have striven and succeeded at the latter.  Ultimately, this life is short and it will all be over soon and none of this will really matter anyway.

The discipline of assent helps us to be indifferent to things indifferent.  Analyze everything and each experience; break things apart, think of where it came from, how it is changing and what it will turn into.  With regard to everything, ask yourself if you have control over it.  This question, more than anything else, greatly reduces anxiety and mental stress because it cuts out so many possible decisions and choices.  It cuts through to the heart of the matter.

(see also Citadel p. 41, 71, 108, 272)


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:14-15

They despise each other, but still toady to each other: they want to win, but still grovel.

The rotten pretence of the man who says, 'I prefer to be honest with you'! What are you on about, man? No need for this preface - the reality will show. It should be written on your forehead, immediately clear in the tone of your voice and the light of your eyes, just as the loved one can immediately read all in the glance of his lovers. In short, the good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed - anyone close by as he passes detects the aura, willy-nilly, at once. Calculated honesty is a stiletto. There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves: avoid that above all. The good, honest, kindly man has it in his eyes, and you cannot mistake him.

Chapter 14 of Book 11 is really interesting.  At the heart of the matter is this: you should have integrity and be the same person all the time.  However, power and survival instincts collide.  As a personal example.  Through my career, I may have to report to a manager is could be egotistical, maniacal and power-hungry.  I want to keep my career to provide for myself and my family and I know that me reporting to a crazy manager is not permanent.  Should I "suck-up" where appropriate?  Or should I "shoot straight" and provide frank feedback to them that they are crazy and risk losing my career?  I know it is a bit of an extreme example, but nonetheless probable.  Outside an example like this, I think the point Marcus makes is valid.  You don't have to toady and grovel - a philosopher should not have to suck up at all, because they are focused on living striving for virtue, not approval.

Honesty and integrity: hallmarks of a good person.  It should be self-evident.

(see also Citadel p. 226-227)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:12-13

The soul is a sphere which retains the integrity of its own form if it does not bulge or contract for anything, does not flare or subside, but keeps the constant light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth in itself.

Someone despises me? That is his concern. But I will see to it that I am not found guilty of any word or action deserving contempt. Will he hate me? That is his concern. But I will be kind and well-intentioned to all, and ready to show this very person what he is failing to see - not in any criticism or display of tolerance, but with genuine good will, like the famous Phocion (if, that is, he was not speaking ironically). This should be the quality of our inner thoughts, which are open to the gods' eyes: they should see a man not disposed to any complaint and free of self-pity. And what harm can you suffer, if you yourself at this present moment are acting in kind with your own nature and accepting what suits the present purpose of universal nature - a man at full stretch for the achievement, this way or that, of the common good?

Chapter 12 of Book 11 sounds very similar to the sphere of Empedocles, where there is a perfect balance of form - neither collapsing or expanding.  Much like many orbs or spheres we see today (planets, suns), they retain their form and are constant (relatively speaking).  So too, the soul should remain constant and intent on truth and light.

In the following chapter, he outlines actions that fall in the the category of "things under my control."  We do not have any control over what other people think of us.  For our part, we do have control over whether we will be kind and well-intentioned to everyone.  And to dig even deeper, if our thoughts were to be exposed for all to see, what would they see?  Would you be inwardly complaining?  Would you have self-pity?  To tie the concepts of chapter 11 and 12 together, both your thoughts and actions should be in alignment - which would create balance and harmony between your inner thoughts and outward actions.

(see also Citadel p. 129, 226, 267, 272, 301)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:10-11

'No nature is inferior to art': in fact the arts imitate the variety of natures. If that is so, then the most perfect and comprehensive of all natures could not be surpassed by any artistic invention. Now all arts create the lower in the interests of the higher: so this is the way of universal nature too. And indeed here is the origin of justice, from which all other virtues take their being, since there will be no preservation of justice if we are concerned with indifferent things, or gullible and quick to chop and change.

The external things whose pursuit or avoidance troubles you do not force themselves on you, but in a way you yourself go out to them. However that may be, keep your judgement of them calm and they too will stay still - then you will not be seen either to pursue or to avoid.

The arts (movies, drama, books, etc), attempt to mimic life.  If they are true to their intent, the arts help us to be better (morally, virtuously).  But the arts can never surpass real life.  The ultimate "stage" is life itself.  The amazing stories of courage and temperance and justice and wisdom are found in real people doing real things - no acting.  Indeed, we can all be inspired by both fiction and recreations of real-life events.  But the real "stuff" is out in the world - on the streets, in communities, in the office, at school.  And no real inspiration comes from stories of people chasing indifferents.  We are inspired by Herman Boone, Winston Churchill, and Condoleezza Rice; but not so much by a Kardashian.

Again, indifferents are external things (you don't have control over them).  Seeking riches, fame or pleasures or trying to avoid pain or sickness are dependent on so many other factors.  These things aren't so much forced on you, rather you extend your mind to desire and seek them (or to avoid them).  Treat these things indifferently - with contempt even.  And spend your focus and effort on living a moral and virtuous (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) life.

(see also Citadel p. 41)

Monday, February 5, 2018

the second world wars by victor davis hanson

the second world wars by victor davis hanson is an excellent resource for a complete review and analysis of what we now call world war two.  having been born over 30 years after the end of world war two and having heard my own father (who is 90 years old at this writing) speak of his experiences as well has his older brother's experience, i've always been fascinated with what life must have been like living in the 1930s and 1940s.  i love world war two movies from where eagles dare to patton to saving private ryan and band of brothers (book as well as hbo mini series).  my boyhood fascination with the war has largely been focused on the bombing of pearl harbor and the american efforts on the european western front of the war.  over the years, that fascination has turned to a chilling effect as i realized and comprehended the atrocities of both war in general as well as those specific to world war two.

the reason for the change from boyhood fascination to a chilling effect started in 1993 when schindler's list was released.  i quickly realized how frightening humans can act toward other humans.  other movies that portrayed the holocaust have had a similar terrifying effect.  six million souls lost to extermination!  it is shocking.

then in 2016, i stumbled across a website dedicated to visually showing, by the numbers, the human cost of world war two.  the website is called the fallen of world war ii.  if you have not had the chance, spend some time and even donate to the site.  victor davis hanson, in chapter 19 entitled the dead, cites some stats on the number.  low end estimates are around 50 million, with high end around 80 million.  his personal opinion is around 60-65 million dead.  what is really insightful of the fallen dead website is it shows where and how those millions of people died.  the numbers are mind-boggling when you look at the western front.  but what is haunting are the numbers on the eastern front where there germans and russians fought.  hanson goes into the why of this a bit in his book, in that, when two extreme ideologies meet in war (nazism vs communism) and both styles of leadership are of the mindset of win or die, then deaths add up very quickly.

the hatred between the germans and russians explodes on the battlefield and sieges.  in his sieges chapter, hanson says, "totalitarian ideologies framed the struggle in manichean terms unlike anything seen in the rivalries of the past.  hitler planned a war of nazi extermination to either kill off or enslave the supposedly inferior race of slavic untermenschen of russia and liquidate millions of jews in his eastward path" (p. 309).  and just to provide a bit of context of scale, the number of dead russians from just the leningrad siege were four times greater than all the american dead of the entire war! (p. 313).

between the fallen of world war ii website and hanson's the second world wars, i have gained a much greater appreciation of the epic scale of world war two.  my myopic american view of the war has been greatly disabused and i have a much greater appreciation for the exceptionally dire circumstances the french, british and americans were in by accepting an alliance with a communist state (russia).

the second really important point i learned about world war two, is tied directly with hanson's premise and title of the book.  world war one, as we know it today, was called "the great war" in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  it really wasn't until around 1942 after japan attacked the united states and germany invaded russia that it turned into a global war.  up to that point, all during the 1930s and up to september 1939, it was largely viewed as a series of border conflicts between hitler and his neighbors.  once japan bombed pearl harbor and germany betrayed their former ally (russia), the war greatly escalated and exploded globally.  existential crises popped up across the world.  only years after, did the great war change names to world war one and the first truly global conflict was dubbed world war two.  which leads to the next point i learned from the book: hitler was equipped very well to win border wars, but he and his staff truly failed to appreciate the massive resources the americans and russians had at their disposal - hitler was absolutely not prepared to fight a global war.

in essence, the allies won due to innovation and production power.  the nazis and imperial japanese were technologically advanced in the late 1930s, but their failure to adapt and establish consistent, reliable production methods (food and war equipment), failed them.  the americans, british and russians, on the other hand, collaborated, innovated, adapted and consistently produced far more than the axis powers were able to.  russian production was moved far to the other side of russia in the ural mountains - far from hitlers bombers (who also never was able to develop a long-range bomber like the lancaster, b-17 or b-29).  american continental soil was never in danger and americans were able to produce and supply not only their army, air force and navy, but also they were able to supply russia with thousands of trucks and transports.  hitler may have thought he could attack quickly and overwhelm europe and russia, but when he was not successful against britain, he blundered big time by moving east to russia, where his armies were met by hoards of russian soldiers and t-34 tanks.  of course, by 1944 and the establishment of the western front, all those resources were spent and hitler could not sustain both fronts.

japan and britain had the largest navies in the world in 1939.  the americans had a sizable navy and adequate air navel power, but no where near the japanese strength.  but when american production power ramped up and japanese production faltered, the tide shifted to the americans.  also, the types of warships the japanese and americans decided to build largely shaped the war.  shipbuilding, coupled with slight changes in strategy in aerial bombing over japan and then eventually the technological innovation of the nuclear bomb forced the japanese to surrender.

hanson also does a great job segueing from end-of-war descriptions to post-war new world order descriptions.  understanding world war two and the end results, enables the student of history to understand world history for the next 70 years.  even today, the world is still reeling from the effects of the first global conflict.  hanson also addresses the historical question of: are 65 million deaths worth a 70 year "peace"?  did we truly get peace for the price of all those dead?  or would the world have been a bloodier place (or not) had hitler not invaded russia and held the gains made up to 1941?

one other thought (they keep coming to me) - churchill entered the world stage at just the right time.  britain was the only country to fight nazi germany from the day they invaded poland to their defeat.  churchill was largely responsible for keeping up the fight when more calls of appeasement and conciliation with hitler.  after having watched darkest hour last month during christmas as well as dinkirk last may, i've grown a desire to find a good churchill biography and read it.

overall - a phenomenal book, one that captures the breadth as well as complexity and detail of the first global war.  he cites lots of statistics and arrives at sound conclusions.  for someone wanting to grasp an appreciation and good perspective of the whole war, pick up this book, read it and refer to it often.

Commentary on Meditations: B11:9

Just as those who try to block your progress along the straight path of reason will not be able to divert you from principled action, so you must not let them knock you out of your good will towards them. Rather you should watch yourself equally on both fronts, keeping not only a stability of judgement and action but also a mild response to those who try to stop you or are otherwise disaffected. To be angry with them is no less a weakness than to abandon your course of action and capitulate in panic. Both amount equally to desertion of duty - either being frightened into retreat, or setting yourself at odds with your natural kinsmen and friends.

This is a very keen and important point Marcus makes here.  Sure, it is easy to have good will towards other Stoics and moral people.  But what is a Stoic reaction to those whose philosophy is counter to everything Stoicism?  And what of those who actively try to divert your focus from right living?  The Stoic reaction must be the same: you must have good will toward them.  No need to react harshly, but rather, respond gently.  To act Stoicly in one moment, but then in the next to be angry to someone who is trying to knock you out of your citadel, is certainly not Stoic.  To be Stoic means to be Stoic all the time to all people.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:7-8

How clearly it strikes you that there is no other walk of life so conducive to the exercise of philosophy as this in which you now find yourself!

A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realizing that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens. Only there is this gift we have from Zeus who brought together the human community: we can grow back again to our neighbour and resume our place in the complement of the whole. Too often repeated, though, such separation makes it harder to unite and restore the divided part. In sum, the branch which stays with the tree from the beginning of its growth and shares its transpiration is not the same as the branch which is cut off and then regrafted, whatever the gardeners say. Share their stock, but not their doctrines.

Chapter 7 of Book 11 seems to say that he (Marcus) is in a great position as Roman Emperor to practice his Stoic philosophy.

Humans have a unique opportunity to rejoin the community if they self-separate.  Unlike many appendages which, if cut off, cannot be re-joined, humans can be rejoined to the community.  And then there is another dimension of this chapter.  In the very last part of this chapter, Marcus closes with "share their stock, but not their doctrines."  Here, he clearly states that we must be a part of the tree (the community), but we don't have to partake in the mindlessness of society.  Be engaged, but also be mindful not to imitate the less philosophical aspects of society.  To cite an example from the modern-day, there is a major movement that counters consumerism.  The minimalist movement seeks to educate people to not make life about buying things, but rather to find a life of meaning.  Joshua Becker does not separate himself from society (i.e. live on mountain or remote ranch), rather he engages and attempts to educate and truly help others.  And how interesting I come across this section on today, Super Bowl Sunday.  The Super Bowl is almost as famous for its halftime commercials as it is for the actual game.  If there were a holiday that celebrate consumerism, it would be Super Bowl Sunday.  Feel free to attend and engage with friends and family in Super Bowl parties, but be mindful not to be all caught up in the philosophy of seeking happiness in owning and consuming things.  Be a part of the stock of the tree, but don't embrace or share the doctrines.

(see also Citadel p. 49, 258, 292)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:4-6

Have I done something for the common good? Then I too have benefited. Have this thought always ready to hand: and no stopping.

What is your profession? Being a good man. But this can only come about through philosophic concepts - concepts of the nature of the Whole, and concepts of the specific constitution of man.

First, tragedies were brought on stage to remind you of what can happen, that these happenings are determined by nature, and that what moves you in the theatre should not burden you on the larger stage of life. You can see the way things must turn out and that even those who cry 'Oh Cithaeron!' must bear them. There are some useful sayings too in the tragedians. A prime example is:
'If I and my two sons are now no more The gods' concern, this too will have its cause.'

Again: 'Mere things, brute facts, should not provoke your rage.' And: 'Ripe ears of corn are reaped, and so are lives.' And many others like that.

After tragedy the Old Comedy was introduced. There was educational value in its unbridled frankness, and this plain speaking was of itself a useful warning against pomposity Diogenes too adopted this trait to a similar end. After this, examine the nature of Middle Comedy and the purpose of the subsequent adoption of New Comedy, which gradually slipped into the mere artistry of imitation. True, it is recognized that these writers too said some useful things - but what was the whole thrust and aim of this sort of poetry and drama?

The discipline of action outlines how Stoics translate philosophy into social action.  Humans, as rational beings (what makes us unique) are duty-bound to turn rational thought into action.  This is our true nature and what we are supposed to do.  Just as an apple tree is supposed to produce apples, humans are supposed to rationally think about life and translate that logic into helping others.  And when we, as individuals or communities, help others, we, as individuals have also benefited.  In essence, this is what chapters 4 and 5 of Book 11 are alluding to.

In chapter 6 of Book 11, Marcus talks about the theater arts and how they remind of the concepts that we need to apply in life.  "Tragedies" place extra burdens on the mind of the audience, who in turn, when they return to real life, appreciate more their lesser burdens.  Then he talks of the benefits of the "Old Comedy" which is frank and plain speaking against people being pricks and full-of-themselves.  Then came the "Middle" and "New Comedy" which intended to mimic actual life.

(see also Citadel p. 200)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:2-3

You will think little of the entertainment of song or dance or all-in wrestling if you deconstruct the melodic line of a song into its individual notes and ask yourself of each of them: 'Is this something that overpowers me?' You will recoil from that admission. So too with a comparable analysis of dance by each movement and each pose, and the same again with wrestling. Generally, then, with the exception of virtue and its workings, remember to go straight to the component parts of anything, and through that analysis come to despise the thing itself. And the same method should be applied to the whole of life.

What a noble thing is the soul ready for its release from the body, if now must be the time, and prepared for whatever follows - extinction, dispersal, or survival! But this readiness must come from a specific decision: not in mere revolt, like the Christians, but thoughtful, dignified, and - if others are to believe it - undramatic.

The allure and sparkle and fascination of things needs to be broken.  We need to not "chase the shiny object" all the time.  What are these shiny objects that people constantly chase?

- fame
- money
- power
- sex
- pleasure
- avoidance of pain

Marcus provides a few examples in music, dance, and the sport of wrestling.  If you break the whole of it, into parts, the allure is greatly diminished.  Once you do this, you may ask, "should I be overcome by this single note?  This wrestling move?  This dance move?"  This exercise should break the allure.  Do this with everything, except virtue.  As you do this, you will soon discover you despise things that don't matter.

As for death, we must always be mentally prepared for it.  How sad to see frenzy at death.  How distinct and noble to meet death as an old friend.

(see also Citadel p. 133, 165, 272)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B11:1

The properties of the rational soul. It looks on itself, it shapes itself, it makes itself however it wishes to be, it gathers for itself the fruit it bears - whereas the fruit of plants and the corresponding produce of animals is gathered by others. It achieves its own end wherever the limit of life is set. Unlike a ballet or a play or suchlike, where any interruption aborts the whole performance, in every scene and whenever it is cut off the rational soul has its own programme complete and entirely fulfilled, so it can say: 'I am in possession of my own.'

Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future.

Particular qualities too of the rational soul are love of neighbour, truthfulness, integrity, no higher value than itself. This last is a defining quality of law also. There is thus no difference between the true principle of philosophy and the principle of justice.

Of all the objects and creatures in the universe known to humans, only humans are fully rational agents.  No other living organism known to humankind, has the ability to think about itself the way humans do.  The "fruit" of humans is outlined by philosophy.  For Stoics, the fruit is producing a virtuous life.  Humans can be virtuous ("grow the fruit") and reap the benefits ("pick the fruit").  Also, humans can achieve what they were designed for, the moment they act with virtue.  There is no long process that leads to a pinnacle and then it is over.  Rather, humans constantly live in the now.  Whereas a concert, movie or play reaches the end and it is fully developed and complete, humans, on the other hand, always live in the now - in this time and this space.  Eternity is not some far distant future or past.  It is now.  If you were to draw a line that represents eternity, at what point do you reach it?  The answer is: the moment you are on it - which is now.

Humans have the capacity to think about time and space and ponder what the universe is really about.  I don't think Marcus means we physically travel the whole universe, rather we can contemplate it and see that all that has happened before, happens now and will happen again.  Therefore, according to Marcus, a forty-year-old man has seen just as much as a man who could live ten-thousand years.

Humans fulfill their design when they act rationally out of love for neighbor, when they speak and act truthfully and are full of integrity (consistent in thought, speech and actions).

(see also Citadel p. 41, 147, 213-214, 275)