Sunday, February 16, 2020

Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Chris & Robert Pirsig
If anyone saw me sitting in my truck, in a parking garage on Valentine's day at 5:43am in the morning, they would have found a grown man crying.

I had just finished listening to the Audible version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The book is about living a good (quality) life.  There are a number of stories in this book.

There is the story of the first person, who is taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and friends.

There is the story of Phaedrus who is the previous "version" of the first person.

There is the story of actual motorcycle maintenance.

And there is a story of the chautauqua - which ties all of the above stories together.

Some Thoughts on the Book

One problem he is trying to solve is the alienation of people ... conservatives, liberals, hippies, etc.  Somewhere along the line, people began to culturally reject the way society was living.  He tries to understand why and how can we (re)bridge the schism.  This is where he gets into the Romantic and the Classic view of the world.

The question that really got him thinking was from a teacher colleague about if he was teaching his students quality.

The Romantic view is enamored with the final product, as it were.  While the Classic view loves the inner workings.  Quality is a unification of the two perspectives.

The motorcycle, throughout the book is symbolic of any hobby, or career, or job or even the way of living life itself.  The motorcycle is symbolic of technology and modernization.  It's interesting to note, as I'm reading John Sellars' Stoicism I learned the Greek word technē is translated to art and is defined as "a practical skill requiring expert knowledge" (p. 163).

One way to solve alienation is to fall in love with something (a job, a career, a hobby such as motorcycle maintenance) and all of life, and to care about it - to love it - to make an art of it.  Too many people have not fallen in love with acquiring expert knowledge of modern life or how to live a quality life.

One of the most important somethings a person should focus on and acquire expert knowledge is that of philosophy - the art of living.  When you read the book, just substitute his discussions on motorcycle maintenance with the art of living or philosophy, and you will gain a lot of insight.

Attentiveness is needed for quality; you have to give a damn (about the subject/hobby/career/life).

He gets into aretē which has been translated into virtue or excellence (of the soul).  And although Pirsig writes:
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
... he discounts the virtue aspect of it.  When I look at it from a Stoic perspective, I see aretē is virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance) and a human shows these qualities no matter what the platform or technē / art he expresses himself in.  It is all-encompassing; in living as a quality father, a quality employee, a quality neighbor, a quality chess player, and on and on.

He later writes:
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Pirsig (the first person of the book and Phaedrus) is learning to grapple with the art of being a quality father.  He doesn't do such a good job on the road trip, but by the end, he finally realizes it and we can see the immediate changes in his style of fathering.

The book is a love book.  The love of a practical skill; the love of art; the love of being a parent; the love of being a teacher; the love of quality itself - of workmanship; the love of wisdom - philosophy.

I cried at the end of the book after listening to the epilogue.  Chris (the son), was stabbed to death in San Francisco just before his 23rd birthday.  Pirsig describes the death in detail and then discusses where and what Chris is after his death.

And one more thought ... I loved his description of how we see the present, past and future.  It is as if we are walking backwards.  We see all that we have passed up to the present.  That is all we can see and know.  But the back of our body/head faces the future - it's unknowable.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Logic from Stoicism by John Sellars

The different parts of classical Stoic logic were “reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology)” (p. 55, Sellars)

Today’s logic is usually understood to be “the formal analysis of arguments.”

For the Stoics, logic was divided into two principal divisions: rhetoric and dialectic.

Rhetoric is defined as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively” (Merriam-Webster).

Dialectic is defined as: “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation” (Merriam-Webster).

The central them of Stoic logic is “the acquisition of knowledge” (p. 79, Sellars).

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – “the process by which the individual gains knowledge” (p. 64-65, Sellars)

Birth of Cognition

At birth, human infants possess little to no knowledge.  Jean Piaget’s knowledge experimentations on babies conclude infants are born not knowing much.  To quote a Time magazine article, “Piaget's work led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works or any sense of "object permanence" (that people and things still exist even when they're not seen). Instead, babies must gradually construct this knowledge from experience” (The Brain: What Do Babies Know? Time, Monday, Jan. 29, 2007).  The article later notes modern experimentation have drawn the same conclusions as Piaget.

Humans gain information about our world, largely through impressions and sensations – through experience, as stated in the previous point.

Empiricism is defined as: “a theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Merriam-Webster).

Regarding the epistemology of the Stoics, Sellars notes, “Whereas most impressions are assumed to come from sensation, and so the Stoics might broadly be characterized as empiricists in epistemology, they do also acknowledge impressions received from the mind that are the product reasoning” (p. 65, Sellars).

An example of an inadequate impression might be light coming into a room and someone thinking it is day, when in fact, they’ve not gone outside to check that it is night, and it was a fire or street light causing the light to enter the window.

An example of an adequate impression would be someone thinking it is day while they are standing outside at noon, with the bright sun over their head.

The Stoic response to the Skeptics’ claim that we can never know if an impression is adequate, would be to “reply by saying that over time it will become possible to develop a certain ability to recognize adequate impressions.  One might not be infallible at first, but one might eventually be able to become highly accurate with certain sorts of impressions” (p. 70, Sellars).  Therefore, a Stoic can point to the sun directly above our heads and be absolutely certain that it is day; while at the same time, the Stoic can accept the possibility of mistakes by suspending judgement when uncertain (see p. 73, Sellars).

When we give assent to an impression, the impression is called an adequate impression (p. 73-73, Sellars).

When we withhold assent to an impression, we are suspending judgment (p. 73, Sellars).

The Greek word for cognition is katalepsis (p. 70, 164, Sellars).

An instance of cognition is “an assent to an adequate impression; a building block for knowledge” (p. 70, 164, Sellars).  It is the mental process of knowing (by experience or through reasoning) by giving assent to an adequate impression.

For the Stoics, knowledge (episteme) is more substantial than cognition.  To me, it represents putting experience from cognition together into a system or structure.  Cognition provides the basis and building blocks to make something – knowledge – which is to see a wider, bigger picture as it were – something greater than the individual part.

Cognition Analysis

Sellars states “An adequate impression is an impression that is so clear, vivid and distinct that it is its own guarantee of its accuracy” (p. 69).  We can also guarantee the accuracy of an empirical impression by observing the “causal history” and ensuring that nothing has interfered with “one’s sense organs, the object in question, and all the other variables involved are not obstructed or in an abnormal state” (p. 69).

“The impressions we receive that present external objects to us are not within our control.  We do not have the power to choose them; instead they force themselves on us.  However, we do have the power to choose whether to assent to these impressions or not” (p. 66, Sellars).  Stoics will often be forced to confront these external circumstances and will at least have the choice to behave virtuously and serenely, but this does not mean they will choose to do so every time.  Because “first movement” emotions come to all humans, many people do not question or analyze these emotions and propositions before assenting to them.  The Stoic will try to pause and reflect on the emotions and proposition from the “first movement” before fully assenting to or rejecting an external object.  Assuming a Stoic consistently practices this pause before assent, then over time, the Stoic will act correctly (virtuously) and serenely more often than not.

The four stages of assent are (p. 67, Sellars, emphasis added):
  1. “a perception of an external event or state of affairs”
  2. “an almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement that is made about the content of the perception”
  3. “the presentation to the conscious mind of an impression in the form of a proposition that is composed of both the perceptual data received from the outside and the unconscious value judgement”
  4. the act of assent to an adequate impression or we suspend judgement of the impression
Propositions have corporeal and incorporeal aspects.
  • The corporeal aspect would be physical utterance or written word of the proposition.
  • The incorporeal aspect would be the meaning of the physical element presented.
  • Incorporeal propositions subsist, if they are never spoken or written and remain as a cognition in our mind.
"The meaning or sense of a proposition is a sayable", which is purely in the mind of the utterer and listener, is incorporeal.  “Sayables only subsist” (p. 79, 63, Sellars).

Sellars notes, “What is perhaps unique to the Stoic position is their rejection of meaning as something that exists.  As incorporeals, sayables only subsist” (p. 63).  How does this explain how the meaning of words can cause action?  The key aspect would be in the assent of the person comprehending the sayable.  A man shouts a warning to a woman that a ball is being thrown her way.  She hears the words the man shouts, she comprehends the sayable, she assents to the meaning and therefore chooses to act, either to catch the ball or move out of the way to avoid being hit by the ball.

There are two kinds of sayables – complete and incomplete (p. 62, Sellars).
  1. A complete sayable would be: Rocky is typing on his computer.
  2. An incomplete sayable would be: is typing.
Complete sayables are used in dialectic.


“An assertible is a complete sayable” (p. 58, Sellars).

The four important characteristics of assertibles are (p. 58-59, Sellars):
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Simple assertibles can be
    • affirmative
    • negative
  4. Complex which include logical connectives
    • conditional ... if
    • conjunction ... and
    • dis-junction ... either/or
    • pseudo-conditional ... since
    • causal ... because
    • comparative ... more/less-likely
While not characteristics, all assertives can be distinguished by their modality:

  • possible - an assertible which can become true and is not hindered by external things from becoming true
  • impossible -  an assertible which cannot become true or which can become true but is hindered by external things from becoming true
  • necessary - an assertible which (when true) cannot become false or which can become false but is hindered by external things from becoming false
  • non-necessary - an assertible which can become false and is not hindered by external things from becoming false

The four kinds of assertibles listed above are the propositions that can be combined to form Stoic arguments for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.  These arguments are called syllogisms (p. 59, Sellars).

Summary of Stoic Logic (p. 79, Sellars)

  1. “the mind at birth is like a blank sheet of paper”
  2. “via sensory experiences or impressions … we gain information” of an external event or state of affairs.
  3. we experience "first movements" which are almost involuntary and unconscious value judgements
  4. “the impressions we [initially] assent to are presented to the mind in the form of propositions” which are composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgement.
  5. we either assent or reject the impression as either adequate or inadequate.
  6. "a proposition is a physical entity” or corporeal [spoken or written] which carries meaning/sense, which subsists and incorporeal.
  7. Sayables are the subsistence of the meaning of the proposition.
  8. Sayables are either complete or incomplete.
  9. Complete sayables are called assertibles used in Stoic dialectic.
  10. Four kinds of assertibles (true/false/simple/complex) can be combined with other assertibles to form syllogistic arguments.
Syllogistic arguments “form the foundation for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.”  A syllogism is an argument with premises and a conclusion.  Aristotle was the first to use the syllogism (p. 56, Sellars).
Aristotelian syllogisms used universals with letters, whereas Stoic syllogisms could use either universal or particular assertibles for their propositions. In Stoic formal logic, ordinal numbers replace propositions, not individual terms. (p. 57-59, Sellars).

An argument may be valid “in its logical form” but if we doubt the premise, the conclusion may not be true. So, we can just say, "no." :)

An example of a logically valid argument that is untrue would be:
All Texans are human;
All humans are male;
Therefore, all Texans are male.

An example of the 3rd Stoic argument using ordinal numbers:
Not the seventh and the eighth;
The seventh;
Therefore, not the eighth.

The above example would contain a complex negative conjunction assertible as one premise and a simple assertible as the second premise.

An example from the physical world of the 3rd argument would be:
The temperature is not both hot and cold;
It is hot;
Therefore, it is not cold.

Examples of the other four arguments (1, 2, 4, 5):

If the man is in Texas, then he is in the United States;
The man is in Texas;
Therefore, the man is in the United States.

If the boat is sailing, then it is on the water;
The boat is not on the water;
Therefore, the boat is not sailing.

Either is it night or it is day;
It is night;
Therefore, it is not day.

The animal is either a mammal or a reptile;
It is not a reptile;
Therefore, it is a mammal.

More on Stoic Logic:

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Notes on Introduction and The Stoic System from Stoicism by John Sellars

Below are some notes and key things I learned from reading and studying the first two chapters of Stoicism by John Sellars.

While fragments of early Stoic writers have been found through the years, the earliest, complete surviving record of the philosophy comes from Cicero around 45 BC.

The founder of Stoicism is Zeno of Citium.  Citium is in modern day Larnaca Cyprus.

Zeno actually studied at two philosophy schools before founding the philosophy of the porch.  He studied with Polemo at Plato's Academy, and then studied with Stilpo at the Magarian school.

Zeno published a work entitled Republic in which he advocated for the abolition of law courts, currency, marriage and traditional education.

One of the first arguments in Stoicism was about "preferred" and "non-preferred" indifferents.  Zeno's student Aristo did not want the classification - he wanted to call all of them simply "indifferents."  But he lost the argument with other students.

The second founder of Stoicism was Chrysipus.  As Diogenes Laertius said, "If there had been no Chyrisippus, there would have been no Stoa" (p. 7, Sellars).  Chyrisippus advanced the philosophy by bringing all the ideas of his predecessors together, and then adding his own original material, thus leaving a highly systematic philosophical system for students learning Stoicism for the first time (see p. 7, Sellars).

In 128 BC, Panaetius became head of the Stoa.  He deviated from his predecessors in three major ways.

First, he "rejected the Stoic doctrine of the periodic destruction of the world" and instead declared the world eternal (p. 9, Sellars).

Second, he denied that virtues was "sufficient on its own" for a person to achieve happiness.

Third, he shifted "the focus of attention from the ideal sage to the average person on the street" (p. 9, Sellars).

The Stoic Posidonius was important because his most famous pupil was Cicero.  Posidonius was also a polymath, studying history, geography, astronomy, meteorology, biology and anthropology.

Both Panaetius and Posidonius deviated from the early Stoic doctrines.  Had they not deviated, perhaps they would been faithful disciples rather than philosophers who “expanded and developed” the early Stoic philosophy.  Posidonius deviated from Stoic orthodoxy in psychology.  Early Stoics did not separate reason and emotion into distinct faculties, whereas “Posidonius followed Plato in proposing a tripartite psychology, dividing the soul into the faculties of reason, emotion and desire” (p. 10, Sellars).

We own much to Seneca, who was born between 4 and 1 BC and survived until 65 AD.  We own him our gratitude for his diligence in writing.  Many of his texts have survived and have also "[shaped] the image of Stoicism in the West" especially as he was seen by the early "Church Fathers, medieval reading and Renaissance humanists" as sympathetic to Christianity" (p. 13, Sellars).

Musonius Rufus is sometimes called the third founder of the Stoa due to “his status as a Stoic sage … combined with his influence as the teacher of Epictetus, Euphrates, Dio and others” (p. 15, Sellars).

Sellars makes brief notes on Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but nothing new for me.

Sellars notes the decline of Stoicism around 200 CE.  While the decline can be explained by the rise of Neoplatonism, he also believes that the decline can also be attributed to the strong teaching and focus of Epictetus practicing the philosophy as opposed to commentating and theorizing on it.  As Sellars notes, Epictetus placed “value on deeds rather than words” (p. 26).  Coupled with Epictetus’ fame as a philosopher, followers would have spent more of their time practicing the philosophy rather than writing about it, hence writings of Stoicism would have diminished.

While I personally appreciate Epictetus’ sentiment on applied Stoicism over theoretical Stoicism, I do admit that we of the present day, owe it to subsequent generations to keep the flame alive as it were.  And being a rudimentary student of history and knowing how quickly knowledge can be lost, I feel it should be a duty and obligation of scholars and librarians to preserve the record as much as possible.  For my part, I take notes on what I read and commentate on Stoic books.  I try to share what I’ve learned with others, including my children and close friends.  In sum, we need to continue to learn and practice what we’ve learned.  However, in that process, we need to preserve in writing the theoretical.

Sellars said, “If we assume that the Stoics were philosophers simply in the same sense in which a modern academic is a philosopher, then we run the risk of countless misunderstandings and distortions” (p. 31).  If I understand the context correctly, then it would seem the modern academic philosopher is one who studies the various philosophies that have been developed over the centuries.  The academic philosopher would be able to describe frameworks and philosophic paradigms and may not necessarily practice any of the philosophies.  Whereas the ancient Stoics sought love of wisdom in practice – it was a never-ending pursuit for identifying the proper way to live and then demonstrating that knowledge.  They viewed philosophy as the way to properly live life and not simply describe how it ought to be lived.  Much like a doctor who demonstrates her ability to heal as opposed to writing a book on it.  The value is in the doing and practicing, rather than the learning and teaching.

The Epicureans hold pleasure to be the key to happiness.  The Peripatetics “hold virtue to be the key to happiness, but [required] favorable external circumstances” as well (p. 32, Sellars).  The Stoics, on the other hand, “must be able to translate those doctrines into concrete behavior.  It is not enough to say that one can be virtuous, and thus happy, regardless of circumstances; one must actually be happy regardless of circumstances, whether one is in danger, disgraced, sick or dying” (p. 32, Sellars).  Therefore, the Stoics differ from the Peripatetics by dropping the requirement for favorable external circumstances.  They view that happiness is found entirely from one’s attitude and perspective and adherence to virtue, no matter the circumstances or external factors.

Regarding the sage -  the problem with the sage is the near impossibility of the criteria for a person to become a sage.  The qualifications for sage-hood would be a person who is “never impeded, who is infallible, who is more powerful than everyone else, richer, stronger, freer, happier and the only person truly deserving of the title ‘king’” (p. 36, Sellars).  The qualifications for being a sage are so high, the Stoics could hardly produce an example of someone who embodied the Sage.  “There is something inevitably futile about devoting one’s life to trying to become a sage if that is an impossible goal to reach” (p. 41, Sellars).  Stoics addressed this problem by providing some examples of people who embodied various examples of specific Stoic doctrine.  Therefore, while Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic may not have been a full Sage, they nonetheless practiced key teachings that Stoicism embraced, and subsequently, provide examples for people who are trying to live the philosophy (see p. 41, Sellars).

There are various similes which represent the three parts of Stoic philosophy.

One is the animal, where logic corresponds to bones and sinews, and where ethics corresponds to the fleshy parts and physics corresponds to the soul.

Another simile is that of an egg: shell is logic, the white is ethics and the yolk is physics.

Another simile is the orchard: the fence is logic, fruit is ethics and soil and trees are the physics.  Posidonius rejected the orchard simile because the representations of the orchard could exist independently of each other (p. 42-43, Sellars).

The second stage of philosophy after one learns doctrines or theory, is “to put those doctrines into practice” through “a series of exercises (askeseis)” or what Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (p. 45, Sellars).  The purpose of this practice “is to habituate the soul so that one’s consciously chosen philosophical beliefs can shape one’s unconscious habits, and so determine one’s everyday behavior” (p. 46, Sellars).

Is the two-stage paradigm of learning and live philosophy necessary?

Socrates maintained that if a person gains knowledge of something, they will necessarily follow on with the correct behavior.  This stands against the Stoic notion of practice, because the first stage is sufficient and all that is needed to change behavior.

It appears not all classical Stoics were united on the two-stage process.  Aristo argued exercises would be of no benefit for someone who is ignorant and for someone who is free from ignorance, the exercises are unneeded.  Seneca cites Cleanthes “who held that this second stage of philosophical education ‘is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles’” (p. 49, Sellars).

I think the two-stage process is needed for people (like me) who have never seriously inquired about their personal philosophy until much later in life, having lived in a world full of false judgements and emotions.  However, for a young person who is taught philosophy from youth, perhaps with right knowledge written on a somewhat ‘blank mind’ then right actions will naturally follow and therefore, practice is not needed.  With all that said, I am of the opinion that the large majority of people will need to learn then practice before full absorption takes hold.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "The View from Above"

The philosophical and spiritual exercise of "the View from Above" is one that places the proper perspective of the individual in time and space.  Whereas the last exercise discussed, intensely focuses on "the now", the "View from Above" opens up the rest of the cosmos to the individual and invites him to view his problems, stresses, fears, anxiety and desires in that grand, mind-numbing context.  When petty things are viewed in the context of the vastness of time and space, they seem insignificant and facilitate the proper response to these emotions, feelings and desires.

The View from Above is not necessarily linked to physical flight

This spiritual exercise firstly, was about the power of thought and imagination.  It is "a specific conception of the power of thought and the divine nature of the soul, which is able to raise itself above the categories of space and time" (p. 240).

The ancients also viewed this spiritual exercise under even more specific and intense circumstances.  "it was something that could only be experienced under extraordinary circumstances: in particular, it came about as a consequence of the separation of the soul from the body" (p. 240).

Hadot then discussed two circumstances where the soul and the body are separated.  In Plato's Phaedrus we learn "prior to [the soul's] incarnation in a terrestrial body, the soul is thus able to rise up to the outermost limits of the heavens, and follow the procession of the winged chariots of the gods" (p. 240).  Later, when the soul and body are separated from death, "the soul can contemplate the supracelestial world of eternal forms, as it did in its previous life, before its fall into the corporeal world" (p. 240).

"Plutarch, in his essay On the Delays of Divine Vengeance, recounts the experiences of a certain Thespesius of Soloi, who had also been left for dead:
He saw nothing like what he had seen before: the stars were enormously large, and immeasurably far from one another, and they shone forth with a light of great force and marvelous colours, so that the soul, gently and lightly transported by this light like a ship on a calm sea, could quickly move to wherever it wished. (p. 241)
As has been discussed before, philosophy is nothing other than training for death.  Plato, therefore states:
Shall we not say that purification occurs ... when man separates the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoms it to gather itself together from every part of the body and concentrate itself until it is completely independent, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone and by itself, freed from the shackles of the body?
And in this process of gathering itself together, the soul looks down from above and "holds all this to be puny and meaningless, [and the soul] contemptuously wanders all over the place" (p. 241)

"In the Republic, Plato expresses the view that greatness of soul consists in precisely such an attitude: 'For smallness is particularly contrary to the soul which always strives after the complete and perfect, both divine and human.' Such a soul, capable of observing the totality of space and time, has no fear even of death" (p. 242).

The Goal of Practicing the View from Above

Hadot reiterates that the goal of this exercise - the View from Above - is "to help people free themselves from the desires and passions."  Furthermore, "the goal of philosophy was to eliminate them, so that the individual might come to see things as nature herself sees them, and consequently desire nothing other than that which is natural" (p. 242).  The exercise also attempts to "raise up mankind from individuality and particularity to universality and objectivity" (p. 242).

Let me restate that: the goal of practicing the View from Above is to help you eliminate desires and passions and to help you see things universally and to be objective in your assents.  Specifically for the Stoic, this exercise puts "oneself in accord with universal reason, the all-embracing Logos, both interior and exterior" (p. 242).

Consider this passage from Philo of Alexandria (p. 243-244):
As their goal is a life of peace and serenity, they contemplate nature and everything found within her: they attentively explore the earth, the sea, the air, the sky, and every nature found therein.  In thought, they accompany the moon, the sun, and the rotations of the other stars, whether fixed or wandering.  Their bodies remain on earth, but they give wings to their souls, so that, rising into the ether, they may observe the powers which dwell there, as is fitting for those who have truly become citizens of the world.
Marcus Aurelius similarly admonished himself to take the same flight: "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." (Meditations 11.1.2)

And in another passage he wrote, "Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.  Further, when your talk is about mankind, view earthly things as if looking down on them from some point high above flocks, armies, farms, weddings, divorces, births, deaths, the hubbub of the law-courts, desert places, various foreign nations, festivals, funerals, markets; all the medley of the world and the ordered conjunction of opposites." (Meditations 7.47)

As stated in the previous passage from Marcus, this spiritual exercise also reminds us of the squalor of mankind; and the view invites us to rise above all this mess and to leave it behind.  "In Ovid's Metamorphoses, we find a Neo-Pythagorean version of the theme: 'It is a delight to travel along the starry firmament and, leaving the earth and its dull regions behind, to ride on the clouds, to stand upon stout Atlas' shoulders and see, far below, men wandering aimlessly, devoid of reason, anxious and in fear of the hereafter, thus to exhort them and unroll the book of fate!'" (p. 245).

Hadot states, "The view from above thus lead us to consider the whole of human reality, in all its social, geographical, and emotional aspects, as an anonymous swarming mass, and it teaches us to relocate human existence within the immeasurable dimensions of the cosmos.  Everything that does not depend on us, which the Stoics call indifferent - such as health, fame, wealth and even death - is reduced to its true dimensions when considered from the point of view of the nature of the all" (p. 245)

Hadot also quotes Lucian from his Charon, or the Inspectors.  "Charon remarks: 'If only humans could get it straight from the beginning: that they're going to die; that, after a brief stay in life, they have to depart from this life like a dream and leave everything on earth behind, then they'd live more wisely and die with fewer regrets.'" (p. 246)

Ad Astra

A popular film was released last year, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.  In Ad Astra, (spoiler alert), the protagonist played by Brad Pitt, is summoned to a mission to send a message to his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Jones' character has been on a space voyage beyond Neptune, to discover life beyond our solar system.  But the space station has been sending electrical pulses back to earth, causing major electrical disruptions and death.  This is the catalyst to send Pitt's character to make contact with his father to fix the problem.  The theory is that the father has gone rogue.

We watch the journey of Pitt's character, as he leaves earth, to travel to the moon and then to Mars.  On his voyage, we learn he has experienced regret and he wonders if he is simply running from his problems on earth.  He notes that the same discord, jealousies and animosities on earth, have followed humankind to the moon and to Mars.

After some daring maneuvers, Pitt's character meets his father on the space station near Neptune.  It would seem his father too, has been running from internal problems, in his frantic search to discover life beyond the solar system.  But alas, after thousands of scans and pictures of exoplanets and systems, he's concluded there is no life beyond the stars.  His failure has exacerbated his internal, philosophical failures as well.

Pitt's character realizes that the most amazing journey in the universe is the one to be found internally and with other people on earth.  The ending scene is him meeting an estranged wife in a coffee shop.

I think the film is very fitting in the context of the spiritual exercise of the view from above.  We don't have to travel to Neptune to get away from our problems.  We can take a mental flight, to put our problems in context, but we can remain on earth to confront and deal with the now.  We have been equipped with all that we need to lead a life of equanimity.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "'Only the Present is our Happiness': The Value of the Present Instant in Goethe and in Ancient Philosophy"

As I do often at work and at home and in many aspects of my life, let me start by stating the problem that needs to be solved.  The problem is stated in the last paragraph of the essay.
  • There is a "tragic lack of balance which has come about in the modern world between 'power' and 'wisdom.'"
  • "Modern man ... [is] hypnotized ... by language, images, information, and the myth of the future [which] seemed to us to provide one of the best means of access to this wisdom."
  • We, in post-modern society have not taken care for the self, in terms of wisdom and sound thinking.  And as such, we have allowed "all human institutions" the power of preventing us "from feeling [our] life, by means of the constant dispersion of [our] thoughts." (p. 235)
While the sentiment expressed above was written several decades ago, it rings true more than ever before, in the year 2019.  The thoughts of the majority - despite being ever so connected with the world - are constantly being dispersed (distributed and spread over a wide area).  Few focus on the weightier matters of wisdom and the love of it (philosophia).

The proposal of the essay, and one which, if carried out, might begin to tip the balance toward 'wisdom' and away from 'power,' is for the individual to "enjoy the present moment" and to "will it intensely" as a duty (p. 230).

While Hadot focuses a lot on Goethe and Epicureanism, I will limit my commentary to the Stoic aspects of the essay.

The practicing Stoic, in an attempt to keep his equanimity, will limit his focus to things in his control.  Out of his control are the past and the future.  Only the present remains in his control.  If he chooses to rehash the past, causing anxiety and consternation, he will not keep his equanimity.  If he fears the future or stews over it, he will not keep his equanimity.  But if he is mindful of the present, and keeps his judgements, actions and inner attitude in balance with nature, then he will retain his equanimity.

Marcus wrote to himself, and so too we should heed the advice:
These will suffice: the present certainty of judgement, the present social action, the present disposition well content with any effect of an external cause (Meditations 9.6)
In another passage, he repeated and expanded on the same idea of focusing on the present:
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. (Meditations 12.1)
What a beautiful passage which describes a life full of equanimity and how to achieve it.

Hadot said, "there are two reason why the present is sufficient for our happiness: in the first place, Stoic happiness is complete at every instant and does not increase over time.  The second reason is that we already possess the whole of reality within the present instant, and even infinite duration could not give us more than what we have right now" (p. 228).

Only the Present is our Happiness

If you strive, right now, to always have objective assents and judgements, and if your actions are moral actions, right now, and if you understand that the whole history of events and circumstances have brought you to this point and that they belong to you and you love your fate, now, then you will always retain your equanimity.  It could then be said, that you lack nothing - that you are content.  And like a circle, your equanimity is whole and complete, regardless of the size - it is a perfect circle.

Therefore if you can spend a few brief moments, now, in perfect harmony (i.e. a perfect circle), then the duration does not matter; only the quality of it matters.  "Happiness is nothing more nor less than that instant in which man is wholly in accord with nature" (p. 228)

Hadot quotes Chrysippus: "If a person has wisdom for one instant, he is no less happy than he who possesses it for an eternity" (p. 228).

And since all the ingredients that are needed to go into this instant of happiness are within our control, the only variable that needs to be determined is your desire for it (or not).  Happiness, therefore, is a choice that you can make in the present moment.

"What is needed is the immediate transformation of our way of thinking, acting, and accepting events.  We must think in accordance with truth, act in accordance with justice, and lovingly accept what comes to pass.  In the words of Marcus Aurelius: 'How easy it is to find oneself, right away, in a state of perfect peace of mind.'  In other words, it is enough to just want it" (p. 229).

To give a sense of urgency of the importance of our "transformation" we must always realize that death may come to us at any moment (memento mori).  "We must live each day with a consciousness so acute, and an attention so intense, that we can say to ourselves each evening: 'I have lived; I have actualized my life.' ... In the words of Seneca: 'He has peace of mind who has lived his entire life every day.'" (p. 229)

Existence is a Duty and should be Intensely Willed

I think many people lack context and awareness of their position in the universe.  Personally, I believe we are parts of a cosmos, which is one whole.  As Marcus has said before, there is divinity within each of us; and collectively, we represent the consciousness of the cosmos.  Accepting this, we must grant that other people have divinity within them and we must cooperate with them, not unlike a hand which would cooperate with a foot in playing a basketball game.

Furthermore, our interface with the cosmos is the present time and space.  All the events that have preceded me and have brought me to this point, represent the sum total of my fate.  It is uniquely mine and I ought to love it.  Hadot says, "The instant is our only point of contact with reality, yet it offers us the whole of reality; precisely because it is a passage and metamorphosis, it allows us to participate in the overall movement of the event of the world, and the reality of the world's coming-to-be" (p. 229).

Our duty, in this moment in time and space "is the harmonization of the reason within us with the reason which guides the cosmos, and produces the chain of causes and effect which makes up fate.  At each moment, we must harmonize our judgement, action, and desires with universal reason" (p. 229).

This is why Marcus said, "He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same" (Meditations 6.37).

And later on he added, "Whatever happens to you was being prepared for you from everlasting, and the mesh of causes was ever spinning from eternity both your own existence and the incidence of this particular happening" (Meditations 10.5).

Hadot continues, "At each moment and every instant, we must say 'yes' to the universe; that is, to the will of universal reason.  We must want that which universal reason wants" (p. 230).  Hence Marcus cries out:
Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you. The poet says, 'Dear city of Cecrops': will you not say, 'Dear city of Zeus'? (Meditations 4.23)
And for Seneca, he notes that the Stoic sage "plunges himself into the whole of the universe (toti se inserens mundo)" (p. 230).

This mindset helps produce, within the individual, an attitude of "giving your all" and being fully engaged with life.  It leaves behind the victim mentality and empowers the individual to carpe diem and confront the events of life.  And the more this mindset becomes entrenched in an individual, the more the individual begins to want events to happen exactly as they do.  There is no more cowering or disengagement or cordoning of "safe zones."  Rather, there is active participation in life and the whole world and cosmos becomes your home.

To finish, let me quote two passages from the essay that encapsulate what has been discussed.

"The ultimate meaning of Goethe's attitude toward the present is thus, as it was for ancient philosophy, the happiness and the duty of existing in the cosmos.  It is a profound feeling of participation in and identification with a reality which transcends the limits of the individual."

Hadot, quotes Nietzsche again in this essay (p. 235).
Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Reflections on the Idea of the 'Cultivation of the Self'"

Although a short essay, this one gave me a lot to think about, especially in this age when Stoicism has seen a resurgence and it would appear that many have embraced it for the wrong reasons.

The two ideas at odds with each other, in terms of self-cultivation are a type of "Dandyism" and a type of Stoic "transcendentalism."

The basis for Hadot's essay is the analysis of the work "The Care of the Self" by Foucault.  Foucault "meticulously describes what he terms the 'practices of the self', recommended in antiquity by Stoic philosophers.  These include the care of one's self, which can only be carried out under the direction of a spiritual guide; the attention paid to the body and the soul which the 'care of the self' implies; exercises of abstinence; examination of the conscience; the filtering of representations; and, finally, the conversion toward and possession of the self." (p. 206)  Hadot contends that these techniques are "focused far too much on the 'self', or at least on a specific conception of the self" (p. 207).

Foucault contends that these practices of the self will replace the "violent, uncertain, and temporary pleasures with a form of pleasure one takes in oneself, serenely and forever" and he cites Letter 23 from Seneca about "the best portion of oneself."

Hadot counters that the translation of "pleasure" is crucial in understanding Seneca.  "Seneca explicitly opposes voluptas [vs] gaudium - pleasure and joy."  He goes on,
This is not just a quibble over words, although the Stoics did attach a great deal of importance to words, and carefully distinguished between hedone - "pleasure" - and eupatheia - "joy".  No, this is no mere question of vocabulary.  If the Stoics insist on the word gaudium/"joy", it is precisely because they refuse to introduce the principle of pleasure into moral life.  For them, happiness does not consist in pleasure, but in virtue itself, which is its own reward.  Long before Kant, the Stoics strove jealously to preserve the purity of intention of the moral consciousness (p. 207).
Furthermore, the Stoic doesn't find joy in himself, but rather, as Seneca said, "the best portion of the self" or in "the true good" - meaning virtue.  "Joy is to be found 'in the conscience turned towards the good; in intentions which have no other object than virtue; in just actions. ... The 'best portion of oneself,' then, is, in the last analysis, a transcendent self.  Seneca does not find his joy in "Seneca", but by transcending "Seneca"; by discovering that there is within him - within all human beings, that is, and within the cosmos itself - a reason which is a part of universal reason" (p. 207).

Hadot contends "the goal of Stoic exercises is to go beyond the self, and think and act in unison with universal reason."  He goes on,
In my view, the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole.  Seneca sums it up in four words: Toti se inserens mundo, "Plunging oneself into the totality of the world."
Another contention Foucault makes, with regard to writing, is that one performs this meditative exercise as a "refusal of a mental attitude directed toward the future, and the tendency to accord a positive value to the possession of a past which one can enjoy autonomously and without worries" (p. 209).  Therefore, in Foucault's view, the writing / meditative exercise (think Marcus' Meditations) was to give one pleasure of the past and pain-avoidance of the future.

However, Hadot contends this exercise was designed to help one live in the ever-present now.  So while one might write and record dogmas that have "already been said", they do so in the context that what was best in the past (think hindsight is "20/20") therefore is best for now - the present.  "It is because one recognizes, in the dogmas of Epicurus or Chrysippus, an ever-present value, precisely because they are the very expression of reason ... one is utilizing formulae considered as apt to actualize what is already present within the reason of the person writing, and bring it to life" (p. 210)

Furthermore, "the point is not to forge oneself a spiritual identity by writing, but rather to liberate oneself from one's individuality, in order to raise oneself up to universality ... Writing ... changes the level of the self, and universalizes it.  The miracle of this exercise, carried out in solitude, is that it allows its practitioner to accede to the universality of reason within the confines of space and time" (p. 210-11).

Hadot cautions, that if people look at the spiritual exercises outlined in the essay, and in the entire book for that matter, from the perspective of "making-me-feel-better-about-myself", then they've missed the point.
What I am afraid of is that, by focusing [Foucault's] interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self - more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence - M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic.  In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style (p. 211).
He consequently believes "that it is possible for modern man to live, not as a sage (sophos) - most of the ancients did not hold this to be possible - but as a practitioner of the ever-fragile exercise of wisdom" (p. 211).  I love this particular quote from the book.  Recently, I've had this question rattling around the back of my head, as I make decisions and act in my every-day life: what is the wise thing to do/think/say?  So much of today's outrage / triggered culture, entirely overlooks the over-arching purpose of living, in order to score a few piddly "political" or Twitter points.  They sacrifice wisdom in order to be an online-Dandy.

The essay ends with a couple of quotes from Nietzsche and Marcus.  I will cite the Nietzsche one, since it popped up in this book as well as "The Inner Citadel" - and I quoted it recently in another blog post; therefore, it seems to be a very important quote - especially for me.  In this essay, Hadot says, "In the enjoyment of the pure present, he discovers the mystery and splendor of existence.  At such moments, as Nietzsche said, we say yes 'not only to ourselves, but to all existence'" (p. 212).

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Highlights from the essay "Ancient Spiritual Exercises and 'Christian Philosophy' from the book Philosophy as a Way of Life

The point of the essay is to demonstrate how many of the early Christian leaders / monks looked for similarities and commonalities between ancient Greek philosophy and Christian philosophy.  The main topic is that of mindfulness or prosoche.  I recommend the reader to read the entire essay, but for my purposes, I will copy the highlights from the essay, without much commentary.

page 126
Paul Rabbow made the connection between "the methods of meditation" and "the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy"

"Rabbow seems to me to have linked the phenomenon of spiritual exercises too closely to what he terms the 'inward orientation' which, he claims, took place in the Greek mentality in the third century BC, and which manifested itself in the development of the Stoic and Epicurean schools."

"It is philosophy itself that the ancients thought of as a spiritual exercise"

page 127
"Rabbow goes so far as to define spiritual exercises as moral exercises."
By "moral exercise," we mean a procedure or determinant act, intended to influence oneself, carried out with the express goal of achieving a determinant moral effect. It always looks beyond itself, in as much as it repeats itself, or at least is linked together with other extra for my methodical ensemble.
"These exercises have as their goal the transformation of our vision of the world, and the metamorphosis of our of our being.  They therefore have not merely a moral, but also an existential value.  We are not just dealing here with a code of good moral conduct, but with a way of being in the strongest sense of the term ... we are dealing with exercises which engage the totality of the spirit."

"Christian spirituality has been the heir of ancient philosophy and its spiritual practices."

"ancient spiritual exercises were preserved and transmitted by an entire current of ancient Christian thought: that current, namely, which defined Christianity itself as a philosophy."

page 128
"Exercise" corresponds to the Greek terms askesis or melete"

"askesis designated exclusively the spiritual exercises we have discussed above: inner activities of the thought and the will."

"there was a widespread Christian tradition which portrayed Christianity as a philosophy.  This assimilation began with those Christian writers of the second century who are usually referred to as the Apologists, and in particular with Justin.  The Apologists considered Christianity a philosophy, and to mark its opposition to Greek philosophy, they spoke of Christianity as 'our philosophy' or as "Barbarian philosophy."  They did not, however, consider Christianity to be just one philosophy among others; they thought of it as the philosophy.  They believed that that which had been scattered and dispersed throughout Greek philosophy had been synthesized and systematized in Christian philosophy.  Each Greek philosopher, they wrote, had possessed only a portion of the Logos, whereas the Christians were on possession of the Logos itself, incarnated in Jesus Christ."

"Already within Greek philosophy, the Logos, or divine pedagogue, had been at work educating humanity, but Christianity itself, as the complete revelation of the Logos, was the true philosophy which teaches us to conduct ourselves so that we may resemble God, and to accept the divine plan as the guiding principle of all our education."

page 130
"In the monastic Middle Ages, just as much as in Antiquity, philosophia did not designate a theory or a means of knowledge, but a lived, experienced wisdom, and a way of living according to reason."

"We remarked above that the fundamental attitude of the Stoic philosopher was prosoche: attention to oneself and vigilance at every instant.  For the Stoics, the person who is "awake" is always perfectly conscious of not only of what he does, but of what he is.  In other words, he is aware of his place in the universe and of his relationship to God.  His self-consciousness is, first and foremost, a moral consciousness."

"He is constantly on the lookout for signs within himself of any motive for action other than the will to do good.  Such self-consciousness is not, however, merely a moral conscience; it is also cosmic consciousness.  The 'attentive' person lives constantly in the presence of God and is constantly remembering God, joyfully consenting to the will of universal reason, and he sees all things with the eyes of God himself."

Prosoche "inspires fear ... in the sense of a certain circumspection in thought and action.  Such attention to oneself bring about amerimnia or peace of mind, one of the most sought-after goals of monasticism."

"For Basil, attention to oneself consists in awakening the rational principles of thought and action which God has placed in our souls.  We are to watch over ourselves - that is, over our spirit and our soul - and not over that which is ours (our body) or that which is round about us (our possessions)."

page 131
"Thus, prosoche consists in paying attention to the beauty of our souls, by constantly renewing the examination of our conscience and our knowledge of ourselves.  By so doing, we can correct the judgments we bring upon ourselves."

"As we have seen, attention and vigilance presuppose continuous concentration on the present moment, which must be lived as if it were, simultaneously, the first and the last moment of life."

page 132
"Attention to the present is simultaneously control of one's thoughts, acceptance of the divine will, and the purification of one's intentions with regard to others."

Marcus said as much in Meditations 7.54.  In other words, at every moment, we are to practice all three Stoic disciplines (assent, desire and action).

"We encounter the same continuous vigilance over both thought and intentions in monastic spirituality, where it is transformed into the 'watch of the heart', also know as nepsis or vigilance."

"prosoche: presence both to God and to oneself"  Marcus said as much in Meditations 6.7 too.

page 133
"Clearly, remembrance of God is, in some sense, the very essence of prosoche.  ... Vague intentions are not sufficient for true attention to one's self."

"prosoche required meditating on and memorizing rules of life, those principles which were to be applied in each particular circumstance, at each moment of life.  It was essential to have the principles of life, the fundamental "dogmas", constantly "at hand."

"philosophical dogmas are replaced by the Commandments"

"Both the evangelical commandments and the words of the ancients were presented in the form of short sentences, which - just as in the philosophical tradition - could be easily memorized and meditated upon."

"Like philosophical meditation, Christian meditation flourished by using all available means of rhetoric and oratorical amplification, and by mobilizing all possible resources of the imagination."

page 134
"Meditation must, in any case, be constant."

"In the spiritual life, there is a kind of conspiracy between, on the one had, normative sayings, which are memorized and meditated upon, and, on the other, the events which provide the occasion for putting them into practice.  Dorotheus of Gaza promised his monks that, if they constantly meditated on the "works of the holy Elders," they would "be able to profit from everything that happens to you, and to make progress by the help of God."  Dorotheus no doubt meant that after such meditation, his monks would be able to recognize the will of God in all events, thanks to the words of the Fathers, which were likewise inspired by the will of God."

"Origen explains that the soul must examine its feelings and actions.  Does it have the good as a goal? Does it seek after the various virtues?  Is it making progress?  For instance, has it completely suppressed the passions of anger, sadness, fear, and love of glory?  What is its manner of giving and receiving, or of judging the truth?"

"This series of questions, devoid as it is of any exclusively Christian feature, takes it places in the philosophical tradition of the examination of conscience, as it had been recommended by the Pythagoreans, the Epicureans, the Stoics - especially Seneca and Epictetus - and many other philosophers, such as Plutarch and Galen."

Hadot quotes other early Christian leaders who judged themselves on how they are doing conquering passions over the months and years and even through the course of the day.  This made me think - do I have a "roadmap" for my soul?  Do I know what vices I need to extract and what virtues I need to add and how do I compare myself year on year?

page 135
"in Athanasius' Life of Antony ... Antony used to recommend to his disciples that they take written notes of the actions and movements of their souls ... in order to ensure that the investigation was as precise as possible.  For Antony, however, the important aspect was the therapeutic value of writing: 'Let each one of us note and record our actions and the stirrings of our souls as though we were going to give an account of them to each other.'  Surely, he continues, we would not dare to commit sins in public ... the act of writing gives us the impression of being in public, in front of an audience."

"prosoche implies self-mastery ... the triumph of reason over the passions, since it is the passions that cause the distraction, dispersion, and dissipation of the soul."

"Epictetus, advising his disciples to begin training themselves in little things, so as to create a habit, before moving to greater things."

page 136
"We said above that Christianity's acceptance of spiritual exercises had introduced into it a certain spiritual attitude and style of life which it had previously lacked.  As an example, let us consider the concept of exercises as a whole.  In the very process of performing repetitious actions and undergoing a training in order to modify and transform ourselves, there is a certain reflectivity and distance which is very different from evangelical spontaneity.  Attention to oneself - the essence of prosoche - gives rise to a whole series of techniques of introspection.  It engenders an extraordinary finesse in the examination of conscience and spiritual discernment.  Most significantly, the ideal sought after in these exercises, and the goals proposed for the spiritual life, became tinged with a strong Stoico-Platonic coloration; that is to say, since by the end of antiquity, Neoplatonism had integrated Stoic ethics within itself, that they were deeply infused with Neoplatonism.  This is the case, for instance, in Dorotheus of Gaza, who describes spiritual perfection in completely Stoic terms: it is the transformation of the will so that it becomes identified with the Divine Will:
He who has no will of his own always does what he wishes.  For since he has no will of his own, everything that happens satisfied him.  He finds himself doing as he wills all the time, for he does not want things to be as he wills them, but he wills that they be just as they are.
This compared to Epictetus, who said, "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

"Spiritual perfection is also depicted as apatheia - the complete absence of passions."

Examples of practice: "to cure curiosity, Plutarch advised people not to read funeral epitaphs, not to snoop on their neighbors, and to turn their backs on street scenes.  Similarly, Dorotheus advises us not to look in the direction where we want to look; not to ask the cooks what he's preparing for dinner; and not to join in a conversation we find already underway"

page 138
For Porphyry, as we have seen, apatheia was a result of the soul's detachment from the body.  Here we touch once again upon the philosophical exercise par excellence.  As we saw above, Plato had declared: 'those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death.'"

For Clement, perfect knowledge, or gnosis, is a kind of death.  It separates the soul from the body, and promotes the soul to a life entirely devoted to the good, allowing it to devote itself to the contemplation of genuine realities with a purified mind."

page 139
"To be sure, our authors strove to Christianize their borrowings as much as possible; but this is perhaps the least important aspect of the matter.  They believed they recognized spiritual exercises, which they had learned through philosophy."

"The reason why Christian authors paid attention to these particular biblical passages was that they were already familiar, from other sources, with the spiritual exercises of prosoche, meditation on death, and examination of conscience.  By themselves, the texts from scripture could never have supplied a method for practicing these exercises.  Often, in fact, a given scriptural passage has only a distant connection with a particular spiritual exercise."

page 140
It was, therefore, natural that they should seek their techniques of perfection in the Old and New Testament.  Under Alexandrian influence, however - the distant influence of Philo, and the more immediate influence of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, magnificently orchestrated by the Cappadocians - certain philosophical spiritual techniques were introduced into Christian spirituality.  The result of this was that the Christian ideal was described, and, in part, practiced, by borrowing models and vocabulary from the Greed philosophical tradition."

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Spiritual Exercises" part 4: Learning to Read

This is part 4 of 4 of my review of the essay "Spiritual Exercises" from the book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" by Pierre Hadot.

Learning to Read

All of the spiritual exercises previously described are based on one premise: that humans are "consumed by worries, torn by passions" and do not "live a genuine life" and they do not truly know who they are.  To rectify these ailments, humans ought to reign in their inner dialogue, work to increase their mental concentration, seek a genuine life and work to transform themselves in order to "attain a state of perfection" (p. 102).

Not unlike today's fitness centers we athletes train in order to improve in the real game, if we are to strengthen our mental fortitude and resilience, we must establish habits practices of spiritual and mental exercises in order to perform well in every-day life.  If that analogy doesn't strike a chord with you, perhaps a sculpting analogy will:
The quest for self-realization, final goal of spiritual exercises, is well symbolized by the Plotinian image of sculpting one's own statue.  Its is often misunderstood, since people imagine that this expression corresponds to a kind of moral aestheticism.  On this interpretation, its meaning would be to adopt a pose, to select an attitude, or to fabricate a personality for oneself.  In fact, it is nothing of the sort.  For the ancients, sculpture was an art which "took away," as opposed to painting, an art which "added on."  The statue pre-existed in the marble block, and it was enough to take away what was superfluous in order to cause it to appear (p. 102).
Hadot also notes how the god Glaucos was a similar metaphor of the soul that was revealed through the process of subtraction.  And like the exercise of spiritual death, when we separate ourselves from the passions and desires of the body, our soul and thoughts become more pure (p. 103).

We can obtain "complete liberation from the passions" along with "utter lucidity, knowledge of ourselves and of the world" as we practice these exercises.  We become more wise and yearn for and love wisdom.  However, many of the ancients believed that this state of complete liberation was impossible.  People who obtained this state were considered sages.  While those who sought to enter the path, but perhaps never attain this lofty goal were considered philo-sophers - lovers of wisdom.  Therefore, to make progress, one must "take up" these exercises again and again, "in an ever-renewed effort" (p. 103).

Philosophical schools were established, to help people fully focus on their total transformation.  These practices "implied a complete reversal of received ideas: one was to renounce the false values of wealth, honors, and pleasures, and turn towards the true values of virtue, contemplation, a simple life-style, and the simple happiness of existing.  This radical opposition explains the reaction of non-philosophers, which ranged from the mockery we find expressed in comic poets, to the outright hostility which went so far as to cause the death of Socrates" (p. 104).

Therefore, "when we read the words of ancient philosophers, the perspective we have described should cause us to give increased attention to the existential attitudes underlying the dogmatic edifices we encounter" (p. 104).

Learning to read (correctly) also implies understanding the context of the text.  "One did not read the same texts to beginners, to those in progress, and to those already having achieved perfection, and the concepts appearing in commentaries are also functions of the spiritual capacities of their addressees.  Consequently, doctrinal content can vary considerably from one commentary to another, even when written by the same author.  This does not mean that the commentator changed his doctrines, but that the needs of his disciples were different" (p. 106).

The sum total of all this, therefore, is to state that Philosophy, as seen through the ancient texts, was designed as a method for actively "training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.  It is an attempt to transform mankind" (p. 107).  Much of what people think of Philosophy today, is rather stuffy and academic.  But this was not the original intent.  Hadot explains how this came to be.
The reason for this is that, in conformity with tradition inherited from the Middle Ages and from the modern era, they consider philosophy to be a purely abstract-theoretical activity.  Let us briefly recall how this conception came into existence.
It seems to be the result of the absorption of philosophia by Christianity.  Since its inception, Christianity has presented itself as a philosophia, insofar as it assimilated into itself the traditional practices of spiritual exercises.  We see this occurring in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and monasticism.  With the advent of medieval Scholasticism, however, we find a clear distinction being drawn between theologia and philosophia.  Theology became conscious of its autonomy qua supreme science, while philosophy was emptied of it spiritual exercises which, from now on, were relegated to Christian mysticism and ethics.  Reduced to the rank of "handmaid of theology," philosophy's role was henceforth to furnish theology with conceptual - and hence purely theoretical - material.  When, in the modern age, philosophy regained it autonomy, it still retained many features inherited from this medieval conception.  In particular, it maintained its purely theoretical character, which even evolved in the direction of a more and more thorough systematization.  Not until Nietzsche, Bergson, and existentialism does philosophy consciously return to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and of seeing the world (p. 107-108).
And now to Hadot's point and key question: "how is it possible to practice spiritual exercises in the twentieth century?" (p. 108)

He quotes Vauvnargues, who said, "A truly new and truly original book would be one with made people love old truths" (p. 108).

"Old truths ... there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generation of man" - they are "simple" and "banal" and most importantly "for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced.  Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and re-read these 'old truths'" (p. 108).

This is why Hadot and all his work rings true for me.  All my life, I have been searching for ancient rock, upon which I could build my "inner citadel."  It would seem that Hadot and all his excellent work, has uncovered this foundation.

Perhaps this is why Mormonism struck near the mark, but still didn't quite "hit it" for me.  The idea of some unchanging ancient, albeit restored, truths, upon which I could live my life, brought out a desire within me to live better.  It seems to me, now, that I had to dig a bit deeper than Mormonism and even deeper than Christianity, to find some real "old truths."  And as Hadot notes, this work has to be taken up individually and across every generation.

I echo his lament, about how many today have lost some wise practices.  He said, "we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return to ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to use.  This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.  As Goethe said: 'Ordinary people don't know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to read.  I've spent eighty years at it, and I still can't say that I've reached my goal'" (p. 109)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Spiritual Exercises" part 3: Learning to Die

This is part 3 of 4 of my review of the essay "Spiritual Exercises" from the book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" by Pierre Hadot.

Learning to Die

If I were Hadot writing this essay, I would've perhaps put this spiritual exercise as last of the four he outlines.  All the other exercises enable and help fulfill this ultimate spiritual exercise - that of learning to die well.
"For the Logos represents a demand for universal rationality, and presupposes a world of immutable norms, which are opposed to the perpetual state of becoming and changing appetites characteristic of individual, corporeal life.  In this opposition, he who remains faithful to the Logos, risks losing his life.  This was the case for Socrates, who died for his faithfulness to the Logos" (p. 93).
That phrase - "perpetual state of becoming and changing appetites, characteristic of individual, corporeal life" - sums up so well what so many pursue today.  Having been born and raised and now living in one of the most capitalistic nations in the world, the individual is taught and fed a constant diet of desires, wants and marketing.  We all are taught to be discontent and to chase that thing which will make us fulfilled and happy: food, prestige, wealth, new technology, religion, fame, clothes, toys, vacation homes and trips.

Philosophy, on the other hand, teaches us these things should be considered with indifference and that virtue and excellence of character are the Good we should pursue in order to be content.  We ought to look to Socrates as the perfect example of the pursuit of the Logos and the Good.  He "exposed himself to death for the sake of virtue.  He preferred to die rather than renounce the demands of his conscience, thus preferring the Good above being, and thought and conscience above the life of the body."  Sallustius, "a fourth-century Neoplatonist" said, "souls of value despise being for the sake of the Good, whenever they voluntarily place themselves in danger, for their country, their loved ones, or for virtue." (p. 94).

The decision Socrates faced - renouncing the Good to live, or not renouncing the Good and being executed, is "the fundamental philosophical choice.  If it is true that philosophy subjugates the body's will to live to the higher demands of thought, it can rightly be said that philosophy is the training and apprenticeship for death."  And as Socrates has said, "those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death, and that to them of all men death is least alarming" (p. 94).

Death, as explained thus far, is really a spiritual death - a "separation of the soul and the body."  Plato elaborates:
separating the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoming it to gather itself together from every part of the body and concentrate itself until is is completely independent, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone and by itself, freed from the shackles of the body (p. 94)
And to be even clearer, this separation is a "philosophical separation ... for the soul to liberate itself, shedding the passions linked to the corporeal senses, so as to attain to the autonomy of thought" (p. 94).

This death that Plato describes is not unlike what Seneca believed in discussing what it must be like when the wise man loses all his friends.  "It will be like that of Jove while nature takes her rest, of brief duration, when the universe is dissolved and the gods are all merged in one, finding repose in himself, absorbed in his own thoughts.  Such is more or less the way of the wise man: he retires to his inner self, is his own company." (Letter 9).

"Training for death is training to die to one's individuality and passions, in order to look at things from the perspective of universality and objectivity" (p. 95).

Therefore, all the previously discussed spiritual exercises (attention, meditation, investigation, habituation, inner dialogue and discourse), are to enable us to see everything from the perspective of the Whole - to view everything from a universal point of view.   And when we grasp that perspective, our individuality dies and we become one with the Whole.

At this point, I can't help but feel a sense of importance and urgency to this matter of lived philosophy.  Marcus certainly felt the urgency and calling of philosophy.

"No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good." (Meditations 4.17)

"we must have a sense of urgency, not only for the ever closer approach of death, but also because our comprehension of the world and our ability to pay proper attention will fade before we do." (Meditations 3.1)

And so, every day, we must face the prospect of our physical death and do the "homework" of separating our soul from the body or in other words, the "homework" of throwing off our shackles of passions and desires in preparation for becoming one with the Whole.

Three key concepts to keep in mind as you learn to die, are:
  1. always keep in mind the insignificance of human affairs, also known as the view from above
  2. have contempt for your physical death
  3. remember you are part of a Whole, therefore always take a "universal vision characteristic of pure thought"
To keep our passions and desires in check, we must often contemplate the view from above - or consider all human affairs as nothing - especially when we are wont to complaining.  Plato taught:
The rational law declares that it is best to keep quiet as far as possible in misfortune, and not to complain, because we cannot know what is really good and evil in such things, and it does us no good for the future to take them hard, and nothing in human life is worthy of great concern, and our grieving is an obstacle to the very thing we need to come to our aid as quickly as possible in such cases.
What do you mean?
To deliberate, I said, about what has happened to us, and, as in dice-games, to re-establish our position according to whatever numbers turn up, however reason indicates would be best, and ... always accustom the soul to come as quickly as possible to cure the ailing part and raise up what has fallen, making lamentations disappear by means of its therapy. (p. 96)
Marcus often said, "Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought 'I am hurt': remove the thought 'I am hurt', and the hurt itself is removed." (Meditations 4.7)

Contempt for death does not come easy for many, but we must not fear death, nor think that it is such a significant thing.  "Montaigne, in one of his best-known essays, That Philosophizing is Learning how to Die plagiarizes Seneca: 'He who has learned how to die, has un-learned how to serve.'  The thought of death transforms the tone and level of inner life: 'Keep death before your eyes every day ... and then you will never have any abject thought nor any excessive desire.'  This philosophical theme, in turn, is connected with that of the infinite value of the present moment, which we must live as if it were, simultaneously, bot the first moment and the last." (p. 96)  As Hadot paraphrases Heidegger, "it is up to each of us to choose between lucidity and diversion" (p. 96).

With the proper perspective on events and our death, we must also dedicate much of our time to contemplation of the Whole.  In one of my favorite passages from Marcus, he recognizes the special ability of the rational soul:
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. (Meditations 11.1)
This contemplation not only encompasses the view from above, but also the Whole of time.  "Thus, the whole of the philosopher's speculative and contemplative effort becomes a spiritual exercise, insofar as he raises his thought up to the perspective of the Whole, and liberates it from the illusions of individuality (in the words of Friedmann: 'Step out of duration ... become eternal by transcending yourself') (p. 97).

For Epictetus, this contemplation becomes a revelation and our purpose for living.  We are contemplate God's creations and we must do so before death snatches us.  See my commentary of Discourses 1.6 for more.

Diogenes the Cynic took a similar view:
For the wold is the most sacred and divine of temples, and the one most fitting for the gods.  Man is introduced into it by birth to be a spectator: not of artificial, immobile statues, but of the perceptible images of intelligible essences ... such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers whose water always flows afresh, and the earth, which sends forth food for plants and animals alike.  A life which is a perfect revelation, and an initiation into these mysteries, should be filled with tranquility and joy (p. 98)
The three exercises just discussed, will help us along our way to letting go of all our passions, one by one.  As we let go of passions, we see more clearly the Whole.

Hadot cites Porphyry, who "systematically arranged ... stages of ... spiritual progress.  First, the soul was purified by its gradual detachment from the body; then came the knowledge of, and subsequent passing beyond, the sensible world; finally, the soul achieved conversion toward the Intellect and the One" (p. 99-100).

Various examples are given that help the student drop passions and engender discipline.  In this process, we begin to see the human - ourselves - in the purest form; stripped of its "irrational desires and violent sentiments and passions" (p. 100).
If one wants to know the nature of a thing, one must examine it in its pure state, since every addition to a thing is an obstacle to the knowledge of that thing.  When you examine it, then, remove from it everything that is not itself; better still remove all your stains from yourself and examine yourself, and you will have faith in your immortality.
If you do not yet see your own beauty, do as the sculptor does with a statue which must become beautiful: he removes one part, scrapes another, makes one area smooth, and cleans out the other, until he causes the beautiful face in the statue to appear.  In the same way, you too must remove everything that is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, and purify all that is dark until you make it brilliant.  Never stop sculpting your own statue, until the divine splendor of virtue shines in you ... if you have become this ... and have nothing alien inside you mixed with yourself ... when you see that you have become this ... concentrate your gaze and see.  For it is only an eye such as this that can look on the great Beauty (p. 100).
"Only he who liberates himself and purifies himself from the passions, which conceal the true reality of the soul, can understand that the soul is immaterial and immortal" (p. 100)

Hadot later continues, "Plotinus' writings are full of passages describing such spiritual exercises, the goal of which was not merely to know the Good, but to become identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality. ... It is then, in a fleeting blaze of light, there takes place the metamorphosis of the self:
Then the seer no longer sees his object, for in that instant he no longer distinguishes himself from it; he no longer has the impression of two separate thigns, but he has, in a sense become another.  He is no longer himself, nor does he belong to himself, but he is one with the One, as the center of one circle conincides with the center of another (p. 101)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Spiritual Exercises" part 2: Learning to Dialogue

This is part 2 of 4 of my review of the essay "Spiritual Exercises" from the book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" by Pierre Hadot.

Learning to Dialogue

Entering dialogue with others and with ourselves is another spiritual exercise.  The process and journey of the dialogue, are perhaps, more important than the answers produced from the questions.

As with most of philosophy, the role model to which we turn our attention is Socrates.  His goal was "the living call to awaken our moral consciousness" (p. 89).  And he accomplished this goal with dialogue.  This interaction felt like harassment to many, hence he was call a gadfly.  His mission is more fully fleshed out when he said:
I did not care for the things that most people care about - making money, having a comfortable home, high military or civil rank, and all other activities, political appointments, secret societies, party organizations, which go on in our city ... I set myself to do you - each one of you, individually and in private - what I hold to be the greatest possible service.  I tried to persuade each one of you to concern himself less with what he has than what he is, so as to render himself as excellent and as rational as possible (p. 90)
He accomplished his mission with dialogue.  Hadot called this "a kind of communal spiritual exercise ... as [an] examination of conscience and attention to oneself."  And not only can we practice this spiritual exercise with others, we can practice it with ourselves.  This will take "extraordinary mental concentration" not unlike when Socrates was so deep in thought, he arrived late to a party once and on another occasion "remained standing all day and all night, 'lost in his thoughts'" (p. 90).  Hadot later calls this dialogue with oneself "meditation" (p. 91).

For good dialogue to exist, the dialogue must keep "an itinerary ... by the constantly maintained accord between questioner and respondent" (p. 91)  By doing so, it forces the dialogue to be "concrete" and "practical" similar to friendly, but real combat.

While an itinerary must be maintained, it can still be a complex one.
Dialectic must skillfully choose a tortuous path - or rather, a series of apparently divergent, but nevertheless convergent, paths - in order to bring the interlocutor to discover the contradictions of his own position, or to admit an unforeseen conclusion.  All the circles, detours, endless divisions, digressions, and subtitles which make the modern reader of Plato's Dialogues so uncomfortable are destined to make ancient readers and interlocutors travel a specific path.  Thanks to these detours, "with a great deal of effort, one rubs names, definitions, visions and sensations against one another"; one "spends a long time in the company of these questions"; one "lives with them" until the light blazes forth.  Yet one keeps on practicing, since "for reasonable people, the measure of listening to such discussions is the whole of life." (p. 92)
Finally, another hallmark for good dialogue is to ensure the participants are willing to be changed in points of view and attitudes.  Therefore, good persuasion is needed - for the "seducing of souls" (p. 92).