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).

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Spiritual Exercises" part 1: Learning to Live

This is part 1 of 4 of my review of the essay "Spiritual Exercises" from the book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" by Pierre Hadot.

Learning to Live

Unlike many who study philosophy today, the ancients equated philosophy with actual living.  That which they learned from philosophy, they also sought to incorporate "exercises" into their lives.  They viewed this as "the art of living" (p. 83).

More importantly, people who practice ancient philosophy sought conversion "which turned [their] entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it" (p. 83).  The conversion sought to change the life to an "authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom" (p. 83).

The ailments which philosophy sought to mend were "unregulated desires and exaggerated fears."  These in turn, caused people to suffer and to experience disorder and were lead by a passion-filled life.  Philosophy proposes a path to "get rid of your passions" (p. 83) by education so that you "seek only the good [you] are able to obtain, and to try to avoid only those evils which it is impossible to avoid" (p. 83).  Thus moral good and moral evil, which are entirely within our power, can be obtained and avoided respectively.

Many Stoic spiritual exercises related to living have been identified by Philo of Alexandria.  Hadot groups the two lists provided by Philo, into four areas:
  1. Attention
  2. Meditations and remembrances of good things
  3. Reading, listening, research and investigation
  4. Self-mastery, accomplishment of duties and indifference to indifferent things
Attention or prosoche "is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.  It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit" (p. 84)

The purpose of constant attention is so that the Stoic is "fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully" (p. 84).  The Stoic will always have "at hand" the distinction of what depends on us and what does not depend on us.

"Attention to the present moment, is in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises."  If we focus on the here and now, our ability to focus our attention increases.  We become more aware of our surroundings, our world and even the cosmos.  Subsequently, we begin to see the wisdom of the universe and what is.  The more consistently we focus our attention, the more we "accede to cosmic consciousness" and align our will to the Whole.

Meditation on and remembering things we've previously learned, is another key spiritual exercise.  In this exercise, we are writing to our minds the correct dialogue and discourse with our-self.  This allows us, when an event occurs, to have the right reaction and perspective on it.  For example, praemeditatio malorum is the practice of meditating on what our life would be like if we experienced the death or suffering of a loved one, or perhaps our own poverty.  As we contemplate these events happening in our life, we remember that these things are out of our control and they are not morally bad, and that there are virtues such as courage and fortitude, which we could exercise in order to demonstrate our abilities given to us by Nature.  And when these events actually happen, we are prepared and are much more accepting of our fate.

Of course, as part of this exercise, we ought to write the dialogue we would have with our-self.  This becomes the basis for remembering what we have learned from our meditation.  Then, in later practices of meditation or during the course of our daily routine, we would repeat these maxims.

A similar practice is to look ahead to our future day and anticipate any events that would happen and then we should "decide on the principles which will guide and inspire our actions" (p. 85).  Then, later in the evening, we must meditate on our actions and recall what good and bad we did during the day.  And like a good coach, correct our bad actions and thoughts and attitude.  Carried out, day after day, we develop a strong inner discourse, which then becomes a reflexive response to events that happen.

Investigation, reading, listening and research are required in order to meditate and for self-instruction.  For the modern Stoic, this spiritual exercise would involve reading and studying Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca and others.

Hadot also places the discipline of assent in this section.  "'Research' and 'investigation' were the result of putting instruction into practice.  For example, we are to get used to defining objects and events from a physical point of view, that is, we must picture them as they were situated within the cosmic Whole.  Alternatively, we can divide and dissect events in order to recognize the elements into which they can be reduced" (p. 86).

Habituation is the result of the preceding spiritual exercises.  As we develop inner habits, our outward habits are shown in acts of kindness to others and indifference to indifferent things.  We desire less the things that don't really matter, while spending more time on the things that do.  Pursuit of wealth, fame, and immortality diminish while our yearning to grasp each present moment with present company swells.  Thus inner work produces outward results.

"For the Stoic, then, doing philosophy meant practicing how to 'live': that is, how to live freely and consciously.  Consciously, in that we pass beyond the limits of individuality, to recognize ourselves as part of the reason-animated cosmos.  Freely, in that we give up desiring that which does not depend on us and is beyond our control, so as to attach ourselves only to what depends on us: actions which are just and in conformity with reason." (p. 86).

Friday, November 1, 2019

Memento Mori (Memento Vivere) and Why I Should Give a Damn

This blog remained quiet all through the months of September and October, for various reasons.

Firstly: I spent time reading Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life, and I have been digesting it.  I'm reading it a second time now and will post several reviews and commentaries on it through this month.

Secondly: My practice of memento mori has sunken really deeply lately, so much so, that one of the conversations I had with my dear wife a few weeks ago, centered around the question: why did my parents decide to have me?  My father was 49 years old and my mother almost 40 when I was born?  What drove them to have a seventh child?  I don't have an answer yet, but I think I'm closer to it now.

Additionally, as I have pondered my death, I have seriously realized the futility of all the human efforts.  "What is the point?!" I shout out to the vastness of space towards the stars.  As Marcus, so often reminded himself, emperors, kings, conquerors, after having left a meager mark on the earth, have passed on to become dust and then are not even remembered after a few generations ... or sooner (see Meditations 8.21 as an example).  So what is the point of it all, if in the end, the world and everyone in it, will be sucked into a super-massive black hole?  After it has all been said and done, will there simply be silence, and no one there to not hear it?  I think, perhaps.  Or maybe we just do it all over again.

Does that scare you?  Depress you?  Or maybe it emboldens you?

My daily routine involves reviewing the day's events; making notes of improvement and actions done well and virtues displayed (or not).  A few weeks ago, I found myself writing the word "again" repeatedly.  The word "rut" comes to mind.  Days and weeks were beginning to feel like Groundhog's Day.  It didn't feel like I was accomplishing much, when in fact, I was.  Also, during this time, I noticed again, that people weren't really listening to me.  It was like I was a no-body; people might acknowledge me when I shared my opinion or views, but no one actually heeded my advice.  And so this thought of "what's the point?  what value am I adding?" grew stronger.  I began to question what real value I bring to this life.  If I'm ignored while I live, and I'll be long forgotten when I die, then my life really is like a tree that grows, dies and falls in the forest and no one hears it or sees it.

Sisyphus condemned to push a rock for eternity
I kept returning to Sisyphus.  For being so clever and to have outwitted many gods, he was condemned, by Zeus, to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll over the top of the mountain and back down.  And the condemnation also included him having to perform this chore every day, all day, for eternity.  How absurd!  How unproductive!  Nothing he did, in rolling this stone, accomplished anything.  The one thing he could possibly accomplish (rolling it up the hill and having it stay there), was not even possible.  My life, often feels like Sisyphus'.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life, as I have mentioned previously.  In the first few chapters, he quoted Georges Friedmann twice.
Take flight every day!  At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense.  A "spiritual exercise" every day - either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself.  Spiritual exercises.  Step out of ... duration ... try to get rid of your own passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease.  Avoid backbiting.  Get rid of pity and hatred.  Love all free human beings.  Become eternal by transcending yourself.
This work on yourself is necessary; this ambition justified.  Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics and the preparation for social revolution.  Rare, much more rare, are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.
The words, "become eternal by transcending yourself" sunk deep into my soul.

Another passage, which I have often read and re-read via Hadot, is by Friedrich Nietzsche and deals with the concept of satisfaction and happiness:
The main question is not at all whether or not we are satisfied with ourselves, but whether, more generally, there is anything at all with which we are satisfied.  Let us suppose we said Yes to one single instant: we have thereby said Yes not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is sufficient unto itself - neither in ourselves, nor among things - and if, just one single time, our soul has vibrated and resonated with happiness, like a stretched cord, then it has taken all of eternity to bring about that single event.  And, at that unique instant of our Yes, all eternity was accepted, saved, justified and affirmed. (The Inner Citadel, p. 144)
Now, to go back to the idea of Sisyphus.  Albert Camus took the story of Sisyphus, turned it on its side and told people, like me, to take a look.  In The Myth of Sisyphus, he said:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
And so Hadot, Friedmann, Nietzsche, Sisyphus and Camus, grabbed me by the shirt-collar and slapped me across the face!  If for one single moment, you can say you were pleased or happy or satisfied, even in the daily grind, then your life and the universe and the world and eternity, would have been worth it.  And if you can grab it once, then why not try to grasp at it again?  Why not perform a "spiritual exercise" and transcend yourself every day?  Why not aspire to the "higher fidelity" of life?  What if, for an instantaneously brief moment, that rock paused at the pinnacle, and Sisyphus simultaneously gazed across the universe and was able to grasp and comprehend the totality of God's creation (not unlike the Overview Effect)?

The ancient Stoics, while not astronauts, still aspired to achieve this view from above in their quest to become sages.  And while modern man has left the Earth's atmosphere and traveled our solar system, this spiritual exercise, for the post-modern human, is still worthy of practicing here on Earth - in a forest, or by a lake.  In a sense, it is not a memento mori practice, but rather a memento vivere practice!

Post-script quotes I found after this post was published.

From Seneca (source):
I often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.
From Einstein:
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Notes and What I Learned from "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor" PART 4

Get the book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

This is the final part of my notes on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  This part deals with many other psychological ailments that we put on ourselves, namely fear, anxiety, worry, anger and psychological fear and anxiety in anticipation of death.  Many of the things learned thus far can also be applied to dealing with the above.

Dealing with Fear, Anxiety and Worry
  • view "misfortunes" and "obstacles" as something good ... as opportunities.  early in my career, before I knew of Stoicism, I often heard managers speak of 'change' and 'bad events' as "opportunities" and I hated that they did this!  It felt like they were just being politically correct or bull-shitting us.  Years later, and after many "unfortunate" events, I now see the wisdom of viewing these events as opportunities.  These events are going to happen independent of my will and choice.  Regardless, what I do have control over, is my attitude and perception of these events.  And if I look for ways to turn these "setbacks" to my advantage, then I begin to see "obstacles as the way forward" - I used them to my advantage.
  • When Marcus Aurelius goes to war at nearly the age of 50, he did not fear it, rather "he embraced his new role completely and turned it into an opportunity to deepen his Stoic resolve." p. 191
  • Perhaps you suffer from "impostor syndrome" ... now think that the most powerful man in the world had to deal with something similar.  "When he arrived in Carnuntum to take command of the legions, he was both physically frail and an absolute novice - an "old woman" of a philosopher, sneered the future usurper, Avidius Cassius.  Everyone must have questioned Marcus's competence to lead such a massive campaign."  But he persisted and became a hardened veteran.  How did he deal with this?
The Stoic Reserve Clause
  • "it means undertaking any action while calmly accepting that the outcome isn't entirely under our control." p. 193
  • other phrases that people use to describe the reserve clause:
    • fate permitting
    • God willing
    • if nothing prevents me
  • you need to do your best, no matter what your job or duty is, while not becoming upset with the results; it's about having a learning mindset
  • it's also "the action of pursuing the common good that constitutes the virtue of justice" ... act with positive, intelligent intent p. 194
  • a consuming fire mindset; no matter what is thrown at it, the fire uses the material to grow ... "Whether he meets with success or failure, he makes good use of his experience" p. 196
Anticipating and Contemplating Adversity
  • one of the most important Stoic practices is contemplation of adversity or "bad" events, "Seneca calls this praemeditatio malorum" p. 198
  • meditate on your exile, illness, injury, death of a loved one ... this is "stress inoculation"
  • this can be done in your daily morning routine ... as you gain experience, you know things go bad; failure happens and so you can prepare for it in a number of ways
  • this practice helps you gain emotional resilience which is "the long-term ability to endure stressful situations without becoming overwhelmed by them" p. 199
  • the time to prepare is in times of peace and leisure
Become Familiar (used to) Adversity
  • "familiarity breeds not contempt but indifference.  We can expect anxiety to abate naturally with repeated exposure, under normal conditions ... the feared situation must be experienced for considerably longer than normal for anxiety to properly habituate." p. 201
  • set aside time (perhaps once a month or weekly) to contemplate catastrophic events; the key is to go deep - really think about how you would react, how you would feel - get into the moment and let it sink in deep
  • "maintaining the image for long enough [time] requires considerable patience and concentration" p. 202
  • Robertson aptly notes, "It's important to emphasize that any technique that involves imagining upsetting scenes should be approached with caution by individuals who suffer from mental health problems or those vulnerable to being emotionally overwhelmed, such as sufferers of panic attacks." p. 203
  • Epictetus also notes that it takes time and patience when going through this practice and that you should start small, then proceed to bigger things, up to and including your own death (see Encheiridion 26)
The Inner Citadel [of peace]
  • many people wish to escape the drudgery of daily life or the adversities and challenges we face by going on a vacation to a beautiful beach or mountain retreat, but this is not necessary; we can retreat to our inner citadels at any time
  • "true inner peace comes from the nature of our thoughts rather than pleasant natural surroundings" p. 206
  • the nature of our thoughts is in our control and we can choose to be content in any circumstance - things don't disturb us, rather it's our opinion of those things that disturbs us
  • to retreat to this peace, reflect on two things:
    1. Change is perpetual and eventually everything you see today will soon be gone and forgotten
    2. External things cannot touch the soul, rather the disturbance actually comes from within
  • in sum, Meditations 4.3.4 "The universe is change: life is judgement"
Worry Postponement
The Stoic Response to Anger
  • "It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are." p. 218
  • "Being a Stoic clearly doesn't mean being a passive doormat.  However, the wise man will not get upset about things that lie beyond his direct control, such as other people's actions." p. 228
  • Marcus greatly admired the qualities of Emperor Antoninus
    • gentleness
    • mildness of temperament
    • patient tolerance
    • never rude, overbearing or violent to people
    • never lost his temper
    • every case was considered calmly, methodically and consistently
    • put up with those who found fault with him
    • found no fault with those who treated him unfairly
    • patience with those who opposed him
    • remained calm when people wanted to provoke him
  • If anger swells inside you, walk away; count to 10 or 100
  • Ten Responses to Anger
    1. Remember we are social beings; have a "fellowship" attitude; we can view others' opposition as opportunities to practice virtue / patience; at the very least, we can learn to tolerate others respectively
    2. Consider others as a whole; no one is perfect, this is not the "final version" of them - they are growing and learning too; try to see things from their perspective; assume positive intent on their part; forgive them
    3. No one does wrong willingly; tolerate or teach; people deserve love and respect
    4. No one is perfect (including you!); if others fail, you should use it as an opportunity for self-reflection - how many times have we been imperfect?
    5. You can never be certain of others' motives - give others the benefit of doubt; don't jump to negative conclusions
    6. Remember life is short; we all will die; nothing lasts forever
    7. People, things, events can't upset us, it is our opinions of those people, things and events that upset us!  Mind the gap!
    8. Anger is counter-productive; when you are angry, you are delaying the time it takes to solve the problem at hand; it's more efficient to react to people, things, events with rational calmness and empathetic kindness ... "it often requires more effort to deal with the consequences of losing our temper that it does just to tolerate the very acts with which we're angry." p. 241  "leave the wrong with the wrongdoer"
    9. Nature gave us virtue; I like to view life as a card game and I evaluate my move based on the context ... and I always have a stack of cards (virtues) to play in response to what has been played.  I can always play the "patience" card or the "teach them with kindness" card; I just need the discipline to play good cards every time!
    10. It's ridiculous to expect perfection from others!  Therefore, don't be or act surprised when people do unexpected things
Death Becomes us All
  • "The Stoics taught me to look death square in the eye, to tell myself with merciless honesty each day 'I am mortal,' all the while remaining in good cheer." p. 258
  • "Fear of death does us more harm than death itself because it turns us into cowards, whereas death merely returns us to Nature." p. 259
  • "What I spent my life learning I now see everywhere—as I turn my attention from one thing to another, all sides grant me the same vision. The universe is a single living being, with a single body and a single consciousness. Every individual mind a tiny particle of one great mind. Each living creature like a limb or organ of one great body, working together, whether they realize it or not, to bring about events in accord with one great impulse. Everything in the universe so intricately woven together, forming a single fabric and chain of events. Whereas I once saw each fragmentary part and with some effort imagined the whole, my sight is now transformed. Having let go of fear and desire forever, I can see only the whole to which every part belongs, and this appears more real to me than anything else. What I knew before, my life and opinions, seem like smoke through which I glimpsed Nature darkly." p. 264
  • "The mind of the Sage is like a star or our own sun, from which purity and simplicity shine forth." p. 265 (see this tweet too)
  • "Man was meant to be like this: striving his whole life with patient endurance to cultivate the pure light of wisdom within himself and allowing it to shine forth for the benefit of others." p. 266
  • "Rising above indifferent things, the mind of the wise becomes a well-rounded sphere, as Empedocles used to say.  It neither overreaches itself, mingling with external things, nor shrinks away from them.  Its light spreads evenly over the world around it.  Complete in itself, smooth and round, bring and shining.  Nothing clings to its surface and no harm can touch it." p. 267 (see this tweet too)
  • Get the book and read the whole last chapter!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Notes and What I Learned from "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor" PART 3

Get the book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

Pain is Inevitable and Stoicism Can Help
  • Marcus went to war when he was almost 50 years old; he was already a frail person
  • "He'd been preparing himself to face this inner battle for most of his life ... gradually [learning] to endure pain and illness by utilizing the psychological strategies of ancient Stoicism." p. 156
  • regarding pain, "the wise man neither strikes a tragic attitude nor whines about what befalls him." p. 160
  • he reflected on how Antoninus died ... he "was always contented, always cheerful.  It's said that even as he lay dying, with his last breath he whispered the word equanimity to his guard." p. 161
  • Epicurus was also a model philosopher regarding suffering well; he "didn't complain or dwell on his symptoms.  In fact, he used his illness as an opportunity to converse in a dispassionate manner about how the mind can remain contented while the body suffers terrible pain and discomfort." p. 163
  • Meditations 7.64 is an excellent quote about Marcus reminding himself: mind over body
  • use your opportunities of pain to learn to cope ... examples include, running, lifting weights, playing sports such as basketball, enduring long hours (being drowsy).  "everyday tolerance of minor physical discomforts can help us build lasting psychological resilience" p. 165
  • Learn to "withdraw" or "separate" your mind from your body
  • Epictetus' leg!  his leg was "cruelly twisted" by his master; "Epictetus didn't react but remained completely composed.  He merely warned his master that the body was about to snap.  Epaphroditus continued twisting it" until it did snap.  "Rather than complain, Epictetus responded matter-of-factly: 'There, did I not tell you that it would break?'" p. 166
Stoically Learning From Pain
  1. Cognitive Distancing
    • "it's not events/things that upset us, it's our judgments of those events/things"; therefore, suspend judgement when it comes to pain and pleasure
    • be indifferent to indifferent things
    • it's not a matter of suppressing the pain (or pleasure), but rather to "not assign judgments to them as good or bad" p. 171
    • "neither to suppress or worry about unpleasant feelings ... accept them while remaining detached" p. 172
    • "The Stoics want us to go through a radical upheaval in our underlying values so that our supreme goal is to live with wisdom and its accompanying virtues." p. 172
    • "When your conscious mind, your ruling faculty, invests too much importance in bodily sensations, it becomes 'fused and blended' with them and it is pulled around by the body like a puppet on strings." p. 174
    • I didn't notice if Robertson mentioned or quoted this in his book, but I find Encheiridion 41 to be very important in this regard: "It is the mark of a crude disposition to spend most of one's time on bodily functions such as exercise, eating, drinking, defecating, and copulating.  These are things to be done just incidentally.  All your attention should be on your mind."
  2. Functional Analysis
    • After some cognitive distancing, you can now perform some functional analysis, or in other words, evaluating the consequences of your thinking - your opinion of judgments
    • "the fear of pain does us far more harm than pain itself because it injures our very character." p. 174
    • "to live life fully, you have to get out of your comfort zone, as we say today.  Fear of pain makes cowards of us all and limits our sphere of life." p. 174 ... in other words, show some courage in the face of pain.
  3. Objective Representation
    • look at pain objectively "as if [you] were describing the problems of another person" p. 175 ... don't say "My leg is really hurting" but perhaps call yourself in the 3rd person when describing the pain (in plain language)
  4. Depreciation by Analysis
    • again, use the discipline of assent to break things down into parts that don't have as big an impact as the whole; divide time into the present moment
    • view the pain in the context of "the view from above"
  5. Contemplating Finitude and Impermanence
    • "physicalizing" pain; "by attributing an arbitrary shape or color to" the pain p. 177
    • similar to the view from above, you can limit the pain in both time and space
    • "this too shall pass"
    • Either you can endure this pain now, or you won't and you will die, in which case you won't feel anything
  6. Stoic Acceptance
    • "actively accept" the pain
    • the dog and the cart ... be the dog walking with the cart, instead of the dog being pulled by the cart
    • "pain becomes more painful when we struggle against it" ... instead we should "accept the sensation and relax into it or even welcome it." p. 178
    • this is where hugging cold statues, taking cold showers and such comes into play.  by doing these hard exercises, we expose ourselves to discomfort and therefore we become more accepting of pain when it comes our way
    • tackle pain head on; like stamping out a fire or "grasping the nettle"
    • "struggling against things we can't control does us more harm than good" p. 181
  7. Contemplating Virtue
    • get into the habit of asking yourself, 'what virtue or capacity do I have, that I can exercise in this circumstance?' ... in the context of pain, you might ask, "what resources do [I] have that might help [me] cope better with pain?" p. 182
    • we can look at others who might be in the same situation and are facing it with equanimity and see how they endure it ... then we can emulate them
    • What we face in life can be bearable; when we have a reason to bear the pain, it become easier.  Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." p. 183
The Large Black Spot
a large black spot is drawn on a piece of paper.  this represents pain, a toothache, sciatica, melancholy, etc.  if you acknowledge it, then you draw a circle around the spot.  subsequent affirmations of the the spot, draw subsequent lines around it ... thus it actually grows!  if you continue to fear it, worry about it and looking for ways to avoid it, more is added on.

"One exaggerates, imagines, anticipates affliction," wrote Seneca.

"Do not let us build a second story to our sorrow by being sorry for our sorrow." p. 185

"he who knows how to suffer suffers less" p. 185

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Notes and What I Learned from "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor" PART 2

Get the book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

The Fork, Lucius vs Marcus and the Choice of Heracles

Marcus' brother Lucius partied hard and was not a virtuous man.  However, Marcus still learned from him.  "Marcus says only that he's grateful for having had a brother 'who by his character was able to stimulate me to cultivate my own nature.'" Marcus "became more determined to strengthen his own character after observing his brother's vices spiraling out of control." p. 116

We see many in life who chase after pleasures, whether to avoid emotional pain, or to distract "themselves from or [suppress] unpleasant feelings or as a way to escape" p. 117.  Stoics know that "chasing empty, transient pleasures can never lead to true happiness in the long run" p. 117.  Instead, Stoics choose to seek a life that enjoys "authentic happiness or fulfillment" which they called eudaimonia.

This fork in our road, whether to choose a life of ease and pleasure, or to choose a life of true, enduring happiness, is what many of us face.  The Stoics and Robertson portray this fork as "The Choice of Heracles"

Donald Robertson has done a nice video of this allegory:

And so you too face this same choice.  Do you pursue a life of ease and pleasure to achieve happiness or is it "more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character"? p. 121

Heracles is a Stoic hero, as he cheerfully faced challenges and hardships and was able to achieve "a profound sense of inner satisfaction knowing that he was fulfilling his destiny and expressing his true nature.  His life had something far more satisfying than pleasure: it had purpose." p. 121

Marcus decided to choose the same path, as Heracles, when he was faced with that fork; "the goal of his life [was] not pleasure but action" p. 123

On Friends

Marcus "picked his friends carefully, based on the character traits he most admired rather than what seem congenial to those of his social class.  His friends' company wasn't always fun - sometimes they spoke plainly and criticized him - but he embraced them because they shared his values and helped to improve him as a person." p. 124

The Stoics Side with Heracles and the Country (Hill) Mouse

If you haven't figured it out by now, the Stoics argue a life of challenges, hardships and action is what is best.  This is why the Stoics repeatedly say "virtue is the sole good."

Aesop's fable of the country mouse and city mouse underscore this key point.  "The country mouse says he would rather dine like a peasant than risk being eaten alive by ravenous dogs."  Marcus makes the same observation in Meditations Book 11.22 when he wrote, "The hill mouse and the house mouse - and the frightened scurrying of the house mouse."

Greed, pleasures and the like won't lead to sustained happiness.  It is a false hope.  On the other hand, a life of virtue and equanimity and facing adversity with cheerfulness will lead to genuine fulfillment.  This is wisdom.

"The wise man's sense of delight comes from one thing alone: acting consistently in accord with virtue."  Marcus also notes that two other sources of joy which come from contemplating virtue in others and welcoming your fate. p. 132-133

Stoic Practices for Changing Desires p. 135-150

  1. Evaluate the consequences of your habits / desires in order to select the ones you want to change
    • it's not just identifying the ones you want to drop, but it's also identifying ones you want to introduce in their place
    • learn self control; other virtues ... especially courage and moderation
    • look at the habits in the long run
    • write down the pros and cons of the bad and good habits
    • picture the positive consequences of dropping the bad and replacing them with the good
  2. Spot early warning signs so that you can nip the problem in the bud
    • self-monitoring is key ... use Stoic mindfulness
    • keep a journal of emerging desires (date/time/place, early warnings, scale of the urge, scale of the pleasure, other thoughts)
    • "study yourself" and know your triggers and high-risk situations, looking for "signs that typically precede the desire"
  3. Gain cognitive distance by separating impressions from external reality
    • simply notice the delineation between your perspective/impression and the external reality of the situation ... this leads to separating our values from external events.  Personally, I call this "minding the gap."
    • Whatever this impression of your's is, you need to "apostrophize" it by telling it "you are just a thought and not at all the thing you claim to represent" ... recall when Kakia approached Heracles, she called herself Eudomonia.  This is the same thing ... the impression is not real, it is false.
    • by "defusing" these thoughts, you weaken the desire
    • if it helps, imagine a role model or your trusted mentor is watching you and imagine what they would say ... this is a form of using accountability to distance yourself from your impression
    • use the Discipline of Assent to break the impression of the thing down into something that isn't so impressive ... a divide and conquer or depreciation by analysis.  This is where a purple robe is just cloth with the shellfish blood dye in it; wine is just dead grapes, etc.
      • don't use such rhetorical language like "I'm dying for some chocolate.  Why is it so good?  It tastes like heaven!  This is better than sex!"
      • perhaps think of yourself like a scientist and view desires and impressions of things from a detached, clinical, perspective
      • regarding sex, Marcus described it as "the rubbing together of body parts followed by a convulsion and the ejaculation of some mucus.  Not very romantic, but that's the point - he was aiming to neutralize inappropriate sexual urges ... the point isn't to obliterate all desire but rather to moderate unhealthy or excessive desires." p. 146-147
  4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit / desire
    • remind yourself often that you are always free to do something else
    • "do something that gives you a sense of genuine accomplishment"
    • "replace unfulfilling habits and desires with activities that you find more intrinsically rewarding"
    • when thinking of habits we want to instill in our lives, "we should be guided more by the qualities we admire in other people and our true values" p. 149
    • "if you want to be a good role model for your children, you should ask yourself what sort of person you are and what qualities you want to exhibit." p. 149
    • "we aim for wisdom and strength of character not because we're hoping to gain something else but simply because that's who we want to be in life." p. 149
Addition of the Improvement Cycle
  • Like Marcus did in Book 1, set aside time to think about the qualities in others that you love and wish to add to your character
  • visualize and contemplate these qualities and how you might instill them in your life
  • GRATITUDE plays a big role in the management of desires, by imagining you've lost certain things; keep a gratitude journal
  • Morning Meditation
    • picture how you will cope with the day's challenges ahead and what virtues you will use and how you will instill the desired characteristics in your life for that day
  • During the Day
    • be mindful, look for triggers and signs for impressions and desires
    • every day is practice!  every day is an opportunity to become better!
  • Evening Meditation
    • Review your day's events three times
    • Identify what you did well and what you didn't do so well
    • Praise yourself for the well-done and coach yourself for the ones that need improvement, imagine your mentor coaching you
  • With the above 3-step improvement cycle, you have the foundation and system for improving yourself and becoming more Stoic

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From Reading "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor" PART 1

Get the book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

  • It should be "simple and modest" p. 69
  • It requires conciseness and objectivity p. 69
  • practice by "deliberately describing events more objectively and in less emotional terms" p. 73
  • "learn to take greater ownership of or responsibility for the catastrophic value judgements that distress us" ... use down-to-earth language ... decatastrophize things p. 73
  • It's not the end for the world ...
  • Will this matter in a few hours, days, weeks, months, or years?
  • Now that you're viewing this as not a catastrophe, what virtues can you use to deal with the situation?  What are some realistic ways to bear and deal with it?
  • Write letters to yourself using this simple language and write about positive opportunities to exercise strength of character p. 76
Cognitive Distancing p.78
  • Write down thoughts concisely when they occur; view them on paper/notebook/whiteboard ... if on a whiteboard, stand on the other side of the room to read/view them
  • Simply recognize your thoughts ... "I notice I am thinking ...."
  • Do the same as above, but refer to the thoughts in the 3rd person
  • Evaluate the pros and cons of the thoughts in a detached manner
  • Tally the times you've had such thoughts
Interesting tid-bit: "Marcus kept a statuette of Rusticus in his personal shrine and offered sacrifices in his memory" p. 86

What Rusticus Taught Marcus p. 87
  • not to be pretentious
  • dress like a normal citizen
  • to be a careful and patient student of philosophy
  • to read attentively instead of skimming
  • not to be swayed too easily by speakers who have a silver tongue
  • side note from Epictetus: show the fruits of philosophy in character and action
"Indeed, those who assume that they have the fewest flaws are often the ones most deeply flawed in the eyes of others." p. 89

Get a Mentor
  • find a suitable mentor in whose wisdom and experience you can genuinely trust p. 90
  • make the effort to acquire an older friend: one known for honesty & plain speaking, who has master the same passions that you need help with, someone who can properly identify your vices and tell your frankly where you're going astray
  • listen patiently to your mentor and take criticisms without irritation

  • "If the real goal for Stoics is wisdom, then sometimes just blurting out the truth isn't enough.  We have to put more effort into communicating with others effectively." p. 92.  On the same page, Robertson mentions Marcus' "impressive ability to resolve conflicts between his friends ... ability to unite all his friends together in harmony ... patient diplomacy and sensitive use of language ... always be tactful and honest."
  • "Stoics like Marcus placed a lot more value on manners and civility than the Cynics did.  The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately.  Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument.  He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him.  He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner." p. 93
  • Regarding tact in response to criticisms of us, "we should give everyone we meet permission to tell us what our faults are ... and resolve not to be angry with any of them." p. 93 ... we ought to welcome criticism and "turn it to our advantage by making all [people] into our teachers ... and show gratitude ... to those who rebuke us." p. 94  However, we should be wise in discerning good advice (criticism) from bad ... we need to be "scrupulously honest with [our] mentor"
  • our soul should be "naked and simple"
  • we should "never crave anything in life that requires walls or curtains" p. 95

Your Values / Modeling

  • If you don't have a mentor or can't find one, you can use Marcus' example from his Book 1 and write about the values you admire in others ... "write down the virtues exhibited by someone you respect" p. 99 ... this stems from the advice given to Zeno to "take on the color of dead men"
  • Write these values down; think about them often, revise the list, process them again ... visualize these characteristics and traits and you will begin to live them ... this is how you "dye your soul"
  • Another idea is to write down the virtues of a hypothetical sage
Stoic Mindfulness / Prosoche / Daily Routine for Implementing Values
  • after getting feedback from a mentor or after identifying your values, you need to install a personal feedback system of introspection and improvement ... "continually to be self-aware, as if a wise mentor or teacher is observing you.  We call this Stoic mindfulness."  The old Stoics called it prosoche.
  • Morning and evening meditation provide planning opportunities for the day ahead as well as retrospectives for the day that has passed
  • For the morning, ask yourself two questions:
    1. What would the consequences be if you acted as a slave to your passions?
    2. How would your day differ if you acted more rationally, exhibiting wisdom and self-discipline? p. 105
  • For the evening, use guidance from "The Golden Verses"
    • Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes.
    • Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
    • "Where did I go wrong?  What did I do?  And what duty's left undone?
    • From first to last review your acts and then
    • Reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well
  • Sticking to this routine, you will begin to be more mindful during the day
More on Values
  • Consistent reflection on your values helps you find clear direction in your life
  • Additional questions might make your values even clearer:
    • What's ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
    • What do you really want your life to stand for or represent?
    • What do you want to be remembered for after you're dead?
    • What sort of person do you most want to be in life?
    • What sort of character do you want to have?
    • What would you want written on your tombstone? p. 108
  • Writing out lists; side-by-side columns
    1. The things you most desire for yourself in life
    2. The qualities you find most praiseworthy and admirable in other people
  • Contemplate "what would happen if you were to make virtue your number one priority in life?" p. 109