Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.22 - On preconceptions

If you were to tweet: "justice is fair" no one would dispute your tweet.  Similarly, you could tweet "bravery is admired" and no one would dispute it.

But if you tweet, "he was very courageous to stand up to the vice president the way he did" someone might reply, "not courageous, but idiotic."  And here is where we begin to deviate - in the application of some preconceptions.

Epictetus mentions religions and how they dispute what ought to be eaten or not eaten.  He also mentions a couple of main characters from The Iliad who argue over justice.  At the heart of it all, is where you put "the good" - where you place happiness and contentment in you mind.  Do you derive happiness and contentment from your body, property, parents, siblings, children, country and friends?  Aren't all those good things?  Most would say, "yes! absolutely!"  But if you place your whole happiness and contentment in things that are out of your control, you must constantly deal with sorrow and discontent.

Furthermore, some people will even place these externals in the domain of "coming from God."

God gives me a healthy body: I am blessed!  God gives my body cancer: I am cursed!

God gives me riches and land and a beautiful home: I am blessed!  God sends a drought and famine and my riches and land and home are lost: I am cursed!

God gives me wonderful parents and a family: I am blessed!  God causes my family to die and hate me: I am cursed!

God sends me to the richest, most powerful country in the world: I am blessed!  God allows another country to invade and conquer my country: I am cursed!

God gives me countless, kind friends: I am blessed!  God causes all my friends to leave me: I am cursed!

Truly ask yourself, do you need a functioning, healthy body to be happy?  Do you need property, land, riches, parents, brothers and sisters, children, a country and friends to be happy and content?  Most people say yes!  But the reality is that these things do not bring you happiness.

What are we to do with stories like these:

Stephen Hawking or Helen Keller (people who's bodies did not function well for them).

Eric Hoffer (who was never really rich and labored with his hands most of his life).

Countless other people who's stories are never told, but they are never rich, yet seemingly are always happy.

Myth or not, what about Job - how was he able to be content and happy when everything was taken from him?

Do we not admire people who've had property, health and family taken from them, yet they are still able to find happiness and contentment?

Ultimately, all these things are externals to our will.  Our mind - our attitude - how we view the world is based on what we decide to assent to (or agree with).  If we place all our hopes and dreams in externals, then we must accept and expect that our happiness and contentment will be out of our control.

And do you want to be in control of your happiness or would you rather roll the dice and see what happens?

If you want to be in control of your happiness, then focus on what is in your control: your attitude.  But if you want to take your chances, then pick something that is out of your control and let your emotions and attitude and state of mind depend on whatever happens to it.  Good luck!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.21 - To those who want to be admired

"For my part, I'm satisfied if I exercise my desires and aversions in accordance with nature, and apply my motives to act and not to act as my nature requires, and likewise my purposes, designs, and acts of assent."  (p. 48)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.20 - How reason is able examine itself

"The art of leather-working concerns itself with hides, but the art itself is altogether different from its material, the hides, and for that reason can't take itself as an object of examination."

In other words, the art of leather-work, works on, examines, and uses hides.  The art of leather-work is not focused on, working on, or examining itself.

On the other hand, the art of reason and wisdom can and does work on, examine and use themselves, and their opposites.  These things are unique to humans - this is "our nature" or how we were designed.  This is essentially the work and object of philosophy.

"the most important task of a philosopher, and his first task, is to test out impressions and distinguish between them, and not to accept any impressions unless it has been duly tested" (v. 7, p. 47).

Epictetus talks about how people used to test coinage, to ensure it was real or fake and how they would have to develop a musician's ear to detect the slightest differences.  He then says, "in matters where we think it makes a notable difference whether or not we go astray, we apply considerable attention to judging things that are liable to lead us astray; but when it comes to this poor ruling center of ours, we yawn and slumber, and accept any impression that comes along.  For it doesn't occur to us that we'll suffer any damage as a result" (v. 10-11, p. 47).

This is a very important point he makes!  We go to great lengths to ensure our coinage and dollar system is real and not fake.  We've implemented an entire governmental system to ensure the integrity of our dollars.  Yet, we barely make any effort to examine and confront impressions that come into our minds.  Rather, we prefer to be tossed and thrown about by any event and impression that comes our way.

Someone cuts us off in traffic ... we fly into a rage!  Someone breaks into our home and burglarizes us ... we feel sad, violated and insecure.  We develop a heart condition ... we think "wo is me!  my life is ruined; it's over!" and we pity ourselves.  A manager has a bad day and takes it out on us ... we berate her behind her back and we feel upset.  We find out we've been lied to by people we've trusted for so long ... we feel betrayed and bitter.

We fail to examine our impressions and we let them disturb us!  But we don't have to!  Events may happen and impressions may come, but we have the power of assent!

Someone cuts us off in traffic, we can think of reasons why maybe they are in a hurry, but there is no reason to be upset.  Someone steals from you, then they've stolen from you.  Do what you must to reclaim your possessions, but no reason to be upset.  Take precautions to protect your home and be at peace.  We develop a heart condition, but we already knew these things were out of our control, now we have to simply accept our fate and do what we must to ensure good health.  A manager is upset with you, do what must be done to correct anything that needs to be corrected and give her the benefit of the doubt - she may simply be hungry!  We've been lied to, no need to be upset, but learn who you can trust and cannot trust.  Work with those who you can trust, don't work with those who you cannot trust; no need to feel bitter.

This is the most important art in life - the examination of impressions.  This is learning and practicing the Stoic art of the Discipline of Assent.  It "requires long preparation, and no end of effort and study" but "do you really expect to master the most important of the arts with little effort?"

We have to do the heavy mental lifting if we expect results.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.19 - How should we behave towards tyrants

This is an interesting chapter, especially if viewed in the context of modern-day corporate society, in which many of us make a living.

Vice presidents, executives, managers, divisional managers ... all of them wield power and authority.  But we fail to realize that the only power and authority they have is what we give them.  That power only exists in our own mind.  The power and authority is not real; not in the slightest.

Epictetus cuts right to the chase.  The only real power is the power of controlling our desires and aversions and our impulse control; in short, self-discipline (see verses 2-4).

And how should we view authority figures at work and in government?  We ought give them attention like we give our dishes or pets attention.  It is a necessity that has to be done; we do what we need to do, but nothing else.  The dishes are dirty, we wash them.  The horse needs to be groomed; we groom it.  There is no need to bow or show deferential treatment to them.  I think we can observe protocol if warranted, but we must be very wary of thinking they have more power or authority than us.

But those managers and bosses can fire you!  They can cut your pay!  Good point; then I'll watch out for them and perform my own due diligence like I would with anti-virus shots.  I'll do what I must for my own self-care, but I don't have to make my whole life dependent on them.  Soon, they will be retired, they will forget about you - they'll be golfing, going on vacations, put into a retirement home and soon, dead.

"For when the [president, VP, manager] says to someone, 'I'll [fire you, cut your pay, excommunicate you]' one who attaches value to his [job, position, membership] will reply, 'No, have pity on me,' while one who attaches value, by contrast, to his choice will say, 'If you think that will do any good, [fire away]'

To which, the president or VP or manager might say, "You don't care?" And you can respond, "Not in the least."  And the tyrant might say, 'I'll show you that I am [the president, VP, general authority].'

And then you respond, "How will you do that?  Zeus has set me free.  Do you really suppose that he would allow his own son to be turned into a slave?  You're master of my carcass, take that."  (see v. 8-10, p. 44).

Later, Epictetus talks about sacrifices and offerings to gods.  And he asks a really poignant question, "Yet who has ever offered up a sacrifice because his desires are rightly directed?  Or because his motives are in accord with nature?  For we offer up thanks to the gods for those things in which we place our good" (v. 25, p. 46).

Let this be your guide for having the proper attitude in dealing with "people of authority."

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.18 - That we should not be angry with those who do wrong

How should we view and deal with thieves and robbers?  How do you react and think about immoral people?

Someone poses this question to Epictetus: "So this thief here and this adulterer should be put to death?"

Epictetus responds, "Not at all, but what you should be asking instead is this: 'This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important mater, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgement that distinguishes good from bad - should someone like this be put to death?'"  He compares the loss of moral capacity with loss of seeing or hearing and he asks if we should execute the deaf and blind?  If someone loses the capacity to be moral, Epictetus views this as similar to the loss of a sense.  Should we execute someone who is blind?  No!  Similarly, should we execute someone who's ability to make moral choices is lost?  No!

But I will say, how do you determine the difference between someone who has lost their moral ability and someone who knows right from wrong, but still chooses to be immoral?  That's a tough question.

Interestingly enough, while working one day, I happened to have the TV on and the Today Show with Megyn Kelly aired a segment about mothers dealing with children who have brain disorders - the very kind that prevents them from making moral or empathetic choices.  It's an interesting segment to watch and should give you pause when you are quick to "hate and take offence" (see verse 9).  The Today Show segment is called "Mothers Open Up About Concerns For Their Children With Brain Disorders" and it aired today, March 22, 2018.

He also instructs us that we should not be angry with people who may lack the ability for moral capacity, but instead we should pity them (see v. 9, p. 42).

Epictetus then goes on to discuss how we need to not place our desires in things that can be robbed from us.  He goes so far as to say that a tyrant can chain us up, and lop off our head, but the tyrant can never take our integrity from us.

How do we get to be this resilient?  "Know yourself.  So what follows?  That we should practice, by heaven, with little things, and after beginning with those, pass on to greater things.  'I've got a headache.'  Don't give expression to grief.  'I've got an earache.'  Don't give expression to grief.  And I'm not saying that you shouldn't groan at such things, but that you shouldn't groan in your inmost self" (v. 17-19, p. 43).

"Who, then, is the invincible human being?  One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice."  She or he is capable of overcoming, bearing and enduring without complaint, the heat, the cold, the allure of money (greed) and beautiful people (lust), darkness, glory or fame, abuse, praise and is even not afraid of death.  To overcome all; to not let any of these things have sway over you; that is what becoming invincible means.

In summary, test yourself.  Allow yourself to get into the mindset of constantly being tested and then work to win at those tests - to be the better man!  To quote one of my favorite Rocky lines, "How much can you take, and keep moving forward!  That's how winning is done!"


Saturday, January 5, 2019

On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style

The Dichotomy of Control

The first time I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, only a few passages made sense to me.  It wasn't until I read Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel a couple of times before I connected with and "got" Meditations from start to finish.

Hadot spends quite a few pages setting the scene for his analysis of Meditations.  One of his chapters is entirely devoted to Epictetus - a powerhouse among Stoics.  We learn some very important and fundamental principals of Stoicism from Epictetus.  One of those important principals is the dichotomy of control.  In his Encheiridion or "handbook", he starts with:
Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all. 
In learning and attempting to practice Stoicism, I've come to learn that there are a lot of things out of my control.  And what a refreshing change to see something so clearly defined and apparent as opposed to the guilt and anxiety that was instilled in me while learning Mormon dogma.

Early in my sessions with my therapist, she reminded me of the serenity prayer, which is quite Stoic:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

When these words finally sunk deep enough into my brain, I realized that much of my anxiety was based on things out of my control.  So many voices told me to be worried about dozens of different things and how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to be worried about in the past or in the future.  My brain was like a fruit tree that had over-grown and had been choked by a vicious  bramble-week.  Epictetus' words (along with all the other Stoics) were like a chain-saw that cut away all the useless and what was left was a well-balanced, trimmed tree, producing good fruit.

This is the first lesson of Stoic happiness: always, in all things, separate things that are in your control from those things that are out of your control.  Then focus on the things in your control - this is the start of the path to contentment.

The Inner Citadel, your hegemonikon or Empedocles' Perfect Sphere

If you observe closely, you will have noticed that Epictetus' list of things in our control come from within.  Therefore, happiness and contentment, no matter what happens, comes from us!

There is, within each of us, a true self - our true soul if you will - that gets to decide our reality, our opinions and what we ultimately decide to accept or reject.  And no matter what any outside force or event occurs, we have the ultimate, final say in how we view those things.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the following in Meditations:

Book 4, 4
"things cannot touch the soul (mind)"

Book 5, 19
"Things cannot touch the soul at all.  They have no entry to the soul, and cannot turn or move it.  The soul alone turns and moves itself, making all externals presented to it cohere with judgements it thinks worthy of itself."

Book 6, 52
"things of themselves have no inherent power to form our judgments."

Book 9, 15
"Mere things stand isolated outside our doors, with no knowledge or report of themselves.  What then reports them?  Our directing mind."

To quote Hadot,
When he (Aurelius) speaks about "us" and about the soul, he is thinking of that superior or guiding part of the soul which the Stoics called the hegemonikon.  It alone is free, because it alone can give or refuse its assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object is which is represented by a given phantasia.  This borderline which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the 'inner citadel.'  Things cannot penetrate into this citadel: that is, they cannot produce the discourse which we develop about things, or the interpretation which we give of the world and its events.
As Book 9, 15 alludes to, these external things and events are "outside the door" of our inner citadel and we hold the key to that door!

This understanding - this realization - this lesson - is the next key to our Stoic happiness.  We must realize there is a hard boundary between events and our opinion.  And we get to decide what our opinion and our attitude is.  In the vast majority of people's minds, they jump to conclusions and assume too much.  They do not exercise much discipline in their value judgments and therefore introduce sadness, anxiety and worry into their own lives.  And other people know this!  They use it to great effect to induce guilt in others.  These are "the games" we humans play.  We must realize, however, we don't have to play these games!  We can fortify our inner citadel and exercise extreme security measures when it comes to letting in thoughts, assumptions and conclusions into our directing mind.

Marcus makes mention of Empedocles' "perfect round" which through the vortex of external events, and our constant vigil, that boundary remains inviolate.  Our discipline in keeping a strong border ensures the integrity and contentment of our inner citadel.  In Book 12, 3 Marcus writes,
There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own. So, if you separate from yourself - that is, from your mind - all that others say or do, all that you yourself have said or done, all that troubles you for the future, all that your encasing body and associate breath bring on you without your choice, all that is whirled round in the external vortex encircling us, so that your power of mind, transcending now all contingent ties, can exist on its own, pure and liberated, doing what is just, willing what happens to it, and saying what is true; if, as I say, you separate from this directing mind of yours the baggage of passion, time future and time past, and make yourself like Empedocles' 'perfect round rejoicing in the solitude it enjoys', and seek only to perfect this life you are living in the present, you will be able at least to live out the time remaining before your death calmly, kindly, and at peace with the god inside you.
How do we ensure the integrity of that boundary?  How do we prevent thieves and burglars from entering our inner citadel?  We learn the Stoic Discipline of Assent.

Discipline of Assent

To get directly to the point, the discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.

Examples are best to better explain this concept.

From Marcus Aurelius Book 8, 49:
Do not elaborate to yourself beyond what your initial impressions report. You have been told that so-and-so is maligning you. That is the report: you have not been told that you are harmed. I see that my little boy is ill. That is what I see: I do not see that he is in danger. So always stay like this within your first impressions and do not add conclusions from your own thoughts - and then that is all.
From Epictetus Discourses 3.8
Just as we practise answering sophistic questions, so should we train for impressions every day, as they implicitly pose their own questions.
‘So-and-so’s son died.’ (‘The question’).
Answer: ‘Since it’s nothing he can control, it isn’t bad.’
‘So and so’s father left his son nothing when he died.’
‘Not something the son can control, so not bad.’
‘Caesar condemned him.’
‘Outside his control – not bad.’
‘He lamented these events.’
‘That is in his control – and bad.’
‘He withstood it like a man.’
‘That is in his control – and good.’
If we make a habit of such analysis, we will make progress, because we will never assent to anything unless it involves a cognitive impression.
‘His son died.’
What happened? His son died.
‘Nothing else?’
Nothing.
‘The ship was lost.’
What happened? The ship was lost.
‘He was thrown into jail.’
What happened? He was thrown into jail.
‘He’s in a bad situation’ is a stock comment that everyone adds on their own account.
This same thought process can and ought to be applied in every day circumstances as well as life-altering events.

When a driver cuts you off in traffic, all you can say is that they cut you off.  When you add, "what a jerk!" then you have introduced that value judgement.  You have allowed the event to enter your inner citadel and disrupt your peace.

When you receive notice that you've been fired from your job, all you can say is that you've been fired from your job.  When you add, "this is really bad!" that is you who has added the value judgement.  You can still excel at being an excellent human being (arete) by having a positive attitude about being fired and looking for opportunities to make this work to your advantage.  But you won't get to this point quickly unless you exercise the disciple of assent.

I love Epictetus' frame of mind when describing the discipline of assent.  Your directing mind is like an inner citadel and you employ a guard who has complete control over who can enter your citadel.  Epictetus says, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test” (Discourses 2.18).  Have you ever heard the phrase, "living rent free in your head"?  This is a very similar idea.  When someone is living rent-free in your head, you've allowed them to "get to you" to annoy you or disturb you, and you've failed to realize that you can kick them out whenever you want; you can kick the free-loader out!  All it takes is mental toughness and discipline and practice at not letting those impressions in to begin with!

Allow me to pause and make a few contrasting points between Stoicism and Mormonism.  As I've analysed my mental health between the years 2014 and 2018, I would say that learning and practicing the discipline of assent has been the biggest benefit.  Growing up Mormon, I was fed a constant diet of value judgements.  I was told, constantly, what it meant to be good or bad.  "Choosing the Right" was front and center in Mormon culture.  Believing in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost; believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is an historical and truthful record, that Jesus Christ visited the ancient Americas, that the American aborigine is a descendant of the Lamanites, that the current Mormon prophet is the only authorized "mouthpiece" of God on the earth today ... and that you were "good" if you believed and testified of these things and "bad" if you did not.  These beliefs are the beginning qualifications of "good" in Mormonism.  If you believe these things, you "choose the right" but if you don't believe these things and verbally say so, then you do not "choose the right."

After these basic, fundamental teachings, you would prove your belief and worthiness by acting on them.  You are "good" if you say your prayers morning, afternoon and night.  You are "good" if you read the Book of Mormon for 30 minutes every day.  You are "good" if you praise and testify of Joseph Smith.  You are "good" if you obey all the commandments, and "bad" and "apostatizing" if you break any commandments.  Everyone is measured and re-measured against the beliefs and commandments in Mormonism.  Good if you believe and live them, bad if you don't.

I never took an opportunity to evaluate those value judgements until 2014.  From birth, through childhood, teenage years and through my 20's and 30's, I only ever let the "Mormon" value judgements into my consciousness.  In essence, I turned over "guard-duty" to whoever my teacher or leader or prophet was at the time.  And in many cases, these peoples' opinions and views were subject to change.  Learning and practicing the discipline of assent has allowed me to perform a hard re-set on my value judgements.  Mental-health-wise, I've never been healthier.  For the first time in my life, I am seeing things as they are.

Discipline of Desire

I am, by no means, a Stoic sage.  But I do feel better-armed, knowing about the dichotomy of control and the discipline of assent.  Up to about the year 2014, what gave me direction and motivation in life was Mormonism.  I was given a long list of things to do, and I set about checking those items off.  That worked pretty well for me until it didn't!  My Mormon worldview and foundation crumbled and in that void, I needed to ensure I rebuilt on solid rock.  But how do I find the right motivation; the driving force to power my desires and action?  Enter the Stoic Discipline of Desire.

At this point, I'd like to share a sequence that demonstrates how assent, desire and our will to act are intertwined.

An impression (external event) occurs → we assent (or not) → desire is triggered (or not) → we act (or not) on that desire.

Many times, that process happens instantaneously and before we know it, we are acting on impressions.  Almost subconsciously, we agree and desire something, and then immediately act.

People who want to sell you something, will play on your basest fears and desires in order to rob you of time and money.  They tell you that material possessions, power, prestige, health, eternal life and salvation are "good" and should be sought.  In many cases, you assent to these impressions thinking they will make you content and happy.  Stoicism helps you regain control over that process and instructs you on what you should desire (and not).

I really like how Chris Fisher puts it (source):
The discipline of desire helps us stop the train of passion before it leaves the station and builds a full head of steam. That is why Epictetus taught that controlling our passions, through the discipline of desire, is the “most urgent” of the three disciplines.
"[Desire] is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason." (Discourses 3.2.3)
The Discipline of Desire includes two very important distinctions.  Marcus Aurelius often wrote about our own nature and universal nature (see Book 5.25, Book 6.58 and Book 12.32).  Personally, I like to think of these as micro-desires and macro-desires.  Others have called them common nature and universal Nature or human will and cosmic will.  The key idea is that, we have two areas of desire to focus on: our own, and that of Zeus/God/Providence/the Universe.

Micro-desire
I've already discussed the dichotomy of control, which is based on the opening chapter of Epictetus' Encheiridion.  Chris Fisher organizes this chapter into a table-like format, which makes it very easy to consume


This table succinctly informs us where our micro-desires should be focused.  The list of things in our control, and subsequently where we can place our desires, is small.  But the outcomes are significant.

Macro-desire
The other aspect of the discipline of desire is that of Universal or cosmic nature.  Some might call this the will of God or Providence.  Much thought and debate has gone into this topic.  There seems to be an active debate on-line between the Modern (agnostic/atheistic) Stoics and the Traditionalist (deist) Stoics.  The Moderns have seemingly tried to re-invent Stoicism by taking Zeus/God/Providence out of the equation, while the Traditionalists have pointed to the ancient Stoics as well as the academic studies of ancient Stoicism, to state that Stoicism absolutely claims there is a Providence or consciousness in the Universe and it is active.

Furthermore, the discipline of desire asks the Stoic follower to seek, understand, desire and live with the will of the Universe.  This is a key difference, in my opinion, in how a person might choose to live a resigned, stoic (lower-case 's') life versus an active, fulfilling Stoic (upper-case 'S') life.  Stoics (big-S) will seek to see how everything is useful for the Whole (earth, universe, etc.) - they can remain indifferent to these events, but love them and even want them to happen!

Pierre Hadot describes how a practicing Stoic might view cosmic events:
Everything that happens to the part is useful for the Whole, and everything that is "prescribed" for each part is, almost in the medical sense of the term, "prescribed" (V, 8) for the health of the Whole, and consequently for all the other parts as well.
The discipline of desire therefore consists in replacing each event within the perspective of the Whole, and this is why it corresponds to the physical part of philosophy. To replace each event within the perspective of the Whole means to understand two things simultaneously: that I am encountering it, or that it is present to me, because it was destined for me by the Whole, but also that the Whole is present within it. Since such an event does not depend upon me, in itself it is indifferent, and we might therefore expect the Stoic to greet it with indifference. Indifference, however, does not mean coldness. On the contrary: since such an event is the expression of the love which the Whole has for itself, and since it is useful for and willed by the Whole, we too must want and love it. In this way, my will shall identify itself with the divine Will which has willed this event to happen. To be indifferent to indifferent things-that is, to things which do not depend on me-in fact means to make no difference between them: it means to love them equally, just as Nature or the Whole produces them with equal love. (The Inner Citadel p. 142, emphasis added)
Even though it's been pointed out by many people that Friedrich Nietzsche excoriated Stoicism, I still think his "amor fati" quote encapsulates well the idea of loving the will of Providence/Universal Nature:


Eudamonia
Some people might assume focusing on micro-desires and macro-desires will bring a person happiness.  So far in this essay, I've been using the terms "happiness" and "contentment."  I think it is time to clarify this point.  The Stoic philosophers used the word eudaimonia to describe the outcome living according to Nature.  Some have interpreted the word eudamonia as happiness, but it has a more precise meaning in "human flourishing" or "good flow."  Zeno of Citium called it "good flow of life" (source).

Stoicism does not promise elation or joy or eternal bliss or never-ending happiness; which is what many religions seem to offer for a price.  Rather, Stoicism seems to say, "here are things in your control and things not in your control.  If you focus on things out of your control, you'll find disappointment.  If you focus on things in your control, you'll live life with eyes wide open."  Stoicism also confronts us with the cosmic view and challenges us to adapt to Universal nature, not with promises, but with rationality.

There is other another aspect, which I have not addressed yet, which is a key ingredient in the pursuit of eudamonia.  It is the pursuit of arete or excellence in character by practicing the only moral good: that of virtue (discipline, courage, justice, wisdom).  I'll conclude this essay discussing how the Stoics view virtue as the sole good.  But before I get to that conclusion, there is one more discipline to discuss - the Discipline of Action.

Discipline of Action

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is oikeiĆ“sis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.

Many people, including myself, love this particular passage from Marcus Aurelius, who must have often given himself this pep-talk in the morning:
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.
Virtue is the Sole Good

Corresponding to each Stoic discipline is a virtue.

With the Discipline of Desire, we are provided a structure and philosophy for demonstrating the virtues of courage and self-discipline.

With the Discipline of Assent, we can practice the virtue of wisdom.

And with the Discipline of Action, we have opportunities to demonstrate the virtue of justice.

Armed with the concepts and ideas of the three Stoic disciplines and the Stoic framework, we are ready to wake up each morning and look for opportunities to practice virtue.  The study of Stoic philosophy and meditating on these concepts is important.  We ought to express gratitude to God for our lot in life and for everything God has provided us.  We ought to meditate and reinforce Stoic principles every day in a journal.  We ought to study what each of the cardinal virtues mean.  But all of that studying and meditating is useless to us and to our fellow brothers and sisters if we fail to exercise virtue in our every-day lives.

A typical day for an aspiring Stoic might have these activities:
  • spend a few minutes thinking of something for which they are grateful
  • write in a journal, anticipating events that might not go as planned (up to and including death)
  • reading a reminder from a Stoic sage or writer, such as Aurelius, Epictetus or Zeno
  • go to work, play; live in the world, drive around, interact with people
  • look for opportunities to practice the three disciplines
  • exercise virtue (demonstrate self-discipline, share wise advice, treat others with kindness and respect)
  • at the end of the day, reflect on what went well and what didn't; using the lens and measuring stick of virtue to determine what was good or bad; with kindness, congratulate yourself for things well-done and coach yourself on how you could do better the next day
The real fruit of Stoicism is being more mindful of striving to live a life of virtue.  And to be able to accomplish that goal, one must learn and practice.  And practice is found in living virtuously every day and engaging with other people every day.  One cannot live a life of virtue by himself.  He needs friends, family, co-workers, other drivers, people on the street, vendors.  He needs traffic, rain storms, calamities, illness, cosmic events, life-altering events.  He needs the world and the universe and everything in it.  This is the domain to practice Stoicism and to attain arete.

Conclusion

In talking about Stoicism with various people, inevitably the conversation drifts towards the topic of how similar Stoicism and Buddhism are.  What is fascinating to both me and the other people with whom I discuss this, is that two cultures, from different sides of the planet, arrived at very similar conclusions.  Both philosophies have also withstood the test of time and have brought millions of people to enlightenment.  Anyone would be hard pressed to find adamant detractors of either philosophy.

To me, this means there are timeless and useful principals; they do not change and have proven beneficial and truthful time and time again.  They are like solid rock, on which someone can build their mental fortress.

This has been my deepest desire: to place myself on solid rock.  To be able to rely on a philosophy that supports me every day of my life today and for the remainder of my days, no matter the circumstance.  I suppose this is why one particular passage from Meditations rings so true with me and why I think of it often each day and through every week:
Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break.  It stands firm and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

Friday, January 4, 2019

On Happiness - Part One: Mormon Style

I was born and raised Mormon.  Growing up, I was taught "the Plan of Salvation" or "the Plan of Happiness" (search on lds.org for "plan of happiness").

The Plan of Salvation or Happiness (which I'll simply refer to as The Plan), was based on roughly the following major points:

We Lived With God Before We Were Born
All humans alive today, dead or soon-to-be-born, lived with God before we were born.  However, any human born on Earth, represents only two-thirds of God's children.  The other third were lead by Satan and will never receive a body.  The reason: Satan and his followers rebelled against God.  Satan and his followers intended to take away everyone's freedom or agency.  But God and his faithful son Jesus Christ, did not intend that.  Because we chose to follow God and Jesus Christ, we were blessed to have a body - to be born on the Earth.  Those who followed Satan were cast from God's presence (this is how Mormons interpret Revelation 12:4, 7-9) and cursed to never receive a body (see Abraham 3:22-23).

God Created the World and Adam and Eve; and They "Fell"
Like most Christians, Mormons believe in the Creation.  Adam and Eve lived in God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  God gave them two commandments: 1) to have children 2) not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  Eve, at the prompting of Satan, ate the forbidden fruit because she reasoned that she could not fulfill the first commandment (to have kids) unless she ate of the fruit.  She convinced Adam to eat of the fruit.  This action then lead to them being expelled from God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  Ever since that event, Adam and Eve and their descendants (us), have been striving to re-gain God's presence.  Mormons believe Adam and Eve made promises (covenants) to God, that if they kept His commandments, they could return to His presence.  In the Mormon church, the core of these covenants are made in Mormon temples.

This is key to understanding Mormon doctrine; we can really only find lasting happiness by returning to God's presence.

The creation, the eating of the forbidden fruit, life, death, making covenants with God and keeping commandments that God gives through his prophets, mark the stepping stones of The Plan.  Mormons believe life is essentially a test; and commandments (both commandments of commission and omission) are a means for achieving happiness in mortal life as well as eternal life.

Obedience = Happiness
A Mormon's life, whether born into a family and raised Mormon, or through conversion, is guided by a series of events.  Happiness is attained through obedience to teachings and commandments and rituals.

As a child, you learn to be happy by obeying your parents, by going to church, reading the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.  You learn to be happy by going to church meetings three hours every Sunday and by attending church activities during the week.

You learn to be happy by having Family Home Evening every Monday night, with your family.  In those family meetings, you learn about The Plan and you play games and eat treats.

You learn to be happy by giving talks in church and by teaching lessons.  You learn to be happy by saying your prayers morning and evening; both by yourself and with your family.  You learn to be happy by reading your scriptures for 30 minutes every day.  You learn to be happy by listening to the Prophets and church leaders every April and October.  You learn to be happy from your home teachers, who come once a month to teach you more about The Plan.  All of this, is to help you prepare to be baptized and confirmed a member of the church when you turn eight years old.

If you do all those things, listed above, you will be happy.  But if you forget to do all of them or some of them, you may begin to feel dark feelings or you may begin to feel lost.  This is God telling you that you are not loving Him and that you are disobeying.  When this happens, you should repent.  You repent by confessing, saying sorry and then by striving to do better - either stop doing the wrong or start choosing the right.  If you fully repent, then you are on the path to happiness again.

After you are baptized and confirmed, you receive a special gift: the gift of the Holy Ghost.  This gift gives you special access to a member of the Godhead.  He is a spirit and can enter your heart and mind and give you promptings to help other people or he can remind you to do what is right or he can warn you against danger.  But since he is a member of the Godhead, he can only enter those people who are righteous - who are obedient to the commandments.  If you are disobedient, you will not have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost with you and you won't be guided in life - you may make a wrong choice or fail to do something right.  After baptism, your happiness is dependent on the guidance from the Holy Ghost, which is dependent on your obedience to the commandments you have been taught.

The process of practicing obedience and repentance is repeated the rest of your life, along with with milestones that help you stay on the straight and narrow.  At age twelve, if you're a boy, you will be interviewed by a local church leader (the Bishop) and your worthiness (level of commitment and obedience) is determined.  If you are deemed worthy, then you are given the Aaronic Priesthood.  For a young woman, a worthiness interview is also given, so that she may advance into the Young Womens' program.  Worthiness interviews are held at regular intervals during your teenage years.  If your parents are good parents, they too will hold one-on-one interviews with you to check in on your progress in keeping the commandments.  Failure to "pass" these worthiness interviews means the young man or woman is not living up to expectations.  Failure to meet expectations means the young man or woman are not truly happy.

By the time you are 18 years old, you will have gone through approximately twenty or more interviews.  And at this point in your life, you are faced with additional major milestones: missions and marriages.  All young men are duty-bound to serve a full-time, two-year mission, in which they travel to a different city or country, in order to preach Mormonism and convert "non-members."  For those young men who don't qualify, a significant social stigma sticks with them for a life-time.  Almost as bad or perhaps equally bad, is when a young man leaves to go on a mission, but then fails to honorably complete it.  Women are not obligated to serve a full-time mission, but many choose to do so.  If a woman chooses not to serve a full-time mission, soft, social pressure increases on her to get married.

Sometime during these crucial years, men and women will make covenants with God in a Mormon temple.  Men promise to obey the law of the Lord and women promise to obey their husband as he promises to obey the Lord (note: this was just changed by the church in January 2019; women are no longer "put under oath" to obey their husband).  They promise to be willing to sacrifice everything they currently have or will have to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to build up the kingdom of God on earth.  They promise not to speak evil of the Lord's anointed ("the Lord's anointed" are people who have also been deemed worthy to enter the temple and have participated in the temple rituals and promises).  They promise to not be "light-minded" or to engage in "loud laughter" or to engage in any "unholy or impure practice."  They promise to be sexually faithful to their spouse.  They promise to keep all the commandments in the scriptures.  And they promise to never reveal the signs and "tokens" or special hand-shakes with unique names, to others.

Once a person "enters the temple" and "receives their own endowment", they are expected to return often and perform the work as proxy for people who have died and who did not or could not make similar promises in a Mormon temple when they were alive.

For all men and women, there is a strong expectation for them to get married and "sealed" in a Mormon temple.  Marriage brings a whole new level of commitment, including fulfilling the first commandment Adam and Eve were given in the Garden of Eden: to have children.  Only by being married and sealed for eternity in a Mormon temple, with Mormon priesthood, can married couples attain the highest degree of heaven (the Celestial Kingdom in Mormon vernacular) and therefore find eternal happiness in the after-life.  And in this mortal life, once married, Mormons find true happiness by raising a family.

Child-rearing brings a new generation of children.  Mormon parents now not only have the responsibility of their own personal salvation and happiness, but they must ensure their children enter into the same path they have lived.  If parents fail to baptize their children and raise them in the Mormon faith, true happiness is put at risk.

Happiness Through Guilt
I have only hit upon a the larger points in The Plan.  As you may see, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to fail attaining happiness in Mormonism.  Any excuse given as to why an individual is not happy, is met with dozens of questions of the individual's worthiness.  Failure in any of these larger points, outlined above, or even dozens of smaller failures, such as forgetting to pray or to study the scriptures or to not attend a meeting or the temple, will be presented as evidence as to why the individual is not happy.  This is reinforced countless times in the many sacrament meetings, Sunday School lessons, Seminary classes and General Conference talks.  This is key to understanding Mormon guilt and happiness.

If a member takes the dogma seriously, then they should be happy by keeping all the commandments.  But, if anyone expresses discontentment or unhappiness, the first place to look is their level of commitment to Mormonism.  Ultimately, this means any unhappiness experienced is the member's fault!  If you've ever heard the phrase, "heads I win, tails you lose" then you may understand the position Mormons are put in.

Two specific, doctrinal examples of the type of guilt Mormon leaders instill within their members can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants and a quote from a Mormon prophet.

D&C 68:25
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.

John Taylor
If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty (source).

I watched parents and other members suffer years of guilt and anxiety over things beyond their control (a wayward child, lack of success as a missionary, etc).  The guilt and anxiety cultivated in people for failing in the thousands of big and little "duties" is significant.

Eventually, Mormons begin to have this devastating dialogue with themselves in their head.  They wonder if they should do this or say that or if they should not do something or not say anything.

If you recall, after baptism, Mormons received the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  They are expected to be worthy of the Holy Ghost at all times.  If they become unworthy, they risk "losing" the gift which then puts them at risk for not making crucial decisions that could impact the lives of many.  Failure to "listen to the still small voice" could result in you not saying something that could change a person's life or it could put you at risk in not making a critical decision or worse, making a bad decision.  This gift is supposed to help you in keeping all the commandments.  But in the event you fail, you can always repent.

Repentance ... with a caveat
I briefly mentioned repentance above.  Mormons view repentance as a way to clean your soul in preparation to meet God at judgement day.  Repentance should be exercised often.  There should never be "death-bed repentance."  Rather, you should be thinking of ways, every day, to repent.

Once you repent, you are expected to stay on the straight and narrow path.  And as long as you do not return to those sins, God will remember them no more as outlined in D&C 58:42-43:

42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.

43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.

The last two words of verse 43 are very important in Mormonism.  There is an expectation that you never return to any sin you commit - that you forsake them.  Only then, will the Lord forget your sins.  This scripture, alone, does not sound unreasonable.  But, when put in context of another scripture, we learn guilt can be piled on the sinner exponentially.

D&C 82:7 says, "And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God."

This Mormon doctrine shows that sins, in at least one case, are not forgotten by the Lord.  If you sin, repent and completely forsake, the Lord forgets your sin.  But if you commit that sin again, you are not only guilty of that sin, but all the former sins as well!  The guilt, almost exponentially, returns!  As you can see, there is a built-in feedback loop designed to pile on guilt by the loads.  A camel trying to get through an eye of a needle comes to mind ... and it's the camel's fault to boot!

But I See Lots of Happy Mormons
At this point, allow me to let you in on a little secret: I don't believe in Mormonism - at least as the founder Joseph Smith would have you believe it - that it is the one true church or religion endorsed by God and all other religions are an abomination in God's eyes.

I have since come to the conclusion that if you come across a happy Mormon, then they are probably a (what I like to call) Buffet Mormon.  They are likely surveying the doctrines, dogmas and commandments and picking and choosing the ones they like and ignoring the ones they don't care for.  In my opinion, some never engage in a serious survey of the dogma and are able to ignore many aspects of Mormonism through ignorance or indifference.

Less likely, but still probable, are another set of happy Buffet Mormons who love the current culture of Mormonism, have examined much, if not all, of the unsavory church history and who are able justify current or past immoral (and doctrinal) teachings and behaviors of leaders or founders.  This allows them to live contentedly with aspects they agree with, but turn a blind eye to practices, under normal circumstances, they would find repulsive (God endorsing racial discrimination, plural marriage, a "prophet" marrying other mens' wives and young women as young as fourteen, instilling a culture of soft hate against gay, lesbian and other orientations, deception about authority and the list goes on).

There is a saying about the Mormon church that goes: what is good about the church is not unique and what is unique about the church is not good.

Those who are happy, largely focus on the 'good' about the church and they turn a blind eye to the things that are unique about the church.  I contend that many of these same people who believe the good things about the church, could find happiness in most Christian religions today.

Happiness Broken
For me, I found a lot of the guilt and unhealthy teachings were affecting my mental health and well-being.  I had such a sincere desire to obey and to "purify" myself, that all I could see were my imperfections.  Leaders, both local and general, would remind me of my short-comings.  Those close to me would often compare my actions with others, who seemingly were better than me.  Many weekends, after coming home from a week of work, I would simply want to sit on the couch or front porch and do nothing but sit.  My mind was numb and my head experienced a low-grade vibrating buzz (that's the best way to describe the numbness).  While I watched many friends and neighbors get their batteries re-charged at church meetings, I found myself lacking motivation and I often looked forward to Monday mornings!

I simply didn't have the psychological tools to help myself.  I also didn't have the space to really assess my philosophical foundations.  For me, it felt like God's prophets, "general authorities" and local lay leaders were changing doctrine.  Doctrine, dogmas and teachings, which were once considered core to the Mormon faith, were now yesterday's theories advanced by "men" who weren't really speaking as prophets (despite being sustained as such).  More and more, it felt like the only virtue in Mormonism, was to "follow the prophet, but only today's prophet."  It felt like I was standing on sand and it was shifting underneath my feet.  I yearned for solid rock and a moral compass upon which I could depend.

By late 2013 and early 2014, the number of "dark" weekends became more frequent and would last longer.  Although I had often considered suicide through the years, by 2014 I began to seriously consider it.  I knew I had crossed a boundary and I needed help.  After telling my wife, I made a phone call and scheduled an appointment to see a therapist.

I began to see a therapist in the summer of 2014.  She was able to help me deconstruct my negative thinking using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  She also recommended that I review my values - I took a values system test which helped reveal what my inner values really were.  After a few weeks of talking with her, I began conducting own research on CBT and discovered it was roughly based on Stoic philosophy.  Thus began my journey of learning about Stoicism.  During this time, I also conducted a cold-eyes review of Mormonism.  My research lead me to discover the truth claims of the church were not valid and I no longer felt an obligation to believe many Mormon dogmas and beliefs.

By the end of 2014 and towards the beginning of 2015, I purchased my first copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations which opened a truly beautiful, logical world to me and has helped me reconstruct my philosophical world view in a way that has allowed me to escape the grasp of depression and anxiety.  For the first time, in a long time, I found rock upon which to stand.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.16 - On providence

in this passage, Epictetus instructs us on why and how we should praise God.  in a word, it is gratitude.  why?  because when we are grateful for what we have been granted and provided, we recognize our position in the universe.  without any of these things, we simply don't exist.  additionally, by thinking about these things and expressing gratitude, we must be open to the idea that intelligence went into the design of our world.  why?  we may not know exactly why, but without a doubt, we benefit from it.

Epictetus begins the passage by contemplating how the beasts need little and how everything is provided for them to exist.  furthermore, he expresses gratitude that humans do not have the responsibility or worry to provide for the animals, as everything they need has already been provided.  for this "order of things" we ought to give thanks.

also, we ought to contemplate these seemingly minute details and be grateful to the gods for them.  it is fascinating that from grass, we have milk; and from milk, we have cheese.  from plants we have clothes, gasoline, energy, modern transportation, communications, medicines and much, much more.  by our creative and innovative natures, we are able to create an abundance and provide for many.  for all of this, we ought to be grateful to the gods.  and just as many people have conceived of an idea and created some system, so too we ought to appreciate the many natural systems that have been created in the world; from the generation of food and animals and crops to the self-healing nature of oceans and land.

by today's modern standards and our very diverse social world, there is one odd observation Epictetus makes - that of facial hair and voices.  he observes that facial hair on men comes from god, so that people can distinguish between male and female.  nature has also given women a "gentler note into their voices" and are "deprived" of facial hair.  he concludes that it is "only right to preserve the signs that have been conferred on us by God" (v. 14, p. 38).

the conclusion and point of the entire passage is about expressing gratitude to the gods.  "what else should we do, both in public and in private, than sing hymns and praise the deity, and recount all the favours that he has conferred!  as we dig and plough and sow, oughtn't we to sing this hymn of praise to God: 'Great is God, for having provided us with these implements with which we till the earth; great is God for having given us hands, and the power to swallow, and a stomach, and enabling us to grow without being conscious of it, and to breathe while we're asleep.'  this is what we should sing on every occasion, and also the most solemn and divine hymn to thank God for having given us the power to understand these things, and to make methodical use of them" (v. 15-18, p. 38).

later he says, "if I were a nightingale, I would perform the work of a nightingale, and if I were a swan, that of a swan.  But as it is, I am a rational being, and I must sing the praise of God" (v. 20, p. 38).  this passage reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said,
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'
meditating about these things and then feeling and expressing gratitude about them, makes us healthier and happier.  a simple web search will return many results of studies showing these benefits (see this link).  this one particular article notes 31 benefits of gratitude.  big or small, go ahead and recognize and express gratitude for all things you observe.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.15 - What does philosophy promise?

Have you ever wondered why another person can do such a thing?

How can they stand to live in a dirty room?  Why won't they put the lid on the toothpaste or put the toilet seat down?

Why does this manager have to be such a mirco-manager?

Why is she always so grumpy and bitter?

Don't they know how annoying it is when they do that?

Perhaps you can think of your own example as to why someone else acts in a way that bothers you.  Maybe some of these actions are simply preferences.  But what about people who are not virtuous - people who are mean, spiteful, arrogant?  Shouldn't they know better?

Epictetus reminds us that: how other people behave and how they act, falls under the category of things not in our control.  "Philosophy doesn't promise to secure any external good for man, since it would then be embarking on something that lies outside its proper subject matter.  For just as wood is the material of the carpenter, and bronze that of the sculptor, the art of living has each individual's own life as its material" (v. 2, p. 36).

Epictetus also helps us remember that people are always on a developmental journey.  We can give them the benefit of the doubt.  We can also remind ourselves that it may take a lifetime for some people (including ourselves) to fully develop into a mature, caring, thoughtful human being.

He says, "Nothing great comes into being all at once.  If you tell me now, 'I want a fig,' I'll reply, 'That takes time.'  Let the fig tree first come into blossom and then bring forth its fruit, and then let the fruit grow to ripeness.  So if eve the fruit of a fig tree doesn't come to maturity all at once and in a single hour, would you seek to gather fruit of a human mind in such a short time and with such ease?" (v. 7-8, p. 37)

When it comes to my own kids and they do something that isn't so smart, I say to my wife, "this is NOT the final version of <name of our child>"

Monday, December 31, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.14 - That the divine watches over all of us

The first part of the chapter discusses how God supervises everything, from flowers to fruit.

Then comes this interesting part:
Why, did anyone ever tell you that you have powers to rival those of Zeus?  But all the same, he has assigned to each of us, as an overseer, his own personal guardian spirit, and has entrusted each of us to its protection, as a guardian that never sleeps and is never open to deception.  To what other guardian could he have entrusted us that would have been better and more vigilant that this?  And so, when you close your doors and create darkness within, remember never to say that you're on your own, for in fact, you're not alone, because God is within you, and your guardian spirit too.  And what need do they have of light to see what you're doing?
To this god you should swear allegiance, as soldiers do to Caesar.  For they, on receiving their wages, swear to put the safety of Caesar above all else; so will you, who have been judged worthy of so many gifts of such a valuable nature, be unwilling to swear your oath, and having sworn it, hold true to it?  And what is it that you must swear?  Never to disobey, never to find fault with, never to complain about, anything that has been granted to you by God and never be unwilling to do what you have to do, or to undergo what you're bound to undergo. 
 What I find interesting about this passage are the similarities between the Christian promise to 'obey God' ... such as a baptism ... and a reminder to keep that promise ... such as the sacrament.  And then there is the inner deity ... which sounds a lot like the Holy Ghost in some Christian theology.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.3 - how may everything be done in a way that is pleasing to the gods?

this is a short and to-the-point passage.

i'll summarize in a few 'tweet-like' sentences or phrases, each of which is an answer to the question proposed in the chapter heading.

1) eat as you ought: politely, with temperance and restraint

2) someone fails you? don't get angry or lose your temper

3) we are social beings; children of God/Zeus; therefore we are from the same family and ought to have a familial relationship with others

4) keep the proper perspective of things; this clump of dirt called earth is small in the vast universe

5) laws of men are "laws of the dead"; have greater "regard for the laws of the gods"

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.12 - on contentment

Even though the title of this chapter is called, "on contentment" or "satisfaction" in some translations, it is more about learning one of the most important lessons of life.

Epictetus starts off with describing various groups of people who believe or don't believe in the gods.  Inserted is a picture that represents these groups.  But it matters very little what kind of God or gods you believe in.  Maybe you don't even believe in a God or gods.  Fine.  What follows is relevant to those who believe or not.

"One who has achieved virtue and excellence, after having examined all these questions, submits his will to the one who governs the universe just as good citizens submit to the law of their city" (v. 7, p. 31).  And for those who have not attained virtue and excellence and are still learning he says they, "should approach his education with this aim in view: 'How may I follow the gods in everything, and how can I act in a way that is acceptable to the divine administration, and how may I become free?'  For someone is free if all that happens to him comes about in accordance with his choice and no one else is able to impede him" (v. 8-9, p. 31).  Whether you believe in the gods or not, the statement above gets to the heart of this matter: coming to accept your lot in life (being content or satisfied).  If you believe in the gods, then your philosophical education aims to teach you how to accept the gods' will for you.  If you don't believe in the gods, then philosophy would still aim to help you accept your fate - the complex turn of events that has brought you to this point in your life at this very instant.  He later expounds on this education: "true education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does" (v. 15, p. 31).

When your lot in life says you must be alone, what should your attitude be?  "You should call that peace and freedom, and view yourself as being like the gods."  And when you are in a large group of people, such as a party, you should think of yourself as a guest at "a feast or public festival" and learn to enjoy it (v. 21, p.32).

And when it comes to physical impairment, such as a bum or crippled leg, will you complain about your lot in life?  Epictetus seems to slap us in the face while saying, "Slave, you're going to cast reproaches against the universe?" (v. 24, p. 32).  I would recommend the reader learn about Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking.  Don't know who they are?  Look 'em up!  They had a lot worse lot in life than a bum leg.  What impediment do you have and how does it compare?

No matter our lot in life, we have complete control over one thing: our attitude toward our fate.  Indeed we must always keep in mind our position and minuteness relative to the universe, but also we must know we are equal with the gods because our our ability to choose our attitude and response.  As Epictetus put it, "the greatness of reason is measured not by height or length, but by the quality of its judgements" (v. 26, p. 33).

If you have eyesight and at the very moment a great work of art is presented to you, it would seem very odd and irrational to shut your eyes!  The same applies to our faculty for reason and choosing our attitude and reaction.  At the very time your capacity to reason and choice of attitude is needed, you should give "thanks to the gods for having enabled you to rise above everything that they have placed within your power" (v. 32, p. 33).

You do not have to choose a miserable life.  It is all in your head.  How long will it take you to finally learn this lesson.  If you are disappointed, it is very likely you've placed your desires in something out of your control.  Now, quickly realize you have the power to change your attitude; and soon, you will be able to thank the gods for any obstacles or adversities placed before you.

If you truly want to be satisfied in life, you must learn that you are not held accountable for your parents or your siblings or any impediment to your body or what happens to your possessions or even for death or for life itself.  The gods have made you responsible only for what is in your power - the proper use of impressions.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.11 - on family affection

A government official talked to Epictetus.  The topic of family came up, to which Epictetus asked him what he thought of family life.  The official responded, "miserable" and proceeded to tell Epictetus that he couldn't even bear to be in the presence of his daughter when she was ill, because it caused him distress to see her suffer.

From there Epictetus proceeded to instruct the man about the criteria for judging whether something is right or not and what the proper reaction of the man should have been when his daughter was ill.

The key point in all the dialogue is found at the end of the chapter.  "In a word, it is neither death, nor exile, nor distress, nor anything else of that kind, that causes us to do something or not to do it, but rather our judgments and opinions" (v. 33, p. 30).

Once we realize and accept this, from that moment on, "we'll ascribe the blame to nothing other than the judgement that led us to act as we did ... in like fashion, we will also ascribe what we do rightly to the same cause.  And no longer will we blame slave, or neighbor, or wife, or children as being responsible for any of our ills, since we're now convinced that unless we judge things to be of a certain nature, we don't carry out the actions that follow from that judgement.  Now when it comes to forming a judgment, or not forming one, we're the masters of that, and not things outside ourselves" (v. 35-37, p. 30).

If you want to blame someone for your misfortune or ills, look no further than your opinion and judgement of the matter.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.10 - to those who have set their hearts on advancement in Rome

In this little discourse, Epictetus tries to make a point about how vigorous we ought to pursue a life of philosophy.  "If we had devoted the same unsparing effort to our own work as the senators at Rome have in achieving what they have set their mind on, perhaps we too might have achieved something" (v. 1, p. 25).

He shares a story of an older man who passes through his town.  The man was returning from exile and going back to Rome.  The man denounced his old life (his life in Rome, prior to exile) and "declared that from now on, after he got back, he would concern himself with nothing other living the rest of his life in peace and calm" noting that he had very little time left to him in life.  Epictetus told the man he was bluffing and that as soon as the man got a "whiff or Rome" he would be right back where he started before his exile.  Sure enough, the man returned to Rome and soon was back at it.

The point?  It was not to denounce this man's life and choice when he returned to Rome, but rather to learn from his industry and desire.  Epictetus wants people to be busy and industrious about their lives, and he wants them to put just as much vigor in learning and practicing philosophy.

"To be sure, we old men, when we see the young at play, feel a desire on our part, too, to join them in play.  How much more, then, if I saw them wide awake and eager to join us in our endeavors, would I be eager to combine my efforts with theirs" (v. 13, p. 26).

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.9 - how, from the idea that we are akin to God, one may proceed to what follows

Do you remember that part from the movie The Matrix, where Morpheus is trying to free Neo from the prison of his mind?  If not, then you can find it on YouTube (link).  In a sense, Epictetus is trying to free the minds of his students when he addressed them in this chapter.  He tried back then, and still today, with his written words (thanks to Arrian), he is trying to free his students' minds and our minds.

We are bound in the chains of our body and possessions.  And for people who place happiness and contentment in the body and possessions, they remain imprisoned.  Epictetus took it upon himself to free the minds of his students.  He believed that humans are more than mere animals.  We are related to the divine and to reason.

The chapter starts off with the concept of a cosmopolitan.  We ought "to follow the example of Socrates" when he was asked where he was from.  He would reply, "I'm a citizen of the universe" (p. 22).  We too should take the cosmopolitan view.  If you really think about it, what does it mean to say you're an American or Argentinian?  What it means is that your corpse happened to be born in some corner of the world purely for the reason that your parents and grandparents were born there too.  Does it really make sense to claim allegiance to some plot of land, some neighborhood, some city block, some square mile, some city, some county, some state, some nation, some continent?

We ought to come to the understanding that "of all things, the greatest and most important, and most all-embracing, is this society in which human beings and God are associated together" that of the association of "rational beings" (p. 22).

Epictetus then proceeds to tell his students that his duty, as their teacher and master, is to instruct them how to "prevent [them] from having a mean view of [themselves], or from developing mean and ignoble ideas about [themselves]" (p. 23).  Furthermore, to instruct them of their kinship with the rational gods and to understand that we have "these chains attached to us - the body and its possessions" and that we ought to "cast all of this aside as being burdensome, distressing, and useless" (p. 23).

Having heard all this, some of Epictetus' students claim they can no longer bear to be chained to their body and wish to go back from whence they came and to demonstrate to others that they have no power over them (the students) ... implying they, the students, should simply commit suicide to show everyone how little they esteem the world and its possessions.

Epictetus wisely states, and reminds his students and us, that it is our lot, given by God, to stand at our post.  "You must wait for God, my friends.  When he gives the signal and sets you free from your service here, then you may depart to him.  But for the present, you must resign yourselves to remaining in this post in which he has stationed you.  It is short, in truth, the time of your stay in this world, and easy to bear for people who are of such a mind as you.  For what tyrant, or what thief, or what law-courts, can still inspire fear in those who no longer attach any importance to the body and it possessions?  So wait, and don't make your departure without proper reason" (v. 16-19, p. 24).

Later on, he notes Socrates' attitude on life and the view of his duty.  The judges in Socrates' time did not want him talking and corrupting the minds of the youth.  Socrates responded, "How absurd of you to think that if one of your generals had stationed me in a post, I should hold it, and defend it, preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than abandon it, but if God has stationed us in some position and laid down rules of conduct, we should abandon it!" (p. 24).  The idea, here, is that Socrates was telling them that it was his duty, from God, to pester the people and spur them to reason.  But since he made the people look foolish, they got upset and put him on trail.  Despite that, Socrates held firm and carried out the duty he felt was his.

We humans are more than "bodies, entrails and sexual organs!"  We can gain our own contentment and we do not have to rely on others or possessions.  "For it is indeed pointless and foolish to seek to get from another what one can get from oneself.  Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility of mind from myself, shall I seek to get a patch of land from you, or a bit of money, some public post? Heaven forbid!  I won't overlook my own resources in such a manner" (p. 25).  "No one suffers misfortune because of the actions of another" (v. 34, p. 25).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.6 - on providence

The title of this chapter is On providence.

The point of this discourse is to show us that we are not mere brute animals.  What makes us humans unique is our providence-given abilities to "act in a methodical and orderly fashion, and in accordance with our own specific nature and constitution" (verse 15, p. 15).

Humans have the ability to think; to ponder; to reason and to appreciate.  What beasts create museums or art or music or ballets?  What animals write philosophical treatises or carry out experiments?  This is what sets us apart from all other creations.  Epictetus says "God brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them.  It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do.  Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves.  Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature.  Take care, then, that you don't die without having contemplated these realities" (verses 20-22, p. 16).

And where do we go to appreciate God's works?  I think they are not only found all over the world in the most pristine places, but they are also found in the day to day interactions.  To be able to see reason in philosophy and to see God's creations create!

Then the deep, reflective question Epictetus poses to us: "Will you never come to a realization of who you are, what you have been born for and the purpose for which the gift of vision was made in our case?"

And what about when difficult and disagreeable things happen to us?  How are we supposed to appreciate God's works then?  He offers a really good analogy.  People will take a pilgrimage to various places.  Perhaps they travel to Olympia or Mecca or to Washington D.C.  Despite the heat, humidity, the crowds, the traffic, the weather, the noise, the shouting - they endure it all to pay homage to whatever they find valuable.  Is this not true too with life and finding God or Zeus in the world?  Do we not fight the difficulties every day, if only to capture a glimpse of greatness?

And furthermore, God has given us the ability to endure said difficulties.  "by balancing all these things off against the remarkable nature of the spectacle, I imagine that you're able to accept and endure them.  Come now, haven't you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about?  Haven't you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage?  And with endurance?  If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about anything that may come to pass?" (verses 28-29, p. 16)  And there is the rub - the key - the point of it all: to seek, to journey, to venture to find and then appreciate God's handiwork, while using the gifts God provides to enable us to get to that point.  To be able to seek, to use the inherent tools within us, to overcome and to achieve or at least to attempt to achieve.  That's all.

Without a lion to fight, there is no Hercules.  Without a lion, hydra, stag or boar, there is no Hercules.  Without the challenges, Hercules has no definition, no existence.  "What would have been the use of his arms and of all his strength, endurance, and nobility of mind if such circumstances and opportunities hadn't been there to rouse him and exercise him?" (verse 34, p. 17).

Now, take note!  In the seeking of trying to appreciate God's creations, you not only discover and appreciate those creations, but in the doing you discovered something within you: fortitude, grit, determination, reason, justice, discipline.  And you ought to appreciate this too!  In the seeking, you come to appreciate God's work without and within.  You may even exclaim, "Bring on me now, Zeus, whatever trouble you may wish, since I have the equipment that you granted me and such resources as will enable me to distinguish myself through whatever may happen" (verse 37, p. 17).

Or ... or, you do not embark on the journey to seek and appreciate God's works and you fail to not appreciate God's works and you fail to discover God's works within you.  In other words, "you cast blame on the gods" (verse 38).  You become impious.  In Christian vernacular, you break the first great commandment.

And one final point before the big question of the day.  God has given each of us the resources to deal with whatever difficulties come our way in our search to appreciate God's works.  God has given us the choice; God has given us freedom to choose.  There is no "constraint, compulsion" or "impediment" in this choice of ours - the choice of seeking to appreciate God's work or not.

And finally, to the big question of the day (maybe the question of a lifetime): what will you choose to do?

Will you use your God-given resources and God-given character of strength and resilience to seek out ways to appreciate God's works (both externally and within you)?  Or will you be wail, grieve, complain and groan?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.5 - Against the Academics

In the arena of ideas and debate and conversation, it is important to agree on definitions.  If two people cannot agree on definitions and language, the conversation will be futile.

Even more general than definitions are agreements on things that are obvious.  "If someone ... refuses to accept what is patently obvious, it is not easy to find arguments to use against him that could cause him to change his mind" (p. 13).

Worse still, are those who want to change meanings or words mid-conversation!

Epictetus rails against two types of obtuseness: that of the intellect and that of the moral compass.

If someone cannot intellectually carry on conversation, then you might as well begin talking to a brick.

And if someone lacks moral direction, Zeus help him and society!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.4 - on progress

What is real progress in terms of Stoicism?

Epictetus resoundingly explains.

Stoicism is about living according to Nature where virtue is the sole good.

He says, "Now, if virtue promises to enable us to achieve happiness, freedom from passion, and serenity, then progress towards virtue is surely also progress towards each of these states" (p. 11).

Therefore, if you want to make progress in becoming Stoic, you would not show a sage all the books you've read on the subject of Stoicism.  Rather, you would show them how you are living according to nature and focusing solely on virtue.  Epictetus likens this to an athlete.

"Come now, show me what progress you're making in this regard.  Suppose I were talking with an athlete and said, Show me your shoulders, and he were to reply, 'Look at my jumping-weights.'  That's quite enough of you and your weights!  What I want to see is what you've achieved by use of those jumping-weights" (p. 11).

What are the hallmarks of progress in Stoicism?

"So where is progress to be found?  If any of you turns away from external things to concentrate his efforts on his own power of choice, to cultivate it and perfect it, so as to bring it into harmony with nature, raising it up and rendering it free, unhindered, unobstructed, trustworthy, and self-respecting ... and if, when he gets up in the morning, he holds in mind what he has learned and keeps true to it ... this, then, is the person who is truly making progress; this is the person who hasn't traveled in vain! (p. 12).

"what is truly worthwhile is to study how to rid one's life of distress and lamentation, and cries of 'Ah, what sorrows are mine!' and 'Poor wretch that I am!', and of misfortune and adversity; and to learn what death, banishment, prison and hemlock really are, so that one may be able to say in prison like Socrates, 'My dear Crito, if it pleases the gods that this should come about, so be it!'" (p. 12)

And when you read tragic books, the purpose should be to learn "the sufferings of men who have attached high value to external things." (p. 13)

Epictetus makes that point that we ought to praise God, "who discovered, and brought to light and communicated to all, the truth that enables us not merely to keep alive, but to live a good life" and for whom we ought to thank "for this benefaction" and for "such a wonderful fruit in the human mind" (p. 13).

In summary, we ought to:

Renounce externals (desiring something that is out of your control, or avoiding something painful that is out of your control).

Focus on our character; cultivate it, perfect it.

Make our character honest, trustworthy, free.

Expunge from our life the following: sighs, sorrow, grief, disappointment and exclamations like, "poor me!"

Learn what death is; face it; realize it is your fate.

Be grateful to God or the Gods for having given us the ability to live and live well.

If you can do these things, then you are showing progress in becoming Stoic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.3 - the benefit of knowing we are children of God

Marcus Aurelius often wrote about "providence or atoms."  This was in reference to the management of the universe and world.  Is the world governed by God or Gods?  Or is it a random interaction of atoms bouncing off each other endlessly leading to constant chaos?

There are several parts of Meditations that mentions this choice.  As you read them, you will notice how he leans towards organization, order, a system or machine.

Book 4.2
Revisit the alternatives providence or atoms - and the many indications that the universe is a kind of community. But will matters of the flesh still have their hold on you? Consider that the mind, once it has abstracted itself and come to know its own defining power, has no contact with the movement of the bodily spirit.

Book 6.10
Either a stew, an intricate web, and dispersal into atoms: or unity, order, and providence. Now if the former, why do I even wish to spend my time in a world compounded at random and in like confusion? Why have any concern other than somehow, some time, to become 'earth unto earth'? And why actually am I troubled? Dispersal will come on me, whatever I do. But if the latter is true, I revere it, I stand firm, I take courage in that which directs all.

Book 6.24
Alexander of Macedon and his muleteer were levelled in death: either they were taken up into the same generative principles of the universe, or they were equally dispersed into atoms.  Reflect on how many separate events, both bodily and mental, are taking place in each one of us in the same tiny fragment of time: and then you will not be surprised if many more events, indeed all that comes to pass, subsist together in the one and the whole, which we call the Universe.

Book 7.32
On death. Either dispersal, if we are atoms: or, if we are a unity, extinction or a change of home.

Book 7.50
Again:  'What is born of earth goes back to earth: but the growth from heavenly seed returns whence it came, to heaven.'  Or else this: a dissolution of the nexus of atoms, and senseless molecules likewise dispersed.

Book 8.28
The recurrent cycles of the universe are the same, up and down, from eternity to eternity. And either the mind of the Whole has a specific impulse for each individual case - if so, you should welcome the result - or it had a single original impulse, from which all else follows in consequence: and why should you be anxious about that? The Whole is either a god - then all is well: or if purposeless - some sort of random arrangement of atoms or molecules - you should not be without purpose yourself. 

Book 9.39
Either all things flow from one intelligent source and supervene as in one coordinated body, so the part should not complain at what happens in the interest of the whole - or all is atoms, and nothing more than present stew and future dispersal. Why then are you troubled? Say to your directing mind: 'Are you dead, are you decayed, have you turned into an animal, are you pretending, are you herding with the rest and sharing their feed?'

Book 10.6
Whether atoms or a natural order, the first premise must be that I am part of the Whole which is governed by nature: the second, that I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts. With these premises in mind, in so far as I am a part I shall not resent anything assigned by the Whole. Nothing which benefits the Whole can be harmful to the part, and the Whole contains nothing which is not to its benefit. All organic natures have this in common, but the nature of the universe has this additional attribute, that no external cause can force it to create anything harmful to itself.

So remembering that I am part of a Whole so constituted will leave me happy with all that happens to me. And in so far as I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts, I shall do nothing unsocial, but rather look to the good of my kin and have every impulse directed to the common benefit and diverted from its opposite. All this in operation guarantees that life will flow well, just as you would judge a citizen's life in proper flow when he moves on through acts which benefit his fellow citizens, and welcomes all that his city assigns him.

We too are faced with this decision about how to view this Universe and life.  Whether you talk to an atheist or a theist, both will share what they think is evidence that supports their cause.  In a debate, it might be a tie.  As an impartial observer, in a sense, we get to choose what we want to believe: Providence or Atoms.  And when we arrive at this crossroads, we should do well to remember what Epictetus says: "If only one could be properly convinced of this truth, that we're all first and foremost children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself."

When I read this, it seems that Epictetus is saying that if you view yourself in high regard (a child of God), then your attitude about yourself and even the world, pivots to the positive.

image source: https://www.instagram.com/jpeg_v1/
Later he says, "these two elements have been mixed together in us from our conception, the body, which we have in common with animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share with the gods, some of us incline towards the kinship that is wretched and mortal, and only a few of us towards that which is divine and blessed.  Now since everyone, whoever he may be, is bound to deal with each matter in accordance with the belief that he holds about it, those few who think they were born for fidelity, for self-respect, and for the sound use of impressions will never harbour any mean or ignoable thought about themselves, whereas the majority if people will do exactly the opposite."

On which side do you tilt?  Are humans just high-functioning animals?  Or are they more noble?

For me personally, believing in a God or Gods or Providence and thinking the Universe is ordered, I am more willing to accept my fate in all this; and that keeps me on the positive side of the scale.  It also helps me give others the benefit of the doubt.  If I tend to think that it is all chaos and random atoms, I might be willing to throw my hands up in the air in ambivalence and may act coldly towards other people and their challenges.  But if I believe there is some order, I might be more willing order my life and help instill order and harmony in others.

Further Reading:

Stoicism: Providence or Atoms? Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

'Providence or Atoms? Providence!'