Friday, July 27, 2018

Exiled from the Top

I work for a big corporation.  Like most businesses, ours has an employee feedback process.  Every year, all employees are ranked.  Each employee's ranking outcome influences pay increases, promotions and stock options.

The top 10% are the elite of the elite.  That group is highly competitive and according to my theory, in order to get into that group, it all comes down to who you know more than what you know or do.

The next group is the 80-89 percenters.  These are your top performers, your leaders - the people who move the needle.  Everyone strives to get into this group.  The rewards are great: healthy pay increases, frequent pay increases, stock options, the cream of the assignments.  To be in this group is a big deal for a lot of people.

Once you fall below 80, you enter the large "center mass" or the large center of a bell curve.  An employee in the 70-79 range falls in the thankless place of doing all the work, having high expectations placed on them, but no rewards, other than the hope of breaking into the 80s.

Below 70 are your good to average workers.

Once you get into the 30 and below range, you are on the edge; you are always at risk of being placed on the proverbial chopping block.  And if you fall in the bottom 10%, then it's only a matter of time before you are laid off.

For my part, I hovered in the upper 60s and 70s for several years.  Then I finally broke into the upper echelon and stayed there for several more years.

Then came the mandate from upper management that the rank group was too top-heavy.  They needed to knock a few people down.  I have seen it happen several times before - a great performer is essentially knocked down the list for no other reason than management said so.  It is a highly demotivating experience to work and work and work, only to be kicked in the gut.

This year, the pressure was exceptional.  And I wondered if this would be the year it happened to me.  Back in April, I wrote about what "exile" would look like in corporate America.  Instead of being fired from your job, you are sent to the dregs of the organization.  I referenced what happened to Steve Jobs at one point in his career and how this is a form of modern-day exile.  Then I thought about what exile would be like in my specific situation.  For me, it would be exile from the top 20%.

That happened this week.

The actual decision to kick me out of the top quin-tile was done "in committee."  In other words, my direct manager gave me a positive ranking when they submitted the results.  As ranking was rolled up into the larger organization, the group was not hitting its mandated target of a lower average rank group and so some manager or group of managers had to decide who would be knocked down.

Having sat in some ranking discussion meetings, I know it is a game of inches.  The slightest mis-step or the smallest missed opportunity will determine if you're a 79 or an 80.  And although management would never say it, a person's rank outcome could be boiled down to how they dressed, or to one bad day at the office or to a factors outside a person's control.  It all comes down to a gut feel or worse - because one manager likes one employee more than another.

Thank Zeus for Stoicism.

It was not that big of a deal for me when I received the news.  My new manager delivered the news to me and they were surprised at the result.  In my situation, I started a new assignment right around ranking time, so my old manager who actually ranked me, did not deliver the news to me.  Which brings up another explanation: sometimes groups will "scalp" rank points from people leaving the group.  It appears some of my rank points were "scalped" so they could keep another employee, who remained in the group, from going down in rank.

Like I said, not a big deal for me - I had been preparing for this day.  The initial news did cause me to feel sour for about 10 minutes - it took a bit of time for the news to sink in.  But I quickly gathered my wits and mentally began to execute my "plan B."

Monetarily speaking, I will take a hit.  This may set me back a year or two from retirement, but it is not the end of the world for me.  Thankfully my current manager recognizes and appreciates my situation and they are very supportive of helping me "get back to the top."

My wife took the news way harder than I did.  She has been used to the "good news", which I had been able to deliver to her for almost 10 consecutive years.  And now that I think about it a bit more, this is my first time I've actually gone down in ranking in my entire career.  About 10 years ago, I just held my rank, but didn't actually go down.  So, this is the first time I've ever had to deal with the news of having my rank tank so far.

It's appropriate, now, to be reminded of the archer analogy.  John Sellars does a great job explaining this concept in his article entitled Stoicism and the Art of Archery.  In his article, he sites Cicero, who said, "Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”

My goal is to be constant; to not be bummed out about "unfortunate" events and to not be giddy about "fortunate" events.  Rather, I want to be constant in my pursuit of virtue and minimization of vice.  I don't know that I wholly succeeded at it with this week's news.  But as strange as it sounds, I was grateful for being exiled from the top as it gave me an opportunity to really practice Stoicism.  Now, and always, I must focus on what is in my control and keep a steady attitude.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 4 Chapter 4 - the world is my trainer

Allen Iverson, in one of the most memorable press conferences, made a very excellent point.  One that Epictetus made hundreds of years earlier.

True, Iverson and the 76ers were just defeated by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and true, it was a huge letdown for fans after the prior year, when Philadelphia made it to the NBA championship.  And in this context, the blaming fingers were out and wagging.  Instead of making the focus on the game, reporters and media chose to make it about practice.  Iverson's reaction, was appropriate.  Especially when you know the greater context of the situation.

Life (and the above example) is about the end result - the game; it's not entirely about practice.  Indeed, both are important, but what is more important is the game - the actual results.

So, who can blame Allen Iverson for berating reporters about choosing to focus on practice instead of the actual game?

Epictetus made a similar point: "life is composed of things other than books.  It is as if an athlete, on entering the stadium, were to complain that he's not out exercising.  This was the goal of your exercise, of your weights, your practice ring and training partners.  You want them now that the time to exploit them has arrived?"  In other words, the real athlete is all about the game - the result.  Practice, although important, is not actually the goal.

So, go ahead, read your books, talk about Stoicism on the Internet or with your friends and neighbors.  But if that is all you do, you've failed.  You have got to show something for all that reading!

And if you successfully apply what Epictetus taught, you will demonstrate, in the real world, that to be happy, you will be "unflappable" and "equal to every occasion".  You will demonstrate that you won't complain about events outside your control.  But rather, you will embrace them and view them as either additional practice or an actual test of what you've learned.

"If events ordain that you spend time either alone or with just a few people, look upon it as tranquility and play along with it for the duration.  Talk to yourself, train your thoughts and shape your preconceptions.  If, on the contrary, you happen upon a crowd, call it a sporting event, a festival or celebration, and try to keep holiday with the people." (verse 26-27)  To put this advice succinctly, go with the flow.  You've built your inner citadel!  Remember, it goes with you no matter where you go.

And in these situations, whether you're supposed to be alone or with a crowd, "It's high time you were tested.  Show us what you've learned, show us how well you've trained."

"There is one road to peace and happiness (keep the thought near by morning, noon and night); renunciation of externals; regarding nothing as your own; handing over everything to fortune and the deity."

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 4 Chapter 1 - FREEDOM!

Here in the United States, we are gearing up for the celebration of our nation's independence from England.  One of the well-know revolutionary cries comes from Patrick Henry, who passionately argued, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

The American revolutionaries were pursuing governmental freedom and justly achieved their cause.  Epictetus argues there is a higher, more difficult freedom to attain.  And in this post-modern America in 2018, when so many desires are easily and effortlessly obtained, the freedom Epictetus describes is much more difficult to achieve.  While our Founding Fathers gave us freedom from tyranny, we are left with the task of throwing off the shackles of desire and ease.

I suggest you read the entire chapter (here if you don't have a copy).  For my own benefit (and yours), I have shared the more impactful parts of the chapter below (from the Robert Dobbin's translation).

"Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid."

So far, so good!  I mean, who doesn't want that?  But there is much more to it!

Epictetus gives some examples of real slavery and real freedom.

"'A pretty woman has made me a perfect slave, something not even my fiercest enemies could accomplish.'"  Poor guy, to be enslaved by a whore, and a cheap one at that!  What right do you still have to call yourself free?"  This passage is in reference to a mighty military leader, whose enemies cannot conquer him, but rather, he is conquered by a cheap prostitute.  "Until he succeeds in suppressing his lust and anxiety, how is he really free?"

The point?  You are closer to true freedom if you have no desires for sex or women.  I know that may be difficult for some to stomach ("how can you live without sex?!").  But if true freedom is your goal, then killing this desire is a must.  Or more to the point: do you control your sexual urges or do they control you?  And how do you know; how can you really find out if you're in control or if your urges are controlling you?  Chew on that for a long while.

"Diogenes says somewhere that one way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die.  To the Persian king he wrote, 'You can no more make slaves of the Athenians than you can make slaves of fish of the sea.'  'Why?  Can't Athenians be captured?' 'Capture them and straight away they'll give you the slip and be gone, like fish, which die directly [when] they are caught and taken aboard.  And if the Athenians die when taken captive, what good in the end is all your military might?'  There's the word of a free man who has given the subject of freedom considerable thought and, sure enough, discovered the real meaning of the word.  If you continue to look for it in the wrong place, however, don't be surprised if you never find it."

We see that the American revolutionary sentiment is radically similar to fish and Athenians.  Freedom is so precious, death is the only alternative.  There is another example of a revolutionary who wanted freedom.  Next April will be the 100th anniversary of his assassination.  Emiliano Zapata relentlessly pursued his dream of freedom and land, rallying Mexican peasants: "Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas [I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees]"

Returning to Epictetus; beginning in verse 33, he describes the life of a slave and the desire for freedom.  When granted his freedom, the slave leaps from the boiling water of servitude and into the frying pan of other "masters" such as making a living, paying taxes, working at a marriage, giving military service, and eventually into living in servitude again - this time as a senator in the government.  The point of this example is that this slave thinks he can find happiness in externals.  And so he spends time, effort and anxiety trying to be free of slavery, then of making a living, then of raising a family, then of military service and finally governmental service ... and he never is content; never gets what he desires.

Indeed, "we all want ... to live in peace, to be happy, to do as we like and never be foiled or forced to act against our wishes."  And we attain that peace, not by seeking freedom in externals, but by focusing on things that are in our absolute control.  And this can be proven: Viktor Frankl found meaning in life despite the most unbearable circumstances; and we can all think of uber-rich celebrities, tycoons and politicians, who despite having everything are still malcontent.  These malcontents are true slaves.

"If you hear someone say 'Master' sincerely and with feeling, call him a slave no matter if twelve bodyguards march ahead of him.  Or if you hear, 'God, the things I put up with!' call the person a slave.  If you just see him disconsolate, angry or out of sorts, call him a slave - albeit a slave in a purple toga.  Even if he does none of these things, don't call him free just yet, acquaint yourself with his judgments, in case they show any sign of constraint, disappointment or disaffection. ... We have masters in the form of circumstances, which are legion.  And anyone who controls any one of them controls us as well."

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, "who is free then?  The way Epictetus describes things, makes it sound like we are all slaves!"  Now we are ready to learn!

Epictetus asks, "What is it then that renders a person free and independent? ... is their nothing that is under our control, is everything under our control - or are there some things we control, and others we don't?"  This is how we have to view everything in our life!  What is under our absolute control and what is not.  Then and only then will we begin to understand where true freedom lies.

Do you have power over your body to perform perfectly anytime you want?  NO

Can you have as much land as you want? NO

Can you have as many clothes, houses, horses, cars, family, friends as you want?  NO

It sounds like we don't have control over anything.  What do we have control over?

"Can anyone make you assent to a false proposition? ... Can anyone force you to choose something to which you're opposed?"  Well, maybe - if they threaten you with death or prison.  Yes - but what if "you despise [it doesn't bother you; you're indifferent to] death and imprisonment - are you still in that person's thrall?"  No.  Therefore, if you can control your attitude about death and prison, you can control your attitude about anything!

The point: "whatever you cannot produce or preserve at will lies outside your range.  Don't let your hands go near it, much less your desire.  Otherwise you've consigned yourself to slavery and submitted your neck to the yoke, as you do whenever you prize something not yours to command, or grow attached to something like health that's contingent on God's will and variable, unstable, unpredictable and unreliable by nature."

Practice and be prepared to distinguish everything into two categories:
1) what belongs to you, what you can control
2) what does not belong to you, what you cannot control

After time, and much practice, you will will have "a fixed and measured desire for the goods of the soul, since they are within your power and accessible.  You [will] disdain external good, so that no opening exists for that irrational, intemperate and impulsive form of desire.  With such an attitude toward things, you can no longer be intimidated by anyone."

Marcus Aurelius spoke of a "fortress" when speaking of our will and attitude.  He said, "Remember that your directing mind becomes invincible when it withdraws into its own self-sufficiency, not doing anything it does not wish to do, even if its position is unreasonable. How much more, then, when the judgement it forms is reasoned and deliberate? That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress" (see Meditations Book 8.48).  Epictetus draws a similar comparison and how that fortress is not demolished from the outside, but rather from the inside.  "We can capture the physical fortress, the one in the city, but our judgement about illness, or about attractive women, remain to be dislodged from the fortress inside us, together with the tyrants whom we host every day, though their identities change over time.  It's here that we need to start attacking the fortress and driving the tyrants out.  Surrender the body and its members, physical faculties, property, reputation, office, honours, children, siblings - repudiate all [of] them."

Epictetus more succinctly describes this process: "I submitted my will to God.  He wants me to be sick - well, then, so do I.  He wants me to choose something.  Then I choose it.  He wants me to desire something, I desire it.  He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn't want me to get it, and I concur.  Thus I even assent to death and torture.  No no one can make me, or keep me, from acting in line with my inclination, any more than they can similarly manipulate God."

He continues with this line of reasoning and how God sent us to earth "to witness his design and share for a short time in his feast and celebration.  So why not enjoy the feast and pageant while it's given you to do so; then, when he ushers you out, go with thanks and reverence for what you were privileged for a time to see and hear."  And when it is over, "make room for other people, it's their turn to be born, just as you were born, and once born they need a place to live, along with the other necessities of life."

But while you are here, "if the conditions don't suit you, leave.  [God] wants people keen to participate in the dance and revels - people, that is, who would sooner applaud and favour the festival with their praise and acclamation.  As for those who are grumpy and dour, he won't be sad to seem them excluded.  Even when they are invited, they don't act as if they are on holiday, or play an appropriate part; instead they whine, they curse their fate, their luck and their company.  They don't appreciate what they have, including moral resources given to them for the appropriate purpose - generosity of spirit, high-mindedness, courage and that very freedom we are now exploring."

And as for the externals God has given us (our body, and possessions, etc) use them!  But "don't get attached to them."  And to succeed in not getting attached to them, Epictetus says that we should reflect morning and night that these externals are dispensable.  "Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost - things such as a jug or a glass - and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; your siblings and your wife.  Look on every side and mentally discard them."

And then, if God or fate calls upon you to lose all these things, and you are tortured, flogged, jailed or beheaded, then they "may be majestic in suffering ... and come through a better, more fortunate person; while the one who really comes to harm, who suffers the most and the most pitifully, is the person who is transformed from human being to wolf, snake or hornet."

"The unhindered person is free ... the person who renounces externals cannot be hindered.  ... This is the road that leads to liberty, the only road that delivers us from slavery."

Diogenes was the perfect example of a person renouncing externals.  "Diogenes - he was free.  He had eliminated any means to capture him, there was no opening to attack or seize him in order to make him a slave.  Everything he owned was disposable, and only temporarily attached."

"His true parents - the gods ... his real country, the world at large."

Socrates is another excellent example of a man focused on the right things.  We can wave our hands and say Diogenes had it easy - he had no wife or children to care for.  Fair enough - so lets look at Socrates, "who had both wife and children, but as if they were on loan."  He was drafted to serve in the military.  He served and "fought without regard for his life."  When "ordered by the tyrants to arrest Leon, he did not give a thought to obeying, because he thought the act unlawful, even knowing there was a chance he might die if he refused.  He didn't care; it was not his skin he wanted to save, but the man of honour and integrity.  These things are not open to compromise or negotiation."

"He reflected on the right thing to do, with no thought or regard for anything else.  In his own words, he didn't want to save his body, he wanted to preserve the element that grows and thrives with every act of justice, the element that is diminished and dies by injustice."

While many of us may have rationalized, when confronted with death, that if our life were spared, we would be able to help many people, but that if we are dead, we are of no use to anyone.  But if we look to Socrates, we know "long after his death, the memory of what he did and said benefits humanity as much as or more than ever."

Epictetus pleads to us to "study this - these principles, these arguments - and contemplate these models of behaviour, if you want to be free.  Don't be surprised if so great a goal costs you many a sacrifice.  For love of what they considered freedom men have hanged themselves, have thrown themselves over cliffs - and whole cities have occasionally been destroyed.  For true, inviolable, unassailable freedom, yield to God when he asks for something back that he earlier gave you.  Prepare yourself, as Plato says, not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging - and the loss of everything not belonging to you.  You will be a slave among slaves otherwise."

"Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it."

"Work day and night to attain a liberated frame of mind."

Monday, June 11, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 22 - the virtues of Diogenes the Cynic

Who doesn't love a good dog!  Especially an under-dog!  The greatest dog of all time was Diogenes.

Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, shocked people in the ancient world.  In today's society, he would be considered a homeless, loathed bum who would be waved off as mentally unstable or drug-addicted.  To give you a taste for Diogenes ...

"Diogenes was once invited to dinner by a wealthy man. During the evening, one of the guests became so outraged by Diogenes’ general behavior that he began to throw bones at him, calling him a “dog.” Whereupon Diogenes got  up, went to the guest, cocked up his leg and urinated on him."(source)

He lived in a barrel.

He pleasured himself in public.

He begged for food

He only wore a tunic.

And he was called a dog.  The name Cynic comes from ancient Greece, meaning 'dog-like'.


That is the burning question and Epictetus reveals the answer.  Epictetus admired Diogenes and often used Diogenes' as a good example of Stoic behavior.

Epictetus was quick to point out that wearing nothing but a tunic, sleeping on the ground, not shaving, begging - all these behaviors - do not make one a Cynic.  It goes deeper.

Epictetus begins to explain why Diogenes acted the way he did; and in so doing, he teaches us Stoicism too.

"You have to set a different example with your behavior.  No more blaming God or man. Suspend desire completely, train aversion only on things under your control. Banish anger, rage, jealousy and pity. Be indifferent to women, fame, boys and tempting foods.  Other people indulge in these things protected by walls or the gloom of night. They have many ways of hiding; they can lock the gate and station someone outside their chamber: ‘If anyone comes, tell them, “The master’s out,” or, “He’s occupied.”’  The Cynic, in contrast, only has his honour to protect him. Without it he will be exposed to shame – naked, and out of doors. Honour is his house, his gate, his guards, his cloak of darkness." (see verse 12-15)

Whereas some will hide behind walls to indulge in pleasure, Diogenes, other the other hand, intends to put as little between him and the rest of the world.  This is extreme transparency.  There is no shame, fear, anxiety.  He bares (and bears) all.  The Cynic man is "the man of the open air."  The only medium, in the Cynic's art, is his mind - nothing else.  The start of the Cynic's duty is to train the mind; and so it is with Stoicism too.

Observers may scoff at the idea of possessing as little as possible and wonder how one can be content with nothing.  Diogenes would reply, "Look at me, I have no home, no city, no property, no slave; I sleep on the ground; I haven't a wife or children, no officer's quarters - just earth and sky, and one lousy cloak.  What more do I need?  I am cheerful, I am tranquil and I am free.  You've never seen me fail to get what I want, or get what I try to avoid.  I have never been angry with God or another human being; I've never yelled at anyone.  Have you ever seen me with a sad expression?  The people before whom you bow and tremble - when I meet them, I treat them as if they were slaves.  In fact, whenever they see me, they all without exception think that they are in the presence of their lord and master."  (verses 45-49)

Diogenes contrasted with those who sought contentment and happiness in food, women, possessions or fame.  He further contrasted with people who would be upset and angry when they did not get what they wished or when things did not go their way.

While others sought the thrills of watching athletes compete, Diogenes, who was ill with fever, would yell at them as they passed, "Idiots, where are you going in such a hurry?  You are going a great distance to see those damned athletes complete; why not stop a bit to see a man do combat with illness?" (verse 59).

Later on, Epictetus describes how Diogenes wasn't some ordinary bum; but rather a person with a fit body and an attitude of a gentleman: "the Cynic's body should be in good shape, since his philosophy will not carry as much conviction coming from someone pale and sickly.  He not only needs to show his qualities of soul in order to convince ordinary people that it is possible to be a gentleman without the material goods they usually admire, he also has to prove, with his physique, that his simple, frugal life outdoors is wholesome ... his very ruggedness should be a clean and pleasant kind." (verses 86-89)

Equal to his fit body, should be his wits and sharpness, "otherwise he's just a boring windbag" (verse 90).

Lastly, his endurance to physical and verbal abuse mush be unmatched.  Epictetus uses the example of a block of wood, describing someone who can endure "insults or hits" (verse 100); whereas Marcus Aurelius uses the "rocky headland" as an example of unwavering endurance to brutality (see Meditations Book 4 Chapter 49).

In summary, Epictetus attempted to describe, to his students, the Herculean  effort it would require to embrace the Cynic life.  He even begged them to "take some time to judge [their] aptitude" for becoming a Cynic.  It is not for the faint in heart, rather, it is all out war.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 20 - every circumstance is an opportunity

This is Epictetus' way of saying "the obstacle is the way."

It is possible to benefit from every circumstance, "even abuse and slander."

"A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner - and my accuser is my sparing partner.  He trains me in patience, civility and even temper."

"... a doctor who puts me in a headlock and sets a dislocated pelvis or shoulder - he benefits me, however painful the procedure.  So too does a trainer when he commands me to 'lift the weight with both your hands' - and the heavier it is, the greater the benefit to me."

"I have a bad neighbor - bad that is, for himself.  For me, though, he is good: he exercises my powers of fairness and sociability.  A bad father, likewise, is bad for himself, but for me represents a blessing.  The wand of Hermes promises that 'whatever you touch will turn to gold'.  For my part, I can say, 'bring what challenge you please and I will turn it to good account: bring illness, death, poverty, slander, a judgement of death: they will all be converted to advantage by my wand of Hermes.'"

Be sure to check this post out: and watch the video of Johnny Cash's song Sue.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 5 - some notes on "attitude"

One of Epictetus' students is ill and wants to go home; Epictetus teaches him a lesson on attitude.

While some want to die in the act of enjoying something they love (i.e. racing, travelling, etc), Epictetus wants to die in the act of improving his character.

He wants to be:
without complaint

If he falls ill, he will do so without complaining.

He will always have a smile on his face; ready to accept any fate assigned to him.

Socrates said, "One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement." (verse 14)

It is no small feat to "never accuse anyone, God or man, never to blame anyone, and to have the same countenance going in or out." (verse 16)

"Which of you has the same attitude?  If you did, you would gladly put up with illness, hunger and death." (verse 18)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 1 - what is good?

Artists work with paint; sculptors with marble - the good man works with his mind.

"The raw material of the good man is his mind - his goal being to respond to impressions the way nature intended" (verse 1).

Furthermore, "the soul will never reject a clear impression of good" and "the good is preferred over every human association."

"If we locate the good in soundness of character, then it becomes good to maintain [relationships we have with people]" (verse 8).

Although your father or brother may waste your inheritance, you must ask if they will take their "greater share of honest, loyalty, and brotherly love."  It's absurd to think they can take more of these things!  Therein lies the answer to "what is good?"  Virtue is the sole good!  And you can get this from yourself!  You don't have to compete with others for it.  You don't have to wait on it; you don't have to pay for it - rather, you simply have to make it your 'guiding star' - the center of your world-view and paradigm.  Your "currency" is virtue it's what makes you tick.

Others' currency can be found by 'flashing' it in front of them.  If he is guided by money, then he can be paid off with coins.  If it is food, then delicious food.  It is the god he worships.

"Here is the primary means of training yourself: as soon as you leave in the morning, subject whatever you see or hear to close study.  Then formulate answers as if they were posing questions.  Today what did you see - some beautiful woman or handsome man?  Test them by your rule - does their beauty have any bearing on your character?  If not, forget them.  What else did you see?  Someone mourning for the death of a child?  Apply your rule.  Death too is indifferent, so dismiss it from your mind.  A consul crossed your path; apply your rule.  What category of thing is a consulship - a good of the mind or one of matter?  If it's the latter, then out with it, it failed our test.  It is nothing to you, reject it.  Now, if we continued to practice this discipline every day from morning to night, we would see some results, by God" (verses 14-16).

We must watch for, what Epictetus calls, "insidious opinions" (verse 18).  They are insidious because they erode the most sovereign and absolute philosophical concepts: virtue is the sole good and it can be found from within by the working of our own will.

Some examples of insidious opinions: you see a person mourning and you think "she's crushed."  Rather think, it is nothing to me - it's indifferent and this person could be content if they did not desire to find happiness in others.  You see a rich man or woman and you think "There goes one lucky man!"  Rather think, money does not make one happy nor lucky!  You see a poor beggar and you think "poor guy, he doesn't even have money enough for food."  Rather think, this beggar, despite his predicament, could find contentment.  Indeed, this is hard for some to accept or live by.  But as long as people, like these, try to find contentment in things that lie outside themselves (externals), they will be frustrated and experience fear and anxiety.

He finishes the chapter with an allegory.  "The soul is like a bowl of water, with the soul's impressions like the rays of light that strike the water.  Now, if the water is disturbed, the light appears to be disturbed together with it - though of course it is not.  So when someone loses consciousness, it is not the person's knowledge and virtues that are impaired, it is the breath that contains them.  Once the breath returns to normal, knowledge and the virtues are restored to normal also."

Monday, May 21, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 23 - the greatest gift

Indeed, we have been given many gifts: speech, writing, sight, hearing.  We should not "be ungrateful for these gifts, but at the same time, [we should not] forget that there are others superior to them" (verse 5).  The greatest gift is "the faculty of using impressions" (verse 7).  This gift is also known as "the will" - our ability to choose and perceive and form opinions.

"Only the will is discerning enough to look after [the other gifts], in proportion to value, and supervise itself at the same time" (verse 11).  We may be gifted in speech and writing, but choosing how to employ those gifts - that is a better, even the best gift.  Learning to use the will in the best way, is the ultimate goal or objective.

Now, this does not mean we should abandon our other gifts.  We must take great care of our other faculties, but not at the risk of abandoning our best gift.  "Simply put - ignore it (the will) and unhappiness results, give it your attention and your happiness is assured" (verse 29).

And learning how to use the will is the ultimate objective.  "Your objective, my friend, was to see to it that you make natural use of whatever impressions come your way; that you do not fail in your desires, or have experiences you don't want; that you never be unfortunate or unhappy, but free, unrestricted and unrestrained; in sympathy with God's rule, which you submit cheerfully; at odds with no one, no one's accuser; able in all sincerity to speak Cleanthes' line: 'lead me, Zeus, lead me, Destiny.' (verse 42)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 22 - real friendship and love

Epictetus describes what ails so many of us - why we are not wise.  The reason: "you are frequently dazed or disturbed by certain sense impressions whose appearance of truth gets the better of you.  Sometimes you think that some things are good, then you consider the same things bad, and later you decide that they're indifferent.  In other words, you're subject to sorrow, fear, jealousy, anger and inconsistency" (verse 6).

People can have similar views of their friends or family.  One minute they may be kind and loving, the next moment there may be raging jealousy and hate.  How can this be true friendship and love?  It can't, because the people involved have placed their self-interest in externals.  History and literature are scattered with examples of people acting badly towards each other because of self-interest in externals.

HOWEVER, "if you identify self-interest with piety, honesty, country, parents, and friends, then you are all secure" (verse 18).  "Only if [you] identify with [your] will can [you] be someone's friend - or son, or father - in the true sense, because only then will [your] self-interest be served by remaining loyal, honest, patient, tolerant and supportive, and by maintaining [your] social relations" (verse 20).

The simple test of true friendship: "ask whether they put their self-interest in externals or moral choice" (verse 26).

"If any of you are serious about being a friend, rid yourself of such attitudes, condemn them and drive them out of your mind" (verse 34).  Examples of "such attitudes" are: placing your happiness and self-interest in material things and externals - putting health, wealth, beauty, status, etc. above and before virtue.

Epictetus reminds us to be gentle with those who still may hold externals above virtue.  "Never be harsh, remember Plato's dictum: 'Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will'" (verse 36).  This attitude and approach is a very forgiving (also a virtue) outlook on life and people.  It gives others the benefit of the doubt and assumes the best of others as a default.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 19 - show me

Epictetus calls out he fake philosophers - the ones who read books and then quote them, but don't actually demonstrate they've thought about and applied what they've read.

The real test of a Stoic is in the acts.

"Let's see how you handle a storm while on board ship.  Do you still maintain these distractions when the sails are flapping madly and you're crying out to heaven?" (verse 15)

"If the emperor summons you to answer a charge, do you remember these same distractions when you show up pale and shaking?" (verse 17)

For a true Stoic, virtue is the sole good.  If you are a hypocrite, or show cowardice or pretend to be Stoic but are not, you are "dressed up in borrowed colors." (verse 19)

A real Stoic is "someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation." (verse 24)

The soul of a real Stoic is "willing to work with, and never criticize[s], either God or a fellow human being."  A real Stoic is "one who will never fail, or have experiences he does not want; who will never give into anger, jealousy or desire[s] to dominate others."  A real Stoic is "someone set on becoming a god rather than a man."  (verses 26-27)

Epictetus desired to make proof out of his students that "nothing ... is within our power except [the correct use of] impressions." (verse 32)

Showing ... being ... demonstrating ... is Stoic; discussing to learn is good, but then you should get "down to business" and show what you've learned.  Otherwise it's all pointless.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 18 - impressions and habits

The entire chapter deals with the discipline of assent, which should be managed by logic.

Our souls or unique minds or our true inner identity is sovereign.  But the body and senses will take over our purest freedom, if we are not careful.  Therefore, it is imperative we exercise the discipline of assent in all matters that are external to the soul; else we slip into a type of bondage.

I'll follow Epictetus' examples.

If you choose to be angry, it is because you've abdicated your responsibility to choose your attitude.  You've left the choice with your base instincts and with others who would trigger you.

The same goes for sex or other pleasures.  "It is inevitable that continuous behavior of any one kind is going to instill new habits and tendencies while steadily confirming old ones" (verse 6).

If you see something you want (greed) but counter the first impression with reason "to alert you to the danger" then "the passion will abate and the mind will be restored to its former balance" (verse 8).  And I think that word is very important: balance.  We can all become imbalanced and if we don't restore our harmony, and instead yield to passion, the next time we are 'tipped' we will fall more easily and quickly.  Then we lose control.

He gives an excellent visual: vice (the opposite of virtue, with virtue in the center and vice to the extreme on the left and the right) is like a blister or scar.  The more you agitate it, the longer it will take to heal.  You must allow them to heal well if you would not have the wounds open again.

Another excellent piece of advice from Epictetus: "Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don't get mad" (verse 12, emphasis added).  I remember Jerry Seinfeld giving some advice about becoming successful.  He described a "don't break the chain" habit, wherein he hangs up a big year-view calendar on his wall.  And every day he created new material, he could put a big red "X" on that day.  Then his goal was simply not to break the chain of red "X's" (link here).  Whether building a habit of doing something or a habit of not doing something, the idea is useful.

On a related note, Seneca advises a daily review at the end of the day; whereby you become the judge and the judged (see On Anger Book 3, 36).  This is a good habit to develop.

Epictetus gives other related advice on developing habits

  • "socialize with men of good character, in order to model your life on theirs."
  • "don't let the force of the impression, when first it hits you, knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who are you and what you represent.  Let me put you to the test."
The challenge of challenging impressions is perhaps the greatest "sport" - that of "training to face off against the most formidable of impressions" (verse 27).  "It's a fight for autonomy, freedom, happiness and peace" (verse 28).  But it is a worthy fight and challenge.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 17

The quotes ...

"Why do you get what you do not want, and don't get what you do?  This is categorical proof of inner confusion and unhappiness.  I want something to happen, and it fails to happen, or I don't want something to happen, and it does - and can any creature be more miserable than I?"  (verses 17-18)

"Don't want anything except what God wants, and no one will stop or stay you, any more than they can stand in the way of God.  When you have him as your leader, and conform your will and desire to his, what fear of failure can you have?" (verses 22-23)

As long as "you still experience envy, pity, jealousy and fear ... hardly a day passes that you don't whine to the gods about your life." (verse 26)

"Begin to fashion your future in such a way that nothing happens contrary to your desire and nothing that you desire fails to materialize." (verse 28).

Three Stages of a True Philospher

"It's enough if one day I can live without sorrow or frustration, if I can lift up my head like a free person in the face of circumstance and look to heaven as a friend of God without fear of anything that might happen." (verse 29)

"I want to be free from fear and emotion, but at the same time I want to be a concerned citizen and philosopher, and attentive to my other duties, toward God, my parents, my siblings, my country, and my guests." (verse 31)

"I want to be faultless, and unshakable, not just when I am awake, but even when I'm sleeping, even when I'm drunk or delirious."  (verse 49)

Having attained stage 3, "you are a god ... headed for the stars."

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 16 - how to gain tranquility and freedom (be Stoic)

I'm simply going to quote some moneyball quotes from this chapter - no need for commentary.

"what oppresses and scares us?  It is our own thoughts.  What overwhelms people when they are about to leave friends, family, old haunts and their accustomed way of life?  Thoughts"  (verse 24).

"leave everything that isn't yours alone.  Make use of what material advantages you have, don't regret the ones you were not allowed.  If any of them are recalled, let go of them willingly, grateful for the time you had to enjoy them" (verse 28).

"Can you hope for any better vision than the sun, the moon, the stars, all the land and sea?  And if you appreciate how God governs them, and carry him around inside you, what attraction can mere marble or fine masonry still have for you? (verses 32-33).

"But by leaving them [friends, family] I make them unhappy.

"You think you are the cause of their unhappiness?  No; the cause of their disturbance is the same as yours: judgments.  Overhaul your judgments and, if they're smart, they will overhaul theirs.  Otherwise, their unhappiness will be of their own making" (verse 40).

"Listen, as the saying goes, it's crisis time: make a last desperate effort to gain freedom and tranquility - to be Stoic" (verse 41).

Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery.  Dare to face God and say, 'From now on, use me as you like.  I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.'  Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it.  You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas.  They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man, by showing just how little circumstances amount to" (verses 42-43).

"It was obedience to [Zeus] that [Hercules] went around wiping out crime and injustice" (verse 44).

"Cast out of your mind ... sorrow, fear, lust, envy, spite, greed, petulance and over-indulgence.  Getting rid of these, too, requires looking to God for help, trusting in him alone, and submitting to his direction.  Then if you're not willing to do this - all tears and agitation - you will serve someone physically more powerful than you, and continue to look outside yourself for happiness, fated never to find it.  And that is because you look for it in the wrong place, forgetting to look where it really lies" (verses 46-47).

This last quote reminds me of another quote I recently read: "If you will not have rules, you will have rulers. (link to tweet)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 15 - clinging vs. sound reasoning

"But we must stick with a decision."

Substitute the word 'decision' with words such as: culture, tradition, the way things ought to be.

So many people don't challenge their assumptions - including me!  We must challenge our assumptions with sound reason.

Epictetus responds to the person who says, "we must stick with a decision."

"For heaven's sake, man, that rule only applies to sound decisions.  I suppose next you will decide that it is night now, and refuse to change your mind because you don't want to.  You will repeat, 'We must stick with a decision.'  Begin with a firm foundation; evaluate your decision to see if it is valid - then there will be a basis for this rigid resolve of yours.  If your foundation is rotten or crumbling, not a thing should be built on it, and the bigger and grander you make it, the sooner it will collapse."

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 14 - a philosopher's goal

I had a manager a few years ago, who loved to use the "sausage machine" analogy.  We assembled several reports and stewarded several groups.  Our reports were intended to be used by upper management.  My manager would always talk about the goal of the end product - a nicely assembled, easy to read and informative report.  All the work that went into it, was boring, tedious and time-heavy.  All that work was the bloody sausage machine while the end product was the sausage.

Epictetus, similarly, teaches that the practice of any skill is boring to the uninitiated.  Similarly, learning and discussing philosophy and "good" and "bad" things can be tedious and boring.  But the end product is amazing.

He defines the goal of the philosopher: "bring the will in line with events, so that nothing happens contrary to our wishes and, conversely, nothing fails to happen that we want to happen" (see verse 7).  In other words, the goal of a philosopher is to exactly align his or her own desires and aversions with the desires and aversions of the universe/god(s).

He compares this life to a "festival" and as it sounds, it would more aptly be described as a state fair in today's vernacular.  At the festival, the express purpose is to buy and sell cattle.  But there are so many other things going on too.  If you observe the cattle, all they care about is the food.  You could say the same about many people who attend the festival.  Then there are those who "are capable of reflection" and want to figure things out - what is going on, how is it organized, and managed.  Thus they spend their spare time learning as much about the festival before it ends.  Whereas the cattle and some people would simply laugh at the reflective people.

Life, therefore, is full of people who care only about food, pleasures, wealth, status, etc..  Whereas, there are some who are more interested in how life is organized, ruled and administered - what is the purpose of life.  These are the philosophers who simply want to align their will with the organization of the world/universe/'the rule and organizer'.

As said many times before, Nietzsche succinctly summarizes the goals as: amor fati.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 11 - a measuring stick for philosophy

how can we tell which opinions are the correct opinion?

"Here you have philosophy's starting point: we find that people cannot agree among themselves, and we go in search of the source of their disagreement.  In time, we come to scorn and dismiss simple opinion, and look for a way to determine if an opinion is right or wrong.  At last, we focus on finding a standard that we can invoke, just as the scale was invented to measure weights, and the carpenter's rule devised to distinguish straight from crooked. That is the beginning of philosophy."

the idea here, is for us to be able to judge an opinion, we must measure it against something that does not change.  Epictetus gives two examples in the chapter: 1) pleasure and 2) pride.

since both are not constant and can vary, they cannot be used as a measure for philosophy.

i suspect this is why the Stoics arrived at the conclusion that "virtue is the sole good" as virtue does not change.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 8 - the divinity within

how should we spend our time and efforts?  should we spend them like animals - eating, defecating, sleeping, fighting, copulating, lazing?  animals do that, all day long and have no other thought besides the above.  humans must do these things for the body not to perish, but there is so much more to humans.

there is divinity in each of us.  we have a mind that thinks; we possess intelligence and reason.  this is our god-given blessing that is unique to us.  and instead of focusing on what is unique to us, we waste away our efforts and time on the same base things that occupy the attention of mere brutes.

as Epictetus says, we are creatures "placed in charge" and in us lies "a bit of God."

in today's modern world, people are fascinated by the invention of artificial intelligence.  humans can create life, but this is a biological aspect of humans and it is not enough.  we, as a species, are also trying to create a consciousness by our own design - inherent in us is this urge to create something that can exist on it's own.  this idea has been around for hundreds of years, ever since humanity has had the ambition to create something self-conscious, outside of the normal biological means of reproduction.

are we simply not trying to play like God?  God gave us our freedom and in turn, we are attempting to do the same.  "What other work of art comes ready equipped with the very powers the artist displayed in making it?   Do marble statues?  No, nor do bronze, gold or ivory ones.  The Athena of Phidias, once its arm was raised to support the statue of Victory, has maintained that pose for the duration of its long existence.  Zeus' works, on the other hand, are living, breathing creatures, with the power of perception and judgement" (verse 20).

and what are we to do with this unique gift?  we are to live our life according to virtue: integrity, honor, dignity, patience, calmness, poise, trustworthy, noble.  we ought to show others our strength: "a will that never fails to get what it wants, a faculty of aversion that always avoids what it dislikes, proper impulse, careful purpose and discipline assent" (verse 29).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 5 - life is like ...

Epictetus instructs us that there are things in our control and things out of our control.  The things out of our control are called externals.

How are we to interact with externals.  He gives multiple examples of how life is like something and how there are things that are in our control and things out of our control.  He was Forest Gump's mama before there was a Forest Gump!

Life is like a card game ...
The chips and cards fall where they may - they are out of our control.

What is in our control is our reaction to them, by "making careful and skillful use of the deal - that's where [our] responsibility begins.  So in life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control."

Life is like an ocean voyage ...
You can choose the captain, the boat and the day you set sail and even the best time to sail.  "But then a storm hits.  Well, it's no longer my business; I have done everything I could.  It's somebody else's problem now - namely the captain's."  And if the boat begins to sink and my only choice is to drown, then I do it "fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die .... What difference does it make whether I go by drowning or disease.  I have to go somehow."

Life is like a ball game ...
Ballplayers do not value the ball, but rather focus on the skills needed to excel at the sport.  "If we are afraid to throw the ball, or nervous about catching it, then the fun is lost; and how can we preserve our composure when we are uncertain about what next to do?"

Just like we don't get to choose the ball, but we do get to choose whether to play the game or not, so too in life, we don't get to choose if we are imprisoned, exiled or executed.  We don't get to choose if our wife dies and our children become orphans.  We may play with one "ball" for 20 years and then the judge takes it away and gives us another.  The excellent athlete keeps his concentration and coolness and keeps playing, despite the change in equipment.  He used the ball, but he does not grow attached to it - the ball is just a means for demonstrating skill.

Life is like a weaving...
The weaver does not make the wool; rather she makes the "best use of whatever wool she's given.  God gives you food and property, and can take them back - your whole body too.  Work with the material you are given."

You are like a foot ...
The foot can only be useful in the context of the full body.  So too, the human can only be useful and understood in the context of community and the whole universe.

It is according to nature for the foot to be cleaned, to tromp through dirt and mud to step on needles.  It is also according to nature for the foot to be amputated, if the need arises.  You want your foot to be there to do those things.  You want your foot amputated if it puts the rest of the body at risk.  You do not want a foot that says, "I cannot walk today, I'd rather soak in a tub" - especially when you need it to play in the NBA finals!

Similarly, if you view yourself as part of the whole, then "for the sake of the whole, circumstances may make it right for you to be sick, go on a dangerous journey, endure poverty, even die before your time.  Don't complain."  Humans are part of a community of gods and men - in a community - it a city - in a state - in a nation - in a world - in the universe.

In sum
"In this body, this universe, this community, it is inevitable that each of us faces some such event [death, exile, being convicted].  Your job, then, is to appear before the court, say what you have to say and make the best of the situation."

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 1 - confidence, caution and your duty

I'm not going to commentate on this chapter.  I highlighted several parts and they really stand on their own.  I'll simply copy them here.

Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will's control.  For if evil is a matter of the will, then caution is needed there; and if everything beyond the will and not in our control is immaterial to us, then those things can be approached with confidence.


When deer are frightened by the feathers, they seek safety in the hunters' nets.  Confusing ruin with refuge, they come to an ill-timed death.


Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is.  So be confident about death, and caution yourself against the fear of it.


Pain too is just a scary mask: look under it and you will see.  The body sometimes suffers, but relief is never far behind.  And if that isn't good enough for you, the door stands open; otherwise put up with it.


Only educated people are entitled to be called free.  What else is freedom but the power to live our life the way we want?


No one doing wrong is free.  Do you want to live your life in fear, grief, and anxiety?  ... No one in a state of constant fear is free either.  By the same token, whoever has gained relief from grief, fear and anxiety has gained freedom.


What master, I wonder, do you yourself serve?  Money?  Women?  Boys?  The emperor or one of his subordinates?  It has to be one of them, or you wouldn't fret about such things.


I notice your clever phrases, yes - and you can have them.  Show me instead how you practice desire and aversion to get what you want and avoid what you do not want.  As for those treatises of yours, if you have any sense, you will go on and burn them.


[Socrates] would test and examine himself, forever subjecting to scrutiny one assumption or another.  That's the writing of a real philosopher.


Look how I don't fail in my desires, or have experiences I don't want.  I'll prove it to you in the case of death, I'll it to you in the case of physical pain, in the case of prison, of condemnation, and ill repute.  That's the real test of a youth fit to finish school.  ... be content to look like a nobody or know-nothing.


Show them this, though, that you know how not to fail in your desires or experience what you don't desire.


Your duty is to prepare for death and imprisonment, torture and exile and all such evils, with confidence, because you have faith in the one who has called on you to face them, having judged you worthy of the role.  When you take on the role, you will show the superiority of reason and the mind over forces unconnected with the will.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 30 - the point of it all

The real chapter title of Book 1 Chapter 30 is: How to prepare for trouble.  After I read the chapter a few times, I would have entitled the chapter: What's the Point of it All?  And by 'it' I mean life.

If you were to be judged by anyone or even by God, the judgement might be like an oral examination - to determine what you have learned.  This would be the first point of life: did you learn something?

One of the first questions of the examination would be about how you judged certain things.  What did you think of: exile, imprisonment, chains, death and disgrace.  In the year 2018, that list seems pretty harsh.  Who of my peers and friends has been sent to exile?  Who has been sent to prison?  Who is in chains?  Who has died ... well, plenty have died, but what did they think about death?  And who, of my peers in 2018, is disgraced?  What do these terms means in a post-modern society?  Let's examine them.

What does exile look like in corporate America?  Perhaps it looks like what happened to Steve Jobs in 1985.  "They basically stripped Jobs of responsibilities and gave him an office that he referred to as 'Siberia.'"  Similarly, today, we could be stripped of authority and the ability to make change in a company - our ranking could be tanked.

What does imprisonment look like?  Well, we still have prisons in 2018, but I think the idea implies being imprisoned unjustly - when you are actually innocent.  Rubin "Hurricane" Carter lived this.  Or perhaps we have been sentenced to a different kind of prison.

Do people actually wear chains in 2018?  Physically - maybe not.  Chains are simply devices that restrict our body.  Perhaps an illness casts a certain sort of chain on our bodies.

Disgrace has lasted well through time - people were disgraced centuries ago and they are still disgraced today.  In fact, the current President of the United States has used 'disgrace' multiple times in his first few years in office - firing cabinet members and staff at a whim.  At my company, I have seen a few examples of people who have fallen from grace.

Now - do any of these things really matter?  Or should we view them as "indifferents"?  If you were to pass the examination by God, you would need to view them as indifferents.  Indifferents are things that should not matter to you or me.  And why do they not matter?  Because these are things that are not in your control or my control.

Therefore, what should matter to you?  Focusing on things that you can control is what should matter to you.  And what can you control?  You can control your will and your impressions (your attitude).

Lastly, God might ask, "what is the goal of life?"  And if you can honestly respond with "to follow God" or "to love my fate", then you may have passed the examination.  And that is the point of it all.