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 1.13 - 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 for 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.  What you are accountable for is your response to all those things - what will your attitude and reaction be? 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 good 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 fact, 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).

Indeed there are causes to what happens to us, but feeling miserable or any judgement or other reaction or attitude about what happens to us, is entirely 'up to us.'

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).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.8 - That our reasoning faculties are not free of danger for the uneducated

That the reasoning faculties, in the case of the uneducated, are not free from error

I've read this passage a few times, and if I understand Epictetus' point correctly, then I think he is saying something along the lines of this: rhetorical argumentation has its use, insofar as it is applied to leading the person to a proper education (in philosophy) and as long as the person keeps the focus on its proper use, which is the development of a good character.  However, as the person is still not fully educated, there is danger in learning and using rhetorical argumentation because it may lead to him becoming "conceited and presumptuous (v. 8).

Epictetus warns more explicitly,

For how on earth can one persuade a young man who excels in these studies that he should not become an appendage to them, but rather make them an appendage to himself?  Won’t he trample all these appeals underfoot, and walk about among us full of pride and puffed up with conceit, never being willing to allow that anyone should try to remind him of his shortcomings, and of where he has gone astray?

We should learn rhetoric and argumentation in the pursuit of living well and living in agreement with Nature.  If we become good at these skills, it should be because we are good philosophers - we love wisdom and virtue and wish to explain and argue the philosophy well.  But, some may go astray by becoming good at rhetoric and argumentation and take pride in these skills, rather than taking pride in living the good life.

Keep your eye on the mark: wisdom, excellence of character, virtue.  Don't be distracted by the skills that augment the embodiment of your philosophy.

Epictetus concludes the point:

Plato was strong and handsome, is it necessary that I too, sitting here, should toil to become strong or handsome, as though that were essential to philosophy just because a certain philosopher happened to be strong and handsome as well as being a philosopher? Don’t you want to understand and distinguish what qualities people require in order to become philosophers, and what other qualities may be present in them accidentally? Come now, if I could be counted as a philosopher, would you need to become lame like me?

Now, do I want to deny you these capacities? Heaven forbid! No more than I would wish to deny you the capacity to see.  All the same, if you ask me what the human good is, I can offer you no other reply than to say that it lies in a certain quality of choice.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.7 - On the use of equivocal and hypothetical arguments and the like

Of the use of equivocal premisses, hypothetical arguments and the like

Epictetus discusses the aim and purpose of premises, arguments and logic, in general.

For in every area of study, we’re seeking to learn how a good and virtuous person may discover the path that he should follow in life and the way in which he should conduct himself.

Therefore, logic and assent seek to help the Stoic prokopton to see things as they really are.

For what is required in reasoning? To establish the truth, reject what is false, and suspend judgement in doubtful cases. ... it is necessary too to know how to test them and distinguish the true from the false and the uncertain ...  accept what follows from the premisses that have rightly been granted by you. ... learn how one thing follows as a consequence from certain other things, and how one thing is sometimes derived from a single thing, and sometimes from several in conjunction. ... conduct oneself intelligently in argument, and be able to prove each of one’s points, and to follow other people’s demonstrations, without being misled by those who put forward sophistic arguments by way of proof.

In today's vernacular, we would call this critical thinking.  Just as in Socrates' day, today there are sophists who would try to convince us to live a certain way based on unsound reasoning.  Therefore, we need to figure out a way to cut through the malarky and try to comprehend the world as it really is and not how someone intends us to see it.

If we don't or can't take care to manage our impressions and thinking, we may fall into faulty logic.  We should not

deal with our impressions in a random, ill-considered, and haphazard fashion, [or] be unable to follow an argument or demonstration or sophism, and, in a word, to be unable to make out, in question and answer, what is consistent with one’s position and what is not

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:
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!'

Friday, November 16, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.2

Epictetus' Discourses are not the Meditations. I can let a passage from Marcus simmer in my brain a few minutes and I think I can come to a conclusion as to what he means (along with the help of Hadot).  But for Epictetus, I need to read it a few times to comprehend what he's teaching me.

The subject of Discourses 1.2 is 'how a person can preserve their proper character in any situation.' The Stoics always say, "live according to Nature." I think what Epictetus is trying to say in this chapter is, "live according to your specific nature." Around verse 7, he says, "not only do we have to form a judgment about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character."

From there, once you know what you are, you can settle on what you will and will not do - what integrity means to you. He says in verse 11, "you're the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you'll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices."

This is a timely passage for me personally. Every so often, I seem to go through some sort of existential mini life crisis. When they occur, I seem to really wonder and question myself and if I'm adding any value to the world. They typically begin on a Friday - after a long, slug-fest at work - commuting, meetings ad-nauseum and seemingly not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything. If asked, 'what did you accomplish today or this week?', I think the answer would be 'nothing of importance.' The only, real, valid reason I work day-in and day-out is for my wife and family. For them, I'm willing to sell my time and soul. Maybe other people can't do that. But I've found, speaking for myself, that is the price I'm willing to sell myself for.

Epictetus offers an analogy about the selling price of one's soul. Does one 'fall in line' or does one 'attempt to stand out'? The analogy involves either being a white thread in a robe made mostly of white threads or being a purple thread, which when contrasted with the white threads, stands out. For some, their price is steep - they would not settle or sell their soul to 'be like the crowd.' He proceeds to give examples of some people's integrity at play. They can be threatened, but they will still do their duty to death.

Now that price has been discussed, the question still remains, "what makes you unique? What is your unique nature? What are you not willing to sell your soul for, if ever, in any circumstance?" Epictetus discusses this in verse 30, "Then how will each of us come to recognize what is appropriate to his own character?" Later, he answers, "if someone possesses such power, he won't fail to be aware of it." He also makes a clarifying point that sometimes we don't know what that talent is until after a 'winter training.' He doesn't expound a whole lot on that, but to me, it seems like we all grow into the talents that are unique to us. Perhaps after some difficulty and challenges, our true talents - aspects that are unique to us individually - are revealed.

Let's assume you've found your talent. Now, comes the possibility that you are not the best in whatever makes you unique. To which Epictetus responds we do not "cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because [we] despair of achieving perfection." Indeed, there can be a 'best' but by virtue of there being a 'best', there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of others 'not the best.'  The conclusion: we still try.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.1

I am reading Epictetus' Discourses, Fragments and Handbook again. My goal is to really think about what Epictetus said and then write my thoughts in a way that my children could understand what he taught. I'm hoping it will be a resource to them in their life journey.

I'm reading from the Oxford World's Classics translated by Robin Hard copy, but I will link the Oldfather translation for each post. As passages stand out to me, I'll make remarks on them. I will not copy the entire passage, as I did with Meditations. If you're reading these blog posts, I suggest you find a copy of the book, and read the corresponding passage.

Epictetus starts things off by talking about one of the most fundamental aspects of Stoicism and life: determining what is in your control and what is not in your control. This is called the Dichotomy of Control. To be more precise and to avoid ambiguity, this concept can be called eph' hêmin or 'up to us.' The dichotomy would then be things 'up to us' and things 'not up to us.'

How to you apply the Dichotomy of Control? Make a list. Deeply think about what you can control (what is 'up to you') versus what you cannot control (what is 'not up to you). And when we use the word "control" it is not partial control or some control; rather, it means entirely within our control.

One item under the category 'not up to me' is the body. Epictetus uses a lot of examples of how the body is not under our control. And while he is citing these examples, he also indicates what is 'up to us' in each of those circumstances.

In one example, Lateranus is to be be-headed at the command of Nero. Lateranus could not prevent himself from losing his head, but he could control his attitude about it. So, "he held his neck out willingly to take the blow." But that is not the end of the story! The blow to his neck was not adequate and he didn't die! After "recoiling" his head a bit, he "had enough self-command to offer his neck a second time" (p. 5).

The body may be put to death, but our attitude and reaction is 'up to us.'

The body may be put in chains or thrown into prison, but our mind and will cannot be chained or thrown into prison.

And here is the key quote from Discourses Book 1, Chapter 1: "These are the thoughts that those who embark on philosophy ought to reflect upon; it is these that they should write about day after day, and it is in these that they should train themselves." (p. 6). A bit later, he advises that we need to come to terms with what we have been given in life.

What I Highlighted In the Book

"It is fitting, then, that the gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven't placed within our power"

"this body isn't truly your own, but is nothing more than cleverly moulded clay"

speaking as Zeus ... "I've given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the power to make proper use of impressions; if you pay good heed to this, and entrust all that you have to its keeping, you'll never be hindered, never obstructed, and you'll never groan, never find fault, and never flatter anyone at all."

"I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?"

"These are the thoughts that those who embark on philosophy ought to reflect upon; it is these that they should write about day after day, and it is in these that they should train themselves."

"train oneself in the matters in which one ought to train oneself, to have rendered one's desires incapable of being frustrated, and one's aversions incapable of falling into what they want to avoid."

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Sunday

Morning Reflection
The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the things governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.3

Mid-day Reflection
Take longer (20-30 minutes) to sit quietly and contemplate the View from Above, using the audio recording provided.

Evening Reflection
I travel along nature’s way until I fall down and take my rest, breathing out my last into the air, from which I draw my daily breath, and falling down to that earth from which my father drew his seed, my mother her blood and my nurse her milk, and from which for so many years I have taken my daily food and drink, the earth which carries my footsteps and which I have used to the full in so many ways.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.4

Read today’s evening text, and base your evening meditation on thinking about yourself as an integral part of nature. Think about how you could improve that relationship, for instance by thinking more about the effect of your actions on the natural environment.

I am part of the whole.  Marcus' graphic description of a severed hand or foot, reminds me of the fortunate position I am in as a human being.  A severed hand or foot cannot easily re-join the body.  but humans, who cut themselves off from society, can rejoin her.  I am part of the whole.

Here is Marcus' complete passage:

If you have ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a head cut off 34 and lying some way away from the rest of the body - analogous is what someone does to himself, as far as he can, when he will not accept his lot and severs himself from society or does some unsocial act. Suppose you have made yourself an outcast from the unity of nature - you were born a part of it, but now you have cut yourself off. Yet here lies the paradox - that it is open to you to rejoin that unity. No other part has this privilege from god, to come together again once it has been separated and cut away. Just consider the grace of god's favour to man. He has put it in man's power not to be broken off from the Whole in the first place, and also, if he has broken off, to return and grow back again, resuming his role as a member. (Book 8.34)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Saturday

Morning Reflection
Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ This kind of event could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have borne it without getting upset.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

Mid-day Reflection
Take time to listen to the Premeditation of Adversity recording and rehearse facing some events that feel emotionally challenging or difficult.

Alternatively, search premeditatio malorum and learn how to regularly practice it.

Evening Reflection
Glad and cheerful, let us say, as we go to our rest: ‘I have finished living; I have run the course that fortune set for me’. If God gives us another day, let us receive it with joy. The happiest person, who owns himself more fully, is the one who waits for the next day without anxiety. Anyone who can say, ‘I have had my life’ rises with a bonus, receiving one more day.
– Seneca, Letters, 12.9.

Reflect on what it means to be grateful for each day as if it were your last and to make the most of the opportunities life presents you with.

I have not read all the works of Seneca yet.  The above quote is the first time I have read it.  The part that really stands out to me is "the happiest person ... is the one who waits for the next day without anxiety."  There was a time, when Sunday night came with excessive dread.  I had to start another week at work!  Another week of commuting, meetings, email and dealing with problems.  But I have realized, quite recently, that I no longer have that dread.  I love each moment.  I have experienced contentedness on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  There is nothing to fear or have anxiety about those days.  I can be happy now.  This is life.  Through repeated efforts and reflection, I now know I can find rays of sunshine no matter the place, time or circumstance.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Friday

Morning Reflection
It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have seemed so to Socrates too; no, it is in the judgement that death is terrible that the terror lies. Accordingly, whenever we are impeded, disturbed or distressed, we should never blame anyone else but only ourselves, that is, our judgements. It is an act of a poorly educated person to blame others when things are going badly for him; one who has taken the first step towards being properly educated blames himself, while one who is fully educated blames neither anyone else nor himself.
– Epictetus, Handbook, 5

Mid-day Reflection
Take 5-10 minutes and sit quietly, thinking of occasions in the recent past when you reacted in a ‘passionate’ way (attaching value to things like fame and prosperity), and also on occasions when you reacted with a ‘good emotion’, remembering that what matters most is acting virtuously.

Perhaps for about 15 years after graduating from college and engaging in the "rat race" of "climbing to the top" at work, I focused a lot on chasing happiness by pursuing things that were largely out of my control.  I bought into the concept that rank, power, status, authority would bring me happiness.  I was able to achieve a lot of those things, but many times I failed to attain them.  Consequently, my mental health and inner disposition would rise and fall and turn like a roller coaster.

Eventually, I came to learn these things don't matter or matter much less than I placed value in them.  I learned that I could be content in any situation and this was largely due to the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

I used to be upset when unexpected events occurred and when I had to do something I didn't want to.  Now I roll with the flow and focus on my ability to choose how I view events.

A similar thought is encapsulated with a Charles Swindoll quote:
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company...a church...a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.
Evening Reflection
So reflect on this: the result of wisdom is stability of joy. The wise person’s mind is like the superlunary heaven: always peaceful. So you have this reason to want to be wise, if wisdom is always accompanied by joy. This joy has only one source: an awareness of the virtues. A person is not capable of joy unless he is brave, unless he is just, unless he has self-control.
– Seneca, Letters, 59.16

Did your emotions today express an attempt to respond virtuously and what could you do to make this happen tomorrow and to experience the ‘joy’ that Seneca describes?

Detached observation - that is the most succinct way I can describe how to control my attitude and emotions.  I don't always succeed, but the more I practice it, the more slow I am to react to things (events, peoples' words and emotions).

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Thursday

Morning Reflection
It is important to understand that nature creates in parents affection for their children; and parental affection is the source from which we trace the shared community of the human race … As it is obvious that it is natural to us to shrink from pain, so it is clear that we derive from nature itself the motive to love those to whom we have given birth. From this motive is developed the mutual concern which unites human beings as such. The fact of their common humanity means that one person should feel another to be his relative.
– Cicero, On Ends, 3.62-3

Mid-day Reflection
Take 5-10 minutes to sit quietly and practise the Circle of Hierocles exercise given here. Think of yourself as gradually expanding the circle of those you are concerned with till you reach the circle of human beings in general.

The following visualisation or meditation technique is loosely based on Hierocles’ comments:
  1. Close your eyes and take a few moments to relax and focus your attention on the things you’re about to visualise.
  2. Picture a circle of light surrounding your body and take a few moments to imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of affection toward your own true nature as a rational animal, capable of wisdom (virtue), the chief good in life.
  3. Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass members of your family or others who are very close to you, towards whom you now project an attitude of family affection as if they were somehow parts of your own body.
  4. Imagine that circle expanding to encompass people you encounter in daily life, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project natural affection toward them as if they were members of your own family.
  5. Let the circle expand further to include everyone in the country where you live, imagining that your affection is spreading out toward them also, insofar as they are rational animals akin to you.
  6. Imagine the circle now growing to envelop the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing this philosophical and philanthropic affection to encompass every other member of the human race.
Also see what Albert Einstein said: see this link.

Evening Reflection

Let us embrace in our minds the fact that there are two communities – the one which is great and truly common, including gods and human beings, in which we look neither to this corner or to that, but measure the boundaries of our state by the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of our birth.
– Seneca, On Leisure, 4.1

What benefits each of us is what is in line with our constitution and nature; my nature is rational and political. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.44.5-6

How far did you succeed in fulfilling your local roles and responsibilities while also bearing in mind the broader values shared by humanity in general – or the needs of those human beings currently without a home or country of their own?

This morning, at 4:30am, while on a walk with my dear wife, I commented that every year leading up to Stoic Week, I get excited and tell myself that I am going to really work at it.  Inevitably, however, my busiest week at work coincides with Stoic Week!  But instead of being frustrated this week, I've been quietly focused, content and happy!  I am busy helping others at work and at home and in the neighborhood.  And the more I'm engaged at work and at home, the more compassion I have for others.

As I write this at 8pm tonight, I reflect on what I have done today.  I was able to spend a couple of hours with my wife, as we went on a walk this morning and enjoyed a warm beverage for breakfast.  Then I quickly got ready and drove to my work's campus, where I ran a two-hour meeting for our leadership team.  I was able to stay focused, calm and engaged.  After that meeting, I drove to our satellite office where my team was in a "dojo" learning the principals of agile.  Then, by mid-afternoon, I needed to get home to meet the contractors who fixed up our home.  While they were here, I answered many questions for my manager and handled a few work requests.  By six o'clock, my oldest son and my youngest daughter and I met a neighbor 7th grader at the school basketball court to help him get ready for school basketball try-outs.  Then we headed home, cleaned up, ate dinner as a family.  Virtually everything I did today was in support of others - and I felt content for having done it!  This is what being human is all about; this is our nature.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Wednesday

Morning Reflection
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognised the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative 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 against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

Mid-day Reflection
Take 5-10 minutes to sit quietly and reflect on your relationships and how you could potentially view things differently. What would be the consequences of doing so?

I am an easy-going person.  For the longest time (since I was a 16 year-old), I have kept a phrase constantly at hand and ready to use: give others the benefit of the doubt.

Little did I know that this is a very Stoic idea.  I will encounter grump, ornery, unsocial, cranky, mean, revengeful people.  I see them on the road, at work, playing basketball, on-line, at the store.  Having had many bad days myself, I quickly come up with reasons as to why other people act the way they do.  If I have the opportunity, I will try to understand why people act they way they do.  I've found that many times, they are simply having a bad day or are hungry.  Other times, they just "need a moment."

Almost always, the reasons for the bad behavior is temporary - this isn't really who they are.  Fundamentally, they are good people.  And by recognizing this, I've learned to have compassion for all, including myself.

Evening Reflection
Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another, and some other quality in someone else. There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.48

Read today’s evening text. Reflect on the good qualities you might be able to perceive in other people and consider what you can learn from them.


Hard work and diligence.

Happiness / a positive attitude.

Reason and logic.

Camaraderie and friendship.

These are all qualities I admire in the people I associate with in my home and at work and in my neighborhood.  In all these interactions with them, I reflect on the good behavior and try to think of them when I need to exercise these qualities.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Tuesday

Morning Reflection
If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage […] turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found […] but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to what is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6

Mid-day Reflection
Take 5-10 minutes to sit quietly and list what you think are the most valuable qualities in a human life comparing this with the Stoic list of virtues. Think about occasions when you did aim, or could aim, at acting virtuously rather than trying to get external things (‘preferred indifferents’).

I probably don't focus as intently as I ought to on improving virtues within myself.  But I do think about them when confronted with difficulties.  Most often, it seems I'm wrestling with the virtues of temperance (moderation, self-discipline) and courage.

For guidance, in instilling myself with virtue, I prefer the Jim Lanctot paradigm.  You can google "Jim Lanctot virtues" to see his framework.

Once you understand and are convinced that "virtue is the sole good", you can easily find ways and examples of working in instilling these within yourself.  The harder part comes in trying not to focus your happiness on "indifferents" and instead, trying to attain happiness through virtue.

For me, I learned the first half of the equation last year when my home flooded.  During the nine months it took to restore things around our home, I learned that I could be happy in the most meager and humble circumstances.  During most of those nine months, I slept in a smaller bed, in a smaller room, eating less food, less dinners and in an environment of constant construction.  My wife and kids were strewn across town living with various friends.  And despite all of these difficulties, I found contentment.  I learned that happiness can be found in dire and difficult circumstances.

These days, with life returned to 'normal' I have more time to reflect on building virtue.  This too is not so easy or simple.  But I do try to find opportunities to practice being willing and cheerful and submit to fates's desire for me.  And by so doing, looking my the 'deck of cards' as it were, for the proper virtue to play in a given circumstance.

Evening Reflection
From what did we gain an understanding of virtue? From someone’s orderly character, his sense of what is appropriate and consistency, the harmony between all his actions, and his greatness of spirit in coping with everything. In this way, we came to understand the happy life, that flows on smoothly and is completely under its own control.
– Seneca, Letters, 120.11

Read today’s evening text and think about the picture given there of the virtuous and happy life, and bear that in mind in your evening meditation. How far did your actions and thoughts today match the virtues and qualities you regard as most important? Could you do things differently tomorrow?

For me, opportunities to exercise virtues come sometimes during the course of a day.  I work with highly skilled and intelligent people.  None of them are bad people.  I can't recall the last time I dealt with "drama."  I do, however, deal with political maneuvering among managers and others who are "trying to get ahead."  For the most part, I try to focus on being wise and just with others at work.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Stoic Week 2018: Monday

Morning Reflection
The wise person does nothing that he could regret, nothing against his will, but does everything honourably, consistently, seriously, and rightly; he anticipates nothing as if it is bound to happen, but is shocked by nothing when it does happen …. and refers everything to his own judgement, and stands by his own decisions. I can conceive of nothing which is happier that this.
– Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81

Mid-day Reflection
Sit quietly and take 5-10 minutes writing down the things which you think are most valuable in your life and comparing these with the Stoic view of happiness, noting the key Stoic themes (virtue, order, care for self and others).

Four years ago, while seeing a therapist, she advised I take a values test to help me identify what is truly important to me.

My dominate Social values were: Community, Family & Friends

My dominate Realistic values were: Hard work & diligence

My dominate Traditional value was: Stability

My dominate Theoretical value was: Intellectualism

My dominate Political value was: Power & Influence

My dominate Aesthetic value was: Appreciation of beauty

All of these values ring true for me.  Almost all that I do in my life is for the benefit of my family, followed by the benefit of my community.  I think these values are aligned with Stoicism.  Stoicism has taught me to focus on things that are in my control and to furthermore, acknowledge that practicing virtue is entirely in my control and that by so-doing, I can attain happiness or at least be content with the life I live.

So much of my "former life" (life before Stoicism) was lived like a roller coaster.  I would have peaks of happiness and elation followed by long stretches of nothingness and then a somewhat frequent dip into the valley of anxiety, fear and despair.  I longed to be even keeled all the time.  Enter Stoicism.

Now, I constantly observe events and quickly categorize things into "under my control" and "not under my control."  I've realized that despite the long list of events that I have no control over, I can still find contentment and acceptance.  My wild bouts of elation seem to have passed too.

Interestingly enough, by living a more Stoic-like life, I've found peace through stability - which is one of the values important to me.

Evening Reflection
Will there come a day, my soul, when you are good and simple and unified […] some day will you have a taste of a loving and affectionate disposition? Some day will you be satisfied and want for nothing […] Or will you be contented instead with your present circumstances and delighted with everything around you and convince yourself that all you have comes from the gods, and that all that is pleasing for them is well for you? Will there come a day when you are so much a member of the community of gods and humans as neither to bring any complaint against them nor to incur their indignation? – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.1

One of the biggest benefits of Stoicism, in my opinion, is the quieting of the mind and the desires that stir within us.  As these things become more quiet, we become more content and 'at peace' with events that happen in life.

I'm reminded of a quote I came across a while back; it is by Crates (link):

practice being in need of only a few things, for this is the closest thing to god. for the gods need nothing. but, so that you may learn more exactly what is involved in having few needs ... reflect that children have more needs than adults, women than men, invalids than the healthy, and, in general, the inferior everywhere has more needs than the superior. therefore the gods have need of nothing and those nearest to them have the fewest needs.

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."

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:36

Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty ears? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? This is no tyrant or corrupt judge who dismisses you, but the very same nature that brought you in. It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. 'But I have not played my five acts, only three.' 'True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.' Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

This is my final entry on my commentary on Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.  It took me just under one full year to complete this small project (the first entry was Book 1 Chapters 1-4).  His ending chapter does not disappoint and is quite an appropriate topic on which to end: birth and death.

We had no control over our birth; and we will equally have no control over our death.

Therefore, have no worries over death.  Go about life, living in peace, content with your lot in life and focused on living a life according to Nature and virtue (temperance, courage, justice and wisdom).

Commentary on Meditations: B12:33-35

How does your directing mind employ itself? This is the whole issue. All else, of your own choice or not, is just corpse and smoke.

The clearest call to think nothing of death is the fact that even those who regard pleasure as a good and pain as an evil have nevertheless thought nothing of death.

For one whose only good is what comes in its own proper season, who is equally content with a greater or lesser opportunity to express true reason in his actions, to whom it makes no difference whether he looks on this world for a longer or a shorter time - for him even death has no terrors.

The great question: what do you do with your life and all that time?  This is, as Marcus says, "the whole issue."  Everything else is nothing (smoke and dead bodies).  I've been listening to a podcast with Ed Latimore.  In the interview, he talks about this interaction he had with his girlfriend.  He had an anti-education / intellectual attitude and seemed to deride his friend for her scholastic efforts.  She then asked him what he had to show for his life - what could he point to that he had accomplished.  He didn't have anything - he was nothing.  It was at that point he decided to master something.  For Stoics, the question is: how will you use your directing mind?  Wasting away chasing indifferents?  Or pursuing a life of virtue?

In chapter 34 of Book 12, Marcus makes the observation that even those people who chase nothing but pleasure don't even worry about death.  Then neither should Stoics.

In the following chapter (35) of Book 12, Marcus paints a picture of what death looks like to a Stoic.  For a Stoic, he or she is content when things come naturally.  A Stoic is content to express true reason in any opportunity (big or small).  For a Stoic, a long or short life makes no different.  Therefore, there is no fear of death.

Commentary on Meditations: B12:31-32

What more do you want? To live on? Or is it to continue sensation and impulse? To wax and then to wane? To make use of your voice, your mind? What in all this strikes you as good cause for regret? But if every one of these objects is contemptible, go on then to the final aim, which is to follow reason and to follow god. To value these other things, to fret at their loss which death will bring, militates against this aim.

What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep. Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature brings.

What is it you want out of life?  To go from one pleasure to the next; from one pain avoidance act to the next; to give into one impulse after another?  Is that what life is really all about?  Or maybe there is something more meaningful?  Could you make use of your voice and mind?  Could you aim at something higher or better?  What is that "final aim"?  For the Stoics, the final aim was living according to Nature.  And the nature of humans is to use reason to live; to accept our fate (follow god) and to no fret or worry about things that are truly out of our control.

What truly matters in life?  To live it according to nature.  And if you need a reminder about how meaningless a lot of things are, consider how small, tiny and minute this moment is; this piece of land you are sitting on - how small it is.  Therefore, in this small fragment of time and space you occupy, accept it and make the most of it.

A quote by the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. reflects this sentiment of acceptance and opinion:

“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.”

(see also Citadel p. 128-129, 173, 180, 184, 267)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:30

One light of the sun, even though its path is broken by walls, mountains, innumerable other obstacles. One common substance, even though it is broken up into innumerable forms of individual bodies. One animate soul, even though it is broken up into innumerable species with specific individualities. One intelligent soul, even though it appears divided.

Now in all the above the other parts - such as mere breath, or that material which is insensate - have no direct affinity to each other: yet even here a link is formed by a sort of unity and the gravitation of like to like. But the mind has this unique property: it reaches out to others of its own kind and joins with them, so the feeling of fellowship is not broken.

In this beautiful and eloquent passage, Marcus observes the light of the sun and how it is one light all over the world, despite being broken by objects.  He applies this idea to one Directing Mind - one animate, intelligent soul, that even though it appears divided by the millions and billions of people, is still unified.

He then observes the same concept with the human body - how the breath, the arms, the legs, etc, all function as one.  And the one thing in common is the mind.  And of all the human parts, only the mind will reach out to other minds and it creates this link with other people.  Such is our social nature and as such, we should live according to nature.

(see also Citadel p. 113, 260)

Friday, March 2, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:27-29

Continually review in your mind those whom a particular anger took to extremes, those who reached the greatest heights of glory or disaster or enmity or any other sort of fortune. Then stop and think: where is it all now? Smoke and ashes, a story told or even a story forgotten. At the same time this whole class of examples should occur to you: Fabius Catullinus in his country house, Lusius Lupus in his town gardens, Stertinius at Baiae, Tiberius in Capri, Velius Rufus - and generally any obsession combined with self-conceit. Think how worthless all this striving is: how much wiser to use the material given you to make yourself in all simplicity just, self-controlled, obedient to the gods. The pride that prides itself on freedom from pride is the hardest of all to bear.

To those who ask, 'Where then have you seen the gods? What conviction of their existence leads you to this worship of them?', I reply first that they are in fact visible to our eyes. Secondly, and notwithstanding, that I have not seen my own soul either, and yet I honour it. So it is with the gods too: from my every experience of their power time after time I am certain that they exist, and I revere them.

The salvation of life lies in seeing each object in its essence and its entirety, discerning both the material and the causal: in applying one's whole soul to doing right and speaking the truth. There remains only the enjoyment of living a linked succession of good deeds, with not the slightest gap between them.

Studying history, in my opinion, does more to help you realize how futile and worthless a large swath of life is.  People pursuing power, riches, fame, immortality ... utterly useless and pointless.  Where are the most powerful, the most famous, the most beautiful, the strongest?  Where are they now?  Dead.  Dust.  Forgotten.

Instead, how much wiser to spend your time and efforts to simply focus on justice, self-discipline and loving your lot in life?  This leads to contentment and peace of mind.

Marcus believed in the gods.  It helped him love his lot in life.

In chapter 29, Marcus summarizes what life is about.

1. seeing things as they really are (and not applying judgement to them).

2. ensuring all your actions and words are just; and going from one good deed and word to another.

(see also Citadel p. 41, 43, 48, 186, 239, 273)