Sunday, November 17, 2019

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

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

Learning to Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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

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

Learning to Dialogue

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 3, 2019

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

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

Learning to Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 1, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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