Friday, December 27, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "The View from Above"

The philosophical and spiritual exercise of "the View from Above" is one that places the proper perspective of the individual in time and space.  Whereas the last exercise discussed, intensely focuses on "the now", the "View from Above" opens up the rest of the cosmos to the individual and invites him to view his problems, stresses, fears, anxiety and desires in that grand, mind-numbing context.  When petty things are viewed in the context of the vastness of time and space, they seem insignificant and facilitate the proper response to these emotions, feelings and desires.

The View from Above is not necessarily linked to physical flight

This spiritual exercise firstly, was about the power of thought and imagination.  It is "a specific conception of the power of thought and the divine nature of the soul, which is able to raise itself above the categories of space and time" (p. 240).

The ancients also viewed this spiritual exercise under even more specific and intense circumstances.  "it was something that could only be experienced under extraordinary circumstances: in particular, it came about as a consequence of the separation of the soul from the body" (p. 240).

Hadot then discussed two circumstances where the soul and the body are separated.  In Plato's Phaedrus we learn "prior to [the soul's] incarnation in a terrestrial body, the soul is thus able to rise up to the outermost limits of the heavens, and follow the procession of the winged chariots of the gods" (p. 240).  Later, when the soul and body are separated from death, "the soul can contemplate the supracelestial world of eternal forms, as it did in its previous life, before its fall into the corporeal world" (p. 240).

"Plutarch, in his essay On the Delays of Divine Vengeance, recounts the experiences of a certain Thespesius of Soloi, who had also been left for dead:
He saw nothing like what he had seen before: the stars were enormously large, and immeasurably far from one another, and they shone forth with a light of great force and marvelous colours, so that the soul, gently and lightly transported by this light like a ship on a calm sea, could quickly move to wherever it wished. (p. 241)
As has been discussed before, philosophy is nothing other than training for death.  Plato, therefore states:
Shall we not say that purification occurs ... when man separates the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoms it to gather itself together from every part of the body and concentrate itself until it 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?
And in this process of gathering itself together, the soul looks down from above and "holds all this to be puny and meaningless, [and the soul] contemptuously wanders all over the place" (p. 241)

"In the Republic, Plato expresses the view that greatness of soul consists in precisely such an attitude: 'For smallness is particularly contrary to the soul which always strives after the complete and perfect, both divine and human.' Such a soul, capable of observing the totality of space and time, has no fear even of death" (p. 242).

The Goal of Practicing the View from Above

Hadot reiterates that the goal of this exercise - the View from Above - is "to help people free themselves from the desires and passions."  Furthermore, "the goal of philosophy was to eliminate them, so that the individual might come to see things as nature herself sees them, and consequently desire nothing other than that which is natural" (p. 242).  The exercise also attempts to "raise up mankind from individuality and particularity to universality and objectivity" (p. 242).

Let me restate that: the goal of practicing the View from Above is to help you eliminate desires and passions and to help you see things universally and to be objective in your assents.  Specifically for the Stoic, this exercise puts "oneself in accord with universal reason, the all-embracing Logos, both interior and exterior" (p. 242).

Consider this passage from Philo of Alexandria (p. 243-244):
As their goal is a life of peace and serenity, they contemplate nature and everything found within her: they attentively explore the earth, the sea, the air, the sky, and every nature found therein.  In thought, they accompany the moon, the sun, and the rotations of the other stars, whether fixed or wandering.  Their bodies remain on earth, but they give wings to their souls, so that, rising into the ether, they may observe the powers which dwell there, as is fitting for those who have truly become citizens of the world.
Marcus Aurelius similarly admonished himself to take the same flight: "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. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future." (Meditations 11.1.2)

And in another passage he wrote, "Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.  Further, when your talk is about mankind, view earthly things as if looking down on them from some point high above flocks, armies, farms, weddings, divorces, births, deaths, the hubbub of the law-courts, desert places, various foreign nations, festivals, funerals, markets; all the medley of the world and the ordered conjunction of opposites." (Meditations 7.47)

As stated in the previous passage from Marcus, this spiritual exercise also reminds us of the squalor of mankind; and the view invites us to rise above all this mess and to leave it behind.  "In Ovid's Metamorphoses, we find a Neo-Pythagorean version of the theme: 'It is a delight to travel along the starry firmament and, leaving the earth and its dull regions behind, to ride on the clouds, to stand upon stout Atlas' shoulders and see, far below, men wandering aimlessly, devoid of reason, anxious and in fear of the hereafter, thus to exhort them and unroll the book of fate!'" (p. 245).

Hadot states, "The view from above thus lead us to consider the whole of human reality, in all its social, geographical, and emotional aspects, as an anonymous swarming mass, and it teaches us to relocate human existence within the immeasurable dimensions of the cosmos.  Everything that does not depend on us, which the Stoics call indifferent - such as health, fame, wealth and even death - is reduced to its true dimensions when considered from the point of view of the nature of the all" (p. 245)

Hadot also quotes Lucian from his Charon, or the Inspectors.  "Charon remarks: 'If only humans could get it straight from the beginning: that they're going to die; that, after a brief stay in life, they have to depart from this life like a dream and leave everything on earth behind, then they'd live more wisely and die with fewer regrets.'" (p. 246)

Ad Astra

A popular film was released last year, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.  In Ad Astra, (spoiler alert), the protagonist played by Brad Pitt, is summoned to a mission to send a message to his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Jones' character has been on a space voyage beyond Neptune, to discover life beyond our solar system.  But the space station has been sending electrical pulses back to earth, causing major electrical disruptions and death.  This is the catalyst to send Pitt's character to make contact with his father to fix the problem.  The theory is that the father has gone rogue.

We watch the journey of Pitt's character, as he leaves earth, to travel to the moon and then to Mars.  On his voyage, we learn he has experienced regret and he wonders if he is simply running from his problems on earth.  He notes that the same discord, jealousies and animosities on earth, have followed humankind to the moon and to Mars.

After some daring maneuvers, Pitt's character meets his father on the space station near Neptune.  It would seem his father too, has been running from internal problems, in his frantic search to discover life beyond the solar system.  But alas, after thousands of scans and pictures of exoplanets and systems, he's concluded there is no life beyond the stars.  His failure has exacerbated his internal, philosophical failures as well.

Pitt's character realizes that the most amazing journey in the universe is the one to be found internally and with other people on earth.  The ending scene is him meeting an estranged wife in a coffee shop.

I think the film is very fitting in the context of the spiritual exercise of the view from above.  We don't have to travel to Neptune to get away from our problems.  We can take a mental flight, to put our problems in context, but we can remain on earth to confront and deal with the now.  We have been equipped with all that we need to lead a life of equanimity.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "'Only the Present is our Happiness': The Value of the Present Instant in Goethe and in Ancient Philosophy"

As I do often at work and at home and in many aspects of my life, let me start by stating the problem that needs to be solved.  The problem is stated in the last paragraph of the essay.
  • There is a "tragic lack of balance which has come about in the modern world between 'power' and 'wisdom.'"
  • "Modern man ... [is] hypnotized ... by language, images, information, and the myth of the future [which] seemed to us to provide one of the best means of access to this wisdom."
  • We, in post-modern society have not taken care for the self, in terms of wisdom and sound thinking.  And as such, we have allowed "all human institutions" the power of preventing us "from feeling [our] life, by means of the constant dispersion of [our] thoughts." (p. 235)
While the sentiment expressed above was written several decades ago, it rings true more than ever before, in the year 2019.  The thoughts of the majority - despite being ever so connected with the world - are constantly being dispersed (distributed and spread over a wide area).  Few focus on the weightier matters of wisdom and the love of it (philosophia).

The proposal of the essay, and one which, if carried out, might begin to tip the balance toward 'wisdom' and away from 'power,' is for the individual to "enjoy the present moment" and to "will it intensely" as a duty (p. 230).

While Hadot focuses a lot on Goethe and Epicureanism, I will limit my commentary to the Stoic aspects of the essay.

The practicing Stoic, in an attempt to keep his equanimity, will limit his focus to things in his control.  Out of his control are the past and the future.  Only the present remains in his control.  If he chooses to rehash the past, causing anxiety and consternation, he will not keep his equanimity.  If he fears the future or stews over it, he will not keep his equanimity.  But if he is mindful of the present, and keeps his judgements, actions and inner attitude in balance with nature, then he will retain his equanimity.

Marcus wrote to himself, and so too we should heed the advice:
These will suffice: the present certainty of judgement, the present social action, the present disposition well content with any effect of an external cause (Meditations 9.6)
In another passage, he repeated and expanded on the same idea of focusing on the present:
All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now - if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it was Nature that brought it to you and you to it. To justice, so that you are open and direct in word and action, speaking the truth, observing law and proportion in all you do. You should let nothing stand in your way - not the iniquity of others, not what anyone else thinks or says, still less any sensation of this poor flesh that has accreted round you: the afflicted part must see to its own concern. 
If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth. You will no longer be a stranger in your own country, no longer meet the day's events as if bemused by the unexpected, no longer hang on this or that. (Meditations 12.1)
What a beautiful passage which describes a life full of equanimity and how to achieve it.

Hadot said, "there are two reason why the present is sufficient for our happiness: in the first place, Stoic happiness is complete at every instant and does not increase over time.  The second reason is that we already possess the whole of reality within the present instant, and even infinite duration could not give us more than what we have right now" (p. 228).

Only the Present is our Happiness

If you strive, right now, to always have objective assents and judgements, and if your actions are moral actions, right now, and if you understand that the whole history of events and circumstances have brought you to this point and that they belong to you and you love your fate, now, then you will always retain your equanimity.  It could then be said, that you lack nothing - that you are content.  And like a circle, your equanimity is whole and complete, regardless of the size - it is a perfect circle.

Therefore if you can spend a few brief moments, now, in perfect harmony (i.e. a perfect circle), then the duration does not matter; only the quality of it matters.  "Happiness is nothing more nor less than that instant in which man is wholly in accord with nature" (p. 228)

Hadot quotes Chrysippus: "If a person has wisdom for one instant, he is no less happy than he who possesses it for an eternity" (p. 228).

And since all the ingredients that are needed to go into this instant of happiness are within our control, the only variable that needs to be determined is your desire for it (or not).  Happiness, therefore, is a choice that you can make in the present moment.

"What is needed is the immediate transformation of our way of thinking, acting, and accepting events.  We must think in accordance with truth, act in accordance with justice, and lovingly accept what comes to pass.  In the words of Marcus Aurelius: 'How easy it is to find oneself, right away, in a state of perfect peace of mind.'  In other words, it is enough to just want it" (p. 229).

To give a sense of urgency of the importance of our "transformation" we must always realize that death may come to us at any moment (memento mori).  "We must live each day with a consciousness so acute, and an attention so intense, that we can say to ourselves each evening: 'I have lived; I have actualized my life.' ... In the words of Seneca: 'He has peace of mind who has lived his entire life every day.'" (p. 229)

Existence is a Duty and should be Intensely Willed

I think many people lack context and awareness of their position in the universe.  Personally, I believe we are parts of a cosmos, which is one whole.  As Marcus has said before, there is divinity within each of us; and collectively, we represent the consciousness of the cosmos.  Accepting this, we must grant that other people have divinity within them and we must cooperate with them, not unlike a hand which would cooperate with a foot in playing a basketball game.

Furthermore, our interface with the cosmos is the present time and space.  All the events that have preceded me and have brought me to this point, represent the sum total of my fate.  It is uniquely mine and I ought to love it.  Hadot says, "The instant is our only point of contact with reality, yet it offers us the whole of reality; precisely because it is a passage and metamorphosis, it allows us to participate in the overall movement of the event of the world, and the reality of the world's coming-to-be" (p. 229).

Our duty, in this moment in time and space "is the harmonization of the reason within us with the reason which guides the cosmos, and produces the chain of causes and effect which makes up fate.  At each moment, we must harmonize our judgement, action, and desires with universal reason" (p. 229).

This is why Marcus said, "He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same" (Meditations 6.37).

And later on he added, "Whatever happens to you was being prepared for you from everlasting, and the mesh of causes was ever spinning from eternity both your own existence and the incidence of this particular happening" (Meditations 10.5).

Hadot continues, "At each moment and every instant, we must say 'yes' to the universe; that is, to the will of universal reason.  We must want that which universal reason wants" (p. 230).  Hence Marcus cries out:
Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you. The poet says, 'Dear city of Cecrops': will you not say, 'Dear city of Zeus'? (Meditations 4.23)
And for Seneca, he notes that the Stoic sage "plunges himself into the whole of the universe (toti se inserens mundo)" (p. 230).

This mindset helps produce, within the individual, an attitude of "giving your all" and being fully engaged with life.  It leaves behind the victim mentality and empowers the individual to carpe diem and confront the events of life.  And the more this mindset becomes entrenched in an individual, the more the individual begins to want events to happen exactly as they do.  There is no more cowering or disengagement or cordoning of "safe zones."  Rather, there is active participation in life and the whole world and cosmos becomes your home.

To finish, let me quote two passages from the essay that encapsulate what has been discussed.

"The ultimate meaning of Goethe's attitude toward the present is thus, as it was for ancient philosophy, the happiness and the duty of existing in the cosmos.  It is a profound feeling of participation in and identification with a reality which transcends the limits of the individual."

Hadot, quotes Nietzsche again in this essay (p. 235).
Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Reflections on the Idea of the 'Cultivation of the Self'"

Although a short essay, this one gave me a lot to think about, especially in this age when Stoicism has seen a resurgence and it would appear that many have embraced it for the wrong reasons.

The two ideas at odds with each other, in terms of self-cultivation are a type of "Dandyism" and a type of Stoic "transcendentalism."

The basis for Hadot's essay is the analysis of the work "The Care of the Self" by Foucault.  Foucault "meticulously describes what he terms the 'practices of the self', recommended in antiquity by Stoic philosophers.  These include the care of one's self, which can only be carried out under the direction of a spiritual guide; the attention paid to the body and the soul which the 'care of the self' implies; exercises of abstinence; examination of the conscience; the filtering of representations; and, finally, the conversion toward and possession of the self." (p. 206)  Hadot contends that these techniques are "focused far too much on the 'self', or at least on a specific conception of the self" (p. 207).

Foucault contends that these practices of the self will replace the "violent, uncertain, and temporary pleasures with a form of pleasure one takes in oneself, serenely and forever" and he cites Letter 23 from Seneca about "the best portion of oneself."

Hadot counters that the translation of "pleasure" is crucial in understanding Seneca.  "Seneca explicitly opposes voluptas [vs] gaudium - pleasure and joy."  He goes on,
This is not just a quibble over words, although the Stoics did attach a great deal of importance to words, and carefully distinguished between hedone - "pleasure" - and eupatheia - "joy".  No, this is no mere question of vocabulary.  If the Stoics insist on the word gaudium/"joy", it is precisely because they refuse to introduce the principle of pleasure into moral life.  For them, happiness does not consist in pleasure, but in virtue itself, which is its own reward.  Long before Kant, the Stoics strove jealously to preserve the purity of intention of the moral consciousness (p. 207).
Furthermore, the Stoic doesn't find joy in himself, but rather, as Seneca said, "the best portion of the self" or in "the true good" - meaning virtue.  "Joy is to be found 'in the conscience turned towards the good; in intentions which have no other object than virtue; in just actions. ... The 'best portion of oneself,' then, is, in the last analysis, a transcendent self.  Seneca does not find his joy in "Seneca", but by transcending "Seneca"; by discovering that there is within him - within all human beings, that is, and within the cosmos itself - a reason which is a part of universal reason" (p. 207).

Hadot contends "the goal of Stoic exercises is to go beyond the self, and think and act in unison with universal reason."  He goes on,
In my view, the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole.  Seneca sums it up in four words: Toti se inserens mundo, "Plunging oneself into the totality of the world."
Another contention Foucault makes, with regard to writing, is that one performs this meditative exercise as a "refusal of a mental attitude directed toward the future, and the tendency to accord a positive value to the possession of a past which one can enjoy autonomously and without worries" (p. 209).  Therefore, in Foucault's view, the writing / meditative exercise (think Marcus' Meditations) was to give one pleasure of the past and pain-avoidance of the future.

However, Hadot contends this exercise was designed to help one live in the ever-present now.  So while one might write and record dogmas that have "already been said", they do so in the context that what was best in the past (think hindsight is "20/20") therefore is best for now - the present.  "It is because one recognizes, in the dogmas of Epicurus or Chrysippus, an ever-present value, precisely because they are the very expression of reason ... one is utilizing formulae considered as apt to actualize what is already present within the reason of the person writing, and bring it to life" (p. 210)

Furthermore, "the point is not to forge oneself a spiritual identity by writing, but rather to liberate oneself from one's individuality, in order to raise oneself up to universality ... Writing ... changes the level of the self, and universalizes it.  The miracle of this exercise, carried out in solitude, is that it allows its practitioner to accede to the universality of reason within the confines of space and time" (p. 210-11).

Hadot cautions, that if people look at the spiritual exercises outlined in the essay, and in the entire book for that matter, from the perspective of "making-me-feel-better-about-myself", then they've missed the point.
What I am afraid of is that, by focusing [Foucault's] interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self - more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence - M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic.  In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style (p. 211).
He consequently believes "that it is possible for modern man to live, not as a sage (sophos) - most of the ancients did not hold this to be possible - but as a practitioner of the ever-fragile exercise of wisdom" (p. 211).  I love this particular quote from the book.  Recently, I've had this question rattling around the back of my head, as I make decisions and act in my every-day life: what is the wise thing to do/think/say?  So much of today's outrage / triggered culture, entirely overlooks the over-arching purpose of living, in order to score a few piddly "political" or Twitter points.  They sacrifice wisdom in order to be an online-Dandy.

The essay ends with a couple of quotes from Nietzsche and Marcus.  I will cite the Nietzsche one, since it popped up in this book as well as "The Inner Citadel" - and I quoted it recently in another blog post; therefore, it seems to be a very important quote - especially for me.  In this essay, Hadot says, "In the enjoyment of the pure present, he discovers the mystery and splendor of existence.  At such moments, as Nietzsche said, we say yes 'not only to ourselves, but to all existence'" (p. 212).