I’ve loved many bands in my life. Those I’ve loved and haven’t ceased loving. The great thing about music is how, when it’s the right music, it can be timeless. As of today, The Avett Brothers are my Sherpa. If I am being honest, it’s been that way for years.
“How does your ruling reason manage itself? For in that is the key to everything. whatever else remains, be it in the power of your choice or not, is but a corpse and smoke.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.33
Corpse and smoke. “Choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep”. Thank you, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians.
This meditation leverages a famous phrase accredited to the Roman satirist Juvenal.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
“Who watches the watchers?”
It’s an important question. What informs our Stoic mind? Think of the Snickers commercial where “you’re not you when you’re hungry”. Ever been extra pissy, or lacking focus because you haven’t eaten? Our body is but a corpse that will decompose. Our perceptions are but smoke that drifts away. Until that happens, how are we managing that which manages “us”?
Biology, chemistry, religion, neuroscience…so many things inform us as to how the world works, and how we, as people, have come to be at the place we presently reside. The knowledge we consume informs our mind, which in turn ground our reasoning. Maybe one of the easiest things to forget is exactly how we became who we are today. The experiences. The people. How we choose to manage that which manages is as important as proper exercise, a good diet, and plenty of sleep.
Or should I say informs our brain? That whole mind/body problem. Time to get more informed.
” . . . freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.175
Sometimes I think I’ve learned more from my children than what I’ve taught them. Often I come home and my daughter is singing in her room (she’s a vocal student at a local art school). My son is presently on Spring Break in Oregon, visiting his friends who work on a farm. He’s working for the week and doing some rock climbing. These are their desires, and while they have a passion for them it does not own them. I worry that it’s so because they are still young, and not soured by the world like this writer. I write the latter with a comedic tone.
My point is, and maybe this is what the youth can remind us, that the moment is what is special. We can have our goals. We can let our passions drive us. We can allow our desires to give us character. What we cannot do is let them own us to the disposal of all else.
Earlier in section 4.1, Epictetus writes:
 “For that which is not in your power to procure or keep as you wish is not your own.”
It is a common them, but surely important enough to be repetitive. The future is undetermined. One cannot lose what one never had.
When I was driving my son to Orlando for his flight we had the misfortune of getting stuck behind an accident that left us motionless on the interstate for over an hour. By the time the accident was cleared, and all involved were taken to be cared for, we had no hope of making the flight. In spite of the facts limiting us by physics, my vehicle, and the laws of Florida, we continued, arriving just as the plane’s doors were closing. While we were stopped I thought about my Stoic readings. I reminded myself that this could have both happened and not happened. That did not completely suppress the frustration at the circumstance. Was this event caused by a true accident, or was someone texting and driving?
While quietly in thought my son spoke. “If I had just arrived on time we would have missed this. But I hope everyone is ok. Someone may have lost someone they loved. I just missed a plane.” My reply: “Had we left earlier it might have been us.”
He booked another flight, and two days later I dropped him off at the airport. We did, however, leave an extra hour early. That gave me a total of 6.5 hours in a car with my son who I don’t see as often as I’d like. That made me feel very rich from the experience.
“Eat like a human being, drink like a human being, dress up, marry, have children, get politically active – suffer abuse, bear with a headstrong brother, father, son, neighbor, or companion. Show us these things so we can see that you have truly learned from the philosophers.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.21.5-6
I recently had a conversation with a close friend who I also work with. We were discussing the role of religion in a secular state (America) when he attempted to qualify what it meant to be secular, along with what it meant to be Christian. Up to this point, the conversation has been pleasant, but he was now drifting into a very dogmatic territory. For him, the secular was framed with being able to do anything one wanted, and Christianity itself was very rigid in how it should be approached. He expressed the latter with the words, “I’ve read the Bible and it says…”. It was that statement which brought my question of how he handles Christians who disagree with his theological position. Those who, for example, find problems in how the Church historically treats the Gay community, and even more “heretical”, find the idea of Hell to be theologically unfounded? His response was that 100% of the people he surrounded himself with, regarding his faith community, agreed with him.
One of my favorite bands, Adam Again (they happen to be a Christian band), have a song called “Worldwide” from the album Dig with this telling lyric:
Don’t think I’ll ever understand it
Don’t think it matters if I do
Three billion people in the world
And I only know a few
If a primary question for philosophers is “How do I live?”, we must conclude that to answer this question we must live. We cannot surround ourselves with like-minded people, or removed from others. I’m of the opinion this is what Epictetus is asking of us. Make life a participatory event. Create relationships. Learn from others. I cannot know how to be a father unless I first have a child. I cannot know how to love unless I have a subject, or object, of love. How can I understand how to be a politician unless I first come to know what others need?
A closing anecdote. I spent years somewhat hostile towards all religious systems. There was this idea that the texts which informed their followers had an absolute sentiment to the words. To put it a different way, I was very dogmatic about my loathing for dogmatism. Once I distanced myself from not wanting to be around religious people I was able to discover the nuances of how the texts were approached. Once I quit reading material that validated my existing beliefs on religion, I began to see just how complicated, and beautiful, being human is. Honestly, it all started when I, again, began living like a philosopher.
Maybe the most important takeaway from this meditation is that we are all philosophers.
“The diseases of the rational soul are long-standing and hardened vices, such as greed and ambition – they have put the soul in a straightjacket and have begun to be permanent evils inside it. To put it briefly, this sickness is an unrelenting distortion of judgement, so things that are only mildly desirable are vigorously sought after,” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 75.11
On some Sunday mornings, I’ll move through the channels on television looking for church broadcasts. I’m always interested to see what the pastors are telling their congregations. Are they spreading messages of hope? Are they asking the attendees, both present and distant, to focus on their thoughts on the good? Is there something I, a non-theist, can latch onto?
I’m also looking for seeds of prosperity theology. This is a faith position that part of God’s promise to his people will be financial well-being. If one supports Christian institutions they will receive financial rewards. Buy Christian music. Support Christian businesses. Give to Christian causes. Russell Herman Conwell’s speech “Acres of Diamonds” is seen as an example of such thought.
Conwell was many things during his life, including an American Baptist minister, lawyer, and writer. You may know him as the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. In the speech, he wrote: (source)
I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich … The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly … ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. … I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins … is to do wrong. … Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own short comings..
The bolding is mine. It is a frightening standard through which we measure other people if that standard is their financial wealth. How, additionally, might we perceive opportunity if we understand opportunity as something to be afforded to us by a god with whom we are found to be favored? Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with having money. As with Conwell, the money from this speech afforded him the opportunity to create a fine university, and after his death, the proceeds were donated to a local homeless shelter.
There is an “ends justifying the means” question at play. Is it worth the rewards that one perpetuates the idea of the poor being sinful, and they we are obligated to be rich? And to be fair this is seen in non-religious circles as well. We need only look to Wall Street for that, where folks are willing to gamble with the lives of others for their own financial success.
We must allow our rational mind to see beyond the poor judgment brought about by greed and ambition. We must be aware of how are decisions are pulling us further from being that good parent, friend, and neighbor.
36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Mark 8:36
“What is it then to be properly educated? It is learning to apply our natural preconceptions to the right things according to Nature, and beyond that to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.22.9-10a
My friend Brian Niece recently invited me to be a guest on his podcast called Reimagining. The subject of the podcast was friendship. Brian and I met while he was co-pastor at the church my wife attended, and have since become very close. We share a love for critical thinking, and in spite of our differing positions on the existence of, or access to, a deity, we have more in common than not. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Humanities while I pursue my masters in philosophy.
I share this brief bit of history to put in context how much we both value education but with a rub. As we discussed how thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius defined friendship the conversation settled into how relationships can be lost because of differing opinions and beliefs. How we cease to see the other as someone who holds convictions as passionately as we do. At times the arrogance of being educated, or well read, deceives one into thinking that is the pinnacle of being educated. It’s not. The pinnacle of being educated centers around the knowledge, but also knowing how to use it so you don’t lose friends in the process.
Approaching this meditation from the position that humans are social animals, that relationships are the foundation of how we come to know the world and ourselves, it is inconsistent to call one’s self “properly educated” if the education does not entail an acceptance that it’s only as good as how it can be shared. We must be aware or relationships afford us access to others so that we can share what we know, and in turn learn from what they know.
Our power is in having the right perspective. We must be aware that the other also has that power. It is equally true that as we learn, so do they. We cannot force it on someone, but we can ensure, through friendship, a consistent access.
“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul – especially if on close inspection it is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat, and be renewed.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.1
Just a brief observation on this meditation.
My wife is a beach person. I am a mountains person. We go to these locations because the environment affords us greater access to that peacefulness we seek. But are these environments required, or are we playing to a bias? When discussing religious belief with someone who is dogmatically committed to a specific system I will inevitably ask them what makes their belief better than others. They usually reply with the specifics of their system as being superior, but what they can’t claim as their own is the feeling others get from different systems that mirror their own.
I fully admit that my love for the mountains is primarily a desire to not be in hot, humid weather. But it’s a true statement that being on my paddle board as the sun rises gives me a feeling much like watching the sunrise over snow capped mountains. What I’m looking for is not the peacefulness of the mountains, but peacefulness itself. I must be aware that such a state has nothing to do with where I am but rather how I think.