January 31, 2017 – Philosophy as Medicine of the Soul

“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.9

January comes to a close. Hopefully, these meditations on clarity have, at some point, helped you refocus your attention away from the distractions. I have benefitted greatly from the self-reflection that comes with evaluating past and present experiences to help illuminate the words of these meditations.

A final thought on clarity before we enter into February; the month of Passions and Emotions. Again I will consider the word of Confucius as is written in the Analects. There is an interesting observation on self-governance through shame against other-governance through laws.

“Guide the people by law, subdue them by punishment; they may shun crime, but will be void of shame. Guide them by example, subdue them by courtesy; they will learn shame, and come to be good.”

When we think of forces outside of our control pushing us into action, we may feel a degree of coercion. Is our concern the punishment for our transgressions? Do we act for the good in the manner the law demands because of the goodness, or is it because of the fear of punishment? In turn, when we internalize punishment, and by that I mean when the only person imposing their will upon us is us, is it the case that we perform in a way that is good for the sake of the good?

Marcus does not want us to see philosophy as a law we follow. That we “return to” as a means of judging us as an Other. Instead, philosophy is something that serves to aid us when we become wounded. A compass to point us back towards our peak.

So we must ask: Why must we return? Simply put, we get lost.

When I think of returning, in this context, it’s inherently from something bad. Work is stressful, I’m behind on my reading for graduate school or I’m not honoring my commitments to maintain my home. But this is far too one-sided. We can also get lost when things are going well. My work projects are flowing, my workouts are becoming more efficient and, generally speaking, my suffering is limited.

Order calms. Fluidity can be deceptive. It’s easy to see our need for Stoic philosophy when we’re stressing. It helps alleviate. When things are going well, if we fail to give attention to those habits that facilitated the fluidity, we may find ourselves lacking the clarity we once had.

The word I would use in this instance is accountability. When we practice maintaining the Stoic mind we are asking a friend to remind us of the way of clarity. It is an example that allows us to govern our own thoughts and actions. Think of Stoic philosophy this way:

“The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.” – Aristotle



January 14, 2017 – Cut the Strings That Pull Your Mind

“Understand at last that you have something in you more powerful and divine than what causes the bodily passions and pulls you like a mere puppet. What thoughts now occupy my mind? Is it not fear, suspicion desire, or something like that?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.19

For those of us who enjoy American professional football, January is the month in which the best of lot battle for a spot in the Super Bowl. Yet maybe even more entertaining than the game itself are the commercials. Companies like Doritos and Budweiser will spend millions of dollars to make us laugh or tug at our heart, with the end goal of convincing us we need their product. As Susan Gunelius wrote in her article “The Psychology And Philosophy Of Branding, Marketing, Needs, And Actions“:

“Human psychology and how it affects consumer behavior is the foundation of brand building. What do consumers need? Do they really need those things or do they just think they do? What drives them to actually take action and buy once a real or perceived need is identified?

The key words are needs and actions, and the best brand marketers paid attention to their marketing, psychology, and philosophy professors. They have seen through experience that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Aristotle’s Seven Causes of Human Action can be directly applied to consumer behavior and brand marketing. You’ll never really “get” marketing if you don’t “get” the psychology of needs and the philosophy of actions.”

Here is what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs looks like.

Photo credit to Wikipedia
Photo credit to Wikipedia

What Maslow argued is that we first seek to meet our physiological needs, and as we meet these physical needs we move towards meeting emotional needs. What I mean by physical is that we seek to meet needs that protect the survival of the body. The emotional needs are then met once we’ve attained a level of bodily security.

Aristotle thought humans acted based on the following stimuli: (link)

  1. Chance – Chance events affect us all the time and, although some have little effect in changing what we do, a number of others force us to act or otherwise motivate us into action.
  2. Nature – Natural forces are those ‘originating in the body, such as the desire for nourishment, namely hunger and thirst’ as well as other forces, such as to procreate.
  3. Compulsion – Compulsion occurs when we feel that we must act, even though we may not wish to act this way. This may be compliance with the law or dysfunctional obsessive-compulsive behavior.
  4. Habit – Habit is unthinking action, and Aristotle said ‘Acts are done from habit which men do because they have often done them before.’ Whilst compulsion is an unpleasant and un-useful repetition of action, habit is pleasant and generally useful.
  5. Reason – Aristotle points out that rational and reasoned action are to defined ends, achieving something that serves personal goals.
  6. Passion – Sometimes interpreted as ‘anger’, passion can lead to extreme action.Anger is closely related to revenge, and anger curiously lessens when there is no prospect of vengeance.
  7. Desire – Sometimes interpreted as ‘appetite’, appetite is ‘craving for pleasure’.Whilst anger serves negative motivation, ‘Appetite is the cause of all actions that appear pleasant’. Aristotle pointed out that wealth or poverty is not a cause of action, although the appetite for wealth may well motivate.

Much can be said about what these two great thinkers posited on human behavior, but for our meditation, it’s worth nothing that these two thinkers are leveraged by the advertising machine to influence how we feel, think and act. This is not to claim that they are doing so in a negative way. Their job is to convince us to buy a product. It’s up to them to make the argument, and for us to discern want versus need, need versus lifestyle. Will we buy Budweiser because we want to be that guy in that bar with that girl?

Philosopher Peter Singer has many things to say about how we spend our money. He thinks our decisions should be driven by ethical concern.

“That’s a central part of philosophy, of ethics. What do I owe to strangers? What do I owe to my family? What is it to live a good life? Those are questions which we face as individuals.”

This necessarily influences how we should act as consumers.

“We need to recognise that what really matters isn’t buying more and more consumer goods, but family, friends, and knowing that we are doing something worthwhile with our lives. Helping to reduce the appalling consequences of world poverty should be part of that reassessment.”

Where does this leave us, as consumers, when our decision-making vacillates between needs, wants and giving? We need to ask questions rather than simply reacting. Do we buy that beer? Do we donate to that charity? Do we visit that art gallery? Today’s meditation reminds us that not all of these things are worth our time. Some of these are distractions that can pull us as passions are want to do, and without careful attention, we may find ourselves distanced from that which we should value.

In America, our recent presidential election has many powers vying for our opinions on varying issues. Where are you getting your news from? What have they decided is new, and how are they presenting it? Is it giving you a broad or myopic picture? Be mindful of those well aware of how humans satisfy their needs. If we’re not paying attention we may find we’ve been leashed.