March 25, 2017 – Wealth and Freedom Are Free


” . . . 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:

[77] “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.

March 23, 2017 – The Straightjacketed Soul


“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

March 22, 2017 – The Sign of True Education


“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.

March 21, 2017 – The Best Retreat Is In Here, Not Out There


“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.

March 19, 2017 – Timeless Wisdom


“For there are two rules to keep at the ready – that there is nothing good or bad outside my own reasoned choice, and that we shouldn’t try to lead events but to follow them.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.10.18

This meditation uses the example of Anthony de Mello. He was a very cultured man, spreading across both Eastern and Western perspectives. His quote is shared, and it’s one which greatly mirrors Epictetus.

“The cause of my irritation is not in this person but in me.”

Why reference de Mello? He started his spiritual life in the Catholic church, and would eventually become a Jesuit Priest. His initial approach was very rigid and dogmatic. As he experienced the world, he found Buddhist meditation. It challenged his prevailing spiritual views. After his passing, documents were discovered that showed his belief system deviated from that of the Catholic church, specifically noting that Jesus should be understood as a teacher and not as the son of God. (source)

Father de Mello demonstrates an appreciation for Jesus, of whom he declares himself to be a “disciple.” But he considers Jesus as a master alongside others. The only difference from other men is that Jesus is “awake” and fully free, while others are not. Jesus is not recognized as the Son of God, but simply as the one who teaches us that all people are children of God.

While a challenge to direct orthodoxy it represents how one can be led by reason (internal) as opposed to doctrine (external). We can appreciate the consequences of a choice (damnation for example), but outside of the system, any choice is either bad nor good on its own merit. Otherwise, it assumes an external judging our choice which is something, again, outside of our control. What is good or bad is the why of our choice.

The Stoic sees no need to have circumstances fit a predefined frame. Rather, as events manifest themselves we should always be aware that our reasoned choices will serve us well as we follow the path being laid out before us. We must not be afraid to change. This is timeless wisdom.

March 18, 2017 – Impossible Without Your Consent


“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

If I had a dime for every conversation I have ever had with my wife that contained “I can’t make you…” my savings account would be more comfortable. It’s an easier said than done position to hold when you are the person invoking a Stoic disposition. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether I was being difficult, or simply holding a position that wasn’t being met with agreement, my ability to maintain my ground in the realm of controlling how I approached the discussion, as opposed to letting the frustration of communication overwhelm me, brought peace and clarity.

No need to address the many times I’ve had to apologize for losing my temper.

What assumptions do we have about our jobs, relationships, or any future plans that we’ve made? Are we embracing deviation as nothing more than nature following its own logic? The meditation leverages the word hypolêpsis, which is a Greek word for how our mind judges situations. In his blog Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson talks about hypolêpsis by leveraging Pierre Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius called The Inner Citadel. Hadot wrote about three Stoic Disciplines: desire, action, and assent. Judgment can be found under assent and Robertson has this to say: (source)

According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.  These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.  By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.  The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.   I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.

None of us are sages, well maybe a few of you are, but the beauty of how Epictetus approached Stoic thought was that one wasn’t required to be a sage to have the capacity to be Stoic. These meditations are our reminder that for us to get angry requires our consent to put our thoughts secondary to the thing itself. If we are aware of the fact that we’re getting upset then we can make strides to change how we’ll react to the circumstance. Neither Aurelius nor Epictetus, for that matter, require perfection. The very fact that they speak to the problem of vices and passions indicates it’s something we all contend with. Don’t get frustrated if you find yourself losing your mindful footing, remember you can always get it back.

March 17, 2017 – The Beauty of Choice


“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b-40a

Another hiatus from the daily meditations finds me powering through a Tuesday in an effort to get level. Now is a good time to remind those who honor me with their visits that my goal with these blog posts is to share what I consider the timeless wisdom of the Stoics in an effort to approach life in the best way possible. Each day presents us with opportunities to be distracted by external forces, and the Stoics remind us those things are beyond our control. We only have power over how we respond. I am not asking anyone to become a follower of Stoic thinking. In fairness, I’m not sure I can distance myself from some of the emotional attachments I have for people. Example: If a loved one where to pass on I don’t see myself moving forward with “well I only had them on loan from nature”. But we can choose the words of these great Stoics as guides in how not to be consumed by the actions of others or the acquisition of things.

Which leads me to this meditation. Beautiful choices. Oh how deep we could go just discussing what it means to say something is beautiful. Let’s briefly frame how beauty works using relationships. You are at a club/bar and you see an attractive person. You walk up to them and strike up a conversation. While completely taken with the color of their hair, the shape of their face, and their general sexuality of appearance the more they talk the less attractive they become. In spite of the designer clothes and athletic physique, the words coming out of their mouth are like mud on a rose. How does this happen?

We are not what we wear, what we drive, or what we own. These are appearances. Our choices make up the story of who we are. When the clothes go out of style, when the car breaks down, and when our possessions cease to be ours we are only left with person that his behind our name. It is important that we look beyond the appearances of others, and that we are aware of the choices we make that simply feed an appearance.

Isn’t interesting how what is beautiful has changed over history. Simply look at how people are presented in works of art. Beauty has not always been thin, fit people. Or those who look well tanned.

One thing that represents beautiful choices are the friends we choose to surround ourselves with. Consider the words of Confucius.

“Having three kinds of friends will be a source of personal improvement; having three other kinds of friends will be a source of personal injury. One stands to be improved by friends who are true, who make good on their word, and who are broadly informed; one stands to be injured by friends who are ingratiating, who feign compliance, and who are glib talkers.”