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.”

March 12, 2017 – Seeing Things As the Person at Fault Does


“Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you’ll feel compassion, instead of astonishment or rage. For you may yourself have the same notions of good and evil, or similar ones, in which case you’ll make allowance for what they’ve done. But if you no longer hold the same notions, you’ll be more readily gracious for their error.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.26

I want to share the questions that close this meditation.

How much more tolerant and understanding would you be today if you could see the actions of other people as attempts to do the right thing? Whether you agree or not, how radically would this lens change your perspective on otherwise offensive or belligerent actions?

In Roger T. Ames’ book Confucian Role Ethics, A Vocabulary, he presents the question (p 163) of how a son should cover for his father, and a father for his son. The heart of the question lies in role ethics and justice. Let’s assume a father steals something and his son witnesses it. The son could go to the authorities and have his father arrested, or he could confront his father and allow him to make good on this act which soils the father’s virtue. Which is the appropriate thing to do? From a Confucian role ethics perspective, the community is better served through retribution done so that relationships are not severed. I read this as a distinction between State law as coercive, the laws which we truly choose to live by.

What if our first thought wasn’t to seek vengeance or justice against those who have harmed us? Obviously, there are measures of extremes and at times such extremes might find us less willing to understand the “why”. But we can take this quote to be more in line with someone who thinks what they’re doing is right, and that right thing is in conflict with our right thing. It’s not giving into a passion because we feel slighted. Not assuming we are the direct target of the act or words.

It boils down to us being aware that others have reasons for the things they do. If we have such an awareness, we may find that we value the relationship above all else because we seek to observe from an others eyes. Isn’t this also a type of freedom?

March 9, 2017 – Find the Right Scene


“Above all, keep a close watch on this – that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t you’ll be ruined . . . you must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends . . . if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.2.1;4-5
My daughter recently asked me what I thought made a good marriage. I told her it’s the friendship of two people who are committed to making each other better people. But this isn’t isolated to marriage. In general, friendship is best when those we choose to spend time with those who elevate us above our present state.
In The Analects, Confucius writes:
9.25   The Master said, “Take doing your utmost (zhong) and making good on your word (xin) as your mainstay. Do not befriend anyone who is not as good as you are. And where you have gone astray, do not hesitate to mend your ways.”

Understanding the Chinese words will benefit this meditation. Zhong can be understood as loyalty in one’s duties. In this context, it’s doing the best in whatever one does, not one’s best in a specific task. Xin can only be achieved through proper relationships. For us to be trustworthy there must be someone who trusts us. It speaks directly to the value of friendship.

It is debatable what Confucius is asking of us when he tells us who to befriend. Considering his emphasis on defining the self through relationships I do not see him asking us to disassociate from those beneath us. Friendship, in this instance, is the pinnacle relationships in the hierarchy of relationships. Friendship should be understood apart from acquaintances or colleagues. Does this sound harsh? Maybe, but is it lacking truth? If our friendships are predicated on mutually improving each other then those friendships will not be lost. Acquaintances may come and go, and we shouldn’t treat them with any less respect, but friendships are those relationships which are lasting.

Another truth: Change is inevitable. We will either change for the better, or for the worse. If our friends become bothered by positive changes (with the reciprocal being as true) we will find ourselves with the decision to remain as they want us or to move on.

In the same section Epictetus also writes:

4.3: Choose, then, which you prefer: to be held in the same affection as before by your former friends by remaining as you used to be, or else become better than you were and no longer meet with the same affection.

We must be aware of who we are letting into our lives, and what their influence is on us. Equally, we must be aware of how we are influencing others.

 

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 28, 2017 – Watching the Wise


“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38

Who do you admire?

What do you read?

What do you watch?

Junk in, junk out is real.

My recent readings on Confucian ethics expresses the importance of observing others to better understand how to act. There are what is called Four Books that represent the evolving thought of Confucianism: Analects of ConfuciousGreat LearningZhongyong and Mencius. I would like to highlight two quotes from the first and third works. Entry 20 of the Zhongyong speaks to what is the proper way of human beings.

“The proper way of human beings encourages proper governing; the way of the earth encourages planting and growing.”

From Analects:

“I used to take on trust a man’s deeds after having listened to his words. Now having listened to a man’s words I go on to observe his deeds.”

We are what we consume. We see the world through the ideas we act upon. Our words have an impact on the message we are trying to convey. We need leaders to follow, and at some point, we’ll be leaders to others. What type of leader do you want to be? Who are you following, today, that is preparing you for that role?

January 15, 2017 – Peace is in Staying the Course


“Tranquility can’t be grasped except by those who have reached an unwavering and firm power of judgment – the rest constantly fall and rise in their decisions, wavering in a state of alternatley rejecting and accepting things. What is the cause of this back and forth? It’s because nothing is clear and they rely on the most uncertain guide – common opinion.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 95.57b-58a

Knowing where you want to go is not about getting there without failure. It is about maintaining a direction with the full confidence that where you are going, and how you are getting there, is not predicated upon what others may say about your path and destination. But that also doesn’t mean we should refrain from looking to others for advice, or as a baseline for our self-evaluation.

In his Analects, Confucius writes about the roles one should assume within a society. His “Role Ethics” details the means by which we can achieve desired virtues, but to do so requires us to interact with others. The key is grounded in who you surround yourself with. From whom you seek trusted feedback.

“The Master said, “Take doing your utmost (zhong) and making good on your word (xin) as your mainstay. Do not befriend anyone who is not as good as you are. And where you have gone astray, do not hesitate to mend your ways.” Analect 9.25

As has been noted, the Stoic does not seek the path of the monk. Isolation is not where we find ourselves if we are working to achieve the goal. Establishing valuable relationships is equally important as establishing clarity of mind. Both demand firm judgment.

Staying the course does not mean venturing out alone.