March 13, 2017 – One Day It Will All Make Sense


“Whenever you find yourself blaming providence, turn it around in your mind and you will see what has happened is in keeping with reason.” – Epictetus, Discourse, 3.17.1

This semester I’m taking a class on role ethics. Last Tuesday we were asked for paper topics, more specifically if we had a thesis and brief summary. After sharing what I had my  professor was constructively critical. He asked that a look more for an argument, and present the material less like a blog post. Initially I was taken aback. Blogs can be valuable sources of information, or, like what I’m attempting to do here, can offer insight into a mode of thinking about being human.

He was correct in his assessment. There is a distinct difference between making an argument and offering an opinion. An argument discloses the complexity of a position. It takes into account both the argument and counter argument. The argument forces us to use reason to appreciate what we can understand, but also what is unknown.

Today’s meditation focuses on how we can be myopic about the complexity of the world. What happens when we don’t get our way? Do we react with anger, or frustration? It’s easy to get caught in the idea that there is but one way to reach a goal. If there is any deviation, if it requires more time than expected, then we feel slighted.

This is an illusion. What do we know of the future that presumes a greater benefit from the plan we laid out? How sure are we that what we think we want is best for us? What if our loss is a more important gain for someone else? It is much easier to look back on what has happened, and through reason make sense of the circumstances. Knowing this why would we allow ourselves to be overcome when things don’t go our way?

Lastly, Epictetus would ask that we consider more important the interior of the person, what guides them, rather than focus on results.

[2] ‘Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better.’ In what? In money. For in that regard he has the better of you because he flatters people, because he has no shame, because he stays awake at night. Is there anything surprising in that? [3] But look to see whether he is better than you in being trustworthy and honest. Because you’ll find that not to be the case; but rather, in those things in which you’re superior to him, you’ll find that you’re the one who is better off.

Life has many moving parts, and we are but one of them.

 

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March 11, 2017 – Living Without Restriction


“The unrestricted person, who has in hand what they will in all events, is free. But anyone who can be restricted, coerced, or pushed into something against what they will is a slave.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.128b-129a

I’m going to dig into my bag of bands, again. This time we’re touching down in the 80’s. The band is The Bolshoi, and the song is “Someone’s Daughter” from their album “Friends”.

I wish I knew the secret of success
Then I could laugh about it, I could say I couldn’t care less
I don’t want to wait for the dinner plate (No Way)
Is there any hope for the record plate (Today)
I don’t see no sign, I don’t see no sign
I just got to get out there and find the thing and make it mine

Oh, here it comes again that old feeling
I’ve had since I don’t know when, don’t ask me to explain, no
I’m no different, I’m the same, yes
There was once a time when I knew how to (Do Things)
I just don’t care, very debonair (No Strings)
I’ve had lesson one, I’ve had lesson one
If you get half of what you want out of this life, you’re lucky son

So much to be unpacked. First, if we’re looking for signs to tell us what to do, we’re living under restrictions. Second, if we’re waiting for permission to launch ourselves into the hands of fate, we’re living under restrictions. Lastly, do we really want to be in a position where we feel lucky to get half of what we want out of this life?

In 4.1 Epictetus uses the example of being a Senator, while still being a slave. He asks:

[17] Were you never ordered by your beloved to do something that you didn’t want to do? Have you never flattered your little slave? Have you never kissed his feet? And yet, if you were compelled to kiss Caesar’s feet, you’d regard that as an outrage and the height of tyranny. Is slavery anything other than that, then?

The key here is to understand what it means to do something you don’t want to do. In the time of Epictetus, slaves performed many tasks that allowed freemen higher pursuits. Some slaves were treated well, so well that they were allowed to keep some of the money made from labor. Others were treated like a piece of property. The very idea of kissing a slave’s feet implies an act of freedom, where kissing Caesar’s is more of a demand. There is a significant difference in doing something for someone you love as an order, and doing it because you want to make them happy even if you would rather be elsewhere.

What burden does restriction put upon us? How should we oppose it? He defines the want of freedom in very extreme terms.

[29] That is why we call free only those animals that won’t put up with captivity, but escape through death as soon as they’re captured.

It’s an important question to ask: how am I living? Am I aware of what I’m giving up for the nice car, house, and other material trappings? Am I forced to march to the orders of someone in charge, or am I being led by someone who appreciates my voice? Who respects me?

When we value freedom above things our world, and live, surely has greater meaning.

March 4, 2017 -Awareness Is Freedom


“The person is free who lives as they wish, neither compelled, nor hindered, nor limited – whose choices aren’t hampered, whose desires succeed, and who don’t fall into what repels them. Who wished to live in deception – tripped up, mistaken, undisciplined, complaining, in a rut? No one. These are base people who don’t live as they wish; and so, no base person is free.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.1-3a

Epictetus frames good and bad persons in a very specific context. Not by virtue, but rather based on those who do and do not live freely. Surely you’ve heard the old saying which refers to anger as allowing someone to have control over you. How many of us want to live angrily? When we do this we are, in fact, living by the words and actions of others. Do you recall times in which you’ve actually been angry because someone else isn’t angry at the very situation that angered you?

I’m going to my music well, to one of my favorite bands: The Avett Brothers. From the True Sadness album, this is a lyric from “Ain’t No Man”.

You got to go somewhere, ain’t that true?
Not a whole lotta time for me or you
Got a whole lotta reasons to be mad, let’s not pick one
I live in a room at the top of the stairs
I got my windows wide open and nobody cares
And I got no choice but to get right up when the song comes through

Yes, there are many reasons to be mad, but why pick any? Here lies truth for me. I set out to post observations on these meditations daily, and yet I’ll go from consistent to inconsistent. Why? If I had awareness of why I could correct it. Envoke discipline. Succeed. Be a good person. It’s a simple goal, but the awareness of the simple will lead to habits for the complex.

March 3, 2017 -(Dis)integration


“These things don’t go together. You must be a unified human being, either good or bad. You must diligently work either on your own reasoning or on things out of your control – take great care with the inside and not what’s outside, which is to say, stand with the philosopher, or else with the mob.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.15.13

The translation used for this meditation is an interesting one, and frankly, I find it to misrepresent the quote. I’m reading from Discourse, Fragments, Handbook, author  Epictetus, translated by Robin Hard, with Christopher Gill as a contributor. In this translation this selection reads:

“These things don’t go together. You must be just one man, either good or bad; you must devote your efforts either to ruling your centre or to external things; in other words, you must assume the part either of a philosopher or of a layman.”

The selection, 3.15, is titled “That we should approach everything with circumspection”. To be circumspect is to be thoughtful. To carefully consider one’s options. Epictetus is asking us to take into account what comes before and after the actions we undertake. For example, in 13.5.2-3 he states:

“(2) ‘I want to win Olympic victory.’ Well, consider what comes before and what follows after, and only then, if there is any advantage for you in it, actually set to work. (3) You must accept the discipline, submit to a diet, abstain from eating cakes, train under orders, at a fixed time, in heat or cold, and you mustn’t drink cold water or wine just as you wish; in short, you must give yourself up to trainer as you would to a doctor,”

I have a wonderful personal trainer. Lisa isn’t my full-time trainer, but a group of us get together once a week, and if I have no conflict I will attend. Apart from a wonderful community of people, Lisa is an amazing motivator. When I started working with her she asked me what my physical goals were, and she created workouts for me to perform on my own that were geared towards meeting those goals. Unfortunately, leveraging yesterday’s meditation of measuring one’s self, what I thought I could accomplish was much below my abilities and I ended up injuring myself. But that’s another story.

During one of our Wednesday night workouts, I joked with Lisa about my love for Oreo cookies. I actually sent her a picture of me on the cookie aisle in front of the many flavors that Oreo offers us. Lisa reminded me that I would never reach my fitness goal if my diet consisted of Oreos. Not only did I have to exercise, but I had to maintain a quality diet that didn’t work against my exercising.

Epictetus is asking us to consider what is most important: the internal or the external. Do we go with appearances, or do we develop a strong core? The mob moves without thinking. We cannot be part of the mob. We must be aware of the importance of how our thoughts will drive our actions, and our actions must take into account not only the planning but also the outcome. Am I willing to give myself to Lisa as my personal trainer? Am I willing to follow her dietary requirements? Am I willing to put forth the effort during her routines?

It’s easy when one’s trainer (or teacher) is inspirational, but as people, we may not come with the best attitude and the same is true for the trainer. The trainer is external and out of our control. Our attitude is all ours. It is a waste of my time, and Lisa’s, if I’m not committed so it’s important to ensure my mind is well kept. Don’t let that Oreo distract you.

March 1, 2017 – Where Philosophy Begins


“An important place to begin in philosophy is this: a clear perception of one’s own ruling principle.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.26.15

What is your ruling principle? I once thought philosophy held my answers. Heck, I once thought religion held my answers. At some point, I realized it is my reasoning. For example, I looked to both philosophy and religion for answers. Why did I choose one over the other? Why do some choose religions over philosophy? We use our ability to reason as a means of determining how we will act. What we will believe.

When we are aware of how we operate, at our core, there is clarity. We can understand not only what we’ve done, but also how to repeat it or correct. Philosophy, or religion, is simply a framework we operate within. I lean towards Existentialism. Others may prefer Empiricism. What makes this so great, whatever framework our reason guides us to, there we find a reason to…live.

Tennessee Williams puts a comedic spin on this self-awareness:

“There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.”

I can’t recommend the second option, but that third option seems palatable. While he is presenting a solution to deal with our physical who, we can take this into the Stoic realm of natural purpose. If we get a clear look at who we are we will see that we are beings that can reason. That is all we’ll ever be. Let’s accept that because it’s beautiful.

February 28, 2017 – When You Lose Control


“The soul is like a bowl of water, and our impressions are like the ray of light falling upon the water. When the water is troubled, it appears that the light itself is moved too, but it isn’t. So, when a person loses their composure, it isn’t their skills and virtues that are troubled, but the spirit in which they exist, and when that spirit calms down so do those things.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.3.20-22

Our last meditation of February, the month of passions and emotions. For me, this was a difficult and rewarding month. It made me face some personal habits that have burdened me for some time. Did you encounter such truth?

I love the imagery Epictetus gives us. Have you ever come upon a lake, and the wind is creating havoc on the water. Birds are incapable of resting due to the frequency of the waves. The following day is completely different. As the weather changes so do the state of the water. Now calm, ducks and swans may occupy the space where waves once did.

When you embrace the Stoic approach, when it becomes something you practice, you do not lose that skill. As Epictetus reminds us, it’s simply a break in composure. The waters will calm.

Here’s U2’s “Out of Control”. Enjoy.

March brings us awareness.

February 27, 2017 – Cultivating Indifference Where Others Grow Passion


“Of all the things that are, some are good, others bad, and yet others indifferent. The good are virtues and all that share in them; the bad are vices and all that indulge them; the indifferent lie in between virtue and vice and include wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, and pain.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.19.12b-13

My friend Richard and I were walking to lunch the other day and he asked me if anything was wrong. I seemed, he noted, incredibly reserved and he couldn’t read me very well. Having seen my Daily Stoic book on my desk, he asked if this was the impact of the book.

Victory!

The day was gorgeous, and I was simply taking in the birds, breeze, clear sky, and good company.

All that you have will disappear. Either while you’re alive, or when you pass. And when you’re gone you won’t care either way. Remember, when Epictetus talks about passions he’s not talking about feelings. Rather, he’s talking about those things that swing us into areas of vice. Those things that push us off our middle path between the excesses that both virtue and vice can bring.