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.