Moving On

Hello everyone. This will more than likely be my final post on this WordPress blog. But, that does not mean that I am going to stop writing! In fact quite the opposite. I am simply moving from one blogging platform to another.

I have decided to move over to the Ghost blogging platform. Personally, I like the way that Ghost looks and operates quite a bit more than WordPress, and with my own scant amount of Web Dev knowledge, I was able to setup my own self hosted website! So you can now find me at my own site https://thesecularstoic.com/.

I am starting a fresh slate over there, but you may see some very similar and revised posts ported from this site to that one at some point. I will also be cross posting over on Medium as well, using their blog post import functionality. So if that is more up your alley feel free to check that out.

A big part of this move is deciding that I would like to try and post more regularly, as a part of my own practice in Stoic Philosophy. So I have made it a goal to make one post every week at the new blog. It will be interesting to see how long I can keep that up. I didn’t end up posting on this blog as nearly as much as I would of liked for a variety of reasons, but I am happy with what I accomplished here.

For those of you who have subscribed to and commented on this blog already, thank you for all of your support! If you are interested in seeing how this journey continues, as well as what I will come up with in the future, please head on down to my new site, and if you are so inclined, you can subscribe to it here.

I will sign off with a passage from Seneca, which I believe epitomizes part of why I started this blog in the first place, and why I am continuing on elsewhere.

Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it. – Seneca, Letter 6.4

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On Marcus Book IV

From time to time, I like to post on the r/Stoicism subreddit, where I attempt to answer questions, clarify concepts, or just read about what other people are posting on Stoicism. I find that trying to answer questions and clarify ideas greatly helps my own understanding of the material at hand.

Recently, somebody asked for help understanding what Marcus meant in Book 4.1, as they found certain parts of it to be confusing. I gave a relatively lengthy response, and figured that it might be interesting to some folks here to see what I wrote.

For those of you that do not have a copy of Meditations handy, the Robin Hard translation (my favorite translation) of Meditations 4.1 goes like this:

When the ruling power within us is in harmony with nature, it confronts events in such a way that it always adapts itself readily to what is feasible and is granted to it. For it attaches its preference to no specific material; rather, it sets out to attain its primary objects, but not without reservation, and if it comes up against something else instead, it converts it into material for itself, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it. These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of that very material to leap even higher. – Meditations, 4.1

In my response I tried to break down the passage line by line, so lets do that again here to see what it says in detail.

When the ruling power within us is in harmony with nature, it confronts events in such a way that it always adapts itself readily to what is feasible and is granted to it.

The ruling power within us is our (will/character/reason). When we adapt these thing to be in line with the way reality actually is, we can easily adapt to events based on what is actually possible for us.

For it attaches its preference to no specific material; rather, it sets out to attain its primary objects, but not without reservation,

We generally have preferences that we seek (the Stoic’s preferred indifferents), such as good health. It is ok to seek these things, but only with an added reservation ‘if nothing prevents it’ or rather ‘fate permitting’. This is the Stoic archer, who aims at what is preferred, but when they let go of the arrow, they understand that the result is no longer up to them.

and if it comes up against something else instead, it converts it into material for itself, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it.

All obstacles that come our way in life, can be converted into material for growth by a virtuous character.

These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of that very material to leap even higher.

We do not control what happens to us, but a virtuous character, even just a character that is striving to be virtuous, is no small lamp, but a blazing fire that can convert all obstacles into a chance to be more virtuous. We can make use of obstacles in the same way that a fire makes use of wood to grow and increase in size.

And a further note below.

I recently finished reading through William O. Stephens’s, Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and honestly cannot recommend it enough if you are looking for deeper insight into what Marcus is trying to say. William ties it all together very well with some interesting insights. He actually talks on this very part of Book 4. I think he overall puts it better than I, so here is an excerpt from his book:

A second elemental image Marcus uses to describe the invincible mind is a blazing fire. Isn’t it enough, Marcus asks himself, to live his brief life right? He think he’s missing the raw material, namely, the opportunities. What is any of this but training for his logos, in life observed accurately and scientifically? Marcus urges himself to keep at it until it’s full digested. As a strong stomach digests whatever it eats, and as a blazing fire takes whatever you throw on it and makes it light and flame, so too Marcus strives to train his logos to convert everything that happens to him into good actions and right living (x. 31). Our logos (reason) has this extraordinary power to deal with whatever comes its way.

Marcus writes that our inward power, a rigorously trained, rationally empowered mind, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces, to what is possible. This mind needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. it turns obstacles into fuel as a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s throw on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it, and makes it burn still higher (iv. 1).

The well-trained mind is not only unharmed by so-called obstacles, it is actually strengthened by all challenges that confront it. More than simply enduring what occurs, such a mind obeys nature by embracing what happens to it. The inner strength and resilience of the virtuous mind radiate continuously from it. – William O. Stephens Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 5, Virtues, Vices, and Junk: The Self Cleaning Spring and the All Consuming Fire

Hopefully that was interesting to some of you. I find the imagery and insights in this passage to be very inspirational, as well as a helpful reminder on how to deal with present difficulties.

 

Stoicism and Testicular Cancer (Part 2)

I thought that I would have made a follow up post to this much sooner than I did, and that I would be recounting the post diagnosis events in detail, so that I could look back on it at some point and re-read it all. But as I was writing those details out, it seemed more like I was just opening an old wound to see how much it hurt, and how much pain I could take. I wasn’t actually helping myself that way. I wasn’t reflecting, I was ruminating.

So I am going to try to take a different approach here and just summarize what happened:

  • Back in November of last year, I was diagnosed with Testicular cancer.
  • I made the decision to take care of it within a week of the diagnosis.
  • I had the testicle with the tumor in it surgically removed.
    • Nurses on the whole are pretty awesome.
    • Getting a catheter put in you is not super fun, but it is bearable.
    • My family and friends are pretty awesome.
  • I only had to take a week off from work to recover from surgery, and was back to feeling 100% within about a month and a half.
  • Turns out, I caught the cancer in the earliest stage possible, looks like it didn’t really have the chance to spread based on the biopsy.
  • I need to have periodic blood labs and CAT scans done for the next 2 years to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back, if it does I will need chemotherapy, but it is still very treatable, even in that situation.
  • I should be fine, but I still need to go to a sperm bank to have my fertility double checked.

Overall it was a difficult experience, but on the whole, I am proud of how I dealt with it. It is still somewhat difficult to think about and deal with at times, especially since there is still a degree of uncertainty left, but life is always full of uncertainty, that is just the way it is. My second blood lab to keep an eye on the cancer is tomorrow.

My studies in Stoic theory and practice continue as they always have, just with a little more perspective now. In the end, Marcus puts it best:

So henceforth, in the face of every difficulty that leads you to feel distress, remember to apply this principle: this is no misfortune, but to bear it with a noble spirit is good fortune. – Meditations, 4.49

Stoicism and Testicular Cancer (Part 1)

This multi-part post is going to act as a catharsis for me more than anything, but I think there will still be some value in sharing it with others. Last November I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In these next few posts I am going to attempt to document what I went through the past few months, along with how I used Stoicism to help and guide me through the ordeal.

This all started roughly in October, the week before Halloween. While I was washing myself in the shower I noticed that something felt strange. My right testicle felt harder than usual. It was fairly easy to tell something was off since I did indeed have two testicles to compare against. One testicle was squishy, the other was not so squishy anymore.

Now thankfully I had a pretty decent health class in high school where we talked about these kinds of things, so the idea of testicular cancer did flash into my mind for a moment. At that point though, I figured there was no reason to jump to conclusions right away. Perhaps I had somehow hurt myself while rolling around in my sleep or during some other activity. I was not in any real pain, so I decided that I would keep an eye on it for a week to see what happened and go from there.

After waiting for a week it had not gotten better. The hardness was still there, and now I was starting to get minor shooting pains in my testicles as well. At this point I had a bit of an internal struggle, a decision to make. Do I wait longer to see if this goes away on its own? Or do I go see a doctor? Going to see a doctor was not a very appealing option at the time. After moving the Brooklyn I had not found a new Primary Care Physician (PCP), and since I am relatively healthy, I had actually not been to the doctors once in over four years.

This meant that I would have to go through the process of finding a new doctor in NYC that accepted my insurance, he would have to check me out downstairs, and it would hopefully not be awful. I decided to ask the two people who I knew had a lot of experience with finding doctors, my parents. They were able to give me some good advice on where to look, and I was able to schedule an appointment for a physical.

Surprisingly enough, this was probably one of the most difficult and critical steps of the entire process. I could of very easily ignored what was going on, blown it off, and moved on. Health is a preferred indifferent after all right? It doesn’t really matter whether I get sick or not, I can still live a good life, at least, according to the Stoics. But I also remembered that while my health and my body are a preferred indifferent, the use of my body, and the choices I make about it are not an indifferent. How I use what I have is what matters, that is where virtue comes, from your choices. I figured the wise choice would be to get checked.

I am also fond of Immanuel Kant and some of his ideas. For those of you that are not familiar, Kant is all about Dentology (rules and duties). You have duties to others that you must morally fulfill, but, you also have duties to yourself as an individual. I felt that if I just ignored this issue, I would be neglecting a duty that I owed myself.

So I went and got my physical. The doctor examined me and agreed that something felt off. He immediately mentioned that testicular cancer was a possibility, and if that was the case, that I would probably need my testicle removed. He said that I needed to get a sonogram of my testicles to check and make sure. He also made sure to mention that even if it was testicular cancer, that the vast majority of people went on to live normal lives afterwards. He recommended a couple of places where I could get a sonogram, and said that it wasn’t urgent, but that I should get one sooner rather then later.

At this point, I was just glad that I had made the right decision to get checked out, that something was indeed off as I had suspected. I told myself again, just like before, at this point it was too soon to say anything for sure, that there was no reason to freak out  or think I had an issue yet.

I recalled a quote from Seneca

Yet what could be more senseless than suffering over what had not yet happened? Rather than awaiting future trials, you are summoning them to your side! Better you should delay them if you cannot dispel them altogether. – Seneca, Letter 74.33

Even though this was my primary mode of thought at the time, I knew it was important to not push testicular cancer off the table as an option entirely. If I rejected that as a possibility, if I said that there was no way it could happen to me, and then it did, I would be far worse off than if I accepted that fact that it was a real possibility.

Yield not to adversity, trust not to prosperity. Fix your eyes on fortune’s privilege, thinking that whatever can happen to you will indeed happen. What has been long expected is easier when it comes. – Seneca, Letter 78.28

You might feel like Seneca is contradicting himself in these two passages, but he isn’t really. In the first passage, he is saying that there is no point in suffering now over something that hasn’t happened yet, that it actually makes no sense because you just end up suffering twice. In the second passage he is suggesting that you do a premeditation of adversity. To realize that anything can happen to you, that nothing is truly off the table. And that when you accept this, then, if some trouble really does come your way, you will be better prepared for it.

Seneca combines these two ideas into one in a later letter:

Wisdom lies in combining the two: you should neither hope without doubting nor doubt without hoping. – Letter 104.12

This is some of the best advice out there in dealing with unknown events that may happen in the future. It helped me a great deal during these early stages.

So I scheduled my sonogram at a Radiology Clinic in Brooklyn for the next week. It was a bit of a trip to get there from my apartment. A 40 minute subway ride into a part of Brooklyn I had never visited before. Little did I realize that the clinic I had scheduled an appointment with was in one of the worst parts of Brooklyn. I realized as soon as I got out of the subway station that I stuck out like a sore thumb in that area.

My first reaction was “uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t be here”. But then I thought about it for a little and remembered that the Stoics always had a cosmopolitan outlook, that these were human beings just like me, and that at this moment, they didn’t deserve any of  the judgement that I was about to pass on them.

If he did wrong, the ill lies with him; but perhaps he did not. – Meditations 9.38

The above passage is saying that if someone does wrong, that choice lies with them, but also, it is possible that they did not do anything wrong at all. It is difficult to know the actions, intentions, and circumstances of other people, so we should not be so quick to judge others.

Another relevant passage that came to mind is as follows:

But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is right; and of the bad, and seen that it is wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own – not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and this in a portion of the divine – I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelid, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away form him is surely to work against him. – Meditations 2.1

One technique that I have picked up from these ideas, which has been suggested and mentioned elsewhere, is that in awkward situations like this, that we should call other people our “brothers and sisters” (internally in our heads at least, not out loud). It makes it much more difficult to have any sort of negative or apprehensive thoughts towards other people when you think of them in this way. It is also true in a sense like Marcus says, we may not be related by blood, but we still have a shared humanity with one another. As social animals we were made to work together, so, lets work together.

I made it to the radiology clinic without any issues, and, still sticking out like a sore thumb, filled out the required paperwork, waited, and was eventually called in for my sonogram. This, I can tell you, was probably one of the most awkward parts of the ordeal. I got to lay down in a chair with my testicles exposed, while a guy with a bunch of goopy gel and a plastic wand got to rub my testicles for 30 minutes in-order to scan them. I was periodically told to clench like I was going to the bathroom, probably so that the technician could get a better scan of the testicles in different raised and lowered states, but for the most part, I was just lying there still the whole time.

I don’t know if there are any Stoic exercises that apply to this situation in particular, but I can say that doing simple mindfulness meditation, and counting my breath, was very helpful. It allowed the time pass by more quickly and also kept me relatively relaxed.

After the scan was finished, I was told that they would send the results to their radiologist to be checked, and that I could get my own copy of the results on a CD, which I did. Their radiologist would call my doctor with the final results, which would happen within a few days.

That was all done on a Saturday. I figured it would take a little while to get the results, probably not till Wednesday. I ended up getting a phone call from my doctor that Monday morning while I was at work. I was busy at the time and didn’t have the doctor added as a contact, so he had left a message on my cell phone. The message went something like this “Hi, we got your results back. It isn’t very good news…but it could be worse…I guess…call me back when you have the chance”.

At that point my heart-rate skyrocketed and I probably went into high octane adrenaline mode for about 30 seconds. I thought to myself, ok, this is officially happening, I probably have cancer. After calming down a bit I called the doctor back, he wasn’t available and I was told he would call me back when he had a chance. Great, more waiting. I tried to go back to work and keep myself occupied for the meantime, probably not getting too much work done in the process.

I got a phone call back from the doctor withing an hour or so. He confirmed what I had thought. Yes, I had a tumor, it was most likely testicular cancer, I very likely needed to have my testicle removed, and I needed to schedule an appointment with a specialist now. Ok, time to get busy.

What should a philosopher say then, in the face of each of the hardships of life? ‘It is for this that I’ve been training myself; it is for this that I was practicing.’ – Epictetus, Discourses 3.10.7

 

Seneca’s Letters with Translations

Seneca is potentially my favorite Roman Stoic, I am especially fond of his Letters to Lucilius. Some of you might be interested in reading Seneca’s letters, but are not sure which translation to get.

Personally I own two different translations of Seneca’s letter, they are Letters from a Stoic translated by Robin Campbell and Letters on Ethics translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long. There is also the public domain translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is included in the Loeb Classic edition.

I thought it would be interesting to compare translations so that people might have a better idea as to which translation suites their preferences the most. My personal favorite is Letters on Ethics, as the language is slightly more modern,  it includes all of Seneca’s Letters instead of a few hand picked ones, and contains extensive footnotes.

An additional comment about the Letters from a Stoic edition, it lists the letters in Roman numeral format, so if I am looking for letter 88, hoping that it is in there (since the book only contains certain hand picked letters), I need to figure out what 88 is in Roman numerals (it is LXXXVIII), and the letters are not indexed in the book’s table of contents, so that is a slight annoyance. Hopefully these snippets will help you figure out which translation you might like more!

Letter 2

Letters from a Stoic

But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First , having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

Letters on Ethics

Indeed, it is not poverty if it is cheerful: the pauper is not the person who has too little but the one who desires more. What does it matter how much is stashed away in his strongbox or his warehouses, how much he has in livestock or in the interest income, if he hands on another’s possessions, computing not what has been gained but what there is yet to gain? Do you ask what is the limit of wealth? Having what one needs, first of all; then, having enough. Farewell.

Loeb Classic

Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell.

Letter 16

Letters from a Stoic

It is clear to you, I know, Lucilius, that no none can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even t he beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. Yet this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened, and given deeper roots through daily reflection; making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good become a disposition to good.

Letters on Ethics

I’m sure you realize, Lucilius, that no one can live a truly happy life, or even a bearable life, without philosophy; also, that while it is complete wisdom that render a life happy, even to  begin that study makes life bearable. But this realization must be confirmed and fixed more deeply through daily rehearsal. It is a more work to follow through on honorable aims than it is to conceive of them. One must persevere and add strength by constant study, until excellent intentions become excellence of mind.

Loeb Classic

It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun. This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

Letter 12

Letters from a Stoic

‘It was Epicurus who said that,” you protest. “What business have you got with someone else’s property?’ Whatever is true is m y property. And I Shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.

Letters on Ethics

“Epicurus said that,” you say. “What business have you with another’s property?” Whatever is true is my own. I shall persist in showering you with Epicurus, for the benefit of those people who repeat their oaths verbatim and regard not what is being said but who says it. By this they may know that the best sayings are held in common. Farewell.

Loeb Classic

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property. Farewell.

Dialogue with Cicero

Me: Hey Cicero, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately on a topic that has been bothering me, and wanted to know if you could provide some insight on the matter?

Cicero: Surely, what is bothering you?

Me:  Well, it seems that today many people are struggling with their lives because they feel directionless. A nihilistic world view with a hedonistic life style seems to be the default mode for many people. This doesn’t seem right to me though, that just seems empty. There must be something else, right?

Cicero: Well lets start with this, what do you think, in general, all people want for their lives in the end?

Me: Well I think that the vast majority of us would agree that we want to live a good life, a fulfilled life. A life that we can look back on and say ‘Yes, that was a good life, I am happy with what I accomplished. I can leave now without any regrets’.

Cicero: Yes indeed, so there it is. That is your end goal, that is the direction in which you should head.

Me: Sure, but that is easier said than done. The problem is, many of us disagree on what exactly a ‘good life’ consists of. Some people think that simply means experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. In fact the default view promoted to most Americans is that we should seek pleasure, fame, money, love, and that when we have all these things, we will be happy.

Cicero: I see, well lets take a look at money and fame. Can you think of anyone who is very wealthy or famous, in the past or present, and yet is miserable?

Me: Well yes, I can think of many people such as famous celebrities or historical figures who were wealthy or famous, and yet very unhappy with their lives.

Cicero: From this example I think we can say then that money and fame, by themselves and even together, are not sufficient for a good life.

Me: Sure but those things aren’t typically sought out as intrinsic goods. Money can only be used as a means to get you other things. Sure some people might think fame is intrinsically good, but others would question that, and only see it as a means to some other end as well. Pleasure on the other hand, is sought out for its own sake.

Cicero: Let us take a look at pleasure then. Can you think of people who simply sought lives of pleasure, and have reported that at the end of that path there is nothing but a hollow emptiness?

Me: Yes, I can think of a few people like that. But couldn’t we say that those people simply sought out too much pleasure to the detriment of other things? That they were excessive?

Cicero: Yes indeed, but what would tell them that they are slipping into excess? Pleasure itself would not be able to tell them. Would it not be wisdom that tells them when they have gone too far?

Me: Ok, I think I see your point there. But what about love? Some people would contest that all you actually need in life is love, that love conquers all, etc…

Cicero: This case is no different from the rest. Can you not imagine a case where two individuals lost themselves in mutual love for each other? Do you not recall instances where it is said that people are ‘madly’ in love with one another, or that love has blinded them? Do you not recall the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? Do you not think that some additional wisdom on their part would of produced a better outcome in the end for the both of them?

Me: Hmmm ok, then your point here is that everything we do, if we wish to do it correctly, is beholden to wisdom?

Cicero: Yes that is quite my point. Wisdom itself is necessary for happiness, for a good life. Wisdom is  useful wherever you are, no matter what situation you find yourself in. The same cannot be said for the rest of these things.

Me: But what do you really mean by wisdom? And how does one become wise? Talking about wisdom like this seems all well and good, but this is all so very abstract. I still have no clue as to what I am actually supposed to do!

Cicero: Your concerns are valid, I will refer you to my friend, Epictetus.  He is known for his ideas on practical wisdom, and will be able to answer your questions about this matter more effectively than I could.

Marcus Aurelius on Politics

While reading through a new copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius today, I ran into a passage where Marcus actually talks a little bit about politics, along with some other interesting ideas.

I thought the passage had a lot of good stuff in it, so I decided to try and do a break down of what it says. The passage is packed with a variety topics and ideas, so I decided to compare a few different translations that I own to help me understand what Marcus might actually be saying here. These are simply my own thoughts on the matter, I am no expert.

Meditations 9.29 translated by George Long

The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Robin Hard

The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream. How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Gregory Hays

The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

-Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

Breakdown

I am going to try to break down each part and summarize what I think Marucs is saying to himself here. The following marks will be used to indicate which translation came from which author.

GL – George Long | RH – Robin Hard | GH – Gregory Hays

The Universe

GL: The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it.

RH: The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream.

GH: The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it.

The universe is ruled by causality. Just as a rushing river or flood picks everything up and carries all away with it, so does the universe pick us up and carry us away with it, inside the never ending chain of cause and effect.

Politicians

GL: But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

RH: How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

GH: The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

These politicians, who are engaged in affairs of the state simply pretend to be philosophers themselves (back then philosophy was considered to be a way of living, not necessarily an academic pursuit, as many philosophies at that time considered virtue to be a key component of a good life).

The politicians do not realize the true nature of the universe, that to flourish they must act with virtue, they are  fools in this matter.

I think it is important to point out that Marucs is not saying that we should disengage from politics. Stoicism is largely a philosophy of action, and many Stoics in ancient time were indeed involved in politics, since it was through politics that they could make life better for themselves and others.

I think that Marcus is simply railing against these specific politicians that he has in mind who behave in this seemingly foolish way, pretending to be virtuous philosophers when they are not. Marcus himself probably had to deal with a lot of people like this as Emperor, which is why he is writing about it.

Do What You Can

GL: Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

RH: Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

GH: -Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Even if you must deal with politicians like that, you must do what nature demands of you (By nature Marcus means your best nature as a person, not your base animal nature. Your best nature is essentially acting with excellent character, or virtue).

You should act with virtue and do what is right, even if nobody is looking, even if you never get credit for it.

And do not be upset if your actions do not bring about Plato’s Republic (a Utopia), but be glad to even affect a small change in a positive direction. That positive action by itself is no small thing.

Focus on your actions, and not necessarily the final outcome, since what ends up happening is not fully within your control. All you can do it take what actions that you believe to be correct, with virtue as your guidepost.

Convictions of Others

GL: For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

RH: For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

GH: Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

You cannot simply change the convictions and opinions of others. Only your actions are truly under your control, not the minds of other people.

And of those who act in opposition to their convictions, in obedience to another, there is only grumbling, slavery, and a surface showing of obedience. You should act according to your convictions not against them.

I think that Marcus again, is talking about the Politicians here, who simply make a show of obedience to him. I believe he is reminding himself that he cannot simply change their minds, but he should take what actions he believes to be right anyways.

Acting Like Others

GL: Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

RH: Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

GH: Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

You can tell me all about other supposedly great leaders of the past, only they can truly know if they had virtue in mind and acted accordingly. However, if it is true that they only pretended to be this way, I am not forced to behave in the same way that they did, even if others believe that they were great. I can act in accordance with virtue myself regardless of what others do.

How to Live

GL: Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

RH: The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

GH: The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

The task of philosophy it to teach us how to be virtuous life. It is a simple and modest way of life. There is no need for pride, laziness, or an excessive displays of wealth and luxury. This was probably a very important reminder for Marcus, considering he was Roman Emperor at the time.

Conclusion

A quick summary of what Marucs is saying overall in this passage would be:

  • Remember that the universe is change, and that we are a part of that change.
  • Regardless of who you have to deal with and what they think, act virtuously, do what is right. It does not matter if nobody sees you do it, or you receive no credit for it.
  • You will more than likely not be able to bring about a perfect outcome, but you must act anyways. Even a small change in the right direction is significant.
  • You do not have to act like your predecessors simply because others deem  them to be great. Act with virtue regardless of what others have done or said before. If you do find a good role model though, you should follow that path as well.
  • The task of philosophy is to live a modest, straightforward, and virtuous life. Do not be tempted by pride, laziness, or excess. These things do not lead you to the good life.

I thought that overall this passage had much to say, and I found a lot of insightful ideas in it. Breaking it down, line by line like this, helped me to get a better understand of what Marcus was saying here, and forced me to think about how I might apply these ideas to my own life.

Hopefully you found that analysis of the passage insightful. If anything, maybe it helped you decide which translation of Meditations you would like to read most!

On Virtue

So last time we talked about Eudaimonia and how it essentially means having the best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. We also mentioned  that the Stoics believe that the best way to obtain Eudaimonia was to be virtuous.

The Stoics believed that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for a life of Eudaimonia. This differentiated them from many other Greek philosophical schools at the time who believed that virtue was necessary for a life of Eudaimonia. Other schools, such as the Peripatetics, believed that virtue was necessary for a good life, but that you also needed other things as well, such as friends, family, money, good food, etc…

So what did the Stoics mean by virtue? And how could virtue alone be sufficient for a good life?

What the Stoics really meant by virtue, aretewas something like excellence of character. There were four cardinal virtues that were required for excellence of character. These virtues were temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. These virtues are very broad, and encompass a variety of sub virtues. Here is a general break down of the four cardinal virtues.

Practical wisdom – Understanding how to act and feel correctly. Includes good judgment, discretion, and resourcefulness. It is the all encompassing virtue, the other virtues are really just specific manifestations of practical wisdom.

Temperance – Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, and lust. Includes propriety, sense of honor, and self-control. It is wisdom applied to matters of choice.

Courage – Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful, especially death and disaster. Includes perseverance, confidence, and magnanimity. It is wisdom applied to endurance.

Justice – Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level. Knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. Includes piety, kindness, and sociability. It is wisdom applied to social living.

So essentially, if you have all of these virtues, and act on them correctly, you will live a good life. Sounds pretty good to me right?

But what about money, friends, family, pleasure, etc…?

Well, the Stoics thought that it would be nice to have these things, but they didn’t really think that they were necessary for a life of Eudaimonia, the good life. Why is this the case? This is because the Stoics classified these things as being outside of our control. The only thing that is fully within our control is how we act, essentially our character and our actions (they were compatibilists). If we allow ourselves to depend on externals for our happiness (money, pleasure, etc…), we will at some point become disappointed, or as Epictetus liked to say, we will become wretched. We will become anxious when we try to obtain these externals, and depressed when we fail. You should not rely on these externals for your happiness. Instead, you already have everything you need to live a good life full of joyfulness and tranquility, and that is a life of Virtue.

It is important to note that the Stoics did not forbid people from having money, friends, family, small pleasures, etc… they were not ascetics like the early Cynics were. They separated these things into what they called preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It is ok to have and pursue these things (money, family, friends) as long as they do not detract from your ability to pursue a life of virtue. In pursuing these externals you must not turn to vice, the opposites of the virtues.

This is not an easy task to accomplish. The only one to fully accomplish this goal is considered to be a Stoic sage, and we are not even sure if such a person ever existed. Perhaps Socrates, Zeno, or Cato the younger are examples of sages, but we are not really sure. Consistently achieving these virtues is something that must be worked on every day, perhaps, for the rest of your life. And that is why we should all be prokoton, one who makes progress towards virtue.

And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.

– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35

For additional reading on Stoicism and virtue, I encourage you to read the r/Stoicism FAQ, the IEP entry on Stoicism,  and this blog post by Christopher Gill about the virtues. Much of the information in this particular blog post was pulled from these resources.

This will be my final post for 2016, so I wish all of you happy holidays and a eudaimonic new year!

On Eudaimonia

If you have poked around Greek philosophy texts at all, you have probably encountered the term Eudaimonia. This is an essential concept that we must wrap our heads around if we are to understand what the whole point of philosophy is (according to the Greeks).

I am no professor on Greek philosophy, and I can’t say that I know very much in the way of translating ancient Greek at all, so take what you are about to read here with a bit of skepticism.

The ancient Greek Philosophical schools were all about Eudaimonia. The Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, etc… They all pretty much agreed that Eudaimonia was the best thing ever, and that we should all pursue it. However they all disagreed on the best way to obtain it.

So what does Eudaimonia even mean? Well the term is often translated as “happiness”. That makes sense, everybody wants to be happy, but they might disagree about the best way the become happy, right? Now this is an ok definition, but it is still a little vague. A better translation of eudaimonia is often said to be “human flourishing”. Ok, that is a little different than happiness, and more specific in some ways but confusing in other ways. What does it really mean for a human to flourish?

If we say something like “wow, that new tree you just planted is really flourishing” we mean something along the lines of “that plant appears to be very healthy and is growing in an almost accelerated manner in its current environment”. Wow that explanation sounds like it was written by a robot huh?

Anyways, hopefully that helps us to unpack what we might mean by “human flourishing” a little, but we are still not quite there yet. I think there is still some ambiguity here, and that we can come up with a better definition.

Teleology

The ancient philosophers were largely working within the framework of Teleology. To quote Wikipedia “Teleology (from Greek telos, meaning end or purpose) is the philosophical study of nature by attempting to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal”.

Maybe this will be a little easier to understand with a super overused example. Think of a knife. What is the purpose, or the telos, of a knife? The purpose of a knife is to cut things. A good knife cuts wells, while a bad knife cuts poorly.

So with this in mind how can we flesh out the idea of Eudaimonia? Well, as humans all of our action have some sort of goal or purpose. Why do people go to college? People go to College, so they can get a job, so that they can earn money, so that they can buy things, so that they can provide themselves with the materials that they think are required for a good life. So the end purpose of going to college is to have a good life. That is essentially the purpose of all of our actions isn’t it? We think, correctly or incorrectly, that our actions will lead us to have a good life.

Eudaimonia is that life that we are all seeking. It is a life full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. It is the best possible life that a human can have. So, now we have a definition I think that we can work with.

Eudaimonia – The best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.

So, if we define eudaimonia this way, and I ask you the question, “Do you want a life of Eudaimonia?” you are probably going to answer “Yes”.  I think you would be hard pressed to find someone you does not want a life defined as “the best possible life that a human can have”.

So what is the problem here? Well it turns out that people are going to disagree about how exactly you can go an obtain a life of Eudaimonia. Here is a really brief, and in no way sufficient, tongue in cheek caricature of how the different Greek philosophical schools thought a person could reach a life of Eudaimonia.

Cynics – Live an ascetic life, abandon all of your worldly possessions except for the absolutely bare minimum you need to live. Go against the flow of common social norms. Bark at people when they do something stupid, and don’t forget to hug cold statues while wearing little to no clothing. You must also do backwards moonwalks into large crowds of people to prove that you are “going against the flow” of Society.

Epicureans – Move away from everyone else to live in a commune with all your best friends and become a self sufficient community. Remember that the only good is pleasure and the only bad is pain. And by pleasure I mean adding one piece cheese to you daily meal which consists of just a little wine and bread. Also don’t forget to tend to your garden, you gotta have one even if you don’t like plants.

Skeptics – We are troubled throughout life because we make incorrect judgments about what is good or bad for us. We become disappointed when our judgments do not match up with reality. The best way to alleviate this issue is to not make any judgments at all, about anything, ever. Is that the edge of a cliff over there? How can I be sure? I will suspend my judgement and walk over there anyways.

Peripatetics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. But you also kind of need money, friends, family, and good luck. So if you aren’t lucky, or are born into unfortunate circumstances, oh well, no Eudaimonia for you. Also don’t forget to walk around a lot and think about things.

Stoics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. You must be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. It doesn’t matter if you are a slave or an emperor. The only thing that matters are your own actions and your character. Because the only thing that matters are your actions, you can be happy all the time. Yes all the time, even if you are being tortured and your limbs are being hacked off one by one, you are happy. Also, the Stoic sage is the only one who can fully acquire a life of Eudaimonia, because he is the best person ever and always makes the right decisions. But this guy only appears once every ten thousand years, so you probably ain’t him. And by the way everyone else who is not a sage is insane, full of vice, and never acts correctly even if they copy the sage action for action.

And I chose to be a Stoic huh?

 

 

On Religion

Based on my previous blog posts it is probably not too difficult to guess my general position on religion. I am a De facto atheist. But what do I really mean by that? The words atheist, agnostic, and theist often have different meanings in different contexts, and can mean different things to different people. There are often debates about what the word ‘atheist’ actually means, along with how it is used in a societal and academic context.

So, what am I saying when I call myself a De facto atheist? Well, like many things in life, I consider a person’s religious belief to be best characterized as a spectrum of possibilities. Richard Dawkins popularized the spectrum of theistic probability which is what I am referring to here. The spectrum is defined as follows:

  • Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God.
    •  “I do not believe, I know.”
  • De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent.
    • “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  • Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high.
    • “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  • Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.
    • “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  • Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low.
    • “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
  • De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero.
    • “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  • Strong atheist.
    • “I know there is no God, with the same conviction that a Strong theist knows there is one.”

I personally feel that the statement,”I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” describes my position on the matter fairly well.

However, there is another phrase which I also believe to describe my position, and that is “I remain unconvinced by the evidence or claims made by any of the world’s religions”. This was essentially said by Neil deGrasse Tyson in a podcast where he talked about why he doesn’t call himself an atheist. Neil would rather label himself as an agnostic over an atheist, due to the connotations associated with those words.

I am certainly sympathetic with that view, as I previously described myself as agnostic for very similar reasons. I did not like using the term atheist to describe myself, as people often took that to mean that I was a strong atheist, believing with conviction that there is no god, when that is not the case. However, referring to myself as agnostic caused confusion as well, as some people believed what I meant by agnostic was that “we can never truly know if God exists or not” or that “God’s existence and non-existence are equally probable” when that was not the case either.

I prefer the term De facto atheist because it provides a little more information than the word atheist by itself, and my cause extra discussion about what exactly I mean by the term. Also, I get to describe myself using Latin, and using Latin phrases is what all the cool kids do nowadays. Right?

Technical Terms

If we were to  fully flesh out how I would describe my belief in technical terms, I would consider myself to  be a friendly wide negative weak atheist. Wow, that is a lot of adjectives huh?  You can read more about these terms on the IEP and elsewhere on the Internet, but here is a quick summary for you.

Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope. The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of God (an omnipotent- being).  A wide atheist does not believe that any gods exist, including but not limited to the traditional omnipotent-God, the Norse Gods, the Greek Gods, the Egyptian Gods, etc…

Negative atheism is the lack of a belief that God or gods exist, whereas positive atheism is to affirm the non-existence of God or Gods. The terms negative and positive are often used interchangeably with the words strong and weak, meaning essentially the same thing.

What about a friendly atheist. Now by friendly I don’t mean that I consider myself to be a friendly person who is also an atheist (although I certainly hope that to be the case). To quote the IEP again “The friendly atheist can grant that a theist may be justified or reasonable in believing in God, even though the atheist takes the theist’s conclusion to be false.” This has to deal with how we view knowledge (Epistomology), and whether beliefs can be rational, justified, and true or false. I recommend reading the IEP page to learn more if you are unfamiliar with these terms.

It has become a trend recently, that instead of calling oneself a weak or a strong atheist, people will call themselves an agnostic atheist  or a gnostic atheist, with the terms gnostic and agnostic referring to knowledge, while theism and atheism refer to belief. If I were to use these terms instead, I would be classified as an agnostic atheist. Personally I do not like using this format, as it is not the way in which philosophers typically use these terms. Perhaps this form was recently popularized because people were uncomfortable with using the terms strong, weak, positive, and negative to describe their positions?

Why?

So, why am I spending so much time talking about what the difference is between agnosticism and atheism, along with how it all applies to myself? Well, honestly this is a question that I have personally struggled with for a while. Looking for an answer to this question is essentially what lead me down the path of philosophy in the first place.

I grew up in a Protestant Christian household that attended church fairly regularly. Both of my parents were very involved in the church, both of them being deacons, and my father was acting Treasurer for the church for a while. After I went away to college and was exposed to more people with varying beliefs, I started to doubt what I had been taught by my family. It all just seemed to make less and less sense. After doing a lot of soul searching and contemplation for the past few years, I have essentially come to the conclusion that I have been elaborating upon throughout this post.

I also think this is a question that all people need to wrestle with an settle on in one form or another, as it becomes a pillar that supports and influences your world view.

The Stoics

This question was also important to the ancient Stoic philosophers. They essentially believed in pantheism, that God and the universe were one and the same, and that the universe is governed by rationality and providence. This puts me at odds with the ancient Stoics as I am not a pantheist, and I do not believe in providence.

There is also a debate within the Stoic community as to whether one can even consider themselves to be a Stoic while being an atheist, as belief in a rational universe along with providence was an essential part of Stoic philosophy as a whole. Many people have written on this topic elsewhere in much more detail, but essentially I agree that an atheist would not be able to consider themselves a Stoic, at least in the classical sense, and that you would become a different type of Stoic, with a different philosophical world view. I do think it is possible to retain the concepts found in Stoic Ethics without the need of a pantheistic view of the universe. However, that is something that I will go into, another time.