Philosophy amidst the panic

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“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened!
How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?
You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so, look forward meanwhile to better things.”

— Seneca, Letter 13


I’ve been holding off writing about this topic, but today I decided it was time to set fingers to keyboard.  Not because I have some revelation to share with you, but because I need to work through this linguistically.  I need to think about it, rationally.  I need to frame it appropriately to my nature, and I need the therapeutics which philosophy brings.  Like many folks, I’ve been experiencing some anxiety due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.  I have ameliorated that somewhat, and I’ll tell you how.

I realized I was checking in on the stats almost hourly.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but it was at least a handful of times per day.  I’m an analytical sort, and I like and work with data.  So at first, I didn’t notice anything wrong with this behavior.  However, in retrospect, I see it was a sort of compulsive behavior that wasn’t very helpful to me.

So the first thing that I did was reduce my information intake to once daily or less.  I also restricted the amount of public official video I was watching:  all of them for my country and state, to reading a short review of each of one to be generally apprised.  I also (maybe unfairly) outsourced some of my information consumption to others who were not so affected:  I asked them to give me short summaries when something interesting crossed their transom.

I noticed an immediate reduction in stress.

That being said, the situation is materially quite severe.  While I myself am not in the highest-risk demographic, many others are.  I’ve reframed my “social distancing” and “stay at home” behaviors as a function of my social roles, and also a way of extending Hierocles’ circles of affinity.  I have also set plans to re-start my meditation practice, with some limited success, but I’m working on it.

Epictetus is very right when he says:

“When you relax your attention for a little, do not imagine that you will recover it wherever you wish, but bear this well in mind, that your error of to-day must of necessity put you in a worse position for other occasions.”

— Epictetus, Discourses 4:12.

Re-starting a philosophical practice of any sort is difficult.  It is comforting, even if we’ve drifted away from our progress, to remember that the promises of philosophy are always there, and it is never too late to take up the old cloak and bag.

A new Stoic meditation aid.

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When discussing Stoic practice, we often are at point of reconstruction.  We have several words for these types of actions (meletáō) meaning contemplation or meditation, ἀσκέω (askeō) meaning practice or training, and more.  We have lists from Philo of Alexandria and others as to the types of training, and they are expounded upon by Musonius and Epictetus.  Hadot and Buzaré have written in some depth about these, and I have also contributed some work on new-old practices as well:

In that vein, I’ve been working on another tool to aid to the Stoic Toolkit:

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1a/54/84/1a5484721c52940c1f138b955f766f8b.jpgI’ve had experience using several prayer/meditation aids in the past from several traditions, some I’ve studied as an adult and one was a core practice of my religious upbringing.  It is interesting how it seems we often circle back to core parts of our early indoctrination, even if other core parts are set aside.  I’ve had the opportunity to sit as a neutral observer in related services and religious functions, and I’m always struck by how far away my path has taken me from some of those concepts and beliefs, and how close others still are.

To that point, a few years ago I repurposed japa prayer beads as counters for a Stoic meditation of keeping certain precepts and phrases πρόχειρον (procheiron or ready to hand).

If you’re not familiar with japa beads or mala, they are a string of typically 108 beads traditionally made of rudraksha seeds or other materials and used in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Shintō as a meditation or prayer aid. I kept mine in a pouch into which I inserted my hand, and used it as a counter as I repeated certain phrases, like my personal Stoic Μνήμη (memory exercise or mnḗmē).

Regarding earthly things:
Nothing unexpected has happened,
Nothing evil has occurred, and
Nothing eternal has been lost.

However, even though the intent was similar, it felt a little strange to use a tool that’s decidedly formalized like this from another tradition wholesale. It felt a little disrespectful, and just “not quite right.” For instance, I don’t think I would have used a rosary this way.

At some point, after a month or two, I stopped using them, and as a result stopped using this practice.

It did seem helpful to me, however; and I have recently taken it back up. I previously came up with a counting method using the knuckles of my fingers. I would use my thumb of my right hand, and begin at the large middle knuckle for “1,” move to the small end knuckle for “2,” and the end of the finger for “3.” Once I had completed all of the knuckles of my fingers of my right hand in this fashion, being a count of 12, I would mark one knuckle of my left hand in the same fashion.

In this way, I would have a count of 144 with one full “round” of both hands, each knuckle of the left hand being a 12-count. This was good when I didn’t have a counter or a tool, and since it was a motor-function, and not a cognitive one per se, I could do it without thinking and focus on my meditation practice.  It is nice to be able to do this with a tool, and you can do it practically anywhere and almost totally incognito.

However, I liked having the tool, as well.

Recently, I discovered a tool used to pass the time in Greece and Cyprus called κομπολόι (kompoloi). These are used in a “quiet” and “loud” fashion as a sort of “fidget-device” and are really devoid of any current meditative or religious practice.

Being a cultural practice of the inheritor of the culture from which our School originated, it feels “closer to home” as it were. I’ve been doing some reading, and it’s likely that japa and κομπολόι actually have a common ancestor tradition, which is interesting.

So, I have ordered a κομπολόι, with the intent of restarting my repetitive Stoic mantra or μνήμη practice.  I am not quite sure if I will make use of either method, as it’s not quite conducive to the “counting” function that I’m doing.  I may use them more like the japa beads above.  I thought I would share this, as I haven’t seen many other using a similar meditation or spiritual exercise.

Neither 144, 108, or any of the variant numbers of κομπολόι have any particular meaning for Stoics that I can think of, and I do have a mind towards symbolism. So, I wish that we could devise a meaning full number-symbol for this use.  If you have a similar practice, or use a similar set of tools, I’d be interested in learning about it. Feel free to discuss in the comments.  If you have a suggestion for a number-symbol for the beads for a Stoic meditation practice, I am 100% open to hearing it.

 

Why Marcus’ advice to himself is wrong for you.

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“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

— Meditations X.16


One of the things which often seems to be forgotten, is that the title which is traditionally given to what we call “Meditations” in English is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν or “Things to one’s self” and sometimes just “To himself.”  Marcus never intends his notes to be read by another, and certainly that matters when we’re interpreting his writings.

Below are a few reasons why the above passage (and others like it) likely don’t apply to the modern Stoic student.
Image result for Marcus Aurelius

1. Marcus was already firmly studied in Stoicism.

Marcus had several private tutors in philosophy from a young age.  Whether it be Fronto or Rusticus, during the formative years of his life he had a solid philosophical influence.  Most of us come to philosophy in adulthood, and we lack the decades of grounding that Marcus had.  When he admonishes himself from study to action, he knows this.  It simply doesn’t apply to the nascent προκόπτων in the same way.  We ought to prefer practice to theory alone, but we do need the theory.

2. Marcus had training in Stoic moderation (ἄσκησις )

From an early age, Marcus was used to the Greek regimen of moderation and simplicity.  Early on in the Meditations, he recounts how his mother and others would try and dissuade him from these practices.  Most of the 21st century Stoic practitioners are not preforming the physical training that we see over and over in Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus.  True Stoic moderation appears extreme to those of us steeped in a level of indulgence that would be staggering to the ancients.  For this reason, Marcus was already practiced in the things which for most of us are mere theory, cold showers aside.

3. Marcus was in a particular and rare circumstance.

As the Emperor of a large empire, Marcus had external demands and duties which are radically different from ours.  This is not to enter a value judgment about which are better, easier, or preferable, it’s a mere fact that they are different.  The Roman Stoics had more of a focus on roles and duties than their predecessors; and Marcus would have felt this strongly. For him, his time is better spent in embodying the virtues he has already come to know than it would be in further study.  We, however, have need to inculcate these points in our daily lives, and this requires study and learning.

4. Marcus had access to resources we do not (probably).

It is generally accepted that the works of Epictetus to which Marcus had been introduced was probably some version of Arrian’s notes: The Discourses.  We also know that there were four additional Books which have been lost to time.  It seems likely to me that Marcus had access to those lost books.  Since we are working with only a fraction of the Stoic record, we have to work more intensely and diligently on them than those who had access to more.  Marcus may admonish himself to have fewer books, but he had access to ones we do not.

5. Marcus was living and operating in a world where Stoicism was a major social influence.

Any educated Roman of Marcus’ time would have been familiar with Stoic philosophy, at least the broad strokes.  Greek philosophy helped shape Rome in profound and serious ways.  In may ways, Marcus practice while extraordinary for an Emperor, was relatively common in and of itself.  We students of ancient philosophy, especially those of us seeking to make philosophy a way of life, are outliers.  Rather than stepping into the well worn ruts of those who have gone before, we find ourselves forging new paths, and carving roads into a wilderness 2,000 years deep.  This distance of time requires different strategies, tools, and work than Marcus himself needed.

It seems to me that there is much to gain from Marcus’ writings, but it is also important to take from them judiciously.  I cannot help but see parallel struggles (and sometimes the exact same ones) in Marcus’ writings as I have in my own life.  Yet some are unique to his time, others unique to his person.  So when Marcus tells himself to pair down his bookshelf, waste no more time in contemplation, etc., these might not be true for us.

I certainly encourage frequent reading of the work, and a careful application of a critical rule which shifts what’s applicable to us and what is not.  So before you set aside something which might seriously affect your training, consider whether that in fact applies to you.

Stoic Week 2019, the beginning

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If virtue promises to enable us to achieve happiness, freedom from passion, and serenity, then progress towards virtue is surely also progress towards each of these states … if, when someone gets up in the morning … he bathes as a trustworthy person, and eats as a self-respecting person, putting his guiding principles into action in relation to anything he has to deal with, just as a runner does in practising running … this then is the person who is truly making progress; this is the one who hasn’t travelled in vain.

— Epictetus, Discourses 1.4. 4, 20-1


I have participated in Stoic Week every year since 2013, although not always during the specified time frame.  I think I first learned about it in April of 2014, and did the previous year’s by myself.

Stoic Week is like a philosophical Lent for me, a call to reorient, reengage, and rededicate myself to philosophy.

While I think that many times it skips over important practical and theoretical underpinnings of our School, it’s an excellent introduction.

Protection against Corruption

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This is not really on any particular topic, and we’re not talking a +2 Charisma amulet, but I wanted to toss an idea out there that I’ve been chewing on for a little bit.  It’s not really even Stoicism-per-se, or even philosophy, really.  It is however meta-relevant to us, our practice, and our School.  And, it’s fairly serious.

I don’t have a moral problem with profit or people being fairly remunerated for their efforts. And yet, I’ve always had a … distaste for the popularizers of Stoicism who seem to be focused on making money, or focused on helping their readers make money, or get power, or just get their way in social situations. They are often sardonically called “$toics” or something along those lines.

Outside of the $toics, we have popularizers who make money doing actual philosophy, that’s a separate thing, but one which is still orbiting this discussion, if at a great distance.  Whether I agree with them or not isn’t the operative thing for these categories, it should be clear to any reader who goes in which camp.  I disagree (often at length) with some folks who make money doing philosophy but are by no means “$toics.”  So, to be clear, that’s really not what I’m writing about here.  However, these two should have these same concerns for themselves, I do for myself.

Image result for tithing indulgencesI think I may have finally identified why I feel this way about money and philosophy.  (I stress “finally” because this post has been a half-written draft for quite literally more than three years.  WordPress tells me this is the 16th revision.)

In most societies in the east and west, long running traditions in which we have specialized people guiding and teaching about life would have an opportunity for impropriety which would be extreme. Think middle age indulgences in the Catholic church, as an example.  Their ability to influence people and money is different and greater than the average person’s.  As such, their need for concern here is much higher than the average person.

One protection against this are vows of poverty and chastity, or so it seems to me.  In fact, we see that lots of societies chose this route.  Where these exist, the people in “high leverage potential positions” aren’t “playing the game” that the people listening to them are.  It’s harder to leverage property, money, sex, power or anything else when everyone knows you’re not handling those things yourself.  You can ask someone that you know won’t be competing with you in the market, or in the political area for advice on the moral course of action and have a little more confidence that you’re getting good advice if they don’t stand to benefit from your loss.  Not perfectly, but maybe better than it might otherwise be.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Mendicant_Monk_Sitting_on_Xindong_Street%2C_Taipei_20140103.jpgThis doesn’t work all the time, obviously.  We have scandals and crimes in the east and west over sexual assault, misappropriation of funds, and other awful crimes.  Oftentimes, the organizations become so large and powerful despite this, that they can protect the criminals from justice.  We even have organizations posing as religious institutions to leverage the space we’ve carved out for them.  That’s also not good.  Historically, the Roman Church was a government in Europe, and the Orthodox Church in Greece today leverages a lot of influence in the government of that country.  So again, not perfect.

This isn’t the only solution, clearly.  It may not even be the most efficient one, or the best.  But is a solution.  We don’t even have a bad one at them moment.  Thus this discussion…

The opportunity for impropriety exists in the modern Stoic renaissance we find ourselves in, and the rewards for churning out low-effort, low-accuracy information that appeals to popular demographics are great.  This skews the signal-to-noise ratio of our discourse, and not in the direction we would like.  The folks who are selling book after book, trinkets, coins, etc. may have gone astray.  Others will certainly follow.  We, ourselves have to constantly monitor our work and our efforts to ensure we don’t tend in that direction.

With all that being said, is it fair to expect “philosophical workers” to do so for free?  How can we support those folks so they have the time and space to actually do that work?

How do we handle this, as a community?

In summary, my two questions are:

1) What voluntary system or standard can we propose to the Stoic community which will help protect against this sort of corruption?

2) What can we create that will allow us to support folks so that they have the time and space to do philosophical work?

Many folks here are in some way or other involved in producing philosophical content, teaching, moderating, or even just consuming the products of these efforts.  So it seems a likely place to brainstorm possible solutions.  Feel free to share this wherever you have the best discussions online, within the rules as allowed there.  If you do, please tag me in the comments, so I can read the responses, and participate in those discussions.

Thanks in advance.

Reading: On Socratic Meditation (EDITED)

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socratesLongtime readers will remember that I’ve written about Socratic Meditation in the past.  I recently came across this paper, and am in the process of reading it.  I can’t speak to its conclusions or methods (as I haven’t read them yet) but I thought I would share it with you in case you’re also interested in this avenue of exploration.

Here’s the paper: “Socratic Meditation And Emotional Self-Regulation: A Model For Human Dignity In The Technological Age,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 24 (2013): 1-29. (with Paul Carron).  This link may require registration to download, but should be readable without logging in.

I would like to devote more time in the coming weeks to developing a meditation practice.  While I wrote about it previously, I haven’t done much of it of this sort.  I’ve been reading a bit about different meditation types, and this hint about Socrates’ practice keeps nagging at me, and really merits some further investigation.

If any readers of the blog have a formal meditation practice, I’m interested in your findings experiences, and thoughts in this regard.  Please let me know in the comments or privately as you choose.

* * *

After reading the paper, this isn’t too much here as far as non-technical information that I didn’t cover in my first description.  It was nice to see some of my conclusions and inferences supported.  I don’t have the technical background to speak to the section on research and brain states, but it was interesting.

My overall conclusions remain the same:  that this is a practice which merits further exploration.

Working on the next project: Patreon goals

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Some weeks ago, I set a goal for Patreon subscriptions.  Since that time, there have been calls and boycotts of the service in regards to de-platforming and free speech.  I thought the best thing to do would be to delay judgement until I could collect more information.

While I do not agree with the speech of the person who prompted this scandal (?), it does seems strange that Patreon would ban someone for actions taken elsewhere.  However, as a private entity, it seems to me that have the right to do just that, even though the rules governing this seem to me to be poorly written.

I believe that my choice to suspend judgment is the correct one for the time, and would solicit readers’ opinions on this issue of free speech, de-platforming, and the like.  If you’re not totally familiar with the issue, several high profile folks on Patreon have very publically left the platform after one person in particular said something distasteful on another platform.  This became a free speech issue in the minds of some, and thus the shakeup.  Thoughts?  Should MountainStoic continue to use such a platform, are the claims with or without merit?  Let me know where the readers are at either by commenting below, or by private message if you’d prefer.

In the mean time, I’m working on those goals.
Here’s a snippet of a draft version of the Musonius Course: