Thesis: Spiritual Exercises in Epictetus – Difficult but Justified

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This got posted in one of the larger Facebook groups last week.  I’ve been listening to it in the car on my daily commute the past few days and found it to be well worth the time.
The author discusses several problems in interpretation of spiritual exercises in a Philosophy descended from Socrates, where virtue is a kind of knowledge, and knowledge is sufficient for virtue.  I found the arguments compelling.

Also, the author addresses three spiritual exercises, the Three Disciplines of Epictetus, and distils and describes them well.

https://curve.carleton.ca/5522dbc5-785b-4ab3-a873-4e6297c59068

The “here and now” and cell phone use.

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Cell phones and the connectivity they provide are an amazingly powerful tool.  I did not have a cellphone until 2003-2004, my senior year in high school.  Back then, it was a flip phone, which could make calls, play the game Snake, send texts (with four pushes of the number 7 for an ‘S’, and text-only web-browsing which we did not pay for, and thus did not have.  Now many, if not most, phones can surf the internet, keep you plugged into social network with push-notifications, watch videos, find a partner or hook up, get directions with GPS guidance, and more besides.  You can even play GameBoy games in addition to Flappy Bird, Candy Crush, and Farmville.

Let’s not even touch the phenomenon of the “selfie.”

The tool is a powerful one, no question, and it’s one which has over the past decade taken an increasingly large share of our lives and attention.  This trend is one which caused me some concern, and I had the sneaking suspicions that something untoward was afoot.

My suspicion was that I was spending too much time on the device, and that this was pulling me away from my loved ones, my studies, and the people in my life.  Additionally, I had the suspicion that my cellphone was hampering my attention, my ability to concentrate, and was keeping me from focusing on the moment; the hic et nunc.  At any moment, we can pull out a device if we’re waiting, or sitting, or otherwise unoccupied.

For two weeks, I tracked my cell phone use.  I tracked the number of times I called the screen from off to on (Checky), and also the number of minutes spent using the device (QualityTime).  I tracked “checks” for longer than I did minutes, and for a portion of the “minutes” period, I was lacking a computer, so would have maybe watched a film or something, which you can see in the latter part of the week.   So, I tracked the number of checks, meaning the number of times per day I check the phone.  This could be to check the time, email, texts, SnapChat, Facebook, even WordPress for this blog.  All of which send me notifications.

Let me share with you the results, which are not flattering, but were eye-opening.

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For checks per day, there appears to be a mediating effect of measuring the checks.  Each day, at noon, I would get a report from the previous day, which would also show me the current day’s checks.  There’s a pretty clear trend downwards.  The same trend is not present for minutes, although for the latter part of the week, I did not have access to a computer at all, which I suspect was a contributing factor.minutes_per_day

Overall, this exercise pointed out to me with glaring, flashing, neon lights that I am using devices, connectivity, and social media in way which is not conducive to Stoic philosophy.

More on this idea, about restricting technologies, which I’ve been pondering over the past few weeks, is here.

In the coming weeks and months, I will undertake to re-focus how I’m spending my time, and which technologies I will permit to enter my day.  I suspect that there are some pretty significant changes on the horizon for me, and those of philosophical relevance will be discussed here.

I’m wondering if readers have any similar thoughts or realizations.  Have any readers here undertaken similar experiments, and what were your thoughts afterwards?  If anyone is inspired to undertake a similar experiment, there are a variety of apps available to track these metrics.  I simply kept track of the results on a Google Drive spreadsheet, which I also used to produce the graphs.  Feel free to share your results in the comments.

Philosophy as a Way of Life and “Amistics.”

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I recently finished a science-fiction slash speculative fiction book by the author Neal Stephenson called SevenEves.  One of the things that stuck out at me was a word he coined called “amistics.”  Amistics is the practice of intentionally selecting which technologies we allow into our lives.  The etymology of the word relates to the Amish, a group of Christian Anabaptists well known in the mid-Atlantic slash northern Appalachian region of Pennsylvania and Ohio, amongst other places.

The author’s contention, is that mostly this is an unconscious process in most human communities.  We’re not here discussing the anti-technology doctrines of Luddites or anarcho-primitivists, but something akin to what the Amish do.  The Amish have a process whereby they determine which technologies will be adopted into their communities wholesale, or even in particular cases.  A general prohibition on electrical grid connection and usage might be lifted for a community member who for health reasons requires refrigeration or something like that.  Roller skates might be allowed, but zippers not.  To hire a car for long distances might be allowed or might be disallowed depending on the community in question.  There is a wide range in Amish communities about such rules.

Another interesting point, in Pennsylvania Dutch, the word Rumspringa denotes a period of adolescence when Amish children may engage in otherwise prohibited activities as the rules of conduct are slightly relaxed, and rules less sever.  For those used to living near, or driving through Amish country, it’s not uncommon to see a horse and buggy on the road.  The men driving are usually in plain clothes, as are the women with their hair covered.  Occasionally one will see a teenager in jeans and a t-shirt listening to an iPod (very occasionally, for me, seen only once).  This period allows the burgeoning adult to experience what will intentional abstained from, and decide to keep their traditional prescriptions, or leave the community for the world of “Englishmen.”  Oftentimes, however, this period of life is misrepresented in popular culture, so beware that “stereotypes and misunderstandings abound.”

Thus: we arrive at Amistics.

What relevance does this have for a Stoic?  We are bombarded constantly with new devices, new technologies, new social networks, and the like.  Moore’s law has thus far proven that every two years we can expect major leaps in technological capability.  There is never ending parade of new things for us to buy, to do… to try and fill some hole inside.

But does it?

The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.

—CityDesert, The Hermit as Outlaw.

Stoics are clearly looking at and for a different stripe of happiness, for one similar to (albeit not nondifferent from) the sort that folks like the above are also looking.  The above piece is (clearly) couched in a Christian frame, and that is probably not perfectly suited to the Stoic outlook, but even if the why and the end conclusion are not for us, the process in the middle is relevant to our interests.  Despite the differences, I quite enjoy reading the above blog.

While we may not be retiring to a retreat or hermitage, we are often living in a way outside of what the average Westerner expects.  This seems to follow reasonably for someone living a philosophy as a way of life,  and the idea Amistics can help us be wary of a reactionary pull-back and make informed, rational decisions about the environment we create for ourselves.

“As we call a statue Phidiac which is fashioned according to the art of Phidias; so show me a man who is fashioned according to the doctrines which he utters. Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so; but show me at least one who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic.”

—Epictetus, Discourses II.19

One of the metaphors for making a virtuous life is akin to making a piece of fine art from stone.:  to remove what is superfluous, and allowing the shape underneath to take form and be visible.

One of the thing I’ve been chewing on lately, my use of social networking.  At one point, it was a significant contributor to my study of philosophy, but I think that time has passed.  I may be undertaking an experiment in Amistics here before too long, and removing large portions of my social media time, in part, to be able to focus more on the people around me, and my writing.

I’m interested in what sort of via negativa removals you may have exercised, and if that fits in with the above.

The Nature of Good and Evil

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“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


When talking with atheists and anti-theists, the problem of evil in the world is often brought up.  The common argument is that if evil exists, then God cannot be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnitemporal, and omnipresent (premise).  Evil does exist, therefore God is not these things (conclusion).

This argument has several issues for Stoics, suppressed premises, which are all too common, aside (such as “a God that exists must be the “5 Omnis” type).  The God of the Stoics is not a personality moving about the affairs of humans like chess pieces on a board.  God is the universe itself, the ordering principle, and generative principle found therein.  The above type of argument of against Stoic theology is wholly out of context.

The theodicy of other faiths, traditions, creeds, whathaveyou are not a one to one compatible thing with Stoicism.  In part, because the isssues they attempt to resolve are not all present in Stoic theology.

The Stoic position on Good and Evil are personal, internal, and moral.  There is no great evil force wrecking havoc in an otherwise peaceful world.  What is evil, is simply a shadow cast by obstructing the light, not a force of its own.world

Good and evil, per Epictetus, lie only in the will, (Disc. I.25).

I have no idea where I found this graphic, but it’s a good distillation of the Stoic moral landscape.

The smallest circle in the center which is bifurcated contains “good and evil.”  This circle is My Possible Choices.  Outside of that we can talk about virtuous, vicious, and indifferent choices:  but Good and Evil are personal.  That’s an important distinction to be made in contrast to the idea of “cosmic evil.”  What’s in line with nature is either virtuous or indifferent, what’s contra-nature is vicious or indifferent.  Only insofar as ‘i’ am concerned, is the idea of good and evil relevant.

The Stoics do have  a sort of cosmic optimism, in that the universe is working to some beneficial end, on the cosmic scale.  What man deems a tragedy might not be so on the scale of the universe.  In just 100 years how many on earth will remember our bad days, our losses?  Maybe none.

The universe is an awful big place, scaling that up… it looks bad for human concerns as a metric for universal operation.

Stoicism and ἀκρασία

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ἀκρασία (akrasia) means “to be without might,” and it’s often used in the case of a lack of moral will.  Other Hellenic schools said we might know what the appropriate course or action might be, but through weakness of will, we fail.  This failing is caused, they say, by ἀκρασία.

socrates_lawThe Stoics, however, deny that this occurs.  Instead they hearken back to Socrates who said that knowledge of virtue was sufficient.  If we are doing something else then we don’t really know.  If we truly believed that virtue were the highest good, then some temporary pleasure or social capital would not keep us from it.  Socrates is reported to have denied ἀκρασία. in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras.

Since we clearly often fail, we must not really get it.  We don’t know.

The Stoics denied ἀκρασία, they denied that you could know and not do.  The Stoics saw themselves, as most Hellenic schools, as the ideological inheritors of Socrates’ teachings, so on the face it’s not a surprise they too would deny the akratic position.  Indeed, there are other reasons as well.  The Stoics claimed that man is so constituted that he might become a Sage, even if he does in fact falls short of that mark.  ἀκρασία hold a seed of poison which makes that an untenable proposition.

What we have, goes back to the core question of good and evil.  In the wake of how thoroughly the Abrahamic faiths have shapped the cultural waters, the nature of good and evil is an important question to re-evaluate.  zoaAs early Christianity marched westward, it picked up bits and pieces of the native cultures with which it came in contact.  This was, objectively, and excellent method of proselytizing.   In the Old Testament, you’ll find mention an adversary of God, but the figure of Satan as we know it today is not to be found.  The idea of an ultimate evil to parallel the ultimate good is found in Zoroastrianism, and one of things it contributed to Christian thought.

The Stoic position is quite different.  Evil isn’t a “force” in the universe.  Instead, it is simply the shadow cast by interfering with the light.  The nature of rational creatures and free will is such that we miss the mark on occasion.

Epictetus reminds us of this in Enchiridion 27:

“As a mark is not set up for the purpose of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.”

The question of Good and Evil in Stoicism is large enough to merit it’s own discussion.   So for the moment if we allow that the common western (read: Abrahamic) interpretation is not the only one (and maybe not the correct one), let’s take it for granted the Stoics do not assent to a force of evil per se operating in the cosmos.  We’ll look at Stoic Good and Evil in a latter post.

ἀκρασία allows for a fundamental weakness in humans.  An Original Sin of sorts which despite knowing virtue (really knowing it) we choose something else.  This is entire in contrast to the Socratic (in this case optimistic) position that virtue is a type of knowledge, that it can be taught, and when it is understand it is unassailable.

Stoicism and the war against (some) desires.

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The tagline of this blog for the past few months has been ἀνέχου καί ἀπέχου.  This can be translated (more poetically to my mind, and carrying some of the symmetry present in the Greek) as “bear and forebear,” or in a more approachable fashion as “endure and renounce.”

epictetus-6A pretty stern admonition it seems.  This is often reported as the slogan of Epictetus (seen on the book on which he’s lounging), and its Latin counterpart (sustine et abstine) can be seen often in other venues as well.  So the assumption that Stoicism is about quashing all desire seems just a quick step away.  But, we’d be missing an important issue.  Epictetus does tell us to abandon somethings, and postpone others for the present, but the issue is more complex.

There’s an interesting issue here which gets lost in the English translation.

There’s more than one word for desire used in the Stoic sources. One (ὄρεξις) which is used in the context of desire for virtue, or good things. And a second word for desire (ἐπιθυμία) which is inordinate desire for vicious things or pleasures, lust.

ὄρεξις is one of the things listed as “up to us” in the Enchiridion 1, by the way.  So it clearly can’t be one of those things we’re supposed to abandon or postpone, right?  It’s what we’re training with and for.  Here is why the English “desire” as a catch-all for both Greek terms is a problem for we English speakers.  We might end up making a (reasonable mistake in this case) misapprehension because we’re using the same word for two different lexemes in the Greek.  We may not even know this is occurring, if we don’t read Greek or have it pointed out to us.

So, when we are trying to switch our focus from lusting-desire (for pleasures) to grasping-desire (for virtue), we’re not trying to quash “desire” per se, but we’re trying to quash this yearning or hankering for vicious things.

We should have a grasping-desire for progress, for virtue, for wisdom.  We should grasp for courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control.

We should avoid lusting after body-pleasure, social-rank, intellectual-pride, etc.

Using our ὄρεξις is an entirely acceptable place to be, while we avoid the dangers of ἐπιθυμία.

**cue shooting start**

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Links:
Vocabulary:
Perseus, ὄρεξις
Perseus, ἐπιθυμία
Strong’s, ὄρεξις
Strong’s, ἐπιθυμία

The problem with Modern Stoicism

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I came across a post on reddit, and the poster had made this statement.  “The whole joke was about rigidly applying stoic doctrine to a simple birthday wish.

The joke itself was funny, but what stood out to me was the statement “rigidly applying Stoic doctrine.”  I have seen this criticism from others, in more serious contexts, and it got me thinking.

There is a real problem with modern Stoicism, that harkens back to the “box of my favorite things with Stoicism scrawled on the side.”  Many moderns need to water down Stoicism so as to maintain other beliefs to which they have already granted assent.  This is not a new trend.

There was a pretty serious Romanizing of Stoicism which attempted (successfully) to knock of the rough edges of the Cynic-inspired Hellenic school.  The Greek school of philosophy needed to be molded to be more palatable to the Roman culture.  Even their Cynics were reduced.  It is worth nothing, that this process brought Stoicism to its height.

Nearly every stage of Christianity has taken something from the Stoics, whether it’s Augustine and Origen, Justus Lipsius, or moderns.  The pagan worldview of the Stoics needs to be mitigated to combine with Abrahamic doctrine.  And so it was.

It’s pretty recent phenomenon that there is a sizable group of people interested in understanding Stoicism qua Stoics.  Not as Christian Stoics, or Roman Stoics, or any other thing.  This is a new revival.

Of course, some moderns need to handle and deal with orthodox Stoic positions when it confronts their metaphysical positions (atheism, theism, deism, etc.), their political opinions, their commitment to social causes, and more.

And so more watering down occurs.  A lot of it does: a redefining of virtue, a redefining of preferred indifferents, a white-washing of the theology of the ancients, turning the Dichotomy of Control into a trichotomy, and more besides.

Which brings me to the original point:  the problem of “rigidly” adhering to the doctrine.

Do we want to progress on the Stoic path?
Is there any possibility of attaining εὐδαιμονία?
Do we believe that we can actually be virtuous?
Is Sagehood possible for us?

If any of these are true (not even all), then anything other than rigid adherence is inappropriate.  Epictetus (always via Arrian) gives us this directly:

τηλικούτων οὖν ἐφιέμενος μέμνησο, ὅτι οὐ δεῖ μετρίως κεκινημένον ἅπτεσθαι αὐτῶν, ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν ἀφιέναι παντελῶς, τὰ δ᾽ ὑπερτίθεσθαι πρὸς τὸ παρόν.

“Having such important aims remember, then, that you must undertake them not moderately stirred but that you must totally give up some things and defer others for the time being.”

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 1:4.

μετρίως κεκινημένον means something like “to be stirred up within measure” or “moderately stirred up.”  We might say “halfheartedly.”  Philosophy is not something to do a little bit, or else we’re no better than mountebanks.  Hobbyists.  Indeed, we need to throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly.

Epictetus says we must totally give up some things, and postpone others.  Yet we have Stoics claiming there is no ascetic training component of Stoic practice.

So when I see this claim of “rigidly applying doctrine,” what I see is someone scrambling to maintain their preexisting biases.  This claim is a last-ditch attempt to avoid confronting the cognitive bias of half-doing Stoicism.  To avoid the incontrovertible conclusion that there is a conflict which must be resolved.

Internal conflicts are not small things, humans will go to great lengths to solve them.  We also go through great lengths to delude ourselves that they exist, because we have a core understanding that we cannot hold two contradictory opinions.  Each one needs justification, or a situational disposition, or a subjective stance.  Or else we have to let go of some things.

What a horror would it be if our practice of philosophy changed us, changed our minds!