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.
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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.

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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:

Reflections on Diogenes

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For the past few months, most of my philosophical reading time has been spent with Diogenes of Sinope; specifically via Luis Navia, and his several works on the subject.  Navia seems to be one of the few writers on the Cynic paragon to think of him highly.  After working through several volumes, the main take away that I have from Navia is one which surprised me.

Image result for diogenes of sinopeNavia posits, contra most others, that above all Diogenes’ actions and mode of life are an act of love.  A love of people, particularly.  Many others see the man’s reported actions, demagogue-like haranguing, and lewd activities as a repudiation of humankind.  Navis says no, this cannot be the case.  If Diogenes were a misanthrope, he would reasonable retreat to the wilderness, live howsoever he chose, and quietly pass his life in solitude. This is not the only reason to seek retreat, clearly, but this is the argument as I’ve seen it.

Navia instead notes that while Diogenes disapproves of the moral character of his time, he throws himself into the very middle of it.  He speaks to every passerby with the shocking honesty of his actions.  He points out the flaws in others, not to be a curmudgeon, but that they might seem themselves reflected in the mirror of his austerity and be called to better action.

Navia even goes so far as to say that the apparent eImage result for diogenes of sinopextremism of Cynic living is a pedagogical tool, and not the direct advice for the people.  I’m not so sure I agree with him on this point, however.  He says that much like the Overton Window in politics, an extreme example can nudge the perception towards the middle.  Diogenes is the extreme candidate, then, whose purpose is didactic rather than one motivated on winning.  The extreme candidate makes the slightly less moderate appear moderate.

If an extreme example of the minimums needed virtue prompts an interlocutor to make small changes, that seems like reasonable progress to me.  I do think this is a bit more speculative than I’d like to be, however, and we should take the mode of life of Antisthenes, Crates, Diogenes, and Zeno at face value as they have told us they are.  Their utility, however, towards this trend seems inarguable to me, motivations aside.

More and more, I find myself called back to the question of how we take the specific examples of the Cynics and Stoics and transplant them 2,000+ years today.  This questions has really been perennial for me since the beginning of this blog, and my studies.  I think it is the core question of my progress in philosophy.

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 8-11

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We have two topics again today, one is on the nature of life and perception, and the other on the work of our ruling faculty with a touch of Providence.  I’m going to only focus on one of these today: the ἡγεμονικόν or προαίρεσις.

But first, a seeming diversion which in fact gets us to the point.  One of the great treasures of the modern Stoicism movement is Franco Scalenghe.  Franco runs Epitteto.com.  In addition to a new, modern translation of all of Epictetus works (an immense undertaking) which he offers to the reader without cost (!), he has written five dialogues. These are dialogues in the classical, philosophical sense.

Image result for Socratic dialogIn these, one of the things discussed is some new work in the field of Epictetus.  We have many folks working on Stoicism, and a few novel inventions, but this seems to me to be the most in line with the classical texts while making some valuable movement in it.  Franco breaks down the ruling faculty of the mind into three functions, or judges:  The Diairesis, the Antidiairesis, and the Counterdiairesis.  Franco does an excellent job translating into English, and he has chosen to leave a handful of words in the Greek which may cause confusion in translation.  Do not get hung up in the new terminology, the Dialogue makes it clear what’s being discussed.  This brings us to the meat of the issue: the ruling faculty, or prohairesis.

Without stealing Franco’s thunder, or misrepresenting anything: the tasks of the various judges are to identify what is up to us and not up to us and to formulate projects in either case.  It is the purview of the Diaresis to discriminate between what’s up to us and not, and to formulate projects that are entire up to us in the Epictetan sense; and the Antidiaresis’ is to formulate projects in the other case (i.e. externals) based on the judgement of the former one.  When the prohairesis refuses or deludes itself into believing that something which is up to us in fact isn’t, this obfuscation is called Counterdiairesis.  An additional trouble arises because Counterdiairesis can also give orders to the Antidiairesis, and thus we forumlate projects incorrectly and are twarted.

If all of that is a bit much, it is merely a one paragraph survey of about 40 pages of Dialogue, but if this idea interests you, I would point you to Franco’s site where you can read the dialogues in several languages, as well as his other works.  Franco’s categorization is a very good model for how our ruling faculty works, in my opinion.  The added benefit as I see it to the standard formulation is that it gives us three places to look for errors in judgment.  We can play a “what if” game, and find out where things may have gone wrong, and maybe then we can fix them.  The Dichotomy of Control gives us a powerful tool, but it can often be difficult to identify in which category a given impression or project is rightfully placed.  The incorrect solution to this problem is the Trichotomy, but Franco’s model offers (to my mind) the better option.Image result for three judges

Marcus notes a few points which tie into this:  the first being that our ability to form opinions is paramount (this is a work of the Diairesis in the above framework), and by it alone can you avoid committing errors by making plans contrary to the nature of things (a project ordered by Counterdiaresis).

Franco and Epictetus agree that the prohairesis is the closes thing to a “self” which can be identified, the judge that sits and rules inside the mind/soul.  This three-part model is an interesting one, and I recommend it to your study.

After you’ve spent some time with Franco’s Dialogues (and I do suggest more than a cursory reading, there is a lot there to ruminate on), I’d be interested in your thoughts and if you think this is a model you would adopt for your own way of thinking about prohairesis and the hegemonikon.

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This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.