Socratic meditation

Standard

After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest.  In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example.  Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.”  I had not heard anything like this before.

In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do.  In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still.  It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards.  I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.

Time to correct that, it seems.

The two passages in question are: 174d175c and 220c-d.  I will briefly paraphrase them here.

Plat. Sym. 174d175c

Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon.  Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward.  Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating.  Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man.  When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses.   When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly.  Agathon agrees to do this.  A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters.  The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him.  Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would.  But alas, it is not so.

Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others.  He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon.  The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his.  It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.

Plat. Sym. 220c

Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening.  At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning.  Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures.  It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch.  In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.

In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice.  Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’  For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν.  As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”

From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc.  His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work.  He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat.  Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.

In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.

Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance.  I’m not convinced this is the case.  It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it.  Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me).  This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly).  It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.

HadotIt does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe.  For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion.  I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.

Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done.  So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa.  If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.

ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν

Standard

There’s been a trend with many some modern Stoic writers, and with commenters and various blogs and groups, that the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice. I’ve even seen it explicitly stated that we can get rid of the other three cardinal virtues and focus solely on Justice.

This is a strange perspective, one couched in the typical morality of the modern world, and I think that you’ll see that it is not based in the Stoic school. If we look at Stoic thought and exercises we will see that we have two tools for acting justly in the world: οἰκείωσις, and using social roles as a way to determine appropriate actions.

However, we have many exercises, tools, and prescriptions for, as Hadot calls them, spiritual exercises. All of these amount to ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν, or as Foucault translates as “care of the self.” This disparity alone should tell us that the place of importance is shifted in one direction.  Indeed, those outward actions, of roles/duties are merely descriptors of things the Sage does.  It’s just a nice benefit to virtue, not the end of it.

It should be a non-controversial statement, that Stoics are more concerned with the intent of the thing, then the consequences of a thing. The Dichotomy of Control clearly is a tool allowing us, nay, mandating us to pick and choose between what is up to us and what is not up to us. The consequences of our actions in a cosmos which is rigorously, mechanistically, causally controlled and Providentially ordered is clearly not up to us. The internal project, the intent, the work of the προαίρεσις is. Our social roles are not goods in and of themselves. Our duties are not goods. They are expressions of the good which is within, of virtue. Stoic ethics/morality is self-centered. By this, I mean focused on the self. From Socrates, through the Cynics, to the Stoics and beyond the focus has been on the inward turning of the individual.

Epictetus orders us to “turn back to yourselves” (ἐπιστρέψατε αὐτοὶ) (Disc. III.23.39). Marcus reminds himself to “turn your thoughts on yourself”(εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιστρέφου) (Meditations IX.42).  We see this sort of language over and over again in the Stoic canon.

Rather, then seeing Stoicism as one more branding for popular social action or someone’s political agenda; we should look at it, as the Ancients did.  We should see it as an order for care of the self: to work on ourselves, to secure individual virtue. This trend has existed throughout Western Civilization, even though it is almost always subsumed by collectivist structures. For example, we see it in Christianity, we have both the good works mandate, and the admonition to remove the plank from our own eyes, before touching the speck in our neighbors. So too do we see Stoicism. The commandment of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), is sometimes reorganized as ‘recognize thy self,’ (Scalenghe) and is a reminder to realign ourselves to the rational divinity of the soul. We are instructed to seek personal virtue and through that we benefit others. So while we bring people one Circle closer in Hierocles’ ordering of the cosmos, we are still ever working on ourselves and to better ourselves.

The call of ancient philosophy is not one of  “come as you are,”  but to recognize your own nature, change what needs to be changed about you, and strive towards the human excellence that you were formed by nature to be worthy of possessing.  The cost may be high, however.  It may be our current way of life, our livelihood, our beliefs, and more besides.  This facet is entirely lost in modern, academic philosophy where the only thing required to learn a specific set of patterns to get closer to truth.  The Ancients require that you change, not merely learn.  The call, then, of the Stoics is while we have duties and obligation in the world polis, the primary focus is on progressing toward virtue. It’s important not to lose sight of that amidst worldly concerns.

Stoicism tells us to work on ourselves to make a difference in our community. Rather than giving the community a partisan, a voter, or one more outraged and offended voice, it is within our power to give them a good person, a good family member, a good citizen.

Your virtue is the best thing you can do for your community.

Cynic παρρησία isn’t always welcomed.

Standard

Phil Somers, posted in one of the Stoicism fb groups with a caustic but pertinent critique of consumerist Philosophy.  

He has this to say:

“So I have been slow to realise the fact that Stoicism is just a commodity that can be exploited. I used to believe it was this noble philosophy, but now I see it is so much more. So here is a preview of my new e-Book on Stoicism. Pricing to be announced shortly…”

 Some folks took umbrage with his post, but as is often the case, Phil has an ability to cut through the surface of the issue and strike at its heart. 

Deciding to make money from philosophy is not something one does lightly if they’re doing it with a full heart, and I think most are.  It’s a narrow edge to walk.  The best way, I suppose, would be to put out whatever you’re doing and if remuneration happens, it happens.

A danger exists if sales becomes an end, or a goal.  If the desire to bring in dollars shapes the discourse, then we can wonder quite far from the path.  Of course lots of money can be made by saying “use this philosophy to get money, sex, and prestige.” It is probably significantly harder to make money saying, “virtue is the sole good, the results of your action have no moral worth only your intent does, give up worldly desires, and align yourself consonant with nature.”

That’s a much harder sell.

Even philosophers have to eat, and most of us don’t live in a ceramic jar.  Musonius talks about right livelihood, and other Stoics have as well.  Teaching classes is an endorsed career  for a philosopher, and selling books seems decidedly in that vein. 

I took Phil’s reminder to keep the goals of Philosophy in mind, stay humble, and hold yourself to a high standard. The Stoics and Cynics are sibling schools, and the παρρησία of our closest relative can only make us better philosophers.

Thanks, Phil.

Plutarch: On Curiosity

Standard

I have just finished reading the section of Plutarch’s De Moralia “On Curiosity.” The Greek word in question is a bit difficult to translate, so you also see “On Being a Busybody” used.

You can read it here:  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_curiositate*.html

The thrust of the essay, is an argument against the sort of curiosity which feeds on knowing the failings of others.  The gossipy nature, the uncovering of secrets, etc.  So the essay both argues against this, showing how this nature is at the extreme leading to things like adultery; and it offers a therapy to undo these habits.

 The fact that gossiping and nosiness are habits is an important one.  If you will permit the liberty, I’ll transpose some of his exercises to the utility of today as well as note the examples given.

Plutarch suggests that we not read every bit of graffiti, or signage that we pass.  That this little intrigue reduced our ability to study and descent important things, and trains the moral will into insinuating ourselves into things not our business.

He suggests that when we’re walking, we don’t peek in the doors of neighbors.  We might also practice not checking out the workspace of our colleagues, and keeping our attention outside of their offices, cubes, or desks where we might work.  Turn the gaze inward, to the self, and not to others.

Plutarch suggests that when a letter arrives, we delay opening it for a time.  This can be true for email, push notifications for smart phones, and the other ten-thousand digital intruders of the day.  We may even block those things into chunks: to check email once or twice a day, turn off the push notifications from Facebook, YouTube, or our favorite Stoic blogger, and instead only give a set amount of time to these things each day.

One of the things which Plutarch mentioned, is that the person who loves to uncover secrets also loves to share it.  I suspect that the second part is easier to wrangle than the first.  We might adopt an purposeful silence, not sharing the social tidbits which we might uncover.  This will lead in time to a reduction in the former.

I suspect that part of the allure of sharing gossip is being perceived as the person “in the know.” Restricting such speech, then, will immediately curtail this feedback.

Plutarch remarks that the very people who seek out such knowledge are the ones we hide it from, and so the work of the gossip is twice as hard.

While not a Stoic work per se, this fits nearly into many philosophical settings.  It’s short, and I recommend it to your reading.

It is important to remember how we train the moral will, and what small things lead to greater.

Seneca Reading plan, redux!

Aside

About this time last year, I packed up my earthly belongings and hauled them about 1300 miles across the country.  In that moving, my Seneca reading plan fell by the wayside.  I’ll be picking it back up from where I left off, in week 27 of the reading plan.

So, those sorts of posts may become more frequent.

In a side note, I’m also doing some more reading on Stoic ἄσκησις, so expect some thoughts and posts in that vein.

On Platonic Forms

Standard

A question about whether the classical Stoics subscribed to Plato’s ideal forms was brought up in one of the Facebook groups. 

My answer follows:

Image result for platonic formsNo.  There is clear taxonomy of what constitutes “Something” for Stoics.  Bodies and incorporeals are Something.  Everything else is not-Something.

They use the common definition of a body as that which can act or be acted upon, and has extension.  Matter disposed in a certain way is also a kind of body (hand vs fist). The forms fail that test.  We have never encountered​ a universal red-body, for instance.

So if the forms are Something for a Stoic, they must be incorporeals.  Let’s look at that.

Incorporeals are limited, void, time, room, and lekta (propositional content).  In modern terms, incorporeals supervene on bodies.  They can be described physically, but rely on bodies somewhere for their subsistence.

Take the idea of traffic.  We can describe its flow, volume, path, speed, etc.  But absent the cars, it does not exist.  Traffic supervenes on the bodies of the cars.  It subsists, but does exist (only bodies do that).

The forms do not meet this criteria, either.  They are an idea of, say, “red” of which every red thing contains a part.  The forms come first, they do not subsist on a body.

So, the forms are neither bodies nor incorporeals. Therfore they must be “not-Something” according to the Stoics.

For more on this topic, see (now) Dr. De Harven’s dissertation: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3wg7m1w0

Lectio Divina, a Stoic-adaptable Practice?

Standard

Lectio Divina is a spiritual practice which has its roots in the Christian tradition. It is a formalized process whereby the reader intentionally interacts with the texts in a way very different from the casual reader or even the typical student.

The four movements of Lectio Divina. Clockwise from top left: Lectio (

The four movements of Lectio Divina. Clockwise from top left: Lectio (“read”); Meditatio (“meditate”); Oratio (“pray”); Contemplatio (“contemplate”).

To be fair, I am removing this practice from the context in which it was recorded. The needs of a Christian devotee and the needs of a practicing Stoic are not nondifferent. So, in the interests of intellectual integrity,  will note that I’m changing things. I will be explicit about that when I do, and I will make a note in the title of the practice.

It is important to remember, that most of the core Stoic texts were not intended to be read.. Epictetus’s Discourses as recorded by Arrian are a noting or paraphrasing of spoken lectures. The same being true for Musonius Rufus. Marcus’s meditations were a private journal, also not meant for a sit-down reading by an audience. Seneca’s Moral Letters were epistles, so that is also a different format than the modern is used to.  Much of philosophical consumption would have happened aurally for the ancients.

Sitting and reading the Stoics as we might read a novel, or history, may not be the best way to consume the material.  With that in mind, I began to look at other was of reading.

Lectio Divina has its roots in western monastic practices. I’ve seen some arguments that it was devised for a time when books were expensive and time-consuming to produce. Communal reading would be a logistical requirement, then, in that time and place.  This has not been entirely lost, I spent some time at a monastery as young-teenager, and during meal time religious and ethical texts were read aloud by one of the brethren while the rest ate in silence and contemplation.  This was, subjectively, very nice.

However, this logistical need changed as the culture changed. It became a private practice, of individual contemplation. This is the thing which most interests me, the interaction of the student with the text. Once the practice was formalized, some 900 years after its inception, it had four distinct parts. Read, meditate, pray, contemplate. Let’s look at these each in turn.

Read: the practitioner, with a calm and tranquil mind, intentionally reads the the passage with the intent of having a higher level of understanding. Benedictines traditionally read slowly, and re-read four times. Each time, they focus on a different portion of the passage.

Mediate: Traditionally, this is not an analytical process, but one in which the reader is open to divine inspiration. Rather than parse the text, the reader opens to a frame of mind to experience the purpose of the text.

Pray: For the reader, a communication with God would follow.

Contemplate: namely, silent experience.

Now, it is worth nothing that there are core differences for Stoics and Christians. Stoics do not view their texts as divinely inspired. Stoic texts are a product of reason, not revelation. The words of the classics are not the immutable laws of God given to man. They are the words of men, given to man.

There is an elephant in the room which needs to be addressed here. There is a divide in the Stoic community which tends to fall on theistic/deistic/atheistic/anti-theistic lines. I am interested in Stoic physics, and Stoic theology. so that sort of de facto places me into one of the camps, even though I find the partisanship odious.

It needs to be said however that the God of the Stoics is not the God of the Abrahamic faiths. It is not transcendent, but imminent. The Stoic God is not a’ personality’ hanging out in a place weighing the hearts of the dead against a feather (that’s what happens, right?  It’s been a while for me…).  The Stoic God is the cosmos. It is causation, the generative principle, the ordering force of the universe.  It is reason, and the enlivening principle of the universe.

I don’t claim to fully understand it, or even to say firmly that I believe it. I am willing to operate provisionally with the idea that it might be true, however, while I study it more.

That being said, if a Stoic were to pray outside of some other formal religion, I don’t know what that would look like. Marcus has some ideas, as does Seneca. Seneca suggests we clap with children at the Saturnalia, or we might respond to a “Merry Christmas.” Marcus suggests that if we were to petition God, it would be for virtue, not stuff or circumstances to our liking.  A Christian, Greek Polytheist, or other specific theist may not have this problem.

I don’t know what a Stoic prayer would look like; I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it however.

There is one school of thought that the ancients were advising us to engage in the pious actions of our society. Part of Socrates defense was that he was participating in the rites of his city, and not introducing foreign Gods to his people when he discussed the δαίμων.  This, he evidenced, by his participation in all the rite and religious requirements of his day.

I’m not sure if that has relevance to us today. It would feel dishonest, or disrespectful for me to go to a church and do church-things for a group I didn’t believe in. That feels like a lie.  I do occasionally go with friends or family, but I only participate in the general portions, nothing specific or that implies an obligation or agreement on my part.

The three movements of Lectio Divina Stoica. Clockwise from top left: Lectio (“read”); Meditatio (“meditate”); Contemplatio (“contemplate”).

I can do Seneca’s thing however, take a greeting and return it in the spirit in which it was given. This has started to drift off topic, but what I am doing is laying the groundwork for altering the sections of the four-fold instruction for Lectio Divina.

My practice of what I will call  Lectio Divina Stoica has three parts.
Read. Meditate. Contemplate.

Reading the passage aloud or internally is acceptable. Meditate on the passage, analytically and with an idea for how it fits into the schema of Stoicism, and how it fits into human life. Contemplate, a silent experiential incorporating of the passage.

I am trying both a reading of the texts in English and in Koine.  However, my current facility with the Greek is not quite strong enough to make good use of the practice.  So, that may be a task for letter.  Now, on to the meat of the issue:

 


Lectio Divina Stoica.

Preparation.

  1. Begin by finding a quiet place.  There is an intentionality to creating space and time for a practice of importance.  This place could be outside or inside.  It should be peaceful, and non-distracting.  The goal here is to show a reverence for what we’re doing.
  2. Sit quietly, and with the eyes closed, begin to focus on the experience of the breath.  Note the chest or stomach rising and falling.  You can note this with a word if you like, “Rising, rising, rising.  Falling, falling, falling.”  You could also make use of one of the meditations here. Allow this practice to clear and quiet the mind.  A couple to several minutes maybe required.  Once this is done, begin with the reading.

Reading.

  • A passage is selected, you could use a Daily Reader (there are several available), or you could work through a Stoic text beginning to end, or you could pick one randomly.  You may want to build a “handbook” of topical selections, and focus on one point of virtue, one point of practice, or any portion of our School in which you desire a deeper understanding.  Slowly, aloud or internally as you prefer, read the text; focusing on the meaning of the words, and with attentive reverence, read.  When a portion of the text stands out to you, or strikes a chord, or elicits a response of some sort, stop and reflect on it.  You might highlight or underline the passage, make a note in the margin, or otherwise set it off as something of particular note.

Meditate.

  • Here, we may go over the passage again, looking for a deeper meaning to what is present.What is the meaning of the passage?  How does it fit into our school?  How does it help us train to virtue?  What does the noting of the passage say about us, why are we noting this part now?  Is it directly applicable to some part of our lives?  Is it agreeable or disagreeable?  Why?  Will it change our practice?  Does it change our understanding of virtue, of the cosmos, and our place in it?  Do we agree or disagree with the text here?In short:  What does the text say?  What does the text say to me?  What does it mean for our School?  What does it change in my practice?

Contemplate.

  • We quietly sit and rest in the message of the text.  If outside, a quiet observation of nature would be appropriate.  If inside, of ourselves, the process of reason and understanding.  Sit in quietness, and appreciate the opportunity to learn, grow, and strive for human virtue.