On Platonic Forms

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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?

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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.

 

Philosophical eating: “The clear dry soul is wisest and best.”

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In Musonius’ Lecture/s on food, we hear straight off that, “On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too…”. The reasoning given is that as food is something we are obliged to handle daily, it is a key tool for developing the virtue of self-control.

The main thrust is:

“As one should prefer inexpensive food to expensive and what is abundant to what is scarce, so one should prefer what is natural for men to what is not.”

Musonius seems to layout three sorts of foods.

  • Natural foods which do not require fire for preparation.
    • Seasonal, fresh fruit, some vegetables, cheese, honey, etc.
  • Natural foods which do require fire for preparation.
    • Most cereals, pulses, etc.
  • Barbaric or unsuitable foods.
    • Namely meat-flesh in the first category, but also dainty foods like sweet cakes, extravagant dishes, dishes which harm the health, etc.

Additionally, in this paper that I’m currently reading, ‘Food and Counter-cultural Identity in Ancient Cynicism‘ the author Notario makes the statement that food choices are a key practice and symbol for in-group/out-group identification.  We can see that in the religious prohibtions in Semetic religions, national cousines, and societal choices about acceptable foods (cow, chicken, horse, dog, muskrat?).

In the cases of the Stoics, Cynics, and Pythagoreans it is also a counter-cultural act.

Paleo diet fans:  trigger warning.

Notario states that up to 80% of the calories of the ancient Greek diet were provided by cereals.  He treats at times dietary choices like a text, noting that the Cynics and Stoics repudiated the fancier foods, and extolled the virtues of the simple foods of the Everyman.

One of those is madzae/maza, a sort of barley cake (in the sense of party not a sweet treat).  A recipe for the food can be found here.  I gave my hand a try at this, and found it to be surprisingly tasty.  The author notes that it tastes of Honey Smacks cereal (red box, Frog), and that is spot on.  The grainy texture seems a little unavoidable, however your diligence with a mortar and pestle, or in my case a repurposed coffee grinder, may vary the degree.

I made the simplest ones, but I can see how adding some cheese or a bit of honey would be a nice change of pace periodically.

Over in the Cynosarges group on Facebook we’re putting together a “Philosophical eating plan” based on the prescriptions of Musonius, and the examples of Diogenes and Crates.  If you’re interested in collaborating, or making use for the final product, head over there and check it out.

On Stoicism and Christianity

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Stoicism and Christianity have a very long and storied history together.  Whether we look at the Roman era, and early Christians wanting to be seen as a rival philosophical school, or clearly Stoic terminology in Pauline ethics (specifically the Book of Romans).  In large part, it is the subsuming of practical wisdom and spiritual exercise of Hellenic philosophy into Christian theology which hastened the decline of the Greek schools.

So, what does modern-day Stoicism and Christianity have in common?  Can Stoicism be merely a set of practices and thought-models that one appends to Christianity or any other belief?  Are there irreconcilable differences between the two?  Which is more closely compatible to Stoicism, Christianity or atheism?  These are the questions we will address in this essay.

Attempting to reconcile Christianity with Stoicism is not a new thing, in fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries this was popular enough to merit the epithet “Neostoicism.”  On the surface, Christianity and Stoicism have a lot in common, not at all coincidentally.  Stoicism’s professed telos is eudaimonia or “happiness” (lit. good-spiritedness).  Christianity promises eternal salvation through the Passion of Jesus Christ.  Both of these, while radically different ends, are acquired through virtuous action in one’s life.  Stoicism denotes virtue and vice as two items which lie within the will, specifically our intentions.  Christianity has a series of prescriptions and prohibitions which amount to virtue and sin.  Note:  vice and sin in these senses are not one-to-one compatible.  Stoicism professes (classically, and contentiously for many today) belief in the universe-as-god, while Christianity is an Abrahamic faith believing in the God of Abraham and Issac.  Stoicism is cosmopolitan, seeing all rational beings as brothers and sisters in the Logos.  Christianity professes the universality of the brotherhood of man through God and the church.

One can continue to draw many parallels between the two.  However, a trend will arise.  Parallels may be drawn, but there are few one-to-one analogues.  The immortality of the soul and the inherent dualism of the material versus spiritual is at odds with the monism of the Stoics, and the idea that not even the soul of the Sage survives ἐκπύρωσις (ekpyrosis).  Stoic vice is personal, and is those judgments and actions which are within our control and contrary to nature.  Sin is that which separates man from God, and is a universal.  At the core, Stoicism seeks to use reason to determine right and wrong, while Christianity relies on the revealed faith of the scriptures and God’s prophets.

There is a contention amongst some modern practitioners of Stoicism, that the an atheist view point is not only acceptable, but is the more correct interpretation of Stoic tradition.  One has only to read Epictetus’ Discourses to note the frequency which he references God, and duties there.  Atheist ethics are grounded in social constructs, there is not a universal measure to which we can check for good and evil.  Stoicism is inherently a deist or theist school of thought.  While it may certainly be possible to divorce that from it, it is a major change.  At some point, one is obliged to note such changes, or rename the thing all together.

Between the two, Christianity seems to be closer, in my estimation, but are still a ways apart.  For the person seeking to create a synthesis between the two, one or both most suffer.  I have seen some … heterodox interpretations of Christianity which seem even closer, but the conception of the Abrahamic God and the pantheist/panentheist Stoic God seem worlds apart, pun intended.

Askesis: Notes on Epictetus’ Educational System

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This short excerpt comes from a book titled, “Askesis: Notes on Epictetus’ Educational System,” (Hijmans, B. L.).
It touches on a variety of topics, and this particular bit touches Stoic theology.  I’ve worked through it once “quickly,” it relies heavily on primary sources, often not in translation, with the occasional German, French, and Latin thrown in for good measure.

I’m going to need to sit down and spend some serious time with this before my thoughts are finalized, but initial impressions are high favorable.  The book is exceedingly well-researched.

Now, on to Stoic Theology…

Whenever we discuss the God of the Stoics, Zeus, Providence, or any other word for this concept in Stoicism, there is often an immediate knee-jerk like reaction from many that prompts them to argue against the Abrahamic God.  This short paragraph should lay that particular point to rest, and begin to show how the piety of Epictetus is based in gratitude for reason.  Specifically λόγος ὀρθός, or “right reason,” and the prohairesis.

I’ve been wrangling with the conception of Stoic theology and piety for some time, and I think can begin with gratitude and an appreciation for natural beauty.  I’ll keep you updated on how that goes.

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.

checks_per_day
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.