Stoicism, homosexuality, trans persons, and “effeminate men.”

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This issue is a sensitive one.  A recent, and in many cases current, history of aggression, abuse, violence, and more has made this a debate topic which is heated.  The mere discussion can be interpreted as a challenge to identity, personhood, and more.  I’m hoping that as philosophers we can by-pass the majority of that nastiness.  That being said …

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about in my study of Stoicism deals with sex and gender.  Musonius has a very forward thinking position on men and women regarding education (Lecture 3), in that he argues while their bodies are different their souls and reason are of the same sort.  Despite this, Musonius is not a feminist in the way most folks understand that word today.  He sees a division of labor (Lecture 4), for instance, as a natural feature of human society.  This sort of biological determinism (if that’s a thing), I suspect is unacceptable to modern, third-wave feminists.

Musonius (Lectures 1 and 2) and Epictetus (Discourses 2.16 and 3.24) use the word “effeminate” as a pejorative or at least as a harsh criticism. The word in 2.16 is μαλακία, which can also be translated as ‘softness.’   Every translation I’ve seen uses the word “effeminacy” here, however.  And in 3.24 is ἀποθηλύνω, which can be “to make effeminate, to enervate, or to weaken.”  One might conclude that there are some negative value judgments being implied here.

Their position is that male and female are static categories, binaries.  However, the lesson I’ve taken from the works (an interpretation, clearly) is somewhat different than the one a cursory textual reading might leave the reader with.

Let’s look at an example, both teachers discuss the beard.  By my reading, both Musonius and Epictetus see the male beard as formed by nature, that is God, the ordering principle of the universe. To remove it, then, is impious.  Their position is that the bodies of men and women are formed to specific purposes, and to alter that is not man’s role.

It’s not bad to be womanish if one is a woman, I think they would say, if asked. As men, philosophers should not remove a part of the body for mere fashion.  They say something like, “to be smooth is a woman’s nature, whereas hair suits a man.”  While most men are generally more hirsute than are women, women of course are not hairless.  There is a spectrum of hair growth for humans.

If you’ll permit some paraphrasing and reducing, then the general rule here is that treatment of the body and one’s role in society based on it contribute to piety/impiety.

The ancients’ views on sex, gender, and what constitutes “natural” are admittedly different than the general Western conception today.  That presents an issue with which we must wrangle.  We must reconcile the two, somehow.

Their position is complicated. Male homosexual activity is mentioned in the Discourses and Cynic Epistles pretty casually.  It doesn’t’ appear to be too much of an issue.  I’m not sure, though, that any modern conception of an LGBTQ person fits neatly into these ancient ideas.  Which leads to the question, what does the modern conception of homosexuality and the issues facing trans folks mean for modern Stoics using ancient texts? I’m not sure, but I’m positive the debate would be useful, if not easy. It’s probably one the Stoic community should have.

If we read in Musonius and Epictetus that one shouldn’t cut off the beard due to impiety, what does that mean for someone transitioning from male to female or female to male?  What does that mean for folks who identify as non-binary?

The classics’ opinions seem at odds with ours, and it’s one of those things we have to weigh, test and then either accept, modify, or cast aside.  We lack a 2300 year tradition, we’re all trying to incorporate ideas over an 1800 year gap.  That’s messy.

My personal leanings are “personal choices, personal nature, and virtue are up to the individual,” and to leave it at that.  People I’m close to have had to handle these issues themselves within the wider western culture, but I’ve not spoken with someone who ascribes to Stoic philosophy and also handles these issues on a personal level.  I can see why my position of “it’s basically not ‘up to me’ ” might seem unfulfilling, or maybe even a cop-out of sorts.  That’s not my intent.

One of the things about Stoicism which is attractive is its openness.  We’re not going to kick someone out of the Stoic tent for this person’s or that person’s perception of a violation of what Epictetus or Musonius says.  That kind of enforcing of moral prescriptions is not what we’re doing here.

I don’t recall any others tackling this issue head-on, and I’m interested in other folks’ thoughts.

Reading: Plutarch, “How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue.”

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How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue.

This is an argument against several Stoic positions are relates to the Sage and the conversion to wisdom.  Plutarch takes issue, as most folks might, with the idea that all vices are equal, and if one has one vice you effectively have them all.

Who would deny the degrees of difference between a lie about a man's beard, or condemning Socrates to death?  Or a lie to your boss about something in your personal life, and murder?

Our common sense experience of the world and the systems we've created in it recognize these distinctions.  But the classic Stoics did not.  Let's look at why that might be. 

The problems with the common conception and Plutarch's argument are the external focus of them.  The Stoic positions is not to be used in matters of jurisprudence, or punishment, or to correct the behavior of others.  Rather, it's a tool for ourselves to correct vicious intent.

If we are trying to divest ourselves of vice, and instill virtue, then we must account for every wrong, no matter how small.  The Stoic position that all evils (here as always, our own moral evil) are equal prevents us from deluding ourselves about the nature of our intent.

"Well, I may have lied to my spouse about this small thing, but at least I stopped doing something worse.  So that's okay…"

The Stoic cannot with any intellectual integrity make such a justification.

Plutarch's opening assumption focuses on comparing the actions of two humans, which is an inappropriate use of the doctrine.

Despite that, and the general polemic nature of the piece, this discussion does tell us quite a bit about the Stoic positions which we don't see in many other places.

It's well worth the read time.

“Doing” philosophy: orthodoxy implies orthopraxy.

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If we’re discussing the tenets of Stoicism we can bring up a variety of topics.  Katalepsis (Gr: κατάληψις) separates the Stoics from the several stripes of Skeptics.  That virtue is the only good separates the Stoics from the Epicureans.  That some indifferents might be rightly preferred by their utility to virtue separates the Stoics from the earlier Cynics.  That only those things exist which have a body and extend in three dimensions separates the Stoics from the Platonists.

We can continue on, building a list of doctrinal positions which allow us with some certainty to say, “these are Stoics positions, and these are not.”

These positions, however, are not mere brain candy.  They are not something merely to mull over as a hobby.  If you read the Stoics, and then go about your life unchanged, you’re like a person who has gone to the doctor and disregarded the advice.  You stand in front of a mirror, and ignore what it tells you about yourself.

That is not philosophy.

If there are “right beliefs” of Stoicism, a Stoic orthodoxy, and Stoicism is a philosophy as a way of life, then the implication is that there is also an orthopraxy, or “right actions.”

We can look at Epictetus’ three topoi, and see Disciplines of Assent, Desire, and Action.  Action then is in part practicing the two others.  It means actually doing things.  Things motivated by virtue.

While material things are clearly indifferents, how we handle them certainly is not.

Musonius lays out clear positions for those training to be philosophers.  It’s explicit, and there’s no twisting out from under it saying “it’s a metaphor.”  He says, “do this, don’t do that.”

If we assent to correct Stoic positions on doctrine, we must then also look at the positions on action.  Many modern Stoics set aside the ‘doing,’ however this is inappropriate.  Rather than seeing what must be pared away from the philosophy to make it palatable for the modern person; we should instead see how much we can keep.

That may mean taking certain doctrines and positions for a test a drive, giving the ancients the benefit of the doubt, but testing it with our own reason.  But this, then, is philosophy.

When we actually are doing the things suggested (or maybe discarding the ones after a full examination), we’re putting the doctrine into practice.

International Women’s Day and Musonius Rufus

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Today is International Women’s Day, and I thought I would take the time to discuss Musonius Rufus, the role of women in Stoic Philosophy, and the examples we have of them.  Many ancient and modern philosophers discount and discredit the role of women in intellectual pursuits.  For whatever reason, it was often assumed they were less suited to the task, or simply by nature interested in other things.

Musonius, however, takes a different tact.  In Lecture III, he notes that for all of the operative issues regarding philosophy and virtue, men and women have the same foundation on which to build.  For Musonius, both men and women are given by God the gifts of reason.  Their senses, bodies, and minds all work in a similar fashion for everything on which philosophy hinges.  More importantly, both men and women have predisposition for goodness, for virtue.

Keeping in mind, Musonius is speaking in the first century CE, and his arguments are couched in the language and thinking of that time.  He is trying to convince his mostly male audience that the women in their lives would benefit from studying philosophy, for growing in virtue.  He does this by playing to their own biases.

A virtuous person (in this case a female person), would be better suited to all roles and tasks a human being can do.  In the same way that it would make one a better husband, it would make one a better wife.  As it would make better sons, it makes better daughters.  In what conditions would justice, fortitude, wisdom, or courage be a hindrance to a woman?  None!  It’s surely just as valuable in her as anyone else.

Musonius takes this a step further in Lecture IV.  Not only are women capable of virtue, but they should be trained (read: educated) in it.  Not only should they receive education, but the very same education as males.  There is no good reason for Musonius that we should educate boys and girls differently.  This is a fairly radical proposition for the 1st century CE.  The equal access to education was not even a common western value 100 years ago; yet nearly 2000 years ago, Musonius argued for just that very point.  Quite forward thinking in this regard.

His opinions differ, however, when we get to a common crux of human relations:  sexuality.  In Lecture XII, Musonius argues for what seems a very socially conservative view of human sexuality.  Specifically, that it’s appropriate only within marriage, and only for the purposes of procreation.  The reason I mention this, is that he unequivocally states that the prescription is the same for men and women.  While the standard is very strict, it is at least fair.

One of the issues which bears pointing out, which many moderns may take umbrage with, is that Musonius argues from a position in which the souls of men and women are the same, but that does not mean that men and women are in all ways equal.  He does note a reasonable division of labor and social roles, however.  One of his interlocutors asks about “women’s work” and how that gets addressed in Lecture IV, lines 16-21.  Musonius argues that when such things are conformable to the general physical nature, it’s appropriate.  The general trend of men’s and women’s build might predispose them to one type of work over another.  For example, he says it’s reasonable that men would do more hard labor outside, and women might work indoors.  In this, the issue is specifically the spinning of yarn.  He does not, however, state this does means that one shouldn’t learn or be able to do the work of the other.

In fact, in specific circumstance, the opposite roles may be more reasonable.  A man might work inside due to his constitution or other mitigating circumstance, and the woman outside and more physically.  Either way, he would not compel one or the other in a specific way.  While general trends exist, the specific applications vary.  A quite liberal approach, I think (not in the political sense of Anglo-American politics, mind you).

Within Stoicism, we either look towards the latter part of the era to the daughter of Cato, or back to the Cynics for specific examples of female philosophers which have come down to us through history.  The first and earlier Hipparchia, the wife of Crates the Cynic and philosopher in her own right, and the second and latter Portia Catonis.

Hipparchia left a life of comfortable wealth, and rigid social mores to marry Crates, the homeless and shameless Cynic.  She discarded everything her society valued and instead sought virtue and freedom, albeit in very unconventional ways.

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of the rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic. Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not; But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground, My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”

— Hipparchia, Greek Anthology, 7.413

I could not find the original Greek version of the Anthology online to check this, however it is worth noting that the word which is often translated as ‘courage’ can also be translated as “manliness,’ ἀνδρεία (andreia).  This is pure speculation, but I would not be surprised to find that it is this word which is in the original text of the above quote.

Portia may have even been involved in the assassination plot of Caesar, and was at least aware of it.  The recordings of her show a women of firm character, strong beliefs, and the courage of her convictions, even unto her own death by suicide.

“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”

— Portia Catonis, Cassius Dio, 44.13.4

The universality of Stoic philosophy is one of its highest selling points, I think.  It calls to the egalitarian nature in the modern westerner, and shows that it has maintained that perspective for a very long time.  Whether it’s simply the vicissitudes of history, or some other reason such as explicit bias, we have few examples of female philosophers and particularly of female Stoics from the classical period.  Nevertheless, the message of Musonius is a hopeful one, offering the fruits of philosophical practice to all rational creatures who embrace her.

‘Right reason’ and the Stoic Sage

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I’m reading the Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes, and I’ve come across a phrase that either I didn’t register before, I’d forgotten, or I skipped somehow. That is ‘right reason’ (Gr: ὀρθὸς λόγος).

One of the binary distinctions that exist in Stoicism is between the actions of the Sage versus that of the the layman or ‘untrained person’ (Gr: ἰδιώτης):

The layman’s actions (even when appropriate) are always insane or mistakes. When they are according to his nature, they are kathēkonta (Gr: καθήκοντα), ‘appropriate actions.’

The Sage’s actions (even if outwardly the same as the above, are katorthōmata (Gr: κατόρθωματα), or ‘perfect actions.’ Only the Sage has ‘perfect actions.’

The Sage comes about this distinction, the ability to make perfect actions, because her actions are focused to the good, and that comes about through ‘right reason’ (Gr: ὀρθὸς λόγος). This concept of ‘right reason’ is interesting to me, and I was wondering if anyone had seen any longer, more in-depth studies on that?

Logos can be a tricky term in Stoic jargon, but in my reading, it’s being used here in the common understanding of “logic, or reason,” and not the capital-L Logos type.

If anyone has any resources on ὀρθὸς λόγος, shoot them my way in the comments, please.

A Stoic Argument Against Circumcision

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To begin, I am discussing elective circumcision of newborn males.  Circumcision can be a remedy for certain medical problems, and that stands outside the purview of our discussion here.  Elective surgeries, are by definition, not medically necessary, and that is the focus of this argument.

About one-third of the world’s male population is circumcised.  This figure might be surprising, until one notes that a full 70% of that number are Muslim, for whom it is a religious prescription, as it is for Jews and certain Orthodox Christian sects.  Again, these folks fall outside of our purview for the discussion.  While it might be admirable to try and convince such folks that their practices are harmful, arguments against religious prescriptions are often difficult, as the value of obedience to the rule will often be higher than the ‘rightness’ of the thing to human eyes.

Instead, we are focusing on Stoics, and how from that perspective, we should interact with circumcision.  There’s an interesting amount of double-think which occurs in this matter.  If you use the phrase “female circumcision” you will likely be corrected by “female genital mutilation.”  However, were you to say “male genital mutilation,” you will probably be met with confused looks.  Indeed, if you attempt to draw a parallel, “removing of parts of the sexual organs without consent and for medically vacuous purposes,” you will immediately find the person to suddenly be very knowledgeable about the “health benefits” and possibly even the ‘aesthetic value’ of the practice.  Keeping in mind that the plural of anecdote isn’t ‘data’, it’s been my experience that these arguments usually come from women.

In the US, where this is less of a religious issue, the practice of circumcision is a cultural one.  “My son should look like me,” is the common reasoning from men, and dubious health benefits from women.  Plus:  “We’ve always done this.”

To properly frame the issue in a Stoic context, there are a few things to note:

  • The lack of medical necessity,
  • The false argument of omnium consensu,
  • A fiduciary responsibility to protect the bodily integrity of our children,
  • Our motto of “Live according to nature,”
  • And the vehemence in the Stoic arguments against beard cutting

The lack of medical necessity is a definitional issue, as presented in the first part of this post, and I won’t go over it again.  The omnium consensu issue arises when you often hear the issue brought up that “If we don’t circumcise our son, he’ll stand out,” or “he should look like me.”  It is not a universal practice, being a 30-33% minority of males, and of those, a 70% majority represented by one religious sect shows that it is firmly a minority practice.  In this instance, omnium consensu (the prevalence of a universal practice), is clearly not relevant.  What we actually have is an Appeal to Popularity, a fallacy.  Basically, “all the cool kids are doing it.”

Thankfully, the phrase of generations of mothers and grandmothers of “If everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?”  is not, “If everyone were cutting off bits of their son’s penises, would you cut too?”  Because we know the answer to the latter one, as a survey from 1999-2002 showed that 79% of US males were circumcised.  This is down from 91% in the 1970s. (!)

Next, we address the issues of ownership and property integrity.  Our bodies are our property, we have the highest and best claim to its disposition.  Parents have a fiduciary responsibility towards their non-adult children’s health, wellness, minds, and bodies.  What they do not have is ownership.  An owner may alter, destroy, or otherwise dispose of property in any way he or she sees fit.  A custodian, however, does not have this moral right.  Instead, he or she has an obligation to the actual owners to maintain the status of the property in question, to the highest and best means possible.

A parent might choose to have a child’s leg amputated in the event of a serious accident, like a crushing injury followed by infection.  To protect the life of the child, cutting away the leg is appropriate.  Their responsibility to the life of the child clearly trumps the bodily integrity obligations, as there is no integrity if the child dies from gangrene.

Yet, we’re not looking at that type of situation at all in regards to circumcision, which almost always is medically elective.  Instead, for reasons of perceived social pressure, the parents are choosing to cut away portions of the child’s body for perceived social ease or aesthetics.

This is grossly inappropriate.  It is instead, the obligation of a parent to protect the bodily integrity of their children until they are of an age to make such choices for him or herself, assuming the threat of death is not present (as ex. above).

Let us move on to the issue of our motto, to”live according to nature.”  No creature is born with extra parts which as a standard matter of course need to be surgically removed.  Let alone, that in a small percentage of cases, errors or malpractice can result in severe and lasting damage to the child.  Indeed, were this a natural practice, we would see it in greater than 30% of the world’s population, and it would be spread across more diverse groups: namely closer to 100% than it is to 0%.

Lastly, I have a speculative argument from analogy.  Musonius and Epictetus both argue that men should not cut away the beard, that to do so is impious.  Their argument points to the sexual dimorphism in other species:  the lion’s mane, the rooster’s comb, etc.  They say that the beard is nature’s symbol of the male in mankind.  In that, it is then inappropriate to make themselves ‘not like men’ in the pursuit of fashion or for other purposes not involving an illness.

Indeed, the only reason why we cut the hair at all is probably because it does not hurt.  If it were to hurt to the cut hair, I don’t think we would do it as we do today.  Yet, circumcision does hurt, and oftentimes the infant isn’t even given medication to lessen the pain.

Can you imagine someone coming up to Epictetus, with his beard freshly plucked out, smooth as a newborn, and asking his opinion on cutting off a portion of son’s penis?  I can imagine the reply would be clear, and probably not softly delivered.

No, if the Stoics were so against the cutting off of the ‘symbol’ of masculinity as put there by nature, surely they would also be against cutting off portions of the masculine organ itself.

Many American males are already circumcised, and there’s no changing that.  It may have been done thoughtlessly, or for perceived ‘good reasons.’  But, we who have examined the issue from a philosophic and Stoic perspective can make a change.

Will it be difficult to explain to our sons why we look different than they do?  Folks assume it will be, but I don’t actually think that is so.   In fact, part of the job of parents is to have difficult conversations for the well being of their children.  That fear, even if it exists and even if it is real, should be put aside.  It doesn’t contribute to our virtue.

When we’re asked, upon bathing or changing, why we look different, it is up to us to explain the problem in language the child can comprehend.  Children can understand quite a bit more than we often give them credit for when the appropriate language is chosen.

“Some people remove this part from their babies.  My parents chose that for me, but I decided it was your choice.  When you’re an adult, you may chose to have that surgery, or to be as you are naturally.  You were a health baby, and there was no need for it.  It’s your body, and it should be your choice.”

It’s as simple as that.  Of course, their grandparents love us and them as well, and of course their bodies are safe.  As parents we should simply chose to protect our children’s bodily integrity, and protect their opportunities for their own choices in the future.

The issue of male circumcision is surprisingly a controversial one, and it is my hope that this piece provides the opportunity to re-examine cultural practices through the lens of philosophy and rational thinking, and not merely unthinking tradition or popular appeals.

On Ascetic Training

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Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_Diogenes_-_Walters_37131The classical Stoics lay out several clear statements and arguments regarding ascetic training in the practice of philosophy.  Now, the word “ascetic” often has broad and specific connotations, not all of which are appropriate for our concerns here, and some actually at counter position to our purposes.

So let me begin, the type of ascetic regimen that is practiced (for instance) in some parts of India by “matted hair” type ascetics is not what we are discussing.  You can find photos of men covered in mud, sitting with one arm raised until it withers, staring at the sun until blind, or wearing an iron collar for decades.

It is not my place to say these folks are wrong, but this is not something condoned by Stoicism.  These acts are simply not our practice.  Epictetus states so, clearly, in Discourses III.12:

“We ought not to train ourselves in unnatural or extraordinary actions, for in that case we who claim to be philosophers shall be no better than mountebanks. For it is difficult to walk on a tight-rope, and not only difficult but dangerous as well…”

The operative words here are “unnatural or extraordinary”  practice; I offer that suggestions like the above fall under this category.  However, the current society (and in the eyes of the classics, theirs as well) is so indulged that true moderation appears to be tortuous.  But that is a wrong understanding.  Moderation is not a torture or mortification of the flesh.  Indeed, that practice’s motivation is not even remotely close to ours.  ἄσκησις (áskēsis) means training or exercise, and that is our purpose:  not torture.

So what kind of training is appropriate for the philosopher?  Musonius gives us his answer in Lecture VI, On Training:

“Since it so happens that the human being is not soul alone, nor body alone, but a kind of synthesis of the two, the person in training must take care of both, the better part, the soul, more zealously; as is fitting, but also of the other, if he shall not be found lacking in any part that constitutes man.”

We have two categories of training then, those which affect the ‘soul-and-body-together’ and those which affect the ‘soul-alone.’

  • Soul and Body:
    • Designed to instill discipline to both by exposure to:
      • cold and heat
      • thirst and hunger
      • meager rations
      • hard beds
      • avoidance of pleasure
      • patience under suffering (note: not causing suffering)
  • Soul Alone:
    • Designed to build the habit of handling impressions appropriately
      • to have ready to mind the proofs regarding apparent and real goods and evils
      • distinguish between apparent and real goods and evils
      • practice in not avoiding apparent evils
      • practice in not pursuing apparent goods
      • practice in avoiding real evils
      • practice in pursuing real goods.

There is nothing extraordinary here, nothing which should damage the body irreparably.  It is simple moderation.  Musonius suggests the simplest clothes (the philosopher’s cloak), a lacto-vegetarian diet, and control of our sexual faculties.

Epictetus explains the purpose of such practices, like the above guidelines which Musonius laid out:

“I am inclined to pleasure: in order to train myself I will incline beyond measure in the opposite direction. I am disposed to avoid trouble: I will harden and train my impressions to this end, that my will to avoid may hold aloof from everything of this kind.”

— Discourse III.12

Yet, we’re given fair warning as well, Epictetus and Musonius both state such practical training is required for progress.  Epictetus gives us a measure, however, for when our zealousness* for progress has become something else:

“But if their object is display, they are the marks of one who has swerved from the right line, whose aims are alien, one who is looking for spectators to say, ‘What a great man!’ This is why Apollonius was right in saying, ‘If you wish to train for your soul’s sake, when you are thirsty in hot weather take a mouthful of cold water and spit it out and tell no one!'”

Epictetus warns us at the beginning of III.12 and at the end for this concern, and it should not be taken lightly.  It would be a special kind of shameful for training conducive to virtue to itself become a vice.

Musonius goes on in Lectures 12, 18 (A and B), 19, 20, and 21 to lay down explicit prescriptions for the training of philosophers, as I briefly mentioned above.  I have extracted and condensed my understanding of that regimen as The Rule of Musonius.

He is less specific on the trainings for soul alone.   From the notes taken by his student, it seems that it was assumed they would be well known.  Unfortunately, we seem to lack that instruction from him.  We do have Epictetus’ exposition on the Disciplines of Assent, Desire, and Action and the concept of προσοχή (prosochē, attention).  So while it’s not as clearly spelled out, we have the tools to recreate both types of training.

“He was always earnestly urging those who were associated with him to make practical application of his teachings, using some such arguments as the following. Virtue, he said, is not simply theoretical knowledge, but it is practical application as well, just like the arts of medicine and music.  Therefore, as the physician and the musician not only must master the theoretical side of their respective arts but must also train themselves to act according to their principles, so a man who wishes to become good not only must be thoroughly familiar with the precepts which are conducive to virtue but must also be earnest and zealous in applying these principles.”

— Musonius, Lecture VI

I would be interested in your own distillations of a Stoic ascetic regimen, so feel free to comment, or comment a link.

 


* “zealous” in Greek is φιλοπόνως (filo-ponos), ‘lover of labor/hardship.’

 

Impressions and the OODA Loop

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If you hang around .mil, LEO, or civilian self-defense circles you’ll eventually hear reference to the OODA Loop.  OODA Loops are not the most recent in a line of tactic-cool cereal for the cool guys.  The OODA Loop is a mental model for human decision making, especially in crisis.  Now, professionals in psychology and decision making make take issue, but as a pedagogical tool and mental model for the non-specialist, it’s the standard of training.

A quick and dirty primer on the OODA Loop:
The OODA Loop is a decision making loop that one must go through to come to action in times of crisis.  It is broken down into four parts which give it the acronym.

 

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Image Credit: ArtOfManliness.com

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

First, you must make an observation.  This is a witnessing of some fact about reality.  It might be “A man is approaching me,” or “An object rests on the sidewalk,” or “I’ve fallen to the ground.”  The observation is neutral.  It simply is.

Next, is the orienting phase.  You must put the observation into the proper context.  You must come to know ‘what the observation means.’

  • “A man is approaching me.”
    • Observation:  A man is walking in a baggy jacket, hands in his pockets, shoulders rolled forward.  He is on a vector to cross paths with me.  We make eye contact, and he speeds up.
      • Orientation 1:  I’ve just exited a store, his jacket is light, appears to be unlined.  It’s winter, and the wind and snow are driving.  This man is cold, and is going inside.
      • Orientation 2:  I’m lost on a city street at night.  The street is practically empty, and I’ve seen this man before two blocks back.  He might be threat.

Next comes the deciding phase.  Once you have oriented to the situation, and you understand the context in which the observation occurs, you must decide on the proper course of action.

  • “A man is approaching me.”
    • Decide:
      • O1:  Step aside and hold the door as courtesy.
      • O2:  Options…
        • A:  Cross the street.
        • B:  Speak to the man, “Hey buddy, nice night, eh?”
        • C:  Speak to the man, “Watch out for that bus!”
        • D:  Prepare to fight

Now, the action.  You do the thing.

The thing about the OODA Loop is that we engage in this hundreds of times per day, and if for some reason the loop gets interrupted, it must start over.  So, if we can ‘get inside’ the OODA Loop of someone else, we’ll catch them off-guard.  Most folks take between 0.25 and 1.5 seconds to go through one OODA Loop.  Speaking to a would-be attacker my kick his or her OODA Loop back to the start, giving you more time to act.

So, what does this have to do with Stoicism and with φαντασία in particular?  I think the Cycle of Assent matches up fairly well:

  1.  The ἡγεμονικόν (hêgemonikon) is presented with an impression. (Observe)
  2.  An almost-instantaneous value judgment is attached, and a proposition is made. (Orient)
  3. The proposition is weighed, you either assent, deny, or suspend judgment. (Decide)
  4. You either experience a passion, form an intention, desire or aversion, etc.  (Act)

This is a modification of Sellars’ distillation of the four stages of Assent:

1. The soul receives an impression via the sense organs or the mind/memory;
2. An “almost” involuntary and unconscious value judgment is attached;
3.  The ruling faculty is presented with a proposition composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgment from #2;
4. One either assents or denies the impression/proposition.

As practicing Stoics practicing the Discipline of Assent, if one is already familiar with the OODA Loop (or finds it a useful mnemonic device), this similarity in models may be helpful.

Thoughts?

On ἀρετή and troubling translations

Standard

The most common English translation for the Koine word ἀρετή that you’re likely to come across is ‘virtue.’  This translation presents a couple of problems, which I’ll address.

Firstly, the word virtue in English has lots of baggage from its use in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Secondly, on top of that, there are certain conotations which make the word less than dynamic.  Generally, when we hear virtue, even in a philosophical context, the conotation relegates the topic to moral and social applications.  While it’s true that there is a moral and social component, it is not the entire story.

The next most common translation is ‘excellence,’ and this one does quite a bit better.  In Diogenes Laertius 7.90, he says “Excellence (ἀρετή) is in a general sense the perfection of each thing.”

For humans, as rational critters, that means the perfection of our rational faculties.

In, The Stoic Sage by Brouwer (which I’m reading currently), the ‘dispositional definition’ of ἀρετή is discussed.  The dispositional definition has to do with character, and for this case, the measure is consistency.

It’s a pretty well-known standard that excellence is a kind of knowledge (Gr:  ἐπιστήμη).  In the case of moral virtue, that can be cloudy.  What does it mean to know a virtue?  However, when viewed through the dispositional lens of ‘consistent character’ and ‘excellence’ the knowledge and praxis components of ἀρετή are more clear.