Fun divergence: Four theologians meme

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There’s a trend going around social media, that so far I’ve seen restricted only to Christian posters, that seemed like a fun divergence.  The premise of the meme is to post pictures of four theologians who have shaped your worldview.  I thought I’d try my hand at it.  Stoicism is at its core, like most ancient philosophies a religious philosophy.  It is not possible in my opinion to discuss it properly if you’ve excised that component.  That doesn’t mean that you must adopt the view of the ancients wholesale, but if you do, you will be missing an integral piece.

That being said, I tried to narrow down which of the classical Stoics and modern philosophers most informed my outlook.  I did not include Musonius, for his bent (or what we have of it) is more practical.  He does touch of some cosmological points, but not to the extent of his student, Epictetus, who decidedly made my list.

Heraclitus is the foundation of Stoic theology in my opinion.  The Fragments of his work speak to me in a less analytical and more emotional way that is a needed component for me.  The Weeping Philosopher then, also makes my list.

Skipping ahead a few thousand years, I’ve included Pierre Hadot, who more than any other modern writer reframed ancient philosophy for me, and made it much less foreign to my way of thinking.  I also included Thomas Merton, whose quiet, devotional work dovetails nicely with my own inclination of philosophical practice, even if outside my immediate belief system.

If I had another spot in this meme, I’d include Alfred North Whitehead.  I’m more and more inclined to the ideas of panpsychism which I think is an excellent way of parsing the axiom that “the cosmos is both rational and providential.”

Please share your list of four theologians who have shaped your worldview, and why.  I’m interested in seeing what sorts of things help build this big tent of ours.

Philosophy amidst the panic

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“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened!
How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?
You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so, look forward meanwhile to better things.”

— Seneca, Letter 13


I’ve been holding off writing about this topic, but today I decided it was time to set fingers to keyboard.  Not because I have some revelation to share with you, but because I need to work through this linguistically.  I need to think about it, rationally.  I need to frame it appropriately to my nature, and I need the therapeutics which philosophy brings.  Like many folks, I’ve been experiencing some anxiety due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.  I have ameliorated that somewhat, and I’ll tell you how.

I realized I was checking in on the stats almost hourly.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but it was at least a handful of times per day.  I’m an analytical sort, and I like and work with data.  So at first, I didn’t notice anything wrong with this behavior.  However, in retrospect, I see it was a sort of compulsive behavior that wasn’t very helpful to me.

So the first thing that I did was reduce my information intake to once daily or less.  I also restricted the amount of public official video I was watching:  all of them for my country and state, to reading a short review of each of one to be generally apprised.  I also (maybe unfairly) outsourced some of my information consumption to others who were not so affected:  I asked them to give me short summaries when something interesting crossed their transom.

I noticed an immediate reduction in stress.

That being said, the situation is materially quite severe.  While I myself am not in the highest-risk demographic, many others are.  I’ve reframed my “social distancing” and “stay at home” behaviors as a function of my social roles, and also a way of extending Hierocles’ circles of affinity.  I have also set plans to re-start my meditation practice, with some limited success, but I’m working on it.

Epictetus is very right when he says:

“When you relax your attention for a little, do not imagine that you will recover it wherever you wish, but bear this well in mind, that your error of to-day must of necessity put you in a worse position for other occasions.”

— Epictetus, Discourses 4:12.

Re-starting a philosophical practice of any sort is difficult.  It is comforting, even if we’ve drifted away from our progress, to remember that the promises of philosophy are always there, and it is never too late to take up the old cloak and bag.

A new Stoic meditation aid.

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When discussing Stoic practice, we often are at point of reconstruction.  We have several words for these types of actions (meletáō) meaning contemplation or meditation, ἀσκέω (askeō) meaning practice or training, and more.  We have lists from Philo of Alexandria and others as to the types of training, and they are expounded upon by Musonius and Epictetus.  Hadot and Buzaré have written in some depth about these, and I have also contributed some work on new-old practices as well:

In that vein, I’ve been working on another tool to aid to the Stoic Toolkit:

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1a/54/84/1a5484721c52940c1f138b955f766f8b.jpgI’ve had experience using several prayer/meditation aids in the past from several traditions, some I’ve studied as an adult and one was a core practice of my religious upbringing.  It is interesting how it seems we often circle back to core parts of our early indoctrination, even if other core parts are set aside.  I’ve had the opportunity to sit as a neutral observer in related services and religious functions, and I’m always struck by how far away my path has taken me from some of those concepts and beliefs, and how close others still are.

To that point, a few years ago I repurposed japa prayer beads as counters for a Stoic meditation of keeping certain precepts and phrases πρόχειρον (procheiron or ready to hand).

If you’re not familiar with japa beads or mala, they are a string of typically 108 beads traditionally made of rudraksha seeds or other materials and used in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Shintō as a meditation or prayer aid. I kept mine in a pouch into which I inserted my hand, and used it as a counter as I repeated certain phrases, like my personal Stoic Μνήμη (memory exercise or mnḗmē).

Regarding earthly things:
Nothing unexpected has happened,
Nothing evil has occurred, and
Nothing eternal has been lost.

However, even though the intent was similar, it felt a little strange to use a tool that’s decidedly formalized like this from another tradition wholesale. It felt a little disrespectful, and just “not quite right.” For instance, I don’t think I would have used a rosary this way.

At some point, after a month or two, I stopped using them, and as a result stopped using this practice.

It did seem helpful to me, however; and I have recently taken it back up. I previously came up with a counting method using the knuckles of my fingers. I would use my thumb of my right hand, and begin at the large middle knuckle for “1,” move to the small end knuckle for “2,” and the end of the finger for “3.” Once I had completed all of the knuckles of my fingers of my right hand in this fashion, being a count of 12, I would mark one knuckle of my left hand in the same fashion.

In this way, I would have a count of 144 with one full “round” of both hands, each knuckle of the left hand being a 12-count. This was good when I didn’t have a counter or a tool, and since it was a motor-function, and not a cognitive one per se, I could do it without thinking and focus on my meditation practice.  It is nice to be able to do this with a tool, and you can do it practically anywhere and almost totally incognito.

However, I liked having the tool, as well.

Recently, I discovered a tool used to pass the time in Greece and Cyprus called κομπολόι (kompoloi). These are used in a “quiet” and “loud” fashion as a sort of “fidget-device” and are really devoid of any current meditative or religious practice.

Being a cultural practice of the inheritor of the culture from which our School originated, it feels “closer to home” as it were. I’ve been doing some reading, and it’s likely that japa and κομπολόι actually have a common ancestor tradition, which is interesting.

So, I have ordered a κομπολόι, with the intent of restarting my repetitive Stoic mantra or μνήμη practice.  I am not quite sure if I will make use of either method, as it’s not quite conducive to the “counting” function that I’m doing.  I may use them more like the japa beads above.  I thought I would share this, as I haven’t seen many other using a similar meditation or spiritual exercise.

Neither 144, 108, or any of the variant numbers of κομπολόι have any particular meaning for Stoics that I can think of, and I do have a mind towards symbolism. So, I wish that we could devise a meaning full number-symbol for this use.  If you have a similar practice, or use a similar set of tools, I’d be interested in learning about it. Feel free to discuss in the comments.  If you have a suggestion for a number-symbol for the beads for a Stoic meditation practice, I am 100% open to hearing it.

 

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:

2019: Tips for a Εὐδαίμων New Year

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Skull snake hourglass by liftarnTime marches on, the sands of the hourglass continue to fall.  We’ve made yet another trip, as a planet, around our sun.  As a small aside, it’s interesting to me how many religious and cultural traditions mimic this act with circumabulation about central objects of importance, a microcosmic reflection of the order of the cosmos.

I wanted to begin this new year, not with resolutions, but with advice: for myself.  One of the exercises I first attempted when beginning on my Stoic journey a half-decade ago was a series of modern dialogues with a hypothetical Sage.  I remember being a bit surprised that I had good advice for myself at the time.  The figure of the Sage is a useful tool in the Stoic Toolkit, and I wanted to pick it back up and try it again.

So, without further ado, here are several Stoic tips for the προκόπτων for a Εὐδαίμων New Year, directed to me (which you may appreciate also) :

  • Set aside specific times for reading, contemplation, and philosophical exercise.
  • Inculcate a series of habits and spiritual exercises for the training to virtue.
  • Actually test impressions and thoughts with the tools you have.  You must actually do the thing to yield the result.
  • Set aside the desire to acquire more books, and instead acquire a deeper understanding of the texts you already have.
  • Set up patterns or triggers for reminding yourself to apply the doctrines of our school.
  • Meet with a greater force the effort to stagnate or be lazy with a desire towards progress.  You have trained yourself in one direction for a long time, to right course now takes an extreme correction to have a moderate effect.
  • Identify small things in which you can progress to build the momentum to address the larger
  • Continue to maintain and build fellowship and association with others focused on similar goals.
  • Be open to helping more, so far as your abilities allow, when asked.  Until then, practice silence as much as possible.
  • Assume that others are acting in good faith, and meet that with your own.  If proven the opposite, remember that those who do evil do so against their will.
  • Apply Hierocles’ Circles of Affinity in daily life: treat people with greater kindness.
  • Set up a time for mediation/contemplation, as well as moderate physical exercise.  You have found it true in the past that both of these are conducive to better states of mind for the practice of philosophy.

If you have any suggestions for yourself, feel free to share those in the comments.

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MMRP: Book III, Chapters 3-4

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Image result for heraclitusWe have two topics today, both dealing with speculation and the color of our thoughts. In the first, Marcus lists some of the paragons of the mind on classical antiquity: Hippocrates, Heraclitus, et al. Despite how these contributed to the social weal, they passed away. There’s a tinge of irony here, in some of these deaths as well: the manner or context of their dying contrasted with the focus of their study, or speculation.  Marcus is using this a meditation on death and on meaning.  We might spend a significant portion of our time speculating on (for his concern and ours) virtue, yet the sand continues to trickle through the hour glass, and we have no idea how much is left.

Heraclitus’ work has only come down to us as a series of fragments, and indirectly as the underpinning for Stoic physics.  If you are not familiar with these, I would recommend them to you.  It’s a refreshing change pace, and for me personally seems to speak to the parts of the mind that respond to symbol and allegory.  It has a sort of Zen or Daoist feel to it which I can appreciate.

The second topic today is a bit more practical, and speaks to the quality of our own thoughts. Impressions are presented to the mind’s ruling faculty without effort or control. How we handle those, however, is within our control. This recurring theme in Stoic practice: internal dialogue, is how we process and handle our internal environment. The phrase “a rich internal life” is often used, and this is one window into that. Most of the time, if I’m not consciously working on monitoring my thoughts, the internal dialogue seems to go of its own volition, like a program, running through subroutines and programs that I’ve encoded through decades of judgments.

We must remember, however, that our emotions are (either) the result of judgments or judgments themselves.  I’m inclined to the former interpretation.  So monitoring this stream, and making changes there, is incredibly important.  Eking out the tiny bit of time between an impression and the result of a faulty judgment is difficult, but it’s way easier in my opinion than correcting a false assent and turning that emotion around.

Marcus is discussing this, albeit from the other end, focusing on what the end should be.  The test he implements is, “if anyone were to ask what we are thinking, that we could respond immediately and honestly.” This is interesting. I suspect many people, myself included, would not always pass this test well.

Epictetus, and thus we can assume Marcus, thought very highly of (true) Cynics, even going so far as to hold Diogenes of Sinope up as a possible example of a Sage.  Cynicism is the motherschool to Stoicism: Zeno of Citium studied under Crates the Cynic (amongst others), who studied under Diogenes.  Diogenes is likely to have studied under Antisthenes (this is debated somewhat), who was a direct associate of Socrates.  So not only do we get many of the core tenets and practices, but our Socratic lineage as well comes via the Dog.  Lately, I’ve been reading a good bit on classical Cynicism, I have to books from Luis Navia sitting on my desk here right now.  One of the core positions of Cynicism, which Stoicism inherited in some form, we can see repeated in Marcus’ test above.

Image result for diogenes of sinopeOne of the traits (we may go even so far as to say virtues) of the Cynic is shamelessness or ἀναίδεια in the Greek.  Although Diogenes was held in relatively high esteem by the early Christian church, they drew a line here, generally, and didn’t think overly well of the practice.  Diogenes’ line of reasoning is, that anything which is in accordance with nature cannot be evil (the Stoics would agree), and anything which isn’t evil has no need to be hidden.  Ah, we see here the seeds of Marcus’ reasoning then, too!

Although for Diogenes and his peculiar sort of public ministry, this meant living, sleeping, eating, and “doing the work of Artemis and Demeter” in the public view; Marcus takes this from a practical standpoint and applies it in a more speculative way.  Rather, he uses it as a thought experiment.  “Were all of these things that I hide away visible to all, would I feel shame about them?”

You may not need to live outside in a box at your local farmer’s market, but if all those people did have a peek into your life, how would you feel?  Would you feel some pride in yourself, neutral, or maybe shamed?  The Cynic takes this as an empirical one:  she tests it out, and let’s the shame fall away from those things in accordance with nature and ceases to do those which are not.  The Stoic has some more wiggle room, and can imagine the result and change accordingly.  Although, even Seneca suggests periodic dips (Letter 18, 508) into the more extreme methods of the Cynics, it’s worth remembering:

“Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

— Seneca’s Moral Letters, XVIII.7

To return to what is shameful, It is interesting that we intuitively know what things we do (or would) hide away.  You can see toddler will hide, lie, and do other things which are to their advantage.  Yet they show no concern for their body functions, modes of dress or eating, etc.  They do not hide what is natural, but are very quick to learn to hide what may be immoral.

As adults, some of what we cloister away is for modesty’s sake or social expectations for our time and place (not a concern for a Diogenes), but others for rightfully acquired shame.  It’s this second class that we can work on, and it’s this which Marcus is setting up for himself.

Image result for diogenes lampWe can take the Cynic ἀναίδεια in a Stoic fashion.  We can change or remove those behaviors and thoughts that would lead to a rightful feeling of shame, correct them before they work their way out into speech and deed.   Which of our thoughts would rightfully feel shameful about?  These are the things to work on.

This then is a lesson from the Tub that Marcus and we can benefit from.  Maybe we can work on being the true or honest person Diogenes looks for with his lamp?

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Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.