Socratic meditation

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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.

Plutarch: On Curiosity

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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 the notion of Ethical Exercises in Epictetus,” by Braicovich

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I came across this article which discusses what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” in some depth.  The author takes exception to that label, but I think it suits just fine.  I had recently joked in a conversation that if I had a dollar for every scholar who said something along the lines of “I won’t detail exactly what the exercises in Epictetus are…” that I’d have a goodly number of dollars.

Braicovich does not say this, however.  He notes 18, although (spoiler alert), he later pares that down significantly.  Either way, it’s worth the read.

https://seer.ufs.br/index.php/prometeus/article/viewFile/1950/1722

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.