On emotions and habits

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Chrysippus is quoted by Galen and Cicero in making the following determination about fear.  The issue with fear is not that a present thing is evil but rather that an evil thing is present.

This is a very important distinction.  We may find ourselves amidst an emotion or passion, and try to coach ourselves that a present thing is indifferent.  But, and I think most of our experiences bear this out, often this kind of self-talk fails to ameliorate the impassioned state.

We are not likely to fix every passion in the moment this way.  This make sense when we look at the distinction presented above.  Since we are dealing with the impression that an evil thing is present we are dealing with old assents. 

These previous assents of which items or classes of items are good, evil, or indifferent have been built up and reinforced by us for decades.

What we are doing with the self-talk is very slowly building up new assents.  We’re changing our storeroom of classifies objects and classes.  We do this unit by unit, time after time.  It’s a slow and laborious process.

This is why the regimens of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus are firmly grounded in habit forming behaviors.  They knew that the change was not immediate.

We cannot (yet?) remember at every junction to reevaluate our goods, but we can build habits in the interim.

Non-optional Stoic Practice

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For the last week or so, I’ve had the opportunity to practice poverty.  My bank, unbeknownst to me, issued me a new debit card, and sent it to my permanent address which is about 1300 miles away from where I’m working.  I learned this when my card was declined at a restaurant.

So, for the last week, I’ve been waiting to get that card mailed to me.  In the interim, I’m pretty limited for funds and expenditures.  There’s enough food in the apartment, and enough cash for gas, I’m not ‘needy’ for anything currently. But this particular exercise is non-optional, and that’s changed things.

Even though ‘I have money,’  I can’t get to it from 1300 miles away.

And I’m learning something different than when I “chose” such exercises in the past.  Mainly, my concern about the state is greater.  I’ve noticed I’m quicker to anger over financial matters, and I’m worried about the state of things.

I injured my ankle, and the thought that I’d need to be seen by the doctor caused me some anxiety.  More so than I’m used to having about such things.

It’s clear to me that my progress on some of these issues is less than I would have speculated at a few weeks ago.  Part of the stress, I’m sure, is obligations I’ve chosen, others count on my support.  My ability to fulfill those obligations, however, is limited now by this situation.

It’s a good opportunity to re-evaluate my ‘goods’ and ‘evils.’  It’s an opportunity to separate the rhetoric from the reality.  So, despite the fact that I’ve been distressed, I’m trying to turn the situation into a useful philosophical exercise.

Moral of the story:  not all “practical exercises” are equal.

Thanks for reading!

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In this past two years, I’ve had over 7,000 readers who have viewed nearly 17,000 posts.  Thank you very much for your interest in Stoicisim, for making me a part of that, and for contributing to the blog.

Here’s a to a few more, eh?  (;
— The MountainStoic

On non-optional tests and trainings.

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ER Room

ER Room

I spent several hours in the emergency room yesterday after a car accident.  I’ve injured my back somewhat, but the extent to which it’s injured won’t be clear for weeks or even months.  My vehicle is likely totaled.

This presents a slew of logistical issues relating to finances, commuting, work, and physical pain as well.  I did become mildly overwhelmed at one point, as I stood in the soaking rain with a hurting back, staring at a large and expensive car-shaped paperweight.

Not my vehicle, but a similar level of damage.

Not my vehicle, but a similar level of damage.

However, after some time, I was able to gain some ‘cognitive distance’ from the impressions of my situation.  I reminded myself that I’ve chosen to live in a city of seven million people.  People who own cars may find themselves in accidents.  Cars cost money… and at the end of the day, it’s just money and just cars.

While I might find myself in a bit of pain, mild constantly, a medium to high peaks, these too are simply impressions.  They have no moral connotations, they have no effect on my ability to exercises well “what’s up to me” unless I let them.  In fact, this particular instance gives me the opportunity to test my progress in new, and reality-based ways.

Physical pain, and carlessness are real constraints on the way most of us live.  Tweaking our diets, clothes, studies, etc.:  these are gym-trainings.  Physical pain, and the like are  different sort: we don’t chose them, we’re presented with them.  In this way, they seem to fall into a different class of trainings.

trainOf course, every discipline starts in the controlled rigor of the gym or dojo or school.  Yet, if the student is ever to progress beyond student, those skills must then be tested out and about it in the world.

So, my back pain and I are venturing out into the world.

A Reminder on Perspective.

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θάλασσα ὕδωρ καθαρώτατον καὶ μιαρώτατον. ἰχθύσι μὲν πότιμον καὶ σωτήριον, ἀνθρώποις δὲ ἄποτον καὶ ὀλέθριον*.

“The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.”

— Heraclitus, Fragment 61**

Oftentimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the incredibly intellectual exercises of Stoic study.  Epictetus even had occasion many times to rebuke his students.  If all we are doing is handling syllogisms and parsing arguments, then we’re failing in the right work of philosophy.

[The student says to me]
– “Take the treatise on the active powers, and see how I have studied it.”

I reply,

– “Slave, I am not inquiring about this, but how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how your design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.
– If conformably, give me evidence of it, and I will say that you are making progress: but if not conformably, be gone, and not only expound your books, but write such books yourself;
– and what will you gain by it?
– Do you not know that the whole book costs only five denarii?
– Does then the expounder seem to be worth more than five denarii?
Never, then, look for the matter itself in one place, and progress toward it in another.”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.4

Heraclitus and Epictetus are both giving us an opportunity to re-calibrate our perspective.  So often, we’re focused on the mundane trivialities of life.  But Heraclitus reminds us, what seems so to us may just be for us, and what’s true may be a think entirely different.  Now, this isn’t setting the stage for moral relativism, we’re still called to virtue, but our call is for ourselves.heraclitys

We get wrapped up in the Ps and Qs, and we can forget that virtue is our goal.  But when we see another “failing” we’re advised not to judge too harshly.  With ourselves, a firm hand is needed.

Heraclitus’s writings have a mystical quality, something almost Zen-like in their ability to realign the thinking process.  It’s good to have this change of pace, as Epictetus says, unless our studies are producing real and substantive changes in our lives, we’re just academics or worse, hobbyists.

Getting shocked out of the rut we might be building for ourselves in a primarily academic venture.  We began our studies here because we saw something of value in the way these philosophers lived their lives.  But simply learning about the things won’t produce in ourselves the needed change.  We must inculcate them in our lives if we wish to see the same effects as they got.


*  http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/  (An excellent resource)
**(h/t to one of my students in the MA School for reminding of this passage.)

Probability as Stoic Fate, Providence.

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Stoicism is made up of several core axioms.  Among them is the idea that the universe is conscious and providential.  I’ve argued for the traditional perspective of the conscious cosmos before, and today I’d  like to examine the idea of Fate a bit more.

moiraiClassically, Fate can be understood in a variety of ways.

1) A general fate  for the cosmos.  A big picture.
2)  A personal Fate for each individual.
–  Either Fated events or
–   A single Fate: the day of one’s  death.
3)  Fate as a personality and divine force, (Zeus. Moirai, Clotho, etc.).

Today, the concept of Fate is out of favor… sort of.  The common western perspective is that we live in a mechanistic universe where specific causes yield  specific effects.  Common sense supports this, if I push a glass off the edge of the counter, it will fall to the ground unless stopped.  Several causes are involved.

  1. Me the pusher, is one cause.
  2. Gravity’s effect on the glass.
  3. Inertia of glass.
  4. Friction of various sorts.

Causal determinism is form of Fate, albeit a very mild one.  There is a Non-Stoic chreia about Fate that I quite like:

A rich and mighty Persian was walking in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him,
“Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” he asked.
“I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

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In Stoic terminology, the glass and the Persian servant both have Fates, but they are co-fated with several causes.  In the case of the glass, if all of these are present except ‘me the pusher’ the glass is fated to rest on the counter top.  If ‘me the pusher’ is present, and I do so, it is fated to fall.dice
We could assign numbers to the liklihood of each of these fates, and to the liklihood of each of the contributing causes.  Because the Stoic doctrine of Fate contains the ideas of “co-fatedness,”  a modern might look at this and say, “We’re discussing probability.”

Additionally, since for the Stoics we have the idea of causa sui, with the rational creature as a ’cause of itself’ we can see something like Conditional Probability in Stoic theory as well.

Personally, I rather like the utility of the mental model of Fate as a challenge or test:  the idea that an unending chain of causes going back to the beginning of the cosmos has been brought about for this particular instance for me to show virtue.  This seems more useful to me on a day by day basis.

My point being, there is a modern trend to cut away seemingly anachronistic parts of traditional Stoicism, but as I continue to argue, the traditional perspective is not usually opposed to the modern one.  How much of what we believe today has parallel, albeit in romantic or poetic language, in the theory and cosmology of the classical Stoics?

I would heartily suggest that one reinterprets those parts of Stoicism which they may have discarded, in favor of this view.  Instead of asking what we can cut away, let us ask, how much of this can we keep?

Updates

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The blog as been fairly inactive these past few months, and I figured I would do a quick update.  In November I wrote my first novel, and I’m working on my second.  I also have three different works on Stoicism which are in various stages of completion.  I hope to release all three of those by the summer, probably staggered.

I am just recently begun my fourth term in the College of Stoic Philosophers‘ Marcus Aurelius school.

In the coming weeks, I will be relocating to Texas, probably for two to three years.  Overall, it has been, and will be an exciting few months.  I look forward to keeping up the blog more regularly, Fate permitting.  Mea culpa.