2015 Stoic Commencement Address

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In this post, someone asked what a Stoic commencement address would look like.  I thought this would be an interesting thought experiment in couching Stoic lessons in that format without the technical jargon that often features in our discussions.


To the graduating class of 2015:

Congratulations on your achievement, and I wish you excellence in your coming endeavors whatever they may be.  Some will enter the workforce immediately, others will commit themselves to some form of national service like the armed forces, and some will go on to college or university.  You are preparing yourselves, regardless, for big changes, new adventures, and exciting challenges.

High school, however, is a microcosm of the larger world.  For instance, while all of you here have made this achievement, your paths have been very different.  Some of you struggled and fought to make Bs, others acquired As easily.  Some maybe skated by, “D is for diploma,” right?  Classes varied from remedial, grade level, to honors and Advanced Placement.  You each took a different journey.  The same will be true in your coming fields.

I have something uncomfortable to tell you.  Soon, this achievement will fall by the wayside.  Enjoy today, but tomorrow, this will be in the past.  Once you’re in college your high school GPA is of little importance.  The same for the workforce or military.  Once you take the next step, the previous one matters less.  Each new challenge becomes the focus, and previous victories will become smaller in comparison.

For those going on to higher education, once you leave those institutions and enter the workforce your college GPA will become less important.  At your first ten year work anniversary, no one will say “Remember when she got a 4.0 four semesters in a row?”  It will fade.

But one thing, however, will not fade.  One thing is far more permanent.  The character you build in yourself while working hard for a B, or cruising easily in a cake class for an A will stick around.  You will, day by day, step by step, build and create the person you will be for the rest of your life.  Character.  Character development is not something that happens in the future.  It is not an activity one takes up once “things are settled.”  Character development happens regardless, the only question is, will you do it consciously or accidentally?

Many of us have a person, maybe a grandparent, neighbor, or family friend.  Some good, older person.  We admire their character and think, “I’d like to be like that one day.” If we want that, the time is now, because if we wait until the future to work on that, it will be too late.

Character is like a boat or a ship.  We take the rude and rough materials that we are presented with.  We start with a tree, which is felled and carried to the worksite.  Once we begin to examine and work with the tree, we find defects, burls, gnarls, and knots.  These are not up to us, we don’t chose them.  Maybe someone or something else had, but that is not important.  We have what we’re given.  Ours is to make the best of it.

So we take out our tools and begin to work the tree, ripping planks and boards from its trunk.  These planks are rough, splintery, and not too pretty to look at.  This is where we are now.  You’ve made choices, built habits with new and green wood, still wet from the earth.

Next, we begin to plane down the planks, smoothing the surface, taking off the rough parts, and producing a useful plank.  This is a lot of work.  Based on the grain, the shape, the bend, the flexibility of this plank we choose to use it for the hull, or decking, or a decorative handrail artfully carved.  Each one, its natural character determining its use can be taken and fitted to our ship.  And when it’s finished, we have one plank, with many more to go.  Each of these choices, these planks helps build our ship.  But if done haphazardly, what kind of vessel will we have?  It is only by conscious, focused, and neutral judgement that each part can be fitted to its appropriate use.

A shoddy ship might float in the harbor, where it is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.  We must take it out into the wild and fierce waves, test it against the untamed seas of real life.

When you go into the world, as a worker, manager, teacher, or other role:  you will find folks doing the minimum, doing less than, and other yet excelling.  It is not yours to compete with them but to compete with yourself.  To quietly, doggedly, and determinedly do better tomorrow than you did today.  You might end up with the same salary, the same awards, and the same qualifications of these others, but those things are temporary and transient.  They will pass.

But that character you build in the process is yours for the rest of your life.  Did you do your work with honor?  Did you do it with determination and discipline?  Did you do it with kindness, lend a helping hand?  Did you cheat?  Did you lie?  Did you steal?  Which ship are you building?

You have a short period of time where it is slightly easier to change course, the degree of change is small here, but further into the journey it will be many and many miles to correct your course.  If you’re headed in a rough direction, change now, at the beginning.  Suit your ship for the seas ahead, build it well, and track your right course.

I leave you with this, congratulations on this achievement, and there is the possibility for glory on the horizon for you.  Your ship stands in the yards, not yet complete, but its shape is beginning to become visible.  Which one will you build?

In defense of the conscious and providential universe.

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There is a split in the Stoic community. On one side we have the anti-theist/atheist camp, and on the other is the theist/deist camp. This is not a particularly new debate in philosophy, and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. That being said, for current practitioners there are those who are being called Orthodox or Traditional Stoics and the Modern Stoics. The Moderns aren’t calling themselves that, they’re not taking an adjective as I think they’d rather just be called  ‘The Stoics,’ but I think it’s fair to hand one to each. I’d prefer to say “atheist Stoic” but whichever works.

The key divisor between the two camps tends to revolve around Stoic Physics. The Moderns see it as utter rubbish, and the Orthodox are unwilling to toss out a key part of the traditionally tripartite study of philosophy. I’m not at all sure how everyone reads the Physics, but I see it as mere romantic or allegorical description of modern science. I see them in agreement.  It’s important to note that the classical Stoics were speaking as they could, with the terminology they had.  They were speculating.  Speculation is the realm of philosophy, and when it becomes accepted as fact, we call it science.  What the Stoics had on the nose for modern understanding is quite astounding.

The Stoics classically believed that the universe expands and then contracts in a great fire, called Ekpyrosis. Sounds a lot like the Big Bang and Big Crunch (Heat Death fans will take umbrage here). The ancient Stoics discussed pneuma, the active function of matter, the Logos, or God permeating and infusing all things, connecting and enlivening them. Sounds to me like quantum entanglement and zero-point fields. I personally see no big issue with the manner that our ancient forbears used to describe speculatively the things we test today. If we borrow atoms from the Epicureans, then we’ve got an empirically tested system with flowery language. I’m fine with this.

Additionally, the universe is providential in that causes yield effects. This is regular and is the unconscious basis on which all living critters navigate the cosmos.  We see an unmitigated trend towards increasing complexity and energy consumption.  We can posit from this the cosmos is working towards some end, and the classical Stoics would say that such an end will be ‘good’ on the level of the universal scale.  The universe seems perfectly constituted to bring about living creatures, and (I will argue) consciousness.  Additionally, the laws of physics are so finely tuned as to allow for our existence.  The tiniest change (as I’m told by specialists) in the speed of light, the functions of gravity, the forces required for the universe to support us, and it wouldn’t.

I got into a friendly debate with a fellow Stoic on the Great Book of Faces, and we were hashing out the particulars of the claim made by the Orthodox Stoics that the universe is both conscious and providential. I will summarize my argument there, below.

Although I cannot prove it, most folks will accept that four billion years ago there was nothing we would call ‘consciousness’ on Earth. Today, that is not the case. Is this point debated? I think not. From this, we can interpret that consciousness is a developmental state of matter; if we remove the possibility of a Personality-God injecting it into creation a la the Abrahamic faiths. Take for instance that at some point during the life cycle of a human, the fetal cells are not-conscious. It is alive, but nothing we’d recognize as ‘consciousness’ is happening there. Then, at some later developmental point this is no longer true, and the human is conscious. Where this occurs is not a material factor in this discussion (is for others), but let us say that it in fact does occur. In this case, we see a thing go from non-consciousness to consciousness.

I do not claim to understand the mechanism here, and I’m not sure there is anyone alive who does. However, I will posit a possibility. Consciousness is a point on a continuum of matter. As matter organizes itself on the rational principles of the universe (meaning we can divine them by reason), in certain configurations it goes from mere chemicals to organic compounds. Those organic compounds like amino acids begin to form into larger, more complicated things like DNA. From there, we get living things, made up of the very same base-stuff as the non-living parts of the universe. At some point, specialized cells begin forming electro-chemical networks. Given enough time and appropriate energy availability, these networks might form something we would call “consciousness.” We see this in evolution and in ourselves. It occurs on the scale of the geologic and the individual lifetime. We see that things in the universe go from one state to another regularly, might not this trend continue?

This position is without superstition, religion, or magic. I suspect there is something special about consciousness, something in our ruling faculty that merits being called a soul. Something religious, but we will set that aside for now; although I would like to come back to that at some point.

The universe has produced reason and consciousness, since it contains such a thing, it’s fair to say it is such a thing. We are part and parcel of the universe. Now, one might call out the Fallacy of Composition. If the universe is constituted in such a way to produce consciousness within it, I argue it’s fair to call it conscious. Just as the cells of my finger are not themselves conscious (to my knowledge), I am. A rock or a pencil are not conscious, indeed not even living like hair, but the larger body is, (as hair:humans). It could have been phrased “since humans are conscious, consciousness is a feature of the universe.” Maybe this would be more palatable to some?

If that’s true (granted: large ‘if’), then I’m comfortable with saying the universe is conscious and providential. I don’t understand the mechanisms; however, the universe has never shown itself to be overly bothered with my understanding it or not.

I see no contradiction between the Physics of the classical Stoics (and the Orthodox today) and modern science. One does not necessarily preclude the other, as the atheist Moderns would contend. What I would like the reader to take away from this, is not my position wholesale (on faith), but the element of doubt enough to ask “what if?” Take that ‘what if’ and see where it leads you. You might just find, Fate permitting, that it’s an interesting and meaningful place.

A Stoic rap? Sure, why not.

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So a dear friend of mine sent me a video for a song which is more introspective, more important, than most popular music today is.  I watched the video and read the lyrics, and the poetry and content is moving and thought-provoking.

I felt moved to respond with what might be Stoic advice in kind.


The question about life is insane
It’s not the struggle, the hardship, the pain.
Humans are here, and we’re reasonable.
We’re here to find the truth, the logic; the main
Thing we need to see is virtue and vice.,
To know what’s good, what’s bad, we’re fraught for lack of advice.
 
But it isn’t heavenly reward,
so much as it’s our internal words
Where we can find, not rewind, what we’ve got to fill the time.
And our morals, our lessons, come from our minds.
It’s not divine, but it’s time to set aside the rhythm and rhyme.
To discover for ourselves, and not for fear of heaven nor hell.
 
It’s our nature, our fate, to reason and love, and sometimes to hate.
There’s nothing outside, but the universe is god, and the cosmos divine.
Seek to stand straight, not straightened. 
Sometimes we bend, we break, but our fate is the same, we’re waitin’
For some truth,  for nature, for god.

But we can’t see where we are, without the perspective,
Our natures are reflective, and not for god we’re awed, we stand and plod
through life without direction. 
But for men and women, we’re a collection of projections
Given no quarter other than what we find,
and the line is divine, to fill the time with prime, sublime

Excellence.

On Robbin Williams and Suicide

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Suicide if undertaken for the right reasons is not an evil in Stoicism. Socrates committed suicide, Seneca also. However, if it’s merely a means of escape from your obligations and trials, it’s not virtuous.

Seneca wrote “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”

But if your life has ripened, like a fruit, and is best at this moment, then plucking it is reasonable. Or if continued existence would destroy your moral or rational nature, a sagacious person might undertake it.

Epictetus: “The door is always open.”

What Dreams May Come

That being said, most folks are not in that position, and if someone is troubled and suicide is a thought they are entertaining, then they should probably ask for help, as we would be obligated to give it as we were able.  We do not know under what pain he was living, and it’s difficult to “armchair quarterback” his decision.  We can look at the context, and the social roles he had.  His children are adults, his family secure.  He did excellent work, and he struggled (not always, but sometimes successfully) with his demons and flaws.

I don’t think anyone undertakes Robin’s decision easily. I hope he finds some solace and relief in what may come after. I hope he knew the lightness of heart that he brought to many.

This is the advice I gave to some friends on Facebook:

When someone we are attached to leaves us, rather than lament at losing him or her, instead think that he has returned home.

We never possessed them, we merely borrowed them for a time. When the owner of something we’ve borrowed asks for it back, no matter how, we should return it with gladness for having experienced it.

Stoic lessons in Man of La Mancha

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Don-QuixoteI had the pleasure of seeing Man of La Mancha preformed on the stage last night.  During the performance, I could not help but note some Stoic themes in the story.  I would not classify the whole as a Stoic work, nor do I think it was intended per se to be such, but it was an interesting lens through which to view the show.  I will look at a few instances in which I think Stoic lessons can easily be gleaned from the show, but this is by no means exhaustive nor complete.

***This will container SPOILERS of the show, so if you do not want the ending revealed, please read no further.***

Firstly, the story is of two parts. Miguel de Cervantes is imprisoned for levying a tax and foreclosing on a monastery, in 17th Century Spain, and in the prison he preforms a play for the prisoners who are determining his guilt.  One of his charges is “for being an honest man.”  The trial is a ploy to rob him of his belongings, the only one of which he actually cares about is his work, a manuscript.  He pleads guilty to the charges, but wishes a defense nonetheless, that the jury might have mercy.  These are the two stories, Miguel’s imprisonment, and Quijana/Don Quixote’s adventure which he preforms for the prisoners.  Cervantes does not fight his imprisonment, nor does he overly lament his station.  In a very Stoic way he attempts to make the best of it, to protect his work.

Now, Don Quixote:  Don Quixote is a man in search of a few things, Truth and Virtue, represented by Dulcinea, and adventure.  He warns Pancho that their enemy, the Enchanter, is a danger to them.  The Enchanter might be illusion of external indifferents, and internal values.  Where others see Windmills, he sees Ogres.  Where others see simple life, he sees Dragons, Knights, and honor.  Throughout the story, Don Quixote talks of the quest, the desire for perfection, truth, honor, and chivalry.  In the story, he is (maybe) quite mad.  Others see a sickened mind, or one under illusion.  His family and countrymen see a sick Quijana, whereas we see the noble Knight Don Quixote.

And do we not seem the same when we work towards our goals in philosophy?  We see an Ogre in the the illusion of what is or is not virtue.  We see the two things which we can either effect or not as a real problem to solve.  We see our thoughts, emotions, actions, and responses to those things as thing to be subdued.  Others see a windmill.  “So what,” they say, “if you’re mad at a traffic jam, it’s a damned inconvenience!”

Quixote stands a vigil before he is to be made a knight by the Innkeep cum Lord, and during it he fights off a number of men, protecting Dulcinea.  While his perception of the events are different than everyone else’s she is saved nonetheless.  Quixote extends kindness to the men, wanting to tend to their wounds, but Aldonza/Dulcinea goes in his stead.  She is, however, kidnapped and violence is done upon her afterwards.  She comes back to the Inn/Castle, and throws this in Quixote’s face.  She is used to abuses and violence, but the tender, chaste care of Quixote is a hurt she cannot weather.  Quixote sympathizes with her hurt, but he maintains throughout her lament her Virtue and his Quest.  We see a need for Virtue and Goodness, as philosophy and reason tells us it is, whereas others may see a scullery maid.

Quixote’s relatives come looking for him, and they stage a ruse, whereby Don Quixote will be restored to his sanity.  They do this, not for his own benefit, but so that he can make an disbursement of his estate to them.  Their ruse is successful, and Don Quixote faces the Knight of Mirrors who show him to himself in such clarity that he faints.  How so, does philosophy show us ourselves, and we can either faint and “return to sanity” by ignoring what we’ve learnt, or we can face up.  Sometimes, we faint.Don_Quixote

Quijana is taken back to his estate, and there in bed, he is restored to activity by his squire Pancho.  He does not recall himself as Don Quixote, however, and begins to disburse his property to those assembled.  At the last, Aldonza/Dulcinea comes to see him, and finally, she teases out of him Don Quixote!  Don Quixote is saved by Virtue and Truth!  They stand and rejoice in their shared experience, and Don Quixote breathes his last.  He dies triumphant.

Afterwards, we return to the Prison, and Cervantes offers comfort to his compatriot, and with noble acceptance, walks to his real trial before the Inquisition.  A Stoic act, indeed; Cervantes accepts his end with Stoic calm, as the Prisoners sing The Impossible Dream to their courageous exit.

To dream … the impossible dream …
To fight … the unbeatable foe …
To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
To run … where the brave dare not go …
To right … the unrightable wrong …
To love … pure and chaste from afar …
To try … when your arms are too weary …
To reach … the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star …
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far …
To fight for the right, without question or pause …
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …