10% of the way to a big goal!

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There are currently five goals on the Patreon site.  The third one is 50 subscribers, and we’re 10% of the way there!  I’ve been working on this course in the background for some time.  When we hit the goal, it will be finished up, and posted on the blog for free (spoiler alert, it’s always for free).

If there’s interest, I’ll offer a sort of coaching/tutor service to go with it for $50 where I read your work, offer feedback, and that sort of thing.  The course will take about two months to complete, and will involved some writing and some practical exercises.  There are a couple books you may need, but it is possible to complete 75% of it spending nothing and using online sources.  The course will be downloadable and do-able without cost, coaching aside.   This will probably a good part of the model for the Patreon, where I raise some funds to work on a project, and the release it into the wild!

So, if you haven’t become a Patron yet, this is the sort of thing it will allow for, and I humbly ask you to consider supporting the blog.

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 12-16

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One of the things that came across to me today in the readings is the urgency Marcus feels for progress.  I understand that on a deep level.  It is both motivating and slightly disturbing to add up the years which have gone by, and compare them to the likely number ahead (knowing these aren’t guaranteed in the slightest).

I’m reminded of the drowning man metaphor in Cicero:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already … similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” 

Cicero, De Finibus, IV.48

Image result for drowningI’m reminded of this for two reasons, one being that the Stoics denied intermediary states between virtue and vice, thus the depth of the water to the man is in irrelevant: he’s drowning regardless.  But also in a way I don’t think I’ve seen anyone express before.

Existential need.

I’m not sure if this is a game children play everywhere, so this may not be as widely understood as I hope.  I’ll try to be particularly descriptive just in case.  Here in Appalachia we have a good many underground tunnels on interstates and highways, some of them quite long.  There’s a decent sized one, for instance, coming into Pittsburgh PA on 376, The Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Image result for fort pitt tunnelAs a kid, and if I’m honest often as an adult, we’d play a game to see who could hold their breath for the entirety of the tunnel as passengers in the car.  The mind knows it can breath at any time, you just have to give up and lose.  You also know that you’re not really in any danger.  Nevertheless, about 2/3 of the way through, an existential panic creeps in.  The muscles around the ribs burn with the effort of stillness.  A pressure builds in the head.  You can trick this a little by exhaling slightly, in little controlled puffs and not inhaling.  Tricking the system into thinking it’s breathing again.  But this only buys you an extra couple of seconds.  If you’re here, you’re already close to your breaking point.  If you can’t make out features at the end of the tunnel, and you’re puffing out, you’re not going to make it.

Existential need.

The need to breathe, the fear of suffocation is an ingrained and deep sort of response.  For those who are more than dabbling in philosophy, I think the urgency that is felt is akin to this:  we see that we’re drowning, we know it.  We also know, like the children in the tunnel, that failure or success is up to us.  That drive towards progress, then that Marcus notes, has something much closer to the experience of the actively drowning man than the conclusion might promise, in either direction.  It’s that edge-of-panic need to ease the problem.

In my experience, once a certain difficult-to-articulate-amount of progress has been achieved, even this desire for progress itself is tampered.  But, backsliding is always possible.  So possible.

“When you relax your attention for a while, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault of today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse condition in future occasions.”

Epictetus Discourses IV.12.1

In my own experience, this is extremely accurate.  In some ways, the backslide feels like you’re even worse off than when you began.  Typically, the drowning metaphor of Cicero is seen as depressing, it is about drowning, afterall.  Whether you’re an inch away from the surface or 100 feet down doesn’t matter, drowned is drowned.  That might be depressing if you’re the one who’s an inch down.  But if you’re 100 feet down, it’s less so.  In fact it may even be empowering.

Progress is progress, and there’s one way direction to go.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

—Marcus, Meditations, V.20

 

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 8-11

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We have two topics again today, one is on the nature of life and perception, and the other on the work of our ruling faculty with a touch of Providence.  I’m going to only focus on one of these today: the ἡγεμονικόν or προαίρεσις.

But first, a seeming diversion which in fact gets us to the point.  One of the great treasures of the modern Stoicism movement is Franco Scalenghe.  Franco runs Epitteto.com.  In addition to a new, modern translation of all of Epictetus works (an immense undertaking) which he offers to the reader without cost (!), he has written five dialogues. These are dialogues in the classical, philosophical sense.

Image result for Socratic dialogIn these, one of the things discussed is some new work in the field of Epictetus.  We have many folks working on Stoicism, and a few novel inventions, but this seems to me to be the most in line with the classical texts while making some valuable movement in it.  Franco breaks down the ruling faculty of the mind into three functions, or judges:  The Diairesis, the Antidiairesis, and the Counterdiairesis.  Franco does an excellent job translating into English, and he has chosen to leave a handful of words in the Greek which may cause confusion in translation.  Do not get hung up in the new terminology, the Dialogue makes it clear what’s being discussed.  This brings us to the meat of the issue: the ruling faculty, or prohairesis.

Without stealing Franco’s thunder, or misrepresenting anything: the tasks of the various judges are to identify what is up to us and not up to us and to formulate projects in either case.  It is the purview of the Diaresis to discriminate between what’s up to us and not, and to formulate projects that are entire up to us in the Epictetan sense; and the Antidiaresis’ is to formulate projects in the other case (i.e. externals) based on the judgement of the former one.  When the prohairesis refuses or deludes itself into believing that something which is up to us in fact isn’t, this obfuscation is called Counterdiairesis.  An additional trouble arises because Counterdiairesis can also give orders to the Antidiairesis, and thus we forumlate projects incorrectly and are twarted.

If all of that is a bit much, it is merely a one paragraph survey of about 40 pages of Dialogue, but if this idea interests you, I would point you to Franco’s site where you can read the dialogues in several languages, as well as his other works.  Franco’s categorization is a very good model for how our ruling faculty works, in my opinion.  The added benefit as I see it to the standard formulation is that it gives us three places to look for errors in judgment.  We can play a “what if” game, and find out where things may have gone wrong, and maybe then we can fix them.  The Dichotomy of Control gives us a powerful tool, but it can often be difficult to identify in which category a given impression or project is rightfully placed.  The incorrect solution to this problem is the Trichotomy, but Franco’s model offers (to my mind) the better option.Image result for three judges

Marcus notes a few points which tie into this:  the first being that our ability to form opinions is paramount (this is a work of the Diairesis in the above framework), and by it alone can you avoid committing errors by making plans contrary to the nature of things (a project ordered by Counterdiaresis).

Franco and Epictetus agree that the prohairesis is the closes thing to a “self” which can be identified, the judge that sits and rules inside the mind/soul.  This three-part model is an interesting one, and I recommend it to your study.

After you’ve spent some time with Franco’s Dialogues (and I do suggest more than a cursory reading, there is a lot there to ruminate on), I’d be interested in your thoughts and if you think this is a model you would adopt for your own way of thinking about prohairesis and the hegemonikon.

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 5-7

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Marcus is discussing the value of virtue today. A few things pop out that are worthy of note. It can be difficult to tease apart a text and separate what might be personal influence from a wider cultural trend.

When Stoicism ceased to be a strictly Hellenic pursuit, and was take up in large part by the Romans, it had some of the rough edges knocked off, and was draped in Roman decorum. This was a novel addition. Just as the Stoicism that is practiced around the world today looks somewhat different from its iterations before, so did the Roman from the Greek. Marcus’ first chapter is an homage to Roman decorum, and we can detect the importance of this to him.

The next chapter is one of the more interesting parts, and it’s something which stuck with me. I’ve paraphrased it online often when discussing others, but I’ll reproduce it more faithfully here:

“If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self control and courage – that is, peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions to the laws of reason, and peace of mind under the visitations of destiny you cannot control – if, I say, you can discern any higher ideal, why, turn to it with your whole soul, and rejoice in the prize your found.”

— Meditations, III.7

I often see folks ask why virtue is the only good, and my answer is two-pronged. Firstly, that virtue is a good is an axiom, it is taken as self-evident and not generally subject to direct argument. Second, we can argue that externals are not good, such as one man may use wealth virtuously, and another viciously. So we cannot then say that wealth is a good if it may be used viciously. We do get explanations, as in Epictetus, that virtue is “up to us” therefore a proper avenue for our efforts, but these are sort of ancillary to the point.

Marcus’ offer here speaks to that: if you find anything better, then you must turn towards that object, and if you cannot you must work towards moral progress with everything you have.

The rest of this chapter are expansions on this idea. I don’t want to infer incorrectly what it might mean that Marcus spends the time he does on this issue, but I know for me it is the case that sometimes more than others the idea of virtue in and of itself is more or less motivating. In the times when it is less so, I find this section helpful and comforting.

Marcus closes this piece with an admonition against “the ends justify the means” types of reasoning. Many indifferent things which we might prefer can be acquired in unsavory ways. It is a clear danger to begin down the road of enjoying the benefits of (even other folks’) vicious projects.

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This becomes difficult when run out to its logical conclusion, and I suspect the moral courage to stand in the face of this is an uncommon trait. Say for instance you are a citizen of a country called Pineland, or the employee of Mega Corp, or any other similar situation. You discover that the organization you’re affiliated with does some awful things in the service of the betterment of its people.

What now?

Marcus’ main injunction is not to value the benefits you might receive as a result, but is that good enough? Do we instead have an obligation not to receive them at all? We might fall back on a distinction between what’s up to and not up to us, but that doesn’t seem to resolve the conflict satisfactorily to me. Marcus seems to have resolved it for himself, however. As the closing lines of this chapter speak to keeping care of the δαίμων inside.

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Either way, some decided food for thought. How do such ethical obligations extend to our activities in the polis? Should they at all? How far do those obligations go? Is it appropriate to use the polis to shape the moral discussion of others, to compel if not their thoughts (although there are some who do aim at this) at least their deeds?

A modern Stoic political theory is something which would be interesting to read. I’m not yet ready to write anything firmly in this topic, as I suspect I would be too inclined to use Stoicism to support my political commitments. From what I’ve read of others, this is true of them too.

Hopefully soon, we’ll have enough folks with enough progress under their belts to begin to discuss Stoic politics qua Stoics, and not as some other -ist or -ism.

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


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

ἰώ, ἰὼ Σατουρνάλια φίλες και φίλοι!

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The traditional festival culminating in the winter solstice is upon us.  Massimo, my friend Yannos, and a few others have shared this article, and I thought you might like to see it also.  I would recommend Yannos’ post especially, (you may need to use FB’s translate function) for a more in-depth look at the festival than the linked article provides.

Yannos is a wealth of knowledge, and the online Stoic community is fortunate to have him.

How to Celebrate the Saturnalia!

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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?

If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon.  Thank you for your readership.


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