Roman Calendar

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bertrand Russell on Happiness (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson cites "the influence of the Stoic tradition" on the writings of the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. Robertson goes on to cite The Conquest of Happiness (1930) in which Russell describes "a philosophical method of overcoming anxiety and worry, indistinguishable from the praemeditatio malorum" as well as what Robertson calls "one of the most lucid explanations of exposure therapy that one could wish for:

     Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learnt not to feel   
     fear will find the fatigue of daily life greatly diminished. Now fear, in its most basic harmful form
     arises where there is some danger which we are unwilling to face. At odd moments horrible
     thoughts dart into our minds; what they are depends upon the person, but almost everybody has
     some kind of lurking fear. [Russell, 1930, p.60]"

     Robertson goes on to describe Russell's prescription that "the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it becomes completely familiar. In the end its familiarity will blunt its terrors; the whole subject will become boring, and our thoughts will turn away from it, not, as formerly, by an effort of will, but through a mere lack of interest in the topic."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Praemeditatio Malorum (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In his book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson discusses a Stoic practice called praemeditatio malorum - "the premeditation of evils" - "preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity." The practice involves spending time imagining the possible "evils" that might befall you, the things that could go wrong with whatever you have planned. By facing these "evils" in advance, in theory, one robs them of the ability to surprise us and overwhelm our reason with the sudden intensity of their appearance to be true "evils." We can take the time to identify them, realize that to the sage they are not evils, properly categorize them as indifferents . . . and so when one of these things does befall us, we are not overwhelmed. We are prepared. A "misfortune" presents itself to us, and rather than be shocked and overwhelmed and thinking, "Such a terrible thing has happened to me!", instead we find ourselves calmly regarding the "misfortune," able to say, "No, you do not fool me! You are not terrible. You are a thing indifferent, and you have no power over me."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On the Arms of a Stoic (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson examines some of the allegories and metaphors used by the Stoics and other ancient philosophers to illustrate their ideas. For example, one common metepahor was that of athletic training. Another was military training. As Robertson explains, the "verbal principles of the Stoic are thought of as 'weapons' of the mind, which he uses to fight against emotional disturbance . . . The recollection of these weapons, the precepts of Stoicism, may possibly have been symbolized by the act of clenching the fist. For example,

The student as boxer, not fencer.

The fencer's weapon is picked up and put down again.

The boxer's is part of him. All he has to do it clench his fist. [Meditations, 12.9]"

     Robertson points out that Stoic precepts weren't just quaint sayings or slogans, "more than just ideas tossed around in idle debate. These are the weapons used in the lifelong battle for happiness and mental health."

Monday, February 11, 2013

On Stoic Mindfulness (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson discusses how most Westerners now associate "mindfulness" with Eastern philosophies, but that in Stoicism the West has its own homegrown mindfulness philosophy. He calls "a 'here and now' (hic et nunc) philosophy that centres upon the concept of prosoche, 'attention to oneself', which can be translated as 'mindfulness' or 'self-awareness'." Robertson cites Epictetus as advising that "one should mind one's own thinking. Elsewhere, he says that one who is making good progress in Stoicism keeps watch continually over himself, his thoughts, and his judgments, as he would over his own deadliest enemy, 'and one lying in wait for him' (Echiridion, 48). Hence, 'you should turn all your attention to the care of your mind' (Echiridion, 41)."

Socrates' Way - Part I

Last night, I began teaching two young boys, ages 11 and 12, Socratic thinking, using Ronald Gross' book, Socrates' Way. This promises to be interesting! We just got through the preface last night.

One of the boys suggested that we should put up a sign with these goals mentioned in the preface:
Not a bad notion. Maybe we should put up such a sign . . .

Also, we have a list of steps to following Socratic principles:
* Persistently raise significant questions
* Involve people in dialogue about their basic values
* Learn from those with authentic expertise
* Think productively with friends and colleagues
* Work together toward the truth
* Do the right thing

Next Assignment: Read the Introduction up to "Socrates: Then and Now"

Friday, February 8, 2013

Seneca on the fear of death (part III)

     In his 4th letter to Lucilius, Seneca discusses the fact that the Stoic sage would suffer from no fer of death. The sage has perfect happiness and enjoyment of his life, and as Seneca says, "Nullum bonum adiuvat habentem, nisi ad cuius amissionem praeparatus est animus" (No good thing makes happy its posessor, unless his mind/soul are prepared for its loss). He suggests meditating on the mishaps that have befallen even the mighty - no one is exempt from the fickleness of fate, save perhaps the gods, but the sage is indifferent to fate's fickleness. His examples are drawn from the famous Romans from the end of the Republic (e.g., think how Pompey's fate was decided by a boy (Ptolemy XIV of Egypt) and a eunuch, Crassus' fate by a "cruel and insolent Parthian." For some reason, he leaves out that the third member of that triumvirate, Julius Caesar, was struck down by trusted friends, at the pinnacle of his power. And the bringers of your death may wear any face - as many have been struck down by slaves as ordered dead by kings. And, Seneca says, we are all dying anyway - a fact of life is that no one gets out of it alive - so what does it matter when? As he writes, you might protest that if you fell into the hands of the enemy, the conqueror will command that you be taken to your death, to which he would reply, "which is where you were already going!"

     Remember where you are already going, Seneca seems to say, and you cannot be upset at the prospect of arriving at your destination.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stoic Thoughts from a Psychotherapist (from Albert Ellis' "Reason & Emotion in Psychotherapy")

     Some Stoic thoughts from Albert Ellis, Reason & Emotion in Psychotherapy (1962, pp. 68-69), with my thoughts in brackets:

     "Instead of becoming unduly upset over his own or others' wrongdoings, the rational individual [like the Stoic sage?] may take the following approach to errors of commission or omission:
1. He should not criticise or blame others for their misdeeds but should realize that they invariably commit such acts out of stupidity, ignorance, or emotional disturbance. He should try to accept people when they are stupid and to help them when they are ignorant or disturbed. [Sounds like Socrates' belief, carried on by the Stoics, that one can only do wrong out of ignorance, or mistaken impressions about what is good!]
2. When people blame him, he should first ask himself whether he has done anything wrong; and if he has, try to improve his behavior; and if he hasn't, realize that other people's criticism is often their problem and represents some kind of defensiveness or disturbance on their paart.
3. He should try to understand why people act the way they do - to make an effort to see things from from their frame of reference when he thinks they are wrong. If there is any way of stopping others from doing their misdeeds, he should calmly try to stop them. If there is no way of stopping them (as, alas, often is the case!), he should become philosophically resigned to others' wrongdoings by saying to himself: 'It's too bad that they keep acting that way. All right: so it's too bad. And it isn't, from my standpoint, necessarily catastrophic!'
4. He should try to realize that his own mistaken acts, like those of others, are usually the result of ignorance or emotional disturbance; and he should never blame himself for being ignorant or disturbed or for doing misdeeds."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On Indifferents (from Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale)

     Some thoughts on the Stoic philosophy regarding Indifferents from Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale:

     "I know the difficulties of gulping this down right away. You keep thinking of practical problems. Everybody has to play the game of life. You can't just walk around saying 'I don't give a damn about health or wealth or whether I'm sent to prison or not.' Epictetus took time to explain better what he meant. He says everybody should play the game of life - that the best play it with 'skill, form, speed, and grace.' But, like most games, you play it with a ball. Your team devotes all its energies to getting the ball across the line. But after the game, what do you do with the ball? Nobody much cares. It's not worth anything. The competition, the game, was the thing. The ball was 'used' to make the game possible, but in itself is not of any value that would justify falling on your sword for it. Once the game is over, the ball is properly a matter of indifference."

On Emotional Distress (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In his book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson discusses the roots of unhappiness from the perspective of ancient Stoic philosophy and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy, which are similar. Robertson notes that the irrational "rules" and "assumptions" discussed in the psychological theory behind CBT is extremely similar to "the unconditional value judgments which Stoics believe are at the root of emotional distress. For the Stoic, it is the tendency to judge things as being inherently or absolutely good or bad which leads to irrational craving (epithumia) or fear (phobos), respectively. In Stoic psychology, irrational desire, or craving, which places too much value on external things and other people's opinions, is the root cause of anxiety. Believing that 'I have to' have (or avoid) something, or that other peopl 'must' behave (or not behave) in a certain way . . . is tantamount to saying that these things are of overriding importance in themselves, or absolute external values, as Stoicism would put it. "

     Robertson illustrates the point by quoting Epictetus as writing, "When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, 'What can this man want?' Unless he wanted something or other which is not in his own power, how could he still be anxious? This is why a person who sings to the lyre feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself, but is axious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a very fine voice and plays his instrument beautifully. For he wants not only to sing well, but to gain applause, and that lies beyond his control . . ." Robertson concludes, "Anyone who anxiously demands, rather than merely preferring, that others praise him is being unphilosophical, and has failed to understand the nature of things in relation to his sphere of control. "

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On the "Stoic Reserve Clause" (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson discusses what he calls the "reserve clause" (exceptio) that constitutes "one of the most basic underlying concepts of Stoicism." Robertson sees it as a formulation from a different perspective of what he calls the "Stoic fork" - the approach to all things with the realization that there are some things that are under our control (anything having to do with moral choice) and some things that are not under our control (all external things). The "reserve clause" is "a verbal clause added to the end of each sentence concerning one's own actions or intentions. Or rather, it is the concept which would be implied by adding such a clause, the idea that it expresses. because . . . the Stoic went from learning to merely say the reserve clause to actually experiencing it. The clause itself can take several forms, for example, 'God willing', 'fate willing', 'nature permitting', 'if nothing prevents me', etc. In each case, however, the underlying idea is essentially the same. A common proverb expresses it thus: 'Do what you must; let happen what may'." Robertson goes on to point out that Seneca says that "the Stoic sage undertakes every action with the reserve clause: 'If nothing shall occur to the contrary' (Seneca, 2009, p. 116)."

     Robertson concludes that "the Stoic, therefore, makes a point of qualifying the expression of every intention by introducing a distinction between his will and external factors beyond his control. The sage, thereby, holds two complementary propositions in mind simultaneously, viz.,
1. I will do my very best to succeed . . .
2. while simultaneously accepting that the ultimate outcome is beyond my direct control."

Monday, February 4, 2013

On Indifferent Things (from "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy")

     Stoicism famously teaches that Virtue is the only real good, and failure of Virtue is the only real evil. All other things - all external things, that do not depend upon our choice - are classified as "indifferent." To some ancient Stoics, this was all there was to the scheme of the world - choosing to act in accordance with Virtue is Good, choosing to act contrary to Virtue is Evil, and external things - possessions, people, position, etc, - are all Indifferent.

     The problem, of course, is that most people mistakenly value indifferents as if they were true Goods. So they seek social position, they seek money and possessions, they seek pleasures of food and drink and sex, etc. - all of which are (in and of themselves) Indifferent, since they lie beyond the sphere of moral choice. But is it not better to be in good health than poor health? Is it not better to have money than to lack money? And so some ancient Stoics took a more nuanced view of Indifferents, that they could be "preferred" or not. In other words, good health and wealth are not Good, and cannot be, but they are preferable in most circumstances to their opposites of illness and poverty.

      Hence Donald Robertson writes in The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy that "it is generally considered rational to prefer having external "goods," such as food, wealth, sex, social praise, etc., over pain and poverty, so long as these things do not have an adverse effect upon our mental health and well-being. The Stoic by no means claims that 'all pleasure is bad,' which would be the opposite of 'indifference' in any case. He simply does not see it as inherently important. The Stoic technical term sometimes translated as 'serenity' or 'indifference' (apatheia) actually means the absence of irrational or excessive passion (pathos) . . . Seneca suggested that it would be preferable to explicitly emphasize that the Stoic term apatheia refers to a mind which is 'invulnerable' or 'above all suffering', i.e., free from irrational or excessive passions (Seneca 2004, p. 48)."

     "The Stoic can, therefore, take worldly things or leave them, but either way he does not get overly worked up about them. Wealth and fame, sensory pleasure or social praise, can only be either good or bad in a trivial sense, but genuine happiness is ultimately down to our attitude toward life, and the use we make of our intellect."

Friday, February 1, 2013

On the Existence of God - Quote from "The Philosophy of Cognitive -Behavioural Therapy"

     "One aspect of Stoic writing that seems to deter many modern readers and rather clashes with the scientific world-view of CBT is the presence of 'God'. However, it should be remembered that the meaning of this word in modern society is laden with Christian theological connotations that are alien to ancient Stoic writers."

     "Certain Stoics appear to have been willing to contemplate agnosticism or atheism as consistent with their philosophy. As Marcus Aurelius repeats to himself, whether the universe is 'God or atoms', either way the basic precepts of Stoicism still stand firm. However, most Stoics do refer repeatedly, and often passionately, to one's relationship with God. The God of the Stoics is a philosopher's god, though, and not merely a mythic creation. He is synonymous with fate itself, or the whole of nature, and, therefore, 'belief in God' is more a question of language or perspective than a metaphysical hyposthesis. Hence, Zeno reputedly said, 'it matters not whether you call it Providence or nature' (Lipsius, 2006, p.65). Seeing the universe itself as divine is the rational mysticism of great scientists like Einstein, a question of one's attitude toward life, and not a question of believing that something exists. Note, for instance, that for a pantheist, the question 'Does god exist?' would simply be another way of asking 'Does the universe exist?', which is, arguably, a nonsensical question. The Stoic God is not really a 'thing', a mythical superhuman being, to be believed in or not, like a glorified unicorn. Rather, it is a way of looking at the world, conceiving the universe itself, in its absolute entirety, as if it were godlike, as being divine, mystical, and sacred in its totality. The references to 'God' in Stoicism, to put it bluntly, could probably be replaced by the word 'Nature' or 'the Universe' without much loss of meaning, as Zeno himself says, and doing so would probably render things much easier to digest for modern CBT practitioners."

     I loved this quote, as it so succinctly and brilliantly illustrates many important points about Stoicism and about conceptions of the divine in traditions other than (and usually predating) the now more familiar monotheistic traditions that arose in the East yet now dominate the religious discourse of the West. In a sense, the Abrahamic monotheist faiths have "poisoned the well" for any kind of rational discussion of the nature of religion or spirituality. Many people in the modern West, raised with the now-dominant background of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic traditions in the background, and having rejected those faiths, construct intensely flawed arguments about and against religion or spirituality based on monotheism - as if in their eyes, monotheism = religion. So I hear tired old ideas like "Well, all religions claim to be the One True Way, and persecute those who disagree, right?" Nope - not by a long shot - not even a significant minority, for the majority of human history  - but yes, Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism are all guilty of this to some extent. To many ancient pagans, claiming that the spiritual or divine didn't exist was clearly insane - everyone had personal experience of the divine in the world, after all, and the only way to claim it didn't exist would be to make the insane claim that the universe didn't exist either. I get very frustrated at the level of ignorance and arrogance from those who claim to be "free thinkers" and "atheists," many of whom simply assume that they are right, and any theist/religious/spiritual person is automatically wrong.
Even so, the author's point is well-taken - you can actually leave religion out of Stoicism, and get the same results, because its "religion" is simply the belief in the existence of reality and the application of reason as the best method of understanding and dealing with that reality.

Seneca on the fear of death - Part II

     In his 4th letter to Lucilius, Seneca deals with the objection that non-Stoics tend to raise when told that Stoics believe that one should have no fear of death, that one must be ready to embrace death when it comes, and hold life in sufficient contempt that one does not attempt to "cling" to it - the common objection is "But it is difficult to bring the mind to the point of the contempt of life!" ("Difficile est . . . animum perducere ad contemptionem animae!").

     Seneca's response is to point out that is, in fact, easy to hold life in contempt, for so many people do so for bad reasons (or did so in Seneca's time) - they kill themselves over girlfriends who reject them, they kill themselves because they have been bullied by people with the power to get away with it, they kill themselves to avoid arrest . . . "Don't you think that virtue will have an effect, when fear has had too much success?" ("Non putas virtutem hoc effecturam, quod efficit nimia formido?") . . . Seneca says that no one can have a truly peaceful life who is excessively obsessed with having a long life - "Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly ("Hoc cotidie meditare, ut possis aequo animo vitam relinquere"); for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks."