Roman Calendar

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Morality and Self-Respect" (from "Everything Has Two Handles"

From Chapter 3 of Pies' Everything Has Two Handles:

"Morality and Self-Respect

'Never value anything as profitable to yourself which shall compel you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect, to hate anyone, to suspect, to curse, [or] to act the hypocrite.'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 42-3)

'The Stoic believe that right is the only good . . . advantage can never conflict with right . . . Besides, the Stoics' ideal is to live consistently with nature. I suppose what they mean is this: throughout our lives, we ought invariably to aim at morally right courses of action, and . . . must select only those which do not clash with such courses.'
~ Cicero, On Duties (162-63)"

     This chapter addresses some of the most difficult aspects of Stoicism for the beginner - the concept that what is right and good is the only true advantage, and that any "advantage" gained in life by doing wrong is no true advantage at all. Pies acknowledges a frequent formulation of concern with this perspective: "The concept of Nature and 'natural law' may seem strange in our age of cultural relativism - when every moral value is reduced to some special interest group's 'narrative' or 'agenda'." Yet, as he points out, just such a concept is implicit in Jefferson's formulation of self-evident natural rights at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, and is a strong thread running through the Western liberal tradition.
     The approach here is not necessarily to prove the truth that only the Good is true advantage, but to analyze the concept that the self-respect that comes from pursuing only the Good is the one true possession a human being may have.

"'I do my duty. Other things trouble me not.'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 115)

. . .

Marcus Aurelius tells us that if we have done our duty, that is all we can rightly expect. Similarly, Epictetus tells us, 'If you fulfill your duties, you have what belongs to you' (Bonforte, 73). What does he mean by this? I think Epictetus is telling us that the only real possession to which we may lay claim is our own moral integrity. Everything else in life either belongs to someone else, or is beyond our control."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Mortality and Meaning" (from "Everything Has Two Handles")

I apologize for the long delay in my posts . . . life has a way of intervening even when you set yourself a blogging schedule . . .

From Pies' Everything Has Two Handles:

"Chapter Two: Mortality and Meaning

'Since it is possible that you may depart from this life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 25)

'[T}he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 29)"

     The chapter begins with the observation that "[o]ur American culture does not deal very well with the issue of death" - the fact that our culture is permeated with the "denial of death" (even to the point of euphemisms like "passed on" or "passed away" to avoid saying that someone has died. The ancient Stoics, on the other hand, "recognized that a keen awareness of death gives us the opportunity to create meaning in our lives."

     The need to "create" meaning in life has only grown as Western society has grown more secular, leaving behind medieval Judaeo-Christian thought in order to return to more a more classical understanding of our place in the cosmos, which does not reassure that there is a meaning to life, and that meaning is the service of the Judaeo-Christian god. Some see this as a negative thing, while others see it as a return to a better understanding of the true nature of the universe. Either way, it has left a bit of a void in Western thought, even among those who remain devout Judaeo-Christians. Stoicism offers a system of thought upon what to create to fill that void. Anyway . . .

     Pies observes that "although it often strikes us as 'cruel' when a young and promising life is cut short, the Stoics remind us that - in the larger scheme of eternity - there is little difference between 'the one who lives longest' and 'the one who will die the soonest.' This is a hard concept for many of us to accept, since we are conditioned to think in terms of longevity rather than depth and quality of life. But a hundred or thousand years from now, it will make little difference whether you or I lived to an age of 35 or 95. On the other hand, it might make a considerable difference if, in our lives, we performed many acts of kindness, or left behind a cure for cancer, or a book of poems that comforts generations to follow." I have heard people object to this line of thought that "in a thousand years, it won't matter whether I was a good or bad person any more than it will matter whether I lived to be 35 or 95". But that is manifestly untrue - the repercussions of good and evil deeds live on infinitely after in linear time, and besides, think of how the achievements of great people live on, regardless of the length of their life. One of my favorite poets, Gaius Valerius Catullus, only lived to be about 30, yet his collection of poems can still be found in bookstores more than 2000 years later . . .

"'A life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.
~ Seneca (Letter LXXVII; Campbell, 125)"

     There is a lot of good analysis in this chapter on the roots of human suffering in attachment and demanding that the nature of things be other than what it is, noting this idea is not unique to Stoicism, but is also found in Buddhist, Hindu, and Judaic traditions, as well as in modern psychology.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Thinking and Feeling" (from "Everything Has Two Handles")

From Pies' Everything Has Two Handles:

"'Things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within . . . The universe is transformation, life is opinion.'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 54)

'Things do not touch the soul.' This deceptively simple statement is the keystone in the arch of Stoic philosophy."

Pies has a knack for getting straight to the heart of the matter! If one were looking for a good summation of Stoic philosophy, this might be a good candidate! The first chapter is supported with other sententious maxims from Marcus Aurelius, directly or indirectly - "Change your opinions, change the way you feel!" "Whatever man you meet, say to yourself at once: 'What are the principles this man entertains about human goods and ills?' . . . then it will not seem surprising or strange . . . if he acts in certain ways . . ." "Get rid of the judgment, you are rid of the 'I am hurt'; get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself."

And so we get to the quote from Epictetus that gives us the title of the book:
"'Everything has two handles - one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne; but rather, by the opposite: that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus, you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.'
~ Epictetus (Bonforte, 84)"

There follows a pretty good analysis of Stoicism's common points of reference with Talmudic philosophy in Judaism, Buddhist philosophy, Hindu thought, et cetera.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Beginning "Everything Has Two Handles"

     So, the next Stoic book for analysis is Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic's Guide to the Art of Living by Ronald Pies. This looks like another popularizing take on the ancient philosophy, with plenty of primary source references (apparently drawing particularly on Marcus Aurelius) to keep it honest. In the introduction I found an excellent statement of definition:

"The Stoic aims to understand 'the way things really are' and to live accordingly."

That's a pretty good, clean, clear definition. "When we understand and accept the way things are, we find ourselves at peace, and are free to pursue our higher pleasures. When we refuse to accept the way things are, we make ourselves (and often others) unhappy."

     I was also pleased to find in the introduction the notion that activism for a better world is not inconsistent with accepting the nature of things - "we have every right - and even a responsibility - to try to change things for the better. But when we have exerted every effort in doing so, and failed, we are not under any additional obligation to make ourselves miserable!" "Stoicism is not passive acceptance of the status quo, but a reasoned understanding of the way things are, and a rational determination to better what can be bettered - including ourselves."

      I'm looking forward to the reading and the analysis!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"Everything Has Two Handles"

"Everything has two handles: one by which it may be bourne, another by which it cannot." ~ Epictetus

On The Tasks of Men and Women (from "Musonius Rufus on How To Live")

"For all human tasks, I am inclined to believe, are a shared obligation and are the same for men and women - none is necessarily meant for either one exclusively." ~ Gaius Musonius Rufus

Old Age: A Viaticum" (from "Musonius Rufus on How To Live")

"Old Age: A viaticum

Provisions for a journey

. . .

A person who is of use to many while living, has no right to choose to die, unless through dying they are of use to more.

Most of all, the work of nature is to make desire and impulse to harmonise with our perception of the appropriate and useful.

Choose to die well while possible, in case it soon becomes necessary for death, but it will no longer be possible to die well. Since the Fates have spun out the lot of death for all, those who die well, not late, are blessed.

Which words provide comfort in old age? The same that are the best for youth too: live methodically in harmony with nature.

. . .

Humanity, better than all creatures on earth, resembles God, and has the same virtues that He has. We can imagine nothing (even in the gods) better than prudence, justice, courage, and moderation. Our conception of God is (through having these virtues)
* unconquered by pleasure or greed
* superior to desire, envy, and jealousy
* moral, generous, and kind
Since humanity (in the image of Him) should be thought of as being like Him when living in harmony with nature . . .

It isn't impossible for humanity to be like this - certainly when we encounter people that we call godly and godlike, we don't have to imagine that these virtues came from anywhere other than human nature.

If we're lucky enough to take the pains to get correct instruction while young - mastering all those good lessons and their practice - then in old age we can use these inner resources to live according to nature - bearing without complaint the
* loss of the pleasures of youth
* weakness of the body
* insults of neighbours
* neglect of relatives and friends
since you would have a good antidote in your own mind: past training.

. . .

The best life, you will agree, is that of a good person - yet even their end is death. Therefore, as I said before, if you can succeed in mastering this lesson in old age - to wait for death without fear and courageously - then you will have acquired much of what you need to live without complaint, in harmony with nature. So I tell you that the best viaticum for old age is the one I mentioned in the beginning - live according to nature, doing and thinking what you ought. In doing so, the elderly would be cheerful, winning the praise of others - living happily and in honour."

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"True Wealth" (from "Musonius Rufus on How To Live")

From Musonius Rufus on How To Live:

"True Wealth

We shall condemn the treasures of Croesus and Cinyras as deepest poverty - One man alone is rich, the man who has acquired the ability to want nothing, always and everywhere.

Musonius asked for a thousand sesterces to be given to a beggar who was pretending to be a philosopher - when several people told him that the rascal was a bad, vicious fellow, who didn't deserve anything good, Musonius answered with a grin, 'Well, then, he deserves money.'

The notorius Rutilius, coming up to Musonius in Rome, said, 'Zeus the Saviour whom you imitate and emulate does not borrow money.' Musonius answered with a smile, 'He doesn't lend, either.' For Rutilius, while lending money himself, was telling off Musonius for borrowing.

. . .

Testimony to [the power of living a Spartan life] is the endurance of the Spartan adolescent men - antiquated with hunger, thirst, and cold - even with blows and other hardships. Trained in such noble and austere habits, the ancient Spartans were held up to be the best of the Greeks. Their poverty was envied more than the King's wealth! Thus I choose sickness over luxury, for sickness only harms the body, but luxury destroys body and soul - bringing with it weakness, a feeble body, and lack of self-control - cowardice in the soul."

Unsurprisingly, like all Stoics, Musonius Rufus declares that the only true wealth is virtue, and that, paradoxically, virtue is one thing the wealthy have difficulty obtaining, for not only can it not be purchased at any price, but acceptance of luxurious living makes one less willing to accept hardship.