Archive for January, 2010

Giving Homer a Second Chance

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 27, 2010 by Joe Callahan

At some point in your high school or college days we may have shared a common experience.  Some teacher decided it was time to plunge into those vast wordy epics of Homer; The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Chances are you didn’t thank them for it at the time.  Aside from school days very few of us ever go back to explore those epics except maybe the painfully inaccurate film “Troy” (yeah I know it was fun to watch Orlando Bloom get smacked around but the movie was still all wrong).  Of course these epic poems were originally recited and listened to in conjunction with wine drinking; not read as an assignment.  They were a kind of ritual theatre where long familiar stories were recounted.  In doing so, there was a cultural understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly that was affirmed and offered as ideal and inspiration.

Fair enough but that still doesn’t mean many people will read them for fun today.  They won’t find anything relevant for their own lives in the archaic principles of chariot jockeys.  Will they?

Homer did not survive the centuries simply to torment students.  The epics are woven into the basic fabric of our cultural consciousness and they continue to challenge us and guide beliefs about ourselves even when we do not realize the source.  They have shaped history in the West.  Alexander the Great got himself badly wounded in Persia trying to emulate Achilles on the battlefield.  The Romans so badly wanted a link to the tradition that they decided their ancient forbear was Aeneas, a survivor of the sack of Troy.  Medieval knights, never the most literate bunch, at least learned the Iliad as part of their education.  Renaissance poets reused the names of Greek heroes.  Warships and sports teams were named after them.  A condom was named for the Trojans, presumably invoking strength and prowess.  It wasn’t very reverent perhaps but at least it shows that the cultural memory remains.

If there is any doubt that the virtues and vices of the Iliad are still part of our psychology we have only to look at the work of writers like Dr. Jonathan Shay.  His comparison of Achilles and Odysseus to the difficult experiences of modern soldiers shows the Homeric world is not as far away as we might choose to think.

That is why it is unfortunate when we dismiss the Homeric epics as fossilized remains fit only for core English Lit requirements and recycling into sanitized Hollywood pap.  We cannot move on to more “sophisticated” systems of philosophy until we recognize and reconcile ourselves to our primal origins.  We can try of course.  People have wanted to put the Homeric hero into the proverbial dustbin as far back as ancient Greece itself.  Plato decried the Iliad as unfit reading, teaching men to be ruled by ungoverned passions and appetites.  Then again, Plato brought us the original ivory tower in the form of his Academy.  He also catered largely to the sons of the privileged elite of Athens.  So, we may want to take such dismissal from whence it comes.  Anybody who really thought society should be governed by leisured intellectuals should be looked at with as much suspicion as a militarist.

Simply, you cannot pretend you have risen above that bloody charioteer in your psyche until you can grapple with both his virtues and vices.  Snubbing the men of bronze when planning your next dinner party will not suffice.  They have a way of kicking in the door to your thoughts and impulses at the most inconvenient times.  Within the Homeric epics lies a proto-ethics that still must be recognized as valid even if politically incorrect.  We may build upon it and make choices in different directions but the proto-ethics remains our foundation and it is inherently good.  Arete, fueled by courage, fortitude, intelligence and judgment, is a good goal.  A life lived for that alone, tempered by the sense of honor and fairness demanded of the Achaeans and Trojans, would not be totally misspent.  We have all seen far worse.

Of course this still doesn’t make reading the epics less dry.  My solution?  Books on CD.  Having them recited to you is almost like the original experience of the ancient Greeks.  Just add wine.

In Praise of Morbid Contemplation

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 15, 2010 by Joe Callahan

If you do some Google searching on the internet for phrases like “morbid thinking” or “thinking about death” you’re quickly going to get the message that you need psychiatric intervention and drugs, lots of drugs.  Thinking about one’s impending mortality is generally seen as an unhealthy activity.  Interestingly this is not the case when one searches under “contemplating death”.  Contemplation of death gets a far more considered and less pharmaceutical treatment.  The distinction between the two is that contemplation is a more conscious and controlled activity than mere swirling thoughts which stray into obsession.  Contemplation to the Greeks and Romans came from the idea of taking something into a separate space (con meaning with and templum describing separation like the sacred space of a temple).  To contemplate was to study something in a removed, aware and focused state.

We all have thoughts and feelings whether we wish them or not.  Alternatively, contemplation is an activity we must choose and practice.   Mortality is something we emotionally prefer to avoid dwelling on.  Unless we or someone close to us is forced to face death then it is a topic many prefer to keep in the abstract and in the future.  Unfortunately for the individual who would be Agathos this avoidance of reality is not useful.

Many cultural traditions have taught a resolute acceptance of death.  Sometimes this was due to a cultural milieu where death occurred with great regularity and its reality was difficult to avoid.  It would have been pretty hard to ride with Genghis Khan and not have some awareness of mortality.  Usually, contemplation of life’s inevitable end served the productive purpose of valuing life in the present moment.  Once one recognizes that everything is inherently impermanent one more fully experiences the present.  We become less attached to fantasies of a future that does not exist and may never come to pass.

Eastern traditions like Buddhism cultivated this awareness through meditation on impermanence.  This practice carried into the martial sphere via ideals like Bushido where contemplation of mortality helped to eliminate hesitation and fear.  If life is transient then to hurl oneself into battle and attain glory was like the brief but beautiful flowering of the cherry blossom (their analogy, not mine).

In the West the martial tradition stretching back to the heroes of the Iliad shares that Carpe Diem attitude.  While it would later be altered by Christianity, the earlier belief that a good death may be the only lasting tribute endures in the back of our psyches.  Beyond that, the Greek and Roman Stoics believed in contemplating impermanence as a philosophical tool.  While today we hear a great deal about positive visualization the Stoics advocated a kind of negative visualization.  The Stoics taught seeing things as they are.  That includes their impermanence.  Recognizing that nothing and nobody lasts forever makes us value what is in our lives while it lasts.  It also prepares us more thoroughly to endure inevitable change and loss.  Negative visualization teaches us how to maintain an emotional and philosophical center.  It grants us tranquility while also reminding us to live fully and well.

How would each of us live tomorrow if we really did keep impermanence in mind and recognized truly that it might be our last day?  What would be different in our actions? The Roman emperor and Stoic writer Marcus Aurelius may have said it best

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.  Free yourself from all other distractions.  Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override your mind, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.  You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?  If you can manage it, that is all even the gods will ask.”

Painting Arete

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2010 by Joe Callahan

I’ve been painting my new apartment.  The place was badly in need of a new look after languishing under the previous tenant.  I’ve been able to get in to the space before the move date  since it is in the same house as my previous digs (which have grown too small).  So, I have had the intention of doing the job in thorough fashion.  I should add that interior painting is something that, in theory, I do well having made some cash at the trade in younger days.  Unfortunately, a combination of the holidays and a nasty sinus infection wore away at my resolve.  In the end it has been a more rushed and sloppy job than I would have liked.

I have consoled myself (echoed by others) that it really isn’t worth fretting about the place as it is just a rental.  It is true that I do not own this home and I have no idea how long I will be living here.  Still there has been a nagging feeling that such considerations shouldn’t matter.  If the real measure of the good is what impacts my essential character then isn’t it fair to say that my dwelling and how I treat it are reflections of that character?  It shouldn’t really matter if the space is one I own or is merely temporary.  If it is true that material life is temporary by nature and beyond our control then even if I had the deed to the property is it anymore truly “mine” than if I built a lean-to out of pine branches in a forest for the night?  The house could burn down or be swept away by floods.  My financial fortunes could take a turn and the property seized by creditors.  Ownership may prove to be less real then we like to think.  Would such an event alter my own character and so be either good or evil?  If the Stoics have it right (not to mention Buddhists and Taoists but let’s stay with the West) then no it would not be good or evil per se.  To paraphrase the trial of Socrates, they can take my house but they can’t harm me.

I don’t want to run too far with this idea as, after all, there is such a thing as resale value and ownership does have certain advantages.  Just because something is neither truly good nor evil doesn’t mean it is without any value or strategic importance.  My real point here is how much should it matter if my dwelling space is rented or owned, transient or long term?  I don’t think it really matters that much.  How one treats that dwelling is going to reflect one’s character.  When taking on a task the quality and skill with which one performs that task is going to either display Arete (excellence) or not.  If Arete is the outward manifestation of one’s internal condition shown through acts of skill then the state of one’s dwelling (or one’s physical estate in general) must qualify as a barometer.  So if I do a sorry job of painting my apartment am I letting my Virtus grow lame?  I think the answer has to be yes.

For the record, the apartment looks reasonably good and I am going to go back and do some touch-ups.  As Epictetus warns us, one must take stock of realistic conditions before making grandiose commitments lest you end up compromising your tranquility and your character through failures.  That may well be my real lesson here.