Archive for February, 2010

Returning to the Logos

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 23, 2010 by Joe Callahan

I took a drive up along the coastline to Crane’s Beach in Ipswich MA just to take a walk by the ocean and clear my head.  I find sometimes that if I am feeling sluggish and out of sorts that the ocean wakes me up.  Being in an outdoor setting in general makes me feel more present.  Winter is one of the most beautiful times to walk on a beach as well as being the least crowded.  I only saw two other people and those only at a distance.  While walking I came across a sea snail shell.  It was an impressive specimen as was its previous owner no doubt….at least by snail standards.  I was deeply, oddly moved by finding this where I squatted down and watched the waves.  It was perfect because of its imperfections, expressing something unchanging while being an omen of impermanence.  It was complete and had its right place in its environment even though it was merely a relic.  As the cast off armor of some dead creature it reminded me of the Corinthian helmet I use as the image for this blog.  It evoked the same feeling somehow, like a message in a very ancient bottle.

The message was simply that nature is its own meaning.  It doesn’t require any external explanation or meaning or purpose.  When a thing is true to nature, both universally and to its own nature, it has meaning.  Nothing else is necessary.  When we try to impose our own meaning as if we are somehow separate from the natural world we just engage in vanity or, worse, folly.

We don’t need to look beyond nature because nature itself in all its forms takes shape out of the original source.  You can call that source whatever you like.  The Stoics used the terms Logos, nature, god, Zeus interchangeably to refer to this source.  We might want to add Tao or Void too if so inclined.  A more religiously inclined person may feel the need to identify the source of things with divinity (though Zeus worship seems rare these days) and that is fine.  For myself I am content to leave the terms interchangeable.  Trying too hard to define the Logos may just make it that much harder to grasp what is poorly conveyed by language.

Whatever the case, I needed the reminder of these basic truths.  As long as I strive to be in harmony with what is natural, with the Logos, then things are as they should be.  As long as my character, my honor and my reason remain my own then I am right with the world.  When my life is taken in sum total these things are all that will really matter.  It is when I forget this that I lose connection with the Logos and I end up needing a walk by the ocean just like this one.

As I walked back I passed someone taking a horse out for a ride along the beach.  We exchanged a wave across the sand.  I looked back at the figures of horse and rider at the edge of the sea.  How many thousands of horsemen have ridden to look out across the waves over how many thousands of years?  We all find our way back to the ocean eventually.

How Fit is Fit Enough?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 8, 2010 by Joe Callahan

Can someone claim to be Agathos, to possess Arête, if they allow their physical condition to decay?   The ancients didn’t think so.  Xenophon tells us that Socrates advocated physical fitness as part of the profession of a free citizen.  A youth who was unfit was pathetic in danger and an older man who had never reached his physical prime was just plain sad.  In both the hippeis class of Athens and the equites of Republican Rome it was a disgrace for a man who would otherwise qualify to allow himself to become to unfit to serve in the cavalry.  Obviously this doesn’t hold true if someone is disabled due to illness or injury beyond their control.  Still, for those of us who can engage in exercise it raises the question how much fitness is necessary to be a worthy individual?

Several months ago I took stock of my own fitness.  Of course there were all the usual concerns for a man in his forties.  I had to think about my heart exploding and my prostate exploding and my colon exploding.  Aside from all the standard delights of reaching middle age I was thinking more about the shrinking horizon of years left in which I could achieve Arete in the physical realm.  This is always something I am aware of since most of the guys in my kung fu school are younger than I am.  I have a very measurable standard to work with.  If I am not in sufficient condition then I will never get to the level of practice I would hope to achieve.  Given a long enough time line without the necessary conditioning I simply won’t get there.

So, I looked for some goals to set for myself.   Happily our friends in the US military spend a lot of time thinking about just how fit one ought to be and how to best get there.  Since they have some untold number of experts figuring these things out I decided to take advantage of my tax dollars at work.  I wanted to get the army’s opinion on just how fit is fit for a man like me who wants to be ready and able to maintain my self-reliance, survive and adapt in a hostile environment, and not be totally lame in Chinatown.  Obligingly, the military publishes physical training guides as well as the standards for their physical fitness exams.  You can look for yourself here to see what they expect from someone (male or female) your age.

In addition to the requirements for pushups, situps and the 2 mile run I also added a rucksack march.  The march is a tradition that goes back to the hoplites of Greece and the legionaries of Rome and today is still required of men at arms all over the world.  In deference to the fact I hadn’t been backpacking as much as I used to I set the march at ten miles with forty pounds of weight in the pack in less than five hours on a road.  Roman legionaries marched around 15 miles each day with more weight.  So do a lot of soldiers today.  While I have no particular interest in being a soldier (too old, too uncooperative, too many old injuries) I think it is at least to be expected that a man who is agathos and a martial practitioner should match their basic conditioning.  After all, men in ancient Greece were expected to protect their city by fighting in the phalanx until age 60.

As it turned out, the pushups and situps were not a problem despite an old shoulder injury.  The ruck march went well though that may have been partially due to it being really cold that day in Vermont and so stopping to rest just made me freeze.  The run training was going well but I had some issues with shin splints.  Soon I’ll set goals for another training period to kick up the conditioning level.  I’ll fold the running component back into the program then.

It may be asked if it is really necessary to have a physical standard for following a philosophical ideal.  Does it matter to a person’s worth if they can run a couple of miles in a certain time?  If it is within the control of an individual to perform at the basic level then I think the answer must be yes.  We aren’t talking about running a marathon or climbing Everest.  What rational person would not wish to be able to maintain their independence, their self-defense, their physical dignity and their health?  I would invite anyone to reach the goals for their age range and see if it doesn’t feel worthwhile and enhance a sense of oneself as agathoi.