Archive for October, 2010

Avoiding Useless Victories

Posted in arete, Go, Homeric, Iliad, kung fu on October 22, 2010 by Joe Callahan

As I continue my education in the game of Go I have been grappling with a concept that is a struggle for many. Go has two means by which the opponent is defeated. One is to surround and capture enemy stones which are then considered “dead”. The other is to create territory that the opponent cannot invade. At the end of the game each player counts points based on the size of territory as well as the number of enemy stones captured. There is is a strong temptation to fixate on destroying a group of enemy stones when you think you’ve got them on the run. The problem? Even when it does work you have probably lost numerous opportunities to build territory. It seems obvious when you stop to think about it; if you control the bulk of territory then the opponent has nowhere to place their stones and so destroying them becomes irrelevant. When opposing stones are in contact and trying to vie for position it is called fighting. The more your placement of stones makes it impossible for the opponent to “live” in an area of the board, the less fighting is necessary.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this understanding found in the Chinese game of Go is echoed in the Taoist sensibilities of Sun Tzu.

“Attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

  • Sun Tzu, Chapter 3, Sawyer Translation

“Thus in military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever benefited from protracted warfare.”

  • Sun Tzu, Chapter 2, Sawyer Translation.

We expect the study of strategy and of martial pursuits to teach ways of fighting. Fighting, however, is inevitably a nasty, unpredictable, exhausting affair. In the martial art I study we are taught that once opponents are in close (grappling distance) you need to either do something very decisive, very quickly or get out of there. Why? As in Go, the longer you engage in long contact fights the greater the potential for a mistake. As the old saying goes, tired is stupid. If you zig when you should have zaged, miss one important stone on a convoluted board then bad things happen. Even if you win you may take some serious damage along the way. What we don’t always expect from strategy is that the best lessons are those that make it possible to avoid Pyrrhic victories.

The Greeks understood this. A central message of the Homeric epics is that the conquest of Troy was not such a smashing success once the smoke had cleared. That war dragged on for far too long and left survivors on both sides spent and disillusioned. In recent years some authors like Caroline Alexander have tried to suggest that therefore the Iliad is the West’s first anti-war statement. I strongly disagree. That is a projection of modern sensibilities (and current politics) onto an ancient ethos I am not convinced she and others really grasped (or it didn’t fit their agenda). If the Trojan War had been a swift, decisive and well conceived campaign then the Agathoi would have faced their opponents, Arete would have been displayed, some loot and trophies would have been earned and the surviving victors would have gone home quite happy. There would have been no hand-wringing about the injustice and futility of it all.  It was year upon year away from home with enormous casualties from disease and battle that caused discontent and left men scarred and bitter. The Homeric Greek worldview did not see war as inherently wrong. It saw a badly conducted war as stupid and sorrowful. There is a difference.

Unfortunately, the Greeks that went to Troy either did not recognize that the excursion was a bad idea or they were not able to do anything about it. Odysseus clearly had his misgivings. He tried to pretend he had become mentally ill in order to avoid going (not the last time that ploy has been attempted). Odysseus, however, was one of the few of the Homeric heroes that possessed the skill of seeing the whole board and knew a rotten deal when he saw one. It is he who finally realized a game changing strategy was needed to end the stalemate. It is worth noting that when Agamemnon returns home from the war he walks into an ambush and is murdered by his unfaithful wife and her new lover. When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca he too faces usurpers but he is successful in thwarting their plans. Both men were caught too long in one corner of the board while losing territory elsewhere. Odysseus was a skillful enough strategist to still achieve something worthwhile and remain whole.

As I keep learning how to live the idea of Agathos in the here and now all of this makes me question where I seek victories that aren’t worth seeking? What is really a display of Arete and what is just vanity? Where do I grasp after things that make me miss what will really serve me well? I am not trying to conquer some foreign city state but what business goals will cost more than the apparent gain? Today during a discussion an individual in my industry said something both incorrect and irritating. I could have spent time and energy going on in great detail why he had no idea what he was talking about. In the meantime, despite temporary satisfaction I might well have come across badly to other prospective business contacts. I might have killed some stones but lost the chance for territory. Its a good lesson in mindfulness.

Good Philosophy for a Bad Economy

Posted in Homeric, stoic, Stoicism with tags on October 4, 2010 by Joe Callahan

This morning I was reading a passage out of Epictetus’ Discourses. I will often open one of the volumes at random and let the fates pick the lesson. Today it was the Discourse entitled “To Those Who Fear Want”. I thought of a recent conversation with a friend. We discussed how reaching the middle years of life and the shaky global econo-fest conspired to have a depressing effect on our outlooks as well as those of other people we know.

In a time of layoffs and readjusted expectations the questions and anxieties revolve around having “enough”. Do I have enough to retire? To live on? To pay XYZ?

Epictetus, and other Stoics, believed that too much concern about such things was pointless. Since obsession about one’s material condition was a distraction from cultivating one’s worthy human character it had no value. The Stoics, of course, didn’t have anything against wealth (Epictetus was not wealthy but Seneca and Marcus Aurelius certainly were). It was, in Stoic terminology, “an Indifferent”. Being wealthy or poor did not or should not determine one’s character. If acquiring weath was within your power and its acquisition did not detract from your character then more power to you. Conversely, if circumstances beyond your control left you poor it should not be cause for despair when your character remained intact.

But I should let the man speak for himself:

When Odysseus was shipwrecked and washed ashore, want did not humiliate him, it did not break his spirit. No, how did he approach the maidens of the town to ask for necessaries (food and clothing) though to beg for these is considered most shameful?

“As a lion bred in the mountains trusting in his strength.”

Relying on what? Not on reputation nor on wealth nor on the power of office, but on his own strength, on his understanding of what things are in our power and those which are not. For these are the only things which make men free, which nothing can hinder, which raise the head of those who are depressed, which make them look with steady eyes on the wealthy and the powerful. And this was the gift given to the philosopher. But you will not come forth with courage, but instead trembling about your trifling garments and empty plate. Miserable man, is this how you have wasted your time till now?

Epictetus, Discourses Bk 3

Epictetus chooses Odysseus as his example and who suffered more want than that great storm tossed man of Homer’s epic? It is a powerful image. In the passage Epictetus quotes from the Odyssey, Odysseus has lost everything. He is lost and far from home, ashore in a land of strangers, his comrades all dead, his ship gone and he has no money, food or even clothing. His body has been ravaged by sun and wind and wave. He is all but dead. Yet Homer describes him “As a lion bred in the mountains trusting in his strength, who defies the wind and rain, fire in his eyes, who goes amid the sheep or on the track of the wild deer”. Despite his wretched state Odysseus is still fully himself, still intact, because he is not destroyed by external conditions. His dignity remains intact even naked and starving because he is still Agathoi. His sense of self is internally motivated.

The message Epictetus is giving to us is not that we should be careless about our well-being or that we shouldn’t bother to excel at our labors and gain the fruits thereof. What he is telling us is that the outcome of our labors is not who we are. Being laid off by the vast bureaucracy of MegaCorp Inc. to increase their profits, needing to drive a Hyundai instead of a Mercedes, needing to eat rice and beans instead of steaks has no effect on the true objective when that goal is to be Agathos.

Epictetus tells us to have courage and not tremble over lost trifles that may seem like the loss of everything. He was a slave in Rome who had been beaten to the point of being crippled. He rose beyond that and became one of Rome’s great teachers.  Anyone can choose to be a lion even when the job listings are crap.