Archive for February, 2011

An Interesting Look At A Role Model

Posted in Agathos, arete, Ethics, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on February 11, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

I’ve been preoccupied elsewhere this week and haven’t written much of anything. So, I’ll let someone else do the talking. I came across the lecture posted below that someone loaded on YouTube. The speaker is Professor Michael Sugrue, who has been a lecturer in history and philosophy at Princeton and currently at Ave Maria. His topic is Stoicism, specifically the figure of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor (considered one of the few good ones) and a practitioner of Stoicism. He is best known for his “Meditations” which was really a personal journal where he reminds himself of the ideas that sustain him. It was never intended for public consumption.

I first encountered Meditations years ago as a student long before really considering Stoicism as a living practice. I confess I have given the good emperor scant attention compared to one of the other great surviving Stoic voices, Epictetus. Since Epictetus was an actual teacher of Stoic philosophy I was more inclined to turn to his words. After listening to this lecture and also recently reading some of Pierre Hadot’s thoughts on the subject I’ve been giving Meditations some renewed attention. Its also true that Marcus Aurelius penned one of my all-time favorite passages:

“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. And on freeing 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 what your mind tells you, 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 this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

– Gregory Hays translation

One of the most compelling ideas presented by Sugrue is how much Marcus Aurelius stands as a role model.  Marcus not only studied Stoicism but he lived it.  He “walked the walk” while facing the enormous pressures and temptations of absolute power.    If you find this sort of thing at all interesting I recommend checking out the lecture.  The first part is background information but as it goes the character study is very well done.

Does Luxury Turn You Into A Jerk?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Ethics, Homeric, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on February 2, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Probably a jerk........

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business School Journal entitled The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making”. It discusses an ongoing study into the effects of luxury on decision making, a subject of some interest in these days of economic turmoil and bloated executive compensation. Its worth reading if you enjoy such things. The quick, bare bones version is that exposure to luxury (the perks that come with wealth and power) makes people measurably less likely to take the well-being of others into account and likely to be more self-interested. For instance, the decision to continue an environmentally damaging policy or lay off a horde of workers for extra profit margin is more likely to be chosen when the discussion takes place in luxurious surroundings. Its worth noting that the study did not find that luxury made people actively malicious. It simply notes they just don’t give as much of a damn about the unwashed masses (or the semi-washed for that matter). Luxury does not appear to promote evil. It just turns you into a jerk.

Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has probably observed all this without needing a Harvard study. Still, I think its valuable to have it quantified and the proverbial cards put out on the table. It raises some interesting questions about leadership in our society. More to the point for my purposes in this blog, what effect does luxury have on becoming άγαθός (agathos)?

Full Disclosure: I like many luxuries just fine. Finances permitting, I’ve been known to frequent places like Boston’s Oak Bar and drink overpriced scotch without feeling even the remotest sense of concern for the rest of humanity….or the planet….and your little dog too. However, that indulgence needs to be tempered with the qualities and virtues of the Agathos. My personal experience has been that luxury needs to be balanced and “detoxed” with Askesis.

What do the ideas of Arete and Agathos tell us about the effect luxury may have on us? Would some Greek or Roman say that luxury will turn you into a jerk (and a soft one at that)?

Probably not so much of a jerk.

When we look back to the virtues of the Homeric epics as a foundational proto-ethics there is no question that we are looking at an aristocratic ethos. To be clear and fair it has to be acknowledged that the Agathoi were not the everyday men on the street. They were the nobility and enjoyed privileges. In that early Bronze Age economy being noble didn’t bring all that many luxuries but the Homeric heroes were at the top of whatever heap there was. Certainly they made a great fuss over possessing the finest armor and chariots and such. Did having the pick of wine, women and implements of destruction make them into jerks? It seems to have varied. I think its safe to say that Agamemnon was a jerk. His self-interest and arrogance are clear. Achilles is described much more favorably as a leader and shows greater concern for those around him. Still, when he gets into a snit over prestige and the loss of his girl-toy he is willing to put the entire Greek expedition into jeopardy. That is a jerk move to be sure. Odysseus was a little more down to earth but it has to be noted his men would never have been lost at sea with him and ultimately killed had he not annoyed the god Poseidon. His crime? Hubris, extreme arrogance. It didn’t help that he stabbed Poseidon’s son in his only eye.

Position, power, luxury, perks. Maybe Lord Acton’s dictum is true and power really does tend to corrupt? As always, I end up turning to the Stoics. If Homer gives us a proto-ethics then the Stoics give us the refined product. Did they condemn luxury and warn against its degenerative powers? Not exactly. Some of the Stoic writers whose works survive were wealthy men with all the attendant perks. Some were not. What they all espoused was the idea that attachment to wealth, luxury and power is an absolute killer to virtue. If you can acquire and have such things in your life without compromising your reason, your integrity, your freedom then by all means do so. If the good life is defined by the cultivation of Arete (Excellence) then the material outcome is really neither here nor there.

I think that is probably the real answer to the quandary. What keeps luxury from turning you into a jerk? You just can’t care about it that much. It is nice but if you wish to be Agathos it just isn’t that important. Odysseus, despite some aristocratic jerk behavior, learns this lesson on his long, long journey home when he is reduced to a shipwrecked pauper. Ironically, Zeno of Citium the founder of Stoicism came to Athens because he was a shipwrecked merchant and stayed to study philosophy. The recognition of how little control we truly have over our material lives is a crucial understanding. Maybe that experience and recognition would temper the tendencies illustrated by that Harvard Biz School study.