Archive for June, 2011

What Is Your House?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric, oikos, Self-Reliance with tags , , on June 27, 2011 by Joe Callahan

When you think about a household what meaning does it have for you? Does the word evoke an image of a specific physical place? Is it a more emotional sense of people, those who make you feel “at home”?

In the Homeric epics the central social unit was the Oikos. Oikos translates roughly as house or household. In more recent times it has also become the brand name of a Greek style yogurt (tastes like homemade I guess?). The social unit most often identified with ancient Greece is the Polis, the city-states like Athens and Sparta. The Homeric Oikos came before that city-state concept, an earlier organization for a less structured society.

In the days of Homer’s poetry there was a sense of being Greek. A common language marked who was part of the Greek world and who was “barbarian”. That was about as far as it went. The Greeks were not a nation as we understand it today. The Oikos was the primary relationship and demanded the first loyalty of the Homeric people we encounter in the poems.

An Oikos consisted of a noble family along with its dependents. The bond between the members of the household is described as being one of love (philia not eros, though one assumes there was plenty of that as well). It was a largely self sufficient unit for agricultural production as well as the tools of daily living. The safety and freedom of the Oikos was maintained by the Agathos and his martial skills. That isn’t to say that the Oikos existed in isolation. It was bound by relationships with other households. Another Agathos might become Xeinos (a foreign guest-friend) through sacred oaths and exchanging of gifts. Houses were bound in a sort of alliance. Their relationship was a matter of Time (honor).

For me, the idea of the Oikos resonates with the need for self-sufficiency that I’ve discussed previously. It is not an original thought on my part to note that we live in an increasingly globalized world. Our lives are determined by institutions of growing size and depersonalization. The individual human can easily become simply a unit of consumption and production.

I don’t wish to overstate the negative effects of “bigness”. I don’t plan on retreating to an isolated wilderness compound in rejection of some New World Order. If I do it will be called a summer home. Globalization has its merits. Personally, I think things like international trade and instant global communications are pretty handy. Still, I firmly believe that balance is needed and is something one has to actively work to maintain. Just because you have a nice house where you live with your family does not mean you have an Oikos. It doesn’t automatically mean you are charting an active course of personal, autonomous Arete as the Agathos at the head of an Oikos.

I suppose at this point I should produce one of those lists like “8 steps to having an Oikos”. I doubt that would work. I think each of us will discover that circumstances dictate the shape of our household. For myself, there are some basic questions I have considered.

First, who really is in your household? The simplest answer is one’s family. But family has become an increasingly fluid term and how far it extends will vary. I live in the burbs of Boston with one woman, two cats and have elderly parents living nearby. That is pretty much my household. I have close friends that are Xeinoi, allies and welcome guests with whom I share bonds of affection and reciprocal honor. You may have friends who live with you and are closer than any blood relations ever were. Your Oikos won’t look like mine.

Can you defend the Oikos? Relax, this isn’t where I tell you to build a bunker. But there is a responsibility to the people who are in your house. You are the Agathos. What does it mean to be able to care for them? The place of the martial and of self-defense as part of Agathos is a whole other post. I plan on writing on that at length. For now, I’ll just invite you to consider whether or not you are truly autonomous if your well-being is entirely dependent on others. Again, it will vary depending on your circumstances.

How can your household be more self-sufficient? Maybe that means growing some of your own food. It may mean choosing voluntary simplicity. Maybe it means building your own business and income stream. Its easier for me to push for economic autonomy because I don’t have kids looking at me for dinner. Not to keep repeating myself, but its going to be individual.

Whatever we choose it matters most that the choices be intentional. The Stoics counsel us to a life that is reasoned, dignified and in harmony with nature. We can choose that for our Oikos. The form is up to each of us as free and rational individuals.

Fortunes Lost And Won Again

Posted in Agathos, Ethics, Philosophy with tags , , on June 17, 2011 by Joe Callahan

The other night I was out grabbing a quick bite at a place I frequent and was seated some distance from the bar.  Since it was a game of the Boston/Vancouver hockey playoffs that meant there weren’t too many people nearby.  The sound level was much lower than usual.  At another table were two men, one in his late twenties or early thirties.  The other gentleman was much older, in his seventies would be my guess.  The younger man was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt.  The older, silver haired man wore a jacket and tie.

I confess to shameless eavesdropping but in my own defense there really wasn’t much else going on.  At first I thought the older man was a relative, possibly a grandfather.  It became clear that wasn’t the case.  Somebody somewhere had asked this man to talk to this younger fellow.

The topic was business and, in this case, a failing enterprise.  The younger man talked (far too much) about his company’s wonderfully promising design for something that would revolutionize something or other.  He had joined this company early and become part of the entourage of its entrepreneurial chief.   The chief had managed to blow a large sum of investor cash on lots of sushi and drinks for everyone.  This young man had moved to Boston and had a young wife and a mortgage and blah blah blah.  You can guess the story.  Now he was contemplating taking out a loan to join some others in buying out this company headed into bankruptcy.

The older man was extremely patient and provided some advice as well as humor while they spoke and ate.  He pointed out that he had known a lot of men through the years that had made fortunes and then lost them and then worked to make them back.  It happens.  C’est la guerre.  In a kindly way the older man was telling polo shirt boy that it was far from clear he was ready or able to be one of those men.

Polo shirt boy didn’t get it.  At one point the younger man stated that it would be nice if they could just stabilize the company so he didn’t have to work sixty to seventy hours a week.  This very dignified older man said simply “I still work sixty hours a week”.

Insert whatever sound effect you like here…… breaking glass, a needle across a vinyl record, the distinct smack of a bitch slap.  It all works.  You had to be there I guess but even I felt like a lame punk and I wasn’t the young guy who just put his foot in his mouth.   For a moment I felt like I should either applaud or commit seppuku with my butter knife.   You can trust my instincts or not but I feel confident that this guy wasn’t working in his seventies because he needed the cash.  It was just what one ought to do.  While I sat there pretending not to listen and sucking back my second martini I was strongly reminded of a quote I first encountered way back when I was in college.

“A general of great merit should be said to be a man who has recovered from at least one great defeat.”—Asakura Norikage (1474-1555)

Asakura Norikage was a samurai general of the Asakura clan during the warring states period.  He was not an armchair theorist.  He commanded and fought in a number of campaigns.  Noted for intellectual as well as military accomplishments, he eventually became a monk and took the name Soteki.  He came out of retirement and led an army again before falling ill and dying at 78.  He worked sixty hours a week too I suspect.  I doubt he wished for an easier life.

Is that what Agathos requires?  Is it the ability to get up again and again?  To recover from defeat in order to be a person of merit?  I think that is at least part of it.  Whatever the case, the fates put me there to get that good swift kick in the ass.  I don’t know if polo shirt boy got the lesson.  I certainly did.

Marcus Aurelius and Lao Tzu get me out of bed.

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , on June 1, 2011 by Joe Callahan

It’s pretty standard for me to pick a passage out of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus when I wake up.  I find it a good way to get my attitude aligned with how I want to conduct myself through the day.  Otherwise, I am more likely to focus on what’s ahead that I don’t feel like dealing with and then question the wisdom of getting out of bed at all.  A little kick in the butt from the Stoics is a good antidote.

I opened Meditations at random and came to book 5:6

A horse at the end of the race
A dog when the hunt is over
A bee with its honey stored
And a human being after helping others.
They don’t make a fuss about it.  They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season.

We should be like that.  Acting almost unconsciously.

As I read that part of the passage it set off a little recognition bell and made me think of a passage in Tao Te Ching.  So I went to look it up (another way to get me out of bed).

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

The message is clear.  Don’t make a fuss about doing things.  Do what is correct for you to do and then forget it.  Ideally our work in the world, our participation with others, is something that doesn’t really register as an effort or even an event.

My point here is not to observe that Stoicism and Taoism have some notable similarities.  Plenty of writers and scholars have explored that.  What is valuable for my purposes is the reminder that my daily labors and whatever I do of value with other people are what is natural for me, for anyone wanting to live as Agathos.  What is natural needn’t be a source of struggle or angst.