Archive for the Agathos Category

Rainy Day Thoughts of the Past.

Posted in Agathos, arete, Stoicism with tags , , on January 10, 2016 by Joe Callahan

rain

Today was dark and rainy here in the Boston area. It was a day well suited for hibernation and introspection. In between making to-do lists for the week ahead and catching up on a bit of reading I drifted into thoughts about the past. People I’ve known over the years came to mind. Some I still know. Some I have no idea whatever became of them.

The past is a place best visited only in moderation. Whether the memories are pleasant or not the past can be an overly seductive place to dwell. The past informs our present but it no longer exists.

The Zen master Kosho Uchiyama speaks about this in his book “Opening the Hand of Thought”. The present moment is all that really exists. Paradoxically, the past as well as the future are contained in the present moment. The past helped to create the present moment and it will presumably lead to future moments. But it is only the present moment that actually exists. That may sound a bit esoteric but it makes sense.

What has this got to do with Agathos, the good and the worthy, and the pursuit of Arete (human excellence)? I don’t think we can achieve these things without understanding the history of the microcosmic world of our individual lives. Each one has its unique past. But we cannot dwell there because it is only in the present that we can act. The Stoics would tell us that we must act according to the role we now find ourselves playing regardless of how we got here.  What we do now is really all that can matter.

Anyway, that is what has been rattling around in my head on a quiet rainy day.

Stoic Week 2015 – An Experiment in Living Philosophy

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on October 7, 2015 by Joe Callahan
marcus_aurelius_4

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is the focus for this year’s Stoic Week.

While this blog is not all about Stoic philosophy there is a clear Stoic influence in my thoughts and writing. One could do much worse than taking up Stoicism as a practice to cultivate Agathos, the good and worthy, in oneself.
To that end I have participated in an online based event called Stoic Week each year since its beginning. The event starts in early November. Details can be found here. Also you can find info on the Stoicism Group on Facebook. I’ll let the description speak for itself.

Stoic Week is an online and international event taking place this year from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November. 2015 will be the fourth year in a row that Stoic Week has run. Anyone can participate by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook, which will be published online. You will be following the practice of Stoic philosophers for seven days. You will also be discussing the experience of adapting Stoic ideas for modern living with other participants in our online forums. The aims of the course are to introduce the philosophy so that you can see how it might be useful in your own life and to measure its psychological benefits. This year’s theme is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the most widely-read of all Stoic authors.

The event is put on by the good people at Stoicism Today and the University of Exeter in the UK. The event was first conceived by an interesting mix of Classical scholars, Philosophers and Psychologists. The object was to see how well Stoicism could be used as a method of living in the present day.

The exercises that make up daily practice for the week-long event are familiar to me. Some are part of my daily regimen already. But I appreciate the event as a nudge to focus my practice (if not get it jump started again after I’ve lost steam). I also enjoy the collaborative effort. I have some friends to discuss these matters with but not that many and not acting in coordinated fashion.

Previous Stoic Weeks have been marked by Stoic learning opportunities like smashing myself in the eye and going to the ER. This year I plan on something more subdued, using the focused exercises of Stoic Week to help me with some personal projects. More on that later.

For someone looking to cultivate the virtues as laid out in Greek and Roman philosophy this is a pretty decent experiment and hey, its only for a week.  It builds character. The Stoics show us a certain detachment that comes from understanding what is truly within our control and what is not. Since this blog is about Eudemonia (a fully flourishing human life) and cultivating that through Arete (the acquisition of excellence in what we do) then practicing to be mindful of what is truly within our human grasp (or not) is a worthy topic.

What is a “Good” Person? An Incomplete Definition.

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy with tags , on September 21, 2015 by Joe Callahan

A few days ago an old and dear friend raised a deceptively simple question in an online discussion.  How do you define a “good” person?  This caught my eye.  Since this blog is supposed to be about Agathos, the “good” in human life, I thought maybe I’d have something to add to the conversation.  I would at least be enthusiastic about the topic if not convincing.

Since I gave a quick response via social media I don’t think it was the most comprehensive or even coherent statement I’ve ever given on the subject.  But the fast response was revealing.  It had the virtue of exposing some of my biases as well as some insights I think I’ve gained over time.  Sometimes one can learn a lot from an unvarnished response.

I think you have to distinguish between two different ideas of “the good” that have informed our western mindset. There is “good” moral behavior in the sense of what we choose NOT to do. We refrain from causing harm, from being unfair to others, we choose not to be unfeeling or greedy. Refraining from that which causes suffering can perhaps be accounted enough. Maybe.

For myself, after a long time, I came to the conclusion that the Greeks (and later Romans) had it right. The only true good is that which is done. “Agathos” in the pre-Christian sense tells us that the moral good is that which is demonstrated. Nobody is good because they wish to be. People are good because they do something good. Compassion is meaningless without a compassionate act. Courage is hot air without doing something courageous. Nobody is just until they perform a just act.

That isn’t to say that there will be universal agreement on the justice or wisdom or even compassion of a given act. Not everyone will be happy about it. The good is sometimes terrible, both beautiful and cruel at the same time. Nature gives us plenty of examples.

In short, “the good” is what we do to both actively diminish unnecessary suffering and promote what is fair. The ancient Greeks (words take on slightly different meaning in old testament Greek) used the word Dikaios. From my admittedly limited reading and spotty Greek, the Homeric Greeks saw that Dikaios (fairness) was the basis of honor. Fair dealing is demonstrable. Either you show it through your actions or the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing. As an addendum I would say that goodness is an ongoing practice. Aristotle had that right when he said that an excellence is a matter of habit (paraphrase). It is not innate. It is cultivated.

Not exactly a dissertation but I think I got the idea across.  What I noticed when I reread that passage was the two references to the reduction of suffering.  I wasn’t really aware that I considered that such a key component.  It likely comes from years of exposure to Buddhist and Taoist ideas.  It may also be some sort of residual Catholicism.  One never really does leave behind a Catholic education completely.  For the Greeks and Romans my impression has been that being fair or just was the more important action.  Reducing suffering through fairness and justice might well be a happy byproduct rather than a goal by itself.

Even though this blog focuses heavily on using Greek and Roman ideas for a good life I am content if the other influences in my life seep in.  I’m not trying to resurrect fossilized traditions.  I’m okay with a little syncretism especially if it helps to decide what is indeed a “good” person.

Blogging Again and Excellence in Nature.

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on September 4, 2015 by Joe Callahan

LucanPharsaliaFrenchEd1657
After a year-long hiatus I’m back in the blogging saddle. This past year was an especially challenging one. My father passed away in May after some difficult months. He was a remarkable guy. I may write about that at some point. As the only child of elderly parents I have been the primary person to handle their affairs. I had no idea how much would be involved. Old age and the healthcare maze is not for the faint of heart. I may also write about that at some point. Combined with the demands of work and maintaining a reasonably balanced relationship, I haven’t written or even reposted a thing.

Writing about the continued effort to bring Agathos (the good and the worthy) into one’s life is a worthwhile undertaking and a good personal practice. So, here we are. To dust off the cobwebs I’ll share a passage.

Lucan was a Roman poet best known for the Pharsalia. This epic poem recounts the civil war between the Roman Senate and Julius Caesar on his rise to dictatorial power. Lucan wrote while still quite young. He was trained in the Stoicism school of philosophy. When he was only 25 he became involved in a plot to overthrow the famously unpleasant emperor Nero. The plot failed and young Lucan was ordered to commit suicide. It isn’t clear if Lucan was a very good Stoic in practice. The historian Suetonius recounts that Lucan sought mercy from Nero by selling out other conspirators including his own mother. There is disagreement over the truth of this passage. It does seem at odds with the details of his death. When Lucan ended his life he threw a banquet and recited poetry (his own) before opening up his veins. That doesn’t seem the act of someone who had previously been sobbing “Take mother! She did it!” Unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.

In the ninth book of the Pharsalia Lucan recounts the words of Cato the Roman senator. Cato was also a follower of Stoicism and one of the most steadfast opponents of Caesar. He would ultimately take his own life rather than surrender to someone he perceived as a tyrant. When Cato speaks in this passage he rejects the suggestion that he consult an oracle. Fighting a losing battle in North Africa he feels no need to ask what their fate will be.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask? Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know. Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does. Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’ So declaring
he departed.

The section that I’ve placed in bold is a lovely sentiment and has an almost Transcendentalist sensibility. Spirituality and nature become intertwined. Since the Stoics often used God, Zeus, the Logos, and Nature interchangeably it is maybe to be expected. The idea that one experiences nature and spirit personally, immediately and independently is compelling. When I was a teen I was introduced to backpacking by an uncle who was an avid outdoorsman and sailor. He expressed much the same sentiment and said his only church was out under the sky. It made perfect sense has stayed with me ever since.

I am not religious but if there is anything that can be called spiritual it will be observed in sunsets and tides and the trickling of creeks over stones.

What really caught my attention was the inclusion of the word excellence (I have also seen it translated as virtue). Was Lucan saying that human excellence is also a feature of nature like mountains or seas? I have to assume he meant excellence/virtue in the same way the Greek Stoics spoke of Arete. The Greek ideal of moral excellence was concrete. Virtue that can’t be demonstrated isn’t really virtue. As Eric Greitens points out in his fine book Resilience, today we often think of virtue as avoiding what you shouldn’t do whereas the Greco-Roman world saw virtue as what you do. In order to be just perform a just act. In order to be courageous perform a courageous act.

So is God (or Zeus or Logos or whatever you prefer) to be found both in nature and in our actions? Maybe we are closest to the transcendent when we are acting with Arete. That is what brings us most in harmony with the world, the world where gods are found in the mountains and the quiet forests. I like that thought.

Heavy Rain and Hagakure

Posted in Agathos, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on June 10, 2014 by Joe Callahan
A little rain didn't deter the Seven Samurai....though musket fire was problematic.

A little rain didn’t deter the Seven Samurai….though musket fire was problematic.

Today we had a sudden heavy downpour in the Boston area.  I was already in my car when it began so I escaped the worst of it.  I did have to make a stop at a local establishment.  One of the shop owners offered to escort me back to my car with an umbrella.  Great customer service!  Still, I declined.  It was a short dash and, really, it’s rain not lava falling from the skies.  When I was back behind the wheel I was suddenly reminded of a passage from Hagakure (Hidden Leaves) written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a Samurai of the early 18th century.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and
run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you
are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding
extends to everything.

It is true that the author tends to think the universal solution to all of life’s problems is drawing one’s sword and rushing forward to die well.  I prefer a more tactical approach myself.  I think here he is suggesting more that when faced with the inevitable, things beyond one’s control, that it is best to recognize them and accept that the soaking may be unavoidable but likely not fatal.  Discomfort does not equal death.  Better to simply get where you are going and let the rest take care of itself.  A drenched Samurai is still a Samurai.

New Year’s Resolutions?

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on January 2, 2014 by Joe Callahan

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I’ve learned the hard way that changes are incremental, habitual and not the result of sweeping grand proclamations (I’m going to get in FANTASTIC shape and save the planet and learn to speak fluent French!!). Still, if you want to make some resolutions to follow in the new year you could do far worse than these from the Greek and Roman ancients.

http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/stoicism/a/123007NYResolve.htm

 

Stoic Week 2013

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , on November 24, 2013 by Joe Callahan

The Stoa at Athens

Tomorrow marks the start of Stoic Week 2013.  Briefly, a group of academics and psychotherapy professionals based in the UK organized an event last year. The object was to see if people would find it useful to follow some of the daily practices of Greco-Roman Stoicism for a week.  In turn, the participants gave feedback via questionnaires over the net.  I participated in last year’s event and described it here while discussing my general relationship to Stoic philosophy.

“This blog is not specifically about the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism but I have been influenced by Stoic philosophy and it has a significant place in my writings here about Agathos (what is “good” or worthy in life).  I discovered I’m certainly not alone in feeling that Stoicism has more to offer than is often considered.  Once very popular, for a long time Stoicism went into decline and eventually became misunderstood altogether.  It incorrectly became synonymous with a lack of emotion, just keeping a stiff upper lip.   In recent years there have been a growing number of books, articles, groups and online forums devoted to the Stoic school and how its lessons can be applied to our lives today.  There are some very good reasons for it to make a comeback.  Its teachings of a life in harmony with nature, a reasoned existence and its highly practical advice for ethics and the conduct of life can be a valuable guide for living.”

Participating in the exercises of the week was an interesting experience punctuated by a bit of adventure when I was carted off in an ambulance.  As I describe here I managed to give myself blunt trauma to the face (not my finest moment) and sustained some damage to one eye.  All things considered I came out of it pretty well.  As I noted at the time, remembering the Stoic viewpoint was helpful during that event and the specialist visits that followed.

I will be participating in this year’s Stoic Week.  The handbook lays out a schedule of suggested practices.  I already have some of these, or at least variations, in my daily routine.  But there is something compelling about following these exercises knowing it is in conjunction with a larger group seeking the same experience.  I am not by nature a big joiner but the collective energy (even if only shared via web) is motivating.

When I filled out the initial questionnaires (Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing Scale, etc.) I noticed that my psychological outlook seems to have improved since last year.  I don’t have the forms from last time but I’m certain I presented a more dissatisfied frame of mind.  Over the past year I have continued to follow a mix of practices that include Stoicism as well as Taoist/Buddhist influences from my martial/Chi Gung studies.  Has following a philosophical regimen improved my outlook on life?  It would be nice to give an unqualified yes.  However, part of mindfulness is working to see things as they really are.  I have to recognize that some external conditions in my life are much better than they were a year ago.  That probably accounts for some of the improved outlook on life.  Of course, Stoicism teaches us to maintain equilibrium where externals do not determine our internal state.  I suppose then that my improved mood may be the result of temporary judgments rather than a true maintainable state.  It will be something interesting to contemplate during the week ahead.