Archive for the arete Category

Rainy Day Thoughts of the Past.

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


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’ 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.

Blogging Again and Excellence in Nature.

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

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.

Personal Blind Spots and some Sci-fi Wisdom

Posted in arete, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Uncategorized with tags , , on September 15, 2014 by Joe Callahan


Any enclosed discipline sets its stamp, its pattern, upon its students. That pattern is susceptible to analysis and prediction.
– Frank Herbert, Dune.

I first read the novel Dune when I was 15 years old over Christmas vacation in 1978. In those young pre-internet days I hadn’t ever encountered anything quite like its curious mix of science, spirituality and politics. Whatever your preferences regarding sci-fi it is worth checking out (a brief synopsis and discussion of the novel’s enduring relevance and appeal here). Since that first reading I’ve come back to it a number of times. My appreciation of the novel has changed with time and my own shifts in perspective.

Recently I picked up Dune again and was struck by the quotation above. In the novel this passage refers to different schools of intelligence and counter intelligence operations. In a larger context I think it is an axiom that can be applied to most activities and many parts of our lives. Thinking on this started an evaluation (still in progress) of my own background, education and life experiences. I wanted to consider where this might apply to me. This seems a worthwhile exercise since predictability and being easily read are disadvantages in most of life’s more competitive situations.

The first thing that came to mind was the martial arts. Whatever arts you’ve trained in will identify what tactics and techniques you are likely to apply. Some idea of an opponent’s orientation can be guessed from different backgrounds like MMA, “traditional” arts or military combatives. If an opponent has practiced Muay Thai there is a strong likelihood that some kicks and knees will be coming your way. Deep training in an art gives strong skills such as very effective grappling for a Judoka. It also suggests potential vulnerabilities and reveals a likely mindset. The only real solutions to this problem of predictability are to train a wide range of techniques and train across different disciplines. If you are like me, there simply may not be enough available hours in a week to really do that.

I also considered how this can apply to the business world. Viewpoints and approaches can differ between someone from a big company career ladder background and someone with a more entrepreneurial, small team history. What sorts of industries have people worked in? Are they the product of a business school?

You get the idea. This axiom can be applied to all sorts of information about any individual. This certainly can give you some valuable insights if you take the time for a bit of intelligence gathering. On the other hand, the same can be done to you. A personal inventory of the “enclosed disciplines” in one’s life can show where to find new ways to expand a repertoire and act as a reminder to sometimes confound expectations.

Arete Vs. The Common Cold (Day 27 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Nicolas Poussin -The Plague at Ashdod

Recently I took a short trip and brought back some form of viral or bacterial life as a souvenir.  I was down with an ugly cold for over a week.  Since I am in the thick of my “100 days of practice” effort it was not the best timing.  I adjusted my activities to my condition.  Some days my martial practice was limited to light internal work.  Brain fog limited my Go studies to reading commentaries of games.  Business didn’t suffer too much as I work from a home office anyway.  I could keep up a minimal appearance of productivity.  None of my practices during this week of plague really advanced my skill and knowledge all that much.  That’s alright as the main point of this hundred day exercise is to build habits.  The object is to further set these practices as natural daily occurrences.  So, at least I kept going.

But (there had to be a “but”) some things did suffer.  I found it very difficult to stay with some of the mental practices (psychological, philosophical, spiritual, whatever term you prefer).  It wasn’t that I didn’t continue with things like meditation or self-evaluative practices from Stoicism.  I simply had more difficulty believing they mattered.  In fact, I had difficulty maintaining the belief that the whole 100 days of practice exercise mattered.  I think only anticipation of a healthy dose of shame served as deterrent to tossing it all.

Being ill depresses me.  Of course, nobody enjoys being sick but something as minor as the flu doesn’t usually evoke waves of existential disgust and despair.  So what’s the problem?

The reaction is an irrational one.  It is a learned and not always conscious response.  Beginning in my mid to late twenties I went through an extended period where my health was not great.  It seemed like a perfect storm of injuries, developed allergies, fatigue, stresses and a general dark night of the soul.  A severe case of pneumonia (stupidly acquired by wandering about in freezing weather after a bit of drunken revelry) helped get the avalanche rolling downhill.  Frequent colds and bouts of bronchitis, chronic pain issues, odd neurological events and a generally depressed state were the norm for a period of more years than I care to think about.  I underwent a lot of inconclusive testing for all kinds of nasty things.

How I eventually pulled out of that mess is a whole other post (s).  The quick version is a combination of major lifestyle changes, a long reevaluation of my psychological/philosophical outlook, and lots and lots of kung fu/chi gung.  But that long stretch of feeling ill and demoralized still remains in memory.  When I get sick it begins to feel like nothing has really changed.  That in turn feels like a failure.

I know that is a perception and not reality.  But that intellectual understanding doesn’t always reach the emotional core.  It remains a struggle.

Agathos, the “good” or worthy in life, is the core concept of what I write about here.  For the ancient Greeks what was good, worthy, beautiful was demonstrable.  It was shown through arête, observable skill or excellence.  Arête can be physical (athletic feats, artistry) or intellectual (great strategist, a reputation for wisdom or fairness) but regardless it was shown directly through one’s actions.  Aristotle spoke of arête as acquired by developing habits until a given behavior, skill, virtue becomes a permanent character trait.  That is my desired outcome in committing to one hundred days of practice.  So what happens if personal baggage can so easily interfere with the demonstration of arête?  What is the antidote when our own deeply formed emotional patterns sap even the desire to be agathos?

The Stoics taught that many things in life, including health, are often outside of our control.  Our characters are the result of choices we make about what is within our control.  So, the ability to lead a worthy life was not dependent on unpredictable externals like wealth, fame, health and so on.  In the Stoic school of thought these externals were “preferred indifferents” meaning we may like them but they don’t really determine our ability to lead the “good” life.  Eudaimonia (happiness, thriving) doesn’t require externals.

I’ve reminded myself of all that over the past several days.  It’s helpful to a degree.  Sometimes a rational understanding that we can choose how we perceive events isn’t enough to push past emotions especially very old, deep set ones.   What then?  I was reminded of an interview I heard years ago with film writer/director John Milius.  He was speaking of the difficulties in filming his desert epic “The Wind and The Lion” with Sean Connery.  They had bad weather, illness and injury on the set, lots of equipment failures, generally lousy conditions.  He said that he reminded himself and others that when they looked back years later they wouldn’t remember how they felt.  They’d only remember what they did, what they accomplished.  There is a lot of truth in that I believe.  I can think of examples in my own life.

So, where philosophy fails to rally me maybe there is only the primal human need for arête.  When I look back at life really all I will think about it is what I did or didn’t do.  It’s probably the only thing that will matter much.  The fact I felt ill or depressed on a given day won’t mean a thing.  The original agathoi, the figures that appear in the Homeric epics, often come across as obstinate and even irrational in pursuit of their own ends.  Maybe though they knew a truth I have to keep in mind.  When in doubt try to demonstrate arête.  When feeling pain or fatigue or sadness try to demonstrate arête.  Our presence in the world is defined by our actions in it.  Our effort to live as agathos is what sends out ripples in the pond.  Phantasms we experience are not what will remain.

The Hazards Of Morning (Day 6 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Stoicism with tags , , , on March 9, 2013 by Joe Callahan

I’m not a morning person and never have been.  My preference would be to stay up until 1-2 am and then get up around 9-10 am.  That probably isn’t a healthy pattern.  Also, activities like school and work have always been inconsiderately scheduled at ungodly morning times.  A long-ago acquaintance who served in the Marine Corps spoke of being awoken every morning in the early hours.  I observed that he must have grown used to it.  He said no, but he learned to accept it.  There is a nice distinction there that I have always remembered.  I accept that there is value (or necessity) in not being a night owl but I’ve never embraced it.  These days I work from a home office in a consulting/contracting capacity.  As much as I like the setup it hasn’t necessarily been good for me.  There isn’t much motivation to rise with the sun. I only have to make sure I am awake and functional to answer emails and calls during business hours.  It appeals to my baser impulses.

When I DO get myself to sleep earlier and get an earlier start to the day I feel quite good.  I find my day is usually more productive. There is a classic case of cognitive dissonance going on here.  I’m aware that if I push myself to be morning guy I’ll be all the better for it.  But in the moment when I decide what to do next it doesn’t sound like such a grand idea after all.  Aristotle would likely have called it Akrasia.  I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever had difficulty with this conflict.  Even so venerable a Stoic figure as Marcus Aurelius had to steel himself to face the morning (Meditations 2:1 and 5:1 for instance).

I’m especially aware of this now because of the goals I set for 100 days of practice.  If my day begins with the rest of the world already in motion I don’t have the time to focus myself with the mental practices I am trying to make a habit.  The kind of mental exercise that prepares one for the day, like Marcus’ review of attitude and what the day will bring, go out the window if I wake up to find I already need to respond to a message.  Also, exercise and my commitment to some daily practice in my martial art suffer with this pattern.  If I am going to the school then evening practice works well enough because I am with others.  Evening practice on my own is often a little lame.  Fatigue sets in, there’s dinner to be had or some other distraction beckons and the practice lacks focus and energy.  I know if I leave time and work out in the morning it’s a much higher quality practice.  But…well…cognitive dissonance tends to strike again.

This is part of the value of doing something like this 100 day program of building habitual practices.  It brings to light (or reminds me) of weaknesses in my outlook or approach to my affairs.  Obviously the goal is to build arête through the habits and skills that make up the program.  But sticking to a committed structure for daily life leaves less room for excuses and illusions.  You know when you aren’t walking the walk because it can be easily assessed at the end of the day.

The Homeric epics give us the earliest examples of individuals in pursuit of the arête ideal.  The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t always too big on deep self-analysis.  The ideal of a more detached, logical view of one’s life didn’t come until later in the Greek world.  But the Homeric world certainly did understand the necessity of walking the walk.  Its hard to fake it when you’re on the plains before the walls of Troy.  Arete in its most basic form has always been about concrete action and the measurable results we create.  Without that there is no foundation.  If getting there means changing some sleep patterns then that’s a small price to pay.

One Hundred Days Of Practice

Posted in Agathos, arete with tags , , , on March 2, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Golden Flower Meditation Aristotle said that excellence is not an act but a habit.   It is the result of ongoing practice, a pattern of behavior rather than a single effort of will.  Just how much practice is required for something to become habitual?  How long for some excellence (arête) to become a natural part of ourselves?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to truly master a complex activity.  In order to reach that rather daunting figure one would have to build some disciplined habits along the way.   There are lots of numbers offered through history and in more recent psychology.   These seek to tell us how much time and effort is required to make something a true habit.

There is a pop psychology meme that floats around offering 20-something days as sufficient to establish a habit.  I’m not sure where that originated but I find it unconvincing.  Three weeks isn’t much time to change patterns and overcome resistances.  According to the Bible, the prophets of old spent 40 days and nights out in the desert.  Similarly, the Buddha was said to have meditated beneath the bhodi tree for 49 days until he attained enlightenment.  Then again, devoted wilderness ascetics may not represent a norm in human behavior.  A UK study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology cited 66 days.  That might seem helpful until you read that the average was taken from a range of 18 to 254 days.

Some years ago in my study of Chinese martial arts and Taoist concepts I came across another number.  100 days of training comes from Taoist Chi Gung practice.  Specifically, I found it in reading Thomas Cleary’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower.  This text of Taoist meditation introduced me to one hundred days as a number for building a foundation of continued meditation, health and martial study.   It was a number mentioned by my Sifu as well.  Over time I have returned to one hundred day periods of practice and training when I have felt the need to give myself a swift kick in the right direction.  Some of these practice periods have met with great success.  Some……well….not so much.

I’m feeling like it is time to go once more unto the breach and commit myself to a one hundred day period.  I want to establish (or reestablish) habits that are part of my personal efforts towards arête and agathos.  I am perhaps mixing cultural metaphors in using a Chinese Taoist method to attain a Greco-Roman ideal.  I’m comfortable with being shameless that way.

I’m trying to keep it simple.  Too many goals and too many daily items in the program just add opportunity for things to break down and lose focus.

  • Daily martial/Chi Gung practice.  This doesn’t mean a killer workout every day.   Some days are hard conditioning and training while some days focus on study of technique and application.  Some days are external and some are internal.  It’s a balance but the desired habit is practice as part of daily life.
  • The game of Go.  My study of the game is erratic.  Consequently, so is my progress.  Some period of time will be found each day to play and/or study games, patterns, etc.
  • Mental exercises from Stoicism.  I’ve talked about being influenced by the Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism in this blog.  I want to continue with the daily practices such as those in the Stoic Week experiment I described here and here.
  • Business.  Isn’t a business a daily practice by necessity?  It is in the sense you have to show up and do the work.  That can be just a routine and not a habit that promotes arête.  The habit here is to take some time each day to refine and build through conscious knowledge building, networking, exploring new revenue opportunities, etc.

It may seem like these things don’t all really connect as a coherent program.  But there is a way that they are all unified in what I hope the practice period to accomplish.  All of these contribute to the study of strategy (and or tactics) as part of the conduct of myself in my environment.  They collectively contribute to physical and mental expressions of arete and the agathos ideal.  At least they do for me as I choose to live it.

I’ll talk about the progress (or lack thereof) as the days progress.  If nothing else, it gives me something to write about.