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.



Dante, Grief, Meaning, and Why Philosophy Belongs to Those Who Live It.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , on December 22, 2013 by Joe Callahan


I write frequently about the use of ancient philosophy as a practical guideline for living.  Because of my interest in this I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the current state of philosophy, and the humanities in general, these last few years.  It’s no great insight on my part to observe that most academic philosophy shows little interest in how the discipline may be used to live one’s life.  There are notable exceptions like Pierre Hadot and others but one encounters disappointingly little.  In fact,  there seems to be some animosity (or just simple sneering) at the suggestion that  “old dead men” can offer anything usable today for conducting a good, worthy life.  You can see it in pieces like this and this.  Arguments are made for the continued relevance (and therefore funding) of classics for intellectual development.  But the idea that classical philosophy might still be a living tradition is often dismissed.

Countering this, some amongst the scientism crowd insist that philosophy, literature, art and spirituality have nothing valid to tell us about life and humanity.  Only the scientific method can be the arbiter of truth.  If you spend any time reading debates in places like The Stone column of the NY Times there is heated disagreement over the value and future of the humanities.  Humanities don’t seem to be winning the argument given university cutbacks.  That may account for the defensiveness of some classics scholars when others make use of philosophy without seeking their seal of approval.

I am genuinely glad to see science give us new ways to consider these topics.  I am enthused and fascinated by developments in disciplines like physics and cognitive neuroscience.  Certainly these insights can and should shape how we view the human mind, cosmology, metaphysics, etc.  While I have been very influenced by Greco-Roman Stoicism it would be difficult to claim we should adhere to Stoic physics.  The problem comes with a blanket dismissal of what philosophy, art, spirituality can give us now that science will answer all mysteries.  It is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (not to mention it smacks of hubris).

These issues came to mind when I encountered this essay.  The author is a professor of Italian at Bard College who specializes in the study of Dante.  In the article he writes about the unexpected and early death of his pregnant wife.  It is a moving meditation on what a work like The Inferno can give to us in our darkest nights of the soul.  His grief led him to look afresh at material he’d studied and taught.  Now it gave him more than intellectual satisfaction.  It helped to guide him through his own struggles with loss, mortality and meaning.

“I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.

After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul, a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo studio e grande amore, long study and great love.”

In the face of such a passage it would be difficult to argue that Dante, as an “old dead guy”, had nothing to offer.  It would be reductionist to brush off the author’s inspiration as a mere cognitive strategy for reducing his pain.  It would be just plain lame to quibble over the real meanings of Dante as expressed through the deconstructionist work of So-and-so.  Work by academic philosophy and scientists can broaden our understanding of our minds, our lives and our world (the old and the new).  For that they have my admiration and gratitude.  But they cannot determine where and how I will find meaning.  Nor can they know how the ideas and images of philosophy, literature and art will guide me to a flourishing life.  For each of us, the knowledge we gain and the understandings we reach are our own regardless of the mechanics by which we attain them.  The Telos, the end goal, is for us alone to determine.  Philosophy belongs to those that use it.  That requires no justification.  As Dante said, just long study and great love.

Stoic Week 2013: A Very Good Forbes Article

Posted in Uncategorized on December 2, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Stoic Week has come to a close for this year.  It was nice to see that the event received some decent media coverage.  I didn’t find that much of it was very informative however.  Often the reader was left with no more of a real understanding of the event or the philosophy than at the start.  That might account for a lot of reader comments along the lines of “Huh?  Why would anyone want to be all stiff necked and cold hearted?”.  Now, as the event closes, along comes what I think is one of the best pieces of coverage by far.  It is an article by Carrie Sheffield who contributes to Forbes.  It being Forbes she highlighted managers that have looked into Stoicism.  That was of interest to me given my own entry on Stoic Week and business.

The article is here and I would recommend it to anyone as a quick intro to the Stoic outlook and what the event sought to achieve.

Stoic Week 2013 and Business

Posted in Uncategorized on November 25, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Not a productive business solution.

Not a productive business solution.

A focus for today in the Stoic Week experiment is what lies within our power and what does not.  For  recognizing that externals are beyond our control you can’t do much better than dealing with business.  There are the obvious factors beyond our control like the economy, the state of a particular industry, the agendas of competitors.  In a way those are easy to deal with in terms of pathe, passionate emotions.  Those environmental factors are impersonal.  To use a gangster film cliché “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business”.  It becomes more difficult when dealing with subtle factors that seem like they should be in our control but aren’t.  If you give a presentation then it is within your control if it is successful, right?  Either you gave a good presentation or you didn’t.  The good presentation wins the day.  That is how the heroic model works.  When I write about Agathos, that concept has its origins in the Homeric epics.  It is the idea of the good and worthy individual as skillful, effective, able to achieve.  The heroic figures of the Iliad used their abilities (along with the odd bit of divine intervention) to effect outcomes.  The results might be joyfully successful or tragically suck but the outcome was directly linked to the individual’s impact on events.  Later Greek philosophers, notably Stoics, would recognize it is not always so.  The CEO you are presenting to may just have had a bad breakfast and dislike your boldly colored tie.  You may give the best presentation of your life and it may not make a bit of difference.  This lack of control can be even more frustrating when you are dealing with people who theoretically should be in cooperation with you.  It can be hugely frustrating when those who seem to be sharing common cause towards common goals become your greatest hindrance.

Marcus Aurelius talked about this at length in his Meditations.  He certainly had cause to know.  As Emperor of Rome one would think he, of all people, could clap his hands and say “Let’s go team!” and it would be so.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But as he observed, Stoicism teaches us to recognize that these external frustrations are no hindrance to our conducting ourselves well or to our internal well-being. Do any business outcomes harm our character, our rational faculty?   It is part of our life as human beings, living in accord with nature, to work with others and accept the limitations and frustrations that come along.

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.  

Meditations 2:1

I freely admit to struggling with that.  I DO take some business matters personally.  I find it hard to ignore when a supposed ally acts against my interests.  I DO want to launch a thousand ships and storm the walls of the company that doesn’t sign the deal.  Part of me still recites the old line from Schwarzenegger’s Conan and vows to crush my enemies, see them driven before me and hear the lamentations of their women.  Stoicism (as well as practices from Buddhist and Taoist thought) helps me to get over it and move on.  I remember to detach from outcomes and focus on the process and on my own character.  It helps to refer to my favorite passage from meditations which I’m sure I have quoted on this blog before. 

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.

Meditations 2:5

It doesn’t have quite the primal satisfaction of “Crush your enemies” but it has its virtues.

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.

Lessons From Cato The Sage

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , on November 21, 2013 by Joe Callahan
© 2006. Photo: Erich Lessing

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis


The article linked below is about lessons in life and Stoicism learned from the Roman Statesman Cato the Younger.  While the authors state that you’ve probably never heard of him I suspect that at least some who read this blog have.  If nothing else you may recall him portrayed in the miniseries “Rome” where I thought they did a good job of dramatizing his demise.

Cato, along with Socrates, is one of the figures referenced by the Stoics of antiquity as having the qualities of the ideal Stoic Sage.  While it may be impossible or at least highly unlikely for an actual Sage to appear in this world (much like Buddhas) its safe to say he evidenced many of the Sage’s qualities.  It’s worth at least seeing what he can teach us about handling our own affairs.