Archive for Arete

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.

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.

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.

Askesis – We Live As We Train

Posted in arete, stoic, Stoicism, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 8, 2011 by Joe Callahan

If you search the internet for the Greek word Askesis you’ll find many references to religious asceticism.  Given the role of Greek language in early Christianity this isn’t surprising.  Defining Askesis as just a rigorous form of self-denial for spiritual purposes is limiting and doesn’t totally match how earlier Greeks would have understood it. If we take a look at the Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary we find Askesis defined as “practice, training, trade, profession”. More than just denying the self, it refers to training oneself. The Asketes (one who engages in Askesis) is defined as “athlete, hermit, monk”. That is an interesting combination.

Asceticism evokes images of renunciants chanting under freezing waterfalls or wandering the desert in loincloths. While those disciplines have have a real purpose, for the Agathos (the good and worthy individual) the goal is training to live in the world not apart from it.   For the Greek and Roman Stoics Askesis was an exercise that showed “this life event isn’t as bad as I feared it might be”. Stoics would consciously choose to undergo forms of deprivation or meditate on losses, not as a form of masochism or atonement but to discover what was best in themselves.  Their reason and dignity and character was not dependent on externals. If you slept on the bare ground and went hungry for a day or two your internal virtues remained. The exercise taught that what we fear and think we cannot live without is often a phantasm, an impression that really holds no power. That isn’t to say Askesis is a pleasant experience. It may be pretty miserable at the time. But it will not truly harm you. To use the Stoic term, the pain or discomfort is a rejected (non-preferable) indifferent.

In the martial arts world one often hears the old saying “You fight the way you train”. Under stress you will only rise to the absolute bare bones level of skill and conditioning you have reached in your training. The more realistic the training, the more it teaches you to perform under stress and fatigue and pain.  So, the better you will fight when the proverbial feces hits the fan. I believe this principle can be expanded to include everything in life. It is really what Askesis is about. If you have never experienced adversity you have no frame of reference to refer to in future adversity. If you have not tried living your philosophy, walking the walk, how much use will it be to you when confronted with genuine struggle, loss, change? This is what Askesis teaches us. It wakes us up. It shows us what is inside of us (or not) when the veneer of our comfortable daily lives and identities is somehow stripped away. If Aristotle was correct and Arete (excellence) is a product of habits then Askesis is a tool for getting us there.

Again, Askesis doesn’t mean you have to live in a cave and eat only nuts and berries for years. It is the gradual exposure of mind, body and/or spirit to progressive challenges and hardships. This is both to train and also to build the confidence and belief that, yes, I am a person who can deal with these events in my life.

This all was on my mind today as I went for a short hike. There was a light snowfall and daylight was fading. It occurred to me,  what if I had no home I could return to or I was stranded in some fashion? This all assumed I was someplace far more remote and the cellphone wasn’t an option. What if I had to stay there in the forest for the night? Given that I have a bug out bag and other gear in the trunk of my car I knew I would not only live but be pretty comfortable. What if the car was gone? It would be an uncomfortable night but it would be simple enough to build a shelter with dead limbs against one of the rock outcrops and out of the prevailing winds. With the knife I had with me I could cut evergreen boughs. Pile some dead leaves on top of me and I’d be fine. I’d be a little hungry but one night of hunger never killed anyone.

This was, of course, only a mental exercise and a fairly mellow one at that.  It was still important to remind myself that I didn’t need a roof and a warm bed and a plate of food to be who I am. None of those things were required to be Agathos.