Archive for Homeric

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.

An Interesting Discussion of the Iliad

Posted in Homeric, Philosophy with tags , on March 19, 2012 by Joe Callahan

Edward Luttwak is a writer, strategy and security consultant, as well as historian.  I first encountered his work many years ago with “The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third”.  He has generated no small share of controversy but he is always interesting.  He recently wrote a very good article about the history of the Iliad, its continuing relevance and why the new Mitchell translation has problems.  As much as I’ve enjoyed Mitchell’s other work, like his Tao Te Ching translation, I think Luttwak is on the mark here.

Since I look to the Homeric epics for a foundation of ideas I discuss, I found the article worth a read.  Aside from his comments on the translation, he makes some striking observations about the work itself.  Two paragraphs were particularly noteworthy to me:

“That is the supremely enhancing vision that has always been offered by the Iliad: human dignity at its fullest, undiminished by piety or deference to gods or kings. In recent centuries, the Iliad could also offer another kind of freedom, from the collective obligations levied on individual freedom by patriotism, and from the more intense compulsions of nationalism, both all the more destructive of freedom when entirely voluntary. Achilles is angry and therefore refuses to fight, and nobody tells him that it is his duty to fight for the Achaean/ Danaan/Argive cause because he is Achaean/ Danaan/Argive, nobody calls him a deserter because there is no presumption of any obligation to serve.”


“Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.”

You’ll form your own opinions on his thoughts but it is worth checking out.

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 2)

Posted in Agathos with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

As I discussed in my previous post, if things “martial” include the personal as well as the institutional (military, law enforcement, etc) then is the personal capacity for self-defense a requirement for Agathos, a good and worthy state of being? I don’t live in the world of Bronze Age warrior-aristocrats. I haven’t been challenged to single combat for possession of my Toyota. Most of us reading this aren’t confronted with violent threats in our daily lives. For many of us the last exposure was a schoolyard scuffle or some youthful chest puffing in a bar. If something bad happens we generally pick up the phone expecting some professional responder to deal with it. Usually that is the correct course.

But what about that one moment out of a long, largely uneventful life when things gets ugly and the cavalry won’t be arriving in time?

The problem with discussing physical violence, even in a philosophical context, is that our culture is deeply weird about it. It evokes strong emotions and lots and lots of fantasy. Even the most well-meaning discussions usually end up in either dismissive, righteous shudders of distaste or dubious proclamations of bad-assery. Some of us tell ourselves we are too “evolved” for such brutishness. Some of us tell ourselves that we are Conan incarnate. Neither illusion is very useful.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the nature of interpersonal violence. Its a complex topic. Other people write about it at length who have far greater expertise and experience. The dynamics and the psychological and biological impact have been well covered. I’d strongly recommend having a look at the work of Rory Miller, a martial artist and law enforcement officer. I evaluated my own training in a very different light after considering what he had to say. For my purposes here there is a key point to consider. You will only respond to that rare, perhaps singular, violent incident to the degree and manner in which you have prepared for it.

Considering the life-altering impact that one event might have on your survival, your physical and emotional sense of dignity, your ability to be a self-reliant individual, it must have relevance to the state of Agathos.

A couple of arguments could be made against this. One, the likelihood of such an event is very small. Despite the possible impact, the low risk doesn’t justify the time and effort to practice sets of martial skills. Also, the Greek tradition that brought us Agathos later embraced the idea that externals may injure the body but cannot truly harm our character. When Socrates was tried and condemned to death he didn’t reveal hidden kung fu master skills and kick his way out of Athens. He drank the hemlock because the loss of life was less important then demonstrating commitment to his principles. Stoics like Epictetus repeated this message. Consequently some may argue that martial skill is a contradiction to a rational and detached philosophical life.

Maybe I find the time and energy worth it because I just enjoy martial practice? I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I was struck by his observation that as skill proficiency develops, less mental focus and energy is required to perform. There may be an initial time and energy investment but once those skills are acquired it would seem that maintenance is not quite the energy sink one might assume. In the case of martial skills there is a base level of practice and physical conditioning required but that same level of conditioning is needed for health and vitality regardless. As I’ve written previously, a worthy life includes the physical to the degree our bodies permit.

Its worth remembering that the same Socrates who submitted to execution also fought in the phalanx. During the retreat from the defeat at Delium he gained a reputation for a cool head in battle. He may have believed that externals could not truly do him harm while his character remained intact but he was not a pacifist either. Miller, whose work I mentioned, uses the term “monkey dance” which I see as describing the effect of pathe, the passions, in escalating violent encounters. Its a good descriptive term. Ego, rage, fear, the desire for recognition and status all play a part in driving confrontational behaviors that often seem outside of our control. The behaviors that fuel conflict can often be instinctive, even unconscious. That’s a very different matter than a considered personal policy regarding defense of oneself, family, home, community. It is wisdom to realize you and your character can’t really be harmed by externals. That realization does not require meekly succumbing to abuse or being utterly passive. When we read the Homeric epics we see the earliest Agathoi driven very much by the passions. The whole Trojan War is arguably one big “monkey dance”. The proto-ethics at the root of western culture grew out of powerful primal drives. I think it is valuable to recognize this and refine such impulses but there is little value in denying their existence within ourselves. Martial training has the potential to help in this effort of refinement. It can be a powerful tool for perceiving things as they really are, including oneself.

So, allowing for subjective personal preference, my conclusion is that martial training is at least valuable for the cultivation of Agathos if not a necessity.

What should the current day Agathos learn? Most of us only have so many hours in the day to devote to such things. Some thoughts on that next time.

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 1)

Posted in Agathos, Homeric, Philosophy with tags , , , , on January 22, 2012 by Joe Callahan

When I began writing about a personal exploration of the concept of Agathos I automatically included references to the martial arts. For instance, it seemed an obvious choice to put a link to the Chinese martial arts school where I study. A number of my articles have made reference to things martial. There are some good reasons on a personal level for me to make this connection, but how relevant is it to Agathos as most people might live it today?

The earliest conceptions of Agathos come from the Homeric epics. The stories center around warriors and martial virtues. In their world it would have been difficult (if not suicidal) for Agathoi to claim their societal role without martial skill.  Someone would just do them in and take all their stuff.  Warfare and who participated in it changed and broadened through Greek and Roman history but the idea of the virtuous man remained connected to the martial. But as we find our own way to Agathos, the good and the worthy, the connection may seem less clear. American society has never been exactly pacifistic and the military-industrial complex has been in high gear this last decade. Nevertheless, its not uncommon for someone to live what is considered a “successful” life without ever learning how to throw a punch much less prepare themselves for a war. Considerable numbers of people will say that is a good thing and, agree or disagree, their arguments are not unreasonable.

The question of the martial in Agathos opens a proverbial can of worms. It’s a complicated topic. For starters it requires a definition of terms before a response can be seriously considered. What do we mean when we talk about things “martial”?

Theoretically, a group of people practicing Tai Chi in a park are engaging in a martial activity. So is someone sitting in front of a radar screen on board an aircraft carrier. In the strictest sense of the word a martial activity is that which is conducted for purposes of warfare (belonging to Mars, god of war). I’ve never found that a particularly useful definition as the nature of warfare has shifted dramatically over time. What was considered warfare in one age and/or culture would be considered something quite different by a modern professionalized nation-state military, probably banditry if not terrorism. This is addressed in part by some current thinking on warfare “generations”. Its interesting stuff but outside the scope of this discussion.

The Chinese martial art I practice still contains a few traces of pre-gunpowder military arts in the weapon forms. But most of the practice comes from monastic traditions, a very different community. Their purpose was not to be an instrument of what Clausewitz would call “the continuation of policy by other means”.  I think its fair to say that while warfare calls upon martial virtues it doesn’t automatically follow that martial virtues are only present in modern professionalized warfare.

If we allow that martial skills and virtues include non-military or non-law enforcement pursuits then what are we talking about?

The objective of any martial art is doing some degree of injury to another person. We can dress it up and talk about being a peaceful warrior and seeking enlightenment and blending with the universe and all that. If your art doesn’t teach some effective ways to punch, kick, choke, restrain, chop, stab and/or shoot an uncooperative foe then you are taking dancing lessons or an exercise class. That’s just reality. What matters to the pursuit of Agathos, a life that is noble and worthy, is knowing when it is right to do these unpleasant things. By right I mean what is just. Legality is always important for obvious reasons but the two aren’t always identical with regard to one’s philosophy. It’s wise to be self-aware about where you stand on both issues.

So really we are considering a personal, rather than institutional, relationship to physical violence and the state of Agathos. Its clear why the Agathoi of old had a personal and highly enthusiastic relationship to close-up physical violence. Do I, as someone seeking to be Agathos in a modern day context, need to have that personal capacity for doing harm? If so, what meaning does it hold? If not, then what replaces it as the best way of displaying Arete, excellence and skill?

More on those questions in part two.

Exercise Without Excellence?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric with tags , , , on January 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

A new study has been hitting the news. A hormone has been isolated that mimics some of the fat burning and muscle building effects of exercise. I’m sure I’m hugely over-simplifying or not explaining it correctly but you can see more details here and here.

Obviously I think its a very good thing if this discovery creates new drugs that deal with serious illness. I especially think it would be fantastic, as suggested in some articles, if this helps with muscle wasting illnesses. I’ve watched the effects of such illness over time and it strikes me as a particularly crappy hand to be dealt in life.

What makes me stop and think and make a sour face is the statement that this could lead to an “exercise drug”. Apparently that’s a good thing. So let’s say you can pop a pill one day and it is the equivalent of a solid workout, a practice session at some active sport or a long hike in the hills. You can sit on your butt and watch reality TV or play a video game and let that happy hormone do its work. You’ll be sipping a latte and twittering while staying fit and toned. Paradise, right?

But what about Arete? Arete, defined as excellence, is fundamental to Agathos. Arete is how one displays Agathos in the concrete world of action. In the Homeric epics there are references to the Arete of different activities. There is Arete in feats of arms, horse taming, running, strategy, giving speeches, even managing a household. These all involve DOING something. Can there be an Arete of pill popping?

If I can get buff by downing EXERSOR (you just know they’ll name it something like that and side effects will include dizziness and testicular combustion) how does that shape me as a creature within nature? I’ve spoken about Askesis, the training of the self through exposure to trial. If we figure out ways to give our body the look of excellence without being shaped by the experience of getting there then is it really that valuable?

Look, I don’t love exercise any more than the next guy. Working out and pushing physical limits requires, well, effort. I’m not one of these people that wakes up energetic and radiant in the morning eager for my daily endorphine rush. Actually I find people like that kind of annoying. I’ve had my share of slips into slothdom. But I do believe in the value of what physical experience within the world, in contact with our natural selves, gives us. No pill can replicate that.

Yes, I’m jumping the gun here. Nobody has put a pill like this on the market……yet. Maybe I’m being a Luddite and there are lots of positives to consider. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of people we become without struggle. We are defined by our scars as surely as our pleasures. Nobody who just pops an exercise pill will have any good battle stories to tell.



The Limits Of Justice

Posted in Agathos, Ethics, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , on December 22, 2011 by Joe Callahan

The news here in the Boston area has been reporting the end to a two decade mystery. In 1992 a young woman was murdered in her home by an intruder. She was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. The woman, Kathleen Dempsey, was still conscious and called 911. A dispatcher decided for some unfathomable reason to treat it as a hoax. After five hours or so the authorities arrived too late and found her dead. Now after nineteen years the police have reported they know who did it.

This was striking news to me because I knew Kathy quite well. She was a good friend and a kind spirit. I was very fond of her. It was a very difficult time for many people within a mutual circle of friends. The brutal nature of her death and the knowledge that nobody had been caught has always remained in the back of my mind.

Now that finally her killer has been discovered the news often refers to justice. I’m finding myself strangely dissatisfied. The killer is a nasty specimen already in prison for the murder of another woman. So he will get more jail time? Is that it? Is that justice? His picture has appeared in some news reports and I am not ashamed to say my first impulse was to want his sorry carcass hanging from a yardarm.

The purpose of this blog has been to explore the idea of Agathos, what is “good” in the sense of what is worthy, a fully human life. The earliest primal foundations of Agathos come from Homer’s epics. The measure of justice in that worldview is clear. When Achilles’ cousin and companion Patroclus was slain by Hector, Achilles in turn slew Hector. In his rage and grief Achilles tied Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and dragged it around the city of Troy a few times. It has its appeal.

The problem is that 20 years ago the main suspicion for this murder fell on another man. I certainly thought he did it. Many others did too. There were some compelling reasons for believing this individual was guilty. If it turns out that he was indeed innocent then some act of vendetta would have been unjustified and only added an additional tragic note. It is a sobering thought. I suppose that is why over the centuries we have decided to be a society of laws and be less quick (more or less) to reach for the proverbial sword.

As Greek philosophy progressed, the idea of human virtue became more balanced. Courage and justice came to sit alongside wisdom and moderation as the big four. Aristotle came to the conclusion that people perform bad acts out of a combination of ignorance and/or irrational desires. The bad man is deficient in some way. This is thankfully not some religious dictum calling us to simply turn the other cheek. However, understanding that ignorance or imbalance is what leads people to do ill seems to require some degree of restrain if not compassion. It is needed if we, ourselves, want to be balanced individuals. Engaging in some vengeful act of retaliation may only compound our miseries and lead us to bad, unworthy actions of our own. Socrates and later the Stoics told us that while others can do us injury they cannot truly harm us if they cannot make us abandon our character, our virtues, our choice to be Agathos.

It all makes sense but its a hard bit of medicine to swallow. So what do we do with someone like the SOB currently sitting in jail?

It may not be the course of wisdom or moderation to seek retribution. Maybe its not really our place to put this guy down like a rabid dog. However it is certainly right for us to prevent ill from occurring. If we cannot stop it from happening initially then we stop it from happening again. If such an abhorrent act could be prevented in the moment with everything including lethal force then I can’t think of a single valid ethical objection. Every martial tradition I have practiced teaches that the individual has the right to self-defense even if we do not seek or wish to do harm. After the fact, maybe preventing ill means keeping him where he is no longer threat. Maybe some compassionate soul can help him out of his ignorance and illness. It sure as hell wouldn’t be me. I’m a Stoic not a saint.

I don’t have a good simple clean solution. There isn’t one. There is pretty much just the realization that what was done cannot be undone. We engage in damage control and comfort the living. Its a hard lesson that we cannot control or fix or change everything. We can only choose our responses, stop the ills we can stop, live as fully and well as we are able and aid others in doing the same.

I have thought of Kathy often over the years and I am glad to see at least a potential end to uncertainty. It may bring some modicum of peace to her family and friends. For myself, after twenty years I am less the rageful Achilles seeking heroic justice and maybe have a tiny bit more wisdom and moderation. But I am still saddened.

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.