I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Stoics, Skeptics, & Taoists https://t.co/HFmByF9oEx

October 10, 2017

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Stoics, Skeptics, & Taoists

October 10, 2017

We’re looking for points of contact between eastern and western notions of happiness today in Happiness. Epictetus the Stoic said its our judgments about things (including people) that disturb us, not things (or people). Shantideva the Buddhist sage said it’s better to “kill the spirit of hatred” rather than go after the haters one by one. The spirit, like the judgment, resides within oneself.

That may be strategically sound, but those who’ve actually witnessed White Supremacist rallies (for instance) testify that the spirit was all too manifest and out in the open. My judgment about such people is about such people, not just about itself. Is the best way to combat them really through an inward turn? Maybe, if the inner transformation then radiates in the form of action towards social justice. Detach from hatred, then attach to reform. Repeat as needed.
Does it help to replace anthropomorphic gods with a pantheistic sense of divine unity? You’d have to accept the bundle, wouldn’t you, bad apples and all? The world is one but it’s also many, including many joys and sorrows. I can affirm the former without reservation, but less of the latter would have to be better.
Epictetus’s dogcart analogy suggests “we need to unite our wills with the necessity of destiny.” Are we the dog? Or the cart-driver? I’ll accept the journey and even enjoy it if I know my intended destination.
If we cannot ever “bend the world to our desires” we may as well stop seeking satisfaction. What if we can occasionally bend it a bit, though? That might be enough reward for our effort to elicit more, for many.

Samsara, the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth that Buddhists say sustains our “erroneous perception of reality,” is (they say) rooted in desire. But the desire to ameliorate suffering does not distort reality, it improves it. The problem isn’t desire per se, it’s too many of the wrong desires and not enough of the good ones. No?

Cosmopolitanism, for my money, is the Stoics’ greatest invention. We’re all citizens of the world, indeed the cosmos, and can be trained to desire the good of all sentient beings. Narcissistic individualism is just a stage, if we’re smart enough to enter training.

Chuang Tzu and Montaigne both liked to laugh. “These two skeptics mock the dogmatic, enjoy relating irreverent anecdotes, deride the complacent and are able to laugh at themselves…” Que scay-je? What, me worry? But don’t get carried away, skeptic, “seek a balance between dogmatism and skepticism… ‘reach an opinion and [don’t] hesitate to proffer it’…” Montaigne’s wisdom, says Lenoir, “comes down to a sort of great, sacred ‘yes’ to life.” His yes seems more genuinely affirming than Nietzsche’s, seems to me. We’ll talk about that later.


Taoist paradoxes can be frustratingly cryptic: forget yourself to find yourself, try not to try etc. Apparently that frustration is supposed to be instigating and revealing, not just annoying. 
But I am a bit annoyed by the suggestion that we should be “content with the radiance [of the sun] without trying to scrutinize its source.” We need to understand the source, and thereby intensify our contentment and magnify our competence to replicate the radiance. You don’t have to be a Platonist about suns and Forms of the Good to think so.

Some questions: Do you agree that things are inherently neutral, with respect to their bearing on your happiness, and that it’s only your opinion of them that matters? In general, what’s your attitude towards desire and attachment? Are they obstacles to happiness or prerequisites for it?
How important are “willpower” and self-control to your happiness? What can you do to strengthen them? What does “Living the present” mean to you? Is there a problem with it, as either a goal or a possible attainment? Does anticipating bad possibilities (as Cicero did with his daily praemeditatio) make you happier in the long run, or less so? What did John Lennon mean by “instant karma”? (It was his birthday yesterday, he’d have been 77. Hard to imagine.)

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October 9, 2017

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Dreams of Epicureans & Stoics

October 9, 2017

It’s Gottlieb’s Epicureans & Stoics today in CoPhi, a bit more refined and garrulous than Warburton’s. What would they say about last year’s Oscar kerfuffle? The Epicureans would probably just say not to waste money on Hollywood, the Stoics that there’s no point in grumbling about either Academy-Plato’s or the motion picture industry’s. Both would advise therapy for anyone who takes it all too seriously. “The key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.”

It’s also another day for reports… Last time we had a good one on Kurt Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country.

“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

[This paragraph does not apply to us directly, today, but it might still be of future use…] And it’s exam day too. We should care about that, but not too much-more than an “iota” but less than to lose any sleep over. James’s advice on how to prepare for an exam is pretty sound, though of course it’s predicated on the presumption that students have in fact been studying all along.

If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

Epicureanism was the ancestral precursor of utilitarianism and its “greatest happiness for the greatest number” approach to life. The big difference, though, is that you can’t really maximize happiness in the style of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill while also shunning “any direct involvement in public life.” Can you?

Epicurus was apparently the first to state the intractable problem of free will and determinism. If the random knocking-about of atoms gives rise to every event, where does that leave us? On the sidelines, observing but not directing our fate? “Here I stand, I can do no other”-? That won’t do. Will it? 

A.J. Ayer said freedom’s not worth much if it’s decoupled from responsibility, and if there’s no knowing what someone’s ever going to do “we do not look upon him as a moral agent. We look upon him rather as a lunatic.” That reminds me of an incident from my vault of undergrad memories, when one of my determined peers set out to demonstrate his and our freedom by doing something unpredictable with a beer mug. He really just demonstrated the truth of Ayer’s observation.
I’m also reminded of the time Ayer faced off with the heavyweight champion of the world. Freedom and responsibility are nothing, if not a threat to one’s bodily health.
The Stoics were (painted) porch philosophers, and in the co-opted person of Epictetus were more at ease with an unswerving determinism than I. “Wish for everything to happen as it does happen, and your life will be serene.” Really? Is that a responsible form of serenity or resignation to slavish servitude?

The Stoics thought the Epicureans were wrong about plenty, but agreed with them that we live in a material world. Everything is physical, in its own way. Okay, but we’re natural spirits in the material world. We’re not just bouncing atoms, even if the occasional swerve leaves us guessing about the next configuration of people and things. Our breath is fiery and animated, and we have consequential choices and decisions to make.

But there’s a yawning inconsistency at the heart of the Stoic worldview, Gottlieb says. “If  they are right about Fate, then nothing at all is under our control.” Not even our attitudes and inner reactions to external events. Back to the drawing board. Or back to the therapist’s couch.*

Can philosophers can be good therapists, or as good (in their different way) as psychologists? Can Plato beat prozac? People like Lou Marinoff (the “Socratic shrink“) say so. Others say: dream on.

*Or, back on your feet: you can resolve with young James that your first act of free will shall be to believe in and act upon a committed belief in free will. Stand! You’re free, at least in your mind, if you want to be.
==
2.28.17. Happy birthday to Irish-American novelist and lifelong learner Colum McCann, who at age 21 biked 12,000 miles through 40 states on his Schwinn, “collecting stories all along the way… He said that it feels like going to college every time he writes a book: ‘I take a brand-new three-year crash course in that which I want to know.’ And, ‘real bravery comes with those who… look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.'”

5:25/6:20, 56/70, 5:39

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Philosophers Who Like Stuff: the anti-Epicureans https://t.co/8B3CVxxjgH

October 6, 2017

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477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From Congress. via @NYTimes https://t.co/XGg5xWwsa7

October 5, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Individual & collective happiness etc. https://t.co/zNp7GKja5W

October 5, 2017

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Individual & collective happiness etc.

October 5, 2017
What fun in Happiness last time, listening to Kyle’s Happy Playlist and pondering our own. How sobering, though, to see Robin Williams cavorting on the Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” video in full knowledge of his tragic self-negating destiny. But perhaps it’s not accurate to say he took his own life, rather that life’s vicissitudes and invasive mental disease took it from him. Before then he made a lot of people happy and dispatched a lot of gratuitous worry. So sad he couldn’t do the same, ultimately, for himself.
What would we add to the list? Mine had to include The Beatles’ In My Life, leading to Hey Jude, to When I’m 64… And thinking of Tom Petty, a Resilience soundtrack would be a great sequel. That’s the quality of character these times seem most to require and will most reward. 

Today in Happiness we begin with a surprising statement from Spinoza: “When each man most seeks his own advantage for himself, then men are most useful to one another.” That’s discordant with the notes we sounded last time against “visceral egoists” and for altruists. But pantheists don’t really believe in individuals and their egos, certainly not in an Ayn Randian sense. He did believe that happiness comes from identification with the most inclusive whole we can conceive. So, I wonder what Lenoir intends with that decontextualized epigraph.

Would we rather be happy than “sublime or saved”? Not sure we have to face that choice. “Earthly happiness” checks both of those boxes, for me (and Voltaire). Note to class: register for PHIL 3310, “Atheism & Philosophy” next semester if you want to pursue that question. It’s distinctly related to the modern bifurcation Lenoir deplores, the separation of individual well-being from the common good.

Michel Houellebecq writes all about “narcissistic individualism: his characters are apathetic, egoistic, frustrated, cynical…joyless hedonis[ts]” who wouldn’t know the meaning of individual good if it bit them. He seems to think they are us.

But who are we really? Lenoir’s friend Bruckner thinks “we are probably the first societies in history to make people unhappy about not being happy… the obsession with happiness often thwarts happiness.” How depressing. Irony is supposed to make you smile, at least, isn’t it?

And oh by the way, depression is a symptom of our unhappy obsession and a reflection of our question for self-realization without adequate social support. Making matters worse, nature has wired us to look for trouble. “We become more aware of negative events… dissatisfaction makes us strive constantly for more and better things.” Can we learn to take satisfaction in our very dissatisfaction, to see it as emblematic (again) of our capacity for resilience? Don’t back down, get back up, be happy. Is that a formula we can work with?

Another question today points back to J.S. Mill’s “durable joy” and delight in feeling, after much too much thinking. “Would you become blase, were all your desires satisfied?” Mill perplexed himself with the realization that fulfilling all his intellectual and social/political goals would leave him no happier than before. Then he broadened his portfolio of desires to include Wordsworth. We can learn from that too, not necessarily from Wordsworth (though also not necessarily not). Our poetry may be music, and “the music can commence again…” Silly music (and poetry) is sometimes the best balm. Take it away Eric

Squeeze this one into the Happy/Resilient playlist too. “It’s alright,” as Tom sings, “I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive… at the end of the line.”

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October 4, 2017

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Epicureans & Stoics

October 4, 2017

It’s Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and more reports.

Last semester when we took up this subject we heard a report on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” and don’t “hide your ignorance… you’ll never learn.” Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven’t concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?

Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx’s dissertation.

Contrary to scurrilous popular rumor they weren’t lascivious hedonists or self-indulgent esthetes, preferring a plentiful pot of cheap stew to share over good conversation. Bread, cheese, and olives were staples – their version of pizza. The most valuable commodity of all, they thought, was the precious gift of time. As their admirer Henry Thoreau would eventually say, they considered  that”the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” In the long run we’re all safely dead, he and they figured, so we’d better make the best of the time we have.

“Epicurean” is another of those adjectives that’s drifted far from its progenitor’s intent. Check out the latest issue of Epicure magazine, promoting the “gourmet lifestyle” and designed for globetrotting “bon vivants” and “well-travelled foodies.” Epicurus and friends would rather have just hung out in the Garden and chatted over their modest but filling fare. “If you start drinking expensive wine, then you’ll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can’t have” – not without abandoning your friends and slaving your time away to pay for your refined and expensive taste in vino. I’ll stick with the Bay Bridge Sauvignon they sell at Kroger for $2.99, and the sale-priced IPA.

Be calm and carry on, as we say. “Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist.”

True to his doctrine, Epicurus died painfully but without fear or complaint. He “suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was
he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack.”

And “in a final letter to Hermarchus, Epicurus writes, ‘On the happiest, and the last, day of my life. I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity.’ But he goes on, amazingly, ‘Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.'” Critchley

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an epicurean, in his day. “Death is not an event in life.” Well, that sentiment’s a bit self-centered but it’s literally true, with respect to one’s own demise. “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.” But what of the pain of losing friends and loved ones? We must turn to the Stoics to deal with the loss of precious others, and may then find them coming up somewhat short of heart and soul.

Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity… that’s the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can’t control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn’t we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Marcus Aurelius asks, ‘Why do you hunger for length of days?’ The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. “Pass on your way then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.” 

Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things [pragmata], but by the opinions [dogmata] which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But
the terror consists in our opinion of death, that it is terrible.”
Cicero thought we shouldn’t worry about dying, but not for Epicurus’s reasons. Live now, Seneca said, life’s long enough for those who make the right choices about how they spend the hours of their days. Annie Dillard and Maria Popova agree, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But did Seneca make the right choice complying with crazy Nero, in his final hour? Not his finest, I’d say.

The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.” They’d have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing “new” exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What’s the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus’s disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?

And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf “…as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all.” Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don’t? What do you say, Emperor?

  • “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
  • “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The slave said something very similar. “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” 
Don’t you wish the emperor and the slave had been on the ballot in November?
==
2.23.17. Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed “how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds

5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34

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