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Monday, December 11, 2017

Philosophers And Bathroom Attendants

     Just letting my regular readers know that, in the near future, I hope to start what is intended to be a series of blog posts on Seneca's Letters. But this post -- which also discusses a passage from an ancient thinker -- will be more personal than my usual offerings.
     As noted in my 11/26/17 post, Epictetus spent the first part of his life as a Roman slave, but ultimately founded a prominent school of Stoic philosophy in Greece. Epictetus' Discourses, which were transcribed by his student Arrian, include the following passage in Book I, which is relevant to my current job search:
          "For one person it is reasonable to be a bathroom attendant, because he only thinks about what punishment and privation lie in wait for him otherwise, and knows that if he accepts the assignment he will be spared that pain and hardship. Someone else not only finds such a job intolerable for him personally, but finds it intolerable that anyone should have to perform it. But ask me, 'Shall I be a bathroom attendant or not?' and I will tell you that earning a living is better than starving to death; so that if you measure your interests by these criteria, go ahead and do it. 'But it would be beneath my dignity.' Well, that is an additional factor that you bring to the question, not me. You are the one who knows yourself -- which is to say, you know how much you are worth in your own estimation, and therefore at what price you will sell yourself; because people sell themselves at different rates."
     This passage is meaningful to me because I took early retirement about 5 months ago, after almost 29 years in state and local -- mostly local -- government. I am fortunate enough to be receiving a monthly pension, so my family is certainly not in any danger of starving. However, like many Americans, I do need to continue working for the next several years to help cover health insurance for my wife and me as well as university costs for our children. I graduated from law school just before starting my public sector career and have kept a law license current all these years. But I spent most of that career in management and policy policy positions, so it has been years since I actively practiced. Thus, most private sector employers have little interest in hiring someone like me: a lawyer "of a certain age" with no clients. By the way, age may likewise be a factor in the length of time it is taking me to find a job, because I have friends and neighbors who are also in their 50's and who are also having trouble finding professional positions.
     To be clear, I am not complaining, which is one of Epictetus' cardinal sins. I am in this situation because of my career decisions, not all of which (in retrospect) may have been prudent. However, the quandary I face is, will I have to end up taking what some people might consider to be a job "beneath my dignity" -- although I do not consider any job that is not illegal beneath my dignity -- or continue to hold out for a professional opportunity that may never materialize?

     Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, translated and edited by Robert Dobbin (Penguin Classics, London, 2008), Discourses, Book I, 2, 8-11, pages 8-9.   

Saturday, December 2, 2017

What Insults Reveal About The Person Who Makes Them

     In my previous post, I noted that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus is one of the more interesting figures in Roman history. Another fascinating character is Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who I quoted in my 11/9/17 post on anger.
     We moderns like to think that we are the first complicated individuals in world history, but it would be difficult to find a more complicated person than Seneca. Seneca was born in what is now Corduba, Spain -- by then part of the Roman Empire -- to a prominent local family around 4 BC/BCE. He moved to Rome and pursued a career in politics; that career was full of ups and downs, including everything from service in the Roman Senate to banishment from Rome. The Stoic philosophy that Seneca espoused did not value externals like wealth, but he amassed a substantial fortune during his life. Seneca was also a prolific writer, authoring tragedies, philosophical treatises, and a collection of letters that is considered to be the precursor of the modern essay (Seneca was a major influence on Michel de Montaigne, who reinvented the essay in 16th Century France). After being recalled from exile, Seneca was appointed tutor to the young aristocrat who would later become the Emperor Nero. Seneca attempted to inculcate his pupil with Stoic virtues like clemency, but Nero developed into one of the worst tyrants in Roman history. In one of the great ironies of Western history -- given Seneca's public criticism of the tyranny of the Emperor Caligula -- Nero imposed the death sentence on his former tutor and adviser in 65 AD/CE (although Seneca was allowed to commit suicide like his hero Socrates).
     In happier times, Seneca authored a short treatise that has come to be known as On the Constancy of the Wise Person. In this work, based on Stoic principles, Seneca argued to his friend Annaeus Serenus that a sage could not be truly injured or insulted by anyone. James Ker's translation of the essay includes the following noteworthy passage:
          "Besides, the fact that the majority of insults are made by arrogant and insolent men who bear their good fortune poorly means that the wise person has something by which he can reject that inflated emotional reaction: magnanimity, the most beautiful of all the virtues."
     In recent days, Republican President Donald Trump gratuitously insulted Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren by repeating the derisive nickname "Pocahontas" during an event honoring Native American veterans of World War II. (Trump affixed this moniker to her during the 2016 presidential campaign, based on allegations that she incorrectly claimed Native ancestry). So instead of the media coverage focusing on the heroism of the Navajo veterans -- as noted by Warren in her response -- it focused on the President's racially insensitive insult. Rather than being magnanimous after his victory over opponents like Warren in the 2016 elections, Trump instead choose to make a gesture that can only be described as petty and beneath the dignity of his office.   

     Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Person, translated by James Ker, in Hardship and Happiness (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014), 11.1 at page 160; see also pages ix-xi.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Epictetus On The Blame Game

     In my previous post, I discussed the Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In addition to Book 6, another extraordinary section is Book 1. In that book, Marcus listed the people to whom he felt he owed a debt of gratitude. Included in this long list were his grandfather, his mother, his adoptive father (the Emperor Antoninus Pius), and his teachers. He also thanked Quintus Junius Rusticus -- who served as Consul and Prefect of Rome -- for introducing him to the lectures of Epictetus.
      Epictetus is one of the more interesting figures in Roman history. He was born into slavery around 55 AD/CE, in the Graeco-Roman city of Hierapolis (in what is now Turkey). His master Epaphroditus, himself a former slave, served as as imperial secretary in Rome. Apparently, Epaphroditus allowed Epictetus to attend the lectures of the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. After being freed by his master, Epictetus became a full time student -- and ultimately a teacher -- of philosophy. When the Emperor Domitian expelled all philosophers from Rome in 95 AD/CE, Epictetus settled in the Greek city of Nicopolis and opened what would become a popular school of philosophy. His student Arrian transcribed what can be described as an executive summary of Epictetus' lectures, which is known as the Enchiridion (or Manual).
     In current times, President Trump has become an expert in the art of blaming others for his inability to get his policy agenda enacted into law. A notable example of this is Trump's negative reaction to the failure of Congress to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a "Obamacare"). Now Congressional Republicans are working on a major tax reform package. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of this proposal, if -- or, more likely, when -- it fails to pass, the President will almost certainly begin another round of the "blame game."
     In Chapter 5 of the Manual, as translated by Robert Dobbin, here is what Epictetus had to say about blame:
          "It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates [the classical Greek philosopher and Stoic hero]. But the judgement that death is frightening -- now, that is something to be afraid of. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves -- that is, our judgements  -- accountable.  An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself." [Emphasis added].

     Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays (The Modern Library, New York, 2003), Book 1, pages 5-13; see also page 188.
     Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, translated and edited by Robert Dobbin (Penguin Classics, London, 2008), Enchiridion, Chapter 5, page 223; see also pages vii-xi.   

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Presidential Emperor And The Imperial President

     I want to apologize to my readers (all three of them) for the unusual length of time between posts. Earlier this month it was my duty -- but also my pleasure -- to attend the wedding of my niece in St. Louis, Missouri, so I took about 10 days off from blogging.
     Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome during the Second Century A.D. (or C.E., if you prefer). He was arguably the only monarch in the classical West who truly deserved the title of philosopher-king. In the Meditations, Marcus suggests that his first love was philosophy but that he thought it was his duty as a Roman to succeed his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius. The Meditations, which were apparently never intended for publication, reflect Marcus' internal struggles in ruling the Roman Empire near the height of its power. In Book 3, Marcus made clear that he had no intention of becoming a tyrant like Nero, the Roman Emperor who sentenced Seneca to death during the First Century C.E.
      Book 6 of the Meditations reveals that Emperor Marcus was, in many ways, the opposite of President Trump.  Trump loves luxury and ostentation; Marcus' model was his immediate predecessor Antoninus, who he remembered as a modest person content with basic living quarters, bedding, clothes, food, and servants; Marcus also wrote that his purple imperial robes were nothing but sheep's wool dyed with the blood of shellfish. Trump craves attention and validation; Marcus did not prize the clapping of an audience or "... the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to ... ."  Those who disagree with Trump are subject to his ridicule, including Tweet-storms; Marcus asserted: "If anyone can refute me -- show me I'm making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective -- I'll gladly change. It's the truth I'm after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance." But perhaps the most remarkable passage in Book 6, as translated by Gregory Hays, is the following:
          "To escape imperialization -- that indelible stain. It happens. Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you. Revere the gods; watch over human beings. Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts." 
     Trump seems to be quite taken with the trappings of his office. Foreign leaders -- some of whom do not have America's best interests in mind -- have learned that the way to his heart is through pomp and circumstance as well as flattery. It is ironic, or perhaps sad, that a Roman Emperor who lived almost 2,000 years ago appears to have had more of the qualities of an ideal American President than the current occupant of the White House has.

     Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays (The Modern Library, New York, 2003), Book 6, pages 70-76.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

What Would Seneca Say (About Anger)?

     The Dhammapada, which is part of the Theravada Pali Canon, takes a negative view of anger: it is something to give up, to keep in check, and to conquer; Buddhists are advised to guard against anger in body, in speech, and in mind.
     Despite the importance of moderation to the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle, he was surprisingly tolerant of anger. In Book IV of his Ethics, he argued that the excess of anger is irascibility, the mean is patience, and the deficiency is servility. For Aristotle, it is commendable to be angry at the right things, with the right people, in the right way, and at the right time.
     However, not all thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition agreed with Aristotle's position on anger. For example, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a  Roman philosopher/dramatist/politician (not necessarily in that order). According to the recent translation by Robert Kaster, Seneca begins his treatise On Anger -- written in the first century of the Common Era -- by noting that "... some wise men have said that anger is a brief madness: for it's no less lacking in self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of personal ties, unrelentingly intent on its goal, shut off from rational deliberation, stirred for no substantial reason, unsuited to determining what's fair and true ... ." Seneca's disagreement was not with Aristotle's definition of anger, but rather with Aristotle's view that anger could be a spur to virtuous action. For Seneca, however, anger was not acceptable under any circumstances because of its "damaging effects."
    Almost 2,000 years after Seneca wrote these words, President Trump erupts in angry outbursts on an almost daily basis -- on Twitter and elsewhere -- and seems barely able to keep his temper under control on other days. He would do well to heed the following words from Seneca regarding anger:
          "... no pestilence has been more costly for the human race. Butchery and poisoning, suits and counter suits, cities destroyed, entire nations wiped out, ... dwellings put to the torch, then the blaze, unchecked by the city walls, turning vast tracks of land bright with the attacking flame. Consider the cities of vast renown whose foundation stones can now hardly be made out: anger cast these cities down. Consider the wastelands, deserted, without an inhabitant for many miles: anger emptied them. ... consider whole assemblies mowed down, the common folk butchered when an army was loosed upon them, whole peoples condemned to die in promiscuous slaughter ... ."


     Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics, London, 2004; original translation by Thomson, revised by Tredennick, introduction by Barnes), see pages 100-103.
     Gil Fronsdal, The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations (Shambhala, Boulder, 2006), see Verses 221-234 on pages 59-61.
     Seneca, On Anger, translated by Robert A. Kaster in Anger, Mercy, Revenge (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2010); the first quotation above can be found in Book 1, on page 14; the second quotation is also in Book 1, on page 15; see also Book 3, on page 64.    

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Poison Arrows

     The tension between speculative issues and practical issues is not new. In ancient India, one of the Buddha's disciples -- named Malukya -- faced the following quandary, according to a text translated by Glenn Wallis:
          "... [T]he venerable Malukya was living in solitary seclusion. Malukya reflected as follows. 'There are certain speculative matters that the Fortunate One [the Buddha] has left undetermined, set aside, and rejected. Is the world eternal, or is the world not eternal? Is the world infinite, or is the world finite? Is the life force identical to the body, or is the life force different from the body? Does a person who has come to know reality exist after death; not exist after death; both exist and not exist after death; or neither exist nor not exist after death? These are the matters that the Fortunate One has not determined. It does not please me or seem right to me that the Fortunate One has not determined these matters. I will approach the Fortunate One and ask him the reason for this refusal. If he determines these matters for me, then I will continue the training. If he does not determine these matters for me, then I will abandon the training ... .'" 
     That evening, Malukya posed his questions to the Buddha. The Buddha began with some tough love -- calling Malukya a "fool of a man" -- but then reminded him that he never promised his disciple that he would answer such questions. The Buddha went on to reply with what would become one of the most famous parables in all of Buddhist literature. Imagine, he said, that a man was shot with "an arrow thickly smeared with poison." The man's companions and friends brought a doctor to remove the arrow, but the man said that he would not consent to its removal until the following questions were answered: who shot the arrow; what caste the shooter was from; his family and name; his height; the color of his skin; the city he was from; whether the arrow was shot from a crossbow or a longbow; what the bowstring was fashioned from; which kind of wood the arrow's shaft was made of; what sort of bird the feathers on the shaft came from; the kind of sinew that was used to wrap the shaft; and what sort of point was on the arrow that wounded him.
     All of these questions would remain unanswered, said the Buddha, and the wounded man would die. In the same manner, argued the Buddha, a disciple might not enter into or remain in training with him and that person would die also. The questions posed by Malukya were speculative, the Buddha asserted, since "... still there is birth, there is aging, there is death; still there is sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety." The Buddha stated that what he had made known was the destruction of these things in this world. "It is for this reason, Malukya, that you should bear in mind that which I have not determined, because it is indeterminate, and that which I have determined, because it is determinate." Matters such as whether or not the world is eternal were not determined by him, the Buddha said, because "To do so does not lead to what is beneficial, to the beginning of training, to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowing, to awakening, to unbinding. That is the reason that I have not determined these matters." What he had determined, the Buddha reminded Malukya, was "unease," the arising of  unease, the cessation of unease, and the path leading to the cessation of unease.
     The sutta (sutra in Sanskrit) ends by reporting that Malukya "rejoiced" at the Buddha's words. I think the Buddha's reasoning here -- regarding the distinction between the speculative and the practical -- is not only applicable in a theological context, but also in other areas; thus, I would encourage moderates (myself included) to focus on practical issues rather than on speculative ones.
     In my next post, I plan to discuss anger.

     The quotations above are taken from Glenn Wallis' Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York, Modern Library, 2007), Culamalukya Sutta, Sutta 2, Majjhimanikaya 63.
     In Bhikkhu Bodhi's less secular translation of this text, the Buddha is referred to as the "Blessed One" rather than the "Fortunate One," and Bodhi uses the word "suffering" instead of "unease." See his In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Boston, Wisdom Publications, 2005), Culamalunkya Sutta, MN 63. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Talking Heads - Not The Band

     During law school, three decades ago, I was taught that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. However, in recent years, I have lost count of how many times, on traditional and social media, I have seen "talking heads" from the far left and far right -- mostly the far right, since November of 2016 -- demonizing the other side or its arguments instead of focusing on the substance of those arguments.
     In these situations, I have come to feel some kinship with the Kalamas of ancient India. By way of background, after Siddhattha Gotama's enlightenment, he spent the rest of his life traveling around India teaching with members of his Sangha (the community of monks and nuns). One day, he came to a village of the Kalamas called Kesaputta, where the puzzled villagers sought his advice.
      It seems that some of the wandering ascetics who came to Kesaputta would explain their own doctrines, but then "disparage, debunk, revile, and vilify" the doctrines of other ascetics. However, when the second group of ascetics came to the village, they would also explain their own doctrines but then "disparage, debunk, revile, and vilify" the doctrines of the first group.
     Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas reads as follows:
          "Come, Kalamas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, 'The ascetic is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness,' then you should engage in them."
Upon hearing the Buddha's teaching, the Kalamas exclaimed that it was "magnificent" and asked him to accept them as lay followers for life.
     I am not suggesting that all of us -- or any of us -- should become Buddhists, but if more of us followed the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas about evaluating the claims of competing speakers, I believe the quality of our contemporary public discourse would be improved. 

     The passage quoted above comes from Bhikkhu Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Boston, Wisdom Publications, 2005), AN 3:65, pages 88-91.
     For another translation of the same text, see Glenn Wallis' Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York, Modern Library, 2007), Kesamutti Sutta, Sutta 4, Anguttaranikaya 3.65, pages 22-26. 



Philosophers And Bathroom Attendants

     Just letting my regular readers know that, in the near future, I hope to start what is intended to be a series of blog posts on Seneca&...