Friday, June 29, 2007

(15) An Effective Life

"Practical reasoning...must be able to integrate all the
endeavors it assesses, either horizontally or vertically."
[Lawrence C. Becker, A NEW STOICISM, Princeton
University Press, 1998, p. 50.]

In today's world the above is good advice, but the task
is a harder matter! As I read these simple lines, it would
seem they come right out of a survival manual. Throughout
life we are constantly bombarded with issues coming from
outside; whereas, inwardly, we are constantly initiating new
endeavors for our selves.

Plainly put, our lives are complicated. Some of us pine for
a more simple life. Maybe a monastery? Doesn't happen.
I have been in monasteries where the regimen keeps one
involved from morning's rise to bedtime. Nonetheless, the
monastic life does involve a practical structure that (if followed)
can possibly enable a person to live a more effective life.

And I think that Stoicism also attempted to lay out a means
of self-disicipline through its emphasis on a virtuous life and
the working through of such via "practical reasoning."

The secret, I suspect, is about a realistic structuring of one's
life. It's not about some impractical, impossible lifestyle that
doesn't fit one's disposition nor one's circumstances. I think
it is more working through trying to understand one's disposition,
those proclivities that belong especially to our personal nature.

First we need come to "know thyself." The Stoic route is not
necessarily communal. First and foremost the responsibility
for attaining an effective life is personal. Initially, in whatever
way, we need come to understand who we are! What makes
us tick. How we are packaged psychologically. What traits and
talents come naturally for us. This inner examination is a very,
very practical pursuit.

Out of this inner important step we can come to structure, organize
our life--mainly because we have come to know who we are,
what we are capable of doing, and by what means with which
we are more comfortable in carrying out our endeavors.

Outwardly we consistently face varied challenges that this world
throws before us. The worry is not to collapse under these
continuous challenges. And the hope is that we can rise above
(and actually gain and learn from) these challenges. The world
can indeed be a school, if it doesn't kill us!

And perhaps the final aspect of a more effective life is about
integrating our inner knowledge with our outer abilities, so as
they work fluidly and naturally. Then we have half-a-chance!

Monday, June 25, 2007

(14) Feeding our Mind

"In spite of their emphasis on self-examination and internal
dialogues, Stoics do not do away with teachers. They freely
admit that both initially and at recurring moments of weakness,
one needs teachers to provide assistance, to pull one out of
the bog mire of mistaken priorities, and to undermine one's
deceptive self-complacency."
[Gretchen Reydams-Schils, THE ROMAN STOICS: SELF,
Press, 2005, p. 18.]

Comment: Whew! I should hope so! Self-sufficiency is an
admirable condition, but only if it is not based on ignorance.
A person, like just about any other life-form, has to grow always
into a greater sense of completeness. And if we don't, we are
not altogether our true self.

To use the analogy of growth, of development, when it comes
to plants and animals, such growth is dependent upon many
variables. There's the proper climate, the conditions of the
habitat, relationship also. There's the main ingredients of
nourishment, food and water. And special fertilizers or
enhanced food--and even sometimes an artificial environment--
can advance the growth process. There's always room for

We humans endure under these very same conditions. But,
beyond the physical, we have attained to a higher mental
level. And our mind needs nourishment and special treatment
if we are to reach the fullness of our potential.

Sadly, I once met a young man in his 20s who refused to
trust in nor even read books. His parents did see to it that he
graduated from high school, but after that level he simply
decided to stop growing mentally. Ten years later he is still
down in the pits of the labor force. I felt bad about this fellow,
because he was very adept and smart. But he was so adamant
against book learning. He never exposed himself to teachers
or authors who might have expanded his horizon.

On the other hand, this young man was spiritually inclined.
He felt "different" from others, moving willy-nilly into magical
thinking, assuming that what came forth in his imagination was
pure knowledge. He needed no other "authority." He was his
own authority!

One doesn't have to undergo the rigors of higher education,
but there would seem a need to try to self-educate one's self
if at all possible. There are libraries, and there's the Web that
nearly serves as the world's "Great Library of Alexandria." It's
incredible what is available to us in today's electronic world.
Closing our eyes, our mind, to this great knowledge-base of
information is nearly tantamount to being negligent towards
one's self.

Beyond this, too, an educated mind is important for the
development of the Human Collective. We are constantly
pouring our minds into this Collective, through our work, through
our interactions, through our institutions. And for this Collective
to run effectively, it needs the proper fuel of information and
guidance. "Teachers" are not always those just in the schools,
but rather also reside in those corners where wisdom dwells.
Good guidance consistently remains desperately needed.

As for any well-formed person, after they are well-grounded in
inherited knowledge, after they have attended good counsel,
it is at this point that they can more effectively mine their soul.
Additionally, an enhanced mind can better bring forth the fruits
of its contemplation.

Monday, June 18, 2007

(13) Common Basis of Religious Truths?

"Another Stoic influence of considerable importance in the
tradition of Christian Humanism was the view that all religions
have a common basis of truths concerning God..."
[Encyclopedia Britannica, "Philosophical Schools and
Doctrine," p. 608.]

Comment: If I remember correctly, ancient Stoics considered
various religions as representing different "faces" of God.
As for a common basis of truth, I am not so sure when it
comes to the various expressions of Religion. However,
one might guess around this issue.

I have recently read an interesting book by a famous church
leader, pondering whether the basis of Religion might really
revolve around our age-old need to survive in this world.
Various religions do exhibit a certain placating, whether via
ritual or prayer, that would seem to be forms of asking God
to protect us, to help us out. Also,there are certain kinds of
religious measures we need undergo that would make us more
acceptable--and safe!

Maybe not all, but certainly most religions also circulate
around one of our most basic human needs: that deep
ontological question about Meaning. Who are we in this
world, and what is the world all about?

Stoicism, itself, declares that we humans are as a microcosm
to the Macrocosm. This is a philosophical premise that surely
can serve our sense of spirituality. Perhaps some religions
borrow from this premise. Christ talked about the "Vine and the
Branches," if you will. And St. Paul devised an interesting term,
the "Body of Christ" in which various members would work to
build-up the Church by the action of their various talents and
abilities. This "Body of Christ" could be seen as a sort of mystical
macrocosmic entity wherein microcosmic members would
contribute to its evolution.

Beyond this, in more recent religious thinking, there's finally a
return to the idea of the Ground of Being, no matter the labels.
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote of the *Urgrund,* this great
Ground of Being in which we all reside. Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin, a Jesuit theologian and paleontologist, provided a
unique evolutionary view via his *Christogenesis.* He saw
cosmogenesis in terms of the Omega Point, a moving forward
and converging of humanity around the common center of a
Cosmic Christ. Again, in this there's the flavor of the microcosmos
in relation to the Macrocosmos.

I, myself, am theologically trained. Still, as I have hopefully
continued to mature, I look beyond a religion that may have
once been necessary for our survival. Sometimes this kind of
religion becomes a "concretion," a kind of box that reverts towards
literalist and magical thinking. Rather, I look more towards a sense
of Meaning that gives value to our existence. Personally I am
inclined toward a sense of evolving sentience in this universe,
where our minds are ever becoming more great and intense
"consciousness points" that are part and parcel of the Macrocosmos!

Nonetheless, as for a common basis of truths concerning God,
well it would seem to me that we are dealing simply with the
natural unfolding of increasing consciousness. And it's not a level
trajectory either! Still there are jumps from one plateau of religious
understanding to the next. Yet, not everybody jumps at the same
time! It is not an even evolution when it comes to religious thought
and expression.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

(12) Fence and Field

"In Stoic circles philosophy was compared to a fruitful field
surrounded by the fence of logic. The fence was designed
to ward off the attacks of the sceptic by showing that knowledge
of reality is possible. The soil of the field stood for physics, a
subject which the philosopher was expected to cultivate in
order to gain an understanding of the nature of the world.
The crop was the type of conduct expected from the Stoic wise
man in whom reason ruled and emotion was suppressed."
Thames & Hudson, 1992, pp. 132-133.]

Unto this very day philosophers--and the field of Philosophy--
carry forth their "proofs" when it comes to understanding the
nature of the universe and the considerations of right conduct.

When it comes to logic, according to the dictionary it is a
"reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles
of validity." Though we humans try, logic is easier said than done.
Perhaps it was easier in the Greco-Roman world of the ancient
Stoics, but in our contemporary world "validity" is like a fine mist
that can dissipate rapidly. Our modern knowledge base simply
is too overwhelming to assume a totally correct position or even
principle. We now realize that we live in a world that is becoming
ever more and more mysterious! Plain and simple, we really
don't know as much as we thought we did. So logic is fine and
good and still necessary for the benefit of reasoning, but we can
no longer hold it as being infallible.

Of course this leads us into physics, trying to understand the
"nature of the universe." These past several centuries have
truly been breakthrough centuries in this respect. Physics
exploded upon the scene after a long hiatus during the Middle
Ages. And it was surely a very different kind of physics than
that of the Ancient World. Modern-day physics may employ
logic to a certain extent; but mainly it is based on *observation,*
oft predicated on advanced technology. And what we have found
upon occasion surpasses logic, taking us by surprise even more
than we might want to admit. Particle Physics has discovered a
grainy strange world upon which we actually stand. Modern
physicists talk about mysterious mind-matter links, as they call
ours an "Observer-Participant Universe."

So today's Stoics might be more circumspect about getting an
ironclad grip on the universe, or even depending totally on a
declared infallible logic. Nevertheless, the Stoa's emphasis on
"virtuous conduct" based on reason and responsibility surely
still is commendable.

However, suppressing "emotions" may have been a losing
proposition right from the very beginning. Historically, even the
ancient Stoics backed off somewhat from this proposition. Their
reliance on *apatheia* (never to be mistaken as apathy) might
make better sense when it addresses those negative passions
that can make us sick, sad, and disturbed. These kind of passions,
too, can hurt and even kill. If humanity is to flourish, negative
passions need to be understood, controlled, and if possible,
re-configured into something more acceptable.

As for good emotions, good feelings, well I suppose they are a
category that enhances our sense of well-being. They act upon
us positively, and they can interact positively in our relationships.
So following the "logic" of this, a modern Stoic likely would have
to re-think fairly seriously about the suppression of emotions.
More than likely a smart Stoic, today, would be looking at this
issue from the perspective of Depth Psychology--not physics,
yet a mental science that has opened up a wide avenue of
understanding when it comes to the human "psyche."

All in all, today's Stoic surely can stand on the foundation of those
early Stoics; yet, in light of our more extensive modern knowledge
base, contemporary Stoics need adjust their perspective accordingly.

Monday, June 4, 2007

(11) A Common Climate

"Stoicism expounded a new outlook on personal dignity and
on the nature of law, together with a new conception of the state,
as reflecting world order and as leading men of all origins and
classes to personal fulfillment. It may be said that this philosophy
not only presented a moral alternative to Christianity, but also
that it helped develop a climate in which Christian teaching
could take hold more firmly. Many of its doctrines were trans-
posed into Christian thought by the Fathers of the Church
and have become important aspects of modern civilization
and thought. "
[New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Stoicism," p. 719.]
(Also,see the "Assimilation" post in this website)

Comment: Considering that these seemingly "modern" ideas
were around more than twenty centuries ago, one surely has to
count Stoicism as a real breakthrough in human consciousness!
This "new outlook" cropped forth in the midst of elitism, when
only the aristocracy might vote, where slavery seemed a
cultural necessity, and gender persecution of women had
been the norm for generations infinitum.

True, too, that Stoicism provided a receptive climate for Early
Christianity. This particular religion put a *personal face* on
the pantheism--or as some now think, panentheism--of the
Stoa. The ancient Gentiles of the Greco-Roman world were at
least vaguely familiar with these philosophical currents that made
it easier to convert them to the new religion of Christianity.
Scholars oft speculate that St. Paul of Tarsus may have been
familiar with the tenets of Stoicism. A major Stoa was located
in his city. And when one reads a good portion of his Epistles,
there's a universality there and even themes that suggest he was
borrowing from Stoic thought. It makes sense, considering the
Gentile audience he was aiming to convert.

Additionally, this process that moves from the Ancient Stoa to
Early Christianity can be viewed from another perspective. It's
about a CONTINUUM of Thought (or Information), if you will.
It's not only about the considerations of Deity, about the Logos
and the Pneuma, unto Christ as the "Incarnation of the Logos,"
about the Holy Spirit, but it is also about consolidating and
working towards a world order: i.e., the Body of Christ, in which
all served its purpose, employing their respective talents and
abilities. The Stoa's "City of Zeus" became Early Christianity's
"City of God."

Alas, peering out into the world of our own day, it would seem
that much of the hopeful thought of both the Ancient Stoa and
Early Christianity has evaporated. Christianity slipped into a
medieval mode, becoming more and more authoritarian, later
more and more fragmented as various groups grasped for
reform. As for the Stoa, well it graduated for a long time into one
of those lost philosophies where only a few scholars here and
there took interest. As majestic as Stoicism was as a philosophy,
it never made it down to the grass-roots of Humanity. And
Christianity lost its high horizons and fell to earth, now swaddled
in the parochialism of the grass-roots, oft swayed by those
authoritarians who play their own power politics in this once
hopeful religion.

Still, there's a common climate that exists between the Stoa and
what may eventually become a future, universally-oriented
Spirituality that seems to be arising here and there, in the world,
in our own time. The central themes of Stoicism can hold true
morally and even in terms of the idea of a Universal Ground of
Being, based not only on contemporary theological concepts but
also on some aspects of modern science theory.

Friday, June 1, 2007

(10) Flawed Fate

An encyclopedic account notes that "Zeno defined the end at
which man should aim as 'life in accordance with nature,' and
by 'nature' he meant not only man's instincts which lead him
to choose' the primarily natural,' i.e. life, health, etc., but also
the whole nature of the universe, which is identical with God.
Every event in the whole universe is necessary, providential
and due to the divine will. Since man cannot wholly foresee
the future, he is bound sometimes to choose what his own
nature suggests but what fate will prevent his attaining."

Comment: The above stated thought is unfortunately flawed.
There's no doubt that humans have a mind of their own, and
that more than occasionally they choose what is not good
for their own sake and even for the Greater Good. However,
Fate would oft seem remiss when it comes to disallowing
wrong decisions and actions.

We only have to look at Human History. It is full of horrific
acts. We only have to look at Natural Events. They, too,
can bring forth catastrophe.

The ancient Stoic believed that we somehow need "grin and
bear it," if you will. But is this idea a misnomer? Partly, in
that Stoic philosophers often wrote treatises that pretty much
were *avoidance manuals.* They focused on virtuous living.
By doing so, humans would learn to make the right decisions,
would learn to do the right thing.

There's certainly merit in the virtuous life--a life that includes
all the wise avenues and approaches we humans have devised
over our long history. Still, no one--not even the wisest of
Stoics--has ever attained what is deemed a "Sage" status.
Even within the context of the virtuous life there's struggle
and failure.

And in today's modern world, we face awesome struggle
and failure. Wrong decisions can lead to terrible tragedies.
And wicked decisions can lead to horror. The Stoics realized
that there were those who lived an un-virtuous life, and they
responded with a sense of moral condemnation. But in our
own time, condemnation without action will not cut it. We
cannot afford to leave it at that, so to speak.

As for equating God with the universe, well there are pantheists
and panentheists. Yet trouble arises when God seemingly
does allow Evil. Our long-held concepts of an All-Good God
become fragile in the face of Despair and Death and Dissolution.
Long after the Stoics our theologians try to cope with the Theodicy
Problem, boiled down to "why does God allow bad things to
happen to good people?"

On the other hand, one might see some merit in "living according
to nature" when we work to try to understand ourselves--i.e, our
specially formed proclivities, our disposition. When we better
understand our self, we can learn to go with the flow of who we
are. Using psychological lingo, learning to cooperate with our
particular archetypal construct is better than trying to cope with
stereotypical expectations that simply do not fit who we are.

It would be commendable, too, to try better to understand
how our universe works. Albeit, we humans are still "babes in
the woods" when it come to this intention. Still, if we could learn
to cooperate more with our natural surrounding, our environment,
we might learn to live in harmony with our planet. We might
learn, also, that our universe is a Gigantic System in which exist
systems upon systems infinitum. We might even discover
that ours is also a relational universe, i.e. Deep Ecology. It's
all connected!

Still, in today's world--as much as we can work to become more
wise, as much as we might learn about the workings of our
natural ecology, both individually unto universally, there's really
no guarantee when it comes to our fate. This goes against Stoic
principles, I suppose. Nonetheless, other Stoic tenets do talk of
virtue, of bravery, of justice, of moderation that boils down to
*intelligent living.* These tenets are helpful and can certainly
be applied to make ours a better world in which to live.

We just have to grow into them.