“What Used to Be” – The Pain of Loss with Boethius

26 04 2009

      Boethius’s Consolidations of Philosophy might not be as famous as Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Despite its being forgotten from the classroom (especially in comparison with the other “big names”), this work is considered to be quite influential, and it serves as a direct application of the philosophical process to human life.

      Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius himself – born around 480 AD – was a consul to the  kingdom of the Ostrogoths. As the son of a consul, with both popes and Roman emperors in his heritage, young Boethius was privileged to attain a formal education in Greek – possibly in Alexandria. Working to a position of vast governmental significance under Theodoric, Boethius was unfortunately accused of treason for a cause that is not known.

      After his arrest, Boethius was sent away to Pavia, where he would wait for his own death without any of the fruits of his life’s labor, or the pleasures he has become accustomed. During this wait, he wrote Consolations of Philosophy – where he writes the book as in interesting dialogue between himself and the physical, female embodiment of philosophy itself.

      In these dialogues, Boethius explores the ideas of fate, the nature of happiness, and God. Lady Philosophy attempts to reveal to Boethius that his happiness needn’t depend upon fortune and external events, but that – given his understanding of philosophy – it should reside under his command.

      These reflections are poignant, and directly relevant to the most important issues Boethius must have been juggling with as he waited for his execution in prison. A particular quote resonates well with Boethius’s fall from remarkably good fortune to remarkably bad, and it brings a fascinating issue to the table:

 

“For in every ill-turn of fortune the most unhappy sort of unfortunate man is the one who has been happy”

 

      Ah, isn’t it so. Most people can immediately find a situation in their own life to tie in with this quote as soon as it is read. Can you?

      Here Boethius expresses an idea to the colloquial phrase “we don’t know what we’ve got ’til its gone.” The insight here is that all of our conditions are filtered through our perspective, and if our conditions are relatively worse than they were before, we’re often going to feel it.

      It is commonly said that the poor and wakes up poor every morning and is barely troubled, while if the rich man woke up poor he would be tremendously troubled. We become accustomed to and potentially identifies with certain conveniences, certain pleasures, and certain privileges.

      Once these are removed, our focus is not on what is left – on what is present – but on what was, and is now lost. Our daily lives may become filled with ideas of what we once had in similar circumstances, but no longer have. This focus on loss and the past continues, and so we suffer.

      The good news is (there’s good news?!), this suffering is completely dependant on the objects of our perception. Our sense of self may have been attached to those things or circumstances which good fortune had brought us. Our continued focus on them in their absence will bring about a sinking feeling.

     Think about something simple, like an iPod and a laptop computer. I didn’t have either of these two items a few years ago. If I woke up tomorrow and my macbook/iPod were gone, I would – to be honest – at least feel an initial pang of pain.

      These objects have become such an easy way for me to store and record important information, they aide in my ability to study and grow. If I never owned these objects, then waking up without them would likely not bring down my emotional state.

      Taking the insight of Boethius into account, we might make note of those things and situations which we genuinely appreciate. We might also understand that our continued focus on that which is lost will only bring about feelings associated with loss – and that overcoming this aspect of our condition implies control of our focus.

      Just from reading this blog post, it might be hard to immediately apply these ideas to a situation as serious as that of Boethius. However, if in the near future you only have to deal with a missing iPod and not your impending doom, you might be able to put your conscious perspective to work.





“The Other Side of the Story” – Free Thought and John Stuart Mill

23 04 2009

      The “Cliff Notes” version of John Stuart Mill usually entails his ethical arguments and his works on utilitarianism. It often isn’t mentioned that his works also cover topics ranging from free speech, to economics, to the duties of parents to their children.

      Mill’s childhood is unique and fascinating. Born in 1806 the son of prominent Scottish thinker James Mill, young John Stuart became his father’s intellectual project. James intended for his son to be a brilliant advocate and implementer of his own moral philosophy; utilitarianism. From an early age, John Stuart was given a rigorous regimen of studies, and was restricted from involvement with his peers. At the age of three, he was taught Greek, and by the age of eight, he had read 6 dialogues of Plato, Aesop’s Fables, and much more. At age fourteen he stayed with one of his father’s friends in France and came to study zoology, chemistry, and advanced mathematics. 

      John Stuart was human, however, and at age twenty he was crushed by the burdens and expectations placed upon him and had a nervous breakdown. Luckily he recovered, and went on to influence western history through his political involvement and philosophical work.

      The following quote comes from Mill’s On Liberty, an eloquent a persuasive work concerning social and political freedom. In the section Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, he writes of our ideas of truth and the way in which we deal with facts and other people. I found this quote to be poignant:

 

“He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may be able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, ha has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

 

      The beauty of this message is that it applies to every facet of our beliefs and values, every realm of our conscious life. Weather it be the way we perform a dance or a technique in martial arts, the way we treat our parents, or the way we make blueberry pancakes, there is always another way of going about things, a way that could be argued to be superior, and could be considered as a better maxim to act upon.

      How many times have we had a way of going about things, and fallen into the fallacy that it was the ONLY “right” way? Think of an instance when you had come to the conclusion that your method or belief was the only one to be considered. Can you not also think of a time when that belief was blown out of the water? 

      Imagine someone who promotes the use of certain crop fertilizers. He can list the benefits of these fertilizers, the decreased percentages of insects on fertilized crops, and every argument that any farmer has ever used to justify their fertilizer use. When others mention the potentially harmful effects of these fertilizers, he silences them with claims of its economic benefits, increases in plant growth, et cetera. However, his mind has never been open to understanding the stances against these fertilizers, and if asked he couldn’t even explain the arguments of those who want to ban fertilizers. 

      Could this man claim to adequately understand the debate? If his mind was open to the idea of other arguments, he would at least be able to cross-reference his reasoning with theirs, and take an informed stance as opposed to a dogmatic one. 

      Mill sees this process of integrating perspective and reforming beliefs to be an alive, active process towards truth – or as close an idea of truth as we might come to know. His writings firmly stood against any dogmas, and he believed that even fallacies should be allowed to be spoken, for in understanding them and proving their falsity, we come to a more rounded idea of truth for ourselves – as individuals and as a society. 

      We might take this perspective to heart. There may be a better way of thinking about a specific political issue or cause, or a better way to understand an important ethical concern in our life – and we might be holding ourself back by not openly considering other perspective. If nothing else… someone might have a better recipe for blueberry pancakes.





“Nicomachean Self Development” – Aristotle’s Ideas on Forging Character

22 04 2009

      Possibly the single most influential philosopher (if not thinker) of all time, Aristotle’s works cover an astounding array of insight in mathematics, biology, physics, philosophy (go figure) and more. Through his massive contribution, he has been referred to as the determiner of the orientation of Western intellectual history. There might be no better man to learn from – especially on the subject of how we might live our best life.

      Born in 384 BC, Aristotle’s father was the primary physician to the king of Macedonia. Relatively little is known of Aristotle’s youth, but there is good evidence to believe that both of his parents died early in his life. Though the exact dates vary, it seems clear that Aristotle came to study under Plato around the age of seventeen. When Plato died and left his Academy to his nephew Speusippus, Aristotle went off to Asia Minor to begin his own school. 

      One of Aristotle’s principal works is his Nicomachean Ethics, is a fascinating text dealing with his understanding of happiness through reason. In coming to understand happiness for Aristotle, the cultivation of the self seems to be essential – a thought expressed well in the context of virtue by the following quotation:

 

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” 

 

      This quote is pivotal in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and its lesson can be applied to us all – at least on a practical level. Aristotle believes that we are what we do regularly, that our characters are shaped by our own kind of self-conditioning.

      Here Aristotle seems to acknowledge the deterministic forces that affect us from within and without. He seems to recognize that as humans we are creatures of habit, and that our lives are firmly forged by the patterns of thought and behavior that we habitually run through.

      So… can we label people by what they do frequently? Its probably not ideal to pidgeon-hole people entirely to traits, but think about this: why do you call your shy friend your “shy friend”? Is it because he once was tentative to voice his opinion or disagree with someone verbally? Of course not, he is your “shy friend” because he’s the friend that consistently acts in a shy fashion. He has consistently responded to social situations by reserving his own position, by responding with fear to asserting his personality and views.

      If you wish to become responsible with your money, will you call this task complete after restraining your buying impulses twice in the same week? This would seem ridiculous, saving and investing effectively involves knowledge and consistent action. Becoming “one who saves and invests well” implies action over the course of a lifetime, it implies a honing of our values and our regular routes of behavior. In Aristotle’s understanding, those who are responsible (or “act rightly”) with their money are not so because they are innately virtuous people, but because they have cultivated this virtue by consistently and consciously dealing with their money intelligently.

      If we espouse to Aristotle’s beliefs here, we may be let down by the understanding that we may not have been born with traits and habits that we see as ideal – but it would make more sense to be liberated by the understanding that we are able to constantly craft ourselves towards these ideals.

      It might be exceptionally valuable to ask ourselves: what habits are we cultivating?  Are they those in line with our idea of “excellence,” of “virtue”? What kind of a self are we consciously – … or unconsciously – crafting? How we shape our character helps determine how we shape our destiny. If you take anyone’s word for, let it be Aristotle’s.





“Sad but Glad?” Thoreau on the Value of Emotion

15 04 2009

      Henry David Thoreau was actually born David Henry Thoreau, after his uncle who died shortly before his birth. His name did not change until after he graduated from college. He was known for being a reflective and simple man, one who studied and valued nature and our relationship with it. 

      Most people know Thoreau for his most famous work, Walden, which was composed during his two year project of simple living, where he lived alone in a small cabin near Walden Pond in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Few people are aware that Thoreau was also heavily involve in botany and natural history, and in studying the cycles and seasons of nature – especially in Concord. He was also an avid advocate for hiking, canoeing, and other outdoor recreational activity. His writings on the relations of people and nature can be seen as the beginnings of environmentalism.

      Thoreau’s works compile over 20 volumes (this includes not only books and essays, but his own journals and poems), covering vastly more than simply appreciating nature and avoiding taxes (two topics he is quite known for). Here is an interesting quote that we might all relate to:

 

“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

 

      The message here appears to be counterintuitive at first, its certainly not common advice. What could he possibly mean by regretting deeply being the same as living afresh? Who says “afresh” anyways? Well, Thoreau does, and here I believe he uses it meaningfully.

      Here encourages us to not resist the feelings within us that aren’t pleasant. He believes that they, too, should be appreciated instead of hidden or squashed down. Regrets and sorrow – for Thoreau – have a particular value to them, and when he says that regretting deeply is to live afresh, he likely is telling us that taking heed to these painful emotions can allow us to live ‘in a new or different way’ (thats what “afresh means,” for those of you wondering). 

      Regret might teach us about one of our values that we may have violated, possibly something we had not paid attention to prior. Maybe we treated someone harshly, and now we have sinking feeling inside of us about it. Couldn’t we view this feeling as a signal to indicate something important? We know that we haven’t treated someone in a way that we see as best, and a part of us – an important part of us – is letting us know that we’ve gone against what we have determined to be the best way to communicate with people and deal with situations. This could be the impetus to drive us to make note of our behavior and never treat anyone in that way again, it could also be a signal to drive us to confront the issue directly and apologize sincerely.

      Similarly, sorrow might bring insight into our own needs, and wisdom to change. Lets say we move away from home for a new job, and we awaken each morning feeling heavy and depressed – we cannot help but think about all that we might be missing out on at home, and the love and special connection that we have with the people we now miss so much. What can we draw from this experience, what kind of juice of life can we squeeze out of something so painful? Well, its possible that we have to change the way we think – change our perspective. We might come to understand that focusing on our losses will bring us to feel these losses, and that we should instead focus on fun ways we can keep our family connections and make new meaningful ones in our new location. This lesson in changing focus might carry over in import ways in other areas of our lives.

      Thoreau would probably want us to view these feelings as part of the richness of our experience. Haven’t you had a terrible experience teach you an invaluable lesson? In a way, this kind of pain can drive us to understand ourselves and alter our course for the better. In this sense, being disturbed is a good thing – something that remains “undisturbed” isn’t going to change! So the next time you’re feeling sad, be glad, there’s something to be drawn from it. Plus, you won’t be sad forever, the cycles and seasons are always changing… I think Thoreau might have liked that analogy. 





“Hey, at Least You’re not a Slave.” Epictetus on the Empowered Perspective

15 04 2009

      Around 50 A.D. a humble slave named Epictetus was born in Heirapolis. Though his situation did not provide him with all freedoms, he was lucky enough to be sent away by his master to study philosophy under Musonius Rufus, a great Stoic Philosopher of the time. His impact on Epictetus would be profound. Sometime after the death of Emperor Nero in 68 A.D., Epictetus was given his freedom, eventually founding his own school in Nicopolis. Despite becoming famous and respected (his school was attended by many children of the Roman elite), Epictetus – inspired by Socrates – continued to live an aesthetic life in a small hut with only a lamp and a rug in his possession. Also (but maybe not intentionally) in the spirit of Socrates, Epictetus left no records of his own. His works “Discourses” and “Enchiridion” were luckily written by his pupil, Arrian. 

      Like many Stoics, Epictetus tended to focus on ideas of ethics, and on living the philosophic life. He tended to have a bold view of the human capacities, and a willingness to adopt the proper perspective. One such example is beautifully put;

 

“Yet God has not only given us these faculties by which we may bear everything that comes to pass without being crushed or depressed thereby, but like a good king or father, he has given us this without let or hinderance, placed wholly at our own disposition, without reserving to himself any power of impediment or restraint.”

 

      In my opinion, one of Epictetus’ great lessons is that our experience is dictated from our perspective and our thoughts. He is known to have pointed out that it is not events that effect us, but our thoughts of such events – that it is not an act or incident that offends us, but our opinion that the given event is insulting. In the above quote, Epictetus plainly puts that we hold the ability to endure all events in our lives though our own consciousness.

      One might argue that we do not always take the view of things that is most conducive to our own peace and happiness. The “stupid bills” or the “damn car” or the “f***ing weather” don’t exactly put us in a state of joy. I know what you’re thinking; should we come to love and seek out flat tires and hurricanes? Not necessarily, and I don’t think Epictetus would advise us to do to. He might, however, ask what ABOUT the flat tire we can learn from or appreciate, or what ABOUT the hurricane can he have fun with? Maybe when we’re staying indoors to avoid bad weather, we can take time to study something that fascinates us, maybe a power shortage results in a unique candlelight dinner. 

      In addition to the valuable message of the quote, there is a lesson to be learned about the method in which Epictetus writes it. He frames the meaning of the conditions of human life in a way that promotes our appreciation, our positivity. He says “not only” do we been granted this fantastic ability to endure all events by altering our perspective, but that this power is wholly under our control, and its exercise might develop us as people. He COULD have said “yeah, we’ve got this ability to endure hardships with our conscious focus, but we have to work for it, why couldn’t God just be nice to us and make us always at peace instead of having to develop the ability within?” But don’t you see, this would be contradicting his own wisdom! In conveying our capabilities to use the ability to interpret events in an empowering way, he also takes an empowering perspective and EMBRACES AND APPRECIATES the fact that we ourselves cultivate this ability for our own good. This bit of wisdom carries a message and an example.

      Where might we apply this to our own lives? How do events in our own lives effect us, and what are the meanings we tie to them? We might endeavor ourselves in providing empowering meaning behind all events in our lives. You might start with appreciating that you weren’t born a slave and you have more to your name than a piece of carpet! But know that even then you could be happy.      : )





“Don’t Front!” Self Development According to Socrates

13 04 2009

      Ah, the first article of the Highest Faculties series. What better philosopher to honor in our original article than the man argued to be the origin of Western philosophy; Socrates.

      Despite his often being celebrated as the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, little is known of Socrates himself, and partially because he left no personal records. What is known, is that he was born in 469 B.C. in Athens. Other than being the son of a sculptor, and a foot-soldier, few facts remain of his life before philosophy. In the middle portion of his life, Socrates devoted himself completely to the philosophical practice he is best known for, which for him did not involve opening up a school – but open, philosophical conversation and inquiry.

      Not known for being a handsome or particularly hygienic man, he would stroll through Athens, speaking with absolutely everyone about absolutely everything. His quest was as much to learn as to teach, and though he frequently brought people to realize the ignorance in their assumptions, he was not one to claim the answers to the infinite and important questions of life. In the year 400 B.C., he was convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth with his antics, and was sentenced to death by hemlock poison. As a testament to his own virtues, Socrates drank the poison without fear, consoling his friends before his own eminent death. As the teacher of Plato, an educator of his entire community, and an inspiration for great thinkers to this day, his impact was certainly not cut off as quickly as his life.

      Socrates is revered for his wisdom and his dedication to philosophy as a mode of examining our lives. Many of his recorded quotes deal with admirably living our daily lives, I found this one to be particularly interesting:

 

      “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

 

      The statement that the wise Greek puts forth here has to do with our will, our ideals, and our intent. Socrates seems to point out the fact that we often convey what we believe to be our best self, or the most noble form of ourselves. Its not uncommon, for example, for a glory-seeking individual to describe themselves as a true altruist, or for an impulsive spender to consider their shopping to be frugal. Often, the descriptions that we ascribe to ourselves not only serve the purpose of conveying our idea of positive traits to others, but also to convince ourselves or our own virtues – which if we would look closely, we might realize are not actually there.

      To follow Socrates’ advice would require a degree of introspection – understanding in terms of what we value and what we are conveying to others and what we would like to convey to ourselves ABOUT ourselves. In this way we can gain an understanding of our own ideals, or the traits, characteristics, and practices that we hold to be valuable. What follows is action we take and the will we use to steer ourselves in the direction of the virtues we deem best. For instance, an impulsive spender might notice his habit, and also notice that he holds other behaviors to be more valuable, and possibly more beneficial as general practices for his life. From here it is his own responsibility to mold himself to become his own ideal of virtue.

      The essence of this quote might lie in aligning our conveyed intention and character – which is often given in the impression of what we actually believe to be best or highest – to our ACTUAL intention and character. This involves self awareness and diligence, but it Socrates likely believed that it was integral in the process of living honorably. Knowing that he lived a life in congruence with his own highest values may have been what allowed Socrates himself to face his cup of hemlock boldly – without tears of fear or of remorse.