< The best weekend ever part two: The rest of the weekend | Main | No direction home >

September 27, 2005

Stoicism

This is yet another example of a pointless post. Just trying to get some thoughts down. You have been warned...

I am always amazed at the things I remember from college. Not necessarily the activities I was a part of, or the friends I made, but of the things I learned. For those of you who went to college, if you are anything like me every once in a while these memories of classes, professors' comments, course material and readings come creeping up in your consciousness when you least expect it. In fact, it surprises me to no end how often I will remember some little nugget of wisdom that struck me ... well ... over 10 years ago now.

Why does this happen? Why do these memories suddenly come to the surface? And lest you think I am troubled by these memories, this couldn't be further from the truth. I wouldn't trade my college years for anything and I am thrilled that memories like these catch me off guard every once in a while.

Today I was thinking about a class I took as a freshman called "Principia." Even now I still don't quite get what the point of the class was, but there are two very distinct memories I have of the class. One is a class period when the professor broke the class into male and female groups and then asked us to discuss whether or not we would ever want to be a member of the opposite sex, even if it was just for a day. Of the males in the class, not one said that they would ever want to see what it was like to be a woman. Not even for a day. Well over half the women wanted to see what it would be like to be a man.

The second memory I have of this class comes from a course reading. During this class we read excerpts from the works of the philosopher Epictetus. If you have never heard of Epictetus, that's OK. I had never heard of him either. But to this day, one of the passages from his works still strikes me as something so profoundly interesting that I can't shake it from my memory:

Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled. So also here; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, do not trust your impression in every particular, nor permit your exuberance to proceed as much as it wants, but hold it back, stop it, just like those who stand behind generals parading in triumph and remind them that they are human. So too remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year, and that if you yearn for it in the winter, you are a fool. If in this way you long for your son, or your friend, at a time when he has not been given to you, rest assured that you are yearning for a fig in winter. For as winter is to a fig, so is every state of affairs in relation to the things which are destroyed in accordance with that same state of affairs. (Disc. 3. 24. 84-7; cf. Ench. 3)

Essentially, if you like a jar say you like a jar for when it is broken it won't trouble you. And treat your relationships with the people you love in the same way. Focus on the fragility of all the things you love. Discipline yourself to anticipate the inevitabilty of mortality, the fact that nothing lasts forever. Epictetus called this discipline askesis.

The goal of the stoic, like Epictetus, is to control one's feelings and emotions so that they never subject the stoic to painful, or hurtful thoughts which usually rob a person of inner harmony, tranquility, and the abilty to think rationally.1

Anyway, that is what I was thinking about today. Why? I have no idea. But I remember being a freshman in college and thinking that this philosophy is about the stupidest thing I had ever read. In fact, it became a running joke between me and my friends. "Say you love that Coke, for when it is gone you will not be angry."

This is the kind of stuff I wonder about. I have a sneaky suspicion that other people have thoughts like this too, but just choose not to bore their blog readers with the details. Carry on with your business...

Posted by snackeru at September 27, 2005 9:52 PM | Stuff I wonder about

Comments

I think the next step here is regret. When something you love is gone, you tend to blame yourself for it's disappearance. Regret is such a poisionous feeling. People deal with it in different ways, many of the coping mechanisms have nothing to do with the (regretful) event. People drink, do drugs, wallow, become depressed, confess, and repent, all in order to escape it's clutches. None of those things help you deal with the issue... can you forgive yourself? Why did you act as you did? Did you really know better at the time?

Sometimes it's justified, sometimes not. Usually it's not. Using hindsight, decisions become easy, and bad ones become easily regretable.

There's a short list of things which I really can't fully forgive myself for. One thing I can say is that owning up to those failures has changed me. I won't make those mistakes again, because I know how much damage it will cause to myself, my ego, and my pride (self-worth). When you compare the value of those things to whatever decision (and it has to be a choice, not something you're forced to do) you're up against... not many things are more precious than that.

So there's my ramblings on the subject of regret, fwiw. Good post Shane, it was interesting to hear you wax philosophical a bit.

Posted by: Andy at September 28, 2005 12:13 PM

Compare and contrast the Buddha's philosophy of liberation from desire: at its heart is the development of a constant attentiveness that is focused on the now, not wishing for something else to have happened, or pinning hopes on something occurring in the future. And the concept that everything is temporary also finds a place here; meditations on the unclean nature of the body, or even the decomposition of a corpse, are found in several schools.

Posted by: Chapman at September 28, 2005 2:34 PM

Wow, some good philosophizing here, guys! Very deep Andy. Sounds like you've gone through some tough times. And Chapman, my man! I had no idea you could have such eloquence!

I will say that in terms of Buddha's or Epictetus's philosophy there is a danger of squelching parts of us that make us all human. Grief is a part of life. Sure it can sometimes be inappropriately manifested, but it can also be part of the healing process. I mean, I understand Epictetus's point is for us to come to grips with the nature of life and death and not fret over it, but to block out pain is both unrealistic and probably unhealthy. I'd rather be human.

Posted by: Shane at September 28, 2005 4:24 PM

eXTReMe Tracker
View My Stats