The Game Part I

Greetings again! I promised we would be dealing with this topic in my last post so here we go.

Making a Good Impression

Do you remember how, when you were very young, your mother would dress you up nicely whenever there was an event going on or when you had some kind of special guest? And how you always heard around you 2 phrases: “This will make a (very) good impression!” (before the event) or “We/You made a good impression!” (after the event). In thousands of years, people still are mostly not use to the fact that children’s brains absorb and process everything they see and hear, particularly when the example comes from mom and dad. And so we go on, all our lives, striving to make ourselves look good in front of parents, friends, authorities, work-mates etc. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be affable and good company or that we should be as anoying as possible; don’t get me wrong. But because of this obsession with impression-making which develops over time, we forget the importance of being authentic. We forget to be true to ourselves. In the process, we also repeatedly decieve others, because over the years we become adept at putting on a good show. But that’s all we become: a show, a mask. Some people put on such a spectacle that they forget all about what they really feel; and if they do know what they feel, they hide it. I’m not suggesting that if you want to kill someone you should go and do it, but if you really do dislike someone, tell the person; and tell him/her, quite honestly, why you don’t like him/her. It may be very beneficial even for the person you’re talking to; constructive criticism might encourage the guy to change for the better. But we often prefer the “nice” and “civilized” way and put on a big smiley face while in our heads we send them to hell. Naturally, there are situations when diplomacy is recommended; as I said, there is no one way to deal with all situations, but turning into full-scale hypocrites is definitely not the way to go.  Same thing goes for work-relationships. We often try to make ourselves look better than we are (professionally speaking) instead of first reaching the required level and then putting on the show with fancy suits and so on. For example, if you are not usually punctual, don’t write “punctual” in your CV. First develop the habit of being punctual (it only takes 21 days), and then you can write “punctual”, because you actually are how you present yourself.

That’s just the very superficial part of the Game; now we move a bit deeper into the matter.

Survival

Now here’s a good question: some people see life as better than death and others say that death is better than life; why?  People are equally afraid of living (as in “The world is an awful place to be.” or “Life is hell” or “Life sucks” etc) as they are of dying. You see, the main reason why a thief steals or a hit-man kills is simply…survival. They have to eat and need a house to live in. On the other end of the spectrum, people who believe in a literal Heaven that they’ll go to after death despise this life and say it’s nothing compared to what they hope to receive post-mortem; but even they are afraid to die. So, in short, people are mostly incapable of enjoying life and definitely do NOT want to die; so we cling to a life we don’t want (for whatever reason) and are afraid of something we cannot avoid. Now I ask you: is that any way to live? The sooner we understand that life and death are equally natural and that health and sickness are both normal, we can actually stop being afraid and start living our lives. Now,  people  aren’t inherently stupid in any way; it’s just the way they’ve been taught to think. But I tell you this: if you think the idea of serving God as entertained by medieval Christianity was stupid, you should indeed realize that setting survival as the goal of life is even more idiotic; you cannot survive no matter what you do; we all die sooner or later. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? If yes, that’s your conditioning talking again. Dying is as natural and as neutral (i.e. neither good nor bad in itself) as being born. As long as you think your “purpose” is to survive, you’re a slave to whoever promises to give you sugar-cubes. And that leads us to our next point.

Bittersweet Slavery

People promise each-other many things: help, favors, money (on a more or less daily basis, i.e. in ordinary everyday life) and power, prestige and, last but not least, salvation (on a less frequent basis). All of these (and other similar things) I collectively  call “sugar-cubes”. That’s what they are. They make life sweet, for a while… But then you realize (if you care to notice) that, if you’re not careful, you become addicted to these things. Now, one point must be made clear. These sugar-cubes are not “bad”; eating is natural and so is asking for assistance when needed. Power and influence are also neutral, in the sense that it depends what you do with these; they aren’t “evil”. It’s not these things in themselves that are to be avoided; but it is indeed advisable that one avoid psychological dependence on them. Recognize that  sometimes they are available and sometimes not; if they are, good, if not, good. Train yourself to see the world as it is, not how you are led to believe it is; life is hell only if you make it so for yourself. It can be radically different. And one important aspect is mental discipline; by this I don’t mean exotic yoga exercises etc. I don’t know the first thing about yoga anyway. Mental discipline means simply 2 things: calm and attention. You could also call it “psychological indifference”.  If you can combine these, you’re on your way to re-discovering reality; it won’t happen over night, obviously, but it will be worth it. The idea here is that once you accept the way of things, you can’t be forced to do anything and you are no longer afraid either to live or to die; there is a saying that “The wise man is sufficient for himself”. That is to say, he doesn’t beg; he asks for something if he needs it, but does not beg.

There is an anecdote about Alexander the Great which I find entertaining. You all know that he was a great conqueror whos empire stretched all the way from Macedonia to India. Until de died (at 33 years of age) all he did was fight, fight, fight. He even said “My only regret is that after I finish conquering this whole world, there is no other world for me to conquer” (Talk about ambition, eh?) Based on this, a story circulated in Antiquity. Alexander once met Diogenes, who was relaxing under a tree.  They started a short conversation and at one point the king said: “After all the earth is united under my command I will finally be able to relax.” And the other answered with a smile “I’m relaxing right now!” “Ah, said Alexander, but you’re just a beggar.” And he received this reply: “No, Alexander, YOU are the beggar. All your life you were dependent upon the recognition and praise given to you by others, dependent upon the need to satisfy your wish of dominion over nations; you were never free of your ambitions. All you did was to seek after the service of other people. You never stood on your own two feet even for one moment”.

Maintaining a calm mode of perception and paying attention leads to, among other things: acceptance of what is natural, seeing all people as equals (you will have neither friends nor enemies–you will not treat the people you get along with as “more important” than others), you will no longer have a kind of quasi-superstitious reverence for authority (but you will, insted respect the representatives of authority as human beings) and you will no longer be bound by love and hate. You see, love is just another sugar-cube (at least in the way the word “love” is commonly understood–this one’s for later). You become both dependent on the one you “love” (or rather think you love) and at the same time you become blind; you take sides with that person regardless if he/she’s right or not. And when you realise the person was wrong or when he/she does something you don’t like, you get angry and frustrated. On the other side of the coin, when you hate someone you don’t care what he/she does: it’s always wrong.

And that leads us to our final point.

Why So Serious?

A big part of people’s problems derive from the fact that they take their plans, wishes, opinions etc. as serious things. Of course, living life automatically assumes having plans, wishes etc. But let me try to ilustrate what I mean by :serious”. You want a pizza. You go get one. On the way home you run into a guy that takes your pizza; you take that pizza very seriously–>you fight for it (in the worst case scenario) or you get very angry at having lost your pizza and remain angry for the rest of the day; if you don’t take it seriously, you will regret the loss of your pizza for maximum 2 minutes (or you won’t regret at all) after which life will go on as usual.

One key to this is the realization of impermanence. Friendships, objects, people etc are all impermanent. One day someone likes you, the next he gets angry with you; one day you have a computer, next thing you know a short-circuit messes it up. And so on. Accept what happens. Of course, I do not mean to say that you should be like a vegetable and do nothing. Take precautios and be prudent; it’s perfectly rational to do so.  Here’s another thing: it is as natural for things not to exist as it is for them to exist. Did you ever look at it this way? Everything changes all the time. That is the meaning of impermanence: perpetual change. And there is nothing “unnatural” or “evil” about it. Could you imagine things NEVER changing? This is what I mean by life being a game: we pretend that only certain things should happen, while we believe others, which are equally natural, should not. And because of this, we perpetually fight to have things just the way we want them, despite the fact that our idea of what is normal goes directly against reality. Look: sunrise and sunset, the cars outside, the wind, walking from point A to B, all of these (and everything that happens) is continuous change; all motion is change, all of existence is a permanent string of infinite changes. Absolutely everything that is going on at any given moment, from your blood-flow to the rotation of the Earth around the Sun is change. Why consider it evil? Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!”

Now the reason why I quote good old Marcus is because when people hear a quote like that they think whoever said it just has to be either completely nuts or completely out of touch with the hardships of life. This man, however, was one of Rome’s last real emperors (before Comodus, Calligula and Nero came along). He had to fight wars, take care of finances and the other things that come along with a throne. He went through all the hardships you can think of.

One last note on taking things seriously. Modern science tells us that the Universe will, one day, end. Different specialists have different theories about how that will happen, as you know, but they all agree it will happen someday, somehow. So even if we manage to colonise the Universe from one end to the other, the whole show will dissapear. My favorite theory is that there will come a moment when, because the Universe is expanding, gravity will get weaker and weaker, until even atoms will no longer be held together (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_energy; after that, the Cosmos will be “re-created”, as it were–see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclic_model); in other words, this Universe will dissipate in the exact manner of smoke. So before you go off making a lot of trouble for yourself and others, ask yourself if it’s worth it. If you’re honest, you’ll see it isn’t.

Note: After it’s disapearence,

To be continued…

Yours,

Victor

So Much Time…

Hi there!  In my last post I breefly touched upon an important subject. I have an important news bulletin for you folks. There is a new malady running amok. It’s not AIDS or swine flew, it is far more contagious than leprosy or the Bubonic Plague and its effects are 1000 times more far-reaching than cancer. The worse news is that there is no pill or vaccine against it, no doctor has ever been able to diagnose it and   Even the world’s top medical dictionaries don’t mention it (not to my knoledge anyway)… It is FBS, or Frustration & Boredom Syndrome (alternatively known among the less-educated as “Fabulous Bullshit”). It’s a real trickster this little one, I’ll tell you that. In the following lines, I will describe the symptoms of and provide a possible cure for FBS.

A Day Without Daylight

As you rad this, you might remember days when: 1) you had nothing better to do than to fiddle around with your pen between your fingers, 2) you stood in bed on looooong rainy days, unable to sleep but also unable to do anything else 3) you had someone with you and you desperately tried to start a conversation despite not having anything to talk about and 4) standing in front of your PC doing whatever and complaining 4 times or more in the interval of 10 minutes about how bored you were. These are the 4 main symptoms of FBS. There are others of course, but these are the most common and the most evident.

How do you get it?

Ever heard of something called “learned paralisis”? Well, this also is learned. You are (obviously) not “infected” with it in the literal sense. But certain attitudes and mannerisms have the habit of going from one generation to the next, everyone making them all the more inescapable for everyone else because those things seem all the more natural and “default” in a way. For the most part, you learn what is usually boring (like long rainy days). Naturally, there are things which we ourselves find uninteresting (like a certain kind of movie, or golf), but you get the idea :).

Cure

Nothing too fancy. Simply remember that there is nothing to be done. Nothing to struggle for or against. Nothing more important than any other thing, all being equal. Sample: You have some work to do (whatever that may be), but the weather is just dandy and you want to go out for a walk or meet some friends or some such thing. Inevitably, you get frustrated (excluding the case where you just drop the project/activity and get out the door). When this happens, remind yourself: “All things are equally important, equally relevant”. Then go back to work and finish it. Sample B: You have absolutely nothing to do and nothing notable is going on; you end up wanting to have something to do, but there is nothing. Again, you get frustrated. The problem with FBS is simply this: people want to relax when there is work and want to work when they have an opportunity to relax. Remember this quote from Osho (died in 1990):

Work is necessary for you to live, but remember that the main thing in life is to play.

So the best thing to do is to realise that both work and relaxation are parts (equally important parts) of a game; a fun game which ends only when you die (not even then, because the sleep of death is also part of the game–more on the Great Game later). We do not live to work, we work to live. When work stops you from living and when your frustrated thoughts stop you from working, keep in mind that work is the tool. When you work, work; when you relax, relax. And when you work, work diligently, when you relax, relax fully. Then all boredom and frustration will vanish by itself. At all times remember: there is nothing to do besides what you are doing in the present; just like when you are in a bakery you do not ask for meet, if there is something you are doing in the present moment (whatsoever it may be, from sleeping to mountain-climbing), do not say to yourself “I should be doing something else, like <insert>”.  When you are in bed resting and there is nothing you have to do, simply rest (or whatch a movie or whatever). Don’t reproach yourself for not “doing something useful”; vice-versa, when you have to do something, do not presume that that “isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing”. Life is a river; flow with it, not against it.

Enjoy life in all its aspects; there is nothing you should be doing besides what you do at any given moment. Be flexible and learn to ride the wind.  Come again!

Yours,

Victor

Marijuana…With a Smile

“Are you against drugs?” Well if that popped into your mind, the answer is no. Let’s get on with it, eh?

Now, Mary Jane isn’t going to kill you, it won’t make you kill your parrents and it is unlikely you’re going to develop any kind of chronical adiction to it. It’s easy to get and it’s natural, so no nasty side-effects like loosing your teeth and looking like you’re 70 when in fact you’re 25. So it seems to be the best thing that ever happened to you, right? It can be… if you’re content with second-hand solutions. My view on this is eminently practical before anything else.

Do I smoke weed? No. Not because there’s a law somewhere that says “Don’t”. There have always been laws with flimzy justifications. The reason why I recomend that people shouldn’t do it is because there’s no need to. Let me show you what I mean. People take it in order to relax. Nothing else. It does a fantastic job in removing stress (and if you’ve taken some, you know exactly what I mean :) ) It’s also a good way of socializing; if you want some, you 1) need to know people who can supply you with it and 2) get together with fellow-somkers and have a barrel of laughs while you start seeing all sorts of things. Let me tell you, from floating on air to chasing monkeys you’ll have the entire spectrum of trips. And it’s fun while it lasts, too.

But it doesn’t last… and when you’re done and have no more joints, you’re back to your usual self, boared out of your skull, begging existence for something interesting to drag you out of a long-lasting quasi-permanent lethargy. That’s why I said it’s a 2nd-hand solution. It’s like closing your eyes and hoping all your troubles will go away when you open them again; of course, you only end up being dissapointed by the fact that everything you hoped to get away from is still there, smiling back at you with a sickeneng grin that would drive you mad if it weren’t for that dizzy brain of your that still hasn’t sobered up completely.

So, in the end, you’ve done practically nothing. Yes, you’ve had your fun. But now what? Get more? That would be nice, but if you run your hands through your pockets, you’ll notice a distinct lack of cash… That’s the way the cookie crumbles… You see, that’s the point: all weed does is make you weak. Every time you have a problem, you feel the need to smoke. Naturally, not everyone does this. Most people are capable of enough self-discipline that they only smoke once in a while, with no negative consequences whatsoever. But if that’s possible, why not take it a step further? Why not learn to find happiness without holding hands with Lady Mary? I’m telling you, that’s the best gift you could ever give yourself.

“How do I do that?”

It’s a rather simple answer, despite the fact that the question appears complicated. Stop taking life so seriously. Ever since we’re little kids we’re taught to think of everything as serious; everything around us is “adult buisness”. Do you remember that phrase? “This is stuff for grown-ups”… But what do people actually do? They play adult games. You played with toys; they play with money. You wanted a bike; they want a high social status. You asked for food; they ask for power. And it’s all serious. VERY serious, they tell you. Of course, most of us only dream of wealth, power and whatever else. We’re told we need all those thing, but we don’t have them. That makes us boared, frustrated, sad… We’re told that the only thing that can make us content is something…”interesting”. But you need a whole lot of money to make something “interesting” happen. The sooner you get those ideas out of your head and de-socialize your neurons, the sooner you will find out how interesting life already is.

Did you ever notice that little children almost never get boared? Because, to them, everything is new, fresh and full of significance. We, on the other hand, “mature” and “wise” as we are, have gone beyond such childish delusions. “It’s just food”, “just someone else laughing with his friends”, “just a walk in the park” etc. We’ve seen it all before. Nothing new. Same old boaring story with nothing special happening. It’s just life, right? Nope. It’s not just life, it’s everything you need. We are taught to ignore 75% of what goes on everyday and dismiss it as “unimportant” or “irelevant”. but it’s not really like that.

Learn to take a fresh look at the world… You’ll never need weed again, but you’ll still be smiling; and you’ll be doing it on your own two feet, free of charge! :)

Yours,

Victor

5th April 2010

Easter greetings, all you happy campers!

It’s interesting…spending my first Easter away from home; it’s just one of those crazy spontaneous impulses that hit me and they’re so darn crazy I just gotta do it! :) I figured why not? Yes, you got it right: I’m in Cluj. it’s been fun up to now (I’m going back Wednesday). We’ve had some friends over, drank wine, ate and generally had a good time. I even got the chance to (FINALLY) see the second season of “Merlin”!

Alexander the Great (room-mate) keeps telling me how empty this city is at this time of year since it’s full of faculties and a large slice of the population here is composed of students (which leave for shelter at home in such dark times as Easter :p… that Bugs Buny is mad I tell you…MAD! :)) ) At any rate, the locals get some peace and quiet… I mean it’s the first time since I firs came here that I saw an empty mall (and it’s a big hunk of  mall). Check back soon!

Yours,

Victor

Man and Nature

Stoicism–The Importance of a Clear Mind

This I intend to be my last “philosophical” essay, the final part of what I wanted to be a coherent whole (though, in the true sense of the word “philosophy”, all topics are philosophical) . We will be, after this, turning to social issues, but dealing with this last great current of thought is of greatest importance before we move on. And so we begin.

Do not let accidents disturb, or outward objects engross your thoughts, but keep your mind quiet and disengaged, that you may be at leisure to learn something good, and cease rambling from one thing to another. There is likewise another sort of roving to be avoided; for some people are busy and yet do nothing; they fatigue and wear themselves out, and yet aim at no goal, nor propose any general end of action or design.

It is the custom of people to go to unfrequented places and country places and the sea-shore and the mountains for retirement; and this you often earnestly desired. But, after all, this is but a vulgar fancy, for it is in your power to withdraw into yourself whenever you desire. Now one’s own mind is a place the most free from crowd and noise in the world, if a man’s thoughts are such as to ensure him perfect tranquillity (sic) within, and this tranquillity (sic) consists in the good ordering of the mind. Your way is, therefore, to make frequent use of this retirement, and refresh your virtue in it. And to this end, be always provided with a few short, uncontested notions, to keep your understanding true, and send you back content with the business to which you return. For instance: What is it that troubles you? It is the wickedness of the world. If this be your case, out with your antidote, and consider that rational beings were made for mutual advantage, that forbearance is one part of justice, and that people misbehave themselvs against their will. Consider likewise how many men have embroiled themselves, and spent their days in disputes, suspicion, and animosities; and now they are dead, and burnt to ashes. Be quiet, then, and disturb yourself no more….
(Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius)

Stoicism was a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, who was a pupil of Crates of Thebes (mentioned earlier).  Obviously, Stoicism and Cynicism have alot in common. Story has it that zeno came to Athens and went into a bookshop and started reading about Socrates and his teachings. He became so fond of then that he asked the librarian where he might find a teacher such as Socrates, at which time Crates passed by and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno. From then on. He became a devoted student of philosophy (Note:  not of theoretical philosophy, but of philosophic practice). And his 11 Points are as follows:

1) Man must live in accord with Nature (exterior nature as well as his own human nature) 2) The unity of all things 3) The world exists by way of interaction of opposites 4) That man is an integral part of the Cosmos and not somehow separate from it 5) Free Will 6) Simple living through moderation and frugality 7) One’s moral developement comes from seeking Virtue 8) Virtue is the only good, vice is the only evil, everything else is indifferent (explanation coming up) 9)The Cardinal Virtues are: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance 10) Happiness is achieved through anihilation of desire to posses, not wishing to control that which is beyond one’s power and having neither hopes nor fears regarding the future 11) The creation, destruction and recreation of the Universe–it has neither begining nor end.

These points were variously adopted by the many Stoics, each adapting them to his own understanding and to his respective context (Boethus of Sidon, for example, contrary to Stoic view, denied that the Universe was a living entity; etc). That is why we will be focusing on what is common to stoics, namely their ethics, for which point we will rely on one of the greatest and well-known of Stoic philosophers, namely Epictetus (3rd century . At the end of this article I will be posting a series of links, where I will also include one on his life and thought.

Moral Indifferents

Stoics held that everything aside from virtue and vice is indifferent regarding moral value. Examples: welth is neither “good” nor “bad”, poverty, life, death, pain, pleasure, work, spare time, social status etc. All of these do not posses an intrinsic positive or negative value; what matters, say the stoics, is what we do with these things–how we react to them. A reaction based on reason and a correct assessment of reality is good, while a reaction born of poor judgement, recklessness and delusion is not good.  As Epictetus put it:

  • “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
  • “If, therefore, any [ person] is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.”

So a) it is not things in themselves that make us unhappy, but the way we perceive then and b) we are the cause of our own unhappiness because we choose to be unhappy. This last statement may strike one as strange but I asure you it is not. We condemn ourselves daily to sorrow because we keep seeing things in black and white and do not notice their real nature. Example: Most people get sick in the stomach if someone starts talking about corpses at diner. Why? Surely to speak of a corpse is not the same as having to sense the smell of a corpse, is it? So why then do people react this way? It is a learned reaction, nothing more. We learn it through socialization; definition:

Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, politicians and educationalists to refer to the process of inheriting norms, customs and ideologies. It may provide the individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within their own society; a society itself is formed through a plurality of shared norms, customs, values, traditions, social roles, symbols and languages. Socialization is thus ‘the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained’. (Wikipedia)

Socialization is, in short, the process by which we, starting from when we are babies, begin to accumulate and imitate the habits and attitudes of those around us. Some of these are in acordance with Nature, while others are not. Returning to the example of the corpse, people would not have this strong physiological reaction if they had not been told that corpses are disgusting. Death, as stated above, is neither good nor bad (it is only natural) and so there is no real reason for people to feel their stomachs turned upside-down when they hear of it.

Detatchment

“Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away.” (Epictetus)

Upon realizing that change is natural and life is filled with it, and by accepting that those changes, based on the point expressed above, do not posses positive or negative value, we may act with detatchment and thus maintain clarity of mind and peace of heart. When we are separated from our friends or have to move to a new house etc. are not “bad” things that we need to get all hyped up about.  Epictetus was once told that someone  wanted him dead, at which he replied:

“They may kill me but they cannot harm me.”

This again strikes people as odd. Isn’t death the greatest harm one man may inflict upon another? Not necessarily. By “harm” he meant disturbance of his clarity of judgemnt and the arising of negative emotions in his mind; he is, in other words, saying: “It is quite possible that I will be killed, but that’s no reason to be worried.”

Discipline of Desire

Of these [three areas of study], the principle, and most urgent, is that which has to do with the passions; for these are produced in no other way than by the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason.

This is a question of using one’s Will over one’s wants. Your Will is your power to control your thoughts and reactions, to coordinate them and make good use of them. Your wants are…what you want to have in any given moment (food, time to read a book, TV, a walk in the park, sex, whatever). But these are not always available. You may have to write 12 pages for the next statistics seminar and not have time to read, for example. the way towards remaining at peace is much simpler than you think: accept what you have to do and do it. Put aside the desire to go jogging and finish your work. You will notice that when you stop thinking “I want to go jogging” over and over again, your work is no longer frustrating AND it goes faster. You will even feel pleased when you are done and not say “Drat! I should have gone jogging instead of wasting my time here.” Back to Zeno: do not wish for things which are beyond your power i.e. which you can’t get. Stop dreaming about unicorns. Dreams are good, but only if they are realistic: dream of making yourself and others happy, for instance. That’s far more realistic than unicorns I say :) . Another aspect of disciplining desire is hope. Don’t hope too much; you will inevitably be disappointed if your hopes are, again, unrealistic. Furthermore, try not to hope for external things. Stoics recommend that we place our hope in our ability to deal with the situation we are in–i.e. that we can maintain our perceptions of reality in good shape so as to react well to our circumstances. Disciplining one’s desire is all the source of hope one needs, for after that, useless worries will vanish and one may focus on what can be done.

Discipline of Action

This is a point easier to understand. People usually measure the success of their actions only by results. Stoics do it differently. From their point of view, the result of one’s actions are not totally within  one’s power, so they teach that failure doesn’t mean that you didn’t get the result you wanted, but it means you haven’t done your best. To put it in terms of success: if you did something and did it well, but did not get the desired results because of factors beyond your control, you have not failed. Example: you study for an exam and study well enough so as to get a good mark; one day before the exam you get sick and can’t go. From a Stoic point of view, you haven’t failed at all; the sickness was not your fault. The second part of this is to fulfill our roles properly: of father/mother, of son/daughter, of friend, of employee, of employer, teacher etc. All these roles Epictetus called “names” and said about them:

…each of these names, if rightly considered, always points to the acts appropriate to it.

That is to say, each role indicates the appropriate kind of actions which correspond to it.

Impressions

The discipline of impressions means, put simply, careful investigation and competent assessment of reality; impressions are how things seem to be. Therefore, one must learn to look beyond impressions.In short, do not make rash judgements.

In the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by [the] intensity [of your impression]: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one. (Epictetus)

And that covers Stoicism. I will be adding some useful links for further reading. Next topic: Drug use. Come again soon!

Socrates

http://fxylib.znufe.edu.cn/wgfljd/%B9%C5%B5%E4%D0%DE%B4%C7%D1%A7/pw/diogenes/dlsocrates.htm

Overview of Cynicism
http://www.iep.utm.edu/cynics/
Overview of Stoicism
http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicism/

Antisthenes–pupil of Socrates, founder of Cynicism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisthenes

http://fxylib.znufe.edu.cn/wgfljd/%B9%C5%B5%E4%D0%DE%B4%C7%D1%A7/pw/diogenes/dlantisthenes.htm

Diogenes of Sinope

http://fxylib.znufe.edu.cn/wgfljd/%B9%C5%B5%E4%D0%DE%B4%C7%D1%A7/pw/diogenes/dldiogenes.htm

Crates of Thebes

http://fxylib.znufe.edu.cn/wgfljd/%B9%C5%B5%E4%D0%DE%B4%C7%D1%A7/pw/diogenes/dlcrates.htm

Hyparchia –wife of Crates; a well-known Cynic, like her husband

http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/diogenes/dlhipparchia.htm

Epictetus

http://www.iep.utm.edu/epictetu/

Demonax

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl3/wl302.htm

Yours,

Victor

Anarchy Part II–Naturalness

Hi there! We will now leave China behind and go visit the ancient Greco-Roman world to have a look at 2 important schools of thought: Cynicism and Stoicism. In this present post we’ll be looking at Cynicism, a school founded by one Antisthenes, followed by such pitoresque figures as Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes and Demonax.

Main doctrines

“Cynic” comes from the greek word for “dog”. Man’s best friend has an important role to play here and we will get to that in a moment. They advocated that a man is free if he can do 3 things: depend little on others, speak his mind freely without fear of public retribution and maintain clear judgement and mental calm in the face of adversity. They had little regard for political and religious pomposity and believed that philosophy meant not the elaboration of metaphysical doctrines, rather one’s commitment to better himself and free oneself from the shackles of unjust law, pointless custom and fear of natural events such as death. They were not partisans of any polis (=”state” in Ancient Grece”) and called themselves “Kosmopolites” meaning “citizens of the world”–that is not to say that they were apolitical, but that they claimed to belong to the bigest political party of all: the entire planet! They engaged in askesis, a word meaning “training”. These exercices could take different forms: learning to endure heat and cold, giving away one’s wealth so as to be in a position where they had to make due without luxury etc; anything that would make them stronger and less vulnerable to suffering (and those friends of mine who will read this post will finally understand why I go around in a t-shirt in the middle of winter :) ).

[Diogenes] used to say, that there were two kinds of exercise: that, namely, of the mind and that of the body; and that the latter of these created in the mind such quick and agile impressions at the time of its performance, as very much facilitated the practice of virtue; but that one was imperfect without the other, since the health and vigor necessary for the practice of what is good, depend equally on both mind and body. (Laertius)

The main points of cynic thought run as follows:

  1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
  2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
  3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Virtue. (virtue here does not mean “pious” in a religious sense)
  4. The road to virtue is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
  5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.

Cynics are most well-known for rejecting those social conventions which they saw as hindering people’s developement into wise and capable individuals (so they didn’t reject everything blindly, but assessed weather a given social norm was natural or not; if not, out the window it went). They were imune to insults, because they saw them as having no meaning. Now we will look at some representatives of cynicism.

Diogenes of Sinope

We will begin with the following quote from Laertius, a Roman author who wrote a book entitled “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” in which he gives short biographies of the most important figures of his day. He writes:

“Plato saw Diogenes of Sinope washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, ‘Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,’ and [Diogenes] with equal calmness answered, ‘If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius’”

Many philosophers (Plato, Aristotle and others) gained  their living by attending the courts of kings. Cynics had a strong dislike for theoretical philosophy (such as that of Plato, with his “world of ideas”) and were far more concerned with practical matter than with metaphysical speculations and debates on super-natural subject. Here Diogenes is seen reproaching Plato for “kissing up to authority” as it were, instead of living a life free from politicians; if he had not wasted his time with philosophical abstractions and politics, he would have been able to learn something useful…like washing lettuces! This point is well-illustrated by another incident, where another “smart fellow” used logical deduction to prove to Diogenes that he had horns (such practices were thought of as showing a person’s “skill” at logic back then). He simply got up and left without bothering to say a word. As far as politics goes, once he was laying in the sun (relaxing), and Alexander the Great (yeah, that guy from the history books), came to him and said “Ask whatever you want from me and I’ll give it to you.” To which Diogenes replied: “Get out of my sunlight!” And as for the Cynics and dogs…

Diogenes believed human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.  A dog will eat anything, and make no fuss about where to sleep. Dogs live in the present without anxiety, and have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy. In addition to these virtues, dogs are thought to know instinctively who is friend and who is foe. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth. Diogenes stated that “other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them.” (Wikipedia)

Here is a link you can go to for some useful and amusing quotes:

http://members.optushome.com.au/davidquinn000/Diogenes%20Folder/Diogenes.html

Crates of Thebes (365-285 BC)

He was a wealthy man who was born lame and gave up his wealth to lead a Cynic life. He married and held his wife Hyparchia on equal terms with himself; he took his son to a brothel to explain what sexual life is, and allowed his daughter to have a 1-month probation marriage with her possible husbands; all this was uncommon in Grece at the time.  Here are a few quotes about him:

But Crates with only his wallet and tattered cloak laughed out his life jocosely, as if he had been always at a festival. (Plutarch)

He used to enter the houses of his friends, without being invited or otherwise called, in order to reconcile members of a family, even if it was apparent that they were deeply at odds. He would not reprove them harshly, but in a soothing way, in a manner which was non-accusatory towards those whom he was correcting, because he wished to be of service to them as well as to those who were just listening. (Julian)

And therefore Crates replied to the man who asked, “What will be in it for me after I become a philosopher?” “You will be able,” he said, “to open your wallet easily and with your hand scoop out and dispense lavishly instead of, as you do now, squirming and hesitating and trembling like those with paralyzed hands. Rather, if the wallet is full, that is how you will view it; and if you see that it is empty, you will not be distressed. And once you have elected to use the money, you will easily be able to do so; and if you have none, you will not yearn for it, but you will live satisfied with what you have, not desiring what you do not have nor displeased with whatever comes your way.” (Teles)

Demonax (70-170 AD)

He was never known to shout or be over vehement or angry,7 even when he had to correct; he touched offences, but pardoned offenders, saying that the doctors’ was the right model, who treat sickness but are not angry with the sick.

He was fond of playing peace-maker between brothers at variance, or presiding over the restoration of marital harmony. He could say a word in season, too, before an agitated political assembly, which would turn the scale in favour of patriotic duty. Such was the temper that philosophy produced in him, kindly, mild, and cheerful.

Nothing ever grieved him except the illness or death of a friend, friendship being the one among blessings that he put highest; and indeed he was every man’s friend, counting among his kindred whatever had human shape. (Lucian)

Those were quotes about him. Now a few incidents from his life:

He once picked up a little gold charm in the road as he walked, and posted a notice in the market-place stating that the loser could recover his property, if he would call upon Demonax and give particulars of the weight, material, and workmanship. A handsome young exquisite came, professing to have lost it. The philosopher soon saw that it was a got-up story; ‘Ah, my boy,’ he said, ‘you will do very well, if you lose your other charms as little as you have lost this one.’

A man once boasted that he was a wizard, and possessed of23 mighty charms whereby he could get what he chose out of anybody. ‘Will it surprise you to learn that I am a fellow-craftsman?’ asked Demonax; ‘pray come with me to the baker’s, and you shall see a single charm, just one wave of my magic wand, induce him to bestow several loaves upon me.’ Current coin, he meant, is as good a magician as most.

When another person kept himself shut up in the dark, mourning his son, Demonax represented himself to him as a magician: he would call up the son’s ghost, the only condition being that he should be given the names of three people who had never had to mourn. The father was unable, doubtless, to produce any such person, till Demonax broke in: ‘And have you, then, a monopoly of the unendurable, when you cannot name a man who has not some grief to endure?’

That about covers Cynicism in a nutshell… Hope you enjoyed Anarchy, because next we’ll be looking at the Stoics. Pop up any time!

Yours,

Victor


Anarchy

This, dear reader, is one of my favorite topics of discussion. So, here we go. Let us first define Anarchy… The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as follows:

“A social state in which there is no governing person or group of people, but each individual has absolute liberty (without the implication of disorder).”

That last part is of central importance here, before we move on. When people here of anarchism they imagine hooligans with bandanas, all dressed in black, yelling and roaring like there’s no tomorrow, with a bomb or some other explosive ready to throw it into a bank or some other public building and so on… That has nothing to do with the whole thing. Also, anarchy brings to mind a social state where everyone is fighting everyone for everything. Is that not so? That’s sort of what you think about when you hear on the news about anarchists doing who-knows-what silly stunt. Now, remember… “without the implication of disorder”. Anarchy simply means a lack of hierarchy, not a lack of organization. It’s just that that organization is spontaneous, without input from authorities of any kind. Put simply, one doesn’t wait for the government to come fix the roads in a given area, rather the local community (OK…regional community) puts money and resources together instead of waiting to be cheated of their wealth by people who put half the cash in their own pockets  and do the work miserably. You see, people think anarchy is a situation where everyone fights for control and there’s no one to guard the rules of the game; but we aren’t talking about anarchy (as defined above) if everyone wants to be boss–that’s simply chaos. See where I’m going? Real anarchy can only exist if no one wants to wear a crown. Of course, going back to the example with the roads, naturally someone will be in charge of the whole thing–storage of materials, dividing it up and directing their use, overseeing the construction operation itself and so on. But that is a function which arises spontaneously as a result of that person being experienced in construction work, rather than by virtue of official appointment.  But, one may ask, what guarantees the person is really qualified for the job? Well, he knows that if he pretends to be so but is in fact not, after he fails miserably, no one will hire him/her after that. He/she cannot afford to play pretend. This was all just an illustration; in reality, order and freedom complement each-other. Imagine yourself flying a plane (your own private small-size plane). What does it mean, in this case, to be free? Is it: a) pushing any button at random because it looks nice and you feel like pushing it and have a plain-crash 2 minutes after take-off or b) learning the rules of flight and applying them correctly so you can fly anywhere you want? See? before you can go around the globe and float freely, you must first have a measure of order. But by “order” I do not mean an oppressive system of rules arbitrarily decided by someone but rather natural order; those rules of flight are natural because they are derived from the structure of the plane itself–they are a consequence, not an invention.

All right… enough with the intro already!

“Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.” (Zhuangzi)

“There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success].” (Zhuangzi)

“The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished. The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be. Therefore the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quietude  and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves. . . ” (Lao Tzu)

Now, let’s look at these a bit. in the 1st quote, what does ‘leaving alone” mean? Obviously, every child grows up in different groups (family, friends  etc.). So we’re never too far away from other people. Thus, one concludes that this does not entail giving birth to a child and abandoning him/her in a forest or such. leaving people alone means, in this context, that the less you try to push for a certain “master plan” or a certain agenda, the less trouble there will be. Notice this: when you adamantly try to force someone into doing what you want (you threaten, you yell and generally want it your way or the high way), people will not do what you ask of them. The more permissive you are, taking the position that if they don’t do it it’s no problem, the more likely they are to help you out. :) Certainly everyone remembers such instances. Leave people alone. Don’t push.

“There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success].”

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as “governing people”. That’s something people often miss. But, as I pointed out in another post, what really stops people from killing or stealing is themselves, not the law; fact is, people don’t give a damn about laws; if someone really wants to kill, he/she will kill; if someone really wants to take drugs, they will take drugs; if they want to steal, they will steal. The only reason people aren’t doing these things is because they restrict themselves from such actions, for different reasons. OK, there are indeed a great number of people who refrain from stealing only on account of being afraid to go to prison; that is a fact. But at the same time one must note that a fair amount of the global population refrains from stealing because they understand the negative consequences (here I mean the natural consequences, not artificial punishment imposed by law).

Now to deal with Lao Tzu.

“The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.” That’s easy to understand. If a state imposes loads of restrictions on people (like in a totalitarian state, for example), people will, as we all know, feel terrible; they will be over-burdened, depressed, fearful of one-another. In short, not nice.

“The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.” This, on the other hand, isn’t something we usually notice. An excess of laws generates law-breakers; the more restrictive a law is, the more “breakable” it is, so to speak, simply because wherever you turn, there’s a stipulation standing in your way. You just can’t not break it if its too heavy! Imagine a floor colored like a chess board. If someone says “Don’t step on the wite squares”, it’s easy to respect that order; but if there’s only one black spot in the middle of the room, the rest being wite, and you have to get to that spot from the entrance, you simply cannot.

“Therefore the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quietude  and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves. . . ” That is to say, one who wishes to have law respected doesn’t over-do it with the punishing; indeed, all of the above does not suggest that there be no laws at all, rather that they not be excessively stringent. Punishment is to be reduced to the minimum necessary. “I take no action and people enrich themselves”. One must let men learn without punishment; let them accumulate experience, don’t threaten them with this and that like a loose canon. Be patient with your family, with your friends and so on.

Conclusion:

The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, “It happened to us naturally [ziran]”. (Lao Tzu)

So if the sage is left with no choice but to preside over the world, his best policy is doing nothing. Only by doing nothing will people rest in the essentials of their nature and destiny. … He will have an unforced air and do nothing, and the myriad things will be smoke piling higher and higher. (Zhuangzi)

For “doing nothing, please refer back to wu-wei in “The Sage” post. So, to sum up , anarchy entails not necessarily the absence of law but rather the individuals’ capacity to go beyond the law; if it is there, fine, if not, also fine. That is to say, one must learn to guide oneself by Natural Order regardless of law. More about this in a future topic, where we will be shortly discussing “naturalness”. To be continued… :)

A Young Assassin’s (lack of) Creed

No, I haven’t killed anyone yet. Now calm down and read on.

I’ve just finished watching “Assassin’s Creed 2″ and a lot of things came to my mind. Now, casting aside the fact that this (and its 1st installment) is a superb game to play, it covers some issues which I think are of grave importance to us today (as they have always been). I won’t give you a long re-telling of the storyline but one element is paramount to be known before we go on. The entire game revolves around a centuries-long conflict between the Knights Templar (yes, the ones who fought in the crusades and whom conspiracy theorists link to the Freemasons etc.) and the Assassins. The Templars want to dominate the world (like almost all politicians and the like) while the Assassins wish to keep individual liberty and general human freedom a reality (as all well-motivated freedom-fighters do).

Sprinkled all over the game are dialogues about freedom of concience, the right of one man to rule over another, how that rule should be exercised etc. And the starting point of our discussion is the following phrase, which some of you might have come across by now:

Nothing is true; everything is permitted.

This phrase is atributed by tradition to a certain Hasan-i-Sabbah, leader of the historical (that is to say, real-life Assassins). A short digression. The ethimology of the word “assassin” is an interesting one. For a long time it was thought that it had its origins in the Arabic word “hashishyyn”, meaning “hashish users”, a term which Muslims used during the 11th century and afterwards to describe Hasan’s followers because they guided themselves by practices and principles which were un-orthodox by the Islamic standards of the time. It was a pejorative term; they did not take hashish (not as a rule, anyway) This term got picked up by crusaders and, in Western languages, came to mean “killer”, because Hasan’s people were a bunch who didn’t like either the Fatimid Empire of Egypt or the Turkish Seljuk Sultanate, both of which persecuted them as heretics; so they found themselves in a position where, being out-nimbered, they had to threaten the political elite of the day with death so as to be left alone. But they rarely killed (they even put a dagger in Saladin’s pillow a couple of times, so he’d find it the next morning and get the message that they didn’t want him around.) Modern scholars, however, trace the word assassin to a different Arabic root: “asas”, which in Arabic means “foundation”, that is to say, the foundation of proper conduct and right living, or, rendered more freely, “truth” (though one must remember that the actual word for “truth” in Arabic is “haq”). And this is exactly the sort of thing the games named above deal with. Thus, “assassin”, from an ethimological point of view, is closer to “truth-seeker” than “murderer”. Ironic, isn’t it?

Now back to that phrase. No one knows if Hasan himself actually spoke those words or not, but I’ll be focusing on what the words themselves mean rather than debate their origin. In “Assassin’s Creed I”, Altair, the protagonist, makes a few…mistakes…and his mentor, Al-Mualim, scolds him for it; altair answers: “Did you not say that nothing is true and everything is permitted?” And the other responds:

This phrase does not give you the freedom to do as you wish; it demands a wisdom you clearly lack!

So it is not to be understood as en endorsement for, say, slashing your boyfriend’s throat because he had a roll in the hey with another gold-haired exemplar of the female gender. Sorry, ladies…

It would translate thus: that there is no fixed, imutable perception of reality, which is itself in a process of permanent change and transformation; there are indeed things which are constant, but those are the things that permanently move from one form of manifestation to another. “Everything is permitted” means what I have kept repeating thus far: the manner in which one responds to a situation once may not fit a second time, that laws set in stone and interpreted literally cannot properly guide one’s perceptions and actions. Here’s a fragment from Altair’s Codex, a sort of personal diary which appears in the 2nd game:

We are growing larger. More make their way to our fortresses every day. Men and women. Young and old. From different lands. Of different faiths. Each tells a similar story – of having discovered the first part of our creed: that nothing is true. Too often, though, the revelation undoes them. They lose their morality, certainty, security. Many are driven mad. We must guide them. Help them to heal. Their minds must not be filled with more fairy tales, but with knowledge instead. Let them have answers – and let those answers be difficult and complex. Such is life.

Man has no buisness killing man; what we must kill are ideas. All of them. Any preconceived notion of how the world or reality is. Theism and atheism, good, evil, lack and wealth, etc. What are these? Mere notions. Words devoid of any meaning. Words for which people hate one-another, for which blood is spilled and families torn apart. Yes, we must assassinate our points of view, anihilate our “identities”. By this I mean that must slowly begin to recognize ourselves as individual parts, yes, but of one single whole. But it is precisely the perspective of  this dissolution that can drive people to the edge of insanity if they don’t take it one step at a time (Nietzsche tried, but he went mad, remember? Plus he left something out of the equation, but we’ll speak of this another time).

“Let love embrace the ten thousand things [=the Universe]; Heaven and earth are a single body.”, says a proverb.

Don’t be discouraged; those answers aren’t necessarily “difficult and complex” in themselves. They may just be hard to notice because we’re keeping our eyes shut to the obvious. It is only necessary that we be open and flexible, yet firm and decisive at the same time.

And now I will assassinate a myth regarding myself. The following is a list of what I am not:  good, evil, Chiristian, Atheist, Agnostic, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Zen Buddhis, Neo-Pagan, Socialist, Monarchist, Pacifist, Militarist etc etc. There. That should clear things up. :) Visit me next time!

Yours,

Victor

12th March 2010

I am proud to announce that today I went through an (involuntary) public exorcism. Lucky me! :) I’m not upset about it; I understand the positive intentions behind the gesture. But I think this tale is worth telling in detail.

I was on the way home from a small shop where I bought some chocolate pudding (yumy! :P). And this nice fellow pops up in front of me. Don’t know him, doesn’t know me. And with that soothing voice that makes people as hugable as hamsters, he says, after I ask him if he knows me and says “N0″: “Will you let me pray for you?” I figure: “Look, here’s a nice guy trying to do me a big favor, so why not?” Side-note: I have a bit of a problem with my right leg. Nothing serious, but noticeable. I thought that by “pray for you” he meant going home and praying…you know, the usual way. It struck me how polite he was “Is this man asking ME what he can do in his own home and with his own conscience? Remarcable!” So I bow, I give him a handshake and give him a firm “Go right ahead!” with a smile. After which I give him a hug, intending to go on my way. But lo and behold, he grabs my back with his right arm and starts imploring God to expell the evil demons who apparently have no better things to do  than to plague a guy holding two portions of pudding in his hand. Here is a shorter version of it, from memory:

“I implore you, Father, to release this young man from his pain and ward off the devils inflicting harm upon his body! Hear me, Father, in the name of Jesus Christ etc etc!”

Passers-by looked at us as if we were a wandering freak-show, confounded by the spectacle. I really can apreciate the bloke’s good will, but I couldn’t help notice some of the people stroling along beside us looked completely bamboozled! “Goodness, what times are we living in?” At least that’s what I think they thought! Of course, I was glad it only took about 60 seconds… And I went on my way. I don’t dislike the guy for his “valiant fight against Satan”, but I advize you this: if someone asks you on the street if they can pray for you, be polite in both accepting or refusing as the case may be, but don’t give out free hugs…

Yours,

Victor

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