A Philosphy of Arms

In a heart that is one with nature though the body contends, there is no violence. And in the heart that is not one with nature, though the body be at rest, there is always violence. Be, therefore, like the prow of a boat, it cleaves the water yet it leaves in its wake water unbroken.
-Master Po, Kung Fu (1972)

The image of the Warrior Scholar is a pervasive one.  There is the Bushido code of the Samurai, there are the Shaolin Monks of china and the Chivalric code of Knights.  There seems an idea that having a “code” makes you a better warrior.  Does it, though?  Or is it all some mystic bull crap? Continue reading

Enduring Fortitude

“Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who tells you different is selling something.”

-The Dread Pirate Roberts

The third of the classic Virtues is Fortitude.  It’s also the one that seems to be the hardest to talk about.  In fact I remember quoting Cicero on Fortitude and actually upsetting someone.  The quote was, “All pain is either severe or slight, if slight, it is easily endured; if severe, it will without doubt be brief.”  The nature of pain was called in to question and whether or not life is worth living if you are in constant pain.  According to Cicero (and the Stoics) pain that doesn’t kill you is by definition minor.  So let’s take a gander at fortitude and what it means to a Stoic. Continue reading

Temperate Feelings

There are two sides to the Stoic virtue of temperance.  There is the ideal of taking the pleasures of life in moderation and there is the ability to moderate one’s emotional response.  The latter is a rare art, it seems and recently I’ve seen a few examples of people spewing meaningless hatred towards various groups.  At one time I would feel anger at this.  Now my emotions tend towards pity.  Hatred is often quoted as being harmful to both sides of any issue, but not only that it is my feeling that hatred is a truly useless emotion that should be purged wherever possible. Continue reading

My Bread and Butter

As I mentioned last week, I’ve started a new job.  Working in a bakery means no more late nights, for which I’m ecstatic, but also means less time for writing.  I’m going to do my best to keep up the schedule as it is, but we’ll see how that works.  Anyway, I’m doing what I want to be doing and though the work might be considered a Sisyphean exercise by some, shaping several hundreds of pounds of dough a day and leaving work with enough flour on me that hugging a celiac could be considered assault is all good. Continue reading

The Stoic Path to Buddhist Enlightenment

I had thought that I might continue my analysis of the Stoic virtues, but I find myself traveling down a different avenue of thought.  You see, when looking over the virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice I noticed that when placed in that order they seem to dictate a clear path to will power.  With Prudence we learn to halt our impulses and consider our action carefully.  Temperance requires slightly more will power to moderate ourselves and not give in to passions.  Fortitude needs still more will which grants us the ability to ignore mental and physical discomfort and finally Justice, which i feel is the most challenging aspect of will power and requires us to always do the right thing, regardless of perceived cost. So in this way Stoicism can be seen as a path to Ultimate Self Control Continue reading

Trickster Gods and Pastry Vikings

I’d like to relate to you, Dear Reader, an experience I had, as well as a lesson learned from it.  This is the last week of the Dine Out Vancouver, an annual event that has restaurants provide a cheap set menu meal.  Thus, being as I work in one of said restaurants, means it was busy.  One day in particular was quite the ride.  Dessert orders piling up, frustrated servers trying in vain to get their tables pushed up to the front of the line and running out of product faster than it was possible to replace it.  On that night it was a sense of Duty and nothing else that kept me from walking out and never looking back.  It was a humbling experience, to say the least.  Despite that, there is a lesson to be found, namely that it doesn’t always matter how good you are at your job, things can still go to shit.

I have a long held theory that the Vikings practiced a form of Stoicism, and I try to slip in a quote from the Havamal or a reference to Norse mythology whenever I discuss Stoicism.  Just for fun really.  At any rate, there’s an interesting character that pops up in Norse mythology who also has parallels in other mythologies as well.  That of the Trickster God.  Loki, in this case.  Way back when I took a college course in mythology.  In this class we discussed several Norse myths, many of which seem to center around the companionship of Thor and Loki.  My professor was at a loss to explain why Thor would tolerate Loki’s presence when the later was constantly trying to do harm to the former.  Looking back I have developed a theory that I believe goes a lot farther in explaining it than, “Thor is kinda dumb” and also melds quite well with the philosophy of the Stoics.

Once again, humility is the key.  Hypothetically, and keep in mind this is pure idle speculation, someone as powerful as a god of thunder and lightning would be prone to an extreme case of hubris.  Therefore it seems to me that Thor has made a very stoic choice of keeping someone around to keep him humble.  I believe Loki’s purpose is to remind Thor that he is not invincible, in many cases by trying to have hi killed.  To grant him perspective that he needs and might otherwise be blind to.

In the end I think it does us some good to be torn down every once in a while.  Sometimes hitting bottom allows us to see a better way to the top.  Lying bloodied can grant greater determination to fight on.  That’s a big part of why stoicism appeals to me.  It gives you permission to fall down.  But it also teaches you that staying down is not an option.  Don’t get beaten, get better.

People Are People (and Always Have Been)

“When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.  They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.  But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind and possessing a share of the divine.  And so none of them can hurt me.  No one can implicate me in ugliness.  Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.  We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.  To obstruct each other is unnatural.  To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions”

-Marcus Aurelius, Circa 170 AD

I don’t think there’s anyone today that couldn’t stand to take these words to heart.  They are as true now as they apparently were almost two thousand years ago.  I’m not trying to preach here, or rather more accurately I’m trying not to (see the difference?) but the Stoics had some fine coping mechanisms.  At any rate the book “Meditations” by my favourite Roman Emperor is filled with similar advice for handling people who are small minded and petty.  Reading Aurelius I am struck by the fact then when he is giving examples of people acting in a frustrating way I can immediately think of several examples of this from my own experience.

I remember one of my old history teachers discussing the old Greek Comedy called Lysistrata.  The details of this play aren’t terribly important right now, but his attitude towards it is.  He called the humour in the play primitive, which seemed to be overly dismissive to me.  He further explained that “people of the time had a simple grasp of humour.”  Yes, Lysistrata has some pretty low brow stuff, but take a quick glance at the various parody movies being made today and try telling me how much our sense of humour has evolved in two thousand years.  Besides, turning once again to Aurelius, we see in his writings numerous examples of a rather sharp wit.

So we have two examples, one concrete and one suppositional, from history which supports the theory presented in the title of this piece.  It might be thought that were you to magically transport Marcus Aurelius to our time he would be amazed at the changes society has wrought.  It is my feeling, however, that once he got over the initial shock at the technological advances made, he would see people around him acting in a way very familiar to him.

So, since it seems people as a whole haven’t changed all that much in the last few millennia, and almost certainly longer.  Because of this we can make certain predictions on how people will act.  We can also choose how to react to them.  Petty people will be petty and although we can’t hope to control their actions we do have control over our reactions.  “Choose not to be harmed and you haven’t been,” as Aurelius says.

Dear Prudence

Prudence is a word, I think, that calls to mind its synonyms.  I believe that most people when asked to define the word would say it’s related to wisdom, or perhaps tied to caution.  Certainly when your mother tells you to be prudent, what she’s really saying is to be careful.  When the four classical virtues are mentioned the first and most important is sometimes listed as Wisdom.  The problem with this is that, especially in a modern context, wisdom is seen as something you have or you don’t.  When our culture speaks of the Wise Man, instructions are lacking as to how to become this person.  Suggesting someone be prudent is easier to swallow than telling them to be wise.  It is partially for this reason that the original texts and teachings of stoicism tell us the prime virtue is prudentia.  Prudence. Continue reading

Remembering

Remembrance Day seems a time for reflection and thought.  A time for meditation.  Unfortunately meditations are seldom a part of daily life.  This was not always so.  The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a series of thought exercises, titled in fact, Meditations.  Indeed, insofar as I can tell from what I’ve read, meditation has been a part of European tradition for at least couple thousand years. Continue reading

An Introduction to Stoicism

I was first introduced to stoicism back in college.  My medieval history professor made reference to a teacher of Marcus Aurelius who was tortured.  During this torture he was placed on the Roman equivalent of the Rack when he calmly announced to his torturers that his arm was about to break.  This almost super-heroic ability to ignore pain intrigued me.  As with many things from history, though, it seemed as though this was a kind of magic that was as unknowable as it was unattainable. Continue reading