Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Epictetus and the Stoic View

Epictetus', or perhaps Sharon Lebell's interpretation, the Art of Living was by far my favorite of the three Greek philosophies we have examined in this class. I don't know if it's the way the book is put together, much like a manual for living consciously; or the almost Eastern tone that it conveys that I really like more. This book much reminded me of the Dao de Jing, with it's central themes, of harmonizing yourself with nature and non-attachment. I have agreed with Socrates and his never ceasing to question societal concepts and I have agreed with Epicurus that wisdom is the key to living in the now and the path to feeling oneness with God. However, I grow tried of questioning and redefining, just as I have seen bad things happen to good people who've made all the right choices. Epictecus says that we must accept life's inevitabilities and learn to distinguish between things in and out of our control, if we are to move through this life gracefully and peacefully. Look to nature to show you how to live and behave in the world. Trees, for example, they do not prefer summer over winter but they continue to grow through the cycles of abundance and bleakness. To take from Masaru Emoto, a sapling does not resent the taller trees around it for casting shadows, it simply grows, reaches and branches out toward the sun and finds its own way, after all there is plenty of sunlight.
We must be like these saplings, finding our own niche, our own place in the sun.
We must flow with the Dao or tirelessly fight against it, either way we will be floating along in it's current. The only decision we have is whether or not we will enjoy our ride. We will have much more time to enjoy ourselves if we learn to stop clinging to the debris passing along at the edges.
Nature is a constantly changing but there is a rythmic simplicity to it. There are patterns to be seen and cycles to make note of. When we can attune ourselves to these cycles we will be better prepared to ride the current, without a fear of not being able to control that which is not within our power.

Epicurean ideal

In his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus says that no one is to old to think philosophically. The old man thinks philosophically if he is content to look back fondly on his memories of life. Similarly, he says that the young think philosophically when they have no fear of what is to come. He compares the mindsets of the young and old philosopher; the elderly man waits for death acceptingly, knowing that he is nearing the end of his life; the younger man so enthralled with the current situations in his life, he has no fear of dying.
This is a great seg-way into one of Epicurus' main ideals, that if we are to live a meaningful life we must abandon our fear of mortality. Once we face our mortality and scrutinize what exactly it is we are afraid, we see that the pain we may enduring, or the inconvenient timing of our death is not the cause of our fear. What we really fear is the unknown, because we don't know what to expect after death.
"Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation."
It is our fear of dying that frightens us and not death itself, for in death we have no fear at all. There is no longer an expectancy of death after we are gone, and so no fear.
Epicurus says that throughout our lives we are always seeking to diminish pain and fear so we may have rest. When our minds are at rest we find pleasure and ease.
Pleasure, he says, is our first and kindred good and by seeking pleasure and learning how to achieve it, we gain wisdom. When we have wisdom of these things, we will have the ability to make good choices which will lead us toward pleasure and good life and away from pain and discontent.
It is possible, through sober reasoning, to choose wisely and to make wise decisions that make and keep our lives pleasant; allowing us to pursue happiness and pleasure. This is ultimately, the good life to Epicurus, and the correct way of viewing life. It's not about overindulgence, or having it all, when you have only what you need, you appreciate the extras and luxuries a lot more. The greatest fortune in life is one that we all have, it is our ability to choose situations which bring us happiness and avoid those that will bring us down. Just as important, is the ability to distinguish which pains we should endure to bring a greater pleasure, and which simple pleasures we should abstain from to avoid a greater pain later on.
Epicurus says that we will reap what we sow. If we seek happiness and fulfillment, then we will find ourselves in situations where we see happiness and fulfillment; just as if we are convinced our lives will be full of pain and suffering, then we will find ourselves in situations where we hurt and suffer.
God is immortal and blessed, and pleasure is our first and kindred good. The feeling of pleasure is sustainable and being our first and kindred good, it is blessed. When we can live in the present, unafraid of the future and fully appreciate the good that is all around us, we feel pleasure, we feel an inner peace. Epicurus is saying that, that feeling of tranquility is God.
Nothing can be outside of God, he is immortal and blessed. Not even death--which is seen as the most fierce evil because it is an ending to life/pleasure as we know it. But it is only a ceasing of our senses and so not to be feared. If we may release our fear of death and impiety (displeasing the gods) we are free to seek a state of tranquility in the mind and body. In that state we find happiness, in happiness we find peace and in peace we find Oneness.
"For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings."

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Trial and Death of Socrates

Awaiting trial, Socrates meets Euthypro who is on his way into court to prosecute his own father for murder. Euthypro explains that while his family and mother think it impious for him to indict his father, they do not have a clear understanding of piety. Euthypro explains that his actions are just and in favor with the gods, because murder is wrong; even if it was unintentional.
Socrates tells Euthyrpo that he is right, and asks that Euthypro might become his teacher, so that he may be educated on what exactly piety is, and how he may accurately discriminate between which actions are loved by the gods and which are punishable.
In this exchange with Euthypro, Socrates (or Plato) easily extracts the inflated view that Euthypro holds of his understanding of morality and the importance of 'acting piously'. Euthypro explains that piety is correct knowledge of hot to sacrifice and petition to the gods, and that by carrying our these tasks in correct format, the gods are pleased. Socrates claims to have no knowledge of these things and asks Euthypro to further explain how we may please the gods.
Like a psychiatrist who remains a step ahead of his patient, waiting patiently to bring their client out of some mental delusion, or false belief, by coaxing them with a series of questions; Socrates plays dumb and gets Euthypro to counter his own theory that a thing is pious because it is something that the gods undoubtedly love. While the patient answers the questions of his therapist, he unwittingly brings a truth to the surface--perhaps one that he has hidden from himself.
This is an important viewpoint to examine, because it is one held by many. Loads of people, in my experience, are convinced that they have pinpointed which actions are acceptable, or in accordance to what God wants. In the same vein, they are just as certain that they have great knowledge of actions that are punishable and even hated by God. It is these convictions (assumptions rather), that can lead us to great prejudices. And it is these same convictions that can deter us from examining the origins of the moral rules which we let govern our very lives.

We should care more about what actions are just and fair when dealing with our fellow man, than what actions are in exact accordance with ancient temple laws. After all the gods love what is pious because it is pious; it is not pious because the gods love it.