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  • Doug Belshaw 10:01 am on March 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: philosophy,   

    Revolutionaries, retreat, and renewal 

    Combination lock

    My daily reading of Stoic philosophy and the like helps me prepare for the day ahead. Most days, each reading contains a nugget that puts me in the right frame of mind. On rare occasions, however, like today, it’s like moving the numbers of a combination lock, and something ‘springs open’ in my mind.

    Here’s François de La Rochefoucauld, in his Collected Maxims and Other Reflections:

    Fools and stupid people see things only in the light of their own temper.

    This was followed by a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

    People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul — especially if on close inspection it is filled with east, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.

    The kicker, however, was this from Fernando Pessoa’s singular The Book of Disquiet:

    Revolutionaries and reformers all make the same mistake. Lacking the power to master and reform their own attitude towards life, which is everything, or their own being, which is almost everything, they escape into wanting to change others and the external world. Every revolutionary, every reformer, is an escapee. To fight is proof of one’s inability to do battle with oneself. To reform is proof that one is oneself beyond all help. If a man of real sensitivity and correct reasoning feels concerned about the evil and injustice of the world, he naturally seeks to correct it first where it manifests itself closest to home and that, he will find, is in his own being. The task will take him his whole lifetime. For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.

    Plenty to dwell on there.

    Image CC BY-NC Daniel Goude

     
  • Doug Belshaw 8:34 am on March 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: philosophy, ,   

    Stoicism, mysticism and getting lost in the woods 

    Christopher Knight's camp

    This story in The Guardian about Christopher Knight is incredible. He parked his car and disappeared into the woods in Maine, USA at the age of 20. He’s been living there for 27 years.

    What interests me the most, however, is this section:

    Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”

    The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

    Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.

    For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.

    “If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”

    It’s a tenet of Stoicism (as exemplified by the discourses of Epictetus and Seneca, for example) that one needs to learn how to be comfortable in your own skin — that possessions or a change of location can’t make you happy in and of itself. Knight’s experience, and that of others who have spent a long time by themselves without going mad, seems to be a step even beyond that.

    What I like about Stoic philosophy is that it emphasises the responsibility we all have towards civic society. Secreting yourself away and cutting off ties with society, at the end of the day, feels a little selfish, to be honest.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 11:45 am on March 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: philosophy   

    Keep on doing the right thing 

    A couple of pertinent quotations from my daily reading yesterday for those trying to keep on keeping on:

    “If you are doing what is right, never mind whether you are freezing with cold or beside a good fire; heavy-eyed, or fresh from a sound sleep; reviled or applauded; in the act of dying, or about some other piece of business.” (Marcus Aurelius, ‘Meditations’, Book Six)

    I always find it amazing that a Roman Emperor took the time to write such things. Also, Seneca wrote this in exile:

    “Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed upon me – money, public office, influence – I relegate to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been t y the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasured desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does no collapse either when they change. his fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.” (Seneca, ‘On The Shortness of Life’)

    Still lots to learn from the Ancients. I need to get started (re-)reading Boethius next.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 9:10 am on February 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: philosophy, , Seneca   

    Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam.

    Seneca, ‘On the Shortness of Life’
     
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