Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics (2006). 304 pages. Cost: Bought for $11.00 from Borders. Assumed to be written c. 170-180 AD. Edited by Martin Hammond.

Meditations was written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a journal, a collection of encouragements, aphorisms, and reflections to himself. The recurrent themes in his writings include the smallness and fragility of life against the immensity of time and the universe, and the meaninglessness of the distractions in our lives - criticisms from others, worldly goods, power - in that context. Whether we inflate or deflate ourselves, do we need to take ourselves so seriously, in the grand scheme of things? Consider again the smallness of our existence, he says!

How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the senses - especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity - how cheap they are, how contemptible, shoddy, perishable, and dead: these are matters for our intellectual faculty to consider. And further considerations. What are they, these people whose judgments and voices confer or deny esteem? What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit.

Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here!

You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.

...there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice - and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts.

Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about running round everything in circles - in Pindar's words 'delving deep in the bowels of the earth' - and looking for signs and symptoms to divine his neighbors' minds. He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service.

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

So display those virtues which are wholly in your power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?

Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature.

No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Book of Ecclesiastes

from the NIV translation:

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my work,

and this was the reward for my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless,
a chasing after the wind;

nothing was gained under the sun.

... the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;

they have no further reward,

and even the memory of them is forgotten.

Their love, their hate
and their jealousy
have long since vanished;
never again
will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

... What does the worker gain from his toil?
I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
He has made everything beautiful in his time.
He has also set eternity in the hearts of men;
yet they cannot fathom what God has done
from beginning to end.

I know that there is nothing better for men
than to be happy and do good while they live.
That everyone may eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in his toil - this is the gift of God.

... And I saw that all labor and all achievement
spring from a man's envy of his neighbor.
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

... Naked a man comes from his mother's womb,

and as he comes, so he departs.

Ecclesiastes is such a fascinating anomaly among the books of the Bible and Tanakh. It wallows in existential despair, its ending feels less than conclusive, and its life philosophy debatably "Christian" (though maybe more Jewish). It hardly looks forward to an exultant eternal life, it leans far less towards a solve-all resurrection than to an agonizingly unreachable and mysterious God, who "makes everything beautiful in his time," but still leaves man to live an instant in time, in his predestined fate - his "lot in life."

When viewed in context, after 11 chapters on the utter meaninglessness of life, the concluding words in the 12th chapter, "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" feel much less like inspired, proactive worship than a helpless surrender, arising less from the gratitude for grace than from a lack of life alternatives.

Repeated strikingly in the book of Ecclesiastes is the phrase to "eat and drink" - to find whatever makes one a little happier in life and the present moment, to resign oneself to (or be genuinely able to) enjoy such things, even if one might be living more mindlessly in doing so:

... I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot... He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.

... A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God

...Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do... Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun - all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and your toilsome labor under the sun.

Are our lofty ambitions and declarations to love and serve in a great way really so meaningful, so achievable, so truly arising from an unselfish spirit? Some live with such grandiose visions of how they will direct humanity, too often at the cost of finding peace, first, in the cumulative snapshots of their daily eating, drinking, and satisfaction in toil.

... I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.

The wise man has eyes in his head,

while the fool walks in the darkness;

but I came to realize that the same fate
overtakes them both.

Then I thought in my heart,

"The fate of the fool will overtake me also.

What then do I gain by being wise?"

... For the wise man, like the fool,

will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.

... with much wisdom comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief.

... Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The heart of the wise is the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

An ending to Ecclesiastes like this - bleaker, unresolved, somewhat contradictory - makes more sense to me:

... Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.

Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,

but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.

So then, banish anxiety from your heart

and cast off the troubles of your body,

for youth and vigor are meaningless.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heraclitus, Fragments

Fragments attributed to Heraclitus, approximately 6th century BCE. Penguin Classics; translated by Brooks Haxton (2001). Cost: Free, read at Borders. Total pages, ~90 of text (half in Greek).

I like what Carl Sagan once said about how the term "pre-Socratic philosopher" is a degrading term - as if these powerful minds and their insights had no more to be said of them than to be lumped together before a single philosopher.

As I peer back into this time, it amazes me how prescient these minds were. Often I cannot look back at them as a critic (which presumes to know more than they did), but as a respectful layman.

In Heraclitus, I see a lot of explicit parallels with Taoism (the Tao Te Ching is dated to a similar time). It talks about flux and opposites and harmonies and rhythms embedded in nature and life.

60. Without injustices,
the name of justice
would mean what?

78. Only the living may be dead,
the waking sleep,
the young be old.

89. Look: the baby born
under the new moon
under the old moon holds
her grandchild in her arms

I've written this in previous entries, but again, the question I can't seem to answer from just reading these sorts of texts is about the interactions of these old philosophers with the thought-systems of the different parts of the world at this time. Growing up, I always thought Socrates, Plato, and their world to be unimaginably ancient, but now, thinking even as far back as Thales, the supposed first Greek philosopher, I wonder about his possible influences from the other major kingdoms of the time - Egyptian thought (he was said to have traveled here), Chinese thought, Babylonian thought, and Jewish thought (by this time already many centuries past the time of King David). I am not sure where, or if, there are answers to these. How do these ancient kingdoms interweave or diverge? Is there one locale of truth, a starting point, that they converge upon? Is it Babylonian? Jewish? Or do these things naturally arise in any human society when the conditions are ripe, regardless of mutual influence? Are they inevitable byproducts of human activity and ability, wherever they are? Are their overlaps in conclusions about the universe and our place in it similar to the completely separate development and awareness of mathematics among both the Aztecs versus the Babylonians?

The first two fragments of Heraclitus, in this edition, almost exactly echo a more familiar text -- the gospel of John, written many centuries later:

1. The Word proves
those first hearing it
as numb to understanding
as the ones who have not heard.

Yet all things follow from the Word.

2. For wisdom, listen
not to me but to the Word,
and know all is one.

81. Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so I am as I am not.

All is flux. One modern connection I see is something I recently learned, something that really blew my mind: 90% of the weight of an atom is not from subatomic particles like quarks but from nothingness. There is a quantum fluctuation (whatever that means) that blips in and out in the nothingness that creates weight. At the opposite end, on the scale of the universe, 90% of the weight of the universe is from dark energy - essentially, again, a nothingness that actually has weight (that propels the universe against the effects of gravity). One way, then, of looking at the universe is that everything literally is a fluctuation of nothing, a net sum of zero. And even we human beings are literally comprised of the nothingness that dominate atoms. All is flux from the default of nothingness.

But then, I still have to honestly question myself: what the heck does it mean that there are blips in nothingness that weigh something?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Books I-IV

The Nicomachean Ethics. Authorship dated to approximately 350 BCE. Translation by J.A.K. Thomson; revised edition by Hugh Tredennich and Jonathan Barnes (Penguin Classics, 1976, 2004). 324 pages, 284 without addenda. Cost: free; read at Borders.

Introductory notes:
  • The Nicomachean Ethics is named after Aristotle's son (it is otherwise known simply as The Ethics) and is comprised of ten books, like Plato's Republic.
  • While Plato's works are essentially literary, Aristotle's surviving works are highly systematic, written as his university lecture notes, although he did write literary works, famous in his time for their beauty, that are lost to us today.
  • Aristotle inquired into and classified virtually every realm of human knowledge available at the time. The fraction of Aristotle's total writings left to us takes up some 12 volumes and covers anything from biology, logic, metaphysics, to ethics, politics, and art.
  • Aristotle's impressionable arrival at Plato's Academy reminds me of how Wittgenstein's powerful intellect similarly impressed Bertrand Russell. The bookend prodigies of Western philosophy.
  • Aristotle studied for some 20 years (!) under Plato, from the age of 18.

The opening sentences of The Nicomachean Ethics:

"Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the good has been rightly defined as 'that at which all things aim.'"

For Aristotle, everything has an observable function. An aim, a first principle. And this visible function is of more interest and relevance for investigation than the invisible Platonic Form, though the two are perhaps not unrelated. For humans, who have the unique capability of reason, the ultimate - or first - good that we all pursue, is happiness (eudaimonia). Whether the most ordinary, the most vulgar, or the loftiest man, all men seek to increase their happiness, each in their different ways. Whether we seek goodness, courage, honesty... all paths ultimately converge to this first principle of seeking happiness. All of our actions and striving - war for victory, medicine for health - converge upon the increase of our happiness.

While there are many kinds of happiness, the highest happiness, is " activity of the soul in accordance with virtue." Virtues are determined by our reason, but are also interconnected with our visible relationships with others. The fullness of human nature is best expressed in the context of other human beings. Man is political, social animal.

Here are a few virtues Aristotle discusses, famously described on a spectrum, between their excess and deficiency.
  • Confidence (too much courage leads to (over-) confidence) – Courage - Fear (too little courage leads to fear).
  • Licentiousness – Temperance – (no name because it is a rarity - but I guess someone that is unhealthily, excessively ascetic would fall into this category.
I feel a parallel here, between Aristotle's idea of the (Golden) mean and the Buddha's teachings on "The Middle Way." The Buddha, after living in both princely pleasure and in extreme asceticism, rejected both for the middle route.
  • Prodigality (with money) – Liberality (generosity for the right people at the right times) - Illiberality (miserliness).
  • Vanity – Magnanimity – Pusillanimity. Here Aristotle also considers the use of money in the large scale spending of, say, patrons of large public works and infrastructure projects. Vanity here is a vulgar ostentatiousness.
The magnanimous man is Aristotle's hero - his equivalent of the philosopher-king. But they are not the same (see below).
  • Irascibility – Patience – Lack of spirit (submissiveness, and not getting angry at things for which one should)
  • Boastful – Truthful about one's abilities and character – Ironical (understatement)
  • Buffoonery – Conversational/Social Wit – Boorishness
  • Obsequiousness – Friendliness – Unpleasantness
Further quotes that elaborate these virtues, and especially that of the magnanimous man:

"... a person is considered to be magnanimous if he thinks that he is worthy of great things, provided that he is worthy of them, because anyone who esteems his own worth unduly is foolish..."

"[The truthful and magnanimous man] is open in his likes and dislikes (because concealment, ie. caring less for the truth than what people think, is a mark of timidity), and to speak and act straightforwardly...

"[The magnanimous man] is not prone to express admiration, because nothing is great in his eyes. He does not nurse resentment, because it is beneath the magnanimous man to remember things against people, especially wrongs; it is more like him to overlook them. He does not care for personal conversation; he will talk neither about himself nor about anybody else, because he does not care to be complimented himself or to hear others criticized, nor again is he inclined to pay compliments."

"It is possible, for example, to feel fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, too much or too little; and both of these are wrong. But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue.”

One thing that I found interesting was the extent of Aristotle's considerations of wealth as a resource - a departure from the far-more ascetic Plato. For Aristotle, money, in the right man's hands, is not only an incredibly empowering tool, it is a requisite - something that he would naturally acquire by his excellence. And not only would he have the money to create large-scale public works, he would have the highest taste in manufactured goods and arts, thus commissioning the best and most tasteful (never gaudy) of private possessions (eg. beautiful fountains).

As Bertrand Russell says, Aristotle is actually the champion of the aristocrat:

"The best individual, as conceived by Aristotle, is a very different person from the Christian saint. He should have proper pride, and not underestimate his own merits. He should despise whoever deserves to be despised. The description of the proud of magnanimous man ["great-souled" is footnoted as a literal translation] is very interesting as showing the difference between pagan and Christian ethics, and the sense in which Nietzche was justified in regarding Christianity as a slave-morality."

"There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally... there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle's speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten."

- from A History of Western Philosophy

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Plato, The Republic, Books 3-10

The Republic (written approximately 380 BCE), translated by Desmond Lee (Penguin Classics, released 2007). Cost: Free (Borders). 480 pages.

One question I am compelled to ask myself in reading The Republic is why I tend to automatically assume that a democratic government is, by default, an ideal government. After some three millenia of evolution and experimentation, have we finalized that it is the best possible result? Or was it decided that it was simply the best sort of compromise between our best and worst tendencies? The better of only evils? Will it remain that way for the millenia to come? How will our leading world governments (continually) take the best elements of different ideologies, including democracy, and create new, hybridized systems?

Here are some of the faults that Plato said would inevitably arise in a democracy. They are creepily prescient. In the declining democracy, Plato says, wealth would be idolized over the actual goodness of a man (a degeneration from oligarchy). Due to the obsessions for profit, extravagance would be encouraged, with high values of interest on "poisoned loans." Young men would live "in luxury and idleness, physical and mental... and lose their ability to resist pain or pleasure." "And they themselves care of thing but making money, and have no greater concern for excellence than the poor." The poor would multiply exponentially. Equality would degenerate into an insistence upon the equality of all pleasures. All inhibitions would be thrown off, and they would call "insolence good breeding, license liberty, extravagance generosity, and shamelessness courage." And eventually, all of this would degenerate into a tyranny, where a charistmatic popular champion will come to power through the manipulation of his or her image. This gives me associations of the apocalyptic antichrist, but we've already seen this, in the Nazi Regime, in North Korea.

If we could somehow perfectly equalize the disparities of our society, could we somehow set up a society where we really could say that all children in a rising generation were maximizing their potentials? I want to grant even more possibility for change than Plato does: why must people settle into some position in the latter half of their lives? This is probably a very modern attitude. But Plato is still clear-sighted enough to see that people can be great no matter where they are born. In his society, universal education (including women) of mind and body would be the means to determine the classes. There would be a meritocratic educational program, with gradual steps of selection where the best students continued their comprehensive education in philosophy and in war (continuing throughout one's 20's, 30's and 40's), until the age of 50, whence a philosopher-king could be chosen.

The philosopher-king was Plato's ideal man. He would be a reluctant ruler, uninterested in power or money, sincerely consumed only by the welfare of the state he lived in and felt responsible for. He would have a love of subjects regarding eternity, truthfulness, self-control, balance, courage, intellect, a good memory, maturity (Book VI).

Though the American in me resists, I am persuaded by his vision of this philosopher-king. How refreshing it would be if such a selfless, wise ruler existed, swept up to rulership not by his or her own selfish ambition but because of a certain historically momentous inevitability! Obama? haha.

" is better for every creature [whether for one individual or for all of society] to be under the control of divine wisdom."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plato, The Republic, Books 1-2

The Republic (written approximately 380 BCE), translated by Desmond Lee (Penguin Classics, released 2007). Cost: Free (Borders). 480 pages.

Deciding to start reading in earnest last week, I figured out that of the ten total books in The Republic, two books per day (while taking notes and basic outlining) were about my mental limit, especially for one sitting at Borders.

And today, I finished Plato's last words - a riff, through the narrator Socrates, about the fruits of good, just living - about the peace and true satisfaction that is possible to attain in this life and the life to come. If you know how Reality really is -what happiness and goodness really is - you will find an eternal happiness and good.

The Republic opens with a conversation between Socrates, who is returning home from a local festival, and the people at a friend's house that he stops by. The progression of the conversation topics seems illogical, in retrospect (how do you move from a discussion on the merits of old age to a heated debate on justice?), but, and perhaps like the most natural conversation, perhaps the flow makes sense only when you are immersed in the actual dialogue.

Socrates begins a conversation with his friend's elderly father about age and its wisdom (as "those who have gone before us"), versus its nostalgia (of those who long for the passions of youth), and then the contention that "the rich have many consolations." From this, the discussion becomes that of wealth versus happiness, and then about the idea that wealth is valuable for the "good and sensible" man who knows what to do with it: he will pay all his debts and thus avoid cheating and lying (stealing). He then asks whether telling the truth (never lying/cheating) is really the definition of doing "right" and meting out "justice."

And here, Thrasymachus, a Sophist, quiet until now, angrily interrupts -- he cannot repress his thoughts any longer. He says,

"Justice is simply is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party."

Thrasymachus's words, cynical, but penetrating, world-weary, seem to prefigure those ideas that I thought were much more recent: the idea that the fittest survive, the competing ideas of democracy, monarchy, communism, or religion, and all their sub-debates. Which majority imposes itself on which? Is that imposition violent or nonviolent? When does a minority idea - somewhat protected by modern democracies - become too dangerous to the differing majority, who then needs to take reverse action?

Socrates, of course, will systematically answer all of Thrasymachus's questions, starting from the universe up, eventually to arrive at his vision of the perfect society.

Among these early books, I was fascinated to stumble upon quotes/anecdotes that seemed to have such direct parallels with important ideas and texts that came centuries later.
  • "...people who are healthy have no use for a physician..."
  • " we have seen, it is never right to harm anyone at any time."
  • The myth of the rings of invisibility. Two ringsgive their wearers the power of invisibility. One ring is given to a just man, the other to an unjust. The unjust man will commit crimes, naturally, but eventually, inevitably, so will the just man. This will be the case all the more if the just man is assured that he will never have to face the consequences of his crimes.
  • The perfectly just man:
"We must strip him of everything except his justice... Our man must have the worst of reputation for wrongdoing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it; we shall give him an undeserved and lifelong reputation for wickedness, and make him stick to his chosen course until death...

"... the just man, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that one should want not to be, but to seem just."

It must have been so resonant for Christians like Paul and Augustine to read especially this kind of dialogue as they developed their theologies. From there, Paul's fervent missionary work. From there, Augustine's further hybridization of Platonic thought and Christian theology. From there, Emperor Constantine, and the entire Western world.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Buddha, The Dhammapada

The Dhammapada: Verses on The Way. A new translation of the teachings of the buddha, with a guide to reading the text, by Glenn Wallis. Modern Library Classics, 2007. 202 pp (actual text is 85 pp). Cost: Free, from Albany Park library. The Buddha's life is dated to approximately 500 BCE.

A deep read. Again, I find myself comparing an uninterrupted reading of this text with reading, say, the book of Matthew in the New Testament in one sitting, versus spending a lifetime poring over and going back to individual passages.

The verses in the Dhammapada, attributed to the Buddha, are dated to about 500 BC. There are 423 verses in 26 short chapters. The word "dhamma," while without an exact English equivalent, can be roughly translated to "the law," and the word "pada" to "the path." The Dhammapada is a major text in the Theravada canon - Theravada being the type of Buddhism especially found in southeast Asia, versus Mahayana, the type of Buddhism most prevalent in north and northeast Asia.

A few verses to return to (and a few thoughts in red):

I. Contrasting Pairs

1. Preceded by mind are phenomena led by mind, formed by mind. If with mind polluted one speaks or acts, then pain follows, as a wheel follows the draft ox's foot.

3. "He berated me! He hurt me! He beat me! He deprived me!" For those who hold such grudges, hostility is not appeased.

5. In this world hostilities are never appeased by hostility. But by the absence of hostility are they appeased. This is an interminable truth.

7. Living with an eye to pleasure, unrestrained in the sense faculties, immoderate in eating, indolent, and idle - Mara (Death) overcomes such a person, as the wind overcomes a weak tree.

8. Living without an eye to pleasure, well restrained in the sense faculties, moderate in eating, faithful, and energetic - Mara does not overcome such a person, as the wind, a rocky hill.

II. Diligence

21. Diligence is the path to the deathless. Negligence is the path of death. The diligent to not die. Those who are negligent are as the dead.

25. With energy, diligence, restraint, and control, the wise person should make an island which no flood can overflow.

Here again is that Eastern theme of mustering up one's own strength - relying on oneself only (see also verse 103 in chapter VIII). As with the Bhagavad Gita, I wonder about the possible seepage of ideas between the east and the west, between this kind of restrained centeredness and, say, Emersonian Self-Reliance (we know he was a reader of "The Geeta"). Whatever the case: self-control and self-mastery, those virtues that humans everywhere have discovered and admired.

III. Mind
33. Trembling and quivering is the mind, difficult to guard and hard to restrain. The person of wisdom sets it straight, as a fletcher does an arrow. I wonder again how Plato and the Buddha arrived at such similar insights at around the same time.

IV. Flowers

45. A seeker will master this earth, this world of death and radiant beings. A seeker will gather a well-taught verse on the way, as a skilled gardener gathers a flower.

50. Look not at the faults of others, nor at what they leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved. .

VI. The Skilled Person

76. Regard the person who sees your faults as a revealer of treasures. Associate with that skilled person as one who is wise, who speaks reprovingly. Keeping company with such a person, things get better, not worse.

81. As a rock of single solid mass cannot be moved by the wind, so are the skilled unshaken by praise and blame.

82. As a deep pond, clear, calm, so do the teachings become serene, having heard the teachings. Unshaken, pure, and at peace: the center of the Buddha's teachings.

VII. The Accomplished Person
94. His senses serene like horses well tamed by the charioteer, the person who has let go of haughtiness, who is free from impulses - even the radiant ones are envious of one such as that.

VIII. Thousands
100. Better than a thousand statements composed of meaningless words is a single meaningful word which, having been heard, brings peace.

103. Though one might conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, the one who conquers himself alone is supreme in battle.

112. Better than living a hundred years lethargic, low in energy, is a single day lived exerting steadfast vigor.

IX. Detriment
121. One should not think slightly of injury... With drops of falling water even a water pot is filled. The childish person is full of injury gathered day by day.

XIV. The Awakened
186-187. Not through a torrent of money or in sensual enjoyment can satisfaction be found. The skilled person, knowing that sensual enjoyment is painful, yielding but little pleasure, does not take delight even in divine enjoyments. A person who delights in the dissolution of craving is a disciple of the perfectly awakened.

188. People who are anxious with fear often go for refuge to mountains and forests, to tree shrines in pleasant groves...

190-191. But whoever has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Sangha sees with thorough understanding the four noble truths: pain the arising of pain, the overcoming of pain, and the noble eightfold path leading to the stillness of pain.

192. This is the secure refuge. This is the best refuge. Arriving at this refuge, a person is released from all pain.

XV. Being at Ease
197. Oh, with what ease we live when peaceful amid the hostile! Amid hostile people we live peacefully.

199. Oh, with what ease we live when relaxed amid the anxious! Amid anxious people we live relaxed.

201. Victory begets hostility: the defeated person lives ill at ease. Giving up both victory and defeat, the peaceful person lives at ease.

204. Health is the finest possession. Contentment is the ultimate wealth. Trustworthy people are the best relatives. Unbinding is the supreme ease.

205. Having drunk the sap of solitude and the savor of peace, one is free of distress, free from wrongdoing, enjoying the delightful flavor of the teaching.

XVI. Pleasing
215. Sorrow springs from sensual pleasure. Fear springs from sensual pleasure. For the person freed from sensual pleasure there is no sorrow. From where could fear emerge?

XVIII. Toxins
241. The rust of religious texts is nonrepetition. The rust of houses is lack of repair. Lethargy is the rust of personal appearance. Negligence is the rust of the watchman.

244-245. It is easy to live a life without scruples or shame, boldly and offensively, boastfully, recklessly, corruptly. But it is difficult to live as a person with scruples, longing always for purity, with a simple lifestyle, open, careful, and perceptive.

251. There is no fire like passion. There is no seizure like hatred. There is no snare like delusion. There is no river like craving.

252. It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one's own. The faults of others you sift like a husk, but conceal your own, like a deceitful gambler conceals a bad roll of the die.

XIX. Firmly on the Way
258. A person is not skilled just because he talks a lot. Peaceful, friendly, secure - that one is called "skilled."

260-261. A person is not venerable just because his head has gray hair. His age ripened, he is called "one who has grown old in vain." But a person in whom there is truthfulness, morality, gentleness, restraint, and self-control - that person, toxins dispelled, wise, is called "venerable."

270. A person who harms living beings is not noble. By being gentle to all living beings one is called "noble."

XX. The Path
280. A person who is listless when it is time for exertion, who is young and strong, though filled with torpor, mind possessed of depressing thoughts, inactive, lethargic, does not find the path to insightful knowledge.

282. From practice springs expansive understanding; from lack of practice, its loss. Being aware of this divided pathway to cultivation and decline, conduct yourself so that understanding increases.

285. Tear out your self-regard as you would an autumn lily with your hand. Foster only the path to peace, to unbinding, taught by the one who traveled it well.

XXIII. Elephant
320. As an elephant in battle bears the arros shot from a bow, I will endure insult; for many people have poor self-control.

327. Delight in diligence! Watch over your mind! Pull yourself out of misfortune like an elephant, sunk in mud.

XXIV. Craving
335-336. Whomever this miserable craving, this entanglement in the world, overcomes, his sorrows grow, like grass well rained upon. But whoever overcomes this miserable craving, in this world so hard to overcome, sorrow falls away from him, like a drop of water from a lotus blossom.

348. Let go of the past! Let go of the future! In the present, let go! Gone to the other shore becoming, mind released entirely, you will never again undergo birth and old age.

349. For the person who is agitated by thoughts, whose passions are severe, who searches for the pleasurable, craving grows all the more. This person makes the bondage strong.

350. The person who delights in the calming of thought, meditates on the unpleasant, constantly mindful - this one will remove, this one will cut, the bond of Mara.

XXV. The Practitioner
375. This is primary for an insightful practitioner: guarding the sense, contentment, restraint in line with the discipline, association with friends who are encouraging, who live a pure and vigorous life.

XXVI. The Superior Person

406-408. The person who is harmonious amid the hostile, peaceful amid the violent, free from grasping amid the greedy, that one I call superior. The person whose passion and aversion, pride and pretense have fallen like a mustard seed off a sharp point, that one I call superior. The person who would speak in a way that is gentle, instructive, and honest, speech with which he would offend no one, that one I call superior.

410. The person for whom there are no expectations concerning either this world or the world beyond, who is without wishing, free, that one I call superior.

418. Having renounced likes and dislikes, cooled, without a foundation for further existence, a hero who has overcome the entire world, that one I call superior.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Plato, The Crito, The Phaedo

Socrates at his execution
Like in Raphael's School of Athens, he points upwards to Eternity

The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo). Penguin Classics edition, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (1954, 1959, 1969, 1993, 2003). Total pages: 199, without notes, 251 with notes. Cost: $1, used bookstore. Authorship, by Plato, dated to within 10 years after Socrates' death in 399 BCE.

The Crito is named after a friend of Socrates' who visits him in jail, as Socrates awaits his execution, and offers Socrates the opportunity for escape. Socrates refuses. To act violently against the State, which has raised him, is a "far greater sin" than violence against mother and father. Moreover, as he explains to Crito, he has taken peaceful civil disobedience to its fullest course and has failed; now he must "do whatever [the State] orders, and patiently submit to any punishment that it imposes..." There is a sense of duty to the State, but there is also the fact that he had always had the freedom to rescind his citizenship before the trial or ask for banishment. But at this point, if he were to run away - where would run to? Who would respect his words on goodness and justice? What good would it for his children to raise them a few years longer with this sort of reputation? Did a few more years of life matter more than these?

"... the really important thing is not to live, but to live well."

The Phaedo is traditionally known as Socrates' argument for the immortality of the soul, but, as the introduction says, Socrates also describes why the philosopher is unafraid of death; why the knowledge of the True and Eternal cannot be based on our senses but only our mind and intellect (what True Reality - verses the copies of reality in the physical world - is); and what most likely happens in the afterlife to good souls, to bad souls, and to the top of the hierarchy - to the lovers of wisdom.

Again, to me, what makes his conversation with the people at his deathbed feel so... modern are the questions that the other people around him raise about the different possibilities after death: the possibility of no soul, the possibility of a mortal soul, the possibility of rebirths, the confusion about the different destinations in the purported afterlife.

I am impressed most of all, again, by Socrates' ascetic value of wisdom, of a life that looks beyond material things, beyond human opinion, beyond our physical desires, beyond the "petty," and instead places the utmost value on the search for whatever is the true, the good, the noble, the eternal. For Plato, the eternal qualities of the mind itself - the soul - are the route to understanding our own immortality.

A few beautiful excerpts from the Phaedo:

"I want to explain to you how natural it seems to me that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be confident in the face of death, and hopeful of winning the greatest of prizes in the next world after death."

"Do you think that it's a philosopher's business to concern himself with what people call pleasures - food and drink... sex.... smart clothes and shoes and other bodily ornaments; do you think that he values them or despises them...? ...And most people think, do they not... that anyone who thinks nothing of pleasures connected with the body has one foot in the grave?"

"Don't you think that the person who is most likely to achieve [knowledge of objects in themselves] flawlessly is the one who approaches each object as far as possible, with the unaided intellect, without taking account of the sense of sight in his thinking, or dragging any other sense into his reckoning - the man who pursues the truth by applying his pure and unadulterated thought to the pure and unadulterated object, cutting himself off as much as possible from... virtually all the rest of his body, as an impediment which, if present, prevents the soul from attaining to the truth and clear thinking? Is not this the person... who will reach the goal of reality, if anybody can?

"...the body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything."

"...true philosophers make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is least alarming."

"If... a Beauty, a Goodness, and all such entities, really exist - if it is to them that we refer to all the objects of our physical perception as copies to their patterns, as we rediscover our own former knowledge of them - does it not follow that our souls too must exist even before our birth... that it is just as inevitable that our souls exists before our birth as it is that these realities exist, and that without the one there's not the other?"

"I suppose that the happiest people, and those who reach the best destination, are the ones who have cultivated the goodness of an ordinary citizen, so-called 'temperance' and 'justice,' which is acquired by habit and practice, without the help of philosophy and reason... they will probably pass into some other kind of social and disciplined creature like bees, wasps, and ants; or even back into the human race again, becoming decent citizens."

"But no soul which has not practiced philosophy, and is not absolutely pure when it leaves the body, may attain to the divine nature; that is only for the lover of learning."

"...every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which it fastens the soul to the body and pins it down and makes it corporeal, accepting as true whatever the body certifies... Consequently it has no share of fellowship with the pure and uniform and divine."

"But those who are judged to have lived a life of surpassing holiness - these are they who are released and set free from imprisonment in these regions of the earth, and passing upward to their pure abode, make their dwelling upon the earth's surface. And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful, which it is not easy to portray... But the reasons which we have already described provide ground enough... for leaving nothing undone to attain during life some measure of goodness and wisdom; for the prize is glorious and hope great."

"These are the reasons, then, for which a man can be confident about the fate of his soul - as long as in life he has abandoned those other pleasures and adornments, the bodily ones, as foreign to his purpose and likely to do more harm than good, and has devoted himself to the pleasures of acquiring knowledge, and so by adorning his soul not with borrowed beauty but with its own - with self-control, and goodness, and courage, and liberality, and truth - has settled down to await his journey to the next world."

At first, it's difficult to conceive of this idea of philosophy-as-salvation -- as a ticket to some kind of eternal happiness. But when I read the Phaedo, I try to think back to a time when men must have marveled for the first time at their own faculty of reason, at the voice in their head which could contemplate their motives, their history, their futures. Minds that could penetrate and apprehend the invisible perfection of Euclidean geometry. I can imagine them asking themselves, how do such mathematics arise? Where is it located? How is it so perfect, so eternal, so elegant, so invisible? An equilateral triangle in our minds does not actually exist, and yet we can sense that it has a permanence, an eternity, that seems to be beyond us. From this, I can see how it takes only one step to associate that kind of eternity to our mind itself. And I can see how Plato would logically scorn the senses and equate them with the base, thoughtless impulses of beasts. I can see how Platonic thought sets a foundation for Christian faith in the unseen, as later developed by St. Augustine. I can see why he can develop the idea of an immortal soul based on the assumption of the eternal and perfect nature of these unseen qualities. I can see why the eternal concept of Justice would then allow the lover of truth to enter the realm of eternity with other immortal souls, and why the foolish would remain chained to lower realms of existence.

But I can also see "Eastern" elements in Socrates' thoughts - reincarnation for the good (but not philosophical) as a social animal, like the bee. The entrapment of the physical and the mundane and the thoughtless. The mind - and the focus on the truest Reality - as the path to liberation from our physical world into the unseen, eternal world. The overcoming of ignorance and grasping -- quintessential Eastern thoughts.

[How was it that there were so many parallel, important advances in both Western and Eastern thought, all in a similar era, this "Axial Age"? Was there some sort of communication between these worlds, or did they develop their philosophies completely on their own?]

So after reading the Phaedo, I'm left wondering, what makes us strive for eternal happiness, eternal life, eternal love, eternal peace, or eternal extinction (and thus peace)? Why are we all hard-wired to seek eternity? Or do we, really? Can't there be a balance, and a peace, between appreciating both the brevity of our lives and the much longer time we are not alive? Reality does not demand an eternity.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. Authorship approximately 6th century BCE. Stephen Mitchell translation (1988). Approximately 80 pp. Cost: Bought for $12.95, plus tax, at Border's.

The Tao is such a short read: each of the 80 pages, or chapters, contains at most a few stanzas. It is an easy read, but I wonder if I am doing justice to it by hurtling through it and archiving it away in my mind as 'having been read'; the Tao Te Ching has, after all, like the Gita, been the object of deep reverence, extensive meditation, and study for thousands of years.

This is a concern I increasingly feel with all of these books I am reading; I think of the difference between reading, say, the Bible, Tanakh, or the Qur'an, all the way through, versus poring over its verses, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, carefully and reverently extracting its lessons - itself the task and joy of a lifetime for all those religious scholars and leaders.

Nevertheless, here is a patchwork of verses that especially struck me (bolded for emphasis):

If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

… just do your job, then let go.

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of Tao,
every day something is dropped.

He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
Avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

We shape clay into a pot
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
But non-being is what we use.

Emptiness and detachment does not mean inaction in our lives, but a subtler way to act. We have things to do, but we do not cling to them, whether they are duties, ambitions, or impulses. We wait until we are as "clear as a glass of water." The Tao asks, "Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” "The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone.” “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” “He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being.”

I think of the Zen calligapher who gathers himself until the perfect brush strokes naturally arise.


Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

But do I agree with this? It's one thing to be contentious with every person one meets; it's quite another to, say, stand up for a point that needs to be defended. What about, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.?

But perhaps, in ideal world of the Taoist, no one would need to prove any point; they would live, peacefully, in industry, in reflection, serenely aware of both life and death.

The mark of a moderate man
Is freedom from his own ideas.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
but the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
There is no end to the blame.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body…
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

If you aren’t afraid of dying,
There is nothing you can’t achieve.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Homer, The Odyssey

Oxford World's Classics edition at left: 298 pages. Cost: $1, used bookstore.

Not sure how this very accessible translation rates in quality in comparison to other ones - Samuel Butler's translation seems a popular one - but the ease of reading of this particular one made for a great, immersing read.

The Odyssey is dated to the eighth century BCE. Exact authorship debated/unknown.

feels like the precursor to every grand adventure story I've ever come upon - be it on the sea, in it, or far away from it - be it Robinson Crusoe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 40,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Star Trek. The Pilgrim's Progress. Its stories - for instance of the Cyclops - come back to me from tamed-down encounters in children's literature.

Love the dramatic prose, from the very first line (see below). From the outset, you feel a an enormity in its scope, an older, more ancient history, from a majestic pantheon of gods and their histories - all presumed to be known.

"Goddess of song, teach me the story of a hero."

According to the introduction (of this edition), The Odyssey was meant to be recited, for a largely illiterate time. The reminder is an important one; all of the lines have a very different impact when imagined as being dramatically recited. Even those lines that repeat, like, "Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers." I try repeating many lines to myself, imagined as an oration.

Feels refreshing to read something that is so purely a narrative, with all its devices (so much building of tension and then release, beneath an overarching climax and resolution) - absent of winding introspection or description. I've just read Madame Bovary; that prose warrants a very different kind of appreciation.

A few memorable, famous images and quotes:

The Cyclops, who traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, and grabbed them "two at once and battered them on the floor like puppies; their brains gushed out and soaked the ground" before he eats them. So graphic -- gratifyingly so. This until Odysseus tricks him, telling him that his was name is, "No-man," and then spearing him in his eye. "No-man did it!" yells the Cyclops, rolling open the stone to the cave.

Then there is the island of the Phaecaians that Odysseus, shipwrecked, lands upon, clinging to a single plank from his shattered ship (was this the first time this single plank imagery was used?). And this bit of cathartic prose (bold added to words that please):

"Odysseus limped away from the river, sank down among the rushes and kissed the earth that gives men grain... he crept under two bushy olives that were growing together from one stem... he heaped up at once a wide bed of leaves, because there was a great mass of them, enough to shelter two or three in the stormy season, be the weather never so wild. Patient Odysseus rejoiced to see it; he lay down in the very middle... and Athene poured sleep upon his eyes, sleep to cover his eyelids over, sleep to release him quickly from toil and pains."

Then there are the mysterious, monstrous Sirens, who sit by the sea, calling out to passing ships, with honey-sweet music from their lips that bewitch men from their ships. The men's ears are plugged, and Odysseus is bound -- even he cannot resist -- and has to be bound tighter still. I loved this painting of that scene.

Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse, 1891
[Waterhouse made some great paintings of literary scenes]

Then Charybdis, Scylla, and choosing the lesser of two evils.

And the underworld. I don't remember where I first read about the goddess Persephone (the "Iron Queen") as a kid, but the fantastic gray and charred images of Hades' underworld have remained with me - the floating souls, the sharp contrast of the bright crimson pomegranate seeds that Persephone eats after Hades forbids it. Again, Odysseus's travels are embedded in a rich history, and it feels so familiar to read of Odysseus's travels, even for the first time.

And finally, back at home, undercover, discovering those loyal or disloyal to him, he takes his bloody, again-gratifying revenge upon all of the suitors in his palace.

What was the purpose of The Odyssey? Was it merely entertainment? I see how the story itself, packed with such action, might survive so long, but was there something more? Were there themes that resonated with the people? Was it a kind of hero-worship, reminding people of virtues to emulate? Was it cathartic for people to see justice finally take place upon evil people and events?

Perhaps the answer is simply that these questions can be asked of any story with a quest.

Nice cover art by Anders Nilsen, a Chicagoan. Met him at some show he was holding in Hyde Park once.