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Archive for September, 2013

Epictetus

Imagine you are one of a number of young men living in the Greco-Roman colony, Nicopolis, in A.D. 100.  You have been sent there to study and your teacher was a Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.  One of your fellow students, Arrian, decides to copy, word for word, Epictetus’ lessons.  Little did you know that by doing so, Arrian would provide all of those who followed a manuscript that would be read by hundreds of thousands of people during the next 2000 years.  Arrian provided posterity — including me and you, gentle reader — what has become known as Epictetus’ ‘Discourses.’  So, who was this man, Epictetus?  Well, allow me to introduce you to him.

The details of his life are sketchy at best, Arrian’s ‘Discourses’ actually provide us with most of what we know.  It is believed that he was born about A.D. 55 and that he died in A.D. 135.  We do know that he was born a slave of a slave because Epictetus tells us so in his writings and because an ancient inscription also notes this fact.  We know he was born in Hierapolis, a major Greco-Roman city located in what is now south-western Turkey.  The native language there was Greek, not Latin; it was the Greek spoken by the common folk and the ‘Discourses’ are written in this common Greek (as is the Greek of the New Testament).

Epictetus referred to himself as a ‘lame old man,’ but he did not tell us about the cause or nature of his disability.  We do know who his owner was; his name was Epaphroditus.  He was famous for more than just being Epictetus’ owner and master.  Epaphroditus was a former slave and after he achieved his freedom he served as a record keeper during Nero and Domitian’s reign.  Epictetus learned a great deal about court-life.  Given this experience, Epictetus came to deeply appreciate the ambiguities of power and learned to distinguish between true and counterfeit freedom.

Epaphroditus permitted Epictetus great freedom of movement; for example, Epictetus attended the lectures of Musonius Rufus who was the foremost Stoic of his time.  Musonius gave lessons in applied ethics and in his ‘Discourses’ Epictetus offers us a similar focus and orientation.  Both Musonius and Epictetus concentrate on ethics to the virtual exclusion of physics and logic.  Ethics was to be applied to real life.  Both want their students to break with traditional patterns of thinking and behaving, to reject popular morality and put conventional notions of good and bad behind them.  Epictetus, in particular, seeks to inspire his students (including his ‘current’ students — you and me) into something akin to a spiritual conversion and to do so mainly by an appeal to reason.

Epictetus was granted his freedom and then devoted his life to the practice and teaching of Stoicism.  Both he and his school in Nicropolis were successful; the Emperor Hadrian even came to visit him and his school and Roman nobles sent their sons to study with Epictetus.   Late in life he retired, adopted a child, hired a female servant and withdrew from public life.  It appears these later years provided him great contentment.

Well, gentle reader, this is what we know about Epictetus; some facts, some speculations, some suppositions.  Next time we will briefly explore Epictetus as a champion of Stoicism.

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As I noted in PART I, Marcus was gentle to his foe; thus, it seems to me, that he would also be a good and gracious friend.  His writing is full of great gratitude to those who had served and cared for him.  He begins his journal with gratitude as he lists the debts due to his family, his mentors and his friends.  For example, to his grandfather he wrote that he owes his own gentle spirit, to his father courage; from his mother he learned to be religious and generous.  His teacher, Rusticus, reminded him by word and action that one’s life needs amending — one is not perfect.  Appolonius taught Marcus simplicity, reasonableness, gratitude, a love of liberty.  His list goes on and on; in fact. Everyone he encountered seemed to have given him something good.  This, it seems to me, is one sign of the goodness of his nature; a nature which thought no evil.

Marcus’ heart represents for me the Christian heart and this is remarkable in that he lacked the faith is a major tap root for Christians.  Marcus notes that “either there is a God, and then all is well; or if things go by chance and fortune, yet mayest thou use thine own providence in those things that concern thee properly; and then art thou well.”  He also notes that “we must grant that there is a nature that does govern the universe.”  Marcus does not hope for personal happiness beyond what a serene heart may win in this mortal life; he is, after all, a stoic.  He seeks to live a life of contentment and for Marcus contentment was not beyond his reach.  For Marcus the world and its fame and wealth “all is vanity” — and these the words of the world’s most powerful man/ruler.  He was not without hope for he expected that upon his mortal death his soul would be absorbed into the universal soul (he believed that nothing comes of nothing and therefore nothing will be annihilated).  On the other hand, he did not have that wonderful confidence which led Socrates through a life no less noble, to a death which was to bring him into the company of the gods he had worshiped and the men he had admired.

Ancient reilgions are, for the most part, concerned with outward things.  Do the necessary rites and you satisfy the gods — the gods were more interested in act than intent.  Yet, Marcus knows that what the heart is full of, the man will do.  “Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations, such will thy mind be in time.”  Throughout his journal it is clear that Marcus knew that thought will manifest itself in action.  He disciplines his heart and soul in right principles so that when it comes time to act he will be guided by them.  To wait until the crisis emerges is to wait too long.

How does one prepare without knowing what will unfold?  How does one prepare so that when ‘things’ unfold that one can then engage them with virtue rather than with vice?

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I have at times, since I began posting on this blog, quoted from ‘The Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius.  As I have been reading and reflecting upon his meditations it occurred to me that I might take some time and help you, gentle reader, meet Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born on 26 April, A.D. 121.  Marcus’ aunt was married to the Roman emperor and he, having no son, adopted Marcus and then prepared Marcus to follow him as Emperor.  Marcus became Emperor in A.D. 161 and, as far as we can determine, he began keeping his journal in A.D. 170.  Marcus died on 17 March, A.D. 180.  Almost from the beginning of his reign Marcus was called upon to defend the empire from potential invaders and there were few years of peace and tranquility during his reign.

Marcus was not spared family pain and loss.  His wife, Faustina, died in A.D. 176.  She had borne Marcus several children and all but one died quite young.  The surviving child, a son, Commodus followed his father as Emperor.  Commodus was weak, worthless, and a blood-thirsty tyrant.  He undid much of what his father had accomplished.

Even though Marcus was a stoic we do not come to him for a treatise on Stoicism.  His meditations record his innermost heart-felt thoughts — thoughts set down to ease his heart; his moral maxims and reflections appeared to help him bear the burden of duty that was required by the world’s most powerful man.

Marcus appeared to write almost daily and his ‘meditations’ reflect mood by mood the mind of the person who wrote them down.  For me, the power and charm lies within the intimacy and frankness of his written words.  His words are not confessions nor are they sermon-like; they are the reflections of a man, a truly human being, a living paradox — they reflect a man’s search as to how to live a dignified life as a Stoic.  As one who was fully human, his writing is not always profound — it is, however, always sincere, and self-revealing.

The faults he detects in himself, captures in his notes and thus shares with us, are often such as most of us would have no eyes to see.  Marcus sought to serve the divine spirit that resided deep within his soul and, as he wrote, for a man to do so he must “keep himself pure from all violent passion and evil affection, from all rashness and vanity, and from all manner of discontent, either in regard of the gods or men” — or as he notes, he strives to be “unspotted by pleasure, undaunted by pain.”  Unwavering courtesy and consideration are two of his aims; as he notes, “Whatsoever any man either doth or saith, thou must be good…” “…doth any man offend?  It is against himself that he doth offend: why should it trouble thee?”  For Marcus, the offender needs pity not wrath; “those who must needs be corrected, should be treated with tact and gentleness and one must be always ready to learn better.”  “The best kind of revenge is, not to become like unto them.”  It appears as if one motivation to keep a journal was for Marcus to remind himself of his own failings and to thus remind himself of the principles that he wished to live by and to help strengthen himself for what was to come.  One powerful guiding life-principle was that evil must be overcome with good.  For each fault that one carries Nature has provided one with a counteracting virtue — for example, Marcus notes that “…against the unthankful, it hath given goodness and meekness as an antidote.”

What are the counteracting virtues that Nature has given you, gentle reader?  In what ways do you live into and out of these virtues?

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OUR WORLD IS. . .

Our world is diverse and complex.  Our attitudes are diverse, some are complex.  What is diverse and complex tends to raise our anxieties because diversity and complexity are not neat and simple but often lead to confusion and chaos.  We tend to forget, or is it deny, how many possibilities are truly open to us.
It seems that we like to be told that there are ‘two’ choices; this bring us comfort, stability and a sense of predictability; it is, as Martin Buber reminds us, ‘tidy.’  Of the two ways, one seems to be ‘ordinary’ and the other ‘superior.’  One seems to be ‘light’ and the other ‘darkness.’  One seems to lead to ‘virtue’ and the other leads to ‘vice.’  One seems to be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong.’  One seems to be ‘good’ and the other ‘bad.’

We seek out, honor and listen to those who describe for us the two ways; we recognize them as wise guides and great teachers.  These people save us from the confusion, diversity and complexity that washes over us each day; they save us from having to make the ‘hard choices’ ourselves.  They make our choice simple, in fact.  They tell us that one choice is simple for it leads to contentment, the garden [or heaven] and the other choice leads us into wretchedness, the wasteland [or hell].  Although the choice is easy, staying on the path to contentment is challenging during the best of times.  The wisdom of the wise guides and great teachers provides us simplicity BUT the truth of the matter is not simple; not in the least.

Seeking to be simple is not always wise especially in a world that is broadly diverse and highly complex and that is supported by a range of beliefs, values, and principles that run deep in the hearts and souls of us humans.  Nevertheless, a wealth of choice and possibilities breeds anxiety, if not dread.  I am remembering my son, Nathan [I had the privilege of having an early breakfast with him this morning] having great anxiety as a child when he was faced with 30 different kinds of honey and he had to choose one.  I can still see him shivering with nervousness as he stood looking at the rack containing 30 different jars of honey.  He finally did what many of us do in such situations — he chose impulsively in order to lower his anxiety.

Those other wise guides and great teachers that speak of ‘many possibilities’ and that affirm that life is broadly diverse and highly complex speak to a few and are of real help to even fewer of us [or so it seems to me].  The first type of wise guides and great teachers offer us only two ways — one of which is good — and thus help the many.

Gentle reader: Which are you attracted to?  Which guide or teacher do you seek out?  Which ‘path’ do you choose?  Why do you choose ‘this path’?

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Contemplation = deep reflection.  Consider that contemplation requires that our whole being is open to a Presence beyond words, thoughts and emotions.

How do I facilitate this type of deep reflection?  Contemplation needs/requires ‘silence.’  Some find that leading into this ‘silence’ with music (my choice), reflective reading, or chanting is useful.  There are many contemplative practices — disciplines? — that help provide one to enter in deep reflection.  Some of these include, but are certainly not limited to, centering prayer, walking meditation, walking the labyrinth (a powerful way for me), saying the rosary (or other ‘counted prayers’), singing a kirtan (Kirtan is a very different kind of music. Based on ancient chants, it has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention), meditating by focusing on your breathing or on a still point (a candle flame, for example), by reciting a repetitive phrase from a prayer, by the sacred sound of Om or by reflecting upon the names of God.

I have found that a daily contemplative practice over many months is essential for me if I am going to develop my capacity for deep reflection.  Like the variety of fruits and vegetables that come from a diverse garden, the fruits and vegetables of deep reflection are many; here are some of them:

*  We learn to discern what truly matters to us and we also learn to let go of that which does not matter to us.

*  We are more accepting of others and are, hence, less likely to reactively judge them.

*  We come to accept our own sacredness/goodness.

*  We are more likely to cultivate an open mind and open heart [as Mary Oliver reminds us, ‘if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead!’]

*  We become more aware of what motivates us and we deepen some and let go of others and even take on others.

*  We are more likely to embrace our ‘call’ [i.e. the needs in our world that require our gifts, talents and abilities].

I have found that if I ‘experiment’ with a variety of practices/disciplines that over time I will find a few that I am willing to commit to living into and out of for a significant period of time.  I find that I listen more deeply, intently and receptively to others and to the voice of my inner guide because I am more open to both [my ability to listen deeply to you and to myself and to the whispers of my life’s sustaining Spirit is positively enhanced].

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