Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Ancient Art of Living II


I can’t think of Stoicism apart from my experience in the military police and the “gravitas” it lent my whole way of being and understanding in the world. I learned to live under another’s, and to give commands: obedience, focus, self-discipline, responsibility to station. I learned men suffered and were cruel. I learned men had to be tamed with force as well as words. If Epicureanism worked off the recognition of personal death and repudiation of religious hopes and fears in the interest of enjoying the moment, Stoicism seemed all about higher values--ideals of perseverance and courage, duty and honor, citizenship and service to country, the realization that life itself was a “just war” with internal and external enemies and action in uncertain conditions. If Epicureanism evoked images of gardens, dance, philosophy, happiness, Stoicism evoked images of armor, wrestling, logic, justice. These were, of course, first impressions. I seldom attributed “humanitas” or joy to the Stoics, and this was a mistake.

The Stoic “turn to the self” still seems to me to have a Roman military coloration, as the Epicurean a Hellenistic, pacific one. The Epicurean enjoys the world and values every pleasure. But the Stoic recognizes what Martha Nussbaum calls the “fragility of goodness.” The Stoic embraces the B+, the second best, as about the best we can ask for in reality, if not in thought. Give him law, and he will accept it as justice; give him science, he will make technology; give him family, he will make of it love. He knows how fast and far things can go south.

The Stoic is tough, and doesn’t want your sympathy. I once played golf with such a man, who’d lost in foot in battle. He had devised a steel shoe to let him pivot in his swing, but it kept giving way as he played, adjusting and struggling, all 18 holes without complaint. My German uncles, Karl and Erwin, survivors on the Russian front, surrenders in the west, were Stoics, too, as was my aunt Emily, whose husband died and left her with a small business and two young boys in a devastated country. They endured and in their own way prevailed.

It is a kind of aristocratic philosophy, of and for the responsible few, not the complaining many. I think that is part of why it is theistic, if not monotheistic, e.g. the "Hymn to Zeus," whereas the Epicurean philosophy, more democratic, has no room for the transcendent (some will dispute this, and point to purely loving or contemplating gods). But Stoicism is not ‘humble’ in the Christian way, all equal as fallen souls before the Almighty Father, or in the manner of Montaigne. The Stoic belongs to that ancient world in which the “great-souled man” is proud of his station and cares about his honor, a hierarchic world in which self-reliant lords are most fit to know and serve the King Divine. The Stoic Sage who leaves his own familial, human city to become a citizen in the Cosmic City of free and equal rational persons and friends—that Stoic lives in S1, the Stoicism of the mind, which is quite different from S2, Stoicism in actual life.

The Stoic life in the strict sense, as Hadot describes it, is hard work: (i) the constant massaging of emotions and desires, not least by meditation on nature and its lessons on the accidental smallness of our lives, (ii) of actions and relations to others by the sovereign measures of virtue and duty, (iii) of judgments and reasons by logic and ethics, to get the gold and sift out the “indifferent.” The rule of reason in the soul, the aspiration to be a sage. Might it finally be too great for us? And if so, are we strained toward cruelty toward ourselves or others, dividing all by good and evil, waging the war righteous by choice, rather than necessity? I began to wonder if the inner citadel could remain self-contained, or had to unleash its admonitions against a world that seemed too weak or else too cunning, that needed a good lesson. (Though some of the ancient Stoics, e.g. Aurelius, seem to have managed this temptation well.)

I now play the game more freely, less intent upon the form. I am unwilling to sacrifice myself for duty or God or country, or even, as I infer Nietzsche did, for truth. I seek my own human way, between the Stoic ideal and the Epicurean garden, a path that does not leave the world below, or behind. I don't want to be a mere tourist, but I also no longer want to play the cop. How then to shape my own, less strident rule of reason in my soul? What practices shall I retain, and which discard? What will be my integrity, if I would choose both virtue and happiness, and not deny that they are not the same?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Ancient Art of Living I


(4) I had the great pleasure last summer of reading Robert Poague Harrison’s wonderful Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, which begins by discussing Heidegger’s interpretation of “care” (Sorge) as the chief dynamic of human existence, from which Harrison elides into care-taking as emblematic of whatever there may be to a human art of living. It is a theme also explored in Michael Polin’s fine Second Nature. When you combine this with the idea that all the ancient schools are inclined to understand the philosophical askesis or “discipline” of life as a “therapeia” or cultivation of emotion, desire, conduct and thought, the idea of the Epicurean retreat, the “epistrophe eis heauton,” the “conversion to oneself” comes into view as the true garden we are to dwell in.

Of course this is not easy. There is the press of the world, of the body, pleasure, sex, ambition, property, death, even the philosophical desire to know. Our dwelling may partake of more ‘trouble’ and ‘worry’ than we should wish, or the ancients thought we could avoid. How then to ‘cultivate’ that garden that is the self, if it is to take a well-ordered and pleasant form?

In this regard I have found it immensely interesting that the very thing Heidegger brings forward as a first condition of authentic or ‘resolute’ living—the consciousness of death and finitude, of ‘being’ = becoming in personal time—is thematized by Socrates in his defense of his life to the Athenians and then again in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus. The re-cognizing of personal death as that beyond our thought and feeling, its incorporation in our self-knowledge as knowledge of ignorance and therefore not a genuine part of our life, therefore decisively as “nothing to fear”—this is a critical condition for Socratic wisdom on the good, and “Step #1” on the Epicurean Way.

And I do not doubt that some have gone there: not only Epicurus but no less a modern than David Hume is said to have died serenely, enjoying conversation with friends. But can any of us walk with such constancy today? Death is surely the trap door through which not we but each of us I’s fall out of the world. (“So it goes” as Kurt Vonnegut would say.) Just as certainly it seems a resolutely rational mind will not affirm it is to a different and better place, however much aging may induce acquiescence, but to no-where, no-thing so far as we can picture. Our being is life, and in this consideration my ‘self’ must shudder, even if I may be converted by it to a different, somehow both burden-lightened and doubly conscious, enlightened self.

With this in mind, we are spurred to reconfigure life as art—becoming not being, creation not nature. To make time, which before was chronos, “universal process,” awaken as kairos, “singular opportunity." To realize, as Hadot would put it: “the present alone is our happiness.” Thus may our being be eroticized, and we opened to freedom and uniqueness, including that of and with others. (Which is not to say the Epicurean admonitions of simplicity, law-abidingness, gentility, intellectual life and friendship do not still mark a well-traveled path.)

I'm increasingly convinced this ‘existentialist’ approach is critical for understanding the ancient arts of living, which otherwise seem to me to smack too much of theistic metaphysics, presumption, dogmatic rationalism, Christianity. (Even Plato's Symposium, in some ways a much better picture of the philosopher than the Apology, peaks in such a vision.) The prospect of ‘participation in universal Reason’ and of in taking one's place in the ‘harmony of the well-ordered Whole’ is enormously appealing, but as I’ve said before, that is not the world I know.

So I find Foucault’s contrast between morality as socially ('divinely') imposed norms of being and ethics as the art of freedom and self-government useful for understanding the ancients, especially the Epicureans, even if it distorts somewhat the Stoic self-conception. The art of living is a human art, not the work of a mortal god.

As a footnote I should add: we need also to take account of the 'narcissizing' social net enclosing us, the world of images, commodities, politics, ambitions and lifestyles we all dwell in. (A child of five today, with a vocabulary of perhaps 1000 words, knows over a hundred brand names.) We cannot enter an Epicurean garden today without taking our appetites and 'values' along, and that of course means we enter in badly. We are too enthralled, and not so easily separated from, the world of the "Mad Men." Our greatest artists are still Jagger and Warhol. We run the risk of two-dimensional lives. The "turn to the self" may need to take at some point a less private path than we first thought, if we are to find a 'self' worth cultivating, and in which we can be happy. (Or so it has been for me. More on this later.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I was standing, in my comic nightmare of Plato's Apology, before the Faculty Senate, giving my “defense speech” against an Administration that sought to eliminate philosophy from the University. What kind of knowledge do you claim to possess, I was asked before a hostile audience, and if you can’t prove you have some or teach an art or practical skill—why should you be a "basic study" in higher education? My department, my profession, my job and livelihood were at stake, and I was not persuasive. I woke up in a sweat, vaguely troubled by the sense that I might be defending something more like what Socrates might call sophistry, a claim to wisdom but in fact no more than logic-chopping, versatility with ethical theories, a “critical perspective”—that taught you what? Some of my philosophical colleagues might blurt out: that all these other so-called arts and sciences don’t know who they are, spread a lot of intellectual jam out there, call it expertise and get good money. But wasn’t that foolish or arrogant or both?

If the Euthyphro spurs us to ask: what is pious? reverent? godly? righteous? religious? the Apology of Socrates spurs us to ask: what is philosophy and who defines it? The Euthphro puts faith on trial in the court of public reason. The Apology puts philosophy on trial in the court of ancient law. Both are condemned, though by different norms. Socrates’ old accusers knew philosophy to be an attitude of mind that found nothing sacred, a proud capacity to ‘spin’ born of sophistic shamelessness, a word-monger’s eagerness for students to pay and look up to them--mere critics biting productive hands, the intellectual worm in the societal apple. The suspicious dislike of my colleagues in the arts, sciences and professional schools for me and my ilk has its counterpart in the more Republican part of the republic for all of us academic types, but even they have a special dislike for those of us who, they judge, doubting ourselves want to teach their children to doubt what everyone knows is right and wrong, good and bad, worthwhile and just a waste of time.

How differently the philosopher’s mission seems, if we see his incessant questions, dividing and uniting, as divinely or naively inspired, rather than as a kind of arrogant defiance of the god whose truth and oracle he would “refute.” But then, by his or by his now deceased student Chairophon’s story, Socrates “is wisest of all.” How differently his logic seems, whether we see in it the longing search for the ‘beings’ that are or self-knowledge, rather than the relentless negating of everything his interlocutors’ believe in. The righteous and godly Euthyphro has his counterpart in the righteous and law-enforcing Meletus, and there is something pleasing or entertaining in Socrates’ devastating refutations of them, and in the thought that we too are not self-deceived. And yet, might not they, like others entangled in Socrates' webs, have come to know themselves better, had they not reached for the sword to cut their way out?

And what are we now to make of this way of life that he says he (a new Achilles) chose because he thought it best? Of his seeking to persuade the Athenians to care more for truth and the virtue of their souls than wealth or fame or honor? Does he ‘transcend’ his ignorance concerning the most important things? Does he slip illicitly, somewhere past midway in his apologia, from agnostic to gnostic wisdom, from merely examining to philosophizing? What are we to make of the rule of reason, and his dictum the good man can't be harmed? The Stoic school would anchor their art of living on this Socratic difference between moral and non-moral goods, absolute and relative value, personal integrity and worldly gain. Can the Socrates who in serving examines the god also rest his case to the people on this? And if so, does it matter--perhaps make all the difference--that Plato's Socrates acts on what he professes?

I asked my students, at the end of our discussion of the Euthyphro, to write for the next class on whether a religious person could live an examined life. The skepsis that belongs to the philosopher’s “care for the self” might seem to rule that out. What faith could survive a methodology that in principle excludes a final step? The Socratic ship sails on a sea of uncertainty, open to where the winds of life and reason take it, a journey of movement, not anchored rest. But if we are persuaded by the “whole truth” Socrates claims to tell in his defense speech, we begin to wonder if this is not his form of piety, his faith, his truth (cf. Nietzsche’s Gay Science #344). And again: does not this truth include his practice?

Like Socrates, I did not take the path of faith, but of skepsis, examination as a critical mode of my "care for the self," my "art of living." My world is mortal, bounded by things wholly, not partially transcendent. I am like the post-medieval inquirer who pulls back the fair tapestry of unexamined faith, and sees a limitless less beautiful universe beyond. But must I not still, like Socrates and many of his students, aspire to a life that imitates ‘reason’ or ‘being’--albeit occluded from the gods--within a world of change? Can someone who is not in this way ‘religious’ live an examined life?

Monday, August 24, 2009


We began the class with the Euthyphro, the first dialogue in Plato’s tetralogy enacting the philosopher’s trial and death. Euthyphro (“Mr. Orthodox” or “Straight-brain” in Greek) plays the comically inflated defendant to the tragically ignorant prosecutor Socrates, who puts Euthyphro’s divine wisdom and piety on trial as a stand-in for the Athenians who also want to “punish the wicked.” In fact Euthyphro is an unnaturally pious figure compared to the ordinary faithful, no mere earthling but enthused by his knowledge of the wonders of the city’s gods, wanting proudly to do as they do, to please them, to serve them in all righteousness, even onto parricide. It is not only Socrates who is “fascinatingly ugly.”

I met Euthyphro most recently in Utah, where I spoke at a conference on evolution and higher education. He was the “sainted” visitor guide glowing with histories of LDS miracles, the doctor who would never die, the transported young girl about to leave on her mission to Lithuania. The spectre of Euthyphro haunts American politics these days, and he carries a gun.

I have mostly thought of the world of faith and the faithful as beyond reason; you step through its door and will yourself not to look back. But what then to make of the other door, which tags that world with questions, marks it as a shadow place, made up of hope and fear? Not that the hope and fear is any less real, even if you now consider the images may be no more natural than human clothing, and even if in that regard Euthyphro represents an extreme (albeit part of the norm). Euthyphro’s mind cannot endure the Socratic dissection, though it may not really matter, since Socrates speaks in mere human words. Or does Socrates penetrate his mask, expose it to him? I’ve never been sure, one way or the other, how to interpret the end. (And this may be important, for in Plato's art of writing, both word and deed are relevant to the meaning.)

A comforting reading of the dialogue suggests that Euthyphro would have been better off, had he believed in (the) just and good god(s) Socrates believes in, poetic god(s) worthy of the highest service, virtue and the therapy of souls, the piety of knowing we do not know as gods know. But the same analysis suggests that/those god(s) would also have been measured by ideas of justice and goodness above them. I wonder then: can this still imply the ultimate principle = “<God>”? Or must that not--since nothing could be more perfectly incomprehensible--be meaningless to mortal reason? The contradiction Socrates exposes in the theology of warring gods will then turn out, on this discomforting reading, to reveal a worm at the core of all theology. I have myself been drawn toward both alternatives, sacred and profane, but my nature is always to return to the profane.

The Socratic dialogue does not ask what is god? even if it touches on this question. It asks what is piety? if we assume piety is a virtue. It suggests piety could not be a virtue if we did not know what it is, i.e. if we did not possess Socratic wisdom to seek it. But that is the wisdom of ignorance, including and perhaps especially of divine things whatever form they take. Or will that conclusion too not put an end to it, if we have encountered wondrous things in the souls and logoi in which we sought our answer?

Like Socrates, I did not take the path of faith, but of “skepsis,” examination as a critical mode of my "care for the self," my "art of living." My world is mortal, bounded by things wholly, not partially transcendent. I am like the medieval inquirer who pulls back the fair tapestry of faith, and sees a limitless less beautiful cosmos beyond. I do not know what or if there is anything beyond those limitless limits. I am pricked by the spur of time and unfulfilled desire. I live and think, uneasily, in a world of becoming, not being.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Everyone who takes this path has their own Socrates. Mine was Morris Kaplan, an imperfect incarnation, but one none the less—fascinatingly ugly, engaged with the greatest questions, unbeatable in argument. And so the door opened for me into the bright light of philosophy, and I walked through it.

Note the phrase, “fascinatingly ugly.” For me, as for Socrates’ students, the philosopher did not appear as a harmonious whole, at one in his being and truth. He was troubling. He questioned, sharply, powerfully, but didn’t have answers, except to study Plato and the other great minds of philosophy—and that gave no answers, just more questions. I was attracted to a way of thinking and being that seemed to have its home in an open sea, in a world without foundations. No ‘God,’ the ultimate answer. No ‘America’—it had been ripping apart for years (it was 1965, I was a sophomore at Yale). No certainties of ethics or even personal life. Somehow philosophy was at home in a universe and society permeated through and through with chaos.

On that path, however, were logoi sokratikoi, the conversations I had with Morris and my other Socrates, Bob Anderson, and then with Plato’s Dialogues themselves, and I was captured in them by some of the same puzzlements as the ancient interlocutors of Plato’s Socrates, and lifted up out of my puzzlement into new ways of thinking and puzzled again, as those insights were questioned, too.

So I was drawn into the thought and the life. For like Socrates himself, neither Morris nor Bob was a Sage, but a “philo-sopher,” a lover of wisdom, not just a theorizer about philosophy, but individuals who lived it, passionately, the only way they could be. I wanted that from philosophy too: to make the epistrophe eis heauton, the “conversion of the self to myself” and to the philosophical life—which paradoxically could not be separated from questioning how to live that life. Attracted to it, repelled by it, eventually making it my own.

This blog is about that life, as I live and think about it this fall, as I am teaching my class, “The Art of Living,” and as I read and reflect on the thoughts and ways of the philosophers who have had the most to say about philosophy as a way of life, pro or con. We will be reading the ancients, their modern critics, and American and contemporary authors in the tradition of the “art of living.” The last time I taught the class the students created a chapbook with some wonderful essays. We'll do that again, and I’ll reflect on their work and create some of my own as the semester unfolds and I seek, in better and more fulfilling ways, to live a philosophical life.