Travels with Epicurus

EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules

12 RulesFor LifeI really wanted to read this book objectively, separating it from the media hype and social media torrents of opinion and abuse that often accompany its author, Jordan Peterson. I wanted to consider it in the company of the vast number of already-published self-help or philosophical books, and the historical context in which they exist.

Sadly, I was unable to do so for one simple reason: there’s too much Jordan Peterson in it. You have to wade through far too much of him to get to the rules. He meanders quite a bit, mostly to ramble on about himself. The rules are, themselves, rather diluted by his presence.

Jordan Peterson is undoubtedly a smart, well-educated man and a reasonably good writer, but sometimes he comes across as a pompous, supercilious git. And that obfuscates the intended message, at least for me.

Peterson is, like I said, a smart man. I cannot dispute his statements on psychology or human development because he knows more about it than most of us. And he references several of his statements with citations to such awe-inspiring academic documents as “Allostasis and allostatic load implications for neuropsychopharmacology,” “Tool use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and “Dimension models of personality: The five-factor model and the DSM-5.” Who am I to argue with these sources?

For those of us on a less-lofty plane, he also references the Bible, poems of W.B. Yeats, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Lao Tse’s Tao teh ching and the Guardian newspaper. Whew. Something I can read and maybe understand. But these references don’t cover the voluminous number of claims and statements in the book. It’s full of pithy epigrams and aphorisms.

There are only 220 noted sources and no separate bibliography. Peterson makes a lot of statements that, without being referenced to a citation, are either vague generalities or simply opinions. For example:

Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. (p13-14)

I don’t know which “eco-activists” he spoke to, but that sort of romanticized, even naive (if not downright puerile) view of eco-activism doesn’t match any viewpoints I’ve heard or read from anyone who might fit that description.  And you can read a lot of them online. David Suzuki, for example, arguably Canada’s most well-known environmental activist, doesn’t say anything of the sort. His own website neatly defines his views:

We are interconnected with nature, and with each other. What we do to the planet and its living creatures, we do to ourselves.

I’ll chalk this one up as an opinion, and a politically-biased one at that. The Catholic World Report noted in its review:

Peterson wades into a muck of assertions without argument; disconnected similes and examples that insult reason; arbitrary and happenstance judgments; and implications that are dangerous in their banality.

Here are some other statements I pulled at random, also not referenced to any source or publication:
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The Ten Bulls

Search for the BullA series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)

I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.

Discovering the FootprintsI was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.

In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)

Perceiving the BullThe Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.

Catching the BullYou can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.

But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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The sharp edge: razors and rituals

Four razorsSince I switched to using a safety razor, as I wrote about last spring, I’ve continued to pursue my explorations into razors, blades, technologies and techniques about shaving. I’ve learned much, but still want more hands-on experience. Nothing teaches like hands-on.

I followed up that post with another one on shaving, a month later, about what I’d learned since that first piece. Now, four months later, I come back to the topic with new discoveries to relate. And some new razors to describe.

But let me interject a comment on why this matters. Shaving is something I do if not daily, then almost every day, and I’ve been doing it since I was in my late teens. Ablutions are not neutral acts: they are personal rituals which in some cultures and religions are actually sacred acts. They should not be performed unthinkingly, but rather with focused intention and attention. Something which, I admit, I never appreciated when I was younger. I don’t think it’s a silly obsession to pay some attention to it now.

Ablutions should be done with a sense of reverence. These rituals have a deep symbolic meaning and help validate our lives. As Sigal Samuel wrote in The Atlantic last May:

Although there is no single agreed-upon definition, a ritual is typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state, by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful.

Rituals help keep us connected to our daily lives – important in an age when we are increasingly disconnected from real life by the virtual life within technology. Even for a secularist such as myself, there should be a sense of awe and thankfulness at simply being alive and able to perform these acts. And I increasingly believe that as our societies become more and more secularized, we are losing our sense of connectedness and community that religious rituals helped create.

Recognizing the ritual in shaving helps me appreciate that what I’m doing isn’t just about myself: it’s bigger, much bigger than me. I am only the recipient of the end result of generations of effort to get to this point. And I try to recognize that.

When I turn on the tap, I can give silent thanks to the engineers and technicians and workers who worked for the previous century to provide the pipes and the the facilities so I could get easy access to clean water every day. I can thank the designers, the manufacturers, the sellers of the products I use – razors, soaps, brushes, toothpaste, shampoo – who make my ablutions convenient and efficient. I can thank architects and builders for the house, for the very bathroom in which I stand. I can marvel at the ingenuity of everything I use, from a simple toothbrush to the gears and springs of my razor.

I can sip from my tea and think of the workers who picked and dried the leaves, of the centuries of planters and growers and merchants who make it possible for me to drink a brew from leaves grown half a world away. Or of the farmers and herders who produce the milk that softens the tea. Everything we use, we touch, we throw away is the result of the efforts of thousands of others.

I can think of the towels and the cotton growers and pickers and cloth dyers and manufacturers – and even of Susan, who washed them and hung them on the racks for us to use. There are creators and designers and sellers involved in everything around me. I should not take them for granted or simply conduct my life as a consumer alienated from the things I use. As I get older, having a sense of community matters more.

I can also think of my parents and grandparents and the family lineage that stretches back into the haze of time who lived and worked all their lives so that I could stand here, wrapped in a towel, leaning towards the mirror, shaving or brushing my teeth in the latter part of my life.

And if I focus, if I pay attention and practice mindfulness, in all this I can glimpse a sense of the connectedness of everything. We are, none of us, an island. And if shaving helps me remember that, if making it a personal, daily ritual that means a bit more than just the act itself, then it’s worth being thought of as an obsessive crackpot.
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Channelling John Stuart Mill

In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

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