Cicero, Seneca and Confucius

As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.
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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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WTF is wrong with people these days?

What's wrong with people these days?Into everyone’s life comes the realization that we are not young and in between the time when we were, the world has changed. Not always for the better, either. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude the whole world has gone to shit since the internet arrived.

Aging is not something that, as a culture, we embrace. After all, who wants to be old? Being a senior today is way too often portrayed in the media as being vulnerable, out of touch and cranky, as if we emerged from the chrysalis of middle age into a hunched curmudgeon shuffling along with a walker, incontinence and a squint, grouching about how we miss rotary dial phones.

No, mostly we’re too busy to notice that it’s been a gradual but inexorable slide. We have jobs, hobbies, entertainment, pets, families, and even ukuleles to keep us from noticing the daily drift. We’re forever young as long as we don’t look inward. Then suddenly we look up and WTF? How did things get this way? How did I get this way? It’s like waking up with a start when you hear a door slam in the night.

I was a skeptic from an early age, but of late it seems I shake my head at human follies more often than I nod in appreciation of our accomplishments. But we all have more and more reason to be angry and astounded at human stupidity. Just spend an hour on social media or watching YouTube videos and you’ll be saying “You gotta be kidding!” so often that your Google Home device will start telling you to shut the fork up.

For me – and maybe for many of my readers – when I read headlines and news stories these days, or watch YouTube videos like those above, they are often followed in my head with a simple question: “What’s wrong with people these days?” And it’s not a once-and-a-while thing. It’s several times a day. I mean, just look at these recent stories and headlines and try not to ask yourself that question:

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The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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Relevant poetry

I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Toronto a couple of weeks back, and opened The Essential Ginsberg, a collection of poems, songs and other writing by the late Allen Ginsberg, he of Howl fame*. I open the book at random and read the opening Ginsberg’s poem, Capital Air, which starts:

I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing around my feet

Allen GinsbergEven though Ginsberg wrote it in 1980, it felt like something he would be writing today about America’s Trump government. Or about the increasing repression and fascism in his country. I shivered when I read it because it spoke aloud to now.

Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was also an outspoken political activist for freedoms and rights. Although he died in 1997, I’m sure he would be writing similar lines today, had he lived.

Of course, I had to buy the book (well, buying any book isn’t a difficult decision). Not just for this poem but for others he wrote, the best of which were collected within. I also picked up three more books of poetry: Rumi: The Big Red Book (trans. Coleman Barks)**; Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (ed. Kacian, Rowland, Burns)***; The Essential Ginsberg (ed. Schumacher) and E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems (ed. Firmage).

I initially passed on the 1,100-page Cummings’ collection because carrying a 4.2 kg – yes, I weighed it – hardcover in my knapsack through the hot city was daunting. But thought about it overnight, thought about how much he reminded me of Don Marquis and his delightful archy and mehitabel poems, that blank verse and their shared disdain for form, and how little I had of Cummings’s work on my shelves, then made a special trip back to the store to get it the next day. I also found the haiku*** collection beside it, a serendipitous find. ****

An odd thing happens when I read poetry. Normally, I read a dozen or more books at any one time: I am a fairly fast reader with good comprehension. I can juggle all the different types, styles and topics without losing much if anything between books. But when I read poetry, it’s like my brain shifts gears and drops off cruise control.

Reading slows down, it becomes more focused. The chattering monkey in my head stills. Words become heavier, as if gravity increased. I read poetry with more attention to each word, savouring each one, sometimes repeating lines in my head several times, feeling for the rhythm, the wavelike motion of each. I parse each line with more attention than I do to prose. A single, page-long poem can take me as long to read as a chapter in, say, a novel or a history.

I usually re-read the entire poem, once I’ve gone through it, just to try out different emphasis on syllables. Find its inner music, weigh the words. Even poems I’m familiar with – and I am prone to re-reading my favourites – take longer than prose, as if I need to digest each line at a measured pace until it settles in my mind. 

It’s like music: emotionally entwining – but without the accompanying sound it’s a subtle mystery I have to decode. Although I can read music with a child-like effort, when I stumble through a songsheet, figure out the notes and how the tune progresses, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Same with poetry. When the poem finally settles in me, I feel like I’ve achieved something, solved something.

I have no difficulty writing prose. It falls off me like water from a roof in a rainstorm. But poetry for me is a slog, the death march of my intellect. I can’t disconnect the monkey brain that demands I analyze, assess, parse each word as I attempt to write. it’s like building a Lego house while stopping to measure the distances between each block and compare the height of their protrusions. I have nothing but respect, admiration and a bit of envy for those who are able to write it with any ease.

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Pollan’s Food fallacies

Food Rules, by Michael Pollan“Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” is rule 32 in Michael Pollan’s small book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Books, 2009). I recently acquired a copy. I’ve read Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and have his In Defence of Food on my shelves for summer reading and have two other titles by him on my wish list. I’ve enjoyed his work so far. Maybe not so much this time around.

I am skeptical about any attempt to reduce any subject to a set of basic rules because life is way too complicated for that sort of ideology. I have a particular disdain for self-help books and life-coach videos as being intellectual pablum. Pollan’s book is self-described on the back cover as “a definitive compendium of food wisdom.” Hyperbole like this always makes me cautious and raised my skeptic’s hackles.

As the New York Times points out in its review of the book, is a professor of science journalism in the USA, not a biochemist or nutritionist or even a renowned chef. But Pollan is a good writer with credentials, so I decided to give it a chance.

As someone interested in eating and food – from many aspects: historical, social, botanical, zoological, industrial, cooking and ethical among them – I am always keen to learn more and read what others say about eating. In Food Rules, Pollan offers sixty four rules with a brief explanation of each (you can read the whole list here). It’s described on the book jacket as as “indispensable handbook” full of “straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.”

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, it has some wisdom – especially for the junk-food-sugar-pop-and-energy-drink-pizza-and-doughnut crowd. But some of it is the same sort of ideological, anti-science claptrap you get from the Food Babe or the anti-GMO crowd. Diaphanous piffle, some of it. And way too arbitrary – at least when you read just the rule without bothering to delve into his (sometimes too brief) explanations that follow it.
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