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The Covid Stoic, and How to Become One

If ever there was a time for figuring out what our philosophy of life is, it is now, when our job and household routines are stood on their heads and  the economy is in free fall, all because a tiny little virus is rampaging through the world, leaving people deathly ill and many dying, all around us.

My Socrates Café is still going during the pandemic – albeit on Zoom – everyone as eager as ever to engage in spirited discussions about “what is the truth,” “how do we form values in a free thinking society,” “are there practical ways to become open-minded,” “are being alone and lonely the same or different,” and “where does the universe end –  what is it, anyway?”

Sometime in the dark of our nights, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about?  Is Covid 19 a random happening? Is everything on earth mere chaos, whirling about every which way without rhyme or reason?”

It is a good time to get out pencil and paper to review our personal philosophies.

I have been thinking a lot about Stoicism lately.  I once devised a questionnaire for both my high school and college reunions where I asked them to make a list of the worst things that had happened in their lives and then to write down the quality of character that got them through.  We had survived divorces, deaths of husbands, suicides of children,  cancer, and the general mayhem of life by calling up a quality we called “grit” or “stiff upper lip” or “keeping going.”

I knew my classmates well enough to realize they were not just shoving aside the bad things that happened to them. They survived through a quality much deeper than denial: an inner balance or equanimity they described as facing up to their tragedy,  “seeing things through to the end,” and then ” bouncing back.” Equanimity is a stalwart presence of mind, an inner strength that enables us to endure all things while staying heart-whole.

You don’t get that way from taking your world as a random collection of atoms bouncing around chaotically: my classmates were living by  an idea about how human beings should behave that, in the world of philosophy, is best expressed in Stoicism.  My father had been a student of philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the books he kept with him was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When my seas of anxiety rose and stormed during my thirties I bought a copy, and became very fond of that beleaguered Emperor, jotting down his rules of life while surrounded by wild tribes of Germans at his outpost on the Danube, his empire ravaged by plague, flood and constant war.

Marcus, who became Roman Emperor in 161CE,  was a Stoic  This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control.  Looking at these realities squarely, you develop an inner balance and the apply your chosen  values to a course of action.

Stoic philosophers were quite scientific, using their reason to study nature, which included human nature.  Like America’s founders, they sought truths that were reasonable and “self-evident” and then worked out principles to apply them.  In an age when personal satisfaction or “self-actualization” is a paramount value, it is hard to grasp that both classical and enlightenment thinkers took “the good” as a social rather than an individual aspiration. Or, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “The mind of the universe is social.”

Begin each day  “by telling yourself today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness….”

How did he figure that out?  It is really very simple – try it yourself:

1. What do I think is good?

2. What do I think is evil?

I am serious: in a few short sentences or single words, write down your answers.

“Are you distracted by outward cares,” asks Marcus. “Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, say, their whole thought, is focused.”

 Years ago, I was flying back from a carefree vacation in England to my frantic life as a commuting professor, gazing down upon icebergs sparkling on the Greenland sea,  with my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations  in my hands.  In response to his request to “make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals,”  I worked out my (mid-career) principles on the facing page.  For my “Good,” I took “enlightenment,” the reasoned perception of truth; in that literature resounded with “great clarity” I would use it to lead my students to the service of truth in their lives.  I took “oligarchies” as my Evil, and so determined to do my best for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” I resolved to quell the inner turmoil roiled up by academic nastiness by “not taking things personally,” and I would follow Marcus’ advice to withdraw into “the little field of self” when things felt overwhelming.

Your turn: on the basis of your list of What is Good and What is Evil, write down some principles by which you intend to achieve Stoic equanimity in these perilous times.

1.

2.

3.

How did it come out?  Would you like to share your findings in the comment section?  For further ideas about how to apply Stoicism to your life, you might want to check out www.dailystoic.com.

Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless? You might consider Cynicism, a classical philosophy based on the idea that people only pursue their self-interest and that adhering to social norms is ridiculous.  Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the word derives from “Dog” and you will get to lead a relaxing dog’s life doing your own thing – like chasing your tail and lying around in the sun all day long.

Everything is Talking Back

We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?

Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”

In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.

Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.

I am beginning to worry.

This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”

Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”

A PHILOSOPHY FOR CLIMATE GRIEF

Dear Friends,

There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.

I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.

 It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.

https://bit.ly/2sUuGeq

It Is 2034, and Trump is Still President!

“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”

 Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort.  Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.

Here is the Book Review and Author Interview I wrote for Impakter, a European online magazine full of interesting articles. 

Socrates and Me

When I was getting ready for college, I expected that everyone would be sitting around under the trees discussing Plato. I could hardly wait; but when I got there, everyone was sitting around under the trees discussing “boys.”

When, after long years of graduate school, I finally landed a job as an Assistant Professor at a big university, I expected intellectual conversations among my peers.  Although I facilitated  philosophical discussion among my students, as the years went by my fellow faculty developed lockstep loyalty to a theory called deconstruction and were impatient when I refused to adopt it. If I asked a question like “What do you think is the meaning of life,” they  answered that all meanings are “socially constructed” and reprimanded me that,  if I thought otherwise, I was being deplorably “essentialist.”

When I  quit all that to become a full time writer, I  discovered, from a book by Christopher Phillips, that I might find stimulating intellectual conversation if I started a Socrates Cafe like his.  He also developed Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes,  conducting them not only on campuses but in elementary schools, prisons, and public squares.





That was in in 2007, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed probing, explorative discussions on every topic we could imagine.  Where in universities (and especially, in law schools) “Socratic Dialogue” involves such intense argumentation that it easily slides into attack mode,  in Phillips’ style of discussion we avoid  challenging, interrupting, or rebutting each other.  As a teacher, I insisted that my students avoid that kind of viscerally verbal competition because  it stirs up such strong fright and flight emotions that their brains are flooded and they can’t  think at all.  Phillips also finds that respectful discussion and active listening,  rather than scheming your rebuttal in your head, opens rather than closes the mind.

The resulting atmosphere of open-mindedness, where opinion gives way to thought and one question leads to another,  makes every participant a true intellectual.  Anyone who wants to submits a question anonymously; then we vote for which one we will pursue that day. We don’t expect to find a final answer to our questions,  just leave with a lot of new ones.

Here’s a random pick –

Where is your center?  What is the center?     What determines belonging?     Define  normal?     Which truth is “truth”?    What is Common Sense?     What did Jean Paul Sartre mean by being “condemned to be free?”    What is a fact?     What is a good death and do we have a right to one?    Why are we here?  What is integrity?     If we each have “our own worlds” how do we manage to get along?     What is character? Can it be taught?  What is “doing the right thing” and what is that all about?  What is time!

And what do you think?