20 January 2009

The Art of Living

I read from Epictetus recently, via a translation from Sharon Lebell, which she called The Art of Living. It combines his A Manual for Living and Essential Teachings into one volume.
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. Keep your attention focuses entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it: you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. [...] We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

People don't have the power to hurt you. Even if someone shouts abuse at your or strikes you, if you are insulted, it is always your choice to vie w what is happening as insulting or not. If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you.

Our desires and aversions are mercurial rulers: they demand to be pleased. [They] are but habits -- and we can change ourselves to have better habits.

Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.

Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it b found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you? Create your own merit. Personal merit cannot be achieved through our associations with people of excellence. [...] Other people's triumphs and excellence belong to them. Likewise, your possessions may have excellence, but you yourself don't derive excellence from them.

As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meaning they don't have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusion, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren't there.

Regularly ask yourself, "How are my thoughts, words, and deeds affecting my friends, my spouse, my neighbors, my child, my employer, my subordinates, my fellow citizens? Am I doing my part to contribute to the spiritual growth of all with whom I come into contact?" Make it your business to draw out the best in others by being an exemplar yourself.

Let your reason be supreme. Inculcate the habit of deliberating. Practice the art of testing whether particular things are actually good or not. The virtuous life depends on reason first and foremost. If you safeguard your reason, it will safeguard you.[...] Be suspicious of convention. Take charge of your own thinking. Rouse yourself from the daze of unexamined habit.

Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Convention thinking -- its means and ends -- is essentially without credit and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions. [...] Judge ideas and opportunities on the basis of whether they are life-giving. Give your assent to that which promotes humaneness, justice, beneficial growth, kindness, possibility, and benefit to the human community. Examine things as they appear to your own mind: objectively consider what is said by others, and then establish your own convictions.

Socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable. So many of our beliefs have been acquired through accident and irresponsible or ignorant teaching. Many of our beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they are hidden from our own view.

The instructed respect the Kinship that we share with the Ultimate and thus comport themselves as a compassionate, self-aware citizen of the universe. They understand that the wise life, which leads to tranquility, comes from conforming to Nature and to Reason.

One cannot pursue one's own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well-educated, but to all of our human brethren. View yourself as a citizen of a worldwide community, and act accordingly.

When people do not act as you would wish them to, exercise the muscles of your good nature by shrugging your shoulders and saying to yourself, "Oh, well." Then let the incident go. Try also to be as kind to yourself as possible. Do not measure yourself against others or even against your ideal self. Human betterment is a gradual [...] effort. Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease. Forgive yourself over and over again -- then try to do better next time.

To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn't convenient, comfortable, or easy. It is incumbent that your thoughts, words, and deeds match up.

Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. [...] It is time to really live ,to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some interested bystander. Participate! Exert yourself. Give your best, and always be kind.

08 January 2009

On Goodness

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a universal definition for ‘good’. I didn’t intend to do that: it popped up while I was writing on another topic. The definition that came to me was the measure of how well we fare when compared to our ideals. This definition makes it both objective and relative, in that you can use the same standard to understand the word “good” when it is being applied to a variety of situations.

For instance, say I had an uncle who I described as a good mechanic. This means that this uncle of mine comes very close to meeting the standards of an ‘ideal’ mechanic (the ones I can think of, anyway): he is extremely knowledgeable about all automobile matters; he is deft with his hands and always strives to prevent accidents; he treats his customers fairly, and he is creative at figuring out what the problems are with a car when the customer has a problem. Good’s opposite, “bad”, is a measure of how poorly we fare when we compared to our ideals. The bad mechanic, then, would possess limited knowledge, would be clumsy, would cheat his customers, would do his work sloppily, and so on. This does not mean the mechanic is a bad person -- just a bad mechanic. (Of course, if he is cheating his customers, I would not wager that he is a good person.)

I can apply this approach to any matter, I believe, and it works. I use it to understand why people say the things they do. We can see the reason why people from different systems of thought frequently come into opposition: their definitions of "good" vary. The reality that "good" is dependent on individual perceptions is objectionable to many, who strive for Absolutes. This is a topic I've written on before -- but even if someone were to set up an absolute code, goodness would still be dependent on independent perceptions, because "absolute" laws have to be interpreted by individual people. A good example of this is one of the Jewish "Ten Commandments", "Thou Shalt Not Kill". What does that mean? Ask five different people and you will probably arrive at five different answers. That statement has given rise to pacifist interpretation, vegetarian interpretation, only-in-self-defense interpretation, if-there's-a-just-war interpretation and a well-if-god-tells-you-to-it's-OK interpretation. Even as something as basic as "thou shalt not kill" is subject to a wide amount of interpretation. How many more interpretations are there for more complex codes of behavior?

Interestingly, based on this approach, I can see how people can come into conflict with themselves. If they are judging themselves by two separate sets of ideals, those ideals might conflict. For example, let's take a soldier who holds himself to the idea that you shouldn't kill. Another ideal he has, though, is that one should serve his country -- so he joins the Army and is taught to kill. He goes to a place like Afghanistan, for instance, and has to shoot people who attack him. He's taking life: he's betraying his ideals. The result would be self-conflict, but because his ideals are subject to his purposes, he rewrites the rules to make murder not-murder: he makes it self-defense. But what if he has to attack someone on suspicion that they might attack him, like say a checkpoint? Then he has taken life without actually being attacked, or even knowing he was attacked. Self-conflict ensues unless he is able to rewrite the terms once more, to justify it to himself somehow. There are many other opportunities for self-conflict: a businessman who tries to provide for his family and create a good business without mistreating his employees or cheating his customers with shoddy equipment: a lawyer who provides defense to someone she knows is guilty: an idealistic preacher who tries to keep a couple together even though the man is beating the woman, a young woman who has an abortion because she knows she can't provide a good life for a potential infant, or because it would be born with severe birth defects, and so on. In each instance, one ideal is conflicting with another.

Also, using this approach, we can see how people can come into conflict with one another and each party think of themselves as "right": We can see conflict between multiple "rights", and this is a very uncomfortable idea to live with. Take the immigration issue, for instance: I don't see a battle between the unconsciously illegal immigrants and the hard-working people who are being shut out of their jobs. I see a tragic conflict of rights: the immigrants, in my view, have a right to feed their families -- and so do the people who they are accidentally displace. Look at the American War of Independence: from the British perspective, the colonists had cost the Realm money because of their aggressive settling of Indian territory, leading to the necessity of the British defending the colonies, and the subsequent expense of it. The colonists were expected (fairly, from their perspective) to help pay for the expenses of maintaining an army. And yet from the colonial perspective, I can understand why they would resent the sudden imposition of financial burden. I understand both sides: I can support neither over the other.

I began writing this to share my definition of goodness, but I see this train of thought is not yet ended. I believe the definition I propose -- goodness being how well we fare when measured against our ideals -- is quite workable, and shows the origin of conflicts. I want to write on how we can greatly mitigate self-conflict and interpersonal conflict, but that will have to wait for another time: it strikes me as an important enough issue to merit its own post.