30 September 2011

Freethought Friday #28: Beauty of Understanding

View a picture of a rainbow at sunset here.

To those who value the vision of the human mind organizing observations into natural law and then using natural law to grasp the workings of what had until then been mysterious, the rainbow has gained added significance and beauty through Newton's discovery, because, to a far greater extent than before, it can be understood and truly appreciated. To those of a more limited fancy, who prefer mindless staring to understanding, and simple-minded fairy tales of gods crossing bridges to the dancing changes of light in accordance with a system that can be written as an elegant mathematical expression, I suppose it is a loss.

Isaac Asimov, "The Bridge of the Gods".

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot.

23 September 2011


Shall I show you the sinews of a philosopher? "What sinews are those?" - A will undisappointed; evils avoided; powers daily exercised, careful resolutions; unerring decisions.

(Epictetus; the Discourses, book two.)

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?

(Marcus Aurelius; Meditations, book five.)

Such were the words that compelled me to rise from my bed a few weeks ago and, after dressing, make my way outside to begin walking my way toward a healthier lifestyle. Throughout the summer I thought to myself that I would like to begin such a morning exercise, but  I never engaged in "zerizus*": I never converted that will into action.  Even though I began studying Stoicism in 2008, up until now I have only applied discipline toward the easy things, matters of the mind -- emotions, thoughts. As an introspective person,  maintaining control over mind comes naturally. My lifestyle has been sedentary since middle school, though, and pushing myself to be physically active is much more difficult. I am unpracticed at it: my commands are weak. But I must develop the physical sinews of a philosopher:  not only does my future health demand it, but I need those sinews to continue growing into the person I want to be -- 'a man in full'.

A bit over a month ago, I was taken to the doctor's office after weeks of deteriorating health: my appetite had dwindled, I often went days without sleeping, and I could not walk more than short distances without being reduced to gagging and retching. I tend to take a "this, too, shall pass" attitude toward illness, but my family members were not quite as content to watch me circle the drain. At their urging, I grudgingly visited the doctor -- who diagnosed me with high blood pressure, hypertension enough to threaten stroke.  I walked out of the doctor's office with pills and orders to avoid pork and minimize salt intake.  The medicine had an immediate effect: my restless legs quietened and gave me sleep, and I began breathing much easier. Determined to make the most of this opportunity I'd been given to reclaim my life,  I walked out of the door that brisk morning a few weeks ago and I have been exercising the muscles of physical discipline ever since. I have been ever-more mindful of my eating habits, and increased the length of my morning walk steadily to two miles (at present). It is my hope that a healthier diet and a daily habit of exercise will eventually make medication unnecessary, for what Stoic wants to be dependent on an external like that?

Just as a stalled train is an opportunity to practice patience, and a broken friendship a time to meditate on grace and learn serenity, so to was this medical crisis  an impetus for me to put into effect something I had wanted to do  for a while. I do not wish to be sedentary: I have worked this month not to help lower my blood pressure, or to lose wight, but to begin a habit which will flower into an active lifestyle.  For me, sitting for hours at a time reading a thick book and musing and writing on ideas is a joy -- but I also know the pleasures to be had in prolonged physical exertion, the joy of action, of movement. I enjoy activities like basketball and hiking, and I wish to do them all the more. I never feel better all day than I do in the moments after that morning walk, when the steady sound of my shoes on the pavement stops dominating my mind and I realize how good I feel.

So far I have kept my practice up for a month: I do not anticipate changing it for the seasons or weather, although I suppose if there is a tornado meandering through the neighborhood I would wait in safety, and give the cyclone its privacy. I see this physical activity as contributing to the whole of my life -- not just in allowing me to enjoy more activities, but in other areas as well. I delight in seeing my neighborhood so early in the morning; the sun is still rising, and often there's a mist that hangs over the road and lawns. I've seen sublimely beautiful scenes while out and about. I've talked more with my neighbors in the past two weeks than I have for the past ten years of my life preceding them. Further, in addition to losing weight and strengthening my limbs, I am strengthening those philosopher's sinews:  there are mornings when I am tired, and wish to stop early -- but I take command, and I push myself to keep walking. My body tires, and slows down -- I push it to regain its productive pace.  My feet ache; I walk through them. Day by day, I strengthen my mind's command over the body:  with every step, my will gains mastery:  I  have learned from Buddha and Epictetus that great results lie in consistently taking the right actions, small as they may be -- just as as a steady supply of water drops eventually fills a pot. It is no accident to that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus often made allusions to physical training when counseling themselves and others. I found the walk to be a way to practice meditation: indeed, it seems the best way to make it to the end, as when I am meditating I am not mindful of any aches, and the time slips by quickly so that I have gone half and mile and cannot recall walking it.  Yet walk it I did, and walk I will continue to do. I am growing in the direction of my ideals: not only growing in my ability to be physically active, but assuming total (mental and physical) command of myself.

* A word I heard from a rabbi named Zelig Pliskin, who teaches mindfulness in a Jewish context and describes it as "the joyful art of taking action".

16 September 2011

An Essay on Man

In lieu of a quotation...some of my favorite verses from Alexander Pope.  This is only the first: the second begins, "Go, wondrous creature, mount where Science guides!". I first discovered it in The Ascent of Science.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

09 September 2011

Freethought Friday #27: The High Road

Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 - 1899

From "Individuality".

In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself -- should think, investigate and conclude for itself. This is a duty alike incumbent upon pauper and prince. Every soul should repel dictation and tyranny no matter from what source they come -- from earth or heaven from men or gods. Besides, every traveler upon this vast plain should give to every other traveler his best idea as to the road that should be taken. Each is entitled to the honest opinion of all. And there is but one way to get an honest opinion upon any subject whatever. The person giving the opinion must be free from fear. The merchant must not fear to lose his custom, the doctor his practice, nor the preacher his pulpit. There can he no advance without liberty. Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night.

02 September 2011

Freethought Friday #26: Worth Fighting For

"And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost."

(East of Eden)

Strictly speaking, I don't know anything about John Steinbeck's approach to truth and values. He could have been a skeptic or the devoutest of Christians. Regardless of what he believed, though,  what has been quoted is certainly a statement worthy of any healthy individual, and perfectly in line with skeptical values.  It has been seen at this blog before, as part of "My Worldview in Quotations".