Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stoic Week Day 2: Radical Moderation

It was inevitable that self-discipline should come up, I suppose. But the Stoic twist on this is different than I expected, though consistent with the idea that only character matters. The materials for today had this lovely description of Cato:
This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
This idea of unswervingly observing moderation appeals to me -- not the ascetic path of radical self-denial, but rather something like a combination of the idea of balance in all things that I associate with the Greek, with tenacity and strength of purpose. I admire this way of thinking, the prudence of counting the cost before beginning, the steely eye that wants to know the truth of what is before contemplating what might be. This is a mindset very compatible with engineering, where there is little choice but to follow nature, since nature assuredly will not follow you.  It brings to mind words like "solid," "dependable," "salt of the earth."

I wonder, though, about the other aspects of life, about inspiration, surprise and wonder. I wonder if there is Stoic art, and if so, what it is like. Yesterday, I read about one Stoic who started each day by rising at dawn and meditating while staring at the sun beginning to rise into the starry sky. At the time I thought of this along the lines of Kant's concept of the sublime: something quietly vast, and awe-inspiring beyond our ability to take in. But I wonder whether that is correct. It could also be that the Stoic wishes to begin the day this way because it puts the self into practical perspective, pushing the hopefulness of waking back into an everyday frame. Inspiration and sublimity become problems, since their tendency is not to hold to the goal, but to transcend it; not to follow nature, but to rise above it.

In this connection, I thought about Luther's comment about pagans trembling at the rustling of a leaf, because the supernatural is so intertwined with the natural that one can never be sure when wind is wind, and when it is the harbinger of divine wrath. [Oddly, when I Googled the phrase, I found a mixture of conservative Christian sites quoting Luther with approval, and pagan sites talking about the loveliness of rustling leaves!] What I fear from the Stoics is the same thing I fear from the modern scientific reductionists, namely (to reverse Arthur C. Clarke's maxim) that any sufficiently reduced form of magic is indistinguishable from technology -- from know-how and mechanism. I am just Stoic enough to believe that if this is the case, we must face it, while at the same time hoping it is not entirely true. As I type this, there is a large fluffy cat resting his head on me, and it is wonderful in a way that is hard to describe. If this is mechanism, then the wonder serves to point out that mechanism has more to it than appears at first glance.

But I digress. I am trying something different with diet that might or might not lead somewhere; we shall see. For that purpose, holding to the plan certainly beats the faddishness of the latest weight-loss scheme

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Living like a Stoic

Today begins "Stoic Week 2013" (material here). It's an interesting idea to try out thinking about life from another paradigm. But, actually, looking at what the Stoics believed, I see a lot of points of contact with my own beliefs. The materials present 3 central ideas of Stoicism.

  • The idea that value, or the "good life" lies within the self, and is defined by character.
  • The importance of recognizing what we do and don't have control over -- essentially we control only ourselves, and not even all of that. The most important thing we can control are our judgments. Feelings like anger or sadness result from the perspective we adopt, and that perspective can be altered.
  • The understanding of Nature (and society) as an interconnected and cooperative system, rather than a Darwinian competitive mass of individuals struggling individually for existence.
The Stoic prescription is a little improvement every day, guided by reflection on the day's events in the evening, and the formation of improvements in the morning. The meditative aspects remind me very much of what we called "devotions" when I was an Evangelical Christian. It's interesting to find another tradition of the same vintage as Christianity that contains this reflective aspect. I'm not sure about daily improvement -- it's sounds good, but my last experience of this is that it becomes exhausting and leads to frustration.

Today's meditation focused on what we can control, and trying to be aware of feelings and desires and from whence they originate. Today, being just an ordinary sort of work day, it's not as though I have big dramatic examples.
  • I realize the desire to work on fun, easy stuff first rather than more difficult, longer-term tasks.  This is in part a judgment about "low-hanging fruit," partly about wanting to complete a task before I start another one, and partly just doing what I like. So it's not all one way, but perhaps partly this is the kind of thing the Stoics might classify as "wrong desires"
  • I was annoyed with my wife for interrupting me during work. This is the kind of thing the Stoics would say is pointless, since the annoyance comes from outside myself, and I can't change it.
The question is whether I can really not be annoyed by interruptions. I think this is somewhat possible. I am not annoyed when work colleagues interrupt me to ask questions, for example, so the annoyance is contextual, rather than about the act of being interrupted. I also think that I am more impatient than I used to be, and there is no reason to believe that I could not be so again. In a way, this is a good test case, because interruptions are bound to happen, and my schedule is such that they will often be at inconvenient times.

Thinking more about the actual event, the annoyance had as much to do with frustration at not being able to solve a coding problem -- a background level of annoyance, leaving me more prone to reacting to small stimuli. The background annoyance is not all bad. Sometimes, it gives me an edge that keeps me alert and focused on the problem. The feeling of being sharply focused and on the cusp of discovering a solution makes interruptions all the more annoying. 

As a practical matter, I don't think I would want to lose this drive. From a Stoic point of view, I don't know how to classify it. What is it that makes the Stoic try to make each better than the last?  Surely it is some kind of drive, some form of energy derived from the sense of accomplishment in improving the self; the Stoic way is not the Buddhist way of detachment from the illusion of personhood. If so, then Stoicism is about channeling that energy where it matters. So does solving these coding problems matter for the development of my "rational character"? And if not, or if there is only a weak correlation, to what else should the energy be directed?