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

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