Creating a Stoic Circle

Stoicism is an individual journey but, like sailing, it can also be a collective practice. A group of practicing Stoics may want join and form a STOA, or Stoic Circle, to meet regularly in their city. But why to join a Stoic Circle? Self-improvement, sharing what you know, learning from others, fellowship, spiritual growth, or just because they want to. In today’s digital age we are becoming more and more isolated, many important things are lost when we just use e-mails or social media, the importance of face-to-face  human communication is becoming more evident than ever.

I think that a STOA should keep some structure and observe certain rules:

  • A STOA could be described as a group of people with an interest in philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular, not only intellectually but as a way of life.
  • Rules and regularly. A STOA should have certain rules in order to be successful.
  • Openness. It should be open to anyone interested in philosophy as a way of life.
  • Cosmopolitanism. Every person, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or nationality should be welcomed.
  • An ethical code. Stoics believe that Virtue is the highest good and a goal in itself.  That means being willing to transform their lives and their communities.
  • Respect for the opinnions of other members.
  • Democratic character, consensus should be the rule.
  • Self-Education: Stoicism teaches a system of Virtue ethics that can only be learned through practice and experience in real life. It encourages its members to expand their knowledge of the world around them.
  • Books and information should be shared among members.

AVTIVITIES

Some activities I propose  for a Stoic Circle are:

Socratic Dialogue

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Stoicism is a Socratic philosophy. Socratic dialogue is a systematic way of formulating questions and finding answers. A group (5-15 people), guided by a facilitator, would seat in circle and come up with a universal question (e.g. “What is happiness?”, “Can Virtue be taught?”, “Can conflict be fruitful?”, etc.). Then the group should make more precise questions, “What does happiness mean for you?”, “what are you lacking in this moment, to have a good life? We should respect some rules: Be constructive, avoid competition, attack ideas, not people, define your terms… The virtues of patience, tolerance, attentiveness, thoughtfulness and civility must prevail.

Group reading

Reading can be a form of meditation. Reading in group, like meditating in group is interesting because we can share our ideas and doubt about a particular text. Some philosophical texts can be difficult, and other people can give us different insights. The books can be ancient and modern, on Stoicism or other topics related to philosophy.

Physical activity

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Sports were a central part of the Hellenic character and education, and ancient philosophers used to meet in gymnasiums to express their ideas. Activities in Nature such as hiking, climbing or sailing are particularly interesting because they take us out of our comfort zone. In urban areas, martial arts and calisthenics can be a good way of testing our resilience. The word calisthenics comes from the ancient Greek words kalos (κάλλος), which means “beautiful” or “good” and sthenos (σθένος), meaning “strength”. It is the art of using one’s body weight and qualities of inertia as a means to develop one’s physique.  We should remember that a Stoic’s working-out goal is training his or her character and resiliance. Health benefits and body-fitness are just secondary.

Stoic counsel

 If a member of the group has a personal problem, or a negative emotion that is disturbing his or her peace of mind, and wants to share it, the group can gather to listen to the member’s problem, making it the topic of the day. The Stoics used to write to each other letters of advice and consolation. Nevertheless, advice should be avoided unless asked by the member. The very act of speaking and been listen to, is in itself therapeutic.

Roundtable & symposium

“To drink together” The Greek symposium was a key Hellenic social institution. It should be a forum, a relaxed discussion accompanied with some wine, in moderation,  exchange of books and ideas, etc. preferably in a round table.

A fire

Humans have gathered by the fire from time immemorial, for warmth, to tell stories, recount myths and histories. It was the ever-present symbolic element in Graeco-Roman and Persian cultures. A fire was ever lit at the household, the sacred fire burned in Vesta’s circular temple. At the Platonic Academy, a fire was consacrated to Prometheus (meaning “forethought”), who had stolen the fire from the gods and given to man, an act that enabled progress and civilization. Fire was for Heraclitus the Arché; the origin of all matter, the primordial substance, representing change, light, mind, creation and destruction, This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire. In Stoic physics, the universe was shaped by a logos or the “creative fire” (pur technikon). Fire should be present in one way or another in a Stoic circle, to symbolize a living tradition. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community.

 

If you are interested in finding a Stoic community near your city this website can be help you:

https://www.stoicfellowship.com/home/

The Stoic Fellowship is a project that aims at connecting people interested in Stoicism, regardless of location, identity, or financial means.

 

 

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The meaning of the journey

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

 Ithaka By Kavafis

Homer’s Odyssey is probably the greatest poem about life’s journey, at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral character. In this post I would like to argue that Homer uses the idea of spiritual growth as one of his underlying themes in the Odyssey, a poem plenty of metaphors and insights about life as a journey.

Odysseus’ name means “trouble” in Greek, referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings He begins on Calypso’s island, where he has everything, except happiness.  His spirit is low as he longs for his homeland.  Homer introduces Odysseus at a low point to emphasize the growth of Odysseus’ spirit from beginning to end.  If Homer had shown Odysseus in a good spirit first, then the growth would not have seemed as prevalent.

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Odysseus seems to see the light when he finds out that he will be sailing home.  He is tested first when Poseidon nearly kills him off the coast of Scheria, the first island he reaches.  The Odyssey says, “and trapped within that backwash of the brine, Odysseus would have died before his time had not gray-eyed Athena counseled him” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 109).  Athena allows Odysseus to experience the storm, but not die.  She knows that it will make him stronger for it.

Odysseus is also tempted when he and his crew pass the Sirens.  He is the only one to hear their song and must be tied to a post in order to keep himself restrained.  Odysseus’ spirit is still weak as he is engrossed with the Sirens ability to foretell the future.  He says, “So did they chant with their entrancing voice.  My heart longed so to listen, and I asked my men to set me free”.  The restraints allow him to struggle with the challenge and become stronger without being entangled with the evil.

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The suitors entice Odysseus when he returns home disguised as the beggar.  But now, he has the strength and will power to reject those spoken words.

Homer expresses his ideas about pride and spirit when Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes.  After out-smarting the Polyphemus, Odysseus shouts out his own name in search for “kleos.”  These were his words to Polyphemus, “if any mortal man should ask about the shameful blinding of your eye, then tell him that the man who gouged you was Odysseus, ravager of cities” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 185).  Instead of being humbled by the experience, Odysseus tries to brag about what he has done.  In reality, it was the gods who blessed him with the ability to escape his situation.  Odysseus pays for this action as Poseidon makes his journey back more difficult than it should have been.  We see later in the Odyssey how Odysseus grows from this experience when he returns home.  He is angered by the suitors and has the composure to keep his name secret until the right time.  His spirit is more humble now with the idea of pride than it was on his journey home.

Telemachus also experiences spiritual growth, but Homer displays it in a different manner.  Whereas Odysseus’ growth is concerned with situations, Telemachus’ is dependent upon a journey.  He is sent away from home in search of his father.  It seems as though the prince was so dependent on his father that he never really got away from home on his own.  It took his father’s disappearance to force Telemachus into a leadership role.  He visits friends of his father’s and experiences “xenia” as the normal head of households do.  Through his journey, he learns to depend on the gods and returns home a more spiritually inclined man.  Telemachus learns how to make decisions and trust the instinct that the gods give to him.  Many can “talk the talk,” but Telemachus had to “walk the walk” in order to grow spiritually.  And his maturity is displayed toward the end of the Odyssey.

Homer shows many different types of spiritual growth throughout the Odyssey.  But, he has one main idea:  the spirit with the most growth and strength is the one that is tested and weakened through the process.  Telemachus’ spirit grows, but cannot compare to that of Odysseus because he was not weakened and tested as much as Odysseus.  The weakening allows a person to grow stronger, not just grow.

Even though Odysseus longs for his return to Ithaka, it is the journey what makes the story and his life meaningful. If he never left Ithaka, if he never encountered Laistrygonians and Cyclops, nobody would read the poem. I think our Ithaka is a life that is worth living. I don’t think life has “a” meaning, but life itself “is” meaning. Life is direction, transformation and ending, it is a “story”, one that can be good or bad, depending of our attitude more than our circumstances. We are here to develop our full human potential, to achieve wholeness. Eudaimonia is a greek word that means to live with a good spirit, a good flow of life. By a “good” life I don’t mean one of pleasure and comfort, but a life of purpose, joy, challenge and experience. One in which you can say to yourself in your deathbed, “I would do it all over again!”

But there are many moments of pain, disappointment and loss along the journey. It would not be a journey if there were no such moments. The Universe is not there for us, nor against us, gravity pulls us downwards, so we push upwards. Without antagonistic forces there would be no world, only particles floating in the void. Those moments of loss and pain can be destructive, but, with the right attitude can also be transformative, even necessary, for a good voayage.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

–  Ithaka By Kavafis

Many men and women throughout history have experienced the most important transformations of their lives after suffering a long and difficult illness, many artist and scientist begun to write, paint or study during a crisis of health, exile or prison.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

We will find meaning in our lives when we overcome our ego, and let our actions be guided by Virtue, toward something bigger than ourselves, when we strive for the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the ignorance and alienation of infancy and adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, the flourishing of maturity and the wisdom and serenity of old age.

Life is transformation, it is up to us to transform our life into a meaningful journey.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

–  Ithaka By Kavafis

Ancient Greek (women) philosophers

placees of wisdomIT IS A GREAT loss to mankind that most philosophy books of antiquity are lost. But that loss is even more painful in the case of philosophers that were women, since none of their books have survived. And they thought, taught and wrote a great deal. Only fragments of their works have come to us, and most of them written by men. In this post I am going to do my best to gather the words and ideas of philosophers with names such as Diotima, Aesara, Aristoclea, Hiparchia, Theano, Areté, Sosipatra, Porcia, Hypatia…

For what we know, most female ancient philosophers were Pythagorean and Neoplatonic, although many were Stoic, Epicurean and Cyrenaic.  Like many of their male counterparts, they believed in the existence of the soul, which could become immortal and transcend the body, if properly purified through philosophy. In ancient times it was not uncommon that a philosopher would be a priest, a poet and politician. In the case of ancient greek and roman women, to be a priestess or a poet, normally from an aristocratic family, was  the only way to develop an intellectual life. Due to their roles in their traditional societies, their philosophies tended to be more spiritual than political, nevertheless, women manged to be in the intellectual circles that influenced power and politics.

To complete this post, I will include modern women philosophers and writers that have been influenced by ancient greek philosophy, such as Simone Weil, Maria Zambrano, Myrto Dragona-Monachou, Julia Annas or Gretchen Reydams-Schills, so we can read women’s thoughts in their own words.

Aristoclea of Delphy. Pythagoras’ teacher.

 

Diogenes Laertius says that Pythagoras got most of his philosophy by a philosopher priestess called Aristoclea of Delphy. Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea. The Neoplatonic Porphiry wrote that: “He (Pythagoras) taught much else, which he claimed to have learned from Aristoclea at Delphi.”

Theano of Crotone

Theano was a disciple of Pythagoras that lived with him in their colony of Crotone, Southern Italy, some scholars say she was Pythagoras wife. The writings attributed to Theano were: Pythagorean ApophthegmsFemale AdviceOn VirtueOn PietyOn PythagorasPhilosophical Commentaries, and Letters.

A fragment of her treatise On Piety has survived:

“I have learned that many of the Greeks believe Pythagoras said all things are generated from number. The very assertion poses a difficulty: How can things which do not exist even be conceived to generate? But he did not say that all things come to be from number; rather, in accordance with number – on the grounds that order in the primary sense is in number and it is by participation in order that a first and a second and the rest sequentially are assigned to things which are counted.”

Diotima of Mantinea. Teacher of Socrates?

“Love (Eros) is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty.”  Diotima of Mantinea

069In the Symposium the male members of a drinking party discuss the meaning of Love in all of its forms. Socrates tells us that in his youth, a priestess called Diotima of Mantinea taught him the secrets of philosophy. Diotima could be a fictitious personage, but if Plato’s account is to be trusted, Diotima’s ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Diotima personifies “the wise woman,” she represents the mystical element in Platonism, and her discourse is a blend of allegory, philosophy, and myth, were she exposes the transcendental Idea of the Soul of the philosopher; the lover of wisdom.

Socrates called his philosophical method “Maieutic”, a mode of enquiry which aims to bring a person’s latent ideas into clear consciousness. Maieutic comes  from Greek maieutikos, from maieuesthai act as a midwife, from maia midwife.  During the dialogue, Diotima teaches her doctrine to Socrates using precisely the metaphor of pregnancy and giving birth to ideas and the search for immortality that drives some men to beget children and other to create works of art and literature:

“Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children — this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant — for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? — wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. He wanders about seeking beauty that he may beget offspring — for in deformity he will beget nothing — and naturally embraces the beautiful rather than the deformed body; above all when he finds fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, he embraces the two in one person, and to such an one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man; and he tries to educate him; and at the touch of the beautiful which is ever present to his memory, even when absent, he brings forth that which he had conceived long before, and in company with him tends that which he brings forth; and they are married by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal.

“That in that life alone, when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen–only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images or virtue (Because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (Because he is in touch with the true Beauty).”

Many would argue that Plato’s dialogues cannot be trusted, that Diotima may be a fictional character, but we can say the same about Socrates’ philosophy, which comes  from secondary sources, since he wrote almost nothing. Presocratic philosophers such as Parmenides or Pythagoras are also quasi mythical figures. Some argue that Diotima is in reality a character based on Aspasia the philosopher and lover of Pericles, most admired by Plato for her wisdom and wit.

Areté of Cyrene

Detail of Statue of Arete in the Library of Celsus in Ephesus

Areté learned philosophy from her father, Aristippus, who had himself learned philosophy from Socrates. She was remarkable in that while many women studied philosophy in her time, she was one of the few for whom it was a career. Areté is sometimes described as the successor of her father as head of the Cyrenaic school. She is said to have publicly taught natural and moral philosophy in the schools and academies of Attica for thirty-five years, to have written forty books, and to have counted among her pupils one hundred and ten philosophers. She was so highly esteemed by her countrymen that they inscribed on her tomb an epitaph which declared that she was the splendour of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer.

Hipparchia of Maroneia

800px-Crates_and_Hipparchia_Villa_FarnesinaRoman wall painting of Hipparchia and Crates from the Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Hipparchia was a Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of Thebes. Little survives of her own philosophical views, but like most Cynics, her influence lies in the example of her life, choosing a way of life which was usually considered unacceptable for respectable men and women of the time. Hipparchia’s fame undoubtedly rests on the fact that she was a woman practising philosophy and living a life on equal terms with her husband.

Diogenes Laertius claims that Hipparchia was so eager to marry Crates that she threatened to kill herself rather than live in any other way. Together they lived like beggars on the streets of Athens, where both were treated with respect.  Their philosophy was a challenge and a shock to the moral conventions of Athenian society.  They lived the most naturalistic life, sleeping in the streets and even having sex in public. Hipparchia’ later fame (apart from her unconventional lifestyle) lies in the fact that Crates became the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. The Cynic strain to be found in early Stoicism (such as Zeno’s own radical views on sexual equality spelled out in his Republic) can be ascribed to Hipparchia and Crates’ influence.

She wrote some philosophical treatises, and some letters addressed to a Cynic philosopher called Theodorus the Atheist. None of these have survived. There are some accounts of her encounters with Theodorus:

When she went into a symposium with Crates, she tested Theodoros the atheist by proposing a sophism like this: “That which if Theodoros did, he would not be said to do wrong, neither should Hipparchia be said to do wrong if she does it. Theodoros hitting himself does not do wrong, nor does Hipparchia do wrong hitting Theodoros.” He did not reply to what she said, but pulled up her garment.

We are told she was neither offended nor ashamed by this “as most women would have been.” We are also told that when Theodorus (quoting a line from The Bacchae of Euripides) said to her: “Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” she replied:

“I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?”

Many other anecdotes existed about Hipparchia, but they have been mostly lost.  It is not known how or when she died. There is an epigram ascribed to Antipater of Sidon, as the sort of thing which may have been written on her tomb:

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic.
Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not;
But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground,
My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running”

Aesara of Lucana

Aesara of Lucania was a Pythagorean philosopher (4th or 3rd century BC), who wrote a work On Human Nature, of which a fragment is preserved by Stobaeus. Aesara argues that it is by studying our own human nature (and specifically the human soul) that we can understand the philosophical basis for natural law and morality:

“Human nature seems to me to provide a standard of law and justice both for the home and for the city.”

Aesara divides the soul into three parts: the mind which performs judgement and thought, the spirit which contains courage and strength, and desire which provides love and friendliness:

“Being threefold, it is organized in accordance with triple functions: that which effects judgment and thoughtfulness is [the mind], that which effects strength and ability is [high spirit], and that which effects love and kindliness is desire.

These things, being divine, are the rational, mathematical, and functional principles at work in the soul. Aesara’s theory of natural law concerns three applications of morality, concerning the individual, the family, and social institutions.”

The Pythagoreans were notable as a sect for including women in their ranks. This did not necessarily equate to modern ideas of equality; they believed that women were responsible for creating harmony and justice in the home, in the same way that men had the same responsibility towards the state. Seen in this context, Aesara’s theory of natural law is fundamental to justice and harmony in society as a whole.

Ptolemais of Cyrene

Ptolemais was a harmonic theorist, author of Pythagorean Principles of Music. She lived perhaps in the 3rd century BC. She is one of several women writers associated with Pythagoreanism.

What is the distinction between those who preferred a combination of both [reason and perception]? While some adopted both perception and reason in the same way, as being of equal importance, others took one as the leader and the other as a follower. Aristoxenus of Tarentum adopted them both in the same way. For neither can what is perceived be composed by itself without reason, nor is reason strong enough to establish something if it does not take its starting points from perception, and the conclusion of the theorising does not agree again with the perception.

In what way does he want perception to be in advance of theory? In order, but not in importance. For he says when what is perceptible whatever it is, is grasped, then we must promote reason for the theoretical study of it.

Who treats both together? Pythagoras and his successors. For they want to adopt perception as a guide for reason at the beginning, as if to provide a spark for it, but to treat reason, when it has started off from such a beginning, as separating from perception and working by itself. So if the composite whole is found in a study by reason to be no longer in accord with perception, they do not turn back, but make their own accusations, saying that the perception is mistaken, and that reason by itself finds what is correct and refutes perception.

Porcia Catonis, the Stoic

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Porcia was born between 73 BC and 64 BC.  She was a Stoic philosopher, described as addicted to philosophy, full of understanding and courage. We don’t know if she wrote anything, but as her fellow Stoics, her philosophy was to be practiced in deeds rather than words. She was the daughter of Cato the Stoic, who opposed Caesar’s attack on the Roman Republic. In 46 BC, Cato committed suicide following his defeat in the battle of Thapsus.

She married Brutus, a politician and a Stoic. Brutus, along with many other co-conspirators, murdered Caesar in 44 BC. He promised to share the “heavy secrets” of his heart with his wife but it is unclear if he ever got the chance. Some historians believe Porcia may have known about the plot, and may have even been involved in the conspiracy itself.  Plutarch claims that she happened upon Brutus while he was pondering over what to do about Caesar and asked him what was wrong. When he didn’t answer, she suspected that he distrusted her on account of her being a woman, for fear she might reveal something, however unwillingly, under torture. In order to prove herself to him, she secretly inflicted a wound upon her own thigh with a barber’s knife to see if she could endure the pain of torture. As a result of the wound, she suffered from violent pains, chills and fever. Some believe that she endured the pain of her untreated wound for at least a day. As soon as she overcame her pain, she returned to Brutus and said:

“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”

Brutus marveled when he saw the gash on her thigh and after hearing this he no longer hid anything from her, but felt strengthened himself and promised to relate the whole plot. Lifting his hands above him, he is said to have prayed that he might succeed in his undertaking and thus show himself a worthy husband.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia_Great_Female_Philosopher_Alexandria

She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, the highest intellectual position a philosopher could hold in the late Roman Empire. Daughter and disciple of the mathematician Theon, she taught philosophy and astronomy. No written work widely recognized by scholars as Hypatia’s own has survived to the present time. A partial list of Hypatia’s works as mentioned by other antique and medieval authors or as posited by modern authors:

  • A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
  • A commentary on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.
  • Edited the existing version of Ptolemy’s Almagest. “Until recently scholars thought that Hypatia revised Theon’s commentary on Almagest. The view was based on the title of the commentary on the third book of Almagest, which read: “Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher.” Cameron, who analyzed Theon’s titles for other books of Almagest and for other scholarly texts of late antiquity, concludes that Hypatia corrected not her father’s commentary but the text of Almagest itself. Thus, the extant text of Almagest could have been prepared, at least partly, by Hypatia”.
  • Edited her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements.
  • She wrote a text “The Astronomical Canon“. (Either a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables or commentary on the aforementioned Almagest.)

Her contributions to technology are reputed to include the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density (or specific gravity) of liquids. However, the hydrometer was invented before Hypatia, and already known in her time. Some say that this is a textual misinterpretation of the original Greek, which mentions a hydroscopium (ὑδροσκοπίον) – a clock that works with water and gears, similar to the Antikythera mechanism.

A contemporary Christian historian described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more”

Hypatia was brutally murdered by a christian mob during an episode of city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. Her death is symbolic In March 415 CE, when the mob led by the ironically named Peter the Reader burned the Library of Alexandria, they also brutally assassinated its last chief librarian, Hypatia. Many scholars view her murder as representing the symbolic death of classical antiquity.

Modern philosophers inspired by Greek philosophy

Simone Weil

French philosopher, (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943). Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.

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Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

In the last years of her life Simone Weil devoted herself especially to the task of revealing “the center of all Greek thought”, studying and translating the texts of philosophers and poets. In their translations of both “Electra” and “Antigone” passages, fragments of Heraclitus, in her comments to Plato (or God in Plato) or in her notes to Cleantes, Fereccides, Anaximander and Filolao. Some of her more celebrated works are:

  • The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Mary McCarthy trans.
  • The Need for Roots. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952. Arthur Wills trans., preface by T.S. Eliot
  • Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.
  • Two Moral Essays by Simone Weil—Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations & Human Personality. Ronald Hathaway, ed. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Richard Rhees trans.

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” 

“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” 

“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”

“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”

“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”

 María Zambrano

Zambrano

Spanish essayist and philosopher. Disciple of J. Ortega y Gasset, Zubiri and Manuel García Morente, was one of the capital figures of the Spanish thought of century XX.

Nevertheless, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, she openly sided with the Republic and consequently went into exile after its defeat in 1939. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities (1981) and Cervantes (1988).

Her thinking revolved around the search for moral principles and forms of behavior that were applicable to everyday problems. Her approach to ethical conflicts, and the study of the interrelation between reality and truth, demanded the need for a deep dialogue between the being and her environment. She was very influenced by Seneca. 

Maria Zambrano combines historical and personal circumstances to approach in an intimate way to Seneca through exile, lack, resignation and comfort. Through the renunciation of the ideal to consider life and its most daily circumstances, including the abuse of power over the human being. 

“To draw the thought of Seneca is to draw his living figure, to trace the outline of his person. Stoic tempered, with a style or tone of his own that does not rule out the loans of other philosophical schools (Epicureanism, skepticism, cynicism, Platonism …) Seneca is a master of life, of philosophical good living. To dominate oneself, to escape the passions of the vulgar, to seek tranquility through resignation, to practice clemency. In times of crisis the thought of Seneca is more alive than ever because it has a great virtue: that of making us “enter into reason” smoothly.” El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)

“To discover time is to discover the deceit of life, its ultimate trap; is to feel forcibly, in an instant at least, as a deceived boy who is deceived. It is, thus, an enter into reason. For some reason Heraclitus, who has so exact sense of time, speaks to us in that paternal tone of reprimand. By putting ourselves before the evidence of the incessant running of things, it is making us “to reason.”  – El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)

Myrto Dragona-Monachou

Myrto Dragona Monachou, is a Greek philosopher and educator specialized in Stoicism

Some of her publications are:

Zeno’s moral and political radicalism

The Stoic arguments for the existence and the providence of the gods = Ta epicheiremata ton stoikon gia ten hyparxe kai ten pronoia ton theon: Didaktorike diatrive (Vivliotheke Sophias N. Saripolou) Paperback – 1 Jan 1976

Julia Annas

Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind is an elegant survey of Stoic and Epicurean ideas about the soul—an introduction to two ancient schools whose belief in the soul’s physicality offer compelling parallels to modern approaches in the philosophy of mind. Annas incorporates recent thinking on Hellenistic philosophy of mind so lucidly and authoritatively that specialists and nonspecialists alike will find her book rewarding.

Gretchen Reydams-Schills

Gretchen Reydams-Schils is Professor of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame  across the Departments of Philosophy and Theology.  She is a specialist in Plato and the traditions of Platonism and Stoicism.

Some of her books are

Demiurge and Providence, Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s Timaeus 

The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Catherynne M. Valente

Cathelynne M. Valente is an American fiction writer, poet, and literary critic. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. Although not a philosopher, I wanted to conclude this post with this beautiful fragment from one of her books:

“When I was a young girl, I studied Greek in school. It’s a beautiful language and ever so many good things were written in it. When you speak Greek, it feels like a little bird flapping its wings on your tongue as fast as it can. This is why I sometimes put Greek words into my stories, even though not so many people speak Ancient Greek anymore. Anything beautiful deserves to be shared round, and anything I love goes into my stories for safekeeping.

The word I love is Arete. 

It has a simple meaning and a complicated meaning. The simple one is: excellence. But if that were all, we’d just use Excellence and I wouldn’t bring it up until we got to E. Arete means your own excellence. Your very own. A personal excellence that belongs to no one else, one that comes out of all the things that make you special and different. Arete means whatever you are best at, no matter what that is. You might think the Greeks only meant things like fighting with bronze swords or debating philosophy, but they didn’t. They meant whatever you’re best at. What makes you feel like you’re doing the rightest thing in the world. And that might be fighting with bronze swords and it might mean debating philosophy—but it also might mean building machines, or drawing pictures, or playing the guitar, or acting in Shakespeare plays, or writing books, or making a home for people who need one, or listening so hard and so well that people tell you the things they really need to say even if they didn’t mean to, or running faster than anyone else, or teaching people patiently and boldly, or even making pillow forts or marching in parades or baking bread. It could be lending out just the right library book to just the right person at just the right moment. It could be standing up to the powerful even if you don’t feel very powerful yourself, even if you’re lost and as far away from home as you can get. It could be loving someone with the same care and thoroughness that a Wyvern takes with alphabetizing. It could be anything in the world. And it isn’t easy to figure out what that is. It’s even harder to get that good at it, because nothing, not even being yourself, comes without practice. But your arete goes with you everywhere, just waiting for you to pay attention to it. You can’t lose it. You can only find it. And that’s my favorite thing that starts with A.” 

Catherynne M. ValenteThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

 

The Stoic Paradoxes

In 46 a.d.C. three years before his death, Cicero wrote his “Paradoxa stoicorum” a brief book dedicated to Marcus Brutus. The Stoic Paradoxes were six precepts that encapsulated Stoic philosophy and, according to Cicero, the Stoics only explained in their inner circles. If a non stoic would hear them, he would probably find them puzzling, if not laughable. What does it mean, they may ask, that “Only what is beautiful is good” or that “All the vices and all virtues are equal” ?

“Since these things are remarkable and contrary to everyone’s opinion (they themselves even call them “paradoxes”), I want to-test whether they can be brought into the light, that is, into the forum. I have treated the same things as Stoics hardly say in gyms and at leisure.” And with much more pleasure he says: “I have written insofar as these we call paradoxes, they seem to me mainly Socratic and very true”.  Although Cicero was an Academic Skeptic, by the end of his life he leaned toward Stoicism. In the book Cicero uses the Stoic Paradoxes to explain his ideas about the nature of moral goodness, the possession of virtue, good and bad conduct, the transcendence of wisdom, and the sources of real wealth. He specifically claims that what he is doing is playfully transcribing the Stoic paradoxes into language befitting the Forum to see whether or not it can be done.

I – Oti monon to kalon agathon That only what is beautiful is good

In classical greek, the word Kalon meant both beautiful, noble and honorable, the ideal perfect beauty in the physical and moral sense. (Words such as calligraphy come from Greek Kallos “beauty” and graphein “write”) Stoics thought that honorable actions were beautiful, and were more desirable goods than good-looks, or beautiful buildings. (This paradox is probably playing around with a famous poem by Sappho that says: “What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.)

Cicero was not a Stoic, and in many cases he didn’t completely agree with the Stoic position, nevertheless he had a good account of Stoicism and he was no amateur in the matter.

“I never was one who reckoned among good and desirable things, treasures, magnificent mansions, interest, power, or those pleasures to which mankind are most chiefly addicted. For I have observed, that those to whom these things abounded, still desired them most: for the thirst of cupidity is never filled or satiated. They are tormented not only with the lust of increasing, but with the fear of losing what they have.”

“But some one will ask, ‘What then is a real good?’ Whatever is done uprightly, honestly, and virtuously, is truly said to be done well; and whatever is upright, honest, and agreeable to virtue, that alone, as I think, is a good thing.”

“As far as I am concerned, true reasoning will have more weight than the mob’s opinion; and I will never say that someone has lost goods who has lost cattle or furniture, and I will often praise that wise man Bias,When the enemy captured Priene, his homeland, and the rest fled and carried off their property, and he had been warned by someone that he should do the same thing, he said, “But that is what I’m doing, for I carry all that is mine with me.” 9. He did not even consider these toys of fortune which we call “goods” as his own. Someone will ask,”What then is good?” If something which is done uprightly and honorably and with virtue can be truly said to be well done, then I believe that alone which is upright and honorable and virtuous is good.”

II – Oti autarkês ê aretê pros eudaimonian That Virtue is sufficient for a good life

The Stoic motto and doctrine of the good life was: live according to nature. To act in accordance with nature is first of all to act in accordance with your own nature as a human being. For man, this means to act rationally, since his nature, which distinguishes him from the rest of the universe, is to be rational. Virtue was conceived as a disposition to act in accordance with reason. To know the truth about yourself and the world is the same thing as to be able and willing to act according to that knowledge. Virtue is also the one and only summum bonum.

The things which we normally consider good, like pleasure, wealth, fame, and health cannot be considered real goods, and pain, poverty, anonymity, and sickness cannot be considered real evils. The only real good is virtue, and the only real evil is vice. But wealth, fame and health, can come as consequence of virtue, just as sickness, poverty and pain may follow us for our vices.

The Stoics maintained, quite controversially among ancient ethical thought, that the only thing that always contributes to happiness, as its necessary and sufficient condition, is virtue.

“You don’t know, madman, you don’t know how much force virtue has. You appropriate virtue’s great name: what its value is, you are ignorant. No one can fail to be most happy who is complete in himself and dependent on himself and who places all that is his own in himself.”
“Exile is terrible to those who have their habitation, as it were, circumscribed, not to those who consider the whole world to be one city. Every hardship and affliction crushes you who consider yourself happy and prospering. Your desires are tortured, you are crucified day and night, you for whom what you have is not enough, and who fear that even that won’t last long.”

III – Oti isa ta amartêmata kai ta katorthômata That all the vices and all virtues are equal

Stoics used to say that a wrong action was wrong regardless of the consequence. If a pilot sinks a ship, it doesn’t matter if the cargo was corn or gold. To kill an animal for no reason, as bad as killing a human being.

“offenses should not be measured by the outcome of things, but by the vices of the people committing them. The matter in which someone commits an offense can be
greater or less, but the offense itself, however you turn it, is the same.”

IV – Oti pas aphrôn mainetai. That all fools are madmen

Stoics thought that only the ideal Sage was truly sane, all the rest were insane, in different degrees. We will never become sages, but we can progress toward wisdom and go as far away as possible from folly.

Cicero addresses directly to one of his political enemies:

“And look how I despised those weapons of your brigandage. I have always thought you launched and hurled horrible injustices at me: I never thought they reached me, unless
perhaps you thought something of mine was being ruined or burned down when you were destroying walls, or when you were throwing criminal torches onto roofs.  Nothing is mine, or anyone’s, which can be carried off, taken away, or lost.
If you had taken away my divine constancy of soul, my knowledge that the republic stood, much against your will, because of my care, my vigilance, and my plans; if you had blotted out the undying memory of this eternal service, even more if you had taken from me that mind whence those plans flowed, then I would admit I had suffered an injustice.

Do you distinguish a citizen from an enemy by birth and location, not by soul and deeds? 30. You made a slaughter in the forum, you held temples with armed bandits, you burned private homes and holy shrines. Why is Spartacus an enemy if you are a citizen? But can you be a citizen, since because of you there was once no state?

And do you call me “exile”, which is your name, when everyone thinks that the republic went into exile with my departure? Will you never look around you, most insane man, nor ever consider what you are doing or what you are saying? Don’t you know that exile is a punishment for crimes, but that my journey was undertaken on account of my most glorious deeds?”

V – Oti monos o sophos eleutheros kai pas aphrôn doulos That only the sage is free and every fool is a slave

“No one is free unless he is wise. What then is freedom? Ability to live as you wish. Who then lives as he wishes, if not the one who pursues upright things, who rejoices in duty, whose way of life is considered and planned, who doesn’t obey the laws because of fear, but follows and cultivates them because he judges that to be most advantageous, who says nothing, does nothing, in fact thinks nothing unless it is willingly and freely, whose every plan and undertaking proceeds from and returns to him, nor is there anything which has more power for him than his own will and judgement, to whom even that which is said to have the most power. Fortune herself, yields, since, as the wise poet said, she shapes herself according to each man’s own character?”

“So this happens only to the wise man, that he does nothing unwillingly, nothing sorrowfully, nothing under duress. Although this ought to be more fully discussed, it is nevertheless a concise truth which ought to be acknowledged, that no one is free except him who is so furnished with virtues.”

VI – Oti monos o sophos plousios Only the wise man is rich

The Stoics want us to change our values. If the propositions above mentioned are true, there is only one kind of good, that is virtue, which springs from wisdom and one kind of evil, vice that comes from ignorance. Wisdom is something that is always with the sage, and that would be desirable to have under any circumstances. Therefore, a wise person is richer than an emperor, because whether the emperor is wealthy, he can be miserable due to his folly, but a wise man, even in poverty will be rich.

“It is fitting that your soul should judge you rich, not people’s talk or your possessions. If
it considers that it lacks nothing, if it doesn’t trouble about anything more, if it is satisfied or even content with your money, then I yield; you are rich. But if because of greed for money you consider no profit to be base (when in your station no profit can really be honorable), if every day you defraud, cheat, demand, bargain, plunder, and grab, if you rob your partners, loot the treasury, if you wait for something from your friends’ wills, or you don’t even wait and forge them yourself, are these the signs of a wealthy man, or a needy one? “Is it a man’s soul, not his money- box, which is usually called rich?” Although that box is full, I will not consider you rich as long as you seem empty to me. In fact, men measure a man’s wealth by how much is enough for him. Someone has a daughter: he needs money; he has two: he needs more; he has many: he needs still more; if a man has fifty daughters, as they say Danaus had, so many dowries require a lot of money. The measure of a man’s wealth, as I said before, is adjusted to how much he needs. 

 

I have based this post in thesis by Mark O. Webb:

CICERO’S PARADOXA STOICORUM:
A NEW TRANSLATION WITH
PHILOSOPHICAL
COMMENTARY
by
MARK 0. WEBB, B.A.
A THESIS
IN
CLASSICAL HUMANITIES
Submitted to the Graduate Faculty
of Texas Tech University in
Partial Fulfillment of
the Requirements for
the Degree of
MASTER OF ARTS

How should we live?

Most philosophy can be reduced to a few fundamental questions. What is reality? why is there something instead of nothing? how do we know what we know? what is the meaning of existence? does existence have to have a meaning?

Modern science seems to be overtaking  philosophy in answering those questions. Physics is giving us ever more accurate models of the Universe, neuroscience is providing us with better explanations about how the mind works. Linguistics, the social sciences, anthropology, aesthetics, are all offshoots of philosophy, but philosophy’s children have grown bigger and more specialized than their parent. That specialization is both the strong and the weak side of those disciplines. Over-specialization is a problem that can narrow our understanding of humanity and the cosmos. Science and technology are developing at such a rate that it is no longer possible for one person to maintain an integrated and coherent worldview. Philosophy can be a potential bridge-builder to those narrow worlds, and provide a wider perspective.

But modern science is not giving us something fundamental to our lives. It is giving us a more accurate map of the territory, tools for navigation, but to find out why to navigate, or where to go, and if an action is right or wrong, are still a philosophical questions. That is why in the field of Ethics philosophy is still a stubborn contender. Ethics was the most important field of Stoic philosophy, the goal of studying Physics and Logic.

The whole Stoic project could be reduced to a single question; How should we live?

FIELDWORK_3

Or better, how to live a good life? Here we are assuming two premises, that we want to live, and that we want to live a good life. But what does a “good” life even mean? Different things for different people, and not even that, since people want different thinks in different moments of their lives. What would a Stoic answer to that? If our life was perfect, he may say, simple and happy, philosophy would be only an intellectual entertainment. But, in the real world, experience tells us that events change quickly, life can be transformed from sweet to harsh in a few seconds.

The problem of suffering

An undeniable fact of life is that there is suffering. Even if you do not care about other people’s suffering, if you live in an affluent society, you are healthy and things look good around you, the problem of suffering is one that you will have face sooner or later. Anxiety and depression are becoming ever more prevalent in advanced societies. We are ever more connected to technology and less connected to each other.

Why not  pleasure and comfort

Many philosophers have answered that in a universe devoid of meaning, any direction can be right, and the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate good. Afer all, we are pleasure-seeking creatures, we avoid pain whenever we can and we tend to take the minimum effort if we can. Humans, like all mammals, want to avoid pain and feel pleasure, and that is their goal in life. Hence; consumerism is the answer.

The promise of modernity was that with technology. material wealth and unlimited progress, we will maximize the pleasure and reduce pain. And in many ways that view has achieved to drastically reduce the number of people dying from infectious disease and hunger, an unprecedented colossal achievement in the history of humanity.

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak.

•  Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.

• Consumerism is creating ecological desasters and endangering the future of life on earth.

• Diabetes and coronary disease are the principal cause of death in the world. Our consumerism making us is unhealthily and weaker.

•  According to The World Health Organization by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.

Even the ancient philosopher Epicurus for whom “pure” pleasure is the highest goal, rejected the unrestrained search for pleasure, and thought pleasure meant “absence of pain” (aponia) and stillness of the soul (ataraxia). According to Epicurus, pleasure as satisfaction of a desire cannot be the aim of life, because such pleasure is necessarily followed by unpleasure and thus keeps humanity away from its real goal of absence of pain

 We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best.

If we have more opportunities for fulfillment than ever before but we are more disquiet and unhappy, could it be our problem is not of lack of choices but a lack of values? A wrong understanding of what a good life means?

Eudaimonía. A flourishing life

What could the ancient teach us? We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia.

Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

We suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control.

We do not get to choose most of the things that happen to us in life. We do not choose the circumstances of our birth, our body, family and culture. Most of our decisions are unconscious, and life is full of accidents and unexpected turns of fortune. If we have so little control over our lives, what is then up to us? We can choose the way we face those circumstances. We can use those very misfortunes to train our character, learning from our mistakes and drawbacks, or we can just keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Living according to Nature

The goal of life, according to most Hellenistic philosophies was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a good spirita flourishing life, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, defined it as a good flow of life, a life lived in according with Nature.

They believed that an act is good or bad depending on whether it contributes to or deters us from our proper human end—the telos or final goal at which all human actions aim. That telos is eudaimonia, or happiness, where “happiness” is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being.

Pleasure and happiness were not to be pursued directly, they were regarded as by-products of living wisely. Instead our actions should aim for Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely.  A good life, then, should be oriented toward worthy ends, having a Telos (end, purpose, direction) and guided by the Logos (reason, meaning, account).

Engaging with others

Expanding our circle of concern When we help others we help ourselves.  By leaving our self center concerns and focusing on others we find meaning in our lives.

Stoics saw the world as a single community, in which all humans are relatives, and are here to work together (sunergia)We find more meaning in our lives when we overcome our small self, and let our actions be guided towards something higher, like the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the dependence of infancy and the alienation of adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, wisdom and human flourishing of maturity.

Stoicism for Beginners

Ancient philosophers used poetry to express ideas, but also as mnemonic exercises for themselves and their students. The Pythagorean Golden Verses and Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus are good examples. Coming from oral cultures when writing down things was not so common, I suppose it came natural to them to versify their knowledge.

I have tried to arrange the most basic Stoic ideas and quotes into verses for my own use, as a memory exercise for a beginner. The result is a poem of ten tercets, using rhyme to make them easier to remember and “ready to hand”.

I know the result is by no means aesthetic, and rhyme sounds old-fashioned, but it is useful when memorizing, and it wanted to make it sound old style.

Stoicism for Beginners

Stoic Women: Simone Weil

Since writings by ancient Stoic women unfortunately did not survive, I have been looking for writings and quotes by modern women, that could have been written or inspired by ancient Stoics. Doing some research I came across French philosopher Simone Weil.  Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.
18395

Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

Although born into a secular Jewish household and raised in “complete agnosticism”, she later became a Christian mystic. But Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions—especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.

Weil’s biographer Gabriella Fiori wrote that Weil was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range” and Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.

 


 
“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”


“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”


“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.”

“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”


“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”


“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”


“In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish.”


“You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.”

“To be a hero or a heroine, one must give an order to oneself.”

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”

“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”

“The sum of the particular intentions of God is the universe itself.”

“But a better remedy is indifference to ourselves, and being happy because the good is good, although we are far from it and may even suppose that we are destined to remain separated from it forever.”

“Contact with the sword causes the same defilement whether it be through the hilt or the point.”

On practicing Stoicism

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”  Marcus Aurelius

WHY WOULD anyone want to practice Stoicism today? Most people think that Stoicism is about enduring pain or adversity without complaining. If that was the case, I could not imagine a less appealing philosophy of life. Things appear to be much more interesting though.

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It is true that building resilience and self-control are significant parts of Stoicism, but that is only the surface of a much deeper philosophy of life. After practicing for some years, I have found it to be a very useful and adaptable way of life. Traveling and working overseas I never run out of opportunities for practicing, and for finding out what works for me. So far, I could list twelve points in favor of keeping up the practice:

An antidote for a modern malaise

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak. We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best. We are part of this society, but we don’t have to be part of its frenzy. Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

The most valuable things

When I am traveling, I try to apply  the Stoic maxim Omnia mea mecum porto “I carry with me all that is mine”.   Our most valuable possessions are those that go with us all the time, our moral character, our freedom to choose, our knowledge. Peace of mind, and integrity, are far more valuable than wealth or reputation. Therefore, we should never trade an internal good for an external one. According to the Stoics, external things are to be regarded as “indifferent”, meaning only valuable if used for virtue. It is easy to understand that in theory, but when I observe my reactions and behavior when I am under some pressure, I realize that I trade my inner goods too cheaply, too often. In many situations, specially while traveling, I have to remind myself that the content of a lost suitcase, for example, has no value if compared with my inner tranquility. When something stressful happens, I find helpful to ask myself: is this argument/car accident/lost object, more important than my peace of mind? Is this person’s opinion of me, more important than my opinion of myself?

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Most things are not up to us

The Stoics made a sharp distinction between the things we can control and the things we cannot. We have some influence in keeping our health, acquiring wealth or gaining reputation, but those can be taken from us by external circumstances that lie outside of our control. They used to compare life with sailing. When sailing we have no control over the elements. We can choose the direction of our journey, decide when to set out, observe the waves and currents and adjust the sails according to the winds, but we are at the mercy of the sea. If we want to arrive safe to a harbor, we must cooperate with the sea. Changes of fortune and unexpected disasters constantly occur, and many times, the only thing we can do is to accept them, gain experience from them, and use them as training for life. Yet we suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control. Stoicism has been very influential to modern disciplines such as CBT and Logotherapy. “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” Viktor E. Frankl

Building an inner compass

Nothing reveals our true character as the choices we make in real life, especially when we are under pressure. We may collect hundreds thoughtful maxims or read volumes of philosophy books, but theory is of little use unless it meets practice. When we expose ourselves to new challenges and difficulties opportunities for self-knowledge and growth appear. Stoicism is all about practice, you begin by paying attention to simple things, such as what triggers your anger, or if you can keep calm in a traffic jam, moderation at the dinner table, if your actions show concern for the well-being of others.

In ancient times philosophy  offered their students not only sets of concepts and ideas, but also a way of life, a worldview, and useful techniques for facing the problems of everyday existence. By internalizing the rules and principles of their schools, the students had to be able to make use of their philosophy in practice, as an inner compass, to help them take decisions, and navigate through life.

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Negative visualization

One of the most effective and interesting meditation techniques used by ancient Stoics was the practice called praemeditatio malorum  “the premeditation of evils”  or “preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity”. We should spend some time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our partner has left us, that we have lost our job, our house has burned down, or that a doctor has informed us that we have only six month to live. The reason to do such thing is that we tend to be quite forgetful and ungrateful creatures. By doing so, we remember and value what we have right now, and are more prepared  when something negative happens in reality.

Marcus Aurelius wrote on his private book, “Meditations”, a daily practice: “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 what is good or evil.”

Reducing negative emotions

Ancient philosophers knew that a great deal of our suffering is self-inflicted, and that we can be very creative in doing so. Negative emotions, such as hate, anger, bitterness, fear or jealousy would rarely improved the quality of our existence. They are unavoidable parts of life, but it is up to us to amplify them or not. Stoics insisted that we are disturbed not by the things themselves but by the views we take towards them. We may not be able to control our emotions, but we can at least try to reduce them, and perhaps transform them into something more positive. We can try to transform our fear into prudence, our anger into determination, our pain and sadness into self-knowledge.

The joy of simplicity

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”  Following Seneca’s advice, I regularly spend some days living as simply as I can. During a week I try abstain from anything that I consider not essential. I keep a frugal diet, based mostly on vegetables, watch no TV, nor internet, use no elevator, nor warm water if possible. My experience is that, the so-called life of comfort is not as comfortable as we tend to think, and the simple life is not as harsh as it appears to be. After an ascetic week I begin to feel healthier, and sharper in mind and more focused. I regain time for reading, painting, putting my thoughts in order, or just being. Stoics followed the Pythagorean maxim that said: “choose the best way to live, however rough it may seem, custom will make it agreeable.”

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Freedom from useless things

We live in the age of constant distractions, our attention, a most valuable part of our being, is continuously pulled in so many directions. Billions of dollars are spent worldwide in advertising, carefully devised to make us desire stuff we probably don’t need, or that is negative for our health or human development. Excess of information and news become noise, rarely ending in knowledge. Fewer distractions mean more freedom, and more time for deep and sustained focus, spent in meaningful activities.

“Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice. If you set a high value on her, everything else must be devalued at little.” Seneca

When traveling for long periods, I got accustomed to carry all my belongings in one suitcase, and I find it to be a good exercise in self-restrain. We tend to acquire stuff we don’t need, which takes time, resources and space out of our lives, and getting irrationally attached to material things. Getting used to travel light develops a different relation to material things. “Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)

Living according to Nature

“Live according to Nature” was the motto of the Stoic school of philosophy. In reality they meant to live according to Reason, to the innate human capability for reasoning. But today we can re-frame that maxim for confronting the biggest problem of our time. It is an undeniable fact that our lifestyle is causing an unprecedented alteration of the ecosystem, resulting in dreadful long-lasting consequences for life on earth. The pollution of the atmosphere and the countless tones of plastic that end up in the oceans everyday are the result of an irrational way of thinking, of unreasonable values and habits of consumption.

We of the developed countries have most of us got far, far away from nature. A new form of Stoicism, or Epicureanism may help promoting a change of values and lifestyle that could help solving the biggest challenge of our time. Stoicism was an evolving philosophy more than two thousand years ago,  and still evolving today, in a time perhaps most needed of its recipes than ever.

Reading the classics

We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca’s Letters, Epictetus’ Discourses or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia. In a time when slavery, exile, political assassination, war and plague were the norm, the Stoics thought that it was possible to live a good and serene life, regardless of the external circumstances.

A classic, unlike a best-seller, is a book to be read and re-read, and never ceases to give you something new. The classics, are books that have been read by different people in different periods of history, by different generations, in different languages, and have delivered something true, beautiful or meaningful.

Rehearsing death

It is a paradox that thinking about death could make our life better. A life of security and comfort may appear to give us happiness, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the human spirit than the numbness produced by it. It seems that,  to meditate about our own death once or twice per month, helps us remember that what we have is transitory, and that we should spend more time with relatives, and tell them how much we love them. Meditating regularly about death can help us live more authentically“Rehearse death” To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Seneca

Rehearsing death helps us putting things into perspective, problems that felt heavy before become lighter, we begin to see opinions, material things, as they really are, almost nothing. “By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent . We will no longer sleepwalk through our life”  Irvine. A Guide to a Good life.

A good flow of life

The goal of life, for most Graeco-Roman philosophies, was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a flourishing life, a good spirit, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, said that happiness consisted in “euroia biou” or a Good flow of life. As a philosophy, Stoicism aims at removing the obstacles that prevent us from flourishing as human beings. But pleasure and happiness are not the aim, they are the by-products of a meaningful existence, they should not be pursued directly. Instead our actions should aim at Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely

Seneca once wrote, “The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast—a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it.”

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Ethics & Aesthetics

 Ethics and Aesthetics –  Stoicism – Building according with Nature  – Rustic Simplicity – Harmony – Natural – Functional – Rational –  Restrained –  Austere colours – Clarity – Modern applications in Architecture and design.

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“The hidden harmony is more potent than the visible.” Heraclitus

We tend to think that ethics and aesthetics are two separate things, and many people believe that they should never mix. In this post I would like to argue that they are interwoven.

The term ethics derives from the Ancient Greek word ethikos, which is derived from the word ethos, habit, custom, conduct. The word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek “aisthetikos”, meaning “of sense perception”.  Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty and good taste.

Aesthetics in Stoicism

Although Stoicism is best known for its Ethics and very little is known about their Aesthetics, (since most of their writings are lost), both branches are related and we can try to reconstruct their aesthetic ideas through their ethics. Stoicism happens to be the only philosophical school that bears the name of an artistic element, the Stoa or colonnade.

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The Doric order is the opposite of the baroque and embellished Corinthian

In 301 BC Zeno of Citium began teaching under the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile a painted porch or colonnade. It was a building of Doric order decorated with paintings depicting great Athenian deeds. Such style was named after the Dorians, the tribe to which Spartans belonged, who were noted for their austerity. That choice of location was probably casual, but if there is an artistic style that expresses Stoic ideas, that is the Doric. Whether in music the Dorian mode, architecture the Doric order, and or fashion the chlamys and the chiton dress, the Doric was a very well-defined style, unsophisticated and natural.

Zeno’s maxim was “Live according to nature.” To live a virtuous life was to fulfill one’s potential as a human; in other words, human rationality should be in harmony with the reasons of Nature. Beauty, to the Stoics, begun as harmony of the soul. Aesthetics was something that had to come first from putting their inner being in harmony with nature.

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.” (Zeno, 4th Century B.C.)

Stoics used a series of Paradoxes, used to explain their philosophy in a way that seemed counterintuitive. The first of the paradoxes was: “That only what is beautiful is good” (Oti monon to kalon agathon) There are many things that are beautiful, but don’t necessarily have to be good. We don’t see anything good in, for example, a weapon, although it can be aesthetically beautiful. The key is in the word Kalon which meant both beautiful and noble. If we apply the paradox to , for instance, architecture, we would not call beautiful/noble a gigantic skyscraper erected in a small natural island, that destroys the harmony of the landscape, the environment, and bankrupts the local community, even if the building as an isolated object is aesthetically outstanding. A Beautiful/Noble edifice would be one that is build according to Nature, reasonable, useful, in harmony with the landscape and respectful with the local culture.

The early greek temple represents the soul of a certain people expressed in stone. There is nothing unnecessary in these buildings, nothing, at least, of which we do not see, the purpose (Telos). The astonishing thing in these early temples, is the combination of beauty, simplicity and harmony of the whole. Form and function are one, joined in a spiritual union. The same can be said about the open-air theater, resembling seashells or waves, simple, harmonious, functional, and totally integrated with the greek landscape. Greek temples had a purpose, a temenos a meeting place for humans and gods, for the impermanent and mundane with the eternal and sacred.

Stoic terms that apply to aesthetics.

LOGOS. Meaning, Reason. An artistic fire, the Cosmic active principle that creates as it expands pervading inert matter, the passive principle, and defining existence as an evolving, dynamic process.

EUPATHEIA: good feeling (as contrasted with pathos)

HARMONY: Stoics drew their physics from Heraclitus, who said: “That which is in opposition is in concert, from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony.” “They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.”

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PATHOS: passion or emotion, often excessive and based on false judgements.

PROPORTION: According to Galen, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus wrote: “beauty does not consist in the elements of the body (in themselves) but in the harmonious proportion of the parts. The proportion of one finger to another, of all fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the whole arm, and in short, everything to everything else.”

SYMPATHEIA: Sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence.

TELOS: goal or objective, purpose.

TONOS: tension, a principle in Stoic physics causing attraction and repulsion. An internal tension in a body, simultaneously moving to the surface and back again, that creates the cohesive state.

Tension is an interesting quality – and architecture must have it. There should be elements of the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the poetic in something that is perfectly rational. 

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TECHNÉ: craft, art. The practical application of knowledge.

Vitruvius, the Roman theorist of art and design (before design was recognized as such) operated within the Stoic tradition. Vitruvius asserts “I have never been eager to take money by my art, but have gone on the principle that slender means and good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute”. This apparent disregard for riches is consistent with the Stoic view that the wise person must bear up without. In keeping with the Stoic enthusiasm for the interconnection of all things, the architect is to be educated in drawing, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and astronomy. The unity of Nature is to provide the model for the unity of architecture. As the parts of the human body are proportionate with the regard to the whole frame, the parts of buildings are to be harmoniously ordered. (Further reading: Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture. Indra Kagis McEwen)

Building according to nature

Functional, Spiritual, Serene, Organic, Humanistic.

 The way we build and create objects is a result of our needs, culture, economy, technology but also a reflection of our values and interests. Design and architecture serve as bridges between nature, culture and people, and our consumer habits have serious effects on the environment on our lives and on other people’s lives.

Everything we create has four fundamental functions: Practical, Aesthetic, Symbolic, and Ethical. A vehicle, for example, has the practical function of taking us from one place to another, it has an aesthetic value, such as color and shape, it can symbolize social status, power or personality, and it can be ethical or unethical if, for instance, concerns with security or environmental issues have been taken. The four categories can be applied to almost everything, from city planning to fashion.

905965_10207847890419393_2679531540408553009_o.jpgThe look of modern cities is the result of our values and believes; we believe in money and material gain as symbols of success and happiness. That value judgment fuels the use of cheap materials and creates economic bubbles. The fact that the tallest and most impressive buildings in big capitals around the world are banks is not casual; they are new temples of a culture that worships money and wealth.

The environmental and humanitarian problems created by our system of values is more visible everyday, but not advertised along with the products we consume.

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Concrete house by Olson Kundig architects cuts into a rocky outcrop.

If there is a contemporary architectural movement that inherits the sober ideas of and would be approved by the ancient Stoics is Organic architecture. It is a philosophy of architecture which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches so sympathetic and well-integrated with a site that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition. An ethical building should be:

  • Inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
  • unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
  • exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
  • follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
  • satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
  • “grow out of the site” and be unique.
  • celebrate the spirit of youth, play and surprise.
  • express the rhythm of music and the power of dance.”

Eric Corey Freed takes a more seminal approach in making his description:

“Using Nature as our basis for design, a building or design must grow, as Nature grows, from the inside out. Most architects design their buildings as a shell and force their way inside. Nature grows from the idea of a seed and reaches out to its surroundings. A building thus, is akin to an organism and mirrors the beauty and complexity of Nature.”

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Traditional Cycladic architecture
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Clean lines, solid materials and a sense of permanence surround this partly-subterranean house on the Aegean Sea.

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INTERIORS

A Stoic interior home should show simplicity, use few colours, be functional and serene.

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 ARCHAIC & MODERN ART

Archaic comes form the word Arché, origin, source. Greek art was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian art and architecture, but at around the 6th century B.C. a revolution started. Instead of imitating the hieratic style of the Egyptians, they begun to observe Nature directly. By doing so their works achieved wonderful simplicity, beauty and harmony. It is a process that parallels the development of greek philosophy.

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Igor Mitoraj

Igor Mitoraj was a Polish artist best known for his fragmented sculptures of the human body. Often created for large-scale public installations, his monumental works referenced the struggle and suffering of 20th-century Europe.

Mitoraj’s sculptural style is rooted in the classical tradition, his sculptures express a rare combination of fragility and endurance, with truncated limbs, emphasizing the damage sustained by most genuine classical sculptures. The absence of limbs and parts of the face tell a story that we have to complete.

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Once their naturalistic revolution had begun, there was no stopping it. The sculptors in their workshops tried out new ideas and new ways of representing the human figure, naturalism, dynamism and faithful attention to detail became more and more dominant.

The affinities between modern art and archaic art are too obvious to need proof.

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Brancusi

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Marino Marini

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Fashion and ethics

Simplicity, few colours, functional, linen, clean lines.

In fashion and clothing we tend put the aesthetic value first, then the symbolic (status, trendy), then the practical (warm, comfortable), and last, the ethical (fare trade, environmental concern). A better choice I think would be; 1st Practical, 2nd ethical, 3rd aesthetic 4th, symbolic.

Ethical clothing should not be cheap, but durable and affordable in the long-term, not  to be disregarded every season, it should use less colour, since the inks used to dye the fabrics pollute rivers and create diseases in local populations.

Dorian Style

The chlamys was made from a seamless rectangle of woolen material about the size of a blanket, usually bordered. It was normally pinned with a fibula at the right shoulder. Originally it was wrapped around the waist like a loincloth, but by the end of the 5th century BC it was worn over the elbows.

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Hermes wearing the Chlamys or Dorian dress, used by Cynic and Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius

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Doric Chiton, wore both by men and women.

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Did Graeco-Roman culture really die out?

In this post, I will argue that Graeco-Roman civilization did not really die out as we tend to think, but that it was transformed into what we now call Western Civilization.

Wester culture is a combination Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian worldviews. Greek philosophy, Roman law, Judean morality and christian spirituality. Now, recent developments in our culture are questioning the juseo-christian worldview, leaving more space for the Graeco-Roman view of the world.

Religion

We no longer worship the Greek gods, but neider did Democritus nor Epicurus. The aim of the Epicureans was to attain peace of mind and one important way of doing this was by exposing fear of divine wrath as irrational.But we still going to the theater, use roman law, greek mythology as metaphors in psychology and philosophy.

Language

Most of Graeco-Roman language, art and culture still framing western culture today. Words and concepts such as politics, democracy, music, theater, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, poetry, gymnasium, physics, heroism or erotism, come from Greek. Latin was de language of learning througout all mieval ages and the renaissanse, and still used in science and medicine. More than half of english words come from latin and greek, and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian are direct dscendants from that language.

Political system

The very word and idea of Democracy is Greek. Our politics, senate, parlament, many public buldings, have their roots in the roman republic. A norwegian politician today has a way of thinking and a worldview much closer to Cicero than to the viking Leif Erikson, even though Ciero lived a thousand years before Erikson, and his language was totally different.

Science

The scintific methot begun the Ionian coast of in ancient greece. Empiricism, skepticism, science are greek words.  Atomists such as Democritusattempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Heratostenes demosntrated that the earth is round, its circumpherence and its distance from the sun measuring the difference in the shadow of a stick in two diffrent places. A modern scientist thinks more like Pythagoras or Thales, than St. Paul or Jeremiah.

Arts

The very idea of theatre is greek. Shakespeare’s theatrical plays were heavely influenced by those of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Renaissance Art is a continuation of classical greek sensibility and most western philosophy is but a development of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.

Roman law

Roman System of Law Rome’s most lasting and widespread contribution was its law. Early Roman law dealt mostly with strengthening the rights of Roman citizens. As the empire grew, however, the Romans came to believe that laws should be fair and apply equally to all people, rich and poor. Slowly, judges began to recognize certain standards of justice. These standards were influenced largely by the teachings of Stoic philosophers and were based on common sense and practical ideas. Some of the most important principles of Roman law were:

 All persons had the right to equal treatment under the law.

A person was considered innocent until proven guilty.

The burden of proof rested with the accuser rather than the accused.

A person should be punished only for actions, not thoughts.

 Any law that seemed unreasonable or grossly unfair could be set aside. The principles of Roman law endured to form the basis of legal systems in many European countries and of places influenced by Europe, including the United States of America

The fall of classical Greece

I have wondered many times why and how Hellenic culture fell. Some historians such as Spengler, affirmed that cultures die just like any organism does. But I don’t think this has to be the case, since Chinese or Indian cultures are thousands of years old and still alive and well, and were contemporary to classical Greece.

dELFOS

The demise of the city-state at the end of the fourth century BCE followed by the Peloponnesian War weakened the city-state, opening the door for Macedonian conquest. The lost of confidence and self-determination could be one reason, but the inexplicable cultural, material and demographic crisis occurred during the following centuries and at the beginning of the new era needs some more explanation. The decay of a culture tends to begin as an internal process. 

After researching for some time I came across this revealing text from ancient greek historian Polybius (200-118 BCE):

“I mean such a thing as the following. In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population, owing to which the cities were denuded of inhabitants, and a failure of productiveness resulted, though there were no long-continued wars or serious pestilences among us. If, then, any one had advised our sending to ask the gods in regard to this, what we were to do or say in order to become more numerous and better fill our cities,—would he not have seemed a futile person, when the cause was manifest and the cure in our own hands? For this evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life, and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear the children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number, for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury. For when there are only one or two sons, it is evident that, if war or pestilence carries off one, the houses must be left heirless: and, like swarms of bees, little by little the cities become sparsely inhabited and weak. On this subject there is no need to ask the gods how we are to be relieved from such a curse: for any one in the world will tell you that it is by the men themselves if possible changing their objects of ambition; or, if that cannot be done, by passing laws for the preservation of infants.” History 37.9

AU1004aPolybius

The rise of the Roman republic

Polybius was a first hand witness of one of the most radical changes of history; the rise of the Roman Republic as the hegemonic power in the mediterranean, and the downfall of the Hellenistic period.

After been taken hostage by the Romans, Polybiuss became admitted by the most distinguished Roman houses, who even entrusted him with the education of their sons, due to his excellent education. He remained on cordial terms with his former pupil Scipio Aemilianus and was among the members of the Scipionic Circle, most of them Stoics and philo-hellens. Scipio and his circle was responsable for the growing influence of Hellenic culture in Roman society.

Polybius is considered by some to be the successor of Thucydides in terms of objectivity and critical reasoning. He is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government, which was influential on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United States Constitution.

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Important themes running through his works are the role of Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be demonstratory, or apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen, and that historians should be “men of action” (pragmatikoi).

“From this I conclude that the best education for the situations of actual life consists of the experience we acquire from the study of serious history. For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.”
― Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire

Fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Christianity

Christianity: judaism, mystery religions and Platonic Philosophy

The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people.

In the monumental The Decline and Fall od the Roman Empire, Gibbons unveals how Platonic philosophy and Christianity merged toghether:

“The genius of Plato, informed by his own meditation or by the traditional knowledge of the priests of Egypt, had ventured to explore the mysterious nature of the Deity. When he had elevated his mind to the sublime contemplation of the first self-existent, necessary cause of the universe, the Athenian sage was incapable of conceiving how the simple unity of his essence could admit the infinite variety of distinct and successive ideas which compose the model of the intellectual world; how a Being purely incorporeal could execute that perfect model, and mould with a plastic hand the rude and independent chaos. The vain hope of extricating himself from these difficulties, which must ever oppress the feeble powers of the human mind, might induce Plato to consider the divine nature under the threefold modification — of the first cause, the reason, or Logos, and the soul or spirit of the universe. His poetical imagination sometimes fixed and animated these metaphysical abstractions; the three archical or original principles were represented in the Platonic system as three Gods, united with each other by a mysterious and ineffable generation; and the Logos was particularly considered under the more accessible character of the Son of an Eternal Father, and the Creator and Governor of the world. Such appear to have been the secret doctrines which were cautiously whispered in the gardens of the Academy; and which, according to the more recent disciples of Plato, could not be perfectly understood till after an assiduous study of thirty years.” Chapter 21

During late antiquity, salvific and gnostic religions appeared in Greece, mystery cults that promised a better afterlife, preparing the way to christianity. After a period of decadence, Emperor Constantine converted to christianity, and later  in 529 AD, Justinian closed down the last schools of philosophy in Athens, attempting to Graeco-Roman culture forever. Christianity will dominate western culture for more than a thousand years.

The Renaissance

botticelli-venusBotticelli’s The Birth of Venus, around 1482

It may be inaccurate to say that Hellenic, or that Graeco-Roman culture “died out” after all. A thousand years after the closure of the greek schools of philosophy, their ideas survived in monasteries, and a movement called the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, affecting both artists and their patrons with the development of new art and Humanist philosophy, based on Graeco-Roman period, ant it marks the transition from the medieval period to the Early Modern age.

fab9a69a88cafe409adb9296b522207dPerseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in 1545

Most of their language, art and culture still framing western culture. Words and concepts such as; democracy, music, theater, mathematics, politics, philosophy, poetry, gymnasium, physics, heroism or erotismhave Greek roots.

 

It may be the case that Graeco-Roman-Western culture did not die out,  but it transforms itself and that requires a cycle of death and rebirth, to be alive and flourishing.