Further Thoughts on Stoicism

On Epictetus’ “Dialogues”…

I am still working my way through Epictetus’ Dialogues and Selected Writings. One thing about the material itself – it is incredibly dense with ideas in every sentence. What makes that density so powerful, however, is that it is not based on complex concepts and hard-to-define abstractions. Stoicism is not, thus far, and I have gotten a decent way into the text, all that interested in the absolute bedrock level of reality. There is a large element, at least in Epictetus’ Dialogues that must be taken for granted or accepted, akin to a postulate in geometry, such as faith in God or gods, the definition of a few terms, and certain maxims about life. But even with the academic “imperfection” of the philosophy, it remains one of the most compelling moral philosophies I have ever encountered.

Simultaneously Epictetus is able to rationally explain why it is paramount to tend to one’s own, and yet also explain how this does not conflict with the need to do the best one can by all others. It is not meant to be a complex code of regulations for life, but a set of sparse precepts for managing the situations that most often befall human beings. The “end goal” in Stoicism is not, then, to question all things to the point of inscrutability, nor is it centered around maximizing any one trait but personal “goodness,” for a mutable value of “goodness,” but rather to overall strive to be the best person that one can in any sort of life circumstances. Absent are the imprecations about afterlives and specific practices found in Buddhism, but the overall theme of moderation and self-restraint is, if anything, more pronounced in Stoicism. Epictetus leaves the mystical to the mystic and godliness to the gods – at no point do I imagine Stoicism in some alternate timeline spawning a pantheon of bodhisattvas with myriad arms and incarnate cosmological concepts riding unknowable steeds.*

As far as advice for living, the Dialogues are very much “old man” advice. I can see how many, if not most people, upon first encountering such a curmudgeonly tone, would be quick to dismiss the validity of the words, but if you look at what he is saying, it makes more sense than the soaring dreams of a younger man or woman’s emotionally-derived thought problems. Upon reading it, really, it seems so close to “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” that the novelty of seeing it spelled out and amassed is almost greater than that of a Wittgensteinian or Hegelian maelstrom of terms, classifiers, contingent phrases, and attempts at answering questions that, to Epictetus, would seem wasteful and unnecessary to ask.

One of the things that I find most difficult to take up as a personal creed is the idea of not seeking better “place” and social standing. Growing up, I always felt so painfully outside of the world of normal socializing and interactions, that one quest for me has always been to develop the skills to blend in in nearly any sort of situation, to be accepted by as many people as possible and, when able, to garner praise or admiration even on a small scale.  In Epictetus’ eyes, this is a waste of time and almost the closest that one can come to a “sin.” Alternatively, however, I do not gather from his text that he feels it is morally wrong to accept, earn, or receive such honors, but that making them the object of your life is a life mostly wasted.

That concept seems very much in line with some folk wisdom from my own father, who has always pointed out that if you are successful and passionate in whatever you are doing, then people will come to you and praise you or find you captivating without you even having to expend any extra social effort. I always took this to be a naive reading from someone whom I knew to be socially successful in his youth and maturity, but the more that I see of life and the more I think about it, that is accurate, useful, and true.

I have more thoughts on all of this, but I think for tonight that is all I will tap out on the blog.

 

*I mean, it is possible to imagine such a world, but it seems counterintuitive to everything in Stoic philosophy to allow it to transform, barring incorporation into some other, alien tradition of religion or mysticism, into something full of “woo” and extreme supernaturality. So far the most mystical references in the work have been to auguries, performed ritually on animals, and how they show the designs of the gods/God. Even then, Epictetus seems to allude to the fact that these are not really anymore concrete than imagination.

T-Shirts of Relationships Past

On textiles and tender memories…

I noticed the other day that, when I thought about it, a good number of my t-shirts are directly tied to a memory of a relationship.  Now I do not mean that I remember wearing them in association with a particular moment of a relationship, I mean that literally, I would not own said t-shirts without having been in a particular relationship or arrangement.  Some of the oldest are my basic black t-shirts.  I bought these while I was dating in college because I needed something to wear out, but also had no money to spend.  While they have probably become an affectation of faux-simplicity, they are also nostalgic in that sense.

More specific shirts I know even better.  I bought my M83 t-shirt with the “fry kids” from their Junk album at a concert with someone that I had, at one point, hoped to end up spending the rest of my life. It is possible I would have gone to that concert with someone else, but in all likelihood I would not have bought that exact t-shirt.  Another, I bought at the movie theater when I went to see Interstellar.  The actual shirt is a merchandising tie-in with Pacific Rim, but it was on sale in the lobby and looked like a great memento of the occasion.  Another shirt I bought at a concert for City and Colour.  My ex on that occasion was an ardent Dallas Green fan, and I liked the design of the shirt.

I realize that this entry would do well with some pictures, and I may come back and add some when a better photographic opportunity arises.

Another ex-affiliated shirt I wear regularly is an overlarge Champion-brand Brevard College t-shirt.  I bought it as a memento of the beautiful time spent in the foothills of Pisgah natural forest, even though said ex ultimately never completed the degree program there.  Yet another t-shirt I bought at Express, because yet another relationship I had involved innumerable shopping trips to the mall and to that store in particular.  I am a sucker for sales and dark blue, and so ended up with that shirt and a bright red one of similar textile quality.

There are other t-shirts, from other memories, but I think that it is noteworthy that unlike many many other objects I own, be they books, carvings, rugs, furniture, or what have you, the most emotionally charged are ones that I wear on a daily basis, washing and wearing and wearing through as time passes, until perhaps one day I will end up telling the full stories associated with each shirt like a qipu knot of utilitarian fashion.

Windy Weather

On the change of seasons in Qatar…

Qatar is not known for its dramatic seasons, and without many landforms to speak of besides a vast plain of beige sand and stone, there are few opportunities for climate, let alone microclimates. But I have noticed the slow curve of the temperatures and humidity downwards since June. The past several days have been extremely windy, but we have been fortunate here not to get any real beige-out sandstorms or major lightning storms. People often comment about how the Southeastern US was nigh on unbearable to live in until the invention of air conditioning. That saying is quaint when compared to the environment in Qatar. I have spent time in the Sun Valley of Arizona, and even the hottest temperatures there, mitigated by a dryness rarely encountered in Qatar, have nothing on this place.

Despite all of that, acclimating to the outdoor temperatures here means that this gradual decline in heat makes 90°F feel like a cold front, and when it dips into the upper seventies at night on occasion now, I feel almost obligated to wear pants. But even with the cooling trend, I cannot imagine that this place could offer a home for 2.3 million people without a truly staggering amount of high volume air conditioning (HVAC) capacity. I can only wonder what the Qataris are planning to do to make the World Cup stadiums tolerable during their hosting bid, because they are enormous buildings but still, ultimately, exposed to the elements.

In any case, the winds seem to be bringing with them some relief from the worst of the searing sun and gritty haze that hangs in humid horror over everything inland of the Corniche for much of the year. I can honestly say, even with the broiling, sweat-inducing climate here, I would come back and visit given the opportunity to return, if only for the fascinating sights of so many different cultures and mores existing in relative peace and comfort amidst high luxury construction and surprisingly quality standards of living. All is not bread and roses or caviar and cake, and the delights of the malls and shocking green parks come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of non-citizen residents’ labor and toil. But in many cases those same people are, even at the worst, enjoying better quality of life than they would in their home countries in South and Southeast Asia. I do not claim to address the downsides of the sociopolitical and economic system here in this post, but I am surprised to find that Qatar, should the embargo end peacefully and without their losing sovereignty, is more poised to function as a nation-state when their hydrocarbon reserves run out than many of their neighbors in the region. You do not have to buy their propaganda or believe a bigoted word of Al Jazeera Arabic to see that there is still a lot of potential here, even in the face of environmental odds that make this almost a sterile alien planet whose only visible asset is a mostly breathable atmosphere.

Sapir-Whorf Soliloquy

Starting in middle school or thereabouts, I moved from being interested in language to a more fraught state of philology.  I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings books and the idea of creating languages as a hobby and, almost, as a calling.  It was around the same time that I began taking Latin, my first formal training in a foreign language, and we learned the poem Jabberwocky in English class.  With all of these ideas swirling around in my brain, I began to develop a language and a story to accompany it.  I decided for it to be a proper language, it needed a writing system.  I developed a semi-phonetic alphabet, albeit one that was not necessarily suited to the language I was also building at the time, and to this day, I still use the alphabet, even though the larger writing project and language are dormant projects of mine.

Later on, I got involved in a constructed language project on a bulletin board, with the goal of creating a root-stem sort of language more in line with linguistic ideas of proto-languages and descendant tongues.  That one had a writing system, but one I did not learn well enough to make use of now.  It was exciting – we were building a world around the language, explaining how different words worked in practice, naming places after the historical fashion (it is a lost art in many ways, in English, to give practical, descriptive names to buildings, habitations, and landforms.)*  The project brought together people from around the world, and ended only as people slowly lost interest or moved on to other communities and projects.

Eventually I got to a point where I wanted to explore grammar – a friend and I developed a world and some stories, and I decided to create the languages.  At my worst, I developed a language that performed nearly all grammatical functions on a set of definite and indefinite of articles, prefixed and suffixed like a Native American polysynthetic language modifying some very basic nouns.  The intent was that these languages came from a family cluster, except for one spoken by inhumans.

In college I played around with some constructed languages, trying my hand at designing character dictionaries akin to Chinese blocks, vertical scripts like Mongolian, semitonal grammar, complex mood and aspect encoding, etc.  I looked into things like Virtual Verduria and other online constructed language communities.  It was a good time to be interested in the hobby – first came the Lord of the Rings movies, then Star Trek revivals, then Game of Thrones, and a host of video games with “functional,” fleshed-out constructed languages.  While it never made me popular, it definitely made me feel less alone in my interest.

What I thought about the other day, however, is where the title of this post emerged.  Nearly all of these constructed languages are either limited to a usage-community of none, or at the most several dozen people.  This would be a good time for some virtue signalling on my part about the frivolity of creating languages in the face of mass linguistic death across the globe, but honestly, I have literally invested in projects to preserve moribund languages and done my part in researching them and methods for their preservation.  To me, it can be just as important to create as to preserve in this case.  What I think is interesting, though, is the idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  It is not a “hard science” hypothesis, in that it is difficult to nigh impossible to prove its correctness.  The hypothesis formed the thematic basis for Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and the phenomenal film Arrival.  In the most basic concept, the hypothesis is that the language a group of people speak also affects their perception of the world around them – for example, the idea that a society which has no linguistic concept of certain colors is, in effect, unable to “see” those colors, even if their optic nerves are no less capable of receiving the same wavelengths as any other humans.

Where that fits in with constructed languages is, to me, a fascinating thing to contemplate.  Natural languages are dynamic, complex, and often heavily “constructed” by social status, language authorities and standards, quirks of individual but influential speakers (witness the adoption of “quark” in English), and traditions or religious strictures.  Constructed languages reflect the mindsets of only a few individuals, or even just a sole developer, as is the case with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish and other tongues. Many creators of languages for literary purposes slap things together without an eye towards how natural function, sometimes substituting vocabulary into an English grammar and syntax, sometimes attempting to generate certain acoustic qualities with a retroactive gloss of meaning, and sometimes taking a non-English language’s grammar and dropping a whole new vocabulary and morpheme set into a grammar and syntax like Latin or another Indo-European language.  The development of constructed languages, in cases where creators and “consumers” alike use them actively in everyday, could very well provide an insight into the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Do people conceive of time differently when they use their constructed language, or is it tied to the grammar they develop, which may reflect their native tongue’s “habits” in dealing with time, space, color, social organization, etc?

 

* The idea I am getting at there is that in which many names for places, buildings, and natural features are originally simple terms.  Much like medical jargon takes simple concepts (“myocarditis” = “swollen heart muscle”) and mystifies them through Latin and Greek combinations, place names used in English often have basic roots.  A good example is the name of Dublin.  In Irish, it originates from “black pool” describing a landform (dubh linn) but in English it is a unique, singular word without descriptive value dissociated from the city.

Stoicism and Serenity

On finding a better way to live…

I had started, several years ago, reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and I have always been interested in the ideas of Stoic philosophy.  Looking through Amazon recommendations on the Stoics, I decided to order the works of Seneca, a different translation of Meditations (my other one is currently in storage), and the Dialogues of Epictetus.  I have begun reading the latter and what surprises me is how commonsensical most of his philosophy is, and yet how powerful it feels to read it.  It may be some sweet spot of the stage I am at in my life, or the situation in which I find myself adrift in a foreign country, but it speaks to me in a profound way, this ideal of hard-won nonchalance and quiet strength.  It is all the rage right now to amass victimhood and trauma, and to score status points by undercutting the validity of the issues that others face, but Stoicism as a philosophy is based around the exact opposite idea – that life, though valuable, is only worth living if one keeps hold of the ideals of self-knowledge, self-restraint, and adherence to a moral code that uplifts and esteems the self and others alike.

I will probably write more entries on this theme as I explore the philosophy more fully.  It was an interesting dovetail, reading the Classical philosophers while reading Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, as the Dialogues of Epictetus are integral to both the plot and the character development of the work.  This entry is short, as I am short on time tonight, but I will return to Stoicism again.

Reading and Reading

On where I have been the past couple of days…

I have finished reading Charles Stross’s The Merchant Princes novels, and the latest installment Empire Games, and now am stuck in that wonderfully frustrating position of waiting for the next installment of the series.  In the meantime, besides the continued slog through Deng Xiaoping, I began Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full.  Few “literary fiction” authors I can think of are quite as compelling as Wolfe is, even when his prose is at its purplest.  The last book I read of his, Bonfire of the Vanities, seemed incredibly timely coming around the time of the 2016 elections.  His characterization of New York society around the middle of the 1980s really paints a vivid picture of the milieu of NYC’s high and low societies and their interactions.  This is a quick update, but that is where I have been, immersed in books.

A Great Leap Sideways

On Deng Xiaoping and Chinese history…

So I have been slogging my way through Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China for the last year or so, maybe longer.  It is a tome equal to the import of Deng’s impact on the twentieth and even twenty-first century.  What makes the biography so fascinating is how much access, however controlled, the author had to primary sources of Deng’s notes, commentaries, and Communist Party records.  Instead of being merely a celebrity biography, the work gives you detailed insights into at the very least a sanitized account of the rapid and complex transformations of the post-Cultural Revolution China.  To say that the Cultural Revolution was a tragedy for humanity, not just for China, is still a dramatic understatement.  Thousands of years of history vanished in smoke.  The intellectual and developmental devastation of Maoism continues to haunt the country.  Deng Xiaoping, instead, comes off in this biography as one of the most profound pragmatists of human history.

Reading the story of the failed Taiping Revolution amidst reading this biography also provides an extra level of insight – where Hong Rongan dreamed of modernizing China, giving it a native government focused on industrial development, modernization, and peaceful relations with other nations, Deng in many ways fulfilled those goals, albeit while fostering regimes that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, on the periphery of the Sinosphere.  Certainly, I do not find Deng to be a truly sympathetic character, however great a genius of leadership.

For a case study of that genius, consider Deng’s approach to foreign policy.  They say only Nixon could go to China, but the cautious rapprochement between the two countries would not have been possible without the influence of Deng and other reform-minded partisans.  One of the lessons that Deng can teach leaders at all levels now is through his efforts to be as forthright as possible, even when it is necessary to conceal ultimate goals for political necessity.  Coming into power as the CCP transitioned from the iron will of Mao and his inner circle towards a very different following generation of cadres, Deng skillfully manipulated partisan ideologues into accepting reforms that prevented Chinese stagnation along Soviet lines, while also dealing with external crises and attempts from “reactionary” doctrinaire Maoists who valued Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orthodoxy above competence, practicality, and realistic solutions to the issues facing a society as enormous and varied as twentieth century China.

Nearly everything familiar about contemporary China can be traced back to Deng’s era of leadership.  In many ways he was a reverse of Franklin Roosevelt, de-escalating nationalization and distributing authority outwards from an increasingly hidebound and doctrinaire central party structure that threatened to trap China in a stagnant, dogmatic system.  I have not finished reading the entire biography, but currently I am at the portion discussing the development of the “one country, two systems” approach to the transfer of sovereignty, reverting Hong Kong back to PRC control from the United Kingdom.  Deng had every opportunity to be a hardliner, and was dealing with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who successfully pulled her own land back from the tubercular death throes of socialism and stagnation.  His solution, which is still in at least partial effect more than twenty years after the handover of control, was to assure the successful local power elites that they would not suddenly find themselves sucked dry by a corrupt and inefficient Communist bureaucracy along old Imperial Chinese lines, and instead played off of the powerful effect Hong Kong had as an entrepôt between the commercializing and industrializing mainland and the wider world of global capitalism and the developed economies of the West.

Like many of my entries so far, I wish that I had more time to discuss this book and this individual and his place in human history, but I at least want to close this post with a recommendation to check out the book.  If you are interested in the roots of contemporary China as it moves into the more autocratic, centralized era of “Xi Jinping thought” and even want a good primer on why the Mao Dynasty/CCP-era of China runs on the thoughts of its “paramount leaders,” few are as thorough and well-researched as Ezra Vogel’s.  It is an almost impossible task to gain a real understanding of China as it has become, but to learn its history in the highly dynamic time frame of the second half of the twentieth century, this is a good starting point.  The writing, while dry at times, is also peppered with amusing anecdotes about Deng Xiaoping’s interactions with world leaders and is relatively free of heavy doses of overt propaganda, for or against the oppressive reality of the Chinese Communist Party.