Maximus

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

The swift flight of a single sparrow

After a couple of weeks of solid change – new house, new office, new term, new school year – I wrote to my old philosophy tutor the other evening.

He has written extensively on the ‘Episodic Life’ – a view that life as a story (the ‘Narrative Life’) isn’t actually how some people experience events; and may actually be something of a self-limiting straitjacket.

I’ve certainly found that a bit of letting go (à la Buddhism) and a bit of consciously setting out to enjoy new ‘episodes’ in life has got me through the last hectic fortnight. In fact I’ve quite enjoyed it!

Here’s what I wrote:

“After much denial I’m coming to the view there’s a lot to be said for the ‘episodic’ life. If Heidegger is right (and I think he is) that we wander as a tiny candle flame briefly through a dark, largely empty and uninterested universe – then why wouldn’t you see what every day on Gaia brings, and let the universe serve you up the answers for what fun to have next.

I’m starting think there’s a spot of hubris in my previous attachment to the ‘narrative’ life. A lot happened before us, little we do really affects the myriad lives and physical processes around us and we’ll all be gone before you know it.

I still think Aristotle’s fundamentally right; happiness is a life well lived – but maybe a slightly more eclectic approach to the journey might save me the angst of Kierkegaard and the earnestness of Bentham and Mill.

Keep writing Galen – I’ll catch up with your beautiful mind one day!”

And here’s what he wrote back – it’s rather lovely:

Thanks John. Heidegger … sounds like the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors.

In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” 

Here’s an article on the ‘Episodic Life’:

https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story

Happy Christmas

I’ve had a Happy Christmas and a joyful start to 2017; not thanks to Santa, but a dead sensible British bloke who has written a book I’d recommend to anyone.

‘The Big Book of Happiness 87 Practical Ideas’ is a no-nonsense guide to how to live.

The point of it all, self limiting beliefs and behaviours, getting organised, writing down and pursuing your goals – and the value of dabbling in things. It’s a cracker.

If you read nothing else this year read this… If Aristotle were around today, it’s the book he’d write.

Public Virtue

By temperament I’d probably prefer an Epicurean life. As Wikipedia has it:

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia: peace and freedom from fear and aponia: the absence of pain and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. 

Following Alain de Botton’s lead, I think of this as seeking ‘The Garden’; an idealised  Mediterranean retreat surrounded by carefully selected friends, passing days in contemplation -with occasional breaks for olives, bread, jamon y queso and other light delights… 

But working and family life – especially the middle years – aren’t quite like that are they.

And given I’ve taken Aristotle as my guide, his ‘good life’ comes with a much higher bar; what I’ve come to think of as a life of ‘public virtue’.

Here’s a list of 11 things an Aristotelian life of public virtue requires, in a blend of my words and his; re-found last week looking at those ‘to do’ lists from 2010:

A life of Public Virtue

Courage: does my courage suitably balance fear and confidence?

Temperance: am I self-indulgent or unduly ascetic?

Liberality: am I generous, profligate or mean?

Magnificence: do I visibly give my time and money to good causes?

Pride: am I vain or unduly humble; do I step forward or stand back from noble actions and undertakings?

Honour: am I sufficiently ambitious or am I too unambitious?

Good Temper: am I good tempered, irascible or too meek?

Friendliness: am I friendly, obsequious, a flatterer or quarrelsome?

Truthfulness: am I boastful or mock-modest about my achievements?

Wit: do I sparkle or am I dull?

Friendship: am I generous in my friendship, a loner or spreading myself too thinly?

Tough tests these. 

Based on this higher Aristotelian standard, I’ve pushed myself this week: more courage, less obsequiousness and ‘mock-modesty’ – and a spot of irascibility too; telling a couple of people to b#%%€r off. 

In sum: standing for, standing against; and not just standing by on some things which need to be better.

Public virtue requires a bit of courage and a bit of oomph; a public life can’t always be a peaceful one free of fear and pain.

Good also to remember, this week of all weeks, what US ‘Founding Father’ John Adams had to say on the importance of public virtue:

Concrete or Casuistry?

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casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.

As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.

But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:

“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”

Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.

Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.


Habit Forming

  
Is the great Greek wrong on this one… 

I stumbled across  an interesting article in Time – (it quoted an academic from my place of work) which suggests he might be:


So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

This makes sense, when you think about it. I’ve read elsewhere that as much of 40% of the time we are doing things which have become habitual and have no conscious deliberation – we are on Autopilot.

This suggests three things – all of which I’m trying… Make boring but useful things a habit (taking my vitamin D for example); make things which take some effort but are good for me into a routine (write a blog every Saturday); and more counterintuitively – make sure things which are supposed to be enjoyable, don’t become a habit. 

Why? Because once you stop thinking about them, you’re no longer consciously enjoying them. Not having a drink on Monday or Tuesday has become a habit (good). So sometimes sharing a bottle of prosecco with my other half on a Wednesday, has become a treat (need to be careful it doesn’t become a habit though…)

It’s worth reflecting on what you want to do without thinking, what you can’t do without thinking and what you enjoy doing – and need to think about to consciously enjoy. 

Habits aren’t conscious. They may help to make us excellent; but our best and most enjoyable work and experiences require conscious effort. 

I’m sure Aristotle would buy that.

Office 2016

  

Further proof this week (were it needed) that not thinking about things, actually helps you think about things…

After ten days off for Christmas; scarcely thinking at all about work, I arrived in the office on Monday a little dazed and confused. A colleague asked with a smile if I had any blinding new insights to share? I could only answer slightly sheepishly “Nope”

But then, thanks to the miracle of the empty mind, I scribbled with a scratchy pen, on a couple of discarded misprinted sheets of A3 off the printer: the entire scope of my job; and the purpose for me at work for 2016. 

It had all became clear, because I hadn’t been thinking about it…

Later that same day (at bedtime to be precise) the few remaining work-related knots in my head, were smoothed out by a simple but super article in ‘Philosopy Now‘ by Peter Adamson. 

Adamson reminds us that Aristotle gave us the clinching argument against “the proposition that the good life lies acquisition of wealth.” 

He continues: 

Whatever else we say about the happy life, happiness is surely something we deserve for its own sake. You don’t seek to become happy for some further goal. 

Money by contrast, is not something that can sensibly be desired simply for itself. It is valued only for what we can acquire with it, such as security, pleasures and the opportunity to show virtue. 

Therefore a life that seeks to pile up wealth with no other end in view is incoherent.

He continues 

Aristotle has a similarly persuasive case to make against the life devoted to honor: we wish to be honored not just for any old reason, but because we deserve to be honored. 

At most, then, honour comes as a kind of bonus on top of what we really want, which is to be or to have achieved something worthy of the honour.  

Out of the contenders for a happy life, that leaves the life of virtue. And virtue is complemented by pleasure, because the virtuous person takes pleasure in being virtuous; and by honor too, at least if one’s fellow citizens apportion honor rightly.

Of course Aristotle was nothing if not also practical: 

Although Aristotle insisted that the good life is the virtuous life, he cautioned that we need money as well. You can hardly hope to be virtuous without money, if only because generosity is a virtue: you need wealth to give it away.

Common sense also tells you that such things as health, a flourishing family, and friends, belong to the good life, and Aristotle wasn’t against common sense on this score. 

But it’s Adamson’s conclusion which is the clincher:

In these days, when whole countries are faced by economic disaster, ancient advice remains useful: accept money and use it wisely when it comes, but do not sacrifice virtue to get it – and remember that there are things in life compared to which money, in any currency, has zero value.

In sum, don’t seek money or honour for their own sakes; and if they come as a by-product of hard work and a good character, use them wisely.

A timely reminder for 2016 from Adamson that Aristotle’s Ethics are a more than decent guide to working (as well as wider) life.

  
  

A problem shared

 

Lots to learn and lots to figure out in my new job – I’m dreaming complex organisational structures most nights; and in truth, I’d rather not be. But the most important lesson of all is… even if not halved; a problem shared is a problem better understood.

Three people greatly helped me with my problems this week. Not by changing anything about the real world situation; but by taking time, listening, showing concern and helping me to describe what is happening. 

It’s a rare person indeed who is prepared to properly care; so I’m very lucky indeed to have access to a handful of exceptional people with great life experience and insight who really do. 

None of these people are ‘friends’ in the classic modern description: they’re not people I’ve known since schooldays, inflict my family on or go on holidays with. They’re all people I’ve met in a variety of work situations. 

None of them know each other – I don’t even know if they’d get on. But my life is enriched and any problems I have (and there are usually one or two) are reduced by talking to any one of them.

Someone I also saw this week – whose professional life went badly wrong once – asked me if I had anyone to talk to about where I’m at; any kind of support network? 

I smiled inwardly at that. The answer is an unequivocal yes. I have some very special people, who will always listen and help me to a better place.

A problem shared with these remarkable friends, really is a problem halved.

Ladybirds

  
After a wonderful week of goodbyes, this morning, I feel my ladybird has begun to peep its head out from the proverbial matchbox (see my leaving card above); to see a bigger world and a brighter future.

I’ve been working in or adjacent to government for nearly 15 years. And while Aristotle felt politics to be the highest of human endeavours, a quick scan through these quotes of his pretty much covers the many pitfalls.

  
Yesterday I crossed a new bridge to work – Waterloo instead of Westminster; and spent the afternoon at a ‘freshers fair’ watching excited new students sign up for everything from touch frisbee to Russian Club. My new university life came to life.

And today the sun is shining. It’s all change – but a good one I feel sure.

Sacks and Seneca

  

A very autumnal feel to this week; in lots of different ways. It’s back to school for all of us: big school for one; a new class for the other; and very soon a whole new place of work for me.

As the kids accelerate forwards, I’ve been mostly looking back this week; at eight years of corporate memory. I’m methodically archiving, filing and mostly deleting my electronic back catalogue. No-one else is going to be that interested. Little that has been done before works exactly the same way again. 

But what sticks – looking at the better part of a decade of pronouncements, presentations, reviews, restructures and change programmes – is that many things have got a whole lot better; but the fundamental issues have hardly changed at all. 

And perhaps that’s the lesson, as I move onto the next; and next week clock up another year closer to 50… most of the big things in human affairs stay pretty much the same over the sweep of history.

A wise associate of mine, sent me the later life and closing thoughts of Oliver Sacks yesterday, from the New York Times; here:

The joy of old age (no kidding).

And 

My own life 

I replied:

“These are incredibly moving. This is how I want to live my older years and then ‘rise, satisfied, from the banquet of life’ as Seneca had it. This is the most important and defining thing of all – how we face death and then make the most of life.”

Easier said than done of course – and shame on me; the ‘banquet of life’ is Aristotle’s quote: 

“It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.”

But Seneca’s reflections ‘on the shortness of life’, precised here, are timeless too:

 Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. 

But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. 

Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.   

Wise words.