On Philosophy

It has been said that while science can provide the hows, only philosophy can provide the whys.

Soichiro Honda (the college dropout who founded Honda Motor Company) is quoted as saying "Action without philosophy is a lethal weapon.  Philosophy without action is useless."


Classical Stoicism of Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius pointed out that it is no good to stay in your ivory tower so to speak - you must do your duty as a human being to mix it up in the public sphere.


When Cicero found his buddy Julius Caesar to be behaving in a way that seriously threatened the life of the then centuries-old Roman Republic, he spoke out literally and in letters against Caesar at the eventual cost of his own life.  But his becoming dead didn't make him a bad person, it only made him dead - simply unable to continue good deeds on his own.


In contrast to Classical Epicurean philosophy, Stoicism points out that there is no common sense in any idea that we exist for the purpose of absorbing pleasure.  Look around you at the various other creatures of nature doing acts appropriate to them, Marcus Aurelius says, and note that you as a human being should thereby do the acts appropriate to a human being.  He points out that we were given our high-powered noggins to do good, however pleasurable it may be to lounge in bed on a cold winter morning as he also points out.


Practical study and application of philosophy is a journey - there is no special endpoint where you can then declare "I am a philosopher."  If one did say such a thing, anyone honestly familiar with philosophy would simply chuckle and gently point out that you might have a long ways to go.


While a "stoic" person in the modern usage could be described as "emotionless" or even "wooden", a Stoic person on the other hand tends to have a sharp wit, a ready smile and plenty of honest cheer for everyone.  A Stoic would consider an emotionless, wooden person to be unfortunately dead inside, seemingly incapable of self-reflection, and therefore basically without thought - someone who has decided for some reason or other to fail to do his duty as a human being.


So how does any of this relate to the Transition movement?


Classical Stoicism cuts through gibberish like a hot knife though butter.  It's from an age where specific wild herbs were well known for their individual health-helping properties.  They couldn't simply dig seemingly endless fuel deep out of the ground and burn it to say, run air conditioning on a cool summer morning as many do today, but understood instead that they had to work with nature.  Despite its legacy as a military empire with fantastic roads, cities and architecture, the Greco-Roman world was a bronze age agricultural society very closely linked out of necessity to nature.


I personally consider the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to be relentlessly honest and ruthlessly level-headed.  It reads like the advice of very wise and kindly though world-weary old grandfather (great for advice in stress management).  It's simply his personal notes to himself amazingly preserved across the millennia.


He in turn learned Stoicism from Epictetus, well-known for his Discourses and the summary known as the Handbook (Enchiridion).  Much of Stoicism goes straight back to Socrates.


Much of Stoicism regards dealing with obstacles.  Whenever I open my email inbox I'm flooded with news that we're cooking the planet, flooding coastal areas, causing a mass extinction event, and we must instantly give money (preferably hundreds of dollars) right now to several causes several times every day to block The Unthinkable.  It all seems perhaps a bit much to deal with at times.  So ok, there are obstacles to having a peaceful, sustainable world as things are now.  So how do we deal with obstacles?  Here's one idea.


Meditations, Book IV, George Long translation:


That which rules within, when it is according to nature, is so affected with respect to the events which happen, that it always easily adapts itself to that which is and is presented to it. For it requires no definite material, but it moves towards its purpose, under certain conditions however; and it makes a material for itself out of that which opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it, by which a small light would have been extinguished: but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter which is heaped on it, and consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.


So you simply use obstacles as fuel to get through those very obstacles.


When one has an absence of one thing, one has a presence of another corresponding thing, and so there are pros and cons in everything.  You use what you have (once you figure out what it is you truly have) to get done what needs to get done, and are grateful for the opportunity.

Meditations, Book II, paragraph 1, George Long translation: 


Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Roger Twitchell,
Jul 2, 2014, 6:35 AM
Roger Twitchell,
Jul 2, 2014, 6:36 AM
Roger Twitchell,
Jul 2, 2014, 6:33 AM