Enter Epictetus

So those of you who have been reading or following my journey thus far will have noticed a bit of an old habit of returning to Marcus Aurelius when in need of wisdom or soundbite. Moving onwards, while perhaps I should persevere with Seneca, I’m becoming a little bogged down in the details of Roman politics for my liking and shall be changing course. Like the title suggests: enter Epictetus.

I was out for lunch with a family member today discussing the usual things you do with family being primarily career and starting a family of my own and the question of when either things will ever come together. In my initial flicking through of Epictetus, I landed on a section that, another gift from Universe, spoke to me almost directly through the centuries. It’s a fresh page yet to be covered in my pencil scribbles, a reprieve only until I remember to get pencils next time I’m at the shop.

“Everyone has preconceptions. And one preconception does not contradict another. I mean, who of us does not assume that what is good is beneficial and choice, in all cases to be desired and pursued? Who of us does not assume that justice is fair and appropriate? So where does conflict come in? In the application of preconceptions to particular cases. One person, for instance, will say, ‘Well done, there’s a brave man,’ while another says, ‘He isn’t brave, he’s just deranged.’ This is how conflict originates and it is the source of difference amongst Jews, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans. They don’t dispute that what is holy should be preferred above everything else and in every case pursued; but they argue, for example, over whether it is holy or unholy to eat pork.” – Discourses and Selected Writings, 1.22

What we seek is the same from person to person: happiness and enlightenment. Yet preconceptions from person to person dictate the road taken to those goals or who we go with. It’s the similar argument of to be vaccinated or not to be with either camp declaring bravery or madness. Similarly, the heart citing bravery for clinging onto concepts of togetherness with someone while the brain scoffs – that one being a conflict of preconceptions rather than contradiction. Both want the same thing – harmony not chaos.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

Through preconceptions, we dictate, much like the various religions what is holy or unholy to us and in those dications, we are collectivist. Yet in the finer details, the individual experience and impression is absolute law. When we see this, in all of us, in all things, we can witness the greater harmony of the Whole and see a fuller picture of a united humanity.

In our own lives, we all strive for the same core things that fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualisation. The finer points, those nitty gritty things in the abstract are entirely arbitrary to the grander scheme of things. But in those points, we carve parts of life out for ourselves and make it our own with the stories and scars that leave an impression on us.

So, to answer the question that I dodged from my grandmother:

No things didn’t workout with person X, and I am in fact losing interest in career Y, but my needs are well on their way of being fulfilled all the same. Preconceptions of success that are not my own preconceptions have no bearing on that. Why would they have bearing on anyone? Of course that’s easy to say, with people experience enormous pressure to achieve someone else’s ideas of success not being a uncommon story. Then we ask ourselves, what are our preconceptions? What are our ideals? Who are we? Who am I?

Ask yourself.

Go on.


Cod on Fridays

While not being a particularly religious family, we seem to make a point of having fish and chips on a Friday.

It’s funny how one dish can be both relate to one of the most famous Christian stories of all time as well as being the last meal of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, Mary Ann Nichols. It’s a thought that amused me on my way back from the shop while I was distracted marvelling at Orion in the night sky. It’s amazing, that reverence human beings put on the things that in reality have no intrinsic meaning behind them. Would the fish feel any comfort knowing that it’s death has some esoteric spiritual teaching or that perhaps a distant ancestor was eaten by a murder victim?

My cat didn’t seem to care. It tasted good; that was all she needed to know.

Hypothetically: the vegetable oil used to fry the fish and cook the chips is from a farm that used to be a graveyard or was the site of some grand Cromwellian battle. The same raw materials in those bones in the ground helped give life to the corn, sunflower, soy (etc) also just battered a fish. Would the roundhead or cavalier who so valiantly fought and died for a cause feel any better about their death knowing that their sacrifice paved the way for a satisfying Friday night? Okay, sure, it needed a little ketchup – sue me.

I don’t think it’s a morbid thought, I think it’s quite amusing. In fact its rather hopeful that even in death we serve each other, even in the most minor and ridiculous ways possible. Epictetus said:

“You are a soul carrying around a corpse.”

If fish are capable of souls – which I think would be reasonable as sentient organic creatures made of the same stuff as we humans -, I’ve got to give it to this particular cod that it’s corpse was damn tasty. Personally, while I’m not sure about the idea of my corpse being eaten, would I care? In the coming Fallout: New Vegas/Mad Max /Walking Dead/Waterworld apocalypse, I think I’d be rather contented with the idea that some wasteland scavenger has a full belly and a contented disposition. With any luck I’d be as tasty as the cod.

For those wondering, my cat was so pleased herself that she took herself for a post-dinner nap:

(gratuitous cat image)

I’d like to take this moment to thank the fish for providing me with a fun thought and content for my blog. May God bless your service. Here I should insert a cover of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid played by a funeral band. “Something in the Way” by Nirvana seems insensitive.


The difference between anger and conviction

I was going to write tonight about the Jedi and the similarities to religion and philosophy. It was going to be this rather relaxed self-discussion about its merits and applications.

Instead, tonight there was an incident which has been described as me having an outburst.

“Did you hear about the guy who got sent down for beating up this pedo who was going to meet up with his little girl?” – X

“No, but that sucks. Unfortunately the way the law works though and how the police will see it is that they can’t prosecute a crime yet to be committed.” – Z

“Well I just fucking hope you don’t have a daughter!” – X

“No, that’s enough. That’s statement’s wrong and I’m drawing a line, I’m not having that.” – Z

“[mumbles and pulling of faces, lots of expletives]” – X

“With statements like that, if I did, I’m not sure I’d want you to meet her.” – Z

In this situation, I am Z. In the moment, I didn’t feel anger nor did I feel any particular sense of imminent danger towards a hypothetical daughter. I didn’t even raise my voice to the man who himself has no biological children. My statements were holding true to a personal integrity, to a sense of conviction. If I did have a daughter, would I expose her to that sort of angry attitude? Sure enough the topic of conversation was an ethical dilemma and I can’t fault X for being protective of children. Yet I felt compelled to defend my personal conviction that the truth of a situation – being the statement I gave about the law – should not be met with blind anger and strawman arguments. This is to say the child abuser in this headline of a story wasn’t investigated and faced justice. I’ll never know, this is one of those “did you hear about …” Facebook news verbal repost.

Those who might accuse me of being cold in this position, may never have seen the film Minority Report which goes into why that sort of rationale is very slippery slope. I’m not defending the persons involved in the story, I expressed my genuine empathy for the situation. While I’m sure cases like this do exist, to be honest I wasn’t going to find myself too invested in a vague soundbite from an unreliable narrator.

X stormed off and Y (another party in this situation) accused me of being unnecessary and disrespectful, all the while X shouted incoherently from the other room. She said this was an outburst and I had caused drama. The latter half of that was true as X turned on Y for not defending him and Y said she did and it all erupted into a screaming match. While it wasn’t the preferable outcome and I empathize for Y’s situation that I have now put her in, I’m secure in what I said.

I think that’s a key issue however with perception of emotion rather than genuine emotion felt. In that moment, I treated X like he was a unruly student who needed a firm line – with some personal flavour at the end, granted. With personal integrity and conviction with good without flicker of malice intent being the only true measure to ones own virtue, in defending such a position I don’t think it can be considered as a show of anger. Yet the optics told a different story. It’s another lesson for me on clarity of communication.

Marcus Aurelius said:

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself

By all accounts I failed this particular teaching. Yet, what’s the point of integrity if it’s not upheld? It was Epictetus who said:

“Whenever externals are more important to you than your own integrity, then be prepared to serve them the remainder of your life”

What is integrity but conviction upheld? What is anger but an admission of fractured integrity?