POEM: Epictetus & the Gentleman

Epictetus asked a man if he was free.

“I own land, can vote, and am deemed gentry.”

“But are you free?” the stoic repeated.

“Are you daft?” the man’s words came out heated.

 

And in that outburst the truth was revealed.

 

POEM: Forced Philosophizing

Life makes philosophers of us all.

You’re forced to decide how you will know your truth.

And it is “your truth,” or “my truth.”

We are powerless to determine THE truth, having only a limited capacity to even discern it.

“Your truth” is the concoction of fact and fiction by which you dance through life.

Now, you may say,

“Life may force me to be a liar, a whore, and a scoundrel, but I’ll never stand for it to make me a philosopher!”

Maybe you think you can side-step philosophy by taking answers straight from science, scripture, or lockstep walking with your tribe, but making that decision has still forced you to philosophize.

No matter what default you choose, knowledge of truth will remain limited and sometimes faulty.

I favor holding truths like an intact bird’s egg found fallen out of a nest — careful not to grasp too tightly for fear of either crushing it or having a misidentified velociraptor chick pop out and bite off my thumb.

I can’t say that this is a better approach than those who hold truths in the way of a rodeo rider with a dislocated elbow and shoulder who — never-the-less — stayed his eight.

It’s not just in matters of truth and knowledge that we are forced to philosophize.

One also has to determine what constitutes a virtuous life, and to what degree one finds chasing said path worth the effort. Again, the choice to outsource future thought to a holy book is still an act of philosophizing.

I understand that most people don’t want to be seen as a philosopher anymore than than they would want to be seen as a masochist — a lifestyle which bears something in common with philosophy.

After all, the philosopher is one who insists on engaging in rigorous and tedious thought on subjects that offer no right answers — just a huge slate of equally least-worst options.

If she wanted to engage in such thought AND uncover the right answer, she’d be a scientist.

If he wanted to wax eloquent on his love of living in the dark, he’d study language or literature.

But the philosopher likes his thought like he likes his tragic figures of Greek mythology –Sisyphean.

BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

Book of WordsBook of Words by Abay Kunanbayev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Book of Words is a collection of 45 short essays by Abay Kunanbayev (1845 – 1904), one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent men of letters. Abay is known both as a poet and philosopher. This book includes more prose philosophy than poetry, though it does contain a few lines in verse.

I picked this book up while traveling in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that much of the book is a rant against the Kazakhs of Abay’s day. The book advocates for individuals to be both more scholarly, more virtuous, and more piously religious, and it skewers Kazakhs as simpletons who only care about the size and state of their livestock herds and the wealth that said herds can bring them. It’s eloquently written, but there’s not much more to it than that. With his Book of Words, Abay is trying to goad the Kazakh’s into being more virtuous and well-read. Judging from both the prominence of his name in Almaty (a huge statue, a major road, and one of the Metro stops named for him) and the success seen in Almaty, many Kazakhs probably took his words to heart.

There was a forward by someone named Nursultan Umbetov who is living, but far less famous (internationally, at least) than Kunanbayev. However, that front matter is the only ancillary matter for the edition I read. It does have explanatory footnotes where necessary to clarify something that wouldn’t make sense to non-Kazakhs.

If you want to gain insight into Kazakh culture, and how it’s changed since the 19th century, this book is worth reading. Much of the book may be viewed as trite truisms rather than earth-shattering wisdom, but it’s concise and well-articulated.

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BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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Wu Wei Haiku

don’t debate dolts
they’ll remain half-wits
after you’re spent

flex in wind
and rebound in calm
all in time

glide to dive
the hawk’s fearsome show?
gravity’s work

wise farmers
wait to do watering
eyes to clouds

mute traders
get extra carrots
for silence

5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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