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: Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa

Crazy WisdomCrazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book collects the lessons of two seminars on crazy wisdom taught by Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. “Crazy Wisdom” is an awakened state of mind that was taught by Padmasambhava – the teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet from India. The two seminars consist of six and seven lessons, respectively. These thirteen lessons make up the chapters of the book. Each chapter consists mostly of a text discussion of the topic at hand, but with an interview at the end in which the teacher is asked to clarify points mentioned in the text or that are relevant to the topic under discussion.

The book starts with differentiating two approaches: trying to live up to what one would like to be (i.e. spiritual materialism), and trying to live what one is. While the former is a widespread phenomenon across many religions, it’s dismissed as not all that productive. Along the way, the book discusses how being childlike, ruthless, hopeless, fearless, and in touch with death can all have beneficial effects on the mind. Of course, one has to go about such things in a proscribed manner as it’s emphasized that crazy wisdom and being crazy aren’t identical states (even if they may share similar appearances in some instances.)

Like many books on wisdom, this one offers a mix of profound insight and a sort of double speak used to make profound-sounding but ineffable statements, or logically inconsistent statements, seem true and / or thought-provoking. A philosophizing style is employed rather than narrative style, and so it can read a bit blandly.

There are a few notes and several line-drawn artworks in the Tibetan Buddhist style, but otherwise it’s a straightforward text.

I found this book to be intriguing and to offer interesting food-for-thought. It’s a short book, but may be a bit challenging for a reader without a background in Tibetan Buddhism, or in Buddhism in general. If you’re interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, you should give it a read.

View all my reviews

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

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

Amazon page

 

“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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

BOOK REVIEW: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays by Ralph Waldo EmersonEssays by Ralph Waldo Emerson by Emerson Ralph Waldo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many collections of Emerson’s essays in publication – some more complete or more recently compiled – but the one under review here was originally published by the Charles E. Merrill Co. in 1907. It contains eleven essays, including selections from both Emerson’s First and Second Series. There are around 700 end-notes that provide points of clarification. The front matter includes a brief biographical statement on Emerson, a discussion of critical opinion of his work, and a list of his writings.

Rather than discuss the essays as a whole, I’ll describe each in turn.

1.) The American Scholar: a major theme in this essay is avoiding pretentiousness and not neglecting to see the virtue in the simple and unrefined.

2.) Compensation: Emerson had an interesting philosophy on this subject, believing that everything that belongs to one or which one ought to have will come to one. There is a Taoist feel to this essay, e.g. “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else: and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

3.) Self-Reliance: This is my favorite essay, hands down. It’s full of pithy, powerful, and quotable statements. e.g. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Even where it’s not so concise and quotable, it delivers important ideas.

4.) Friendship: There is a quote that I think is quite illustrative of Emerson’s thoughts on the subject: “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

5.) Heroism: Consistent with the ideas in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson proposes that the route to heroism is in trusting oneself and having inner confidence, rather than in trying to satisfy the dictates of society.

6.) Manners: Emerson was a fan of a polite and genteel nature. This may seem at odds with his general inclination to avoid pretension or elitism, but if one treats all people with polite respect, then these ideals do not conflict.

7.) Gifts: Related to the earlier essay on compensation, this piece decries getting caught up in giving opulent gifts and thinking it a grand virtue, while it doesn’t criticize gift giving all together.

8.) Nature: This is the subject that one likely most associates with Emerson and his friend and protégé, Thoreau. As one expects, Emerson suggests one spend more time in nature. Something interesting I found in this piece was his rebuke of pseudo-science. Not that it should be unexpected, but one must consider that the line between science and the occult wasn’t as fully formed as it is today and Emerson was a mystic. But consider this: “Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology become phrenology and palmistry.”

9.) Shakespeare; or, The Poet: While honoring Shakespeare, Emerson points out that our recognition of brilliance isn’t recognition of originality. e.g. “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

10.) Prudence: Emerson insists that sagacity in managing oneself and one’s affairs is crucial.

11.) Circles: This essay covers a lot of ground in dealing with topics that are cyclical – though they may seem progressive. In parts it reminds me of the portion of self-reliance that says “society is a wave,” and which goes on to explain how it’s not a matter of society steadily advancing because it recedes on one side as quickly as it gains on the other. This can be seen in a quote such as: “New arts destroy the old.” I think a quote that drives to the heart of not falling into the illusion of believing fashions of the moment are an invariable truth can be seen here: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with not past at my back.”

I highly recommend this collection of essays. Some have maintained greater relevance than others, but all offer some interesting food for thought.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

View all my reviews