Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.
| Desiderata, Max Ehrmann
The Greeks regarded sophrosyne (soh-fruh-SOO-nay), generally translated somewhat unsuccessfully as “moderation” or “temperance,” to be among the highest virtues that a person could achieve. Plato explores it at length in his dialogue, Charmides, where it appears to be related to grace, self-awareness, humility, respect for human limitations, the pursuit of excellence, self-possession, rationality, love for truth, social conscience, and conformity with the principles of harmony and proportion—all aspects of a character in which the various elements of wisdom (sophia) are brought together (syne).
In the political arena, Plato goes as far as asserting in the Republic that the city-state would never be free of evil until philosophers became kings or kings embodied the spirit of philosophy. Since philosophy is “the love of wisdom,” and sophrosyne is the coming together of the various qualities associated with the practice of wisdom, this amounts to saying that the city-state would be in harmony only if those in positions of power were self-possessed, mature, humble individuals guided by reason and an overriding concern for the common good. Wisdom, then, would be the North Star and compass heading to guide the ship of state across the often tumultuous sea of political life. By that reckoning, those who are pugnacious by nature, who prize winning above all else would be unfit to lead the people, as would those for whom profit is the highest priority. Put another way, a CEO may pilot a company to market dominance and enormous profitability without a shred of wisdom. Apart from having to answer to a board of directors and perhaps indirectly to shareholders, CEOs operate much like kings, often despots, with no checks on the power they wield save those imposed by conscience. In far too many companies, the CEO rules as though without conscience, and much harm is done as a result, proving that profitability is no more a measure of the condition of a company’s soul than it is of an individual’s. Amazon, for example, is by far one of the wealthiest, most recognized companies in the world, yet on Jeff Bezos’s watch, it has been guilty of imposing sweatshop conditions in its warehouses so severe that some workers have lost their lives, hate groups have been allowed to market products that promote racism and incite to violence, and like many multinational corporations, Amazon has managed to monopolize whole industries, routinely violate the privacy of its users, and evade paying its fair share of taxes. So much for concern for the common good.
One could say fairly that companies such as Amazon are the inevitable result of organizational leadership absent philosophical vision and values. The problem becomes even more serious when the same failings of character infiltrate government, where power is concentrated, and reckless decisions may cost people their health, their families, their civil liberties, even their lives. Such is the evil that those without wisdom can do without so much as turning their head.
Deficiencies of this sort abound in varying degrees. In 1968, Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis founder Eric Berne, devised what subsequently became known as the Drama Triangle, a social model comprising three destructive roles that many adopt in dealing with conflict: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Thousands of philosophical counseling sessions have shown that these three are the favorite personae of the disordered soul, and that the simple awareness and rejection of these roles can go a long way in restoring sophrosyne. The Drama Triangle is something of a Bermuda Triangle of the psyche. Good things get lost there. Without sophrosyne, without self-possession and the humility that recognizes and accepts and works with human limitations, even our victories soon turn against us. This may be the basis of the ancient spiritual idea that the gods favor the humble person, and that pride—hubris, in the Greek view—goeth before a fall, leading inevitably to suffering and tragedy. All three drama-roles depend on a reactive stance that is barely conscious, highly opinionated, and resistant to instruction until years of misery have sufficiently pounded and softened the clay. When we are immersed in the role of the victim, the persecutor, or the rescuer, we are not present. The images of our past woundings project onto the screen of experience like Plato’s shadows on the fire-lit wall of the cave, so that we cannot see things as they are. Victims, for example, do not see their complicity in their incessant trials; persecutors are blind to the innocence of those they are convinced mean them harm; rescuers rush in to “help” with no awareness that they are running roughshod over essential boundaries and robbing those they would help of life lessons needed for the cultivation of responsibility, agency, and self-respect. As long as we continue to engage from within the Drama Triangle, now victim, now persecutor, now rescuer, life remains unsympathetic, unfair, a relentless repetition of missteps and misfortune.
There is a way out. In matters of the disordered soul that is not yet beyond rehabilitating, a little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing more is required than the willingness to begin practicing self-awareness, so that we can come out of immersion in destructive roles and hold up a hand to them. No, we must begin to say to the constricted self we have been, I have given you too much of my life. I will accept responsibility for my suffering and quit playing the victim. I will persecute no one, for each carries a burden, and each is caught up in a story that may well be more painful than my own. I will abandon the futile vocation of rescuing others, since when I am truthful with myself and with them, I know that I am in no position to determine or dictate what they need, and even with the best of intentions, I am more likely to interfere and earn resentment than I am to save them. I choose, then, to save the one person I can—myself. And soon, practicing this humility, this acknowledgment and honoring of limitations, this truthfulness, we shake off the strangulating coils of drama, come back to our better nature and the living present, and discover firsthand why the ancients valued sophrosyne above all else.
12 October, 2019
The populist mandate of “me first,” adopted largely as the politics of xenophobia, has been touted as great, as in “make America great again,” but when one sees through the thin rhetoric, it comes down to selfishness pure and simple—the glorification of the individual at the expense of the common good, and worse, of particular individuals shameless enough to game the system unconstrained by conscience, for whom “the deal” is all that matters, who lie and cheat and steal by rote, and most despicably, who regard themselves as supremely entitled and above the law. Such “greatness” is the stance of swindlers, of those who recognize no cause beyond immediate gratification and perpetual self-aggrandizement. The world has always known such people—the Greeks called them “idiotes”—those who lived for themselves alone with no concern for the welfare of others, but the problem is far more serious now than it was in ancient Athens, for we have reached a point in human history when the price of this brand of so-called greatness is swiftly carrying us to the point of no return, a point when the survival of our planet and life itself hangs in the balance, and we are running out of time.
Let us be clear. Whatever constitutes human or national greatness, there is nothing of it to be found in pettiness. There is nothing great about name-calling, bullying, pushing to the head of the line, the cruel sundering of families, brutal indifference to the suffering of the poor, the sowing of the seeds of hatred, winning at all costs, or turning a blind eye while the planetary weather system, inflamed and teetering out of balance, continues to swallow up lives and property in runaway storms and floods, rising sea levels, and the extinction of entire species. Greatness has nothing to do with racism, misogyny, intolerance for those from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds than one’s own or those whose gender or sexual identity sets them apart from the mainstream. Seizing on these differences to incite those who have been exploited by late capitalism to scapegoating and violence is the sign of what Plato called a “disordered soul,” and there is nothing great about it other than its capacity for doing harm. In extreme cases, the disordered soul becomes deformed and, as Aristotle states, can no longer be rehabilitated. Drowning in hubris, which the Greeks considered the most heinous failing of character, such tragic figures become the architects of their own destruction.
Greta Thunberg would be regarded by the Greek philosophers as heroic. Even at the young age of 16, in her recent address to world leaders at the United Nations, she demonstrated the character traits of courage, a deep concern for the common good, and a passionate and unwavering commitment to voicing a difficult truth. Particularly in her reference to “fairy tales of unlimited economic growth,” she leveled an indictment against those whose narrow self-interest has led them to plunder the world’s resources with no regard even for their own children and grandchildren. What better, more beautiful, more truthful, or more appropriate response could there be to such reckless irresponsibility than Greta’s rhetorical, “How dare you?”
It is a question that we all had better start asking our leaders. The evidence of the catastrophic effects of climate change are all around us and closing in. It is a fact no rational person can deny. If we elect the worst among us, we become complicit in the consequences of their unchecked and politically empowered selfishness. Never before in our history has it been more important to bring the governance of nations into collaboration for the common good. The “greatness” promoted by populism is lethal, for as the saying has it, we’re all in this together. Native American wisdom warned us centuries ago that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Let us resolve not to test the resilience of the ecosystem we share any further. Considerable damage already has been done; it is a matter now of doing all we can to minimize that damage in the hope that the environment can recover, and that life, which emerged on this planet through some inscrutable ingenuity eons before there were deal-makers, can be preserved for the generations to come.
24 September, 2019
Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, “You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one—whether the impression relates to those things that are within your power, or those that aren’t within your power; and if it relates to anything not within your power, be ready to reply, “That is nothing to me.”
| Epictetus, Enchiridion
Philosophy is all about wisdom, and not wisdom in some esoteric sense removed from everyday life but practical wisdom—common sense, good judgment, discernment, self-possession, reasonableness, and other such qualities worth admiring and emulating. The Greeks called such wisdom “phronesis,” a term that summarized living so skillfully that one’s life becomes like a work of art. About a century after Socrates, the Stoics added courage, justice, and temperance to wisdom, but as Marcus Aurelius noted, wisdom in the sense of phronesis really implies the other three, for if we are wise in this practical sense, then it follows that we will demonstrate the courage to be truthful even when doing so may cost us personally, the justice that responds to situations and others in appropriate measure, and the temperance that allows us to remain steady even in times of adversity—especially and centrally in Stoic thought, in the face of forces and conditions beyond our control.
Simply remembering to ask ourselves whether or not a situation involves forces that lie within our power or not can be saving, provided that we’re willing, as Epictetus advises, to make the only sane choice in those cases where effort on our part will be futile or worse, counterproductive—that is, to disengage and divest ourselves of all further concern over it. The Stoic declaration of “nothing to me” doesn’t mean that we don’t care, only that our caring is tempered by the wisdom to recognize when there is nothing more for us to do, and to refrain from blind reaction. Put another way, continuing to exert our will in situations that are, as the Stoics put it, “indifferent” to us is a kind of insanity, a denial of reality, and a failure method that can only leave us frustrated and spent. If we wish to be sane, to be wise, we will do what we can, then stop doing. In this release of the will, we leave room for unexpected solutions to make an appearance, and in any event, spare ourselves the punishing consequences of excessive, self-defeating effort. The “impression” presenting itself may convey a sense of urgency—but it makes no sense to undertake urgently what it lies beyond our power to undertake at all. In such cases, choosing to remain indifferent is inspired by wisdom and in this sense, divine. This is why Epictetus counsels us to repudiate such impressions, to deny any claim that believing in them would place upon us, and to respond to them with appropriate indifference.
Many clients come to philosophical counseling sessions suffering for no other reason than that they have unwittingly strayed across this boundary and become caught up in vain attempts to control what they cannot control—another person’s choices, circumstances that need more time to resolve, or conditions otherwise indifferent to their will. The more they try to force solutions, the more the situation resists them. It hardly occurs to them that they can step back, disengage, and ask the fundamental Stoic question, the truthful answer to which not only can restore us to sanity but also to the wisdom that recognizes when effort is misplaced. Even if we care greatly about a particular outcome, there is something liberating about shaking off the sleepwalk of willfulness and coming home to the simple truth that we have reached a limit, and now must leave the matter in the hands of life to work out.
If you find yourself facing a “disagreeable impression,” you may benefit greatly by asking yourself before taking action whether or not the thing lies within your power to control or influence. If it does not, the wise course is to turn away from it. It is not a matter of letting go, for if a situation lies beyond the reach of your will, it is not in your hands even to release. Circumstances as a rule unfold, and are rarely what they seem to be in the heat of the moment. By refraining from acting that is forced, precipitous, premature, or inappropriate, you not only will spare yourself and others considerable suffering, but also, by getting out of they way, will make room for a greater agency than human will to operate, and in a moment innocent of will and effort, when you have forgotten all about the matter, you may discover that an ingeniously favorable outcome has arrived unbidden.
27 August, 2019
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is written to be read beside the body of the newly departed with the aim of guiding the soul through the various bardos or regions of existence between death and rebirth. One of the recurring instructions in this remarkable manual urges the soul not to be taken in by apparitions that might distract it on the path of liberation from the karmic wheel and lure it back into the world of separation, impermanence, and suffering. If the soul allows itself to be seduced by these images, at some point, it begins to entertain sexual fantasies, whereupon it is drawn back into a womb, and the cycle begins again.
The after-death bardo stages are akin to dream states. When we’re immersed in a dream at night, as a rule, it doesn’t occur to us that we’re dreaming. The dream experience is convincing and seems as self-evidently real while we are dreaming it as do the events and encounters of our life when we are awake. Yet the people and situations that present themselves to us in our sleep are constructs of our consciousness. Having no existence apart from us, they are not real, at least in the classical sense, though we certainly may allow that they constitute real experience. This is an intriguing distinction—that we may have a real experience of something not real. A hallucination, which we might think of as a dream we can have while awake, is another example. A man with delirium tremens may “see” snakes slithering along his arms and legs that no one else sees. The snakes are imaginary, yet his experience of them is real enough to be terrifying. Immersed for the moment in this psychotic state, he has no access to the liberating wisdom that would remind him that what he is experiencing is not real, or as one associate of mine put it, under certain conditions, it’s normal to be crazy.
In the waking state no less than in the dream state, moving through the world, we project constructs of expectation, assumption, meaning, and intention that appear real and independent of us. It hardly occurs to us that we are seeing the world, in the words of Anaïs Nin, not as it is but as we are. “Hallucination” is a more radical and unsettling word than “construct,” but it is not overstating the matter to say that when we are immersed in these states, we are in a sense hallucinating or dreaming. Much of philosophical counseling involves piercing the veil of unexamined assumption and exposing these constructs as such, not as inherent features of reality but as features of the projected reality we have, wittingly or unwittingly, chosen or accepted. By deconstructing them, we are able to provide something like the transcendent perspective encouraged in the Tibetan guidebook, only in this case for the living. The experience for the client in session is not unlike waking up from a dream, and seeing things as they are for the first time.
Often, these constructs contain overlays that distort reality, leading to experiences that then “prove” or reinforce them so that we end up reincarnating into the same situation, the same bad relationship, the same financial crisis or health issue again and again, never suspecting that we ourselves are the cause. In such cases, and especially when we have reached the end of our will to cope with these problems, philosophical dialogue can be saving, because the counselor is not immersed in the client’s hallucination, and can call him or her out of the construct so that the client can relate to it rather than from it. When we can catch a hallucination in the act, as it were, it loses its credibility, and we can begin to move through our dramatic infatuation with it to the higher ground of a clear discernment of reality. As with the soul navigating the bardo states, the effect can be immediately liberating.
Deconstructing reality is not for the fainthearted. It requires courage and the willingness to question elements of our experience that seem so obvious, it might never occur to us to question them. The codependent partner or parent whose reality demands that she “help” others even at the expense of self-care, trampling boundaries, never understanding why those she works to serve so selflessly invariably end up resenting her, may find it challenging to unpack the seemingly innocuous word “help” and be willing to relinquish the contradicted payoffs of enabling, but this is precisely what she must do if she is to emerge from her hallucination and return to reality. The martyr, the victim, the rescuer, the persecutor, the individual who must win at any cost, the one who cannot feel and so has no empathy—these are common hallucinatory states that give rise to suffering, to rebirth into the same, relentless circumstances despite all effort of the will to break free.
“We are near waking,” writes Novalis, “when we dream we are dreaming.” To understand and overcome our reality, we must understand and overcome ourselves. We must see through the convincing hallucinations that have had our unquestioning allegiance, and by refusing their claim on us, in the blink of an eye, wake up to the truth that has been waiting patiently within for us to come home.
26 July, 2019
I’ve suffered greatly in my life.
Most of what I suffered never happened.
The ancient Stoics understood that happiness depends not on what happens to us but on how we meet what happens. This crucial distinction in the great experiment of living what the Greeks called “the good life” arguably anticipated the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant and subsequently, the discovery of quantum entanglement—the idea that the world of objects and events is informed by us at a deep level of our consciousness, and thus does not exist “objectively” in the traditional sense of independently of us, that the experience is a priori shaped by the experiencer. Along these lines, Anaïs Nin writes, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
To the philosophically uninitiated, the Stoics, Kant, and quantum entanglement may seem far removed from everyday problems and concerns, but it takes no formal training in philosophy to understand that what one person suffers as setback or defeat, another will experience as direction, instruction, perhaps even the opportunity to rise to the occasion and prevail. Adversity calls us to courage, resilience, and perseverance, and it is often in enduring the worst that we discover the best in ourselves.
What accounts for this difference? Is it temperament? Mindset? Genetic predisposition? Luck? Why, when facing a serious illness or other crisis, will some succumb while others rally their resources and recover? What impact do our beliefs and assumptions have on the outcome? Can they beat the odds dealt by the hand of fate—and if so, how?
During philosophical counseling sessions, I listen not just to what clients say but also to how they say it. This requires a dual awareness that is simultaneously focused and expanded, which allows me to attend to form as well as content. Most of the direction for the session comes from this formal depth through, surfacing in such elements as pace, implications, tone, asides, and so on. Of these, one of the most revealing is the “volume” of dramatic charge, i.e., whether the client’s assessment or reaction to a situation is proportionate or exaggerated. Sometimes, the client is habituated to high level of drama, often characterized by a readiness to blame others, adopt a victim stance, or play the rescuer. Drama, of course, is predicated on conflict, so someone with a need for a lot of drama is always having to put out one fire or another and consequently may come to feel that fate is going out of its way to make life hard, that he or she can’t catch a break, and so on, which adds another layer of drama, and so on. Once the client is aware of this unwitting commitment to drama, it becomes possible to interrupt the self-escalating cycle, turn down the volume, and refuse the old inner promptings. The rush of whitewater emotion that used to trigger constriction, doom thinking, and overreaction abates, and situations become what they always were, nothing more.
Living with the volume cranked up to level ten is so exhausting, we may wonder why anyone would be willing to live in the constricted state of perpetual dramatizing. But we need to remember here that the histrionic stance is as a rule unwitting. “Drama queens” believe and so experience that the intensity of the relentless conflicts that seem to dog them is not of their own making. Because they do not see the decisive part they are playing in causing and perpetuating their suffering, it seems to them to be “out there,” objective, a feature of reality, and they often feel that life has singled them out for misfortune. Jung tells us that what we do not bring into conscious awareness always seems to come to us as fate. Through the willingness to examine unexamined assumptions, we come to see that the hands about our throat were our own, that nothing was doing anything to us, that we were doing it to ourselves all along, and that life had no choice but to fulfill our requirements.
26 June, 2019
The ancient Greeks regarded the Good, along with Truth and Beauty, as attributes of the divine. Like three facets of a diamond, these qualities belonged to each other, a philosophical view that led to the development of the “virtue ethics” of Socrates and later, the Stoics, and to the Greek ideal of phronesis—a term that denoted living one’s life with the sort of practical wisdom that imbues it with the beauty we might associate with a work of art. To this day, the values of goodness and truth inhere in our sense of what it means to live well, and even those who seem tone deaf to the virtues espoused by the Greeks such as humility, courage, temperance, social responsibility, and so on—most notably those in positions of political power and influence—do so under cover of lies and dissembling, thus confessing that at some level, even they are aware that it is prudent to at least give the appearance of acting in service to the good. The truth, however, is not so easily cast aside, for hubris, lies, and hypocrisy have a bad smell that cannot be concealed for long. This is the lesson brought home by the great Greek tragedies. Those who foolishly exaggerate the power of their will and flout what is true and good and beautiful unwittingly create a culture of ugliness that eventually turns on and destroys itself.
For many of us, good never seems to be good enough. The saying, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet,” reminds us to be grateful for the good that is ours. Without a measure of such gratitude, we may find ourselves chasing happiness, believing it to be ever somewhere else, and squander our days missing the sometimes transforming truth that there already is much in our lives that is good and beautiful. Remembering to appreciate the good that life has brought to us is indispensable to living well, a gem of wisdom that led the 13th century mystic Meister Elkhart to declare, “If your only prayer were ‘thank you,’ it would be sufficient.” Along these lines, Voltaire offers this cautionary observation: “Better is the enemy of good.”
Of course, good is also the enemy of better. This has to do with the downside of comfort zones, becoming complacent, settling for the merely acceptable, and so on. Life evolves. It seeks to become more, express more, find new forms, and if it were not for this ontological restlessness that drives and prods and reaches for the stars, we might all be blue green algae swimming about in a stagnant primordial pool. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,” Browning reminds us. So, there is a balance between gratitude and striving, between the truthful acknowledgment of all we have accomplished and the gravitational pull of our dreams. Phronesis discerns and lives this balance, so that we never allow our contentment to make us complacent, nor our desire for more to make us victims of ingratitude.
I often work with clients who haven’t yet arrived at this discernment. Struggling with a decision to move to a new city, quit a job, end a relationship, or make some other big change, they bring to the session a list of reasons that make their current situation wrong—as though one has to condemn where one is standing in order to move to higher ground. It hasn’t occurred to them that they can appreciate where they are, be grateful for what it has brought them and taught them, see its value in the longer arc of the story of their life, and either make the change or not from a place of willingness and nonresistance. It is possible to move to a new city or job without hating the old one, to leave behind a situation that one has outgrown with a sense of appreciation for how it served. Good and better don’t have to be enemies.
As with so many aspects of phronesis, this comes down to a matter of moving with the currents of experience rather than against them—in this case, with both our present situation and the natural tension that calls us to be, achieve, and realize more. The living present doesn’t stand still; it moves on, urging us to follow, to strive naturally, not chasing anything but simply allowing, following, and trusting the inner imperative to evolve—in these choices, good and better converge, rekindling the enthusiasm of youth and illuminating the path of human flourishing.
25 May, 2019