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Friday, August 31, 2012

Meditations XIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“These two rules, thou must have always in a readiness. First, do nothing at all, but what reason proceeding from that regal and supreme part, shall for the good and benefit of men, suggest unto thee. And secondly, if any man that is present shall be able to rectify thee or to turn thee from some erroneous persuasion, that thou be always ready to change thy mind, and this change to proceed, not from any respect of any pleasure or credit thereon depending, but always from some probable apparent ground of justice, or of some public good thereby to be furthered; or from some other such inducement.”

Brilliant! Two rules: 

1) do what is in line with the common good; 
2) when someone points out to you that you're wrong, accept it, correct it, and move on. 

When I read humble advice like this, it is hard to believe that the man who wrote this ruled an empire, and yet, actually, it isn't, because perhaps Marcus Aurelius comes closest to the ideal of Plato's "philosopher king". (If you aren't familiar with Plato's idea of the "philosopher king", read "The Republic".)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Meditations XIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“...all these things, which now thou seest, shall within a very little while be changed, and be no more: and ever call to mind, how many changes and alterations in the world thou thyself hast already been an eyewitness of in thy time. This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.”

As the Greeks before him said, "Everything changes, nothing remains the same." I strive never to attach myself too strongly to anything that might not be around for too long. Think carefully before investing too much of yourself into anything, but once you find something you consider worthy of investing yourself in, give it your all!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meditations XII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“But the care of thine honour and reputation will perchance distract thee? How can that be, if thou dost look back, and consider both how quickly all things that are, are forgotten, and what an immense chaos of eternity was before, and will follow after all things: and the vanity of praise, and the inconstancy and variableness of human judgments and opinions, and the narrowness of the place, wherein it is limited and circumscribed? for the whole earth is but as one point; and of it, this inhabited part of it, is but a very little part; and of this part, how many in number, and what manner of men are they, that will commend thee? What remains then, but that thou often put in practice this kind of retiring of thyself, to this little part of thyself, and above all things, keep thyself from distraction, and intend not anything vehemently, but be free and consider all things, as a man whose proper object is Virtue, as a man whose true nature is to be kind and sociable, as a citizen, as a mortal creature.”

I find it ironic that this was written by a man who was so brilliant and whose "proper object" was virtue to the degree that he is well remembered 1900 years after his death, but there are so many who have not followed his advice and squandered their virtue and self to care for their "honour and reputation", but whose names have been swallowed by the chasm of history, never to be remembered.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Meditations XI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses.”

This can be the key to personal sanity for people with hectic lives, and it certainly has the ring of authenticity coming from one of the most industrious emperors of Rome at a time when the Roman Empire was a vast sprawling beast that required tremendous attention. If he could do this in the midst of his "affairs of state", as the emperor of what was one of the largest empires ever built, what excuse do the rest of us have?

Go within yourself sometime today, be at rest, and forget about your concerns for a few minutes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Meditations X

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Let nothing be done rashly and at random.”

This is so true. It reminds me of something I shared earlier from Thomas Jefferson, "If you're angry, count to ten before speaking; if you're really angry, count to 100." The things said and done quickly and without thought cannot be taken back, and are often regretted.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meditations IX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Use thine opinative faculty with all honour and respect.”

Words to live by...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Meditations VIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“For even the least things ought not to be done, without relation unto the end;”

I used this quote in an earlier post, talking about the philosophy of purpose, and interestingly, there was an editorial in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, by Richard Polt, that mentioned Aristotle's concept of the "final cause", meaning the goal or purpose of something. As we say in education, "Always start with the end in mind."

In fact, this was the secondary theme of my first day of class lecture at school: that we must always begin by identifying our purpose (which, obviously, in school is to learn), and then proceed from there. Thanks Marcus!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Meditations VII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“For although in regard of that which is already past there may be some inequality, yet that time which is now present and in being, is equal unto all men.”

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. The difference lies in how we use it!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Meditations VI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro.”

Amen! The pure pleasure and joy that can be derived from learning is unparalleled this side of Heaven. Nothing is more infectious than true understanding.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

First Day of School

"Knowledge is powerful. Once you have truly learned something, no one can take that knowledge away from you; it is yours forever. Once you decide that you want to learn something, no one has the power to stand between you and that knowledge; no one can keep you from learning anything. You will learn exactly as much as you are willing to work for. The act of learning, of coming to understand something new is an empowering act, and it is at the core of our humanity. We are homo sapiens. We learn." (Me, today in class)

If you read the passage above, you've captured the gist of my opening day lecture. I believe all students need to feel a sense of empowerment. They need to understand that they have agency in the world, and that their words, actions, and even beliefs have real impact on their local community, the people around them, and even the world. I spent time today talking about how empowering an authentic educational experience can be.

The beginning of school always gets me thinking about "education", its means and ends. I was thinking today about Andrew Abbott and his "Aims of Education" speech at the University of Chicago entitled "The Zen of Education". There are many good quotes from that speech, but I particularly like when he says that education doesn't have aims, it is the aim.

I teach high school students, and it is so very difficult to break-down their pre-conceptions of education from 8 years in "the system". They have such a strong "sit, get, and spit" mentality, and to talk with them about education as being a journey of self-discovery and intellectual liberation is a tough sell. They sit quietly, smiling and nodding, all the while thinking, "Just tell me what I need to do to get the grade so I can get out of here." Getting them to break through all that and embrace the experience and process is incredibly challenging. But I have all year...persistence often wins the day.

Meditations V

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Every man’s happiness depends from himself.”

How often do we hang our happiness on some transient element? How often do we allow the thoughts or opinions of others to guide our own feelings (particularly about ourselves)? This is a dangerous path. For me, I try to keep my joy in myself and my God. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Had to share one more...

I know this makes three posts in one day, but I have to post a link to a blog written by a friend of mine that just makes so much sense that it's worth sharing. The post is commentary on Rep. Akin's comments yesterday about rape. As always, she does a pretty good job of respecting both her heart and her head and expressing what's going on in them both with remarkable clarity. If you have time, pop over to her blog and check it out.

Click here to read the post.

Belated Feast of Saint Bernard!

Oops! School is starting back up, and so I spent all day yesterday in meetings (if you're not a teacher, the cause-and-effect element of the statement above may seem strange...if you are a teacher, then you get it). But yesterday was the feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, one of my favorite monks and writers. Here is one of my favorite St. Bernard quotes:

"JESUS is honey to the mouth, and music to the ear, and gladness to the heart."

Meditations IV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“A man might have applied that to him, which is recorded of Socrates, that he knew how to want, and to enjoy those things, in the want whereof, most men show themselves weak; and in the fruition, intemperate...”

This rings so true with me. Learn how to live lacking certain luxuries, and don't let the absence of these things weaken you. And when they come along, do not be intemperate with them. How often do we see people who are struggling financially win the lottery, and then a year later they are broke again, because they were intemperate when they finally had the money!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Meditations III

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“always, whether in the sharpest pains, or after the loss of a child, or in long diseases, to be still the same man...”

There are so many pressures in the modern world that urge us not to be authentic, not to be real and genuine with people (sometimes even with ourselves). We need to be reminded to be who we really are and be happy with that person, and never to hide or compromise or dilute our true selves.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meditations II

Continuing my series on Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“To read with diligence; not to rest satisfied with a light and superficial knowledge...”

Seek to understand deeply!

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Meditations" (Marcus Aurelius)

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from 161-180 AD. He was a very learned man and a noted stoic. His reflections (something of a personal journal) entitled "Meditations" are an excellent example of a brilliant man writing about his personal search for peace, happiness, and the "good" life.

I have SO many favorite quotes from this text, that rather than put them all into a single post, I'm going to try to post one quote from the "Meditations" each day; some quotes will come with commentary from me, and others will not. I think this will be a good way to really slow down and digest the wisdom contained in this text. So, let's begin with this little treasure:

“ endure labour; nor to need many things; when I have anything to do, to do it myself rather than by others; not to meddle with many businesses...” (Marcus Aurelius)

Here, he is speaking about how to be happy. There's much to reflect on here. I particularly like how he says that the good man does not have need of many things. A whole and happy person can live without a glut of items. In the United States right now there are some voices crying out in the wilderness against our culture of consumerism and commercialism. Marcus Aurelius would have been behind them. Throughout his meditations, he returns to this idea of how having too much stuff can keep us from focusing on what's most important in life.

Keep reading and check back tomorrow for more of Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations"!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Badminton, the Philosophy of Purpose, and Alfie Kohn

Part I: Olympic Badminton

So, with all the coverage of the Olympics, there has been one story that has really given me pause for consideration: the badminton cheating "scandal". If you're not familiar with the situation, it's pretty simple: some really good badminton teams intentionally lost matches (after they had ensured that they would advance to the next round) to get seeded against easier teams in the next round. Apparently the intentional losing was blatant with these elite badminton players (yes, I am fully aware of how ridiculous that phrase sounds) hitting shots into the net and wildly out-of-bounds. The teams were disqualified from further competition and sent home.

I would like to point out this simple fact: they were playing by the rules set-up by the IOC. Which is more ridiculous: a player who tries to lose in one match to improve her/his chances of advancing further in a tournament OR an organization that creates a tournament style that rewards losses and then complains when players throw games? The answer: they are equally ridiculous, and I expect more from the players and the IOC. For you Bogart fans out there, I liken the IOCs response to this "scandal" as follows: "I am SHOCKED, SHOCKED to find gambling in this establishment!"

Part II: The Philosophy of Purpose

One of the great legacies of ancient philosophy is the idea of "purpose" and how it should reflect our beliefs and guide our actions. As Marcus Aurelius, an emperor of Rome, once wrote, "For even the least things ought not to be done without relation unto the end." ("end" here means purpose or goal) I'm going to use this wonderful badminton situation as an example. One should always begin by saying: "Why am I doing this? What is my purpose?" When it comes to playing Olympic badminton, there are a few likely answers: 1) to win ; 2) to prove that I/my country am/is the best ; 3) because I LOVE my sport and my native country, and I want to play the best badminton I can play and continually improve my technique and skill through practice and play at high levels against other highly skilled players.

Okay...let's get serious, how many sports-people are actually driven by #3? Certainly not these athletes who got kicked out. (And I would go further and say that not many professional athletes in general are guided by reason #3.)

Thesis #1: If the IOC had examined players' purposes, they never would have set-up a tournament that rewards losing.

Thesis #2: If players really played their sport for reason #3 above, the world would be a better and happier place.

Part III: Alfie Kohn

Much of what Alfie Kohn says in "Punished by Rewards" (click here for an link) addresses this issue. Kohn essentially says that instead of teaching people to love what they do (be it sports, learning, work, reading, etc.) we bribe people to do what we want them to do, and when we do that we inherently devalue the thing itself. Allow me to give an example: John doesn't want to do his homework. So his mother says, "John, if you finish your homework I'll give you a cookie." John loves cookies, and so he does his homework and gets his cookie. Mom is happy and John is happy. John has also learned a valuable lesson from Mom: homework has no inherent value, it's only worth doing if he's going to get a cookie out of it (this could also transfer to the whole concept of school and learning, giving John the idea that knowledge has no value unless it "gets him something"). Oops! [By the way, John has also learned that his mother is more interested in controlling him than in helping him become an independent and self-regulating human being. The "control" factor of "rewards" (also known as bribes) is particularly pernicious and typically leads to resentment on the part of the person who was bribed.]

Let's apply Kohn's thinking to the badminton players: these players were not taught to love their sport (or respect themselves as sportsmen/sportswomen) and to constantly seek to improve their skill and challenge themselves; they were taught to win. Every win was congratulated and every loss was considered a failure. Unfortunately for them, losing is an important tool for improvement: it guides you along the pathway to better play. These players have been thoroughly trained to "win" at all costs. In the Olympics, what does it mean to "win"? Winning means getting the gold medal. Their thinking: "If losing this match, gets me an easier match in the next round, then I should lose this match, because it puts me in a better position to win the gold."

It might also be interesting to consider the implications of Kohn's "No Contest" (click here for an link) in the Olympics. Perhaps I'll consider that in a future post...

Keep reading!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thomas Jefferson...

I recently visited Monticello, toured the home of Thomas Jefferson, and was highly moved by what I read and found there. Jefferson was a man of such wide knowledge and consideration as to be inspirational. His academic training had been classical, and he was always grateful to his father for having instilled in him a love of classical authors and for having taught him how to read Greek and Latin. But he was no Miniver Cheevy; he was a man firmly of his own time. He read extensively, and taught himself much of what he knew. His thirst of knowledge was insatiable.

But perhaps more interesting than his thirst for knowledge was his application of it. He observed carefully his surroundings (taking detailed measurements of the natural environment around him and cataloguing those findings), and he read the ideas of many learned persons. But then he considered the implication of those ideas, and acted upon them. We can see this clearly in his text "The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" (1786). Here he takes action and proclaims a natural right according to what he has read and learned, and believes to be right, despite the fact that the ideas contained in this document were quite different from the historical reality throughout the world. This application of his learning is evident everywhere at Monticello, from the gardens (where he took extensive notes concerning his crops, tested theories on how to improve them, and applied his outcomes), to the ice house, to the interior architecture, the placement and design of windows (double paned for winter insulation), and skylights. He read, he learned, and he applied his knowledge to improve his own life and the life of his fellow citizens.

A few choice quotes from Jefferson seem appropriate at this point:

"The field of knowledge is the common property of all mankind."

"...truth is great and will prevail if left to herself..."

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

"A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

"And for the support of this Declaration [the Declaration of Independence], with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Misinterpretation and What We Can Learn from Mr. Romney

This is not a political blog. This is a blog about books, reading, and critical thinking. However, being a widely read individual and a responsible citizen who keeps up on current affairs, I often make connections between what I observe in the world and what I find in books. This intersects with the realm of politics, but my motivation for writing it is purely academic. First a disclaimer: I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I am not impressed with either of our presidential candidates this year. If President Obama had made the error I’m about to discuss, I would be writing the same post.
As it happens, the error was Mr. Romney’s. This letter, posted in the New York Times, and written by the brilliant scholar Jared Diamond (professor at the University of California, and author of Collapse, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and other insightful, thought-provoking books) details how Mr. Romney either read Diamond’s Gun, Germs, and Steel and completely misunderstood it, or referenced said text as supporting a piece of his foreign policy position, when, in fact, the text does not say what Mr. Romney claims it said.
So one of three things is true: 1) Mr. Romney did not understand Diamond’s work; 2) Mr. Romney understood it and deliberately twisted Diamond’s meaning to suit his own purposes; or 3) Mr. Romney has never read this book, but someone on his staff pulled quotes and references that seemed to give some support to Mr. Romney’s position and Mr. Romney blindly repeated the references without looking into it himself (and, dare I suggest, learning something!).
Whichever of the three options above happen to be true, I am pointing this out for young scholars everywhere, because this is a problem that I see among my students regularly: the failure to carefully read and consider what an author is saying before attempting to deputize her or him into one’s argument as supporting evidence. I teach high school, and one of the most common mistakes I see is the mistake of a student not carefully reading a text and fully understanding it before trying to make use of it in supporting, defending, or attacking a position.
For all young scholars, let this be an object lesson: we have a duty to authors and to ourselves to carefully and thoughtfully read any material we might want to examine or explore as we try to form an argument around a topic. Adler discusses this duty that reads have toward authors in a book I’ve already discussed on this blog How to Read a Book. His discussion of analytical reading and its importance is highlighted by this example. One of the reasons we read analytically is so that we can intelligently and accurately talk about an author’s ideas.
I once heard it said that a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Mr. Romney’s failure, can be a lesson to us all.