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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Meditations LIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“‘No soul (saith he) is willingly bereft of the truth,’ and by consequent, neither of justice, or temperance, or kindness, and mildness; nor of anything that is of the same kind. It is most needful that you should always remember this. For so will you be far more gentle and moderate towards all men.”

This reminds me of a favorite quote of mine: "Be kinder that necessary; everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." There are so many different kinds of people in the world, and so many people live in very difficult circumstances. Whenever I encounter someone who seems lacking in "temperance, kindness, mildness", etc. as Aurelius points out, I try to remember that most people don't willingly choose to be that way. Most people aren't even conscious enough of their actions and words to direct them. Many people just react without thought. Their actions and their words flow from their inner dispositions. And to judge by the actions and words of some people, what's going on inside must be pretty dark. I always try to remember this when dealing with others. Many people are trapped inside themselves and can't escape their cycles of inner judgement and negativity.

So take it easy on somebody today. :) Cheers!

Monday, January 28, 2013

The American't Dream

I'm a big fan of Suli Breaks, a modern British poet, who composes thoughtful and artful videos. You can check him out at his website. Here's his latest:

I think he makes some great points about passion and the need to follow it. One of the things I notice in working with young people is a lack of passion. I don't think it's entirely their fault. Certainly our current system of education has to take some of the blame. And our vapid American culture which is so wrapped up in non-sense, and has so many young people glued to TV, their phones, and Facebook should take some of the blame.

Consider for a moment, what we do to children as a society: at a relatively young age (6 or so), we put them in "school". This supposedly educational experience mostly consists of spending the next 8 years sitting in a desk, memorizing "right" answers to prescribed questions, and then parroting them back on tests. Then as students enter high school, we claim that the "stakes are higher", because colleges will examine their high school transcripts, and their ACT scores, etc. In high school, much of the same continues to happen: students sit in desks, trying to be quiet, while teachers try to fill their heads with what they "need to know" to pass state exams and get into good colleges.

When in those years of schooling are we teaching students to criticize? When are we teaching them to think independently? When are we helping them to find their unique voices? When are we helping them learn to be creative? When are we teaching them how to be adaptive in an ever changing world? The list goes on. But it should be no surprise that our educational system is turning out young people without passion or creativity, who, as Suli says, have a "JOB" and not a career.

But at the end of the day, each of us can only control ourselves. And we're each ultimately responsible for ourselves and our own choices. This is essentially why I became a teacher, because I want to help students discover themselves and their abilities and their passions. I'd like for the next generation that we turn out to have a few students who are willing to challenge the status quo and pursue what they value. That, to me, seems to be the most important thing we can help students with: discovering themselves.

So, are you pursuing your dream? Because if you don't, someone else will hire you to help build theirs.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Meditations LII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All things by the providence of reason happen unto every particular, as a part of one general body; and then it is against reason that a part should complain of anything that happens for the good of the whole.”

This reminds me of another place in this text when Aurelius says, "That which is not good for the hive, cannot be good for the bee." I have been talking with our AP junior students recently about the natural tension between the natural state of the world and the taming of the world to build up civilization. On the one hand, there's a tendency to leave the natural world untouched. However, if we had done that, humans would still be living in caves, hunting and gathering. It was only because we chopped down trees for firewood and to build houses, and because we quarried stone to build buildings that we have been able to form societies for mutual benefit.

So this question of what is good for the whole and what is good for me, is a healthy tension. I think it's something that, as we enter into the 21st century, and humanity's domination, extraction, and usage of the world's natural resources runs into the world's limited supply, we are going to have to engage with more frequency.

There's a cheery thought for your Saturday! Cheers!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Meditations LI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Now, if it be no wonder that a man should have such and such opinions, how can it be a wonder that he should do such and such things? I will remember then, that he cannot but do as he does, holding those opinions that he does.”

This is so often forgotten: our actions flow directly out of our beliefs (about ourselves, others, and our environment). When we know that a certain person holds certain opinions, it should not surprise us when s/he acts accordingly; in fact, there is nothing else that person could do except what is in line with his/her opinions.

The corollary here is that my own opinions influence my actions, and that if I need to change my behavior, I must first change my beliefs or opinions.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Meditations IL

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“And these your professed politicians, the only true practical philosophers in the world (as they think of themselves), so full of affected gravity, or such professed lovers of virtue and honesty, what wretches be they in very deed; how vile and contemptible in themselves?”

It seems to me that in modern day American, we have a lot of collective vitriol and anger directed toward politicians. I always figured that things were different in ancient Rome. Not that there wasn't graft, corruption, and greed among ancient Roman/Greek politicians, because there is ample evidence of that. But I never imagined the people having such a deep dislike and mistrust of the politicians as we seem to today. Apparently, I was wrong. It's very interesting that Aurelius would take the politicians to task in such strong terms: vile and contemptible.

Personally, I feel as though many politicians today have good intentions and are at least trying to do good. What they think is good and what I think is good, may not be the same, but I generally respect most of their intentions. Of course, I'm sure there are some bad apples, but generally I figure they're much like all human beings: a mixed bag of good and bad. It seems like Aurelius really felt like politicians in Rome in his day were a pretty bad lot. Maybe we have it better?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Meditations XXXXVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All things that are in the world, are always in the state of alteration. You also are in perpetual change.”

As Heraclitus wrote, "All things change, nothing remains the same." The Romans had a saying, "Vita flumen est": life is a river. This theme of continual change is common in literature. As I was thinking about this topic, many quotes came to mind. 

The thing about change is that it often happens in small increments, and so, over the short-run, we don't often notice the changes, but over the long-run, they become much more apparent. For example, if I compare myself to what I was like last year, I don't notice much difference. But if I compare myself to what I was like 10 years ago, I realize that I have changed a LOT in the past 10 years.

The only thing to do is to accept the fact of change, and to try my best to live in the moment. Change will happen, and when it does, I'll evaluate the situation then, rather than worry about it now.

Carry on!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Meditations XXXXVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Receive temporal blessings without ostentation, when they are sent and you will be able to part with them with all readiness and facility when they are taken from you again.”

"The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away." The less attached I am to the good things of this world that fall into my lap, the easier it will be to part with them when they inevitably disappear. All good things must come to an end, as Shakespeare once wrote.

I always find it interesting how closely stoic philosophy aligns with Buddhist teaching; detachment from material goods, or at least detachment from a desire for material goods is a central tenet in both.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Meditations XXXXV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Remember that to change your mind upon occasion, and to follow him that is able to rectify you, is equally ingenuous, as to find out at the first what is right and just, without help.”

The skill of learning to take criticism and correction is so essential to continual improvement. We must always be open to reconsider the "truths" we hold dear. New information should impel us to re-evaluate what we think we know. Thus shall we become seekers of truth, and not merely spewers of personal dogma. I have always considered this to be the mark of a truly great mind: that it can rationally consider new evidence, incorporate that evidence into its existing framework, and adjust itself accordingly.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Meditations L

Fiftieth post of Marcus Aurelius quotes! This is quite the milestone! Thanks for hanging with me and reading. Many more posts to come!

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All men are made one for another: either then teach them better, or bear with them.”

Wise words! We are created for one another. If we are irritated by another, we should teach him/her better or bear with him/her. That is a convicting quote for myself. Dealing with teenagers all day, there are many times that I find their behavior frustrating or irritating. But Aurelius is right: I'm called to teach them better, and in the meantime to bear with them. Patience is probably the most important virtue I can exercise in the classroom.

Meditations XXXXVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“When any shall either impeach you with false accusations, or hatefully reproach you, or shall use any such carriage towards you, get yourself presently to their minds and understandings, and look in them, and behold what manner of men they be. You shalt see, that there is no such occasion why it should trouble you, what such as they are think of you.”

This is some of the best advice ever. I often find myself giving similar advice to my students (teenagers), who tend to be pre-occupied with what other people think of them. I always say, "Think about what those people are like... Then consider carefully whether their opinion is valid, correct, and even worth taking into account. The answer is usually no." Not to be mean, but the reality is that most people form un-informed or un-educated opinions about things and other people.

Really, when you get down to it, who can really know the true you? Who can understand your aspirations, dreams, and demons? You past, present, and future? Your hopes, ambitions, and obstacles? There is so much that goes into making you uniquely who you are, that no one can really know you fully (except God, of course). And thus, no one is really truly fit to judge you. When people do, you should feel confident in dismissing their judgements.

Thoughts on Timelessness

As I read through these ancient texts, ruminate on them, post them here, and comment on them, I am continually amazed at how similar the basic elements of human life are from one millennium to the next. I find it remarkable that something someone wrote more than 2000 years ago should be of any value at all to modern persons, and yet I continually find the most distilled wisdom in these ancient texts. It reminds me of a quote from Simone Weil: "Only what is eternal can be certain of being contemporary."

There is a timelessness to these great texts and the thoughts of their authors that makes them contemporary for all ages, precisely because they deal with the fundamental elements of human nature. This is one of the ways Adler distinguished a "great work": its staying power, or its ability to speak to us again and again regardless of changing circumstances.

Carry on and have a nice weekend!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Meditations XXXXIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Neither that which is future, nor that which is past can hurt you; but that only which is present (and that also is much lessened, if thou dost lightly circumscribe it), and then check your mind if for so little a while (a mere instant), it cannot hold out with patience.”

Indeed, how much angst is caused by filling the present with thoughts of the past and the future? There is such a great temptation to replay things that happened in my mind or to predict what will happen next. But real happiness and peace are the fruits of living fully in the present moment, convinced, as Aurelius says, that the past and future can do me no harm.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Joy of Zadie Smith and Thomas Aquinas

One of the things I try to do on this blog is to make great literature (particularly classical literature, as I am a classicist) approachable, and to connect it to life in the 21st century. I think Gary Gutting did an excellent job of that in this article over at the NY Times, in which he connects the article I previously posted a link to by Zadie Smith about the difference between joy and pleasure with Thomas Aquinas. This connection of the modern with the classic (and timeless), is what I'm all about here. So take a gander at what Gutter had to say. I think you'll enjoy it!

Joy by Zadie Smith | The New York Review of Books

Here is a link to a brilliant article by Zadie Smith (of "White Teeth" it if you haven't). In it she parses the difference between joy and pleasure. I think she has some very astute observations, and she expresses them in her very witty and well-written way.

Joy by Zadie Smith | The New York Review of Books

Meditations XXXXIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“O but thou hadst rather become good tomorrow, than to be so today.”

Another seemingly appropriate quote at the beginning of the year. Good to know that Aurelius had a sense of humor as well. This reminds me of the saying about virtues that are more honored in their breach than their observance. Alas, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing now!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Meditations XXXXII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Then hath a man attained to the state of perfection in his life and conversation, when he so spends every day, as if it were his last day.”

I heard a speaker once say, "Think about what you'd like to have written on your tombstone; then commit yourself to living each day so that when you're gone, that's how people will remember you." Aurelius is doing something similar here; he's saying, "Think about what you'd do with yourself if you only had one day left to live. Then make those things priorities in your life."

Too often the "business" (or busy-ness) of life gets in the way of being intentional in the way we spend our time. We end up frittering away precious time on things that don't really matter to us, and ignoring the things that we'd rather spend time doing. As we start a new year, it's worth considering: What are my priorities? How do I really want to spend my time? What obstacles are preventing me from spending time doing what I love?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Meditations XXXXI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“A very ridiculous thing it is, that any man should dispense with vice and wickedness in himself, which is in his power to restrain; and should go about to suppress it in others, which is altogether impossible.”

This is sound advice. It gets right to the heart of Aurelius' stoic philosophy: the only person I have control over is myself. Focus on rectifying the things I have the power to rectify and let the rest sort itself out. That being said, it is always easier to focus on other people's problems than my own.

Aurelius, throughout his "Meditations", is fond of advising people to first consider their own flaws and faults before criticizing others.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Meditations XL

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“True happiness doth consist in very few things.”

It seems to me that there are a couple ways to read this: 1) true happiness consists in only a few things, but he neglects to tell us what those things are; or 2) true happiness consists in investing oneself in few things.

Overall, the message seems to be about downsizing and simplicity, which seems solid to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Meditations XXXIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“The art of true living in this world is more like a wrestler’s, than a dancer’s practice. For in this they both agree, to teach a man whatsoever falls upon him, that he may be ready for it, and that nothing may cast him down.”

True living is like a wrestler's practice: learning to handle the things life throws at us without being thrown to the ground. Some days, when the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" seem to come non-stop, it is worth remembering that all I need to do is stay on my feet today, so that I can carry on tomorrow.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Meditations XXXVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Thou hast no time nor opportunity to read. What then? Hast thou not time and opportunity to exercise?”

I thought this was an appropriate quote from Aurelius as we begin the new year. Many people will be joining gyms and making resolutions to eat better, lose weight, and exercise more (all of which are noble goals!). A healthy body and a healthy mind go hand-in-hand. 

But how many people will resolve to read more and watch less TV this year? How many people will resolve to read publications and books that challenge, expand, and enlighten their minds?

We could replace "exercise" in the quote above with almost anything. Because the reality is that we have the power to choose how we spend at least some of our time, and we do that based on our priorities. Outside of our obligations (e.g. work), we spend time doing what we want to spend time doing.

As for myself, I am resolving to update this blog more, read the complete works of Thomas Jefferson, and to continue playing the piano and violin.

Happy 2013!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Meditations XXXVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Let not things future trouble thee. For if necessity so require that they come to pass, thou shalt (whensoever that is) be provided for them with the same reason, by which whatsoever is now present, is made both tolerable and acceptable unto thee.”

Indeed! Modern research has affirmed this ancient lesson: live in the present. Nothing has ever happened in the past and nothing will ever happen in the future; everything happens in the now. Be attuned to your surroundings and aware of your environment.

Meditations XXXVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“For his is a happy man, who in his lifetime dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion is, good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions.”

As we head into a new year, I thought this was a worthwhile thought to share. Good desires and actions are noble goals for 2013 and beyond!


Happy New Year! I hope y'all are having a great 2013 so far. I spent Christmas with my family in St. Louis and am in the Smokies with my in-laws for New Years. Here are a few of my favorite pics from the trip so far. Thanks to everyone who has read my (often wandering) posts over the past year. I'm looking forward to getting home and posting some more book-related posts this year. Plans include finishing Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations" and reading the complete writings of Thomas Jefferson (got that for Christmas!). In the meantime, enjoy these photos!