Want To Become God-like?

December 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

photo by Sacred Destinations

A friend recently asked me about the coldness of the Stoic-philosophy, and that its ideas seemed to deny or block out one from feeling humanistic emotions. Stoic philosophy in its basic foundations, under Zeno certainly came across that way, and also giving meaning to the way the word “Stoic” is used and defined in the English language.

In later times it was given a more human element from interpretations by famous Roman advocates such as Seneca the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The ideal man is not one that is completely immune to whatever life throws at him, but one who can rise above what ever happens to him.

Robert Greene wrote a chapter on the Grand Strategy of Life in his “33 Strategies of War”. He describes a belief that I think Epicurus and Seneca might have agreed on as the “ideal man”, no matter how difficult it is to become one. The idea of  the “ideal” springs from Hellenistic philosophy of various schools: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. Much of which were adopted by the Romans.

Excerpt from Chapter 12: Lose Battles but Win the War: Grand Strategy

from Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War

Thousands of years ago, we humans elevated ourselves above the animal world and never looked back. Figuratively speaking, the key to this evolutionary advance was our powers of vision: language, and the ability to reason that it gave us, let us see more of the world around us. To protect itself from a predator, an animal depended on its senses and instincts; it could not see around the corner or to the other end of the forest. We humans, on the other hand, could map the entire forest, study the habits of dangerous animals and even nature itself, gaining deeper, wider knowledge of our environment. We could see dangers coming before they were here. This expanded vision was abstract: where an animal is locked in the present, we could see into the past and glimpse as far as our reason would take us into the future. Our sight expanded further and further into time and space, and we came to dominate the world.

Somewhere along the line, however, we stopped evolving as rational creatures. Despite our progress there is always a part of us that remains animal, and that animal part can respond only to what is most immediate in our environment- it is incapable of thinking beyond the moment. The dilemma affects us still: the two sides of our character, rational and animal, are constantly at war, making almost all of our actions awkward. We reason and plan to achieve a goal, but in the heat of action we become emotional and lose perspective. We use cleverness and strategy to grab for what we want, but we do not stop to think about whether what we want is necessary, or what the consequences of getting it will be. The extended vision that rationality brings us is often eclipsed by the reactive, emotional animal within- the stronger side of our nature.

More than we are today, the ancient Greeks were close to the passage of the human race from animal to rational. To them our dual nature made us tragic, and the source of tragedy was limited vision. In classical Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, the protagonist may think he knows the truth and knows enough about the world to act in it, but his vision is limited by his emotions and desires. He has only a partial perspective on life and on his own actions and identity, so he acts imprudently and causes suffering. When Oedipus finally understands his own role in all his misfortunes, he tears out his eyes- symbols of his tragic limitation. He can see out into the world but not inward into himself.

The Greeks, however, also recognized the potential for a higher human possibility. Far above the sphere of mortals were the gods on Mount Olympus, who had perfect vision of the world and of both the past and the future; and the human race shared something with them as well as animals- we were not only part animal but part divine. Furthermore, those able to see further than others, to control their animal nature and thin before they acted, were humans of the most deeply human kind- the ones best able to use the reasoning powers that separate us from animals. As opposed to human stupidity (limited vision), the Greeks imagined an ideal human prudence. Its symbol was Odysseus, who always thought before he acted. Having visited Hades, the land of the dead, he was in touch with ancestral history and the past and he was also always curious, eager for knowledge, and able to view human actions, his own and other people’s, with a dispassionate eye, considering their long-term consequences. In other words, like the gods, if to a lesser extent, he had the skill of looking into the future. The consummate realist, the man of vision, Odysseus was a character in the epic poetry of Homer, but there were also historical versions of the ideal: the political figure and military leader Themistocles, for example, and Alexander the Great, raised to heights of combined intellect and action by Aristotle.

The prudent man might seem cold, his rationality sucking pleasure out of life. Not so. Like the pleasure-loving gods on Mount Olympus, he has the perspective, the calm detachment, the ability to laugh, that comes with true vision, which gives everything he does a quality of lightness- these traits comprising what Nietzsche calls “Apollonian ideal.” (Only people who can’t see past their noses make things heavy.) Alexander, the great strategist and man of action, was also famous for revelry and festivity. Odysseus loved adventure no one was better at the experience of pleasure. He was simply more reasonable, more balanced, less vulnerable to his own emotions and moods, and he left less tragedy and turmoil in his wake.

This calm, detached, rational, far-seeing creature, called “prudent” by the Greeks, is what we shall call the “grand strategist”.

We are all of us to some extent strategists: we naturally want control over our lives, and we plot for power, consciously or unconsciously angling to get what we want. we use strategies, in other words, but they tend to be linear and reactive and are often fractured and struck off course by emotional responses. Clever strategists can go far, but all but a few make mistakes. If they are successful, they get carried away and overreact if they face setbacks- and setbacks are inevitable over a lifetime- they are easily overwhelmed. What sets grand strategists apart is the ability to look more deeply into both themselves and others, to understand and learn from the past and to have a clear sense of the future, to the extent that it can be predicted. Simply, they see more, and their extended vision lets them carry out plans over sometimes-long periods of time- so long that those around them may not even realize that they have a plan in mind. They strike at the roots of a problem, not at its symptoms, and hit their mark cleanly. In moving toward becoming a grand strategist, you follow in the path of Odysseus and rise toward the condition of the gods. It is not so much that your strategies are more clever or manipulative as that they exist on a higher plane. You have made a qualitative leap.

In a world where people are increasingly incapable of thinking consequentially, more animal than ever, the practice of grand strategy will instantly elevate you above others.

To become a grand strategist does not involve years of study or a total transformation of your personality. It simply means more effective use of what you have- your mind, your rationality, your vision. Having evolved as a solution to the problems of warfare, grand strategy is a military concept. And an examination of its historical development will reveal the key to making it work for you in daily life.

***

(bolding by me)

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