Notes on the “Discipline of Assent”

September 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Epicurus once said

“Falsehood and error always depend upon the intrusion of opinion when a fact awaits confirmation or the absence of contradiction, which fact is afterwards frequently not confirmed or even contradicted following a certain movement in ourselves connected with, but distinct from, the mental picture presented- which is the cause of the error.” (Letter to Herodotus)

Which essentially says that whenever something happens to us, or when we decide to do something, we hold an opinion in addition to a fact in its plainness and nakedness.

“My house has burned down”

This is a fact.

“Something bad has happened to me. I have suffered.”

This is an added opinion to the fact.

These things which I am telling myself. Are they objective? Is this the only way to see it? Is it possible to see it in another way? Are my views influenced by the beliefs of my friends, family, or someone else that presumably has “authority”?

Marcus Aurelius adopted this philosophy as well.

“That you don’t know for sure it is a mistake. A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding.”

Meditations, 11.18

More to come on this Socratic nature of the questioning of knowledge, focusing on questioning of “self-knowledge”, “inner thoughts”, and outward actions that result from them.


Unselfconscious Gentleness

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s something to think about whenever you feel hurt:

The Greeks have known since the time of Homer and Hesiod that it is possible to modify people’s decisions and inner dispositions by the careful choice of persuasive words.

The right way to act upon other’s consciences:

Showing benevolence to people who have made mistakes. In word and action,

“not chiding him and making him feel that we are putting up with him, but with frankness and goodness, …

with gentleness, without irony, not reproachfully but with affection, with a heart exempt from bitterness…

as a person to another person, even if others are standing nearby.”

-Marcus Aurelius Meditaitions (XI.13)

Here Marcus means that gentleness in itself, is such a gentle thing. That merely to want to be gentle means ceasing to be gentle, because any kind of artifice or affectation destroys gentleness.

We can act effectively upon other people only when we do not try to act upon them. Only pure gentleness and delicacy have the power to make people change their minds, even to convert and transform them.

Similarly then, when we want to do good to others, our intention to do good will be truly pure only if it is spontaneous and unselfconscious. The perfect benefactor is unaware of what he is doing.

“We must be one of those who do good unconsciously.”

Meditations (V,6,3)


*This post is adapted from Pierre Hadot’s “What is Ancient Philosophy?

What Philosophy is, and used to be

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

If there is ever a good reason why I would not further my education in the field of Philosophy, it would probably be because the field is no longer taught nor practiced the way it was meant to be, in its original conception. Academia seem to be more preoccupied with the history of philosophy, than Philosophy itself.

The late Pierre Hadot, who was a French Professor Emeritus, College de France, compares Philosophy during the Classical period with what it is today, and puts it this way:

“…the conditions of the teaching of philosophy were very different from what they are now. Modern students study philosophy only because it is a required course; at the most a student may become interested by an initial contact with the discipline and may wish to take exams on the subject. In any case it is chance that will decide whether the student will encounter a professor who belongs to a particular “school”, be it phenomenological, existentialist, deconstructionist, structuralist, or Marxist. Perhaps, someday, he will pledge alliegeance to one of these “isms”; in any case, his adherence will be intellectual and will not engage his way of life, with the possible exception of Marxism. For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position.

Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there. Once led into a classroom by chance, however, the student might unexpectedly become converted as he heard a master speak.

This was the story of Polemo, after a night of debauchery, entered Xenocrates school one morning on a dare with a band of drunken comrades. Seduced by the master’s discourse, Polemo decided to become a philosopher, and later became head of the school. No doubt this is an edifying fiction; nevertheless, it could appear to be completely believable.”

Pierre Hadot “What is Ancient Philosophy?” (Translated by Michael Chase)

photo by Samantha Decker

Xenophon’s Socrates

June 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Xenophon’s description of Socrates in his Memorabilia is most interesting. Often regarded as ‘inferior’ compared to Plato’s accounts, there are moments when the prose (or at least what is translated) comes across as lively.

In fact Xenophon gives us a humble view of Plato’s brother, Glaucon. During a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (in which the latter was aspiring to become a head of state) A series of questions by Socrates leaves makes him realize that he really isn’t prepared for the top position, his vain ego in danger of crumbling.

Socrates gives a most humbling remark to the elder brother of Plato.

“If a man can’t carry one talent in weight, surely it’s obvious he shouldn’t even try to carry more than one.”

Epicureanism, In All Honesty

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

“How sweet it is to watch from dry land when the storm-winds roil

A mighty ocean’s waters, and see another’s bitter toil-

Not because you relish someone else’s misery-

Rather, it’s sweet to know from what misfortunes you are free,

Pleasant it is even to behold contests of war

Drawn up on the battlefield, when you are in no danger,

But there is nothing sweeter than to dwell in towers that rise

On high, serene and fortified with teachings of the wise,

From which you may peer down upon the others as they stray

This way and that, seeking the path of life, losing their way:

The skirmishing of wits, the scramble for renown, the fight,

Each striving harder than the next, and struggling day and night,

To climb atop a heap of riches and lay claim to might,

O miserable minds of men! O hearts that cannot see!

Beset by such great dangers and in such obscurity

You spend your little lot of life! Don’t you know it’s plain

That all your nature yelps for is a body free from pain,

And, to enjoy pleasure, a mind removed from fear and care?

And so we see the body’s needs are altogether spare-

Only the bare minimum to keep suffering at bay,

Yet which can furnish pleasures for us in a wide array.”

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things)

, II.1-23

Trans. by A.E. Stallings

Remind Yourself

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (A.S.L. Farquharson translation) (5.31)

A Woman Came Up To Me Looking Desolate

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Photo by Milo Riano


At Redhill MRT station, a woman came up to me looking desolate, mud on her ankles, pleading for some money.

For the life of me, I could not make sense of her incoherent words, but I was willing to pay for her cab fare to anywhere to get more help. I asked her how much she needed, and she replied “As much as you can help”.

Caution welled up inside me, and I gave her $30. But she asked if I could go to an ATM to get more, telling me now she had to go around asking for more.

I wished her luck before walking away. She seemed frustrated and irritated.

You have (and must) control your own actions and interpretations, but accept the fact that you will have
no control over how others judge and act, especially in response to you.