The Road to Ataraxia

This post is the first in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beer.) The rest of the posts will be available here.

There are a great number of philosophies and religions in the world. And many, if not most of them promise peace of mind for their adherents. It is a fair assumption, however, that they cannot all be right. As a result, there are those who go through life, trying on a number of different beliefs, hoping to find the one that will deliver on this promise of άταραξία – peace or tranquility.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Pyrrho was one such intellectual searcher. He travelled extensively with the philosopher Anaxarchus. With him, he visited the Gymnosophists (“naked wise men”) of India and the Magi (holy men) of Persia. But in the end, he settled on a philosophy of skepticism. Rather than finding something to believe in, Pyrrho found peace in withholding belief in anything.

According to Sextus Empericus, the search for άταραξία is only resolved when one gives up on finding the belief that will provide it. “For that which is related of Apelles the painter happened to the Sceptic. It is said that as he was once painting a horse he wished to represent the foam of his mouth in the picture, but he could not succeed in doing so, and he gave it up and threw the sponge at the picture with which he had wiped the colors from the painting. As soon, however, as it touched the picture it produced a good copy of the foam. The Sceptics likewise hoped to gain άταραξία by forming judgments in regard to the anomaly between phenomena and the things of thought, but they were unable to do this, and so they suspended their judgment; and while their judgment was in suspension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, as the shadow follows a body.”

When one has affirmative beliefs about what is good and what is bad, he is caught in an unpleasant trap. On the one hand, he is unhappy because he is aware of all of the “good” things that he does not possess. On the other hand, he is constantly afraid of losing his “goods” and being subjected to “bad” things. Whereas the skeptic does not suffer from these envies or fears.

Perhaps the most relatable application of this philosophy is the refusal to opine as to whether death is good or bad. Most people fear death because they perceive it as a loss of the good things that they have, or as a bad in itself. Some people welcome or hope for death because they believe that death (perhaps coupled with some afterlife) is a good in itself, or a relief from the evils of life. The skeptic, unwilling to judge whether death is good or bad is ambivalent. He is at peace, precisely because he is willing to withhold his judgment about whether his station is good or bad.

The road to άταραξία, in part, is the refusal to opine about which road is best.

Goose IPA

 

Beer of the week: Goose IPA – Goose Island, although regarded by some as a macro-brew sell-out, does produce some pretty tasty beers. This IPA has a pretty, dark gold pour. The aroma is slightly musty with yeast and malt. It smells like the inside of a brewery. This beer is exceptionally smooth. It is also very well balanced. Goose IPA is not overly hopped and has plenty of malt flavor. It is a very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: Pyrrhonic Sketches by Sextus Empericus – Unfortunately, Pyrrho did not leave any writings behind. What we know of his philosophy comes primarily from these Pyrrhonic Sketches (more often translated as Outlines of Pyrrhonism.)

Question of the week: The idea that we cannot be sure of what is good and what is bad, particularly with regards to death, sounds an awful lot like stoicism. What are the principle distinctions between skepticism and stoicism?


Caius is dead.

The overwhelming majority of lawsuits settle before trial. By some estimates, fewer than 1 out of every 10 cases make it all the way to trial. And for the most part, settlement is the best option for both sides. Going to trial means more court fees, more attorneys’ fees, and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility of simply losing. A litigant who is able to accurately and rationally appraise the value of his case and the probability of success should be able to negotiate a settlement that minimizes his costs and risk. In that light, it seems that the biggest obstacle to settlement is the simple fact that people are not all that rational.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy presents a beautiful example of a man who rationally knows one thing, but nonetheless refuses to believe it:

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

The Stoics equate nature, god, and reason. The highest good for man, therefore, would be to achieve purely rational thought. The problem, as Tolstoy observes, is that human thought will always consist of an admixture of reason and emotion. In this particular example, self-love clouds the reasoning of Ivan Ilych. In other cases, including a great number of lawsuits, anger or other emotions interfere with one’s ability to think clearly. One simply cannot be purely rational. For the Stoics, self-love and emotions are to be overcome in the name of reason. For Tolstoy, however, a purely rational life would be no life at all. What makes us human is not our ability to reason alone, but all of our emotional and mental capacity.

NiksickoBeer of the week: Nikšićko Pivo – Tolstoy lived through the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The culmination of that conflict was the Treaty of San Stefano, which granted the Principality of Montenegro official international recognition and expanded territory. Part of the new lands acquired included the city of Nikšić. And it is from Nikšić that this week’s beer comes. Frankly, I hoped for more from my first beer from Montenegro, and I really did not expect much. Despite the artificial coloring listed in the ingredients, the beer is still very pale. It pours with heaps of white foam. There is not much going on flavor-wise in Nikšićko, mostly just cheap grain and a slightly metallic aftertaste. Oh well.

Reading of the week: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter VI – The above-quoted syllogism is somewhat novel to me. I had always heard it with Socrates rather than Caius. This reading really says a lot about the way that humans think, especially how they think about themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Question for the week: How often do you persist in something out for emotional reasons when you know rationally that it is the wrong choice?


He who has given takes away

The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.

My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”

I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.

Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.

Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?

Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.

Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.

Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?


Affluent Need Not Apply

And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” When his disciples heard, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

There are two interpretations of this passage from Matthew 19 that I have heard many times. Both of which I find incompatible with the actual text.

One interpretation is to assume that the meaning of “eye of a needle” is not obvious. Some people claim that “the eye of the needle” was actually the name of a small outer gate. Camels, being large and difficult to handle, could only be made to pass through this small gate with great effort. This interpretation is popular with those who wish to be rich themselves, since it means that rich men are not literally incapable of achieving salvation; it is only more difficult.

As far as I know, there is no historical evidence to support the term “eye of the needle” meaning a small gate. (So sayeth Wikipedia.) More importantly, this interpretation makes no sense in context. Why would the disciples be “exceedingly amazed” if Jesus described something that was only a minor inconvenience? And then why would Jesus go on to state that “with men this is impossible”?  I have heard in defense of this interpretation that the gate was actually too small for camels, so it was impossible for a camel to pass through. In that case, why bother looking for a different meaning for the term “eye of the needle”? Impossible is impossible and it makes no real difference whether it is the eye of a needle, a one inch hole or a door that is slightly too small.

And if the final conclusion is that rich men actually are incapable of salvation, that brings us to the next interpretation: that it is simply impossible for the rich to enter heaven. The syllogism is simple:

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God;
A camel absolutely cannot pass through the eye of a needle; Therefore,
A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Of course, this ignores the next line: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Applying this line to the result of our earlier syllogism:

A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God;
With God all things are possible; Therefore,
With God a rich man may enter into the kingdom of God.

So there you have it. The salvation of the rich is possible, but requires a miracle from God.

Tsingtao Draft

Beer of the Week: Tsingtao Pure Draft – This Chinese beer is very pale, very clear, and very boring. It is promising to see Asian brewers starting to make rice-free beer, but this one is a dud. There is some malty sweetness but very little hops. It almost comes off as an attempt at a beer flavored soft drink.

Reading of the Week: Epictetus and Seneca by Walter Savage Landor – Emerson wrote of Landor, “He has a wonderful brain, despotic, violent, and inexhaustible, meant for a soldier, by what chance converted to letters, in which there is not a style nor a tint not known to him, yet with an English appetite for action and heroes.” His appetite for action and heroes and his command of style are evident in his Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans. In this dialogue between the great stoic philosophers Epictetus and Seneca, Epictetus really gives Seneca the business for thinking that he can be both rich and a philosopher. “Fortune cares little about philosophers; but she remembers where she hath set a rich man, and she laughs to see the Destinies at his door.”

Question of the Week: How far can the parallels between Mark 19 and Epictetus and Seneca be drawn? In what way is Christian salvation like philosophy? Are the rich barred from both for the same reasons?


Youth is Liberty

What is liberty? “I call liberty the flowers, the air, light, the stars, the happiness of going whithersoever the nervous limbs of twenty years of age may wish to carry you.” So says Aramis of The Three Musketeers. It is a strange definition of liberty, but it may stand up to some scrutiny.

Basically, the definition includes three parts: access to nature, movement, and age.

Prison is usually thought of as removal from society, but it is also removal from nature. Nature is a glorious whole, but Aramis refers to it by parts. “The flowers, the air, light, the stars,” are all important parts of nature, and all are denied to the prisoner. Their import is hard to overestimate. A recent post on this blog mentioned the pleasure derived from being able to gaze on the stars after a long period without seeing them. As for light, the modern world is positively flooded with it, but at the end of the 17th century, the dramatic date of The Musketeers saga, artificial light was a luxury and anybody without access to sunlight would not have seen very much light at all.

The freedom of movement makes perfect sense as the standard for liberty. Chains, the universal symbol of oppression, restrict liberty by restricting movement. Being held in place is a clear opposite of liberty.

The final part of Aramis’s statement is the most interesting though: age. Youth is liberty. I had a college professor who asserted that he was less free than his students because of his age. He could have attributed his comparative lack of liberty to his job, his wife, his children; because of his responsibilities he is not totally at liberty. There are things he must do as an employee, a husband, a father, and so forth.  But he did not point to his responsibilities, he pointed to his age. He no longer has the time or vitality of a man of twenty, and with each passing day his liberty is diminished accordingly.

So make good use of your liberty while you have it, one day you may find that you can no longer go whithersoever your limbs wish to carry you.

Walter

Beer of the Week: Bischoff Fritz Walter – There is a lot going on here. First, this beer seems to be named after Fritz Walter, legendary German soccer player. Germans love beer; Germans love soccer; nothing could be more natural. The label also includes the phrase “”einer für ALLE und ALLE für einer”: “one for ALL and ALL for one.” I am not sure if Walter was a big fan of Dumas, but who knows. As for the beer itself, I rather enjoyed it. My knowledge of the German language is quite limited, but I had a fair guess that “ungefiltert” meant exactly what it sounds like. When I inverted the bottle and saw sediment begin to swirl through the beer, my translational acumen was confirmed. Most surprising about this beer is that it seems to be an unfiltered European pilsner. I am so used to unfiltered beers being wheat beers, I was genuinely surprised to taste this crisp beer. I was reminded immediately of Pilsner Urquel, but after drinking a bit more, the sediment made itself felt in the form of a pleasant earthiness and spice that compliment the strong hops.

Reading for the Week: The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas – In this scene, Aramis acts as confessor for the book’s eponymous prisoner. The prisoner (in words very reminiscent of  Lovelace’s “stone walls” and “iron bars”) claims that he is content in prison and demonstrates how he is as free as anybody because he can still look out of his window.

Question for the week: Aramis regards the prisoner’s assertion that he is still free because he has his window as “that sinister philosophy which is the religion of the captive.” Is this an indictment of stoicism?