Examining Epictetus #13: Becoming Beautiful

Question #1: What makes a human being beautiful?

Is it the filter on your Instagram picture? Is it the cosmetics, the surgeries, the nips, tucks, or lifts? Those things may change perception aligning you closer to society’s beliefs of what is beautiful. But does this really make you a beautiful human being? And in the end, will time not eventually prevail? Our outer shell is going to deteriorate. It is going to succumb to the ravages of nature. Our bodies are destined to return to the earth.

We might find attraction in pretty things, but pretty things do not last. And they do not make a human being beautiful.

Question #2: Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being?

If you cultivate the spirit and the soul, it will not deteriorate. Unlike the body, it will last forever. How do you make this excellent? Not through riches, fame, or the number of social media followers. No. If we would be excellent, then we must be good. We must find virtue. Only through wisdom, discipline, justice, and courage can we attain unto excellence. Only through virtue can we truly have faith, hope, and love. This is what we must strive for. This will make us excellent human beings.

What then makes a man beautiful? Is it not the possession of the excellence of a man? And do you, then, if you wish to be beautiful, young man, labour at this, the acquisition of human excellence.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

Emperor’s Log #11: All the Small Things

There was a time when I managed a very profitable furniture store in Florida. Of all the stores in the region, this store had the highest dollars per transaction. The sales staff was optimized to drive this key metric. They were engaged, energetic, and proud of their sales abilities.

And then there came a day when it all changed. The top brass of the organization decided to change direction. No longer were they interested in the higher ticket sales. They gave us a new mission: get more customers to buy regardless of the amount they were spending. They told us it would be better to convert a higher percentage of our traffic into sales.

Old model: 20% of 100 customers spending $150 = $3,000

New model: 40% of 100 customers spending $20 = $800

We had no choice to comply. Our merchandise assortment began to change. The big-ticket items were replaced with smaller ones. Our sales began to plummet. At the same time, the economy was going through a difficult recession. I could no longer support the highly curated sales force in my store. Without the high average sales, hours were cut. Motivation was lost. All this happened around eleven years ago. Today, that company that had over 1,000 stores finally shut the doors on its last 500. Bankrupt.

In a highly competitive market, to change your identity is a dangerous choice. The goal is profitability, and there are several different ways to achieve it. Did this company make the right choice? I don’t believe so. There could have been several factors that finally brought this company down. Maybe:

  • The world lost its interest and moved on,
  • They got ate up by the bigger dogs in the market, or
  • The economy dictated that basic needs were more necessary than specialized wants.

Whatever it was, they were no longer competitive. The end goal should have been profitability and somewhere along the way, they got bogged down until they had no choice to shut down.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I would love to say that on an individual level on I am immune from such catastrophes, but am I? How many times have I lost the big picture and got mired in the bog? How many times has my attention been diverted onto something of little or no significance? No doubt, it has been way too many times. When I think I see the path so clearly ahead, I still get squirreled. When it happens again, and it will happen again, I must not give it more time than it deserves. I need to address it quickly and move on.

A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. -Marcus Aurelius

Emperor’s Log #22: Five Rules

The words of the emperor Marcus Aurelius…

Rule #1: In your actions, don’t procrastinate.

The message: Loud and Clear. The execution: well, that is another story. Like a door that turns on its hinges, I used to be the sluggard that turned on my bed (Proverbs 26:14). I would like to say those days are long behind me, but the truth is that every now and then I have that day where I get bogged down in the mire without a branch of motivation to pull me out.

It is on those days, that I must remember my purpose. How will I get to where I want to go if I am refusing to move? If I waste away these hours and days, then I will never get ahead.

It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that other’s waste. -Henry Ford

Rule #2: In your conversations, don’t confuse.

There was some concern on my team that I would be too technical in my speech and too wide in my vocabulary. That is an issue I see with others. When they speak or write, I have no clue what they are trying to communicate even though I am trying my best to understand. I know there have been times when I took that path and drove on despite the glazed over eyes and confused brows.

What is the point of all this knowledge and understanding if it cannot be used in a way that improves the lives of others? If we cannot communicate the things we know then we are not helping anybody. But if simplify our language and communicate clearly, we can be effective in helping others to understand. Friedrich Nietzsche could have easily confused us all, but listen to this gem that he gave us:

Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity.

Rule #3: In your thoughts, don’t wander.

The practice of meditation. Oh man, this is something that I really need. It is something I must practice daily, even several times a day. It is not an easy task to sit still in mind and body. Once my mind strays down into the catacombs, it gets tangled and confused. Time will tick away, and I will still be looking for the way out. But then there is meditation, an internal GPS, which centers me and helps me to regain a sense of direction.

We all have the tendency to wander. The question we must ask ourselves is how long before we can regain the path. We are the masters of our minds. We are supposed to be the ones in control of the direction of our thoughts. Buddha was considered to a master of the art of meditation. Ponder these words attributed to him:

As the fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

We must harness this energy and direct it where we desire it to go. We must be the masters over our minds.

Rule #4: In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive.

The heart is a muscle. If you train it, it will get stronger. If you don’t use it or even abuse it, you will eventually lose it. If you push it too hard, it will give out on you. You must train the heart, train it -just right.

Your heart is your soul. It is where your courage and intuition reside. It must be trained. Condition it by testing the boundaries. Don’t be too soft and don’t be too hard.

I sometimes test the upper limits of the organ. I want to find comfort in the uncomfortable. It is a good practice as it also tests my soul. It can be scary going there sometimes, but the fear is good, even healthy. We just need to remember these words:

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -not absence of fear. -Mark Twain

Rule #5: In your life, don’t be all about business.

I must catch myself sometimes. There is a relentless pursuit to catch the potential rewards at the end of my goals. The pursuit is exhausting. Am I able to recover from one workout to the next? Am I able to digest my studies before I gorge myself in the next lesson? Are there breaks in between milestones and projects? I might not be going full throttle the whole time, but I do need to stop and refill. The occasional stop won’t prevent me from completing my journey. It may even speed up the process.

The Book of Exodus instructs the children of Israel to rotate their crops (23:10). It is an ancient practice still in use today. And though Seneca is not in the Bible (however his brother does get a mention), he makes a good analogy:

The mind must be given relaxation -a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced -for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break -so constant work on the anvil will fracture the mind.

Take a break, recharge, and get back on your journey.

Marcus Aurelius wrote these rules in his private journal over two thousand years ago. True wisdom holds the test of time.  

Feature photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

Contemplating Seneca #16: The Happy Life

From Seneca’s On the Happy Life, his 92nd letter to Lucilius:

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquility.

We all want a happy life, but do we know how to obtain it? Happiness does not come in the acquisition of more and more possessions. Often, we think those trifles will bring us happiness, and they may for a fleeting moment. But in the end, they will leave us wanting more.

This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached.

What does greatness of soul mean? Whenever I think of the word soul, I think of the word heart. It is the inner substance within you. It is the emotional part that often acts independently of the mind. Greatness of soul is courage and bravery. It is honor and fidelity. It is not thinking about laying down your life for a friend but doing it. It is doing the right thing without giving it a second thought, because you have developed the proclivity to doing such noble endeavors.

We have heard the ancient stories of men and women who possessed greatness of soul. If you look around you, you will see that it still exists. But it is not enough to witness it in the lives of others, we must also seek to possess a great soul.

How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of the truth,

The ways to getting it starts with a complete view of the truth. Truth is not always what we were told by our relatives or friends. It might not even be what we learned from our teachers and civic leaders. As George Berkeley said, “Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few.” But as correct as this statement is, it needs to be a game for all of us. We must dispose ourselves the embrace the truth, wherever it may be found (John Locke). It might bring us into an uncomfortable place, but we must go there anyway no matter how painful. We must challenge our assumptions, gain a complete view of the truth, and embrace it.

by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness,

Or in other words, we must become disciplined in all aspects of our lives. It is a daily process that must be practiced daily.

and a will that is inoffensive and kindly,

This is a tough one today where we might be viewed as soft and weak by our peers. But the reality is that it has always been tough, which subsequently is the opposite of soft and weak. To deny yourself requires sacrifice. To do it for another, who may not be inoffensive and kindly, is an act of humility. There is strength in humility, and the incredibly strong ones are those who can remove biases, hurt feelings, and indifferences from their interactions with others and treat them in an inoffensive and kindly way.

and that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” Even softly spoken, the most powerful words are the ones spoken in wisdom. You cannot force people to bend to your way of thinking, but you can persuade them if you are tactful and willing to listen to both sides of the issue. This will not only help in forming a resolution but will gain you respect from others.

In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god.

The Roman emperor Caligula, like many other rulers before and after him, thought he was something super special. So much in fact, that he considered himself a god. He was a mad sadist and most likely insane, hardly the proper credentials for a god.

Imagine you are a pagan living back then. * Who would you want for a god? Hopefully, someone who would have you (or mankind) in his best interests. You would want one that is just, honorable, and wise. You would want one that is loving and merciful. And if that is the kind of god you would want to follow, then it would only make sense that you would try to emulate that god and have such a soul as that. In short, you would strive to live a virtuous life and set yourself to the highest standards possible.

The happy life is possible for all of us. If that is what you want, then Seneca has a solution you should consider trying. What do you have to lose?

*This is paragraph is not about religious beliefs, only an imaginary thought experiment.

Contemplating Seneca #23: Considering Vampires

In childhood, we hear of the monsters that come out at night. And for some reason, these monsters always prefer to come out at night, where they prefer the cover of darkness. And because of their predilection for the night, we must remain in the safety of our beds.

When we grow up, we forget about the monsters. We tell ourselves that the night is safe and that because we are adults, we can handle the things that go bump in the night. In doing so, we lose our fear and stay out later and later. In Seneca’s 122nd Letter to Lucilius, he talks about these people who sleep during the day and stay up throughout the night. Check out this description he gives of them:

Moreover, the bodies of those who have sworn allegiance to the hours of darkness have a loathsome appearance. Their complexions are more alarming that those of anaemic invalids; they are lackadaisical and flabby with dropsy; though still alive, they are already carrion. But this, to my thinking, would be among the least of the evils. How much more darkness there is in their souls! Such a man is internally dazed; his vision darkened; he envies the blind. And what man ever had eyes for the purpose of seeing in the dark?

From his words, you would think he is talking about vampires, the ones who drink the blood of their innocent victims. And these men who prey on the weak and the helpless, they are still men, though Seneca would describe their actions more closely to those of monsters.

When we read about vampires or watch them portrayed in movies, we learn some interesting facts about them.

  • They come out at night. If we are not out at night, we drastically improve our chances of never seeing them.
  • They cannot come into our homes unless we invite them in. This is a key step. We know vampires are evil, so why would we let them in? Yet somehow in the stories, they always get the invitation to come in. One would think this would be a good practice for any type of evil that exists in the world. We cannot invite it into our homes where it could work its destruction.
  • They do not like holy water, crosses, wooden stakes, or garlic. Reminders of our faith is offensive to them. This first line of protection makes it harder for them to work their evil. And why the garlic? I am not sure, but a little extra seasoning never hurt.

If you do those three things, you might have a chance. Unless the vampires try to change the rules.

  • A vampire that can come out during the day and tries to blend in is a very scary vampire indeed. I am reminded of the Blade movies where they experiment with sunscreen. A vampire that can come out during the day is a much greater challenge to overcome. We would really have to be on our guards against these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
  • Equally dangerous is the one who can get into our homes without an invitation. Doors and windows are no longer the only access points to our homes. Now we have different gateways (television, phones, personal assistants that may be watching us and have access to the door locks and alarm codes, etc.) that need to be protected from evil.
  • And let us not forget about the ones that can take away the reminders of our faith, that which keeps our minds on nobler things. We should think twice about the ones that say the Ten Commandments should not be taught, crosses and other religious items are offensive, and that traditional family values are archaic and no longer a necessity in our modern society. A strong family is one of the greatest protections against the spread of evil. To break it apart is to weaken it allowing the monsters a better opportunity to perform their nefarious deeds. Vampires do not go after the strong and prepared. No, they are like any other predator and would prefer to go after the weak and the frail. We would be wise to not give them that opportunity.

Vampires are supernatural beings found in the fairy tales. But all fairy tales have some form of truth about them. There are evil people in this world who are the real vampires and monsters. They may not have preternatural abilities, but they have evil within them. We must be vigilant and guard ourselves and our families against them. We must not allow the evil to come into our homes and into our minds perpetuating the cycle. We must prepare our children so they may have a chance against this evil.

Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. -C.S. Lewis

It all starts within us and within our choices. If we lead by example, we can show others what a good life is. The 12th century abbot St. Bernard said idleness is the root of all evil. It starts by getting up early to do the activities of the day, staying productive, and wearing ourselves mentally and physically out in order to get a good’s night sleep.

But indeed to one who is active no day is long. So let us lengthen our lives; for the duty and the proof of life consists in action. Cut short the night: use some of it for the day’s business. -Seneca

Examining Epictetus #35: Memento Mori

One day, I will leave this body. Death will come, and there is no stopping it.

Time. Once it is lost, it is gone forever. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Space I can recover. Time, never.”

Death cannot be cheated. Time cannot be recovered. It almost sounds inevitably depressing. Doesn’t it? But…

If I spend one good hour in a fruitful endeavor, would I mourn the passing of that hour? Of course not. The only hours I would regret would be the ones wasted in vain pursuits.

In a similar way, I should consider death. When my time comes, will I mourn a well-lived life? Absolutely not, for I made the best use of what I was given. Time doesn’t even matter here. Well-lived over ten years or a hundred is still well-lived. My only regret at death would be if I never really lived at all.

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Death is a part of life. Live well and there will not be a need to mourn when your journey comes to an end. Mourn not for others who have lived well and are also at an end. Rather, we should celebrate their life and wish them well on their next adventure. Our separation from them will indeed be sad, but such is life, and such is death. This we cannot prevent. All we can do is continue to live and walk our own journey.

I am not eternal, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour I must come and, like an hour, pass away. – Epictetus

Memento Mori. Translated from Latin, it means to remember death. This is not a morbid thing but rather a call to live the life you have been given.

Contemplating Seneca #96: Subtract Desire

Here is a universal piece of advice that spans across cultures and times:

Desire Less

Starting with Solomon in the Judeo-Christian world: Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. –Ecclesiastes 5:10

From the Buddhist and the Second Noble Truth: All suffering comes from desire.

And then from the Greeks and Romans:

The man who overcomes his desires is braver than his enemies. –Aristotle

Wealth consists in not having great possessions, but in having few wants. –Epictetus

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. –Seneca

I have to watch myself. There seems to always be a desire to possess more, but what’s the point. Do I really need these things? Will they make my life better?

In terms of possessions, I have to look at the value of the item. Not necessarily how much it costs financially today, but how much it will cost me in the future. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Benefits would be an improvement to my life. Cost would be a subtraction such as time and money. A good example would be a free game on your phone. The cost today might be minimal, or in this case nothing, but what it would cost you in time and money (which you are not making while playing the game) could be enormous. Is that free game worth it? Is it really free?

When it comes to looking at the benefits versus the costs, there are some areas where I try to reduce budgetary limitations. If it benefits mind, body, and soul, should I be concerned about how much I desire in terms of possessions? For me, it is a tough question. Will the cost of a formal education be worth it in the end? Can I justify spending X amount of dollars on a book authored by someone who spent a lifetime working in that subject? [The answer has to be YES] Is that piece of exercise equipment really worth that much and do I really need it? [Only if I use it]

I need to desire less when it comes to possessions. It is a tough dichotomy. I need to become a minimalist in owning trivial things. But the things that truly add value to my life and may help me add values to the lives of others, I can’t be afraid to go after.

Philosophically throughout the ages “to desire less” is the right thing to do. How to balance it is still something that I need to figure out. In time, I will get there.

“If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” Attributed to Epicurus in Seneca’s 21st Letter to Lucilius: On the Renown Which My Writings Will Bring You

Contemplating Seneca #77

I went down another rabbit hole of reading Seneca’s Letters when I got to the seventh, On Crowds. It is a good one that speaks much of what is going on in the U.S. today. For example, this gem:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.

But unfortunately, this is not where I am going with today’s selection from the Stoic philosopher. Instead, my mind is on this piece that comes later in the letter:

Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.

Are you associating with those who will make you a better person? Are you giving back by making those around you better?

Today is a call for us to consider our “crowd.” They should elevate us to be better humans. We should return the favor and in doing so, one small drop in the world becomes a better place.

I especially love the last part of the above quote: for men learn while they teach. It might be one of the greatest ways to learn. It has helped me over the years. Ben Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” There is no better way of involvement than in being able to teach others.

Farewell.

A Drop in the Universe, A Speck in Time

I turned out the lights and turned on my Kindle. It was bedtime, and the Kindle my nightly ritual. A little light reading before bed helps me sleep. It tires my eyes and quiets my mind. Usually I read a bit of fiction, but this night I read from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The translation I have is old. It is filled with thee’s, thou’s, and thine’s. I like it as it reminds me of the King James Bible.

The emperor had a way with words and the passage from the sixth book did its magic on me. After a few minutes of reading, I had to put the book down. I had to digest the words. Sleep didn’t come quick this night.

Consider where we are right now in this time, in this space. Compare it to the big picture of the universe. A small point in time. A tiny pinprick in the vastness of the cosmos. Here we are, veritable miracles of life, so small and fragile. But here we are, together. Despite all our differences and problems, we are in it together, occupying the here and the now.

We have a tendency to make things seem bigger than they are. Our problems, because they impact us personally seem, to matter more than the problems of those down the street, those across the globe. Yet in the grand scheme of things, they are nothing but minor trifles.

This is the call for unity. When you meet your fellow humans, it is one miracle colliding with another. The dog, the cat, and even the bird on the front porch, all miracles, all points in time and space. True charity is that we treat all our brothers and sisters with love despite our differences. True charity is to honor those we meet with the dignity and respect that all creatures deserve. We are one moment in time, one speck in the universe. Our impact may seem small. But to those we come across, it can be enormous. The waves our impressions leave can lift others and sweep them to safer shores, or it can crash upon them shattering them on the rocks. What impact will you leave today? How will you be remembered tomorrow?

The words of the Stoic Emperor have made their marks on my soul. I hope it has the same impression on your’s:

Asia, Europe are corners of the universe: all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable. All things come from thence, from that universal ruling power either directly proceeding or by way of sequence. And accordingly the lion’s gaping jaws, and that which is poisonous, and every harmful thing, as a thorn, as mud, are after-products of the grand and beautiful. Do not then imagine that they are of another kind from that which thou dost venerate, but form a just opinion of the source of all.

He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything which has taken place from all eternity and everything which will be for time without end; for all things are of one kin and of one form.

Frequently consider the connexion of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another; for one thing comes in order after another, and this is by virtue of the active movement and mutual conspiration and the unity of the substance. Adapt thyself to the things with which thy lot has been cast: and the men among whom thou hast received thy portion, love them, but do it truly, sincerely. –Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations Book 6:33-35

Contemplating Seneca #50: Righteousness

One of my all-time favorite books that I love to refer to is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. For some reason, the imagery of that story will never leave my mind. It is a book about walking the path. To make it to the end, Christian cannot deviate to the right or to the left. He has to keep going. Whether you are a believer in Christ or not, this book has a universal appeal that is still relevant 345 years after it was written.

The image I am calling to mind today is that of Christian at the beginning of his journey. He is carrying a large weight on his back, and there is no respite from this burden. It isn’t until Christian comes to the cross that he can unload the weight of sin from off of his back.

The most important contribution to peace of mind is never to do wrong. –Seneca, Letter #105: On Facing the World with Confidence

Far from perfection, I have felt the burden of my wrong-doings. Like a stone laid upon my conscience, the weight has been so great that even my posture has been affected. The only way to gain relief is to make amends. To put the skeletons in the closet is to increase the pressure on the mind. By confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness, we can release ourselves from the yoke of our transgressions.

Wouldn’t it be better to never have to carry this weight at all? How much taller could we stand if we were never held down by our own mistakes? It might be an impossibility to never do wrong, but it is something we can certainly strive towards.

How?

Let’s start with the minor mistakes, the accidents. Things happen. Life happens and accidents are a part of life. Give them the attention they deserve and then move on. Don’t let it bog you down.

But the conscious decisions to do wrong, they are the ones we need to look out for. The conscience is like a muscle. You can put a strain on it, and it will feel the burden. Continue to add a greater and greater weight, and soon you will become immune to the weight (the ominous hardening of your heart).

Guard your mind. Mind your actions. Refrain from wrong-doing and you can become righteous. Not only is this an honorable pursuit, but you will have the freedom and peace that can only be achieved by a mind free from the weight of guilt