Remember Death

Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.

Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:

…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.

The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.

Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

Remember Death

Since ancient times, all across the world, it’s been understood that we should always be aware of death. Socrates said that proper philosopher is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’

Some Muslim Sufis are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, well known for their obsession with death, had a custom where, during festivities, they would bring out a skeleton and cheer to themselves, “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe developed an entire genre of artwork dedicated to memento mori, literally remembering death.

To my mind, the most famous and articulate proponents of this idea were the Stoics, a Greco-Roman school of philosophy that emerged in the third century B.C.E. In his private journal, known as the Meditations, the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The famed Roman statesman and orator Seneca said that we should go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we

“… prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live, and would probably paralyze us with fear. But as another famous Stoic, Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible—by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers tick us off on the road will die; that every time we say bye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again.

Again, the point isn’t to be depressed, despairing, or even nihilistic, but to allow us to put things in perspective and value each finite second we have. The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness.

Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s why we’re still trying to keep this advice thousands of years later.

Daily Survivor’s Guilt

With the sheer amount of people that die every day for no good reason — from freak accidents, horrific acts of violence, or even banal causes — regardless of what they were doing and what kind of people they were, you can’t help but feel a sense of survivor’s guilt every day you make it out alive.

It is all the more sobering when you consider that an estimated 106 billion people have existed in this world, and the overwhelming majority of them lived short and brutal lives, ravaged by disease, constant violence, ignorance, oppression, and so many other miseries.

It is sobering to know that the only reason I am in the top 0.00000001 percent of humans who have ever lived, and why I am still here to reflect on it from the comfort of my home, is pure, unearned luck. (And even if someone wants to credit some divine or cosmic force out there looking out for me, you have to wonder why I get that honor when people just as deserving, if not more so, don’t; still feels like pure luck.)

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

The Greek Approach to Love

In modern English, the word love almost exclusively invokes the image of romantic relationships that involve sexual and emotional intimacy. The ancient Greeks divided love into several categories, each pertaining to a wide range of individuals, relationships, or life stages. All were important to a well-rounded life. While, it is always tricky to translate complex concepts from one language to another, here is a rough – and I caution, layman – breakdown:

Eros (Sexual Passion) – Appropriately named after the Greek god of fertility, we might consider this to be lust, infatuation, or strong desire. Eros was seen as something primal and overpowering that could take hold of you and make you lose control. Thus, while the Greeks could certainly enjoy the experience (as do most people in most places) they recognized it as risky, irrational, and thus potentially damaging to both partners.

Philia (Close Friendship) – Various defined as “affectionate regard” or “love between equals”, philia goes beyond the base feeling of sexual desire and concerns a deep camaraderie. In the context of the ancient world, this was usually (though not exclusively) developed between men who fought together in war. It is thus characterized by loyalty, self-sacrifice for one’s comrades, and an openness to sharing one’s feelings.

Storge (Familial Bond) – Sometimes considered a subcategory of philia, this represents the instinctive, deep seated bond between family members, especially a parent to a child. It is a natural love that is based around loyalty, empathy, and commitment. Storge necessarily, if not ideally, required patience, tolerance, and acceptance.

Ludus (Playful Love) – The Greeks applied this to the affection one sees between children or young lovers, which is often naïve, innocent, and sometimes idealistic. It encompasses flirting, jokeful teasing, and the various other “games” we now associate with modern courtship. It is thus a fleeting and immature type of love, albeit not in a bad way: it was (and is) seen as something nearly everyone experiences and must learn from, including in the early stages of a romantic relationship.

Pragma (Long-Lasting Love) – This is the love we associate most with long-term relationships and married couples, especially older ones. It is a love centered not on sexual desire or even just friendship, but on a sense of commitment, dedication, and compromise that allow the love to move past the temporary pull of sexual attraction or playfulness. Pragma is thus sometimes interpreted as a practical, rational, and duty-bound love – though too much of it could turn one’s relationship into a more transactional experience.

Philautia (Self-Love) – The Greeks were pretty conflicted about this one, since it could come out in diametrically opposed ways. On the one hand, there is unhealthy self-love – what we might call narcissism – in which you became self-absorb, focused on material gain, and had an unrealistically high view of yourself. At the other end, there was the type of self-love that we might associate with self-confidence or self-esteem: recognizing your strengths and your potential and applying yourself accordingly.

Indeed, the Greeks (like the Buddhists) believed that if you loved yourself in a healthy way, you would become secure, well-adjusted, and thus able to give plenty of love to others. Basically, love for others begins with love for yourself. This can best be understood from a quote by Aristotle’s quote in the Nicomachean Ethics “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Agape (Love for All / Charitable Love) – A fairly broad and complex type of love, agape could be directed to almost any class of persons from loves and relatives, to one’s whole community or distant strangers. Its key defining characteristic is that it is selfless: you get nothing out of it, and the recipient is not expected to give you anything in return (not even love). Hence why the origin of the word charity is agape’s Latin translation, caritas.

Early Christians – who emerged most strongly in the Greek speaking and Greek influenced part of Room – took the term as a description of God’s boundless, universal love for all creation.

To my mind, the lesson from the Greeks would be to recognize the existence of different types of love, realize their importance, and cultivate them as best we can.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

The Hermit Life of Modern China

The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.

An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing  meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.

I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.

Credit: Aeon

How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

A Dutch City Will Soon Experiment With Guaranteed Basic Income

This coming January, the guaranteed basic income will go on trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht, where 250 citizens will receive a flat sum of €960 per month (about $1,100) for two years. The experiment is a collaborative effort between the local government and the Utrecht University School of Economics, and is partly motivated by a desire to find an alternative to the Netherlands’ present welfare system, which many believe it both wasteful and of little benefit to its recipients.

As The Atlantic reports:

The Utrecht proposal—called “Weten Wat Werkt,” or “Know What Works”—includes six test groups, the members of which will receive slightly different stipends under slightly different conditions. In addition to the group that will receive €960 per month without any work obligations, there is a group that will be given that, plus an additional €150 at the end of the month if they provide volunteer services, such as doing maintenance work on schoolyards. And there is another that will have the same option to volunteer, but will get the money at the beginning of the month and have to return it if they don’t volunteer. “Human behavior is always unpredictable,” Groot says. “We want to know what motivates people, what people respond to.”

There are three other test groups. One is made up of welfare recipients who will keep receiving their benefits, but without their usual work obligations. Another is made up of welfare recipients who expressed interest in receiving the €960 stipend but will continue to receive only standard benefits. And then, lastly, there is a control group of welfare recipients who wanted to keep receiving their usual benefits.

Many believe, myself included, that this is an idea whose time has come. Philosophers and economists across the political spectrum have been exploring variations of this concept for centuries, from Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Paine, to libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — even Nixon proposed a similar idea. Continue reading