Category Archives: philosophy

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Appreciation and imagining loss

The Stoics have this practice of imagining loss in order to become accustomed to it and be less attached to these temporary things. You start by imagining that the loss of small things, and then move on to imagining larger losses like the death of a loved one. Seneca writes in his Moral Essays:


He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.

and Epictetus advises in Discourses:


This is what you ought to practise from morning till evening. Begin with the smallest, the most vulnerable things, like a pot, or a cup, and then advance to a tunic, a paltry dog, a mere horse, a bit of land; next yourself, your body and its limbs, your children, wife, brothers. Look about on every side and cast these things away from you. Purify your judgements, lest something not your own have become fastened to you, or grown together with you, and cause you pain when it is torn loose.

http://puffin.creighton.edu/phil/Stephens/OSAP%20Epictetus%20on%20Stoic%20Love.htm

You might think that this kind of meditation is depressing. I think it enhances my appreciation of what’s in my life, and thus contributes to my happiness. Reflecting on loss–or even non-existence–helps me appreciate how things and people have influenced me.

 2014-08-13 To know something's distinctiveness - #philosophy.png

Tangential story applying this to my life:

Actually, keeping my cool around cats and people is pretty easy. Probably the thing that I most need to practise patience with is Internet Explorer, as I occasionally feel annoyed and frustrated about it. (Not super-frustrated, but still pretty grumbly.) Maybe the next time I find myself peeved by cross-browser differences, I can remind myself of things to appreciate about IE. I’m sure the Internet would have grown slower without a default browser on lots of people’s computers, and IE keeps lots of people employed or consulting–all the things that need to be tweaked. And things are getting better now! At least I don’t have to code for IE6 any more, or even IE7. Besides, IE makes a good basis for humour. ;)

Philosophy. Not just for the big questions–also for the little tech annoyances opportunities to practise patience.

“Call no man happy until he is dead” – I think it’s okay to be happy

In a comment on my reflection on leisure, Thomas Worthington mentioned the story of Solon and Crœsus. Crœsus had asked Solon who the happiest person was, and Solon’s answers focused on people who had died admirable deaths. The idea is that you can’t say people are happy or blessed person until they die, since their luck could always go bad.

 I’d come across that idea before. Aristotle says something similar in Nichomachean Ethics:

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (1101a10)

It got me thinking about the differences between how I think of happiness and how I think they thought of happiness. I can see the point of those ancient philosophers, but it seems unnecessary to focus on what people would judge as happy.

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead - #philosophy

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead – #philosophy

For me, it’s much more useful and more real to be able to think of myself as happy, and to keep in mind that the ups and downs of fortune are small waves in a very deep lake. It’s like Louis CK’s rant, Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. I’m writing this on a computer and the text will be sent off through radio signals and electrons and photos around the world! And I have windows and indoor plumbing and all these other luxuries beyond those enjoyed by ancient kings.

But this kind of happiness comes easy to me, at least at this moment. We’ve learned a lot about how the mind works, but not enough – there are things that can take away your ability to appreciate and enjoy and hope. (Note to future Sacha: if this happens to you, remember that things will work out.) In the meantime, giving myself permission to be happy–not a tempting-fate sort of happy, just an appreciative sort of happy–makes it easier for me to enjoy life.

People have different ideas about happiness. Some people think happiness requires wealth, fame, pleasure, freedom. I doubt there’s much point in trying to change someone’s mind about happiness or get them to agree with you on your definition; and even your definition might change over time, as you learn from other people. Live your own life as well as you can. Perhaps by illuminating those possibilities, you might help other people explore their own.

Becoming comfortable with simplicity and even discomfort

Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Epistles (Letter 18) that made me think about voluntary simplicity:

Such is the course which those men I have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

… Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount be fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort.

… For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

I’m careful with my finances because I don’t want to end up in the kinds of situations that I see play out around me and on the Internet. I know I can’t eliminate those risks (no one is immune to bad luck!), but I can try to minimize the risks.

I’m pretty insulated from everyday troubles. I’m not often hungry or thirsty. I usually bring a bottle of water and a snack in my bag, and in the city, there are always places to go. We have what we need and want, and we don’t worry about where our next meal is coming from or how we can keep a roof over our heads.

Sometimes when I talk to people a little further ahead in life, I’m reminded that prosperity can lead to complacency. Some people tell me they wish they could do something like this experiment of mine with semi-retirement, but on the other hand, they like their current lifestyle a lot too. I like keeping my life simple and my budget almost student-ish. I check out thrift stores for clothes. I shop for groceries with a list, do the math when it comes to prices, and enjoy home-cooked meals more than restaurant steaks. It’s a way of minimizing risks and increasing safety, I guess. If I don’t get used to the good life – if I fight lifestyle inflation and hedonic adaptation – then I can more easily weather any downturns in markets or luck.

How can I get even better at this? In terms of food, it’s good to practice with simple ingredients and simple techniques. Then the main differentiator would be skill in choosing, combining, and cooking. I can still enjoy the things that I’m not very skilled at. I might even skip a meal, or eat lightly. In terms of transportation, maybe I should walk long distances once in a while, so I don’t get too accustomed to taking transit or biking. In terms of things, I can give more things away, or box things up temporarily.

It’s good to get pleasure from the small stuff. I can drink tap water here in Toronto, which still boggles me no end. I can read hundreds of books from the library. I can walk and feel the sun shining. I can breathe and feel my lungs inflate. What do I need richer pleasures for, if these simple ones can be enough?

Learning philosophy at the right time

When I took the required philosophy courses in university, I was too young for it. We all were, I think — inarticulate adolescents with little life experience. Perhaps a brilliant teacher would have been able to teach it anyway, and perhaps for some of my classmates our teachers were brilliant. I struggled with the courses, though. The topics seemed abstract and impractical. We read Plato’s Republic and were quizzed on his ideal society. We read the Nichomachean Ethics and differentiated among types of friendship. We read Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on totalitarianism and discussed terror. But nothing really made an impact on my everyday life, aside from the unexpected oddness of being comfortable with–even finding a sort of joy in–the hopelessness and despair described by Sartre when it seemed, based on how we were taught and how my classmates responded, that I should have had more philosophical discomfort with the concept.

Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book 1 – 1095a)

The normal course of events, perhaps, might be that I’d revisit these topics later in life. Much later, the way people conscious of mortality tend to think about life. I think this 5-year experiment of mine nudged me to think about the best use of time, and from there to wonder about Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life. Time and patience

I’m not quite at the point of understanding Heidegger and similar thinkers. I don’t need to get there, I think, in order to get some benefit from applying philosophy to life. I want to train my mind to see clearly, want the right things, not want the wrong things, act on these right judgments, and be able to explain what I’m learning to myself and to others. Starting this early makes sense, because then I can avoid bad habits (or unlearn them before they get ingrained) and enjoy the benefits for longer.

Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one’s mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 4

In a later letter, Seneca also tells us that we don’t have to put this kind of thinking off until we are comfortably settled. This reminds me of how people set these constantly moving goalposts for themselves (“I just need to make $XXX,000″ – and then higher, and higher), and why it made sense to me to risk jumping earlier rather than later. We’ll see how this works out.

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 17

Now is a good time, I think. I can train my thinking and inspire my writing with classic, clear texts, and I can work on learning things that are common to more people than my other niche interests are.

Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant

As an experiment (and because the timing works), I have a three-month break coming up. It’ll be quite a different experience from the 1-month breaks I’ve been taking so far, probably as different as the way that having an entire weekday to yourself is different from squeezing your activities into an evening. So I have a few questions to think about:

  • How can I make the most of that time?
  • With the answers to that question in mind, how can I make the most of the weekdays I have until then? How do those activities compare with working a little more from August to September?
  • Considering the most likely situations, how would I like to adjust my work/discretionary-time balance?

It got me thinking about what I actually do during my leisure time, and why. Oddly enough, despite the ability to spend lots of time reading and writing, I still end up writing at roughly the same rate I did back when I was working full-time. Some days the words flow freely and I queue up a few posts, other days I’m casting about for ideas. My reading has shifted a little, and for the better (I think). I doubt I’d have had the patience to read philosophy and reflect on it slowly back when I read in the evenings and the occasional weekend.

Aristotle writes in the Nichomachean Ethics on the topic of why we choose what we choose:

But that [virtue and vice] are concerned with the same things might become manifest to us also from these considerations: there being three objects of choice and three of avoidance–the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant together with their three contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful–in all these the good person is apt to be correct, the bad person to err, but especially as regards pleasure. (1104b30)

It might be useful, then, to reflect on these leisure activities and figure out how they stack up against Aristotle’s objects, along with some notes on how adding more time to these activities makes sense. This will help me make a decision about the months leading up to November, and for after the break (depending on how things turn out).

Legend:

  • T: Well-served by additional time
  • N: Noble
  • A: Advantageous
  • P: Pleasant
T N A P Activity and notes
T N A P Work so that I can develop my skills and reputation, help people out, make a difference, and enjoy excellence; More time = better skills, more help, more appreciation
T N A P Write or draw what I’m learning so that I can understand, remember, and share; More time = more application and sharing, and better skills too
T N A ? Spend time with people (online/offline) so that I can appreciate other people’s interestingness; More time = more opportunities to get to know people
T N A Copy, review, and apply my notes so that I can learn more; More time = deeper understanding and application, more connections among ideas
T A P Tidy up, take care of chores/errands, and cook so that we have a smoothly running household and so that W- feels wonderful; More time = cleaner and smoother-running household, but possibly diminishing returns
T A P Learn Latin so that I can read and enjoy older works, and so that I can enjoy learning; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Learn Japanese so that I can enjoy listening to anime/podcasts and reading tech news/blogs; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Bike so that I can exercise, get somewhere, and save money; More time = more explorations
T A ? Go to meetups and talks so that I can learn and meet people; More time = more knowledge and connections
T A ? Build simple furniture or fix things around the house so that I can make/repair things that suit us (haven’t done this in a few years, but worth revisiting); More time = better DIY skills
T A ? Work on Emacs so that I can learn more, customize it better, and help others learn; More time = more knowledge and resources
T A Finish projects so that I can reduce mental clutter; More time = more stuff done
? N A P Exercise so that I can become healthier; More time = fitter, but constrained by gradual training program
? N A Read nonfiction books so that I can recognize and articulate ideas, and so that it prompts thinking / writing. More time = more reading, but application may be better
? A P Have a massage so that I can learn more about my muscles; More time = more relaxed and more aware
? A P Draw what I’m watching or reading so that I can practise drawing people and so that I get more out of the movie; More time = better drawing skills
? A ? Read social media updates and interact with people online so that I can maintain connections and learn from people’s lives; More time = more interaction
? A Read and write e-mail so that I can help or learn from more people; More time = prompter replies
? A Balance my books and plan my finances so that I can make better decisions; More time = better prepared, but possibly diminishing returns
? A Sew so that I can make or fix things suited for us; More time = projects, better attention to detail, improved skills
? A Research and buy things to improve our quality of life; More time = wider awareness and better decisions
? P Play with the cats so that I can be amused and so that I can appreciate them; More time = happier cats
? P Garden so that I can slow down and enjoy watching things grow; More time = more attention, but limited by knowledge and conditions
N A P Cook at Hacklab so that I can connect with people and learn new recipes; More time = more elaborate or consistent meals, but limited by frequency
N A Simplify our things so that I can practise detachment and resourcefulness; More time = simpler life
A P Read blogs so that I can get a sense of other people’s lives and challenges; More time = greater awareness and possible interactions
A Do paperwork and plan ahead so that we can minimize risks; More time = better organization, but diminishing returns
P Watch movies so that I can spend time with W-, accumulate more in-jokes, and enjoy other people’s work; More time = more shared experiences
P Watch amusing videos and read fiction/blogs/analyses online so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Play video games so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance and enjoy figuring things out; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Sleep so that I am well-rested; More time = an excess of sleep

Hmm. Tabulating and sorting it like this is actually pretty useful. I can see why work is so tempting for me, despite the opportunity to do other things. It is an opportunity to work towards and practise nobility/excellence through work; it is advantageous in terms of resources and reputation, which contributes to safety; and it’s pleasant, especially when I get a chance to do some rapid-prototyping magic or some custom analytics.

Writing and drawing are less clear and more self-directed. But they are useful techniques for working towards nobility; they are advantageous both in terms of the content and the skills I develop; and both the process and the results of figuring things out are pleasant. If I spend more time and attention on these things, I can improve my ability to observe and articulate. It may take me years to get the hang of these skills, but they are good to develop.

I can develop both writing and drawing in the afternoons and evenings, but I do notice a difference in attention. I usually watch movies in the evening as a way of spending time with W-. This is okay for slow and light writing, but does not lend itself well to study, deep reflection, or application. When I worked full-time, I generally wrote in the evenings (sometimes before dinner, sometimes shortly after) or on one of the weekend afternoons. I like writing on weekday afternoons, now. I like the pace. Would I pick that over consulting? Yes, actually, depending on what kinds of tasks I’d work on. I can put off writing when there are important and time-sensitive tasks to be done, but writing is also important to me long-term, and I’m willing to take on a little risk in order to experiment with it.

Hmm. If I do two to three days of work a week–maybe even four–from now to October, while leaving at least one full day for writing, that’s probably good. I can front-load the writing, since that’s important to me. If I feel it could use more time, I might adjust what I work on. I’ll spend the usual time cooking and taking care of house-things, although I might spend a little more time during the week to cook fresh dinners. I can use the three-month break to experiment with more writing and drawing. In the meantime, I can avoid getting used to the additional income by stashing it all in a safety net, opportunity fund, or similar budget. If we keep our lifestyle the same, it’s easy to evaluate work for its own sake.

Are there some smaller-value activities that I should spend more time on instead of reading, writing, and drawing? Spending time with people is nice, but it can be a little iffy in terms of energy, so I might take the occasional opportunity and use the rest of the time on other things. I can review my notes instead of reading lots of new books, and use those notes for material for blog posts and experiments. When I find myself looking for non-writing activities, this table might be handy to review.

Let’s see how this works out.

That moment when time comes together

I reflect on mortality pretty frequently; at least every week, and probably much more often than that. If you do it just a few times each year, you’ll hardly get used to it. I think it makes life sweeter, knowing that life’s so short.

I used to clearly separate this meditation from other things because I sometimes cried. Now I sometimes find myself simultaneously aware of it as I play with the cats, hang out with friends, talk to my parents, or spend time with my husband. Those moments feel oddly grace-ful, like I’m seeing one of our cats as a kitten, at the end of her life, and beyond, all super-imposed. It’s interesting to imagine who someone was before you knew them, and to trace their impact on your life by seeing their absence–or even non-existence, “It’s a Wonderful Life” sort of not-existed-at-all-ness.

When I feel this way, it’s easier to be appreciative and grateful for the gift that was given. It’s easier to feel safe, oddly enough, knowing that I can look on without clinging too much.

I’m not always like this, of course. I am often less thoughtful, more immediate. I think it would be interesting to be in that kind of moment more often, though. Perhaps writing about it like this will help me remember what it’s like, and how to do things with that perspective–even in those normal moments when time is separate and not all together.