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Coffee & Wisdom 02.61: Eupraxsophy Three Times Fast Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about Eupraxsophy.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we are looking at “eupraxophy,” which I cannot say three times fast because, you know, that’s a pretty hard word. But it …is a term coined by a Secular Humanist, Paul Kurtz. He later changed the spelling to add the S (eupraxsophy), so it looks more like phil-os-ophy, and that would be the correct spelling actually, if you’re using the Greek roots. What does it mean to be practicing that? eu is “good.” Then the next word probably is prax that becomes sort of English “praxis.” We do use the term even though it’s still in its Greek form, or it could be praktike, which becomes the English word “practical,” somehow about doing or embodying “sophy” (i.e.) “wisdom.” So it’s something about good doing wisdom or good practical wisdom is the idea. Paul Kurtz, 1925-2012. He was the author and editor of more than 50 books, a professor, well known worldwide. He was the founder and chair of the Institute of Science and Human Values, founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry. And you see him here featured on the front of the magazine Free Inquiry. Also, he founded the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which is one of those things we need to talk about some time as a group, looking at the supernatural and magical claims and debunking those to try figuring out how they’re done. “Eudaimonia” is the actual base of what Paul Kurtz was talking about. It is a Greek term and it does come directly out of Greek and then goes into Roman philosophy. Eudaimonia is often mistranslated as happiness. Actually, in the ancient world, people weren’t talking about what we would consider happiness, but rather they were talking about eu, “good,” and daimon, “a good spirit,” having a good spirit, being content with life. How do you become content in your life? was the basic question for all of the various Greek philosophical forms that then go into the Roman days and often on into Christianity, or they are blotted out at the time of Christianity, but continue somehow within Western literature and sometimes goes into Islamic thought. The “Eudaimonic Schools” of the Greeks and Romans is what I want to talk about today, the Eudaimonic Schools where those philosophies that said, how do we live a good life? How do we become flourishing, fulfilled, purpose-filled human beings? Most of the Greek philosophical schools were based in this idea. The up front for all of these schools is you have to decide on two things before you start as baseline. Number one, what is the nature of the universe or reality? and two, what is the human being capable of doing and knowing? Now, we have to look at this closely because…Oh, well, everybody knows that. Well, no, everybody doesn’t know that. This is exactly where people begin their disagreement about what reality is like. What is the nature of the universe? Well, God created it, God as a transcendent God outside and rules the universe just like a monarch. That’s one way of seeing the nature of the universe. Ah, the nature of the universe? It came from a “big bang” and is flying apart at an accelerating rate and will eventually stop and die and meet death. That’s another way of looking at reality, etc, etc, etc. There are many ways of doing that. That’s called an ontology, as we have discussed over time, the way that things are being. The second question is epistemology, how do we know that? So what is the human being capable of doing and knowing, again, as strictly Christian terms? Well, you are given a certain free will by God, and then you must choose within this life’s things in order to reach salvation in an afterlife. That’s one way of seeing reality. There are others, for example. you might say human beings evolved. We are social animals. We are somewhere on the continuum of animals, so these two ideas form a very baseline foundation and the Eudaimonics School said, you got to figure that out first. Just a little quote here, this is from Marcus Aurelius, one of the Roman emperors who was also a stoic philosopher. He lived from 121 to 180 of the Common Era. And he says this in his book Meditations. “At last it is time for you to decide what universe you are a part of and what powers are in that universe. At last you must realize that you have only a short time in this universe, a short time in which to clear away the clouds from your mind. After that, your time and you will go away and never return.” So that’s the idea from stoicism. That clearly states the eudaimonic purpose in you must decide what kind of reality you live in. That’s number one. Then he goes on to say what human beings can do. “In one way, humanity, since I am human, requires that I do good for humanity and put up with other human beings.” Do good for humanity and tolerate others. “But because some people make themselves obstacles to my acting ethically, I sometimes grow weary and unobservant of humanity as if people were the sun, the wind or a wild animal. Sure, these can get in the way, but they can’t change my dedication to purpose since I can adapt and stay focused. The mind is capable of shifting and changing,” says Marcus Aurelius, “…making every stop a go. By so doing every obstacle makes the way clearer, every roadblock clears the road.” This is indeed the source and, I think mistranslation from my reading, but I’m not very good in Greek, “… the obstacle is the way.” That’s such a great catch phrase for really summarizing Marcus Aurelius sense to his stoicism in general, “The Obstacle is the Way.” But he was really says is: every obstacle makes the way clearer. Everything that gets in my way helps me figure out the path, and every roadblock clears the road. So the cardinal virtues of the Eudaimonic Schools in Greek philosophy were: Wisdom, Temperance, Justice and Courage. These can, of course, be translated in various ways into English, but this is the traditional way of doing that that goes all the way back to the 16th century in the English language. Wisdom, Temperance, Justice and Courage. I want to look at a few words since we are talking about eupraxsophy as a new neologism in the Greek language. Let’s look a little bit at some of the actual Greek terms that come into these Eudaimonic Schools. In English I guess the best way of saying Eudaimonic School would be the school for a beautiful life or for a fulfilled life. So the first one is “arete.” Arete means ethical excellence, moral virtue and fulfillment of purpose. So, first off you have to figure out what your arete is, your “telos”, where you’re going. Then within that, then you’re going to develop your moral virtues and fulfill your purpose. Arete. Those of you have read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an inquiry into values, by Minneapolis native Robert Pirsig, know that he translates the term arete into “quality.” That’s the center of the book, even though it says “Zen” in the art of motorcycle maintenance, it’s really old Greek philosophy and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Arete as quality. How do we pursue quality both in ourselves and with others? One way to do that is to keep up with the maintenance of your motorcycle, according to Robert Pirsig. Arete and quality, Aristotle had this to say about arete: “We are what we repeatedly do.” Excellence. (Arete), then, is not an act but a habit.” This is very important to understand, (in) all of the Greek schools, is they did not see human life as static in any way. It’s always about becoming. That’s what we’re talking about this …month as a theme at First Unitarian Society, by the way: Becoming, We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act. but a habit. The way to live a moral life is to keep doing it every day, over and over again, is the idea. Other attributes in Greek moral philosophy. one is entheos, that is, “possessed by a God,” or being “in ecstasy or rapt” attention. Part of this word is enthousiasmos, which we get the word enthusiastic, enthused. You’re possessed by this, again (good daimon) so that you are full of life and very ready to do those moral and virtuous things out in the world. You become enthusiastic. You’ll do that by practicing the way of arete, of quality. Another Greek term is euthymia, eu, again means “good” and thumos is “spirit.” In Clinical Psychology Today, we have a term called dysthymia, which means “persistent depressive disorder.” We don’t hear euthymia as much anymore, but it was the attribute of having a good spirit and upbeat, enthusiastic spirit, again, realizing purpose and meaning in life. Seneca, a Roman stoic philosopher, said this: “believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wandering in every direction.” That’s where you get euthymia being on the right path and not listening to those who would say, Oh, come on over here, it’s just as good. So euthymia, having a good spirit. Another is ataraxia. A is “not,” and tarache is “disturbed.” So you’re not disturbed. You are tranquil, you have “equanimity.” We do indeed make a cliché out of Buddhism being ataraxic. But the Greeks also talked about this as part of how to live a good life. You must get into a place where you are tranquil with the world around you. Well, how do you become ataraxic? Well, “the just man is most free from disturbance,…” …That would be taraxia. “…While the unjustice is full of utmost disturbance.” You want to be non disturbed, and the way to do that is to be a just person. That’s one of the four Cardinal Virtues. So now you are ready to translate the big three of the stoic philosophy, apatheia, ataraxia and eudaimonia. Apatheia doesn’t mean apathy as we use it nowadays. That’s one of the misunderstandings of stoic philosophy. Apatheia, a means “without” again or “not” and pathos means “passion” or “suffering.” The Passion of Christ in paintings is about the suffering of Jesus, right? So apatheia means that you are without suffering. It doesn’t mean, meh, don’t buy that T-shirt to be apathetic, but rather to reach a place where you do not suffer the slings and shots of everyday life. Well, how do you do that? That is a central, stoic virtue. Epictetus says it most famously. “We are not disturbed by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens to us.” This is translated in a lot of different ways into English. Sometimes you see we are not disturbed by things, but by our thoughts about things. There are various ways of saying this, but the central idea here is that you can reach apatheia by realizing that the world is not about you and getting over that ego, I, I, I place and saying, you know, I’m going to lighten up a little bit and then you stop the suffering. This goes all the way through into contemporary philosophical and religious thinking. We’ve talked about Alan Watts before. He said, “We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which …were given to us by our society.” That, he thought, was the central way of Asian thought to break out of those understandings and to stop living in the definitions of others. A contemporary, Sam Harris, says this about that: “Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists. We are entirely at the mercy of appearances.” Until we realize that we are watching a movie and watching a movie that was made up for us by our language, by our social circumstances, etc., until we get there, we are going to be disturbed by things and not be able to reach ataraxia. That’s the idea here. Sam Harris, one of the kind of atheistic people in the 90s, he’s backed off of that a little bit now. He’s done quite a bit of work in Buddhist philosophy, wrote a book called Waking Up, a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. He remains an atheist, but he really is focusing now on ideas about how to live a mindful life and ataraxic life, a eudaimonia by reaching a kind of Buddhist-style meditation in our daily lives. If you’re interested in that, he does have a podcast called Making Sense. You can find that online. He has a lot of interviews with Buddhist practitioners and neuroscientists, psychologists, etc., talking about how science can teach us how to reach these stoic virtues, or Buddhist virtues also, as a matter of fact. Tomorrow, I want to talk about putting the old ways of thinking into practice. One of the central people on that was Pierre Hadot. I mentioned him day before last. He was a French philosopher who said, wait a minute, I think that actually these old Greek ideas have a lot to teach us today. We have to go back before Christianity in order to find out what they meant, because Christianity messes with them. But if we go back to the original text, we can really get at a way of practicing spiritual exercises that lead us toward eudaimonia, the life of flourishing. Thanks a lot for listening today. Wednesday night:, Bibles and Beer. What not to say to a burning bush. This one moment in Hebrew scripture when we really get out the theological understanding of ancient Hebrews, of what the God concept meant to them. That’ll be Wednesday night, 7:00 Central Time. And as I mentioned this month, our theme at First Unitarian Society is Becoming, and we’ll be talking about that all month and various of our Times for All Ages, here, and also with our Assembly. So, thanks a lot. And we’ll be back to talk more about Greek spiritual exercises tomorrow. Thank you.

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