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Coffee & Wisdom 02.63: Eupraxsophy Three Times Fast Part 4

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 of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. And this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at eupraxsophy. What the heck is that? Well, it’s a shot at a secular way of living, of living a life. And what would that mean? The term was coined by Paul Kurtz and it means good practical wisdom. But he is going back into ancient Greek and Roman philosophies and using the language of Greek philosophy to try to talk about how do we live a non-religious life, a secular life, and live that fully and ethically and exuberantly, as Paul Kurtz put it. Because where he’s really getting this idea is the concept of eudaimonia, which was the goal of ancient Greek and Roman philosophies. It’s usually translated as happiness. That is a mistranslation, really. It means human flourishing, how to live that good life of meaning and purpose. There were what were known as you Eudaimonic Schools in ancient Greece and Rome. There are four main ones: Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics and Skeptics. As I pointed out yesterday, these words still exist in the English language today, so they were very important as concepts. The Epicureans and the Stoics are the main ones who have a program developed around living that flourishing life. The cardinal virtues of both Epicureanism and Stoicism go like this: Wisdom, Temperance, Justice and Courage. Those are the the attributes of a person who will be having this meaning-filled, purposeful life, according to these ancient philosophies. or example, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from bad. But I have seen the beauty of the good and the ugliness of the bad. And I have realized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own…not the same family and class, but the same mind…and possessing a share of all that is sacred.” (That’s a) very stoic way of looking at it. Yeah, I know what’s going to happen today. I’m going to meet all kinds of problems and people, but I will not contribute to the ugliness of the world. I choose not to do that. So, spiritual exercises to lead to that kind of purpose-filled, calm and tranquil life. As I mentioned yesterday, Pierre Hadot, who was a classical philosopher and historian in France, 1922-2010, became a Roman Catholic priest, but quit in disillusionment. And he began to think about how we can construct a spiritual practice around ancient philosophy (rather than that which is in the Roman Catholic tradition) which is much more available or was at that time. His central thesis is that ancient philosophy was a bios (where we get the term biography), a bios or a way of life, a way of living a good life. He got this idea because the most famous spiritual exercises in the Western world is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Every Catholic priest will have studied that. They are spiritual practices that are memorized according to the fingers on the hand, and they break down into four parts that are usually seen as a retreat, a month long retreat. But they also can be four parts of a day or the exercises that you go through. If you’re interested in this, is right there from Loyola Press. I won’t go through them too much. But what Hadot realized is that these practices, which are very taken very seriously by the Roman Catholic tradition and in Christianity itself, actually are, if you take the content out, they’re mental exercises, they’re things you do in your mind and you can take out the Christian content and, by golly, they are still useful. And then he began to realize, you know what, I think those Stoics and those Epicureans were doing the same thing. So, for example, the Daily Examen in the Jesuit tradition of Ignatius Loyola, “Prepare Your Heart and Mind; center yourself by lighting a candle,…Review the day with gratitude; think back on the joys and the delights,… Pay attention to your emotions; center yourself,…Select a part of your day to pray,…Pray for tomorrow. Well, how do we do that in a secular way? Because the ancient Greeks and Romans, even though there was a substratum of religion to this, the Greek philosophies really developed out of a secular way of thinking that don’t have much to do with any kind of supernatural. Well, one of the things that Hadot, and this is a quote from Hadot, realized, was the practice of prosoche, which is The Practice of Attention. Well, by golly, we know that, don’t we, because we just saw that in the Loyolan meditative tradition. “Attentive people live in the constant presence of the universal Reason which is imminent within the cosmos….” Universal reason is everywhere. We can look at the way the trees grow and the clouds go by and there is a pattern to all of this. “They see all things from the perspective of this Reason and consent joyfully to its will.” We discussed two days ago, I believe it was, that it was all important in ancient Greek thinking to figure out what kind of cosmos you think you live in and then figure out the rules based on that basic idea of how reality actually works. So “7 Stoic Exercises for Inner Peace.” This is part of the set of circumstances set in motion by Pierre Hadot looking at these old practices, the Stoic Happiness Triangle looks like this. What we’re looking for is eudaimonia. Happiness is the wrong translation, more like a flourishing of life having meaning and purpose and something that makes us enthusiastic about getting up and having a day. So first off, take responsibility. It’s you who is doing this or not. So you are it. Then on the right, of the lower left side, live with Arete. We discussed this idea of “excellence or quality”, is the translation, “Expressing your highest version, moment to moment to moment.” No, you can’t do it. Of course we can’t, but we want to strive toward doing our best, being a quality human being, and active in excellent ways every moment of every day. That’s the goal. And then on the right side, “Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.” Absolutely central to Stoic ideas. So there are these practices that come out of Stoicism. We will be going through just one of them today and then I’ll talk about the rest of them tomorrow. “Practice Negative Visualization… Practice Self-control… Practice “I Don’t Care” Attitude… Journaling… Practice Momento Mori (that’s remembering death)… “View From Above” (the mile high view)… Amore Fati (loving what is actually happening to you)… Taking Time to Reflect.” Those are the spiritual practices of the Stoics. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts,” says the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Now remember, any time you’re going to see on memes floating around out there, when Stoics or Greek philosophers in general are using the term “happiness,” that is a mistranslation. So the flourishing of life, of your life, depends upon the quality of your thoughts, is what he’s actually trying to say there. Epictetus: :Happiness, the flourishing of your life and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. This is the foundation of Stoic thinking. Some things are within your control and some things are not.” Some things are within your control and some things are not. What you have to figure out is what is in your control and what is not in your control. What is in your control, get out there and control it. What is not in your control, it’s not your problem. Try to get over it. Or, as Viktor Frankl said, (he’s a survivor of the concentration camps and a psychologist who practiced Neostoicism), “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He couldn’t change the fact that he was in a Nazi concentration camp, so that wasn’t going to change for him. So what did he do? He changed how he was thinking about his situation. So any time, anywhere, you can change the way you are looking at your reality. That’s the basis of Stoicism. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (some of you know him as the writer of the Black Swan), very rational guy, he is a practicing Neostoic today, “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.” Again, being stoic about it. That exists in the English language. But it’s a mistranslation. It’s a misunderstanding of what Stoicism is, because the early Christians attach Stoicism as a very bad idea, since they were trying to stamp out what they saw as Paganism. So Stoicism takes on this bad negative idea. But really, it’s not. If you look at the real deal. Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, getting them down to manageable size, in other words, not their elimination. Or is this cartoon says, “Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words…You are but an impression and not at all what you seem to be.” That’s Epictetus from the 1st century of the Common Era. As a Stoic philosopher, you are but an impression and not at all what you seem to be. So this very Stoic person is saying, “I can’t affect this, I can’t change this. So I’m going to change my attitude about it and not think of it as a negative thing.” Well, I want to hit just one of these seven today because I want to spend some time on that tomorrow. The first one is “Malorum Premeditatio.” That is, think about the worst or the worst-case scenario. It’s The Power of Negative Thinking. So you think, oh, you know, I’m just worried all the time. Well, the Stoics have a good idea about that. Think about the negative. And that is, you know, oh, I don’t know if my car will start. Well, let’s go on with that. What if your car is stolen? What if it has burned? What if you don’t have a car anymore? Just go for the worst-case scenarios and always and, you know, when you actually face whatever really happened. Yeah. It’s not it’s not going to feel like a great deal of problem. Epictetus has this to say: “Keep in mind the nature of things, delightful things, useful things, beloved things. Start with something small, a cup, perhaps. Think, if this breaks, I can bear the loss. Now…work on thinking this about everything you know.” What if everything you know is broken like a cup. Yeah, it’s negative thinking and in U.S. Culture we’re kind of, oh, don’t think about those bad things. Accentuate the positive. Well, what the Stoics are saying is: If you really let yourself go on the negative, then actually you’re going to be pretty happy about the way things go because nothing is going to be as bad as what you imagined it to be. So the Malorum Premeditatio, think about the really bad things, so that you can “keep calm and get your stoic on.” One of the better books, if you are interested in pursuing stoicism, and I should say, there’s lots of free stuff on the web, you can, I promise you get a full course on stoicism just by doing a little web search around. Massimo Pigliucci is a humanist. He’s a part of the American Humanist Association. I worked with him on some conferences and things. Great guy. He is Italian and he is fluent in ancient Latin and in Greek. And so he is a very good person to be looking to to translate the way the Stoics were actually thinking about these things. And then he practices Neostoic lifestyle today. So it’s called How to be a Stoic, using ancient philosophy to live a modern life. I think that’s probably the best introduction to Stoicism, if you are so inclined. Well, we will talk more about Stoicism tomorrow. I’ll go through those 7 Steps to Being a Stoic, about how to do mental exercises to calm ourselves down, find that inner tranquility, and then a way of acting in the world, that, as the Stoics will always say, needs to be as a social animal, doing good for our society and other people as a whole. It is April and our monthly theme at First Unitarian Society is Becoming. What better theme, when we’re talking about the ways to quiet the mind and focus. So that’s what we will be talking about. And I’ll be back with those 7 Stoic Exercises tomorrow. Thank you.

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