Stoicism in This Crazy World

marcusaurelius
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Photo: FEE

Why this ancient philosophy is great — and what it lacks

Stoicism seems to be quite the rage recently. New books on this ancient philosophy have seen a rise in the past few years: The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson, even The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. And there have been Stoicons since 2012.

This newfound interest seems to be a reaction to the info overload and emotional flurry brought about by new media. People were already harassed by traffic and bosses and brats and the Joneses before Mark Zuckerberg was born…but now here come Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which constantly flood people with emotions, from disgust to delight to disdain to disappointment— sometimes all within one minute. People are drowning; they need safety vests. Stoicism comes as a lifeboat from heaven.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is not a boat: it is a Greek philosophy founded in 300 BC by Zeno of Citium. Other key philosophers of this Hellenistic-turned-Roman thought — spanning up to 300 AD — were Seneca, who has written the most; Epictetus who, wiser, delegated the task of writing to a student; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and perhaps the poster boy of Stoicism (“Ruler of the Known World — But Not Worldly”).

Stoics believe that no “disaster”, ultimately, is end-of-the-world kind of disastrous: that bad things can happen and do happen, and that we have the power to survive, move on, and not give a damn; that happiness equals virtue and self-mastery, not fortune nor fame nor health nor pleasure, which are all temporary and rot in the end; that our emotions and unbridled perception of the world can cloud our minds, making us fail to understand the truth of things.

Some people mistake Stoicism as absolute repudiation of emotions. In fact, it just abhors excesses. Joy, for example, is something that Stoics cherish. And while anger may be in their gamut of emotions, they try not to give it free rein.

What’s great about Stoicism

Stoicism can give you a more objective, more godlike, perspective. According to Alain de Botton on The School of Life, Seneca demonstrated this to a woman who was grieving his son’s death for years. Asking her to imagine going back to a distant past, flying over beautiful mountain scenes and then to the horrors of another place at that same time, Seneca pointed out that things can’t really be all that bad…and that her sufferings weren’t original or singular. Hence we actually can and would do well to expect the worst whenever something bad happens, knowing that “the worst” isn’t really so bad.

Harsh, right? But such is reality, and Stoicism wants to desensitize us to that. Often we are just too wrapped up in ourselves that we forget the bigger picture and our small role in it. (This is not to say, of course, that we are insignificant, but that there are things larger than ourselves. We can’t be divas.)

Stoicism also helps us to focus on the things we can control, thus promoting inner peace. A key tenet of Stoicism says,

There are things we can control, and things we can’t.

Hence there’s no use cursing the weather or other people, because in the end we really can’t coerce them to do something they can’t or don’t want. Instead Stoicism advises us to concentrate on practicing patience, temperance, courage — that is, virtues we can nurture and control in ourselves. It teaches that virtue is every person’s ultimate goal.

Lastly, in this age of too much emotional spontaneity (thanks to social media and the sentimentalism prevalent in mainstream media), Stoicism may seem like a raft in the turbulent waters of our soul. It helps us to detach ourselves from excessive emotions, treating those feelings as mere clouds in the sky of our minds. We can say, “No matter how cloudy or stormy the sky can get, the sun of reason and will shines brilliantly as ever.” So f*ck feelings — and time is our friend.

What Stoicism lacks

Despite its glories, however, Stoicism seems to lack something crucial to live a good life: juicy, smile-inducing hope.

Yes, expecting the worst may have its immediate and sobering benefits, but knowing that good things will happen in the end (even despite all evidence to the contrary) will catapult us to a much higher level of happiness now — one that is not merely having contentment (eudaimonia), but indeed having joy (gaudium).

Because if we remain at the level of fundamental Stoicism, life and the universe will seem like a mistake. Pointless. Meaningless. After death, nothing. All those knowledge and pains and loves and wisdom we have gained throughout our life will end up being eaten by worms.

But with hope, we can align our philosophy with that principle buried deep in our hearts: that life and the universe are for something better. That the perfection we had been pining for during our lifetime can have its fulfillment — finally — beyond the grave.

In conclusion, Stoicism is great…but add hope. Appreciate the present moment — with all the fireworks of emotions — but let reason reign. And when you see that your route is nowhere but to the worst, expect that if you pursue virtue nonetheless, you’ll ultimately get what is best.

Scandals and Snobbery at Downton Abbey

PBS2
Photo: Carnival

Why this period drama is worth binging on— in style, of course

I knew I was watching too much Downton Abbey when my thoughts started to acquire a British accent. I’m sure other pretentious non-Brit Downton fans experienced the same.

Downton Abbey is a multi-awarded British TV series that ran from 2010 to 2015. Written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it follows the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, who all live at a majestic Jacobethan castle, Downton Abbey, with a story spanning 1912-1926.

Only a few days ago, it was announced that filming of a Downton Abbey movie will begin next month. For sure, interest in the series will leap again. I’m going to get my accent back.

Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) are one of the central couples in the series. Photo: Nick Briggs

So what’s the big deal about Downton?

Dame Maggie Smith — Professor McGonagall — stars as the indefatigably wry, prim, and sagacious Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet. I haven’t seen much of Smith’s other work except in the Harry Potter films, but it is in Downton Abbey where she, in true Violet fashion, barges into your consciousness and dominates it. All her lines are delivered with perfect comedic timing. Sometimes I imagine myself having tea with Lady Violet: I’d sizzle in her gaze like sauteed onion.

Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) is the prudishly wry matriarch of the Crawley family. Photo: Carnival

As a period drama, it’s a fascinating glimpse into an era we secretly miss. A time when people worshiped etiquette and chivalry. A time when people strove to show their dignity and their respect for others through what they wear. One striking feature of that period is how servants — particularly butlers, valets, and footmen — dressed up almost as well as their masters. As Downton’s butler, Carson, would say, that is how families distinguish themselves as noble, that even their servants reflect their glory.

Everything is in apparent order downstairs, thanks to the strictness of butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter). Photo: Gary Moyes

The characters (dozens of them!) are memorably endearing. Aside from Lady Violet, there’s her son, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Gratham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). They have three daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Season 1 begins with the family discovering the fate of the Titatic — Robert’s heir presumptive (and Mary’s second-cousin and fiance) had been in it. And so enter the Crawley’s middle-class distant relatives Matthew (Dan Stevens) and his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who definitely provide more texture to the drama.

And then there are the “downstairs” people, the servants, who lead lives as interesting as those upstairs. Carson (Jim Carter), the strict family butler, is the literal big boss, assisted by the stoic head housekeeper, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan). They keep the household in order. But sometimes they have to keep their own employees in order, too, including rebellious head footman Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and his partner-in-crime Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). And, of course, the Abbey has love teams: Mary and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Sybil and chivalry-incarnate Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Mary’s personal maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Robert’s valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle).

John Bates (Brendan Coyle) is the valet who ends up marrying head maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Photo: Nick Briggs

The series offers an intriguing contrast between the aristocrats and their servants and a perspective on how they ultimately are similar. Whether upstairs or downstairs, life is always rife with scandal and friendship and conspiracy and love. Perhaps the entire range of storylines in an effective dramatic series are explored here: deceptions, betrayals, trysts, verbal wars, actual wars, deaths. It’s feels galore.

The Crawley family and some of their servants. Photo: Carnival

Finally, Downton Abbey gives insights into how the social conditions of the time affected the characters’ lives. You’ll empathize with Mary, who has to figure out if she could marry Matthew, who is from a class lower than hers and is supposed to inherit what could have been hers by the fact that she’s the eldest child of the dower! (In the UK, only male heirs could inherit titles and properties of aristocrats.) You’ll find the dawning of feminism and moderate liberalism among the Crawley ladies encouraging, especially when Sybil motivates a maid to pursue her dreams of becoming an office clerk. You’ll also find how compassion and delicadeza are used when dealing with a homosexual scandal at Downton. Overall, the series provides a look into the transition from the stringent, prudish attitude of the 19th century to the modern, more libertarian mentality of the 20th.

Official teaser image for the Downton Abbey movie

Unfortunately, Downton Abbey isn’t available on Netflix. But it is on PBS Passport and Amazon Prime (and other sources *wink wink*). And while you probably don’t have to watch all 6 seasons to appreciate the movie, you’ll still miss one-fourth of your life if you don’t.

Try it. If it’s not your cup of tea or you don’t have time, don’t blame yourself. After all, as Lady Violet would say:

“Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s so middle-class.”

Obliger, Upholder, Questioner, Rebel — what are you?

sharon-mccutcheon-535844-unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

How to deal with people using Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework

People are different. Let’s say you’re a boss. Some can obey your orders like little angels, especially if you give them deadlines. Others struggle, unless you can justify your demands with graphs and tables and perhaps pages-long appendices. And then there are those who simply disobey, or loaf, no matter what you do.

It can be frustrating.

Bestselling author and lawyer Gretchen Rubin has an explanation. In her book, The Four Tendencies, Rubin proposes there are four basic Tendencies by which people can be described. And these are based on how people respond to inner expectations (like New Year’s resolutions) and outer expectations (say, rules and doctor’s orders).

Adorably obnoxious Upholder Dr Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is a riot in The Big Bang Theory.

Upholders are the demigods, who can meet both inner and outer expectations. Hermione Granger is obviously an Upholder. So is Sheldon Cooper. They’re those whom all the other Tendencies often want to become: after all, Upholders are usually the overachievers, who can automate their actions and, presumably, their success. But they can be insensitive pricks.

Bureaucrat Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is a disgruntled Questioner in Parks and Recreation. (UPDATE: Or maybe he’s a Rebel — because Tammy.)

Questioners are the Grand Inquisitors. They need information, justifications, before they can act on any external demand. They question traditions, customs, imposed company “cultures”. While they often can stick to their gym schedule (that is, meet inner expectations), they often can’t abide by gym rules (outer expectations). They ask, “But why, smartass?”

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a classic Obliger, with a great responsibility and a weak will (although you can argue that the One Ring is simply too seductive…and precioussssss).

Then there are Obligers, who comprise the majority of people. They are the angels I was talking about, the loyal servants, who can turn in work on or before the deadline. They’re often the ones who had invited you to be their gym buddies, the ones who struggle unless they have someone to be accountable to. They are those who can work best when they have to give their work to someone who can appreciate it. And they suck at resolutions no matter what day of the year it is. They meet outer expectations, but resist inner ones. They can also be the parent-figure kind of leader. The curious thing about Obligers, however, is that they can rebel when pushed to the brink — they can shut down or quit unexpectedly.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Norse god of mischief, is clearly a Rebel.

And then, finally, there are the Rebels, who struggle with both inner and outer expectations. You can’t bother them. They obsess over freedom. They act only when they know it’s what they want: anything another person tells them to do, they do the opposite. If this describes you, though, don’t panic. On the plus side, Rebels are often those who initiate refreshingly unorthodox solutions…like creating some new procedure, a new design, a new system; or quitting altogether.

∗∗∗

Rubin says no one Tendency is superior to another; it’s just that each is different, and each has pros and cons. So don’t tell me you’re an Obliger who wants to be an Upholder. I’ve been there. Accept, don’t resist. Instead, work on your strengths to get around your weaknesses.

And yes, boss, there are ways to get a Questioner, or even a Rebel, to obey your orders. You just have to know their Tendency quite well. So if your employees are all Questioners (heavens forbid), it is likely that they’d want you to provide the reason for reducing costs for office stationery. Or if they’re a Rebel, communicate in such a way that their freedom to do things is highlighted. First, inform them about your demand, justify yourself, provide possible scenarios if they won’t do what you’re asking them, and then stop: let them decide what to do (hopefully it’s similar to your would-be command!).

When I read The Four Tendencies, it almost felt like a sequel to the Book of Revelations. I connected the dots. Patterns emerged. People, as well as myself, became a little bit simpler — all while retaining their uniqueness, nuances, beautiful differences, and individuality as persons.

Take this quiz to know your Tendency.

There’s a lot in Latin

1*80cvXs2kpvca1MMZBiCO9A
Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Why a “dead language” is worth studying or getting familiar with

Many people call Latin a dead language — as dead as its foremost perpetuator, the Catholic Church, which is 1 billion strong and 2,000 years old.

What these fools don’t get is the fact that many English words actually are Latin or have Latin roots. And often, when coining new words, people still use Latin morphemes (word components) without being aware of it: Brexit, social media, bullet journal, vape, app.

Like it or not, Latin is here to stay. And learning it — even just a bit — is going to make you perceive literature and life as more interesting.

Five of the many benefits of learning Latin are the following:

  • You’ll find stories behind the words you use. Take the word “baccalaureate”. It’s from the Latin term for laurel berry. In the 17th century (when “baccalaureate” was first used), laurel leaves used to be awarded to scholars — like ancient Olympic champions. Romantic nerds.
  • You’ll find it easier to guess the meaning of unfamiliar, Latin-derived words. Like, did you know the meaning of “antebellum” the first time you encountered it? Maybe not. But if you had elementary Latin, you’ll know that ante means “before” and bellum means “war”. So antebellum means before the war (particularly the American Civil War — Murica is such a fan of Latin — check their motto).
The Latin inscription above the Pantheon entrance in Rome is a display of hubris. It says, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this.” Photo by Jessi Pena on Unsplash
  • You’ll be able to create new words with panache — just string relevant Latins words together and voila, verbum novum.
  • You’ll be able to connect to a time long gone, when Latin was the official language of the pious and the powerful. It still amazes me to know how, in praying the Angelus in Latin, one actually echoes the exact words of various Medieval and Renaissance popes and paupers.
  • Last but not least: you’ll feel intelligent. Newton-smart. BDE-level confident. But of course you won’t be flaunting your knowledge all the time. You’ll have to wait for opportunities, like being assigned to give the Word of the Day in a Toastmasters meeting; or look for subtle ways, like writing about your supposed Latin-savvy in one of your blog posts. Ouch.

So those are my top 5 reasons Latin is an interesting subject.

Yeah. It’s nerdy as heck. You can actually just forget I said those. Because, really, Latin can absolutely be useful in only one catastrophic situation: when the cab driver refuses you a ride, and all you can do is scare the hell out of him by rapidly reciting some Latin words and make him think it’s witchcraft.

Pre-Watergate heroism in The Post (2017)

1*mxTlfVFMQNgIyzbYXAyRdg
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Photo by Niko Tavernise

One of the best films on journalism and empowered women

It’s wonderful how, especially in recent years, Hollywood has come to appreciate journalism as an industry, even to Oscar-award levels.

In 2016, Spotlight won Best Picture. In 2018, The Post almost did.

I love The Post.

It’s based on the 1971 story of Katharine Graham, first female publisher of a major newspaper (The Washington Post), and how she grappled with conflicting interests — a choice between keeping her friends, reputation, and (possibly) profits; or upholding freedom of the press and defying douchey US president Nixon.

Meryl Streep, as Graham, is divine as ever. You’ll see her character’s subtle transformation from a nervous, reluctant heiress of a newspaper (from her charismatic husband who had committed suicide), to a woman who — after a lifetime of being ignored or dismissed — has realized she has a voice: that of being the boss. There’s a scene where she, teary-eyed and torn to two sides, makes a decision that changes her life forever. You can’t help but feel victorious with her.

The Post is one of those movies that make you think, “The question is only whether to print or not to print — yet it’s nail-biting as shit!” But then, it’s a Steven Spielberg film. Artful montages of newspaper production — infused with music by John Williams — create an accelerating tension that will leave you breathless. Tom Hanks (as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee) is also effective as the fire-spitting, feet-on-the-desk editor who locks horns with (albeit in a gentlemanly way) his publisher friend.

I have my reservations about how the Vietnam war scene was made, though. Spielberg chose the dramatic irony route, and I wonder how it would have been if it were in a different way.

But — yeah — The Post is awesome! I watched it twice and still found it riveting the second time. Five dazzling stars!