fbpx
Categories
Stoicism

Lorem ipsum and the Meaning of Life

What if you discovered that the meaning of life was somehow hidden right under your nose?  Suppose you learned that the most important idea in the universe was written down in plain sight, but overlooked by everyone because the words, assumed to be incomprehensible garbage, were being used as a meaningless filler for graphic design?  That would be pretty ironic, wouldn’t it?

Lorem ipsum is the name given to the (mangled) Latin text commonly used in publishing as a meaningless placeholder, since around the 1960s.  It allows designers to arrange the visual elements of a page of text, such as font and layout, without being distracted by the content.  Other Latinate words are occasionally used.  However, below is a typical example of the lorem ipsum placeholder text.  Exactly the same content is presented in two very different styles, using CSS rules:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum. _

Here’s the thing: the Lorem ipsum text isn’t actually meaningless.  The Latin was so corrupt that the original source was almost unrecognisable.  Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, a Latin scholar called Richard McClintock, based in Virginia,  accidentally discovered the source of the passage in a well-known philosophical text.  It’s derived from a book called De Finibus, which was written in the first century BC, by the famous Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero.  He was a follower of the philosophy taught by Plato’s successors in what’s known as the “Academic” school.

De FinibusAlthough it’s usually just referred to as De Finibus, the full Latin title is De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, which is notoriously tricky to translate into English.  Literally, it means “On the ends of good and evil”, but really it concerns different philosophical views about the best way of life, which comes fairly close to what we would refer to today as the “meaning of life”.

De Finibus is a series of five dialogues in which Cicero portrays himself and his friends discussing the major schools of Roman philosophy.  After weighing the pros and cons of Epicureanism and Stoicism, Cicero concludes with an account of the “Middle Platonism” introduced to the Academy by his own teacher, Antiochus of Ascalon.  Overall, Cicero found himself more in agreement with Stoicism than Epicureanism.  His own Platonism, like Antiochus’, probably assimilated many aspects of Stoicism, as well as Aristotelianism.  However, although broadly sympathetic to this eclectic philosophy Cicero also notes its flaws.  His conclusion is unclear and may be in favour of a more skeptical form of Platonism.

Cicero’s friend and rival, the great Roman Stoic Cato of Utica is portrayed as speaking in defence of that philosophy.  The overall series of dialogues is framed in terms of a discussion between Cicero and Cato’s nephew, Brutus, the lead assassin of the dictator Julius Caesar.  However, the lorem ipsum text comes from the first book of De Finibus, in which a Roman statesman and philosopher, renowned for his Greek scholarship, Lucius Torquatus is portrayed offering a summary and defence of the Epicurean philosophy of life.

So what does the passage from which Lorem ipsum comes actually say?  Well the placeholder text itself is pretty garbled but the passages it occurs in (De Finibus, 1.10.32-33) basically shows Torquatus defending Epicurus’ philosophical doctrine that the most important thing in life is the experience of pleasure. This idea was widely rebuked in the ancient world, not least by Stoic and Academic philosophers such as Cato and Cicero.  However, Torquatus argues that those who criticise the pursuit of pleasure do so not because they think pleasure itself is bad but because harmful consequences often follow from irrational over-indulgence.  The Epicurean philosophy was more sophisticated than this, though, and proposed that wisdom consists in the rational long-term pursuit of pleasures that are natural and lasting, which he associated with practical wisdom and the attainment of supreme emotional tranquillity (ataraxia).

The central paradox of Epicureanism is that achieving lasting pleasure and freedom from pain often requires us to endure short-term pain or discomfort and to renounce certain transient pleasures, for the sake of our own long-term happiness.  Epicurus therefore recommended living a very simple life.  For example, someone who is serious about maximising their own pleasure and who pursues it philosophically might judge it prudent to undertake vigorous physical exercise and follow a healthy diet, enduring “short-term pain for long-term gain,” as we say today.  Torquatus essentially says that the pursuit of pleasure has acquired a bad name undeservedly because people confuse the foolish and reckless pursuit of short-term pleasures with the prudent long-term pursuit of pleasure taught by Epicurus and his followers.

The whole of the relevant section from De Finibus reads as follows in H. Rackham’s 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation, with the fragments included in the lorem ipsum placeholder text underlined:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing of a pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of [Epicurus,] the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammeled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.

Although Torquatus is portrayed as defending this philosophy of life, it seems clear that Cicero was unconvinced.  In the following chapters, Cato is shown arguing in favour of the opposing Stoic position.  The Stoics believed that the meaning or purpose of life is the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, first and foremost, rather than seeking pleasure or tranquillity.  Antiochus’ view is presented as being that the best life consists in a combination of virtue and sufficient “external goods”, such as health, property, and friends, etc.  Nevertheless, many people today continue to be drawn to Epicureanism.  Maybe this is because it provides a fairly sophisticated account of one of a handful of perennial or archetypal philosophies of life that recur in different forms throughout the ages.

Cicero took these conflicting philosophical views about the most important thing in life very seriously indeed and tried to carefully evaluate their pros and cons.  What do you think?  Was this a bad philosophy that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin of history or is the meaning of life hidden in the garbage of the Lorem ipsum placeholder text?

Categories
Stoicism

A Manifesto for Modern Stoic Communities

What if someone despises me?  Let them see to it.  But I will see to it that I won’t be found doing or saying anything contemptible.  What if someone hates me?  Let them see to that.  But I will see to it that I’m kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong.  Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.13

Zeno-Poster-British-MuseumHere are some principles derived from ancient Stoic literature, and adapted slightly to serve as a set of basic guidelines for the attitude and actions of those wishing to engage in online communities, in accord with Stoic wisdom and virtue.  Please help me to improve them by suggesting changes or additions in the comments below, and I’ll try to revise them accordingly.

These are intended to help contribute to the development of a healthy Stoic community and also to help Stoics deal with difficult encounters with others online, including responding appropriately to so-called “internet trolls” and “flaming”.

  1. I believe that virtue is the only true good and vice the only true evil, although it may also be natural and rational to prefer to get or avoid other things in life.
  2. I view others who believe that virtue is the only true good as if they were my brothers and sisters, and the wise and virtuous as my truest friends.
  3. I look to Nature and the actions of wise and good people (people who live according to Nature) for guidance as to how I should lead my own life.
  4. I treat the rest of humanity, the remainder who are neither wise nor good, with patience, and so I wish them to learn and to flourish, fate permitting, even though they do not share my most cherished beliefs and values.
  5. I seek to lead primarily by example, demonstrating virtue to others through my words and actions.
  6. I try to empathise with others by understanding the beliefs that guide their actions but I accept that I can never be certain what other people’s motives are, and therefore whether they are truly virtuous or vicious.
  7. I accept that all human beings, myself and the founders of the Stoa included, lack perfect wisdom and virtue, and therefore nobody is treated as an absolute authority.
  8. When others do wrong, I view that as due to their ignorance concerning what is truly good, bad, and indifferent in life, rather than voluntary malice.
  9. I forgive others for any foolish or vicious actions carried out in ignorance.
  10. I remember that nobody can truly harm me through their words or actions, as only my voluntary actions can be virtuous or vicious, and therefore truly helpful or harmful to me.
  11. I try to cultivate a sense of affinity with the rest of mankind, and a natural affection toward others, on the basis of our shared humanity and capacity for reason and virtue.
  12. I accept that the actions of others are ultimately beyond my direct control, and that whether they become virtuous or vicious, and whether they flourish or not, is never entirely up to me.
  13. I would prefer others to flourish and become wise and virtuous, and seek to help them do so, fate permitting, but if they do the opposite, I accept that with indifference, as lying beyond my direct control.
  14. I seek to cultivate the virtues of practical wisdom, justice or fairness, courage, and self-control in myself and others.
  15. I seek to live in harmony and accord with the rest of mankind, through my philosophy of life, and encourage others to live in harmony also, by setting an example to them of virtue.
  16. I view the things that the majority of people fight over with relative indifference, as lacking any value whatsoever in relation to virtue, including my physical health, material wealth, and reputation among others.
  17. While I prefer that other people should be friendly toward me, I do not need anyone to treat me as I would prefer, or demand that they should do so.
  18. I am at all time cautious to avoid acting foolishly or viciously toward anyone else, or allowing myself to feel excessive desire or aversion toward them, or indeed toward anything external to my own character.
  19. I view the wise and virtuous as if they were my closest friends, taking time to contemplate and admire their character and actions, and seeking to learn by emulating their example.
  20. However, I also look for the seeds or traces of wisdom and virtue in others, even in the character and actions of those who behave like enemies – I look for the good in other people, in other words, and seek to learn from it.
Categories
News

Follow @Stoicweek on Twitter

Categories
News

Flyer for Stoic Week 2013

Stoic Week 2013

Categories
Stoicism

Roundup of Recent Posts (August 2013)

Roundup of Recent Posts

Cato-Statue.jpg

Categories
Stoicism

Roundup of Recent Posts (June 2013)

Roundup of Recent Posts

Cato-Statue.jpg

Categories
Stoicism

Psychotherapy and philosophy (part 2)

Psychotherapy and philosophy (part 2)

Link to Karnac blog.

Categories
Stoicism

Philosophy and psychotherapy (part 1)

Philosophy and psychotherapy (part 1)

Link to article on Karnac blog.

Categories
Stoicism

Wanted Dead or Alive: Socrates

Wanted Dead or Alive: Socrates

Public enemy number one?

Categories
Stoicism

Roundup of Recent Posts (May 2013)

Roundup of Recent Posts

Cato-Statue.jpg