Thursday, February 19, 2015

The ideal vs. the real

Having read a piece in the NY Times by Massimo Pigliucci titled "How to be a Stoic", I find myself drawn to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In college, I enrolled in a philosophy course, but dropped it after one week (much to the professor's dismay) because it seemed to be a pointless exercise. Now, in my dotage retirement, there is room in my brain for contemplating such stuff. Apparently, this is part of a trend, as evidenced by such exercises as Stoic Week.

Today I read a piece in the NYer about Seneca, ostensibly one of the Roman Stoics, who it turns out was quite the hypocrite, exhorting us to live one way while doing the opposite. He's not the only so-called paragon to ignore his own advice; Thoreau, Kahlil Gibran, and Chögyam Trungpa immediately come to mind. Which brings up the question of how to balance what one says with what one does.

I suppose it is not much different than parenting ("Do as I say, not as I do"), but I wonder what our cultural advisers thought of themselves. Did their lovely words provide some kind of psychic balance to their messy lives? Were they like me when my kids were toddlers, arising each day with the intention of being a loving, kind, patient mother and turning into a screaming harridan by the end of the day? Were they completely blind to the difference between their philosophy and their deeds? Or did they shrug off any criticism while accepting their foibles?

And what are we to take from their teachings? It certainly seems fair to cherry pick what is helpful and ignore what doesn't apply to our modern lives. It seem prudent to take what they say with a grain of salt. And it helps to consider our path through life a journey where we continue to strive to be better than we are without attachment to an outcome.