November 11, 2008

Philosophy in one sentence

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

El Cabrero has been pondering the role of luck and chance in human affairs lately. This is an interesting time to do it, since the goddess Fortuna has been cranking her wheel with unusual velocity these days. Some go up and some go down.

From ancient times, people have grappled with how to live in a world where unpredictable (for us at the time anyway) things can happen at any time. Many have turned to different kinds of divination for clues. Others chalk it off to the inscrutable providence of God, whose ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts, to paraphrase Isaiah.

Another way people have dealt with uncertainty is through philosophy. Of the many schools of ancient thought, I've always had a soft spot for the Stoics, a Hellenistic vision of the world that became popular in imperial Rome. Stoicism was all about living a rational life in accordance with the nature of things and accepting external events as they come.

Interestingly, two of its greatest exponents were at opposite extremes of the social scale. Epictetus (c. 55-135) was a slave, while Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was one of the last truly great Roman emperors.

Stoicism was as much a kind of self-help or ancient cognitive therapy as it was an intellectual tradition. It has some features in common with other wisdom traditions such as Buddhism or Taoism.

If I had to come up with one of the most useful single sentences I've encountered in studying philosophy, it would probably be one from the Enchiridion of Epictetus. It simply says,

Some things are in our control and others not.

GOING GREEN. More retail businesses are going green.

THINK BIG. Here's economist Jeffrey Sachs with suggestions for the next administration.

ONE TO WATCH. The lawsuit filed by widows of Massey Energy's Aracoma mine fire has begun.


More than half of all West Virginia soldiers who live in the state's most rural counties and recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, according to a recent analysis of data from a survey of the state's war veterans.

About 56 percent of returning soldiers from West Virginia's rural counties suffer from mental health problems compared to 32 percent who live in urban areas, and 34 percent residing at out-of-state military bases.

TUG OF WAR. A new theory of mental disorders suggests that competition between parental genes may be a contributing factor.

I WAS NOT AWARE OF THAT. Did you know that snakebites kill 20,000 people a year in the developing world?


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