Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Purple Thread of Epictetus- One Year On

Just over a year ago I decided I was going to try and write a book. The topic would be the application of some ancient philosophy, that in my mind was grounded in solid logic, to modern life and knowledge. At the books center would really be a new version of Greco-Roman Stoicism in concept but taken without its unfounded pronouncements about the heavens or the logos. In doing some research for the book I started to see a striking similarity between the aspects of Stoicism I wanted to carry forward and the core philosophy of Buddhism. Both philosophies, in my mind, suffer from undue cultural and religious trappings, so what I wanted to put together was something that drew from the strongest elements of both, where they were correct in their overlap and produce a modern guide to living. This is something I have almost felt a need to do my entire life, and if I accomplish nothing else aside from laying this all out I'll die a happy man.

The purpose of this post though is not so much to go on about this book, but to talk about what I've learned in writing it over the last year. The first of which is that writing is actually hard work. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy it quite a bit, but getting yourself to really take it seriously,to focus on every word, to sit down and pound out at least a few pages every day despite what else is going on around you is tough.There have been times when I have been really good about sitting down every day and really concentrating on my work and there have also been months where I didn't keep a single word that I put to electronic paper. For the first few months I set aside a 4 hour span in the morning that was only for writing and it worked well, and after only three or so months I had pounded out a first draft, and I was ready to declare that this whole writing thing wasn't all that hard.

Then rewriting began. If writing is hard, rewriting is harder. Rearranging chapters, expanding on points being made, realizing that some thoughts need to be more concise and most importantly realizing the wider association of concepts being discussed has caused my now fourth draft to be almost unrecognizable from my first. While a first draft is exciting, editing and reworking the original consistently into something more refined and effective is real work that requires concentration and focussed effort.

One of my biggest lessons though has been learning about the books topic. Now when I set out to  write this I believed I had a fairly strong background. I was familiar with the stoic writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, as well as the differences in the early middle and late stoa. I had read many of their influences in Plato's Socratic dialogs, and what was left of the philosophy of the cynics and other early influences like Heraclitus. I read up on their critics both modern and ancient, and through this I also found common shared criticisms of Buddhism. All of this though didn't prepare me for the difference in reasoned and theoretical philosophy and practiced philosophy.

If I can take away a single lesson from writing this book is that theory is a start, but it is only a segment and is useless without practice. Many things that are discussed in both Stoic and Buddhist texts can abstractly make sense when you read them, but they make far more sense when they are practiced, because it alters your point of view to an extent that things that seemed evident before, you can more clearly see are not so evident, and things that possibly you dismissed before make much more sense. from a perspective that has incorporated theory into daily life. One example for me is the Buddhist concept of karma, something that I had dismissed as entirely without merit when I started. I struggled with putting together a concrete ethical system for some time, and it slowly took the form of a virtue based ethical system. As practice in my own life forced me to consistently see life as a series of choices in any given moment it was hard to ignore the cascading effect that all of these decisions have on history. What became apparent to me is that the actions of people over time shape their environment, shape their future, and not just in theoretical ways but in very concrete ways such as the consequences in the past of biological evolution. While I still don't accept the Buddhist view of karma, seeing the larger picture of human action and its cascading affect on the totality of our lives can not be ignored. While it's a bit more complicated than that, that's all the space I want to devote to it here.

Something else I've come away with is that you have to do things for yourself. I've really always wanted to put  what I'm now writing to paper, but in the past I never really thought anyone else would want to read it. Now I don't really care if anyone else reads it. I mean sure it would be nice, and yes I'm rewriting it with some focus on making it readable by a certain audience, but in the end if I'm the only one that ever reads it, I'm OK with that. Because what I've gained in writing it, in formulating my own thoughts into concrete concepts has been well worth the effort all by itself. There is an old stoic tool called Hypomnema where every day you kind of write down your own thoughts on some life topic. It was this spiritual exercise that gave us Marcus Aurelius' Meditations- one the most humble and insightful works ever penned by a political leader. This book has for me worked very much in that role, and only by confronting myself on a daily basis with my own thoughts on these topics have I really been able to force myself into a more coherent position. We don't really know what we believe until we really ask ourselves. You may even be surprised at some of the answers. I was, and these are things I thought I had considered quite frequently in the past.

So for those that might be curious as to where I am at in this project, I'm currently writing the second draft of the second part of the book. Once I finished the first draft of the whole thing I went back and really focussed on the core of the book which was the philosophy I lay out in part one, that is now in it's fourth draft, and while I still have some changes to make and some feedback from readers to consider I am happy with the over all concept that is put forth. With that essentially nailed down I have moved on to the second part of the book which is all about this philosophy in practice, how it applies to all the things we face in even the most mundane aspects of our lives. This covers practices that increase our own qualities of excellence, but also more consistent views on how to approach the loss of a loved one,  or how to better enjoy food and a diet that fits your lifestyle, things we all face in the years of our lives.

So far this project has been a joy, and hopefully at some point I'll be able to send out some final drafts to those interested. Until then I'll just keep on writing.


  1. "I'm a writer, my life is tough" lawlz...luv ya hon.

  2. "Your comment will be visible after approval." I should be exempt from this. ha

  3. Still looking forward to reading Part 2. Summer vacation starts in 9 weeks, so...

  4. Actually, Kimmay, I think your comments should ALWAYS have to be approved, even in real life. : )

  5. Hello Mr.Smith, Thanks for yours blogs. I read this really interesting ........hope for waiting yours next blog..


  6. "The better is the enemy of the good." - Voltaire.

    Let it go into the wind of fate.

    Good luck.


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