Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Stoic Mneme – Part 2 – A Mneme by Any Other Name...


The idea of summarizing the teachings of the Stoics into a simple set of lines may seem presumptuous. In a very real way, there is a danger that it can be. As explained in the previous article, it should only be undertaken when at least one round of Stoic studies is successfully completed, however one defines those studies. The danger lies in the assumption that the Mneme then created could apply to all people at all times, that this particular distillation of 5 centuries of wisdom is the high water mark for Stoic expression.

In truth, the Stoic mneme is an intensely personal exercise. It is a reflection of one person's understanding and aspirations at a particular time and place. It can change, and if it is to remain a true picture of a Stoic's experience, it will need to change.

A Personal Journey

As part of my training, I was asked to create a Mneme. Having a bit of an amateur poet in me, I thought that this would be the easiest of the assignments to complete. I was wrong. The process was difficult, and longer than I expected.

I was inspired to write this series by one of my students, who went beyond his Mneme (4 lines of poetry) and created an entire series of vignettes which explained and expanded on the meanings of each line. Erik Weigardt's own 16 page Mneme Manual serves as another example of the depths of meaning that can be plumbed in a simple 11 line blank verse poem. Having now written 4 or 5 Mnemes in search of one that would 'ring true,' I felt that an in depth analysis would help me to put the principles into practice more consistently.

This series actually began as a series of journal entries, (a practice I highly recommend to students of Stoicism). Each night, for several weeks, I would write, research, read and write again. In the end, I was left with a Mneme that I actually understood, and one in which a single word could evoke depths of meaning against which I could measure my own behaviour.

A Bouquet of Mnemes

Perhaps a set of examples of the Mnemes developed by others might be appropriate here. These are included in Erik's publicly accessible Mneme Manual, available free of charge from the Stoic College's website (While your there, take a look around the site, and if you like, sign up for the course!). They are presented here, uncredited as they are in the manual, with the exception of Erik's DOE, a summary of the Discourse of Epictetus.

 -----

“The DOE”
One rule to unite us:
     live in agreement with Nature.
Two maxims to guide us:
     Good is virtue that evil lacks;
     all the rest is indifferent.
     Good and evil are in the will;
     only will is in our power.
Three studies abide us:
     Judgments and the inner discourse,
     Desires and the rising passions,
     Actions and the noble duties.
Hear the sage inside us:
     practice, practice, practice, practice.
 -----
Be vigilant to your fire and keep it glowing bright
Make from it a beacon to return to in the night
Enshrine it in a hearth of stone to see it burning right
Seed from it the torches that will guide and aim your sight.
 -----
Life is a gift; so live gratefully.
Forget about likes and dislikes
The truth is One
No need to look anywhere but here and now because now is the only time you have and here is where you are.
 -----
The first point is to live.
The second point is to use appearances well.
To each his Flesh, his Reason, and his Bent.
We can neither control the world nor safeguard our flesh.
Choose Reason over Greed.
 -----

As you can see, the Mnemes vary greatly in form, content and aim. Each one is aimed at the writer's own heart, much like Marcus Aurelius' self directed writings in his so-called Meditations. Each one is powerful in its own way, and of each volumes could be written.

A Journey to Understanding

My own Mneme underwent several variations from edits to complete rewrites. My first Mneme was an over ambitious attempt to create a precis of Stoic teaching, rather than a personal reflection of Stoic progress.

The Greek Attempt

This first try included many of the Stoic technical terms, in transliterated Greek. In the end, it was impracticable, as the meanings of each of the terms would need to be constantly reviewed, and it was a little early in my studies to find it a comfortable recitation.
In my efforts to live the excellent aretes,
to exercise utmost kathekonta,
for the sake of universal oikeiosis,
I have the courage to face the world and its visicitudes.
By my faith in divine logos,
my trust in providential phusis 
and my hope of fulfilling eudaimonia,
I receive the serenity of knowing all is as it should be.
Through my practice of careful aproptôsia,
constant prosoché,
and proper epilegein
I acquire the wisdom to choose my own path.
The Simple Poem

The pendulum swung to the to the opposite end of the scale, as I wrote a simple poem outlining some of the same principles above. The laughable result was none too spectacular.
The Virtues great will I express
My actions right and true
To help all men learn happiness
And courage to pursue
I trust Intelligence Divine
To guide all Nature's ways
And make my light to fully shine
Thus peace will fill my days
With care all judgements I review
And ever mindful be
That I may say that which is true
The path to wisdom see

The 'Aren't I Clever' Approach

This next required so much thought and meditation in its creation that it had the opposite effect in practice. It very quickly became a trite recitation. A brief explanation of my thinking follows.
     Life
Connects me to the world
     Love
Connects me to my truest self.
The first phrase is a reminder of my duties to others (oikeiosis), and the virtuous behavior (arete) I must exhibit when interacting with them. The second phrase reminds me to seek out the best in myself, my truest self, with hesitation, reservation, and deliberation (askesis derived from the 3 fold division of philosophy).

The structure itself is a reminder to live in accordance with nature. The syllable count for the four lines is 1 6 1 8, which is a reminder to me of the Golden Mean (1.618), which in turn is considered a 'finger print' in the cosmos (as it seems to permeate everything from spiral galaxies to the shell of a nautilus.) The golden mean is coincidentally represented by the Greek letter phi, which is the first letter in phusis, the Greek word translated as nature.

A Second Look

None of these attempts actually 'stuck' in the way that I felt it should have. The mneme wasn't supporting my Stoic experience, and I actually felt the lack of its use in my daily life. Fortunately, my wife and I had developed the habit of daily reading from the Stoics and discussing the meaning and impact of the passages we would read over our morning coffee. Eventually, we started a blog (Words of the Ancient Wise) through which we could share the readings with friends who shared an interest in Stoicism.

It happened that on the morning of July 12th we were reading the following from the Discourses of Epictetus, Book II, Chapter 8, Section 4
“Such will I show myself to you: faithful, modest, noble, tranquil.”—What, and immortal too, and exempt from age and sickness?—“No. But sickening and dying as becomes a god. This is in my power; this I can do. The other is not in my power, nor can I do it.” Shall I show you the nerves of a philosopher?
What nerves are those?
A desire undisappointed: an aversion unincurred: pursuits duly exerted: a careful resolution: an unerring assent. These you shall see.
This is Elizabeth Carter's 1758 translation of the passage. It had a certain rhythm to parts of it, a cadence that and rhyming pattern that intrigued me. The passage itself was a summary of the teachings of Stoicism by one of its greatest teachers. I kept coming back to this passage, thinking about the meaning of the individual phrases. I had found, finally, the content of my Mneme.

It took a few more days of work to create the first version of the Mneme. More thought and practice, along with the journal studies and even preparation for this series of articles, resulted in the current version of the Mneme.
The Strength of the Stoic Philosopher
Faithful, modest, noble,
With Tranquillity unperturbed.
A desire undisappointed,
an aversion unincurred.
Pursuits duly exerted.
Resolutions carefully made.
Assents unhurriedly given.
Dissolution faced unafraid.
Following articles will break down this Mneme, analyzing the Stoic teachings encapsulated in each line, and how I use this in daily practice. The next article will be looking at the analysis of the title, along with a brief review of the many translations of this passage of Epictetus.

Previous Article: A Stoic Self-Dedication

(These articles are also being stored at our website TheStoicLife.org. Feel free to drop by for a visit.)