Monday, 25 November 2013

Live Like a Stoic for a Week

Love this philosophical experiment: live like a Stoic for a week and see if it improves your happiness.

There was a great debate on Radio 4 this morning, with a Stoicist extolling the virtues of a staid, stable, anger-free life, and a Stoic-skeptical philosopher defending passionate rage and anger as potentially useful emotions.

The central ideas of Stoicism don't seem particularly controversial (as far as I can tell from the Stoic Week website): pursue inner values such as virtue and excellence of character rather than external goals such as a good job, fame and money, and you will find greater satisfaction and contentment in life. Cultivate good emotions such as joy and delight, caution, discretion and concern for the wellbeing of others, while uprooting unhealthy emotions such as anger and irritation.

The basic principle seems to be that we can control our emotions and our inner state, even if we can't control external factors. This sounds remarkably like modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and various branches of happiness research. It also reminds me of a book on Jewish ethics I read recently (ok ok, it was actually a book about how to maintain a happy Jewish marriage by a rebbetzin called Esther Jungreis, and had been given to me by a relative, but it made some interesting broader ethical points about viewing people and their actions with a "good eye", ie in a positive light). The first exercise - morning meditation - is very much like morning prayer, and probably a good way of preparing yourself for the day ahead and mapping out the day more purposefully. I would say it's a particularly good idea if you're a writer: mentally rehearsing your creative project for the day gives it a certain shape and helps you develop strength and focus.

From the Stoic Week site - though I'm not sure why "cost of tuition" is in the circle of no control. Does Stoicism mean having to accept the status quo? What about social change, righteous anger channelled into good causes, street protests against unpopular policies - such as high tuition fees at universities?

I used to think of Stoicism as rather deadly - a passion-free, tempered life that avoids the highs as well as the lows. Then again, the one happy Stoic I met was our pekinese, Daisy, who had a calm and satisfied way of staring into the middle distance while savouring her inner peace. Her passions only ran high at dinner time. So I may try to do some of the exercises and see if it takes me to a pekinese-like state of bliss. With this in mind, here's the first exercise from the Stoic Week Handbook, courtesy of Exeter University:

Early-Morning Meditation

When you wake up each morning, take a few moments to compose yourself and then patiently rehearse the day ahead, planning how you can make yourself a better person, while also accepting that some things lie beyond your control.

1.          Marcus Aurelius talks about walking on one's own to a quiet place at daybreak and meditating upon the stars and the rising Sun, preparing for the day ahead. You can also do this at home, sitting on the end of your bed, or standing in front of the mirror in your bathroom, and still think of the sun rising against a backdrop of stars.

2.          Pick a specific philosophical principle that you want to rehearse and repeat it to yourself a few times before imagining how you could put it into practice during the rest of the day. You might choose the key general Stoic theme: “Some things are under our control whereas others are not”, and to think about giving more importance to being a good person and acting well and treating things you cannot control as ultimately much less important.

3.          Alternatively, you might pick a specific virtue that you want to cultivate and prepare yourself mentally for your day ahead, in broad outline, imagining how you would act if you showed more wisdom, justice, courage, or moderation.

4.          Practise this meditation for about 5-10 minutes, picking out key events or specific challenges that might arise. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Art Theft: The Last Unsolved Nazi Crime

The Atlantic just published my piece on the murky legal situation around Nazi-looted art: 
Thanks to the Internet, more and more Jewish families are tracking down paintings that were stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. But in many cases, the art has simply become the private property of its new owners.

It's a difficult situation as the new owners may by now feel equally entitled to the pieces (eg if they bought them quite recently in good faith). Often, a discreet private settlement between the two parties seems like the most acceptable solution. On the other hand, as one expert noted, restitution does not mean compensation: it means handing back the physical object.

There are obvious similarities to the claims over forced labour and other painful struggles for late justice, or at least some acknowledgement of past suffering. The real question: why did it take governments, companies and institutions so long to address these issues?