Three Thoughtworms

There are many quotations rolling around in my mind all of the time. I read a lot. Because it is (a) November and we are entering the holiday shopping season and (b) I am watching the Twitter headlines with horrified fascination, I would like to present the following three quotations.

It is a sacrilege not to preserve the immortality of the soul, raising it to the level of the holy and uniting it to the divine with bonds which cannot be broken or loosened, but by contrast to pull and drag downwards the divine which is within us, confining it in the earthly, sinful and Giant- or Titan-like prison.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §19

In the Philosophical History, Damascius discusses Isidore (his teacher) and how Isidore thought about the three ways of life — the life according to intellect, according to spiritedness, and according to desire. At fragment §18, Damascius spends the most ink on painting a picture of out-of-control appetition/desire, which culminates in describing someone completely in that state as being “like a body dumped in a corner, lying enervated and incapable of movement.” It’s an image that has stuck with me since rereading the Philosophical History.

I chose to do a pull-quote of the following section, though, because I don’t want to spend a lot of time footnoting what Isidore means by some of the more colorful language in §18. The focus in fragment §19 is on the positive — what preserves the soul, the goal we strive towards in our care for it. It also expresses what I would consider a threshold concept — something that someone needs to have a deep understanding for before diving further into a spiritual practice, and something, once understood, that cannot be lost. What transformative spiritual experiences give us is a sudden, jarring sense of this, which is why they transform how we relate to the world and what we do afterward. This is when we become extremely aware of the sacrilege we are visiting upon ourselves, and there’s a shift that comes along with that if we want to get into right relation. Activities like self-compassion and lovingkindness meditations, contemplations of ethical works like Hierocles’ Golden Verses commentary, Simplicius’ Epictetus commentary, or Proclus’ Alcibiades I commentary, can assist us in reflecting on the best direction for ourselves to take.

We will cultivate a life that does not cause envy when we hold to a simple and clean way of living and avoid the delusion of bad taste, from which two evils sprout: spending and an inopportune thrift with one’s possessions.

Hierocles, Commentary on the Golden Verses, Schibli translation, p. 265 (on XVII)

This is a quotation that I am sharing to target the current sales-filled shopping season. I remember seeing on Twitter a few years ago that a bunch of younger people had fallen into a trap of never repeating outfits and feeling like they always had to look fresh and new. People in my generation used to think that. Then some women (and this is significant, as we’re judged on our appearances more) did a challenge in which they wore the same outfit to work for month(s). Nobody noticed. The only thing people care about is whether or not you are clean, which means investing in an iron, not 80 new things from Shein. This even goes for people who are presenting a brand “look” — all you need is whatever works for the functional purpose. (Hierocles focuses on not overdoing it in the opposite direction, too, so he’d probably frown on ultra-minimalism.) Any excess will just fill up a landfill and/or contribute to the fashion waste disaster unfolding in countries where our waste is shipped.

It’s also important to be mindful about merch; as I’ve written about that before, I won’t repeat myself.

If you’re looking for good gifts for this time of year, think about what people around you can actually use — new kitchen cloths or tea towels, candles, gift boxes of incense, and other things that are functionally useful. Gifts can be aesthetically pleasing, so don’t think you have to be austere about this or shop at a specific kind of store. Prioritize natural, biodegradable materials for items that wear out quickly so you are putting less stress on landfills. A coat is used for many years, and socks wear out after only a few months if you walk a lot.

Good arguments one must certainly praise, and having admitted them, put them into practice and find out how and to what extent they lay hold of the truth, whereas with false arguments one must attain the ability to contend against them. This would be what is furnished by rational knowledge that distinguishes between truth and falsehood. We must be able to refute falsehoods and to do this without being vehement or haughty; rather we must pursue the truth with gentleness and refute falsehood with gracious methods of argumentation, ‘gently withdrawing’, as the poem says here. ‘And if some falsehood be told’, we should not concede that it is as said but listen without getting angry. For ‘take it lightly’ does not mean we have to assent to falsehood, but rather that we lend a tolerant ear and not be ‘perplexed’ if there are certain people who have fallen away from the truth to their harm. Man’s nature is a bearer of all sorts of twisted opinions whenever it does not correctly follow common conceptions. And so, says our text, there is nothing surprising when a man who has not learned or discovered anything of the truth comes into this state of conjecturing and holds opinions contrary to the truth. In fact, the opposite would be surprising, if someone not willing to learn or seek should accidentally happen upon the truth just as upon some god who suddenly appears in a tragedy. Therefore we should listen with forbearance to those who speak falsehoods and try to learn of what sorts of evils we have been purified, we who by our common kinship are susceptible to the same passions, though by our knowledge, which is capable of warding off evil, we have come into an opposite state to them. Confidence based on knowledge also contributes greatly to gentleness. The soul that is sufficiently prepared to contend against deviations from the truth will bear false opinions without being perturbed, since its very apprehension of the truth entails that it has already reflected on all that is contrary to the truth.

Hierocles, Commentary on the Golden Verses, p. 242-243 (on XII)

This is a striking statement about one’s conduct in disputation, especially since the principles within it can be useful for avoiding toxic speech environments. Hierocles advises us to use the errors and falsehoods we hear around us in self-reflection. This is easier said than done, definitely. We have all been on the phone with a sibling or other family member and had some kind of disagreement, and we encounter this often if we are in public parts of the Internet. One reason why the outrage-driven public social media channels are so toxic is that they reward inappropriate behavior in arguments, and it’s our duty to seek out better environments for discourse that apply measure. There’s a world of difference between having an argument with someone on a Zoom and doing a back-and-forth in parasocial Hell.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

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