The premise is pretty simple. On the one end of the scale is a family member responsible for running a million dollar a day offshore oil rig… while battling coups, ebola outbreaks, international regulatory bodies and diminishing funds.
On the other side, another family member must buy a ham for a casual get together.
Guess who was more stressed?
It’s a trick question really, it couldn’t have been easier for either of them… though we certainly heard more about the pork leg.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter what is the cause of stress. There is no absolute correlation – some can handle war and torture better than others can deal with a dinner party.
Of course a huge difference is the philosophy of the individual. Probably the most famous example is James Stockdale, the US admiral who survived seven years as a POW in the “Hanoi Hilton”. He has very vocally discussed the influence of ancient Stoicism and in particular, the Roman slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, whose lessons captured in The Enchiridion Stockdale credited with providing him strength during his ordeals as a prisoner.
So this brings us to this week’s question:
Is how we react to stress really in our control? And if it is, what can we do to handle it? What ancient examples and philosophies can help us today?
The scene was cliche. It was a sunny fall afternoon in New York City and the construction workers were taking their break. Then a stunning woman came down the street…. Not just pretty, but Big Apple gorgeous and dressed… flatteringly.
As she passed the construction workers, I waited for what I thought was the inevitable. But to my surprise there were no catcalls, no whistles or provocative comments. Wow, I remember thinking, perhaps the whole #metoo thing really affected things… maybe this younger generation is much more respectful… maybe culture has changed!
And then I realised it was because the entire row of workers were glued to their phones. They didn’t even notice the beautiful woman.
She also did not notice not being noticed… because she too was staring at her phone. So perhaps culture has changed… just not in the way I had originally thought.
As this dystopian future dawned on me, I became cognizant of the fact that EVERYONE was looking at their phones. I was shocked, honestly, that more people weren’t crashing into each other.
But the downsides to being glued to this technology (or others) are much more than an accidental bump in the street. It’s affecting attention spans, literacy abilities, family relationships, even courtship… Millennia of essential societal bonding thrown out in a generation…
It’s time to question whether it has altered us as a people… as a species?
I have to ask: Has technology changed us? Are we the same as people of the Classical Era, thousands of years ago?
Now, to get to the heart of this question, I propose a little experiment. I’ve set up a fresh account for the purpose – I’m curious as to how the conversation would take shape on a different platform, if it is possible to use the technology to our advantage?
If you would like to take part in this philosophical exercise, comment here.
When it comes to best/worst ancient Greek stories of ancestral sin, the competition is tough. There are so many to choose from! Nonetheless, I’d champion two for the top prize.
Tie for number one is the House of Cadmus.
Poor Cadmus, all he did was slay a dragon and found the city of Thebes... which is usually a good thing! That’s the stuff of heroes, right? Except this dragon (unbeknownst to Cadmus) was sacred to Ares. This resulted in a family curse that would include the Minoan king’s wife falling in love with a bull (producing the Minotaur), Dionysus’ mother being blown to smithereens, and perhaps most famously, Oedipus killing his dad and hooking up with his mom.
Enough fodder to fuel Freud’s dreams for several lifetimes…
The other top contender is definitely the House of Atreus.
Personally, I feel like this generational sin is much more justified, as the original transgression was pretty evil. It began with Tantalus who wanted to test the gods’ omniscience… by killing his son and serving him to the gods to eat. I have NO idea why such a thing would cross anyone’s mind, but Tantalus was subjected (rightfully?) to an eternity of never reaching anything afterwards.
Despite the individual being punished for such a horrific act, the curse continued… in fact, the murdered son was brought back to life by the gods (complete with ivory shoulder) only so the guilty generations could go on.
While there was plenty of sinning along the way, the most well known conclusion to this dynasty were his two grandsons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon, as Trojan War fans will no doubt recall, sacrificed his daughter for good sailing to Troy, only to be murdered by his wife on his return. This in turn sparked a matricide to bring the curse full circle.
All up, that’s six generations of inherited evil! Pretty impressive when you think about it….
This concept of ancestral fault really came to fruition with the old testament, as the idea of original sin is foundational in the Judeo-Christian religions. At least a termination period to the guilt was included in Exodus 20:5:
“The iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the sons and daughters — unto the third and fourth generation.”
But to the ancient Greeks and early Christians, ancestral sin (προπατορικὸν ἁμάρτημα) didn’t just belong in the mythology scrolls… it was very real and something to be considered. Part of the reason for this is that the family was considered a single unit in the ancient world. So, it sort of makes sense that the actions of one would reflect the household.
Nowadays, however, we live in a very individualist society… Why should I -or anyone- be held accountable for someone else’s bad decisions? Just because they happened to be related to you, should you be punished?
Of course this line of enquiry has very real world ramifications…
Can we blame Germans today for the Holocaust? Or Brits for Dresden? Should young Americans be castigated for Hiroshima and Agent orange? And hip Japanese kids for kamikaze pilots? If you’ve never even seen a slave in your life, should you be accountable for slavery in the past? Or the mistreatment of women and children? Or previous wars and poor political decisions?
Essentially: Is sin hereditary? Are we culpable for the actions of our ancestors?
Death does not concern us,” says the fourth century BC philosopher Epicurus, “because as long as we exist, death is not here.And when it does come, we no longer exist.”
Well, that’s a little easier said than done.
The reality is that on top of inevitably pushing up the daisies (life is, after all, a terminal disease and sexual transmitted no less)… we will concern ourselves with the big sleep at one point or another.
Moreover, according to ancient philosophy – and Christianity for that matter – you should think about death. A little Memento Mori now and then is necessary for the wisest of Men.
Pre-socratic philosopher Democritus used to achieve this by wandering around tombs… Plato talks about it in the Phaedo with regards to Socrates and just about all the Stoics praise the practice of remembering that we all die… Seneca filled his letters with deathly reminders, Epictetus likewise regularly remarked on our mortal coil and Marcus Aurelius invited the reader to “consider how ephemeral and mean all mortal things are” in his Meditations.
The question then is how we can make peace with sleeping with the fishes… or kicking the proverbial bucket… without worrying about it? How can we think about it… but not too much?
Taking a leaf out of Karen Duff Duffy’s newest book, “Wise Up” (an excellent read which I enjoyed immensely in preparation for this Thursday’s event: How Stoicism Can Help)… perhaps the septuagenarians of Japan can show us the way?
“The pensioners of the Land of the Rising Sun are a tough bunch. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused a disastrous meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The area was flooded with deadly radiation. Many workers fled, and the plant had difficulty finding brave people to brave the dangers.
A retired engineer, Yasuteru Yamada, a courageous and noble community leader, recruited fellow elderly experts and formed the Skilled Veterans Corps. These seasoned seniors were no spring chickens, but they sprung into action.
The gallant geriatrics were not a suicide squad. They represented the best of human nature. Millions of lives were at risk. Yamada explained, “I am seventy-two and on average I probably have thirteen to fifteen years left to live. . . . Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take twenty or thirty years or longer to develop. Therefore, us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.”
The cofounder of the group, Kazuo Sasaki, said, “My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don’t take responsibility, who will?” She went on to say, “When we were younger, we never thought of death. But death becomes familiar as we get older. . . . This doesn’t mean I want to die. But we become less afraid of death as we get older.””
Also, if you are interested in Stoicism, ancient philosophy and how ancient wisdom can have practical benefits today, please join us on Thursday! The event is free and if you register in advance, you can win a copy of Duff’s book.
A while back I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, surrounded by all sorts of invalids.
The man to my right, probably in his early fifties, was clearly in back pain. When called, he gingerly rose in such a manner it was excruciating just to watch. The elderly woman behind him somehow held her shoulder in her arms… the young man across the room slouched agonizingly, turning various colors of green.
Meanwhile the TVs blared… mocking them all.
The first screen had some sort of reality love show, with bouncing nubile couples, twerking health and fertility…. The second screen was some comedy show, locally produced clearly. Hip 20 somethings in an unaffordable cool loft swapping punch lines without a care in the world.
And the third housed a collection of the most fit, athletic and capable men the country could produce… running at top speed, the envy of boys around the world, the national football (soccer) team.
My fellow inhabitants looked up, bleary eyed, at a world obsessed with youth and health. What cruelty!
Of course my remembering this small vignette is not entirely out of the blue… I’ve been battling a head cold all week, and just today the cough has begun. I’ve lived in the UK long enough to know how to exist while being sick (just a matter of fact there), but I’ll be honest, since living in warmer climes, I’m out of practice.
Nonetheless, the whole endeavor has got me thinking of ‘sickness’ in society.
For Thomas Mann fans out there, there’s a whole book dedicated to the subject, The Magic Mountain. The guests of a sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps both escape the rigors of normal society and expectations, but through the illness (or not?) they achieve new perspectives… enough for one of the characters to say that illness is a virtue.
This is hotly debated, the humanist contends that the mind is dependent sadly on the body (hello dualism) and thus sickness is a malignant force, a corrupting, disgusting, crippling effect.
But the books – history, philosophy, literature – are filled with great characters who overcome (physically or mentally) illness to great renown and greater understanding.
Julius Caesar battled epilepsy his whole life. Marcus Aurelius was a sickly man… Epictetus walked with a painful limp…and let’s not get started on poor Philoctetes’ awful rotting limb…
Did these ailments aid their greatness? Their huge accomplishments and insights? Or were they successful in spite of these difficulties?
It is this question, surrounded by tissues no less, that I want to ask you, dear reader:
Can Sickness be a Virtue? Can it bring enlightenment? Or is it merely illness and pain… and nothing to romanticize at all…?
And how does this all fit in our current society which appears to idolize the young and the beautiful?
Before your start penning your response… A quick announcement:
We have two exciting events coming up. The first is taking place tomorrow – it’s a debate on whether or not we need ancient Greek and Latin as requirements… both for Classics students and the general public.
Make sure to register here to join in the conversation:
Former beauty queen, MTV personality and Chronic pain survivor, Karen Duffy, is joined by renowned Stoics Donald Robertson (How to Think Like a Roman Emperor) and Nancy Sherman (Stoic Wisdom) to delve into how Stoicism Can Help, Finding a Philosophy for Life.
Heads up: She’s hilarious – so this panel is going to be dropping some wisdom in the most enjoyable way… It’s philosophy with a smile…
Sign up and you can also win Duff’s new book, described by Bill Murray, comedian, actor, and sage of Hollywood:
“Reading Wise Up put a smile on my face. This book will change lives. Duffy writes seriously important books that she doesn’t take too seriously. I guess that’s the secret. Read this book or you will miss it.”
Mercifully the children were drugged before they were left to die. Aged 6, 7, and 15, they were given a strong dose of Coca and maize based alcohol, which allowed the girls to die in their sleep after they were sealed in the grave. In fact, the oldest one, the virgin dubbed la doncella (the maiden), has the highest concentration of coca ever found in Andean human remains.
Tragically, the boy (aged 7) did struggle… and most likely suffocated.
You see, dear reader, we were down the road from the high altitude museum in Salta, one of the most northern states of Argentina, high in the Andes, which houses the Children of Llullaillaco. Despite one of them being struck by lightning, these three children, who were ritually sacrificed 500 years ago, are the most immaculate preserved mummies we have.
Sealed at 6,739 m (22,110 ft) high in the mountains, they froze before any decomposition took place. There is still frozen blood in their hearts, their organs are perfectly preserved, even the hairs on their arms are still visible. And now, you can see them, peer deep into past centuries, in specially made cases.
However, this exhibition does not come without controversy. Like just about anything these days, there are large debates on either side of the discussion about where these children should be.
Scientifically, anthropologically, they are absolutely fascinating. They allow a window not only into the more ‘modern’ past, but in many ways into an ancient past we can barely conceive. For instance, two of the children display cranial elongation. I’ll admit, when I first read this, I immediately went to google and was shocked by both the deeply steeped history of this activity, as well as its universality. Apparently cultures have been purposefully elongating infants’ heads – for who knows why – for millenia.
Herodotus in 400 BC was the first to record it, describing a group known as the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.
It’s quite remarkable to see this ancient practice… along with, tragically, the world of sacrifice. It’s something we know happened in the ancient world, all over the world. But reading about it in the textbooks offers little compensation for those who died. It’s rare that we get the humbling, horrible, humanizing experience of looking the sacrificed in the face.
But just because we learn something from them, doesn’t mean taking them out in the first place was right… Does it?
For one thing, descendants of these children still exist. And they certainly don’t like their sacred ritual on display. There are movements to take back the children of Llullaillaco… and return them to their resting spot. Rogelio Guanuco, the leader of the Indigenous Association of Argentina (AIRA), called the display “a violation of our loved ones”, saying that “Llullaillaco continues to be sacred for us. They should never have profaned that sanctuary, and they should not put our children on exhibition as if in a circus.”
Not all indigenous people agree though. In 2004, the Third World Congress of the Quechua Language, which brought together 300 representatives from Andean countries, discussed the children of Llullaillaco. They approved of the museum, declaring, “the diffusion of such investigations for recognizing the greatness and the evolution of our ancestors from their origins to the present day.”
Either way, it is the dead that is being unearthed… taken away from their final resting place… but we all know it’s not only high altitude gravesites that are being excavated.
From the many tumuli exposed to the elements the world over to the more recent warriors excavated at the Palace of Nestor... at what point are we disrupting those who have given up the ghost? As lovers of history and archeology it’s always worthwhile to take a step back and ask if our actions and passions are ethical.
Essentially, is it okay to dig up the dead? When does archeology become grave-robbing?