30 December 2011

Democracy for the sake of dignity, thanks Vaclav

In my younger days I believed all kinds of things.  I thought that I'd live in Indianapolis for most of my life.  That never played out.  I thought that I'd probably be self-employed.  You never know, one day maybe.  I thought that democracy was preferable to other forms of government because it brought economic growth.  Way off on that one.  We're currently watching as most of the world's democratic countries go through extended periods of economic difficulties.  At the same time we see countries with non-democratic systems experiencing strong growth.  A horde of wannabe Cassandras argue that democracy should be reined in, that economic growth should take precedence over our freedoms.  Could they be right?

20 December 2011

Always looking backwards, vol3

Two very interesting thinkers passed away this week.  One was very interesting, got a ton of press, and will likely be forgotten within a generation.  The other was very interesting, went through long periods of being largely ignored, and will likely be read and reread for the next several centuries.  The first was Christopher Hitchens, the second was Vaclav Havel.

15 December 2011

Freedom to bare it all

When does "empowerment" to display yourself morph into just another type of exploitation?

11 December 2011

Mind and body and children

Some will tell you that there's no such thing as body, that everything is an illusion created by the mind.

Others will tell you that the mind is simply an extended string of biochemical processes and reactions.  They're probably correct, but being verifiably, scientifically correct isn't always very useful when it comes to broader questions of humanity.

08 December 2011

A video on materialism

I've always liked this style of animation, and the video is really well done:

05 December 2011

The good life is interconnected, but individualistic

Being yourself is a pretty scary prospect.  The reality of sitting alone with oneself in a room is more than most people can handle.  The idea itself is even a little frightening for some.  If just being temporarily alone with our own thoughts is more than we can handle, how could we even imagine being alone in the world?  And so we build relationships and connections and interconnections, as we should.  Understanding how to separate those connections from our own true selves is one of the primary difficulties involved in figuring out what it means to have a good life.

02 December 2011

The banquet of life

Some chapters are boring, some are interesting.  Some people seem to be a little bland, but when they stand up to speak they passionately set forth on their topic.  Grand ideas are floated by some students in the attempt to solve all problems, while others are happy to deal with the details.  You open your mouth and say something interesting, and the next day you open your mouth and sound like an idiot.  You take it as it comes I suppose.  Being in Kingston for classes and discussing interesting ideas with other students always takes me to a little piece from Epictetus that never fails to put a smile on my face:

Remember that you ought to conduct yourself
as if you were at a banquet.
When something is passed around to you
stretch out your hand and take it politely.
If it passes by you, don't ask for it to come back,
it's not its time.
Perhaps there'll be some left when it comes back around.
 (Encheiridion, 15)

01 December 2011

It's a girl!!!!

So, the question is, if you find out you're going to have a daughter, can you just read "boy" stories to her anyway, or am I confined to princesses and frogs.  If that's the case, I'm going to be an upset papa.

27 November 2011

The good life isn't ruled by money, false dichotomies

False dichotomies are one of my favorite (I just cursed at my computer because it told me favorite should be spelled favourite) things.  They're one of those things that are so amazingly useful that no one seems to care that they're absolutely nonsensical. Your false dichotomy for the day is:

I would rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.

19 November 2011

The good life isn't ruled by money, intro

For the most part my first year university courses are a blur.  Besides the obvious problem of drinking, there was the fact that I was reading like a madman, though most of it wasn't really for the courses that I was taking.  I had read The Social Contract when I was in high school, but I remembered next to nothing from it.  After my second reading in my freshman year I came away with at least that first line, "Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains."  Rosseau thought that those chains could be broken, and they have been for the most part.  Unfortunately, most of us have willingly replaced them with another set of chains of our own forging.

If you're reading this blog, you are probably in a place that is freer than any other place has ever been in the history of the world. About 45% of my readers are American, 45% Canadian, and the rest scattered around various other free places in the world.  The unparalleled freedom present in these locations is only matched by the willingness that people have to be dominated by money. We face the problem not of being held in bondage, but in deciding whether we will allow ourselves to simply be the means through which another person can make money.

More to come later this week...

17 November 2011

The good life is generous

I'm a big friend of lending books.  In some ways, a lot of our social networking ties into that same simple notion, to point our friends towards information that we might think is useful to them.  The idea of giving is vitally important to my understanding of the good life, and there's no better way for me to explain it than to point you towards the words of Kahlil Gibran.  I had planned on using this blog as a way to sort through my own ideas on a subject, but sometimes my own ideas are tied so tightly to my influences that there's no way of separating them.  In those kind of cases I think that the most useful thing to do is to simply reproduce the original rather than run it through my admittedly thin filter.

The following text is from his book The Prophet:

13 November 2011

Simple things are hard to do

"While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good."

This is perhaps the simplest of commands.That doesn't mean that it's easy though.  While you are alive, and while it is in your power, be good.  

10 November 2011

Simple things are hard to do, intro

Here's the line from Meditations which this next post is going to be about:

"While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good."

If only it were really so simple...

More to follow.

08 November 2011

Focusing on what you don't have, volume 1

Wealth is indifferent.  It falls into the lap of some, while never coming near others.  It can bring misery to those who live for it, and be ignored by those who can't be bothered with it in the least bit.  All of that wealth, and most other things in life to the Stoic, are like dust or dirt on a mirror.  The practice of philosophy is the careful wiping clean of our mirror, the attempt, repeated over and over throughout our lives, of trying to see ourselves for what we really are.  This is a lot harder to do than it is to say.

06 November 2011

Living the good life without a German car

It is apparently illegal to have a blog post now without citing this, so there you go, enjoy.

Now on to something more boring...

When I mention the good life I'm not just talking about giving up your job as a draughtsman so that you can turn your house into an urban farm, but that might be one way you could achieve it.  I'm thinking more about how we as a society view the good life.  With a child coming up, I'm thinking more and more about how we tell our children what a good life is, and how we show them what in life is worth doing.

This week I plan on exploring this topic.  If any of you have some good examples of someone whom you think is living "the good life" tell me about them, I'd love to hear.

29 October 2011


Getting control of ourselves and our minds and recognizing that we can work towards controlling our emotional reactions to things can seem like dangerous ground.  There is the temptation to think that we can be like an island unto ourselves.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just because we can control how we feel about someone's actions towards us doesn't mean that their actions are free from moral judgement.  When someone does a great wrong to us, we can choose to view their action from their viewpoint and understand why they made it.  Our recognition of the motivations behind their action isn't a justification, and our choice to not be stuck in a continual cycle of shock and outrage doesn't preclude us from taking action to correct the situation.

24 October 2011

Never too far off, vol2, part 2a, the one where Marcus Aurelius ACTUALLY responds to Hamlet

So, Hamlet has his litany of complaints.  Let's boil them down into a really compressed form:

Is it better to deal with all of the bullshit in life, or to just kill yourself.  It's definitely a better idea to kill yourself, but what if killing yourself sends you straight to Hell?  Going to Hell for all of eternity would definitely be worse than dealing with this crappy life for another fifty or sixty years, so, out of my own cowardice, I'll choose to stay alive in this world rather than risk eternal torment in the next.

Let's look at where all this torment of Hamlet's comes from, and how much of our life is actually the torment that Hamlet said that it is.  After that we should try to ascertain whether dying would actually be better than putting up with life.

21 October 2011

Never too far off, vol2, part 1, the one where Marcus Aurelius responds to Hamlet

I've always thought that Hamlet was one of the most annoying characters in all of Shakespeare. How would Marcus Aurelius respond to some petty princeling beating himself over the head over whether he should commit suicide or continue living his "miserable" life? 

20 October 2011

Never too far off, volume 1

There are no good ways to start this blog post off.  There aren't many interesting ways to talk about death, but we face it every day.  Thankfully most of us deal with it through the media, and not as a daily occurrence in our own lives.  It's far away even though it's always buzzing about in our ears.  It might be far, but there it is all the same.  There's no getting around it; from dust we came, and to the dust we shall return.

18 October 2011

Marcus minus me

Here are some of the pieces from Marcus Aurelius that I'm going to be writing about later in the week. They all deal with one of the things that most carefully focuses our mind and abilities- death. I thought that you might like to take a look at them by themselves before I interject myself into the situation.

16 October 2011

The guy on the left.

Sometimes it's best to look to first sources.  Other times someone has gathered up all those sources and put them together in a way that can save you a great deal of time.  If you were interested in reading Epictetus, I would probably tell you to pick up The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of his works, as it does as good a job of any in really dealing with the gist of his work.  No one jumps right into a marathon.  If you were to say to me, "Hey Cam, everything sucks, I want to go occupy some street somewhere in the cold, driving rain," I'd have to reply, "Don't waste your time and get sick and risk being convinced that dreadlocks are a good idea, just read some Marcus Aurelius."

Oh yeah, the guy from Gladiator!

15 October 2011

The right or the left

Alright guys, I was at Queen's taking my courses for the weekend,  so I haven't had the time to put anything up.  I'll let you take a guess on this one though while I get it prepared.  Do you think my next post is going to be about the guy on the right or the guy on the left?

11 October 2011

Smelly disagreeable old men

Socrates had a lot of problems.  To the left you can see what some artist imagines to be a famous scene from his marriage.  Xanthippe is pouring her chamber pot out over poor old Socrates’ head.

It might have never happened.  Some authors paint Xanthippe as a horrible person, some as a devoted and caring person, and she, like most of us, was probably somewhere in the middle.  If she had wanted to pour out what she had in that pot over Socrates she might have had a reason though.  He largely ignored his family and his hygiene, and he spent the vast majority of his days trying to get people to see that what they believed didn't really make any sense.

Socrates is a person whom we can learn a great deal from, even if we would have never wanted to be around him in person.

06 October 2011

Always Looking Backwards, vol2

This man's Grandpa raised to the 77th power was Confucius.  That's a lot of powers.

When I was a kid ,the only thing I knew about Confucius was that he could be used in any variety of bad jokes, usually puns, usually dirty.  One kid ends up finding some old book of his uncle's, and proceeds to dispense the wisdom of the sages to those around him:

Confucius say, "Baseball all wrong, man with four balls cannot walk."  
Confucius say, "Man who scratches ass should not bite fingernails."

04 October 2011

Always looking backwards

The checkout line at the grocery store is perhaps one of the most boring places in the world.  It's a non-place really.  You are only there because you aren't at the place you would like to be - at the cashier.  This kind of situation is a dreamland for modern marketers.  Turn your head to the right and you'll see all the hydrogenated corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives you can stuff into brightly colored wrappers.  Turn your head to the left and you'll see junk that is even worse for you.  Did Brad really dump Angelina in Nice?  Her thighs really have cellulite?  Is that a baby bump?

Where did our carefully protected individual control over our lives go in that short bit of time? To paraphrase Epictetus, "If a person gave your body away to a stranger walking down the road, you would certainly be angry, and yet you feel no shame in handing over your own mind."

02 October 2011

The Second Handle

If you ask me, names are pretty important things.  If you call it Constantinople instead of Istanbul, you're saying a lot. A little over a year from now someone will be calling me Dad instead of Cameron.  That's a pretty big change in responsibilities.  I've had a lot of names in my day, and I've given out my fair share of nicknames and received my fair share of insults in return, so when it comes to names I pay attention.  Coming up with a name for this blog took me a good bit of time.

Chance played a good part in it.  I had the good fortune of having an English teacher who made us recite the poem "Invictus" at the beginning of each and every class.  At the time, I thought that it was probably the stupidest thing any teacher had ever had any student do, but she apparently had a much deeper reservoir of knowledge than my teenage self gave her credit for.  I repeated to myself each morning that I was the master of my fate, and that I was the captain of my soul.  A decade later it would do me some good.

30 September 2011

Let's take a stab at this.

A couple of weeks ago, I floated the idea of starting a blog.  It seemed that people were interested in reading what I had to say, but I had a lot of reservations.

First off, I wasn't sure that I really had much to say.  There are no shortage of really smart, funny, interesting things out there on the internet.  Is anything that I'm going to put out there really going to be something that is worth not looking at the million other things of far greater value that are out there?  I'll leave that one up to you to decide.  If there's something of interest here, hopefully you'll read it.  If I say something that you find completely idiotic, tell me.  If my reasoning doesn't seem to gibe with how you interpret the world and our place in it, engage me in a discussion about it.  

Secondly, I was worried that my writing skills needed some serious honing.  I went back and looked at some of my writing from university, and I wasn't really sure that I was capable of presenting ideas as clearly and forthrightly as I did back then. As most of you know, I teach ESL these days.  It's always a rewarding environment, and the teaching involved in it is pretty methodologically, interpersonally, and conceptually complex.  It doesn't leave me saying words like conceptually very often though, and I've been worrying for the past couple of years that my self-imposed linguistic simplification will hurt my writing in the long run.  What was I thinking though? Since when has being concise and paring language down hurt writing?  It might not look as classy and might not sound as erudite as those old university essays, but if simple and to the point was good enough for Socrates and Montaigne, it should be good enough for me.  Hopefully it'll be good enough for you too.

After that I was confronted with the fact that blogging seems to have some pretty contradictory motivations behind it.  What is really my motivation in taking some of my thoughts and putting them out there in the public view?  Am I doing it to seek affirmation from others, to check repeatedly hoping for comments that I can use to assuage my ego?  I decided to sit on the thought for a week and think about what I really intended to do with this.  I came to the conclusion that I can't use this format for knee jerk reactions to current events or to prattle on about topics in a search for approval for others; I have to be very conscious of what I'm doing and make sure that the material I put out into the public sphere is public in nature.

In my next post I'm going to spend some time discussing why I chose the name you see up there at the top of the page for this blog, and the types of issues and ideas that I hope to be discussing with you here.  Welcome!