Stoic Week 2015 (Monday): In Which The In-House Cynics Make Their Opinions Known

Cynic Meets Stoic (1)


Gaze into that canine visage, ears all a-pointy, eyes brimming with puppy pertness, all innocence and charm, and know that you gaze into the Abyss.

He also gazes into you.

He would like a snack.

He does not understand that “snack” and “book” do not mean the same thing, and is baffled that anyone might think otherwise.

Meet Buddy, the youngest member of Cynics Union Local 5058. Like Diogenes of Sinope, he is entirely shameless, walks barefoot all the year ’round, and is entirely willing to bite his friends.

He does not care about my little rules. He lives entirely in accord with nature, in his way — when it is time to wake up (whenever that is), he is awake, whether anyone else likes it or not. When he is sleepy, he sleeps. When he is hungry, he does what is necessary to procure food. He doesn’t worry over-much about appearances or politics or possessions or social niceties. He is, admittedly, still working on that self-sufficiency thing.

Young Buddy is the first obstacle to my Stoic practice for this week. As Epictetus pointed out, some things are under one’s control and others are not. Buddy is definitely one of the latter. This isn’t a complaint about him, though — it’s an occasion for recognizing what it really means not to be able to control another being, which goes along nicely with this morning’s text for reflection (see the Stoic Week 2015 HandbookMeditations 1.15 — the Handbook says 1.14, but the provided text is in 1.15 in my Loeb Classical edition; I’m quoting that translation below):

From [Stoic philosopher] Maximus, [I learned] self-mastery and stability of purpose; and cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances; and a character justly proportioned of sweetness and gravity; and to perform without grumbling the task that lies to one’s hand. And the confidence of every one in him that what he said was also what he thought, and that what he did was done with no ill intent. And not to shew surprise, and not to be daunted; never to be hurried, or hold back, or be at a loss, or downcast, or smile a forced smile, or again, be ill-tempered or suspicious. And beneficence and placability and veracity; and to give the impression of a man who cannot deviate from the right way rather than of one who is kept in it; and that no one could have thought himself looked down upon by him, or could go so far as to imagine himself a better man than he; and to keep pleasantry within due bounds.

The typing of that passage was interrupted twice. In both instances, I had to go and rescue some item in the house from Buddy (an oven mitt and a hat), who especially enjoys grabbing soft cloth objects, taking them out to the back yard, and thrashing them to bits. I am, apparently, a bit too attached to these otherwise insignificant objects (evidence: I feel compelled to rescue them from Buddy’s gleeful depredations, and it is sometimes a struggle not to be annoyed with him), which is something I’ll have to work on.

In his way, Buddy is the best of Cynic teachers — to interact with him is to be compelled by his shameless behavior to recognize the limits of mastery over self and others and to constantly reconsider one’s attachments. Sure, I can train him (and I have, although obviously not well enough), but training is not controlling; at best, it is a kind of negotiation in which the trainee assents to learning a shared language from the trainer. While I am physically capable of controlling quite a lot about his material circumstances (She Who Has The Money Owns The Food), that does not change the fact of his entire and uncontrollable  otherness, his willing and desiring and being.

Also his bouncing. He bounces a lot.

Marcus Aurelius’ meditation on his role model is inspiring as a sketch of what sort of character it takes to interact with a being like Buddy. It is often difficult to refrain from responding to Buddy’s antics with anger, with frustration, and with a certain amount of ill intent. The problem is that responding in this way changes nothing much about Buddy himself. I cannot make him less bouncy by reacting angrily; indeed, he behaves as if much of what he is doing, even when he is stopped or disciplined, is a splendid game. To borrow a Taoist image, Buddy is like water: he finds all of the points of least resistance and inexorably passes through them. Being angry at Buddy is about as productive as being angry at water (if water barked and chewed on any and every available object).

To live with Buddy (and to train him, indeed to train any dog, or to teach human students for that matter) requires a character like that of Maximus. It requires a kind of alert equanimity in the face of shamelessness. I could exercise physical force against Buddy, but that wouldn’t really change him, and it would not reflect at all well on me. That way ressentiment lies, if a dog could feel that way…

The furry little jerk is playing with the doors again, and has locked himself out of the kitchen.

I have a lot of work to do on myself.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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