Saturday, June 02, 2018

'Go Over Things Piece by Piece'

Yet another new word: pankration. I’m reading Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (David R. Godine, 2018), an anthology of and guide to the Roman philosophers of the Stoic school, especially Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In the chapter titled “Externals,” Farnsworth quotes a passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“You will disdain lovely singing and dancing, and martial arts, if you cut up the musical phrase into separate notes, then ask yourself, about each one, if you are unable to resist it. You won’t know how to answer. Do the same with dancing, for each movement or position; the same even with martial arts. To sum up: apart from virtue and the things that stem from it, remember to go over things piece by piece, and by separating them come to look down on them; and carry this over to your whole life.”

Farnsworth describes this Stoic technique as “subtraction.” The goal is to look at familiar things unencumbered with conventional meanings. “One has to chip away,” Farnsworth writes, “at the romance or horror or other story that has been overlaid onto the thing, and to distinguish between what it is and what it is called.” To the stoics, we live in misjudgment. We see things falsely and as a result they enslave us. We are hostages to ignorance and distorted perceptions, and are urged to regard externals with detachment. We ought not to fret about things outside our control – a thought hardly unique to Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius suggests a sort of literal vision, seeing the parts over the whole, for in the whole resides the customary meanings. I can see how this would be useful when we are strictly observers, not caught in the flux of daily reality. To look at dance the way Marcus Aurelius suggests would reduce it to a species of epileptic seizure, a clutch of movements only spasmodically related, which is helpful neither to the dancers nor their audience.   
Back to pankration. Farnsworth glosses the passage quoted above: “By ‘martial arts’ he was referring to pankration, which was roughly what we would now call ultimate fighting or mixed martial arts. It was an Olympic event.” Sounds more like barroom brawling or plain old dirty, below-the-belt fighting, without the niceties of Marquis of Queensbury rules. For some reason, the OED doesn’t recognize pankration; instead, it gives pancratium, the Latin form of the older Greek word. The definition is straightforward and a little evasive: “A sporting contest combining wrestling and boxing.”

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