on D.G. "Greg" Geis
Greg is a native of Texas, the Lone Star State, born in Houston in 1951. He is a member of the Stoic community and a recent graduate of the College of Stoic Philosophers where he currently volunteers as a Mentor. This is how he tells the story of his life.
At one point my Mother designed jar labels for Bama Jams and Jellies. She was one of the first high school students in the US to attend a John Dewey style experimental high school in Tulsa. She never felt as if she got much of an education, but I found her attitude towards experimental education curious, given that our home was always full of books and art. Both my own daughters were educated at Montessori Schools and then later at a French government school in Houston (very antithetical styles of education). Both kids turned out well. But hey, what's a Dad going to say?
My Dad got into the investment business in the early 50's and was a partner at one of the old New York Stock Exchange firms until he retired. I have one sibling, my brother Paul, who ran track at the University of Oregon in the early 70's with the legendary Steve Prefontaine. He later ran in the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He was one of the best distance runners in the world. I have no athletic gifts whatsoever (unless you consider reading a sport).
My wife and I are "animal people". We have 6 horses, 3 donkeys, 4 dogs, and a barn full of feral cats living with us on a small 150 acre ranch in the high part of the Texas Hill Country, about 80 miles NW of San Antonio.”
What great imagery you evoke in your story, Greg. I'm guessing that your preferred sport of reading is where you first discover Stoicism.
Actually, I was in an eighth grade Latin class where we had readings from Cicero and Seneca. At that age, I was much more interested in the kind of weapons gladiators used or the design of siege machinery than Roman or Hellenistic thought. How long was a gladius or what was the effective range of a ballista—that was philosophy enough for me. Typical kid!
However, I was fortunate to attend a high school that actually offered courses in ancient history. Later, as a philosophy major, I was astonished to discover there were no courses in Ancient philosophy at the University of Houston beyond general survey courses in ethics or political philosophy. Plato and Aristotle appeared there as bit players where they functioned primarily as backdrops for modern or contemporary political theories. None of the ancient schools were ever considered in themselves.
From the perspective of my professors, ancient philosophers were the apes that evolved into G.E. Moore and W.V.O. Quine. I'm sure on the Classical language side there were offerings which would have included Lucretius, Cicero or Seneca. I did encounter Heraclitus, but it was through a course in the modern British novel. The novelist, John Fowles, incorporated Heraclitan themes in some of his work, particularly The Magus and The Aristos. Also, Iris Murdoch was a great influence; but again, I encountered her in the English department. Ditto for Plotinus and Neoplatonism. I actually got more ancient philosophy from English literature than University of Houston's philosophy department—which is why I changed my major from philosophy to literature.
What kind of career did you follow with this philosophical and literary background?
In 1973-76 I worked for a company called Washington Educational Research Associates (WERA), which was then headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. They owned a proprietary language school called ELS with residential schools in several large US cities. Running a residential school for language studies was somewhat unusual then. At that time the State Department contracted with WERA to teach English to large numbers of foreign policemen, but also to educate them within what I'll call "a context of liberal values."
Most of these students were on their way to specialized police training programs here and abroad where the common language was English. The ELS curriculum ran 9 months. Formally, the liberal values "indoctrination" class was called "Discussion Class," and I ran these discussion and role playing classes at the Houston school. I guess you could say I taught future interrogators how to gently dialog. Those were the days! They were very freewheeling and a great deal of fun. The Shah of Iran recruited police heavily from minority ethnic and religious groups and preferred his police to be well-educated. My students were 98% Iranian with a smattering of Saudis. In nine months of intensive training we could make an Iranian as fluent as an American graduating High School senior.
Where did you go after teaching English to Iranian law enforcement?
After a number of temporary jobs I got into the investment business with UBS in 19811. I had always had an interest in the stock market. Markets intrigued me because they change all the time. Successful investing is an art rather than an exact science and it rigorously tests the character. It requires a kind of consistency in the face of ceaseless change. You cannot be emotional with investing. Try to be "one person" while the market is dropping precipitously!
Also, during university I worked as a clerk at a brokerage firm, so I had some familiarity with the inner workings of investment firms. In High School I worked for a brokerage firm as a mail boy. And, more importantly, my Dad was in the business. So I had a very good idea what I was getting into. I worked for them 25 years, then retired in September of 2006.
Your CV also mentions graduate school.
I went to graduate school at California State University, Dominguez Hills in 1986 and finished at the end of 1987, graduating in the class of Spring 1988. They had one of the first non-residential Humanities programs in the country. It was not an online program. All the work was done via mail. You dealt with professors and thesis advisers by mail or phone. It was a cumbersome process, but at the time CSUDH was the only external Humanities graduate program with a declared emphasis or major. I wrote my thesis on Pascal.
At that time I was encouraged to design part of my own curriculum. They had, and still have, an innovative interdisciplinary program in the Humanities with a declared emphasis. I took advantage of this to do independent research on Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, David Hume, Schopenhauer, and Pascal. This was where my love of the Stoics was first kindled (also, my love for Pascalian apologetics and my interest in natural theology and natural religion). Later encounters with the works of A.A. Long, Pierre Hadot, Julia Annas, and Martha Nussbaum (I'm rounding up all the usual suspects here!) were extremely stimulating. Also, I had (as did Pierre Hadot) a seminary education. That helped a great deal insofar as it introduced me to koine Greek and exposed me to the Church Fathers, ascetical theology, and the writings of the Desert Fathers. It is very difficult to read people like Tertullian, Augustine, Evagrius Ponticus or Cassian without hearing Stoic themes resonate or encountering true askesis.
You also mentioned attending a seminary. Did you take a leave of absence from UBS to attend the seminary?
I went to seminary at night for the most part. I attended a Quaker Seminary, the Houston Graduate School of Theology. Later I spent weekends in San Antonio at an Anglican seminary. That was rough because of the separation from my family. The weekend gig lasted almost 2 years. Later I did an external (distance learning) work in Patristics at an Orthodox seminary and did more external work in monastic studies (Benedictine). I tried not to let any of my educational endeavors interfere with my work at UBS. I had too large a responsibility to clients.
As for being a priest, I viewed it as a calling; the same way Epictetus believed that philosophy is a calling from God. Truth is truth wherever you find it. I believed, and still believe, that philosophical truth—indeed all lived truth—is mediated through traditions. Making a living as a portfolio manager was simply a job. I had a blue-collar approach to work. I never saw being a priest as conflicting in any way with how I made a secular living.
Did you actually become a priest?
I was ordained an Episcopal priest back in the early 90s while still working as a portfolio manager. Once ordained, I was bi-vocational insofar as I kept my regular job at UBS. I functioned as an Episcopal priest from 1992-1996 and eventually became Rector of a small parish in Houston. A rector is simply a priest with full charge of a parish that is self-supporting.
After all that work to become an Episcopal priest why did you leave priesthood?
I am no longer active in parish ministry and do not serve in a parish, but I remain a priest; so it's not a question of leaving the priesthood. I haven't. I just no longer function as one. And, because I worked as a non-stipendiary (i.e. unpaid) priest at the same time I worked for UBS, there was never any conflict between work and ministry. I simply had 2 jobs, one paying and one non-paying. When I left active ministry I continued on with my "real world" job.
What were some of your challenges in the world of investment?
In 2000, while still working at UBS I was offered the opportunity to work as a Private Trustee handling the financial, legal and personal affairs of an extremely wealthy person who had placed all of her assets in what is called a management trust. I was also responsible for supervising her security which was an extreme headache but it did mesh nicely with my earlier work. Someone with a billion dollars is probably a hundred times more likely to get sued for an alleged personal injury than be kidnapped. Bodyguards are for protecting the public from the principal—not vice versa!
After I retired from UBS in 2006, I continued to work for the management trust as Trustee, but an investment partnership was also formed—basically a hedge fund. I was the General Manager and GP of the partnership. We were fortunate enough to be one of the first groups of investors to short the sub-prime mortgage market through instruments called credit default swaps back in 2006-07. We had some very good advice on that from another hedge fund manager in Fort Worth, a fellow who tried for some years to warn the industry itself that things would eventually blow up. We had the good sense to listen to him and as a consequence made a great deal of money.
I retired in January of 2009 from both the Trust and the Partnership. One of the other partners now runs the partnership and the probate court gave me a judicial discharge so I could exit the trustee's position after a complete audit of my tenure (required by law when a trustee resigns or is replaced). I moved up to the Hill Country of Texas permanently in early 2009.
I'd like to back up to your seminary education. Earlier you mentioned Stoic themes in the seminary. Were these Stoic ideas clearly represented in your studies?
Stoic teachings are largely misrepresented in theological education—not so much from malice as through ignorance of the primary texts. But there is plenty of ignorance to go around. I am often astonished at the ignorance evidenced by many of my educated contemporaries when it comes to simple things like the history of Christianity. It is not only ancient philosophy that has escaped the net of ideas; every truth that asks for a lived response has been cast aside.
The human disease is to separate Being and Knowing. We want to know the truth; we don't necessarily want to "be" or live it. It's the postmodern project of relativization; the fastest way to denature truth is to make everything true. It makes the reasonable choice of a lived response impossible. I am reminded of the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's Law of Infinite Cornucopia. Kolakowski jokingly noted that for any given crackpot idea one wants to hold, there will never be a shortage of idiots who will support it. So as soon as you think you've heard the most stupid idea in the world, trust me, you haven't. There's no bottom floor on human folly or ignorance. However low someone goes there's someone else who will cheerfully go lower.
The early church was not hostile to Stoicism. Epictetus was popular with Byzantine and Benedictine religious. We know the Byzantine bishop Arethas preserved and re-copied the text of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. The reformer John Calvin wrote a study of Seneca and taught the pagan classics at his Academy in Geneva. Men like Boethius and Erasmus could hardly be considered adversaries of so-called "pagan" thought.
I get rather impatient with unthinking Christians who pillory pagan thought as "immoral". Postmodern thought is about as far from ancient "pagan" philosophy as Christianity is from the Aztec religion. If anything, the ethical system of the Stoics (and many of the other schools) was more demanding, more rigorous. Pelagianism, for instance, seems at times to be nothing more than a baptized Stoicism.
The collision of Christianity and pagan thought centers less on the teaching of the schools than Christian claims about the person and work of Christ. The relationship between "pagan" philosophy and Christianity during later antiquity is complex, and, in my opinion, not subject to simple reduction. There is no analogue in ancient thought for the Christian concept of grace. That, to my way of thinking, is the real dividing line between Christianity and the ancient schools In Mahayana Buddhism, for instance, you have "self-power" and "other power". There is no "other power" with the schools.
Do you consider yourself to be a Stoic?
Would I call myself a Stoic? "Yes" in one sense, but "No" in another more important sense. Yes in the sense that I believe philosophy is a calling from God, that truth is always mediated through a tradition, and that philosophy is meant to be a lived truth. "Yes" in the sense that the commitment to truth must be total. I have problems with materialistic monism, Stoic physics, and some Stoic epistemology. If, for instance, you have lost a small child in a fire, I believe it would be perfectly appropriate to freak out. All the pronoiac thinking in the world cannot make sense of something like this. Mental wounds can take as long to heal as physical wounds. Would a real materialist separate the two? There are things in life which I find difficult to fathom. Some things in life do not make sense and are not susceptible to rational explanation.
Both Marcus Aurelius and Pascal make the observation that part of being rational means knowing when to give reason up. Being reasonable, at least for me, entails acknowledging mystery and what is irrational. The Stoic position is that tragedy is not possible. I am still working views out and it is difficult for me to say I have reached a final resting place philosophically. I have a conservative bent and find Stoicism congruent with this though I acknowledge, quite happily, that a liberal progressive might also find philosophical support here.
I entirely agree with your statement that “Being reasonable, at least for me, entails acknowledging mystery and what is irrational.” My current preoccupation is the fact that Stoics have never acknowledged the value of the right cerebral hemisphere—the silent, intuitive side of thought. I'm sure that is because the ancients were simply unaware of it's existence and value 2000 years ago, but what's our excuse today? Fully half of what Nature has created through the evolution of our cerebral cortex is ignored in favor of ever-increasing analysis. We continue to exercise the left brain by studying more and more about less and less. If we can anthropomorphize a philosophy education, the left side of the brain is Mr. Universe while the right brain is on life support.
But, enough of my concerns. What do you see as the future of Stoicism in the world?
I actually see the future of Stoicism in the world as being quite bright. The use of Stoic philosophy in cognitive psychology, the rise of the Recovery Movement, a kind of spiritual hunger on the part of the non-religious that looks for reasonableness as well as meaning, along with the rise of globalization: all these auger well for acceptance of Stoicism.
Personally Stoicism has helped me deal with a number of personal issues that proved resistant to other forms of therapeia. I have been greatly helped along by the use of hypomnemata, a practice I highly recommend. It helps me focus on my failings. It is difficult to change what you refuse to acknowledge! Also, in my former work life, I found Stoic thinking to be very helpful. As a professional investor and fund manager I soon discovered how dangerous emotion can be and how important it is to maintain an equable outlook, especially towards markets and economic cycles.
There are other Stoic ideas that resonate. One Stoic theme that has influenced me politically is the idea of the Cosmopolis. Another is the importance of prosoche or the practice of simply paying attention to what is going on both around and within us. Also, I find the life-stories of many Stoics to be inspiring. The young man 2 interviewed for the January issue of Registry Report is a good case in point. The general seriousness with which Stoic practitioners approach life and life questions is another thing I find inspirational.
I think of Marcus Aurelius wanting more than anything to be a good person. Here is the most powerful man in the world and what is it he wants? To be virtuous. I also find it heartening that Stoics come from all walks of life. If, for instance, there were a Nobel Prize for philosophy and all the committee members were Stoics the winner might turn out to be a short order cook in Minnesota or an insurance salesman in Oklahoma. It is helpful to hold things like this in mind. We are put on this earth to not only serve but to witness to the truth. To me, that is what it means to be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. And a good person.
Thank you, Greg. Well said and an inspirational conclusion to our interview.
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