on Bill Dyer
This month, we get to know Bill Dyer, a great person whose interest in Stoicism led him to deep studies in philosophy.
Hi Bill! How about introducing yourself a little to the community?
I was born in the early sixties in Florida. I currently live in the Texas Panhandle.
I have one sister and three brothers, from an average military family. We traveled quite a bit during our younger years, but that ended after my father's retirement, when we settled in East Tennessee.
I am currently working as a software programmer at a local university. I have a wife of 23 years and we have one son who is a senior (music education major) in college.
Do you mind telling us a bit more about your education?
I graduated from high school a year early and so left home for the military before I was 18. Before leaving, my father advised me to study the various cultures I'd experience and appreciate them for what they were. It seems that it was the only piece of advice I followed early on (it seems that the rest of his recommendations were followed only after experience taught me other lessons). In spite of me often getting in my own way, I learned much from my travels. At that time, military training and travel was my entire education; college didn't enter the picture until after I retired.
I started college in 1996 and haven't stopped yet. I have a B.S in Occupational Education with an emphasis in electronics technology and am currently working on a second bachelors, this one in Philosophy.
Is that how you got interested in Stoicism?
Quite the opposite, I was introduced to Stoicism very much by accident. I was in a bookstore and chose several books to purchase. A copy of Epictetus' Enchiridion had been mis-shelved and I guess the price tag curled a bit and was stuck to a book I had chosen. Anyway, I had the book when I got to the register. Since it was only a few dollars, I went ahead and paid for it. I've read it many times since. Today, the vast majority of my reading is in philosophy and I am working on a degree in philosophy. That book was quite a life changer.
How did you decide to do that? How does a degree in philosophy work?
I decided on a degree in philosophy for a few reasons and they developed over time. One reason was that I wanted instruction. I had started buying too many books and I was getting confused over the various views among the many philosophers. I understood that they all had different views, and their reasons for those views, but with my scattered reading, I could put together why there were so many takes on a subject.
I started out taking a few survey classes (intro level history of philosophy) classes. Survey tends to take two forms (from my experience anyway): chronological and subject. Chronological takes you the linear timeline of history - from ancient to the present. I could see how one philosopher helped develop the next philosopher in line (whether there was agreement between them or not). Subject surveys dealt more with a major subject, epistemology for example. In that area, the material could be chronological, but only within the realm of epistemology. With this, you can get a narrower focus on a certain philosopher's views within it - it helped me filter out the philosophers views on other subjects, say, aesthetics or metaphysics.
From there, I could see how philosophy could be seen as the "Great Conversation," and I couldn't get away. :) By this time, I had developed the habit of taking one or two classes so I figured that going after the degree a natural continuation of my studies. I applied and was accepted to a degree program (it will be a second bachelors).
It wasn't until after I was in the program that a minor quarrel solidified it. A person close to me questioned my logic in the choice. I was good at certain thing and I should stick to doing those things and not waste my time with theory books and so-called knowledge that I'd probably never be able to use in the real world. It hit me then that I had already been doing things that others expected of me. I was good in my trade and I was already working in it. I decided then that I was old enough to make my own choice over something even if others disapproved, so part of my reasons for sticking with the degree was to continue my own personal interest and a bit out of spite. :)
Do you find it hard?
The material can be hard, but not insurmountable by any means. Any new view, I think, can be difficult since it's a new way of looking at something. Sticking with it can only be beneficial. After a particularly difficult period in my studies, a professor pulled me aside and told me that she felt that I was trying to find something in each philosopher that was 'true.' She went on to say that the best philosophers didn't want that. All they wanted was for someone to listen to them and seriously consider what they had to say. If, after that, we still didn't agree, and could dare to counter-argue, they would have been fine with that. My study of philosophy became much calmer after that.
I think, too, that some of us might tend to put philosophers on a pedestal of sorts—at least I tended to. This same philosophy professor added that philosophers were human too. She gave me this mental picture to play with:
"Imagine that all of the great philosophers were alive today. Invite Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Abelard, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Kant and all of the others to a party. Philosophers, being who they are will start to exchange views and these people are all hard-headed types. By the end of the party, at least three will be dead and most of the others in the emergency room."
They are just people, highly intelligent, but just people looking for answers just as we are. We're all in good company.
I've also found that studying the life of the philosopher does much in understanding what that person is saying. Aquinas' incarceration by hiw own family undoubtedly had an affect on his world view. The wars during Hobbes' day definitely had an affect on him. A horse riding accident, and the near death that came of it, changed the direction of Montaigne's entire life. When there is a little history along with the thesis, I can understand more about the philosopher and what that person is saying even I still disagree.
What do you learn there? Are you finding in it what you expected to?
What do I learn? History of philosophy, aesthetics, epistemology and the others major areas. I have a hard time with logic because of the math symbols (I have a very heavy mental block with math), but I love critical thinking (I see it as the word-problems of logic - the long hand version of a problem without the math symbols). I still plan to take on logic again, however. I think that critical thinking and logic are requirements in the study of philosophy - and even living in general. I think it sad that I am hard pressed to find a high school or college that requires critical thinking as a core course, let alone even offer it.
I've also learned that there are things missing from philosophical study. Various schools of philosophy, i.e. Stoicism, is covered mainly in survey classes. In surveys, you get a brief overview. If I want anything more than that, personal research and study must be done.
I've also found that there seems to be an emphasis placed on science than in philosophy. For example, there is a lot of study in artificial intelligence. Can computers think and learn? I admit, being a programmer myself, that this is important, but as I look at the curriculum of various universities and I see that most all philosophy classes are aligned with the sciences rather than in wisdom. Perhaps it's a fear of losing budget money and the wish to be held as 'a science' to the public. After all, telling benefactor that all we do for a living is think about things, doesn't usually garner many points with that person and doesn't always convince that person to contribute to the philosophy department.
I admit that this is my take on it - and I also accept responsibility for me my view (with the above) that this alignment with the sciences is a little too close, based on a fear of a lack of funding and a concern over what the public thinks. This is cowardly, I believe, and has caused the study of philosophy to sway from its pursuit and love of wisdom. This isn't to say that philosophers today, do not love wisdom, it's just not given the focus it once had.
Did all that work lead you to consider yourself as a Stoic?
I am not sure that I am a Stoic in the strictest sense, but it is a core. There is a little Epicurianism and Existentialism (Kierkegaard is a favorite of mine) thrown in. Stoicism helps keep me grounded, particularly with the concept of "internals vs. externals." Epicurianism adds to "moderation" themes for me and Existentialism's "personal responsibility" outlook adds itself nicely as well. Additionally, since all I have control over is my attitude and opinion of things, the addition of Montaigne's examples on studying the whims and flows of personal thought can keep me busy indefinitely.
Interesting. Could you share a little bit about your taste for Epicurianism and Existentialism? I personally remember the very little I learned about Kierkegaard as being very dark and desperate, which never led me to inspect more about him.
Epicuranism, to me, is a partner to Stoicism. Stoics, being the methodical types that they are, have their 'rules of the game'. They live a certain way and stick to it. Epicuranism, as Epicurus taught it, is to me, one practical example of living in moderation and still experience moments of joy that Stoics are also after.
Sidestepping a bit—Epicurianism is seen differently today than it was in Epicurus' day. We may see it as living the lavish lifestyle—and "Eat, drink and be merry," take on life. This was taught by Aristippus, not Epicurus.
Epicurus was all for the joys of life but in moderation. There was no need to gorge oneself at a meal, for example. Wine is good and there was no harm in tasting it, but water was better (and far more plentiful and cheaper at that). "Give me a pot of cheese so that I may feat whenever I want," was a view that he could enjoy eating, have something nutritious and nibble to his heart's content. Gorging wasn't necessary.
Concerning Kierkegaard—I agree that he can be dark. I think he inherited his melancholy from his father. The man was also abnormally obsessed with time and he never threw any of his notes away. While he has the reputation for being dark, I think this isn't entirely true. Before I read into his background, I thought he was the most humorous philosopher I had ever read. The man is a master at comedy, particularly irony.
Johannes Climacus is a novel by Kierkegaard about a man who wants to be a philosopher. I recommend it for its humor. Becoming a philosopher can have its own comedica moments in all of us, which makes the rigorous study not just manageable, but all the more enjoyable.
Kierkegaard also argues against himself by using imaginary people. He makes heavy use of these in the book, Fear and Trembling (those people in the introductory are not real commentators—it's Kierkegaard). Consider too, this little snippet from his Repetition:
How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn't it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?
I may have gone on too much about Kierkegaard's humor, but to get back to what I get out of Existentialism is that we often have too much information that isn't worth much. For example, in Kierkegaard's day, the prevailing view was that if you were from a Christian country under a Christian government, going to a Christian church and so on, it made you a Christian by default. This was all mind clutter to Kierkegaard and completely covered the fact that Christianity was a personal choice and a very difficult way of living. The responsibility of living a true Christian life rests upon us, not the government, church or what-have-you. It was very personal. Other existentialists resisted mind clutter in other ways and personal responsibility was required. Existentialism doesn't always go with the Stoic flow, but it does remind me that I am responsible for my actions.
So, back to Stoicism, how can this philosophy fit in today's world?
Stoicism, I think, will run in cycles in that it will enjoy popularity in one era and fall out of favor in another. Currently, I see people searching through several schools of thought, dabbling a little in this and a little in that. The current push is for the hope of a feeling of happiness, but without effort and sustained thought. How difficult this is! To look within ourselves and not be pleased with who we are, while blaming outside things and circumstances for "our condition" while expecting something "out there" to satisfy us.
I believe that Stoicism will remain, however, never completely disappearing yet always in sight as an option. Whether through accident (as it was with me), or through searching, the Stoic will be seen. Stoics tend to be, as I see them anyway, as rocks - pillars of strength and others will learn from them. There will be some Stoic teachers, but I think that Stoicism will be taught mostly through example.
But don't you think that for it to enjoy popularity, we need to promote it more? Most of the shelves in bookshops around my place are full of "self-actualization" soup, containing mostly good intentions from the authors, but as easily read as forgotten. They seem to target people who feel something is wrong in their life, but just as you say, don't know where to find the strength they are sitting on. But when today's Stoics talk, it has consequences. Irvine's book, for instance, seems to have driven a lot of people to this community. Don't we need to promote our views, and to express ourselves in a wider audience to start the dynamic of making our ideas popular again?
I think you're absolutely correct that we need to promote it more. I agree that Irvine's book had a lot to do with sending many to Stoicism as has Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and Sharon Lebell's Art of Living. There is a lot of good material out there. Aside from some good books, there isn't, in my experience so far, very much else available and I have to specifically go looking for them. There are some sites, like New Stoa, that are available. In the case of New Stoa, I found the site during a search of Stoicism—I had to be looking for it.
This isn't to say that no one is doing their part in promoting Stoicism, it just means that I haven't found those circles where I am and, I admit, concentrating on work, life and schooling, I haven't been active (gotta take responsibility for my actions, or lack of them).
I have found that living a Stoic life will get the attention of others. While I'm not perfect at it by any means, I get the occasional approach: "I've been noticing that very little seems to bother you. How do you shake things off?" From there I can tell them about Stoicism and how it helps me. If further conversations are a result, I welcome them. I have to admit though, that doing more hadn't occurred to me.
Taking your other remark, about bookstores and the books they contain, could be the modern day stoa. Those other books will still exist, just as other schools of thought existed during the same time as the early Stoics. Libraries can also be gathering places. Recently, a local university started a modern Humanist group. The same could be done with a Stoic group. I'll have to give some time to thinking about that.
Now I'd like to talk a little about your own practice of Stoicism. What can you tell us about it?
Every time I think that I have it all together, I learn that I do not. If I believe I know something, I learn that I may be wrong. During good times, it's possible to get a big head and during tough times, it's hard to keep persisting. For every thing, there is an opposite and I have learned that the hard way. Cursing the icy roads does nothing but keep my mind off of where it should be - on driving safely and sure. Being argumentative with someone who holds some belief different than mine only creates unnecessary friction and damaged feelings. These, I have learned through attempts at controlling what was outside of me.
Through Stoicism, I have learned that it is possible to stay centered. Other people and events are as they are; I can do nothing about them, I can only control my views on them. Stoicism allows me to develop an inner resilience and emotional self control which allows me the ability to weather storms or various sorts. I am more accepting of others and the world-at-large.
I have a long way to go; there are many more lessons to learn. Stoicism is not easy, but worth the effort. Through living a life of self-control and self-mastery, I find that there is happiness that was missing before. By not trying to control what is "out there," I can appreciate it all for what it is and this life becomes a wonderful event indeed.
Are there quotes you particularly appreciate, that you would retain, or repeat to yourself in certain circumstances?
I happen to be a quote collector. :)
"You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last." - Marcus Aurelius
"In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles." - Epictetus
"Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around." - Marcus Aurelius
"A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is." - Seneca
"Practice yourself, for heaven's sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater." - Epictetus
"Away with the world's opinion of you — it's always unsettled and divided." - Seneca
"A man should be upright, not kept upright." - Marcus Aurelius
"Be harsh with yourself at times." - Seneca
"Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect." - Marcus Aurelius
Do you have a particular exercise or practice that you relate to Stoicism?
I have no formal exercise - at least I don't consider it as one. I have a habit of setting just a small number of goals per day to accomplish and, at the end of the day, evaluate. I evaluate what was, or wasn't accomplished, and what I did in either case. In this evaluation, no blame to anyone else or thing is allowed. I alone am responsible for the day's outcome and my views upon it.
That sounds a wise thing to do! Now maybe you'd accept to share with us what expectations you have regarding our community, why you did join it and what we could do to make it better?
I would like to see the community's continued growth. It would be nice to start up a few friendships with like-minded people. I expect that this will happen in time; I'll be more able to spend more time with the group after schooling is completed. This last push is time heavy and expensive; I'd best take to it with focus.
I joined mostly as a self-commitment. I put my name to it. I think it's an honor to be part of a group that holds personal development and wisdom with such high value. I want to be able to live up to that.
As for suggestions on how to improve, I'm not sure. To start, I'd like to take advantage of what's offered by those running the site and to form some friendships. In the end, I'd like to contribute somehow, but seeing how will come after more experience here.
Well, thanks a lot for all you'be brought to us in this interview, Bill. As you say yourself in your signatures, own the day!