The Philosopher King: Courage, Vulnerability, and the Dragon.

On August 11th 2022. Juan Perez (of The Agora @ and Estoicismo Practico Podcast) presented a meet-up on Marcus Aurelius and Heroic Vulnerability. I wanted to put down some thoughts after I was inspired by Juan’s meet-up.

The idea of vulnerability presented by Juan really helps to get at the meaning of the virtue Courage. It is the paradox that it takes strength to be vulnerable. It is only courage when you are overcoming fear.

One aspect of vulnerability can be recognizing and admitting your self-deception.

“I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Marcus Aurelius

But what is truth? Man, that is an existential question. It seems like there is a strength in having certainty about the truth. But is that certainty only a self deception?

I think Albert Ellis has a very intellectually honest answer for himself about the question of does God exist. Ellis is a “probabilistic atheist.” Essentially he admits that while he cannot know with certainty that God either exists or does not exist, given Ellis’s understanding of science and the observable world, there is such a low probability of God existing that the question is “not worth his time.”

Ellis is not the most humble person, but there is a humility in his statement where he is admitting that it is a choice to not believe in God. It is not a fact that God does not exist. It is outside the realm of measurable facts.

Thomas Aquinas considers Humility to be one of the most essential virtues “a form of temperance having neither pride nor indulging in self-deprecation.” 

It is interesting to see Humility within the unity of virtues framework. It seems to be Wise to be humble. It is Justice, as we hope others will have and show humility as well. It is courageous and vulnerable to be humble. 

I am really interested in exploring more about Juan’s approach of bringing the Wisdom of Emperor Marcus Aurelius to the corporate world. During the Roman Empire, the world needed a philosopher king like Marcus Aurelius. In our current American Empire, we need philosopher capitalists. 

The conversation on vulnerability and self-deception brings to my mind the work of Robert Moore, particularly his book ‘Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity.’

‘Facing the Dragon’ identifies the majority of pathologies for individual people and our culture as a whole goes back to the idea of grandiosity (related to the vice of pride, among others).

Grandiosity is an ego inflation. That I (the ego) am important. I am a self-made man. I did this all on my own. I worked hard. I deserve this.

Moore uses the metaphor of The Dragon Energy to talk about our experience of grandiosity. It is a great primordial energy, the source of all creation. The great and terrible mother. The Uroboros before separation of masculine and feminine, god and goddess. 

We have that divine spark in us. But is it fair to say that it is “in” us? It’s around us, it involves us. But I am not it, and it is not me. Another way to say it is ‘God energy.’ In Jungian terminology, the soul is “the organ” that relates the self to God. To believe that we are God, that the God energy comes from the self, is to have a God complex.

Moore says you need to be aware of your relationship to The Dragon Energy. You can use it. You can tap into it. Every great artist does. Every great man in the world of business or politics does so. Moore says you have to remain conscious of your relationship to that energy, not develop the self-deception that it is you. To not stay vigilant or mindful leads to the likelihood of that energy becoming demonic (evil). 

Psychotherapists need clergy if they are to understand spiritual growth. And clergy need a psychotherapist if they are to understand and maintain a healthy relationship between the ego and Self. That was one of Moore’s callings, to train clergy in psychology. 

Moore describes, ‘why is so much evil perpetrated by clergy at times?’ Dragon Energy. They get so full of themselves that they think they are doing the work of good. But in the end they are consuming the light and goodness of others, consuming souls like a vampire. Feeding an insatiable need to gratify an insecure ego.

You need to keep a conscious, humble, healthy distance from that energy. Not bring it within yourself; but not lose all connection either.

Moore describes that there is a grandiosity within ego inflation, but also a grandiosity within depression. “But it’s just little old me,” Moore would say. “I keep failing. I can’t do anything right.”

It’s difficult to see where grandiosity is present in struggling, suffering, and victimhood. One aspect is “my pain is greater than anyone else.” “It should be easier.” The pain is so great, that I need to leave my gifts to the Shadow of the Unconscious and depress myself.

So practically, what do we do about this Dragon Energy? Mindfulness (Prosoche – Attention to the present moment and keeping in mind Virtue). Moore says we need to have a conscious relationship to our choices. And rituals and routines to keep ourselves in check and self-reflect. To overcome self-deception.

In any decision, even those with the best intentions, there are unintended consequences (sacrifices). You have to take responsibility for those unintended consequences, making it a conscious sacrifice (courage) rather than an unconscious sacrifice. The unintended sacrifice leads not only to unknown harms outside of awareness, but an increasing desire to become defensive of the ego and further avoid responsibility and facing what was chosen.

You want people to have money to survive unemployment during the COVID pandemic. But capitalism will take advantage of this influx of cash and raise prices and spiraling inflation. 

You didn’t choose inflation. But were you conscious of the risk (fear) or did you tell yourself “that would never happen.”

You want to do right by your investors and show constant year over year growth, through good times or bad times. It is your responsibility to do so. But how much fear is there that you will be easily replaced if you do not do so. Is it a decision based out of love for your business or fear of your vulnerability?

It requires constant vigilance and self-reflection and acknowledging the power you have to create intended and unintended consequences. As a therapist I want to help people and not do a thing that would hurt people (Do no harm. The ethics of beneficence and nonmaleficence). Yet if I do not tell a person something that might cause emotional pain and upset, I might be enabling them, allowing them to remain dependent and not get better. It requires temperance and balance.

How does one practice humility? It requires mindfulness of self-deception. Seeking out potentials for self-deception enthusiastically. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable. To transcend the self. It is transcendence to see the interrelatedness of our choices. Going beyond selfish, egoistic needs to be right or infallible.

In this way the word Virtue can be very scary. To think we know Virtue or know Truth, but may not be aware of the possibility of self-deception.

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David Alexander

Psychotherapist | Writer

David Alexander is a practising psychotherapist based in New Mexico, USA. He started studying Greek Stoicism in 2020 as part of a journey of self-discovery and searching for answers about how to practically help myself and others endure the challenging times we are living in. He found Stoic Philosophy to be a useful jumping-off point to explore important questions: What is Human Nature? What is your Nature? It is towards this goal, to “know thyself,” that David started studying Carl Jung’s theories regarding the structure of the psyche (soul) and the workings of the unconscious mind. His goal in studying integrative disciplines of psychology, philosophy, and mythology is to better understand the self, thereby learning to better understand others.

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