Sunday, December 28, 2014

Stoicism in the Media

Thanks to an online friend of mine, I just read a NY Times opinion piece that mentions and dismisses Stoicism among other Philosophies.  I decided to dust off the old blog and offer my opinion on a few of his comments.  I realize that this article's purpose was not to fully explain Stoicism, nor could such a task be accomplished in so short a space (or here, for that matter).  However, Dr. May brings up some common objections to Stoicism that I would like to address.  The fact that Stoicism merits dismissal in the NY Times marks a step forward for me.

YEEEAAAHHH!


So let's get started.
Stoicism similarly (but distinctly) counsels that we rid ourselves of emotion, and similarly (but again distinctly) offers a path of recognition of our place in the universe to help us get there. I do not wish to claim that either or both of these or related doctrines are mistaken. Instead, I want to say that most of us, when we really reflect upon our lives, would not want what is officially on offer, but instead something else.
Let's talk about emotion within the Stoic framework.  Emotions occur when we have an impression and then assent to that impression as true.  Stoics sought to minimize and ultimately rid themselves of negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and jealousy.  Positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction, and caution were actively pursued.  Part of the issue here is that the Stoic term for negative emotions, "pathe," is often translated as "emotion" and the term for positive emotions "eupatheia" is translated as "good feelings."  As you can see, the words share the same root - they are opposites.  Personally, I can't imagine wanting to experience more negative emotions and less positive emotions.  But we'll look at that in a moment.
In their official guise, these doctrines are examples of what I am going to label “invulnerabilism.” They say that we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes. What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us. We are capable of making ourselves immune to the fortunes of our bodies, our thoughts, and our environment, and we will live better or happier or more pure lives if we do so. Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things, the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world’s vagaries.
In my experience, there is no unsupported "should" in Stoicism.  Stoic logic is propositional — the most recognizable being modus ponens: if p then q; p; therefore q.  For example, if you want to minimize negative emotions, you might try some mental exercises that have worked for some human beings for over 2,000 years.  Obviously that's a joke and not a strenuous logic example, but it has a point.  There are no "shoulds" without an "if" and if you don't accept the "if" statement, the "should" loses it's logical support.  It's certainly possible that someone doesn't want to minimize negative emotions, for example.

Now to the idea that Stoicism somehow lures converts with the idea of being invulnerable or happier or purer.  These are all nice things, but they are side effects.  For my money, Seneca has the best quote on this, but if pressed I think the point of Stoicism is to be the best person possible.  What more can I want beyond this?  Is this goal self-evident?  Isn't this what Dr. May is also seeking?  And if I get peace of mind and other benefits along the way, so much the better.
The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it? I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the death of one of my children should shatter me, even if it should not ultimately destroy me.
Now we get to it, Dr. May pulls no punches and goes for the knockout — what sort of parent wouldn't be devastated by the loss of their child?  Obviously someone would have to be inhuman to have buried a child without emotion.  Could such a cold person be called a good parent?  Here we have it, an argument for desiring more negative emotion!

and God needs a Starship

First, can I just say that Anaxagoras was awesome? The guy lived before Socrates and figured out that the moon shines due to the reflected light from the sun.  Naturally this resulted in charges of impiety.  Anyway, why would the Stoics applaud his remark?  For Stoics, keep in mind that good and bad only relate to what is within your control.  When something unfortunate happens, such as the loss of a child, or even something as minor as accidentally stubbing your toe, the idea is that nothing truly "bad" has happened, because it wasn't in your control.  Now, in practice, even stubbing your toe will result in a feeling of "that was bad."

Remember in the Stoic terminology, emotions have two parts, an impression and accepting that impression.  While you're wondering if you will lose your toenail, the impression that something bad just happened is unavoidable.  But after a short time, your rational brain can engage and reject the impression that something "bad" happened.  For something to be "bad" it would involve an immoral act that you could have avoided.  What does rejecting this impression accomplish?  Is the physical pain less?  No, but it could help to accept the situation and move on about your day.  This is the discipline of assent.

Maybe you're thinking to yourself, it's one thing to get over a stubbed toe, but to feel nothing about a dead child?  Again, the impressions and attendant feelings are unavoidable, they are going to happen regardless of your rational brain.  One sure way to increase your suffering is to wonder if you are feeling the "right" feelings.  If you go numb and don't cry immediately, does that make you a bad person?  For non-Stoics, perhaps so, and there are a wide variety of ways that people respond to tragedy.  To me, the healthy response, the Stoic response, involves acknowledging and understanding the feelings and impressions in order to deal with them, especially when those feelings are unexpected.

I haven't lost any children, but I can tell you that the Stoic framework helps me to be a better father every day.  Epictetus advised his students to constantly remind themselves that everyone you love will die someday — perhaps even tomorrow.  The main point of this exercise is to remind us that there is nothing "bad" other than immoral acts that are within our control, but it has a nice side effect.  For me, that side effect is gratefulness.  When forced to tuck in a toddler for the 10th time in one night, nothing cuts through the frustration like the thought that it could be for the last time.  There are no guarantees in life, we are all one disease, one car accident, one random act of nature away from our last day on earth.  Rationally accepting this situation before major tragedy has the advantage not only of preparing me for the inevitable, but more importantly, of making me a better human being now.

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