Monday, October 24, 2011

Don't Just Sit There, Do Something - Stoic Indifference vs. Apathy

This is the second attempt at this post. The first time through, I had slipped into 'Teacher' mode, and was waxing long on the hows and whys and wherefores. But that isn't what this blog is for (that is reserved for the Stoic Workshops).

This is my forum for talking about my actual life. So here goes.

The thing people don't get (and seem to be incapable of getting past) is the concept of Stoic Indifference. I talked about Emotions in my last post, this time I want to talk about Actions. Anyone who has read up on Stoicism should have a pretty clear idea of some of the central Stoic tenets. Virtue, that is behaving in an excellent way, is the only moral 'good'. Vice, it's opposite, is the only moral 'bad'. Everything that isn't linked to our behaviour does not make us either good or bad people, and so is morally indifferent, or morally neutral.

The second big Stoic principle is that most things are not in our control, especially the things that happen to us, while the only things that are in our control are our choices and actions. Putting two and two together, things we do (i.e. therefore in our control) = our virtue or vice. Things that happen to us, which are therefore not in our control = indifferent.

So here is the thing. There has been a lot of news and not a little noise surrounding the Global Occupy movement. Some IDIOTS seems to think that calling themselves Stoics gives them license to disengage from humanity because other people's suffering is an indifferent to them. Indifferents only apply to oneself! Read Heirocles, Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius! And yes, even Epictetus. Every one of them will tell you that you are here, on the planet, you are a human, to serve other humans! Why?

Because THAT is what being Virtuous is! We can't be 'justice', but we CAN act, in fact we MUST act justly. That is to say, we must stand against injustice! I am not here telling you what cause you should fight for, that is for you to discover. But we need to fight for it! If we are knowingly NOT fighting injustice, cruelty, greed, foolishness, then we are knowingly acting with vice. A virtuous life is about LIVING, not about contemplating our freaking navels.

We need to get off our collective asses, get off our couches, get off our high horses, and get out of our ivory towers and go and do something, anything! There is NO shortage of things that we can do virtuously. And unless we do, we aren't being virtuous then, are we .

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stoicism - I'm Feelin' It!


One of the perennial challenges faced by modern Stoics is the question of the proper place of emotions. The very word 'Stoic' has come to mean a Vulcan like denial or suppression of human emotion. What follows is merely the beginning of a discussion in an attempt to correct, or at least modify, this view. 

The tale is told of one Stilpo, a wise man held up by the Stoics as an example of how a person should behave. One translations tells his tale in the following way:

Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!" There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. "I have lost nothing!" Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. "My goods are all with me!" In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.

This might lead some to think that this man was some kind of monster, and those who admired him fools at best. The blame lies in the translation.. Stilpo was not 'happy,' in our modern emotional sense, at the destruction of his city and family. The Latin word translated as 'happy' (beatus) can also mean 'blessed', and it is Seneca's translation of the Greek word ευδαιμωνια (eudaimonia), which also translates (roughly) as flourishing, prosperous, blessed. You see Stilpo wasn't cheerfully chatting away with his conquerors, he understood that those things that we truly his, his riches, his virtues, were always with him. Though he lose country and family and position, it has not made him a vicious man.

Stoics do not practice 'detachment' in the sense of being uncaring, or having a lack of feeling. This is a misconception of Stoicism that we have battling for going on two thousand years. I recommend to all of you Seneca's entire 9th letter, from which the story of Stilpo is drawn:  (https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/seneca/letters/009). Seneca speaks of the Sage feeling his troubles but overcoming them, his love for his friends, and the pleasure he takes in their company. It is actually a beautiful letter.

In the same vein, Stoics have been accused embracing indifference to the world, which includes the avoidance of pleasure because it, too, in an indiffernt. By stating that pleasure is an indifferent, Stoics are affirming that pleasure is neither morally good nor bad. It does not mean that we FEEL indifference towards pleasure, merely that we do not see it as either virtuous or vicious. That being said, it might be argued that pleasure is a biological reaction to our environment indicating the likelihood (though not a guarantee) that the object or situation could be considered a 'preferred indifferent', with possible physical/social/emotional benefits. Pleasure should not be avoided at all costs, but accepted when it is virtuous to do so. Pleasure is not a goal or aim for the Stoic, but may occasionally be a byproduct of virtuous behaviour. If it is, then well and good. Pleasure can also be derived from vicious acts, so the Stoic does not select actions merely on it say so (i.e. the Stoic rejects the 'if it feels good do it' as a deception.) So the practice of proper assent is critical.

The misunderstanding can once again be chalked up once again to the vagueness of translating Greek to English, but only in part.  The word ηδονή (hedone) which is here translated as 'pleasure' could also be rendered 'delight', that is an grapsing connection to something which we incorrectly identify as a 'good', the removal of which would cause us to become more vicious (tending towards vice). Once again, let's turn to Seneca for an example of what virtuous pleasure would look like.

"And so we should love all of our dear ones, both those whom, by the condition of birth, we hope will survive us, and those whose own most just prayer is to pass on before us, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever - nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long. Often must the heart be reminded - it must remember that loved objects will surely leave, nay,  are already leaving. Take whatever Fortune gives, remembering that it has no voucher. Snatch the pleasures your children  bring, let your children in turn find delight in you, and drain joy to the dregs without delay; no promise has been given you for this night - nay, I have offered too long a respite! - no promise has been given even for this hour."

Hardly an unfeeling brute, unable to experience joy in life.One of my mentors used to remind me that we hold all of our blessings with an open hand, responsible to love and care for them while it is our lot to do so, and releasing them when the time has come for them to leave us.

Finally, while it is important for us to understand what the Ancient Stoics taught, we are not bound by it. Advances in all of the sciences, psychology and philosophy will change how we apply Stoicism today. While academics dislike a moving target, the practice of Stoicism is a somewhat fluid philosophy.

Again Seneca:

"Whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of, the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too. For I have sold myself to no man; I bear the name of no master. I give much credit to the judgment of great men; but I claim something also for my own. For these men, too, have left to us, not positive discoveries, but problems whose solution is still to be sought. J They might perhaps have discovered the essentials, had they not sought the superfluous also. They lost much time in quibbling about words and in sophistical argumentation; all that sort of thing exercises the wit to no purpose. We tie knots and bind up words in double meanings, and then try to untie them. Have we leisure enough for this? Do we already know how to live, or die? We should rather proceed with our whole souls towards the point where it is our dutv to take heed lest things, as well as words, decieve us."

Stoicism is not a religion, with a revealed set of scriptures which we are called to follow. We are encouraged to question, to update, to discard, all the time bearing in mind the central Stoic teaching to 'live in accordance with nature.' When we truly understand what this means, our Stoicism will not be an ancient old philosophy written on little books and disitegrating scrolls, but a living philosophy tested and tried in the lives of those who choose to sit on the Porch and try to figure out together what this 'life' thing is all about.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Walking, Talking and other Philosophical Pursuits

The inaugural post of my new blog. Following in the footsteps of my wife and children, I am choosing to share the progress of my Stoic walk with those that might be interested. I plan on sharing, and perhaps over-sharing, my efforts to mold my life along the lines of Stoic teachings. Bear in mind that these are my own efforts, and while I call myself a Stoic, I am by no means a Sage, and reflect Stoic principles only imperfectly. With that, let us get on with the first reflection.

This morning I got dressed. Not usually a big deal, but since I lost my job last Thursday, I was feeling like I needed a vacation of sorts to let the natural process of loss play out if it had to. That isn't to say that I went through the grieving process (I didn't deny it, I didn't get angry, or even get depressed, I just accepted it as the new 'shape of the world'). I did want to take a bit of a break though. On top of that, all of my friends, with sincere concern, warned me that the 'crash' would come, so I waited for some subconscious outpouring of emotion that would somehow cleanse me of my suppressed grief. It didn't come. I suspect it is because it wasn't really there, hiding under the surface somewhere.

Why not? I credit my Stoic stance for this. It is the way thing ARE. Not the way I wished they would be, but I don't live in that world. So yesterday I stayed in my pajamas all day, perhaps as a sign of  breaking with the past (I never do that), and getting dressed was symbolic of putting on a new life today. I also put on my Stoic symbol today, reciting my meme, reminding me of the best in me that I am striving for. This is practice I let slide for the last few days. Picking it up today, I was sincere in the recitation. It felt right, and I felt strong.

There are real benefits to being unemployed at this time. I see my wife more everyday, and as we discuss possible futures, we get to know each other's minds and hearts a little better. I see my youngest daughter more often that before because our schedules conflicted in the past. Teasing and playing has never been so much fun. My son, my wife and I are talking and planning exciting new business opportunities together, possible futures, and new vistas. I have yet to take advantage of the time to see my other daughter, but she is working and going to school. I can however now try to find a few minutes in her day to share a cup of tea or two. Once I get back to work, if I end up back in a traditional 9 to 5, these opportunities will have passed. I won't waste them mourning a life I do not have, in a world that does not exist.

The job loss, the ongoing turmoil of personal lives around me, the challenges that face me in the future, and especially the incredible new opportunities ahead of me, all of these combined could be daunting, cause me to fear, to shrink back. But no, I look forward to the challenges, I embrace the opportunities as they present themselves. I am not afraid. With the strength I would have wasted on fear, anger or denial, I will explore, I will embrace, I will prepare.