Friday, July 12, 2013

On the Motivations of the Stoic

 As to the question of how a Stoic is motivated, there are several layers to consider.

The first, of course, is Virtue. We must remember that virtue is not something that one merely has, it is something that must be DONE. In order to have virtue, we must BE virtuous; we must be courageous in the face of challenges, we must be just in the distribution of goods and rights, we must be temperate in our dealings as well as our acquisitions, and most of all we must be wise in our choices of action.

Second, we need to remember that when the Stoics speak of 'indifferents', we mean things that, in their nature, have no MORAL value. Nevertheless, they have other kinds of value. Good food and clothing, shelter and safety, these things have great PHYSICAL value. Relationships, friends, art, music, these things have great EMOTIONAL value. Books, education, conversation, these things have a great INTELLECTUAL value. And while Virtue alone is in my control, these other things are to be pursued and managed by virtuous means.

Third (and I apologize for being long winded!) while I must remember that as a Stoic I am in control only of my own action, I am also part of a family, a community, a country. I am human, and being human means that all ideas of individuality are an illusion. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the very language we speak and that forms the framework of our thinking are inheritances of the culture and species and we are bound to support it return. As humans, we require basic needs to function. We can speak of being 'rational', but in reality, we require a functioning body to think clearly. To borrow from Maslow, we need to have our physical, safety, social and importance needs met before we can even consider attempting the so-called 'self-actualization' of the rational mind.

So what is it that motivates us? It is just this. Remembering all three things together is the key. We must not only care for our selves, but see to it that those who are in our care and our responsibility are provided with the same level of care. We must do so for all of us. That is what Hierocles meant by his illustration of the circles. We cannot speak of being Stoic, without being just, courageous, temperate and wise. And we cannot be those things if we stand idly by while our brothers and sisters are unable to even reach for the so called lofty rational heights we dream of for ourselves.

Now I realize that this is an unpopular view amongst those who see in Stoicism only the opportunity to justify cutting themselves off from the rest of humanity or worse, from their own emotional life.

Stoicism is about Joy, Serenity, Meaning and Purpose. It is about being a useful and important member of society. In short, it is is about being an excellent human being, and part of a race of beings that has the potential for greatness.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On choosing a Standard of Living

The philosophy we follow encourages us to live a simple life. But what does this mean? How can a life be simple? Should we reject all riches, and go back to living like our remote ancestors, who were close to the animals, and 'lived according to nature?' Should we forgo cleanliness and wear our filth as a badge and proof of our philosophy as the Cynics did?

On the question of whether or not we should pursue riches or reject them, let me start by taking a step back. We know that we should not act like those who desire to be noticed for their acquisition of ‘philosophy’, rather we seek to actually improve ourselves by its practice.

For example, we don’t dress or act in any specific way merely to gain the approval or rouse comment. Just as we should avoid wearing repellent attire, or keeping unkempt hair or a slovenly appearance to prove that we consider the mind to be of superior value to ourselves than our body, so should we should not pretend to scorn of silver dishes, or desire a bed on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display to prove that we consider these things as morally neutral.

It is inwardly that we ought to be different, our exterior should reasonably and virtuously conform to the standards of health, and to align, where possible, with the most reasonable expectations of the society in which we participate. As active members in our communities and countries, we shouldn't seek to repel those who we should be seeking to help.

On the other hand though, we shouldn't let our clothes be too fine either or want to to eat only the rarest foods imported from far-away lands at great cost, and that off silver plates, encrusted and embossed in solid gold.  

You see, there is an entirely different way of placing the value on possessions. If something is difficult to obtain or replace or not convenient to use or not easy to protect it might be judged to inferior; things that we acquire with no difficulty and use with satisfaction and find easy to keep can be seen as superior and more desirable. Looking at it from this perspective earthenware  and similar vessels are much better than those of silver or gold, because their acquisition is less trouble since they are cheaper, and the are much easier to replace and less likely to be stolen. By this argument, it may make sense to divest ourselves of anything of perceived value and live in the plainest homes, with the humblest furnishings. 

Be careful. This is where the fallacy has crept in. We do not need to be either one way, nor do we need to choose the other. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the lack of silver and gold to be proof that you are leading a simple life. The question about whether we should pursue or avoid riches places the focus in the wrong place entirely: on the riches, the objects, themselves.

You should try to maintain a good standard of life, and not one contrary to society’s standard just to be different. Whether you measure yourself against society’s standards to imitate them or to negate them, you are still a slave to the standard, and not living your own life in accord with your own nature.

Our motto, as you know, is “Live according to Nature”; but it is quite contrary to nature to torture your body, to hate simple beauty, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting.

Just as it is a sign of spoiled luxury to seek out the rarest and most expensive objects, so it is madness to avoid that which is customary and can be purchased at no great price. Philosophy calls for a simple life, but not for penance.

So what is to be the distinction between ourselves and those whose lives are centered on material possessions? It isn't the possessions themselves, nor is is the lack of them that should be the hallmark of our philosophy.

If someone visits us at home, they should admire us, rather than our house or its contents. Here is the secret: if you wish to be a true follower of our philosophy, you must learn to use earthenware dishes as if they were silver and silver as if it were earthenware.

It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches or poverty. You must learn to appreciate those things that you have while you have them, and yet not to miss them when they are gone. That is the true answer to the question. The riches themselves are valueless. It is only in how we acquire them, how we manage them, how we use them, how we distribute and share them, and finally how we release them that is the true measure of our philosophy.