Friday, August 9, 2013

The Stoic Mneme - Part 5 - Where is the Captain?


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

The poem above has become popular for many reasons. Among those who are practicing Stoicism, the last two lines seem to resonate strongly. Yet, in the framework of a causal universe, can we really be 'masters of our fates, captains of our souls?' In this next segment of the Stoic mneme, we will examine exactly how and to what extent we can make this claim.

While the first two lines of the mneme remind us of the centrality of the virtues in the Stoic's life, the next two drive even closer to the core of Stoic practice: control. We need to bear in mind that these two phrases are part of a larger passage though, so let's take a look at the bigger picture. Epictetus begins the passage with the listing of the four attributes of a Stoic, dealt with in the previous post. There is a brief discussion of immortality and death, which we will look at towards the end of this series. Following this is a description of control (This is in my Power, this I can do . The other is not in my Power, nor can I do it.)

This theme is often repeated throughout Epictetus' teaching. Arrian, in his summary of Epictetus' teachings, famously begins the Handbook with the following phrase:

"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing."

In our passage, Epictetus follows this assertion of control with the question that informed the Title of this whole mneme, which we explored in Part 3.

Shall I show you the Nerves [Strength] of a Philosopher?

The section preceding this question, describing attitudes and virtues, explains to the listeners what a Stoic is. What follows, then, is an exploration of what a Stoic does, or how a Stoic demonstrates that he or she actually possesses the virtues listed above.

What Does the Heart Want?

Much has been said about desire. Some hold that desire is involuntary, that we are drawn to things and it is beyond our control to deny them. Much of our economy is based on the generation of desire, to buy, to sell, to experience. Is this true? Does the heart want what the heart wants? A closer examination of what Epictetus is saying here will serve us well.

The mneme itself uses Carter's phrasing: "a desire undisappointed." Long closely echoes this. Oldfather, mirrored by Hard, expands somewhat on this by adding: "a desire that fails not of achievement." So at fist glance, it would seem that Epictetus is telling us that the Stoic should possess such strength of character, some superpower, which would grant all desires.

Is Epictetus really telling us that if you desire it strongly enough, then you will achieve it? If so, then this is the worst of 'The Secret' type of wish fulfillment, the 'Think and Grow Rich' mentality, the Pat Robertson 'If you pray hard enough' type of magical thinking. This is most certainly not what Epictetus is teaching. It flies in the face of all of the cosmology of the Stoics, their understanding of causality, and for modern Stoics, the growing awareness of the strange mechanics of the universe. Of the things under our control, how the universe responds to our desire is not one of them.

To understand a little more of what Epictetus might have meant, we can turn to Higginson's translation: "A will undisappointed." Matheson continues the thought: "Will to achieve that fails not."  Dobbin, the most recent of the translations, is even more pointed: " A will that never fails to get what it wants."  A quick look to the Greek in this passage offers yet more insight: 'όρεξιν ἀναπότευκτον (hórexin anapótef̱kton) can be literally translated as a desire unerring in its aim. There must be an aim to our desire, one that we select.

The key here isn't some desire that draws us, this is not about the things we crave, but rather it is something we will for. It is a choice. That is what is in our control, our choice. But this is a very special kind of choice. It is a choice that we somehow never fail to achieve!

So what is that a Stoic could choose and unfailingly achieve?

Watch-out for Warning Signs

The next phrase in the mneme is also lifted from Carter's translation: "an aversion unincurred." Like the concept of 'desire' above, this isn't merely the concept of things that you inherently dislike, like spiders or pickles (despite Dobbin's unfortunate translation). Long, echoed by Oldfather and Hard, introduces another facet to the Stoic attitude here: "an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid." Note the key word here: avoid.

Once again, it is Higginson that informs us of what we should be avoiding, namely "evils." Matheson is clearer: "will to avoid that falls not into evil." The will, once again, is called to choose. As Stoics we are to choose to avoid "evil." That seems intuitive enough, but more is needed now. What, precisely IS this evil we should be avoiding? Is this meant to be an instruction to avoid evil conditions, such as poverty or pain, or some other sort of evil?

Once again, the original Greek sheds a little more light. The original text is a warning against turning out of one's course, specifically towards a 'moral declension' without careful consideration. So this is a question of moral evil. Let's define moral evil then.

Epictetus, in  a previous section of this passage, gives us a idea of what he means by good. Perhaps we can extrapolate what he means by evil from that? For the Stoic, good is what human can be, what they are uniquely qualified to be. To be good is to make choices based on "intelligence, knowledge, right reason," or to use the Stoic shorthand, Virtue. Stoic 'good' is Justice, Courage, Moderation, Wisdom. Modern Stoics would add Humanity (Rational Compassion) and Transcendence (Rational Interdependence). In short, for the Stoic, 'good' means actual human excellence.

By contrast, for the Stoic evil would be its polar opposite, Vice. More precisely, those things that would make us fail to reach out potential, such as injustice, cowardice, greedy, ignorance and intolerance. They fracture us as humans, as communities and societies. They draw us away from individual and collaborative excellence.

Summing up then, when Epictetus speaks of desire and aversion, he is referring to Virtue and Vice. A desire undisappointed is a desire for our own virtue, which is always in our power to achieve and in fact our virtue is really the only thing that completely is. An aversion unincurred is an aversion to vice, but more specifically our own vice and it is always in our power to avoid a viscous act.

We can now return to the initial question. In what way can I be 'master of my fate, captain of my soul?' It is in choosing Virtue over Vice that I can say that I am living my life under my control. This is how my desires can be undisappointed, and my aversions be unincurred.

But what about EVERYTHING ELSE!?!

If desires should only be for virtue, aversions for vice, what about the rest of our lives? If we were to stop here, it would make for a very solitary, self-focussed life. A life such as this would be unlivable, undesirable, ineffective, and would matter very little in the world. But that is not what the Stoics did! The ancient Stoic were involved in their societies. Stoicism had evolved (and continues to evolve) a deep sense of community and interdependence with our 'fellow travelers.'

Above, and in the last entry, we examined what the mneme teaches about the virtues and the very real possibility of attaining them. In the next several entries, we will answer the question of 'What about everything else?' by examining what the virtues are for.

Previous Article: Four Little Words
Next Article: Chasing the White Rabbit (forthcoming)

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.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Stoic Mneme - Part 4 - Four Little Words

The entire passage from which this Mneme is drawn occurs at the end of a longer conversation on the nature of good in the rational animal. In it, Epictetus is focused on the potential for goodness inherent in humans, which in his opinion has been imbued to them by God or the Gods. While explaining that we, unlike plants or animals, can choose to strive toward excellence or to fail to do so, he nevertheless encourages his hearers to avoid the mere appearance and attitude of superiority that the ‘philosophers’ tend to adopt, and instead dig deeper and reveal the truth of our personal quality, of our virtue.

He begins his closing argument by offering himself as an example.

“Such will I show myself to you: faithful, modest, noble, tranquil.”

This seemed to be the most concise definition of what Epictetus believed what being a practicing Stoic meant. I decided to begin where he did, and I looked deeper into each of the four words he offered as a summation of his character. The key to finally understanding these self-descriptions, for me, appears to be the fact that there are four of words, which unlocked the final meaning. Read on.

Striving Towards Authenticity

In all but one translation the first word πιστόν (piston) is translated as faithful. The English term carries with it a wide range of meanings stretching from the archaically religious sense to an affirmation of monogamy.

While Epictetus was not shy to encourage a spiritual connection with what he referred to as God, and in fact had spent the entire previous passage discussing what he saw as God’s place in human affairs, I didn't sense that he was using piston in a religious sense. He wasn't stating, in this passage, that the Stoic was to be ‘full of faith,’ an archaic and nearly obsolete use of the term ‘faithful’. When Epictetus wants to encourage his students into a correct relationship with God, he would use the term ‘piety’. This was not the case here. Nor did I think that was he interested in the sexual antics of his hearers, though his teacher, Musonius Rufus, wasn't shy about stating his opinion regarding marriage and sex.

Dobbin, the single holdout from the translator pack, selected ‘trustworthy’ as his understanding of the term. This helped to focus the meaning. As Dobbin rightly suggests, Epictetus was stating that he was a person in whom others could place their faith or trust.

With my trusty Liddell-Scott in hand, I turned to πιστός pistos’ and found that the word had a far deeper meaning than I suspected. A person described as ‘pistos’ was someone who could be trusted or believed. Dobbin was right on the money. This was a person who could be relied upon to fulfill their promise and keep their duty; faithful, trusted, like a trusted friend or counselor. It also means that he or she is trustworthy, that is worthy of trust that is placed in them.

This is, though perhaps marginally, an aspect of the just person. We are, all of us, provided with roles and responsibilities in our society. Whether it is simply following the laws of the land (when they do not conflict with virtue, of course), honestly distributing what is fairly owed to others, participating in the political governance of our society, or even acting as a truthful witness or judge, we are all called to be just, and to faithfully discharge our responsibilities, to be actually worthy of the trust placed in us.

As Stoics, we are to express our philosophy by our actions. The genuineness of our character is evidenced by our constant striving for personal improvement. We attempt to act virtuously, and when we fail to do so, we learn from our error, make what amends we can and continue to work. It isn't merely improvement that we seek, it is an inner change. This happens over time, and through many attempts. By being faithful, genuine, authentic, honest and just, both with ourselves and with others, we have a solid bedrock of experience and self-knowledge upon which we can continue to build our own characters toward the goal of expressing the ‘promise of our nature,’ our true inner Sage.

To say that this one little word, faithful, carries hidden depth of meaning does not miss the mark.

A Modest Reputation

The next word in Epictetus’ self-description is αἰδήμονα (aidimona), which is translated, by and large, as modest. In the Loeb edition, Oldfather curiously uses reverent to translate the term. Influenced by the depth and complexity of the first term, I was eager to see what riches lay buried under the seemingly innocuous description of the Stoic as ‘modest’. To say that I was surprised by simplicity of the initial definition would be an understatement.

The Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon translates aidimona as bashful or modest, making Oldfather’s choice of reverent an odd one. That was all. No shades of meaning, alternate definitions or variants. Modest. There were no other subtleties hidden below the word. It appeared to be simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, Epictetus considered modesty as one of the key features of being a practicing Stoic.

Perhaps I didn’t understand the English word ‘modest’ well enough? A turn to Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary provided the following helpful expansion:

modest adj. aware of one’s limitation, not vain or conceited ǁ avoiding pretension or display ǁ limited but not negligible ǁ restrained and reasonable ǁ shunning indecency

This was starting to sound more like what I was expecting. The ideas of limitations, humility, restraint and reason, were to me loud echoes of the virtue of moderation. Here we see Epictetus, seeming to enjoin his hearers to restrain themselves, to control their appetites, to act within a set of limits. But whose limits, I wondered. Again, faced with a variety of choice, I turned back to the text and thought of how Epictetus made use of the word in other passages.

Epictetus uses aidimona and its variations no less than 25 times in his works, a fact which surprised me. This was a very important concept to him, and understanding what it meant to him would be key to unlocking its application in my Mneme, and through it to my own character. In some passages he decries the loss of modesty not as a strength, but as a tragedy (Book 1, Chapter 5). He enjoins us to even eat ‘modestly’ (Book 1, Chapter 4). He reminds us that our recognition of and gratitude for providential benefits should drive us to be ‘modest’ (Book 1, Chapter 16). In fact, he goes so far as to say that being modest is, in part, what differentiates us from the other animals, and that when we lose our modesty, we become less than what we are meant to be as humans. (Book 1, Chapter 28, Book 2, Chapter 1.) He affirms, time and time again that being modest is well within our power, and frequently lists it with the other qualities he sees as belonging to the Stoic. Moreover, Epictetus credits modesty and fidelity as pillars upon which society itself is built.

The modest Stoic doesn't flout societal norm and mores simply because they exist, like the ancient Cynics are believed to have done, but follows and support his or her place in the web of relationships through the roles and responsibilities handed out through birth and circumstances. That is not to say the the Stoic doesn't challenge those societal standards when they are proven to be vicious, unjust, cruel, cowardly or greedy. The Stoic must, in those cases, uphold virtuous choice when a corrupt society rejects and mocks it.

In an effort, therefore, to return to a simple understanding of the term modesty, it seems that the Stoic is to be aware of not only his or her own needs, requirements, limitations and powers, but measures those through complex interconnections with society as a whole. From that point of understanding, the Stoic then lives moderately and modestly, supporting society through a balanced participation.

Noblesse Oblige

The third term that Epictetus uses in his self-description is γενναῖον (gennaíon), which the translators have unanimously rendered as 'noble.' When I first read this, I was struck with the image of a Knight high upon a Steed... perhaps evidence of a youth spent enjoying fantasy novels. There were so many archaic overtones to this word for me that to gain anything but a superficial understanding, I had to dig deeper. As the translators were all in agreement as to what they meant by the term, I would have to resort to definitions.

Most of the dictionaries I consulted began with my image, stating that a noble person was of high birth or exalted rank, an aristocrat. The Merriam-Webster, however, shed some much needed light. To be noble was to be very good or even excellent. A noble person possesses outstanding or excellent qualities or properties. But the question remained, which qualities? A final definition provided a hint: a person's nobility arises from a superiority of mind, an excellence of character, and an adherence to high ideals and morals.

The Greek lexicon expanded this idea even further to indicate that one who is 'noble' is true to one's birth, high-minded, and an excellent example of its kind. This has a far reaching echo throughout all of Stoic thought. The Greek word αρετή (aretí̱), which means excellence of any kind, is usually translated as Virtue. The ultimate goal of the Stoic is to act, at all times, with Virtue, that is to say, with moral excellence, to be the very best example of a human being. The ultimate virtue, the crown of excellence so to speak, is wisdom. This concept of the ultimate wise person is encapsulated in the Stoic image of the Sage.

Nobility, according to these definitions, was not an external measure of excellence of character that we are called to aspire to, it is an internal potential, something we are born with, a birth-right of each individual to find and express their most excellent selves. This was exactly the definition of the Sage that I had come to adopt. This is no mere accident of birth, but rather a course of action taken by deliberate and well thought out choices. The options for action are laid before us daily, and as Stoics we are called to choose the best way, the Virtuous way, the way of true wisdom, the noble path of the Sage.

Why worry?

The final term, ἀτάραχον (atárachon) experienced far less consensus at the hands of the translators than the previous word. Carter and Higginson both selected 'tranquil' as the English term to represent this Stoic concept, while Long, Matheson, Oldfather and Hard all leaned toward variations of 'unperturbed.' Dobbin, the most recent of the translators, selected 'poised' to explain the Greek word.

The Liddell-Scott lexicon actually agrees with this odd multi-definition. It would seem that 'tranquil/unperturbed/poised/calm' all revolve around the core meaning of this term. The lexicon even adds to the shades of meaning: without confusion, steady, of soldiers. 'Of Soldiers'? Why did Epictetus select a word that was commonly used a description of a soldier?

Two passage sprang to mind when seeing these definitions. The first was from Epictetus:

"When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: “What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event.” Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being." (Manual, 16, Tr. Matheson)

Epictetus encourages us to participate with each other, even to sympathise, but at the same time, he reminds us to maintain that inner sense of calm and balance, to not get carried away.

The second passage is from Marcus Aurelius: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall." (Meditation, vii, 61)

Both passages speak of the external and internal worlds. The following two lines of the mneme actually go deeper into this, but there is a sense here of what is, and is not, in our actual control. The inner life is one over which we do have control.

Another echo of these thoughts can be found in a modern framework, the so-called Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Wisdom, according to this prayer, is knowing the difference between those things I can control and those I cannot. Serenity, calm, tranquility, is the acceptance of those things that I cannot change. The flip side of the same coin is the courage to change.

Serenity and courage are the same attitude, in different circumstances. The Stoic faces turbulence with steadiness, disturbance with solidity and disorder with calm. This is not, however, a detached, unfeeling expression of disregard for external circumstances, but rather a determined peace and unabashed firmness in the eye of the proverbial storm, but nevertheless, in the storm. And it is from this center of calm that the Stoic takes considered action, despite challenges and obstacles, working against trends, opinions and lethargy, all the while maintaining a core of tranquility.

The courage of the tranquil Sage is an active one. It isn't a passive acceptance of things as they are, but a unperturbed determination to maintain a steady center while moving forward and acting in the world.

The Core of the Four

Faithful, modest, noble
With tranquility unperturbed

These first two lines of the mneme reflect a call to action, setting for me a personal bar to reach for, to strive to reveal my inner Sage. The four character traits brought to light, faithfulness, modesty, nobility and tranquility are expressions of the Virtues that support them, namely Justice, Moderation, Wisdom and Courage.

When I recite these lines of my mneme, I am reminded of the following:
  • I am to discharge my duties as a faithful steward, not an owner, of all that is in my care and under my protection, to be Just in the use and distribution of my goods, my time, and my strength.
  • I am reminded to exercise my choice moderately, with due restraint and modest acquisition, consumption and display, to always act with an eye to the appropriate use of things and talents.
  • I am called to a higher standard, to act and speak with wisdom, always choosing the nobler path, reflecting the best that is in me.
  • I am challenged to face difficulties, setbacks and conflict with equanimity, to courageously move forward, as tranquil in tumult as I am in the silence.
There is a depth of experience and Stoic expression here. I have a long way to go to be the person described in these two line, but I have a direction.

Previous Article: On Titles and Translations
Next Article: Where is the Captain?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What does 'live according to Nature' actually mean?

The Stoics have consistently stated that the core of their philosophy is to 'Live according to Nature.' This phrase has caused a great deal of discussion and misunderstanding over the millennia and no less so today. In this post, I am going to dig into what this actually means.

The word that is conventionally translated as 'Nature' is actually began as the Greek term 'physis.' Physis isn't merely an object, as in the Natural world, nor is it a State, as in it's a leaf's natural color. Physis is a process, it describes the way in which things are intended by nature to change and grow. So our first clarification would rephrase the statement to 'Live according to the way things are meant to change and grow.'

The phrase 'live according to Nature' is obviously directed at humans (you don't have to tell a plant to live according to Nature, it will change and grow on its own.) Nor does the instruction mean to tell us to eat, breathe, bathe etc, as these are all 'natural' functions shared with other animals. By using the phrase, Stoics mean 'live according to the way human nature is meant to change and grow.' So what do we mean by 'human nature'?

There are acutally two senses in which we can understand 'human nature.' First, each of us has a genetic structure that has been determined by evolution, a legacy of time and adaptation, and in a way of speaking we are 'designed' to fulfill determinate ends, to survive and flourish in our environments. We also exist at a precise time and place in history, and surrounded by cultural influences.

Whether or not we achieve the full expression of our genetic potential, depends on both our circumstances (things out of our control) and our choices (things in our control). I may have the genetic capacity to grow to 6' tall, but disease, accident or self inflicted damage may prevent me from actually doing so. It is only over the second element though, choice, which I have any say in aligning it with 'nature', which in this case is meant 'what is healthy for my body.'

This is the sense that Seneca means in his fifth letter to Lucilius "Our motto, as you know, is 'Live according to Nature;' but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding." Seneca is directing our choices to align with our physical requirements. By 'live according to nature', Seneca seems to be instructing to reach for the things which 'Nature' has designed humans to desire. These things include health, safety, community, and other such things.

But there is a caveat. The frame in which the choices are made goes far beyond mere physical health, though it can include it. These are targets, the answer to 'What should I pursue? What should I do.' They are often referred to as 'preferred indifferents', that is things that have no intrinsic moral value. They are not the ultimate goal.

Stemming for Seneca's statement above, and others like it, some have seen a suport for Eco-ethics in the term 'Live according to Nature.' They see it as an instruction to live with eye to a balance in our impact on the natural world, a reduction of our carbon footprint, recycling, animal rights etc. While these are, by and large, laudable goals, those who claim that this is what is meant are assigning a meaning to the phrase that was not intended. Nevertheless, if the term serves to remind Stoics that they should ALSO be concious of their impact on the planetary ecology in which they are fully integrated and upon which they are completely dependent for survival, well and good, but to repeat, that is not what 'Live according to nature' actually means.

So what does 'human nature' mean? In using the phrase 'human nature', the Stoics do not mean the agregate of all of the ways in which people DO act, which results in the actual condition of mankind (i.e. that which people actually do, averaging out the good and the bad). We need to remember that 'physis' adjusts our meaning to indicate that we are to live, not as people actually behave, but more that we are to live as we are MEANT to behave.

'Human Nature' refers to the condition of a human who is expressing the very best in his or her development, that is their ultimate 'best self'. They are growing and changing in an effort to reach the ultimate goal for a human being.

This ultimate goal, according to the Stoics, is the achievement of a virtuous life (which itself is defined as a life in according to reason). It is the 'how' to the above mentioned 'what'. In seeking out the ENDS of a flourishing life, Stoicism teaches us that we are solely responsible for the MEANS in which we pursue them. We are designed, by nature, to seek out the things we need to live, and are given, again by nature, the choice to grow and change in the way that each particular human is 'meant' to, or to work against that inborn potential.

Whether or not we fully express our 'human nature', depends on our choices alone. The Stoic phrase 'live according to Nature' therefore is actually a combination of points: 'Live according to Nature' actually means 'live a virtuous life because that is what you have been designed to do. The capacity to do so exists in you, but you ultimately have the choice to express it or not.'

In his tenth letter to Lucillius, Seneca instructs his student that "Virtue is according to nature; vice is opposed to it and hostile." What is left, really, is to determine what a 'virtue' actually is. And that is something that we actually need to understand to 'live according to nature.'

(P.S. - The Eco-ethic, mentioned above, can in fact be seen to fall under the ultimate meaning of "Live according to nature," if we take the perspective of human behaviour vis. other humans. Justice would dictate a equitable distribution of the necessities of a fully flourishing life, both to present and future generations. Moderation instructs us to exercise self-control in the acquisition and production of the actual needs of a flourishing life (the so called preferred indifferents), and not to support the needless exploitation to assuage greed and fear. More can be said on the social aspect, and we haven't begun to address the anthropocentrism of this approach, but you get the idea.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Truth about Stoic Indifference

I wanted to offer a brief explanation of the concept of Indifference in Stoicism, as there seems to be a lack of clarity around the issue. First of all, Stoics (as in people who practice Stoicism) are NOT called to be 'indifferent'. We are not asked to adopt an indifferent (uncaring) attitude towards anything. 

There are a couple of concepts that seem to be rolled into the common use of the word 'indifference', neither of which are correct. First there is the concept of an 'indifferent', which include things like money, life, health, death, family etc. Unfortunately, many have taken the wrong meaning from this, and believe that we should not concern ourselves with these things (the ancient Stoics taught that we should be responsible, even grateful, for the conditions and people in our lives.) What the ancient Stoics meant by a thing being 'indifferent' is that it had no intrinsic moral value. Money is neither good nor bad, it is not inherently virtuous or vicious, but rather completely neutral. It can be used either virtuously or viciously, but in itself it has no moral value. In my Stoic classes, I use the term 'morally neutral' instead of 'indifferent' to avoid this confusion.

The second is the Stoic concept of 'apatheia' which is also often confused with 'indifference'. Stoic apatheia isn't about apathy. Apatheia means 'no irrational emotional states', with the emphasis on 'irrational.' Stoics encourage the experience of rational emotions, such as joy, serenity, caution, love etc. as these are born of a rational understanding of the events around them.

The key is to remember that Stoics DO involve themselves with externals. We use them, gain them, let them go, develop relationships and even care for and cherish them. What we DON'T do is allow their presence or absence determine whether or not we are virtuous. They are morally neutral, and therefore do not cause us to behave well or badly, or force us to succumb to irrational passions, lust, anger, jealousy, etc. It is our beliefs about them that lead to irrational passions.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Brief note on the Holocaust to which Godwin's Law does not apply

A recent Facebook post by Cognitive Therapist, Author and Stoic Donald Robertson generated the following response from me.

Donald: Would the Stoics say that the Holocaust was "indifferent"? Martha Nussbaum basically wrestled with a similar question in The Therapy of Desire, and concluded it was problematic for Stoicism, although I think she overlooked some key issues in her discussion. What do you guys think? ... The central question is whether Stoics would class it as an "indifferent". I think the answer has to be "yes", which sounds odd to a modern reader. However, I think the Stoics would also say that although the external event was intrinsically bad/evil, the actions (or rather the judgements) of the perpetrators were thoroughly evil, for them, and harmed their own souls, making them the most wretched of men. (Although they also say all vices are equal, which doesn't sit comfortably with this example.)

Michel:  I think we need to clarify the question a little. First off, by the term 'indifferent' the Stoics meant morally neutral. Guns are indifferent, being neither good nor evil in themselves. Chambers, gas, and ovens are in themselves neither good nor evil. It is in how they are used that we can speak of good or evil. Epictetus stated it clearly "The materials of action are indifferent; but the use of them is not indifferent."

Using a noun like "The Holocaust" makes it seem like a 'thing' or an 'external'. This is another term we need to be careful of. The Holocaust, and other programs like it through history, are not merely 'things' able to be captured by a noun. They are not mere events either, like the inevitable eruption of Vesuvius. If the Holocaust is to be classed as an event, it is of a special nature. It is the collective noun we use to describe the cumulative choices that individuals made resulting in the mass slaughter of a population. By giving it the name Holocaust, we deliberately emphasize the utter devastation of the choices that were made then, and brand them as evil in the clearest possible way.

So, in my opinion, and given the restricted nature of Facebook posts, the Holocaust was not a morally neutral collection of choices at all. If there were Stoics (who called themselves that or not) at the time, they would not see the policies and actions of those promoting and implementing the 'Final Solution' as being indifferent at all. They would be cause for action, and the demands of virtue would have rung loudly in their ears. Where was justice? Where was the cosmopolitan core of Stoic practice and belief? The Stoic would have, and still should, respond with whatever virtuous means were available. To echo Donald's thoughts above, if all vice is equal, then inaction in the face of such rampant injustice would make one as vicious as the perpetrators. However, we must separate those things over which we have no control (external events) and those over which we do have control (choice). It may be argued that 'other people's choices' are indifferent (the fact of the Holocaust doesn't make me a bad person), our reactions to that fact clearly are in our control, and they can make us good or evil.

The question of external or internal does not preclude the fact that we can judge other people's action as being virtuous or vicious in their context as well. (I don't want to start a relativistic morals debate. I think we need to be more honest than that.) We can look at someone's actions and declare that they are virtuous or vicious, good or evil, and either participate in the one or restrain the other. And more importantly, in my view, we can learn from history which actions, choices and policies can create a remarkably strong support structure to permit the execution of the most heinous acts with apparent impunity. This is what we can do now, and in truth, what we should do. We know more, so we should be that much more diligent to prevent its recurrence.

In short (and this response has been anything but short) seen properly, the Holocaust was not, and indeed IS not, an 'indifferent' at all. ActuallyI no longer use the term indifferent. It is an English word with huge emotional overtones. I prefer to use morally neutral in my classes. We aren't reconstructionists, however. We are attempting to continue the conversation the Stoics started, bringing in modern science, including the medical sciences, (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Physics), modern psychology (inc. Donald's own book) and global politics (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Ethics) and informal logic (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Logic). We don't hold any writings as scripture, though the ancients did have a talent for a turn of phrase, and at times strongly disagree with some of their stances (i.e. Musonius on homosexuality). We call ourselves Stoics, not because we are trying to recreate the ancient Stoic Schools, nor slavishly follow every dictate, but because we are participating in their evolving explorations into what it means to be a flourishing human being.

Events which have scarred the modern psyche need to be treated especially sensitively, though honestly. Even Epictetus warned his students against using specialized Stoic language around those who have yet to be trained in the philosophy to prevent making them worse than before.

There is a disturbing trend amongst many modern commenters on Stoic thought to continue to emphasize detachment and apathy (in the modern sense). This merely serves to perpetuate the misunderstanding around terms such as indifference and apatheia. Becker's book was an interesting contribution to this conversation.

To return to the topic, stating that The Holocaust is an indifferent external missed the point of discussing the Holocaust entirely. Of course it is history, unchangeable in the factual nature of its occurrence and as such much be accepted as a fixed point, completely out of our control. But the discussion should center around, how did it come to be in the first place, how did those who were observers and participants come to believe that this was ever a good idea, and how can WE learn from this 'event' so as to prevent it occurring again. The last point is the important one, in my mind, and hardly a morally neutral choice at all.