Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Crime and Punishment

A question arose recently regarding how a Stoic would react to the death of a loved one at the hands of another. There are several layers here, and deep topics: freewill vs. determinism, responsibility, grief, God, Fate, and more. I will address, albeit briefly, the initial question with regards to the death of a loved one, the accompanying grief, and the responsibility of those who may have brought it about.

First, as a Stoic, the death of my wife, myself, or my children, has been a topic of conversation around our family dinner table. One of the key principles in play here is a true understanding of human nature. People die. At all ages, and under various circumstances, we all die. To ignore the possibility, to gloss over it, to avoid talking and preparing for it, is irrational and worse (if possible) a disservice to those who remain. So we have discussed our preparations, from our will to our funerals. We have even discussed how far we would go to save one another's life (my children absolutely forbid me to do something Vicious, in the Stoic sense, to save them.) Nothing is left unsaid, moments are rarely wasted, slights are easily and quickly forgiven. We express concern and care for each other, and gather together regularly as an extended family to keep the bonds strong. Pamela and I have regular date nights, reminders to focus our limited time together on each other. The acknowledgement of the frailty of life gives it a depth, a richness and an immediacy to our relationships that we see lacking in many other families.

The second topic is grief. Much has been said about the Stoic attitude towards natural grief, but here I think Seneca is the key. Grief, short, sharp and painful, is part of human nature. We are NOT individuals, detached from each other. Stoicism teaches engagement, involvement and concern (wrapped up in the complex principle of Oikeiosis). One would no more expect a person to avoid mental pain due to the loss of a loved one, than to expect them to disavow physical pain due to a severed limb. We are interconnected. Pain is proof of that connection. Excessive grief however, usually seen as railing against the heavens, cries of "It isn't fair!" and "If only..." are beyond the natural bounds of grief. I can attest to the true extent of the pain of grief in my life from the deaths of my father, father-in-law and mother-in-law. It is real, but it passes quickly, leaving behind a trail of memories and a sense of emptiness that is filled, over time, with a fondness and a desire to echo the best that was in them.

A local example might serve. A few years ago, a young girl was killed riding her bike a few kilometers from our home. She was struck by a drunk driver in an entirely preventable set of circumstances. If but one of the people involved in the long chain of events that led to the tragedy had acted, the situation would have never happened. But they did not, and it did. Cries immediately went up for the 'lynching' of the man responsible, a serial drunk driver. Representatives of various organizations rallied round to lift this young girl as an example of the horrific results of drinking and driving. The father, however, refused. Though grief stricken, he publicly called for the authorities to work with the man for rehabilitation and reminded those who did not act of their own culpability. He also refused to allow his daughter to become the face of a campaign, stating to the press that he wanted her memory to be defined by the way she had lived her life, and not be the accident of her death. Though I do not know him, he serves as a model to me of rational grief which leaves room for justice, moderation and even compassion.

Finally, on the responsibility of the murderers. Though all of us are fated to die (at some point) this does not absolve the perpetrators of the guilt of the act. There is a story told of Zeno, when teaching the concept of the fate of things, was approached by a student who said that if he stole the master's lamp, it was fate and he should not be held responsible. Zeno replied that if it was fate that caused him to steal the lamp, fate would equally lead to Zeno beating said student for the theft. The point, of course, is that it is natural for us to hold others responsible for the their choices. Let us agree that free will, agency, plays a part in our actions. The 'how' of it is beyond our scope right now, but since we hold people responsible for their choice, let's just say that they are, at least in part. The choice of the murderer to take a life for personal gain of some kind is either a flaw in judgement (incorrectly valuing true 'goods') or a flaw in physiology (incorrect chemical balance leading to violence). This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but it will serve. Should the perpetrator be held responsible? Of course. But what should our response be? If we contain our grief to natural bounds, we won't seek vengeance, an eye for an eye. We will definitely restrain, and if possible incarcerate the perpetrator with an aim to rehabilitation or, at very least, the prevention of repeated acts of violence. Now this is a nuanced discussion, which opens up deep questions of punitive 'justice' and our respective correctional systems. Nevertheless, the statement that inaction masked as 'indifference' (an incorrect use of the term, by the way) on the part of those of us that are affected by violence is the only Stoic response is clearly false. We must act, with as clear a mind as we are capable of. A hard call when one is dealing with grief.

To sum, life is finite, our connections to each other will be severed. Grief will have its day. As the psalmist says "Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning." Through it all, we maintain our virtue, striving to act as excellent humans, even when those around us fall short, and bring tragedy to our door. That is the true test of our philosophy.

Friday, September 5, 2014

On the Plurality of the Virtues

We seem, as modern Stoics, to have become obsessed with Ethics. This is strange to me, because Stoicism was originally set up as a tripartite system, with Ethics in the company of Physics and Logic. While the written evidence isn't as full, there is mention of Physical and Logical virtues in several places in the Stoic cannon.

We are most familiar with the Excellences under Ethics (Categorized under Justice, Courage, Wisdom and Moderation), but less so with the Logical or Physical virtues. The ability to behave with excellence (ethical virtue) depends on a clear understanding of the way the world really is (physical virtue) and the capacity for excellent understanding and communication (logical virtue).

The Logical Virtues are Dialectic and Rhetoric. A.A. Long ascribes the list of Dialect virtues to Chryssipus but Jedan disagrees, while maintain that they are still virtues. The sources for the logical virtues include Quintilian, Stobaeus and Pseudo-Andronicus.

However, to avoid become too pedantic, and because my interests lie more in practical application than scholarly refutation, it makes sense to me that excellence in behaviour cannot exist in the vacuum of self-reflection, but must be integrated with excellence in knowledge of the universe and our place in it, and excellence in the mechanics of thought, argument, and communication.

To me, this means that as modern Stoics we need to study the physical world, and to become aware of our place and impact on it, as well as the ways in which all species interact, which includes politics, religion and philosophy for a better understanding of  the human animal. It also means that we need to study logic, both formal and informal, epistemology, and rhetoric.

The important thing to remember here is the concept of study, not of dogma. While we may balk, and rightly so, at the conclusions that the ancient Stoics arrived at in their quest for understanding the physical universe, we cannot fault them for the quest itself. It is one we should emulate, though our conclusions will be different. As for their work in epistemology and dialectic, there is a growing interest and recognition of the seminal work they did in breaking down the assumptions we make concerning meaning, argument and knowledge.

We would be hard pressed to justify Stoic cosmopolitanism if we are ignorant of how the world is, and unable to communicate our intentions for caring for it. It would be impossible to explain why a certain act is ethically virtuous without reference to the agents on whom our action will have an impact, their current situations and the change we hope to make. Stoicism isn't, after all, about contemplating our navels. It is about striving to become an excellent human (Sage) and an active contributor to the excellence of our circles of influence, to borrow an image from Hierocles.