The Cultural Animal

Here is one definition of culture I found on the internet that is more comprehensive than some because it includes the statement that culture is something that is accepted without thinking:

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

That element seems critical when one considers how different the definition would be if it were the opposite: “. . . behaviors, beliefs etc. that are accepted by each generation or person only after careful critical analysis.”  Culture would be predicated on a world of moral philosophers.

Culture and thinking are at odds with one another. Which should we endorse? For the pro-culture position, people who do not question culture enjoy the benefit of generally fitting in. For example, they have the affirmation of numbers in their religious practices, they have no trouble ordering in restaurants, or enjoying television.  They, on the whole are bothered less: they are not bothered by hunting, cruel practices to animals, and instances of hypocrisy. They have ready-made explanations for bad things: it has always been like this; it could not be different; we have not evolved to do otherwise; what would become of such and such industry, line of work, or institution without continuing such a practice; and God wants it this way. It might seem like the mainstream, predominate group in any society is more likely to be culture-content.  That is logical, but does not take into account that many people in the satisfied groups do still utilize the power of thinking sometimes and find themselves questioning something, even at times without knowing that they are trying to unite the strangle hold of culture. That little insurrection could be the result of education; if so, that is one giant endorsement for a liberal arts education.  How does education lead to a culture-challenging idea? The study of history, for example, will quickly reveal a sophisticated culture from another time which generally will exhibit several instances of bias, discrimination, and typically appalling cruelty that makes us cringe and feel so glad not to live back then.  The next step however is to wonder how any given individual during that time got up and went around his or her business with such atrocities going on or perpetrated them so callously; are we not made of the same stuff?  Are we not all of the same species?  When did we become so unlike the Romans who simply loved to see people torn apart by wild animals or set on fire as human torches, really just for the sake of entertainment? Are there not vestiges of the displays of animal combat from that time in the bull ring in Spain?  Could it be that the objective view of our own culture would reveal to a different group a similar conclusion? Oh no, we would say—we are not like that. However in the very short (and it is very short) history of the United States, we had slavery.  The mind struggles to comprehend how the enlightened free thinking American clung to this practice even after it was outlawed by England, the Great Oppressor. I find it ironic in a way that we fought the Revolution for the all-important cause of saving tax money so that we would be a free nation, allowed to continue with slavery after the mother country outlawed it. On that note, it is interesting that culture can corrupt a person who was not even raised from childhood in its miasma:  In the 19th Century, English immigrants, who of course lived in a non-slave culture, once in the United States owned slaves.  I was profoundly disappointed to read that the brother of the poet John Keats, when he came to America and settled in Kentucky, owned slaves.  When in Rome . . .

No doubt, those who find themselves oppressed by cultural practices are the ones to give it more thought and, if in a position to do so, take steps to change it. Which segues into the proposition that not all cultural practices must be challenged or even questioned; only those that are self-serving to one group and detrimental to another—that is the test.  Innocuous cultural practices keep the machinery of life turning. If each couple had to invent a ritual for pledging their troths, if every grave memorial had to be original, if every greeting invited yet another way of extending hands, we would expend way too much thought on the trivial, and certainly the last thing we need to do is occupy our minds with more trivial questions.

What is my main point of contention?  The largest and most firmly entrenched aspect of culture, even more than religion — food. What is more defining or central to a culture?  I want us to question what we eat because after all, that stuff is not just going on around us it is going into our mouths and stomachs, and there is something evil lurking behind the curtain—we all know that.  How does the touchstone question for determining if a practice should be challenged apply in this instance, i.e. is one group serving its own interests to the detriment of another? The self- serving is interest is stunningly clear (businesses making a lot of money, convenience, money, oh! and did I mention financial gain, profits, and money) and the harm is tremendous, although it is not a detriment suffered by our species. There’s the rub, but does only human suffering count?  Obviously not—not really to anyone (consider your dog, cat, horse, canary).  Going even further to what may be even more than a cultural question, although heavily informed by culture: why must we feel so elevated and separate from other species when we are all animals? Academics who study a species always become amazed at the “animals’” abilities, feelings, interests, practices, and habits, and they wind up overcoming that feeling of separateness. Some people who are not scientists in the field attain such a realization and are simply called animal lovers. I guess the definition of “lover” there is someone who is unwilling to inflict suffering, fear, and death on another creature and is deeply disturbed at that reality.

Giving consideration to the suffering we inflict on animals under the aegis of culture is a paradigm of the combat waged between accepting and thinking.  Every statement (I would say argument but that connotes more worth than is due) that anyone has ever marshalled to defend a bad cultural practice comes into play: we have always done this; everyone does this; it would be hard to do without this; what would happen to certain businesses. Culture gives a way out, whew! That’s easy. I can roll over and get a good’s night sleep because the suffering of other creatures does not have to concern me. Where does thinking get us?  Initially, into a state of near despair in facing the tremendous, grinding ugliness and cruelty  of a factory farm and slaughterhouse death; then into the ranks of the petty activist, at odds with culture, writing blog posts that nobody will read; at the same time in the company of those who understand Morality. A benign aspect of culture itself and liberal thought has taught that notions of morality make the world a better place, so that we may understand that  might does not make right and that inflicting suffering is wrong. Morality issues its categorical imperative to live the daily struggle against the cultural behemoth, remembering that one doesn’t need hope to start out or success to persevere.

Most Influential Books

What books have had the greatest influence on your life?  That sounds like a prompt for a college admission essay. Many long years away from college applications, I can now easily answer that there are two books.  The first is The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine, which then led to another, The Essays and Letters of Seneca. (I might more correctly say I have three influential works, except those two I take together as responsible for revealing Stoicism to me).  The second is also in the philosophical genre: Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

What the two have in common and what makes them truly influential is that they caused me to question an entire way of living and to make me change for the better. They both also put together in a cogent and rational scheme disparate ideas that I had formed on my own, but which I did not fully understand or trust.  In particular, with regard to Stoicism, I discovered, as I had partly surmised, that no one was responsible for anyone else’s tranquility.  We are each responsible for our own state of mind and we can influence our outlook by resorting to reason over emotion.  Hence, I had, even pre-Stoicism, suspected that taking your troubles to a therapist or counselor, that complaining generally to others, that extolling and indulging your emotions, including the vaunted ones of joy and romantic love, were detrimental to my state of mind. I had wondered about the point of worrying and hoping—and indeed, discovered the Stoic view that nothing is more pointless or aggravating than ruminating over things beyond one’s control and that hoping causes us to live a life in suspense.  I had often thought that if any given day was my last, I should not want to live it differently than any other day –and right I was; Stoicism would counsel to live each day as your last because it could be your last.  Also, I had learned on my own the hard way how foolish and empty it is to seek notoriety or the good opinion of others, which Stoicism affirmed.  Last, in this cursory summary, I found in Stoicism a context for two axioms I had developed on my own: regret nothing because, if what you did was reasonable, you would do it again; and everything is an end in itself.  Culture, perpetuated mass ignorance, and the media had rendered such ideas the objects of a meandering, scavenger hunt in the dark.

Reading Irvine and Seneca transformed my outlook. I rethought a status quo that was not doing me any favors. Ditto for the second influential work, Animal Liberation. Another part of the indoctrination I received from culture, the media, and big business interests was eating animals and the attendant notion that the human species is somehow not an animal species like the others, but rather something special and above the rest. First, as for the eating of animals, I think children would have a natural revulsion to eating the flesh of an animal, but we trick them out of it by disguising what they eat in sight and name. Therefore, I ate cheeseburgers and bacon and poultry. Nonetheless, hints of what I was really doing crept up from time to time.  I decided, one type of animal at a time, not to be part of an animal’s slaughterhouse experience and began to see the animal not just the dish.  I was confused, however. Was there any justification to eating some animals based on their lower intelligence, on how they live and die, or on my own sense of necessity? How did we get to the point that practices that most people would recoil from in horror were commonplace and accepted?  I read Singer’s book, and all of those questions were answered.  The revelations had an impact on my daily life and outlook because the concept of speciesism made perfect, rational sense. An anti-speciesist attitude gave a daily voice to the basic moral axiom that disregarding the interests of others to serve your own interests at their great expense is not the moral or good way to exist.

The Stoic and the non-speciesist attitudes that I have acquired from reading do intersect. For one, Stoics denigrate affairs of the palate.  I had (even pre-enlightenment) felt that the momentary taste of bacon could not be worth an animal’s suffering or life; a momentary taste should not be accorded much importance. Stoics are not slaves to appetites. Epictetus, by the way, considered meat as appropriate for wild animals and not for humans. A Stoic outlook also encourages thinking and not accepting or following the mentality of the herd.  Seneca abhorred the slaughter of men and beasts in the Circus, although the “games” were considered a necessity for the Roman mob.  He thought that watching the shows constituted punishment. I would say the same for visiting a factory farm or slaughterhouse. Come to think of it, we might consider it as an alternative to jail for all but the brutally-minded (murderers and such who might find it right up their alley).

The Stoic attitude comes in very handy in facing the shortcomings of existence, and the knowledge of speciesism does underscore a vast human shortcoming.  To deal with that reality, I remind myself to do what I can within my control and to not torment myself with matters beyond my control. I can no more stop the suffering today than Seneca could in his time and my ruminating on it into the wee hours of night is pointless thinking. Ruminating can best be offset by some action in the daylight however small—a letter written, a petition signed, an animal not eaten. Another Stoic approach to achieving tranquility is to realize how good your life is by reckoning how much worse it could easily be; just by the subtraction of one hundred years, current daily life is an entirely pleasant prospect. I enjoy unimaginable comforts and privileges that make my life seem like an Eden compared to the typical or even upper class life of past centuries.  By the same token, if I include the existence of other species, my troubles are indeed trivial. How could I not feel tranquil in comparison? I am not crammed into a cage, at the mercy of strange other beings, cut off from my own kind, my young taken away prematurely, deprived of doing anything that comes naturally, and doomed to a frightful death. The insipid triviality of human affairs as compared to the suffering of other species strikes me forcibly all the time. The government can take my phone records; the price of something is going up – all the fodder of mundane human life is as nothing in comparison. Last, in the realization department, if I needed yet another proof of the non-existence of anything approaching a compassionate supreme being . . . but I don’t and no one really does.

I would not have written about these books on my college application essay. I would have had dinner with a friend to complain and eat some animal parts in a sauce. Better late than never and maybe even more to come.

Stoics and Romantics: A Review of Two Books

Anyone who likes to write must spend time reading because there is no writing without reading. Of the many books that I have taken up recently on the search for ideas or entertainment, two rise above the rest as thought-provoking and engrossing. (Footnote to self regarding the rejects: do not bother reading anything else by Harold Bloom.  One book by him is enough; he reworks the same stuff in the same manner, and his identity looms large: from childhood he has been unbearably brilliant, he is unable to write without the word “daemon,” and thinks Shakespeare is the greatest.)  My two favorites center the frame of my interests in Stoicism and Romantic literature: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm and Romantic Lives by Daisy Hay.

To the Stoics among us, Seneca must be of interest, and the outlandish and horrible antics of the Roman emperors wonderfully described by Romm, through whose reigns Seneca managed to survive for many years, should captivate a historically-minded reader of any philosophical persuasion. The author writes in an engaging and fast-paced style, anticipating and addressing the questions that come to mind about the motivations and inner most thoughts of Seneca, a Stoic who had to reconcile his philosophy with the actions he took to survive and possibly to maintain some check on the cruelty of his one-time pupil, Nero. For anyone who remembers the PBS series of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or who read the book, the joys of learning fact (or most likely fact) from fiction abound in this book.

Romantic Lives hits the most interesting biographical points of the lives of a number of Romantics — Hunt, Shelly, Mary Shelly, a little bit of Keats, Byron — and the parts of their lives that intersect. In some cases, Hay gives an equally or even more vivid picture of the personalities of her various subjects than biographers manage in hundreds of more pages on a single individual. Keats plays a small role in this book, so he needs his own biography, but Hunt, Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelly are fully developed. Hay zeros right in on the details that reveal the most and interest the most. What I found as the special treat is her attention to the “ordinary” people (ordinary only to distinguish them from the literary greats) who existed within the orbit of Shelley and Byron. I had developed a particular curiosity about the post-Shelley existence of Claire Claremont, which the final pages of this book fully satisfied.

With a focus on the intersecting lives during a certain period of time, the author is not obliged to treat at much length or at all the childhood or forbears of any individual, but only those parts relevant to a rather limited period of especial interest.  Having read the several biographies of the personalities involved, there was some repetition, but more often Hay used common material to clarify the events, motivations, and relationships of the parties and to depict the iintense drama, of which there is no short supply, as well as a canonical 19th century novelist. Again, beyond basic biographical endeavor, Hay digests the difficulties of a situation of complexity and long duration into a perfectly insightful and (seemingly) accurate pithy assessment. For example, she sums up the Shelleys’ marital problems: “The tragedy of Shelley and Mary’s marriage lay in her inability to convey to him the depths of her emotional attachment, and in his failure to understand how much pain his actions caused her.”  Likewise, her voice is an added value when she steps back to assess the impact for better and for worse these individuals had on each other.

It is always a wonderful side effect if a book does more for the reader than the author meant to achieve or the reader had reason to expect. That statement assumes that Hay did not mean for us to evaluate the importance of sociability in our own lives. Such was my experience in the following way. A major premise of the book is the importance of a “co-operative sociability” to creative influence.  She definitely makes that point stick in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although at times she concedes that it is in solitude and only through thinking about or corresponding with friends that he derives his inspiration.  The notion of the importance of friends to creativity struck me as worthy of consideration because I had been a proponent of the opposite, believing that genius leads to solitude and in that state the great writer sounds his or her imagination.  I had embraced that paradigm from the example of Emily Bronte, who, in her amazing self- resourcefulness, seemed to find within herself the inspiration for her novel and poetry.  However, even in her case, one could point out that she did have the creative camaraderie of her sister Anne, who was her partner in Gondal. Closer to home, the idea that connecting with others is an essential source of inspiration reminded me of my own isolation. I have no like-minded coterie to share literary or philosophical ideas. My mother was a literary compatriot, but by the time I got around to developing my interests, I had scant years before she could not even recollect who Walter Pater was. The two professors from literature classes to whom I made overtures ran for the hills — or would have, but saved themselves the trouble by just ignoring my emails.

My isolation brings me back to the first book on a beleaguered Stoic, as Stoicism again proves useful. I have no “co-operative sociability,” but the dispassionate mind can accept that reality because sociability has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, there is no changing the situation so liking it is better than lamenting it, and I share that situation with many others, past and present. Last, there are books such as these to offer the eternal, virtual cooperative sociability of reading.

Hedonistic Adaptation

Hedonistic adaptation poses the greatest impediment to tranquility. Modern psychology has coined that term to express how we become accustomed to the pleasurable and good things in life to the point of no longer being able to derive joy from them. The term is rather new and the notion is very old.  Seneca, our non-resident voice of Roman Stoicism, pointed out that an insurmountable glitch with making pleasure your goal was that it wears out quickly and leaves a person wanting more of the unfulfilling stuff.  As Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” better to have non-realized pleasure because “All human breathing passion” leaves “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Understanding the sordid underside of great pleasure and not making that the goal is not the hard part.  The process of hedonistic adaptation curses us most when it gnaws away at our even moderate satisfaction with ordinary life, which might be a far better existence than any we had before. It might even be the apotheosis of our dreams, but we so adapt to it as to render it unsatisfactory.  For example, consider a person who has just stepped out of jail; how beautiful the sky, how thrilling just to go out at will and walk to get a cup of coffee.  The contrast form confinement to freedom does not last; we are adaptable.  Roaming around at large becomes normal and no longer serves as a great joy or satisfactory to compensate for other vicissitudes of life. This insidious process undermines what would otherwise be endless tranquility for us. We can move to a better home, take a desired job, and acquire wealth and still wind up dissatisfied.  On the flip side of adaptation, without it we could hardly function when grief and loss are involved.  As Seneca says in praise of adaptation, “Nature has done better by us here than in any other department; knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary.  If adversity kept the force of its first shock permanently, no one could bear it.”

What does Stoicism or others (who will he nil he must espouse the Stoic line in addressing this topic) to combat the ill effects of hedonistic adaptation?  In answering, one might veer dangerously close to the cliché, “count your blessings.” Stated Stoically, use reason to confront emotion. It is easy to feel miserable and dissatisfied, but we can think.  So, evaluate the options; consider how much vain hoping and expecting have undermined your tranquility; query whether opportunities to complain have fueled the perception that circumstances are lacking; think about what went before and what  is possible or likely to happen remembering that death is always lurking and that what has happened to others to can happen to you; consider what is within your control and what is not. Under that last line of consideration, if there are things to fix within your control do so —  otherwise use the devious process for your own purposes and adapt your emotions to what your reason prescribes.

The Self-sufficiency of Emily Brontë

I would not make a case that Emily Brontë was an accidental Stoic, as I did for John Keats in the article “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” that appears in this blog under “ Start Here.”  The expressions of philosophy in Keats’s life and poetry echo Seneca’s Stoic statements so precisely, it would seem that Keats had been influenced by him, although he never read a word of any Roman Stoic and held his philosophical notions through his own invention. One can only feel that there must be arch-ideas in the human realm that great minds discover coincidentally and naturally. Emily Brontë wrote no letters, as Keats did, but her view-point on life, if not her philosophy of life, can be discerned from her poetry. That process of defining her character from the lines of her poems figures largely in my book The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, published by Sussex Academic Press, which will appear in August 2014. On the whole, Bronte does not fit even unevenly into the Stoic pattern.

However, there is one truly Stoic element to Brontë’s personality, which is of great interest not just because it is Stoic but because it explains an essential character trait: she was exceedingly and unusually self-sufficient.  As I have written before, the value of self-sufficiency of a personal and intellectual nature is one of the most modern and invigorating ideas Seneca propounds as a Stoic virtue. He exhorts his acolytes not only to read or listen to others, but to develop a philosophy, guiding principles, and a way of living for themselves, independent of what others have stated. “Don’t be led, create something of your own,” he suggested vehemently.  It is in this context that he reminds his readers that ideas belong to no one, so that in formulating one’s own scheme for living, any idea that is good is available for adoption.

Why was self-sufficiency of spirit such a formative and essential trait for Emily Brontë? Consider that she had almost no formal education, learning mostly from her father and on her own at her home. She had no encouragement in her writing: no mentors, no college associates, no editors, no apprenticeships, no validation from the outside world, literary or otherwise. She, herself, relying only on her own powers and inner resources wrote Wuthering Heights, a giant in the literary canon, and a large work of powerful, distinctive, and intriguing poetry. That epitomizes a kind of magnificent self-sufficiency.  Not surprisingly, that character trait of self-fostering cropped up in other areas, and those are more precisely of the kind Seneca had in mind. She developed her own religion in which she, through her imagination, answered her own prayers and reconciled herself with death.  More on how she accomplished that can be found in my book.

At Least You Have a Loin Cloth: does thinking about worse circumstances help?

In the Stoic view there are no circumstances so bad that dispassionate thought will not bring tranquility or at least diminish anguish. That palliative role of thinking in the face of hardship stands as one explanation why Reason (synonymous with thinking as opposed to feeling) is so vital to Stoicism. If we reason with ourselves we can make ourselves less miserable. That reasoning process includes certain specific kinds of thoughts, including (perhaps not limited to) the following: I never know what else might have happened in the erratic course of events, so I cannot be sure I have anything to lament, not knowing what else might have happened; death can come at any time, so I should appreciate whatever is afoot; what torments me is beyond my control and even might not happen; suffering is the way of the world and life; much of what is considered unfortunate is simply a matter of perspective or opinion and might simply be a product of disappointed expectation.  Last, and most at issue here, is the thought that things can always be worse.  To the destitute slave in ancient Rome who has nothing but a loin cloth, the mitigating thought is: How much worse would you be without the loin cloth?  If the answer is nothing could be worse—there is no consolation—then, the Stoics would say, Nature has given you a way out, which we can either wait for or hasten, suicide being an option.

            That phrase in the Stoic thought-kit is in common and current use, of course.  People routinely say as a platitude, “things could be worse.” Frequent usage does not necessarily devalue the phrase; however, not really understanding that things could be worse makes the phrase meaningless. So, if one, Stoic-wise, actually bears in mind that things could be worse, does that help?  One might petulantly protest, to heck with thinking it could be worse, I am damned miserable right now.  That would be indulging the emotion, however, and would not be conducive to anything except more misery.  Any emotion that is indulged flourishes.  That realization sets up the analysis of this Stoic thought as effective or not in the context of life and its limitations. The question is not whether thinking how things could be worse is a wholly satisfying cure– rather, whether it is better than the alternatives. One alternative is the one just mentioned, abandoning thought and wallowing in emotion.  That can go to different levels from short term whining to total capitulation and viewing yourself as fortune’s fool, destined to suffer and powerless to dismiss any of your tormenting feelings. Joined to those states of mind would be complaining to others—that worst of offenses. To clarify–complaining to others is something other than asking for help or advice. If there is a real goal—some ascertainable point—to the conversation, it is not complaining, even though the content resounds of hardship. Even statements of fact about all the unpleasant things that have happened are not complaints, as long as it stops there. I see the following as the litmus test for complaining: can the hapless listener work with you to a decision; hatch a plan; offer  a way of thinking about a situation; give, or point out resources of, advice?  If not, then why have the conversation? Hint—this dialogue usually has a future component, and if the matter is entirely in the past, or a “matter of principle” then it belongs in the rubbish heap of complaining. Everyone has his or her own problems and if one starts up complaining, it is usually an invitation for the other to join in—to no avail to anyone involved. (One exception is grief—it is sui generis, but even it must be finally kept within ourselves).

            What are the alternatives to indulging one’s misery and complaining? There are drugs, I guess, but they come at a high price and are temporary. Certain kinds of exercise help, especially if they require thought.  Seneca suggested liberal arts study (literature and philosophy). Emily Brontë lost herself in her imagination. One might play an instrument or have some other kind of activity.  The problem with exercise and activities is that we might not be in a situation to have recourse to them.  That leaves using our brains—something always available. By pondering that platitude-encapsulated notion of how things easily could be worse, we are reminded at least to not indulge our emotions and to try to think; further, we must accept the axiomatic nature of the idea—if one looks at the world and life through time and in the present, of course things could be worse. However, after engaging our reason over our emotions and appreciating the immutable truth, does realizing that things could be worse actually work any magic to dull the blow? Without question it helps, I would say, the perennially dissatisfied, and is better than not doing it to combat a cohort of undesirables.  Thinking is free, bothers no one, and might bring an acceptance bordering on restored tranquility. I would conclude, then—yes, take that well-worn phrase to mind and possibly find relief where there was consternation. A loin cloth can be a wonderful thing.

The Philosophical Commencement Address

The commencement speech is one of the few times when students, faculty, and illustrious members of the community are asked to state their philosophy of life.  The assignment is not phrased in those words, but that is the gist and result because the commencement speech asks what is important in life and how life is best lived. That is eudemonistic philosophy in a nutshell. I heard a number of commencement addresses recently. I found some advice thought-provoking or inspiring, such as the analogy of navigating the demands of a corporate a job to the rigors of national diplomacy, and the simple advice “to be not afraid.” The words of these speeches aspire to wisdom, at times slump into platitudes, or simply go awry. On that last score, I heartily disagreed with one student speaker who declared that one should “chase joy.” Chasing joy is in my book the last thing one should do.  Joy comes as a by-product of meaningful endeavors; a life spent chasing it would be unfulfilling and wrought with frustration.  At best, if you were ever to get your hands on one of those plastic rabbits, the result would be, in the words of John Keats, “a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed, a burning forehead and parching tongue.”

In commencement addresses, one also must hear a great deal about “passion,” as that word must raise its insipid head anytime college and young people are in the picture. I object to passion as being at all important; why this insistent advocacy of enslavement to desire or dreams buoyed by that insidious and much touted state of hopefulness. The answer is, I think, that those advocates of passion have not thought it through and the word has become a stock phrase that unfortunately has not lost all of its meaning. Instead, I would suggest, if I were ever to be at the front of a field of caps and gowns, that interest, reasonable enthusiasm, and a nimble mind, able to leave one path for another as need be, serve one better than passionate devotion. Not to mention what happens to that high pitched emotion once it deflates—a likely possibility since the “success” it envisions might well not materialize. Obviously that is a basic Stoic idea, and one could draft a speech entirely from the values of Roman Stoicism. I would do so if I had the chance. Such a speech would emphasize the following:  use reason, be moderate, exercise intellectual self-sufficiency, create something of your own, learn for yourself without reference to external goals, remember that death is for everyone at any time, and comfort yourself because complaining to others assumes that you are suffering more than your hapless listener. Those phrases are all starting points, but our job in living is to understand and expand on those liminal ideas. But what about that other really big word in the commencement lexicon—“altruism.” No day at graduation exercises omits the call to do for others. Is there room for that in a Stoic commencement address? In living a life in accordance with the basic Stoic precepts just listed, the net effect would be a boon not only to yourself but others—our immediate inmates and associates would be spared excessive and unreasonable emotion, complaining, and would have the example of a moderate, intellectual, honest individual in their midst. That is of great value. Further, here is the truth about altruism that is shoved behind the curtain; nobody does anything without self-interest. Albert Schweitzer fulfilled himself and his interests in pitching his camp in Africa; every missionary that ever got on a ship to an unknown land was fulfilling his or her own agenda. In fact, the truth of self-interest at work in altruism comes out when people promote altruism by pointing out how much one will benefit and how good one will feel in helping others.  Therefore, a philosophical plan that focuses on the self is as likely, or more likely, to lead to altruistic acts as any other—unless that system counsels sitting in a cave and meditating. I don’t see that promoting anyone’s wellbeing, from the meditator to others.

One last realization that graduates must face that does not typically take center stage at graduation—there are impossibilities in this world. Despite all the goals one is supposed to strive for, heedless of failure, there are things that will never take place, such as being called upon to deliver a commencement address. As a Stoic, I know that not receiving that invitation is all right.  I have written my own — here it is — with the words of Seneca in mind on the topic of undertaking creative pursuits without regard to the external world –“Don’t ask why you did such things, you did them for yourself.”

I enjoy graduations more than any other ceremony we are from time to time called upon to attend. I could put that in even stronger terms; they are for me important and memorable and meaningful.  Unlike any other convocation it marks academic accomplishment and a turning point in life; it reflects on the past, present ,and future all at once.  It celebrates learning and fosters inter-generational warmth and goodwill. It calls upon us for an hour or so and maybe longer to be philosophical.

Salve et Vale Class of 2014.

The Act of Doing Nothing: One Battlefield of Reason and Emotion

So often we feel called to action–to make statements, implement plans, or take measures. I would wager that more often than not we would be better off doing nothing at all. Delaying action in the hope that the urge to act will dissipate  is one prescription for anger management and likewise the antidote to all the troubles that come from indulging one’s negative or excessive emotions. Just do nothing and the situation might resolve itself—take action and a series of unfortunate events unravel. This holds true on all levels—from an individual to a national entity—but I am interested in the personal level. It would seem that inaction would require less fortitude than action, but that is a complete misconception because doing something is a short-term relief and an indulgence of insistent emotion, whereas not acting requires the prevalence of reason. What helps achieve unspoken words, unsent messages, untraversed space?  Intellectual honesty about the consequences of taking action and the self-serving nature of the proposed act.  Perhaps also a relinquishment of any sense of the importance of the thing at issue would help as well—most things are trivial. What if we took action only if we reasonably believed it would produce on balance a beneficial outcome. If we subjected our actions to that test how inactive we might become and how many meddlesome, officious, histrionic, time-wasting, rash and passionate words and deeds we would be spared and would spare ourselves from having to regret.

Things Stoics Think About

A group of Stoics walk into a bar and fall into a lively discussion about the ways in which Stoicism has helped and the ways in which it has fallen short.  Or there could be a survey: “Which of the following best describes the ways that Stoicism has had a beneficial effect on your life…” (a) controlling my emotions in petty daily circumstances; (b) bringing an acceptance of the larger vicissitudes of life; (c) clarifying general goals to aspire to in my conduct for myself and in relation to others; (d) understanding the pitfalls in seeking joy, etc. . . Or conversely, in what situations do you feel Stoicism does the least good?

I will start the ball rolling by addressing the two ways in which I encounter the most difficulty in effectively bringing my philosophy to bear to enhance tranquility and self-sufficiency.

I have a problem with the really big picture. Stoicism proposes that nature is an unassailable given.  I find myself pointlessly pondering why it must be this way from start to finish.  As Woody Allen said, if there is a god, he must be an underachiever. Given the context in which we exist, I can set about making sense of suffering and death—but the context itself fails miserably by any common standards.  Suffering, pain, illness, decrepitude, injustice, acrimony, stupidity, self-serving insincerity, laziness, greed (and other grim nouns) define existence just because. And, please, let’s not say that there are many wonderful things as well—there are a few, but why are they not predominant?

Seneca delved into this question of a miserable context for individual existence, and it is clear from his discussion that he had the incidents of the daily life of an upper class Roman in mind when he laments the state of things. By the way, I cannot imagine how anyone would have kept a modicum of sanity in the Rome of Seneca’s day.  One trip to the Coliseum on circus day would have done me in—I despair of mankind at the thought of boiling lobsters alive and force-feeing geese so some pretentious palette can enjoy a delicacy; how would I tolerate the slaughter of scores of caged African animals, not to mention the hapless human victims.  He writes: “But to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possess us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence, how seldom faith is kept unless keeping it is good policy, when you recall the long calendar of successful crime, the profits and losses of lust, alike odious and ambition that no longer keeps its proper confines but rises to eminence though skullduggery, then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them.”

He then continues to counsel to accept the world as it is with a dispassionate state of mind and with whatever tolerance you can muster.  That does not entirely address my underlying concern about why the world must be this way—but I can imagine Seneca’s response would boil down to acceptance of those things that we cannot control.  That is valid and must be coupled with a true, inner resignation, a degree of apathy, a letting go. By the way, Seneca, at that juncture of the above quote, veers into a related statement that I have pulled out of my pocket on many occasions, perhaps on a daily basis: “To be tormented by other people’s troubles is misery.” Considering that other people’s misery is usually something over which I have no control, dwelling on it is pointless—it does not help them and only disturbs me.

My second problem area is with the little things in life—and I know precisely why these situations test severely my Stoicism; because they are founded on expectations.  I expect my lap top to work every morning, I expect air travel to get me to my destination on at least the day of the scheduled arrival. Stoicism warns that expectations threaten tranquility; like having hope, expecting is living life in suspense, like a person in fear. That understanding is at odds with commonly accepted modes of thought, however. We feel very justified in these expectations; indeed when we doubt ordinary expectations we are blackly labeled pessimists. Therefore, to mitigate the distress of the common nit-picking annoyances of life I must paradoxically accord them a greater importance—the expectations associated with them must be diminished, just as those expectations and hopes on a larger scale (like having a good marriage or a fulfilling career or good health) and their unpleasant arrival must be greeted as in the ordinary course and as something over which I have only a small degree of, or no, control. Meeting the small distresses in that way might blunt their power to disrupt my tranquility.


Dear Seneca

December 4, 2013

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Rome, Italy


Dear Seneca, or should I say, “Salve Magister,”

You have on many occasions given Stoic advice through letters to friends, so perhaps I might impose upon you with my own particular difficulty in achieving the tranquility that is the Stoic goal. I have no philosophical school where I can gather with young and old students of philosophy under a columned portico, as you have, to refine or rehearse my philosophy.  I have only your essays and letters to read and, I might add, the book of one other acolyte: a tidy and modern compendium of Stoic thought that is helpful. You, unlike him, however, seem genuinely interested in helping others create their own Stoicism: to develop the faculty of reason as the tool to blunt the brutality of negative and excessive emotion, curtail pointless thinking, vitiate the power of external events, and find the present moment satisfactory.

So what is my problem?  It is one of practice more than of understanding. I am too often at the whim of external events and I am at times at a loss to keep my thoughts from wandering into the past and future with painful consequences. As for the first, I suffer too much my external losses more than I am jubilant about any external gratifications.  Actually, I have few gratifications and minimal expectations, so going overboard with joy is less of a concern than withstanding the blows that fate has handed to me. With regard to my thoughts drifting to the past and present (those two vast regions over which I have no control) I have fears, yes that would be the word, of the future, although Reason repeats the senselessness of that:  how do I know there is such a future?  After all, I might die tomorrow. Such thoughts of possible future pain and losses are pointless and serve only to disturb my tranquility.  And the past—I have cured myself to a large extent of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, but transience can still afflict me. That nocturnal creature still waits for the dark and quiet moment to spring.

How troubled am I by these two weaknesses in my philosophical practice? To do my feeble Stoicism justice, I will point out that I understand that the mind is its own place—an apt summation of the centrality and vitality of the internal world, penned by John Milton, a writer centuries after your time. A mind, i.e. the rational part of a human being, has the power to create its own tranquility, and the “place” is the world within ourselves, free from the buffets of daily events.  As you have noted, the person who is raised up or cast down by external events is bound to be cast down much of the time and made miserable.  And why should such externalities enjoy sych great weigh and power anyway when so much is trivial? For the external world, I try to confront events as an inevitable series of pleasant and unpleasant curiosities, knowing that things can always be worse, and that I have not been bereft of much good fortune, even in my misfortunes.  My misfortunes have made me who I am, and the person who has not known suffering is as limited in mind and character as an infant.  Also, I discount the views and opinions of others, valuing only those belonging to a few people who create with me an audience unto ourselves. Yet, I find myself “hoping for good news” –a compliment, an acknowledgment, recognition, a job.

Further to my credit, regarding emotions, I will say that Stoicism is a bulwark, and without it I would flounder in a morass of emotion, even worse tangled in the belief that such an emotional state was necessary and typical.  To that end, I do keep death in mind to lend perspective in its own unique way, and I do remember that suffering forms the common lot of us all; I do grasp the usefulness of suffering, the triviality of most occurrences, and the pointlessness of pointless thinking and that dwelling on the unchangeable past and remote future, over which I have no control, constitutes the most pointless kind of thinking. I do cling to reason as what we have that distinguishes us from other animals and I do see emotion for the evil that it is. However, I do not do any of those things with sufficient consistency.

Have you any techniques for teaching Reason how better to confront and conquer these errant thoughts and encroaching feelings?  Or maybe you could state the same ideas, just packaged in a new, handy aphorism, or made accessible through comparison, anecdote, or example?

I await your response in the certainty that your thoughtful words will lead to greater wisdom and tranquility and I will be less of a burden to myself and others. If not, I will re-read your writings, take recourse to literature, stick to Reason, and attempt to carry on with the given day as if it were my last.