I, Animal

It is a well-established fact that language perpetuates the agenda of the powerful because the group in control creates language just as it creates society. Take, for example, men as the group in control. Our language reflects male dominance at every turn. “Man” is the name given to the species; alternatively there is “homo sapiens” and “homo” itself denotes the male not the female. I will not go into gender in language, as that topic could support a symposium of essays. My quarrel is with the speciesism of our language that serves to continue in the most pervasive and insidious ways the ideas that human beings enjoy a special privilege and have moral obligations only to other human beings. Just as euphemisms allow humans to hide their atrocities behind words, as George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” so do terms and phrases support our depraved treatment of nonhuman animals.

The first and overarching instance of human bias comes with the use of the word “animal.” There on the front page of the New York Times today is a statement “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.” Clearly there is something horrible going on (and of course I would say that no creature should be “slaughtered”), but the linguistic subtext is that humans are not animals. Has anyone disproven the validity of Carlos Linnaeus’s taxonomy of animal, vegetable, and mineral? There, in that first category is the species homo sapiens. Does anyone doubt that we are animal? Why is that derogatory?  Our language has made “animal” a handy insult.  “You are acting like an animal” is so common that it reinforces the idea that humans are not animal and that non-humans are depraved and beneath “us.”

Then there are the euphemisms, which are as bad as the political ones that Orwell denounced. We do not have a dead cow for dinner, or ground up cow, or the flesh of a pig for dinner, we have beef and pork.  The worst of all is the marketing phrase, “grass feed beef.” Beef does not eat grass, cows do. Also, there are a slew of colloquial expressions like, “I have my own fish to fry,” “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” and “Filthy as a pig.”

Culture, informed by religious tradition and a myriad of insecurities that lead to the human need to feel superior by all means to something, have subjugated animals and created a language to support that endeavor. The more we identify ourselves in our speech accurately, as animals, the more difficult it would be to accept the atrocities that we heap upon them.

We are animals. We do have instinct. We are mammals who are born, suffer, and die just like all the other animals. Why must we feel the need to be above?  Why the recurring drive to put things in a hierarchy with the most powerful at the self -designated top, giving license for any kind of deplorable behavior?

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the parent of modern Stoicism, classed humans and the other species as one in considering that we all have a special talent. Man, he said, has a special talent and so do each of the other species. Seneca said that Man’s special talent was reason. With all due respect, I beg to differ (which questioning Seneca would endorse because he did not think anyone should follow the views of others without applying one’s own power of reason). I think, and the many recent studies of “animal” (non-human) cognition support my view, that other species do have reasoning ability even if it is not identical to Man’s. As a second basis to differ, sadly, there is more evidence of hypocrisy and cruelty as Man’s unique talents.

What Humans Don’t Think or Feel

Scientists are busy proving that nonhumans have intelligence, sentiments, and sociability and publishing their “discoveries.” A few months ago, Carl Safina came out with Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and today I heard on The Diane Rehm Show an interview with a biologist, Frans de Waal, who has published Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are. I have a bone to pick with these studies for two reasons: the nonhuman animals are yet again at our disposal and the scientists pull up short of stating the only really valuable conclusion their research provides.

First, aside from Jane Goodall and maybe a few others who go into natural habitats, scientists are conducting their “research” on animals in captivity. Frans de Waal mentioned having a close relationship with a chimpanzee he was studying who recently died in a zoo.  Nice existence, living in a cage and performing tasks for Professor de Meer. Where were the elephants kept that proved to him that elephants have large intellects and human qualities like recognizing themselves in a mirror? By the way, I might ask who cares if an elephant can or cannot recognize himself in a mirror. Leave it to the most egocentric species on the planet to think it is vitally important to know if an elephant can use a mirror just like we can. Aside from the obvious element of coercion, to what end is all this research? There is one really important result: if animals are, as established through all these lab tests, intelligent, social, resourceful and emotional, then how can we justify treating them like objects—putting them in what is a human’s worst nightmare: living in confinement in order to be fattened up for someone’s dinner. That is the stuff of grim  fairy tales of the brothers Grimm.  However, scientists who marvel at the intellect of the nonhuman drop the exercise of reason when it comes to concluding that cruelty to such beings might be wrong. At that point, good old mindless cultural norms do just fine. Here is an example. Dr. de Meer asserts that eating meat is okay because nature is comprised of organisms eating other organisms. Certainly a scientist knows the three categories—animal, vegetable, and mineral—and that the vegetable does not include sentient beings, so that including plants in the discussion is irrelevant. Yes, animals eat plants, and I suggest he do so as well.  As for the fact that animals eat animals, of course only some do and many don’t, and humans thrive without eating flesh. What relevance is there between a lion that must kill to eat to and a human ordering dinner? If such an example of another species does count, then why take our culinary cue from the lion more than the elephant who eats only plants?  Professor de Meer is not alone in not seeing what is right in front of his eyes. Carl Safina spent all that time wondering what animals “think and feel,” yet he can’t think about what they think and feel when they are being confined and slaughtered?  When Dr. Safina’s book came out, I wrote him to ask if his familiarity with animals had caused him to think twice about eating them.  Although he professed to not be a big fan of flesh, he also had not formed any connection between the rich natural lives of animals and our depriving them of that life.

None of this research is at all necessary. Who could really be around animals and not see that they have their own interests and live social lives; most importnalty, intellect aside, whether they enjoy mirrors or finding grapes under cups in the lab, they all suffer. Any kind of instinctive compassion and the most fundamental notion of morality get you exactly to the right conclusion—we are all animals. There are distinctions among the species, but so what.  If we have any “special” gift it is, as Seneca says, the ability to reason, which I wish we would not abdicate so readily in the face of culture and error.

Ignorance is Bliss and What Else?

I have at times reflected on that old adage that ignorance is bliss in connection with my fairly recent understanding of the horrors perpetrated by humans against other creatures. I have even stated to a friend in conversation that never was the phrase “ignorance is bliss” more true than for me in facing the reality of animal food (and nota bene that is a matter of knowledge and not belief; I don’t believe animals suffer; they do — empirically provable).  At some point, I succeeded in drawing back the heavy, opaque, and vast curtain of culture, and behold . . .the horror.  Oh! the happiness of being a part of the mainstream, fitting right in, arm and arm with my fellow humans eating steak and thinking yum, isn’t this tasty.  Not fitting in with the majority is difficulty; the price for awareness is a calm and complacent mind.  Should I not lament the knowledge I have acquired?  Should I not wish to turn back the clock to the time when I could sit down with people without disgust and amazement? I would not be at odds with my family, who persist in believing that turning a blind eye is an acceptable way to live; I would have my choice of items from menus based on cruelty;my tolerance for human beings would be much higher. That would be the bliss of ignorance.

None of these questions of the value and cost of knowledge arise because I miss the steak or any of the animal food—not in the least. Foregoing animal flesh as a matter of sustenance and taste is easy. Good things to eat abound (as long as I don’t seek them in a restaurant). As a Stoic, I would agree with Seneca that caring greatly what one eats is excessive and elevates the trivial. Looking at everyone going after meat without a thought, slicing up the dead pigs, and tossing out the pieces of uneaten cow that they couldn’t finish is the hard part.  Knowing that some animal suffered horribly and died a frightful death so some overweight human with a bulging belly could chew it up is repulsive.  Should I then lament my knowledge and awareness and shield others to preserve their ignorance?

Maybe an indication that a thought is moral is that it is not necessarily tranquility-producing; it is indeed disturbing, troubling, and a through challenge to tranquility (which, as a Stoic, is my goal to make me bearable to myself and others).  I propose as a touchstone for morality, then, this test: does taking a certain course of action make things more difficult?  If it does, one is probably doing the right thing.

Thinking About Thinking

Seneca gave advice on how to achieve tranquility through the use of reason, which means  thinking rather than feeling. We see from Seneca’s letters and essays, that there are various ways to exercise reason to gain tranquility depending on the situation.  For example, one can reason that there are things over which we have no control, and if we do not have control, then dwelling on those things is completely pointless.  Remember the axiom: there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking. When faced with the really cruel strokes of fate (death of a loved one, disease, disaster, just to name a few), it might be useful to also think about the reality of suffering: we all suffer, suffering is the way of nature of which we are a part, and however horrible things seem to be, they could be worse.  Suffering also could be reckoned to have its benefits in improving us as human beings.  There is a Latin phrase that states, not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child.  I would say that not to have suffered is to always remain a child.

Another bit of advice to maintain tranquility when tested by external events is to consider how trivial most of the things that we fret about actually are. Seneca unequivocally states that most things are trivial.  To support that statement, we need only gain perspective by comparing our modern day situation with that of other people struggling to survive in harsher places or even people in earlier times. Such a reality check with what the human condition can be like should help restore our tranquility when faced with trivial disturbances.

I have recently expanded that line of thinking to consider most of what affects us as trivial when considering the dire circumstances of other species. To me (post Animal Liberation) the human species is not the only one that counts:  it is not the only one that has interests, relishes life, or suffers. The human species is superior only in certain ways (other species are superior in other ways), but no aspect of human superiority justifies the principle of  “might makes right,” extending carte blanche to oppress because we can. Therefore, I need only think of the confinement and torture of nonhuman species to realize how trivial my concerns are. Unless I am a prisoner of a cruel tormentor who confines and tortures me and threatens me with a brutal death—and of course there are unfortunate humans in that situation—my life, as compared to that of farm animals, poses only trivial problems.

One difficulty results from reckoning how much worse life could be by looking at the miserable lives of others; to foster tranquility, that line of thinking requires a degree of selfishness. In contemplating the abuse of other species, I can realize how trivial my problems are, but at the same time, unless I am entirely self-centered, I become very disturbed.  Such a disturbed mind is antithetical to tranquility, particularly at night when trying to sleep.  I guess that Seneca would remind me, as I mentioned at the beginning, that the reasonable mind does not dwell on things beyond one’s control, and saving other species in one fell swoop, or even saving one pig (apparently from my experience), is beyond my control.  Seneca did address the idea that one could fall into a state of disgust with the world when taking a look at humanity at work.  I must advise myself (as Stoics are responsible for making their own additions to their philosophy) to reduce the pointlessness of such thinking by taking action, however little, and by thinking that the world has changed for the better.  There is the potential for the slaughter-house to close because it doesn’t take everyone, just enough people with a conscience. No great change ever saw unanimity, just a sufficient number. Someday, perhaps, one will wonder how we ever tormented fellow creatures with the revolting goal of cutting up their bodies into parts and putting their flesh, teaming with bacteria and on the way to rotting, into our mouths to chew and digest.

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.

The Stoic Link to Animal Rights

Typically I think about Stoic practices in terms of achieving tranquility — which is its primary purpose.  However, Stoicism also was from its earliest days concerned with making the world a better place. Along those latter lines, I have recently found that having a Stoic mindset has driven me to look closely at the treatment of animals, in particular the eating of them. How has Stoicism contributed to my finally understanding that I must make a sea change with respect to animals? Because at the heart of Stoicism is reasoned and independent thinking.  Stoicism requires thinking for yourself and not basing your views of yourself or other parts of existence on the opinions or dogma of others.  If you cannot face a situation and at least attempt to reason it out for yourself, sublimating emotion, applying logical and rational tools to determine the best course, then Stoicism is a nonstarter for you.

When I heard an undeniable voice asking me to consider what eating animals involves, the Stoic approach to life urged me to think it through; it would not allow me any longer to shrug off my concern, but rather encouraged me to question whether eating animals was really the acceptable act that custom and mercenary motives like us to think it is.  For all the many years that a concern for animals rattled around in the back of my mind, not until I became a Stoic did I bring it out to the light and reckon that I am not a slave to the accepted idea that animals are to suffer, die, and be eaten. This result of Stoicism is mine alone, perhaps, as there has been (I would imagine) many a Stoic who did not question the treatment of animals and many people who became vegans without any Stoic ideas per se.

Once having arrived on the right side of the question, I had recourse to another Stoic approach. Seneca wrote about facing the disgraceful and cruel state of the world, considering how not to fall into despair about humanity.  For him, the question arose after happening upon the forum where an endless and brutal slaughter of man and beasts counted as entertainment for the hordes. He wrote that one should neither cry nor laugh in denigration, but stay away from the masses as much as possible. Perhaps those barbaric spectators at least did not profess any virtues they did not have.  Most bacon eaters today would run in horror at the screams of the pigs, much less the sight of their suffering and fear, as those creatures that are smarter than golden retrievers die to provide a side order at breakfast.

Also, in keeping with my literary bent, I relished finding support among great writers, as well as philosophers.  I was thrilled to read that Shelley was a vegetarian. How did such an original being happen upon the earth, an atheist and vegetarian in the 18th Century!  In addition to Shelley advocating a “vegetable diet,” there are other notables who have summed up the heart of the matter. I have typed a few below because who doesn’t love a good quote?  In parting, let me suggest: consider the pig, his intellect and affectionate personality — nobody needs bacon.

To be a vegetarian is to disagree – to disagree with the course of things today… starvation, cruelty – we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it’s a strong one.

― Isaac Bashevis Singer

It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust. . . .By all that is sacred in our hope for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth to give a fair trial to the vegetable system!
— Percy Bysshe Shelley

Vegetarianism serves as the criterion by which we know that the pursuit of moral perfection on the part of humanity is genuine and sincere.
— Leo Tolstoy

Animals are my friends-and I don’t eat my friends.
— George Bernard Shaw

Flesh eating is unprovoked murder.
— Ben Franklin

But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”
— Plutarch

In all the round world of Utopia there is no meat. There used to be, but now we cannot stand the thought of slaughterhouses. And it is impossible to find anyone who will hew a dead ox or pig. I can still remember as a boy the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughterhouse.
— H G Wells – A Modern Utopia

Wilbur burst into tears. “I don’t want to die,” he moaned. “I want to stay alive, right here in my comfortable manure pile with all my friends. I want to breathe the beautiful air and lie in the beautiful sun.”
E. B. White Charlotte’s Web

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.

The Other Professor

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.  Lucius Annaeus Seneca


The dinner with Professor Smith was something of a momentous occasion. My parents rarely dined out with acquaintances, having very few left with whom they might socialize, even if they were able or so inclined; I had only one friend left in town from the old days.  I had orchestrated the meeting as it seemed likely to entertain my parents, my mother in particular, without overly imposing on Professor Smith, who was a long- ago colleague of my mother.  I had my motivations as well, although I did not consider them predominant. Professor Smith had arrived first at the restaurant and was seated at a table in the middle of the room. As my parents and I made our way into the entry of the faux hacienda, I caught a glimpse of him looking straight ahead as if lost in thought more than on the lookout for our arrival.

I had not seen him for several years and before that only once briefly since I had been a student in his class in the late 1970s. I took a Humanities class with him, but his specialty was Shakespeare. He lectured, rather than leading a discussion, and was consummately prepared. He stood with notes on the lectern at the front of a classroom of thirty or so chairs. He had not embraced the bohemian ethic of the 70s campus.  He wore a suit and tie to class. He was a little overweight, which gave him the chubby-faced aspect of a large boy. I took careful notes, read the texts, over-studied for exams, wrote thoughtfully crafted essays, and (so he said years later) made an impression as an earnest and capable student. I had always remembered the day a student’s black retriever rose from the floor (at that time dogs, most of which must have worn bandanas, were not forbidden classrooms) and circumambulated the room. Professor Smith’s serious and youthful face slightly registered the disturbance, but he carried on with the lecture without suggesting that dog cease padding around the room.  I cannot remember any word exchanged between us before, during, or after class. He must have known that my mother was his colleague in the English Department, but that did not inspire conversation, which suited me, being shy and awkward at that time. All the long years later I had remembered him as erudite, stolid, and reserved (perhaps from his own brand of shyness). I had also conceived of him as a kind and caring person—it must have been from things my mother had said in passing about him. She had expressed such a view of him in some off- hand comments. The effect of the statements linger but the precise words have scattered like the details of a dream in which much was said and done but only the sense that something happened remains. Most importantly, she liked him and her good opinion became mine.

My mother was not only his colleague, but had established some kind of mentor relationship with his wife—or with the woman who became his wife. That woman had been a graduate student, specializing, I assume, in Victorian Studies to be under my mother’s professorial aegis. My mother had helped her to a great degree, and I was aware of many demonstrations of gratitude—notes and letters and a pointed statement to me when we met once about how kind and helpful my mother had been to her. That face to face expression of thanks took place at a party at the home of Professor Smith and his wife.  That was when I renewed my acquaintance with my erstwhile professor and spoke to him for the length of time proper to cocktail-party conversation with the host.

In the human dichotomy of the helpful and kind versus the not-to-be-bothered, I could not have thought about placing him anywhere but with the former half. In addition to my mother’s good opinion, I must have unwittingly attributed to him qualities of my mother, as his fellow English professor.  She throughout the years acted as if a professor’s duties included general academic and intellectual support of any needy student. Graduate students writing dissertations became household names as my mother spent years fostering versions of dissertation drafts in search of a compelling thesis. There were the students from years before who still called. There were students in whom she had taken a personal interest and had introduced to me or my brother: one became a good friend of mine and one eventually married my brother. Such a close connection to students was a legacy for her; she had had such a rapport with one of her professors to the point that we paid this teacher, Dr. Davis, a visit in her home twenty years after my mother graduated. Further, my mother had arranged for Dr. Davis to teach as an adjunct at the University, believing that she, a retired single woman, would enjoy the experience.

Leading to the dinner, I barged into Professor Smith’s life out of the blue via email. As an “independent scholar” I am cut off from intellectual peers. That term nicely connotes unemployed and also expresses a large degree of isolation. To establish some rapport with an English professor would be a small surrogate for the loss of my mother (who is alive but whom I have lost intellectually). I yearned to have peers (if I could call such an august personage as Professor Smith my peer) to take a look at my book on Emily Brontë and to convey to me some impression of it. Professor Smith was not a Victorian scholar, but he would certainly be able to read it with the understanding of a man of the English scholar’s cloth. Might he also take it under his wing and exhibit it to others in the department? I embarked on my multi-purpose email: introduce the topic of my little book and suggest meeting for dinner when I was in town, not only to possibly establish some rapport between us, but also to give my parents an all too rare outing with an old acquaintance.

I took the chair across form him, a vantage point for studying the contrasts of past and present.  His light brown hair was mostly grey.  He was thinner overall. The chubbiness was gone, but the notably small nose still hinted at a choir boy’s face and one that had not entirely succumbed to the insistence of sixty-five. The conversation fell to us necessarily more than to my parents. His manner was formal at times and I heard the lecturer still. Then, all reserve would vanish when he ventured an occasional smile that cast a hue of joviality and approachability. His tone was above all earnest and our conversation flowed with all the force of true interest. Whether naturally, or developed as a technique, he interjected my name from time to time while keeping the most sincere eye contact. I was concerned not to appear mercenary and did not mention my book, directing the conversation to topics that my mother and father would share and then to his work: a long-term and soon to be completed exhaustive work on Shakespeare.  We talked at length about his having judged an oral interpretation contest of a Shakespearean soliloquy. I felt the joy of conversing on topics of interest and not superficial politeness. As I had done oral interpretation contests in high school, I really did want to hear what the contestants were like and how he evaluated them. We ranged into more personal territory, to topics sad and shared. I felt a complicity in dealing with painful change — “the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I could only surmise that he must feel lonely. As a man without children, recently having lost a close brother, and with an ailing wife, who spent much of her time seeking treatment in another city, he perhaps found my invitation welcome and not an imposition. Then he brought up my writing and asked about the thesis of my book. No one had ever posed that question to me before and I relished considering the answer. He listened intently but was non-committal verbally, which was certainly preferable to specious exclamations of interest.  I did not need him to gush over the concept and he couldn’t know of the execution of it. I was quite satisfied with the rare opportunity to consider what I had written and to discuss it, however briefly, with an English professor. As the evening came to its close, warmth and good will settled around us. I thought getting together again when I visited my parents again, or at some future time, was not beyond reasonable speculation.

Continued good feelings about the evening and the success of the dinner accompanied me home the next day on the long and all too familiar plane ride. Throughout the week I expected, to the point of not even considering the alternative, that I would receive an email thanking me for dinner and reflecting that it had been an enjoyable evening.  Professor Smith was certainly proper if nothing else. A full week passed and though nothing was really hanging in the balance, I was puzzled about the absence of some polite following words, if not an expression of warmth and enthusiasm equal to my own.  Finally I wrote to say how much we enjoyed the dinner and to say how glad I was that we got together. Professor Smith wrote back to affirm that my mother was one of his favorite colleagues and he wished me luck on my writing.




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.