As all Stoics know, excessive emotions, such as passion, are detrimental because they set us up for a fall, either from the aftermath once the thrill is gone or from disappointment in not having the thrill. Avoiding passionate emotion, such as irrational love (perhaps lust is the better word), anger, high pitched excitement, etc… makes sense in the Stoic ethos, and I have no quarrel there. I see a slight difference, however, between passion in its adjectival form and “a passion,” meaning a pursuit or interest to which one invests a great deal of time, effort, self- esteem, and other costs. Although less obviously detrimental, such passions do have a side that threatens tranquility (the Stoic goal). The easy answer is to pursue an interest but avoid going to extremes and allowing it to assume too big a part of one’s life. That certainly sounds like the reasonable (and therefore Stoic) approach. I have identified for myself another problem: the difficulty lies not in my excessive love for the pursuit, but rather in how much of the burden of my life the pursuit is shouldering. Stated otherwise, it is not so much a question of loving too much the particular pursuit, but in how much I am asking that pursuit to fill voids, take up slack, and otherwise make up for the shortcomings or difficulties in life. When that burden lands on an interest, the interest can become a love/ hate experience. Not only might I love doing something—maybe I don’t at all — but I place an undue amount of energy and focus on it because I am running away from some very troubling realities. I can start to even feel somewhat a victim of my passion—the safe harbor I have created has thorns, but where else can I sleep?
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.
It is the common view that the culture of a society or group is special, valuable, and worth preserving. The term culture is vast, encompassing all aspects of daily life, as well as history and beliefs touching the larger issues of law, morality, and an afterlife. Given the breadth of what constitutes culture, in considering our culture as valuable we pave the way to affirm a host of behaviors and beliefs in one fell swoop without giving them any thought.
That common view might well be erroneous, so that, to the contrary, the culture of any given society (or large chunks of it) might not be in the least necessarily or inherently special, valuable, or worth preserving. Why should the practices from a long time ago, in more ignorant times, hold sway over a thinking individual years later in a different time and even a different place? The even more insidious role of culture it to circumvent the use of reason –when one can’t muster a good and non-self-serving reason for some act or idea, he or she resorts to the safety blanket of culture. I should give examples here, but then I would seem biased against one set of cultural values over the other, so I will say generally, any cultural practices that perpetuate oppression or cruelty, subjugation of one group over the other, or defy any rational explanation need to be questioned and not accepted.
Two examples of culture have come up lately in the news that exemplify my contention that we should step back and stop waving the banner of our culture like it was a grand accomplishment and consider it for what it is: a load of ideas from other people, who might have gotten things very wrong. First, the story in the New York Times about the Chinese eating dogs illustrates the way we use culture without thought to obfuscate an unfathomable amount of suffering and a practice that could easily be considered repulsive. The Chinese find it culturally acceptable to eat dogs; Americans find that abhorrent because in our culture we have an affinity for dogs. In that difference of views, one might contest that the Chinese are not wrong in eating them, why? Here it comes: “ it’s their culture.” I would say, “so what;” of course it is, but that does not make it right. However, are we right, and is our cultural practice of not eating dogs better? It is better that we don’t eat dogs, not because we culturally find them non-edible, but because not eating them shows a side of compassion and empathy that any society would want to encourage, since those are two good and non-self-serving qualities that make the world a better place.
However, another story in the New York Times flips the scenario between American and foreign culture, putting the empathy and compassion on the other side. The article lends a critical tone to the cultural practice of Hindus not being able to kill cows. American culture is all for killing cows. I must acknowledge that the reason Hindus do not kill cows might not comport with my ideas of reasonableness, being (I suspect) a religious practice adopted without question. However, if Hindus were to question the received practice, the conclusion to not kill them could be the same. By the same token, our predilection for cow-killing needs to be questioned. Eating dogs strikes us as horrible, but cows are sentient creatures, not as dumb as we like to think, that have interests and affections and that most importantly fear death and can suffer (and of course do suffer at the hands of dog-loving Americans by the millions).
Maybe eating dogs makes as much sense as eating cows or not eating cows. The point is all three cultural groups need to question the practice and not trot out the old excuse—it’s our culture. Cultural examination should, like charity, begin at home; let’s consider our practices of not eating dogs, but eating cows and pigs and birds. Food is one of the most central aspects of culture, to the extent that people say they have enjoyed a visit to a foreign land (or not) because of the food. People commonly choose a travel destination for the food. I find all of that a bit silly. Elevating food to a passion does not comport in the least with my Stoic side, but I realize that I am the odd man out on the topic of feeding oneself. Hence given the importance of food and its centrality to culture, let’s take a look at what we are doing under the blanket of culture. One way of questioning the acceptability of animal consumption is to imagine a school field trip to a factory farm or slaughter house. “Children, we visited the bakery and the fire station last year. This semester, as part of our nutrition unit, we will visit the factory farm and its associated slaughter house to see where our meat comes from. We will need chaperones and are having a hard time finding parents who want to make this trip, so please encourage one of your parents to come along with us.”
How can we defend a part of our culture that we have to keep hidden away? Culture dumbs us down and suffocates our own faulty of reason. Reason (of the sort that embraces the value of compassion over self-serving interest) might dictate a few conclusions along the following lines: if something is so horrible that I could not stomach seeing it, then it is not something that should be tolerated; if what I am doing in eating meat necessitates the suffering of millions of sentient creatures then that is not compassionate, but supremely selfish and I should stop it; if there are so many good things to eat that do not inflict suffering, that reduce greenhouse gasses, and that support good health then I should eat those things and not animals; if I can be compassionate rather than cruel and self-serving, I should do that because a world based on compassion creates a better place to live.
Someone’s beloved culture at one time whole-heartedly supported human sacrifice, gladiatorial games, the subjugation of women, slavery, racism, anti-homosexuality, bull-fighting, bear baiting. Reason taught the wrongness of those practices. Consider giving reason a chance against culture to subvert the most pervasive of non-compassionate and bloody of practices at work in America today.
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.
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.”
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
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.
In the course of writing a paper on Stoicism recently, I have been forced to consider whether Stoicism actually offers a viable way to achieve happiness (or as Stoics term it, “tranquility”) or whether there are insurmountable impediments. Further, even if Stoic practices are accessible and practicable, what does such a “solution” look like? Starting with the last part of the question first, what is the goal of Stoicism? Or differently phrased, what will a Stoic life look like? That answer is personal and relative, but in general, a reasonable goal is a state of mind better than a non-Stoic one. A practicing Stoic is like the chubby guy at the gym. He is not in great shape, but how much worse would he be if he stopped going. Assuming one is sufficiently versed in Stoic ideas, one will know if the goal, moderate as it may be, has been reached. Does one feel on the whole a greater sense of tranquility – less of a nuisance to one’s self and others — from doing the following: applying reason in various ways to address situations from the extremely grave to the trivial, adapting when things are beyond control, recognizing the insidiousness of emotion and quelling it, keeping hopes in check, and exercising a strong self-sufficiency to escape externalities such as the opinions of others and outward success. If the answer is yes, then the Stoic picture is of a good and even life that is notably, though perhaps moderately, less embroiled, bitter, painful, confusing, antagonizing, and scattered.
As for impediments to becoming a Stoic, they exist; however, on the one hand they are clearly surmountable. Stoicism is extant if not current. I (and many others) have come across Stoic ideas, read about them, found value in them and made modifications to fashion my own guide to living. So clearly it is doable. Also, Stoic ideas are everywhere, if in different guises. We recognize hedonistic adaptation, we get the value of looking on the bright side, and some people even understand the virtue of not complaining. We have all heard the imprecation to have the wisdom to see the difference between things we can control and things we cannot. Without knowing it, people stumble upon the importance of keeping death in mind and eschewing externalities and public opinion. All of the foregoing are soundly Stoic notions. On the other hand, to counter any chance of vast success, the media bombards us with anti-Stoic ideas. I hypothesize that the problems of youth are fostered by the media and would be greatly remedied by Stoicism. I name the young particularly although not at all exclusively as victims because they are more susceptible to the media. From hocus pocus hoping, to the exaltation of destructive emotion, to endorsements of complaining, to a maniacal focus on external events — the media seems like a confluence of weak and unphilosophical brains fueled by a lack of all reasonable thought. I might last suggest that a lack in education, or of a certain kind of education, undermines the chances of Stoicism for any given individual; if one does not use one’s mind to think critically, Stoicism is out of the question. It is, after all, about using reason — thinking rather than giving into emotion.
At the conclusion of my above-mentioned paper, which brought me close to core Stoic ideas that I know well but can always rehearse, I concluded that Stoicism does give the best chance for the calm happiness of tranquility and for a salubrious sense of mental independence for any given person. It is inherently an individual fix; few are enough, one is enough. Is there the chance for wider application to correct wholesale the flaws of “human nature”? To borrow from the faint white writing on the eight ball, “outlook not so good.”
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.
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.
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 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.