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.

The Tyranny of our Passionate Interests

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?

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.

Stoicism — it’s personal


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.”