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Thursday 26 July 2018

The ABCs of Stoicism

While it's not technically on the GBWW list, Seneca's Letters fits right in with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Seneca is a hard man to describe. He was a first century moral philosopher, a playwright, and a billionaire (by Roman standards). He had dealings, good and bad, with multiple Roman emperors. He wrote his Letters late in his life to a young man named Lucilius in order to help Lucilius develop as a practitioner of Stoicism.

It is important to note the word "practitioner". Unlike many philosophies, Stoicism is a philosophy that is, first and foremost, meant to be lived. It can be thought of not just as philosophy in the conventional sense but also as a toolbox for better living. Revisiting my complaint about Marcus Aurelius and sour grapes, I now realize, thanks to Seneca, that his technique of reframing things in order to become indifferent to them is not really about the actual reasoning involved. The only important thing is achieving that sense of indifference. This may seem a little intellectually dishonest. However, Stoicism asks a lot of its practitioners. It asks them to become indifferent to pleasure, bad fortune, and even death itself. Faced with such a formidable task, it is understandable that a Stoic would gladly take up any tool available.

The importance of this indifference is clear to me now, even if it is difficult to put into practice. Seneca argues that the happy life is the virtuous life. But a lot of ancient philosophers make this same claim and from many different points of view. The key to understanding the Stoic argument is understanding that you can not be consistently happy if your happiness is tied to things you can not control. This is how indifference becomes important. In the strictest sense, there is very little we can control. We can influence many things in the world and make more desirable outcomes more probable. But this control is never absolute. As such, there is always room for disappointment. There is, however, one thing that we can always control: our own choices. So if a person can become indifferent to all the uncontrollable things and care only about his own choices, achievement of the happy life begins to seem possible. You would only be left with the problem of making sure that you are happy with all of your choices. And while we regret the outcomes of many virtuous choices, it is irrational to be unhappy with the choices themselves. Thus, if you only care about your choices and you always make good choices that you can be happy about, you will have a happy life. It is a state of mind as appealing as it is difficult to reach. But that is the promise of Stoicism in a nutshell.

Seneca has also taught me a few things about the nature of fame and personal achievement. Personally, I have never been too interested in fame. I value my quiet life too much. But fame can be powerful. It can even be necessary for achieving certain goals. What kind of emperor would Marcus Aurelius be if no-one knew his name? Thankfully, I have no such goals. Though perhaps someday I will. And, hopefully, on that day,I will be able to think of fame as a mere tool. I say this because Seneca has also made it clear to me that fame is dangerous. I do not mean physically dangerous, though it can be. Instead, it is dangerous spiritually. The core of the problem is that fame is a numbers game. It requires appealing to the maximum number of people possible. And you achieve this by appealing to the middle of humanity's bell curve. And the average human is imperfect in many ways. This average human is neither particularly bright nor particularly good. As such, this human is a terrible judge of character. To appeal to this type of human in the numbers required for true fame, you will likely need to make compromises and cultivate attributes that most appeal to literal mediocrity. In a way, Seneca argues that we should aspire to become something so great that remaining appealing to the crowd would be difficult or impossible. Because of fame's natural impediment to greatness, the majority of the best and most successful people are people you have never heard of. If you want to be the best, you can not waste your time or compromise yourself trying to be recognized as the best. And if you do become the best, even if the crowd doesn't know who you are, the people who matter will be unable to ignore you.

Seneca provides some lessons on friendship that I have taken to heart as well. It is a truism, said in many forms, that we are the company we keep. But like many truisms, they go by us unnoticed. Seneca may have finally made it stick in my case. If you care about being good, with respect to morality or even some professional skill, do not allow yourself to fall in with those who are average or worse. Seek out exceptional souls and mind wherever you can. Appreciate them, Allow them to help you grow. And be sure to return the favor.

Seneca has probably affected me more than anything I have ever read in recent years. And there is far more wisdom in these volumes I could ever discuss here. Seneca even addresses this very problem. How do you cite the good parts of a work that is almost nothing but good parts? The only reasonable course of action is to encourage people to read the whole work themselves. Some authors Seneca would quote to Lucilius. But for truly great authors, he would send the whole book. So I urge you: Please, if you care about your own well-being, strongly consider reading some Seneca and the other Stoic authors.

Thursday 19 April 2018

That Other Western Civilization

Backtracking a little after Meditations, I bit the bullet and read Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. This title is and can be translated a number of different ways, owing to the broadness of the Latin word res. The most literal translation would probably be "About the nature of things". However, in this context "things" encompasses the entire universe. It is a first-century BC Latin Epicurean poem, physics textbook, philosophical treatise, and personal letter all rolled into one. The linked translation is pretty standard for Loeb editions. In other words, there's Latin on the left and fairly literal English on the right with a moderate number of footnotes and a scholarly introduction. You may want to consider other options if you have no interest in the Latin on the left-hand side.

Epicureanism is a curious thing. While other ancient schools of thought like Platonism, Aristotelianism, and even Stoicism still hold some currency in the present day, Epicureanism is largely forgotten in the mainstream. And when it is remembered, it is used as a synonym for hedonism. And the thing that makes this strange is that Epicureanism actually more closely aligns with the modern Western world view than these other philosophies in many ways. For example, Lucretius argues that either the gods do not exist or that they have no reason to care about the affairs of mortals and are therefore irrelevant. He also champions atomism, the idea that matter is made from atoms rather than the classical elements. He even concludes that other planets must exist. While he still argues largely through logic, much in the way that Aristotle and Plato did, he also pushes the Epicurean idea of the reliability of the senses. In other words, Epicureans rejected the Platonic notion of a shadow world and instead accepted the idea of an objective and observable universe. This belief in the senses, incidentally, is the root of the insistence that Epicureans are hedonists. The form of argumentation is very familiar but the conclusions are completely different. It is like looking in a mirror version of the Western tradition.

So given the strong parallels to modern thinking and the empirically-verified truth of that thinking, why did Epicureanism die off rather than catch on? I think Epicureanism had problems with both the medium and the message.

By "medium", I mean the style of argumentation. Argument by logic alone is fraught with peril. It only takes one faulty assumption or one fallacy to turn an entire, seemingly logical, worldview into a useless house of cards. And in worse instances, Plato accuses some "philosophers" of spinning logic with no regard for truth simply because it was an easy way to get students and their fees. To varying degrees, ancient philosophers were aware of the limitations of their epistemological approach. However, most were certain of the rigor of their own methodology. The end result is that logic alone lacked sufficient persuasive force. Even if the conclusions were true, it was too difficult to discern complex and true logic from complex and false logic. You can see similar problems in our modern statistical approaches. One mistake and "overwhelming" statistical evidence can become completely meaningless. Empiricism, in contrast, lends itself to physical demonstrations. And in a way that worried Plato but likely pleased the Epicureans, people believe what they can see. But lacking that, philosophies could come and go like fashions, regardless of how accurately they described the world. Truth alone was not sufficient and often not even required.

And by "message", I mean that some of the claims of Epicureanism are extremely inconvenient. For example, the essential atheism of Epicureanism made it impossible for many political figures to openly endorse it. Roman paganism was the de facto state religion and many government ceremonies and practices were essentially religious. Lucretius even warns his intended reader, the praetor Gaius Memmius, that pursuing the truth of Epicurean philosophy may not always be compatible with his official duties. Contrast this with Stoicism. Some argue that Stoicism tends toward monotheism. Others reject this. But in either case, it is compatible with the general idea of deism. And even if it were not, Stoics would argue that duty obliged Stoic politicians to perform the necessary state rituals with at least seeming earnestness. In other words, Emperor Marcus Aurelius could function both as a Stoic and as Emperor openly without any real philosophical conflict and without turning popular opinion against him. An Epicurean Emperor would have been in a much more difficult position. And this would have been true, to varying degrees, of anyone with any office in the Roman political system. In other words, Epicureanism was likely at a patronage and advocacy disadvantage. Religions and philosophies benefit immensely from the conversion of political figures. And Epicureanism could never realistically compete on that front.

In a similar vein, many people likely had issues with the Epicurean view that even though the soul exists, it is mortal. In other words, there is nothing after death. And this has never been a popular point of view. People take comfort in the notion of an immortal soul, whether it is Aristotle or the Pope preaching the idea. The survival instinct in humans, like all animals, is strong and the thought of utter annihilation makes our blood run cold. Fighting such instinctual preferences requires more evidence than Epicurean methods could muster.

In short, if you are going to push a new philosophy or religion, it helps to make it convenient and appealing. Impossible-to-prove promises that feel good can often win more converts than truth. Lucretius was somewhat aware of this fact that. It is the whole reason De Rerum Natura is a poem. He thought that a beautiful form would make uncomfortable truths easier to digest.

My next reading will probably take me back to the Stoics with the letters of Seneca, assuming Amazon ever ships me the third volume in the set.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Our Empire, Ourselves

Well, for various reasons, I have been reading a lot of other stuff not on the list. I took a stab at Lucretius in Latin but it was a slog. I will attempt it with a better edition and better self-preparation. Aquinas is also still waiting for me to forget my boredom with him.

In the meantime, I decided to tackle Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' Meditations. Despite being written by a Roman Emperor, the Meditations are actually in Greek. The translation I have picked is likely not for everyone. Hutcheson and Moor's translation is considered an important part of the Scottish Enlightenment and overall efforts in the English-speaking world to harmonize pagan Stoicism with Christianity. Their footnotes are pretty useful. This new edition from Liberty Fund also has copious additional end-notes from the editors. It is probably not the most readable translation. The most commonly recommended translation in my circles is this one by Gregory Hays. While Hays' translation seems quite readable, I chose Hutcheson and Moor because the specialized Stoic vocabulary seems more consistently and faithfully translated. But 18th-century prose may be more of an impediment for other readers. Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature was invaluable here.

The first book of the Meditations stands out from the others. While the other books present, often repetitiously, various Stoic maxims and ideals, the first book is more of a statement of gratitude to the people in Antoninus' life for the virtues they taught him. After reading this book, I immediately began to wonder what my own version of this book would look like. And I realized that my life has not brought me in contact with many people whom I could reasonably use as models of virtue. This was a depressing thought. However, I have learned a lot by using people as negative role models.. Friends and relatives have shown me what not to do simply by making poor decisions and playing out the consequences before my eyes. This makes me wonder many people Antoninus describes were also negative role models for him. His tends to put an optimistic spin on everything and only concentrates on what he learned from each person, not usually how he learned it. It is entirely possible that some of these names belonged to terrible people, not virtuous ones. Charitably discussing negative role models is certainly the only way I could write a comparable chapter. But there is a lesson in that. The lives of the worst people you know can serve as cautionary tales. And while it is hard to appreciates such people, it is easy to appreciate the knowledge you gain from their failures. In a sense, these people have all taken a metaphorical bullet for me. I can be grateful for that. And no matter how limited this gratitude may be, it has diminished the bitterness that I held before. I can be grateful for that, too.

I have yet to resolve many of the other questions the Meditations left me with. For example, the Stoics believed that no man is truly evil, merely ignorant. The idea is that men only do bad things because they do not understand their own nature, the nature of the universe, Goodness, Justice, or some other fundamental idea. And it is the job of a true Stoic to try to correct such people, if possible. And if correction is not possible, a Stoic should simply accept that fact like all the other unchangeable things in the world. But if enough people started behaving in the Stoic fashion, the consequences for bad behavior would diminish. In other words, Stoicism in the face of evil men enables those same evil men. Of course, if everyone adopted Stoic virtues, this would not be a problem. But that seems like an impossible Utopian ideal to me. So Stoic acceptance would seem to be something of a selfish act. The Stoic seems to enable evil in exchange for his own inner calm. That said, Antoninus also discusses the importance of Justice. But he is fairly non-specific about what Justice looks like in application. Maybe the other Stoic authors can shed some light on this point. There has to be some dividing criteria between the man-made evil you accept and the man-made evil you actively retaliate against for the benefit of society as a whole.

The Stoics also adhere to an eternal bugbear of mine. As Shakespeare describe the concept, "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." I suspect that I have addressed this elsewhere in my posts. But this thinking fundamentally denies the existence of an objective reality. Furthermore, no amount of imagining a knife in the heart to be good will keep it from killing you. However, it is possible that Stoics did not accept this idea as literally true. Instead, it could simply be a mental trick to help acceptance and subjugation of the animal self to the rational self. Similarly, the Stoics talk about breaking things down into their basic components until they become unappealing. For example, to fight the desire for wine, a Stoic would think of it as merely grape juice gone bad. "Rotten grape juice" is not nearly as appealing as "wine", but they describe essentially the same thing. This is self-delusion. And to use another Shakespeare quote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In other words, "rotten grape juice" can still get you drunk or encourage conviviality. The Stoics essentially take Aesop's fox and his sour grapes as a role model. This is clearly irrational. But to be charitable and channel my inner Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the seemingly "irrational" can sometimes become rational if it is sufficiently useful. This line of thinking, in moderation, can be medicinal; in excess, it can be narcotic.

The list of ideas in the Meditations that I am still struggling with is fairly long. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to address them all here. However, another Stoic author is on the reading list, Epictetus with his Discourses. This will give me an opportunity to revisit some of the same ideas down the road.