We really are going to have to start a conversation about ethics, aren’t we? Last week’s post on the fallacy of claiming that there’s one and only one proper diet for all human beings everywhere brought a pretty fair barrage of pushback. Now of course this wasn’t any kind of surprise; it’s an odd fact of contemporary life that very few people seem to be able to handle the idea that there can be more than one right answer to any of life’s questions. Thus I heard from fans of several dietary theories, insisting at the top of their lungs that it just ain’t so and this or that or the other whatsit really is the One True Macguffin for everybody.
That’s par for the course these days, and it’s also par for the course that so much of the yelling ended up borrowing the tone of the sort of diatribe that used to be the business of fire-and-brimstone preachers, calling on all and sundry to repent their evil ways and get right with some simulacrum of Jesus. (Admittedly most of this didn’t survive to reach the comments page; I tend to delete hardcore evangelism of all kinds pretty consistently.) It’s hard to think of a subject these days that isn’t routinely presented to all and sundry as a choice between two and only two alternatives, described with a degree of strident moral dualism that would make a third-century Gnostic blush.
It’s entertaining, at least to someone of my sensibilities, to watch people on opposite sides of any of today’s cultural donnybrooks—dietary, political, religious, you name it—striking identical poses as kindly and innocent defenders of truth, justice, and apple pie for all, unfairly assailed by the sneering minions of evil for evil’s sake. It adds to the fun that they inevitably strike this pose just before bellyflopping into the mud-wrestling pit to mix it up enthusiastically with their opponents. Still, beyond the entertainment value, there’s an important point to be made: something has gone disastrously wrong with the language of ethics in our time.
Or, more precisely, with the language of a particular kind of ethics. The reference to fire-and-brimstone preachers above is entirely appropriate, because the kind of ethics used to frame, and thus to distort, the cultural debates of our time has been wrenched out of its original context in the Abrahamic religious tradition.
In that original context, the ethics of the Abrahamic religions can be described simply enough as a set of rules handed down by God for His creatures to follow. If you happen to believe that the universe is an artifact created by a God who’s preoccupied with the morality of His creatures, and who will fling those creatures into Hell to be tortured forever if they don’t follow His rules, the quirks of Abrahamic ethics follow logically, even self-evidently, from that belief. If you’ve been handed rules for behavior by the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator of the universe, after all, it makes perfect sense to behave the way fire-and-brimstone preachers do.
In particular, in that context, it makes sense to use the word “should.”
Think about that word for a moment. Again, if you’ve been handed a set of rules by God Almighty, this is a perfectly valid word to use, because if somebody asks you “Well, why should I?” you’ve got a straightforward answer: “Because God said so, and He’ll give you the boot in the face forever if you don’t.” It’s all very logical. On the other hand, if you don’t happen to believe that this is true, and you want to use the word “should,” you’re headed into some exceedingly murky philosophical territory. Since the spark that launched this week’s essay began with a discussion of diet, we’ll use food as an example.
Say you believe, as the ancient Pythagoreans did, that it’s morally wrong to eat beans. You head for a street corner, stand on a soapbox, and start exhorting the passersby not to eat beans. Of course they’re going to ask you “Why not?” If you believe that the deities of the underworld curse those who eat beans, that gives you an answer, and the discussion proceeds according to whether your listeners believe in Pluto and Persephone and agree with you about their preferences.
If you don’t have a supernatural sanction for your claim about the immorality of bean-eating, though, you’re going to land plop in the middle of an infinite regress. Why shouldn’t you eat beans? Why, you might say, because they make you fart, and farting is immoral. What’s wrong with farting? Why, because it subjects the people around you to awful smells. And what’s wrong with that? Away you go down the rabbit hole, because you’ve made an elementary logical mistake: you’re trying to derive a value from a fact.
Let’s stop and unpack this for a moment. A fact is something about which everyone with roughly the same sensory and cognitive equipment can readily agree. If I say “this is a jar of peanut butter,” and hand it to you, you can probably figure out pretty quickly whether I’ve stated a fact or not. A value, by contrast, is a judgment by a conscious being, and even people who have the same sensory and cognitive equipment can readily disagree about statements of value. If I say “peanut butter is loathsome,” for example, and you happen to like the stuff, your liking and my loathing can perfectly well coexist with the same set of facts.
One of the central gambits of the Abrahamic faiths is an ingenious end run around the gap between facts and values. Since the God of those faiths is a conscious being capable of judgment, He becomes a source of statements of value, and the fact that your value judgments may disagree with His doesn’t mean much given that He’s supposed to be omniscient and omnibenevolent, and enforces His values on everyone with the threat of eternal torture. So long as you hold some such belief, you don’t have to try to extract values from facts; you can just start from your scripture of choice, say “should,” and go from there.
That only works, though, if you happen to hold such a belief. If you don’t, the ethical claim of the Abrahamic faiths just sketched out looks a great deal like an extreme case of two of the classic logical fallacies—the argumentum ad auctoritatem or argument from authority (“God agrees with me, so you should too”) and the argumentum ad baculum or argument from threats (“If you don’t agree with me, God will beat you up forever”). Those of us who don’t believe that there’s one and only one deity, who handed down the one and only one set of moral laws for everyone to follow, have to come up with some other way of relating facts and values
That can be done, but there’s a drawback: they don’t let you get away with throwing the word “should” and its synonyms around with gay abandon. Is that a problem? It depends on your idea of what ethics are about. If you believe that the point of ethics is that they give you the right to tell other people what to do, the lack of a way to bridge the gap between facts and values is a real problem. A great many people these days do in fact want to use ethics as an excuse for telling other people what to do. The usual gambit is thus simply to claim that one’s own value judgments are objectively true, and everyone else’s are simply wrong: that peanut butter, say, really is objectively loathsome, and anyone who likes the stuff is not merely wrong but evil.
The result—well, dear reader, if you know your way around the incessant and ineffectual debates of the present day, you know this song well enough to sing all the verses in the shower. Believers in this or that insist on the absolute truth of their personal value judgments, and go from there to claim that the rest of us must all do what they say, even though they can’t present any reason for their claim that convinces anyone who doesn’t already share their personal value judgments. The debate promptly devolves into yelling in an overfamiliar way.
Is there anything wrong, let’s say, with killing animals for food? That depends entirely on your personal value judgments concerning death. It’s a fact that all living things die and get eaten by something—a cow that isn’t munched by you and me, for example, will be eaten by something else, with fungi and bacteria waiting in the wings if nobody else gets a steak dinner first. How you react to that fact, though, belongs to the realm of values. Are you horrified by it, and decide that you want nothing to do with it, so you’re only going to eat plants because you don’t think plants are conscious enough to matter? Are you awed and humbled by it, and decide that you’re going to eat animals and plants with equal gratitude, knowing that all things have died so that you might live? Are you left unmoved by it, and decide that you’re going to have the bacon cheeseburger tonight? You alone can make that call—which is why the rhetoric of the vegan movement seems so convincing to vegans but makes everyone else roll their eyes.
Thus the end result of the confusion between values and facts is precisely the mess we see today, where the partisans of competing ideologies try to justify increasingly brutal behavior by brandishing vast airy abstractions with which, in theory, every thinking person, or every moral person, or every person who isn’t a [insert epithet of choice here] must agree; where everyone treats their own entirely personal value judgments as self-evident facts and faces endless frustration because nobody else agrees with them; and where everyone ends up shrieking insults at everyone else because every other form of communication has broken down completely.
Many believers in the Abrahamic faiths tend to treat the infinite regress of moral argument as evidence that their beliefs are true: after all, if you don’t have a divine lawgiver to hand down moral rules, how can you have any kind of morals at all? They’re wrong, because there’s been a vast amount of serious ethical reflection in cultures that don’t share the conviction that morals must be handed down from on high. There’s also a major problem with building an argument for belief in God on the basis of His usefulness as a backstop for human ethical systems—such an argument comes dangerously close to turning the deity in question into an intellectual convenience, if not a mere piece of crowd-control equipment—but we can leave that for now.
It’s far more relevant to the point I want to make that other civilizations have reached the same point we’re at now, the point at which the supernatural sanctions of the civilization’s traditional religion lose their power to convince, and people have to find some other basis for ethics. In point of fact, as Oswald Spengler pointed out a long time ago, every civilization reaches that point sooner or later, and ours is only getting around to it now because we’re the Johnny-come-latelies of the historical sequence, the most recent civilization to trace out the familiar arc of rise and fall. Every other civilization in history has found other grounds on which to base ethical thought and action, and one of those in particular has much to offer the present discussion.
Mention the word “Stoic” to people nowadays and you’ll rarely call to mind much more than a vague sense of gritted teeth and an unwillingness to crumple under pressure. Stoicism, though, was much more than that. It was a coherent, serious attempt to make sense of ethics in an age when most educated people could no longer believe in the literal truth of traditional religion, and the gap between facts and values had become as inescapable a philosophical issue as it is today.
Athens in those days was the center of the philosophical world, and the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”) was one of the places in Athens where intellectuals gathered to contend with the big issues of the time. That’s where Zeno of Citium used to give free lectures, and it was from that location that the school of philosophy he founded got the name of Stoicism.
The key to Zeno’s ethical philosophy was that it took the gap between facts and values with utmost seriousness. Stoic ethics, like the other major ethical systems of the great age of Greek philosophy, basically doesn’t use the word “should” at all. Instead, it looks for values that pretty much everyone has in common, and presents its ethical rules as ways to put those values into practice: not “you should do X,” but “if you want Y, then try Z.” The specific set of values Zeno proposed, in common with most other Greek philosophers of his time, were that people want to be happy, and don’t want to be miserable.
Right here, of course, we’ve reached a significant stumbling block, because the idea of founding a system of ethics on happiness and misery contradicts some very deeply rooted presuppositions in our society. Ethics, to a great many people nowadays, aren’t about being happy; they’re about being good, even—or especially!—when that involves being miserable. There are whole schools of ethics that insist that no action is morally justified if the person who performs that action gets even the slightest enjoyment out of it. Back behind that odd logic is the terror of ordinary human happiness that pervades so much of our civilization’s thinking, the assumption that if people do what they want, “what they want” by definition will start with mass slaughter and go from there.
Ah, but wait a moment, says the Stoic in response. Why do people follow moral rules here and now? In some cases, because they feel good about themselves when they do so, and guilty when they don’t; in some cases, because they don’t want to suffer the social and legal penalties of wrongdoing; in some cases, because they want to be happy in Heaven rather than miserable in Hell. All these are ways of pursuing happiness and avoiding misery. The values on which Stoics ground their ethical systems aren’t arbitrary abstractions; they’re the values that already motivate moral behavior, even when moral theorists say they shouldn’t. That being the case, why not drop the handwaving and talk about the motivations people actually have?
Here we reach a second significant challenge, because many people assume as a matter of course that being happy consists of wallowing in the fulfilment of biological desires, full stop, end of sentence. The fact that people routinely make themselves physically uncomfortable in pursuit of other kinds of happiness shows that this equation doesn’t work. If we pay attention to ourselves, to what really makes us happy and what really makes us miserable, gourmet dinners, orgiastic sex, and the like actually play a fairly modest role. What actually makes us happy—not just momentarily sated with pleasure, but genuinely happy over the long term? There’s an unfamiliar Greek word that Zeno used for the answer, but it has a familiar English equivalent.
What really makes us happy is freedom.
Now of course this word has been subjected to more misuse in recent decades than just about any other entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s going to be helpful to unpack it a bit. Freedom in the sense I have in mind is the absence of unnecessary involuntary constraint. Freedom is never absolute—in the world we live in, for example, your freedom will never extend to the point of allowing you to make four-sided triangles, violate the laws of thermodynamics, or extract an infinite amount of oil from a finite planet. Nor does freedom keep you from choosing to accept constraints that are inseparable from something you want to do. To get married, to become a member of a community, to pursue education, to learn how to scuba dive—all these things and countless others can be had only if you accept the constraints that come with them. They don’t keep you from being happy, because you choose them.
To the Stoics, though, the crucial limits to freedom are internal, not external. Many people who are free outwardly are enslaved by the contents of their own minds. We become free, Zeno proposed, if we recognize the difference between the things we control and the things we don’t. What do we control? Our actions in our outer lives—our words and deeds—and our actions in our inner lives—our thoughts, beliefs, and values. What don’t we control? Everything else.
To the Stoic, then, the things you control are the things that matter. The process of becoming a Stoic is one of learning how to value the things you control more than the things you don’t control. All those other things, the ones you don’t control? You can enjoy them—there’s no harm in that—but don’t make the mistake of thinking you control them, and above all, don’t make the mistake of building your sense of self on the mistaken notion that you control them.
Notice what this implies. If your idea of freedom consists of doing what you’re told by the media, or peer pressure, or fashion, or the unexamined thoughts of your culture and your age, Zeno’s wry laughter echoes around you. If your idea of freedom centers on the freedom to bully other people into doing what you want them to do, that laughter turns mordant, because the Stoics recognized—perhaps more clearly than anybody else ever has—that there’s no more certain guarantee of misery than making your sense of self depend on getting the rest of the world to cater to your sense of entitlement.
Many of us don’t realize that our inner lives have a voluntary dimension, and most of us have no idea how far that voluntary dimension extends. We treat our thoughts, beliefs, and values as though they’re handed to us from outside, and of course there are plenty of people who want to do exactly that, and feed us on prechewed thoughts, beliefs, and values. Accepting that mental fodder, though, is not necessarily to our advantage—quite the contrary, the people who want to do our thinking, believing, and valuing for us by and large expect to profit at our expense.
Thus the Stoic has a double reason to explore the voluntary dimension of his or her own inner life. On the one hand, it’s a way of reorienting our lives so that the things we care about are the things we can do something about; on the other hand, it keeps us from being led like lambs to the slaughter (or, for the vegans among us, like tomatoes to the harvest) by those who profit from keeping us from thinking our own thoughts. Stoics were famous for this in the ancient world, and that’s why several Roman emperors banished the Stoics en masse from Rome: they were just too dangerous to have around, because you couldn’t bribe them, or cajole them, or pressure them, or even torture them into doing something they didn’t choose to do.
What if you don’t want to take up the Stoic path? To the Stoic, that’s fine. If you like being miserable—and let’s be fair, Zeno was being overly charitable in insisting that nobody wants to be miserable; quite a few people do prefer to be miserable, and work night and day to make themselves miserable—then you should do the opposite of what the Stoics recommend. (In fact, if you watch people who love to be miserable and compare their actions with the principles of Stoicism, you’ll find that by and large they do an exquisitely precise job of practicing Stoicism in reverse.)
Similarly, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of learning how to work with the voluntary dimension of your inner life—and it’s a lot of work, no question—then you’re perfectly within your rights to shrug and walk away from the Stoa Poikile, and leave Zeno talking to the circle of students who care about what he has to say. The Stoic is free, among other things, not to worry about what you think.
Freedom is scary stuff. The existentialists had a solid point when they described humanity as being condemned to freedom, flung all anyhow into a world in which facts are given but values have to be chosen. There’s more to the shape of the world than that, granted, but it’s a crucial starting place. What lies beyond that starting place? We’ll discuss that a little further on.
As per usual, your erudite work challenges me. I still struggle, when I dialogue about or hear someone talk about freedom, with freewill. I am sure the two are related, but I experience life that, if not devoid of, is limited of freewill. It seems that culture, environment, values, and mores limit what a person can/cannot do – whether morally, spiritually, physically. I would like to know your understanding of the relationship between freedom and freewill. Additionally, do you perceive freewill as an idea/reality that is possible, limited, not at all possible, or a melange de tout?
“It’s a fact that all living things die and get eaten by something—a cow that isn’t munched by you and me, for example, will be eaten by something else, with fungi and bacteria waiting in the wings if nobody else gets a steak dinner first.”
My dad talks about an Amish guy who, in the course of some other work on the farm, offered to buy a particular tree for furniture. Dad was uncertain, and the Amish guy pointed out various things about the tree’s age and summed up with, basically, “It’s me now or the ants in a year.”
In general, I really like this. I think I’ve been fortunate both in being raised by a mother who adheres to some variety of Stoicism herself, and in playing D&D at an early age–where you have not just different versions of ethics for specific gods and cultures, but different takes on the whole idea of ethics and morality in the form of alignment, and at least six out of the nine possibilities are implied to coexist quite well. Not that Gygax and Arneson presented the most nuanced take on it, but I’ve resolved a couple discussions with Guy Who Really Believes in Forgiveness by saying, hey, he’s lawful good and I’m true neutral on my best days, and that’s cool*. It’s a useful starting framework, in my experience.
*Look, sometimes you have to tell the paladin there’s evil behind the house while the rest of the party gets the mind flayer to talk. Just saying.
Well, this was another pleasant surprise! A Stoic post! You have no idea how much I am jumping up and down in joy over this!
“Ethics, to a great many people nowadays, aren’t about being happy; they’re about being good…”
Exactly. Happiness, eudaimonia, was what the Stoics sought. The Stoics, like many Hellenic philosophers, argued that a perfect, well-led life was one which achieved eudaimonia, which most people now translate as ‘happiness’ but most probably means ‘flourishing’, How is this eudaimonia achieved? Why, through the pursuit of happiness. And that happiness is achieved by living a life of Virtue; as Zeno put it, “the goal of life is living according [to one’s] nature.”
I know Stoicism, not only its Ethics, but the equally important pillars of Physics and Logic have helped me with my own life and spiritual practices. A lot of emphasis in Modern stoicism is placed on the Ethics, and I think this post does a wonderful job introducing this one pillar of Stoicism.
Freedom is scary stuff, indeed. I’m wondering though what role empathy plays in the formation of ethics. For example I remember as a child getting pretty upset when I witnessed other kids torturing animals, including insects. It even bothered me when I saw them needlessly hack away at a tree. That was because I could easily identify with others, animals and trees alike, and felt I could feel their pain or at least imagine myself in their place. I couldn’t stand watching kids getting bullied by other kids either because I knew what it was like to be bullied myself. I usually couldn’t do much about it but I would still cry when I watched them cry. I think it’s why, to this day, I have such a visceral reaction to injustice as I see it. At any rate these early experiences taught me that we are connected in so many ways to a much wider world than the one we were taught to believe in…
Tim, that’s an entirely reasonable question, and one that deserves a post of its own very soon. The very short form? Of course we don’t have totally free will — what I’ve called the Law of Limits applies to our capacity to choose, just as it does to everything else. We do have some wiggle room; for reasons I’ll discuss in detail in the post just mentioned, our choices aren’t completely determined — and we can set out to expand the range of free will we have, to shake off various kinds of unfreedom, and become more able to make choices freely rather than just doing what the various pressures on us would have us do. That’s an important part of what Stoicism is about; a totally free will isn’t an option, but we can each have a will that’s more free than it is now…
Isabel, thank you for the Amish story! That’s exactly it, of course — it’s a common bit of anthropocentric delusion to think that if human beings don’t kill and eat animals, for example, the animals will live forever and never get eaten. You’re right about D&D alignments, for that matter; me, I tend toward chaotic good, and have wished more than once that I’d been taught the alignment language growing up, so I could chat with others of similar bias…
Thanks for this post. By the way, stimulated by Xabier’s comment two weeks ago, I read the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ “To himself” and was duly impressed.
There is one small addition I would like to make. I fully recognize that your depiction of a certain type of fire-and-brimstone morality serves as a counterfoil to Stoic ethics and not as a complete description of (e.g.) Christian thought. I do think it is useful to recognize that a Christian can talk to fellow Christians in exactly the way you summarized as “if you want Y, then try Z”: “if you want to come nearer to the God we both recognize, then try Z”. When a Christian talks with non-Christians, the word “should” in fact does not make sense, and I don’t think it occurs in speeches directed at non-Christians in the New Testament.
Daniel, glad you enjoyed it. Stoicism quite literally saved my life — during the worst time I’ve ever experienced, after the death of my only child, Epictetus’ Enchiridion gave me the repeated cold wet towel across the face that kept me going — and it remains the foundation of my own ethical thought. I haven’t given as much attention to the rest of the tradition, being more of a Neoplatonist by inclination (and there were a lot of people back in the day who combined Stoic ethics with Neoplatonist philosophy more generally), but now that I live within an easy walk of a major university library again, I should probably fix that.
Kurt, it depends from person to person. If you’ve got a strong empathic streak in your nature, that’s part of who you are, and it will necessarily guide your actions. From a Stoic perspective, it’s utterly reasonable for someone like you to take action to minimize the suffering of others when you can; the goal is to keep from getting bent out of shape by the fact that there’s only so much you can do, and there’s a lot of suffering you will never be able to eliminate. (Avoiding that illusion of control will, among other things, make you more effective at alleviating the suffering you can affect..)
Matthias, fair enough. The thing is, as a non-Christian who’s been on the receiving end of vast amounts of proselytism over the years, I’ve basically never been approached the way you’ve described. That may be a difference between European and American Christianity; whatever it is, I’d probably be less crabby about Christianity if its proponents followed your advice rather than the sort of thing I’ve sketched out in this and other posts.
Elon Musk’s company fired a rocket into space this week which contained a car, which will be left in space as part of a stunt. My first reaction was that I found this frustrating, and ‘unethical’ in the sense that you first describe, where, if I had any input into the situation at all, I would like to have said that “shouldn’t” have been done. Where I’m using the word “should” to limit the behavior of others.
If I understand correctly, a Stoic would observe the event, and judging that it was beyond their control, focus their time on something else that they could control. Such as, I suppose, their reaction to the event, or even their decision to tune into the news media and having their thoughts provoked by the event in the first place. Or have I misinterpreted you?
This, and your last post, are both quite enlightening, in the literal sense. Thank you. I’ve worried for a long time how to square my love of/need for animal products with the knowledge I have about the “unethical” qualities of factory farming and the “value” of conscious life. For some reason, it never occurred to me that a) plant life is just as precious as animal life, and b) death will inevitably come for us all anyway. Now, of course, hindsight being what it is, I can spy the lacuna in my value-based vision: I was assuming that life that looks more like human life is by default more precious. Anthropocentrism in yet another form!
As far as Stoicism goes, I’ve long tried to hold myself to the idea that I ought to judge a person not by what they say or believe, but what they do. More than once I’ve found myself preferring a sharp-tongued hard worker over an agreeable layabout.
As a corollary to Timothy’s question above, I’d be curious about where you stand on the determinism / indeterminism philosophical divide, especially given the (new to me) idea that the material plane is the plane of effects, not to put too fine a point on it, and how this might pertain to “free will”.
As for my opinion on the matter, will isn’t free. Will is expensive. 😉
Lastly, in case you or anyone else is interested, there’s a term used in some rationalist circles to mean sort of the same thing as your definition of freedom above, and how to use it practically on a day-to-day basis — they call it “slack”, the absence of binding constraints on behavior. I found it insightful. https://putanumonit.com/2017/11/07/confessions-of-a-slacker/
Hm-m-m-m…. Food for thought (pun intended). And thank you for this wonderful – and timely – exposition. Guess I’ve been working on becoming a stoic for most of my now-long life and didn’t realize it til now.
Very nice! The Roman Stoics are the philosophers I find most congenial (and the only ones I repeatedly reread for pleasure and moral support). However, I am not confident that their philosophical goal is actually achievable. Epictetus says something like: it is better to starve to death in a ditch while happy than to be miserable in a palace. Fine, but if you are actually a human being and not an android, you will NOT be happy while starving in a ditch, no matter how much you tell yourself that your mind is free and food is just a “preferred indifferent.”
Aristotle seems more correct in saying that people require some amount of material and social comfort to be happy. This means that at any moment, like Syrian refugees or children dying of cancer, you could be deprived of happiness by circumstances totally outside your control. Sometimes the world just sucks. The Stoics tried to avoid that by saying that all the rotten things it may do to you don’t REALLY matter. But unless you are that mythical being, the Stoic sage, they do matter; the best you can hope for is to tamp down your emotional reaction to your suffering.
(Which is not a bad thing at all. I first read Seneca’s letters while my husband was undergoing surgery as part of a near-fatal malpractice cascade, and I was waiting outside to find out if the SOBs would kill him. It really was helpful.)
Speaking of wanting to be miserable, I highly recommend the classic book “How To Make Yourself Miserable” by Dan Greenburg.
I see an alternative source of vegetarianism that might be seated in facts rather than values.
Humans are very particular about the treatment of human remains. Some think this is due to our evolutionary history as confrontational scavengers: if we intimidate lions and hyenas for a living, it is adaptive to prevent such creatures from ever developing a taste for our flesh. In any case, most cultures are really only comfortable with the idea of humans being eaten by some subset of worms, fungus, fire, birds, and (less frequently) other humans.
Ants have a similar instinct, but my understanding is that most mammals, including other great apes and especially animals that have evolved to systematically benefit from predation, don’t show much concern for the fresh remains of their dead.
I understand that the choice of burial rites is a matter of values, but the underlying drive (especially to the extent it is shared by individual ants) is not the result of any judgement by a conscious being. In some cases, a vegetarian diet might be the result of failing to recognize just how strange this particular instinct is, among creatures similar to us.
Bravo. Zeno’s Laughter has helped me a lot today in clearing my mind. I’ve been pursuing what control versus no control means to me in the recent months. This article worked as that final jigsaw piece that got me to the realization: well, that was simple and obvious. The irony of something being obvious only when it is obvious.
I’ve also been looking into Stocism. I find it similar to Buddhism (the philosophy not the religion) in some ways. I think one of the most difficult but strangely satisfying challenges of Buddishm is learning to recognize and accept things as they are. This is a type of freedom I think. And it dovetails nicely with Stoicism in that before letting go of things I can’t control, I find the greatest challenge is to truly recognize and accept the things I can and cannot control. I think there is a subtle yet profound difference between thinking about control, and grasping deeply what it means to me. Probably explains why internal work can be such tough work.
I was drawn to the Stoics in college but really rediscovered Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in my late twenties after a lot of personal upheaval. If one wants to be a person who can cope with loss and suffering without completely withdrawing from the world, the Stoics are true friends and guides.
As far as people hating peanut butter, I hear a lot of arguments that are more insidious than, “I hate peanut butter, so peanut butter is bad,” or even, “I think peanut butter is bad so everyone who doesn’t is evil.”
I hear these days a lot of arguments that take the form of: “I’m so tired of the people who think peanut butter is good controlling the discourse with their pro-peanut-butter beliefs and shouting down any of us who dare to question their pro-peanut-butter orthodoxy. But I’m NOT GOING TO BE SILENCED any more by the pro-peanut-butter establishment! And there are a lot of us who are tired of having our VOICES invalidated by pro-peanut-butter bigotry! Why aren’t our questions about peanut butter included in the discourse?!!!!”
It’s sort of the crane-kick of fallacies.
Thank you for that definition of freedom. The word gets thrown around so much these days, and everybody seems to mean something different by it! Albion’s Seed outlined the regional variations in those definitions – To a Yankee, “We should govern ourselves.” To the Confederate Gentlefolk, “We can do as we please; the underclasses don’t count, and should shut up and do as they’re told without complaint.” To the hillfolk whose culture became our Country & Western culture, “Every man should be master in his own house and be left alone by the law,” IIRC, and I forgot the Midwestern/German definition.
Of course, there was also the rock-bottom definition of “….no more Massa on the old Plantation, I’m following the drinking gourd.” Which IIRC, didn’t make it into the book.
At any rate, I found the variety confusing because everyone assumed that everybody knew what they meant and agreed with them.
I will write down this definition in my copybook in bold ink.
Freedom in that sense can be quite terrifying indeed. This post brought to mind a comment I made some time back (it may have even been on TADR) when I was wrestling with the notion that objective reality did not exist per se — and the feeling of tumbling through the void of space without anchor points or guides. I’ve come a long way since that time, but I can understand how people might *not* want to embrace that freedom and instead (freely) choose to have their thoughts/actions/values provided to them by another.
Re determinism vs indeterminism
I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who proposed the axiom that “technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” (“Magic” in the commonly understood sense, of course, and not as understood by this community here as “the altering of consciousness by an act of will.”) I wonder if one might propose a similar concept in that “a determinism sufficiently complex and chaotic is indistinguishable from indeterminism.” Of course, then there is also the argument from parsimony — which is a more plausible explanation? That our apparent free will is nothing more than a complex function of sensory inputs and prior states, but one so complex and unstable that it looks like free will, or that we actually are conscious beings with freedom of choice?
@ Isabel, et alia
Re the ethics of D&D
My elven thief was chaotic neutral. His ethics were quite simple — the shiny things belonged in his belt-pouch. Everything else was merely a means to that end 😉
One might infer that a wealthy person has more of an ability to be stoic than one who isn’t wealthy. If we were to talk about class differences in America today, the wage earners, the salary class, etc. then someone in the salary class has more of an ability to control what happens in their life. What is a billionaire then but a super stoic? A wage earner has to forfeit eight hours+ a day everyday whereas an independently wealthy person doesn’t.
It seems to me that by keeping the general population miserable on the economic treadmill, a stoic failure is ensured. It’s like in George Orwell’s book 1984 “War is peace” because war keeps societies surplus away from the masses. I’ve been noticing that modern films lack the full range of human emotion, notably the new Star Wars films. I feel like this is intentional in contemporary life and it is a societal control put in place to combat collapsing empire. A full range of emotion seems essential to a stoic, otherwise it’s Owellian 1984.
I noticed the problem with the word ‘should’ a while ago and tried to change my use of it into more a statement of faith – “This should work, but in case it doesn’t, get the fire extinguisher”. 🙂
Was the Ancient Greek word eudaimonia or eleutheria?
John, please accept my condolences on the loss of your only child, and extend same to your wife.
“you’ve made an elementary logical mistake: you’re trying to derive a value from a fact.”
Sam Harris’s entire career in 15 words.
During a particularly difficult period of my life I made a habit of reading a bit of Epictetus every night. I return to this often:
“We should act as we do in the case of a voyage. What can I do? I can choose the master of the ship, the sailors, the day, the opportunity. Then comes a storm. What more have I to care for? for my part is done. The business belongs to another, the master.—But the ship is sinking—what then have I to do? I do the only thing that I can, not to be drowned full of fear, nor screaming nor blaming God, but knowing that what has been produced must also perish: for I am not an immortal being, but a man, a part of the whole, as an hour is a part of the day; I must be present like the hour, and past like the hour. What difference then does it make to me, how I pass away, whether by being suffocated or by a fever, for I must pass through some such means?”
Great advice, when I remember to follow it (usually I don’t.)
Personally I found the road to a similar mind set from a different source, via Nietzsche’s *amor fati* and finding Germanic heathenry. Ultimately it amounts to a similarly mental framing as stoicism, but it’s more arrived at from realizing that there is no freedom in the things you cannot control, those are simply Wyrd, and thus focusing on things you have control over in your life.
Thank you for this post, it has quite a lot to chew on, including the distinction between facts and values (including the question, well, how do we come by our values?).
Anyway, I want to tell a story about my Grandmother and Great Aunt, two lovely sisters who were widowed in their early fifties, moved in together and went on to live longer in each other’s company than either had lived with a husband. Anyway, we used to visit, of course, and we, also being four sisters, were often chided for squabbling, and told we should share more, consider each other more, and so on, etc. Well it was always a noticeable thing to me the way my Grandmother and Great Aunt would squabble also, but in a much more refined way than we were prone to. One would say, “shall I make you a cup of tea, dear?” and the other would say, “no, you sit there, dear, and I’ll make the tea” and this back and forth would carry on until finally, my Great Aunt, usually, would cede the virtue ground to my Grandmother, usually, who would make the tea…
And this is by way of explaining why I have often found myself suspicious of “selflessness”. Firstly, it seems you can boss other people around in quite an ostensibly selfless way. Secondly, if you cannot be clear and honest about what makes you happy as a self, are you likely to respect the happiness of another self?
This gets back to an early question I made when I began to read your writings on use of magic to change consciousness in accordance with will, as to how essential it is to first decide/divine what it IS that one wills? Because our wills may not be entirely free, but they are likeliest to make us happy when they are self-directed. And if we can find this happiness for ourselves, aren’t we likelier to respect the will inside each other self, and its own, unique to itself, pursuit of happiness?
I’ve been a big fan of your way of thinking for a long time. But this time around I must wonder – didn’t you just do the same thing that the “opposite sides of any of today’s cultural donnybrooks” from the beginning of the article do?
I understand that for you – an intellectual on the fringes of contemporary thought – freedom is a very important thing. Fair enough.
But then you write: “What if you don’t want to take up the Stoic path? To the Stoic, that’s fine. If you like being miserable […] then you should do the opposite of what the Stoics recommend.”
Really? Being miserable as the only alternative to freedom and Stoicism?
Take my 86 years old mother, for example. I’m pretty sure that freedom wouldn’t even make the top ten list of things that make her happy, yet you would have to look hard to find someone as merry as her …
Seems to me that here, you are judging others by your own value system, just like the rest of us do. Well, people are not special (you included), we are all human …
Anyway, I hope I didn’t offend you and keep up the good work!
The problem I have with all this, whilst agreeing with the general principles you lay down, is that human beings are not entirely rational actors. It’s like the theory of efficient markets and rational investors. It’s a nice theory with plenty of adherents but very few exemplars. And it’s always a question in my mind whether I or anyone else has grokked things thoroughly before coming to a decision, or has merely rationalized what they wanted to do for other reasons.
The difference between ethics and just doing whatever you want whilst cobbling together an elegant justification, is that ethics apply a set of rules or considerations, it is to be hoped, consistently. If we treat human beings of one color in one fashion, and different colored humans in another, are we behaving ethically? I’d say no because the ethical basis for treating other human beings with consideration and kindness — if that’s what you’ve decided to do — is that they are equally capable of suffering. Inanimate objects don’t suffer, so while they may be venerated, they don’t need rights and I don’t know of an ethical code that assigns them rights. A possible exception would be dead ancestors, but then they are believed to suffer (and get annoyed) by those ascribing the rights.
So if humans are not rational actors — especially when it comes to what makes us happy — ethics tend to be bent to the purpose of whoever is wielding them. And I think part of why you see people having food fights with facts is that we’re all pretty suspicious that the facts are mere props, and that the real issues are well hidden from view. I was grateful recently to hear a talk by Elizabeth Luard, a cookery writer specializing in the peasant food of Europe. Her subject was food as a shared sacrament, and she was complaining about having to make nut loaf for family members at Christmas. I found that charming because I don’t think anyone has made a nut loaf since the ‘seventies, but the point was that she was irritated that her veggie or vegan guests were refusing to participate in a shared sacrament, and she’s absolutely right! That’s exactly what’s happening. Her annoyance wasn’t ethical, it was emotional and I understood it. It won’t get me to eat Christmas goose, but I felt gratitude and relief to hear her say it out loud, rather than to try to mask it with accessory facts.
Wonderful post, JMG!
This is also fundamentally the same starting assumptions that Buddhists share, at least practically and ethically – metaphysically it’s a whole different ball-park. Which is very interesting in that we see Buddhism making gains in the West in the last few decades (even though it’s made a faustian bargain of political alignment with the mainline-liberal / Democrat movement/machine of the moment). Indeed, there’s reason to believe that Buddhism arose at a similar moment in it’s historical context in India, but that’s a long conversation.
I’m not as familiar with Stoicism, but I’ve always found it wonderfully compelling (product of my time, I suppose) but lacking somewhat in practical method. Personally, I blame the inquisitors of the mother Church for that. But there is always Buddhist methods (predominantly Theravada ones) which I have always thought are fairly ripe for would-be appropriation by a revivalist Stoicism.
I await further posts on the topic of stoic ethics, and I may have to do some research myself. I think, based on what I know, it’s an adaptive philosophy to hold, especially during periods of turmoil (as we are in now). Do you have recommendations on sources?
I feel like there’s a story behind “Look, sometimes you have to tell the paladin there’s evil behind the house while the rest of the party gets the mind flayer to talk. Just saying.”
I wish more Christians got that message! Sadly, like JMG, I have met plenty of Christians who insist that their belief in God gives them the right to bully everyone else into doing what they think we should.
So, in common parlance, it is the Seren… er.. Stoics’ Prayer? “God, grant me the Serenity, to accept the things I can not change; Courage to change the things I can; and Wisdom to know the difference.” ? I think the Stoics’ ‘happiness’ might be serenity, contentment .. gratitude and openness to the occasional stab of joy. (Is this a shade of fatalism?)
I think its interesting that the most successful psychotherapy at the moment (I think) is (or was) Cognitive Therapy (and it’s derivatives)… with roots in Albert Ellis, who was inspired by many of the teachings of Asian, Greek, Roman (particularly Epictetus). Is there nothing new under the sun? : ) (Well, we have to think so, or else how can today’s gangs of gurus, with their sweet gigs, support themselves?)
BTW… morality is near ethics, and Frans deWaal’s primates seem to demonstrate the basics: fairness and reprocity… not to mention empathy and compassion.
Thanks for this. I needed it. I’ve worked hard to create an outer life that reflects my values and interests. My goal now is to increase control of my inner life through meditation and careful reading, not to mention a greater avoidance of the internet. Your essay helped me put a framework on what I’ve been able to do and what I still need to do in order to improve.
Slightly off topic, are you doing a printed version of Ecosophia the way you did with ADR? I subscribed for a moment, then let it go as I began to travel.
Re wealth and Stoicism
I wonder if it isn’t the opposite, in fact. The wealthy would have a harder time properly distinguishing between that which they can control and that which they cannot *because* their wealth and power gives them the illusion of control. One who is poor knows that his/her thoughts and reactions are under his/her control to a far greater extent than external circumstances, whereas one who has status/power/wealth believes these things to be a fixture in his/her world and therefore misunderstands the mutability and transitory nature of all things. In a way, it is not unlike an army which has never lost and therefore doesn’t know how to effectively react when that moment inevitably comes.
Re: freedom… isn’t the greatest freedom the ‘liberty’ to choose one’s thoughts? I.e., we can control where we put our attention (although, it often requires a great deal of effort, practice, etc. 😉
Very enjoyable. I wonder how this all fits with modern behavior theory, e.g. Maslow and self actualisation.
Jbucks, no, you haven’t misunderstood at all. Mind you, the Stoic might also choose not to buy any products of any of Musk’s enterprises to avoid putting money into such tomfoolishness, and might also lobby the government to try to get cuts made to the lavish subsidies that keep Musk’s enterprises afloat; those would also be valid actions from a Stoic perspective.
Graham, thank you for the comment on “slack”! (I wonder if they got that from the Church of the SubGenius…) I’ll definitely put some thought into a post on determinacy and free will in the near future.
Martin, you’re most welcome.
Dewey, I always took comments like that as exaggerations for instructional purposes. Things like food can be very, very preferable indifferents! Keep in mind, though, as Edward Arlington Robinson commented in a famous poem, that being miserable in a palace can be just as lethal as starving in a ditch…
Yoyo, funny. Thank you.
Joel, I don’t think that follows. If you don’t bring in values, all you get when considering the apparent difference between human animals and nonhuman animals is “I observe a difference.” It takes a value to motivate behavior.
Elisa, glad to be of help! No question, the inner work is the hardest part.
Joeljones, oh dear gods, yes. The number of people these days who think freedom of speech means that they have the right to shout down everybody else…
Patricia M, yes, exactly – and that’s why I defined it explicitly here. By all means make use of it!
David, hmm! A Clarke argument might be quite strong. I intend to come at the question from a different angle – by showing that both sides of the argument are riddled with the One Drop Fallacy I discussed in an earlier post, and showing that the best description of our human condition lies between the two extremes. More on this as we proceed…
Austin, no, that doesn’t follow at all. Some of the happiest people I know work eight hard hours a day; some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met had no need to work, and so spent all their time sinking into a circle of self-created wretchedness. For that matter, many people I know who work for big salaries are at the beck and call of their employers 24/7. External situations play a very modest role in our happiness. Of the two most famous Stoic writers, one was a Roman emperor, the other spent a big part of his life as a slave, and they both found the same philosophy useful…
Yorkshire, neither one — it was ataraxia, roughly “untroubledness.”
Pogonip, thank you. It was more than a quarter century ago, so it’s not too hard to look back on with some degree of clarity, but it was still pretty ghastly to live through — and worse in that it was the result of medical malpractice. One of those things…
Steve, funny! And true. The Epictetus quote is one of my favorites.
Djerek, remember that Nietzsche started out as a classical philologist! His thought was full of Stoicism from beginning to end — so you may have gotten more from the old Greek Stoics than you know. That said, the Heathen traditions also have a lot of material that meshes very well with that way of looking at things.
@David, by the lake:
Hello! Your point is well-taken. I suppose what I’m really getting at is that I’d still like to know, deep down, whether past events would’ve progressed in exactly the same way if they were wound back and given the chance to run again. If the universe was chaotic yet deterministic, you’d expect exactly the same things to happen in the same order; if the universe was not, you’d expect similarly chaotic things yet wholly different orders and events. Hehe, I know it’s a moot point — as participants of this universe we don’t get to step outside of it and do tests of this kind — but it definitely gets me wondering, late at night, as the answer would (to me) have deep ontological implications. *shrug*
As for free will… I happen to think that it’s both the things you claim, depending on the scope. On a microscopic or cellular level, the actions the brain takes are obviously somewhat predictable and based on the actions that happened in the previous moment; but on a macroscopic level, it’s equally obvious that we as humans are conscious beings that are somewhat free to make choices. I don’t think this is a contradictory position to hold.
JMG, you are most welcome! That gentleman’s blog, “Putanumonit”, has provided me with a nice view of the practical side of let’s-not-take-things-too-far rationality.
Dear Mr. Greer,
Thank you for this excellent article. For several years now, I’ve considered “should” to be a red flag that tells me to re-examine my thinking. Thank you for the explanation of the Christian worldview, from which “should” makes some sense. I hadn’t considered that before. This will make a lovely meditative theme!
I also think a great many people would benefit from Stoic thinking habits; though I suspect few will adopt them 😉
JMG, in case you haven’t read it, I recommend Tom Wolfe’s “A Man In Full” as a riveting story of a modern American converted to Stoicism (that’s one main strand in the plot, anyhow).
Now re your definition of “value” as “a judgement…” – to me that seems tendentious; you’re conceding the relativist argument at the start.
Let me suggest an alternative –
A value is a qualitative truth.
Judgements about what is or is not a real value, are of course up for debate, and will (I dare say) never become absolutely sure.
Scotlyn, no argument there. The no-ego ego trip – “I’m more selfless than you are!” – is one of the more toxic modes of egotism, and I’ve rarely encountered anyone who made a fetish of selflessness who wasn’t more or less up to his or her eyeballs in that kind of egomania. Your broader point about figuring out what your will is, too, is relevant and important — we’ll be getting to that later in this exploration.
Metastoic, nice try. Perhaps you’ll show me where I said that being a Stoic, on the one hand, and deliberately setting out to be miserable, on the other, were the only two options available for human beings. Of course there are many other options, some more successful at achieving happiness than others.
Auntlili, of course human beings are a very mixed bag — if they weren’t, something like Stoicism wouldn’t be necessary, much less the hard work that it is. The whole point of the Stoic path, and indeed of any system of ethical thought, is to find some set of principles as a guide to thought and behavior, because those don’t show up by themselves. With regard to your sense of relief, though, I heartily agree — I get just as tired by people on all sides of the various cultural donnybrooks trying to deck out their value judgments in the borrowed finery of facts, ethics, scientific arguments, et cetera. Tell me, though, if you went to such a dinner and she didn’t serve anything at all for the vegan guests, would you be okay with that?
AtaraxJim, Oswald Spengler argued at length that Stoicism and Buddhism are parallel phenomena, products of the same set of historical conditions in different civilizations, so you may well be on to something. Buddhist methods can certainly be applied to Stoicism, but so can Neoplatonist methods — historically the latter became standard, as Stoic ethics were pretty generally absorbed into the Neoplatonist synthesis in late classical times.
Will, your best bet is to go straight to the horses’ mouths, and read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in your choice of translation.
Nancy, good! The Serenity Prayer is almost Stoic; the difference is that Stoics don’t wait for God to grant them those qualities, they get to work developing them in themselves.
Aron, glad to hear it. No, at the moment there’s no printed version.
Nancy, good. That’s where the rubber meets the road!
Roy, it’s been long enough since I read Maslow that I’d have to go back and review his stuff before offering an opinion.
Graham, I’ll check it out.
Haassmasithiam, you’re welcome and thank you. You’re most likely correct, of course…
Robert, “qualitative truth” evades the most important factor about values, which is that different people constantly place different values on the same facts. If it’s raining, and you want to have a picnic and I’m concerned about my garden, “the rain is bad” is an accurate statement from your perspective, and “the rain is good” is an accurate statement from mine. It’s precisely the attempt to insist that one set of personal judgments is objectively true, while all others are objectively false, that’s behind a vast number of the confusions in contemporary life. That’s why I propose a clarifying distinction between fact and value here.
@JMG: I’ve often thought that “humans are uniquely nasty” is as false as “humans are uniquely great”–I suppose one could make a valid argument about consciousness and responsibility, but nature contains bedbugs and anglerfish and those wasps that eat caterpillars alive, so it’s not like everything would live in a state of pastoral bliss without us.
(I don’t remember if I mentioned it, but after college I worked in a deli in rural Maine. Kind of bonded with the lobsters in the tank, but at the end of the day, well, sorry, guys: that’s the food chain and y’all are delicious with butter. And I’m sure they’d have been as happy to eat me, under other circumstances.)
As for alignment, CG sounds about right with what I know of you. I’m probably closest to the 4E conception of “unaligned”–I don’t have an intrinsic problem with rules but don’t mind breaking them (with the exception of some WASP-y taboos) if I think it’s for the best and won’t really hurt anyone; I have my charitable moments but am not about to go join the Peace Corps; etc. (There’s a whole discussion about the division of “good” into “altruism” and “mercy” and the conflict between same, I think.)
Sort of follow-up question re: Stoicism: regarding those acts almost everyone regards as wrong (rape, murder, talking in theaters, etc) is the equation “if you want to be part of human society, don’t do these things,” with the caveat that not being part of human society in that particular way has consequences from imprisonment to beheading and worse in this world, and quite possibly others in the next? Or even “if you don’t want to be intensely unpleasant,” with aforesaid consequences as well? Or is there another thing going on?
(I mean, while I try not to dictate ethics in the abstract, there are certainly people whose repeated behavior means that I don’t want them around me, I don’t want them around people I care about to the degree I can help it*, and if I saw them on fire and I’d drunk a six-pack, I’d probably keep on walking. There are also people–though nobody I know personally as far as I’m aware–who I do think need to be taken out of the world in some fashion for its benefit, and/or who I hope have a fairly painful afterlife, because…mass murder or the equivalent. So that may be where my “don’t try impose value judgments” principles fall down.)
@Graham: To switch systems while continuing my RPG geekery, one of the (few) things I liked about the old White Wolf systems was that Willpower was a finite resource. You could buy a bigger overall pool, or refresh yours through various means, but you sure could deplete it too. Seems true to life.
@David: Hee! Valid!
@Will: I wish! Mostly stolen from the second Gamers movie, which I watched at a con a while back. Also I always enjoy mind flayer-adjacent plots.
Not a direct reply to anything, but: we’ve recently had a few layoffs at my company, and the comparative reactions got me thinking. All my younger co-workers were fairly bummed out and possibly nervous, whereas my take on it was, “That’s too bad–hope she lands on her feet,” and the realization that, while I hope to keep my current job for at least ten years, if I go three more years before the next layoff, I’ll consider that a pretty good run, and if it happens tomorrow it won’t be the end of the world.
The difference being that I was early-to-mid-career, but getting established, in 2008-2009. I, and all my friends of that age, have learned a certain detachment re: jobs that reminds me of the attitudes JMG describes here: they will come, they will go, and past a certain point (yeah, do your current work well, have what savings you can and keep your resume up to date) there’s not much you can do about that. I’ve been known to say “Oh, the next time I get laid off I’ll take a road trip,” or whatever, because…well, it’s almost certainly going to happen, so I might as well make the best of it when it does.
* Which…is not generally vast. One of my harsh introductions to the inability to control the outside world was trying to get a college friend to stop falling for the ploys of his horrible ex, and the eventual realization that, eh, some people want to take the crazy train wherever it goes (spoiler: nowhere good), and there’s nothing to be done there. So now I have one conversation slash warning of the “So…That Person…” and then, well, vaya con dios, buddy. Hope I see you on the other side.
On the topic of free will:
The way I see it, determinism is true no matter what, in the sense that all choices must necessarily be determined by something, even if that something is a soul which exists outside of physical reality. Your choices being determined doesn’t mean that you can’t freely choose, though, only that the choice you would make in any given situation couldn’t possibly be any different.
Now, the phrasing of that last sentence might seem contradictory – if we couldn’t possibly choose otherwise, doesn’t that mean that we’re not free to choose? – but something that has to be kept in mind is that, when talking about the will, would and could are essentially the same thing. You would never make a choice you couldn’t make because you could never make a choice you wouldn’t make, and vice versa.
In other words, the only thing preventing you from choosing otherwise in any given circumstance is yourself. You are the one who ultimately determines what choice you will make.
Now, it’s certainly the case that the will can be pushed, coerced or manipulated into doing things that it would rather not do. The type of freedom which is being infringed upon in such situations is a different one altogether.
Put another way, we are free to will (our choices are made by us and no one else), but our will is not free from outside influences (our choices are affected by our circumstances).
Crazy, huh? One day, your Emperor’s a Stoic, not to mention competent, the next day the Emperor’s a maniac. Just another of those things you gotta roll with…
Tangentially, speaking of those who like to control all of us for our own good, you’ve written about the busy-bodies in the neo-pagan movements rigging the agenda… I’m amazed that the same thing is going on in the Comic Book business… Seriously. Comic books. It’s not enough to live and let live and help those who need it, apparently. No… The ideologically pure are invading the funny papers… Hermes help us all…
@Scotlyn: Reminds me of the WASP Dance of Refreshment Non-Obligation, whereby if you’re visiting someone and they ask you if you, say, want tea, you must say oh, no, you’re fine, and then they have to ask if you’re sure, because they were going to put a pot on anyhow, and *then* you can say, well, if it’s no trouble…
(Asking for refreshments, as a guest, is Not Done. One of my early memories is of asking a colleague of my parents for a gumdrop from the bowl on her desk, and Mom reading me the riot act because You Wait To Be Offered, Young Lady.)
(As the host, of course, you have to offer said refreshments.)
+10 for somehow working “finite planet” into there. 😉
Keenly prescient post today. I was thinking about what freedoms I actually have, and what limits are imposed on me from outside that I can’t do anything about.
They have laws these days for essentially everything. An average person probably breaks about a hundred laws a day, just going through the motions of an unremarkable day. The key with laws is ‘What is actually enforced?’ It seems to me, that traffic laws are perhaps the most draconically enforced laws in our society. Police everywhere, extreme fines, jail is not unheard of for many, photo enforcement by robots, loss of privileges for people who violate, and socially reinforced stigmas for those who stray. After traffic rules, sex rules against rape, assault, infidelity, incest, ect, ect, seem to have extreme enforcement. Murder, and property crimes, are about 3rd down on enforcement, then everything else then to a lesser degree or another follows as less important, and more laxly penalized.
Even things that seem to me as being obviously harmful, like having a really excessive carbon footprint or destroying the common environment with activities like logging are oddly missing from social enforcement. Left to voluntary compliance?
A rhyme from an old rock n’ roll song came to mind, “Trying to make sense of it all, but in truth it makes no sense at all” just arose. A lot of what passes for ‘Normal’ is really bizarre, and often what is ‘abnormal’ sometimes seems like rationality. Society in it’s present form is essentially beyond reform, anything can happen and it often does.
David, by the lake: Aha! Your elven thief was was a corvid at heart.
JMG – IIRC, the Apostles – and Paul – didn’t try to scare anyone into behaving, but rather “preached the good news.” The “Do it my way or you’ll go to Hell” seems to have come in with mass-market (pardon the anachronism) Christianity; it was assuredly in full sway when Augustine of Hippo came on the scene, and even earlier.
And tangential to the subject, I was reading a novel in which the main character asked – very cogently, I think – of someone who had pulled some dirty tricks was seriously evil, or if it was plain piggy badness. I find that a useful distinction to make.
When I was an undergrad, one of my professors told us something that really has stuck with me, and is relevant here. He quoted a boy called Max, who was five. Max said, “Should is what someone else wants you to do.” I have internalized this such that I decide either I want to do a thing, or I need to do a thing, or heck no I’m not going to do a thing.
Max went on to be suspended from school for running an underground newspaper, and considered it well worthwhile.
John – you are one of a very small number of writers who make me question everything I think I believe. Thank you.
Since the discovery of quantum indeterminacy, it seems quite implausible, even from a physical point of view, that a replay of the universe would give exactly the same results. In fact, I linked some weeks ago to a paper building the liberty of the mind on quantum indeterminacy in synapses of the brain, though that didn’t convince me. I think the partial freedom of our thoughts and acts is independent of physical effects…
When I was in college, waiting for a bus one day, it occurred to me that freedom lies in the voluntary assumption of responsibility. Do you think Zeno would agree?
I have to confess I wondered what you were up to with that diet post, and I hope the rest of your readers got a chuckle out of it this week too.
This post however is wonderful, and the Stoic philosophy you describe resonates with me deeply. There are many things I can do nothing about, from the coefficient of gravity to the state of the the collapse of our society, to the decline of our fossil fuel energy sources and the consequences of having used them. There are many changes I would like to make in my personal life, based on what I’ve learned about some of those topics, but I’m restrained by a lifetime of accumulated commitments to others I love and care about. So I work a normal job and drive a car although I would rather not. But these are choices I have made, for reasons I understand, and they no longer vex me. I will make further changes as I can.
There are limits of things I will and will not do, and no limits of what I will or will not think about, and I’m not concerned at all about what some omniscient god decided. However, it takes some effort and introspection, and I don’t find many who seem to want to approach life this way. Most seem to prefer to be told, or can’t be bothered to think about why they do what they do. These days I increasing feel that I risk running afoul of the hive mind of social media and social justice movements – I wonder what they called these things in Roman times?
It also occurs to me that the religion of progress allows people to fantasize that technology will enable them to convert facts into values, and indeed some believe they already can (to their great impending disappointment).
A kindly pastor, in a church I attended in my youth, taught a series of Sunday Schools about free will and self control. A lot of what he taught us was stoic, but at the time I had no idea.
My grandfather also used to periodically ask us, “What can you do to change that?” After wrestling back and forth, he would say, “Maybe you need to change the way you react to (insert thing here) or the way you think about it.”
I am fond of saying that the only votes that really count are those made with your feet and your wallet. But you are actually, voting by the way you respond to anything. And there is the initial internal response and then the external action. Often these are linear and nearly instantaneous – and that isn’t always a good response either.
The essay is good, but I do hope you push on into defining what happiness is composed of, and further delve into the incredible fallacy that is eating us alive today – the idea that there are only two solutions to any issue. Deconstructing Dualism, perhaps?
Reading nearly anything written today illustrates this fallacy is strongly embraced by western culture. And you cannot blame it all on team sports…LOL!
Lawful neutral here. I like to think that I am closely aligned to Lovecraft who was a great believer in the need for “civilization” to control man’s base impulses in sharp contrast to his penpal Robert Howard who believed in the idea of the “noble savage”.
But my question is how do the stoics regard responsibility to society? Aurelius was an emperor so he obviously felt that there was some reason to take on the responsibility of governing. But if there were ever a task made up entirely of “thing one cannot control” it would be governance.
Another interesting and thought-provoking post as usual from JMG. To be honest, it had completely slipped my mind that “stoic” was more than just an adjective, and instead a school of belief that I more closely associated with “hedonism” mentally. I may have to look more into Stoicist theory; after all, anything that can put distance between myself and the roomful of shrieking chimpanzees throwing debris at each other that passes for modern fact-value judgement has to be good.
The serenity prayer used to be one I said quite a lot. One day I had the experience of it being answered. When it happens, you really get why there are the three parts, because without the serenity it might be awful. In the moment, I had a very vivid impression that this is one of the most frequently answered prayers, and that the immediate reaction is most often “God, how am I going to look busy enough to keep from getting fired?”
JMG, I always let hosts know in advance that I’m vegan — it’s only fair — and if asked, I bring a dish. I’m quite happy to eat salad or bread and water if it comes to that, but no, I wouldn’t eat a meat dinner. That said, and in anticipation of your next question, I generally take omnivorous friends out to a restaurant where we call all get what we want to eat. I do offer to cook and if they express a willingness or desire to eat vegan, I start chopping. I’ve managed to accommodate friends who are gluten-free, garlic-averse, legume intolerant, and in one case, all three.
When I was a child visiting my grandparents in the rural Midwest, I frequently heard “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” and “Different strokes for different folks,” and “Pretty is as pretty does” because I was a young barbarian badly in need of socialization. While people from my part of the country are generally known for being stoic in the colloquial sense (with a little ‘s’–think Grant Wood), I did not realize they were also teaching me Stoicism. Thanks for the post.
I am deeply sorry about your child. And that it was medical malpractice only twists the knife that much harder. I’m glad you found the strength to go on.
I recently saw the film Bridge of Spies, about the trial and later exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Throughout the film, Abel is portrayed as honorable, uncomplaining, and unbreakable. When his lawyer, James Donovan, comments that he doesn’t seem worried about the trial, he simply asks, “Would it help?”
In one scene, he tells the story of how he was raised by his father to admire a man who never seemed to do anything interesting, until one day corrupt officials raided their house and beat the man over and over. Each time he simply stood back up, until finally they stopped beating him when they realized they couldn’t break him. They called him “stoikiy muzhik”, the standing man.
If the story is true and not Hollywood history, that’s a linguistic coincidence, but still Abel and the standing man strike me as examples of the sort of qualities for which Stoicism is rightly admired.
That said, I feel, like Dewey, that Stoicism’s goal of ataraxia is a bit too much of an abstract perfection. Perhaps I’m also taking them too literally — or filtering them through the lens of Buddhism — but it seems like they see suffering as something that can be cut off without worse effects, and I don’t really agree with that. I prefer a generous dose of Aristotelian eudaimonia and virtue ethics to help the Stoic medicine go down.
Another way to put it is that it seems to me that there are things worth valuing more than untroubledness/freedom. This strikes me as a core idea behind the concept of the Bodhisattva, who can enter the pure freedom of Nirvana anytime he or she chooses, but who turns back because he or she values the liberation of all things more than the end of his or her own suffering.
Max sounds like he was one cool kid. Your story reminded me of something my sociology professor used to say, that one of the biggest problems in our society is that people keep “shoulding” on each other.
I think it was Confucius who said that the more laws a society makes, the more it turns it’s citizens into criminals. And then we wonder why we have more people in prison than any other country on Earth, including China, which is ruled by a dictatorship and has four times the population.
Isabel, of course! Any time people say “human beings are uniquely” anything, to my mind, they’re wrong — except in the trivial sense that nothing is more like a human than a human, just as hedgehogs are uniquely hedgehoggy, shiitake mushrooms are uniquely shiitakey, and so on. Morally speaking, by and large, we’re rather more squeamish than lobsters…
Fourth edition was way after my time — I know, I know, my impending geezerhood is showing, but the version of D&D I played most and enjoyed most was the one that came as four staplebound 5.5″ x 8.5″ booklets. As for the acts that societies don’t tolerate, that’s where we pass from ethics to law. These are two different things; there are many dubiously ethical things that can go on quite enthusiastically without being a problem for a community, and some things that aren’t ethical issues at all that societies find they have to enforce. The ethical judgment that says “committing mass murder is wrong, and therefore I won’t do it” is distinct from the legislative judgment that says “allowing mass murder in a community disrupts the basis of civilized existence, and therefore those who do it, or attempt it, shall be locked up for the rest of their lives,” or what have you. Ethics are a matter of individual judgment; laws are a matter of collective enactment. It’s perfectly possible to condemn someone to death without passing a moral judgment on that person; you’re simply saying, “these are the rules we have established, and it’s sufficiently important to the survival of a viable community to defend those rules that you get to swing from the gallows for violating them.”
Valenzuela, determinism was disproved by physicists more than a century ago. In the physical world there are events that are completely random — that have no deterministic cause at all, and cannot be predicted — and some of those events affect the world on a macrocosmic level. We’ll be talking about that in more detail later! You’re quite correct, though, that the will is partly free and partly shaped by circumstances — something else we’ll discuss in detail.
Casey, dear gods. Any hope that Batman and Green Arrow (the two comic heroes I followed religiously when I was a kid) will come swinging down out of the rafters, clobber the busybodies with a few loud “WHAM!”s and “THUMP!”s, and set comicdom free?
Matt, heh heh heh. I like to do that.
Workdove, oh, granted. That’s par for the course at this phase of the historical cycle — the laws are a vast, sprawling, ornate mess, waiting for the legalists who will clean them up, systematize them, and then cause them to petrify.
Patricia, since I was born a long time after Augustine, I tend to pay attention to my current experience! The distinction in the novel, though, is a very useful one.
Michelle, I suspect Max went on to become a sage or something. Very crisply stated!
Stephen, glad to hear it. ‘Tis an ill wind that blows no minds!
Aigin, not quite. He would say that freedom lies in the capacity to choose which responsibilities you assume, and which you turn down.
Twilight, they were religious cults in Roman times, mostly. The belief that we can achieve a perfect society through secular reforms isn’t something that made any sense to the late Classical mind.
Oilman, well, I made a first stab at the problem in a post a while back; we’ll see what follows.
Anthony, depends on what you mean by governance. National governments, right now, are pretty resistant to the demands of individuals; local governments, not so much — and national governments can be influenced by collective action. You’re right, though, that that will probably need further discussion as we proceed.
Ethan, a vivid and embarrassingly accurate image!
WRW, getting a prayer answered can indeed be a very frightening thing.
AuntLili, fair enough! For what it’s worth, I’ve eaten plenty of vegan meals, even after my macrobiotic days, and enjoyed them.
Stacy, I think they were mostly teaching you common sense — but then that’s a first step toward Stoicism…
James, thank you. I’d agree that there’s more to life than Stoicism; that’s why, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I use Stoic ethics but fit it into a broader philosophy largely based on Neoplatonism. It’s just that Stoicism is so useful in getting past certain really self-defeating habits common in the modern world.
One of the things that convinced me there is no One True Way was reading Spengler, who showed that every culture has it’s own perspective which is based on an underlying set of assumptions which grow out of it’s spiritual worldview and has a set of values and beliefs that are right and proper to that particular culture.
Hi JMG & all–
I like where you went with this one, but can’t resist the urge to nibble around the edges a bit 🙂
What happens when you throw magic into the discussion of facts vs. values? If magic is “a change in perception in accordance with will,” aren’t we then changing the facts? And if so, are facts then, at the root, a lot like values too?
The description of ‘arg ad auctortatem’ (argument from authority) and ‘arg ad baculum’ (argument from force) sounds a lot like the enforcement function of government. What if a cop says, “Driving 100 MPH in a 30 MPH zone is against the Law, and if you insist on driving so, I will put you in jail.” Are the cop’s arguments really fallacies?
Or would they be fallacies if he said, “Driving 100 in a 30 zone is morally wrong.” ?
I guess I am not sure where the fallacy lies in these arguments, and whether it would apply to government, or strictly religion.
@Daniel Najib– Thanks for taking it back to the Greek– Eudaimonia/ “flourishing.” I was not happy with “happiness” as a goal of Stoicism. Thought it should be something more like “satisfaction,’ and at the end of such a life, ‘legacy.’ The word itself is fascinating. If I understand it rightly, “Daimon” in the middle could mean ‘fate’ or a lesser deity or messenger of the gods. Prefix “Eu” is ‘ideal’ or ‘the best possible.’ Daniel, do you have more to offer on ‘eudaimonia?’
JMG–A lot of the annoyance you get from some Christians is likely traceable to Charles Grandison Finney. From memory, he was a lawyer who, in the early 1800’s, thought it would be a good idea to argue people into the kingdom of God. This is thinking that was probably brought in to Christianity from Enlightenment rationalist thought. If you ever find yourself excessively happy and at peace, you can bring annoyance right back by reading a paragraph or two of anything Finney wrote. 🙂
I recall first encountering the idea of “slack” in a used book store with a paperback describing “the Church of the SubGenius.” I liked the metaphor of a marionette with loose strings that had some, but not unlimited, freedom of movement.
Getting a handle on free will is difficult, to say the least. My advice would be: Don’t wait for the issue to be resolved. Act now as if you have it. If you have free will and use it, it becomes strengthened. If you have free will and don’t use it, then you may become a fully determined being: a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you never had free will to begin with, you lose nothing by acting as if you do; by the logic of determinism, you couldn’t help acting that way.
But those who favor hard determinism must consider what that might imply about their thoughts. “I am compelled to believe X” is not the same thing as “I believe in X because I’m convinced its true.” (Knowledge is classically defined as justified true belief. A completely determined being may believe a proposition that happens to be true, but what is the justification? Evolution may favor thoughts that have survival value, but survival value doesn’t always coincide with truth value.)
One of my favorite maxims is, “You must suffer yourself into existence.” Think of the effort involved in mastering a sport or a craft: the sore muscles, the fatigue from sustained mental effort. But how else do you become a good ball player or a compelling essayist? Positive psychology research (Seligman) identifies the desire for mastery as one of the components of human flourishing.
Lots of thought starters in this week’s essay. Outstanding. Between facts and values, and ethics and freedom, there’s all sorts of problems with how modern society copes with the balance. I used to believe one of the major problems we’re facing in the Long Descent is the lack of the rule of law, but the root cause goes back further; in coming to agreement on the moral base of good versus bad versus pragmatic laws.
My other take away is your comments around the inner voluntary dimension as they pertain to freedom. The effort required to understand and achieve inner happiness is much greater than going along with the values of the masses. Sort of like saying if you take the easy way out and delegate your happiness to others, they probably won’t leave much for you….
Dear John Michael, thank you very much for getting back to the Stoics! After
banging my head again and again on their teachings, meditating on the concept of
freedom, a little seed that I had thought lost for good finally sprouted.
Note that what I will say here is meant for the one of us who have been granted
by Nature of a sturdy slowness on the uptake. While I have felt a strong linking
to the Stoic teachings for a long time, I have had terrible troubles in using it
as a day to day practical teaching. I found it resonated with my experience when
going through difficult times, but I found it completely useless in easier
To make clear what I mean, let’s consider chocolate. If you don’t like
chocolate, replace it by anything else you like. I love chocolate, and taking
the stoic stance, considering chocolate under all its sides, I see nothing bad
about it. Therefore I eat chocolate. But when I eat too much chocolate, I feel
bad. Thinking again about it, I decide that chocolate is not something that I
have power on, that it thus should not be something I base my happiness on, and
therefore I decide not to like chocolate any more. And fail utterly.
Now you can take a pause and laugh if you feel the need of it. Good. Agree that
it would have been a shame for such a nice fallacy to get lost.
After long meditations, I figured out that the issue there was that my will was
more mangled than a set of string after a good hurricane. And that the
“rationale” decision that I have described above is actually just a mental
simplistic construct, maybe logically backed up, but on false premises. And I
have been struggling with issues of this kind for literally several years.
Today I finally realized something, which is, to my shame, stated in plain words
several times in the lectures of Epictetes, and that I have overseen each
time. I paraphrase: “don’t aim at willing the good things to start with, you are
not educated enough to see them clearly. Simply strive at not falling into what
Yes, the Stoics ethics is based on wanting what one really wants. On
freedom. But in practice, for some of us, or at least me, what it means first is
starting by finding out what we don’t want. Like a blind man in a labyrinth,
hitting one wall then an other, then an other, and learning from that where to
go. Because each time I find something I really don’t want, looking back at it,
it is something I really don’t want. All the strings of my will meet there.
Not wanting what I distaste is what works in practice. Not trying not to want
one of the things that bring me there. What I don’t want with chocolate, is to
get sick, and unhealthy eating it. I finally found out that there is much more
acting power in me adding “wanting not to get sick with chocolate” to the things
I want than trying to pluck away “wanting to eat chocolate” from the things I
want. If you read Epictetes, you’ll see that he states that in plain words every
time. But by some kind of pride, I just jumped ahead of it. With the results
that he warns about.
An educated Stoic can want what he really wants, and strive in the true
happyness of freedom. For me, I figured out that it starts with sorting out
through what I dislike, blindly palming the walls around, until I find the
contour of my will. Then, maybe I’ll be able to see more clearly the center
between those extremes, where, I have heard, virtue is said to live.
We shall see, but for now, I am happy to have finally find my way back to the
very begining, to the 101 of Stoicism, where it actually becomes a very
practical day-to-day philosophy.
With reference to your response to Tim (the first responder), I wonder if you have read neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky (specifically “Behave”.) He says that we have free will only to the extent that we can choose whether to floss our teeth or not.
JMG, re you reply, that “qualitative truth” evades the most important factor about values, which is that different people constantly place different values on the same facts:
I of course agree that different people place different values on the same facts. The matchup is bound to be controversial, and always will be. That is the aspect of the matter that interests you, and so you naturally call it the “most important fact” about values.
I’d be inclined to call it the second most important fact.
To me the first most important fact is that values have meaning outside ourselves, even though at this stage we can’t pin the meaning down.
C S Lewis dealt with this point in “The Abolition of Man”. If we say such-and-such is good or beautiful, we’re not just talking about ourselves and our own feelings.
Of course I know that beauty and goodness and anything qualitative cannot be derived from fact – if it could be, it would cease to be a quality. Value is a dimension of its own, not amenable to the procedures of logic. Logic proceeds step by step, and with values the connection is immanent, without space for steps.
Going on from there, JMG, I’d like to say that in my view you’re a great thinker who, tantalisingly, has got one big thing wrong.
You appear to regard taboos as pointless.
I think this is for two reasons.
First, you probably believe that questions of good and evil are wholly about moral choice – in other words, that the natural-law theory is wrong, which holds that questions of good and evil are not just about decision-making but also about conformity to an inner blueprint of what a person rightfully or teleologically is.
Second, you succumb to DITAW – the “Disagreement Implies They’re All Wrong” fallacy.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a discalculic culture in which people who are otherwise intelligent nevertheless struggle to count on their fingers.
Some sects would cry, “2 plus 2 equals 3!” Others would yell back, “No you evil so-and-sos, 2+2 equals 4 – God said so,” and would threaten their opponents with the Inquisition. Still others would say, “you’re all heretics – 2 + 2 equals 22. That’s the only truth.” Then along would come the Liberals and say, “There isn’t any 2 + 2, and anyone who disagrees is a bigot.” It sounds like a daft cacophony, a babble of idiots, but that doesn’t mean that one of them can’t be right – though doubtless for the wrong reasons.
JMG – re Musk and subsidies and happiness and tomfoolishness
Would a Stoic look at a broader picture, and see that in relation to the $5,300 Billion in fossil fuel subsidies (2015 number), the $88 Billion (2011 number) in renewables subsidies is chump change (1.7%)? (Musk has gotten ~6 Billion total subsidies over the years, much of which was/is loan guarantees and tax holidays, i.e. no cash changed hands. n.b. Tesla’s 2017 revenues $11.7 Billion, gross profit $2.2 Billion).
Would a Stoic take into account that the fossil fuel subsidies contribute to (increasing) major unhappiness in the form of destruction of the ecosystem services and salubrious climate we humans depend upon? And that if fossil fuel subsides were not in place, renewable subsidies would not be deemed so necessary?
What would a Stoic say about this Tesla “Easter Egg” to get your Model S or X to play Monty Python.
Why not enjoy an occasional bit of amusement while the world collapses?
Hmmm, at about 400 GWp of PV in the world now, that works out to 52Wp of PV per person in the world. Not BAU by a long shot, but would keep a few lights and a radio going.
Balancing out short term pleasure with long term pleasure is difficult. If Idon’t get enough immediate pleasure every day I will be miserable so I have to ration it. Discipline, hard work brings massive pleasure in mid to long term for example in sport, spirituality and such disciplined training as music, art, writing skills. It is good to enjoy quiet or fasting or not talking, all spiritual disciplines which take us away from hedonism. Salad can be scrumptious once we get used to it. So habits can be changed if we perceive a need in terms of health or morality, spiritualty. This helps us to balance immediate pleasure needs with conscience, eiither to our god, ethical concept or worry about long term health or societal relations. If I were atheistic but worried about social standing I would avoid angering people with asocial behaviour like in ten commandments, stealing, lying, sleeping around. So god for me would be just the group consensus or situational ethics. Most do what they can get away with if it also seems eveyone else is into it, althoug it breaks moral codes(we are very social animals and follow crowd). In this way the code sbifts over time. Then it goes too far and a later generation shifts it back. The permanent middle is the long term or religious consensus around which we oscillate between liberal and conservative zeitgeist. The current culture wars is fight bbetween two basic social consensuses developed since 60s. So ethics has become political. Vegans are leftwing, xenophile agnostics or new age freaks with looser sexual morality perhaps. Meat eaters might drive a Ford Explorer, watch NFL and go to church Sundays. All these things overlap as cultures seep into one another. Every individual has different needs. Football players learn yoga for flexibility and are perhaps convinced of vegetarianism for purely health reasons. I like freedom personallybut believe in bad karma and social stigma so avoid pleasure if it collides withhealth, social or strong religious precepts damaging next life. This means stearing my habits to getting pleasure from what gives long term gain. Then in the end I have greater freedom in terms of health( diet, sport),social life(networking work), next lives through spiritual work( meditation, holy deeds, yoga). So it is all a matter of smart life planning, learning what works for oneself between free will/pleasure principle and the situaton we are born into(particular body, odd personality, unusual social or family environment, perception of previous lives working on current situation). Life can be quite a challenge.
What I notice is that though you start by saying we have to talk
about ethics, what you say in this article isn’t really about ethics
but what we call spirituality.
To clarify this point, first of all, I have a certain taxonomy of
relationships in my head mostly based on what you have written.
So, just as religion is a toolkit for pursuing relationships with gods,
what we call spirituality is a toolkit for pursuing relationships with
our selves (or souls) and ethics is a toolkit for pursuing
relationships with other human beings. Since, nothing in this article
addresses any specific form of relationships between humans, and
everything addresses how one can relate to ourselves, I see this
as a spiritual thesis and not about ethics.
I know this sounds pedantic and it looks like I am playing
definitional games, but this issue comes up in a different context. I
am sure you know that there is remarkable similarity in stoic
philosophy and the Bhagvad Gita. One of things that the Gita gets
castigated for, amongst many others, is that it endorses that
Hindu caste system – Krishna exhorts Arjuna to perform his
Kshatriya Dharma – or commit mass slaughter, etc. My response
to such criticism is that the Gita isn’t an ethical treatise but a
spiritual one. It is about the mental state that is worth cultivating
when having to make tough choices. It merely chooses a certain
set of ethical values to illustrate a spiritual principle. One could
choose to change those ethical values and yet find the spiritual
principle to be true and useful.
Be that as it may, this also raises another question in my head.
How distinct are the realms of spirituality, ethics and religion
really? If you could start by intending to talk ethics and then end
with a spiritual principle it seems that it may not be that easy to
untangle the three from each other. If I remember correctly, I had
alluded to this years ago on the ADR.
Been looking forward to this all week, JMG. You do not disappoint. Timely too, as it makes sense of something I’ve been brooding over lately. I’ve noted with wry amusement (and a fair bit of horror, to be honest with you…) that whenever a group of people congregate and begin to discuss any phenomenon you’d care to name (the economy, the weather, chipmunks or what have you), it quite reliably takes the form of an awkward negotiation in which the participants try to reach an agreement amongst themselves with regards to what said phenomenon “should” be doing. It really is just too absurd. Now I know why. Next time this occurs, I shall glare at them, and then quote Ivar the Boneless from the show “Vikings”:
“You all sound like a bunch of Christians!”
I’ve fallen frequently into the folly of expecting others to behave as I do. From the daily commute, where people routinely push in, cut up and step over, to the nightly news where the world seems to run along rules only designed by the crazily inept, I’ve felt massive frustration at that which I cannot control. It has made me miserable in the extreme.
I was thinking on the way in this morning: what about just letting that all go and concentrating on your own thoughts and reactions. It seems like a laughably obvious concept yet so difficult to adopt.
Thanks for putting me in touch with Zeno. I’ll call upon him later and see where it takes me.
Thanks also for every word you write. I don’t always agree with you but I love that you’re saying it.
I think that why I love your way, JMG, while everybody else would’ve gone to therapy, joined a support group, and gotten a scrip for antidepressants, you pick up and apply the Stoics. (BTW, had you gone to therapy, joined a support group, and gotten a scrip for psych meds, the trauma would probably be as fresh today as the day it happened…)
I always thought of those kinds of manners as Southern, didn’t realize there were Yankees out there that were that way, too…
Woo hoo! A post on stoicism! 🙂
I was overjoyed a couple of years ago when you dived into this subject, I bought a couple of books with stoic teachings and had a wonderful time.
These subjects also (I think) primed me to better take in the concepts of magic that you started to discuss in well of galabes shortly thereafter.
I also wonder, is there some connection with this philosophy of freeing oneself from these unnecessary constraints, and the teaching in Buddhism to “free oneself from suffering”?
Thanks, JMG! Excellent post this week. I must admit, I didn’t anticipate a discussion of ethics veering into the subject of freedom! It was surprising and refreshing.
The only times I can recall talking about ethics is during employer-mandated ethics training videos. Pre-chewed and pre-digested! And the bad acting and cheesy scenarios (shudder). So much of what passes for ethics these days…
Dear John Michael Greer,
Thank you for this splendid post. Again, kudos for the comments and the civility of this oasis in the wilds cyberspace.
Commenter Patricia Mathews writes:
“And tangential to the subject, I was reading a novel in which the main character asked – very cogently, I think – of someone who had pulled some dirty tricks was seriously evil, or if it was plain piggy badness. I find that a useful distinction to make.”
“Plain piggy badness”! Oh, I found that hilarious. And I am very curious to know where you, Patricia, found that quote.
(And I propose a new category of badness for readers’ consideration: plain puggy badness. Those familiar with pugs will understand.)
But on a more serious note, what I love about that quote is that it reminds us of the multi-faceted complexity of humanity, and of any given individual.
Oops typo, I meant to write,
in the wilds OF cyberspace
I’m new here so this may have already been addressed, but has anyone found any helpful ways of dealing with chronic pain other than stoically 🙂 struggling on? You may recommend magic or whatever else works for you, thank you!
Regarding laws making criminals, which has come up, it seems to be the case that the notorious Forest Laws of medieval England (upheld by the Sheriff of Nottingham, etc) were in fact designed by the kings to be broken, regularly – that way, they got to collect fines at a time when many of their noble subjects were in fact much richer than the ruler. No petty laws, no extra income…..Every one could live with that system, as one can see from records of repeat offenders, paying up their fines every year. The savage ‘game laws’ of the 19th century were a different matter, designed to deter and punish cruelly.
JMG You write: “a cow that isn’t munched by you and me, for example, will be eaten by something else, with fungi and bacteria waiting in the wings if nobody else gets a steak dinner first.”
This argument is true for any form of life, including human life, or life on Earth. Sooner or later all will perish. The moral question is who decides when this should happen (when there is an option to decide) and in what circumstances. The arguments that have convinced me to limit my intake of meat have a lot to do with the horridness of the meat industry and all its destructive global ramifications (destruction of rainforests to grow soya feed etc) and sympathy for animals. .
Apropos that ZENo was his name. Thich Nhat Hahn and other of the more savy zen practitioners wrote that with the proper internal work, one could be free in prison. And many of them had to practice what they preached!
I was reminded of a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer: “There are three sources of relative happiness: That which one is, that which one has, and that which one represents in the eyes of others. Concentrate on the first, the only one you can control.”
When I take time to read the comments from other readers I often experience a sense of connection. Like jbucks, I was struck this week by the contrast in my personal reaction to the news of the latest Tesla stunt, and its probable intended effect. How typically Aquarian, I thought, this February stunt feels – brilliantly insensitive, ludicrously sensational. Regardless of origins, you gotta live in the USA to find in you that spark of insane disregard for the consequences of ostentatious displays of hubris. This must rank up there with the $8b “Bezos’ Balls” construction, as least-likely action to endear oneself to the 99%. As a contrast to your post this week, it seems … almost choreographed. As Spike Milligan might say, “Who wrote this script”?
On the prevalence of “should”:
I think there is the question of power, too. A powerless social outsider can certainly stick a finger at a stranger on the street and yell: “You shouldn’t eat meat!” or “You shouldn’t be gay!”, but I think when people yell “should” at strangers, they usually assume they are speaking for the majority of citizens, or the majority of right-thinking citizens. In many parts of the Americas, Christians may still suppose they are speaking for the (“silent”) majority, and that may encourage those who are inclined to minding other people’s lives to yell their mind freely. In most parts of Europe, they simply cannot.
Historically, Christians acquired the power to dictate the majority behaviour when kings converted: Constantine in the Roman Empire, others around the same time in Edessa, Armenia, Ethiopia etc. I think getting the power to mess with the lives of those who haven’t freely converted to Christianity is the worst consequence of those royal conversions (for both Christians and non-Christians!). Most of Europe has, in that sense, reverted to pre-Constantinian terms, and in other parts of the world, such as Persia, Central Asia, India and China, the Church of the East, lacking such recourse to state power, necessarily continued using the “Good News” approach.
Generalizing: to yell “should” at a stranger, you need not only the psychology but also the power!
Excellent article! As it happens, Naked Capitalism just yesterday linked to this new psychology study which claims to find a statistical link between ‘use of absolutist language’ and mental illness. (i.e. ‘absolutely’ or ‘completely’ rather than ‘mostly’ or ‘usually’ etc. . .)
Seems to jibe with this week’s Ecosophia, so I’ll leave the link here:
@ Isabel The “WASP Dance of Refreshment Non-Obligation” resembles the Irish reluctance to admit to any positively held desire, a habit lampooned in the “gwan, gwan, gwan” (or “go on, go on, go on”) sketches in the sitcom “Father Ted”.
OTOH my relatives took it to a very fine and high art, arguing every minute of the day, that the other *must* have the good chair, the nicer dress, the cup of tea, and endless variations thereof. From what I saw, my great aunt, who was a bit stronger of purpose, managed to keep ceding both the virtue ground, and all associated tasks, to my grandmother, who was really very sweet and accommodating. But I reckon the language they used for their non-stop tussle must have come straight from their genteel upbringing as preacher’s daughters in Nova Scotia.
Thank you so much for writing this, JMG.
This is a very personal and important topic for me; for almost all of my life I’ve lived with negative emotions; intense grief, a sense of hopelessness, etc. This started around the age of 6 and has continued now for the past 25 years. Because of this great sense of suffering I’ve had an early interest in spiritual matters, much I see was influenced by stoic ideals. From the age of 14 onward I’ve worked towards self-mastery which has been much more fruitful than any other choice I could have made. This has been impelled for a desire for freedom, namely freedom from the cycle of physical incarnation.
So I’ve pushed and pushed myself towards leaving incarnated life or at least improving my circumstances in a future life. This is, ironically, driven by a belief I hold somewhere deep in my heart that I am not free to be simply happy while incarnate because everything is falling apart all around me and the world is going mad. I don’t usually actually enjoy life, instead I rather grimly try to invest in my spiritual existence. In fact, I don’t know how I would begin to enjoy life for its own sake, as something of intrinsic rather than extrinsic value.
I may be fee in the sense of being disciplined, but that’s because I use my freedom with intention and I don’t allow myself the freedom to deviate. I am my own harsh and unyielding taskmaster for much of this time. I’ve been free for many years in the sense of choosing my responsibilities consciously, but much of this willful freedom has perhaps made me less happy! Some of this has hurt my body which then cries out to be considered. Now this may be, in part, because I have purposefully paid back karmic debts that were important for me to get out of the way, but still I wonder : have I had a bad attitude towards life and spiritually? One that is grim, morbid, joyless and perhaps even Luciferian? Have I considered myself better than life?
But has this dark corner that I put myself in been in part created through the application of ideas derived from or at least congruent with Stoicism? I feel then that I am missing something enormously important and profound. Is happiness just willful freedom in any direction, or is it freedom in a specific direction?
One could be like Nero or Commodus and use Stoic training for ghastly aims. I’m still pretty ignorant on the ideas of Neoplatonism, but know something more of Hermeticism and Alchemy which I understand are heavily linked to Neoplatonism through their history of ideas. Perhaps Stoicism is a base to be built on rather than an end in itself? A prerequisite for initiating a Great Work?
Thoughts on this would be most appreciated and welcome!
Agreed – that first stab was spot on, even if you had to weave into it to make the strike…
I noticed in the comments that your reference towards “happiness” sort of slid to the side, yet it is this definition that is needed to clarify thought and intent within people.
I have noticed that there are a great many people lacking a reference to personal happiness, and you referred to this, obliquely, as well. Happiness needs more definition, or else it is easily misconstrued and thus – missed.
There are, as you say, inherently unhappy people, and people who writhe and dance and even thrive in misery. Those must, by necessity, pull themselves out of their own morass by their bootstraps; lending them a helping hand is often highly problematic. Hence my own preference for using “shock and awe” when encountering people trapped in their own echo chambers and circular behaviors.
I do think that “HAPPINESS” needs defining in many ways – to segregate it from the effusive and the disinterested ends of the spectrum. This would give folks a better communicative reference. The current definition is a piecemeal set of synonyms that make little sense, other than in a most immediate context.
If I haven’t offered condolences on the death of your son, I’ll do so now. It must have been a horrible thing to endure. I’d never heard it was medical malpractice before, either. That stinks. I’m glad that Epictetus helped you through it, and have re-opened The Discourses to follow the discussion. The subject seems to be worth more than a single post, though.
Armata – it was Lao Tzu, in the Dao De Ching. He also had cogent comments like “Governing a large country is like cooking a small fish – don’t handle it too much.
“A fact is something about which everyone with roughly the same sensory and cognitive equipment can readily agree.”
Yes, but. . . some facts can be predicated on both knowledge and belief, and thus be in dispute between those have reason to interpret a “fact” differently. Example: botanists who ascribe–as a self-evident fact after much study– intention and awareness to plants, as opposed to other botanists who know a plant is only one step above dead matter because their reductionist picture of the world depends upon knowing it . . .or as in the case of Galileo’s observed fact that the solar system is heliocentric, a fact which was disputed by many for a long time because it challenged their cherished belief in human exceptionalism. In both of these examples, one can see that rather than a value being derived from a fact, a fact can be derived from–or at least strongly influenced by–a value. This is why when new data comes to light and facts “change,” beliefs can often slow down needed changes to what is accepted fact.
In the case of slavery in the New World, some said it was a fact that people of African descent were subhuman. Others said it was a fact they were human and deserved rights. In both cases, not only did fact and belief overlap, but both also overlapped with desire — the desire in one case to have free labor, and in the other case to build a society based on respect for all sentient beings. There has been much study done in recent years in the field of neuroscience pointing to how our most carefully constructed intellectual arguments and choices stem from our emotions and are rooted in the more primitive parts of our brains (see Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain ). The arguments around slavery are a case in point.
The Stoics were right — the things you control are the things that matter (which paraphrases the serenity prayer). But what is control? The Abolitionists did not control the slaveholders in the 1850s. But they controlled a great deal of the media, using newspapers, speeches, sermons, and pamphlets to spread their message. They built a tidal wave of pushback against an entrenched economic practice. Yes, some were miserable, and some were bullies (John Brown). Some were oppressively self-righteous (Horace Greeley). But they made a significant contribution to our nation’s collective moral life, and still serve as an example to many who are involved in working toward a kinder polity.
We are not just individuals, and cannot survive or make choices as strictly such. We are collective, social beings operating with a triune brain which comprises reptilian, mammalian, and human layers. Our mammalian brains have evolved to select for altruistic behavior because that behavior has helped groups of social mammals survive better than groups without it. Social or even evolutionary currents having to do with the human or more-than-human community are expressed through individuals, and can arise from within them rather than being applied from without by social pressure.
If those currents direct me to take up a cause and I fail to do so out of fear, laziness, or a desire to be non-objectionable to those who don’t like messaging in general or my message in particular, then I run the risk of compromising my integrity and stripping my life of what might–in the end–give it the most profound meaning. Thus, although I am not an activist or a spreader of prescriptive messages, I reserve the right to become one if called.
@JMG: That makes a lot of sense. Being me, I doubt I’ll ever completely stop thinking less of people for various things* but I’ve largely given up trying to convince any individual that they’re wrong: mostly, I just stop caring about their well-being to a greater or lesser degree. (I also don’t believe that people generally change–we *can*, and often do involuntarily in smaller regards, but most people who say they’re trying to do better just want credit for the attempt, and go back to “normal” in six months or fewer, IME–which plays into it.) I’m Conan enough that sometimes I enjoy thwarting them when I have the chance, but actively trying to do so, unless they present a danger to others, is not worth the time.
Amusingly, a discussion elseblog has just led to someone else saying, “So no interest in saving other people from their worst selves for you,” like I’m supposed to find that insulting. (Reminds me of when people used to call me a b*tch back in the day, and I had to point out that this was like going up to a bank and screaming “CAPITALISTS!”.) Because…no, none whatsoever. No interest in saving anyone from themselves, at any point, really. It’s one of the more liberating aspects of not being Christian.
And yep, we’re one of the more squeamish species around. I suspect we’re the only omnivore that (with some exceptions) won’t take a chunk out of our fellows if we’re hungry and they’re not moving too much, for that matter. (Reading James Herriot’s stories about pig breeding, and having friends with both hamsters and guppies in my youth, was…enlightening.)
* I do wonder if the difference between “unethical” and “distasteful” plays in here: for instance, I have no time for the girls I know who really like the damsel-in-distress act, but if they’re up-front about wanting it and someone else goes into that relationship with open eyes? Well…good luck with that, I guess?
You have mentioned this approach to stoic ethics at some point in an early blog and I feel that I really integrated it because this week’s post jives very well with my thoughts on the matter lately. In a recent youtube video I talked about the benefits of criticizing ideas and actions instead of people themselves. It focused on the benefits of this for the individual doing the questioning and the person getting judged. (The channel is called Never Speak In Absolutes).
In a way only he could, Sam Harris has failed spectacularly in talking about moral questions by filing off the serial numbers of utilitarian ethics and claiming it as his own. Amongst many missteps he makes the mistake you identify here of not being able to bridge the gaps between facts and values. In explaining it he seems to get stuck in the infinite regress you describe which I think suits him well because he likes to drone on about inconsequential details.
The other problem he has that seems to go against the stoic ethics you describe seems all to popular these days: discussing ethics by way of discussing hypothetical situations and how we *ahem* should respond to them. Perhaps this approach has some use, but it seems like too many people concerned with ethics never leave this hypothetical dimension for the real world. Current Affairs had a good article recently about why the trolley problem tells us very little about morality.
@Shane W: Oh, for sure! My folks are southwestern PA, but it happens considerably more northerly, too. (Which gets interesting when it runs into the Italian population, say: my friends there report that you absolutely *must* accept refreshments when offered, absent medical excuse, lest the person offering think you don’t like their food and keep offering you different things and ultimately send someone down to the store to get that pasta you liked once.)
@Scotlyn: That’s quite impressive, in a genteely-conducted-Punic-Wars kind of way. Also now I need to watch Father Ted. I wonder if it’s related to the use of “Well, I *could*…” when you mean “I’d really like to,” that I’ve seen sometimes. (“I could eat. Could you eat?” on a road trip with some people means that we’re pulling over at the next service plaza before cannibalism happens.)
I find these things bizarrely fascinating, especially since they’re so unofficial.
While enjoying a delicious bacon cheeseburger with a friend last week, we were discussing the following challenge with the Stoic path. If you are not a careful Stoic, people will notice that you are generally gemutlich (great German word!) and more resilient to the vicissitudes of fate. If you explain to them the basics of what is within your control and what is not and the beneficial affect this realization has on your happiness, in my experience they tend to get angry and assert that this philosophy means you don’t care about anything. In a nutshell, if you aren’t worrying about losing things you cannot control, then you do not care about them. It is not unusual for this conversation to end with something like, “Thus, you do not love anything!” It is a really useless conversation and makes me wonder if I’d be happier if I pretended to be miserable and worried!
Our individual dietary needs are determined by our genetics. Those genetics are transformed by both nature and nurture. Fact.
Why do we think that our sadness and happiness, our morals and culture, are not guided by the same biology?
Nature seeks equilibrium and neither sadness or happiness will get us there. They only serve as signals for how far off the mark we are.
The election of Trump was biological.
I am afraid these mental gymnastics are an effort to undermine our biology for some “better” outcome instead of a balanced one. It is hard to see what the body wants when the mind is interfering.
@ JMG et al.
I was first introduced to the pernicious use of the word ‘should’ by the good Count Korzybski (he of General Semantics notoriety). Here is a pithy little aphorism that combines admonitions about using the word ‘should’ with warnings about one-drop thinking and other totalizing notions:
“You should always remember never to say ‘should’, ‘always’, or ‘never'”
I will leave you to infinitely regress upon this sage advice. 🙂
You should all, without fail… whoops! Did I say that? I mean, you might be amused by a persusal of Korzybski’s ‘Science and Sanity’, an oldy but goody as we used to say.
You definitely have a talent for bringing up philosophical food for thoughts and action!
Thank you for this post. I am far less knowledgeable on these matters but could I possibly trouble you to define the terms ethics and morals. I have always had a difficult time discerning their true meanings and a deep dive a few weeks ago revealed to me that multiple sources seem to have varying definitions.
I first came across your essays during a particularly confusing time in my life and I’m always moved by the clarity and vividness in your writing. It is a skill that I admire and can’t accept that it is something that must necessarily lie outside of me. What are some things you believe brought about these attributes in your way of thinking and subsequently your writing?
JMG & All
I have sympathy with stoics caught up in an Empire in uncertain times decidedly past their best. The place is full of dubious, if ‘necessary’, executive actions that demand acquiescence in fact, if not in the internal self where one can be ‘free’. Ah well…
I have sympathy as well for the ancient tribes of Israel in their serial predicaments. It does not seem surprising they got a prophet who insisted on preserving identity and wrote the tribal customs and God in stone. “Double-down you lot if you want to hang onto our God and get out of this mess.” One of the follow-on ‘Religions of Abraham’ does not proselytize. It might have been a contradiction in terms to have thought that their God was for everybody. The ‘God principle’ however has power to this day, when tested in the fire. I understand for example that Baptists and JWs, admittedly of a proselytizing branch, were stronger for it when dumped into hell in the camps.
My ‘go-to’ for a discussion of modern ethics is MacIntyre’s (After Virtue). There is it seems an old predicament. Can we moderns get away with separating ‘the good’ from (‘our’) happiness, success and fulfillment of desire? The power of coherent (consistent) reason is not sufficient. We are caught without moral order or much of a moral community.
As you, JMG have said, stoicism is not a religion. To paraphrase MacIntyre, who asks (he was referring to the Roman Empire, and to possible parallels with our own state) “… will men and women of goodwill, turn aside from shoring up the imperium and cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with maintaining that imperium”? Are we waiting, I quote: “not for Godot but another, doubtless very different, St Benedict?”
@JMG Agreed. You have to begin somewhere. My 25-year-old is studying Roman history and was pleased to receive Marcus Aurelius at Christmastime, so I’m taking that as hopeful.
Re: what to do for pain? I am not a medical professional but I can say that in my experience, for joint and/or muscle pain, Feldenkrais is a wonder. It has helped me enormously on a number of occasions. If you are not familiar with the methodology, an Internet search should bring up plenty of articles, books, and videos and etc etc. One of Feldenkrais’ proteges is Anat Baniel, and her method, closely based on Feldenkrais, is also notable and I can recommend it.
I have nothing to do with these methodologies professionally or commercially; I have simply found it beneficial for myself and felt moved to suggest it.
And it seems to me, now that I think about it, that these methodologies (Feldenkrais / Anat Baniel) may have some relation to the topic under discussion on this blog. My understanding of them is that they have a lot to do with keeping your awareness in your body, here, now, sensing your bones, noticing your smallest, lightest movements, and finding ease and joy.
Dear John Michael Greer,
My condolences on the loss of your child.
And again, thank you for blogging.
Indeed, sympathies, JMG, and respect for your willingness to speak of your own suffering to help others grow in wisdom.
Certainly a lot of Stoic argument is exaggerated for effect, but there is this veneration of Stilpo (or Stilbo) because, supposedly, he was met among refugees of a sacked city, his home burned, his family killed, fleeing with nothing but the clothes on his back; was commiserated with for having “lost everything”; and answered “What do you mean? I have all my valuables right here” (meaning his virtue and free will). This was viewed as top-notch Stoicism. I bet his wife and kids (or whoever) might have preferred that he shed a few tears. Anyway, it’s certainly either above or beneath the capacity of most people to respond so.
As for translations, I strongly recommend the recent Penguin edition of Epictetus’ Discourses and Enchiridion. It has the sort of folksy feel that transcriptions of freewheeling oral discourses ought to have. Unfortunately, it omits a bunch of the surviving discourses from Books 3 and 4 that the translator considered redundant. I was always resentful about that, then one day acquired a French volume (affordable paperback, btw) that includes French translations of basically ALL available Stoic writings. I eagerly flipped to one of the missing discourses and laboriously made my way through it. Turned out to be all about how one day a young man happened by who had shaved off his beard, and Epictetus harangued him at great length about how this was contrary to nature and obviously he must want to be a [yuck, ptoo] WOMAN! I wound up concluding that maybe not every word out of the sage’s mouth really needed to be treasured for all time after all. 🙂
Shane et al: This is similar to the Upper-Midwestern Rule of Three, which has been affectionately mocked by “Prairie Home Companion” and “How to Talk Minnesotan”. It states that when offered refreshment one is required to refuse, in ritual phrases, three times before accepting. There’s a corollary, that you must never take the last item on the serving plate, though you are permitted to cut it in pieces up to half if you must. My Southern-Michigan-raised friend actually scandalized another friend’s family by cheerfully accepting a drink on the very first offer; I did not know her at the time or I would’ve told her what she was getting into.
Thanks for this essay. Spot on. I have a soft spot in my heart for the stoics, thanks to your writings.
On that note, Frank Martela writes that pursuing happiness directly is a sure way to never find it. Then even if you are happy, you feel pressure to be happy and you wonder if you are happy enough and lose what little happiness you thought you had. Instead you find strong and lasting happiness in freedom, amongst other things. On top of freedom you also need capability. Also research is backing (according to Martela) a finding that you become happy by making other people happy (other people making you happy makes you happy too). Which leads to people finding happiness in relationships of all kinds.
Not surprisingly developing capability requires a certain level of commitmend and hard work. Meaningful relationships are also rarely easy to build and maintain. Making a meaningful difference in the lives of the other people seems to be fulfilling, which again is against the common wisdom of this day where getting more stuff is the thing.
Advertisement, marketing and the whole pop culture construction seems to truly be devoted to the task of making people unhappy, by forcing them to adopt its values and habits, thus destroying freedom. The modern time wasters and tehnological unnecessarities make it unnecessary to become capable in something. Bought entertainment and other curses drain the time a family could be spending time together, thus leaving fewer opportunities to build those meaningful relationships. It is all a mere illusion that by closer reflection is all to obviously filled with only emptiness.
Luckily, however, we are actually free to move towards capability, meaningful relationships and choices that make this world a better place.
a lot to unpack with this one. I will give it a try though…
When I think about the word ‘should,’ it makes me think about another word – ‘trespass,’ as in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. (Although Christianity is surely distorted and riddled with concerns, I do think at the heart of it all there could be something helpful). If someone says ‘should’ to someone else, they are effectively ‘trespassing’ against them and trying to impose their will on them. Even if, as you said, they are doing this because they believe it to be God’s will, or just plain right due to their own personal value system, it amounts to Person A trying to deny Person B their right at Being. If that was to be taken to its extreme, it would amount to something very close to murder! Then I had to wonder – why would someone feel the need to try to harm someone else? Maybe because somewhere within them they fear that other person, don’t want them to get too close, or don’t want the other person to harm them first?
To me, it seems as if all the things that people wind up arguing about form part of a person’s self-identity. With the example of diet that you used last week, we saw how it was quite easy to become very closely identified with a particular diet that one feels is the ‘best’, to the point where it becomes part of one’s image, ego, or identity. If others don’t happen to share one’s views, it becomes possible to see how this could start to feel like a personal rejection or a death. People tend not to like to feel like they’re about to die, so they struggle with the other person, argue, and try to control them in a misguided act of self-preservation. But is someone’s whole identity really only about that diet? I think it’s actually about much more than that, and perhaps that’s what the Stoics were seeing – how to learn how to be free from the false belief that the things you merely identify with are actually “you.”
(You didn’t talk about how the Stoics came to their particular philosophy. I kind of wonder because in reading through your post, I was reminded a lot of occult philosophy. It would be interesting to learn more about who, if anyone, inspired them, or if they came to it all through independent reasoning. It just seems highly similar to the work of magic. I would also be interested to learn more about their practices and methods.)
One thing that stood out to me was the Stoic realization that we only control our actions in our inner and outer lives. To me that implies something huge – we only control our actions, and therefore we don’t control anyone else’s actions! I can see how that might be hard to accept initially, but it seems like that is the real source of freedom right there. It means I can finally leave everyone else alone, stop trespassing against them, so to speak, and finally let them be free of my incessant meddling in their affairs! Then, having all that energy freed up, I can start to pay attention to my own thoughts and my own Being, and ultimately to my own happiness.
I was also reminded of the drawing of the ‘vesica piscis’ of sacred geometry – the two overlapping circles with the shared space between them. Although I’m sure there are many other meanings to be found there, to me, the circle represents an individual or limited consciousness, in that it is a fully free complete Being in and of itself. It is a balance of forces both drawing into the center, and pushing out in all directions. If the circles represent two Beings, then this is a drawing of how their relationship could be. Each circle retains its own integrity, or its own Being. At that point, the two circles can yield to the other, draw close together and share a common space, or a common consciousness, for the duration of the relationship or interaction. When that is completed, the two circles or Beings can withdraw from one another, each one retaining their own Being and not having been harmed by the other. One circle doesn’t try to swallow up the other or harm or control the other in any way, but it allows it to simply be its own circle. In that way, it is a drawing of a balanced relationship between two free Beings. Hopefully this isn’t getting too abstract…just trying to get at the idea of respecting other people’s boundaries and letting them be them.
This time round I think I am going to say stupid things, well I’ll take the risk anyhow and I ask for your indulgence…
JMG wrote: ” It was a coherent, serious attempt to make sense of ethics in an age when most educated people could no longer believe in the literal truth of traditional religion.”
Even if one no longer believes in the literal truth of religion, should ethics not revolve around the notions of (1) do no harm to oneself, (3) do no harm to others and (3) last but not least do no harm to the environment (OK very difficult!)? The above 3 axioms sound more than enough to have a basis for ethics.
Although there is much to appreciate in stoicism I don’t really understand when wikipedia states: “Living according to reason and virtue, they held (the stoics), is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.”
Divine order? common reason? essential value? What are theses? Who’s to say what is the divine order, common reason and essential value?
Subsidiary question: If you are a stoic Mr JMG (as I gather) What is your take on Epicureanism often presented as the chief opponent of stoicism?
Fortunate the one who knows oneself
(Of course I do not know myself, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing/commenting.)
On veganism, I thought this story sums up the totalitarian attitudes you rightly critique:
The dairy farmer is accused by vegans of being a (cow) rapist and (you guessed it, drum-roll) a nazi. Then the vegans, not content, proceeded to attack his very young daughter.
Of course, vegans seem oblivious to the fact that the farms that grow their vegetables are consuming vast quantities of land that once belonged to nature (including countless wild animals). It’s not as if those 70 million hectares would CHOOSE to grow monocropped soybeans.
Note I’m not saying that there isn’t a case for Veganism, but there isn’t a case for haranguing people, calling them nazis, dragooning their 5 year old daughters into a social media fray, assuming bad faith / evil motives on those who don’t share veganism, etc. etc. etc.
Given that cars kill 1 million animals a day in the US alone (over a third of a billion each year), I wonder what % of vegans are car-less?
I found this essay and last weeks quite interesting. It is kinda funny when you stop and think about it how a prescribed diet can get people all wound up in a hurry. A common joke runs like this. “How can you tell if there are any vegans in the office? Don’t worry, they’ll let you know.”
My daughter and I talk about the subject quite often, as she has IBS and so has to watch her diet. Beans, cruciferous veggies, iceberg lettuce, high sugar fruits and so on can cause problems. So she has to avoid them or eat them in small amounts. But she doesn’t get upset if I have a large helping of broccoli. Obviously a vegetarian diet is not for her, especially because she had a b12 deficiency for a bit. So we eat meat, but not exclusively, like an Adkins. We kinda think that a good many humans are obligate omnivores, if there is such a thing.
I work at a game farm during breeding and hunting season, raising pheasants. I have gotten some pretty severe push-back from the anti-hunting crowd, that seems to be of the same sort people who eat meat get from the vegan crowd. And, it seems to fit exactly the same pattern you described above.
One thing a person might think about is how we handle the problem of drug abuse. The most common drug of choice in most of America is alcohol, although nowadays opiates get the most news play, perhaps justifiably. Anyways, John Wesley saw the problems to alcoholism in 18th century England and made abstinence part of church doctrine in the Methodist Church. Although they did much good otherwise, they made few inroads into the problem of alcoholism by preaching it from the pulpit. Then, the Temperance movement passed the 18th Amendment, thinking banning alcohol would solve the problem. All it did was to create an entire black market with the problems like mafia that come along with that. The AAs on the other hand, never actively promoted or advertised themselves. And they never condemned drinking wholesale. Rather they said life was unmanageable (I was unhappy), and here are some suggestions that worked for me. Whether a person takes those suggestions is entirely up to them.
They had a rather clever way around the conundrum that so many people have fallen away from the Abrahamic religions, and that was reliance on a higher power of your understanding. So it could be God, Jesus, Hanuman, Hu the Mighty, the people around the table, or whatever. Anyways, they accomplished far more in combating drug abuse than Wesley or the Temperance crowd ever did.
I would appreciate your thoughts and any suggestions for a good book on the Stoics would be appreciated.
What seems to be worst for the world and the future of mankind:
– the few putative “unethical” elites?
– the vast uneducated, unthinking masses?
Probably both, and the real danger lies in trying to stand on the middle ground, actively chastised by both sides.
MillicentlyLurking – I don’t quite remember where I found that quote, but I reread my favorites frequently. So if it turns up again. I’ll let you know where.
JMG – it came to me in meditation that the friend I mention from time to time, who delivers hard, shrill, fact-free rants, to my distress, is carrying an enormous load of rage that the current state of politics gave her a socially sanctioned outlet for. I know about the rage because she’s mentioned a few things from time to time, and because she used to hide it under clowning, pranks, and a naughty-little-girl act that got old faster than she did. But it has nothing to do with national politics at all ….better she should scream at the pictures of her parents!
And because I got word from The Powers to start looking at my own load thereof, which made the connection click.
So those who drive us mad with preaching may have demons which have no connection with what they’re preaching about. And in other cases, may feel that that only things in their control *are* their diets or exercises or whatever (been there, done that, too, and futile it was.)
Do you know John Sellars’ book titled “Stoicism”? I bought it a couple years ago but never read it. Maybe I’ll give it a try.
JMG: “The Serenity Prayer is almost Stoic; the difference is that Stoics don’t wait for God to grant them those qualities, they get to work developing them in themselves.”
Do we have any information on how Stoics throughout the centuries might have gone about doing this (i.e. developing those qualities in themselves)? I mean, today we have many different forms of therapy, hundreds of different exercises, thousands of self-help books, Bardon’s IIH and different forms of ritual magic. They might have had some form of ritual magic, for sure, but I cannot imagine a significant percentage of people being interested in it. So how did they do it?
Michael – thanks for this and glad to see you’re back blogging. I enjoy how this essay dovetails with Francis Seeburger’s book, Addiction & Responsibility, which takes as a starting point how people inclined to addiction give themselves over to their addicting substance or process as a way of surrendering their responsibility to their, well, freedom, I guess. Seeburger is a retired philosophy prof from U Denver, and his book from ’93 best describes an addicts’ dilemmas.
Thanks, Millicently, I’ll look into it!
Finally! A precise explanation of what exactly it is that’s wrong with this world’s brothers’-keepers’ insistence on the imposition of utopia on their own terms. I now understand why it is that the bootleggers won out against Prohibition, why Communism fell to ruins, why the drugs now seem to be winning The War On Drugs, … and on and on it goes. Fantastic!
I also find it a beautiful irony that the terms “liberty” and “pusuit of happiness” found their way into the lawbooks, given that the religious sects who founded the 13 colonies in the first place truly believed that freedom and joy were the evilly evil archfoes of virtue. Is there a God, or what? (Traffic cops beware!)
Seb, thank you for your comment. It summarises nicely what I was struggling with in Stoic practice. I have two relatives whose interactions are unhealthy to the point of being morally offensive to me, but neither one is interested in changing to suit my opinions. Learning to like the way they relate to each other was not working, but I can exercise control over myself to not start a fight when I have to spend time with them.
Mac” McMaster re: Buddhism in Prison
Back when I ran with a rougher crowd a friend of mine gave me a Buddhism for prisoners book called We Are All Doing Time . No idea where he got it, didn’t ask.
It was an outstanding book even for those like me allergic to the iron bar motel
The only problem can be getting it past the fundies who push Christianity as a solution or assume all crime is entirely moral in dimension
. Frankly given virtually everyone I know whose done time and/or is poor is Christian and still suffering more than they need to a lot of them would benefit from an alternate route and I’ve often thought for the, so many of those who have fractured lives but whose impulse control works well enough some combination of Stoicism and Buddhism might work for many of them who Christianity fails
All said and done, Stoicism is the ultimate life hack for men. Like any hack its not necessarily everything you need but its a heck of a lot of help
“Is there a God, or what? ”
There sure does seem to be a god or gods with a sense of humor. I know a sure-fire way to make them laugh, too – just tell them your ‘plans’. Cracks them up every time!
Armata, Spengler’s good for that. He’s also great for pointing out that different attitudes are entirely appropriate for different phases of every culture’s life cycle, so that what made sense for us in 1800 doesn’t make sense for us today, and what makes sense for us today won’t make sense in 2200.
E. Goldstein, nope. To begin with, you’ve got the definition garbled; magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It doesn’t change facts, though it can change how you interpret and value facts, and it can also change how you behave (and how others behave) and thus creat different facts further down the road.
As for the enforcement function of government, the police officer who pulls you over for driving 100 MPH in a 30 MPH zone isn’t trying to convince you of the rightness of his value judgment. He’s dealing with facts: specifically, the fact that the legislature passed a speed limit law, the fact that you broke it, and the fact that the law mandates specific punishments for breaking that law. The Abrahamic religions argue that the same thing is true of morality, of course, and as I noted in my post, from within their belief system, that makes perfect sense. Thanks for the comments about Finney, though!
Greg, yes, I also read The Book of the SubGenius with great amusement, having spent my early twenties as an enthusiast for the Principia Discordia. You’ve raised a very good point about determinism, and it’s one I’ll be developing as we proceed with this discussion.
Drhooves, true enough!
Seb, if that’s the approach that works for you, by all means! Remember also, though, that you do control how much chocolate you eat, and you can find a level of chocolativorousness that gives you pleasure without making you feel sick. “Moderation in all things, and all things in moderation” was a Stoic maxim…
Yossi, no, but if you have sufficient free will to decide whether to floss your teeth, you have a basis on which you can develop a stronger will, and become more free. That’s one of the things the recent writers never do seem to understand…
Robert, good! From my perspective, you’re still wrong, but as usual, you’re wrong in interesting and entertaining ways. I’m going to challenge both your assumptions about my thinking. First, I don’t consider taboos pointless — quite the contrary, there are taboos I myself follow quite strictly. I simply note that different groups of people have radically different sets of taboos, and none of them have arguments that appeal to those who don’t believe in their taboos. That being the case, the claim that one set of taboos should be arbitrarily privileged above others can’t be defended. If you wish, let’s say, to forbid yourself from eating beans, that’s your right; if you’re a member of the First Church of Pythagoras, and your church requires its members to refrain from eating beans or be thrown out, that’s the church’s right; but if you insist that everyone ought to be forbidden from eating beans, while denying Muslims and Jews the right to forbid everyone from eating pork, and so on — why, then you’re simply claiming unearned authority.
Second, it’s simply not true that I think that “disagreement implies they’re all wrong.” Disagreement — enduring, irreconcilable disagreement that can’t be settled by any means acceptable to reasonable people — is evidence that we simply don’t know which answer or answers are right. They could all be right, you know — it’s an assumption not supported by facts that there’s only one right answer, and it may be true that there are many valid ways for human beings to live. Since we don’t know which answers are right, it’s a bad idea to insist that one set of answers should be imposed on everyone.
Let’s take your dyscalculic culture as an example. You believe, let’s say, that 1 + 1 = 3. Your liberal neighbors believe just as forcefully that 1 + 1 = 5. (It’s a mistake to assume that liberals don’t believe in moral absolutes; listen to a social justice advocate in full spate sometime, and I promise you you’ll hear more moral absolutes being laid down than you’ll hear in the average Southern Baptist tent revival sermon.) You and your neighbors could work yourself up into quite a lather over who’s right and who’s wrong, but what useful purpose would that serve? My suggestion instead is that since we don’t know the answer to that equation, the wisest choice would be to let the 3-ists, the 5-ists, and everyone else practice math as they see fit, and see whose calculations produce the best results over the long term. Here again, tolerance and a willingness to mind one’s own business are not merely courtesies, they’re the most practical strategy in an era when the old uniformity of belief has shattered beyond repair.
Sunnnv, a fine display of handwaving! Of course Elon Musk isn’t the only person battening on government subsidies — just about every industry in the US is doing so, as that’s the only way to get rich in an imperial tribute economy. The fact that other people are doing it too wouldn’t convince a Stoic that Elon Musk’s stunts are anything other than wasteful stunts. I expect his grandstanding to end up delivering a body blow to the solar power industry, too, so I’m not sure gratitude sent in his direction is well aimed…
Gandalfwhite, was there a question or a comment in there?
Shrama, the ancient Greek ethical philosophers didn’t agree with your distinction between ethics and spirituality. They considered ethics to cover all human behavior, including your behavior toward yourself. Since the ancient Greeks invented the word “ethics,” I think it’s fair to let them use it the way they want!
Sven, hah! You’re right, of course — and it’s absurd. Do people really think that chipmunks care what human beings think they should be doing? Please do glare at them; in the meantime, I’m going to go read some of H.P. Lovecraft’s reflections on the absurdity of humanity’s overblown sense of importance, and put some of that into the next few posts…
Dan, you’re welcome and thank you. I don’t want people to agree with everything I write; I want them to be inspired to think their own thoughts, reconsider their own beliefs, and reassess their own values.
Shane, I know. The psychological industry these days is geared toward making people permanently dependent on drugs and therapy — after all, that’s far more profitable than curing people. Epictetus was into curing people. That’s one of the reasons I dove into the Enchiridion and came out haggard but smiling again on the other side.
Alnusincana, Buddhism and Stoicism have a lot of parallels, and you can very easily approach some of the core ethical ideas of either one from the point of view of the other. If Stoicism had survived as a living tradition into modern times, I can imagine conversations between Stoics and Buddhists in the 19th and 20th centuries going very interesting places!
About the rule of three and similar phenomena: in traditional WASP households EVERYTHING, from food to clothing to access to travel and entertainment is rationed. For example: my mother baked six loaves of bread every Saturday morning. No more, no less. One for Saturday/Sunday and one for each day of the week thereafter. Bread was to be eaten ONLY for morning toast and lunch sandwiches. Some form of starch, corn or potatoes or rolls was served for dinner but never bread and butter, nor could bread be eaten between meals for snacks. Non WASPS are, I think, not capable of understanding this and I find it difficult to explain. I think it may be the habit rises out of a fundamental belief that resources of any kind are not to be wasted.
A slight detour to the Epicureans. There is a graphic novel called _Epicuris the Sage_ by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith, Wild Storm Productions, 2003. Features appearances by Demeter and other gods; the young Alexander and his tutor, Aristotle; and Socrates and Plato. I know, the timeline is a little messed up, but artistic license. Anyhow, it is amusing and instructive in its way.
Just ordered The Handbook, despite having too much half-month left near the end of the money. I think it would be just what the doctor ordered.
Blue Sun, glad you enjoyed it. I’m delighted to say I’ve never seen an employer-mandated ethics video, and hope I never do…
Millicently, clearly I need to meet more pugs.
Pogonip, hmm. I don’t have any experience with this so will have to leave it to others to offer suggestions.
Xabier, traffic laws in the United States are generally managed along the medieval Forest Laws principle. Lots of small towns over here keep their budgets balanced by assigning each police officer a quota of traffic tickets they’re supposed to write every week, and the fines go into the town’s general fund.
Dominique, and if that’s what makes sense to you, by all means. If you insist that everyone else has to share your views, though, expect to be frustrated.
Mac, true enough. Zen Buddhism was one of the first religious traditions I found really appealing, and yes, it has a strong Stoic flavor.
Marco, no argument there. The USA is unquestionably the land of the absurdly over-the-top…
Matthias, excellent! Yes, exactly — and one of the things that makes so much moral preaching so absurd these days is that people who don’t actually have the power to do anything but rant go around acting as though they have the power to enforce their preferences on everyone else.
Tokyodamage, thanks for this.
Violet, these are deep waters. Unquestionably the tools of Stoicism can be used in unhelpful ways; the Stoic way teaches you how to achieve what you want, but it isn’t always helpful in figuring out whether what you want actually makes any kind of sense. That way lies Nero and Commodus, of course, but also the way of self-isolation and withdrawal from existence Nietzsche challenged so forcefully, the path of the deniers of life — the sort of thing Simon and Garfunkel sang about in one of their more famous songs. There are people who have been hurt badly enough, often enough, that that’s the only workable option they have left — but more often it’s a temporary necessity at best, and can become a shell that has to be outgrown sooner or later.
As far as Stoicism as a foundation, that’s exactly what the Neoplatonists by and large did. In the late classical world, pretty much everyone agreed that the Stoics had gotten ethics right, but a life that consisted of nothing but the Stoic quest for freedom felt empty to a lot of people. So Stoicism became a preliminary moral discipline, to be followed by the meditative and ritual practices that bring the self into contact with the great creative processes of the cosmos. I expect to talk more about this as we proceed.
Oilman, the difficulty with defining happiness is twofold. On the one hand, I’m far from sure any two people would define it the same way; on the other, it’s far too easy to come up with simulacra of happiness that fit this or that definition exactly but don’t actually make anyone happy.
Patricia, thank you.
Ruth, of course facts and values intertwine. The importance given to a fact is a value; the existence of a value is a fact — and a vast number of claims of fact blend facts and values in unhelpful ways, One of the benefits of attention to the basic principles of philosophy is that this makes it easier to hack one’s way through the thickets of rhetoric, in which facts, values, beliefs, desires, and outright malarkey are utterly entangled.
Isabel, good. “Saving other people from their worst selves” requires, first, that you actually know which of their selves is better and which is worse, and second, that you have the power to save them from themselves. By and large, neither of these conditions can be met — which is why this sort of thing inevitably degenerates into another round of the Rescue Game, or some equally futile interpersonal game. Tolerance and a willingness to let people make their own mistakes strikes me as far less idiotic…
Greg, good. I’ve read very little by Sam Harris, but it doesn’t surprise me to hear that he got caught by the fact/value trap; a blindness to that trap is pervasive in today’s intellectual (or pseudointellectual) scene.
Redoak, a great many people want you to be miserable and worried, because that makes it easier for them to deal with the fact that they’re miserable and worried. A great many people also want you to invest as much of your emotional energy in them as possible, because that’s a lever they can use to try to control you. I find such people tiresome, and it very often helps to tell them so, as that way they leave me alone and I can spend time instead with people who don’t have those useless habits.
Croatoan, that’s a profoundly one-sided and simplistic view of things. Biology is only one factor in a very complex array of intersecting determinants — and the claim that Trump’s election was biological strikes me as frankly bizarre. Would you care to try to defend that?
Sgage, I made the Count’s acquaintance via an old copy of Science and Sanity many years ago, and yes, he’s worth reading — though some of his followers got nearly as obsessive about him as the followers of some diet mavens do these days…
Michel, thank you!
Dav, it’s a common mistake to think that words have “true meanings.” Words are sounds that human beings use to communicate more or less vague clusters of ideas and perceptions with. If you want to know how those words are used, I recommend looking them up in a good dictionary; that’s the closest to their “true meanings” as you will ever get. With regard to clarity of writing, we’ll talk about that at great length in an upcoming post; the very short form is that your writing will never be clearer than your thinking, and clarity of thought comes from prolonged reflection on ideas, which comes in turn from ample reading combined with meditation. More on this as we proceed!
Phil H., to paraphrase Charles Fort, it Benedicts when it comes Benedict time; men and women of goodwill will turn their attention away from shoring up the existing order and toward building the future when the time arrives for that work to be done.
Stacy, hopeful indeed!
Millicently, thank you.
Dewey, I won’t argue — and of course there are also huge differences in cultural style between then and now. To my mind, Stoicism is still hugely useful even when not taken to extremes.
Oskari, notice that Martela jumps immediately from being happy to attempting to hold onto happiness, as though these are the same thing. To the Stoics, that’s his first mistake.
Stefania, excellent! Yes, exactly — realizing that you can’t control anyone else is an immense source of freedom and delight, because once you stop trying to control everyone else, you can turn your attention to controlling yourself. The metaphor of the vesica piscis is squarely in the tradition of sacred geometry, too.
Karim, er, in case you haven’t noticed, a lot of people don’t find your three ethical rules to be valid for them. How do you propose to convince them? As for the Stoic-Epicurean debates, I’m an odd variety of Neoplatonist who uses Stoic ethics, as many Neoplatonists did, so I’m not the guy to ask.
Armenio, nicely put.
Dermot, bingo. People don’t get that crazy and vicious unless they’re trying to defend something they know perfectly well is wrong.
William, no question, the temperance movement is another great example of how not to fix a social problem. I don’t happen to know of a good book on Stoicism other than the classic texts already cited — perhaps one of my readers can suggest one.
Armenio, I’d say all of us, individually and collectively!
Patricia M, that’s an important point, and one I’ll want to think hard about.
Phutatorius, no, haven’t read it.
Rationalist, the Stoics didn’t use magic. They used dialectic — the process of formal conversation between teacher and student, which was central to classical education — and they used rhetoric. I’m probably going to have to devote at least one post very soon to rhetoric as a way of knowledge — the concept has become so thoroughly obscured since the Renaissance, when it was last practiced!
Leonard, thanks for this.
Steve, nah, Puritan religious sects only founded one state, Massachusetts. Rhode Island, where I now live, was founded by a mob of heretics and freethinkers who wanted to live according to their own eccentric beliefs; Pennsyvania and Maryland were founded by slightly less eccentric but equally diverse groups; and most of the other colonies were founded by people who just wanted to make money. It’s a common misconception to generalize the whole Plymouth Rock business to the rest of this country!
Rita, fun. I may have to check that out.
Claire (offlist), the discussion last week that you didn’t read was enlivened, if that’s the right word, by a flurry of believers in Weston A. Price, some of whom behaved in ways I don’t generally allow on this blog. I have therefore forbidden further discussion of Price or his theories on this blog until further notice, which will probably come on Friday the first of Winterfilth. This week’s post is not on diet, furthermore — and that’s why your comment was fed to my pet black hole. (I keep it in a little terrarium next to my computer, and nourish it on rejected comments; it seems to thrive on the diet.) As the paragraph above the comments box says: “Courteous, concise comments relevant to the topic of the current post are welcome…”
I’ve just begun B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. I’m not through the first chapter as of yet so doubtless I speak ignorantly, but the thought has occurred to me that our greatest level of control is control of our influences. Of course we don’t have complete control of influences because we already bear the result of previous influences. But we certainly have some power to turn the rudder, so to speak. Anyway thanks for the encouragement to get on with my reading.
Also, don’t forget the Epicureans. The Epicureans are rather interesting to me, but I do need to learn more about the Stoics.
I’ve always heard it said that it was Kant that disproved that god is needed for morality. I’m ignorant here too, but maybe you also give this a passing mention as you continue to write.
You said “the ancient Greek ethical philosophers didn’t agree with your distinction between ethics and spirituality. They considered ethics to cover all human behavior, including your behavior toward yourself. Since the ancient Greeks invented the word “ethics,” I think it’s fair to let them use it the way they want!”
Fair enough. But what do you think? Do you think the distinction could be useful? Alternatively, what did the ancient Greeks think spirituality was, i.e. assuming they attempted to even define the term.
Dear Mr. Greer
First of all, My deepest condolences on the death of your child. I am truly sorry for your loss, and should have spoken sooner.
Secondly, I would like some clarification on freedom as the absence of ‘unnecessary involuntary restrictions’. Your mentioning of a lack of 4 sided triangles and the basic rules of existance are a given, making them necessary involuntary restrictions. So what does a unnecessary involuntary restriction look like? unnecessary according to whom? A necessary ‘voluntary’ restriction, for example, might be my unexamined beliefs which I can voluntarily work to change.
With regards to Elon Musk’s moronic car in space stunt, it turns out that not only will it fail to go into orbit around Mars as Musk originally claimed it would, but his subsequent claim that it would go out to the asteroid belt after flying past Mars also turned out to be false. Amateur astronomers observing the vehicle’s trajectory noticed some serious discrepancies between Musk’s statements and it’s actual flight path and he was forced to retract those claims after NASA recomputed the trajectory and made it’s calculations public. In other words, he got caught lying not once but multiple times, which should surprise no one.
Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, but the day after the launch, Tesla announced it’s biggest loss ever, well over $600 million in the red. Looks like you called it right on the money (pun very much intended).
JMG, it looks like we’re in agreement then – tolerance is the aim! Only, I wish you or someone like you would come over here and explain this to the British Government, the media, the educational and the legal system.
Actually I can reckon I can guess why “liberal” culture is so intolerant and illiberal: the prevailing view is that those who don’t agree with their particular views are being harsh, and harshness deserves no tolerance.
Well, in a way this shows their hearts are in the right place; but maybe their brains aren’t – if they really can’t grasp that moral reality is harsh whichever view you take. No syncretist blather can possibly paper over the gigantic discrepancies on record, such that whichever side in any profound moral dispute turns out to be right, millions of good people must be wrong – it’s far too late to pretend otherwise. That’s the harsh, tragic truth.
Dear JMG ,
“What really makes us happy is freedom.” is only true for people who prioritize freedom in Freedom – Order – Power triangle (or Tradition – Carefreeness – Pack triangle, or Liberte – Egalite – Fraternite triangle). I feel this is ignored in discussions.
Also here is an article in memory of the passing of Ursula K. Leguin. Hopefully you can write about it in future.
I can relate to your internal experience of life and have had the often queried about what good is life if it is filled with so much suffering. And so far the only thing that has improved my feelings is to tackle small things with great love, be small and ignore the mass competition, and most of all to be myself. Removing bonds to things and situations that impede upon me being my self and contribute to the world through giving what comes naturally for me to give, and respecting others as entire separate persons on their own internal journeys. See nothing can take you from yourself, every other part, thought etc can be laid to ruin but you can walk through hell with a humble heart and enough determination and to me that’s as close to freedom as I can find. At the end of the day we don’t have to be super heros or ascended masters, we just have to climb out of bed in the morning and get through to the next one and deal with the between in the best way we can. Perhaps if we work hard enough with good hearts and clear minds the in between can be a good experience too, once we have cleared away our inner demons.
As far as I can tell, life is here to help us grow into ourselves so it’s only natural that our happiness is within us being as much as ourselves as possible. I have found internal allowing of my own pain and errors and healing combined with getting up everyday (helps to have a higher motive, for me its my children) to do my best despite it to have been the keys to my chained self. I do also see life on earth as being a spiritual experience, I think my soul has roots in the energies underlying the physical or I wouldn’t be birthed here so by that logic I must make peace with myself in all the chaos of life in order to be whole and free. Anywho just sharing in case my internal thoughts are relevant to your internal strife, best wishes to you :).
JMG wrote: “How do you propose to convince them?”
(1) Please note that I did not say that all ethics should start with the 3 axioms I proposed.
In my understanding it’s a starting point only, a basis from which discussion may begin.
After all I put it as a question, not as an ultimate truth to be obeyed universally.
(2) If we are to have a discussion about ethics, does it not follow that we should clear up the basis on which ethics are to be construed?
(3) In effect, I am asking whether it is possible for human beings to build some sort of common ethical basis for our time or not?
Note that I am NOT saying that all human beings should have exactly the same ethics, but rather is it possible for people of our time to have a common base from which ethics can be discussed? If so, what would be that common basis?
A parallel with diet and food. Quite obviously the same diet for all is non workable, but given our common biological basis, it is clear that diets must include certain common macro nutrients and certain common micronutrients for humans to remain healthy. For instance all humans need either carbohydrates or fats as source of energy and all humans need proteins and all human beings need iron. But quite obviously the source of these nutrients and the manner in which they shall be cooked and injested shall vary immensly.
JMG, I think that explains why I find myself alone in the woods so often! That said, disciplining my sympathetic response to other people’s self inflicted misery, particularly those closest to me, remains for me the most difficult aspect of my Stoic practice.
For those interested in understanding the relationship between Stoicism, hedonism, and Platonism you could do worse than read Cicero’s De Finibus.
Amusing about the traffic cops, JMG: maybe the US needs a Revolt?
Madame de Stael maintained that it wasn’t so much the great aristocrats of ancient name that the French wanted to get rid of by Revolution, but all the petty officials and newly-minted feudal landlords who multiplied in the latter part of the 18th century, and who were ruthless in sucking people dry with little but constant exactions. Cyclical history indeed…….
I am trying to paraphrase, translate and summarize from a book written in Finnish. I have a feeling I have not adequately succeeded in this task. Further, I did not use proper quotation to underline which bits of text were my own and which ideas from Martela. This is no fault of him, of course. I will field another attempt.
In his book he writes about what makes people experience meaning and fulfilment in life. He also tacles the difficult subject of “happiness” and what it means.To be happy, according to him, is to be free, capable, to have meaningful relationships and do something meaningful for the others. It is not a constant sensation of joy, but perhaps more like a deeper undertone in life in general, with the typical ups and downs.
His thougts on Maslow (since he was mentioned in comments), is that “his is a theory that everyone knows, but nobody uses, because it is not supported by research.”
All that seems to make sense, but somehow I have an intuition that something is missing still. I find myself longing for a deeper meaning and in a way see most of that as some kind of dressing on top of the real thing. Freedom is the one that resonates with me the most, which consequently is the one thing that also seems to be the most challenging one. It seems that for me at least, the cages that hold us we mostly construct ourselves.
Re the Sellars book: The few times I’ve tried to dip into it, I haven’t found it especially engaging. There’s a chapter, 25 or so pages long, on “Stoic Ethics.” You are probably right in recommending going to right to the source in whatever translation.
JMG: “Croatoan, that’s a profoundly one-sided and simplistic view of things. Biology is only one factor in a very complex array of intersecting determinants — and the claim that Trump’s election was biological strikes me as frankly bizarre. Would you care to try to defend that?”
Thank you for you curiosity. And, as a Daoist, I am glad you called it simplistic.
I do not see it as one sided, I see it in line with how Naess explained Ecosophy. Holistic. It is no sided. Or all sided.
What determinants of humanities behavior are outside of our biology? All things enter our senses and effect us in a biological manner. Take a drug and you become sedated, read this blog and you become comforted. Read about liberals in control and you get agitated. All biological responses.
Biological beings voted for Trump, so how could it not be biological? I am sure(?) you would agree that nature always tends towards balance. For eight years we have had Democrats, now we have Republicans. When there are a lot of rabbits the wolf population grows.
I do not understand why humanity pathologizes sadness and happiness. They are not the disease, they are only symptoms of imbalance.
My ancestry comes from northern Poland and Sweden. This has shaped my families genetics and so I ended up having different Fatty Acid Desaturase genes than most Americans. In the US there is a low emphasis on fish consumption. Not eating fish made me unwell. My nurture did not match my nature. Once I balanced these two I was well.
The same is true for politics. Nature and nurture determine our beliefs. But yet we have a system that wants to force one political diet on a whole nation. Doing so makes the nation sick.
I hope that complicated it for you. 🙂
Might Zeno be a “reincarnation” of Siddhartha Gautama? 😉
John, thanks for pointing out the weirdest aspect of all the moral posturing around us – that it sounds and feels a LOT like Abrahamic theistic moralizing, but without that whole pesky Supreme Being thingee. Absolute rules borne from a relativistic vacuum make no sense, at least not to me.
Hi JMG, this reminds me of some of the posts you did back on ADR on Stoicism and Ethics. I think that last week’s post (& comments) must have kicked off an interesting set of coincidences. I was browsing the internet for birthday presents for my niece earlier in the week, and one of the sites threw up Marcus Aurelius “Meditations” as a recommended book. So here I am expecting 3 books, one on Stoicism in general, “Meditiations” and an annotated reading of “Paradise Lost” and you go and write this post. Fantastic!
@isabelcooper (& others) – I also played a lot of D&D (& other RPGs) when I was younger. Too many Paladin players seem to forget the Good part of Lawful Good. Personally I preferred to be a Chaotic Neutral mage with a fetish for explosions. CN can justify anything and the Paladin made a nice shiny target in the middle of the melee for my fireballs 🙂
IRL – I’m almost exactly the opposite, I’m intensely Lawful to my own internalised rule set, but I have absolutely no sense that I have to inflict those rules on anyone else – well, except my son, and that’s mostly about teaching him how to make his own rules as he grows up.
JMG, Graham: The ratsphere definitely grabbed “slack” from the Church of the SubGenius, considering that what appears to be the initial source has a Book of the Subgenius link. 😉
The ratsphere in general is going to be interesting to watch for the next couple of decades, IMO – I suspect that their present hardline opposition to the occult is going to either invert or result in an occult-interested splinter group in the not-too-distant future, courtesy of some combination of return of the repressed, frame inversion, contrarian tendencies, surviving links to the ‘channers, and just blundering into reinventing occult philosophy. There’s rumblings there even now, mostly among the postrats and adjacents – some of them are talking about archetypes and egregors, and I know at least some of them are reading JMG because the syndicalism article got linked around a while back. And that’s not even taking into account the part where I suspect they’re tapping unusually strongly into one or two archetypes – “person who sees suffering, can’t ignore it, and has to Do Something about it” might be straight-up manifesting in the Effective Altruist community, and several major rat fiction serials seem to have glommed onto what I suspect is a rising archetype.
(Aside: Modern rationalism really does make a case for being the current label for what Spengler termed ethical socialism, doesn’t it?)
My standing impression is that there’s a specific kind of rage at play in America right now: the kind of rage you feel after being betrayed. (My mind’s eye has an image of an ancient farmer who planted his seeds and paid a tenth of the last year’s crop to the priest so they would make the rains come staring out at his bone-dry field and hearing that the granary is empty.)
Nastarana: THANK YOU for this: in traditional WASP households EVERYTHING, from food to clothing to access to travel and entertainment is rationed.
That is, almost exactly, how my mother ran her household. I knew that I had chosen to do things differently, but I didn’t know I was rejecting centuries of my heritage.
Then again, I’ve always been a contrary sort.
Lordyburd: “So what does a unnecessary involuntary restriction look like?”
Let’s start with being a slave on the chain gang. No freedom of movement and those in charge can do anything to you they want to, at any time, for any reason. Epictetus could probably give you chapter and verse. Paul the Apostle is quoted as saying “Slaves, obey your masters,” and he added “…but if you have a chance at freedom, take it.”
That’s the most obvious example.
As a follower of the dietary pattern language of a certain Cleveland dentist, I was dissappointed to hear that some followers had stepped outside of the rules of engagement. (I would have been interested in their comments) However it would seem to be outside of the ‘spirit’ of your blog to ban the name of the forementioned dentist. Surely you would ban the behaviour. We both understand the propensity of followers to ‘foam at the mouth’, but would you ban the name of a certain son of Mary, if certain followers broke rules of engagement. Loved the blog regards Bob
As a second semester psychology student (with interests in esoteric and occult matters, haha) I’d like to know more about what you said of psychology trying to get everyone on drugs or therapy. I believe a good deal more people than which actually take therapy could benefit a lot from it. Therapy to me is useful in knowing myself better and learning to have a better relationship with my psyche. I’d wish for everyone (whom actually needs it) to have this opportunity, and I feel like that would be my goal with my patients. The drugs are not my business (That goes to the psychiatrists, who in my opinion are a lot less empathic) and I definitely would try to run out of things to try before I channel my patient to the psychiatrist.
Is there anything you think I should have in mind?
I am someone who has a strong affinity for Neoplatonism, which is doubtless one of the reasons why I have loved the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis from an early age. I am looking forward to a deeper exploration of Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophy.
@ Gavin, Isabel, et alia
Re D&D ethics
Gavin, I’m glad you noted the comparison between your character and self. In the years I played AD&D (many, many, many moons ago — in the time before there “editions”), a number of my fellow players commented on the contrast between me and my character. “We all figured you’d be a magic-user. Why are you playing a thief?” And not only a thief, but the most risk-seeking, crazy-stunt-pulling, OMG-I-can’t-believe-you-pulled-that-off-why-are’t-you-dead-yet kind of thief you’d lay eyes on. Me? I’m INTJ through and through, and only recently have I really become comfortable with breaking out of my mental cage. (I wonder what kind of psychoanalysis might be done in looking at gamers and their characters.)
This post has brought to mind the memory of my third year acupuncture professor, Dr Jin, a practitioner of huge wisdom and experience who won the love and respect of his students so easily. That year we each had to treat volunteer patients recruited from among our willing friends and family, and from time to time bring the patient to class to present their cases. Dr Jin would listen gravely to our presentations, as we listed the patient’s history and presenting complaint, our observations, diagnostic decisions, and treatment plans, and then examine the patient himself, perhaps ask one or two further questions and then… teach.
Never once, during that year did I hear him overtly disagree with a student’s presentation or dismiss it. He would generally begin his own response with a gentle “I have a different way of looking at this.” And then he would outline his “different way” which would add much subtle nuance to the student’s diagnosis and treatment plan. He taught us that the heart of our “art” would always be a very specific, unrepeatable, clinical encounter between ourselves and our patients, and that while there was so much yet for us to learn, our way would ultimately be the “right way” for us, and we would draw to ourselves the patients who needed to find us, and to find our way. I learned so much from him, from his “different way of looking”, from his willingness to share his wisdom and experience, while never once imposing his view over the top of any of ours. On reflection, would I be wrong to consider him a natural Stoic?
“the Stoics recognized…that there’s no more certain guarantee of misery than making your sense of self depend on getting the rest of the world to cater to your sense of entitlement.” I do not agree. I think people who enjoy bossing other people around and have plenty of power to achieve it don’t consider themselves miserable. I suspect they think themselves exceptionally clever and superior to all the world. What makes a Stoic miserable is not the same criterion for happiness used by willful dominators. In my opinion. I also doubt the proposition that keeping an even emotional keel is most productive of happiness. Some people really enjoy being tossed on the ocean waves of strong emotion. The life a Stoic recommends looks like a prison or hell of boredom to them. (Deficient dopamine cascade, risk-seekers). To this lot, Stoics are afraid of really living to the full, cowardly even. Maybe only intellectual types can benefit from Stoic principles. And deep-felt religious types would find the Stoic heaven lacking in holy joy. Just saying….
Interesting distinction there. The thing about ethics as being about relationships between people is that it’s relative to the current culture and its pervasive beliefs about what is legitimate and what is not. An extreme example: I just saw a note about a book titled “Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel.” Most cultures we are familiar with (including ours) would say **** NO to the entire concept, but it wasn’t that unusual in Late Bronze Age cultures around the eastern Mediterranean.
With respect to JMG’s comment, he may have missed the essential point: that is, that the way you define ‘spirituality” has to do with the relationship with one’s soul.
The Greek philosophers vary a lot on this question. Epicurians, for instance, didn’t believe in an afterlife, so the question of a “soul” would have simply been definition-splitting to no purpose. Another philosophy believed that for most people, the “spiritual” component simply dissipated after death, but that you could strengthen it by certain practices so that it would persist. I’m sure there are other variations.
Since I believe in a “soul” that persists after death, the distinction makes sense to me; it would probably not make sense to an atheist.
Re: Buddha and happiness
I’m told that the Buddha is referred to as “the happy one” in much of the world, but not in the US for some reason.
Yes i suppose its a fine line between being Stoic and dissociating from things that are really grinding your gears , a la Barbara Ehrenreichs critique of the white-litey pop psychology of the new age , which has been enthusiastically taken up by the corporate sector. What you end up with here is managers who are a cross between Woody Allen and Josef Goebbels.
On the other hand , if you are a busy Roman Emperor , overseeing a vast Empire , with whole armies disappearing without trace into dense Germanic forests , (never to be seen again) , decadent elites constantly pestering you for live entertainment of feeding people to lions at the stadium while trying to stop your Oedipal son from shagging his sister and mother as well as everything else not nailed down , kicking back in the sweat-Toga , kicking off the sandals and indulging in a bit of mild dissociation , invoking the Goddess panacea could be a good bit of quick triage before the whole shemozzle resumes again tomorow !
Off topic, but here is an interview I thought our host and other readers of this blog might be interested in taking a look at. I have a friend in Portland, Oregon who is the founder and CEO of an investment capital firm which specializes in “under-served markets”, such as providing investment capital for small businesses owned by women, minorities, immigrants and veterans. Yesterday, he posted an interview he conducted with another professional investor, someone he considers to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the business.
One of the things which came out of the interview is that American financial markets are very nervous right now about the drift away from the US Dollar as the global reserve currency and the possibility that drift could turn into a stampede. At the end of the interview my friend asked the investor he was interviewing “How bad could it be?”, to which the man replied “Worse that you want to imagine; see 1979; on Steroids.”
The concept of self-mastery is terrifying because it means that people actually have to take responsibility for their actions AND accept that their actions don’t necessarily give them control over the external world. Basically mastering the idea that they are frequently powerless in the face of greater powers, while accepting, with grace, their responsibility for their reactions in face of that truth.
On the plus side it makes it far easier to accept the jacka**ery of others with a bemused smile, and a “well isn’t that nice.”
It isn’t a coincidence that accepting ones powerlessness over the external world becomes easier when one practices ritual magic, is it?
About the whole WASP thing, I’m reminded that traditional Southern culture is a combination of WASP and African influences. Where we deviate from the WASP norm, I’m thinking that’s indicative of our African influences.
Dear Michelle, I remember hearing Hispanic women, from fieldworker families, talk about making tortillas for dinner and how their brothers were forever snatching the new treats to eat with butter before the meal. That would have NEVER have been permitted in my mother’s kitchen. Different strokes.
I don’t actually know how ancient the tradition is. Given that the US was settled by European peasantry, it may be that such rationing evolved as a way to cope with poverty aggravated by the need to set aside stores for winter.
@pogonip – Something I internalized and have found quite useful comes from a scene in the 2nd Terminator movie- the one where Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good guy. In this scene, Sarah Connor is stitching up wounds in the terminator’s flesh covering, and John Connor asks him “do you feel pain?” He replies “The system registers the damage. The data could be interpreted as pain”
That phrase: “The data could be interpreted as pain” really sunk into my mind for some reason and has helped enormously in such things as recovering from surgery. It is hard to explain, really. The pain is still there, but it is just data regarding the status of that body part. Dunno if that helps, or how one would go about making one’s brain accept it if it doesn’t just “click” as it did for me, but I have found that pain causes me considerably less suffering than it did before I first heard the phrase. Best of luck come to you in finding your solution.
DT, good! Control of influences — yes, exactly, and that’s one of the keys to magic. I never found Epicurus particularly interesting or useful, though of course your mileage may vary, and Kant — well, he was a very odd duck, and his attempt to reason from facts to values by way of the categorical imperative was just as flawed as every other such attempt, as it rests on a flurry of unstated values. I don’t find him much more useful than Epicurus.
Shrama, maybe it’s me, but I’ve never found that kind of concern with definitions helpful. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a word corresponding to our word “spirituality,” for that matter, so it’s kind of a moot point.
Lordyburd, that’s a fair question. I meant “necessary” in the philosophical sense, as the opposite of contigent; something is necessary, in the philosophical use of the term, if it couldn’t have turned out any different, while something is contingent if things just happened to turn out that way. A necessary restriction is one hardwired into the nature of things, such as our inability to make four-sided triangles.
Armata, now surprise me…
Robert, the dislike of “harshness” must be a British liberal thing. Here the liberals are perfectly willing to be harsh — as I’ve noted before, you’ve never heard full-on, vicious hate speech until you’ve seen a room full of privileged American coastal liberals talking about the white inland working class. As for your final claim, though, we don’t know how many right answers there are to the basic questions of morality — as I noted in my post, there could be more than one. I plan on doing a post down the road about about polynomism, the thesis that there are in fact many valid options, and thus no one set of moral claims about human behavior can be validly applied to everyone.
Berke, that’s not the way Zeno saw things — but you’re certainly free to see things in your own way.
Karim, fair enough. I would disagree with your proposals, since there are times when doing harm to oneself, or to others, or even to the environment are to my mind justifiable actions. More broadly, I would disagree that there’s any set of moral claims, however basic, that everyone would accept, and I’m far from sure that there’s any set of moral claims that everyone should accept — “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression,” as William Blake says.
Redoak, I get that. I tend to be kind by default, and yes, it takes some discipline not to act on that when kindness would just enable the continuation of some dysfunctional habit.
Xabier, no doubt!
Oskari, fair enough. Since I don’t read Finnish I’m not sure how much of a thoughtful response I can make!
Croatoan, If every human action is biological because it’s done by (partly) biological beings, what have you communicated by saying that an election is biological? If everything is biological the word “biological” means nothing.
Lonnie, according to Buddhist theory, the Buddha entered nirvana and therefore didn’t reincarnate, so if he did reincarnate as Zeno, something has gone very wrong!
Jasonmierek, me neither.
Gavin, it should! These are the same ideas, expressed in a different context.
Voiceoftaredas, fascinating. I suspect the popularity of chaos magic (variously spelled) in the avant-garde also may feed into that, as chaos magic is basically occultism stripped of everything that might be offensive to a rationalist. As for Spengler’s comments on ethical socialism, bingo.
Bob, if I’d had to put up with a bunch of Christian evangelists who tried to turn the comments page into a forum for witnessing about Jesus, and ended up having loud conversations with one another on the comments page in which they praised each other extravagantly for saying such great things about Jesus while taking pot shots at those who criticized them — a bad habit I particularly detest — you’d better believe I would have slapped a ban on further posts about Jesus. I’ve banned topics from time to time for similar reasons in the past, too, because one of the best ways to make sure my comments page remains a haven for intelligent conversation is to see to it that attempts to abuse the space for proselytizing get smacked down hard.
Juan Pablo, my question to you is this: are you learning how to cure people so that they no longer need therapy, or are the things you’re learning all about keeping people doing therapy indefinitely?
Armata, duly noted! I suspect we’ll end up discussing that in due time.
David, good point. My D&D characters tended to be bluff, brawling, drinking, whoring rogues, which is about as far from my own character as you’re likely to get!
Scotlyn, I don’t know if “natural Stoic” is the word you want; it sounds like “wise” covers the territory quite adequately!
Gkb, that is to say, not everyone finds the Stoic path appropriate. I believe I mentioned that in the post!
Ataraxius, good. Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the positive-thinking tradition is hugely important, and needs to be integrated into any approach to one’s inner life these days. The great difference I see between Stoicism and positive thinking is that the positive thinker says “I don’t feel any pain at all,” while the Stoic says, “yes, it hurts. So?”
Armata, well, we’ll see! I expect a lively year. (Did you mean 1979, btw, or 1929?)
Varun, nope, it’s no coincidence at all!
Michelle, nice. The most useful thing I ever read on the subject of pain had been written in indelible marker on a sidewalk in Seattle’s University District, where I passed it every day on the way to classes the two years I spent finishing my bachelor’s degree. It read: PAIN IS YOUR FRIEND…
Lest things get too heavy, let me submit to you the sandwich alignment table. In practice I say a BLT is a sandwich, but my heart says bring on the poptart.
The transcript of the interview said 1979, which as I recall was a bad enough year economically, characterized by stagflation, high unemployment rates, high gas prices and all the rest.
Thank you Patricia. I am thinking that ‘unnecessary involuntary restrictions’ are those kinds of circumstances, events that would make us say, ‘that’s not fair!’ Or, ‘what have I done to deserve this?!’
So, one is to recognise the unnessecary as unjust and unfair, and so take the chance for external freedom if it comes up, (or if indeed it is possible in the world of action and intent), but never let it chain your heart and mind. Yes?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, they resonated with me deeply.
Through meditation and prayer, I have recently come to realise how much of my life I have spent living once-removed, as if I was merely a witness trapped here on this Earth. Never felt home here. I too, have sometimes taken the spirituality quest to the extreme, specifically trying to disassociate myself from life and feelings in a somewhat stoic manner (mostly because I don’t know how to deal with said feelings, because I fear something horrible will happen to me if I express them naturally).As a consequence my fears and terrors only increased in intensity, and I ended up traumatising myself. What I did wasn’t self-mastery, but slave-mastery, though I only came to it in my late twenties.
And yes, I too find that I have a deep-rooted beliefs along the lines of “I can’t be happy unless (insert rationalised restriction here)” “I can’t go after what I want until ‘that’ happens” “I am here on sufferance, and don’t ‘really’ deserve even my accomplishments”
With all the love and healing one can pass along cyberspace,
JMG:”the idea of founding a system of ethics on happiness and misery contradicts some very deeply rooted presuppositions in our society” : my chosen values and beliefs for action in life are roughly speaking “caring for the ecosphere” although I’m perfectly aware that it’s a loser for the foreseeable future.
My question to you is whether you think that one can remain in action even without feeling pain about the destruction of what one values. What is it that triggers action?
PS I’m using your description of stoicism for my discursive meditation–by the way this notion of discursive meditation I discovered in your posts is a valued gift, thank you.
Addendum about pain: I can cope with physical pain (maybe I’ve been lucky there) better than with psychological pain.
Dear John Michael… Absolutely !
It is all indeed written plain and clear… My problem with “In medio stat virtus” was not to have overlooked it. It was that I had but a simple intellectual understanding of it. Together with the (to me complex) concept of “indifferent”, it ended me looking for this “medio” by pitching my will against my will of “chocolate”. And as time would go, I would feel the tension grow, leaving me in a state either of deeper and deeper frustration, or of somewhat sickly overindulgence. Which didn’t seem like the road towards happiness to me.
As you see, the problem I had was very practical, and idiosyncratically linked to the slowness on the uptake that comes together with the rest of my, ahem, awen ? It took me all this time, to finally get to the point where I comprehended (as one level deeper than understood) what was meant. Pitching my will against itself is bound to fail, either in flames or in nevrotic frustrations. But pitching myself between two opposing wills, like the climber in a pipe, works: Pitching myself between my desire for “chocolate” and my desire to feel well allows me to use my will to search for this perfect “chocolateness spot” as a support to both of them.
Which is very different than having my will of finding this perfect spot either support my will of not eating “chocolate” against my will of having some, or the other way around: “I have decided NOT to eat chocolate. But I feel frustrated. And not eating chocolate is NOT the perfect spot anyway”, and here we go for an other round of merry-go-round !
I hadn’t figured out enough, actually *felt* that something indifferent isn’t something to fight away more than to fight for. Yes, as I said, nothing deeply brilliant here. Re-reading the sentence even gets a laugh out of myself. Go ahead and have one too, for someone again discovered the Great Alchemical Secret of making Lukewarm Water 😉
and @Kfish, you are welcome. None of us lives exactly the same life, but some times earing about someone else’s gives a new “feeling” about things that can be useful. Wish you all the best in finding your poise.
@JMG and GBK:
JMG: “the Stoics recognized…that there’s no more certain guarantee of misery than making your sense of self depend on getting the rest of the world to cater to your sense of entitlement.”
@ GBK “I do not agree. I think people who enjoy bossing other people around and have plenty of power to achieve it don’t consider themselves miserable.”
I do think JMG is pointing to a big picture that is correct – that is to say “dependency” on any kind of “catering” from the rest of the world – full of beings with intentions and purposes of their own which do not include so catering – is a dependency on a false sense of the world. To maintain such a false sense of the world, necessitates a continual resort to violence or threats of force (however veiled) to exert control over the acts of others.
On the other hand, as you point out GBK, a person who has the power, for a prolonged period of time, to succeed at doing so, *probably* will not consider themselves to be miserable, but instead will consider themselves to be alone in a sea of useless, stubborn, or otherwise obstructive people, who are obviously to blame for every setback and thwarting.
Oh, yes, at times one must cut off one’s leg to save the rest of the body, at times one must defend one self and thus cause harm to the attacker, at other times it is inevitable to cause harm to the environment so that we can mine for metals so useful for us and so on. Such actions become justifiable if we have a higher reasons or principles we can appeal to.
(1) May be those higher principles might be the closest thing we might get to as common basic claims?
(2) Let us assume that we can never get a basic common set of moral claims for all, does that mean that ethics are to a large extent an arbitrary set of rules and regulations with very little or nothing in common with each other?
(3) Would that not leave the door to the justification of all kinds of horrors?
(4) Could the Golden Rule not be a common basis for morality?
(5) Now, each of us has some sort of moral code, what is the basis of that code? Custom? Habit? Fear of the law? Empathy?
Allow me another comment:
if ethics have no common base then it appears that ethics are arbitrary and not subject to discussions. To each his/her own and that is the end of the matter.
If ethics are non arbitrary, then it follows (trivially) that a common basis exists.
I am sorry for this sort of binary approach, but I cannot see how we can avoid those questions.
Hi John Michael,
“Should” is a bad word and it most certainly shouldn’t be used! Sorry, that was a slip of the fingers on the keyboard. :-)!
Years ago when I left the corporate world, and took my first few tentative steps into the natural world where humans actually live, and stoicism was a comfort to me. It still is. Today I spent almost six and half hours without a break hauling, splitting, and stacking firewood. That’s life and the job had to be done as the weather looked like it was going to turn to the worse. And now the job is done. It is a good metaphor for our current economy too!
The mainstream religion of today (progress) tells me that firewood is a bad thing, even though I have a relationship with the trees, thank them for their contribution for my winter heating, and I work towards ensuring their continued survival in a complex environment subject to repeated disasters. I ask people how the brown coal, gas, black coal, and hyrdo are all working for them? And they always looked perplexed by that question. Of course it is also not lost on me that using a local energy resource (including the sun) is one way to freedom and contentment. It is just a very limited resource.
Of course, I long since learned the hard way that we must first change ourselves, as we have little to no control over others. I don’t worry about it nowadays, although plenty of people feel that I should (there is that pesky word again).
In the long distant past, I marched against wars for oil, but then went on to use oil without a concern in the world and the irony of that is not lost on me nowadays. I just get on with the work that needs to be done – and is in fact calling me to be done. I often wonder why other people can’t see or hear that calling? The Aboriginals have a core belief that their very souls are at peril if they ignore that call, and I honestly have no reason to doubt their observations in that matter.
I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on free will as we have had an ongoing discussion about this matter on and off again for a number of years now. It was an awful and shocking realisation the day that I understood what you mean in this most important of matters. And believe me, I tried long and hard to dodge my responsibilities, but then the stoics also know that accepting responsibility is a path to freedom and happiness. It is a complex business.
I really enjoyed your story telling foray into the world of philosophy!
Hi John Michael,
Sorry to go off topic, but have you noticed the recycling story which is unfolding? It is big, but nobody seems to be aware of it – or want to talk about it. I’m sorry to say, but I reckon Mr Catton Jr. would not at all be surprised by this turn of first world events.
JMG, we have the contemptuous liberals over here too. What I was perhaps getting round to, is that freedom can be in more danger from Good Guys than from Bad Guys.
One of our politicians, Boris Johnson, got into some trouble during the Referendum campaign for allegedly comparing the EU’s regime to Hitler’s. As a matter of fact he was just listing a centuries-long series of attempts to dominate Britain by Continental powers, and setting the EU in that context, but never mind that for now – he mentioned Hitler and the EU in the same paragraph, and that was enough to draw down wrath upon his head. But my point is this: to compare the danger from the EU with that from Hitler is, actually, to understate the case.
Hitler was a purely external, military threat. So long as we could hold that threat at bay, the most he could do to us was drop a lot of bombs and V2 rockets, kill a lot of people and do a lot of damage. He could not get us to obey a single one of his edicts. He had no authority over us at all. And the British quislings were an insignificant handful, if indeed there were any at all apart from “Lord Haw-Haw”.
Contrast this with our situation vis a vis the EU. Over here there is a huge amount of visceral hatred for the idea of a self-governing Britain. Most members of Parliament are still Remainers at heart; a majority of the young voted Remain; the civil service and the media are virtually all likewise in favour of rule from Brussels. Sure, the Leavers won the Referendum, but that must have been a miracle – a flash of conscience from a public that for decades has acquiesced or encouraged submission to the Thing. And how has all this come to pass? How did we almost lose our right to govern ourselves over the last half century? Answer: don’t blame BGs – blame GGs.
Another comment! In place of arbitrary, that may be too harsh a word, one could substitute the word “circumstancial”. Anyhow the argument remains the same.
Interesting. I didn’t recognize the Stoicism in the philosophers who’ve most influenced my ethics (Deleuze, Nietzsche and Spinoza) but it’s clearly there. Deleuze’s whole reading of joy, as making real your power of action, and sadness as feeling like you had some capacity but it was blocked or frustrated, is a beautiful (and quite Stoic) concept. What I particularly like about this ethical system is that it goes beyond simply your power of action in the world. Rather it’s based on affect; your power to affect and, importantly, to be affected. I find adding the power to be affected is the most important part. Most applications of domination are power without affection (or being affected). A bureaucrat who decides that thousands of people get kicked off welfare and go deeper into poverty isn’t affected by their power of action. On social media we don’t see the faces of those we shame and humiliate. Drone pilots sees the grainy silhouettes of the people they bomb but are insulated from the violence in a way traditional soldiers are not. We have effect but not affection. Introducing affection into power of action gives us responsibility in the true sense of the word, an ability to respond and to be changed by that which we are changing.
Our exchange on Zen and your comment on your Neo-platonic leanings led me to do some surfing. Granted surfing is not the best research, but I did find enough on Plotinus’ teacher, Ammonius Saccas, to indicate there is a strong possibility that Plotinus did get some Buddhist exposure. There is no proof either way of course, but there were Buddhists in Ammonius’ home town of Alexandria, and some think that Saccas is a variation of Sakya, and that Ammonius may have been a second generation Indian. Several of Ammonius’ students appear to have been interested in Eastern philosophy. All speculation, but interesting none the less, and a sure sign that we do not know as much as we think we do. LOL
The Stoic point about ‘misery’, as defined by the philosophy, is that people may indeed get a high from riding waves of emotion and throwing their weight around, but that other modes of existence are perhaps possible and certainly preferable, leading to greater human capacity, and to being a better, more stable and useful member of the human community.
However, if waves of futile emotion beckon irresistibly, then the Stoic is indifferent and has no wish to convert or cajole others into his mode of existing.
‘If you can teach them, do so; if not, leave them be.’
SJWs, Revolutionary Utopianists and Puritans take note……
Thank you for this. it is very interesting food for contemplation. I would just like to offer that from the scientific approach to discovering the truth is rooted in dispassionate longing to get to the bottom of a phenomena. It seems the Stoics also sought to get to the basics of reality by using an approach that assumes our own knowledge is incomplete and or skewed. The assumption of inherent bias has led to the scientific method which seems very similar to the traditional form of stoicism you so eloquently describe. The propensity of humans to “know” something or at least assume that authority “knows” is I feel at the root of the bias.
Even when a great deal of scientific evidence is discovered to back up a hypothesis its still not really “known” to be “true”. Its rather on a spectrum that is moving toward the fundamental truth. Even then there can be an inherent bias. For example, the equations Schrödinger came up for quantum mechanics to describe the evidence which showed how atoms and subatomic matter behave are inherently non-dualistic, yet scientists can’t fathom this. Even today scientists approach the study of quantum physics from the perspective that atoms are particles or things in the dualistic sense. Even though the math says that atoms and subatomic particles can behave both as a wave and a particle, its really always assumed that atoms are particles or completely separate things. Building blocks of all matter so to speak. if one delves into the math and evidence a little deeper then what is revealed is that matter is not made of particles or “things” at all but rather, matter is really just a manifestation of fuzzy of patterns of energy which are constantly interacting and changing. What the physics shows is that the universe is not a universe of things its a universe of energy or process. Yet so many physicists still search for the elusive particle such as the Higgs-Boson which will allow them to have a grand unified theory of everything just like they did from Newtonian physics before the “Ultraviolet Catastrophe.” (The “Ultraviolet Catastrophe” as it is called in the history books, was the first bit of evidence from experiments that showed matter doesn’t behave the way it should if it were actually Newtonian based at the quantum level.) It was a “catastrophe” because people have the need to “know” what their world is and the evidence that black body radiation didn’t behave that way made most physicists of the time very uncomfortable. Even Einstein famously said: “God doesn’t play dice.” He was referred to the statistical underpinnings of quantum mechanics which flew in the face of most people’s notion that God was in charge and had set everything up in a fatalistic way.
As humans we feel uncomfortable when we don’t “know” what the “truth” is. It makes us very uncomfortable to not know anything. So we all have layers of “knowing” and belief which form our world view. We rarely seek the truth so much as we seek to reinforce that world view. So we seek patterns to use as evidence to support our current way of seeing the world rather then looking to that evidence to come up with the best explanation or hypothesis. I’ve seen so many scientists fail because they were using their research to prove a point they believed to be true instead of using their research to find out whats really true.
Prejudice is also an aspect of this human drive to “know.” By “knowing” I am referring to having a fixed definition. For instance you may think that you know who someone “is” only to be shocked when you learn something about them that doesn’t fit your previous definition. The uncomfortable feeling people have around someone who is schizophrenic is rooted in their lack of ability to “know” that person or predict that person’s behavior.
How can we ever really have a truer understanding of someone without the understanding that they are always changing and that they have hidden potentials which you probably haven’t seen yet. I used to feel really uncomfortable in situations where I had to project a certain image towards others simply so they could continue to see me in a certain usually very narrow way. Many people hate Trump but do they really know who he is? He is a lot of things, most of which we probably aren’t aware of, and he is always changing anyway, so when someone sees him as “good” or “bad” then they are really just fooling themselves into a delusion. Judging others based solely on appearance is also another example of our species propensity to “know.”
I believe that the effectiveness of science and perhaps stoicism is rooted in how comfortable the observer is in “not knowing”.
Ok, I think can answer that I am learning things that can cure people. I’ll keep asking myself that question for the length of my career. Thanks a lot!
You said “maybe it’s me, but I’ve never found that kind of concern with definitions helpful.”
I am not surprised, but I think you have made that distinction more than once. Didn’t you say long back that there are some very nice people who don’t have a shred of spirituality in them, or something to that effect? Also just a couple of weeks back I think you also commented about how the Abrahamic religions fuse religion with ethics and spirituality (again I am paraphrasing) and that you thought it to be bad idea.
So I wasn’t trying to split definitional hairs but extending a point which you have made not just in passing, but also emphasized.
You may be right about atheists and souls, but don’t forget that many atheists worship proxy gods and also believe in proxy souls. So an atheist who is fanatical about fitness and has a diet and exercise regimen that admits no compromise is practicing a certain form of spirituality in the sense I define it.
@Juan Pablo – “Ok, I think can answer that I am learning things that can cure people. I’ll keep asking myself that question for the length of my career.”
I wish you much good luck in your career and think continuing to ask yourself the question is an excellent plan. Although I am practice a healing art in a different field to yours, I will say that one of my teachers once asked us to be clear in our minds as to the difference between approaching our patients with a healing intention, and approaching them with an agenda.
A healing intention is essentially, in every encounter, to place the very best of one’s skill and knowledge and clinical experience at the disposal of the patient, so they may freely use it (or not) in their personal journey. An agenda is to have one’s own firm vision of what that person’s healing looks like and to insist they take our vision on board regardless of the consequences. In my teacher’s view, and in mine also, this second one is a fundamental mistake, as we will not be always beside our patient, nor in a position to experience the consequences with them. As they will live the life that is theirs, and experience the consequences that living it brings, our gift of skilll and knowledge, given freely without any secret strings or ties to our own wishes/agendas, will add the most to their freedom and happiness.
Anyway, that is the question I ask myself daily. Am I approaching this clinical encounter with a healing intention or with an agenda? But I do like, and think I will also add the one that JMG proposes, and that you have accepted, to my own practice.
JMG, @Scotlyn and @ GBK “I do not agree. I think people who enjoy bossing other people around and have plenty of power to achieve it don’t consider themselves miserable.”
Maybe they don’t, yet they are miserable in an objective sense. Consider Sauron from the Lord of the Rings: an angelic being whose whole reason for existing was diminished to trying to achieve full dominion over others (which is an impossible task). Mighty, surely, but would you want to be him? Imposing you will over others is probably the most taxing of all endeavors.
“What do we control? Our actions in our outer lives—our words and deeds—and our actions in our inner lives—our thoughts, beliefs, and values. What don’t we control? Everything else.”
No, I am saying it is false to assert that we do not control others. We *do* control others’ actions and thoughts and even ruin their chances for happiness. Maybe short term, maybe lifelong. Depends how much power we hold and exert. Our means and methods are numerous: money, advertising, privilege, status, influence, lies, folly, acting out, sexual allure, guns, fists, emotional bullying, brutality, chains, jails, threats, ignorance plain or enforced, withholding affection, or food, or other necessities, etc. Even love can be used in the service of compulsion.
Far from causing us misery, there is a considerable degree of reward and reinforcement for success in controlling someone else. Control over dogs, sheep, oxen, cars, speed, Congress, fellow humans is a sweet, juicy feeling for many, if not most; and for small-souled tyrants most of all. So what if the feeling doesn’t last? Neither does satiation of hunger. All the more reason to go on dominating more and more often, like any addiction. So what if it is uncertain of fufillment? All the more reason to grow increasingly brutal in enforcing our will, bold in stealing others’ liberty. To be challenged only ups the thrill of being Alpha.
I deny that the core motivation for being moral is to secure our own freedom. It is not self-interest but other-interest. It is the sublime act of renouncing our own base desire to enslave others. Only when we have first relinquished our urge to control others do we gain the inner power not to be moved by other urges: for food, for pleasure, for belonging—to reject all the rewards that biologically and culturally determine most people’s behavior, and which offer handles to tyrants of any stripe. We cannot have freedom without first giving freedom. Like forgiveness, it is the giving up that gives back.
Asceticism by itself does not motivate kindness or compassion or morality towards others. But relinquishing worldly power does. Jesus on the mount, after long fasting, was offered the world and all its glory. He declined to accept power over others. The perversion of his teachings into a worldly Panopticon for crowd control is what deserves Zeno’s laughter.
Perhaps I am misreading your argument, but you seem to me to be heading down the same “unitary” path that I see globalists on when discussing geopolitics. Namely, that there must “only be one!” In their context, it is things like universal rights, universal governance, universal codes of conduct, etc. The concept of national sovereignty is foreign to them and the idea that a nation-state is sovereign within its own borders is frankly anathema.
That differing peoples might have differing bases for their particular systems of conduct parallels this notion, I think. Granted, within a given society, there needs to be some common basis for people to relate to one another, or else that society loses coherence. But nothing says that two distinct societies must have a common basis. (Although “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone” could possibly be construed as commonality, if one stretches the concept a bit.) One society may be based on individual liberty; another might be based on filial piety. If each functions well in their respective societies, then that utility is the only commonality necessary, I’d argue. Neither is right and neither is wrong; both work.
@ JMG, thank you for your thoughtful response. I definitely relate to “I Am A Rock”. Slowly but surely I’ve been growing out of my shell for well over a decade now, but it is something still very much in process.
@ Rose, given what you wrote, I sense you are further along on similar inner terrain and your thoughts appear to me very applicable to my situation. Your approach strikes me as beautiful and profound. Many, many thanks!
@ Lordyburd, your welcome and thank you so, so much for your blessing!
Science is, in fact, not a “tool” or a help for the technology; from its inception is the modern way to create metaphors, to legitimize or de-ligitimize the stories of the societies.
The Science was, in its inception, a kind of “system of de-legitimization” of the “Old Order”, in fact a direct attack on the established order of mythological-traditional roots, because, for example in its origin the object of scientific research was “celestial bodies” (planets and satellites) and not to solve any earthly or pragmatic problems (relation/cooperation between science and technology was a XIX century development), so they focused on problems more related to the “celestial order of things” which was the base of the worldview of the religious legitimacy of the old society, and the object of the sustained attack of Science. An attack to the old “representation” as a way to get rid of its legitimacy, and then of the social order that is maintained by it
At the end of the XIX century, with the seemingly unstoppable march of Science, everybody agree that it will give us The Total Knowledge and thank to this, finally we will achieve The Total Control of the world to fulfill the cartesian dream of being the Masters and Possesors of Nature, but then, in the first decades of the XX century this dream sinks with the works of Gödell, Türing, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, and many others
One must interpret the “Great Crumbling of Certainty” of the Science in the beginning of XX century as the same decadence phenomena of the West (in spenglerian terms, but this was also prophesied by Nietzsche). IMO It was a “social” phenomena which made this kind of conclusions “visible”, not only a mere “scientific discovery”. In the period between wars we saw the birth of : Dadaism, Surrealism, Fascism, Qanta and Uncompledness
After this “shocking” years (betweeb WWI and WWII), the paradigm recovers and this “metaphors” are confined in the “weirdness” of the infinitesimally small, so it does not “means” nothing for our scale, and we can continue with our dream of “Total Knowledge” to achive “Total Control” that are the foundation of the “Myth of Progress”, but it wil not last, our civilization is death wound and we have to “return”
It is time to remember what Nietzsche wrote in the Origin of Tragedy (¡1870!):
“From Socrates onwards, the mechanism of concepts, judgments and conclusions was prized, above all other abilities, as the highest activity and most admirable gift of nature..”
“At present, however, Science, spurred on by its powerful delusion, is hurrying unstoppably to its limits, where the optimism hidden in the essence of logic will founder and break up…”
“Not only is the bond between human beings renewed by the magic of the Dionysiac, but Nature, alienated, inimical, or subjugated, celebrates once more her festival of reconciliation with her lost son, Humankind”
All, and with respect to Robert Gibson
I voted in both British referendums on EU membership. In the first referendum in 1975 I voted ‘out’ of the then European Community (Common Market) because I foresaw a trajectory toward corporate globalism within a hard European frontier. (Something indeed a bit like the way the EU has ended up.) However, it was not an easy decision back then because the 1970s were fraught with difficulties (oil shocks and stalled economic growth as well as dangerous nuclear strategies). Also, I had recently worked in North America and realized that though I might be British, I was recognizably ‘European’. Additionally I could personally look back to the awfulness of war and the subsequent very real Western European peace that Britain had benefited from. Because I was young, ‘Empire’ seemed long gone and one could be realistic about ‘Commonwealth’, ex-Dominions and so on, so I knew our diminished Britain was taking a .serious risk in ‘going alone’. But, nevertheless, in 1975, on balance, our sovereign ‘British’ Union called more strongly, so I plumped for ‘out’. It was not to be.
Come 2016, in contrast I voted ‘Remain’ despite the awful crowd at the top wanting to stay in. I disliked even more the ‘out’ arguments of Tory ‘rightish’ politicians, Johnson, Gove and etc. My judgment was that the English working class or at least the demoralized people of the older industrial areas had been sorely let-down for decades by the Labour Party during the era we now call glottalization. In Scotland these folk had somewhere to go politically- they could rally with Scottish Nationalism. The more depressed older English working class on the other hand was lost and was going to rebel and want to ‘go back to the old days’. English affluent toffs were egging them on. I sympathized with people in the run-down areas, but did not join them. This time our Union did not call for us to pull together. The very opposite was/is going to happen. We are dramatically split geographically, and the centuries old UK is being forced apart. And goodness me, think of the danger in Ireland. Isn’t history interesting?
The EU, USA and Britain face serious predicaments with much in common. I fear especially for Europe . For me it is inescapable: Britain is European, and geography trumps economy as the race for resources in the global economy intensifies. No ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision folks – let us look forward to JMG’s discussion and hope for the maintenance of good will, civility and morality, if we can.
JMG et al.,
Stoicism is fine for emperors and slaves, but citizens of a republic are better served by looking to Aristotle, suitably corrected and expanded with insights from those Abrahamic faiths you love to blame for everything. A dash of American Pragmatism helps too.
Eudaimonia, for Aristotle, is the contemplative life pursued collaboratively, and a political system is just to the extent that it makes this “good life” accessible to all citizens. To properly participate in such a life and such a political system, the individual must cultivate virtues, which is very hard to do without the right kind of education system in place. Aristotle understands the connection between ethics and politics far better than either liberalism or Stoicism.
As for freedom, these days the dominant view in Anglo-American academic philosophy is compatibilism, i.e., the notion that all our actions are in fact effectively determined, but that nevertheless some are “free” in the sense that they result from internal causes (our own motivations and desires) rather than external compulsion (someone using force, threats, drugs, mind control, or something similar to control our behavior). On this view, we are morally responsible for our “free” acts, even though we could not have acted differently, because or motivations and desires are themselves determined by environment and heredity.
This compatibilist notion of “freedom” is not freedom in the morally relevant sense. Either we are determined or we are not, and if we are, then moral deliberation is a mere epiphenomenon. The ball on a roulette wheel bounces around while the wheel spins before it inevitably lands where it must; that is analogous to our psychological process of deliberation in a determined universe. I cannot believe that that is going on and still believe that my actions are right or wrong; that requires a degree of doublethink that I cannot muster. Either I have morally relevant freedom, meaning that I have a real choice, i.e., “could have done otherwise”, or my behavior is determined, and is neither right nor wrong, but just is what it must be.
Both determinism and its denial are tenable, but determinism implies moral nihilism. I reject moral nihilism. (I’m going to go right on being outraged by unarmed black kids getting shot by cops, etc.; there is probably not much I can do about most of it, but for now I choose to do what little I can rather than cultivating Stoic/Buddhist serenity or detachment.) Since I reject moral nihilism, I must also reject determinism.
William, funny! The Bread Bag alignment chart from the same site is pretty good, too.
Armata, fair enough — I just wanted to make sure, as that’s a common typo.
Dominique, who said that Stoics don’t feel pain? Pain, whether physical or emotional, isn’t a voluntary action of the body or the mind, therefore it’s not something you control. What you control is how you choose to respond to it.
Seb, gotcha. So you were creating a binary between your will to be healthy and your will to enjoy chocolate, and now you’ve figured out how to turn the binary into a ternary.
Scotlyn, good. Whether people consider themselves miserable or not is not necessarily the best measure of how miserable they actually are — what, after all, are they comparing themselves to?
Karim, well, in point of fact, we don’t have a single moral template to fall back on. Different people have radically different opinions about morality, and twenty-odd centuries of well-meaning attempts to come up with some kind of common basis for morality have simply added to the competition, as every “common basis” ends up in contention with every other proposed “common basis.” That being the case, I’m not convinced that it’s useful to try the same thing over again. Instead, I suggest, the best option is to figure out what works best to allow people with radically different moral visions to live together in society — and that, as I see it, is best served by attitudes of mutual tolerance and a willingness by all parties to make room for differences of opinion.
Chris, to my mind, the Aboriginals are quite correct, and the logical conclusion is that a vast number of people these days have souls that are either in deadly peril or already lost. I forget who it was who pointed out that a lot of people in today’s industrial societies behave like “hungry ghosts,” one of the traditional Buddhist categories of damned souls…
No, I haven’t heard about the recycling story. What’s up?
Robert, oh, no question — self-proclaimed “good guys” are always the most dangerous threat to life and liberty. It’s those who are convinced they are in the right who always commit the most egregious atrocities. That’s one of the things that makes me roll my eyes at the fake villains of so much modern imaginative fiction. You’ve got Lord Voldemort cackling evilly at the head of his Death Eaters — and that’s purely a wet dream on the part of the self-proclaimed Good People, who desperately want to believe that their opponents secretly agree with them about what’s good and what’s bad, and are just being contrary. In the real world, Voldemort wouldn’t call himself that, and his followers wouldn’t go around wearing I AM AN EVIL PERSON t-shirts — no, it would be that visionary idealist Tom Riddle and his Campaign for a New Wizarding Future, talking in moving terms about how the wizarding world is being crushed by hegemonic mudblood-centric oppression.
Lalala, hmm! I haven’t read Deleuze; clearly I’ll have to fix that. The Stoics had a huge impact on European philosophy; pretty much everyone from the Renaissance onward who dealt with ethics at all either borrowed from them, deliberately reacted against them, or was informed by a thoughtful reading of them.
Mac, that’s entirely possible — and the exchange may also have gone both ways, as Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire brought Greek and Indian culture into contact. I can well imagine learned Greeks in Alexandria listening thoughtfully to Buddhist missionaries, and learned Indians in Banaras listening thoughtfully to Greek philosophers, to both sides’ benefit.
Xabier, nicely summarized.
Karlozilla, excellent! You get tonight’s gold star for a highly useful reflection on the limitations of knowledge. Yes, and we’ll be talking about many of the points you raised as the discussion proceeds.
Juan Pablo, so long as you keep that in mind, I have no further worries.
Shrama, my take is that all definitions are ultimately arbitrary, as we’re talking about which sets of vocal sounds to assign to this or that bundle of experiences. When you say “this set of ideas isn’t ethical, it’s spiritual,” my response is, “okay, so what?” You’ve assigned them to a set of vocal noises that differ from the ones I’ve used, is all. If you want to go on from there and say something that isn’t just about the assignment of vocal noises — say, that in your opinion Greek philosophy didn’t pay enough attention to relations with other persons — that’s another matter, and we can discuss it.
Bruno, that’s certainly what Zeno thought!
Gkb, that is to say, you disagree with the Stoics. So? I noted in my post that one part of the Stoic’s freedom is freedom not to worry about it when other people have different ideas. You’ve touched on a core theme that we’ll be discussing further, though, because it’s one of the interesting differences between ancient Greek ethics and most modern versions of ethics is that the ancient Greeks didn’t consider compassion to be a virtue. It literally wasn’t on their radar screens. That tends to outrage a lot of people nowadays — along the same lines you’ve used, as often as not — but it points up some of the things that Spengler discussed at length. More in due time!
Violet, I get that. When I first heard that song it seemed to offer something close to an ideal state to aspire to! That was a long time ago, but there are times when that sort of separation from others is as essential as a bandage on a bleeding wound.
Hi Michael, thanks for your reply regarding the banning of names. One more contribution and i will leave this behind, unless you specifically ask me to respond.
I appreciate a set of congruent values within which I live. My observation is many others do too. What i observe is that many of these values taken on, are ‘standing on the shoulders of others’ whether it be my community, individuals I relate to, authors (dead or alive) or other forms of communication. Sometimes the concepts and values, associated with other shoulders, have been with me a lifetime, at other times they are just part of a progression.
I also observe that people often fit into categories 1) Group think/religious those whose frame of reference for their values is held coherently by others, and this is an important part of their frame of reference 2) individuals, those whose frame of reference is held largely within themselves. Of course there is a continuum between the two.
The ‘dreaded dentist’ is one of the shoulders that I have stood on. My sense is that this is probably a lifelong integrated part of my values, I don’t have a sense that it is my religion – but I’m aware that other followers of the dreaded dentist do appear to have taken on a religious framework. ie not all followers are the same, whether it be Jesus, Buddha, Rudolf Steiner, Marx, Lenin, etc
My concern is with the banning of names and concepts, please smack down the arguments you disagree with, or the behaviour you detest (its your blog) but in doing so name the arguments and the behaviour.. You acknowledge that addressing behaviour (AAA) was so much more powerful than banning product (Prohibition), Please consider your position on banning names and concepts. My observation is that it dishes out another victim card to the banned follower, and they double down on their behaviour, whereas if it is exposed, and alternatives offerred, you have some possibility that you will influence a shift in their behaviour.and build a common sense of ethical discussion
The shoulders of many I stand on, were ridiculed and ostracised, and many attempts were made to ‘shut them down’ Banning names and concepts is uncomfortable for me.
I’m not a Christian, although it was part of the evolution of my values to live in a Christian culture. For what its worth – I dont believe that you would ban the naming of Christ, or the key concepts and values that have arisen around his legacy. I could see you targeting a particular brand of Christianity and its associated strategies (behaviour) for destructive dialogue. However I would expect that you would name the behaviour before you did – transparency. In my opinion, banning names and key concepts is akin to burning libraries – doesn’t take us forward. Thank you for allowing me the space to share this, lets get back on track, I am exploring stoicism in my life
P.S. I am not the senator from Tennessee, I live in a rural village in New Zealand and I am exploring my indigeneity in this context, so your sharing and those of your followers are an inspiration to me in my journey
Chris: WHAT recycling story that’s unfolding? Link, please? I haven’t heard a thing on the subject recently.
lalala: The people who do the most damage, apart from the viciously cruel by choice or ideology, are those who never see their victims face to face, or as real people, but only see numbers on a page or screen. And who generally have no power to alter the Sacred Policy of their superiors. The online news ran a story about an ICE agent who had to quit his job because it had turned into breaking up families. That was about his only choice.
I’m not sure how to say this politely, but extending a definition to something it doesn’t originally include and then reasoning from it as if it was the original referent is a logical fallacy.
When I use the word “soul” it means something like “that which is immortal and reincarnates.” It does not include the ideas of proxy gods or proxy souls, whatever those are – and note that I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and have lots of people in my environment who do exactly that – they’re called Humanists.
Using my definition, I see a clear distinction between “spirituality,” that is, things having to do with the spirit or soul, and ethics, that is, things having to do with one’s relation to society. The one at least possibly transcends culture, the other is thoroughly embedded in it.
JMG’s point is that this doesn’t have a lot to do with this weeks’ essay, to which I agree, so I’m not going to follow up on it.
JMG wrote: “as I see it, is best served by attitudes of mutual tolerance and a willingness by all parties to make room for differences of opinion. ”
Well, here’s our common basis!!!! Not a common template, never! Just a common basis so that humans can build something together. I am not trying to be facetious nor am I trying to redefine ethics but a willingness to accept differences and mutual tolerance are at the heart of ethics as I see it. Once we accept the above, the Golden Rule comes in next.
It is sufficient…
You would make a good citizen of the Republic of Mauritius, Mr Greer!
JMG wrote: “the logical conclusion is that a vast number of people these days have souls that are either in deadly peril or already lost”
Could you please expound a bit on the above. It sounds so scary!
@Scotlyn, @Bruno: I see your point and agree with JMG that domineering people are dependent on others to get their jollies. Part One of the problem is they get their jollies from snatching our lollies, so speak. They do not want the lollipop—they want the power to take mine away. Part Two is that if they meet defeat at the hands of a bigger and better bully, then they merely turn to rend the weak: those less able to defend themselves. If bullies cannot beat up their family, they’ll beat up their dogs. If they are deprived of dogs, they will happily torture insects. Alas! There is an endless supply of victims in the world. Part Three is that anyone who fights back is already robbed from the get-go. Every second spent opposing them is theft of one’s energy to do whatever you wanted to do in the first place if they were not hi-jacking your time. The freedom of a slave to refuse to work and suffer the lash or death is qualitatively different from the freedom of an individual to live and prosper from their own efforts, not giving any part of their wealth or labor to someone else. Part Four is that the one and only way to cause a conscienceless individual to experience misery is for everyone and everything in the world to thwart them every moment of the day. This is improbable if not impossible. Nothing I know of compels an obstinate aggressor to cease finding pleasure in aggression.
I grant you that this is an extreme position, but I am trying to argue that personal freedom is not the fundamental human motive for ethical behavior. Not for power-addicts. Their dependency does not trouble them so long as they get joy-juice from being boss. We cannot count on them ever feeling miserable at all, nor for misery to make them ethical, amenable to reason, or just. In real life, as opposed to my theoretical analysis, power addicts, like other addicts, may well have accessible psychological breaking points and be more human than I depict them. Maybe – or maybe not! – they can be induced to recognize that they are trapped and unfree by the experience of loneliness and isolation, having kindly coals of fire heaped on their head, being bopped upside the noggin by the Green One, or whatever. But I do not want to hang around in their vicinity hoping for some slim chance entirely accidental and arbitrary to give them the unaccustomed desire to leave me and mine alone. And ethics that ignore justice are not for me.
I do not deny the power that Stoicism gives to its adepts. I only say this power does not come from a self-originating desire for personal freedom. I think its source is more likely to be a conscious voluntary act of renunciation of power based on some form of love. Specifically, valuing the freedom of others. Could be wrong, of course. But my stance allows for the inclusion of certain aspects of women’s lives into the philosophical cake mix.
What if the One Real True Path to Happiness (TM) is not to squeeze a tiny bit of personal freedom out of our involuntary captivity under the thumb of the state, a spouse, adverse circumstances, but instead to surrender one’s self to the service of another? I am not saying that I could achieve either; I am just critiquing the premises of Stoicism because it appears to me that Greek male thinkers’ ideals discount the common woman’s life experience and devalue her motherly path to happiness. A mother has to know when and how to let go. She has power and yet relinquishes it.
It is not merely that men’s and children’s freedom depend on her servitude—it is when they despise the whole idea of willing service as a fundamental human trait and a basis for ethical behavior. Contrariwise, if self-love inevitably leads to immorality and other-love merely perpetuates an inordinate degree of self-love in the beloved object, then where are we? Back to wrangling with competing self-interests and jerry-rigging laws because nothing constitutes a durable system of ethics, founded on nearly universal human traits. Plato had his Socrates say that justice was minding one’s own business. Maybe being willing to do just that is the first and most necessary step to freedom and ethical treatment of all other beings, human and non-human. JMG’s answers to Sharma and Karim are close to what I am trying to convey.
Thanks for a good laugh. I am unapologetically CN in the realm of bread bags. 😀
Hello @ David, by the lake
I understand that you could read my comments in that way, but I was not trying to find one size fits all sort of ethics. Rather, whether there could be some sort of common basis on which to build ethics within any given society.
JMG gave us that common basis when he wrote: “attitudes of mutual tolerance and a willingness by all parties to make room for differences of opinion.”
In my understanding this common basis is both necessary and sufficient to begin the process of building ethics within a given society…
Now, if we accept this as common basis, a subsidiary question would be: how far apart would ethics evolve from society to society?
My guess is that the golden rule would probably be seen as a corollary to this common basis.
It is interesting to note that the golden rule appeared a bit everywhere across history in different societies separated in time and place.
Anyhow, thanks to all and to our host for such lively and civil discussions!
Hi John Michael,
Ouch and double ouch for anyone who is or runs the risk of becoming a “hungry ghost”! I have heard that reference before in a podcast which you were involved in, but alas, the mind these days is full of agricultural stories and I recall the warning and take heed of it, but for the life of me the details are now lost.
This may come across as a shameless plug, and I’m usually upfront about such things, but this recycling story genuinely rang internal alarm bells. Does this last?. China now no longer accepts our ‘recycling’ waste streams as of very recently. Whilst everyone else is watching the stock markets, I reckon this story is the real story and pollution was already a problem, but it looks set to become an even bigger problem. Australia alone was sending 600,000 tonnes of the stuff every year.
And I’d have to suggest that geopolitics is involved and perhaps other countries are flexing their muscles? If I was being really cheeky, I’d also have to suggest that physical waste is not the only form of waste not being accepted as it may be possible that some financial products are also seen as waste.
With respect to Philsharris – I am European too, culturally. I am part Belgian, went to school in Brussels for two years, read Italian, French and German, and love the nations of Europe as much as an artist loves the colours on his palette. That’s why I am a British patriot – it’s because I am a universal patriot. And hence I loathe the one-size-fits-all EU thing, which is the antithesis of diversity.
That said, I admit that from the continental perspective, it might make melancholy sense to give up on freedom. Their experiences in the twentieth century were so dire, they can be forgiven for assuming that a bureaucratic dictatorship is the only way to keep the peace.
The British aren’t better, just more lucky. But since we do have that undeserved advantage, I am inclined to hold onto it.
Incidentally, I stood for UKIP twice in Tim Farron’s constituency, and the then Lib Dem leader, to give him credit, though a Eurofanatic, understood that “Europe” isn’t synonymous with the EU. We got on well, regarding each other with mutual respect. Ironically, Tim later lost the leadership of his party because he wasn’t quick enough to grovel when interrogated by the Gaystapo.
Apologies, JMG, for incurring your disapproval by using that word. I have been thinking a lot about our disagreement since the occasion a few blogs ago when you took me to task on it. The only reason I mention it again, is that in a blog about Freedom, here’s another example of good guys being more dangerous to liberty than bad guys.
You made the unanswerable point, that the Gestapo’s body count makes them incomparably worse.
Now please allow me to balance this with a couple of points on the other side of the scale.
1. The Gestapo possess one supreme virtue, that of non-existence. They went out in 1945. No one can plausibly make a similar claim on behalf of the Gaystapo, who are going from strength to strength.
2. Even if they were to come back into existence, the Gestapo would not disappoint. With thoroughly bad guys, you know where you are. Torture and murder are what Nazi secret police are for, and there’d be no call to write indignant letters to the papers saying, “I’m surprised at Mr Himmler; doesn’t he realize that this sort of thing has no place in a liberal democracy?” etc etc. The Gaystapo, on the other hand, are a living incongruity – a crowd who mean well, who claim to be in favour of “live and let live”, and yet who have zero tolerance for dissent.
I feel entitled to look down my nose at such libberoids (a better term than “liberals”, if one doesn’t want Gladstone to turn in his grave). And this is for the very good reason, that whereas I am prepared to admit that my views may be wrong, they, so far as I can tell, are not prepared to make any equivalent admission.
Being human, and hence fallible, I know that the disgust which I feel at certain practices may not (as I believe) contain direct moral information – may not be the voice of some deep nature after all, but only an illusion – but true or not, it’s not a contemptible or ridiculous conclusion. And it is associated with a fine and noble vision of friendship. Friendship, as I perceive it, is not compatible with… (I won’t say it).
And anyway, how dare the regime behave as though such matters are susceptible of proof? Society in its entirety is now organized around a blatant lie – namely that a controversial ethical issue has been decided, when in fact it has not. That’s the root of the trouble: the pretence that we know, when really we don’t.
Hi John Michael,
Ah, well that is interesting. I also do not consider compassion to be a virtue, and especially where that compassion is not repaid in kind. From my perspective, to do otherwise is to leave yourself open to exploitation, for if someone wants something from you, there is inevitably a cost to be borne.
I forget who it was who pointed out that a lot of people in today’s industrial societies behave like “hungry ghosts,” one of the traditional Buddhist categories of damned souls…
It was this fellow:
Of course, conversations between Greeks and philosophers and priests from the Indian tradition were not necessarily either productive or benign: when Alexander (the’Great’ of the ‘Devil’, according to taste) met the brahmins, they were puzzled by his claim to be, uniquely, the son of a god – ‘But we are all descended from the gods!’
His response? Crucifixion, whenever he could lay his hands on them.
Well, take care not to debate philosophically with psychopathic narcissists at the head of large armies is perhaps the moral, and wise discretion the order of the day.
If I could hop back in time, I would dearly like to see just what transpired when he went to the oasis of Siwa in Egypt to meet the priests there.
Tying Stoicism in with Robert Gibson’s and Phil Harris’s views on the EU referendum, brings me round to Carl Jung, and his concepts of the internal and external locus of control.
For me, the Remain campaign in the EU referendum was ultimately an argument for the external locus of control – the idea that the United Kingdom is bound into powerful, inescapable external transnational structures and it would be ruinous if the bonds to them were broken. The Leave campaign, for all its many faults, was an argument for the internal locus of control – that the UK ultimately had the guile, energy, power and resourcefulness to endure without being bound to those external structures.
Jung himself described his system of therapy as one of persuading the patient to adopt an internal locus of control, instead of believing that they were bound by an external one. This is why, ultimately, I voted Leave – I think the UK can only begin to deal with its copious problems by adopting the principle that its destiny lies within itself.
My wife can’t control some of her inner thoughts. She is a voice hearer, and the voices torment her almost daily. She thinks it originated with those masters of social control, the Catholic church, the milieu in which she was raised. The voices take the form of logical fallacies/double binds (You must be X, but you’re not allowed to) and are attached to some pattern or color in her environment. So the distinction of what she can control (inner thoughts and feelings) and what she can’t control is not as clear for her and many voice hearers. She is desperate to find some relief, and I value your suggestions.
As far as Abrahamic religions, the concept of Hell as eternal torture didn’t start until Origen and Augustine, about 5 centuries after Jesus, and it seems it was motivated by crowd control. It works to some extent. The fear of Hell has created a sort of Hell for many people (including my wife).
Jordan Peterson critiques post-modernism (and I think existentialism is a form of post-modernism?), or especially the idea that the only values that matter are the ones that make you happy in the moment. He says that our personal values also have consequences for other people’s momentary happiness and ours and their long-term happiness, and more important from an evolutionary point of view, survival. Not just our (or their) medium term personal survival, but the survival of the values we espouse. Those that destroy our life support systems and make us miserable will probably be selected against…But not necessarily with happiness, as it is not synonymous with fitness.
JMG (or anyone) – since we are on the topic of ethics. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the ethics that come under the name “natural law”. I have had this “law” put up to me lately several times, and it seems to be that the people concerned think that it means something like – “this is a universal truth, to deny it is to deny existence, and do go against it is to choose to go against nature” – and yet the topic under debate in each case related to what I personally would see as a “divergent” question – one for which there is no single answer, but the diverse and many “right” answers are the ones that each person finds for themselves.
Not necessarily for posting
Way OT (so feel free to feed “Spot”) but this article caught my eye.
Key quote that leapt out at me: “If you decide to stay in America when you are done working, you might want to know which state is best for retirement.” If?? Like most people have an option….
You said “that in your opinion Greek philosophy didn’t pay enough attention to relations with other persons.”
I can’t debate that since I just know enough of Stoic philosophy. But I brought this up for another pragmatic reason. It seems to me that all the yelling and screaming you mentioned in the post is about people discussing (or failing to discuss) human relationships with each other, not with themselves. As far as I can tell, not many amongst the yelling crowd care what each persons relationship is towards himself and herself.
So does providing people with a philosophy which is essentially about how one should relate to oneself help when people are tying themselves into knots about relating to each other? It might. I will admit that it has helped me, somewhat, but I still feel that it doesn’t do a complete job. It hasn’t actually improved my relationships with others all that much, just that I am able to better adapt to other people’s neuroses. But maybe that’s just me.
No offense but my definition did not include a clear cut soul which is immortal and reincarnates. I was suggesting a very broad brush category for all kinds of relationships with which humans relate to themselves. Soul is just one object of such relationships. I meant it as tool for understanding relationships, not some absolute objective category, which is what all concepts are, as JMG taught us.
Off topic, but I think hell must be freezing over, since mainstream pubs are now publishing anti-free trade articles:
Sorry, typo in my last comment. I meant to say “I can’t debate that since I just don’t know enough of Stoic philosophy.” Please feel free to make that change.
@ John Michael and Chris:
In one of his essays that was published in Civilization In Transition, Carl Jung wrote that a number of Native American elders told him many white Americans looked to them like they were possessed by evil spirits and the elders believed that was why they often acted in such heedlessly destructive ways. A number of people also talked about “Wendigo psychosis” in last week’s discussion thread, which appears to be a particular manifestation of that phenomenon.
I look forward to the discussion of freedom, and good luck! A knottier philosophical problem can hardly be imagined. How does an individual pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and assert their will & escape the universal chains of cause and effect? Moreover, from the Buddha’s point of view, what does it mean to be an “I” in any case? Is it any more than just a fleeting collection of ideas, memories, and desires? How can this airy and insubstantial no-thing be the seat of a concept as muscular as human freedom?
Still, it has been said that if we cannot stop using a word and cannot replace it with some other word, then it must reflect some enduring reality. I’m sure that freedom is a real feeling, but feel compelled to admit that a negative definition is the most compelling: ie, that freedom is only the empty space between my compulsions.
About the “hungry ghosts”–most people I meet now live in total immersion in what I call the pop culture, digital/screen addiction, consumer bubble. To me, it seems like they are possessed, which is why I find so few people to relate to. I try to find something unrelated to pop culture, social media and other accessories of digital addiction, and what people are buying or wanting to buy, but, once you eliminate those things, there isn’t really much at all you have in common w/99% of Americans. It definitely has a distinctive zombified, deadened, possessed quality to it that is unmistakable. That’s why I say most Americans are dead, they just don’t realize it yet.
If someone wants to find out more about Stoicism they might find this book helpful:
“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irving.
It can be downloaded onto a Kindle or any of the Kindle apps for various platforms.
Bob, my point in smacking down a ban on a given topic is to make room for other topics to be discussed. I have no particular interest in the Cleveland dentist and his theories; furthermore, this blog is not primarily about nutrition — the previous post’s foray into that territory was done for the purpose of setting the stage for a discussion of individual freedom more generally. Thus I’m not interested in smacking down the WAPpers over and over again, not least because (as we’ve already seen) their sole response to this is to crank up the volume.
I find that when proselytizers for some cult or other, dietary or otherwise, decide that it’s their WAP-given right to spew long screeds about their belief system into every available public forum, the only way to keep their beliefs from monopolizing the discussion and preventing any other conversation from taking place is to ban the topic and tell people who want to discuss it to go somewhere else. It’s not as though there’s any shortage of places online where devotees of evangelical diet cults can witness to their hearts’ content…
Karim, I’m delighted to hear that. I’m glad we’re agreed that tolerance isn’t an ethical value, just a rule to enable people to get along with one another — it makes matters much simpler to simply make it a groundrule, rather than getting bogged down in debates as to whether it’s morally superior to intolerance!
As for lost souls, it’s a common belief among many tribal peoples around the world that your soul can become detached from your body without you being aware of it, and this condition of “soul loss” leads to various mental and physical diseases. Shamans and medicine persons have, as one of their basic practices, journeys into the Otherworld to find lost souls and return them to their bodies. If you don’t get your soul back, on the other hand, it can become the prey of monstrous beings, whereupon you sicken, go crazy, and/or die. A good deal of what’s going on here in the United States would, I think, be diagnosed by a competent Native American medicine person as a mass case of soul loss…
William, ironically, I’m lawful neutral there — I picked up long ago the habit of saving bag clips, twist ties, rubber bands, et al., and using them on appropriate objects until they fall apart.
Chris, fascinating. No, I hadn’t heard that. I suspect China is beginning to tighten the screws; exactly how tight they will get is a question with plenty of uncomfortable answers.
Robert, I’d like to introduce you to a term you may not have encountered: “defector syndrome.” That’s media activist Patrick Reinsborough’s label for arguments phrased in ways crafted so that they only appeal to those who are already convinced by them. Your label “Gaystapo” is a great example. The great majority of people who encounter it, including many who might otherwise be sympathetic to your cause, are going to roll their eyes at the absurdity of comparing the petty minions of political correctness in Britain today to a secret police organization that killed and tortured people by the trainload. Thus it’s a self-defeating habit; you may find it emotionally satisfying, but it weakens your case in the eyes of those you might otherwise be able to convince.
I’ve noticed that conservatives these days are very often strongly committed to defector syndrome habits. This is one of the reasons conservatives lose so often: they’re too busy using terms such as “Gaystapo” as a means of identity signaling to one another to have time to craft arguments convincing to anybody else. As a moderate Burkean conservative myself, I believe that an intelligent conservative viewpoint presented in accessible terms, without defector-syndrome rhetoric, would have a strong appeal for a great many moderate people, and even a significant number who consider themselves liberals — and in fact, I’ve tested this repeatedly in my blogging, with good results — but for some reason most other conservative thinkers are deeply mired in the defector syndrome and go out of their way to chase off anyone not already on their bandwagon. Perhaps you can explain to me why this makes any kind of sense…
Chris, agreed. I find a certain amount of ordinary kindness to be highly appropriate — I take it to the extent of donating a fair amount of my not very lavish income to charity, and of habitually catching insects that stray into my home and putting them outside rather than killing them — but when people try to extort favors from me by appealing to my sense of compassion, I tend to claim that I don’t have one and send them off to mooch off someone else.
Phil K., thank you!
Xabier, Alexander the Great was a psychotic tyrant; it’s a good thing he drank himself to death so young. I don’t feel any remorse about making him the unwitting puppet of the villains in my fantasy series The Weird of Hali!
Phil K., works for me. It’s up to the people of Britain what they want to do, of course, but when I heard that the Leave campaign had won, I poured a glass of bourbon and raised a toast to your little island and its independent future.
Iuval, an old-fashioned psychotherapist (not a psychiatrist) might be able to help her, but therapy’s expensive. I’m not sure what else to suggest.
Scotlyn, from my perspective, arguments based on natural law are fallacies from the ground up. The person who says “this is natural law!” is trying to claim unearned privilege for his or her beliefs. Since no two people seem to be able to agree on what “natural law” does or does not include, the phrase should be retired until somebody is able to present a way of determining whether or not something is natural law that doesn’t simply reflect ingrained prejudices or preferences.
David, of course! The news media isn’t written for working people — it’s written entirely for the privileged middle and upper middle classes. (Look at the recipes in newspaper food sections, in those newspapers that still have those, if you need proof — those dropped the kind of food that working class families eat long ago, and now provide only recipes for pretentious yuppie chow.)
Shrama, I dunno. In my experience, most of the problems I’ve had with other people happen because I have unresolved business inside myself, and am projecting it onto them. Once I get myself straightened out, I stop trying to force other people to play roles in some internal melodrama, and things work better. Of course your mileage may vary…
Shane, nah, China now has the world’s leading economy, and a lot of people in the privileged classes here in the US are well aware that free trade is only a good idea if you’re the dominant power in the relationship. Back when Britain was top dog, the US had all kinds of trade barriers; expect them to return with bells on as soon as China finishes cementing its role as the new top dog.
Armata, thanks for the reminder!
Alistair, actually, it’s not so hard, since the notion that the universe is bound in strict chains of cause and effect is 19th century physics and was demolished by the discovery of quantum phenomena at the beginning of the 20th century. Stay tuned!
Shane, I ain’t arguing.
Walter, thanks for this!
Perhaps even a single person needs different systems of ethics at different stages of their life. I’m thinking in part, of course, of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work. I’m also quite fond of the work of Clare W. Graves, and this is the language I can illustrate this idea best in.
Take someone at Grave’s CP stage (#3): someone who thinks the world is a jungle and that maturity means accepting that and having the courage and strength to impose your will on it, lest you and the few people you care about suffer needlessly. Now say that person later reaches the FS stage (#6); they’ve come to detest hierarchy and think that maturity — if you must use such a judgmental word — means being empathetic and accepting of others so that they will do the same for you.
Clearly there’s not a single code of ethics that would work for this person at both the times in his or her life, let alone the DQ (“follow the rules and delay gratification”) and ER (“get your share of the pie, just be smart about it”) stages in between.
Some people find meaning in living by the ways of their elders. Some people will only abide by personal codes of honor that make them feel strong. Some people like absolutistic ethical systems, because strict rules make them feel safe. Some people like rationalistic systems of ethics that make them feel smart and principled. Some people just want everyone to get along*. Etc.
And which group you fall into can change.
* These can go bad in some very nasty ways; Graves noted back in I think the 70’s that the FS type was almost as authoritarian as the DQ type.
Re: freedom of the will
This strikes me only as a problem for materialists. If you are basically an epiphenomenon of will-less particles interacting with each other, then, sure, it’s hard to see how free will could work its way in there! But if you have a soul, as nearly every culture that ever existed says you do, then the only problem is how your soul interacts with your body.
My solution runs thus:
Neo-Aristotelian philosopher Roderick T. Long points out that free will would only violate physical law if nature was going to do X but your will makes it do Y instead; but since the behavior of particles is fundamentally indeterminate to begin with (even if this “cancels out” in practice), there is no “what nature was going to do.” All your will has to be able to do is make one of the possible outcomes happen.
Basically, the thinking here is that the soul imposes a pattern upon the body that the body then actualizes. We’re not talking about playing billiards with neurons, more like a “Here’s the goal, you figure out how to do it” — which if nothing else is how we generally experience our actions. I choose to lift my arm, and my body works out which muscles to contract or expand, and thus which nerves to activate to do that, without my conscious awareness.
If you’re familiar with Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of morphic fields, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about; Aristotle called it “formal causation.”
It doesn’t always work, because your will’s influence is limited, your will can be divided, there are other influences that can overwhelm it, etc. But it works well enough.
I reckon somewhere between the rubber band and the twist and tuck, balance may be found.
“Gaystappo” .This is why, in the fullness of time, your “side” will lose. I have a 19, 18, and ,16 year old. They have zero patience for your nonsense, and will meme and vote y’all into oblivion.
Knock yourself out bro, I warned you!
Newspaper food sections are one of my pet peeves, for the reason John mentioned.
May I recommend a historical novel about Alex the Great, “The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault. She does a fantastic job of getting inside the heads of people in an alien civilization. Her other novels are mediocre at best, though.
I find a lot to agree with in the Stoics, myself, but I do somehow feel like they don’t have the complete picture. Therefore I take what I find useful from their philosophy, but don’t restrict myself to it.
For a number of years now I have based my personal ethical beliefs ultimately on individual and global happiness and freedom – therefore, perhaps, taking a leaf from both the Stoics and the Epicureans. (I haven’t read the Neoplatonists, but undoubtedly I would find something to take from them as well.) To me, what is the highest good is whatever, in a not-particularly-rigorous utilitarian calculus, leads to an overall increase of happiness and freedom in the situation. Therefore in most situations, murder is wrong because it causes misery on the part of the victim’s family and, depending on who did the murder, perhaps misery in the murderer, but if the victim is a tyrant, such as Nero, assassination could become a moral possibility, because of the huge increase in freedom and happiness possible for the population the tyrant was ruling. (Note that this doesn’t mean I would personally go around assassinating tyrants – just that I think there are situations where it would be justifiable.) In addition, under my moral framework, slavery is wrong – in fact, it is more wrong than murder – because it greatly reduces the slave’s freedom AND happiness. And if somebody gets some sort of sadistic joy out of harmful acts, the harm to others generally holds a higher weight than that person’s pleasure, because there are surely other ways they could acquire joy.
I quite agree that Stoic methods are an excellent tool for increasing freedom, given that they allow you freedom in the face of a much wider range of circumstances. And I do need to study the techniques more: at the moment, I am generally quite sensitive to criticism, and it would certainly benefit me to be able to brush it off more easily. But I don’t think the Stoic method of “acknowledge the pain is there, and then soldier on through it” is the best for every situation.
Of course it is the best for any truly unavoidable pain, such as illness, death of a friend or relative, the break-up of a relationship, bad weather, one’s own impending death, or similar. But equally, there are situations in which you do in fact have a choice other than just controlling your own reaction, in which somebody used to practising Stoicism might not make that choice. But instead, I think it is better to make some sort of Epicurean decision: is the pain I am bearing now worth the amount of pleasure I will receive for it later, and are any of the other choices in this situation any better?
So therefore, while one may be in a position of having to work in order to have money to buy food, there is nothing to say that you must endure and keep THIS particular job with the micromanaging boss, say. You can make a choice to search for a job with a better environment or a better fit for your personality, or even, depending on your skillset, to go self-employed. Then, if you’ve picked right, there will be less pain left for you to Stoically endure. I guess the trick here is to a) recognise when the life path you have picked already IS the best one you can realistically get, and b) to use the techniques of Stoicism to cope with day-to-day life if you are looking for that point but haven’t reached it yet.
Both schools agree that it is better to train yourself not to want certain things to begin with, and here I also agree. I have spent some time recently falling into the trap of wanting money, which began as a proxy for wanting freedom. I never used to care whether I had money, so I ought to refocus myself on my primary aims of increasing freedom and happiness.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed this post.
I was standing in a checkout line about 15 years ago, looking for a magazine to pass the time, and realized I had no idea who any of the celebrities on the magazine covers were. And now that my mom, who suffered from Fox Geezer Syndrome, is deceased I have no idea who most politicians are either. Saves me a lot of time.
For those who don’t have elderly parents, Fox News will (or would, haven’t seen them in 3 years) latch on to, for example, some obscure politician, the Representative from Alabama’s 12th district or whatever, and train their elderly viewers to follow that guy’s doings obsessively and to fret about the machinations of that guy’s evil Democratic enemies. So it was that Mom would be very worried about Alabama’s 12th district but have no idea what her own city council was doing or even that they existed.
Thanks for this excellent exposition of Stoicism. Stoicism as propounded in Seneca’s Moral Letters has gotten me through many a shift of particularly dreary work, and it’s great to be reminded of its power.
I’m not sure wether I agree with your characterization of the ethics of the Abrahamic religions. Christianity for instance, absorbed a whopping dose of Stoicism and Aristotelian virtue ethics, which remained fairly comprehensible and consistent throughout the middle ages (Cicero’s De Officiis, not Stoic but close, was the book Gutenberg printed after the Bible). Hence, it is doubtful to me that the death of god caused ethics to be unglued as a secular virtue ethics could well have emerged.
Come to think of it, there is a decent parallel to be made here with your argument regarding progress. Utilitarian ethics has an implied variable “the greatest good” about which there is no consensus at all, hence “the greatest good” , is whatever the powerful make it out to be. This is analagous to your argument that causes become ‘progressive’ by a process of power politics.
Shane Wilson, I have a similar impression about a large number of people where I live. I have found that there is not much in common between the everyday and to my mind rather boring subjects and things most people like to talk about, and the hings and subjects I’m interested in. So the interactions with many people remain rather shallow, although they mostly are nice people. Addiction to smartphones is an problem here in Germany, too, but the impact of TV and mass culture seems to be somewhat less extreme. A good friend of me has made a similar observation about most people with whom she interacts.
Regarding Stoicism, it seems to me that Stoicism has its limits and dangers, as the discussion of callousness further upthread indicates. So I suppose, Stoicism and other philosophies, although useful in the appropriate context, aren’t a panacea.
With respect to you and Phil Knight, I value your JMG’s good wishes when you toasted, quote, “your little island and its independent future”.
But I see some serious problems. Firstly, we are the ‘British Isles’, scarcely an inevitable ‘unity’. Wales was dominated, and a competent union was formed between England and Scotland – Union of Crowns (1604), followed by the Parliamentary Union (1707). The latter Union was eventually further legitimized in the wider European manner, progressing to universal British suffrage. For example, it was 1928 before my mother could vote in parliamentary elections, by which time she was 24. The ‘British’ Union did not work for Ireland. The British Empire, as it was by then, partitioned Ireland in 1921, leaving a ‘loyalist’ majority in industrialized Northern Ireland. Despite the Irish failure, ‘the GB Union’ worked during both 20th C wars with Germany, even allowing for the Irish armed rebellion in 1916. Ireland did not defect to the Axis cause in WWII and large contingents from what is now Eire served in Britain. The situation with partition has remained fraught, however, with renewal of armed conflict in 1970s, which was resolved mostly within the EU context. It needed what you JMG termed ‘ground rules’ when you referred to ‘tolerance’. It also required isolation of the conflict from the domestic politics of both Britain (mostly England) and the USA. Technocratic modern capitalism – Euro-style – was allowed across borders, with just about sufficient pay-offs. (Caveat: a visit to Northern Ireland is recommended.) Note that a majority in Scotland and N Ireland voted ‘remain’ in the referendum.
‘Peace’ in Europe and ‘wider union’, and the brief armistice between USA and Russia, seem to have encouraged this resurgence of local nationalism(s). Apparently it was attractive to claim local sovereignty within the wider freedoms of ‘Europe’ – that is, given free movement of people, capital and profit within the EU under common ground rules – than it was to remain within historical ‘unions’ dominated by one country, in our case by England. We have seen claims of Scottish and Welsh nationalism as well as ‘all-Irish’ nationalism partly resolved, if only very recently. (BTW, I worked 27 years as an Englishman in Scotland, or in ‘Northern Britain’ as the Victorians liked to call it.)
The current situation in Britain and Northern Ireland appears to open up division – indeed, irreconcilable demands – between parts of an historical union, even where old conflicts have been recently smoothed for a while by modern economy. There is for instance no way that our present economy can be realistically separated from either the EU economy or EU ground rules. Bureaucracy is a necessary feature – the issue to my mind is ‘accountability’.
As an afterthought, ‘Britain’ has not fed itself since 1850 and we must import the majority of food including the majority of primary calories, as well of course, primary energy and other resources. We have millions of EU nationals working and settled here as well as significant minority ex-immigrant populations with no conceivable geographical ‘home’ they could be returned to. We are going to need all the tolerance we can find, and other ground rules, and a great deal of luck, especially that neither the US nor the rest of the EU throws a serious wobbly in the next decades. Ah well…
I profess no ‘answers’. A sense of unreality pervades. I seem to lack a mythos or two!
I was indeed misreading your argument, in that case. I can see what you were getting at now. Thank you for that explanation.
Re retirement, news industry, etc.
I shouldn’t be, but I keep finding myself surprised to what degree whole swathes of the American populace are written out of existence. My embubbled middle-class upbringing did not prepare me well for this awareness. The casualness of it all is what shocks me the most, I think. Eye-opening, to say the least.
@ Alignment and bread-bags
Interestingly enough, I align with my old character on this one: I’m a CN twist-and-tucker. (My wife, on the other hand, is LN and reuses the bag clip. We manage…somehow.)
Shrama: Aristotle dealt a lot with how people relate to each other. There’s a long section on friendship in The Ethics, for example, and I think he also deals with it in The Politics.
JMG – re recipes in the newspapers – amen! To my dismay and disgust. The backs of raisin boxes are more helpful.
Dear Seb, may I respectfully suggest that you might have been unnecessarily tormenting yourself? Chocolate, apologies if you already know this, unsweetened, all by itself, is known to be slightly addictive (as is cayenne, BTW) and a very nourishing food. The problem, IMHO I hasten to add, with Mars Bars, etc. is not the chocolate but the astronomical refined sugar content not to mention other additives. As for the nourishing properties, I have even seen the designation ‘superfood’ used.
I find that unsweetened chocolate has many good uses. I like it in coffee, with or without cream and NO sweetening–I happen to be weird that way–and it adds an interesting depth of flavor to meat based soups, stews and sauces. Mole sauce is an unsweetened chocolate sauce.
Regarding Chris’s point that China no longer accepts the West’s plastic waste, I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that it has simultaneously banned hip-hop:
Austin of Ozmerst,
Re: socioeconomic status:stoicism
I haven’t had a chance to read many comments this week, and I’m sure I’m not the only one answering your query, but here’s my take, for what it’s worth.
My wife and I have a tendency to think that freedom/happiness/flourishing tend to collect on the extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum. Here is where the poor have more in common with “old money” than anyone between the two on the money scale. From where I sit, “new money,” the middle classes, the upwardly mobile, all spend so much time keeping up with the Joneses, reaching, displaying their status like peacocks, that they are complete slaves to their images.
The poor, on the other hand, often have more time to just be, with more awareness of who they are and how little they can affect, so they tend to enjoy just being themselves to a larger degree than status seekers.
No hard and fast rule, of course, just my observation over the years.
Just catching up with comments on the post now. I don’t know how you have the time to read them, screen them, respond to them, and still manage a weekly post and a robust publishing schedule. My main point of writing now is my condolences on the loss of your son. I remember one particular passage of Epictetus in the Enchiridion, wherein he offers advice on dealing with this same topic, and it is good to know that the philosophy helped you during that trying time.
(Not For Publishing, if you prefer)
Very interesting post. How in your opinion does all this fit in with age-old social maxims such as the golden rule, or the concept that your freedoms end where the freedoms of others begin?
Before they put that Tesla in orbit I hope they at least took the wheels off and replaced them with concrete blocks so the passing aliens will be able to tell at a glance what trailer park trash we are…
@James M Jensen “If you are basically an epiphenomenon of will-less particles interacting with each other, then, sure, it’s hard to see how free will could work its way in there!”
What if the particles themselves are “will-full” rather than will-less?
I like the way that you’ve responded to my criticism of the Remain campaign’s message that we can’t be trusted with to fix things ourselves by pointing out that we can’t even be trusted to live with ourselves!
@Iuval Clejan: Here are some thoughts I have related to voices.
1) Exhausting physical labor. In the novel Sometimes a Great Notion (Kesey?) the main character suffers from voices and finds they recede and eventually go away when he becomes a lumberjack and has no energy for anything but work. Eats hearty coarse food and sleeps like a log. Deep sleep maybe healing?
2) Immersion in routine daily life, interacting with many other people and avoiding solitary self-absorption in exploring one’s mind. In Doris Lessings’ novel The Four-Gated City, one of the characters uses fasting and isolation to explore her inner world and at one point ‘plugs in’ to a demonic Blamer who natters at her with nasty double binds about everything she does, and only goes away when she gradually stops paying attention to him/it, eating regular meals and living a ‘normal’ life as much as possible. Voices took more than a month to fade, but since hers was induced not ‘endogenous’, this may not be comparable.
3) Learn as much as you can about the structures of the brain especially the areas relating to speech and those associated with obsessive/compulsive syndromes. Perhaps overactivity in those areas can be targeted and moderated by breathing, meditation, mantra chanting, or even diet. There is some evidence that people who display highly critical behaviors calm down when they eat more carbohydrates. Anterior cingular cortex over-excitation controlled by glazed doughnut therapy, LOL. The same study suggested that people with impulse control issues need more lean protein in their diet. Different brain area for that, I forget which.
4) Music. Learning to play an instrument or how to sing can combine/balance left-brain with right-brain activity. So does walking meditation.
5) Amygdala-pituitary triangulation. Tricky technique that involves paying attention to the roughly triangular prism area enclosed by lines ‘drawn’ to connect the glands. Don’t know much about it and lost the link when my old computer died.
6) Humor response. When presented with a double-binding impasse by inner voice, use it as a trigger to invent jokes. Like the one about the flour and the salt. Nasruddin is told by his employer to buy flour and salt and don’t mix them. He goes to the market, buys flour which he puts on a big plate to carry it home. Goes to salt merchant, buys salt, turns the plate over and says put it here, my master said not to mix it with the flour. Goes home, presents salt to master who says, fine, where is the flour? Nasruddin turns plate over says, It was here just a minute ago….! Laughter is a mysterious phenomenon, little studied, that reconciles different perceptions of reality. Used as a teaching technique in various wisdom traditions.
@Tripp, about socioeconomic status and freedom/happiness/flourishing:
My own experience supports the same thing. In my late ‘teens, around 1958, I spent one summer walking all through Berkeley (California) trying to take orders for a furnace-cleaning service — no pay at all, only a small commission for every order I was given. In those days Berkeley had clear socio-economic strata, from the wealthiest homes in the Berkeley Hills all the way down to poverty-level folk living in decrepit houses between San Pablo Avenue and the Bay, right next to the reeking Berkeley mudflats. The women who answered the doors in the Berkeley Hills seemed unhurried and content, and they listened to my pitch, but never “bit.” As I moved downward through the economic strata and toward the Bay, the women — and eventually some men, too — who answered the door seemed progressively less and less inclined to talk.
But this changed again, and quite sharply, once I crossed San Pablo Avenue. Here, in the very lowest, poorest stratum of Berkeley, people were glad to chat again, and sometimes I was even invited to take a cup of coffee with the family and visit with the family for a little while. It was all a perfect illustration of Tripp’s point. Fortunately, I did know that it would have been rude not to accept the offered cup and short visit — and far, far more rude to accept a second cup when it was offered. (For really poor families, coffee has always been and still is a precious and expensive luxury drink.) That was a measure of how poor those families were, and how friendly and generous also. They were the best part of my experiences that summer.
The worst experience I had going door to door in Berkeley was in one of the middle strata, probably the upper end of the lower class. The door opened to reveal a small, mean-looking, middle-aged man in a dirty T-shirt, holding a very long, very sharp, double-edged knife. He snarled, “Go away!” I promptly turned and went away. He didn’t close his door until I was on the sidewalk again. (I thought it was rather good of him to use words, and not just stab at me with his knife.)
“I choose to lift my arm, and my body works out which muscles to contract or expand, and thus which nerves to activate to do that, without my conscious awareness.”
Related to the freewill issue – how about the tests that have been done that show the impulse to move the arm occurs BEFORE the conscious thought ‘lift arm’?
I admit it’s been a while since I looked into those experiments, but I remember three problems:
(a) the impulse didn’t perfectly correlate with the action — one study showed it was possible to get the impulse and but not the arm lift, while there was another impulse that did correlate perfectly, and that came after conscious awareness
(b) the conditions of the experiments were very particular: the choice of time to act was entirely unmotivated; if those sorts of choices are handed off to unconscious processes, that’s arguably no great loss
(c) a conscious choice and a conscious awareness of that choice are two different things, and don’t have to be simultaneous — once you think about it, why would they be?
Ultimately, I consider determinism to be a pragmatically incoherent position: while I can imagine myself as being determined in an abstract sense, I don’t know what it would mean to take it seriously, since I experience myself as making my own choices. So regardless of the evidence or even reality, I can only coherently take myself to be free.
To put it another way: even if — especially if — I’m not free, I can’t help but believe that I am.
The problem with these experiments (or rather with what people believe these experiments prove versus what they actually prove) is that they ask the subject to perform some task randomly.
Because there is no reason to consciously prefer to lift one’s arm or press a button (or whatever other trivial task the people who designed the experiment come up with) at any given moment over any of the other thousands of possible moments, the task of deciding when to do the task is more-or-less passed down to subconscious mental processes, with the conscious mind simply giving the go-ahead to whatever the subconscious mind decided.
What these experiments actually prove is that certain types of “choices” are made with little conscious input, not that all choices are made this way.
In order to prove that free will is an illusion, it should at least be proven that other, meaningful types of choices are decided in the same way. Even then, the exact interpretation of the results would still be up for debate, so the conclusion that free will is an illusion would by no means be a given.
Yeah… I ditto AMark’s question… what about that?
Your response to Karim concerning Native American beliefs about soul loss makes a lot of sense, especially when combined with Jung’s account of what Native elders told him and Shane’s comment about the prevalence of digital addiction, consumerism and other related mental pathologies. It truly is a sobering and downright frightening notion to consider, especially when you consider the number of lost souls and souls in deadly peril out there. It also raises some very disturbing questions about what might be behind all of this.
With regards to Fox Geezer Syndrome, I largely agree with you. However, consider the way the so-called mainstream media has spent the last few days fawning over one of the most brutal, murderous and overtly psychotic dictatorships to come down the pike since the Battle of Berlin put an end to Nazi Germany in 1945, while taking every opportunity to trash Vice President Pence and then some.
Is it any wonder that so many Americans have acquired a deep-seated hatred, contempt and mistrust for the MSM and turned to right-wing media outlets such as Fox and Breitbart instead? As for me, I despise the whole damned system, both pseudo-liberal and pseudo-conservative, but I can see why many turn to Fox News and it’s epigones.
JMG, you’re absolutely right about my “defector syndrome” and “identity signalling”, though you might also have acknowledged that I was arguing analytically rather than simply hurling epithets.
Where you’re wrong (or misinformed) is in your phrase “the petty minions of political correctness”. I assure you that where I live they’re not “petty” – they’re a mighty force. It’s not “petty” to deprive people of their livelihood, to prosecute them or force them to choose between their principles or their careers – to do this to people simply because they adhere to moral beliefs which were mainstream within living memory and are based on natural law assumptions which have never been refuted – and to do all this in what used to be thought of as “a free country”.
I suspect things are somewhat different where you live, JMG. I notice from your comments and observations, that you tend to be more worried by private groups of pestering fanatics – evangelical bible-thumpers, etc – than by State power.
Here, I can tell you, the p.c. crowd have enlisted the State, as well as Goodness, on their side. A kind of Gilead in reverse. (Did you know that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close down?) And so “cheerful state police” seemed to me to be a reasonable term. Certainly they’re not “secret” – it’s all being done quite openly, and with the approval of every voice in the media.
Everyone assumes the debate is over (even though it never really took place). So what’s left for me but “defector syndrome” and “identity signalling”?
However, I give you my word I won’t use my unwanted term again on your blog. Instead – as far as freedom is concerned – I’ll henceforth recline on what Bertrand Russel eloquently termed “the firm foundation of unyielding despair”, while meanwhile reciting to myself the Ode on Intimations of Immortality.
@ Phil Knight
“we can’t even be trusted to live with ourselves!”
We can always hope!
I was more optimistic back in 2005/2006 when the first of the big crises was fast approaching round the bend, I thought we would ‘pull together’, or try to; a bit like we had in the war. (My own founding experiences had been 1941 to 1956).
Do you remember the build up and small but telling signs of dysfunction? My bank – not RBS – had been pestering me with phone calls to take out loans I did not need and only desisted when I said the next time it happened I would take away my account. After the first emergency passed over, blatant propaganda doubled down on lying about causes. Realistic British discussion? – You would be joking! I realized then we would not pull together. Yes, it had been only a financial crisis and this was only a Tory government – but it has not boded well. The heavy stuff is yet to reach here. Hard to imagine David Cameron as the key historical pivotal figure, but there you go…
You always have the best stories. Thank you for such a vivid firsthand illustration of my thesis! There’s something to it I think. But heaven help you if you share such heresies with the striving classes! New money does not take being trumped by the poor in any way very kindly…
“Robert, oh, no question — self-proclaimed “good guys” are always the most dangerous threat to life and liberty. It’s those who are convinced they are in the right who always commit the most egregious atrocities. That’s one of the things that makes me roll my eyes at the fake villains of so much modern imaginative fiction. You’ve got Lord Voldemort cackling evilly at the head of his Death Eaters — and that’s purely a wet dream on the part of the self-proclaimed Good People, who desperately want to believe that their opponents secretly agree with them about what’s good and what’s bad, and are just being contrary. In the real world, Voldemort wouldn’t call himself that, and his followers wouldn’t go around wearing I AM AN EVIL PERSON t-shirts — no, it would be that visionary idealist Tom Riddle and his Campaign for a New Wizarding Future, talking in moving terms about how the wizarding world is being crushed by hegemonic mudblood-centric oppression.”
This reminds me of a Carl Schmitt quote:
“The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.”
You have written that “Magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It doesn’t change facts, though it can change how you interpret and value facts, and it can also change how you behave (and how others behave).” IIRC, using magic to change how others behave can be dangerous or self-defeating? You also say that the Stoics “used dialectic — the process of formal conversation between teacher and student, which was central to classical education — and they used rhetoric.”
I have always been slightly confused about what I now see may be the difference between using rhetoric vs. using magic to change how others behave. I look forward to any future post which helps me to understand this.
Okay, that’s *hilarious* – it’s been less than a week since I commented on the possibility of the ratsphere getting interested in the occult and now I find that one of the rationalist-adjacent bloggers I occasionally read has apparently been reading A World Full of Gods – and went “interesting book, lots to think about” rather than rejecting it out of hand, even if the literal existence of gods is a bridge too far for them right now.
Also, some fodder for the running discussion of America manifesting archetypes:
I’m not entirely sure that Native American mythology is the best place to look for said manifesting archetypes.
Back when I was younger and more tolerant of moving pictures on glass screens, I watched a certain TV show by the name of Babylon 5. That show was an extremely odd duck by American TV standards; it had an actual coherent plot and a bunch of characters that strike me as unusually competently executed, a far cry from the usual episodic dreck. Even now l’d call it one of the best mythic depictions of Progress I’ve seen, in spite of its format… which is weird, because the show’s implied arc for humanity (come of age via becoming energy beings, teach the next generation of species, move on into mystery) *isn’t the Progress arc*.
This would just be a vaguely amusing story about my youth, if not for the part where a few months ago I went “Wait… did we elect a Babylon 5 character as President?”.
(For anyone else who watched the show: Donald Trump as Londo Mollari… and one person that I ran this observation by in real life floated Obama as Kosh.)
James, good. I think it was Churchill who said that anyone who isn’t a Communist at age 20 has no heart, and anyone who is still a Communist at age 40 has no brain! As for free will, good; my explanation is going to be a little more complex, because there are specific points I want to bring up, but we’ll discuss those in due time.
William, good! No doubt there’s a mystic perfection in bread bagging, only to be obtained at the point where all the options coincide… 😉
L., of course! The point of this post wasn’t to convince everyone to run out and become dogmatic Stoic converts, who then go charging onto other people’s blogs and message boards to babble by the hour about Stoicism. 😉 The point of this post was to suggest to people certain options for dealing with life that don’t get a lot of air time these days — and in the process, to set the stage for certain other discussions we’ll be getting to in future posts. To my mind, philosophy is best approached as a smorgasbord, not as a fixed menu, and if everyone’s plate has a different combination of goodies on it, all the better.
Jay Dee, while it’s certainly true that Christianity borrowed an assortment of things from classical culture, to judge by current Christian culture here in the US, the use of God as a backstop for the infinite regress of moral justification is still alive and well — and that, of course, was the point of my reference to the Abrahamic tradition here.
Phil, oh, no question either option is fraught with problems. There are no easy choices left in this world! I will also raise a glass if Scotland becomes independent, even knowing that it’s going to face a very rough road as an independent nation, because I favor small countries over large ones, local control over sprawling multinational bureaucracies, idiosyncrasy over homogenization — even knowing that a lot of mistakes will be made.
David, bingo. Within the bubble, the only people who exist are those within the bubble. That’s a common condition of elites gone senile.
Patricia, no argument there. I may just end up doing a post on that…
Daniel, thank you.
Helix, those are useful rules that, like all useful rules, may or may not apply in a given situation. After all, if I happen to be a masochist who gets pleasure out of being beaten, the Golden Rule would suggest that I should go around beating people, wouldn’t it? The rules of Stoicism are also useful rules that may or may not apply in any given case. Do some rules contradict one another? You bet…
Tripp, funny! It occurs to me, though, that the people I know who qualify as trailer trash — many of whom cheerfully use that term for themselves, by the way! — would object heatedly to being lumped together with a shyster like Elon Musk…
AMark (if I may), permit me to rephrase that. The tests have shown that an assortment of complex and balky laboratory equipment, in at least a small majority of cases, detects something that the experimenters interpret as “the conscious decision to move the arm” happening after something that the experimenters interpret as “the impulse to move the arm.” It’s easy, if you don’t pay attention to the underlying realities, to see experiments as some kind of glossy truth-telling device, but if you’ve studied experimental design — I had two fairly rigorous quarters of that my first pass through college, and aced both — the devil is always in the details.
The data turned up by that study could also be explained by differences in the speed with which the specific thing being detected shows up in a form that can be detected by the equipment. It could be explained by variables intrinsic to the equipment — this happens embarrassingly often. It could also be explained — and this happens even more often, and even more embarrassingly — by biased, incomplete, or inaccurate notions on the part of the experimenters concerning a galaxy of variables, including what measurable signals indicate a conscious decision, where the decision takes place, and so on endlessly. This is why valid science never treats a single experiment as conclusive, and certainly doesn’t draw sweeping conclusions about major philosophical issues out of a single sound bite!
Armata, I ain’t arguing!
Robert, hmm. I’d like to ask a potentially unwelcome question — do you actually want your side of the debate to win? One of the things I’ve noticed very often in dealing with social conservatives these days is that they tend to default, as you seem to be doing, to a binary where the only two choices are defector-syndrome virtue signaling on the one hand, and an almost enthusiastic embrace of despair on the other. Both of those are effective ways of losing, of course — and yet when I try to point this out, the response I get almost always involves a flipflop from one of these options to the other.
People who want their causes to win don’t do this. They look for ways to communicate their point of view that will appeal to the uncommitted, or to those who are only weakly committed to the opposing point of view. They craft their language to avoid self-defeating habits such as defector syndrome. They recognize that social attitudes can change dramatically, that there is no monolinear “march of progress” that makes some ideas automatically successful and others automatically doomed, and that competent, committed advocacy of unpopular ideas can make those ideas popular. That’s how the advocates of same-sex marriage and civil rights for sexual minorities (and notice the skillful way these terms have been crafted!) successfully overturned centuries of public opinion to get the things they wanted. They understand this. Perhaps you can help me understand why social conservatives don’t.
(Mind you, in this case I’m not at all on the side of the social conservatives. I hold the very American attitude — an attitude once embraced by old-fashioned conservatives here! — that what consenting adults do in their own bedrooms is nobody’s business but their own. But I’m fascinated by the way that so many social conservatives have embraced their defeat so enthusiastically; it reminds me of nothing so much as France in 1940…)
Djerek, thanks for the quote!
Mike, using magic to change others is self-defeating if you’re using it to try to avoid making changes in yourself — and that’s usually the way it gets used, of course. The comparison between magic and rhetoric is very good — yes, the two have much in common, and there’s also a difference between using rhetorical tools to transform your own awareness, on the one hand, and using rhetorical tricks to manipulate others, on the other. More on this in an upcoming post!
It gets pretty tiresome to hear people complain about liberals being close-minded and judgmental while in the next breath describing their opposition as motivated by “visceral hatred for the idea of a self-governing Britain”. The assumption that people could only disagree with you because of some kind of neurotic antipathy to Goodness and Freedom is the same thing that drives the behaviors you hate when they come from lefties. It’s going to be impossible for our society to deal effectively with our problems if everyone insists on painting their opponents as raving maniacs.
I’m curious, which blogger was that?
This seems like a good time to bring up a question I have regarding the facts vs. values distinction as you present it. You’ve said before that values can’t be derived from facts, but when you discuss how they can be derived you’ve said that you look for the results of those values when put into practice – the example you often use is the way that racialist values have been largely rejected in the West due to where those values led in the first half of the 20th century. But it seems to me that this is still an attempt to derive values from facts, just using historical facts rather than natural laws. And it leads to people trying to twist the facts of history to support their values by, e.g., denying the Holocaust or trying to claim that slavery was actually good for black people.
Am I overlooking some component of your argument?
“Phil, oh, no question either option is fraught with problems. There are no easy choices left in this world! I will also raise a glass if Scotland becomes independent, even knowing that it’s going to face a very rough road as an independent nation, because I favor small countries over large ones, local control over sprawling multinational bureaucracies, idiosyncrasy over homogenization — even knowing that a lot of mistakes will be made.”
And yet, you don’t favor the dissolution of the US, why?
James and JMG
Thanks for the replies. If I recall correctly the chap who first uncovered the problem was so disturbed by the results he spent the rest of his career trying to find alternative explanations. I will have to get the homunculus to read up on this and the rest in preparation for the discussion on the free will post.
Putting aside the replication issues and not for a minute suggesting that one should change opinions based on single experimental result (although I just saw a study saying bacon cheese burgers were the one true food), the point does become ‘so what?’. We may find our minds work do not work the way we have perceived (hoped) them to do, but what of it? How does it affect what we do?
I like the way James puts it “I can only coherently take myself to be free”
One of my current worries is the continual belief by people that they are in control and acting rationally, when we know our brains have evolved living in small groups as hunter gatherers; we are a mess of biases and reward mechanisms that can readily be exploited without us apparently noticing it.
If we are to be free, how are we each to live to give this the meaning it deserves? And do it on a finite planet with all sorts of people who just won’t see sense and agree with us.
A Stoic approach and understanding what is ours to control is likely to part of this, but I look forward to the future posts and discussions.
My conscience is pricking me, JMG, and I’d like to apologize for sounding an unwelcome note on your admirable blog. Trusting your judgement, I intend to reform on the lines you suggest. At any rate I’ll give it a go. As a start, I’ll give up defector syndrome and identity signalling for Lent. Then by Easter, if all goes well, greater propriety will be ingrained.
Your question, do I really want my side to win, was very perceptive. I realize my problem all along has been lack of faith in my fellows, leading to the conservative despair-syndrome you mention. And yet, come to think of it, my low expectations of humanity have been proved wrong before, in the Brexit vote, a phenomenon I never thought I’d live to see.
Apropos of which, my apologies to Fred, who thought I was categorising Remainers as raving maniacs. On the contrary, some people I know and love and admire are Remainers, and I don’t actually know of a single raving maniac on either side. But the loathing I mentioned is there – not in all of them, but in quite a few. It’s not maniacal, and not raving, but I do find it peculiar. However, perhaps I did wrong to mention it here.
Dear John Michael Greer,
In your recent comment you mention “a binary where the only two choices are defector-syndrome virtue signaling on the one hand, and an almost enthusiastic embrace of despair on the other”– oh, how I have heard this from certain people both on the right and the left ends of the political spectrum.
It brings a light to my mind now that I think of a certain person now passed on, beloved to me, but consternating in the extreme, for he would insist on yammering at me, to no purpose I could fathom except to stir up his own emotions, in endless circles. (Early on I learned not to take the bait, but to remain calm and ASAP change the subject.) Suffice to say he hated “liberals” and “Democrats who spend, spend, spend” and watched Fox News or listened to Rush Limbaugh all the live long day. Anyone who attempted to debate any assertion he made about politics in any way was stupid, stupid, stupid, and bad, bad, bad.
It sometimes felt like I could simply translate everything, no matter how sophisticated the subject, into Caveman: My Football Team Good, Other Football Team (Better Not Be Yours) Stupid-Bad– and any action on an actual field taking place in some sort of dreamworld we could only watch from distant bleachers.
(One day from the garage I happened to hear his radio playing the Rush Limbaugh show– I could hear it well enough to know that’s what it was but I could not actually make out the words. And from the sound of Limbaugh’s voice, suddenly, I understood that Limbaugh’s show, never mind whatever the topics were being discussed, was about emotional pain, feeling pain, for the entertainment of those who wanted to feel pain. This was very foreign to me. Who would want to feel pain? Well, this person who was beloved to me. I felt I had taken a step towards understanding something I still do not understand.)
Your comment also reminds me of your book– I am not near my library at the moment so I could not say which one– which discusses this issue of binary thinking and the power of breaking out of it. I shall be sure to reread it.
Many things in the world grieve me, but grief is a bummer. I am reading the book on Stoicism, and for that recommendation, thank you.
Its now over time for this thread this week, but I guess we might get back to it. (SMILE)
The devil in the detail as you rightly say of scientific experiment. is also key to functioning or otherwise of sovereignty and political economies.
Just a footnote: EU does not have a large bureaucracy as these things go – check out the number of civil servants – and relies much on domestic civil service in member countries. It does, admittedly, have an expensive Parliament with a democratic deficit. And as in your country there is a large hinterland of corporate bureaucracy, witness for example the large ‘lobby’ presence in Brussels. Tussles over those ‘ground rules’ are still thought to matter.
As a personal footnote I have lived for more than 30 years 5 miles the wrong (English) side of the Scottish Border. I have sometimes regretted the decision. I would hope any further ‘independence’ for Scotland would be constrained to avoid a hard border. It would be an affront to a great deal more than commonsense to have anything other than an open border. I think the same applies these days, to the border that partitions the island of Ireland. The Devil is most certainly going to be in the detail of Brexit!
Seriously, I remain solidly in favor of ‘sentiment’, but we should not be too sentimental about Scotland, even though I still feel ‘at-home’ there. If we want to retain a bit of sentiment, we can remember the Union started-off, by consent, in 1604 with the Scottish King becoming King of England in a united role. And to update it, the 20th Century war memorials are every bit as evident and commemorated in Scotland as they are south of the Border.
JMG, and @Robert, concerning the self-defeating habits of social conservatives, I see it as a sort of virtue signaling. The social conservative see the change he doesn’t approve as inevitable, so what’s left for him to do is to signal as loudly as possible that he’s one of the few who still see the truth and are holding out against degeneracy. Also, more often than not the social conservative is also a Christian, because Christians (specially the American varieties of Christianity) can add to that another type of virtue signaling, which is virtue signaling to God Himself that the social conservative is the last decent man in Gomorrah, and therefore worthy of Salvation when the end of the world comes (which inevitably will).
@James, AMark & JMG, on free will:
I’d like to interject that free will is not always exercised consciously, but can be exercised unconsciously as well. So awkward experimental results such as the one cited by AMark are still consistent with the existence of free will. The sequence of events might unfold in the following order:
(1) In light of some stimulus, a human body freely (in some cases, perhaps, randomly) chooses a particular response out of several possibilities, but consciosu thought;
(2) It then enacts that choice;
(3) Having done so, it brings its chosen action up to the level of conscious awareness.
There seems to be an unexamined assumption in our culture (and in this present discussion, too) that one’s consciousness (or conscious self) is the only possible agent that can exercise free will.
This assumption has always seemed like sheer rubbish to me. There have been so many times in my own life where I have unconsciously chosen some very prudent, ugent course of action out of several possibilities, and only later realized (a) that I had made a free choice from among several possibilities, and (b) that my free choice was not due to instinct, but was the result of my uncoscious (or pre-consious, if you will) assesment of the situation I faced.
I guess you really think much too much of the people’s ability, to give a sober mental analysis. Whilst we are dominantly attached to emotion. The intellectual thoughtfulness is all, but a thin cover. Instead we are emotionally overruled and overwhelmed. Tormented by conflicting feelings and contradictory thoughts. So we show a strong defiance to get involved of mind boggling reflection. It might shake the ground we stand on. We dislike shifts in our point of view, to which we cling panic-stricken, anxious that heaven will fall upon our head.
You offer perspective, while we seek to feel secure. Giving us reason is like preaching to windmills.
@pogonip – re: pain strategies — That’s very complex, and what you try depends a lot on the source of your pain. Here in Canada, there are published decision trees (or algroithms?) for what to try first in pain management. In the US, various professional groups and agencies have developed decision trees for pain management, so you might want to ask your doctor(s) to see what decision tree they are using to treat you.
If it is fibromyalgia or pain related to an autoimmune disease, such as Crohn’s disease, there is an interesting strategy that involves the use of very low doses of Naltrexone, taken orally once a day (1 to 6 mg range). It works for many people, but not all. Here’s a link for low dose naltrexone, and an example of opioid guidelines from the US CDC;
JMG, my condolences over the loss of your child–a degree of grief I can’t even begin to imagine.
It seems you are not the only person thinking about this question.
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