tiistai 28. kesäkuuta 2016

The Stoic Attitude

Although we've seen philosophic schools like Epicureans and Academics find followers in Rome, by the time of Imperial Rome it was definitely the Stoic school that had the most prominent and influential members – take for instance, Seneca, famous as a minister for the emperor Nero.

It was a clear need for education that drew Seneca to philosophy. He admits that learning anything for the sake of profit is not worth the time of a gentleman – a common attitude among ancient philosophers. But not even the usual studies of nobility of his time satisfied Seneca. Grammar and poetry are of no consequence in matters of life, and neither is music. Mathematics can be useful in ascertaining the lay of my lands, but this does not still tell me whether I should own land at all. And even if astrological predictions are true, it is of no use to know my future, if I cannot avoid it.

Even all areas of philosophy were not so important in Seneca's eyes. Logic he especially regarded as often concerning itself with mere trivialities. What does it help to know in how many ways word “friend” is used, if it does not tell us what to do to a friend? Seneca ridicules even the seemingly clever syllogisms of Zeno and other Stoics, who try to prove great ethical truths with simple logical tricks. Even worse is to spend time thinking about fallacies like Liar's paradox – learning about such mistakes in reasoning does not advance us at all in what is truly important in our life.

Yet, abstract reasoning about genera and meaning of being might have a place in life, Seneca admits, for if one is to be entertained, one might even at least train one's mind with one's entertainment. And at least Platonic idea of true being residing in something covered by reasoning shows us not to hold things of sense world in great value.

Questions about nature Seneca found somewhat more interesting, and he even compiled a treatise of curiosities of natural phenomena. Although interesting in themselves, these phenomena also point to some builder behind all these wonders, who shares a similar relation to world than soul to its body. The existence of such a creative intelligence suggests to Seneca that life of a person continues, even when separated from its dying body.

But it was especially the question of how to live that interested Seneca and one that he thought philosophy was especially fit to answer. Of course, philosophical study itself might benefit of an addition of simple guiding lines in these matters – in spur of the moment, remembering a simple piece of wisdom might be easier than going through elaborate proof. Yet, mere sayings are still not enough, especially as, Seneca says, current times are perverted and so far from the natural way of life that every possible help is required for living well.

It seems no question of human condition was too small to interest Seneca, as he ponders even such problems whether it is best to read detached sentences from several books or concentrate your attention on few books. Indeed, he says, philosophy is not just a source for some isolated principles, but an example for molding your whole life.

But it is especially big questions of life that Seneca is interested of. One should live the life to utmost and take advantage of every moment, because death is something that is inevitably following everyone and may surprise us suddenly. And if one should live old enough, one should cherish every day even more and relish the days when the desires of youth have gone by. And when the time comes, one must seize the opportunity and leave the aching body behind without any care.

Seneca's advice to seize the day was especially meant to eradicate all fears of future disasters. Why should one be unhappy before an event has occurred? If one is complacent with the idea that even the seemingly worst fate of them all, that is, one's death, can be an honourable event and that death leads either to cessation of all experiences, good and bad alike, or to release of human mind from bondage of body, all reasons to fear vanish. A person who has truly understood this will remain indifferent to her outward conditions – whether he is sensually pleasured or tormented by pain, her state of mind will be unaffected. Even a loss of something dear, like a good friend or beloved child, is something she does not regret – at least she has not switched good to a devious friend and at least she has had the opportunity to enjoy the life of her child thus far. And all the seeming hardships of life she deems to be mere challenges set by god, in which she can show the strength of her character. Even if this seems like an ideal that one cannot truly perform, it is an idea that one should try to emulate as much as she can.

Even the most seemingly useful negative emotions prove to be disadvantageous on a closer look. Thus, while Aristotelians would have commended the emotion of anger, as long as it was kept under strict control, Seneca wants to have none of this, since giving even restricted freedom to rage means losing one's self-control. Indeed, it is some results of rage that are more to be commended, such as a brave stance towards injustice, but these can also be a consequence of a controlled mind. In fact, it is much better not to hate people, whom one punishes, since their crimes are just a sign of their lack of self-control. Especially important this ability to control one's anger and be merciful is to people with great power, since on their decision depends lives of many people.

A good question is whether it is at all possible then to get rid of such negative emotions like anger, when they seem to arise in us without any choice on our parts. Yet, Seneca suggests, it is only the first impulse that is generated naturally, but turning impulses into actions still requires our assent. We might weaken impulses through exercise, but most important remedy against e.g. angered behaviour is not to give in to impulses demanding such a behaviour. For instance, we should take time to let our first feelings cool and to reflect whether the thing that made us angry really is worth all the fuss.

The result of losing all these negative emotions, Seneca believed, was not a state of no emotions, but a state of full joy. It was a state in which one truly controlled oneself and felt happy about this self-control – and this was the true source of happiness. Thus, things like traveling can by themselves lead to no happiness, since the main source of human activity or person's own mind remains same throughout one's travels. Yet, this does not mean that a truly wise person would completely disparage all external matters – if it be in her power to choose, she will still e.g. prefer doing honourable deeds benefiting her family or country than to be assailed by sickness and pain, and she would gladly have riches, because she can use them for good purposes.

Although Seneca thus insisted that perfect living would imply taking control of oneself, he also admitted that some reactions of body can never be fully controlled. For instance, some people naturally blush in novel situations, but this is just due to an increase in blood flow and not to any weakness in their character. Similarly, although a perfectly wise person would feel joy when thinking of happy times spent with departed friends, the body might still force some tears to her eyes. Indeed, Seneca says, one should not take that much care of body – only a moderate exercise is enough, because one should concentrate more on the well-being of one's mind, which was the truly divine element in a person.

Seneca's ideas of social relations are ambiguous. On the one hand, one should avoid crowds, especially when they are engaging in some brutal and inhuman activity, like gladiator battles, which Seneca despised. One should even try to make oneself as uninteresting as possible in eyes of the people, in other words, live as unluxurious life as possible – at least one should from time to time try to live with just the barest essentials. Indeed, why should one gather much wealth, when needs of nature can be fulfilled so easily, and in case of total deprivation one can still leave the life? Equally unimportant is social status, since we all derive from the same stock, and it is quite unimportant if other people think less of you because of your status in life. Some might even say that low status means easier life, since one does not then need to care about envy of people – and one should not take slavery as a reason to not enjoy a person's company.

On the other hand, it is good to have companions whom you trust, whom you can help in their need and with whom you can share all that you have learned from the art of living. Indeed, a person who is still just learning the art of good life requires some guidance from other people. And even if truly well-living persons can spend their time happily with themselves and live their whole life as a hermit, they still prefer having around them people they like, since company of friends is a source of joy also. One should just not be beguiled to think that one needs a lot of riches to provide for one's friends, for true friends will remain one's friends, no matter what one's financial condition.

Seneca's opinion on political affairs is equally ambiguous. Surely a wise person should help the community in any way she can, but if the community does not want her advice and especially if it is ruled by power-hungry and self-seeking persons, there is no duty to take care of such a community. Then a wise person might as well spend her life quietly contemplating the wonders of the universe – that is also useful, since surely such divine works require some observer.

Compared to Seneca, Epictetus seems more like the traditional image of a Stoic – a former slave, who dedicated his life to teaching other people the secrets of philosophy. His main conviction on this score was that students often just tried to memorise sayings of famous philosophers, which in itself was still no philosophy – a true philosopher was known of his actions, not of his lectures.

Like Seneca before him, Epictetus spoke of all three traditional parts of Stoic philosophy. He didn't disparage even logic or study of what is true. Indeed, he despised all skeptical philosophers who had thrown away the greatest gift of human beings or the capacity for reasoning, which is the only true measure of truth. An irrational person or a person who falls for all sorts of false deductions has erred and should thus correct herself, even if an error in reasoning seems a less important thing than an error in behaviour. Even study of rhetoric was of some use, Epictetus thought, because clarity in speech made it more easy for others to understand you. Still, one should not confuse such preliminary studies with the genuine philosophy.

The use of the study of nature lies in Epictetus' view especially in the evidence that it offers for the existence of some artificer or god behind the whole world. God has created the world purposefully and has given every creature its share of natural capacities to use – even such a seemingly useless thing as a beard is valuable, since it is such a clear sign of gender, Epictetus claims. To human beings, god gave something divine, namely, reason. Thus, we should be proud of our own heritage, which ultimately leads to god, and at the same time, respect the value of other human beings, no matter what their station in life.

Just like with Seneca, the true value of philosophy, according to Epictetus, lies in the art of living – it is here that one's progress in study of philosophy is evaluated. Epictetus notes that the art of living is in a sense something that everyone must look for herself, because everyone has different capacities – for some people, it is good to humble oneself and carry the chamber pot of their superiors, for others, that would be a great insult and a reason to object one's superiors. Similarly, one cannot really condemn people for living badly, because it is not their fault if they haven't been taught the skills required for good life – a thief just hasn't been explained well, why she shouldn't continue in her ways.

Still, even if no detailed rules fit for everyone can be made, Epictetus is still willing to say something general about good life. There is only one thing we can control, he insists, namely, our attitude towards all what we perceive to happen, while everything else lies beyond our control. The rule of good life is then to aim to control what we can – that is, our attitudes toward everything – and not care about things we can never control, like riches and health. This is the only way to true freedom, Epictetus says, because true freedom requires complete control of oneself.

In other words, we should be cautious about things we can control and confidently bear things we cannot control. Among the things one cannot control is one's bodily appearance. Thus, Epictetus says, we should not spend our time for improving our appearance or lamenting our bodily health. Instead, one should make one's inner choices as beautiful as possible and bear one's illnesses as gracefully as possible. And if one's life becomes unbearable, one should always remember that in suicide lies the final escape route out of all miseries.

Among the things one cannot control are also the actions of others. What should if I care, if others despise or pity me? What should I care, if a powerful person threatens my external conditions or my body? What should I care, if someone else failed to live like a philosopher? All of these things are such that I have no say on them. Because the lure of other people is so enticing, Epictetus suggests that a philosopher-to-be should at first avoid large crowds and return to civilisation only after fortifying one's mind.

Although Epictetus did not place much value in community life, he did not want to make Stoics into complete hermits. Indeed, he says a philosopher should clean oneself, so as to be worthy of being called a human being – and not to repulse other persons from philosophy, because of the stench. Epictetus is also willing to disregard certain radical ideas on community life of earlier Stoics. For instance, when earlier Stoics had declared that all women should be communally owned, Epictetus points out that we still shouldn't touch a woman with a different husband, because it would also be rude to take one's seat in a theater, although neither of you exactly owns the seat.

Epictetus divides the learning to live well into three phases. Firstly, one should try to tame one's emotions, so that neither love nor hate would affect one's judgement in any manner. Secondly, one should know one's duties in relation to other persons and act according to them. Finally, one should cultivate one's faculty of judgement, so that one is always in a position to say what is good or bad, no matter whether one's faculties are in a good condition or not.

Epictetus held Cynics as an ideal of living well. He congratulated Diogenes as truly independent and thus kingly person, because Diogenes was never perturbed by sudden blows of fate, such as being captured by pirates, but treated them with the same disdain as all others. Epictetus himself admits that he has a long way to go, if he wants to achieve the ideal result.

While Seneca wrote long essays on various themes, teachings of Epictetus were collected by his student, Arrian, and were often quite short. Even more aphoristical are the writings of our final example of later Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, who is quite an extraordinary specimen – a ruler of the Roman empire. In contrast with his grand state, he begins his Meditations quite humbly by reminding himself how much he has gotten from people who have educated him and taught of the ways of good life.

Humble is also his view about his own mental capacities. Everything in human life seems like a fleeting opinion, nothing is certain and not just material world, but everything in human soul is flux, he says. Yet, this is all just indifferent, because important thing is to keep hold of what is truly essential in oneself and disregard everything else by severing ties to one's material side. Even if there were no divinities, it would be good to hold on to what seems divine in you and gain complete self-mastery. Yet, even though Marcus Aurelius is sure that there are divinities taking care of the world, this does not mean any change in one's ideal behaviour: it is still good to live as naturally as possible.

An important part of life, Marcus Aurelius says, is the inevitable loss of one's faculties due to old age. This is nothing to complain about, since decay is also a part of natural progress. Even death is nothing to complain about, since it is only dissolution and return of body to the material elements, from which it originally arose. Life is like a stage, and we just have to bow out of it, when our time comes – and who knows, we might have to play the same part again during the repeating cycles of the world, so we should better play our part well.

The fact of old age and death does mean that one should not waste time with anything that one cannot really control, such as thoughts of other people. Instead, one should concentrate on what is most noble in human beings, that is, their capacity to reflect on things. Reason should be put to good use by inspecting and accepting everything that happens around us – whatever happens is just part of the natural course of the world. Being disturbed of all the pain, decay and death is disrespectful of the powers controlling the world, since all these things form the natural cycle of the world. Of course, it is also natural that humans act against their better reason and are disrespectful of everything in their deeds and words. Thus, one should not be disturbed of the fact that some people cannot act in such a philosophical manner, even more so if oneself is also incapable of living all times like a philosopher.

The capacity to reflect gives us a constant resting place from the ordeals and pains of human life. If something disturbs you, Marcus Aurelius says, you have the power to change your opinion and conclude that it wasn't nothing to be disturbed of. It is oneself everyone should be trying to control, not others, who might always be beyond your power. Ironically, this ruler of Roman empire appears to think that one of the worst fates that can befall a human being is becoming an emperor. Still, if one has to take that position, one must hold that position like a philosopher would.

The existence of reason is something shared by all human beings. Thus, reason connects all human beings into one community. Similarly, the whole world forms a unity, in which all living beings should be respected. One should dedicate one's life to this cosmological community by accepting the fate universe has bestowed on one. In world, Marcus Aurelius says, things feed one another, thus, what seems death and destruction is actually just change of one shape of matter into another according to rules and laws of universe. Then again, just like an individual should help the (local or global) community, she should be ready to accept help from others, since a group of persons can achieve things that a single individual by herself couldn't.

Although Marcus Aurelius was a dedicated Stoic, his aphorisms show a bit of carelessness in the acceptance of Stoicism. Thus, he is quite indifferent about the question whether world is governed by a benevolent person or whether Epicureans were right in denying all intention about the behaviour of the world. Whatever the case, Marcus Aurelius says, we should still hold on to our independence and reason.

In a sense, this branch of Stoicism has taken to its inevitable conclusion the idea that philosophy is all about the art of living. This development is in a sense a natural concomitant of the growing independence of other fields of investigation, which is something I'll take a look at in my next post. And when philosophy became synonymous with ethics, it was deprived of all speculations concerning the nature of reality – who cares whether world is ruled by chaos, providence or necessity, as long as I can control myself? Yet, this void of speculation could not be left empty and in yet further posts we will see how philosophy was overtaken by religion.

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