Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

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MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

Is there a link between teen suicide, school shootings, & social media?

Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.

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© Dave DuBay

I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.

In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.

But what if there’s a link between boys who are at risk for suicide and boys who are more likely to commit a mass shooting? Dr. Kelly Posner of Columbia University’s suicide prevention program claims that over 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and almost a third say suicide is a motive for committing a mass shooting.

Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.

Still, almost two-thirds of teens who commit suicide come from fatherless homes. And Farrell and Gray state the perpetrator grew up without a father or with little father involvement in 26 of 27 American mass shooting where at least 8 people died. Some dispute this figure, however, citing difficulties with identifying and measuring father involvement.

What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.

And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:

Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.

The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.

The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.

Who’s the most Stoic Star Trek character?

Mr. Spock is often seen as the ultimate stoic. Yet, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says not to be like a stone statue.

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Can you be emotional and stoic at the same time? No—that’s a contradiction in terms. But can you be emotional and Stoic at the same time? Yes—Stoicism has a nuanced perspective on emotion.

Whether the “s” is capitalized or not matters.

Kolinahr—the final purging of all emotion—is the ultimate Vulcan goal.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series, said he didn’t play Spock as emotionless but rather as someone who was suppressing his emotions. This fits the dictionary definition of stoic: “not showing or not feeling any emotion, esp. in a situation in which the expression of emotion is expected.”

Characters without emotions are not compelling, though. Ultimately, Spock ends up rejecting Kolinahr.

Captain Picard from the next generation of Star Trek is similar to Spock in some ways. Picard values reason, and he’s particularly concerned with ethical resolutions to conflict.

But Picard is also a very emotional man. He’s compassionate, and he gets angry often. It’s rare, though, for Picard to let his anger overwhelm him to the point where doing the right thing is no longer important.

Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor was a Stoic who wrote a book On Anger. Living a good life is Stoicism’s ultimate goal, but intense emotions can cause us to act unethically. Seneca notes that passion can override reason, and that’s a problem. And anger is one of the most destructive emotions.

But what about anger in the face of evil? Gandhi could have been angry but wasn’t. Hitler shouldn’t have been angry, but was. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

Seneca says that emotions start as an impression, and often this happens without us even noticing it. The first sign is often physical: tense muscles, churning stomach. Then our thoughts kick in, and this is where we need to cut things off at the pass. Once our imagination gets away from us we start to believe that other people really are malicious and deserve punishment. We need to pause, take a step back, think it through, and keep our focus on an ethical solution.

That’s more nuanced than simply suppression our emotions. Absent super-human self-control, it would be much hard to be consistently ethical using Mr. Spock’s approach to emotions compared to Captain Picard.

Stoicism & Western Buddhism

The similarity of Buddhism and Stoicism is not a new observation. But Patrick Ussher in Stoicism & Western Buddhism offers a more nuanced perspective. The similarities apply more to Western Buddhism and modern Stoicism than to the ancient versions of either.

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© Dave DuBay

In both cases, Ussher argues, modern Westerners have revised ancient philosophies to fit current cultural sensibilities. Buddhism has a long history of adapting itself to new cultures. That’s why there’s so much diversity from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada Buddhism. Western Buddhism likewise departs from ancient Buddhism in several key respects: it detraditionalizes, demythologizes, and psychologizes traditional Buddhist beliefs.

The similarities between modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism, then, start from ancient seeds but have been nurtured by modern Western soil. One ancient seed is harmony as an ideal. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life. Dukkha literally means “bad wheel.” Similarly, virtue is Stoicism’s goal, which is said to result in Eurhoia, or “good flow.” In both cases, wishing things were different results in emotional disturbance.

And while the Buddhist belief that all is mind can be interpreted variously, the Stoic belief that our thoughts are opinions—interpretations of the world—but not reality itself, is also possible in Buddhism.

That we are social beings with social responsibilities is central to Stoic ethics. Marcus Aurelius writes that people must work together like parts of the body work together. Because we are all connected, harming one harms all. This gels with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing.

There are important differences, however. Mindfulness is one example. Stoic mindfulness, Ussher writes, pays continual attention to the nature of judgments and actions. But Buddhist mindfulness is more expansive. It focuses on greater self-awareness, not only of one’s thoughts but also of one’s body. The Stoic goal is to live according to nature while Buddhism seeks the cessation of suffering.

Further, Stoicism has no tradition of sitting or breathing meditation like Buddhism does. And Stoics have no equivalent of Zen simplicity. Further, while Buddhism has a strong focus on compassion, Stoic virtues center on justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.

Ussher also points out that modern Buddhist works by Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Thich Nhat Hanh are far more popular in North America and Europe than ancient Buddhist texts are. In contrast, Roman Stoic texts by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are very popular among modern Stoics. However, there are significant themes in these texts that many Stoics today ignore—particularly Epictetus’s strong emphasis on God.

Ussher concludes that modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism could benefit from borrowing from each other. Buddhism’s meditation techniques and perspective on compassion can be beneficial even to non-Buddhists. And the same is true for Stoic ethics and practical approach to reframing our thoughts.

“A Sage wants nothing but needs many things; a fool wants everything.”

At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.

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Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, AZ © Dave DuBay

Seneca opens his letter explaining a common misconception: “Lack of feeling” in Stoicism means “a soul which rejects any sensation of evil,” not lack of emotion. That is, Sages “feel their troubles but overcome them.”

A Sage has friends but also is self-sufficient. “If he loses a hand…he’ll be satisfied with what is left. …But while he doesn’t pine for these parts…he prefers not to lose them.”

Seneca goes on to clarify that friendship prevents our nobler qualities from lying dormant.

But his disagreement with Epicurus, ancient Stoicism’s opponent, is that friendship isn’t about having someone by your side in a time of need. That’s a fair weather friend who won’t actually show up.

“Hence, prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends”—but “a friend because it pays will cease when that pays.” Instead, the value Stoicism places on human connection means that friendship is about you being there in your friend’s time of need.

One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all nobility.

This frames the Stoic view of self-sufficiency.

A Sage is self-sufficient when it comes to eudaimonia. Too often translated as “happiness,” Seneca defines it as “an upright soul.”

But a Sage still needs many things for mere existence. Sages are not gods.

It’s here that Seneca quotes Chrysippus, the third leader of Stoicism, whose writing are mostly lost to history:

The wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.”

Desire stems from dependency, but the Sage understands that “the supreme good…arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.”

If what is truly good comes from within then the removal of external objects of desire—the ploy of conquerors—has no power. That’s how the conquered conquers the conqueror.

In other words, the Sage “deems nothing that might be taken to be good.” A Sage practices non-attachment much like a Buddhist monk.

In the end, Seneca is distinguishing needs and wants. Not that he, or I, or you are Sages. It’s an ideal aspired to if rarely attained.

Reconsidering God’s existence (or, the value of agnosticism)

Knowing and believing are separate issues.

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Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.

Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.

I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.

So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.

Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.

But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.

In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.

Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.

Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.

Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.

I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.

The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.