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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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.

Blaming Trump is part of the problem

The Atlantic tells us that “Trump is making everyone a little like him.”

I disagree. Notice the headline’s passive voice. President Donald Trump isn’t making us do anything. Instead, we choose to act in certain ways.

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Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

American culture has become coarser in the past half century. Trump didn’t start this trend—not even on Twitter—but he is the logical conclusion of it.

The Atlantic notes former FBI director James Comey’s many insults of Trump in his new book, and Comey’s denials that he’s mocking Trump. Social justice activists are also well known for their abusive online rhetoric. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues fill online comment sections with all sorts of insults of women and minorities.

This phenomenon is no more left-wing than it is right-wing, though the right has the most globally visible practitioner of it.

Trolling and online insults proliferate because so many people think it’s only wrong when someone else does it. But when I do it, the reasoning goes, I’m speaking out against someone who has hurt others and who needs to be exposed so they can no longer harm others.

Conservatives who say liberalism is a mental disorder are legitimately warning others of liberalism’s threat to civilization as we know it—at least in their own minds. And social justice activists call anyone who isn’t as far left as them a bigot in a justified attempt to fight oppression—or so they say.

But saying that Trump is making us do this evades responsibility for our choices. And it makes the problem worse because it blames the phenomenon on one segment of society, ignoring the fact that really it’s all of us.

No one person is likely to shift the tide, but each individual can play a small part by refusing to play along.

I can choose not to troll online or in person. I can choose not to use insults and instead to focus on why I disagree with someone. And if insulted, I can choose not to retaliate.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy. Ever seen a situation where someone remains calm and respectful even when being viciously insulted? In contrast to the exaggerated facial expressions, shrill tone of voice, and over the top statements of the attacker, the other person’s relaxed face and thoughtful response makes it look like a conversation between a child and an adult.

Besides, while factual items can be corrected simply by stating the facts (which may or may not be believed), character judgments are opinion and can’t be refuted in the same way. So redirecting from the personalities to the issue at hand can save us from the rabbit hole of “I know you are but what am I.”

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.

Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.