Sunday, 29 January 2012

Stoicism: Utilitarianism And Socrates

Here's a bit of a problem with regular utilitarianism (or any kind of consequentialism that deals with mental states like happiness).  You've got to act in such a way that you maximise the happiness of those around you, and they've got to act in such a way that they maximise your happiness.  Weirdly, the responsibility for your happiness seems to fall on everybody else, and you bear a fragment of responsibility for everybody else's happiness.  This is contrary to the way we intuitively think about happiness - we think that our own happiness is  to a decent extent our own responsibility.  Be satisfied with what you've got, we say, and so on.  But what makes ourselves happy is often very difficult to pin down - we can come into a load of money, feel oddly unsatisfied, and then experience nirvana while watching that evening's sunset.  How much more difficult is it to fathom the causes of and take responsibility for other people's happiness?

The Stoic answer to this problem has the advantage of being simple.  Happiness, it says, is entirely our own responsibility.  Nothing anybody else can do ought to make you happy - if it does, you're behaving immorally and laying yourself open to inconsistency and danger.  Make your happiness depend on your own virtue, and you will be entirely self-sufficient, since nobody but you can assist or harm your virtue.

What, then, is our responsibility to others?  We should act in a gentle, dignified, kind way, but that's a function of our responsibility to ourselves, not to other people.  In terms of other people's benefit, Socrates' last wish was that the Athenian state should punish his sons harshly and thus lead them to virtue. This is obviously directly at odds with a utilitarian view.

Does a Stoic have a responsibility to others at all?  Maybe not.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Chance Of Living

There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong - acting the part of a good man or of a bad.

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth - that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that to die and be released was better for me; and therefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason also, I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemners; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them.

A little taste of Plato's Apology before my next Stoicism post.  It's not explicitly a Stoic text, but if you (mis)read it in the context of Epictetus and other Stoics you can explain some of the more difficult bits.  Here's the thing in full - it's genuine philosophical heroism and, on the off-chance you haven't read it, well worth a look.

Monday, 23 January 2012

New People Coming Through

Let's take a little break from the series on Stoicism to enjoy some Blue Scholars holiday music:


In related news, I'm going away for a month to sunnier and less-developed climes.  Thanks to the magic of the scheduler, posting will continue as usual (with more regularity, if anything,) but don't expect hasty replies to every comment.

Yours eternally,

Philboyd Studge

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Stoicism: We've Got The Power

What - according to Epictetus - is a Stoic?  A person who knows that some things are within their control and some things aren't; a person who can change the things that are under their control and reconcile themselves to the things that aren't; a person who understands that their important possessions cannot be taken from them unless they choose to give them up.

What could these possessions be?  It varies from Stoic to Stoic - feel free to choose your own - but they've got to be ways of using impressions.  Good health and riches are merely impressions from the outside world (things that aren't part of us), and don't qualify as important possessions, but inner dignity and calm are ways of using impressions and do qualify.  In theory, you can maintain calm no matter what happens to you; and if you don't, then you (and only you) have decided to give your calm up.  You can't maintain your riches no matter what happens; they're out of your control, and so don't really belong to you.

Epictetus' way of doing this is to practice equanimity.  When you come into money, he advises, say to yourself: it has come to me from the world, and may soon leave me.  When your child is born, say to yourself: this child is mortal, and may soon die.  If such a thing happens, you'll have prepared yourself and will be able to retain your virtue.  This doesn't mean being insensible to worldly pleasures - you're free to enjoy your money and love your children, of course - but a proper Stoic maintains a certain level of detachment.

A central belief of Stoicism is that emotions and desire are fully within our control.  If we say that we were 'carried away by lust', or 'consumed with anger' and not responsible for our actions, a Stoic would chuckle and call us a liar.  This contradicts the established Freudian view of emotions being 'bottled up' and needing to be released.  If you clamp down on your anger, the Stoics say, it won't fester and eventually erupt; on the contrary, it will fade with time and you'll become a less angry person.  My personal experience, incidentally, leads me to side with the Stoics over Freud.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Stoicism: Good Men Are Invincible

Let's take a look at the claim that got me interested in Stoicism in the first place.  Here it is, from Socrates' Apology:

No harm can come to a good man, in life or death.

On the surface, this is ridiculous.  It sounds like the worst of Leibniz's best-of-all-worlds theory, like Job's judgemental friends - so obviously contradicted by what we see in the world every day.  Good people suffer more than bad people, if anything.  Christianity is simultaneously built on this principle - be a good person and they'll kill you, etc - and troubled by it in the problem of evil.  Innocent children catch awful diseases, and so on.

If we wish to construct Socrates' view charitably, we need to look at what he means by the words 'good' and 'harm'.  Rather than being a statement about how the world is, Socrates' claim is really a definition of a 'good man': a good man is someone to whom no harm can come.  How can anybody live to avoid all harm?  Well, as the Buddhists say, pain and harm are functions of desire - if you don't desire something, then removing it can't harm you.  But Socrates isn't saying that the good man desires nothing.  Rather, the good man desires only what is entirely within his power: his own moral behaviour.

You want to avoid being harmed?  It's easy: just see all the things that you can't control as worthless.  Your own health, the health and lives of people you care about, money, even your own life - all these things are determined largely by chance, and so it's a bad idea to worry about them.  Change the way you think so that, if you retain your moral integrity, you will be entirely satisfied.  Epictetus tells a story of a man who is summoned by a capricious ruler.  He refuses, and the ruler threatens to cut his head off.  "You are free to do that," says the man, "just as I am free to refuse your summons."

On this view, if you do something evil - kill another person, for instance - the only person you've harmed is yourself.  If you're killed by another person, they've done you no wrong.  How could they?  All they can harm is your body, your life - which as we've seen is of no concern to the Stoics.

Make your state of mind dependent on nothing but your own actions.  If you allow chance to determine how happy you are, you lay yourself open to disaster.  Don't worry about what will happen to you; worry about how you'll react to it. Then you'll be Socrates' 'good man', and nobody will be able to harm you again.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Why Stoicism?

In the comments of my last post, Pied Cow asked why anybody would want to treat misfortune and good fortune in the same way.  It's a fair question, since we intuitively feel that grieving and celebrating are natural.  However, consider the kind of person who suffers misfortune far more often than good fortune, and ask yourself whether that kind of person might find comfort in Stoicism.  Two quotes, now - the first from Schopenhauer and the second from Marcus Aurelius:

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.

I hope this goes some way towards answering that question. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Practical Stoicism

This will be the first post in a series on stoic philosophy.  The vast majority of Stoic discussion on the internet and in philosophy textbooks has been focused on the religious aspects of Stoicism: man's relationship to the universe, the wishes of the gods, the relationship between public and private duties, and so on.  It's certainly rewarding to study these things, but to me the biggest advantage of Stoicism is its incredible practicality: putting aside the metaphysical framework, Stoic philosophy gives useful advice for the real world.

Prisoners of war - I'm too lazy to look them up, so trust me on this - have turned to Stoic precepts to help them get through the horrors of internment.  In fact, Stoicism is designed to answer a very common question: how ought we to react to misfortune? 

So far I haven't actually said anything about what Stoicism is - bear with me a little further.  The Stoicism I'm interested in is drawn from people like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and heavily grounded in certain maxims of Socrates.  Every Greek philosopher tried to enlist Socrates in their cause, propping up his venerable corpse at the forefront of each new idea, and Epictetus was no exception.  He argued that Socrates was an ideal Stoic.  In this series I'll lay out a kind of non-supernatural Stoicism, centred on ideas like these:

Socrates' paradoxical claim that, a priori, no harm can come to a good man.

Epictetus' argument that the defining human trait is the use of impressions.

Marcus Aurelius' argument that we ought only to concern ourselves with what is in our power.

And finally, here's a skeleton definition of Stoicism: the philosophy that counsels us to receive life's troubles with total equanimity; for example, to react to the death of a loved one and the birth of one's child in the same way.  I'll flesh this out in posts to come.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Oi To The World

Forget the Clash! No Doubt have this whole 'punk' thing down cold.  (In all seriousness, I love the video for this song and would appreciate some input on whether it's racist.)

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Poems I Like #4: Ambulances

My first - and most powerful - experience with Philip Larkin was This Be The Verse, one of the few poems that could fairly be described as 'brutal'.  Now, via Ivan (as usual - this blog is slowly turning into a From Wine To Water commentary blog), here's Ambulances, a much more subtle exploration of the same theme:

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede.
Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable insided [
sic, it seems] a room
The trafic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
Like This Be The Verse, it's in iambic pentameter, but at once it's more complicated: we've got enjambment all over the place (between the fourth and fifth stanza, most notably), and trochees replacing the iambs for variety - None of the glances they absorb.  There's no Pope-like slavish dedication to form here. In this way Larkin's voice becomes less sing-song, more like a whispered conversation than a nursery rhyme.  The rhyme scheme itself is more complicated: instead of abab, it's abcbca.  That rhyme pair enclosing the standard abab verse gives Larkin more room to play around.

What about the ideas? Ambulances is a poem about - you guessed it - ambulances, threading their way through the streets of a city.  It's about children and mothers seeing people taken away in an ambulance, and thinking about their own lives.  So beneath the surface imagery, Ambulances is also a poem about death.  The titular ambulances play the role of Reapers (any Supernatural fans here?) or, more pretentiously, 'psychopomps': guides, bridges between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

All streets in time are visited - not visited by ambulances, but by the end that those ambulances represent.  And for those witnessing that end, it's possible to glimpse what lies beneath: the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, which is permanent, blank and true. This is the great secret of the poem, buried in the middle of the middle stanza.  I'm not entirely certain what 'solving' means here - my best guess is that it solves the confusions, the problems of life; it's the answer to confusion.

The last two stanzas move from death to life, describing the dying man as something nearly at an end, in which families, fashions, love - all the circumstantial aspects of life - cohere somehow.  Life is construed as a relationship, a series of networks (or knots, a la Crispy), and, near death, they begin to loosen.  The very end is cryptic: the ambulance rolls off into traffic, death approaches, and all that we are // dulls into distance. Is this referring to the mind of the onlooker, which forgets the solving emptiness?  We know they only understood it for a second, so this explanation is at least plausible.

And now I feel like I've pinned the poem with a skewer through its thorax.  In an attempt to inject some actual appreciation (since this is a poem I very much appreciate), here's a few instances of Larkin's skill:

children strewn on steps or road  - I love 'strewn' here.

A wild white face that overtops    - wild white, in contrast to the red blankets.

Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed       -  stowed
is perfect, like a piece of baggage.

sudden shut of loss                     -  This is perfect and accurate.

It probably goes without saying that solving emptiness that lies just under all we do is existential, but just in case I'll finish with a Kierkegaard quote about much the same thing:

If at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid behind everything, what would life be but despair?

The children and women in Ambulances are lucky to forget it so quickly.