Recalling Philosophy is not Living Philosophy

Those who pioneered the old paths are guides, they are not our masters. Truth lies open to all, for there is no monopoly on the truth. And there is plenty of it for future generations to uncover. -Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 33

I've been thinking a lot about Stoic progress. It's been on my mind since I started creating Episode 16 of the podcast and I finished that in April of 2018 so, as I said, it's been a while. Primarily I want to know that I am growing. Because if I'm not, what's the point? But I also think about the Stoic community. What helps advance the philosophy? What moves practitioners further towards flourishing and what, conversely, creates roadblocks?  While thinking on such things, I have been rereading Seneca's letters to Lucilius. A few days ago Letter 33 drew me in, because the theme overlaps with my present fixation. In it, Seneca shoots down "soundbite Stoicism," pooh-poohs veneration of the early Stoics, and advocates for a lived, embodied Stoicism.

Seneca did not use the term soundbite, of course. Instead He speaks against the use of quotes and aphorisms. First, he claims that pithy quotes are the sign of an uneven philosophy. Apparently good quotes stand out because the writing around them is subpar? He goes on to say that memorizing such sayings is immature. In the modern context this is quite a statement. Today's Stoics certainly enjoy a good ancient quote. One of the easier ways to gather likes on social-media is to post a simple quote from one of the Stoics. "I needed to hear that today," and, "wow," will soon flood the comments. Even in Seneca's own time, Stoic students were definitely using memorization as a tool for growth. I mean, what's pithier than the famous, "Bear and forebear?" And yet, Seneca didn't trust memorization. This is because he believed there was a wide divide between remembering something and knowing something. As he said about memorizers, "they never venture to do for themselves the things they have spent such a long time learning." Here is Seneca's real issue with quotes. He saw a danger in believing that memorizing philosophy was as good as wise action. The teacher, Musonius Rufus, would have agreed. As he said, "practicing each virtue always must follow learning the lessons appropriate to it, or it is pointless for us to learn about it." It doesn't matter if we can recall philosophy, it matters that we embody philosophy. It's this idea of embodied Stoicism that I tried to speak on in Episode 16:Progress, and that has remained with me for nearly a year.

On the theme of living out our philosophy, Seneca finds reason to deride the veneration of earlier thinkers. "But in the case of an adult who has made incontestable progress it is disgraceful to go hunting after gems of wisdom, and prop themself up with the briefest of the best-known sayings, and be dependent on memory as well; it is time they stand on their own two feet. They should be creating such maxims, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that one who is old or in sight of old age should have a wisdom deriving solely from their notebook. 'Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? 'Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under other's orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources." What does it matter what Zeno once said if we don't have thoughts of our own? Seneca saw such “notebook philosophy” as not only dangerous for the individual but for the philosophy. First, Zeno-said, or Epictetus-said Stoicism calcifies the philosophy. As he put it, "these people who never attain independence follow the views of their predecessors even in matters in which everyone else without exception has abandoned the older authority." Second, those who simply parrot the philosophy can never expand it. "No new findings will ever be made if we rest in the findings of the past."

It's Stoicism's capacity for growth that excites me; whether it's an expansion of practices that help individuals flourish, or the expansion of our ethics as we apply Stoicism to modern social issues. Seneca had a similar wish for a vital Stoicism. We also share a concern that the world marks progress incorrectly and, therefore, leads people to a pallid stoicism that can not fulfill the full promise of philosophy. Letter 33 is certainly worth a read. After that though, it’s fine to forget the words if, instead, we act with the freedom we have to be our own guides.

Living What Can Be Lived

I've been having trouble finding peace. Both my wife and I need to change jobs soon and I'm not certain how that's going to happen and what it will entail. Because of this I've been spending a lot of time dwelling on the future, which is a terrible idea. In fact, I'd say that the reason I'm not at peace is specifically because I'm thinking about the future. Stoicism would tell me the same thing.

It's fundamental to Stoicism that the only moment we ever have access to is the present moment. The past is out of our reach and can never be changed, the future simply isn't, and there's frankly no guarantee that it ever will be. As Seneca put it, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet."  When we Stoics think about what we can and can't control, it should be obvious that we can only use our energy in the here and now. And yet it can be so very difficult to keep our thoughts in the present.

I find it interesting that Seneca uses, "cutting away," when addressing the past and future because another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, would speak similarly over a hundred years later. In Meditations 12:3 he writes, “If you can cut yourself - your mind - free of what other people do and say, of what you've said and done, of the things that you're afraid will happen...” Again we are advised to cut ourselves free from past regrets and future worries. The effort, even violence, of the imagery speaks to me right now. I definitely feel the entanglement that comes with a focus on either the past or the future. I would love to gain some tranquility in the present moment, but cutting away the thoughts I’m wrapped up in will take real effort.

Stoicism is present-oriented, and yet it doesn't ask us to live only for the moment. We all have projects, we are part of things that continue on (hopefully). We have to expend effort towards future events if we're going to flourish in our lives. But there's a way to do this that focuses on what we control rather than on what we don't. In my job hunt, I can't get someone to pick up my resume and call me for an interview, but I can send out that resume. I can't make my wife's work load any less, but I can take on tasks that ease the work at home and also make myself available for any other support she needs. And why wouldn't I do these things? After all, the things Stoicism asks us to cut away are wastes of our time and attention. They are things that we can never control. They are what Stoicism refers to as impressions and, in the case of imagined future events, these impressions can only be wrong ones. Latter in the same passage, Marcus also writes, "If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past...and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)...then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you." Concentrate on living what can be lived. It's tremendous advice, if also difficult. I've known the tranquility, and peace, and also kindness, that comes from concentrating on the present. It's something I want and need to get back to.

Hopefully soon.

Perhaps right now?

Quick thoughts on Racism, Safe Spaces, and Protest

I wrote this post as a comment in a Facebook conversation. However, I can't post it...probably because it's too long. So I'm dropping it here and I'll link to it on Facebook. I think readers of this blog can get the idea of what was being covered through my answer. I want to expand on these ideas later, and more clearly, but I have no problem sharing a raw version right now.

The article in question is here: Human Wall


I want to address some of the topics in this conversation directly, instead of as comments on other people's posts. As a Stoic who supports social justice movements, accepts and promotes the idea of safe space, and often participates in actions considered "rabble rousing," I just want to be on the record as to why a Stoic might partake in such things. This will be long and incomplete. I'll probably write an article on my website later.

 First though, there's a language issue. Racism, Whiteness, White people, people of color, etc...are often words/categories that individuals cross-talk about. We aren't speaking about the same thing even when we're speaking at each other. So the author of the Reason article says the students are being racist against White people. I can be rather certain that the protesting students would say that that is impossible, and I would agree. People of color (POC) can not use racism against White people. This is because racism is not equal to bigotry. Racism is a structure of laws, customs, beliefs, etc... that support a dominant group through the direct material oppression of other groups. Bigotry can be part of racism, but it is not even necessary for racism to have an effect. In the United States, historically and culturally, then and now, Whiteness is the category that is supported by racism. Racism can not be wielded against Whites by definition. People can be bigots towards White people, they can put up obstacles in their way, but this is not racism.

This is the context in which POC and others say that racism is impossible against Whites and that reverse-racism is ridiculous on its face. Also, you may notice I keep capitalizing White and Whiteness. In the discourse of racial studies, racial history, social justice movements, and the like, Whiteness is a social and political construction developed as a means of understanding who gets access to power in a racialized society. Whiteness was developed in direct opposition and for the oppression of "others" (those outside the system). When people are against Whiteness, as I as a White person am, they are not against Scots, Irish, Germans, and so forth. They're against a fiction that treats certain people as the default category of humanity.

Now, many people here may disagree with these definitions. However, these definitions are not new. They have been part of the discourse for decades. Blog posts, papers, and books addressing such things are readily available through simple Google searches. "Social Justice Warriors" (I consider myself a Social Justice Wizard) are speaking from positions similar to the ones I just laid out. If you're going to argue about beliefs or tactics, understand where we are coming from. Don't just say, "but that's not what racism is." It IS in our discourse. Has been for a long time.

So why would a Stoic support actions like the one in the article, or just the ideas behind them if not the particular action itself? First, Stoicism holds that all people are equals in human dignity. Second, Stoicism demands that we live out virtue as we understand it. Possibly a more controversial third point, Stoicism frees us from passions SO THAT we can live out virtue fearlessly.

 As I mentioned in statements about racism, racism causes real material harm to individuals. It displaces people, slashes wages, denies services, incarcerates, and attacks dignity and human worth daily. It is a system designed to oppress and it functions whether or not people are well-meaning or bad apples. When people seek out "safe spaces" they are looking for room to breath. On a college campus, they might be asking for one place, just one place, where their value as a human isn't up for debate. This is not a new idea, is is asking for the same sort of space that has been provided to others since universities began. The university system is a millennia long experiment in the creation of safe space for white men. Not only POC, but all women, people with different gender expressions, all marginalized groups, have been denied access to higher education and had their opinions, work, etc...dismissed out of hand when they have been allowed in. This continues.

I consider it a Stoic duty to use my place in life for the actual benefit of others. First family, then community, then world. I believe the freedom I gain from a Stoic outlook and the freedoms I have as a citizen in my own nation, should be turned towards making better systems. Acceptance of what is, with action towards what should be.

Which brings me to protest actions like the blocking of the movement of White people. It makes quite a point! White people, for a moment, confronted with a real obstacle, symbolic of the ones POC face everywhere. There's another term out there, "respectability politics." I'm going to straight grab an online definition for this one:

"Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference."

Respectability politics, and the tactics of respectability in protest, don't work. In a world where a man taking a knee during a song solicits death threats, simply asking "please, see me as equal and listen to my concerns" is wasted time. Again, racist systems do not require bigotry to fuel them. Marginalized groups do not need to sit down with White people or cisgendered people for a neighborly chat, they need those people to stop supporting systems that kill and oppress them. Disruption protests are what works in the face of blindness to real problems. Disruption can, perhaps, alert an affected person to the issue at hand. If not that it will, always, point out the power that protesters can wield when they choose. In my own city, Black Lives Matter and aligned groups did not receive audience with the mayor by asking at community meetings or through his staff. They got his ear after we shut down a bridge.

Many of us are drawn to Stoicism because it is a practical philosophy. Practical in that it can have a real affect on practitioners. What is that effect for? Do we overcome anxiety simply for tranquility? Do we learn to by unperturbed by rude or dis-humanizing actions just to absorb them as if nothing happened? I suggest we look to Stoic exemplars. Hercules, Socrates, Diogenes, Cato. One myth and three men who are held up in the literature as exemplary humans. Hercules who actively overcame obstacles. Socrates who accepted death over shutting up about wisdom, Diogenes who lived his entire life as a stick in the eye to society, Cato who sought what he saw as the better world until it killed him.

I first put Stoicism into practice to overcome crippling anxiety and depression. The Stoic mindset helped me win many battles, ones that I still fight on occasion. Now, in general, I have solid emotional, mental ground to stand on. Am I done? No. Now I have energy to spare. I use it to work for real change in this world as best I know how. Aurelius once reminded himself to do the right thing even if others can see him doing it. Why would he even need to worry about such a thing? Because the right thing is often not the socially acceptable thing. Still, a Stoic isn't concerned with whether virtue miffs our opponents. We do it anyway.

So should every Stoic be a "Social Justice Warrior?" I wish, but no. We all need to live where we are at and act as our own understanding requires. Should Stoic SJWs stop calling themselves Stoic or do Stoics have to be civil? Well when society is uncivil, the civil action, the social action, will grate against it. One of my favorite Seneca quotes defines the outcome of the Stoic life :

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular. -Seneca, On Clemency 3.3

We should live how we must live to make this outcome true.