Friday, August 15, 2008
The Stoic Path: Mind over Matter
Stoicism is a transcendent philosophy. But what we transcend is readily available to anyone why is willing to shift perspective away from the body and toward the mind. This shift is really a shift in perspective. I choose to believe that what I "think" takes precedence over what I "feel."
This does not mean that what I feel is unimportant. Stoics do not deny the body; nor do they depreciate feelings. The Stoic stance involves prioritizing mind over matter. My intellectual facilities are, after all, mediated through a physical organ - the brain with its myriad of neurotransmitters. But our thoughts are projections over which we have absolute control. We can decide to have this thought and we can decide to dismiss that thought. A Stoic who has mastered this process can make these choices even when under extreme duress.
Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics use this understanding to help in the regulation of body centered sensations that can hinder rational behavior. In the extreme this process can be harnessed to overcome the most trying of circumstances. I have often wondered what I might do if I was living in a totalitarian or fascist state and if I was asked to betray a good neighbor who belonged to an out-of-favor ethnic minority (or who was an intellectual - a group often first persecuted in most totalitarian regimes). Experience reveals sadly, that most people, given this demand, will betray even those they love, because they fear what might happen to them if they refuse.
A Stoic will chose always to do the right thing. The right thing requires that we understand that every human being is an end (Immanuel Kant taught us that) and never a means. Human beings are sacred - not because some God tells us that, but because reason teaches us that all human beings are governed by the same perfect laws that govern our own selves. To betray another human being in a situation like this is to betray ourselves. A Stoic cannot do this because he knows it is wrong and he knows that the betrayal would make him miserable. Doing the right thing requires that we always place the intellectual over the emotional (mind over matter). This is what virtue requires. And this is how we gain peace.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.