Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Stoic Path

I plan to post a series of manageable articles of Stoicism over the next while. Better yet let's call these articles on the New Stoicism. Although Stoicism's roots reach back to the Greco-Roman era, the philosophy retains its appeal and validity in the modern world - hence the New Stoicism. Stoicism's central idea is not all that difficult to grasp. It is a philosophy meant to appeal to everyone. It's not elitist, obscure, or overly metaphysical.

Anyone can grasp and come to terms with Stoicism if they choose to do it. Stoicism is also progressive. The central demand of Stoicism is that we ought to live according to nature - that's the stick. The pay off for living according to nature is contentment, happiness, joy, tranquility, and serenity - that's the carrot. It's a tasty carrot because these benefits are not postponed. We get to be happy now by living according to nature now. The rules of engagement in Stoicism are not readily apparent to the casual eye. We are easily deceived. This deception is embedded in the popular conception that happiness and joy come to us from service to the self: we are happy when we service our need for pleasure and when we find ways to duck pain. This is a tough place for the non-Stoic because most of modern culture revolves around minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. The Stoic knows these to be false paths - false because pleasure and pain are body focused experiences. The Stoic knows that the locus of our existence resides not in the frail ephemeral body but in the mind and it is only in the mind that we can find a salutary route and meaningful existence. That's tease enough for a first post.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your book. Many thanks for the work you put into it.

Can the stoic mind be happy by minimizing pain in others, e.g., preventing needless suffering in sentient creatures?


Russell McNeil said...

The answer is yes, but I need to elaborate. I will answer the question by appealing to fundamental Stoic principles. The first principle of Stoicism is that we are social beings. The second principle is that our rational nature takes precedence over our irrational or animal nature. The third principle observes that the rational aspect of sentient nature is governed by perfect natural laws - laws which because of their inherent indestructibility confer immunity from harm or misfortune on all of us. As social beings our first duty is always outwardly directed and never self-directed. The Stoic mind can only be happy in this social context. Self-serving actions can never produce happiness. You asked if the Stoic mind can be happy by minimizing pain in others by (for example) preventing needless suffering.

These principles imply that sentient beings, because they are immune from harm, are also immune from suffering. A sentient being who does not hold this view will feel that she is suffering. But the Stoic will interpret pain in a different way, as a physical sensation that she will either endure or if it cannot be endured will end in death. In either case the pain has no bearing on her rational nature, because the rational is immune from harm.

How do I apply these principles in practice? I need to understand that the "suffering" we see in the experience of others is attributable more to an ignorance of these principles than to pain. A man for example who is gravely injured will feel intense physical pain but he will also experience a fear of death, and it is this psychological element that causes the most distress. But death for the Stoic is a natural and inevitable human passage. The essential Stoic attitude toward death (and pain) is one of indifference.

Should I encounter someone who is gravely injured I will treat him with infinite compassion and love. I will also do whatever is physically necessary to save his life. In fact, I will even be prepared to sacrifice my own life if this is necessary to save his (remember that my attitude toward death applies as much to my life as to the injured man). But what I will also do is I will communicate an essential truth to that dying man by showing him that he has nothing to fear - and I will mean this because I know it to be true. In doing this sincerely I will in fact prevent the suffering you refer to in the question. I prevent suffering by demonstrating that all suffering is an illusion.

Anonymous said...

Unless you yourself have experienced agonizing pain, you don't, my learned friend, really know what you are saying. Your blog is wondrous, gorgeously written, & a true delight---don't get me wrong. But I live with a person who experiences the pain I describe, has for a number of years, and is/was a philosophy professor. I expect his outlook, which is nothing if not "stoic" would be interesting. I shall tell him to read you and perhaps shed some real light on your subject.

Again, this is a wonderful blog which I am enjoying immensely. Thank you very much for your work here...

Russell McNeil said...

Stoicism does not claim to remove the sensation of pain, but it does offer a radical shift in our attitude toward pain (and pleasure). With this shift Marcus proposes that it is possible to remain serene even in pain. This meditation on pain (VII.33) on p. 97 from my book captures the idea: About pain: The pain which is intolerable carries us off, but that which lasts a long time is tolerable; and the mind maintains its own tranquility by retiring into itself, and the ruling faculty is not made worse. But the parts which are harmed by pain, let them, if they can, give their opinion about it.

What Marcus claims here is that in the worst case, learning to bear pain with nobility would be seen as virtuous. And being virtuous is - to the Stoic - itself a source of peace and tranquility.