The proliferation of ideas since the invention of the printer has aided the task of informing and moving people to action, but we are only now beginning to see the infectious dangers of bogus and hateful distortions of current affairs, philosophical ideas and the history of human understanding that the world-wide-web has brought.
There are thousands of websites on or related to Stoicism today, but not all are created equal. One in particular was brought to my attention by Pharos, Stoicschool.org (see Stoic School), which deploys Stoicism to insidiously moralize some of the most questionable views related to White Supremacy. My issue, Pharos’s issue, is not (at least not today) with White Supremacy per se, but with the exploitation, and distorted application of Stoic philosophy to support their agenda.
As Epictetus says, ‘I may not be able to control what others say and do, but I can certainly control what I say and do.’ I doubt anyone would disagree. And yet it is rehearsed again and again, as if it speaks to some otherwise hidden insight. As is often the case words are meaningful not for their veridicality, but for insights into one’s own concretized comportment in the world. The truth is a truth of self, concerned and taken up meaningfully as oneself. Suddenly the otherwise banal motto transports me ontically and opportunes what Foucault refers to as askesis, a modifying test of oneself. The purpose of engaged philosophical activity is not to elaborate, and nuance existing systems of thought that order, stratify, ratify and edify one’s comportment (and even that’s on a good day! 😉 ) Finding truth is an excavation of self. A conversion that comes only to those “wicked” enough to fall apart, (A leap of faith dressed as Superman (Übermensch) (a)waits… 😉 ) with a willingness to detach oneself from paradigms of comfort, pivotal to one’s existential sanctuary. It is, a critique, which is “the art of voluntary inservitude, of reflective indocility”. (Foucault: “What is Critique?”) It is existentially risqué. The “value of losing oneself is the price one pays for self-transformation.” For me, today, Nussbaum says it best: “Tragedy happens only to those who seek to live well.”
Today’s askesis finds me adrift. An uninvited intrusion permitted voice, abruptly morphs without notice: “No Entrance.” Nomadic in my aretic predilections neither happenstance, nor pre-dated, and now out-dated moral paradigms – if only by virtue of now standing in mere abstraction, inert, from me in my present, potentially individuating circumstance – will do. I can’t promise to be Foucauldian in my philosophical exercise, but in demeanour I hope not to disappoint. Power relations, as Foucault understands it, are ubiquitous. I don’t just mean political, economic, tribal, global and the like. I don’t even refer to open inter-personal warfare. It’s the insidious, inaudible, formless, inertial confrontation experienced in silence that finds me twisted. Silenced through silence! HA! He who hath the last word, hath my soul! Vanquished, disturbed, abandoned, dis-engaged, quite literally silenced! Thrust out, ousted, kicked to the curb; that uneasy state of dominion overwhelms. Whispers of Epictetus now buzzing in my ear annoy, but Gadfly to me, incites action. He says, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them,” and that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”. He’d say “take the high” road. Render him pervasively silent by a simple exercise. His silence is experienced as dominion only because you presume it is done in strength, over you, when in reality it is an act of cowardice. A powerful act of courage is founded in gestures of integrity with acknowledged risk. Cowardice has him recoil into the flow of life to be taken by the current of his present circumstance. A virtual parade of authenticating proverbial bullshit finds his neologism, enecstasis, sitting at his bedside, self-soothing to an ultimately failing ego. He has no power over me; indeed, he is impotent to empower himself. He is not an adversary of worth, but a rat clothed in a King’s garment, hoping to elude suspicion. Diseased rodents are averse to our sensibilities but not for fear of a lion’s prowess. That would be something to reckon with! Ignore. Delete. Forget. Poof, he is now oblivion. (Sounds angry! 😉 Seneca, oh Seneca, where art though Seneca!!! 🙂 ) Orrrrrrrr ( 🙂 🙂 ), maybe he’s silent because he cares not for you at all. Ouch! ( 😥 ) Your confoundment is not triggered by his silence, but a discursive modality reignited and shared over many years. How many times did tenderness of tongue reach your ears? How many times was the encounter so intense that it seeped into the visceral? Did he not envelop you in his gaze and say: “There is something very deep here”, only two fortnights ago? How many times did he ask: “M’agapas, e?” Did smiles not betray his delight when each time I confirmed his hopes and suspicions? Words hollowed. A momentary track blinded by vulnerability, nostalgia, and grief. Orrrrrrrrr ( 🙂 🙂 ), my dearest, maybe you matter too much that it is in courage and resolve that he has found the strength to silence himself. Why burden myself, when truly whatever scenario one might choose, none hath anything to do with me but each speak to his psychical limitation; these are his own, and rest solidly in his lap, to be endured by his partner in life. But I have said my peace. For though his heart, his lips betrayed her first, leaving him comprised and of “two minds,” his cowardice will be called to measure and he shall not disappoint in his narratival creativity and she shall acquiesce (*I’ve found solace in extending the narratival fold to include her. Twas her demise that would seek comfort in his whirling manner to which her will would be vanquished.). As for my own, it flows not from any extrinsic form but is designed by that voice from within that calls one back to oneself, and there self-composure, self-governance, self-fashioning like a ball of yarn shall slowly create something of substance. Tis I, and I alone, that has power over me. (*Seneca and Epictetus have some interesting exercises in the form of self-examination to cleanse one of vicious habits responsible for ataraxia.) A great exercise for those versed in that impersonalized, ratiocinated form of self-comportment. I just don’t see it this way; well not exactly.
Askesis, the exercise,stoic-like, requires not just being in the moment. There is groundwork, preparatory engagement in life practices without which one cannot properly care for the self. The experience of inwardness, something of a subversive exercise, aimed to bring one into a state of awareness of one’s own needs, desires, and fears, and thereby cultivate the virtues of temperance, discipline, and courage. Fasting, even for Foucault was one such exercise; as was meditation and self-writing. Minimalism, and various forms of deprivation are mine. Oddly, my children often think, seemingly masochistic. Self-inflicted deprivation is an exercise in freedom, however. It morphs that strictly Kantian claim to autonomy grounded in Reason (epistemically heavy), to one calculatively negotiated within the rich fabric of life. Aforementioned exercises of self-examination adopted by Seneca, Epictetus and others, are examples of this. And though they have, could have, a role to play in the groundwork for self-examination, such exercises seem inefficient in their effectivity mostly for a rather stringently rationalized moral paradigm. But I digress. 🙂
This Epictetian psycho-biography may be a proximate elaboration of conceptual underpinnings (which one??!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 ) informing his silent retort, but in being merely proximal (at best) shall always itself be confined to paradigms of my own ingenuity. A nifty exercise (trick you might say) in emancipatory strategy building, it is, however, lacking in authenticity. Dominion has not evaporated for the will of my psychedelic fascinations, but it has caved and is now a path upon which my stride is purposeful. One could argue that I have totally misconstrued the Stoic annotation that would seek not counsel in the extrinsic aforementioned references to his comportment, and that insight rests in that disarming, potentially devastating, inward journey unto self. A modifying test for self-transformation! Right! Back on track! Why does his silence irk me so? Asking why he is silent is to ask the wrong question and to put all the power in his hands. Yet, my self-examination is not as it is with Epictetus who would ask: “Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside?” For instance, when examining impressions, he counsels: “Go out of the house at early dawn, and no matter whom you see or whom you hear, examine him and then answer as you would to a question. What did you see? A handsome man or a handsome woman? Apply your rule. Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it. What did you see? A man in grief over the death of his child? Apply your rule. Death lies outside the province of the moral purpose. Out of the way with it. Did a Consul meet you? Apply your rule. What sort of thing is a consulship? Outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it, too, it does not meet the test; throw it away, it does not concern you. If we had kept doing this and had exercised ourselves from dawn till dark with this principle in mind —by the gods, something would have been achieved!”
First, I seek a proper reckoning of the role silence plays in my subjective experience of the truth. Being silenced by anyone on some level is experienced as intrusive, offensive, an affront. It’s not only that abstractly, theoretically, if you will, that authorial freedom of speech is a basic and fundamental form of autonomy, it is that I experience myself as overridden. This is why there is some truth to Epictetus when he claims that ‘we are disturbed not by men and their actions but rather by our own view of them’. When I care not for the subject for which I have been silenced, or the person who silences me, I do not experience myself as unfree. It is relational then. It is in a modality of care that dominion can, however slight, take possession of me. My freedom is usurped because his silence is not silent at all. The language of silence is only a language at all when it is communicable, communicative. Had he not intrusively willed himself back into my life, silence would have weighed into oblivion. Instead, it drudged life back into the void, and there we lay vulnerable in discursive limbo as he sought to retreat without even a word: farewell. Vulnerability is the penultimate form of trust where one transcends all inhibitions, and is both absolutely free and yet at once unfree as one is totally at the mercy of the other. Cowardice? Diseased? An affront? Perhaps. It is left to me to be both voice and interpreter. It is left to me to delicately abandon my own comportment and delve into the psychical world of the other in search of motifs. Shall I be both counselee and counsellor enriching understanding as I go? And yet what a turbulent parade of voices that fight for the protagonistic role. And here is the essence of my disturbance: I am abandoned, my vulnerability betrayed, to that state of unknowing. Freedom is stretched so extravagantly that I find myself ricocheted back against an elastic band. Struggling to gain my footing, the experience of unfreedom becomes ever more pronounced, ever more deeply embedded, so that like a beggar I ask for his voice to give me rest; restitution. To the test, then. It is often said that “the truth shall set you free” and yet driven by the pursuit of truth is my very undoing; it is indeed, the form of dominion over me, where the other is sought to emancipate me from the burden of the unknown. Recalibration wants not to be in the know, but to accept that freedom rests in letting go. For truth is not in the asking for the why, but only in the how. To the Stoics then: habituated exercises inspecting the formulation of questions that guide me in my daily inquisitions shall work to recalibrate and destabilize that insidious paradigm that unbeknownst to me took hold of my comportment and unravelled me. As to justice…. 😉 It is not “the high road” I seek; for none is to be found. It is my road; a road of endless tribulation. Suffering is not anyone’s delight, but alas a life short of suffering in the delicate, messy, attachments I am intimately bound, is no life at all! 🙂 Existential flight is not the cure; it is a curse. It is not therein where freedom shall be recalibrated. Who shall speak for “me”, then? To the self, then! A self-reflective exercise such as this finds internal voices in dialogue as the hidden is sought out by that audible, often out-spoken voice, who poses for my-self. An authenticating process shall rip the episodic foundation from beneath my feet, and in the process, for now, help to resist those ‘projections which have changed the world into the replica of my own unknown face’.
Even amongst aretic thinkers as divergent as the Stoics and Epicureans, the linchpin to their philosophies is the pursuit of happiness. Where they differ is what happiness is, and hence the phronetic comportment to its achievement. Each in turn will speak to the virtues of the good life and their appropriation. Not at all unlike Nietzsche! Surprised? Well don’t get too excited before we knock down some artefacts of uncongenial thinking. Virtues are those of strength not humility, or weakness and the like, and the means of their appropriation are devised through a delicate but painful process of deconstruction, forcefully destructive, and aims not at happiness as any of these Greek philosophers imagined it. Instead the “happy life” is not one of “good sense”, but valorized, heroic conduct amidst all that is impenetrably unattainable. Wretched is that seductress ‘causality’ that would feign the life of happiness as one aimed to nullify externalities of no consequent or beyond our hailing hand. Such is it to confuse the cause with the effect, Nietzsche poignantly pointed out. It is not that a life, a good life, cannot withstand such annotations, but rather that having already been impoverished by the mechanization of life via nay sayers and the corruptors of life, that the virtues of humility and the like are adopted. The “original sin of reason” which is a case of the error of cause and effect is put to work to explain this phenomenon. Though this is the stranglehold of religious and moral paradigms, it is illustrated concisely in the example of Cornaro’s diet. Nietzsche says:
It is not the diet, as assumed by Readership of Cornaro’s illustration, that is the cause of good health, but rather an underlying condition that caused or, otherwise, gave rise to the success of this diet, and hence the longevity of this man. The parallel to morality runs the usual aretic formula to the ground, whereby tis not the virtues that are understood to lead (cause) to the good life, but rather a degenerate state of being – weak, compromised – that has caused, given rise to, the propagation of these virtues and hence the good life. Virtue is not the consequence of happiness, but ‘happiness’ the consequent of virtue. In his own words: “Instead, virtue [as it came to be construed] is itself that slowing down of the metabolism which among other things also brings a long life, numerous progeny, in short Cornarism in its wake.—The church and morality say: ‘a race, a people is destroyed by vice and extravagance.’ My restored reason says: if a people is destroyed, if it physiologically degenerates, then this is followed by vice and extravagance (i.e. the need for ever stronger and more frequent stimuli, familiar to every exhausted type). This young man grows prematurely pale and listless. His friends say: such and such an illness is to blame. I say: the fact that he fell ill, the fact that he could not withstand the illness, was already the consequence of an impoverished life, of hereditary exhaustion.” (Twilight of the Idols, The Four Great Errors – my italics).
In his Genealogy Nietzsche traces the origin of morality not in an attempt to get behind the contextual framework that is constitutive of all human understanding, but rather to identify those frameworks that have come to be constitutive of that very framework but which sneaked in, and were thereby ordained as the bestowers of life itself. They came to have a life of their own, not of the doing of humankind, but of some Omnipotent Power that deifies these; humankind is thereby tussled from her thrown and the Lord’s drones follow in her stead. It is now Goodness itself, or the verse of Nature herself, that define aspirations worthy of any man deserving of happiness.
Specifically, Nietzsche says of the Stoics, in Beyond Good and Evil:
Taking a hammer to this paradigm of thinking, Nietzsche identifies the basic tenet of Stoicism in a longing to cement the good life in living according to Nature, as if there is a determined way and reliable manner in which to ascertain that way. Nietzsche rejects both the naturalism and the rationalism of the Stoics, as I have sketched above. He calls them “self-deluders” because they read their philosophy into an understanding of nature allowing themselves to be tyrannized through the oppression of the otherwise natural proclivity for power by tailoring the passions for a life free of anything “unnecessarily” disquieting. Of course, the general accusation applies to all moralized paradigms which, he says, ‘as soon as ever a philosophy comes to believe in itself, it always creates the world in its own image’. Allowing oneself to rest content with any perspective of the world involves, in some shape or form, the deification or the objectification or ossification of that perspective as if it were to speak now and for always for all things! And yet, this is only to delude oneself that the world is how it has been shaped by the mind; and though everything is interpretation (beware those who sit in smug assurances of their perspective! 🙂 ) and hence there is no getting behind or before it, one can adopt an attitude of the diagnostician (for some reason “House” comes to mind both in his method and demeanour – “everybody lies” mostly, delusionally to themselves – looking at all perspectives, from multiple angles – psychological, symptomatic/physiological, social) who looks unnervingly, and unrelentingly from multiple perspectives searching for motives that huddle over pre-conceived perspectives, hammering away at assumptions, presuppositions, and everything that might cunningly conceal these from view (language, habits, fears, desires). The process is itself a state of unrest, of taraxia, that requires courage for ‘in all desire for knowledge there is a drop of cruelty’.
So you say, “unhinge me”, Pirocacos! Stoics might retort that I have misconstrued and misrepresented the philosophy of their forefathers in that living a eudaimonic life free from unnecessary and irrational preoccupations does not speak to indifference, a rather inhumane attitude to invest in after all. It is rather in acknowledging the causal workings of the universe through attentive rational scrutiny that one is well positioned to deal with unrealized goals, negotiate misfortunes, and endure ensuing suffering. The point is that there is a rational order to the unfolding of Nature that one is well advised to address when engaged in the practice of living life. After all we do live in this natural world and it is constitutive of laws of nature (you wouldn’t cajole someone to jump from the 6th floor because it is the fastest route to the College cafe because you know that he’d meet with his death!) and causal forces that one can with varying degree of probability determine in order to better secure the ends. Of course, as I hope I have in outline already made clear, this is to miss the point.
So though the process of deconstruction may appear neurotic and outwardly in disarray, in fact, it is only so perceived by the ill-tempered with a mind to what is apprehended by ageless paradigms and/or those that one holds dear to their heart!
So here I am already 4 days late attending to Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols. Strangely I find solace in both these authors despite the contrariety of their underlying philosophies. Happiness, said Socrates, is the end of all human activity; no one would, as it were, ever pursue her own unhappiness. Indeed, this is what set him on his track to that all-too-unfortunate qua Nietzsche triadic arrangement: virtue=knowledge=happiness. For if Socrates is astute in this aforementioned assertion, then engaging in actions, and/or adopting beliefs, that run the pursuit of happiness aground cannot be performed in full cognizance. Knowing that causing harm to others inadvertently harms oneself and hence jeopardizes one’s own happiness, one would not betray, deceive, humiliate, rob, demoralize, exploit others. So members of the 30 Tyrants must assuredly have acted from ignorance, or at the very least involuntarily. A life of happiness would then be a life epistemically charged. Everything is riding on acquiring knowledge. But knowledge of what exactly? Well, knowledge of what it is to live a virtuous life dummie! 😉 Stoic philosophy would have no qualms embracing this general position. But in my estimation it is here that they part ways, for Socraticism (dare I call it that!) makes good use of the role of reason but to my knowledge this rests not in any attribution to the workings of the world or the natural order of things. Indeed, despite Nietzsche’s ad hominem attack on the man in The Problem of Socrates, his ambivalence, noted as early as Walter Kaufman’s 1974 seminal work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press 1974), suggests at least the possibility of other features at work in this text. (FYI: In my book The Pedagogic Mission: An Engagement With Ancient Greek Philosophical Practices, much is said to distance Socrates from that monochromatic view of rational deliberative inquiry. Link here: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739126530/The-Pedagogic-Mission-An-Engagement-with-Ancient-Greek-Philosophical-Practices) I would submit that Nietzsche acknowledges in Socrates the spirit of the overman, albeit trapped by an unfortunate state of circumstance that would have him riding in on his white horse flagging reason as the great emancipator from the elusive hegemonic trail of false idols.
Socrates ennobled reason and thereby made a tyrant of her. She stepped in as if to nullify the power of the instincts that threaten to unhinge everything at its joints! What chaos! What disorder! What disharmony! What vicious self-annihilating force is this?! For once unleashed there is no limit to what the human spirit might discover!! Decadence everywhere! HA! Did the Socrateses and Platos think that they could just trot in and deliver humankind from herself and not thereby lose humanity in the process?!
“Happiness equals instinct”!? And yet everything we seem to now “know” of the Greeks – from Socrates to Plato, Plato to Aristotle, Aristotle to the Stoics – aims to expunge the instincts, and with reason as our guide, arrive at a proper understanding of “things” and a will unhampered by the seductiveness of the passions to frame that eudaimonic life we all aspire to!
Nietzsche, the agitator of reason, was not also unreasonable, nor irrational as such. He resented Socrates, or perhaps this ill-framed variety of Socraticism (which he too in part is responsible for popularizing), for exaggeration. For Nietzsche defamed Socrates not only for his aesthetic profanity (so ugly was he, that he was an insult to the good taste of the gods! :)) but for levelling humankind in the service of that counter-tyrant, reason. He says of Socrates:
My Twitter handle is no accident – gignolatry – and hence my opposition to ontolatry is real ( 😉 ). In Reason in Philosophy, Nietzsche is emphatic and decorative in his descriptors of ontolatries. He says:
‘Being is that empty fiction’, which even Heraclitus, knew too well was the imposition of the mind on what was evinced rawly by the senses. The fable of the essentialists comes in four basic propositions. Now I won’t be able to elaborate these here, for each requires special attention to distinct parts of his philosophy, but enough can be said to counter the Epictetean position with which I began. So what are these propositions? Here they are from the man himself:
Plato with utmost clarity (well maybe not that clear!) has distinguished the Sensible World from the Intelligible World, and though numerous arguments are offered, a couple are well known and clearly on Nietzsche’s mind. The sensible world is one with which we are acquainted through our senses, and since the objects of this world are changing and ephemeral, it stands to reason ( 😉 ) that these appearances cannot tell us how it is to truly be a chair, or doorknob or anything else. After all, the colour, distinct markings, spatial-temporal locale, are particular to a “thing” but not to its kind. Hence, it follows, that these items do not speak to how things themselves are, but only to accidental occurrences or contingencies. But it is equally true that sensory perception is prone to run wildly off course given the attachment of the ear, of the eyes, of touch to circumstance, to the particular, itself also unshielded from common error (e.g. an item seen from afar looks small until seen up close). So what happens to the world of things upon exit? Plato (and others) would contend evaporation! Poof, they disappear! Quite literally, the “characteristics that have been given to the true Being of things are of non-Being”. Namely, these characteristics don’t exist, arenot to be found anywhere, and hence essentially ( 😉 ) are concocted from the imagination of man! A fable worth telling again and again for care of human endeavors that might cash in on aspiring to live for a world uninhibited by ephemeral preoccupations and fleeting (HA!) objects of hedonic value.
A world concocted is a world that simply does not exist, and tis a fable told to suppress and contain the human spirit unadulterated by confusions interspersed by impositions of the mind. And yet, Nietzsche, often misunderstood, does not address the instincts as wildly out of control, drawn indiscriminately in any direction as a dog is to a bitch in heat! NO! Nietzsche speaks to how one might “spiritualize, beautify, deify a desire”. Though this is a complex notion, it is at least clear that Nietzsche equates the castration of the passions with nay-sayers of life, and the beatification of the passions with the affirmation of life. For Nietzsche says:
Nietzsche does not take sides with crude displays of affection, or aggression (as he is often criticized for), but favours the beautification of the passions! This comes not from the objects themselves, of course. Recall, there are no facts, things out there to be apprehended in themselves! It is rather in the delicate nurturing, inter-personalized engagement with, and invested concern for the passions that beauty is brought forth so that in screams of contained rapture one can appreciate, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in silent discourse.
So what is his meaning and how does this set the record straight with Epictetus? Another timeout for Pirocacos as she gets her unhinged self together….to be continued…I promise!
*Alas I am convinced that philosophy, the variety I engage (for there are many forms), is an art form, itself best transcribed literarily, musically, poetically!
So my friend and I took to talking philosophy, as we regularly do, till the wee hours of the morning. Last night we were especially transfixed on Stoicism, and dare I say, meditation, which is right up his alley since this is what he does for a living. Knowing my rather contoured figure which has made allies with existential thought, he’s offered patient counsel that I might benefit from inserting meditative practices into my daily routine. Of course, Stoicism is no stranger to what I take to be the basic meditative tenet – a process of defragmentation where the toils, distractions, inhibitions, fetishisms, and labours of everyday life recede to the oblivion and a deep state of peace is gathered (I’ll admit to being infected by a Parmenidean view of this which is referred to as incubation, a common practice amongst the Phoceans). And just as we begin our assent ( 😉 ) into the much contested debate over ataraxia, his voice is interrupted by the sound of incoming mail. A disquieting email left me quite ill-at heart and my friend expressly annoyed! Timely you say!? HA! So did we!!! “Breathe Elly,” he told me, and I watched as he took slow, deliberate breaths. My heart rate slowed, the irritability past, and pangs of despair levelled off. “Okay so this is meditation!!!”, he announced gleefully. “You did it!” And just like that trance over! The implicit cognitive dissonance pervading his thought was unsettling and I took to addressing the problem (well it was a problem to me, damn it!!! Screw composure and quietude, my mind is overturning, and rightly so! 🙂 )
See though I have a great deal of respect for ancient Greek thought, and a special appreciation for all aretic works, I don’t agree with the underlying metaphysics of Stoicism. Now some might say that that really doesn’t matter. That indeed the allure of Stoicism is its implicit cosmopolitanism. So whether you take a more religious or secular stance on the rational order of the universe and our unique and natural propensity for rational thought, it’s of no consequent. But you do still have to endorse the premise that the world – Nature– is made up a network of causal relations which is why they can argue that the good life is a life that is lived in agreement with nature, itself uncovered via rational deliberation. There is quite a bit of wiggle room to interpret the precise meaning of nature but there is no question that the world is understood to be a rational order and that we can live a eudaimonic life when we appeal to “how things are” “objectively” (though not absolute in reasoned assessment). Now this may be hard for some of you to understand – you may not relate – but the good life for the Stoic is understood in terms of ataraxia or the absence of pretty much anything that unhinges you, and I am all for what unhinges me!