Stoicism: for emergencies only
This is not a philosophy for a lifetime of flourishing.
You may have noticed I missed last week.
That’s due to being locked in the travel hell like so many others this Christmas.
Happily, I made it home on the night of the 25th, three days behind schedule—but on time to have dinner.
I used my remaining time at home with my family. I forgot about writing for a few days. I’m sure you get that.
The following is something I wrote a couple of weeks ago. In short: it’s about how Stoicism is a philosophy of anxiety.
Serendipitously, Stoic principles helped during my time trapped in the airport.
But, I think it’s best to leave them behind when the war is done.
Enjoy. And let me know what you think.
Stoicism seems like a very wise idea in its “true” form.
Focus on what you can control, do not let outside events sway your emotions, and cultivate disinterest in anything but your own inner tranquility.
But most philosophical ideas sound good in the abstract. What do they look like in the real world? What is the texture of their life in popular culture? Who is a true “Stoic?”
That’s the true character of an idea, in my opinion. Talking about it this way, though, means I have to use a bit of “you feel me?” And, if you don’t feel me, that’s fine. If Stoicism works for your life, I’m very happy for you. If you enjoy your daily stoic quotes, that’s probably a net good.
But, zooming out, Stoicism is a wet bandaid on the wound of our lost sense of meaning. We feel that our emotional systems cannot be trusted to guide us toward the good life, so we train ourselves to be “stoic” in the face of them. Passions, in this view, are deadly.
But what if the miscalibration of the emotional system could be fixed on a deeper level? What if what felt good could become what was good?
A radical idea.
What is the texture of Stoicism?
When Stoicism appears
In any given culture, meaning has a life cycle.
Societies start out disconnected–fighting over every scrap of turf; in both the physical and symbolic realms. We kill each other for food and land, and our “gods” battle in the “heavens.” You value honor, we value power. No way to settle it except by war. May the best “god” win. This is the way of tribal humanity for thousands of years.
Slowly but surely, ideas (gods) began to congeal. The most “stable” gods rise to the top. This is the source of Jungian archetypes.
After many centuries of that, Socrates proclaims there is only one true god. This is like maturing from a frenzied 2-year-old to a more “organized” mind of an adult.
God, beyond any metaphysical claim (I’m not making any), is a reflection of the unification of the psychological forces that undergirded that society. That unification allowed a time of prosperity, democracy, art, architecture, and Plato and company. Can you imagine? 3000 years ago, we produced ideas that we still rely on today. Amazing.
500 years later, Marcus Aurelius was a leader and general during a time of great war and upheaval. Once again, god had become gods. There was civil war. Of course, he benefited from numbing his passions. He discovers some very old texts by a man named Zeno. He needed a level head and a logical mind to win the day. It was a time of cultural emergency. Gods were battling again.
A couple of centuries later, the fall of Rome happens. God is dead.
We become polytheistic again (Dark Ages). I know this is technically a time of monotheism, but, in practice, it was tribal warfare. We were sorting things out once again. Art and literature take a slight back seat to survival.
Then, slowly, but surely, we pull ourselves together, centering around one God (roughly), and, boom, we have Enlightenment. Prosperity floods the Western world (and violence of a different sort, we shouldn’t forget).
At the height of this age, we get a warning from another thinker. Nietzsche says that we are headed toward the next great “death of God.” He predicts the atrocities of the 20th century with eerie accuracy (seriously, he did).
“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism…For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong…” (Nietzsche, 1888)
This time, the “death” of God was caused by our hyper-rational minds only made possible by the peace brought forth by the shared belief in one God (highest of all irony). Science and religion–necessary bedfellows–became mortal enemies. Thus we get Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China.
We are still living in the wake of that death.
Our tribal battlefield is back. We have unique pantheons of “gods.” They are battling for dominance. Even more terrifying, this time, most people don’t know they are in tribes battling for their god’s dominance. They believe they are being “rational.” Just take a poll on Twitter: “Are you more rational that the other side?”
I have never been more terrified of a creature than a human being who doesn’t realize he’s acting out a myth.
In this chaos, guess which philosophy is back?
The third coming of Stoicism
Without a unifying sense of purpose given by a single god, we sense we are in a time of cultural emergency.
Like a dad when the house catches on fire, Neo Stoics feel it is inappropriate to “freak out.” We need to keep our shit together for the kids, so to speak.
Everyone else is in a panic (just check social media), and Neo Stoics see an opportunity to be a beacon of hope and reason in the storm.
That seems like a good aim to me.
The problem is that we need our passions to live a sustainable life in the long term. They have to be organized in a clear hierarchy (4-letter-word these days).
Moral quandary: What do you do when someone offers you a job for a billion dollars, but you have to spread lies to millions of people? Do you value abundance or truth more highly? Why?
You might think “who cares?” but you care when having the wrong priorities causes your life to go to shit. Which it does. All the time.
That leads to a central question: Who knows the answers?
Annoyingly, thousands of years of spiritual traditions probably know more than we do. They probably know more than “rationality,” too. Because even if you are a person who abides by the “facts” the fact remains that there are an infinite number of facts. Which facts are the best fact-finding facts? And so on. And we’ve stumbled upon one of the fundamental problems of cognition. How do you prioritize attention? Intuition? This idea is covered well by professor John Vervaeke.
Stoicism doesn’t have a good answer. It says to disconnect from passion and be rational.
But your passions tell you, in emotional language, to value your child over a stranger’s, for example. Is that rational? We can’t live without the passion to orient our perceptions.
This opens up a frightening Pandora’s box. How do you find the answers? What organizes the best way to be?
Is it all just made up?
I look to the stories that have survived for thousands of years to guide me.
Those, in my experience, contain the secrets of perception.
You often can’t make perfect “rational” sense out of them, because perception is embodied, not theoretical. So, you gotta trust your right brain. Your intuition. I know–pretty much like asking you to jump off a cliff without a parachute.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard
I have faith that the best story wins. The noblest stories aren’t just fun; they’re truer than facts.
Follow what inspires you. Trust your passions. But not just your base passions. Trust the part of you that believes in something higher. Something like heaven.
Stoicism can get your head above water, and that’s great. It’s better than drowning. But, shouldn't we aim a little higher once we have our head above the water? We can’t always be in emergency mode. That’s chronic anxiety, technically. Fight or flight.
You’re born believing your ability to aim high, but then the facts of malevolence and suffering made you cynical. Re-find that belief, despite what you know. That’s courage.
By finding that courage, you can turn passions into shining light. Undoubtedly, courageous people become the heroes, artists, revolutionaries, and geniuses of their day.
To get there, we need something higher. Something noble to aim for.
No rational part of me can prove it, but where we truly find ourselves is at the moment of greatest despair.
In that darkness, we find the brightest light.
Thanks for reading,
What’s moving me:
“‘Love’, said the French philosopher Louis Lavelle, ‘is a pure attention to the existence of the other’.” — Iain McGilchrist
“Yes, a key can lie for ever in the place where the locksmith left it, and never be used to open the lock the master forged it for.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
“At the core of the contemporary world is the reductionist view that we are – nature is – the earth is – ‘nothing but’ a bundle of senseless particles, pointlessly, helplessly, mindlessly, colliding in a predictable fashion, whose existence is purely material, and whose only value is utility. Neither Plotinus nor Schrödinger would have been impressed.” — Iain McGilchrist