Saturday, 15 October 2016

Hard Truths and Happiness


I was unable to attend the 'Stoicon' event in New York in October 2016 but here is a rough first draft of what would have been my talk. This is now also posted on the Stoicism Today - Modern Stoicism blog.  

There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in which philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.

Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.

What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.

In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.

I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.

There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3). Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.

This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.

Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.

But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature. By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.

Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)

To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:

Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)

Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloi├┤sis, ho bios hupol├¬psis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).

Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.

What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.

The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.

The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world. I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Stoicism and the Art of Archery


First posted here but now also on the Stoicism Today blog. 

The Stoic philosopher Antipater is reported to have drawn an analogy with archery when trying to explain the goal of Stoic ethics. The good Stoic, Antipater suggested, is like an archer: he does everything he can to hit the target, but his happiness does not depend on whether he hits the target or not (Stobaeus 2,76,11-15). What matters is shooting well, for whether the arrow hits the target or not depends on other factors outside of the archer’s control.

In the ancient literature this led some to characterize the Stoic’s art – the art of living – as a stochastic art, like navigation or medicine, meaning that the outcome depends in part on factors other than the practitioner’s skill (Alexander, Quaest. 61,1-28). It also led to concerns about whether Stoicism in fact had two slightly different goals: to live a good life and to do everything one can to live a good life (Cicero, Fin. 3.22). In his discussion of this point Cicero wrote:

“Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.” (ibid.)

For the Stoic, then, what matters is not always hitting the target but rather becoming an expert archer, with archery understood as a special kind of art in which expertise does not always guarantee success.

This Stoic idea shares something in common with the account of learning the Japanese art of archery in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (London, 1953). Herrigel’s book is a personal memoir recounting his own experience of trying to learn the art of archery from a Japanese master, something he tried to do in order to deepen his own understanding of Zen. Along the way Herrigel makes a number of remarks about Zen and archery that resonate with Antipater’s image of the Stoic archer and may offer a fresh perspective on it.

Herrigel begins by reflecting on the artificiality of learning a medieval military art taken out of its original context and turned into a hobby for people who have no need to learn how to shoot arrows. Archery is no longer a matter of life and death. Yet, he comments, “archery is still a matter of life and death to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself” (p. 15). It has become a “spiritual exercise” in which “the marksman aims at himself” (p. 14). The modern Zen art of archery “can in no circumstance mean accomplishing anything outwardly with bow and arrow, but only inwardly, with oneself” (p. 18). The goal, then, is ultimately one of self-transformation.

One of the greatest challenges Herrigel faced was to relax. His master made the art look effortless, and for him it was. The more Herrigel tried to achieve the desired result (hitting the target) the more he failed. It was a classic case of making a strenuous effort to keep relaxed. The key, his master told him, was to stop caring about the arrow: “what happened to the arrow was even more a matter of indifference” (p. 40). The less one cares about hitting the target, the more smooth and relaxed one’s shot will be, which paradoxically will increase one’s likelihood of hitting the target. So not caring about reaching the goal will in fact improve one’s chances of reaching it.

Far more important, though, is a shift in the very goal itself. The real goal should not be hitting the target at all; the real goal is something internal, not external. This “the right art [of archery] ... is purposeless, aimless” (p. 46). One must become purposeless, on purpose. One must aimlessly aim the arrow. This will enable one to reach both goals, internal and external: to perfect the art of archery and to hit the target, but wanting to hit the target now looks like part of the problem rather than contributing to either goal.

How to do this? The answer is simple: stop thinking and simply let oneself be led by the moment (pp. 49-50), or led by Nature we might say. The master archer will have “no ulterior motive” and will be “released from all attachment” (p. 55). This involves an internal transformation that is central to making progress in the art. Thus, “more important than all outward works, however attractive, is the inward work which he has to accomplish if he is to fulfil his vocation as an artist” (p. 65). The archer performs “as a good dancer dances” (p. 77), which was another analogy also drawn by the Stoics (cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.24).

What matters, then, is the performance of the art itself rather than any further outcome, such as hitting the target. Herrigel’s master insists that “if you hit the target with nearly every shot you are nothing more than a trick archer who likes to show off ... Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit” (pp. 78-9). If one does hit the target this is not significant in itself: “hits are only outward confirmations of inner events” (p. 80). Thus all attention ought to be focused on the internal practice of the art rather than the external result. One ought neither to grieve over bad shots nor rejoice over good ones. “You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity” (p. 85).

Herrigel did make some progress in the art of archery. At the end of his training his master said to him “You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself” (p. 90).

Does this help us to understand Stoicism? I think it might in the following way. The ancient charge that Stoicism becomes confused by proposing two goals – effectively trying to hit the target but also trying not to care if one misses – has not completely gone away. ‘Surely it is disingenuous to try to do something but then say you don’t care when it doesn’t work out.’ ‘If the Stoic is indifferent to the outcome of events, then why even try to do anything?’ What Herrigel’s account does is dismiss the first goal altogether: just forget about hitting the target. The real goal is not external at all; it is internal. It involves an internal transformation that, as it happens, will also improve one’s external successes, although that is now almost beside the point. What matters is how one acts, not the outcome of those acts. According to Herrigel this involves a process of letting go, just acting rather than over thinking. At first glance this might sound very Zen but not very Stoic and perhaps the point at which any parallel breaks down. But we might translate it into a broadly Stoic framework by saying that the advice is simply to follow Nature, to act spontaneously, to embrace one’s natural instincts, rather than to over think about what the right thing to do is. The Stoics do encourage people to follow ‘reason’ but this is the reason or order within Nature, which is not necessarily the same thing as deliberative, instrumental rationality.

What the Zen art of archery and the Stoic art of living share is a seemingly paradoxical indifference to whether one is successful or not. What matters is mastering the art and practising it. In the case of Stoicism this means acting virtuously, with the right intentions, at all times and for its own sake. It is about cultivating the appropriate frame of mind that, as Herrigel’s master put it, enables one to enjoy an easy equanimity whether one hits one’s targets or not.