Stoicism comes from the freed-slave Epictetus and the Roman philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius (about 170 C.E.). It comes from suffering and Greek philosophy. Like Buddhism it’s about freedom from suffering, but it’s much more–it’s a positive philosophy for living your life. It’s about using the mind to control the emotions, to calm suffering and put it in perspective, and to create a peaceful life of true contentment that seeks virtue. Sounds like every religion, right? But Stoicism is not about being emotionless, or cold. To the contrary: it’s about expressing the good emotions and suppressing the bad ones. So yes a Stoic might not cry at a funeral, but they might cry at a wedding. It has two fundamental imperatives:
(1) do not worry or concern yourself with things outside your control.
It’s irrational. It makes no sense to stress about things that you can literally do nothing about. Death is the obvious example, but there are several others. Don’t worry about what other people think of you, or luck, fortune, or fame. Don’t worry about what your kids are doing. Stop controlling other peoples’ freedom. Is there an election coming up? Then cast your vote. Are you hungry. Then eat. Will that person you hate be at the party? Then don’t go. Or go. Might the weather destroy my crops? Then plan. However, some things are not so clear-cut: global warming, world hunger, war. These are global, general, constant worries. It requires wisdom and discernment to figure out how much you ought to worry, based on the amount of responsibility, time and effort you decide to give to particular causes. I’m not sure what the Stoics thought of prayer, but I’m guessing prayer is a good exercise as long as you not praying instead of acting (in other words, it’s okay to pray for things beyond your control, but don’t get bothered when God doesn’t oblige). The world will constantly bring random events, some good, some bad. The Stoic accepts everything from God with a heart of grace and thanksgiving. God (or the Gods) know better. And even if the Gods do not exists, Aurelius says, that’s outside our control too! Therefore, still accept serendipity and tragedy with grace.
(2) for those things within your control, accomplish them.
Once you get rid of all the crap filling your head, it’s amazing how well you can accomplish your real tasks in life. Know thyself and do thy duty. This is the creed of the Stoic. Know thyself. Are you a good person? Do you constantly question yourself? At the end of the day, do you take stock of your life? Examine the depths. If you know yourself, then you don’t need to look to others for the answer. Are you best suited to be a doctor? Then become one. Do your duty. Purge vice and seek virtue. Do the things that need to be done and ought to be done. Simple as that. Living this way, people will think well of you (without you worrying about it). When you question yourself and live the best life you can, everything else falls into place. Perfect your talents, eat healthy, be graceful, forgiving, friendly. If someone has wronged you, go talk to them and work it out immediately, as Jesus also taught. Never let things fester in your soul; purify it constantly.
Stoicism, in my view, is extremely compatible with the teachings of Jesus and Kant.
Warning: Rated “R” for adult content (I say fuck a couple times because I spill everywhere)
This is Part 1 of a 9 Part Series. That beer ended up tasting really good, and very close to Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.
If you’ve worked in a factory, you’ve heard “they” a lot. They. Them. Those in power. Upper management, the government, the scientific establishment, etc. What will “they” do next to make my life miserable?
Sadly, from what I’ve read so far it turns out that this sort of worldview is a slow death. It’s because the people who silently worry what they will do next are constantly under stress, animals in the wild. They have no control. It’s a slow, lurking, chronic stress, barely detectable yet always there. The stress-response system (“fight or flight”) is constantly running, which means the higher parts of the brain are not running properly, like calm reasoning, deliberation, judgement. It pains me to think of it. We all know these people.
I actually had the opposite opinion for a long time. Previously I thought that the rich people at the top were the most unhealthy, stressful, unhappy people in the world. Based partly on my religious views and partly because I wasn’t rich, I would say “I never want to be rich…they are miserable.” But then I read about the major studies that were conducted in England and other places, which clearly conclude that the lower you are on the social ladder, the more stressed you are, and the higher you are, the less stressed and more happy and healthy you are. It turns out Jesus was right when he said “Woe unto the rich, for they have their reward.” In other words, they might have problems in the next world (due to love of money), but in this world they do pretty damn well. The book Born For Love comes to mind too.
It’s human nature to fear and this is one example of it. Yet, as all great religions and moral philosophers say: it’s human nature for us to transcend human nature. First, will power. Stop saying “they.” Catch yourself. Start there. I’ve done it. In my job, I always say “we” made a decision, whether I agree or not (it’s pretty easy, the library is one of the best places to work). We passed Obama Care. We went to the moon. We cloned a sheep. Get it? It feels great and sounds right.
Second, go read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you don’t think ideas can change your life, keep reading–eventually you will find what’s meant for you. Stoicism is perhaps the best philosophy to deal with the unpredictability of life, which says: (1) never worry about things outside your control (because that’s stupid), and only worry about things within your control (that’s smart); (2) now conquer and overcome those things within your control; (3) now your life is, by definition, free from worry. Everything else is accepted with grace and all things are seen as a beautiful play of events, a gift from God or Destiny or Chance. The events that led to meeting my wife were random, sad, beautiful, and ended in one of the best decisions in my life. I took them all with stoic grace.
Third, if things get really bad–and sometimes they do–try faith. Religion, as Jesus said so poetically in the Sermon is the Mount, is really for the lowly, the down trodden, the poor. When the world shits on you, when you don’t have a family to love you, when your greedy employer downsizes you, when you become ill and your luck runs out–only God is left to love you. Or despair. Both are understandable. This is why Aristotle thought that the good life required a little bit of luck.
All religions are valid paths to a transcendent Truth or divinity (capital “T” Truth means it’s an ideal–unattainable and yet real at the same time). Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Baha’i faith are all after the same thing. But across time, language, geography and history they find it in different ways. These different ways, beliefs and practices are philosophically compatible.
Wait a minute. Bull shit. Jesus is God. Muhammad is His only prophet. How are those compatible?
This is where Kant comes in (and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Relgion). All of these “beliefs” are no more than beliefs; they are grasping at a transcendent world that we cannot reach, unverifiable speculations about the nuemenal realm; doctrine or dogma is not knowledge. Beliefs, by definition, can be wrong. Only knowledge can be truly incompatible with non-knowledge (error). Nobody can disagree with e=mc2. But “Jesus is God” is on the exact same epistemological level as “Muhammad is His only prophet.” We simply don’t know; thus we believe. Therefore, they are both equally valid ways of thinking about God. Because we will never know, they can both exist together just fine.
And that’s okay.
Two people stand in front of a Van Gogh. It means this, one says. No, says the other, it means this! They both give reasons. Perhaps we should ask the artist? Well, he’s dead–and would that even help? Thus we have two different meanings of a piece of art that are compatible and can exist together just fine.
When it comes to practice (ritual), religions are quite different. When it comes to metaphysical beliefs, quite different. That’s to be expected. But when it comes to morals, very similar. The moral codes of the major world religions are all based on love, compassion, forgiveness. They are compatible. They ground virtue and suppress vice in amazing different ways. Sweep away the hypocracy and you are left with love as the bedrock of religion.
Pluralism is an expression of love for other people, yet this will not satisfy a lot of people. Religious Pluralism is not for people who get angry when other people talk about other beliefs. It’s not for people who are offended by the existence of Islam, or who use religion to define what they are not (rather than what they are). It is not for dogmatic, intolerance, judgemental types. It’s for people who love religion and take it seriously, who realize that they are Christian perhaps because they grew up in a Christian household or nation (and that’s okay). It is for people who are humble, who have a lot to learn, who realize the transcendent nature of their beliefs and place their hope in them.
If Jesus saved my soul, Kant saved my mind. He brought together faith and reason, heart and mind, religion and science. He gave my Christianity a rational, philosophical grounding. He gave me a worldview, brought it all together. It still gives me delight to think about his synthesis of science and religion, of the phenominal and nuemenal worlds, and especially about his simple, rock-solid morality.
In his most important book the Critique of Pure Reason he said “I had to do away with knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
It’s a tricky quote. What knowledge is he doing away with? To figure it out is to figure out the man Kant, his philosophy, his scientific and religous beliefs, his humility. First, he disliked those religious people who claimed to have “knowledge” about God and His ways, to be dogmatically “certain” about “facts” like the trinity, virgin Mary, angels, or various other metaphysical beliefs. His philosophical system does away with that “knowledge” in the most respectful way–he brings it to the realm of faith and belief, where they belong. In this sense, he is “making room for faith.” He was a humble Lutheran that was content to have his own religious beliefs and let others have theirs. Secondly, he disliked those scientists who claim to have “knowledge” about things that have no basic in experience or possible experience (alternate universes would be a present-day example, but he probably had Leibniz in mind). It’s another form of dogmatism. Science, the pursuit of knowledge about nature, is tempted to delve into metaphysical speculations. And that’s okay; it can’t help it. But that’s not knowledge either (and then there’s people like Dawkins, a good scientist who has dogmatic beliefs against religion…I know God doesn’t exist). Anyway, so when it comes to real knowledge, we are left with real science, all the things we can know about nature by testing, analysing, experimenting, deducing, falsifying.
Science deals with the physical world, but the world beyond our experience–the “nuemenal” world, the transcendent–is very real for Kant. This is the world we speculate about and have beliefs about and hopes for. This is the realm of freedom, morality, and God. If we could somehow peel away our senses, our filters, our concepts–then we could experience that world (hint: we can’t). Perhaps some day we will.
Kant also saved my soul by teaching me what morality consists of, by giving it strong philosophical principles–namely the “categorical imperative”–which resonated in my mind as much as the command to “love thy enemies” did. “Nothing fills my mind with greater awe,” he said ” than the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” The moral law within is imprinted on our hearts and minds. It’s not a complex thing. The fundamental rule of morality is this: only act on principles that could be also universal principles for everyone. Simple as that. Lying, stealing, cheating, and killing don’t pass the test. He tries to deduce the virtues and invalidate the vices from this one principle. He does a descent job, but his legacy for me is really this: being a good person is nothing more than following a few principles and never wavering. Never lie; never steal or cheat or harm others. Always tell the truth, love others and help those in need. That is the secret. Whenever we waver, that’s when we sin; that’s when we start justifying our actions. That’s when we think morality is “complex,” or situational, or “it’s different this time” because of x, y, or z. Don’t fall into that trap. It might save your life.
I’m naming my baby Immanuel after this great hero of mine.