The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

31 March 2007

One to Rule Them All

Seneca salutem dat Caro Lectori:

Amice, I received your response to my last missive with some delight. Your comment on the role of emotion in decision making is spot on and provides an excellent departure point for tonight's commentary.
You said:
But I must say, when I apply reason, I rationalize an emotional response at least as much as I figure something out from the input.
When I closed my last note, I stated the ultimate conclusion of the discussion: that I am a piece of flesh, some breath, and a Reason to rule all. Now, this statement is alas not my own, but Marcus Aurelius' from his Meditations. When first I read it, I thought that he was referring to a kind of Will to Power, that he meant he had a reason to rule the empire. On closer reading, it became obvious that he was referring to enthroned Reason's government of the body and spirit.
Emotion and passion are things of the body, our animal portions. Our sensation of them originate in the body. Fear, anger, sadness, joy all have some corresponding physical sensation. That is why we speak of them as feelings. It is important that their status as things of the body not diminish their importance. Indeed, as physical beings the things that originate with the body should have a certain pride of place in our makeup.
But should emotion rule?
Perhaps the better question is whether emotion can rule. The idea of rulership, generally understood, requires decision and judgment. Emotions do not decide anything; they inspire and terrify, depress and elate, but they do not decide. Indeed, they often occur at the same time: competing for influence and attention. It falls to a third party to make a choice among the vying forces.
A non-human animal has little need for decision: it has instincts to help keep it safe, senses and habits to govern its behavior with others, and no choice but to listen to its natural impulses.
As a human, I do have choices. Indeed, choice might be the hallmark of my species. I can listen to my emotions only, give in to every passion, every wild desire; and likely I destroy my life in the process. Or, I can listen wholly to my reason: become a machine of logic, weighing pros, cons, and odds in every situation. In that case, too, I destroy my life, though perhaps not as dramatically.
If we sail too close to the shore, we are dashed upon the rocks. If we sail too far out in the fast seas, we are lost to the world. Better, then, to sail a middle course: to use what tools I am given in the best way that I can. Not to rationalize emotions, but understand them and weigh them with the evidence of my senses and come to a decision based on my reasonable understandings of all parties to the conflict.

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27 March 2007

On Natural Morality

Lucius Annaeus Seneca s.d. C.L.:

I received a response to my last entry, a link to a fascinating article on the primitive morality, for want of a better word, of primates. I highly recommend that you read it, if only because it fits well with my own prior efforts. At the very least, the biologists acknowledge that there is no parallel to human applications of reason and judgment, which leaves me feeling better about my final assertion.

This discussion shall continue at a later date.


26 March 2007

Gnothi Seauton

Lucius Annaeus Seneca s.d. C.L.

Inscribed over the door of the Delphic shrine to Apollo was the phrase "Gnothi Seauton," know thyself. This little aphorism has inspired countless poetry, drama, and philosophy. It seems an essential idea for anyone seeking to pursue a good life. After all, how can I know what the good life is for me until I know, or at least have some idea of, my own nature?
I raise this point because I believe that I have gotten off to a false start in my discussions on Stoicism. I began from an assumption of nature, rather than establishing it. With that in mind, I begin anew...
When I seek to know anything, I should begin from its beginning with the question "what is it?" So in my own case, I should seek to know what I am. (Note that I say what, not who, for who is simply the form following the function of what) What I am is a man, like any other. What does it mean, then, to be a man or, rather, to be of the species "mankind"?
At the most basic level that I can see or feel, I am flesh and blood, bone and sinew, and breath. Among the three basic kingdoms, this places me among the animals. Very well, I am an animal. But I think I am something above the beasts of the field. This is not ego or vanity, I think, I hope, but rather some observable characteristic. So what, then, makes me different?
I walk upon two legs, but so do apes. I can build structures, altering my environment to suit my needs and desires. So, too, do beavers, badgers, and birds. It is certainly not mortality, for all things die. This is the oldest law. It might be law that distinguishes us: that I can create - or at least conceive of - a thing separate from myself to govern my action. But what is the source of the law, at least of human law? Instinct, which is common to all animals, is response to stimuli; and, although habits can be learned through instinct, it does not seem equal to the task of creating formal rules.
Call this capacity Reason, the ability to govern instinct, to govern the body, and to govern passion.
I, then, am these things: some flesh, some breath, and Reason to rule them all.

09 March 2007

In the meantime ...

L.A.S. s.d. C.L.


I am revising my work on Stoicism and preparing it for release in the near future.

In the meantime, here's an article on one of my favorite subjects: barbarians.

The author's observations are trenchant and not for the faint of heart or "multi-culturalist."


03 March 2007

On Peril, Promise, and Pity

L.A.S. s.d. C.L.

You have observed, dear friend, that despite my Stoic practice, I tend to rail when talking politics. Often I direct this ranting at conservative Evangelical Christians, whom I have seen as subverting the American political experiment. Indeed, it is one of the sublime ironies of the last few decades that Evangelical Christians, who for a long time stayed out of politics for fear of corruption, were corrupted by it and corrupted it in turn.
I had a conversion experience last night, inspired by two films that I saw recently. The first was Jesuscamp, one of the Best Documentary nominees. The second was Amazing Grace, which opened last weekend. These two films, along with a hymn that's been running through my head, conspired to turn my scorn and hatred into pity.
Jesuscamp is about an Evangelical summer camp for kids and families in one of the Dakotas. Run by preacher Becky Fischer, the camp trains children to "lay down their lives for Jesus;" to be warriors for Christianity, not, it is implied, in the Biblical or historically Christian sense, but in the Islamic jihadi sense. The film shows ten year-olds witnessing with Jack Chick cartoon tracts, talking about how they were saved and born again at six, and an example of "homeschooling." Most of the film, though, is a tent revival for ten year olds. The filmmakers show the replacement of authentic Christianity, of the long scholastic and theological history, and even of the Gospel with shaking, and "speaking in tongues." It flatly denies the intellect, which has long been considered one of the two things essential to Christianity, in favor of strange displays, hot weeping, and unfounded emotional excess.
More interesting, and more to my eventual point, is a sequence towards the end of the film featuring the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard. Jesuscamp sees him as very charismatic at first. He jokes with the cameraman and delivers a mediocre sermon to his congregation. After that he sits down with the camera and talks about the Evangelical movement. When he mentions the movement's pure political power ("If the Evangelicals vote, they decide the election."), a smile spreads across his face like an oil slick. He resembles a patent medicine salesman, a crocodile, and the proverbial cat all at the same time.
Amazing Grace's William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd) is, by contrast, a clear and committed Christian of the old style. During the early parts of the story, we see him wrestling with a choice between a poltical career and a "life of solitiude" i.e., a monastic or otherwise religious life. His drive to abolish the British slave trade and slavery in the Empire stems from one source: his faith, as emphasized twice by Gruffudd's rendition of the titular hymn. This Christianity inspires in man a sense of justice, of the tremendous wrong in the world, of man's inhumanity to man, and, more importantly, inspires him to correct it. It does not inspire him to become a Holy Warrior, but rather a warrior for the improvement of man's lot; blessed, as it were, to be a blessing. This is a work of substance, compassion, and immanent humanity that seems to be altogether lacking in most modern film.
One day I came back from lunch to find a pamphlet on my desk; a slim booklet on coercion and persuasion. The author concludes a wonderful discussion with a Mormon hymn:
"He'll call, persuade, direct aright
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
never force the human mind."
When I was working in Colorado a few years ago, I visited Focus on the Family's visitors center. Walking around, though, one exhibit in particular struck me as alien to the warm, inviting organization I expected. In the center of the main floor was a statement, described as one of Focus's guiding principles, that the State as an institution is ordained by God and thereby commands the obedience of its citizens.
Command and force seem to be the guiding principles of this generation of political Christian leaders. Unlike Wilberforce, who inspired and persuaded men of the evils of the slave trade, the Haggards, Dobsons, and Fischers of this world seek to force the minds of men to assent. At the very least, they seek to force the bodies of men to obey. This, again, runs counter to the general history of Christianity. Note that I say general; the Inquisition and its related ilk seem to have been exceptions, rather than the rule. Christ Himself, after all, wielded no sword and blessed the Peacemakers. Augustine and Aquinas, in much of their writings, advocated the importance of free conscience and right reason as the way to God and salvation.
I mentioned earlier that scorn and hatred changed to pity. It is, I think, an accurate word. When I compare what was and what has been of the Christian involvement in politics to what is now, I have little choice. Modern Christian "leaders" have traded in a great and shining past for a sordid, and fleetingly powerful, political present. They seem to have exchanged root principles for trite "hot-button" issues. A history of true dedication to human rights, dignity, and equality traded for political prestige and the ability to command men.
CUV, Amice

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