July 1, 2019: Stoical in a Time of General Sorrow?

Stoic n. a member of a Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno about 308 B.C., holding that all things, properties, relations, etc. are governed by unvarying natural laws, and that the wise man should follow virtue alone, obtained through reason, remaining indifferent to the external world and to passion or emotion. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd ed. 1994, Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Prentice Hall).

Stoical adj. showing austere indifference to joy, grief, pleasure, or pain; calm and unflinching under suffering, bad fortune, etc. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd ed. 1994, Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Prentice Hall).

Liberalism is a political and economic doctrine that emphasizes individual autonomy, equality of opportunity, and the protection of individual rights (primarily to life, liberty, and property), originally against the state and later against both the state and private economic actors, including businesses.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism

This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done.  That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.  Every crime must have its punishment. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. Valdimir Putin (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russia-s-vladimir-putin-liberalism-europe-obsolete-n1024411)

That which doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you—but it can leave you tweaked.  Hoo-nōs

If one is in a position like Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 who landed on the Hudson River off Manhattan after the plane was disabled by striking a flock of Canada geese immediately after takeoff (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesley_Sullenberger), being stoical is indeed a virtuous ability.  But if one is stoical in the face of starving or molested children, murderous intent, ethnic extermination, dehumanization of anybody, etc., that kind of indifference is not a virtue.

Personally I fail to understand Putin’s comments and am happy that some backlash, including from Trump, was forthcoming.  Perhaps the concept of liberalism is basically misunderstood by many besides Putin.  I think the same is true of conservatism, though I do not know Putin’s stance on that topic.  Certainly, folks in the U.S. have drawn lines as though one side or the other is nothing more than the devil in action.  Personally, I fail to understand a notion of “unvarying natural laws” as much as I fail to understand why liberalism or conservatism are ideas breeding strident action no matter what the context.  I guess I could say I’m passionate about crap masquerading as necessary truth—like some folks are inherently better than others or that some folks deserve what they get and how they live (the “just world” notion).  To regulate and designate classes of people as superior or inferior (c’mon—ethnic supremacy or gender dominance as an inherent attribution!?) is about as far afield of the “democratic” ideal as it can be, even if “democratic” behavior is not always in evidence.  It’s crap and crap is something best left responsibly disposed of as opposed to crapping in one’s hand and throwing it at others (no offense to monkeys).

I favor the notion that superiority is about becoming better than one was.  It is a highly individual issue, not a holier-than-though one.  And becoming better is not a straight line always headed up.  One could be better at something in a temporal or transient sense, like winning a footrace.  One could be better at something because one does best what one does most.  Those kinds of “superiority” are about a particular skill, granting no general genius to other areas of knowledge

I also favor the notion that inferiority can be a blessing, as in a learning curve is clearly ahead.  A child possesses “inferior” knowledge about the workings of the world when compared to most adults.  As a professor, I am likely to have more knowledge about my chosen discipline than the students.  I am not a superior person and students are not inferior people because of such a particular delineation.  In fact, I’m not clear I’m the teacher and they are the students, as those positions are highly fluid and overlap considerably at times.

What if pure loyalty to a leader or a group was really a joke—a sign we’ve lost our hearts and minds?  What if the citizens of the world were truly dedicated to the virtues of humanism and stewardship instead of partisan politics and dominion? What if we were truly dedicated to inclusivity even while we had particular “tribes”?     What if we did not elect or follow “leaders” who ruled, but who listened and practiced the virtues of reason and emotion and humanism and stewardship?  Maybe we would learn that charisma may be enchanting or poison, but we would not be so enamored as to lose our passion and our joy to live and thrive or our stoicism in the face of great danger.  Sobriety and passion as needed; well chosen, well placed, well-practiced.  More joy and less sorrow?  What exactly do we think we have to lose—a hierarchy of good and bad, of haves and have nots?  Where is the joy when others struggle because some want to be better than others?  That is an economy of sorrow.  That is not the principle of either liberalism or conservatism, much less democracy.  That is not the principle of individual and “tribal” well-being.  We can have it all if we can get past cultivating the seeds of fear.  And that would be nothing to be stoical about—it would at least be worth a smile and gleam in the eye.      

2 Responses so far.

  1. Edgar says:

    I have tried to understand where Putin is coming from at different angles and I don’t know what the heck he is talking about.

    I think many people have this idea that stoicism as about being emotionless to any event. On the contrary, I believe it’s more about distinguishing reaction from response. We may have angry reactions to events (which is okay), but then there’s that space in between to take the stoical approach and act in a virtuous way. The stoics also believed in amor fati, but it’s absolutely ridiculous to have love of fate when there are children being molested and humans are being dehumanized.

    I find it very interesting when you write, “I wonder if we can learn to live well—to thrive in heart and mind (reason is necessary, but insufficient, as is emotion)—if we shed the general encumbrance of superior/inferior (including how we treat our own being)?”. I agree that reason and emotion are both necessary (especially in leadership), but I wonder how we can shed the general encumbrance of superior/inferior when we have lived in systems of dominion hierarchy for so long.

    I believe it takes a “leader” with self-discipline and a very diminished ego to act with reason, emotion and to be dedicated to the virtues of humanism and stewardship. Maybe this construct of superior/inferior won’t be diminished until we have a “leader” who acts accordingly. At the same time, we are a young country. So I guess as long as that’s the goal, we’ll eventually live with true democracy.

    • Travis Gibbs says:

      Greetings again, Edgar! You have noted the problem with an attempt to create a paradigm shift in noting “…I wonder how we can shed the general encumbrance of superior/inferior when we have lived in systems of dominion [and] hierarchy for so long.” You also note “…we are a young country. So I guess as long as that’s the goal, we’ll eventually live with true democracy.”

      While I believe that patience can be a virtue, I also sometimes feel like “patience” can be an embrace of slow learning. Obviously I have more questions than answers, though I’ve heard it said that everything proceeds very slowly until it doesn’t (I do not know the author). I suspect we have to have a different reference point than a hierarchy–almost akin to beings discovering that the North Star was stable in the sky when other celestial bodies moved about. Perhaps we have to notice that substance rather than appearance is a bit more stable. It’s not that easy of course, but listening to others seems a better first litmus test than categorizing others. It’s hard to be a bully if we truly listen. And if we truly listen to bully “leaders” and their notions, they will not have enough support to lead. Of course if they have already acquired “weapons,” we have to pay careful attention to any attempts to shift the paradigm. But I think such bully leaders cannot by themselves use enough of the weapons to win.

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