Stoicism Is All Too Natural

All we animals have to be stoic, at one point or another, whether we like it, or not, whether human, or not. At some point we have to decide that, whatever it is, will be, and that’s fine. This maximizes happiness. Especially in dismal circumstances. It’s all the eudemonia the abyss offers.

Stoicism is evolutionary given. It would not help to sustain ecology if prey animals systematically fought beyond any hope of surviving, as it would hurt predators (and thus kill them, as the job of predator is highly demanding). Without predators around, there is no more ecology.

Thus animals come complete with endorphins, pain killing hormones related to morphine. When the fighting is hopeless, endorphins suddenly permeate the prey, and it accepts calmly to be eaten alive. That’s often a very long process. It is striking to see an antelope resting on the ground, alert, head high, standing perfectly still, while a lion is feasting deep inside its abdominal cavity.

Hence evolution itself has selected stoicism as a strategy to reach an optimal ecology.

Experiments in human ethology have shown moral monism is a no-go: not all morality comes from just one moral principle. Far from it. Instead, human beings travel a vast moral manifold, with many moral strategies, as opportunity and necessity arise. Thus the attached philosophies are to vary accordingly. Philosophical pluralism is fact and practice. Yet, stoicism will always be a part of the mix (as it is evolutionary given, it’s part of what we are).

***

But one has to be careful not to confuse appropriate stoicism, and amor fati, with gross selfishness. Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and author of the Meditations is a case in point. He claimed, in his Thoughts that one ought:

“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.”

Strange mumbo-jumbo.

Although this train of thought seems to partly anticipate ecological balance theory, the emperor’s motivation, according to all appearances, from historical evidence, was most base. If true, this is extremely shocking: Marcus Aurelius is often viewed as the archetype stoic, in his full glory.

And this is a warning to all those who get carried away with Stoicism, Buddhism, Zen, and the closely related Confucianism and “Inch Allah” religion.

If it’s all one movement, one may as well leave it alone, and go along with the flow. Thus Marcus Aurelius opted to not go into a complicated process to select the next best future emperor, as had been the tradition under the Antonine emperors (and how he himself became Princeps, Imperator, Augustus and what not).

It was simpler, more craftily stoic, to make his son Commodus Caesar at the age of 5, the youngest Consul ever at the age of 15. Then Marcus made Commodus co-emperor at the precocious age of 16. That teenager became perhaps the worst emperor ever.

Why? First, out of apparent stoicism, not to say epicureanism, Commodus gave up territory dearly gained on the Marcomanni, and that it was crucial for Rome to keep (as history showed within a generation).

***

Stoicism is the acceptance of what cannot be avoided, surrender. It has its place, but only as a mean to not hurt higher values which a disorganized frenzy could compromise.

One should not surrender, especially to evil, in a hurry, affecting haughty indifference. Doing so makes one an accomplice, a collaborator of evil. Stoicism is a help in the abyss, when hope is forever gone, and only pain is left. But stoicism is also an invitation to the abyss, if used inappropriately.

This is not just a problem for those who abide by Stoicism and Buddhism. The religions of Abraham celebrate the submission of their hero (Abraham) to the most monstrous deity imaginable, the one who asks him to slit the throat of his son. In other words, if the boss asks you for the worst crime imaginable, stoically submit.

This is immensely unacceptable to those who have the religion of man, instead of the religion of the boss, fascism.

Stoicism is one misappropriation away from accepting fascism, infamy, or both.

***

Progress is a more human value strategy than stoicism. All animals are prone to stoicism, as they muddle along. Only humans wish to rise well above Prometheus, and smash fate into a better world.

We created god(s), and should act accordingly.

Patrice Ayme’

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11 Responses to “Stoicism Is All Too Natural”

  1. Andrej Dekleva Says:

    ‘inch’ Allah made my day.. small but funny!

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      You are welcome, Andrej! Anything to make Allah funny to the last inch…

      • dominique deux Says:

        “Inch Allah” (God willing) is a very common interjection when people speak in the future tense; I found myself using it profusely, as a wise reminder that predicting the future is close to hubris.
        The expression which expresses fatalism (the decayed state of stoicism) is “mektoub” (it was written), an entirely different animal.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Agreed. Yet, “Inch Allah” is nevertheless used too much. If Allah does not want it, well, too bad for Allah. At least that was always my position. Contempt for god(s), although sometimes causing alarm, was well tolerated, and even treated with friendliness… In the past. Now, decades of PC have led to the requirement of respecting what secular progressives cannot respect.

  2. Massimo Pigliucci Says:

    Patrice,

    “All we animals have to be stoic”

    I’m not sure whether that makes sense for a Stoic, since being a Stoic means exercising reason to develop virtue and control negative passions. If an animal cannot reason philosophically (and as far as we know that is the case for all non human animals) then the concept simply does not apply.

    “Stoicism is evolutionary given”

    Hmm, I’m a philosopher and an evolutionary biologist, and I don’t know what that means.

    “Strange mumbo-jumbo”

    I said very clearly that of course one cannot simply take on board a system of thought that predates modern science and much else. Hence the need for upgrading to a type of neo-Stoicism.

    As for Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, you are making the very same mistake you made previously about Aristotle: confusing the failures of a man with the soundness of a general philosophy. By that standard, no human idea is worth much, since they are all put forth by very much fallible human beings. Einstein didn’t treat his wife well. Should we therefore reject his science? His humanistic vision?

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Massimo: I wrote the entire next essay as a partial answer to the preceding.
      “Evolutionary given” or “psychobiological”, or “instinctive”, or “ethological”, or “tropisms” are all roughly equivalent.
      PA

  3. Coel Says:

    Coel

    October 7, 2014 • 5:14 am

    Hi Patrice Ayme, you say:

    “Stoicism is evolutionary given. It would not help to sustain ecology if animals systematically fought beyond any hope of surviving, as it would hurt predators (thus kill them). Without predators around, there is no more ecology.

    […] Hence evolution itself has selected stoicism as a strategy to reach an optimal ecology.”

    This is a misconception about how evolution works. It does not select at the ecosystem level, nor does it act to achieve any particular ecosystem. Thus it will not be programming prey to submit to predators for the “good of” the ecosystem — it has no way of “knowing about” or “acting for” the latter.

    Any ecosystem will be an emergent phenomenon resulting from lower-level competition, not a goal that evolution aims for.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Coel: This is hilarious: you never heard of group selection. So I guess, you have no misconception! Wow. More later, if I find the time to teach you basic evolution theory.

      Meanwhile, here is your homework: why should evolution only be about competition between individuals? Why not cooperation among ecosystems?
      Learn about our 10^14 bacteria, inside us, and get back to me.
      PA

  4. SocraticGadfly Says:

    Sorry, Patrice, but evolution has not “selected” Stoicism (or any philosophical school) as a strategy. That’s at least close to imputing teleology to evolution. Small-s “stoic”? Perhaps. However, since endorphins existed long before Zeno, why call such pain management “stoic” if we can think better?

    SocraticGadfly

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      @ SocraticGadfly: Stoic is a label that arose after 300 BCE. Spartans, in 1200 BCE, were already “stoic”, in the modern sense (according to Homer).
      If you feel that using the word “selection” in relation to evolution is teleological, you have your work cut out for you.

  5. Patrice Ayme Says:

    @ Coel: I guess you have never heard of group selection as a scientific discipline. If you had you could have guessed that I was boldly advocating an even higher level of evolution: ecological system selection. Please think about it: one can’t guess what goes beyond what one already don’t know.

    Dear Massimo:
    The Nazi philosopher Rosenberg was hanged at Nuremberg. Heidegger, rightly so, was forever barred from teaching. My case against Aristotle is fully deployed on my site. It rests on historical facts.
    It’s clear that, had the US Army liberated, Athens in 300 BCE, and had Aristotle still being alive, he would have been put on trial.
    This being said, I liked you essay very much. I just said that Stoicism, although excellent is all too natural, and, thus can be enjoyed to excess.

    I wrote my entire next essay (on my site) as a partial answer to the preceding. So I have more than 2,000 words in reply to Massimo’s excellent essay, there. Comments are welcome.

    “Evolutionary given” or “psychobiological”, or “instinctive”, or “ethological”, or “tropisms” are all (very) roughly equivalent. There is more rigidity on the “evolutionary given” than one would expect, claim those who experiment on New Caledonian crows.

    I suggest everybody get relaxed about evolution. It’s a domain with some many obscure sub-fields therein, that it’s fraught to be too strict about it. Witness the changed mood about epigenetics (after a century of dragging Lamarck in the mud with relish, following the church).

    Philosophical consulting, as Massimo practices, is a great therapy. It has proven (under the closely related “behavioral therapy”, I brace for the semanticists screaming) as, or more effective than (MD prescribed) drugs.

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