Against Emotional Shrinkage

Is Rejecting The Human Condition Wise? Or Simply Inhuman?

In Against Invulnerability, philosophy professor Todd May has walked some of my way, and I will help him with some of the rest (empathy in action!). Here is Todd, in the New York Times, for “The Stone”, a succession of rather stony essays in philosophy:

“Like many of us, I am often troubled. I am distressed by my failure to be more than I am: a better philosopher, a better family member, a better person. And I know that if I could take a little more distance on the daily goings-on in my world that trouble me, I would probably be better in many if not all of these ways. This knowledge leads me to think of those philosophies that counsel rising above the things that disturb me so that I may arrive at a tranquil state of mind. Philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and possibly Epicureanism (the ancient philosophy, not its modern association with pleasures of the flesh) offer different ways of achieving such a tranquil state, and so they are tempting. I believe, however, that for most of us they are a false if beguiling path.”

Chameleons Are Not Stoic, They Anticipate The World

Chameleons Are Not Stoic, They Anticipate The World

[Chameleons are found in the Namibian desert, not just tropical rain forest; there they have to cover huge distances in search of prey… while avoiding to become dinner, so they change colors just as fast as they run across. The chameleonic way of life is not Buddhist, just begging inertly for crumbs from the rich, dressed in bright orange.]

Let me applaud Todd May. There was some predictable screaming on the Internet from Stoics and Buddhists, claiming for both that they do not shun emotions, but bears them.

However, that’s somewhat besides the point. Indeed, not enough is, in crucial situations, the equivalent of not at all: if a plane tries to fly, and it does not have enough speed, it crashes.

Stoicism and Buddhism, and the sort of Fatalism connected to Christianism (Dieu le veut!) or Islam (Inch Allah) have crashed civilization repeatedly (at some point, before a crash, Buddhism controlled most of India).

Here is more of what the heroic (by academic standards) Todd says:

“Buddhism, at least in its official doctrine, argues that if we abandon our desires by coming to understand the true nature of the cosmos and follow the Noble Eightfold Path, the end of suffering will follow. Stoicism similarly (but distinctly) counsels that we rid ourselves of emotion, and similarly (but again distinctly) offers a path of recognition of our place in the universe to help us get there. I do not wish to claim that either or both of these or related doctrines are mistaken. Instead, I want to say that most of us, when we really reflect upon our lives, would not want what is officially on offer, but instead something else.”

But the author is right on target on his main point, the excellent notion of “invulnerability“:

“In their official guise, these doctrines are examples of what I am going to label “invulnerabilism.” They say that we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes. What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us. We are capable of making ourselves immune to the fortunes of our bodies, our thoughts, and our environment, and we will live better or happier or more pure lives if we do so. Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things, the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world’s vagaries.”

Todd makes implicitly the point that, fundamentally, the invulnerabilists deny the human condition:

“For invulnerabilist views, what matters is only the present. After all, as they argue, the present is all there is, and therefore the only thing we can have an effect upon. Moreover, we can only be assured of having an effect upon ourselves in the present. Our effects upon the world are always uncertain. The task of invulnerabilism, then, is for us to inhabit the present fully and without reserve, letting go of the grip of our past and our desires for the future. Only if we do this can we render ourselves immune to the predations of our psychological tendencies, tendencies tied up with hope, regret, expectation and mourning.

Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us.”

This is all very true. Its major defect is that it denies what the brain is made for. The brain is made for predicting the future. Even a chameleon’s brain anticipates the future, as it focuses, and prepares its tongue. Stoics, Buddhism and the like, want to have no tongue, and no focus on anticipation. They want to amputate us, please help! Are they why there is so much plutocracy, and nobody is doing anything about it?

As I have argued for years, that, by reducing emotions, one reduces the human condition, and, thus, the very ability to reduce pain. Invulnerabilists are self-defeating. Todd touches upon that:

“Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.”

Stoicism, as defined by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius is centered on trying to achieve emotional detachment from what one cannot change.

Of course the problem is that one finds out what one cannot change from thinking, and thinking arises from emoting. So, if you don’t emote right, or not enough, you won’t think right.

By insisting that acceptance and tranquility are the most important, somehow most noble moods, invulnerability theories shrink the imagination, and mental reach.

Thus making acceptance and tranquility into a religion dwarves the human spirit into a shadow of its former self..

Are we going to accept infamy, too, because we cannot change it?

Marcus Aurelius is exhibit number one. Somehow he decided that he could not change the old way to select an emperor, and it had to be simply the son of himself. Thus he named his own son Commodus on a whole succession of honors by the age of 12, then made that boy a Consul, and finally co-emperor by the age of sixteen (16).

The son was Commodus, one of the most atrocious Roman emperors, and certainly the worst one (he gave up huge chunks of the empire, next to its core).

Marcus Aurelius, and the four emperors before him had been selected on merit. But merit and performance, selecting the best, were apparently antagonistic to Marcus Aurelius’ acceptance and tranquility.

Marcus Aurelius ought to have cracked down on plutocrats who did not pay enough taxes to sustain the army, then engaged in desperate defense. There, again, Marcus opted for acceptance (of infamy) and tranquility.

Stoicism is comfort, but duty is not always comfortable.

Moods and emotions are at the root of thinking. Cancelling the former would cancel the later, and turn us into beasts. That would be counterproductive to the oftentimes loudly advocated aim, reducing human suffering (people behaving like beasts do not live optimal lives in the complicated civilization we have).

Trying to reduce pain through invulnerability theories is a bit hypocritical, because one could swallow a great quantity of sleeping pills, or take other drastic measures, to achieve a pain-free coma… Or death, surely an end to suffering in this allegedly terrible world.

So why are these theories arise so popular? Two viewpoints, as usual: those of the masters, and those of the slaves.

A meta question ponders who pushed, and pushes these theories on the masses? The mechanism is obvious: it is easier to domesticate the emotion-deprived, and thus thought-deprived ones, than fully intelligent human beings.

Thus invulnerability theories and religions are actually optimal for great masters who want to have many emotion-less, inhuman little slaves, with reduced intelligence.

That’s why the masters love Buddhism and company. But then why do the small people love this mood which serves to oppress them too?

Acceptance and tranquility should not be the end-all, be-all. Except, of course, for people with frayed nerves living in denial. Or then people who wants to live gloriously.

Anger is crucial to crush infamy. Absolutely excluding anger is absolutely accepting infamy as a matter of principle. Instead one should follow Voltaire’s advice: “Il faut ecraser l’infame!”. One ought to crush infamy.

Some specialists of Asian sociology believe that a lot of the problems in Asia (for example the holocaust in Cambodia) originated with too much tranquility and acceptance for the intolerable.

Obsessively focusing on acceptance and tranquility is self-serving, as it persuades the beholders, and those who look at them, that they are good, elevated people. And yes, it gets hot and passionate, where civilization is progressing. Yes, as with a kitchen, it gets hot there. But those who stay out ought not to get the respect they crave for.

Get angry, expand thinking, crush infamy!

Patrice Ayme’

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10 Responses to “Against Emotional Shrinkage”

  1. dominique deux Says:

    Completely agree about the inner nastiness of those “philosophies” which teach how to build a shell of inertia and indifference and thus suffer, seemingly unharmed, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Their ultimate expression is “submit”, whether in lofty German (Kant) or terse Arabic (Islam). No wonder they are not only taught, but fiercely enforced by the powers that be.

    I only want to set the record straight re Epicureanism. It has endured as a rebellious undercurrent, by stating that there is no need for metaphysical beliefs and that rational, benevolent behavior can be attained through obeying to natural impulses, ie, seeking pleasure. That was very much Sade’s view. As a biologist, I concur. Evolution now tells us that pleasure centers in the brain (from insects to mammals) have a definite function – positive reinforcement of useful behavior. Hedonism, which is the search for excessive pleasure, is not Epicureanism. A simple meal of olives and a drink of fresh water was enough to satisfy an Epicurist’s needs and urges. Splurging was seen as a dead end. No wonder this is not only not taught but fiercely suppressed by the same powers that be.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      100% agreed, Dominique. I am not very cognizant of Greek Epicureanism. Too busy practicing it, I guess… 😉

      Living like an animal, instead of a machine, metro-boulot-dodo, is central to me. That’s why I practice less formal climbing (too much stuff), or skiing (although I did X-country yesterday). Running in mountains is more natural. I never learned scuba diving with tanks a la Cousteau (too much stuff), but I am an excellent apnea diver (self taught in Africa).

      I do agree with Sade, who was not only a saint (he saved thousands during the Revolution, differently from Jesus), but very correct as a philosopher, and an adversary of Rousseau, the plutocrats, Robespierre, and the enslaver-in-chief, Napoleon… (who caged Sade for 15 years, until he died).


  2. johsh Says:

    The comments under “Reader Picks” for Todd May’s NYTimes post has some nice counter-arguments, I learned a few new things.

    I do agree its not perfect. For example, If a person has a choice to go join the army to fight against so called evil/plutocrats -vs- become a monk and pursue wisdom, absolute reality and liberation , buddhism would strongly suggest the latter if possible. Buddha had the choice of becoming a king and providing ideal kingdom, he picked the latter. I would say he is far more successful than he ever could have as a king. He was able to shape, tweak the meta-will of this world like no human (that lived) so far. His ideas still causing ripples.

    Personally, I would do the same. Pursue wisdom.

    In 21st century, one could do both.

    But still, the way to tweak meta-will is not to “get” angry, but to “feel” the anger, and channel it “skillfully” (as Buddha would say).


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Josh: I roughly agree with what you say. However:
      Militarism is, unfortunately, the very essence of man, the super-baboon. Militarism made man possible, just as it does baboon..

      So whatever the Buddhists say. Confronted to an army they would be wiped out, as already were. Buddhism controlled most of India at some point, now it controls naught. Why? Not enough military capability.

      Now, whether the anger is felt, or obtained (“got”), is all semantics. The great warrior leads the anger, instead of being controlled by it. When fighting for one’s life, the calmer one’s fury is, the better.

      Obviously Buddhist monks who burn themselves are very angry about some cause. Semantical gymnastics can’t paint that over.


      • johsh Says:

        we humans should stop taking chameleons and baboon’s as examples. We evolved, we won. Lets not bother with looser species like baboons, or the one-trick-pony chameleons.

        buddha never intended/claimed his teachings were about survival at any or all costs. Nor does he suggest we be sheep on the battle field. Its about fully understanding human mood/emotional landscape, and mastering it.

        Militarism is a hammer, we need better tools that operate at meta-level.

        Human evolution got a jump start with the cultivation of emotions/feelings/moods. Buddhism, if digested properly at meta-will level, would give human evolution a second jumpstart…meta-emotions like “compassion 2.0” hahah can be the new normal…kind of like super-super-human (forget super-baboon, thats old school and stone-agey)

        are you suggesting we all carry a gun, because who knows, we could get wiped off any moment.


      • gmax Says:

        Josh: Saying that man has nothing in common with other animals is a form of specieism. Sounds rather primitive.

        Refusing the baboon inside overlooks how little we have evolved. It’s arrogant like claiming we are in God’s image.

        I don’t see why the cult of that Buda ex Prince helps. Following great men like sheeple rarely helps


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