Stoic Me Up!

Intelligence Without Patience is Just Somebody's Else Dinner

Intelligence Without Passion is Just Somebody’s Else Dinner

Plato observed that Socrates became so wise, probably because he had tried everything else before. Did he? The inventor of Cynicism, a bit later, went further by claiming there was a lot to learn from dogs, or, by viewing man as a dog. That sat well with Alexander the Great (the creator of cynicism and the creator of much mayhem met), as the latter wanted to show how philosophical he was.

Cynicism, in turn had an offspring, Stoicism. Astounding times: thinkers who knew each other, gave rise to great current of thought (it all broke down with the rule of Macedonian plutocracy, and its heirs, the “Hellenistic Kingdoms”). Stoicism, in turn appearing more than three centuries before Christianism, bequeathed a lot to that faith. In general philosophy, in the most general sense, a discourse, the logos, was made into one of the aspects of the Christian god (so Christianism did not subdue philosophy in a frontal assault, but used a sneaky method).

Massimo Pigliucci, a Roman-New-York biology cum philosophy tenured professor at CUNY runs a site “How To Be A Stoic”, and his latest was “Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion”. I approve of all the suggestions made 23 centuries ago by the Stoics (and of the comments of Massimo). However I am a baboonist rather than just a cynic. Namely I think all we can learn from dogs, we can learn even better from baboons, and many things baboons do, dogs don’t have the brains for. Thus, in turn, I have higher requirements for Stoicism (as my Stoicism grew from Cynocephalism, rather than simple Cynicism, as original Stoicism did; the Latin name for baboons is “Cynocephalus”, dog-head).


[Some may argue that my view of Stoicism is far removed from the texts we have; but we have little of the original Greek texts; instead we have Roman texts focused on Ethics, written 4 to 5 centuries afterwards. Moreover, I view Socrates as (too much of) a Stoic (although he lived a century before the invention of official Stoicism. So, observing official Stoicism is poorly defined, what I generalize philosophically as “Stoicism” arises also from the common meaning of the word “Stoic”. Although I make a scathing critique of Roman Stoicism, I have no reservation against the original Stoics… But for their naivety.]

Original Stoics viewed the life full of “virtue” as the only free life. However, what they view as “virtuous”: was not necessarily so (as the top Stoic philosophers Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, who were both intimately involved with the Roman empire’s dirtiest business demonstrated magistrally, albeit very unwittingly!)

The original Stoics were naive, indeed. Although they understood the importance of practice, they did not understand that passion leads to practice. Only enough passion leads to enough practice.

This is precisely where Marcus Aurelius failed in the education of his imperial son, and thus led the empire to ruin: Marcus gave his son Commodus the empire, instead of giving him the passion for life, ambition, hunger, and thus smarts. By giving his son everything, Marcus removed from his son all passion. But man needs passion to think. So Commodus searched passion somewhere more outrageous. As Commodus had everything, Commodus assassinated everything, from the dignity of the imperial position, to the empire, to his sister, and others close to him. Because that was not passionate enough yet, emperor Commodus joined the gladiators in the circus.

It was all the fault of the naive view Marcus Aurelius had, that acting according to a simplistic view of “virtue” was enough of a virtue. As If “virtue” were easy to define.

OK, let’s cut off the chase, and do some real philosophy:

If one wants to climb a wall, it’s not enough to know where to put the foot. One has to do it just so, pushing into the rock to hold it there, but not so much that it does not provide support against gravity. How does one do this proficiently? Through practice. Plenty of practice. Practice is not just something which happens according to happenstance. One cannot wait for happenstance “stoically”. It’s something one looks for.

One may view the Will to Stoicism a Will to the Mastery of Moods, to optimize… To optimize what? Avoiding to be distraught? Avoiding others to be distraught? Or is it to optimize personal, or general happiness according to some measure? Which measure? And what if one is driven by various shades of sadomasochism?

Don’t laugh about sadomasochism: it’s found in any serious effort the capability for which has been honed by evolution, such as the hunt, or Sisyphus-like activities. A bit of masochism helps for the more dubious pleasure of the chase, or any serious struggle. Thus giving and receiving pain, breathing pain in and out, is ubiquitous in the depths of human ethology. This makes “goodness as minimizing evil” a rather complex, even baffling proposition, as it implies handling psychological, even physiological metastructures.

For example, Rome would have been better served, if Marcus Aurelius had treated his biological son, Commodus, with enough appropriate passion, that means, in this case, enough severity.

So there will be various notions of stoicism, according to what it is one tries to minimize, or maximize. (Or both: in advanced mathematical calculus, there is a method known as mini-max.)

In any case, the question remains: how does one train one’s moods actively (instead of waiting passively for the world to happen)? First one has to ponder: how do moods originate? They do not originate from the digital logic alone (the type of logic found in books on logic, the type one can put in a discourse).

There is another logic, as Blaise Pascal pointed out: “The heart has his reasons that reason does not have”. Well, so does the amygdala. The amygdala has its reasons that reason does not have.

The brain is full of sub-organs generating their own moods. Pascal did not know about the role the amygdala in fear (hence being distraught, among other things; distress was a passion the Stoics viewed as below them, erroneously enough!). And so it is all around the brain: diverse subsystems in the brain have their own reasons. And then, overall, fifty neurohormonal systems or so, can tweak parts of the brain, or the entire mind, this way, or that (pointing then in more than 50 dimensions, among other possibilities).

From this incredibly complex machinery, moods originate. Think of the solo climber, 10,000 feet above a glacier, standing on a square centimeter planted in brittle ice. Pure mastery of moods and logic, otherwise the climber’s life is over after 15 seconds of ultimate pain and terror.

Such a mastery is the fruit of years of training in logic and moods.

How does one acquire such mastery? Through passion. Training driven by passion, again and again and again. Training for solo climbing in the Himalayas, the Italian climber Reinhold Messner would run uphill for hours in heavy mountain boots. He concluded that training the mind was not enough, but he had to train his liver and kidneys (a conclusion Nietzsche would have agreed with, as he pointed out the importance of the gut, in his own solo climbs in Upper Engadin, nearby; yes, I climbed the same mountain).

Thus training for stoicism in full will imply the gymnastic of passion. It’s not enough not to get angry. One has to find oneself in situation where one should get angry, and then optimize, just as the climber’s mind learns by the practice of climbing.

“Discovering” in oneself self-restraint, self-control, and endurance is not enough. One has to train. Train under conditions one has chosen deliberately to learn to become much tougher. Staying calm under ultimate pressure is ultimate stoicism, and it is the attraction of extreme sports. Extreme sports are rendered possible, and acquire meaning, as research in ultimate stoicism (Messner drew a similar conclusion about his own life: it was a research into what a human could do).

If you want to think properly, think in full. If someone thinks in haste, don’t say they think badly, but in haste, and that thinking in haste is often bad.

And if you want to think properly, address in full why is it that you feel the way you do. Don’t just keep the feeling in check, analyze it. Ideas are great, but they live in the universe of moods. Passions educate the latter, and those in turn come from engaging the universe in full. Stoicism has to be understood dynamically. In particular, as a passionate engagement with the world, because only then is dynamics as fulfilling as it can be.

Patrice Ayme’









9 Responses to “Stoic Me Up!”

  1. John Rogers Says:

    Very nice, Patrice. Very nice. I always learn something here.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks John, for this very generous compliment. Keep the compliments coming, they will help turn further essays. Not easy these days, as I enjoy a pneumonia very resistant to antibiotics (I have been through three different ones in three weeks). Brain on low oxygen is definitively unresponsive… This also demonstrates vividly that the lack of research on new antibiotics (due to austerity its attending plutocracy) plus the overuse of antibiotics on meat animals (the cause of resistance) can hit home (BTW, I have good health insurance, seeing doctors is not a problem).

  2. picard578 Says:

    There is one interesting thing: “gut feeling” is more than just an expression. Human gut (digestive tract as a whole) has greater concentration of neurons, and may be responsible for much of human thinking. Which clearly demonstrates the stupidity of Western medicine which attempts to analyze organs as individual systems instead of pieces of a larger system (human body)… enough stress can cause cancer, proper nutrition can cure cancer; cancer feeds on sugar, yet every refined food you can find has added sugar in it.

    • picard578 Says:

      Oh, and the reason why sugar is added to food? It causes psychological addiction, similar to heroine.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      The FDA just advised to limit sugar intake to four tablespoons a day…

      • picard578 Says:

        That is way too much I’m afraid… and even that might be unachievable. Piece of advice: stay away from so-called healthy foods (such as whole-grain bread… unless you are baking it yourself). More often than not, they are loaded with sugar. Or at least read declarations very, very carefully… if they can still be trusted, that is.

        As a rule of thumb, it is best not to eat anything you couldn’t find in nature. But that is very difficult to do, seeing how choices are rather limited.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Sometimes I buy whole wheat bread… But the best bread is the one I mix, knead, yeast, rise and cook myself. By far. A problem is that bread under plastic needs stuff to kill germs and molds. (That could be too much salt, sugar, honey, and other preservatives).

          Remark: Most our veggies have been actually genetically engineered (the soft way) in the last 20,000 years.

          • picard578 Says:

            “Remark: Most our veggies have been actually genetically engineered (the soft way) in the last 20,000 years.”

            There is a difference between mixing different vegetables / grains, and splicing animal genes into said grains.

            • Patrice Ayme Says:

              Agreed. Genetic Engineers are trying to become softer. Notice that corn (maize), though, was obtained when Mexicans mixed species together (apparently).

What do you think? Please join the debate! The simplest questions are often the deepest!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: