Monday, July 29, 2013

On the Modern Stoic and Suicide

Oh, this is going to be touchy.

Let's be clear on one thing right now: early Stoics advocated suicide. They felt that, if you live in a situation that will most likely never get better, taking your own life was the way to go. Cato did this when, knowing that Caesar took power, took his own life. He knew Caesar wasn't going to let him get away with opposing him.

Seneca devoted an entire letter to the subject. In letter 70, he writes that the wise man “...will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.” He continues. “As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.” Seneca didn't think we should hold to hope (such as in the events of a terminal illness or even prolonged entrapment) because often we pay more to stay alive through hope than if we ended it. Even more, even though he felt we should endure illness and pain bravely, he felt that to endure endless pain was foolish.

Yikes. So, now that times are a bit different, I think it's time to take another look at this subject. Stoicism, after all, changed with the times when it needed and yet kept it's core values. And we, as philosophers, should challenge what we don't agree with, if we are able to. And there certainly enough here for me to disagree.

I'm going to start off by saying I'm not totally against suicide in all situations. I do think that those with terminal illness, nearing end-stage, should have the right to skip over the pain they might have. Having said this, I don't necessary think we should end our lives.

What is the goal of living our lives with Stoicism? It's like the archer Epictetus talked about. The Stoic archer shouldn't concern themselves with hitting the target. They should worry more about making the best shot they can. After all, a sudden gust of wind, a cough, anything can ruin our chance of even landing a hit, let alone a bulls-eye. We'd laugh or even admonish the archer who'd let a screw up cause them to quit.

For me, life goes the same way. We all have death as the end, with a good death (a virtuous one, that is) being the “bulls-eye”. Sometimes, we have these screw ups, like bad breakups and other short-term problems to long-term problems like chronic illness. But, like the archer above, we'd be foolish to quit simply because something happens to us and, perhaps, keeps happening to us. It's all about taking the best shot possible each time.

To base it off William B. Irvine's words, we need to act as the best person possible. Sometimes, that means acting like the best person possible with chronic pain, or cancer, or mental illness. Sometimes it means acting like the best person while trapped in prison or in captivity. If it's, as the Stoics say, possible to live virtuously in all this and worse, why should there ever be a need to kill ourselves?

Let's go back to the terminal illness case. Certainly, I could live virtuously in a situation like this. I can still carry on my duties as a husband and a father. But I can now also serve another purpose: by being a role model for others suffering. I could also make it my duty to raise awareness or give to charity. In short, even the worst of situations do not mean I'm diminished in anything expect for some possible indifferents.

Sure, perhaps some could argue that some people aren't strong enough to carry on. And maybe this is true. But if we keep in mind that a good life leads to a good death, I think a lot more people might be more willing to change their thoughts on ending their lives. Especially when we consider that what enjoyment that comes from our lives comes not from external events like our bodies but internal. We don't need to be healthy or physically free to experience the Stoic joy. And, in knowing this, I can't ever see a reason to end our lives before our time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On indulging one's pleasures

I came across an interesting line in Letters from a Stoic. Seneca,  in Letter LV, wrote, "He who lives for no one does not necessarily live for himself."

This letter talks about a man named Vatia and how he closed himself away from the world, living out his final years in complete leisure. While many were envious of Vatia, Seneca felt the man already dead, saying every time he passed his villa, "Here lies Vatia!"

Often we feel people who only think of the next chance to please their senses as selfish. We're surrounded by venues made for pleasure: buffets, pornography, designer clothes, and so on. People will drop cash on new smartphones and tablets, then use them to complain they have no money for food or bills. I have much trouble with food and sometimes find myself eating food for the sake of it.

But, thinking about it, all our indulgences are as much of a sign of imprisonment as it is selfishness.

Let's take a look at overeating, my pleasure. Of course it is selfish. I'm eating more than my share of food for no other reason than I didn't stop myself. But this is also putting my belly ahead of everything else as well. My health, my looks, everything about me goes out the window because of this.

It is all for that high of pleasure.

Take those that need to have the next new thing. It isn't so selfish if you live by yourself, but it is a punishment. That high of getting something new takes place over having enough money to live on a day-to-day basis. Imagine what we could do, if we only remember what Nature says we need!

Pleasure is a drug. And we live in a world more than happy to pump us full of it.

See, there is a difference between living a good life and living a pleasurable life. A heroin addict can live a pleasureful live, too, for as long (or short) as it is. But happy and contented? Hardly (and not so if you go by the Stoic ideas of a good life).

Pleasure doesn't mean happiness. The Stoic happiness lasts even in hard times. Paltry pleasure runs at the first sight of trouble, then beckons you to come to it while you ignore the rest of your life. Many can't think of something more pitiful than a person who drowns in excessive ecstasy just to escape some minor despair. And all despair is minor in the long run.

Pleasure is an adverse reaction to all problems. We don't want a constant, though perhaps for the time being weak, stream of happiness through our issues. We want a torrent of happiness to wash away all the problems. Trouble is, it washes away everything else, too.

Spurn pleasure. It cares nothing for you, no matter how you care for it. It's nothing more than a drug and the worst one of them all.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On atheism and the fear of death

I base this post on a question on /r/Stoicism, which I answered but will expand upon here. For those who rather wouldn’t click the link (it is Reddit and easy to get lost in), the question was how do atheists deal with the fear of death. Without the afterlife, is it ever possible to put the fear behind us?

Before I get onto my answer, I’ll address the Stoic ideas of the afterlife, to give a better sense of what the original Stoics believe.

The Stoics held various views of what happened to their souls when they died. Some believed the soul waited around until the end of the universe, which when started again, so, too, would our lives. Others felt that souls rejoined a “world soul” of sorts—which would then hang around until the end of the universe, yada yada yada. Yet it seems there wasn’t any belief that we ourselves would survive our deaths. In short, our soul would be out and about somewhere, but it wasn’t aware.

This may seem meaningless to the whole argument. Atheists don’t believe in a soul. But it’s the last bit that we should pay attention to. The Stoics of yesteryear didn’t think our souls would be conscious. Now, what’s the difference between an unconscious soul and no soul? Little. Perhaps the only comfort one could get is they believed they’d eventually come back, living the same life over and over. The Stoics were Nietzsche before Nietzsche was.

But as atheists, few of us—if any—think we’re coming back. This is our only life. What we have is it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Can we push past our fears of death? Can we ever be calm in the face of our demise?

I’ll admit it. I can’t always get past my fear. But here’s the thing: No one can ever. Not totally, anyway.

The Stoics knew people aren’t perfect. Seneca knew it. Marcus knew it. I’m sure Zeno knew it, too. While the Stoic Sage—unconcerned with all indifferents at all times—was the ideal, they knew no one would ever be one. The Sage was a role model. We can only hope to get close. So this means that, sometimes, even the most resolute of Stoics had their fear get to them every so often.

Yes, I fear death, but not all the time. Lately, at least after my last bad spell of fear, I’ve been able to look at death with neither hope nor dread. Death is, simple as that.

I know I’ll have that fear every so often. I know it’ll keep me up. But as time goes on, and I remind myself that there is nothing I can do about death and that this fear is preventing me from living my life, I see this fear lessening. It doesn’t last as long. And that feels good.

I also remind myself of another Stoic principle: that Nature entrusts everything outside of ourselves to us. When a Stoic loses something, be it a personal item to a person, we are to think, “Fate entrusted me with this. And fate has taken it back.” Nothing outside of minds are our own and we need to remember that. But what if our minds aren’t ours either?

It should work the same. When we die, it isn’t up to us if we remain conscious or are forever gone. Fate (or Nature or evolution or gods) have given us our minds. We are entrusted with our minds and must either have it taken back or we keep it. But I can’t get upset if I should lose it (not that I could, but you know what I mean).

We should also keep in mind that the belief in an afterlife doesn’t mean death is any easier to face. It should be harder. If there is an afterlife, we might be forced to reflect on all that we could have done and didn’t, should have done and didn’t, and shouldn’t have done and did.


I think I’d much rather not exist than that.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On starting this blog

So maybe this isn’t the best of ideas.

Stoic journals aren’t meant to be shared. Marcus Aurelius didn’t write “Meditations” for everyone’s good. It was for him. Only after his death did anyone paid any attention to the works, and even then it wasn’t for years later.

I suppose you could say this is more Seneca than Marcus. While Seneca’s letters were written for his friend Lucilius, they feel polished. More formal teaching of a student than informal advice to a friend. So a mix, eh? A less polished Seneca. Or not really.

Sorry. Let’s try again.

I’m not out to be arrogant. I don’t think I can teach much of anything to anyone. That’s not the point of this. No, if there is one thing I enjoy, it’s discussion. There aren’t many people around these days that openly call themselves “Stoic.” Still, someone to talk to is far and few between.

Call this an open journal. I talk, you read, you respond, I talk back, maybe. It’s all about the feedback, friends.

Ugh, first posts. Never could do these right.

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