Thursday, January 27, 2011


I hated those bracelets/charms/whatevers: What Would Jesus Do? It's not as if there's nothing honorable in following the philosophy espoused by the man known as Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, it's a rather enlightened viewpoint that's been hideously distorted since it was first committed to memory for oral histories and continues to be so today (shhhh... little secret: Jesus was a socialist.) Of course, there's absolutely no requirement to believe in the divinity and/or supernatural existence of the prime mover of said philosophy in order to follow its tenets, just as with any other set of ideas.

What disturbed me was the idea of having to consult someone else's behavior in order to determine one's own. If you're a genuine believer in and follower of the principles of the New Testament, then you really shouldn't have to stop and question what a poor Jew in the middle of the Roman-occupied Levant would do when confronted with the prospect of massive financial fraud involving credit default swaps or deciding whether to crank Boston to 11 in a crowded apartment building at 3 AM. In the latter case, he'd keep it to a reasonable volume and go find a better taste in music and in the former case he'd strike you and anyone involved with said fraud dead as a doornail, as is only appropriate. Who says the son of God can't be as vengeful as Dad?

I can't recall a time when I've ever been confronted with a situation and stopped to ask myself: What Would Marcus Do? That's at least partially because there were many other Stoic philosophers down through the ages, so there's no real reason to elevate MAAA above the rest (except that I do) in the manner of a messiah. But it's mostly because I've absorbed the philosophy into how I deal with the world as a whole. This is who I am, not what I profess to believe in and then make confession for when I deviate from it.

Stoicism is often perceived as the approach or demeanor of someone without emotion. They're "stoic" if they can remain unaffected in an otherwise harried situation. This originates from the concept that "destructive" emotions impede reason and reason is paramount to most Stoics. Suffering will be avoided through apatheia, which means "peace of mind" or, literally, "without passion." And, without suffering, life is good, yes?

Of course, there's a bit more involved, since simply avoiding emotion will only go so far in helping to determine your choices and actions in life. But the supremacy of reason drives much of the rest of the whole. Actions are "good" because they're ethical. If one stops to question whether a particular choice is "good", ostensibly one removes emotion and then weighs its impact on oneself and others ("Let every action aim solely for the common good." - Marcus) via logic and reflection, as well as being in tune with "natural logic"; often depicted as an understanding of how the universe functions. That can easily be interpreted as a cynical estimation of how systems and people and natural events progress, since those are all contained within the "logos" of the universe. It also relies on Aristotle's assertion that humans are inherently ethical and, therefore, good (which would seem to belie the modern interpretation of the Cynical philosophy.)

I can't help but wonder sometimes if my basic nature is to emotionally detach myself from problematic situations and, thus, Stoicism appealed to me, or if that nature was developed by my reading of the philosophy and its proponents. Anyone who knows me will recognize or remember that I engage in a fair amount of "suffering", as I'm quite passionate about particular topics. Or, at least, I used to be. The fires have dwindled on a lot of things. Expansion of Stoicism or growth of Cynicism? Do I just not care anymore? Is that a lack of emotion or simply fatigue based on an understanding that getting fired up about things often ends up being a colossal waste of time? Or does it simply seem that way to me because all of my serious endeavors, those things that I was truly passionate about, have failed or are in the midst of their lowest periods in my lifetime?

I've discovered lately that I've bent my approach from interpreting (almost) everything through logic and reason to simply functioning: these things have to be done, so they get done, regardless of my emotional state or even interest in doing them. It's still logical and reasonable (have to go to work, have to feed the cats, etc.), but it's solely functional. In contrast, many things that I formerly enjoyed doing or was interested in are left behind because I convince myself that I don't have time to do them while I'm making sure that all the requirements of functioning are met. That's still logical and reasonable to a certain degree, but it's also devoid of any real motivation. Stoics weren't meant to go through life as automatons anymore than Epicures were or are. Of course, there's always Epictetus: "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire." I have the whole "removal of desire" thing down pat, at the moment, but I'm not sure that it's helping.

But I always come back to Marcus Aurelius: "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone." The question now becomes: Is that how it remains from here on out? And is that a good thing?


  1. From the title, I totally expected this to be "What Would Marx Do," although I'm sure that's partially because of my recent deja vu experiences with Socialism-as-Bible-Study.

    Speaking of bible study, this entry reminds me of the tension between Christian quietism and Christian social justice activism. On the one hand, the right thing to do is accept the world as God has created it and your situation as God has ordained it. On the other hand, the right thing to do is to attempt to serve the cause of peace, justice, equality, or whatever else people want to claim as Christ's teaching.

    Personally, I've always been confused about the distinction between logic & emotion. I get the conceptual difference, but in practice I often don't know how to separate them--or know when I've separated them.

    Tangential: have you read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? It's kind of flawed and self-indulgent and immature and confused, but it touches on some of these issues and is kind of my favorite book.

  2. Jung says something similar to what you quoted MAAA as saying here about outward things in his autbiography. I go back and forth about whether you will like it. But as it is almost certainly on our doorstep, or has been by now, I guess I'll find out. it's very inwardly focused, as seems appropriate at th emoment.

  3. Heh. WWMarxDo would not have been a bad guess at certain points of my life, although I tend to view the Grand Karl in the same way that I do most economists: dimly, and with much cynicism (not the classic kind, either.)

    I think the difference in Christian approaches is contained in the way you described it: God on the one hand and Christ on the other. The judgmental and pre-determined Old Testament vs. the proactive and interactive New Testament. Unfortunately, one of the more prominent strains these days is a fusion of the two: Old Testament mindset with New Testament dynamism. In other words: evangelicals.

    I'm tempted to say that it's not necessary to separate logic from emotion; that most people will often find a proper fusion for their circumstances, in the end. Of course, I'm probably being generous about the ability of most to get past the veil of emotion. It's certainly not easy. I tend to do it because I don't really know how not to, which brings me back to the chicken-egg question of matching a philosophy that suits my demeanor or flowing into that after learning it and experiencing it. Perhaps this is a Chomsky "inherited knowledge" thing?

    I haven't read it, but your hilarious description of it is enough to make me want to.

  4. Oddly enough, my response to this is "Marc's needs to get involved in TimeBanking". It fits your rationalist tendencies and socialist instincts very well, and unlike politics you can be successful without converting 50% of the whole world. Drop me a line if you're intrigued.