Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No Whining

Q:“A friend recently told me he was growing tired of my negativity. I guess I do complain a lot, but most of the time I can't muster a more positive response. Life's inherent unfairness and difficulty leave me little choice. There's an old saying: ‘If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.’ How can anyone who's paying attention also not spend much of his time grumbling?”

“[W]hen the weather does not happen to be fair for sailing, we sit in distress and gaze out perpetually.

‘Which way is the wind?’


‘What good will that do us? When will the west wind blow?’

When it pleases, friend, or when Aeolus pleases; for God has not made you the dispenser of the winds, but Aeolus.

‘What, then, is to be done?’

To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.

...[I must] distinguish between what is mine and what is not mine—what I can and what I cannot do. I must die. Must I die groaning, too? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must be exiled; does anyone keep me from going smiling, and cheerful, and serene?

-Epictetus, AD c 55-135, Discourses, 1.1, translation by Higginson, Matheson

As maxims go, this may be one of the most helpful left to us by the great first-century Stoic teacher Epictetus: “Make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.” It is of a piece with two other foundational bits of Stoic wisdom, also from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things” and “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” The logic is undeniable, but the next step—I may as well stop whining about things I can’t control—can be a hurdle.

It is dismaying, at this late date, to reflect on how much of my life has been given over to complaining about problems that cannot be solved by the mere act of complaining. It’s not just me; whining as a coping strategy has been a favorite dodge of the beleaguered human psyche for millennia, from Achilles moping in his tent to today’s disappointed voters at any given point of the political compass. Whining’s staying power as a human response is, in some ways, a mystery: Not only is it utterly ineffective as a problem-solving strategy, it is also deeply unappealing (think of a long car trip with a chronic complainer). Few character traits are more weakly self-indulgent or more tiresome to endure in others. And for the complainer himself, to the extent that his whining (or its more bitter and entrenched cousin, cynicism) becomes a habitual response, it colors everything, effectively blocking his path to a happy, flourishing life, or even the simple enjoyment of life’s smaller pleasures. It is also a substantial impediment to taking effective, constructive action in the world.

Whining does offer at least one psychological payoff, though it’s not an attractive one. Seneca, writing in the first century A.D., counsels a grief-stricken friend that it’s time, at long last, to put aside her sorrowing: “...this state of unhappiness and misery, with its self-inflicted anguish, feeds finally on its own bitterness, and the pain felt by an unhappy mind becomes an unhealthy pleasure.” Some 1900 year later, Katharine Angell, New Yorker fiction editor and wife of essayist, hypochondriac, and occasional whiner E.B. White, wrote to her husband in a similar vein: “The frustration motif continued for a lifetime doesn’t give anyone much happiness. There’s a certain satisfaction in it, but not the best kind.” We are all familiar with that “unhealthy pleasure,” the “certain satisfaction” derived from self-inflicted misery; it lives in the same psychological cul-de-sac as self-pity and the martyr complex. And as many times as we resort to it—and we all have—we recognize it as an unworthy attitude even as we’re stoking it.

The impulse to moan about our circumstances is one of those twists of human psychology that, like procrastination or blame-shifting, might temporarily help us feel better about ourselves in relation to the things, people, and situations that vex us, but that ultimately impede our progress toward equanimity and self-mastery. It’s just one of the many ways passion can overshadow reason when we’re not paying attention. A key Stoic precept is “making correct use of impressions“—in other words, doing our best to see things as they are and respond rationally. Gaining an accurate view of any challenging situation, a view not colored by emotional overreaction or fogged by one of our many reflexive psychological ploys, is the first step toward setting things right.

That can be a tough step to take, because while whining is ineffective, annoying, emotionally immature, and all the rest, it does at least have one thing going for it: It’s easy. Easier, often, than facing a difficult situation squarely and working to change things for the better. “Making the best of what is in our power” can be a tall order, calling for a certain amount of grit that may be lacking in our character or that may have atrophied through lack of use. But when we do manage to insert a small wedge between an inciting event and a whining response, that brief pause can allow for a more clear-eyed, rational reaction that will keep our complaining in check and, often, reveal a solution to the original problem. It’s surprising how much ends up being “in our power” when we are able to keep a cool head. We won’t always remember to insert that wedge in time, but by paying attention and making a conscious effort, we can improve our percentage.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Who Is My Brother?

Q:“Granted, ancient philosophy offers useful insights into human psychology and good, practical advice that can help us put life’s difficulties into perspective. I also appreciate its emphasis on the pursuit of wisdom and virtue as essential to human flourishing. The old philosophers were good on the subject of self-care: necessary medicine in a world as capricious and troublesome as this one. But what about our duties to others? Our responsibilities to family, friends, neighbors? For that matter, what do we owe, as fellow human beings, to strangers on the other side of the world?”
A:“Each of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles.... The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a centre, his own mind.... Next, the second one...contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins.... that is followed by the circle of local residents...fellow-citizens...people from neighboring towns, and the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. Once these have all been surveyed, it is the task of a well tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to draw the circles together somehow towards the centre, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones.... The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”

-Hierocles, second century A.D., translation by Long and Sedley

Hierocles was a Stoic philosopher who lived in the first half of the second century A.D. Little is known of his life, and his work has survived only in fragments, most of which focus on ethics. His Elements of Ethics was based on the Greek concept of oikeiôsis, an important technical term from Stoic ethics. I’m no linguist, much less a scholar of Greek, but as I understand it, oikeiôsis is derived from oikos, the word for house or home, and conveys, among other shades of meaning, the idea of feeling “at home,” the sense of belonging or appropriateness and of those things which are one’s own by virtue of one's nature (in our case, our human nature). It’s not a static concept; the -sis suffix signals that oikeiôsis is a process, something that changes and matures along with our physical, intellectual, and moral development. Oikeiôsis is, in the words of historian Richard Sorabji, “the process of coming to treat things as belonging.” Sorabji goes on to explain: “One may come to treat one’s own person or one’s own nearest and dearest as belonging. The Stoics came to be interested in the possibility of extending this sense of belonging more widely to one’s fellow humans in general.” (Animal Minds & Human Morals, 1995, Cornell University Press). In the context of oikeiôsis, then, Hierocles wrote, in Elements of Ethics, about self-perception (the first thing that “belongs” to us is our understanding that we exist) and the awareness of the self in relation to others—fundamental concepts in any scheme of ethics.

Another of Hierocles’ works, On Appropriate Acts, is the source of the extended quotation above. His image of the concentric circles of connection and “belonging” that ripple outward from each individual self, and our duty to persistently work at drawing the outer circles inward, is a famous one. It’s also a handy verbal and visual reminder of our shared humanity, our interconnectedness, and, as our understanding grows, our duties and responsibilities in regard to the common good. Hierocles’ circles are also an apt representation of the Stoic ideal of the cosmopolitan, or “citizen of the world.” As Marcus Aurelius describes it, we all carry within us a spark of the divine “fire” of reason (the logos) that pervades the universe. This common coin of humanity, the gift of reason, establishes our kinship and draws us together as fellow citizens and members of the world community. “Universal brotherhood,” is, of course, a hope and a vision that was as thoroughly trounced by political realities in Marcus and Hierocles’s day as it is in our own. But while the final goal may lie beyond our reach, commitment to incremental progress is standard operating procedure for the philosophical/spiritual life, and our fundamental orientation is the important point: We must care for ourselves and our loved ones, and then we must do our best to broaden our sympathies and, as Hierocles says, “reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Speaking of Virtue

Q:“What makes you philosophers so smart? Aren't the people who yammer on about morality and ethics usually the very ones who prove to be the worst kind of hypocrites?”
A:"I am not a wise man, nor, to feed your spite, shall I ever be. So require from me not that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices and recognize my mistakes.... I have not attained to perfect health, nor indeed shall I attain it; I contrive to alleviate my gout rather than to cure, content if it comes more rarely and gives less pain. It is of virtue, not of myself, that I am speaking, and my quarrel is against all vices, more especially against my own."

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca, circa 58 AD, De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life)

This is a slippery business. Moralists are notoriously easy targets. And when they fall, which they do with dismaying frequency, they do it with such graceless, comic clamor, usually tripping over one of their own precepts like a loose skate at the top of the stairs and hurtling downward, out of control, hitting every newel post and finial on their way to the bottom. But it is a mistake to nitpick the lives of these famous old moral philosophers, who, like any of us, had their share of character flaws and personal failings. In ancient philosophy, the sage—the philosopher who had attained perfect virtue and wisdom—was an aspirational, even semi-mythical figure. For the rest of us, progress in the philosophical life was understood to be incremental and imperfect—a vital pursuit to be sure, but one fraught with difficulties and dismaying setbacks. Try as we might, none of us fully lives up to his highest aspirations. In that spirit, we should resist the temptation to dismiss the ideas of these old thinkers simply because the whole of their lives didn't comport with their philosophies. The charge of hypocrisy can also be a convenient dodge, a too-easy deflection, saving us the trouble of giving their often-uncomfortable ideas a fair hearing.

Seneca had it right: the discussion is not about him, it's about virtue—about the attempt, at least, to become better versions of ourselves. And if we can't even discuss the possibility of living virtuously, where does that leave us? If we're reluctant to envision and describe the goal we're aiming at, how can we ever hope to hit the target? Wouldn't it be wiser, safer, certainly easier, to avoid entirely any talk of goals, aims, or virtues? Of course not. There are worse fates than being accused of hypocrisy—for example, facing life with no hope of ever becoming a better person than I am right now. We are none of us sages, but we aim to stay on the path and improve, understanding the philosophical life as an orientation and a commitment, not an accomplishment. No, the question is not how well the moralizing philosophers lived out their own maxims. The question is whether their ideas about the pursuit of virtue and wisdom make sense to us. If they do, our business then is simply to do our best to put those ideas to good use.