Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Stoic Resurgence

In reading a few other blogs lately, Stoicism has come up a few times, and I'm seeing it in a few books I've been reading lately too.  Maybe it'll stick this time.

In Robin Hanson's blog discussing why middle aged people are most pessimistic, I suggested that maybe it's a point in life where we know too much horrible crap happening in the world, and it's making us miserable.  And we're just before a point in which we've found a way to cope with the unending tragedies that are part of being alive.  Maybe my cohort will become happier in a stoic manner - once we get our heads around how little control we have over the world, accept that many of these problems aren't ours to solve, and develop a tranquility around it all.

Then stoicism came up again in arguments about the relationship to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy via Lieter Reports, a N.Y. Times article by Kathryn Schulz about self-help books' suggested dualism of selfhood.

In the comments there's a brief argument about the success rate of CBT, immediately countered by a claim that reading Epictetus or Seneca renders the same results.

People don't often read philosophy in times of need.  Self-help books are sought because they seem more empirically tested.  But really, I agree with the commenter who thinks they're basically the same thing.  If people lived a more Stoic life, then they'd actually be following similar tenets available from a CBT therapist:

* Alter the way you think in order to change your behaviour.  It's all attitude.  All you have control over in the world is your perspective on events.  If you change your perspective, then you can change how you feel and how you behave.
* Consider what's the worst thing that could happen, then recognize that it's not likely to be that bad - that you can manage even without it.   People fail all the time, and keep on going. You can too.
* Come to grips with death.

Unfortunately, another reason self-help books outsell writings like Seneca's On the Shortness of Life, is that there's a familiar formula to the self-help section.  Everything's written brightly and briefly.  Chapter headings are soundbites that you can follow if you can't manage to read the whole thing.  If you read philosophy, you have to sit and think a bit about each sentence.  There's a bit of deducing and reasoning, and you have to do the work to apply it to your own life.  People want it fast and easy.

Back to that article though - which is a fun read.  Schultz writes that, "In the 1,600 years since Augustine left behind selfhood for sainthood, we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings." (She also quotes Hume and James who seem to be everywhere these days.)

She could be wrong.  There's been quite a bit of research on the brain that finds the self in a bundle of neurons and hormones.  That might not be the answer we're looking for - it's not nearly as profound as a soul - but it might be the answer.  

Or she could be right, but it doesn't actually matter.  I wonder if part of the problem in the quest to understand the self is the hopes for certainty on this front.  But what if it's actually best if we don't entirely understand everything about our self.  Mlodinow's book Subliminal suggests many of our memories are mistaken, so not only do we not know our own mind, we don't even accurately know our own past.  But emotionally, it's healthier for us to understand events within a consistent framework.  Maybe it's also healthier to think of the self as an entity even if it's not.  It's certainly more useful.  A little bit of self-deception could be just what we need.

Her subtitle is:  "We have no idea what a self is.  So how can we fix it?"  And she concludes that we need less self like Buddhism suggest:  
"Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help. It is anti-help insofar as it emphasizes radical self-acceptance and also insofar as it emphasizes remaining in the present. (Improvement, needless to say, requires you to focus on the future.) It is anti-self in that it treats thoughts as passing ephemera rather than as the valuable products of a distinct and consistent mind."
I agree, and this is something the Stoics get to as well.  The worst problem with self-help books is the obsession with the self.  People who are already thinking too much about their own lives get immersed in yet more ways to naval gaze.  Stoicism (and CBT) take us out of our selves and into the larger world.    Seneca said, "Place before your mind's eye the vast spread of time's abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity."  We're just little blips in the grand scheme of it all.  So relax already.  

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