Friday, August 4, 2017

On Comparing Existentialism and Stoicism

This summer, I went on one camping trip with a book on Stoicism, then another camping trip with a book on Existentialism, and I was intrigued by the many similarities. Then I came across this video that has some overlap with what I had noticed. As they say in the video, Massimo Pigliucci (MP) on Stoicism and Skye Cleary (SC) on Existentialism, both are philosophies that offer a way to live instead of just a way to think about the world. I'm putting it all together here with quotes (names linked to sources) to sort it out for myself. I'm just thinking out loud here. This is too long for any normal person to want to read.

These are both philosophies that allow surveyors to pick and choose from variations on a theme as neither has one authoritative dude overriding all others, and, it would appear, few of the big guns cared to adopt either label anyway. For the Stoics, defining yourself as one is avoided because it's pretentious. In The Role Ethics of Epictetus, it's clarified that we are simultaneously different things, and how we play each role is more important than what our roles are. The roles are often not our choice, but how we do them are, i.e. whether or not we're a virtuous son, mother, teacher, or waiter (MP). For Existentialists, we can't be defined by the roles we take on because we're more than the mere facts about ourselves (SC), so labels become meaningless.

VALUES and VIRTUE: objective vs subjective perspectives

The philosophies differ to an extent in their understanding of the values to be incorporated into the virtuous life, yet there are similarities among their explanations of their value systems.

Abridged to take out the Godly bits.
Stoics have four virtues to be contemplated and practiced regularly: prudence (wisdom to know right), fortitude (courage to do the right thing), temperance (moderation and self-control in action), and justice (caring and fairness with others). The meaningful life is the life that practices these virtues, and these are practiced while recognizing what is and isn't under our control: Pigliucci says, "focus on where your agency can be effective" such as our values, judgements, decisions, and behaviours. For instance, the goal is not to be loved by someone specific (which is out of our control), but to be a lovable (i.e. good) person (MP). When we have preferences that are out of our control, such as good health, reputation, possessions, etc., we should take an attitude of indifference toward them, of detachment. They're our preferred indifferents. It's nice if we have them, and it's fine to make efforts to influence them, like through healthy eating or locks on the doors, but it's foolish to expect them or to get upset if they're lost. The goal is mastering our own attitudes towards things so we see them correctly, so we recognize that, for instance, it's not a specific event that's upsetting us, but merely our perception of the event, and, according to the Stoics, our perception is always within our control. We can't not be content if we follow this well.

There are many places in their writing to find specific solutions to specific issues, like Epictetus' advise for taking an insult:
"When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, 'It seemed so to him.'" 
As long as we are good about seeing what's within and outside of our control, we can exercise our values in ways that meet our expectations.

By contrast, Existentialist values are much more subjectively determined. The only virtue comes with being awake enough to recognize our freedom to choose our own path and making authentic choices such that each act is what we'd want everyone to do. But each person is free to make different choices that are viewed as equally virtuous provided they're the person's own authentic choice. Stoics would likely look down their nose a bit at the intemperate drug-fuel shenanigans of Sartre and company.

Nietzsche gets at the subjectivity of the theory with his master morality: "The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, "what is harmful to me is harmful in itself"; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating" (154).

Sartre explains what it is to make an authentic choice free from self-deception:
"We define man only in relation to his commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us for irresponsibility in our choice....One can judge, first – and perhaps this is not a judgment of value, but it is a logical judgment – that in certain cases choice is founded upon an error, and in others upon the truth. One can judge a man by saying that he deceives himself....any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. is not for me to judge him morally, but I define his self-deception as an error. Here one cannot avoid pronouncing a judgment of truth. The self-deception is evidently a falsehood, because it is a dissimulation of man’s complete liberty of commitment."
The consistency between the authentic choice and action matters more than the choice itself. That we have the freedom to define ourself through choices made is guiding principle: "There are no means of judging. The content is always concrete, and therefore unpredictable; it has always to be invented. The one thing that counts, is to know whether the invention is made in the name of freedom."

Sartre further explains how we create the possibility of a universal ethics through adhering to our subjectively determined values in Existentialism is a Humanism
"The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all choosing for himself he chooses for all men....What we choose is always the better, and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all....I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man...Every man ought to say, 'Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do?'"
It's like he comes at the categorical imperative from behind, which provides a very loose framework for doing ethics.

Similar to the Stoics' attitude towards our reputation, Sartre discusses public opinion, and even just our perception of a possible opinion of others whenever we become conscious of the other, as a difficulty we need to overcome, but for a different reason than the Stoics: We act as if we're less free when we're aware of another's idea of us. His play No Exit cautions us to be careful not to define ourself using the distorted mirrors held by people who understand us poorly and reflect us back to ourselves in a warped way, and he clarifies further in St. Genet: "We are not lumps of clay, and what is important is not what people make of us, but what we ourselves make of what they have made of us." Awareness of the other can be useful, as Sarah Bakewell explains in her recent book: Sartre "invited his readers (presumed white) to imagine the gaze of the oppressed turned against them, stripping away their bourgeois hypocrisy and revealing them as monsters of greed and self-interest."

Camus further explains with reference to the story of Sisyphus, a trickster made to roll a rock uphill day after day as punishment for his behaviour:
"To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one's life, one's revolt, one's freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. Where lucidity dominates, the scale of values becomes useless....Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." 

Both the Stoics and Existentialists take a pretty flattering view of our psychical abilities: the Stoics believe we can develop total control over our attitudes and perceptions towards the world, and the Existentialists believe every act is a choice we freely make regardless the intensity of the situation. If our master is breaking our leg and there's nothing we can do to stop it, then take after Epictetus and recognize, "Lameness is an impediment to the leg, not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself." So, now this leg thing is happening, but I can still carry on with integrity! And if we're required to do a formidable task, like push a rock up a hill repeatedly, then the task has a different flavour to it when we're aware that we've chosen to do it because, of course, we can always choose otherwise even if it means our death. So, I want to push on this boulder!

I use both methods liberally in my own life. In the face of any tragedy, from a broken dish to major surgery, I often go to, "Well, now this is happening; it is what it is." It definitely helps me stay calm in the face of adversity. There's no point in ranting and raving over something out of our control. What's done is done. And whenever I feel trapped in a situation, I remind myself that I made the choice to be there. Reminding myself of the alternatives (and there are typically many besides death), actually works to help me feel empowered even during a tedious task done by request. I don't have to do this, so here's why I'm choosing to. Taking responsibility for our own choices, which are all freely made, has the curious side-effect of feeling much more in control of our lives. So many people skirt responsibility - it's not my fault; he made me do it - seeing it as a burden without recognizing how much freedom it actually grants us.

But, without more guidance in our choices, without a clear idea of virtue and techniques for practicing them regularly, does Existentialism really lead us towards morality? Despite de Beauvoir's claim, "To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision," Charles Taylor takes Existentialists to task for being too subjective. According to Taylor, there are objective values that we must adopt. It's not enough for each of us to decide them for ourselves. Some actions are inherently wrong, and it's beneficial to society if we acknowledge that fact.

Sartre rejects the possibility for values beyond what we create for ourselves:
"The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori....If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts....'In the end it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose'....The value of his feeling for his mother was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her." 
But, to be fair, Existentialism requires fortitude and prudence, and it's got a strong backbone of justice. As a lifestyle, it merely dismisses moderation as a necessary tenet.  

Stoics also have their critics of sort. Christian Existentialist Gabriel Marcel thinks Stoicism is no longer possible in our world because materialism has reduced us to objects. We're too alienated from ourselves to look inward sufficiently:
"Stoicism has been today, I shall not say refuted by the facts, but uprooted by them from the soul which used to nourish it. This ancient and respectable attitude rested on the distinction made so forcibly and severely by such writers as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius: the distinction between what depends on my will, and what does not depend on it. Stoic thought, in so far as it was not merely formulated in abstract terms but adopted with dauntless courage as a way of life, implied a belief in the inner tribunal of conscience: a tribunal unviolated and indeed inviolable, by any intrusion of external power. There can be no Stoicism without a belief in an inalienable inner sovereignty, and absolute possession of the self by the self. However, the very essence of those modern techniques of degradation, to which I made an earlier allusion, consists precisely in putting the individual into a situation in which he loses touch with himself....Our situation then, is this: we ought not even to say, as the Stoics said, that even at the very worst there remains for us the possibility of suicide, as a happy way out. That is no longer a true statement of the case. A man today can be put into a situation in which he will no longer want to kill himself."
This problem also catches Existentialism in its web. Both philosophies require introspection at a depth beyond what fills our Instagram account. We might be too superficial for either to take hold significantly. Epictetus talks about the Stoic idea of prosochē, which might be best recognized as kind of like 'mindfulness':
"When you relax your attention for a while, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault of today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse condition in future occasions." 
The idea of mindfulness is catching traction but that punitive tone isn't going to win Epictetus any followers today. We need the mindfulness movement to add in a bit about virtuousness to lead people to Stoic ideals. The current focus gets at part of the Stoic philosophy: developing inner calm, but it misses its other half of the philosophy.

PASSIONS and ATTITUDES: practice restraint vs take responsibility

Both philosophies see passions as a problem, but, again, in different ways. Stoics view passions (negative emotions like anger, greed, envy) and any lack of moderation as distractions that need to be restrained to avoid toppling our our pursuit of virtue. Seneca instructs,
"We are endowed by Nature with an interest in our own well-being; but this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice. Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart."
Existentialists see passion as an excuse for bad behaviour. Here's Sartre again,
"The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion."
Again, it's sort of the same thing, but different. Both have the effect of provoking us to rise above our passions, but the Stoic idea imparts the sense that an angry response is something trying to suck us away from my more reasonable faculties. Sartre's view shakes its head at the notion, and suggests it's an indulgence we use when we don't choose to be reasonable. For one, we have to make an effort to keep the forces at bay; for the other, we have to grow up and stop choosing self-destructive behaviours.

As suggested earlier, the Stoics are much more interested in temperance as a virtue than the Existentialists. Seneca had no time for people sodden with wine or chasing after women: "those abandoned to the belly and lust who bear the stain of dishonor."

Epictetus has a ton of rules around our deportment, not just about avoiding passions, but about not talking about movies or generally being boring:
If then you are able, bring over by your conversation the conversation of your associates to that which is proper; but if you should happen to be confined to the company of strangers, be silent. Let not your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor excessive.... Avoid banquets which are given by strangers and by ignorant persons....For you must know, that if your companion be impure, he also who keeps company with him must become impure, though he should happen to be pure. Take the things which relate to the body as far as the bare use, as food, drink, clothing, house, and slaves: but exclude every thing which is for show or luxury. As to pleasure with women, abstain as far as you can before marriage: but if you do indulge in it, do it in the way which is conformable to custom....It is not necessary to go to the theatres often: but if there is ever a proper occasion for going, do not show yourself as being a partisan of any man except yourself, that is, desire only that to be done which is done, and for him only to gain the prize who gains the prize; for in this way you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from shouts and laughter at any (thing or person), or violent emotions. And when you are come away, do not talk much about what has passed on the stage, except about that which may lead to your own improvement. For it is plain, if you do talk much that you admired the spectacle (more than you ought). Do not go to the hearing of certain persons' recitations nor visit them readily. But if you do attend, observe gravity and sedateness, and also avoid making yourself disagreeable....In company take care not to speak much and excessively about your own acts or dangers: for as it is pleasant to you to make mention of your own dangers, it is not so pleasant to others to hear what has happened to you. Take care also not to provoke laughter; for this is a slippery way towards vulgar habits, and is also adapted to diminish the respect of your neighbours. It is a dangerous habit also to approach obscene talk. When then any thing of this kind happens, if there is a good opportunity, rebuke the man who has proceeded to this talk: but if there is not an opportunity, by your silence at least, and blushing and expression of dissatisfaction by your countenance, show plainly that you are displeased at such talk.
This is where we get the sense that Stoics are party poopers. At least he adds, "Do not however be disagreeable to those who indulge in these pleasures, or reprove them; and do not often boast that you do not indulge in them yourself." That's nice. But I still can't help feeling judged just reading the list.

In the video, Pigliucci suggests that Epictetus was a minimalist (and he writes him off a bit for it), but, for Seneca, it's okay to indulge in pleasures so long as the pleasure doesn't control us. We should just never trade pleasure for virtue (MP). This gets to an earlier point here that the philosophies have enough variation within the original doctrines that we have the opportunity to take what works for us. Regardless the "true" limits of Stoic temperance, Nietzsche would have it the other way around entirely - that order is fine, so long as it doesn't get in the way of the passions.

EITHER WAY, STOP COMPLAINING: change your attitude or just kill yourself 

What I love about both is that they have us detaching from our desires in a way that rids the world of whiners.

Sartre writes about overcoming externals in a way that sounds a lot like the Stoic reminder that there's another perspective we can take when we're upset since others aren't upset about the same thing:
"What is an obstacle for me may not be so for another. There is no obstacle in an absolute sense, but the obstacle reveals its coefficient of adversity across freely invented and freely acquired techniques. The obstacle reveals this coefficient also in terms of the value of the end posited by freedom. The rock will not be an obstacle if I wish at any cost to arrive at the top of the mountain. On the other hand, it will discourage me if I have freely fixed limits to my desire of making the projected climb....It is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are....What happens to me happens through me." 
Things are problems for us when we, by free choice, have specific expectations. The thing isn't the real problem, then, it's the expectation that needs to shift. And, luckily, it can be shifted. Bakewell explains that Existentialists ascribe to Husserl's notion of epoché: when something troubles us, think of it in mechanical terms: suspend any associations or judgements of it to see it as it actually is in front of you. Getting rid of any ideas of what it is to get to what it really is - the phenomenon - gives us liberty from social constructs.
"For Sartre, this gives the mind an immense freedom. If we are nothing but what we think about, then no predefined 'inner nature' can hold us back" (46).
As far as I understand it, it would seem that the phenomenology taken up by Existentialists gives it the same flavour as Stoicism by having us acknowledge the separateness between things and our immediate perceptions of things, which enables us to rethink our perception if we choose to have one at all. It's like when Marcus Aureleus refers to sex as just a little friction between people and wine as just moldy grapes. We can begin to see that the things in themselves are not that important to get upset about. If we're too fond of externals, then bring it back to their factual descriptions to remind ourselves how trivial they are.

Epictetus has a bit about sitting in a smoke-filled room:
"Has it smoked in the chamber? If the smoke is moderate, I will stay; if it is excessive, I go out: for you must always remember this and hold it fast, that the door is open."
According to Pigliucci, the open door is a euphemism for suicide. There's always the option of the open door, but if we don't take it, then we shouldn't complain. If we stay, then we must have a reason to stay, and we must take responsibility for staying.

This cartoon always makes me think of Synecdoche, New York.

 agrees: "Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering." The corollary of this is that if we don't choose to die, then we have recognized some purpose behind it all. And Sartre clarifies this to the extreme:
"If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or by desertion; these ultimate possibles are those which must always be present for us when there is a questions of envisaging a situation. For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it.This can be due to inertia, to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in the war (the good opinion of my relatives, the honor of my family, etc.). Any way you look at it, it is a matter of a choice."
The Stoics' focus isn't choice or freedom, but they exercise extreme resilience to whatever's not within their control. Perhaps the focus on self-improvement rather than fixing the world is because the world isn't in our control. World peace is a preferred indifferent. And there's an aversion to preachiness, that would make it hard to be an activist. But Pigliucci cautions, "Stoic precepts such as the dichotomy of control are not counsels for passivity. The fact that you don’t allow an insult to get to you does in no way imply that it is acceptable for others to go around making fun of women, minorities, or what else" (MP blog).

When we're up against what we can't control, we can still try to influence it, but we have to remember to divorce ourselves from the outcome. I take this in when I recycle or survive without a car. I'm not going to save the world, but it's virtuous to try. We're free to try and not succeed. Sartre says the same thing, that we have the freedom of intention, not of successful action.
 "The history of a life, whatever it may be, is the history of a failure. The coefficient of adversity of things is such that years of patience are necessary to obtain the feeblest result....[But] success is not important to freedom."
Despite the insistence that Stoicism is not a philosophy of pacifism, however, Existentialism has a more revolutionary feel to it. The Stoic readings make me want to check my thoughts and behaviours frequently to ensure each action is from the right attitude. They have me verifying that I'm virtuous in my day to day activities without suggesting anyone else do likewise. But the Existentialists make me want to march in the streets.

Sartre and de Beauvoir both take the view that we have a moral obligation to fight injustices, and that we must get others involved in the action. If we can't act on our freedoms, then they're meaningless (SC). De Beauvoir particularly talks about women's oppression, and I wonder if the Stoics would be too resilient for her. If women are in a situation under a powerful master, like the patriarchy, which isn't within our control (particularly in the 1940s), would Stoics suggest we either tolerate it without complaint or leave? Is it similar to Epictetus having his leg broken by a master he couldn't escape? If Stoicism isn't passive, and they warn us against telling others how to behave, then how do they revolt against injustices? It asks us to be fair and just with others, but it doesn't seem to suggest we take others down when they're not doing likewise.

Here's Sartre's take on how to deal with a corrupt society:
"Some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself “Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?” I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing....Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action....the existentialist, when he portrays a coward, shows him as responsible for his cowardice. He is not like that on account of a cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum, he has not become like that through his physiological organism; he is like that because he has made himself into a coward by actions. ...the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether."
Our values are in our actions, not intentions - no excuses. But he also maintains that detachment from outcomes that the Stoics suggest.  Bakewell comments on the politics of Existentialists:
"Sartre proposed that all situations be judged according to how they appeared in the eyes of those most oppressed, or those whose suffering was greatest....One must keep moving, creating what will be: acting in the world and making a difference to it."

But both philosophies are also very forgiving of our imperfect attempts at virtue. The Stoic sage is the ideal, but most of us have a breaking point. The video discusses a holocaust scenario with starving prisoners stealing from one another, and many practicing Stoics would succumb under those circumstances. But that's a far cry from more typical scenarios like road rage or adults who flip out at their kids in the grocery store. We see people who publicly have no capacity for restrain or maybe even feed their passions, enjoying the feeling of rage regardless the audience. The practicing of virtue has results in our daily deportment that would be useful for everyone - useful to them, and useful to us if everyone practiced them. This ideal of maintaining integrity and humanity is losing ground to the ideal of appearing wealthy, popular, and powerful. Taking an extra bit of food under duress is the least of our concerns. Without attempts towards Stoicism, if the smallest irritants are considered intolerable, we won't be nearing world peace anytime soon.

The Existentialists recognize that we'll ever slip into 'bad faith' when we're not authentic in our thoughts and actions, when we try to deceive ourselves. Sartre explains, "If man is what he is, bad faith is forever impossible and candor ceases to be his ideal and becomes instead his being," but we struggle to be our selves (for a long and winding set of reasons not easily quote-mined), so bad faith is inevitable from time to time. We can't settle who we are based on facts about us. We're always free to be different, so it's never too late to start!


At the end of it all, they have very different attitudes towards death. The Stoics are very accepting that death is inevitable. An Atlantic article on Stoicism explains,
"In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless. The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. 'What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?' he wrote in his Discourses. Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something. 'The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,' he says. 'You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful.'"
Keeping death at the forefront helps us to live better and happier lives. Awareness of our mortality can help us appreciate all the good that life has to offer, and help us remember to make use of every moment. As philosophers, we should be prepared for death, and once dead, we'll have nothing to torment us ever again. Seneca writes:
"Reflect that there are no ills to be suffered after death, that the reports that make the Lower World terrible to us are mere tales, that no darkness is in store for the dead, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, that no judgement-seats are there, nor culprits, nor in that freedom so unfettered are there a second time any tyrants. All these things are the fancies of the poets, who have harrowed us with groundless terrors. Death is a release from all suffering, a boundary beyond which our ills cannot pass - it restores us to that peaceful state in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he must also pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for that only which is something is able to be a good or an evil. But that which is itself nothing and reduces all things to nothingness consigns us to neither sphere of fortune for evils and goods must operate upon ,something material. Fortune cannot maintain a hold upon that which Nature has let go, nor can he be wretched who is non-existent."
Memento mori, and all that jazz. 

Alternatively, Sartre says we can't prepare for death, and he doesn't see death as a positive event in any light, but, as Bakewell quotes, "the possibility that there are for me no longer any possibilities." She explains further with respect to Sartre's play No Exit,

"As the play's much-quoted and frequently misunderstood final line has it: 'Hell is other people.' Sartre later explained that he did not mean to say that other people were hellish in general. He meant that after death we become frozen in their view, unable any longer to fend off their interpretation. In life, we can still do something to manage the impression we make; in death, this freedom goes and we are left entombed in other's people's memories and perceptions." 
Death means that we're no longer free to develop ourselves and that the Other, the people who watched us, is free to make a final assessment of us without us there to amend or reject it. In the end, we're not free to define ourselves.

Or, as Jane Siberry (aka Issa) said it, back when I was 17 and full of angst,
The great leveler is coming Mimi
And he's not going to stop to take your pulse
And he's not going to ask you why you're the way you are
And I think that's the worst part
You never get a chance to explain yourself 

It is the worst part!

I'll get to absurdity another day.


Pranith Kumar K said...

Thanks a lot for putting your thoughts in writing. I was trying to choose between stoicism and existentialism as philosophy to practice in life. They do seem to offer different perspectives and ways to tackle situations in life. After reading this piece I feel I should treat philosophies as tools in my toolbox and use all of them if need be. Which is amazing, so many philosophies to study and practice :-).

Marie Snyder said...

Glad it helped, Pranith!

Unknown said...

Marie you've done remarkable work on this piece! It really has got me thinking hard about Stoicism, philosophies and life in general.

I started out just recently learning and attempting to practice Stoicism and finds that it's helped me immensely.

By the end of the hours of trying to digest and understand your article, I've come to one important conclusion : Life is all interpretations. We may have be endowed with the same mind, but the way we use our minds are differs from person to person. Same but not the same. Learning about and from different Stoics(Marcus,Seneca,Epictetus and etc), it's easy to forget that they were only humans. Figuring things out as they go along. They each had their own angles/takes/interpretation/views on Stoicism. I believe this is all in some way influenced by their deportments, past experiences and circumstance. Hence different interpretations. I think the case can be said of other philosophies and religion. So i feel the wise thing to do 'is be like water my friend.' The smart thing to do is take and use what works and those that don't, discard or put aside. Marcus Aurelius said "If someone can show me I'm making a mistake or looking at things the wrong way, I'd gladly change. It's the truth I'm after." So now I've decided that to attempt to gain the best possible truth , I will not confine myself solely to the philosophy of Stoicism but to keep an open mind to other views of life too and to use what make sense to me. I believe with abit of wisdom, we should use it to learn to think for ourselves and not just blindly adhere to interpretations of others even the Stoics. As Seneca said, "Let me put you to the test impression." It'd be smart to challenge beliefs especially our own to try to bring ourselves closer to the truth and put them to the test against other views. Because I believe in the end, we were and are all figuring it out as we go along. We are only doing what we believed was right.

On another note I'd like to test and discuss the idea that Stoicism is more of a passive philosophy. I do agree at first glance that is has a 'peaceful' and passive tone to it. But I got to thinking a little bit more and realised that Stoicism isn't really that passive after all if I draw on my interpretation of it. Healthy passivity maybe, but I don't think the spirit of Stoicism condones unhealthy passivity(cowardice). Simply put, Stoicism at it's core means to Live and act well, to use reason, live with Virtue,take responsibility and focus on what you control. What you cannot control are usually the ultimate outcome of events beyond your control. This calls for resilience, acceptance so that you may have tranquillity knowing you did your best to influence the results of externals(The Stoic Archer). Let's talk about injustice. I believe a true Stoic would not sit idly by when someone is oppressed. Stoicism teaches us to value the cardinal virtues(courage,wisdom,justice and etc) From that core teaching alone, I as a Stoic student wouldn't practice excessive tolerance when women are oppressed. I would 'attempt' to live my Virtue and do what is right and necessary. Because "for evil to prevail , all it takes are for good men to do nothing." Sure Stoicism teaches us how to behave and not others because ultimately the outcome for their compliance is up to them no matter how we try to influence it. But I think to a certain extent. If I don't value wasting my time on teaching people who listen to what i say about Stoicism,for e.g, I would not do it. But if another's actions cause others suffering I will try to influence it to way that benefits my 'neighbours'. The virtue of Justice teaches me to show compassion and care for my neighbours. So in this regard, I do not think that Stoicism is passive. I would love to hear your thoughts about this and put my beliefs and philosophy to the test. Thank you!

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Unknown! I don't think of Stoicism as a passive philosophy because it's a significant effort to work on negative meditations to be prepared for the possible negative things that might happen in each day. Like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we have to do the work to change how we think.

Mike Shapiro said...

Wow. That was a really good contrast/comparison. Thanks.

Simran said...

This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you