Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Stoicism and Mourning

Leon Wieseltier has written an interesting essay in which he mourns two recently dead friends. He begins with an excursus on the Stoics, and their contradictory attitude toward feeling and loss:

How close to the world can one be? How far from the world should one be? Those questions represent two mentalities, two doctrines — the aspiration to nearness, the suspicion of nearness; engagement as a form of strength, engagement as a form of weakness; the hunger for reality, the horror of reality; the nobility of belonging, the nobility of alienation. We begin with the world and we end with it, and we spend our mortal interval ascertaining what to do about the relation, and how to get it right. There are some who draw close because they seek pleasure, or because they seek pain; there are some who fear pain, or fear pleasure, and pull away. Charity, and moral action, demands proximity, but proximity also narrows and deceives and corrupts — and immoral action requires it, too. Beauty enchants, and absorbs, and overwhelms, but it is not obvious that the dissolution of the self is its highest fulfillment, or that sublimity is our best level. And love — does anything imperil the heart more? . . .

One of the greatest satisfactions in the history of philosophy is the inconsistency, even the hypocrisy, of the Stoics. For as long as I have studied them, I have quarreled with them. The Stoics were meticulous students of human breakability and raised it into a subject for philosophy. Nobody in the West ever pondered more rigorously the actualities of pain. The integrity of their ideal — tranquility of mind achieved by the stilling of strong feelings — is incontrovertible. Who lives too serenely? And incontrovertible, too, is their portrait of the assault of the world upon the soul, and of the soul’s consequent dispersal by stimulations and attachments. Experience is the enemy of composure; poise must be wrested from circumstance; we are taught by being troubled. When I encounter equanimity, then, I feel envy. And yet I have always believed that the price of Stoic equanimity may be too high. The virtue that it recommends is achieved by an ordeal of paring down and stripping away and pulling back that looks to me like a process of dehumanization. . . .

Stilpo was a philosopher in Megara in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C.E. and the teacher of Zeno, the Cypriot thinker who founded Stoicism. Seneca relates that “Stilpo’s homeland fell to invaders; his children were lost, his wife was lost, and he alone survived the destruction of his people. Yet he emerged happy; and when Demetrius, who was called Poliorcetes, or City-Sacker, asked him whether he lost anything, he replied: ‘All my goods are with me.’” Seneca extols him for thinking that “nothing is good which can be taken away.” He “conquered even his enemy’s conquest. ‘I have lost nothing’, he said. How amazing is this man, who escaped fire, sword, and devastation, not only without injury but even without loss!” Nothing is good that can be taken away: was this man a saint of indifference or a monster of indifference? 

Consider Pyrrho, the founder of Skepticism:

In the company of his teacher Anaxarchus, he travelled to India with Alexander the Great, where no doubt he encountered Eastern varieties of philosophical quietism. It is said that Anaxarchus once fell into a ditch and Pyrrho walked right past him, without any offer of assistance, as evidence of his immunity to attachment. . . .

The problem with Pyrrho’s extraordinary consistency is not only that it was fanatical, and like all fanaticism intellectually facile. It was also a little fraudulent: Diogenes further reports that “he was kept safe, as Antigonus of Carystus says, by the friends who accompanied him.” A detachment of attached people to protect his detachment. How could they stand him? Places, everybody! Pyrrho needs to be alone! A reputation for holiness is the best protection. The conclusion that must be drawn from Pyrrho’s amusing arrangement is that the values of apatheia, or freedom from strong feeling, and of ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind, the magnificent ideals of the ancient proponents of withdrawal and placidity, are not magnificent after all; or if they are magnificent, they are not practicable; or if they are practicable, they are premised on the worldly involvements of others, on a surrounding population of perturbables. The sight of equanimity should inspire not only envy, then, but also doubt.

Wieseltier goes on the explore how the Stoics struggled with this problem, vacillating between their pursuit of equanimity and their desire to live "naturally"; for are not feelings natural? Having started with the view that we should have no attachments, many ended up saying that some attachments were not so bad. In particular, many were great praisers of friendship. A true friend, they thought, was one of the few really worthwhile things in life. The loss of a friend, Seneca wrote, was like an amputation. And yet even the loss of a friend, they thought, should only be mourned in moderation, with no outward show of grief. Does not a man who has lost an arm go on? It was necessary to find a balance between caring about things that matter and surrendering our dignity and our self control in the face of what life will inevitably throw at us.

This is where I always end up. Many things don't ultimately matter very much, and for me at least it is a distraction to fret over them. But some things do matter, and those we should place at the center of our lives. Friendship is one of them.

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