WELL, ZOMBIE FANS it looks like another season of The Walking Dead is drawing to a close. It’ll be a whole half year until the adventures of former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, and his fellow survivors will return like a walker to entertain us with more, gruesome zombie killings and plot holed plotlines that will make a sane man scream like a madman at his TV.
Like many popular television shows, fans of The Walking Dead have created their own fan theories and in-jokes about the show: The Black Highlander Theory*, the mind-numbing stupidity of the show’s female characters… and the one sign that a character is certainly going to die – the moral compass.
There’s been a number of characters on The Walking Dead who have occupied the position of the moral center of the group: Dale, Hershel, T-Dog, Bob, Tyreese, Glenn…
It’s worth noting that all of these characters are dead.
Although it’s a bit of an in-joke among fans of the show, the inevitable death of the moral center does present a bit of an ethical problem in the world of The Walking Dead. If the group’s moral center has a habit of dying, then we can assume that those who remain are the not-so-good people. In the Season 3 episode “Clear”, Rick Grimes’ long-lost friend, Morgan Jones, tells Rick that the good people die first.
In a zombie-infested world where people must fight to survive and those who are prone to performing acts of goodness will be the first to go, we know that bad people population will explode at an exponential rate. But think about it, in a world where the only occupation you have is surviving to see the next day, how not so good is a person, really?
We can re-evaluate anyone’s seeming bad acts as good acts if, as Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us, we see truths from a certain point of view.
A certain relative point of view.
The Walking Dead has had its share of bad guys (Dr. Jenner, The Governor, Claimer Joe, Gareth, Officer Dawn Lerner…) But there’s one bad guy that though he’s been called evil, if we re-evaluate him from “a certain point of view” may be the most moral character in the show’s five seasons: Shane Walsh.
He’s not going to win Miss Congeniality, but what Shane lacks in social graces he makes up for in his single-minded moral consistency. And that’s what’s important when discussing morality, isn’t it?
Unlike Rick, who is often criticized for his inconsistency** Shane is suffers from no moral ambiguity. He is totally morally consistent. Although his actions appear contradictory, Shane has a singular goal: to save Lori and Carl Grimes.
….and to eventually steal them both away from Rick.
The reason why Shane is actually a morally good person is because his motives are actually not all that bad.
Ok. I know. Shane wanted to steal Rick’s wife from him but think about it this way: Shane’s desire to keep Lori Grimes for himself actually saved the group.
We know that Shane is willing to violate moral rules, however, Shane is also willing to do whatever it takes to survive – which makes him, in a way, a very moral person.
Although it seems like the morally incorrect thing to do:
Shane defends a battered woman when her husband smacks her by beating the tarnation out of the guy.
Shane makes the right call when he leads the group to kill the walkers in Hershel’s barn.
He’s ultimately right in his decision to “cut loses” and discontinue the search for Sophia. Shane says that the group is needlessly risking their lives to search for Sophia who is more than likely dead (Shane is right about Sophia and Daryl is nearly mortally injured when he is thrown from a horse and impaled on an arrow).
Shane makes the right call in shooting Otis to save the life of Carl. He reasons that Otis did not belong in the world of the dead (He‘s right).
Shane even makes the right decision when he informs Lori that her husband is dead. Shane knew the Lori would not have left her husband behind if she suspected that there was a chance that he was alive. If Lori had stayed she and Carl would have likely died (In a flashback scene we see Shane attempt to save Rick while Rick is in a coma in the hospital when the facility is overrun by the undead. So contrary to what Lori thought, Shane didn’t abandon Rick. ).
Even Andrea observes that Shane has done more to protect the group than Rick. Andrea says Shane is willing to make the tough (moral) choices that others can’t (or won’t).
Ultimately, even Shane’s bad intentions or “evil” (or self-interest if you think about it) sometimes has good outcomes. Although he’s selfishly focused on his own interests (Lori and Carl), by extension Shane’s selfish acts saves the lies of the group. Optimally, we want people to act on good intentions, but do intentions truly matter when the outcome is good?
John Stuart Mill writes:
the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
So if you think about it Shane is kind of a utilitarian.
Shane’s only rule is protect Lori and Carl at all costs.
… so maybe Shane’s a rule utilitarian.
Rule utilitarianism, as defined by Wikipedia is:
Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that “the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance”
Ok, I know what you’re saying. Shane is a bad guy. He did bad things. He didn’t have to kill Otis or the walkers in Hershel’s barn. And Shane definitely played his bad guy card when he attempted to kill Rick. I admit it. It’s difficult to successfully argue that Shane Walsh is not just a good guy, but a guy whose moral aptitude is worth praising.
Rick Grimes may be the focus of the show, but Shane by far is the more morally interesting character. Shane leaves the viewer asking “would I do that?”. We get angry at Shane because we know that we’re also capable of going to extremes to protect the ones we love.
Sure, Shane does a lot of bad things: he sleeps with his best friend’s wife, points his gun at anyone who disagrees with him, attempts to rape his best friend’s wife after she refuses his advances… but we’re all putting Shane Walsh on our fantasy zombie hunting team because we know Shane is willing to do anything, ANYTHING to protect the people that he loves.
And that seems like a pretty good thing to do.
* If you’re curious about The Walking Dead and the Black Highlander Theory check out:
They say that a philosopher is by definition a lover of wisdom.
Because the philosopher loves wisdom, he realizes that to genuinely know something, that something must be true.
That is, the acquisition of wisdom requires some degree of factual accuracy.
Now, when I was in high school, a friend of a friend of a friend claimed that she believed that honesty is the best policy. That is, she claimed in any situation, no matter the consequences, that the best thing to do is to always tell the truth.
Most people who say they believe in always telling the truth think they’re like this:
But more often than not they’re like this:
I suppose, though, a philosopher would agree that that honesty is the best policy a good idea to live by.
Unfortunately, in the non-philosophical world, those whose personal creed is honesty is the best policy tend to use their insatiable need to be honest in all situations as an excuse to say rude things.
Personally, I haven’t seen anyone guided by a philosophical need to be truthful as much as I’ve seen someone who completely lacks a sense of tact.
Case in point: In a March, 2010 interview with Playboy magazine, well-known douche nozzle musician John Mayer unloaded intimate info about relationships, his preferences in pornography , and masturbation. Mayer confessed that he had tongued Perez Hilton “almost as if I hated fags”, and that, so far as his preference in sexual partners goes, Mayer described his penis as comparable to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke.
That is to say, John Mayer’s penis prefers to have sexual intercourse with white women.
I’m guessing that John Mayer was probably thinking that honesty is the best policy.
It‘s absolutely no surprise that the reaction to Mayer’s comments was less than admiring of his public display of honesty.
And videos like this:
Unfortunately for John Mayer, being honest not only tarnished his reputation (ok, he had a rep for being kind of douchy before that) but Mayer’s comments also offended some of his fan base.
This can be a bad consequence if one’s livelihood necessarily depends on the spending habits of the music-listening public.
Now, as philosophers we can appreciate the pursuit of truth – in the interest of achieving
the greater good. We want to know the situation as it truly is. Because, as whistle-blower Chelsea Manning said when asked why she disclosed classified government information:
without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
However, if severe career damage is just as likely an outcome of oversharing truth-telling as achieving the greater good, is honesty really – practically and philosophically speaking -always the best policy?
How honest do we have to be?
Wait, I realize that I’m doing something here. I’ve used the words “honesty”, “honest”, “true”, and “truth” interchangeably. This may be a problem for some people. Philosophy is all about using precise language. Unfortunately, our colloquialisms tend to do to the language the opposite of precision.
However, I assume that we can all agree that being honest is the same as being truthful.
Ok – let’s say that I make a claim that something is true; or rather, I insist that I am being truthful. I claim that I am currently living in the USA and I am approximately 64 inches tall.
These claims are true, by the way.
I am, in fact, currently in the United States. And I am indeed approximately 64 inches tall.
Both of these claims are demonstrably true.
But if I go further and claim that I am an honest person it’s obvious that I am making some ethical claim about myself.
Of course if we’re making ethical claims, answering the question “how honest do we have to be?” is all about moral obligation. Are we morally obligated to be honest and to whom do we owe our moral obligation? The answer depends on who you ask.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) says that our moral obligation is a matter of duty – that is, it is our duty to do good (acts) no matter the consequences to others or ourselves. That means if your wife asks you if the dress she’s wearing makes her look fat, it is your moral duty, according to Kant, to inform your wife not only does she look fat in the dress, but also that no matter what she wears she looks fat.*
Because it’s not the dress.
Following Kant’s ethics may ruin your relationship with your wife
… but at least you were honest.
It wouldn’t take much time before you realize that being a Kantian will seriously impair your ability to throw shade
Ok, let’s put Kant aside for a moment.
According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics practicing virtues such as being honest (telling the truth) makes us a good person.
And so the truthful man as observing the mean, is praiseworthy, while the untruthful characters are both blamable, but the boastful more than the ironical
Since society can function only if its citizens are virtuous, Aristotle says, it is necessary for everyone to tell the truth.
Still, if you’re a utilitarian or an egoist it’s perfectly alright to lie to people. An occasional flirtation with dishonesty may do you or everyone else some good. Telling your wife that her dress doesn’t make her ass look fat might not win you points with Kant, but it might keep your marriage happy.
So… is honesty the best policy?
I guess the answer is still “it depends on who you ask”. But then, if the answer is “it depends” that gets us right back to where we started; no closer to figuring out if it is our moral obligation to always tell the truth to everybody at all times.
I suppose, though, we can all agree that if your honesty has anything to do with declaring that your penis would join David Duke at a cross burning, your honesty may not be the best policy.
In fact, it may be time to shut the hell up.
* One particular reason why Kant argues that we shouldn’t lie has to do with something Kant calls the Contradiction of the Will. According to Kant, before we perform any act we should first ask if we would want that act the be universalized – would we want others to do as we do? So if one is about to tell a lie, one should ask, “would it be morally correct if everyone told lies?”. Kant says that our answer should be no, we don’t want everyone to lie. If we hold that honesty is the morally right thing to do and everyone lies, lying undermines the point of not lying.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2004 . Trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 91
Michael Scherer. “The Geeks Who Leak”. Time. Vol. 181. No. 24. June 24, 2013. p. 24
Music is the answer to the mystery of life.
– Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
Lately, I’ve gotten into this thing of watching documentaries.
I’m not saying this to sound smart or anything. I’m certainly not bragging about it.
Truth be told, I’m not too keen on indie cinema or documentaries. Any documentary I’ve ever watched I saw on cable television.
So I’m really not as much of a fan of documentaries as I am a fan of cable TV.
Thank goodness for Time Warner Cable.
I hate to have to admit that.
I know that when a person says that they like documentaries, the immediate mental picture that comes to mind is of some pompous ass who only drinks fair-trade coffee, can determine the quality of wine from its smell, and tells people that they watch documentaries only so they can pontificate about how the only important cinema is based on true life.
I assure you I am not one of those people.
Well, I don’t watch the documentaries that air on the Sundance Channel. I watch the ones that air on HBO. The ones that come on late at night.
The ones that have Taxicab Confessions or Real Sex in the title.
I especially enjoy the documentaries they play on VH-1.
Because I find VH-1’s Behind the Music on Lynyrd Skynyrd more compelling than March of the Penguins.
That one VH-1 aired about Soul Train changed my life.
How can you not watch this and be changed for life?
Did I just admit that?
Being a sucker for anything on VH-1 with the word “documentary” in the description, I decided to watch The Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City.
In the documentary, musicians like Grohl, Lee Ving, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Mick Fleetwood, and Trent Reznor talk about their passion for music.
There’s no denying that music plays a fairly important part in most of our lives, not just the lives of musicians. Many of us have arm chaired judged contestants on American Idol.
And even more of us are guilty of singing more-than-slightly-off-key renditions of popular songs in the shower.
Although most of what philosophers write about music concerns itself with the ontology of music*, drawing the distinctions between art and music, the classification of high and low forms of music, and the role that music plays in the philosophical development of the individual, even philosophers appreciate a tune or two.
Nietzsche famously said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Philosophers, like the professional musicians in Dave Grohl’s documentary, also appreciate music as art.
And philosophy, like music, can be an art.
This looks like a fine place to drop a “That Look On Your Face When” meme.
I know this all seems rather unbelievable.
Not because there are no artists anymore.
But because no one is into philosophy.
You see, even though the media doesn’t make much ado about modern-day painters, poets, or sculptors, being an artist is a fairly legit occupation. Even if they don’t talk about you on TMZ, a person can still find a successful career writing poems, painting or sculpting. We still read the works of Shakespeare, marvel at the paintings of Rembrandt and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Students still study Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
It’s a safe bet that if you walked around the streets of any major city you would find at least one person who can name a modern-day painter or poet.
Unfortunately, the same probably can’t be said about philosophy.
Sure, a few folks know about Aristotle and Socrates but how many people can name a philosopher who was born after the Titanic sank?
I know you philosophy majors can. You don’t count.
I blame TV and the movies.
When the television and the motion picture camera were invented philosophy went the way of the dodo.
What I mean, is that there are still writers and other artists. There are still romantic figures in the arts – modern-day Lord Byrons and Voltaires carry on the days of the troubadours. But they’re mostly in the arts that are meant to entertain. Our romantic artists are all actors or musicians. No one is ever celebrated for the art of creating a beautiful philosophical theory.
You can say your brain is an instrument, but who are we trying to kid?
Nobody ever sold out Madison Square Garden playing their brain.
And since I never learned how to play an instrument I’ve had plenty of time to think about these things….
I suppose that’s one benefit of never having learned how to play a musical instrument.
The problem isn’t just that philosophers aren’t very popular these days, thinking about things in general has gotten a bad rap.
There is something wrong with our ideology.
There’s something wrong with the basic principles upon which our culture is based.
You see, a growing number of Americans aren’t into reading anything. According to a Pew Center poll nearly a quarter of Americans did not read a single book in 2014.
It seems that the space where we communicate is getting smaller and smaller. So small in fact that we aren’t really required to read at all. Twitter limits us to 140 characters. Websites like Snapchat are purely visual.
There is no need to write anything.
And it’s not just that there are no words, but that the image we post disappears in a matter of minutes.
Think about it – what we communicate literally disappears.
Even the visual image doesn’t last for very long.
I don’t know if it’s because we want to save trees or because the Illuminati has dumbed down the herd so they can imprison us in re-educationdeath FEMA camps, but I contend that when people don’t read – when people stop studying the written word, there’s a problem.
Sure, you can learn from visuals. We’re all been able to put together a bookshelf by just looking at the diagram. But when a significant number of people (and growing) stop reading and society increasingly communicates via the visual image and the visual is temporary, how can we expect to sustain a culture that wants to read, analyze, and develop the kind of passion for the written word that some have for music?
You see, to truly develop the intellect, you need to read; to meditate on what you‘ve just read. If we don’t appreciate the written word, we lose the capacity to communicate complex ideas (like philosophy, for instance). Like the great works of literature, complex ideas can’t be communicated in just 140 characters. Complex ideas can’t be limited to just visuals. Much less one that self destructs in 90 seconds.
Look, I’m not calling for everyone to throw out their guitars and ditch their Twitter accounts because we should all study philosophy. Yeah, I write and blog about philosophy. But it’s not even deep philosophy. I write about how philosophical concepts relate to the things we see on TV, in movie theaters, read in books, hear in songs and see in our popular culture in general.
I know what I do is not as marketable as a fashion blog or a mommy blog. Or blogging recipes or posting pictures of my cat. I know anything I will ever post on the internet will never have as many views as Tyler Oakley. A philosopher will never be asked to host a late night talk show.
That’s because philosophers are lousy at stand-up.**
But dammit, this what I write. This is my passion. I think that reading and thinking about philosophy should be everyone else’s passion, too.
At least somewhat as much as some people love music.
Now that I think about it, Rush is pretty much that band, isn’t it?
So the question is, how do you get people to want to think about stuff like philosophy? How do you convince people that a career in philosophy can be just as rewarding as a career in the music industry?
Listen: some people worked long and hard to figure out how to get people to stop thinking. There must be some way to do the inverse. Plunking down books in front of people and making them read doesn’t work anymore. There’s nothing to be gained by being all smart and philosophical about everything.
Keep in mind when I say “nothing to be gained” I mean doing philosophy doesn’t make you a lot of money.
The average philosophy professor earns about $65,000/year.
Unless you work for California State University system (you’ll only make a measly $48,000/year).
Dave Grohl is worth $260 million.
What’s worse is that we’ve been trained to think that only ugly and/or un-famous people think.
People who are decidedly un-rock star.
Seriously. Think about it for a minute. Studying and thinking about serious stuff is for ugly people. This is why, no matter what contributions this man has made to modern thought –
We wouldn’t buy him for one second doing something like this:
That’s why folks like Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow are on MSNBC and not on Fashion Police.
Why you’ll never see Kate Upton at an APA convention.
Not to say that Rachel Maddow is unattractive. I don’t think she is.
And not to say that Kate Upton would never give a keynote speech to the American Philosophical Association.
But you get my point.
There has to be a way to convince people that thinking, dare we even say philosophizing about things is not only not just for the unattractive, but for everyone. That all of our lives will be a little better if we start critically thinking about things.
That being a philosopher is as sexy as being a musician.
Here’s something I think Dave Grohl and Socrates would agree on: There’s something about music that can make us think, that can motivate us in ways that other forms of art cannot. That’s why Kant made a distinction between high and low forms of music.
It’s why Socrates tells us that we must be careful of what kind of music we listen to.
Of course, there is a dark side to encouraging all this philosophical thinking; to making philosophy sexier.
Our problem is this: If we want to encourage thinking about philosophy the same way we think about our favorite rock musician, philosophical thinking inevitably will be sexualized, thus counteracting the point of encouraging people to value our capacity to reason over mere physical attributes.
Not to mention the incredible difficulty of convincing the intellectual elite that gaining sway over public perception and opinion means they’ll have to ditch their academic ivory towers for the low and gritty world of common public discourse.
The thing is, philosophy really is like music.
It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it
But seriously, tho.
Contemplating life’s “big questions” touches us deep in our souls in the same way we are moved by a good song by our favorite band. Philosophers and rock stars are equally known for coming off as arrogant.
One can easily imagine Hegel, who said philosophy “must not lower itself to the people” jumping into the crowd to quell one of the rowdy rabble like this:
I suppose people will eventually get to a point when they’ll collectively rise up and after so many years of intellectual abuse, change the way we think about things.
And that, my friends, is the one benefit of never having learned how to play a musical instrument.
It’s knowing that one day doing this
Will get you just as famous as doing this
….. and your name won’t have to be Slavoj Zizek, either.
Alas, it remains a great deal more difficult to covey the passion or sex appeal of thinking critically.
A working knowledge of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is still a lot less sexy than playing a guitar and bedding groupies.
You know something, if a lifetime spent as a pop culture connoisseur has taught me anything, I have learned this one thing: it’s amazing what one sees watching late night television.
A few years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle’s comedy show, the Chappelle’s Show, aired a segment called “Ask a Black Dude”. The general idea of the sketch was that average people would ask a black dude (comedian Paul Mooney) questions about black people. One person asked the black dude why black people like to smoke marijuana so much. Another guy asked can black guys jump high? Really, there wasn’t anything worth noting about the questions asked to the black dude, until one question, posed by horror writer Stephen King, was not only quite startling, but also opened the door for a moment of philosophical contemplation. The question Stephen King asked the black dude was this: do black people prefer to be buried by black undertakers and prefer to go to black dentists?
I’m not making this up. Watch Chappelle’s Show, season 1, episode 7.
Now, I’m not a person who is easily startled, but Stephen King’s question was without doubt the most WTF-inducing query ever asked on basic cable television. Although one could spend hours probing the possible philosophical subtext of Stephen King’s easily-construed-as-quasi-racist question, however, Stephen King’s question wasn’t as philosophically interesting as Paul Mooney’s response. Paul Mooney’s answer was this: “What’s the difference when you’re dead? They don’t care who buries you… if they can fix the teeth, cool. If they can’t, that’s cool, too.”
Whoa, did you get that?
If you didn’t, put on your philosopher’s thinking caps and read it again.
If someone asked me to describe Paul Mooney’s response to Stephen King’s question on only one word the word I would say is “indifference”. That is, Paul Mooney appears to be indifferent to the race of his dentist so long as his dentist is skilled enough to fix one’s teeth. For those of you who are familiar with philosopher’s jargon, the word “indifference” should be setting off fireworks in your heads right now. And as I watched the Chappelle’s Show sketch, I thought there’s one type of philosopher for whom indifference is a way of life.
So naturally, my immediate question was Is Paul Mooney a stoic philosopher?
The answer to my question is “possibly”.
Generally when we think of stoics, the first image that often comes to mind is the popular iconic image of the stoic as the strong, silent type; the unflappable hero with the Easter Island statue façade. We’re all familiar with this type of guy: he (and it almost always is a he) is a movie gunslinger like John Wayne, Gary Cooper in High Noon, or Clint Eastwood’s famous “man with no name”.
In literature, the stoic is embodied by characters like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Shakespeare’s Brutus in Julius Caesar, or hard-boiled detectives like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.
On stage, you’ll find stoical characters like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And if you’ve watched enough TV, you’re more than well acquainted with Star Trek’s resident stoic, the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Vulcan First Officer, Mr. Spock, played by the late Leonard Nimoy.
Although it is quite possible to learn the basics of stoicism from watching an all-day marathon of Star Trek, but as I was reminded by a Facebook friend, one should never watch Star Trek as a substitute for reading the real thing.
Thank you, Jean-Louis.
How about a little about what stoicism really is:
Ask a philosopher, and he’ll tell you that stoicism originated in ancient Greece about 300 B.C.E. courtesy of the philosopher Zeno of Citium (Fun Fact: Stoicism derives its name from the Greek word stoa meaning “porch” where Zeno taught in ancient Greece).
Zeno’s question, like all other philosophers, was how do we live a good life? The stoics believed that there is an order to the universe and that our lives are better when we act in harmony with nature. Zeno wrote,
All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.
Here’s the thing: the stoics not only believed that our lives are better when we act according to Nature, but that our lives are, in actuality, controlled by an indifferent universe.
What this means is that we can’t control what happens to us. The stoic says that the unpleasant reality about life is that sometimes good things happen to us (and that’s great), but sometimes bad things happen and that is, as the say, the way the cookie crumbles. In the end, we have as much control over what happens to us as we would if we were to stand on a shoreline and attempt to control the waves in the sea.
Did you know stoicism has its own emblem?
The stoics believed we can’t control what happens to us in the physical world, but we can control what happens internally – how we think and react towards what happens to us. The stoics believed that stoicism helps us to deal with the things we can’t control.
In a nutshell, stoicism is what we might call a philosophical coping mechanism.**
Stoics claim that the greatest impediment to living a good life is that we tend to get all wrapped up in all sorts of emotions that make us angry and very unhappy. Epictetus said,
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things
which are beyond the power of our will.
According to the stoic, we have more important obligations and duties to attend to than fret over things that we cannot control or ultimately do not matter. Instead of living a life of emotional turmoil, troubling ourselves with our inability to cope with life’s situations, we’re to be indifferent and unbiased; to learn to cope with whatever comes. Once we learn to rid ourselves of our inappropriate emotional responses we can be happy. The Roman emperor and stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), wrote in Meditations,
When thou has been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to thyself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for thou wilt have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.
If you want a contemporary example of a mastery of stoicism, one need only to watch Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden does not care if Jack’s apartment is blown up, or if he hurts the feelings of Jack’s would-be girlfriend, Marla Singer, or if civilization is destroyed for the sake of Project Mayhem. The reason why Tyler Durden acts the way that he does is because these things, in the grand scale of things, do not matter. Jack describes Tyler Durden as someone who “lets those things that do not matter truly slide.”
Oops. Sorry Sir.
The stoics believed practicing stoicism leads to a virtuous character. According to the stoics, the man who has developed a virtuous character and mastered the ability to control his emotions and be free of his passions is a stoic sage.
…p.s. If you’re thinking that the main goal of stoicism sounds a lot like Aristotle’s idea of eudemonia, you’ve earned ten extra points. Good job!
Remember how I mentioned watching Star Trek awhile back?
Although there are many famous fictional stoics to choose from (ok, there are a few) , undoubtedly the first name that comes to mind is Mr. Spock. It goes without saying that Mr. Spock is popular culture’s most famous fictional stoic.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the origins of Mr. Spock’s emotionless demeanor, here’s a quick lesson in the origin of Vulcan stoicism:
Long before the Vulcans adopted the tradition of ritualistically purging their emotions ( a process called “Kolinahr”), Vulcans were once emotional as humans (and their cousins the Romulans), however, unlike humans, who can occasionally exert control over emotions, ancient Vulcans were ruled by their emotions. Vulcans were quick to anger, paranoid, and violent. The Vulcan race was on the brink of self-destruction until the great Vulcan philosopher Surak observed that Vulcans were sure to destroy themselves if they maintained an emotion-dominated existence.
Surak’s philosophy urged Vulcans to purge themselves of their emotions and devote their lives to logic. Like the stoics of ancient Greece, Surak convinced the inhabitants of the planet Vulcan that life is best lived when one’s actions are ruled by reason or logic.
Vulcan stoicism adheres to the philosophy that once a Vulcan has purged his or her emotions and lives according to logic, a Vulcan possesses clear judgment and behaves correctly. The Vulcan statement on Logic is: “Logic is the cement of our civilization with which we ascend from chaos, using reason as our guide.” Vulcans believe,
The highest objective of a traditional Vulcan life is to either control or suppress all emotion, thus rendering a purely logical being.
It sounds like Surak’s Vulcan stoicism has hit the stoic philosophy of Zeno on the head.
Vulcans accurately capture Zeno’s sentiment that using one’s reason is preferable to relying on one’s emotions, and that uncontrolled emotions can be very destructive not only to individuals, but to society as well. It’s not surprising, then, that for many fans of pop culture, the answer to the question Where would I find a stoic character on TV? , the answer is “Go watch Mr. Spock”.
Ok, now we have our example of a stoic, let’s all take a break, grab some popcorn, and watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek, shall we?
Hold on a moment; let’s not jump the gun too fast, there. We shouldn’t declare the Vulcans stoics just yet. A stoic and a Vulcan might agree that emotions are our problem but Surak and Zeno would disagree on one major philosophical point: namely, the stoics did not argue that the emotions needed to be extinguished, as Surak’s Vulcan philosophy dictates, but that we should accept what happens to us without letting our emotions control us and interfere with our ability to reason.
For the stoic, the solution to the matter is not the denial of emotions but indifference to circumstances we cannot control. The fact that a Vulcan lacks emotions does not make Mr. Spock a stoic.
Although being emotionless makes a Vulcan a bit of a weirdo.
FUN FACT: Another famous sci-fi stoic is the Star Wars saga’s Jedi Master Yoda. Yoda is a prime example of a stoic sage: Yoda has emotions but is not ruled by them. He possesses wisdom and virtue. Yoda also warns young Anakin Skywalker (In Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace) to keep control over his emotions. Yoda’s oft quoted admonition to young Skywalker is a prime example of Yoda‘s stoic philosophy, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.”
We’ve already established that the stoic says that the purpose of his philosophy is to help him to deal with the things that he can’t control and that life is better when we live in harmony with the universe. Furthermore, the stoic tells us if we let our emotions control what we do we are disturbing that balance and cannot be at peace. But if the Vulcans are getting stoicism all wrong, just how is a stoic supposed act?
We shouldn’t think that the fact that the stoic lives according to the will of the cosmos necessarily means that a stoic does nothing when something bad happens. It’s just when something bad does happen, a stoic does not allow his emotions dictate his actions. A stoic acts when he can act. Yielding our fates to the will of the heavens does not negate our responsibility to act when the situation requires our involvement. Ultimately, the goal for a stoic is peace, happiness, and acting in harmony with nature. That means if getting involved is required, that’s ok. But if our action is not required, that’s ok, too.
Although Spock may not be a “real” stoic, it still sounds like stoicism ain’t so bad, right?
But, before you start your Kolinahr training, there are just a couple of small caveats to mention…
Although one can claim that stoicism sets us onto the path of life-long, philosophical happiness via the path of indifference, it’s almost guaranteed that if one goes around telling everybody not to worry about things and to just accept whatever happens, one is bound to be accused, not only of preaching a kind of out-of-touch version of Pollyanna-ism, but of preaching that the best kind of happiness is a state of apathy.
This accusation isn’t too far-fetched. Stoicism does seem to suggest that a stoic is at peace because he simply could not care less about what happens to either himself or to anyone else.
Famous stoics, even TV stoics like Mr. Spock, don’t do much to debunk the belief that stoics are cold, callous, and unsympathetic. Given the fact that stoics believe that our lives are controlled by the cosmic forces of fate, it’s easy to criticize the stoic’s “whatever happens, happens” attitude for coming off as emotionally apathetic and more than somewhat fatalistic.
And fans of fatalism are absolutely no fun to be around.
We may be inclined to give a stoically-inclined friend a pass on his stoic attitude if he’s a fan of The Big Lebowski, and committed to simply “abide” like The Dude, but the fact that one sees more than a hint of fatalism in stoic philosophy suggests that there may be a big something wrong with stoicism – it’s almost impossible to be an actual stoic.
Friedrich Nietzsche called stoicism a “fraud of words!”.
A word about apathy: You don’t have to be a fan or a friend of a fan of The Big Lebowski to come to the conclusion that practitioners of stoic lifestyle can come off as a little apathetic. Dr. “Bones” Mc Coy isn’t the only person who has ever accused a stoic of being an unfeeling hobgoblin. Certainly Jeff Lebowski and Mr. Spock do come off as if they really don’t care (Spock’s feelings towards his crewmates and Lebowski’s about his life in general). But before we officially tag all stoics as apathetic, it would do us some good to understand what apathy is — you see, apathy has both a philosophical and colloquial meaning. Our modern usage of the word “apathy” means an individual who is disengaged from the world and does not care about anything. To be apathetic is to be inactive, unresponsive, a philosophical nihilist. Stoic apathy (apatheia) which was practiced by the ancient stoics is defined as freedom from the passions. Apatheia is tranquility, peace of mind; eudemonia. A man who practices apatheia is indifferent to life’s circumstances, not apathetic. The difference between a stoic and man who is apathetic is a stoic changes what he can change and accepts what he cannot; a man who is apathetic doesn’t do a thing about anything.
Think about it; a stoic has to maintain his indifference-based stoicism in the face of a very emotional world.
Even Mr. Spock got emotional from time to time.
When the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca was implicated in a plot to kill the Emperor Nero, Seneca was ordered to execute himself by slitting his own wrists. Facing a death sentence is hard enough, but having to perform one’s own execution might prove difficult. Most people, if ordered to commit suicide, would feel emotionally compelled to disobey the Emperor’s command. A stoic like Seneca, on the other hand, has to ignore the innate desire for self preservation, since, according to stoic philosophy, whether one lives or dies is unimportant.
You know what happened? Seneca actually slit his own wrists.
Honestly, you’ve got to be one hardcore mofo to maintain that kind of lifestyle.
Because it doesn’t matter to a stoic whether he lives or dies or for what reason he lives or dies, one can imagine Seneca telling his Roman accusers, “If I have to kill myself, that’s fine. If I live a long life and die later, cool. Either way works for me.” I suspect that since Seneca knew that there was nothing he could do to save himself, he must have told himself why not just go with the flow; as Bobby Mc Ferrin sang, “don‘t worry, be happy”. After all, we can’t prevent ourselves from dying. If our fate is decided by nature and a part of nature is to die, to go against nature will only make us unhappy. A stoic would tell us that if we must to choose between a death that we cannot prevent and a lifetime of unhappiness, the logical choice is to choose to be not-unhappy.
It’s worth noting that Seneca was likely not involved with the plot to kill Emperor Nero.
I suppose, now that I’ve thought about what Paul Mooney said about dentists and undertakers, is that Paul Mooney’s ambivalence towards the race of his dentist was in fact a stoic response to Stephen King’s (somewhat bizarre) question. Paul Mooney is right, at least stoically so, to say that it makes no difference what the race our dentist or undertaker is. Whatever factors determine a person’s qualifications to bury people or to fix teeth is beyond our control. A stoic would tell us that we shouldn’t get hung up over whether our dentist or undertaker is black, white, or Andorian. But rather we should focus on our own ability to discern a good dentist or undertaker from a bad one – since that is something we can control.
When Paul Mooney said, “If they [a dentist] can fix teeth cool, if they can’t that’s cool, too”, he wasn’t just talking about his indifference to a potential dentist’s skin color, but really, what Paul Mooney was laying down is a philosophy of life. That’s precisely what the stoics were up to when they sat around on the stoa and figured out that life is better when we devote our lives to reason and let what does not matter slide.
One need not be a Vulcan to figure that one out.
If you were going to ask a black dude it would have to be a black dude like this:
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. 2003 [Originally published 1909]. Trans. George Long, M.A. NY: Barnes and Noble Publishing, Inc. p. 44.
William O. Stephens. “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor, and the Force”. Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine. 2005. Eds. Kevin S. Decker & Jason T. Eberl. Chicago: Open Court Press. p. 20-1.
* In real life, former POW and 1992 Reform Party VP nominee, Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2005), used the stoic philosophy of Epictetus during his imprisonment and torture in Vietnam.
**A bit about stoic virtue: The stoics believed that happiness should be based on reason, not pleasure. A wise man does not devote his life to the pursuit of physical pleasure, but should prefer a life devoted to virtue and reason (like Aristotle, the stoics believed that virtue is important) because we are guaranteed happiness when we rely on our own virtue. And when we act virtuously, we always do the right thing. Zeno wrote, “It is in virtue that happiness consists, for virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.” This is why the stoics thought they’d found the key to Happiness and a good life. No matter what happens around us, nothing that happens in the physical world can make us unhappy. So, the stoics say when an individual is virtuous, uses his reason, and is in harmony with nature, that individual is at peace. In other words, it’s all good.
*** You may have noticed that I have used the term “indifference” several times without defining what indifference means. The common definition of indifference is “a lack of interest or concern; unimportance”.