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.”
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”.
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.
‘Cause he’s a Vulcan. And, well, you know…..
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.
Quote on Vulcan philosophy: http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Vulcan_philosophy.
Info on Vulcans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcan_ (Star_Trek).
Vulcan philosophy quotes: http://www.stogeek.com/wiki/Philosophy_and_Teachings_of_Surak.
Apatheia quote: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia.
* 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”.