Modern stoicism and the appeal of fantasies of inner mastery Barry Magid May 31st 2014

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As many of you have seen, Ordinary Mind Zendo now has a presence on Facebook, and as one of the curious by-products of getting involved in that, I’ve found my way into a number of discussion groups, of which there seem to be an endless number on a variety of topics. I’m not sure how I’ve gotten as involved as I have, but there are courses, a Zen discussion group, also one on analytic philosophy, another slightly more informal philosophy group called the Partially Examined Life, one group of psychoanalysts, and one on modern Stoicism, which is a curious thing. I got involved because I wanted to try to get some feel for what it would mean to be a present day Stoic and find out what these people think they’re up to.

Some of you may have taken a look at a book downstairs I translated years back, The Life of Zeno, the biography of Diogenes Laertius, Zeno being one of the early founders of Stoicism rather than a formulator of the paradoxes that people usually think of when they hear the name Zeno. In any case, Stoicism had a couple of main features that make it both very appealing and also very problematic for us to believe in a modern, contemporary way.

Stoicism arose at the end of the period when the Greeks enjoyed any kind of freedom. They were first absorbed into the Empire of Alexander and then into the Roman Empire, and Stoicism, in a way, was one of the responses of an individual attempting to live in a world that was increasingly unfree, unpredictable, just plain dangerous. The Stoics developed the doctrine that basically said, we should not seek our happiness through the control of any external reality, any external forms of comfort or satisfaction, because these were always going to be subject to what other people or chance could do to us, and that the goal of philosophy was somehow to find and establish true freedom. For the Stoics, that freedom could only be inner freedom, that the world was demarcated into inner and outer, and that the wise man realized that he could not have any control over the outer but instead needed to be master over the inner.

In general, philosophers in those periods were people who trained themselves in asceticism and self-control, and it was one sign of philosophers that the Stoic was the one who wore the thinnest cloak in the dead of winter, someone who did not try to protect himself from the elements, did not seek out the comforts and safety that ordinary people did, but allowed himself to be toughened and impervious to the outer.

There’s a very good new biography of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, by James Romm called Dying Every Day, which depicts what it was like in the Roman Empire to try to maintain some sense of inner integrity while being part of the imperial court. Seneca allowed himself to become the tutor of Nero, perhaps fancying himself to be in the role that Aristotle had for Alexander the Great. You can imagine this did not end happily. But it was in a certain way emblematic of the Stoic philosopher’s dilemma: How do you live in a dangerous, capricious world?

I think what’s relevant to us in terms of practice, in a contemporary way, and what I was trying to address in this online forum, seeing what these so-called contemporary Stoics believed in, was: How do we continue to maintain the notion that the inner as opposed to the outer is an area in which we have freedom and control, in an era that is basically post-Freudian? We no longer have the idea that the inner is simply the arena of reason, but it’s also the arena of unconscious process, and our contemporary point of view, regardless of what orientation you have philosophically or analytically, is that we generally have a very different sense of the mind not being defined by simply being rational, but by being subject to multiple forces, whether we think of them as unconscious motivations or biological drives or hormonal vicissitudes, but whatever causes it, whatever is going on in our inner life, is hardly an area where we would now think we have absolute control. Most people, in some way, come to practice because their experience of their inner life is at least as out of control as their outer life. So the question is, what is the function of practice? Is practice going to be a matter of gaining greater and greater mastery or control over our inner experience in a way that parallels what we would try to do for our outer experience?

The contemporary Stoics, as far as I can tell, are trying to do something that employs techniques of a mindfulness-like nature, as training in inner self-control. When we practice, a part of what we have to come to terms with, is to what extent are we operating under a metaphor or a curative fantasy of inner mastery? What kind of control do we think we are going to achieve? And how much do we endlessly measure how we’re doing in terms of what kind of control over our own mind are we able to have? How much do we get preoccupied with clarity or equanimity, or any kind of state whatsoever, that we think we’re here to maximize and to hold onto as long or tightly as possible, and call that practice?

The other dimension that I think is problematic in the original philosophy of Stoicism was their sharp demarcation between inner and outer, where the inner world was private and theirs alone. That idea itself seems increasingly untenable. We’re inclined now philosophically, psychologically, and in terms of Buddhist practices as well, to see that there is no clear line between inner and outer, that the inner is constantly shaped by the outer, that there is no boundary between self and world. These interpenetrate and mutually define one another. And that’s a strain in modern philosophical thought that you find in Hegel and Wittgenstein and psychoanalysis and inter-subjectivity as well as Buddhism, that everything about our inner experience only arises in some kind of relational context. Psychoanalyst D. W. Winnecott famously said there’s no such thing as a baby. There’s no separate possibility of babies without mothers, a separate private individual that in any way comes into being or is defined in any other than relationally.

So there are these two basic notions, and there’s a third I should mention: For the Stoics, the mind was predominantly defined by reason and a capacity to make inner choices, and the inner reason of the mind was in some sense identical with, or connected to the logos, the reason of the universe, that we live in a rationally determined universe, and that the organization of the world and the organization of the mind were in some sense analogous or continuous. There was something proto-scientific about that, as opposed to thinking that the world was governed by the capriciousness of individual gods. They had a rational mechanistic kind of picture of how the world functioned, but again, their emphasis was on natural law and a sense of order rather than a sense of randomness and unpredictability, both in terms of the world and in terms of the mind.

So all of these things, the notion of the mind as a private sphere subject to our control, the clear demarcation between inner and outer, and the notion that the world is and the mind is essentially defined and determined by reason, are all notions that we increasingly find difficult to hold onto. I would say from our practice point of view today that we should look to the extent to which at some level we find those ideas enormously appealing, and their appeal goes to the heart of much of our individual curative fantasies: How much we practice for inner control, how much we see what goes on on the cushion is about something that’s happening privately inside of our head, how much we imagine this is going to allow us to make sense of our mind and our life. The alternative, which I think defines the true practice that none of us really wants to do, is to allow ourselves to experience our mind as in uncontrollable flux, to experience the vulnerability that we all feel as embodied interconnected creatures, and how much of what we do is not about cultivating a private experience but is completely dependent on how we relate, how we connect to one another.

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