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Epictetus and Uncertainty

March 7, 2011 1 comment

I found that most of our anxiety comes from the uncertainty of not knowing how things are going to turn out. Will I get a good score at the math test, or will I not? Will I get the promotion, or will I not? Will this paper be accepted, or will it not?

Of course, anxiety does not always take its roots in uncertainty. In some cases you can become unsettled by things that are certain to happen. Think of yourself in a situation where you are terribly ill and your doctor says that your death is inevitable, and that you will take leave of this world at so and so date, hour, and minute. How would you spend your time then when you know that it is certain that death is going to strike you? Wouldn’t you persistently repress for every minute of your remaining life the thought that you are going to die? Or better, think of yourself of possibly having a debilitating genetic disease, such as Huntington, and that you have the choice of undergoing a test that would establish whether you are sick or not. Would you then rather chose certainty over uncertainty in that case? Wouldn’t uncertainty at least offer the consolation that comes from hope?

But, our daily anxiety, anger, and worry does not come from such hugely significant events such as our death. Really,  most of our thoughts are quite simple in their goals. In an ordinary day it is likely that you would think about the flavor of a specific food or drink, about the superiors and subordinates at your job, about clothes and music, about how you are going to accomplish a minor task, about the book you are reading, about how incompetent are drivers in this city, about having the desire to sleep,  about how are you going to convey a trifling thought in a blogpost…the list is endless. Such thoughts are likely to bring a variety of emotions in us, some of which are hardly desirable. Epictetus offers a solution how we can decrease the influence of negative emotions:

The thief does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consist in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think. Must he not then come and take them away? When you show a cake to greedy persons, and swallow it all yourself, do you expect them not to snatch it from you? Do not provoke them; do not have a window; do not air your clothes. I also lately had an iron lamp placed by the side of my household gods; hearing a noise at the door, I ran down, and found that the lamp had been carried off. I reflected that he who had taken the lamp had done nothing strange. What then? To-morrow, I said, you will find an earthen lamp; for a man only loses that which he has. I have lost my garment. The reason is that you had a garment. I have a pain in my head. Have you any pain in your horns? Why then are you troubled? For we only lose those things, we have only pains about those things, which we possess. (Epictetus; Discourses)

The quote must be understood in the context of Epictetus’ work. Epictetus was a stoic philosopher, meaning that he not only taught philosophy, he lived it. An important principle that he emphasized continuously is that of not being victims of the things we think we possess. Epictetus mentioned that when you lose something that is in your possession, you feel a sensation of emptiness, and maybe anger. Hence a thief who steals a lamp, manages to hurt you not only materially but also spiritually. Epictetus’ advice is that we can subdue that anger by not attaching ourselves to our possessions. Of course, this is not done in a day. It is accomplished through rigorous training. Also, Epictetus mentions in his work that getting overly-involved in things that cannot be changed wouldn’t  be of benefit to anyone After all, should you really be angry about a thief that you know will not be caught? Is that anger of any use when you cannot change anything?

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Suicide Note

October 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Mitchell Heisman

Mitchell Heisman

Before I cause any unrest for those who are reading this post, I want you to know that the suicide note is not about me: It is about the person whose disaffected image you see on your left.

Mitchell Heisman died this September by shooting himself in front of a crowd of 20 people on the steps of Memorial Church of Harvard University.  Before his unfortunate finale,  he wrote a mortis manifesto of 1905 pages, outlining in it his views on philosophy, politics, history, religion, and science.

To some his legacy might seem superfluous ramblings, and they may consider his suicide as nothing more than a juvenile attempt to gain posthumous recognition. To be frank with you, I do not care what reasons or what despair brought him to consider ending his life. Thousands and millions die for the same reasons and through the same means as he did. Showing pittance for every death is beyond my capability.  I do, however, commiserate with his family, to whom the shock of his death must be an unendurable suffering.

Let me reiterate something. This post will not be about the Mitchell Heisman. My interest is solely in his work: Suicide Note.

Suicide Note is a powerful manifesto filled with extensive compendiums on a variety of topics. I have by no means read it all, although I am committed to slowly tread my way through it. Nevertheless, from the modicum of peruses that I’ve done so far, I believe that this work is phenomenal. I know that to many his abstruse and highly convoluted way of writing might be inaccessible. There is a reason for that. He, unlike most scholarly writers, did not always build his arguments from scratch. He revealed his thinking readily by cutting down all the necessary introductions. Hence, if you read his views on nihilism, you first have to get acquainted with the works of the major existential philosophers that came before him in order to understand what is he writing about.

Below you will find some excerpts that I found intriguing:

On Nihilism:

Uncertain of uncertainty, skeptical of skepticism, it seems that the most important question is whether there is an important question. The only serious question is whether there is anything to take seriously. What has previously been considered of value or importance appears as only an expression of myth, bias…error. (pg. 22)

There is a very popular opinion that choosing life is inherently superior to choosing death. This belief that life is inherently preferable to death is one of the most widespread superstitions. This bias constitutes one of the most obstinate mythologies of the human species. (pg. 22)

If the rational life leads to the nihilistic life, what are the consequences of a living intelligence whose highest organizing “principle” is this hypothetical nothingness?
What would it mean, in concrete terms, to live a rational life according the insight of the nihilistic? What would be the ultimate consequence of applying the hypothesis of unmeaning to every belief, every thought, every action, every emotion, every purpose, and every goal? To nausea, to fear, to love, to terror? (pg. 34)

On Nurture/Nature Debate:

When the nature/nurture issue is applied to fish or horses, it is generally assumed that nature — by nature —plays a stronger role than nurture in determining their behavior. This implies that human nature — by nature — is less determined by nature. Humans, then, are less determined by nature because humans are superior to nature — by nature. (pg. 130)

(I will have to agree with critics who believe his writing is a tad esoteric. The repetition of nature in several occasions is unnecessary. His ideas are clear, however.)

On Freedom

All political problems can be solved by slapping bumper stickers of “freedom” over them. But what is left when “the individual” stops hiding behind these abstractions of freedom? What if someone were to make the ridiculous blunder of asking: How do we use our freedom? Are there duties or moral imperatives justified along with these freedoms? What is right way to live? Anyone making a pilgrimage to the destination of Anglo-Saxon political philosophy with such questions, asked in their fullness, must realize that he or she has arrived at the wrong place. (pg. 873)

R.I.P.

The Website with his legacy: www.Suicidenote.info


Friday Debates- Ethical Relativism and Encounters with Aliens

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Alright, this might seem ridiculous, but I have to confess something that goes beyond the limits of absurdity. Yesterday I had my first encounter with an alien. This is how he looked like:

Mr. Bojo

Yes, I call him Bojo. I am not sure about the “Mr.” yet. Maybe he is a hermaphrodite. Or maybe he artificially created himself in some ultramundane lab. Wait. Is it even possible to create yourself? Never-mind that. Who cares what sex Bojo is or about logical conclusions related to self-creation?

I will not go on expounding how I felt about this encounter. Besides being probably the most important person on Earth right now, maybe even more important than Obama, Jesus, and Buddha combined, or a hundred times more important than Glen Beck is in the eyes of the tea-party sympathizers, I feel that no matter what I will tell you about Mr. Bojo, nothing will not be taken seriously. Because I do not want to spend my life fettered by stigma, I will just dust every evidence about Bojo under the carpet and let it stay there. Yes, Mr. Bojo will be my little secret.

Still, lets just pretend that I did meet an alien, ok? Can you accept that? Can I trust you that you will accept that without making a judgment about my sanity? Yes? Alright, read on then.

Mr. Bojo came to me, as all aliens probably do, in an unexpected manner. He just solidified out of thin air and asked me to be calm.

Me: “Whatever dude. I am probably in a dream right now. It’s ok to have visions when you suffer from insomnia. ”

Bojo:“I am real. And I have questions.”

M:“Shoot.”

B:“I will not shoot you. I come in peace.”

M:“Ok, got it. What are the questions?”

B:“We consider some of your practices morally wrong, hence, I came to bring reason to you. I came here to find out how I can do that.”

M:“Well, we are flawed morally in a variety of aspects. We have minor vices and we have major vices; we have virtues that in certain situations cause harm and suffering;  we kill, steal, willingly force our interests on some, and willingly show allegiance based on  arbitrary attributes to others;  we are  good at distorting the truth, as you probably noticed in a bevy of leaders in politics, religion, and science;  we are efficient at anything you would call morally wrong.  We know that. It’s not big news. We’ve been working on our characters. We’re getting there.”

B:“Yes, and I came here to help you. ”

M:“How can you help us? Do you want to be part of the 6.8 billion people who said that they’ve figured it out what’s wrong with our morality? Do you? It’s not like we need a divine hand to show us how to live our life. We know to what we should aim. We just are not sure how it can be done properly.”

B: “You do not fully understand me. I would not bother with correcting behaviors about which you have knowledge of. Nevertheless, I think that you need some divine hand to show you that what you commonly consider a nefarious behavior is really not that bad.  I want to know why so few humans are so behind in practicing cannibalism?”

M: “Whoa there, dude! Can you explain why you condone cannibalism? Do you really eat members of your own kind? That’s sick >(.”

B: “I knew that you would be disgusted. We do not practice cannibalism in the way you envision it. Also, our understanding of kinship is different from yours. We consider most living organisms who have an instinct of self-preservation as part of a big community, where the more intelligent life forms have the same value as the less intelligent ones. In order to put it in a more comprehensible way for you, we believe that a human life is worth as much as that of a chicken. Of course, we had to establish a certain criteria for what we consider a life-form that has an instinct of self-preservation. Any microorganisms,  bacteria and viruses, are not included, as well as any organisms whose death is imminent.”

M: “This does not explain why you advocate cannibalism.”

B: “Quite the contrary. You missed an important part of my explanation.”

M: “Which is…”

B: “Organisms whose death is imminent because of biological causes are not considered to have the same value as those whose life is yet to be lived. Hence, we eat our kin only in cases where they either have no desire to live or are dying. Of course, since we cannot predict unexpected deaths, we tend to eat those who have died from accidents within an hour or so. And, as you probably already surmised, we do not eat those whose biomass can harm us. We do this because we consider it morally wrong to eat any living creature who has both the desire and the right to exist. Therefore, I came to convince you that you should adopt cannibalism.”

M: “Your reasoning sound very much like the reasoning of Albert Schweitzer. He was philosopher and philanthropist who proposed that we extend our ethical duties to other creatures on Earth. The problem is that such reasoning is generally inapplicable to everyone.For example, you want us to adopt the duty of non-harm to other animals cohabiting with us, which to some extent can be done, but you would have to impose the same rules on everyone. How would you make organisms who are carnivorous by nature conform to your standards then? In addition to this, I do not think that the majority of meat-lovers on Earth would be happy to follow your ethical guidelines. In order to illustrate what I mean, I will bring up the conclusions to which Protagoras came. He believed that a moral law is good as long as it maintains harmony in a community. An undesirable moral law would be a law that renders a society dysfunctional. Most people on Earth are quite happy with eating nuggets, burgers, and tuna wraps, so there is no tension created by our behavior, even though it might seem extremely unfit for you that we show little respect for the animals we eat. According to Protagoras, you should let us be. It’s our society and we are happy with the way it is ordered. Your views on morality are subjective and are not applicable for us.

B: “Simply because an action is deemed fit for your society and your time does not mean that it is inherently moral. In order to convince you, let us watch something together.”

M: “Whoa, dude! Is that a holoscreen?”

B: “Just watch.”

M: “Hmm…I see your point. I am partially convinced that treating all creatures who have the will to live with respect is important, and that refraining from harming them should be one of our moral priorities. But you have not sustained a strong defense for cannibalism. I take it that no loving son will feast on his mother after her death. Am I right?”

B: “You are. I am still trying to establish how I could convince humans to adopt the same view on cannibalism as we do. That is why I came to you.”

M: “Sorry. No suggestions here. Even if you make up a utilitarian argument for that, you do realize that for the majority of humans it would take an insurmountable emotional effort to eat another human?”

B: “Hmm. So you understand the rationality of my argument then.”

M: “I do. You propose that we eat our dying kin because it would be irrational to let so much *food* go to waste. Nevertheless, I am afraid that you will find few supporters here on Earth who would agree with you.”

B: “If that is the case, then our discussion is over.”

Then, Mr. Bojo dispersed, leaving me with a strong conviction that I was, after all, someone special.

🙂

Alien sketch taken from here.