Monday, January 20, 2014

The Stoics in the September Sky

Painting by Jen Kim
I didn’t realize how the events of 9-11 had gut-punched me until I was stopped by a passer­by in the parking lot that terrible morning.
He’d been in court and hadn't heard the latest news, so I told him.
“The World Trade Center has been destro ... yed,” I said, surprised to find my voice reduced to a ragged gasp and moisture springing into my eyes out of nowhere.
What was this, what was this? Get a grip, Dan.
That night, I slept fitfully, dreaming of pursuit, awakening after midnight to switch on CNN and watch the hypnotic orange flames dancing at ground zero.
That was the worst. Your fears are always magnified after midnight, and jitterbug on the walls like giant shadows cast by those hellish flames. Civilization seemed to be burning in that fire, and, for all I knew, maybe it was.
Better, then, that next afternoon, sitting on the steps of our deck, but still feeling as if an asteroid had knocked the planet off its axis.
I'd have been chain-smoking if I hadn't given up the blasted things three years before.
Instead I just sat and looked at the yard, and was quietly surprised.
The birds weren't migrating in panic, they were just singing. The sky was an untroubled clarion blue. The trees nodded and murmured regally, as usual. The dark green of their late­ summer leaves shifted and swayed to form patterns of dappled sunlight, as rhythmically soothing as waves on the ocean.
The world was as it always was. Nothing had changed it. Nothing could. And I thought it was trying to tell me something, if I had the wit to understand.
This juxtaposition — the calm, measured solidity of the natural world standing in contrast to the mad panic of human events — tugged at something in my memory. What was it?
I recalled my ethics class with Frank Taylor at Eastern Illinois University. It was long before, in 1973 or 1974. Young and eager to know what the greatest human minds had discovered, I'd been particularly impressed by Taylor's discussion of the practical philosophy of the Stoics, people like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
Art Nouveau stoic face from Prague
The Stoics were keenly aware that it isn't events themselves that ordinarily affect us — it is our emotional reaction to events that rules us.
Emotional reactions, grounded in past traumatic associations, are automatic and often inappropriate responses to new and changing circumstances. If we could govern our reflexive emotional reactions to situations we regard as adverse, we could be calmer, happier. Our psychological and philosophical standard of living would rise.
Epictetus knew something about adverse circumstances - he was a Roman slave. He taught himself that while his body might be enslaved, his mind could roam free. Contemporary expressions of his Stoic philosophy can be found in Tom Wolfe's  novel “A Man in Full” and in the central character of the film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“When disease and death overtake me, I would fain be found engaged in the task of liberating mine own will from the assaults of passion, from hindrance, from resentment, from slavery,” Epictetus said.
“Externals are not under my control; moral choice is under my control. Where am I to look for the good and the evil? Within me, in that which is my own.”
His advice stays ever relevant for us. Let's sample a few topics:
• Rulers who boast constantly about their great resolve. “There is nothing more intractable — ‘My resolve is fixed!’ Why, so madmen say too; but the more firmly they believe in their delusions, the more they stand in need of treatment."
• The nature of wealth. “Asked 'Who is the rich man?' Epictetus replied, 'He who is content.'"
• The fear of death. "If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live forever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot."
"It is not the things themselves which disturb men, but their judgments about these things. For example, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is dreadful, this is the dreadful thing."
“I am not eternal, but a man; a part of the whole, as an hour is part of a day. I must come on as the hour and like an hour pass away.”
• The practical necessity of courage. “As for us, we behave like a herd of deer. When they flee from the huntsman's feathers in affright, which way do they turn? What haven of safety do they make for? Why, they rush upon the nets. Thus do they perish by confounding what they should fear with that wherein no danger lies,” Epictetus said. "Reflect that the chief source of all evils to man, and of baseness and cowardice, is not death but the fear of death."
• Sadness. “The origin of sorrow is this: To wish for something that does not come to pass.”
• Pleasure. “When we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasure of the profligate or that which depends on physical enjoyment — as some think who do not understand our teachings, disagree with them, or give them an evil interpretation - but by pleasure we mean the state wherein the body is free from pain and the mind from anxiety.”
• Changing your behavior. “If you want to do something, make a habit of it; if you want not to do something, refrain from doing it, and accustom yourself to something else instead.”
Sounds childishly simple, yet that is, in fact, how I stopped smoking.
• The acceptance of loss.“Have this thought ever present with thee, when thou losest any outward thing, what thou gainest in its stead; and if this be the more precious, say not, I have suffered loss.”
• The unimportance of blame. “It is the part of an uneducated person to blame others where he himself fares ill; to blame himself is the part of one whose education has begun; to blame neither another nor his own self is the part of one whose education is already complete.”
• The power of reason. “Knowest thou what a speck thou art in comparison with the universe? That is, with respect to the body; since with respect to reason thou art not inferior to the gods, nor less than they. For the greatness of reason is not measured by length of height, but by the resolves of the mind. Place then thy happiness in that wherein thou art equal to the gods.”