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Episode 14: Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics

In the previous episode, Professor Vervaeke completed the discussion on the Axial Revolution in India. We understood the problems one faces in trying to interpret Buddhism (Batchelor's interpretation crisis) and took a close look at the Buddha's Truths in terms of provocations. We did this using the ideas of parasitic processing and reciprocal narrowing in addiction. We also understood the Eightfold path as a counteractive system and how reciprocal opening that can provide us the psychotechnologies to alleviate modal confusion and help us to avoid self-deceptive and self-destructive behavior. Read my blogpost on episode 13 here. In this episode, Professor Vervaeke talks about why and how the Hellenistic Era contributed to the definition of wisdom through the Epicureans, Cynics, and the Stoics. Socrates found a great disciple in Plato and Plato found a great disciple in Aristotle. Aristotle's disciple was a different kind of great (not a philosopher), he was Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great is an example of the kind of thinking that predated the axial revolution; where the line between a human being and a God was blurred. He created such an empire and was so glorious that people considered him God-like. Other than representing a pre-axial way of being, Alexander also represents a fundamental disruption to the world which people found themselves in.

The world of Alexander was very different from the world of Aristotle. Alexander died at a young age in Babylon. After his death, his major generals fought amongst themselves and divided his empire into four smaller empires. This gave way to the Hellenistic Era, a period where these empires were at war or each other for about 300 years. Before this, during Aristotle's time, Greek culture involved living in a polis (it's where we get 'cosmopolitan' from) where people often knew each other by face and name. Athens at the time was a developing democracy and citizens would participate in their government, leaders and politics were easily accessible and everybody spoke the same language and followed the same religion; people had a strong allegiance to their Polis. In this sense, Polis was not just a physical place people lived in but a place people closely identified with (think of the agent and arena relationship). In fact, the polis was so embedded/meshed into their existence that people would rather die or be imprisoned than be ostracised. However, after Alexander the Great, Greek culture got distributed to Africa, Asia Minor, right to the borders of India. So during the Hellenistic era, people were being shuffled around, were very distant from their Government (physically, emotionally, intellectually), and did not know the people they shared their land with. People spoke a different language, worshipped different Gods and because of these differences found it hard to connect with each other. They experienced what Douglas Porteous, Sandra Smith, and Brian Walsh call Domicide, which is the destruction of one's socio-cultural home. And so people lost connection with each other, their environment, their history, and their cultural and political surroundings; they felt insignificant. The Hellenistic period in this sense was an age of anxiety. People lost confidence, both in themselves and in their leaders. And so although Greek culture was more spread out and fluid during this time, it also lost its depth. In response, people attempted to create religious syncretisms by integrating different cultural deities together. Even the art produced reflects this kind of frenetic energy and fear that people went through around this era. How Philosophy Responded: The Epicureans

Until the Hellenistic Era, wisdom was mainly about dealing with foolishness. Although this idea wasn't abandoned, it became insufficient. Epicurus, one of the great philosophers of the time famously said 'call no man a philosopher who has not alleviated the suffering of others.' His approach brought a therapeutic aspect to wisdom. Wisdom became about dealing with the anxiety and suffering that people were experiencing in the Hellenistic era. Just like the metaphor of the cave was used to talk about wisdom before this era, a new metaphor emerged --- 'the philosopher is the physician of the soul'. The Epicureans diagnosed fear to be the main problem of human existence.

Fear vs Anxiety

Before we get into what they meant, it's important to note the distinction between fear and anxiety. In his book 'The Courage to Be', Paul Tillich brings up an important distinction between fear and anxiety. He talks about how fear involves an observable direct threat. For example, if you were suddenly confronted by a wild animal you would know what to do (even if you might fail at doing so). On the other hand, anxiety involves the presence of a nebulous threat; where you're not quite sure of the nature of the threat and therefore you're not sure how to act in response to it. This is why existential issues often involve anxiety. We tend to suffer because we cannot manage our anxiety. This is likely what the Epicureans meant; they were referring to anxiety, rather than fear.

How the Epicureans Challenge Death-Anxiety

According to Epicureans, because we do not control our imagination, we suffer from anxieties that cripple our ability to get a grip on the world. For example, many people are anxious about death. The Epicureans challenged this. If people said that their non-existence is what bothered them, Epicurus would say 'well, what about the world before you were born? Does that terrify you?'. And people would realize that it wasn't their non-existence itself that was terrifying, but perhaps it was the loss of everything and everyone they knew. There are two ways of looking at this --- absolute loss and partial loss. The Epicureans would challenge both. If people said they feared an absolute loss, they would famously say where I am, death is not and where death is, I am not; if you're aware that you're losing something, you're still alive. If you've lost everything, that means you've lost awareness and so you can't be aware that you've lost anything. What about partial loss and being anxious because of a reduction in one's capacities? The Epicureans argued that this is what happens as we grow older anyway. What they believe we're truly afraid of when we die is losing what's good; although this can be seen as hedonistic, Professor Verveake suggests it's more about what gives us meaning. The Epicureans believed that we derive most of our meaning from our friendships and relationships with people. They also believe that we derive meaning from our ability to exercise Philosophia or the pursuit of wisdom and self-transcendence. As long as we are alive, these two things will always be available to us.

The point here is that The Epicureans deeply challenged and refused to accept the fear of death; they refused to believe that people desired to be immortal. Instead, they pointed out that what we're actually afraid of is losing the things in our lives that we deeply identify with. However, according to them, that is not where our ultimate happiness lies. Instead, they believe that as long as we have cognitive agency, we are able to cultivate philosophical friendships and pursue meaning, which is what actually matters. People were also anxious about God in the face of their own mortality. Epicurus, as a non-theist believed Gods were essentially irrelevant. According to him paying attention to them or being overly concerned with the Gods and their nebulous threat is not rational. People at the time either believed that there was an after-life or that their life was ultimately meaningless and The Epicureans denied both. They offered an alternative strategy for dealing with death anxiety by learning how (not just learning the beliefs) to live in the acceptance of one's own mortality. Professor Vervaeke recommends Tillich's book on The Courage to Be to explore this topic on mortality and anxiety from a more modern context. But there's more to the anxiety of the Hellenistic era; it wasn't just about death and mortality. To get a better understanding, let's turn to the Stoics, how they were influenced by Socrates, and how they interpreted the anxiety of the Hellenistic period. How Philosophy Responded: The Stoics

When Socrates passed away, he had two great disciples that continued his legacy -- Plato and Antisthenes. Plato wrote dialogues to emulate and internalize Socratic Elenchus. While Antisthenes's big takeaway from Socrates was learning how to converse with himself. This doesn't refer to rumination of any kind, rather Antisthenes meant that he learned how to do with himself what Socrates was able to do with him; he really learned how to internalize the voice of Socrates. Stoicism involved an internalization of Socrates as a system set of psychotechnologies in one's metacognition. Both Plato and Antisthenes were interested in the transformation that Socrates afforded --- while Plato saw this happening through argumentation, Antisthenes thought about it more in terms of confrontation. Of course, both of these are important. Socratic Enlenchus for example involves both confrontation and argumentation. Antisthenes's student Diagoneses epitomized the idea of confrontation.

What does this confrontation mean/involve?

Diogenes practiced something analogous to provocative performance art; he tried to provoke people to realize things or give people the kinds of insights that challenged them. He essentially created aporia in people. He was famous for walking around the marketplace with his lamp. When people asked him what he was looking for he said 'I am looking for an honest man.' And this irritated everybody. They knew that they were in the middle of the marketplace, a place filled with dishonesty and manipulation and they didn't want to be confronted with that.

Diogenes also did some other...interesting things. For example, he was also known for masturbating in the marketplace. How could this be related to getting people to realize something or giving someone an insight? To understand this, let's first talk about the group of people that started to take place in this tradition --- the Cynics. The original meaning of the 'Cynic' has nothing to do with being suspicious. It means 'living like a dog'. And Diaogenens literally did. He lived outside Athens in a barrel. When Alexander the Great went to visit him (with his entire entourage) he said 'I can give you half the world, what do you want?' and Diogenes asks him to move a little to the left because 'you're blocking my sunlight.' Why is Diogenes living in a barrel? Why does he say this to Alexander? Why does he masturbate in public? Why does he look for an honest man with his lamp in the Marketplace? And how are all these things related?

How Philosophy Responded: The Cynics

The Cynics had a very different understanding of The Hellenistic Domicide. They concluded that what causes us to suffer is what we set our hearts on; when we set our hearts on the wrong things, those things will fail us, and that's how we suffer (note the similarities to Buddhism and some of the asceticism that the Buddha first practiced). So the Cynics came to the conclusion that The Hellenistic Period revealed the impermanence and artificiality of things; how dependent most things are on culture and history. And how when we get too attached to these things, we are often left bereft because they are constantly changing. That was how they understood the domicide at the time. They believed the answer to this was to learn (not just believe) how to set one's heart on the kind of things that are not man-made and contingent on history or culture. They believed we should instead try to live in accordance with the laws of the Natural World. This is part of the reason why Diogenes lived in a barrel. He did not want to be invested in manmade cultural institution, practices or political systems because of the temporary nature of them. This is why he rejected the power, fame, and money that Alexander offered him.

The Cynics also believed in moral laws. They found that people often confused moral principles (which are not based on history or culture) and purity codes (which are culturally and historically based).

Moral Principles vs Cultural Codes

A good way of trying to understand the difference is by looking at guilt vs shame. Guilt is the distress one experiences after having realized that they have broken a moral principle. Shame, on the other hand, is distress at having violed a priority code. For example, if a person's clothes fell down in public, they would experience shame. They would be embarrassed that they violated a purity or a cultural code, which indicates that people are supposed to be fully clothed in public. However, the person has done nothing wrong --- it is not immoral (there is no guilt involved). Purity codes are designed to keep the categorical boundaries that make a culture, at a particular historical period run the way it's running. Purity codes are also usually protected by power structures that are determined on maintaining cultural order. We often confuse cultural/purity codes with moral codes. Gay people are often persecuted because people confuse a purity code disgust reaction with a legitimate moral argument. For example, a person may not want to see two men having sexual intercourse with each other, and doing so might produce a disgust reaction. The person might conclude that because they were disgusted, this must be wrong. However, the disgust reaction has nothing to do with the morality of the issue. Diogenes masturbated in public to try and get people to understand the difference between a purity code and a moral code. He did nothing wrong by masturbating in public. On the other hand, several people at the marketplace were manipulating, lying, and cheating; things that had become culturally acceptable but were/are wrong.

Through this kind of provocative performance, the Cynics emulated Socrates in two significant ways --- by trying to get us to realize what we're setting our heart on and by helping us pull apart our automatic emotional reactions from legitimate moral reflection.

Diogenes had a disciple called Crates, who had a disciple called Zeno. Although the Cynics were a little hostile toward Plato, because of his emphasis on argumentation, Zeno liked Plato. He understood the value of argumentation. He integrated the rational argumentation and reasoning of Plato with the provocative aspects of the Cynics. So he crafted a way of life that combined the two. Although he was deeply influenced by the Cynics, he realized that they concentrated too much on the product. He found that they concentrated too much on what we attached ourselves to, rather than the very process of attachment itself. Zeno felt like there was more to it; it's not what you set your heart on, it's how you set your heart on it. This idea is at the core of recent work on rationality (Keith Stanovich et al); the hallmark of rationality is not about focusing on the products of one's cognition, as much as it about paying attention to the process of one's cognition. This process refers to the process of the agent-arena co-identification(see lecture 13); a process where one is simultaneously assuming and assigning an identity at the same time. However, if the co-identification process is mindless, automatic, and reactive, the process will be susceptible to all kinds of self-deception and destruction. This is why the process is worth paying attention to; we need to understand how we assume and assign identities (both to ourselves and our socio-cultural environment) and do it in a way that can strengthen our agency when there is the threat of domicide.

Next time we will look at the practices advocated by the Stoics that enable us to pay more attention to this process (of assuming and assigning identity) and how we can use these practices in our own psychotherapeutic endeavors to deal with our own version of Domicide and the meaning crisis. Watch the next episode here.

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