Revelations: Developing Stoic Understanding
Sherman J. Clark wrote a fantastic article on the Stoicism Today blog in December which really spoke to me. It approached some of the questions and problems I've had with Stoicism in an elegant and enlightening way, which has led to my significantly greater understanding of Stoicism. Notably, and what I want to highlight here, were the topics of Selfishness, Metaphysics, and Balance.
I have a difficult time with the idea of a universal brotherhood. I cannot properly picture it, nor understand how to approach or pursue it. When Stoicism speaks of the importance of community or of a universal brotherhood, I generally switch off. Appropriately, I have a difficult time understanding how Stoic pursuit is anything but selfish. Everything I pursue, everything I read and try to apply, seems to benefit solely me. There is an argument to be made that by bettering myself I better others around me, but that does not provide a fulfilling conclusion. It doesn't actually promote social action, rather it proposes a benefit if I take action. I'm looking for a reason to take that action, which seems to be lacking. Clark specifically cites this issue towards the end of his article: "I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior." My thoughts exactly. Clark thus proposes that the impetus for selflessness, or at least community, comes from the simple fact that learning is best done communally. This I can certainly agree with, if only considering the obvious fact that I do not know every answer to every question, and thus I must seek them from external sources. Learning with others promotes diverse opinions and solutions, often outside the scope of my approach.
"Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic."
This point is building block 1; the first of three pieces to a puzzle: learning promotes selflessness.
To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are the universe's way of understanding itself. To Stoics, the universe is often synonymous with Nature. Living in accordance with Nature is basically Stoic virtue. That's a very big basically, and a very simplified view of Stoic virtue. However (a) I'm not very good at explaining this; and (b) it's a very involved topic. I want to touch on it briefly, since it is both covered by Clark and also relevant to the discussion. Clark makes a very straight-forward argument that Physics, or science to a more general degree, is appropriate as a Stoic virtue. Again he touches on the importance of learning, and expands it to how science is the means by which we can learn and understand the beauty and order of our universe. By learning and understanding more about the universe (Nature), we can better live in accordance with Nature. I'm simplifying again significantly, but I think it boils down to knowledge. Temperance and courage, two significant Stoic virtues, are defined by Clark as a symptom of awareness. Temperance is the awareness that what others crave is not worth craving after; courage is the awareness that what others fear is not worth fearing. If virtues are best defined as properly attuned awareness, then what better awareness to develop than the awareness of how the universe works? As a computer scientist, and a person who finds great joy in understanding systems and why they work, this makes perfect sense to me. Building block 2: awareness and understanding is the foundation of virtue.
By balance, I mean the balance of stoic thought managing emotions. It is common for Stoic teaching to be applied to negative emotions and situations. Many blogs, books, and classes focus on applying a Stoic mindset to stress, anxiety, depression, and the unfavorable situations that cause those and other similar types of emotions to arise. Clark is quick to propose a more important question: what happens when this approach is fully applied? What happens when a full pursuit of Stoicism is taken seriously? I appreciate Clark's use of the word "serious" when he speaks of this pursuit. It implies to me that half-way applying Stoic thought is an immature pursuit. That is to say, similar to an immature fruit tree, you have only part of the system available to you. This is often how I've felt. I know and understand the power of applying Stoic thought to difficult situations. I want to know, as Clark puts it, if there is any room left for joy after we've fully applied the Stoic philosophy.
"It is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully."
Clark investigates 5 possible answers to this dilemma, none of which fully answer our question. However, he does propose a solution, and it is a solution which resonates with me deeply: "true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight." And that's the final building block.
Completing the Puzzle
Putting it all together, what I took from Clark, and what has helped me to better understand Stoicism as it applies to me:
True stoic joy comes from learning about our universe, together.
This has always been what has brought me the most happiness, but to hear it from someone else now makes it much more potent. Almost ironically so, considering one of the first topics I wrote about above was my general disregard of community in Stoicism. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense why I find computers so fascinating, or puzzles, or even video games: they force me to learn about a system. And what more complex and unexplored system exists than the literal infinity of the universe? When we pursue the Stoic ideal too completely, there is a perceived risk that we will grow completely apathetic, forced to acknowledge that while negative emotions are not worth concern, so too are positive emotions, including joy! With the revelation that true joy comes from understanding, the flawed perception is then clarified to show flawed pursuit: we grow apathetic not because we incorrectly realise nothing in the world is worthwhile, but because we fail to understand the system. We grow apathetic by not understanding the universe, or at the very least by ignoring the call to curiosity. Everything boils down to understanding: we develop temperance by understanding what is worth pursuit; we develop courage by understanding fear; we develop wisdom by understanding how to learn; we develop justice by understanding righteousness and wellness.
My challenge now is to embrace this lifestyle completely. In the confines and privacy of my own mind, it's very easy to follow. The only emotions and opinions I need to concern myself with are my own, and I work hard to properly concern myself with them. When it comes to others, I will face emotions and opinions which I may disagree with, which may be downright harmful, or which will hinder my pursuits. I will face failure and frustration, especially so when opinions are concerned. This is where I must double my efforts, and lead by example: show that the point is not to win, or be the best, but to learn and understand. But what if this hinders another, or makes them uncomfortable, or causes them harm? When I'm in social interactions, I go out of my way to avoid uncomfortable or harmful scenarios. I try not to call out others on their faults or failures, because I don't believe them to be capable of handling it. That may be worse than an accusation: to assume weakness or inability!
I must learn to act in accordance with Nature. I must seek to understand all that I experience. I will seek the experience of others to verify or improve my understanding as often as possible. Likewise, I will provide others with my experience, so that they may learn and improve their understanding. I will never do so in an attempt to prove myself superior, because I know that pursuit is fruitless; pride does not bestow understanding. And if others try to prove themselves superior to me, then I will most likely let them, because pride does not bestow understanding. Plus, if they are superior to me, then I have a source of knowledge!
In summary, I'm left with a question, and a revelation. The revelation is that the greatest joy in life is understanding the universe. The question is, how do I share this joy with others without being offensive or insensitive? So long as my intentions are pure, I'm doing what I can to avoid those problems, and the remainder rests on the audience.
Sherman J. Clark's article can be found on the Stoicism Today blog, linked here: [Link]