Monday, December 2, 2013

Stoicism and Cosmic Horror

The stranger the postmodern Western world becomes, the more we might hear plaintive calls for a return to Stoic level-headedness. Jon Stewart’s centrist political rally expressed a similar sentiment. Centrists want our leaders to be at least halfway competent so they can “get stuff done,” and that requires a rational set of priorities. Indeed, there are intriguing ideas in ancient Stoicism, but I think they should be updated by existential and cosmicist interpretations of philosophical naturalism.

Cynics and Stoics

Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium in the 4th C. BCE, was influenced by ancient Cynicism, so I’ll begin by summarizing some relevant Cynic beliefs. Ancient Cynicism was a form of asceticism, so you can see that it differs greatly from the modern meaning of “cynic.” The Cynics agreed with Plato, Aristotle, and with Greek ethicists generally that happiness is the primary good in life and that rationality is crucial to achieving it. But whereas most Greek philosophers taught that a virtuous balance between reason and emotion was a means to various practical ends, such as excellence in some profession, the Cynics believed that virtue was its own reward and that worldly pursuits tended to corrupt the character, dull the critical faculties, and mislead a person by distracting her with trivialities. Reason, the Cynics thought, shows us clearly what is of ultimate importance, and that is the everlasting natural world. Along with the much-later Romantics who rebelled against modern forms of decadence, the Cynics’ central distinction was between nature, which is to say the wilderness, and what we might think of as artificiality, which is to say the arbitrary social convention that doesn’t correspond with any natural reality.

Our moral duty, then, is to understand nature and to live as relatively wild creatures, not to be misled by social expectations which are brought on by ignorance and delusion. The reason this is our duty is that such an unburdened, ascetic life frees us from stress and from unrealistic, unfulfillable desires, and thus makes for happiness in the sense of tranquility. Artificiality is the root of evil (vice) and suffering, since when we become proud of so-called human progress we form unnatural desires and set up unrealistic plans which nature is bound to frustrate. Wise people live in accordance with nature; they use ascetic techniques of non-attachment to train themselves to want only what will probably be provided, not to set themselves up for failure and misery by living in a fantasy world. The Cynics were infamous, though, because far from merely ignoring the phony world of popular culture, they openly ridiculed those attached to fantasies of being supernatural masters of the world who owe nothing to nature because they occupy the self-made artificial world we call civilization. Anyone who routinely condescends to the other species, by assuming that humans have some right of dominion over the world because of our innate greatness is a fool whom nature will punish. The Cynics acted like ravens sounding their ominous warnings of the downfall that inevitably follows this popular sort of pride, mocking upstanding citizens who in turn regarded Cynics as deranged for living like beasts and renouncing the fruits of social progress. Indeed, Cynics called themselves dogs, they owned no possessions, and they might masturbate in public or otherwise demonstrate their contempt for average people’s presumptions.

There are interesting comparisons between Cynicism, Daoism, and Buddhism, but I want to focus on Stoicism. The Stoics agreed that we ought to be happy and that the way to achieve that goal is to follow nature. Far from living like an animal, though, controlled by its instincts or emotions, the Stoic agreed with rationalists like Plato that rationality is natural for our species. Moreover, they thought that reason discovers that nature is a unified whole embodying a steadily emerging rational order which they equated with the unfolding mind of a pantheistic god. All of this they understood naturalistically, much as Einstein or Spinoza personified the laws of nature. The Stoics divided nature into matter and energy, using fire as the metaphor for energy, and they took energy to be the order in which change happens, the rational unfolding of events that we explain in terms of natural laws or more circumstantial reasons. The cosmos, then, is a rational place because the ordered world is the union of god’s mind and body. Just as a sage’s mind and body are in harmony, so too nature is unified so that you won’t find miracles or ontological anomalies in the world.

Like Cynicism, Stoicism is a form of asceticism, since the Stoic opposes most of what’s taken for granted in civilized life. This is because most people have unwise priorities. Wisdom for us requires that our desires be in accord with something like Stoic cosmology. The universe develops regardless of what we think or do, because those changes happen for divine reasons that are utterly indifferent to our preferences. For example, rain happens because of a natural cycle, and it’s asinine to be troubled by that necessity. The Stoics agreed with the Cynics that we should know our place as puny creatures within a much greater cosmic order. Moreover, because the world is rationally ordered, it's the best of all possible worlds, so again we should appreciate nature even if we can't always understand the reason why certain events happen. We shouldn’t arrogantly oppose that order by dreaming of alternative worlds that we might not only prefer but bring to pass with misdirected ingenuity. For example, if we wish to have a picnic and it rains, a fool will curse the weather and whine and complain like a child that isn’t getting its way, perhaps even praying to a deity to change the natural course of events, because the fool doesn’t understand a person’s limited role in the greater scheme. Our goal shouldn’t be to get whatever we want even if our desires are irrational. A rational person who wants a picnic will desire that end only on the condition that nature, in effect, wills it to be so, so that if it rains, the rational person will be unperturbed and resilient.

In fact, Stoics believed that the proof of a sage’s wisdom is her freedom from mental suffering, if not necessarily from signs of physical pain. A sage should be self-sufficient, free from wants, and therefore unaffected by any turmoil around her. She should suppress or eliminate her emotions when they interfere with her rational submission to the natural order. This is because our moral task is just to resign ourselves to natural law, since by doing so we concede the majesty of God's mind. Wisdom, for the Stoics, is peace of mind that’s based on a person’s training of her emotions to be in line with an austere, deterministic pantheism. The sage practices virtue because she knows she can control only her inner self, while the rest of nature carries on with its majestic and perfectly necessary cycles and transitions. Our focus should thus be extremely narrow: we should care only about excellence in character and should abhor only vice and delusion, all else being morally indifferent. Only our attitude towards the world is morally relevant, since that's the extent of our freedom. All natural events, then, meaning events caused by natural forces and circumstances as opposed to being willed by any creature (other than god, metaphorically speaking), are irrelevant to the wise person’s happiness. Such a person would be equally happy having no possessions whatsoever and living hip-deep in a swamp as she would owning everything in the world and lounging in a tropical paradise. Those circumstances are irrelevant because they have nothing to do with us; we aren’t responsible for them and so a wise person is one who learns not to become attached to them.

Again, for the Stoic only virtue and vice, which are character traits, are morally relevant, so wealth, health, pleasure, pain, and even life and death make no difference when it comes to fulfilling our moral obligation to be happy through clear-headedness. Of course, a person has to be alive to be virtuous or otherwise, but mere life in the biological sense, as part of the natural continuum of material things, has its alien, amoral function in so far as the living body is a quantity of matter shaped by divine reason. With respect to its role in the causal network that unites everything in the universe, a living body is out of our control; for example, whether we’re alive or unborn isn’t up to us. Therefore, a sage doesn’t become attached to her life, meaning that she doesn’t care whether she naturally lives or dies since that’s a matter of fate. Only the sliver of the world over which we have limited control, namely the quality of our mind and personality is of primary interest to the sage; she lets the rest take care of itself.

Stoic non-attachment is usefully contrasted with Ayn Rand’s egoism. The egoist contends that we deserve the material property that becomes privately owned by us as soon as we help produce it by our labour. A Stoic would say that this egoism is based on a failure to appreciate that nature is a unified whole. There is, then, what John Stuart Mill called the total cause of an event, which is the real totality of contributing factors that produce the event. When offering an explanation of some phenomenon, we typically focus on some of those factors because of our limited interests, but metaphysically speaking that selection is arbitrary. So even if an entrepreneur slaves over her company and feels entitled to its profits, a sage would understand that in so far as we have causal power over material things like the computers that keep track of the company’s records, the company’s brick buildings, or even the invention of the company’s product, our bodies are only parts of the greater whole of nature that accomplishes those works. Everything in the world directly or indirectly impacts everything else, so laying claim to part of the whole is as embarrassingly wrongheaded as a child’s painting a blade of grass on the lawn and then calling that grass hers, ignoring everything else that brought the grass into being. The egoist’s folly here is rooted in a narrowness of vision which is the mark not just of ignorance but of narcissism.

Originality and Satanic Rebellion

These ancient forms of asceticism have interesting assumptions and implications: naturalism, the moral duty to be rational, pantheism, non-attachment to material things, nature’s amorality, a sharp divide between the wise and the deluded masses, and even righteous ridicule of pop culture. All of these are parts of the worldview I explore in RWUG, which draws especially on existentialism and cosmicism, the latter being, in effect, the classification of naturalism as a story in the horror genre, where naturalism is the philosophical summary of what scientists tells us the world is like. But I think some of the assumptions of Cynicism and Stoicism are pretty easily undercut. Putting aside the determinism-freewill debate, which impacts many other worldviews, there’s a problem with the ancient Greek ascetic’s moral use of naturalism. The ascetics, that is, both the Cynic and the Stoic—not to mention the Daoist and the Buddhist—want to say that social conventions and artificialities generally lead us astray, whereas wise people understand nature’s unity. Here, “nature” is understood as the wilderness in opposition to artifices. In the metaphysical sense given by the philosophical naturalist, everything is natural, including artifices, and in that broadest sense there’s no room for morality or for any distinction between the sage and the fool. But the metaphysical characterization of nature is relevant to how we should conceive of nature in the narrower, more anthropocentric sense, as that part of the world that hasn’t (yet) been altered or, as the Stoic would have it, distorted by creatures. (For the Stoic, all of nature is intelligently ordered, although not by a supernatural, personal deity, but by the “fire” of energy which causes matter to intelligibly divide and develop.)

Specifically, it’s not enough to say that nature unfolds in an orderly way, because we know that this unfolding is the ultimate form of creation. Nature builds on itself from subatomic fluctuations, to atomic bonds, to complex chemical reactions and astrophysical bodies like stars and planets, to biological and social and technological constructions. So if that’s what nature is doing in the metaphysical respect and we’re part of that cosmic creation, it looks like the fool who creates a fantasy world is acting in accordance with nature, after all. Nature evidently creates people as instruments for creating worlds within that larger world. Metaphysical naturalism, then, isn’t so easily turned into a weapon against the masses or into a rationalization for the omega’s marginalization. The Stoic commits a non sequitur fallacy here, when she says that nature is rational, so wisdom as opposed to folly amounts to being rational (following nature) and avoiding distractions that make us irrational such as virtually all popular pastimes. The problem with this argument is that we know that nature isn’t merely rational with respect to having intelligible patterns. The overall pattern is one of creativity through complexification and evolution (developments in structure and in time). With that conception of nature in mind, civilization looks quite natural. So the ascetic needs another way to justify her condemnation of what most people would call worldly success.

I think existentialism comes to the ascetic’s rescue at this point. The problem with the materialistic masses isn’t so much with what they do but with who they are. They’re existentially inauthentic with respect to the organization of their inner worlds. They can’t help but behave as natural creatures, since nature works through them as it works through everything; however, their participation in civilizational creativity lacks heroic intentions, so that if we construe morality as an aesthetic form of judgment, as we should when the patterns in questions are matters of creativity, their outputs lack vision and are relatively unoriginal. Compared to what happens in the nonliving parts of the universe, everything sentient creatures do is anomalous, but compared to the works of enlightened and usually alienated geniuses, most people’s creative efforts are uninspired and forgettable. As for their intentions, people on average fail to be properly horrified by the mindlessness of nature’s “rational” creativity, and so they don’t proceed with the needed gusto; they don’t perceive civilization as the tragic rebellion against nature that it is; indeed, they don’t see artifices as demonic mimicries of the wilderness’s undead decay (unfolding).

Now, the Stoic thinks of morality solipsistically, as a judgment on the quality of our private world that bears no relation to what’s happening in the rest of the universe. But philosophical naturalism won’t support that dualism. The more compelling story is one which accounts for human activity in that universal context. Whereas natural creations are undead simulations of intelligent designs, given naturalistic pantheism, our creations are intelligent undoings of those undead creations. Only somewhat hyperbolically, we can say, then, that all participants in the civilizational subworld are satanists, in that far from respecting the natural order, like those we modern sophisticates call primitives or savages, we collectively mean to replace the wilderness, or the so-called wasteland, with a world that better glorifies us, that puts us at its center. Have I gone too far with this discernment of what is effectively mass (atheistic) Satanism in the enterprise of upholding the artificialities of civilization?

Think again! Recall the biblical story of Satan, of the fallen angel who rebelled against God and tries to undermine God’s Creation at every turn. As John Milton saw, Satan is a tragic hero when viewed from a modern as opposed to a Christian perspective. When we assume that human progress includes the triumph of artificiality and the concomitant elimination of the wilderness, we internalize the satanic impulse so that we lose the capacity to loathe what we’ve become. We are truly stuck between a rock and a hard place, between decadence and enlightenment, where the former is a bastardized and unsustainable retreat to animalistic bliss and the latter leads to a full-bore satanic onslaught against the divine natural order.

Of course, I’m not saying modern folks secretly worship a demonic creature. What happened is that Christians demonized secular creativity, the Promethean drive towards technoscientific progress which results in the civilizational subspace that displaces the undead, monstrously self-creating cosmos. It goes without saying that neither God nor Satan exists as a supernatural personage, but the Promethean, liberal-progressive aspect of the fictional character, Satan, is a fitting symbol for the secular enterprise which took off thousands of years ago. Now, the wiser Satanists may take comfort in knowing that the God against whom they rebel with their “blasphemous” deviations from the pre-existing order is an undead monster rather than any loving father figure or other such childish projection. Nevertheless, the natural universe is divine, because its creativity is awe-inspiring and terrible to contemplate. Even the Stoics had a sense of that horror when they speculated that the universe passes through a cycle of unfolding, folding, and unfolding again infinitely many times, and always repeating exactly the same deterministic pattern so that we have Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same. Any such universe is itself an abomination and so the satanic rebel becomes a tragic hero.

But to return to the main point, about existentialism, the ascetic’s distinction between wisdom and mass folly can be reconstructed even in the terms supplied by updated naturalism, if we think of wise people as those who are the more authentic satanic rebels. Their authenticity can be gauged aesthetically by the originality of their works, since originality is a sign of a breakaway from undead nature’s regularities. By way of analogy, think of the totalitarian Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe, which imposes its rule of law on a diverse population of intelligent species. Now think of the Rebel Alliance as an outbreak of liberty from that regime, or less normatively, as an anomaly in the world order. As I say, nature creates both constructively and destructively, by building on top of itself and by replacing the old with the new, so that not even human originality is truly unnatural. But when done with the enlightened perspective in mind, our replacements of natural landscapes with cityscapes, of biological cycles with technological functions, and of the void with meaning are acts of rebellion. We mimic nature’s creativity, but we do so demonically, perverting our evolutionary impulses to flatter our self-image as godlike beings that transcend not just the animal kingdom but the whole cosmic plenum that we regard as inferior to the artificial worlds we prefer to inhabit. Our greatest artistic achievements may not be miracles, but they are certainly anomalies in the known universe, whereas our mass behaviour is more animalistic and driven by evolutionary needs that serve the status quo.

Asceticism and Alienation from Nature

One other facet of Stoicism interests me and that’s the idea of non-attachment to morally indifferent material things. There’s a hint here of cosmicism. Recall H. P. Lovecraft’s interpretation of atheistic naturalism, according to which anthropocentrism is utterly wrongheaded since, far from being central to the universe so that our values are secured, we’re lost because of the lack of any absolute center or purpose, and our puniness likely contrasts with the values of some mighty alien star-faring civilization. If values are subjective, then the greater the species, the greater its values. We’re the greatest known species, but we’re not likely the greatest in the universe; at least, there’s the potential for a much more powerful, long-lived and experienced species in which case everything we cherish becomes worthless by comparison with the alien interests. More important than whether such a superhuman species exists is the fact that we can presently imagine one, and the mere possibility of such a species taints our evaluations.

Now, Stoics say most of the world is beyond our control and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise; moreover, our emotions should reflect that rational judgment, so we should let nature take its course without any resentment. Asceticism, then, is supposed to be rational and thus moral because it demonstrates what we might think of as properly directed fear, namely fear of the pantheistic god; we’re meant to fear the cosmic energy that organizes all matter and that’s why we shouldn’t pretend we can control it. Becoming emotionally attached to material things or natural processes is as audacious as praying for rain, given determinism. Self-centered emotions are disgraceful and blasphemous even if we think of divinity as identical with natural creativity. The wise person may admire the goings-on in the uncultivated landscape, but won’t presume that natural cycles ought to serve her will.

In any case, the emergence of artificiality as a quasi-miracle indicates that the Stoic call for asceticism may be moot. We secularists become attached not to the wilderness but to material things of our making which extend our minds and bodies and thus our control over the external world. Stoic philosophy seems ill-matched against the attractions of consumerism and pragmatism, because the Stoics don’t capture the horror of the naturalist’s god, and so Stoic asceticism would seem all the more mystifying to modern secularists. Withdrawing from the progressive personification of the world through the spread of technology, social regulations, and fictions should be motivated by a religious conviction, because this is an extreme life choice.

Therefore, the Stoic’s determinism should be fortified by the cosmicist’s mysterianism, by the open-mindedness of the humiliated naturalist who learns the horrible truth of our position in the world. It’s not that anything goes when we realize how small we are in the greater scheme; but underlying the best scientific theories should be pantheistic angst—a loathing for what I’ve called the codes of cosmic creation, for the divine creative power’s undeadness, for the fact that a universe in which we’re a replaceable cog in a larger machine that’s indifferent not just to us but to all of its operations is a monstrosity. Ascetic non-attachment, then, becomes an expression of disgust and of fear of contamination by that which is dreadfully holy. So we have satanic relishing of artistic achievement for its relative unnaturalness and ascetic loathing of the zombie forces that animate all natural phenomena. That’s how I see Stoicism fitting into an unembarassing postmodern religion.

The Stoic will say that far from being disgusted with nature, we should submit to the divinity in the world, rather like a Daoist or a Muslim, since a rational, which is to say, intelligible world is the best of all possible ones. But that just doesn't follow. Whether a world is best is a normative judgment which is at least partly subjective. We know that people can be instrumentally rational, efficient, and logical while also being evil, as in the case of Nazis or psychopaths. So just because everything in nature happens for a reason, given the omnipresence of natural law and the impossibility of a miracle, doesn't mean this world will meet with our approval, given our ideals. We don't know the ultimate reason for natural creativity, so the mystery remains: what will the end product be? What is nature busy creating until everything is gathered back into the primordial state? Even were we to discover the answer, there's no guarantee we would share God's interests or his taste. Just because we have the capacity to reason doesn't mean we share God's values. So for us to say that nature is ultimately good is vacuous. All we can say is that nature would be perfectly good according to God's point of view. And this is actually what Stoics tend to say, with Spinoza. But they add that our moral or aesthetic judgments are less perfect than God's, because they're limited by our interests. But this again doesn't follow, because all normative judgments are limited in that way, including God's. Seeing the world from a purely rational standpoint, with no interests, character, or experience to affect your judgment would lead to precisely no normative evaluation of anything. You wouldn't even perceive any mathematical beauty in the world, since aesthetic qualities are likewise subjective and dependent on a particular perspective.

The upshot of this is that I find the Stoic's talk of automatic submission to God/Nature distasteful, not to mention hasty. If we resign ourselves to the necessity of natural law and then add our personal approval of natural phenomena, even though we're not familiar with all of God's intentions, to say the least, we may be like the Jews who went along with the Nazi plan, getting on the train to the concentration camp, and failing to entertain the suspicion that what was happening to them was in fact the worst of all possible situations. In any case, as I said, we prefer the artificial worlds we create to the more directly God-made one we find. We can say that nature builds artificial worlds through us and so in this sense we're still submitting to natural law. But what we're really doing is submitting to the natural impulse to recreate things, to be disgusted, in effect, with the old and to be sufficiently original to create something new. When sentient creatures take part in this sort of transformation, this looks to me more like rebellion than submission.     

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