"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Are You A Stoic Or A Nihilist? Get Off The Fence!

It’s easy to be a Stoic if you don’t know much about it. Come what may, life is simply a series of random events which have no meaning, so better not to get all hot and bothered. Oops, no, that’s Nihilism practiced and espoused by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Sartre among others.  Stoicism has a moral component to it. A Stoic cannot simply blow off adversity, but contemplate it to better understand one’s place within the concentric moral rings of morality. As Massimo Pigliucci writes in the New York Times (2.2.15):

Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value.

Not for everybody, Pigliucci says, easier than becoming a Buddhist, and certainly better than falling into the Being and Nothingness and Beyond Good and Evil Trap. His stoicism is a kind of philosophy light – a New Age yoga to help get through the day.

The Nihilists, however, had history and empirical evidence on their side.  Nowhere in the millennia of human history, they contend, can one see any evidence of a consistent morality. We all talk the talk, but from the dawn of pre-history to the present day, we all fit the same aggressive, acquisitive, and self-interested pattern.  We are very little different from the day we came down from the trees.  Societies, communities, and individuals have all been characterized by the same expansionist, territorial, and she-bear ferocity.  Every religion has tried to round the sharpest edges of our collective character but of course have been unable to do so.  Human nature is what drives us all, and until the day when we can recombine DNA in ways which will radically alter it, we are programmed to act in the same ways as the earliest hominids.

It is all well and good for Sr. Pigliucci to sit and meditate on the goodness of Man, and if that notion gets him through the day, all well and good. Nihilism, however, is more realistic and far less time-consuming.  Once you make up your mind that human nature will never change; that it necessarily drives all human enterprise; and that every human social unit has been configured to accommodate it, you are home free.

Tolstoy had a sensible philosophy of history.  No one person nor any one event has inherent meaning or value.  Every action is simply the result of billions of preceding random events – billiard balls banged by the cues of random players.  Napoleon lost the Battle of Borodino not because of any one bad decision, but because he had a cold.  He had a cold because his aide de camp had forgotten to bring the Emperor’s waterproof boots, and slogging through the Russian mud with wet feet for hundreds of miles would make anyone sick.  The aide de camp had forgotten the gum boots because he was preoccupied with his wife’s delinquencies because she, in turn, had been careless in covering her tracks.

‘Shit happens’. Indeed it does; but the trick is to be prepared. Reinhold Niebuhr penned The Serenity Prayer because as a philosopher he knew what was coming:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Niebuhr, however, had faith in the power of change, to effect good in the world through wise and mature decisions. This was the basic teaching of Christ when tempted by the Devil. Man has the free will to decide between right and wrong and to act morally. Free will is the key that unlocks the door to heaven. 

The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov challenges the returned Christ and says that he has sold the world a bill of goods.  Man doesn’t want free will, the Inquisitor says.  He wants bread and relief from suffering, both of which you could have given, but didn’t. He doesn’t care about morality, right behavior, or spiritual evolution.  He wants to eat.

A good Nihilist doesn’t bother with parsing moral conundrums. We all are propelled by the random events of the past, by generic and universal human nature, and by the particular configurations of that nature which give us our individual character and personality. Morality, like God, is human construct.  There is no such thing as an absolute, universal, moral good; and if there is it has been devised by man as a social governor.

One day many years ago I visited Hardwar, one of Hinduism’s holiest places at the headwaters of the Ganges; and I thought that I would give meditation a try.  What better place to rid the mind of cognition and reflect on nothing, a process which promised peace and inner calm.  Easier said than done.  As I sat there on one of the holy ghats over the river, trying to hear the rapid waters without thinking about their movement; to see the funeral pyres without thinking of quantities of wood and obsequies; and to feel the warmth of the sun without judging temperature or UV strength, I of course thought of all those things and then some.  Goat curry, twinges of diarrhea, my Parsi girlfriend back in Bombay.

Meditation was not for me and probably not for most Westerners who have been brought up to value cognition, reason, and logical analysis.  I, like Sr. Pigliucci, decided that there had to be an easier way to make sense of life.

My travels helped me com to a nihilistic conclusion.  The more I travelled, the more I understood the intelligence of Shakespeare’s vision.  As the critic Jan Kott pointed out, if you laid the Histories end to end, you would see the same dramas unfold in each – rivalries, jealousies, palace coups, intrigues, treachery, murder, wars, depredation, and conquest.  No matter where I went from the smallest African village in Congolese bush to the chambers of the Indian Parliament, the story was the same.  Children fought each other for the biggest piece of gazelle meat. Villages raided each other for stores and slaves. The Gao, Ghana, Seleucid, and Berber empires came and went fighting for purchase and territory. Castes, ethnicities, tribes, communities, and nations were all out to kill each other.

As Shakespeare observed, the outcome was neither good nor bad.  If it hadn’t been for this hardwired self-interest and competitiveness, the world would never have had Persepolis or Rome; but then again at what cost?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the French say.  ‘There is nothing permanent but change’ say the Buddhists.  Everyone seems to come to the same conclusion, but many people simply cannot accept the finality of ‘That’s all there is’, Sr. Pigliucci included.  If there were no moral universe, something bigger and better than Man, what use is there in living, they say.

Nonsense. Most of the rest of us are happy to be propelled along in meaningless waters and to finally end up twirling in an eddy until we sink to the bottom.  Life does not have to have a purpose, we contend; and the more we view it through a nihilistic lens, the more equanimity we have.

Americans on their first look into India think that fatalism is a downer.  Where is the joy and exuberance in a society which consigns everyone to caste without reprieve and a life of endless rebirth? What they are missing, of course, is the equanimity that comes with such a prescribed life. Hindus articulated this philosophy long before Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor challenged Christ with it.  .

Having said all this, Nihilism is the easiest philosophy to espouse.  You simply have to have lived long enough to see the predictable repetition of human events and understood the timelessness of them to arrive at this conclusion.  No meditation, no yoga, no ‘dispreferred indifferent’.  Just eyes wide open, a little rational analysis, and time and tide will do the rest. 

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read, Nihilism has always fascinated me and so has Stoicism since it was introduced to me in the book "Meditations" about a year ago.

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