Ep. 14 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)
Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. Last time we finished our look at the Axial Revolution in India. We took a look at what was going on in The Buddha's state of enlightenment. We took a look at some of the Cognitive Science in such awakening experiences. And then we moved to interpret following the sage advice of Batchelor. Some of the Buddha's pronouncements, trying to get beyond interpreting his pronouncements as propositions to be believed [and] instead understand them as provocations so that we may enact Enlightenment. And that means enacting the threat that we are facing, and then enacting the psycho-technologies that can respond to it. We took a look at this in terms of ideas of Parasitic Processing, Reciprocal Narrowing, Addiction and the opposite of anagogic acceleration, as opposed to Reciprocal Narrowing and creating a counter-active dynamical system. The counter-active system of the Eightfold Path for successfully dealing with Parasitic Processing. So we saw that these higher states of consciousness, these awakening experiences, can bring about transformations that alleviate modal confusion, parasitic processing, reciprocal narrowing, many of the ways in which we fundamentally lose our Agency in the world, in a self-deceptive and self-destructive manner.
Post Axial Revolution in the West - The Hellenistic Period
I'd now like to return back to what's happening after the Axial Revolution in the West. So Socrates was fortunate [that] he had a great disciple in Plato. Plato was fortunate in that he had a great disciple in Aristotle. Aristotle had a great disciple, but he was not so fortunate. Aristotle's great disciple is not himself a great philosopher, he is another kind of great. He is Alexander the Great and Alexander the Great is an example of the kind of thing that predates the axial revolution: the world conquer. Alexander creates an empire and takes the Greek way of thinking throughout most of the known world in a way that reestablishes, in perhaps a dangerous manner, the Pre-Axial World.
Alexander is so glorious that the line between being a human being and being a god is blurred. He creates a personal mythology in which he is a god man very much like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt which might perhaps explain why Alexander was so readily welcomed into the courts of Egypt. Either way, what happens is a twisting of the world because not only does Alexander represent a return to a pre-axial way of being, he also represents a fundamental disruption to the world in which people had found themselves. Let's compare the world of Aristotle to the world of Alexander.
Comparisons between the worlds of Aristotle and Alexander
Now in order to do that we have to understand that Alexander himself does not live very long: he dies in Babylon, that most ancient of cities, and it's not clear what he dies of at a young age of 33. He has a child but the child of course is too young and is therefore quickly killed and his major generals fight amongst themselves and they carve his empire up into four smaller empires that are perpetually at war with each other for about three hundred years. So this period is known as the Hellenistic Era. So, if you're alive at the time of Aristotle, chances are you live, if you're Greek, part of the Greek culture, you live in a Polis - this is where we get "cosmopolitan" from. It doesn't mean city, it means a city state. Like, for example, Athens and its surrounding agricultural supporting environment. Or Sparta.
Now you know many of the other citizens, you know them face to face. We mentioned the idea that, you know, Athens is developing democracy - remember when we discuss the Sophists and, at least for the adult males, and that's a significant defect in this society, but I've already gone into that - but you're participating in your government in a direct manner. You live close to, it's accessible to you, the seat of that government. You often know personally people involved in the government. Sometimes even the leaders themselves. Everybody around you speaks your language. Everybody around you has ancestors, like you yourself do, stretching back beyond memory who have lived in this place. Everybody around you has the same religion as you. Everybody has basically the same allegiances to this place. See, your Polis just isn't just where you lived. Your Polis is such a tight relationship between Agent and Arena that one of the greatest punishments you could suffer in this world - the world of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - is to be ostracized, which is just - you're not killed, you're not imprisoned, you're not punished in any way - you're just told to leave the Polis! And for many people they would rather die or face imprisonment than be ostracized because the Polis was such an embedded existence for them. Their identity was so enmeshed in it. So see... Look how deeply connected you are to yourself, to your environment, to the people around you, to your government, to your culture, to your history. Alexander comes and smashes all of that. Greek culture is now distributed into Africa, the Levant, into Asia (Asia Minor [and] Asia proper), right down to, out to the borders of India. You have Greek kingdoms, Bactria [for example], that are integrating Greek culture with Buddhist Philosophy and religion in what is modern day Afghanistan.
Now what does this mean? Well this means, in the Hellenistic Era, people are being moved around and shuffled around and they belong to far flung empires. You are now probably thousands of miles away from the seat of government. You do not participate in that government, nor do you know, personally, most of the people or any of the people in it. The people around you might not have lived where you're living very long; you might not be living where you've been living very long. Your ancestors might have been from Athens and here you are dwelling in Asia Minor. The people around you speak different languages, worship different gods! Notice how all the connections are being lost; you don't have a connection to a Polis, you don't have a connection to a shared linguistic group of any great extent, shared history, shared ancestry, shared religion. You're experiencing what Porteous and Smith and Brian Walsh called Domicide (we'll come back to this later when we talk about the meaning crisis today).
Alexander after Domicide: an age of anxiety
Domicide is the destruction of home. Now there's two ways in which Domicide can occur. One, of course, is physical destruction of your house, and that's important, but there's also Cultural Domicide in which you have a house, you have a dwelling, but it is not very much your home. Now we'll come back to this being "un-home" again when we talk about our current situation. But notice how often we will use the language of loss of home to describe our current situation where we often talk about how we now feel un-homed in the cosmos. So people are experiencing this radical sense of Domicide. They don't have deep connections to themselves, to each other, to their environment, to their history, to their cultural surroundings. They have very little political participation. They feel insignificant. You can go to sleep and you're part of the Ptolemaic empire and you wake up and you're part of the Seleucid Empire! So this is known as an Age of Anxiety: The Hellenistic Period. The art changes, it becomes much more frenetic, it becomes much more realistic. It becomes much more organized around extremes and tragedy. The confidence that we saw in the earlier periods, the periods of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, was gone! Greece itself has suffered a titanic civil war: The Peloponnesian War. Sparta defeats Athens, the home of Socrates and Plato; one of the places where Aristotle did most of his work! Sparta is very quickly itself defeated by Thebes. Thebes very quickly loses its hegemony. So, the Greek world loses, loses and loses until of course it's overwhelmed by Macedonia and Alexander.
So, whereas the Greek culture is spread throughout the world, it's also thinned. It loses its depth. So there is a change that starts to happen. You can see - as I said, in the art, the expression of this - you can see it in what starts to happen in religions: there's a lot of syncretism. People are trying to create religions that integrate different cultural deities together. A Greek deity, for example, and an Egyptian deity are integrated together and Props into Serapis, or something like that. You also see the elevation of Mother Goddesses to pan-cultural importance, like the Mother Goddess Isis because, of course, when you feel Domicide, when you feel a loss of home, there is nothing that means home more to you than Mother. And if you don't have that with your physical mother, what you want is some Divine Mother that can make you feel at home no matter where you are in this fractured, domicile laden world. But philosophy also responds. The Axial Age has left a powerful legacy - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - and that project does not come to an end, but it does undergo transformation in the face of The Hellenistic meaning crisis.
Epicurus, one of the great philosophers of the Hellenistic Period
Up until now the main thing that wisdom was trying to deal with was foolishness. And that's not abandoned, but that's now seen as insufficient. So one of the great philosophers of the Hellenistic Period is Epicurus. And Epicurus famously said "Call no man a philosopher who has not alleviated the suffering of others". So there is now a therapeutic aspect to wisdom. Wisdom is now importantly about dealing with the anxiety and suffering that people are experiencing in the Hellenistic Era. So a new model is created. So we've seen the idea of the Sage as somebody like Socrates who provokes the Axial Revolution, leads you out of the cave... All of these wonderful and powerful images and figures. But a new metaphor emerges: The philosopher is the physician of the soul. A philosopher is somebody who can cure you of existential suffering. This becomes crucial.
Now, many of these new philosophical schools - the Epicurean for example, and the Stoics - take it upon themselves to try to exemplify Socrates. They try to exemplify Socrates. The Epicureans do this in a very unique way. They do this in a - a useful way of analyzing their position is to take them up on their own metaphor: what is their diagnosis of the disease that is afflicting people? ...and what is their prognosis for the cure? Now the Epicureans are very relevant to us because they in some ways represent a very secular alternative in the midst of what was still a very religious world. And that is pertinent to us. So the Epicureans diagnose that our main problem is fear.
Distinctions between fear and anxiety
Now that's interesting, and there's something right about that. But we have to slow down first. And here's... in order to get closer about how we should try and appropriate what they're saying, the work of Paul Tillich here is especially useful, especially the work he does does in his masterpiece "The Courage To Be". Although he does not talk about the Epicureans very much, he concentrates on the Stoics as we will as well, he nevertheless brings up important distinctions. This is the distinction between "fear" and a word you heard me use more often which is "anxiety".
Now these terms are often used interchangeably and we often... and we also mix up the word anxiety with "eagerness". We'll say I'm so anxious to see you tonight. That's horrible! You shouldn't be anxious to see somebody! That's mean you're distressed and you are suffering a loss of agency and you have a nebulous sense of threat. That's "that person's terrifying"! What you mean is you are "eager to see them". So first of all give up that meaning of anxious. Secondly we use these terms interchangeably (fear and anxiety) and in everyday discourse that's probably all right because they do overlap in some ways, but they're important... It's important to at least talk about the polar differences between them. Fear is when you have an observable, direct threat. If a tiger comes into this room I experience fear because I have an observable threat. In a very important sense I Know What To Do. I may fail in doing it! But I know what to do. OK? Anxiety is different. Anxiety is when the threat is nebulous. You're not quite sure what the threat is and you're not sure what to do. You don't know what to do. So very often when you are suffering existential issues you experience anxiety. This is why this is the preferred term used by Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Although Kirkergar does use fear in one of his books, but that has more to do with something else.
The paradigm shift in strategies from seeking immortality to radically accepting mortality
So the Epicureans are often translated, I think correctly - I'm not talking about/ I'm not making a scholastic point - as talking about how we are suffering because we can't manage fear. I think a better way of understanding it, given this distinction and following on Tillich, is we suffer because we can't manage our anxiety. Because the thing, the fears they talk about are not really things that are a clear threat where we clearly know what to do.
So, according to the Epicureans, basically we don't control our imagination and our thinking and so we suffer from anxieties that cripple our ability to get a grip on the world. So let me give you one: (on screen note: When John mentions the Epicureans, he often uses both "anxious" and "afraid" to mean "anxious") Many people are anxious about death. In fact, sort of prototypically, people will often say, well, they'll often use the existence of death as a way of talking about how their life is ultimately meaningless: "I'm going to die anyways. What does it matter? I'm going to die! And it's terrifying! I don't think... It's going to... It's, right... I'm just afraid of death!" We know that if you expose people to triggers about their own mortality, they become cognitively rigid, they go into something very much like this parasitic processing, they get locked down. Now there's a couple things you can do. You can pursue immortality and, of course, the religions of the ancient world and some versions of the modern world offer this! I have very little to say for this other than, as a cognitive scientist, I think that is an utterly doomed strategy. The evidence that your mind and your consciousness are completely dependent and emergent from your brain is overwhelming. And one thing is indisputable: your brain dies. And when your brain dies, your consciousness, your character, yourself die with it. I know that's even, I suppose, antithetical to what many Buddhists believe, but that's... that's irrelevant!
So I think the strategy of pursuing immortality is not going to work. It makes a fundamental confusion. It confuses something that's phenomenalogically mysterious to you with making a conclusion. Look, I can't experience my own death. I can't imagine it because whenever I'm trying to imagine being dead I'm still consciously aware. And so death is like: "'huuuuuuh!' and therefore I conclude... well, there must be something about me that's immortal because it's inconceivable that I can't 'be' at some level..." But of course that's false! And that points to what the Epicureans talk about. They talk about: there's another strategy! Instead of trying to achieve immortality, can you radically accept your mortality. Because it's indisputable that you're going to die!
Now, how do you do that? Well first of all realize that you can't possibly be anxious about your death. Then you say "yes I am!" OK, well, give the Epicureans a chance! First of all, if what you mean by this (death) [is] your non-existence, and you say "oh I just I can't conceive of my non-existence!", well OK! This is a standard move by Epicurus. "Well what about all of the world before you were born? Do you have trouble conceiving of that?" -No! "Does it terrify you that you didn't exist then?" -No. So your non-existence isn't itself terrifying. And you say "AHHH, but it's, it's the loss!". "Well, the problem with that," the Epicureans would say, "is that's equivocal! Do you mean reduction, or do you to me... do you mean the absence?". And you mean "well, death is total loss!" and then they say "ah but you can't ever experience total loss". They famously said the following: "where I am, Death is not. Where death is, I am not". What that means is: if I am aware that I'm losing I'm still alive. And if I've lost everything I've lost awareness and I can't be aware that I've lost anything. So that can't be what it means! OK?
"So... It means partial loss!??" Ahhh... So what you're actually afraid of is losing some of your Agency. You're afraid of some of the reduction in your capacities as you're dying. But of course you're doing that all the time. So what is it you're actually afraid of? Well the Epicurean say "you are afraid of losing what's good". OK, well what does that mean? Here is where the Epicureans... they are sort of, very, very modern: They say "well good is ultimately something like pleasure" and they got associated with hedonism and that's not quite right. But, they don't mean pleasure in terms of bodily sensation. They mean "pay attention to those things that actually give you the most meaning". Oh, OK! Now, what is it that really gives you meaning? The things that we are most liable to lose, as we age or as we're sick - we're liable to lose our fame, we're liable to lose our fortune, we're liable to lose our wealth. That's scary. But then they say quite rightly "but those aren't the things that give you the most meaning in life".
What is it that gives you the most meaning in life? And here's where the Epicureans have a beautiful answer and they pick it up from Socrates: "The thing that gives you meaning is friendship". And they mean that very broadly. So they were unique in their community: they included women in their community, not primarily for sexual relations, but they considered that the ability to obtain meaningful relationships was crucial. And with those... and, ok... meaningful relationships, not just the relationships, but being able to exercise philosophia: the pursuit of wisdom and self-transcendence. And their point is that as long as you are, that is always available to you. And that any of the pain you're suffering from the loss of any of the any of these things (fame, fortune, wealth) is ultimately manageable by you. You can learn to manage it. Now whether or not you ultimately agree with the Epicureans, do you see what they're doing here? They're refusing to accept "I'm afraid of death!" They're saying "wait wait wait wait. Are you... do you really want immortality?" What you're actually afraid of is losing your Agency which you've identified with these things, but that's not actually where your ultimate happiness lies. That as long as you have cognitive Agency, you can cultivate Philosophical friendships. And Epicurus did this right to his very last moment, even though suffering from some horrible stomach illness. So he exemplified what he's talking, about such that when you die it doesn't matter to you.
So his disciples practiced... they would... and Epicurus had other ways... He tried to get us to not be anxious about the gods. Famously crafting some of the first arguments that are used by modern day atheists against being concerned about the gods. I don't... I wouldn't say Epicurus was an atheist. He's a non-theist. He basically argues that the gods are irrelevant and therefore paying attention to them or being overly concerned with them, being anxious about them and their nebulous threat is not something you should rationally do. So, Epicurus' disciples would practice internalizing Epicurus. They would write his sentences on their household walls, on their household utensils. They would practice... They would form communities together where they would reinforce all of these practices where you constantly train in being able to accept your mortality.
Now, I think this is valuable to us and I think one of the things that any wisdom tradition should do is give us a way of responding to our mortality. I would recommend that that project hasn't stopped. I recommend Tillich's book "The Courage To Be" as a discussion about that from a more modern context. And as I said to you, we are not caught by the usual framing. Either you believe in an afterlife or your life, your current life is meaningless. Instead, the Epicureans say there is an alternative strategy. There is an alternative therapy for dealing with the anxiety. And that is by learning how, not just learning beliefs, but learning how to live in the acceptance of your mortality.
Stoicism and its origins of modern forms of Cognitive Therapy
Now, while I think this is relevant, I don't think that their diagnosis is sufficient. I do not think that the meaning crisis of the Hellenistic Period was driven primarily, or solely, by a fear of mortality. Why? Because mortality has always been with us and always will be with us. I think they are right that periods of chaos and domicide exacerbate - we know this from mortality salience research. Things that are making us feel more vulnerable tend to make our mortality and our terror around it more salient to us. But I think there is another school that gets a better understanding of what was going on in the Hellenistic Period and gives a more comprehensive answer. And this is the Stoic school. Now Stoicism is very relevant because Stoicism is a direct and explicit ancestor to some of our current forms of psychotherapy. The current forms of psychotherapy that are the most evidence based for being effective - the cognitive therapies like cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, rational Emotive Therapy, etc. - directly come out of stoicism.
You read Aaron Beck's book, for example ,on cognitive therapy, he repeatedly states this and cites Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. So, the way we are trying to deal with issues of anxiety - and, if you probably noticed, we have an anxiety depression crisis in our culture - is we are very much putting into practice things that originated with the Stoics. Not as much from the Epicureans. So that means the Stoics have a different diagnosis of the problem and a different prognosis for the answer. So what's their issue? They also believe we're suffering from a kind of anxiety. A kind of suffering of a loss of Agency, and the distress around that because that's, of course, what's shared by all of these schools: Confronting the Hellenistic crisis; meaning crisis; the crisis of domicide. But they have a different interpretation of it.
A history of Stoicism from Socrates through Antisthenes and Diogenes.
Now we have to do a bit of history. There's a little... There's quite a bit more history that comes out of... out... directly out of Socrates and flows into stoicism. I want to go over this a little bit carefully with you. So you have Socrates, and we know one of his greatest disciples is Plato, but he has another one, Antisthenes. Plato wrote dialogues because he was trying to get us to emulate and eventually internalize Socratic elenchus: that question and answer process that Socrates made famous. When Antistenes was asked what he had learned from Socrates he argued... he didn't argue, he just simply stated! He didn't make an argument. He just simply stated that he learned how to converse with himself. That sounds like, well, "I talk to myself all day long"! OK, so that's exactly the thing. This doesn't mean you're 'internal, just talking to yourself'... It doesn't (writes Rumination on the board), and the problem with that is that talking to yourself is often what goes seriously awry in anxiety and depression. This is what psychologists and psychotherapists mean by rumination; when that talking to yourself gets caught up in those parasitic processing spirals and it just spins out of control. Antisthenes means something else. He means he learned to do with himself what Socrates was able to do with him. He really learned how to internalize Socrates.
So although the Epicureans patterned themselves on Socrates, there they come out of Socrates. The Stoicism is really something close to being a religion that's trying to internalize Socrates, so that Socrates is basically - and I don't mean this disrespectfully, because the Stoics certainly wouldn't - Socrates is turned into a systematic set of psycho-technologies that you internalise into your metacognition. So, what became crucial for Plato, as we saw, was argumentation. But for Antisthenes the actual confrontation with Socrates was more important. Both Plato and Antisthenes are interested in the transformation that Socrates is affording.
Plato sees this happening through argumentation. Antesthenes sees it as happening through confrontation because... And you can see how they're both right, because in Socratic elenchus, Socrates comes up and he argues with you. But of course he's also confronting you. We talked about how he was sort of slamming the Axial revolution into your face! So, Antesthenes has a follower, Diogenes, and Diogenes epitomizes this: This confrontation. And by looking at the kinds of confrontation we can start to see what the followers of Antesthenes are doing. So Diogenes basically does something analogous to provocative performance art. He gets in your face in a way that tries to provoke you to realizations. Those kinds of insights that will challenge you. He tries to basically create aporia in you, that shocked experience that you had when confronting Socrates that challenges you to radically transform your life. But instead of using argumentation and discussion, as Socrates did and Plato picked up on, they were really trying to hone in on how to try to be as provocative as possible.
So famously you know about one of these. It became a card in the Tarot and it became a album cover for Led Zeppelin. You have the man with the lamp, walking, wandering about: the hermit with the lamp! Well this is Diogenes. He walked into the marketplace carrying around a lamp and looking and looking and looking and looking and everybody said "well what are you looking for?" And then he just kept looking and looking... "What are you looking for? What are you... What is it? What is it?" And then he said "I'm looking for one honest man!" And then everybody gets got pissed off at him because they are so intrigued by all this looking and questing and then when it [be]comes something that, right... And they're pissed off because they know he's right because they're in the marketplace and everybody is lying and cheating and stealing. But they don't want to know that. They don't want to pay attention to that!
Now, that sound sort of 'yeah that's kind of cool and creative'! Yeah, but Diogenes does other things that you might not find so cool or courageous. Well, they're courageous, at least, but they're not... you don't find them cool! Diogenes also famously came into the center of the marketplace and masturbated in public! And most of... We're all going like "Ewww! EWWWW!" Right? How are these two things possibly related? Well here's how they're related. The group of people that start to take shape in this tradition are called the Cynics. It's not our modern meaning of the word, so I'm going to use a capital C because this just means, you know, being suspicious that everybody has an ulterior motive, or secret agenda. That's not what is meant here. This means actually living like a dog, because Diogenes also famously lived outside of Athens in a barrel!
So let me tell you one more story and we will try to connect all of them. So Alexander, the future emperor of the world, on his ascendance into godhood comes to visit Diogenes. So you can imagine! Here is the whole, like, all of this entourage! And here comes Alexander to visit Diogenes and he comes up to Diogenes he says: "I can give you half of the world! What do you want?" And all Diogenes says is "could you move a little to the left, you're blocking my sunlight!". So why is he living in a barrel? Why is that his answer to Alexander? Why does he look for one honest man? Why does he masturbate [in public]? What is going on? Well, the Cynics had a particular understanding of The Hellenistic Domicide. They had the idea that what causes us to suffer is what we set our heart on. It's not just the particular that we set our heart on in our life, and we're afraid of losing it in death. We can set our heart on all kinds of things that ultimately will cause us to suffer.
Why? Well, their idea is when we set our hearts on the wrong things, those things will fail us, and that's how we suffer. You can see some similarities to some aspects of Buddhism and to some of the asceticism that the Buddha first practiced himself. So the Cynics came to the conclusion that what The Hellenistic Period was showing is that many of the things that we take for granted - and think about what that word means: we take them as being part of the structure of reality - are actually not fundamentally real. They don't have staying power. They're not permanent. They're actually manmade. They are historically, culturally, dependent and they are temporary. And when we set ourselves on these things the current of events can easily and readily wash them away. And then we are left bereft. Our hearts are torn from us. And that is how we experience domicide.
So, what should we do then? Well you should learn - not just acquire a set of beliefs; Diogenes isn't just believing things, he's living in a certain place, in a certain way - you should learn how to set your heart on the kinds of things that are not manmade, are not contingent, that will not be swept away by events. What are those kinds of things? Well one are the laws of the Natural World. So this is why Diogenes lives in a barrel! He wants to live as much as he can like an animal. In one sense! In another sense he doesn't want to live like an animal at all. But he wants to live as much by natural law as opposed to manmade law. He doesn't want to be invested in manmade cultural institutions or practices, cultural, political value systems because those will end! And then if we have set our hearts upon them, our hearts will be broken. So you want to as much as you can live according to the patterns of nature, because those are not manmade and those will not disappear with the change in history or culture. Now if it was just that then, of course, Diogenes would just live like an animal! But the Cynics also said, in addition to natural law, there are moral laws.
Moral laws - Guilt verses Shame. Moral principles and purity codes.
There are moral laws as to what is a proper way to be a good human being. Now you may say "but isn't that all culturally relative?" And of course that's a big dispute. But one of the things that the Cynics did was to try and make a distinction between moral principles that are not culturally based and purity codes that are culturally historically based. And they are similar to each other in ways such that we can often confuse them together. So a good way of understanding this is in terms of more modern language of Guilt versus Shame. Now, again we use these terms interchangeably and we shouldn't because having a distinction between them is useful. Guilt is your distress at having realized [that] you [have] broken a moral principle. Shame is your distress at having violated a purity code. Let me give you an example: If, as I was delivering this video, there was some sort of malfunction in my clothing and my clothing suddenly fell down, I would be deeply embarrassed. I would experience shame. Why? Because I violated a code, a cultural code, which is [that] I'm supposed to be fully clothed in public discourse, and I am, right?! But if that happened, have I done anything immoral? Most of you would say "no, you didn't do anything immora!l You didn't do anything wrong!". So I don't feel guilt I feel shame.
Sometimes they can be against each other. You may be made to feel ashamed even though you're doing something that you believe, let's say in a justified way, is morally right! Many people who supported blacks during the Civil Rights Movement were subjected to terrific amounts of shaming, even though they didn't experience any guilt in what they were doing.
See purity codes are designed to keep the categorical boundaries that make a culture, at a particular historical period, run the way it's running. They are highly tied up with the invested power structures who are usually highly invested in keeping things running the way they're running. So we have lots of important boundaries that are protected by purity codes. So, for example, just to give you one more example, just to make it clear: none of you, I hope, would be distressed by me doing the following... Here is some water. (sips water) Is that OK? Immagine if I do the following... I collect lots of saliva in my mouth. Lots of it! Just tons and tons of saliva, and then I spit it into the glass until there's gobs and gobs of saliva in my glass. And now I swirl it around... Just imagine it... Come on...!! And then I drink it!!! And now you're going "EEEEWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!" Now notice: if I mixed the water inside my mouth and swallow, you're fine with that! But if the saliva comes outside of my mouth into the glass you find it repellent. That's because there is an important purity code here. The purity code is 'this is the boundary of John and things inside this are John and pieces as of John should not come out into the world. John should not spit. John should not fart. John should not burp. John should not cut his fingernails off and leave them in front of you... John should even not leave his bed unmade because he's leaving his impression behind and that's yucky'. That's a purity code.
Now very often we confuse purity codes with moral codes. We confuse Purity Codes because we confuse our disgust reaction, that's often purity code based, with a moral judgment that should be based on reasoning and evidence. Please listen to me very carefully with what I want to say. First I'll give you something non-controversial: both of my parents are dead. But suppose they were alive: I don't want to see them having sex. I don't. I would go "EWWW!". Is that a moral argument? Of course not! There's nothing immoral with them having sex! That's why I'm here! In a similar way, and please hear what I'm saying, I might not want to see two men having sex. That doesn't mean that that is in any way a moral judgment on my part. But a lot of the ways we have persecuted gay people is because we have confused a purity code 'discuss' reaction with a legitimate moral argument. The people who started the process and we're still pulling them apart today, right now, right here right now, were the Cynics. What Diogenes was trying to do was get you to pull apart the moral code from the purity code. He did nothing immoral by masturbating in public.
But although lots of people were doing stuff that was culturally acceptable in the marketplace, most of it was a moral. Do you see? Alexander comes to him and offers him power and fame, but those are all the things the Cynics say are no good because, if you set your hearts on them, those are manmade, human defined and therefore your heart will eventually be broken. Set your heart on what won't get broken.
So, the Cynics developed this very powerful, provocative way of enacting Socrates and trying to get us, the Cynics are trying to get us to realize what we're setting our heart on, and to pull apart our automatic disgust reactions from moral reflection on what we're doing.
Now Diogenes has a disciple Crates, and then Crates has a disciple Zeno. This is not the Zeno of Zeno's paradoxes. This is a different Zeno. Now, whereas the Cynics tended to be sort of hostile to Plato, because of his emphasis on argumentation, Zeno was deeply influenced by the Cynics, but he also really liked Plato! He saw that there was value in the argumentation and he realized that there's deep connections between your ability to rationally reflect and your ability to use your reason. So what he wanted to do was integrate the rational argumentation and reasoning of Plato with the provocative aspects of the Cynics. So he crafted a way of life that put the two together. And then he would walk up and down a stoa (this is a covered colonnade in Athens) teaching this new integration. That's where we get the name "Stoic" from. Stoic doesn't mean being, you know, "stiff upper lip and tolerating the decline of the British Empire" or stuff like that! It means something much more sophisticated.
So Zero's insight was "there's something deeply right about the Cynics, but they're getting something wrong!" They're concentrating too much on the product and not enough on the process. They're concentrating too much on what we're attaching our heart to, rather than the very process of attachment itself. Because, The Stoics said, "yes, particular cultures in history are variable, but being social isn't!" Human beings are inherently social! Yes, particular political, cultural and historical institutions and traditions are variable. But it is part of our humanity to be social. We shouldn't be leaving the Polis! Because notice that Diogenes and Socrates have to actually enter the Polis to practice their philosophy! So, Zeno said, "it's not What you set your heart on. It's how you set your heart." And this is always a hallmark of rationality. One of the crucial - and this is like, even recent work on Rationality (Keith Stanovich and others): the hallmark of rationality is learning not to focus just on the products of your cognition, but find valuable, and pay attention to, the processes. What process? What is this process of setting your heart on? Well it's something we've already talked about! It's this process of co-identification.
It's the process by which the Agent:Arena relationship is setup. It's the process by which you're simultaneously assuming an identity and assigning an identity, and you're doing that all the time. Unconsciously.
Now the Stoics say "ah, that process of co-identification is where your identity is being formed. That's where your Agency is taking shape." But if you mindlessly co-identify, if you do it automatically and reactively, you will (if you'll allow me the acronym) you'll MAR that whole process. It'll be open to all kinds of distortion. Self-deception. Self-destruction. You can see here again the Axial Age ideas. So, what do we need to do? Well we need to pay attention to this process. We need to pay attention to how we're assuming and assigning identities. We need to do it in such a way that we can strengthen our Agency in the face of the threat of domicide. So what I want to explore with you next time is what did the Stoics actually advocate as practices. And how are these currently being taken up in our own psychotherapeutic endeavors to deal with our own version of Domicide and the meaning crisis. Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Episode 14 notes
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Stephen Batchelor is a British author and teacher, writing books and articles on Buddhist topics and leading meditation retreats throughout the world. He is a noted proponent of agnostic or secular Buddhism.
Authors - J Porteous and Sandra Smith
Book - Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home - Buy here
The Ptolemaic Kingdom was a Hellenistic kingdom based in ancient Egypt. It was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty, which started with Ptolemy I Soter's accession after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and which ended with the death of Cleopatra and the Roman conquest in 30 BC.
The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic state ruled by the Seleucid dynasty which existed from 312 BC to 63 BC; Seleucus I Nicator founded it following the division of the Macedonian Empire vastly expanded by Alexander the Great.
The Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War was an ancient Greek war fought by the Delian League led by Athens against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases.
Syncretism /ˈsɪŋkrətɪzəm/ is the combining of different beliefs, while blending practices of various schools of thought.
Author - Paul Tillich
Book - The Courage To Be - Buy here
Aaron Temkin Beck is an American psychiatrist who is professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is regarded as the father of both cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses and Enchiridion
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. He served as Roman consul in 140, 145, and 161
Antisthenes was a Greek philosopher and a pupil of Socrates. Antisthenes first learned rhetoric under Gorgias before becoming an ardent disciple of Socrates. He adopted and developed the ethical side of Socrates' teachings, advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.
In a dialogue, elenchus is the "Socratic method" of questioning someone to test the cogency, consistency, and credibility of what he or she has said. Plural: elenchi. Adjective: elentic. Also known as the Socratic elenchus, Socratic method, or elenctic method.
Diogenes, also known as Diogenes the Cynic, was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. He was born in Sinope, an Ionian colony on the Black Sea, in 412 or 404 BC and died at Corinth in 323 BC. Diogenes was a controversial figure. Aporia as a Philosophical TermIn addition to describing genuine and feigned expressions of doubt, the word "aporia" is also used in a very different sense in the world of philosophy. As a philosophical term, aporia is used to describe a contradiction, paradox, or logical impasse in a text.
A member of a school of ancient Greek philosophers founded by Antisthenes, marked by an ostentatious contempt for ease and pleasure. The movement flourished in the 3rd century BC and revived in the 1st century AD.
Cynicism is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics. For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature
Crates of Thebes
Crates of Thebes was a Cynic philosopher. Crates gave away his money to live a life of poverty on the streets of Athens. He married Hipparchia of Maroneia who lived in the same manner that he did. Respected by the people of Athens, he is remembered for being the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism
Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium was a Hellenistic philosopher of Phoenician origin from Citium, Cyprus. Zeno was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, which he taught in Athens from about 300 BC
Keith E. Stanovich
Keith E. Stanovich (Rationality) is Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto and former Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science. His research areas are the psychology of reasoning and the psychology of reading.
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