Coffee Is Just Hot Bean Juice: Radical Objectivity and Stoicism by Dominic Vaiana

2,000 years ago, the most powerful man in the world took his seat at a prestigious banquet, only to remind himself that his glass of vintage wine was just old, fermented grapes, that his roasted pork was nothing but a garnished dead pig, and that his robe was simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shellfish blood.

This man was Marcus Aurelius, the first-century Roman emperor who, despite having autonomous power over what was arguably the most dominant empire in history, never allowed his authority and luxuries to corrupt his perceptions. How easy would it have been for such a figure to become preoccupied, much like today’s power-hungry egomaniacs are, with fantastic stories to exaggerate the importance of his wine, his meal, and his clothes?

And yet he resisted.

But cultivating this sober, pragmatic worldview was no easy task for Marcus. Indeed, it was the byproduct of relentless mental discipline, much of which is captured in his Meditations. Among the strategies he implemented to tame his ego was, for lack of an official term, radical objectivity: using contempt to put luxuries in their proper place, seeing “valuable” assets as simple, material objects and evaluating them accordingly.

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Meditations, 6.13).

Translation: take life at face value so you can focus on what’s important.

This art of radical objectivity eventually became a fundamental aspect of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Marcus Aurelius inadvertently became a figurehead of after his death. And while he certainly didn’t invent radical objectivity per se, he did popularize it. His emphasis on mental clarity and self-restraint in a superficial world is woven into a number of Stoic discourses throughout history. The teachings of Epictetus, the Greek slave-turned-philosopher who lived during the same era, ran parallel to Marcus’ meditations:

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’

What a liberating thought: to know that we’re in charge of deciding whether we let glamor and excessive emotion conflict with our reasoned choice. It would seem self-evident to remind ourselves of this when, say, shopping for a car or trembling with excitement at the feet of a celebrity. How much tension could we relieve ourselves of by taking our desires off the pedestal we’ve blindly placed them on?

And yet we allow our perceptions to dictate our well-being.

Say what you will about philosophy, but now more than ever we need a mental framework that can subdue our baseless desires and bring us back down to Earth. Marcus Aurelius and the other first-century Stoics were undoubtedly among the most disciplined and pragmatic thinkers in recorded history, but it would be foolish to suggest that it was more difficult for them, along with those they taught, to resist the allure of consumerism than it is for us in 2018. Sure, there was fine wine and expensive clothing 2,000 years ago. But today, each of us must wake up and confront a multibillion-dollar marketing and advertising industry whose sole objective is to reverse any progress we make towards clarifying our perceptions.

There are men and women who devote their lives to manufacturing gadgets that are more addictive than cigarettes and brands that are more loveable than our own family and friends. And they are good at it. We need these things, we are told. They are part of our identity. Any marketing veteran knows that the less a product or service serves some utilitarian function, the more it implies about identity. But in a time when most of us have our primal, utilitarian needs met (food, water, shelter) charlatans and hacks have free reign to create identities for us.

Who would’ve thought the solution was written in a notebook 2,000 years ago?

Philosophy, particularly Stoicism, isn’t about asking vague questions that make life complicated. Philosophy is about setting our feet on the right path, one that leads to a good life characterized by clarity, not biased perceptions.

How often do we exaggerate the importance of our possessions or that which we wish to possess? How often do we put a veneer of sophistication over life’s trivialities? We tell ourselves stories about the most frivolous purchases in an attempt to enrich our lives. Ironically though, all these stories do is set us up for disappointment when we can’t get them (or when they’re taken away.) Picture the girl frantically checking her phone, equating Instagram likes with fulfillment. Or the grown man inwardly melting down when nobody notices his new BMW.

What would Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca say about these scenarios? Surely, they would point out the emptiness that results from getting so worked up over what isn’t under our control. Perhaps they would encourage channeling that energy towards a more tangible purpose.

Most philosophical and theological traditions agree that desire, though it is the root of suffering, will always be an inherent part of the human condition. But the last thing we should do is chastise ourselves for it, or worse, pretend we don’t desire anything. As the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello noted, the more we renounce something, the more power it has over us. Going minimalist for a month or throwing out our possessions is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound – it won’t fix the root of the problem. Instead, we should follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and lay our desires bare, ponder their worthlessness, and “strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.” It is by understanding our desires, and the emptiness of them, that we lose interest.

The question remains, then, what does being Stoically objective mean in a contemporary sense? We don’t have a creed, doctrine, or rulebook to answer that question, (nor do we need one) but it doesn’t hurt to have some inspiration. That being said, here are some applications of the Stoic art of radical objectivity with a 21st-century twist:

Single batch, artisan, or gourmet coffee is hot bean juice.

Social media apps are for-profit dopamine factories.

A Mercedes-Benz is an assortment of steel, plastic, and glass.

A Rolex is a miniature clock made out of rocks and metal.

Balenciaga shoes are pieces of leather stitched to rubber.

Celebrities are flesh-and-blood mortals with just as many, if not more, problems than we have.

The next time you feel inferior for not “living the good life,” see how transformative this exercise can be. Often by default, we hand over so much control to our biased judgements, even to the point of going into debt or sacrificing our wellbeing and sanity for the sake of them.

Take Apple watches for example: there are millions of people who own them, and millions more who want them. And why not? After all, Apple describes it as “the ultimate device for a healthy life.” But once you strip away the story and the fancy packaging, what more is it than a 1.5-square-inch piece of stainless steel strapped to your wrist that turns you into a puppet, jerking your head with each vibrating notification?

It’s only by managing our impulses that all of these things, watches, clothes, cars, lose their power over us. Not to mention, this can save us a lot of money.

This is not to reduce life to some sterile existence devoid of meaning. On the contrary, radical objectivity adds meaning to life: once we peel the glamour away from our material desires, the clouds begin to clear – what’s left are the priceless aspects of life, ones that can’t be reduced to physical attributes: companionship, wisdom, purpose, fulfillment.

To see things for what they truly are, without their ornamentation or status, is not only difficult but unpopular. Even if you don’t go as far as to relive Thoreau’s Walden, it’s not uncommon to draw strange looks when you abstain from luxuries that you can easily afford. And when that itch to blow money inevitably manifests itself, remember this observation from Seneca, who tutored the self-destructive Roman emperor Nero:

Slavery resides under marble and gold.

Outward show is often an indication of inward conflict. As Marcus Aurelius again reminds us, when we become certain that our accomplishments and possessions are more important than they truly are, it’s then that we are under their spell.

Dominic Vaiana is a writer and media strategist based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Enroll now for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Dear Stoic… by Malachi Maguire

Dear Stoic,

Further to our conversation on Tuesday, I would like to add: that a man’s mind is not a see-saw, upon which there are the two occupants of reason and emotion, those two which are giving it its rise and fall. No. These two aspects of a man’s mind are not opposites straining to pull him in different directions, rather, they are both aiding him towards his purpose, so long, and only so long, as they take their council from his conscience. Now I know you’ll tell me different:

– Reason is the only council to which a man may listen, if, and certainly only if, that man also wants to be happy.

– Oh, I’ll counter, and what makes you think a man wants to be happy.

– Because the contrary, my dear Maguire, is misery.

– Is it though.

– It is, though.

– Might not a man want to be good rather than happy, they don’t necessarily go together you know.

And there it is, dear Stoic, the singular oversight of all stoical wisdom, it’s that it cannot conceive of any other purpose for man except that of massaging his feelings, rubbing them all the right way, so that he may not even fear death, certainly, you’ll say, if reason is allowed to oil its hands. Which would be grand if our purpose was only that of ameliorating mental states and not to attempt a change in the world’s arrangement. Evil, my dear Stoic, is the impact that the foot leaves as a print in the sand. So, it would be some philosophy indeed that concerned itself with the appearance of these prints and not, at all, with the feet that caused them, yet that is exactly what your philosophy is, my dear Stoic. You see, the good is a different purpose altogether. It seeks the cessation of suffering. Now, my dear Stoic, it’s tempting to confuse misery and suffering, suffice to say that misery is the mental state of distress, fear and anguish. On the other hand, suffering is the corporeal contact point of cruelty, oppression, or, in a word, evil. Therefore, if happiness seeks a cessation to misery, it does so only in so far as this mental state is individually ameliorated, be it through the lens of reason, which gives us less to momentarily fear, or, indeed just as ‘stoical’, I’ll say with a wink, through intoxication, to give the hedonist a look in, which gives us nothing to fear at all for as long as we remain intoxicated. Yet nothing has substantively changed in the arrangement of the world, evil reigns, oppression’s rod beats, and the body registers its scars. However, my dear Stoic, if one sees ones purpose as bringing about the good, rather than happiness, well then one is tasked with making concrete changes in how the world is arranged. So you see, my dear Stoic, any man who is convinced that his purpose is to seek happiness, over the good, will be a man who affirms the constancy of this suffering, the constancy of evil, and the constancy of its cruelties. No amount of rational meditation on how he might best ameliorate his miseries is going to do a God damn thing about how he is adversely effected by this now ever present evil, and he is giving no other obligation by your philosophy, dear Stoic, but that of affirming the constancy of that effectuation. What do you have to say for yourself my dear Stoic? Here’s what you will say:

– It’s a virtue philosophy, I make no theological argument… in fact, I have to say, you sound like one of those Christians who banned philosophy, Stoicism particularly, and burned down its library of learning…you’re an apologist for antiphilosophical sentiment.

– Listen, I’ll counter, the truth is we believe in different purposes: you happiness, me the good, and those purposes, dear Stoic, have an impact on the existence of evil, but if all you have is the accusation of an atrocity against papyrus, well then, dear Stoic, you haven’t got much of a defence against the counter accusation that your philosophy promotes a willingness to be evil’s accomplice, to be complicit in its constancy through an acquiescence born of a neglect of man’s true moral obligation, which, in the end, amounts to a disservice to him and a betrayal of all those who will continue to suffer merely because you prefer to perfume the bowl rather than getting rid of what causes the stink.

– That’s quite harsh.

– Do you think so?

– Well yes, you’ll say, not least because I do not accept that man has any other purpose but happiness, and that the good you put forward here is nothing but an illusion, one imagined in opposition to the ineluctable inevitability of our cruel tendencies, and therefore not something which can ever be achieved, and in that case, entertained as a source of false hope, it leads us to the neglect of a happiness we might possibly secure, to errantly chase an imagined good which, for all intents and purposes, is as insubstantial as last night’s dreams.

– My dear Stoic, I’ll counter, human life obtains its purpose through the practice of its use, why it’s exactly like a tree: a tree hasn’t been given any purpose for us by nature, no, it has none but that which is given to it by the practice of its uses: today an aesthetic object in my garden, tomorrow a log to be carved as my chair, or at another time tinder to light the fire that keeps me warm, for anyone to suggest that the tree has but one purpose for us, and that it is given to us by the tree, well then I‘ll have to say, such lunacy has a whole profession dedicated to its treatment, or if too advance – to its incarceration, and you, my dear Stoic, are such a lunatic for suggesting that all human life has the purpose of happiness, and that it’s given to us by life itself.

Listen, my dear Stoic, human life is a teleological either/or, and based on the practical implications of either purpose presented here before us – one or other will be judged to be superior by implication of its practical results. To dismiss one or other on the basis of the erroneous assumption that there is but one purpose to human life, and it is happiness, is to deny us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we might regard to be best for our lives, and in so doing you deny us a chance at pursuing good in the world, and therefore the possibility of diminishing some of its evil, for although it is true that the pursuit of the good hasn’t yet brought about the complete cessation of evil’s suffering, and therefore its vanquishment, it is also true that the pursuit of the good has diminished evil in many respects, for if it had not done so then we would still be living in a world that practiced the enslavement of our fellow man, the Apartheid of society by race, and the use of children for labour….

– Well, Epictetus was a freed slave and a stoic, you’ll rudely interject, as though it added anything relevant at all.

– But, I’ll counter, he did not prescribe a project of universal emancipation, now did he? No, he did not, I’ll answer for you to save time. And that’s my point, that we do not still live in a world as inequitable, cruel, or unjust as that in which each of your fellow stoics lived, in both ancient Greece and Rome, is solely due to the pursuit of the good over happiness. In fact, and you’ll be furious at me for saying this, but: your philosophy deserved to be burned to the ground, and if only in those ashes it would remain, but it’s not so, no, it makes a comeback. I dare say the rise in your philosophy’s popularity today is due, in no small part, to the rise also of that navel gazing, feel good, masturbatory of all philosophies – the self-help culture, which seeks\ happiness above the good, and happiness for them is nothing more than the amelioration of those anxieties which are associated with affirming the constancy of evil, in the despair of ever doing anything about it, and the bad conscience associated in being complicit in this constancy, all the while they are rubbing their overpriced balms into, one or other, of their bodily orifices so as to cleanse, whatever invisible nonsense they’ve called, their chakras.

So there you are, dear Stoic, I await your actual reply and if it is returned to me in the severity in which I imagine it will, well then, at least I can enjoy the levity of that ironic oxymoron: an un-stoical stoic.

Sincerely yours, Malachi Maguire.

 

Malachi Maguire was born in Ireland in 1936, (he’s now 82 and, presently, still amongst the living) and worked as a journalist for a local newspaper, the Clane Gazette, for 38 years, until his retirement in 2004. He now writes occasional pieces as a ‘retirement hobby’, rather than for professional reward.

Archive: Stoic Week 2018 Handbook

The 2018 edition of the Stoic Week Handbook has now been archived.

Over 8,000 people took part in Stoic Week this year.  However, if you want to download the resources and use them in your own way, and at your own pace, you can now do that via the link below:

Stoic Week Handbooks

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit organization run by a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers. If you’re interested in supporting our work please check out our new Patreon page and consider becoming a patron.

Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

 

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Kai
Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, summarizing their plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

It may seem that trying to incorporate the modern concept of sustainability into Stoic philosophy is like trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole. This hunch is backed-up by the various people who, following our Stoicon presentation in London, said that they were “astonished by the glaring connection between the two”. These kinds of comments satisfy us greatly, because they represent a clear demonstration of the applicability of modern Stoicism to 21st century problems, beyond those of a personal nature. What’s more, they give weight to the idea that the Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom are fundamental to planetary wellbeing, no philosophical gymnastics required. Crucially, the public’s reaction at Stoicon reaffirmed our belief that sustainable development is intrinsically linked to humanity’s individual and collective progress towards virtuous thoughts and actions.

For those who did not attend in person, allow us to explain…

Sustainable Development and its Opposite

Contrary to popular belief, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are not synonyms of “environmentally-friendly”. Nor are they limited to a set of actions that one might consider as environmentally-conscious or “green”. Rather, the terms encompass the following definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – Brundtland Commission (1987).

It is important to note that “future generations” do not necessary begin life in whatever village or hospital envisioned in 2050. Rather, they represent those babies born right now whilst you are reading this very sentence. These children along with their slightly older, and younger, cohorts represent the future – the next generation – who will inevitably have to tidy-up the mess and mistakes that we are currently making, and which we will take undoubtedly take limited responsibility for.  This is why locating the safe space between the three pillars (or spheres) of sustainable development: the environment, society and economy, is paramount to overcoming the most complex challenges of the 21st century.

In our presentation, we used the image associated with this article to didactically show the unmistakable connection between Stoicism and sustainability. Here, you can see that a white business man is eating more than his fair share of the Earth and tossing aside, without a second thought or a second glance, the crumbs that would otherwise fall from his table. Whilst this image depicts and contrasts the stereotypical fat white Western evil banker with the impoverished sub-Saharan African make no mistake – this is not a rich Global North vs poor Global South problem. Rather it is one of greed (as the opposite of self-control), cowardice, injustice and ignorance. In short, the cartoon portrays a world which propagates the Stoic vices.

Such a world is an unsustainable miserable existence for the many, who in supporting (or in turning a blind eye to) the few “more equal than others”, have not sought justice. Neither have they had the courage to punish greed. Further, the wisdom of knowing what to do, why to do it and how to do it has not been obtained. Thus, greed, injustice, cowardice and ignorance are the polar opposites of sustainable development.

An Anti-Stoic Approach

In order for humanity, non-human beings and the Earth to occupy the safe space defined by the term “sustainability” we must cherish the idea of a world where progress towards virtue is both encouraged and rewarded. More importantly we must take steps to ensure that it is so.  Yet, in a political climate where the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are deemed charismatic leaders for their most un-Stoic of sentiments and approaches, appealing to common sense, and much less virtue, seems out of step. For some, it may even appear to be hopelessly naïve or futile. But who ever said being Stoic was easy? It certainly wasn’t Seneca.

Each individual’s Stoic journey is a tough one and progress towards eudaimonia (happiness, wellbeing) is a lifelong affair. It is as much about persistence and grit, as it is about having enough vision and desire to acknowledge the value in (sometimes) forsaking momentary pleasure for virtue. And, given just how hard it is for one person to make progress, we are under no illusion as to the near impossibility it is for enough people to coincide in ideas and values to make the difference.  But make the difference we must, because Trump and his tweets aren’t going to save us.  For how can nationalism ever hope to combat the global threat of sea level rise caused by climate change? How can a stream of social media updates help us put a stop to dubious computer algorithms, excessive material consumption, fake news and political apathy?

These are the challenges that we are facing today. They are borderless. They are real. They are complex. And, politicians peddling sexist, racist or nationalistic nonsense are not only out of touch with reality but dangerously ill-equipped to lead us into the 21st century – to the detriment of us all.

The Stoic Solution

So why do we think Stoicism can provide (some of) the answers? Because, as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arydern said, in her address to the United Nations, #MeToo must become #WeToo. And, by definition Stoicism, with its cosmopolitan ideal, is the embodiment of #WeToo. The latter will take vision and proactive steps, but we do believe that the Stoic community can provide solutions for everyday life according to Nature and to the facts. However before we can do this, we must recognise that Stoicism is more than a personal philosophy. After all, the personal is political. The ancient Stoics knew this and lived it.

We modern Stoics must return to our roots instead of hiding behind a superficial understanding of “it is beyond my control” or “one should learn to deal with insults”.  We have an obligation to participate in initiatives that break down social barriers.  We should stand beside women and non-white men trapped by a glass ceiling at work and elsewhere. We must make every effort to see things from their perspective, rather than deny the ceiling’s very existence when we are, in fact, standing on it. This is especially the case if we happen to be a straight white middle-class male with all the privileges that entails, through no fault of our own.  In Stoicism, the acknowledgement of fortune’s favour coupled with the need to use it for the betterment of humankind is nothing new. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, as members of the ancient elite, all recognised that a position (role), comes with duties, whether they liked it or not.

If we are academics, we must return the philosophy to the Stoa, the marketplace for the exchange of ideas and not an ivory tower built on paywalls. Incidentally, this is why, where possible, Leonidas and I place our Stoic articles in open access. We use precious faculty resources or pay out of our own pockets so you, the reader, do not have to.

Finally, we must all encourage the development of good ideas and back them, regardless of who is stating them. Together, regardless of academic discipline or non-academic walk of life, we must all explore what Stoicism has to offer on a societal/global level, as sustainability is, by definition, about justice, self-control and wisdom, along with having the courage to take difficult decisions.

Stoicism Cannot Go it Alone

Whilst it may have sounded a bit like heresy at the Stoicon conference, we stand by our assertion that Stoic philosophy cannot answer all the questions that might be asked in the 21st century. It cannot even derive all the questions that need to be asked. In fact, in our presentation, we joked that in the word “philosophy” there was no such thing as “T.E.A.M” but that there was definitely an “I”. We said this because it reflects the perverse disincentives that exist in the academic field of philosophy, which serve to discredit teamwork to the point that partnering up can be a major obstacle for those young researchers trying to obtain the job security and prestige that comes from having track tenure.

This has to change. It is absurd to think that one brain can outsmart or out-think the multidisciplinary team required to tackle climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare or the technological disruption that comes with automation, artificial intelligence and mass unemployment. We are in right in thinking that we do need ethics but we also need to get a handle on the facts. That means that philosophers, engineers and international policy analysts, for example, must each recognise that they are only one piece of a puzzle and that they will need to come together to solve it.

So What Does All This Mean?

One of the great thinkers of our times, Yuval Noah Harari says in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

If we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation – why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list?

Having proposed adding the “Earth” to the circles of concerns in the academic paper that paved the way for the Stoicon presentation, previous to the publication of Harari’s third book, we are pleased that others are also independently reaching the same conclusions.

In a practical sense, we put forward the idea that if we Stoics agree that Earth should be included in the circles of concern then we cannot philosophically justify intensive farming because of its effect on soil and water quality, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Likewise, we must take steps to curtail the buying and throwing away of single use plastic cups and cheap fashion – there is no “away”.  Furthermore, and perhaps more critically, for those of us who wish to live according to Stoic principles, we cannot continue to support farming practices or diet choices that prevent a livestock’s capacity to live according to their Nature, because they are caged, stapled to the floor, tied-up or separated from their mother – which effectively rules out most of our meat and dairy suppliers.

In the presentation, as we will end here, we left the audience with a simple answer to a question that typically gets bounded about in the various Stoic Facebook groups:

Is it Stoic to… be unsustainable?

No, dear Stoics, it is not!

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable resource use and Stoicism. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting and can be reached over at StoicKai.com

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.