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.