Delight Springs

Monday, September 16, 2013

Stoics & pragmatists

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in Little History today in CoPhi, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. Should leave us plenty of time to reflect on the meaning and context of these squibs, before getting on with the next chunk of America the Philosophical:
 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life. 
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch. 
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t. 
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment. 
Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca. 
Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn't worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. 
The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions. 

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is right on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.
Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

In AtP, Carlin Romano today addresses the symbolic and philosophical significance of the U.S. Constitution. Very timely: tomorrow's Constitution Day (an example of what Michael Walzer considers a culturally-distinctive invented American occasion when we rally 'round "a totemic object for patriotic celebration"), and I've agreed to participate in a public reading on our campus. It'd be just my ironic luck to be stuck with the "right to bear arms" passage.

Is it true that the writers of our Constitution, under the influence of Locke and Hume,  "largely asserted, rather than argued, their fundamental philosophical beliefs?" If so, the "founders' intent" school of judicial conservatism stands all the more exposed as a naked and fallacious appeal to past  authority rather than a sound argument for judicial restraint in the present.

Gordon Wood, who I notice will be speaking at Older Daughter's school tomorrow night to mark the Constitution's 226th birthday (Romano notes the centenary squabble as to whether that's really right, btw), called the Constitution "an aristocratic [document] designed to curb the democratic excesses of the Revolution."

One thing's indisputable: "most of us do not adequately understand the Constitution." We take unblinking and unthinking pride in it, thus excusing ourselves from thinking hard about the continuing and specific relevance of the views of old dead guys from the 18th century to a rapidly changing 21st century world. But, I'd hate to see what might happen to academic freedom on campus without it.

Romano then begins giving us a quick canonical history of pragmatism in America. We start today with Emerson, Peirce, and James. All three were pragmatic to the core, insofar as they valued new experience over inherited dogma and tradition, and urged a flexible philosophy more practically suited to the times in which it actually unfolds. But Emerson and James were also stoical in temper, committed to adapting themselves and their respective philosophies to external conditions in ways conducive to the pursuit of happiness. Peirce, ever prickly and (in James's words) "unsociable of intellect," seems not to have been cut out for that pursuit.

Last year in CoPhi, we read John Lachs's Stoic Pragmatism and welcomed the author to our classrooms to explain why Stoics and Pragmatists are not, contrary to popular assumption, natural opponents. "One of the great joys of my life is to think..." He'll be a tough act for Romano to follow, in November. 

"Emerson dealt with trouble [and family tragedy] by turning to life." His optimism wasn't easy.

C.S. Peirce was a brilliant, bumptious, and frequently "debauched metaphysician" who returned James's generous tribute with insult and "pragmaticism." But his insistence on "not pretending to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts" remains one of the smartest pillars of wisdom ever articulated. If you ask me. 

And he's a good model for a class of CoPhilosophers, believing truth to be "a communal project" -- "the opinion fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate." Notice the confident faith in a stable reality inherent in that formulation. But what if agreement never comes? That's ok, he'd say, we'll come closer if we try.

William James, of the notorious James boys, was both (in his own pragmatic language) tough and tender-minded, intelligent and confident, open and tolerant and (unlike CSP) highly sociable. His story as a philosopher begins with his discovery of the now-obscure Frenchman Renouvier and the power of attentive will, "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts." 

What a great slogan he started out with: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." Seems to have worked out for him, and for pragmatism. 

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