Stoicism and Christianity part II

kaltrosomos has some questions on redirect to my previous testimony. Again I take the witness stand to plead my case.

Again, let me try to answer seriatim:

Q: (Quoting me) "History would prove them wanting." What leads you to this conclusion that history would prove them wanting?

A: The full quote is “The naturalist philosophies of life seek joy either through the satisfaction of passionate pleasures (as a Hedonist) or of moderate pleasures as governed by reason (as an Epicurean), or through the use of reason to the exclusion of personal pleasure (as a Stoic). These repretsent the options of no self-control, modest self-control and total self-control. There is no naturalistic moral philosophy left once these three positions have been found wanting. History would prove them wanting. They have been revived in the modern day

Sorry if this is unclear. I mean only that Hedonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism have always been in the minority position. While the Stoic or Epicurean might wish that the common man, the rulers and soldiers, the philosophers and academics, poets and prophets, opinion-makers and intellectuals of every age of history would embrace the Stoic or Epicurean message, in fact most people find the message unsatisfactory. None of these have ever been the office doctrine or the consensus opinion of any society history reports. Even modern nation states embracing an official position of atheism (Red China or Soviet Russia) also embrace transcendentalism, a belief in a missionary mission to save the world from Capitalism, or to serve the transcendent Material Dialectic of history, to serve the Will of the People, and so on.

Objectivism is a modern day revival of Aristotelian Eudaimonaism, which is a form of Epicureanism. It differs from Aristotle in metaphysics and economics — this latter is not surprising, as economics is a science unknown to the ancient Greeks.

Q: (Quoting me) "The human condition is intolerable." I find much to live for on purely natural grounds. You might say that you personally find life intolerable on purely natural grounds, but speaking for all men is unwarranted.

A: You misread me. I am not saying that my person opinion as an art critic is that I personally find the human condition intolerable. I am not saying that all men in their personal opinion personally find the human condition intolerable.

I am saying it is an objective fact that the human condition is intolerable.

If you say you find the human condition tolerable, I submit you are speaking only of your own life and your own pleasures, which have not yet soured or been torn from you by those iron-faced hags we call the Fates. I am speaking of the general condition of mortal life. I am not saying all people are moaning and weeping as at a funeral every day.

The general condition of mortal life includes suffering, injustice, futility, sickness, and death. The pangs of conscience afflict any man who is not a sociopath. The pangs of illness afflict every man who does not die in youth. If there is no war in your land in your generation, you live in a fortunate land at a fortunate time: but the human condition is not merely that one sunny Saturday on the beach when the cute girl from the taco stand finally agreed to go on a date with you, and you stole a kiss at the top of the Ferris Wheel, and she did not seem to mind.

The human condition is everything. It includes the middle-aged woman who slipped from the carousel and dislocated her shoulder at that same moment as your kiss. It includes her two young children, born deaf, that are trying to find someone in the boardwalk crowd to help their Mom, and all they can make is hoarse gobbling noises. It includes the old man who just died quietly on a boardwalk bench of a stroke to the brain, and the gay crowds will not notice he is dead until a fly lands on his face. It will be two days before his wife, who has never loved any other man, discovers why he did not come home for dinner as promised.

Everything you accomplish, everything you love, everything you touch, will one day rot to dust and be forgotten: the sun will grow old, and swell, and eat the earth. The universe will run down like an unwound clock, and the stars go out.

Happiness on earth is fleeting and impermanent. Suffering is unavoidable, and death is permanent, and entropy will destroy all monuments and memories which outlive you.

Now, one can argue, as the Stoics do, that one should be content with fleeting earthly happiness. But the nature of happiness is such that no one can be happy when happiness ends. This is the testimony of common sense, even if it were not true by definition.

No man has an earthly reason to try to live without earthly happiness. All earthly happiness ends. No one is happy when happiness ends. Such is the nature of the human condition.

While some men of heroic serenity, Buddha or Cato of Utica or Socrates, can depart from life without regret, or see their loved ones die in lingering pain, or their cities fall to flames while foemen rape wives and daughters, and dash out the brains of babies on the stones— even these men cannot be said to be happy at these times, but merely content or serene, and then only to the degree that they have placed their happiness no longer on earthly things, wives and children and home and hearth.

To give up wives and children and homeland is to depart from the human condition insofar as it lies with a human to do so: this is why monks turn their backs on the world. But monks are not seeking earthly happiness, are they?

Given a choice between the human condition and an angelic or elfin happiness, such as they enjoy in heaven or in Elfland, or atop the cloudless Olympus of the pagan gods where no stormwinds blow, where pleasures do not end, no one would choose the human condition.

No one would tolerate it. No one would select mortal suffering over immortal bliss. But mortal suffering is the human condition. Immortal bliss is not the human condition.

Q: "If we are nothing but meat machines, then to throw baby Oedipus, if he is born with a swollen foot, into the Apothetae where the Spartans threw their unwanted newborns is a reasonable action-" I would disagree with this based on a number of grounds. If pain is generally bad and pleasure generally good, we can say that it is generally bad to toss babies into the Apothetae…”

A: Maybe I misunderstand you, but it sounds like you contradict yourself here.

If we are merely meat machines, then by definition pain is not generally bad nor pleasure generally good; for a machine has no innate value. Machines by definition are tools, not things good or evil in and of themselves.

A transcendental philosophy can propose that human life is valuable in and of itself. Kant, for example, takes this as a fundamental in his moral philosophy: that no human should be used as a means to an end, but always treated as an end in himself. A nihilistic philosophy cannot so propose.

Pain and pleasure when regarded merely as subjective sensations have no innate value either. Supposed the Spartans murdered unwanted baby by an injection of morphine, so that the baby died giggling and gurgling with joy. Suppose further the baby too young to contemplate death or fear it, so it falls merely into a dreamless sleep and then into oblivion. Obviously no pain per se is encountered by the baby. One cannot argue that child-murder is bad merely because it causes pain, but also argue that painless child-murder is bad. One can only argue that child-murder is bad if a child has an innate value that livestock raised for slaughter lacks.

Q: “We meat machines happen to be, in general, empathetic to the pains of others. Those that are not at all empathetic are the exception to the rule. Thus, for most people it is painful to see others in pain…”

A: The idea of the empathic machine is absurd. The idea that it is painful to see others in pain is naïve as well as being false. I will point to the gladiatorial games of the Romans, the video of the Daniel Pearl murder, and the box office returns of SAW III.

No, I need not be so dramatic as to refer to torture flicks. I will point to THE THREE STOOGES: slapstick humor is the laugh we get when we see someone else get poked in the eye by Moe Howard.

In reality, we only empathize with the pain of others if our conscience, appetites and passions are schooled by proper upbringing to follow what theologians call Natural Reason.

Natural Reason says we should feel pain when others feel pain.

Human history is a river of blood in which we wade, sometimes up to the ankle, thigh, or hip, sometimes up to the neck, and sometimes we drown. Sometimes, when the tide of blood ebbs, there is peace enough for labors of greatness to rise up, as splendid as the city of Rome. Other times, the flood comes in, and the glory of Rome is quenched, leaving only ruins like bones, empty aqueducts overtowering the nearby shabby huts. That river is called war. That flood would not flow if we obeyed Natural Reason.

The Stoic demands that we empathize with others on the grounds that all men are the children of Zeus, and are beholden to obey the divine laws of moral duty. The Epicurean says that we should empathize with those of our class and city, but that barbarians are natural slaves, inferior and meant to betools for our pleasures. The Hedonist says that if it feels good, do it.

In other words, a philosophy or world view which does not contain a metaphysical reason to support the idea of Natural Reason does not have a necessary reason or justification to propose that we should feel pain when others feel pain.

I will merely point out the confusion that results from a moral code deduced without reference to some sort of Natural Reason. Peter Singer proposes that killing livestock is immoral on the grounds that it causes the animal pain, but that killing a child up to the age of two years or so is moral, on the grounds that the parents might not be satisfied with the child. Robert Heinlein proposes that whether or not you eat human flesh is a subjective and arbitrary cultural taboo, but that tolerating polygamy is ordained by absolute and ironclad rule—cannibalism is a matter of opinion, but a Mormon or a Turk keeping a harem is a matter of absolute right. Ayn Rand proposes that breaking a contract is objectively and absolutely wrong, but that violating your marriage vow to fornicate with Dagny Taggart or Nathanial Brandon is not merely acceptable, but obligatory, since it is rational to fall in love with someone who represents your highest rational values, and love means erotic love.

Absent Natural Reason, no one has any non-arbitrary place to draw the line between those whose pain we feel, and those outside the pale.

Q: "The yearning for immortal, eternal bliss is one which cannot be uprooted from the human heart. The pleasures to be found in one span of life, even for a Croesus or a Caesar, are insufficient." You might claim dissatisfaction for yourself, but how can you claim it for all men everywhere and in all times?

A: I am not talking about mere dissatisfaction. I am saying that the man who, having achieved everything he wants to accomplish in life, and having no further ambition, who lays himself down to die with the easy good will of an actor bowing at a curtain call, leaving behind family and friends and homeland with a smile and a wave—he gives his wife a handshake or a peck on the cheek but has no regrets—and he passes into total oblivion without any desire to see another sunrise, eat another milkshake, or read the last book in the HARRY POTTER series, I am saying there is no such man. I am saying such a man is impossible even to imagine, much less to claim you are he.

I am saying when you see a car run over your favorite dog or your favorite child, or when you see enemy bombs land in your neighborhood and your best friend is covered with jellied gasoline, and you cannot even touch him to comfort him as he dies lest his blackened flesh come off in your hands, you do not simply shrug and smile like a good sport who loses a penny-ante card game.

If life were a feast, we would eat of it until sated, would pat our stomachs and bump with satisfaction, and then die with no more thought or anxiety than a man shows when he says he is too full for dessert. “No, no, that pie looks lovely, but I could not eat another bite! No, really!”

Can you imagine a man on his deathbed talking this way? “Little Nell, the doctors have found a cure! It is painless, and you will be able to play the violin again! You will finally be able to leave Bedford Falls and see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as you’ve always dreamed!” “Oh, no. Send the doctors away. I am happy with life, and would like to be annihilated into nonexistence now. Everything is perfect, so I would like to stop living. Please.”

In reality, suicide is contemplated by those unhappy with life, not those who are happy, and they seek surcease from pain, or death in come cause greater than themselves. To postulate a man happy with life and also happy with the end of life is to imagine a Chimera.

I notice the Martians imagined in Heinlein’s chimerical STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND pass into non-corporeal existence without discontent, sometimes without even noticing. They do not struggle to live or yearn for life. The whole point of this portrayal was to show that the Martians did not suffer from the human condition of existence. They do not die. The Martian ‘Old Ones’ as ghosts. They remain on Mars, as immune from time and matter as the Eldil of Malacandra. For a human to face eternal oblivion with the same nonchalance that a Martian faces dis-corporeal immortal life would be false-to-facts. His emotions would not be true to the human condition. It would be, if not insanity, at least, inhumanity. This is the condition we call ‘suicidal.’

A Heinlein style Martian or a Lewis style Eldil of Malacandra cannot be suicidal, since facing death is not part of their condition. Only men, people who live in the human condition, only we can be suicidal, and the Natural Law tells us it is wrong for men to be suicidal. Wrong or not, for the purposes of my argument, all I need is to ask you to agree it is unsatisfactory for a human to be suicidal. Suicide is not part of human happiness; it is not an event, like childbirth, that causes joy.

I will point out that if you do not agree, you are now in the uncomfortable position of arguing that it is a part of human happiness to be suicidal, while nevertheless maintaining that love of life is necessary to human happiness.

Q: Perhaps you yearn for eternal bliss, but that doesn’t mean all men must share your yearning. Similarly, even if you find one span of life insufficient that doesn’t mean all men would also find it so.

A: If we lived in a universe where man committed suicide as casually and thoughtlessly as men snap shut and put aside a book they hoped to enjoy but now have given up on, you might have an argument here. As it is, you are speaking nonsense.

I can only assume you are young and in good health and have no dead loved ones and have no sympathy for the suffering of your fellow man—and odd thing indeed, considering that you earlier claimed that sympathy for suffering was nigh universal.

There are many men who think eternal bliss does not exist. But who thinks he would or should turn it down if it did exist and if it were offered? Bliss is the word we use to mean those true joys which do not pale or fade with time.

Let us use a little logic here. You act as if I am saying all men desire more money than they have, or more women, or more fame, or more of some other good that gives joy or pleasure. If I were speaking of these derivative pleasures, your argument would be sound: for there is many a man content with his lot in life, who says that more money will not bring him more joy. But there is no man who says that more joy will not bring him more joy.

Joy is the thing that, by definition, we want when we seek the good. If death is oblivion, then death is the end of joy, and of all good, as well as the end of all things for us. It is not logically possible to prefer death to joy, because the act of preference presupposes some good to be obtained.

Q: Also, I don’t think a Croesus or a Caesar is that much happier than a Rick or a Carl. Probably Croesus and Caesar were a good deal more miserable due to the great weight of ruling. These rulers still might manage to be happy, but not much happier than the average Joe. This is probably true even of the ages in which the average Joe spent his days working on a farm or doing another sort of intensive manual labor. Even though the work was hard, as long as he could obtain food, water, shelter, and other basics, he probably felt happy on balance.

A: I am not interested in arguing the example. If you do not think Caeser is a good example of a famous man or Crousus of a wealthy one, use your own example.

If you think humans are satisfied with food, shelter, and basic physical needs, you do not know any human beings. A holy monk might be satisfied with three square meals and a dry place to sleep, but we would call a man a brute who had no ambitions beyond this, no friends, no wife, and no song to sing, nothing but endless backbreaking work.

In any case, your comment betrays that you agree with the sentiment I expressed. If not even Caesar and Croesus are content with their lot in life, then why should we expect all the serfs and peons and manual laborers in history both to be (1) content with their lives and (2) willing to see the end of their life, and die without regret and without yearning for more life?

If a man is content with something, by definition, he is discontent to lose it. (The exceptions are when he was content with something but now is bored or sated, or when he exchanged something that contents him with something else that contents him more so.)

And, once again, I am not commenting on my satisfaction with my own life. I have led an absurdly worry-free life. Plague, famine, war, disease and death have left me and mine alone so far. I have nothing of which to complain—indeed, I am grateful for the daily pleasures and blessings heaven showers on me with liberal hand.

I am merely claiming that, given a free choice between ending a pleasant life right now and ending a pleasant life many years from now, it is natural for man to take option B. No matter what his allotted span, it is normal and human that he prefer it to be pleasant rather than painful, and more rather than less. If he lived a thousand years in bliss and pleasure, he would prefer one more year, one more day, one more hour, if the angel of oblivion offered the option.

There are, of course, in his sad life, some men who yearn for death. Perhaps these men hope the oblivion and non-existence of death will silence the voice of their conscience, end the torment of their madness, or halt the racking pain that afflicts their bodies, or the dread ennui that drains their souls. There are suicidal men. All of them, all without exception, seek to flee life because life for them is pain, and not because they have no craving for eternal bliss.

One cannot desire non-existence because there is nothing in non-existence to desire. Even the surcease from pain Romeo hopes to enjoy when he drinks the fatal poison is based on an illogical assumption: a non-existent being will not know the pleasure that comes from quenching pain, the release is not experienced. The last moment of life while the Romeo exists, he is in pain. His hope that the pain will end is a false hope, because Romeo is extinguished at that moment, and so, strictly speaking, there is no “end” of the pain. The attempt to flee pain, strictly speaking, has failed.

Q: So what if I will die?

A: You display a cavalier disregard for death that a Stoic pagan might envy. Brave words. The passing years will show you that they are hollow.

Q: When I am dead I won’t be around to feel pleasure or pain.

A: You hope.

Seriously; this is wishful thinking on your part. In reality, there is nothing but pleasure and pain after the death: everlasting joy of paradise or the endless pain of hellfire.

Q: While I am around, I can seek pleasure and peace of mind. I don’t see the problem here. It doesn’t bother me that I wasn’t alive in the time of Caesar or the time of Louis XIV. Once I am dead I won’t mind how charitable I appear to the various corpse-eaters of the earth.

A: Spoken like a philosopher! As a philosopher you must acknowledge that all pleasure and peace of mind sought on earth from earthly things are temporary and vain. As a matter of logic, there is no reason to prefer temporary pleasure to permanent joy, or vain attempts to successful ones.

Resigning yourself to death if you think death is inescapable is laudable and rational. Preferring eternal death to eternal bliss if and when paradise is offered to you, however, is another thing. If death is escapable, who prefers not to escape it?

You can tell yourself now, while the sun shines, that you do not mind the dark, but this is not the same as saying it when the sunset comes, the snow falls, you start shivering, the wolf howls, and the grave opens at your feet, and you see your own name written on the stone, and year is this year.

I promise you that to maintain your peace of mind as a philosopher is a difficult struggle. Human nature and human desire militates against it.

You see, you are missing my whole point. I am not saying that Stoics do not exist. I know they do. I once was one. I am saying Stoicism is against human nature. Human nature prompts us to laugh at weddings and cry at funerals. The Stoic neither laughs nor cries, because human celebration as well as human sorrows have been exiled from his soul, and he dismisses them as indifferent.

Or so he tries. In reality, such a man would be a monster. A man who, when his beloved wife of many years passes away, chops up her corpse and feeds it to his dogs on the purely rational grounds that one should not waste good meat has done something from which even a philosopher would recoil in disgust.

That recoil makes no sense and has no meaning if we are indeed nothing more than clouds of atoms flung together by blind and mindless winds of chance. The shock of blasphemy when someone desecrates a corpse makes sense and has meaning if and only if human life is sacred. If we are made in the image of God, to throw that image to the dogs is an insult to God, even if the person once inhabiting that body suffers no pain by the act. It is logical for me to flinch at cannibalism, or scowl in anger or howl in indignation nor even laugh in embarrassment, because I think something sacred is desecrated.

But you! If there is no God, nothing is sacred. You can cherish things for other reasons, but not because they are sacred. You can think life is precious, but you have no argument to give against the man who throws his dead wife to the dogs. She is not in pain. The dogfood is expensive and so are coffins. Now, perhaps you can uproot every last bit of sentiment that fear of death and respect for the departed imparts in the human soul. I doubt it, but perhaps. If you reached the point where you honestly saw nothing wrong with feeding human flesh to the dogs, you would cease to be human. You would look at a widow lamenting at a graveside, and her cries would have no more meaning in your ears than the screams of a seagull.

By “cease to be human” I mean you would cease to feel empathy with sane and wholesome human emotional reactions. Please note that you, not I, listed empathy with other human beings as a source of human moral sentiment.

Q: "Yet no one said being a Christian was a practical way to achieve happiness in this life…We revere martyrs. We worship a tortured god. We are not pleasure seekers." That is certainly an odd sort of philosophy from my point of view.

A: It is odd from my point of view as well. It is an utter and radical rejection of the world and of the Prince of this World, whom poets call Leviathan, the dark angel of Pride.

Q: But don’t you get some sort of pleasure–perhaps a better word would be fulfillment– from following your God?

A: I do not know how to answer this question because I do not know what you mean. Are you talking about worldly pleasures? I enjoy feast days and festivals at Christmas and Thanksgiving as much as the next man. I go to mass because it is required of me as a duty. I would rather sleep in on Sundays, thank you very much. Sometimes the mass is so beautiful that I am overcome, and moved to tears. That is certainly a rewarding sensation, but I do not know if we can compare it to a physical pleasure like eating a hot dog. I have certain disgusting vices that once caused by great albeit unsatisfying pleasure, which I have since forsworn. To fight these vices and lose the battle, over and over again, is not pleasant in any way, and is quite humiliating for a man who places such a high value on self-discipline to find he has none. To be rid of vice is like having a diseased tooth pulled, however. The pain which comes from the endless and futile search for vicious pleasures, where ever greater doses return ever lesser sensation, is a pain I am glad to be rid of, so that is a sort of satisfaction, I suppose. The vision of God I once had is an ecstasy to which all human pleasures cannot be compared: candlelight compared to sunlight. The peace of Christ which is promised to all the faithful from time to time has aided me through what otherwise would have shattered my tranquility. On the other hand, my conscience did not bother me back when I was an atheist: my standards were strict enough, but I was able to live up to them. God asks me to love my enemies. It would take a miracle for me to live up to that. Not unless God the Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove and took up abode in my heart would such a thing be possible.

The other reason why I cannot answer your question is that there is no way to tally up the various pleasures and duties attached to Christian life and say that the one outweighs the other. This is not the approach: no one loves God because it forms some sort of financially wise venture, where the profits outbalance the liabilities. God might bless his children during their pilgrimage on Earth with certain pleasant things, but He might not. I work my dayjob not out of love for my boss, but so that I can earn my wages, which, once I have earned, I may of right demand. I do not love God to earn a wage, and we are supposed to be steadfast in love whether we are blessed with increase or not, and there is nothing we can demand of God—just ask Job of Uz.

Q: Of course something omnipresent isn’t automatically omniscient, so I am a further buffoon for supposing running from a universe of unconscious objects such as rocks and rivers serves any purpose. It is as though I felt threatened by Alpha Centauri and seduced by Mt. Fuji. Perhaps Mt. Everest spiked my drink, eh?

A: Well, you can join me in my buffoonery. I feel I have explained my position about as clearly as a buffoon might have done, and I thank you for being patient with the explanation, such as it is.