085 - On Relative Values - Moral Letters for Modern Times
No, Deuteros, do not envy me for bidding farewell to my alarm clock. I can give you at least four reasons why not. In the first place, envy is a known disturbance of the mind, an encroachment on your otherwise well-ordered reason. What another has is wholly irrelevant to what you have, just as your possessions, both material and immaterial, are irrelevant to the happiness of others.
It is the obsessive focus on the differences between people that arouses their passions. Once aroused, few of these passions are then put to the betterment of humankind. We can level the field far more easily by tearing down those who excel than by raising up the many who cluster at the center of the bell curve, to say nothing of the long tail to the left. If only we could bring ourselves instead to note all the ways in which we have already far exceeded others, and upon so noticing bend down a helping hand to pull them up. But instead, despite the hordes we have passed, we cast our envying gaze to the ones who remain ahead of us.
The additional reasons why you need not envy me can be enumerated as follows. My bladder and my prostate have conspired to create a more effective biological alarm than my digital clock ever mustered. And this all too human siren rouses me not just once a night like my prior electronic minder, but two, three, even four times. Then there is the fact that I seem to need less sleep than before. Though my labors be extensive, and I slip under my covers with an exhausted sigh, still my body sometimes pops awake before my mind thinks it suitable. And my mind itself presents the final reason for your pity and not envy: I want less sleep than I need. Though the measure of a life is whether it is well-lived and not whether it is long, I long to experience as much of my remaining life as possible. Thus it is I have given up my alarm just when I find I need it least.
Sometimes when I am lying awake I will nonetheless remain in my bed, for my body also knows when it is too early to rise even though my mind is already at work. A turn of phrase may spontaneously arise from which a train of thought starts chugging along. These thoughts used to drive me unwillingly from my sheets to my desk to capture them in words, for fear that they would either keep me from sleep or that I would lose them altogether. My mantra of late has been to simply say, “Let it go. It’s OK, let it go.” For I seem to have no lack of thoughts or words these days. So if the thought is worthy, I expect I will be reinspired soon enough. And if not there has been nothing lost by letting these ephemeral night visitors float away.
Often my wandering thoughts turn to the Stoics, and how far we can follow their teachings before stumbling or, worse, running up against a brick wall. The simplicity and firmness of approach has its own appeal, but there is also danger in dogmatism. Is there but a single virtue to be found in reason, and must all external things be considered of secondary value? Is it possible for the mind to be master of all circumstance, no matter what comes? And what does that make a person, and is it enough?
Given the importance the Stoics placed on the development of reason, and their use of deductive reasoning and logic, I can appreciate why they sometimes let their thoughts carry them to extremes. Competing schools sought to tie each other in syllogistic knots, by taking an accepted proposition and extending it further and further until they produced a paradox. These paradoxes were then held out as proof that the whole proposition or value statement was untrue, or at least severely undermined.
On the one hand, the existence of a paradox presents us with a seeming problem. If the logic we have followed is sound, that must mean a defect in one or more of the propositions we began with. At the same time, paradoxes represent opportunities to reflect more deeply on what we think we understand and why, and possibly to advance the frontier of human understanding beyond where it currently lies.
For many serious students though, to say nothing of generations of casual readers, the insistence on following logic from set propositions to their inevitable conclusions sometimes led the Stoics to defend extreme positions that defied common sense: a single day lived according to the ultimate good of a reasoned mind was exactly equal to and as valuable as a hundred years in the same condition. Dying young upon the torturer’s rack after betrayal and unjust accusations was no more to be feared than slipping away peacefully in old age. It is the state of mind that matters: the wise man fears nothing that is inevitable and according to nature.
Short of seeking to conquer death, or at least the fear of death, the Stoics had much advice about avoiding vice, and all the things external to people that aroused their passions and cost them their self-possession. The Stoic proposition is that living according to reason is the highest and only virtue. Further, that virtue is sufficient for a happy life. The instant you feel you are lacking something external you have disturbed your reason for something ultimately without value, because the only thing of value is your well-ordered mind. It does not matter what happens to you or what circumstances you find yourself in, it matters how you react to your circumstances. The virtuous person cannot be harmed by being poor, or ill, or any of the things that normally so trouble us.
I can’t help but think how much the Stoics would have benefitted from exploring the beauty of set theory. I think they would have taken to it naturally, and found ways to extend even our modern understandings. At a minimum, a Venn diagram illustrating the logical relationship between sets might have helped them work out from underneath at least a few of the seeming paradoxes that plagued them. For example, though mathematical logic was put to use by philosophers hundreds of years before the earliest Stoics, it is only since the late 1800s that we have updated our understanding of infinity, using set theory to prove that although there are an infinity of infinities, some infinities are larger than others. Set theory has had its own paradoxes to contend with, but still our field of correct application is very broad though we limit ourselves to the von Neumann universe of pure sets.
Or take Bayesian probability, which introduces reasonable expectation to the concept of probability, instead of mere likelihood and frequency. The student of Bayesian statistics updates probabilities upon obtaining new data, computing conditional probability and distributions of probability. Better answers are arrived at by taking prior knowledge but also personal beliefs into account. From a philosophical perspective, should we not welcome making room for human emotions and not requiring people to act like mere reasoning machines?
Armed with such theories and logical weapons, would modern Stoics find that no emotion or disturbance to reason could be tolerated? Would their belief in cardinal virtues and how they best expressed themselves have been shaken or extended by allowing relativity into their calculations? I do not know the answer to these questions, my dear Deuteros, though these thoughts are much on my mind. Will you help me by sharing your perspective? For wisdom is neither the possession of one people or one time, nor a fixed thing. It is the individual pursuit by each of us who takes up the task of casting what light we can, building upon all who have gone before us.