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095 - On Doctrines (Theory) - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The ultimate aim of living well is to understand the value behind our circumstances and to then take deliberate actions in line with reason.
095 - On Doctrines (Theory) - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Has it been deliberate on my part to keep you in a state of longing when I told you I would delay taking up the question of the importance of doctrines in philosophy? Was I trying to test your patience and give you a chance to practice your virtue in accepting situations as they are rather than as we wish them to be? Part of the wisdom in philosophy is to know the true value of things. If you only knew what a torrent of words you would unleash by insisting on an answer, you would be more careful about asking Deuteros!

Before you start wishing that I leave off before I have begun, I will take up the question where we left off, which is whether a well-ordered mind and right reason can be brought about by precepts alone, or whether more is needed. I hope I left you with the impression that precepts are helpful in many cases. Today I must acknowledge that precepts are not sufficient or successful in all cases.

You will recall that I talked of the need for receptive ears and willing students. Many people are deep into their illusions about what things they should pursue because almost everything in society is pushing them in a different direction. Though they are well-meaning, they are hardly likely to be improved by a saying alone, because it is too heavy a burden to lift, too great a height to climb.

Consider that from the moment we are thrust into the world we are surrounded by material things. Humankind’s facility for drawing distinctions between things is unparalleled, and what was once a necessary survival skill has become the root of many problems. Sharp discernment was surely helpful to early humans in navigating a dangerous and unforgiving world. Does that sound presage danger, or is it just the wind? Am I safe sleeping in this cave with a sturdy wall behind me and a warm fire at my feet, or shall I nap out under the stars? Do I prefer to eat this familiar plant, or will I dine on that new fungus?

Not only did we need to learn to tell good from bad in almost every setting, but the consequences of choosing wrongly had immediate and often fatal consequences. Nature provided us with the ultimate reinforcement about how we should behave regarding material things by killing us for misjudging.

What has happened since the early days? We have largely tamed nature. For most of us, the closest we will get to a dangerous animal is on our TV screens. Some pay lavish sums to be transported in jeeps on safaris so they may be exposed to wild animals in their natural habitat. No, the only things now stalking modern humans are our desires and our fears. For when I say we have tamed nature, did you think I meant we have tamed our own natures? When I said we are far from dangerous and wild animals, do you think I have forgotten that the most dangerous animals are humans and that we are most dangerous to ourselves?

Today because we are under no threat of privation but rather drowning in abundance, we draw distinctions between luxuries. We drive ourselves to distraction by pursing a more expensive house or car, and Nature is not there to correct our faulty judgment. We kill ourselves gradually with greed, jealousy, and all the other vices. The punishment is too far removed from our actions for us to take heed how we have gone astray.

To be well-meaning and still commit mistakes out of ignorance is at least understandable, considering the circumstances of modern life. I say the ultimate aim of living well is to understand the value behind our circumstances and to then take deliberate actions in line with reason. Yes, taking correct actions simply as a result of following a precept is helpful, for it is better than making your life worse through mistakes. But this is still far from wisdom.

Thus we must concern ourselves with the doctrines that underpin our philosophy if we are to move from sometimes taking a right decision to knowing why it was the right decision. Only then do we have a hope of escaping our self-constructed prisons and being dragged back down into despair by circumstance.

Because following reason of a well-ordered mind is the goal we seek, it matters not just what actions we take but the reason behind our actions. What judgment gave rise to the decision to act thusly? From this perspective we give no credit to the accidental act of goodness and we give much greater condemnation to the knowing act of harm. In both cases your state of mind as you are choosing what to do is critical. Consider this the first doctrine of Stoic philosophy that we would offer to lift our heavy burden from us. It is the vehicle by which we will first know and then master our own natures.

In our relations with others, the doctrine I would have you follow is to behave as if there are no others, only yourself. I am not preaching selfishness, but rather unity. Would you so eagerly harm another if you believed you were in fact harming yourself? Would you lie, cheat, or steal, if you were the victim of each of these crimes? In making the world a worse place by feeding envy and resentment, are you not fouling your own habitat and making the world worse for yourself?

Now let’s return to material things, which as I noted, we are confronted with at every turn. How shall we make use of them? What things shall we pursue? We must consider each thing separately and place a value on it accordingly. You should know why you value some things more highly than others. We should not listen to what people say about things, but consider the substance, the purpose, and the impact of both the seeking and the obtaining of things. Above all, your opinions of things should be the result of your own thinking. You are lost if you surrender your judgement to that of the masses, because they are fickle and see only the surface which is ever-changing.

I could say more, but in this case I will concede what I suspect you are now thinking: sometimes less is more. My conclusion is this, Deuteros. Precepts are a helpful, but not sufficient, contribution to living a good life. The doctrines of our philosophy provide the framework in which the precepts find their application. Without the framework, there is no order, no reason behind our decisions. And since finding our reason is the purpose of the endeavor, it is necessary to pick up the theory behind the practice to properly put the precepts into practice.

Be well.

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