A slave and the human condition

A cry from the heart from the frustrated man searching for calm logic and reason in a bonkers world guided by media mendacity and populist credulity.

Tell someone the truth – particularly if it contradicts matter lifted from any modern media – and you will be accused of being a cynic.Deny the media’s version of truth and prepare to be pilloried. Those who perceive truth as cynicism tend to be blind to reality, yet fail themselves to recognise this as a form of perception that can itself be questioned.

This ritual suicide of the mind has echoes in the distant past when, unsullied by electricity and other modern abominations, men appeared to think more and examine the world around them with greater care.

In that distant past the Cynics (a school of thought pretty much contemporaneous with the Stoics) rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress or decency and advocated, instead, the pursuit of virtue in a simple and un-materialistic lifestyle. This all seems quite splendid, but now the word has come to mean an attitude of jaded negativity, incredulous of human goodness and distrustful of the integrity or professed motives of other people.

Perhaps it is summed up in modern humour which is, generally, of the unintelligent sneering sort. It demonstrates a lack of clinical discrimination which is essential in judgement, the very thing modern types who see modern media as a source of unimpeachable information, are keen to avoid. I suspect they do this out of cowardice or as a residue of enigmatic religious commands.

If the preceding is correct, should we assume that our relentless pursuit of happiness will fail and is, logically, a fantasy, established and maintained as a universal and unspoken conspiracy to prevent mankind from considering reality?

Or is it an inevitable result of that pursuit, rather than as the founding fathers of the US who used that unfortunate phrase meant it? Modern Americans and their ilk (aka Brits) who purvey this nonsense always forget that many of their founders were essentially English of the old sort, probably Aristotelians to a man, brought up on all the conservative virtues – so happiness meant something quite different. Nevertheless, I would agree that the curious document (US Constitution) which started this rot is animated by a peculiar idealism that cannot but find itself disappointed by the world.

If so, we should remain in denial like some form of incurious ostrich, disengaged and passive, lacking the will to re-establish dominion over our own souls and psyche. Or, in other words, the to spurn the acquisition the of moral habits of which Aristotle spoke and which seem to have escaped our notice.

To rebut this mindless horror, I posit the argument that a lack of knowledge, and understanding, of history dooms us to lose the lessons that previously formed part of our collective consciousness.

We have developed a sort of collective Alzheimers of which America is one unfortunate example, although in general they are not a cynical people. Were we more aware of 2500 years of thought, we’d know that the Ancient Greeks saw happiness as a by-product of a life which aims at the good but not the aim itself. Nowadays the inclination is to aim for happiness and wonder why nothing is happening.

We have the evidence of the Stoic and former slave Epictetus who lived from around 55 AD (CE for those who prefer the secular acronym) to 135 AD/CE.

The practical man, said Epictetus, understands that all external events are determined by fate and are thus beyond our control. We should incline to accept them calmly and dispassionately and desist from any rage which these events may provoke.

Roger Scruton calls it Providence but that has a religious ring exactly as Fate has a slightly new age ring. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks, sensibly aware of the capriciousness of the Gods, reflected a more realistic view of life – a characteristic of polytheisms. Hence the emphasis in huge chunks of Greek philosophy on the moral sense, something about which we no longer talk to each other.

This is not to say that individuals are granted by this truth the right to be supine. On the contrary, individuals are from birth responsible for their own actions and once they attain reason they can, and must, study and control these through conscious self-examination and rigorous self-discipline.

Much denied these days, not just by the nuttier sort of psychobabblers, but also by serious philosophers is our grappling with the age-old problem not of whether we can choose to act but whether we can choose how we choose. But even if the way we are is a matter of Fate, which includes upbringing, there’s not much you can do about it. Modern man is disinclined to accept this, he has all sorts of rights which, being universal by definition, deny the very particularity of each man’s condition – a fundamental flaw at the heart of liberalism.

Suffering, says Epictetus, arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, from neglecting what is within our power and for which we are responsible, and from avoiding our duty of care to other humans.

Although a hearty attack of amoebic dysentery might persuade one otherwise. Epictetus may have strayed into being too narrow. A man suffers because he discovers his wife is cheating on him. Her betrayal causes his suffering and perhaps there was nothing he could do about it. But he will still suffer. We’d find it peculiar if he did not.

The duty of care has to be established. I am not certain how one does this, although one could argue it makes life more pleasant. Evolutionary psychologists would point out the reciprocity inherent in much moral thinking. It sounds calculating but much morality takes place in the public realm where its utility becomes obvious. Contrast life today with 50 years ago: deference, politeness, etc. All dismissed as boring by the 60s liberals. Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye did more harm than they knew.

If you serenely accept that which is external and over which you have no control, and do all that you must do regarding that over which you have control, by following these precepts you will achieve happiness but only if we define it as Aristotle does. I can imagine a sort of serenity but also a lack of passion. The latter is dangerous but looking back, one would be loath to forego those moments, brief as they are.

Has our human society has evolved faster in the past 100 years than in the previous 2000?

There are some who argue that the lot of mankind has improved but it seems when considering mankind’s psychological and spiritual evolution, that this assertion may not be wholly correct. Our thinking is muddled and leads us to confuse a reduction in the incidence of cholera and typhoid resulting from proper sanitation, with a universal improvement in the human condition.

Although parking oneself on a flushing lavatory must be one up on squatting behind a bush (not to mention the great improvement super-soft loo paper and the fact that the product does not normally end up in the drinking water). But the point is that the lot of man has improved only for a small minority who, strangely, happen to be the jaded cynics. Most of the world lives as badly now as it did 100 years ago and in many cases worse because independence from European colonial rule has brought more disasters than benefits.

One would have to ask what constitutes an improvement in the human condition? Material progress would be hard to deny. Aesthetic decline might be more appropriate than aesthetic progress. And moral progress is hard to see.

An abdication of personal responsibility, running in parallel with infinite greed, has instead led to a ubiquitous lack of confidence which in turn leads to people generally being unable to take decisions or act as their consciences dictate. People miss out on the pleasures of responsibility – a mixture really of stress and delight. Bosses always enjoy their work more, the minions fill themselves with resentment or hope to get rich quick.

In the long-term this is as dangerous and potentially fatal as the diseases mentioned previously. Common-sense, shorthand for instinctively knowing the difference between right and wrong or good and bad, and living in accordance with those precepts, is now delegated by us to an amorphous authority defined as government, local and national, and the many agencies spawned by same.

But this is a logical result of liberalism, all wrongs must be righted and heaven on earth created. Inevitably endless interference. Nanny knows best. We need do nothing.

Our lives are ruled by all manner of experts, in every possible discipline. There is always someone available to counsel, guide, inform, instruct, command and demand. What are the consequences if we refuse to be counselled, guided, informed, instructed, commanded or give in to the demands made of us? We are shunned, shamed or punished by the herd itself and the very independence of spirit that made us the dominant being on the planet becomes the tool of our own individual destruction.

We dare not make a decision without an army of experts, adopt a point of view without finding some authority to lend it some legitimacy. We do not see the world but acquire a view. This means a loss of individuality. I can’t tell individuals apart, they respond the same way, they think the same thoughts. They saw them last night on the TV, the internet or in the paper. Epictetus would be horrified.

Epictetus concentrated almost exclusively on ethics, encouraging his students to live virtuously and in harmony with nature (which includes their fellow men).

Domitian, the almost completely mad emperor, banished all philosophers from Rome and then from Italy. Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Modern history has rejected this, instead characterising Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat, whose cultural, economic and political programme provided the foundation of the peaceful 2nd century.

He extracted confessions by a new method of torture, a blazing torch under the testicles. As an aside, I often think someone should write a history of testicles as they crop up so often in history. Who can forget the fate of Simon de Montfort’s and of course, Boadicea was not averse to hanging them around the necks of those slain in her rampages of London and Colchester. Domitian insisted on being called Lord God and persecuted the Christians who ended up in charge of history for the next 1500 years. Clearly Epictetus valued his dangly bits and legged it to Nicopolis where he founded his school of philosophy.

And, in an ironic and rough sort of justice, Domition was stabbed in the groin by an assassin.

Epictetus’ goal was to be imperturbable, free from passions such as anger and maintain an awareness of, and capacity to become, a rational being. The key to achieving this state is to learn what is the real extent of our power and control the correct use of what he called impressions. This means not judging as good or bad people or events.

For Epictetus, the only thing that is good is acting virtuously and the only thing that is bad is the opposite, acting viciously. Of course, to say this one must have to say some acts are intrinsically vicious or evil. Which means judgement is necessary. Man’s task is to ‘live according to nature’, acting in response to our own needs – and duties – as men in society.

The society you find yourself in is part of fate, but is it according to nature? Rousseauist primitives will say no but this is, I think, a prejudice. On the other hand I would say that Soviet society was an example of an aberration and contrary to nature – unfortunately many corporations tend to take the Soviet line and finish up with exactly the sort of employees one would expect. The self-employed are mercifully free of this perversion.

Critically, we must also wholly accept what happens to us, and how the world outwith our control exists, and the fate of the world as emanating directly from the divine intelligence which makes the world the best that is possible.

Divine intelligence should not be misinterpreted as having any religious context. Epictetus understood, it seems, that religion is a social artefact, man-made but relying upon a divine presence. He accepted that this was Zeus heading a supporting cast of deities with various levels of power, but he would have been as easy with Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, Shiva, Buddha or the stone figures on Easter Island. Although Aristotle tended to monotheism, the Greeks had trouble with an interfering Jehovah as we now have trouble with Allah who seems have some marked genocidal preferences or is at least depicted as such by some. And surely Epictetus would have had trouble with anyone who proclaims, “I know the will of god” whatever rank they might hold, Pope or Archbishop.

He was a missionary for the concept of individual responsibility and the endless effort required to ensure that we accept that which we must accept and control our own selves when we are not in control of events. The passions that religion can inculcate in individuals, and through them in herds, was not for him a good thing.

He would, surely, were he here to look around at current debate, distinguish the religious man from the man of faith. The scientist of the serious sort is essentially religious, peering at the world itself and trying to understand it, or at least an aspect. The man of faith is not at all religious. He already has a rather baroque world view in which all questions are answered before he even looks at the world.

Epictetus’ concern was with man (incidentally, for sensitive readers I should alert you that when I use the word man I refer to species, not gender) and man’s ability to live happily and harmoniously, not only within his own reason but also with others, by using the faculties of logic and acceptance that are at our disposal. In common with other philosophers of the Hellenistic period, he saw moral philosophy as a practical guide that would teach people to live well and so have happiness by which was meant fulfilment of self within the framework of society. Then, as now, few people were content with life, however, confusing short-term pleasure with contentment and failing to recognise the temporary nature of such pleasure.

Epictetus indicated solutions for what he called ‘ills’ and described his school as being a hospital to which students would come seeking treatment. We know what these ‘ills’ are today as well as his students did. Our ambitions are frustrated; we have to deal with people who irk us; we suffer in common with friends and relations as they too suffer ‘ills’; we all have to face the fact of our mortality. The answer is clear, said Epictetus: ‘We have invested our hope in the wrong things, or at least invested it in the wrong way. Our capacity to flourish and be happy is entirely dependent upon our own characters, how we dispose ourselves to ourselves, to others, and to events generally. What qualities our characters come to have is completely up to us. Therefore, how well we flourish is also entirely up to us’.

But it is also heavily dependent on society being created around us which is being changed without our will being the least involved, the illusion of democracy has brought, in effect, dissolution. As the establishment has become effectively left-wing, more and more the PC liberal state impinges on us in a way older societies did not. Eccentricity is no longer permitted.

There are three tools we can use which he defined as: the Discipline of Desire; the Discipline of Action and the Discipline of Assent.

The first discipline asks you to establish what is worthy of your desire. Is what you desire truly good and virtuous?

The second discipline requires us to ask ourselves about our motivations and then, logically, it tells us what we should do as individuals in our own unique set of circumstances to become, be and live as rational and social animals.

Finally there is the Discipline of Assent which is, in many ways, the most difficult for it behoves of us an acceptance of those things which are outside our control. True assent is an examination of what we see and perceive to be true and then, if we conclude that it is outside our power, to say that it is nothing to do with us. This is an easy escape, a get-out-of-jail-free-card for some; but it should not be understood in this way.

You are still, says Epictetus, bound to live rationally and virtuously within a social context. What you do not need to do, though, is concern yourself with others’ interpretations and perceptions.

Is he saying I can live as I please? I think not; in saner times we were aware of others’ perceptions and had the good manners not to offend them. The public world was truly public and not a realm for private exhibitionism. The much-maligned Victorians were well aware of this. Our problem is that proletarian culture is now in the ascendant which means we are subject to the offensive judgements of the viciously non-judgemental.

For example, if a person is offended by something you have said or done and says to you ‘I take exception to this; I am offended by it’, this is not within your control. They are offended and they take exception and you may not control how they think and feel and act. Fine until they want to behead you, or in the proletarian culture, vomit all over you in the manner of unruly binge drinkers.

But unless you have behaved according to the disciplines it may well be that you remain at fault, irrespective of the uncontrollable reaction which you have generated. It is in the use of these three tools, and especially the last, that the unremitting nature of the effort required becomes apparent. It is also a concept about which man may be fearful.

To test every impression and ask of it: ‘are you what you seem to be’ to avoid subjective evaluations and make incorrect judgements that will influence future actions and behaviour, is an arduous task. Subjective evaluations and hasty judgments lead us to desire the wrong things and act incorrectly with regard to our duties and obligations – but they are a default for modern man, no less than for ancient man. Does this make them in any way invalid?

Not according to Epictetus, or indeed Aristotle who said also that the unexamined life is of little value and that one can master this skill by doing, rather than merely reasoning. We must walk the walk, as it were, as talking the talk is but a parallel diversion from the true aim. So where does this leave us with regard to our impressions of our society? With a very difficult task: asking questions, making evaluations and judgments. It is our duty, says Epictetus, to examine life everywhere it touches us, and act – or ignore – accordingly.

Which takes us, neatly, to this question: can debate illuminate our existence and help us live in a more fulfilled way? Only if it is structured to that end and, according to Epictetus, that we desire said illumination in the first place.

Conversation is largely dead and disagreement means silence. If one utters something that goes against the modern view, people just ignore it and move on rather than conversing, testing the proposition, wondering if it is true or not. They are men of a particular faith, that nothing must disturb their world view. They have certainty. We might say truth as cynicism opposed by truth as ideology.

But this abdicates to those who are extremely busy creating the modern view. As someone once noted of left-wing meetings, it is always the ones with the biggest bottoms who get their way meaning that it was those could sit it out and carry on pushing their own view because more sensible people, with smaller bottoms, have already gone home to bed. Hence radical movements tend to extremism.

We have lost the art of debate in favour of imposing our view of the world upon the rest. I suspect this is religious in origin, after all it was sanctioned by the monotheisms, but it is now detached from its religious moorings and grows like a fungus. Everything – pick any location you wish; even the Archers has been infected!

Crucially we must not forget Burke’s dictum: all that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.

If it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I believe this to be so, this is an evaluation that I have made using all the evidence that I have available to me. If others are not inclined to this view, because I have no power to alter their beliefs, then I must remain indifferent. But if through that examination I find joy then their impressions may be changed by my joy, which is a virtuous ambition and one that I believe Epictetus would have been pleased to note and even examine in turn.

But, in the final analysis it is hard to remain indifferent when there are so many creatures intent on destroying the very society in which we once found a home.

It is a rum do, this life; conundrum after conundrum interspersed with confusion. We must be thankful for the occasional beer, decent meal and a working loo in our dwellings.