Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Vulcan way

Lots of interesting group discussions in Intro yesterday, pertaining to Aristotle and Stoics and Skeptics and African and indigenous American philosophies.

Some wondered how Aristotle could speak so earnestly of living a life of virtue and at the same time, without irony, defend the Athenian institution of slavery. Same question arises much closer to home with Mr. Jefferson. ("All men are created equal," right? And women.) Can we let either of them off the moral hook, on the grounds that they were simply products of their time and place? Can we excuse ourselves, when a later age calls us to account for who knows what?

Then there are the extreme skeptics Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus and their followers. (Can a skeptic really be a "follower," btw? Nowadays you can join the Skeptics Society. Should you?) How can the refusal to believe anything at all be therapeutic? Well, JMH says theirs was the philosophy of "no"... so maybe Sally Brown could explain it to us? She's not the most serene Stoic, but she does seem to enjoy not committing to any particular philosophical conclusion.

Interesting discussions surrounding indigenous American and African philosophy, too. Are we all related ("mitakuye oyasin"), and all a part of nature? Are we humans entitled to assert "dominion" over the rest of creation?  Is personhood an "achievement"? How can a living soul split and reincarnate?

Most saliently, people in both classes were scratching their heads trying to understand why the old Greek & Roman Stoics insisted that "emotions are irrational judgments that make us frustrated and unhappy," and why both they and the Buddha counselled: "Minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering."

I understand their consternation. The Vulcan way seems awfully cold. Can you really "live long and prosper" if you "form only limited attachments"? As Jonathan Haidt has written,
When life is unpredictable and dangerous (as it was for Stoic philosophers, living under capricious Roman emperors), it might be foolish to seek happiness by controlling one’s external world. But now it is not… to cut off all attachments, "to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of  loss and defeat” is an overreaction.
Not many of us are likely ever to have to deal with a crazed homicidal Emperor, as Seneca did. But what if you found yourself at "Windows on the World" in the North Tower of the World Trade Center  on the glorious morning of 9/11/01? Might Stoicism help you decide how to dispose of your last free moment on Earth? 

Or what if you got a bad medical prognosis? This is something to premeditate, as did the Stoics.

In any case, detachment from conditions beyond one's control is only half the story for Stoical Vulcans. Their philosophy of IDIC urges "infinite diversity from infinite combinations."

Isn't that illogical, Captain? Maybe. But it's the way of our world at its best, so far as I can tell.

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