When one’s own rationality is obscured, it is hard to turn to a system of thought such as Stoicism, which prizes human reason and logic as the means of rising above adversity. When we are in a rational frame of mind, its precepts make sense and form a worldview that is solid and unassailable. When we are in a less rational and happy state, its rationality may strike us as cold and unattainable.
I have been wondering lately how to come back to the Stoics when I stray. I believe Stoicism has a warm, transcendent element that can appeal to those of us who occasionally lose our way or are abandoned by logic, but that element may vary depending on the person. I have been reading Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society (a purely theoretical work). He describes such an element of emotional warmth here, when he writes about man’s need for a “system of orientation” to help him make sense of being alive:
If man were only a disembodied intellect, his aim [grasping the world through thought and reason] would be achieved by a comprehensive thought system. But since he is an entity endowed with a body as well as a mind, he has to react to the dichotomy of his existence not only in thinking but in the total process of living, in his feelings and actions. Hence any satisfying system of orientation contains not only intellectual elements but elements of feeling and sensing which are expressed in the relationship to an object of devotion.
(Emphasis added.) Fromm then mentions, as examples of “systems of orientation,” “non-theistic systems like Buddhism . . . purely philosophical systems, like Stoicism, and . . . the monotheistic religious systems which give an answer to man’s quest for meaning in reference to the concept of God.”
So what is the object of devotion that the emotional side of humans can grasp for in Stoicism? The obvious first possibility is virtue. But while I work toward this every day, is it something worthy of devotion? Even the word virtue itself is a little off-putting, as it has been tainted, in English anyway, by connotations of sexual “purity” or else a holier-than-thou self-regard that threatens to give one a troubling sense of moral license when no one is looking–because of the spotless way one lives most of the time. I have always preferred the translation “excellence of the soul,” but even that is hard to understand, much less devote oneself to. Ultimately, yes, virtue is the goal, but I’m just being honest when I say its appeal is personally more intellectual than emotional.
William Irvine argued in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy that “tranquility” superseded virtue as the Stoic goal in the Roman world. While I do love tranquility, and am constantly trying to infuse my life with canned approximations in the forms of nature-sounds downloads and matcha latte, I am usually left craving something more once I have induced the desired tranquil feelings.
There is also the possibility of “living in accordance with nature” as our object of devotion, but my problem is that I am afraid I do not quite understand the phrase; even if I do, it brings me back to rationality, which is at times elusive. As I understand it, living in agreement with nature means living up to the human capacity for reason. It is certainly a worthy goal, but it lacks that emotional appeal of the object of devotion which Fromm mentioned.
I have landed on a new object of devotion: simplicity. (It is more than possible that I got the idea for the virtue of simplicity from this terrific essay by William Ferraiolo.) Is it in accordance with Stoicism? Yes, I believe so. I have written before (more than once, actually, but here is one place) that Stoicism is simple, but not easy. By dividing existence into the things we can control and the things we cannot, Stoicism has attempted to simplify a complex world and reduce our unnecessary expenditures of worry and energy about things we cannot change. Stoicism also simplifies life in the sense that it requires one approach to all people, driven by love. Instead of an atomized human race in which we are all running around taking care of our own needs, fighting over resources, Stoicism envisions one global citizenry whose members care for one another as if we were all family. The alternative is to live in fear and distrust and misanthropy. The right course appears clear.
I have spent most of my life without a particular object of devotion; in fact, I usually am one to ridicule (privately, but it is still not nice) things that people are devoted to, such as “God” or “country.” At some point I realized I was more or less adrift, without a framework for living or a positive outlet for good feelings (to counteract the cynicism). Articles in yoga magazines were not cutting it in terms of a presenting a viable philosophy of life. I read philosophy and literature, but more for pleasure than for guidance. In a basic sense, the pursuit of Stoic ideals has vastly simplified my life because I do not feel isolated or adrift, wondering whether I am doing the right thing. Now I know I am not always doing the right thing, but I have a better idea of how to change course in accordance with the Stoic framework of strategies for a virtuous, simple, magnanimous, and productive life.
As a postscript, here is a link to a great example of simplicity in classical music: J. S. Bach’s prelude in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier. No sharps, no flats: simple and beautiful.