Monday, March 2, 2015

Susan Neiman on the Stoics.


Susan Neiman is a bit of a strange philosopher whose writing manages the feat of being both defensive and aggressive without sliding into polemics. A self-professed idealist, her work draws heavily on the Enlightenment's' distinction of the is and the ought -  how the world is and how it should be.

The Enlightenment and it's values are currently deeply unpopular in a cultural arena cluttered with privilege theory, cultural Marxism and religious neo-conservatism. Neiman's writings reflect this for she is simultaneously defending her idealism against claims of naivety while attacking her critics on both sides of the cultural war. 

Little wonder then she is hostile to Stoic philosophy with it's emphasis upon aligning our judgments to reality determined by reason. The following passage is taken from her extended short essay 'Why grow up?' but readers are recommended to read her earlier work 'Moral Clarity: a guide for grown ups.'
You've accepted the dimming of sparkle (what looked opalescent was just drew on the grass.) Further: your shock at the fact that the world is not only less sparkly, but downright hideous in places has begun to wear off. Some bits of injustice still pull you up short:  the long prison sentence for a hapless whistle blower, say, when the men who ordered torture remains not just at large but in demand. Perhaps it's something simple and immediate as the promotion your flashy coworker got at the office while your quieter efforts went unacknowledged. However wrenching any experiences can be, they no longer have you feeling on the edge of abyss, watching the void between is and ought open before your eyes. You have seen it before, which means you've begun to get used to it.  
This can sound like growing up, which is one reason so many people are afraid of it. With the passing of time and the accumulation of experience, things get repeated, and the more the repetition the less the surprise. As surprise recedes, so does passion. The facts are the same, but you no longer feel them as acutely. And isn't that a boon? Life is thinner and duller, but it doesn't hurt so much, either. Those of us who once trilled to dance and dream until dawn are now content to retire rather earlier to a good bed and pillow. The edge is missing, but so is the hangover. You have learned not to count much on the things outside you: friends and fortune can disappear, and you've seen lives upended by floods, famine or war. The solution you conclude, can only be found inside you. You cannot control much else, but with determination and practice you can learn to control your own emotions, at least enough to ensure that what goes on outside affects you less. You've already accepted the gap between you and the world in principle; what remains is the task of embracing it in practice. The world is unstable, sometimes treacherous, and immeasurably vast; your soul, by contract, is sufficiently limited and malleable to be the sort of thing you might transform. You will sleep better, and hurt less, if you turn your sights inwards, for a good soul is in reach when nothing else is. 
The pot-bellied uncle who offers this sort of advice has been reading the Stoics, or the bastardized bits of them than can be found in many a modern self-help manual, but he hasn't studied Kant.
This passage is striking as a reasonable description of middle age and indeed much of Neiman's essay is loosely based around Kant's metaphor of the Enlightenment being a form of maturity.

Dogmatism, according to Kant and Neiman, is like a child taking their first steps, questioning their environment and accepting answers on trust. Adolescence brings both skepticism with the discovery of adults being fallible and anger that the world is vastly different than reason demands. Finally maturity arrives not through resigning ourselves to the world but through accepting the world can tragically never be as reason dictates it should be. The gap between the is and the ought will always exist and adults must navigate this reality caught between hope and despair.

For Kant this refusal to accept the world is a courageous strength which stems from reason itself for reality is not rational. A Stoic might reply that by all means try to change the world if that is your nature but what will be, will be, regardless of your desires. Gravity will always pull downward, we will always lose the ones we love and bad things will always happen to good people. We can speak of courageous strength or we can prepare ourselves for what must come.

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