Friday, 13 November 2015

Stoicism and Eudaimonistic ethics

                                                                 Where's Zeno...?

After reading a report from STOICON 2015 (ie a conference on Stoicism) (here) I tweeted the following question:

Reading report from STOICON wonder here about relative attractiveness of Stoicism vs Ancient Philosophy in general. Arguably all Ancient Philosophy is therapeutic, but what is it about Stoic therapy that appeals? (Why eg don't we take Platonic injunctions to mathematics or even theurgy as seriously?) For a modern 'therapeutic' Platonism see

(That provoked a very helpful exchange mostly with Cathy Barry (@Cathyby) with Jules Evans (@julesevans77) joining in at the end to which I'm grateful for prompting me to further thought.)

The original question wasn't (purely anyway) rhetorical: Stoicism does seem peculiarly attractive to many moderns and I'm not sure exactly why. In the report I linked to above, much of what is valued in Stoicism is common to much ancient philosophy. For example, most ancient ethics is therapeutic in the sense that it offers to improve your life: to make you eudaimon (flourishing). Moreover, it is focused primarily on internal goods (the virtues) rather than external goods (stuff, social status). To the extent that Stoicism tends (more than other schools) to be (at least) deistic, perfectionist, rationalist, suspicious of emotions and utterly dismissive of external goods (you can be as eudaimon on a rack as you can be watching TV with a good whisky), it might well be thought to have particular difficulties that make it less attractive to the modern mind than other ancient ethical approaches.

I'm pretty sure that most of the answer lies in the peculiarities of Roman Stoicism, and in particular the philosophers Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Roughly, all of these tend to be much more interested in practical techniques rather than in the more foundational questions raised by the earlier Greek Stoics. Moreover, to the extent that Stoicism in general rejects external circumstances as an element in flourishing to a quite unusual degree (certainly when compared to the Peripatetics), it is peculiarly compatible with any modern lifestyle: why change your life when you can just change your mind?

Now, I have two related worries about this. First, technique without asking serious questions about what purposes those techniques serve isn't philosophy , certainly not in a sense that Socrates or a modern academic philosopher would recognize it. (Indeed, were I to be waspish, Plato might well find a combination of marketable techniques and the promise of success in the everyday world rather more characteristic of sophistry than philosophy.) And to the extent that philosophy, that personal, desperate grappling with truth, is part of the good life, then a focus on technique together with a distraction from the pursuit of truth is at least unfortunate and perhaps harmful. Secondly, to the extent I've reflected on the ethical claims of Stoicism, I'm pretty sure they're wrong. In ancient terms, I suppose I'd count as close to a Peripatetic (ie Aristotelian) with a consequent emphasis on the need for reforming the political space, a focus on good upbringing, the cultivation of appropriate emotions (including anger)  and contemplation of 'divine things' as the perfect life. Whether I'm right in that judgment isn't terribly important: what is important is that many of the specific claims of Stoicism are by no means clearly correct and if the techniques recommended actually do have an effect, they may well be producing vice rather than virtue.

I suppose at the end I'm left with wondering what would be lost or gained if we didn't have conferences like STOIKON or events like Stoic Week, and instead had VIRTUEETHICSCON or Eudaimonia week. What would be lost, I think, is the coherence of a brand: here is something with a fairly coherent message and with immediate, relatively easy instructions for getting involved at once. You don't have to think much: you just have to be attracted and act. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: we all have to start somewhere and most of us have stumbled onto the deeper things that inform our lives by some sort of combination of luck and immediate (erotic) attraction. I'm not sure that any other school of ancient philosophy can do that quite as easily as Stoicism (although Mark Anderson has a damn good go for Platonism) even if I'm pushed to be absolutely clear as to why that's the case. (Another suggestion that crosses my mind is that it is to do with the occasional, conversational style of Roman Stoicism (esp) Seneca, quite apart from the issue of content. Much more engaging than (say) the 'contents of an academic's wastebin' style of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But anyway...) But I think it would be terribly sad if you stopped there and didn't explore ancient ethics further and, in particular, when examining Stoic claims, ask: Is this true? Is this truly virtuous?

Why does any of this matter, except to those (undoubtedly a minority) who have an existing interest in ancient philosophy? There are a number of possible answers to this, many centring on the general role of classical studies in modern education. But let me give a more narrowly philosophical answer. There is a view (one I largely share), developing from Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre that there is something radically amiss with modern moral philosophy. (Anscombe's paper of that name is the locus classicus for this analysis.) In essence, both advise a return to eudaimonistic ethics, an ethics based on human flourishing and the virtues. If anything along those lines is right, then adopting the correct view of eudaimonia and its attainment is of central importance not only to each individual's life, but also to our wider society. Stoicism may well be an excellent introduction to that ressourcement and the general pattern of eudaimonistic ethcs, but it is one that we Aristotelian-Thomists at least would like to see subject to philosophical challenge and ultimate abandonment.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Synod on the Family

                                                 Catholic bloggers in traditional garb...

I've been trying to avoid getting swept up in the to-ing and fro-ing over the Synod on the Family. I've got a fairly uncertain temper and find it too easy to get dragged into pointless spats about a situation where information was uncertain and where I'd find it too easy to get worked up uselessly. Better for me at least to keep my mind on the permanent things... (Does that sound smug? Probably. But there is nothing I can do directly to influence the outcome of the Synod and I am aware of my character flaw of irritable excitability.)

But now it's over I think all Catholics do have a duty to reflect on the issues raised. So let's take the charge of Pharisaism or legalism which seems to bubble up against those who favour a simple reiteration of the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, with all its consequences for exclusion from Holy Communion for those who 'remarry' after a divorce. The debate seems mostly framed in terms of 'who is or isn't getting to receive Communion'. But that framing is itself, surely, precisely one aspect of Pharisaism.

Whenever I hear the word 'Pharisaism', I am reminded of (I think) Rabbi Hugo Gryn's remark that the Pharisees had got a bad press and, more generally, that the Pharisees who function as Christianity's bogeymen are also the ancestors of modern, rabbinical Judaism. The precise problem with the Pharisees in the New Testament is never really just the traditional Protestant accusation of the prioritising of works over faith (difficult to translate neatly into Catholic terms anyway) but rather a cluster of issues that need careful teasing out. But there are two aspects that strike me as central. First, there is the substitution of Law for Christ: the Pharisees do not recognize that God incarnate is walking among them. Instead of focusing on the Law, they need to pay attention to the source of the Law, Christ. Secondly, there is a failure to note the substance of the Law and to focus on that rather than on trivial detail: we get distracted by surface. Pharisees are not necessarily dreadful people: they are rather slightly distracted people.

Now applying these two observations to the Synod on the Family, it strikes me that focusing on who gets access to Holy Communion is to get distracted from the real question and the real centre of Catholicism, Christ. The point is not to get divorced couples to Holy Communion, but to get them to God (heaven). One of the central points of Catholicism is that God is much, much bigger than we can imagine. Unlike many Protestants who believe that they have the assurance of salvation (particularly liberals. Do people like Giles Fraser ever doubt for a second that they are on the right side* of God?) most faithful Catholics get the point that we will be judged perfectly: that no amount of external action or self-delusion can cover our hearts which will be perfectly known and weighed by God. Concretely, that means that there may be hidden in the life of the notorious sinner secret saintliness and in the live of the apparent saint the deepest corruption. (And hence those well known figures of Catholic literature: the whisky priest, Sebastian Flyte etc.) The sacramental system -and more generally, the thinginess of things- is needed to impart grace, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is a simple one to one mapping of receipt of sacraments and efficacity of grace. At its worst, there is a douce smugness about Protestantism and liberal Catholicism: we are gathered here to celebrate this morning that we are all OK. 'Turning up' and participation in the externalities of the sacramental system is the goal. Jesus loves us but he can't stand you...

But this is magical thinking. If I have divorced and 'remarried', there are any number of things that might be going through my head, from a simple disregard for any Church teaching whatsoever to a desperate (and holy) sense of my own inadequacy before a situation not of my making. There is no policy that will ever get the right external result here: inevitably, any sort of indvidual discernment or 'internal forum' will end up admitting the paradigmatically sinful to Communion and excluding the holy and wretched. Equally, there is no guarantee now in situations quite other than divorce that the right people get the right sort of admission to Communion. (Do I live too far from a Church? Will there be a priest available when I die?) If we tremble at the thought that some good Catholics are excluded from Communion, we should tremble equally at the thought that some bad Catholics are being invited to Communion to their own damnation.

Indeed, it's hardly plausible that the most common danger amongst modern Catholics is over scrupulousness and an overdeveloped fear of divine judgment. Much more common is a sense that morality and holiness is just about how you feel and what Lady Gaga has told you is right. Being excluded from Communion is suffering, but suffering ain't necessarily a bad thing. Ask Jesus...

In short, the question at the heart of admitting the divorced and 'remarried' to Communion isn't the Pharisaical one of getting people back into the external actions of the Church, but of how to bring them closer to Christ. 'The signs of the times' are surely that we generally think too highly of ourselves particularly in the West and have a (Pharisaical) tendency to think the whole point of the sacramental system is simply 'joining in'. It isn't. I have absolutely no doubt that some who are currently excluded from Communion by the rules on divorce and remarriage are closer to God than I am precisely because of the suffering they endure. Equally, I'm sure that most people clamouring for an alteration of the rules are full of a damnable sense of their own entitlement and too little of a trembling before judgment.

It's simple really. Exclusion from Communion is not the same as exclusion from God. To assume it is is Pharisaism in focusing on externalities rather than Christ and Pharisaism in focusing on surface rather than substance.

[*On the right side of God because, obviously, God is so left wing that anyone even as perfect as Father Giles is going to be just a wee bit righter...]

Friday, 9 October 2015

More thoughts on what Scottish conservatives can learn from the US...

Having had a chance to think a little more about my previous blog on the subject...

There are some presumptions in my treatment of this question that were not clear to me but (in part as a result of helpful combox challenges) have become clearer. In no particular order:

1) Something I've been banging on about for years: not everything that concerns the polis is political. This is true in at least two ways: a) the most important parts of our social existence (the family, the little platoons of civil society, the interiority of the self) are only the concern of politics to the extent that politics needs constantly to be reminded that the State needs to leave space for them; b) for everyday politics to thrive, it needs to rest on a level of reflection about human life that sits between the abstractions of much academic debate and the daily grind of party political life. Neither of these truths is clearly or regularly acknowledged in current Scottish political life. Both are (or at least have been) better dealt with in American thinkers such as Russell Kirk.

2) The exclusive concentration on a UK perspective among most Scottish conservatives while understandable (if you think the question of the Union is key, then the battle is going to be dominated by this issue for the next few years at least) is destructive. Unless that deeper level of conservative thought about 'the permanent things' of human life retains a place in Scottish public discussion, then more damage will be done to Scottish life in the long run than whatever happens with the Union. To put it slightly more crudely than it deserves, it is more important that someone starts talking about (say) the place of the traditional family and a humane education in modern Scotland than whether or not Scotland becomes independent. (This is particularly true if Scotland does become independent and, for a generation or more, there is no conservative presence in Scottish intellectual life because it has previously focused entirely on the Union.)

3) I think what I find most admirable about Buckley and the National Review is the way that it created a landscape for conservatism. If you think that conservatism is concerned with the value of a number key things (eg God, family, country, scepticism, little platoons etc) you would expect a kaleidoscope of prudential judgments about how these values are to be realized. (And so on the one side (well, strictly, just outside the borders) you have radical libertarians such as Rand, and on the other ur-traditionalists such as Bozell in his Carlist phase.) One of the problems with modern conservatism (especially but not just in Scotland) is the lack of internal squabbling at a sufficiently deep intellectual level. A landscape of conservatism has to be inhabited by marauding and mutually (slightly) suspicious tribes.

4) We need to do God more. Western civilization is bound up with Christian theism. There's room for the humane sceptic, the Muslim (perhaps even (in Scotland) the Catholic) within a broad understanding of that theistic focus, but to allow the centre ground to be dominated by the assumptions of a militant anti-Christian secularism is commit intellectual and social suicide.

5) A particular point for Scotland. The history of Scottish nationalism is one that had a place for conservative understandings of society. I would expect (see 3) there to be different views on the place of the Union/Independence among modern Scottish conservatives. That (certainly in UKIP and the Conservative Party) there appears to be unanimity in favour of the Union is a sign of intellectual weakness and lack of depth. (It didn't surprise me -although it seems to have surprised many others- that the deepest conservative in the UK at the moment, Roger Scruton, came out broadly in favour of Scottish independence.) Given a conservative focus on the local and the place of tradition, it would be odd if some conservatives were not nationalists. Equally, given the conservative emphasis on stability and scepticism about the State's ability to improve human life, it would be odd if some were not.

6) A particular point for Catholics. There is a temptation, especially given the fideistic turn of much twentieth century Catholic theology, to turn from politics and questions of society towards pietism. Whilst it is important for us to remember the limitations of the earthly life, equally, a simplistic focus on our supernatural end is not in keeping with Catholic teaching. (Think St Joan of Arc. Think of the social teaching of Leo XIII.) At the moment, the neuralgic issues of Catholic teaching (sex and the family) are neuralgic precisely because they are out of step with modern, secular beliefs, and the 'push' to change Catholic theology and for individuals to fall away from the Church comes from this. While there is clearly a place for a simply reassertion of authority ('This is straightforwardly what the Church teaches...') there is also a place for defending a broadly conservative view of society on the grounds of human nature (or natural law if you prefer). If socially conservative views establish a hearing in the marketplace of political ideas, this will reduce the tension felt by individuals between what is socially acceptable and what the Church teaches. (There will always be a faithful, saintly remnant who keep the teachings, no matter what. But I see absolutely no reason why we also shouldn't strive to create the most favourable social circumstances for a 'just about solid enough' crowd to accompany them.)

7) I'm not mad about the label 'conservative'. It suggests a link with the Conservative Party which is (almost) entirely imaginary. (I see very little sign of conservatism as I mean it in the modern Scottish or UK party.) There is absolutely no reason why the key elements of conservatism (let's try God, family, country, little platoons, scepticism, tradition) shouldn't be present in most of the modern Scottish political parties. Indeed, it is essential if 'conservatism' is to function as a major part of the political debate, that it is wider than local party loyalties -that it becomes a landscape (see 3) in the same way that 'progessivism' seems to dominate current parties. So find another label if you can ('social' conservatism is the best I can do). It's the substance that matters.

8) And finally. I think  my previous cry for a Scottish William Buckley Jnr was one of those lines that creates misunderstanding as much as it helps by being striking. I don't think we should (or indeed could) import some aspects of American cultural war conservatism into Scotland. (You can take your pick on what these rejected elements might be, but I suspect that they might include aspects on race and projecting national interests through force. Perhaps, in general, we need to drop that sense of war in culture wars?) But this is a deep political struggle about culture: how people see their lives and flourishing as social beings. By all means take some of the intransigence and heat out of the debate if you can. But the fact remains that Scottish discussion about how to live in societies is dominated by a very narrow (and wrong) set of 'progessive' assumptions. It is for that cultural struggle that we need a McBuckley (and Kirks, Bozells, Burnhams etc etc): popularizers who remain in touch with deeper issues and are willing to create a genuine, socially conservative landscape of debate as alternative to the monotonous progressive dogma of what passes for public intellectual life in modern Scotland.