There has been a development of late in the world of "self-help" books and that is the promotion of stoicism as the philosophy we need for our modern times. When I was growing up, stoicism was something I inherited from my father. I think the appeal for him, as I look back, was its comforting nature. My dad was a man who, though fully engaged in the cut and thrust of the political world, nonetheless felt as if he were perpetually on the losing side. His go to text was The Enchiridion by Epictetus. The Enchiridion is a sort of manual, a collection of aphorisms and sayings collected and presented in a way to help people order their lives in a world that seemed overwhelming: we are talking about one of the most chaotic periods in history: the second century of the common era. You can find it here.
Oddly, as a young man at university, it became very important to me as well. Looking back, I think I can see why. I was young, and stepping out into a world that felt alien and threatening. Young people, particularly today I would think, feel that they live in a world controlled by others. Our modern "helicoptering parenting" may have a lot to do with this, it may exacerbate it, but I actually think it was ever thus. But at the end of the day, I realized that its allure was dangerous; it was like a siren call to complacency, to accepting the way things are. So in the end, I chose something very different, something revolutionary and radical. I chose Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Cambridge's Sandy Grant is a readable, accessible philosopher who can be found on Twitter here. Professor Grant has been engaged in rather public debate with some folks who are promoting stoicism as a panacea for our times. That may sound a little goofy, but it is actually happening. It is actually important and there is a direct connection to Shelley as you will see. Sandy recently published an excellent article summing up the debate and you can find it here. This is her argument in a nutshell.
"According to Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy now experiencing a popular resurgence, we should attempt to curb our emotions when faced with things we can do nothing about. Historically, the Stoics believed in a strict “dichotomy of control”—that is, they divided the world into things that lie within one’s power to change and things that do not. Most suffering, they said, comes from our mistaken belief that we have power over things we actually cannot control. Their solution is to focus on what we can control: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions, instead of external events. Stoics concluded that we should accept the rest, saying, “as God wills.”
But the problem with this attitude is that it can lead us to accept things that we shouldn’t. As we confront the global rise of authoritarianism, we should not respond by attempting to gain control over our emotions. Instead, we must let our emotions guide us to action."
Shelley would not disagree with this and throughout his life adhered to the skepticism he learned from the Greeks, his beloved Cicero, David Hume and Sir William Drummond. Skepticism is a critically important tool for those who wish to challenge power, be it religious or political. It allows the outsider to challenge and undermine truth claims; and make no mistake about it those in power rely for their power on the truth claims they make and the willingness of the people to accept them. No wonder Shelley called religion the "hand-maiden of tyranny".
Today we saw Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway respond to an NBC reporter's criticisms of Sean Spicer's bare-faced lies about the attendance numbers at Trump's inauguration (Spicer claimed there were 1.5 million people in attendance!!) by shrugging and saying they were not lies, merely "alternative facts". The reporter forceful challenged her on this saying that "alternative facts" were nothing more than lies. Good for him, but we will need more, much, much more of this. The quest for truth has become ever more important.
The stoic would have us, in effect, grin and bear the next four years. The skeptic on the other hand would plunge into the debate with emotion and a quest for the truth.
As Grant points out:
"Stoic author Ryan Holiday, for example, told Quartz that “a Stoic wouldn’t spend time complaining about whether Trump deserves to be president and worrying about the uncertain terrible effects of his leadership.” Instead, Holiday opined, Stoics would focus on affecting the next presidential election."
Now it depends, I suppose, on what Holiday means by this. Certainly, if he means focusing on the next election the way women did yesterday around the world, that would be one thing. But I suspect he does not.
And, as usual, this is where Shelley comes in. Shelley's toolbox for world reform started with skepticism, and it also involved a dramatic reordering of the way we perceive the world - through the cultivation of our imaginative faculty. In this he aligns himself with skeptical thinkers like David Hume and Drummond in the sense that he understands the crucial role our imagination plays in ordering our understanding of the world. But Shelley, as always, had his eye on a real world prize: a revolution in the political order. And the means to that end was the sort of massive, non-violent passive resistance we witnessed yesterday. I have written about this elsewhere. Sandy Grant for her part goes straight to the Shelleyan answer as well:
What do you do about things you can’t do anything about? You resist, you protest, you create with others the possibilities of change. You put your emotions to work.
And what of Shelley? What did he say about this? Many of us will know the famous concluding words of Mask of Anarchy:
'And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many-they are few.'
These words have formed the basis of many a rallying cry for centuries. But most will not know the words Shelley used to describe what massive, non-violent protest might look like. Shelley called for a "great assembly" of the people that would literally dare the authorities to attack. He saw them coming from every corner of the land and from every class of society. Here is what he wrote:
'Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.
'Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be
Witness the solemnity.
'From the corners uttermost
Of the bounds of English coast;
From every hut, village, and town
Where those who live and suffer moan
For others' misery or their own,
'From the workhouse and the prison
Where pale as corpses newly risen,
Women, children, young and old
Groan for pain, and weep for cold-
'From the haunts of daily life
Where is waged the daily strife
With common wants and common cares
Which sows the human heart with tares-
'Lastly from the palaces
Where the murmur of distress
Echoes, like the distant sound
Of a wind alive around
'Those prison halls of wealth and fashion,
Where some few feel such compassion
For those who groan, and toil, and wail
As must make their brethren pale-
'Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold-
'Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free-
As the famous French proverb says, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose": the more things change the more they stay the same. This oft repeated truism seems to have real relevance in 2017. If Shelley was to drop in on us today, I think what would surprise him most would not be rockets and computers, but rather that in two hundred years so little has changed. Wealth is, if any thing, more concentrated in the hands of the few. We are a priest-ridden society and authoritarian regimes are not in recession, they are advancing. Entire civilizations are dominated by theocracies.
That should be a sobering message to all of us. What progress we make is wrung from the entrenched power-brokers at great cost and can just as easily be snatched away. Sandy Grant is not wrong: we must resist, protest and create with others the possibilities of change. We must harness our emotions for the eternal struggle. Oh, and we must read Shelley!