Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

Freedom from desire

An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.

[…]

He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.

 

It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.

A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.

 

Stoic Papa

 

 
If thou art pained by any external
thing, it is not this thing that disturbs
thee, but thy own judgement about it.
And it is in thy power to wipe out this
judgement now. But if anything in thy own
disposition gives thee pain, who hinders
thee from correcting thy opinion?

The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

 

 
Being a parent can be incredibly difficult, and I’m in awe of those who make it look easy.

For the rest of us it’s important never to forget that we are doing something wonderful and difficult. Forget that it’s difficult, and we’ll be crushed under the burden of our own expectations. Forget that it’s wonderful, and all the talk of difficulties will scare people away from the genuine goodness and fulfillment of raising a child.

It doesn’t always feel wonderful, especially in those moments when fatigued parent meets manic child and the two do not mix. Did I say moments? It’s typically hours, and in those hours the most important thing (after your child’s safety) is your own mental health.

When your 18 month old son has decided that the best thing in the whole world is to climb onto the arm of the couch and launch himself backwards, landing flat on his back on the cushioned seat like he’s auditioning for a circus, there’s not a lot you can do.

I don’t want him to do this. He shouldn’t be doing this. It’s dangerous, he might fall! Why can’t he just sit quietly and read a book? I’m so tired…

Eventually my Stoic influence kicks in, and I realise à la Marcus Aurelius that the problem is not so much what he’s doing, but what I’m doing. I have in my head an ideal of how my son should behave, and though my fatigue is real it is made a hundred times worse by feeling frustrated as well. I’m frustrated that he is doing something potentially dangerous. I’m frustrated that he won’t listen to me and behave himself. And I’m frustrated that I can’t think of a way to make the environment ‘safe’ without putting a childproof fence around everything. In other words, I’m frustrated at my lack of control.

To be completely honest, this is my problem not my son’s. He’s quite happy, in fact he’s ludicrously happy, and if I were a child again I would be doing exactly the same things and making my parents equally frustrated. After all, what is the use of having some ideal of how my child should behave if that ideal does not include him being ludicrously happy? Would it really be better for him to sit and play with my smartphone instead of exploring and enjoying his environment out of his own initiative?

In practical terms, all that really matters is that he is safe. And with that in mind all I really have to do is sit close by and catch him if he falls or pull him back if he tries to do something truly stupid. I might still be fatigued, but at least I’m no longer frustrated, and I’ve reduced the burden of my expectations down to simply being there.

Just being there doesn’t feel like enough. It feels like I’m neglecting him. But I’m beginning to think it’s much more valuable than trying to coerce, control, intervene constantly, and even interact constantly, as though he will turn out wrong if I don’t feed him with a steady stream of encouragement and chatter. Simply being there to keep him out of serious danger may be the least I can do; but sometimes the least is all we can reasonably manage, all we need to do, and therefore the right thing to do.

The Melancholic Emperor

My friend Tom recommended the following videos in his comment on a recent post:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLD09Qa3kMk&feature=player_embedded&list=PL361CE5C9167977FC

This is one of the best lectures I have seen, on one of the most intriguing characters in Western philosophy.

While I’m reading some work on the Stoics, I know very little about Marcus Aurelius.  But Professor Michael Sugrue, of Princeton at the time of this lecture, characterises the Philosopher-Emperor as a man of heroic virtue without peer in his own time or in history.

His reflections will be of particular merit to those of us with a philosophical inclination who are weary of the self-interested ethos that rules contemporary life!

Here’s an alternate link, in a single video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z27Saih7JK4

P.S. I would surely fail the Emperor test!

Stoicism and the Dao

More from Frede:

This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate. So the whole focus of one’s life now is on one’s inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.

There are certain parallels to the Zhuangzi:

Before long Tsze-lâi fell ill, and lay gasping at the point of death, while his wife and children stood around him wailing. Tsze-lî went to ask for him, and said to them, ‘Hush! Get out of the way! Do not disturb him as he is passing through his change.’ Then, leaning against the door, he said (to the dying man), ‘Great indeed is the Creator! What will He now make you to become? Where will He take you to? Will He make you the liver of a rat, or the arm of an insect? Tsze-lâi replied, ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, south, or north, he simply follows the command. The Yin and Yang are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death, and I do not quietly submit to them, I shall be obstinate and rebellious. There is the great Mass (of nature);– I find the support of my body in it; my life is spent in toil on it; my old age seeks ease on it; at death I find rest on it:– what has made my life a good will make my death also a good.

‘Here now is a great founder, casting his metal. If the metal were to leap up (in the pot), and say, “I must be made into a (sword like the) Mo-yeh,” the great founder would be sure to regard it as uncanny. So, again, when a form is being fashioned in the mould of the womb, if it were to say, “I must become a man; I must become a man,” the Creator would be sure to regard it as uncanny. When we once understand that heaven and earth are a great melting-pot, and the Creator a great founder, where can we have to go to that shall not be right for us? We are born as from a quiet sleep, and we die to a calm awaking.’

To be honest, I really dislike these sections of the Zhuangzi. Guo Xiang, the fourth century Neo-Daoist interpreter and compiler of the Zhuangzi, argued that beings were ‘self-generated’. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Guo takes issue with the view that the key to unlocking the mystery of Dao lies in the concept of wu, nothingness. This is because nothingness remains an abstraction, a negation signifying “nonbeing” or what being is not in Wang Bi’s interpretation, and as such cannot bring about creation. So defined, wu and the category of beings (you) are mutually exclusive; as Guo plainly states, “It is not only that wu cannot change into being but also that being cannot change into nonbeing [in this abstract sense] (commentary to Zhuangzi 22). The appeal to a divine creator should indeed be rejected, but this does not entail a nihilistic absence. Having disposed of these options, what does Guo Xiang have to offer in their place? He writes, “Because wu [by definition] is not being, it cannot produce being. Prior to the coming to be of being, it cannot produce other beings. In that case, then, who or what brought about the birth of being? [The answer can only be that] beings are spontaneously self-generated”

[…]

At the most basic ontological level, prior to the birth of the myriad beings, being is “so of itself,” which implies that being exists eternally. In Guo’s own words, “Generally, we may know the causes of certain things and affairs near to us. But tracing their origin to the ultimate end, we find that without any cause, they of themselves come to be what they are. Being so of themselves, we can no longer question the reason or cause of their being, but should accept them as they are”

This is in contrast to Wang Bi, who developed a form of ‘First Cause’ argument:

Like He Yan, Wang Bi focuses on the concept of “nothingness” (wu) in his explication of Dao. Indeed, as Wang states explicitly, “Dao” is but “the designation of wu,” a symbol of the basis of all beings and functions (commentary to Lunyu 7.6). Contrary to He Yan, however, Wang Bi does not regard the argument from Dao’s completeness to be able to explain fully the mystery of Dao. This is because it fails to resolve the problem of infinite regress. If the chain of beings were to be traced to a specific agent or entity, the origin of the latter must itself be questioned. What gives rise to the category of beings thus cannot be a being, no matter how powerful or fecund, with or without differentiated features. This does not necessarily invalidate the yin-yang cosmological theory, which does yield important insight into the workings of nature and society. Nevertheless, it cannot lay bare the highest Daoist truth, with which the sages of old were principally concerned. To bring to light the mysterious and profound, reflection must venture beyond what may be called the ontology of substance to discern the logic of wu.

‘Wu’ is not simply ‘nothing’, since it is designated by ‘Dao’, everything that is said of Dao must apply to wu. Rather, ‘nothingness’ in dichotomy with ‘you’ as ‘being’, encompasses the ontological distinction between the ‘ten thousand things’ or created beings including humans, and the invisible, intangible, mysterious ‘thing’ that we can hardly call a ‘thing’ since it differs so substantially. Wang Bi admits that in its apparent emptiness, we could pretend the Dao does not exist at all…were it not for the evidence of its effects.

One wishes to say that it does not exist? [The fact still remains] that the entities are based on it for their completion. One wants to say it exists? [The fact still remains] that it does not show its form. That is why [the text] says: “shape of the shapeless, appearance of the no-thing.”
– Rudolf Wagner, A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing

For Wang Bi, the ’emptiness’ of the Dao is its power. To follow the Dao is to embody its emptiness in our lives. This is achieved by getting rid of desires and private interests, including the desire for virtue, which turns out to be a fruitless chasing after the appearance, rather than the source, of virtue. Being free from desires and aversions based in private interests allows one, like water, to adopt the lowliest position without contention.

That the supple overcomes the hard and the soft the violently rigid is known to everyone in All Under Heaven, but no one is able to put [this] to practice. That is why in the statements of the Sage, “[Only] he who takes on himself the humiliation of the state I call the lord of the altars of the nation; [only] he who takes upon himself the misfortune of the state I call the king of All Under Heaven” straight words seem paradoxical.

The Natural Appeal of Stoicism

“Suppose you cut yourself badly with a rusty knife. Given your beliefs, the thought might occur to you that you got infected. And the further thought might occur to you that you might die from this infection. At this point this is a mere impression or thought which you find yourself with. It is a disagreeable, perhaps even disconcerting, thought; that is to say, the mere thought in itself is disconcerting. The question then arises: “What is the source and nature of this disquieting character of the impression?”

According to the Stoics, there are two possibilities. The first is this: you wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil. No wonder, then, that the mere impression that you might die is very disturbing. The second is this: you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death. So the impression that you might die has an alarming character; it puts you on alert. This has a teleological function. It alerts you to the need to be on your guard. And, by a natural mechanism, your whole body will go into a state of alert, ready to move as needed. But the impression, though alarming, is not deeply disturbing. For, after all, you have a clear mind, and you know that there are many false alarms; and even if there is reason for alarm, you as a Stoic know that all you have to do is try to do what you can to avoid death. This is what you are meant to do. You do not actually have to avoid death. That is a matter of divine providence. So the question of whether you are going to die or not in this sense does not affect you at all. This is God’s problem, as it were.

But in the case of the person who believes that death is a terrible evil, the alarming character of the impression, which teleologically is just a signal to be on one’s guard, turns into a deeply disturbing experience, and as a consequence the whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state, which might affect the operation of reason.

We have to firmly remember, though this might not be so clear to the person in a deeply disturbed state, that so far we are dealing with a mere impression or thought. Naturally, as the thought may occur to you, it may also be false. After all, we have not yet found out, or made up our mind, as to whether we actually got infected. And we have not yet considered whether we should believe that one may die from this infection. So far we have just the mere thought. Now, one cannot be afraid that one might die from this infection unless one believes that one got infected and that one could die from this infection. We clearly have to distinguish between concern and fear, on the one hand, and the alarming or disturbing character of the impression, on the other hand. The wise person will be concerned, but the foolish person who believes that death is an evil will be afraid. Thus fear, according to the Stoics, is nothing but the false belief that an evil is coming, or might come, one’s way — a belief generated by assent to an impression which is deeply disturbing because one wrongly takes the situation to be an evil.

Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought