Why the Stoics, like their ancestors the Cynics, greatly valued hardship.

Diogenes in his jar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860).

After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes the Cynic moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention—which, he maintained, was the false currency of morality. 

Diogenes disdained the need for conventional shelter and other corrupting ‘dainties’ and chose instead to live in a storage jar and survive on a diet of chickpeas and lupins. He used to beg for the bare necessities, including from statues—saying that he was thereby practising for rejection. He held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The term ‘Cynic’ possibly derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’, kynikos.

In the deep winter, Diogenes would strip naked and embrace bronze statues. One day, upon seeing this, a Spartan asked him whether he was cold. When he said that he was not, the Spartan replied, “Well, then, what’s so impressive about what you’re doing?”

Like their ancestors the Cynics, and like the Spartans, the Stoics greatly valued hardship, albeit it on a more modest or moderate scale. We should, they said, routinely practice poverty or put ourselves through mild hardship, and this for several reasons.

First, to discover what we can do without, and reduce our fear of losing these things. In his Letters, Seneca advises Lucilius: ‘Set yourself a period of some days in which you will be content with very small amounts of food, and the cheapest kinds, and with coarse clothing, and say to yourself, “Is this what I was afraid of?”‘

Second, to be reminded that simple things, such as bread and olive oil, or a good night’s sleep, can be just as enjoyable and profitable as any great banquet, and thus that pleasure is both easily available and highly transferable.

Third, to better reflect upon our true goals, or to work towards them. ‘If you want to have time for your mind’, says Seneca, ‘you must either be poor or resemble the poor… One cannot study without frugality, and frugality is just voluntary poverty.’

Here are six more benefits of self-imposed hardship, according to the Stoics:

  • To increase our appreciation and enjoyment of the things that we normally enjoy.
  • To break from our normal routine, and reinvigorate our minds while exercising and reinforcing our freedom.
  • To be prepared for future hardship, which, unless we are suddenly struck dead, is all but a certainty.
  • To be convinced that the greater part of our suffering lies not in fact but in our attitude towards it.
  • To practise self-discipline, or test our Stoicism.
  • To empathize with less fortunate people, and people from the past.

In addition, self-imposed poverty and hardship can also have more mundane benefits, such as losing weight, or saving time or money.

Finally, all the reasons so far enumerated are themselves a source of pride, and pleasure of a different kind. ‘Do not’ says Marcus Aurelius, ‘lament misfortune. Instead, rejoice that you are the sort of person who can undergo misfortune without letting it upset you.’

Seneca does us the favour of putting self-imposed hardship into radical perspective when he says: ‘Armies have endured being deprived of everything for another person’s domination, so who will hesitate to put up with poverty when the aim is to liberate the mind from fits of madness?’

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

Stoicism and ‘the view from above’.

Stoicism and “the view

Earthrise.

The emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid, which came to be regarded as the national epic of Rome, and Virgil’s finest work. The poem tells the story of Aeneas, the son Venus, goddess of love, by the Trojan prince Anchises, as he flees burning Troy and strives to fulfill his destiny, which, as oft foretold, is to reach Italy and sire the line of the Romans, who will come to rule all the known world.

The most Stoicial passage in the Aeneid is the one known as Creusa’s farewell, which has been used for centuries for emotional education. As the concealed Greek soldiers pour out of the wooden horse, Hector, the fallen Trojan hero, appears to Aeneas in a dream and urges him to flee their beloved Troy. When Aeneas awakens, the city is in flames with fighting and looting in every corner. Aeneas gathers a few men and fights as best he can but loses his companions and witnesses the slaughter of King Priam upon his own altar. He sees Helen hiding and resolves to kill her; but his mother Venus appears and stays his hand, telling him that it is not Helen but the gods who are to blame for the war. Echoing Hector, Venus urges him to flee with his family.

Aeneas repairs to his house, but his father Anchises refuses to leave. The head of his son Ascanius briefly catches fire, and this omen is confirmed by a shooting star, which now not even Anchises can ignore. Aeneas carries his father in his back (as we all do) and leads his son by the hand, while Creusa, his wife, follows closely behind. Once outside the city gates, Aeneas finds that Creusa is no longer with them, and turns back in search of her.

But amid the tumult, and after searching in every place, Aeneas finds only Creusa’s ghost, which speaks to him. Creusa, or her ghost, bids Aeneas not to grieve, for it was the will of the gods that she should die. Death is preferable to being raped, or enslaved to ‘some proud Grecian dame’. She foretells that, after many arduous years of wandering, Aeneas will arrive in Latium to a bride and kingdom, and there restore the Trojan line. She bids him farewell and reminds him that she will live on in their ‘common issue’, Ascanius. As it vanishes, Aeneas tries three times, in vain, to grasp at her spectre.

Creusa is completely accepting of fate, and, although she sees it clearly, does not begrudge her husband his kingdom to come or bride to be. Her detachment and perspective, which enable her to empathize with Aeneas and even to help him along his way, rather than grieve for all that she has lost, are an epitome of Stoicism, and especially of ‘the view from above’.

If we are too absorbed in our life and times, our perspective shrinks, and we become fearful and hopeful and prone to upset. Like readers of tabloid newspapers, we panic or rage at every little thing, rather than being alive in our lives. To achieve Creusa’s greatness of soul, we need to distance ourself from the life that we happen to be leading, and what better way to distance ourself than by seeking to adopt the perspective of Zeus on Olympus and look down from on high onto the world? The reason, maybe, why billionaires are so keen to blast themselves up into space.

Cicero’s Republic has largely been lost, but a part of the final book, called the Dream of Scipio, has survived in a commentary by Macrobius, which rose to prominence in the Middle Ages. The passage describes a dream that the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus is supposed to have had at the outset of the Third Punic War, which culminated in the destruction of Carthage.

In this dream, Scipio Aemilianus is visited by his grandfather-by-adoption, Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal at the outcome of the Second Punic War. The Elder Scipio shows him Carthage, the Earth, and the cosmos from the outer heavens, ‘a place on high, full of stars, and bright and shining.’ Scipio is awed by the music of the spheres, and sees that Rome is only a small part of the Earth, and the Earth a small part of the cosmos, and that it is better to fix our mind on this eternal picture, and to seek out wisdom and virtue, than to bleed and sweat for transient fame and fortune. 

In the words of Marcus Aurelius, which are all the more remarkable for coming from an emperor:

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river… Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.

Meditations, V, 23.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

Seneca’s timeless advice for dealing with noise. 

Odysseus and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous post, Hate Noise? You Might Be a Genius, I discussed the relationship between sensitivity to sound and creative thinking. Many great minds, from Kant to Kafka, and Darwin to Proust, are known to have been atrociously sensitive to sound. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in particular wrote an essay, On Noise, in which he linked misophonia [“the hatred of sounds”] with intellect and creativity—an association that modern science seems to be confirming.

There was, however, one singular genius, often mentioned in the same breath as Socrates, who managed to make his peace with noise: Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE), the famous Stoic philosopher and infamous tutor and advisor to the mad emperor Nero. In the end, Nero forced his hapless mentor to commit suicide, which Seneca did unflinchingly according to the model that had been set by Socrates.

If you think that Manhattan is noisy, that is nothing to Ancient Rome, with its criers and hawkers, chariot wheels on uneven roads, and lack of window glass let alone double glazing and other soundproofing. Not even Seneca, who has been described as the first-ever investment banker and might have been the richest man in the Roman Empire, could insulate himself from the hubbub.

In the Letters to Lucilius, which he wrote in a (successful) bid to become immortal in the months leading to his death, Seneca claims to be living in lodgings right over a bathing establishment: “So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing!” He paints a vivid picture of the soundscape and, by extension, of first century Roman life: the grunts of the weightlifter, the slaps and pummelling of the masseur, the splashing of the enthusiast who bombs into the pool, the ceaseless chatter of the hair-plucker who makes his victims yell…

Despite the din, Seneca remains able to read and write, assuring Lucilius that “this racket means no more to me than the sound of waves or falling water.” Still, he recognises that some noises are worse than others. Intermittent noises, he says, are more upsetting than steady ones. Spoken words are more distracting than mere sounds, in that they demand our attention: compared to speech, even the saw-sharpener is easier to bear. Yet Seneca is able to force his mind to concentrate and “keep it from straying to things outside itself.”

More than that, Seneca sees this as a test of his Stoicism, mental fortitude, and even virtue. Ultimately, he reasons, noise only disturbs us insofar as it resonates with our own emotional turmoil. If our mind is still, no amount of noise can unsettle it; but if our mind is angry or fearful, or burning with greed or envy, no amount of silence can still it: “For of what benefit is a quiet quarter or neighbourhood if our emotions are in an uproar?”

In Virgil, as Aeneas flees burning Troy, he says, “I, whom of yore no dart could cause to flee… Now shake at every sound, and fear the air, Both for my child and for the load I bear.”

We tend to associate sleeping with resting. But unless we are able to still our mind by the use of reason, the night merely changes the form of our worries. Real tranquillity, in contrast, “is the state reached by a rational mind when it is at rest.”

For if we have sincerely retired… and have scorned outward attractions, then… no outward thing will distract us; no music of men or of birds can interrupt good thoughts, when they have once become steadfast and sure. The mind which starts at words or at chance sounds is unstable and has not yet withdrawn into itself; it contains within itself an element of anxiety and rooted fear, and this makes one a prey to care… You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or threat.

I think there is a lot of truth in that. When overwhelmed by noise, I find it very helpful to ask myself, “Is my annoyance more to do with me or my prejudices than with the noise itself?” But I would contest that even if we are able to concentrate in a din, our concentration is less profound or complete than it would otherwise have been, and more wearing too.

Seneca readily admits that, having tested ourself, is it simpler to avoid the uproar, or block it out, just as Odysseus blocked his ears and had the Argonauts row faster to get past the sirens. According to lore, the sirens were fated to die if someone ever escaped their singing, and after Odysseus were never again to be seen or heard.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

I am excruciatingly sensitive to noise: I always carry earplugs and fantasize about living in the middle of the woods. Is the problem with me or with the world?

As a misophone [“hater of sounds”], I’m in pretty good company. Kant hated noise, as did Proust, Kafka, and Darwin—and even, ironically, Wagner. Kant fled his lodgings on account of a crowing rooster, and Proust went so far as to line his bedroom with cork. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus secluded themselves in large private parks, and had only to contend with the baby-like cries of hedgehogs and maybe the murderous screams of vixens. The sounds of nature, I find, are always more bearable: I onced toured Cophenhagen Zoo—the only thing open on a Monday—and noted that the most disturbing cries came from the human children.

Young children scream and cry all the time because they haven’t yet learnt how to read. That’s how I’d be without books.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote an essay, On Noise, in which he linked misophonia with intellect and creativity:

Certainly there are people, nay, very many, who will smile at [my predicament], because they are not sensitive to noise; it is precisely these people, however, who are not sensitive to argument, thought, poetry or art, in short, to any kind of intellectual impression: a fact to be assigned to the coarse quality and strong texture of their brain tissues.

Schopenhauer railed hardest against the cracking of whips in narrow resounding streets (the 19th century equivalent of revving motorbikes): “Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the screaming of children are abominable; but it is only [his emphasis] the cracking of a whip that is the true murderer of thought.” To him, the cracking of whips was all the more unbearable for being unnecessary and, worse than unnecessary, useless.

Not every sound is noise. I enjoy certain natural sounds such as birds singing, a stream burbling, or waves lapping or breaking; but not, say, an air conditioner humming (unless it is very hot outside), children crying, or people shouting or talking without saying anything useful, interesting, or amusing. If I believe that something is important or meaningful or beautiful, the sound that it makes is much less likely to constitute noise; and contrariwise if I think that it is ugly or meaningless or destructive. Noise, then, is whatever I don’t think is worth hearing, and exists on a spectrum. In the final analysis, it is whatever ends up dissipating rather than concentrating or conserving my energies.

For Schopenhauer, genius is precisely this: the ability of the mind to concentrate itself on a single point and object. But as soon as this bunched-up mind is interrupted or distracted or dispersed, it is no better than an ordinary mind. It is, says Schopenhauer, as with a large diamond, which, if shattered, loses most of its value; or as with an army, which, if dispersed, loses most of its power. It is not merely a matter of genius but also of happiness, because, as every creative person knows, there is no happiness greater than that of the mind at play. Aristotle famously conceived of God, the traditional fount of all reason, as a mind that turns blissfully upon itself. In contrast, people who are too frightened to put two and two together, or are unable to, use noise to help occupy and numb their minds (see my related post on the psychology of music in restaurants). 

Was Schopenhauer being fanciful in linking misophonia with intellect and creativity? In recent years, researchers at Northwestern University have found that real-world creativity (although not, interestingly, academic test scores) may be associated with a reduced ability to filter “irrelevant” sensory information. “Leaky” sensory gating may help our brains integrate ideas that are outside the focus of our attention and thereby promote associative and creative thinking. But if these extraneous ideas are, well, noise, it can also cripple us. The geniotic brain is like a high-compression engine, which knocks if fuelled with lower octane gasoline, i.e. nonsense. Even if he might have overstated his case, Schopenhauer, it seems, was on to something.

There was, however, one singular genius who was not disturbed by noise: Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher and infamous tutor and adviser to the mad emperor Nero, who, in the end, obliged his hapless mentor to commit suicide.

In my next post, I will look at Seneca’s timeless advice for coping with noise.

References

  • Schopenhauer, A (1851): Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol 2, Ch 30, On Din and Noise.
  • Zabelina DL et al (2015): Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers. Neuropsychologia 69:77-84.

Is Psychiatry the New ‘Opium of the People’?

Picture credits: Atlantic Books/James Davies/Neel Burton

Dr James Davis is a medical anthropologist and trained psychotherapist who is perhaps best known for his book of 2013: Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good.

Cracked is a forensic examination of our increasing reliance on psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, in which Davis essentially argues that psychiatry ‘in the name of helping others, has actually been helping itself’.

His latest book, Sedated (March 2021), is broader in scope, looking at the social and political underpinnings that facilitated and enabled this state of affairs.

Since the early 1970s, the number of mental disorders listed in the DSM, the American classification of mental disorders, has risen from 106 to 370. Antidepressant prescribing in the U.K. surged from 25 million prescriptions per year in 2002 to nearly 75 million in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the trend—while more benign and empowering psychological treatments are ever harder to access.

In Sedated, Davis puts it to us that psychiatric interventions, including superficial psychological interventions principally aimed at returning people to productivity, merely create the illusion of care while leaving the structural causes of distress intact. More than that, by shifting the blame or responsibility onto the sufferer, they serve to obscure these structural causes and, thereby, to preserve and entrench the neoliberal status quo.

The interventions favoured by the government, including even the psychological interventions, are those that involve internal rather than external change, because internal change promises to increase economic productivity and so cost-effectiveness, which is the preferred criterion for endorsing one treatment over another. If we are suffering, we are simply to stiffen ourselves to the social problems created by successive policies aimed solely at the bottom line.

Karl Marx famously said that ‘religion is the opium of the people’. The social institutions responsible for understanding and managing suffering are critical to the preservation of vested interests. With the waning of religion in the West, priests may have been supplanted by psychiatrists. The idea that a pill can make us happy ought to be inherently suspicious but fits perfectly with our materialistic and mechanistic worldview.

Thus, according to the prevailing narrative, suffering is rooted in individual rather than social or existential causes, while well-being is whatever best serves the economic imperative. Behaviours that disrupt economic activity are labelled as mental disorder, and this mental disorder presents yet another money-making opportunity.

If so many of us are ill, if a quarter of us are taking a psychiatric drug, this is because our suffering, having been stripped of its deeper purpose and meaning, is no longer being heeded. It is no longer being interpreted as a vital call to change, or to protest against harmful or inhibiting conditions. 

On the contrary, once we identify as mentally ill, we become disempowered in the belief that the problem lies solely with us, or, more precisely, with misfiring chemicals in our brains. While we are at the clinic, we are not at the barricades.

And while we work to grow the economy, we are not working to grow ourselves.

This is very big picture stuff from James Davies, who weaves our worst fears into a coherent, compelling, and damning narrative.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness.