While sitting on the plane traveling from Shanghai to Bangkok, I had, quite surprisingly, a rather deep thought about how I had been seeing my life anymore. “What if the plane goes down tonight?” For some reason, even though I always know that air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation, I always have this morbid thought in mind every time before the plane takes off (but strangely not when it’s landing — for some reason, I always find comfort in that although I also pray to survive. If I get really tired when I am on that seat (which is usually the case because of my habit of getting a nigh flight after a long day of work so that I would get to wherever I want the next day and hit the ground running), I’d often say to myself, “it would be okay if I die today” — and I would really mean it.
This way of thinking is what some might call “thinking stoically.” The stoics lived around the third century BCE, and their influence have been widespread across Europe. Modern thinkers such as Massimo Pigliucci and William B. Irvine return to the thinking of the stoics with the true hope that it could be helpful in the modern era in which we, good people, are all fighting against the evil force of capitalism. Let me share with you here my favorite quote from Professor Massimo Pigliucci’s blog “How to be a Stoic”:
He then goes on to talk about the “dispreferred indifferents,” such as wealth, health, and other goods. They are indifferent “in the sense that they do not affect one’s moral worth.” This particular stance of the Stoic school of thoughts remind me of the writings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and in particular Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially his first Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he lays out the entire cartography of how our morality is by no means moral simply because of the advancement in things that we do not need, and of course the Chinese thinkers such as Laozi, and especially Zhuangzi. These thinkers, living in different eras and from different cultural backgrounds (maybe closer in the case of Laozi and Zhuangzi), surprisingly agree on the most important truth and fact that life as a human being needs: we don’t need all that much to live a good life, whether or not we know what it means.
A crucial idea that the Stoics derived from their physics is that life ought to be lived “according to Nature…The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that Stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. Rather, Stoics taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions – of fear, or anger, or love, say – are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should (or should not) be given “assent,” i.e., should be appropriated and cultivated.
Buddha, a contemporary of Laozi, has laid out the entire map of life as such in a very profound way, and all begins with the same very important notion that “we don’t, and will never, need that much; so why are we spending so much and working so hard to get those things that could only give us the short-term sense of appreciation (usually immediately when we have them) and then become useless afterwards simply because, after all, we don’t need them.” The artificial need, which according to Rousseau, is by-design — as it is the strategy of the elites to keep the poor in check by creating artificial needs for them to keep craving for, so that they could work their asses off trying to get what they think they could get in perpetuity. If we understand this, then we don’t need to be slaves to these artificial desires — that weren’t ours at the first place anyway — anymore. David Hume, however, did make it clear to us all in his Treaties that this won’t be easy no matter how hard we try, or how easy we would like to make it look and sound to our receptive senses. Why? Because, as he famous said, “reason is a slave to the passions.” Backed by modern science, this discovery of the bifurcated relationship between the emotional and the rationalizing capacities of the mind is central to how we not only should but must think about the social relationships we have with other people. Neuroscientists argue that the most important part of the brain that controls our emotion — the pre-frontal cortex (also known as PFC) — is also the most important part of how we live our lives because without the working capacity of such part of the brain, we can’t operate as social beings — simply because the rationalizing capacity is the brain has a limited ability to only telling us “how to do things” as opposed to the initial thought of “what to do.”
The efforts of these modern stoics, such as Massimo Pigliucci, to relive the wisdom from thousands of years ago to help us understand the real causes and effects of our happiness is absolutely admirable, making me want to write another blog called “Thinking like Rousseau” (although I have a feeling that which is an unwritten subtitle of this blog anyway). At the very center of stoic philosophy is the idea that we are stronger than we think, and that if we are always prepared we will be able to encounter anything at all. Some of the stoics go so far even to, before going to bed at night, think about the worst case scenarios that could happen to their lives when they get up in the morning.
As mentioned, if we’re prepared for those bad things, even in our mind, we’ll be likely to take them calmly and reasonably. We will be less anxious and use less emotion to try to ease the pain caused by something that may only make sense in terms of reason. In other words, it’s about turning the “hot emotion” into the “cold reason” — because, at the end of the day, and make no mistake about it, emotion alone cannot solve anything. In fact, I often let emotion take the steering wheel, and, I’d like to quote something that a friend (who is no longer my friend) once told me, “You are too emotional…you need to control it; good luck.” The funny thing is that the moment I heard this friend of mine saying this, I got upset right away (haha). Well, that’s just a sign that I am an emotion person, and that my pre-frontal cortex is still working just fine 🙂
The question to be derived from this is, since when is being emotion a bad thing?
Historically-speaking, human beings have been proud of their ability to be rational. In fact, to many thinkers, being able to conceive the world rationally is the only quality that distinguishes us from any other living creatures. So, for generations, we have been trying to keep our emotion in check. Only until the late18th century, beginning in Europe, that the opposite polar of idea began to emerge — and this, precisely, was the idea that gave rise to an alternative way of thinking about emotion that later became the platform for artists, musicians, poets, to exercise their creativity. Machines, when being used at a grand scale, created fear among human beings who did not want to be replaced by the ability of the machinery to be more efficient, more optimal, and, needless to say, more rationale, than human beings. The unexpected yet collective efforts by thinkers, artists, professors during the last two decades of the 18th century gave rise to the idea of Romanticism, or the idea that it’s our emotion that made us human beings. For the Romantics, the question began with, “are we happy being rational?” Not everyone was. And the same could probably be said for the emotionists as well. Rationality, the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (who was also being credited for reinventing jogging as a form of exercising) would say, was the only thing that keeps us from killing one another in the state of nature where presumably everyone is living for himself or herself with no collective goal. That said, as Rousseau would disagree by saying something like, “in the state of nature, we don’t need the same kind of rationality we would be needing to live in an industrial society.” There’s rationality in being emotional. Rousseau then would explain and place an emphasis on the reason why he thinks human beings are better off living in the state of nature: because we are morally adaptable to social interactions, but only when there are not too much superficial impulses from outside.
Emotion, in his sense, safeguards our souls from being brutally governed by our own selfishness — the kind of selfishness that is recursive only in advance societies. Artists, musicians, and designers like to exercise their emotionality rather than rationality because it’s the only source of their creative ideas that work — because emotion is the steering wheel. I think Hume was right about that. So, being emotional to say, among other things, is a good thing, as it means that you’re being human — being rational insofar as your interest in the well-being of others is what driving you to live a good life.
That said, the only instance that emotion could solve any problems is when the other person engaging in the problems at hand use reason to deal with it. In fact, I read from somewhere that even modern science has a research that supports this stoic claim that thinking about the problems that have yet to reach you is not a total waste of time, but in a way, making you prepared for what might happen and what you might have to deal with, which, also in a way, is giving your life a little bit of strategies to make it worth living.