What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason

We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.frowny-face

If anything, emotions make life interesting.

But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”

Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government. 

Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions. 

Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.

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Aurelius quote

Some advice from my favorite Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, that I ran across today:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

 

“Reason as our guide”

“We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide,” said

Samuel Johnson, pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Samuel Johnson. I read this at the front of an introductory logic book I bought over my last Christmas break. I Googled the quote and found the rest of it on a website of Samuel Johnson sound bites. According to the site, Johnson wrote it in a letter to his stalker-biographer James Boswell.

I base my moral code on reason. That’s how my mind operates. I want to act in a way I can justify with a little more resolve than the tepid assertion an action “felt right.” To put it bluntly, I think the “right” thing to do is the logical thing to do. A deeper moral code underlies this, firmly based in compassion: reduce the suffering of others. Moreover,  I adhere to the “spirit” of the law, rather than the law itself.

An example illustrates this. I choose not to kill. Most  people consider this reasonable: killing creates suffering, eliminates chances for agents to act according their will, and determines their entire future without clear consent. It also prevents future joys for them. But should one never kill?  Zen master John Daido Roshi has an example to test the spirit of this precept. If a deer is suffering on the side of the road and I have the power to “put it out of its misery,” I will. I want to reduce its suffering, and if I flee the scene, most likely I’m just being squeamish, not trying to preserve its life.  Although I’m killing the deer, I’m fulfilling the original point of the precept: reduce suffering. The same is true of lying. I’d never tell the complete truth if I knew it could endanger many lives. My intention remains the same: despite fear or desires, I want to maximize compassion.

Many would term this “compassion ethics,” a generic form of Buddhist ethics. Agents under this system long to reduce suffering in the world. I use logic to apply this general sentiment to my actions. Thus, since anger is rarely logical, I avoid anger. Same for excessive sadness or passion. All these lead to suffering,so I reduce them. Reason is my guide.

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