Ancient Stoicism And Rational Psychology
Humanistic Ways To Mental Health (1995)
“To be a philosopher,” said Thoreau, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Yet that’s often what we Humanists have overlooked in many of our activities. To solve some of the problems of life, or help others solve them, in very practical and down-to-earth ways, is, in the final analysis, what I think the Humanist philosophy was developed to accomplish. After all, Humanism can be defined as a commitment to the use of reason and observation in the service of human need and interest in the here and now. And, as such, it is an ethic that aims at what thinkers ancient and modern have termed “the good life.” For Humanists, the good life is one where reason is the tool and happiness the goal — happiness both for ourselves and others.
Now, if modern Humanism were to trace its roots to some particular ancient philosophical system, what system would that be? Well, given our heritage in the freethought movement, there is a tendency to choose Epicureanism. It’s founder, Epicurus, challenged the religious traditions of his day, declaring clearly that the superstitious fear of hellfire was a major cause of human misery in the here-and-now. That sort of thing warms the hearts of the debunkers among us. But did the Epicureans, or their Cyrenaic forebears, have the right idea on how happiness is attained? I don’t believe they did.
Contrary to the teachings of these ancient hedonists, it seems that happiness can rarely be attained directly, through a forthright pursuit of a well-balanced set of pleasures. Happiness is rather like “wellness.” Its prerequisite is an absence of disease. And when it came to providing that prerequisite, to relieving the diseases of the mind, and even of society, it was the ancient Stoics who often proved to be the best philosophical doctors.
Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, set forth the Stoic dictum in modern terms. “I believe,” he wrote, “unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life . . .” Following Russell’s lead, 1971 Humanist of the Year Albert Ellis has taken a similar approach. In his Rational-Emotive Therapy, which he freely acknowledges as humanistic and rooted in ancient Stoicism, Ellis focuses attention on the irrational ideas that keep people miserable. He directs attention to the Jehovian demands, the religiosity, the catastrophizing that prove counter-productive and self-defeating. And he prescribes reason as the tool best capable of breaking down these extremes of the mind.
In this view, then, the first step in attaining to the good life is the removal of obstacles, the taking down of the barriers to happiness. One would do well to cease to be ill before trying to become well. Or so it would seem . . .
But I think this is a mistake.
For there is a prior step even to the one just outlined. There is, shall we say, a prerequisite to the prerequisite. And this latter prerequisite has little to do with reason. In fact, it has everything to do with desire.
You know the old joke. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?
It will change only when it truly wants to change.
In short, motivation is the key. The first job of the counselor, the recovery group leader, the youth club leader, even the social reformer, then, is to instill a strong desire for change. And one instills a strong desire for change through such activities as — and excuse my choice of terminology — evangelism and rabble-rousing. That’s right: One appeals directly to the emotions. One paints a graphic and beautiful word picture of the good life, and the good society, so that they become strongly desired goals.
People who do this well are called women and men of “vision.”
And one can also paint a graphic and ugly word picture of misery. One grinds in the significance of the present unhappy state — focuses on what is wrong and how matters cannot simply be allowed to continue as they are.
People who do this well are called preachers of hellfire.
It’s the old carrot and stick trick. It’s whipping up a fury of desire, fanning the flames of discontent. It’s the stuff of which revolutions are made: revolutions in society, or revolutions in one’s personal life.
And it was for this purpose that the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his essay On the Shortness of Life. In that essay, he drew attention to the fact that people often don’t get their lives in order in anything like a timely way. He wrote:
That was the stick. Then came the carrot.
And he added, “our life is amply long if ordered properly.”
What Seneca meant here was that people would do well to have more concern for the values and priorities of life. He was urging his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves, to give the truly important things more time, and to act now.
By way of example, we can we look around us today and see many people living life on what might be called the “deferred payment plan.” Children commonly say, “Just wait until I grow up.” Students can’t wait until they finish school and leave home so they can begin to live as they like. When young people date, they look forward to the time when they will be married. Then they’ll be happy. When married they look ahead to owning their own home. Then they’ll be happy. When winter comes, they look to Spring, or to the day they can move to California. If they have children they say, “When the kids grow up and leave home, then we’ll be able to do what we want.” Of course there’s still the job. So they look to retirement as the time to live.
Seneca denounced this attitude in the strongest language:
Seneca believed that we can live now, every day, can find our meaning and joy at this time, not some other. Don’t wait for happiness, he argued, create it.
For the irony is, when retirement comes, people tend to look back and wonder what became of the “good times.” The remedy is to always remember that today is the day you will be nostalgic about tomorrow. These are the “good old days.” Make them good before they get old.
Postponing happiness, however, isn’t the only problem. People also lose much of their lives seeking to gain the approval of others. They live their lives for others, not in a charitable way that might bring mutual happiness, but in a slavish way, putting their happiness in others’ hands. They often worry about what others might think and say.
Albert Ellis has written much on not worrying about what other people think. So did the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who, in his Meditations said:
Elsewhere he added that one shouldn’t listen to the opinions of all people, but only those who we can respect.
Of course there are also those who we seek to impress, get even with, and compete against. How much of our lives do we allow them to rob from us? And among how many such people does each one of us distribute his or her life? Seneca argues:
Clearly, then, efforts to live our lives by the measure of others turn us away from ourselves. So, we would do well to choose with care the standards by which we wish to live and the standard-bearers we wish to follow. If we are finding life short, this is evidence that we have chosen wrongly and might better reassess our goals, and perhaps even our values. It is so easy, after a promising start, to become sidetracked and lose sight of our reasons for doing what we do. Things that were, at first, means to worthy ends can become ends in themselves. But these are not our ends, the ends we started with. They are ends that take us away from ourselves and render the time we really spend for ourselves shorter and shorter.
Another source of the feeling that life is short is the time lost in worry, fear, and anxiety. One irony here is that at the very moment we are achieving our goals or having the life we seek, the anxious thought floods over us, “How long will this last?” We wonder if it might not all disappear in some calamity. The happily married can wonder if divorce will one day ruin it all. The wealthy can worry about bankruptcy. Whatever it is, it can be lost, and this realization can cause some to fail to enjoy the bounty of the moment. Of course precautions can be taken, but life is to be lived now.
As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non- productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong, we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn what we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the rest of our lives as though we are undeserving.
Yet so many do this. Were it not so, there would not be the popularity of guilt-oriented religions. In Old Testament times, the collective guilt of the tribe was symbolically placed on a goat and the scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness. But with the coming of Christianity, Christ became the scapegoat for the sins of the individual. His death was to free all those who believed from the guilt of their past actions. The “saved” thought of themselves as “washed in Christ’s guiltless blood,” and fully pardoned for their transgressions.
This sort of symbolic blood-sacrifice is an intellectualized version of a primitive scheme for expiation of guilt. As long as humans have lived in societies they have often sought to invent such schemes. Guilt is such a painful and disorienting emotion that society cannot function if it is allowed free reign.
Yet such guilt expiation schemes accomplish no real good. The wrong has still been done. This leaves the thinking person in a quandary. Since no ritual can undo an actual wrongdoing, should the thinking person continue to feel guilty? Many would say yes. But this would render the thinking person less effic- ient than the one who has the ritualistic scheme. Suddenly the twin goals of honesty to oneself and rational living seem at odds.
But they are not. The initial awareness of wrongdoing reminds us of our error. But such feelings are not ends in themselves. They are goads to productive action. Such action can be to remedy what can be remedied, or to perform in the future in a fashion that will avoid a repeat performance. But once the appropriate action is taken or resolve established, there is nothing more that needs to be done. And if one feels a sense of wrongdoing about something that is not actually wrong, then the appropriate course is self-re-education, not remedial action or resolve.
But think how much people waste of their lives in useless replays of past wrongs. And those who cannot face their wrongs squarely, and have no guilt expiation scheme in which they can believe, often resort to repression and other efforts to forget what they did. Such actions can distract one from a meaningful pursuit of ones goals as much as outright guilt can. The past is to be neither forgotten nor dwelled upon, but learned from in the interests of better living in the present and future.
In regards to the use of time, past, present, and future, Seneca wrote:
It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough. We will pass this way but once and no one can guarantee any paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is probably our only shot. But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give meaning to our existence. For it is in the context of this life that we love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy triumph. And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage, bear adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure.
And for those who continue their hope for an afterlife, let it be viewed as a bonus to a life well-lived here and now, not a focus to justify the giving up of everything resting in the palm of the hand.
Yet so many do give up the good life. They join ascetic religious orders, political mass movements that put all the benefits ahead to future generations, adopt creeds of excessive self-denial. The price people pay in adherence to such ideas, devotion to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical crusades is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in mind when he wrote:
Many ex-fundamentalists have found this out too late, often regretting sacrificed years. This can lead them into a frantic effort to make up for lost time. For example, when an article on Fundamentalists Anonymous, an organization for ex-fundamentalists, appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine, the positive response from ex-fundamentalists was overwhelming, since so many were reading the magazine to catch up on some of the living they had earlier missed.
Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for the here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is an ethic that puts life first, death last. It is a way of life that finds joy in a spring flower or the crash of waves on the seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten. It is a focus that includes purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits, and high aspirations.
And this is because, once the “bull” has been successfully fought, once the irrational ideas that blockade happiness have been largely removed, it is possible to focus one’s attention on realizing the good life itself. Now one is free to pursue the goal more directly.
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their 1954 Beacon Press book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they wrote:
This was the first of their seven key ideas of Humanism. They elaborated further, saying:
Referring to this attitude as “zest for living,” they were following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in The Conquest of Happiness, referred to “zest” as “the most universal and distinctive mark” of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.
To some, this vision sounds a bit like Omar Khayyam:
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!
Which comes close to the hedonistic doctrine Humanists are accused of advocating:
Or, as Mad magazine once put it —
Pretty soon I’ll be drunk, fat, and in trouble.
But we needn’t take Omar the Tentmaker literally when it comes to all that drinking and carousing. The humanist notion of the good life goes much deeper than any philosophy one will find at the bottom of a bottle. The physical pleasures are far from representing the whole. For the Humanist there are also the pleasures of an unfettered mind making new discoveries, solving problems, and creating. There is the enjoyment of art, music, dance, and drama. There is the joy of helping others and the challenge of working to make the world a better and more peaceful place. And, of course, there are the joys associated with love and family. The Humanist seeks the enjoyment of as many of these as reasonable, and cannot do so if an over-focus on just one overtakes life completely.
In this, we are clearly at one with the ancient Greek ideal of wholeness and the integration of life. For example, in the ancient Olympic games, competition included not only athletics but drama, music, poetry, and philosophy. And the whole combination was viewed as a religious event. The Greeks put it together and did it all. So can we.
In having zest for living, we join with the ancient Chinese who, in following Confucius, saw much of life as play — which accounted for their enjoyment of ceremony and especially their love of toys.
Such a worldly and good-natured view of life that claims no ultimate knowledge, stands out when contrasted with Hinduism. Whereas the Yogi is often seen as renouncing desire, living an ascetic life-style, and acquiring eternal knowledge, Socrates, the sage of the ancient Greeks, deliberately provoked certain appetites in himself, lived a social and active life, and professed to have no knowledge whatever!
It is also radically different from conservative Christianity, which has sometimes called this world a veil of tears, has seen pleasures as vanity, and seems to find the goal of human life beyond the grave. Such believers might quote Ecclesiastes —
the day of death than the day of birth.
Better to go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit.
As an antidote, Robert Louis Stevenson offered these words in his Christmas Sermon:
The way the good life can be lived is well-described by Havelock Ellis in his book, The Dance of Life. There he presents living as an art, one best characterized as a dance. In this, he follows the ancient Greeks who chose the image of dancing because, unlike walking or running, dancing is not generally viewed as a goal-oriented activity leading from point A to B. One dances for the sheer joy of the activity. It is the process more than the product that counts. And this is how the Humanist good life can be lived.
So, when someone asks a Humanist, “What is the purpose of life?” the Humanist would do well to answer, “Life is not purpose, life is art.” The meaning is found in the doing.
And there is a resulting optimism found is this philosophy. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it in A Child’s Garden of Verses —
Yes, there is more in this world than I could experience in a thousand different lifetimes. There is a richness here, a cornucopia of choices, a wealth of opportunities. There is so much to see, to do, to read, to learn. The question is not, “What shall I do with my life?” but “What shall I do next?!”
Yet, now we can ask, if this good life is to be the goal, is it a goal accessible only to the affluent, the intelligent, the educated? If so, then we are advocating a way of life only for a relative few of the world’s people. Certainly, I must admit that I benefit from growing up in a middle class environment in a wealthy country where I have access to a variety of choices. But all is not lost in more impoverished environments in less wealthy countries. For example, in Vijayawada, India, an extended family of Humanists teach the poor of the villages the joys of traditional folk dance, music, athletics, science, animal husbandry, occupational skills, and, most important of all, the vast world made possible only through reading. Many of the beneficiaries of this effort are not only impoverished and uneducated, but are often handicapped and abandoned. Yet in a country steeped in an ancient tradition of other-worldliness due to just such harsh realities, the humanistic vision is offered and met. The International Association for Religious Freedom, the world organization of liberal religions, has similar projects in India and is getting similar results. The vision is no illusion.
Because my visits in India have given me an appreciation for important elements of their culture, I would like to conclude my talk here with one of the most humanistic pieces of poetry to come down to us from that country’s fabled past. It it is called The Salutation to the Dawn. Were we to greet each day with words like these, we would never have time to complain that life was short, and would rarely become focused on irrational ideas. We would be too busy living our happiness.
This is the text of a talk prepared for the Humanist Asssociation of Massachusetts and delivered Sunday evening, February 14, 1993, at the Harvard Science Center. Its author, Frederick Edwords, is the executive director of the American Humanist Association.
For further information on the Rational-Emotive psychotherapy of Albert Ellis, please contact —
INST FOR RATIONAL-EMOTIVE THERAPY
45 E 65TH ST
NEW YORK NY 10021
Phone: (212) 535-0822
Dr. Ellis was the 1971 Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association.
© Copyright 1995 by Frederick Edwords