Thursday, June 7, 2007

(12) Fence and Field

"In Stoic circles philosophy was compared to a fruitful field
surrounded by the fence of logic. The fence was designed
to ward off the attacks of the sceptic by showing that knowledge
of reality is possible. The soil of the field stood for physics, a
subject which the philosopher was expected to cultivate in
order to gain an understanding of the nature of the world.
The crop was the type of conduct expected from the Stoic wise
man in whom reason ruled and emotion was suppressed."
Thames & Hudson, 1992, pp. 132-133.]

Unto this very day philosophers--and the field of Philosophy--
carry forth their "proofs" when it comes to understanding the
nature of the universe and the considerations of right conduct.

When it comes to logic, according to the dictionary it is a
"reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles
of validity." Though we humans try, logic is easier said than done.
Perhaps it was easier in the Greco-Roman world of the ancient
Stoics, but in our contemporary world "validity" is like a fine mist
that can dissipate rapidly. Our modern knowledge base simply
is too overwhelming to assume a totally correct position or even
principle. We now realize that we live in a world that is becoming
ever more and more mysterious! Plain and simple, we really
don't know as much as we thought we did. So logic is fine and
good and still necessary for the benefit of reasoning, but we can
no longer hold it as being infallible.

Of course this leads us into physics, trying to understand the
"nature of the universe." These past several centuries have
truly been breakthrough centuries in this respect. Physics
exploded upon the scene after a long hiatus during the Middle
Ages. And it was surely a very different kind of physics than
that of the Ancient World. Modern-day physics may employ
logic to a certain extent; but mainly it is based on *observation,*
oft predicated on advanced technology. And what we have found
upon occasion surpasses logic, taking us by surprise even more
than we might want to admit. Particle Physics has discovered a
grainy strange world upon which we actually stand. Modern
physicists talk about mysterious mind-matter links, as they call
ours an "Observer-Participant Universe."

So today's Stoics might be more circumspect about getting an
ironclad grip on the universe, or even depending totally on a
declared infallible logic. Nevertheless, the Stoa's emphasis on
"virtuous conduct" based on reason and responsibility surely
still is commendable.

However, suppressing "emotions" may have been a losing
proposition right from the very beginning. Historically, even the
ancient Stoics backed off somewhat from this proposition. Their
reliance on *apatheia* (never to be mistaken as apathy) might
make better sense when it addresses those negative passions
that can make us sick, sad, and disturbed. These kind of passions,
too, can hurt and even kill. If humanity is to flourish, negative
passions need to be understood, controlled, and if possible,
re-configured into something more acceptable.

As for good emotions, good feelings, well I suppose they are a
category that enhances our sense of well-being. They act upon
us positively, and they can interact positively in our relationships.
So following the "logic" of this, a modern Stoic likely would have
to re-think fairly seriously about the suppression of emotions.
More than likely a smart Stoic, today, would be looking at this
issue from the perspective of Depth Psychology--not physics,
yet a mental science that has opened up a wide avenue of
understanding when it comes to the human "psyche."

All in all, today's Stoic surely can stand on the foundation of those
early Stoics; yet, in light of our more extensive modern knowledge
base, contemporary Stoics need adjust their perspective accordingly.