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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An evolutionary benefit to theism?

Does belief in God help our survival?
Photo: Altered from photo
(cc) Brent Danley,
Yesterday, NPR published an article on its program, All Things Considered, called, "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?". Here, psychologist and atheist Jesse Bering conducted some tests of three groups of childred. Each were given a game to play involving landing a ball in a very difficult position, and then believed themselves to be left unattended, but with an exception in the second and third group. In the third group someone sat and watched them, and in the second group, an empty chair was left. The children were told an invisible woman was watching them. Cheating was high in the unwatched group, and lower in the other two groups (which were about equal). Bering hypothesized that such beliefs had an evolutionary advantage because they encouraged us to behave and cooperate better. I have two main problems with Bering's endeavor here, and both relate to my belief he's trying to explain why something came to be, that I don't really think even 'came to be' in the first place[1].

The first problem I see with Bering's hypothesis regards how typical a judging-God is in human culture. I don't think this "overseeing judging God" is as common as Bering seems to think it is. First of all, consider that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions, sharing close inspiration from one another, and them having been influenced by the Zoroastrianism of Persia before that (in terms of god/s and the universe seen through a lens of Good/Evil). Many other traditions of the supernatural do not feature gods in those roles, such as the Greek gods, whose follies may have provided lessons on 'what not to do', and who may have had desires and actions against mortals, but who rarely served as moral guides themselves. Other supernatural views involve things like spirit guides and great mothers, such as with Native Americans, or karma and cycles of rebirth rather than gods, as with many Eastern views. Here too, the referee-god doesn't hold.

So, although Abrahamic religions grew to have great numbers and influence, their nucleus began in one small geographic region and relatively short span of time. It is therefore not a good indication of 'overall human nature' regarding belief. Like the Good/Evil dichotomy, the puritanism, and the "our way or the highway" exclusionary traits of Abrahamic religions, the God-judge may be another aspect that has been over-magnified by the happenstance of Western guns, germs, and steel, along with the fortuitous marketing made possible by being on the good side of a major world Emperor at the right time. This often leads people into imagining the peculiarities of the Abrahamic stream to be more indicative of the human religious norm than they really are. In fact, there's good reason to believe that many traits of some of our largest religions are anomalies of the human religious impulse.

The second problem is that supernaturalism is not as common as Bering and many others think. In fact, it may be only one of a few examples, coming about as late as the 2nd Century C.E. We hear and read about a lot of things in ancient philosophy and traditions and automatically interpret them in 'supernatural' terms today, but this was often not the case. Rather, ancient peoples were theorizing about how their One, holistic Natural universe operated. Their notion of souls and entities, and even the gods were often naturalistic. It may not have been until Jesus' failure to return from the dead that early Christians began to conceive of a supernatural realm separate from the natural, as an explanation of what was meant by the Kingdom of God. Today, with our modern Christian-colored glasses, when we look back and read many of the concepts before that time, we tend to cast them in a supernatural context when that wasn't the original conception.

But, alas, the essential question remains as to whether or not people can be good without direct oversight, or the belief of direct oversight. We know for a fact this is possible anecdotally, so it's a question of degrees and proportions. Rather than comparison with undisciplined children, I would like to see the cheating behavior of groups of believers compared with groups of people who had been trained in enlightened ethical principles that go beyond direct punishment/reward, which is the lowest level of ethical education. Consider psychologist Barry Schwartz's criticism of incentive based systems in a talk last year at TED on our Loss of Wisdom, where he said, "...excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity". The same is true throughout all morality.

There's no question that this kind of advanced ethical education requires more societal energy than enforcement through incentive based dogma; but then, it is also more reliable and stable than good behavior based on faith. In other words, you get what you pay for. 


Many thanks to Rick Bamford for making me aware of this article, and thanks to Nate Custer for drawing my attention to Barry Schwartz's talk! 

[1] I also had a minor quibble with Bering's comment, "I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either... Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives." I think again, Bering has made a larger claim than he can support. I have never had this feeling, even momentarily, since becoming an atheist. But I admit I have a considerable degree of philosophical underpinning to my natural worldview, which many atheists who merely lack theism do not have. Such occasional suspicions would not be surprising for them.

Monday, August 30, 2010

That which is sacred

Even those without supernatural beliefs
benefit from a sense of the sacred.
(cc) Nick Merzetti,
This weekend, I was invited to speak at Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Church in Stafford, Texas. The topic was Stuart Kauffman's book, Reinventing the Sacred, which I've written on briefly before. Our discussion covered much broader areas, including everything from Humanism to the role of ritual. One topic was on the use of the word Sacred.

Though many secularists, naturalists, and nontheists are uncomfortable with it, Sacred is a word Kauffman uses, and which I use as well. I explained that the Latin word sacer touched on the concept of setting apart. That which is sacred is that which we set apart from the mundane and the ordinary (or profane, though that word too requires a naturalistic context). While many have used the concept of the sacred to refer to supernatural things this, I submit, is merely happenstance because the things they find sacred (the things they set apart for reverence), for them, include the supernatural.

However, even for the naturalist, it is essential to have a sense of setting some things apart from the ordinary as being worthy of reverence, awe, and special respect. What things might those be? Ultimately, they tend to be those things which are essential to our flourishing as human beings. This begins at the most rudimentary level, with a respect for reason and the rational order by which the universe operates. Were it not for that Natural Law, then no life could arise, nothing could be understood and no progress could be made. Up the scale a bit, the sacred includes the creative faculty of the universe - that aspect of Natural Law that serves as a counterpart to entropy and results in the formation of complex systems. Among these, life itself, would be included in the sacred. Moving up further, an appreciation for our place as a species in the web of life is a way of setting it apart as special.

Getting to human affairs, our natural proclivities that tend toward peaceful and prosperous coexistence are sacred. These include our sense of empathy and compassion. Also sacred are the virtues, ethical principles, and practices which allow for human beings to interact with one another in manners that help us flourish, both outwardly and inwardly.

This stream of phenomena ranging from the most rudimentary up the emergent scale to our families, friends, communities, and all of life, are those things worthy to be set apart for special reverence, respect, and attention. For that reason, I call them sacred and I think it is to our benefit to do so. Conversely, I think we would do ourselves harm by rejecting the notion of the sacred out of some misguided fear that we are using a word others have used, simply because they find additional things sacred which are not a part of our worldview.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What we worship

The ocean womb of life and source
of its energy together.
(cc) Ingo (meironke),
Well known film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his online journal for the Chicago Sun-Times this month about Christopher Hitchens - the 'militant atheist' known for such books as God is Not Great and others. Hitchens has contracted a very serious form of cancer, like Roger Ebert, who lost his ability to speak from the disease. You can read Ebert's eloquent thoughts on Hitchens and his recent CNN interview by clicking this link. However, my comments are about one particular part of Ebert's excellent post. As he wrote:

"I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshiped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshiped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence."

As I read that paragraph, I was first struck by the personal way Ebert opened up to us. I soon realized as I completed it, that it's probably the coolest paragraph I've read this week. Upon reflection, although I still believe that, I now have mixed feelings about it's content.

On the one hand, I can relate to Ebert's awe and wonder at the great mystery of existence. I think that fascinating puzzle ads to life; so much so, that to ever have such questions answered might be less satisfying a position than the one of pursuing them. But the question of worshiping the mystery sticks in my craw, and I think I've realized the reason.

It is not, as some might expect of a nontheist, because of the concept of worship. I'm prepared to accept a certain kind of worship - as in, having a sacred respect for something. But the problem with worshiping "the void", as Ebert puts it, is that it leaves all that wondrous stuff we can see, and that we do know in the natural universe, discarded. The stuff of all those inspiring Einstein posters, and Carl Sagan Nova monologues, and Neil deGrasse Tyson speeches are not about the gaps, so much as they are about our visible, approachable, universe.

Further, the volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian wisdom (some immaterial caveats, granted) are largely about how nature, people, minds, and experience work and what kinds of things lead to the good life. Heraclitus and countless other ancient philosophers also brought us some of the most useful and inspiring lessons.

At some point in our past there was a great schism, whereby we divided up things into the natural and an alleged 'supernatural' and then we regarded everything of value and meaning as being of the latter. The reason worshiping the void, the unknowable, doesn't quite work for me, is that it is ultimately just a modern version of tossing everything of value into the unreachable darkness. Even with the supernatural assertion removed, It is still a surrender - a shrugging of the shoulders - which serves only to relieve us of the effort of connecting with what we worship. I, then, am a naturalist version somewhat akin to those Christians who tell people that God is not in some far off unreachable realm, but He is right here with us, in us, and part of all creation. They realize that you can tell a lot about a people by what they worship, and it is important that what we adore be something with which we can connect.

Ultimately, I can't escape the suspicion that Ebert's view on this, is of the same philosophic family, as a view that doesn't see what it needs in the knowable natural realm, and is inspired to relegate it to the unknowable. Instead, I would offer this...

If we are to 'worship' (take or leave that word per se), then let us find sacred truth and its pursuit, let us praise reason - not just the human capacity for reason, but the underlying rational order by which the universe operates and makes possible all things. Let us be in awe of the self-emergent complexity and the ever-changing maelstrom of cause and effect that arises from that natural law. Let us then value all life which is borne of that complexity. Let us appreciate our place among that life. Let us love one another, and let us find meaning in sharing with one another in the time we have borrowed from the universe. And, when it comes time to repay that debt, let us play our part gracefully in harmony with the way of the universe. And along the way, let us indeed take note of all we don't know, and may never know, and let that humble but inspire us.

That's a lot more than void, and worth some reverence I think.

Having said that, Roger Ebert's post was exceptional and I recommend it; and I wish both men all the best.

Thanks to D. J. Grothe for making me aware of Ebert's article.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The hidden vice

The killer Anton Chigurh is a metaphor
for the randomness of fate in
No Country for Old Men. (c) Miramax Films.
A friend of mine has been having a really hard time in her home life. Things are not good with her partner and she is distraught that he is rejecting her, becoming emotionally abusive, and they seem to be falling apart. She is scared for her kids and what will come of things; where she will go. She asks why people bother forming relationships if they can be dissolved so easily? If nothing is permanent then what was it all for? Why bother? She also finds herself wondering where she went wrong and what she could possibly do to make things right again - to change her partner's behavior. She believes her needs to be so simple and so humble. She is a loving, caring, smart, and selfless person, but all she has ever wanted is a loving stable family life, and she believes this should not be too much to ask.

If Socrates and Epictetus are correct in saying "virtue is both sufficient and necessary for happiness", then it stands to reason that the inverse is also true. Where there is suffering, there is also vice of some sort. This is true no matter how good a person the sufferer appears to be. But saying vice is present is merely a way to track down what may be contributing to our suffering. Here is what I do not mean by suggesting vice is present in the sufferer:

  • I do not mean that all forms of suffering are included:
    We all know the difference between happiness or pleasure, and True Happiness - a deep contented happiness independent of circumstance. Along the same lines, True Suffering is a deeper inner crisis than physical pain or tragedy of circumstance. Therefore, for example, there is no vice of the sufferer of deformities or tragedies, whether caused by others or other acts of nature.
  • I do not mean that vice is equal to evil:
    Saying there is a vice present does not mean 'evil intent'. Rather, in the broader view, it means there is some defect of perception or value system that is magnifying the suffering.
  • I do not mean that our circumstances are our fault:
    This is not about assigning blame, or blaming the victim, or minimizing moral responsibility for those who do wrong to us. The vice has not necessarily caused our circumstance, but it is making our happiness more vulnerable to circumstance than it could be.
  • I do not mean that we deserve our suffering:
    Every one of us has vice of some variety or degree, and we always will. As William Munny (Clint Eastwood) said in the film Unforgiven, "deserve's got nothin' to do with it".

Rather, if we can use the inverse of the Epictetan and Socratic virtue/happiness relationship as a means to spot vice, we can proceed to ask what are we missing - what are we lacking - that will allow us to overcome this suffering and weather our circumstances? This is not about blame, but about discovering opportunity and hope; it is about empowerment.

Living in Nature

Marcus Aurelius (Book 2, #11) reminds that "death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike..." He goes on (Book 4, #6) to talk about bad people: "These [people] are natural and necessary results from creatures of this kind, and one who wants this to be otherwise may as well resent the fig tree for yielding its acrid juice. And in general remember this, that within a very little while both he and you will be dead, and a little after not even your name nor his will be remembered."

This helps us to realize that bad things happening because of the actions of others are just like natural disasters; they are inevitable and a part of how the universe is. They are equally outside of our control. We already knew that people did bad things to one another, and should not be so surprised when, on occasion, we find ourselves in the way of it. On the other hand Marcus' note on death truly inspires us to ask what the point of it all is?

The first alternative: the promise of permanence

When my friend asked "why bother?" it reminded me of the time I've written before on the distinction between two major branches of thought about life, which find themselves in our philosophies, religions, and spiritual traditions. The first being the notion that there is a permanent and stable condition which we might achieve or have given to us. For Christians there is a notion of salvation and an everlasting realm beyond death, but there are other examples of this as well. These philosophies must contend with the undeniable impermanent nature of reality we see around us. As such, the reward is generally relegated to another kind of unseen reality beyond this one.

This philosophic approach has profound implications in our psychology, our history, and our culture. In movies we commonly see good triumph over evil and the happy ending. Our deep fantasies to control what seems like insurmountable challenges are fulfilled as we see superhuman heroes use their powers to defeat evil and stop the bad things from happening.

Yet, at least where living this present life is concerned, these superheroes betray us - be they in movies or in scriptures. They color our mindset and our general way of thinking becomes such that if something doesn't lead to a permanent preferred external outcome, that it lacks purpose or value - that it was all for nothing. This is a very vulnerable condition in which to live, surrounded by such an unpredictable and impermanent universe.

The second alternative: acceptance of change

The second major branch of thought about life takes another approach. It faces full on the reality of our world. It calls us to accept life as a continuous flux of change and impermanence. Although anyone of any faith or philosophy can benefit from doing this, Stoicism and Buddhism are two philosophies that have exemplified this approach.

In a recent meeting of my Humanist Contemplatives group, we were discussing Stoicism as opposed to say, Epicureanism. One member said he thought of Stoicism as nihilistic or pessimistic. This is a common first impression of these kinds of philosophies. However, there is an eye to this hurricane. In other words, there is a point you come to in acceptance of what seems to be so negative, which ultimately brings an even greater peace, contentment and hope that we had before. I have written on this sense of hope in my article, Adieu to Immortality.


In the film No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed Bell is close to retirement but tracking a ruthless killer whose seemingly senseless wake of destruction only highlights to him a changing world where the morals he'd grown up with are slipping away. It is all too much for him to handle. Another law man concurs, saying, "It's not the one thing, it's the dismal tide." He feels overwhelmed, and defeated. Upon retiring he goes to visit his uncle, an older law man himself, now retired and disabled by a man who had shot him some years earlier. Bell conveys this feeling, to which his uncle replies, "What you got ain't nothin' new... You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

There is a common idea of what vanity is, but this particular vice has many guises. I think most people, when thinking about vanity, would imagine a person who is conceited or elitist; a person who is concerned with looks and who treats others as inferior. But this is only the most outward and obvious example of vanity. We all know that kind of behavior is poor and ultimately harmful to ourselves and others; that's no revelation. But there are other forms of vanity that are less obvious, more insideous, and can sneak up on even the best natured of us. This kind of vanity hurts ourselves the most, because we believe ourselves to have greater control over things than we do. Unaware of the presence of this vice, we begin to ruminate about what we can do to make things go our way, and what we could have done to have made things turn out differently.

Universal wisdom

While this wisdom may be prominent in Eastern religion and ancient Greek philosophy, anyone may be helped by its insight. Christians will notice similarity to the concept of leaving things in God's hands. The serenity prayer says, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". Matthew 5:45 (KJV) reads, "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

As a literal tale, the story of Job doesn't paint a very flattering picture of God, who tortures Job with misfortune after misfortune. But like the Architect in The Matrix, or the villain in No Country for Old Men, the murdering Anton Chigurh, both represent the grandiose magnitude Nature, which can seem capricious, random, and cruel but which are ultimately not what they appear. When Job finally questions God, he replies out of a storm (Job 38-40), asking, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?... when I set the stars in the sky... and made the clouds its garment... when I set the borders of the oceans? Can you bring forth the seasons? Do you know the laws of the heavens?" As a figurative tale it inspires appreciation of the fact that the universe which brings us everything we thought bad, also made possible everything good, and that we lack the control or understanding to even know what is good for us and what is bad. How can we take on such a task as to think we can engineer all events? How strange that we dwell over what we "should have done", or endlessly ruminate upon machinations to "make everything right"? When God finishes his questions, Job has no reply, and shuts his mouth.

Asking 'only' for a happy stable home life and family may seem more humble and noble on the surface, but in terms of how it functions in our minds and in the world in which we find ourselves, it is no different than asking for money, power, or fame. That's not a judgment on a person who seeks these things, but it is a fact about life. In this sense, both are 'asking too much' because both are a form of demanding certain conditions for your happiness. But whether you believe the dealer to be Nature or God the point is, you don't get to tell the dealer what cards you get. It is your job to simply play your hand right.

Controlling the outcome of events is not your job. Saying that is not an admonition; it's not a punishment or a restriction. Rather, recognizing that managing the universe isn't your job is the lifting of a burden. You don't have to worry about how everything turns out, or how others behave, or what choices they make. All you need do is be a good person, make sure your motivations are pure, do your best, and let your happiness spring from that. You have power over your choices and those choices can be compassionate for those in need, including compassion toward yourself.

Whatever happens after those choices is external to you; it is a matter for the universe, fate, the Logos, or God to decide (take your pick). You may or may not get what you want, but you can choose to reject bad treatment and the bad things that happen to you and move on. Regardless, there is no 'should have' and there is no 'what if'; it happened the only way it could happen, just the way it was 'supposed' to happen.

This burden presses on our shoulders because of the sneaking vice of vanity. When we recognize our efforts to judge ourselves and control more than we really do control are symptoms of that vice, it makes it easier to let go. Then we can place our sense of value and our source of happiness where it belongs - with our virtuous choices and motivations, and not with their outcomes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: The Nature of Existence

The Nature of Existence.
(c) Roger Nygard, Blink, Inc.
Yesterday I saw the documentary film, The Nature of Existence, by Roger Nygard. Nygard is the filmmaker who was previously known for his documentary, Trekkies and has also directed some episodes of major television shows. In this one, a wide variety of people from around the world are interviewed on their thoughts about, well, the nature of existence.

The format followed a common technique in these kinds of documentaries; a process whereby the editor takes all of these various conversations (about 450 hours of footage) and chops them into bits and pieces, categorized by subject. In the opening, it's a little jarring and confusing as we see a number of people we don't know (and some we might happen to know) saying various contradictory things about why we exist, without any context. Then, after we see the segue ways into the different segments, and people we've been seeing are introduced, the structure starts to make more sense. The format seems to have been created to keep those with very low attention spans interested, but still runs about 10-15 minutes too long.

One of the film's strengths is it's emotional palette, which ranges from thoughtful, to sad, to ironic, to funny. The best line in the film comes from a self-defined "confrontational evangelist" who yells in a public forum, "All you vagina lickers are going straight to Hell, lickadee split!"  Additional bonus points go to Nygard for mentioning the place where I once experienced the best barbecue of my life - the restaurant run by the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Texas.

I wanted to devote more of my review to the ideas presented in the film, but they are so choppy and cursory that there isn't much to discuss that one couldn't get by reading the opening sentence of the Wikipedia articles for each of the belief systems shown. Only a very short time into the film it becomes obvious that we aren't going to be getting any definitive answers to Nygard's profound questions. The whole treatment is fairly shallow, but its breadth is good for stimulating thought, ideas, and further discussion afterward.

After the film, in the lobby, I overheard one woman saying that she thought the film would be good for those people who stop and question things, but for the "masses" who never do it wouldn't be entertaining. With its broad but shallow format that only seeks to inspire in its viewer more and more questions, I could believe it was made with this view - that the masses need to be stimulated to question things. In reality, I'm not sure I've ever met a member of these mythical "masses" who supposedly never question the meaning of existence. I think that may be something some people tell themselves to feel spiritually elite. Maybe if we listened more to the people who we dismiss as common, we'd find out that they really do think more about these things than we give them credit for, even if they may have chosen to answer those questions in a way we don't care for. I suspect the average farmer, plumber, and homemaker have thought more about the meaning of existence than the depth this film's material reach. Nevertheless, the aim of the film was noble, and I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a good kick-start for discussion among young people on deep topics.

The Nature of Existence is playing now at Angelika Theater in Houston, Texas.
Official Website
Angelika Theater

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Is Positive Psychology the New Stoicism?

Michel Daw's choice of symbol for Stoicism,
invoking the golden mean. (c) Michel Daw.
Today's article is by guest writer Michel Daw. Michel is a training manager and Stoic practitioner living in Quebec, Canada...

In a recent blog-post by Jules Evans, he explores the Positive Psychology approach to Flow. This note is a response to that post.

It would seem that history is repeating itself to some extent. Stoicism, through various direct and indirect means, seems to be seeing a small but meaningful resurgence of late. Admittedly, there have been several false starts, and opinions as to whether Stoicism is a fool's quest are legion.

It would seem, however, that Stoicism has a new challenger, perhaps even in the guise of a defender. While Positive Psychology has in fact brought us an updated set of Character Strengths (Virtues), many of which align with the classical virtues, it seems to go off in a slightly different direction. In this way it is reminiscent of the ancient rivalries between Stoicism, Epicureanism, Astotelianism and others. The Positive Psychology (PP) movement seems to have provided yet another avenue to achieving the worthwhile goal of personal 'happiness'. Isn't this what all of the philosophical schools were seeking?

In a word, No. What many ancient schools were after was the most reliable path to 'eudaimonia', flourishing, that is the ability to fully integrate and express one's true nature in the light of Nature. So onto the stage the PP movement brings 'flow', but again flow is not flourishing, for the reasons that Jules has so eloquently outlined.

I will therefore attempt to address the challenges to the PP approach, and the possible Stoic response.
The question of worth: is the activity that you habitually absorb yourself really 'worthwhile'? Is it helping the world? Is it healthy for you?

The Stoics would respond by examining a given activity against 'oikeiosis.' Does this activity contribute to my personal preservation and flourishing as a physical and rational being? Does it do so for those for whom I am responsible, and to whom I am connected through common bonds of society, species, or life itself? If it does promote the expansion, sustainment, or improvement of these circles of influence, then the likeliness of the worth of the activity will be much higher.

The question of talent: are you really any good at it? Are you wasting your time?

The Stoic conception of Phusis (understood in its 'cosmic' form) helps us to focus our thoughts in this regard. Phusis is more than the natural world of plants, animals etc. although it does include it. It also encompasses the entire natural order to the universe, from the birth and death of stars, right down to the subtle interactions of sub-atomic particles and beyond (in both directions). Phusis is the process that turns an acorn into an oak, carbon into diamonds, start-stuff into people. Phusis is also the limiter and definer however. It determines that a particular oak will be so tall and so broad, if the conditions exist for it to do so. In human terms, Phusis urges us not only to live according to, and in harmony with, the Natural realm, but to explore our own personal Phusis as well, the talents and abilities that are ours to acquire, express and improve. In other words, part of experiencing fulfillment is to Fulfill the Promise of our Natures.

The question of balance: should you spend all your time pursuing the flow moments, or is there something to be said for balancing your 'gift' with other activities, such as building loving relationships or taking exercise?

For the Stoic, the only real 'end' that should be pursued is the state of 'eudaimonia', that is a state of flourishing, and the only real path to eudaimonia is arete, or the practice of 'virtue' towards appropriate goals. The Stoics identified five approaches or reactions to the situations one would face in life as we seek to fulfill our responsibilities and roles (see oikeiosis above for the importance of relationships).

We are to pursue those things that promote or preserve all of us as rational beings (virtue/good) We may then prefer those things that promote or preserve us as physical beings (A.K.A. the classical preferred indifferents.) We should remain neutral to those things that do not affect us rationally or physically. However, we should look to avoid those things that endanger or destroy us as physical beings (Non-preferred indifferents). The only things we should categorically reject though are those things that endanger or destroy us as rational beings. (Vice/Bad)

While this may seem UN-balanced, the Stoic approach allows us to quickly triage choices that would fit the definition of 'flow' as an engaging activity. Addiction to Heroin is clearly out. The match-stick car would likely fall under truly neutral activities (unless there was some therapeutic purpose to it) and would thus be superseded by the first thing that would be beneficial to either physical or mental well-being, like going for a walk.

While Positive Psychology seems to sound the right notes, the tune it is playing is a thoroughly modern one. While it seems to have borrowed themes from the Stoic symphony, it has reduced the pursuit of the 'good' life to a top 40 song. It isn't bad, but it won't last. Stoicism, rightly understood, realistically applied and rigorously practiced, will produce a life of worth and balance.

Comment, Jules Evans:

Hi Michel

Thanks for bigging up my post! And I enjoyed your post very much. Can I make a response?

I don't think Positive Psychology would want at all to be known as 'the new Stoicism'. It does draw on some of the ideas of Stoicism, such as the cognitive theory of emotions. But it seems almost ashamed of its debt to Stoicism, which is still seen as a philosophy of emotional suppression by ordinary people, so had a very bad 'brand'.

But I also don't think modern Stoics should be too quick to dismiss cognitive psychology's engagements with Stoicism and ancient Greek philosophy in general. I would raise four points:

1) What cognitive psychology have people actually read? It's worth engaging directly with the original material, plenty of which is on the net, by Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman and others. The best contemporary philosophy books on Stoicism, such as Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought, engage directly with contemporary psychology.

2) Isn't there a value in modern psychology's attempt to really test out empirically the therapeutic efficacy of ancient philosophy's ideas and techniques?

3) Isn't there also a value in the way psychology has taken the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy, adapted them, and brought them to a very wide audience? Let's face it, modern Stoicism is INCREDIBLY niche. About 100 people are into it. Cognitive sychology has reached, and helped, millions of people.

4) Isn't there an interesting dialogue to be had between psychology and philosophy? For that to take place, we have to be open to what both sides can bring, rather than saying 'you're wrong, I'm right', and retreating to our own comfort zone. The encounter between ancient philosophy and modern psychology is potentially rich, in my opinion.

All the best as always,