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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stoic Compassion

Oikeiôsis is growing our sense of 'self'
outward in concentric rings to include
others. (cc) Kathleen Tyler Conklin
Can a practitioner of Stoic philosophy be compassionate?

The ancient Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism is something I refer to a great deal in my articles and essays. It is a major influence in the 'tossed salad' that is my own life philosophy. Stoicism is not quite the emotionless Vulcan philosophy of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, but elements of it can be found in the fictional Jedi philosophy of the Star Wars films. It advocates eradication of harmful feelings. These can include some varieties of both painful and pleasurable but ultimately harmful passions. This is accomplished through practice over time to: focus on what we control, pursuit of a kind of non-attachment, and living virtuously.

So, it may seem an oxymoron to use the phrase Stoic Compassion - even to many avid and accomplished students of Stoicism. Some even say flatly that Stoics do not practice compassion.

However, in an excellent example from an authoritative Stoic source, the Roman Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus advises brotherly love and forgiveness. It is not all emotion and feeling which is forbidden to the Stoic, as there are appropriate feelings. These feelings can properly motivate the Stoic to act on behalf of himself provided these choices are not evil. Along with this, Stoicism has a concept called oikeiôsis a practice/principle by which we seek to expand our sense of self to encompass others. Thus, there is sound Stoic reasoning which supports "feeling for others as we feel for ourselves, with motivation to act accordingly" - a reasonable definition of compassion.

The Buddhists, who have similar concepts of concern for others without attachment, and a shared historic influence with the Stoics, often use the English word "compassion" although it is an imperfect translation. The choice to use "compassion" as a translation for Buddhist Karuna or Metta is as close as using the word for Stoic oikeiôsis. Surely there are differences between loving kindness and the attachments implied in the common usage of the word "compassion". But it would be misleading to say "Buddhists don't believe in compassion" simply because many Westerners practice compassion (and thus describe it) in non-Buddhist ways. The same applies to Stoic Compassion.

Stoics do practice compassion, and their very focus on virtue must include it. But that doesn't absolve the student of Stoicism from the need to investigate more precisely what Stoic Compassion is, how it differs from common understandings of compassion, and how it is to be practiced.

This has been a brief summary of a more detailed and slightly more technical essay I have recently written, called Compassion & Stoic Philosophy, now available on my website, The Humanist Contemplative. I hope those interested in reading it will find it useful.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

French burqa ban violates atheist principles

Muslim woman. (cc) deepchi1 (bob),
Today, AP reported that the French parliament voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils. In typical political fashion, this was preceded a few years ago by the lesser (easier to argue) step of banning Hijab head scarves among minors while on public school property (which I criticized). There, it could serve as a test ground to get younger people accustomed to the idea that it's ok for your government to be telling you how you may dress. That, in turn, increases the chance you can later pass something referring to adults at any location. This is the cunning way that liberty is often whittled away bit by bit.

This reminds me of the Swiss, who not long ago voted to ban Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. At the time, I denounced that move as well in my article, Some basics on religious freedom. In that article, I outlined the important differences between the United States' version of secular government, which is a restriction on the state, and the French-style version of enforced secularism that looks at the issue as a restriction on citizens - the former being essential, and the latter being horribly misguided.

Last month, I reported that the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) had made a declaration from Copenhagen, Denmark on religion in public life, and listed their shared principles. What may be surprising to some is how diametrically opposed France's latest move is to these atheist principles on religion in public life.

In that document, atheists state, "We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law". Another item is, "We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all..." More specifically it states, "We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none." Even more to the point, another item declares, "We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others" (bold on all quotes mine). How does a person's choice of dress infringe upon the rights of others?

Although reading its references makes clear the Copenhagen Declaration is consistent with several documents on international law, the declaration is not by any means a legal document or enforceable, of course. It is merely a statement of shared principles by a large organization that represents many atheists (though not all). But it is interesting to note the irony of a declaration that so clearly stands in contrast to France's latest moves, which are no doubt the result of social pressures, fears, failed understanding of democratic principles, and reactionary responses.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Philosophical Revolution

Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense",
which argued for a new perspective on divine
authority. Photo: Graphic compilation by
DT Strain. Elements,
(cc) GenBug (U.S. Flag), (cc) porteous (statue).
The American revolution was not merely a political revolution, but a philosophic one. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (with editing and revisions by several other founding fathers) wrote to their King their intentions to defect from the British Empire:

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The philosophical significance of this statement cannot be overlooked. This is no mere declaration as it might be taken simply today, "Hey, we've had it up to here with you and we're doing our own thing now." Rather, this was what would have been looked at in its time as an outrageous and presumptuous act of boldness, treachery, immorality, and to some, even sacrilege. One's King was not merely a political ruler, but placed into power by the providence of God. Yet, here were these people declaring not only rebellion to that authority, but having the nerve to refer to "Nature's God" in their proclamation. Not only saying, "we are doing this thing you think is immoral" but with the added claim that it is not immoral, but rather that it is the King who is immoral.

This type of ethical reversal reminds me of the tone in the ballad sung from the 60's generation to their parents, The Times They Are a-Changing, by Bob Dylan. In one verse he sings, "your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" but this is no mere disobedience. Inviting mothers and fathers throughout the land to join with them he ads, "your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand." The ethical upheaval has reached such a point in this kind of phenomena that rebels not only defend their own actions, but cast moral indignation upon the powers against which they rebel, inviting them to make themselves useful and be a part of the new vision. They have moved beyond the discussion and debate over who is right, as the momentum of history has already propelled them on to the next battle of making the new paradigm a reality.

The Declaration of Independence outlined a conceptual break from the model in which authority flowed from: GOD to STATE to INDIVIDUAL. And turned this ethical foundation on it's head. Now, authority flowed from: GOD to INDIVIDUAL to STATE. Thus, what gods have to say about anything is a matter for each individual and their conscience, and they direct the state to those ends. No longer would the state be telling us what god has to say. One can imagine how those of the old school (including the King, no doubt) would find such a declaration not only highly unethical, but perhaps even nonsensical.

The principles outlined in the declaration were inspired by the enlightenment and philosophers such as John Locke, who wrote of Natural Law, and Thomas Paine who spelled out this flow of authority in his pamphlet, Common Sense. Only by understanding this principle and mindset of the founders regarding the flow of authority, can one begin to understand the principles separating church from state in our country. It explains why, despite the deism and other beliefs of various founders, they saw fit not to include any mention of God in the U.S. Constitution, why they forbid Congress from making laws having the effect of establishing a religion, why they forbade religious tests for office, and why President Thomas Jefferson refused to proclaim a day of prayer. It also explains the Supreme Court ruling stating that the rest of the governments in the U.S. are bound by the same restrictions, and it explains many of the Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state today.

Included in this would be their decision on prayer in public schools. Contrary to many conservative religious folks' conception of that decision, children can (and always could) pray in school. Many public schools, in fact, allow student prayer groups to meet on their grounds. What is forbidden is for a teacher to lead children in prayer - because a teacher at a public school is an employee of the state, a representative of the government - and the state has no authority to tell you or your children what God says, or wants of them. Rather, it is families who have their own religious beliefs which act as a personal guide to them in their lives, including their political participation and the causes for which they work. The people tell the state what God wants, and the state is to obey their direction.

When we declared our independence from the British Empire, we declared our independence not from one King, but from all Kings; and not from one government, but from all would-be political powers that would attempt to tell us what God wants or doesn't want. If anyone ever questions the use of philosophy, one need only point to the American revolution as one example where philosophical ideas changed the course of human history.

Happy Independence Day 2010!