17 January 2010

Scotblogs 2010 and the Stoics...

Of the ancient philosophers, I’ve always been particularly keen on the Stoics. Certainly, Plato has his joys, Aristotle his insights. The plays of Sophocles, particularly Antigone, retain a wonderful vivacity and significance if they’re properly staged. If I wear my close-reading, analytical cap – there is perhaps more to think about, and ultimately more to agree with in these more famed ancient writers’ works than in the slim corpus of Stoic texts, of which the remaining books of the liberated slave Epictetus and the Roman Emperor Marcus AureliusMediations are probably the most famous.

I’m certainly not convinced by their idea of living according to nature, their cosmology, nor indeed of the extent to which Stoics invite us to constrict our emotions when it comes to ‘things indifferent’, things beyond our control. It is my understanding that modern translations of his Meditations apparently polish up the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ prose, making it seem more cogent to the modern than it would to the ancient. That said, I’ve always found that short series of private musings more spiritually compelling than the Gospels, whether or not I’d strictly adhere to it as a model for a good life. I find something compelling about the Stoic impulses – to level social convention, to think of yourself as cosmopolitan, to avoid staking your happiness on the caprice of social attainments which will leave you unhappy if you fail to realise them, or unfulfilled if you succeed. I once listened to an anthropologist, working in Scotland, who had undertaken research on female converts to Islam in Glasgow. Frequently, this had pursued family connections – marrying a chap who was Muslim himself, for example. Although the catholic and forgiving sensibilities of the anthropologist didn’t object, one of these women’s accounts of her conversion struck me as particularly silly. Said the woman, after a period of unfulfilled curiosity, she determined to read the Qur’an (albeit in English). Leafing through its Surahs, this woman explained, she found she agreed with the morality that the texts suggested to her. Thus, she converted to Islam. This struck me as a decisive non sequitur. After all, say I read the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and think yes

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7 : 1 -2).

Even if we take this as an insightful proposition, even if I agree with it, that doesn’t make Jesus the Son of God. It is not entailed, not necessary. The convert had, to my mind, made a basic logical error. Not, as this anthropologist pointed out, that that would be of much interest to the convert, nor dissuade her from her view. The point of this wending tale is that, with Stoicism, I doubt myself along similar lines. If I have a nature constituted (loosely) to adhere to my understanding of Stoic philosophy, I flatter myself that the latter is true and not simply an external reflection of what I’m like already. Stupid people regularly cling to an idea which has independently occurred to them, largely out of the vanity and novelty that it occurred to them at all. Mulish cynicism and an assumption that the world is staffed by total fools – the idea that only I see clearly - is a regular symptom of just this sort of thinking. An idea can be compelling without being true. One of the best examples of this sort of thing, to my mind, is Plato’s theory of objective, eternal knowledge. - Now I’ve gone well off the beaten track, to the mainroad, to the point –

Despite not wishing to stake your happiness on the souls of other men (and women), despite intending to write a wee post (and not an indulgent, expansive one like this fellow) I wanted to give a mention to the Scotblog Awards 2010. A significant reel of no less than 142 blogs have been nominated and voting is afoot now for your favourites. This bit of digital democracy will run until Wednesday 27th January. Do hirple over and give it a peek. Place your 'x's as your spirits tend. Here is the long list of nominated blogs…

Scotblogs Awards 2010: The nominations

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