Friday, 6 November 2009

Response to Werther

Werther made some thought-provoking comments about neo-Stoicism on his Unabgeschlossenheit blog, with some interesting references to Martha Nussbaum, whose work we hadn't come across before. We wanted to leave a long comment but it turned out comments can't be longer than 4,096 characters (why 4,096?) so we are posting it here.

First of all, thanks for those pointers towards further reading. I have no access to the Harvard Law Journal but was able to find some Posner-related stuff on the web (but while the bandwidth allowed no Nussbaum or Kronman responses showed up on the search engine lists - so I am left guessing what the Aristotelian critique of that monster Posner might be. Any clues?).

Your point before the reference to Posner was that theory doesn't motivate - it always comes too late - and that it is therefore a practical irrelevance when considering social change. So, if we can't look forward to any positive social change as a result of our theoretical endeavours (which is not to say that change might not take place by other means), it might make more sense for me to use theory more therapeutically to help me live as well as I can in a world which is definitely not the best possible.

I guess you're right that theory is parasitic. Critical theory is doubtless parasitic on a pre-theoretical experience that the system as described by Posner sucks. You are right that no one's life ever takes an about-turn after reading some work of theory (certainly not after reading anything by Adorno). People obviously appropriate texts and use them to make sense of their situation, and that does influence the way people respond to contemporary unpleasantness. Religious interpretations are still popular even in this supposedly secular corner of Europe (I am talking about Greece here, and as someone living with a born-again Orthodox Christian who is preparing for the End of the World), and having swallowed the Apocalypse of St John hook, line and sinker, my partner's view of the way forward is rather different from mine (Oh, the joys of multi-cultural matrimony!).

You say that there have been enough critiques of the system. What has been lacking is the consideration of how we are to live as individuals within it. "What absolutely no one has come up with is a way for a person to live consistently with the principles that underlie those critiques. I think until that happens, nothing will change." Now, the demand for consitency doesn't sound very therapeutic. We must find a way of living a good life in a bad system (assuming we do agree that Posner sucks). That actually sounds quite hard.

Personally, I have been trying to do just that, on and off, for quite a while. In my case what happens is that I end up living less. Because I perceive the system to be bad and wish to lead a good life, I find myself withdrawing from it. The result is certainly not the Good Life, although it may be a less reproachable life. And I certainly don't see it as a way of life that might be a springboard for social change if more people followed suit, because in practise it just allows the Posners to carry on being nasty, and nastily weilding power in their conveniently pragmatic way over the rest of us.

Let me try to tie that into the discussion of Stoicism: The system tries to enslave us to our passions (for consumption primarily), and so I do what I can to overcome that, insisting on the same autonomy that was so crucial (as I gather) for the Stoics. I read that the Stoics wanted, not to moderate passion in an Aristotelian fashion, but to uproot it completely. Somehow, without ever having read a word of Zenon or Kleanthis, and against all my post-Marxist inclinations, I find myself struggling with my own interior life and letting the external world go its own sweet way (in true Stoic fashion). Now, of course, if the same happened to Posner and all his friends on Wall Street and at Halliburton and on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon and the Knesset and elsewhere, then things would change. But that just ain't gonna happen.

You are right that habits and desires have to change. But habits and desires are so utterly mediated by the system that it is hard to envisage a widespread change in them without some corresponding changes in the public sphere. For Marx and Lukacs and a few others the system was dysfunctional and would ultimately sow the seeds of its own destruction. Adorno disagreed.

Interestingly, Adorno came out in favour of a kind of quietism. In section 18 of Minima Moralia he says: "The best mode of conduct, in face of all this, still seems an uncommitted, suspended one: to lead a private life ... but not to attach weight to it as to something socially substantial and individually appropriate." A quiet private life. No bricks through the windows of banks. But Adorno's position is not Stoic. According to Francois Chatelet (whose book on ancient Greek philosophers is the only one I have to hand) the Greek Stoics insisted that everyone could lead a virtuous life (and a satisfying life, assuming that the highest good is the virtuous will) in this world. Adorno insists that the "wrong life cannot be lived rightly." Your desire for consistency in private life seems to imply that the wrong life can be lived rightly. Can it?

I don't want to split hairs with you about Stoicism. I see no point in getting academic about what was and what was not Stoic. I think the difficult issue lies elsewhere. There is something that needs to be challenged, and it is not the definition of Stoicism. It surfaces in one of those interviews with Nussbaum on one of those wellness blogs I mentioned ( Martha says in response to the well-being chaps who want to make everyone content: "I actually think, certainly in the US, that people should be a lot sadder than they are. The reason they're rather jolly is they don't think about the suffering of others, they don't think about the injustice suffered by others. I want to raise the level of sadness and anger in my students rather than diminish it." Nice. I like that. (And, by the way, she sees this inculcation of anger as non-Stoic.) Now, the tension I see is between this social agitation and her insistence elsewhere in the same interview that our political life retain its current liberal character. "The state should not be telling you how to live your life beyond a certain core of political principles." Here, for me, is THE problem. When my Stoic quietude falls away and I get angry about the sorts of things Martha wants us to get angry about, I start seeing the need for political intervention, collective action - not doing cartwheels into beenbags - but the sort of political intervention that would break up the corporate structure and loosen the current structure of power - the very structure that wreaks so much havoc with our habits and our desires. But that could only happen if we had a different conception - a non-liberal - conception of public life. Martha's comment (which may or may not be representative) implies that she sees her neo-Stoicism fitting quite nicely into the current liberal discourse (regardless of her objections to Posner, which unfortunately I don't have access to).

The crux, for me, is not to come up with a better guide to private life, but to finally see the need for a richer conception of the public. Heck, it might even be a bit Aristotelian. It certainly doesn't have to be the Stalinist one that Martha seems to see waving in the background.