for whom the bell tolls: the answer I found in Stoicism

Two years ago I picked up a book on Kierkegaard that really caught my attention and that’s when my interest in philosophy really took off. Later, I chanced upon Stoic philosophy, discovering which has been hugely beneficial for my both my head and my heart. It has helped me find answers to questions that have long stumped me. One of those questions assailed me with a greater intensity in the light of the devastating events that recently unfolded successively within a short span of time: killings in Palestine, Kashmir, chemical bombings in Syria and shootings of innocent black men by the Police. I couldn’t understand how most people went on with their lives unperturbed without feeling the need for a collective action. Call me naïve, but I believe strongly that collective action, no matter how small, tips a domino somewhere and starts a movement whose result we may not be able to see right away. But a change is set off and that is what counts.

It brought me to a question that has frequently assailed my thoughts of late: why is it that in our suffering we cannot see that others’ pain may be much deeper than ours? And shouldn’t it then give us the courage to face life more bravely and value what we have rather than rue over what we don’t?

I do not mean to belittle anyone’s pain and suffering. I have experienced deep pain myself and know how it feels to be in a dark place when little outside of one’s own world holds significance. But I have also seen people who have spent their entire lives grieving a loss and believe so firmly in their martyrdom that they somehow lose the ability to disconnect their subsequent experiences from that sense of loss. I imagine a great deal of it happens on a subconscious level because they don’t actively try to put an end to their agony. I had come very close to that phase so perhaps I was posing this question to my own conscious self than to anyone else.

I found my answer in the Stoic philosophy’s idea of ethical development called oikeiôsis. It means ‘familiarization with’ or ‘appropriation of’ other people’s concerns as if they were your own. Hierocles imagined them as contracting circles of concern, starting from the self and subsequently including the whole of humanity. What he was trying to explain was that in doing good things for others we are actually helping ourselves. This may sound familiar because many other cultures, on their own, have also come to the same conclusion about human psychology. Religions as well encourage the same behavior. But what really struck me about Stoicism and oikeiôsis is that it makes sense regardless of which belief system one subscribes to and it fits in perfectly with what cognitive science has uncovered about human evolution.

Massimo Pigliucci in his book How to be a Stoicexplains the meta-ethical positions on morality. These are skeptic, rationalist, empiricist, and intuitionist. Skeptics claim that there is no way to know which ethical judgments are right or wrong. Rationalists claim that it is possible to arrive at knowledge with just thinking about stuff as opposed to observation or experimentation, the position of empiricists. According to the intuitionists, ethical knowledge does not require any kind of inference either through reason or observation; it is built into us in the form of strong intuitions about what is wrong or right. (Contrary to popular belief about god as the source of morals, this sense of ours is an evolutionary trait)1. The Stoic theory, however, is a combination of intuition, rationalism, and empiricism. According to the developmental theory of ethical concern, we begin life guided by our instincts. As we grow older and are able to tell the difference between our thoughts and actions, our instincts are enhanced (by both rationalist and empiricist process); our experiences and reflections factor into our worldview. The Stoics thought that the more we mature psychologically the more our balance shifts towards reason. Hence, the Stoic emphasis on the application of reason to live a eudemonic life. But eudemonic life is only possible if we also recognize our fundamental nature as social beings. “No man is an island entire of itself; Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” John Donne was spot on. So, helping a sistah out isn’t nice just because God commandeth thee but because reason elucidates that in helping others I am essentially helping myself. And this is what had triggered the thought about pain and suffering.

A few years ago while going through a phase of depression I started doing volunteer work with organizations dealing with marginalized communities and disabled children. It kept my mind off of my own issues and now that I look back at it I realize the number of positive events my work triggered to lead me to a more fulfilling life. And no, I am not saying that my life changed but my opinions definitely did and gave me more courage to make some tough choices. I did not know about Stoicism at the time. It just felt good to be useful to someone in pain even while my own was unabated.  If back then somebody had said to me that they couldn’t think about the misery out there while they were so deeply mired in their own problems I would have accepted it as their own coping mechanism. Life is hard anyway so why not focus on sorting your own stuff first, right? But that question of why we are unable to relate to an outsider’s pain always nagged me. I eventually found my answer in Stoicism: we can’t see other peoples’ suffering because we are no more in touch with our  fundamental nature 2 and so we withdraw instead of reaching out to others who are also suffering. We refuse to use our strongest faculty (reason) that distinguishes us from other species. We are herded into beliefs without questioning them, we accept arguments that are consistent with our preconceived notions, and for the most part we just avoid thinking because well, life is hard as it is, why bother. But this, I believe, is exactly why we suffer so much. Prayer and meditation might help calm one’s mind but until we get out of our comfort zone to reach out and help others in their suffering I doubt we’ll find salvation.

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

  1.   Here is a good article on what we have come to discover about human moral instincts.
  2. ‘live according to nature’ is the basic precept in Stoic philosophy that emphasizes application of reason for social living

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