I’m come to believe that the actual philosophical foundation of a person has little to do with whether they identify as Buddhist, Stoic, Christian or something similar. Most of us born in the West are materialists, have notions of justice formed by Christianity and Roman law, and liberal values largely stemming from the Enlightenment. These assumptions are so taken for granted that they’re never discussed.
A remark about James Stockdale of Stoic fame got me thinking about this. Massimo Pigliucci writes of the heavy militarism within the modern Stoic revival:
There is no question that Stoic techniques helped Stockdale, and many others, immensely. But — as I have already stressed in the first installment of this series — there is a big difference between the techniques and the philosophy. Just because you meditate, it doesn’t mean you are a Buddhist. To be the latter you have to buy into the philosophy, beginning with the Four Noble Truths and the consequent Noble Eightfold Path.
I will submit that Stockdale used Epictetus’ techniques, but did not internalize his philosophy. The best piece of evidence for this claim is what happened on August 4, 1964 and thereafter…
Stockdale did not act Stoically or honorably, in this particular instance. The above amounts to say that he knew that Johnson had started Vietnam on false pretenses. Not only he said nothing, he went along with the charade, and was in fact fearful of giving up this embarrassing piece of intelligence during his captivity. Do we really think that Epictetus would have acted in such fashion?
To clean up Pigliucci’s point a bit:
- Stockade knew the entire Vietnam War was based on a massive American lie
- He had no qualms about going into combat and killing people in the service of that lie
- Stockdale used Stoic techniques to endure years of torture, but that doesn’t mean he was a Stoic in a deeper, philosophical sense
- A philosophical Stoic would have resigned as an officer, refused to have fight in Vietnam
I understand that the weak points of this argument, that in hindsight the reality of the Vietnam war is much clearer to us than it would have been to Stockdale and that this flirts with the true Scotsman fallacy.
Nonetheless, there’s an unavoidable and uncomfortable point that still stands. The philosophy of the ancient Stoics, Buddhists or Christians may simply be too remote for us to do anything beyond aping a few techniques and rituals.
You might wonder why any of this matters, isn’t it a game of semantics to quibble wether the modern Stoic revival, or mindfulness movement, is about philosophy or cognitive techniques? But there’s a question that’s even more fundamental to that: What’s the philosophy that we hold that’s blocking us from being able to go beyond aping and fully accept a different philosophy?
Most Westerners tend to think that our nameless philosophy is some sort of post-historical, neutral and inevitable bit of science that any properly educated and advanced mind would hold. I don’t think this is the case.
Not having a name for this, not having a set of tenants makes it much harder to challenge the basic assumptions most of us hold. This also makes it impossible to have any meaningful dialogue with someone from outside of the Western philosophical system.
Going deeper into the “so what”: I’m writing this on the day after the uncovering of what appear to be massive Russian war crimes in Bucha. Those of us who have lived on the border West and the “Russian world” are not surprised.
The actions of Russian troops follow the internal logic of the “Russian world”, but leaders in the West seem to think that the average Russian operates with the same basic philosophical assumptions as the average European. They don’t. This is the problem of assuming the Western view is neutral and inevitable with enough development and education. Any ceasefire based on this assumption is the road to another Aleppo, Mariupol or Grozny.
Hence rooting out our baseline cultural assumptions isn’t an exercise in navel gazing. It’s the first step in having any meaningful interaction with the outside world.