Archive for August, 2011

Hurricanes, Fate and Stoicism

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Self-Reliance, Stoicism with tags , , , on August 31, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Isaac Friedlander. Man in Storm

I went for a short hike yesterday and stepped around and under and over the fallen limbs and trees that came down during Irene. We lost power for a time but all things considered we fared very well compared to so many. Last week, the threat of a hurricane was a good reason to review the bug-out and bug-in gear and supplies I keep as part of self-reliance. In a way, it was a kind of meditative exercise. In doing this it struck me that hurricane prep is a good analogy for the view of fate espoused by Stoicism.

The Stoics used the term fate in describing the Logos, the universal source of things (along with god, Zeus, nature, reason, fire and other terms). The Logos as the primordial force pervading all life contains a certain pattern, a preexisting order that manifests itself. Because of this the Greek and Roman Stoics have been accused of believing in predestination. The are often described as assuming little or no possible control over the events of life and so the correct response was to face it all with a stiff upper lip. That was not their view.

This is where the hurricane analogy comes in.

If a hurricane is coming your way then it is coming your way. There is nothing you are going to do to change that fact. So you are indeed fated to have a hurricane come to town. Perhaps a less loaded term is inevitability rather than fate. This is what the Stoics were really getting at. There are many things in life (death and taxes?) that are inevitable. Any number of factors and causes will visibly or invisibly lead to an event. It is possible to see inevitable things coming and so, in a sense, resign oneself to fate. Such a prediction is possible when we have clarity of perception. In the case of a hurricane that clarity hopefully comes from weather radar. For most of the inevitable events in our lives clear perception is the result of a conscious practice. The Stoics worked at this by achieving the state of apatheia.

Literally the word means “without passions”. Unfortunately, apatheia carries the modern meaning of apathy. Far from apathy’s negative state of being sluggish or uncaring or hopeless, apatheia is an active positive discipline where uncontrolled emotions are put aside to prevent clouded judgement and perception. The ability to look at things without anger or lust or fear lets us see things as they are. Laurence Gonzalez, in his excellent book Deep Survival, explores how people lost in the wild have natural and powerful but counterproductive emotional responses. They panic. People decide the parking lot must be just over the next ridge. They decide they can get home before the hurricane gets too bad. Effective survivors are able to keep those emotions compartmentalized away from a calm, rational assessment of their situation.

The Stoics talk about this need for a clear head but it was part of the Greek tradition all the way back to Homer. That storm tossed fellow Odysseus manages to survive all his hardships because he stops, observes, assesses and then takes action. Odysseus sets aside anger and impatience long enough to assess and plan. He reclaims his home from the suitors. Agamemnon comes home to an ambush and in his arrogance never sees it coming. Apatheia can help keep you from getting stabbed in the bathtub.

Seeing things clearly as they are helps us to make effective decisions. The ability to do this is where Stoic fatalism ends and the awareness of free will begins. If a hurricane is coming then that is fate. What you then do in response to that inevitable event is a matter of your perception and will. You can prepare to weather the storm. You can live in denial and pretend it isn’t coming. You can panic and turn into a pile of useless human goo. You can evacuate if you think there is time and it is worth doing.

Whatever someone chooses it is in the actions taken that we see agathos manifest in the individual or not. To be sure, even when perception is clear and worthy choices are made there is no guarantee that things will turn out at all well. Sometimes you do everything right and you’re still screwed. The Stoics showed us that it doesn’t really matter. Some things are beyond our control. It is what we do with those matters within our control that defines us.

As for me? I make sure I have fresh batteries for the flashlights and leave the rest to the Logos.