Seduction of Unreason: Post-Modernism and Fascism

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The introduction to the original 2004 edition of Richard Wolin’s study of Post-Modernism’s intimate relationship with fascist-related philosophy of the 1920s to the 1940s (newly re-published) has a puzzlingly premature obituary for Post-Modernism.

Today the postmodern juggernaut seems to have run aground. Outside of the parochial climate of contemporary academe, its program of a “farewell to reason” failed to take root. Its bold proclamation concerning the end of “metanarratives” of human emancipation also failed to gain widespread acceptance.

In recent years we have seen empirical reasoning assaulted by political activists who declare that human sex difference is a scientific falsehood and that Western science itself is a tool of racist oppression. Scientific data is considered “too upsetting” to be published and contentious ideas are so dangerous they cannot be publicly discussed (even to debunk them). It is demanded by students that public institutions must institute racial quotas and that authors should be stripped of their place in reading lists due to skin colour. Language “is violence” and speech can legitimately be met with actual violence. The cult of victimhood holds sway over national broadcasters, political parties and judicial systems. Post-Modernism has expanded to touch every aspect of discussion as ad hominem attacks and emotional grandstanding threaten to overwhelm reason and evidence.

Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism may have fallen from favour in philosophy and English faculties at leading universities 15 years ago, but since then Post-Modernist relativism has powerfully undermined rational discourse as graduates have entered the wider world, eager to dispense social justice. Wolin observes that Post-Modernism has been co-opted in a recent resurgence in nationalism, while suggesting that as a line of academic inquiry it is discredited. Post-Modernism is often spurned by supporters of Neo-Marxism as politically unsound, reliant on philosophy that is tainted by obscurantism and authoritarianism. Yet the combination of Neo-Marxism and Post-Modernism – contradictory though they may be – is what has given the New Left intellectual traction in its attack on the pillars of the West: family, church, capitalism, science, nationhood.

The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism presents the kernel of Post-Modernism in the opposition of the Counter-Enlightenment to the humanism of the Enlightenment. The overlap between philosophy and politics is apparent in the way philosophy was used to justify political prejudices and the way politicians adopted philosophy to provide their positions with intellectual fibre. At the outset, Wolin writes that he does not wish to tar Post-Modernism with guilt by association, but rather to examine how principles that the Fascists advanced became embedded in Post-Modernism.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s aristocratic and anti-democratic proclivities steered his writing towards the espousal of elitism and the necessity of inspired might over consensus – the antithesis of liberal democracy. Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretation,” is a favourite with teachers of gender and race studies, who use it to bolster the relativism of “personal truth”. Foucault found in Nietzsche support for the idea of power shaping knowledge. Claude Levi-Strauss saw the horrors of Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as an inevitable extension of humanism. This correlates with Nietzsche’s prophecy of totalitarian regimes dominating a post-Christian Europe. Framing knowledge in terms of power becomes a tenet of Post-Modernism. “Jean-Francois Lyotard attained notoriety for his controversial equation of “consensus” with “terror”. The idea of an uncoerced, rational accord, argues Lyotard, is a fantasy. Underlying the veneer of mutual agreement lurks force.”

Carl Jung is conceived of as the Post-Modernist antithesis of Modernist Freud. Jung’s intuitive understanding of man’s eternal internal struggles to reconcile archetypes of the unconscious stood in stark contrast to Freud’s quasi-scientific teasing out of friction between conscious and subconscious. Jung posited a racial dimension to archetypes and went on to contrast the cerebral nature of Jews with the youthful vigour of Aryans. Fascism seemed to align well with Jung’s collective racial thinking and the idea of a Nietzschean shamanic figure taking command. In an interview in 1939, Jung nominated Hitler as such a figure. Jung was recipient of the Nazi state’s patronage through work with German institutions. Despite Jung subsequently distancing himself from Fascism, there is no doubting the sympathy between Jungian psychoanalytic theory, National Socialist racial ideology and Post-Modernist anti-rationalism.

Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer were both sympathetic towards Nazism’s claims of Germanic intellectual and biological superiority, at times guardedly supportive (or more) in public actions and statements. Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is well documented. Here Wolin describes Gadamer’s propositions regarding the role of prejudice within judgment and his support for Plato’s anti-democratic Republic as advocacy of the unreason inherent in the Nazi Weltanschauung.

Georges Bataille, informed by study of history and ethnography, proposed an aesthetics of violent spectacle; his dwelling upon (and celebration of) degradation, perversion, suffering and destruction mark him as a precursor of Post-Modernist Post-Structuralists intent on destabilising a society founded on complacent materialism. Sexual libertinism (apparent in his erotic novel The Story of the Eye as well as his theoretical writing) is revolutionary because it returns sex to the sacramental function to be found in pagan societies of recent history and pre-history. The cult of primitivism is an alternative to the fallacy of rationalism which debilitates and denatures man. Transgression of the utilitarian law will give rise to the establishment of irrational laws of pre-Enlightenment culture, religious in essence. Advancing paganism, sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice), the sovereignty of the mystical leader and communal bonding through observation and participation in the grand spectacle all distance Bataille equally from Enlightenment reason and Socialist materialism. Wolin situates Bataille (and his associates in the College of Sociology and the quasi-pagan Acéphale brotherhood) in the group of Left Fascism. Left Fascism, as Wolin describes it, is a rejection of liberalism, democracy and Enlightenment ratiocination and the adoption of Fascist methods for the advancement of the left. Many of Bataille’s associates of the 1930s and 1940s considered him a covert Fascist and thought his commitment to leftism was a cover for infatuation with Fascism. The final rupture between Bataille and André Breton’s Surrealists was a manifesto which included praise of Hitler. Bataille had included as signatories Breton and other Surrealists without consulting them.

Maurice Blanchot’s anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist journalism is cited as evidence of this thinker’s political sympathies. His post-war literary theories were influential on Post-Structuralists due to “the need to account for the rhetorical dimension of language, the focus on the perplexing ambiguities in literary texts, the problematic nature of citations, and the transfer of linguistic structures to the study of literature, psychology, cultural phenomena, history, and metaphysics.” “Literature’s essential characteristics are absence, silence, meaninglessness, and death.” Aside from their content, it was the deep seriousness and density of Blanchot’s texts which left a deep impression on intellectuals.

Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical word-games deconstruct philosophy and language yet also undermine themselves. A hermetic circularity is commenced, one that fails to offer anything but banal generalities, playful mischief and pervasive mistrust. Buoyed by a comforting wave of nihilism, followers of Derrida’s ideas are insulated from correction and refinement, free in the knowledge that political engagement was not only unnecessary but impossible. If “there is nothing outside the text” one might as well retreat into discourses on linguistic riddles and slippages in meaning. Foucault and Edward Said (among others) lambasted Derrida as a purveyor of weighty minutiae and of adopting the status of an oracular authority. Wolin quotes Michèle Lamont who observes that Derrida has gained credibility in the USA – and to a lesser extent, the UK – which have weak native traditions of leftism, but been rejected by European countries with strong leftist intellectual schools. Derrida’s link with Fascism is his criticism of law based on determinant certitude and legal positivism derived from logos, a set of positive firm attributes which he sees as fundamentally fallacious. In contrast, he stresses the deep irrationality of justice and the need for a mystical authority.

While Wolin’s assessment of influence of Fascist thinkers on Post-Modernism is accurate, he fails to fully identify Fascism as a variant of Socialism. (This is despite Wolin’s nuanced description of Mussolini’s syncretic adaptation of Marxism through the lens of Nietzsche and a discussion of Left Fascism.) Nazi National Socialism and Italian Fascism share many characteristics of Socialism, were allies of Socialist countries and adopted the forms and language of Socialism. Socialism is not the least component of Fascism. Wolin is in error conceiving of Fascism as irrational rightism in opposition to rational leftism, rather than identifying Fascism and leftism as two warring siblings sharing many traits. Wolin takes leftism at face value. “Historically, the left has been staunchly rationalist and universalist, defending democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights.”[v] Sporadically, yes. Yet it is Socialist regimes which were founded on opposition to democracy and the underlying motivation of leftist politics is sentiment not rationality. In Socialist states, human rights apply selectively, to be strategically withdrawn from opponents. Leftists support free speech when they are a dissident minority; when in power, leftists oppose free speech. Wolin fails to adequately highlight the utopian authoritarianism in the Old Left and the sectarianism in the New Left; his conflation of liberalism with leftism is a common error.

On the question of left unreason, Wolin seems a prisoner to the conception that unreason is primarily the prerogative of the political right. Yet it was the positioning of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer and Marcuse who dismissed the idea of reason as a tool to critique society. Facing a Late Capitalist society – with its privileges so entrenched in traditional forms and well defended with its weapons of capitalism, consumer goods, mass entertainment and representative democracy – was it not the Neo-Marxist thinkers who determined to avoid persuasion and instead infiltrate institutions to occupy key positions? Was the unreason of the New Left not an admission that tradition, capitalism and democracy could not be overcome by discussion alone and that force and terror may be necessary to combat these axes of oppression? Once these positions had been taken, was not the worm of unreason hollowing out the Western institutions over half a century as much a creation of the left as of the right?

In short, the rise of nationalist populism across the Western world is a reaction to neoliberal social and economic policies – a reaction which has taken the form of identity politics partly due to the legitimisation of the New Left, which has abandoned universalism.

Notwithstanding the reservations outlined above, The Seduction of Unreason is an informative, thoughtful and admirably clear dissection of the ties of Post-Modernism to Fascist thought and identifies Post-Modernist as essentially sceptical towards political liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Anyone wishing to study the intellectual origins of Fascism – and intellectual support for and collaboration with Fascism – will find The Seduction of Unreason a valuable guide.

 

Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, second edition, Princeton University Press, 2019, paperback, $29.95/£24, ISBN 978 0 691 19235 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Seneca on Anger, Thucydides on War

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Two timely additions to the Ancient Wisdom series of Princeton University Press have been published. They bring us insights from yesteryear which apply to our age.

In our age of Twitter storms and online petitions, of aggressive demonstrations and refusals to accept the validity of an opposing argument, this extract of Seneca’s Stoic text On Anger is welcome. Seneca was the most noted Roman orator of his age – perhaps in all the ancient world – and his measured words and apt insights bring his philosophy of restraint, decency, leniency and empathy vividly to life. In our age polarised by politics and atomised by social media, Seneca’s instructions guide us to put our petty frustrations and over reactions into perspective.

Some men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true.

Anger is a disaster – “No plague has done more harm to humankind” – or a disease, akin to unsightly swelling indicating an inner malady. It makes us mad and turns us into animals. It makes us ugly and deformed. To give in to anger is akin to throwing ourselves off a cliff. Once we abandon our control we are unable to regain control and can only fall to an ignominious and unnecessary end. Anger hurts us more than any other emotion because it causes us to act against ourselves.

In the following passage Seneca could be describing the iGen, the youngest generation which grew up tethered to smartphones and social media, and its helicopter parents.

The more an only child is indulged, or the more that’s permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don’t you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?

If one looks at the university students furiously protesting real or imagined infractions of politeness, one sees these fortunate ones driven to the heights of fury. These are the individuals that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind – pampered, protected and unable to resist the mildest of challenges. Their rage is not an expression of an attachment to justice but the petulance of an affronted child. Instinctive ire at a sign of disrespect comes not from a position of confident self-knowledge but of insecurity.

In an age when we rush to judgment and post our first thoughts to public forums, we would do well to heed Seneca’s warning against rashness and credulity. We should treat news stories with caution and wait. Often enough, we will see what a trifling matter it was and undeserving of comment or emotion. Your restraint ennobles you – consider the bearing of great men.

Seneca urges us to set aside our selfish anger and instead remember our commitment to duty. He reminds us that none of us are innocent and that we must accept fair rebuke. This is contrary to the advice we get today to express our emotions, to make ourselves important, to indulge our emotions and expect others to accommodate us. Seneca’s Stoicism is tempered by consideration. His belief is that we do others a courtesy by not imposing on them demeaning emotions. We injure ourselves by giving in to anger. “Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow.”

To avoid the temptation of ire, Seneca recommends we keep the company of calm people and try not to attempt tasks that are beyond us, for that will frustrate us. When needed, w should be able to turn our backs on the senate and forum – today, that would be switch off the news and unplug from social media. (“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything.”) We should not seek information which personally insults us. Be wary of drinking parties. He concludes with examples of superhuman self-control by individuals in the face of monstrous provocation and cruelty. The message is clear – if these individuals could restrain themselves, so can you. In lives as short as ours, why poison them with anger?

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How to Think About War is a compilation of speeches from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian, considered one of most accomplished and important of all histories. The author was a general in the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC. Athens had established a trading league which became an association of colonies and allies which paid Athens to protect them from hostile forces. This league had a treasury at Delos and thus became known as the Delian League. However, it was known by all – not least the Athenians themselves – that the Delian League was actually an Athenian Empire, with tithes paying not only for the building of warships but buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon. There was “mission creep” or imperial hubris which led to the Athenians seeking to expand their empire. When client city-states revolted, these uprisings were put down with force and compensation extracted. Thus Athens – acknowledged birthplace of democracy and home to the flourishing of Ancient Greek civilisation and the wonders of art, drama, architecture and writing – was also a powerful military power which used a combination of soft power, wily diplomacy and overwhelming force to expand its influence across its neighbours. They prided themselves on propagating (and sometimes imposing) democracy on their client states. However, although Sparta agitated for the freedom of Greek states, it was a society founded upon slave labour. Additionally, Athens had a navy that could protect all of the Greek states from the threat of invasion by Persia. So although Athens was repressive, it also offered protection from foreign threat. The picture is a complicated one.

Not surprisingly, this history (left incomplete) has been seen as a parallel for subsequent imperial ventures. The most recent analogies have been between the Athenian venture and the foreign policy of the USA. Thucydides’s history has been seen as a warning of globalist ambition, military hubris and strategic overreach. Some have found justifications for a nation wishing to spread its values overseas, while others see it as a critique of that tendency. Thucydides position is opaque. While he was an Athenian, he was also critical of the failures in policy and philosophy behind the conflict. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war but he died before he could complete his history, so he knew that the ultimate military defeat of Athens was the outcome for his polis (city-state). He tries to be as objective as possible, compiling the views of participants and attempting to establish the correctness of the statements he has.

One of Thucydides main narrative devices is to record the speeches of various statesmen and generals. Some of these he actually heard, others he had reported to him. The speeches are not verbatim but they convey the position of the speaker accurately even if Thucydides considered the speaker disingenuous or misguided. This book is a collection of the speeches, each preceded by a short introduction.

On the patriotic enthusiasm for war, Pericles says: “I do realize that people are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it; that as circumstances change, so too does resolve.” Pericles warns that refusing to fight over small matters risks appeasing and encouraging further infractions which infringe the principles of Athens. If Athenians truly hold certain beliefs then they must be prepared to fight and die for them not to allow them to be breached. However, once the decision has been made, Athenians must be willing to fight to win and not disavow their commitment should the conflict prove trying for them. There is tactical advice on the weaknesses of a divided enemy unable to mount a sustained campaign and advantages and disadvantages of winning territory.

The principles which Athens subscribes to are outlined in Pericles famous funeral oration, included here. In this he sets out the achievements of their ancestors who fought and died to protect their people from barbarians. He speaks of Athens ability to overcome obstacles while never falling prey to the weaknesses of other cultures. He praises the education and creativity of Athenians. Grief and suffering are the cost of protecting such freedoms.

On the morale of a divided people, Pericles says: “I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving. A city can bear its people’s various sufferings but no single person can bear the whole city’s.”

A barb from leader Pericles chastising his mutinous fellow citizens demonstrates his legendary oratorical skills: “Apparently, the real flaw in my policy is the weakness of your resolve.”  He manoeuvres Athenians into supporting the continuing war by stating that whether or not they supported the establishment of the empire, they are burdened by its existence and must bear that burden. “Even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous.” He casts opposition to war as the bind of the free riders and pacifists, who benefit from the actions of others without personally engaging. “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.”

A debate between Cleon and Diodotus on the fate of the Mytileneans frames the matters of realpolitik and justice. The Athenians had voted for the execution of every Mytilenean men after their failed revolt but had second thoughts and two Athenians debated whether or not to rescind the order. Clemency and punishment have implicit costs and are weighed in terms of both ethics and pragmatism. In the Melian Dialogue we see Athenians arguing that nothing between submission or defeat of Melos is acceptable because neutrality would present other nations with an alternative and encourage Athenian client states to seek neutrality. The Melians are urged to surrender because they are militarily inferior and war could only lead to their defeat, yet still the Melians claim that the unlikely prospect of victory is better than the sure prospect of submission and associated shame. A final debate is on the wisdom of Athens launching an invasion of Sicily.

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The translation is very readable and is printed facing the original Latin/Greek in matching parallel. The introductions and notes allow new readers to appreciate the texts to the full without preparation. These handsome small books (with cloth spines) introduce people to the classics in a way which makes these ancient writers seem as relevant and wise as any famous author of our own times. The issues in these books are as relevant now as they were 2000 years ago.

 

Seneca, James Romm (ed./trans.), How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 220pp + xviii, English/Latin text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 18195 0

Thucydides, Johanna Hanink (ed./trans.), How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 276pp + liv, English/Greek text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 19015 0

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/

Publication: “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics & Cultural Entryism”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism” (Societas/Imprint Academic).

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

180pp, 3 b&w illus., Societas/Imprint Academic, March 2019, ISBN 978-1845409982

Although the book will be published on 1 March, and I never normally mention such things this far ahead, there are two reasons for announcing now: 1) Amazon is offering a 35% discount (for UK sales at least) so you could save money by pre-ordering, and 2) indications are that the first edition will sell out, so if you want to read the book as soon as it comes out you would do well to order now.

Link to publisher’s selling page: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

Link to Amazon book description:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Culture-War-Identity-Politics-Cultural/dp/1845409981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536611127&sr=8-1&keywords=culture+war+alexander+adams

Stoicism: Antidote for Victimhood

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Two new books filled with ancient wisdom offer an alternative to the culture of victimhood which currently dominates public life.

In recent years the culture of offence, emotional lability and learned helplessness has encouraged people to be weak in order to gain social status. If we are upset we display our emotions for support; if we are hurt we show our wounds for sympathy; if we consider ourselves slighted we indulge our injury. By rewarding weakness we encourage it. We learn to make ourselves unable to accept valid criticism by rejecting it as a personal slight. We demand respect without displaying the qualities that might generate admiration. Whenever we encounter opposition we feel defeated because we have defeated ourselves peremptorily. Social and psychological data show that we are making ourselves, our children and our society ever more fragile in a descending spiral of blame, making anyone but ourselves responsible for suffering. The culture of victimhood can be seen in social-media outrage mobs, the prevalence of identity politics and the casual assumption that bigotry is endemic and condemns subjects to lives of intolerable failure.

The Stoics believed that suffering largely emanates from within each person and that each person, therefore, has the power to overcome suffering through conscious thought and learned habit. They believed that treating both failure and success with equanimity preserved the individual from the excesses of pride and despair. An interior search for meaning led to understanding of virtue and to dignified restrained conduct not to temptation to succumb to self-pity, vanity and selfishness. Stoicism’s cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

Stoicism was a school of moral ethics originated by the ancient Greeks in Athens in the 3rd Century BC. Two of the most prominent writers were Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-36 BC). Princeton University Press have produced two attractive small volumes of which publish the original texts (Cicero in Latin, Epictetus in Greek) with parallel English translations and brief introduction and endnotes.

How to Be a Friend (Laelius de Amicitia – literally “Laelius on Friendship”) was written by Cicero for his friend Atticus when they were both old. He was reflecting upon the importance and nature of friendship, using the general and orator Gaius Laelius not only to share Laelius’s thoughts but to reflect Cicero’s own understanding of friendship. In the translator’s introduction some of Cicero’s observations are summarised:

Only good people can be friends because trust, wisdom and good faith are essential to deep friendships; persons of low moral character cannot be trustworthy friends. Make new friends, but keep the old because your friendships of longstanding may change as your circumstances change; new friendships reflect new aspects of your life. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong because moral distortion of a friendship is the result of moral flaws which should disqualify the friend from your trust. Friendship should never – ideally – be material or the result of dependence.

To the degree a person relies on himself and is made sturdy by virtue and wisdom so that he depends on no one and thus possesses all he needs within himself, to that extent he most excels at seeking out and cherishing friendships. Did my departed friend Africanus need me? By Hercules, not at all! And I had no need of him. But I loved him because of his goodness, just as he, if judged rightly, loved me because of the virtue he saw in me.

In one touching passage, Cicero talks of two friends becoming competitive in their attempts to help each other, trying to outdo each other with consideration and generosity. Elsewhere he writes, “Friends are the finest and most beautiful adornment of life.” This is tempered by moral seriousness. “True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.” On the response to the death of a friend, Cicero writes “If you let your sorrow overwhelm you, you’re not showing how much you loved your friend, only how much you love yourself.”

One might quibble with a handful of points – including that one must never give consideration to negative comments made about your friends – but generally the book is full on sound insights into human nature.

How to Be Free (comprising extracts from Encheiridion (Ἐγχειρίδιον) (“Handbook”) and Diatribai (Διατριβαί) (“Discourses”)) is a parallel translation with the colloquial Greek, as spoken by Epictetus in his lectures. They were transcribed from memory by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. Epictetus was a freed Geek slave who became known as a thinker after he was granted his freedom. For Epictetus, freedom was a mental choice. One could examine one’s self and become aware of the virtues and vices and understand how different phenomena affect one’s outlet. After knowledge and self-knowledge comes the exercise of will. Epictetus does not, however, address the dangers of passivity in the acceptance of one’s fate. The philosopher enjoined persons to treat every situation as expected and necessary and to only respond by tempering one’s reactions. Mastery of oneself – through deciding how to respond – gives both serenity and stability.

Epictetus helps us view with equanimity things that most people care about: wealth, poverty, illness and so forth. If we treat such matters with distant appreciation and mindfulness we become not entirely indifferent but less swayed by passing states. Do not get carried away with your passions, for good or ill.

“In company don’t go on at length about your deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you.” (That just about kills social media.) Refrain from luxuries, socially unacceptable sex, emotional excess and humour. Epictetus is capable of his own dry wit. “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”

If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. Aren’t you ashamed of that?

In an age of vanity, fear and self-absorption, Stoicism offers hard truths and curt truisms. These small tomes should appeal to readers with a desire to better themselves and a willingness to take on tough wisdom that has not aged in 2,000 years.

 

Epictetus, A. A. Long (trans.), How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 173pp + liii, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17771 7

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (trans.), How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 208pp, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17719 9

28 September 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art