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Stoic Spiritual Hygiene with Regard to Normies

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Ancient philosophy, as Pierre Hadot has argued, was not merely a set of ideas but meant to include something far more practical: the leading of a good life in the pursuit of truth. In the case of Stoicism, as with Cynicism, the notion of leading a philosophical way of life is particularly explicit and central.[1]

The philosopher is interested in living a life according to purpose and principle, as opposed to the frivolous or the popular. This necessarily can make him seem a bit of a kill-joy and can make interacting with what we call “normies” problematic. This is not a new problem. Here is Epictetus’ advice on avoiding gossip, chit-chat about the ball-game, and other small talk:

Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.

Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in few words. Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk abut people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them. If you’re able to so, then, through the manner of your own conversation bring that of your companions round to what is fit and proper. But if you happen to find yourself alone among strangers, keep silent. (Handbook, 33)

“Show, don’t tell,” besides being good writing advice, is then an important Stoic principle concerning philosophy. One will always be tempted to make a philosophical and political point in order to show off or best another in argument, which of course defeats the whole purpose. Epictetus reiterates the point:

Never call yourself a philosopher, and don’t talk among laymen for the most part about philosophical principles, but act in accordance with those principles. At a banquet, for example, don’t talk about how one ought to eat, but eat as one ought. . . . And accordingly, if any talk should arise among laymen about some philosophical principle, keep silent for the most part, for there is great danger that you’ll simply vomit up what you haven’t properly digested. (Handbook, 46)

Epictetus is quite explicit that adoption of the Stoic way of life means a radical change, perhaps analogous to religious conversion. The change is so radical that one must be careful who one associates with. Obviously, one’s own spiritual practice will be all the greater insofar as one associates with like-minded people. Conversely, this also means one may have to abandon boorish old friends:

This is a point to which you should attend before all others, that you should never become so intimately associated with any of your former friends and acquaintances that you sink down to the same level as them; for otherwise, you’ll destroy yourself. But if this thought worms its way into your mind, that “I’ll seem churlish to him, and he won’t be as friendly to me as before,” remember that nothing is gained without cost, and that it is impossible for someone to remain the same as he was if he is no longer acting the same way. Choose, then, which you prefer: to be held in the same affection as before by your former friends by remaining as you used to be, or else become better than you were and no longer meet with the same affect . . . if you’re caught between two paths, you’ll incur a double penalty, since you’ll neither make progress as you ought nor acquire the things that you used to enjoy. (Discourses, 4.2.1-5).

The message is clear: the low spiritual and intellectual condition of “normies” is highly contagious, one must exercise the utmost caution. No doubt this bad condition has been severely aggravated and magnified by television and pop culture.

By these metrics, I observe that the modern university experience is something of an anti-education: the stupidities of youth are exaggerated and made fashionable, rather than curtailed. The soul grows obese with pleasure and pride, rather than being moderated and cultivated. (I note in passing that Plato would no doubt be surprised, to not say worse, to learn that “academia” would grant degrees to 40 percent of the population.)

The Stoic will manage his social relations with moderation. He will economically support himself, honor his parents, and find a wife and raise of family of his own. Nonetheless, to the extent possible within the web of relations implied by his social role, he will live a philosophical life, and raise his peers by his example. In this, I should think, a shared spiritual practice with the wife and other immediate family is a great aid, to not say fundamental: by prayer, meditation, readings, song, and other rituals in common, one can lift up souls away from the sensuous and the frivolous, and towards principle.

References

Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[1] Epictetus scolds those who adopt the name Stoic but prefer to talk about philosophical principles than live them:

What difference does it make, in fact, whether you expound these teachings or those of another school? Sit down and give a technical account of the teachings of Epicurus, and perhaps you’ll give a better account than Epicurus himself! Why call yourself a Stoic, then; why mislead the crowd; why act the part of a Jew when you’re Greek? Don’t you know why it is that a person is called a Jew, Syrian, or Egyptian? And when we see someone hesitating between two creeds, we’re accustomed to say, “He is no Jew, but is merely acting the part.” But when he assumes the frame of mind of one who has been baptized and has made his choice, then he really is a Jew, and is called by that name. And so we too are baptized in name alone, while in fact being someone quite different, since we’re not in sympathy with our own doctrines, and are far from making any practical application of the principles we express, even though we take pride in knowing them. (Discourses, 2.9.19-22)

Epictetus repeatedly contrasts Middle-Eastern “Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians” with “Romans,” as culturally and perhaps ethnically others.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted January 27, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Though this clearly applies to normies, it applies to the bulk of those who became white nationalists during the Trump administration. These past two, or two and a half years have dulled many minds away from a more philosophical and quasi-religious state, into the mindset of day-to-day political theater. It has also normalized the sinking of undue time and mental energy into lower-level social commentary. Maybe that’s just me, maybe not. To defeat the normie, must we engage with the normie enough that we catch his sickness?

  2. Proofreader
    Posted January 17, 2018 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    A question for Guillaume Durocher: have you read C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016)? If you haven’t, I could have a copy forwarded to you.

  3. Todd
    Posted January 15, 2018 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I talk little to “normies”. Although that may have to do with me being shy. But when with friends I act out sometimes. I’m getting older (currently 24) so I don’t really do it much. Also only recently have I come across the Stoics so I keep some principles in mind if passion doesn’t get the best of me.

  4. Frank Kembart
    Posted January 13, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Nice article. I agree that frequent socializing with most normies has a lowering effect. But I wish to underline the importance of keeping some connection to the normie world and staying somewhat relatable. This for our own social life and love life, and also to be able to inspire normies to come over to our camp. As another Stoic (Seneca) says: “The standard which I accept is this: one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.”

    Of course, it is a challenge to remain understandable to normies as you move away from the POZ, consumerism and the ironic way of life. A solution is to identify interests and pursuits that fit in a vital post-modern (re-traditionalized) life, that you are passionate about, and that are shared by interesting and cool normies. For example: health and fitness, sport challenges, the outdoors, nice cooking, wine, some kinds of music, and travel (when approached in the right way). By consciously investing time in these pursuits I maintain a bridge to normie land, without, I feel, too much compromise.

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted January 14, 2018 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      I agree. There are a lot of healthy instincts and activities among the “bobos” in particular which can be channeled in a positive direction, e.g. organic food, mindfulness . . .

  5. the woodsman
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Your last paragraph was particularly timely and helpful for me as a “waning” Christian in these momentous times. Thank you!

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted January 14, 2018 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Happy to hear it!

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