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How to Be a Stoic (newyorker.com)
416 points by Tomte on Feb 25, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 237 comments

You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power--how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live--is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"--how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise-- and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves--Stoicism is self-tyranny--Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature? . . . But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.


Nietzche fails to provide any insight here for two reasons:

1. It's tempting to read this as Nietzche disproving the naturalist fallacy, but if you read this carefully, that's not what Nietzche says. On the contrary, Nietzche is using the naturalist fallacy to claim stoics are wrong because stoicism isn't natural. This completely misses the fact that "natural" does not imply "right" and "unnatural" does not imply "wrong".

2. Early stoics did use the naturalist fallacy to justify their positions, but I haven't come across this frequently when reading modern writers. Indeed the article you are responding to did not make this argument. As such, posting this here is basically a straw man argument: the passage you're quoting attacks a statement that was never stated.

This passage was fallacious when it was written, and it's irrelevant to the contemporary conversation on stoicism.

>1. It's tempting to read this as Nietzche disproving the naturalist fallacy, but if you read this carefully, that's not what Nietzche says. On the contrary, Nietzche is using the naturalist fallacy to claim stoics are wrong because stoicism isn't natural. This completely misses the fact that "natural" does not imply "right" and "unnatural" does not imply "wrong".

For Nietzche it does. And one could argue (well Nietzche sure did, elsewhere) that it's also universally true.

Besides even without that, his showing that what's natural could be seen in another different way is enough to deprive the stoics of their claim to naturalness. It is not naturalness the preach, he points, it's "how nature should be according to stoics".

But the even more important insight is this: "And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"--how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be?"

> Besides even without that, his showing that what's natural could be seen in another different way is enough to deprive the stoics of their claim to naturalness. It is not naturalness the preach, he points, it's "how nature should be according to stoics".

Why bother depriving the stoics of their claim to naturalness if the claim to naturalness has no value?

And why should we care about depriving the stoics of their claim to naturalness when no one is claiming naturalness in the contemporary conversation?

> But the even more important insight is this: "And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"--how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be?"

Granted that "living according to nature" means whatever Nietzche wants it to mean, Nietzche can argue anything, but even a cursory reading of the stoics shows that the stoics weren't speaking tautologically when they said "life according to nature". "Life according to nature" in stoic terms is more like "life that acknowledges the limitations placed on one by reality". Stated in English as quoted, Nietzche's argument sounds like Nietzche didn't even read the stoics. However, I suspect that Nietzche's intent may have been lost in translation, as such semantic arguments translate poorly.

Death is absolutely the most natural thing in the world. While it's viewed positively in some situations no culture views it as a universally good thing. Thus when people talk about natural as good they are simply they are using it as a fallacy to support their argument not some guiding life principle.

Also, saying everything must live according to nature is a tautology that disproves nothing.

>While it's viewed positively in some situations no culture views it as a universally good thing.

Well, we're talking about the natural way of living -- and death is a corner case, as it's not about living, but about the end to life.

Still, even with that, and even with all the grievance about the death of those we know and ourselves, death is seen as an essential part of the cycle of life in almost all cultures (and most, if not all, religions).

But that's orthogonal, as we aren't talking about what cultures view as good or bad, but about what is inherently good or bad. And we haven't established that death is bad anyway. Just that it is sad and painful. But the alternative could be even worse (e.g. for the species at large, or for society, or for the planet's ecology, etc). Death for example is a primary factor in evolution -- we don't know of another way to get to intelligent life and eventually, us. Except, you know, God creating an all-perfect human pair...

Besides, you (in the US) think Baby Boomers are a problem? Imagine having Babylonian-era Baby Boomers in charge still. (Rather, new people wouldn't even been born. The generation beating death will say: ok, we're good as we are. Fuck future generations, and let's keep it to us).

The unborn don't complain about not being concived.

However, while you tied yourself in a not trying to justify some death I already said some deaths are viewed as a good thing. But, for death to be good then all death including preteen cancer patients must be good, or your not saying death is good your saying something related to death is good.

>The unborn don't complain about not being concived

No, but any concept of good or bad presupposes existence.

>However, while you tied yourself in a not trying to justify some death I already said some deaths are viewed as a good thing. But, for death to be good then all death including preteen cancer patients must be good, or your not saying death is good your saying something related to death is good.

For evolution, all kinds of deaths are a driving factor. And without evolution, we wouldn't be here. So?

Change such fundamental factors and the universe would probably be different. But different is not enough to say better or worse.

> Death is absolutely the most natural thing in the world.

How is it more natural than anything else? What does that mean?

> While it's viewed positively in some situations no culture views it as a universally good thing.

Without death there would be no biological evolution, so human beings would not exist. It is very easy to argue that death is universally a good thing (from a human perspective).

It's hard to point to something everything else does. Things die before taking their first breath. Even inanimate objects like protons die.

He's not using the naturalist fallacy at all. He says that being a Stoic is not acting in accordance with nature at all, that nature is completely indifferent. And then he says that their philosophy attempts to tyrannize over nature and that isn't going to work.

In my opinion this criticism is a bit of a straw man, but in fairness to Nietzsche, it is not a result of his misinterpretation but rather poor communication on the part of the stoics.

The state of mind that the stoics advocate is one of acceptance and non-attachment to outcomes. Stoicism and Buddhism are really quite similar in this regard.

This pattern repeats itself endlessly in philosophy. In fact, I would argue that variations in the definition of "is" are responsible for more philosophical writing than the actual questions posed.

Pardon the dullness of my mind, but I have quite a bit of difficulty 'getting the point' that Nietzche is making (against?) Stoics. Could someone explain it in simple terms? I always read such texts with a lot attention and am often not able to make perfect sense of it. Pardon my asking.

He is saying that "living in accordance with nature" is a nonsense concept. Nature is boundless indifference and by your very existence, by your very desires, you are not and can not live in accordance with it. And beyond that, the Stoics are taking their view of the world and are projecting it onto Nature.

One of the things Nietzsche hated most were life denying philosophies. If your philosophy of life made you weaker, then it was evil. He considered Stoicism a philosophy that made you weaker by accepting what was. For example:

From the article: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ” Nietzsche would ask if you are buying yourself tranquility because you want to? Or because you are too cowardly to say something? Based on how I read the article, the latter is almost definitely true.

> One of the things Nietzsche hated most were life denying philosophies. If your philosophy of life made you weaker, then it was evil.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. I think that Nietzsche observed philosophies and decided some that thought they were life affirming were life denying, but I don't necessarily think built into that is hatred. Indeed, I think you can take out of Genealogy that he rather admired the slaves. Their life denying philosophy served their ends, after all.

I actually think Nietzsche probably has more in common with the Stoics than not. They both seek to overcome a world that might deny them. One through acceptance, one through self-overcoming.

Here's my take, for what it's worth. From the article:

> The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won.

Nietzsche is saying this is ridiculous because those things are natural, and we are part of nature.

> [You] imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain... Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited? to be different?

I admire many aspects of the stoic outlook, but Nietzsche's criticism is delightfully needle-sharp.

I don't interpret Stoicism as succumbing to the naturalistic fallacy though (as in, what happens naturally is good, "is=ought"), but rather see it as an epistemological injunction, that is: you have to see things in the eyes and try hard to see and understand the world as it is.

A fair counterargument, and I would agree with you in an overall sense.

That being said, it is pretty clear from reading that a significant portion of the stoics did fall for that particular fallacy to one degree or another.

Thanks for this, osti.

As a stoicism fanboy I partly agree, and if it wasn't pouring outside I'd run to my local bookshop to get something from this Nietzsche fella. Any suggestion?

Pretty much what others have suggested, but I would weigh in and say The Genealogy of Morality is the work I find myself revisiting the most recently. That along with Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle form a fairly interesting exploration into modern society, in my opinion. Not one I always agree with, but certainly one that makes you think.

Also, is it ironic that a stoic is waiting until the rain stops to go out and find happiness?

Not osti, but studied phil.

On the Genealogy of Morality is a decent read, I can't think of anything better for a first Nietzsche read. If you've ever heard "slave morality", its from here.

To be honest I haven't read too many of his books yet, I do plan to take a university course on him this fall though. This passage just resonated with me too much that I have to post it anytime a discussion about Stoicism comes up. There are many Nietzsche classics that you could read, for example I own this copy myself which contains several of his books.


Beyond Good and Evil is probably his most important work, but Thus Spoke Zarathustra is more readable.

Don't start with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It's all parables told in an old testament style that's hard to comprehend without already knowing what Nietzsche is about. I read The Gay Science first, and I thought it was a good starting point. It covers his big ideas and has the famous "God is dead" aphorism in it.

I agree that his philosophy isn't super clear from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but the parable-esque story style is what makes it easy to read. I suppose for clarity we should separate reading and understanding.

I'd think the Stoics make for a much more edifying read than Nietzsche, though :-)

That quote was a delightful and relevant response, which even extended the criticism to all philosophy.

I have embraced certain aspects of stoic philosophy in my life. In particular I've found The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to be helpful and practical. I struggle with my temper and in the last few years my temper has affected my career growth. These stoic works have helped my get a better grip on things when dealing with especially difficult people. I'm not a person who reads self help books nor am I into cheesy or trendy philosophies. I usually roll my eyes at this stuff. But I have found a framework in stoicism that has helped me overcome some of my limitations and helped me achieve some of my goals.

I too had an anger management problem. I didn't like who I was or how I behaved. I tried every thing, every book, every bit of advice. Most of it terrible. Failure.

Part 1:

I eventually found quality help, who then recommended I read this:

When Anger Hurts


TL;DR: Anger is a cascade: Expectations, disappointment, resentment, blame and then BOOM anger. The fix to anger is to eliminate your expectations.

Part 2:

Awareness of the psychology only got me so far. I struggled to change my habits. Recalling that you can only replace a habit, vs unlearn, I decided to pretend to be happy. I would tell people "I'm fantastic! How are you?!" It started out sarcastic, wry.

About three years later, I woke up one day, thought "I feel phenomenal" and actually meant it. I was shocked. I didn't even notice the change.

TL;DR: How you talk changes how you think.

Good luck. Please believe me when I say the effort is worthwhile.

> The fix to anger is to eliminate your expectations.

As Buddha said "Expectations lead to disappointment"

Have you tried mindfulness? There's at least two books "Search Inside Yourself" and "The Mindfull Geek" that both approach it with science and no spritualism. They claim practice will make it easier to control things like anger

Mindfulness is almost by definition spiritual

Are you sure you and the comment you replied to are using the same definition of "spiritual"?

It's dualistic. On the material plane, I read it as "don't be entropic."

How can that be true if no one can agree on the definition of the word "spiritual"?

A very important book, and especially if someone gets "Meditations: A new translation" by Hays. The translations available online don't explain the context of Aurelius life, and are hard to read.

I will download Meditations right away. It's a pending book to read.

Great comment, thanks for sharing.

Here some great contemporary introductions to Stoicism:

1. William B. Irvine, "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy", https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/0195...

This is an introduction to Stoic thought as it applies today by a professor in philosophy, very clearly written. Great for first exposure. It (sensibly) skips some of the more arcane stuff, such as Stoic metaphysics (historically relevant, but really obsolete).

2. Donald Robertson, "Stoicism and the Art of Happiness", https://www.amazon.com/Stoicism-Art-Happiness-Teach-Yourself...

This is a touch more academic and historic on one hand, and very practical and text-book-like on the other hand, in that it has self-assessments, key points, exercises for every section. Excellent second book. The author also has a course, blog and FAQ at http://donaldrobertson.name

3. Epictetus' Enchiridion is available on Project Gutenberg, btw. It's very short, and many things are not really relevant today anymore, yet surprisingly many sections still "speak to us".

4. Note also that Tom Wolfe's huge novel "A Man in Full" is suffused with Stoic themes.

I find Stoicism quite wise, and still substantial enough when you subtract all the obsolete superstition (which cannot be said of, for example, Abrahamic religions). Certainly good for tranquility and empathy. Sometimes hard to translate into positive action, though, I find.

> (which cannot be said of, for example, Abrahamic religions)

Interesting thought! I'd say that "love thy neighbour" is a pretty substantial idea, albeit a "bit" less deep than the average stoic philosophy.

Did anyone try this? Take a religion like Christianity (or one interpretation of it) and remove all the deities and miracles? As an avid Christian who dislikes dogma even more than militant atheists, I'd love to dive into an attempt at this.

Hi, well, first I must admit that that by itself is not an original thought, of course. I've most recently read it in Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

I've made the same comment (nothing original, as I said... :) elsewhere in this thread, and someone replied with the golden rule, maybe you want to read the discussion:


Elsewhere, the argument has been made that the miraculous parts of Christianity (virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) are largely not original, but collages of earlier prophets, though I couldn't point you to that literature off the top of my head, and it's not the point we're discussing anyways.

Something akin to the Jefferson bible?


That's awesome, didn't know about it.

Full text available online, about 20 printed pages.

Edited to add:

Here you can read it, facsimile of the original cut-and-paste (literally...) version by Jefferson. 84 pages, because it's in Greek, Latin, French and English. Love it.


Here's an ePub, if you want to put it on your ebook reader (note: possibly unsavoury site):


I can't recommend enough "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by Irvine, William B.

I am 2/3 into it, maybe one of the best philosophy book I've ever read.

I second that recommendation. I've read it twice following a recommendation here on HN and I think it's a great introduction and one of those books that has and will have a great influence on the way I live my life.

Also read Happy by Derren Brown. It's brilliant in a very different way.

Funny & weird, I am also a big fan of Derren Brown shows, didn't know about his books. Going to buy it on Amazon right now.

Looks like the Derren Brown who wrote the 1964 book is not the same Derren Brown who is the 21st century magician.

I am actually not sure what to think. If you look at Amazon, it does say 1964, but list Derren Brown - the magician - as the author and even give his biography. The confusion grows even deeper as one of the reviewer is referring as Derren Brown - the magician - as the author as well.

[edit] Amazon US got the date wrong. Amazon UK is giving the publication date, 2016, right. Derren Brown - the magician and mentalist - is still also a stoic. :D

I loved it too when I read it back in 2012 but applying the lessons learned from books always seems to be very short-lived for me. Anyone have any tips and thoughts on how to make sure that I actually execute on the things I like in books like 'A Guide to the Good Life'?

Negative visualization is the biggest thing I would say.

Saw a few remarks about the "bleakness" or "uncaring" of the "universe".

That view of the universe is in error, people are part of the universe and they certainly care. To view the universe without humanity is to not view the universe.

There is bleakness in the universe for sure, but there is also compassion and caring.

I see it as an antidote to the sort of mentally unhealthy information that society (such as TV, social media etc.) gives people. Stoicism makes people realise that they aren't the centre of the universe, that almost all people don't care what you are doing - even if sounds like they do, to take personal responsibility for your life, not to act like a victim etc. Basically be someone that people truly respect.

This is worth giving a second thought.

It's practically (literally?) instinctual to feel like the universe is happening to you rather than with you.

It's true. Alan Watts isn't necessarily the best, but I always like his (paraphrased) quote "Like the water waves and flowers bloom, the Universe peoples."

The important thing to remember is that this caring is anomalous. I personally find Space Does Not Care to be quite liberating.

What is perhaps most interesting about stoicism is how it influenced cognitive therapy and CBT in a big way. These forms of therapy, along with derivatives that integrate practical ideas from Buddhism such as DBT and radical acceptance therapy, have been seen to perform as well as medication and in some cases providing longer term improvements.

I think both the stoics and Buddhism were definitely on to something.

It is definitely intriguing to see the growing incorporation of "third wave" therapy techniques across many of the most popular current approaches.

I am hopeful that as we become better at measuring and understanding therapeutic change we can develop a useful model of when and how to best use the components from each approach.

Agreed, and in both cases, when you strip away the obsolete superstitions that accompany it (just by virtue of the world view at the time they emerged), then there is still a lot of original wisdom and substance left.

I think the same is true for Christianity too. The golden rule is an excellent way to be an awesome human being. I think that's a better motive than a good afterlife.

I haven't studied other religions to much but I am dead sure there are timeless pieces of advice.

My opinion, and I stress opinion, is that much of the world's religions offered a way of life that attempted to reduce violence, illness and suffering.

Even kosher and halal, thinking about it, could have been a recognition that these foods can lead to death, especially in a time when germ theory and proper cooking and hygiene methods were not developed. Since disease was associated with evil, it makes sense that "God declares these unclean".

Plus, what would you speculate if you didn't have the knowledge of how the universe, the planets and life, including us, developed? In that case, a creator provides the fewest assumptions.

Thanks for the thoughtful and respectful comments, I hope my answer manages to stay in that spirit, too.

> I think the same is true for Christianity too

Disagree, concerning the Abrahamic religions, as what is good is rarely original, and what is original is rarely good:

1. What is good (golden rule, some of the 10 commandments) is not very original. The golden rule has appeared in ancient Greece (Thales), China (Confucius), etc. half a millennium before Christianity, and other places independently. By contrast, Stoa and Buddhism were, I'd venture, among the first to arrive at and codify certain substantial insights that constitute large parts of their teachings.

2. What is original is mostly fairly absurd, if looked at dispassionately. If you strip Christianity of the superstitions, its essence is basically gone.

Just as a small example: it is still current position of the Catholic Church that the eucharist is actual transformation in substance of wine and bread into actual blood and flesh of Christ. (There was a (possibly apocryphal) case in Germany of a vegetarian asking whether he could participate in the communion, and he was told that he could not as a vegetarian, because it IS flesh.) If you erroneously believe that it's purely symbolic, you'd be subject to the punishment of anathema (which is worse than excommunication), if the Church were consistent with its teachings.

> religions offered a way of life that attempted to reduce violence, illness and suffering.

Yes, at the time. But not today.

> what would you speculate if you didn't have the knowledge of how the universe, the planets and life, including us, developed? In that case, a creator provides the fewest assumptions.

Yes, at the time. But not today.

In that sense, Stoa and Buddhism have aged better than the Abrahamic religions, maybe because they were more empiric.

With regards to one, just because it was not original does not discount its value. That only supports my point that it was an attempt to present a way to live - a failed attempt given hindsight. I never said it was original nor entirely good. That's why we can both recognise the good parts as generally good advice.

2. I'm not preaching. I was brought up Catholic and learned enough to reject it. Catholicism and the actions of that church and other splinters are fundamentally at odds with what Jesus actually preached - love your neighbour. Somehow, it was ok to burn your neighbour alive if they did not believe Jesus was God, which the rule did not mention. I am not a Catholic today - there is too much hypocrisy. My assertion was that these, regardless of what we know now, were misguided hypotheses that had mixtures of valuable advice along with ideas that we now know are wrong. The structure built on top of that is perhaps a hypothesis taken too seriously. My thinking is that what originally was the equivalent of Aristotle to some Newton was misunderstood and taken to the extreme. I share your sentiments exactly.

> Yes, at the time. But not today

This was exactly my point. Your English is very good, by the way. If I didn't know better, I'd mistake your German directness as rude and blunt.

I would agree. Perhaps not empiric but more practical which lends itself better to empirical study.

> I never said it was original nor entirely good.

True, you didn't, I had said it ("... there is still a lot of original wisdom and substance left"), to which you replied, that's why I focused in on it.

> I'm not preaching.

Fair enough, I try not to... :-)

> If I didn't know better, I'd mistake your German directness as rude and blunt.

Nailed it, thanks for the benefit of the doubt. Edited to add: This (mostly) works on HN, but lamentably not many other sites...

Wow, you're right. Sorry about that. Yeah, clearly not original. I do agree.

I'm British - I will apologise if you bump into me.

One of the big new concepts of Christianity (when compared to Judaism, from which it originated) was that it was universal, whereas Judaism is a religion for Jews only.

I don't think Judaism has ever been a closed faith. I may have missed some interval of time where it was only by birthright or something.

This being said, I don't think conversion is sought as it is in Islam and Christianity.

The cannibalistic reenactment that the catholic church is pushing so hard has very little to do with Christianity; it's anti-Christian if anything; it's sole purpose is to paralyze the subconscious with shame, guilt and despair; conditioning by trauma is a very effective way to turn people into helpless victims.

> The golden rule is an excellent way to be an awesome human being.

The golden rule is not a specialty of Christianity. Some guy - I forgot the name - studied the ethical foundations of world's major religions and found variations of it across many different cultures and religions.

But that kind of underlines your point.

[Edit: Typo]

That's really interesting. If you do ever remember the name any time soon, let me know. I find anything like that fascinating.

Not the same as parent, but a good comparison of the Golden Rule from "Plato and Platypus Walk Into A Bar" (any mistakes are likely mine):

The Golden Rule


Hinduism - 13th Century BC

Do not as to others what ye do not wish done to yourself...This is the whole Dharma. Heed it well.

- The Mahabharata

Judiasm - 13th Century BC

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary; go learn it.

- The Babylonian Talmud

Zoroastrianism - 12th Century BC

Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self.

- The Dadistan-i-Dinik

Buddhism - 6th Century BC

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

- The Tibetan Bhammapada

Confucianism - 6th Century BC

Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

- Confucious, Analects


Thank you!

(Walking into a bar is, to this very day, a good way of getting to know one another or oneself, but one has to be prepared to face certain facts about oneself.)

I just want to throw out there that dietary restrictions are ultimately tribal. Kosher and halal laws are full of obscure and pointless restrictions (such as ritual slaughter and prohibition on eating foods prepared under an idol) that have nothing to do with health, but everything to do with establishing who is "us" and who is "them".

Good point, to enforce in-group, out-group.

There is the evolutionary psychology notion that food preferences are initially wide open: children initially eat everything they're given, basically trusting their parents, but then later those preferences solidify (German proverb: "Was der Bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht", i.e. what the farmer doesn't know, he doesn't eat).

So, that would make dietary rules particularly suited as such a tribal shibboleth (easy to create, relatively easy to abide by, hard to fake).

I seem to recall that after the Spanish reconquista, muslims faced conversion or expulsion, and if they chose conversion, they were forced to eat pork to "prove" it...

[Edit: eco-psych -> evolutionary psychology)

Interesting. I didn't know that. I connected trichinosis, where symptoms are flu-like for the first few days before a fortnight to 8 weeks of symptom-free incubation as it works into the muscle stage, with the fact that germ theory wasn't understood back then.

The second stage of trichinosis would look quite out of the blue without the foundation of understanding behind it. Almost as if by an act of god, which may have been connected to eating "unclean food prohibited by god".

That said, if it is genuinely a tribal practice, I must accept that and change my opinion.

You're not wrong, but the pork is only a small part of dietary laws. Additionally, you can eat other animals that might be dangerous (birds, for instance, but not birds of prey). And restrictions like "only cloven hoofed animals that chew their cud" are just "let's make this obscure enough to prove you really care."

I guess you're right.

It'd be interesting to see if those laws developed gradually over time or was by total decree. Perhaps some of the rules are merely incorrect generalisations / reasoning by induction.

Thanks for the info - I've always wondered why. It's quite hard to find the why when learning about these things.

Jesus (or whoever came up with the stuff attributed to him) was indeed a profoundly wise human being. His philosophy of love is probably one of the most important developments of ancient religion.

Well if everybody loved the human race such that they could bring no deliberate harm to it, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, psychopathy, or rather Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are real things.

Those are slowly being identified as artifacts of trauma[1], at least the pathological cases are. SO imagine how prevalent they were in the Classical world.

[1]] I don't hold that un-self-aware people are pathological...

I'm sure it is possible to be born one and not made. I read one position that psychopathy was by nature and sociopathy by nurture, describing the same ends by differing means.

[Shameless plug] You can read Marcus Aurelius "Meditations" at http://directingmind.com

Finally read them a few months ago. A fantastic read.

What precisely did you like about it ?

Is there a way to convert this to epub? It would be a lot easier to read on my phone then.

There is a markdown version [0]. That is easy to convert. For example, use pandoc.

[0] http://directingmind.com/meditations.md

Yup, probably the best way. Next weekend I might compile an ePub and add it to the site though

Thank you.

Can you say couple of lines why someone should read this ?

I'll take a stab.

It is a very accessible work, still today. The writing is clear and simple.

It's always been a popular work across the centuries, but the form seems to work well for contemporary audiences. You can engage with at different levels, it doesn't require a deep commitment. You can read a few passages before bed time, leave it for years and pick it up again, leaf through it and skip back&forth. As you grow older, the depth of the work reveals itself.

Specifically, given the easy to digest form, Meditations is somewhat of a board room coffee table book, like Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. There is a lot in there about what it takes to be a good leader.

It is a primary work. As a reader, you will take a trip back in time, when people were, for lack of better word, different. The deep religiosity on display can come across as somewhat alien, especially since it is one that focuses on the importance of the observance of rites rather than on establishing a personal spiritual connection. It is very un-american, un-christian, and that journey is valuable in itself.

The breadth is wide. Stoicism is easily dismissed as being somewhat of a dour, pessimistic philosophy. There is undoubtedly a melancholy undercurrent in Meditations, but it is also full with love, joy, kindness, happiness. The opening sets the tone. A thoughtful thank you note to all the people who Marcus feels affectionate to. Near the end, after being reminded a great deal about your mortality, those bright colors will have lost their luster somewhat, but Meditationes leaves you with more confidence in humanity and love towards your fellow man than with less.

Marcus Aurelius was by all accounts an admirable man and an important historical figure. There is somewhat of a voyeuristic kick you get by reading something he never intended to publish. Especially when writing about his wife, his insecurities, his unpleasant views on sex, all are more personal passages than philosophical. It's been 2000 years, I'm sure we're forgiven.

I have this book on my desk at work. I have several pre-marked pages that I use to help me deal with frustration and anger at work. I find it to be a very practical implementation of stoicism that is relatable even today.

Whose translation is that?

> Albert Ellis came up with an early form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.”

This actually is presented in Buddhism too, which was where I first encountered it before re-discovering similar principles in stoicism and Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. See this sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.tha...


"When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental."

But what is nice about Buddhism is that there is a practical skill-training that comes along with the theory. When disagreeable events happen to you, mindfulness training teaches you not to grasp on to the events automatically and start your own narrative about it, but instead, observe them mindfully. This gives you the opportunity to skillfully deal with the situation. REBT in addition implores you to consider the situation rationally.

These are troubling times (especially where I live in India), and I think a little bit of stoic + Buddhist teachings can go a long way in maintaining our composure even as we engage with the world. I still struggle with this from time to time, but I would have been completely lost without these teachings.

Which particular troubling event related to India are you referring to?

Not events, but several trends and crises. Two that personally concern me are the looming water crisis and pollution: I would love to have more water security and be able to breathe cleaner air. I can put up with the haphazard electric supply and the abysmal transport infrastructure. I don't have to bother about such fancy things like the substandard educational system or the endemic criminalization of politics.

But perhaps above all, (a) the dysfunctional governance system that is incapable of doing anything about any of this, and (b) the gradual descent of the society into a more regressive state.

‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ Beautifully put.

The Penguin edition of fellow stoic Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is free on Amazon kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Marcus-Aurelius-Wisehouse...

You buy a piece of mind for yourself, but what about the rest of society? Would you let injustice be, or would you do something about it, not for a personal revenge, but as a mindful action?

Actually, that quote was the one sentence I didn't understand. Who's spilling the wine? And why does that buy tranquility? If you could help me that would be great :)

I read it as "instead of getting angry for losing a 20$ note, consider it the price you pay for tranquility".

Which maybe works for yourself, but most of my significant others of the past would just start complaining that I lost a 20$ bill.

Another Stoic tip:

Most people are annoying: educate them or just put up with them, there is no third option. Also, always remember you are equally annoying to at least some of them.

I prefer to consider the joy of finding money; when you lose it you've almost certainly given someone else that joy.

Just like when things get stolen from my car, they're inevitably things that the thief might have needed more than me.

Better hope the finders don't apply the same logic, or they'll just feel your pain all over again.

I think the premise leading to the sentence is absurd: "And, if I pretended not to notice these slights, wasn’t I proving that I really was a disengaged, privileged oppressor?".

But the author is trying to reason with her anger in the face of perceived slights - verbalise it or hold it inside?

Epictetus suggests that small losses (of wine or of 'face') should simply be forgotten. They are sunk-costs whose expense has been incurred.

One need not pay more - in the form of one's tranquility or contentment - by dwelling on them.

Don't cry over spilled milk (or oil). If someone steals your wine, get over it and continue with your life.

The one argument against is of course justice, that is, punishing cheaters in prisoner dilemmas, special and general prevention, etc.

However, the Stoic would advise to do the punishment (where appropriate and possible) without anger, but rather as one would punish a child that has transgressed - for the benefits arising from it.

Adversity provides the opportunity to practice tranquility. If you let go of the wine, you gain peace of mind in return.

I wish all the drivers of the world would take this philosophy to heart :)

One interesting thing I've noticed is that ancient Stoics have not rebuked the concept of god (or "the universe"), a higher power that determines all the things that are not in our control (as a Stoic you very much need to distinguish between things in and outside of your control). I have found it difficult to really, deeply, accept things as out of my control without resorting to some concept of god or "the universe as a well-meaning entity".

Is there someone among you HNers who has retained a positive outlook by believing that the universe is a bleak, chaotic place with no intrinsic meaning to the things happening in it?

>Is there someone among you HNers who has retained a positive outlook by believing that the universe is a bleak, chaotic place with no intrinsic meaning to the things happening in it?

Yep. Though I'd suggest you take a closer look at that sentence of yours. Specifically the "bleak, chaotic" part. That's already a very negative judgement and in contradiction with the neutral "no intrinsic meaning" part.

>I have found it difficult to really, deeply, accept things as out of my control without resorting to some concept of god or "the universe as a well-meaning entity".

Well it does by necessity lead to a conclusion along the lines of "the world is a cruel place". It's a bit like a lion eating a zebra though - brutal but not inherently evil. It just is what it is.

This is exactly what I believe the universe is. When people say the universe is uncaring, they equate that as bad; I reckon this is because we want control over our lives. True our agency over our lives is increasing as we progress as a society but it's unlikely that we will reach a point that our cumulative progress would give us control over everything.

The universe doesn't care who you are the same way a benevolent god cares about his subject; the universe cares about you in an impersonal kind of way, that is if you do things according to the reality that is already established, then it'll 'care' about you and give what you want. The giving is likely probabilistic.

The "bleak, chaotic place with no intrinsic meaning" conflates two things unfairly. Consider a beautiful sunrise on a tropical beach. It's part of the universe and not bleak and chaotic yet you don't have to believe it has a meaning enjoy it. As an atheist, the survival of us and our ancestors for ~4bn years suggests the universe is not so bleak in parts.

Thought it might be bleak for those who are ill-equipped to deal with the modern types of chaos (eg anxiety and depression). Like someone else said, this could all be a matter of labeling the world as "good" or "bad"; the problem with these labels is that they are rarely self-examined partly because it takes a lot of epistemological thinking and self-awareness to reach that level of meta-cognition.

From your points on conflation, just to clarify, are you saying that meaning does not determine our feelings about the degree of bleakness? Maybe meaning is a multiplier of feelings depending on the direction you are interested in. For non-bleakness, meaningfulness would multiply the amount of enjoyment, and for bleakness, non-meaningfulness would multiply the amount of hatred. Those two assume that state of bleakness is naturally attached with intrinsic feelings.

I wish I've read more about this topic; it is ultra interesting.

I dunno, I see the continued survival of our species as a cruel joke - certainly bleak - given the amount of harm we do to each other and everything around us.

Well, I take away just the opposite though.

Suppose there really was a loving creator that put this all in place just for us. Then, yeah, we've made quite a mess of it, and it really all rather sucks.

However, if it's just a bleak, uncaring universe, then the fact that we're around is amazing in the first place, and the fact that we've managed to carve out a niche where we can, by and large, thrive in ever larger numbers [1] is outright awesome and amazing.

It also then enjoins us to "keep on fighting the good fight". For example, I don't think there is "automatic karma" imposed somehow - it is incumbent on us humans to impose justice as well as we can.

[1] The notion that things are terrible and getting worse is wrong, I think. See for example

- Julian Simon, "The State of Humanity"

- Steven Pinker, "The Better Angels of our Nature"

- Max Roser, "Our World in Data", https://ourworldindata.org


Harm is again an unnecessarily negative judgement. We are the same matter and energy (nature) as the Earth, the Moon, the Sun. What we do when our matter and energy moves around is not any more purposeful or harmful than what the Sun does.

It's kind of like asking if the Universe was harmed by the big bang.

Then again we also do a lot of great thing and create and experience love and beauty. I have no idea how to quantify and weigh the good against the bad, so perhaps it comes down to temperament if you consider the human existence an overall negative or positive experience.

I find that people's outlook on humanity comes down to where they focus their attention. We're definitely a mixed bag of wonderful and terrible. But, the vast majority of people, the vast majority of time are boringly nice to everyone and everything. That boring niceness is as common, as important and as easy to forget as air.

Also, the world has many very bad aspects and some of them are getting worse. But, on average the world is getting to be a better place rapidly. Today is the most peaceful, most healthy, most just, most educated, most comfortable time ever. As people who were born and grew up knowing only such good times, we easily forget how so much of what we would consider atrocities today was common a mere few hundred years ago.

We have adjusted to be tremendously more sensitive than our ancestors. And, we are infinitely more informed about every bad thing everywhere in the world. That doesn't make everything OK. But, it is a great sign that more attention and effort is being focused on the remaining problems than ever before. If you are deciding to focus your attention on the problems we still have, then you are a sign of how the world is getting better.

With that attention, you can find problems that remain. With some historical perspective, you can figure out which ones you can best help reduce. With some effort, you can be part of making the remaining problems in the world even smaller.

Great points. Despite my cynicism and strong bias towards the self-destruction of mankind, there would be always be moments when I thought "hey, I'm glad this guy/gal existed because the world is a better place because of them." Things do get better when you look at the world around you.

>This is exactly what I believe the universe is.

Yup - I've found the lion/zebra thing to be very useful in explaining something that isn't easy for most people to see. Especially those that grew up with religious notions of good vs evil.

>the universe cares about you in an impersonal kind of way

Personally I'd be very wary of using the word caring at all. It's just atoms & stuff flying about the place to me. I choose to overlay the whole "I want to be a good person etc" on top of that though as a personal choice despite considering it a very artificial & fake construct. Bit of a cognitive dissonance I suppose but much like people choose to believe in god I choose this.

I agree on wariness regarding the usage of the word "caring".

My usage of "care" here is equal to "notice". To make it easier for myself, I imagine an anthropomorphic universe gallivanting around and notice one of its agents doing something that could possibly exert an effect (either null and non-null) and bless it with that effect after spinning the wheel of probability.

I'd suggest what keeps man from eating man, on the scale that lions eat zebras, is a general belief in a authority higher than man.

You should ask, "what keeps lions from eating lions" if you want to go that route and then see what happens to your higher authority argument.

No argument was made. Just a statement of belief in a general belief.

Not true. An argument was clearly made.

Fair enough, your using definition number 1 of the word argument here. I'm using definition number 2.


My statement was not meant to be an argument or statement of fact but rather a suggestion or hypothesis, which is why I used the word suggest.

Wouldn't we then expect homicide rates in religious USA and Pakistan to be much lower than in secular Sweden?

I don't think your claim withstands any scrutiny.

> Wouldn't we then expect homicide rates in religious USA and Pakistan to be much lower than in secular Sweden?

If you were able to control for all other conditions, possibly but not necessarily. Thus I don't think comparing homicide rates in the USA, Pakistan and Sweden proves or disproves anything.

First, you grant that other conditions have influence too, and not only as much, but more influence, than religious beliefs.

So, comparing homicide rates across countries disproves that more religion is necessary or sufficient for an ethical life.

(Let me note in passing that fairly secular northern Europe also has much lower rates of abortions, STDs, teenage pregnancies, and other societal ills, than other, more religious societies.)

Second, if we look at long term trends, violence has come down over the millennia, as religiosity has decreased (see Pinker's Better Angels).

Third, I concede that under certain circumstances in primitive societies you might achieve a reduction in crime by introducing certain religious beliefs (whether they're falsehoods or not). However, we should not strive for that, but for enlightened societies where that is not necessary anymore.

Animals typically don't kill and eat their own species, so in these matters humans fare a lot worse than most animals. Given that a belief in a higher authority is one of the things causing humans to kill each other, it seems this theory is wrong.

> Animals typically don't kill and eat their own species

I think you'll be surprised by the amount of cannibalism in the animal kingdom:


>I'd suggest what keeps man from eating man

Not really the point I was making with the lion/zebra thing, but regardless:

>is a general belief in a authority higher than man.

For some, certainly. I'd venture that it's only one route available. I certainly don't believe in any higher authority whatsoever nor do I even believe that good & evil are particularly sound concepts (Moral Relativism), yet most people that know me will probably judge me a good person.

Interestingly enough, this has been scientifically investigated - I posted about this yesterday: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13724476

Yeah, the sticky point I've always found in the man is just a higher evolved animal position is the arbitrariness of cooperation. That is to say, any expectation one human has of another seems arbitrary to me without a base set of rules set forth by a higher authority.

The writings of C.S. Lewis crystallized a lot of this in my mind.

I'm really disturbed by that mindset. Surely, you are not saying that without belief in some sort of God, you personally would cease cooperation and rape and murder and steal?

I'm an atheist, but I certainly have no desire or intention or plan to cease cooperation. Just the opposite, I think it's extremely important, and it is also extremely important that we cherish and enforce and cultivate it.

As just a little example, for me some sort of communal health insurance covering everyone is a matter of course, as for most citizens of developed nations. (I'm aghast at the fact that many people oppose it in the USA, and I note in passing that it appears to be mostly religious people.)

Next, I have the same expectation of basically everyone I encounter (except some sociopaths, against one has to guard appropriately).

Finally, I think there are many good reasons for it, and the position that man is ("just") a higher evolved animal is not at all incompatible with it.

> I'm really disturbed by that mindset. Surely, you are not saying that without belief in some sort of God, you personally would cease cooperation and rape and murder and steal?

No I'm not saying a belief in God is necessary for what we would agree upon as moral behavior. However, I could easily see the case being made by individuals who might think that what we agree on as morally correct behavior being nothing more than our arbitrary beliefs. And that, from their perspective, rape or pedophilia makes them feel good in the way eating red meat makes them feel good.

So on a spectrum with complete moral bliss on the far left and complete degeneracy on the far right, I think we live somewhere on the left side. Furthermore I think a big reason we live there and not right of center is the wide spread belief in a higher authority/authorities.

> Next, I have the same expectation of basically everyone I encounter (except some sociopaths, against one has to guard appropriately).

Why? From where is your sense of "Fair Play" derived? Does it all boil down to the non-aggression principle and if so, from where is that derived?

> what we agree on as morally correct behavior being nothing more than our arbitrary beliefs

Interesting. I am also concerned by moral arbitrariness and relativism, but fear it comes from somewhere else:

I fear that religion opens up the door to moral relativism, because you can go and say "don't eat shrimp" (Leviticus 11:10), or "don't eat pork", or "don't eat cows", or what have you, claiming "it says so right here, in this holy book full of true revelations".

That's a trivial example, but the same applies for more serious issues: morality based on (religious) revelation is hard to verify and discuss, and somewhat arbitrary.

But if we empirically agree on one real world, empiricism and evidence, we have at least a common basis and need very few, very basic moral principles (it really boils down to the golden rule, or somewhat more sophisticated versions of that, like the "veil of ignorance" in John Rawl's Theory of Justice.)

So, in purely practical terms, I think this notion of some psychopath running around claiming "there's no God, thus I can do what I want" is a non-issue.

If you furthermore seek a philosophical "Letztbegründung" (i.e. ultimate reason, where "the buck stops"), there are attempts e.g. in discourse ethics ("if we are talking, we are already implicitly subscribing to certain axioms, otherwise we would not need to talk"). But I don't think it'a a big problem.

The problem lies less in the foundation and more in certain topics, I think (think of abortion, contraception, war).

You can explain a lot without a higher authority. For instance humans gossip so if you screw someone over, word spreads and can have adverse consequences. That can help do gooders and help pro do good genes to spread in the gene pool for example.

Interesting article. Note that it only talks about improving cooperation "within" the circle, i.e. among "co-religionists", as the article puts it.

I think you'd find increased cooperation within many other types of groups. What we should aim for, of course, is to expand this circle of concern ever further, beyond religion.

So, just want to clarify that this might have been an benefit of religion in earlier days, but is by no means an argument for them today.

I'd suggest that isn't the case. I don't need a parent figure for me to fear or appease in order to act kindly to others, nor do I expect them to need one to act kindly to me.

I don't find it too hard to accept the concept of "the universe as a well meaning entity". The only premise you need to accept in order to come to this conclusion is to not view your consciousness as a unique snowflake.

Imagine that a white blood cell in your body has a consciousness of its own, where it, in its own way does its job when needed, hangs out with its "co-workers", other white-blood-cells, and red-blood-cells etc. You are the "universe as a well meaning entity" for this cell in your body.

Extending on this hypothesis, its not too hard to conclude that you can be a small part of a bigger, well meaning consciousness.

That is pure speculation though, without any evidence whatsoever.

Human consciousness isn't human, in fact it isn't even brain consciousness (since we aren't conscious of everything that goes on in our brains) but rather the property of some (comparatively) small number of neurons. Ultimately, this is just a system of coupled biochemical reactions. There isn't really a meaningful difference between a single cell and a small network of neurons in terms of specific biochemical reactions. The only difference is the magnitude of the system's complexity.

This leaves you with two options:

1.) You can posit some blessed configuration of a biochemical system that magically produces awareness, a property separate from matter. Note that since our neurons are arranged quite differently, this blessed configuration must be quite general.

2.) You can assume that awareness is inherent in matter, and any difference between a group of neurons with coupled biochemistry and a cell with coupled biochemistry exists on a continuum. Thus, any difference in awareness between a neural network and a cell is likely to be one of resolution.

If you think for a minute hopefully you'll realize that option #2 actually involves fewer assumptions.

If we achieve consciousness in machines, would that affect your opinion?

I feel it is consistent with my stance, that awareness is indeed a property of a configuration of (entirely unconscious) matter.

The configuration is extremely specific in the sense that almost all possible configurations have no consciousness, but somewhat general in that there are still infinitely many configurations that do.

I still stick to option #1. Similarly, it is the specific configuration of the sand/silicon in my computer that allows it to process information, not individual sand particles or silicon atoms (even though their specific properties make it possible).

How do you know computers don't experience their existence? We assume because they behave predictably that this indicates they are unaware automata, but assume I asked you if you would like me to put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. You would answer no with extremely high probability. Just because your answer is predictable doesn't indicate that there is no awareness behind it. In fact, there is almost certainly something that it is "like" to be a tightly coupled system of transistors. Of course, that experience is undoubtedly very different from ours.

Part of the problem is that consciousness is a nebulous term that conflates awareness, self-awareness and intelligence. Specifically, I'm only speaking of awareness here.

Also, when sand undergoes chemical reactions, how do you know that isn't a simple form of information processing?

Agreed on the predictability. In fact, I'm a bit of compatibilist, i.e. subscribing to the notion that free will and determinism are compatible.

And I've seen the argument being made that consciousness is fundamental and prior to anything else (Chalmers? Don't recall.)

But I disagree for now, and I think awareness is an emergent property dependent on various pre-conditions (like perception, a model of self, possibly "embodied cognition" (not sure about that), etc.), and it's absurd to speak of a few atoms having awareness.

(With modern computers, we might be getting there at some point...)

Bone cancer in children - if there exist an almighty sentient God, then he is erratic and malicious. The polytheistic concept of gods is actually more realistic (better explains reality) in that there are multiple gods with different agendas and morals acting.

In polytheism the universe is not chaotic and meaningless - things to not happen at random, but because the gods willed it. But the gods does not always act for the benefit of humans, so the universe is not "fair".

If something bad happens to you, is it really a consolation that it is because an allknowing and just God wants you to suffer?

Your first statement is a pretty classic and naive position. For me at 8 years or so I rendered the objection of "pain" in terms of volcanoes.

The standard, and again naive, rejoinder in mainstream Christian theology is that God had a pattern for the World that didn't include such types of pain and destruction but that man chose not to follow God's plan (as allegorised in "The Fall" in Genesis). Thus we chose to go it alone, and you can read the various theories on how that has a Universal effect too.

To raise the basic Argument from Suffering you really should look past the first-tier argument and present it anticipating The Fall.

In my limited understanding suffering appears out of the axioms of free will. To make us human, with the ability to choose to love, choose to care, choose to follow God or not, we require free-will. Otherwise it's just "echo 'i love you'" rather than a genuine emotion.

Your question should be "is it better not to create our Universe, with the possibility for love, if there is also a possibility of suffering". You may come to the same conclusion, that a benevolent being shouldn't turn Creator when faced with those possibilities ... but then if they hadn't you wouldn't be here to make the objection.

tl;dr "The Fall" and "free will" are the standard, Biblical, Christian counter-arguments that stand against Suffering and allow for a loving, benevolent God to be creator of a Universe such as ours.

So God inflicted leprocy on humanity because otherwise we wouldn't be able to feel genuine love? And not buying this makes you "naive"?

I perhaps haven't expressed the position well however, "naive" isn't a slur, read "simplistic" if it helps, it's philosophy on the level of someone who has not demonstrated cognisance of the basic sources and hasn't addressed the obvious counter-arguments.

The mainstream Christian theology is that leprosy, and such diseases came in to the world after, and as a consequence of, The Fall. That if we'd chosen God's way we wouldn't have such things.

>So God inflicted leprocy on humanity //

God created a Universe with free will for man rather than creating a fancy automaton. Mankind chose not to follow God's precepts, the consequences being that disease, pain and suffering entered the world.

It's like if I serve you a hot drink. You can choose to cause pain and suffering with it - throw it at someone, say - or you can follow my instructions to sip it slowly, let it cool and enjoy it, share it. I can't serve you a hot drink without the possibility that you will abuse it, unless I make you into a "hot drink robot" with no free will.

You could couch that as God inflicting the possibility of suffering in order to allow the possibility of beauty, love, passion, humanity.

Then I sure you are also well aware of the counterarguments against this form of theodicy.

The idea that we are "privileged" is what breaks this. Assume that we are not special matter, and all matter shares the property of free will. Then the leprousy is just matter (in this case, a bacterium) exerting its free will for in its own interests, ignorant of the ramifications that it has on other matter (us). Given that this happens all the time with people, I don't think it is far fetched.

Of course, I don't think the universe exists to love god, so much as the universe is "god" playing with itself for entertainment.

Thinking that framing God as a contradiction will convince people not to believe in it is naive.

People have been saying the same things for 2,000 years. The only development is that we can say it's been longer now.

Just as there is lots of suffering and injustice in the world, there is also copious beauty and happiness and love. So framing God as "evil" is just as problematic as painting him as "good". Both positions forces you to ignore or rationalize away large parts of reality.

Edit: Oh, you edited your comment to say something different. I guess this comment doesn't make a lot of sense as an answer now.

Yeah sorry I can't edit it again now. I editted because the reason I used "evil / unreal" was because those are typically the traits given to a God to illustrate contradiction. And as religion is intrinsically overflowing with contradictions they aren't a particularly compelling way to argue against it.

Oh I totally agree about that.

My beliefs here, take with grain of salt...

If something bad happens to you it is not because God wants you to suffer but because God has given evil dominion over this place in order to facilitate free will and choice.

God wants to be reconciled with every person but also wants that reconciliation to be chosen and not coerced.

The suffering of innocents is just an extension of this idea.

Yes and that line of reasoning works as long as you don't think to deeply about the logic of it. But you cant really escape the fundamental paradox of a God which is both almighty and benevolent. All monotheistic religions have to struggle with this.

The Book of Job in the Bible for example posits that God is almighty but not at all fair. He basically causes Job to suffer on a whim. Not out of some kind of theological necessity, but simply as a cruel experiment. There is no paradox here, because there is no claim that God is always just and benevolent.

Yeah, and if you have an eternal perspective whereby you believe your time on earth is a brief moment of exile from the almighty then acceptance of the conditions found in Job is made easier.

> He basically causes Job to suffer on a whim. Not out of some kind of theological necessity, but simply as a cruel experiment.

This isn't technically true. What God does is choose to not prevent Satan from testing Job. I'm not making a judgement about whether this would be considered cruel or not, I just want the facts stated clearly.

And, Job himself said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15).

The Book of Job is understood by most Christians to be a literary and theological work, rather than being literally true. I highly recommend reading it to anyone who is curious about how Judaism or Christianity views the problem of evil, but you have to be reading it from the right mindset; it's not supposed to be something God actually did, even in the minds of believers.

You actually can construct reasonings in which bone cancer in children might serve some greater good, though such reasonings are very painful to hear for people remotely affected, so I won't try that.

I know that I'm stepping on thin ice here, but: My son does not want his teeth brushed. He absolutely hates it, because he does not yet understand that this pain is way lesser than the pain and treatment of tooth decay. So, I still have to do this to him, at least twice every day, because it is necessary.

I DONT mean to say that bone cancer might be good for something eventually, but; if it were, then we might not understand it, because we don't have neither control nor insight over the future.

Yeah you can device such a reasoning - theologians from monotheistic religions do that. I guess for some this is comforting. It is certainly a bleak world where anybody can be hit by such a tragedy without any higher reason or justice. I just happen to find your viewpoint ("really, its for their own good") much more bleak and horrible.

> I have found it difficult to really, deeply, accept things as out of my control

Really? The laws of physics, evolution etc. are all out of our control.

Positive outlook? Yes, I suppose. The universe is 15 billion years old and nothing we do will have a big impact on it. But we can still make the best of the time we have in it and try to make things better for others.

I of course accepted things as in "yes it just is this way", but I could not be content with them, as they are not "ok".

I'm not a Stoic, but I like your question. Would you mind too much if I slightly re-worded it? "...retained a positive outlook while projecting no intrinsic meaning onto the universe..."

I was raised with the idea that belief (specifically, The Belief That Jesus Died To Take Away My Sins) is the source of a positive outlook. I think this kind of a warm snuggle (if you can accept a violent and prolonged execution as such) from The Universe is lovely. But it has not been my experience that it has been particularly conducive to my own well-being.

To take this back to your question, rebuking the concept of god is not tied to my well-being either. For me, a positive outlook is largely distinct from cosmology. And a nice side effect of thoughts arranged in this way is that god, the universe, a higher power are un-fundamental. My philosophical approach can constantly grown and change, and that helps me act in a way that is kind and brave.

If you agreed to my rewording of your question up above, then my answer is "yes". YMMV.

The universe is bleak and uncaring (but it is, probably, deterministic (I'm a pilot wave kind of guy)... getting sidetracked here).

And the universe is outside of your control. Therefore you should not let it have any impact on your outlook.

Also, wanting a positive outlook is a desire. And desires are suffering. And having a "positive outlook" is pre-judging things, filling up your mind with assumptions. When you should be trying to empty it. But, I'm more of a Taoist than Stoic (although there seems to be fair amount of overlap).

Thanks for the pilot wave mention, that made for an interesting read: https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160517-pilot-wave-theory-ga...

The thing is, my outlook IS under my control. I would not want that outlook, but I would create it. If you don't have any evidence as to whether the universe is cruel or ultimately wellmeaning, then you yourself can choose what to believe about it.

You're essentially asking about the difference between active and passive existential nihilism. Or in non-philosophical terms, asking who is resigned to their existence and who actively searches to find meaning in it.

Active nihilism is much more beneficial and relates to stoicism. It holds that you must find your meaning, which is really what everyone does anyway, whether through a super natural being or friends, family, or one's life work (read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. The best book I've ever read that relates these ideas as a holocust survivor).

Active nihilism is not about finding meaning in objects created by others or transcendent ideas of any kind, but creating (and projecting) your own. It is Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch. If there is one word to characterize active nihilism, it is "Destruction". The tearing down of old symbols, morals and ideas imposed upon the individual by the collective. In some of Nietzsche's writings, Christianity plays the adversarial, collective role.

On the other hand and contrary to what you claim Viktor Frankl writes (I have not read his book), Stoicism (and Buddhism) are really forms of passive nihilism, Buddhism of course being the stronger of the two. If there is one word to characterize passive nihilism, it is "Acceptance".

Thank you!

Having grown up in a religious household first 22 years of my life I had a lot of trouble with anxiety when I stopped believing in god. I could not continue studying science and believing in god without feeling like a hypocrite (not to say those who do are ).

Meditation and being in the moment or at least trying to be in the moment has helped me a lot. There may not be a rhyme or reason to life but that doesn't mean you can't create one and have fun while doing so.

Would it be possible that by stopping to believe in god, you stopped believing that you were safe, supported, and being taken care of? Did you stop believing because you wanted to, or was it like science took that belief away because the whole concept is wrong and impossible? For me it was the latter.

- Exactly. The feeling of safety, that there is someone looking after me no matter what was gone which manifested itself in anxiety. I do not believe in afterlife now so the realisation that this is it was overwhelming at first but now that has given way to increased importance of how I budget my time, increased focus on what I do and being more grateful for little things.

- For me it was the latter too. I remember ( I am probably wrong ) that it was Napoleon who asked Laplace that why was there no god in his mathematics ( apparently before Newton had attributed some stuff to god ). And Laplace (or could be someone else ) that he did not need god to explain his work. That has sort of stuck with me.

The universe is completely indifferent to our suffering and that's incredibly bleak but positivity still exists because we create the own meaning to our life and find positivity in the usual things, comraderie, being creative, family, friendship.

Hi there Stanley.

> Is there someone among you HNers who has retained a positive outlook by believing that the universe is a bleak, chaotic place with no intrinsic meaning to the things happening in it?

I see many living things around me - kittens, birds, squirrels, lizards, dogs - who happily go on living their lives without bothering with such things as the bleakness of the universe or its impermanence or its meaninglessness. I then remind myself that I must appear just as wonderful a creature as a kitten, bird, squirrel or lizard to some alien observer. I would find it absurd if the three playful kittens in my house suddenly developed an existential crisis. They are kittens! Their purpose is to be happy. But the same principle holds for me too.

In other words, the problem of meaninglessness of life is a problem we create by fiat. It's a remarkable fact that we're fragments of this grand, ancient universe that have become sentient. That itself is enough of a reason to be thrilled at our existence and everything around us, including the good and the bad!

The Tao Te Ching spends a lot of words talking about this. I'm partial to the Stephen Mitchell version.

Also Ecclesiastes (basically, the Judeo-Christian reimplementation of Buddhism) is pretty vocal on the subject.


Just to provide another perspective, no.

I can't reconcile the two and inevitably end up in an existential slump that leads to depression.

I also have the same problem that if I start thinking about the universe it inevitably leads to depression

Indifferent Universe(high certainty of no Abrahamic God) -> Anything Goes/Nothing Matters as far as humans go -> Existentialists: Great, you can find your own meaning -> Psychopaths/baby seal clubbing enthusiasts/Doomsday Cultists/Uber executives can find their own meaning too -> Might makes right -> Do everything for the lolz -> This is getting deppressing

For extra depression read about cognitive science (Dennett's "Bag of Tricks") or matrix argument.

So you have to say "MU" and just concentrate on more pleasant passtimes.

One solution seems to be ala Bukowski "Find something you love and let it kill you" (preferably slowly)

Stoicism to me just seems a slight improvement to fatalism.

Nice if you have the predisposition but it makes no difference if you are stoic or choleric.

If by 'meaning' you mean "an important or worthwhile quality or purpose", that's subjective.

To me, a collection of stars, dancing together around a bigger, brighter star, swirling gases and dust around the ether, until the one large star finally shrinks and explodes, hurtling all that matter out into the universe to become the seeds of new life, is worthwhile.

The universe doesn't have a sense of what is bleak, or chaotic, but it probably does have a sense of what it should do, and does it according to a set of laws and principles.

On the contrary, it's humans who seek to break these laws and bend nature to its will, seemingly for the purpose of saying it could be so. Honestly, nature seems full of meaning, but humanity not as much.

Just enjoy your life. The only real judge is you.

Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus had a profound influence on me. Very roughly, Camus says, the universe does not care about you (or anything) at all, and life has no meaning in the sense we were looking for.

_But_ we can make our lives meaningful by doing things. We can give our lives meaning through our actions, if we can accept that it is only ephemeral - the moment I stop doing it, it ceases to be.

The act of restoring meaning to meaningless life is - to Camus - an act of rebellion against the pointlessness, a refusal to give in. But it takes us back to a place where life is not bleak at all, but something to be savored.

> Is there someone among you HNers who has retained a positive outlook by believing that the universe is a bleak, chaotic place with no intrinsic meaning to the things happening in it?

Yes, I have. I tend to see myself as an existentialist.

Sure. The error, I'd say, that makes this outlook seem negative is the misguided desire for intrinsic meaning. It doesn't make sense for something to simply mean something - that word takes an object. Something can only mean something to someone.

I think this (the idea that there's some inscrutable higher level of meaning) is either a) a natural human intuition that can be broken down and discarded or b) an outgrowth of growing up in a society where there's a continuity of more-meaningful and less-scrutable things that we receive wrapped in packages that say: "this is important", namely, high arts, and the guilt that you feel when they don't move you (unless you happen to have previously received the necessary context). This reception - it's probably a twisted class thing - is what's wrong. The good art should be obviously good.

This cultural reception isn't limited to art, there's all sorts of disastrous cultural apparatus that causes a youth to end up thinking they're missing something or the world isn't supposed to make sense to your innate intuition. Ex high school literature, weird jazz, 20th century music in the formal tradition, "modern art", but also lawns, the weird way the king james bible is written, math education, band class, gerrymandering...

At times, I have found some comfort in thinking about my personal travails from universal perspective. Can my upset really have any gravity, any impact upon a drifting continent, on a spinning globe, travelling round a spiral arm of a galaxy in an expanding universe?

Take a breath, breathe out and move along.

Might all be a hologram anyway...

Epictetus, Stoic philosopher says:

"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing."

From that I take away, whether the universe proves to be a well-meaning entity or a bleak, chaotic, meaningless one, it is not useful^ to attempt to discern its motivations except to the extent you can affect them. As you noted, it is up to you to determine then what really is or isn't in your control.

^ note that this is distinct from the idea of intellectual exploration for your own enjoyment or edification

It's also about rebalancing your focus on to the things in the "in" of the control bucket.

Stoicism ties though to a lot of modern theories. The concept of resilience springs to the front of my mind (and positive psychology in general). Might be a good place to look. Tends to have the same bent so it can be integrated naturally, but more practical in application. Particularly in a modern context, where the psychological demands are quite different.

Evil god is great and no god is bleak? I'd think the opposite.

Evilness/Goodness depends on what utility function you ascribe to god. If you define god's utility function as "avoid all pain in living organisms", then it's indeed an evil or non-cooperative god or universe. I personally can deal with pain (remember, suffering is optional).

So you can deal with pain, but you simply can't bear the non-existence of the pain-giver.

Sounds like a fetish.

Haha I will have to think about that, interesting point!

Wouldn't they be executed or something for not believing in the 'right' god?

I had read a book by Epictetus some years ago. Liked it. Forget the book name now. It was about living simply, not getting overly affected (mentally or emotionally) by circumstances or things that happen to you, and a lot more stuff along those lines, and other things too.

Basically Stoicism, I suppose, though I've not looked up the term in detail.

I also like this quote by him which I read long ago:

"Practice yourself, for heaven's sake, in little things, and thence proceed to greater."




The Stockdale Paradox is also interesting. Stockdale was influenced by Epictetus.


Not about stoicism, but you might also enjoy

"The Tao is Silent" by Raymond Smullyan

Thanks, will check that out.

Well, it turns out I've been a stoic all this time, I'm finding out.

It blows me away how that part about taking every problem as a chance to learn and become a better "wrestler" fits right in with my natural conclusions. The rest of it describes me adequately also.

I'm reading Epictetus now, thanks for sharing.

>turns out I've been a stoic all this time, I'm finding out.

It seems to come naturally to some, especially those that tend to adopt a somewhat cold analytical view of the world

You might have dropped the word "cold" and been a bit more inclusive.

Fair enough. It was meant to convey reasoning devoid of emotion...wasn't aimed at a negative judgement.

I consider myself one of those people so def didn't intend to offend.


The word "cold" on that comment only emphasizes your biases.

No bias - I consider myself one of them.

Wasn't really meant as a negative judgement - the cold is merely there to emphasise that I meant people that generally don't factor in emotions.

Didn't mean to offend anyone. I can see how it could be interpreted negatively though. :(

Allow me to share my collection of links to Stoicism resources (which I will soon update with this)


Note that stoicism is NOT rejecting and ignoring your feelings. If you feel bad about something, that too is a fact that you have to accept and deal with in the best way possible. Stoicism is about keeping your head up in the face of adversity, and not about becoming a hardened robot capable of taking any punishment. I think a lot of people on HN might get this wrong.

This is the modern Buddhist and psychology influenced interpretation of stoicism and apatheia.

Personally I don't see much evidence that this really was the case in the golden era of Stoicsm. Freedom from all passions was not the same as removal of emotion, but it was very close to it.

> not about becoming a hardened robot capable of taking any punishment.

This was exactly what Stoics of the old saw as ideal and this view was propagated in stories. Epicetus was a cripple and according to Origen his leg was broken by his master.

>Epictetus' master one day was twisting his slave's leg to help the time pass. Epictetus said calmly, "If you go on doing that, you will break my leg." The twisting went on and the leg broke. Epictetus observed mildly, "Didn't I tell you that you would break my leg?"

The story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola was also propagated by stoics. Mucius kept his hand over the fire without indicating any pain while it burned.

>This is the modern Buddhist and psychology influenced interpretation of stoicism and apatheia.

No, it is not. Read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The man certainly argued for a certain inner brilliance that does not come from emotionlessness. He'd argue for you to be the even-tempered guy but full of fortitude and pouring your entire being into what you are standing for and doing, but without getting consumed by it. Stoicism is not the rejection of emotion, it is the rejection of uncontrolled desire. That's a huge difference.

What's up with all those submissions about stoicism on HN, is that some new SV fad?

Stoicism gives you the mental ability to deal with evil, futility and failure, since it makes you believe you are a non-entity in an inflexible, vast and nasty social structure.

It's a philosophy of inaction and accommodation to injustice and oppression. There is a reason it became popular for Roman soldiers under the Empire. Well, at least stoicism does not claim that you are changing the world for the better by creating all these data slurping algorithms. But I wish SV would embrace the Hellenistic philosophy of Cynicism instead.

> It's a philosophy of inaction and accommodation to injustice and oppression.

This is not what I got out of reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and articles on Stoicism. In common English use, "stoic" sometimes implies what you said, but that's not the same as Stoicism-the-philosophy.

"The Stoics held that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and, contrary to Aristotle, sufficient for happiness; it in no way depends on luck."[0]

It's also true that Stoicism encourages acceptance of all outcomes, whatever they are, which people misconstrue to imply it's not worth doing your best. Here's a quote by Cicero on doing your best but not letting the outcome influence your emotions:

"Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought."

[0] http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoiceth/

Ha, SV is the last place I'd expect to find a cynic.

see "Why Is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment? " https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10372640

Kudos for writing about Stoicism. However, I think it's pretty weak article. No mentions of negative visualization or Seneca while both are roots of the Stoic philosophy.

Agree, but to be fair, it's just 3 paragraphs or so, and it's not even aiming to cover the fundamentals. More of a "look here what I found, and how it's helped me."

Some discussion of the famously stoic Seneca from BBC's excellent In Our Times series, at


Hmm. To be honest, this philosophy seems like a flowery and overstuffed version of secular mindfulness, like an earlier step along the evolutionary path to what would eventually be a really simple, straightforward strategy for learning about and being with one's own mind in a skillful way.

If it helps you suffer less: great. But before you dive in, know that you might be able to save a lot of time and avoid a lot of jargon by learning about mindfulness from a secular source.

Stoicism is about achieving freedom, mindfulness is incidental to that.

Currently also on HN and much deeper article on stoicsm: On Anger, Disgust, and Love: Interview with Martha Nussbaum



In a section further down the article she discusses the books "Upheavals of Thoughts" and "Therapy of Desire". There she elaborate how stoicism and emotions relate in a fairly comprehensive way.

I love learning about Archaeology and corollary some of the philosophies of civilizations.

Stoicism has been one of the most appealing one to me. However, one issue I have with Stoicism is similar to that of religions.

Most people who follow Stoicism or any other religion, tend to pick and choose to what is the best fit of them.

Stoicism is not about giving up anything (common misunderstanding) but it IS to moderate everything including things like our carnal desires. I do not think anyone does this nowadays.

Does this mean we need a Stoicism 2.0 like we do in many religions? _______ 2.0? Not entirely sure...

I think some philosophy 2.0s could be produced to take account of the advances in scientific knowledge since Senca's time.

I haven't dug deep into stoicism, but it appears to have a lot of overlap with buddhist philosophy. Is that a fair comparison?

>a lot of overlap

Definitely. Though from what I've seen stoicism emphasises rationalising through problems more in my experience.

i.e. Here is a logical argument as to why you should not worry about this thing. Buddhist has some of that too, but the approach tends to be a bit more "spiritual" if that makes sense?

I would say it's the western Buddhism :)

Can anyone shed light on why so many Stoic societies/clubs seem to be essentially religious? The Stoics I have read do not seem to be particularly religious nor of any particular creed - some were polytheist, some were monotheist, some seem to nearly be agnostic or atheist.

Other than this, the author has some great writing and you can read a recent interview with her over at The Daily Stoic: https://dailystoic.com/elif-batuman-interview/

Tim Ferris (from the fourhourworkweek.com) also talks (podcast) and writes a lot about this subject: http://tim.blog/stoic/

Another classic book to look at is "Letters from a Stoic" by Seneca the Younger, published by Penguin Classics. Seneca is perhaps my favorite of the Stoics.

This reminds me of Richard Feynman's quote "I am not responsible for the world I live in" from his first autobiographical book.

What if I want to suffer more? I want to be less okay with all my procrastination, my job situation, my lack of willpower in the face of adversity, and more. I want to take my failures more personally - I want losing to be painful like it is for Michael Jordan, I'm presently too content with it.

That doesn't seem very difficult. You can try judging yourself harshly and make a habit of ruminating over it. Quite a number of people have those sorts of habits and want to break them. You might find it hard to stop if you develop those habits.

The doormat really tied the throne-room together

Not sure if a hipster's magazine could be an authoritative source.

The first paragraph told me that I should stop reading and what kind of Stoicism I would find below.

Oh look, it's the new mindfulness.

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