Commusings: If Greek Philosophers Played Parcheesi

Oct 17, 2021

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Dear Commune Community,

Today’s ramble is an excavation of Stoicism inspired by my recent podcast episode with British philosopher, Jules Evans. For those of you who follow my essays, podcasts, and videos, you are well aware that the crossroads of British accents and philosophy is my happy place.

Candidly, I am running behind this week and this missive is less polished than others. The Stoics would appreciate our community in which ideas can iterate in public.

As I send this, I am practicing a Stoic ritual. I am imagining it is the last essay I ever write. Some of you may rejoice at this notion. The thought fills me with gratitude for the opportunity I have to do this work.

Always here at [email protected] and follow my musings on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

• • •

Perception, Action & Will

Schuyler’s family has an irritating Parcheesi pastime. For those born this century, Parcheesi is a dusty, analog board game of Indian descent in which players move small figurines around a track in an attempt to get home.

Like most human-conceived derbies, one competitor’s success comes at another’s misfortune. With an auspicious roll of the dice, one player can land on another and send them back to the proverbial womb from which their inexorable march home must begin anew. It’s amusing enough, if prosaic, in its designed form. However, Family Grant has injected additional intrigue in the form of chocolate. When one participant lands on another, not only do they delight in delivering the forlorn player’s piece back to its original holding pen, but they also receive a bonbon of their choosing from a classic box of See’s Nuts & Chews.

Of course, this rendition of the game hardly pops off with a bunch of middle-aged dotards on plant-based diets. But with a gaggle of children in the mix, it becomes a highly animated cut-throat deathmatch. Schuyler revels in her role as protector of the chocolate cache and proprietor of the putative rule book.

I assiduously avoid participation in this ritual but, when I am lured in, I am invariably unlucky. I never win and rarely do I even get a nibble of dark salted caramel. With a flat expression, I glumly roll another sad combination and pass the dice as if I were packing electronics on an assembly line.

“Stop being so stoic Krasno!” Schuyler barks.

Given my keen interest in Hellenistic philosophies, this affront riles me up in a manner that Parcheesi cannot. The common usage of the adjective “stoic” – the unemotional endurance of hardship – belies the true nature of Stoicism, a brilliant philosophy of personal ethics founded in the 3rd century BC.

Stoicism is rife with wise maxims often derived from the oratory of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In fact, the repetitive recitation of these aphorisms is part of instilling the ethos.

If there is a single quotation that epitomizes Stoicism, it may be this one from Marcus Aurelius, who served as the Emperor of Rome from 161 – 180 AD.

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need.”

In this quotation, the philosopher-king outlines the three primary disciplines of Stoicism: perception, action and will.

The discipline of perception compels us to dispassionately and rigorously seek the truth. In the search for objective reality, we must leverage reason and eschew cognitive bias. This method of discernment has explicit utility in modern times given the messy, polluted digital information ecosystem that rewards sensationalism over fact. Reason is a machete cutting down the tall grass of misinformation to reveal the sanctuary of objectivity.

Epictetus wrote, “It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.”

Humans will often react emotionally to an event. However, the emotional valence that arises may not be based on the actual event itself, but, rather, on our unconscious judgment of the event. And, subsequently, the salience of the emotion may inhibit leveraging of the pre-frontal cortex, the locus of rationality in the brain, and thus solidify and gird a certain opinion irrespective of its provenance.

Viktor Frankl, who was a Stoic, famously wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Last year, I engaged in a Stoic inventory relating to my reaction to the odious murder of George Floyd at the hands of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Admittedly, this issue is as thorny as a prickly pear but it’s useful given its familiarity.

A Commune member emailed me asking if I thought Chauvin’s action was racist. Initially, I was somewhat stupefied and incensed by the question. I thought to myself, “Of course, Chauvin’s egregious asphyxiation of Floyd was based in profound bigotry.”

But, then, I found the space to examine the source of my indignation. I have an unconscious bias against the police because I am aware of the institutional history of law enforcement and incarceration. This belief led me to immediately presume that Floyd’s murder was yet another racist abuse of deadly force executed by the police.

Of course, given slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, the KKK’s involvement with the police, the Southern strategy, the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes laws, the privatization of prisons, racially disproportionate traffic stops and more – my belief that the institution of policing is historically steeped in racism is well-founded. The awareness of these historical realities has shaped my beliefs. And my beliefs birthed a reaction of anger when watching the horrific video of Floyd’s murder.

However, superimposing the history of policing on any singular cop or event is patently unfair. So, I returned to Darnella Frazier’s video and watched it numerous times. Chauvin’s act never became less abhorrent. He appears possessed, pathological, barely human in his utter lack of emotion. But there is no evidence that I can find that he’s a racist. While he certainly looks the part of a “Bull” Connor, he never audibly utters a racial slur. The other policemen subduing Floyd are Asian and Afro-American. In the 17 complaints filed against Chauvin across his career, many of which include the use of force, there is no clear indication of overt racism. But, despite lack of evidence, virtually the entire world, and, in particular, the media, has cast this incident as a racist deployment of deadly force.

Was Floyd’s murder abominable? Yes. Should Chauvin be locked away for his crime? Yes. And he was. Did it spark a much-needed conversation on racial justice? Absolutely. Was the act itself racist? Well, I just don’t know. I can’t know what lives in another man’s heart. But I can examine the nature of my own mind and how my unconscious judgments shape my emotions and opinions.

“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone.” — Marcus Aurelius

Part of critical thinking and an intellectually honest pursuit of truth is the willingness to be wrong.

Stoicism’s second discipline, action, can be seen as the dharma. How shall we conduct ourselves in relationship to others and nature? In fact, Aurelius exhorts us to “live as nature requires.” Nature is inherently unselfish. It loves. It nourishes. It gives. We should follow in nature’s footsteps as we chop our wood and carry our water.

There is a consilience across many philosophical and spiritual traditions when it comes to the virtuous life. Of course, there is The Golden Rule: the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. The virtues of Stoicism, which I will explore shortly, are mirrored by the Cardinal virtues of Christian theology and to some degree by Buddhism’s 8-Fold Noble Path.

Stoicism’s third discipline, the discipline of will, addresses our attitude to things that are outside our control. Here, once again, Stoicism has influenced modern Christian thought. The Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr encapsulates many core tenets of Stoic philosophy.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

According to Stoicism, we don’t control the world around us — only how we respond. To live a good life, we must respond with wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. Here, I unpack elements of Stoicism’s four virtues:

WISDOM:

  • An ability to contemplate and act leveraging knowledge, experience and understanding.
  • A possession of self-awareness and insight into the nature of the mind.
  • The quality of having good, unbiased judgment.
  • The humility to acknowledge one's own deficiencies and learn from failure.

JUSTICE:

  • The promotion of fairness.
  • The equal distribution of opportunity.
  • A social contract that administers both fair retribution to those who have caused harm and restoration to the victims of harm.

COURAGE:

  • A willingness to be vulnerable.
  • To act rightly in the face of popular opposition.
  • To risk one’s own well-being for a greater good.
  • The ability to confront and understand fear and act in a manner that is neither cowardly nor reckless.

MODERATION:

  • An ability to avoid excesses and extremes.
  • To remain centered and balanced.
  • To foster cohesion and cooperation.
  • To find a middle path between hedonic desire and asceticism.

Stoicism provides us with both an individual and social framework for well-being. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, lectured and debated ideas from his famous “painted porch” in the 3rd century BC. Zeno’s veranda presaged the public square of Socrates. Stoicism posits that society thrives within an ideas marketplace in which the free expression of a multiplicity of ideas is encouraged. In Greek antiquity, one’s “political” life was not Democratic or Republican. One’s political existence was focused on public discourse. Ideas are like genes in that, under pressure, nature will select for the best ones.

According to my friend and Stoic scholar, Jules Evans, “The good life is inseparable from the good society. You can't really think about your individual flourishing as separate from the flourishing of your society. So, for Aristotle, for example, an essential part of the good life is being a free democratic citizen.”

While your public life is central to your well-being, Stoicism also provides a self-deterministic path toward the good and virtuous life through the acceptance of societal factors that are outside of your control.

Aurelius wrote, “You take things you don’t control and define them as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ And so, of course, when the ‘bad’ things happen, or the ‘good’ ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge god, or to treat other people as enemies.”

In short, remember: You don’t control the course of human events – only how you respond. To live a good life, respond with wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. Of course, it was a good deal easier to be a Stoic in ancient Greece for it long predates the invention of Parcheesi.

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