Don’t Praise Seneca’s God of Reason

Seneca was a seminal thinker in Stoicism, which, like many types of philosophy, is more complex than most people expect. Contrary to popular misconception, Stoicism does not revolve around basically being an emotionless husk of a human being. Stoics are not generally indifferent to every good or bad thing that happens. According to some of the founding philosophers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, the goal in terms of emotion has more to do with what we now describe as mindfulness. You should experience feelings when negative or positive events occur, but then move on with your life, avoiding attachment. It is easy to keep thinking about a new promotion or relationship, or conversely, losing your job or experiencing a bad breakup, all day long. But if you can be as detached from events as possible, without acting like a sociopath, you can have a happier life.

I like Stoicism because other than what I mentioned, they emphasize two Greek words with profound meaning. They are ataraxia, and eudaimonia. The Former means serenity, tranquility, calmness, or peace of mind. The latter is used as the Stoic definition of happiness. But the literal translation means something more like having a good spirit, or attaining the highest moral virtue. The soul and God apparently have a more secular context in Stoicism. The soul is used to refer to the mind, and God is essentially a form of energy across the universe, similar to the Deist Christian perspective. The Stoics were materialists, and secular to a certain degree. So when they talk about God and the soul or spirit, they don’t necessarily mean a divine presence, and they don’t seem to follow the stereotypical Christian perspective on God. So to Stoics, God is not an old white man on a throne.

Tranquility seems like a great idea, because most people spend their lives failing to be calm, and suffer needlessly from worries in our heads, most of which never take place. Moral rectitude is obviously an admirable goal because being an altruistic person can make you happy, and even work toward improving the world at large.

One of the highest moral virtues for Stoics is rationality. This is one aspect of Gnostic Christianity that I also like, and it’s why, even though I’m an atheist, I read more books by the Stoics, and used the philosophy to help improve myself.  Seneca thought that the rational part of your brain can control your emotions, and prevent you from having and acting on emotional impulses.  This seems to be one of the foundational beliefs in Stoicism. It revolves around using your rational mind to give you a better life, with more power and happiness, and less harmful emotional attachment.

However, I recently learned about the popular misconception of rationality. Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, and evolutionary biologists like David Sloan Wilson, have been studying the links between reason and emotion for years. Seneca and other Stoics assumed that emotion and reason are separate, and since they didn’t have psychology or neuroscience, they had no way of knowing that they were wrong. According to people like Wilson and Haidt, rationality and emotion are inexorably linked. You can reason logically about something, but most of the time, you are basing it on intuitions, even if only at a subconscious level. You get an emotional impulse about an issue, then reason forward from your preconception, unaware that you came to a conclusion before your logical thinking began.

So the reasoning part of your brain should not necessarily be looked at as a god, in the way that stoics see it. This sort of trend continued with the enlightenment, until today, when we see the same type of thinking in science and atheism, to a certain extent. I wholeheartedly bought the ideology preached by militant atheists about the importance of rationality for many years. They make countless excellent points, and I still agree with probably at least 90% of what they say. But atheists are not necessarily any better at reasoning than religious people, and emotion is important too.

It seems like a bad idea to just ignore rationality altogether, and go through life like emotional children. I think that reason is necessary if we want global progress to continue, and is very important for science and figuring out many kinds of problems. The baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water in terms of rationality, in the same way it was with emotion to a certain extent during the enlightenment. What continued thinking and research on this topic has taught me so far is that rationality is crucial, but not as much as I thought. It is not better than everything else, and it is important to be cognizant of and honest about emotions. Other than when we are deciding something like how to get to the airport, feelings inform our logical thought. So we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss people’s emotions, including our own. And if someone wants to be religious for emotional reasons, that’s okay in my opinion, as long as they don’t use their religion as an excuse to harm others. Everyone has ridiculous beliefs, and there’s nothing wrong with criticizing them, but reason is not a god.

 

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