May 8th, 2005


Stoicism/Epicureanism Hybrid; Also, A Brief Update on Me

I have to admit to a long intellectual love affair with stoicism. It's a very attractive philosophy, not least because it is the polar opposite of modern culture in every way. I try to live by my own mutant version of it, somewhat hybridized with Epicureanism, but like most people, I am less than 100% successful at sticking to my code. The basic idea is to maximize the simplicity of life and minimize the unnecessary suffering; learn the difference between "want" and "need", and be satisfied with filling the "need" category, so that every fulfillment of a "want" is appreciated fully, and never treated as an entitlement. Below are some of the rules I try to live by; I am the first to admit I am far from perfect at following them. But they are the goal.

1) Feelings are tools. They are a source of energy, to be employed as such, but inevitably a terrible guide to action. Recognize your own feelings, then employ them to constructive ends -- this is impossible when they are suppressed, but equally impossible when they are given free rein.*

2) Think before you speak. How many fights could be avoided if anyone else in my family followed this one! They constantly speak out of anger or hurt, lashing out, which pisses off the other person, who lashes back, and pretty soon the anger and pain levels are increasing exponentially. Very complicated situations result, and large amounts of unnecessary pain.

3) There's no such thing as "emotional needs." Needs are things without which you die or sicken, and they are the same for all healthy adults: clean drinking water, a variety of foods containing balanced quantities of all the necessary nutrients, and protection from the elements. EVERYTHING else is a desire, not a necessity.

4) Be grateful for luxuries. Anything beyond the above-listed necessities is a luxury: a warm shower, a meal that tastes good, family, friends, fulfilling labor, intellectual stimulation, morality. Enjoy them while you can, and always remember that you have nothing to complain about if you lose them. For most of history, the vast majority of humanity has had to spend too much time taking care of the necessities to get much in the way of luxuries; you live in a lucky time and place.

5) Life is what you make of it. Here's where the Epicureanism comes in. Self-denial and excess both cause suffering. If you starve yourself, you sicken and die; if you overeat, you get heartburn, gas, and eventually heart disease. Enjoy life's pleasures, and practice a bit of moderation, and suffering can be greatly reduced. Also, attitude really does matter. If you approach life as something to be enjoyed, not as a task to be achieved or an obstacle to be overcome, the result is far more pleasant.

6) Suffering is sometimes necessary. If you attempt to eliminate all suffering from your life, the result will be unstinting mediocrity and great boredom. When a little bit of suffering is necessary to achieve a goal, persevering brings strength, making other goals a little easier.

7) Do what will achieve the results you want; don't do what you want to. Every time I've done what I wanted to, without first considering whether the consequences were desirable, I've regretted it. Remember, your emotional responses are roughly identical with a chimp's. Why let all that expensive neural wiring go to waste (and it is expensive -- it costs you an extra decade and a half as a child, for starters)?

8) Following from the above: laugh in public as much as you want. Be happy in public as much as you want. People respond well to happy people, and are thus more likely to behave as you want them to. NEVER be angry, upset, or maudlin in public. People are much less likely to respond positively to people they see as unstable, threatening, or needy. If you have to share such feelings with someone or risk them overwhelming you and disrupting your goals, either hire a professional or cultivate a friendship where such behavior is acceptable and kept confidential.

9) Save caring for when you need it. Care about the people you care about, and to hell with everyone else. Nobody's going to care about you without a good reason, which generally means love or money (coincidentally, one or both of these is the motive for the vast majority of murders). So why waste your time with them? The person trying to sell you something is attempting to use you. Feel free to use them back. The random people you encounter on the street are content to ignore you; provide them with the same courtesy. Save your real effort for the people you care about, the people whose opinion of you matters. Make that as good as possible, and you are good.

10) Assume you're on your own. Sooner or later, you will be, so prepare for it now. Nobody else has to help you, ever, so assume they won't. That way, you're prepared if they don't, and get a nice bonus if they do.

11) This is all you get. Make the most of it. At some point in the future, you will cease to exist. You have no idea when, although it's almost certainly before the end of the century. After that, you cease to exist. Nothing you built will last more than a couple of generations -- unless you create a great and enduring work that will go down in history. That might last a century. If it's REALLY spectacular, a thousand years or so. If it's the Pyramids, ten thousand. But by the time the Rockies are as old as the Appalachians are now, it will be gone as if it had never been. So make the most of what you've got while you've got it.

12) Control. Control. CONTROL. The only thing you can truly control is yourself. Do so. Learn to do it better. Practice. Giving up control is inevitably disastrous -- inebriation is out of the question. Lack of sleep is also dangerous. The happiest man in the world is the one who knows exactly why he does everything he does, and what he expects to gain by doing so. With one exception:

13) Humor. Be spontaneous, be funny, laugh -- in controlled, safe settings. And watch out -- go too far and you may open yourself to unexpected dangers.

And now, the usual testimonial on how effective this philosophy is: "Five years ago, a psychiatrist told me I would be on antidepressants for the rest of my life. I began trying to live this philosophy four years ago. It's now nearly two years since I took an antidepressant, over a year since I saw a therapist, and my personality test says I'm stable and self-confident. Thanks, Stoic Epicureanism. -- Froborr."

Stoic Epicureanism is not for everyone. Do not take Stoic Epicureanism without the advice of a doctor, spiritual guide, or friend. Do not take with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or alcohol.

Writing this has made me realize that I have a long way to go before I can call my code finished. It needs a lot of polish, a lot of clarification. I'll work on that.

*Emotion is a very complicated topic and deserves a little more attention outside the list of rules. The problem is that there is no purely rational reason to prefer ANYTHING over ANYTHING else: life over death, right over wrong, beauty over ugliness... all of these are, from a purely rational point of view, entirely equal. I find that an unsatisfactory result (note the emotive language), so I make an emotional determination of what is a "good" life and what is a "bad" life. From that determination, I reason which actions will lead toward the good life/away from the bad one. Then I try to harness the impetus of my emotions to drive me toward the preferred actions. It is in this last step that failure most often occurs: for example, my decision to lose weight is consistently undermined by my extreme distaste for exercise. I tried buying DDR in the hopes of setting my fondness for video games against my dislike of exertion, a strategy which thus far has worked on roughly 20% of mornings. I continue to work on the problem.


Brief update on my life: that interview I got didn't pan out. Still haven't gotten another. My stepmom suggested I consider going back to school, getting a grad certificate in technical writing or science writing. Mason has a good program, the certificate in professional writing and editing, that would only take a year full-time, and is run by my favorite professor.

Pro: Vastly increases the range of jobs for which I qualify, and my chances of getting the jobs I qualify for now. Gives me something constructive to do.
Cons: Delays getting a job by at a year (if I start the program, I'm finishing it, even if a job comes along). Requires another year of school (horrible, horrible academia). Costs over $5,000 (though I could pay that off in a couple of months with a job -- I can live off $150 expenses + $400 rent/month in Mom's basement, as I am now; that leaves, after 10% into savings, $850 a month to pay off loans, meaning about 6 months plus another 2 to cover the interest, total of 8 months).

It's a pretty good idea: I can pay back the loan fairly easily, so the only important con is moot. Just leaves figuring out the deadline at which I decide the jobhunt isn't working and sign on.

Average time for jobhunts is now at 19.6 weeks according to Saturday's New York Times. That's 19 weeks, 4 days -- June 1 for me. That's not a bad deadline, but I have to factor in financial aid and enrollment deadlines, which I haven't found out yet.
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A Plan

I'm very tired, but I want to get this down while it's clear in my mind. My friend Chris, who is a slightly right-leaning moderate, and I were talking today after watching Kingdom from Heaven, and I said I find it difficult to imagine the Enlightenment-Religious Right conflict ending in any way other than bloodshed -- best-case scenario is that they slowly fade to the fringe and we end up controlling the government, in which case there's a couple of Waco-style FBI/ATF shoot-outs. Worst-case scenario is that they keep getting stronger and try to turn the U.S. into a theocracy, in which case a civil war starts. Actually, the worst-case scenario is that we slowly fade to the fringe and die off in a couple of Waco-style FBI/ATF shoot-outs.

Anyway, he said that liberals complain a lot about the current conservative stranglehold, but nobody has a plan about how to change anything. I took this as a challenge, and came up with a plan. It may be a terrible one for all I know, but here's what I think.

First of all, assume the current membership of the Democratic Party is by and large useless. They obviously have no idea what they're doing, given that the majority of Americans agree with the majority of their goals, and yet the other guys consistently win. Also assume that the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are useless, the former because they're increasingly set in their ways as they hit 60, and the latter because, well, they're now in their 30s and have yet to actually do anything except whine. So it's up to the 20-somethings. Given the age requirements for public office, that means we've got about 15 years of prep time before the big show.

Below, I am going to talk in demographic terms, which is a polite way of saying stereotypes. I'm going to talk about these groups as being single, monolithic entities, when in fact they are not -- however, while individuals go every which way, I am talking about general behavior in the majority of the group in question. I mean no disrespect; it is impossible to construct a strategy while treating every one of the 350,000,000 Americans as an individual; they must be classed into groups. Keep in mind that one individual may be in fifty different groups.

Here's what we need:

Women: Women are about 60% of voters, and a majority of them are left-leaning moderates. Very, very few of them are firmly conservative. They're enormously powerful -- the last time American women organized as a coherent political cause, no fewer than two Constitutional Amendments got rammed through (suffrage and prohibition). So why is it that nothing's happening now? I blame the lack of leadership -- ambitious women head mostly for corporate America, where they've been steadily building up great power, but of a form that gives them little political clout. I've met a handful of ambitious, brilliant young women who can, and do, jump into traditionally masculine realms and kick ass. They can serve as seeds, around which massive political forces will crystallize. Give me a dozen siliconroses (political versions), or a dozen Carols (liberal political versions) and I'll grind the Republicans into dust on that basis alone.

D.C.: Statehood is impossible in the foreseeable future. But get D.C.'s Representative a vote and that's a free liberal in the House. The arguments against it sum up basically to tradition; but D.C. was never intended to have a permanent resident population! They are disenfranchised, and must be given the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want Congressional representation, just as a territory of equivalent population would be allowed regular votes to determine whether it became a state.

Fear: The Republicans have terrorism, an absolutely perfect political issue. People are afraid of it, willing to give things up to be safe from it, it will inevitably happen sooner or later, after which you can say I told you so, and yet you can never make a specific, reliable prediction of exactly what's going to happen, which means you can claim anything is an attempt to prevent it. Do we have an issue like that? Why yes, we do, and one far more potentially lethal than terrorism: the environment. Just save the scientists for the "I told you so"s and don't let them talk about predictions, because they have this awful habit about being honest that they can't make specific predictions, and an even worse habit of admitting when they're wrong. Leave the predicting to self-assured, mildly dishonest but well-intentioned politicos.

On that note, Idealism: Drop it. It's why we keep losing. We have to play the game according to the rules; if we start making up special restrictions that only apply to us, we'll get our asses kicked every time. Sometimes it takes someone willing to be a little bit evil to accomplish anything good.

Tightening the ship: We have to drop the fringe issues, at least for now: blowing up the World Bank, for example, or legalizing pot. Sure, we alienate the extreme left, but there's a lot more people in the middle that we stand to gain. Plus, most of the extreme left doesn't actually vote very often -- most Presidential years, but rarely in between. Finally, most of the ones who do vote will have to choose between us and the Republicans: who are they going to pick?

Religion: We have to accomplish a two-fold task here. First, we have to convince the American people that the right is controlled by a small cabal of religious extremists. We have the advantage that this is becoming more true every day. Second, we have to convince people that the true values of their religion (by which we mean what will, by that time, be the major American religions: mainstream Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam), like charity, environmental stewardship, and peace, are poorly represented by the corporation-loving, planet-raping, war-hungry conservatives. And we have to turn "conservative" into a dirty word, it has to be said contemptuously every time, and the word "Republican" must never be uttered. Gingrich's PAC actually published a pamphlet describing how to turn "liberal" into a dirty word; it must be studied.

Hispanics: Another vitally important group, they will soon be a major electoral force -- already are in the Southwest and California. The Republicans are wooing them on the basis of shared conservative social views. We must win them, first, by arguing that liberal goals are more in keeping with their social beliefs, and, second, by convincing them that our economic approach is going to benefit them.

Elections: The Christian right's model worked brilliantly and should be emulated. First, don't found your own party; get your people onto the low-priority ballots of an existing one, like school boards and minor city councils. In our case, we use the Democrats. Get young, aggressive, talented people into these low-level positions, then organize to support them as they slowly climb up. It takes about a decade to 15 years, but pretty soon your people are going to be running for the House, then the Senate, and finally taking stabs at the Presidency. Be patient -- keep working at it long enough, and sooner or later, you'll control enough of the party to move your people into the top spots. Make sure to work the back channels -- party chairmanships, fundraising positions, soft money organizations, all have enormous power to get things done, without needing a title or a well-known face. Often, these positions are easier to get control of. Do not focus on a single personality -- a dozen leaders spread across different branches of the movement, none of whom actually run for office themselves, but who shape the opinions of the voters, and as many actual candidates as you can recruit. Also, start in your power areas -- D.C., New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes -- and concentrate on gaining near-total control of the local level in those. Then start making your move on the more even areas. Save the die-hard red districts for after you get that Congressional majority. And the goal isn't to win those, just keep the conservatives on the defensive.

Remember, the only way to we're going to achieve any kind of lasting good is by winning first. We must be cunning, ruthless, and without compunction or compassion. The alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate.

(Side note on picking my mood: it says something about society in general, and the Internet in particular, that the mood selections include "horny" and "high" but not "strident" or "militant".)
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