Meet the New Cult of the Self (Same as the Old Cult of the Self)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The Cult of the Self has shifted into high gear.  It was rough going out of the gate, back in the 1970’s, what with hirsute gurus, earnest, aging hippies talking about their astral projections, and simultaneously terrifying and lampoonable movements like EST (Erhard Seminars Training), but it has since found its footing and now enjoys an unprecedented level of cultural approval.  From Wellness to Yoga (hot and not-hot) to meditation and “mindfulness,” we are all our own favorite projects, today, and everyone thinks that’s just great.

Except for me.  I can’t stand it.

The old criticism of EST and more broadly, of the “Human Potential Movement,” from which it and the entire Self-Improvement industry was spawned, was that it was self-absorbed, narcissistic, and perhaps even amoral.  As Peter Marin described it, in his seminal essay, “The New Narcissism,” published in Harpers in 1975:

An endless litany of self-concern, self-satisfaction, self-improvement, self-assertion, self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-esteem… Everything one finds in est – the refusal to consider moral complexities, the denial of history and a larger community, the disappearance of the other, the exaggerations of the will, the reduction of experience to a set of platitudes – all of that is to be found in embryonic form in almost all modern therapy. (1)

Now, you might think that the charge of self-absorption or of amorality couldn’t possibly apply to today’s Self-Improvement programs, which are almost always characterized at least partly in ethical terms; oftentimes, as the best means by which to get us to treat one another better; sometimes, even, as the secret to world peace.  But as well-meaning as many of the people who say these sorts of things are, I still call bullshit.  The new Cult of the Self is the same as the old one, just with better PR, and at its heart are – and have always been — several core ideas.

Self Sufficiency – One’s happiness, psychological well-being, flourishing, etc., do not rely upon external goods or the behavior of others, but on how one chooses to react to things. This idea is ubiquitous in the Self-Improvement literature, not to mention popular (and even sometimes clinical) psychology. “Only you can make you unhappy!” “Bloom where you’re planted!” or in a more serious vein, “Your feelings result from the messages you give yourself.  [Y]our thoughts have more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.” (2)  That hell might be other people or the result of immiserating conditions simply never occurs to the folks who say these sorts of things, and why would they?  This stuff isn’t meant for people in Haiti or Sierra Leone, but for New Yorkers, Los Angelites, and the like.  (And not the poor ones.)

Self-Precedence – One’s own well-being takes priority over everything else. Self-Improvement is a full-time job and requires an enormous amount of attention and effort, devoted to oneself of course.  Daily meditations. Retreats.  Perpetual “mindfulness,” which means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” (3)  Even wearing devices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that track the number of steps one has taken, heartbeats that have gone by, and times that one has woken up momentarily in the middle of the night.  Now all of this might seem obviously, clearly, demonstrably self-absorbed, narcissistic, manic — not to mention weird – but contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts assure us that this is not the case; that all of this self-attention is, in fact, the best thing we can do not just for ourselves but for other people.  Expressing what one might call “airplane oxygen-mask logic” – Make sure your own mask is firmly in place, before assisting others! (which, if you did it with a gasping four year old next to you, should earn you a good kicking) – we are told that by paying all of this attention to ourselves, we are actually much more likely to be kind and generous to others.  Of course, this is backed up by “studies” and “research,” which are dutifully, if credulously cited, in the manner typical of advocacy (i.e. with no concerns about framing, samples, reporting bias, replication, etc.).  (4)  And it is worth remembering that the discredited Self-Improvement fads of the 1970’s also could claim grounding in “science,” insofar as they developed out of Humanistic Psychology and Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” at the top of which is – ten bucks, if you guessed it – “self-actualization.” (5)

Self-Creation – With regard to our psychic and spiritual characteristics and identities, we are entirely self-made, with the potential for endless remaking.  Who I am, what I am, what my purpose and significance are – these are all determined exclusively by me, without regard to family, background, culture, history, environment, or even nature.  (Apparently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights currently recognizes 31 genders. (6))  Ordinary, timeless human expressions like “I am my father’s son” or the common notion that much about our personalities and perceptions is a matter of national or other culturally-inflected characteristics are completely alien to those belonging to the Cult of the Self.  To accept them would be to acquiesce to the notion that there are fixed points – givens – that constrain just how much and in what ways we can change, an admission that would undermine the very premise on which the ethos of Self-Improvement rests.   

Self-as-Project – The notion that one’s life is a deliberate, planned endeavor, in which one is both the project and the project manager. Hence the obsession with Self-Improvement in the first place, as well as the love for “programs” (especially if they have “steps,” “stages,” or “levels”), regimens, and routines, not to mention goals, benchmarks, and other allegedly tangible indicators of “progress.”

_____

The old Cult of the Self was born out of disillusionment with all manner of prevailing institutions – government, religion, the family, traditional medicine – and with a distinctively 1970’s sense of malaise, which is why it wore its self-obsession on its sleeve.  In that sense, the old Cult of the Self actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way.  It understood the implications of its own principles and was unafraid to voice them.  After all, if one’s happiness or well-being or flourishing or whatever is entirely self-sufficient – a matter of one’s own agency – then why think anyone has any obligations to anyone else or even that it makes sense to speak of doing right by or wronging another?  Contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts entirely ignore this obvious, well-rehearsed criticism, but their predecessors were much more willing to admit to the “every man for himself” logic underlying their respective movements.  As Marin described Warner Erhard, the creator of EST:

Clearly Erhard has a genius – not only for the efficiency with which his program is organized and sold, but also for the accuracy with which he tells his audience what it wants to hear… [E]ach of us is all-powerful, shame and guilt are merely arbitrary notions, truth is identical to belief, suffering is merely the result of imperfect consciousness – how like manna all of this must seem to hungry souls.  For if we are each totally responsible for our fate, then all the others in the world are responsible for their fates, and, if that is so, why should we worry about them? (8)

Today’s Cult of the Self is also motivated by disconnection, anxiety, and emptiness, grounded in a disillusionment with prevailing institutions and especially, organized religion, as evinced by the rapidly expanding number of “Nones” and those who are “Spiritual but not religious!” Unlike its predecessor, however, today’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such.  Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what  they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me.  And while this is a problem that has always dogged virtue-ethics, it is one that the crude, popular versions one sees in today’s Self-Improvement programs have in spades.

Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic.  Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest.  I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan.  There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common.  It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan.  It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline.  There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary.  The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old.  This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?

It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again.  EST came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original.  Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated.  That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families.  The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight.

References

  1. Peter Marin, “The New Narcissism,” Harpers, October 1975, p. 35.
  2. David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, 2008, p. xviii.
  3. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition
  4. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/meditation_causes_compassionate_action
  5. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm
  6. http://heatst.com/culture-wars/here-are-the-31-gender-identities-new-york-city-recognizes/
  7. Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 32.
  8. Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 34

**My title is, of course, an homage to one of The Who’s greatest masterpieces, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” from their 1971 album, Who’s Next.  Unfortunately, it seems as if we will get fooled again … and again … and again.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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80 Comments »

  1. As for the follower count, if there’s a point, I’m not getting it. It’s part of the functionality of WordPress. I didn’t invent it.

    It’s the “amazing people” bit. “984 other AMAZING PEOPLE”

    I didn’t think you were responsible for it, but it struck me as a funny illustration of a rather pandering culture, which fits into the discussion.

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  2. @ Hal Morris:

    Sherry Turkle is an important voice and has plenty to say in general about the current generation and its challenges, especially as these relate to social media. Dan K. strikes a similar note in his essay when he discusses how the present cult of the self is intimately connected to the increasing dominance of “social” media. Sounds contemporary to me.

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  3. Hal,
    I don’t care if you substitute “vehement critique” for “rant”, but it’s what people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse, and I believe we need a different kind of conversation

    It matter a great deal what term you choose, rant, vehement critique or trenchant criticism, because they go beyond being descriptive and indicate (strong)approval or disapproval. Most times we are not interested in whether you approve or disapprove because we prefer constructive contributions.

    done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse

    Are you describing Dan-K’s putative drinking habits, eating habits or bedroom practices?

    I believe we need a different kind of conversation

    That depends on your goals and your strategy. Polemical pieces can serve an important role as attention getter, stimulus to debate and provoker of controversy. One needs to appeal to the thoughtful and sometimes to provoke them to thought. This requires a judicious mixture of approaches, not a monochromatic approach. Judging by the replies he has succeeded in provoking thought. Bravo.

    I believe we need a different kind of conversation if we are to escape being divided and ruled by the .001%.

    That is a very different kind of conversation. People with power never relinquish it under the threat of peaceful persuasion.

    …addressing the “40% loss of empathy”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/fashion/27StudiedEmpathy.html(From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?)

    I’m glad you mentioned this. This of course confirms the deep concern expressed in Dan-K’s essay. The shrinking of our circle of compassion is a tragic reversal of the progress made in the last 150 years.

    Dan-K did not propose remedies for the simple reason that one must first accept there is a need before anyone will consider remedies. Remedies are the really difficult part that require deep and even structural changes in society. That conversation should really be reserved for another essay.

    But even so, I agree with you that restoring face-to-face conversation is central to the process. And conversation in the home is the most vital part of this. Nowhere is this more important than the daily conversation over dinner. The advent of television administered a mortal blow to this practice and now mobile devices have delivered the coup de grâce.

    How does one achieve this? Has the chicken flown from the coop for good? I come from a milieu where the daily dinner was an important event and one signaled its importance by dressing up for dinner. Dinner was the central event of the evening. It was a place for insightful conversation. It was a place where each person received attention and was encouraged to contribute. It was a place where daily experiences were shared and larger matters were considered. This was the heart of the family and the heart of the family is the heart of society.

    Will we ever return to this? I don’t think so.

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  4. Hi Dan, I remember the 70s somewhat well (I think), but I got roped into a whole other set of self-improvement ideas from my parents and so those color/dominate my memory regarding those things.

    “While I agree that these are especially awful, I don’t think that a conception of Self-Improvement need express them in order to rub me the wrong way.”

    Yes, I understood that your target was more along the lines of what I mentioned to Labnut (placing you at the center), than what I said upset me (the vocal/critical dimension). The combination really grates on my nerves, though the former issue is more problematic.

    I want to make clear, particularly since Hal picked up on the topic as well, that I was not trying to say Stoicism falls into that category, much less Massimo. However, it does have a self-centered aspect (which you describe) and with its recent rise in popularity threatens to be heading in the direction of movements that have upset me (the whole “mindfulness” movement being a good example).

    I am not a stoic. And having followed Massimo’s investigations into it, have reaffirmed that I am definitely not a stoic. There are some interesting aspects of that philosophy, and I am not critical of those that pursue it (much like Buddhism), in fact I like that people are becoming more interested in it as compared to Utilitarianism/Kantian ethics.

    But as I concluded decades back my temperament is more Epicurean. While Epicurean philosophy is open to the criticism of being self-centered as much as stoicism it lacks the unrealistic element of “preferred indifferents” which further isolates the stoic from others, by furthering the illusion one never needed anything from others nor do they need anything from you. I think that is an error, for me one that is crucial to whether I could practice it.

    “As I said, this is the sort of thing one can only say to people in modern, wealthy nations. Imagine telling it to some person in Haiti, whose entire village was destroyed in a hurricane or to a Rwandan orphan, whose parents were murdered in the civil war or some child standing in the middle of a pile of garbage and sewage in Liberia… I guarantee you that Massimo’s “fasts” and “going outside without a coat” do nothing whatsoever to prepare him for such a situation. And I hope to God that neither he nor anyone else I care about should find themselves in one.”

    Exactly. While I am not going to put myself on the level of the examples you gave, I have been homeless and (basically) penniless, with no clear way of coming back from that situation. The experiences I had in that underlined what I had already considered in the comfy (by comparison) college dorms while debating the merits of Epicurean v. Stoic philosophy.

    The Stoics sure have a lot of great quotes to keep in mind when one is down, indeed I would credit them with some great mind games when one is down to concentrate on what is necessary as opposed to desired. But the idea one can “prepare” or have an idea what “suffering” is from self-deprivation or self-punishment is absurd, as well as a cruel insult to those who have suffered such things. Self-deprivation and punishment may be worthwhile for building self-discipline (and inspecting one’s desires) it is a dire mistake to pretend it has any relevance to actual deprivation, actual suffering.

    Outside of drug addicts, being poor, much less enslaved or oppressed, is not about a lack of “self control” regarding one’s desires, or a question of what one must do to maintain such control. It is about what one needs to do to regain control from others (or the world) to stay alive, and (preferably) to obtain one’s desires.

    Recognition one might need to help others who are suffering, requires an understanding that major sources of suffering (and so relief) can come from external sources beyond the control of the individual.

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  5. Hi Hal Morris, as Dan noted I was the one who brought up Stoicism and so you might read my latest response to Dan on that topic. I am actually positive about Massimo’s experiment and think Stoicism offers elements that are quite useful, even if it is not the most sound philosophy (out of those falling within Virtue Ethics).

    Funny enough, I was more taken aback by your criticism of The Who, and feel I must reply… 🙂

    The song “Won’t get fooled again” is not in any way a declaration that people (including The Who) won’t. If anything it is an open acknowledgement that everyone will. The best they can do (though I assume this is via the words of Pete Townsend) is to “pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday.” Then they get on their knees and pray they won’t be fooled again. The fact that it ends with “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” shows they have been and likely always will.

    And I never thought I’d see Tommy described as “the glorification of “Tommy” the sad victim of sexual abuse who rises to glory while having no avenue of escape from himself (deaf, dumb, and blind indeed)”. While I don’t think it is their best, or absolutely clear in its narrative, your description seems to have missed the mark widely. Maybe you should give it (and other Who albums… I plug Who’s Next) another listen.

    Actually Tommy might offer a similar criticism as what Dan gave. When Tommy becomes free (you know he does overcome his blindness etc, right?) and then treated as some guru for being a pinball wizard, the best he has to offer is for others to close their eyes, ears, and mouths. Give up pleasure and interaction. Focus on an isolated self… to win at pinball? Faced with that form of “self-improvement” advice, the people revolt and over throw him.

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  6. Hi Labnut, I have always found this concept interesting and compelling (even if not as necessary as you suggest)…

    “…the daily dinner was an important event and one signaled its importance by dressing up for dinner. Dinner was the central event of the evening. It was a place for insightful conversation. It was a place where each person received attention and was encouraged to contribute. It was a place where daily experiences were shared and larger matters were considered. This was the heart of the family and the heart of the family is the heart of society.”

    I had a girlfriend that was adamant about having this kind of lifestyle (while being a hedonist you’d definitely recoil at). Outside of holiday dinners I had not experienced this, but they were nice.

    Still…

    “The advent of television administered a mortal blow to this practice and now mobile devices have delivered the coup de grâce.”

    I don’t agree with this assessment at all, at least with regard to television. Mobile devices are individual-based and so divisive, isolating, and so a form of solipsism. But why TV?

    Some of my best memories of family dinners were shared events while we all watched TV. It gave us an external set of narratives to react to and discuss (even where purely fiction or fluff). Many families (and to some extent my own) included bonding, especially at holidays while watching major sports events. From time to time Dan has discussed common cultural narratives created by national broadcast TV shows. And I think this was true to a relevant degree (at least in my home).

    To my mind the larger blow to all of this was the changing economic climate, and job market, which decimated a family’s ability to actually meet at a regular time to eat, watch TV, or discuss things, in some communal way.

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  7. Hi Hal (and all), I just realized my comment about “We won’t get fooled again” was worded more strongly than I meant. It is not that we or they “will” be fooled, but that anyone (always) “could” be fooled. It is of course trying to prevent one from being fooled, by showing how one has/can be fooled in a social revolutions. When you are sure the next “boss” will be better than the last (in any revolution), it is likely you’ve been had.

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  8. @Dan I look forward to your doing the kind of critique you prefer on your own magazine. I started my own magazine so that I could do the kind of critique that *I* like to do.

    I’d be grateful if I thought you meant that, but I’m skeptical.

    I’m sorry to keep getting under your skin; it seems to happen repeatedly, and I suspect you frequently sense I’m hostile when I’m not, but I do have passionate opinions as you do. I also tend to get into any discussion like I think I might make some difference, and as if that were the whole point. That’s precisely what I got out of anything I did connected with “est” or the Forum, and I don’t see how that is self-involved. I think it made me far less self-involved and narcissistic than I was.

    I was drawn into this, out of some vexation at reading a good bit of “piling on” against a sort of bogeyman IMO, and Exhibit A is something with which I’ve had some experience. The whole thing seems incoherent. “Self” is a poor subject for a cult, as it would have everybody worshiping a different god (him/herself).

    Besides, wasn’t Descartes kind of self-obsessed, and Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with self-improvement, and the Romantics with theirs Bildungsromans, and the Transcendentalists, who were a kind of American romantic — those who weren’t abolitionists at least, and and the Shakers and the other commune dwellers … this thing has ebbed and flowed for a long time.

    @Labnut, I was purposely backing away from saying “rant”. I’ve been known to rant myself, and am not that interested in taking on ranting per se. When I said “it’s what people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse” I meant elaborating on an angry narrative about some “other” who is presumed not to be in the room. I prefer to take up an issue with somebody in the room. It is like Mark Twain saying “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” I think people, at least those who are not leaders, have some preference for talking about the thing they can do nothing about, or which they believe they can do nothing about.

    It’s an academic fad to (which I’m sure Dan rightly disapproves of) to rant about the negative obsession with “the other”, where the obsessor is identified with something like western bourgeois culture, and the “other” is identified with some vague congeries of the oppressed, and we had almost run out of new people to identify as oppressed (which was sad because to progress we should always be defending more “subalterns” then we were yesterday) when somebody thought of the “T” in “LGBT”. It would be a better conversation if they stopped shaking their fingers and tut-tutting, and just said “Yes, this is how people tend to act”. We divide up into teams and obsess about each other. The West is probably about as “guilty” as anybody else, only accidents of history gave us an extreme technical superiority for a while, and it is worth acknowledging that we perpetrated all kinds of horror, especially if we want others, such as the Germans and Japanese, and the descendants of the Aztecs, etc. to acknowledge their past and not glorify it just because it is “their own” as we are wont to do.

    Anyway, this is what I’m saying “people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse” (I don’t see how that could have been taken as eating, drinking, or bedroom habits). The “subaltern studies” folks are doing what they criticize everybody else of doing, and it does make a practical difference whether you’re doing it from a position of extreme dominance rather than spouting in a classroom, but still it’s the same damn universally human phenomenon, which is mostly moderated by giving people something else to think about, like participating in a working economy, and aggravated when you go in and atomize that working economy, as the US did in Iraq, leaving people again with nothing to think about but the “evil other”.

    And the near inescapability of it is summarized by the saying “There are two kinds of people in ther world, people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don’t” — i.e. in trying to be one I become the other, but I think with some humor, esp. laughing at our own self-righteousness, there is hope.

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  9. Stoicism has come in for some criticism here, unfairly, I think. I am also critical of some aspects but I think it is largely a good practice.

    The unfair criticism.
    1. Comparing Massimo’s exercises with suffering in the Holocaust was really unfair. Very few are called upon to endure such suffering and there is little that one could do that could ever prepare one for such an ordeal. What was remarkable about the Holocaust was the strength with which the Jewish people endured it. I really doubt that any other people would have shown such enduring strength in the face of such a calamitous disaster. I put this down to their faith. Read the Psalms and you will understand.

    But adversity of the more mundane kind is an ever present reality. How do we react to or confront adversity? Massimo’s practices are training in hardiness and resilience. The mere fact of doing them is the most important step in preparing the mind. It is the attitude of the mind which is the crucial thing in overcoming adversity. Prepare the mind and you can confront most adversities. I was mugged twice this year and was severely injured. Each time I fought back vigorously. When this happens it is so fast that there is no time to think. If the mind is not prepared there is a good chance that one’s reaction may be wrong.

    2. Its foundation of virtue ethics was another criticism. Virtue ethics is our most fundamental and basic perception of morality. It is present in all peoples and is our deepest moral intuition.

    3. It is evidence of self-centredness or self absorption. This is such a surprising criticism. We are all centres of our own world but Stoic practices prepare one to engage with the world more effectively. Stoicism is not a retreat from the world but is rather a search for a better way of engaging with the world.

    The fair criticism.
    1. Love is not regarded as a foundational virtue. I think this is quite a substantial defect. Love should be be the preeminent virtue that defines everything else.

    2. It emphases too much the virtues of equanimity, even-handedness and acceptance. I subscribe rather to the Roman concept of the ‘glowing spirit‘ which seeks greatness in overcoming great odds in a contest culture. It sees life as a succession of tests, of intense competition, where you define yourself in the eager, ardent, determined way you confront the tests. It is this that creates the ‘glowing spirit‘. It claims reward and pleasure with glad, intense enjoyment but never in surfeit or at the cost of others and it is never the goal. You may, on occasion, lose the fight but if you lose the fight greatly, with courage and determination, then you have a ‘glowing spirit‘. Even the defeats will be celebrated for their courage.

    This is also a criticism of Aristotelian virtue ethics, with its emphasis on finding the wise middle way. This, more often than not, results in a kind of ethical mediocrity. On the other hand it is the ‘glowing spirit‘ that powers all the advances of our species. However we must take care that our ‘glowing spirit‘ is not perverted into a ‘malignant spirit‘, which is always a danger.

    The benefits of Stoicism
    It is first and foremost an ethical system.
    1. In a growing secular age we badly need an ethical system to supplant the moral emptiness created by loss of religion. There is quite simply nothing else available to fill this hole.
    2. It is a neutral ethical system that can serve as a common point for atheists, agnostics, secularists and people of the many faith persuasions. It is a broad tent for them all. For example, Stoicism is a natural adjunct to Catholicism, except that we insist on the primacy of love.

    The danger of Stoicism
    Stoicism encourages frugality. On the face of it that seems like a good thing but it would devastate our economy if it became the norm. A decline in consumption would end economic growth and precipitate a recession. Mind you abortion and declining birth rate will likely achieve the same effect and then we will need Stoicism as a mean of enduring the resulting calamity. The obsessively self-absorbed(the subject of the essay) are likely to have fewer children. In a perverse sort of way that may be a good thing since they would make poor parents.

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  10. I must also defend Massimo’s practice of dieting.

    1. there are well documented and quite substantial health benefits to regular fasting.

    2. it is a form of practice in regulating the appetites so that we don’t succumb to them.

    3. it is a form of practice in self control that carries over into other areas in life.

    4. it increases one’s sense of command and mastery over oneself. It builds confidence and self esteem to know that one has command and mastery over oneself.

    5. it restores our sense of taste and discrimination to the enjoyment of food. It undoes the effect of habituation. Satiety desensitises one to subtle nuances in taste.

    6. after the fast one approaches food with a sense of newness and discovery which is delightfully enjoyable.

    7. it restores a feeling of sacredness and value to the meal, making it more intensely enjoyable and valuable. Eating becomes a ritual to be savoured in slow, rich enjoyment.

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  11. Labnut, this and your other post are all fine and well, but I quoted the post and it’s pretty explicit. Part of the point of these exercises is to prepare oneself for the possibility that one will lose these things. What Dwayne and I have said is that they are no such preparation at all and to think they are is to completely misunderstand what the experience of such deprivation is like.

    And again, modern Stoicism was *not* part of the critique. I only mentioned it, because Dwayne brought it up.

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  12. Labnut: The Jews did not always bear it so well. Read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.

    The dirty secret is that when you dehumanize people they actually do act like animals. So much for the doctrine of “self sufficiency.”

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  13. Hal, you’re not getting under my skin. But nothing you’ve said provides any sort of actual argument against the substance of the essay. Rather, it’s all been about whether one should write such things, which just seems rather pointless, because I did and will continue to do so.

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  14. And you don’t have to evoke the Holocaust. Massimo’s “exercises” do nothing to prepare him for being homeless or poor in today’s America either. You think walking around for a day without a coat makes you more “hardy” and prepared for impoverishment and insufficient clothing for the winter?

    I agree with Dwayne. The very suggestion is offensive and obnoxious.

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  15. Part of the point of these exercises is to prepare oneself for the possibility that one will lose these things.

    I agree with you that the reasons Massimo gave were pretty poorly thought out and that is why I amplified on the subject, listing what I thought were better reasons. These are the reasons why I support the practice of fasting. There is also a strong religious dimension but this secular audience won’t understand that.

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  16. I think a lot of the other reasons you give are very good ones. Whether they are Stoic ones is, of course, another question. But there is nothing wrong with fasting. Walking around in the cold without a coat, on purpose, however, just seems stupid, no matter how you slice it.

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  17. I agree with Dwayne. The very suggestion is offensive and obnoxious.

    Strong words. Are you trying to close down dissenting views? These views were courteously expressed in an attempt to make a thoughtful contribution and I don’t apologize for trying to do that. Peremptorily dismissing them as ‘offensive and obnoxious‘ is an example of the behaviour you condemn.

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  18. Labnut, people can write whatever they like. That’s part one of free speech. The other part is that people get to say what they think of it. That’s all I’ve done. I have no power over anyone else. And yes, one can be unwittingly obnoxious.

    A good test is whether you would actually say something like this to the relevant person. Would you go up to a poor person, who can’t afford a winter coat, and tell them that you are walking without one yourself to prepare yourself for the possibility that you might wind up in their situation? If not, it’s worth pondering why.

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  19. @Dan Hal, you’re not getting under my skin. But nothing you’ve said provides any sort of actual argument against the substance of the essay. Rather, it’s all been about whether one should write such things, which just seems rather pointless, because I did and will continue to do so.

    To reduce everything I said to “You shouldn’t write such things” is IMO rather obtuse.

    Also, there is quite a bit of precedent in philosophy for saying “this is the wrong way to talk about a thing”. I’d expect someone who calls Wittgenstein the greatest philosopher of the 20c (certainly something close to that if I haven’t got it quite right) to be less dismissive of that sort of critique.

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  20. Hi Labnut, you appear to have read more criticism of Stoicism (and Massimo) into my and Dan’s comments than was actually there. My reply to Dan above (if you did not read it) clarifies the extent of my criticism and points out that I actually support people studying Stoicism, including Massimo’s experiment, even if I have (re)discovered it is not the form of virtue ethics I could practice myself. In fact, I explicitly stated that such self-denial practices (like dieting) had merit for improving things like self-discipline/control. It just isn’t going to help you learn to deal with real loss.

    While I’ve supported virtue ethics for decades, I’m dubious non-theists need something like a common philosophy to replace religion. And I am leery of what would/could happen if atheists organized into ethical institutions paralleling the model of religious institutions.

    I don’t think Dan was saying your posts in defense of Stoicism/Massimo were offensive and obnoxious (which is how it looks like you took his words). Rather it is just the claim by some stoics that they are preparing for (can understand) suffering by choosing to deprive themselves of things, which would likely be offensive and obnoxious to those who have actually suffered loss.

    And I ought to add pain to that point. I forgot to mention that I suffered through a few different medical problems that were excruciatingly painful. I do not believe lack of pain is a preferred indifferent, and that one can have a meaningful, worthwhile life in prolonged physical pain. Again this is where I split toward the Epicureans.

    To Dan’s recommended reading on how Jews fared about as well as anyone else under extreme duress and privation, I’d add Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Perhaps books like these ought to be critical reading (a sobering counter example) for virtue ethicists who believe (by reading the works of Emperors and well-lived “slaves”) they can will themselves out of suffering and would have made it through a concentration camp without it affecting (in some meaningful way) the quality of their life.

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  21. Interesting as usual. A vehement critique or a rant, I think both aren’t unreasonable qualifiers, but my first impression was ‘venting’.

    I’m a fan of a good rant by the way, I’m just not used to your style, like choice of qualifiers or allusions, so it’s hard for me to ‘get’ what your talking about on a first read.

    I’m aware of attitudes like the ones you mention in your essay, and my first reaction to them has often been negative, negative like I felt when I first read your essay, but I usually end up finding something useful, of value or more, though I don’t expect others to feel the same.

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  22. I can certainly see many points in this response that can be validated, yet, especially in the comment regarding Protestantism. As a devoted Baptist from the South, that probably just conjured up a mental check, I taught my kids a lesson or two which have been around in our family since they first set foot on pre-revolutionary Virginian soil back in the late 1600s – take care of your mental and physical well being, yet, serve others with patience, humility, brevity and above all else, understanding. Without having a pre-determined notion of what is in it for me, Acting in such a way as mentioned above naturally creates a sense of community, no matter where you choose to serve. Kids and the young generation of adults are fascinated with Branding the self. Every aspect of their lives is enraptured with every detail which should and needs to convey what, not who, they wish to be. Prior to this technologically boosted generation, legacies and great people were made as a result of what great things in their lives they selflessly, not selfishly, did to serve others in the name of humanity. The legacy was born as a result of what they gave and gave without creating the brand first. The “brand” actually was irrelevant because their attention was neither self absorbed nor selfish. A legacies attention, a great persons attention, was on the serving of humankind. Contrary to what we might think, there are still many people, even Protestants, who work and serve everyday with this model in mind.

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  23. On EJ’s linking the cult of self to Protestantism, I’d agree that a motivating force in modern western versions might be traced to Protestantism (though Something to Ponder has raised an objection), however it is not sufficient to cover the phenomena entirely.

    I would think it is common for most people at some point in life to feel, or observe that basically the world boils down (or can be boiled down) to oneself. The self is all you can really know about (if anything). It is up to you to get things done for yourself. And in the end you die alone.

    Given this feeling, what is most necessary to obtain in life, how can one improve one’s goal seeking thoughts/actions, and how can one avoid suffering become a reasonable set of questions to try to answer.

    For a person that has no theistic beliefs, these can arguably be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts (with only a bare minimum connection to the world). For a person with theistic beliefs it can be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts in connection with a particular transcendent being (or beings).

    This has gone on for ages, well before and outside Protestantism. Jesus was one of a vast number of religious ascetics (stretching back into antiquity) that went out into the desert to find themselves and so “important” truths. It should be noted that Jesus told his followers as part of his teachings (and this is well before Protestantism) to leave their families and friends behind. As such Catholics have a long tradition of supporting/championing highly self-oriented, ascetic lifestyles to find truth (embodied in monasteries and cloisters). In a similar line, Buddha separated himself from the world and Buddhist monks (following his teaching) retreat from all but the most minimal aspects of the world. Same for the ancient Taoists. And of course there have been non-theistic philosophers who have done the same.

    Contra EJ, I think one should not discount the contributions that Eastern and ancient philosophical traditions may have played in the rise of recent “cults of self” (especially from the 1960’s on).

    While valid as a way to pursue certain questions, to strengthen self-discipline, recover from great injury (physical or other), or clear the mind, these can be great tools. But as a way of life in general, to believe this gets to absolute essential truths about life, is IMHO to make a great mistake. It is a reductionist vision of the universe and life, at best barebones survivalist, at worst a view from the grave.

    As I said in my first reply, most things are cyclical, and I view the rise in popularity of this kind of thinking as belonging to a cyclical pattern. It may very well coincide with times of great visible suffering, where people with sufficient means feel powerless to stop the suffering, and so choose to turn inwards and work on themselves. Perhaps to prevent themselves becoming one of those suffering, perhaps to alleviate guilt by fostering a belief they don’t need to do anything to help others.

    I am also interested in Something to Ponder’s idea that modern strains have been affected by concerns about “branding”.

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  24. dbholmes wrote:
    “I would think it is common for most people at some point in life to feel, or observe that basically the world boils down (or can be boiled down) to oneself. The self is all you can really know about (if anything). It is up to you to get things done for yourself. And in the end you die alone.” &

    “For a person that has no theistic beliefs, these can arguably be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts (with only a bare minimum connection to the world). For a person with theistic beliefs it can be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts in connection with a particular transcendent being (or beings).”

    I know that a lot folks see these ideas as central to Buddhist and Taoist tradition. There are core aspects of both traditions however that are in tension with the idea of knowing by way of isolation. I also agree with Ryle when he suggests that there are some ways in which we know others better than we know ourselves (and vice versa). There is an asymmetry regarding access to the link between motivation and behavior in this regard. When we pay attention to our narratives they are driven by what others would think. I personally think a routine that includes some quiet time for contemplation is useful, but I think we learn to know ourselves mostly through the way we act in the world with others.

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  25. Hi Seth, just to be clear I’m not arguing against periods of isolation, and trying to know oneself better through such techniques. It is the elevation of such to a primary or ultimate goal that I find problematic. Buddhism I think does this to a greater extent than Taoism, and for me the ultimate goal of a kind of self-annihilation (complete detachment) found in Buddhism is somewhat disappointing. I think these are two great philosophies to study, I just find (kind of like Stoicism) there are elements which prevent me from total acceptance. In any case, my main point here was that the behaviors/desires ascribed to Protestantism by EJ, could also be found in Eastern sources.

    “I personally think a routine that includes some quiet time for contemplation is useful, but I think we learn to know ourselves mostly through the way we act in the world with others.”

    I completely agree with this.

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  26. Hi db,

    I think we are in very close agreement, although I think a good many Buddhists would reject the characterization of the ultimate goal as being one of self-annihilation. There as aspects of each of the three philosophies that I also don’t resonate with, and I don’t feel the need to identify with any single core philosophy anymore than I feel the need to any elevate any single practice or life activity as essential to developing virtue.

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  27. I don’t know that “everyone” thinks it is fine. I don’t even know what “wellness” means, I have never done yoga, I tried a bit of mediation back in the old days, before it somehow became part of the so-called “scientific rational” world view. Mindfulness? Is that the “when you are breathing, be aware that you are breathing” type stuff that was being pushed in the 60’s?

    But, on the other hand, I will admit to being a completely self obsessed narcissist, with very little to be narcissistic about. Just they way I am build I suppose. Kind of a funny irony being a narcissist while seeing narcissism as a major character flaw. But then we all have to work the best we can with the material at hand.

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  28. But oddly enough the cult of self did me at least one favour. I was stopped on the street by a Scientologist and asked to do one of there audits, or whatever they call them and I thought it would be good for a laugh.

    Well, they nearly had me, they played on my self regard, said “you are always giving, giving and then there is nothing left for you” and I was thinking “Yes, yes that is just exactly it”. But then the penny dropped and I realised that it was the other way around and it was others that were always giving and I was always taking.

    Went straight home and apologised to my astonished dad. He didn’t realise that I didn’t realise this about myself.

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  29. Hi Robin,

    “Mindfulness? Is that the “when you are breathing, be aware that you are breathing” type stuff that was being pushed in the 60’s?”

    Strains of the current mindfulness fad have moved from this simple concept to being so aware of your breathing that you suddenly discover that you aren’t being aware at all, it is something else being aware and tricking you into believing it is you being aware of breathing.

    Once you reach that level, then you supposedly have better control over your emotions when reacting to the stupidity of others who are not so aware. Or is it that the something is more aware and so it has better control? Hard to parse their argument on that.

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