Ep. 14 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis: Epicurians, Cynics, and Stoics



my notes

  • Awakening experiences can alleviate:
    • modal confusion,
    • parasitic processing,
    • reciprocal narrowing,
    • all the many of the ways in which we fundamentally lose our agency in the world in a self deceptive and self-destructive manner.
  • Moving to after the axial revolution in the west.
  • Aristotle’s disciple: Alexander the Great

2:20: Alexander the Great

  • World conqueror. Creates empire, takes the greek way of thinking throughout known world. Reestablishes the pre-axial world. Line between being a human and a god is blurred. Creates myth as god-man.
  • Twisting of the world: Alexander represents return to pre-axial way of being, and a disruption to the world
  • World of Aristotle vs. World of Alexander
    • Hellenistic era: after Alexander dies, divide into 4 smaller empires.
    • Aristotle’s world:
      • Live in a polis: city-state
      • Know the other citizens face to face
      • Developing democracy
      • Participating in government in direct manner, live near it, know the people involved, everyone speaks your language
      • Polis is such a tight relationship between agent and arena, ostracization terrible punishment
    • Hellenistic world:
      • Smashes all that.
      • Greek culture distributed into Africa, the levant, Asia, Asia Minor, to border India
      • Means that people being moved and shuffled around, belong to far-flung empires.
      • Live far from government, don’t participate, don’t know people in it
      • People near you might not lived near you for that long.
      • Different languages and gods
      • Connections lost
      • experiencing: Domocide: destruction of home
      • Physical or cultural domocide.
      • No deep connections to one another, feel insignificant
      • Age of anxiety.
      • Art changes: more frenetic, more realisitc, organized around extremes and tragedies.
      • Greek culture spread and thinned. Loses its depth
  • 11:00: change happens
  • Syncretism: religions that integrate several cultural deities together
  • Elevation of mother-goddesses: Isis, when feel a loss of home, nothing means more than mother, so look to divine mother makes feel at home

(12:00) Hellenistic Philosophy:

  • Hellenistic meaning crisis
  • Up to now main thing wisdom trying to deal with is foolishness. But that’s not enough now.
  • Epicurus:
  • “Call no man a philosopher who has not alleviated the suffering of others”.
  • Therapeutic aspect of wisdom. About relieving the anxiety and suffering of the hellenistic era.

( But wasn’t Buddha ALL about that too? Why would he have such a focus on suffering if there wasn’t a lot of it going on. I suspect it was just different suffering)

  • New metaphor: physician of the soul: cure you of existential suffering. This becomes crucial
  • Many new philosophical schools (Epicurians and Stoics) try to exemplify Socrates.

Epicurians :

  • Represent secular alternative in midst of still very religious world
  • Diagnose main problem: fear

( I can identify with that!)

  • Paul Tillich: The courage to be: distinction between fear and anxiety

( I’d agree with that too)

  • Often mix up fear and anxiety.
  • anxiety :
    • distressed,
    • loss of agency,
    • nebulous sense of threat
  • Ok in everyday discourse but polar differences:
  • Fear :
    • Observable direct threat
    • I know what to do - may fail, but know
  • Anxiety :
    • Threat is nebulous: not quite sure what the threat is,
    • Don’t know what to do
    • When have existential issues often suffer anxiety
  • Epicurians: we suffer because we can’t manage our anxiety
  • 18:45: we don’t control our imagination and our thinking so we suffer from anxieties that cripple our ability to get a grip on the world
  • Many people have anxiety about death .
    • Often use existence of death to say life essentially meaningless. terrifying.
    • We know if expose people to triggers about their mortality they become cognitively rigid. Get locked down
    • Can: pursue immortality: religions often this. He thinks this is a doomed strategy. Mind emergent from brain overwhelming evidence. Brain dies, conscious dies with it.
  • Epicurians: another strategy: rather than try to achieve immortality can you radically accept your mortality?
  • Not nonexistence that find terrifying. Not terrified about what happened before you existed. Is it the loss? That’s equivocal. Do mean reduction or the absence? But can’t experience total loss: “Where I am death is not”. If aware still losing then still alive - so can’t be that.
  • What about partial loss? Losing some of your agency. Fear of loss of capacities while dying. But do that all the time.
  • Epicurians say: Afraid of losing what’s good.
  • Pay attention to the things that give you the most meaning.
  • What is it that gives you most meaning?
  • Things lose:
    • Fame
    • Fortune
    • Wealth
  • But then say: those don’t give the most meaning in life.
  • Epicurians: Thing gives meaning is friendship. Meaningful relationships. To pursue wisdom and transcendence.
  • Any of the pain suffering from the loss of those other things manageable.
  • They ask: do you really want immortality?

( good question for the group)

  • What really afraid of is losing agency which identified with their things. But that’s not where ultimate happiness lies.
  • When you die, then doesn’t matter to you.
  • Tried to get people not be anxious about the gods.
  • Epicurious not quite an atheist. Said gods are irrelevant.
  • Shouldn’t be anxious about them and their nebulous threat.

(christianity makes it less nebulous. Real threat).

  • Engaged in practices where constantly train in being able to accept your mortality

Application to Us:

  • One of things wisdom practice should do is to help respond to our mortality.
  • Alternative therapy for dealing with anxiety: learning HOW to LIVE in the acceptance of your mortality.

( Interestingly, anxiety about death has little to do with my anxiety and suffering…)

  • Vervaeke: doesn’t think fear of mortality really is the right diagnosis

(I agree!)

  • They are right that period of chaos and Domocide exacerbate, making us feel more vulnerable, makes mortality more salient.
  • But another school gets a better understanding of what was going on with Hellenistic period.

30:15: Stoicism:

  • Ancestor of cognitive therapy
  • Cognitive therapy comes directly out of stoicism
  • Way WE trying to deal with issues of anxiety/depression crisis ( Indeed!) putting into practice things from Stoics
  • Different diagnosis and prognosis
  • Stoics: we’re suffering from a kind of anxiety/suffering/loss of agency but they have a diff. interpretation.
  • history:
    • Socrates, Plato, Antistenes
    • Antisthenes asked what learned from Socrates: learned how to converse with himself.
    • Doesn’t mean just talking to oneself, internal voice (that’s what often goes seriously awry in anxiety/depression)
    • Antisthenese: learned to do with himself what Socrates did with him

( I like to think I do this kind of internal dialogue as well)

  • Socrates turned into systematic set of psycho-technologies, internalize into metacognition
  • Plato: argumentation
  • Antisthenes: the actual confrontation was more important.

( I’ve found this myself: I figure things out in dialogue often better than just on my own - unless I frame it in a dialogue myself. It probes me in different way. I love the socratic method)

Diogenes and the Cynics

  • Diogenes: epitomizes confrontation
  • He gets in face in a way to try and provoke you to realizations
  • Tries to create shock experience to challenge you to radically change life
  • Trying to hone in on being as provocative as possible.
  • Ex: Man with the lamp, wondering about. Diogenes walking into marketplace with lamp. Looking. Looking for one honest man. Everyone got pissed off with him.
  • Pissed because they know he’s right
  • Diogenes does other things: masturbated in public
  • Cynics: living like a dog. Diogenes lived in a barrel.
  • Alexander: visted Diogenes: “I can give you half the world, what do you want” - “Can you move a little to the left, you’re blocking my sunlight”
  • Why? What is going on? Cynics had idea that what causes us to suffer is what we set our heart on.
    • When we set our hearts on the wrong things, those things will fail us, that’s how suffer
  • Came to the conclusion that what hellenistic period showing us, many of the things take for granted not fundamentally real. No staying power. Man made. Not permanent. Historically dependent
  • What should we do?
    • Learn how to set heart on the kind of things that are not manmade, not contingent, will not be swept away by events.
      1. laws of the natural world - live like an animal, wants to live as much by natural law, not man-made law. Doesn’t want to take part in cultural values, those will end. If set heart upon them, heart will be broken.

( Course, have less suffering, but may also have less joy)

  • Not man-made so won’t disappear
    1. Moral laws: what is a proper way to be a good human being.
  • Try and make a distinction between moral principles that are not-culturally based and culturally based purity codes
  • Guilt vs. Shame;
    • Guilt: destress at having broken moral principle
    • Shame ; distress at having broken cultural purity code
    • ex: if pants fell down feel shame, violate cultural code. But not immoral. Not wrong. No guilt, but shame
    • May be made to feel ashamed even if think morally right: ex: supporting blacks during civil rights movement.
  • Purity codes keep categorical boundaries, make a culture in a particular historical period run the way it’s running
  • Tied up in the power structure.
  • ex: drink water, no distress. What if collect saliva in mouth, spit into the cup. Gobs of it. Swirl it around, then drink it. Now think EWWW. But if mix water in mouth fine with that. If saliva comes out, repellent. Purity code: this its the boundary of john, pieces of John should not come out into the world
  • Bed, unmade, leaving impression behind
  • Often confuse purity code with moral code. Confuse disgust reaction with moral judgement that should be based on reason and evidence.
  • ex: don’t want to see parents having sex. EW. Not a moral argument. In a similar way, may not want to see two men having sex - but not a moral judgment on my part. Often persecute gays because confuse purity code disgust reaction with legitimate moral argument
  • Diogenes trying to get you to pull apart the moral code from the purity code
  • Alexander offers power and fame: all the things Cynics say are no good. Man-made, human defined. Heart will be broken.
  • Set heart on what won’t get broken.
  • Powerful provocative way to enact Socrates: realize what set heart on. Reflect on what doing


  • Zeno influenced by Cynics, but liked Plato’s arguments
  • Connections between ability to reflect and reason.
  • Integrate rational argumentation and reasoning of Plato with provocative aspects of cynics
  • Would walk up and down, teaching new integration: Stoicism
  • Cynics: not enough on process. Too much on what attaching heart to, not the process of attachment itself.
  • Particular cultures in history are variable but being social isn’t.
  • People are inherently social
  • Not what set heart on, it’s how set heart.
  • Hallmark of rationality is learning not to focus just on the products of cognition but find valuable and pay attention to the processes


  • Process of setting heart: co-identifcation. Process by which agent arena relationship set up. Assume and assign identity. Do it unconsciously.
  • That process is where identity formed.
  • If mindlessly coidentify mar that process. Open to all kinds of distortion, self-deception, distortion.
  • Need to pay attention to this process. How we’re assuming and assigning identities/
  • Strengthen agency in the threat of domiciled.
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