Over vriendschap, toewijding en beperkingen aanvaarden

Een eerlijke filosofische en introspectieve post van Eric Schliesser, op zijn groepsblog (over filosofie, wetenschappen, kunst en politiek). Hij combineert Spinoza (onder meer vanuit ‘Door Spinoza’s lens’) en Seneca’s stoïcijnse filosofie.

Hoe moeilijk is het niet om een goede promotor te zijn voor doctoraatsstudenten, zeker als het temperament van de student heel erg verschilt van je eigen karakter? Je wilt het goede doen, maar botst op de beperkingen van anderen en van jezelf. Hoe ga je daar mee om. De moeite!

“On Being a PhD Supervisor (or Spinoza and Seneca on Equanimity)

Childhood is abundant in fruits, but infancy is sweeter [Fructuosior est adulescentia liberorum, sed infantia dulcior].–Seneca,Letter 9.

I am very bad at being powerless when I really want to help another that I care for who is self-undermining. I find it vexing, and because of the intensity of the passion, I am perfectly capable of making a situation worse–thus, not helping the person in need and frustrating my aims. Recognizing the pattern and even the fact that I re-enact childhood experience, has helped to some degree. But nobody that knows me will call me “unflappable” in such circumstances. (By contrast, I have remained unperturbed when I have been amidst gunfire and scary aircraft failures.) This particular incapacity has a work-place consequence: it makes me a less than ideal PhD supervisor for people that are self-undermining and it influences how we can do philosophy together.

In her best-selling and philosophically subtle book on Spinoza, Door Spinoza’s Lens [full disclosure: I wrote a brief “afterword” to it, but that is obviously not why it is selling!] the Flemish scholar-public intellectual, Tinneke Beeckman, emphasizes the significance of equanimity. When one first encounters it in the Ethics, it seems to council resignation: “we should await and endure fortune’s face with equanimity” [utramque fortunae faciem aequo animo exspectare et ferre]. E2p49S It is easy to mistake this for passivity in the face of harms done by others to us (as E4Appendix, ch. 14 suggests).* But in chapter 32 of the appendix toEthics 4,   Spinoza makes clear that equanimity is consequent to being conscious of having done one’s duty [si conscii simus nos functos nostro officio fuisse]. Given that Spinoza uses here the Ciceronian “officio,” he means this in terms of meeting the obligations of one’s public station or social role. Spinoza’s version of equanimity is a public virtue, one that emphasizes a notion of duty that we can capture by way of ‘public spiritedness.’ As we know from Hutcheson this entails all of us can be heroes in modern times.

As an aside, Spinoza also recognizes another species of equanimity, as a kind of temper of mind, that is, an intellectual virtue. Or, to be precise, he is aware that many of us are incapable of engaging with some questions with the right sort of even temper (his example: ‘free will’); our passions betray us philosophically (E3p2S).
In Letter 9, Seneca, also emphasizes equanimity in the face of possible loss [amissum aequo animo fert]. It is easy to think that Seneca is talking about possible private loss (that is, friendship). For, the “wise is satisfied [contentus] because he can do without friends.” In context, Seneca stresses the modality of ‘can,’ because his Stoic wise desires to be with friends. But his concept of friendship is not ‘private’ as we recognize when we survey his stance toward more familiar kinds of friendships: (i) he explicitly rejects what he takes to be the Epicurean conception of friendship in which we price  [pretium] favors–again, this is the use-oriented [utilitatis] axiology of the market-place and politics (recall also Letter 3). Seneca (ii) implicitly rejects the idea that friends can withdraw from the world into a shared, independent sanctuary where they are unharmed by fortune. That Seneca rejects (ii) is not obvious from a translation that insists on translating ‘contentus‘ with ‘self-sufficiency.’ (The ideal wise person is contentus, despite undergoing lots of worldly calamities.)Yet, when Seneca offers his positive account of friendship, he emphasizes time and again that one must be willing to go into exile [exilium] and die [mori] for a friend–that is to say, Seneca’s conception of true friendship includes a very strong political component. Seneca’s conception of true friendship is not reducible to the political, however.*** At its core it is about a certain kind of moderated love [amantium]. But it is a love that is without the madness [insanam] we associate with being in love (or lust).To be a genuine, philosophical teacher is to be a true friend: one gives without expecting a return. (It is an open question to what degree philosophical school-formation — of the sort that Seneca alludes to —  is compatible with such friendship.) To be such a teacher one must have a daily disposition to have the right sort of feelings [sentiat].** Part of this involves a training in a positive attitude, and Seneca often slides into preaching the power of positive thought (of the sort we now encounter in the market-place). Like modern sports-coaches, he exhorts his student not to get exercised over the things outside his control; if I were better capable of this I would be a better PhD supervisor.

Seneca leaves no doubt that the right sort of feelings involve love [ama]. In our professional environments we are rightly suspicious of teachers that talk of love, but are incapable of feeling it properly. If, however, we rename such love, ‘public spiritedness by doing one’s professional duty,’ then we know what to aspire to. For, duty can be done out of love.

*Spinoza also suggests that an adolescent’s lack of equanimity in the face of parental scolding may cause young men to enlist as soldiers and practice tyrannical patterns of behavior. While Spinoza tends to emphasize the significance of religious and political institutions on character formation, his moral psychology is also significant for reflection on child-rearing practices.

**Letter 9 is structured around the idea that the Stoics say that the supreme good is a soul that is unfeeling [inpatiens]; Seneca interprets this as having a soul that is incapable of the wrong sort of feelings.

***To be clear, upon reflection, I think Senca;’s true friendship is compatible with (ii), without (ii) being true friendship. (Remember: his favored axiology is not one that is intended to efface other axiologies.)”

1 Comment

  1. Bart Haers

    Het stoïcijnse mensbeeld werkt duidelijk inspirerend en dat bovendien op een manier die buiten het zuiver rationele betrokken wordt. Een interessante evolutie. natuurlijk is professionalisme, is goed overleg en zeker kan men maar beter een ambt, als promotor van een doctorandus met grote kennis van zaken aanpakken. Maar professionalisme lijkt hier opnieuw ook menselijk gedreven, door – kan het anders? – amor mundi en wellicht voor de personen die men professioneel ontmoet.

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