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  • Rick Repetti

No-Self Help: Buddha, Slaves, and Emperors on the Porch

The self-help genre has roots in the Greco-Roman era, when philosophy was thought of as a way of life, particularly under the guidance of the Stoics, including a former Greek slave, Epictetus, Seneca the Younger (advisor to Emperor Nero), and a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics are so-named because they studied practical philosophy on the stoa, the porch, of an open-columnade in the agora (marketplace) in Athens (actual ruins depicted above).

One of the main ideas of Stoicism is to be ever mindful of the distinction between what happens and how we judge and react to it, as well as the distinction between what we can and cannot control, letting go of what we cannot, focusing on what we can, and thereby maintaining tranquility in the face of adversity. Stoicism shares interesting ideas and practices with Buddhism, which emphasizes mindfulness of our own intentions and reactions, letting go of reactivity, and cultivating mental quiescence, among others, though there are significant differences. For example, central to most forms of Buddhism is a radical understanding of the self as an illusion, cast by an ever-changing series of mental and physical processes lacking anything holding them together. Enlightenment is often characterized as the full realization of the unreality of the self, along with the extinction of all ego-based desire.

There is much to be said for the Buddhist inquiry into the nature of the self, but it is an open question about what is the best interpretation of these ideas. For the world of ordinary experience that we inhabit on a daily basis revolves around our sense of self as an agent, as the source of all the decisions, choices, and actions that determine the bulk of the course of our lives. Whether the self is real, or if it is not, whether we truly have free will in some ultimate sense—these are interesting philosophical questions, but they are primarily theoretical, not practical. How can I decrease the extent to which I mindlessly succumb to immediate impulses, cravings, emotional reactions, and other unskillful behavioral tendencies? How can I increase the extent to which I remain mindful, lucid, focused, self-regulated, and centered in the face of adversity? These are questions of practical philosophy. Of course, they extend into theoretical issues, but we can explore the practical issues independently of the theoretical ones.

In this regard, Stoicism and Buddhism have much to offer about how to improve our lives, as do many other philosophers and philosophies that promise to enable us to more deeply care for ourselves philosophically. Socrates said, famously, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and he was less concerned with theoretical philosophy than he was in how to live, that is, in practical philosophy, what he called the care of the soul. I prefer to revise this Socratic insight as “the examined life is more worth living”—more insightful, pragmatic, wholesome, healthy, wise.

Practical philosophy—philosophical practice—is the highest form of self-help. George Carlin once joked that self-help shouldn’t be called “self-help” because, if it was self-help, you wouldn’t be listening to what someone else says about it, you’d just help yourself directly: that’s not self-help—that’s other-help! Adding to the irony of this, if there is no self, as many Buddhists claim, then what Carlin ironically calls “other-help” and we typically call “self-help” is an enterprise predicated on an illusion, a non-self.

I disagree. Whether the self has a character that certain Buddhist philosophers would consider real does not undermine the prospects for self-help or other-help. On this cyber-porch, we will study practical philosophy with the Stoics and the Buddhists, primarily, but we will invite many other philosophers to our discussion.

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