“WHAT is the first business of one who studies philosophy? To part with self-conceit. For it is impossible for any one to begin to learn what he thinks that he already knows.” - Epictetus
Anthony Duff, a philosopher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, lists two factors that define a rational being: intellectual capacity to reason about empirical features of environment, one’s actions, their consequences; and the capacity to control one’s actions, and resist contrary impulses, in the light of one’s rational purposes. However, I think that to affirm a single, authoritarian definition of rationality is a self-conceit. Duff seems to assert that not recognizing the consequences of your actions manifests itself as an irrational act, but who determines the consequence? Those in a position of power determine the consequences, and these individuals do not always follow a rational course to determine their actions.
There are people who cannot detach themselves from a very structured, societal sense of action, which allows them to consistently implement a set storage of acceptable responses (acquired through a life of unquestioned social interaction). Duff would assert that these individuals are rational human beings. Yet there are those that remove themselves from this mainstream, empirical attitude and view their life through an estranged lens from that point forward. These people recognize the rational steps of empirical society but view them as folly, as a mask projected by society to attempt to foster a homogeneous norm. Although Duff may claim that these people have forfeited a sense of rationality, since their actions can have fairly severe consequences in the societal eye, does it follow that the procedures of a society strictly follow a rational, community-based goal? Duff’s version of rationalism only truly cashes out if all of the messages and ideals propounded by society would align with a truly beneficial course of action. An example of this societal insincerity behind the facade of rationality shows itself in purposefully deceptive empathy.
Empathy can often be falsified to engender an inflated sense of self-import. In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the protagonist’s friend works at a newspaper and one of their copy editors dies, named Peckover. Although his bosses were overly critical toward him while he was alive, nearly firing him and constantly cursing his existence, once he has died they unearth a sense empathy that they never had while the poor man was living. The protagonist notes, “we didn’t have to put a false front [and] we could laugh about the incident to our heart’s content. We laughed all night about it, and in between times we vented our scorn and disgust for the guys upstairs, the fatheads who were trying to persuade themselves, no doubt, that Peckover was a fine fellow and that his death was a catastrophe […] He was just a nobody, as far as they were concerned, but, now that he was dead, they would all chip in lustily and buy him a huge wreath and they’d put his name in big type in the obituary column. Anything to throw a little reflection on themselves; they’d make him out to be a big shit if they could.”
If the rational actions of mankind can be perceived as fundamentally supported through immoral acts such as this false empathy, that not only uphold external reputation but increase self-esteem through self-conceit, would the psychopath not take whatever means necessary to bring about an alternative rationality? As a result, the irrational psychopath can glean pleasure from destructive, seemingly irrational, certainly immoral acts; sickened by a type of common deception, psychopaths attempt to follow an alternative course of rationality, following their bodily urges. The Stoic on the other hand simply pities the amoral man instead of taking retribution on him, for two reasons: the first is that they believe that in committing harm to another, you incur harm on yourself; in addition, such superfluous harm does not lead the self toward a foundational notion of Good. To properly align with a Stoic attitude, the individual would have to attribute the failings of another as fostering a wrongful temperament toward a situation, instead of attempting to impose a sense of control over the situation. The main difference between Stoic and psychopath: although both notably mark an existence outside of common rationality and empathy, the Stoic centers around a strict set of morals, while the psychopath allows this disconnect from a societal rationality to lead into a pursuit of bodily pleasures, which can lead to killing.
But the problem still remains on how to remove oneself from the common conception of rationality and retain a sense of communal respect, for although society does not always follow the rational ideas that they offer to others, the individual must continue to operate within many of its standards in day-to-day activities, and the agenic self can often find frustration when opportunities are blocked because of these standards. This frustration deepens the rift between the self and others, which can lead the individual to lash out against those around them, even if they have no direct connection to the wrongs they have encountered. Although Henry Miller pointedly does not maintain such a detached view of the self outside of pleasure, as most of the protagonist's exploits center around food and cunt, he still has an answer to avoid frustration, for his attitude toward pride and ambition are extremely Stoic.
“I had to travel precisely all around the world to find just such a comfortable niche as this. It seems incredible almost. How could I have foreseen, in America, with all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage, that the ideal position for a man of my temperament as to look for orthographic mistakes? [...In America] Potentially every man is presidential timber. Here it’s different. Here every man is potentially a zero. If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle” (150).
The Stoics, although they do not instinctively follow societal norms, also do not fully remove themselves from its standards, for Stoics recognize an inherent rationality in a mutual societal good, and follow the necessary steps to align with an ideal existence. However, the Stoics eschew those aspects of society that open an avenue for immoderate pleasure to guide action, that lead the individual away from the Good. For capitalist society, although seemingly rational in many of its values, actually encourages the satiety of temptation, and aggressiveness. There is a engrossed sense of the agenic self as opposed to communal self preached in capitalism; the psychopath recognizes that those with power in society, although preaching the higher values to workers, often operate behind the scenes with selfish, competitive values in mind. The need to stand out among contemporaries is “inherently parasitic,” and this societal pressure to succeed leads to the sort of excesses that psychopaths commonly perpetrate.
The Stoic attitude does not allow a future-extended, competitive self to manifest. Through its maxims, Stoicism trains the individual to seek refuge within the lot they’ve been dealt in life. Although not quite presented as the 'zero' that Henry Miller finds sanctuary in, the Stoic recognizes that the individual’s status in life cannot be forced through the agency of the self, and instead posits a more community-based self that interacts with the multi-faceted sides of nature, recognizes that events often unfold beyond the influence of the self.