I’ve had better mornings. My upstairs neighbor woke me up before sunrise by exercising on the other side of my thin, creaky bedroom ceiling. But I tried not to let it bother me. I remembered that I bought fresh strawberries yesterday, so I could use the extra time to have a decent breakfast. But when I got to the kitchen, they were dry and already half rotten. Fine. Back beneath the Pilates workout, the radio alarm finally clicked on with the now-familiar, grisly details of a car bombing in Iraq.
So as I began my unusually early walk to the bus, I was well primed for muttering to myself about the garbage that accumulates on the sidewalks and the streets of my Chicago neighborhood. What ever happened to “don’t be a litter bug” or that famous ‘70s ad with the crying Native American? What kind of jerk could just drop their bags and empty containers . . .? Clumpetty clump clump—I looked across the street to see a plastic water bottle bouncing behind the answer to my question. Not anyone special, no evil litter demon. Just some ordinary guy walking down the street who happened to be done with his water bottle at that very moment. The timing was sit-com perfect, but I didn’t laugh.
The Grateful Dead and Philosophy
“You have got to mellow out, man,” I said to myself once I was on the bus. “Besides, you’ve got a PopMatters deadline coming up and…” Hmmm. Mellow? Dead-line? The morning started to turn around. It all came together with a good hit of stoicism from Matthew Turner’s essay, “I’m Just Playin’ in the Band: Stoicism, Taoism, and Freedom” in the collection of essays Grateful Dead and Philosophy . Stoicism is the ticket for deadheads and (occasional) hotheads like me, Turner suggests, because it liberates us from a certain illusion that lies behind had mornings like mine.
It’s not that the frustrations, disappointments and spoiled produce of modern life are illusions. Hardly. You can look away from the jerk dropping his garbage around your neighborhood or you can simply not think about the war in Iraq and the future generations of America-hating extremists that our elected leaders are cultivating with our tax dol . . . (mellow, mellow). But simply not paying attention to things that raise your blood pressure doesn’t change the fact that they are real. You can whistle in the dark, but it’s still dark. And you know it.
Ignoring problems and disappointments is a cliché’ version of stoicism. Stoicism lite. The real deal, Turner reminded me, goes a step further by recognizing that the source of our frustration is our sense of freedom that we are able to fix the problems we encounter. Stoicism’s insight is that this freedom is often an illusion. And, that’s good news. As much as I wanted to give that litterbug a piece of my mind, it didn’t make sense to. Adding a black eye to my bad morning would not have improved anything. And, like millions of others, I long ago sent my emails to Congress and the Whitehouse about what a bad idea it would be to invade Iraq. The time when we were free to avoid that problem has long passed.
Iron Eye Cody
Stoics trade this illusion of freedom for real freedom of a different kind: freedom “from misperceiving and misunderstanding the world,” Turner explains, so that we better tell the things we are free to change from those we aren’t. Doesn’t this introduce a dangerous quietism? Don’t litterbugs and warmongers want us to believe we have no freedom to oppose them and should therefore remain mute? Turner says, no, and points to the Grateful Dead as a model for thinking more clearly about freedom. Some of their shows were legendary, while others were more like my bad morning. But both rested on a combination of improvisational freedoms and musical constraints that worked together to create something new and, often, musically sublime. And definitely not quiet. He explains it like this:
Below excerpted from “I’m Just Playin’ in the Band: Stoicism, Taoism, and Freedom”, by Matthew Turner, in Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded about Love and Haight, Open Court, 2007.
Whether human beings are truly free or are just highly complicated machines obeying the laws of nature like everything else is a perennial philosophical problem. There are a few broad categories of solutions to the problem, and most either ask us to accept the bleak fact that the world and everything in it is spinning out of our control, or that somehow freedom is compatible with the mechanistic universe. There have been other solutions to the problem, but these solutions typically take one of two approaches. They either deny the view that the world is deterministic—fully and necessarily determined by the laws of nature, or they attempt to redefine and reinterpret the notion of freedom. There is one particular philosophical thread that deals with this problem of human freedom in terms of the latter solution—the Stoic solution. This name comes from a particular kind of philosophy that was ascendant in the ancient Greek and Roman world. The Stoics shared a particular outlook on life, focusing in part on human powerlessness in the face of the events of the world. I also include the Chinese philosophical school of Taoism in this category, as well as the modern philosopher Benedict Spinoza, because their approaches to this problem of freedom closely parallel that of the traditional Stoics.
The Stoic philosophers typically held the view that there is no way to escape the fact that many of our experiences are outside of our control, but they didn’t thereby conclude that we ought to throw our hands up in despair at our impotence. It is possible for us to adopt an attitude toward our own lives and our own experiences that enables us to avoid despair at the inevitability of events. This point is often put in terms of our judgments. We know that we can look at the world in different ways; one event can be judged differently. Epictetus says in the Encheiridion, “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about the things” (Classics of Western Philosophy, Hackett, 2002). What he means is that events themselves have no intrinsic value. Rather, we ascribe value to them. This value is derived from that complex system of beliefs and desires that comprises our entire worldview. But once we realize that the world itself is indifferent to our view of it, we can understand that there’s something arbitrary about our worldview.
Each of these Stoic philosophers contends, in their own particular way, that if we understand the world truly, then much that gives rise to disappointment falls away. But at the same time, the Stoics hold that we often judge ourselves to be in control of things we are not, which appears to entail that we are not free. Nevertheless, the Stoics believe that we are free, and meaningfully free, but more like a river—flowing freely yet still constrained by its banks—instead of the agents we normally take ourselves to be.
Here’s an example. Face it: the Dead sometimes screwed up playing live. Jerry would forget the words, the band would stumble through a particular change, and so on. When they were on, they were really on. But they had their moments. I don’t think that this ever detracted from the overall appeal and enjoyment of their music; in fact, I think that it enhanced it—it made them appear more human and more accessible. But there are times when I’m listening to a show, hearing them jam toward a particular climax, building up in anticipation of the great feeling of release that comes after the growing tension, only to find that the band can’t quite stick it. The experience is terribly anti-climactic.
One thing that we might say when this happens is that the band or Jerry or Bob or whoever screwed up. The implication is that because our experience of the song or jam was worse than it could have been, the performance was thereby worse than it could have been. Notice the direction in which responsibility lies here: someone in the band is responsible because our desires were frustrated and not satisfied.
The Stoic would see the situation differently. Because it is outside of our control how and what the Dead play and whether or not they are successful at it, there’s no point in being upset because there’s nothing we can do about it.
If the advice of the Stoics is that we are to understand that much is outside of our control, then we must also recognize that there is not much that we can do to change the world. The scope of our own freedom is limited, if not entirely illusory. Freedom, then, ultimately means being free from misperceiving and misunderstanding the world, even though we may not be able to cause actions to happen in the way that we typically believe that we do.
Many think this Stoic view is unreasonable, for it seems to reduce the scope of our freedom far too much. Not only that, it seems to undermine legitimate human responses to circumstances. Why shouldn’t we get mad where we have a flat tire? Or if the example seems inconsequential, think of what would arouse your ire—a military draft, nuclear explosion, forced labor. How would the civil rights movement have fared if Dr. Martin Luther King and others would have been content to simply not attempt to change the world directly? Is it reasonable to believe that King’s frustration with institutionalized racism was his simply seeing the matter in the wrong way? In short, Stoicism spells quietism, and that’s a philosophy of life many would just as soon do without.
I believe that the Grateful Dead’s improvisational approach provides us with a concrete example of how Stoicism doesn’t equal quietism, because within the confines of those particular constraints, the Dead develop something original, unique, and substantive. If such a product can lead to something valuable, it stands to reason that we might hope for something similar with regard to human action more generally. That is, we have in the Dead’s approach to playing an analogue of how we might begin to structure our own lives.
George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.
Matthew Turner is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. His research concerns the moral and ethical dimensions of fictional literature. He wishes he could play guitar as well as Jerry, but he doesn’t get upset that he can’t.