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The Moral Panacea

Stoic Nurturing verses Religious Indoctrination

By Jeff ~

Will ever the day come when the wise will band together the sweet dreams of youth and the joy of knowledge? Each is but naught when in solitary existence.

Will ever the day come when Nature will be the teacher of man and Humanity his book of devotions and Life his daily school? Youth’s purpose of joy – capable in its ecstasy and mild in its responsibility – cannot seek fulfilment until knowledge heralds the dawn of that day. [Kahlil Gibran]
Until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than morals. [Bertrand Russell]
If a noble disposition be planted in a young mind, it will engender a flower that will endure to the end, and no rain will destroy, nor will it be withered by drought. [Antiphon]

I’m an Ex-Christian (of the born-again, spirit-filled persuasion) and I’m passionate about introducing a form of nurturing that will supersede religious indoctrination. The passion started with some ideas for a puppet theatre project, and now I find myself writing a book to help launch a new movement; so I’ve posted this little blurb as a preliminary feeler and any sensible comments would be much appreciated.

PuppetsImage by Waypoint-zero via Flickr
The new movement is called THE CHILDREN OF THE STOA, and it’s based on the pragmatic and heroic aspects of Stoic Philosophy. The original Stoic philosophers were called “men of the stoa” or “Stoics” because they taught and debated their ideas in a stoa, which is the Greek name for those porches, with the columns, on the front of ancient Greek temples. I’ve changed men of the stoa, to “Children of the Stoa” because the new movement’s aim will be to promote a youthful vitality to the pursuit of Virtue (Wisdom, Kindness, Moderation, Fortitude etc), especially in regards to the nurturing and education of youth.

The main project of the Children of the Stoa movement will be THE ARETE PUPPET THEATRES PROJECT; or Apt Project for short—which is a neat little abbreviation, in that “Apt” means suitable and appropriate—and although I already have lots of ideas for this project, it has certain universal and dynamic qualities that have prompted me to write the book and attract some kindred spirits first. There is also the feeling that if I just continued with this project alone (designing the puppets and puppet theatre booths in my garden shed) it might not amount to anything; whereas, if I can get other people to share my vision, who knows how big this project could get?

Here are two grand ideas, to show something of the project’s universal nature and dynamic potential:

  1. Many, if not all of our social problems begin with the ideas and values people first acquire when they’re young children, but one of the biggest difficulties is that there is nothing, or very little that can be done to influence other people’s children. Puppet theatres are a solution to this problem, and my plan or vision involves very simple designs for puppets and puppet theatre booths, so they can be easily reproduced in two sizes. The big puppet theatres will be for beaches, shopping precincts, schools, gardens, parks, social clubs etc, and the smaller puppet theatres will be for people’s homes; which can be set up in the home, garden or street, to entertain and teach ones own children, as well as the children of friends and neighbours. One little fantasy that has kept this project alive is the thought of how quickly I could be giving a little puppet show, on top of a garden wall or fence perhaps. I can’t imagine any simpler, yet dynamic and fun way, of introducing children to some role-model characters, and creating some lasting impressions on their young minds.
  3. Puppet theatres could be the catalysts of an Ideal Society. To explain this, I’ll use a simple analogy: If you wanted to properly grow some kind of valuable plants, then you’d need to make sure they have the right soil, moisture, temperature, plant food and light; varying the needs of the plants with the various stages of their growth. Your aim should be to provide the perfect conditions for the plants to grow as you want them; strong and healthy, with masses of fruit perhaps. But it is of prime importance that you begin this cultivation with an ideal goal in mind, and the love and care begins with the seeds and seedlings. By the same token—surely the creation of an ideal society could only begin with the best nurturing and education of youth. So that’s where the puppet theatres project fits in, as the Principal Nurturing and Educational Tools, and hopefully the flagships of many related enterprises.

Children learn first by imitating the people around them; so as Principal Nurturing Tools, specific soft and cuddly puppet-children could be given to newly born babies as good interactive toys, to play with the youngsters while demonstrating polite and kind behaviour. And a few politeness and kindness jingles would make these initial social skills really stick. There is also a sort of magic about puppets, in that they can take on a life or personality of their own—For example; the celebrity puppets, Kermit the Frog, Basil-Brush, Sooty and Sweep, and Rudd Hull’s Emu, have become far more than the materials they’re made of. So in the eyes of children, their puppet characters could seem very real, like extended family members and companions for life. So after forming a loving bond with their puppet characters, the children would see the puppet plays, where their puppet characters would be set up as fun loving and adventurous noble role models.

As Principle Educational Tools, the plays could also introduce children to some of the wisest and noblest characters in history, and the heroes I’ve chosen for the first play are Confucius, Epicurus, Zeno, Mahatma Gandhi and Socrates. Teaching children good behaviour might seem somewhat cheesy; but I have a feeling that even exaggerating the cheesiness, with these famous characters, would work brilliantly.

I have loads of ideas for the initial puppet play, but for now I’ll just give a brief outline. What I have in mind is six musical acts, where big song sheets are draped over the front of the puppet theatre booth for audience participation. The puppet play will be a gardening course, where an apprentice gardener grows a tree, called an Arete Tree; and there’ll be mechanical plants for the various stages of growth, with articulating leaves, stems and flowers, so they can be made to look both healthy and unwell; thus symbolising the moral growth of the apprentice puppet.

ACT 1 is the seed planting stage, and to help the apprentice will be the Greek God Zeus.

As an Ex-Christian I had a problem with using Zeus at first, but I gradually realised that it’s not wise to dispose of the idea of God completely, and the Greek myths never achieved sacred scripture status, so it’s easy to rule out notions that are unbecoming of a Supreme Being. There is also the fact that throughout ancient Greek culture, the gods had pantheistic qualities, which is probably why the ancient Greeks were the true pioneers of rational inquiry.

There is also an element of pragmatic heroism throughout the Greek myths, which became important to Stoic Philosophy. The Stoic Cleanthus expresses a divine calling—which is both heroic and rational—in this prayer:

Lead me O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready, If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow. [Cleanthus]

Incidentally; the writer of the book of Acts—in Acts 17:28—adds a pantheistic element to Christianity, when he has St Paul quoting from this Stoic poem:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken
For every street, every market place is full of Zeus
Even the sea and the harbour are full of his deity
Everyone everywhere is indebted to Zeus
For we are indeed his offspring [Aratus]

And this quote from Euripides I find extremely encouraging:

Whoso nobly yields unto necessity, we hold as wise and skilled in things divine. [Euripides]

The word “Arete” also comes from the Greek myths, and describes the hero; as explained in this historian’s description of the hero in Homer’s Odyssey:

The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send: and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phoenician youth at boxing, wrestling or running, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.
He is in fact an excellent all-rounder. He has surpassing Arete.
Arete implies a respect for the wholeness of life and a consequent dislike for efficiency; or rather, a much higher idea of efficiency; an efficiency which exists not in one department of life, but in life itself. [H Kitto]

ACT 2 is the seed germination stage, and to help the apprentice will be Confucius.

This is the politeness and kindness stage of the course, and I’ve chosen Confucius because he grew up in a society where social rituals were very important. The rituals were a sort of elaborate and embellished form of polite and correct conduct, to do with ordering society, by showing respect to ones superiors and enacting ones own role in a way that would also be admired and earn respect:

When we see persons of worth we should think of equalling them; when we see persons of contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves. [Confucius]

The contribution Confucius made to his own society was to make it more humanitarian and less pompous, more to do with virtue, than class, wealth and social status:

He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars point toward it. [Confucius]

I’m sure Confucius would have wholeheartedly approved of the Apt Project, because his philosophy was also about teaching the masses:
If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of a hundred years, teach the people. [Confucius]
And of course, he knew that a society’s moral values begin in the home:
The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. [Confucius]

ACT 3 is the seedling stage, and to help the apprentice will be Epictetus.

This is the moderation stage of the course, and I’ve chosen Epictetus because moderation was a very important aspect of his philosophy. Children’s social perspectives should go from family and friends, to community and then society; so I see Epicurus as providing the initial family, friendship and community based ideas, whereas the Stoics provide the broader social ideas they’ll need later.

Another reason for choosing Epicurus is because he lived in a garden retreat, within a community of likeminded people. This is a good model to learn from with the initial raising of children; in that we should try to avoid all the rubbish, and start to provide children with the noble values that the capitalist system lacks:

Protection from other men, secured to some extent by the power to expel, and by material prosperity in its purest form, comes from a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude. [Epicurus]

Epicurus equated happiness with such feelings as peace, tranquillity and harmony; so his attitude to life entailed a very cautious or prudent balance between pleasure and pain; and pain includes the absence of disturbing thoughts:

It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble. [Epicurus]

ACT 4 is the sapling stage, and to help the apprentice will be Zeno of Citium; the founder of Stoic Philosophy.

This is the wisdom stage of the course, and I’ve chosen Zeno because of his Theory of Knowledge, which he taught using his hands:

      Stage 1: Hand held wide open—IMPRESSIONS
      Stage 2: Hand closes to form fist—ASSENT TO CONVICTION
      Stage 3: Other hand grasps fist—KNOWLEDGE

Here is my somewhat modified version of Zeno’s theory of knowledge:

Stage 1: IMPRESSIONS: Everything we can possibly know is initially derived from impressions made on our senses—i.e. hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. It is from these impressions our memories are built, which we recall as mental images, or appearances in the mind
In terms of memory, a newly born babies mind can be likened to a clean sheet of paper ready to be written on.

Stage 2: ASSENT TO CONVICTION: This is where our reasoning faculty forms general notions, through recognising relationships and similarities between the impressions. But impressions have varying degrees of clarity. Some, such as good and bad, are strong and demand immediate assent, whereas others require deliberate reflection, and the notions formed from weak indistinct impressions—although they may be true—are at this stage, merely our own formed Opinions or Beliefs.

Stage 3: KNOWLEDGE: The impressions from which genuine knowledge is formed are clear and precise, and this knowledge (deductions, conclusions, understanding) cannot be removed, and can be confirmed and reinforced by further impressions. Kataleptike Phantasia is the ancient Greek name for the impressions that get a firm grip on reality—In other words, the numerous events you can clearly recall that have resulted in genuine knowledge.

This isn’t about telling you how to think, it’s about telling you how you already think, most of the time you’re awake. It’s the natural method for grasping everyday practical knowledge you’ve been using since childhood, and the natural method that everyone has used throughout the whole of human history.

I intend to make a little mechanical prop for the puppet play, so Zeno can continue to teach this theory of knowledge, via his puppet likeness. The prop will consist of a microphone and two mechanical hands; so ideas are spoken, or sung into the microphone, and if they are mere opinions, one hand will just close; but if the idea is correct, the hand will close and be grasped by the other hand.

As an Ex-Christian, I found Zeno’s theory of knowledge very useful, for driving out all the biblical dogma I’d been taught in my youth; and this quote about the Stoic was also very useful:

THE STOIC is one who considers with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed. Whether because of the invariable habits of the gods, the invariable properties of matter, or the invariable limits within which logic and mathematics deploy their forms, he can hope for nothing that adequate method could not foresee. He need not despair, but the most fortunate resolution to any predicament will draw its elements still from a known set, and so will ideally occasion him no surprise. The analogies that underlie his thinking are physical, not biological: things are chosen shuffled combined: all motion rearranges a limited supply of energy. [Hugh Kenner]

The strange thing about history is that Greek Philosophy was mislaid for many years, as Europe went through that barbaric and superstitious era called the Dark Ages. Since that time, the theories of such Philosophers as Plato and Aristotle were incorporated, because they were somewhat compatible with religion. So generally speaking, the theories of Plato and Aristotle became the roots of intellectual thinking, and the moral fibre of society was left to the church; whereas the Stoics—who had the right attitude to life—have been treated like an interesting curiosity.

Here are three tasters from the Roman Stoics; the former slave Epictetus, the senator Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius:
The good man will not be a common thread in the fabric of humanity. But a purple thread: That touch of brilliance which brings distinction and beauty to the rest. [Epictetus]
Philosophy teaches us to act, and not just to speak. It demands of everyone that he should actually live by his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that his inner existence should be of one hue, and fully harmonious with all his outer activities. This is the highest duty and the highest proof there is real wisdom. [Seneca]
A mans true delight is to do the things he was made for: He was made to show goodwill to his kind, to rise above the promptings of his senses, to distinguish appearances from realities and to pursue the study of universal Nature and her works. [Marcus Aurelius]

ACT 5 is the flowering stage, and to help the apprentice will be Mahatma Gandhi.

This is the fortitude stage of the course, and I’ve chosen Mahatma Gandhi because I know of no other person who endured such incredible difficulties in order to make so many great social reforms. With all the anger and violence around him, Mahatma Gandhi wrote these:
Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding. [Mahatma Gandhi]
You must not loose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean: if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. [Mahatma Gandhi]

I’m sure Mahatma Gandhi would have wholeheartedly approved of the Apt Project, considering this quote;
If we are to teach real peace in the world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. [Mahatma Gandhi]

ACT 6 is the fruiting stage, and to assess how well the apprentice has done, will be Socrates.

This is the Eudaimonia or flourishing stage of the course, and I’ve chosen Socrates for several reasons; but most importantly there is the assertion “Arete is Knowledge,” in other words; if people were to know the best way to live and behave, then surely they would choose that way. Therefore people live and behave badly though ignorance. And I would add to this: People will only know how to pursue Arete, if they are nurtured with the notion of pursuing Arete in childhood. Or if they work on a project that aims to impress on children’s minds the notion of pursing Arete—for example: The Arete Puppet Theatres Project.