318 – Micro- and macro-philosophy

Posted on March 11, 2015 by


That’s what it is to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.

Our town. Henry MILLER

A month ago, an electronic weekly published a piece on Stoicism.[1] It was an honorable presentation of a much heralded ancient philosophy. The author, however, concluded: “Ever the strategist, Marcus Aurelius employed a trusty technique in confronting the days that comprised such a life, making a point to tell himself at the start of each one of them: ‘I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.’”

This quote froze me in my thoughts. First, I wondered how I might feel myself, going through life day after day, getting up in the morning and thinking, while I shave: “I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.” Of course, life has its share of adversity. Should one go out day after day with an emotional umbrella and overcoat, however, expecting random disasters, unkindness, and professing indifference[2] to it all? As Mary BEARD points out,[3] Stoicism is a philosophy best applied to life in an autocracy, chaos, and in any event: death (“we are dying every day” was one of Seneca’s slogans).

And then, I switched my point of view. Rather than imagining myself as a stoic, I wondered how it would feel to live with a stoic. At an immediate level, we may find the stoic to be a hypocrite and a dissembler – as Mary Beard finds in Seneca. At a deeper level – a true stoic would not hate, but also not love – she would simply be indifferent to me and any other. How does living at the receiving end of a culture of indifference feel like, or of any philosophical system for the matter?

At this point, I realized that no Western philosophical system had ever asked this kind of question. Not Plato,[4] not Aristoteles or Kant. Roaming further afield, I may mention Gandhi,[5] though he is not a “philosopher” in a Western sense, but rather a man of political and spiritual action.[6]

I am perplexed. Philosophers, who study “general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language, or which distinguishes itself from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument,” seem to have overlooked the issue of the consequences of the systems they have elaborated on others.


Let’s look at the Hindu philosophical system of the ancient Indian elites for a moment.[7] According to the teachings as set out in the Baghavad Gita, each person is to take up one’s allotted role in the metaphysical scheme of cycle of death and rebirth – that one does not understand. One must be unflinching in following the eternal path of dharma (righteousness) toward moksa (freedom). Injecting personal desire (or repulsion) pollutes dharma. It is a sin; it yields regression, to be paid for through reincarnation as a lesser being. Indifference is the right way forward. Putting things in perspective: while Christianity and Islam tie socially desirable behavior to future reward (paradise/hell), the Hindu system links it to atoning for a person’s past. In a sense, it is getting out of hell on an installment plan. As a corollary, indifference also applies to the other’s dharma.[8]

As Wendy DONIGER notes,[9] the paths of action (karma yoga) and meditation (jnana yoga) are a person’s assigned lot. The path of devotion (bhakti) to a God is superior to the two; Bhakti, which is open to anyone, is a new way to reconcile them. Whichever the allotted path, it is personal and utterly disregarding of the “other.” Consequently, in the Gita Arjuna obeys Krishna and wages horrible war – while remaining indifferent, i.e. accepting the cosmic way of things.

Whatever one’s present personal qualifications, one is to accept the existential condition as one atones for the past. Indifference to one’s desires and those of the “other” are integral part of this worldview. Out of this philosophical system the Hindu caste system emerged. At its core is indifference. So, the high caste Brahmin is indifferent to the lesser castes, in particular, the Dalits (Untouchables). The only relations among the two castes are those of function: the Dalits may work for the Brahmins, but there shall be no social intercourse, which would lead to polluting the Brahmin’s way. A Brahmin will refuse to share food with them, or even ask Dalits noisily to notify their presence lest their shadow “pollute” the high caste. The system is of course far more complex, as there are many sub-castes, but it works on a gradient of cold and distant disgust, with the untouchables at the bottom. Contrary to hot hate, which is destructive, cold indifference is not overtly violent (unless the boundary is overstepped). It is pervasive, however, and enduring. Stigmatization fans resignation.

For the Brahmin practicing indifference, the philosophic stance may be welcome. For the Dalits living with it, however, it is (allotted) hell on earth.[10] As much as I admire the Hindu philosophical system, I can’t rightly ignore its real existing consequences. The caste system is slavery softly enforced by philosophy.


For once, economists here are ahead of philosophers. They distinguish micro-economics, which deals with the economic behavior of firms, from macro-economics, which looks at the economy as a whole and separately from individual behavior. In a deeper sense, macro-economics is about the consequences of individual behavior. It is taking responsibility for the economy as a whole.[11]

I take this analogy back to philosophy. There may be the same contradiction between micro-philosophy, which deals with individual behavior, and macro-philosophy, which deals with society as a whole, i.e. with the consequences of a philosophical system for the overall functioning of a society.

Mostly, philosophers have ducked the quandary. Kant’s Golden Rule is the epitome of such skirting the issue of the consequences: “Do unto others what you’d like them to do unto you” posits that we have equivalent tastes,[12] or that we are all clones of each other. No wonder happiness accrues all around. John RAWLS “veil of ignorance” might, in the end, be a contemporary upgrade. He admits that humans are all different. His “veil of ignorance” elegantly sidesteps the issue.

My hunch is that we may consider revisiting or even “retiring”[13] the concept of “freedom.” Not simply because freedom is a meta value[14] rather than a value. Freedom shares with money the characteristic that is “frozen desire” – they are both potentialities. Money comes with a budget, and so does freedom. In the real world, we have “choices”– that always come with overt and covert consequences – rather than “freedom.” The more “choices” we have, the better off we are, but we may not escape the curse of consequences. These consequences are material first, but also social: justice to one must also address the issue of justice to all.

But this unresolved tension is the stuff of a future blog.


[1]           Stoicism seems to be getting some sort of revival these days: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/

[2]           Indifference refers to the boundaries of one’s actions. In the Stoic system the boundaries are personal. In the Hindu system, the boundaries are cosmic. In both intstances, however, indifference isolates from what is beyond the boundary.

[3]           Mary BEARD (2014): How Stoical was Seneca?  New York Review of Books, October 9. See also:Rosario VILLARI (2003): Elogio della dissimulazione. La lotta politica nel Seicento. Laterza, Bari.

[4]           Xenophon intimates that the shrew Xantippe was married to Plato’s hero Socrates. She was “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” Nevertheless, Socrates adds that he chose her precisely because of her argumentative spirit. Maybe she was acting (up) from experience.

[5]           On Gandhi there is some anecdotal evidence: “Sarojini Naidu, a poetess and close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was a feisty, outspoken woman who was totally unfazed by his growing rock-star status (by the standards of the 1930s) and global celebrity. She berated Gandhi for his attempts to live in poverty, as a semi-recluse, in his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River, at that time on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. “Do you know how much it costs every day to keep you in poverty?” she is reputed to have asked him. http://bit.ly/1GClUjK

[6]           See: Kathrin TIDRICK (2008): Gandhi. A political and spiritual life. I. B. Tauris, London.

[7]           I’m more than aware that the following is a “cardboard” version of Hinduism. A stream of books has been written on it. I’m only trying here to give a whiff of it. Also, such a system draws on ideas from many contending schools of thought in classical India. See e.g. Richard DAVIS (2014):  The Bhagavad Gita. A biography. Princeton University Press, New Haven.

[8]           Buddhism deviates from Hinduism in that it places compassion at the core of its teachings.

[9]           See e.g. Wendy DONIGER (2014): War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita. New York Review of Books, December 4.

[10]          It is regrettable that on the Dalit issue, Gandhi remained equivocal. He certainly was not in favor of caste, but in 1932 he went on a hunger strike aimed at rejecting proffered affirmative action for the Dalits. See: Perry ANDERSON (2013): The Indian ideology. Verso, London.

[11]          Adam SMITH prefaced his Wealth of Nations with The theory of moral sentiments. This is an ethical stance, which is different from the well-functioning of an economic system as a whole.

[12]          The economist Paul SAMUELSON quipped in reply: “Don’t do unto others what you’d like them to do unto you – they may have different tastes.”

[13]          Even scientists are considering “retiring” some axioms and assumptions. See. John BROCKMAN (Ed.) (2014): This idea must die. Scientific theories that are blocking progress. Harper, New York.

[14]          I know that today this is stark heresy, but bear with me for a moment. Substance words are characterized by the fact that one immediately has a mental image. Love, in this sense, is easy. Love is the face of the beloved, or skin, or scent. Freedom? What mental image does freedom trigger? Blank. This is why freedom had to be symbolized by the Phrygian cap or equivalent. People could not conjure a mental image.

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