Drowned Rats and Mad Dogs: Terrible Things That Have Been Done to Animals to Learn about Human Nature

Drowned Rats

In the 1950s Curt Richter was doing experiments on stress responses in wild and domesticated rats when he accidentally came across a strange phenomenon.

The experiment involved putting rats into large jars full of water and measuring the length of time the rats would swim in water of varying temperatures before they drowned. He was able to show that there were temperatures at which rats survived for longer, and temperatures at which they drowned sooner. (Don’t ask me about the use of this experiment.) The problem was that there were outliers with large variation in the results. Some rats swam for 60-80 hours, while others, particularly wild rats, would drown within minutes.

This variation reduced the significance of Richter’s findings, so he wanted to work out why some of the rats drowned almost immediately. Having ruled out some other factors, Richter worked out what was going on by considering the whole situation the rats are in. He writes:

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense. This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to “give up.”

Next Richter finds a way to prevent the rats from literally just “giving up.” He does this by training them in the idea that their situation is not hopeless. As he describes it:

“Support for the assumption that the sudden death phenomenon depends largely on emotional reactions to restraint or immersion comes from the observation that after elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die. This is achieved by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water for a few minutes on several occasions. In this way the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless; thereafter they again become aggressive, try to escape, and show no signs of giving up. Wild rats so conditioned swim just as long as domestic rats or longer.”

Let’s just note for now that the rats who learned not to become hopeless in this way didn’t necessarily survive the experiments. They simply stop messing up Richter’s experiment by being hopeless outliers. Ultimately they were still participating in an experiment to work out how long a rat normally struggles for in a tank of water before it drowns. The difference is that after having been given hope they then died of exhaustion rather than hopelessness. (I’m sorry if that sounds gruesome. It is what it is.)

Let’s also note for now that Richter thought these experiments were relevant to human beings. He suggested that the immediate drowning (“sudden death”) is comparable to so-called “voodoo” deaths – instances of “mysterious, sudden, apparently psychogenic death, from all parts of the world.” But he also thought it might be comparable to patients dying in hospitals, not from disease or unsuccessful operations, but simply from fear of an operation. He also cites instances of soldiers dying in good health during the second world war.

Richter’s hopeless rat experiments have become famous for their simple message: look at what the simple presence of hope in the mind makes possible! The physical endurance of a rat in a water tank is greater by a factor of hundreds, just due to a simple mental ingredient: hope!

What strikes me as interesting though, is the picture one must have of the kind of universe we inhabit, if these experiments are meant to be meaningful to our situation. Presumably the experimental set-ups would need to reflect our environment in some way and the things that happen to the rats and dogs would have to be comparable to the kinds of things that happen to human beings.

Is a rat struggling to stay afloat in a water tank suitably similar to life on earth for a human being?What of the experimenter holding the rat briefly and  then freeing it? What about immersing it in water for brief periods of time at first? Is life meant to be like that – short periods of captivity, pain and struggle followed by momentary relief giving us hope that there is point in struggling on? But what for? Only to be able to withstand longer periods of struggle and then drown anyway?

I know that the experiment by necessity is a simplified model of reality. But this experiment is said to deal with concepts like hope, death and survival. And all this in an environment where there is no meaning and no vision of the good (or even just the good life for a rat) apart from survival itself? What are these rats who are not hopeless meant to be hoping for?

And what is the experimenter who gives the rats a careful taste of freedom every now and then in order to make them hopeful? Is it a God in our universe? A cruel God? Or is the experimenter just trying to recreate a situation where painful experiences alternate more or less randomly with less painful, neutral or even positive ones while we make up our own minds about the meaning in it all?

What if the rat experiment had been carried out in an entirely different framework of thought, say in one where death was seen as liberation from the necessary suffering that is life? What if the end of life for a rat was seen as an opportunity for re-incarnation as a different, less ratty, life-form or a chance to enter into nirvana?  Then the rats that drown first aren’t in fact losing hope or giving up, but simply letting go, no longer clinging on to life under the misguided notion that it is worth clinging onto?

Then the experimenter who gives hope to the rats by holding them briefly, then letting them go, or by putting them into the water tank briefly, then taking them out is not giving them hope, but rather strengthening in them a tendency to grasp, to believe that it is possible, if they just work hard enough, to fulfil their cravings, to be free of struggle and suffering.

Mad (Sad) Dogs

About fifteen years after Richter’s rat experiments, Martin Seligman and colleagues did some influential experiments with dogs.

They gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who had access to a switch with which they could make them stop. They also gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who couldn’t make them stop. Later they put the dogs into a cage where they received electric shocks but could move over a small obstacle to a different part of the cage where they wouldn’t receive shocks. The dogs from the first group found out quickly how they could avoid the shocks and largely did so. The dogs from the second group just suffered the shocks. The conclusion: These dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman was immediately interested in the implications for human suffering and wellbeing. He says the animals who had learned helplessness looked “downright depressed.” And it was the implications of learned helplessness in dogs for depression and other mental illnesses in human beings that looked interesting.

But again, there are some outliers. And the outliers begin to look even more interesting than the normal cases. As Seligman writes:

“It all stems from some embarrassing findings that I keep hoping will go away. Not all of the rats and dogs become helpless after inescapable shock, nor do all of the people after being presented with insolvable problems or inescapable noise. One out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up. At first, I try to sweep this under the rug, but after a decade of consistent variability, the time arrives for taking it seriously. What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness? What is it about other people that makes them collapse at the first inkling of trouble?”

Seligman’s experiments provided the foundations for a new school of psychology. Positive psychology focussed on helping people lead happier, more effective lives, rather than on removing psychological diseases and weaknesses. Some of it focussed on the characteristics of those outliers who refused to learn helplessness, assuming that these could help others. This led to the insight that it helps to view bad events as temporary rather than permanent and specific rather than universal. These non-human and human animals apparently have hope. Hope again emerges as a key factor, this time not only in longer survival but in wellbeing and happiness.

But What Does It All Mean?

The experimental set-up again contains some ideas about what life in this universe is like. Some individuals may experience phases in life where they are unable to control the painful events (electric shocks or other) that they are exposed to. From this experience they may conclude that it is pointless to try to avoid painful events in later life phases and surrender to them. They no longer struggle against painful events or look for ways to avoid them. They continue in this resigned state, even in later phases of their lives when they could avoid painful events

But how is the universe and human life really set up with regard to painful events? Is it more like having a switch with which we can make them stop or more like not having one? Is it more like being able to move from a part of a cage where we are exposed to electric shocks to another part where we aren’t?

The kinds of painful events human beings outside of experimental settings are exposed to are more diverse than electric shocks. And there are other things we can aim for in life than the avoidance of pain. What if the painful events are on the path to a greater good that makes them worthwhile? (To be fair to Seligman, he fully recognises that purpose, meaning, pursuing a greater good are key to happiness. In that he seems to have left the dog experiments well behind.)

Another experiment, more of a “thought experiment,” comparing a dog’s life to that a human being’s, stems from around 2000 years before Seligman. It’s that of an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher who says that a person’s relationship to fate is like the relationship between a dog strapped to a cart and his master. The master will get the dog to pull the cart from A to B. It’s the dog’s choice whether he goes willingly, or whether he gets beaten by the master every bit of the way.

Note how the assumptions about man’s (and dog’s) ability to avoid pain are different in this example from the assumptions in Seligman’s experimental set up. By necessity, we have to undergo the experiences predestined for us. ( How painful they are depends not so much on our efforts to avoid them. Quite the opposite – the ride becomes less unpleasant if we adjust our mental attitude to undergoing them willingly.

Clearly the strength of our belief in our ability to avoid events that are bad for us and move towards those that are good for us influences how hard we try. So a belief that we can change things for the better and that some events are under our control can be a positive thing to have.

What I’m less sure about at the moment is what happens to hopeful people when it turns out that events really aren’t under their control. (Making the assumption that such events are an inescapable feature of the human condition in this universe.) Do more realistic people then fare better – in that they waste less time struggling unsuccessfully? (Think about the fact that in the universe Richter creates for them all the rats drown in the end.) Or in that they are better, like the Stoic dog, at embracing the journey and submitting to it, thus at least not compounding the pain of painful events with the pain from thinking that things should be otherwise and struggling against them.


Beliefs about Ourselves

In the previous post we looked at a number of scenarios where there is a link between having correct beliefs and a successful outcome. Success in these context meant reacting reasonably to a perceived threat, or it meant achieving a simple goal like catching a train in order to get to work. In any case the interactions with the world and the beliefs involved were relatively simple and immediate. The number of objects and beliefs in play were small.

It appears to me though that the relationship between correct beliefs and successful outcomes is also true for more complex projects, say learning a language or climbing a mountain. In order to learn French, I need to be correct in my beliefs that the vocabulary and grammar I am learning is French. If I am learning Italian words instead, believing that they are French, my project to learn French is doomed. To climb a mountain, I need correct beliefs about geography, weather conditions, the required climbing gear and many other factors, in order to succeed.

Then there is also a question of luck. Luck – good or bad – can mess up the relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Let’s assume that I incorrectly believe that there is a train at 8.20am and therefore go to the station exactly for that time. Actually, I’m wrong. There is a train at 8.15am. On any other day, I would have missed it. But today, as luck would have it, the train is delayed by five minutes so I catch it. The successful outcome can’t be said to have related to any correct belief of mine. Or say I’ve prepared and trained conscientiously to climb a mountain, studied the different routes and ensured that I have the right levels of fitness and the required equipment, but on the day a freak change in weather, totally unpredicted by the forecasters, forces me to turn around before reaching the summit. Despite my correct beliefs, bad luck has prevented a successful outcome.

So far the examples we’ve looked at related to beliefs about things and the way the world is organised. But there is a class of beliefs that is said to be particularly relevant to achieving successful outcomes from our own activities. That’s the class of beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. That makes sense: successful outcomes are ultimately about how a number of variables turn out to be arranged. And one or more of those variables are bound to concern the people interacting with the world. In the mountaineering example, success may depend on my assessment of my mountaineering skills and what I (correctly or incorrectly) believe about my ability to get to the peak in inclement weather conditions.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this as a “tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s beliefs.” The beliefs she is interested in are people’s beliefs about their own abilities and their own potential to extend these abilities. She distinguishes between the “fixed mindset” in which people believe that traits such as intelligence are given and static and that challenges are points at which their qualities are  assessed and proven on the one hand, and the “growth mindset” in which people believe that challenges are there to be overcome, that failures are opportunities to learn and that, of course, intelligence and ability can be acquired and extended on the other hand. Dweck isn’t particularly interested in which of these mindsets is true but in the effects of believing in the components of the one or the other.

And the pay-offs in having a growth mindset – that is to say a certain set of beliefs about oneself – are great. People with a growth mindset are more likely to stay on difficult tasks for longer, more likely to succeed at tasks, but also generally more likely to have better outcomes on a range of things such as health and relationships.

Another area where beliefs about ourselves matter is the area of so-called “learned helplessness” and its counterpart “learned optimism.” Psychologists distinguish three areas of belief that are relevant: permanence, pervasiveness and hope.

In the words of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, the permanence belief looks like this:

“People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent – the bad events will persist, are always going to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

So people with a permanent (pessimistic) belief system might think “I’m all washed up,” while someone with a temporary (optimistic) outlook might say “Right now I’m exhausted.”

Pervasiveness is about whether we have universal or specific beliefs and the extent to which we believe the causes of good or bad events affect all areas of our lives, or are specific.

Having hope is about finding permanent and universal causes for good events and temporary as well as specific ones for bad events. So for example to think “I’m talented” rather than “I was lucky this time” if something goes well. Or “I was a bit distracted that morning” rather than “I’m just stupid.”

Seligman, like Dweck, is more interested in the effects of holding those kinds of beliefs, than their relation to the truth. He writes:

“Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. When you break your diet, the response ‘I’m a total glutton’ is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathise with the sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than its worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the world should be fair?”

But I’m wondering whether the relationship between beliefs and outcomes that we observed in the previous post isn’t somehow relevant here too. That would mean that the beliefs at the core of a “growth mindset,” that intelligence and capability can be expanded, or the beliefs at the centre of “learned optimism,” that the causes of personal failure are temporary and specific, are correct beliefs and therefore more conducive to positive outcomes due to an interaction between the belief and what is out there in the world.

I’ll want to look at this more in the next post.


Beliefs and Outcomes

As I said, there are some issues swirling around my mind that I’m not completely clear about. The temptation is not to write about them until I have achieved greater clarity. But I suspect that unless I write about them, I won’t achieve that greater clarity. So let me start with some basic thoughts about the relationship between beliefs and what happens in life:

1.) Imagine I walk out of my house one morning. As it’s early, it’s still dark, slightly misty and I’m only half awake. I see something I believe to be a cobra or some other kind of dangerous snake slightly to the side ahead of me. I jump back indoors and shut the door buying time to consider my next steps. Here are two alternative scenarios for what might happen next:

a) Ok, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been true. I phone the police or the local zoo or someone. They come to pick up the dangerous snake. All is fine. The correct belief that there’s a dangerous snake outside my house allowed me to react in an appropriate way to save my life and potentially that of others. By instilling a useful emotional reaction (fear) in me and triggering the right physical response (jump back, shut the door), the correct belief rewarded me by protecting me from a dangerous animal and I survive.

b) Ah, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been false. I look more closely and realise that a neighbour just left a coiled garden hose in the front garden. The belief that there’s a snake out there did nothing particularly useful, as it didn’t correspond with any real danger. Though I survive in this scenario too, the belief hasn’t done anything useful for me. If anyone observed me getting scared of a garden hose, it might cause me slight embarrassment. The whole episode was a bit of a waste of time.

2.) Imagine I need to get to work. I believe that there will be a train from my local train station at 8.20am that will get me there on time. So I walk to the station and get there just before 8.20am. Again two scenarios:

a) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was correct. I catch the train and get to work on time.

b) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was incorrect. It left at 8.15am before I got to the station and the next one doesn’t leave for another 30 minutes. I’ll get to work late and I waste 30 minutes at the train station.

In these examples correct beliefs about things reward me with a successful outcome to my projects (survival / avoidance of danger; getting to work) and allow me to plan appropriately. Incorrect beliefs can’t be said to reward me in such a way. The reason the correct beliefs reward me with a kind of success is because they correspond with something that’s real in the world (leaving aside for now all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological justifications that may be required for such a statement) with which I correctly engage in order to further my projects.

3. Let’s say that the train operator in my area is unreliable. I believe that on any given day there is a 50% chance that there is a train from my station at 8.20am. On half of the days the train drivers are on strike, there are technical problems with the trains or the trains aren’t running due to bad weather conditions. I have no way of knowing in advance whether this will be one of those days, so I walk to the station for 8.20am.

a) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is a train. Great!

b) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is no train. Not so great. But as my belief was correct, I always reckoned that there is only a 50% chance that I won’t have a train. Though the absence of a train is disappointing, I expected it as a possibility. It is an eventuality I took into account in walking to the station, while also planning for an alternative for the case that there is no train. In my own personal cost-benefit analysis walking to the station every day, even if trains only appear on half the days is still worthwhile. (E. g. because the walk to the station is short and the benefit of getting to work by train is great.) Believing correctly that there may not be a train allows me to avoid disappointment and plan for alternatives (taking a bus or working at home).

c) My belief was incorrect. There is never a train at 8.20am. Though there may have been one at 8.15am which I have missed. The next train may or may not be there in half an hour’s time. This is less good. It’s disappointing, a waste of time and for as long as I persist in my false belief that there is a train at 8.20am, I will never catch a train on time, even if it’s a good day for running trains.

In this scenario too, the correct belief rewards me with success in terms of furthering my plans and projects. In this case – due to the complexity of the situation – that success may not be the achievement of my most immediate goal (getting to work). But the success in this case consists of the fulfilment of my general expectation that if I go to the station for 8.20am every day, I will get to work by train on half the days. Though I don’t catch an 8.20am train in scenarios b) and c), scenario b) is different in that my project – of catching the train if there is one, and doing something else if there isn’t – is still successful. Again this success is due to the correspondence of my belief with what is actually happening in the world.

In these examples then, there is a relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Holding correct beliefs allows me to interact with the world in a way that generates a successful outcome. This is not least the case because the world is the way I believe it to be. If I hold false beliefs, the world turns out not to have been the way I believed it to be. This means I interact with the world in sub-optimal ways.

There is a certain type of beliefs that is held to be particularly important to the achievement of successes. These are beliefs about ourselves. I wonder whether the simple relationship we discussed above regarding the correspondence of real things in the world with the beliefs I hold and successful outcomes holds for this type of beliefs too.


Why What Goes On In The Mind Matters

A complex of related themes is going around my mind at the moment over which I don’t feel I have enough clarity yet to write a coherent blog post. But I thought that maybe if I set out some of those things in little chunks, then maybe it will help make things clearer. So here are some slightly random thoughts which really need to be elaborated and brought into some kind of order:

  1. What goes on in our minds matters because it influences what we do and how we do. Not just in an obvious sense that acting on correct beliefs can lead to successful outcomes (“there is a train at 8.20am that goes to the destination I need to get to”), but also in more indirect ways (if I believe things aren’t hopeless, I will be able to take positive action for longer; if I believe this pill is the medicine that will heal me, I will get better even if it’s a placebo; if I believe my mental capacities aren’t fixed but I am capable of learning things, I will succeed better at expanding my mental capacities; etc.)
  2. The things we actively “bring to mind” and the things “at the forefront of our mind” aren’t the totality of what goes on in our minds. There are probably beliefs we are unaware of that we may not have examined for a long time. There may be thoughts that are being processed outside of our field of attention. There may be techniques by which we can become more aware of some of the things going on in our mind but fundamentally that’s how human minds work (?).
  3.  Given 1. and 2., it would sometimes be helpful if we could choose what we believe or what goes on in our minds. But fundamentally we can’t fully choose what we believe (try believing something random at will), and we can’t easily influence the beliefs or other things going on in our minds that we aren’t aware of.
  4. There may be techniques by which we can exercise a bit more control over what goes on in our minds (in particular clearing out unhelpful beliefs that we hold but haven’t examined for a while). Given 3. we should expect these to be very valuable but not straightforward to practice or instantaneous in their effect.

So that’s it. I hope to expand on all of this a bit in the next few posts. If the mind allows.

Useful Concepts -#14- Belonging Gently

A Blog Post for Nihal’s 5th Birthday

Dear Nihal – Happy birthday!

A famous literary critic once said that there was “no more sombre enemy of great art than the pram in the hall.” A blog isn’t great art. This stuff isn’t literature. But it’s funny that I felt more motivated and able to write things down after you were born. Probably that’s because there are certain things I would like you to know when you’re old enough to read and understand them. Or at least certain things of which I would like you to know that your father once thought them.

Unlike with some of my other blog posts I won’t quote lots of books at you here. These are just some thoughts of mine. I always thought I had a very diverse background as far as nationalities, ethnicities and religions go: I was born in Israel, brought up in Switzerland and now live in England. Go back far enough into my (your) family background you’ll find Jews from Switzerland and all over Europe, as well as non-practising Christians or atheists of Roman-Catholic and Anglican backgrounds, Italians who emigrated to London, an English line and probably more. But you have even more diversity on your side. On your mother’s side you also have Sikhs from the Punjab, and some who came to London via Kenya. And even if you didn’t have all of that diversity already in you, you still have access to an amazing range of cultures, ethnicities, religious experiences because that’s the world you live in. London, where you’re growing up is one of the more open-minded, multi-cultural and diverse places in the world and I hope that it won’t close in on itself during your lifetime.

And what I wanted to recommend to you – though I know that you will come to your own conclusions – is to hold as much as you can of your own and of that wider diversity close and dear. Belonging gently – never fiercely, desperately or too seriously – to as much of it as you can. I found that at times I tried to impersonate one of the many strands of my identity too strongly at the cost of others and I found that that was never particularly successful. There were times, for example, when I jokingly said that my career ambition was to become a miracle working rabbi (not like Jesus, but like the orthodox guys who were prevalent in Eastern Europe some centuries ago) and there were times I just wanted to be seen as being totally English and hated it when people suggested I had some kind of foreign accent or asked where my name came from. I was about as likely to succeed in either ambition – that is to say, not at all – and I now think these ambitions to be one thing instead of being many things were misguided. Because trying to be purely one thing with too much orthodoxy, clinging too much to an identity, means excluding any other identities that you can have. And there are things of value, sources of energy, and potential for insights in all of them.

It might be tempting then to go further and give up on belonging to any particular background: adopt the citizenship of cosmopolitanism and the religion of spirituality without religion. But it’s difficult to find the culture and national character of the citizens of the world. And it’s hard to work out the rites, rituals, holidays, beliefs and prayers of the merely spiritual. And these things matter, even if only as a backdrop of traditions from which to renew things or even to rebel against.

That’s why I suggest a concept of “belonging gently.” Belong to your backgrounds, adopt some new things to belong to, if you like, but embrace them all at the same time. Don’t belong too radically just to one, never be too proud of one strand, never cling too desperately to any one of them. If you can, be happy to belong to things, but also be happy, when it’s called for, to be a little bit of an outsider. It is healthy, now and then, to be able to look at what you belong to from a different perspective, a little bit from the outside, having taken a step away or adopted a different way of looking at it. You can then ask yourself questions like “does all of this represent all of me? Which parts of it am I happy to belong to? Which can I do without?”

None of this, by the way, is to say that you should be commitment phobic. Commit fully to people, to ideas, to cultures, if you like. Committing is about what you give of yourself. Belonging is about the hold that you allow something to have on you. This may be complicate. I’ll try to illustrate it by way of an example: It makes me laugh how you five-year-olds can say “today, so-and-so was my friend” and then the next day “today, so-and-so wasn’t my friend.” That’s a funny concept of friendship that comes and goes with each day. Friendship by definition implies a more enduring commitment, even if someone decides not to play with you for a day, or even a series of days. And you need those commitments to friendships with other people for a happy life. But you don’t need to want to belong so strongly to a group of “friends” that you’d do anything – exclude others, do things you know to be silly – in order to remain a part of it.

So yes, commit firmly and belong gently. Maybe that works.

Anyway, perhaps this getting all too serious. Maybe by the time you can read and understand this, you’ll have found out for yourself what works. Or I will have changed my mind about these things again. For now have a happy birthday, blow out candles, eat cake, unwrap presents and enjoy yourself!

Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.



Just Briefly on Terrorism…

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks a lot of dumb stuff gets written and said and a lot of good stuff. What you don’t get much of is new stuff. I don’t have anything particularly good or new to say on the subject. But I wanted to add a small and unimportant voice to those of the people who say the kind of thing I’m about to say anyway.

Terrorists kill people. They destroy buildings and infrastructure. They also attack our values. Values that form the background to everything we do and think. But that’s the thing: they form the background. We are so used to taking them for granted that we don’t even think about them. Values like open-mindedness, tolerance, and freedoms – freedoms of speech, of thought, of movement, of congregation, of religion, of assembly and so on.

When these values come under attack we need to to bring them from the background to the foreground. We need to forget that they are so firmly established that we can take them for granted. We then need to start again -committing to them, justifying them, implementing them, furthering them and promoting them.

So we need to counter closed-minded fundamentalism with open-mindedness. We need to counter intolerance by promoting tolerance, we need to counter attempts to reduce our freedoms by making the best use of them, broadening them out and making them available to more people. Because if we try to fight intolerance with intolerance, closed minds by closing ours and attacks on our freedoms by reining in freedoms, we lose. If good people think they need to fight evil with evil, evil wins.