Stoicism and… psychedelics?

[image: chemical structure of Beatrice, a lesser known psychedelic drug, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #250 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

Psychedelics are back, baby! There has been a flurry of, largely positive, articles about the use of psychedelics — be it therapeutic, recreational, or as an aid to discover “deeper” realities. Anthropologist and historian of science Nicolas Langlitz has recently discussed the problem with new research on the effects of psychedelics: it is hard to test their effects using standard methods in pharmacological science.

You see, the established approach in this sort of research is a protocol known as the placebo-controlled trial, in which some subjects are exposed to the test drug while others get a placebo. The underlying assumption is that whatever differences manifest themselves between the experiences and reactions of the two groups is due to the drug. That assumption in turn relies on a deeper, and more problematic one: that the same psychological and cultural factors are at work both when the drug is experienced and when the placebo is given.

The problem, as Langlitz explains in detail, is that such underlying assumption has been shown to be false. We have known since the 19th century that, for instance, the ingestion of peyote, which contains the active substance mescaline, has dramatically different effects depending on the psycho-cultural background of the subjects. Native Americans experience what they describe as contact with a “higher” reality that results in a form of religious enthusiasm, while many Westerners have horrible visions and end up in a gloomy depression.

While this obstacle isn’t impossible to overcome, it isn’t clear how researchers might be able to set up experiments that include psycho-cultural controls, a proposition that — even if feasible — would definitely be cumbersome and expensive to implement. The result is that we really don’t know as much about the effects of psychedelics as some currently enthusiastic supporters would lead us to believe. Moreover, even if the use of such drugs were to be approved, as Langlitz drily puts it, “being guided through your trip by a psychedelic veteran might not be the same as receiving the drug from your born-again oncologist in the Bible Belt.”

I will add one more skeptical note to Langlitz’s article: the very fact that people’s experiences with psychedelics depend so markedly on their psychological conditions and cultural background hints very strongly to the conclusion that — pace Native Americans and others — such drugs do not offer a deeper understanding of a higher reality, whatever that means. They just mess around with your brain, and such messing can be pleasant or not, depending.

Enter my colleague and fellow Stoic practitioner Jules Evans, who has published another article — in the same magazine as Langlitz — enthusiastic about psychedelics, entitled “A spiritual emergency can be wild. This is how to ride the wave.” Jules is one of the people that started the original annual Stoicon events in London, and indeed the very person that got me to organize Stoicon in New York in 2017. He then left the Modern Stoicism group for a bit to explore different approaches to the question of how to live a good life, and published a book entitled “The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher's Search for Ecstatic Experience.” He is now practicing what to me looks like an eclectic philosophy, with elements of Stoicism, Buddhism, and, of course, psychedelic-induced experiences.

I don’t think this is a good idea. Let me explain why. Jules begins his article by saying that he went on a trip to the Amazon in 2017, after having abstained psychedelics for twenty years because of a really bad trip that left him traumatized. Despite that experience, he tried it again, and he had yet another bad trip. As he describes it: “It felt as if my heart froze shut. I was suddenly profoundly disconnected from my surroundings and from other people, to the extent that they seemed unreal. … I started to doubt if I was in normal reality. I began to suspect that I was either in a dream of my own construction or trapped in some kind of fake reality constructed by someone else. … This isn’t real, I thought. How do I wake up? When I got texts from loved ones, I thought my subconscious was constructing them. I felt profoundly alone in this fake reality.”

Why on earth would anyone willingly subject himself to this sort of experience, especially having already had similar ones in the past? Luckily, somehow Jules managed to get back to London in that state — an ordeal that included four flights over three days — and ended up needing the care of a friend for a full two weeks before he recovered.

Instead of concluding that he had made a really bad mistake, Jules convinced himself — based on his previous study of ecstatic experiences — that he had undergone a “spiritual emergency.” Apparently, the term was coined by two psychologists, Stanislav and Christina Grof, in the 1980s, and refers to “a messy spiritual experience that, while having some aspects of psychosis, is not indicative of a long-term mental illness. In fact, according to the Grofs, a spiritual emergency can be a transition to greater wholeness and growth.” If the Grofs were my psychotherapists I would immediately ask for a refund and stay away as much as possible from whatever they recommended.

That was not Jules’ reaction. Instead “[the notion] gave me faith that the experience would pass, that I should trust my soul and my friends, and practice the Stoic and Buddhist wisdom I’ve learned over the past two decades. And I was OK. I came back from the underworld.” I’m sure happy that Jules recovered and came back from the underworld, but he brought up the Stoics, and therefore piqued my interest.

Later on in the article he says that one of the things that makes a difference during the sort of horror he experienced is one’s mindset: “As the Stoics insisted, our context for events defines how we feel about them.” The reference, likely, is to Epictetus:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Enchiridion 5)

This is a profound truth that many people still resist today. Epictetus is acknowledging what I would think should be uncontroversial: events are what they are, meaning that they happen independently of the human mind. By contrast, judgments are entirely human constructs, they do not exist outside of a human mind. This doesn’t mean that all judgments are irrational, it just means that it is useful to keep very clear the distinction between objective events and subject judgments.

For instance, if I am laid off from my job I might be inclined to immediately think that this is a horrible thing, a catastrophe. But there are two elements at play here: the objective fact that I have been laid off, and my subjective judgment that it is a catastrophe. My judgment could be different, given the exact same objective situation. For instance, I may think instead that an opportunity is presenting itself to me, as I felt stuck in my job for a while but didn’t have the guts to quit. Now that my hand has been forced, I can refocus my efforts and actively look for new opportunities. There is, in other words, nothing in the event itself — I was laid off — that is inherently good or bad. It is my thinking that makes it so, just like Epictetus says. Hence a crucial Stoic “mental trick”: change your way of thinking about things that you cannot alter and you will find new paths, as Marcus Aurelius states:

“Our actions may be impeded ... but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

So Jules is certainly right that his mindset helped him. But that’s a Stoic technique, not Stoic philosophy. In fact, my guess is that the Stoics would most definitely not look favorably to psychedelic or ecstatic experiences in general. Why not? Because they valued human reason above all, and the very thing that drugs do is to interfere with human reason. Regardless of whether the psychedelic experience is positive (religious ecstasy) or not (Jules-type nightmare) that experience does not reflect reality, and it therefore interferes with our reason-based approach to living.

After all, the Stoics famously argued that to live a good life (ethics) one ought to arrive at the best understanding of how the world works (science & metaphysics) and reason appropriately about it (logic). Psychedelics interfere with the second and third requirements, and therefore undermine the first one, which is the very goal of Stoicism (or of any philosophy of life). This doesn’t mean that the Stoics are killjoys who just can’t relax and experience the pleasures of life. As Diogenes Laertius tells us:

“[The Stoics] will take wine, but not get drunk.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.118)

We take wine, meaning that we enjoy the pleasures of life. But we don’t get drunk, meaning that we do not allow such pleasures to control us.

There is another, deeper, objection I have against Jules’ eclectic approach to constructing a philosophy of life, and since the eclectic take is actually pretty common — at least on my social media channels — let me briefly address it.

In a sense, every new philosophy of life begins as an eclectic effort, because it typically builds or or reacts to previously existing philosophies of life. Buddhism, for instance, was in part a reaction to Brahmanism, of which it retained some elements, discarded others, and proceeded to insert new ones.

The same was true for early Stoicism. Zeno of Citium, the founder of our school, had studied with a number of other philosophers, including the Cynic Crates of Thebes, Stilpo of the Megarian school, the dialecticians Philo and Diodorus Cronus, and the Platonists Polemo and Xenocrates. Zeno’s early teachings, we can deduce from later commentaries and surviving fragments, were a mix of original ideas and notions drawn from each of these other schools, not to mention from the teachings of Socrates.

However, the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus of Soli, came in and did some much needed house cleaning, eliminating elements of early Stoicism that did not go well together, as well as reformulating other doctrines in a way that made for a more coherent whole. His contribution was so dramatic that Diogenes Laertius says:

“He differed on most points from Zeno, and from Cleanthes [the second head of the Stoa] as well. … But for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch.” (Lives, VII.179, 183)

This, in turn, does not mean that Stoicism has become written in stone since the time of Chrysippus. We know of a number of Stoic philosophers who introduced changes, discarded some things, and modified others. These include — as reported again by Diogenes Laertius — Herillus of Carthage, Dionysius the Renegade (aptly so named!), the already mentioned Cleanthes, Sphaerus of Bosporus, and Posidonius. And attempts to modify and improve Stoicism were carried out by Justus Lipsius during the Renaissance, as well as, in modern times, by both Larry Becker and yours truly.

The key, however, as Chrysippus taught us, is to change the parts of a system in an organically and internally coherent fashion. Philosophies of life ought to be consistent, on penalty of becoming useless when they are most needed. When my colleague and friend Don Robertson is asked why one cannot be both a Stoic and an Epicurean he explains that in many cases there is no conflict between the two philosophies, for instance both teach us not to be afraid of death, because we will not be there to experience it. However, for the Epicureans the highest good in life is the avoidance of pain, while for the Stoics it is the practice of virtue. So, if you are faced with a situation in which practicing virtue requires the experience of pain, what are you going to do? Your choice will make clear whether you are, at core, an Epicurean or a Stoic. You can’t be both.

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