Professor Mark Ralkowski on Stoicism, Louis C.K.’s Philosophy and Humor as a Spiritual Exercise

Several years ago, the television host Charlie Rose picked a strange phrase to describe the comedian Louis C.K: “philosopher-king.” The cynical, brash and vulgar Louis CK called a philosopher? But the truth is you can find philosophy anywhere (and many of most prominent Stoics were anything but academics). Nor is Charlie Rose the only one to notice the philosophical side of Louis CK. Professor Mark Ralkowski is the editor of Louis C.K. and Philosophy: You Don’t Get to Be Bored—a wonderful book, in which twenty-five philosophers examine the wisdom of Louis C.K, and Professor Ralkowski specifically makes the case for a Stoic interpretation of Louis. We decided to reach out to Mark to ask him more about the analogies between Louis and Marcus Aurelius, how his students react to Stoicism and what it is like discussing comedy in the classroom, the value of humor as a spiritual exercise, the connections between Heidegger and Stoicism, and much, much more.

We want to thank Mark for being generous with his time. His questions are thoughtful and you will never see Louis C.K. and philosophy in the same way. Enjoy our interview with professor Mark Ralkowski!

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In your essay on Louis CK in Louis C.K. and Philosophy: You Don’t Get to Be Bored you make many connections between Louis CK and Stoicism. For instance, the character Dr. Bigelow in Louis’s show Louie sounds like a Stoic. Can you tell our readers how you first started making the connections between Louis CK and Stoicism? And can you point to some specific examples to illustrate the parallels?

My first encounter with Louis C.K. was while watching The Daily Show in 2006. This was back in the day when we were looking for relief from the Bush presidency. We were very innocent then! Louis caught my attention that night because I had never heard anyone talk about kids and parenting that way. He said his 1-year-old daughter was boring (“have you ever seen a baby before? That’s what’s going on.”). And he called his 4-year-old an “asshole” for interrupting him and his wife with a story about a dog. “Like I really give a shit about the dog she saw—like that was going to be a great story: that she saw a dog.” And it was hilarious because it was the kind of thing everyone has felt but rarely or never said. It felt cathartic in the same way Curb Your Enthusiasm often does.

But Louis really captured my interest when I saw him on Conan, riffing on the idea that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” One of his examples was of a passenger on an airplane who was complaining about his chair not reclining enough, and the fact that he had to buy his sandwich. “How dare you, bitching about flying?! You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky! You’re like a Greek myth right now.” I couldn’t believe it. What a wonderful description of flying! It was an obvious fact that was totally surprising (like Jerry Seinfeld’s observation that driving is enjoyable because you’re inside but you’re outside, you’re moving but you’re still—all at the same time), and it was couched in a profound critique of Western culture that invited his audience to be humbler and more reverent toward the world. At that point, I started to follow his career a little bit. I looked for his interviews and waited for his standup material to come out as HBO specials.

Then he released his 2010 special Hilarious on his website. I put it on one night and my jaw dropped as I listened to him do his opening bit about being a dead person who hasn’t died yet. He sounded just like Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations when he looks at human life from a cosmic perspective:

Most people are dead. Did you know that? It’s true: out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead. There are way more dead people. And you’re all going to die. And then you’re going to be dead for way longer than you were alive. It’s like that’s mostly what you’re ever going to be. You’re just dead people that didn’t die yet.

If you didn’t know any better, I might be able to convince you that Aurelius wrote this. It takes up the same “view from above” that Aurelius uses over and over again in his book; it looks at human life with a kind of cathartic detachment (Louis gets laughs from telling his audience that dead is what they are mostly going to be; Aurelius sought to quiet and focus his soul with reflections like this one), and it emphasizes many of Aurelius’ favorite themes: mortality, finitude, and impermanence. Once I made this connection I was completely hooked, and I started to find philosophical ideas in a lot of Louis’ writing. Consider two more examples. The first is a passage from the Meditations. The second is from a bit in Season Four of Louis’ FX series Louie:

Look down from a height on the countless herds of men, and their countless rituals, and their various journeys through storm and calm, and the many different beings who are born, live together, and are gone. Imagine, too, the life lived by others long ago, and the life that will be lived after your departure, and the life that is being lived at this very moment among alien peoples; and how many are not even aware of your name, and how many will soon forget it, and how many who now, perhaps, are praising you will very soon be deriding you; and reflect that neither remembrance nor fame nor anything else whatever is worth a passing thought (Meditations, 9.30)

Yeah, life isn’t that long and then it’s over. And, uh, a lot of people wonder what happens after that. What happens after you die? It’s a big question for human beings. What happens after you die? Actually, lots of things happen after you die; just none of them include you. ‘Cause you’re not in anything anymore. But there’s all kinds of shit: there’s the Super Bowl every year, and there’s a dog catching a Frisbee (Louie, Season Four, Episode 1).

Louis and Aurelius are making a very similar observation here, albeit for different purposes. Aurelius is working on himself with his meditation; he is moderating his passions and ambitions by looking at his finite and insignificant place in the history of time and being—despite being a Roman Emperor! Louis is transforming these kinds of facts into comedy. There’s something humorous about the mismatch between our perceptions of ourselves (according to which our lives have great importance), on the one hand, and the brute facts of the matter, on the other hand (according to which we don’t matter at all and we will soon be forgotten, regardless of our social status and accomplishments). One of the ideas I explore in Louis C.K. and Philosophy: You Don’t Get to Be Bored is the extent to which humor itself might function as a kind of spiritual exercise. A great comedic bit stays with you (Jerry Seinfeld points this out in a wonderful HBO special called Talking Funny); if that bit isn’t about something trivial—e.g., if it is about the unconscious or parenting or love or death—it might actually have the kind of therapeutic effect that Aurelius and other Stoics aimed for with their own writings. It has the capacity to stay with us, like a well-crafted Epicurean aphorism.

In your essay you quote Pierre Hadot (a great scholar on Stoicism) as well as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. You clearly have a great deal of understanding of the philosophy and we’d be curious to know who is your favorite Stoic and why? Do you have a favorite Stoic quote?

I have two favorites, and I can’t choose between them. Marcus Aurelius is the first. Seneca is the second. In fact, if I had to take just a few books to a desert island, two of them would be Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. And if I had to choose between them, I would probably take Seneca’s letters because they give one a glimpse into a complete world and life. Aurelius had a greater cosmic vision, but Seneca gives one a better sense of what it is like truly to live the life of a Stoic. And it is nothing like the life that critics imagine. He was not a cold, rational stone, as some suggest; he lived a full human life; you can feel it in his letters. He talks about friendship, money, creativity, raising children, death, old age, exercise, travel, wisdom, talking slowly, the importance of being able to spend time alone, what to read (and why one shouldn’t read too much), having a good character, the value of philosophy, pleasure, grief, drunkenness, education, living simply, technology, pessimism, suffering, and so much more. As you read his letters, you get the feeling that he is talking directly to you. His advice still feels relevant. And more importantly, it is full of practical wisdom. Letters from a Stoic is the kind of book that you’ll read and then pass on to a friend.

I have a hard time choosing favorite quotes, especially when it comes to these beautiful writers and thinkers, so I’ll talk about this little passage from Epictetus’ Handbook:

What upsets people is not the things themselves but their judgments about the things. (Epictetus, Handbook, 5)

I love this passage because it captures the essence of Stoic ethics. The Stoics were like the Buddhists in suggesting that we suffer primarily because we are ignorant about the nature of reality, and that we can relieve ourselves from suffering by eliminating this ignorance, getting a correct vision of the world, and living accordingly. The Stoics thought a “correct vision of the world” meant accepting determinism and divine providence, and that is not appealing to many readers today. But we don’t need to accept Stoic metaphysics in order to get something important from Epictetus’ observation. For example, one might go simply as far as David Foster Wallace does in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, where he recommends a philosophy similar to Epictetus’ to anyone with an interest in getting command over herself and her circumstances.

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, friendship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

This is the part of Stoicism that influenced Viktor Frankl in his inimitable book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which applies Stoic ideas to the most challenging circumstances human beings can face. He talks about using the freedom of thought to “transform personal tragedy into triumph.” Frankl was also inspired by existentialist philosophers like Nietzsche, but it is not an exaggeration to say that his philosophy and psychotherapeutic practice of logotherapy is an elaboration of Epictetus’ insight in passage #5 of his Handbook. And as I like to remind my students, there may be no better “proof” of the practical value of a philosophy than Frankl’s successful therapeutic use of it at Auschwitz.

Speaking of Pierre Hadot, do you have a favorite ‘spiritual exercise’ that you’ve learned from reading his works? It does not have to be from the Stoics.

The one I find most helpful, especially since November 2016, is the practice of viewing things from the perspective of eternity, or from the perspective of history. From this perspective, no human life is significant, not even the lives of the world’s most accomplished leaders. It’s the idea that Aurelius is getting at in these three passages from his Meditations:

Constantly reflect on how swiftly all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow, and its activities are ever changing, and its causes infinite in their variations, and hardly anything at all stands still; and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, into which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles will endure for any great while? (5.23) Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them. (5.24)

For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with wonderful brightness; as for all the rest, the moment that they breathed their last, they were “out of sight, out of mind.” And what does it amount to, in any case, everlasting remembrance? Sheer vanity and nothing more. What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring. (4.33)

One might wonder how this perspective of eternity could be beneficial for a person who takes it up. Why wouldn’t these thoughts make a person feel despair at the hopelessness of life? If we are all just momentary ripples in the “perpetual flow” of time and being; if “hardly anything at all stands still,” and if our short lives are lived between an infinite past and an infinite future, and we will all soon be “out of sight, out of mind,” what does it all mean? Why does anything matter at all? According to Aurelius, we ask questions like these because we are stuck in our finite, individual perspectives. If we could take up the viewpoint of eternity, we could see beauty in everything.

Bread, for instance, in the course of its baking, tends to crack open here and there, and yet these very cracks, which are, in a sense, offences against the baker’s art, somehow appeal to us and, in a curious way, promote our appetite for the food. And again figs, when fully ripe, tend to split open; and in olives which are ready to drop, the very fact of their impending decay lends a peculiar beauty to the fruit. Ears of corn bending towards the earth, the wrinkled brows of a lion … and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe…he will be able to see in an old woman or an old man a special kind of mature beauty. (3.2)

There is beauty in impermanence and the passage of time; there is beauty in human finitude and mortality. Aurelius thinks our lives lack cosmic significance, and that that is ok, because the cosmos itself is beautiful, and we are a part of it. We share in its order and divinity. It is humbling to look at the world from the cosmic point of view: even the most powerful people, and all of our most cherished accomplishments, seem trivial from this perspective. But this can also be a source of relief, especially during hard times. And it is always a healthy reality check, because it reminds us that we are making a contribution to something much larger than our individual lives and projects. Which is why people with the most “fevered egos” (to borrow a phrase from Bill Hicks) are the most pitiable; they are the most ignorant. They are the most out of touch with the way the world really is, and so they cannot recognize just how wondrous it is to be given the gift of life at all. Aurelius’ idea here is similar to the message of Carl Sagan’s famous talk about “The Pale Blue Dot”:

I have found this “spiritual exercise”—the act of reflecting on things from a larger perspective—to be incredibly cathartic and nourishing. The catharsis comes from seeing that things don’t matter as much as (or in the way that) we thought. The nourishment comes from the inculcation of humility and reverence. Earth is a beautiful and extraordinary place, and yet it is only a “fraction of a dot.”

At the beginning of the essay you mention your students’ reactions to quoting Louis. They must love the idea of connecting one of the biggest names in comedy today with philosophy. What reactions do you get? Have you noticed them changing their relationship to philosophy because of that?

I don’t like to speak on behalf of my students, but we have had some fun with clips from Louis’ shows. And I have heard students repeating his ideas during class discussions on many occasions, which confirms my hunch that a well-crafted bit can help with the internalization of a deep insight. It can change the way we think, and it can transform the way we look at the world. This is the way Trevor Griffiths puts the point in his play, Comedians:

A real comedian—that’s a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what’s hard, above all, about what they want. A joke releases tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and desire, it has to change the situation.

In this respect, a “true joke” can perform the same function as a Stoic or Epicurean aphorism. I don’t know whether connecting philosophical ideas to Louis’ comedy has changed my students’ relationships with philosophy, but it has made the job of introducing certain ideas easier.

Can you tell us more also about teaching Stoicism to your students? What has been your approach? And what are their favorite Stoic exercises, ideas or criticisms of the philosophy?

I teach Stoic texts as parts of larger courses. I’ve done this in classes that focus on the history of ancient philosophy, the origins and evolution of modern thought, the care of the self, and character. It helps to use the best written texts! Epictetus’ Handbook is probably the book that most people use in courses like these, but I’ve found that Seneca and Aurelius are much more effective at making an appealing case for Stoicism. It also helps to think about Stoicism alongside other ideas about the good life, the care of the self, and character formation. I find it particularly fun to teach Stoicism in connection with Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism (and even some modern thinkers, such as Nietzsche, Freud, Frankl, and Martha Nussbaum). I’ve already mentioned a connection with Buddhism; there are similar connections with Hinduism; these are really clear when you read, say, the Meditations right after reading and thinking about the Bhagavad Gita.

My students usually find Stoicism appealing in one respect, and too challenging in another. The appeal comes, at least in part, from the fact that these writers promise to help readers come to terms with big human challenges, e.g. with anger, sadness, death, impermanence, vulnerability, and the acquisition of wisdom. So much of higher education these days—the way we talk to young people about it, the way we talk about it with nervous parents who are paying the tuition, and the way we advertise majors and build departments—is focused on instrumental values, such as job preparation. Of course, it is important to plan ahead, and young people ought to be thinking about their futures. We all have to make a living. But we also have to figure out how to live our lives. No education can tell us what to do or who to be, but it can introduce us to worlds of thought that can nourish us for our whole lives. Students should prepare themselves for a job market, but they should also be given a chance to continue their educations as humans, i.e. to learn about history and world religions, and to develop their moral imaginations and skills in critical thinking. This is where a great Stoic writer like Seneca can have a role in anyone’s life. He can be a dialogue partner who helps us learn how to think, and even helps us think about thinking. As he says in Letter XVI, we ought to be thinking about the whole of life, not just turning ourselves into money-making instruments.

[Philosophy] molds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it, no one can lead a life free of fear or worry. Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.

Maybe Seneca overstates the value of philosophy. Even some professional philosophers would say he does. But just the idea that philosophy in general, and Stoicism in particular, might help us answer deep questions about what matters and what doesn’t, who we ought to be and what kind of work we are best suited for, is a big part of what makes studying books like Letters from a Stoic appealing. What is happiness, and how can we live lives that will make us happy? What is justice, and how can we reshape our institutions and our own choices so that they better reflect it? How can we come to terms with our impermanence and mortality? A thinker like Seneca helps us see that we need answers of our own to these questions because each day we live answers to them. If we don’t get serious about thinking for ourselves, we can be controlled by ideas that are not our own.

Students sometimes worry that Stoicism in particular recommends that we live cold and cerebral lives. They argue that the Stoics are wrong to value apatheia, because it is the passions, and even suffering itself, that make life meaningful. They also object to the metaphysical worldview, and in particular the determinism. The idea that we should give up trying to change the world and learn to want things to happen as they do happen (Epictetus, Handbook, #8) contradicts their aspirations to improve the world and make a lasting contribution. A lot of our discussions focus on which of these criticisms is most valid, and whether we can extract pieces of Stoicism that can work for us without asking us to give up characteristics and experiences that we feel are central to our lives.

You are an expert on Plato and Heidegger and we were wondering, what are some observations or ideas from them that you’d recommend to students of Stoicism to consider in parallel of their study of the stoic philosophy?

Plato’s influence on Stoicism is well-documented. They borrowed a lot from his moral psychology, his optimistic worldview (although they reject his doctrine of an intelligible world), and his ethics. In particular, they inherit from Plato the ideas (i) that the universe has a rational order, (ii) that humans are a part of this rational order and so are essentially rational, (iii) that the emotions are non-rational and should be fully controlled by reason, (iv) that death isn’t such a bad thing, (v) that the individual matters much less than the social whole, and (vi) that the unexamined life is not worth living.

The connections between Heidegger and Stoicism are less well understood, and for that reason they are more interesting. As I have noted, three of the themes that come up constantly in the writings of thinkers like Seneca and Aurelius are death, impermanence, and finitude. We have to come to terms with the constant flux of reality, the unwelcome processes of ageing and change, with death and loss, and the vastness of time and being—we are, as Seneca says, tasked with steering our lives through a perilous sea. Heidegger’s Being and Time deals with all of these issues in a radically new way, using a method that he, his mentor, and his famous students called Phenomenology.

Heidegger’s philosophy is extremely challenging and technical, so I can only talk generally about these points here. In Being and Time, he provides his readers with new ways of thinking about and coming to terms with the guilt and anxiety that are ineluctable features of being human. In this respect, his philosophy has some things in common with Buddhism and Stoicism in particular. The very big idea is that we can live better lives if we get clear about ourselves and our world. His ideas in Being and Time are meant to provide us with that clarity. His “later philosophy” is also related to certain ideas in Stoicism. Most importantly, in works like The Question Concerning Technology, he says that we can transform ourselves and our relationship with the world, and even the way the world reveals itself to us, by relearning how to think. More specifically, we must learn to think beyond the categories we’ve inherited from our tradition. We must transcend “the history that we are,” because the way we live reflects a history of ideas that are contingent and limited, while pretending to be necessary and exhaustive. If we can manage this, if we can truly relearn to think, we can begin to confront the world’s most pressing problems, such as environmental degradation, exploitation, vulture capitalism, and much more. If you are looking for a very readable introduction to some of these ideas, I recommend reading Heidegger’s “Memorial Address” in his Discourse on Thinking.

What are you currently working on?

I am finishing a book on Plato’s political theory and the trial of Socrates. It is called The Apologies of Socrates: Plato’s Trial of Athens. The manuscript is due before the end of the year, so it should come out in 2018. In the future, I will begin working on a book project about philosophy as a way of life.