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17 January 2007 @ 12:32 pm
Queer Eye for the Stoic Guy  
I've been influenced by many philosophies in my time, but the one that has had most impact on my life in the the last ten years is Stoicism. Not that I'm a card-carrying member of the New Stoa or anything; it's just that writers like Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius make a lot of sense to me, and I find Stoic practices actually work pretty well in making me a happy Solri. So what (as mentioned in my previous post) do I find so appealing in a programme like Queer Eye? At first glance, a bunch of guys getting distraught at bad grooming looks like the antithesis of Stoicism. Stoicism does not make you immediately think of Ralph Loren. Stoics are supposed to look like this …chrysippus

not like this.


However, it's worth scraping our fingernails across the patina of culture to see if there is any way we can reconcile Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, on the one hand, with Ted, Kyan, Thom, Jai and Carson on the other.

First off, it's nothing to do with sexual orientation. We don't know a lot about the sex lives of the Stoics, but let's face it, a lot of them were ancient Greeks, so it's extremely unlikely that they would have been exclusively heterosexual. as Carson says, "Let's hear it for the Greeks—they invented gay sex!" Musonius Rufus thought sex should only be for procreation and Seneca had a big downer on oral sex, but then they were Romans who were into gravitas, dignitas and proprietas and so forth. Diogenes Laertius notes that Zeno, the founder of the school, kept a few maidservants in his house "so as not to appear misogynistic", which kind of implies that his tastes were those of any respectable Greek gentleman of the time—i.e. younger men.

No, the real sticking point is not who you fancy but what you find important. Unlike Carson Kressley, Marcus Aurelius would not have abandoned state business because there was a sale at Roberto Cavalli. But what is important for Stoics? Stoicism holds that the only thing with primary value, and thus the only prerequisite of happiness, is virtue. Most of them went along with the classic Greek virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, justice and good skin care. Oops. That's the problem: how do you decide what counts as a virtue? Seneca adds beneficence and mercy to the original four, and Marcus Aurelius makes much of kindness and cheerfulness. Fortunately, there is a way to cut through this, which is the alternative definition of virtue as "rational choice between indifferents." Indifferents are all those other things which do not have primary value, and can be divided into "preferred indifferents" like health, friends, wealth and designer clothes, and "dispreferred indifferents" like disease, war, poverty and bad hair. As far as we can, we choose health over illness and natural fibres over synthetics, but it's only the choice that's good in itself, not the things that we choose. If, despite your best efforts, war breaks out or your conditioner gives you dandruff, that's just what the gods have ordained, and it's nothing to get upset about.

One criticism of lifestyle programmes like Queer Eye is that they are yuppie frivolity that obscures the Really Important Things in life, like AIDS, global warming, racism or whatever. However, this is definitely not a Stoic criticism, since, as we've just seen, there may be a quantitative difference between homelessness and mismatched furniture, but there is no qualitative difference: they are both simply dispreferred indifferents. I've known plenty of people who thought they could differentiate between serious and frivolous things and choose the former, and believe me, they were no fun to be with, and a liability to whatever causes they were espousing.

But what about all the emoting? The idea that Stoics wanted to eliminate all emotions is a popular misconception, but even so, a lot of them have to go: fear, anger, craving, distress and so forth. I can't manage to fit the Fab 5 into Stoic orthodoxy here by any stretch of the imagination, but what I can offer is a workaround based on a theory of camp.

Again, I should emphasise that this has nothing much to do with sexual orientation. It is true that a lot of gay men are camp, and very few straight men are, but campness is what Aristotle would call an "accidental attribute" of gayness. Camp is a style, an attitude and a way of dealing with things. Its essential feature is exaggeration (of gestures, voice tone, emotional response etc.) but it is exaggeration in such a way that the audience are aware of the exaggeration. This ties in with its original usage in theatre: to "camp it up" meant to overdo the role in such a way that the audience (or at least your fellow thespians) knew that you were doing it (that's what makes it different from ham acting). It's like the body language equivalent of postmodern irony.

Camp responses to life's little annoyances (like "Oh my GAAAAAAAHD, he's shaving against the grain!") could fall into a category that I have called pseudopatheia. The Stoic philosophy of the emotions recognises three affective responses to events:
  1. propatheia, or instinctive reactions (like an adrenaline rush or raw lust);
  2. patheia, which are emotions resulting from faulty reasoning, like anger, fear etc. and
  3. eupatheia, which result from correct reasoning (e.g. caution instead of fear or preference instead of craving).
Eupatheia are good, propatheia are neutral, and patheia proper are bad, bad, BAD. However, there is room for at least one more category. In On Anger, Seneca talks at length about various feelings which resemble anger but which don't count as proper anger (and therefore do not need to be eradicated). Amongst these, he mentions the feeling of "anger" that you might have while watching a play. You might, he says, feel something like anger at an injustice perpetrated on one of the characters, but this is not real anger, because there it lacks what the Stoics call "assent to the impression". Noel Carrol mentions a similar phenomenon that he calls "art-horror": in The Philosophy of Horror he criticises the "willing suspension of disbelief" explanation of art-horror, pointing out that if an audience reacted to an on-screen vampire were based on a suspension of their disbelief, they would react not with a pleasurable thrill of fear but by screaming and running out of the cinema.

A pseudopathos, then, simulates an emotion and includes some of its components, but lacks full assent. We feel real fear because we believe that an anticipated event will be unbearable; we feel pseudo-fear when we play with the idea that such an event could happen. There is a qualitative difference in the emotion, which is why some people enjoy watching horror films (and also why some people don't: they either don't feel anything or feel something too close to real fear).

Now it is possible that camp involves pseudopatheia. Consider Ted's exaggerated reaction when he walks into a particularly disgusting kitchen. He's an intelligent person who knows that on a scale of disasters, a dirty kitchen doesn't rate very high, but he chooses to react as though it did. Kyan knows that shaving against the grain is not a crime, but chooses to react as though it were. It's like "This is how I might feel if I were taking this really seriously—but don't take me seriously."

But what is the point of all this campy over-reaction? I would guess that pseudopatheia—whether engendered by dirty kitchens, screen vampires or Senecan tragedy—act as a kind of prophylactic against real patheia. It's the flip-side of the famous British understatement. Consider the following dialogue which is said to have taken place during the Battle of Waterloo:

"Good God, sir, I think I've lost my leg!"
[Wellington peers over] "God God, sir, I think you have."

That's understatement. The camp response would be "Oh my GAAAAHD—your britches are RUINED!!!"

Anyway, let's conclude by imagining how the Fab 5 would zhoosh/tzsuj the famous Stoic philosopher, emperor and bit-part in Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius.


THOM: What I'm seeing here is lots of marble. Now marble's good, I like marble, but are you sure you want to sit on it?
KYAN: I know you like the philosophical feel of the beard, but I'm thinking more of a Golden Age of Rome look. Look at the great Roman statesmen. Cato—clean-shaven. Augustus—clean-shaven. Cicero—clean-shaven. Are you seeing a pattern here?
TED: You said you "despise luxurious food", so I guess we're not going with the larks tongues in aspic for tonight.
JAI: There's going to plenty of people here tonight—twenty senators, a delegation from Persia and a troupe of Phrygian dancing girls, so I see you doing a lot of mingling. Just remember to spend some quality time with your lovely son Commodus, and maybe write down some of the things you'd like to say to him beforehand.
CARSON: Toga, toga, toga, toga … tunic, toga. All this purple—are you sure you're not gay?
ragedaisy: portia 0wnz youdualistic on January 17th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
that was an interesting read :)
Robinsolri on January 18th, 2007 10:19 am (UTC)
Thank you!
oblomova on January 17th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
Nicely done!
There has been some backlash against them from gay performers in recent years -- I remember a gay comedy sketch show that posited them as gay minstrels. In pinkface, of course.

But I think the show isn't geared at gay people, really. It's geared at the gay-friendly and those who might tune in to sneer at the nancy boys and (I hope) come away realizing that it's okay to let gay men touch you or help you out, and it's okay to think about grooming and housecleaning and how to make the people around you happy with cooking and entertaining without it impugning your masculinity.

The ones I've liked best have been the episodes where they're helping someone out after they've been through a big loss in their lives. That's when the value of taking care of those things that are within one's ability to control (facial hair, i.e.) seems most apparent.

Ah, I blather. More coffee needed.
Robinsolri on January 18th, 2007 10:26 am (UTC)
Re: Nicely done!
I heard they'd been criticised for "perpetuating stereotypes", but I don't think it's a fair criticism. Sure, Carson is a queen, but queens exist, and by the standards of gay circles, he's not even that outrageous. The others are more likely to disrupt stereotypes than perpetuate them; in fact, I just watched the episode where they zhush a frat house and the head frat-boy (I forget the proper word) made a speech saying they'd done just that.
jaipurjaipur on January 18th, 2007 06:28 am (UTC)
::chuckle:: The opening picture caught my eye, and the rest was worth the read. :) Particularly liked the part about similar roles played by understatement and camp...
Robinsolri on January 18th, 2007 10:27 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it. I'd actually been planning to write a serious paper about pseudopatheia and the Stoic theory of emotions, but this looked like more fun. And it was.
(Anonymous) on January 18th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
My wife is embarking on a new career as an aesthetician. I am having made a piece of marble inscribed (in Greek) with the word on the subject line. It will go on the wall of her work space when the place opens. I'll have it done in lower case because the lower case is softer looking than the upper. And the college frat system has ruined upper case Greek for any use outside of advertising keg parties. Kalokagathia is a contraction which means "beauty and goodness." I don't think that it's a Stoic principle so much a Platonic. But the meaning is essentially that what is good is also beautiful.

Queer Eye, fashion, and cosmetological aesthetics are about helping people to become as beautiful as they can. Sure, there are narcissists who pursue only superficial kalos (beauty). That is vice. But just as or perhaps even more vicious are those who pursue only agathos (good): they are the ones whom you have described as being "no fun." Those who think they must despise kalos for agathos are The Pigs who killed beautiful Mollie in "Animal Farm". Beauty and goodness are such insofar as they reflect one another. To the extent that Queer Eye helps all of us be more beautiful, it contributes to good.

Mark Travis
Robin: chrysippussolri on January 19th, 2007 01:58 pm (UTC)
Re: kalokagathia
Hi Mark,

Was it you that defined God as "Beauty-Goodness-Truth" in the Stoic Forum?
(Anonymous) on January 19th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
Re: kalokagathia
Not I. Somebody else channeling Plato I suspect.
Robinsolri on January 20th, 2007 02:09 pm (UTC)
Re: kalokagathia
LOL. I get occasional Platonic attacks, but the medication keeps them under control ;-)
ex_flashcat696 on February 14th, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
Heh heh... that was funny. :)

BTW, happy Valentine's Day.

Robinsolri on February 15th, 2007 11:27 am (UTC)
You too! Actually, I had a very QE Valentine's Day: cleaned up the house and placed flowers and candles at strategic locations and cooked chili and ginger prawns in mangoes with a beansprout and pine nut salad, and consumes it (with my beloved, of course) with pink champagne (in new glasses) and expensive chocolates for afters. I also tried making a cocktail with the vodka, grape juice and the remaining mango, but it was disgusting.
ex_flashcat696 on February 17th, 2007 04:11 am (UTC)
Re: V-day
Wow, that sounds very romantic. ;) (What is QE?)

Vodka, grape juice, and mango? Uh....
Robinsolri on February 19th, 2007 10:50 am (UTC)
Re: V-day
QE = Queer Eye (for the Straight Guy)

The mango juice was definitely a mistake. However, I later found that vodka, grape juice and pomegranate juice make a nice tipple.
Stephi ステフィーsjcarpediem on February 21st, 2007 10:07 am (UTC)
I thought you might be able to lend this person some wisdom (of a flavor...):