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Tralfamadorians = Stoics

dglasser's picture

So, I’ve decided to read Slaughterhouse Five as an anti-Stoicism novel. After today’s class I can’t stop noticing parallels between the Tralfamadorians and the Stoics, and I can’t stop viewing Billy Pilgrim as a perfect example of the faults in this philosophy.

First, let me explain Stoicism, to the best of by ability, based on my readings of The Handbook by Epictetus which I was assigned to read in one of my philosophy classes last week. Stoicism is a philosophy that sees the world as a whole, neither good nor bad, and because that whole is not entirely visible to human perception, a human can only do his best to eliminate blinding emotion and act in accordance with reason. To act in accordance with reason, Stoicism provides two major claims, of which 52 precepts follow: 1) Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us; 2) Nothing good or bad happens in nature. By accepting these two claims and the subsequent precepts, a person can live “The Good Life”- one of equanimity and inner peace.

By accepting those things that are in our control, for example, our emotions, reactions, opinions etc. we can focus on the positive or learn to see the facts of a seemingly poor situation. We are not in control, for example, of other people’s actions, our bodies, our reputations etc. and therefore dwelling on these things or trying to control them is futile and leads to a reliance on emotion and possible overreaction- in many ways the opposite of equanimity and inner peace. Continuing on, the world is much like a target, it is not made to be missed although that can occur, in which case you just move on and try again. The world is made of nature, and although seemingly bad things can happen, you must move on and accept that everything, seemingly bad or good, is just a part of the whole- part of its essence and therefore you can eliminate the qualification of good or bad altogether. Everything just is. An action happens. An action is not good or bad unless you choose to see it that way.

The last thing I’ll say is that Stoicism allows for one not to fear death, just like the Tralfamadorians. It is the emotion and judgment of death that we fear. Dying is a part of nature, neither good nor bad, and if we can refrain from judgment and emotion then there would be no fear of death or anything of the sort.

Now, don’t the Tralfamadorians sound like Stoics? The tombstone that read, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” seems extremely stoic. Nothing hurts if you choose not to judge it as hurtful. Everything is beautiful if you choose to see it that way. Although you should refrain from judgment, even judging something as beautiful, a stoic would not suggest that you ignore the good. Instead of saying, “That is beautiful”, a stoic would just want the statement to be rephrased to, “I am judging that as beautiful.” Stoics are not against judgment, they just want to call attention to it and separate it from the thing itself in order to remove unnecessary or impractical responses or reactions.

Now, Billy Pilgrim is being “converted” to this philosophy throughout the book. He is taking on the view of the Tralfamadorians; he is accepting all that happens to him; he is extremely passive. However, to be frank, Billy Pilgrim lives a poor life, as many including myself, would claim. He suffers from extreme mental stress, and does not enjoy the benefits of the roller-coaster of human emotion such as being able to empathize with others. The Stoics and the Tralfamadorians would most likely say that sympathy for others is understandable, but to empathize, to allow yourself to be affected by something as insignificant as another person’s grief over a death, is impractical and illogical; I find that sad, but a very clear parallel nonetheless.

I would not want to be Billy Pilgrim. I don’t know who would, and in that sense I can read this book as a, what not to do; how not to think; why you should not be Stoic; why you should not be Tralfamadorian.