I have enrolled in the Stoic mindfulness and resilience training course offered by the good people at Modern Stoicism, and coordinated by Donald Robertson (the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). I’m doing this in part for my own benefit, and in part as an exercise in philosophical journalism, in preparation for one of my forthcoming (fate permitting) books on Stoicism.
I figured, then, that I would write a series of posts, one for each of the four weeks of the course, focusing on the suggested “big question of the week,” to bring the discussion to people who have not enrolled in the course and to perhaps broaden the appeal of what Modern Stoicism is doing.
This week’s big question is: What do you think would be the pros and cons of living a life in which you take excellence of character (Stoic “virtue”) to be the only thing that’s intrinsically good?
First, some preliminaries. For the Stoics there are four virtues worth cultivating: courage (not just physical), justice, self-control, and wisdom. Moreover, the Stoics adopted a view known as “the unity of virtues,” meaning that they thought that the individual virtues are actually aspects of the same fundamental concept. Of course, only the ideal Sage has perfect virtue, while the rest of us can simply work at improving things but will likely never get to sagehood. (There are some partial similarities with Buddhism here, except that in that tradition it is actually possible for real, though extraordinary, people to achieve enlightenment.)
Some modern virtue ethicists, like Philippa Foot, think that the idea of a unity of virtues (which, interestingly, was also endorsed by Thomas Aquinas) is a bit too strict, setting the bar too high for anyone to actually reach. If one can be good only by possessing all virtues, then it may look like there is little hope for us mortals. I’m not sure that that follows, however, and I can see the Stoic point that the virtues are deeply interconnected, like different facets of the same object, and yet that it still makes sense to talk of degrees of virtue, and even of degrees of different virtues. The point, however, is that to be eudaimonic, one needs to practice all four virtues, and certainly cannot focus on just a subset while willfully neglecting the others.
Now back to the question posed by the Modern Stoicism challenge. Let me start with the idea that virtue is an intrinsic good, indeed, the only one. An intrinsic good is something of which one cannot meaningfully ask “but why is that good?” This is related to what in philosophy is known as G.E. Moore’s open question argument. The argument is supposed to refute the idea that one can equate the good with a non-moral property, such as pleasure (take note, Epicureans!), or even God’s command (so much for theological deontology). Here is the argument:
Premise 1: If X is good, then the question “Is it true that X is good?” is meaningless.
Premise 2: The question “Is it true that X is good?” is not meaningless (indeed, it is an open question).
Conclusion: X is not good.
Moore developed this argument in an attempt to undermine the idea of naturalism in ethics. If you think you found the good, let’s say in the idea of pleasure, Moore suggests that you should therefore be able to substitute the new concept every time you would otherwise say “good.” But this eventually leads to exchange “pleasure is good,” with the obviously tautological “good is good,” which Moore thought indicative of the fact that we are missing something (though he was far from clear about what, exactly, we may be missing).
I’m a naturalist, so I reject Moore’s argument. (Notice that you should reject it even if you are a supernaturalist, see comment above about God’s command.) But I do get around the open question by thinking of ethics as a discipline devoted to engaging in rational discourse about prosocial human behavior. Like any system of thought, ethics also begins with un-argued for premises (so does logic, and mathematics). In the case of the Stoic system, the premise in question is that virtue is (axiomatically) taken to be (the ultimate) good. If you reject this premise, Stoicism is not for you. If you accept it, then we need to take a look at the next part of this week’s question, the one that equates virtue with excellence of character.
The Stoics were famously influenced, and were in constant dialogue with, a number of other philosophical schools of the time, including the Socratics, the Platonists, the Aristotelians, the Epicureans, the Skeptics and the Cynics (with the major influences coming from the first and the last entries in the list). For Aristotle too the eudaimonic life consisted in the pursuit of excellence, but while he favored the contemplative life (i.e., the life of the philosopher) as the highest possible expression of the concept, he agreed that one could have a good life while pursuing excellence at whatever activity one might be able to excel, so long as one would do it with virtue (i.e., there is such a thing as an excellent artist, athlete, or politician, but there cannot be an excellent thief or murderer).
For the Stoics, however, it is all exclusively about moral excellence. The eudaimonic life consists in living “according to nature,” which means as the kind of social, rational animal humans happen to be. Virtue, then, becomes the end itself, not a means to whatever end one may think it is worth pursuing. And this is arguably one of the toughest aspects of Stoic doctrine to accept and, especially, to practice.
Which brings me to the core of this week’s question, the bit about “pros and cons.” There are two big pros, according to Stoic ideas: i) one is doing the right (meaning, the rational) thing, which is a reward in and of itself; ii) it leads to apatheia, the blissful state of peace of mind and tranquillity that comes from being free of suffering, because one has set the right priorities in one’s life: not going after “externals” like fame, wealth and so forth, but only things that are truly in one’s own control, like mental attitudes and the resulting behaviors.
Notice that whether virtue leads to (i) is a philosophical question (because one has to argue that practicing virtue truly is the rational thing to do for a human being), while (ii) is a matter of empirical outcome: does pursuing virtue, in fact, lead to tranquillity? As a practicing Stoic, I have accepted (i), and I am indeed experiencing more apatheia (definitely not to be confused with the etymologically related modern word “apathy”!), although this may be in part because I am just the sort of person that responds well to the Stoic approach. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
And now to the likely cons. To begin with, many people around you — family, friends, colleagues — will simply not understand what the heck you are doing. Stoicism isn’t exactly a household word, and when people do recognize it, it conjures distorted images of fellows who lack emotions and go through life with a stiff upper lip — think Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Of course, other people’s opinions are externals over which you have no control, and toward which you should be indifferent. But it ain’t gonna be easy.
My experience so far is that some people take me somewhat seriously because I am a professional philosopher, or because they have known me for some time and have some degree of respect for what I think. Others have a hard time controlling their sneer… (though usually my Stoic fire tattoo shuts them up, because it is cool regardless of one’s philosophy!).
Even if you are truly unconcerned with people’s opinions (as you should be), it is difficult to practice virtue, and especially being mindful of doing so all the time. For example, having become more mindful about the ethical dimension of everything I do, I have started to eat while paying even more attention than before to the provenance, environmental impact, and so forth, of the food I consume. Which has meant giving up a number of things I used to love, as well as arguably spending more time and money doing grocery shopping. Or consider my decision to close my previous bank account because it was with an international bank that has engaged in ethically highly questionable practices. I now bank with a local credit union, which means I have to take the subway every time I need to deposit a check (fortunately, not that often!). And so forth, the occasions are numerous, and some are of course more challenging than others.
Then again, embracing Stoicism has given more structure to the way I see the world and, more importantly, the way I act in the world. It has been a good ride so far, with some of the most brilliant ancient minds as my constant companions. That, in and of itself, is a huge reward that keeps coming at me every time I read Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.