Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 1

resilienceI 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.

8 thoughts on “Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 1

  1. Nice piece Massimo. Do you have good definitions or discussions of the Stoic virtues? I looked at your Stoicism 101 page, but it simply mentions the words. I don’t mean anything terribly rigorous but there is a large scope to what they could mean. It’s been awhile since I read Socrates on courage for instance, and I don’t even know if the Stoics followed his thinking on that.

    Indeed the Socratic dialogue re. courage (etc.) demonstrates that there was a wide range of opinion at the time on what courage (etc.) really was. I can think of definitions of courage of perhaps a martial character that would not be terribly virtuous to my mind. I could work to fit the definition to the end by finding a sense of courage that seemed virtuous but that is a kind of circular program.

    At any rate if virtues are the only things that are of intrinsic or ultimate good, I would think they should require some study!


  2. Thanks Massimo, I will give it a look. It might be a subject that would merit future discussion.

    In early Buddhism one runs across several different though interrelated lists of what might be termed virtues. One question is how seriously to take them. Since I don’t believe the Buddha in particular was after a foundationalist metaphysics or epistemology, I doubt he would have cared to get the lists precisely right. (Indeed in one dialogue he explicitly says that one can come up with different lists depending on how one cares to count). That isn’t to say that the items on the list aren’t crucial, it’s simply to say that the precise designations can be massaged depending on one’s aims.

    I am not sure how much of this is true of Stoicism however.


  3. Douglass,

    in general, I’ve become less and less fond of formal definitions of any complex concept (virtue, consciousness, philosophy, science…). I rather go for a dialectical exploration of what people mean by those concepts. Still, your point is a good one, let’s keep looking into it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t see great value in classifying a small set of the most important virtues. I don’t think there is any getting around the point that the application of virtuous behavior will always employ a unity of multiple specific virtues in accordance with a strong understanding of and engagement with the current condition or context.

    So I think virtue depends on cultivating the skills and capacity to respond flexibly mixing many virtues to changing circumstances. Sometimes courage is important, but what rationale makes it a higher virtue than kindness, or perseverance, or humility, or curiosity etc….? Perhaps that might suggest understanding is a key virtue since a misunderstanding of any context will lead to a misapplication regardless of how well any of the other specific virtues have been developed. I prefer the term understanding to wisdom as I think wisdom suggests a focus on the rational subset of understanding. I think understanding of context is furthered by many factors including both emotional intelligence and rationality and that tranquility or equanimity results when these factors are appropriately engaged with each other and with the context. So I think mindfully practicing this concept is more useful then classifying specific virtues as most important.


  5. Great expose Massimo. This kind of analysis is what I am used to in studying other forms of philosophy but don’t see it as much in discussions about virtue ethics. Looking at the logic and the implications of following a tenet such as “virtue is the only intrinsic good” is necessary because until we really are sold on the idea, we probably won’t make the progress we could.

    I think we as Stoics do need to thoroughly assess our lives through the lens of Stoicism in order to not feel overwhelmed by constantly being mindful of virtue. It is the all encompassing structure that you refer to that has been the most satisfying part of practicing Stoicism.

    On a side note, I’m reading Andre Comte-Sponville’s book “A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues” which provides some illumination on the philosophy and practice of virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think we can gain some insight into virtue by considering the various personality disorders. The classifications are somewhat in a state of disorder but still instructive. Another oddity is that ultimately they are not ‘moral’ issues. A narcissist is not morally responsible for their fault, just defective and realistically cannot be expected to ever do any better. Let me use ‘moral’ words characterizing the opposites of some of those disorders: love, trust, sharing, empathizing, being happy. Totally lacking any one of these utterly destructive of personhood. We need some of each, a good amount is better.

    I think it is generally agreed that the lack of these ‘virtues’ all entail a specific brain dysfunction. So here as in so many other areas of life evolution, genetics, and their expression may rule.

    res ” .. fundamental goodness of character .. ” I have challenged people who think that the teachings of Jesus are about proper belief thusly: Go through Matthew or Luke and characterize the what leads to pleasing god or being rewarded in the next life. Belief or some sort of general goodness. The later greatly outnumber the former.

    Liked by 1 person

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