Stoicism reconsidered

The molecular structure of aspirin
The molecular structure of aspirin

In the next to the last chapter of his A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine followed up his discussion of the decline of Stoicism with his personal attempt to revive the philosophy. He begins by reminding his readers of the value of developing a philosophy of life (which doesn’t necessarily have to be Stoicism): they tell us what to value, and they tell us how to get there. In the case of Stoicism, especially with the Roman Stoics, value is put on tranquillity, which is a state of mind that allows one to control negative emotions such as anger and develop positive ones, such as joy.

Irvine then lists a series of recommendations developed by the Stoics, who he (rightly, I think) labels “keen observers of humanity”:

  • Become self-aware, observe yourself.
  • Use reasoning abilities to control negative emotions.
  • If you happen to be wealthy, enjoy it, but do not get attached to it.
  • Remember that we are social creatures.
  • Practice techniques to take pain out of relationships with others.
  • There are two sources of human unhappiness: wanting things, and worry about things that are not under our control.
  • To help decrease our wanting of things, engage in negative visualization.
  • To help with control issues, remind yourself of the Stoic dichotomy (or Irvine’s trichotomy): some things are in our control, others aren’t (and still others only partially).
  • When dealing with things partially under our control, shift away from a focus on outcomes, and move to one on internal goals.
  • Be fatalistic with respect to the external world.

At this point Irvine does something interesting: he tells us that he doesn’t buy the ancient Stoics’ proof of the truth of Stoic doctrine — which depended heavily on their metaphysics and theology. And I think he is right.

But then what? He suggests — again, reasonably — to update Stoicism by replacing unworkable justifications with new ones based on a modern scientific understanding of the world.

Here is an example: an ancient thinker might have said that we experience pain because it was the will of Zeus that we do so, in order to learn from our experiences. But a modern scientist would say instead that pain evolved by natural processes that favored creatures capable of being acutely aware of when they have suffered an injury to their bodies, because such creatures had a higher likelihood of surviving comparing to animals who did not feel pain when injured. The same goes for other primal emotions, such as fear, or sexual pleasure, as well as for more complex instinctive behaviors, such as our gregariousness as social animals, and our penchant for seeking status within whatever group we find ourselves in.

Here comes the most interesting bit of Irvine’s argument: just because we were given certain abilities (say, the ability to reason, which is of course crucial for a Stoic) not by Zeus so that we could be like gods, but by natural selection so that we could survive and reproduce, it doesn’t mean we have to use these abilities for their original purpose.

The example Irvine discusses here is hearing: likely, this had great survival value, making us able to detect a prey, or stay away from a predator. But today we rarely have need for that kind of use, and instead we enjoy listening to Beethoven — an activity, Irvine drily points out — that has nothing to do with survival (and, likely, very little with reproduction, unless you are into dating only people who love classical music).

Irvine then suggests that we can “misuse” our evolutionary ability to reason, in particular in order to circumvent the sort of behavioral tendencies that were built into us by natural selection but that we have come to see as not conducive to a flourishing life. For instance, we could decide to skip on some opportunities to have sex (something our ancestors would hardly have contemplated) in order, among other things, to have time to go to the symphony and listen to Beethoven.

His next example is even more appropriate to Stoicism: if we have decided that we value not just survival and reproduction, but also tranquillity of mind, then perhaps we should work toward countering our innate instinct for seeking to improve our social status, since the latter activity rarely brings tranquillity. A similar reasoning goes for our insatiability about wanting more and more things.

Irvine makes the broad claim — which I find eminently sensible — that it is perfectly reasonable to reject the specific reasons that Stoics adduced to adopt Stoicism, and yet keep much of the practical aspects of the system in place. The ancients did not understand evolution, but they did discover a number of basic things about the human condition and human psychology. Stoicism can then be recast as a philosophical cure for a disease, the latter being the various negative emotions that grip most human beings throughout life. The Stoics found the right cure, even though they did not understand why it works.

Irvine elaborates on this analogy by pointing out that it has been known since ancient times that extract from willow bark has significant curative effects, and yet we haven’t discovered the mechanism of action of aspirin until as late as the 1970s!

At this point Irvine is very conscious of the fact that he is “tampering” with Stoicism, and that purists will reject his approach altogether. But of course Stoicism is not a religion, so “purism” is a category mistake here. (Indeed, even religions do change significantly over time, updating themselves to novel social situations and to new knowledge, as much as the more “purist” believers — we call them fundamentalists — usually need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the present.)

Besides, plenty of Stoics themselves had “tampered” with the philosophy, disagreeing with one another on some points, and at times incorporating ideas coming from other schools. As Seneca, quoted by Irvine, put it: “I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion.”

Irvine goes on to say that Stoicism may resonate with some people and not others, depending on one’s personality and goals. If it doesn’t, then you may want to pursue Buddhism, or Epicureanism instead. (As an aside: apparently Irvine did try Buddhism, of the Zen variety, and didn’t find it congenial to his analytical mindset.)

But, crucially, this doesn’t mean that any philosophy of life will do. If you are an hedonist, thinking that happiness will come from accumulating ever more things and seeking out ever more pleasures — basically going through life by following what Irvine calls the evolutionary autopilot — you are, in fact, mistaken. The analogy he develops is with seeking a mate: there is no such thing as the ideal one, and some people work for some and others don’t. But there definitely are people you want to stay away from, no matter what!

12 thoughts on “Stoicism reconsidered

  1. I agree that Stoicism isn’t a religion and has a number of interpretations with some core beliefs. I believe that the core belief is the necessity and sufficiency of virtue. I don’t see how this interpretation would agree with this core. Any probable interpretation necessarily leaves cases that Stoicism wouldn’t apply to. The absolute nature of justice will not fit into an empirical framework.


  2. I would disagree with much of what evolutionary psychologist’s books might say. We have too little information to make all that many assertions. But human psychology is likely evolutionary ‘all the way down’. Really, what else could it be? It includes both nature and nurture or however you would categorize those two. Understand that in hunter gatherer groups those who do not fit in were most often expelled or killed. That alone has enormous evolutionary implications. Darwin, as so often, did a lot of original work, particularly in gathering facial expressions from around the world. He did not exclude animals from the collection in his attempt to understand emotions.

    I was greatly impressed with Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh. It answered a lot of objection I had with philosophy and its lack of scientific rigor. I saw Lakoff as a ‘first cut’ in how humans evolved and understood consciousness, time, causation, morality and etc. For example, whatever time is, it really is appropriate first to understand how the human brain experiences and understands time. It is anything but clear. But much more so than human’s understanding of causation which is another dog’s breakfast.

    Stoics and Irving are too quick to assert the rationality of humans. Irving discusses those things we have complete control of, and how we ought to be rational about those thoughts and opinions. While we are capable of thinking rationally that is not really how humans operate. The human brain is an original kludge, it can do science, calculus, justice, and truth but it was not designed nor optimized for any of these. And mostly reason is used to justify or rationalize our search for food, sex, dominance and survival. Truth and justice be damned. I have seen little evidence that we have complete control over anything which is important – even our own thoughts.

    Negative visualization and grief: he compares a good Stoic’s way with a bad non-Stoics way. This really is not acceptable. I have long taught that you compare, for example, a good Christian with a good atheist. And when you do you find more similarities than differences. Wise people are aware of lack of permanence – possessions, family, health, and even the sense of self. And in the face of great loss I have observed that those who deal best acknowledge what they have lost and how it has pained them.

    I have real doubts about Irving’s assertion that we ought to avoid negative emotions, and have only positive or pleasant ones. There is nothing really virtuous about having pleasant thoughts. It is nicer than bad ones, but not as a moral quality. Setting a goal of avoiding pleasant thoughts brings to mind Socrates alleged comparison, a happy pig or a dissatisfied human? A better case can be made for developing an indifference to how we are feeling. “I am sad, but yes very sad things have happened and now I need to continue to find and do my duty”. “I am happy, yes happiness is nice but ephemeral – enjoy it but continue to find and do my duty”.

    After your next post on the last chapter I will post why I liked this book, and will recommend it. I also applaud you and Irving’s intention to rebuild a stoic religion. You will have many allies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think that Stoicism is a way of thinking that allows us to exist in the reality of our time and place, and to be active, engaged participants in our world–without having to invoke any “supernatural shenanigans” (cf. Lawrence Krauss)–so that we feel we have some power here. To me, Stoicism is nothing near what anthropology would call a religion, which is why I think a modern (evidence-based) re-thinking of ancient ideas makes a lot of sense.
    Stoicism does not seem to be a way to resolve the deep questions of life and death that trouble our mortal souls. Resolving to wait until a reward in the afterlife is not its promise. It is not a way to impose our own judgments on others. The myth of “Zeus” (or Logos) in Stoicism seems to be a profound metaphor for the force that brought us into being–our physical world as we now know it–not as a real stand-in for an intelligent creator.
    Stoicism is a path in which each of us decides what we want and can achieve, and each of us holds the key position in making positive change where we can. It is about having and using our personal power. It is about accepting things when we don’t have power, and letting go of control over things that we have no control of. It is about keeping fixed on an internal moral compass while moving through a complex and confusing world. In order to make any decisions, we have to have information, and evaluate that information and revise it according to new sources of knowledge.
    As long as we can know any evidence-based truths about this world, I believe that Stoicism would want to incorporate them into its philosophy–increasing wisdom would always be a goal.
    I like the thought of rediscovering ancient philosophy and revising it to help us in this era.

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  4. Robin,

    Not sue that human nature is evolutionary “all the way down.” An argument can be made that cultural evolution is a distinct and pretty much uniquely human phenomenon. Sure, it is rooted in biology, but even strong evolutionary psychologists like E.O. Wilson admit that the “genetic tether” may be long and loose.

    As for rationality, the Stoic claim isn’t that humans are perfectly rational, only that humans are capable of rationality, and that it is in their nature to exercise it.

    Regarding comparing Stoics vs non-Stoics, I’m not sure why it’s not fair: Irvine’s book is about Stoicism and how it differs from other philosophies. That said, you are correct that there are wise people who espouse different philosophies, something Irvine certainly would not deny.

    On negative emotions: Irvine isn’t suggesting that we should have pleasant thoughts, but rather that we should focus on positive emotions (like love, a sense of justice, and so on). It’s the Epicureans who go for pleasure (in a very limited, circumscribed way).


  5. I indeed concur that the tether of genes to cultural behavior may be long and loose, but it is as inexorable as gravity. My agnosticism regarding theological and philosophical claims is pretty extreme, despite being a believer. I am a lot more skeptical about just about everything than any of my non-believing friends. Hence my doubt that even those of us who try to act with rationality and stoicism succeed anywhere near so much as we think we do.

    What Irving does that disturbs me is his repeated advocacy of suppression of emotions. I concur with him that most self-help support groups are not helpful, but neither is suppression. What I so often see in a family facing a tragic loss, is the kids and father go into suppression and the wife has to deal with all of the consequences of that denial – the dynamics are often pretty ugly. The wife deals with all the ensuing dysfunction. Sometimes it is a child or male who picks up the burden, but most often the mother. Indifference is a healthier way, and leaves open the path to happiness.

    I have observed that most folk religions/philosophies as well as the big four religions (or five or six!) have always incorporated a lot of stoic thoughts. It really would be useful for a stoic religion to keep these thoughts, mechanisms, and ideals in the forefront of public thought. “Religion” is a pretty loose term. When stoics have suggested naming, marriage, and funeral rites, as well as chaplains in the armed forces it will generally be agreed that Stoicism is a recognized religion. And a good thing.


  6. Hi Massimo,
    Another good post that I enjoyed. I have indicated agreement with Robins comments in the past regarding the value placed on certain emotional states over others as an absolute without regard for context. I find it funny that I often jump in to defend an emotion like anger since most would characterize as a person with very little anger🙂 Anyway this ongoing discussion made me think of this :

    “There are two great constraints in this world. One is fate, one’s mandated limitations, and the other is responsibility, doing what fits one’s position. A child’s love for his parents is fate—it cannot be removed from his heart. An underling’s service to a boss is responsibility, the response called for by his position; wherever he goes, he is in service to his boss. It cannot be avoided anywhere in this world. Thus I call these the great constraints. To be reconciled to wherever you may have to go to serve your parents is perfect filial piety, and to be reconciled to whatever may be involved in serving your boss is complete loyalty. And in the service one must render one’s own heart, seeing that you likewise cannot change the joy and sorrow it sets before you, thus reconciling yourself to these too as a part of your fate, knowing them to be something else you can do nothing about—that is the utmost Virtuosity. Being a son or a subordinate, there will inevitably be things you cannot avoid having to do. Absorb yourself in the realities of the task at hand to the point of forgetting your own existence. Then you will have no leisure to delight in life (4:14) or abhor death.

    Zhuangzi; Ziporyn, Brook (2009-03-15). Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (p. 28). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    Sounds pretty Stoic doesn’t it. I think it also points out how even though Zhuangzi places highest value on the equanimity that comes with understanding natures inevitable characteristics such as transformation and mutual dependence, he still acknowledges we will experience the transformations (like joy and sorrow). I think the advice is that when we understand ( both cognitively and non-cognitively) appropriate emotional expression in context to circumstance we won’t cause harm (self or otherwise) by coercing unfruitful disruption of appropriate transformation. Thus we can experience all forms of emotions appropriate to their source of origin, but the expression can be tempered through proper understanding. At least that’s my interpretation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robin,

    I don’t think of Stoicism as a religion, but as a philosophy mostly focused on ethics, with a background of metaphysics.

    As for suppressing emotions, again I don’t think that’s what Irvine is suggesting, and certainly not the ancient Stoics. The idea is rather to manage emotions, developing the positive ones and not letting the negative ones get you in a rot from which it is difficult to escape.


    Nice quote, I’ll have to think some more about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Massimo,

    The quote is from a passage in the Zhuangzi where Zhaungzi creates a dialogue between Confucious and a student who must undergo a very dangerous political task. Zhaungzi is putting his own words/theory into the Confucious role during the dialogue.

    Zhuangzi’s philosophy (looking beyond fixed distinctions) emerged largely as a response to debates between ongoing debates between Confucian and Moist schools of thought. He often uses Confucious as a foil, but in this passage interestingly uses him to present his own views (within a Confucian context). Zhuangzi wouldn’t buy into the fixed structure of Confucian rules or daos that if followed would lead to virtuous behavoir. He also often uses his own tutor the logician Huizi as a foil, but he ultimately has great respect for both Huizi and Confucious. Zhuangzi has been characterized philosophically under a lot of labels, skeptic, perspectivist, relativist, mystic… and more.

    I have been re-reading his inner chapters, and some takes from professional philosophers (AC Graham, Chad Hansen, Chris Fraser, Tim Connoly, Brook Ziporyn). My own opinions of Zhaungzi are still forming, but one thing that is clear to me is that while he is a perspectivist, he places great value on broadening ones own perspective taking capacity and he outlines an approach to avoid getting trapped in fixed views.


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