A reader recently sent me a link to an article on Stoicism published by the Ayn Rand Institute… I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s true. The article in question is actually the transcript of a lecture made available through the ARI’s campus branch, and it is the quintessential mischaracterization of Stoicism. As such, it is well worth examining in some detail.
[Full disclosure: I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist “philosophy,” as can be seen here, here, here, and here. So take the following with a grain of salt. I am not an unbiased observer in this case!]
The author of this inane piece on Stoicism is one Leonard Peikoff, described on the ARI’s web site as “Ayn Rand’s foremost student and today’s leading expert on Objectivism.” Peikoff begins by telling his students “I’ll mention the names [of the major Stoic philosophers], but I won’t bother you with the dates or the spellings because very few people have ever heard of them” and immediately proceeds to make a first major mistake, presenting later (Roman) Stoic philosophy as “more Platonist, more this world vs. another world, the soul vs. the body, and more emphasizing immortality.” He gets that from what appears to be a very superficial reading of Epictetus and a smattering of Marcus — the only two Stoic authors he cites, very few times (no Seneca, at all, not to mention the non-Stoic commentaries by Cicero and Diogenes Laertius).
The biggest whopper, arguably, comes in section 2 of the lecture, entitled “Achieving apathy.” Peikoff there makes the most elementary mistake, equating the Greek apatheia with the English apathy, and adding for good measure the wholly gratuitous “clarification” that the Stoics meant to achieve “salvation” through their philosophy (he does this because he wants to establish a strong link to Christianity, and eventually to Kant, one of the Objectivists’ nemeses).
After a dig at the Cynics (“they were, in effect, the first hippies in the West”), he proceeds with yet another incredible statement, to the effect the Stoics were “of course similar to Epicurus in their overall thrust of their viewpoint,” a notion that anyone even superficially acquainted with Hellenistic philosophy will reject as ludicrous.
Here is a taste of just how incredibly wrong Peikoff gets the basics of Stoicism: “We must stop valuing friends; we must stop valuing even life, and some of them went so far as to recommend suicide on the grounds that nothing, including life, was a value.” He obviously simply does not understand the concept of “indifferents.” The Stoics valued friends and life very much, and certainly did not counsel easy suicide, but they thought that friends and even life itself ought to be given up if this is required to act morally, with virtue. Stoic suicide was a noble and extreme act, which Epictetus advised only when there was no alternative and one had lost any ability to contribute to society, for instance because of terminal illness.
Again, Peikoff: “What we must do, they said, is achieve utter insensibility … non-emotion. Emotions for them are a disease, an aberration, any emotion, emotion as such.” No, no, no. This is the stereotype of Stoicism that, although common, gets pretty much everything wrong about the philosophy. Stoics cultivated positive emotions (including love and a sense of justice), while aimed at rejecting — not giving “assent” to, in their terminology — negative, destructive emotions.
Part 3 of the lecture is a long yet superficial discussion of Stoic metaphysics. To be fair, the ancient Stoics themselves didn’t help here, with frequent talk of God and Zeus, especially in the later period. But as plenty of authors have pointed out, the Stoics identified God with Nature, the soul was material, and everything happens because of universal cause and effect. While the ancient Stoics certainly did hold to a teleological view of the universe, this was nothing like the Judeo-Christian-Muslim personal God with a plan.
Peikoff instead brings up the argument from design for the existence of God, which is pretty much irrelevant in this context, and then refers to the Objectivist idea that cosmic chaos is metaphysically impossible because, you know, natural law is “simply” a corollary of the logical principle of identity. As he puts it: “A is A is quite sufficient.” This, it should be clear to anyone with elementary training in logic or metaphysics, is nonsense on stilts (and would certainly come as a big surprise to theoretical physicists!).
Peikoff does at some point say that for the Stoics God is “within the universe” (it would be more accurate to say that God is the universe), but then he incredibly labels this “essentially the standard religious viewpoint.” I guess that must be why Spinoza, who held to a concept of God very similar to the Stoic one, got into so much trouble with religious authorities. Oh, no, wait…
The next bit deals with the Stoic idea of determinism. The Stoics were what by modern standards we would call compatibilists about free will, a position that definitely does not sit well with Objectivism. Again, Peikoff gets some of the fundamentals wrong. For instance he says that “the Stoics agreed with Epicurus that universal cause and effect means rigid determinism.” Uhm, no they didn’t. Indeed, that was one of the major differences between the two philosophies. While the Stoics were determinists, the Epicureans’ picture of the cosmos was one of chaos — which is why the Christian fathers were more sympathetic to Stoicism and did everything in their power to smear Epicureanism (which led to people still today thinking of Epicureans as simplistic hedonists who only value sex, drugs and rock ‘n ‘roll).
Peikoff then does a bit criticizing Stoic epistemology, and in particular their idea that the Sage (and only the Sage, who, remember is a fictional ideal, never a real person) can achieve certain knowledge about some matters that he is able to distinguish “clearly and distinctly.” The Stoics were justly and effectively criticized by the Skeptic Platonists, and did modify some of their thinking in response to such criticism. But Peikoff needs this part because he wants to link Stoicism with Descartes, who was famous for a similar notion of clear and distinct things about which one can be certain (his example, of course, was “cogito ergo sum”). I don’t have a problem with acknowledging Stoic influences on later philosophers, not just Descartes, but the above mentioned Kant as well. But since Objectivists have a bad opinion of the latter two, they also have a problem with Stoicism.
Perhaps the major issue that Peikoff has with the Stoics concerns their view of man (meaning humanity) and his place in the cosmos. For the Stoics we are parts of a universal machine, and we play a non-negotiable part in the general workings of the cosmos/Nature/God. Whether this part is the result of Providence or atoms — as Marcus says a number of times in the Meditations — doesn’t matter. It is what it is. But this is something that, again, Objectivism cannot possibly accept, since it requires a radical view of human freedom (hence the Objectivist’s scorn for determinism hinted at above).
Stoics did emphasize “duty,” another idea that is anathema to Objectivists, so much so that Peikoff labels the Stoic position “the antithesis of the Objectivist approach to morality … Stoics are one of the main sources of what Kant later took over and blew up into astronomic proportions.”
What so objectionable about the idea of duty toward practicing virtue and being helpful to fellow human beings? Well, remember that Objectivism is a philosophy based on self-enlightened egoism, according to which one does not have duties toward others, and where indeed the very concept of duty is inherently pernicious. Hence Peikoff’s invectives against both the Christians and Kant. But he allows some mitigating factor: “The Stoics, however, are not nearly as consistent or as corrupt as Kant. No Greek, however bad he became, ever dreamed of approaching the man-destroying evil later adopted and proclaimed by Kant and his followers.” Thank Zeus for that!
Section 7 of the lecture returns to “apathy” and the Stoic idea of acceptance, which is again badly mangled and misconstrued. Here is Peikoff’s summary of the Stoic take: “Do not burn with passion for the things you haven’t got. Do not feel anger, or rebellion, or protest, against the state of affairs you’re in, or the kind of world you’re in, or the social circumstances you’re in. Take the course of events as it comes; yield unprotestingly to whatever occurs.”
Again, no. The Stoics were constantly faced with this sort of retort, so much so that they had a name for it: the lazy argument. One can see where this caricature originates, of course. The famous Stoic metaphor of the dog leashed to a cart, who has the option of either struggling hopelessly and causing himself pain or go along with the ride and enjoy it, lends itself to the sort of superficial interpretation that Peikoff peddles. But I expected better from Rand’s “foremost student.” If one reads the Discourses, or the Meditations, or a number of essays by Seneca, instead of quote mining, one ought to understand that the Stoics were very much into changing things: those we know of were, after all, teachers, politicians, generals and emperors — hardly the sort of passive fellow who “takes the course of events as it comes; yield unprotestingly to whatever occurs.” On the contrary, the Stoic virtue of justice and the associated Discipline of Action are all about changing things for the better. At any rate, you know someone’s got it seriously wrong when one can write things like this: “the Stoic withdrawal from life is much greater than Epicurus’s.”
The big sin of the Stoics, from an Objectivist perspective, is of course their altruism, founded on the just mentioned Discipline of Action and their concept of cosmopolitanism. Incredibly, Peikoff manages to turn Stoic altruism into a perverse form of egoism: “Since they’re Stoics, they remain emotionally aloof, cold, uninvolved, apathetic; what then is their real interest in helping others? Well, the critics answer: to give the Stoic a chance to exercise his moral muscle; in effect, to do what’s duty and thus gain the selfish sense that he has been virtuous; so their real goal is selfish after all.” This is one of the most egregious examples of misrepresentation and rationalization I’ve encountered in a long time. Congratulations, Leonard!
Section 9 criticizes the Stoics for what Peikoff calls “the primacy of motive,” that is the idea that what is important is the motivations that move the moral agent, not the actual achievements of his actions. Again, the objection seems to stem from the influence that the Stoics have had on Christianity and the much hated Kant. But this objection can be raised against any form of virtue ethics, not just Stoicism, and at any rate misses the mark because certain outcomes rather than others were indeed preferred by the Stoics. They just acknowledged that their preferences aren’t binding on the universe as a whole.
The last section of the lecture finally manages to give the Stoics some credit, though with a very large caveat. They were the first Western philosophers to grasp the fundamental idea of the equality of all men. (Not exactly, since Stoic cosmopolitanism is derived from the Cynics, and even Plato articulated a significant sense of equality when he gave equal duties to men and women in his Republic. But who cares about historical accuracy when one has to score ideological points.)
What’s the caveat? That the ground for Stoic cosmopolitanism, according to Peikoff, was “supernatural.” Except, of course, that it wasn’t. First off, the Stoics simply did not hold to a concept of the supernatural: God is nature, the soul is made of matter, and cause and effect are universal. There are no miracles to be had in the Stoic view of the world. Second, the Stoics got the idea of equality the same way they got all their fundamental ideas, by “following nature,” meaning specifically by understanding human nature. For them, humans are social animals capable of rationality. From which it follows that we ought to deploy reason to live socially. As Seneca famously put it: “Adhibe rationem difficultatibus” (bring the mind to bear upon your problems).
But Peikoff will have none of that, contrasting instead the Stoics with the Sophists, and somehow managing to get the latter to come up on top. Since I don’t think very highly of sophistry, I guess I can rest my case here.