Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.
It is no surprise that Marino begins his essay with Kierkegaard, the founder of Existentialism, a type of philosophy that is squarely at odds with Stoicism. He then quotes the great 20th century moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who said that even when someone hurts another person without fault of their own, we still expect them to feel remorseful. Consider, for instance, the case of a man who drives a truck and that ends up running over a child who unexpectedly crossed the street at the last minute. Even though it is appropriate to comfort the driver, Williams says, “it is important that this is seen as something that should need to be done, and indeed some doubt would be felt about a driver who too blandly or readily moved to [a] position [of comfort].” Perhaps, but so far this is just a description of what some (perhaps most) people would do, not an actual ethical argument.
Interestingly, Marino contrasts Williams’ take with that of Spinoza — a philosopher who was very much sympathetic to the Stoic school of thought — who “reasoned that remorse and repentance are pernicious intoxicants that interfere with our understanding.” Indeed, even Nietzsche, despite being closer to the Existentialists than to the Stoics, called remorse “adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”
Marino disagrees, stating that “We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us.” But why, exactly?
He goes on in this vein: “As Freud and Kierkegaard taught, we always have to consider the affect, the mood with which an idea is expressed, in order to begin to comprehend the meaning that the idea has for us. The memory that the Vietnam vet bounced out of the pool was not of that backward boastful sort, it was a beach ball of sorrow. I suspect that he was a better person for having mulled over and hung his head for his behavior than he would have been had he resolved — what’s done is done and never thought about it again.”
And: “Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse.”
Concluding: “Henry David Thoreau advised: ‘Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.’ To live afresh is to be morally born again.”
Perhaps, but none of the above amounts to a philosophical argument. It is, in fact, little more than a string of quotations from favorite writers, some of whom have little credibility left in the 21st century (like Freud, see also chapter 17 of my book on the philosophy of pseudoscience).
The closest Marino comes to it is when he claims that remorse about past actions perhaps can change who we are, presumably so that we learn from our mistakes and see to it that we don’t repeat them. Moreover, his contrast to a rather casual “what’s done is done and never thought about it again” type of attitude seems to imply that he doesn’t think a cognitive approach is sufficient here, one needs to be emotionally distraught.
The Stoics had an altogether different take. Negative emotions, such as regret, were classed as pathê, negative passions, and therefore unhealthy. These were to be contrasted with positive passions named eupatheiai, which are described by Martha Nussbaum (in The Therapy of Desire, 1994, p. 398) as “motivations that will help [the agent] steer her way among things indifferent.” Famously, the goal of Stoic practice was to achieve apatheia, a word that can be interpreted either as freedom from the (negative!) passions or, more properly, as equanimity, a dispassionate (but not apathetic in the modern sense of the word!) attitude toward events.
The idea, then, insofar as regret is concerned, is that we ought to learn from past events, including of course, our mistakes. But we should do this with equanimity, without indulging in feelings of guilt that don’t actually do any work other than make us feel bad about something that cannot be changed.
That latter observation — the unchangeability of the past — is of course yet another application of the Stoic dichotomy of control so prevalent in Epictetus: what has already happened is not under our control, but our current actions are. So we should focus in the here and now, where our power of agency is actually effective, not dwell onto something that is now permanently outside of our reach:
“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” (Enchiridion, 1)
The Stoic argument against regret, then, is that: I) it interferes with our attempts to achieve apatheia; and II) it ignores the dichotomy of control, instantiated in this particular case by the fact that the past is outside of our control.
None of this, however, should be construed as the Stoic not caring about having made mistakes, or not wanting to learn from his mistakes in order to avoid future ones. Here is Seneca on this specific point:
“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events?” (On Anger, III.36.)
Going back to two of Marino’s examples, the truck driver who accidentally killed the child has no cause for regret, not only because he cannot change what happened, but also because, in Williams’ hypothetical scenario, he actually had no fault whatsoever. So there is also nothing for him to learn here, except the fact that the universe sometimes throws really bad stuff at us. It is perfectly human for the driver to feel for the loss of a young life, of course, but shame, guilt and the like are inappropriate, regardless of what the rest of society thinks.
As for the Vietnam veteran, we are not told what he actually did. If he carried out morally questionable or downright wrong actions then he ought to reflect on them, understand why he did them, and wow to do better in the future. Should he be able to somehow ameliorate the effects of what he did, for instance by some kind of reparation or apology to the victims of his actions, then he ought to do so. But simply wallowing in negative feelings will neither correct anything nor improve him as a human being, regardless of what Thoreau or Freud might have thought.
There is one more Stoic angle on regret. In a sense, to regret something is to keep talking to yourself about how bad you have been, making a constant argument that you should feel sad or ashamed or something along those lines. But as Marcus reminds us, Stoicism is about action, not words:
“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Meditations, X.16)
So stop regretting whatever you can no longer change and go out there to do some good. There is a lot of need for it.