Becker’s A New Stoicism, IX: Happiness

We are reaching the end of my extended commentary on the second edition of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism, a book aiming at taking several steps toward updating Stoic philosophy for the 21st century, and a must read for anyone seriously interested in Stoic theory. This post will cover the last chapter of the book, on happiness, while the final entry in the series will deal with an important postscript Larry wrote, about virtue ethics, virtue politics, and Stoicism as a guide to living well.

To begin with, “happiness” for Stoics is really eudaimonia, i.e., it does not refer to a temporary state of mind (“I’m happy that I got a job!”), but rather to our satisfaction with the entire trajectory of our lives. It is, therefore, a reference point for navigation, the “polestar” of not just our ethical theory, but our whole way of life. Why take the the entirety of our life as the reference frame? Because whenever we focus too much on individual episodes we eventually realize that something that seemed at the time to be a catastrophe was actually quite bearable, trivial, even. Similarly, we achieve a goal that we thought was crucial, life changing, even, but it soon turns out to be just another step forward, not really as momentous as it initially looked. In other words, keeping an eye on the broad picture helps us put things into a better perspective, as well as assess more rationally the significance of what happens here and now.

When it comes to the meaning of life, Becker acknowledges that the ancient Stoics believe in an organic universe, i.e., a universe conceived as a living being, capable of rationality (the Logos). This brought comfort because they conceived of individual human beings as bits of the Logos, and of our lives as made meaningful by the fact that we play an (unknown) part in the doings of the cosmos.

Be that as it may, Larry immediately adds, this pantheistic “god” did not answer to prayer (pace Cleanthes hymn to Zeus, which is not really a prayer — see Enchiridion LIII.1), and more importantly did not give any clear guidance on action. Epictetus, arguably the most pious sounding of the Stoics, repeatedly tells his students that they need to figure things out for themselves, which is why a major goal of Stoic training is to refine as much as possible one’s prohairesis, i.e., the ability to arrive at correct judgments.

Epicurus, Becker reminds us, rejected the idea of a general meaning of life, and both Marcus (see here) and Panaetius seem to have harbored significant doubts. Regardless, actionable meaning for the Stoic comes from within, not without. It lies in our practice of virtue, with the goal of living a eudaimonic life, a life actually worth living. The cosmos may or may not play a further role, it does not really matter in practice.

Next, there is the perennial issue of preferred indifferents, which Larry deals with in the following fashion:

“It is true that Stoic happiness does not necessarily include nonagency pleasures — all the other possibilities for what we ordinarily call having a good time. But it is highly misleading to go on to say that such pleasures are superfluous, or that they “add” nothing to virtue. They do not add virtue to a virtuous life, but they add something else to it. … The pleasures of virtue are never to be traded for nonagency ones, but among virtuous lives, those with nonagency pleasures, and nonagency goods generally, are preferred to those without them. Further, with virtue held constant, the more nonagency goods the better.” (p. 158)

Indeed, once again, Stoics are neither Cynics nor Aristotelians. We neither think that externals are necessary for a eudaimonic life (like the Aristotelians), nor do we believe they get in the way of it (like the Cynics). This is one of the chief reasons Stoicism resonates with me: it is at the same time a demanding moral philosophy, and yet one that takes seriously that a human life can certainly be augmented by things other than virtue (though it doesn’t have to, in order to be worth living).

Becker is also clear that there is no single recipe for which combination of non-agentic (i.e., external) goods is going to work for each of us. So long as we stay away from pursuits that positively harm our moral character, whatever combination of activities and externals happens to work for each of us is fine. There are many different kinds of good Stoic lives. (Again, refreshing compared to the rigidity of the Aristotelian recipe, which tolerates different life styles, but really insists that the preferred one is the life of contemplation.)

How much control can, or indeed should, we strive to exert over our lives? Despite his insistence on keeping an eye on the full trajectory, Larry is also clear that he is not suggesting that we develop detailed and rigid, Soviet-style, many-years plans for our existence. Life is too complex and variable for anything like that. Instead — in perfect Stoic fashion — he introduces a helpful analogy.

Imagine you are piloting an airplane. The airplane represents the character that you wish to develop as an agent. Clearly, you want your plane to be responsive to your commands so that you can not only set a route, but also make adjustments, and even occasional major changes of course, depending on the external conditions. (I am very much conscious of this as I am writing while in a flight from Brussels back to New York, and we are experiencing some significant turbulence…) Here is how Becker puts it:

“A fixed-wing aircraft is said to have positive stability if it stays in, or returns to, straight and level flight unless pressure is continuously applied to the controls. It has neutral stability when it holds any given attitude (roll, pitch, yaw) in which it is placed, tending neither to exaggerate that attitude nor to return to straight and level flight. It has negative stability when it deviates from any given flight attitude unless corrective control is continuously applied. At the theoretical limit of either positive or negative stability, an aircraft is virtually uncontrollable.” (p. 160)

The same goes with our lives. What we are striving for here is not control in the sense of determining everything that happens to us. Epictetus clearly argued that that’s just wishful thinking, of the dangerous kind (Enchiridion I.1-3). Instead, we want our lives to be “maneuverable,” so to speak, capable of returning to whatever main path we decided after proper adjustments have been made for local turbulence. Sometimes the path itself will have to be altered, a change of course made necessary by the fact that the goal is to keep flying well and safely, not necessarily to reach a particular predetermined destination.

There is an important caveat introduced by Larry at this point in the discussion, one that signals a certain degree of departure, perhaps, from ancient Stoicism, and yet makes perfect sense and is worth emphasizing. While developing agency means aiming at the ability to optimally control our character, and therefore our responses — including our emotions — it does not follow that we should wish to exercise such control all the time, but only when practical reason demands it.

The example conjured by Becker is that of a woman who is affected by grief, being at this moment distraught by some tragedy that has happen to her recently. But she is in a lounge at her work place, in a uniform, maybe she is a doctor. Suddenly an emergency occurs, a new patient is brought in, and she needs to snap out of her situation and take action. She does so, because practical reason demands it. She is able automatically, effortlessly, perhaps, to set aside — to control — her emotion because she is needed in order to save a life. Once the emergency is over, she may or may not resume her grieving, depending on the new situation. That, and not a hypothetical state of perennial detachment, is what Stoic training is attempting to achieve:

“Being overcome by emotion is no more problematic for a Stoic than being overcome by sleep. Sometimes sleep is dangerous (think of trying to avoid hypothermia), or a dereliction of duty, even when it is desperately needed. So too for all-consuming grief, or lust. But at other times luxuriating in sleep or passion is a harmless pleasure, much preferred to the tightly controlled variety.” (p. 163)

Next, Larry takes up the famous “Sage is happy even on the rack” problem, which, as he drily puts it, is the sort of thing that our ancient brethren have done much to invite sarcasm about. He rightly points out that nothing in Stoic philosophy has ever implied that practicing Stoicism makes one into a superhuman, immortal or invulnerable. Extreme pain, or brain damage, can and will destroy human agency, no matter how many premeditatio malorum you carry out. Under those circumstances the Stoic has limited choices: the prospect of recovering her agency, should the condition in question be reversible; or the hope to get the death she prefers if the circumstances allow it. These aren’t particularly satisfying answers to how a Sage will fare on the rack. But it is so, Becker says, because the example is hardly informative of the overall philosophy.

A Sage — which, remember, is as rare as the phoenix, according to Seneca (Letters to Lucilius, XLII.1) — is different from the rest of us because her agency has passed the healthy or even fit levels, and has been developed to the point of virtuosity. Even so, the Sage will suffer on the rack, and she will be different from the rest of us only insofar as she is capable of maintaining her agency under extreme conditions, or to recover it as quickly as possible after she goes through severe traumas. That’s it, and yet, it is a lot. Not a superhuman, but a virtuoso level of humanity.

Larry proposes a sort of classification of different kinds of good Stoic life. The primary type is one in which Stoic virtue is achieved and sustained. It is primary because, as we have seen, virtue is good in and of itself, since it is inextricably linked with both virtuous agency and eudaimonia.

The secondary kind of good Stoic life is available to the person who is making progress toward virtue. She has not developed it to the level of virtuosity, so she is a prokoptousa, not a Sage. Full virtue has not been achieved, and it is not stable, it is an ongoing project.

The tertiary type is available to someone who is not currently on the Stoic path, but for whom that path is still an open possibility. Obviously, not everyone is a Stoic, and we should remember that:

“Stoicism is cosmopolitan and is quite alert to the fact that most people have other conceptions of a good life, many of which are internally coherent, conscientiously and firmly held. … Deeply held religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or agentic commitments fundamentally at odds with Stoicism have always been present. These are not necessarily cases of truncated psychological development. They are often simply divergent from Stoic development.” (p. 168-169)

This is a strong reminder that Stoics do not proselytize, though we happily engage in discussions of our philosophy with people who may be interested. Moreover, practicing Stoicism means that we need to cultivate tolerance and acceptance toward other ways of conducting life, so long as they are not destructive (as for instance some religious or political fundamentalisms are — a Nazi Stoic is inconceivable).

What happens when we disagree with someone’s choice of a life path? I am going to transcribe exactly what Becker says, because it ought to be kept constantly in mind during our interactions with others:

“It may be that [someone] will eventually adapt to her new circumstances by giving up Stoicism altogether and embracing the notion that what the Stoics regard as only preferred indifferents can actually give her a very good life. Stoics would disagree (silently) about the theoretical point but not try to argue her back into distress. They, too, would much prefer that her life seemed good to her. Stoics are not cruel, though they can be clumsy. The same point can be made about people who willingly take paths away from Stoicism toward other accounts of the good life. When reasoned discussion fails, Stoics wish their critics well and go about their business.” (p. 169)

That last line, I think, should be tattooed on our forearms, or at least framed and placed in a prominent place on our desks.

Larry then tackles the issue of whether a Stoic should desire a long life. The ancients, especially Seneca, clearly answered in the negative (Letters to Lucilius, XCIII.2). For Seneca there is no such thing as a premature death, as we die whenever the universe decides it, and the worth of a life is not measured by its duration, but rather by its quality (Letters to Lucilius XCIII.4). Becker would not necessarily disagree, I think, with the basic concept, but he argues that while we can exercise our virtuous agency, there will be reason to do so for as long as possible. We tend to think of our lives in terms of narratives, and here is where the Stoic may diverge from some other people, propelled by a different conception of what makes human life meaningful:

“Lives often end too soon in narrative terms because they are incomplete, and they are too long when they go on pointlessly after they are complete.” (p. 170)

And what makes a life complete or not, in a narrative sense, is how the agent herself conceives of her life. Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, lived until he was 98 (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.28). One version of his end says that he starved himself to death (Lives, VII.31), presumably because he reached the judgment that he could not longer be useful. Which brings us to the next topic in chapter 7: suicide.

Larry’s position is very clear, and I find myself in complete agreement:

“Stoicism endorses the permissibility of suicide, but not a requirement of it. It is permissible when suicide becomes the only available way to act virtuously — the only act that is consistent with Stoic virtue itself, or the pursuit of it.” (p. 170)

Again he proposes an analogy with sleep: sometimes we may resist it because there is some important project that needs to be completed. But there will be other cases where in fact we should welcome sleep, because resisting it would either be futile or dangerous.

The ancient Stoics explicitly admitted the possibility (though, again, not the requirement) of suicide in a small set of circumstances: on behalf of one’s country, on behalf of one’s friends, or to avoid severe and indeterminate pain or suffering (which would permanently cripple our virtuous agency). Becker adds that suicide must be the last available option, and that it is always to be decided upon by following the virtue of justice, which means, he points out, that suicide in order to commit murder is out of the question.

What about assisted suicide? The ancient Stoics did not have a problem with it, and in fact Epictetus promptly goes to help a friend when he hears that the friend has decided to starve himself to death (turns out, though, that the friend did not have a good reason to end his life, and Epictetus reproached him — Discourses II.15.4-13). However, our forerunners would not have wanted to put a friend or relative in jeopardy for assisting, if the practice were against the law of the land. The just thing to do would be to reform the law. This has obvious practical consequences for the ongoing debate on assisted suicide, and it seems to me that the Stoic position is precisely the one outlined here by Larry.

One more, very important, point about suicide:

“Stoic virtue ethics includes awareness of the damage to others that can be done by a suicide, especially within a circle of family and close friends. This is one of the factors that determines whether one’s suicide is permissible in the first place.” (p. 172)

The chapter ends with a brief discussion of joy as an aspect of eudaimonia. The idea is that exercising virtue in itself brings joy (though we do not do it because of that), even within the context of an otherwise miserable life. If her circumstances are not miserable, however, the Stoic will experience joy just like any other human being. Socrates, Becker reminds us, could make himself at home at a rowdy banquet, and not by declining the wine. The Stoic understands — pace Epicurus — that filling one’s life with pleasures and joy is not her proper aim, but she would be foolish to avoid them for that reason.

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One thought on “Becker’s A New Stoicism, IX: Happiness

  1. Lawrence Becker

    Two additional things about Stoic eudaimonia come to mind that are not in the text of the chapter itself, but are worth adding for the record.

    One of these (call it the tranquility objection) comes from the common complaint that even if Stoics don’t try to uproot emotions altogether, they do seem to try to tamp them down toward a state of tranquility which inevitably flattens out affect. If that’s true, it is unacceptable for two reasons. For one thing we are left with a virtually colorless emotional life. Think of the dynamic range of a piece of music, with all the highs and lows clipped off or squashed toward the middle. But for another thing, we often believe that we need the intensity given by the full dynamic range of a given emotion. Think of the anger we may need to sustain us in the fight for justice.

    I suggest that the appropriate response to the tranquility objection is to notice, first, that the sort of intensity we need for motivational purposes is “agentic intensity” – which is quite different from emotional intensity as we usually think of it. As Seneca observes, when we are motivated by anger we typically overshoot or undershoot the mark. And anger is different from getting energized, or psyched up, as we say. A high level of agentic energy is consistent with acting under control so that we stay on course, or are able to make course corrections as necessary, and so that we do not so often miss the mark. Having a high level of agentic energy is also consistent with subconscious situational awareness and readiness to make adjustments. It is thus consistent with and important sort of equilibrium, which is part of an important sort of tranquility. This sort of equilibrium is equipped with the ability to monitor changes in our environment and make adjustments to our agentic conduct in flight, as it were.

    The other objection (call it the love objection) is about eros – and specifically about the way in which subconscious self-monitoring seems to rule out the whole-heartedness that romantics seem to insist upon in intensely personal loving relationships – particularly erotic ones. I think this objection fails also. I think love that is unequipped with subconscious situational awareness and monitoring is, well, unhealthy.

    These two problems are discussed at some length in the Commentary to chapter 7.

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