Stoicism and Emotion, VII: the development of character

waiter in bad faithThe phrase “bad faith” is usually associated with Existentialist philosophy, and particularly with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and their famous example of the waiter who tries a bit too hard and artificially to be a waiter. When someone is in bad faith, existentially speaking, he is responding to pressure from social forces, adopting false values, and thereby disowning his innate freedom, which results in him acting inauthentically.

Interestingly (though Existentialism and Stoicism actually share a number of commonalities), the phrase “bad faith” features at the very beginning of chapter 7 of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, on which I have been commenting for a while now. Specifically, what the author is suggesting is that the Stoics wished to pre-empt the bad-faith excuse that our behavior is (entirely) caused by forces outside our control, a point related to the Stoic rebuttal of the (in)famous “lazy argument.” As we have already discussed, the Stoics were indeed determinists, but distinguished a number of causes at work in the universe, and when it comes to human behavior they made the point that some of these causes are external (and hence truly outside of our control), but some are internal, constituting our character (and at least in part under our control). Chrysippus used the famous analogy of a cylinder that rolls when pushed because of a combination of two causes: one is the external push, but another is its internal nature of being a cylinder. If it were a cube, say, it wouldn’t roll, even in response to the very same external push. As Margaret puts it:

“One might say that the causal history supplied for emotional responses addresses the question ‘why does the cylinder roll?’ and answers it, in brief, by pointing out that the cylinder is round. By contrast, the causal history of character addresses the question ‘why is the cylinder round?’” (p. 149)

And it is to that second causal history that we now turn. To begin with, remember that Stoic philosophy maintains that the human mind is geared toward doing good, that is, toward acting virtuously. (They thought this was the result of a providential universe in the form of a pantheistic god, we today might say that human beings are pro-socially inclined as a result of evolution by natural selection.) But if that is the case, then why is it that virtuous behavior is so infrequent? Plato blamed the influence of the Sophists and the shifting opinion of popular assemblies; Epicurus said it was the fault of bad cultural influences, particularly poetry and drama. But the Stoics knew that these answers are insufficient and set out to do better.

The first step is the Stoic developmental account of human character, famously presented by Cato the Younger in book III of Cicero’s De Finibus. Even young children, says Cato/Cicero, do not seek pleasure for its own sake (take that, Epicurus!), but rather whatever aids them in the goals of self-preservation and self-improvement. For instance, they keep trying to learn to walk, all the while experiencing pain and frustration when they repeatedly fall down. Our native endowment also includes a tendency to learn, make connections, and react positively to people who are truthful to us and negatively to those who try to trick us. (For a modern version of the argument, see my discussion of chapter 6 of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.)

“Natural preferences for self-preservation, for understanding, and for order and control thus work together to establish in one’s life the stable and coherent systems of belief and action which constitute the human good. … While this account of intellectual maturation employs a broadly empiricist model of knowledge acquisition, it also makes use of innatist elements, preferences and tendencies which are simply part of human nature.” (p. 152)

Graver also points out that Cicero makes the link between normal human character development and the virtues very explicit in his On Duties: prudence (practical wisdom) develops from an innate preference we have for understanding; justice is the result of an innate tendency toward sociability; courage from a propensity toward mastering situations; and temperance from a preference for order. What, then, keeps going so predictably wrong for so many people?

A summary of a two-cause explanation is given by Diogenes Laertius:

“The rational animal is corrupted sometimes by the persuasiveness of things from without, sometimes through the teaching of our associates. For the starting points which nature provides are uncorrupted.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers VII.89)

A later commentator on the Stoics, Calcidius (circa 400 CE) agrees, and presents the Stoic two-cause account of human failure to behave virtuously again in terms of the attraction of “things themselves” (e.g., the lust generated by a potential sexual partner) and “the transmission of rumors” (i.e., popular opinion, even and especially by our parents and other caretakers).

In a sense, we go wrong because early on we commit a natural logical fallacy: Calcidius says that we learn to associate nice with good and troublesome with bad, and eventually come to believe that those general correlations actually signal causal connections. We come to love things like glory, since we are told that it is good, and since it brings about good things, instead of its close but virtuous kin, honor (which we are also, typically, taught is good, but is more troublesome to achieve). And we mistakenly assume that praise is a good thing in itself, rather than thinking about what a knowledgeable observer would praise us for.

“Since the happy person necessarily enjoys life, [people] think that those who live pleasurably will be happy. Such, I think, is the error which arises ‘from things’ to possess the human mind. But the one which arises ‘from transmission’ is a whispering added to the aforementioned error through the prayers of our mothers and nurses for wealth and glory and other things falsely supposed to be good.” (On the Timaeus of Plato 165-66; SVF 3.229)

We find yet another rendition of the two-cause argument in Cicero’s On Laws. Cicero’s Stoic-informed view is minimalist about human nature: we have a tendency, which we possess even without being taught, to favor the development of justice. However, things can easily go wrong, mostly through a perversion that results from “customs and fase opinions.”

Specifically, Cicero lists six objects that people commonly mistake for goods and evils: pleasure and pain, death and life, honor and disrepute. These are closely associated with an object for which we have a natural affinity: health, preservation of our natural state, and moral excellence (positives), and bodily harm, the dissolution of our nature, and moral turpitude (negatives). Our problem is that too often we confuse things from the first group with things from the second group, without realizing that we should care about the latter, not the former.

But Cicero’s most elaborate presentation of this material, according to Graver, is found in the third book of the Tusculan Disputations. He argues that we are born with the seeds of virtue, but that we go off the rails because of the bad counsel of a number of people who are influential on us from early on, including parents, teachers, and even books of poetry. Interestingly, though, Cicero also maintains that the most dangerous influence of all is that of the cheering crowd, and the most susceptible to it are talented individuals who go into politics, who wind up ruining both themselves and their country. Sounds familiar? It seems like things have not changed that much in the last couple of millennia after all.

In the end, the picture that emerges is that the Stoics, like Plato before them, regard moral error as the result of lack of guidance, or exposure to bad guidance, coupled with natural mistakes of reasoning, not as the predictable outcome of an intrinsically evil nature. I have pointed out that this view is not very dissimilar from the one espoused many centuries later by David Hume, who interestingly wrote a favorable essay about the Stoics, even though he personally preferred the Skeptics among the ancient philosophers.

But the Stoic account of character development is more sophisticated than just claiming that people make mistakes because they confuse similar yet distinct things, or that they are influenced by the bad opinion of others. The twofold cause gets us into the realm of error, but the formation of specific tendencies toward poor reactions and downright bad behavior owes a lot to our own lack of mental discipline. We find this point both in Cicero (in Tusculan Disputations IV) and very explicitly in Epictetus:

“When once you have desired money, if there is an application of reason, which will lead you to recognize the evil, the desire stops and our directive faculty (hēgemonikon) governs as at the start, but if you do not apply anything in the way of therapy, it no longer returns to the same [condition], but when it is again stimulated by the corresponding impression it is kindled into desire more quickly than before. And if this keeps happening, it thereafter becomes callused, and the infirmity gives stability to greed.” (Discourses II.18.8-10)

The analogy with a callus is important: our character is molded continuously, by repeated decisions of our ruling faculty. Every time we judge correctly, we channel our character toward virtue; every time we judge incorrectly, we channel it away from virtue. And it is in this sense of a continuously sustaining internal cause that we are morally responsible for what we do or don’t do. Just as a callus, once formed, alters our sensitivity to continued touch experiences, so our character, once altered in a given direction, makes it more likely for us to keep moving in that direction. We, however, as rational agents, are capable to reverse the trend, so to speak, and actively decide to steer our character back onto a virtuous path.

“Each of us can take charge of the formation of a healthful character for ourselves. Conversely, if we fail to take charge in this way, we contribute by omission to the vice-ridden character we end up with. For however it was that we first fell into error, it is only through subsequent laxity that the error becomes entrenched.” (p. 167)

Crassus, Margaret reminds us, was a notorious example of unvirtuous Roman, because he was greedy. The cause of his greediness was to be found in a combination of earlier circumstances and his persistent and repeated (and erroneous) judgment that money is good for its own sake. That string of judgments had gradually formed a “callus” in his character, which made him greedy as a matter of moral disposition. Even so, Crassus was also a human being capable of reason, and so he was continually responsible for his judgments and the ongoing shaping of his character. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the antecedent and the sustaining causes of our character.

Metaphysically, this is a brilliant move, because as Graver puts it:

“The Stoics’ distinction between antecedent and sustaining causes gives them a way to respond to the concerns [of ultimate reductionists]. They can allow that a person’s character is the product of a variety of formative influences; indeed as determinists they should insist on this. … Each of us is shaped at least in part by genetic factors, as well as by the physical environment, by the way we are treated within the family, and by our education, role models, and so forth. Rarely do we have any control over these matters which, collectively, supply the makings of our adult selves. One could consider them a form of luck. On the Stoic scheme, however, all these influences which are outside our control come under the category of antecedent causes, not sustaining causes. … The direct cause is always the sustaining cause, which maintains the state over time, and that cause consists in one’s own psyche. … To say that we are rational creatures is to say that we are capable of reviewing and correcting our own beliefs, whether or not we do so in fact.” (pp. 169-170)

We may be, ultimately, the product of Zeus or the Big Bang, in the sense of antecedent causes. But who we continue to be is the result of an ongoing dynamic process, which is sustained by every single decision we make. Make good decisions, then, and you will be a better human being.


Categories: Ancient Stoicism, Psychology


4 replies

  1. ” Stoic philosophy maintains that the human mind is geared toward doing good, that is, toward acting virtuously. (They thought this was the result of a providential universe in the form of a pantheistic god, we today might say that human beings are pro-socially inclined as a result of evolution by natural selection.)”

    This last statement brings us within, or at least close to, the range of empirical observation. Here de Waal’s reports ( seem relevant. He also reports, in several simian species, a tendency to fall in with the grouip’s fashion. Reminiscent of Calcidius’ “the transmission of rumors”, but relevant also to my own ongoing scepticism about the Stoics’ claim that virtue consists in living according to nature. Being pro-social does not always equate with being virtuous.

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  2. Paul,

    that is correct, pro-sociality <> virtue. For the Stoics virtue is the better version of pro-sociality, mediated not just by our insticts as a social species, but by our (natural) ability to reason. Remember that “living according to nature” does not mean do whatever comes natural.

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  3. Looking forward to this! Woke up thinking, Existentialism is only a stage and is to be evolved from, then I see this well thought out treatise from you including existentialism! Great timing! Many thanks for all that you are and do Massimo! Aloha, Mary Law

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