Category Archives: Critics of Stoicism

Virtue ethics is a big tent: a response to Edith Hall

Zeno vs Aristotle

Classics professor Edith Hall has recently published a fascinating article in Aeon entitled “Why read Aristotle today?,” on the reasons we should adopt Aristotle as a guide to a happy life. In the article, it transpires that she really doesn’t like Stoicism, so that prompted some reflection on my part on both Aristotelianism and Stoicism.

I have adopted Stoicism as a personal philosophy of life because it spoke to me from the moment I heard of a strange thing called “Stoic Week.” It has been only four years, really, and my life has changed, mostly for the better (and the non-mostly part isn’t Stoicism’s fault anyway!). Several things attracted me to the philosophy, and the more I study it, the more my initial hunch is confirmed. Three in particular: the idea of “living according to nature,” the practice of the four virtues, and the dichotomy of control. I have come to think of these elements respectively as the fundamental axiom of Stoicism, its moral compass, and its key to serenity.

The fundamental axiom: to live according to nature means to take seriously human nature, specifically the fact that we thrive only in the context of a society and that we are capable of reason. Three things follow: we are all members of the same human cosmopolis; consequently, we should try to practice oikeiosis, the “appropriation” of other people’s concerns as if they were our own; and, therefore, a good human life consists in applying one’s reason to improve society. These three points are the basis of the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism.

The moral compass: the practice of the four cardinal virtues (which turn out to be among a small subset of virtues recognized cross-culturally) of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. This practice is an incredibly effective way to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is important, and to navigate even complex situations in the most ethical way. Any time you have to make a decision, just ask yourself: is this good or evil (practical wisdom)? Am I being as courageous as the occasion requires? Am I acting justly with respect to others? Am I doing this in the right measure? You’d be surprised how easy it is to figure out what the right thing to do is, with this compass in hand (whether we actually do it or not, of course, depends on the progress we have made).

The key to serenity: while the primary goal of Stoicism is to live a virtuous, and therefore meaningful life, the Stoics also aimed at ataraxia, i.e., tranquillity of mind. Epictetus promises that we will reach this state if we internalize the basic idea of the dichotomy of control: some things are up to us (our values, judgments, and opinions) and other things are not up to us (everything else). Focus therefore on what is under your power, and simply accept with equanimity that things sometimes go your way, and that at other times they don’t. (Again, it takes practice to get reasonably good at this.)

There are, of course, several things about which I disagree with the ancient Stoics, and a number of areas where the original philosophy, to remain alive, needs to be updated. One of these things is the idea that Stoicism is “the” philosophy to follow. We know from sources such as Diogenes Laertius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero, that the Stoics engaged in fierce verbal battles with all the major Hellenistic schools, from the Epicureans to the Aristotelians to the Academic Skeptics. There is good evidence, discussed in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, that these debates influenced and over time modified the positions of the various schools, including the Stoics themselves. Seneca, after all, wisely wrote:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I have slowly come around the notion that many (though not all) religions and philosophies of life have core teachings that are helpful to people and that — if practiced consistently — would lead us to build a better world. I don’t think it is a coincidence that there are so many similarities, not just across the Greco-Roman philosophies, but between Aristotelianism and Confucianism as well as Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism, not to mention Christianity. Indeed, Epictetus might have been on to something like an ecumenical philosophy when he wrote:

“For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honorable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases … Jews, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans. They don’t dispute that what is holy should be preferred above everything else and in every case pursued; but they argue, for example, over whether it is holy or unholy to eat pork.” (Discourses I, 22.1-4)

So, while my personal choice is Stoicism, I fully believe that there are many paths to wisdom and a life worth living, and that each of us has to choose (or build) the path that resonates with us, given not just the specific content of the philosophy, but also our personal character and culture of provenance.

That is why I was a bit disappointed by Hall’s essay. She does make a masterful case for why we should, indeed, read Aristotle, who has much to teach us about the route to happiness. Heck, she almost convinced me to switch camps and become a peripatetic! (No, not really, but still, the essay is very good.)

Yet, Hall apparently felt it necessary to begin with a nasty dig at Stoicism:

“Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blog posts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.”

I guess since Stoicism, surprisingly, is the successful kid in the room at the moment, one has to take it down a notch or two before advancing one’s own preferred philosophy.

But Hall’s treatment of Stoicism is way off the mark. Briefly:

  • Carnegie may have been inspired by Marcus Aurelius, but Stoicism is not a form of self-help. It is an all-encompassing philosophy of life, which is made very clear by “self-styled” (why the rhetorical dig?) Stoic organizations throughout the world.
  • Ancient Stoicism was anything but pessimistic and grim. The Stoics believed that the Logos, the principle of rationality, permeated the universe, and they conceived of it as god. Accordingly, we are literally bits and pieces of the divine, hardly a grim picture of ourselves. While most (but not all) modern Stoics have abandoned pantheism, we still think that life is an amazing thing, very worth living to its fullest, no matter what one’s special circumstances might be.
  • Stoicism did not denounce pleasure, it simply advised moderation. Seneca writes about the need to dance and drink wine, even to intoxication, from time to time (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII).
  • Stoicism most certainly does not predicate the suppression of emotions, as discussed in detail, for instance, in Margaret Graver’s book. The Stoics thought of their approach as a philosophy of love, and cultivated joy (Seneca, Letters XXIII.3) and other positive emotions, while staying away from the unhealthy ones like anger, hatred, and fear.
  • Stoics were not resigned to accept misfortune, as is very clearly demonstrated by several of their role models, like Cato the Younger, and by their fierce fight against the tyranny of three emperors. They did, however, accept misfortune with equanimity, because what is the point of complaining about the inevitable?
  • The Stoics very much advised us to get involved in the “fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving.” That was the whole point of Epictetus’ role ethics.
  • As for human agency, the Stoics were what we today would call compatibilists about free will, a commonly accepted position in contemporary philosophy. And the chief aim of Stoic training was, and still is, precisely to improve and refine aagency

I’m sure Hall will disagree with my response, just as I (or others who are better qualified) can martial a number of objections to her view of Aristotle. But that is not the point. Let a thousand philosophies bloom instead. Aristotle’s your guy? Excellent! Do you prefer Epicurus? Go for it! Epictetus really does it for you (as he does for me)? Wonderful! Or perhaps Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Jesus, and so forth. Just go for it and try to live a meaningful and ethical life.

Mind you, not all philosophies or ideologies will do. There is no such thing as a good fascist or a eudaimonic Nazi (or Stalinist, or Maoist), and some religions are cultish and rather dangerous (e.g., Scientology).

I am not arguing that there are no substantive differences among the many possible legitimate alternatives. This is one reason I tend to be somewhat skeptical of “eclectic” approaches that mix and match from different traditions. But hey, if that’s your cup of tea, by all means, drink it!

Virtue ethics, the broad family to most Greco-Roman philosophies belong, has the potential to really change both individuals and, in bottom-up fashion, society. For the better. If more people took seriously the idea that a good life (eudaimonia) requires an ethical approach, and that such a life is possible for anyone willing to work on their character and attitudes, reflecting — at least from time to time — on why we do what we do, this would be a far better place than we have managed to make it so far. And it really wouldn’t matter if you got there by way of Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius.

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Julian Baggini on Stoicism and the problem with self-help

self helpFreelance philosopher and author Julian Baggini has a problem with self-help, with philosophy when it comes close to self-help, and therefore, apparently, with Stoicism. I take what Julian says seriously, since he is a thoughtful person, the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine (for which I occasionally write), and the author of a number of really, really good books that ought to be read widely. For instance, over at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato, I devoted a whopping eleven posts to an in-depth discussion of his marvelous The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Nevertheless, in what follows I’m going to push back on Julian’s take on self-help type philosophy in general, and Stoicism in particular, focusing on two short articles he wrote: “Should we be more Stoic?,” co-authored with Antonia Macaro (who, interestingly, recently published More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age), and “The problem with self-help.” (Notice that the first piece is from 2013, the second one from this year.)

“Should we be more Stoic?” was written on the occasion of the very first Stoic Week, and is part of a long running series of columns by Macaro and Baggini published in the Financial Times and eventually in book form. Macaro’s take is that there is a lot more to Stoicism than a bag of tricks or some useful therapeutic techniques, and I couldn’t agree more. However, she advises “unashamed cherry-picking” because “we live in very different times and it would be unreasonable to take on chapter and verse of Stoic philosophy.”

Well, yes, we live in different times from those of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, but only up to a point, really. Human nature hasn’t changed, and the following premeditatio malorum by Marcus still very applies today:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

That is why Stoicism (like Buddhism, the other subject of Macaro’s own book, written a few years after her column) is still so very pertinent today. And while it is certainly the case that one should not take onboard wholesale a philosophy that got started 23 centuries ago (see here, for instance), it doesn’t follow that one should do unashamed cherry-picking. First, because Stoicism is a coherent system of thought, not really amenable to too much cherry-picking; second, because cherry-picking is a close companion to pure and simple rationalization, where one ends up “picking” what is convenient and neglecting what is harder and yet useful.

But it is Baggini, in that column, that fires heavy shots against Stoicism. He begins by stating that “when it comes to adopting any kind of philosophy, the lower case is king,” continuing: “the only followers philosophers should have are the kind that follow up and through, and not simply after.” Well, Seneca himself agreed when he said:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these [Stoic] doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

So much for just following after instead of up and through. Baggini insists: “Given that more than two millennia have elapsed since the Stoics developed their ideas, it would seem especially odd to relight their torch and carry it through the streets of our modern cities. The idea that the driving forces of the universe are reason and fate, for example, should have been exploded by the discovery of the Big Bang.” But this betrays a somewhat superficial acquaintance with Stoic philosophy, both ancient and modern. Few modern Stoics accept the original pantheism and the idea of a living universe animated by the Logos. And even the ancient ones openly admitted that their metaphysics under-determined (to use a modern philosophical term) their ethics. That’s why Marcus has several “gods or atoms” passages in the Meditations. Moreover, remember that the crucial part of the Stoic curriculum, even in ancient times, was the ethics (how to live your life), not the physics (natural science and metaphysics) and the logic (logic, rhetoric, and cognitive science). The three are certainly connected, but they don’t admit of a simple linear mapping onto each other.

Julian is right when he says that “we can adapt and borrow any particular Stoic methods that work. But that no more makes you a Stoic than practising meditation makes you a Buddhist.” But this would imply that therefore there are no modern Buddhists, only meditators. Or perhaps that Buddhism-the-philosophy is quaint and obsolete, and that only meditating techniques ought to survive. That is a strange and hard proposition to defend, though. Philosophies, like religions, evolve and adapt to new times and new knowledge, but they are useful insofar they still provide their adopters (or followers, in the case of religions) with a framework for navigating the world, a moral compass, as it were, which goes well beyond whatever practical techniques may have been developed within such philosophies and religions in the course of millennia.

Baggini concludes the first article by stating that “Stoicism itself stands or falls – or more likely limps along – on the soundness of its arguments, not its effect on our psychological wellbeing.” Again, true. But there ain’t no limping going on here, and if one needs any convincing that 21st century Stoicism is alive and logically sound, then I suggest a good reading of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (or, if you are in a bit of a hurry, of my author-approved ten part series on the book).

The second, more recent piece I want to comment on is a solo production by Julian, written five years after the first article, and focusing on the “problem” of self-help. It begins by paying homage to concert pianist James Rhodes, who doesn’t like the idea of self-help because “the ‘good-enough human being’ should indeed be good enough. … There is a huge amount of space between happiness and unhappiness and someone in between is OK.”

Good enough “should” indeed be good enough? On what grounds? I know what Rhodes and Baggini are complaining about, as I’m not a fan of the standard self-help genre where one is promised the Moon if only one adopts seven habits, follows ten rules, or asks himself who moved his cheese. But as Julian himself immediately adds, there is nothing wrong with the idea of self-help per se, the issue is how it is done and for what purpose. A tendency of self-help authors to over-claim and over-simplify is certainly both common and damnable. But one can hardly accuse the Stoics of ether sin, unless one utterly misunderstands (which Baggini does not) passages like this one from Epictetus:

“If you regard only that which is your own [i.e., under your control] as being your own, and that which isn’t your own [i.e., not under your control] as not being your own, as is indeed the case, no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.” (Enchiridion, III)

Julian writes: “these books assume we know what we want and what a good life looks like and simply help us to close the gap between life as it is and life as we’d prefer it to be. That’s why I think philosophy is not ‘self-help’ in the contemporary sense. Philosophy asks us to question what it means for a life to go well, what it means to be a good person. Not only might it provide no help reaching our current goals, it might even make us change them.” There is a lot packed in here, both exactly right and exactly wrong. I don’t see as inherently objectionable to write books that are prescriptive rather than just descriptive. That’s what philosophy (unlike psychology) does, so it is strange for a philosopher to complain about books that tell people what a good life is. Socrates would certainly have written one such book, had he written anything at all. The problem is with the distorted potrary of the “good” (meaning, worth living) life which many modern self-help books present to their readers: it’s all about money, success, getting laid, and feeling “happy.” All things that the Stoics classed at best as preferred indifferents, which when pursued as a major goal distract us from what is really good about human life.

“Philosophy helps us to live better because living better doesn’t mean feeling better,” says Baggini, “if instead we’re reading self-help books, we’re allowing our pursuit of happiness to get in the way of our pursuit of the truly good life.” Indeed, completely agreed. But then it is strange, if not downright contradictory for him to write: “[That’s] why, for all its virtues, I was irritated by Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which had in large type on its back cover just one quote from Epicurus: ‘Any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless.’ There goes Kant’s Critique, Descartes’ Meditations, Berkeley’s Treatise, etc, etc..”

I’m not a fan of de Botton, though I think he gets a bad rap from academic philosophers, largely because he is so successful and popular (Baggini himself has made a career as a freelance philosopher, and he is good at it, so perhaps he should be more charitable toward fellow travelers). And I’m also not, broadly speaking, on the side of Epicurus. But just as Seneca puts it when he explains to his friend Lucilius why he often quotes Epicurus in his letters:

“It is my custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy.” (Letters to Lucilius II.5)

In the specific case, Epicurus had a point, and he was speaking specifically — like the Stoics often did, including Seneca and Epictetus — of people who are interested in philosophy for the sake of hair splitting, engaging in logic chopping as a sport, with no thought toward searching for truth or improving themselves. As for Kant, Descartes, Berkeley, and many others, I’m pretty sure they were convinced that their work would make this a better world, which is why they were interested in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. I’m guessing that de Botton chose that quote by Epicurus to make the point that much modern (academic) philosophy has instead devolved into precisely the sort of hair splitting and logic chopping that we should all find objectionable. Including Julian.

Stoicism, stoicism, and mental health

Clint Eastwood Good Bad and UglyYou can tell Stoicism is getting popular when anyone who disagrees with me on Twitter resorts to the “argument” (I’m using the word very loosely): “but what you said is un-Stoic!,” pretty much regardless of what I actually said, or of its logical connection to Stoicism. Anyway, another sign of popularity is the fact that mental health professionals are beginning to take an interest, wishing to empirically assess the effects of practicing Stoicism on people’s psychology.

Since Stoicism itself has from the beginning been a philosophy that included the study of psychology (under the field of “logic”), and moreover has always been explicitly open to revision, this is welcome news. What is not so welcome is when people, predictably, claim that they are studying Stoicism, while in fact they are studying stoicism (for this crucial, and not even that subtle distinction, see this article by Don Robertson).

Which is why a paper published last year in BMJ Open and entitled “Stoic beliefs and health: development and preliminary validation of the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism ideology scale” was a missed opportunity. Authored by Elizabeth Pathak, Sarah Wieten, and Christopher Wheldon, it purports to develop a scale with which to measure, as the title says, Stoic “ideology,” with the purpose of beginning to explore the mental health effects of practicing such ideology. Unfortunately, the paper hopelessly mixes Stoicism and stoicism, with a strong lean toward the latter.

The authors identify four “key domains” of Stoicism: imperviousness to strong emotions, indifference to death, taciturnity, and self-sufficiency. It is on the basis of these domains that they build their scale, which they then test on 390 subjects, most of whom are young students (aged less than 25), mostly white (though somewhat gender balanced), almost all American born.

Setting aside the usual problems with the sampling of subjects used in this sort of study, which there is very little reason to think is representative even of the American population, let alone beyond, let me begin with the four domains just mentioned. I will then move to a brief examination of additional problematic statements made by Pathak and collaborators in the paper.

I. Imperviousness to strong emotions: it is absolutely not the case that this is a Stoic value (although it certainly is a stoic one). Consider, for instance, what Seneca says to his friend Marcia in his letter of consolation to her:

“‘But,’ say you, ‘sorrow for the loss of one’s own children is natural.’ Who denies it? Provided it be reasonable? For we cannot help feeling a pang, and the stoutest-hearted of us are cast down not only at the death of those dearest to us, but even when they leave us on a journey.” (VII)

A bit earlier he writes to her:

“I am not soothing you or making light of your misfortune: if fate can be overcome by tears, let us bring tears to bear upon it: let every day be passed in mourning, every night be spent in sorrow instead of sleep.” (VI)

Does that sound to you like someone who is trying to be impervious to emotions? Or consider just how explicit on the subject Epictetus, notoriously the most stern of the ancient Stoics, really is:

“I must not be without feeling like a statue, but must maintain my natural and acquired relations, as a religious man, as son, brother, father, citizen.” (Discourses III.2)

And here is what modern scholar Margaret Graver, who wrote a whole book on Stoicism and Emotion, says: “If the psychic sensations [i.e., feelings] we experience in emotion are not simply identical with the pathē [i.e., negative emotions], then the norm of apatheia [i.e., lack of negative emotions] does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.”

So, no, the Stoics do not seek to be impervious to emotions. Rather, they work toward improving their judgments about externals, in order to re-align their emotional spectrum, de-emphasizing unhealthy emotions and nurturing and developing healthy ones.

II. Indifference to Death: one can see how people may develop a misconception here, for instance while reading what Seneca writes to Marcia:

“Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (XIX)

This, however, is an explanation of why we should not be afraid of what will happen after we die (because there won’t be any “us” to be concerned by things), it is hardly a council not to care about dying.

True, death — like everything that is not virtue — is categorized within the “indifferents,” either preferred or, in this case, dispreferred. But that word has a very clear technical meaning in Stoic philosophy: it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t care about dying, but rather that death itself is irrelevant to virtue, in the sense that dying or staying alive, per se, doesn’t make you a better person.

Not convinced? Here is how Epictetus reacts to the news that a friend of his has decided to commit suicide for the hell of it:

“If your decision is justified, look, here we are at your side and ready to help you on your way; but if your decision is unreasonable, you ought to change it. ‘We ought to hold to our decisions.’ — What are you up to, man?” (Discourses II.15.6-7)

Again, does this sound like indifference (in the ordinary sense of the word) to death? I should think not.

III. Taciturnity: stoicism appeals to men, according to the authors, and goes well with the ideal (myth, really) of the solitary man who speaks by his actions. Think Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or in any of his other movies, for that matter. But Stoicism (the philosophy) advocates nothing of the sort. True, Epictetus famously advises his students to talk little and of important things:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Enchiridion 33.2)

Immediately below, Epictetus adds:

“In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.14)

It’s obvious that this an injunction not to annoy people, and to engage others in meaningful, as opposed to idle, conversation. After all, the Stoics we know of were teachers, senators, generals, and emperors. Hardly the kind of individual who spends his life in a taciturn mood.

IV. Self-sufficiency: here too, stoicism (the attitude) seems to rely on the myth of the solitary hero who depends on no one. But Stoicism (the philosophy) is quintessentially cosmopolitan, and teaches that our primary concern should be to do good on behalf of the human polis. Sure, Marcus is often cited as saying:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

But that’s simply an honest analysis of his expectations about other people qua emperor. He also tells himself in his personal diary:

“Have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm? But this is more pleasant. Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?” (Meditations V.1)

And what action and exertion is he referring to, other than the obviously military one (he was encamped on the Danube fighting the Marcomanni tribes when he wrote the above)?

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Seneca says something interesting about this matter:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 3)

It is clear in context that by “self-sufficient” he means capable of maintaining virtue. And at any rate he is talking about the Sage, which is as rare as the mythical phoenix. He immediately adds that even the Sage desires friends, neighbors, and associates. So, no, there is no basis in Stoicism for the idea of self-sufficiency as understood within the context of stoicism.

This brief analysis should make clear that there is a huge difference between Stoicism and stoicism. Unfortunately, Pathak et al.’s article completely mixes the two, with a far stronger dose of stoicism than Stoicism. The result is a scale that measures something, but definitely not the effects of adopting a Stoic philosophy.

Let us take a look at some quotes from the paper itself, to make sure I am not misinterpreting what the authors are doing. “Stoicism has also been invoked as a defining characteristic of masculinity and as a key explanatory factor for certain health behaviors and outcomes among men” (p. 2 of the online version). This very clearly refers to the stiff upper lip attitude, not the philosophy. Indeed, on the very same page there is mention of the Liverpool Stoicism Scale, which includes “three items that are ideological, for example, ‘one should keep a stiff upper lip.’” Precisely, but no Stoic ever advocated that, so the scale should be renamed the Liverpool stoicism Scale…

Pathak et al. “attempt to articulate an explicitly theory of stoicism [the fact that they are using the lowercase here and elsewhere is not indicative of a distinction being made between the philosophy and common parlance] and its potential impact on health. … stoicism is an ideology … we theorize that people who strongly endorse a personal ideology of stoicism may be more likely to avoid or delay seeking professional medical intervention for serious signs and symptoms of disease” (p. 3)

This can be extremely misleading, if it will lead to adoption of the scale developed in the study for social health research that focuses on stoicism but makes claims about the medical unsoundness of Stoicism.

The results are also difficult to interpret, again because of the complete confounding of stoicism and Stoicism. For instance: “men were more than two times as likely as women to fall into the top quartile of responses” (p. 5), meaning that men agreed more readily with a self-description as “stoic.” “Scores for stoic taciturnity were strongly correlated with scores for both stoic endurance and stoic serenity, but stoic endurance and stoic serenity were not highly correlated with each other. Stoic death indifference … was least correlated with the other three domains” (p. 4). Moreover: “In this study population, respondents were least likely to endorse stoic serenity and most likely to endorse stoic death indifference” (p. 5).

It is hard to know what to make of these findings, since it isn’t clear at all to what mixture of stoicism and Stoicism they refer. Please note, of course, that so far as we know likely none of the participants to the study actually had any training in, or exposure to, Stoic philosophy. Based on that, I’m inclined to say that the relevance of the study to Stoicism is close to zero, while it may tell us a lot about stoicism.

The authors draw some conclusions that seem to me to be rather unsubstantiated, or at least, again, ambiguous as to their referent: “Ironically, a personal ideology of stoicism almost guarantees failure to live up to one’s ideals. … An ideology of stoicism creates an internal resistance to external objective needs, which can lead to negative consequences. … a study of major strain among family caretakers of elderly patients with dementia found those who used stoicism as a coping strategy suffered burnout, while those who sought social support did not” (pp. 6-7).

Right, but that sounds a lot like stoicism, not Stoicism. Now one could perhaps argue that Pathak et al. never actually intended to address Stoic philosophy, only the stiff upper lip modern attitude. But that is clearly not the case from the opening line of the paper: “Stoicism is a school of philosophy which originated in ancient Greece” (p. 1).

Which makes some of their conclusions particularly troublesome, especially for people who are trying to practice the philosophy: “We hypothesise that illness behaviors may become ‘noncompliant’ or ‘irrational’ or ‘self-harming’ when specific courses of action would create an internal conflict with patients’ ideas of who they are. … This internal conflict will lead to delays in or avoidance of help seeking, with potentially life-threatening consequences. For example, empirical studies of male suicide in rural Australia have identified hegemonic masculine norms of stoicism as an important causal factor in the context of severe economic stress” (p. 8).

The situation of rural men in Australia subject to economic stress and committing suicide at high rates is horrible, but it does not seem to have anything to do with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, names that are very likely entirely unknown to the people in question. It is therefore highly misleading, dangerous, and — I’m sorry to say — irresponsible to so casually mix stoicism and Stoicism.

Of course, as Don Robertson points out in his article on the matter, the same problem applies to other philosophies. I can easily see a study of “epicureanism” showing that if people indulge frequently in large meals, a lot of drinking, and unprotected sex with multiple patterns, they will incur health risks. But to blame Epicurus — who argued for restrain in or abstention from all the just mentioned activities — would be bizarre.

So I urge Elizabeth Pathak, Sarah Wieten, and Christopher Wheldon to scrap the whole exercise, ideally retracting their paper, and writing up their findings again while making crystal clear what they mean by “stoicism.” Better yet, since there is a philosophy that has carried that name for the past 23 centuries, avoid to use the term altogether and write a paper on how to measure the potentially negative health consequences of trying to live like Clint Eastwood in a Western movie. The underlying problem — that an image of extreme self-reliance is bad for one’s health — is likely real and deserves attention. But the relevant research ought to be carried out properly.

A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans

Zeno vs Epicurus

“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout,” says Seneca to Lucilius in Letter II, On Discursiveness in Reading, 5. He writes this because he had made a habit, for a while, of closing his letters to his friend with a “present,” a quote from another philosopher, usually Epicurus.

I don’t think of Epicureans, or Buddhists, or Christians, as “enemies.” My take is that it is useful to develop and adapt a philosophy of life — because it provides us with a moral compass and a framework to distinguish important from unimportant things in life — but that which philosophy one chooses is less important. Your specific choice may have to do with your cultural background, your personal history, your character and personality, or your stage in life. If it works, go for it (so long as it isn’t a destructive philosophy, like, you know, fascism). I write this blog, now in its third year and counting 348 posts, to help others for whom Stoicism resonates, but I’m certainly not here to make converts.

That said, the blog also has a special category of entries termed “critics of Stoicism,” where I respond to the surprisingly many, and often surprisingly vicious, attacks on our philosophy. You are about to read yet another of these responses, this time to “The seductive dead-end of Stoicism,” written by one Cassius Amicus (obviously a pseudonym) over at newepicurean.com.

“Cassius” is, apparently, moved by a concern for his many Stoic friends, especially because they have a high regard for Marcus Aurelius, who he does not trust after “spending much of a weekend reviewing” the Meditations. He adds: “As one generation passes and new students of philosophy arise, the old errors constantly attract new converts. It is regularly necessary for Epicureans to recalibrate their guns and fire again on Stoicism, lest it infect new generations. For the truth is, those who espouse the Stoic platitudes — which I regret to say includes both Marcus Aurelius and Cicero — are like philosophical vampires, always lurking in the shadows to steal the life from the unsuspecting; always in the service of the oldest dead-head vampire of them all — Plato.”

Strong words! Fighting words! But, wait, Plato?? If there is anything that is far removed from Plato — apart from Epicureanism itself — is precisely Stoicism, and perhaps even more its cousin, Cynicism. Don’t forget that Plato himself referred to Diogenes the Cynic as “Socrates gone mad.”

So what’s Cassius’ issue with Marcus? He thinks that the Meditations reek of religionism, fatalism, and passivism, which he maintains are attitudes utterly incompatible with Epicureanism.

Well, he is right on the latter, though the Epicureans themselves — contra modern lore — where not atheists, they were what we would today call deists. It is also true that their metaphysics was very different from that of the Stoics: atoms swirling in the void in the first case, cause-effect determinism in the latter. The Stoics did believe in “providence” of some sort, though they did not mean the Christian variety at all, but rather a consequence of what they saw as a universe being alive and doing its thing. Since we are bits and pieces of that universe, there is a sense in what happens to us, and that sense is precisely analogous to the role of a foot stepping in the mud, if the whole body to which that foot belongs has to get home and there is a puddle of mud in its way. (That is, in fact, an analogy used by Epictetus, in Discourses II.6.9-10.)

Sure, modern science — as Larry Becker maintains in A New Stoicism — has discarded the organismal view of the cosmos in favor of a mechanistic one. But this should be of little comfort to the Epicureans. Not only the “atoms” they were talking about have precious little to do with the atoms of modern science, but they made a special plead to save human free will by arbitrarily introducing their concept of the “swerve,” an idea that looks pretty close to magic from a modern scientific perspective.

As for “religionism,” indeed Marcus sounds very pious when he is talking to himself (and even so, he constantly repeats the “providence or atoms” mantra, more than hinting at the idea that whatever metaphysical theory one subscribes to simply doesn’t matter in terms of the crucial thing: ethics). Perhaps he really was pious, it’s hard to say. But a fair reading of the Stoics always has to keep in mind that for them “god” was made of matter, and coincided with the universe itself. Not to mention that, despite the oft-brought up example of Cleanthes’ “prayer” to Zeus, we know from Diogenes Laertius (VII.33) that Zeno of Citium, the founder of the philosophy, clearly stated that in an ideal Stoic republic there would be no temples, i.e., no organized religion or worship.

Regarding fatalism, the concept itself is muddled, and again Becker makes a good case for why the Stoics were not fatalists, but determinists, there is a difference, and modern science, and much of modern metaphysics, lean toward the Stoic, not the Epicurean, position.

To accuse the Stoics, and especially Marcus, of passivism is, of course, ridiculous on the face of it, though a common sport amongst our critics. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy, and one often repeated by Marcus, is that we ought to work on our faculty of judgment, to arrive at better decisions about what to do, and especially how to be helpful to others (something the Epicureans infamously shied away from, uninterested as they were in politics and social issues, on the ground that to engage in those areas causes pain, a no-no for them). And anyone picking up a biography of Marcus, or of Cato the Younger, or even Seneca, or Epictetus, will certainly realize that these were not people who passively accepted their “fate.” They fought hard, sometimes literally, for what they believed, in order to make the world a better place. Nothing of the sort can be said of any Epicurean I’m aware of.

Next, our friend Cassius takes aim at the Stoic doctrine of “living according to nature,” where he says: “for the constant Stoic incantation of ‘Nature’ is nothing but illusion. Stoicism fails to define or ground the guidance of Nature in anything real — unlike Epicureanism, which grounds Nature’s guidance in pleasure.”

Au contraire, Stoicism grounds its philosophy in the empirically tenable idea that human nature is that of a fundamentally social being who is capable of reason, from which it follows that the natural way of living for us is to deploy reason in order to improve social living. As Marcus puts it: “Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (IV.13) And: “So long as nothing … drives me out, I remain, am free, and no man shall hinder me from doing what I choose; and I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal.” (V.29)

Moreover, it is the Epicureans who clearly get human nature wrong, as Cicero has Cato the Younger explain in book III of De Finibus: “Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.16) One of those things that infants strive for because it is good for them is learning how to walk. Which is painful, not pleasurable.

Cassius then invokes a namesake, Cassius Longinus, who in 45 BCE told Cicero that the Stoic idea that one chooses good for its own sake is nonsense: “For it is hard to convince men that ‘the good is to be chosen for its own sake’; but it is both true and demonstrable that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that ‘to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice.’”

Okay, to begin with, where on earth does Epicurus get the strange idea that it is impossible to live a life of pleasure without being virtuous and just? Do the Epicureans not read the newspapers? Or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey? More to the point, the Stoics do not argue that one ought to do good for its own sake, they argue that to be helpful to others is good because we are all deeply interconnected in a web of cause and effect, not just with the universe as a whole, but specifically as a species of highly social beings. In this sense, for the Stoics — and contra much modern moral philosophy — there is no sharp distinction between selfishness and altruism: every time I do something for myself I improve the wellbeing of humanity, and vice versa, every time I do something for others I indirectly improve things for myself.

Even more to the point, the Stoics — following Socrates in the Euthydemus — think that virtue is the chief good. “Chief” doesn’t mean “only,” hence the further category of preferred indifferents. But why would virtue be the chief good, and not, say, money, or health, or education? Because virtue is the single thing (and those others are not) that can always and only be used for good. It makes no logical sense to say that one commits a virtuous crime, for instance. But it does make perfect sense to say that wealth can be used for good or for evil (i.e., it is morally neutral, hence an “indifferent”).

Epicurus, again quoted by Cassius was right on one thing though: “We must also recollect that which principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is the persuasion which they cherish that the stars are beings imperishable and perfectly happy, and that then one’s thoughts and actions are in contradiction to the will of these superior beings. They also being deluded by these fables, apprehend an eternity of evils, and they fear the insensibility of death, as if that could affect them.” (From the Letter to Herodotus)

But the Stoics wouldn’t disagree here, as it is made abundantly clear by Seneca in this passage: “Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)

Cassius goes on quoting Epicurus’ Letter to Menoceus: “The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.”

Well, the wise man in question just turned out to be wrong, didn’t he? Epicurus here is espousing a species of hard incompatibilism, according to which the ability to make decisions, and the moral responsibility that accompanies those decisions, are impossible in a deterministic universe. But, as the Stoics already surmised, and both modern science and much modern philosophy confirm, we do live in a deterministic universe, at least in the sense of a universe governed by cause and effect. The Stoics also figured out, just like modern day compatibilists, that there is an important sense in which our decisions are truly ours, a topic for which I refer the reader to my essay on Chrysippus’ analogy of the rolling cylinder, as well as to part of my commentary on Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.

Cassius proceeds with a bizarre, and largely irrelevant, further attack based on Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of the Stoics. But, to begin with, Jefferson was an amateur philosopher whose opinions on the matter are no more weighty than those of someone who picked up the Meditations for an entire weekend; moreover, Cassius quotes Jefferson at length, railing against Plato! Once again: Platonic philosophy has precious little to do with Stoicism, so criticism of the first says nothing at all about the second.

The last bit of Cassius’ rant is a simple series of selected quotations from the Meditations, each bit of which is accompanied by entirely unsubstantiated and unhelpful comments, usually along the lines of “Epicurus held that…” Insofar this list is meant to convince readers that Stoicism and Epicureanism are different, and often at odds with each other, well yes, though we knew that. If it is meant to show the alleged superiority of Epicureanism, however, a hell of a lot more work needs to be done.

One final comment about the “truth” of philosophical doctrines (something I also recently brought up in response to my friend Dan Kaufman’s criticism of Stoicism from an Aristotelian perspective): certain aspects of a given philosophy, like the metaphysical claim that we live in a deterministic universe (or not) are either true or false, though it is often highly contentious whether we have satisfactorily arrived at one conclusion or the other. But a philosophy of life, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism (or Aristotelianism, Buddhism, Christianity) cannot be true of false. That is a category mistake. Philosophies of life are more or less coherent, and more or less useful to individuals and society. In those respects, both Stoicism and Epicureanism are coherent philosophies; and they can both be useful to individual practitioners. Though I would argue that Stoicism is far more useful to society than Epicureanism is, simply because the Epicureans pointedly withdraw, as I mentioned above, from social-political life, while the Stoics embrace it.

So, my Epicurean friends, no need to hurl insults at us (they wouldn’t take anyway, see Discourses I, 25.28-29), or waste much time to try to show that we are “wrong.” Incidentally, isn’t so much passion about philosophical discourse with strangers a precisely non-Epicurean thing to do, since it likely brings pain and no pleasure? Here is what our own Epictetus had to say about it: “What was it, then, that awakened Epicurus from his slumbers and impelled him to write what he did? What else than what is most powerful of all in human beings, nature, who constrains everyone to her will, groan and resist though he may. ‘For since you hold these antisocial views,’ she says, ‘write them down and hand them on to others, and stay awake at night because of them, and so become, through your own practice, the denunciator of your own doctrines.’” (Discourses II.20.15-16) Oops!

Why virtue is sufficient for a life worth living

My friend Dan Kaufman, over at the Electric Agora, has written a nice compact piece arguing that the Aristotelian view of eudaimonia — the life worth living — is significantly more defensible than the Stoic one. (Except, as even Dan acknowledges, when things aren’t going well and people live in times of turmoil. Which, one could argue, is most of human history.)

Dan and I, together with our colleague Skye Cleary, are assembling a collection of essays by multiple contributors offering a panorama of possible philosophies of life, that is, of different philosophical frameworks one may adopt as a compass to guide them to a better, more meaningful life. So this exchange between Dan and I can be seen as a preview of what the book is about, as well as of how to compare and contrast two of the most ancient philosophies of life.

The Aristotelians and the Stoics battled for the soul of their practitioners, so to speak, already 23 centuries ago, after Stoicism was established in Athens by Zeno of Citium, so this exchange belongs to a long tradition of which, I’m sure Dan would agree, the two of us are among the latest, and least worthy, interpreters.

The debate was about the sufficiency, or not, of virtue for a eudaimonic life. The Stoics (together with their close cousins, the Cynics) argued that virtue is both necessary and sufficient. In particular, the four cardinal virtues of phronesis (practical wisdom), courage, justice, and temperance. The Stoics (unlike the Cynics), also recognized that people want a number of other things, including health, wealth, education, love, friendship, and so forth. They referred to those as “preferred indifferents” (and to their negative counterparts, such as sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc., as dispreferred indifferents). They are preferred because it is reasonable for people to pursue them, so long as they do so without compromising their virtue (i.e., their moral character), but they are indifferent because, in themselves, they do not make one more or less virtuous. And since virtue is the only thing that matters for eudaimonia, they do not contribute to that either. It is a perfectly coherent system. But is it “true”? (I will come back later to why I put scare quotes around that word.)

The Aristotelians thought not. As Dan says, their philosophy also belongs to the eudaimonic tradition, and they too thought that virtue is necessary for a life worth living. But they did not think it was sufficient. Those things that the Stoics refer to as “preferred” are also needed. If your life does not — even through no fault of your own — include at least some health, wealth, education, and even good looks, you are screwed. No eudaimonia for you.

The distinction sketched above makes Aristotelianism an elitist philosophy, as it applies only to a subset of humanity. How large of a subset depends on the time and place, and also on just how much externals are really needed (Aristotle was pretty vague on this point). By contrast, Stoicism is for everyone: rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, you can still be eudaimon. Unlike the case of Aristotelianism, where luck is needed, for Stoics your eudaimonia is entirely up to you, Fortuna simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

As Dan clearly perceives, much — if not all, really — here depends on exactly what eudaimonia is taken to mean. I completely agree with my friend that translating the Greek word, as is often done, as “happiness” misses the mark. Happiness, in modern parlance, chiefly (though not exclusively) refers to a state of perceived wellbeing in the moment. It’s a feeling of elation, as in “I’m happy when I play the piano” (or when I have sex, or when I read a book, or whatever). This, very clearly, is not what either Aristotle or the Stoics had in mind.

But Dan makes a mistake, I think, when he seems to assume that the Aristotelians and the Stoics meant the same thing by eudaimonia. They didn’t, nor did several of the other Hellenistic schools. Indeed, a major way to classify and understand the differences among those schools is precisely to look at how they construed eudaimonia and the path to its achievement. Aristotelians and Stoics certainly disagreed between them, bu they both thought that the Epicureans, with their emphasis on ataraxia (tranquillity of mind), and their recipe of virtue plus physical and mental pleasure minus physical and mental pain, were far more misguided.

Dan, not surprisingly, adopts the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, that of the flourishing life. Flourishing means that a eudaimon being is capable of pursuing a number of personal projects because she has sufficient material and psychological resources, including of course a measure of the above mentioned externals. She is sufficiently educated, say, to become a university professor. She is attractive enough to marry a good and interesting person and have children. She has meaningful relationships with her family and friends. And so forth. If we conceive of eudaimonia that way, it then becomes obvious that externals are not just preferred indifferents, they are necessary.

But the Stoics explicitly referred to their school as “Socratic” (which the Aristotelians definitely didn’t), in part because they inherited their definition of eudaimonia from the Athenian sage: it consists in a life worth living. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t. Certainly an Aristotelian life of (virtuous, let’s not forget) flourishing is worth living, but that’s not the only kind falling into the broader category favorite by the Stoics.

Take, for instance, the example of Cato the Younger, a Roman Senator during the last years of the Republic that is one of the Stoics’ preferred role models, particularly by Seneca. Although Cato had access to some of the externals that Aristotelians think are necessary, he gladly did without them. While wealthy, he often walked around the streets of Rome in tattered clothing. He ate simple meals, though he could afford extravagant ones. And when he served as commander in the army he walked side by side with his soldiers, instead of comfortably travel on horseback.

More importantly, Cato’s life was marked by repeated failures. He lost two crucial elections, as praetor and as consul, that would have allowed him to more efficaciously oppose his political archenemy, Julius Caesar; he was unjustly accused of hoarding wealth for himself during his governorship of Cyprus, even though he was actually one of the few Roman officials immune from corruption; and, most of all, lost the civil war against Caesar, something that meant everything to him not juts as a politician and commander, but as a Roman citizen.

And yet, how did Cato react to such misfortunes? When he heard of the election results he went off to play with his friends. When he was accused of financial improprieties he showed his fellow citizens what sort of men he really was by way of his conduct, so much so that Romans adopted a saying for excusing their own moral failures, “not everyone is a Cato.” And when he lost everything, he had the courage to commit suicide by literally ripping his guts out of his self-inflicted dagger wound, in order to retain his integrity and not be used by Caesar for political gain.

Was Cato’s life a flourishing one? Hardly. Was it worth living? The very fact that we are still talking of the man in admiring terms more than two millennia after his death is a testament to that, one that even Aristotle (who thought that eudaimonia could be assessed only after one’s demise) ought to have bowed to.

And it is not difficult to find modern examples like Cato’s either. James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam and survived seven years of torture and isolation (which left him crippled for life) in part thanks to his studies of the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. Nelson Mandela was not a Stoic, but his pivotal change from angry and bitter victim of the apartheid government to peaceful and forgiving leader of the resistance was helped by a smuggled copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He still had to suffer 28 years in prison, though, hardly a life of flourishing in the Aristotelian sense, but certainly one worth living in the Stoic one.

The Stoics, as Dan acknowledges, do want to succeed at their endeavors. Cato wanted to beat Caesar; Stockdale not to be captured in Vietnam; Mandela not to spend decades in prison. But while the Aristotelians give up and declare one’s life a failure when things don’t go well enough, the Stoics find inner resources in their conviction that the true measure of a person is in her character, not in the vagaries of fortune.

The Stoic attitude is not at all the cheap consolation prize that Dan describes when he says that it is akin to telling a kid who lost the race that he “did his best.” The point isn’t to feel better, the point is to look squarely at what cards life deals us and play them to our best, because that is all we can do. Dan is therefore profoundly mistaken when he characterizes the Stoic approach as a way to be happy with one’s life even if it isn’t a eudaimonic one. Happiness doesn’t enter into the Stoic equation. Knowing that one has done one’s best, and especially that one has tried to be the most moral person one can be, that is the standard by which a life worth living is being measured.

Dan argues that the Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies under siege.” They, like Christianity thereafter (and like Buddhism in India, or Confucianism in China) are good for when people feel they have no control over their lives, especially in terms of the big picture. Aristotelianism, by contrast, is conceived by Dan as a “bourgeois” philosophy well tailored for “a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world.”

Well, even if that were the case, I would remind my friend that most of the world, much of the time, has been, and still is, in a decidedly non bourgeois state of affairs. Even in the 21st century very large numbers of people live in poverty, war zones, slavery (literal or in terms of labor conditions), famine caused by environmental catastrophe or by the actions of fellow humans, and so forth. But in fact even we lucky (in the Aristotelian sense), or privileged (as the current parlance goes) Western white males face major uncertainties at both the macro- and the micro-scale.

At the macro-level, one only has to open a newspaper to find news of unfolding global environmental disaster, the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by an incompetent narcissist currently seating in the White House, and the resurgence (yet again) of a greedy Wall Street that is gearing itself to possibly cause another global financial catastrophe as if 2008 had never happened. And you think the death of Alexander the Great was destabilizing? Ah!

At the micro-level, we are all guaranteed to suffer major setbacks in our lives. If for nothing else because we are destined to die. And so are our loved ones and friends. We get sick, we lose love, and we may lose our job. Every such turn of events is a nail in the coffin of your eudaimonia, according to the Aristotelian way of looking at life. But for the Stoics every single one of those unhappy instances is an opportunity to test our character and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can get through it. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

This attention to the everyday life of every human being is what makes Stoicism appealing, and what condemns Aristotelianism to elitism. Dan says that plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are nonetheless true. But “true,” when applied to a philosophy, is a category mistake, as I’ve argued at book length. Philosophies in general, and philosophies of life in particular, are neither true nor false. They are, instead, more or less useful ways of thinking. They provide users, that is, practitioners, with a framework by which to organize their lives, to set their priorities, and through which to attempt to cope with whatever life — which truly is neither fair nor just — throws at them.

Stoicism is one such powerful tool, and so are kindred philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism. They are not meant to “console” people, which would be patronizing. They are, rather, meant to empower them, to show them that no matter what happens, they can still find meaning in what they do. As Marcus, again, says: “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1) And what does the work of a human being look like? Something along these lines:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

That is, life is always hard and full of challenges, even for a privileged member of the bourgeois. But we can all look at how things are, eschewing wishful thinking, and decide — regardless of the vagaries of Fortuna — to act in the right way toward ourselves and our fellow human beings. That, really, is all there is to it.

Why Modern Stoicism does not miss the point

And we come now to a new exciting entry in my ongoing “someone else doesn’t like Stoicism and likely misunderstands it” series of posts. Today’s entry is about an article published by Mark Vernon over at The Idler, entitled “Why Modern Stoicism misses the point,” and accompanied by the tag line “there is more to Stoicism than self-control, it is about surrendering to the divine will.”

Vernon begins by hoping that his readers will go and check out Epictetus’ Enchiridion for themselves, because “it will show them how etiolated modern Stoicism has become, and how challenging the way of life advocated by Epictetus and his fellows, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, really was. It’s only in this challenge that it has anything striking and useful to say to us today. Stoicism now focuses on Epictetus’ best known remark. It’s commonly glossed thus: ‘it’s not what happens to you that matters but how you respond that matters.’”

Vernon continues: “It’s the advice behind today’s virtue à la mode, resilience: grin and bear it. Little wonder big corporates pay good money for seminars teaching such passivity. It’s compliance dressed up as a philosophy. The slave-cum-scholar-cum-stoic secures your future as a wage slave. Only, something crucial to Epictetus has been stripped out.”

Before we get to what modern Stoics have allegedly stripped out, let me address what Vernon has said so far, beginning with the idea that (ancient) Stoicism was challenging. Of course. All philosophies of life, or religions (which come with a built-in philosophy of life) are challenging, if one means to practice them seriously. If you think being a Christian or a Buddhist isn’t challenging you have not understood what Christianity or Buddhism are about. And that’s true for the ancient as well as the modern versions of all these approaches to life. I don’t know many modern Stoics who don’t think that to be the case, and indeed lots of discussions at the large Stoicism Facebook community (almost 24,000 at current counting) focus precisely on the challenges of practice, the community being, in a sense, a large mutual support group.

Vernon then says that Epictetus’ dichotomy of control has been reduced to today’s “virtue à la mode,” as he calls resilience. I’m not sure where he is getting that, but it is nowhere to be found in any of the modern books on Stoicism I’ve read thus far, including Don Robertson’s, Bill Irvine’s, Larry Becker’s, or my own.

But it appears from his sneering at “corporate” Stoicism that Vernon’s real targets are the likes of Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris. I have written about what I think of that approach before, but even in those books I see little to substantiate Vernon’s attitude. Sure, they are more self-help than philosophy, addressed to a particular audience, and written in a style that is alien to my own way of writing. But so what? If they are helpful to people, that’s a good thing. And who knows how many that would have never heard of Stoicism before have taken or will take a look at the ancient authors as a result of reading Holiday or Ferris. That’s a good thing too.

Vernon’s more fundamental issue, however, concerns something else entirely:

“What Stoicism-lite removes is the cosmic view that informed [Epictetus] advice. He was convinced that the ways of the world and the universe were determined by an omnipresent, omnipotent force. Stoics called it the Logos. It was divine. It was irresistible. And crucially, it was benign.”

Ah, yes, the old “gods not atoms” objection. Except that even the ancient Stoics were pretty clear that their metaphysics underdetermines — as modern philosophers would put it — their ethics, meaning that their ethical practice is compatible with more than one (but not just any) metaphysical stance.

Here is Marcus, for instance:

“Recall the alternative; either there is providence or a fortuitous concurrence of atoms.” (IV.3)

“Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?” (IX.39)

“Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts.” (X.6)

And several more examples can be found throughout the Meditations. Seneca too says pretty much the same:

“Whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defense.” (Letter XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life, 5)

It is hard to read any of the above and not agree that for the Stoics it simply did not matter whether the universe is arranged by a benevolent Providence or not. One still has to do one’s best to contribute to the polis of humanity.

Moreover, Vernon’s vocabulary is misleading: “omnipresent … omnipotent … divine … irresistible.” This sounds too much like Christianity, which is not surprising given that the author is a former priest for the Church of England, who now considers himself an “agnostic Christian.”

But the Logos was nothing like that. The Stoics were pantheists, so their “god” was immanent in the universe, and made of matter. Indeed god simply is the universe for the Stoics, and accordingly they used words like “god,” “nature,” and “cosmos” interchangeably. The “divine” is everywhere, and we are literally bits and pieces of it. There is nothing at all in this conception that hints at omnipresence, if not in the trivial sense that the universe is everywhere (where else would it be?), and even less so omnipotence. The “irresistibility” of the Stoic god is the irresistibility of the universal web of cause and effect, as explained by Chrysippus.

As for the allegedly benign character of Providence, this should not be interpreted, again, in anything like the Christian sense of a grand plan of which we are a part. Rather, the Stoics thought of the world as a living organism, and that organism tries to do whatever is best for it as a whole, which sometimes means that some of its parts bear the unpleasant brunt of its actions. Here is how Epictetus famously explains it, quoting Chrysippus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

Vernon will have none of it: “Remove your desire? Abandon your freedom? Give up your will? In a godless cosmos, red in tooth and claw, governed by the ruthless laws of evolutionary survival, your desire, freedom and will are all you have. Nietzsche, the herald of the death of God, saw through Stoicism-lite: ‘You desire to LIVE according to Nature? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power – how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature?’”

Ah, you’ve got to love it when a former priest approvingly mentions Nietzsche, the uber-bad boy of philosophy! At some point I will write a separate post on Nietzsche and the Stoics, apparently it’s sorely needed.

For now, though, suffice to point out two things: first, contra both Nietzsche and Vernon, plenty of agnostics and atheists seem to have no trouble at all finding meaning and conducting an ethical life within a world “red in tooth and claw,” so one ought to at least pause before making fun of modern Stoics, who are just one such group of people. (I should further qualify that I think of Modern Stoicism as a big tent, metaphysically speaking, which includes theists, atheists, agnostics, and even some pantheists.)

Second, Nietzsche literally had no idea what he was talking about in that passage. “Living according to nature,” for the Stoics, meant (and still means) living by developing the highest potential as human beings. And that translates into applying one’s reasoning ability and judgments to improving social life. As Marcus puts it:

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations, IX.12)

This is the same “gods or atoms” Marcus as above, of course. And here is Seneca, railing against philosophers who’d rather engage in logic chopping than in helping people:

“I should like to have those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word “friend” is used, and how many meanings the word ‘man’ possesses.” (Letter XLVIII. On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher, 4)

None of that may have meant anything to Nietzsche himself, but when Nietzsche says that the point is precisely to be otherwise than nature, he seems to impute to the Stoics a type of appeal to nature, a logically fallacious argument (X is natural, therefore X is good) that would have taken Chrysippus a nanosecond to dispatch of.

Vernon quotes Marcus in his favor: “You must consider the doing and perfecting of what the universal nature decrees in the same light as your health, and welcome all that happens, even if it seems harsh, because it leads to the health of the universe, the welfare and well-being of God. For he would not have allotted this to anyone if it were not beneficial to the whole.” (No ref.)

Yes, that is one of the most Christian-sounding sound bites from Marcus, though there is a lot of room for a more neutral interpretation there too. But what about this, also from the emperor-philosopher?

“And by the Universal Nature treating these [pain, pleasure, death, and life] with neutrality I mean that all things happen neutrally in a chain of sequence to things that come into being and their after products by some primeval impulse of Providence, in accordance with which She was impelled by some primal impulse to this making of an ordered Universe, when She had conceived certain principles for all that was to be, and allocated the powers generative of substances and changes and successions such as we see.” (Meditations IX.1)

Things happen neutrally because of a chain of cause-effect that began in a primeval impulse. I doubt this would sound too alien to anyone accepting what Vernon contemptuously refers to as the take on nature “sanctioned by today’s high priests, the scientists, with their creed of mechanistic materialism.”

Vernon concludes that “without a transcendent perspective on life’s harshness, without trust in an unfolding higher than human vision, all we have is our desire, our frightened calls for control, our empty cries for freedom echoing about in the indifferent void.”

That’s a pretty bleak take not just on modern Stoicism, but on the human spirit. There is no question that if one believes in a benign Providence and in a grand plan orchestrated by a benevolent God then life is easier to bear. But it is highly doubtful that even the ancient Stoics accepted anything like that view of the cosmos, and it is certain that they didn’t think it was required in order to “live according to nature,” i.e., to be decent people who do their best in order to make existence a little bit better for everyone. And to impute either shallowness or willful ignorance to modern Stoics if they don’t accept Vernon’s particular theology is downright insulting. Except that Stoics, ancient and modern, don’t believe in insults. But neither Nietzsche nor Vernon are in a position to understand why.

Stoicism and the “inadequacy of the invincible”

ITALY-THEME-LANDMARKStoicism is not new to criticism. Many of the fragments of Stoic texts that we have, especially referring to the early Stoa, are actually from authors who were not just critical, but seriously pissed off at, the philosophy. And now that Stoicism seems to be on the upswing again, the critics have come out of the woodworks once more. There is, of course, much value in serious criticism of one’s philosophy (for instance, from the likes of Martha Nussbaum), and the Stoics themselves repeatedly took good ideas from whenever they found them, be that the Cynicism so admired by Epictetus, or even the Epicureanism in which Seneca made a number of forays “not as a deserter, but as a scout” (II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 5).

Some of the modern critics have tried to top Sextus Empiricus’ famous “Against the Professors,” managing to express a level of venom probably better suited to other targets. Here, for instance, is my response to Existentialist philosopher Sandy Grant, who I think managed to write one of the most uncharitable recent commentaries on Stoicism. (Then again, none other than Bertrand Russell himself, one of the philosophers who most influenced me early on, botched the job fantastically in his History of Western Philosophy.)

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