Category Archives: Science

Stoics should be vegetarian

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter over at Modern Stoicism summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“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 think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which — to be sure — is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes: “The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.”

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea — which the ancient Stoics surely did have — that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason — given contemporary scientific knowledge — very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

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.

The philosophy and science of (Stoic) free will

Frontal lobes and hegemonikonTime to tackle again the debate that never goes away: how is the Stoic idea that we can work to improve our character, or — which is the same — Epictetus’ contention that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us, compatible with the (also Stoic) contention that we live in a universe determined by a universal web of cause and effect? In other words, how is Stoic “free will” going to square with their metaphysical position of physicalism? And, moreover, hasn’t modern neuroscience “demonstrated” that there is no such thing as free will?

Let me summarize the answers upfront, and then we’ll dig into the details, with the help both of scholarly work on Stoic philosophy and of scientific research on the human mind. In a nutshell: “free will” is an awfully confusing term that should never, ever, be used again. (Yes, I know, it’s in the title of this post. That’s because I wanted to grab your attention.) Instead, we should use the word “volition,” which — as we shall see in a moment — is both the best translation of what Epictetus means by the Greek term prohairesis as well as the appropriate technical term used by modern cognitive scientists. Moreover, the Stoics had a sophisticated causal model of volition (it may be good to re-read this post on Chrysippus’ metaphor of the rolling cylinder, before proceeding further), which turns out to be in very good agreement with the findings of modern science (yes, including the (in)famous Libet experiments popularly, but mistakenly, assumed to “demonstrated scientifically” that there is no such thing as free will; more on that below). Okay, let’s get started.

To begin with, the Stoics used two terms within the context of this discussion: hêgemonikon and prohairesis. The two are often treated as interchangeable, but Anthony Long, in his excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (see my two commentaries here and here) draws an interesting and useful distinction between them.

Hêgemonikon is the most common Stoic term, and broadly speaking it is a faculty of the mind that has four “powers,” according to this helpful article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “presentation [phantasia], impulse [hormê], assent [sugkatathesis], and reason [logos].” The ancient Stoics thought that the hêgemonikon resided in the heart, a notion for which they were ridiculed by Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ personal doctor. Galen was right, of course, and I suggest that modern neuroanatomy locates the hêgemonikon in the frontal lobes.

The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes (but, interestingly, not so in lesser apes and monkeys). The frontal lobes (one per hemisphere) are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events. That sounds to me very much like what the Stoics were talking about whenever they used the term hêgemonikon, usually translated as ruling faculty. Here is Marcus, for instance:

“Things stand outside of us, themselves by themselves, neither knowing anything of themselves nor expressing any judgment. What is it, then, that passes judgment on them? The ruling faculty.” (Meditations, IX.15)

Modern science tells us that the frontal lobes do not fully mature in human beings until our late ‘20s, and of course a variety of situations can impair their proper function, from accidents such as the famous one that occurred in 1848 to the American railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and various forms of dementia.

Interestingly, according to Long:

“Hêmonikon does not mean rationality; it is a term that applies to the souls of animals who lack rationality as well as to human beings“ (p. 211)

Which is in broad agreement with the above mentioned scientific fact that all mammals have this structure, albeit in a less developed form than in the great apes. The Stoics were also clearly aware that there are conditions in which one’s hêmonikon is impaired, by age or disease, or not yet fully formed, in children.

Long insists, and it seems to me that he is correct, that there is a good reason why Epictetus — uniquely among the Stoics — switches to prohairesis, instead of hêmonikon. Prohairesis refers to a faculty that is unique to humans, and in a sense is a specific sub-component of the hêgemonikon:

“We should take prohairesis to refer to the human mind in just those capacities or dispositions that Epictetus constantly maintains to be completely ‘up to us’ and free from external constraint.” (p. 211)

What’s the difference? One of the characteristics of the hêgemonikon, as we have seen, is that it is presented with phantasia, or impressions, both external ones (from our sensory apparatus) and internal ones (from memory). Such presentation, according to Epictetus, is automatic, i.e., it is not “up to us.” The remaining three powers of the hêgemonikon, however, impulses, assent, and reason are up to us. So we can think of prohairesis as the ability to reason and to give or withdraw assent to our impressions — thereby controlling our impulses — that is part of the hêgemonikon. I will leave it to neuroscientists to work out exactly which structures within the frontal lobes are more concerned with reasoning and decision making, and which are devoted to sensorial inputs and memory. The answers are empirical in nature, but do not affect the philosophy at all.

[Incidentally, as Long points out, Epictetus is not alone here: Aristotle also adopted the term prohairesis to mean “the deliberated desire of things that are up to us.” Moreover, Aristotle too judges what he calls “prohairetic disposition” to be a better assessment of moral character than action, presumably because actions are not entirely up to us, only judgments are. (p. 212)]

We are now in a better position to make sense of one of the most famous passages in the Discourses:

“For a start, don’t be carried away by [the impression’s] vividness, but say: Wait for me a bit, impression; let me take a look at you and what you are about, let me test you. Next, don’t let it lead you on by painting a picture of what comes next. Otherwise, it is off and away, taking you wherever it wishes. Instead, confront it with another impression, a fine and noble impression, and dismiss this foul one.” (II.18)

It is the hêgemonikon that both presents us with the impression (say, of an attractive member of the other sex) and with memories to draw from (of pleasurable previous sexual encounters). But it is our prohairesis that applies reason to the situation and denies assent to the impression (I am in a committed relationship, and I will therefore not pursue sex with another person on the side).

That also makes sense of why the Stoics, and Epictetus in particular, insisted that the only things that are truly good or bad are our judgments: the impression itself is neutral, because it is a fact about the world, and moreover is not under our control. It is us, through the faculty of prohairesis, who attach a value judgment to things and events. That attaching of a judgment is under our control, and so the only truly good thing is to have a well functioning prohairesis, and the only truly bad thing is to have a malfunctioning one (which leads to the condition often describe as amathia, or un-wisdom).

Long provides his readers with a very good discussion of why he ends up translating prohairesis with “volition,” and it is well worth attending to his reasoning. He considers three other options: moral purpose (or moral character), will, and agency. He discards the first possibility, because prohairesis can be good or bad, while “moral” has a positive meaning only; moreover, the word is tainted by later connotations that would distract and lead us to misunderstand the Stoic meaning.

What about will? He has actually translated prohairesis that way, occasionally, particularly because Epictetus does use phrases like “if you will, you are free.” But, again, the term has become loaded with especially Christian-influenced meaning, and — more importantly — it may lead us to erroneously conclude that Epictetus is thinking of a faculty of the will distinct from assent and impulse, which he is definitely not.

Agency, says Long, is a better alternative, and indeed it is the one used by modern Stoic Lawrence Becker throughout his A New Stoicism, about which I have recently published a ten-part commentary. But Long isn’t happy with agency either. Consider this passage:

“And who told you; it is your function to walk unimpeded? What I was telling you is that the only unimpeded thing is the impulse. Wherever there is a need for the body and the body’s cooperation, you have long ago heard that nothing is your own.” (Discourses IV.1.72-73)

What Epictetus is reminding his student of, here, is that even our bodily actions are not entirely up to us: we may decide to start walking, but we could be paralyzed by disease, or chained to a wall by a tyrant. So the action is not (entirely) up to us, only the impulse to perform the action. Since “agency” typically carries a meaning of actually doing things, not just willing them, then I would have to agree with Long’s take.

Hence the final preference for volition, which in modern psychology is “the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action. It is defined as purposive striving and is one of the primary human psychological functions.”

As Long correctly points out, volition is not contradictory to a physicalist view of the world as determined by cause and effect:

“We take people to have volitions irrespective of whether these are predetermined or independent of antecedent causation.” (p. 220)

And, moreover, modern psychological science considers volition to be “a process of conscious action control which becomes automatized” (see link just above). But wait a minute! Isn’t it a fact of modern science that free will, however one wishes to call it, is an “illusion”? Specifically, didn’t the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet back in the 1980s conclusively show that to be the case? Does that not mean, therefore, that the entire Stoic philosophy of mind, and hence the crucial idea of the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchiridion, crumble under the pounding of modern science? Nope, not at all. On the contrary, Libet’s experiments, and subsequent others carried out since, spectacularly confirm the ancient Stoic intuition about prohairesis.

Libet performed some fascinating experiments on conscious vs unconscious decision making, beginning back in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems.

But in fact it was Libet himself who rejected the facile “free will is an illusion” interpretation of his own research. Here is part of his commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

Note that the motor cortex in question is part, surprise surprise!, of the frontal lobes (specifically, part of the posterior border of the lobe, called the precentral gyrus), which I have suggested is the anatomical counterpart of both the hêgemonikon and enables the faculty of prohairesis.

Also, more recent research (summarized here), has led to a re-interpretation of Libet’s original findings that aligns them even more with the intuitions of the Stoics. For instance, a group of researchers in Germany has modified the original protocol to test Libet’s idea of a veto power exercised by conscious thought. Bear with me for a minute, because some of the details are important.

Subjects were asked to hit a foot pedal as quickly as possible after seeing a green light on a screen, but also to stop themselves from doing so (i.e., cancel their own movements) whenever a red light appeared. Researchers then put the red light under the control of a computer monitoring the participants’ brain waves. The twist was that whenever the computer detected the above mentioned readiness potential building up it would make a red light appear. In agreement with Libet’s veto hypothesis, participants were, in fact, able to stop themselves from pushing the pedal, reversing the build up of the action potential. This was possible up until a point of no return: if the red light was too close after the green one (about 0.25 seconds) then the foot movement could not be completely inhibited.

And there is more. A French team of neuroscientists published a paper in 2012 in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they argued for a different interpretation of Libet’s original experiments. They suggest that the readiness potential does not, in fact, signal the brain’s preparation for a specific action. Rather, the potential goes up and down randomly, but movement can only occur when a certain threshold in the potential is reached. Sure enough, they conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to press a button, either at moments of their own choosing, or when they heard a random click. The results show that the response to the random clicks were much faster when they happened to coincide with a (again, random) surge in the readiness potential then when the potential happened to be low. So the potential is not really a sign of an already made unconscious decision, but rather one of a number of co-occurring causes that facilitate the movement.

All of the above seems to me eminently compatible with the Stoic take on volition. Please understand that I am not suggesting that the ancient Stoics somehow anticipated modern neuroscience. That would be preposterous. They knew nothing about action potentials, and they even got spectacularly wrong the anatomical location of the hêgemonikon. But their intuitive understanding of human psychology — on which they built their moral philosophy of action — was right on target, which makes their philosophy perfectly compatible with modern cognitive science. (For another example of such compatibility, this one concerning the Stoic treatment of emotions as cognitively informed, see here.) There is no magic here, the Stoics were simply astute observes of human nature.

To summarize then: the hêgemonikon, our ruling faculty, is roughly equivalent to the functions performed by the mammalian frontal lobes, which are particularly developed in the great apes, and that in the human species reach full maturity in our late ‘20s. Prohairesis is our special faculty of deliberate, rational judgment, and is made possible by sub-components of the frontal lobes. Our volition is compatible with the fact that the cosmos is characterized by a universal web of cause and effect, because some of these causes are internally generated (see Chrysippus’ cylinder), which makes Stoic philosophy of mind a type of compatibilism about “free will” (and please, let’s no longer use that term!). Finally, not only there is no contradiction between modern cognitive science and the Stoic idea that some things (namely, our judgments) are “up to us.” It is, on the contrary, the case that modern science tells us about the anatomical bases and physiological mechanisms underlying prohairesis. It is this congruence between early Stoic intuitions about human psychology and nature and modern science that make their philosophy still so useful today. We can, therefore, agree with Epictetus when he says:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

Stoicism and climate change

On this blog, I don’t like to write about either politics (but here is an example) or religion (example here), because one of the main attractions of Stoicism, for me, is precisely that it is a big tent in both those areas: one can be a virtuous conservative or progressive, and similarly one can be religious or atheist and still practice the four cardinal virtues. When I do talk about these topics, it is only from a broad Stoic perspective, and making a very conscious effort to respect other people’s opinions. That said, of course, to welcome a variety of opinions under the same tent does not mean that one doesn’t have one’s own opinion, nor does it mean that one thinks all points of view are equally valid. It is therefore with great reluctance that I take up the topic of climate change which, while technically a scientific issue, has in fact become a highly divisive ideological one. But a fellow Stoic asked me to weigh in, partly because I am a scientist and philosopher of science, and therefore more acquainted with the details than many. So here we go.

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Philosophy vs rationality vs therapy

stop and thinkStoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.

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Stoic astronomy

solar systemThe Stoics were not interested just in ethics, even though that was the crucial aspect of their very practical philosophy. In going through the various chapters of the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, we have looked at aspects of their “logic,” including moral psychology and logic proper; and our explorations of their “physics” has led us through discussions of natural philosophy and more recently of medicine. Today is the turn of Stoic astronomy.

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Stoicism and medicine

Greek medicineI am continuing my commentary of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, of which I have published a number of installments already (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). I’ve got to the chapter by R.J. Hankinson, on “Stoicism and medicine.” And no, this isn’t going to be a post directing you to use some kind of Greco-Roman “alternative” treatments for your cold.

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Epictetus was right: modern cognitive science supports the Stoics’ conception of emotions

AnxiousThere is a new book out on the neuroscience of emotions, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, by Joseph LeDoux, to which modern Stoics should probably pay attention. The following commentary is based on a review of the book by Simon Wolfe Taylor in The Nation.

LeDoux is a leading neuroscientist, who did his doctoral work under the supervision of the pioneering Michael Gazzaniga at Stony Brook University (where I was a faculty in the Ecology & Evolution Department for five years), and he has been interested in nonconscious processing of information by the brain for a long time (he wrote a highly successful book on the so-called fear center, the amygdala, entitled The Emotional Brain).

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Stoic natural philosophy

Stoic FireFascinating chapter by Michael J. White on Stoic natural philosophy (“physics”) in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. As is well known, the Stoics thought that natural philosophy (we’d call it science today, though their version included also what we would term metaphysics) is relevant to ethics, because if one is to “live according to nature” one better form the best possible understanding of what nature consists of.

As White puts it: “the common contemporary assumption that it is both possible and desirable to undertake a ‘value-neutral’ investigation of nature is quite foreign to Stoic thought. … the Stoics themes of the unity and cohesion of the cosmos and of an all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos are of fundamental importance to Stoic physics.”

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