The Epicureans are a much maligned group. Arguably, they were misunderstood by many of their contemporaries, and there were certainly smeared by the early Christians, who focused on the Epicurean idea that pleasure was the highest good in order to paint them, unfairly, as a bunch of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” hedonists. The actual Epicurean position was much more subtle, emphasizing lack of mental distress more than what we moderns call pleasure.
In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life aimed — like all Hellenistic philosophies, but also Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and a number of others — at providing both a general framework and specific guidance on how to live. During the past two and a half years I’ve taken it pretty seriously, both in terms of studying ancient and modern authors, and especially in terms of practice. After all, as Epictetus puts it: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)
A major point of practical philosophy — indeed, the whole point of it, really — is to provide us with tools and guidance to navigate everyday life. This is probably why my recently started “Stoic Advice” column has quickly become so popular. But from time to time I pick my own conundrum and present it to the Stoic community for further thought and discussion, hence this series, What Would a Stoic Do (under these circumstances)? Today we talk about infidelity.
Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.
[This guest post is a response to a critical essay by E.O. Scott, who wrote it in response to W. Irvine’s original post in the Oxford University Press blog. My commentary on Bill’s post and his subsequent talk at STOICON ’16 can be found here.]
By William Irvine
Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk on what I call “insult pacifism.” As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.
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.