I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?
The short of it is:
Ethics: Stoic with Peripatetic (Aristotelian) modifications
I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics as the focus of reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.
Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.
But while I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), I disagree that it’s sufficient. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety are also necessary for human flourishing. And Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends tremendous support to this view.
In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods – what we call metaphysics today.
Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Coupled with the Stoic belief in divine providence means that everything that happens is just. But this is clearly irrational. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.” Yet justice is the core of Stoic ethics, so the house of cards falls.
In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe – a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.
With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.
I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck – good and bad – but no providence.
How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.
But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.
In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.
Marcus Aurelius claimed that everything that happens is just (4.10). This is so because divine providence determines everything (4.26). But his view is irrational because if everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Yet, if justice – the basis of all Stoic virtue (11.10) – is moot then Stoic virtue also is moot. Ancient Epicureans criticized Stoicism along similar lines.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
All is just
“Everything that happens is right.” Look closely and you’ll see it’s true. Not just right overall, but just – as if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely and embody it in your actions. Goodness defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do (4.10).
Just as you hear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him,” say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. Here “prescribed” means something like “ordered to further his recovery.” What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny, for there is a single harmony (5.8, see also 10.5).
What we experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).
There are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of wellbeing in what directs the world — of its wellbeing, its fulfillment, of its very existence even (5.8).
The whole is damaged if you cut away anything from its continuity and its coherence — anything at all. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying (5.8).
I am a part of a world controlled by nature. And I have a relationship with other, similar parts. With that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6).
Justice is the number one virtue
Nature is never inferior to art. Art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, universal nature itself cannot fall short of any artistic invention. Now, all the arts create the lower in the interests of the higher. Won’t universal nature do the same? This is the origin of justice, which is the source of all the other virtues. But how could we do what justice requires if we are distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)
To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue that counters justice. But I see a virtue to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).
To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. And for the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence — respect for the divine — no less than to act justly. That too is kind of fellowship, and a prerequisite for justice (11.20).
Be sure your actions are not arbitrary or different from what justice would do (12.24). Justice – speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should — and as other people deserve. Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, what people will say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (12.1).
Injustice is blasphemy
Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. (9.1).
Be indifferent to external events, and commit to justice in your own acts. This means thought and action resulting in the common good – what you were born to do (9.31).
Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else – not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).
Do your best to convince others. But act on your own if justice requires it. If met with force then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances – you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished (6.50).
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, and to approach this thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54).
You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action – and be satisfied if each one achieves its goal (as far as it can). No one can keep that from happening. “But there are external obstacles.” No obstacle, though, to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense (8.32).
What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).
Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).
Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning (8.19).
Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).
External events happen randomly or by design. You can’t complain about chance. You can’t argue with providence (12.24). And nature is indifferent to some things. That is, they happen impartially through cause and effect following from the ancient decree of providence. From this starting point it embarked on creation as we know it – laying down the principles of what was to come, and determining the forces of existence, change, and their successive stages (9.1).
Everything you’re trying to reach — by taking the long way round — you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice (12.1).
Don’t be disturbed. Don’t overcomplicate things. Someone has done wrong – but to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present — thoughtfully, justly, with unrestrained moderation (4.26).
If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).
His key point is that Stoicism is about finding tranquility through self-control.
Stoicism isn’t about repressing emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them.
Emotions are a reflex. And negative emotions such as anger, grief, fear, and anxiety can be destructive.
Stoicism isn’t about repressing these emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them. Instead, Stoicism offers practical techniques for minimizing negative emotions.
Irvine says it’s okay for a Stoic to enjoy people, possessions, wealth, popularity, and health. But a Stoic will prepare for the eventual loss of these things. Stoics, like Zen Buddhists, believe all things are impermanent.
More to the point, Stoics place the most value on something that cannot be taken from them – their character.
Stoics realize that their happiness cannot depend on external things that they don’t control. If your happiness is based on wealth or relationships, which someone can take from you, then your happiness is not really yours.
Don’t expect the world to conform to your desires.
There are things you have no control over, such as the weather. There are things you can influence but not completely control, such as other people.
Then there are things you have complete control over. You can choose your values. You can set your goals.
But a Stoic doesn’t expect the world to conform to her desires. Instead, she embraces the moment because wishing things were different will only lead to misery.
Stoics don’t advocate a passive approach to life, however. Irvine says your best bet is to set internal goals, such as being as persuasive as possible or giving it your best shot. But you must be willing to let go of the desired outcome if it doesn’t go your way.
Balance is central to Stoic tranquility.
Balance, then, is central to Stoic tranquility. Stoicism isn’t about being emotionless because you can’t control the fact that emotions arise. Instead, there’s an equilibrium between indulgence and repression.
Ironically, practicing Stoicism means becoming more emotionally aware so the Stoic can put these emotions in perspective. And that requires the use of reason.
One technique Irvine recommends is negative visualization. Imagine losing something dear to you, and imagine handling that gracefully.
It’s a tough sell, but preparing yourself for the loss will help you cope when it happens.
Besides, most of us waste time thinking about things we want but don’t have. Envisioning the loss of things we do have makes us appreciate them all the more instead of taking them for granted.
Stoics place little value on people’s criticism or praise.
Irvine offers other pieces of practical advice. Our goals and values are ours, so we should take care not to let other people’s opinions derail us.
The human desire for social status can be a huge downfall. Status is conferred on us by others and can just as easily be withdrawn. For the sake of tranquility, Stoics advise placing little value on people’s criticism or praise.
Irvine quotes Roman Stoic Seneca, who said that “to know how many people are jealous of you, count your admirers.”
That might sound cynical, but flattery is often a tool for manipulation. Ever notice how easily people go from idolizing someone to despising them? Jealousy is the consistent element.
If your self-worth is based on other people’s positive opinions of you, then they own your self-worth – you don’t.
Learning to laugh at yourself helps you shrug off your faults. And if you can see that you’re not really so great then you’ll be less dependent on other people’s praise.
How do Stoics deal with anger?
Anger may be the most common negative emotion. How do Stoics deal with anger? Irvine says you lose the ability to distinguish annoyances from genuine harm when you coddle yourself and avoid life’s difficulties. The smallest discomfort becomes unbearable. Facing hardship head on builds confidence and makes annoyances easy to deal with.
Being overly sensitive, though, leads to thinking of yourself as a victim who is entitled to retribution. You might even develop a sense of entitlement that the world should conform to your desires.
That sense of entitlement becomes anger when the world is indifferent to your desires. Entitlement also leads to a lack of responsibility because you think the world must change for you – you don’t see that it’s you who must change.
Related to realistic expectations is reflecting on the impermanence of all things. This too shall pass. Irvine recommends imaging the situation happening to someone you don’t know. Would you think it’s a big deal or would you think it’s trivial? If it seems trivial then you have no business getting upset about it.
He also recommends that you remind yourself of times you’ve angered other people. You can quell your anger by remembering that you’re no better than anyone else.
Laughing at yourself when you’re feeling angry is also a great technique for chilling out. It’s hard to be mad when you see how silly you’re being.
Force yourself to slow down and to relax your facial expression. And once you’ve calmed down, apologize.
Finally, Irvine admits that he’s modernizing Stoicism. No ancient Stoic talked about negative visualization (though likely they would have approved).
And ancient Stoics disagreed with Epicureans that the world consists of atoms. Epicureans disagreed with the Stoic belief that the gods determine our fates. Irvine concedes that Epicureans have won this debate.
But none of this answers the question of whether Stoicism will bring joy.