Some Thoughts on Stoicism
Being a Personal Commentary on a Few Core Principles of an (Ancient) Philosophy
After a conversation with philosopher Cassie Finley, I was happy to have provoked a couple of Twitter comments calling me out for incorrectly critiquing a noble ancient variety of Virtue Ethics called Stoicism.
Because the call-out was just, and because my comments were hasty, I thought it was worth trying to steel my position, clarify anything in my thinking which might have been muddled, and accurately represent what my understanding of Stoicism is. (If my understanding is lacking, I invite education.)
Whether or not my understanding is incorrect, I believe it is worth my while to understand where I am coming from, as I do think I have a couple of worthy (and perhaps even helpful) thoughts and observations.
To begin, then, I should take the time to very briefly sketch out my understanding of Stoicism. I will tell you first the works I have read, as it might be that thoughtful critics can initially correct me merely in terms of what I should have been reading.
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
A Handbook for New Stoics by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez
Dr. Pigliucci’s Patreon Blog
a Portion of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
The Enchiridion of Epictetus
Portions of the Dialogues of Epictetus
Portions of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Seneca’s Essays On the Shortness of Life, De Ira (On Anger), Consolation to Helvia, and on Tranquility of Mind
And, one more bit of housekeeping before I begin. What was the bit that got me the responses? Part of my tweet advertising my conversation with Cassie asked the following: “Can #stoicism *increase* anxiety?” To which I received the almost predictable response: “Not if you’re doing it right”. In fairness, that response was a little fuller, and in honor of accuracy, I will reprint it fully.
lower-case-s "stoicism", sure.
Upper-case-S actual Stoicism, not if you're doing it right
Common distinction well worth observing
Stoicism is a philosophy of Virtue Ethics that has roots in ancient Greco-Roman culture. It grew out of the philosophy of Cynicism, but is notably more moderate than that rather severe elder (though it does still share some of Cynicism’s assumptions). Some of the chief writers who composed major Stoic works were Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. In addition to these figures, Cicero also sang the praises of Stoicism.
Stoicism holds up Socrates as an example of an ideal philosopher, almost an icon who can point us to the true aspirational ideal: the Sage. (It is said that *actual* Sages only come around once a Millennium or so, and that the rare mythological Phoenix is actually more common.)
I should note that this is an *ancient* idea, and that Modern Stoics need not *literally* “believe” in ancient ideas. How you want to parse this is up to you. I, personally, am fond of ancient ideas, and as such I don’t mind proliferating them. That said, if you are of a more skeptical mindset than I, I will bow to you and acknowledge the following:
It is NOT NECESSARY for Modern Stoics to “Believe” in Ancient Myths.
In addition to this ideal of the sage, another ancient aspect of Stoicism that is continually embraced is the idea of the Logos. I have not yet seen a good single-volume work on the idea of Logos in ancient Greek culture. (If you know of one, PLEASE send me the title!) I have read a monograph on the Logos as it pertains to the philosophy of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Christians no doubt may recognize this concept from the first chapter of the book of John. The science writer Robert Wright has talked about the Logos in both Nonzero and The Evolution of God.
But while I am not going to give a good account of what the Logos is here, I will say that there is a useful conception of Logos that remains relevant in contemporary Stoicism, which Massimo Pigliucci writes about rather clearly. The primary element of this conception is that the Logos is related to the word “logic,” and that it has to do with the fact that the world (indeed, the universe) is intelligible. In particular, the universe is intelligible to human minds, which is why human lives, in order to flourish, must accept that we are rational. I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a system of Virtue Ethics, Stoicism is concerned with how it is that humans experience Eudaimonia. This word is translated in many ways and, as with “Logos,” I have not yet read a single work about how the term functioned in ancient Greece. For example, among systems of ancient Virtue Ethics, one might compare and contrast the differences between Eudaimonia in Stoicism and Nicomacheanism (or Aristotelianism). I am not an expert on this, but based on my reading thus far, my understanding is that
“Eudaimonia” can be defined as:
Happiness, Flourishing, Thriving, Blessedness, or even Good Spirits
The Stoics believed, more or less, that there were
Two Qualities of Human Beings
That Must be Understood in Order to Flourish
We are Social
We are Capable of Reason
Because Stoicism is a philosophy of Virtue Ethics, it believes that human beings thrive the best when they attempt to be their best selves. The term “Virtue” can be problematic as, in Roman Latin, the word can mean “Manly.” There were few major Stoic writers who were women. That said, the Latin “Virtue” is a translation of a Greek word “Arete” which can simply mean excellence. As a challenge to the idea of manly virtue, we can remember that the Greek word “Arete” was also the name of a Goddess.
Because we are Social, Stoicism invites us to be Cosmopolitans, or citizens of the World. This calls us to transcend our tribal and national identities and see all people as equals. Indeed, we are called to see fellow humans as Brothers and Sisters.
Because we are Rational, Stoicism calls us to strive toward Reason in observing the Universe as objectively as possible, which involves second guessing our assumptions and checking our biases. This can be effected via a host of exercises such as “the View from Above” and daily journaling.
Further, in order to strive toward Excellence, we are called upon to observe four cardinal virtues.
The Four Virtues of Stoicism Are:
Before I continue, I would do well to point out something that I don’t quite get. This is not necessarily my problem with Stoicism in general, and it might that this confusion is part of why I experience increased anxiety when I practice Stoicism. Perhaps this would be easily cleared up by an explanation. I do not understand to what extent the experience of Eudaimonia is supposed to be pleasurable, nor do I know if it’s supposed to be a sense that you have all the time, or if its something that comes and goes. I also don’t know whether the virtue is supposed to cause the Eudaimonia, or if we just aspire to hopefully experience Eudaimonia or hold it up as an ideal. I also don’t know whether we are supposed to accept that we are by nature unvirtuous and are going to constantly fail at attempting to practice virtue, or if we are expected to perform to a certain level at all times in order to practice Stoicism. When I would be experiencing anxiety in my daily life, and I would turn to Stoicism for aid, these confusions did not help me.
As we condition ourselves to observe these virtues through daily practice and exercise, we can gradually free our minds from what Buddhism calls “Desire and Aversion.” This is illustrated in a core concept of the thought of Epictetus called
The Dichotomy of Control
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
When we accept the two core aspects of our humanity (that we are social and capable of reason), and embrace the fact that we can control some things and not others, we are able to free our minds from a lot of strife. This is because we can focus on the things that are most efficacious, and stop worrying about things that are too far away from our purview. To summarize this idea via modern literature one can recall the “Serenity Prayer” used in 12 Step groups.
Finally, there is one last aspect of Stoicism that, again, comes from Epictetus. This is the idea of
Preferred and Dispreferred Indifferents
Remember how some things are in our control and others are not? Similarly, we desire somethings to happen and are averse to other things.
Most of these things, according to Epictetus, are actually not relevant to whether or not we can be excellent and flourish. They are, in fact, things toward which we should ideally be indifferent. Aside from the bare bones of what we need to survive, most things are actually indifferents.
Cool, so now that I have gotten that out of the way, we can pause. If you have any major problems with how I characterized Stoicism, that may be on me, or it may be on you, depending on how essential your critiques are. If you can’t accept my characterization, my critiques are useless to you. That is, if you have read my characterization and think “the person who wrote this can NOT practice Stoicism correctly because he is misunderstanding something crucial about it” I rest my case and I hope you will tweet a response to this piece (or, if you’ve subscribed, you will comment below) to which I may deferentially yield.
If you have no such debilitating critique, however, Onwards!
But before we proceed full speed, let’s take a break. Please allow me to return to this topic next time. Talk to you soon.