Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Limits of Stoicism

Stoicism is such an attractive philosophy. How can anyone object to being calm in the face of adversity, undisturbed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? It is not only personally promising, but also appealling in others, because we all admire someone with grace under pressure, someone who is always cool, calm, and collected.

I have always admired stoicism and aspired to be more stoic myself (without much success, I admit).  There seems something fundamentally wrong about railing against fate, whether you are religious or not.  If you are, surely God knows better than you; if not, the actions of inanimate forces are not worthy of your anger.  I think of the line from "The Color of Money," when Paul Newman's opponent loses and says, "I didn't deserve that."  Paul Newman just asks, "Is this your first tournament, Duke?"  What is the point of saying you didn't "deserve" to lose a pool game or to miss a particular shot?  You think the balls owed it to you to go somewhere other than where you hit them?

This seems especially relevant in the modern world, where so many people think they are owed something for nothing.  Criminals sue their own victimsLottery winners continue to collect welfare.  A woman who won $1 million said, "I thought that they would cut me off, but since they didn't, I thought maybe it was okay because I'm not working...It's just hard, you know. I'm struggling."  These are not the kind of people you can expect to deal well with adversity, and, although they are extreme examples, they are representative of millions of people who don't mind gaming the system because they think their lives are hard.

A certain amount of stoicism is a pre-requisite for republican government, I think.  But it is also an attractive path to a quiet mind.  Who likes being upset?  With this in mind, when I finally got around to reading "The Enchiridion" recently, I was swept off my feet with its powerful opening:

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammelled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another's is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another's is indeed another's, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.

What could be more liberating than thinking that everything that happens to us is "slavish," "weak," and "servile"?  Only the things that we do -- our reactions -- are free.

The thing that concerns me about stoicism is not so much the idea nor how it has been implemented, but the logical conclusions which one can draw from its premises.  By dividing things into mental/spiritual (good, in our control) and material (bad, out of our control), it seems to set up a Manichaeanism in which the only thing to do is to withdraw into the spiritual realm.  Of course, unlike Machiaeans or Cathars, stoics do not believe material things to be evil; but since they are "weak" and "servile," it would seem pointless to devote any attention to them.

I am reminded of a scene from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (which I may be misremembering and I don't have a copy of it handy) in which the author goes into a state of pure abstraction, sitting on the floor meditating for many hours, not bothering to get up to relieve himself.  How could a stoic object to this?  He is exhibiting concern only for the things that he can control, and not for external things.  And yet, somehow I find it profoundly disturbing that the idea of a philosophy could be to sit in one's own urine in contemplation.

I should clarify that I'm not saying stoics would approve of this outcome, but I think their premises (or at least, those in the Enchiridion) would require them logically to approve it.  (Unless, to be sure, there is some other aspect of stoicism that I am not understanding -- which is entirely possible.)  Therefore, while I continue to admire the stoic ideal and to try not to be moved unduly by external things, I can't accept stoicism as a complete philosophy.  I am a man, not an angel, and the material world is real and, for better or worse, not meaningless to me.  I pray I would accept whatever happens to me in it, but I can't agree that everything external is unimportant.


  1. Hey man years later. Awesome that you have an interest in stoicism as I think it's a worthy philosophy to absorb even just a little.

    You should try reading meditations by Marcus Aurelius if you can. He was my introduction to Stoicism and for me, my central inspiration.

    He wrote that it is important to also fulfil ones duty to society even if there are things out of our control. Everyone has a part to play in the betterment of the community.

    I myself think that this is a much more practical approach to stoicism seeing as we have been given certain abilities by nature. To sit as a tree would go against our natural purpose which is to help one another and find work in something we are suited to.

    All the best in life my fellow philosopher if you ever return here and read this post.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I have Marcus Aurelius on my reading list and I'm on an ancient philosophy kick right now, so I hope to get to it soon.