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The Soul Destroying Philosophy of Stoicism
“I have…grown increasingly dissatisfied (make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the so-called New Atheists,” writes philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. But wanting a philosophy to guide his life, and unwilling to embrace religion, what were his options?
Buddhism? That was “a bit too mystical.” Secular humanism? “[I]t is too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the result that—despite the best efforts of its supporters—it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning.”
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Pigliucci, like many other secular thinkers over the last decade, found the solution in Stoicism. “[I]n Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly, is eminently practical.”
The fatal flaw of the New Atheist movement was that it did not have a positive philosophic agenda—above all, it did not offer a positive moral code. Human beings need guidance—what modern Stoic William B. Irvine calls “a plan for living.” If you take away from people the only source of guidance they know, you have to have something superior to offer in its place.
But Stoicism is not the solution to religion—it is a quasi-religious philosophy that trains us to abandon our dedication to our values and surrender control over our lives. It is a philosophy for those who fear living on earth.
Stoicism’s ugly conception of happiness
Stoics believe that your ultimate aim in life is happiness. What is happiness? It’s not an intense, burning joy in existence but tranquility or what Zeno called “a smooth flow of life.” Life, according to Stoics, is filled with suffering. The question for them is: How should you conduct yourself in order to achieve tranquility in the face of suffering?
Above all, by distinguishing between what you can control and what you can’t. What you can control is your mind: your own thoughts and your own emotions. Everything else—your health, your wealth, your personal relationships—is outside of your control.
Your focus should therefore be on using your mind to achieve a virtuous character. Nature and other people can rob you of your health, your fortune, your loved ones—but you have full control over your moral character. You can always practice courage, temperance, justice, wisdom. As a result, it is only your moral character that is genuinely good or bad.
What should be your attitude toward everything else? To your job, your home, your spouse, your children, and to every other “external”? Indifference. “If I cherish my body,” says Epictetus, “I make a slave of myself, if I cherish my property, I make a slave of myself.” (Discourses, I 25)
To be sure, you should pursue worldly values—pursuing them in the right way is how you develop and demonstrate virtue. But you shouldn’t invest yourself in them. External values are “preferred indifferents.” They are preferred because you ought to pursue them; they are indifferent because you are no better off if you achieve them and no worse off if you lose them. In neither case do they impact the state of the only thing that matters for tranquility—your soul. As Epictetus explains:
Every day you should put the ideas in action that protect against attachment to externals such as individual people, places or institutions—even your own body. Remember the law of God and keep it constantly in view: look to your own means, leave everything that isn’t yours alone. Make use of what material advantages you have, don’t regret the ones you were not allowed. If any of them are recalled, let go of them willingly, grateful for the time you had to enjoy them—unless you want to be like a child crying for her nurse or mother. After all, what difference does it make what a person is enslaved to, and cannot live without? (Discourses, II 16)
In short, by learning to control your emotions so that you do not value things you cannot control, you can achieve a virtuous character—and therefore be happy regardless of the external conditions of your life. “For virtue is so great a good,” says Seneca, “that it is not affected by such insignificant assaults upon it as shortness of life, pain and the various bodily vexations.”
The true sage can watch his family be butchered in front of his eyes and respond no differently than if he had welcomed a new child into the world. In either case, his own moral character is not affected.
Stoicism’s cowardly approach to values
To achieve this zombie-like state, the Stoics urge us to keep our values at arm’s length. Only then can we shield ourselves from the pain of failure and loss. How do we keep our values at arm’s length?
Modern Stoic Nancy Sherman councils us to take a provisional attitude toward our values: “Things may not work out. Always think of what you want as tentative.” (Stoic Wisdom, 64)
Marcus Aurelius actively used thought exercises to ensure that he didn’t value his values “to the point of being troubled if you should lose them”:
Just as when meat or other foods are set before us we think, this is a dead fish, a dead bird or pig; and also, this fine wine is only the juice of a bunch of grapes, this purple-edged robe just sheep’s wool dyed in a bit of blood from a shellfish; or of sex, that it is only rubbing private parts together followed by a spasmic discharge—in the same way our impressions grab actual events and permeate them, so we see them as they really are. (Meditations)
Epictetus recommended his own thought exercise for instilling the conviction that all values are dispensable:
Those are the reflections you should recur to morning and night. Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost—things such as a jug or a glass—and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; then to yourself, your body, the body’s parts, your children, your siblings and your wife. Look on every side and mentally discard them. Purify your thoughts, in case of an attachment or devotion to something that doesn’t belong to you and will hurt to have wrenched away. (Discourses, IV 1)
This is cowardice. It is the refusal to value passionately because you don’t have the courage to face failure or the strength to cope with it. In her earliest journals, Ayn Rand saw this attitude toward values as widespread—and disgraceful.
Most people lack [the capacity for] reverence and "taking things seriously." They do not hold anything to be very serious or profound. There is nothing that is sacred or immensely important to them. There is nothing—no idea, object, work, or person—that can inspire them with a profound, intense, and all-absorbing passion that reaches to the roots of their souls. They do not know how to value or desire. They cannot give themselves entirely to anything. There is nothing absolute about them. They take all things lightly, easily, pleasantly—almost indifferently, in that they can have it or not, they do not claim it as their absolute necessity. (The Journals of Ayn Rand, 28)
Stoics preach the virtue of courage, but they have no clue what it means. Real courage is not learning to see your romantic partner as a dispensable glass or a jug—but as an irreplaceable value worth fully investing yourself in even though that makes you vulnerable to loss. It’s giving everything you have to build a business even though the odds of success are daunting. It’s loving your life—even if achieving that life exposes you to failure, loss, and pain. It’s regarding the achievement of joy as more important than failure, loss, and pain.
“Oh, that’s easy to say for you—a 21st century American. But if you were unjustly imprisoned or enslaved…”
Bullshit. Even in the worst of times, our devotion to values doesn’t weaken us—it’s what gives us strength. Watch The Shawshank Redemption. Read The Diary of Anne Frank. Read Man’s Search for Meaning. Read Ayn Rand’s We The Living. What keeps the human spirit alive isn’t tranquilizing yourself against suffering but hope and the relentless commitment to making one’s hoped for future real.
But Stoics don’t believe in hope: they believe in passive resignation.
Stoicism’s submissive approach to life
The Stoics hold that what we should be concerned with is what’s in our control, which essentially comes down to our judgments and the emotions those judgments generate. According to Epictetus:
We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status—in a word, anything not in our power to control. The former are naturally free, unconstrained and unimpeded, while the latter are frail, inferior, subject to restraint—and none of our affair. (Enchiridion, 1:1-2)
But this radically minimizes what human beings can control.
Human beings have free will: we have full, direct, volitional control over the operation of our own mind. The full control you exercise over your own mind does not give you total control over your life—the Stoics are right about that—but it does give you fundamental control.
Free will gives you the power to set long-range goals, accumulate knowledge relevant to your goals, and move purposefully toward your goals, even in the face of obstacles. You can try to predict and prepare for chance events. When you encounter good luck, you can act to capitalize on it. When you encounter bad luck, you can search for another route to your goal, sometimes even turning negatives into positives. Free will is your ongoing ability to set (and change) your life course, and to continually engage in learning so you can develop new and better strategies for moving from where you are to where you want to be.
For example, when I started working as a freelance writer, I had no illusions that my success was under my total control. I couldn’t control the economy or whether other people would pay me for my services. But I was able to take an active role in creating the future I wanted. I was able to reach out to potential clients, and when I received rejections, to mine them for lessons. When I did win clients, I was in control of how I performed, and by meeting and surpassing their expectations I could ask for referrals and further expand my client base. That’s what agency looks like.
No, not everything is in your control. Above all, you can’t control the nature of nature. You can’t wish away the law of gravity, you can’t wish away the fact that life is finite, you can’t wish away the fact that you must exert effort to get what you want and that success is never guaranteed.
The proper attitude toward nature is to serenely accept it—and then use your knowledge to ambitiously command it. Take COVID-19. That disease was a fact—not something we could wish out of existence. Thankfully, there were many scientists who accepted the fact of COVID-19, worked to understand its nature, and used that knowledge to engineer the vaccines and treatments that helped end the pandemic. They obeyed the facts of reality—and were able to command nature on a grand scale.
What would the Stoics have us do? Not simply accept the facts, but surrender to fate. Epictetus puts it this way:
I, personally, was never kept from something I wanted, nor had forced upon me something I was opposed to. How did I manage it? I submitted my will to God. He wants me to be sick—well, then, so do I. He wants me to choose something. Then I choose it. He wants me to desire something, I desire it. He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn’t want me to get it, and I concur. Thus I even assent to death and torture. (Discourses, IV 1)
Contrast that attitude with a line from The Miracle Worker. Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan is told, “God may not have meant Helen to have the—eyes you speak of.” She answers: “I mean her to.” That is human greatness.
You should not submit to fate. But the reason Stoics counsel you to submit is because Stoics are determinists who deny that human beings can freely select between alternative courses. Though they make such a big deal between what you can control and what you can’t, on their view, you cannot control anything—even your judgments flow inexorably from nature and nurture. Telling a determinist to command nature is like telling a rock to roll uphill.
The Stoics are wrong. You have free will. You have the power of choice. Human choice is a limited power but an awesome power. We cannot wish disease out of existence—but we can create vaccines. We cannot will ourselves to fly—but we can create airplanes. We cannot pray our way to nourishment—but we can create farms, factories, and grocery stores. By emphasizing what we can’t control, Stoicism teaches us not to control what we can.
How life is to be loved
Pigliucci warns us not to confuse Stoicism with the popular caricature of the emotionally repressed robot.
In reality, Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion—rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.
The picture Pigliucci paints should be appealing. To achieve happiness, we do need to understand our emotions rather than repress them. We do need to achieve clarity about what we can control and what we can’t. We do need to recognize that happiness is impossible without a deep commitment to moral virtue.
But scratch beneath the surface, and Stoics teach us all the wrong lessons. They teach us to distance ourselves from the values that make happiness possible. They teach us to passively resign ourselves to things we have fundamental control over. And they teach us that virtues are, not principles for achieving values, but a consolation prize for surrendering success, achievement, and joy on earth.
Secular thinkers need a plan for living that gets these issues right. They need Effective Egoism.
3 Fun Things
“I’m very anti-Stoic. I think it’s a bad philosophy—a philosophy that’s harmful to people. And it amounts to trying to anesthetize yourself—to destroy the part of you that really cares about things.”
—Greg Salmieri, “What is Good and Why It Matters: Stoicism and Ayn Rand”
Stoic philosophy & The Modern Stoic movement. Yaron Brook interviews philosopher Aaron Smith about the deep problems of Stoicism and modern Stoicism.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
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