What can the Stoics do for us?

Stoicism has become a popular philosophy in recent years, and the Stoic philosophers truly have a lot to teach us. But should we take on board all that they have to say or should we cherry pick only the parts that fit in with our modern worldview? This article was published in The Philosophers’ Magazine, issue 49, 2nd quarter 2010.

Stoicism is not short of fans these days. Apart from cropping up in a number of books on popular philosophy, it is not infrequent to come across their ideas in all sorts of mainstream publications – The Guardian, Prospect, Psychologies, not to mention The Philosophers’ Magazine. This is not too surprising: especially the later texts by Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – burst with wonderfully apt advice on how to live. Far from the abstractions of some moral philosophy, which often gives little assistance on how to lead a good life, Stoic authors wrote about daily concerns, and so gained lasting relevance for many people.

Yet, if you started delving into Stoic literature, you might find some of the advice repugnant, even shocking. In Epictetus, for instance, you would find this exhortation: ‘If you kiss your child, or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you are kissing; and then you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.’ As for Marcus Aurelius, you would be told that sex should be thought of as ‘something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.’ Is Stoicism a life-affirming philosophy that can truly help us to live better lives in the modern world or a fiercely radical perspective, intriguing but too remote and demanding to have any real relevance to our daily conduct? Or both?

Stoicism is a complex philosophy in which ethics was an integral part of a tightly woven system that also included logic and what they called physics but is clearly more what we would now call metaphysics. John Sellars, senior philosophy lecturer and author of Stoicism and The Art of Living, explains that Stoic physics involved the idea of a ‘divine rational mind that pervades all of nature,1 which is the soul of the world, and which all our individual souls are fragments of. A lot of Stoic arguments about how we should respond to fate, and particularly bad fortune, is predicated on that thought that there is this divine providential mind organising the whole process.’

These metaphysical views have ethical consequences. Our bodies and possessions are mere matter, but our power of rational choice partakes of divine rationality. This is what marks humans apart from other creatures, and it is the only thing that should be valued unconditionally. In Epictetus’ stark formulation, ‘In our own power are choice and all actions dependent on choice; not in our power, the body, the parts of the body, property, parents, brothers, children, country, and, in short, all with whom we associate. Where, then, shall we place the good? To what class of things shall we apply it? To that of things that are in our own power.’

If we wished to live a Stoic life, therefore, we would need to concentrate on exercising rational choice, which is the only thing that is truly up to us, and learn to challenge any initial judgements that mislead us with the appearance of value. The emotions and desires stirred in us by the things we mistakenly regard as valuable in life are avoidable disturbances and impediments to leading the rational life, and should be eradicated.2 We should constantly remind ourselves that anything befalling us that does not pertain to the sphere of choice and action is not in our power, so we should follow our destiny without complaint. Like a dog tied to a cart, in Epictetus’ analogy, we can either choose to trot behind it willingly or be dragged kicking and screaming.

We would still be allowed to pursue our natural inclinations to some extent, however, since the Stoics attributed a degree of value to what they called ‘preferred indifferents’ – things we would rather have than not. Richard Sorabji, professor emeritus of philosophy and author of Emotion and Peace of Mind among many other books, points out that ‘by Antipater’s time [2nd century BCE] they are saying that it is your duty to do everything in your power to secure these natural objectives, for yourself and for other people.’ But our primary allegiance must always be to our rationality. Epictetus reminds us that ‘the good is thus preferred above every form of relationship. My father is nothing to me, only the good. – Are you so hard-hearted? – Such is my nature, and such is the coin which god has given me.’ No wonder the Stoic sage (sophos) was a more or less mythical figure.

So what are the problems with adopting Stoicism as a modern philosophy of life? One worry is that a lot of its foundational beliefs, such as the ideas that our rationality is a fragment of the divine, or that emotions are disturbances created by false attributions of value, clash with what we in fact know about the world. Therefore any advice based on them might be misguided. Recent findings in neuroscience, for instance, show that far from always being a hindrance to reason, emotions are an integral part of it. We evolved to have emotions for good reason, and without them it is hard to navigate one’s way through life. Of course emotions can also get us into trouble, and frequently they do, but the answer is most certainly not to eradicate them (even if that were possible).

The Stoic theory of value has been explicitly rejected by two leading academics in the field, Martha Nussbaum and Richard Sorabji. When I talk to Sorabji he soon mentions the ‘unacceptable face of Stoicism’, which he steers clear of. I ask him whether he agrees with Epictetus’ advice about aiming not to be distressed when bereaved, and he says ‘No, it’s best to be absolutely shattered, because the rest of your life would otherwise have been spent in this detached way, always thinking “I’m kissing a mortal”. It can’t be good. How could it be a good life to spend most of it detached from the people you’re closest to just so that you don’t suffer some years of distress at some point? That can’t be a sensible equation.’ He acknowledges that disowning this aspect of Stoic doctrine leaves him as vulnerable as anyone else to grief, ‘but there’s an even bigger price I would pay if I did buy it’, he says.

We have also learned from studies in psychology that our awareness of and control over our own attitudes, motives and intentions is much more limited than we might have hoped, and that context plays a large part in influencing our actions. It is reasonable to believe that we have a certain amount of control, and that this can be increased, but it would be foolish to convince ourselves that we are endowed with anything like full rationality and complete freedom to choose how to respond to things. In fact, our freedom may be fairly limited.

Given all this, could anybody nowadays really accept Stoicism as a whole system? Actually, yes. Keith Seddon, director of the Stoic Foundation and author of Stoic Serenity, is a practising Stoic. Nor is he the only one, as there seems to be a thriving Stoic community to be found online, with groups like the New Stoa and the International Stoic Forum. What Seddon discovered in Stoicism seemed to him to chime with a kind of mystical experience he had at 19: ‘when I was looking up at the trees I had for those few minutes an apprehension of everything, and what that meant was simply that everything is connected together.’ So when he read what the Stoics had to say about ‘chains of cause and effect, and how fate is the complex pattern of cause and effect right through the entire history of the world, encompassing everything that happens’, he could connect these theories with the experience he’d had. Furthermore, what he thought he apprehended was that ‘the connections themselves constituted the rational agency that creates the whole thing’.

For Seddon, being a Stoic means emphasising ‘the way you do things, not what you do’. He makes a ‘distinction between how you are as an agent and what you do in terms of your undertakings. Things can happen that interfere with your doing the thing, but it’s doing the thing it’s interfering with, not you as the rational agent, because what you are as a rational agent is independent of what you do.’ Our projects can be ruined by external circumstances, we ‘don’t have control necessarily over things – “let’s hope for the best” is really the most you can say – but that doesn’t affect the agent that you are, which is separate from the things you do’, he says. What we then need to do is to fulfill the roles that are thrown in our way to the best of our ability. In his case, one of the roles that have been thrown in his way is that of carer of his wife, who is disabled.

He even accepts the theory of value, saying that ‘if you can accept the general principle that the only good thing is virtue or behaving excellently or trying to behave excellently and the only bad thing is being pressured into vice of one sort or another – being dishonest, being unkind, selfish – then if somebody dies, even if they’re close to me, can’t actually make me do anything bad, so in that sense I’m safe. Something’s happened that I don’t want to happen, that I prefer not to happen. The theory says that I shouldn’t go so far as to say it’s actually a bad thing.’

Perhaps it’s a question of emphasising certain things and toning down others. And, of course, of choosing our Stoics. With later Stoics, Sorabji tells me, the focus shifts from the sage, who couldn’t do anything wrong, to imperfect beings like you and me. Panaetius, for instance, ‘said “we Stoics have been talking about what the ideal person would look like, and we’ve been criticised because there hasn’t been an ideal person, so let’s talk about ordinary people – if they have a little bit of good character, wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Because it was explicitly said up to that point, if you’re not totally virtuous you’re totally vicious.’ But from the late 2nd century BCE there’s ‘more and more attention to the idea that you may have made a little progress towards having a good character. And that makes a wonderful difference, because it makes Stoicism ‘an ethical philosophy which taps you on the shoulder. And what other ethical system can claim that?’ A good example is that of Seneca’s letters, which address questions that are bound to have concerned most of us at some point.

Sellars points out that certainly by the time of Marcus Aurelius there is less reliance on a providential plan being in place and more emphasis on the idea that ‘we should simply accept by virtue of us being finite beings that some things are going to be out of our control, and our ethical task is to find a way of dealing with those things in a positive way.’ So Marcus stresses ‘his finite and limited status within the world, the lack of power and control he has over things, the extent to which he finds himself thrown into a situation that wasn’t of his choosing and now he simply has to decide how best to act and how to do best by the situation and by himself given the circumstances.’

But if we want to avail ourselves of the wealth of advice in Stoicism while hanging on to what we know about the world our best bet may be a ‘pick and choose’ approach. This was endorsed by the Stoics themselves, says Sorabji. ‘The third and most famous of the early Stoics, Chrysippus’, for instance, ‘said he was perfectly willing to help people with their emotions even if they didn’t share the Stoic beliefs.’ And that’s how Sorabji uses Stoic philosophy too: ‘rather eclectically – I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.’

And yet, this approach is not entirely unproblematic either. First of all we need to decide what to choose and on what grounds, if we have given up the metaphysical foundations. According to Sorabji that is not so difficult: ‘Try it. It takes a bit of time to get into a habit, perhaps. But try it out.’ The claim that we can find useful advice in Seneca’s letters, for instance, is easily tested by reading Seneca’s letters. And ‘although I’m taking only a modest part of Stoicism, it’s not modest in its effects. I think it has wonderful effects.’ Agreed. But it can be difficult to know what advice to appropriate and what to reject unless we have some conception of the good life. If we haven’t thought this through, we might end up with the wrong bits of advice.

If, for instance, we have accepted the advice to put inner tranquillity above all else, we might be tempted to avoid getting emotionally close to people for fear of future suffering. This may not be the best plan if we wish to have a fulfilling life, as Sorabji clearly stated, as it could lead to an impoverished life narrowly focused on avoiding pain. Yes, tranquillity is a good thing. But it should not necessarily trump all other values. So when we follow Stoic advice we need to be at least aware of the danger of smuggling in more Stoic metaphysics than we had bargained for. From everything we know about psychology it is understanding and managing emotions, not eradicating them, that is more likely to help us to live a good life.

Another danger, ever-present in popular references to Stoicism, is that of pruning so much that its spirit is lost or subverted. For example, Epictetus’ view that ‘it is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things’ is often quoted as the foundation on which CBT (Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy) and REBT (Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy) are built. It is true that Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, respective founders of these therapies, were influenced by Stoic ideas. And there is certainly an overlap, if only in the basic idea that ‘to have an emotional response to something does require a cognitive process’, as Seddon says. ‘There is a family resemblance’, comments John Sellars, adding that ‘ultimately everyone’s problems are the product of the way in which they think about themselves and the world, and if they analyse their judgements, which they can do through philosophy or [some] form of psychotherapy, then they can make different judgements which will literally transform the way in which they interact with the world, the values they have, the emotions they have, everything.’

But it would be misleading to overstate the similarities. CBT and REBT aim at helping people to overcome troublesome emotions by modifying their beliefs. The ultimate goal is that of relieving clients’ distress. Like most other modern psychotherapies, they are hands-off about what clients should value in life. Stoicism, on the other hand, was a radical philosophy that aimed at restructuring the aspiring Stoic’s worldview. It was indeed conceived of as a kind of therapy for the soul, but like other forms of ancient therapy it was ‘didactic and moralistic’. It is in a way ironic to use Stoic ideas, which drastically redefined the good life, in the service of a conventional notion of happiness, of an unexamined ‘feeling good’.

One thing is not in doubt, however, and that is that there is indeed a lot of useful advice to be found in the Stoic literature, which can assist us to live better if we are a bit discriminating. So what might the Stoics be especially well placed to help us with?

Three things, says Sorabji. One is their ‘advice about how not to get emotionally worked up completely needlessly about everyday things. I accept that’s a small part of what they thought about emotions, but they would have approved, I think. The second area is the idea of thinking about who you are and who you want to be in making decisions in life. The third area is [what they say regarding] our weaknesses and foibles. I haven’t found any ethics, ancient or modern, that’s as good as that. They are only three little patches of Stoicism, but they are terribly important. Their importance is much greater than the proportion they form of what Stoicism is.’

For Seddon, on the other hand, ‘the main thing is to follow Epictetus’ teaching, which is to be aware of what is external and what is internal, so it’s not what happens that matters, it’s how I engage with what happens that matters. Another way of saying that is: there’s a power of agency that I have that is what I am, and then I have my projects; circumstances and other people can harm my undertakings but they can’t harm me. That’s something that you can begin to maintain as a constant mindfulness in the course of doing things.’ So if you’re frightened of something, for example, you might think to yourself, ‘that’s external to me, it’s not in my control, I’ll just do what I have to do to be a good person, and that’s the best I can ever do.’

Most of us could probably benefit from adopting Stoic perspectives like questioning what is really valuable in life, reminding ourselves that a lot of the things we commonly worry about are not that important; the habit of scrutinising our emotions, remembering that we can have a degree of influence on how we feel by changing how we think; and accepting that much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.

Particularly useful is the advice to keep the fragility of life at the front of our mind. The Stoics have bequeathed us several exercises for this purpose, as one of their central methods was that of anticipating future disasters – a practice intriguingly divergent from the currently ubiquitous advice to be optimistic. Seneca for instance advises ‘to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.’ While the traditional aim of the exercise was to remind ourselves that the things that could be taken away from us (which is everything apart from reason) should mean nothing to us, we could use it instead to help us to keep a sense of perspective and appreciate what we have (although we should bear in mind that unless this is done in the right spirit it could lead to anxiety and depression rather than tranquillity).

At the same time, it would probably not make for a good life to adopt the view that emotions are disturbances to be eradicated, or that nothing outside our control should be valued, or that perfect rationality is an achievable goal. As Sorabji recognises, when ‘you’re picking and choosing, inevitably there is this distortion – quite a serious distortion. You could say I wasn’t a Stoic, because I believe in emotion.’ ‘It’s good to have historical understanding at the same time’, he adds.

And that is the main point. It’s fine to pick and choose so long as we do our homework and think through what we are taking, what we are leaving and why. If we don’t, and are not aware that taking on too much Stoicism may not be good for our flourishing, we could end up with some seriously bad advice about how to run our lives.