A Healthy Stoicism

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”- Matthew 6:25

I recently became familiar with some of the sayings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. In reading them I felt first that there was a great deal of truth to be found in them, and a useful counter to the manic tendencies the human mind often suffers as a result of its obsessive need to control and its failure to realize its own limits. However, reading it I also felt there were excesses to be found in the Stoic camp as well. This may be a result of temporal and cultural setting. If the modern mind suffers from an unstable romantic emotionality, perhaps the ancients often tended to suffer from a repressed sub-human rationality. In any case, the following is my attempt to sort out the basic message of Stoic philosophy, particularly as found in Epictetus, which I think is of universal import and power.

For the Stoic, the cause of suffering is the illusion of control over the world. What we have control over is our own internal reactions and feelings, what we do not have control over is everything else. As Epictetus said, “Up to us are perception, intention, desire, aversion, and in sum, whatever are our own doings.”  We must realize that we can control these only, and as such we will not become unduly invested in things that are beyond our control and instead focus on what can truly be done by us. Nothing outside of us actually harms us, rather it is our own internal response to what happens outside of us that causes us pain. Epictetus again put it well, “Remember that it is not the man who curses you or the man who hits you that insults you, but the idea you have of them that insults you.” An objection could be posed to this, that it is unclear that this categorization of what is within our control and what is beyond our control is accurate. For instance, the internal mental processes of a person who suffers from a mental illness may not be in that person’s control at all. Even for a healthy person, however, these processes are often beyond our total dominance. Similarly, it is true that “body, property, reputation, political office” are beyond our absolute control, but it is not true that we have no power to influence the relationship these things have with us. Our control of them may stop short of absolute, but neither is it non-existent. In regards to the second objection, it can be countered that we may exert a certain influence over external events, but this stops well short of what may be called control. As such, they are essentially beyond our control and so to place any sort of trust in them is foolish. The first objection is more challenging. It may be possible, however, to divide the mind into two categories. That part which we exercise control over, and that part which we do not. So in the case of a person who is mentally ill, they may not be able to control hallucinations they suffer or the hearing of voices, but they will be able to control how they react to these. Similarly, a person may have suicidal thoughts that they cannot control, but they can control how they react. As such, these sorts of involuntary mental movements can be thought of as being outside of us in an absolute sense, as they do not comprise who we are. Therefore, a person can choose to not be upset by being cursed by another man, and can also choose not to be disturbed by morbid thoughts that assault the mind.

A more difficult problem still is the question of desires. Epictetus names them as things that we can control. However, it is not clear that this is true. Perhaps we can sometimes discipline ourselves to desire certain things and not others. However, we may fail in this effort or only partially succeed. If we are staking our happiness on this, isn’t it true that we could easily become unhappy? Perhaps the solution here is simply to not expect to have complete control over one’s desires, but only to have partial control. Then when we cannot control what we want we will not be dismayed. Similarly, we should not expect to gain peace or happiness through fulfilling our desires. As Seneca pointed out, the rich experience great pain through losing money just as the poor do through never having it “we must consider how much less the pain is not to have money than to lose it.” In this instance for Seneca, then, fulfilling a desire leads to even greater unhappiness. Furthermore, it may be true that we cannot entirely master our desires, but we can certainly exercise significantly more control over them than we can over the external world. Perhaps this limited control that we have over desire is why Epictetus thought that when a person begins to discipline themselves, they must begin by destroying desire altogether.

Desire properly ordered seems to an extent in this system to be based around hedging your bets. You must choose to desire things that you will not lose. This seems to be expressed as desiring certain types of things in general. As Epictetus said, “If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being. Then if they die you will not be upset.” Furthermore, if you do lose something you desire you should be careful to think of it in certain ways so as to maintain peace of mind, “Never say about anything that you have ‘lost it,’ but that you have ‘given it back.'” It should be asked at this point whether so heavily insulating oneself from the world is possible or desirable. Especially in regards to a person’s family, it could be granted that insulating oneself in this way will minimize pain, while pointing out that it will also minimize the happiness that a person draws from a wife and children. As such, the person practicing this philosophy runs the risk of missing out on what is best in life out of fear of being hurt. Nevertheless, there does seem to be something true about this in general. How many people live lives of morbid sentimentality, entrapped in attachment to people or things that have passed beyond recall? Perhaps one should not totally withdraw from attachment as Epictetus seems to think, however, it does seem that placing a robust distance between ourselves and our delusion that we can claim ownership to anything in this life is something that is desperately needed. As Epictetus said, “If you want your children and your wife and friends to live forever, you are a fool; for you want what is not up to you to be up to you, and what is not yours to be yours.”

Much of Epictetus’ style of Stoicism seems to be based around simply living an intentional and deliberate life. As such, he gives advice like, “Laugh seldom and about few things and with restraint.” However, he also gives advice concerning how one should choose their work, “In every work examine the things that have to be done first and what is to follow, and only then get started on it.” This bit of lifestyle advice seems to be more immediately connected with his philosophy than the previous one does, as it fits in with his notion that a person should prepare themselves for negative eventualities so as not to be made unhappy by them. As such, he here advises that a person should look into the entirety of what may be involved in a career and be okay with it before embarking on it. Why a person should not laugh frequently is less clear, nor is it explicit why he thinks that this philosophy implies that one should “Partake…only as far as bare need goes,” or why you should “avoid raising laughter.” However, it seems probable that the reason things broadly considered enjoyable or fun are to be avoided is because they can easily cause us to fall into depending on external things for our happiness. Or, perhaps more specifically, the type of pleasant things he warns against are the kinds of things one can easily become heavily invested in. While the greatest state to be in is to desire nothing, it is acceptable to desire things in a sort of subdued indifferent manner, realizing that you have limited control over what occurs. It is not clear why he thinks that things like food and laughter cannot be had in a similar way. Indeed, even when Epictetus talks about indulging in pleasure, he casts in the context of weighing whether the guilt which will follow is worth it. This, however, seems to be something that would be unphilosophical according to his reckoning. If a person has disciplined their internal reactions, they surely should not be plagued by self accusation. As such, while it makes sense to think of a person in the process of training in Stoic ideas to choose not to indulge, it seems that a person should in general be able to enjoy things that are good without being unphilosophical so long as they keep their attitude right. Indeed, it must be wondered if such an attitude of self-denial is healthy. Epictetus seems to want people to live lives of loneliness and asceticism. While this may be a valid lifestyle choice for some, it seems wrong to assume one cannot live rationally apart form it.

The question must be raised, then, as to whether the adoption of this kind of Stoicism would cause a person to become less human than they ought to be. It seems plausible that a person could easily make themselves into a sort of unfeeling robot, subject neither to pain nor happiness. As a person gives up their various desires for things and their expectations, isn’t there a point where they become a minimalist shell of what they should be? In that sense there does seem to be something cowardly about Stoicism, at least in so far as it tends towards a kind of anti-social indifferent sub-humanity based around fear of being hurt. While there may not have to, there does seem to be an element of this in Epictetus’ ideas, as he said of the person who has made progress, “He has purged himself of all desire…he guards against himself as against an enemy lying in wait.” Indeed, this guarding against desire extends not only to oneself, but to others as well. As Seneca said, “as in the time of pestilence, we must be careful lest we sit next to those already seized and burning with the disease…so, in choosing the character of our friends we must endeavor to choose those who are least impure.” As with much that we find in Stoicism, these principles seem true to a certain degree and in certain circumstances. It does in fact appear true that it is our ideas concerning things, and not the things themselves which cause us to be unhappy. As such, it would be fair to say that the things in themselves are not horrible or frightful, just what we think concerning them. Similarly, it is obvious that the vast majority of things which occur outside of our own mental processes are beyond our control, nevertheless human beings seem to have a manic need to control their surroundings. While we may not have complete autonomy even here, it seems true in general that the thing we have the most control over is our reactions, and if we discipline these not to expect control of the outside world, or generate upsetting ideas about things, this would undoubtedly contribute to mental peace and wellbeing. As such, these desires should perhaps be guarded, but perhaps not to the degree you would guard an enemy, for it is still good to desire many things. So in regard to the Stoic asceticism, a more moderate version can be cast. The Stoic idea in general seems not to be simply to deny oneself in order to suffer, but rather to train the desires to enjoy little so that we cannot be made unhappy by the loss of much. As Seneca said, “poverty itself can change itself into wealth if economy is called to its assistance.” Therefore, it seems reasonable that we could, in harmony with Stoic principles, train our minds to not desire the constant fulfillment of every want, while also living a life where we take pleasures indifferently. It may be true that times of ascetic practice are necessary to fully make this training into a reality, but it does not seem that total monkish denial is necessary to living a philosophical life.

Indeed, there seems to be something basically unrealistic about the notion that it is better to have no interest in what happens around us at all. There are many good things about the world, and while we should not allow ourselves to become irrational concerning them, neither should we totally deny them. Epictetus said, “Remember that you are an actor in a drama such as the playwright wishes it to be. If he wants it short, it will be short; if long, long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even that capably; or a lame man, or a ruler, or a private person. For this is yours, to play the assigned role well. Casting is the business of another.” One thing at least we must desire, then, to play our role well. How, though, can we do this without being in some relation to the outside world? The role of our lives is inherently something in relation to what is outside us, and it seems clear to me that at least to some extent we must desire the good beyond us to play our role well. However, we should also take the advice of the Stoics to heart, that our only concern should be with our part. We have no control or say over most of what happens beyond ourselves, so investing our happiness in this is irrational.

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2 thoughts on “A Healthy Stoicism

  1. “It seems plausible that a person could easily make themselves into a sort of unfeeling robot, subject neither to pain nor happiness.”

    Apatheia (detachment) looks unfeeling to the attached person. The problem you haven’t faced is that it might be impossible to judge the Stoic sage without becoming a Stoic sage. The problem is similar to Buddhist enlightenment or Christian sainthood. The Saint looks crazy for allowing himself to be tortured and killed for Christ — “looks crazy” to non-saints. Other saints see the saintly behavior as perfectly sane!

    Enlightenment might seem irrational to the non-enlightened — why would I contemplate for four years the sound of one hand clapping or sit in silence when I could be pursuing a meaningful and full life? But to fellow bodhisatvas this course of inaction makes perfect sense.

    The Stoic sage cannot be judged by the normal standard of “plausibility” you are applying. He can rightly (without mere ad hominem) point out that you do not have apatheia, so your opinion of his apatheia doesn’t count.

    I don’t think this problem is easily solvable.

    One must either be convinced that attachment (pathos) is a horror show and completely despair of the possibility of finding happiness through “normal human feeling” or else one must simply trust the sage, not *knowing* but *trusting* that the state of apatheia is not “robotic” but truly human.

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  2. That’s a fair point. I suppose I am proceeding with the assumption that what the Stoics are saying is meant to be understood along the normal rationalistic way we approach propositional claims. That may not be the only way to read it, but I do take it that it can be read in that way. For instance, I was discussing Stoicism with Dr. Peterson and she pointed to an instance where parents of a child that was born with a fatal disease such that it could only survive for hours upon birth said that they were aware that if they chose they could not become attached to the child and thereby avoid pain, but instead consciously chose to experience the pain of losing their child rather than choosing not to love it and be attached to it. To me, that sounds a lot like Epictetus’s “If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being. Then if they die you will not be upset.” So the reading of the the Stoics I had in mind is along the lines of an application of this sort of attitude in one’s entire life, so that you discipline yourself in such a way that you can choose which things you will allow to harm you and which you will not. By doing that you can live more rationally by refusing to care about things you cannot control. So my general point is I think Epictetus may be applying this principle too strictly, such that even his own family cannot cause him pain. That, however, is mainly just because I have a compulsive need to criticize. Epictetus actually blew my mind.

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