Self-Sufficiency and Human Flourishing

by Daniel A. Kaufman

It is no secret that my friend and colleague, Massimo Pigliucci, is a practicing modern Stoic.  Indeed, working within and promoting the modern Stoic form of life has become one of his chief projects, including a blog devoted exclusively to the topic – How To Be a Stoic – and a very well-received and popular book of the same name,  published by Basic Books.  Massimo and I have also done two video dialogues on the subject. (1)

It is also no secret that I have a number of problems with Stoicism as a philosophy of life, many of which I raised with Massimo in our most recent dialogue on How To Be a Stoic.  But there is one in particular that stands out for me and that is whether human flourishing is self-sufficient.  Massimo thinks it is.  I don’t.  But this is not just a disagreement between the two of us: it represents a fundamental difference between the Stoic understanding of flourishing and the Aristotelian one.

First, let’s be clear on what is meant by ‘human flourishing’.  The Greek term, for which this is our best translation, is ‘Eudaimonia’.  It is often translated as ‘happiness’, an unfortunate concession to readability that may have permanently compromised our understanding of the concept, even among those who are perfectly aware of the more literal translation, as Massimo certainly is.

‘Happiness’ in modern English indicates pleasure or good feeling and is entirely subjective: what makes one person happy may not do so for another.  Happiness in this sense is self-sufficient, insofar as I can always find the sunny side of something and thereby make myself feel good about it and about myself more generally.  If I have a mediocre tennis career or fail to succeed as a scholar or watch my marriage disintegrate into divorce, I may nonetheless be happy, if I am able to convince myself that “it’s the effort that counts, and I did my best” or “everything happens for a good reason” or some other such thing.

But Eudaimonia is not like this.  To have lived a Eudaimonic life is to have actually flourished; to have lived a life that is rightly characterized as excellent; as having been worth living, as Socrates would put it.  Eudaimonia is a normative concept, which means that unlike the modern concept of happiness, it is not subjective.  And given that the success and failure it imagines occur in the world and among other people and thus, depend on things other than oneself and one’s efforts, the Eudaimonic life cannot be self-sufficient.

Being an excellent tennis player depends in part on the quality of my opponents; succeeding in my marriage depends in part on the feelings and actions of my wife; and making it in my career depends on the judgments of journal editorial boards concerning my work, the financial health of my home institution, the interests and desires of the students who pursue degrees at Missouri State, and more.  To have flourished in one’s life would seem, at a minimum, to involve success in these sorts of activities and relationships – it is the flourishing of a human life, after all – and clearly, such success depends on variables beyond one’s own efforts, which include a certain level of material well-being, positive native endowments – whether in physical appearance, intelligence, or the like – and more generally, good luck.

Stoics reject this.  In particular, they reject the idea that success in the actual world, among actual people, is necessary for human flourishing.  Instead, they define ‘Eudaimonia’ so as only to indicate virtue, which is characterized in terms of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.  The question of whether one has flourished then, is entirely a matter of whether one has been wise, courageous, temperate, and just in the conduct of one’s life, and not whether in doing so, one has actually accomplished the things one set out to do.  For the Stoic, all those actual accomplishments and the external variables upon which they depend, are deemed “preferred indifferents,” meaning that while one might legitimately hope for them, they are irrelevant to one’s flourishing, and failing to have or accomplish them should be treated with “equanimity.”  The virtues themselves, which non-Stoics would say are valuable, in part precisely because they make success in one’s endeavors and relationships more likely, thereby become fetishized, in that they are torn from the context of their employment and treated as ends in themselves.

This is why Massimo can cite approvingly Cicero’s claim that for an archer, shooting at a target, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired” (2) or suggest that in dieting, I should be focused not on whether I’ve actually lost a certain amount of weight, which, obviously depends on various factors that I do not control, but on whether I’ve done my best, which does not. (3)

It is worth noting that in ordinary discourse, such statements are commonly offered as consolation in the face of failure.  “You did your best” is what one says to a kid, when his Little League team loses a game or to a friend who wasn’t chosen for a role in a play for which she auditioned.  The aim of such talk is to help the other person feel better after having failed.  It is not to suggest that they’ve actually won, when they’ve lost, or that succeeding just is trying your best.  Such claims would make no sense, given the nature of the endeavors involved: one engages in archery to hit targets, not to try and hit them; one diets in order to lose weight, not to try and lose it; one plays baseball games in order to win them, not try to win them; and one auditions for roles in plays to get those roles, not to try and get them.  Consequently, success in these endeavors cannot consist of trying to accomplish them, but only in the actual accomplishment of them.

And yet, this is precisely what the Stoic is telling us that a flourishing life is like: one in which a person has tried to do various things, not in which he has actually accomplished the things he has tried to do.  It is a very odd conception of excellence, and in truth, I don’t think it really is one.  Rather, what Stoicism describes is an effective way to be happy with one’s life, regardless of whether it is an excellent one or not, and in that sense it is a useful discipline that no one should dismiss.  But it is not an account of flourishing in any meaningful sense of the term, for flourishing, in both its technical and ordinary senses, clearly indicates actual success in some endeavor, not merely the earnest and diligent pursuit of it.

It is telling that Massimo’s main objection to Aristotelianism – according to which flourishing means that one actually has succeeded, as opposed to merely trying to – is that it is elitist and unfair, for it confirms my suspicion that rather than an account of Eudaimonia, what Stoicism really offers is consolation in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune.  After all, plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are real and true, which means that the point of saddling Aristotelianism with such labels isn’t to indicate that Aristotle is wrong or that the Stoics, whose philosophy is neither elitist nor unfair, are right.  Rather, it is to make the point that the Stoic philosophy is more agreeable, in that embracing it will make one feel better about oneself than if one follows the path set by Aristotle.  But though this may very well be true, it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not one has, in fact, flourished in the living of one’s life.

____

Those who study ancient civilization will distinguish the  Classical period of ancient Greece from the Hellenistic, the latter which, both in its arts and its philosophy, reflects a society in turmoil and decline.  The Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies-under-siege,” and I would argue that the chief indication of this is precisely their retreat into the self, of which the doctrine of “indifferents” is a very clear expression. The idea that flourishing is entirely self-sufficient reflects a siege mentality, broadly construed,  its purest expression, of course, being the monastic, cloistered life that emerges in the early Christian Middle Ages.

Such an outlook makes sense in times of social disintegration, in which it functions as a kind of existential self-defense program.   There was an appropriateness, then, to the development and adoption of these philosophies in the Hellenistic period or in the later days of Rome or in the Dark Ages.  In the contemporary world, such an outlook would make sense if one was living in Rwanda or Sierra Leone or Syria.   But it seems inappropriate – indeed, it seems rather weird – to adopt such a view of one’s life in a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world.  One can see the reason for refusing to invest oneself and one’s emotions too much in “externals” in a world in which a person is stalked by tragedy and has every reason to doubt whether he will ever enjoy tangible success in his life.  One reasonably adopts such a posture to protect oneself, in short, when one is in extremis.  But it is difficult to see why such a philosophy would be reasonable for modern, bourgeois Westerners, who decidedly are not in any such condition.

Notes

  1. http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/38586; http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/31411
  2. Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be a Stoic, (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 35.
  3. How to Be a Stoic, p. 37.

91 Comments »

  1. I actually think the Stoic’s approach is compelling in part *because* of the safe and thriving conditions of life in the modern industrialized world. There are so many choices and opportunities, and within our diverse society there are so many contradictory narratives about what constitutes success, that even if you narrow the definition of success to the concrete achievements and conditions of a person’s life it’s hard to know how to define what it means to be “flourishing”. After all, what does it mean to say that one has “actually flourished” or that any achievement or state can “rightly be described as excellent”. Rightly described by whom? In some ways it feels more consistent and viable to define success by levels of effort and satisfaction rather than achievement.

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  2. I don’t see this at all. The examples I gave — some of which, like the archer, derive directly from Massimo’s book — make it very clear what it is to actually succeed in something, rather than merely trying to. To succeed in shooting at a target is to hit the target, not to try and hit it. To succeed in tennis is to win matches, not try and win them. Etc.

    You may be more concerned with satisfaction than achievement, and that’s fine, but it is not a Eudaimonist worldview, but rather, a hedonic one, a la J.S. Mill.

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  3. Labnut:

    I couldn’t agree more, intermixing practices and theories (when coherent) is a sound means for achieving a flourishing life. I don’t know of any better way to achieve a flourishing life. Though, this is why I don’t see how Stoicism leads to the wrong conduct. Because Stoicism encourages you mix different theories and practices in order to achieve a flourishing life…

    Daniel Kaufman:

    I’d like to make the case against Stoicism seem much much much worse. In order to show that what is often thought to be a problem with Stoicism, is not in fact a problem with Stoicism. I hope this will show why I see Stoicism can be seen as a form of Eudaimonism.

    Stoics like to advise us to mentally rehearse the fact our children will die when we kiss them at night. For the same reason, they encourage us to see our closest friends and family as ‘preferred indifferents.’

    At first blush this can seem downright goulish, antisocial, or world hating.

    Some people think the appropriate way to measure our love for someone else is by the pain we feel when they are absent.

    To such a person, this Stoic practice, and especially the Stoic attitude of seeing other people, including your family as ‘preferred indifferents’ is tantamount to refusing to allow love for others. Of course, this misses the fact that Stoics are fine with you having involuntary reactions, like grief, or blushing and so on. The Stoic is merely concerned with how you act when you have the means of choosing to act, and encouraging you to find ways to be less overwhelmed by emotions created by false perceptions. But this takes us away from the point, which is that the Stoic is merely reminding themselves how little is under their control in order to be a better social animal engaging in a flourishing life. Acknowledging Impermanence increases the value of human life.

    A Stoic’s child might well die tomorrow or that night. A friend of yours could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Doesn’t matter whether you live in Ancient Greece or the Modern World. And in light of fortune, acting with gratitude and love towards your child, friend, or others, is exactly what follows from reminding yourself that your child (or your friends for that matter) will die and that most things are impermanent.

    The Stoics have good advice about friendship and social relationships, precisely because they never let the fact of human mortality and impermanence leave their minds. How differently do you treat a friend when you know they could die at any moment? Very differently, and I dare say, likely with more love and respect than someone who think it ‘unfriendly’ ‘unflourishing’ or a sort of inhumane betrayal to consider that a proper theory of flourishing means we should see that our child or friends mortality is out of our control and therefore something that we ideally learn to see as, therefore, ‘indifferent.’ The Stoic, Seneca in particular, is just very worried that unless we actively remind ourselves of the world’s impermanent nature, that we will actually behave in an unnecessarily goulish, antisocial, or world hating way.

    Just because Stoic theory does not require flourishing relationships and external successes does not mean that it is opposed to to them in practice. In practice, they are likely to achieve such things, precisely because they are willing to admit the simple fact of human nature, and human reality, that many things are out of our control, and wishing for something we cannot have is like wishing for ripe fruit off a tree in the dead of winter. The Stoic spends their entire life trying to cultivate better relationships with others. So what if they also admit that they might be unable to achieve the goal, among others, of serving others and themselves well?

    This is why I see Stoicism as a form of Eudaimonism. Stoicism may not align with the Aristotle-an belief that a good life requires luck, but I do not think this means we need to say either Stoicisim or Aristotleanism is not a form of Eudaimonism. At least because for me, the actual test of a Eudaimonism (if by Eudaimonism we do not just mean Aristotle) is how well it helps us try to live and practice a life of flourishing relationships. Any theory that creates such conduct (including one like ikigai that Labnut mentioned), is to me, and to the Stoics, secondary in importance so long as it creates such conduct.

    Well Daniel, I didn’t quite realize how strongly I felt about this until you forced me to actually spell this out, so I must thank you for that, as well as your continued patience and kind engagement with my thoughts. Thank you for running this blog!

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  4. Plutarch: This really isn’t the sort of thing one can prove in any sort of conclusive fashion. All that one can do is to point to various things that one finds persuasive, as you have just done.

    The trouble is that I don’t find it persuasive at all. If you were to tell me that someone whose children had all died, young, before they had a chance to grow up, whose business endeavors had failed, and whose marriage had disintegrated had nonetheless flourished, because they were all “preferred indifferents,” I would tell you that yours is a conception of flourishing that I simply cannot identify with in any fashion. My strong inclination is to suggest — as I have in the essay — that it misunderstands what flourishing consists of — what it *means* — but give that you find it compelling, to do so would not likely have much effect.

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  5. I never once even imagined that. I was speaking more in the opposite direction; i.e. that all I can do is explain what I find unpersuasive about Stoicism *as* a theory of flourishing. There is no way to *demonstrate* that it isn’t one.

    It does seem to me, however, to be an effective discipline for consolation, especially in the wake of failure, and that is no small thing.

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  6. Besides consoling those who fail, Stoicism is also an effective discipline (as is Epicureanism) for those who never were interested in succeeding in the first place, but were searching for a philosophical explanation of their confused intuitions about what matters in life.

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  7. Maybe. I doubt that there are too many people who don’t think that the meaning of their life depends in any way on actual succeeding in their endeavors. I understand that they may *say* that, but I’m not sure I believe it.

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  8. It all depends on what you mean by “endeavors”. Obviously, everyone does things and when I change a light bulb, I want the new one to work. When I prepare coffee, I want it to taste like good coffee. However, not everyone strives for success in endeavors as we’ve generally been using the term “endeavor” in this thread: in a career, in a marriage, in society in general.

    Some people drop out as they used to say or maybe still do in some quarters because they are just not interested in a successful career or in conventional family life. They may not even believe in any kind of alternative social project as drop-outs did in the 60’s.

    For those kind of people (and I know some of them and to a certain extent although not entirely I’m one of them myself), Stoicism and Epicureanism provide useful maps for living.

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  9. Plutarch,
    I couldn’t agree more, intermixing practices and theories (when coherent) is a sound means for achieving a flourishing life.

    You seem to have missed my point that a flourishing life is a rich, multidimensional experience and that Stoicism contributes only in one small way. That was also the point of my Ikigai comment.

    On my return from Mass I will reply more fully.

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  10. Hello Dan

    I don’t have a blogging account, so couldn’t thank you in the comments at Blogging Heads TV. I’ll thumbs up your Sophia stuff here. I haven’t listened to all of them, but particularly liked the episodes with Barbara Block on Judaism and Leslie Baynes on C.S. Lewis’ apologetics. Fascinating to hear the rabbi say that if modern scholarship rejected all the historicity of the Bible, she would reject it too. Also liked your refreshing candour in your approach to eating kosher: “I enjoy food too much”. Seems to me this is how a lot of people approach things, though we might be reluctant to spell it out so openly. I’m generally of the view that there are more interesting things to spend my time thinking about than religion, but it can be helpful to find out exactly what religious people believe. On their own terms some of the issues are intriguing: the problem of evil, the Euthyphro dilemma, how does karma actually work? if there is no self, how is the self reborn? Would love to hear you do more on Judaism, or even Hinduism, if you could find a guest. Maybe an episode where you discuss how the mistranslations of the Bible have changed the trajectory of Christianity. Finally, the fast mp3 option is genius!

    Thanks again, they probably take some effort to produce, arrange and prepare for, with, judging by the comments, not always glowing appreciation, so I’ll give you mine and hope you do many more.

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  11. It is easy to be critical but mine is a qualified criticism. I qualify it because in general because I greatly approve of the work Massimo is doing with Stoicism. So why should I approve if I am critical?

    I have followed with great interest the progress in Massimo’s thinking since his early days of activist atheism. Activist atheism jettisons religion, the primary source of ethical priming, but fails to replace it with any ethical alternatives. Massimo, understanding this, moved from aggressive activist atheism and instead searched for ethical alternatives. He first narrowed his search to virtue ethics and then selected Stoicism as a specific form of ethical thought within that school.

    He has done a remarkable job of collating and building a body of Stoic knowledge and making it accessible to a modern audience. I really admire that. This is important because an atheist world needs a source of ethical priming. But he has gone further than that and sees a world of ethical ecumenism where the different faith traditions can live side by side in mutual respect. This then seems to be the final and largest step in Massimo’s ethical trajectory. He perceives the world’s problems as fundamentally ethical in nature and addressing these problems requires us to embrace ethical behaviour as our core concern, with virtue ethics being at the heart of that. With this step he also abandons the desire of activist atheism to destroy religions and instead looks for a working accommodation, what I call ethical ecumenism.

    So far, so good and I wholly approve. Why then am I critical? My next comment will deal with that. In summary, I will say that I believe that Stoicism, while the best available alternative for an atheist audience, nevertheless has important shortcoming that need to be addressed. Sadly, I see no sign that these shortcoming will be addressed, and so while I remain supportive of Massimo’s work, I am also very critical of of its shortcomings.

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  12. Now to explain my criticisms. Stoicism addresses two large concerns: how may I behave ethically and how may I remain functional and effective in a hostile world of adversity and misfortune. It embraces virtue ethics and teaches resilience. Ethical behaviour and resilience are also the major concerns of religion and in this they are in agreement.

    But this also marks their point of departure. Read any of the many articles published about Stoicism today and you will quickly note that they are overwhelmingly about resilience, with limited coverage of virtue ethics. In this modern Stoicism mirrors ancient Stoicism. Ethical behaviour is given a passing mention while resilience receives most of the attention.

    Now if you are sincere in believing that the world’s problems are essentially ethical in nature, as I do, then the emphasis should be reversed, with ethical behaviour receiving the lion’s share of attention.

    Now look a little deeper at these articles and another factor emerges. It becomes apparent that Stoicism is overwhelmingly self directed and shows little concern for the other, despite their talk of cosmopolitanism. Coming from a faith tradition which is inextricably bound up with concern for the other, this is a shocking contrast.

    Burrow a little deeper and you will note that love, the primary concern of my faith tradition, receives only a passing mention. If you ask where it is you will be told it is buried somewhere under the heading of the virtue Justice!!

    It is all very well talking about ethical behaviour, as Stoicism does, but how do you get people to behave ethically? It turns out this is a very large problem and here Stoicism’s biggest failure becomes apparent. It doesn’t address the problem at all, but says pass, you deal with it.

    To be blunt, it is completely and utterly devoid of motivational power. This means it will be forever confined to a tiny circle of wise intellectuals, like Massimo.

    Stoicism does not exhibit that palpable sense of joy and celebration I find in my own faith tradition. Nor does it revel in beauty. One is left with a sense of the cold and austere. Add to that the complete absence of any kind of institutional framework with its attendant symbols and rituals, companionship and mutual support, and you will understand its lack of motivational power.

    Finally there is the accusation of quietism that is repeatedly levelled at Stoics, who generally deny it. The problem is this – sensible, moderate, level headed behaviour, focused on enduring the world, does not change the world but instead locks in the status quo. This is where my earlier comment about the “glowing spirit” ties in. Real change for the good is rooted in a deep, passionate, unquenchable desire to contribute something worthwhile to the world. It challenges the limits of what can be done, making the impossible become possible.

    I need to tie all this in to the general theme of flourishing and my next comment will do this.

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  13. The twin pillars of Stoicism, resilience and ethical behaviour, are both important and necessary for a flourishing society. But are they sufficient? Gordon Matthews comments that

    On the basis of culturally and personally shaped fate, individuals strategically formulate and interpret their ikigai from an array of cultural conceptions, negotiate these ikigai within their circles of immediate others, and pursue their ikigai as channeled by their society’s institutional structures so as to attain and maintain a sense of the personal significance of their lives (Mathews 1996, 49–50).

    (PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS, Well-Being in Anthropological Perspective)
    Ikigai is then a means of attaining and maintaining a sense of personal significance in one’s life. Surely this is then the core definition of flourishing at an individual level – to attain and maintain a sense of personal significance. One can safely say that people who attain and maintain a strong sense of personal significance generally contribute largely to society, making it a flourishing society. Note how Matthews emphasises the social and cultural rootedness of ikigai.

    Now contrast this against Stoicism, with its overwhelming self-directedness and its generally cold, austere joylessness. Stoic practices are necessary for flourishing but they can never be sufficient outside the small circle of wise intellectuals like Massimo.

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  14. Now it is time to moderate my criticism somewhat. Earlier I wrote that success can be measured by impact and not numbers. The advocacy of the small circle of wise intellectuals who promote Stoicism can have an impact far greater than their numbers suggest. Their ideas will attract attention in influential media, as is already happening, and slowly ethical considerations, based on virtue ethics, will percolate through the general(non-religious) consciousness. As the work of Dan Ariely has shown, repeated ethical priming can have a large effect. Virtue ethics is our most fundamental form of ethical thinking and the work of Seligman has shown that it permeates all societies in roughly the same way, though using different terminology. Virtue ethics can be the unifying ethical force that unites both religions and the non-religious. For this reason I think the work that Massimo is doing with Stoicism is important.

    I think it is important because I believe the world’s problems are indeed foundationally ethical in nature. Address this and we create a world that can flourish.

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  15. And it’s time for me to sharpen mine a little, perhaps. I think it is a mistake — a serious one — to think that flourishing in any meaningful sense is exhausted by the refinement and development of one’s own character, alone, though that is an important part of it. And while I admire the motivation behind those who pursue this discipline, I don’t think that I admire the result. Indeed, I find the idea of viewing one’s family and friends and their well-being as “preferred indifferents” appalling. (And I said so to Massimo, point blank, in our dialogue.)

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  16. Daniel Kaufman:

    “I never once even imagined that. I was speaking more in the opposite direction; i.e. that all I can do is explain what I find unpersuasive about Stoicism *as* a theory of flourishing. There is no way to *demonstrate* that it isn’t one.

    It does seem to me, however, to be an effective discipline for consolation, especially in the wake of failure, and that is no small thing.”

    Ah, sorry Daniel. I thought you were claiming that Stoicism was demonstrably not a theory of Eudaimonism, rather than that it didn’t persuade you. Thanks for taking the time to read my comments and answer my questions. I think you raise good points, though I still find Stoicism persuasive for myself.

    Labnut:

    In this modern Stoicism mirrors ancient Stoicism. Ethical behaviour is given a passing mention while resilience receives most of the attention.

    Now if you are sincere in believing that the world’s problems are essentially ethical in nature, as I do, then the emphasis should be reversed, with ethical behaviour receiving the lion’s share of attention.

    Now look a little deeper at these articles and another factor emerges. It becomes apparent that Stoicism is overwhelmingly self directed and shows little concern for the other, despite their talk of cosmopolitanism. Coming from a faith tradition which is inextricably bound up with concern for the other, this is a shocking contrast.

    Burrow a little deeper and you will note that love, the primary concern of my faith tradition, receives only a passing mention. If you ask where it is you will be told it is buried somewhere under the heading of the virtue Justice!!

    It is all very well talking about ethical behaviour, as Stoicism does, but how do you get people to behave ethically?

    What you say is often a problem I also have with modern Stoicism, but this problem is not nearly as present in Ancient Stoicism. The Lion’s share of the attention in ancient Stoicism is on creating good behavior rather than just discussing what a theory of good behavior is.

    See Marcus Aurelius reminding himself “To stop talking about what a good man is like, and just be one.” (Bk10.16)

    Or Seneca commenting that: “Plato, Aristotle, and a host of other philosophers all destined to take different paths, derived more from Socrates’s character than from his words.” (Letter VI)

    Examples could be multiplied to the point of an overly long comment. Suffice to say that while Epictetus (Massimo’s preferred Stoic) spends more time than Marcus and Seneca on Stoic theory (mere resilience as you might put it) Epicetus is even more excoriating in his criticism of those who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. Hell, Epictetus’s teacher, Musonius Rufus goes so far as to regularly disparage the study of logic precisely because it often becomes a way of excusing oneself from acting virtuously. Epicetus takes up this theme of Musonius’s too, though with less vitriol.The focus of: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Musonius Rufus, is abundantly the practice of virtuoso behavior, followed secondarily by debating what such behavior looks like. Theory guides practices, but the point is so abundantly on practice that Stoics are more than occasionally willing to denigrate mere theoreticians.

    Labnut, I think if you read some of these ancient texts for yourself that you would find them highly enjoyable because they directly address your concerns about creating ethical behavior and love, because they shared them too. Too keep this comment short, I’m just gonna use the words of Pierre Hadot, who btw the way, Massimo heavily relies on:


    Stoicism is the origin of the modern notion of ‘human rights.’ I have already cited Seneca’s fine formula on this subject: ‘man is a sacred thing for man. […] [Epictetus argued that even a] slave is a living being like you, and like you, a man gifted with reason. Even if human laws refuse to recognize that he is your equal, the laws of the gods, which are the laws of reason, recognize his absolute value.” (P368)

    “loving one’s neighbor as oneself’ is [not] a specifically Christian invention. Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. Both recognize the logos or Reason within each person. Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism […] In the Christian view, the logos is incarnate in Jesus and it is Jesus that the Christian sees in his fellow man.” (P232)

    Both these quotes are taken from the The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot.

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  17. Daniel Kaufman:

    My point isn’t about who historically came up with the Golden Rule first, (whether or not Hadot thinks that) so much as it is to show one way in which Stoicism can be understood primarily as about loving others (which is also what I took Hadot’s primary point to be.)

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  18. Oh, I know. It’s just that a lot of people don’t.

    We will, of course, disagree about what love involves. I don’t believe one can be fully invested in the ones who one loves, if one views them as preferred indifferents. Just as I don’t believe one can be fully invested in any of ones relationships or endeavors with such an attitude.

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  19. I find the idea of viewing one’s family and friends and their well-being as “preferred indifferents” appalling.

    And so do I. It leaves me aghast. The very term is bizarre. And the principle behind it is plain wrong. So they think you can survive catastrophes by mentally rehearsing them and thereby deadening one’s feelings in anticipation of them happening. Perhaps one can, but at what cost? Lowering one’s affect may deaden the pain of the calamity when it occurs but a life of reduced affect is a deeply impoverished life. A rich life feels deeply joy and pain. A rich life thrills to the ecstasy of joy and also feels the full measure of the bitter, deep grief of loss.

    The key to surviving calamity is a good coping strategy that guides one through the hurricane of emotions and not deadened affect. Losing a child is the most awful, calamitous catastrophe that can occur. It is right that the grief should be bitter, deep and overwhelming and we should not shrink from it. With such grief there finally comes understanding and acceptance that leads to rebuilding. Having survived calamitous grief one comes out a better, stronger and more humane person.

    Taking the ideological equivalent of Prozac is the coward’s attempt to dodge the bullet.

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  20. one way in which Stoicism can be understood primarily as about loving others

    I wish that were true but even a cursory reading of modern Stoic writings shows that love is very much a neglected emotion.

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  21. I agree, it is the single most unappealing element of the doctrine. And it represents a very weird view of virtue. For it suggests that at the end of the day, what matters the most is my own inner peace, not the well-being of my friends and family. If one is not in some meaningful sense diminished by the loss of love ones or the failure of ones relationships, one has not fully invested oneself in the manner that I would suggest virtue absolutely requires.

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  22. Yeah, I call BS on that too. Frankly, it doesn’t even survive a cursory glance, let alone an in depth look.

    That’s why I said that while such an attitude may be appropriate *in extremis* it is completely inappropriate for life in ordinary circumstances.

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  23. Hate to tell you this, but with respect to the Golden Rule, the Jews articulated it before the Stoics or the Christians.

    Yes indeed. Jesus Christ was a Jew after all. His teachings were Jewish teachings given a sharp focus and a particular emphasis.

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  24. If one is not in some meaningful sense diminished by the loss of love ones or the failure of ones relationships, one has not fully invested oneself in the manner that I would suggest virtue absolutely requires.

    That is very insightful.

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  25. Labnut:

    I agree that modern Stoicism is presented, on occasion, like ‘taking the ideological equivalent of Prozac” or a “cowards attempt to dodge the bullet.” Love is also often absent in this Stoicism. Ryan Holiday’s Stoicism (Obstacle is the Way) is a good example of this. His Stoicism, is all too often, (but not always) an unfeeling tool in the service of private profit. There is very little social about such a Stoicism, in fact, there’s something distinctly zero sum and aggressive about it.

    Now, this is probably my fault for formatting my last comment as poorly as I did.

    But I think you missed when I said that your criticisms of some forms of modern Stoicism is sound (eg Holiday), but that it is not true of most ancient Stoicism.

    Yes, most modern Stoicism is sold as some sort of ‘trick’ or ‘mental headgame’ which let’s you cultivate ‘resilience’ or ‘grit’ with merely a ‘mindset shift’ which is in the end, naked egoism. Such a version of Stoicism is popular precisely because it requires no sacrifice for oneself or others, and is the ‘ideologcal equivalent of Prozac.’ Though quite frankly, I’m not certain that taking Prozac is morally reprehensible, or necessarily lazy or egoist, so I will dispense with the Prozac metaphor from here on out.

    Holiday’s Stoicism and other forms like it, is simply not ancient Stoicism. Love and pro social behavior is the basis of ancient Stoicism. This Stoicism required habitual action in the service of others in addition to the cultivation of equanimity. The cultivation of equanimity was not more important than the action of serving others, they were designed as mutually supportive practices. To divorce one from the other, is ‘the cowards attempt to dodge the bullet,’ but it is not the Ancient Stoics way, as we know from numerous historical examples of Stoics sacrificing their time, resources, and themselves for the sake of communal needs or ideals.

    I apologize if I’ve offended you, that was not my intent. I just think that ancient Stoicism is actually quite amenable to your criticisms. From what I’ve gathered you seem very interested in a virtue ethics that is based around engaging with others in a social community. From what I understand, ancient (but not some forms of modern) Stoicism is mostly designed to do just this.

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  26. Hate to tell you this, but with respect to the Golden Rule, the Jews articulated it before the Stoics or the Christians

    None of this is surprising from a Christian point of view since we see it as a continuous series of teachings emanating from God and progressively unfolding according to his plan. As an atheist you will, on the other hand, see Christian thought as an outgrowth of Jewish thought. As it turns out, we think the same, but for different reasons.

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  27. I apologize if I’ve offended you, that was not my intent.

    No, not at all. This has been a fascinating and invigorating discussion. I look forward to more like this. You have embraced a value framework and defend it ardently and thoughtfully. I like that. If you will pardon a parting jab, the enthusiasm of your defence was hardly stoical 🙂

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  28. You should not apologize for anything you have said. You are a model commentator, and I really hope you will keep participating in discussions here on future articles. We very much value readers like you.

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  29. As someone who lost a son, at age 15, 16 years ago, I find the Stoic idea that the loss of a child is a not-preferred indifferent as offensive. At the time of his death lots of people approached me with consoling bullshit about my son being an angel in heaven now or about him being reborn into a higher life form and I politely told them to fuck off. That’s a posture I still maintain.

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  30. After Pablo’s death, I saw a psychologist and she told me that the loss of a child is the only form of grief that people never can process and get over. Given that, she said that there was nothing she could do for me as a psychologist. I think that that’s true. Grief is something you have to live with. It comes in waves.

    The Stoics see the loss of a child as a non-preferred indifferent, as far as I know. Good things such a health or friendship are preferred indifferents for them, while bad things, the loss of a loved one, illness, etc, are non-preferred indifferents.

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  31. As someone who lost a son, at age 15

    You have my deepest sympathy for your unimaginable loss. There is no greater pain.

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