Last week I broached the question of whether Stoic practice should be treated as a form of “asceticism.”
The first conclusion we drew is that Stoicism does not teach us to suppress our natural emotions, it strongly encourages to work hard to bring about beneficial outcomes in the world, and it allows us to enjoy the goods and pleasures life has to offer (as long as we are disciplined enough to put virtue first).
In this post, let’s run a little bit with this picture of moderate Stoicism and see where it takes us.
The Goal of Stoicism
First, recall what Stoic ethics is all about. All major Greek philosophies were eudaemonic schools, which means that they tried to identify an ultimate “End” or “Goal” (telos) that we humans should aim all of our actions toward if we wish to naturally “flourish” or to have a “good spirit” (eudaemon)—often translated as Happiness, with a capital ‘H.’ We might pursue many things as a means to this Happiness, but Happiness itself is the Chief Good, the principle that should motivate everything else we do.
Some schools taught that to reach Happiness, our motives should be directed at avoiding pain, or pursuing pleasure, or at external goods, or at pursuing pure knowledge, or at being an honorable and praiseworthy person—or some mixture of all of the above. In the 1st century B.C.E., Cicero reviewed some half dozen different philosophies in his book On Ends, all of whom took a slightly different approach to explaining what humans need to flourish.
Stoicism was known first and foremost as the school that identified virtue as the Chief Good and the only good. All their ethical ideas flow from this one key teaching of Socrates: that the Wise Person should look
in every action to this single point, whether what he is doing is just or unjust, and the act of a good man or a bad.
—Plato, Apology, as quoted in Meditations, 7.44.
The Stoics believed that morality could not be set on a firm footing unless we accept that being good is its own reward, and that it matters infinitely more than anything else. They came to this conclusion in a number of ways—but one of the biggest motivations for Stoic ethics was the way they admired heroes like Hercules.
The Stoics looked to great men and heroes in history and mythology as imperfect, but inspiring examples that show a glimpse of what a truly good, selfless person is like.
The perfect man, the one in possession of virtue, never cursed his luck and never reacted to circumstances with a grim face. Believing himself to be a citizen and soldier of the world, he took on each labor as though it were a command. He treated no incident as an annoying nuisance and misfortune but as a task assigned to himself. “Whatever it is,” he says, “this is mine to do. It is rough and tough, so let’s get busy!”
—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 120.12.
The idea of the Wise Person as having a smooth-flowing devotion to duty and benefitting humanity, and as someone who doesn’t get bummed out by misfortune, is the inspiration for the later Stoics’ emphasis on philosophy as an antidote to anxiety and distress. The Sage’s serene and single-minded commitment to virtue is what the Stoics called “freedom,” or “Happiness:” the greatest and only good a Human can hope for.
The Moderate Stoic
The Stoics knew that there is a difference between saying that virtue is infinitely more valuable than anything else, and actually believing it. So they encouraged us to remind ourselves frequently and in many different ways that externals—including pleasure, pain, wealth, and so forth—are indifferent to Happiness. They recommended practices like training yourself to be content with simple food, or sleeping for a few days on a hard bed, all as “practice bouts” (to use Seneca’s phrase from Letter 18) to exercise your belief that virtue is way more important than any of these things!
Most Stoics, however, would caution us not to take these exercises to extremes! The goal is to keep your attachment to indifferent things in check—not to live an unnatural and inhuman life!
Like many traditions, Stoic philosophy has always billed itself as a middle path:
After all, Stoicism doesn’t teach that pleasure, wealth, and so forth are evil—to the contrary, it is natural for us to prefer them! It’s just that their value compared to virtue is something like the difference between a candle and the sun.
In principle, the Sage can enjoy any amount of pleasure and external goods—she simply never mistakes them for being more important than virtue, or indeed necessary at all for Happiness.
Two Kinds of Good
Since ancient times, Stoics have disagreed among themselves over just how far we should take this idea of “preferred indifferents.” At least some of that ancients—namely Antipater, Panaetius, and Posidionius—seem to have believed that externals have some kind of value that makes them worth pursuing independently of virtue.
Modern Stoic Massimo Pigliucci goes so far as to say that there are two kinds of goods, related by what economists and computer scientists would call a lexicographical ordering:
All the Stoics are saying is that there is a qualitative distinction between Class-A goods (wisdom, virtue, integrity of character) and Class-B goods (health, wealth, education). While this means you are not to trade any Class-A goods in exchange for any Class-B goods, it doesn’t mean at all that you cannot pursue Class-B goods, so long as you don’t do it in a way to compromise any Class-A ones.
This interpretation of the relationship between the virtues and the indifferents is arguably quite elegant. Massimo used it to inform his visualization of “The Stoic’s decision making algorithm,” which in my opinion is a very clear and useful portrayal of at least one kind of (Modern) Stoicism:
In the next post, we’ll see a bit of why this interpretation of Stoicism is controversial, and how some contemporary Stoics view things differently.
Regardless of these disagreements, though, I do think it’s important to assure people that Stoicism does not call us to an unnatural way of life that completely disregards the things that most people value—that make us human. This, I think, is a lesson that moderate Stoicism is very good at getting across:
Stay tuned for part III, “The Ascetic”…