Thursday, July 22, 2010

Were Stoics trying to be Vulcans?

Enquiring Trekkies want to know:

Stoicism and Adversity

What is the Stoic philosophy?

Above and beyond anything else, it is intended to be a practical philosophy.

Stoicism is a combination of three things; a metaphysical belief system, a theory of emotion, and a discipline (a body of practices). It aids us in dealing with a world many aspects of which are beyond individual control, and dangerous to body and ‘soul’.

The belief system, the theology

The universe and everything contained therein is guided by an indwelling rational, all-powerful all-good force, variously called the ‘world soul’, ‘pneuma’, ‘God’, ‘Providence’, or ‘Logos’. Logos has ordered and arranged things, including the events in people’s lives, so as to bring about the best possible world. This God is conceived by the Stoic as assigning roles or places to each of us. Due to the absolute goodness of the Logos, and the goodness of its purpose in creating things, it follows that the morally best course of action for a person is to play that assigned role. For, if it is our duty to do the best possible thing given our circumstances, and if our circumstances are such as this view holds, then it is in fact our duty to play our role. Roles generate duties. These duties, if carried out, are essential components of the best possible world. If we resist our roles and attendant duties, we are necessarily working against the best purpose, the highest good.

Due to human rationality we are somehow a part of the world soul, which is itself rational. All rationality, wherever it exists is part of the greater rationality that is the world soul. We therefore, can gain knowledge, and can work toward comprehending the good by exercising our reason.

Souls are free, in that they are capable of choosing how to react to their own station in the world. They are capable of choosing virtue (carrying out their assigned roles), or vice (resistance to roles). They are capable of choosing to seek knowledge or not.

In general, we have an incomplete view of the universe, our place in it, and how events and our ‘given’ positions or roles fit into God’s world scheme, making it the best possible.

This incomplete view causes us to react to some life events with sorrow, angst, fear, grief, anger, indignation, and other forms of emotional disturbance. This brings us to the Stoic theory of emotion.

The theory of emotion

Emotions are personal or first person ‘eudaimonic cognitions’ not mere feelings. They essentially involve beliefs or judgments concerning the well being of valued persons or things. For instance, joy has as an essential component the cognition that some person of value to the person experiencing the emotion has had his/her life, life projects, or necessities significantly buoyed. Grief has as an essential component the cognition that some person of value to the person experiencing the emotion has had his/her life, life projects or necessities significantly degraded, or extirpated. One can also grieve for things or institutions.

As can be seen in the example, the emotional well-being of normal people (man in his natural state) is largely predicated upon the status of things the fates of which they cannot completely control. These ‘uncontrollables’ include a person’s his own physical state, the well being of other persons of value, state or well being of property, the well being of cultures or societies identified with, etc. This dependence relationship sets ‘natural man’ up for severe emotional disturbances if the status of those things changes.

The Discipline: The goal of Stoicism and how to attain it:

The goal of the Stoic is to move from being a natural man, to being a Stoic sage: someone who, by dint of his knowledge of God’s plan is free of severe debilitating emotional disturbances (Aristotelian reading), or free of emotional disturbances altogether (the Vulcan reading). [For more on the Aristotelian v Vulcan readings of Stoicism, see below]***

In any event, the Stoic sage will not become unduly disturbed at the change in status of these things, if he knows the reason behind the changes (why it is truly for the best). As a second best, he might be able to mitigate the severity of reaction if he knows that there is a reason, even if he has not plumbed that reason himself.

It follows then that the Stoic should pursue knowledge of the divine logos, while also working to lessen the frequency and intensity of his emotional disturbances.

The more knowledge he has of the universe, the more content he will be with playing his role in society, and the less disturbed he will be with status changes of significant people and objects.

In the interim, while he is moving from the state of natural man to the state of being a sage, the ‘tweener’ can use Stoic discipline (certain practices) to help him approximate the relatively undisturbed state of the sage.

Some of Epictetus’s suggested practices come down to reminders. That is; applications of that first basic insight of Epictetus (one that is in fact independent of the theological, metaphysical underpinnings.) They serve to remind us of just how many of those things we value in life are outside of our ultimate control. These reminders serve to create dispositions to react with less severity.

Other practices are applications of Epictetus’s advice to avoid piling up attachments to things that are not under your complete control. The less of these attachments you have, the better able you are to attain (αταραξία) ataraxia. Here are some of Epictetus’ helpful hints:


Be always mindful that dangers come in two basic sorts:

• Dangers to body:

o Death, disease, crime, poverty, war, arrest, imprisonment, slavery.

o At best, we can exert incomplete control over these. Some are inevitable events (death). All of these depend at least in part on forces outside us. Remind yourself of this.

• Dangers to soul:

o Moral corruption (lying, betrayal of others, failing in other duties)

o Emotional disturbance or upset

o We can completely control some aspects of our inner life: Our moral purpose, what we value, attitude toward life events. We freely choose purpose and attitudes. The cumulative effect of these choices constitutes our soul’s moral state.

o We can indirectly control emotions, but not fully.

Upshot: the state of our soul is the one thing over which we have been given complete control by God. It is evident we do not have complete control over any other things, including our physical health, our reputations, and how others treat us, or those close to us. It is irrational to expect to be able to completely control things that are essentially and unavoidably outside our control.

Each time you experience an emotional response to something that is not completely under your control, choose to remain calm. Remind yourself that you are upset with something over which you have no ultimate control, and acting as if you really had control over it. But that is irrational. Remember that choices habituate. (Point here for the Vulcan reading, ataraxia = emotionless existence. For the Aristotelian reading, ataraxia = an integrity- preserving emotional existence. Attainment of the mean with regard to emotions NOT extirpation of emotions.)

Remember that habits become character traits. The Stoic project does not involve a single choice, but requires that one make the proper sort of choice many times over. Even if you slip occasionally, the sheer weight of many successes has a positive effect. Becoming a person of virtue takes time. Virtue can only be acquired by repetition and practice. This is inevitably accompanied by some failure. Don’t foolishly expect perfection of yourself.

At first, the choices can be difficult, but once the Stoic habit is set via repetition, the correct choices become easier, requiring less mental effort. Keep in mind analogies with physical skills, for example: bike riding. A beginning bike rider must consciously grapple with the force of gravity as he attempts to ride. If he leans too far left or right, gravity will pull him down. With great conscious effort, he compensates for any exaggerated movements, in an effort to keep the center of gravity over the body of the bike. Meanwhile, fear of injury compels him to quit the project of learning to ride a bike. Similarly, the person who wants to obtain virtue is ‘pulled’ away from the moral path by countervailing extremes of emotion (such as fear). He must consciously resist these, pulling himself back toward the mean or center. Out of fear for his life, or reputation he may be ‘pulled’ into lying, or betraying others. Out of a desire for attaining wealth, he may steal or cheat. At first, resisting these things takes effort. Over time, with past success in resisting these pulls, it becomes relatively easier.

Attachment reducers

Inure yourself to evils by exposing yourself to them every day.
Imagine that you are in a play, with an assigned role. Play it well. God is the playwright.
Realize that the people you value are mortal. Their fates are out of your hands.
Rehearse loss of your loved ones often, the better to prepare for deaths.
Realize that other people’s choices are ultimately up to them. You cannot be responsible for them.
Do not overindulge in physical pleasures.
Do not become attached to wealth, prestige, or other things that are not under your complete control.
When faced with adversity ask what faculties you have to deal with them.
Always endeavor to do your professional and personal duties as determined by your role in life. Conscientiously carry out social roles you have (parent, sibling, solider, businessperson, police officer, Rotarian, teacher, pool attendant, etc.)
Consider anything you own as on loan from God. This will lessen your attachment.
Endeavor to keep your expectations in line with what is actually the case.
If you have the opportunity to indulge a base pleasure, stop and vividly consider how you will look at yourself after having done so.
Make a practice of tempering all of your emotional responses by Aristotle’s means of overcompensating toward the extreme that is farthest from your natural inclination. If you tend toward the excess extreme, overcompensate toward the deficiency. This will lessen the impact of attachment. If you tend toward the deficiency, overcompensate toward the excess, this will aid in motivating your acceptance of roles.
Work on desiring only things that are completely under your control.
Live frugally, with as little possessions as are needed for your life and its roles. This presents less opportunity for forming attachments to things not under your complete control.


Stoicism holds a Eudaimonic point of view: like Aristotle, Stoics believe human happiness is the goal of doing ethics and philosophy. The Stoics believe that happiness is very much a matter of choice, and does not essentially involve acquisition of external goods. Aristotle argues that the sick, enslaved or poor man cannot be happy because his circumstances weigh on him and make him miserable. For Stoics, happiness is an internal state of peace (αταραξία) that results from recognizing what is within your personal control, and not letting yourself be adversely affected by things that are essentially outside of your control. If you can manage this recognition, and shape your expectations accordingly, you can be happy, despite your physical circumstances. Epictetus considered himself living proof of this possibility. He was a slave, lame, and endured a harsh life, yet counted himself happy.

One can ask: Is it necessary for one to buy the belief system in order to attain happiness as conceived by Stoicism? Can one be a successful Stoic if one does not hold to the theology? As noted above, an answer in the affirmative can be made to rely on the simple fact that recognition of something as being outside of one’s complete control is something that is readily attainable no matter what ones metaphysics might be. An answer in the negative would cite, with some justification, that absent the belief in an all good Logos or God, it is harder to find a reason for playing roles or accepting what appear to be insurmountable misery.

***One can also ask a question alluded to earlier: What, precisely is the point of Stoicism vis-à-vis our emotions? What is the goal? Is it to extirpate emotions and attachment (turn us all into Vulcans), or is it to temper emotion while acknowledging the legitimacy and value of attachments (Is it a way to find the mean with regard to our attitudes toward contingencies in the world, as Aristotle might say?)

The Vulcan reading points to textual material where Epictetus does seem to recommend that we become indifferent to our loved ones and their fates. These passages are undeniably shocking to read. The Aristotelian reading claims that, contrary to appearances, Epictetus does not really mean to suggest that we make efforts to stop loving our loved ones, but does suggest that we prepare ourselves for losing them. The ‘Vulcans’ adopt an over-literal interpretation of these passages of Epictetus. His real purpose in writing those passages where he ask us to rehearse deaths of children and spouses in our minds, while telling ourselves that these people in fact mean nothing to us, is preservation of psychological and social integration by preventing violent reactions to these inevitable and important losses.

The point does not seem to be the cultivation of cold indifference to the fate of loved ones. Instead, he seems to be suggesting we follow Aristotle’s advice for folks that find their emotional reactions tend toward extremes. Aristotle advises that such people make efforts to react in ways that are in line with the opposite extreme. One way to do this would be to rehearse scenarios with scripts that run in the fashion of the notorious passages. Epictetus knows that most people (his readers included) naturally tend toward extreme grief when losing loved ones, and because of this might risk serious long term consequences of this grief. The rehearsals and emulation of indifference, will act as a corrective for this natural and extreme response, and if rehearsed regularly, the reactions in the event of the inevitable, will tend toward a psychologically less risky mean, somewhere between cold indifference and debilitating grief. There will be grief, as is appropriate, but not debilitating grief. A psychological truth acquaintance with which militates in favor of this reading is one that Aristotle mentions: The coward will not become the brash, but he might be closer to the mean; courageous, if he rehearses brashness or attempts it on a regular basis. Aristotle knows full well that such rehearsals as he recommends will not succeed in completely changing an emotional reaction to its opposite. He does hope it will slide the intensity scale up or down a few notches toward the mean. Epictetus was aware of this as well and this was his true goal in suggesting these extreme sounding ‘scripts’ for rehearsal.

So, the practical result of Epictetus’ suggested practices will be something that both respects the status of the dead (grieving after all, is an emotional acknowledgement of the value of the deceased, not merely as a possession for the aggrieved, but as a unique person in his or her own right, the loss of which is irreplaceable), but it allows the survivors to live their lives (as no doubt, the deceased would desire). There is significant dispute here among interpreters of Epictetus. This Aristotelian reading is one that may not be in line with a literal reading of the text at points, but is one that applies a principle of charity, and takes advantage of Aristotelian precursors to the text. If nothing else, it makes Epictetus useful for the real person. If, indeed Epictetus was attempting to make Vulcans of us, we can demur, and go with the Aristotelian reading as a practical tool.