Stoicism – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
January 2, 2010 § 1 Comment
I am a Stoic – not in the pure sense, nor in the popular sense of the word, but I suppose, in my own sense. I find much about Stoicism appealing and useful to me, and have enjoyed studying it and teaching it semi-seriously for a number of years. Within the Stoic tradition, there are a number of different versions and approaches, and it is not a branch of philosophy or ethics that is currently taken very seriously by most academic philosophers. That said, in its general, garden variety form, it is a philosophy that I find more useful than most in helping me personally to live the life I want to live and to become the person I want to become, in a world in which so much seems to be random or at least beyond my control. But while Stoicism offers much that I find appealing, it also has its drawbacks and critics. So I thought it might be interesting to briefly look at it in this blog.
THE GOOD: What I like about Stoicism is that it is a philosophy of empowerment, freedom and responsibility. It emphasizes individual autonomy and choice – to choose our reactions to the world as it is. The Stoic says that, “It is not important what happens to you. What is important is how you react to what happens to you.” In an almost literal sense, Stoicism is a philosophy in which ‘attitude is everything.’ Happiness is a choice. Success is a choice. As are unhappiness, failure, sadness. Stoicism knows no victims and accepts no excuses. There is no good or bad luck – bad luck is merely our unwillingness to accept what life has given us. So even ‘luck’ is merely a function of attitude. It is entirely up to us to train our minds and our wills to accept our freedom and responsibility, or alternatively, to choose to be a victim. A person in prison can have as much freedom, and thereby capacity for happiness as the billionaire living in his mansion in a gated community. For the Stoic, freedom is a state of mind, not a political or economic or other external condition, and happiness is a personal choice, a decision that we make, consciously or unconsciously regarding how we react to external circumstances that we can only pretend to control. The Stoic believes in an ‘unseen order of things’ that we must accept and adapt to. Tragedy, catastrophe, death, disease, unexpected disruptions of our lives and our plans – these are part of the natural order of things and are part of every person’s life. Our efforts to manage and avoid these disappointments are ultimately doomed to failure; happiness and serenity therefore can only be attained and sustained to the degree that we can accept, and even embrace, the tribulations that come our way. Stoicism emphasizes Duty and Honor as values above worldly praise and pleasure, disappointments and loss. You and only you, are responsible for your life and your happiness, because you and only you, are in control of the only things that matter – your attitude and your honor.
THE BAD: Throughout history Stoic detachment has been caricatured in the form of the Stoic sage smiling serenely, as the world crumbles around him. Valuing one’s personal serenity at all costs can be a call to inaction and may endorse emotional detachment from one’s own suffering, as well as the suffering of others. With some legitimacy, Stoicism has been criticized as an emotional ‘cut your losses’ philosophy – don’t become too attached to anyone or anything, since everything will eventually be taken from us anyway. A person may be drawn to Stoicism to avoid emotional commitment and thereby the almost inevitable disappointment or let-down that follows. Existentialist critics of Stoicism argue that passion is what makes life worth living, and the Stoic who is infatuated with serenity, and will not risk passionate disappointment also misses the joys and exhilarations of passionate commitment. They argue that Stoic rationalism and emotional control cut the heart out of the human being. Additionally, Stoic fatalistic acceptance of the natural order of things, when taken to an extreme, can deny the value of human action. Such resignation to Fate is found in parts of the Arab world, where God is given all responsibility for this world, absolving man of responsibility for his own actions or life circumstances. Inshallah, I will live a good life. Inshallah, I won’t.
THE UGLY: Compassion can be difficult for the Stoic who takes his Stoicism literally or to an extreme. It is a ‘suck-it-up’ philosophy for oneself as well as others. There is little room for compassion if the Stoic assigns full responsibility and accountability, and denial of any victim status, to others. “This is YOUR fate, I have mine. Suck it up. Adjust your attitude. Your suffering is a gift – embrace it.” While such ‘tough love’ is certainly appropriate in many circumstances, most of us would agree that it is not in others. Those with mental illness, or who have been severely abused for the pleasure of others may not have the psychological tools to train their will to overcome adversity. Stoicism may be a philosophy for the already-strong to become stronger, and the psychological equivalent of going to the gym – it can make the healthy person healthier, but for someone who is not healthy, it can make their condition worse, or even kill them.
CONCLUSION: There are responses to the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ of Stoicism that allow me to continue to endorse it as a useful and empowering approach to life. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer offers valuable guidance in calling for ‘the wisdom to know the difference’ between those things we can change and those which we must accept. We can be passionate and emotionally committed to people, our projects, and the world, but retain in reserve our ability to let go of things we can no longer change, and choose to live honorably and well, in spite of disappointment or tragedy. We can choose compassion without coddling. We can take and give responsibility, while recognizing that there may be some who are unable to accept it – yet, or ever. We can admire the self-sacrifice and service implicit in the very Stoic mottos of the US Army – “Duty, Honor, Country” – and the Navy/Marine Corps “ Honor, Courage, Commitment.” The inclusive Stoic finds room for passion, but always holds duty and honor in reserve; for compassion, while still recognizing the value of tough-love; for fatalism, while still taking responsibility and action. Perhaps there are some legitimate excuses, but it takes a hero to not accept and rise above them. Perhaps there are some legitimate victims, which allow the rest of us to become heroes to come to their defense. The Stoic response to Inshallah is: God helps those who help themselves – that is, those who embrace their freedom, who struggle to embrace whatever life sends their way, and take full responsibility for their responses – good, bad, or ugly.