Stoicism questions and answers

Q: Is Stoicism the same as Quietism or Buddhism, in that an utter renunciation of all worldly concerns logically implies that the Stoic, like the Buddhist, should crawl into a hermit’s cave, take no food, and die.

A: Stoicism consists of a proper ordering of the passions to the dictates of duty and reason, and that reason does not calculate that it is needful to crawl into a cave and die, and duty positively forbids it.

When Achilles went to go sulk in his tent, it was not because he possessed so much self-command that he could do his warlike duty on the battle-field without cowardice, it was because he was possessed of so little self-command, that the loss of his slave-girl Chryse to Agammemnon, loomed larger in his imagination than the life or death of his comrades, followers and friends: and he could not control his wrath.

Q: Don’t Stoics claim that everything in life is entirely beyond our power? If fate rules everything, we do anything?

A: Obviously, a man skilled in weapons, strong of limb, bold of heart and fleet of foot has a better chance of surviving a clash of arms with mighty-limbed Hector than a girlish coward. The Stoic observes merely that triumph is not ours to grant; it is not within human jurisdiction. If the fates decree that a girlish coward like Paris will slay Achilles, not all his skill at arms will avail him, and a man thought invulnerable will be discovered to have an Achilles’ heel.

Does this mean that a man preparing for battle should not take reasonable steps to preserve his life, practice with spear and sword, drill and march, and do the other wise and needful things a soldier must do? It does not mean that.

It means you must do these things as reason directs, and arm and armor your soul with as much attention as you arm your limbs. A defeat in your mind, is called Cowardice, and this is a defeat where you could have prevented it, because what occurs in your mind is your concern, your jurisdiction. You can blame no one else. Victory in your mind is called Courage, and no one merits praise aside from you. On the other hand, death is defeat on the battlefield, where fear and terror, sons of bloodthirsty war hold reign, chance arbitrates the outcome, and blind fate decrees the victor. A defeat here means nothing: neither praise nor blame has any meaning, aside from a mere tactical and scientific discussion of means and ends.

The distinction here is between what is necessarily and immediately dependent on our own doing and what is only contingently or remotely dependent on our own doing. Whether you are or are not a coward is your own doing necessarily and immediately. Whether you are victorious or not is dependent only remotely on your own doing, contingently. Some things you do influence the outcome, but there is always something you cannot influence.

Q: But how important a distinction is it?

A: It is a crucial distinction. Satisfaction consists of achieving desires. A desire that can only be achieved by a contingent or remote external is at the mercy of external circumstances. A desire that can be achieved by a necessary and immediate internal is not at the mercy of external circumstances. Fate can rob you of externals, not internals.

Q: How is it relevant to how one lives, or ought to live?

A: Keeping this distinction forever in front of one’s mind will allow one to live without unhappiness. Whenever one encounters an unpleasant impression, test it with this rule: is it one’s own or is it not one’s own? Is it something over which one has control, or not? If it is not something over which one has no control, be ready with the answer that it means nothing.

Q: But here you are getting back to what I think is the crux of what’s wrong with Stoicism: seeking the good within ourselves, and not in external things. I still don’t see how one can logically stop short of quietism on this premise.

A: Short answer: because the Quietist is selfish and unnatural, concerned only with his own pleasure, and when the quietist cannot find pleasure in the material world, he departs from it; whereas and the Stoic is unselfish and dutiful, and holds pleasure in contempt, and when he cannot do his duty and remain in the material world, he departs from it, and not before.

Long answer: Stoicism says that there is a distinction between what is real and what is unreal, what is sane and what is insane, what is temperate and what is intemperate, what is rational and what is irrational.
If you grant this distinction is valid, it follows by definition that unreal perceptions are illusions, insane conclusions are false-to-facts, intemperate desires are better left unfulfilled, irrational actions are self-defeating. When a stoic speaks of ‘living in accordance with Nature’, he does not mean living in the wilderness, he means living according to the nature of reality, the guidance of rationality, the wholesome spirit of duty and piety toward his forefathers. He means, in short, that a man is betraying the proper rational nature of a man, when he assents to what is false, when he desires the unobtainable, when he flees the unavoidable, when he indulges in monstrous and abnormal appetites.
From this it follows that, if man is to have any hope of avoiding unhappiness at all, that hope exists when he governs his reason to assent to what is true and dissent from what is false; when he restricts his desires to obtainable objects; when he accepts the unavoidable with dignified resignation; when he checks his appetites, and seeks only wholesome pleasures.
If man has no power to govern himself, then he cannot avoid unhappiness. If this were the case, it would appropriate to ask what is the point of doing anything? If our reason is marred so that we have no choice but to assent to falsehoods; if our hearts are crazed so that we have no choice but to lust for the unobtainable and shrink from the unavoidable; if our spirits are corrupt, so that we have no choice but to wallow in shameful passions, then, indeed, would be a good time to ask what the point was of doing anything. Then and only then would your question be apt.
If and only if man has the power to govern himself, is happiness possible. Only then can he deduce correct conclusions, find truth, dismiss falsehood, aim for obtainable goals and select wholesome means to win them.
Self-control would not be possible if we lived in a universe where woe and weal sprang directly from our impressions, and where our judgment was chained to those impressions inescapably. One of Asimov’s robots cannot hold it to be good to harm or disobey a human being, because (according to the Asimovian conceit) this judgment is hardwired into its positronic brain. Hence, the Asimov robot cannot exercise self-control in this area. If the robot is sad because it failed (through no fault of its own) to protect or obey a human being, it cannot be comforted; its sorrow springs directly from its impressions without the mediation of its judgment.
So, in other words, the stoic tells you that self-mastery is a necessary precondition to happiness. Your response is that someone who has the power to put aside ugly, irrational, false and improper desires could theoretically use that same power to put aside fair, reasonable, true and wholesome desires. Your response is that someone with enough courage to put aside his fear of wounds and death in the face of the enemy, so that he could follow the course of duty his reason told him to follow, could, instead, put aside his aversion to shameful behavior, put aside his love of duty, throw down his weapons and flee, without any twinge of discontent, and find contentment wallowing in sloth.
An Epicurean assumes that desires are an ultimate given. An Epicurean assumes that an honest man does his duty because he likes duty; the same way a cookie-eater eats cookies because he likes cookies. Just as the cookie-eater had enough self-control to put aside his love of cookies while he was dieting, should dieting please him more than cookies, so too the honest man can use his self-control to put aside his love of honesty, should villainy please him more than honor.
This logic would be fine if desire were the ultimate given. Stoics do not believe that desires are the ultimate given (nor do Peripatetics). We divide the world between desires a man ought to have and those he ought not to have, according to whether they partake of the concept of the “good” or not. Stoics deem duty is a thing you perceive, not a thing you invent (and I think Aristotle’s Great-Souled Man would agree). For example, I hold it is sweet and decorous to die for your home, and I say that this is a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion. The proper emotional response to this fact is to organize your emotions to have the patriotism necessary to make yourself hold it to be sweet and decorous to die for your home. But the duty itself does not care whether you have a proper emotion to make the execution of the duty painful or pleasant: just as long as it gets done, duty is satisfied.
Likewise, I hold it to be “natural”, i.e. a fact, that one ought to respect one’s parents, cherish one’s children, rejoice in the honest accomplishments of other men, even men smarter, braver and better than oneself. Impiety to one’s parents, selfish coolness to one’s children, envy and bitterness for the honest accomplishments of others are not merely ugly and wrong, they are, as a matter of fact, a defiance of reality itself, i.e. unnatural.
If (and this is a big ‘if’) it is a matter of fact, and not a matter of opinion, that there are certain emotions and desires we ought to have (whether we are inclined that way or not) then we are obligated to use what self-control we have to govern our emotions so that they conform to this set of facts, i.e. the natural moral order of the universe.
Like Stoicism, Quietism also requires radical self-control, but there the similarity ends. The question is WHY should one exercise one’s self-control? To what end? The Quietist concludes the opposite of the Stoic: if there is a natural moral order to the universe, the Quietist tells you to use your power of self-control to ignore your duties, to detach yourself from your proper emotional relationships with parent, wife, children, home, love of life. The Quietist seeks infinite bliss in some otherworldly place outside the universe, and is concerned with super-nature, not nature, super-reality, not reality. To the Stoic, that is treason. It is like a soldier abandoning his post.
Sacrificing your life to serve a greater good is not the same as committing suicide out of a craving for self-annihilation. Both the hero and the suicide must put aside their love of life, but, even so, the hero puts aside his life for something more important than one life, whereas the suicide throws his life away because he despises it or it displeases him.
Q: As we mature, we gain more control over externals.

A: This does not change the fact that this “control” is contingent and accidental. It might be more precise to speak of an increase in “influence”: we can affect the external outcome, but never determine the outcome.

Q: Granted — but this means that there is a difference of degree, not of kind.

A: No. It is a difference of kind. No amount of internal self-mastery has any necessary effect on the external world. This is a difference of kind, not of degree. If it were a difference of degree, more of the one would lead to a difference in the other.

Winston Smith and Cato of Utica both have two desires, external and internal: one is the overthrow of their enemies, the other is to preserve their courage in the face of adversity. In both cases, the first desire is simply unobtainable: the victory of Caesar, the triumph of Big Brother, are beyond the power of any single man to deflect. Cato, rather than fall into the hands of Caesar, throws himself on his sword without any sign of weakness. Winston, rather than having rats on his face, begs his tormentors to torture his lover instead of him.

However, each both Cato and Winston had the same opportunity for victory or shame in the field of self-mastery, because of the nature of that struggle. If Winston had had more resolve, he could have done as Cato did, and nothing Big Brother could have done would have stopped him. If you have read 1984, you might recall that Winston submits to an arrest order given over the television. No officer is even in the room with him. A disembodied voice tells him to stand and raise his hands, and he complies. He does not jump out the window, he does not run, and he does not commit suicide to avoid capture. He does not even embrace his lover one last time, because the voice forbids it. Clearly, this is not a question of the numbers of arresting officers in the room: there were none. His fear defeated him, nothing else.

The two struggles, internal and external, are incommensurate. No matter how much resolve Cato has in his heart, the victory of Caesar is determined by fate. Cato’s fortitude, even if he has the fortitude of a giant, will not stir the outcome of the military struggle one iota. It is not a question of degree. Cato did not suffer military defeat because of a lack of resolve.

But the internal struggle depends on fortitude: fate is helpless and cannot touch stir the outcome one iota. Cato succeeds and Winston fails because Cato has the virtues proper to a man, and Winston does not.

Any increase of our influence over external circumstances is contingent, dependent, weak, and subject to the whim of fate or the folly or cruelty of our fellow men. An increase or decrease of the influence we have over externals can never change its basic nature. The chain of cause and effect that leads to the satisfaction of an external desire always has two roots: our actions and the world’s circumstances. By definition, whenever we want something we cannot necessarily get, it may be that we will not get it. On the other hand, the chain of cause and effect that leads to the satisfaction of an internal desire always has one root: one’s own doing.

If a man has the trait called honesty it is NECESSARILY THE CASE that the honesty is his own doing. He is honest not because someone or something else has determined he shall be honest, only him. Likewise, if a man is dishonest, no outside person forces him to it, nor can he blame another for his rotten character.

On the other hand, while it is ordinary for a man to be praised for military victories or blamed for defeats, in fact, these things are not his doing. He may have fought even more bravely and skillfully than his foes, and still the palm goes to another. Did Hector sulk in his tent, bitter over an argument about a slave-girl, or inhuman with wrath over the death of his friend, or did Achilles? It was Achilles, whose anger and sullen disloyalty are nothing to admire, to whom the gods gave victory, even if they had to deceive Hector to do it.

Likewise, if you are Aenaes, and Troy falls, you are blameless, since you did all that honor requires. You fought the Greek, but the gods determined that your city must fall. If you are Paris, you are not blameless: your uncontrolled lust, folly, and pride urged you to violate the courtesy of the Spartans, and carry off their Queen. It would be pointless for Aenaes to blame himself, or even to sorrow, over a matter that is out of his hands. It would be heedless for Paris to excuse himself, because his lack of self-mastery cause him to violate the duty a guest owes his host, the respect all honest men owe the sanctity of marriage, and the piety a citizen owes his father, the patriotism he owes his city, when he drew the wrath of the Greeks down upon his home city and invited her bitter destruction.