Not to Worry

Stephen Mulhall

  • Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties and Fate by Tad Brennan
    Oxford, 340 pp, £25.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 19 925626 8

Why should we take anything other than an antiquarian interest in the doctrinal intricacies of a school of Ancient Greek ethical thought that passed its zenith in 200 AD? The dust-jacket copy on Tad Brennan’s book claims that it will explain not only how to live the Stoic life, but also why we might want to, the reason being that Stoic ideas remain valuable today, both intellectually and in practice. In fact, while Brennan certainly works hard to render Stoicism intelligible, he ends up identifying various ways in which its vision of human nature is either unintelligible, or a source of damaging misunderstandings about ourselves that continue to inform our thinking.

In the introduction, Brennan suggests another reason for reading his book: to appreciate that the actual doctrines of the Stoic school are very distant from what we nowadays mean by ‘stoicism’, so that a genuinely Stoic stoicism is more interesting (even perhaps more of a contender for our allegiance) than its inauthentic contemporary counterpart. But in order to create the necessary appearance of distance, Brennan offers a highly implausible gloss on our contemporary understanding of the term. Do we really currently think of a stoical attitude as involving the complete eradication or repression of all emotions? William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem ‘Invictus’, which Brennan invokes in illustration, with its talk of being ‘bloodied but unbowed’, ‘master of my fate’, ‘captain of my soul’, hardly suggests an aspiration to be a block of wood.

Thankfully, the book itself is essentially unmarked by these distracting preliminaries. After briefly summarising the initial arc of the Stoic school (which ran roughly from 300 BC to the 200s AD), by sketching in its major figures – Chrysippus and Epictetus loom largest – and emphasising the scarcity of written texts from those figures, he provides a short overview of Stoic ethical thinking. The remainder of the book is designed to fill out this overview. The first part covers the general Stoic theory of the mind, particularly the Stoics’ conception of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; the second looks in detail at the main elements of Stoic ethics; and the third concentrates on the specific difficulties involved in combining their view of fate with their belief in the freedom of the will.

According to the Stoics, the good life for human beings – the kind of life lived by a virtuous man or sage – is a matter of living in accordance with nature; we will flourish (that is, attain our ultimate end of happiness) only by devoting our lives to the consistent performance of actions that befit our own nature and the natural realm as a whole. But following nature does not mean endorsing our natural impulses concerning what is good and bad, for they misrepresent what is truly valuable. We naturally tend to regard pleasure, money, fame, health, freedom and survival as good things, and their absence as bad; but for the Stoics virtue alone is good for us, and vice alone bad. So the first step towards virtue is to eradicate false beliefs about the good; we must acquire and enact the conviction that everything other than virtue is indifferent – that it makes no real difference to our happiness whether we are wealthy or poor, healthy or ill.

Even though such indifferents are of no value, however, we still have genuine grounds for concern about them. For having carefully observed the course of nature, and having seen which kinds of action are characteristic of the human species, the sage rightly concludes that it is natural for human beings to feed themselves, to avoid injury, to marry and have families, and to participate in broader communities (such as the Greek polis). It is therefore not only not contrary to virtue, but constitutive of it, to choose to pursue indifferents of various kinds in various contexts – for only by cultivating and acting on such impulses can the sage live in accordance with human nature. What he must not do is regard any of the indifferents he selects or disselects as genuinely good or bad in themselves.

What, then, is the difference between selecting an indifferent and so judging that one has reason to pursue it, and viewing it as good? Anyone who viewed wealth as a genuinely good thing would feel pleasure at achieving it, and would regret its loss; he would fear situations where the pursuit of any two such goods come into conflict, because whatever he does, he will lose something of value; and should the demands of virtue appear to come into conflict with those of wealth or health, he would view himself as making a sacrifice for its attainment. The sage, by contrast, would treat indifferents with real indifference. While seeing that it is natural and so reasonable to pursue them, he would see no reason to be moved to pleasure or pain, satisfaction or regret, by their gain or their loss, however that might come about.

Furthermore, the Stoic would point out, it is part of the natural course of things that the natural course of things is sometimes interrupted or disturbed; natural things are by their nature subject to alteration, decay and disruption. In the same way, it is as much a part of nature that human beings sometimes lose their health or their wealth as that they strive to attain them. So the only appropriate response to the outcome of our natural and reasonable pursuits of such indifferents, whatever it may be, is to view it as just as appropriate as any other outcome to the nature of what we pursue and to our nature as pursuers. In this respect, success and failure are simply two impostors, and to see them as such is what true success consists in.

But it’s not just that the Stoics see the natural order as inherently subject to change and disorder; they also see such change and disorder as itself ordered or designed. Ultimately, the Stoics identify nature at its most general level – the order and unfolding development of the cosmos – with the will of Zeus, and so as the embodiment of Reason and Fate. But if everything that happens is fated to happen, in accordance with a divine plan or principles, then the only fitting response to the way things are – whatever that may be, and however unattractive it may appear to the untutored human perspective – is in fact satisfaction or contentment, rather than mere indifference.

To accept such a vision of nature, and to translate it into patterns of behaviour that accord with it, will be far from easy. And the difficulty is heightened by the Stoics’ further claim that what makes an individual action virtuous is not simply whether or not its performance in this context accords with nature: it must flow from a settled disposition in the agent to perform actions of that kind in every appropriate context. In other words, being virtuous is a matter of acquiring and maintaining certain character traits; and those traits are individually attainable only insofar as they contribute to a mutually reinforcing and internally coherent overall structure of such dispositions – a single, integrated personality or self – across the course of a lifetime.

So someone who performs actions that are in accordance with nature in some contexts but not others, or who feels indifferent about some indifferents but not all, or who is in any way prone to find that some aspects of his conception of the good – and so his character – conflict with others, remains just as distant from a truly virtuous mode of existence as someone who never acts in accordance with nature. And since the sage’s virtuous character is manifest in everything he does, in relation to any and every indifferent he encounters, then even apparently trivial individual acts – cooking, washing, walking – are in his case qualitatively different from the same acts performed by a non-sage. In short, unless we are entirely virtuous, we remain entirely in the grip of vice; human flourishing is not a matter of degree, but of making a laborious transition from quantity to quality. By amassing increasing quantities of befitting but vicious acts, and thereby cultivating individually befitting but isolated or otherwise non-integrated – and so vicious – dispositions, the non-sage might eventually reach the point at which his whole character, and hence the quality of every disposition he possesses and every individual act he performs, is utterly transformed. But at every step in the process of transformation until the very last he remains untransformed.

Brennan recognises that this vision of the human good rests on a conception of nature – and so of human nature – that is likely to seem profoundly unattractive to us insofar as we find it comprehensible at all. The most obvious difficulty is the claim that all the objects of our natural concern, save virtue itself, are of no value whatever; the less obvious difficulty is the more general assumption that accordance with nature might objectively determine what is good for us. Together, these views generate the apparently paradoxical claim that we can fulfil our nature only by viewing everything towards which our nature inclines us as a matter of complete indifference. But how can a life devoted to acting contrary to the order of nature as we observe it in fact constitute a life in accordance with nature?

As Brennan also points out, the Stoic view about the worthlessness of indifferents is recognisably a variation on a Socratic theme, and as such is essentially continuous with forms of thought about virtue that are central to Western culture. Socrates famously argues that only wisdom is good, because it alone is uniformly beneficial to its possessor, whereas other things often viewed as good can be harmful if they are not used wisely. But the Stoics take this line of argument to what Brennan sees as an un-Socratic extreme; for they argue not that money or health are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but rather that they are never of any value whatsoever. Whereas Socrates admits that wealth is a good thing if used correctly, the Stoics claim that only the correct use of wealth is a good thing. Why?

Brennan cites the Stoic claim that something can be genuinely good only if it is unconditionally good, because only then can its possession guarantee the happiness of the virtuous person. But he is not impressed by it: ‘To say that we must purge anything vulnerable from happiness lest the fear of vulnerability should undermine our happiness is to follow the route of a chef who begins by seeking only the freshest fruits, but from an increasing concern to avoid overripeness decides to purchase only plastic fruit instead.’ This is a revealing analogy: since plastic fruit is not a kind of fruit, any more than a decoy duck is a kind of duck, to accept it would be to accept that unconditionally good things are not genuinely good. Such an argument simply reproduces the Stoics’ expulsion of one kind of good from the category of goods altogether, differing only over which kind is the simulacrum of genuine goodness.

And this shows us something of what is really at stake in this argument. For the Stoic stance surely connects with a related Socratic claim that Brennan does not explore in any detail: the claim that the good man cannot be harmed. This seemed as strange to Socrates’ interlocutors as it may do to us: how can we say that a virtuous man who loses his health or his possessions or his freedom as a result of his virtue is not harmed by this? But Socrates’ point is that the virtuous person will not see such losses for the sake of virtue as harming him at all; for on his understanding of what is good for him, vice is bad for him in a way that makes the harmfulness of other things of vanishing significance. Consequently, if he remains virtuous, he has avoided the only thing that might really harm him.

This shows that what constitutes harm for a human being is not something we can establish in an ethically neutral way; for part of what distinguishes one ethical view from another is the distinctive understanding it embodies of what goodness, and hence badness, are. From one perspective, sacrificing pleasure is always a great harm, even if it allows us to achieve a greater good; from another, it is only harmful when it is not required by virtue; from yet another, it is never a genuine harm, any more than pleasure itself is a genuine good. The nature of pleasure does not allow us to determine which of these evaluations of it is correct; rather, each mode of evaluation offers a different determination of how the nature of pain is properly to be understood.

It follows, of course, that talk of action being in accordance with nature offers no more neutral a standard for ethical evaluation than talk of its being in accord with the nature of pleasure. This, I presume, is what Brennan means when he remarks that ‘whenever the ancients say “natural”, it’s time to hold on to your wallet.’ But he leaves this remark essentially undeveloped, and as it stands it is misleading. To begin with, it implies that invocations of nature in other mouths are somehow less likely to threaten our wallets; but the modern natural sciences can give us no more objective a grip on what accords with nature in any ethically relevant sense of that phrase than the cosmologies of the ancients can. The ethical significance of any deliverance of contemporary biology or neurology is not determined by the deliverance itself; human animals may be compelled to survive and reproduce, for example, but that hardly determines the significance of any particular way in which we go about it. Such discoveries about ourselves may pose ethical questions, but they cannot determine a particular way of answering them.

Brennan’s throwaway remark also implies that all invocations of nature by the ancients are confidence tricks – necessarily spurious ways of claiming authority. But to claim that a certain way of living is in accordance with our nature may simply serve to summarise a much more elaborate view about what a properly flourishing human life consists in. The appropriate response to such invocations is not to reject them, but to explore the attractions and drawbacks of that broader ethical context.

And this is what Brennan does in fact, by tracing the Stoic view of indifferents to a particular view of the human animal and its place in nature – more specifically, to a particular view of human embodiment. We are related to our body, the Stoics maintain, in such a way that its welfare forms no part of our good; and yet we do have a special relation to it, such that it is in accordance with nature to give some attention to its maintenance. Epictetus imagines our body as bestowed on us in the way a horse or donkey might be: it is part of our job to give it fodder and shelter, to be diligent grooms, although it would be a very confused groom who came to feel pleasure in the horse’s eating as he did in his own.

Brennan rightly condemns the assumption that such a view must express a certain deep alienation from ourselves. For everything hangs on what we count as ourselves; and if our body really is as nothing to us from the point of view of our ultimate good, then what might seem the epitome of self-alienation is in fact a simple recognition of the reality of things. Hence, to criticise their view will require a competing account of human nature, of similar scope and elaboration.

Nevertheless, Brennan only registers the possibility that the Stoic view is anything other than self-alienating; he doesn’t explore it. This may be because it is so tightly connected with the Stoics’ conception of nature as manifesting the will of Zeus; as Epictetus puts it, if we are our body’s grooms, then Zeus is its true owner, and our service to it is a form of our service to him. One can understand how this connection might seem to mark the limits of Stoicism’s intelligibility to us; and Brennan implies as much by devoting the final part of his book to a demonstration that Stoic fatalism is incompatible with the possibility of genuine human action.

But in fact, it is not so terribly hard to see the attractions of thinking of genuine goodness as unconditional, and of pleasure as a mere simulacrum of goodness. Surely they lie precisely in allowing us to think of the good man as invulnerable to the vicissitudes of the world. To be in a position to view the way things pan out with equanimity – because one knows that what is truly valuable in life is ultimately not a matter of how things go in the world – is to avoid a multitude of ways in which the slings and arrows of contingency might wound us. It would even neutralise the fear of death, for dying is no more bad than continuing to live is good. One might then perfectly well say that on such a view, the fulfilment of human nature lies in a certain kind of transcendence of it.

Stoic extensions of Socratic thinking are thus not really alien to us at all; for as their invocations of Zeus would anyway suggest, they offer a recognisable version of certain kinds of religious attitude, specifically that of Christianity and so of certain highly influential secularised versions of Christianity. There is, for example, Kant’s view that our moral status is always and only a matter of the orientation of our will, and hence essentially immune to luck – unaffected either by whether and how what we will actually results in action, or by the consequences of that action. Such appeal as Stoicism can hold for us therefore derives from the significance we continue to see in those dimensions of ethical life from which religious attitudes to human nature, and to nature more generally, grow. This may not be the reason that Brennan and his publishers think they have for claiming that we might want to live a Stoic life; but it is the only reason that the actual content of his fascinating book appears to provide.