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.

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