Stoicism and Buddhism are both interesting. They’re the two most popular schools of thought that promise to use philosophical insight to help people achieve tranquility. I want to understand (1) what the basic ideas are, (2) whether they’re true, and (3) whether they contain valuable insights (even if not all of it is true). This week, I’m going to look at Stoicism.
The basic idea of Stoicism, as I understand it, is that virtue is the good. The only thing that’s fundamentally good for you—that determines whether your life is going well—is being virtuous. Likewise, the only thing that’s fundamentally bad for you is being vicious. Being virtuous or vicious just means exercising your will correctly or incorrectly, i.e. making good or bad choices. Things outside of your will, or externals, such as wealth/poverty, health/sickness, your relationships with other people, or even pleasure/pain, do not have any intrinsic value or disvalue for you. Once you recognize this, you can just decide to make the right choices, and then your life will be going well. And you can regard externals with detachment, since you now see that they don’t really matter.
One wrinkle: Some externals, the Stoics acknowledge, are of a sort that are reasonable to choose or avoid. For example, a reasonable person would choose health and avoid sickness. But they still don’t really matter, so they’re called preferred or dispreferred indifferents. Epictetus compares preferred indifferents to hors d’oeuvres at a party—you’ll take one if they’re being passed around, but you wouldn’t miss them.
The idea that virtue and vice are what are fundamentally good or bad for us derives from a deeper principle that the good life is a life in accordance with one’s nature. You are essentially your rational mind, the Stoics think. So living according to your nature means having your rational mind function correctly, which means making the right choices, i.e. being virtuous. (This is supposed to cover not only actions in the ordinary sense but also judgments about what to believe.) Which externals count as preferred or dispreferred, and the content of our ethical obligations, has to do with what’s natural for us insofar as we fall into other less important categories, e.g. as animals or as members of a society.
On reflection, I think that pretty much all of the Stoic ideas are false.
I don’t think that I am essentially my rational mind. I think I’m a human being, a physical organism.
I don’t think that virtue is the only good and that vice is the only evil for me. It’s true that, if I act rightly, then this is enough to give me a certain sort of satisfaction with myself; I’ve done the best I can. But being satisfied with how you’ve lived isn’t the same thing as having had a good life. When Jean-Luc Picard refused to sacrifice his principles while being tortured by the Romulans, that was great, but he was definitely better off in command of the Enterprise.
Besides, even if virtue were the only good and vice the only evil for me, that wouldn’t actually be enough to get me tranquility. What about other people? Their lives might go badly, and why shouldn’t I feel bad/worry about that? Well, the Stoic might say, their lives going badly would consist in their being vicious, so fuck ‘em. But their being vicious itself seems regrettable. Similarly, even if I can decide to be virtuous from now on, I might have been vicious in the past, so why wouldn’t it be reasonable to regret that? Finally, the good/evil for non-rational animals presumably consists in things like pleasure/pain, so why shouldn’t I feel bad when they feel pain?
Even so, I do think Stoic ideas can be useful. It just so happens that a lot of the time, the thing I’m most concerned with just is whether I’m doing the best I can. I might be especially prone to this because I’m a little neurotic and also not especially empathetic. In those cases, it can be useful to distinguish between what is under my control and what is not under my control.
(Actually, it can also be helpful to distinguish between what is and is not under your control even if your main concern doesn’t just happen to be doing the best you can. This is because making this distinction can prompt you to remember that you have some control over your own thoughts, and so you can decide to try to focus on things that it would be more constructive to think about rather than unpleasant things that are outside of your control. But I don’t think this strategy would technically count as Stoic, because it doesn’t rely on the idea that what’s outside your control doesn’t matter, and I take that to be the key move that the Stoics are making.)