'“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship' by Sherman J. Clark

“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship

by Sherman J. Clark

Stoicism is enjoying something of a popular renaissance, as books, blogs, and the like explore the stoic ethics of Epictetus and Aurelius as way of dealing with distress and misfortune. But stoicism is potentially strong medicine; and the cure, if fully digested, may be worse than the disease. Stoic insights, taken seriously, can have troubling implications, primary among which is the possibility that a life of true stoic virtue would be bleak and joyless. If we inure ourselves to distress, as stoic thought has us do, perhaps we also deny ourselves the possibility of joy.

Of course, the potential joylessness of stoic thought can simply be denied or disregarded as people take what comfort they will from a selective application of stoic principles. Those writing about stoicism often adopt this strategy, and simply assert that stoic thought need not be bleak. But hopeful assertions do not make the implications go away; and it is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully. Moreover, coming to terms with the potential bleakness of stoicism also sheds light on other potentially problematic aspects of stoic thought.

Indeed, the potential pay-off of confronting and resolving these questions is not merely a more coherent and attractive vision of stoicism. A deeper vision of stoicism offers an appealing if partial response to the seeming meaninglessness of modern life. If, as Dreyfus and Kelly put it in All Things Shining, Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age, perhaps stoic thought also offers us the means to stave off its unwelcome progeny.

As is often the case with difficult problems, the first step is to recognize its existence and severity. So here I begin by describing how stoic principles, if taken seriously, can lead not just to peaceful apathiea, but beyond that to empty malaise. I then consider the inadequacy of several familiar seeming-solutions to the problem. That allows for the identification of a form of deeply satisfying joy that flows from rather than denies the implications of stoic insights. In the process, it will also illuminate other seemingly strange or discomforting aspects of stoic thought.

The heart of the matter, or so I argue below, is this. True stoic joy—and thus, if one embraces a stoic view of human nature, true eudaimonia—flows not merely from renouncing or conquering concern for indifferent matters. Rather, it comes as a result of an appreciation for and sense of connection with the awesome beauty and order of the cosmos, compared to which the petty concerns of life—pleasure, pain, wealth, poverty, illness, health, fame, death, and the like—are seen as the nothings they are.

On this vision, stoic practices and development should focus not on overcoming distress directly but rather on nurturing our signal human capacity to appreciate and feel connected to the beauty order of the universe. And this we can best do in the company of friends. We thus inure ourselves to distress not by closing ourselves off from joy and from others, but rather by opening ourselves up—opening our eyes and minds to a deeper and more human form of shared happiness and thriving.

Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable?

Stoicism eases distress by reminding us that the things we tend to worry about—wealth, power, physical pleasure, and the like—do not really matter. They do not matter because they are not really ours—not “on us,” as Epictetus cogently puts it. They are not in our control; and beyond that, they are no part of what makes us better or worse as human beings—indeed no part of what makes us human at all. If we allow our happiness to depend on such things, we are neither free nor fully ourselves. So we should not care about those things. Instead, we should care only about what is ours and in our control—our judgements and attitudes and actions.

Moreover, for the thoughtful stoic, setting aside all other, external, things turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because those things are not capable of producing lasting well-being anyway. The mature stoic recognizes that wealth, power, and pleasure are illusory goods—promising satisfactions they are incapable of delivering, and in the process tempting us to stress and worry over the pursuit of things not worth pursuing. And so too are the opposites of these things merely illusory evils. Stoic insight reveals that misfortune, pain, even death, are nothing. So we should not care about such things—not let them worry us.

Much stoic thinking is focused on this aspect of stoicism—learning how to not allow seemingly-bad things to worry or distress us. It is seen as a set of tools for dealing with difficult circumstances. To some extent this focus makes sense. Letting go of the pursuit of fortune and pleasure is easier said than done; and becoming indifferent to misfortune and pain is even harder. For those suffering what they experience as misfortune, or living with stress and worry, peace of mind is a worthwhile goal, and not one easily attain. Nothing I say here is meant to dismiss the value of seeking tranquility through stoic thought.

But here I want to assume that goal attained. What follows? Assume you have freed yourself from worry over things that are neither truly yours not truly worthy of concern. You are indifferent to wealth, pleasure, longevity, and other such false goods; and you have no fear of poverty, pain, death, or other such seeming misfortunes. Now what? Or, given that no one will achieve perfect equanimity, perhaps we should rather put it this way: to the extent that you have achieved indifference to such things, what room is left for joy? If nothing is worth worrying about, what is or can be worth getting excited about?

One possible conclusion—the possibility to which I am seeking an alternative—is that nothing is worth getting excited about. Perhaps the stoic path, if pursued fully and honestly, leads not just to a place of serenity and peace of mind but also to some not-particularly-appealing territory somewhere between apathy and melancholy.

Hamlet is, on this as on so much, illuminating. Without describing the titular Prince as a stoic, which would rather beg the question at hand, we can see that he fully—perhaps too fully—grasps the essential stoic insight that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet II, ii, 247-48. Beyond that, he admires those whose character manifests an awareness of this insight, as evinced by the explicit reasons he gives for loving and admiring Horatio:

                                   ‘. . . for thou hast been—
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’                                                          Hamlet III, ii, 62-71.

We are not told how Horatio has achieved this ideal stoicism; but assume for our purposes that he has done so in the stoic way—by being aware at some perhaps-unexamined level that “Fortunes buffets and rewards” are not worth worrying about.

While we do not see much of Horatio’s inner life, we see plenty of Hamlet’s. And perhaps what we see there shows us what happens when the stoic awareness fueling Horatio’s equanimity is examined, and is followed to its conclusion by a more powerful mind. Hamlet recognizes that the things of this world or not worth worrying about, and recognizes further that this is because they are really not worth much at all:

‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
Hamlet I, ii, 133-34.

So, the question can be framed in this way. Can we be Horatio without becoming Hamlet? And should we want to? Can and should we take solace from the realization that the things of the world do not really matter, without facing the potentially bleak realization that the world and our lives in it are indeed “flat, and unprofitable”?

One possible answer is that we need not worry about the implications of having conquered fear and pain through stoicism, because no one will ever really conquer fear and pain. But that is like saying that we need not worry that we are climbing out of the frying pan into the fire because we will never get out of the frying pan anyway. If we hope that stoic thought can work to conquer distress, we need think about what happens when it does. Moreover, if we confront honestly the potentially bleak fact that the material concerns of this world truly are indifferent, we are then in a position to think about what is worth getting excited about.

Five Partial Responses

Aside from simply denying or deferring the problem, there are a number of familiar and seemingly appealing responses to the potential bleakness of stoic thought. I address five such below. Much more has and could be said about each; but for present purposes the bottom line is that none prove ultimately satisfactory, because none get to the heart of the matter.

The fact that many stoics are joyous

Epictetus, from what we can tell, seems to have been a cheerful enough fellow. And if you attend a conference of modern stoics you will find more cheerful Horatios sharing a pint than gloomy Hamlets bemoaning the meaningless of life. Doesn’t this demonstrate that stoic thought does not lead to bleakness? No. It is hopeful evidence, yes: but it does not answer the question. First of all, we do not know the inner lives of others; and many a cheerful pint-sharer, stoic or otherwise, has been known to face a demon or two when the party is over. More to the point, we have already granted that the stoic path is pleasant enough during its initial stages—when it leads us away from worry and distress. What we want to know is what happens if we continue down the road.

This question could of course be addressed as a matter of empirical psychology. Do people who find comfort and tranquility through stoicism also find apathy and malaise? As difficult as it would be difficult to isolate the impact of stoic ideas from other social and psychological factors, such research would be useful. But it would not resolve the question at hand. Grant that some can adopt stoic ideas a-la-carte, follow the path of stoicism only as far as they find it helpful, and thus avoid confronting the potential implications. Still, thoughtful and intellectual honest stoics will want to know. What happens if one takes stoic thought seriously? Does joy for a stoic require on-going denial and self-deception? Must we, like Claudius, view our philosophy through “an auspicious and a dropping eye”—trying not to confront the implications of what we hope will give solace?

The doctrine of preferred indifferents

A potential response from within stoic thought is the idea of so-called “preferred indifferents.” According this doctrine, although the things of this world are indeed indifferent, it is consistent with our proper functioning as human beings to prefer certain of those things to others. All else being equal, we can better practice virtue and thrive if we are healthy rather than ill, safe rather then in danger, fed rather than hungry. Grant then that the stoic need not scorn the goods the world offers, so long as he or she does not get attached to them—so long as he or she does not really allow those things to matter. But that leaves us where we began—facing the seeming fact that nothing is really worth getting excited about. However well the doctrine of preferred indifferents may serve as an explanation for the stoic’s participation in the ordinary pursuits of life, it provides no basis for him or her to take real joy in those pursuits.

Indeed, unless we are to imagine the mind as a sort of one-way valve—able to take joy from something without sorrowing at its loss—the doctrine of preferred indifferents offers no answer at all to the question of where and how the stoic might find joy. To the extent that stoic thought does its first job, and frees us from concern over worldly things, it thus also brings us face to face with the problem at hand.

Indifferent things as virtue-vehicles

A more promising, if still not-quite-adequate response is that even things that are themselves inherently meaningless can be valuable as vehicles through which we develop and display the virtues that make for a good and authentically-human life. An example, borrowed from Epictetus, is pick-up basketball, which I enjoy. Nothing hinges on the outcome of a game at the local gym or playground. It simply does not matter whether I win or lose—or even how well or poorly I play. But the activity provides a vehicle for the nurturing and display of things that do matter—not just physical skills and fitness, but teamwork, fairness, toughness and the like. These are real and valuable virtues—on stoic terms in particular.

This is an important and overlooked aspect of stoic thought, as it helps explain why the stoic should, as a normative matter, give care and attention to the things of this word, despite their intrinsic insignificance.  It does not, however, answer the question at hand. We still need to know—or may be driven to wonder—whether the virtues so-nurtured are capable of not just engendering admiration but also of bringing joy.

Joy through engagement

Epictetus’s ball game example might make one think that the answer is right before our eyes. While playing basketball, I do not tend to ponder the seeming bleakness of life. Rather, the experience is one that Csikszentmihalyi has described as flow—a feeling of full engagement in the activity and moment. This sort of experience is available not just through sports, of course, but through a wide range of activities that provide attainable but difficult and engaging challenges to occupy our thoughts. This might suggest that the answer to stoic malaise, or to malaise more generally, might simply be that—engagement. And so it might.

But at bottom this avoids rather than answers the question. Perhaps in the end all we can do about the potential bleakness of stoic thought is find ways to distract ourselves from it.  But if we want rather to confront and come to terms with the seeming pointlessness of life, engagement with inherently-pointless things cannot be the only or ultimate solution.

Joy through service

But that in turn suggests a deeper and potentially more satisfying response. Perhaps joy comes not merely through engagement, generally, but engagement with something worthwhile—in particular the service of others. Viktor Frankl put it this way:

“[H]appiness . . .  cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

 At some level, this is the most appealing response. And I would certainly never find fault with anyone who finds joy in the service of others.

But at a deeper level this too begs the question. Help others, yes. But help them do what? Serve a cause greater than oneself, yes. But what cause is worth serving? Recall that the stoic has fully recognized that the things most people care about—money, health, and the like—are not in fact worth caring about. They mean nothing. And to put the matter starkly, helping others do meaningless and pointless things cannot be a satisfying source of meaning and purpose. So then, perhaps the answer is to help others do things that are meaningful? And there’s the rub. We are back where we began—wondering what if anything really is worth doing.

Of course, we can forestall the question, perhaps indefinitely, by focusing on people’s basic needs. Just as one need not confront the ultimate implications of stoic thought while he or she is still just trying to overcoming distress, the survive-focused stoic can forestall the question of what is ultimately worth caring about by focusing on helping people get the basic necessities of life. Helping others—especially with their basic needs—is a good thing to do; no doubt about that. But it does not resolve the problem at hand.

Imagine that you live in world where everyone is entirely obsessed with painting their fingernails as brightly and colorfully as possible. That is how they measure success, what they worry about, and where they seek joy. You, the stoic, find that all completely pointless, and are glad to be free of any distress or worry over your fingernails; but, of course, nor are you able to take much joy from your fingernails. So you long for something more. Now imagine being told that you should find meaning, and thus joy, in helping other people paint their fingernails as rightly and colorfully as possible. Now, that might indeed be the right and best thing you could do, if others do indeed take joy in their fingernails—and if you believe them not capable of better; but it would not answer your problem.

Stoic Joy

The best answer, I believe—and the answer most consistent with stoic thought—is that true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight. The key is to recognize that the thoughtful stoic sees the universe not just as ordered but as awesome. Stoic joy, I suggest, is the joy of comprehension and connection—the deeply human satisfaction one gets from seeing and appreciating how it all fits together, and how one fits into it all.

Indeed one could argue that seeing and appreciating the order and beauty of the universe is not merely a particular good, the enjoyment of which is consistent with stoic principles, but is in fact a central component of eudaimonia. In Aristotelian terms, our distinctive human function as rational agents is the ability and desire to seek reasons for and make sense of our actions, and thus our lives. Thus the centrality of phronesis in Aristotelian virtue ethics.

But perhaps this capacity and inclination to make sense of our actions and our lives is really just a component—a self-regarding subset—of deeper and more distinctively-human capacity to find comprehend and make sense of our world as a whole. Whatever one thinks about the ability of other animals to do things that resemble deliberation, it seem safe to say that we are the only ones who wonder at things with no direct or obvious connection to our own lives. Our signal human capacity is perhaps not merely agency guided by practical reason, but wonder driven by love of comprehension—not merely phronesis but philosophia.

If so, the search for stoic joy is also the best way for stoicism to help us deal with misfortune and distress. Next to the rich and satisfying joy of even partially-comprehending and feeling connected to our awesome universe, the difficulties of life, even death, will be nothing to us. Stoic growth, therefore, should perhaps not be sought primarily through exercises designed to help us deal with distress directly. Rather, perhaps we should focus on learning, and helping each other to learn, how to see our world better and more fully.

Moreover, this shifts our focus outward and away from a self-centered focus on what we as agents do, towards a broader appreciation of a world in which we are just a small part.  It may seem as though the shift from seeing ourselves as feature actors to extras/audience is to diminish our role. But perhaps it is better seen as maturation. We are not child-star divas—only interested in the show if we can be the star. Stoicism is Copernican in this way—helping us understand ourselves better by forcing us to confront the initially-troubling but ultimately-liberating realization that we are not the center of the universe. Yes, “you may contribute a verse,” as Whitman put it; but the key is “that the powerful play goes on.”

If this sounds pale, too-passive, or inadequate, it is perhaps because we have not yet developed the capacity to see and appreciate how powerful the play really is. Stoic thought suggests that if we could only comprehend our world better, we would see that next to the chance to see and share in this exquisite order, the petty concerns of life are nothing at all.

Physics

And this helps illuminate how sciences can be understood as virtues. The key first step is to recognize that stoic virtues are not merely persistent habits of conduct. Stoicism is on this point more Platonic or Socratic than Aristotelian, in that virtues are better understood as insights, habits of mind, and resulting capacities. As the stoics framed it, living virtuously and well is a techne and an episteme, grounded in a set of attitudes—in particular an attitude of hypoexairesis, or lack of concern with external goods or outcomes.

The kinds of behavior typically identified as virtues are thus better conceived of as symptoms—external manifestation of internal orientations. Temperance (sophrosyne), for example, is the capacity to eschew what others crave, because you know that those things are not truly worth craving. Temperate conduct is merely what flows from this awareness and attitude. Courage (andreia) similarly manifests itself as the habit of conquering fear, but is more essentially a capacity grounded in an awareness—an awareness that the things people fear are not worth fearing.

Similarly, physics can be described as the capacity to grasp and appreciate the underlying beauty and order of our world. It is a techne and an episteme grounded in awareness of the world’s underlying unity and awesomeness. If so—and if the capacity to perceive and appreciate this beauty and order is indeed the central component of an authentically-stoic and deeply-human joy—then it makes sense to see physics as a central stoic virtue.

This vision is not limited to people who actually do physics at the highest level or for  a living. It suggests rather than the inclination and ability to see how well and wonderfully the world fits together is a crucial and vital skill for all who hope to live well and fully. That said, actual physicists do provide something of a paradigm. If you have ever seen one when he thinks himself on the verge of a breakthrough, you will know what I mean. He cares nothing for the petty concerns of the world. He just has something so much more awesome in view. He feels himself to be getting a glimpse of the cosmos, the logos.

Aurelius, in some sense the grimmest of stoics, devotes the great bulk of his Reflections to what we might call the negative side of stoicism—reminding himself in various ways that the things of the world do not matter and thus should not command are attention and should have no power to disconcert us. But there are two passages in the Reflections in which he explicitly takes up the question of what is worth our attention, and how a person who has fully internalized stoic insights can, by attending to those things, find joy.

The first is at 3.2, where he notes that “if a man has a deeper feeling for and insight into the workings of the whole” even the most common things in nature will have the capacity to bring joy—how grain grows, fruit ripens and decays, bread bakes, beasts feed, men and women age. These things, unnoticed and unappreciated by most, will call out to and inspire a person who is “truly attuned to nature and nature’s works.”

A second passage, at 8.26, is brief, and worth translating here in full:

‘It brings joy to a man to do a man’s true work. And a man’s true work is goodwill to his fellow man, disregard for the motions of the senses, skepticism about misleading impressions, and contemplation of the whole of nature and the things than happen according to nature.’

One word is in this paragraph is worth some attention—ἐπιθεώρησις, which I have translated here as “contemplation.”  This is a rare term in Greek, and one that Aurelius does not use elsewhere. It suggests more that mere observation, or even careful appreciation. There is also a connotation of desire and motivation, as emphasized by the play on the etymologically-unrelated verb ἐπιθέω which means to rush at or pursue. On this reading, what brings joy is not merely passive contemplation or even comprehension, but engaged appreciation.

Friendship

Like much agent-centred thinking, stoic thought can appear intrinsically self-regarding or selfish. And at one level it is. Focusing on the virtue and thriving of the actor leaves open the possibility that others can be seen as mere instruments though which the virtuous actor achieves eudaimonia. The Roman Stoics repeatedly emphasize the duty to play one’s appropriate role in the community and care for others; but it is not clear that this commitment flows from rather than acts as a hedge against the implications of stoic thought. Moreover, if, as the stoic realizes, one’s own material circumstances—are not really worth worrying about, it is hard to see how other people’s material circumstances should provide any greater cause for concern.

I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior. Eudaimonist thinking does not work that. It is the case, however, that the understanding of stoic virtue described above does offer some hedge against the potential selfish implications of stoic thought.

If stoic virtue as a techne and an episteme grounded in certain attitude and aimed at a deep and satisfying appreciation of and connection to the beauty and order of our world, the virtuous stoic will be driven to concern for and connection for others. This is because the best way to see the order and beauty is with the help of others and the best way to see feel connected to the whole is thought connections with others. Stoicism may not require a sense of shared community responsibility; but it does call us strongly to it.

A desire to comprehend and appreciate the world motivates concern for others in several ways. Above all, learning is best done collectively. Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic. Socrates did not talk to himself. Second, learning calls for institutions and communities in which it can take place.

So, at the very least, our joyful stoic physicist needs a lab, a library, colleagues, grad students, and above all a community in which they can be brought together and brought to bear in the effort to see better and rejoice in the order and beauty of the universe. And if he is thoughtful, he will thus cultivate and care for the community that supports this effort. More deeply, less instrumentally, and framed in terms of eudaimonia, perhaps the full flourishing our nature as not just rational/knowledge-loving but also social/political animals calls on us not merely to see and appreciate the order and beauty of our world but also to engage in shared and mutually-supporting efforts to do so—and to structure our community life in ways that nurture that effort.

Recall also that the stoic joy described here is not just a product of contemplating the universe as if it were a thing apart, but also feeling one’s place in it, one’s connection to the larger whole. Connections then—relationships, friendships, family, love—are themselves a way of sensing the whole. Caring for others joins us to the whole, conquers isolation, and allows for reciprocal connection that can be felt as well as comprehended. Perhaps the true stoic is thus driven to connection and concern for others. And this is especially true if what joins us to others is our shared effort to learn, teach, and see. To Hamlet, Horatio was not just an ideal stoic; he was an ideal friend. And he was first a school friend—a fellow learner.

Consider, finally, the vision of stoic joy offered by Frost in his poem “The Star Splitter.” Near the beginning of the poem, Bradford McLaughlin gives up worrying about earthly things—represented by his farmhouse—which were bringing him little joy. Instead, he makes a dramatic, indeed stoic, turn away from such matters—reframing his concern about the seeming-foolishness of his own conduct as “curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

‘He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.’

Nor does he satisfy his curiosity alone. Near the end of the poem, the narrator joins him.

‘I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.’

In this vision, stoic apatheia is not itself the goal, or even a first step, but rather a consequence. A lack of concern for inherently-indifferent things comes as result of having something better on our minds. Stoic thought is in this sense what Socrates called for in the Republic—a turning of the soul, not a turning off. It is less renouncement than refocus, and thus leads not to apathy but engagement. It turns our attention to something which, if to it we can attune our minds, will not only reveal the meaningless things of the world to be beneath the concern of a human being, but can also reveal in their stead a meaningful and truly human joy.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

33 thoughts on “'“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship' by Sherman J. Clark”

  1. Thanks Arch,

    Your path becomes clearer. With great thought you have thought through what you think suits you and what is consistent for you – and no doubt it is the correct path for you, that is if you are truly an atheist and if you truly follow an alternative ‘ism’ – nihilism.

    But does what you have also involve Émile Durkheim’s ‘anomie’? Does it serve you well or not? I also wonder which came first – your atheism or your study of Stoicism.

    For me the flaw in your ‘argument’ is summed up in your assertion ***“That’s not to say it should go backwards to the sort of primitive beliefs you come across in the ancients.”*** Stoicism will come up short if it is subjected to the disciplines of the school of Analytical Philosophy that many atheists follow and that allows no room for whatever cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the supposed scientific method.

    A retired professor of this school that I came across at a philosophical group claimed not even to understand what wisdom is. The natural outcome of Analytical Philosophy is absolute Scepticism and Nihilism. However Analytical Philosophy, as even the professor admitted, has had its day as a movement. Philosophical analysis is now seen as little more than a tool that needs to be handled very carefully.

    Even the ancients recognised that if you analyse something too much you end up with just a pile of dust – and yet logic tells us that that which is being analysed must exist if we are able to analyse it. Scepticism and Nihilism are failed ‘isms’ that are illogical and that no one can live up to.

    When it comes to Stoicism, unless one starts with a suspension of disbelief and looks to how the Stoics of old arrived at their complete Stoicism, one is never going to fully understand the integrated nature of all of Stoicism. If approached as an atheist, it is never going to serve a person well and they will start looking elsewhere for something to fill the gaps that have been created by rejecting large chunks of the framework.

    I was lucky. I arrived at Stoicism having already encountered proof, sufficient for me, that the Stoic ideas about the Cosmos being a living and conscious whole are correct. The proof was both through my study of the overview of science that is being presented to us laypeople by highly skilled scientists and also through personal experience – experience that could only be explained through the concept of some form of spectrum of consciousness that was not limited to any one individual human being.

    Science and experience tells me that, with a little tweaking of the science of old, the Stoic ideas about the nature of the Divine Fire are still correct. If one just accepts this one aspect, even if one only calls it ‘the consciousness’ as some scientists do when they are describing the same aspect of existence, then all the rest falls into place and none of the matters that you find to be an issue are a problem.

    So your statement ***“If you deny God and the gods you ought really to deny all the other ghosts and spirits, souls, virtues, duties, responsibilities, happinesses and wisdoms, oh, and let us not forget the absurd notion of free will, prohairesis, moral purpose, whatever”***, while being logical, stands or falls on definition, not fact.

    Your definition of God and free will probably do not allow you to accept Stoicism because you do not understand and accept the nature of the Stoic Deity and the fact that you are an ‘extension’ of It. To the Stoic, to deny the Stoic Deity is to deny your own existence.

    At the same time your free will that allows you to take such a stand probably also allows you to see free will as being incompatible with the apparent insurmountable matter of ‘cause and effect’ – strict determinism whereby ‘primitive belief’ in some mythical First Cause known popularly as the Big Bang is presented as being some imagined creation point that set the Cosmos off as if it were a mechanical clock. Modern science has shown that even this strict determinism is a failed concept.

    Following the logic of the Stoic ideas, it is seen that Stoicism offers soft determinism whereby what is determined is determined moment by moment with cause and effect being only part of the equation.

    To me, as a person who has looked to Stoicism and checked it out against modern science and not found it wanting, none of the objections you raise actually exist.

    But then I do not expect to convince you of this fact. In the mean time I wish you well on your path and hope you find as much contentment and joy as I do on my path.

    Nigel

    1. Nigel,

      I don’t believe in Stoic ‘contentment’ and ‘joy’ or ‘divine fire’ any more than I believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden!

      The notion of an as it were ‘happy clappy’ Stoicism is something I find perfectly abhorrent. If I had to choose I would always opt for the traditional austere, stern, unfeeling, manly sort.

      Having said that I must add that I live knowing nothing for sure; I keep busy physically and mentally; most of the time I feel well enough; on occasion (rarely) I don’t.

      And that’s about it. It’s been enjoyable talking to you.

      Best wishes,
      Arch

  2. Art

    You resort to ***for crissakes!*** and yet more insults – and you say what I had to say does not bother you. You are clearly not seeing the funny side or is it that my ‘smilies’ did not print up for some reason.

    As to having the measure of me, just how tall am I and how much do I weigh? Your assertions are getting funnier by the minute.

    You say, *** “One judgement is as good as any other. And the judgements I make are based on emotion NOT on reason. If I had to decide something using reason I should never arrive at any decision. My ‘choice’ is based on my past experience, my habits, my feelings, etc.. I don’t really have any choice! I do what I am impelled to do by my genes, my health, my circumstances, and similar.”***

    Fine. If that works for you, good for you. But why on earth are you wasting your time trying to discuss a philosophical framework that is so at odds with your thinking? Other than *choosing* to *try* to annoy others, what sort of perverse pleasure are you getting out of all of this?

    Oops, my mistake. You have already answered this – you are not choosing to write what you write. None of this is your doing – you don’t reason out what you have to say, so nothing you have to say is in way rational. You are just acting on some irrational feeling that made you sit down and type out what you have been posting. Something over which you have no control made you do it. No wonder you have such sympathy for murderers and criminals – this is the type of excuse they would love to use.

    Just a second!! You don’t happen to be spending Christmas at Her Majesty’s pleasure and your views are being coloured by being incarcerated for some crime that no doubt you claim was not of your doing? This would explain everything!!!! 

    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂  

    Nigel

    1. Nigel,

      You think that if you smile (stick one of those ridiculous little smiley faces into the text) while insulting me that that makes it less of an insult?

      As I said, it doesn’t bother me – a mere mortal – in the slightest; and if you’re a Stoic it shouldn’t bother you. In actual fact all I see is little rectangular boxes.

      Did it ever occur to you, Nigel, that there might be a higher Stoicism, one you are perhaps not privy to? That there might be a handful of actual living Stoics “out there” who have had enough of the sort-of debased Stoicism you and others (who have in recent times jumped on the Stoic bandwagon) profess and disseminate? Did it ever occur to you that Stoicism is for a select few, not for the rabble?

      Every other jumped-up nobody now professes to be a Stoic. The result? The death of Stoicism. Look at that pretentious New Stoa site where you’re asked to pay to be taught Stoicism by people like yourself: those that haven’t yet realised why we have two ears and one tongue. Look at that Reddit Stoicism site where literally anything goes except truth. Look at the so-called International Stoic Forum (Yahoo) and all the rubbish that is spouted there in the name of Stoicism. And there are scores more of these pseudo-Stoic sites spieling out the same old clichés.

      I ask you, is nothing sacred any more??? Apparently not.

      The following might give you a laugh; it’s from the opening paragraph of Hume’s “Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”:

      “DISPUTES with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind. The same blind adherence to their own arguments is to be expected in both; the same contempt of their antagonists; and the same passionate vehemence, in enforcing sophistry and falsehood.”

      Regards,

      Archie

        1. Nigel,

          This is my fourth attempt at a reply: looks like the mods of this site have taken exception to a man who was a Stoic probably before most of them were born and who is now a Stoic long lapsed.

          Art

          1. Arch,

            I hesitate to ask for I do not know if I will get a genuine answer but I am curious as to your claim to be a lapsed Stoic.

            First off, are you lapsed from the secular Stoicism that many now try to offer or are you lapsed from the Stoicism that buys into the Stoic view of the Divine Fire and the Deity?

            Second, was there a single event in your life that took you out of the fold or was it a gradual ‘loss of faith’ or do you just feel that you have moved beyond Stoicism or was it something else?

            Nigel

          2. Nige,

            I think modern secular Stoicism is inconsistent. That’s not to say it should go backwards to the sort of primitive beliefs you come across in the ancients. No, most secularists, I would have thought, see themselves as atheists. Why then do they continue to believe in Epictetus’s dictum about deliberation / virtue being within our power?

            For me that is the farce of modern Stoicism.

            If you deny God and the gods you ought really to deny all the other ghosts and spirits, souls, virtues, duties, responsibilities, happinesses and wisdoms, oh, and let us not forget the absurd notion of free will, prohairesis, moral purpose, whatever.

            As for me, an atheist also, and one quite unable to reconcile that atheism with Epictetus-world spiritualism, well, I took the next step, and then, after much thought (which was getting me nowhere,) I happened upon Turgenev’s, “Fathers and Sons”. That was all the sealing wax I needed. What am I talking about? Nihilism.

            And you know what I found? There is life after Stoicism!

            Best,

            Arch

  3. Nigel,

    Why so defensive? I have not been insulting you at all!!!!!!

    If your inner impartial judge chooses to feel insulted then I suggest you do something about your pride and your superiority complex.

    “I have on at least two occasions been left with little more than a couple of cases of clothes. In one day my divorce came through, I had to stop trading and I was made homeless. I have lost family including a 34 year old sister. I can assure you that a suitably trained mind can help. However you misrepresent what I said – I have said that the Stoic will feel, but they will manage it. They may even feel sad, they may even at times cry, but they will not lose all control or their ability to reason. If you are saying that you and others cannot manage what you feel then you are highlighting a difference between a Stoic and a non-Stoic”

    I am saying that what has happened to you, and more besides, has happened, is happening, to countless millions of people, 99.999 per cent of whom are NOT followers of the Stoic creed, and still they cope: you don’t need to be a Stoic to manage.

    “I do not attack the Cynics. I simply say that some of their ideas did not fit into what Zeno decided was a better way of seeing things. Why else did we need the Stoic ‘New Improved Philosophy’? Zeno simply moved on to a better more practical understanding of how to live life.”

    That IS an attack: you blatantly attempt to undermine the Cynics. Stoicism is NOT superior to Cynicism: it’s an offshoot of Cynicism for crissakes! Zeno was a Cynic. So was Cleanthes, and Persaeus. So too Ariston. All those early men of the Stoa were Cynics. Even Chrysippus had a strong streak of Cynicism in him. It was only after philosophy got transferred from Athens to Rome that Stoicism as we know it came into being. Unfortunately Roman hearts and minds, obsessed with decorum and Old Roman values, accepted only what was already in line with their ancient traditions and removed the rest. Thus Stoicism: a new expurgated Roman version of Greek Cynicism was born.

    “If you never ever make any rationally based sound judgements and yet have still managed to survive life you have been lucky or, unbeknown to you, you have a personal daemon looking out for you and that averts all of the disasters your unjudged life would otherwise lead you into. You say you have no inner judge, no freewill, or any of the many other things you have listed over you posts – what an empty person you must be.”

    That is an insult Nigel but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact I find it funny.

    One judgement is as good as any other. And the judgements I make are based on emotion NOT on reason. If I had to decide something using reason I should never arrive at any decision. My ‘choice’ is based on my past experience, my habits, my feelings, etc.. I don’t really have any choice! I do what I am impelled to do by my genes, my health, my circumstances, and similar.

    You should read Lucian, “Zeus Tragoedus” some time. You know you sound just like Timocles!

    Ho, but this is irksome. I now have the measure of you Nigel. You are winging it where Stoicism is concerned.

    Love and best wishes,

    Archie

  4. Art,

    You read me but you do not absorb what I say to a point of understanding. Let’s deal with your points one at a time.

    ****I’m intrigued… how is the Stoic life, then, any different from the ‘ordinary’ life of the non-Stoic? For I cannot see anything in what you say that sets your Stoic apart from the great mass of people who are not Stoics.****

    The Stoic life is based on their understanding which is based on the whole of the Stoic teachings. They do much that is common with any thinking virtuous person, just that the Stoics follow their framework as against some other framework.

    ****No amount of self-discipline can adequately prepare any one for great loss when it actually happens. Show me the loving husband and father who will remain calm and unperturbed if his wife or child—or even his private property—is taken from him. If you know any such man, who lost his beloved child twenty years before, say, gently raise the subject and watch as the tears well up in his eyes… ****

    I have on at least two occasions been left with little more than a couple of cases of clothes. In one day my divorce came through, I had to stop trading and I was made homeless. I have lost family including a 34 year old sister. I can assure you that a suitably trained mind can help. However you misrepresent what I said – I have said that the Stoic will feel, but they will manage it. They may even feel sad, they may even at times cry, but they will not lose all control or their ability to reason. If you are saying that you and others cannot manage what you feel then you are highlighting a difference between a Stoic and a non-Stoic

    ****I don’t see why you attack the Cynics so vehemently. Zeno studied with Crates the Cynic for 10 years. Does that count for nothing? Moreover, even Stilpo and Polemo, under whom he also later studied, were influenced by Diogenes the Cynic. Isn’t Stoicism a continuation of Cynicism? If not why do the Stoics boast of the succession Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, Zeno?****

    Again, misrepresentation. I do not attack the Cynics. I simply say that some of their ideas did not fit into what Zeno decided was a better way of seeing things. Why else did we need the Stoic ‘New Improved Philosophy’? Zeno simply moved on to a better more practical understanding of how to live life.

    ****Sorry to disappoint you Nigel, but we don’t have an “inner ‘impartial judge’” there is no such thing! We can live well in the world without the aid of ghosts and demons.****

    Good for you. If you never ever make any rationally based sound judgements and yet have still managed to survive life you have been lucky or, unbeknown to you, you have a personal daemon looking out for you and that averts all of the disasters your unjudged life would otherwise lead you into. You say you have no inner judge, no freewill, or any of the many other things you have listed over you posts – what an empty person you must be. 

    ****You’re right, though, when you say that grief is an unavoidable part of life—only, the Stoics believed it could be avoided!****

    And here we have clear proof that you are not considering anything else that is said to you and are only interested in voicing your own opinions. I have stated that the Stoics accept that grief cannot be avoided and as such has to be dealt with. You keep ignoring what is an unpalatable truth as far as you are concerned.

    ****Your interpretation of Stoicism seems idiosyncratic to say the least. I read you but all you seem to be saying is whatever gets you through the night…****

    As you clearly have non-Stoic beliefs that blinker all that you read this is not even a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Until you fully enter the kitchen what do you really know about Stoicism? It clearly does nothing for you other than provide some amusement in trying to prove how much cleverer (you think) you are than the rest of us. All that you are really achieving is to show how little you actually understand about Stoicism and how idiosyncratic and extreme your views are.

    Or, being a Stoic, am I supposed to accept insults from you and not offer any in return. Unless I am saying what I say in the manner that I say it in order to drive home to you as to how misguided and rude you are, maybe I am not such a good Stoic after all. 

    Nigel

  5. Nigel,

    “the Stoic sage feels so it is OK to feel grief. Grief is a natural result of losing someone you have loved deeply. The whole issue is as to if your love or your grief is going to prevent you getting on in a rational and virtuous manner and living the life you have been gifted.”

    Where in the extant Stoic literature is this view to be found?

    Art

    1. Art,

      I will start with a quote I have to hand. From Seneca’s ‘On Philosophy and Friendship’ – “Our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them…”

      Some of what I talk about is obviously to be found in Seneca’s ‘To Marcia on Consolation’, but I am in truth offering a summation of all that I have understood from what I have read over many years and also the logical implications of the Stoic ideas based on how they looked at matters in general.

      It would take me months to go back over all of the books and extract any greater detail and explanation so as to do justice to your question.

      If you have read any amount of the Stoic writings and commentaries, I am sure that you can work it out for yourself as to how as a Stoic I could arrive at my conclusions, regardless as to whether or not you agree with them.

      Nigel

      1. Nigel,

        I keep having trouble posting! Hope it works this time…

        The reason I ask, and I think I have read all the ancient literature, (in translation,) is that I never once came across any Stoic who felt it was “OK to feel grief”.

        Do a search in Epictetus, for instance, and you’ll find what he says about grief (and cognates) is completely at odds with your remark!

        Best wishes,

        Arch

        1. Archie,

          Of course it would be nice if we did not feel grief – but that would be to wish for things to be other than what they are and the writings have much to say about acceptance. So the Stoic accepts that they will feel grief.

          Balanced against this is the mind training. With correct understanding and preparation the experienced Stoic will be ready for the grief and so will be able to avoid being all consumed by it and so maintain their almost constant state of relative calm governed by their inner harmony.

          We now know that to bottling things up and not allowing oneself to show, let alone feel grief can be stressful and so physically harmful to the individual. Whether they knew this or not, the Stoics of old rejected the Cynics attempts at this and allowed us to feel, and then they gave us the means to cope with the feelings.

          I hold to what Seneca said: “Our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them…”

          Add to this, grief is part and parcel of being a social animal and we Stoics look to the fact that we are social animals and what this says about how we relate to others if we are to have the balanced life that Stoicism leads us towards.

          What is said in the mind training regards grief needs to be balanced against what is said about acceptance and what is said about being social animals and what is said about living in accord with Nature as a whole and our own nature and so on.

          Grief may be a ‘dispreferred indifferent’ as far as our inner ‘impartial judge’ is concerned but it is an unavoidable fact of life. One should embrace it rather than try to suppress it or avoid it.

          How can you tame a horse if you lock it up in a stable and never go near it?

          Even though we are still reasonably healthy, my wife and I have discussed and agreed what we want from our end of life, the circumstances under which we would wish to cease living and how we are to be laid to rest. We have discussed how the death of one will affect the household income and how the practicalities of life will still be catered for. Whichever one of us survives the other they will feel the loss, but we are prepared for it. Hopefully, because of our training, being prepared will ensure that what time the survivor then has left will still be lived fully and Stoically and with purpose.

          In the meantime we are enjoying life.

          So many would be Stoics look to each individual detail of Stoicism and not to the overall picture that Stoicism draws for us. And by looking to one detail at a time it is easy to misunderstand what each detail is really contributing to the whole and what the whole is contributing to the detail.

          In reading the intent rather than just the words we can see why the Stoics said that the system only works if you take the teachings as a whole. What I am saying is to be found in the writings if a person looks with an open mind and an appreciation of what Stoicism is really about – actually living life with joy and appreciation and not getting stuck in only looking to the mind training.

          Nigel

          1. Nigel,

            I’m intrigued… how is the Stoic life, then, any different from the ‘ordinary’ life of the non-Stoic? For I cannot see anything in what you say that sets your Stoic apart from the great mass of people who are not Stoics.

            No amount of self discipline can adequately prepare any one for great loss when it actually happens. Show me the loving husband and father who will remain calm and unperturbed if his wife or child—or even his private property—is taken from him. If you know any such man, who lost his beloved child twenty years before, say, gently raise the subject and watch as the tears well up in his eyes…

            I don’t see why you attack the Cynics so vehemently. Zeno studied with Crates the Cynic for 10 years. Does that count for nothing? Moreover, even Stilpo and Polemo, under whom he also later studied, were influenced by Diogenes the Cynic. Isn’t Stoicism a continuation of Cynicism? If not why do the Stoics boast of the succession Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, Zeno?

            Sorry to disappoint you Nigel, but we don’t have an “inner ‘impartial judge'” there is no such thing! We can live well in the world without the aid of ghosts and demons.

            You’re right, though, when you say that grief is an unavoidable part of life—only, the Stoics believed it could be avoided!

            Your interpretation of Stoicism seems idiosyncratic to say the least. I read you but all you seem to be saying is whatever gets you through the night…

            Best to you and your wife,
            Arch

  6. Sherman, I found your post very interesting.

    The stoic dilemma you describe reminded me of what Kierkegaard called the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. The knight of infinite resignation is not committed to anything in life, and the knight of faith is committed to things but in a way that somehow incorporates the infinite resignation stage. Faith though, is precisely a lack of rational comprehension for Kierkegaard, and this is, therefore, where I must part company with Kierkegaard. But this still leaves me with the dilemma you describe.

    I would like to follow your comprehension of the universe point, and am nearly convinced by your talk of teaching to help yourself and others understand. But I am dogged by a point about love, which I am taking to mean treating another person as an end in themselves and whose end matters to you more than your own. I think it is more than this to many people also. Love of another and also children surely is what brings meaning to many people’s lives, such that that love is the ground to their life’s meaning. However, I understand a key aspect of stoicism is that we should only value those things we can control. I can not control whether the person I love still loves me or lives or dies, therefore, surely a good stoic would not ground their life’s meaning on the love of another. Since their loss would come close to crushing that stoic. But this means a good stoic can not ground their life’s meaning on such a love, and if that is an accurate description of love, could never truly love.

    Nigel, I was interested that you talked of love in your post in a thought provoking way and so would be interested in your reply also. I do not see how your point about correct judgements resolves the point I am making. Either one loves someone profoundly and their death nearly crushes you in a very unstoic way, or stoic love can not be of that profound sort.

    Look forward to replies.

    1. Well Pete. You’ve put your finger on it, haven’t you?

      The weakest part of my argument is the relatively shallow account of friendship. I describe the value of what one might call fellow-learners; but that account is altogether too instrumental. Horatio was more than that to Hamlet. My wife and daughters are much more then that to me.

      And, more to your point, the hardest part of stoicism is the implication that we should not be upset even at the loss of those we love. More broadly, stoic thought does seem to suggest that we that we should not look for life’s meaning in love—or ground our happiness in love. But I hear you. That just seems wrong.

      Love seems to be about the best source of meaning and happiness we can ever find

      Of course, to love is to fear. I get that. I can be a stoic about any pain I might suffer. But I cannot be indifferent to pain my wife and daughters might suffer. So maybe true bullet-proof-ness would mean an inability truly to love. I don’t know.

      But I do think that there is a vision of authentic stoic thought that does leave room for authentic love. And here’s one stab at it.

      This is grounded in my claim (and the claim Aurelius makes at 8.26) that true stoic joy is the joy of ἐπιθεώρησις—of comprehending and appreciating the awesome beauty and order of our world and how it all fits together and how we fit into it all.

      Maybe the best way to see and appreciate the world—in all its awesome beauty—is in the eyes of those we love? Maybe the best way to feel, really feel, a connection to the larger whole is through a real connection to another—though love?

      Blake said we should be able to “see the world in a grain of sand;” and maybe we could, if we were sufficiently well-attuned. Perhaps all of the beauty of the cosmos would be evident to us in each small part, wherever we were to look.

      But given our limitations, perhaps we can best see our beautiful world—and best feel our connection to it—in the eyes of those we love. Maybe letting ourselves care deeply for another is the best way we have of connecting ourselves to the whole.

      Maybe that’s why the love of a parent for a child is such a model. When you hold your child, you know then that there is good in the world, and that there is beauty, and that you are not alone.

      Maybe that’s why the story so many tell this time of year—from a different tradition but sounding similar themes—has the wise men do as they do. First they are stuck with awe by a star in the heavens; but then they go and gaze into the eyes of a child.

    2. Pete,

      You say, “Nigel, I was interested that you talked of love in your post in a thought provoking way and so would be interested in your reply also. I do not see how your point about correct judgements resolves the point I am making. Either one loves someone profoundly and their death nearly crushes you in a very unstoic way, or stoic love cannot be of that profound sort.”

      My view is that the writings that we have from the Stoics of old naturally seem to concentrate on those passions (pathos) that swamp the individual’s ability to reason – such as anger and fear and the like. My impression is that when it came to love they saw this as a natural human condition and only saw it as a problem when it stopped a person acting according to reason – in other words when it had some element of pathos, such as fear or incorrect judgements, added to it.

      Look to how Epictetus dealt with the man who had left his sick daughter in the care of her nurse – it was not his love that caused him to do this, it was his fear. Epictetus did not chide him for loving his daughter but for his cowardice at not being able to handle his hurt and fears.

      Many academics point to how Zeno studied in the Cynic school and so the idea of the unfeeling sage is also attributed to the Stoic school. But we need to remember that Cynicism did not fully meet with Zeno’s approval. Why else did he feel the need to take his own ‘new improved product’ to the market place?

      The Stoic sage does feel, but they deal with it. And they deal with it in whatever way they have reasoned to be appropriate to whatever it is they are feeling, what the situation is and how it all fits in with the bigger picture that Stoicism has shown them.

      The unfeeling sage is not part of the Stoic aims.

      Stoicism says we can love. We can love deeply. The Stoic training ensures that love does not become an aspect of pathos. The Stoic training is mind training. It trains the mind to stay in control even while loving deeply.

      We are not talking about the uncontrolled inexperienced sexual urges that can lead a youth into all sorts of unwise situations. We are talking about what may be called true love – the love of a person for who they are, the love whereby we would be willing to lay down our lives to protect them if needs be.

      And here is a clue to the Stoic way. If you die in order to protect a loved one are you not condemning them to suffer grief for their loss of you? And as so many tell me in such discussions, many see grief as being pathos and pathos is to be avoided for pathos is the result of wrong judgements.

      Rubbish! This is the Cynic sage talking. Remember, the Stoic sage feels so it is OK to feel grief. Grief is a natural result of losing someone you have loved deeply. The whole issue is as to if your love or your grief is going to prevent you getting on in a rational and virtuous manner and living the life you have been gifted. And the Stoic answer is its mind training – especially that part about being prepared.

      So the correct judgements are that if I love, unless I die first, I will suffer grief if I lose the object of my love. I therefore love in the full knowledge of the risk of the loss, and as such I am less likely to let fear of loss affect the profound nature of my love for an individual. Eventually they have to leave me or I have to leave them, one way or another. Looking towards that time with dreads and fear will only mean that we will miss out on what we do have.

      And as Stoicism says, what we do have is our love, our memories and the present moment, so we should love as if this is the last moment for we are not guaranteed the next moment. One can see how Stoicism makes love a profound aspect of life.

      So in getting on with our lives we can love, but always with the proviso that we are able to also keep our minds clear to make the correct rational decisions as to what is right and proper regardless of the consequences. It is love that lets a person tell the doctors to turn off the life support system of their loved one. It is even love where a couple amicably agree to split because, having genuinely tried to address any issues, their time together has run its course and to try to stay together will harm the other partner and even one’s love for them.

      There is so much to be said on the question of love but when it comes down to it, love is the feeling of absolute unity and of belonging, be it with an individual or the whole living Cosmos (which is where the awe that Sherman talks of comes in).

      But I cannot end this response without commenting further on grief. To the Stoic grief is not pathos. It is not to be avoided. It is the natural effect of losing a loved one.

      What is to be avoided is allowing one’s grief to rule one’s life. A lingering death is often ‘easier’ to cope with than a sudden unexpected death. This is because the lingering death allows those who love the person that is dying to be prepared mentally for the death. It is easier to accept a death that ‘is a welcome release’ or a death where a person has had ‘a full and long life’.

      Stoicism teaches us to try to prepare ourselves for even the unexpected losses so as to ensure that the feeling of grief stays within bounds or at the very least returns to a state whereby one can get on with life as soon as possible. After all, the person dying would not want those left behind to suffer excessively or unnecessarily – they would want them to retain their memories and their love, but they would not want them to destroy their lives through excessive grieving. They would not want their loved one to be ‘crushed’ by their departure. Hence the need for the balance between rationality and living live and all of the feelings that that entails.

      Stoic mind training helps with being able to retain the rule of rationality while getting on with life regardless of what it throws at you.

      Part of the package of life is to love and grieve. Stoics accept this and get on with life.

      As I have been saying, the mind training is not meant to be the rules for living life but rather the rules for making judgements about how to live a virtuous life. The judgements need to be free of any biases that love and other emotions may bring to the table. After all, how can love judge as to if it is wise to pursue the love of another person’s spouse. How can anger judge if it is wise to go up against a person twice your size and twice as strong.

      The Stoic mind training is about improving one’s wisdom and it is wisdom that is about getting on and living life. If one misses out the middle stage (wisdom) and applies the Stoic mind training direct to living life than life would indeed be bleak – and un-Stoical.

      Nigel

      1. Sherman and Nigel,

        Thank you very much for both your replies.

        Nigel, if I have understood you correctly I am quite happy with your stoic resolution of my original dilemma. Since it sounds as if I could love my wife or child in a profound way such that they are the end in themselves that bring meaning to my life, and stoic mind training allows me to ‘manage’ this in a way that means I am better able to cope with their loss. And indeed better able to love them. In addition, I could instead find meaning in a political cause and once again stoicism could help me manage this purpose to my life. This description of stoicism seems very flexible as it appears to allow us to find meaning in some purpose or other.

        Sherman, I think I am happy with your response also as an extension of finding a purpose in life that is meaningful, where the purpose, or rather end-in-itself, is conceived as the totality of existence, including our experience of particulars. To be able to experience the totality of existence as an end-in-itself would certainly be a joyous experience.

        I am happy with this use of stoicism but now I am not sure if it is still stoic for two reasons.

        First, the interpretation I describe above makes finding a purpose the main point, and stoic mind training a way of managing your relationship with that purpose. Whereas I understood the purpose of stoicism variously to be virtue or tranquility or eudaimonia, depending on who you ask. Can a stoic’s chief good be a person and at the same time virtue or tranquility or eudaimonia?

        Second, is the description too flexible? For instance, could you be a stoic Aristotelean without contradiction? Would all of Aristotle’s external goods (some of which require wealth) be managed with stoic mind control? But for Aristotle aren’t they essential to eudaimonia?

        Regards

        Pete

        1. Pete,

          I know next to nothing regards Aristotle so cannot answer your second issue, But as to the following that you raise I will try to respond as I see matters.

          You ask ***“First, the interpretation I describe above makes finding a purpose the main point, and stoic mind training a way of managing your relationship with that purpose. Whereas I understood the purpose of stoicism variously to be virtue or tranquility or eudaimonia, depending on who you ask. Can a stoic’s chief good be a person and at the same time virtue or tranquility or eudaimonia?”***

          How can a person be a Stoic’s or anyone’s ‘chief good’. Do you say your wife is your chief good and so say you love your children less? Do you say your children are your chief good and so say you love your wife less?

          To love truly, a person’s chief good has to be their own ability to be good (virtuous) and so to have the wherewithal to be the good husband or the good father or the good whatever – all at the same time. And to do this one has to be able to make rational judgements free of the very biases that love brings to the table.

          Blind love is often possessive and destructive both for the ‘object’ of the love and for the individual doing the loving.

          As to the question of making the purpose the main point, we are talking of there being many purposes dependent on the many roles in life that we are presented with. The main point of Stoicism is living life as best one can.

          To me, Stoicism guides us to an understanding of our place in the scheme of things (Stoic faith and metaphysics), then understanding how best to harmonise our inner state and how to harmonise our life with the world we find ourselves in (Stoic training) and then to get on with living a ‘right and proper’ life using the foundation of the Stoic framework as a guide for every step we take.

          And living a right and proper life involves loving all those one should love in an appropriate manner while not being so attached that the rest of one’s roles in life take second place. It also means that a person will live life with a clear conscience and so be contented, albeit not to the point of not striving. The Stoic is expected to play their part in striving to fulfil their roles in life to the best of their abilities and so influence for the good the progress of the ever changing area of the Cosmos over which their ‘spark of the Divine Fire’ may have some influence.

          Stoicism has never really been about the inner journey – this is a means to an end. Stoicism is not about what comes after death – we have no control over that and so this is not our concern. Stoicism is about living this life we have been given in a right and proper manner – and we will achieve this better if we have trained ourselves in the right way, just as the carpenter will be the better carpenter if they have been trained correctly.

          Stoicism guides us to thoughtful action that is underpinned by the knowledge that we are one with the whole – that is, we are sparks of the Divine Fire.

          Nigel

        2. Pete:

          You ask if my approach is still really Stoic. Well, I suppose I am guilty as charged. So I’ll confess 🙂

          I am not aiming to be a Stoic, per se—if by that one means adhering to some set of doctrines that make up some authoritative account of “Stoicism” as opposed to some other “ism.” I am trying to figure out how to live a good and full life—a life worthy of a man. And I think having meaning and purpose (and friendship) ought to be part of a good and full and fully-human life—whether Seneca said so or not.

          So why read the Stoics? Because I think they had real and profound insights about that question—the question of how a man should live. Primary among those insights, I think, is the realization that most of what people worry about simply is not worth our time or energy. Second is the insight—captured and expressed in various ways—that there is deep and profound and beautiful order to our world.

          Of course, that’s not all. And of course those insights are not unique to the Stoics. But they saw it best and thought about it well. They got it; and they explored it.

          And the details and implications flow from there.

          And here’s the thing. They flow where they flow—where the implications of the insights (honestly confronted) actually lead—whether or not some ancient text did or did not follow them there. So I am trying to work it out and think it through.

          Of course, we should welcome the guidance of those who had the insights and worked out so many of the implications. But in my view the Stoics were like those who discovered gravity or relativity or quantum theory. We owe them a great debt, and should learn from them. But ultimately what they discovered are insights about the world; and they don’t get to dictate where those insights lead.

          That is on us.

          But, having confessed, let me offer a partial defense.

          If my way of thinking makes me a less-than-thorough-going Stoic, I am in good company. Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius all cared more about living well and fully than about the details of doctrine. Seneca expressly drew on insights from a range of schools of thought. Epictetus repeatedly reminded his students to keep their eyes on the aim of living as a man should, rather than on mastering doctrine. Aurelius didn’t do doctrine at all. And Socrates, btw—whom they all took as a model—wasn’t a Stoic at all, at least not if one insists on parsing philosophical schools.

          So, ironically, perhaps the best way to follow the Stoics is not to look to them as a source of doctrine—let alone squabble over what the Stoics “held” on this particular point or that. Instead, we should perhaps confront the substance and actual implications of their powerful insights about the world, and take on the responsibility for figuring out what those insights mean about how a man should live.

          Sherman

          1. Sherman, you say, ***“So, ironically, perhaps the best way to follow the Stoics is not to look to them as a source of doctrine—let alone squabble over what the Stoics “held” on this particular point or that. Instead, we should perhaps confront the substance and actual implications of their powerful insights about the world, and take on the responsibility for figuring out what those insights mean about how a man should live.”***

            Despite being one who is often accused of ‘pushing’ Stoic doctrine, I actually agree with what you say. The only question is, what is meant by ‘doctrine’ and is Stoic doctrine that much of a problem? It is in talking about their ‘powerful insights’ that I am often told I am quoting doctrine.

            When does a set of insights become doctrine? After all, it is the full set of insights that makes Stoicism Stoicism as against not-Stoicism or no-longer-Stoicism (where too many of the insights are being ignored).

            In keeping with your approach, it is a Stoic doctrine that each would be Stoic sage should learn about the Stoic system and framework and then work things out for themselves from there on – and if some insights from other schools add to what Stoicism has to offer or if advancing knowledge offers better explanations as to why and how the framework fits together all the better.

            Each individual tailors Stoicism to fit themselves. But they only have what can be called Stoicism if what they have is still recognisable as such, in that it still has the central framework of teachings and principles intact. It was claimed, and I believe that it is still so, that the Stoic system can only be fully appreciated and understood if one takes it as a whole and not piecemeal.

            We do have to be careful that in rejecting something as doctrine that we are not rejecting a key component of the whole system.

            Nigel

  7. Thank you Sherman. It is an unusual occurrence for me on these sites for someone to ask me to say more – most of the time they are trying to get me to shut up. 🙂

    Jaycel asks you, “While the Universe necessarily must be ordered via physical laws, must it also be Conscious and Providential, to meet your requirement as a source of Stoic Joy? ‘What then?’ has been a question I have had for a long time.”

    I like your answer, but I would say that this so called Stoic Joy that Jaycel asks about is to me of little importance. To my mind it is a ‘preferred indifferent’. It is just a side product of following the Stoic ideas and trying to live a Stoic life. And of course, in keeping with the consensus of the ancient writings, to follow the Stoic ideas one has to see the Cosmos as Conscious and Providential – this goes with the territory. This is the basis of the Stoic metaphysics and faith – with, again as I see matters, some of the more fundamental metaphysical ideas being confirmed to a great extent by modern science.

    The Stoics of old arrived at their ideas about ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ from different points.

    There was a consideration of the physics as they saw things. Nowadays, we tend to look only to the evolution and engineering of the physical world. But while looking to try to understand this, the ancients tended more to look to how the cosmos is manifested – moment by moment. They understood the mechanics of cause and effect to some degree and how this gave the impression of things being predetermined. But in truth, through their view of the Divine Fire, the Stoics of old looked to how the flow of change that is the Cosmos existing within the experiential moment was actually determined at the moment of change.

    This required an immanent force or ‘master program’ that coordinated everything including we ‘gamers’ attempting to developed our own individual ideas as to how the ‘game of life’ ought to proceed.

    With our knowledge nowadays as to how computer games can involve conscious gamers while the master program is not conscious it is difficult to argue in isolation that the Divine Fire, seen as a ‘master program’, is necessarily conscious.

    However the ancients also followed a different line of thought. They looked to the common ideas about gods and the like – ideas common across many cultures and ages. They accepted that if one treated the differences in the ideas as being myth and tradition etcetera then one could distil a simple truth that is hidden behind what is just so much dross.

    And they yet again came up with the Deity that is ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’. A deity that was to be envisaged in many guises, hence the lack of consensus regards gods or one god and the many names and the many descriptions and attributes.

    Having arrived at an aspect of their metaphysics and a basis of faith in a deity that both could be described as being ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ to the Stoics it seemed churlish not to accept both as one and the same. And it is in this amalgamation of the ideas that we come to the Stoic belief that ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ is Conscious and Providential.

    As to your comment, “If by “providential” one means that cosmos (assuming for the moment that we attribute to it personality and consciousness) cares about and/or attends to our (ultimately meaningless) material concerns, I say the answer is no.” I would have to say that this is clearly your opinion and so I respect it. But when it comes to the Stoic teachings, with some qualification, the answer is ‘yes’.

    The Stoics of old carried out what may be called a statistical study of a few issues. And, for instance, they found that there was some merit in what the oracle had to say insofar as they found that there was a degree of good advice given. They saw that there was a way of tapping into some level of higher awareness and so getting ‘answers’ that would not normally be available to purely rational means.

    They also looked to such ideas as Socrates’ Daemon and decided that in some way or other, through some level of consciousness and awareness that was beyond that of the capability of the mind of an individual that ‘Something’ could offer help and guidance to an individual. A ‘Something’ that if it was not the overarching ‘universal governor and organiser of all things’ was at the very least a manifestation of what may be described as being within the spectrum of the overall consciousness that is seen as the active principle of the Divine Fire.

    They saw that the Deity did at times involve itself in the lives of individuals and that their metaphysical ideas regards the Divine Fire offered an explanation as to possibly how the process worked.

    It was my own search for understanding how incidents similar to those attributed to Socrates fitted in with both scientific and faith ideas that led me to Stoicism, and in the Stoic ideas of Consciousness and Providence I found answers that do not to my mind conflict with science and at the same time offer a simple non-dogmatic rite-free way of understanding our relationship to that ‘Something’ that so many turn to and of which many others have experience of.

    Just as I do, the Stoic of old bought into the whole God thing. It is, to my mind, fundamental to gaining a full understanding of all of the Stoic teaching. A few have had experiences whereby the God thing is more than just faith and is a knowing. For the rest it is a matter of faith. You either believe or you do not.

    But as the Divine Fire is ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ and as such manifests all that there is, it is not a problem as to if you belief in It as God – what matters is if the Divine Fire continues to believe in you. 🙂

    As to Jaycel’s question “What now?”, the answer is, if you have taken on board the Stoic framework and have accepted the ideas behind the Stoic mind training, just get on with living the Stoic life of virtue. If you do not accept the Stoic framework, keep looking till you find what suits you as a practical and spiritual life philosophy or even develop your own ideas.

    Nigel

  8. Much of the nihilistic “what’s the point” shades in Stoicism are based on achieving sagehood. It’s a moot exercise because nobody is going to get there. Stoicism does not offer salvation, there is no heaven or nirvana where there is peace. Stoicism does, however, offer a framework to make what we do have, this earthly existence, a little bit more noble. Realizing that there is no higher purpose to seek or place to be was very liberating. All we have to do is work hard and be nice.

  9. Much mention of the beauty and order of the cosmos. But is there really any beauty and / or order in the cosmos (or should that be _chaos_?) Isn’t any perceived beauty and order merely apparent not actual? Thoughts of beauty and order are a little too self-referential; a little too anthropocentric.

    And since when was appreciation and awestrickenness the property of the Stoic alone?

    At the end of the day the bleakness of Stoic thought remains.

    Art

    1. Art, Now I see why you are spending time here on a site about Stoicism despite constantly knocking it and suggesting it has got matters wrong. You actually think that it matches your bleakness of thought. 🙂

      You are wrong. Stoicism is not bleak. What you see as bleak is only the training of the ‘judge’ to be impartial. You have obviously missed all the bits about getting on and making the most of life.

      OK, on this last bit (or for that matter any of the rest of its teachings), Stoicism does not hold the exclusive intellectual property rights to such ideas. Where Stoicism is original is that it has amalgamated all of the common ground of all of the great teachings into one system of thought. And in the process, it recognises that making the most of life is what almost everyone is striving for. And Stoicism has worked out how to make the most of life come what may.

      It is not for everyone because not everyone cares about how they affect the rest of the Cosmos – all some are interested in is having ‘a good time’ while the good times last regardless of the fact that they are probably helping to contribute to the time when their personal ‘good time’ will come to an end (the live for the now, to hell with the rest of you and to hell with the future brigade).

      I do not believe that you are of this type. You may see yourself as a person of action but the fact that you spend time studying such matters suggests that you actually think before you act, consciously or subconsciously, having absorbed much regards matters that Stoicism also talks about. You just have a different way of putting matters. What does not come across from what you say is if you are contented with life and if you enjoy your life.

      If your beliefs work for you great. For myself I am contented with my life and I enjoy my life – a life I live, so I found out just over 25 years ago, that is in accord with the Stoic teachings. I see no cause to follow such an apparently bleak outlook that you seem to present.

      I hope you have a happy Yuletide and New Year 🙂

      Nigel

      1. And I wish you well too Nigel!

        Perhaps we should now all join hands and sing the second verse of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”:

        “Fear not,” said he, [the angel of the Lord]
        For mighty dread [awe]
        Had seized their troubled minds
        “Glad tidings of great joy I bring
        To you and all mankind”

        I think we err in conflating Old Testament and Stoic ideology, as in: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom

        Arch.

  10. We are getting some very interesting posts these days.

    I feel that this one makes a point albeit that I do not think it is the one that was intended.

    Many when looking at Stoicism only see the training aspects that are all about training the mind to remove all biases and to look at life as it is when making judgements and the like and in this process none of the ‘externals’ have any value to the process of making judgements. It is this aspect that gets Stoicism ‘a bad name’ because it is often studied in isolation and seen as being applicable to the ‘external’ living of life rather than the ‘internal’ judgement process.

    The unbiased judgement process may, in the process of guiding to some external action, take into account the preferred indifferents idea and the ideas about natural emotions such as love and joy and other Stoic ideas regards the Stoic’s various roles in life.

    And to know what is appropriate in living the Stoic life we do need an understanding as to how we fit in, not just with the whole Cosmos, but also with those around us. This is where the Stoic ideas on ethics and virtue come into effect. This is where the Stoic metaphysics comes into effect.

    Many forget that all of the Stoic ideas are interrelated and the problems that Sherman refers to dissipate when one sees Stoicism in the whole whereby the understanding of a particular aspect is affected by the understanding of every other aspect.

    The Stoic mind training is not selfish if its purpose is understood properly. Having trained an aspect of the mind to make correct and sound judgements the judgements are expected to lead to sound actions which ‘may or may not hit the mark’, but the Stoic still gets on and lives their Stoic life in the belief that they have tried their best regardless of the outcome.

    Much talk of Stoicism looks to the control of anger and other such negative actions, whereas it is equally good at looking to the more positive aspects of life. Being a Stoic in no way makes a person less of a loving person – if anything it makes them more of a loving person for their love will be free of any of the failings of possessive love because they have trained their mind to make correct judgements and to see any perceptions for what they are.

    The impassive nature of the Stoic is meant to be regards being the impassive judge of the reality of life, it is not about being impassive in living life.

    I note that Sherman refers to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius regards what they have to say about how to live a life of distress and misfortune. A deeper reading of these two and a reading of Seneca demonstrates that Stoicism is also about how to live life when everything is going well. We are warned that at such times we are in even greater danger of matters coming unstuck so training for the good life is even more important that the idea of ‘grin and bear it’ in the bad times.

    If all that is said about training the mind is seen in light of being only a part of Stoicism, and that such is seen against the teachings on how to apply the trained mind to living life, against the teachings about ethics and virtue and against the teachings regards the nature of the Cosmos and all within it (and our relationship to all aspects of the Cosmos), then the training of the mind is seen to impart no harshness to the actual life lived.

    There is no need to explain away an imagined ‘bleak and joyless’ existence. For the Stoic, life is an adventure and full of joy and contentment.

    Nigel

    1. Well put Nigel. Thanks for this.

      I very much agree that to view stoic thought as primarily therapeutic is to miss its potentially profound upside. On the question of how best to articulate and capture that—and in light of your thoughtful recent post on the divine in stoic thought—I would very much welcome your thoughts on my reply (above) to the question posed by Jaycel Adkins.

      In the mean time, I do think it worth dealing with the seeming (or as you put it “imagined”) bleak and joyless potential consequences of stoic thought. I agree 100% that stoicism ultimately is not bleak at all. Quite the contrary. But the potential problem of Hamlet-like “stoic malaise” is worth confronting, I think, for the reasons describe in the post.

      Put differently, many thoughtful people who realize that the things people care about in this world are pointless—whether that realization comes through stoicism or otherwise—do in fact confront the fear that everything will start to seem meaningless. Hamlet spoke to something real and pervasive in the human condition—at least the condition of thoughtful humans.

      So I think it worth noting that the universe has not left us bereft. It offers us something much better in place of the meaningless things we recognize as indifferent. Stoic thought, if thoroughly thought through, sees that—and can help us see it too.

      Sherman

  11. I really enjoyed this post. I would personally place my emphasis on Virtue as the end. But since you import Physics into a Virtue, I don’t think there is much disagreement to be had after a subsequent reading.

    For Clarification, the term Physics you are using is a modern one, rather than a traditional one? While the Universe necessarily must be ordered via physical laws, must it also be Conscious and Providential, to meet your requirement as a source of Stoic Joy?

    ‘What then?’ has been a question I have had for a long time. Thanks again for the post.

    1. Good question Jaycel.

      On my view, we need not understand the universe as conscious and providential in order for it to be for us a source of deep joy. We need only see that it is awesome and sublime in its order. But we do need really to see it—to grasp and appreciate (as best we can) the deep order and beauty.

      That said, I’d add three things:

      First, our human capacity for comprehension, while remarkable, is limited. Given those limits, all of our ways of seeing and understanding—including mathematical and scientific ways—are at bottom metaphorical. So, given that all of our descriptions are inevitably inadequate, perhaps for some the best way to grasp and appreciate the order and beauty of the world is by personalizing it. Put differently, calling it God—as the stoics often did—may better inspire and capture the awe to which we should aspire than do terms like cosmos, universe, or logos. A very good way to describe something as awesome beyond comprehension is to refer to it—appropriately, I think—as divine.

      Second, although it is not at all necessary to my account, I would not dismiss the possibility of an actual larger pervasive consciousness—especially given the fact that our own consciousness emerges from an internal complexity much smaller that that of the whole. If awareness can emerge from the paltry 100 billion or so neurons in the human brain, it would be hubris to suggest that consciousness could not emerge from the vastly larger ordered complexity of the universe as a whole. I just think that any such consciousness would be far beyond our ken. And I think it is not al all necessary to attribute self-awareness to the cosmos in order to be struck by, and take deep pleasure from, the contemplation of its beauty and order.

      Third, on the question of whether it is necessary or even helpful to think of the universe as providential . . . well, that’s a tougher question. If by “providential” one means that cosmos (assuming for the moment that we attribute to it personality and consciousness) cares about and/or attends to our (ultimately meaningless) material concerns, I say the answer is no. Those things are (or should be) indifferent even to us; so of course the universe would not care at all for such matters. But if one means by “providential” that there is some deeper sense in which the universe is helpfully understood as ordered in such a way as to provide for our true human needs . . . Well, I’d be open to such an understanding.

      1. Thank you for the reply. Again, it’s a great post that asks, what really, is the key question for Modern Stoicism: What Now?

        Your point of view reminds me of point of view of Frank Wilczek. While I am doubtful about the providential nature of the universe, I am content that is simply is. I certainly appreciate symmetry and economy of what is.

        Happy Holidays and I look forward to more posts from you in the new year.

        Keep Well.

Leave a Reply