Aristotelian and Stoic Happiness by Gabriele Galluzzo and Chris Gill

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzo, summarizing the workshop they provided at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

Introduction – Chris Gill

We all want to live happily – but what is happiness? In modern terms, ‘happiness’ tends to mean being in a cheerful mood or having enjoyable experiences. People often think that being happy depends on factors largely outside our control, such as being healthy or well-off, or finding the right life-partner or a stable family life. Ancient philosophers also thought that happiness included, or brought with it, enjoyment or positive emotions. But they believed that happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia) is a way of living or a form of activity, and that if you live in the right way enjoyable emotions will necessarily follow. In other words, they stressed much more the idea that happiness (the happy life) is something that is up to us, and that depends on our agency, our understanding and our character. This is true of both Aristotle and the Stoics; the main difference between them is that the Stoics emphasize the role of our agency even more than Aristotle and also stress the idea that our happiness is therefore independent of circumstances. But both theories share the belief that happiness depends essentially on our agency.

Here is Aristotle’s first definition of happiness: ‘activity of the mind consistent with virtue, and if there are more virtues than one, with the best and most perfect one’ (Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.7), though he adds some qualifications later (NE 1.8-10).

Here is a typical Stoic definition: ‘living according to virtue, living consistently, and again (which is the same) living according to nature’ (Stobaeus 6e).

Both definitions need more explaining. But they both convey the idea that happiness consists in something you do (your activity, or living in a certain way), and that this depends largely on your own efforts and personal qualities. Both definitions stress the idea that virtue or the virtues are crucial for happiness: these virtues are qualities of understanding and character, such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.

Both theories also hold that whether or not we develop the virtues depends to a large extent on us (the Stoics again stress this even more than Aristotle). In addition, both Aristotle and the Stoics see happiness as a matter of living the best possible human life (the Stoics also see it as a life in accordance with nature as a whole). The virtues, then, are those qualities that enable you to live the best possible human life, and living that kind of life is what it means to live happily. Again, living that kind of life will bring with it enjoyment or positive emotions; but having those emotions is a by-product; the core of happiness is living a good human life, which means living according to the virtues.

Aristotle on Happiness, Key themes – Gabriele Galluzzo

Aristotle identifies happiness as the basic and ultimate aspiration of all human beings, and so as the highest good (NE 1.4-5; 1.7). Since happiness is the highest good, it must be the kind of thing that is pursued for its own sake. Happiness, in other words, is the final end of human life and not a means to something else (NE 1.7).

Besides, Aristotle believes that happiness must be, at least in some sense, self-sufficient (NE 1.7). Once we have happiness, there is nothing else that we require to fulfill the purpose of our life, for happiness is indeed such a purpose. This is, of course, a very general and abstract characterization of happiness, which does not say much about what happiness is in specific terms. But, within this general framework, Aristotle introduces several themes which help us to give more content to happiness conceived as the ultimate goal of our life.   

One idea is that, in defining happiness, we need to reflect on what is unique or distinctive about human beings, considered in comparison to all other creatures. This line of thought leads to the conclusion that happiness consists mainly in the possession and exercise of the virtues. The argument by which he reaches this conclusion is interesting. We establish what happiness is by investigating the proper function of human beings, to use Aristotle’s terminology (NE 1.7). It is only by considering what makes human beings uniquely human and thus what distinguishes them from all other living things that we can reach sound conclusions about what makes human beings happy.

For Aristotle, as for many other Greek philosophers, the proper function of a human being (his or her distinctive characteristic) is the use of reason: while we share the function of being alive with plants and the function of perception with non-human animals, the possession and use of reason is distinctive to us as human beings.  The final step in the argument is the claim that the exercise of the virtues is the full expression of human rationality. This step is not surprising if we think that the Greek term for virtue (aretē) means ‘excellence’ or doing something well.

Thus, for Aristotle the exercise of the virtues constitutes excellence in the expression of human nature, and this is what human beings are uniquely equipped to do. The conclusion is that happiness is an activity of our mind that is in accordance with, or is expressive of, virtue (or the highest virtue – an idea explored further later in the Nicomachean Ethics, 10.7-8).

A second interesting theme in Aristotle is his celebrated idea that human beings are by nature political or social animals (NE 1.7, Politics 1.2). This means that interpersonal and communal relationships form an essential part of a natural human life. But if this is true, then one fundamental strand of human happiness will concern interpersonal and communal relationships. Not surprisingly given this view, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of the ethical virtues, that is, the virtues that we mainly exercise in our dealings with other people, such a courage, justice and generosity. 

Similarly, Aristotle puts weight on the importance of friendship, and ‘friendship’, in Aristotle, is a general term that covers all kinds of relationship, including family relationships, involving affection and reciprocity (NE 8.3-5, 8.7-9; 9.4, 9.8-9). This theme of sociability is common to Aristotle and the Stoics; but, while Aristotle believes that the social nature of human beings mainly manifests itself in relatively small communities such as the Greek city-states, the Stoics extend this idea to cover the whole of humankind.

One final theme rather complicates this picture. Aristotle distinguishes between the ethical virtues (by which he means virtues of character, in Greek ēthos) and intellectual virtues, which are purely rational. He also draws a distinction between practical wisdom (phronēsis) and intellectual or reflective wisdom (sophia). Practical wisdom, as its name suggests, is used in the context of practical activities, including the conduct of our social relationships. To exercise the ethical virtues properly, we need also to apply practical wisdom in the decisions we make. Theoretical wisdom is exercised in the context of philosophical activities of all kinds.

As well as distinguishing between practical and theoretical wisdom, Aristotle also draws a distinction between the practical life and theoretical life, by which he means lives which are focused, ultimately, on either practical or theoretical uses of wisdom. Towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (10.7-8), Aristotle asks not just what happiness is but what the highest form of happiness is, that is, the form of life that expresses the highest kind of virtue. Although he recognizes the importance of practical wisdom and ethical virtues in a human life (indeed, in every human life), he argues that a life focused on intellectual activities, above all philosophy, represents the highest form of happiness. In fact, he characterizes the intellectual life as ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’, compared with the practical life, which is only ‘human’.

Despite this characterization, Aristotle reaches this conclusion partly because the ability to engage in philosophical activity is unique to human beings, and in this sense it forms a distinctively human form of happiness. This view has aroused much debate among modern scholars, who tend to think Aristotle should have favoured the practical life or at least have regarded both activities as equally important parts of the best human life. However, Aristotle’s view reflects the high valuation of the intellectual life that is also maintained by his teacher Plato and other thinkers in the ancient world – though not the Stoics.

The Stoics on Happiness, Key Themes – Chris Gill

The Stoics put forward their own, independently conceived, framework for thinking about happiness and do not refer explicitly to Aristotle’s ideas on this subject; however their thinking has much in common with Aristotle’s, except on the last point. They conceive happiness as living ‘naturally’ or according to nature; and this means, living in line with human nature (as it does for Aristotle) but also living in line with nature as a whole (the world or universe of which human beings form an integral part).

The Stoics see human nature as marked by a combination of rationality and sociability (again this view is close to Aristotle’s). So living a happy life is living the best possible human life, as a rational and sociable animal; and the way to do this is to develop and exercise the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control). They see these virtues as forming a matched and interdependent set of qualities which together enable us to lead the best possible human life.

Also, since human beings (like all living things) form an integral part of nature as a whole (the world, universe or cosmos), living happily means embodying the best qualities of nature as a whole. The Stoics see the universe as marked especially by two sets of qualities: structure, order and wholeness (which add up to coherence and consistency); and exercising providential care (oversight and concern) for everything in the universe. So we, human beings, will live the best possible life (the ‘natural’ life) if we embody these qualities in the way that human beings can.

If we develop the virtues, we will give our characters structure, order, and wholeness (or integrity) and we will also give the same qualities to our lives. Also, if we do this, we will be doing all we can to exercise a kind of ‘providential’ care for ourselves (we will look after ourselves to the greatest possible extent) and we will internalize nature’s providential care for us. And we will also exercise this care for others of our kind (other human beings), especially our family and community, but also human beings in general who form a kind of universal family or community, and in this way too we will internalize nature’s care for us. So the idea, broadly speaking, is that these qualities (order and providential care) are built into the workings of nature as a whole, and the best human life, the ‘life according to nature’ is one in which we express these qualities in our actions and lives. Here is one well-known Stoic quotation that brings out some of these points:

… therefore, living in agreement with nature comes to be the goal, which is in accordance with the nature of oneself [human nature] and that of the whole [universal nature]… the virtue of the happy person and his good flow of life [happiness] are just this: always doing everything on the basis of the harmony of each person’s guardian spirit with the will of the administrator of the whole. (The Stoic thinker, Chrysippus, quoted by Diogenes Laertius 7.88)

The Stoic view of happiness differs from the Aristotelian in bringing in this broader, cosmic dimension, as well as referring to human nature, and by integrating these ideas. Also the Stoics do not distinguish between the practical and contemplative lives as Aristotle does; they see practical and contemplative activities as equally spheres of activity in which we can exercise wisdom and the other virtues. Any life which is shaped by the virtues is happy, whether it is theoretical or practical in focus or a combination of the two kinds of activity.

Points of Disagreement between Aristotle and the Stoics – Gabriele Galluzzo

The main point of contention between Aristotelian and Stoics is the issue of whether virtue is sufficient for happiness (Aristotle, NE 1.8-10, Cicero, On Ends Books 3-5). Both Aristotle and Stoics claim that virtue is an essential component of happiness. But while Aristotle sees happiness as dependent on a combination of virtue and bodily goods (for instance, health) and external goods (for instance, money, power and friends), for the Stoics happiness depends solely on virtue. Thus, for Aristotle virtue is necessary for happiness, but not sufficient, whereas for the Stoics it is both necessary and sufficient. The following passage shows that for Aristotle it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain happiness without the addition of at least some external goods:

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence (NE 1.8).

The Stoics, by contrast, believe that both bodily and external goods are a matter of indifference, that is, they do not make the difference between happiness and unhappiness, whereas virtue does. Thus, for the Stoics, it is possible, at least in principle, to be happy without possessing bodily and external goods, and virtue is the only basis for happiness (just as vice or moral defectiveness is the only source of unhappiness), as the following passage from Diogenes Laertius clearly shows:

‘Indifferent’ is used of things which contribute neither to happiness nor to unhappiness, as is the case with wealth, reputation, health, strength and the like. For it is possible to be happy even without these things. (Diogenes Laertius 7.104).

Of course, Aristotle’s position is not that virtue and external goods are on a par when it comes to happiness. Virtue remains, in his conception as well, the main contributing factor in happiness, while bodily and external goods only provide the material conditions without which the exercise of virtue is difficult or impossible. For Aristotle, for instance, it is implausible to think that someone could exercise the virtues fully and so live a happy life if he has no resources or no friends. Besides, Aristotle only claims that one needs some or a certain amount of external goods, and not that obtaining external goods should become an aim or pursuit in its own right. The fact remains, however, that on Aristotle’s view external goods make a decisive contribution to happiness. For the Stoics, by contrast, external goods do not determine one’s happiness, though some of them do have positive value, as we see shortly.

One attractive aspect of Aristotle’s position, which is often emphasized by supporters, is that it appears to be more realistic: how can we really live well without at least some external goods? Is it conceivable that we can do without them completely and still live a happy life? Moreover, Aristotle’s view seems to be rather sophisticated, in that bodily and external goods are just a prerequisite for happiness, while the possession and exercise of the virtues remains the main contributing factor.

On the other hand, critics often stress that Aristotle’s position risks being incoherent, since exercising virtue and obtaining external goods can come into conflict since they are separate and independent sources of wellbeing.  Critics also insist that Aristotle’s position is elitist, because only a limited number of people can have access to the right amount of external goods and thus achieve happiness. The Stoic position, by contrast, is seen by supporters as more unified and coherent, since there is only one basis for happiness, namely virtue. It is also more egalitarian, since for the Stoics everybody can be happy, irrespective of their wealth or social status or all other external conditions. Followers of Aristotle, of course, often found the Stoic view incomplete, since it does not recognize the importance of certain areas of life, and unrealistic, that is, fine in theory, but unattainable in practice.

Supporting Arguments for the Stoic Position – Chris Gill

The Stoic position may seem incomplete and extreme but it is supported by three aspects of their thinking.

(a) The distinction between virtue and indifferents. Stoics recognize that things such as health, wealth, and reputation have a positive value and constitute grounds for action: hence they call them ‘preferred’ or ‘preferable’ indifferents rather than ‘dispreferred’. The reason that the Stoics call them ‘indifferents’ (instead of bodily and external goods, which is what Aristotle calls them) is that these factors do not make the difference between being happy or not, that is, between leading a good human life or not, whereas the virtues do. You can lead a good human life without wealth, or reputation or even health, but you cannot be happy if you do not live ‘well’, that is by exercising the virtues.

Remember that for the Stoics the virtues are all seen as forms of knowledge or expertise in living. The virtues express our knowledge of how to live a life with the characteristics of happiness noted earlier, that is, a combination of being rational and sociable, of having an ordered and structured life and taking ‘providential’ care of yourself and others. The virtues are also seen as forms of expertise in selecting between indifferents, that is, in choosing what things we really need to lead a life with the characteristics just described. The Stoic view, understood in this way, is quite complex, but not therefore incredible; arguably, it answers to many of our intuitions about what makes a life worth living, if we examine this question in some depth.

(b) The Stoics have a theory of ethical development and also emotional development that makes their view about happiness and indifferents more psychologically plausible. They believe that, as people develop ethically and acquire the virtues, their emotional life also changes, and they experience ‘good emotions’ rather than bad (misguided) ones. The bad emotions or ‘passions’ are based on the mistaken view that things such as wealth, reputation and health make you happy (that is, that they enable you, by themselves, to lead a good human life). Emotions of this kind are also often intense, overpowering and sometimes internally conflicted (think of a jealous lover).

The good emotions reflect the fact that you have the virtues and that the virtues enable you to live a good human life, whereas the indifferents do not. The good emotions are also calm, moderate and consistent with each other and with your beliefs about what is valuable. Examples of good emotions are wish (rather than passionate desire), caution (rather than fear), and joy (rather than intense pleasure). So, for the Stoics too, as for most modern thinkers, the happy life is also marked by a certain emotional quality. But the positive emotional quality does not depend on acquiring wealth, reputation and so on, but from recognizing that our happiness does not depend on these things but on developing the virtues.

(c) Some Stoic thinkers (especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) also stress that we can accept (what are normally seen as) ‘bad’ aspects of life – such as our own death or those of our loved ones – if we see them as part of a larger series of events which are providentially shaped and are in this sense ‘good’. Stoics see not only the universe as a whole but also the series of events that occur within the universe as providentially shaped. They also see these events as fated, at least in the sense that they form part of an interconnected causal web and not as random and fortuitous events, which is the competing Epicurean view.

However, this does not mean that Fate excludes human agency; the scope for human beings to exercise choice in their actions also forms part of this causal web. The acceptance of seemingly bad events as providentially shaped is sometimes seen by Stoic thinkers as promoting peace of mind and in this sense contributes to the emotional dimension of leading a good and happy human life. This parallels the idea noted earlier that leading a good (virtuous) life is a matter of living in accordance with nature as a whole.

The final passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations illustrates the last two points. Marcus contemplates his own approaching death calmly and even with a kind of joy:

My friend, you have been a citizen of this great city [the universe]. What difference does it make if you live in it for five years or a hundred? For what is laid down in its laws is equitable for all. Where is the hardship, then, if it is no tyrant or unjust judge who sends you our of the city, but nature who brought you into it? … the one who determines when it is complete [that is, nature] is he who arranged for your composition and now arranges for your dissolution, while you for your part are responsible for neither. So make your departure with a good grace, as he who is releasing you shows a good grace. (12.36, translated by Robin Hard)

Conclusion

As we have tried to bring out, both Aristotle and the Stoics offer well-conceived and profound theories of human happiness, which still have much to offer to modern audiences. Their theories have some features in common and some marked differences; but both of them take us to the heart of serious questions about how to lead a good human life.

Further Reading:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, especially books 1 and 10 (many good translations).

Anthony A. Long and David N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987, especially sections 54 (the Stoic providential world-view), 63 (happiness), and 65 (passions).

Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford, 1993, especially chs. 1-2, on goals in life and virtue, chs. 18-19 on Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of happiness.

Daniel C. Russell, Happiness for Humans, Oxford 2012, a sustained debate about the rival merits of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of the happy life.

John Sellars, Stoicism, Berkeley, 2006, ch. 5, an overview of Stoic ethics, including discussion of virtue and happiness.

See also in the ‘Stoicism Today’ blog archive two debates between Chris Gill and Tim LeBon on virtue and indifferents.

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Chris Gillis Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

There Is Nothing Banal about Philosophy by Massimo Pigliucci

According to Socrates, the only evil is ignorance. This phrase has always been controversial, because it seems to be immediately refuted by the very well known fact that lots of people do bad things in full knowledge of what they are doing. Adolf Eichmann, for one, was not just a low level bureaucrat who followed orders during the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews. He was a high level officer who deliberately helped planning the deportations and killings, and who was openly proud of his “work.”

But it is always dangerous to dismiss something that a philosopher of the caliber of Socrates said, on the grounds that it seems prima facie (as philosophers are fond of saying) absurd. Far more likely it is that you have not fully understood what he meant. If that same Socratic attitude,
moreover, was then adopted and made part of their central philosophy by the Stoics, you can bet that there is more than meets the eye.

When I asked my colleague Nick Pappas, a careful and renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, about that famous Socratic phrase, he explained that the word actually used by Socrates is “amathia,” elaborating:

The root verb is ‘manthano,’ to learn. So etymologically the word just means a state of not having learned. Heraclitus uses the word a couple of times to mean extreme ignorance. It appears with more moralistic judgment in Euripides (Phoenissae, Medea, Bacchae), where it can mean stupidity or boorishness. These sources come before Plato. Within Plato the most interesting passage might be the Alcibiades Major 118a-c. There Socrates distinguishes the mere ignorance of ‘agnoia’ from the ‘amathia’ that Alcibiades and Pericles had.

Now Pericles and Alcibiades were not ignorant. On the contrary, they were among the most highly educated of Athenians. They were also not stupid. Again, we are talking about two brilliant minds. And they did what they did, in particular with regard to the eventually disastrous conduct of the Peloponnesian War by Athens, in full knowledge. Moreover, when Alcibiades repeatedly switched sides – from Athens to Sparta, then back to Athens, then to the Persians – he knew that he was doing something that his fellow citizens would consider wrong. But he thought so highly of himself, almost a god walking among men, that he felt entitled to do it. From his point of view, whatever course of action he decided on was the right one.

Socrates, of course, understood all too well that smart, educated and ambitious people are particularly prone to suffer from amathia, a sort of willful lack of wisdom. And he also knew that this condition typically leads not just to such people’s ruin, but to the ruin of entire populations
that follow them (often out of mere ignorance or stupidity, i.e., agnoia).

All of this is germane to an article recently published in Stoicism Today by Kevin Kennedy, who – like many others I have encountered – really dislikes my writings on amathia because he feels that they cheapen horrors such as the Holocaust.

Kennedy focuses on my discussion of the Eichmann case as presented in How to Be a Stoic. He correctly points out that Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as an example of “the banality of evil” has been criticized on the basis of both some inaccuracies in Arendt’s original account and because of new documents about Eichmann that emerged after the trial. This is all true, but makes no difference at all to my argument. In fact, if anything, it reinforces it.

Had Eichmann simply been a mindless bureaucrat who was following orders, he would have been no different from countless other Germans who allowed Nazism to flourish between 1933 and 1945. Those Germans were in turn no different from the Italians under fascism, the Athenians under Pericles and Alcibiades, even a good chunk of contemporary Americans under Trump. (No, I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m comparing the mindlessness of so many people who support obviously bad leaders, across time and cultures.) Those people were all victims of agnoia, not amathia.

Amathia is the more interesting condition because it illuminates in a new way the otherwise mysterious fact that some individuals with all the advantages of smarts and education still manage to engage in seriously immoral acts. In fact, Kennedy himself not only does not refute
my (well, really, Socrates’) argument, he repeatedly falls into contradiction throughout his article.

For instance, he writes:

[Eichmann] like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing. … He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. … He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.

Precisely. Yes, the Nazi were aware that they were in violation of Western religious-philosophical thought. But they also were convinced that such tradition was corrupted, embodying the wrong morality, so to speak, and not one that would lead to the rightful (as they saw it) flourishing of the German nation and the Aryan “race.” That is a textbook case of amathia. Eichmann & co. did not get up in the morning, stand in front of a mirror and ask themselves with an evil grin: “what sort of horrors can I possibly commit today?” No, they were functioning under a different “morality,” and they were convinced that they were right. So was Alcibiades, and his righteousness cost the lives of tens of thousands of Athenians during the disastrous expedition against Syracuse.

Why think of people’s behaviors in terms of amathia rather than in the more stark, and psychologically satisfying, age old concept of good vs evil? Because Manichean, black and white conceptions of the world are not only not informative, but positively misleading. The world is complicated, and people even more so. It’s easy, and it feels good, to simply slap the label of “evil” on someone else and be done with it. But that label explains nothing, and does not prepare us for the next round of trouble, which is sure to come.

Kennedy doesn’t want any part of this, however. He writes:

The assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust.

But we are never told exactly why invoking amathia as an explanatory concept is “a grotesque banalization.” There is nothing banal in Socratic and Stoic philosophy, though there certainly are paradoxa, a word that originally simply meant “uncommon opinions.” Kennedy seems to be confusing two very distinct concepts, understanding and justification, and it is precisely this confusion that leads him to be incensed by my suggestion that Eichmann was suffering from amathia. But to attempt to understand human actions is not at all the same as justifying them.

One of my literary and academic role models, the semioticist Umberto Eco, wrote a highly controversial editorial in a major Italian newspaper immediately after the attacks on 9/11, 2001. The title of the editorial was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco pointed out at the onset that what he wanted to do was to understand, not to justify. Nothing justifies the horrific destruction brought on New York City that day, but to say – as then President Bush did say – that the attacks were due to the fact that “they hate our freedom” is not only wrong, it truly is a “grotesque banalization.” Bin Laden was responding to decades of unwelcome interference by the US government in Middle Eastern affairs, not to mention to the presence of American military bases on what he considered sacred soil. That, in part, is what made him possible for him to recruit people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they thought was the greater good. Ironically, for those people it was the United States who was “the Great Satan.” See how easy, and irresponsibly dangerous, it is to slap the “evil” label and cause mayhem?

So, contra Kennedy, I think the concept of amathia is crucial not just to Stoic philosophy, but to our attempts to understand why people do horrific things. Such understanding is most certainly not aimed at justifying the Holocaust or anything else. Rather, it is aimed at preventing future occurrences of such horrors, by deploying strategies aimed at decreasing the likelihood tha future leaders will suffer from amathia. Let’s start by making the teaching of practical philosophy mandatory, if not for the general population at least for anyone elected to public office, and see if we can’t manage to reduce the chances of seeing another Eichmann, or Alcibiades.


Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.

The Banality of Philosophy: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci By Kevin Kennedy

Photo of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

On January 20, 1942, a group of senior SS-officers and other high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxurious villa, located on the picturesque Wannsee lake in southwestern Berlin, to discuss their plan to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. They had been invited there by Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS and one of the main architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question.”

One of those present at this “Wannsee Conference” wast he 36-year-old SS-Obersturmbahnführer (lieutenant-colonel) Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962). At the time, Eichmann led the SS-Department IV b 4, which was responsible for the transportation of Jews to the ghettos, concentration camps and killing facilities in eastern Europe. He was also entrusted with organizing the conference, with writing the notes for Heydrich’s address to the participants and with producing a memorandum of what had been discussed and decided there (a document which would later provide crucial historical and legal evidence for the Holocaust).

After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived for many years incognito, but in1 960 he was abducted by Israeli secret agents and brought to Israel. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, pronounced guilty of several major crimes – including mass-murder– and, on May 31, 1962, he was executed by hanging.

The Eichmann trial sparked a worldwide controversy after the publication in 1965 of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt.[1] She had covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and had been granted access to Eichmann’s written testimony of his life. At the trial, Eichmann depicted himself as a simple bureaucrat who had only followed orders. (At one point, he blurted out the claim: “The popes ordered: I had to obey!”)

Eichmann’s perverted sense of duty, which had apparently left him oblivious to the suffering of his victims, inspired Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Eichmann appeared to Arendt not as a monster, but as a “clown” – a pathetically ordinary man who had sent countless innocent people to their deaths out of sheer thoughtlessness.[2] The problem with Eichmann, and with countless Germans like him, Arendt argued, was that they lacked the moral imagination to see the human consequences of their actions.[3] According to Arendt’s critique, Eichmann showed that evil need not be the result of malevolent intent, but of a simple failure to think. (Critics of Arendt were incensed because they believed that she had humanized a monster and therefore relativized his guilt. Many were also outraged because she had pointed out the complicity of some Jews in their own people’s destruction.)

Now, Adolf Eichmann has also become a regular topic of discussion within the Modern Stoicism community.  As many readers no doubt already know, one of the movements more prominent writers, Massimo Pigliucci, regularly presents Eichmann as a prime example of amathia, an ancient Greek philosophical concept, going back to Socrates, denoting a “lack of wisdom” which results from a failure to use one’s rational faculties. The term can also be understood as a kind of ignorance which results from a refusal to learn.[4]

Amathia can have horrific consequences, causing severe harm to others, even though the perpetrators harbor no evil intent. Socrates and Plato, as well as their respective students and schools of philosophy, shared this view. According to them, men and women never commit evil intentionally. Rather, they do evil because they lack the knowledge of what is truly good. Like the ancient Greek anti-heroine Medea – whom Massimo presents as a kind of “poster-girl” for amathia – they believe their acts are good or necessary. But they are tragically mistaken.[5]

The Stoics also adopted the doctrine of amathia. Marcus Aurelius, for example, states that if men do rightly what they do, we shouldn’t be displeased, if not, clearly they do it involuntarily and in ignorance. As every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so it is deprived of the power of delivering to each man what he deserves. (Meditations, 11:18.) But intellect, by itself, is no safeguard against amathia. It needs to be guided in the right direction and exercised – something which Eichmann failed to do. Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann as

perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I meant by banality.[6]

 Arendt herself did not use the concept of amathia to analyze Eichmann’s debased moral condition. It seems rather that the philosopher Glenn Hughes was the first to view the Nazi atrocities as examples of amathia.[7] Massimo agrees with Arendt that Eichmann exhibited “intelligent stupidity” and he also concurs with Hughes that his crimes against the Jews resulted from amathia.[8] For Massimo, the case of Eichmann confirms the Stoic belief that people commit evil out of ignorance, an argument Massimo repeated at the 2017 Stoicon.[9]

Human beings can indeed do terrible things out of ignorance. History shows this over and over again. But the assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust. In the case of Eichmann, moreover, it’s completely mistaken. He, like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing, but it didn’t bother him in the least. He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. He acted knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Far from being a mindless automaton who was simply “following orders,” Adolf Eichmann went far beyond “the call of duty” in his efforts to hunt down Jews and send them to their deaths. He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.

Outside of academic historical circles, however, this insight into Eichmann’s actions has not yet spread very far, not least because of the powerful influence of Hannah Arendt. Too many discussions about Eichmann – especially among philosophers – are still based on Arendt’s book about him.  But the historical research on Eichmann and the Holocaust have since advanced far beyond Eichmann in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be conversant with the current state of the research should read the work by the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stagneth: Eichmann before Jerusalem.[10]  

Stagneth, like other contemporary Holocaust researchers, has availed herself of the many sources that have come to light since Eichmann’s trial. The most important of these regarding Eichmann are The Argentinian Papers, a compilation of writings by Nazis living in Argentinian exile, hoping to bring about a “Fourth Reich.” Among the Papers is a series of interviews Eichmann gave to its compiler and editor, the Dutch journalist Willem (“Wim”) Sassen (1918-2001), consisting of 1,300 written pages and 25 hours of taped material.

Some doubt the credibility of Sassen, who was a veteran of the Waffen-SS (he was a member of its voluntary Dutch division). Sassen also wrote for right-wing extremist publications after the war and belonged to a support network of exiled Nazis hiding in South America, a group that included the notorious Todesengel (“Angel of Death”) of Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele (1911-1979).[11] But it could also be argued that Eichmann would feel much freer to express his true convictions to a fellow SS-man than he would be to an Israeli prosecutor. In any event, Eichmann valued the Papers highly, instructing that they be published in the case of his death or capture.[12]The autobiographical testimony of Eichmann which Arendt used as a main source for Eichmann in Jerusalem, was actually written by him as part of his contribution to The Argentinian Papers. But it was fragmentary, and without the wider context of the entire document, which includes much more damning information about Eichmann, and which was not fully available in Arendt’s time, it was easier for her to view him as a technical bureaucrat instead of the vicious anti-Semite that he was. (In Arendt’s defense, the court that tried Eichmann also refused to admit the parts of the Papers they had as evidence, because their authenticity had not yet been verified.[13])

Furthermore, it now looks as though Hannah Arendt was not going to let any contrary evidence cast doubt on her novel and provocative interpretation of Adolf Eichmann and his crimes. One of the Israeli state prosecutors at the trial, Gabriel Bach, spoke in 2012 of what he saw as Arendt’s willful ignorance regarding Eichmann: “She misrepresented essential facts or ignored them”. When Bach first read Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was “astounded” to discover that Arendt, who had access to all the relevant documents at the time, had twisted the meaning of some of the most important of them into their opposites, “such as that Eichmann had clearly countered some of the clear orders of Hitler, in order to do even more damage.”[14] In truth, the evidence for Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that it becomes hard to understand how anyone could still doubt it. But for many, it seems, that appears preferable to admitting that Hannah Arendt could have been so terribly mistaken.

As Stagneth says:

Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.[15]

What motivated Adolf Eichmann in his innermost being can never be proven without a doubt. We have to judge him on his deeds. But they alone are more than enough to damn him as a perpetrator of evil who was anything but banal. (Readers who find the term “evil” too theological are welcome to use the alternative “heinous crimes.”) After being sent to Budapest to organize the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the death camps, Eichmann gave graphic descriptions of how he saw his role there. “Do you know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” “I keep the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” “I’m having the whole filthy band of Jews in Budapest murdered!”[16]

And it wasn’t the case that Eichmann was some kind of “desk criminal,” a pencil-pusher with no first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to “imagine” the suffering of his victims: he witnessed it first-hand. In Vienna, Eichmann personally participated in raids on the Jewish community there. It was his idea that “Jewish councils” also be set up in Vienna, so that the Jewish communities themselves assisted their persecutors in getting Jews to emigrate, while leaving their wealth and valuables to the Nazis.[17]

In an autobiographical text Eichmann wrote in prison – one which Hannah Arendt never saw, and which was then kept secret by the Israeli government for 15 years – he recalled witnessing many mass-killings. The sights were so grisly, he lamented, that he could only tolerate them by drinking heavily. He wrote that one mass-shooting he saw in Minsk was so bad he had to “drink schnaps like water.”[18] Nevertheless, Eichmann actively pursued the discovery of more efficient means of killing Jews. He held discussions on this topic with Rudolf Höss (1901-1947), commandant of Auschwitz, in the camp itself. Eichmann also personally inspected the gas trucks at Chelmno and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Far from being a passive recipient of orders with no convictions of his own, Eichmann proved himself, repeatedly, to be a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who showed tremendous energy and initiative when it came to the dispossession, transportation and mass-murder of Central Europe’s Jews.[19] In one of his interviews with Willem Stassen, Eichmann even belittled those who committed atrocities and then tried to distance themselves from their actions once the circumstances had changed. No one should claim they were only following orders, he said. “That is cheap nonsense, that’s just an excuse,” adding that humanitarian considerations only served to help “one comfortably ensconce oneself behind orders, edicts and laws.”[20]

To return to the central point, Massimo, as well as most Stoics, would no doubt contend that, while Eichmann certainly committed horrific crimes, he nevertheless did so out of amathia, out of ignorance of the true philosophical Good. In fact, Massimo anticipates criticism of using amathia to explain Nazi atrocities:

Whenever I say this [that Eichmann acted out of ignorance], someone is guaranteed to get outraged. What? Do I seriously mean to say that Hitler wasn’t evil? How could I possibly be so naïve? Or perhaps I harbor questionable sympathies? But as with many terms in philosophy, ‘evil’ and ‘ignorance’ don’t mean quite what we expect.[21]

In truth, both Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as well as the ancient Greek concept of amathia are complex ideas that defy “common-sense” thinking. In each case, the proposition is that those we consider to be evildoers are actually motivated by what they consider to be “good” or necessary. That is to say, they do not believe that they are doing “evil.” Some members of the Modern Stoicism Facebook group, responding to the same critique presented here, have agreed with Massimo that Eichmann indeed thought he was “doing good”, in the sense that he believed that ridding the world of Jews was necessary. In fact, in the most notorious part of The Argentinian Papers, Tape Number 67, Eichmann seems to confirm this view. Speaking at what was probably a small gathering of Nazis in Argentinian exile, Eichmann proclaimed: “What is useful for my people, is for me a sacred command and a sacred law. Jawohl.[22]

Nevertheless, to argue that Eichmann acted out of an ignorance of the good is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Nazis considered to be their world-historical mission: namely, to eradicate all obstacles to the ultimate triumph of the Germanic peoples in the racial struggle for survival. They knew full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. As the Yale historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race.[23] They therefore had to be eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.

Eichmann’s own familiarity with philosophy also went much deeper than what Arendt knew (or could have known at the time). Today we know that Eichmann was not only familiar with Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but he could also carry on fairly sophisticated discussions about them and their ideas. But he rejected the humanist elements of Western philosophy because they were incompatible with the crude social Darwinism favored by the Nazis. It was only in Jerusalem, when he was on trial for his life, that Eichmann concealed his own systematic anti-humanist world-view and placed his own ideas within the Western philosophical canon.[24]

Moreover, as Bettina Stagneth warns us, we should not to dismiss the “atavistic” ideology of Eichmann and the Nazis as “pseudo-philosophy.” Many academic philosophers at the time shared such views, including the man who arguably became the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Heidegger, referring to the tradition of Western rationalist thought, proclaimed: “We have renounced the idolization of an abysmal and powerless reasoning. We see the end of the philosophy which serves that.[25]” 

Adolf Eichmann committed evil purposely, willingly and knowingly.  There is a lesson here for modern Stoics: Just as the ancient Stoic belief in a sentient, wise, benevolent universe needs to be revised in the light of modern physics, so the Stoic doctrine that people only do evil out of ignorance needs to be modified in the wake of the Holocaust. Sometimes evil is done in full knowledge of its nature and its consequences.

To be sure, this is no new insight. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, believed that humans do evil, whether in the form of stealing pears or terrorizing entire populaces, precisely because they delight in the pleasure “of doing what we should not do”.[26] By breaking moral customs, norms and laws, men and women set themselves above the rest of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Stoicism is helpless in the face of it. A Stoic education, for instance, could help prevent people from becoming evil in the first place. But we must also keep in mind that success is not guaranteed. Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus must have received quite a dose of Stoic philosophy while he was growing up, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst tyrants to ever sit upon the imperial throne of Rome. Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism can guide our own actions as we try to respond to the consequences of evil, an important consideration in our own time, which is characterized by authoritarian demagogues, racism, terrorism, the ruthless exploitation of our natural resources and the reckless accumulation of individual wealth in full contempt of the general social welfare.

Before concluding, I would like to mention that I originally expressed my disagreement with Massimo on this subject on the Modern Stoicism Facebook page. Massimo generously devoted the time to give me a thoughtful response – for which I remain grateful – but he still begged to disagree. Massimo wrote: “Eichmann is a perfect example of amathia because he lacked wisdom, or he would have understood that what he was doing is ‘evil.’ The point is that he didn’t get up in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’ but rather ‘how can I do my job well today?’ He may have ‘reflected’ on what he was doing, but from a standpoint of ‘ignorance’ (i.e., unwisdom, i.e., amathia).”[27]

Massimo here restates his argument that Eichmann acted out of ignorance of what is truly good. Again, this is to suggest that Eichmann, and all the other Nazis like him, murdered several million human beings because they weren’t thinking like Stoics. To reiterate, this appears to me to be both true, on one level, but also to be a banalization of the Holocaust. Moreover, Massimo remains mistaken about Eichmann, just as Hannah Arendt was. The historical record shows that Eichmann did not “get up in the morning thinking how he could do his job well” – in the sense that the kind of job he was doing didn’t matter. Eichmann’s words and deeds demonstrate instead that he devoted careful and sustained thought to how he could best execute the Nazi plan to humiliate, rob, expel, torture and murder Europe’s Jews.

In that sense, he truly did get up in the morning and ask “what kind of evil” he could do that day. Adolf Eichmann knew what he was doing. He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival. That is why, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews had to be destroyed. Adolf Eichmann pursued this goal with energy, initiative and commitment. As the historian and Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer puts it: “He was evil, but not banal. He read constantly, was highly intelligent and possessed broad knowledge. He referred to philosophy, to Kant. Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal.”[28]

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, lecturer, writer and commentator who lives and works in Potsdam, Germany. He is also the father of two children and a long-distance runner. He lectures on Prussian history, modern German history, and the Holocaust. In addition, he works as a local guide in Potsdam, Berlin and Dresden, and as a tour manager in Central Europe.


[1] In a 1965 West German television interview, Arendt said she rejected the label of “philosopher” for herself. Philosophers thought in eternal and universal categories, she said, something which she felt was no longer possible in the modern age. Arendt preferred to describe herself as a “political theorist,” Hannah Arendt and Political Theory. Challenging the Tradition, Edinburgh 2011, p. 1; for a discussion of the controversy: “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt. Introduction by Amos Elon, in Hannah Arendt,” Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, London, 2016, vii-xxiii.

[2] Arendt, p. 54.

[3] Arendt, p. 150.

[4] Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, London 2017, pp.115-116.

[5] Pigliucci, pp. 109.110, 117-119.

[6] Interview with Hannah Arendt, quoted in Pigliucci, p. 113.

[7] Pigliucci, p. 116.

[8] Pigliucci, p.112-113.

[9] Do People Commit Evil out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci, https://modernstoicism.com/do-people-commit-evil-out-of-ignorance-by-massimo-pigliucci/ (last accessed on October 19, 2018).

[10] Bettina Stagneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders, Hamburg, 2004. (English version: Stagneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer, New York 2015.

[11] Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht: https://www.fritz-bauer-archiv.de/index.php/genocidium/eichmann-vor-gericht (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[12] Stagneth, p. 535.

[13]The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. German philosopher Bettina Stangneth reexamines the Nazi commander—and the true nature of evil”: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-lies-adolf-eichmann-told/381222/ (last accessed on October 21, 2018).

[14]  Als ich später ihr Buch las, war ich um so erstaunter, dass sie einige der wichtigsten Dokumente zum Teil ins Gegenteil verkehrt hatte – unter anderem die, die beweisen, dass Eichmann klar Führerbefehle hintergangen hatte, um noch mehr Schaden anzurichten, https://www.welt.de/kultur/history/article106393105/Er-sah-Leichenberge-und-stritt-fuer-einen-Anzug.htm (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[15]“The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. . .”

[16] Ich bin ein Bluthund! Ich lasse die Mühlen von Auschwitz mahlen! Ich lasse das ganze jüdische Dreckspack von Budapest umlegen!, Stagneth, p. 80.

[17] Stagneth, pp.31.34.

[18] Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Der Spiegel (33/99), http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).

[19] Stagneth, pp. 59-60, p. 63, p.80

[20] . . .das ist billiger Mumpitz, das ist eine Ausrede; humanitäre Ansichten [dienten nur dazu] sich bequemst hinter Verordnungen, Erlass und Gesetz zu verstecken, Stagneth, p. 285.

[21] Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic, p. 113.

[22]  Was meinem Volke nützt, ist für mich Heiliger Befehl und heiliges Gesetz, Stagneth, p. 391.

[23] Timothy Snyder, Black Earth. The Holocaust as History and Warning, New York 2015, pp.4-6.

[24] Stagneth, p. 288.

[25] Wir haben uns losgesagt von der Vergötzung eines boden- und machtlosen Denkens. Wir sehen das Ende der ihm dienstbaren Philosophie, Stagneth, 289. Heidegger made that statement at an electoral gathering of German scholars on November 11, 1933.

[26] St. Augustine’s Confessions or Praises of God in Ten Books, Dublin 1746, p. 47.

[27] https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism/search/?query=Kevin%20Kennedy (last accessed on March 15, 2018.

[28]Er war böse, aber nicht banal. Er hat immerfort gelesen, war hochgradig intelligent und von breitem Wissen. Er bezieht sich auf die Philosophie, auf Kant. Arendt hatte Unrecht. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal. Der Spiegel, 33/1999,http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).