Dear Stoic… by Malachi Maguire

Dear Stoic,
Further to our conversation on Tuesday, I would like to add: that a man’s mind is not a see-saw, upon which there are the two occupants of reason and emotion, those two which are giving it its rise and fall. No. These two aspects of a man’s mind are not opposites straining to pull him in different directions, rather, they are both aiding him towards his purpose, so long, and only so long, as they take their council from his conscience. Now I know you’ll tell me different:
– Reason is the only council to which a man may listen, if, and certainly only if, that man also wants to be happy.
– Oh, I’ll counter, and what makes you think a man wants to be happy.
– Because the contrary, my dear Maguire, is misery.
– Is it though.
– It is, though.
– Might not a man want to be good rather than happy, they don’t necessarily go together you know.
And there it is, dear Stoic, the singular oversight of all stoical wisdom, it’s that it cannot conceive of any other purpose for man except that of massaging his feelings, rubbing them all the right way, so that he may not even fear death, certainly, you’ll say, if reason is allowed to oil its hands. Which would be grand if our purpose was only that of ameliorating mental states and not to attempt a change in the world’s arrangement. Evil, my dear Stoic, is the impact that the foot leaves as a print in the sand. So, it would be some philosophy indeed that concerned itself with the appearance of these prints and not, at all, with the feet that caused them, yet that is exactly what your philosophy is, my dear Stoic. You see, the good is a different purpose altogether. It seeks the cessation of suffering. Now, my dear Stoic, it’s tempting to confuse misery and suffering, suffice to say that misery is the mental state of distress, fear and anguish. On the other hand, suffering is the corporeal contact point of cruelty, oppression, or, in a word, evil. Therefore, if happiness seeks a cessation to misery, it does so only in so far as this mental state is individually ameliorated, be it through the lens of reason, which gives us less to momentarily fear, or, indeed just as ‘stoical’, I’ll say with a wink, through intoxication, to give the hedonist a look in, which gives us nothing to fear at all for as long as we remain intoxicated. Yet nothing has substantively changed in the arrangement of the world, evil reigns, oppression’s rod beats, and the body registers its scars. However, my dear Stoic, if one sees ones purpose as bringing about the good, rather than happiness, well then one is tasked with making concrete changes in how the world is arranged. So you see, my dear Stoic, any man who is convinced that his purpose is to seek happiness, over the good, will be a man who affirms the constancy of this suffering, the constancy of evil, and the constancy of its cruelties. No amount of rational meditation on how he might best ameliorate his miseries is going to do a God damn thing about how he is adversely effected by this now ever present evil, and he is giving no other obligation by your philosophy, dear Stoic, but that of affirming the constancy of that effectuation. What do you have to say for yourself my dear Stoic? Here’s what you will say:
– It’s a virtue philosophy, I make no theological argument… in fact, I have to say, you sound like one of those Christians who banned philosophy, Stoicism particularly, and burned down its library of learning…you’re an apologist for antiphilosophical sentiment.
– Listen, I’ll counter, the truth is we believe in different purposes: you happiness, me the good, and those purposes, dear Stoic, have an impact on the existence of evil, but if all you have is the accusation of an atrocity against papyrus, well then, dear Stoic, you haven’t got much of a defence against the counter accusation that your philosophy promotes a willingness to be evil’s accomplice, to be complicit in its constancy through an acquiescence born of a neglect of man’s true moral obligation, which, in the end, amounts to a disservice to him and a betrayal of all those who will continue to suffer merely because you prefer to perfume the bowl rather than getting rid of what causes the stink.
– That’s quite harsh.
– Do you think so?
– Well yes, you’ll say, not least because I do not accept that man has any other purpose but happiness, and that the good you put forward here is nothing but an illusion, one imagined in opposition to the ineluctable inevitability of our cruel tendencies, and therefore not something which can ever be achieved, and in that case, entertained as a source of false hope, it leads us to the neglect of a happiness we might possibly secure, to errantly chase an imagined good which, for all intents and purposes, is as insubstantial as last night’s dreams.
– My dear Stoic, I’ll counter, human life obtains its purpose through the practice of its use, why it’s exactly like a tree: a tree hasn’t been given any purpose for us by nature, no, it has none but that which is given to it by the practice of its uses: today an aesthetic object in my garden, tomorrow a log to be carved as my chair, or at another time tinder to light the fire that keeps me warm, for anyone to suggest that the tree has but one purpose for us, and that it is given to us by the tree, well then I‘ll have to say, such lunacy has a whole profession dedicated to its treatment, or if too advance – to its incarceration, and you, my dear Stoic, are such a lunatic for suggesting that all human life has the purpose of happiness, and that it’s given to us by life itself.
Listen, my dear Stoic, human life is a teleological either/or, and based on the practical implications of either purpose presented here before us – one or other will be judged to be superior by implication of its practical results. To dismiss one or other on the basis of the erroneous assumption that there is but one purpose to human life, and it is happiness, is to deny us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we might regard to be best for our lives, and in so doing you deny us a chance at pursuing good in the world, and therefore the possibility of diminishing some of its evil, for although it is true that the pursuit of the good hasn’t yet brought about the complete cessation of evil’s suffering, and therefore its vanquishment, it is also true that the pursuit of the good has diminished evil in many respects, for if it had not done so then we would still be living in a world that practiced the enslavement of our fellow man, the Apartheid of society by race, and the use of children for labour….
– Well, Epictetus was a freed slave and a stoic, you’ll rudely interject, as though it added anything relevant at all.
– But, I’ll counter, he did not prescribe a project of universal emancipation, now did he? No, he did not, I’ll answer for you to save time. And that’s my point, that we do not still live in a world as inequitable, cruel, or unjust as that in which each of your fellow stoics lived, in both ancient Greece and Rome, is solely due to the pursuit of the good over happiness. In fact, and you’ll be furious at me for saying this, but: your philosophy deserved to be burned to the ground, and if only in those ashes it would remain, but it’s not so, no, it makes a comeback. I dare say the rise in your philosophy’s popularity today is due, in no small part, to the rise also of that navel gazing, feel good, masturbatory of all philosophies – the self-help culture, which seeks\ happiness above the good, and happiness for them is nothing more than the amelioration of those anxieties which are associated with affirming the constancy of evil, in the despair of ever doing anything about it, and the bad conscience associated in being complicit in this constancy, all the while they are rubbing their overpriced balms into, one or other, of their bodily orifices so as to cleanse, whatever invisible nonsense they’ve called, their chakras.
So there you are, dear Stoic, I await your actual reply and if it is returned to me in the severity in which I imagine it will, well then, at least I can enjoy the levity of that ironic oxymoron: an un-stoical stoic.
Sincerely yours, Malachi Maguire.
Malachi Maguire was born in Ireland in 1936, (he’s now 82 and, presently, still amongst the living) and worked as a journalist for a local newspaper, the Clane Gazette, for 38 years, until his retirement in 2004. He now writes occasional pieces as a ‘retirement hobby’, rather than for professional reward.

9 thoughts on Dear Stoic… by Malachi Maguire

  1. Kevin Kennedy says:

    You seem to be confusing Stoicism with Epicureanism. Epicureans value happiness above all else. For Stoics, the chief value is virtue (one reason why true Stoics would never acquiescence in evil).

  2. I also felt that this reads like a criticism of Epicureanism. Moreover, the author’s own views (“Might not a man want to be good rather than happy?”) sound so incredibly close to the classical Stoic doctrine εὐδαιμονία is synonymous, not with “happiness” in the modern English sense, but with “moral good,” that it reads specifically like a *Stoic* criticism of Epicureanism.
    So it was a bit confusing—to the point that I wasn’t sure where the author was going (were they presenting a straw man critic, to debunk later in the essay? Apparently not). Change a few proper nouns, and the article would make a great defense of Stoic ethics!
    Since the author invited responses (“I await your actual reply”), let me share three posts of my own:
    1. The author’s impression that Stoics value a shallow form of happiness above all else, while incorrect, is an understandable misreading:
    2. Stoics do care about changing the world for the better:
    3. And, once more for emphasis, Stoics *do* care about changing the world. We’ve collected dozens of essays illustrating this over at Stoics in Action:

    • Adrian Lever says:

      Hello Eric,
      I followed your link to the Stoics in Action site. The second aim of this site, “To provide a forum for contemporary Stoics to develop and refine their approach to social life in six key domains: family, career, service, politics, the environment, and intersectional identities” led me to follow the ‘intersectional identities’ link to the Wikipedia article on ‘Intersectionality’.
      Reading the article, it would appear that ‘intersectional identities’ equate to individuals self-identifying as an oppressed minority and who seek to take power through unity with all other people who consider themselves to be oppressed, so becoming the powerful majority who then oppress all of those who do not appear ‘to belong to their club’.
      This appears to runs counter to the Stoic teachings whereby the Stoic does not buy into the idea that they are oppressed, but looks to how they are empowered by their Stoic beliefs regardless of their circumstance.
      Another example in the article of the apparent non-compatibility of Stoicism and ‘intersectional identities’ is the statement: “Alan Dershowitz, scholar of United States constitutional law and criminal law, answering a question on the criticism of Israel by intersectional movements he stated that the concept of intersectionality is an oversimplification of reality that makes LGBT activists stand in solidarity with advocates of Sharia, even though Islamic law denies the rights of the former. He feels that identity politics does not evaluate ideas or individuals on the basis of the quality of their character.”
      Stoicism evaluates a person solely on their character and their actions and not on any membership or otherwise of any perceived oppressed minority or club of the powerful.
      According to the link provided by the Stoics in Action site, ‘intersectional identities’ appear to be about action based on opinion, whereas Stoicism is about facing up to reality and acting accordingly.
      We Stoics do need to be careful not to jump on popular bandwagons, especially where we already have the issues covered. As Epictetus teaches us, slavery is a fact and we are all slaves in some way or other to our circumstance. How we cope with our circumstance is what matters and for the Stoic, we are guided to address such with wisdom, courage, justice and moderation while acting in a manner that is of benefit to all, regardless as to if we or they are powerless or powerful or somewhere in between.

      • Eric O Scott says:

        Hello Adrian,
        Thank you for taking the time to articular your concerns about the term “intersectionality.”
        “it would appear that ‘intersectional identities’ equate to…”
        I think you’ve given a fairly uncharitable definition of the concept. Like most ideas, “intersectionality” can be interpreted and applied in a reasonable and virtuous way, or an irrational and vicious way.
        Almost by definition, people who oppose the relevant movements focus on the latter, while those who support them focus on the former. This makes conversation difficult, because we start with very different background assumptions about what the idea in play means.
        “Identity politics” is similar: sometimes it is a near-synonym for “civil rights,” other times it’s a near-synonym for “tribalism.” Versions of it very much merit criticism, while other versions of it are essential to a well-functioning democracy.
        To me, intersectionality is a fairly simple idea: it means that different subpopulations systematically face different challenges in society, and that it behoove us to look not just as general ideas like “race” or “class” when assessing how to create a just society, but also at the “intersection” of different factors.
        Let me give you some positive (and perhaps surprising) examples of what “intersectionality” means to me in an American context.
        —Discussing how white people living below the poverty line face many challenges similar to those that ethnic minorities often deal with, and how and why sticky poverty in, say, Appalachia in particular is still a problem today
        —Discussing how interracial couples still face certain difficult experiences in the US today, but how they are also playing a major role in diversifying social networks, breaking down echo chambers, and decreasing inter-group polarization
        —Discussing how the challenges faced by rural school districts—which are often overlooked by policy makers, get hit harder by changes in enrollment numbers, and systematically get the worse end of the deal in state funding formulas—differ from the challenges faced by urban school districts
        —Discussing the distribution of services (like AP classes, or mental health supports) that specifically rural black students have access to in the public school system, as compared to urban black, rural white, and urban white populations.
        —Discussing the long view of how the memory of the Confederacy in the American South arises in part from its historical exploitation by the north, and by how the ongoing problem of white poverty that has plagued the area ever since the Civil War—making the Battle Flag and local monuments into something of a symbol of regional pride and heroic resilience (rather than simply, say, racism).
        —Discussing how requiring jury decisions to be unanimous can help protect black clients of the criminal justice system from certain forms of systemic bias
        Clearly we can ask these questions without aiming to “oppress all of those who do not appear ‘to belong to their club’” or jumping on “popular bandwagons.” And we can absolutely care about, say, rural black issues (or rural white issues) in particular, while still “acting in a manner that is beneficial to all.”
        We always have a responsibility to approach complex problems as virtuously as we can, and to steer clear of irrational or abusive implementations of otherwise important ideas.
        “the Stoic does not buy into the idea that they are oppressed”
        This bit is just semantics. We can be resilient and free in our “Inner Citadel” while also being externally subject to discrimination, neglect, and so forth. Working against the latter in no way requires us to sacrifice our Stoic conviction that “no one will ever harm you, because no harm can affect you” (Enchiridion 1). Its the Discipline of Desire vs. Discipline of Action. Stoics in Action is focused on the latter as our subject area, but we absolutely accept and endorse the orthodox Stoic principles of the former.
        One of the powerful things for me about socially engaged Stoicism is that it helps us resist the temptation to polarize into *either* valuing resilience and character *or* valuing justice. These values seem to have been carved up among the two parties in the U.S., as if they are opposed to one another (as in so-called “snowflakes” vs. so-called “racists”).
        Stoics, of course, believe that the four virtue are one, and if you carve them up or neglect any of them, you destroy them all. You and I are on the same page there!
        All this said, “intersectional identities” is 1) a mouthful, 2) unfamiliar to most people, 3) a buzzword whose meaning changes with the latest hyped-up movement, 4) a polarized word that means very different things to people on the left and right, and 5) a concept that *did* admittedly arise specifically in the context of sub-groups within an activist movement (ex. “black women”) who wanted more power and visibility within a larger, more general movement (“feminism”).
        For these reasons, we’d love to move to a different term in our site’s structure, if we can find one. We do want a section of the site to be dedicated to talking about issues of race, gender, ability, class, etc. If you know of a simpler or less controversial term to denote those areas, I’m open to suggestions.

        • Adrian Lever says:

          Hello Eric,
          Surely all that you outline is covered by the domain of ‘politics’ that appears in the diagram of circles on your site, whereas “intersectional identities” does not. So do you need to include “intersectional identities” as a domain in its own right and so lead to possible polarisation as you suggest or could you just accept that politics covers all the subjects you want to address – subjects that will be addressed by any Stoic seeking a just society.
          Rather than set up possible ‘battle grounds’ where particular groups are seen as being the enemy of perceived minority groups, by addressing matters issue by issue, where each issue is judged and acted upon according to its own merits, much can be done in a drive for a just society.
          Charging at a fortress shouting battle cries will ensure that the gates are closed in your face, but if, step by step, you walk quietly towards the fortress you will not be seen as a threat and you will be able to enter the gates and the walls of the fortress will be of no consequence.

          • Eric O Scott says:

            There is indeed a great deal of overlap with politics. But these issues apply at all levels of the circles, so we see it as a cross-cutting set of concerns. The topic of diversity in corporations would apply at a career level, for example, while a hypothetical discussion of NGO efforts to address the HIV epidemic among African-American men might fit under “service,” and a hypothetical essay on raising a disabled or multi-racial child would fall squarely under “family.”
            “where particular groups are seen as being the enemy of perceived minority groups”
            At a certain point, we can’t help the “etic” stereotypes that advocates of racial justice, LGBT rights, etc are saddled with. The idea that such advocacy must be predicated on identifying “enemies,” for example, strikes me as a gross overgeneralization.
            I, for example, don’t at all see such things in terms of “enemies” or of “us vs. them.” Justice isn’t a zero sum game. We don’t have to tear other people down or rob them of their status to solve problems. When a conservative’s freedom of religion is threatened, or when a rural white school district faces unnecessary financial pressure, there doesn’t need to be an “enemy.” At the core, there is a problem that needs to be solved, and that we should all care about (including non-religious city dwellers like me). The same goes for black people being disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, or other such examples more typical on the left.
            Polarization is rough, and it affects the way people react to certain terminology. That much we can agree on (see a recent post of mine on the topic: But in this case all we’re signifying is that “we want part of this site to be dedicated to the experiences of specific groups and the issues that especially affect them.”
            We understand that even saying that much identifies us as leaning “progressive” or “multicultural” in the current political climate. And that’s fine. We do lean that way.

  3. Adrian Lever says:

    Hello Malachi,
    I applaud your critique in that it is a critique of much of the modern take on Stoicism, which often entails a view that is a pastiche of the early classical Stoicism. Many nowadays completely reject or are completely oblivious of the Stoic principles that address your objections.
    Stoicism is about physically living in accord with Nature and this requires the Stoic to actually live life in the real world and not to just sit around trying to perfect the way they think because they want to be ‘happy’ or see Stoicism as some form of intellectual exercise.
    The improved thought processes that Stoicism champions are only a means to an end and are to be used to enable the practitioner to see matters as they really are, not as they may imagine them to be, so as to ensure that they are living in a way that is of benefit to the whole of society and so setting the actual physical mastery of good over evil as the real aim of the Stoic.
    Each Stoic is expected to strive to do what they can given the roles and influence that Fate has bestowed upon them, only looking to their own immediate self-interest where it does not conflict with their responsibility to all around them.
    So, as a Stoic, I personally will not offer you any severity in reply.

  4. Beta Smiles says:

    Hi Malachi
    You probably won’t get a direct response to your criticisms, because i think most people on this blog will disagree that the thing you are criticizing is Stoicism.
    The word ‘happiness’ appears 10+ times in your piece, however the concept that the word ‘happiness’ (in its current usage) points to does not play a major role in Stoicism.
    Rather, the concept of ‘virtue’ (including wisdom, justice, courage and moderation) is central and fundamental to Stoicism, and is more aligned with your ‘good’.
    I would encourage you to read Massimo Pigliucci’s book ‘How to be a Stoic’ for a good explanation of Stoicism. It deals with the common misconception that Stoicism entails ‘moral passivity’ (eg prioritizing happiness/tranquility-at-all-costs over doing good where there is good that can be done), and explains the place that ‘cosmopolitanism’ (the idea that all of humanity is to be treated with fairness as justice) has in the philosophic system.

  5. This article contains several basic misconceptions about Stoicism, unfortunately. I think it would have been better if the author had researched the subject more thoroughly before offering his criticisms.
    I won’t go through the whole piece but right from very the outset when he says the “mind is not a see-saw, upon which there are the two occupants of reason and emotion”, etc., he shows that he’s completely misunderstood Stoicism. What he describes here, the separation of reason and emotion (or passion), is famously Plato’s position, and the Stoics were equally well known for rejecting it – not endorsing it as this author appears to assume.

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