Three Frequently Voiced Objections to Stoicism Answered by those Who Practise It
FVO No. 1:
“Doesn’t Stoicism just mean that you put up with things you shouldn’t? Don’t you need to try to change the world not just accept things?”
“You should accept the things you cannot change and change the things that are you are able to change but cannot accept.You need to know when to fight and when to hold back. There is no point in getting worked up about something you have no power over. To have no power over something literally means that you cannot change it. So, if you cannot change it – no matter how hard you try: Who would be helped by your strong emotions about it? Save your energy and peace of mind for things you can do something about. That’s Stoicism.”
“I would point to the Serenity Prayer as an example of Epictetus’ dichotomy in an accepted modern context.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Kevin Patrick Jr.
“As a Stoic, you can (and should) try to change the world for better, without trusting too much in getting it.”
FVO No. 2:
“You can’t just take some bits of Stoicism and call yourself a Stoic – you have to take it all or leave it.”
“All or nothing, eh? Sounds like just a “slippery slope” type logical fallacy — i.e., if you do “x” you have to do “y”. Very popular among lobbyists and politicians seeking to prevent something from happening. But really, you don’t have to do y if you do x — no basis for that assumption. As for whether certain people are labelled “Stoics” or not by certain other people, anyone who has taken the practices to heart would not care a whit what others choose as their labels. Wouldn’t a stoic just say ‘who cares what you call me?’”
“The “not a true Stoic” argument presumes a “necessary and sufficient” definition of Stoicism. However, as modern Stoics who supposedly value reason, we should update our beliefs in light of modern philosophy; and I hold that this view of language as containing necessary and sufficient definitions of words is highly problematic, as shown by the later Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers of language.
To use a phrase from Wittgenstein, my modern Stoicism certainly has a “family resemblance” to early Stoicism; it is inspired by it and retains many of its characteristics. But, I’ve adopted it specifically in light of modern science and philosophy. Indeed, I would hold that modern Stoics who buy into the ancient philosophy (which really doesn’t exist as a unified entity, either, as the philosophy was changed and adapted even in ancient times) wholesale are, ironically, not necessarily “living in accordance with reason” if they think the entire philosophy must be adopted without modification, given the huge advances we have made in philosophy (specifically logic and formal systems) and science since the time of the ancient Stoics.”
“For me the question is not “all or nothing”; that’s an extreme we can avoid. Likewise, it’s reasonable to avoid the opposite extreme of considering Stoicism infinitely malleable. In my opinion, we moderns do not have the right to add and extract whatever we wish from Stoicism and still lay claim to that name. At some point of divergence, intellectual honesty requires renaming the modernized philosophical conglomeration. Without being unnecessarily divisive, it seems essential to ‘Stoicism’ that it has some meaning, some differentiation from other philosophical systems. The question is, “What is essential to Stoicism?” I’m not convinced we moderns have adequately answered that question.”
“I think it depends on what kind of things you reject, and what kind of things you accept. Some parts are more crucial than others, such as reason, virtue. How other parts such as divinity and physics correlate with development can be discussed. But Stoicism is also an ideal view, and no Stoic ever called himself a full fledged wizard. But if the teachers were not fully developed, if not even they were real Stoics, then who is fully developed today? Nay, everyone is and will always be a Striving Stoic. That is the correct description.”
“I do think it’s important to have an understanding of how the physics and logic came together to inform the ethics. But, as Seneca, says, in Letter 33:
“But no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past….Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to every one. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.”We have a greater understanding of cosmology, physics, today. It is entirely reasonable to incorporate these into the philosophy. To fail to do so would be contrary to the aim.”
Kevin Patrick, Jr.
FVO No. 3:
“It is not good to be unemotional. You should feel grief if a loved one dies?”
“Grief is a completely natural response of the body and has to be felt. If you want to not feel emotions anymore, then your goal is to become a psychopath. Stoicism is not about avoiding emotions, it’s about how you perceive situations, guide your thoughts and expectations and thereby process your emotional responses. It is of enormous help when it comes to “letting go”. Let’s use your example. If a person you shared your life with dies, then grief is a legitimate response to your loss. You can push your emotions away and repress them (but then other psychological symptoms will occur), you can let the grief turn into something bigger and get stuck with it (and make it harder on yourself than necessary), or you can guide your thoughts and thereby let the grief pass its way out of your system in a more healthy way. For example, stoicism teaches you about how to guide your expectations, how to consider transience. It also helps with how we estimate the regrets we connect with the person that passed away (something that causes many people to have trouble with letting go). It’s about focussing your energy and attention on what you have power over and what not. These thoughts usually help with accepting the inevitable and letting nature go its cause and your tears and sorrow can ebb away with time just like they are meant to.”
In “Consolation to Marcia”, Seneca says one should grieve in moderation but overdoing would be unnatural. Makes perfect sense.
“As my mother eloquently described how we deal with death: ‘We grieve for an appropriate amount of time and move on’”
Kyle Patrick Flynn
And one final objection: ‘Why are Stoics ‘indifferent’ to things’?
“Indifferentss are an objective category of things which are neither good nor evil. Indifferent things are those which are beyond my control – which are ALL things external to my will. It has nothing to do with the Stoic’s attitude towards things, or indifference to things as an attitude. What is of importance to a Stoic is making virtuous choices, but ALL virtuous choices are the correct selections from among Indifferent (external) things. For example, I see a person drowning. Whether or not the person lives or dies is Indifferent. That is not to say I should be indifferent about it as an attitude. It is to say that it is objectively in the category of things which are external, out of my control, and therefore not relevant to what is good or bad. This is because there is only one good (my virtuous choice) and one evil (my vicious choice). While both the person living and dying are Indifferents, what is not indifferent is my choice to try to help them. The virtuous thing to do is to try to save them in the best, most vigorous, and effective way I can. That is why I try to save them – because it is virtuous for me to try. Whether or not I succeed is not up to me. That is a matter for the Logos (how natural law plays out in all of its complex variables). Therefore, whether or not I succeed is about external conditions (external to my will) and thus not within my control and thus an Indifferent. It is very common for people to read the word ‘Indifferent’ and think it has to do with an attitude of indifference. That is a misunderstanding.”
And one final objection: ‘Why are Stoics ‘indifferent’ to things’?
By the time Daniel Strain has been through his mental discourse about why he should help a drowning person, that poor person will probably have drowned.
vikasvickers, where is your Stoic training? Do you not recognise one of the Stoic practices when you see it. Daniel’s discourse is the mental practice we are taught to use so that we will be ready to act swiftly when faced with a real event.
And to Daniel, long time no speak. Must be nine years now. Nice to see you are still interested in Stoicism, albeit that your real interests lie elsewhere.
My reaction to the objections to Stoicism is not direct but is borrowed from Zen. “When you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” In other words you need to find out for yourself from experience. You may be helped by introductions to Stoicism and by reading about it but you need to get beyond that. The other comment is, “When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.”
The objections don’t affect my confidence in Stoicism. I tried it and it worked when I needed it. As for the “Master” I had three initially, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
I admire fortitude, detachment and many other stoic virtues but ultimately I’m not a stoic. I believe many stoic virtues can be useful in life and especially useful to some people as a form of therapy. Yet in spite of this I believe we must approach stoic ideas with some caution. The reason for my caution is to do with preferred indifferents. Preferred indifferents seem to be a poor substitute for true ‘caring about’ or love. I would argue if we don’t truly ‘care about’ anything that we are somewhat damaged as persons.
I am fascinated by the ongoing debate and the learning opportunity that stoic week presents. There seems to be much that is useful in the philosophy but, as with all learning I think, it is a direction of travel. Logically therefore one must always watch out for wrong turnings. I think perhaps the use of the words themselves “preferred indifferents” could be misleading, or that one could forget what they are supposed to mean. I understand the argument but one could, possibly, get lost in the argument and forget about the caring.
The problem (for me) is that the word “indifferent” is not entirely neutral – it has a negative connotation. I am trying to find another word which is value free. A word is just a word, but …
I thought Nini and Daniel helped to clarify for me my views on both Grief and Indiferants. My husband died suddenly three years ago – I have rebuilt a happy life- I am grateful for the memories of 40 years of unconditional love and I try to care and support friends and family experiencing grief. This is where the indifedences play out for me. “You can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink”
For me modern stoicism is like my practice of my Christianity – it enriches my life – the key elements I believe in but some parts don’t resonate with me. But at the end of the day my practice makes me a more virtuous, happy and purpose driven person!