“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship
by Sherman J. Clark
Stoicism is enjoying something of a popular renaissance, as books, blogs, and the like explore the stoic ethics of Epictetus and Aurelius as way of dealing with distress and misfortune. But stoicism is potentially strong medicine; and the cure, if fully digested, may be worse than the disease. Stoic insights, taken seriously, can have troubling implications, primary among which is the possibility that a life of true stoic virtue would be bleak and joyless. If we inure ourselves to distress, as stoic thought has us do, perhaps we also deny ourselves the possibility of joy.
Of course, the potential joylessness of stoic thought can simply be denied or disregarded as people take what comfort they will from a selective application of stoic principles. Those writing about stoicism often adopt this strategy, and simply assert that stoic thought need not be bleak. But hopeful assertions do not make the implications go away; and it is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully. Moreover, coming to terms with the potential bleakness of stoicism also sheds light on other potentially problematic aspects of stoic thought.
Indeed, the potential pay-off of confronting and resolving these questions is not merely a more coherent and attractive vision of stoicism. A deeper vision of stoicism offers an appealing if partial response to the seeming meaninglessness of modern life. If, as Dreyfus and Kelly put it in All Things Shining, Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age, perhaps stoic thought also offers us the means to stave off its unwelcome progeny.
As is often the case with difficult problems, the first step is to recognize its existence and severity. So here I begin by describing how stoic principles, if taken seriously, can lead not just to peaceful apathiea, but beyond that to empty malaise. I then consider the inadequacy of several familiar seeming-solutions to the problem. That allows for the identification of a form of deeply satisfying joy that flows from rather than denies the implications of stoic insights. In the process, it will also illuminate other seemingly strange or discomforting aspects of stoic thought.
The heart of the matter, or so I argue below, is this. True stoic joy—and thus, if one embraces a stoic view of human nature, true eudaimonia—flows not merely from renouncing or conquering concern for indifferent matters. Rather, it comes as a result of an appreciation for and sense of connection with the awesome beauty and order of the cosmos, compared to which the petty concerns of life—pleasure, pain, wealth, poverty, illness, health, fame, death, and the like—are seen as the nothings they are.
On this vision, stoic practices and development should focus not on overcoming distress directly but rather on nurturing our signal human capacity to appreciate and feel connected to the beauty order of the universe. And this we can best do in the company of friends. We thus inure ourselves to distress not by closing ourselves off from joy and from others, but rather by opening ourselves up—opening our eyes and minds to a deeper and more human form of shared happiness and thriving.
Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable?
Stoicism eases distress by reminding us that the things we tend to worry about—wealth, power, physical pleasure, and the like—do not really matter. They do not matter because they are not really ours—not “on us,” as Epictetus cogently puts it. They are not in our control; and beyond that, they are no part of what makes us better or worse as human beings—indeed no part of what makes us human at all. If we allow our happiness to depend on such things, we are neither free nor fully ourselves. So we should not care about those things. Instead, we should care only about what is ours and in our control—our judgements and attitudes and actions.
Moreover, for the thoughtful stoic, setting aside all other, external, things turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because those things are not capable of producing lasting well-being anyway. The mature stoic recognizes that wealth, power, and pleasure are illusory goods—promising satisfactions they are incapable of delivering, and in the process tempting us to stress and worry over the pursuit of things not worth pursuing. And so too are the opposites of these things merely illusory evils. Stoic insight reveals that misfortune, pain, even death, are nothing. So we should not care about such things—not let them worry us.
Much stoic thinking is focused on this aspect of stoicism—learning how to not allow seemingly-bad things to worry or distress us. It is seen as a set of tools for dealing with difficult circumstances. To some extent this focus makes sense. Letting go of the pursuit of fortune and pleasure is easier said than done; and becoming indifferent to misfortune and pain is even harder. For those suffering what they experience as misfortune, or living with stress and worry, peace of mind is a worthwhile goal, and not one easily attain. Nothing I say here is meant to dismiss the value of seeking tranquility through stoic thought.
But here I want to assume that goal attained. What follows? Assume you have freed yourself from worry over things that are neither truly yours not truly worthy of concern. You are indifferent to wealth, pleasure, longevity, and other such false goods; and you have no fear of poverty, pain, death, or other such seeming misfortunes. Now what? Or, given that no one will achieve perfect equanimity, perhaps we should rather put it this way: to the extent that you have achieved indifference to such things, what room is left for joy? If nothing is worth worrying about, what is or can be worth getting excited about?
One possible conclusion—the possibility to which I am seeking an alternative—is that nothing is worth getting excited about. Perhaps the stoic path, if pursued fully and honestly, leads not just to a place of serenity and peace of mind but also to some not-particularly-appealing territory somewhere between apathy and melancholy.
Hamlet is, on this as on so much, illuminating. Without describing the titular Prince as a stoic, which would rather beg the question at hand, we can see that he fully—perhaps too fully—grasps the essential stoic insight that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet II, ii, 247-48. Beyond that, he admires those whose character manifests an awareness of this insight, as evinced by the explicit reasons he gives for loving and admiring Horatio:
‘. . . for thou hast been—
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’ Hamlet III, ii, 62-71.
We are not told how Horatio has achieved this ideal stoicism; but assume for our purposes that he has done so in the stoic way—by being aware at some perhaps-unexamined level that “Fortunes buffets and rewards” are not worth worrying about.
While we do not see much of Horatio’s inner life, we see plenty of Hamlet’s. And perhaps what we see there shows us what happens when the stoic awareness fueling Horatio’s equanimity is examined, and is followed to its conclusion by a more powerful mind. Hamlet recognizes that the things of this world or not worth worrying about, and recognizes further that this is because they are really not worth much at all:
‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
Hamlet I, ii, 133-34.
So, the question can be framed in this way. Can we be Horatio without becoming Hamlet? And should we want to? Can and should we take solace from the realization that the things of the world do not really matter, without facing the potentially bleak realization that the world and our lives in it are indeed “flat, and unprofitable”?
One possible answer is that we need not worry about the implications of having conquered fear and pain through stoicism, because no one will ever really conquer fear and pain. But that is like saying that we need not worry that we are climbing out of the frying pan into the fire because we will never get out of the frying pan anyway. If we hope that stoic thought can work to conquer distress, we need think about what happens when it does. Moreover, if we confront honestly the potentially bleak fact that the material concerns of this world truly are indifferent, we are then in a position to think about what is worth getting excited about.
Five Partial Responses
Aside from simply denying or deferring the problem, there are a number of familiar and seemingly appealing responses to the potential bleakness of stoic thought. I address five such below. Much more has and could be said about each; but for present purposes the bottom line is that none prove ultimately satisfactory, because none get to the heart of the matter.
The fact that many stoics are joyous
Epictetus, from what we can tell, seems to have been a cheerful enough fellow. And if you attend a conference of modern stoics you will find more cheerful Horatios sharing a pint than gloomy Hamlets bemoaning the meaningless of life. Doesn’t this demonstrate that stoic thought does not lead to bleakness? No. It is hopeful evidence, yes: but it does not answer the question. First of all, we do not know the inner lives of others; and many a cheerful pint-sharer, stoic or otherwise, has been known to face a demon or two when the party is over. More to the point, we have already granted that the stoic path is pleasant enough during its initial stages—when it leads us away from worry and distress. What we want to know is what happens if we continue down the road.
This question could of course be addressed as a matter of empirical psychology. Do people who find comfort and tranquility through stoicism also find apathy and malaise? As difficult as it would be difficult to isolate the impact of stoic ideas from other social and psychological factors, such research would be useful. But it would not resolve the question at hand. Grant that some can adopt stoic ideas a-la-carte, follow the path of stoicism only as far as they find it helpful, and thus avoid confronting the potential implications. Still, thoughtful and intellectual honest stoics will want to know. What happens if one takes stoic thought seriously? Does joy for a stoic require on-going denial and self-deception? Must we, like Claudius, view our philosophy through “an auspicious and a dropping eye”—trying not to confront the implications of what we hope will give solace?
The doctrine of preferred indifferents
A potential response from within stoic thought is the idea of so-called “preferred indifferents.” According this doctrine, although the things of this world are indeed indifferent, it is consistent with our proper functioning as human beings to prefer certain of those things to others. All else being equal, we can better practice virtue and thrive if we are healthy rather than ill, safe rather then in danger, fed rather than hungry. Grant then that the stoic need not scorn the goods the world offers, so long as he or she does not get attached to them—so long as he or she does not really allow those things to matter. But that leaves us where we began—facing the seeming fact that nothing is really worth getting excited about. However well the doctrine of preferred indifferents may serve as an explanation for the stoic’s participation in the ordinary pursuits of life, it provides no basis for him or her to take real joy in those pursuits.
Indeed, unless we are to imagine the mind as a sort of one-way valve—able to take joy from something without sorrowing at its loss—the doctrine of preferred indifferents offers no answer at all to the question of where and how the stoic might find joy. To the extent that stoic thought does its first job, and frees us from concern over worldly things, it thus also brings us face to face with the problem at hand.
Indifferent things as virtue-vehicles
A more promising, if still not-quite-adequate response is that even things that are themselves inherently meaningless can be valuable as vehicles through which we develop and display the virtues that make for a good and authentically-human life. An example, borrowed from Epictetus, is pick-up basketball, which I enjoy. Nothing hinges on the outcome of a game at the local gym or playground. It simply does not matter whether I win or lose—or even how well or poorly I play. But the activity provides a vehicle for the nurturing and display of things that do matter—not just physical skills and fitness, but teamwork, fairness, toughness and the like. These are real and valuable virtues—on stoic terms in particular.
This is an important and overlooked aspect of stoic thought, as it helps explain why the stoic should, as a normative matter, give care and attention to the things of this word, despite their intrinsic insignificance. It does not, however, answer the question at hand. We still need to know—or may be driven to wonder—whether the virtues so-nurtured are capable of not just engendering admiration but also of bringing joy.
Joy through engagement
Epictetus’s ball game example might make one think that the answer is right before our eyes. While playing basketball, I do not tend to ponder the seeming bleakness of life. Rather, the experience is one that Csikszentmihalyi has described as flow—a feeling of full engagement in the activity and moment. This sort of experience is available not just through sports, of course, but through a wide range of activities that provide attainable but difficult and engaging challenges to occupy our thoughts. This might suggest that the answer to stoic malaise, or to malaise more generally, might simply be that—engagement. And so it might.
But at bottom this avoids rather than answers the question. Perhaps in the end all we can do about the potential bleakness of stoic thought is find ways to distract ourselves from it. But if we want rather to confront and come to terms with the seeming pointlessness of life, engagement with inherently-pointless things cannot be the only or ultimate solution.
Joy through service
But that in turn suggests a deeper and potentially more satisfying response. Perhaps joy comes not merely through engagement, generally, but engagement with something worthwhile—in particular the service of others. Viktor Frankl put it this way:
“[H]appiness . . . cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
At some level, this is the most appealing response. And I would certainly never find fault with anyone who finds joy in the service of others.
But at a deeper level this too begs the question. Help others, yes. But help them do what? Serve a cause greater than oneself, yes. But what cause is worth serving? Recall that the stoic has fully recognized that the things most people care about—money, health, and the like—are not in fact worth caring about. They mean nothing. And to put the matter starkly, helping others do meaningless and pointless things cannot be a satisfying source of meaning and purpose. So then, perhaps the answer is to help others do things that are meaningful? And there’s the rub. We are back where we began—wondering what if anything really is worth doing.
Of course, we can forestall the question, perhaps indefinitely, by focusing on people’s basic needs. Just as one need not confront the ultimate implications of stoic thought while he or she is still just trying to overcoming distress, the survive-focused stoic can forestall the question of what is ultimately worth caring about by focusing on helping people get the basic necessities of life. Helping others—especially with their basic needs—is a good thing to do; no doubt about that. But it does not resolve the problem at hand.
Imagine that you live in world where everyone is entirely obsessed with painting their fingernails as brightly and colorfully as possible. That is how they measure success, what they worry about, and where they seek joy. You, the stoic, find that all completely pointless, and are glad to be free of any distress or worry over your fingernails; but, of course, nor are you able to take much joy from your fingernails. So you long for something more. Now imagine being told that you should find meaning, and thus joy, in helping other people paint their fingernails as rightly and colorfully as possible. Now, that might indeed be the right and best thing you could do, if others do indeed take joy in their fingernails—and if you believe them not capable of better; but it would not answer your problem.
The best answer, I believe—and the answer most consistent with stoic thought—is that true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight. The key is to recognize that the thoughtful stoic sees the universe not just as ordered but as awesome. Stoic joy, I suggest, is the joy of comprehension and connection—the deeply human satisfaction one gets from seeing and appreciating how it all fits together, and how one fits into it all.
Indeed one could argue that seeing and appreciating the order and beauty of the universe is not merely a particular good, the enjoyment of which is consistent with stoic principles, but is in fact a central component of eudaimonia. In Aristotelian terms, our distinctive human function as rational agents is the ability and desire to seek reasons for and make sense of our actions, and thus our lives. Thus the centrality of phronesis in Aristotelian virtue ethics.
But perhaps this capacity and inclination to make sense of our actions and our lives is really just a component—a self-regarding subset—of deeper and more distinctively-human capacity to find comprehend and make sense of our world as a whole. Whatever one thinks about the ability of other animals to do things that resemble deliberation, it seem safe to say that we are the only ones who wonder at things with no direct or obvious connection to our own lives. Our signal human capacity is perhaps not merely agency guided by practical reason, but wonder driven by love of comprehension—not merely phronesis but philosophia.
If so, the search for stoic joy is also the best way for stoicism to help us deal with misfortune and distress. Next to the rich and satisfying joy of even partially-comprehending and feeling connected to our awesome universe, the difficulties of life, even death, will be nothing to us. Stoic growth, therefore, should perhaps not be sought primarily through exercises designed to help us deal with distress directly. Rather, perhaps we should focus on learning, and helping each other to learn, how to see our world better and more fully.
Moreover, this shifts our focus outward and away from a self-centered focus on what we as agents do, towards a broader appreciation of a world in which we are just a small part. It may seem as though the shift from seeing ourselves as feature actors to extras/audience is to diminish our role. But perhaps it is better seen as maturation. We are not child-star divas—only interested in the show if we can be the star. Stoicism is Copernican in this way—helping us understand ourselves better by forcing us to confront the initially-troubling but ultimately-liberating realization that we are not the center of the universe. Yes, “you may contribute a verse,” as Whitman put it; but the key is “that the powerful play goes on.”
If this sounds pale, too-passive, or inadequate, it is perhaps because we have not yet developed the capacity to see and appreciate how powerful the play really is. Stoic thought suggests that if we could only comprehend our world better, we would see that next to the chance to see and share in this exquisite order, the petty concerns of life are nothing at all.
And this helps illuminate how sciences can be understood as virtues. The key first step is to recognize that stoic virtues are not merely persistent habits of conduct. Stoicism is on this point more Platonic or Socratic than Aristotelian, in that virtues are better understood as insights, habits of mind, and resulting capacities. As the stoics framed it, living virtuously and well is a techne and an episteme, grounded in a set of attitudes—in particular an attitude of hypoexairesis, or lack of concern with external goods or outcomes.
The kinds of behavior typically identified as virtues are thus better conceived of as symptoms—external manifestation of internal orientations. Temperance (sophrosyne), for example, is the capacity to eschew what others crave, because you know that those things are not truly worth craving. Temperate conduct is merely what flows from this awareness and attitude. Courage (andreia) similarly manifests itself as the habit of conquering fear, but is more essentially a capacity grounded in an awareness—an awareness that the things people fear are not worth fearing.
Similarly, physics can be described as the capacity to grasp and appreciate the underlying beauty and order of our world. It is a techne and an episteme grounded in awareness of the world’s underlying unity and awesomeness. If so—and if the capacity to perceive and appreciate this beauty and order is indeed the central component of an authentically-stoic and deeply-human joy—then it makes sense to see physics as a central stoic virtue.
This vision is not limited to people who actually do physics at the highest level or for a living. It suggests rather than the inclination and ability to see how well and wonderfully the world fits together is a crucial and vital skill for all who hope to live well and fully. That said, actual physicists do provide something of a paradigm. If you have ever seen one when he thinks himself on the verge of a breakthrough, you will know what I mean. He cares nothing for the petty concerns of the world. He just has something so much more awesome in view. He feels himself to be getting a glimpse of the cosmos, the logos.
Aurelius, in some sense the grimmest of stoics, devotes the great bulk of his Reflections to what we might call the negative side of stoicism—reminding himself in various ways that the things of the world do not matter and thus should not command are attention and should have no power to disconcert us. But there are two passages in the Reflections in which he explicitly takes up the question of what is worth our attention, and how a person who has fully internalized stoic insights can, by attending to those things, find joy.
The first is at 3.2, where he notes that “if a man has a deeper feeling for and insight into the workings of the whole” even the most common things in nature will have the capacity to bring joy—how grain grows, fruit ripens and decays, bread bakes, beasts feed, men and women age. These things, unnoticed and unappreciated by most, will call out to and inspire a person who is “truly attuned to nature and nature’s works.”
A second passage, at 8.26, is brief, and worth translating here in full:
‘It brings joy to a man to do a man’s true work. And a man’s true work is goodwill to his fellow man, disregard for the motions of the senses, skepticism about misleading impressions, and contemplation of the whole of nature and the things than happen according to nature.’
One word is in this paragraph is worth some attention—ἐπιθεώρησις, which I have translated here as “contemplation.” This is a rare term in Greek, and one that Aurelius does not use elsewhere. It suggests more that mere observation, or even careful appreciation. There is also a connotation of desire and motivation, as emphasized by the play on the etymologically-unrelated verb ἐπιθέω which means to rush at or pursue. On this reading, what brings joy is not merely passive contemplation or even comprehension, but engaged appreciation.
Like much agent-centred thinking, stoic thought can appear intrinsically self-regarding or selfish. And at one level it is. Focusing on the virtue and thriving of the actor leaves open the possibility that others can be seen as mere instruments though which the virtuous actor achieves eudaimonia. The Roman Stoics repeatedly emphasize the duty to play one’s appropriate role in the community and care for others; but it is not clear that this commitment flows from rather than acts as a hedge against the implications of stoic thought. Moreover, if, as the stoic realizes, one’s own material circumstances—are not really worth worrying about, it is hard to see how other people’s material circumstances should provide any greater cause for concern.
I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior. Eudaimonist thinking does not work that. It is the case, however, that the understanding of stoic virtue described above does offer some hedge against the potential selfish implications of stoic thought.
If stoic virtue as a techne and an episteme grounded in certain attitude and aimed at a deep and satisfying appreciation of and connection to the beauty and order of our world, the virtuous stoic will be driven to concern for and connection for others. This is because the best way to see the order and beauty is with the help of others and the best way to see feel connected to the whole is thought connections with others. Stoicism may not require a sense of shared community responsibility; but it does call us strongly to it.
A desire to comprehend and appreciate the world motivates concern for others in several ways. Above all, learning is best done collectively. Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic. Socrates did not talk to himself. Second, learning calls for institutions and communities in which it can take place.
So, at the very least, our joyful stoic physicist needs a lab, a library, colleagues, grad students, and above all a community in which they can be brought together and brought to bear in the effort to see better and rejoice in the order and beauty of the universe. And if he is thoughtful, he will thus cultivate and care for the community that supports this effort. More deeply, less instrumentally, and framed in terms of eudaimonia, perhaps the full flourishing our nature as not just rational/knowledge-loving but also social/political animals calls on us not merely to see and appreciate the order and beauty of our world but also to engage in shared and mutually-supporting efforts to do so—and to structure our community life in ways that nurture that effort.
Recall also that the stoic joy described here is not just a product of contemplating the universe as if it were a thing apart, but also feeling one’s place in it, one’s connection to the larger whole. Connections then—relationships, friendships, family, love—are themselves a way of sensing the whole. Caring for others joins us to the whole, conquers isolation, and allows for reciprocal connection that can be felt as well as comprehended. Perhaps the true stoic is thus driven to connection and concern for others. And this is especially true if what joins us to others is our shared effort to learn, teach, and see. To Hamlet, Horatio was not just an ideal stoic; he was an ideal friend. And he was first a school friend—a fellow learner.
Consider, finally, the vision of stoic joy offered by Frost in his poem “The Star Splitter.” Near the beginning of the poem, Bradford McLaughlin gives up worrying about earthly things—represented by his farmhouse—which were bringing him little joy. Instead, he makes a dramatic, indeed stoic, turn away from such matters—reframing his concern about the seeming-foolishness of his own conduct as “curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”
‘He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.’
Nor does he satisfy his curiosity alone. Near the end of the poem, the narrator joins him.
‘I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.’
In this vision, stoic apatheia is not itself the goal, or even a first step, but rather a consequence. A lack of concern for inherently-indifferent things comes as result of having something better on our minds. Stoic thought is in this sense what Socrates called for in the Republic—a turning of the soul, not a turning off. It is less renouncement than refocus, and thus leads not to apathy but engagement. It turns our attention to something which, if to it we can attune our minds, will not only reveal the meaningless things of the world to be beneath the concern of a human being, but can also reveal in their stead a meaningful and truly human joy.
Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School