Some time back, we issued a Call For Contributions for our third online symposium here at Stoicism Today, this time focusing on the subject “On Stoicism and Passivity”, aiming at correcting and considering some mistaken views on Stoicism. Here’s a blurb from the original call for contributions:
Many people wrongly associate Stoicism with a passive, even fatalistic attitude towards matters. It’s a pretty prevalent view – and criticism – of Stoicism from the outside. And yet, if we look at representative classic and contemporary Stoics, we find that they’re quite active within their world, their neighborhoods, their jobs and workplaces, their circles of friendship and family, just to name a few domains.
The call for contributions remains open. If you’d like to submit a contribution, we’re looking for pieces that are roughly between 400-1200 words. Once you’ve written i, you can email your contribution both to Harald Kavli and to me, Greg Sadler, with the subject line “Stoicism Today Online Symposium”. Please attach your contribution as an MS Word document (since that’s easy for us to work with).
I’m pleased to say that we have received some excellent contributions, and we are featuring three of them here today. We’ll have more coming up later on in followup posts
Student: What, then, would you have me pay court to So-and-so and approach his door?
Epictetus: If reason demands that for the sake of your country, of your family, of humanity, why shouldn’t you go? You’re not ashamed to visit the door of a shoemaker when you need shoes, or that of a market gardener when you need lettuces, and yet you’re ashamed to visit the door of the rich when you have need of what they offer?…
Student: I won’t have to flatter the market gardener.
Epictetus: Then don’t flatter the rich man either.
Student: In that case, how will I get what I need?
Epictetus: Is that what I’m telling you, “Go with the intention of getting what you ask,” rather than simply, “Go so that you may do what is appropriate to you?”
Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24, 44-46
One common misunderstanding of Stoicism is that it’s about passively accepting everything that happens to us. But this misses a crucial aspect of the philosophy: we should only accept those things we can’t change. If it’s within our power to change or influence something for the better, we should do it. In fact, we have a responsibility or obligation to change things if we can. We should take action, make improvements to the world, and defend our interests when it is reasonable and beneficial to do so.
When we interact with the world, however, we always keep in mind that we do not have 100% control over the outcome of our actions. We can give it our all, but that doesn’t mean we will succeed in getting our way. That’s why Stoics always act with the reserve clause in mind. We might tell ourselves, “I will cook dinner tonight if nothing prevents me,” or “We will go on vacation next year, fate permitting.” This is a reminder that the completion of these events is actually out of our hands. We can plan to do them and we can try our best to do them, but they don’t completely depend on us.
As Stoics, we understand that our happiness does not depend on external events. But that doesn’t mean we sit around doing nothing. We participate fully in life, doing what is appropriate for a person in our situation to do. We can be active and engaged in the world without letting our well-being depend on the outcome of events.
That’s why Epictetus urges his student to go ask a favor from someone, if that’s the right thing to do, but to do it in an appropriate way. We don’t want to be dishonest or servile. We are not trying to achieve something at all costs; we want to maintain our integrity, self-respect, and dignity. Most of the time we can accomplish things, or make a good-faith effort, in a way that does maintain our dignity and self-respect. If there’s no way to do it and maintain our good character, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.
When interacting with another person, remember to think about (1) what is up to you in the situation and (2) what is appropriate for you in the situation.
- What is up to you? This will be pretty much the same in every situation: the only thing you control 100% is yourself. Other aspects of the situation may be amenable to your influence. If you are a parent, for example, you can discipline your child, or if you are a doctor, you can strongly recommend a medication to a patient. But outside of yourself you never have 100% control, and most of the time your level of control is closer to 0%.
- What is appropriate for you? This will vary depending on who you are, your role, your relationships, your experience, and the situation itself. Epictetus emphasizes that our personal, professional, or social roles can provide guidance on appropriate action. At other times we may not have a clear-cut role to guide us, so we must rely on sharp observation and a savvy interpretation of the situation.
With these two parameters in mind, you can fully engage with the other person, even while recognizing that you do not control the outcome. Since you are acting appropriately, you can give it your best shot. Just keep the reserve clause in the back of your mind. Remind yourself that your happiness doesn’t depend on achieving this external goal. You will be able to get many things done—in a wisely assertive way.
Stoics are well-known for their calmness and acceptance of difficulties. But this is often misconstrued as defeatism, quietism or passivity. This misconception is due to the reduction of Stoicism to just one of its approaches to life when in fact it has other more nuanced methods.
To see what Stoicism does say about accepting life as it is, it’s worth looking at some well-known words of Epictetus:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. Enchiridion, 1.
This already illustrates that the true Stoic is not passive or apathetic towards life. The Stoic sees that some things we can control; others we cannot. So, the rational and productive thing to do is to accept the things we cannot change and concentrate on the things we can change. Unhappiness arises when we try to control things we cannot; when we want things we cannot have. Therefore, we should pay attention to the things that are in our power.
This has immense impacts on the way a Stoic lives. The Stoic doesn’t give in to everything that happens to them. If a Stoic were diagnosed with cancer, they wouldn’t just resign themself to death; they would do everything in their power to live: eat well, get enough rest, undergo treatment, maintain a positive mindset. This is tied to the fact that for the Stoic the world is not devoid of value; there is good to pursue. Therefore, one shouldn’t surrender to death; they should strive to live. Moreover, a noble life is not one of complete denial; it is one in which the things that give birth to suffering, namely the passions, are denied, but the things that bring us true joy are enjoyed.
Another important aspect of the Stoics life is community. The Stoics are the originators of the concept of cosmopolitanism, which means, the world (cosmos) is one’s community (polis). Unlike an Epicurean, a stoic life is not devoted exclusively to individual happiness. Rather, it is devoted to the good of all – the community. In the words of Epictetus, it is:
To treat nothing as a matter of private profit, not to plan about anything as though he were a detached unit, but to act like the foot or the hand, which, if they had the faculty of reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise choice or desire in any other way but by reference to the whole. Discourses, 2.10
Unlike the Epicureans, Stoics have a fundamental and uncompromising commitment to social good, so they cannot centre their deliberations on their own peace alone but need to dedicate their time and energy to bettering the community around them. No doubt, an important part of this is to attain inner tranquillity. How otherwise would a Stoic exert a positive influence on others? That said, we could say that the two processes are interrelated: one betters their community by developing inner tranquillity, and at the same time one develops inner tranquillity by engaging with their community.
A commonly held way of attaining inner peace is to live in isolation. This gives one the opportunity to devote themselves to meditation and contemplation and also block out any distractions or negative influences, thus enabling a calmer state of mind. However, if another person steps into that privacy, they may disturb the control the hermit has over their environment. The “intruder” might create noise or present a conflicting opinion. How would the recluse react? Quite possibly, their feathers might be ruffled, their inner equilibrium lost. Why? Because the calmness they had “achieved” wasn’t very deep. It hadn’t been tested by the trials of communal life. So, by living in the world, surrounded by a community, the Stoic not only contributes to that community but also learns from it. They contribute their sword to the collective battle, and at the very same time, their sword is sharpened by being in that battle.
All in all, in the Stoic life we can see a commitment to the collective good, to a noble life and to freedom from suffering. This is a very active life of learning and participation in the world. It does involve the transcendence of suffering through accepting things that can’t be changed and overriding destructive desires. But this accomplishment is only one part of the Stoic’s focus.
Why may people think that Stoicism leads to a passivity and withdrawal from things, rather than an active, prudent engagement with them?’ This post will attempt to locate aspects of the historical background, while affirming, in conclusion, a view of Stoicism as social, active, and enduringly illuminating.
First, one element of the misconception has a long pedigree. The Stoic term ‘constancy,’ current in English through the Early Modern age, was derived from the Latin constantia, best known from Seneca, whose De Constantia Sapientis (“On the Constancy of the Wise Man”) remained a highly influential text for the Enlightenment. Yet through the hostile lens of controversy, Stoic ‘constancy’ was readily and regularly distorted into ‘passivity,’ in a way we can recognise today.
By the mid-nineteenth century, though, there were positive signs for the Stoic worldview. From the 1790s through the 1840s, the geological and fossil records had revealed that species had emerged and disappeared over incalculably long periods. Once Charles Darwin had found the key to evolution of organisms in natural selection, the human species could be understood in a way recalling the pre-Christian framework of the Stoics. This account, developed most importantly by the founders of the Stoa (Diogenes Laertes.book 7, ch.85-88) and by Cicero, heavily reliant on the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (On Duties 1.11), presented humans as mutually dependent on their co-specifics, as well as on animals, plants, mineral, and cosmic nature.
Meanwhile, throughout the Anglosphere, George Long’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (1862) was bringing Stoic concepts to new readers. American psychologist William James (1842-1910) was representative of this mid-century mood. Reading Marcus in Long’s translation may have given the young James a sense that contributing to the human community – he used the newfangled evolutionary term, ‘species’ – could offer purpose in life.
So that it seems to me that a sympathy with men as such, and a desire to contribute to the weal of a species, wh[ich], whatever may be said of it contains All [sic] that we acknowledge as good, may very well form an external interest sufficient to keep one’s moral pot boiling in a very lively manner to a good old age (Emma Sutton, ‘Marcus Aurelius, William James and the “Science of Religions.”’ William James Studies, vol. 4, p. 73)
Leading English lawyer and jurist Frederick Pollock, in an 1879 article inspired by Long’s translation, considered that the ancient Stoic account could fit well with the new scientific ideas about ‘the descent of man’ (Darwin’s book of that name having appeared in 1871).
Thus the knowledge that is to serve us in life is [for the Stoics] founded on an observed order of things, which order is thought of as something belonging to the whole world, and equally present in every part of it. Now this is exactly such a general conception of knowledge as in these times is growing upon us as we become more familiar with the methods and results of science. (“Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic Philosophy.” Mind, vol. 4, no. 13, p. 49.)
Yet no science-related Stoic revival occurred. Stoicism still laboured under two serious marketing problems. The first, as Christopher Brooke has shown, in “How the Stoics Became Atheists” (The Historical Journal 49, 2), is that Stoic beliefs had long been fatally tarred with the brush of ‘notorious atheist’ Baruch Spinoza (and indeed vice versa). This taint persisted, and Pollock in 1879 acknowledged its force while attempting to combat it:
We hear a good deal nowadays of the mischievous tendencies of materialism and pantheism, and their incompatibility with a high moral ideal…In the philosophy of the Porch [Stoa] we find that, as a matter of fact, a most lofty and ideal morality…was associated with both pantheism and materialism in their crudest forms’ p. 57
The second was the view, surviving from the early Christian theologians, that Stoic promotion of virtue was beyond defective human capacity, and thus arrogant and ‘elitist.’ The force of this objection only grew with the march of political progress in the later nineteenth century. A preacher at the Brixton Independent Church concluded a lecture entitled “Why Could Not the Stoic Regenerate Society?”:
Stoicism…was a doctrine of self-gratulation, and the Stoic was a Pharisee [member of strict Jewish sect, allegedly with pretensions of special sanctity] at heart’ James Baldwin Brown. Stoics and Saints. (Glasgow, James Maclehose and Sons, 1893, p. 91.
This polemical reading – which obliterated the communal aspects so prominent in surviving Stoic texts – left a lasting mark. Two world wars, the rise of new tyrannies, and a loss of faith in established religion, all contributed to rendering the idea of virtue, as a human practice in the context of close communities, irrelevant at best, and insulting at worst. Whereas in the 1860s William James could approach the Stoic worldview on its own terms, a century later this seemed impossible. Humans were to be studied and tested as if in a laboratory. Consciousness and the unconscious were phenomena to be described and explained. Parental affection for children – a keystone of the Stoic worldview – was suspect in the eyes of many in the Freudian tradition.
The post-war economic order seemed to promote working life over communal activities, with commentators from the 1970s onwards deploring the loss of neighbourhood life. Over the same period, the evolutionary frame began to be deployed as a tool for interpreting every aspect of existence, with an emphasis on competition rather than social or altruistic behaviour. As indicated earlier, a minimalist evolutionary position, circa 1870, situating humans as hyper-social primates able to deploy an intelligence far in advance of that of other animals, fits well with the classical Stoic account. But that is far from the state of much current theory. Leading figures at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCLA Santa Barbara, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, have insisted:
The [human] brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment (quoted in Stephen M. Downes’ SEP Entry, “Evolutionary Psychology”)
Featuring the language of intentional design (disconcerting in the ostensibly secular context), this falls short of the clarity of Marcus Aurelius’s insistence that technology imitates nature, not the other way around (Meditations, 11.10.1). The imagery seems calculated to downplay human nature as organic and interconnected, on the Stoic model, instead depicting it as robotic, isolated, and contrived. We should not underestimate the influence of such language in shaping the self-conceptions of our time.
Some may struggle to accept the Stoic account of humans as virtuous social agents simply because they doubt the existence of a general human nature rooted in biology. Others consider that humans are fundamentally so destructive that the Stoic account seems far too optimistic. This seems similar to the Christian complaint we met earlier, and indeed one recently offered solution seems like old wine in a new bottle.
‘Transhumanism’ is the notion that through AI and other interventions, a ‘better human’ can be created to transcend the mess which H. sapiens has made of things (Alexander Thomas, “Super-intelligence and eternal life: transhumanism’s faithful follow it blindly into a future for the elite.” The Conversation, 31 July 2017.)
Yet surely Stoicism aims at our acceptance of people as they are. We bear with them because we are all of the same kind. Marcus said it best, at Meditations 2.1.1:
‘For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be annoyed and to turn away.’
By contrast, on the evolutionary psychology view, ‘the scale of human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle’ (Boyd and Richerson, ‘Culture and the evolution of human cooperation.’ Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Biol. Sci. 364, 1533).
Cicero, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus did not consider human co-operation, that is to say productive and virtuous human activity, a puzzle, but rather an obvious precondition of our existence – or, to use an evolutionary term, our survival.
Brittany Polat is a writer and researcher on Stoicism as a way of life. She is co-founder of Stoicare, a nonprofit which seeks to establish the usefulness of Stoicism in caring roles and professions around the world. She is also a steering committee member of Modern Stoicism and a board member of The Stoic Fellowship. Read her thoughts on moral psychology and humanist Stoicism at Living in Agreement.
Peter Gyulay is a philosophical consultant who uses the wisdom and critical thinking tools of philosophy to help people deal with the problems of life and find fulfilment, an educator with an interest in critical thinking and intercultural communication, a writer with a thirst to express insights on the profound, a world citizen with a passion for sustainability.
Judith Stove (email: Judith.firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and researcher based in Sydney, Australia, the author of two books about Jane Austen’s life and times. Her current research interests include women writers of the long eighteenth century, and receptions of classical literature.