We made a Call For Contributions for our third online symposium here at Stoicism Today, a few months back. This symposium is “On Stoicism and Passivity”, and the motivation for it was correcting and considering some mistaken views on Stoicism as a philosophy of life. 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.
We published our first set of excellent contributions a few weeks ago, and we now have a new set to offer you readers, authored by Dylan Olsberg, Nyant Krishamurthi, and Enda Harte
The knee-jerk reaction in the popular imagination when defining Stoicism usually boils down to “Stoicism when you don’t care.” It is the philosophy of the inured, a badge of honor for the apathetic, the disillusioned and careless. As Lawrence C. Becker succinctly puts it in his piece “Stoic Emotion”:
The image of the austere, dispassionate, detached, tranquil, and virtually affectless sage – an image destined to be self-refuting – has become a staple of anti-Stoic philosophy, literature, and popular culture.” (in Strange, S. & Zupko, J. Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations. Cambridge University Press, p.250)
It is associated with toxic masculinity or the inability to pursue happiness. Stoicism, in essence, becomes a patchwork embodiment of projected fears and insecurities by different people, irrespective of whether or not their fears and insecurities are actually represented or existent within Stoic canon. This is due partly because of ignorance of fundamental stoic doctrine as well as the episteme defining the current era coloring people’s suppositions and conclusions on topics of ethics in an individualistic manner. Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism is just as much a philosophy of rational agency and empowerment as it is a framework of mind which mediates emotions.
In their notion of ‘living according to nature’, the study of philosophy in a technical sense and action are inextricably intertwined.” (Gretchen Reydams-Schils “Authority and Agency in Stoicism.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies. 51, p. 318, emphasis added)
More importantly, the “common good” as described by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are intrinsic to Stoicism and living according to nature
Stoicism as an Action-Oriented Philosophy
In contravention to popular imaginings of stoic austerity and receptivity, not only is being proactive in cultivating virtue and ‘living according to nature’ foundational to stoic philosophy, which can only be achieved through concerted rational agency, but social consideration (terms like ‘community’ and ‘common good’ are relentlessly touched upon) and empathy are heavily emphasized in Stoicism as integral components of human nature and thus integral components in attaining tranquility and virtue.
To fully understand and appreciate the capacity for individual agency and empowerment in stoicism, we must first look at the ways in which stoic doctrine was conveyed in a pedagogical sense to students, and how these teaching practices were a reflection of Stoicism itself.
Stoicism as a school of thought was markedly different in ancient times compared to other schools. Stoicism differed from Platonist, Pythagorean and Epicurean traditions in that it didn’t demand fidelity or rituals to the founders of the school. Seneca writes about how Chrysippus, one of the most important early figures in Stoicism, himself took great liberty in disagreeing with his teacher Cleanthes. Upon this example, argues Seneca, why “should not every man claim his own freedom?”
In such passages Seneca attributes a political meaning to the Stoic notion of freedom, as freedom from a despot, and transposes this notion onto the master-pupil relationship within philosophical schools.” (Reydams-Schils, p. 300)
Epictetus takes great care in not reinforcing idolatry when praising Chrysippus: “One should render thanks unto god, he states, for Chrysippus.” (Reydams-Schils, p. 305)
This sentiment present in much of Stoic literature demonstrates, as Epictetus constantly reaffirms, that social standing or status are frivolous and that goodness of character is paramount. This inhibits the possibility of elitism and thus, unwavering obedience to the doctrinaire of particular sages instead of conformity to Stoic absolutes in one’s own terms and comprehension.
The conversation with oneself and self-assessment take priority over any teaching rapport, and teaching is fundamentally – not merely, though also, rhetorically – co-learning. (Reydams-Schils, p. 320)
Epictetus perfectly summarizes this form of independence and its implications when he asserts:
when people are mistaken in the views they hold about things outside the will – thinking that they are good or evil – they naturally are going to grovel before tyrants. (Discourses 1.19.16)
When rational agency is this heavily emphasized in this particular manner, proactive engagement is necessarily concomitant. Marcus Aurelius amply discusses the morality in many actions as well as the urgency of the current moment. “No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.” (Meditations 4.17) In fact, he goes so far as to say “justice of action is the only wisdom.” (4.37) These are not the words of a contemplative, austere sage who spends all day stroking his beard in intellectual repose. “[L]ife is indifferent, but the use we make of it is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses. 2.6.1)
Stoicism and Prosociality
If the Stoic’s proactive stances aren’t enough to do away with the popular notion of Stoicism’s supposed disaffected and nihilistic philosophy, then one of the foundational principles of ‘living according to nature’ should surely dispel such a stereotype.
In Stoicism, living according to nature involves aligning personal inclinations with the natural universal reasoning of reality. Any deviation from this, i.e. emotional attachments to externals (property, social status, other people, things which we don’t have direct ownership over), will result in immense unhappiness and discontent. This is why Epictetus, who was once a slave, sees groveling and capitulation as slavish behaviors, both in palace life and in bondage.
If you tell him [a two-term consul] the truth and say, ‘You’re just as much enslaved as someone sold into captivity three times over,’ don’t expect anything but a punch in the nose.” (Discourses. 4.1.6-7)
Being beholden and at the behest of anyone, whether they be Caesar or a slavedriver, is antithetical to living with a will unhindered and in accordance with nature.
The birds above us, when they are caught and raised in a cage, will try anything for the sake of escape. Some starve to death rather than endure their condition.” (Discourses 4.1.26)
A bird’s nature is to soar aloft in the open skies, and for many of them death is preferable to being caged.
So what is man’s nature, man’s natural placement in the universe? According to Marcus Aurelius, “rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man’s constitution is the social.” (Meditations 7.55) And this service to each other is seen in a collective sense. “What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either.” (6.54) Epictetus, from the inverse perspective, states that the bee cannot attain benefit without contributing to the hive, saying that “the rational man,” is “incapable of attaining any of his private ends without at the same time providing for the community.” (Discourses. 1.19.13)
Much of this confusion, as alluded in the Introduction, is a result of our modern atomized understanding of individuality which eschews any notion of the common good. In a capitalist framework, the rational agent exists insofar as they are customers in making marketable decisions. This makes commodities and profits prioritized over personal character, further exacerbating our tendency to value externals. So when we’re told to emotionally disregard property, it feels like we’re being asked to scourge everything that makes us substantive. It feels completely dispassionate and ascetic when in reality, all the Stoics are asking is to cultivate emotional dependency and rational agency from within, not without. And the latter shouldn’t be ignored, as Lawrence C. Becker reveals that “there is a close connection between psychological health and the development of ordinary forms of rational agency along Stoic lines.” (Becker, p. 266)
Diogenes Laertius, a biographer of Greek philosophers who lived between 3rd and 6th century AD, compared Stoic philosophy to an egg: “The shell is Logic, next comes the white, Ethics, and the yolk in the center is Physics”. Without studying Stoic Physics, the logical statements might seem prescriptive at the surface. Why is acting in accordance with virtues all we can do, and all we need to do? Are we not responsible for “body, property, reputation, office” as Epictetus says in the opening of Enchiridion? The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia which is a state of mind not disturbed by passions.
To explore these topics let’s use some terms from Stoic physics (by which we mean metaphysics, and not natural sciences). The Stoics contrasted incorporeal “somethings” against a mixture of bodies. Examples of incorporeals as listed by Sextus Empiricus include sayables (lekta), void, place, and time. The incorporeals were not “less than” but fundamental in constituting existence. A core function of the sayables is to express meaning to reality through discourses and to establish connection between ourselves and the universe. The “state-of-affairs” of underlying bodies are the causes and the incorporeals are less of a cause, or a “quasi-cause” as Gilles Deleuze interprets them in his Logic of Sense. This distinction brings us to an important concept in Stoic thought, Amor Fati, love of fate. A fate that emanates from the corporeal depth of bodies. A mode of thought that loves this destiny from fate is not disturbed by the torsional tension of incorporeals and passion on the surface.
Let’s say you lose money on an investment which makes you feel bad and judge yourself. The Stoics would care more about seeing what was destined. Not to ascertain truth alone but to open to larger rumblings of bodies, events and sense. Maybe there is an underlying shift in how the market works. This destiny is more interesting to the Stoics. Not a superstitious destiny with lack of agency but that of hidden causality emanating from the depths of mixtures of bodies. The Stoic recommendation here is to be unattached to incorporeal sayings and judgements about what has happened. The conditions of life at every instant have to be loved as a gift from fate.
It’s not that Stoics ask us not to feel emotions when something bad happens, such as the death of a loved one. It’s that they recommend not being carried away and restricted by opinions of causality, and instead opening to the real deal, destiny. Listening to fate, rather than mentally expecting events to go a certain way allows for more emotions that are not governed by local stories. Is not death destined? The more global perspective of Amor fati might seem like a holding back but is a connection to depths from which intensities arise in the sensible world. The Stoic recommendation is to love fate and not overly focus on incorporeal events such as wealth and fame to name a few. There is a love of paradoxes in Stoic logic which allows adopting both fate and surface incorporeal events such as emotion which are as real as corporeal bodies but have less causal impact since they themselves are subject to fate.
How does Amor Fati map on to eudaimonia and the sole concern of living in the moment with reason? Marcus Aurelius, Mediations 4.1: “when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter that is heaped on it and consumes it, rising higher by means of this very material”. The fire here is reasoning according to nature and the material is what is thrown up from the depths and not the incorporeals floating on the surface. The important questions are: What happened? What is Reason asking of us in the future? There is an indivisible point in time between these two questions where a Stoic sage acts.
The concept of shifting our expectation of causality from surface incorporeals and sayables to depth of “state of affairs”appears in Stoicism, in Deleuze’s thought, and in a number of other places including Zen Buddhism. In Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo written around the 13th century AD, in the discussion of the Genjo Koan, we find:
As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies.
Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring, and we don’t say that spring becomes summer
Winter does not become spring, spring arises from processes of depth. The two positions of time, of life and death, are independent except by inscrutable destiny. This is the reason why health is one of the preferred indifferents. We can practice healthy habits but when we get sick anyway why do we feel bad? Is it because we think healthy habits are enough to dictate the outcome of fate? All that an individual can do is to apply virtues to what material is already present. There is a break between taking action and when the next set of events present themselves as an output of fate and the process starts anew. We can’t have expectations for the new material from fate to be a certain way.
There is a radicality in Stoicism that not just diminishes the difficulty perceived in life but calls for an alternative image of thought where difficulty is non-existent. This statement engenders immediate mental protests such as – difficulty is part of “human existence”, but this is an incorporeal opinion. The radicality dictates that there is no needle of difficulty that has to be mastered. Why would there be difficulty if we love everything emanating from fate? All we can do is use wisdom and reason in the current instant of time.
Striving for happiness is the same thing as being happy. This does not mean we ignore opinions and meaning but they are incorporated in a Dionysian abandon to reason applied to the outcome of fate. The meaning of life is not an important question in Stoic thought. If all we have to do is lean on discernment unfettered by the incorporeal surface meaning of past and futures, wouldn’t that be cause for eudaimonia?
There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions – we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what Stoicism truly means. – Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
There’s a common thread that Stoic Philosophy and its teachings can encourage a sense of passivity and defeatism; however, when we read about the Stoic approach to indifference and acceptance we find that this is simply not true. There are many examples in the history of the Stoa that highlight those who chose acts of bravery, sacrifice, and deviousness over anything else. At certain times you could question whether certain actions are justifiable, but key examples of this include Cleanthes, Cato the younger, and even Marcus Aurelius during his reign as Emperor.
The general teachings in Stoic writings actually encourage us to:
- Accept your circumstances
- Understand what you can, and can’t control
- Crucially, not have your happiness be dependent on the outcomes, but on your actions.
When a human being develops reason, the Stoics believed there is a duty to carry out “appropriate acts”, this concept was built to ensure individuals acted through what “reason persuades one to do”. Epictetus used this concept to show that Stoics can still maintain healthy relationships with family and friends, and act philanthropically and justly toward other citizens, debunking the common misunderstanding that Stoicism teaches individuals to become unemotional and “stone-like” toward everyone and everything.
Touching on the above point, one of the recurring themes in Stoic writings from the time of Zeno, right up to Marcus Aurelius, is the need to contribute social good for the wider Cosmopolis, and to collaborate with your fellow man. This surely symbolises the need for action and initiative over passivity and inwardness. Plutarch confirms this based on his interpretation of Zeno’s views:
The much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, is aimed at this one main point, that our household arrangements should not be based on cities or parishes, each one marked out by its own legal system, but we should regard all humans as our fellow citizens and local residents. – On The Fortune of Alexander
The term acceptance, which can often be confused with total passivity, presents itself as something else in Stoic writings. Epictetus again reminds us that practising this in your daily life can assist with taming your emotions or impulses in order to achieve tranquillity.
“Starting with things of little value – a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine – repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price I buy tranquillity and peace of mind.” – Enchiridion 12.2
By not letting yourself get jerked around by others, accepting them as they are, and by overcoming any other general impulses you may have, you’re not selling your peace of mind for anything. The calm and accepting mind ultimately robs misfortune of its strength.
With all of this said, there is a place for passivity when faced with overwhelming emotions that we possess little to no control over. However, for the practising Stoic, this should not justify inaction towards all emotions and losing grasp on your reasoned choice
Dylan Solberg strives everyday to put Stoicism into practice, find the philosophy to be the most “realistic” for attaining contentment and understanding. His passions in life are poetry, philosophy, politics, and death metal.
Niyant Krishnamurthi is an Engineer living in California. He is an Improviser and a reader of philosophy and poetry.
Enda Harte is a music manager who writes. He has 10 years of experience creating music, managing artists, and writing about hellenistic philosophy and self help.