To mark the publication of the revised second edition of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson will be giving a talk and signing copies of the book at Ben McNally’s independent bookstore in downtown Toronto. Donald is one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism organization.
The philosopher Seneca said that to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave. The Stoics taught that the wise man (or woman) enjoys life but is unafraid of dying. Donald will provide an introduction to Stoicism focusing on its relevance to modern life. This will be followed by a discussion of the Stoic practice of contemplating one’s own death.
It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things. For example, death is nothing terrible, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgement that death is terrible, this is the terrible thing.
The Stoics believed that our fear of death is the most fundamental form of human anxiety and that by overcoming it we master many unhealthy fears and desires. Contemplating death, by viewing each day as if it could be our last also helps us, they said, to remain more fully grounded in the present moment and make the most of life.
It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last day.
The Stoic teacher Epictetus reminded his students that Roman emperors and generals celebrating a triumph were accompanied by a slave whispering the words memento mori in their ears, “remember you must die”, encouraging them to remain grounded and self-aware.
For Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, contemplating the bigger picture is the secret to mastering our fear of death. He quoted Socrates who asked whether human life can seem like a big deal to a great-souled individual, a philosopher, who has embraced the whole of time and reality in his thoughts. Socrates concluded that to such a person not even their own demise will seem frightening.
Come along and learn about Stoicism and its ancient philosophy of death.
Time/Date: 2-4pm, Saturday 2nd February Venue:Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street, Toronto, ON M5H 4B2. (Map)
Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist, trainer and writer. He’s the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Donald was born in Scotland but has been living in Canada since 2013.
One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so. Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class. Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports. This is the fourth and final report for this year, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.
This report is divided into the following 5 sections.
1) How Much Has Stoic Week Helped? 2) Which parts of Stoic Week were most helpful. 3) Other Significant Findings 4) Overall Status of Modern Stoicism Research 5) Recommended Next Steps
1) How Much Has Stoic Week Helped?
Table 1: Ratings of how useful Stoic Week was
in various areas of life
Part 3 of this suite of reports described the benefit of Stoic Week as measured by psychometric scales for life satisfaction, flourishing, positive emotions, negative emotions and degree of Stoicism. For the record, the improvements were 12%, 8%, 9.5%, 14% and 10% respectively. Table 1 (above) adds to these findings the participants’ sense of how Stoic Week helped them. The improvements reported in table 1 are almost uniformly high. Overall Stoic Week was rated as helping on average by 4 marks out of 5 (80%). The areas where Stoic Week was judged to be of most use benefit were “knowledge of Stoicism” and “managing emotions” closely followed by “becoming wiser.”
These results reproduce the results of previous years. In 2018 we asked additional questions which resulted in some interesting findings. Specifically , we asked people about how much participants thought it would benefit themselves if they continued practising Stoicism and how much it would benefit other people.
Benefits of Stoicism (948 responses)
How much (on a scale of 0 meaning “none” to 10 meaning “a lot”)do you think continuing to practiceStoicism would benefit
Benefit other people
10 (a lot)
Table 2: How much participants believed
continuing to practice Stoicism would benefit themselves and others
Many modern (non-Stoic) commentators see a sharp divergence between prudence and morality– you need to choose either to maximise your own well-being or to be moral. The Stoics, in contrast, did not see such a sharp contrast between prudence and morality and indeed argued that pursuing virtue was the way to achieve both. The data presented in table 1 can be interpreted as providing some evidence for the Stoic view. As would be expected according to the Stoic view, participants believe that Stoicism benefits both themselves and others. Perhaps surprisingly, given the apparent sacrifices practising Stoicism implies (“don’t focus on pleasure”, “help other people” and “devote a lot of time working on being a good Stoic”), participants rated the benefits to themselves as even greater than the benefits to others.
How much do you think it would benefit the world in general if more people practiced Stoicism?
10 ( a lot)
Table 3: How much participants believed continuing to practice Stoicism would benefit themselves and others
When asked a question about how much the world would benefit if more people
practiced Stoicism, the answer was an emphatic “a lot” (average score 9 out of
10). In other words , those who had experienced Stoicism gave a resounding vote
of confidence to the outreach purpose of the Modern Stoicism project.
2) Which parts of Stoic Week were most helpful?
As in previous years we asked participants to tell which elements of Stoic Week they found most beneficial.
Table 4: How useful were the daily exercises?
As Table 4 shows, all the exercises for each day were rated highly, with a difference of only .3 (out of 5) between the lowest (3.9 for Thursday – the community of Mankind) and the highest (4.2 for Tuesday, Virtues and the different).
5: Ratings of Audio recordings of
Meditation Routine Audio Recordings, Stoic Week 2018
A similar story emerges when we look
at table 5 above which shows ratings of the audio recordings. They were all
rated highly, with again only a .3 difference between the lowest (3.7 for the
Stoic Attitudes meditation) and the highest (4 for the View from Above)
When asked whether they planned to
continue practising Stoicism, 51% of
participants gave their answer as the
maximum (10 out of 10). the average degree of aspiration to continue with
Stoicism was 8.6 out of 10.
For the first time we asked participants about how they intended to maintain their practice and their answers make interesting reading
Daily Stoic Meditation (specifically the morning and evening Meditations)
Read the main original Stoic texts
Do Stoic week again on my own initiative
Speak to partner and friends about Stoicism
Watch You tube videos or podcasts about Stoicism regularly
Daily reflection and/or journaling of my progress in Stoicism
Focus on specific aspects of Stoicism such as the virtues and the dichotomy of control
Use the self-monitoring sheet from Stoic Week
Download the audios from Stoic Week and listen to them
Read modern books on Stoicism
Practice “sage on my shoulder” technique regularly
Do the View from Above meditation and reflect on our place in the universe
Set reminders (e.g. on phone) to do my Stoic Practice and of key Stoic learnings (daily or weekly)
Set aside time for regular practice, prioritise it
Perhaps the above list will provide inspiration to some readers about how to maintain their practice of Stoicism.
3) Other Significant Findings
Participants reported spending on average 24 minutes on Stoic Week each day. 13% of participants said they spent under 10 minutes each day whilst 5% told us they spent over an hour each day on Stoic activities. Most people (62%) spent between 10 minutes and half an hour each day on Stoic activities during Stoic Week.
There was a 33% increase in participant’s professed knowledge of Stoicism. Similar numbers of people said they “know a bit” about Stoicism (46% before and 47% after Stoic Week) but there was a big reduction in participants saying they were “novices” (26% went down to 9%) and 43% said they know quite a lot about Stoicism, compared to only 21% who put themselves in this category at the start of Stoic Week.
Bucking the previous trend towards using the website away from using a pdf. there was surprisingly little change in the way that Stoic Week booklet was accessed in 2018 with over a quarter of people still using a pdf.
Whilst at the start of week only 43% of participants said they were “More Stoic than not Stoic” (32%) or that they “consider myself a Stoic” (11%) , this increased to 81 % by the end of stoic week, comprising 62% who said they were now “More Stoic than not Stoic” and 19% who said they “consider themselves to be a Stoic”.
When asked about on how many days they actively engaged with the materials (meaning spending more than 10 minutes on them) the answers ranged from the most engaged day (Day 1, Happiness 16%) to the least engaged (Day 7, Nature, 12%). This implies a gradual reduction in the number of people engaging with the material each day, even amongst those who complete the end of Stoic Week questionnaire.
Relatively few people use the self-monitoring sheet at all (only 39%) whilst most people attempt the morning meditation at least once (93%), the evening meditation (90%) and listen to the audio recordings (60%)
Most people did try to apply Stoic principles each day – 62% saying they tried to every day of Stoic Week
When asked how they interacted with other people in Stoic Week, 27% of participants said they spoke to people at home about Stoicism, 18% said they took part in the Modern Stoicism forum, 12% said they attempted to teach Stoicism to other people and 12% said they spoke to people in their workplace about Stoicism. Only 3% of Stoic Week participants were at Stoicon or similar event.
Typical comments about how Stoicism benefitted participants included
Really enjoyed Stoic week…already missing it.
I loved this event and hope to participate more actively next year.
Something that everyone should take part in.
Thank you all for this wonderful project.
Thank you for organizing this event. It really helped me deal with my emotions in a healthy way, which is something I struggle with greatly.
It was a joy to participate in. Thank you for making this course available for free!
It was wonderful and I plan to do this again!
I never would’ve thought that seven days could do so much, and yet here I am, slightly awed about just how much has changed for me. I am incredibly thankful.
Interesting, enjoyable and calming – setting aside some time each day to read & reflect is very useful.
Enjoyable & interesting, thank you for the time in putting together the various means of access and in choosing texts for each day as well as writing the connecting pieces.
Please keep it up as an annual event. This and the annual month long Stoic training event help keep me on the Stoic path.
I found this to be so helpful and mind opening. I look forward to exploring Stoicism more. Thank you for all your work putting this together.
Keep it up! You’re making the world a better place
Keep up the great work!
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!
4) Overall Status of Modern Stoicism Research
Through running Stoic Weeks since 2012 and measuring well-being before and after Stoic Week each time, we have consistently reproduced the finding that a week of Stoicism results in increased satisfaction with life, positive emotions, flourishing and reduced negative emotions.
A month of Stoicism (SMRT) has a bigger impact.
When practising Stoicism for a month as in SMRT, the benefit lasts at least 3 months with almost no decrease in impact (for those who responded to the follow-up)
These findings should be treated with some caution as the samples are self-selecting , there may be some placebo effect and a significant number of participants drop out.
An important development has been the production of the SABS (Stoic Attitudes and Behaviour Scale) to measure a person’s degree of Stoicism.
*Even without doing Stoic training, people who are more Stoic(as measured by the SABS scale) have greater well-being, positive emotions, flourishing and less negative emotions . If they then do Stoic training (as in Stoic Week) these all generally improve as does their degree of Stoicism.
The combination of the above findings means we can be confident the improvements in well-being is not accounted for completely by a placebo effect.
In 2017 we also administered a character strength survey, the CIVIC scale in Stoic Week,. We found Stoicism was significantly and positively correlated with all the virtues and with most character strengths
Zest turned out to be the character strength most associated with Stoicism and also the strength that increased the most during Stoic Week
This year we learnt that most people who have done Stoic week believe that Stoicism significantly benefits both themselves and other people. Most believe that the benefit is larger for themselves than others.
5) Recommended Next Steps
2018 supports previous findings about the benefits of Stoicism and the
additional questions asked this year supplement our knowledge of how and why
Stoicism benefits people. There are a number of steps that could be taken if
sufficient funding and/or willing and qualified volunteers were available. Some of these are in the pipeline whilst some
are aspirational. In no particular order, recommended next steps include:-
a) Develop the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviour Scale (SABS) further so it is validated to the standard of other psychometric scales, has subscales that would help people understand in what ways they were and were not Stoic and would be fit for use with a general population (i.e. avoid technical or complicated language). Ideally the SABS should also be available as a briefer questionnaire as well as a more comprehensive scale (It is quite common for questionnaires to have a longer and shorter versions)
b) Develop versions of Stoicism tailored for
particular populations and problems. SMRT already exists, being tailored to help
with resilience. In addition Stoicism could be customised so it is helpful in
to help people suffering from pain
to help people with anger issues
People are already working in these
areas – from a research perspective it would be beneficial if their work could
be represented in a “package” and its benefits be measured. SMRT provides a
very good example of how this could be done.
c) Carry out a randomised control
trial for Stoicism in general population or with specific groups
d) Research to help answer the
benefits most from Stoicism?
the relationship between Stoicism and the big 5
What is the relationship
between Stoicism(big S) versus stoicism (small s)?
e) Use other, qualitative research methods
If you have other ideas about how to
advance Stoic research or would be willing to be involved in the research and
are suitably qualified, we would love to hear from you.
A sad fact in the Stoic community came to pass in the final weeks of the year 2018. In the evening of the Thanksgiving Day, November 22, at around 9.45 PM local time, professor Lawrence C. Becker died in his home in Roanoke, Virginia.
It is an understatement to say that Becker was a key figure in the modern Stoic movement. He was more than that. He was one of our founding fathers. His 1999 book A New Stoicism remains a landmark work for the whole Stoic industry, for the Stoic movement, and the modern Stoic way of life in general. It is one of the first works proposing a comprehensive framing of Stoicism not as a chapter from an antiquity textbook, but as a philosophy of life which is viable and relevant today. Some would even say it is the most important work which prepared the ground for the Stoicism of the 21st century.
I will certainly assent to that and I must admit here that I had the privilege of knowing Lawrence Becker personally. Since the beginning of this decade he generously offered me guidance and intellectual patronage in the rocky waters of my early Stoic adventure. After all, we all need to navigate them before we get to the Marcus Aurelius’ “all smoothly strewn and a waveless bay” (Meditations, XII.22). I will forever remember our long conversations in his cozy study and the black tea he always made sure was available for my visit.
There is one fact about Lawrence Becker which has been of semi-public knowledge for years but might be said today in full voice. He was also a polio survivor. He suffered from the disease in the 1950s, not long before vaccination was made widely available. Polio left him with paralyzed hands, arms and torso. Lawrence Becker went on to have a half-century-long successful teaching and writing career with – literally – no ability to move his fingers. He never stated that he got interested in Stoicism because of this hardship, not to mention that there is a forty years span between his contraction of polio and the publication of the Stoic book. Yet, in retrospect, it is indeed a great testament to the utmost Stoicism of both flesh and spirit. According to Diogenes Laertius there was an adage in antiquity, that “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would be no Stoa.” Today we are all in a position to say that had there been no Lawrence Becker, there would be no modern Stoicism as we know it.
Maybe it is a coincidence – or maybe it is not – that Lawrence Becker had the same birthday as Marcus Aurelius, April 26, 1939 and 121 AD respectively. Either way, they are now “levelled in death, for they were either taken up into the same life-giving principles of the Universe or were scattered without distinction into atoms.” (Meditations,VI.24)
Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees. We continue that series now with this piece by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzo, summarizing the workshop they provided at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor
Introduction – Chris Gill
all want to live happily – but what is happiness? In modern terms, ‘happiness’
tends to mean being in a cheerful mood or having enjoyable experiences. People
often think that being happy depends on factors largely outside our control,
such as being healthy or well-off, or finding the right life-partner or a
stable family life. Ancient philosophers also thought that happiness included,
or brought with it, enjoyment or positive emotions. But they believed that
happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia) is a
way of living or a form of activity, and that if you live in the right way
enjoyable emotions will necessarily follow. In other words, they stressed much
more the idea that happiness (the happy life) is something that is up to us, and
that depends on our agency, our understanding and our character. This is true
of both Aristotle and the Stoics; the main difference between them is that the
Stoics emphasize the role of our agency even more than Aristotle and also
stress the idea that our happiness is therefore independent of circumstances.
But both theories share the belief that happiness depends essentially on our
Here is Aristotle’s first definition of happiness: ‘activity of the mind consistent with virtue, and if there are more virtues than one, with the best and most perfect one’ (Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.7), though he adds some qualifications later (NE 1.8-10).
Here is a typical Stoic definition: ‘living according to virtue, living consistently, and again (which is the same) living according to nature’ (Stobaeus 6e).
Both definitions need more explaining. But they both convey the idea that happiness consists in something you do (your activity, or living in a certain way), and that this depends largely on your own efforts and personal qualities. Both definitions stress the idea that virtue or the virtues are crucial for happiness: these virtues are qualities of understanding and character, such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.
Both theories also hold that whether or not we develop the virtues depends to a large extent on us (the Stoics again stress this even more than Aristotle). In addition, both Aristotle and the Stoics see happiness as a matter of living the best possible human life (the Stoics also see it as a life in accordance with nature as a whole). The virtues, then, are those qualities that enable you to live the best possible human life, and living that kind of life is what it means to live happily. Again, living that kind of life will bring with it enjoyment or positive emotions; but having those emotions is a by-product; the core of happiness is living a good human life, which means living according to the virtues.
Aristotle on Happiness, Key themes – Gabriele Galluzzo
Aristotle identifies happiness as the basic and ultimate aspiration of all human beings, and so as the highest good (NE 1.4-5; 1.7). Since happiness is the highest good, it must be the kind of thing that is pursued for its own sake. Happiness, in other words, is the final end of human life and not a means to something else (NE 1.7).
Besides, Aristotle believes that happiness must be, at least in some sense, self-sufficient (NE 1.7). Once we have happiness, there is nothing else that we require to fulfill the purpose of our life, for happiness is indeed such a purpose. This is, of course, a very general and abstract characterization of happiness, which does not say much about what happiness is in specific terms. But, within this general framework, Aristotle introduces several themes which help us to give more content to happiness conceived as the ultimate goal of our life.
One idea is that, in defining happiness, we need to reflect on what is unique or distinctive about human beings, considered in comparison to all other creatures. This line of thought leads to the conclusion that happiness consists mainly in the possession and exercise of the virtues. The argument by which he reaches this conclusion is interesting. We establish what happiness is by investigating the proper function of human beings, to use Aristotle’s terminology (NE 1.7). It is only by considering what makes human beings uniquely human and thus what distinguishes them from all other living things that we can reach sound conclusions about what makes human beings happy.
For Aristotle, as for many other Greek philosophers, the proper function of a human being (his or her distinctive characteristic) is the use of reason: while we share the function of being alive with plants and the function of perception with non-human animals, the possession and use of reason is distinctive to us as human beings. The final step in the argument is the claim that the exercise of the virtues is the full expression of human rationality. This step is not surprising if we think that the Greek term for virtue (aretē) means ‘excellence’ or doing something well.
Thus, for Aristotle the exercise of the virtues constitutes excellence in the expression of human nature, and this is what human beings are uniquely equipped to do. The conclusion is that happiness is an activity of our mind that is in accordance with, or is expressive of, virtue (or the highest virtue – an idea explored further later in the Nicomachean Ethics, 10.7-8).
A second interesting theme in Aristotle is his celebrated idea that human beings are by nature political or social animals (NE 1.7, Politics 1.2). This means that interpersonal and communal relationships form an essential part of a natural human life. But if this is true, then one fundamental strand of human happiness will concern interpersonal and communal relationships. Not surprisingly given this view, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of the ethical virtues, that is, the virtues that we mainly exercise in our dealings with other people, such a courage, justice and generosity.
Similarly, Aristotle puts weight on the importance of friendship, and ‘friendship’, in Aristotle, is a general term that covers all kinds of relationship, including family relationships, involving affection and reciprocity (NE 8.3-5, 8.7-9; 9.4, 9.8-9). This theme of sociability is common to Aristotle and the Stoics; but, while Aristotle believes that the social nature of human beings mainly manifests itself in relatively small communities such as the Greek city-states, the Stoics extend this idea to cover the whole of humankind.
One final theme rather complicates this picture. Aristotle distinguishes between the ethical virtues (by which he means virtues of character, in Greek ēthos) and intellectual virtues, which are purely rational. He also draws a distinction between practical wisdom (phronēsis) and intellectual or reflective wisdom (sophia). Practical wisdom, as its name suggests, is used in the context of practical activities, including the conduct of our social relationships. To exercise the ethical virtues properly, we need also to apply practical wisdom in the decisions we make. Theoretical wisdom is exercised in the context of philosophical activities of all kinds.
As well as distinguishing between practical and theoretical wisdom, Aristotle also draws a distinction between the practical life and theoretical life, by which he means lives which are focused, ultimately, on either practical or theoretical uses of wisdom. Towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (10.7-8), Aristotle asks not just what happiness is but what the highest form of happiness is, that is, the form of life that expresses the highest kind of virtue. Although he recognizes the importance of practical wisdom and ethical virtues in a human life (indeed, in every human life), he argues that a life focused on intellectual activities, above all philosophy, represents the highest form of happiness. In fact, he characterizes the intellectual life as ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’, compared with the practical life, which is only ‘human’.
Despite this characterization, Aristotle reaches this conclusion partly because the ability to engage in philosophical activity is unique to human beings, and in this sense it forms a distinctively human form of happiness. This view has aroused much debate among modern scholars, who tend to think Aristotle should have favoured the practical life or at least have regarded both activities as equally important parts of the best human life. However, Aristotle’s view reflects the high valuation of the intellectual life that is also maintained by his teacher Plato and other thinkers in the ancient world – though not the Stoics.
The Stoics on Happiness, Key Themes – Chris Gill
The Stoics put forward their own, independently conceived, framework for thinking about happiness and do not refer explicitly to Aristotle’s ideas on this subject; however their thinking has much in common with Aristotle’s, except on the last point. They conceive happiness as living ‘naturally’ or according to nature; and this means, living in line with human nature (as it does for Aristotle) but also living in line with nature as a whole (the world or universe of which human beings form an integral part).
The Stoics see human nature as marked by a combination of rationality and sociability (again this view is close to Aristotle’s). So living a happy life is living the best possible human life, as a rational and sociable animal; and the way to do this is to develop and exercise the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control). They see these virtues as forming a matched and interdependent set of qualities which together enable us to lead the best possible human life.
Also, since human beings (like all living things) form an integral part of nature as a whole (the world, universe or cosmos), living happily means embodying the best qualities of nature as a whole. The Stoics see the universe as marked especially by two sets of qualities: structure, order and wholeness (which add up to coherence and consistency); and exercising providential care (oversight and concern) for everything in the universe. So we, human beings, will live the best possible life (the ‘natural’ life) if we embody these qualities in the way that human beings can.
If we develop the virtues, we will give our characters structure, order, and wholeness (or integrity) and we will also give the same qualities to our lives. Also, if we do this, we will be doing all we can to exercise a kind of ‘providential’ care for ourselves (we will look after ourselves to the greatest possible extent) and we will internalize nature’s providential care for us. And we will also exercise this care for others of our kind (other human beings), especially our family and community, but also human beings in general who form a kind of universal family or community, and in this way too we will internalize nature’s care for us. So the idea, broadly speaking, is that these qualities (order and providential care) are built into the workings of nature as a whole, and the best human life, the ‘life according to nature’ is one in which we express these qualities in our actions and lives. Here is one well-known Stoic quotation that brings out some of these points:
… therefore, living in agreement with nature comes to be the goal, which is in accordance with the nature of oneself [human nature] and that of the whole [universal nature]… the virtue of the happy person and his good flow of life [happiness] are just this: always doing everything on the basis of the harmony of each person’s guardian spirit with the will of the administrator of the whole. (The Stoic thinker, Chrysippus, quoted by Diogenes Laertius 7.88)
The Stoic view of happiness differs from the
Aristotelian in bringing in this broader, cosmic dimension, as well as
referring to human nature, and by integrating these ideas. Also the Stoics do
not distinguish between the practical and contemplative lives as Aristotle does;
they see practical and contemplative activities as equally spheres of activity
in which we can exercise wisdom and the other virtues. Any life which is shaped
by the virtues is happy, whether it is theoretical or practical in focus or a
combination of the two kinds of activity.
Points of Disagreement between Aristotle and the Stoics – Gabriele Galluzzo
The main point of contention between
Aristotelian and Stoics is the issue of whether virtue is sufficient for
happiness (Aristotle, NE 1.8-10, Cicero,
On Ends Books 3-5). Both Aristotle
and Stoics claim that virtue is an essential component of happiness. But while
Aristotle sees happiness as dependent on a combination of virtue and bodily
goods (for instance, health) and external goods (for instance, money, power and
friends), for the Stoics happiness depends solely on virtue. Thus, for
Aristotle virtue is necessary for happiness, but not sufficient, whereas for
the Stoics it is both necessary and sufficient. The following passage shows
that for Aristotle it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain happiness
without the addition of at least some external goods:
It seems clear
that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is
difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be
done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or
political influence (NE 1.8).
The Stoics, by
contrast, believe that both bodily and external goods are a matter of
indifference, that is, they do not make the difference between happiness and
unhappiness, whereas virtue does. Thus, for the Stoics, it is possible, at
least in principle, to be happy without possessing bodily and external goods,
and virtue is the only basis for happiness (just as vice or moral defectiveness
is the only source of unhappiness), as the following passage from Diogenes
Laertius clearly shows:
‘Indifferent’ is used of things which
contribute neither to happiness nor to unhappiness, as is the case with wealth,
reputation, health, strength and the like. For it is possible to be happy even
without these things. (Diogenes Laertius 7.104).
Of course, Aristotle’s position is not that virtue and external goods are on a par when it comes to happiness. Virtue remains, in his conception as well, the main contributing factor in happiness, while bodily and external goods only provide the material conditions without which the exercise of virtue is difficult or impossible. For Aristotle, for instance, it is implausible to think that someone could exercise the virtues fully and so live a happy life if he has no resources or no friends. Besides, Aristotle only claims that one needs some or a certain amount of external goods, and not that obtaining external goods should become an aim or pursuit in its own right. The fact remains, however, that on Aristotle’s view external goods make a decisive contribution to happiness. For the Stoics, by contrast, external goods do not determine one’s happiness, though some of them do have positive value, as we see shortly.
One attractive aspect of Aristotle’s position, which is often emphasized by supporters, is that it appears to be more realistic: how can we really live well without at least some external goods? Is it conceivable that we can do without them completely and still live a happy life? Moreover, Aristotle’s view seems to be rather sophisticated, in that bodily and external goods are just a prerequisite for happiness, while the possession and exercise of the virtues remains the main contributing factor.
On the other hand, critics often stress that Aristotle’s position risks being incoherent, since exercising virtue and obtaining external goods can come into conflict since they are separate and independent sources of wellbeing. Critics also insist that Aristotle’s position is elitist, because only a limited number of people can have access to the right amount of external goods and thus achieve happiness. The Stoic position, by contrast, is seen by supporters as more unified and coherent, since there is only one basis for happiness, namely virtue. It is also more egalitarian, since for the Stoics everybody can be happy, irrespective of their wealth or social status or all other external conditions. Followers of Aristotle, of course, often found the Stoic view incomplete, since it does not recognize the importance of certain areas of life, and unrealistic, that is, fine in theory, but unattainable in practice.
Supporting Arguments for the Stoic Position – Chris Gill
The Stoic position may seem incomplete and extreme but it is supported by three aspects of their thinking.
(a) The distinction between virtue and indifferents. Stoics recognize that things such as health, wealth, and reputation have a positive value and constitute grounds for action: hence they call them ‘preferred’ or ‘preferable’ indifferents rather than ‘dispreferred’. The reason that the Stoics call them ‘indifferents’ (instead of bodily and external goods, which is what Aristotle calls them) is that these factors do not make the difference between being happy or not, that is, between leading a good human life or not, whereas the virtues do. You can lead a good human life without wealth, or reputation or even health, but you cannot be happy if you do not live ‘well’, that is by exercising the virtues.
Remember that for the Stoics the virtues are all seen as forms of knowledge or expertise in living. The virtues express our knowledge of how to live a life with the characteristics of happiness noted earlier, that is, a combination of being rational and sociable, of having an ordered and structured life and taking ‘providential’ care of yourself and others. The virtues are also seen as forms of expertise in selecting between indifferents, that is, in choosing what things we really need to lead a life with the characteristics just described. The Stoic view, understood in this way, is quite complex, but not therefore incredible; arguably, it answers to many of our intuitions about what makes a life worth living, if we examine this question in some depth.
(b) The Stoics have a theory of ethical development and also emotional development that makes their view about happiness and indifferents more psychologically plausible. They believe that, as people develop ethically and acquire the virtues, their emotional life also changes, and they experience ‘good emotions’ rather than bad (misguided) ones. The bad emotions or ‘passions’ are based on the mistaken view that things such as wealth, reputation and health make you happy (that is, that they enable you, by themselves, to lead a good human life). Emotions of this kind are also often intense, overpowering and sometimes internally conflicted (think of a jealous lover).
The good emotions reflect the fact that you have the virtues and that the virtues enable you to live a good human life, whereas the indifferents do not. The good emotions are also calm, moderate and consistent with each other and with your beliefs about what is valuable. Examples of good emotions are wish (rather than passionate desire), caution (rather than fear), and joy (rather than intense pleasure). So, for the Stoics too, as for most modern thinkers, the happy life is also marked by a certain emotional quality. But the positive emotional quality does not depend on acquiring wealth, reputation and so on, but from recognizing that our happiness does not depend on these things but on developing the virtues.
(c) Some Stoic thinkers (especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) also stress that we can accept (what are normally seen as) ‘bad’ aspects of life – such as our own death or those of our loved ones – if we see them as part of a larger series of events which are providentially shaped and are in this sense ‘good’. Stoics see not only the universe as a whole but also the series of events that occur within the universe as providentially shaped. They also see these events as fated, at least in the sense that they form part of an interconnected causal web and not as random and fortuitous events, which is the competing Epicurean view.
However, this does not mean that Fate excludes human agency; the scope for human beings to exercise choice in their actions also forms part of this causal web. The acceptance of seemingly bad events as providentially shaped is sometimes seen by Stoic thinkers as promoting peace of mind and in this sense contributes to the emotional dimension of leading a good and happy human life. This parallels the idea noted earlier that leading a good (virtuous) life is a matter of living in accordance with nature as a whole.
The final passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations illustrates the last two
points. Marcus contemplates his own approaching death calmly and even with a
kind of joy:
My friend, you have been a citizen of this great city [the universe]. What difference does it make if you live in it for five years or a hundred? For what is laid down in its laws is equitable for all. Where is the hardship, then, if it is no tyrant or unjust judge who sends you our of the city, but nature who brought you into it? … the one who determines when it is complete [that is, nature] is he who arranged for your composition and now arranges for your dissolution, while you for your part are responsible for neither. So make your departure with a good grace, as he who is releasing you shows a good grace. (12.36, translated by Robin Hard)
As we have tried to bring out, both Aristotle
and the Stoics offer well-conceived and profound theories of human happiness,
which still have much to offer to modern audiences. Their theories have some
features in common and some marked differences; but both of them take us to the
heart of serious questions about how to lead a good human life.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, especially books 1 and 10 (many good
Anthony A. Long and David N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge,
1987, especially sections 54 (the Stoic providential world-view), 63
(happiness), and 65 (passions).
Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford, 1993, especially chs. 1-2, on
goals in life and virtue, chs. 18-19 on Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of
Daniel C. Russell, Happiness for Humans, Oxford 2012, a sustained debate about the
rival merits of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of the happy life.
John Sellars, Stoicism, Berkeley, 2006, ch. 5, an overview of Stoic ethics,
including discussion of virtue and happiness.
See also in the ‘Stoicism Today’ blog archive two debates between Chris Gill and Tim LeBon on virtue and indifferents.
Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy.Read more about Gabriele’s work here.
Chris Gillis Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism.
According to Socrates, the only evil is ignorance. This phrase has always been controversial, because it seems to be immediately refuted by the very well known fact that lots of people do bad things in full knowledge of what they are doing. Adolf Eichmann, for one, was not just a low level bureaucrat who followed orders during the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews. He was a high level officer who deliberately helped planning the deportations and killings, and who was openly proud of his “work.”
But it is always dangerous to dismiss something that a philosopher of the caliber of Socrates said, on the grounds that it seems prima facie (as philosophers are fond of saying) absurd. Far more likely it is that you have not fully understood what he meant. If that same Socratic attitude, moreover, was then adopted and made part of their central philosophy by the Stoics, you can bet that there is more than meets the eye.
When I asked my colleague Nick Pappas, a careful and renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, about that famous Socratic phrase, he explained that the word actually used by Socrates is “amathia,” elaborating:
The root verb is ‘manthano,’ to learn. So etymologically the word just means a state of not having learned. Heraclitus uses the word a couple of times to mean extreme ignorance. It appears with more moralistic judgment in Euripides (Phoenissae, Medea, Bacchae), where it can mean stupidity or boorishness. These sources come before Plato. Within Plato the most interesting passage might be the Alcibiades Major 118a-c. There Socrates distinguishes the mere ignorance of ‘agnoia’ from the ‘amathia’ that Alcibiades and Pericles had.
Now Pericles and Alcibiades were not ignorant. On the contrary, they were among the most highly educated of Athenians. They were also not stupid. Again, we are talking about two brilliant minds. And they did what they did, in particular with regard to the eventually disastrous conduct of the Peloponnesian War by Athens, in full knowledge. Moreover, when Alcibiades repeatedly switched sides – from Athens to Sparta, then back to Athens, then to the Persians – he knew that he was doing something that his fellow citizens would consider wrong. But he thought so highly of himself, almost a god walking among men, that he felt entitled to do it. From his point of view, whatever course of action he decided on was the right one.
Socrates, of course, understood all too well that smart, educated and ambitious people are particularly prone to suffer from amathia, a sort of willful lack of wisdom. And he also knew that this condition typically leads not just to such people’s ruin, but to the ruin of entire populations that follow them (often out of mere ignorance or stupidity, i.e., agnoia).
Kennedy focuses on my discussion of the Eichmann case as presented in How to Be a Stoic. He correctly points out that Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as an example of “the banality of evil” has been criticized on the basis of both some inaccuracies in Arendt’s original account and because of new documents about Eichmann that emerged after the trial. This is all true, but makes no difference at all to my argument. In fact, if anything, it reinforces it.
Had Eichmann simply been a mindless bureaucrat who was following orders, he would have been no different from countless other Germans who allowed Nazism to flourish between 1933 and 1945. Those Germans were in turn no different from the Italians under fascism, the Athenians under Pericles and Alcibiades, even a good chunk of contemporary Americans under Trump. (No, I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m comparing the mindlessness of so many people who support obviously bad leaders, across time and cultures.) Those people were all victims of agnoia, not amathia.
Amathia is the more interesting condition because it illuminates in a new way the otherwise mysterious fact that some individuals with all the advantages of smarts and education still manage to engage in seriously immoral acts. In fact, Kennedy himself not only does not refute my (well, really, Socrates’) argument, he repeatedly falls into contradiction throughout his article.
For instance, he writes:
[Eichmann] like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing. … He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. … He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.
Precisely. Yes, the Nazi were aware that they were in violation of Western religious-philosophical thought. But they also were convinced that such tradition was corrupted, embodying the wrong morality, so to speak, and not one that would lead to the rightful (as they saw it) flourishing of the German nation and the Aryan “race.” That is a textbook case of amathia. Eichmann & co. did not get up in the morning, stand in front of a mirror and ask themselves with an evil grin: “what sort of horrors can I possibly commit today?” No, they were functioning under a different “morality,” and they were convinced that they were right. So was Alcibiades, and his righteousness cost the lives of tens of thousands of Athenians during the disastrous expedition against Syracuse.
Why think of people’s behaviors in terms of amathia rather than in the more stark, and psychologically satisfying, age old concept of good vs evil? Because Manichean, black and white conceptions of the world are not only not informative, but positively misleading. The world is complicated, and people even more so. It’s easy, and it feels good, to simply slap the label of “evil” on someone else and be done with it. But that label explains nothing, and does not prepare us for the next round of trouble, which is sure to come.
Kennedy doesn’t want any part of this, however. He writes:
The assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust.
But we are never told exactly why invoking amathia as an explanatory concept is “a grotesque banalization.” There is nothing banal in Socratic and Stoic philosophy, though there certainly are paradoxa, a word that originally simply meant “uncommon opinions.” Kennedy seems to be confusing two very distinct concepts, understanding and justification, and it is precisely this confusion that leads him to be incensed by my suggestion that Eichmann was suffering from amathia. But to attempt to understand human actions is not at all the same as justifying them.
One of my literary and academic role models, the semioticist Umberto Eco, wrote a highly controversial editorial in a major Italian newspaper immediately after the attacks on 9/11, 2001. The title of the editorial was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco pointed out at the onset that what he wanted to do was to understand, not to justify. Nothing justifies the horrific destruction brought on New York City that day, but to say – as then President Bush did say – that the attacks were due to the fact that “they hate our freedom” is not only wrong, it truly is a “grotesque banalization.” Bin Laden was responding to decades of unwelcome interference by the US government in Middle Eastern affairs, not to mention to the presence of American military bases on what he considered sacred soil. That, in part, is what made him possible for him to recruit people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they thought was the greater good. Ironically, for those people it was the United States who was “the Great Satan.” See how easy, and irresponsibly dangerous, it is to slap the “evil” label and cause mayhem?
So, contra Kennedy, I think the concept of amathia is crucial not just to Stoic philosophy, but to our attempts to understand why people do horrific things. Such understanding is most certainly not aimed at justifying the Holocaust or anything else. Rather, it is aimed at preventing future occurrences of such horrors, by deploying strategies aimed at decreasing the likelihood tha future leaders will suffer from amathia. Let’s start by making the teaching of practical philosophy mandatory, if not for the general population at least for anyone elected to public office, and see if we can’t manage to reduce the chances of seeing another Eichmann, or Alcibiades.
Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.
On January 20, 1942, a group of senior SS-officers and other high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxurious villa, located on the picturesque Wannsee lake in southwestern Berlin, to discuss their plan to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. They had been invited there by Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS and one of the main architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question.”
One of those present at this “Wannsee Conference” wast he 36-year-old SS-Obersturmbahnführer (lieutenant-colonel) Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962). At the time, Eichmann led the SS-Department IV b 4, which was responsible for the transportation of Jews to the ghettos, concentration camps and killing facilities in eastern Europe. He was also entrusted with organizing the conference, with writing the notes for Heydrich’s address to the participants and with producing a memorandum of what had been discussed and decided there (a document which would later provide crucial historical and legal evidence for the Holocaust).
After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived for many years incognito, but in1 960 he was abducted by Israeli secret agents and brought to Israel. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, pronounced guilty of several major crimes – including mass-murder– and, on May 31, 1962, he was executed by hanging.
The Eichmann trial sparked a worldwide controversy after the publication in 1965 of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt. She had covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and had been granted access to Eichmann’s written testimony of his life. At the trial, Eichmann depicted himself as a simple bureaucrat who had only followed orders. (At one point, he blurted out the claim: “The popes ordered: I had to obey!”)
Eichmann’s perverted sense of duty, which had apparently left him oblivious to the suffering of his victims, inspired Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Eichmann appeared to Arendt not as a monster, but as a “clown” – a pathetically ordinary man who had sent countless innocent people to their deaths out of sheer thoughtlessness. The problem with Eichmann, and with countless Germans like him, Arendt argued, was that they lacked the moral imagination to see the human consequences of their actions. According to Arendt’s critique, Eichmann showed that evil need not be the result of malevolent intent, but of a simple failure to think. (Critics of Arendt were incensed because they believed that she had humanized a monster and therefore relativized his guilt. Many were also outraged because she had pointed out the complicity of some Jews in their own people’s destruction.)
Now, Adolf Eichmann has also become a regular topic of discussion within the Modern Stoicism community. As many readers no doubt already know, one of the movements more prominent writers, Massimo Pigliucci, regularly presents Eichmann as a prime example of amathia, an ancient Greek philosophical concept, going back to Socrates, denoting a “lack of wisdom” which results from a failure to use one’s rational faculties. The term can also be understood as a kind of ignorance which results from a refusal to learn.
Amathia can have horrific consequences, causing severe harm to others, even though the perpetrators harbor no evil intent. Socrates and Plato, as well as their respective students and schools of philosophy, shared this view. According to them, men and women never commit evil intentionally. Rather, they do evil because they lack the knowledge of what is truly good. Like the ancient Greek anti-heroine Medea – whom Massimo presents as a kind of “poster-girl” for amathia – they believe their acts are good or necessary. But they are tragically mistaken.
The Stoics also adopted the doctrine of amathia. Marcus Aurelius, for example, states that if men do rightly what they do, we shouldn’t be displeased, if not, clearly they do it involuntarily and in ignorance. As every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so it is deprived of the power of delivering to each man what he deserves. (Meditations, 11:18.) But intellect, by itself, is no safeguard against amathia. It needs to be guided in the right direction and exercised – something which Eichmann failed to do. Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann as
perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I meant by banality.
Arendt herself did not use the concept of amathia to analyze Eichmann’s debased moral condition. It seems rather that the philosopher Glenn Hughes was the first to view the Nazi atrocities as examples of amathia. Massimo agrees with Arendt that Eichmann exhibited “intelligent stupidity” and he also concurs with Hughes that his crimes against the Jews resulted from amathia. For Massimo, the case of Eichmann confirms the Stoic belief that people commit evil out of ignorance, an argument Massimo repeated at the 2017 Stoicon.
Human beings can indeed do terrible things out of ignorance. History shows this over and over again. But the assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust. In the case of Eichmann, moreover, it’s completely mistaken. He, like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing, but it didn’t bother him in the least. He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. He acted knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Far from being a mindless automaton who was simply “following orders,” Adolf Eichmann went far beyond “the call of duty” in his efforts to hunt down Jews and send them to their deaths. He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.
Outside of academic historical circles, however, this insight into Eichmann’s actions has not yet spread very far, not least because of the powerful influence of Hannah Arendt. Too many discussions about Eichmann – especially among philosophers – are still based on Arendt’s book about him. But the historical research on Eichmann and the Holocaust have since advanced far beyond Eichmann in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be conversant with the current state of the research should read the work by the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stagneth: Eichmann before Jerusalem.
Stagneth, like other contemporary Holocaust researchers, has availed herself of the many sources that have come to light since Eichmann’s trial. The most important of these regarding Eichmann are TheArgentinian Papers, a compilation of writings by Nazis living in Argentinian exile, hoping to bring about a “Fourth Reich.” Among the Papers is a series of interviews Eichmann gave to its compiler and editor, the Dutch journalist Willem (“Wim”) Sassen (1918-2001), consisting of 1,300 written pages and 25 hours of taped material.
Some doubt the credibility of Sassen, who was a veteran of the Waffen-SS (he was a member of its voluntary Dutch division). Sassen also wrote for right-wing extremist publications after the war and belonged to a support network of exiled Nazis hiding in South America, a group that included the notorious Todesengel (“Angel of Death”) of Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele (1911-1979). But it could also be argued that Eichmann would feel much freer to express his true convictions to a fellow SS-man than he would be to an Israeli prosecutor. In any event, Eichmann valued the Papers highly, instructing that they be published in the case of his death or capture.The autobiographical testimony of Eichmann which Arendt used as a main source for Eichmann in Jerusalem, was actually written by him as part of his contribution to The Argentinian Papers. But it was fragmentary, and without the wider context of the entire document, which includes much more damning information about Eichmann, and which was not fully available in Arendt’s time, it was easier for her to view him as a technical bureaucrat instead of the vicious anti-Semite that he was. (In Arendt’s defense, the court that tried Eichmann also refused to admit the parts of the Papers they had as evidence, because their authenticity had not yet been verified.)
Furthermore, it now looks as though Hannah Arendt was not going to let any contrary evidence cast doubt on her novel and provocative interpretation of Adolf Eichmann and his crimes. One of the Israeli state prosecutors at the trial, Gabriel Bach, spoke in 2012 of what he saw as Arendt’s willful ignorance regarding Eichmann: “She misrepresented essential facts or ignored them”. When Bach first read Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was “astounded” to discover that Arendt, who had access to all the relevant documents at the time, had twisted the meaning of some of the most important of them into their opposites, “such as that Eichmann had clearly countered some of the clear orders of Hitler, in order to do even more damage.” In truth, the evidence for Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that it becomes hard to understand how anyone could still doubt it. But for many, it seems, that appears preferable to admitting that Hannah Arendt could have been so terribly mistaken.
As Stagneth says:
Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.
What motivated Adolf Eichmann in his
innermost being can never be proven without a doubt. We have to judge him on
his deeds. But they alone are more than enough to damn him as a perpetrator of
evil who was anything but banal. (Readers who find the term “evil” too
theological are welcome to use the alternative “heinous crimes.”) After being
sent to Budapest to organize the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the death
camps, Eichmann gave graphic descriptions of how he saw his role there. “Do you
know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” “I keep the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” “I’m
having the whole filthy band of Jews in Budapest murdered!”
And it wasn’t the case that Eichmann was some kind of “desk criminal,” a pencil-pusher with no first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to “imagine” the suffering of his victims: he witnessed it first-hand. In Vienna, Eichmann personally participated in raids on the Jewish community there. It was his idea that “Jewish councils” also be set up in Vienna, so that the Jewish communities themselves assisted their persecutors in getting Jews to emigrate, while leaving their wealth and valuables to the Nazis.
In an autobiographical text Eichmann wrote in prison – one which Hannah Arendt never saw, and which was then kept secret by the Israeli government for 15 years – he recalled witnessing many mass-killings. The sights were so grisly, he lamented, that he could only tolerate them by drinking heavily. He wrote that one mass-shooting he saw in Minsk was so bad he had to “drink schnaps like water.” Nevertheless, Eichmann actively pursued the discovery of more efficient means of killing Jews. He held discussions on this topic with Rudolf Höss (1901-1947), commandant of Auschwitz, in the camp itself. Eichmann also personally inspected the gas trucks at Chelmno and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Far from being a passive recipient of orders with no convictions of his own, Eichmann proved himself, repeatedly, to be a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who showed tremendous energy and initiative when it came to the dispossession, transportation and mass-murder of Central Europe’s Jews. In one of his interviews with Willem Stassen, Eichmann even belittled those who committed atrocities and then tried to distance themselves from their actions once the circumstances had changed. No one should claim they were only following orders, he said. “That is cheap nonsense, that’s just an excuse,” adding that humanitarian considerations only served to help “one comfortably ensconce oneself behind orders, edicts and laws.”
To return to the central point, Massimo, as well as most Stoics, would no doubt contend that, while Eichmann certainly committed horrific crimes, he nevertheless did so out of amathia, out of ignorance of the true philosophical Good. In fact, Massimo anticipates criticism of using amathia to explain Nazi atrocities:
Whenever I say this [that Eichmann acted out of ignorance], someone is guaranteed to get outraged. What? Do I seriously mean to say that Hitler wasn’t evil? How could I possibly be so naïve? Or perhaps I harbor questionable sympathies? But as with many terms in philosophy, ‘evil’ and ‘ignorance’ don’t mean quite what we expect.
In truth, both Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as well as the ancient Greek concept of amathia are complex ideas that defy “common-sense” thinking. In each case, the proposition is that those we consider to be evildoers are actually motivated by what they consider to be “good” or necessary. That is to say, they do not believe that they are doing “evil.” Some members of the Modern Stoicism Facebook group, responding to the same critique presented here, have agreed with Massimo that Eichmann indeed thought he was “doing good”, in the sense that he believed that ridding the world of Jews was necessary. In fact, in the most notorious part of The Argentinian Papers, Tape Number 67, Eichmann seems to confirm this view. Speaking at what was probably a small gathering of Nazis in Argentinian exile, Eichmann proclaimed: “What is useful for my people, is for me a sacred command and a sacred law. Jawohl.”
to argue that Eichmann acted out of an ignorance of the good is to
fundamentally misunderstand what the Nazis considered to be their
world-historical mission: namely, to eradicate all obstacles to the ultimate
triumph of the Germanic peoples in the racial struggle for survival. They knew
full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that
what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. As the Yale
historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional
Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity
and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race. They therefore had to be
eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they
consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.
Eichmann’s own familiarity with philosophy also went much deeper than what Arendt knew (or could have known at the time). Today we know that Eichmann was not only familiar with Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but he could also carry on fairly sophisticated discussions about them and their ideas. But he rejected the humanist elements of Western philosophy because they were incompatible with the crude social Darwinism favored by the Nazis. It was only in Jerusalem, when he was on trial for his life, that Eichmann concealed his own systematic anti-humanist world-view and placed his own ideas within the Western philosophical canon.
Moreover, as Bettina Stagneth warns us, we should not to dismiss the “atavistic” ideology of Eichmann and the Nazis as “pseudo-philosophy.” Many academic philosophers at the time shared such views, including the man who arguably became the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Heidegger, referring to the tradition of Western rationalist thought, proclaimed: “We have renounced the idolization of an abysmal and powerless reasoning. We see the end of the philosophy which serves that.”
Adolf Eichmann committed evil purposely, willingly and knowingly. There is a lesson here for modern Stoics: Just as the ancient Stoic belief in a sentient, wise, benevolent universe needs to be revised in the light of modern physics, so the Stoic doctrine that people only do evil out of ignorance needs to be modified in the wake of the Holocaust. Sometimes evil is done in full knowledge of its nature and its consequences.
To be sure, this is no new insight. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, believed that humans do evil, whether in the form of stealing pears or terrorizing entire populaces, precisely because they delight in the pleasure “of doing what we should not do”. By breaking moral customs, norms and laws, men and women set themselves above the rest of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Stoicism is helpless in the face of it. A Stoic education, for instance, could help prevent people from becoming evil in the first place. But we must also keep in mind that success is not guaranteed. Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus must have received quite a dose of Stoic philosophy while he was growing up, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst tyrants to ever sit upon the imperial throne of Rome. Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism can guide our own actions as we try to respond to the consequences of evil, an important consideration in our own time, which is characterized by authoritarian demagogues, racism, terrorism, the ruthless exploitation of our natural resources and the reckless accumulation of individual wealth in full contempt of the general social welfare.
Before concluding, I would like to
mention that I originally expressed my disagreement with Massimo on this
subject on the Modern Stoicism Facebook page. Massimo generously devoted the
time to give me a thoughtful response – for which I remain grateful – but he still
begged to disagree. Massimo wrote: “Eichmann is
a perfect example of amathia because he lacked wisdom, or he would have
understood that what he was doing is ‘evil.’ The point is that he didn’t get up
in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’ but rather ‘how can
I do my job well today?’ He may have ‘reflected’ on what he was doing, but from
a standpoint of ‘ignorance’ (i.e., unwisdom, i.e., amathia).”
Massimo here restates his argument that Eichmann acted out of ignorance of what is truly good. Again, this is to suggest that Eichmann, and all the other Nazis like him, murdered several million human beings because they weren’t thinking like Stoics. To reiterate, this appears to me to be both true, on one level, but also to be a banalization of the Holocaust. Moreover, Massimo remains mistaken about Eichmann, just as Hannah Arendt was. The historical record shows that Eichmann did not “get up in the morning thinking how he could do his job well” – in the sense that the kind of job he was doing didn’t matter. Eichmann’s words and deeds demonstrate instead that he devoted careful and sustained thought to how he could best execute the Nazi plan to humiliate, rob, expel, torture and murder Europe’s Jews.
In that sense, he truly did get up in the morning and ask “what kind of evil” he could do that day. Adolf Eichmann knew what he was doing. He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival. That is why, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews had to be destroyed. Adolf Eichmann pursued this goal with energy, initiative and commitment. As the historian and Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer puts it: “He was evil, but not banal. He read constantly, was highly intelligent and possessed broad knowledge. He referred to philosophy, to Kant. Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal.”
Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, lecturer, writer and commentator who lives and works in Potsdam, Germany. He is also the father of two children and a long-distance runner. He lectures on Prussian history, modern German history, and the Holocaust. In addition, he works as a local guide in Potsdam, Berlin and Dresden, and as a tour manager in Central Europe.
a 1965 West German television interview, Arendt said she rejected the label of
“philosopher” for herself. Philosophers thought in eternal and universal
categories, she said, something which she felt was no longer possible in the
modern age. Arendt preferred to describe herself as a “political theorist,” Hannah
Arendt and Political Theory. Challenging the Tradition, Edinburgh 2011, p. 1;
for a discussion of the controversy: “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt.
Introduction by Amos Elon, in Hannah Arendt,” Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report
on the Banality of Evil, London, 2016, vii-xxiii.
 Bettina Stagneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte
Leben eines Massenmörders, Hamburg, 2004. (English version:
Stagneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer,
New York 2015.
Wir haben uns losgesagt von der Vergötzung eines boden- und machtlosen
Denkens. Wir sehen das Ende der ihm dienstbaren Philosophie, Stagneth, 289. Heidegger made that statement at an
electoral gathering of German scholars on November 11, 1933.
Augustine’s Confessions or Praises of God in Ten Books, Dublin 1746, p. 47.
Er war böse, aber nicht banal. Er hat immerfort gelesen,
war hochgradig intelligent und von breitem Wissen. Er bezieht sich auf die
Philosophie, auf Kant. Arendt hatte Unrecht. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Holocaust. Das
Böse ist niemals banal. Der Spiegel, 33/1999,http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html
(last accessed on October 22, 2018).
As 2018 comes to a close – just a little more than six years after a first workshop at the University of Exeter – I thought it would be a prime time for a post discussing the activities, plans, and prospects of what has evolved into the Modern Stoicism organization. That’s what I set out in what follows below, with helpful perspective provided by other members of the team.
Before that (and at the end), I will also ask a bit of your time and attention as I make a fundraising appeal to you. As you might already know – or may read below – the Modern Stoicism organization does a lot of great work. Originally starting as a working group, it was recently formalized as a not-for-profit, and all of its work, activities, and administration are carried out by volunteers.
If you would like to make a monthly contribution to support the ongoing work of the Modern Stoicism organization, one of the best ways to do so is through our Patreon site. To learn more, or to make a monthly contribution, you can click here.
For those who would rather make a one-time donation, Modern Stoicism also has a Paypal account. Click here to be taken to the donations page.
What We Do At Modern Stoicism
10 years ago if you had scoured the internet for practical ideas on Stoicism, you wouldn’t have found very much. And if you were looking for any evidence that Stoicism helped people, you would have found even less.
During this last decade, the Modern Stoicism organization (originally Stoicism Today) and its team members have been centrally involved in the ongoing, rapid, and (to many) surprising growth of interest in adapting ancient Stoic philosophy to modern life. Here are the reflections of another team member on that development.
Who would have thought, even just a few years ago, that Stoicism – of all things – would go mainstream, appear in major international newspapers and magazine, and inspire people all over the world? A significant portion of that success and positive impact on human lives is the result of the efforts of the Modern Stoicism group, of which I am (Stoically…) proud to be a contributing member. From the Modern Stoicism blog to the annual Stoicon and Stoic Week, to two volumes of collected essays about Stoicism, this is the premiere site in the world to learn how to live like a Stoic.”
These are among the major contributions and activities the Modern Stoicism organization provides.
Since 2013, we have organized yearly Stoicon conferences in Britain, America, and Canada. These bring together people interested in practicing and learning more about Stoicism with a variety of experts in the field, in an intense day of talks, workshops, conversations, and networking. We also help to organize and (in some cases) smaller local in-person events and conferences, called Stoicon-Xs (by analogy to the TED and smaller, local TED-X conferences).
Each year, International Stoic Week follows right after Stoicon. We provide an online class that allows people to incorporate Stoic practices and insights into their daily life for that week. The numbers of participants enrolled in the online course, downloading the handbook, participating in the exercises, and listening to the mp3 files increases every year. It is estimated that over 20,000 people have participated in Stoic Week over the last seven years. We develop, continually improve, and provide this class for free to people worldwide.
There is also a longer (4 week), more intensive online course – developed by Donald Robertson – which we also offer for free worldwide. This is the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course, and it runs yearly as well.
Each week (and sometimes more frequently), we publish a wide variety of content, contributed by numerous authors, here in Stoicism Today, which has become one of the most highly read blogs on Stoicism. As Massimo notes, the previous (and founding) editor, Patrick Ussher, also edited and published two excellent volumes bringing together some of the best articles from the blog.
What Else We Do
One of the other main functions of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the application of Stoicism in people’s lives, looking for empirical evidence whether learning and using Stoic principles and practices makes any real difference. This involves considerable work gathering, interpreting, and reporting data, coordinated by our lead researcher, Tim Lebon
Now we have . . . mounting evidence that Stoicism really does help. . . . I’m particularly involved in the work on finding an evidence base for Stoicism. We know that Stoic attitudes and behaviours are associated with well-being, that being Stoic for a week tends to increase well-being, that being Stoic for a month increases it by more and lasts for at least 3 month. We are in the process of developing a psychometrically-validated version of SABS, which tells you how Stoic are, and seeing whether the results stand for non self-selecting samples. We hope to continue show in what ways Stoicism helps and therefore contribute to its growth.
Since the very first workshop – which brought together academic experts, psychologists, and psychotherapists interested in Stoicism’s prospects for helping people improve their lives – this ongoing research project has been a major dimension of our work.
Another of the founding members of the organization has this to say about the wider aims and outcomes of our efforts.
There are two distinctive features of the Modern Stoicism movement. One is the positive and sustained collaboration in the organising team between different types of people (academics, writers and public presenters of philosophy, psychotherapists), all of us learning from and helping each other. The other, which is linked with the first, is our ability to present Stoic ideas in a way that has proved genuinely helpful to a really wide range of people across the world – men and women, young and old – and to show how it can shape and change lives for the better.
Another member highlights a further dimension in which modern study and application of Stoicism has significant potential.
While it can (and does) transform lives of individuals, increasing sense of security and boosting overall satisfaction from one’s life, it also encourages political virtues. Stoicism doesn’t promote withdrawal from community, quite the contrary, it provides a foundation for civility, social coherence and political responsibility. There is a great Greek and Roman tradition of Stoics’ investment in political affairs and we all learn from it in our own time, when so many of our democratic institutions falter
Our Goals for the Future
We fully intend to continue all of the areas and aspects of the work we have accomplished so far over the last seven years. You can look forward to seeing yearly Stoicon conferences and Stoicon-X events, yearly Stoic Week and SMRT classes, and weekly posts here in Stoicism Today. We’re still working out precisely what the plans are for Stoicon 2019, and we will be publishing information about that as soon as it is available.
Quite a few of the team members have already made major contributions to the growing modern Stoic literature in the form of books. Among them, I should mention Christopher Gill, John Sellars, Tim LeBon, Donald Robertson, Massimo Piglicucci, and Piotr Stankiewicz (as well as emeritus team members Jules Evans and William Irvine). You can look forward to seeing additional work along these lines by our team members in the coming years, including some new works coming out next year.
Modern Stoicism also maintains and adds resources to its YouTube channel, including videorecordings of some of the Stoicon presentations (so if you missed the conference, you can still see selected talks and workshops). For my own part, I will further develop my own stock of YouTube videos on key aspects of Stoic philosophy.
The psychological research will continue and expand, coordinated ably by Tim Lebon, and we are discussing some additional research projects. (Perhaps we’ll have another blog post specifically about that in this coming year). You’ll also see the Stoic Week sets of reports annually.
Another project that I’m anticipating this year is getting work underway on a third volume of Stoicism Today. We’ll be taking a selection of the better articles from the past several years, having their authors polish them up (and in some cases expand them), and publishing another edited volume. We’ll also be looking for translators to help us get those articles into other languages as well.
Our Appeal To You
As you can well surmise from what you’ve read (and many of you readers likely already knew this), our organization, Modern Stoicism, does a lot of work important in – even essential to – the larger modern Stoic community. Nearly all of that work is done on a completely volunteer basis (there are a very few, frugal stipends for particularly time-consuming and demanding parts).
The team members put in countless hours of work, making it possible for people all over the world to enjoy and benefit from the Stoicon conferences, the Stoic Week and SMRT classes, the Stoicism Today blog (just to mention a few of these matters).
Why are we asking for money then? (you might ask). Although none of us are making money from these activities, pretty much everything does require some to be spent.
All those beautiful or striking images you see in the Stoic Week handbook, or the Stoicon schedule, or in parts of this site are the work of a graphic designer, to whom we pay just wages (justice is after all one of the cardinal virtues). Booking in a venue for Stoicon takes some significant outlay. Hosting websites has its own expenses.
If you’ve benefitted from the online classes, in-person conferences, or weekly articles Modern Stoicism has made available – if you’d like to give something back – or if you’d like to help us continue our work – then please do consider starting the new year by making a contribution!
Again, if you’d like to learn more about becoming a monthly supporter on Patreon, click here. If you’d rather make a one-time donation, click here for our Paypal page. From all of the members of the Modern Stoicism team, let me thank all of our supporters in advance!
And for everyone, just a few days in advance, from all of our team, let us wish you a happy and productive New Year!
Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees. We continue that series now with this piece by Antonia Macaro, summarizing her plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor
My talk at Stoicon 2018 was based on part of my book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic wisdom for a skeptical age. Being a sceptical person myself, who had been interested in Buddhism and Stoicism for a long time but who could never quite take on board the more metaphysical principles that were tied up with them, I was interested in finding out what might be left if we discarded those more metaphysical aspects. Would that be just a few tips to be happier, as is often the case in the more popular versions of both Buddhism and Stoicism? This is what often happens with mindfulness.
My hunch was that there must be much more that we could usefully bring into our lives. I was also interested in exploring the similarities and differences between the traditions. Of course the perspective I arrived at is the result of a personal search. Others might choose to highlight different aspects. In any case, I like to think that both the Stoic philosophers and the Buddha would have approved of this kind of questioning approach, even if it were to lead to conclusions that are at odds with traditional ones.
The question of a potential direct transmission of philosophical ideas from Greece to India or vice versa is very intriguing, but the evidence we have is very limited. One way to think about this is that, as Stephen Batchelor points out, there was no East and West at that time, and the area between Greece and India in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was in many ways ‘a single, interactive cultural sphere’. The area was occupied first by the Persian empire and then by the empire of Alexander the Great, and there must have been channels of cultural transmission through diplomatic and trade routes.
One of the few things we do know is that the Greek sceptical philosopher Pyrrho of Elis travelled to India with Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. He didn’t write anything but is said to have brought back a philosophy of agnosticism and suspension of judgement that had tranquillity as its aim. It has been claimed that these ideas were directly derived from early Buddhism.
Of course there are many differences between Buddhism and Stoicism, but here I focus on some of the similarities that seem most striking to me. The overarching commonality is the diagnosis of the human condition. The Buddhist word for this (which is also the first ‘noble truth’) is dukkha: suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The description of dukkha is this:
birth is dukkha,
ageing is dukkha,
illness is dukkha,
death is dukkha;
union with what is displeasing is dukkha;
separation from what is pleasing is dukkha;
not to get what one wants is dukkha.
The main idea is that unsatisfactoriness is inseparable from life. Even if we have a great life we are all going to get what we don’t want and will eventually lose what we want and love. So given the way reality is (impermanent and dukkha), we are completely deluded when we believe, as we do, that the things of the world can make us happy or determine our unhappiness. In Buddhism these things are known as the eight worldly conditions:
gain and loss
fame and disrepute
praise and blame
pleasure and pain
The Stoics would have been very comfortable with the view that attachment to the things of the world is misguided. Diogenes Laertius left us the following list of Stoic indifferents (which we mistakenly think of as good or bad):
life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like.
Both traditions saw themselves as providing a kind of treatment for this delusion. And to describe this they both adopted what we could call medical metaphors. The parallel is with medical explanations of physical afflictions. For instance, an infection is caused by bacteria and the therapeutic procedure is to reduce their population by taking a course of antibiotics, thereby restoring health. In a similar way, the disease that both traditions saw themselves as targeting is in broad terms human suffering; the cause is ultimately ignorance of how things really are and what’s truly valuable in life, which expresses itself in craving for and attachment to the things of the world; the treatment is following the path; the state of health is understanding and non-attachment, leading to tranquillity.
In particular, for the Stoics the disease was the faulty judgements that attribute good or bad to things other than virtue or vice (and which are inseparable from emotions, which are like the symptoms of the disease), and philosophy is the cure.
In Buddhism there are the four vipallāsas, or distortions of perception:
Sensing no change in the changing
Sensing pleasure in suffering
Assuming self where there’s no self
Sensing the unlovely as lovely.
We should, of course, do the opposite: appreciate that everything is impermanent, empty of self and inseparable from suffering, and therefore realise that what looks lovely on the surface actually isn’t.
While both traditions saw themselves as providing a therapy or treatment, it’s best not to take these words too literally when it comes to comparisons with contemporary psychotherapies. Of course there are connections between these traditions and modern psychotherapeutic approaches. But what ‘therapeutic’ meant for them is not the same it means for us. Their aim wasn’t simply to feel better or function better, or even to achieve any particular mental state. What they were interested in was understanding how things really are and acting in accordance with this understanding, so something more like living truthfully.
Another similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism is that they are both wary of what we could call ordinary happiness, arising from the satisfaction of our desires and from things going well in the world. For instance, Seneca writes that joy based on external things is constantly subject to turning into suffering:
we often say that we are overjoyed that one person was elected consul, or that another was married or that his wife has given birth, events which, far from being causes for joy, are frequently the beginnings of future sorrow.
Similarly, the Sutta Nipāta says:
what others speak of as happiness, this the noble ones speak of as misery.
There is real joy and happiness to be had in both traditions, joy that is more reliable and lasting, but it’s just not to be found where we normally look for it. Real joy is a by-product of other things, and the main ones I found are these:
insight and understanding
meditative states (mainly in Buddhism)
It’s interesting that one formulation of the Buddhist path points to these very areas as the fundamental ones to develop:
Sīla (morality or ethical action)
Samādhi (concentration or meditation)
Pañña (insight or wisdom)
Some scholars have argued that it’s sīla and pañña that are the essential elements. The two are described as very interdependent:
Just like two hands washing each other, ‘wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom: where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world’.
Developing insight helps to identify the right thing to do, just like working on one’s moral attitudes helps to see things in a less self-centred way. Again, a similar interrelation exists in Stoicism.
The third element is samādhi. It might look like this doesn’t have a parallel in Stoicism, but we only have to scratch the surface to see that it does. In the texts samādhi refers mainly to states of concentration, but it is a broad term that can mean meditation more generally. Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught, even translates it as ‘mental discipline’. There is also another word in the Buddhist texts, bhāvana, which refers to mental and spiritual exercises intended to cultivate wholesome states. This included things like reading and reciting the texts and seems readily comparable to Stoic askēsis.
Translating this into more current terminology we could say that the elements of a good life are: seeing clearly, living ethically and a daily practice supportive of these aims. We don’t have to agree with either Buddhism or Stoicism about what cultivating each of these means exactly, but we can readily see that they are important areas to develop in a good life, and that this is independent of any good feelings arising from them. Seneca has a good analogy for this:
Just as in a field that has been ploughed for corn some flowers grow up in between, yet all that work was not undertaken for this little plant, however much it pleases the eyes … so too, pleasure is not the reward or the motive of virtue but an accessory.
For both Buddhism and Stoicism, seeing clearly is about learning to mistrust misleading appearances and to value things properly. In Stoicism this means appreciating that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and challenging the faulty judgements (also known as emotions) that things other than virtue are good. In Buddhism there are complex views about views, but failing to see the truths of dukkha, impermanence and not-self would clearly be a pretty wrong view.
What could this mean for us? What should we value? To some extent that is for each of us to think through for ourselves. For me seeing clearly does involve accepting dukkha, impermanence and lack of control as givens in our life, and therefore choosing our values carefully, questioning some of the more superficial desires we have.
Buddhism and Stoicism tended towards the ascetic. I would include more of our embodied nature and emotional experience in the good life. There are things that have great importance in our lives and should be valued in full appreciation of their impermanence, such as relationships with people. Yes, valuing these things will make us more vulnerable to suffering, but it seems a price worth paying for the sake of a richer life.
In more general terms, seeing clearly is about critical thinking, valuing reason, looking for evidence, cultivating curiosity, awareness, reflection and intellectual honesty. It is also about a healthy scepticism and humility, about realising that our powers are limited and there’s a lot about the world and ourselves that we can probably never know. In this we could follow Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ‘Things are wrapped in such a veil of mystery that many good philosophers have found it impossible to make sense of them.’
The second element of the Buddhist path is ethics. Of course this is a central part of the Stoic path too, as virtue is synonymous with living according to our rational nature. Both traditions have a very high ethical ideal. Both the sage and the awakened person are thought of as having internalised morality to such an extent that their moral judgements are always correct and appropriate, and wholesome actions always flow effortlessly. In Buddhism, the awakened person has completely overcome the three ‘unwholesome roots’ of greed, aversion and delusion, and acts only out of their opposites – non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.
There are several perspectives we can take away in this respect, for instance the importance of intentions. In Buddhism there is a concept of wholesome actions, which are those that have wholesome consequences on ourselves and others, and these tend to be actions that are untainted by greed, aversion and delusion. So it comes down to intentions.
In Stoicism too, it is important to act with a virtuous intention, as in the famous archer’s analogy: what matters is intending to hit the target and doing our best to do so; what happens when the arrow leaves the bow is beyond our control. Seneca writes that when
a person sits by a sick friend, we approve. But doing this for the sake of an inheritance makes one a vulture awaiting a corpse.
Another way to think about this is in terms of ideal qualities, and a central one is compassion.
In Buddhism, compassion is very strongly emphasised. According to the texts the Buddha agreed to teach out of compassion, despite being initially reluctant. Compassion is strongly related to kindness but is not very clearly defined in the texts, which often rely on stories:
Someone on a long journey becomes sick and exhausted. He is alone between two villages, both far away. Someone comes along and, seeing this, reasons that if the sick traveller were to be accompanied to a village and given food and medicine he would definitely recover.
The message is that we should be concerned about other people being free from suffering. But compassion has a tricky side, because too much dwelling on suffering can lead to aversive, unwholesome mental states. The dangers of compassion were felt even more strongly in Stoicism, in that compassion will often involve a judgement that something bad has happened to someone, and most of the time this would be a faulty judgement.
If we feel compassion for a beggar in the street, for instance, it’s probably because we think they are in a bad situation. In Stoic terms this is an emotion, which like other emotions betrays faulty thinking about the value of indifferents. Just like in our own case it’s not appropriate to feel pain as a result of things going wrong in the world – because these are really neither good nor bad – for the same reason it’s not appropriate to suffer alongside another person. Epictetus advises not to think of a consul as a happy man, or a poor man as wretched:
All these are judgements, and nothing more; and judgements concerning things outside our choice.
In both traditions it is important to be concerned for others’ wellbeing and motivated to do what we can to help others to be free from suffering. But compassion needs to be handled carefully. In Stoicism being compassionate without buying into faulty judgements means remembering that what is bad is not the actual situation but the suffering person’s understanding of it. In Buddhism we should counter aversive feelings by practising compassion without attachment, like the Buddha himself. Compassion, therefore, should be understood more as a slightly detached concern than anything like ‘feeling with’. That is why it needs to go hand in hand with equanimity.
Equanimity is a central goal in both Buddhism and Stoicism. The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being free from passions. This is similar to upekkha in Buddhism, which refers to a sense of looking upon the goings-on in the world with a balanced awareness, without getting too involved in the ups and downs of the eight worldly conditions. It is important to point out that equanimity was valued not because of the mental state itself but because it reflected a truthful understanding of the world. Like compassion, equanimity runs the risk of being corrupted, in this case by indifference, and therefore it needs to be tempered by compassion.
Compassion and equanimity are complementary, and should be developed together, as a kind of compassionate equanimity. This marriage of compassion and equanimity is a slightly awkward one, in that there is a tension between withdrawal and engagement. Epictetus defended this by saying that some detachment is actually essential for fellow feeling, because if we allow love, for instance, to follow its natural course it can easily turn into its opposite. For me it’s an open question whether this is really viable, or whether caring inevitably involves attachment and leaving oneself vulnerable to suffering, just like any kind of complete tranquillity is likely to slide into indifference.
But if we take the ideal of compassionate equanimity with a pinch of salt, we can definitely adopt the two qualities as inspiration, because in practice most of us are likely to be very much in need of bringing both more kindness and more even-mindedness into our lives.
Our mental habits are engrained and hard to shift. Even if we know that everything is impermanent and no worldly thing can ever give us lasting satisfaction, it’s still difficult not to perceive things otherwise. This is why we need some kind of spiritual practice (the third element of the path).
Seneca for instance wrote:
Just as some dyes are readily absorbed by the wool, others only after repeated soaking and simmering, so there are some studies that show up well in our minds as soon as we have learned them; this one, though, must permeate us thoroughly. It must soak in, giving not just a tinge of colour but a real deep dye, or it cannot deliver on any of its promises.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism knew that to achieve the deep transformation they were after intellectual understanding was not enough, so the practical training was an integral part of the path. In Buddhism there were different kinds of meditation and a formal meditation practice, whereas in Stoicism as far as we know the practice involved more things like reading and memorising texts, daily reflection and visualisations, with the aim of really embedding the principles into daily life.
In concrete terms, the first aim of this daily practice is to become more aware of the contents of our mind, in particular the embryonic initial appraisals of good and bad that are normally outside our awareness. In Buddhism, for instance, that involves learning to catch what are usually called ‘feelings’, or immediate reactions to things in terms of good, bad and neutral. Similarly with the Stoics’ ‘impressions’ about the world, which tell us that things outside our control are good or bad, and that we should pursue or avoid them.
If we learn to notice these impulses we’ll be more able to take some distance from them and avoid acting on them automatically, therefore we’ll also be more likely to respond to things in a more reasoned and balanced way. Being able to do this could certainly be useful for any of us, as a lot of the time we do tend to react on the basis of habitual patterns and unreflective values and impulses.
Doing this requires developing what we could call mindfulness. We could spend a long time talking about the many definitions of mindfulness, but at bottom it’s a way of paying attention, a skill used differently in different Buddhist meditation practices. There are various analogies for this skill in the Buddhist texts. One is that of a cowherd watching his cows from the distance. Another is that of a gatekeeper of a town. Again this has a parallel in Stoicism. Epictetus, for instance, says that the philosopher ‘keeps watch over himself as over an enemy in ambush’.
Mindfulness can help to de-automatise habitual responses. And this is the foundation of ethical behaviour, because by creating that space between impulse and reaction we give ourselves the opportunity to respond to things with kindness and wisdom instead of greed, aversion and delusion. Of course this is difficult, which is why we need practice (which can but does not have to be a formal meditation). This is something that would surely come in handy for most of us in our daily lives.
My father first pointed it out. When I say to people I am partially sighted they often respond by saying that they also wear glasses. They then jump in their car and drive off. My father is now totally blind. He is nearing the end and is dying slowly and sadly. I cared for him for a decade. He went into a home last year. My little sister made the call. I was unable to do it because I loved him too much. I have 20 percent vision. The joys of genetics. A few years ago I was down to 10 percent. A cataract operation gave me a reprieve. My life at that stage was a blurry daily routine of silhouettes and shadows. It still is. But at least I can now decipher the label on a whiskey bottle.
I was raised a Catholic. My parents demanded we attend church until our teens. In the later years I slept in on a Sunday and offered to attend a later mass. I then snuck off to the local train station for a smoke with the other nascent non believers. I would recreate inspired imaginary sermons when my mother queried my attendance. I found the faith aspect of religion hard to accept. The controlling aspects relating to sex and sin now seem little more than the frustrated rantings of pious men trying to deny their natural urges to give their creed substance. The concept of sin still largely eludes me. Most sin appears more ignorance or self harm than biblical wrongdoing.
Yet our reality necessitates a belief system. A code of conduct. Otherwise we truly are dust in the wind. Buffeted by random gales.
I am unsure how I stumbled across Stoicism. My elementary education suggested a stoic was a granite faced hard man unable or unwilling to display emotion. A man with the emotional capacity of a gnat. How wrong I was.
Stoicism meets a basic need for me. A practical belief system to meet the vicissitudes of life. I am a blind man in my middle years. I am a thinker unable to accept dogma or the preachings of other equally flawed souls who claim to have the answers. The world abounds with false prophets often delusional, frequently self serving.
The practicality of Stoicism is its main appeal to me. I have learned to recognize and appreciate what I can and can’t control. My attitude and opinions and responses lie within my domain of influence. Most else lies outside.
What I can’t control I have learned to let go. I constantly seek virtue in my thoughts and actions yet virtue is very elusive in its definition. I suspect it means right action and thought. It implies constant vigilance to ensure all interactions are as positive as possible no matter how trivial.
I appreciate the stoic concept of logos. A godly power that shapes the universe. Not a nice old guy with an avuncular expression and white beard sitting on a cloud benevolently observing his creations. More an awareness that we are all part of a whole. A universal flow of which our transistory existence is a tiny fleeting part. A flash of compiled unique atoms in a universal drama that will continue to unfold long after we return to the whole, just as it did before we gained consciousness. We are each a unique flash in the pan. No more, no less. This provides perspective. Our individual irrelevance should allow us to explore our positive potential without fear of failure. We should cling to this understanding to ensure we make the most of our transitory being.
I appreciate the Stoic emphasis on negative visualisation. Maybe it suits my inherent morbidity. The cult of relentless positivity that accompanies modern consumer capitalism deludes and diminishes our existence in its shallowness. It invites disillusionment. None of us escape aging, decay and death so why deny it? Use this understanding to appreciate the pleasure and potential of existence. To value each moment. Youthful fairy tales of “happily ever after ” are destructive in their creation of unrealistic illusions of reality.
Of course we should not feed our children tales of holocaust and genocide but the extreme opposite does not invite robustness or an appreciation of reality. I have yet to meet such a blessed soul who has encountered ” happily ever after.” Maybe a large element of self delusion is a requisite for a good life. Pity us realists. Yet We are generally poorly served by the fairy tales of our youth. They set us up for failure and disillusionment. They deny the complexity yet subtleness and beauty of reality. Adversity shapes character for better or worse. if we taught our young this crucial message they would have a greater appreciation that the obstacle is the way. That meeting and dealing with adversities is core to our existence. That a smooth ride is the exception rather than the norm. Instead we feed them tales of an unrealistic nirvana of human existence. Cruelty by deception.
Negative visualisation inspires positivity in me. What is the worst case scenario? Is it really that bad? Can I cope with it if it actually does transpire? The worst case scenario is often death. As a blind man who has cheated death on several occasions I no longer fear this inevitability. What I do fear is not making the most of my potential in the meantime. I once resolved to attain a meaningful tattoo each time I cheated the reaper. I am now running out of concealed body space. Check the forehead and shins of the blind. If they are an active person these body parts will bear substantial scar tissue as a legacy. My falls are legendary. Unfortunately soft yielding females to break my falls have eluded me. Although I did once sit on a patched Hells Angel member at a gym, further adding to my scar tissue.
The Stoic belief in daily reflections has been a revelation to me. I am a writer and teacher so always felt that introspection came naturally to me. Yet the physical process of a daily written reflection has greatly enhanced my well being. It provides perspective. I send it to a dearly trusted friend each day. The physical process of writing seems to dissolve minor irritations. Many prove so irrelevant they don’t warrant a sentence. Yet at the time they mattered. Regular Written reflection provides useful perspective
I often read the ancients. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus feel like old friends. This may sound pretentious. I don’t care. They feel like people whose company I would have loved. They talk about timeless issues and this makes them real to me. They are not blighted by prejudice or dogma. They aRe honest and open in their musings. They don’t hide their flaws. They are not seeking sainthood just wisdom. They are seekers of the “good life.” They are sincere in their quest for understanding what is the best way for a human to live his or her life. To encounter such voices is to recognise that others have thought the same thoughts, experienced the same feelings, sadnesses and joys. It is a panacea for loneliness.
We Moderns are constantly buffeted by transitory distractions. We are living in the most connected and affluent age in human history. Yet a void remains. A lack of real purpose and meaning. A sense that materialism cannot fill despite its superficial allure. Hedonism and consumption can provide fleeting satisfaction. Fame and fortune create Micheal Jacksons, Elvis Presleys, and that Trump guy. Religion requires faith in revealed truths. Stoicism provides a practical recipe for living a good life in the here and now. It is little wonder this gem of a belief system is experiencing a renaissance.
Peter Lyonsteaches Economics at Saint Peter’s in Epsom, Auckland and has written several Economics texts.