“Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” [Becker, p. 42]
“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”― Albert Camus, The Fall
Emotional and psychological attachment to futile endeavors assures frustration, anxiety, and discontent. Insisting that the external world must conform to one’s stubbornly held desires and pre-conceived expectations, virtually guarantees dissatisfaction. Such insistence is futile. I contend that unhealthy attachments of this nature are an astoundingly common, but readily eradicable, source of needless distress. Marvin Kohl mentions the Stoic attitude regarding futile endeavors:
Perhaps no school of philosophy in the ancient world placed greater emphasis on the importance of understanding and accepting the limits of human power than did the Stoics. For the Stoics maintain that in addition to knowing what is worth doing, wisdom, in some very fundamental way, consists in knowing what is and is not in our power, and not attempting to do what we cannot do. [2001, p. 75]
In particular, I contend that all psychological dependence upon such Stoic “externals” as the behaviors and cognitive states of persons other than oneself, are subsumable under the Becker epigraph (above) indicating the Stoic Axiom of Futility. In other words, we invite needless suffering when we tether our contentment to conditions, such as the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of others, that lie beyond our sphere of direct, practical control. Any attempt to govern another agent’s beliefs, desires, or behavior constitutes a futile effort to control phenomena that are, in the language of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, “not up to us”. There is a sense in which this is a trivial and obvious observation—we cannot control other people, their thoughts, etc. Nearly everyone understands this, and few would openly dispute any such assertion. Nonetheless, the pervasive and seemingly incorrigible insistence upon attempting to do so, and the tendency to become distressed at the failure of such attempts, warrants careful analysis and cries out for therapeutic counsel.
The effort to formulate and offer helpful counsel is not futile. Composing and communicating advice is, for all practical purposes, within my control (provided that brain and body do not fail me). Insisting upon the efficacy or acceptance of such counsel is, however, a quixotic and futile bit of stubbornness—destined to result in psychological and emotional distress. I can write this article defending and explaining a little valuable Stoic counsel as best I am able (and that effort is largely, if not entirely, “up to me”), but I am a fool if I allow my emotional well-being to depend upon the article being accepted at an academic conference, selected for publication, or upon anyone reading it, taking it seriously, or adhering to the counsel offered herein. The wise attitude regarding the acceptance of proffered counsel is rational detachment, and recognition that such matters are simply not within the counselor’s control. That is the Stoic’s advice—take it or leave it.
Futility and Discontent
Surely, some will contend, limiting our endeavors and concerns in this fashion is bound to stultify development and inhibit the kinds of hopes and dreams that have driven innovation, technological achievement, and nearly every form of advancement from which humanity has enjoyed benefit. We must dare, even in the face of futility, to risk failure. Only through such daring is real progress realized. Let us dare great deeds and, if we fail to achieve them, glory nonetheless in our valiant struggle and derive both pride and hope from “dreaming the impossible dream”. Don Quixote may be a tragic hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, precisely because he “tilted at windmills” and enlarged his spirit thereby. The inspiration is worth braving defeat and humiliation.
Our culture is, for good reason, saturated with expressions of admiration for those who dare, those who dream, those who persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles and brutally bruising travails. We Americans, after all, “Remember the Alamo!” The birth of the United States as a nation is inextricably dependent upon braving terrifying odds and summoning the courage to combat an ostensibly insurmountable challenge, an invincible adversary. Consider the stirrings conjured by a mention of Valley Forge. Who among us does not root for the underdog, and “hope against hope” when faced with a lost cause? Patron saints do not, after all, generally live lives of luxury, or die peaceful, gentle deaths. Does Stoicism counsel cowardice, acquiescence, and quietism? If so, then its counsel is ignoble at best, and is apt to diminish those who embrace it. Again, Kohl nicely articulates this ancient complaint:
Some thinkers may immediately object to this line of thinking and say that to be failure-proof one must have an unconquerable faith in being able to do anything one wants to do. Others may urge us to believe that invincible determination of purpose should be psychologically so fixed that we persevere until “either victory or death.” Still others, operating under the pretence of wisdom, may urge us to combine a false with a true statement. Here we are told that “you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all.” These extreme libertarians of choice reject the precept that one ought not try to do things that known to be impossible or, and more important, that very few things are, in fact, impossible. Like Nicholas Rescher, they are also inclined to believe as a general life stance that optimal results are attainable only by trying for too much. [2001, p. 78]
So goes a fairly standard objection against “lowering one’s aim” in order that one may avoid disappointment. First of all, it is practically impossible that any endeavor may be known to be futile. We have all heard “stranger things have happened,” or “nothing is impossible,” offered as encouragement and exhortation. Secondly, even a truly futile endeavor may have an ennobling quality not otherwise attainable—an ennobling power that countervails against the detriments of failure. We admire those who endure, those who strive, and those glorious “fools” willing to “fight the unbeatable foe”. Such sentiments may be poetic—but poetry often makes for lousy philosophy, and impractical counsel.
This objection is misguided on two fronts. As Kohl reminds us, the Stoics long ago argued that:
The point…is that to aim at what cannot be done is not only to invite failure but to waste precious time and energy that could have been effective elsewhere. To aim at the futile with indefeasible resolution and the profound conviction that one must persevere to “either victory or death” is to invite the latter and is, therefore, even more seriously normatively flawed. [2001, p. 78]
Every moment spent in pursuit of the impossible, the futile, is a moment lost to the effort to attain plausible (or, at the very least, possible) results. Our time and our energy are limited. It is irrational and self-defeating to sacrifice a potential benefit to the futile attempt to gain the unattainable boon. This is the classic “sucker’s bet”. Furthermore, successful ventures are not, inherently, less ennobling than are quixotic quests. The Alamo would still be worth remembering had Santa Ana’s legions faltered and turned back—perhaps even more so! Surely, failure is not a necessary condition for optimizing consequences over the long term, nor is it necessary for sublime experience. Were it so, we would be well served to aim for failure. This would, arguably, generate a paradox involving succeeding in the attainment of failure—or aiming to succeed at an endeavor that precludes the possibility of success. If such an effort is not, flat out, incoherent, it at least tends in the general direction of discomfiting cognitive dissonance. Is George Washington less worthy of our respect than is King Leonidas? Both are heroic and admirable—but Washington won. Would not Leonidas have preferred victory at Thermopylae?
Cannot Implies Ought Not
If Immanuel Kant is correct that “ought implies can,” then it follows that cannot implies ought not. This is a fairly straightforward application of modus tollens to the sphere of practical reasoning. It is impractical, and arguably incoherent to attempt what cannot be done. That is, one ought not attempt the impossible. In any such attempt, the agent wastes time, effort, and resources on a doomed endeavor. Those resources could have, otherwise, been devoted to some project with at least a hope of success. How much needless suffering has resulted from failure to desist in hopeless endeavors? Moreover, how much avoidable suffering might have been forestalled by a rational reallocation of the resources wasted in futile pursuits? No exact quantification is possible (any attempt to produce one would be futile), but we may safely conclude that “a lot” would serve as a modest and conservative answer. In A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker articulates the practical and logical problems with futile pursuits:
The point cannot be more straightforward: We reject the soundness of any normative proposition constructed from an agent’s endeavor to do (directly) what she believes to be impossible. We do this because such endeavors are incoherent, in the sense that their propositional representation always tacitly involves an inconsistent pair of propositions: one about impossibility, to the effect that there are no available means to achieve a given end; the other about a contrary possibility, to the effect that there is a course of conduct that might be a way to achieve the same end…But the system of normative logic constitutes a formal representation of practical reasoning, and practical reasoning aims to resolve such conflict and incoherence. [1998, p. 45]
Practical reasoning cannot countenance the ultimate impracticality of applied principles culminating in incoherence. One cannot, as the adage goes, “serve two masters” (one, at least, ought not to attempt to do so), and one certainly cannot abide by mutually inconsistent action-guiding propositions or maxims of conduct. The impossible, is for practical purposes, forbidden to the rational agent.
A Practical Test
The Stoics enjoin us to discontinue any and all concern with, and emotional or psychological attachment to, circumstances or endeavors that are known to be futile, or for which we have reasonably conclusive evidence of futility. This is wise counsel—all too frequently flouted or ignored. Sometimes, there really is no hope. It behooves us to identify such cases and respond with properly rational detachment. What, however, might constitute compelling evidence that any endeavor is, in fact, futile? There are, of course, some fairly obvious cases of physically, nomologically, or logically impossible achievements.
These are, however, not genuine options of the type William James held up as live possibilities. No one sincerely contemplates leaping the Grand Canyon at its widest point, without deploying some form of artificial propulsion. No one thinks, “I will broad jump that distance!” It is clearly impossible for any human to do so. Furthermore, any such attempt, far from being admirable or ennobling, is simply a suicidal exercise in foolishness. This is not an interesting case for practical counsel. No one needs pronouncements from a Stoic sage to dissuade obvious lunacy!
The interesting test case involves the endeavor that is not obviously impossible, but that may appear to defy reason. What test can distinguish the improbably from the unattainable? How, in actual practice, can one tell the difference? As is often the case with Stoic counsel, the answer is shockingly (and deceptively) simple: Will it to be so. What one’s will does not, at the moment in question, produce is, ipso facto, beyond the power of one’s will—at that moment.
This may seem a presumptuous determinism and, indeed, it may be. Luckily, practical purposes do not require us to settle recondite metaphysical disputes. Can I control, simply by exertion of my will, another person’s beliefs, behavior, attitudes, etc.? Those who would answer in the affirmative, thereby acquire the burden of proof. One may of course, speak, debate, threaten, and so on. All of these endeavors depend upon the cooperation of one’s interlocutor(s). As Epictetus reminds his students, such matters are simply not “up to us”:
There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs. [Enchiridion, I]
It is not mere coincidence that Arrian places this first on the Enchiridion’s list of admonitions to would-be Stoics. This is the sine qua non of Epictetan counsel’s efficacy. Know what is “yours” to control. Bend all of your cognitive efforts on the improvement and perfection of your “internals” (i.e. opinion, aim, desire, aversion, etc.). Know what is not yours to control. Embrace it, accept it, and do not allow yourself to be troubled by anything that is not “yours”. Stoic “externals” (i.e. body, property, reputation, office, etc.) are not “up to you,” and it is foolish to allow yourself to be concerned about them. Every moment of discontent caused by emotional attachment to the attitudes and behaviors of other persons, is a moment that might have been spent improving oneself.
We waste our lives insofar as we strive for the unattainable. Life is too short for constructing cloud castles. Our time is too valuable to be frittered away upon childish fantasy. Stoicism is largely about accepting the external world as it is, and resisting the urge to pine for a world that has not been, is not, and cannot be. The world will have its way. The Stoic is untroubled by the unfolding of events over which he has no direct control. The good Stoic is busy with self-governance and self-rectification. That is more than enough to occupy any rational agent. Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Epictetus strove after wisdom, virtue, and self-control. Choose the more admirable endeavor. Get to work.
Becker, Lawrence C. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press.
Camus, Albert (1958). The Fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Epictetus. Discourses and Enchiridion. Thomas W. Higginson (trans.). New York: Walter J. Black, Inc. (1944)
Harris, Sam. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)
Kohl, Marvin. (2001). “Wisdom and the Axiom of Futility,” The Philosophical Forum, 32: 73–93.
Rescher, Nicholas. (1987). Ethical Idealism: An Inquiry into the Nature and Function of Ideals. Berkeley: University of California Press.
William Ferraiolo received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since that time, he has been teaching philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He is the author of Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Discipline.