The general question that the modern take on Stoicism faces is – by definition – how can Stoicism be applied and useful in our own time? A question which immediately follows is about if and how Stoicism should be adjusted to the specificity of our own times. My position in this regard is clear. We shouldn’t copy and paste the teaching of the ancients. Doing so would be counterproductive, or even naive. Also, my guess is that the Stoic Founding Fathers themselves wouldn’t have applauded it either. My position is that we need to add our own thought to the system. We need to think how the Stoic ideas can be translated into the conceptual framework of our own time and we need to consider how Stoicism should respond to the challenges of our times.
There is little doubt that Auschwitz and its legacy is one of these challenges. Auschwitz, which is both a singular event and a symbol of Auschwitz itself, Kolyma, Rwanda, and all other horrors of the 20th century, may be seen as a turning point in human history but also in the history of ethics. There is no denying that Auschwitz has profoundly changed the way we think. The questions of how it was possible, why it happened and – above all – what moral obligation it imposes on us are among the key questions of our time.
Interestingly, these questions are untouched in the present discourse on Stoicism. In my opinion this is a very serious shortcoming. If we want Stoicism to be a comprehensive system of modern living, if we want it to be truly relevant and fully up-to-date, then we just don’t have the luxury of not having a stance on this matter. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t pose a problem to Stoicism. It does, in a fourfold way at least.
First of all, according to the very basics of Stoic ethics, all people other than myself fall into the “not within my power” bracket. This is clear and unequivocal. Whatever exists and happens in the world can be categorized as either “within my power” (like my thoughts, values, life goals, my preferences and tendencies, my imagination and the story I tell myself about myself and about the world) or “not within our power” (like virtually all else, i.e. whatever happens beyond my mind, all physical objects, all other living beings, the phenomena of society, history and weather). That said, the core Stoic principle is to focus on the former and not bothered by the latter. Clean and simple.
The problem is that all fellow human beings, all of our family, friends and strangers are undoubtedly “not within my power” and thus we need to be indifferent to them. We shouldn’t hold that their well-being or lack thereof is in any way good or bad. Their life, health and happiness is not within our power, hence we needn’t be concerned about them. And this, certainly, constitutes the first chapter of the problem. Just consider it: this train of thought brings us directly to the conclusion that whatever happened to a prisoner of Auschwitz, it wasn’t evil since it didn’t concern our own moral virtue. And there is no need to explain why such a statement is hard to swallow for the 21st-century sensibility.
Second, in the traditional interpretation of Stoicism there is a certain tone of harshness, which sounds disturbing in the world after Auschwitz. For instance, let take a look at a passage from Epictetus (Discourses, I.28). “Wars and factions and deaths of many men and destructions of cities? […] Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows or storks? ‒ Is there any similarity between this and that? ‒ A great similarity. Men’s bodies perished in the one case, and bodies of oxen and sheep in the other. Petty dwellings of men were burned, and so were nests of storks. What is there great or dreadful about that?”
Now, let’s imagine that someone applies this “stork argument” to Auschwitz. Suggesting that “there is nothing dreadful” about what happened there because it’s just “men’s bodies perished” just as “bodies of oxen and sheep” is beyond any acceptable ethical discourse. And it holds, basically, for any other genocide or war of recent memory. Think about the war in Syria, the freshest of the sadly never-ending stream of pertaining examples. Do we really want to say that there is “nothing dreadful” in it, that “destruction of cities” and “dwellings of men being burned” are nothing else than “storks’ nests destroyed”? This reasoning is difficult to hold. It just don’t fit anymore in the way we think of ethics.
Third, another vital point of the Stoic teaching is that, in brief, adversities are challenges. In other words, it is a requirement of the Stoic ethics that all the mishaps, misfortunes and tragedies of human life should be treated like challenges, or even opportunities to practice virtue. In other words, whatever blows and arrows fortune throws at us, they aren’t actually blows and arrows, but rather softballs to exercise Stoic abilities. “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training,” says Seneca (On Providence, 2.2). Or, in the words of Epictetus, “[Make use of a difficulty] as an athlete makes use of a [sparring partner] to wrestle with” (Discourses, I.24).
This all sounds nice and neat, it seems to make perfect sense. And yet, again, the problem begins when we apply this line of thought to Auschwitz. The idea that the grounds of the camp were “mere training,” or that genocide is a fine sparring partner “to wrestle with,” seems off limits for the contemporary ethical thinking. To make it plain: imagine a TV studio in which a moral philosopher schools a Holocaust survivor: “you just should have become a Stoic and you would have been OK! And actually, you should be glad that you were imprisoned in Auschwitz, since this was a top-notch opportunity to practice your resilience.” This is downright unthinkable. And not even that. Notice that even a slight change in the title of this piece, turning it from “Stoicism after Auschwitz” to “Stoicism in Auschwitz” would be problematic.
Fourth and finally, there is the cosmic problem, so to speak. We need to remember that in the original view of the ancient Stoics the world, to put it concisely, was well organized and rational. It wasn’t random, chaotic or evil. It was purposeful and carefully organized towards good. The ancient Stoics admitted of course that evil things happened all the time, but, importantly, they all happened for a reason. All the flaws of reality were in there for purpose. They actually increased the grand total value of the world. As the famous metaphor went, the pains and inconveniences of life were just like occasional clumsy lines in a script. They are required for the harmony and completion of the whole work. When we take a larger look, the picture always turns out good.
But there is no good picture that Auschwitz is a part of! Whatever bigger image Auschwitz is a part of, it is indelibly and perennially stained. There is no “greater good” that could justify Auschwitz, or, in a stronger version, there is no conceivable amount of good that could – even theoretically – outweigh what happened there. From our modern point of view Auschwitz is the radical, cosmic evil, that cannot be rationally incorporated into any universal harmony. And the interpretation that it was actually a part of some “plan” and a necessary step towards some higher goal is plainly unacceptable.
How we, the Stoics, can respond to these problems? What sort of reinterpretation, maybe even a transformation of the Stoic doctrine is needed? Do we need a more emphatic version of Stoicism? Is it necessary to drop some part of the harsh traditional Stoic rhetoric and arguments? Do we require a milder strategy in teaching it, one which avoids pushing others too much about what the should and shouldn’t do? Should we consider letting go of the teleological view of the universe, just as Lawrence Becker proposes? Or maybe some combination of these is required?
I don’t know have the answers to these questions right now. Yet, I’m certain that the discussed problems constitute the key, defining challenges to our modern attempts to revive Stoicism. We need to address them. If, of course, we want Stoicism to be a serious, viable option and if we want to go forward and develop the doctrine.
Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”). He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.