About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The problem with Stoicism

As readers of this blog know, I occasionally go back and read some of the philosophical classics, in an effort to understand what the sages of various ages thought about the meaning of life, or at least how to get by until breakfast. The latest such reading has been of Marcus Aurelius' “Meditations,” written around the middle of the 2nd century CE.

Marcus was a Roman emperor, and one of the few rulers in history who actually came close to Plato's “ideal” of a philosopher-king (an earlier aborted attempt was that of Aristotle trying to shape the thinking of Alexander, so-called the Great). Marcus didn't write the Meditations for public consumption, and the result is more an intellectual and philosophical diary than a book with an organic structure. Today Marcus would surely entertain writing it as a blog.

Marcus was a Stoic, i.e. a follower of the philosophical school that was established by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE, and that came to have disciples of the caliber of Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Cato the Younger and Epictetus. The basic idea, and the still current appeal, of Stoicism is that one ought (in a moral sense) to endure whatever comes in life, because that is the way of the Logos (a vague diffuse intelligence permeating the whole of nature). The focus was on spiritual self-improvement, with little regard to the external pleasures of life, and with an attitude of endurance of whatever pain (physical or emotional) may be caused by other people.

Here are some representative passages from Marcus' Meditations, to get a flavor of the Stoic attitude. Keep in mind that he was, literally, talking to himself:

* “I need to train and discipline my character.” (Book 1)

* “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil.” (Book 2)

* “Don't waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.” (Book 3)

* “Disturbance comes only from within – from our own perceptions.” (Book 4)

* “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind.” (Book 5)

* “Accept the limits placed on your body. Accept those placed on your time.” (Book 6)

* “I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled?” (Book 7)

* “Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage.” (Book 8)

* “Consider two things that should reconcile you to death: the nature of things you'll leave behind you, and the kind of people you'll no longer be mixed up with.” (Book 9)

* “Keep in mind that 'sanity' means understanding things.” (Book 10)

* “The resolution has to be the result of its own decision, not just in response to outside forces, like the Christians.” (Book 11)

* “It never cease to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” (Book 12)

There is much in the above, and in the rest of this short book, that I agree with. However, one cannot help reading through the Meditations and coming away with the feeling that the Stoics – much like many Eastern mystics – have an impoverished view of life and the human condition. Yes, there is pain in the world and much of it is caused by our fellow human beings; but there is also much joy and love, and it has the same source. It may be good in times of need to be able to detach ourselves from the rest of the world and reflect on how fleeting all of it really is; but living a full life also means being engaged with that reality on a daily basis, good and bad things alike. And while there is much to commend in the Stoic attitude of withstanding pain and avoiding seeking superficial pleasures, it is hard to imagine that one can enjoy life without a good dose of those very same pleasures.

Speaking of which, where's my cappuccino?


  1. My understanding of the Stoics is that they practiced asceticism and thought of reason as the main tool in life. Most of them were quite hyper-rational, from my understanding, and did assist in the development of formal logic.

  2. Yes, I am not agree in one point with Stoics:

    I beleive one need to feel the pain to cure oneself and start again. Stoic attitude of withstanding pain can destroy a human beings and convert them in unpleasant persons. There is a distinction between withstanding and tolerating pain. We have sensors to feel and tolerate, it is some strange to let our finger burning and do nothing to solve the situation. Well Stoics appear to said "let your finger burning, the fire is an ilusiĆ³n" (“Disturbance comes only from within – from our own perceptions.”)

  3. Dostoevsky once wrote, "Suffering is the origin of consciousness." I think this is true to some extent. And while I admire the Stoics' determination to endure, they seem resigned to it. It's one thing to endure pain and hardship while trying to improve life and make things better, but it sounds like they weren't interested in anything but their own spiritual lives. That kind of attitude doesn't exactly improve quality of life or advance civilization.

  4. In the History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell identified Stoicism as a slave philosophy.

    It was developed at at a time when democracy was dying in Anthens, stoicism was a hopeless philosophy, a way of coping - it was metatheory for learned helplessness.

    Russell notes that as emperor Marcus could not truly be a stoic, he had to go out and run the empire.

    Spinoza's pantheism is similar to stoicism, but its tweaked to appear a bit more hopeful (at least it looks like that to me.

  5. I always get what I want from life.

    The trick is knowing what to want.

  6. I think the mayor problem with Stoic school is assing only two different positions, virtue and vice. then, a large class of objects were left as indifferent, this possition seem to be a logical fallacy.

  7. I was reading a little more about Marcus and was interesting that him adopt this kind of philosophy when Rome was in decadence (well, not the ascent at least). There is not surprise in some of his sentences:

    1. A little paranoic setence:-)):

    * “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil.” (Book 2).

    2. A little egocentric; well, understanding sentence:

    * “I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled?” (Book 7)

    3. Like the physicists and the "ghost mind women" in a bar:-), may them treat to explain the world that them want not to live like Marcus in Rome:

    * “Disturbance comes only from within – from our own perceptions.” (Book 4)

  8. For me the remarkable thing about Marcus was how hard he was always working at his Stoicism. It's probably easier in a cave somewhere.

  9. Re philosopher king.

    The Prussian king, Frederick the (so called) Great had pretensions of being a philosopher king. He had audiences with savants such as Voltaire and Bach, even going to the point of composing two symphonies.

  10. I like some of the ideas behind stoicism -- such as investing the most in mental well-being. When possible, people shouldn't be bothered by what they possess physically, since physical states produce mental states, which in turn are what truly affect us. It seems hard to say... "X (physical thing) makes me happy." What is more accurate is "X (physical thing) makes me happy because of my regard of X. For me it doesn't mean we should stop presuing X, just that our "regard for X" is most important and not X in itself. I wonder what would happen if we could go to a place, where everyone thought if you owned an item common to most of us, like a pillow, you should be happy. Would that increase happiness?
    Just the thought of... "one should be happy because... of X" I think so, especially the way society and advertising is now, they put up many things that are only superficially the standard of happiness, when the single individual doesn't have to judge himself by those standards. He could be happy with his simple "pillow" (and enough food) & if he is really happy, and feels his life is fullfilled, then this is good (at least for him!) But can happiness like this be sustained is the major question I suppose...

  11. “The resolution has to be the result of its own decision, not just in response to outside forces, like the Christians.”

    I wish Marcus had written a lot more of what "christians" in his time said they believed. That would shed a lot of light on the development of that religion several generations before Emperor Constantine started the process of revising christian history and turning christianity into a state cult with a centrally determined and enforced orthodoxy.

  12. Precisely why I prefer Epicureans to Stoics! Where's my White Russian?

  13. That is quite an old post, but heck.

    The philosophical exercise of writing one's hypomnemata (fancy word stoics used for a diary, targetted at philosophical practice) is especially useful when writing down things that hurt : to get accustomed to them, to the point that you realize how hollow they are. So there is no wonder that the stoic's writing in this kind of exercise seem to stress the "bad" aspects of life. It does not mean, however, that stoics can not enjoy life. They can, even more than most people.

    To take an analogy, look at an athlete or a wrestler while practicing. He will often get hurt or get tired. But if you look his life outside of his training sessions, you will see that he doesn't get as much hurt or tired, in fact, his strength / abilities learned during practice will make his life even more enjoyable (having a sane body).

    Thus for the hypomnemata. Look at them as a stoic practicing, not as a scholar exposing a theory.

    If you want to know more about Marcus Aurelius, read also his letters to Fronto, his master. You will find a very different personality.


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