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16 May 2007

The problem with Stoicism

Is possible to be stoical about the loneliness of stoicism?

By Jules Evans

Stoicism isn’t perfect. Over the millennia, people have made a number of pertinent criticisms of the philosophy.

For example, Stoics like to claim that theirs is a rational philosophy, which doesn’t rely on anything as irrational or superstitious as faith.

Christians, in the Eighteenth Century, tried to save their religion from the onslaughts of rationalistic science by fusing Christianity with Stoicism to create natural theology.

But as the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out, the idea at the heart of both Stoicism and natural theology, that the universe is a rationally ordered plan, cannot be proven.

If a car hits my daughter and kills her, I could re-assure myself that it’s all part of the divine Logos. But that’s an assertion of faith, not rationality.

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I could, however, assert that it’s the nature of the universe to create and destroy, that life is short and difficult, that none of us live long anyway, and I will soon die too. I could reflect on the billions of lives being created and destroyed every day. Such thoughts are rational, and could help to ease the pain of losing my daughter. So the consolations of Stoicism are not entirely irrational.

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Others have objected to the determinism of Stoicism. The Logos determines every event, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s like the fascist police – we can either go along quietly, or kicking or screaming. Either way, we’re going with them.

This, I think, is a salient criticism of Stoicism. I prefer the Buddhist or Platonic idea of karma: that what happens to us is a karmic result of our own past actions or past lives. That seems a much better reason for accepting tough events than the Logos. According to Buddhism, the Logos is nothing more than the creation of our own thoughts and actions. This makes more sense to me.

I also feel uncomfortable with the Stoic idea that all passions are bad. What about compassion? The feeling of pity and concern for others? Again, it seems to me Buddhists are more on the mark here than orthodox Stoics.

But I still consider myself an unorthodox Stoic rather than a Buddhist, because Stoicism is from my own culture, it’s at the heart of European thought. It feels much more natural to me as a practice than sitting cross-legged in front of a Tibetan thanka chanting om mani padme hum.

Another criticism of Stoicism is that, because it concentrates on acceptance of external events, it leads to political apathy and quietism.

This is not true. Actually, there’s a distinguished history of Stoics standing up to tyrants: Diogenes supposedly stood up to Alexander, Cato and Cicero stood up to Caeser, Seneca stood up to Nero. Even in our own day, the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky seems to have been inspired by Stoicism when he stood up to president Putin of Russia – he wrote an article in his Siberian prison cell saying the world needed ‘Stoical warriors of liberalism’.

Stoicism creates tough individuals who cannot be bullied by the powerful, because they are not afraid to let go or to die. In fact, their whole philosophy trains them to leave life without fear or regret, and to stand up for their rational principles before any conventional threats or bribes.

But a real problem with Stoicism is that it’s lonely. Christians have their communion, Buddhists have their sangha, but Stoics, rational as they are, have no ritual to join them together, no church in which to meet. They are joined together as citizens of the Cosmopolis, the heavenly city of ideas. But you couldn’t really recognize another Stoic if you saw one. And even if you did, there are no miracles or holy days to celebrate together.

There is, at least, now a Yahoo chat room dedicated to Stoicism, on which you can find many of the world’s leading academic experts on Stoicism, people like Keith Seddon and Jan Garret, who are happy to answer queries on the philosophy. You can find it by clicking here.