Yes, Stoicism can make us “happy”

Can we live a meaningful life without divine providence? This is, at bottom, the question about which Carlos Fraenkel, who teaches philosophy and Jewish Studies at McGill University, and I fundamentally disagree. At least judging from an interesting review of my book, How to Be a Stoic, he recently published in The Nation. Fraenkel’s is a charitable review, including a good degree of praise for my book. And, more importantly, hinges on a crucial question of interest for modern Stoics. So let me try to address it carefully.

First, Fraenkel’s case. He begins by associating modern Stoicism to “the culture of self-improvement,” which is fair enough, even though I and several other modern Stoics have repeatedly taken the distance from the “stoic” (notice the lower case) literature aimed at entrepreneurs, Wall Street and Silicon Valley denizens, and football coaches. Fraenkel acknowledges that there are serious attempts to bridge the historical and philosophical gap between ancient and modern Stoicism, mentioning me as one of the more serious proponents (though other valiant champions of the cause include Larry Becker, Don Robertson, and Bill Irvine). Fraenkel is not convinced:

“I question whether the core tenets of Stoicism can survive this reinvention -- and even if they did, I remain doubtful that they provide the right ethical and moral framework for our time.”

Fraenkel brings up the well known debate between Aristotelians and Stoics, where Aristotle himself argued that people “talk nonsense” if they say that a virtuous person is happy even while being tortured (as the Stoics maintained of their ideal sage). We are told that:

“The reason the Stoics made this claim is that, for them, everything that happens is part of a providential order, designed by a divine mind they identified with Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.”

In response to my suggestion to replace the ancient concepts of god and providence with what I refer to as Spinoza’s or Einstein’s god, i.e., the eminently sensible notion that the universe is organized according to rational principles, Fraenkel responds:

“Einstein’s God ... isn’t a divine craftsman, but instead represents deterministic natural laws, as opposed to the randomness posited by quantum mechanics.”

When I trace back our propensity to be prosocial to our evolutionary history, Fraenkel comments:

“Even if we agree, it hardly follows that we should use our reason to live virtuously rather than, say, to outsmart our competitors in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or wealth. How Einstein’s God might offer us guidance here -- how living in agreement with the deterministic system of causes and effects can make us virtuous and happy, or how it can reconcile us with our misfortunes as necessary for the universal good -- Pigliucci doesn’t explain. … Is Stoicism really going to help us overthrow capitalism?”

Fraenkel also rejects my appeal to a cosmopolitan vision for modern Stoics:

“Don’t say you’re an ‘Athenian’ or a ‘Corinthian,’ but ‘a citizen of the world,’ Epictetus advises. It’s a fine quote for a cocktail party, but the reason the Stoics offer will not satisfy a devotee of Einstein’s god: They are cosmopolitans because there’s just one valid law throughout the universe, Zeus’s rational law.”

But the biggest blow comes near the end of the review, and it is worth quoting in full:

“To see that Pigliucci’s proposal doesn’t work, just scale up the degree of adversity: Instead of stomach pains and pickpockets, think of a Holocaust survivor who learns that the rest of his family has perished in the death camps, or a Syrian refugee who watches his son’s dead body wash up on the shore. The Stoics thought their tools worked even in these extreme cases: Epictetus tells us in the same breath not to get upset about shattered china or the death of loved ones. But recognizing one’s lack of control and the universe’s indifference, as Pigliucci proposes, won’t yield equanimity in the face of such loss. And that’s a good thing.”

The review concludes with this parting shot:

“On the whole, the Stoics were much more focused on coping with the world as it exists and as we suffer in it than on changing it. That’s not surprising, given their core beliefs: that we live in the best possible world and that happiness is available under all circumstances. But if you don’t share these beliefs, then developing vaccines and fighting economic inequality is time better spent than searching for philosophical consolation.”

Let us now go back to the beginning and take up Fraenkel’s points one by one. I will number and label them clearly for ease of reading and to facilitate further discussion.

I. The concept of eudaimonia

The Greek word eudaimonia should never, ever be translated as “happiness,” since that term is vague and usually refers to some feeling of elation, which is not what Aristotle or the Stoics were referring to. Much hinges, however, on how the two schools interpreted eudaimonia. I agree with Fraenkel that a good rendition of the term, from an Aristotelian perspective, is “flourishing.” And if we do translate it that way, then the Stoic claim that one ought to be “happy” on the rack doesn’t make sense, not just in modern, but even in ancient terms (since one may serenely accept torture as part of the ordained workings of the universe, but that doesn’t mean she’s “flourishing” while experiencing it!). 

But my interpretation of the Stoic concept of eudaimonia is that it refers to a “life worth living.” The Stoic sage is “happy” on the rack for the same reason Nelson Mandela was “happy” to be tortured in the prisons of Apartheid South Africa: it was worth enduring the pain and suffering because it was for a greater cause, because he was doing the right thing.

This turns the table around on the Aristotelian. Aristotle thought that unless one has a certain number of favorable externals (education, money, health, good looks) one is, not to put too fine  a point on it, screwed in life. No eudaimonia for you, majority of the world population! You can see why Aristotle was accused of being just a tiny bit snobbish.

For the Stoic, by contrast, everyone’s life is worth living so long as we do our best to do the right thing, to be good persons. Our material circumstances are “indifferent” to that task, not in the sense that the Stoics don’t prefer a hot bath to a cold shower (they do), but in the sense that one can live a life worth living, a moral life, regardless of external circumstances. Moreover, one does not need to pray to the gods, as Epictetus makes crystal clear:

You might as well get on your knees and pray that your nose won’t run. A better idea would be to wipe your nose and forgo the prayer. The point is, isn’t there anything God gave you for your present problem? You have the gifts of courage, fortitude and endurance. With ‘hands’ like these, do you still need somebody to help wipe your nose? (Discourses II, 16.13-14)

“God” (more on this in a moment) has already given us the tools to deal with adversity, and those tools are entirely under our control, unlike external circumstances.

II. Zeus, providence, and all that jazz

It is highly misleading for Fraenkel to talk of Zeus and providence without providing a bit more context on Stoic metaphysics. The Stoics were pantheists, which means that “god” is the very same thing as the universe itself, conceived as a living organism (as Plato already did in the Timaeus).

Yes, the living cosmos acts purposely, and is characterized by the Logos, the ability to reason in which we share. But there is no overarching “plan,” no benign providence at all. The universe does its thing, and since we are bits and pieces of the universe we go along with it, doing our part. But “our part” here is more akin to the part my epithelial cells play in the wellbeing of my body when they shed periodically to make room for newer cells. I doubt my cells would receive much consolation from this knowledge, if they became aware of it. At least, not much more consolation than was available to the Epicureans with their universe made of atoms bumping in the void. Which is why the Stoics themselves often considered the Epicurean alternative and found it ethically (if not metaphysically) acceptable. Here are two examples:

Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XII.14)


Whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. (Seneca, Letters XVI.5)

They couldn’t have been clearer than that, I think.

III. Einstein’s god

First, a caveat: Einstein’s god works just fine with quantum mechanics, so long as the quantum world itself emerges from the laws of nature, which is what modern physicists think. Indeed, the equations of quantum mechanical theory are deterministic, reflecting the very same universal rationality, or cosmic web of cause and effect, that both ancient and modern Stoics accept.

Second, and more importantly, an even better way to phrase the modern Stoic approach is the one put forth by Larry Becker, who re-interpreted the famous Stoic motto, “live according to nature” as “follow the facts.” By which he simply meant: if modern science and metaphysics tell us that there is no god or providence, then the only sensible avenue left to us is to find ways to cope with the universe as it actually is, not as we wished it to be.

Would it be of comfort to think that we are bits and pieces of a cosmic organism doing its thing, even though we were its epithelial cells? In a sense, I suppose. It would be even better if the cosmos were orchestrated by a benign super-being who could somehow account for the existence of cancer and tsunamis in the world. But if you reject such notions as ill-founded, then what? You could go the Camus way and ponder what then is stopping everyone from committing suicide. Or you can embrace life as it is and make the best of it, like modern Stoics, secular Buddhists, secular humanists, ethical culturists, and a number of others actually do. Your choice. 

IV. Why not pleasure, power and wealth?

I find it fascinating that when a Stoic says that a good life is one in which we are nice to other people and work together to improve the human cosmopolis she immediately gets flooded with a barrage of demands for rigorous logical proof. But if the Dalai Lama says it, or the Pope, or your mom, then nobody objects.

Sure, the Pope does have the backing of an allegedly caring providence. But I guess you never heard of the problem of evil? And the Lama can’t help himself so easily, since there is no equivalent of divine providence and benevolence in Buddhism (that I know of). As for your mom, well, that depends on her metaphysical framework, you better ask her.

Seriously though, the Stoics had no problem whatsoever with the (ideally, moderate) pursuit of pleasure, power, or wealth. Seneca was the second wealthiest person in the empire, and Marcus Aurelius had the power of an emperor. What they did think was that such pursuits ought to be secondary, because they don’t amount to a meaningful life. There are logical and psychological reasons for that. Psychologically speaking, it turns out that material goods don’t actually increase “happiness,” if by this we mean that people find meaning in such goods. On the contrary, plenty a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, power and wealth is then regretted on a deathbed, and our consumerist society is one of the emptiest of meaning in the history of humanity.

Why? Because human beings -- qua living organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens -- need more than material comfort to live. We need friendship, and love, and being respected by others no matter what our occupation or place in the social ladder. If you think that power and wealth can buy you that, you’ve watched too many bad American movies. And if you think pleasure is all there is, just ask yourself if you wouldn’t prefer to share those pleasures with people you love. If your answer is in the negative, chances are you are a sociopath, that is a malfunctioning human being.

As for the logical arguments, the Stoics built on what Socrates says in the Euthydemus, which has nothing to do with gods or providence. Socrates simply points out that virtue is the chief good because it is the only thing that is good by definition. “Bad” virtue is an oxymoron. Everything else -- including pleasure, power and wealth -- can be used for both good and bad. And who decides? Here’s Epictetus, right at the beginning of the Discourses:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

V. Stoicism and social change

Can Stoicism get us rid of capitalism? Let’s assume for a moment that that goal is, indeed, a proper one. (This is debatable, even from a progressive liberal perspective, but that’s another discussion.) Stoicism is a personal philosophy, not a blueprint for society. So in a sense, asking that question betrays a profound misunderstanding of what Stoicism is, a category mistake, if you will. I don’t see a lot of people going around criticizing Christianity or Buddhism on the grounds that they don’t help us get rid of capitalism.

But there is another answer, rooted both in Stoic philosophy and history. Stoic cosmopolitanism does tell us that we are all brothers and sisters, and that we should therefore treat everyone on the planet justly and fairly. Not quite communism, but definitely a call for social change! Moreover, the Stoics at several points were directly involved in attempts at changing their society, as in the case of the famous “Stoic opposition” to the tyranny of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. Marcus is pretty clear on this:

First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end. (Meditations, XII.20)


As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. (Meditations, IX.23)

And as we have seen above, he thought this regardless of whether, in the end, there will turn out to live in a place governed by “gods or atoms.”

VI. Cosmopolitanism

But of course Fraenkel thinks that modern Stoics cannot be coherently cosmopolitan. He thinks our writings to that effect are just “fine quotes for a cocktail party.” But his argument here is the same given above: no good deeds can be justified over greed and selfishness if one lacks a benevolent providence. I have by now soundly rejected that contention (and if you want more, see here).

Fraenkel is skeptical of my derivation of prosocial norms from evolutionary biology, but I never said that that’s the end of things, it’s just the beginning. Like the early Stoics, I subscribe to a developmental approach to morality. I think morality is a human creation, but not an arbitrary one. We have prosocial instincts, that we share with other primate species, because we are social animals. But when we grow up and begin to reflect on things we can see that there is no reason not to extend prosocial behavior beyond the confines of our caretakers, or friends, or fellow citizens. It is, in other words, a combination of nature and nurture, instinct and reason, that makes us into moral animals. Just like Cato the Younger explains to Cicero in book III (here and here) of De Finibus (though, obviously, he doesn’t use evolutionary and modern psychological language).

For the Stoics, both ancient and modern, there is no sharp distinction between improving things for oneself and improving things for the rest of humanity (or, indeed, the planet at large). No artificial contrast between self and other, selfishness and altruism. The ancients saw this as a consequence of the fact that we are all interconnected because we share in the Logos. Moderns can arrive at just the same conclusions on the basis of the scientific fact that we live on a single planet characterized by a highly interconnected biosphere. Less poetic and more materialist, but then again, the ancient Stoics too were certainly materialists who believed in cause-effect (another aspect of ancient Stoicism that Fraenkel more or less conveniently forgets).

VII. Scaling up adversity

This was a good rhetorical move on Fraenkel’s part, but I don’t think it works, for a number of reasons. First, we have pretty good examples of people who reacted in a Stoic fashion to tragedies on the scale of the holocaust, and succeeded. The obvious one is Viktor Frankl, as powerfully presented in his famous Man’s Search for Meaning. Even though Frankl, in his work as a therapist, was responding to Freud and Adler, his famous “third Viennese school,” which resulted in the approach known as logotherapy, is considered to be closer to rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which were influenced explicitly by Stoicism.

Second, it isn’t clear what, exactly, would Fraenkel have the Syrian refugee of his example do instead. Invoke the justice of a god that doesn’t exist or is plainly unjust? What sort of consolation would one get out of that kind of thing? And while it is fashionable to quote what is admittedly the harshest sounding passage in Epictetus on this theme, people tend to forget that other Stoics, such as Seneca, are far more sympathetic. For instance:

Am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. That would mean lack of feeling rather than virtue. (Letters XCIX.15)

Moreover, it is yet another misunderstanding of Stoicism to put it in terms of “what would a Stoic say to the bereaved father?” Stoics don’t go around telling other people how to feel or behave. The proper question is: if the bereaved father practices Stoic philosophy, is his grief going to be helped by having adopted the Stoic outlook? I’m willing to bet on a positive answer. Indeed, I know for a fact that it helped me greatly when my mother passed away, and it keeps helping loads of people who write to me with testimonials about Stoicism and grief.

VIII. We should develop vaccines instead

Fraenkel engages in yet another clever rhetorical move when he says that “developing vaccines and fighting economic inequality is time better spent than searching for philosophical consolation.” To begin with, most of us do not have the know-how to develop vaccines, nor are we in a position to make a dent into the problem of economic inequality, if not by minor actions such as voting for one political candidate rather than another, or sending money to an organization that fights inequality.

More to the point, though, this is a blatant example of false dichotomy: what precludes me from both searching for philosophical consolation for my own misfortunes and the misfortunes of the world, and engaging in whatever action I can engage in that will alleviate the world’s problems? Indeed, it is a crucial part of the Stoic concept of virtue that we ought to so engage with the world, and definitely not just sit in our garden sipping wine while chatting with friends (those are the Epicureans, over there…).

Conclusion: the modern Stoic outlook

Modern Stoicism is (generally, there are exceptions) not grounded in pantheism and its peculiar conception of god and providence. This does not stop modern Stoics from embracing the virtue of justice and the concept of cosmopolitanism. We retain the ancient Stoic conception of a deterministic universe regulated by laws of nature acting through a complex web of cause and effect. We believe that we are part and parcel of such a web, and that our judgments and actions, consequently, matter, albeit locally.

Modern Stoicism has to do without deities for the same reason secular Buddhists (and secular Christians, as few as they are!) have to: because there is no good reason or evidence to believe that the universe is organized according to a providential plan. So what? Should we despair and spend our lives staring into the abyss? What a waste that would be! There are things to do in life, and Stoic philosophy is a sturdy compass for becoming better persons, contributing as much as we can to the flourishing of the human cosmopolis, and dealing with the inevitable pain and suffering of existence. As Marcus, again, puts it:

Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts. (Meditations, X.6 )

Whether that connection is the result of a divine ordering or of the laws of nature it doesn’t matter. We still need to get up in the morning, leave our cozy blanket behind, and set out to do the job of a human being.


P.S.: not to be nitpicking, and this is likely not Fraenkel’s fault anyway. But The Nation’s article is accompanied by a photo of a bust of Seneca. Except that it isn’t. The image is that of the so-called Pseudo-Seneca. See full explanation here.

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