Book review: The Stoic Life, by Tad Brennan

In a sense, Tad Brennan is a modern Cicero. Just like Cicero wrote sympathetically and yet critically about Stoicism (e.g., Paradoxa Stoicorum, Tusculan Disputations, and De Finibus), so Brennan does in his The Stoic Life. Brennan doesn’t have either the style or the philosophical insight of Cicero, but then again, that’s setting the bar way high! The book is enjoyable, carefully written, and has a lot to offer both to the person who is just approaching Stoicism and to the seasoned practitioner of the philosophy. The first kind of reader may get some insight into whether Stoicism is really for them, the second one should welcome the challenges that Brennan puts forth, especially in part IV of his book.

The Stoic Life is organized into five sections: an “introduction” that includes chapters on why be a Stoic, the sources we have about ancient Stoicism, the philosophical background to Stoicism, and an overview of Stoic ethics. Part II focuses on Stoic psychology, talking about impressions and assent, the difference between belief and knowledge, and the relationship between impulses (to action) and emotions. Part III delves more deeply into the ethics, covering the chief good (i.e., virtue) and the so-called preferred and dispreffered indifferents, the concept of oikeiosis (moral development), and the nature of “befitting” actions. Part IV gets to the complex Stoic concept of fate, with a discussion of “god” (i.e., nature), the relationship between necessity and responsibility, the (in)famous “lazy argument,” and, of course, “free” will.

I was pretty much on board with Brennan’s analysis throughout the book, until he got to the last section, on fate, free will and responsibility. Here Brennan suddenly becomes rather uncharitable to the Stoics, dismissing their conception of will — particularly Chrysippus’ — and their response to the lazy argument. His general commentary on the discussions between Stoics and their ancient critics, particularly the Academic Skeptics (a school to which Cicero loosely belonged) is summarized by Brennan right at the beginning of chapter 14: “Most of this section will be taken up with attacks on the Stoic position launched by other philosophers — especially the Academics — and the Stoics’ efforts to respond. I think those efforts are characteristically brilliant, resourceful, and influential —they always deepen our understanding of the issues at hand. I also think they fail to rescue the Stoics from the hole they dug for themselves. The fact that their views on fate produced insurmountable difficulties for them only makes it more curious that they should have adopted those views to begin with.”

What are these “insurmountable” difficulties, and why did the Stoics decide to dig a big philosophical hole for themselves? The fundamental issue is that the Stoics were determinists, and yet believed that we are responsible for our judgments and decisions. In essence, they were what modern philosophers call “compatibilists” about free will. This, incidentally, is the mainstream position in the metaphysics of ethics, so it is actually somewhat peculiar that Brennan thinks it so odd that the Stoics adopted it and, indeed, were among the very first ones to articulate it.

How is it possible to believe in causal determinism and yet think that we are responsible for our decisions? Chrysippus explained the Stoic position by way of an ingenious analogy. Consider a cylinder on a flat surface. What happens if you push it? Obviously, it begins to roll. Why does the cylinder roll? Well, because I pushed it, right? In part. The push is an external cause acting on the cylinder. But the cylinder rolls also because it is a cylinder, as opposed to, say, a sphere, a cube, or a cone. Had it been any of those other things it would have reacted differently, or not at all. In other words, the rolling of the cylinder is the result of two sets of causes: external ones (the push) and internal ones (the nature of the cylinder).

Similarly with human decisions to act. Say that I feel thirsty, because the temperature in the room is somewhat high. I consider the situation and decide to get up, go to the refrigerator, and grab a beer. However, just when I was reaching for the beer I thought better of it. I still need to get some writing done, so better go for sparkling water now and leave the beer for later.

What happened in this case? There was at least one external cause to my behavior, the uncomfortably high temperature in the room. That triggered an internal cause, the sensation of thirst. But the switch between the beer and the water was due to yet another internal cause: my reasoning that, because I had some work still to do, and the beer would get in the way of clear writing, I better choose the water.

So far, though, we don’t have a lot of grounds to think that I’m more responsible for my decisions than the cylinder is “responsible” for the fact that it rolls. Except for something that was the crux of the Stoic argument and that has been masterfully updated by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism. He defines virtue — the chief good for Stoics — as the recursive perfection of agency applied to all our endeavors all-things-considered.

The key word here is “recursive.” Human beings (and possibly some other animals) have the ability not just to make decisions, but to reflect on why they are making them, and most importantly, to improve their own decision-making ability over time by learning from both their experiences and their reflections. That is what distinguishes us from cylinders.

Brennan is still not happy with this picture of things, but it isn’t clear to me what his alternative would be. The Academic Skeptics didn’t really have one — they were just as agnostic about this issue as about pretty much everything else. The Epicureans believed in magic, introducing their famous “swerve” to arbitrarily add free will to what they too believed to be a deterministic universe.

If magic isn’t your cup of tea, and you still reject compatibilism, then your only other option is to deny that human beings have responsibility for anything. I don’t know whether this is Brennan’s position, but it is clearly unworkable. I assume, for instance, that he is justly proud of the praise his book has gathered. But why? After all, he had no choice but to write it. I’m also sure that if he gets drunk and has an accident while driving the police and the judge will hold him — again, justly — responsible for it. And so on.

The advantage of the Stoic-compatibilist position is that it makes sense of our normative talk about responsibility while at the same time refraining from invoking magic (like Christians do, when they talk about contra-causal “free” will). This is a splendid example of what modern philosopher Wilfrid Sellars actually thought is the whole point of philosophy: to help us develop a “stereoscopic” view of the world, bringing together the scientific and the “manifest” (i.e., common sense) images of the world. In this case, science tells us that we live in a universe regulated by universal cause-effect, while common sense tells us that we, unlike rocks and cylinders, are responsible for our actions. The compatibilist take is the only one that makes sense of both.

What about the so-called lazy argument? Here is how Brennan presents it, at the beginning of chapter 16:

(i) If it is fated that you will recover from this disease, then you will recover whether you call in a doctor or not; 

(ii) So too, if it is fated that you will not recover from this disease, then you will not recover whether you call in a doctor or not; 

(iii) But one or the other is fated; 

(iv) Thus it accomplishes nothing to call in a doctor.

He seems to think that this is a strong argument against the Stoics, because the upshot of it is that if you think everything is “fated” (i.e., determined), then it doesn’t natter what you do. One way or the other, the predetermined outcome is going to materialize.

It baffles me that people still today take the lazy argument seriously, as it is, well, lazy! To begin with, it equivocates on two different meanings of “fate.” To separate the two, compare my little story of the refrigerator and the beer with none other than the tragedy of Oedipus, as told by Sophocles. Oedipus, the King of Thebes, asks the Oracle at Delphi how to deal with a plague ravaging his city. The Oracle says that the problem is caused by a religious impiety (of course), and specifically by the fact that the murderer of King Laius, Oedipus’ predecessor, was never found.

Oedipus then asks his prophet, Tiresias, who reluctantly tells him that it is Oedipus himself who killed Laius! But how is this possible? Oedipus knows that he did no such thing! Oedipus is disturbed by these events, and his wife, Jocasta — also the former wife of the slain King — tries to make him feel better by telling him the story of another pronouncement of the Oracle that did not materialize: the prediction that Laius would be killed by his own son, which was not true, since everyone knows the King was killed by bandits on the road to Delphi.

At this point Oedipus begins to go pale. He recalls that many years before he had received yet another pronouncement from the Oracle, telling him that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Hearing of this, Oedipus left his original city, Corinth, in order to avoid the fate predicted by the Oracle, leaving the people he thought to be his parents behind.

But it turns out that his Corinthian parents were adoptive; that on his way from Corinth to Delphi he encountered an old man, got in a quarrel, and killed him; and that upon his arrival in Thebes he fell in love with the queen, who had recently become a widow, and married her. Of course, the old man on the road was none other than King Laius (as well as his real father), and Queen Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife, was his biological mother. Realizing the true course of events, Jocasta hangs herself, and when Oedipus finds out he takes the gold pin from her dress and plunges it into his eyes.

The crucial part of the story, so far as we are concerned, is that in Oedipus’ case it truly does not matter what he does: since he is told ahead of time of what awaits in his future, he takes evasive action, so to speak, to pre-empt the unfortunate outcome. But it is precisely this move of his that leads him to kill his father and marry his mother, just as the Oracle had predicted.

This, however, has nothing to do with the Stoic notion of fate, or with the modern compatibilist view of free will. According to Chrysippus’ model, we are co-causes of what happens to us. The fact that I am “fated” to recover from my illness implies that I go to the doctor, I take the proper medicine, and so forth. The notion that a given outcome will occur no matter what I do is nonsense on stilts, because it completely misunderstands the structure of the universal web of cause-effect.

Despite my disagreement with Brennan on the issues covered in the last section of his book, I enjoyed reading it because it forced me to think more carefully about my own positions. And one can hardly ask more of an author. Moreover, as I said above, the rest of the book is quite on target in terms of its presentation of important aspects of Stoic psychology and ethics. All things considered, this is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the theory underpinning Stoic philosophy. And remember that the Stoics thought that one cannot practice well if one does not understand the principles from which the practice is derived.

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