I ain’t “bitching,” I’m pointing out that something ain’t right

[Cato the Younger wasn’t bitching about it. Image from http://samuelrunge.com]

A few days ago I posted a comment on the largest Facebook discussion group for practitioners of Stoicism. It isn’t important what the specific subject matter was. Suffice it to say that I was pointing out that a good number of self-professed Stoic practitioners were engaging in a behavior that I thought was obviously unethical — apparently without realizing the irony of striving to be a more ethical person while actively undermining their own efforts.

To my stunned surprise, the post gathered close to two hundred replies in the span of little more than a day. I browsed through the barrage of opinions, engaged with a few, and then politely asked to be excused from the discussion. There just isn’t enough time in the day.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to read the arguments advanced by a number of people, as they touched on important aspects of what it means to do the ethical thing, to be a Stoic, and generally to be a reasonable human being.

A common comment was that I was upset, or “bitching about it,” which, I was told, is eminently un-Stoic. That sort of comment reveals two underlying fallacies, one epistemic, the other ethical. The epistemic fallacy is to pretend to infer someone’s state of mind from the fact that he is writing certain things. That inference is tricky under the best of circumstances, and it was clearly incorrect in the case we are examining. When I wrote that comment I was in a very serene state of mind, not upset about the subject matter at all. I was, in fact, rather amused at what I perceived as the irony of the situation.

The ethical fallacy is even more problematic. There is a persistent misconception about Stoicism — even among practitioners of the philosophy — that Stoics should simply accept whatever happens and work on their own peace of mind. This makes Stoicism into a quietist, inward-looking philosophy, which is very far from the truth of the matter.

This ethical fallacy is in turn based on a false dichotomy, specifically the notion that the only way to maintain equanimity with respect to events is to passively accept them as they are. If you don’t accept things, then you cannot be equanimous about it. But this is clearly not the case. Consider a modern rendition of the Stoic dichotomy of control. The famous Serenity prayer written by 20th century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Notice that someone reciting the prayer is most definitely not beginning with the notion that he cannot change anything. On the contrary, he is asking the deity to grant him three things: the wisdom to separate what he can and cannot act on; the courage to act where he can; and the serenity to accept the limits of his agency.

The Stoic version goes like this:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

The Epictetean take is often misunderstood as implying that we have no control at all over externals such as our health, wealth, reputation, and so forth. But what Epictetus is saying is quite a bit more nuanced than that. He is stating that we do not control the outcomes of our actions, while at the same time reminding us that we very much control our intentions to act or not to act. The outcomes themselves are, of course, a combination between our actions and external factors. And it is precisely through our actions, which derive from our judgments, that we can influence things.

For instance: as we all know we are in the midst of a pandemic. Will I get infected by the virus? I don’t know, that sort of outcome is outside of my control. What very much is under my control, however, is the following: the judgment that a pandemic is serious business and one should be cautious; the judgment, based on empirical evidence, that certain actions (wearing a mask, social distancing, washing my groceries, minimizing outings from my apartment, reducing travel to a minimum, and so forth) are effective at preempting the possibility of an infection.

The outcome — I will or I will not get infected — is the resultant of the factors I control and those I do not control (such as other people’s behaviors, government policies, the biology of the virus, and sheer luck).

This should make clear that it is nonsense to say that Stoics simply sit back and accept whatever happens to them. The hell we do. Rather, we do our best to effect the desired outcome (in this case, not getting infected). At the same time, we approach the issue with the serenity of mind that comes from accepting at the onset that we may or may not succeed, despite our best efforts.

The history of early Stoicism is replete with supporting examples. The so-called Stoic opposition was made of senators and philosophers (including Epictetus) who were openly opposed to the regimes of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, who the Stoics perceived as tyrants. As a result of such opposition, several people died or were sent into exile (in the latter group, again, was Epictetus).

Another example is provided by Gaius Blossius, who in the 2nd century BCE worked with the Tribune Tiberius Gracchus to enact long needed land reforms on behalf of the people. This, of course, went against the interests of the aristocracy, members of which eventually killed Tiberius and sent Gaius into exile. From the province of Asia, where he had moved, Gaius joined the revolt against Rome headed by Aristonicus. When that also failed, Gaius preferred to take his own life rather than been subjected to what he perceived as unjust Roman rule.

And then there is Cato the Younger, Seneca’s role model, who first fought against the tyranny of Julius Caesar on the floor of the Roman Senate, and then by taking up arms with Brutus and Cassius. Here is how Seneca describes Cato’s legendary ethical standards and Stoic demeanor:

Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading. (Letters to Lucilius, LXXI.11)

So when several commenters to my Facebook post wrote things like “aren’t Stoics supposed to accept whatever happens, since it’s not under your control?” they betrayed a surprising degree of misunderstanding of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism, unlike Epicureanism, is very much about action in the world, regardless of the fact that such action may not succeed, or may cause us physical or emotional pain (the very reason the Epicureans counseled to avoid it). In fact, we have a duty to intervene whenever we can to improve the lot of our fellow brothers and sisters, equal members of the human cosmopolis. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. (Meditations IV.24)

The bottom line, then, is as follows:

1. To point out that certain behaviors are not ethically acceptable is not the same as to be upset about it. Be careful before you engage in that sort of often unwarranted inference about someone else’s state of mind.

2. The dichotomy of control does not say that we should accept whatever the universe throws at us. Rather, it reminds us that our locus of action, our agency, lies in our own judgments and decisions to act. But how we act very much may influence (although of course does not determine) the outcomes of events.

3. Stoicism is not a quietist philosophy. On the contrary, it urges us to act for the benefit of the human cosmopolis. Indeed, we have a positive duty to help our brothers and sisters.

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