GUEST POST: A philosophical dispute on the terrazza

[Rob (left) and Massimo (right) conversing about Stoicism while looking at the Roman Forum]

by Robert S. Colter

As anyone who spends any time discussing ideas can attest, people disagree about all sorts of things, both for good reasons and bad, and in both productive and non-productive ways. This is true even in discussing Stoic philosophy. I want to use a specific case of disagreement between a couple of philosophers and Stoics in the hopes of illustrating the sort of things that might be sensibly disagreed about as well as how to make clear what is at stake in such a disagreement. I hope that by working through this example, we can see how thinking carefully about at least some disagreements can be productive in leading to a deeper understanding of the issues involved and perhaps also lead to a resolution of the dispute. 

I had the wonderful opportunity in July 2019 to attend the Rome Stoic School, hosted by Massimo Pigliucci. After a few days discussing Cicero with a number of other participants, a few of us were able to spend the afternoon at the Capitoline Museums, at which Massimo generously led us on a tour. After the tour, we paused for a while on the terrace of the museum for some drinks and snacks, and even more philosophical conversation.

I want to start off by setting the stage a bit. I am a professor of philosophy and scholar of Greek philosophy in particular. I also am the founder and director of Wyoming Stoic Camp, which for the past several years has been an experiment in living a philosophical life in accord with Stoic principles. Moreover, I teach courses in the state prison system on Stoicism and other topics. I am someone who practices these Stoic principles in his own life as well.

Massimo is also a professor of philosophy, trained primarily in the philosophy of science. He has also become one of the leading voices of the Modern Stoicism movement, perhaps best known for his How to Be a Stoic, and he maintains a robust online presence.

Massimo and I first met when he wanted to start his own Stoic Camp, held in NY. He reached out to me to learn what I was doing with my own camp and discuss some of the ideas he had for his camp. Since then we have met at Stoicon NY in 2016, and I invited him to the University of Wyoming, where I teach, for a series of academic events in the fall of 2018. So Rome was not our first meeting, and we have engaged in discussions about Stoicism and other topics on a number of occasions.

Our discussion in Rome turned on a well-known passage from Epictetus’ Enchiridion, section 8. It is quite brief and is translated by Nicholas White (my favorite translation) as: 

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

The crux of my disagreement with Massimo on that hot July afternoon had to do with the term “want” in this passage. But before I get too much into the details of our dispute, I think some background ideas will be useful.

There are a couple of fundamental Stoic theses that are central to our discussion. This first is the notion of Providence, which is perhaps best framed for our purposes by Epictetus in Enchiridion 27:

Just as a target is not set up to be missed, in the same way nothing bad by nature happens in the world.

This seems to imply that everything that happens is in fact good, at least if examined from the right perspective. This is at least a close relative of the idea famously found in 17th Century theodicies such as that of Leibniz.

The second important idea is what has come to be called the “dichotomy of control.” This point is expressed quite clearly by Epictetus in Enchiridion 1:

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses desires, aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to use are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.

I will explore the implications of this passage for our dispute below.

With those preliminaries on the table, back to my conversation with Massimo. It is pretty well known among modern Stoics that Massimo is a scientifically minded Stoic, and that he does not accept the ancient notion of a providential universe, understood in the way it seems to be expressed in the passage above (see here and here). Here is an argument I think he would accept, as I understand it from his written work and from our conversations:

  1. The natural world is not providential. That is, it is not planned and aimed at the good by some sort of rational planner. Nature is neither good nor bad, it just is.
  2. Instead, the natural world, of which we are a part, comes about and continues to exist in virtue of natural laws and forces which govern the functioning of the universe and its parts.
  3. Therefore, the natural world, and the events that occur in it, are neither good nor bad.
  4. According to the Stoic view, one should only desire good things.
  5. Virtue and virtuous actions are the only goods.
  6. Therefore one should only desire virtue and virtuous action.
  7. Therefore, one should not desire any of the events that occur in the natural world. Instead, one should accept them for what they are.

Claims 1 and 2 can be extracted, I think, from chapter 6 of How to Be a Stoic. While there might be modern Stoics who dispute these claims, I am not one of them. Claim 3 follows from 1 and 2. Claim 4 follows from the so-called Dichotomy of control and the Stoic concept of desire, as I will show below. Claim 5 is a standard Stoic claim, found in any number of ancient sources. Claim 6 follows from 4 and 5. And finally, claim 7 follows from 3 and 6. This is how I would express an argument that I think Massimo would endorse.

This then needs to be coupled with the following understanding of the dichotomy of control in order to establish the appropriate attitude to have to the natural world:

  1. Some things are up to us, and some are not.
  2. The things up to us are our attitudes and perceptions, including whether we desire or avoid something.
  3. Everything else is not up to us, and thus external and morally indifferent.
  4. One should neither desire nor avoid indifferent things, but rather accept them.

I take it that these claims are established by Enchiridion 1, among other texts. These claims lead to the idea that the proper attitude one must have to external indifferents is acceptance, and not either desire or avoidance.

So, here is the apparent conflict with Enchiridion 8, recalling the translation we started with:

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

It seems pretty clear that this passage is recommending that we want the things to happen as they do in fact happen. But, if wanting something to be a certain way is the same thing as to desire it, then Epictetus is here recommending that we desire things to be the way they in fact are. Although this seems perhaps a little strange -- to desire things that are the way they are and cannot be any other way -- this is recommended as the way to make one’s life go well.

Yet, according to the dichotomy of control, the things that happen in the world are not among the things up to me, and so they are morally indifferent. So, we should not desire the things and happenings in the world to be the way they are or not the way they are. We should merely accept the way things are.

Now, the usual response to this sort of issue is provided by the Stoic insistence on the providential nature of the universe. We are only supposed to extend our desires to good things such as virtue and virtuous action. However, when the Stoics insist on the providence of the Universe, this implies that the universe itself is good. If that is the case, as it is insisted on in a number of places in the ancient texts, such as Enchiridion 27 above, then since there is no problem desiring something good, there is no inconsistency between Enchiridion 8 and the providential universe.

However, given that Massimo has rejected the goodness of the universe, he cannot appeal to this response, and his view has a conflict with Enchiridion 8. Massimo is clearly aware of this, and when I pointed this incompatibility out, his response was that he has to understand Enchiridion 8 as recommending that one must simply accept things as they are, not to desire them. That is, he is willing to let go of the most literal reading of the text, and understand it in terms of acceptance of the way things are, which is compatible with the non-providential view of the universe that he prefers, rather than understanding the passage in terms of wanting things to be the way they are, which seems to require that the things that happen in the world are, in some sense, good.

So, that is fine, and I think the dispute turns to some extent on how much of the texts of the original Stoics we can retain in the face of the greater empirical scientific knowledge we have compared to these ancient thinkers, and how important it is to be able to retain consistency between Modern Stoicism and the ancient texts. As I put it at the time, “I guess it’s more important to me to maintain the original texts,” to which Massimo replied, “That may be so.” This is, to my mind, a point that reasonable people can disagree upon, and that was where I thought Massimo and I had ended the discussion.

However, I continued to think about our conversation, and wondered whether there was a way to reconcile what Massimo was committed to with the problematic text. So, I decided to pursue this question in a systematic, and perhaps obsessive and nerdy, way.

First, I decided to look at the Greek text of Enchiridion 8:

μὴ ζήτει τὰ γινόμενα γίνεσθαι ὡς θέλεις, ἀλλὰ θέλε τὰ γινόμενα ὡς γίνεται καὶ εὐροήσεις.

The key term in this passage is, in Greek, θέλω, which appears in the passage in the forms θέλεις and θέλε. If I were to translate this in the most literal way possible way, with no regard for style, we would end up with something like:

Do not seek for the things that come about to come about as you wish, but wish for the things to come about as they come about, and you will flow well.

So, the Greek, as I have translated it, seems to still carry the same unwelcome implication, if “wish” can be taken to mean “desire,” which seems most natural to me. I next looked at a few other translations in search of alternative possibilities, starting with the one by Elizabeth Carter (c. 1750):

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Next I considered the famous translation by George Long (1888):

Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.

Finally, I examined the more recent translation, by Robin Hard (2014):

Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life.

These translations do not seem to help either. Unlike the White translation that we started with, all of the other ones translate θέλω as “wish.” If anything, “wish” seems to me, at any rate, to be even further from Massimo’s “accept” than “want.”

Next, I went to the lexicon. In particular, I went to the most complete English-Greek Lexicon, Liddell, Scott, and Jones. This cumbersome lexicon is available in hardback or online. The entry for θέλω is long, so I am going to excerpt the relevant part: 

ἐθέλω or θέλω (v. infr.), … [This section of the entry illustrates the various forms the word can take in a variety of ancient dialects and authors]

:—to be willing (of consent rather than desire, v. βούλομαι 1), but also generally, wish. [What follows are a number of textual references for the word, and other nuances of meaning. If the reader wishes to check my work, they are welcome to do so]

Now we are getting somewhere! The entry says, “to be willing (of consent rather than desire …).” The parentheses give me the necessary clue, that there is a contrast between being willing that something be the case, and actually desiring it to be the case. How can we make sense of this distinction? Imaging the following: During the evening before our usual trash pick-up day, my wife asks me, “do you want to take out the trash?” Feeling a bit sarcastic, I reply, “I don’t want to, but I will,” or “I don’t want to, but I am willing to.” This may be the sort of distinction we need. It is not that I desire things to be a certain way. It is simply that I am willing to do what is in front of me no matter what may befall me, and I consent to it. This, then, seems to be a way of understanding Enchiridion 8 that fits more with the notion of “acceptance” endorsed by Massimo in our discussion in Rome.

So, keeping the results of this investigation in mind, how might we translate the passage? As a first gloss, I suggest understanding it in the following way:

Do not seek for the things that come about to come about as you will them to, but be willing for the things that come about to come about as they do, and your life will flow well.

However, this may seem to water down the conflict between the two options. As translated here, it seems possible that I can “seek” for things to be a certain way, but still be willing to accept them however they turn out. If we can save Massimo’s interpretation only at the cost of rendering the conflict between these two options unrecognizable, then that might not be acceptable either.

There does seem to be one more move to make, however. If we follow the lead of the Carter translation above, and replace “seek” with “demand,” then we can retain the conflict between the options. Thus we have the following translation:

Do not demand that the things that come about come about as you will them to, but be willing for the things that come about to come about as they do, and your life will flow well.

And if we can understand the sense of “will” in this translation to be pretty much in line with “accept,” then it seems that Enchiridion 8 can be made consistent with Massimo’s understanding after all. And we can still retain the contrast between the two options presented. So, it is possible to read Enchiridion 8 in a manner consistent with the denial of a providential universe. I did not want to admit it, but I will.


Massimo's comment: I am so impressed by the scholarship, philosophical acuity, and willingness to pursue the matter displayed here by my friend Rob that I am humbled by this essay. And of course, I'm perfectly happy to agree with the conclusions! That said, I wonder what Rob will think when my new book comes out, since it's essentially a section-by-section update of the Enchiridion, where I end up disagreeing with Epictetus about half of the time. I guess we'll have to have many more conversations on the terrazza of the Musei Capitolini in Rome!

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