What is and is not in our power, part I

Last year I was part of a small group of scholars who debated the merits (or lack thereof) of Stoicism as modern practical philosophy, first at a session of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, Georgia, then in print, on the pages of Reason Papers. I have already published here the opening salvo of that session, an article I wrote entitled “Toward the Fifth Stoa: The Return of Virtue Ethics” (part I & part II). I have also written about my response to the first critic on the panel, my friend Brian Johnson of Fordham University (author of the excellent The Role Ethics of Epictetus), who raised interesting issues about the Stoic conceptions of friendship and grief. Here I will address the second critic on the panel, Christian Coseru, of the College of Charleston, who objected to a number of notions surrounding the famous dichotomy of control, the distinction between what is and is not “up to us,” as Epictetus puts it. Christian’s full paper is available on line

The ancient Stoics were known for putting forth a number of “paradoxes,” so much so that Cicero wrote a whole treatise to explore them, aptly entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum. The term “paradox,” in that context, did not have anything to do with logical contradictions, but rather with para doxan, that is, uncommon opinions. Certainly, two of the most uncommon opinions put forth by the Stoics are that we should live “according to nature” and that things in general can neatly be divided into those that are “up to us” and those that are “not up to us.” In my previous article for the two-part symposium (links above), I proposed that these are two cardinal pillars of both ancient and modern Stoicism. The first notion is famously summarized by Diogenes Laertius:

“This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. So too Cleanthes in his treatise On Pleasure, as also Posidonius, and Hecato in his work On Ends. Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De finibus; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.87)

The second notion memorably opens Epictetus’s Enchiridion

“Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion 1.3) 

In his response to my earlier article, Coseru questions the notion that these two principles of ancient Stoicism are defensible today. He argues that therefore other crucial notions of Stoic philosophy—from our conception of agency to the nature of virtue— also ought to be discarded or seriously curtailed. I believe, however, that Coseru’s objections miss the mark. In part, this is because of some common misunderstandings of what Stoics actually say, and in part, because modern science—from evolutionary biology to neuroscience—not only, contra Coseru’s opinion, does not invalidate the broad Stoic view of humans and human agency, but in fact confirms it to an extent more than sufficient to retain intact the core of Stoic philosophy. 

Living According to Nature and Modern Human Biology 

Let me start with the notion that we should “live according to nature.” The ancient Stoics understood this in the context of a providential universe, not in the Christian sense of the word, but instead as part of their view of the cosmos as a living organism endowed with the capacity for reason, the Logos. As Epictetus puts it, quoting Chrysippus: 

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses, II.6.9-10)

Modern Stoics, however, are not pantheists, which is why Lawrence Becker, in his A New Stoicism, rephrased the principle as “follow the facts.” The Stoic, under this interpretation, has an attitude of empirically informed rationalism and so acts on our most comprehensive understanding of the nature of the universe and of human nature. In practice, however, both the ancient and the modern versions boil down to applying reason to improve social living, because “the facts” of evolutionary biology tell us that two of the fundamental characteristics of human nature are precisely that we are capable of reason (to an extraordinarily larger extent than any other species on the planet) and that we are irreducibly social (meaning that we thrive only when embedded in a social network, though we can, if need be, survive as individuals). 

Coseru, however, objects that: “by interpreting the Stoic concept of nature to mean follow the facts, and the concept of human nature to mean our sociality and capacity to reason . . . . we assume an unproblematic assimilation of (the Stoic conception of) nature to facts about our biology and psychology, in particular of biological nature to the findings of evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics and of moral nature to the empirical facts and hypotheses of moral psychology.” 

Indeed, we do. However, we are never told in any detail by Coseru why this is supposed to be problematic. Kevin Laland, for instance, in his superlative Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, one of the most comprehensive recent books on human nature and bio-cultural evolution, sketches an image of Homo sapiens with which modern Stoics find themselves at home. Laland clearly shows how the human capacity for language and intelligence, coupled with our prosociality, have characterized the evolution and differentiation of our species (and a number of others, now extinct, closely related to us) from other primate lineages. No specific moral injunctions follow from this observation, nor would a virtue ethical approach like Stoicism require them, but the general nature of our biology and morality, as described by evolutionary biology, behavioral genetics, and moral psychology, are, in fact, congruent with the Stoic picture of the world. Stoics are “following the facts” in this sense, just like Becker argued on the basis of a larger survey of the pertinent modern scientific literature. 

Coseru continues: “moral agency is a type of achievement that comes with learning the norms of ethical conduct. The norms themselves are not traceable to specifically neurobiological mechanisms and processes, although, once learned, they would have their neural correlates when enacted.” This is true, but I honestly fail to see why it represents a problem for Stoicism. Yes, we refine our moral agency by learning norms of ethical conduct, but we do start—according to modern scientific literature— with an innate sense of prosociality and even a sense of fairness without which no such learning of norms could possibly take place. 

The existence of specific neural correlates for our behavior, however, is not relevant to the discussion at hand. Of course, any human behavior will have a neural correlate, since we don’t do anything without our brain circuitry being involved. However, nothing in Stoic philosophy hinges on the specifics of such neural circuitry. That said, and to reiterate the high degree of compatibility between Stoicism and modern science, the ancient concept of a “ruling faculty” (hêgemonikon, as Marcus Aurelius calls it) finds close parallels in the biology of the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes (but, interestingly, not so in lesser apes and monkeys). They are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events. 

Coseru asks: “[B]eyond the broadly shared idea that, as Pigliucci puts it, ‘we thrive in social groups and . . . are capable of reason’ . . . how do we know when our employ of reason has improved social living and engendered our flourishing?” I am more than a bit puzzled by this sort of question. I take it that many advances in the human condition, from the material ones (sanitation, food production, airplanes, computers) to the moral ones (abolition of slavery, expansion of women’s rights, gay rights) are the result of people applying their reasoning faculty to the solution of practical or moral problems. I doubt that Coseru is arguing that there is too much reason in the world, or that a society in thrall to irrational emotions would somehow be better. Notice also that “reason,” for the Stoics, has an inherently moral component. They are not talking about simple logic, but rather about what is reasonable to do for biological beings like us to survive and thrive. As Seneca famously states: 

“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXVI.32)

Coseru says: “The new sciences of human nature where the modern Stoic seeks, and claims to find, grounds for action, also tell us, among other things, that human behavioral traits are heritable, that the effects of nurture are smaller than those of our genes, and that much of the variation in human behavior is accountable in terms of neither genetic inheritance nor family rearing conditions. Neither my genetic programming nor my family upbringing is within my power. The evidence from behavioral genetic research also suggests, though, that much of who we are (and are capable of) is determined by our unique experiences.” 

There is a confusion of different issues here, and Coseru, in part, gets the science wrong. To begin with, it is not at all clear just how genetics and environment interact to yield cognitive human traits. Also, the concept of heritability is misleading, since it is a statistical construct designed to yield estimates of correlations between different sources of variation under highly controlled conditions. It tells us next to nothing about the complex causal web underlying human intelligence. That said, of course both genetics and early environmental causes influence subsequent behavior. However, this does not represent a problem for Stoicism in particular: any account of human moral agency has to deal with it. Moreover, even the ancient Stoics were clear that externals like one’s family and upbringing are not under our control. While they obviously did not have a concept of genetic inheritance, they grasped that people come into the world in all sorts and shapes and with all sorts of tendencies. 

As for the importance of our unique experiences, yes, very much so, but that’s the whole point of Stoic training: to equip us to deal as best as we can with the variety of experiences that continuously influence and shape us. Indeed, the Stoics were materialists and determinists. Chrysippus famously explained their notion of agency by invoking the image of a rolling cylinder: If we push a cylinder and it starts to roll, intuitively we want to say that it is the external push that caused the movement. In fact, though, it is a combination of external and internal causes: it is in the nature of cylinders, but not, say, of cubes, to roll when pushed. The analogy is with the complexity of the causal web that underpins every human judgment and action: parts of the web are external, part internal, and the internal parts—our own behavioral propensities—can in turn be altered and improved through time. Again, short of denying human agency altogether, Coseru is not raising issues that are specific to Stoicism. If one is a Christian or a Buddhist, one still has to deal with the same facts from behavioral genetics and moral psychology, and yet somehow retain that degree of autonomous judgment that makes us human. 

Coseru adds: “The implication of a conception of virtue as rooted in nature is that vice becomes in some sense unnatural, a product of unreason rather than a natural inclination. If this is the case, then prudence and virtue are no longer within our power since we could not in principle have done otherwise. This picture of human agency, which pitted classical Stoicism against the Greek tragedians, is now also at odds with a great deal of empirical research that regards traditional views of human rationality as flawed.” 

This betrays a misunderstanding of the Stoic position. Vice is not unnatural; it is just unreasonable. Seneca clearly states in De Ira that anger is a natural response to certain situations. However, he also warns us that it is destructive, which is why we should train ourselves to counter it. “Living according to nature” is not a simplistic appeal to nature, an elementary logical fallacy that would hardly be congruent with the fact that the Stoics were preeminent logicians. The notion that “we could not in principle have done otherwise” is irrelevant in this context, since the Stoics were compatibilists in terms of free will, a position, again, congruent with their materialism and determinism. 

It is also not clear why Coseru thinks that the picture of human agency inherent in Stoicism is at odds with modern empirical research. Just to take one example, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s analysis of emotions relies on precisely the same concept of emotions as defined by a significant cognitive component that Seneca articulated and Epictetus deployed when counseling his students. According to LeDoux, there is a crucial distinction between an emotion in the neuroscientific sense of a particular non-conscious process underpinned by specific neural correlates, on the one hand, and the psychological, conscious state of experiencing an emotion, on the other hand. This, I maintain, is pretty much the Stoic distinction between “impressions” (which are unavoidable) and “assent” (which is the result of our conscious judgment), as explained by Margaret Graver

To be more specific, LeDoux points out that when neuroscientists talk about, say, fear (which is the major focus of his book), they refer to the evolved, presumably adaptive, non-conscious neural system that allows us to detect threats and to react to them. The classical fight-or-flight response is an obvious example, and the neural machinery that makes it possible is located in the amygdala. The amygdala does, of course, create the basis for the conscious feeling of the emotion we call fear. It is important, though, not to confuse the two (as, according to LeDoux, even a number of neuroscientists tend to do). Emotions are better understood as cognitively assembled conscious feelings, which means that they are the result of an active, conscious, construction of the human mind—just like Stoics maintain. It is because of this cognitive assembly of emotions that it makes sense to take seriously Epictetus’s advice: 

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Enchiridion 1.5)

(The concluding part to this essay will appear next Monday.)

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