Against Stoicism

For a long time I was a big fan of Stoic philosophy. I liked the idea that we had free reign over ourselves, and that we could choose how to react to even terrible events. More, I liked the idea that we should ground our happiness on the strength and success of our will. It seemed to do what I was promised philosophy would do: disconnect our happiness and well-being from the unpredictable hardships of the world. I still like (although I’m growing more and more skeptical about) Socrates’ claim that no harm can come to a good man.

But If I’m going to reject utilitarianism and deontology for inadequately modelling human psychology, it seems I have to reject Stoicism too. Stoicism is predicated on an idea of the mind as composed of reason and passions, where cold reason can exercise control over the unruly passions. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is correct anymore. I follow Nietzsche now in conceiving of ‘reason’ as just another passion, or more accurately a combination of passions. I follow Kierkegaard in believing that you cannot mold yourself into being the person you want to be by main force.

I still think Stoic philosophy is useful. Momentary emotional impulses are and should be under your control. To a large extent (here I carve out a tentative exception for mental health issues) it is your decision how you react to terrible events, and a sufficient effort of will can go a long way towards avoiding suffering. But I no longer believe Stoicism is a suitable principle for everyday life. Grief is an appropriate response, at times, just as joy is. Biology isn’t destiny, except when it is.

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5 thoughts on “Against Stoicism

  1. Mark Johnston

    Whether Reason and Passion are independent or if Reason is composed of Passion does not seem to affect Stoicism. If you decide to focus on all of the constituent parts of Reason or on what we perceive as the final product the result would be the same. The only problem would be that if you focus on the parts, you run the risk of missing some of them or misunderstanding how they interract. Of course, our understanding of Reason is inadequate and needs to be open to revision, but it is the best thing we have going.

    Reply
    1. Sean Post author

      Mark, as I see it Stoicism advocates total mastery of the passions under reason. If the passions and reason are inextricably linked, this core goal becomes largely incoherent. Why do you argue that the dependence of reason upon passion does not affect Stoicism?

      Reply
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  3. Adam

    Hey I just stumbled upon this. I think most people misunderstand a fundamental point that stoicism advocates. It doesn’t say( as to use your example) grief is an inappropriate response, stoicism advocates recognizing that you should try your best not to completely yield to your grief. Both grief and joy should not become ‘tyrants over the soul’ but rather moderated as best they can. As best they can- it’s not about being perfect it’s about striving toward moral progress everyday – as to try to continually attempt to allow you happiness to be non-contingent upon externals. The stoics say that reason is essentially the pathway to realizing happiness is non-contingent, but they don’t say that you should never grieve or fell upset, anxious, stressed, ect. It’s about moderating them as best you can and instantly trying to excercise temperance and self-control while experiencing them. And when you don’t, don’t beat yourself up- simply recognize it and attempt to de better next time. – that is using stoicism properly and that’s really what it advocates

    Reply
    1. Adam

      There are a few typos in my post but the main one I want to correct as to avoid confusion is at the bottom where it says “instantly trying to excercise temperance…” Instantly should be constantly.

      I wrote this on my iPhone and it autocorrected it. Sorry if there is confusion.

      Reply

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