Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Stoics’

The Stoic Solution: The Wisdom to Tell the Difference

One way that Spinoza seems to be clearly drawing on the Stoics is in terms of recognizing that we are sorrowful about events because we suppose that we have some power to make them otherwise when we do not.  The Stoics counsel us to seek to understand causes so that we might understand what outcomes we can affect and which we cannot, what aspects of the world we can control and which we cannot, to focus on those that we can and to recognize that those we cannot are just part of the order of things and to accept them accordingly.

The problem I was realizing as I was getting myself organized for the new semester and setting myself some intentions for the semester–thinking about how not to worry about things that are out of my control and to only work on those that were within my control–is that anxiety comes from not being able to know which is which.  I can understand why the Serenity Prayer ends with a request for wisdom to know the difference between the things that we can change and the things that we cannot.  My entire anxious life is rooted in wondering if I did something that adversely affected some situation that I might otherwise have thought I had no control over or whether I should have done something in order to bring about some desired goal that I might have thought was not in my control.

Seneca writes that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations because he recognizes when his efforts can be thwarted.  But that would really seem to be all the time, which is to suggest that one’s plans may be in her control but the success of them always depends on the order of the nature and fate.  For the Stoics, the actions that we control are themselves part of a larger order of nature.  So our control is even then in affirming them as part of that order.  The good Stoic then tries to fit into that order of what will be.  Here it seems that the Stoic understanding of our action involves a sense of time that sees the action we contemplate as something that already fits within the order of the universe.  The wise man acts in a way that knowing the causes of the universe can conform to its order.  Such a way of acting seems to involve that we already know how our action fit into the universe.  Our problem is that we cannot yet understand the causes of what has not yet happened.  I think this is what Arendt means by the newness of action, and why Kant makes the responsibility to the duty and not the outcome, and yet it is the outcome that we want to achieve.  This is why we can never fully understand the causes and as a consequence can never fully know what is in our control and what is not in our control.  What is not in our power it would seem is the wisdom to tell the difference.

A Stoic Reading of Aristotle

Last semester, I ended the last three weeks of my ancient philosophy course on the Stoics.  I began the course with Aristotle’s first line from the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.”  The entire course unpacked this sentence and its multiple possibilities.  What does it mean for nature to direct our desire to know?  How is human nature a matter of knowing?  How does knowledge function as a measure of ourselves and of the world?  How does knowledge depend on desire?  To what extent and in what ways are we responsible for becoming who we are, for fulfilling or not fulfilling our nature?  I was happily surprised to find the Stoics a fitting conclusion to these conversations, especially because of the way they think of the order of nature itself as fate, and human virtue as a matter of affirming this order or fate.

The Stoics offered a new possibility for understanding Aristotle’s famous opening line in a way that shows the intimacy between nature, fate and freedom or responsibility for the Greeks.  This intimacy is something that is very difficult for Aristotle to separate.  The Stoics were students of Zeno of Citium but they were clearly drawing from both Plato and Aristotle.  It isn’t much of a stretch then to offer a Stoic interpretation of Aristotle’s anthropology and ethics.  When Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, the Stoic interpretation would be that human beings fit into the order of the cosmos as knowing beings.  They fulfill that order when they fulfill their nature as knowing beings.  They are responsible to become the kinds of beings who affirm the order of the cosmos.  Human virtue consists in managing the pains and pleasures of the world so that they do not detract but support their role in the order of the cosmos.  Human vice is giving in to impulses that detract from the order of the cosmos.  Aristotle describes choice as that which leads to actions wherein our desire is guided by reason.  Choosing is affirming the rational order of what is. Read more