Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

The philosophy of Stoicism argues that humans ought to only concern themselves with things that are under their control. In the Stoic tradition the things that are considered to be under our control are actions, dispositions, and feelings. Similarly, for the Stoic, what makes human beings distinct from other animals, and somewhat like God is their ability to control their actions, dispositions and feelings. Consequently, for the Stoic , the good life is not one that is comfortable or pleasant, but one in which the agent takes care to properly order his feelings, dispositions and actions.

While Stoicism can seem rather antiquated as its greatest defenders were either Ancient Greeks or Romans (ie Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism remains attractive to many inhabitants of modernity; in fact I find myself attracted to Stoicism.  Similarly, Stoicism has been deeply influential on Kant and Descartes, has had a significant influence on modern psychological therapeutic techniques.

Part of the attraction of Stoicism seems to at least partially lie in the fact that it enables us to insulate our lives from the terrible things that happen that are outside of our control. Reading the Stoics can help us to recognize that worrying about what others think about us or other things that are outside of our control is pointless as it is not in our power to control these sorts of things.

While Stoicism remains attractive in many ways in the modern era there is at least one set of issues that make it difficult for modern nonbelievers, in particular, to buy into this philosophy.  This set of issues is our fundamental attitude towards the events that occur in the universe. The Stoics believed in a providential God that ensured that events unfolded as they ought to. This belief in providence is deeply related to their ability to be indifferent towards things not under their control, whereas the tendency of modern unbelievers to see events as the result of mere mechanical causation makes it far more difficult to just accept the flows of events, especially as humanity seems to possess more and more technological power over nature. Consequently, while Stoicism may remain attractive to modern unbelievers a different reason other than providence will have to be found to show why we ought to accept the flow of events rather than trying to conquer or control them. I will examine the human relationship to death and aging to highlight the difference in outlook between the Stoics and modern unbelievers and suggest that while we can learn from the Stoics the Stoics seem simply wrong to suggest that the only good worth pursuing is the good of proper self-control.

From the Stoic perspective aging and death are just natural elements of life that need not be resisted. The key is to respond to aging and death not by being distraught by the inevitability of death and aging, but by accepting that these are two elements of life that we cannot escape and must just accept. For example in discussing his process of aging Seneca notes that

“Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life and delighted to only having limited dealings with the body. It has thrown off a great part of its burden. It’s full of vigour and carrying on an argument with me on the subject of old age, maintaining that these are its finest years. Let’s accept what it says and make the most of its blessings…Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that? Not because there is anything wrong with a sudden, violent departure but because this gradual withdrawal is an easy route.” (Letter XXVI)

Here Seneca notes the inevitability of aging and death and the fact that it must be accepted, rather than something that we ought to try to escape.

On the contrary within the world of modern unbelief it seems as though we are attempting to at least prolong the inevitability of death and aging, if not trying to escape from these seeming inevitabilities entirely. This is made evident by the amount of energy and resources that are allocated to prevent death and disease and to ensure that people are able to look and “feel” younger for longer.  A large part of this resistance to aging and death lies in the fact that we have uncovered that we have the ability to prolong life and delay aging, in conjunction with the fact that we fetishize youth, and bodily goods, but it is beyond the scope of this entry to fully uncover all that underlies the modern tendency to see aging and death as a mere curse.

To return to the topic at hand, if, as modern unbelievers, we do not believe in providence why would we believe that we ought to accept death and aging and not to try to resist them with all of our might? One possible reason why we might think that there is something contemptible about the person who tries to transcend their biological limits. In relation to this we might say that part of what being a good human being means is that one recognizes that one is not a God, and as a result one should accept one’s impermanence with quiet dignity.

This picture of the good is perfectly coherent, but it is not clear why modern unbelievers ought to accept it. Given that we praise people who have overcome their limitations to do great things it seems odd to say that good human beings ought to not transcend their biological limits.  Furthermore, if we accept that our biological constitution is just a brute fact, rather than something that sets out limits for our action it seems that there is little reason to see our constitution as something that sets normative limits for us in general.

Consequently, it seems that while modern unbelievers can learn from the Stoic tradition there is a large, and perhaps, unbridgeable gap between the outlook of the Stoics and between modern unbelievers. When providence is dropped from the picture and the development of technology and science has allowed us to more adeptly conquer nature it is hard to see why we ought to see goodness as lying in only properly ordering one’s feelings, dispositions and actions, rather than trying to control nature to ensure that more people encounter more goods.

Of course a defender of Stoicism might say that appeals to providence are not necessary to justify as Stoicism as external goods like wealth, health and prosperity are not really goods and thus we should only focus on ordering our feelings, dispositions, and actions, rather than trying to pursue external goods. But the Stoic reasoning behind this has never been convincing to me. While wealth, health and prosperity may be less important goods than character or integrity it seems odd to say that a life of a fortunate affluent citizen of good character is no better than the life of an impoverished slave with equally good character.  External goods cannot be the foundation of a good life, but they can augment it, and it seems downright bizarre to say that a life of good character that involves luxurious aesthetic appreciation is no better than a life with equally good character that is barred from all aesthetic appreciation. The fallout of taking this position is that fortune will play a role in determining the goodness of lives, such that goodness is not simply the responsibility of the agent, but this seems to be a worthwhile cost to pay for a clearer picture of the nature of goodness.

Works Cited

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

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The Love of Travel and the Relationship between Fortune and Happiness

Most people in post-industrial societies will espouse a love of travel; they desire to go to see faraway places and encounter unique authentic cultures. This love of travel in many cases expresses a genuine desire to understand what it means to be human, but in other cases it expresses a problematic dependency on circumstances outside of one’s control, for one’s happiness.

For many, travel is something that allows them to widen their perspective as they encounter artifacts of the past, and cultures distinct from their own. In these cases travel is surely an enriching force as it helps people to transcend their parochial perceptions of what the good is, and forces them to contemplate what is truly valuable. When directly encountered with a culture that does not value monetary success, the North American Yuppie is forced to question how important monetary success is in their life, and in some cases their current assumptions regarding what is valuable may further develop and grow because of their contact with the other culture.

On the other hand, for some, travel becomes so central to their lives, that they begin to live for travel, and are unhappy if they are not able to travel for an extended period of time. This is deeply problematic as it signifies that one’s happiness is dependent on one’s ability to travel. There are two particularly troubling aspects of this dependency on travel for happiness. Firstly, it reveals an excessive valuation of travel. While traveling is certainly a pleasant experience in the grand scheme of things we can live incredibly rich, fulfilling lives without traveling. Modern technology allows us to easily learn about other cultures and the past without travelling. Furthermore, if travel is valued by a person because it allows us to recharge, than we should be able to find other practises that allow us to recharge, and gather the energy necessary to take on the responsibilities of ordinary life. Travel does not provide us with anything that is fundamental to a well-lived life that we cannot get from other sources, and thus it makes little sense to be upset that we are unable to travel.

The second reason why a person’s dependency on travel is problematic is related to the first, although it is distinct. This second reason is that dependency on travel for happiness reveals an excessive dependency on factors outside of one’s control for one’s happiness. In Letters from a Stoic, the Roman Philosopher Seneca says we show the disorder of our souls when we perceive our happiness as dependent on circumstances outside of our control. For Seneca, a person with a well-ordered soul realizes there is no point in getting upset over circumstances that are out of their control and thus their happiness is unaffected by fortune. I certainly would not go as far as Seneca in saying that a slave can live as happy of a life as modern member of a post-industrial society, but Seneca is surely right to point out that making one’s happiness entirely dependent on factors outside of one’s control signifies a defect of character. A person with a well-ordered intellectual and emotional constitution will be able to be happy even when circumstances do not go in their favour. Consequently, making one’s happiness dependent on the ability to travel is deeply problematic as this makes one happiness dependent on something outside of one’s control, as the ability to travel is conditioned by one’s income and expenses, which despite the myths of rugged individualism, are substantially outside of the control of the agent. Therefore, the person whose happiness is dependent on being able to travel is displaying a vice that prevents them from being able to be happy when circumstances do not go in their favour.

I do not mean to denigrate those who love to travel. I love traveling myself, but when we make our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control we expose ourselves to being destroyed by the world. There certainly may be a danger of making our happiness dependent on sources that are not threatened by fortune, as certain important goods like friendship and love depend on making our happiness dependent on circumstances outside of our control, as loving someone, or developing a friendship, always risks the possibility of betrayal or rejection. But nonetheless I see more of a problem with making our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control in post-industrial societies, as we tend to connect our happiness with anything and everything that is outside of our control (technology, entertainment, income). Consequently many of us need to learn to make our happiness less dependent on such factors, when the goods in question are not particularly pertinent. Making our happiness dependent on eating particular kinds of food, watching a sitcom, or having the new IPhone, reveals not only that one has superficial priorities, but that one can be deeply damaged by a simple change in fortune.