Stoicism for Dark Days

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Marcus (3a)The philosophical program developed by the ancient Stoics is currently enjoying a renaissance. It recently has been heralded as an exceptionally effective ‘life hack' and refuge for sensitive souls in these dark days. With its emphasis on mastering one's emotions and steeling oneself against adversity, it is understandable that Stoicism's stock regularly rises as a coping mechanism in the midst of troubling times. Indeed, Stoicism originally arose in the dark days of the Hellenistic period, amidst war, violence, and social instability; as Admiral James Stockdale observed, it remains a philosophy aimed at enabling one to survive life's most tragic conditions.

We are philosophy professors, so we generally applaud whenever a traditional philosophical school gains popular appreciation. Moreover, since we are sympathetic with the Stoic program, we think the renewed interest in Stoicism is good news. Yet we bear two pieces of bad news for the Stoicism in Dark Days movement.

First, the Stoic program has its complications. As a theory of the good life, Stoicism is posited on a division between the things that are up to us (such as our beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and inclinations) and the things that are not up to us (such as our status, wealth, health, and so on). The Stoic holds that the key to living well is understanding this distinction. If we strive to control only what is up to us, we won't be frustrated; we will always have success. By contrast, when we try to control the things not up to us, we are doomed to failure, obstruction, and disappointment. According to the Stoic, our moral purpose is to perfect the things we can control – to be good critical thinkers, to want only things that are good, to do our duty for those who depend on us. Everything else is beyond our control and thus must be accepted; so long as we do not think our wellbeing depends on those externals, we are invulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate and thus truly free. This is the reasoning that Cicero presents throughout his Paradoxa Stoicorum and with which Epictetus opens the Enchiridion. Being good is not merely its own reward, but it is also sufficient for a good life. This view, then, offers a kind of liberty and dignity to all.

But this view prompts an obvious and longstanding objection.

In short: how can denying the value and significance of externals (material successes, political victories, even the virtue of ones' offspring) yield anything but inaction and complacency? Stoicism seems to place one on the road to a wholesale withdrawal from the world, perhaps even a smug or snarling refusal of it all. Traditionally, this challenge to the Stoics is called the lazy argument; it charges that Stoic value theory is a recipe for do-nothingism.

The traditional Stoic reply to the lazy argument took many forms, but the core thought behind them all was that, in order to cultivate the Stoic virtues of rationality and self-mastery, one must be active in the world. One does one's duty for one's community only if one is active in it. One can exercise one's rational capacities only if one is well-informed. It seems that one can develop the skills that render one invulnerable to the world only by becoming engaged with the world.

But this Stoic response to the lazy argument seems to constrain the sense in which Stoicism can provide refuge in dark days. In order to cultivate the qualities of character that make their own lives invulnerable to misfortune, Stoics must nevertheless involve themselves in those fateful turns. And so, Stoicism councils not that one close oneself up in an inner citadel and withdraw from the world, but rather to live in a way, out in the world, that constructs this citadel as a matter of habit. Stoicism, when properly lived, calls us to be maximally embedded in the darkest days. It is no coincidence, then, that Cato the Younger was both a prominent adherent of Stoicism and also a vocal opponent of the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar. Stoicism made the quality of Cato's life invulnerable to fate, but his life itself was not invulnerable.

This, of course, is bad news for Stoicism only in a particular sense. It is bad news if one's preferred notion of refuge from dark days is a psychological condition where there are other more pleasant matters to attend to, a kind of philosophically-achieved detachment. Stoicism offers refuge only in that it guides one toward developing a state of character that weathers the dark days. Stoicism offers equipment for enduring the challenges, not eliminating them. For many, this amounts to an affirmation of the world's tragedies, not a refuge at all.

Now for our second bit of bad news. The revival of Stoicism has come too late. If one adopts Stoicism specifically for the purpose of enduring the dark days that have already have descended, one has missed the point. One must be a Stoic at all times, fortunate and unfortunate, for the program to be possible. It should be obvious why this is the case. If one revels in the good turns of fate but then turns Stoical amidst the bad, then one embraces the Stoic perspective only out of convenience. When selectively deployed, Stoicism turns out to be merely a sour grapes philosophy, a self-deceived rationalizing habit that keeps firmly in place all of the affective and emotional drives that Stoicism is supposed to purge. Arguably, Stoicism-by-convenience is also contradictory. In order to turn Stoic only in the dark times, one must first sort good fortune from bad. But Stoicism requires us to regard all fortune as neither good nor bad; moreover, the Stoic must see the very thought that some events are bad as itself bad. It is the very kind of thought we must rid ourselves of if we are to achieve Stoic freedom.

The ancient Stoics recognized that maintaining the Stoic comportment requires continuous practice, and that means that one must exercise one's Stoic virtue even in the best of times. Epictetus identifies this element of Stoic training with his exercise of the jug:

In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things. If you are fond of a jug, say, "I am fond of a jug!" For when it is broken, you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies, you will not be upset. (Enchiridion 3)

Epictetus' point is that one cannot maintain the Stoic attitude just when things are going badly. Stoic value theory must be practiced when things are going well, too. In fact, the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, noted that unless one maintains the Stoic attitude in times of plenty, it is impossible to call it up when times are hard.

Avoid Caesarification, an indelible stain. It happens. Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy makes you. . . . So that when your time comes, your mind will be clear. (Meditations 6.30)

So it seems that that Stoicism's renaissance during these dark days is unlikely to do any good. In order for Stoicism to equip us to endure in bad times, we must adopt it when times are good. But, of course, when things are going well, who has time for such stark philosophy? Indeed, the Stoic idea that the times one is living in can never be good or bad looks flatly perverse when things appear to be going one's way. Thus, then, a paradox of Stoicism: When one is most obviously in need of Stoicism's benefits, one is least able to properly adopt and practice it; and the times when one is best able to put in the work necessary to cultivate the Stoic comportment are precisely the times when one is least able to acknowledge Stoicism's benefits.