Paradoxes of Stoic Prescriptions

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Stoicism has been enjoying a renaissance lately. Popular books with Stoic advice are widespread, it’s being marketed as a life-hack, and now with the global coronavirus pandemic, Stoicism is a regular touchstone in prescriptions for maintaining sanity in troubled times. It’s not difficult to see why Stoicism is making a comeback. We’re facing difficult days, and the core insight of Stoic value theory is the grand division between what is up to us and what is not. Our mental life, what we think, to what we direct our attention, how we accept or reject ideas, and how we exercise our wills, are all up to us. And then there’s everything else: money, fame, health, status, and how things in the world generally go. If we attend only to the things in the first category (namely, that we maintain our cool, that we are critical thinkers, and we do our duty), then we will never be disappointed, because those are things up to us. But if we fixate on the latter things, then we are doomed to anxiety and disappointment, because those are things that are not up to us. Epictetus’ Enchiridion famously opens with this observation, and all Stoic ethics is driven by this intuitive distinction. However, a number of difficulties arise once one prescribes Stoicism as a coping strategy.

To start, there is what we’ve elsewhere called the “Stoicism for dark days problem.” Here it is in a nutshell. For Stoicism to do the work it promises as a coping strategy, we must not only practice Stoicism when things go badly, but also when things go well. You can’t turn Stoicism on when you need to weather dark days, since in order to do that you’d need to judge that things are going badly. But according to Stoicism, the only thing that could go badly (or well) is one’s exercise of judgment; thus, to exercise one’s judgment in light of an assessment that things are going badly is to commit an error that implicitly denies Stoicism. Instead, you need to be a Stoic during the good times, too. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observes the problem of being double-minded between Stoic values and non-Stoic values when thinking about one’s life – he notes that it all too often results in confusion or incoherence (M 5.12). The trouble is that all of the attractions of Stoicism when it is offered as a consolation in trying times actually undercut the Stoic’s fundamental message.

Once we’ve understood the Stoicism for dark days problem, other downstream paradoxes arise for Stoic value theory. A prominent one is the problem of Stoic advice. Epictetus famously tells his students to cry along with those mourning (but advises not to cry inside – Ench 16). Notice that he does not tell his students to give mourners Stoic advice in the midst of their grief. In fact, Epictetus is regularly clear that Stoic practitioners should generally refrain from preaching Stoic philosophy. This is partly because of the puffery and pretention that tempt too many who practice public philosophizing, but also because Stoic advice suffers from the dark days problem – when you’re in most need of Stoic guidance, you are especially prone to misunderstand it.

The most troubling downstream consequence involves a form of weaponizing the Stoic’s philosophical program. Here is how it can run: bad times befall us, and the most vulnerable are affected adversely. They ask for help, but those not suffering hear their requests as merely irrational complaining. The unaffected respond with the advice that Stoic value theory provides the inner strength necessary to endure such challenges. Hence Stoicism becomes a tool for rationalizing the status quo or not intervening when things go sideways. Companies who prescribe Stoicism for their employees instead of health care or reasonable hours have weaponized the value theory.

In all, we think this broad cascade of perplexities in practicing Stoic value theory as instances of a broader phenomenon we’ve called The Owl of Minerva Problem (here and here). The view that the obstacle is the way becomes a way of endorsing the obstacles. The ancient Stoics were aware of this problem for their value theory (as we have noted here and here about Epictetus in particular), but it is important for us to be reminded now of this phenomenon. We, ourselves are deeply sympathetic with the Stoic program, but uncritical endorsements of it are, as it turns out, contrary to its very spirit.