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. Read more »