Can We Be Stoics?

In discussing the sources of philosophy Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) quotes the Stoic Epictetus: “Philosophy arises when we become aware of our own weakness and helplessness.” But later Jaspers points to what he considers Stoicism’s shortcomings:

The advice of the Stoic, to withdraw to our own freedom in the independence of the mind, is not adequate. The Stoic’s perception of man’s weakness was not radical enough. He failed to see that the mind in itself is empty, dependent on what is put into it, and he failed to consider the possibility of madness. The Stoic leaves us without consolation; the independent mind is barren, lacking all content. He leaves us without hope, because his doctrine affords us no possibility of inner transformation, no fulfillment through self-conquest in love, no hopeful expectation of the possible (Way to Wisdom, 1951).

One finds similar ambivalence in the writings of the English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1781). Johnson recommends Epictetus’ counsel that we should “be preserved from too ardent wishes for good, and from too much dejection in real evil” (Rambler No. 2).* Yet he remarks that the ideal of apatheia, an exalted state of complete detachment from pleasure and pain, is confuted by daily experience (Rambler No. 6). And in another commentary he discusses the doctrines of the founder of Stoicism: Zeno of Citium held that things beyond our moral scope are neither good nor bad. Johnson quips “if pain be not an evil” then ethical instruction would indeed be pointless. On the contrary

That life has many miseries, and that those miseries are, sometimes at least, equal to all the powers of fortitude, is now universally confessed; and therefore it is useful to consider not only how we may escape them, but by what means … [they] may be mitigated and lightened; and how we may make those hours less wretched, which the condition of our present existence will not allow to be very happy (Rambler No. 32).

The most forceful critique of Stoicism is found in Johnson’s tale Rasselas (chap. 18) where the Abyssinian prince discovers a philosopher who supposedly “looked with indifference” on misfortune. The next day, however, when Rasselas returns for more instruction he finds the man completely overwhelmed with grief at the sudden death of his daughter, confessing “What comfort… can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?”

The teachings of Zeno or the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius are noble but ultimately grim and lacking in consolation. While providing useful precepts on certain points, the shortcoming of these systems lies in their fragile combination of agnosticism and austerity, which is no doubt why their influence has never been extensive. As Johnson indicates, to truly follow Stoicism we would have to something more than human.

* W. Jackson Bate provides helpful references to Stoicism in his annotations to the Yale edition of Johnson’s essays.

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