Sunday, 15 January 2012

Stoicism: Good Men Are Invincible

Let's take a look at the claim that got me interested in Stoicism in the first place.  Here it is, from Socrates' Apology:

No harm can come to a good man, in life or death.

On the surface, this is ridiculous.  It sounds like the worst of Leibniz's best-of-all-worlds theory, like Job's judgemental friends - so obviously contradicted by what we see in the world every day.  Good people suffer more than bad people, if anything.  Christianity is simultaneously built on this principle - be a good person and they'll kill you, etc - and troubled by it in the problem of evil.  Innocent children catch awful diseases, and so on.

If we wish to construct Socrates' view charitably, we need to look at what he means by the words 'good' and 'harm'.  Rather than being a statement about how the world is, Socrates' claim is really a definition of a 'good man': a good man is someone to whom no harm can come.  How can anybody live to avoid all harm?  Well, as the Buddhists say, pain and harm are functions of desire - if you don't desire something, then removing it can't harm you.  But Socrates isn't saying that the good man desires nothing.  Rather, the good man desires only what is entirely within his power: his own moral behaviour.

You want to avoid being harmed?  It's easy: just see all the things that you can't control as worthless.  Your own health, the health and lives of people you care about, money, even your own life - all these things are determined largely by chance, and so it's a bad idea to worry about them.  Change the way you think so that, if you retain your moral integrity, you will be entirely satisfied.  Epictetus tells a story of a man who is summoned by a capricious ruler.  He refuses, and the ruler threatens to cut his head off.  "You are free to do that," says the man, "just as I am free to refuse your summons."

On this view, if you do something evil - kill another person, for instance - the only person you've harmed is yourself.  If you're killed by another person, they've done you no wrong.  How could they?  All they can harm is your body, your life - which as we've seen is of no concern to the Stoics.

Make your state of mind dependent on nothing but your own actions.  If you allow chance to determine how happy you are, you lay yourself open to disaster.  Don't worry about what will happen to you; worry about how you'll react to it. Then you'll be Socrates' 'good man', and nobody will be able to harm you again.


  1. In my opinion, this suggests the shortcomings of Stoicism in particular, and of philosophy generally.

    Regardless of any virtuous ("virtuous" being a loaded term in and of itself) acts I or anyone else may have committed that may have elevated me to the ranks of being a good person, I cannot agree with the proposition that if someone were to kill me he's done me no harm.

    I'd say that under such circumstances he's done me great harm indeed.

    Likewise, if we were to take a poll of all people who've been tortured I'd say it's a safe bet that most torture victims would agree that they've been harmed, their virtues notwithstanding.

    Perhaps I can be accused of splitting hairs. But herein lies one of the general problems of philosophy: it begins with an idea and then applies practical situations to those ideas in order to make moral judgments about those practical situations, which, in my view is not necessarily correct.

    It may be correct from time to time, but it's not correct all the time, and perhaps not even most of the time.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that philosophy isn't a worthy occupation - quite to the contrary: philosophy is much more valuable than, say, a career selling mobile phones or in disseminating government propaganda.

    Still, I'm continually vexed by the propensity of philosophy to use arguments that are facially coherent but that upon closer inspection, can approach the absurd.

    But keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. I've always heard in those words of Socrates a sort of optimistic hope of something unobservable. Not the precise religious views of his day, to be sure. But still, doesn't it seem like between Socrates' concern for virtue and justice, and his broad humility and agnosticism, that he's holding out some sort of larger hope? He's guessing that some sort of gods, or some machinations of the afterlife, might care as much about virtue as he does?

  3. Pied Cow, I know exactly what you mean. Depending on how pretentious you are, the expression is either 'aporia' or 'drowning in two inches of water'. Hopefully I can take a leaf out of your blog in future posts and try to make it more intuitive.

    Ivan, you're right that there's a very spiritual aspect to Socrates' words (and to most Stoic philosophy). In this series, however, I'm trying to formulate a very secular idea of Stoicism that doesn't rely on some kind of afterlife or 'larger hope'. I hope that I'm successful, and that Stoicism can be disentangled from its spiritual commitments - if not, it's going to seem alien and unpleasant to a lot of people.