Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stoicism: One Last Try

This is going to be the last post in my series on Stoicism (although I reserve the right to bang on about it in future).  The major criticism I've received so far, on the internet and in real life, has been this: why would anybody want to embrace a philosophy that requires them not to enjoy things? If I've misunderstood the criticism, let me know. For now I'm going to argue forcefully against it, in an attempt to either salvage the value of Stoicism or establish that it has none.

Can we avoid pain without avoiding pleasure?

I consider it fairly undeniable that Stoicism does a good job at minimizing pain.  In other words, a proper Stoic is indifferent to any outside event that befalls her, by definition.  Now you might claim that some pain ought not to be avoided - losing a loved one, for instance - and I think the root of that claim is a belief that if you avoid pain, you necessarily avoid pleasure.  Can we construct a Stoicism where we can enjoy pleasures like sex and at the same time cultivate indifference to pain?  I don't think so.

Rousseau said famously (I can't find the exact quote, so feel free to correct me) that without property, there is no harm.  What this means, roughly, is that harm can be exactly defined as damage to property - if I pick your pocket, I'm stealing your property, and if I break your leg, I'm damaging your most fundamental possession: your body.  To enjoy pleasures like, for example, good health, we need to accept our body as part of our property.  When our body improves, our property improves, and we are made happy.  The Stoic way of avoiding pain is accepting that our body should not be considered our property, since it can be damaged by outside forces.  When we do this, we necessarily prevent ourselves from enjoying improvements to that property.

Should we avoid pain at all?

So I can't see a way in which we can avoid pain without being a Stoic and avoiding pleasure.  However, you might think that, on balance, the pleasure of life is worth the pain!  If, looking back, you can honestly say that   your life has been overall positive, then I can hardly argue that you should be a Stoic. Epictetus would say that you're a base animal, driven by urges, but honestly I wouldn't go that far.  On my view, Stoicism is for people who consider the level of pain in their life to be greater than the level of pleasure - like much philosophy, it serves simultaneously as explanation and consolation.

I'd personally side with Schopenhauer and say that pain in the world outweighs pleasure, and that if it doesn't for you (or me), then that's either momentary luck, delusion, or an artifact of extreme economic privilege (or all three).  Still, if you happen to be lucky or rich, then I don't want to harsh your buzz, man - Stoicism isn't for you.  Basically, the choice of whether you should avoid pain or not is an entirely subjective choice: there's no objective reason for everyone to embrace Stoic principles.

Are you already practicing stoicism?

Finally - still with me? - I'd like to argue that you're probably already to some extent a Stoic.  Western society has been influenced heavily by the Bible, of course, and as Ivan mentioned in the comments earlier, the book of Job contains some pretty heavy proto-Stoicism.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? Anyone who believes that 'such is life' or 'what will be, will be' is practicing Stoic principles on a small scale.  Moreover, anyone who makes a conscious decision not to 'be a whiner' - a sick person, for instance, who pretends to be well because she doesn't want to be the kind of person who complains - is approaching Stoicism.  The claim that the Stoics are making is that this kind of small-scale behaviour can be extrapolated into a large-scale ethical philosophy - and while they might be wrong, there's at least a little intuitive weight behind them.


  1. I still don't think I'm seeing why we can't "enjoy pleasures like sex and at the same time cultivate indifference to pain."

    I definitely acknowledge ways that grasping for pleasure, and depending upon pleasure, can set one up of for pain. But aren’t there ways to avoid such grasping or dependence or attachment without avoiding the pleasure itself? Can’t one move toward attitudes like detachment or gratefulness without eschewing pleasure?

    It might not be easy, and it might not have the theoretical elegance of all-out Stoicism. But it seems entirely possible to me.

  2. Well, Ivan, if it seems possible to you, then go for it and tell me what it's like! To me, 'detachment' basically means 'eschewing pleasure' - but like I said in my post, I'd love to find a better definition.

    Here's a clear way of putting it: how can you value pleasure while not de-valuing the lack of pleasure? It's not some theoretical elegance I'm after, it's simple practicality.

  3. I'm still baffled about why anyone would want to be detached from what life has to dole out.

    Vivid colors (or colours, depending on one's locale) are far preferable to shades of gray (or grey depending again on one's locale), at least to my mind.

    Pain avoidance, it seems to me, is really the avoidance of one of the great teachers of life's lessons. Perhaps my memory is overly selective, but I can't recall a painful period that didn't end up helping me to understand something important about what it means to exist on this planet.

  4. Pied Cow, how beautifully Panglossian! I thought we were all nihilists like IOZ here - you surprise me.

    Seriously though, sometimes the same lesson is taught over and over, far past the point where anything useful remains to be learned. Ask a young black man in a terrible neighborhood how much he learnt from the latest episode of police brutality.

  5. If the ghetto is going to be our assumption, then I really don't think that being a stoic would help much in any event.

    If I were in that circumstance, I'd probably become an adherent of the Nation of Islam or something even more militant, something that would help me to channel my anger and fear without asking me to give up my rage toward the people to whom it should properly be directed.