Stoics The point of being independent and not needing things is so that your happiness will not be destroyed by some accident outside of your control or by the malice of other human beings. The more your happiness depends on anything someone else can destroy, the less freedom you have – you are vulnerable to threats. In late antiquity many people felt insecure; governments were tyrannical, there was a lot of illegal violence, people died suddenly of disease or poison or through witchcraft or the malice of the gods. According to Aristotle, happiness consists primarily in worthwhile activity, but it does have some need of the goods of fortune. ‘The good is something of one’s own, that cannot easily be taken from one’ (E.N., I.5 , 1095 b25). The Stoics, wanted to find something that could not possibly be taken away.
Yet they did not want to live ‘like dogs’. The solution is this: The good is to live in accordance with reason, and the power to do this cannot be taken away. Our external circumstances may be the result of accident or the malice of others, but whether we act rationally given the circumstances is up to us. As for physical things, it is in accordance with reason to use them when they are available and useful, but not to become attached to them so that their loss causes distress. Possessions do not make you vulnerable unless you become attached to them.
To live in accordance with reason is the Stoic conception of the good for man. The Stoics seem to be aware of Aristotle, borrowing and changing his ideas. Tyranny, slavery, freedom were important concepts in Stoic thought (see Epictetus). Freedom is not poverty, it is being able to give up external possessions and external freedom without distress. According to the Stoics the essential human freedom is inward: the ability to give or withhold assent to representations (thoughts) that come before my mind – to assent or not to the representation that something is so, or that the act it represents is to be done, or that the state of affairs represented is a good or an evil.
I can always withhold my assent to such a representation – that is a power that cannot be taken away. I cannot prevent the removal of my property, the loss of a limb, the sensation of pain; but I can withhold by assent from the mental representation of these things as evils. Someone living perfectly in accordance with reason would feel the pain and perhaps some psychological disturbance, but would remain tranquil at the centre. Equanimity is the ideal. Emotion, or at least undue emotion, is to be repressed.
No one lives perfectly in accordance with reason: the ‘wise man’ is an ideal. The wise man is happy, i.e. is in possession of the good, no matter what happens to his possessions or body, because he would refuse to regard as really an evil anything but failure to act in accordance with reason. (The Stoic paradoxes – ‘the wise man is happy on the rack’, or in the bull of Phalaris: he feels the pain, and cries out, but knows all the time that this is not an evil.) When Demetrius the city-sacker came upon the philosopher Stibo emerging from the flames of his city in which his wife and children had just died, he asked ‘Did you lose anything?’ Answer: ‘No, all I possessed I have with me’: ‘meaning by this’, Seneca says (Letter 9), ‘the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character, and indeed the very fact of not regarding as valuable anything that is capable of being taken away.’ What does the wise man do when he is acting in accordance with reason? His actions aim at the same sorts of things as other people aim at, but he does ordinary things differently. According to the Stoics human beings all begin by seeking food, drink, and other things relating to self-preservation, but may come to make it a goal to seek these things ‘in accordance with nature’ or ‘in accordance with reason’.
This may become the over-riding goal (see Cicero, De Finibus, III.vi.21), so that we will endure the loss or frustration of the original self-preservation goals rather than do anything contrary to nature – i.e. would rather die than do anything contrary to nature. Seeking the original goals in accordance with nature or reason means seeking them in accordance with the individual’s place as a part of the larger whole – of the human race, of the whole universe. Nature, for the Stoics, as for Aristotle, is a functional whole, with each part assigned its special role. Perhaps we can interpret the phrase ‘act in accordance with nature, or reason’ as ‘act in accordance with the rules of morality’, understanding that morality spells out the role human beings have to play in the system of nature.
(The Stoics held a ‘natural law’ conception of morality.) So the Stoic seeks the same sorts of things as everyone seeks, but in accordance with the rules of morality; and his overriding goal is to act that way – if he does not attain the things he seeks, but has sought them properly, then he has all the same attained his goal. According to the Stoics, actually to attain external things is not part of the good; the good is wholly to seek such things rationally. In Aristotle we can always substitute the term ‘goal’ for the term ‘good’ used as a noun – anything we aim at is a good, in Aristotle’s terminology; but not in that of the Stoics. To express the point that the overriding goal is to act rightly even if we do not attain the things action aims at, the Stoics restricted the term ‘good’ to the goal of acting always in accordance with nature and would not apply the term to the things action aims at; they said that these things were ‘to be preferred’, but not that they were ‘good’. Thus to stay alive is to be preferred, and the Stoic’s actions will aim at keeping him alive, but not at any cost – only when that can be done in accordance with reason. Staying alive is not part of the good, though it is to be preferred. The good is something which cannot be taken away, as your life can be; the good is independent of outward circumstances; the things action aims at are not independent, but to act in accordance with reason is wholly within our power, and that is the good.
The Stoics could perhaps have said that the ethical good is to act rightly, while success is good in some other sense; but to call both sorts of things good might suggest that they can be added together or subtracted – that right action with success is more good than unsuccessful right action. On the contrary, if a person always acts as he should as part of the larger whole – the human race, the universe – then his life is perfectly good, even if his outward circumstances are such that he does not achieve what is preferable. If his life is perfectly good, then he is happy – even if what he tries to do is not achieved. The Stoics did not, like the Epicureans, seek security in the quiet, apolitical life. Stoic doctrine encourages political activity even in difficult circumstances.
Even if success is improbable, the Stoic will engage in political action if that is the right thing to do. Of course reason may suggest that where there is little chance of doing any good in politics it would be better to turn to something else; but while political action seems for any reason to be his duty (e.g. to bear witness to principles or values), the Stoic will engage in it without being put off by lack of success. ‘The wise man does not pity, but he helps’ (i.e. he does not allow himself to become upset, since that would impede action, but helps in an unemotional way).
Politics is one way of helping the human race (recall Plato’s philosopher coming back down into the cave). Stoics sought political power, as other people did, but were resolved to use it rightly, in accordance with reason. Reason itself may dictate compromise, tact, avoidance of confrontation, etc.; but when it became clear that further compromise will do no good (rather, will not lead to anything ‘preferable’), the Stoic will with equanimity lose his power and even his life. According to the Stoics reason permits suicide, when there is no good to be achieved by living on. Socrates was one of the heroes of the Stoics: ‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one’ (Apology, 28b). So Stoicism provided a doctrine of conscientious, principled, flexible, and resolute action in politics, in the face of danger.
In politics, as in ethics, freedom was a major value for the Stoics. They especially valued freedom in the sense of doing and saying what you think should be done and said (parrhesia, freedom of speech in the sense of outspokenness); under a tyranny, the only people free in this sense are those prepared to die – under any social arrangements, the free in this sense are those who are prepared to fail. But the Stoics also valued other sorts of political freedom; they supported monarchy, but not tyranny. Outward freedom is ‘to be preferred’, but is not essential to the good life. External enslavement cannot destroy the freedom everyone has to give or withhold assent and to live in accordance with reason.
Whereas the good life as Aristotle conceived of it could be lived only by someone with freedom and leisure, not by slaves, artisans, women, barbarians, the Stoics taught that anyone can live the good life now, wherever he or she may be, and can continue living it no matter where – on the rack, in the bull of Phalaris.