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 »

The Puzzle of Cicero’s Philosophy of Religion

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cicero’s philosophical dialogues are notoriously difficult.  In some cases, as with the Academica and the Republic, their fragmentary state exacerbates the challenge of interpretation. In other cases, as with On Ends, the breadth of the discussion makes it difficult to locate the thread. In every case, Cicero stays true to his Academic skeptical training of opposing every argument with another argument. In some instances, one line of reasoning comes out clearly best, but in others, it is not so clear. And then there is On the Nature of the Gods. It is a special case. Let us explain.

The overall structure of On the Nature of the Gods is quite simple. The theologies of three philosophical schools are represented, each with a Roman mouthpiece. Epicureanism is represented by Velleius, Stoicism by Balbus, and Academic skepticism by Cotta. Cicero writes himself into the dialogue, too, as listening in and promising not to tilt the verdict in favor of his fellow Academic, Cotta. Velleius proceeds to give an outline of Epicurean theology, complete with an account of how it is possible to know things about the gods, what the gods are like, and how we should live in light of these truths. In short, Epicureans believe that we know about the gods because we have deeply held conceptions of them, which must have antecedent causes. The gods have human bodies and they live lives free of care for eternity. Consequently, we should not fear the gods, because they take no notice of us. Cotta the Academic skeptic then proceeds to demolish the Epicurean case. Why trust preconceptions when they are so often wrong? If the gods have human-like bodies, how can they be immortal? And if the gods don’t care about us, then what’s the point of religion or piety at all? Isn’t Epicureanism really just atheism? Read more »

Ancient Paradoxes and the Good Life

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Sophocles_statue_in_lateranMost are already familiar with many of the thoughts driving the Ancient Paradoxical ethical tradition. Surely we’ve all either thought and endorsed or at least heard someone express thoughts along the following lines:

It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get.

Being good is its own reward.

Let’s first note an important terminological point about the paradoxical tradition. Paradox is a Greek word that, in its classical usage, that meant something counter intuitive, something surprising. Para, meaning alongside or against, and doxa, belief. So a paradox is something that runs against what we normally believe. In short, those who belong to the paradoxical tradition say surprising things. Now, the paradox is most clearly in view for us, as we endorse sentiments like It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game, but we nevertheless cheer for winners, and nobody makes it to any Halls of Fame simply for being a good sport. The same goes for all the familiar old saws – we think they are right, but nevertheless don’t live in accord with them. The paradoxical tradition is one of consistently living in accord with sentiments like these.

Socrates was one of the first great paradoxicalists, and one of the most famous. One particular paradox he announces after the Athenians sentence him to death for impiety and corrupting the young. He says he does not believe “a good man can be harmed in life or in death” (Apology 41d). And so we have the first of the ancient paradoxes of the good life, call it:

The paradox of invulnerability: Insofar as you are virtuous, you cannot be truly harmed.

Now what makes this view paradoxical is that Socrates says this in the face of a jury who’ve sentenced him to death. Having to drink hemlock and suffer its effects. That sounds like a harm. Dying? It certainly seems worse than living on and being Socrates. How else might someone consider it a punishment?

The paradoxical perspective on this is that these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would be harms only if they harmed our souls. A death sentence is a harm only if it makes you willing to grovel, lie and cheat to avoid it. Poverty and suffering are harms only if it makes you a horrible person, violent, or selfish. Illness is a harm only if it makes you resentful and empty.

The world can destroy us, but if we live well, it cannot destroy the good in us. The world can take the light of goodness inside you only if you let it. Our job is to tend and care for that light of decency and goodness inside us. Virtue ensures it’s not snuffed out.

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