Should you be a stoic?
Stoicism has gained popularity in the past ten years, promising inner tranquility and the power of supreme reason over what external forces might impact you. Stoicism teaches indifference to external circumstance, reminding us that we are not what happens to us, but that we can choose how events affect our thinking, and in turn, our actions.
In other, words according to stoic philosophy, we don’t have control over what happens to us, but we do have control over what affects us. This all sounds well and good. However, there are a few issues with stoicism that you should be aware of before rolling this philosophy into how you perceive life.
TL;DR why you should question stoicism
- It’s immoral
- It assumes everyone is the same
- Stoicism is life negating
- The universe is not rational
The immorality of stoicism
First, stoicism assumes that every person has complete control of their rational faculties. Mental illness, propaganda, and other conditions affect the cognition of people all the time, warping their ability to reason and make effective choices. The assumption inherent in stoic philosophy is that every person has an equal ability to regulate their inner experiences. This does not make for good moral practice according to some.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) formulated a litmus test for what actions should be considered moral. His method is called the categorical imperative.
“Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.”
Think of this foundational principle of moral philosophy as the golden rule for the secular world. It sets the standard for morality as an action or belief that can be applied to humanity as a whole, without special exceptions or rules.
According to the categorical imperative, quite a few exceptions would have to be made under stoic philosophy for it to be universalized. This alone makes stoicism a questionable endeavor.
Now is the time you might be asking yourself, “but stoicism is a method for regulating one’s reaction to what happens to them, not a moral system, how can we make this comparison?”
I would contend that because we are conditioned from birth to behave in certain ways (such as not killing other people, stealing whatever car grabs our eye, or any number of other repulsive behaviors), these norms are pretty much universally accepted. Moral considerations are the playing field in which you react to external events.
And as such, moral rules are foundational to how you choose to react to what occurs. This idea, that morality controls how you choose to respond, is yet another argument against stoicism as a universalized philosophical modality. It’s the moral conditioning doing the choosing — not you, which means stoicism is invalid. It is important to understand how autonomy plays into a stoic outlook. Next, let’s take a look at the notion of personal autonomy, and how stoicism fits in or does not.
Individual autonomy and stoicism
Agency — we all think we have it! Most of us anyway. In over simplistic terms, agency is an individual’s ability to act, based on some preconception of necessity. In other words, agency as we understand it, is the ability to make choices and act upon reason, beliefs, or desires to achieve some end.
Agency is a presupposition of a stoic worldview, and as we covered before not everyone has equal access to agency. If we take a sociological perspective, some groups in society have fewer choices they can make regarding their life, where they live, what jobs they can get, how educated they are, etc.
I am well aware that some would boil all these outcomes down to life choices, or that they could still have full control of how they react to their situations. But, if we are to understand agency as being contingent upon a range of possible actions that have the potential to be realized, we know that if these choices are limited, an individual’s agency is also diminished. What good is controlling a mental state if it does not lead to a material outcome?
Stoics understand that external circumstances are not within the individual’s control. But this is another argument against stoicism. If a good bit of life is outside your ability to manipulate, then can we really believe that our internal life is different? Is it the will of a schizophrenic to see things that are not there? Does the person with bipolar disorder want to be depressed for half the year?
If we all want to be grounded in reality and not depressed all the time, it stands to reason that stoicism can’t be a valid way to view the world. These presumed values that we want to actualize, and assume are a fundamental part of being human, can be manipulated either by illness or coercion. The only way stoicism functions is if these assumptions are constant, unable-to-be-toyed-with, realities of being human.
Stoicism as a rejection of life
We have tried from the beginning of recorded history to define ourselves in opposition to nature, using methods such as reason, logic, and technology to put as much distance between us and nature as possible. I contend that stoicism is another mechanism that we use to widen the gap. Stoic thinking punishes emotional responses to external events. It’s almost a wish that the emotion did exist in the first place, a longing to erase this primal artifact for the reality we occupy.
We are not gods, but we wish we were. And if we cannot be deities, endowed with immortality and omnipresence, then we will pretend to have control over the one thing we think is within our power. Stoicism seems to be a mechanism of resentment, That one might differ from a single preconceived set of actions, offends the separation between us and the animals.
“You desire to live according to nature Oh, you noble stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like nature, boundless, extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power how could you live in accordance with such indifference?”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Nietzsche thought that stoicism is an attempt to get rid of the less sanguine aspects of being human, to live as nature, in all its indifference. It seems that one does not have a choice but to value things, make decisions and have preferences. This makes stoicism seem even more like a wish to be apart from our own nature. By ignoring what makes us human, stoics attempt to negate the very thing that connects us to the natural world, and in turn our selves.
One directional thinking
Another issue with stoicism is that it assumes that external events impact thinking and not the other way around. If you tell yourself I need to work more, is it your job that is causing this decision or is it your thought process that leads to the action of working more hours? This can get confusing. Trying to decipher what causes what can quickly evolve into a circular chicken or the egg problem that does not really have a good answer. If your thoughts caused an action and the resulting consequences of that action cause you to think or feel a given away about it, is the stoic way of dealing with the outcome consistent? Something to consider.
The Universe is not rational
If you are in a car accident you could remind yourself that its all part of the order of the universe. But that is a statement of faith, not evidence for a rational universe. In stoicism, reason is always the cause of actions. It ignores the possibility that randomness might be the best explanation for why things are as they are. We like to think that because reason makes sense to us, it can be applied to events that we have absolutely no control over. When taking the scale of existence into account, it seems that determinism packs a bigger explanatory punch than reason.
Considering its popularity, stoicism has to work for some people, right? I do think that stoicism has its uses. But, it needs to be approached with a good understanding of what its limitations are, and how they might make some aspects of a personal philosophy a bit complicated. It’s tempting to watch a few YouTube videos, the self-help oriented ones, that claim stoicism is how you will get everything you ever wanted.
But in their haste to get a click, they ignore or misrepresent how stoicism is lacking as a moral lens thought which to view the world. This is not to say that we should reject this way of thinking outright. But like anything else, stoicism needs to be carefully examined before rolling into your worldview. Ideas matter. They are the foundation atop which the game of life is played. It would be foolish to adhere to one without full consideration of its implications for you and other people.