What Good is a Stoic?
Much of what we do is done with respect to other people and with regard to our living in human society. We live in a rich and complex community in which, in deeply complicated ways, everyone is dependent upon everyone else. To take a simple example, it is immediately obvious that the young infant is entirely dependent upon his or her mother. But in order to carry on the business of parenthood, to feed, to clothe, and to provide medicines for her child, the mother is of course dependent upon a whole network of other people. Seneca, in a letter Nero, explains how Stoicism provides this kind of support for society as a whole.
In the first half of the reading above, Seneca is defending against charges that Stoics are unfeeling, which is patently untrue. Should there ever have been an individual who lived in a completely such a self-sufficient manner, entirely independently of others, we must say that such a person is an exceptionally rare and unusual phenomenon. Some few people do nevertheless maintain that they are self-sufficient, relying on no one, uncomfortable with the very idea that they are supported by others and that they in turn have obligations to contribute to the society in which they live.
Indeed, some people like this have been known to declare that there is no such thing as society, and to prefer a view of the world in which each individual acts selfishly in pursuit of their own interests, essentially unmoved by the plight of others who have needs that they are powerless to fulfil for themselves. At best, such a view is ignorant and mistaken: at worst it reveals of those holding it a lack of humanity.
If the network of support and co-operation that binds people into communities were to weaken beyond a certain point or fail altogether, it is readily apparent that human culture would end.
Stoic arguments seek the health of the individual human being, to be sure. But as they do so, they never let the pupil forget that pursuing this end is inseparable from seeking the good of other human beings.
For philosophy’s mission [ … ] is not to one person or two, not to the rich or the well-educated or the prominent, but to the human race as such. And all human beings, following philosophy, should understand themselves to be linked to all other human beings, in such a way that the ends of individuals are intertwined, and one cannot pursue one’s fullest good without at the same time caring for and fostering the good of others.
(Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. 1994, pp. 341–2)
In this lesson, we shall look at how the Stoic lives in society, and how they deal with the realities of daily interaction with others.
Working with others
Marcus points out in 11.13 that we should be ‘kind and good-natured to everyone, and ready to show this particular person the nature of his error’. So the Stoic philosopher, although impervious to the negative behaviour of others, does not remain aloof and disinterested in their conduct. As we will now see, Stoics believe that they have a responsibility to promote a well-ordered and harmonious society.
The responsibility that the Stoics believe they have to always treat people fairly and considerately, not to get angry with them nor to chastise them without at least making the attempt to teach them better ways, stems from the fact that we are all ‘fellow-citizens’ (4.4). The state of which we are ‘fellow-citizens’ is not, on the Stoic view, the political or geographical state in which we happen to reside or to which we owe some patriotic duty, but is the state comprising the entire human race. Recognising this to be the case, the Stoic realises that their responsibility to perfect their own character must extend to serving the human community as a whole by embracing the duty to ‘contribute to the perfecting of social life’ (9.23).
Precisely because other people are also rational, or at least have the potential for rationality, the Stoic is therefore responsible for others no less than he or she is responsible for themselves. The Stoic injunction to adopt and live by the virtues makes sense only if there is some place where virtuous activity can take place, and clearly the place for virtuous action is the society in which we live, conceived (in today’s terms) as the global human community.
Furthermore, many present-day Stoics also agree that our responsibilities and therefore our virtuous behaviour extend beyond the human community to the global environment as a whole, to which we have deep obligations of responsible stewardship, as more and more people (most of them non-Stoic, of course) are coming to realise.
The Stoic aims at the betterment of the individual and the betterment of society both at the same time. If someone behaves better than they did before, this is of course better for that individual, but it is also better for society at large. This is why the Stoic can not afford to get angered by the bad behaviour of others, because they have to see clearly enough to be able to ‘instruct them … and show them the truth’ (6.27). Stoics is not only good, but they are also good for society.
In your journal, explore ways in which you can extend your understanding of virtue and vice into society. Identify ways in which you can effect change in your immediate area, and putting aside ill conceived outrage and anger, select one area that requires support. Most importantly, having selected a project that can use your support or attention, act. Begin to effect a change to benefit your immediate society, and note your encounters, lessons and reactions in your journal.
When nothing we do works
There are times when our efforts come to nothing. Attempts to make positive changes are blocked by circumstances or individuals. Our effort to make amends or to reconcile with an enemy or critic may turn out, ultimately, to be fruitless. Marcus offers some advice for when we hit such walls. He tells us to 'bear with them.' (8.59) After all, we were once such as they are now, and though we may not have been aware of it at the time, we have received kindness and forgiveness from time to time, and are fortunate to have many of the benefits we enjoy (such as the computer you are reading this on.) (9.11)
In reality, we cannot change other people's behaviour. They must be willing to do so on their own. Given the world in which we live, we cannot reasonably expect every person to behave in ways which are consistent with virtue. That is simply not the reality of our experience. Marcus reminds himself, and us, that we shouldn't be surprised or hurt when we meet such people. To expect otherwise would be irrational, like not wanting babies to cry, or horses to neigh. (12.16)
In fact, Marcus goes even further. He warns that we must be careful to never look at each other in the way that wild animals might look on humans, as prey, or something wholly alien and dangerous. (7.65). Instead, we are simply to act virtuously and effectively wherever we happen to be, and to love those with whom we happen to be surrounded as fellow humans, intent on the same goal, to flourish. (6.39)
These extracts from the Meditations serve as a summary of the points we have discussed in this lesson. The ‘Ninth Rule’ (Ninthly) in 11.18 provides us with basic guidelines as to how we should ‘show them the error of their ways’ (9.11). There is a real danger that, in trying to ‘persuade them’ (6.50), the Stoic philosopher will come across as a pompous, self-righteous, interfering busybody. Indeed, in 10.36, Marcus imagines that in his final moments as he lies dying, there will be some around him who will be pleased to see the back of him, ready to say: ‘What a relief to be finally freed from this schoolmaster; not that he was ever harsh with any of us, but I could sense that he was silently condemning us.’ (Meditations 10.36, trans. Hard.) We cannot contribute to the betterment of society and to the improvement of the individual if everything we say is rejected as self-opinionated imposition.
Yet we have been blessed with a philosophical insight granted to only a few people, and this being so imposes a duty on us, if not to urge everyone to become a Stoic, then at least to encourage people to pay closer attention to what should really matter to them as human beings and to the effects their actions have upon the welfare of others and upon their own interests.
When dealing with other people we must consistently be kind and sincere, and our actions and words must not be ‘hypocritical or a mere façade’ (as they would be, for instance, were we trying to encourage someone to moderate or eliminate their anger, whilst being known for having an uncontrollable temper ourselves). We should advise people ‘quietly’ and ‘mildly’, even whilst they are attempting to harm us. We must be tactful and advise without being sarcastic or reproachful, ignoring any temptations to ‘impress the bystanders’; and if we are aware that bystanders are present, we should simply disregard them and proceed to offer advice ‘as one person to another’.
Make a list in your journal of the attitudes that Marcus says we should adopt when advising others of their errors. Go through the list and check off those that you feel you already have under control. Of the remain ones, select one on which you wish to focus for the following week. Note your progress in your daily journal entries.
Nobody likes to be reproached, and advice that aims to be friendly, considerate and kind can all the same often come across as negative criticism, mistaken as intending to shame and degrade. Nobody likes to be condemned, and trying to mend people’s ways will often be met with a hurtful and affronted rejection.
So what is the point of trying?
There are no guarantees when it comes to trying to mend someone’s bad behaviour, and, in any event, the Stoic philosopher will pursue such a course ‘with reservation’. Epictetus will speak to the bad brother, but he cannot promise that his words will make any difference. Mending the bad brother’s unkind and unjust attitudes is something that Epictetus and his neighbour must cultivate, as one would cultivate a fig tree. One must be subtle and one must be patient. If the bad ways of human beings could be cured quickly and easily with no more than a whisper of good advice, then we would be living in a world very different from the one we in fact inhabit, for in that world the quantity of human evil would be minuscule, and hardly more than a glance of disapproval would be required to correct the most diabolical of schemes.
But as Epictetus intimates, turning people from bad ways is a most uncertain business. But it is right that we should attempt it. When we fail, or when we secure only limited results, we will have to accept that we have done the right thing, and we must nevertheless go on living in a world in which bad people go about their business, just as they did all those centuries ago when Epictetus tried to advise his neighbour.
Again, we meet with the Stoic principle that we are in fact immune from harm, and that the bad person, in falling into vice, is really doing harm to themselves, and not to anyone else. And this being the case, Epictetus asks his students why they should get angry at the bad person, for the bad person has (without realising the truth of it) committed the crime against himself. Epictetus continues the above Discourse, saying:
Epictetus, in his usually colourful way, reminds that when people do things that are generally considered bad, they are actually doing what they believe to be the right thing, things that we may actually be teaching them. The lesson is, of course, to look to ourselves and at what we actually value, not by our words, but by our actions.
With your discussion partner, go over some over