On Gods and Stoicism

The deep spiritual practice of Stoicism depends on trust in a providential cosmos. While the concept of providence is not difficult to grasp, many moderns attempting to practice Stoicism will find it difficult to assent to…because they simply do not realize how essential providence is to Stoic ethical theory and practice.

‘Providence or Atoms? Providence!’ by Chris Fisher

I have never understood the insistence of some on the necessity of providence, god(s), or any other rational agency for the practice of Stoicism. The ethical teachings of Stoicism seem equally accommodating of a providential agent or irrational causal determinacy (or probabilistic determinacy given quantum indeterminacy). The important thing to grasp is that there is a way that the world is, a certain factness that does not heed our opinions, objections or desires. The question that Stoicism seeks to answer is what best to do about these circumstances.

This strange insistence on a providential agent seems largely grounded in the circumstances and beliefs of historical Stoicism. It is argued that since Stoicism developed in a theistic milieu and incorporated these beliefs into the rationalizations for their ethical prescriptions, that they are somehow inseparable from Stoicism. And yet, ancient Stoic philosophers also believed in omens and other forms of divination, they believed in a materialistic physics that described the universe as a sphere composed of four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) drifting through the void. Must I adopt this four element conception of the universe in order to be a Stoic? Should I look to bird entrails to discern what the future holds for me?

The ancient Stoics cared about reason and physics and saw them as being an integral part of their philosophy, important elements that fed into and informed their ethics. I agree with this premise wish to follow their example of looking to reason and science to inform my ethics. But science and reason are not frozen. These are fields that have advanced through thousands of years of human effort and ingenuity, and to then throw this progress away and cling to outdated Hellenistic notions of the world is misguided, foolish, and contrary to the spirit of the enterprise known as Stoicism.

Likewise, I do not need to believe in the providence of Zeus in order to be a Stoic. Stoicism functions perfectly fine with any number of substitutions one might wish to make. Instead of Zeus, you can believe in the God of Christianity or perhaps Allah from Islam. Or you can do away with the concept altogether and believe that trusting in a providential agent that conducts itself in such a fashion as to be indiscernible from a web of interconnected causal events is the same as trusting in nothing, since the belief does nothing other than ascribe the efforts of our brain to find patterns in circumstantial events to the activities of an unseen actor.

All of these appear to me to be perfectly valid beliefs within the framework of Stoic ethics. Determinacy is certainly an important element in Stoicism. But the particular brand of determinacy you bring to the table does not make that big of a difference. To insist otherwise strikes me as dogmatic and in general opposed to reason and the virtues that Stoicism espouses.

Quote of the Day

If someone reports back to you that so-and-so is saying bad things about you, do not reply to them but answer, “Obviously he didn’t know my other bad characteristics, since otherwise he wouldn’t just have mentioned these.”

– Encheiridion 33

On Charitable Interpretations

When someone acts badly toward you or speaks badly of you, remember that he does or says it in the belief that it is appropriate for him to do so.
– Encheiridion 42

This is most clearly seen with those who genuinely believe their criticisms. It is useless to blame them for the wrong when they do not see it as wrong. It is instead a matter of knowledge and education.

But even if the person does not believe their criticisms, they still act on the basis of what they believe to be good. Whether it is good for themselves or good for others, everyone believes their actions to be justified on some level or else they would not do them, whether it is some confused notion of gain for them or punishment for you. This too is founded on ignorance and false beliefs. It is the stoics imperative to understand the nature of the action if they are to live in accordance with nature and not be misled by appearances. Though they may speak badly to us, no harm but that which we admit can come of it. Rather, it is the speaker who is harmed by their misinformed beliefs. Such as these should evoke our sympathy, not anger, for sympathy is the appropriate response when we see someone injure themselves due to misfortune of their ignorance.

Starting from these considerations you will be gentle with the person who abuses you. For you must say on each occasion, “That’s how it seemed to him.”

What should we seek?

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen
– Encheiridion 8

Seek your desires amongst the things that lie within, for then you can achieve them. Desiring that which lies without is futility, a chasing after clouds and grasping at the wind. Instead, hold that which lies outside with an open palm, accepting with equal serenity both their comings and their goings.

Desire

For the time being, eliminate desire completely, since if you desire something that is not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate, and at the same time none of the things that are up to us, which would be good to desire, will be available to you.
– Encheiridion 2

I feel as though this is where I am at this moment. I struggle with a amorphous desire, a longing to be something other than what I am, and yet I cannot say what it is. My doubts swirl about me, and so I think it best to do as Epictetus suggests and put desire out of mind, and to focus on the redirection of aversion. This at least is a simpler task, for its objectives lie clearly before me.

It is like the Tao. I feel like it is something you find by not looking for it, but rather by allowing it to come upon you.

When the superior man hears the Way,
he is scarcely able to put it into practice.
When the middling man hears the Way,
he appears now to preserve it, now to lose it.
When the inferior man hears the Way,
he laughs at it loudly.
If he did not laugh,
it would not be fit to be the Way.
– Tao Te Ching 41

Likewise, the sage in stoicism is wise without trying. He has found perfect harmony with nature and does nothing out of step with it. It is the perfection of effortless effort, of action through inaction. There is still too much restlessness in me, too much effort in my action. Better to leave off striving and instead seek quietude. If I seek stillness, best to start with the cessation of ineffectual struggles to be still.

Aversion

Detach your aversion from everything not up to us, and transfer it to what is against nature among the things that are up to us
– Encheiridion 2

Bring yourself into harmony with the world. Recognize that the things that are against nature are not outside of us, but rather the misguided reactions within us. It should be these that merit our antipathy. To bring ourselves into accord with the world, we must redirect our energies away from external facts, facts which naturally flow from the nature of the world, and focus inwardly upon the attitudes we hold with regard to these facts. Only then does suffering end, when we bring ourselves into agreement with the nature of the world.

If you undertake an action, do not forget the nature of the action. If someone is rude or annoying to you, you can confront them about their behavior. If you are fortunate they will cease their offense, if you are unfortunate, they will continue their offense, and if you suffer misfortune they will increase their offense. But in none of these do you have a choice in the outcome, no control over the results. You will be enslaved to the will of others and your happiness will be in their hands. Instead, look to confront your own attitude regarding their behavior, and bring it into conformity with the nature of your circumstances. Then you will have control and suffer neither loss or misfortune, but will bring about peace of mind independent of the whim of others.

The Things Up to Us

250px-Fibonacci_spiral_34.svgSome things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing.

I wonder if these things, if anything in fact, is actually up to us. But even if they are not, even if beliefs regarding agency and free will are unfounded, they can be a useful deceit, a way of habituating the mind towards a certain way of thinking and acting. I know I lack discipline and a temperate disposition, but what am I to do about it? I believe the answer is to perpetrate the deception that I do possess these attributes. I no longer care if this is authentic of me, or whether I possess the capacity of agency and free will to even purposefully affect these changes within myself. Such concerns pale beside the need. And so I will pretend, and not care about the questions that arise, for the necessity of my own happiness dictates that I do so.

This is how I now view stoicism. I no longer know whether its claims about me are true or merely a useful fiction. What I do know is that such questions no longer matter to me. What does matter is that I change, that I become something other than what I currently am, for I cannot abide for long what I currently am. I am a misanthrope, and the reason I hate humanity is because I hate myself. I hate my failures, my weaknesses, my many failings. I often wish I could die, but know that I cannot without causing greater harm to my family than my continued living. That is an intolerable outcome for me. My wife and children are the only ones that give me hope.

No, I do not believe in free will. I believe agency is nothing more than the identification of something within a causal chain for which its antecedents are ambiguous. But so what? What will I do differently if I have free will? Nothing. I will still purport myself as though I control some aspects of my life, for this seems to be the most useful approach to the subject.