Stoic q&a: But, if people were Stoics, wouldn’t the Nazi win?

[image: gate to Auschwitz with its “arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) sign, Wikipedia; this is essay #285 in the Figs in Winter series]

B. writes: Just finished Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and I have been pondering the following: for the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that matters. At the end of the day, even life itself is a preferred indifferent. But when I think about Frankl’s description of life in Auschwitz, it becomes clear that every minute of every day involved a struggle to survive, which inevitably entailed making moral compromises, both large and small. It seems clear that the only people to have survived were those who were both very lucky and made such compromises. I think this is even true of Frankl himself. So, the conclusion would have to be that every single person in the concentration camp who followed the logic of Stoic philosophy, i.e., that virtue trumps even life itself, would be dead. I’m sure that one of the ways people willed themselves to survive was the motivation of living to build a better world after this nightmare was over. To have children and grandchildren, to prove that the Nazi attempt to exterminate a people had failed. But in a way, wouldn’t the Nazis have won if every decent (i.e., virtuous) person walked through the open door?

That is a very interesting and subtle question. The basic answer is: no, the Nazi wouldn’t have won if everyone in the camp had been a Stoic. But this requires unpacking in two different directions: first, what Frankl puts forth in his Man’s Search for Meaning; second, what the Stoics mean by virtue, preferred indifferents, and the open door.

Let’s start with Frankl. His ideas, sketched in the book you refer to, were developed into a class of psychotherapy known as logotherapy. Frankl himself describes logotherapy as “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy.” The other two schools, at the time, were the Freudian and Adlerian ones. More interestingly, though, logotherapy can be understood as an existential type of analysis centered on Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning,” and thus different from both Nietzsche’s “will to power” (which inspired Adlerian psychotherapy) and Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

In other words, while Nietzsche thinks the fundamental human drive is power and Freud thinks it’s pleasure, Frankl — correctly, in my view — suggests that it is meaning. You can be powerful and be fundamentally unhappy. You can pursue all the pleasures in the world and be fundamentally unhappy. But it is impossible to be unhappy, in the eudaimonic sense of living a life worth living, when you think your life has meaning.

This brings us back to Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp (which, as you may know, have actually been partly factually disputed, but that’s another conversation). There is, of course, no question that acting immorally — for instance volunteering as a kapo to spy on your fellow inmates — gives you a chance to survive the experience. But survival by itself is not enough for a meaningful human life. You will then have to live the rest of your days with the memory of your betrayals.

Importantly, it is not the case that only the kapo survived, and the focus of Frankl’s analysis is on what made it more likely for others, ordinary human beings, to make it. His conclusion was that a crucial element is the freedom of choice one has even under the most severe conditions. This is where the Stoic “open door” policy comes into play. Epictetus explains it this way:

Gyara is a barren island in the Aegean Sea, where political dissidents were sent into exile in both ancient and modern times. Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, spent time there courtesy of the emperor Vespasian. The crucial bit here is Epictetus’ emphasis on one’s ability to choose: he is definitely not saying that the virtuous thing to do under severe circumstances is to quit. He is saying that we may quit, if we want to. But if we stay, it means that we have decided that there is still some work for us to do. For instance, to be of comfort to our fellow inmates in a concentration camp, as well as to help as many people as possible survive the experience.

The key Stoic notion is that the option to commit suicide, to pass through the open door, is the source of our ultimate freedom. No matter how bad things get, we always have that escape hatch at our disposal. This thought should comfort us and encourage us to redouble our efforts to fight whatever we are facing. Seneca articulates the same idea:

You are correct in stating that, for a Stoic, life itself is a preferred indifferent, meaning something that has value only if one can use it to exercise virtue. Take money, for instance. It is often classed under preferred indifferents, but this really depends on how you acquire and spend your money. If you acquire it by exploiting others, or you use it to corrupt the political process to your advantage, then it is actually a dispreferred indifferent. You’d be better off without it! Which is why Epictetus says this to one of his students who was asking him why he wasn’t making money in order to be useful to his friends and city:

Back to the situation in the concentration camp. A Stoic prisoner would prefer suicide only if she were no longer in a position to exercise virtue, meaning to be helpful to others. But one can be virtuous despite the strict constraints imposed by the guards overseeing the camp. Indeed, I would go so far as saying that a Stoic group of prisoners would be more likely than not to survive those harsh conditions, precisely because they would be bent on acting as virtuously as possible toward each other, always knowing that the door is open should the situation truly become unbearable.

What we are discussing here is related to what is sometimes termed “Stockdale’s paradox,” named after Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was shot down on his plane over Vietnam and endured seven years of prison camp, torture, and isolation. Stockdale credited Epictetus for helping him to survive the ordeal, because it was by way of reading Epictetus that he understood, and put into practice, the famous dichotomy of control between things that are “up to us” and things that are not up to us. The trick is to focus on the first class, where our agency is maximized, and develop an attitude of equanimity toward the second one, where we can’t really do much else. Stockdale commented:

The people who didn’t make it out of the Vietnamese prison camp were those who refused to confront the brutal reality of the situation. They kept telling themselves things like “We’ll be out by Christmas.” Then Christmas came, and they were not out. “We’ll be out by Easter.” Easter came, and they were not out. Until they lost hope and succumbed.

It is important to note that the Stoics, Frankl, and Stockdale are all sometimes accused of blaming the victims, which of course would be horrible, if true. But that accusation misses the mark. The moral responsibility for a prison camp lies squarely on the shoulders of those who ordered and those who operated such camp. Period. That said, it is still an important, very practically relevant fact of human nature that — given a set of circumstances — one’s mental attitude makes a difference. This should not be surprising, and moralizing about someone who points it out is more than a bit misguided.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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