Why I am a Stoic (even if Mark Manson isn’t)

[image: Manson signing his book Everything Is Fucked at BookCon 2019 (Wikipedia); this is essay #299 in the Figs in Winter series]

Mark Manson, the author of the best-seller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, has finally made it clear: he is not a Stoic. Indeed, he is annoyed by the number of people who read his books and come away with the notion that they are basically about Stoicism, with the addition of “a couple of cool stories and F-bombs thrown in to spice things up” (his words).

In an essay he posted on his web site, Manson details what he finds to be right about Stoicism, what he thinks is wrong, and why he prefers an eclectic approach that includes elements of Stoicism, Buddhism, and Existentialism, with a major emphasis on the latter. Here I’d like to respond to the criticisms Manson levels at Stoicism, as well as to suggest that one ought to be really careful when mixing and matching philosophies of life: eclecticism may sound cool, but a closer look shows why it is fraught with problems.

I. What Stoicism gets right, according to Manson

Manson begins his essay with the gracious acknowledgment that Stoicism gets quite a bit right. The first item is the dichotomy of control. Focusing on what is up to us, as Epictetus puts it, and developing an attitude of equanimity toward everything else, is both rational and — according to modern psychological research — conducive to happiness.

The Stoics were also right, says Manson, when they told us to accept pain and to cease chasing pleasures. Many people insist in going after externals like status and wealth, without realizing that this often backfires, and that, in the end, it doesn’t make them happy. By contrast, some pain may be a necessary condition to achieve things in life that are truly satisfying and worth pursuing, like becoming a better person and developing good relationships with others.

Manson also agrees that a good life is a virtuous life. Human beings are naturally prosocial, and we flourish, both individually and as a group, when we cooperate with others and exercise virtues like honesty, integrity, courage, and so forth.

The fourth point in favor of Stoicism is its materialism, understood in the sense of a philosophical position that says that everything capable of causing effects must be made of stuff. No transcendental entities, no Cartesian dualism. Moreover, this sort of materialism is compatible with modern science, as any sensible philosophical position should strive to be.

Finally, Manson mentions “memento mori,” the Latin phrase that reminds us that we are mortals. Appreciating our own impermanence and reflecting on it gives us the spur to enjoy what we have, before it’s gone, as it inevitably will be.

II. The (alleged) problems with Stoicism

The first criticism Manson levels at Stoicism is that it is both impossible and inadvisable to detach ourselves from our emotional reactions. He claims that the Stoic goal is complete detachment, or apatheia. He rhetorically asks: “Should we be entirely indifferent to harm? Should we have no opinions or judgments about our emotions at all? What if someone kills one of our family members? What if someone is sexually abusing a child? Aren’t these righteous reasons to get angry or indignant or hateful?

It should be clear from the questions he poses that Manson actually does not grasp the Stoic treatment of emotions. First off, apatheia is a condition in which one is not distraught by unhealthy emotions, such as anger, fear, and hatred. But the Stoics were also adamantly clear that there are other emotions that are healthy and that ought to be mindfully cultivated. These include joy, love, and a sense of justice.

As for reacting to murder, sexual abuse, and so forth, no, anger and hate are most certainly not the right reactions, for a Stoic. That’s because we realize that people do bad things out of lack of wisdom, because they are ignorant of what is truly good and bad. So they should be pitied, not hated. But this doesn’t mean we don’t care about injustice and harm to others, or that we are going to stand by without intervening, too busy contemplating ourselves in the process of becoming sages. After all, two of the four cardinal virtues are courage and justice: we ought to have the courage to intervene any time we see an injustice.

The second objection that Manson directs at the Stoics is surprising, because he charges us with the opposite of what we actually say. He claims that it is impossible to be “entirely rational,” that Plato’s model of the tripartite mind that ought to be governed by reason is flawed, and that modern research tells us that what we think is rational is actually the result of cognitive biases and prejudices.

To begin with, the Stoics did not endorse Plato’s view of the mind. For them the human mind is unitary, which means there is no sharp distinction anywhere to be found between emotions and reasons. Contra Manson, the Stoic model is very much in agreement with modern cognitive science, and in fact is at the origin of the most successful approach in psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy. He also seems to accept uncritically some research in psychology that overemphasizes cognitive biases. These certainly exist, but it is also empirically true that we are capable of overcoming them, or at least reducing their effects, if properly trained. And it is precisely this sort of training that Stoics like Epictetus emphasized.

In the same section of the article, Manson again overestimates the import of certain developments in modern philosophy. For instance, he seems to suggest that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems seriously undermine logic or mathematics. This is certainly not the case, and besides Godel arrived at his famous theorems by way of logic, which remains our most powerful tool for thinking — just as the Stoics maintained.

Thirdly, says, Manson, we “should give a fuck about some external things.” Again, he tells us, we should care if someone threatens to kill our friends, if there are starving children in Africa, and if the planet is warming up. But the Stoics very much “give a fuck” about all of this, again because of the cardinal virtues of courage and justice, but also because of our commitment to cosmopolitanism, the notion that everyone on Earth is our brother and sister. Manson, like many others, seem to think that the virtues can be practiced in a vacuum, while they are, in fact, decidedly other-regarding behavioral tendencies.

Manson says that he has been told all of this before, and yet thinks that if Stoics have to defend themselves from this charge there is something fishy going on. Yes, there is: the refusal of so many people to take the time and understand the philosophy, rather than latching onto a cartoonish “stiff upper lip” caricature. As a colleague of mine once told a student who refused to put in some effort: I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you.

III. The problem with (careless) eclecticism

At the end of his essay Manson declares himself an existentialist, although at the onset he seemed to suggest that he has adopted a mixture of Buddhism and existentialism. However that may be, what’s interesting is that he spends his concluding paragraphs highlighting the similarities among Stoicism, Buddhism, and existentialism, as well as comparing and contrasting those philosophies in pairwise fashion.

For instance, he prefers the Buddhist notion of no-self to the Stoic understanding of self. The problem is that he claims that Buddhists do not believe in the self at all, which is incorrect, as my colleague Owen Flanagan has repeatedly pointed out. In fact, Buddhists and Stoics have a very similar conception of the self as a dynamic set of processes. What Buddhists (and Stoics) reject is the notion of a permanent, unchangeable self, what many in the western world call a soul. (Here is a comparison between Stoicism and Buddhism.)

Manson also finds Stoicism to be far more practical than Buddhism. He tells us, correctly, that the existentialist focus on choice and responsibility echoes the Stoic dichotomy of control, and that the existentialist call for authenticity is similar to the Stoic emphasis on the four virtues. That said, he thinks that the existentialist account of human psychology is better than those put forth by Buddhism and Stoicism. (Here is a conversation about Stoicism and existentialism.)

Despite Manson’s explicit profession of being an existentialist, his readers may be justified in concluding from his essay that the best approach is to pick and choose various elements from the three philosophies he writes about, discarding what doesn’t seem to work and retaining what appears to be useful. So let’s talk for a minute about eclecticism in life philosophies.

To some extent, all philosophies of life are born eclectic. Buddhism began as a reaction to Hinduism, but incorporated some elements of it. Existentialism owes a debt of gratitude to multiple lines of philosophical inquiry developed in the western tradition over the two centuries preceding the writings of de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus.

Likewise, Stoicism began as a unique mix concocted by Zeno of Citium, who had studied with a number of philosophers in Athens, belonging to different schools, including the Cynics, the Platonists, and the Megarians. Sure enough, initially Stoicism was a bit of a mess, a semi-coherent jumble of good ideas that didn’t necessarily fit together very well.

It was the third head of the Stoa, the logician Chrysippus of Soli, who did the necessary pruning and integration of ideas that turned Stoicism into a powerful and coherent philosophy of life. The commentator Diogenes Laertius recognizes this when he says that but for Chrysippus there would be no Stoa (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.183)

Not only is Stoicism highly internal coherent, it is also dynamic, meaning that Stoics ancient and modern have continued to modify the philosophy in light of new discoveries and new ideas. But incorporating ideas from various sources is not a straightforward process. If we do it without due considering the other parts of the system we end up with an unworkable mess. This is why I wrote a whole book to explain and justify some changes that I would like to see implemented in modern Stoicism.

Why value coherence so much? Well, to begin with, because we are talking philosophy, a discipline based on the use of logic. An incoherent philosopher is not a good philosopher. More pragmatically, because if a philosophy is internally contradictory there will be a point at which you will find yourself having to make an uncomfortable choice.

For instance, there are a number of similarities between Stoicism and Epicureanism. They both value friendship very highly. They both tell us not to be worried about death, since we won’t be there to experience it. They both offer a materialist understanding of the nature of the cosmos. But for the Stoics virtue is the chief good and sole arbiter of what we should do or not do, while for the Epicureans virtue is only instrumental to the pursuit of the real goal: ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind.

Are these difference problematic for a would be Stoic-Epicurean eclectic? You bet. As my colleague Don Robertson often puts it, at some juncture or other in life you will face a choice between virtue and your quest for ataraxia. If you choose virtue over tranquillity you are a Stoic, if you go the other way you reveal yourself to be an Epicurean. But you can’t (coherently) be both.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

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