Good life for Stoics and Aristotelians: is there any difference?

I began flirting with Stoicism a few years ago, in my mid-twenties. The philosophy always struck me as elegant and extremely thought-through. It seemed to unveil those principles of our constitution which, if applied in practice, brought forth by far the better sides of human nature. And this is why the tenet of ‘living according to nature’ was so appealing to me as a matter of  common sense and general ethics, not merely as a means of escaping from unpalatable reality – a charge which has often been levied against Stoics from the very early days. “You just can’t face up to the hard realities of life”, they say,  “a corrupt political system, economic meltdown, bodily illness… As a result, you retreat onto your ‘inner world’, watch movies and read Socrates“. Not quite.

It was understood among both ancient and modern Stoics that the purpose of life is happiness in the widest sense (or good life, or eudaimonia). It is, however, less clear quite what it takes to get there. In a traditionally good post, Massimo Pigliucci argues that there is a massive difference between the Stoic and Aristotelian concepts of good life.  I consider the difference to be entirely marginal.

For Aristotle, to put it simply, a good life meant exercise (or practice) of virtue within the context of such external factors as a degree of wealth, good health, friends and social position. Since exercise of virtue means acting (and not merely thinking), these benign factors facilitate doing good actions and, consequently, leading a fulfilling, eudaimonic life. All this is entirely uncontroversial. Incidentally, for Aristotle “[t]he exercise of the practical virtues takes place in politics or in warfare” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b6-7). This begs the question whether, by leaving no room for the application of virtues in commerce and quite openly sneering at it, Aristotelian ethics is even relevant today. But this is a whole other can of worms.

What gets more controversial is Massimo’s claim that, in practical terms, useful externals do not matter and do not even “enter into the Stoic equation”. In other words, Stoics’ blossoming can be entirely independent from earthly blessings. Massimo argues that “[t]he Stoics (unlike the Cynics), also recognized that people want a number of other things, including health, wealth, education, love, friendship, and so forth. They referred to those as “preferred indifferents” (and to their negative counterparts, such as sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc., as dispreferred indifferents). They are preferred because it is reasonable for people to pursue them, so long as they do so without compromising their virtue (i.e., their moral character), but they are indifferent because, in themselves, they do not make one more or less virtuous. And since virtue is the only thing that matters for eudaimonia, they do not contribute to that either.”

To understand practical incongruity of those assumptions, one needs simply to recall that Stoics are made of blood and flesh, just like other people. Let’s take Seneca and his letters to Lucilius. He repeatedly emphasised the beneficial role of friendship for augmenting and exercising virtues, with the necessary corollary that without friends a person would have less scope for being virtuous. The very existence of his edifying letters (writing of which Seneca saw as morally improving) owes to friendships.

But this is precisly what the Stoics call a preferred indifferent“, one might say. Friendships can make for a little bit better life but they don’t change it qualitatively. I would answer that they do. As my greatest hero C.S. Lewis once wrote, strictly speaking, “friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival“.

Let’s take another “indifferent”, health. I’m afraid that the genuine source of problem lies in the confusion of terms, for there is no single definition of health. Stoics narrowed down its meaning to more or less bodily health. One cannot plausibly argue that Stoics meant mental health also, considering the centrality of peacefulness of mind to their ethical system. For them, it would be egregious to consider a person virtuous whose bliss is founded upon fundamentally mistaken premises or skewed perceptions. They saw angry people as mad. But, importantly, nor would Aristotelians argue that physical agility is superior to mental sharpness– indeed, for Aristotle the “divine contemplative life” constituted the pinnacle of happiness; both saw mental health as superior to physical and the defects in latter as something which could be put up with, if need be.  In practical terms, therefore, there was no big difference between the two schools in their treatment of desirability of health.

Finally, as regards wealth, I will just skate over Seneca’s fabulous wealth and large-scale money lending.

I therefore disagree with Massimo that “happiness doesn’t enter into the Stoic equation”. Rather, for Stoics happiness took a very specific form. I cannot but help quoting a splendid passage from Schopenhauer: “the ethics of Stoicism are originally and essentially, not a doctrine of virtue, but merely a guide to a rational life, the end and aim of which is happiness through peace of mind. Virtuous conduct appears in it as it were merely by accident, as the means, not as the end. Therefore the ethical theory of Stoicism is in its whole nature and point of view fundamentally different from the ethical systems which lay stress directly upon virtue, such as the doctrines of the Vedas, of Plato, of Christianity, and of Kant… Yet the ethics of Stoicism teach that happiness can only be attained with certainty through inward peace and quietness of spirit (αταραξια), and that this again can only be reached through virtue; this is the whole meaning of the saying that virtue is the highest good.” (‘The World As Will And Idea’, Vol. 1, § 16).

With all respect, the land where humans habitually forswear friends, money and other pleasures for the sake of cardinal virtues seems to be seated somewhere on a pink cloud. In his novel “Ward No 6”, Chekhov attacked these extremes of Stoic detachment brilliantly:

Doctor (Ragin): “One can be insensible to cold as to every other pain. Marcus Aurelius says: ‘A pain is a vivid idea of pain; make an effort of will to change that idea, dismiss it, cease to complain, and the pain will disappear.’ That is true. The wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.”

Patient (Gromov): “Then I am an idiot, since I suffer and am discontented and surprised at the baseness of mankind.”

Doctor: “You are wrong in that; if you will reflect more on the subject you will understand how insignificant is all that external world that agitates us. One must strive for the comprehension of life, and in that is true happiness.”

Patient: “Comprehension . . .” … “External, internal. . . . Excuse me, but I don t understand it. I only know,” he said, getting up and looking angrily at the doctor — “I only know that God has created me of warm blood and nerves, yes, indeed! If organic tissue is capable of life it must react to every stimulus. And I do! To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How is it you don’t know that? A doctor, and not know such trifles!”

True that.


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