Discussion Questions: Stoics

Texts: Discourses, Enchiridion


I. Background and History

  • Nelson Mandela used Seneca and Epictetus’s writings to endure prison. You can also see the stoic influence in his truth and reconciliation process. The injustices of the past can’t be change, anger won’t help. However, it’s within people’s power to confront injustice now and work towards a more just society.
  • Gandhi read the stoics extensively and derived his own politics and ethics in their teachings (Links to an external site.).
  • Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the most successful Roman emperor, was a devout follower of Epictetus’s teachings. You can read his Meditations.
  • Influential Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas adopted stoicism’s focus on the virtues.
  • Several current psychological practices are built on the stoic idea that how we perceive “externals” has an important influence on how they affect us internally. (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
  • Stoics hate hope. You must accept what is. Not set yourself up for more disappointment.
  • You should regularly rehearse worst-case scenarios.
  • Anger is the result of being stupid. When misplaced hope collides with misplaced reality, expect the misery of life.

II. Overall Context of Greek Ethics

1. What is the good life?
2. What are the things that make it good (I.e., what should I pursue?)
3. How should I best pursue those things?
4. Shift back to Socratic “citizen of the world” and focus on the atomic individual VS Individual as subordinate to his/her political community.

III. Relationship between Metaphysics and Ethics

  • God
    • God is immanent
    • The universe is maximally rational.
    • In principle, the logos of the universe is fully accessible to us.
    • Implications for parts/whole
    • Implications for disposition (+Ch. 11)
    • By giving us reason and the capacity for choice God gives up part of his governance.
    • God’s attitude toward us is one of benevolence (Vs Epicurus)
  • Reason
    • Humans are the only creatures that can give or withhold assent to our impressions (thoughts and perceptions).
    • We do so my attending to the relationship between the impression (in the form of a propositional belief) and other beliefs we already hold.

IV. Core Ideas

  • Purpose of knowledge is practical. Knowledge that doesn’t advance the practical goals of virtue (moral development), tranquility, and freedom is not worth pursuing–at least not for the novice. (Vs. Plato)
  • The 4 Stoic virtues:
    • Practical wisdom,
    • temperance (self-restraint and moderation),
    • Justice (treat other’s with fairness even if they have done wrong,
    • Courage (face daily challenges with courage)
  • The primary error people make is to view externals as unconditionally good, when in fact, their goodness or badness is merely contingent. “The materials of action are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent” (2.5.1)
  • Primary goods for the Stoics were the correct use of reason and moral virtue (which are actually the same thing): Act in accordance with reason and to appreciate, with joy, the orderly nature of the universe. This is the path to happiness.
  • How to do it: Learn to correctly distinguish between “externals” and the things we actually have control over. It’s not that we should never pursue externals, only that when we do we must keep in mind their true nature (i.e., they have no value). Football analogy. Players pursue the ball as though it had value but the true value is in playing the game correctly.
  • Appraisal theory of emotions
    • Understanding the true nature of externals releases us from fear, envy, anxiety, and desire, making inner peace possible.
    • Anger towards others should be replaced with pity/sympathy and helping them see their errors of judgment.
  • We have complete control over our inner life. Create your own merit. Care for what you have now, not for what you hope to have, or had in the past. Happiness can only be found within.
  • Can vitue be taught? YES.

V. Discussion and Lecture

  1. Of things some are in our power and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, what ever are our own acts: Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the control of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.
  1. Discuss the distinctions. Externals vs Internals. Do you agree with the items in each category? (Moral sphere)
  2. What would Epictetus say regarding the grade you end up within any particular class?
  3. What does Epictetus think with regard to the pursuit of wealth, power, and popularity? What does he think about pursuing these things with respect to securing freedom and happiness? 
  4. Do you think happiness and freedom are most likely attained by pursuing only that which is within our power? Defend your answer.
  5. Note: Discuss Epictetus’s theory of desire satisfaction and its relation to happiness.

2. In II. Epictetus says, “if then you attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy.” 

  1. This seems odd, what does he mean?
  2. Do you think he means we should do nothing to improve our situation? (Read p. 19, top)

3. III. What does he mean?

  1. This is a really odd view. Why does he hold it?
  2. If you disagree with him, provide an argument for your view or against his.

4. Explanation of 4.

  1. How I used it this summer.
  2. How I try to use it with computers.
  3. How can you adopt his lesson to life as a student?

5. V. What does “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things” mean? [I.i. 28]

Appraisal theory of emotions

  1. Plato and thumos, chariot: Anger can listen to reason.
  2. Aristotle: Anger is the appraisal that one has been slighted or threatened. Because anger is subject to reason via appraisal, there are appropriate amounts to feel (i.e., the mean). It’s possible for extreme anger to be appropriate to some circumstances. Failure to do so is a failure of virtue.
  3. Stoics:
    1. Failure to corrrecty appraise the value of the things we desire. 
    2. Anger not never be properly restrained. It is a runaway emotion.
    3. Anger doesn’t need a talking to. It needs to be excised. It doesn’t listen to reason well.
    4. Seneca: recognition of the pragmatic role of feigning anger. 
  1. Do you agree?
  2. Should we express political anger online?

6. Explanation of VI. 4 ways to interact with appearances.

7. VIII. Thoughts?

  • Vs Seneca Letters on Old Age:
    • “…if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.”

8. IX. Speculate how Stockdale used this insight to survive POW camp.

9. X. What do you think of this attitude with respect to living a good life? What about if we take it as far as XI.?


VI. Discussion Questions

1. Stoics vs Aristotle on Externals and the Happy Life.

Aristotle claims that having a good life isn’t entirely in your control. There are external variables (over which you have no control) that determine whether a good life is even possible for you: (a) having a correct upbringing (i.e., correct habituation and associations of pain and pleasure) (b) a moderate amount of material wealth so you can travel, have the occasional nice meal, etc… (c) a small group of close friends (d) some political power. (READ: Book 1 Ch. 8 Last Paragraph 

On the other hand, there are the Cynics who argued that living a good life is entirely independent of anything external. No matter how bad your life is (with respect to external things), it’s entirely in your control how you choose to react. Also, since ‘externals’ have no value, having them or not doesn’t influence in any way whether you live a good life.

The Stoics (E.g., Epictetus) occupy a middle ground. They hold that there is a lexical ranking between externals and internal traits. That is, externals do have an effect on the quality of your life but you can never trade an internal (i.e., integrity) for an external (think Stockdale) and make your life go better. The value of any internal good is always greater than that of any external. So, pursue externals so long as you don’t compromise your virtue in doing so. (See Ch. 15)

(a) Briefly explain the position you agree with.
(b) Who do you agree with? Justify your answer with an argument (avoid lists!)
(c) Suggest how/why someone would disagree with your particular argument.
(d) Suggest how you would reply to your critic’s argument.

2. Stoics vs Aristotle on Anger Towards Others.
Aristotle argues that there is an appropriate amount of anger to feel when we are slighted. The Stoics argue that, since development of virtue is the only thing that can lead to a happy life, when we are slighted we ought not to get angry. First, being upset disrupts our happiness, also, when someone slights us it’s because they’ve made an error in reasoning. We don’t get upset at people for getting math problems wrong, why should we get mad at ethical reasoning errors? They’ve probably valued an external over their integrity or more generally, have misappraised what matters in the situation. Also, the slight could have been unintentional (e.g., the person who accidentally cuts you off in traffic). Either way, we should feel compassion for someone who slights us since they fail to understand what matters for a happy life. Anger is a useless emotion at best and probably detrimental to our happiness.

Epictetus: So don’t get angry at the [person] for being confused about what’s important. Pity her instead. We take pity on the blind and lame, why don’t we pity people who are blind and lame in respect to what matters most? Discourse 1. 28. 9

  1. (a) Which position do you agree with (defend it with an argument).
    (b) What would someone say in opposition to your argument.
    (c) Provide a counter-reply.
    (d) Should we express political anger online in the face of perceived political injustice? (i) What would Aristotle say? (ii) What would Epictetus say? (iii) What do you say?