I do not believe in Stoicism.
If one professes to be a stoic, I will respond that he is either mistaken or not human. This goes beyond, I think, a value judgment or prejudice on my part. My conviction that the principles of Stoicism contradict the human constitution is the source of my disbelief. This is not, of course, to say that my position is without presupposition; no stance is. I will advance these as clearly as possible.
It has been a consistent tendency throughout the history of philosophical thought to reduce man to a definable entity. This reductionism is understandable in some sense; as creatures with the analytical prowess of reason, we generally crave the clear-cut simplicity of an all-encompassing definition. It makes objects knowable and familiar. Yet we, as men, are subjects. I hold man to be a complex being, consisting of a great and mysterious multiplicity of facets. The complexity of man’s constitution is, I believe, a generally accepted notion. In order for the definers to “handle” this situation of multiplicity, though, it becomes necessary to inflate one aspect of man and identify him with it primarily. All other aspects are subsumed under and subordinated to this one aspect. Perhaps the most common object of such inflation is reason, and this for a few reasons. First, it is reason itself that drives us to seek definition. Secondly, reason is the faculty of ordering, determining means to ends, and, essentially, making sense of everything it can touch. It is associated with the idea of control and the controlled. Now, other aspects of man’s being – emotional states and reactions, psychological states, unconscious manifestations, etc. – are more passive qualities. We receive and experience them. It could be that the desire to eliminate passivity from our being influences some to set reason above these passive states as a controller. The third and perhaps heaviest factor for the emphasis of reason over all else is the idolization of pragmatic concern. The compulsion to eliminate pain and complication from life favors the denial of the power of passive states and the placing of reason, that instrumental faculty, as ruler over all else.
I find Stoicism to be the pinnacle of the inflation of pragmatic concern beyond all sensible boundaries. The primary principles of Stoicism as I understand them include: 1. Avoiding emotional experiences such as intimate love and attachment so as to avoid disappointment and loss; 2. Contentment with one’s lot, whatever it be, because one cannot be disappointed by situations if he is content with them. I draw these principles from Epictetus, a lead “stoic,” and from numerous conversations with fellow students of philosophy. Both principles involve two basic presuppositions: first, that emotions can be controlled by the sway of pragmatic concern to the point of being prevented altogether, and second, that the loss of experience involved in the lack of extreme states is vindicated by a lack of potential negative feelings.
As indicated above, I find the idea of one facet of man subsuming all others to be futile reductionism. To think that every internal experience can be controlled and prevented if this would be “safer” is not only to make man a dull thing, but to deny altogether the enigmatic quality of his constitution. There is mystery involved in our being due to its complexity, the presence of forces and uprisings that we cannot quite explain, identify or control. To reduce is to flat-line. An erratic curve can not be flat-lined save in hopeless fancy. We are not so calculable. Therefore I cannot concede that the wish to avoid pain can possibly prevent the experience of emotions that potentially lead to pain.
As for the second presupposition of Stoicism: I consider the attempt to eliminate extreme experiences to be an act of sad dilution of life. Even if the prevention of the feelings that evoke attachment were possible (which I hold it is not), I can no longer find such a thing desirable. If one claims to love without feeling attachment, I would say that he defines love differently than I, and therefore, by my definition, does not love. This also means that he does not experience the distinct awe and ecstasy involved in the love of which I speak. True, he would not experience the perhaps natural corollary anxiety and fear of loss, but does the latter lack make the former worth it? Humans have a particular capacity for awe, for the mind-blow, and I find this priceless. I would not trade the ecstasy/anxiety experience for an emotional and psychological flat-line. Love is only one example. The same idea pertains to all extreme states. For instance, take artist’s mania – the sudden outburst of creative energy. This is perhaps always juxtaposed with the infamous dry spell. Yet, if flat-lined, the exemplary products of the kinetic period would be diluted. I cannot see that as a preferable trade-off.
I think the ancient Greeks were incredibly insightful in their notion of tragedy, the unpeaceful co-existence of extremes. The tragic plays produced by the famous tragedians capture the ambiguity of the human constitution and the universe it exists within, thereby emphasizing the lack of clear-cut definitions. I do not believe that facts can be unfactualized due to their inconvenience or undesirableness. That is why the tragic plays will always strum a more authentic and honest human chord than the stoic manual. I cannot help but see Stoicism as a psuedo-philosophical doctrine of comfort. Comfort, to me, is not the ultimate human value. Life involves strife as well as excellence. I do not want the slave to be content with his lot. We have an idea of dignity, and the unpleasantness of the feeling of indignation does not outweigh the value of this sense of dignity and the compulsion to uphold it in the face of injury.
Discontent arises when one has expectations that are not met. Shall we throw all goals out the window, all notions of something better, higher, more dignified, to avoid struggle? Shall we bow down to an impersonal fate without a fight? To these questions, the human spirit says “NO.”