Aug 21, 2016

Should Stoics Be Concerned About Others?

In a 6-week online course on Epictetus I'm presently teaching though my company, ReasonIO, I got asked a question that keeps popping up, quite naturally, when we're considering Stoic Ethics.  I'm also in the process of consolidating and rewriting posts from my other blogs into pieces here in Orexis Dianoētikē. Here's a piece originally published in Virtue Ethics Digest that frames and addresses those general concerns - Should a Stoic be concerned about (non-)Stoic others? And further, how and why?

Over the course of Stoic Week 2015, I created a sequence of seven videos, four of which focused on discussions of key Stoic doctrines in the works of the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher, Cicero (who was not himself a Stoic, but who did admit himself attracted to a number of their doctrines, particularly in the field of Ethics.  On one of those videos, one of my interlocutors - a very bright, young South African student and blogger, Marc Smit asked me a very important question.

I feel that Stoicism does offer relevant ideas for me as individual, in the sense that I can apply it to my own thoughts, feelings or actions bearing on things that happen to me, but how do I respond to these things when then happen to others, notably friends or loved ones?

The Full Problematic

Marc's question was in fact quite a bit longer than that short passage.  Here is the rest of the problem that he raised:
[S]ay I suffer an insult or some sort of injury. I feel in that situation I can turn to Stoic ideas in order to mediate or inform my response. I can say "The insult doesn't matter" or "The injury will heal". I can refer to the Stoic distinction of what is in my power or apply indifference.  
But what if I witness a friend being harmed? Say someone insults or threatens them. I feel that Stoicism would lead me to regard that as something outside of my power, and therefore indifferent, and I suppose Stoicism doesn't prevent me from acting in defense of my friend, but how do I then counsel or comfort my friend in that situation.
If they ascribed to Stoic ideas then perhaps then its would be easier, but if they don't then my indifference - or my attempt to encourage them to be stoic - may seem inappropriate. Even if I think to myself "They should adopt a Stoic position to this" feels like I am assuming a capacity beyond my control.
This is a genuine problem, though not one that cannot be satisfactorily resolved for at least certain Stoics -- and I have in mind particularly Epictetus.  It seems at first to involve one main issue -- doesn't having friends or family, people who I care about and who are vulnerable to the same world that I as a Stoic withdraw my desires and aversions from, once again entangle me with that very same, unpredictable, often hostile and cruel world?

Perhaps then the answer is really that, if one is going to be a consistent Stoic, it is a mistake to allow what bad things happen to - or threaten to happen to - a friend or family member to affect one. Emotionally, one ought to remain unmoved.  In terms of what one thinks, believes, or decides, one ought to recognize that what happens to another is indeed outside of one's own control - quite literally, none of one's own business (ouk ep'humin, in Epictetus' Greek).  Of course, in terms of the actions one performs, it could be perfectly appropriate to behave as if one sympathized or was upset on the other's account - but inwardly, one ought to remain unaffected.

From outside of the perspective of the committed Stoic, such a stance might then seem like a good reason why one ought not to be a Stoic!  Doesn't such an attitude, or line of reasoning, betoken a repellent (however prudent it may be) self-centeredness?  If we regard compassion, solidarity, care for others as good qualities in a person, don't these then become casualties of the self-serving Stoic ascetic?

A Preliminary Set of Answers

One response that suggests itself does manage to address the problematic as Marc articulates it, but seems ultimately unsatisfying.  It is quite clear that the Stoic does in fact hold that for any given person, what really matters is the condition of something inward, at the core of who he or she is, their prohairesis - translated as "faculty of choice," "moral purpose," and occasionally even as "the will" (in the sense of the faculty).  That is where a person's genuine good -- and bad -- reside.  We have control, however attenuated it may seem in some circumstances, over what we do choose and decide against, as well as what we feel, what we desire and are averse to, and what we think about matters.

Everything else for the Stoic is something external, outside the scope of our power (even if we are able to affect it to some extent), and as such it is morally indifferent, neither good nor bad.  In fact, that's where nearly all of our trouble and problems stem from, mistakenly thinking things outside of our control to really be good or bad - when it is only our own attitudes, beliefs, reactions, and choices about these that are good or bad - and then acting on that basis.

So for the friend or family member who is injured or insulted, harmed or humiliated by another, by others, by the way things pan out, by the world and its ways, it really would be good for them to see things as the Stoic does, and not allow him or herself to be negatively affected by things over which he or she has no control (and quite likely someone else does, e.g. the bully, the cruel person, the con artist, the abuser).  One could indeed point that out to them, though it is not likely to be particularly helpful at that time.  When a person does desire things to be different than they are, and have no effective way of making them so, their unhappiness or frustration is rarely dispelled at that moment by Stoic doctrines.

Over time, of course, if I have some degree of influence with that person, or perhaps if the model I provide seems appealing or attractive to them, it is quite possible that I could steer them into embracing the Stoic solution for him or herself.  Of course, it is entirely up to them whether and to what extent he or she does move in that direction - I have no control over that.  At best, I can create the conditions in which such a transformation is possible or rendered easier.

Why is this rather unsatisfactory?  It seems rather incomplete.  There is something a bit odd about seeing something as a good for myself, and indeed as a good for human beings in general -- having one's moral purpose in accordance with or harmonized with nature, as Epictetus says -- and then not really caring one way or another whether another person, another fellow human being, enjoys that good or suffers its opposite.

Epictetus on Affection for Others

If we actually look at what Epictetus says in his Discourses, it doesn't take long to discover that not only being concerned for others (phronizein) but even feeling affection towards them (philostorgein) is entirely compatible with being a Stoic, at least in his interpretation of it (which is a pretty authoritative one, it must be admitted!).  I've written about this elsewhere and earlier in Orexis Dianoētikē, in a two part entry (part 1 here, and part 2 here), so I'm going to write rather briefly about this here.

Suffice it to say that feeling affection and being concerned for others is something that Epictetus unequivocally asserts to be natural and to be right.  We ought to have that sort of affective attitude, as well as practical comportment, towards those with whom we are close.  The examples that Epictetus has in mind are parents and children.  If I see my son or daughter being harmed, it is natural for that to affect me, and for me to respond by attempting to console or protect them.  If they are not -- which is almost entirely likely to be the case -- a Stoic, even if I myself am a Stoic, then they will be affected negatively by all manner of things that lie outside of their control.

Those things will upset them.  They will take themselves to be harmed by the bad or unfortunate actions of others, or the course of events, and they will in fact be harmed, though not where and in the ways they deem themselves to be harmed.  As a father, even as a Stoic father, I will in turn be affected by how things are permitted to affect them.  This may seem a very strange exception to otherwise highly consistent Stoic doctrines. . .  but it's not.

Stoic Duties Towards Significant Others

These sorts of matters do strictly speaking concern externals, things that lie outside of the scope of my own power.  But as it turns out, from the very start of Stoicism -- so in this Epictetus is really remaining true to Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, rather than engaging in any innovation -- some of those things that are indifferents are not without any sort of moral value.  Certain of them are "preferred," positively valued.  Others are "rejected," negatively valued.  Those that are positively valued don't have some absolute positive value, but they are in some way connected with what does possess absolute positive value.

As it turns out, what we translate as "duty" or the "appropriate" -- in Greek, kathekon, in Latin, officium -- makes up a significant part of the "preferred" indifferents.  For Epictetus in particular -- he makes this point over and over again -- our duties are in large part defined by our roles and relationships.  As a father, I have a set of duties towards my children, if indeed I am to be a good father, if I am to be a "father" in a real sense of the term.  As a husband, I have another set of duties towards my spouse.  I have other duties as a son, and yet other ones as a friend, as a teacher, as a neighbor, as a citizen. . .

Many of these are quite specific to one or to several of these roles, but some duties seem to be shared across roles, though perhaps with greater emphasis for certain, closer relationships (e.g. a good friend, as opposed to someone I happen to be in line with at the DMV, which is, by the way, a good place to practice Stoicism!)  Consoling a person, and criticizing any injustice, malice, or thoughtlessness on the part of the one who engaged in actions that - by the "hurt" person allowing themselves to be affected (most likely quite reasonably, though not entirely reasonably) -- that seems to be one of those sorts of duties.

Of course, insofar as it is possible, as a Stoic, I ought also to make some attempts to assist the other I care about towards seeing the reasonableness of that approach, so that he or she won't be hurt again, or at least not quite so often and for reasons that turn out to be trivial.  But this is a matter which calls for prudence -- telling my son who has been excluded from a game on the playground that it is not the other children who harm him, but his belief that he is harmed that harms him -- that's hardly good or prudent fathering!  And, it is at least in part by behaving towards my son as a father ought to, as is fully natural and right, that I can more and more bring my own prohairesis into accordance with how it ought to be.

There's more to be said about this, of course, so I intend to revisit this issue again more fully in the next month or so, expanding it from what strike me as these easier examples posed by family members to those in whom we find ourselves in other sorts of relationships, or even seemingly no relationship at all.

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