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Some weeks ago I read William B. Irvine’s accessible and illuminating Guide to the Good Life, which introduces the reader to Stoicism. The book also argues that Stoicism is still relevant today, and Irvine shares his thoughts and his experiences on how to live a Stoic life today.

I found what Irvine had to say quite interesting and indeed relevant for contemporary readers, and I decided to summarise what I had learnt in a blog post. (Readers not familiar with Stoicism should read the linked blog post first before continuing reading.) However, already while reading Irvine’s book, I had some strong reservations about the tenants and the methods promoted by Stoicism. Not only do I have reservations, but for some I can actually offer solutions, or I can at least point into the general direction of a solution. This is why I chose to write this second blog, in which I first summarise my criticism of Stoicism, before sharing my thoughts about how to overcome the shortcomings identified.

Minor criticism: the negative attitude of Stoicism

Let me start with a minor complaint, which is about the practice of negative visualisation. I am not criticising the method itself, and as I pointed out in my earlier blog post, there even seems to be some supporting empirical evidence for it. Rather, my critique is about Stoic “branding”. Negative visualisation just sounds so, ahem, negative. Also, naming it like this does not encompass the goal to be achieved by this exercise. If it were up to me. I would brand this exercise something like “exiting the hedonic treadmill,” or at least something positive like “appreciation exercise,” since this is exactly what Stoics want to achieve with this approach. I know this sounds like a minor complaint, but branding can make a major difference when promoting an idea.

What about art?

Let me get to the first of my core critiques, which addresses the central tenet of Stoicism. As I outlined in my earlier blog post, the central tenet of Stoicism is that eudaimonia can be achieved by optimally performing the functions for which a human being originally was designed. One could of course cast this axiom, which they inherited from Aristotle, into question, but let us assume that this is a valid approach to the pursuit of eudaimonia. Even then the coast is not clear yet, for I have quite a problem with what the first Stoics thought we were designed for: rationality, and only rationality. Really? Is that the only difference they could find between humans and other animals? Honestly, I think this assertion is a classic verisimilitude. What, for instance, about art? I have not come across many portrait-painting hedgehogs. While intricate nest-building could actually qualify as art, there are not really that many other species that dedicate major resources toward art. But even if one dismisses art (since some birds do it too), there is more that can be extolled. What about sports? Yes, animals do compete, but I have yet to come across a species that evolves their competition into something completely new, like pole dancing (yes, there is actually a move to get pole dancing recognised as Olympic sport). Also, importantly, both art and sports were held in high esteem in ancient Greece. What also squarely distinguishes us from animals is the art of cooking, and I could make this list even longer. However, I think I have made my point: rational thinking is definitely not the only practice that distinguishes us from other animals. And when it comes to cognitive modes, why champion rational thinking over self-awareness? After all, very few species pass the mirror test, and especially Asian philosophies put quite some emphasis on mindfulness. So, why single out rational thinking as the function for which humans were designed, and why elide all our other pursuits and capabilities? One could of course argue that neither of the practices I offer result in tranquillity, but the Stoics have -to my knowledge- not bothered providing evidence for rational thinking as the one and only human function that results in tranquillity. Do not get me wrong, I agree that rational thinking is one of our distinguishing capabilities, but I have yet to be convinced that, for instance, our proclivity for story telling is less central and that it cannot result in tranquillity too.

This single focus on rationality brings me to my third and, I think, most substantial criticism: we are actually not that rational.

Toward a fuller, more realistic understanding of human nature

Even if I accept the choice Stoics made, i.e. that rationality is what makes us human, Stoicism still faces a major issue: there is plenty of contradicting evidence for humans actually being rather irrational than rational. In the two-plus millennia since the advent of Stoicism we have learned quite a bit about human psychology. One of the major accomplishment of 20th-century psychology was to end the myth of “homo rationalis”. Yes, we are capable of rational thinking, but we are much worse at it than previously imagined, and it also turns out that emotions play an important role in what makes us human. Let me address both points in more detail.

The end of “homo economicus”

Stoics have not been alone in picturing humans as actors that are rational at their core. One ubiquitous example outside Stoicism is “homo economicus,” which is a concept of “humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors.” While “homo economicus” can have irrational cravings, she will pursue an entirely rational economic strategy to fulfil her cravings. “Homo economicus” is a central concept in many (if not most) contemporary economic theories. However, this concept has been robustly criticised over the years, and a major blow to it was the discovery that humans often do not act rationally in economic circumstances, even if they think they do.

The fall of homo economicus is but one example of our slow, collective realisation that while humans in principle can reason rationally, they often do rely on their intuitions, and even when humans take their time and work things out, many a cognitive bias is plaguing their thinking. Not only are humans not all that perfect at rational thinking, they twist and even abandon it when trying to resolve cognitive dissonances.

The Stoic might argue that the results I have presented so far do not undermine the human ability to reason, rather these results show that humans are not as good at it as was originally assumed. This is like saying that a drawn circle is not the same as the Platonic embodiment of a circle but that it is a good enough approximation. So yes, we are not perfect at being rational, but it still clearly distinguishes us from other animals.

Even if one accepts this counter-argument, the Stoics’ hostile attitude toward emotions and their belief in rationality as the wellspring of everything noble in humans (morality, foresight, etc.) is actually at odds with of how we function, what we actually are. With this I do not have merely the Stoic focus on rationality in mind, rather Stoic techniques and advice on how to purge oneself from emotions. Not only do I submit to you that emotions are more central to us being human than what the Stoics were ready to grant, but their focus on “homo rationalis” is actually at odds with what makes us a moral animal. A truly rational human being cannot be moral. Let me elaborate on this in the next section.

The truncated, amoral rationaliser

In an interview with the Stoic magazine New Stoa, Martha Nussbaum expressed her general sympathy with Stoic ideas, but she also identified emotions as the topic where she strongly deviates from Stoicism. In her opinion, emotions like sorrow and grief are not states that we should curtail. Instead, we should grant them the place they deserve. After all, these emotions express very valuable sentiments about who we are and how we relate to the world around us and our fellow human beings. You do not grief about somebody or something you have not cared for. As she points out in one of her books: if we do not understand what we value, how can we develop ethics? And emotions definitely inform our value judgements.

Stoics might respond that yes, emotions can tell us something about what we value, but only rationality helps us with making the final decision on what is important. So, in praxis, emotions should never dominate over thinking and instead emotions should only inform our thinking. This sounds fair enough, but unfortunately even this model of rationality as the final arbiter does not square with the facts. Not only that, but it actually fails to acknowledge how we arrive at moral judgements.

David Hume was one of the first to present a comprehensive framework of ethics based on human emotions. His framework stands in strong contrast to the Aristotelian school of thoughts, according to which morality is derived from reason. What is interesting about these conflicting stances is that modern psychology has quite a lot to say about them, and it turns out that Hume’s framework is the winner. In other words: without emotions no morality, and morality has always been a central topic in Stoicism. What is even more important, negative emotions, like anger and shame, are instrumental in “restrictive” morals, i.e. rules that tell us what not to do. I refer readers interested in this to chapter 12 in Jesse Prinz’s recent book Beyond Human Nature. Persons in which such negative emotions are absent do actually exist and we call them psychopaths. So, in other words, think twice before throwing out emotions with the bath water. As Patricia Churchland pointed out, emotions were complex organisms’ first attempt at navigating our world in a less hard-wired way than permitted by instincts and reflexes. Just because emotions are “evolutionary old” does not imply though that they are dated and not longer useful. Rather, this points toward rational thinking being a supplement that exists in symbiosis with emotions.

In summary, what this tells us is that favouring rational thinking over emotions not only bars access to a rich tradition on emotion-based ethics (Nussbaum), this stance actually turns a blind eye to how we derive our moral sentiments (Hume). In other words, human beings without emotions are amoral beings, and not including emotions in a model of what makes us human is a severely truncated model.

How to improve Stoicism?

To summarise my stance on Stoicism: I agree that thinking about eudaimonia is a valuable exercise, and I also agree, that tranquillity is probably an important ingredient of eudaimonia. Also, the aetiological concept that pursuing that for which we were “designed” is equal to achieving eudaimonia, is worth discussing. However, Stoicism as a philosophy travels in areas to which contemporary science has made ample, contradicting contributions, and that is why I cannot support Stoicism wholesale. If we want to find a sound way to achieving eudaimonia we need to base this approach on concepts that are amenable to empiric testing and actually hold up to the test. Let me detail my reservations.

First, tranquillity is a psychological state and belongs to the domain of empirical sciences. Psychology can aid us in better understanding what tranquillity encompasses, how to measure it, and how it relates to other psychological states. Second, science can also give us feedback on what human properties to focus on to mediate tranquillity. For instance, as I laid out above, I am simply not buying the Stoic focus on rationality. Do not get me wrong, I agree that rational thinking more likely than not is an essential ingredient in an approach toward eudaimonia, but I do not see rationality as the only candidate for promoting tranquillity. We need to measure first what can contribute to tranquillity and in what form, before we can elide essential human qualities, like our affinity for moving our bodies (sports), our interest in the arts, our unique propensity to story telling, etc. Third, while I do think that Stoic methods like negative visualisation have great potential, the question of how to best achieve tranquillity is of course also an empirical question, and such and other methods need thus to be rigorously tested. Yes, there is, some empirical support for, e.g., the power of negative visualisation, but it has also been found that simply focusing on the outer world, instead of focusing on the misery one is confronted with, can have a similar effect. So, negative visualisation might not be the be-all and end-all it is made out be by Stoics. Also, while testing Stoic methods we need to mine the science literature for other, empirically supported methods. It has, for instance, been pointed out that cognitive behavioural therapy has a lot in common with Stoicism. Since cognitive behavioural therapy (and other therapies) have actually been subject to empirical testing, one needs to look at these results and see whether they support traditional Stoic methods and how they can supplement them. Fifth, in light of the importance of emotions for morality and even for rational thinking itself, Stoicism’s antipathy toward so-called negative emotions need to be re-evaluated. Are emotions really that negative? Do we really need to contain them as much as the Stoics insinuate?

Besides my plea to put Stoicism (as much as possible) on an empirical and scientific footing, I see two more topics that need to be included into a careful reconsideration of Stoicism. One, what about children? Is the Stoic programme applicable to children? If not, how can an “empirically reformed Stoicism” be amended so that it can also benefit our next generation? Two, what about other cultures? As pointed out by William B. Irvine, other cultures offer similar approaches to tranquillity. If we really think that the good life is something everyone should aspire to, the road toward the good life has to be accessible to anyone, irrespective of her culture.


Thanks are due to Jules Evans for directing me to scientific studies of negative visualisation.

This blog post was updated on 2013-01-05 (removal of syntactical errors and clarifications), based on thoughtful comments provided by Sabrina Greensea. Thanks, Sabrina!


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