The Consolation of Stoic Optimism
A sudden or expected death of a loved one, war, terror attacks, physical assaults, and violent car accidents are types of shocking events which confront individuals at least once in their lifetime (Bonanno, 20). Stoic metaphysics embraces an optimistic view that all events, including the ones listed, will ultimately work out well. However, one of the most prolific modern academics of Stoicism, wondered if this is a problem with the philosophy. After detailing Stoic metaphysics, including the properties of Nature, pneuma, and the philosophy’s optimistic view on providential determinism, A.A. Long mentions “one of the least palatable” characteristics of the philosophy: “trust” in Nature that all is well (170). He goes on to observe the “chilling and insensitive” attitudes of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which embrace a “faith that all will turn out well in the end” (170). Does a belief in Nature, fate, and that all events will ultimately unfold well help the individual secure a eudaimonic life? Or is this belief inconsiderate and does it minimize the emotions one feels as a result of his fate? With the right perspective, beliefs and attitude, one can achieve a flourishing life regardless of circumstances without necessarily minimizing one’s emotions.
If one embraces Stoicism’s metaphysical framework, beginning with the concept of pneuma pervading everything through the forces of unity, life, movement and rationality, which logically leads to the idea of Nature or God as one whole, then one can rationally conclude a deterministic fate, in which humans participate in the fate of the Cosmos. Furthermore, despite a deterministic view, at least one research paper offers some evidence that a disbelief in free will can lead to moral behavior and empathy, thus countering the lazy argument (Caspar). One modern day psychologist bolsters this view with arguments from Spinoza and Joseph Wolpe. Therefore, taken as a whole belief system, assuming an optimistic perspective about conjoined fated actions and determinism, humans can flourish and be resilient (live an excellent life) regardless of circumstances and they can even experience a flowing self-determination in the face of any adversity, including death, loss and violent events. Indeed, this has been confirmed by some modern research. Because of their optimism, humans mostly exhibit resilience (Bonanno and Zimmerman). The entire argument, from metaphysical beliefs to determinism, to conjoined fated actions, to obtaining eudaimonia leads to the promise Epictetus gave his students: “[securing a] desire that never fails in its aim, aversion that never falls into what it wants to avoid, motivation that accords with one’s duty, purpose that is carefully weighed, and assent that is not over-hasty” (Discourses 2.8).
At the very core of Stoic metaphysics is the substance pneuma. In brief, it simply and literally means wind or breath (Liddell and Scott). Long uses various phrases which expand on the literal definition, by describing pneuma as “fiery breath”, “artistic fire”, “the active principle”, “vital spirit … hot breath … vehicle of the logos”, “force or energy”, “‘field of force’ activating matter” and “intelligent director of everything” (150-164). John Sellars defines pneuma as “identified with God and reason” and “a conscious and rational organizing principle” and as “the soul of the cosmos” (97). He cites Aetius who described God as “creative fire (pur technikon)” and Stobaeus who called it the force “causing growth and preservation” (98-99). Implicit in these descriptions is movement and action.
Pneuma is in “perpetual motion” and therefore is the cause of other movements in the cosmos (Sambursky 21). Furthermore, this motion not only exists in bodies, but is also the framework for how the cosmos operates. The motion is like that of waves or ripples after a pebble is tossed into still water. Quoting Stobaios, Sambursky writes, “It begins in the centre of the body and extends outwards to its boundaries, and after touching the outermost surface it turns back till it arrives at the same place from which it started” (31).
Besides being in perpetual motion, pneuma is considered the active element and mixes with passive elements (fire, air, water, earth) and binds itself to them causing bodies to exist. Pneuma may be mixed with elements to three varying degrees. First is mingling which could be described as a “mechanical mixture” like that of a mosaic, second is fusion, which mixture causes “a new substance,” and third, “complete interpenetration” in which all parts are “jointly occupied by all the components in the same proportion” (Sambursky 12-13). Additionally, depending on the extent to which pneuma is mixed with passive elements will determine how alive an object is and if it has a soul or not (Sellars91). In sum, the extent of pneuma in passive elements determines if an object has simple forces of unity, or is living, or has movement or possesses rationality.
Given that pneuma is in constant motion, mixes with passive elements, and is the cause of tension and the coherence of everything, the cosmos is one unified whole. Like the glove and hand analogy, whereby the glove would represent the passive elements, and the hand would represent the active force, the cosmos is set in motion and is active by virtue of pneuma. Sambursky succinctly summarizes this idea and notes how the cosmos is one whole because Nature is unbroken in time and space. Referring to pneuma, he wrote, “It was divine power (viz. Force) impressing a definite state upon matter on the one hand, and causal nexus linking the successive states of matter on the other, and in both these aspects it revealed itself as a spatially and temporally continuous agent” (Sambursky 37). Given their view that the cosmos is one “agent,” the Stoics believed that fate was tied up with Nature - a topic on which Chrysippus had a few things to say.
Regarding fate, Chrysippus aligns with Zeno’s position, Zeno being the founder of Stoicism. In some fragments which remain of his writings, we learn Zeno said, “fate is the chainlike cause of existing things or the reason in accordance with which they are ordered … [and is] the moving power of matter according to identical rules and in the same way and it does not differ from providence and nature” (Gould 142). Chrysippus reaffirms Zeno’s stance by calling fate “a certain natural order of all things, following closely upon one another and moved in succession from eternity, and their intertwining with one another is unalterable” (143). Rival philosophical schools attacked Chrysippus’ views on fate arguing that free will was removed and that since fate has been decided, human agency becomes irrelevant (i.e., the lazy argument). In response, Chrysippus would refine his argument with the ideas of “proximate” and “perfect” causes along with the idea that certain things are “in our power” and others are not (149).
A proximate cause might be the proposition of eating a large unhealthy meal or committing adultery, but the perfect cause would be the individual assenting to the proposition, or not. Chrysippus would expound on this idea with the cylinder analogy. A cylinder may be sitting on a slope and the “initial force” to start the rolling process would be the proximate cause (i.e., the proposition of an unhealthy dinner or the opportunity at committing adultery in the previous example) (149). But “the cylinder’s own form” would be accountable for the ongoing movement down the slope, which would represent the proximate cause (i.e., assenting or not to eating the unhealthy dinner or committing adultery in the previous example) (150). Sellars makes this distinction even clearer by explaining Chrysippus’ ideas on “simple fated things and conjoined fated things” and by providing an example of a mortal being (Sellars 103). He writes that while “Socrates will die” is a “simple fated thing” it is not certain that “Socrates will die this afternoon” because he will opt to visit a doctor and therefore his actual chance of survival is termed his “cojoined fate” since Socrates has some choice in the matter (104). While Chrysippus did much to bolster his views to counter the lazy argument response on fate, modern research also provides a few other reasons which counter the lazy argument on determinism and fate.
One research study investigated the relationship between people’s belief or disbelief in free will and how their moral actions aligned with those beliefs. In this study, the researchers instructed all participants to complete various questionnaires to determine where their beliefs resided on a scale of belief in free will, determinism and fate. When the participants arrived at the lab, two large groups were formed: the Control group and the No Free will group. In the Control group, participants read a passage from a book which explained how “psychologists tried to develop a method to assess consciousness” while the No Free Will group read a passage from the same book about how “human behavior is totally determined by genetics” (Caspar, et. al. 3). They were then placed in groupings of three individuals in a room: one as “agent,” one as “victim,” and one as “experimenter” (3). The selection of the roles was random, and all participants eventually played one of the three roles. In every situation, the agent was given money if the agent delivered a painful shock to the victim, but if they did not deliver the shock, no money was given. In these sub-groupings, there were two conditions the agent was presented with: the free-choice condition, in which the agent was totally free to give the shock or not, and the coercive condition in which the experimenter told the agent to give the shock, in which case the agent could decide to give the shock or not.
The results of this experiment indicate “the No Free will group inflicted fewer shocks in the free-choice condition than participants in the Control group” (6-7). While gender does seem to play a factor, the results still indicate that when given a free choice, participants who believed they had no choice in fact demonstrated greater prosocial or moral behaviors. The study further noted that “the reduction of immoral behavior in the no free will group for female participants stems from the induced beliefs” as opposed to their “core beliefs” (7). Additional conclusions from the study show that vengeful behavior was also reduced in the same No Free will group, “and that the higher female participants scored on free will, the more vindictive they were” (7). In sum, this research study reveals that a disbelief in free will does not necessarily lead to one adhering to lazy argument thinking, but it also reveals deterministic thinking can even lead to higher prosocial thinking and behavior.
If one believes that much of their life and circumstances are determined by things beyond their control, then perhaps they will focus their efforts on empathy and improving societal and environmental conditions which promote improved moral behaviors, rather than seeking to instill punitive forms of persuasion. Indeed, it seems deterministic thinking can cause one to have more compassion and understanding. Donald Robertson, a modern-day psychologist, observed the connection between determinism and empathy by drawing parallels in the ideas of Spinoza and a 20th century psychiatrist named Joseph Wolpe. He noted that to understand the world rationally “is to do so by reference to … the essential idea of Nature itself.” He then quotes Spinoza, whose metaphysical beliefs are similar to the Stoics: “we can desire nothing save that which is necessary, nor can we absolutely be contented with anything save what is true: and therefore insofar as we understand this rightly, the endeavour of the best part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of nature” (Robertson).
Robertson then notes the relationship between determinism and living in harmony with Nature, to the ideas of the psychiatrist Wolpe, who said this of determinism and empathy:
Objectivity, empathy, and sensitivity to suffering are intrinsic to the behaviour therapist’s approach to his patients. The objectivity follows from the knowledge that all behaviour, including cognitive behaviour, is subject to causal determination no less than is the behaviour of falling bodies or magnetic fields. […] To explain how the patient’s neurosis arose out of a combination or chain of particular events helps [empathic] understanding (Robertson).
The point to this long thread about determinism and empathy is to counter the idea which Long calls “chilling and insensitive” about the idea that “all will turn out well in the end” (170). Taking an optimistic perspective is not disturbing and inconsiderate, but rather it is a rational way for the individual to arrive at acceptance of events as they are and empathic understanding for himself and humanity.
Furthermore, this thread of thought on determinism and empathy ought to inform the individual to not only validate his own emotions and those of others when they perceive that much is beyond their control - that these perceptions don’t have to be distressing and indifferent -but that we can experience greater and deeper understanding of our shared human experiences and help others see the higher fidelity of existence. The higher fidelity in thinking and perception allows us to truly grasp and comprehend what is up to us, and in that space, we can adjust our attitude towards an optimistic perspective which will lead to resilience in the face of adversity. In fact, resilience seems to be the default human reaction to adversity.
Humans are a tough and resilient species. One study of 67 potentially traumatic events, such as “mass shootings, hurricanes, spinal cord injuries,” observed that two-thirds resiliently recover from the event (Zimmerman). The article which references this study concludes by noting what psychologists have observed in people who are resilient and flourish in virtually any circumstance: they have a “positive, realistic outlook … [and] look for opportunities in bleak situations, striving to find the positive within the negatives” (Zimmerman). A professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, George Bonanno, conducted this research on human resilience in the face of traumatic events, and observed “multiple pathways to resilience” (25). Of note are his findings which align with the optimistic perspective on Stoic determinism. He noted that “hardiness” which includes commitment “to finding meaningful purpose in life” and “that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences” are hallmarks in those who demonstrate resilience to adverse events (25). These traits align with the Stoic perspective that all events and circumstances can work out for the best. And closely related to this optimistic view, Bonanno further observes, are those responses of “positive emotion and laughter” which have the effect of “quieting or undoing a negative emotion” after an “aversive event” (26).
To tie all these threads together, the idea that ultimately all works out well (Stoic optimism), not only embraces determinism, but also reminds the individual of what is up to him, namely, his attitude and the ability to grasp the reality of his situation. This higher fidelity in thinking allows him the space to be more empathic with his own situation and that of others. This empathy can counteract the “chilling and insensitive” perspective Long mentions (170). Furthermore, this cognitive space empowers the individual to breed a growth and learning mindset regarding all events in his life, including traumatic events. This optimism, in the form of seeking meaning and purpose, along with the optimistic characteristics of “positive emotion and laughter” can equip the individual to resiliently endure most events in his life (Bonanno 26). Being psychologically prepared and equipped with this mentality, the individual thus gains confidence in his pursuit of leading a fulfilling and flourishing life – he knows when tough times come, these events will provide meaning and opportunity for him to practice excellence in living.
In conclusion, the entire argument, from metaphysical beliefs to determinism, to conjoined fated actions, to securing eudaimonia leads to the promise Epictetus gave his students: “[securing a] desire that never fails in its aim, aversion that never falls into what it wants to avoid, motivation that accords with one’s duty, purpose that is carefully weighed, and assent that is not over-hasty” (Discourses 2.8). This mindset is not disturbing nor callous, but rather optimistically equips the individual to be psychologically and emotionally durable and possess the confidence to face any adversity. Not only can one wisely respond to any desire, aversion, or event in his life, but he can also feel confidence and gratitude in his mental paradigm. Lastly, Marcus Aurelius compares this robust self-determination to that of ocean waves colliding against the cropping of rocks.
Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest. 'It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.' No, you should rather say: 'It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.' Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain (Meditations Book 4, chapter 49).
Bonanno, George A. "Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have we Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?" American Psychologist, vol. 59, no. 1, 2004, pp. 20-28. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Floss-trauma-human-resilience-have-we%2Fdocview%2F614384211%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289, doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.20.
Caspar, Emilie A., et al. “The Influence of (Dis)Belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior.” Frontiers in Psychology, no. 8 20, 17 Jan. 2017, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00020.
Epictetus, et al. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Gould, J B. The Philosophy of Chrysippus. 1970. Netherlands, Brill Academic Pub, 1971.
Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. “Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, a Greek-English Lexicon, πνεῦμα.” Www.perseus.tufts.edu, 1940, www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dpneu%3Dma. Accessed 12 Feb. 2023.
Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. University Of California Press, 1986.
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, et al. Meditations. Penguin Classics, An Imprint Of Penguin Books, 2014.
Robertson, Donald J. “Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy.” Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life, 26 Sept. 2019, medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/spinozas-philosophical-psychotherapy-94ff758f6f15. Accessed 18 Feb. 2023.
Sellars, John. Stoicism. Routledge, 2014.
Zimmerman, Eilene. What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others: RESILIENCE. ProQuest, Jun 18, 2020, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fblogs-podcasts-websites%2Fwhat-makes-some-people-more-resilient-than-others%2Fdocview%2F2414234236%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289.