Stoicism and the Shackling of Moral Imagination

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism enjoyed considerable popularity among both Greek and Roman rulers, over the course of hundreds of years.[1] This is no accident. The philosophical underpinnings of Stoicism naturally support the perpetuation of the status quo and do not allow the possibility of a moral ideal that could radically change human societies.

The foundation of the moral stasis inherent to Stoicism is found in its conception of the physical universe. This begins with the belief that only bodies – that is, objects in the physical world – actually exist. Other “sayables”, such as concepts of time or place, are entirely subsistent to the reality of physical objects. Moreover, in the words of the Stoic philosopher Sextus Empiricus, universals are “figments of the mind” and that therefore all objects that exist are radically particular.[2]

This belief in a single realm of reality without universals then shapes the Stoic understanding of God. God does not exist outside the universe, but rather is the universe itself. Stoicism is therefore pantheistic. Moreover, the Stoic God is also conflated not only with nature, but also with reason itself. The universe is ultimately rationally ordered to the Stoic, entirely in accordance with the perfect logos of God.[3] This results in two conclusions about the nature of things. The first is that, since the universe is rationally coherent, nothing happens without being caused. This is true even if the cause is not or cannot be perceived. This results in a strong sense of fate in the Stoic. The second important conclusion, an extension of the first, is that since the universe is divine and rational, and indeed is the epitome of reason itself, the events that may come to pass by fate cannot be faulted for being irrational or unreasonable. This distinguishes the Stoic understanding of fate from other understandings in which fate may be capricious, random, or illogical. Rather, Stoic fate is both inevitable, purposeful and reasonable.

This naturally leads to the question of how the Stoic is to respond to fate. Given that fate cannot be avoided or fruitfully challenged, the fundamental Stoic attitude is one of detachment and acceptance of what goes on in the world of objects. An excellent description of this detachment, and its extension from petty matters to ones often considered to be of great consequence, can be found in the writings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

With respect to any of those things you find attractive or useful or have a fondness for, recall to mind what kind of thing it is, beginning with the most trifling. So if you are fond of an earthenware pot, say, “I am fond of an earthenware pot.” Then you will not be upset if it gets broken. When you kiss your child or wife, say that you are kissing a human being; then, should they die, you will not be distressed.[4]

The Stoic sense of the inevitability of external events does not extend to the perceptions of human beings. The Stoic belief that the only things that really exist are physical bodies, and that perceptions are subsistent to such bodies, exempts human thought from the deterministic nature of the universe. As such, humans can exercise real control over the mind and the emotions, or alternatively, reason and passion. Human control does not extend to anything else. Consequently the ideal human life is one that accepts and even embraces all events that transpire in the universe. By doing so, the Stoic manages to live in accordance with the will of God, and is perfectly aligned with reason, as these are all the same thing.

This means that Stoic morality is entirely focused on the human response to external events. Immorality for the Stoic is a failure to accept what has come to pass. As such, any event that might trigger either a positive or negative reaction in a human subject is not itself subject to any kind of moral evaluation. Moral evaluation can only meaningfully concern itself with human perception. In contrast with notions that “perception is reality,” Stoicism suggests that “perception is morality.”

This concept of the morality of human thought does not merely concern itself with not being distressed when misfortune strikes, but also with concern for grasping at good things. In the words of philosopher Pierre Hadot, in Stoicism, “people are unhappy because they passionately seek to acquire things which they cannot obtain and flee evils which are inevitable.”[5] Stoic thought would suggest that in fleeing “evils,” people are failing to understand that whatever external misfortune may come is in fact from God and is eminently reasonable, and that it is therefore not the event which is evil, but rather a potential response to it. Similarly, any good fortune is given by God and cannot be obtained by human effort, and such efforts are futile.

This notion of a morality of response, or perception, coupled with a belief in the divinity and rationality of the physical universe, serves to shut out the possibility that there might be improvement in the real, physical world. It is already an ideal world, because it is perfectly rational. It is therefore utterly useless in Stoic thought to imagine a different universe. Such a universe, being different from the real one, would necessarily depart from the perfect reasonable real world.

A sharp contrast can be drawn between Stoic cosmology and ethics and those of other philosophies. Plato’s seminal work, the Republic, contrasts particularly starkly with Stoic thought. The distinctions between Platonic and Stoic thought begin at cosmology, and work their way down to very different concepts of ethics and politics.

While Plato and the Stoics share a belief that only bodies really exist, Plato does not limit the existence of bodies solely to the physical universe. Instead, Plato postulates a realm of the forms, in which objects exist that are perfect archetypes of their counterparts in the physical universe. In suggesting this, Plato sets out a position in which universality has objective reality; objects of a given type in the physical universe can be said to hold characteristics in common because they share in the nature of a common form, which has real existence in another realm.[6] As a result, Plato acknowledges the existence of a perfect and harmonious realm. However, while Stoic thought considers the physical universe to be that perfect realm, Plato emphatically places such perfection outside of physical existence. By doing this, Plato makes it possible to criticize objects and events in the physical world. The existence of a standard of perfection, against which the physical world is deficient, is nonsensical to the Stoic, for whom the perfect rationality of the universe precludes the possibility that anything better is really possible.

This different concept of the nature of reality allows Plato to ask different ethical questions than the Stoics. In fact, the central metaphor of the Republic itself, that of an idealized city-state, can only be understood as such in the context of an imperfect world. To the Stoic, it is futile to try to compare Athens, Sparta and Rome to determine which of these is the “best” city; by virtue of their existence, each of these cities perfectly expresses the rationality of God. Some hypothetical city, such as that of the Republic, cannot be considered an ideal against which to compare actual, existing cities. The city of the Republic does not exist, and therefore is not perfectly rational, as are existing cities. Even if one allows for the possibility that a city like that of the Republic might come into existence at some time in the future, such a city is still not an ideal. If it eventually exists, this demonstrates that it is perfectly rational, but it is still no more rational than any other city that has ever existed. It shares the perfection of the universe equally with all other cities.

The Republic’s famous allegory of the cave is also entirely incompatible with Stoic thought. Plato’s subject initially believes that the appearance of the physical world, represented as the shadows on the wall of the cave, are actually real, but upon his removal to the outside world, he discovers that reality is in fact far greater than the appearance of things in the cave.[7] The Stoic, meanwhile, could fit into the allegory only as one who remained in the cave, and remained convinced that the shadows on the cave’s walls were the sum of all reality.

It is therefore possible to determine one of the critical differences between Platonic and Stoic thought that allows Plato to hypothesize a better world while the Stoic cannot. Simply put, reality for the Stoic is entirely immanent; for Plato, reality is primarily transcendent. The imagination is a useless faculty for the Stoic, and is actually a source of evil. It distracts the mind from reality, and has the potential to deceive it into believing that it may be possible to evade inevitable events that should instead be accepted, or that it is possible to attain what is actually out of reach. The imagination is an impediment to serenity and acceptance, and to correctly perceiving reality. It is a distraction from the ideal life, which is lived entirely in the present moment. For Plato, by contrast, the imagination is necessary to grasp the highest reality, which exists immaterially. Moreover, the material lives of people stand to be improved by the enlightened actions of those who have grasped this intangible reality; this is the conclusion of the central metaphor of the Republic, that the best possible civic rulers are philosophers who understand the nature of the forms.

The political implications of the Stoic and Platonic views of reality are dramatic. For Plato, the existing political structures can be less than ideal. They may well partially take part in the forms of good governance and good politics, but the possibility of greater participation in these forms is always possible. Accompanying this is the recognition that the political powers that be are not ever doing the best possible job, and that better governance is possible. Those who believe they understand how they might practice better governance can derive a case from Plato’s work that they may be morally justified in their efforts to take political power, so that they might improve the lot of their state.

Stoicism stifles the potential for this sort of revolutionary ambition that might be fed by Platonic thought. Whatever political structure is present can claim divine sanction and utter reasonableness, simply because it exists. Thoughts of improvement to governance are inappropriate, dangerous and harmful, because they run against the divine nature of things. Rather, the morally good person aspires to accept with complete serenity whatever the political powers may do.

It is not difficult to see the appeal of Stoicism to those who possess power and live relatively pleasant lives. Stoic logic dictates that their well-being is divinely ordained and in perfect accord with reason, and is therefore completely unobjectionable. It also encourages the subjects of those in power to be obedient and subservient to their rulers, whose mandate is explicitly from God. The power of those who rule is justified by its own existence. Insurrection and rebellion are easily condemned as the product of evil minds that resist God. Platonic thought, in contrast, encourages the ruled to question their rulers, and to change the patterns of rule under which they live. There is no guarantee that these changes will be amenable to those who are presently powerful, and the possibility of resentment and hostility being directed towards the established rulers could at any time become a dangerous reality. Stoicism tends toward political stability; Platonic thought tends toward change, and easily encourages volatility.

The relative popularity of Stoicism among political rulers[8] is therefore entirely sensible. Its immanent concept of reality suited the common desire of rulers for a tranquil, untroublesome populace amenable to obeying demands placed upon them by more powerful figures. By contrast, belief systems in which ideals are transcendent and physical reality is subject to betterment, such as Platonic thought or late Stoicism’s contemporary rival, Christianity, bear much more potential for disruption. This potential has been borne out many times over the course of history, notably in the history of warfare. Some sense of conflicting ideals of what reality should resemble is frequently the rationale for exerting force against another entity. This is true whether it is a petty ideal of greater power for a certain political entity over and against another, or larger-scale, more utopian ideals such as a communist or racially pure society.

However, this idealistic impulse, rooted in a sense of the possibility of changing reality into something it presently is not, does not bear only the possibility of violence and warfare. The belief in transcendent ideals has also spurred changes in the morality and behaviour of human societies. Movements such as those for the abolition of slavery, the equality of women and men, the universality of education and the end of racial discrimination were driven by people with unrealized ideals that would have been considered a dangerous distraction to a Stoic. While the social stability of a Stoic world holds an obvious appeal for those who presently wield power and those who seek a reduction in conflict, such a world would preserve any systemic faults or injustices that the idealist, but not the Stoic, might perceive.

The Stoic worldview is ultimately deeply passive. It consigns all possible moral progress to the interior lives of individual people, resisting any anthropogenic material change that might be driven by moral claims. Perhaps one of the most remarkable images of an ideal Stoic society can be found in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World. All citizens accept their lots in life, are satisfied with them, unconditionally respect their superiors, and generally believe that they live in an ideal, perfect world. Huxley’s depictions of the horrific biological, psychological and social manipulation visited on humanity to achieve such a society serve to demonstrate a deep flaw in Stoic thought. Stoicism ultimately forfeits the remarkable human capacity to seek improved material lives, shackling the moral imagination in the search of tranquillity that even its adherents admitted was impossible to attain.[9]


[1] Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/ (accessed November 28, 2009): 6.

[2] Ibid: 3.

[3] Luc Ferry, What Is The Good Life?, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005): 167-8.

[4] Epictetus, “Enchidiron,” tr. Keith Seddon, in Philosophic Classics: From Plato To Derrida, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008): 239.

[5] Luc Ferry, What Is The Good Life?: 166.

[6] Richard Kraut, “Plato,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/ (accessed December 2, 2009): 1.

[7] Plato, “Republic,” tr. Francis MacDonald Cornford, in Philosophic Classics: From Plato To Derrida, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008): 122.

[8] Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: 6.

[9] Luc Ferry, What Is The Good Life?: 175.

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6 comments on “Stoicism and the Shackling of Moral Imagination

  1. Kampen says:

    You should read Pierre Hadot, “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Cambridge: Blackwell,1995). Most of the arguments for philosophy as a way of life I’ve read have been primarily against neo-gosticisms. i.e. the pseudo dichotomy of faith and reason. It’s interesting to read an analysis of the problems of stoic thought as well and not to regard them as somewhere back there in history (I’m not accusing you of this, just saying).

    I think this is a crucial sentence: “by contrast, belief systems in which ideals are transcendent and physical reality is subject to betterment, such as Platonic thought or late Stoicism’s contemporary rival, Christianity, bear much more potential for disruption.”

    Christianity and disruption; this is St.Paul in a nutshell. My question is, what does a Pauline philosophy (or even epistemology) look like as a way of life both within and beyond the Church?

    I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts on any important differences between Plato and St.Paul on the moral imagination.

    • Theophilus says:

      Part of that book was actually my initial reading assignment in my History of Philosophy class for which I wrote this paper. And certainly, Stoicism doesn’t exist merely in the past; thus the Brave New World reference. Actually, H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer is basically Stoic. It is far removed from the claim that “[t]he things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” (Lk. 18:27) Any mindset that is utterly resigned to the way things are, that holds out no hope that change is possible, appears to me to be more Stoic than Christian. And deferring such hope entirely to the afterlife is a cop-out and rejects God’s sovereignty over the created world.

  2. James Gray says:

    Your argument seems to be based on a false assumption, which I believe Hadot has already addressed. This is the major claim:

    This notion of a morality of response, or perception, coupled with a belief in the divinity and rationality of the physical universe, serves to shut out the possibility that there might be improvement in the real, physical world. It is already an ideal world, because it is perfectly rational. It is therefore utterly useless in Stoic thought to imagine a different universe. Such a universe, being different from the real one, would necessarily depart from the perfect reasonable real world.

    First, obviously this isn’t an ideal world for a Stoic. Bad things can happen to you personally. The reason that such things happen to individuals is because it is necessary for the greater good. In an ideal world, such bad things would no be necessary.

    Second, progress is indeed possible for a Stoic. The stoics were for sexual equality and other kinds of progressive reforms. The imperfections of the world might be inevitable, but we have no reason to think that things can’t get better. Things might inevitably get better.

    The Stoics don’t reject the fact that human beings need to try to work hard to make the world better place. As “ideal” as the world is could be only due to such effort.

    An easy example of “progress” is scientific progress. We are learning more about the universe and doing great things from it (such as improving medicine). Such efforts are clearly not fruitless. They can be inevitable without being pointless. Inevitability doesn’t make things without merit.

    • Theophilus says:

      Replying to your objections, first off, the suggestion that the existing world isn’t ideal for the Stoic doesn’t imply that the world itself is a less than ideal world. It does suggest that the world, if it is divine and good, is one that incorporates suffering into its perfect rationality and goodness. In other words, the best of all possible worlds may not actually be all that pleasant for its inhabitants, who may still suffer in it, in order that it may be excellent as a whole.

      Second, I am aware that the Stoics were involved in various efforts to improve society, and that these efforts sprang from their views of the constitution of humanity. However, I have not seen how these efforts for social betterment are compatible with the resigned fatalism that Stoicism advocates for the individual. Doing so, as far as I can tell, would require some (anachronistically) Kantian self-denying deontological ethic that I simply haven’t seen in Stoicism. Even then, the goodness of a given social change can only be determined by whether or not it comes to pass. This does not allow for any kind of transcendent ideal, which is necessary for moral imagination.

      Moral imagination is really only possible in a fatalist system if you define goodness outside of the existing universe, as in the Islamic or Calvinist traditions which locate the definition of goodness in God.

  3. James Gray says:

    Replying to your objections, first off, the suggestion that the existing world isn’t ideal for the Stoic doesn’t imply that the world itself is a less than ideal world. It does suggest that the world, if it is divine and good, is one that incorporates suffering into its perfect rationality and goodness. In other words, the best of all possible worlds may not actually be all that pleasant for its inhabitants, who may still suffer in it, in order that it may be excellent as a whole.

    Yes.

    Second, I am aware that the Stoics were involved in various efforts to improve society, and that these efforts sprang from their views of the constitution of humanity. However, I have not seen how these efforts for social betterment are compatible with the resigned fatalism that Stoicism advocates for the individual.

    The “resigned fatalism” is merely an appreciation for existence. We should love all of life and reality no matter what happens. I just explained how we can decide to try to make things better: Improvement is possible, even if determinism is true, and even if we should appreciate all of reality.

    Another important fact: We can have rational preferences, even if everything is ultimately for the best. We don’t want to experience pain or cause pain. Less pain is ultimately better and preferable. We only appreciate a painful life because we know it is for the best.

    Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel discussed how we can have values based on our instincts or “natural impulses” to know how to do the right thing. This explains how we can have “appropriate preferences.”

    Doing so, as far as I can tell, would require some (anachronistically) Kantian self-denying deontological ethic that I simply haven’t seen in Stoicism.

    I don’t know what you are trying to say here. The Stoics are pro-instincts. They think we want to help others by our own nature.

    Even then, the goodness of a given social change can only be determined by whether or not it comes to pass. This does not allow for any kind of transcendent ideal, which is necessary for moral imagination.

    First, goodness could be understood through intrinsic values for the Stoics just like any other moral realists. Whether or not an action is ultimately “good” is never known by anyone for the most part. The Stoics just believe everything will be for the best in the long run.

    Second, no transcendent ideal is necessary for a moral imagination. Let’s say that happiness has intrinsic value. In that case, there is no end to how much good can exist. There is no “perfection” because there will always be more happiness that can exist.

    Moral imagination is really only possible in a fatalist system if you define goodness outside of the existing universe, as in the Islamic or Calvinist traditions which locate the definition of goodness in God.

    I don’t agree. God can make decisions based on intrinsic value maximization, for example.

  4. Sextus Empiricus was a Skeptic philosopher. This should not be confused with being a Stoic philosopher.

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