24 Common Criticisms of Stoicism — and Some Answers
This semester I’ve been teaching a course at City College in New York entitled “Practical Ancient Philosophy.” Naturally, we talk a lot about Stoicism. One of my students said she really digs the Stoics, but she feels she’d be more confident in her understanding of the philosophy if she was aware of some of the common criticisms raised against it, as well as of how Stoics respond. So here we go, in my experience the 24 most common objections to Stoic philosophy, organized by general theme. Let me know if you can think of others, so that I can properly updated my list.
1. It’s about sporting a stiff upper lip.
Endurance is, indeed, a Stoic value. But it doesn’t define the philosophy.
2. It’s about suppressing emotions, a la Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
The Stoics divide emotions into three categories: pre-emotions, unhealthy emotions, and healthy emotions. Pre-emotions (e.g., blushing, beginning of anger) are inevitable even for the sage. Unhealthy emotions (full fledged anger, hatred, fear) interfere with reason and need to be negotiated. Never act on their basis. Healthy emotions (proper love, proper joy, sense of justice) are to be mindfully cultivated.
3. When Epictetus says that we ought not to be disturbed by the death of a loved one, it shows Stoicism is for sociopaths.
Epictetus was speaking from the point of view of someone who believed in a cosmic providence. For him, everything that happens in the world is in agreement with cosmic reason. We are cells of the cosmic organism, and what happens to us is not important in comparison with that organism (“god”). Indeed, our duty is to do our part in the overall functioning of the cosmos. However, most modern Stoics reject that aspect of Stoic metaphysics, so for us it makes perfect sense to grieve at the loss of a loved one, so long as we are at the same time ready to accept what is natural and inevitable, to focus on the good memories rather than the loss, and to be ready to rejoin the human cosmopolis since we have duties to other loved ones and to society in general.
4. Stoicism teaches apathy.
The word apatheia refers to lack of disturbance from unhealthy emotions, not apathy. We are supposed not to yield to unhealthy emotions like anger, hatred, and fear. But we are supposed to feel compassion and love. As Epictetus says, the goal is not to turn us into statues.
5. Stoicism is all about reason, what about the emotions?
Stoicism, like modern cognitive science, rejects reason-emotion dualism. The human mind is a complex dynamic process where reason and emotions are inextricably connected. That is why Stoic techniques — and the modern cognitive behavioral therapy that they inspired — work so well: we constantly engage our emotions cognitively, reshaping our emotional spectrum away from unhealthy modalities like anger and toward healthy ones like love.
6. The Stoics don’t pay enough attention to pleasure, but modern psychology tells us that a hedonic component is important for a well balanced human life.
While the Stoic emphasis is on the cultivation of virtue (or wisdom, or sound judgment), the Stoics consider pleasure to be “in agreement with nature” and pain to be “against nature.” Accordingly, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are perfectly in line with Stoic practice. So long as we don’t avoid pain at the cost of acting unvirtuously, and so long as we own our pleasures and are not owned by them.
7. Stoics preach a dampening of our emotions, thus robbing us of one of the most important things that make us human.
It depends of what we mean by that. If the idea is that people can go from heights of elation to depths of despair, then yes, Stoicism actively attempts to avoid such extremes. But that’s because that sort of emotional swings actually get in the way of a serene and happy life. A person who is subject to wild emotional fluctuations is likely to suffer a lot and enjoy little. That said, remember that love and joy are healthy Stoic emotions.
Category: Ethics and what is good or bad
8. It makes no sense to say, as the Stoic do, that virtue is the only good. Surely there are other things in life that are also good.
Virtue, which is the same as wisdom (Socrates), which is the same (especially in Epictetus) as sound judgment, is the ultimate good because it is what regulates how we use everything else. Other things do have value or disvalue, and they may accordingly be preferred or dispreferred, but their value depends on how we use them, which in turn depends on our faculty of judgment (prohairesis).
9. The Stoics maintain that nobody does evil if not out of ignorance. That’s nonsense, often bad people know exactly what they are doing. Think of Hitler!
“Ignorance” here does not mean that people are not conscious, at least in part, of what they are doing and why. A better translation would be “un-wisdom.” If someone does something bad, that is because they think they are actually doing what is right, either in general, or for their country, or for their family, or for themselves. Even Hitler, likely, didn’t get up in the morning thinking “what evil can I do today?” He wasn’t a Disney cartoon character. He genuinely thought that he, his family, and the German people had been given the short end of the stick by fate, by other nations, and by certain ethnic groups. He was horribly mistaken, of course. So we should do anything in our power to stop people like him from hurting others. If possible, we should also reform such people. But never hate them. As the Dalai Lama explained, Hitler is an unfortunate node in the way the world is unfolding. He did not choose to be the evil person he is. He deserves compassion, not anger. And he must die for reasons of compassion: compassion for him and all those who might suffer his awfulness.
10. As Aristotle argued, it is not possible to achieve eudaimonia, that is, flourishing in life, unless one does not have access to at least some externals (e.g., health, education, wealth, reputation).
The Stoics understand eudaimonia as a life worth living. Surely a flourishing life is worth living. But are you telling me that, say, a Nelson Mandel who spent 27 years in prison to fight against injustice had a life not worth living? That’s why the Stoics acknowledge that a life with some externals is certainly more pleasant, but reject the notion that a life without such externals is not worth living.
11. Stoicism is a masculine philosophy.
Several of the major Stoics, including Zeno (the founder), Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus are on record as explicitly saying that women are just as capable of living a philosophical life as men, and that they should be educated just like men. Modern Stoics extend that sentiment to all genders.
12. Stoicism is a quietist philosophy, avoiding political engagement.
Historically, Stoics have been very much politically involved. Cato the Younger raised an army to fight Julius Caesar, and the famous Stoic opposition comprised people who opposed the tyranny of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. Some of those people paid for their political involvement with exile or death. That said, Stoics are confident that they can live under any socio-political system, particularly if it is not in their power to do anything about it. But they strive for justice and equality. After all, Zeno’s ideal Republic is an anarchic society where there are no laws and everyone resolves issues by reason rather than violence.
13. Stoicism is helpful during bed times, but no so much when things are going well.
On the contrary, Stoicism is a philosophy for every moment of one’s life. When things are bad so that we can cope with the situation. When things are good so that we may enjoy our good fortune and yet be prepared to let it go when it will inevitably pass. Besides, even the luckiest human being will suffer at some point in their life, and every one is going to die. We need to be prepared.
14. Stoic techniques work independently of Stoic philosophy, so why not just go for the life hacks?
True, just as is the case for other philosophies of life. One can practice different kinds of meditation, for instance, without for that reason being a Buddhist. Someone is a Buddhist if they understand, accept, and practice fundamental tenets of the philosophy, like the four noble truths or the eightfold path to enlightenment. Similarly, to be a Stoic means to strive for ethical self-improvement, consider oneself a cosmopolitan, be mindful of the four cardinal virtues, internalize and act on the dichotomy of control, etc.. This is regardless of whether one also engages in specific practices, like the view from above or philosophical journaling.
15. To live according to nature means that whatever is natural is therefore good. That’s a logical fallacy, known as the appeal to nature.
The Stoics explicitly reject the notion that whatever is natural is therefore good. Anger, for instance, is a natural human emotion, and yet the Stoics think it unhealthy. What the Stoics maintain is that the two defining characteristics of humanity as a species are our ability to reason and our prosociality. From which they deduce that the best human life is one in which we use reason to solve problems and cooperate with fellow human beings.
16. Stoicism has become self-help garbage.
Only when it is distorted or misunderstood. If you want to use Stoicism to make money or become famous (“$toicism”), or if you think it is a philosophy to keep women in their place (“Broicism”), or to provide an excuse for military aggression (“StoicisM”) then you are simply misappropriating Stoic ideas. This happens to other philosophies of life and religions as well. Think of the rather oxymoronic “Prosperity Gospel” in Christianity.
17. Stoics are supposed to behave like doormats and take whatever others throw their way.
Acceptance of the inevitable certainly is a Stoic characteristic. But the thing has to truly be inevitable, or not sufficiently important. If we can avoid real injury — to ourselves or others — we should. If we are in a position to educate others, we should. But fighting against windmills is something better left to Don Quixote.
18. Stoicism is a solitary pursuit.
To some extent this is true. Ethical self-improvement is something that needs to be done by the individual, it cannot be imposed by or onto others. However, the Stoics have always been social and public. Unlike Platonists, Aristotelians, and Epicureans, who met in their secluded Academy, Lyceum, and Garden, the Stoics were out there in the Stoa, near the public market, talking to everyone, constantly engaging their fellow human beings.
Category: self vs social
19. Stoicism is a self-centered philosophy.
One of the most fundamental Stoic concepts is that of cosmopolitanism, the notion that all human beings are our fellow sisters and brothers. A related notion is that of philanthropia, love of humanity. Indeed, Stoics don’t recognize any sharp distinction between self and others: when we improve ourselves we help the cosmopolis, when we help others we make things better for ourselves.
20. Stoicism is a personal philosophy that has nothing to say about social issues.
Yes and no. Indeed, Stoicism is a philosophy of ethical self-improvement, like Buddhism or Christianity. But its cosmopolitanism, and the fact that one of the four cardinal virtues is that of justice, imply that Stoics ought to be concerned with social issues. That said, Stoicism does not directly endorse a particular political stance or social philosophy. It is compatible with a range of such positions, so long as we act virtuously and keep philanthropia in mind.
21. Why should one follow Stoicism and rigidly adhere to a particular philosophy, rather than be eclectic and take the best from different traditions?
Stoicism itself was born as an eclectic philosophy, since Zeno of Citium studied with a number of teachers belonging to different schools. The problem with eclecticism, though, is that it needs to be thought out carefully, or it risks sliding into a hodgepodge of rationalizations, where one picks and chooses whatever suits the mood of the moment. Also, Stoicism is not a rigid philosophy, but a constantly evolving one. Seneca explicitly says that our predecessors are not our masters, only our teachers. If and when we discover new and better ways of doing things we ought to do it.
22. We don’t control our thoughts, so Epictetus is wrong about the dichotomy of control.
Epictetus was perfectly aware that much of our mental life is not under our control. However, if there is anything that defines who you are, that’s your own deliberate judgments and explicitly endorsed opinions. And those, being a product of your conscious mind, truly are the only thing under your complete control.
23. Stoicism assumes a strong notion of the self, but the self is an illusion.
Stoics are not essentialists about the self. They don’t think that there is an essence that is us, which survives our death (a “soul”). Rather, the Stoic self is compatible with the Buddhist version: it is a dynamic system that comprises our always changing memories, personality traits, behavioral dispositions, and so forth. The small part of such self that is consciously under our control, our faculty of judgment, is — for the Stoics — who we, ultimately, really are.
24. Stoicism is incoherent, as the Stoics tell us that we should improve ourselves while at the same time being determinists about free will.
True, Stoics are determinists, in the sense that they believe everything happens because of cause and effect. But we are part and parcel of the causal web of the universe. We are not passive puppets whose strings are moved by the forces of nature, we are active, integral elements of nature. We can improve ourselves because reason is a recursive faculty: it can be applied to itself over time. If it helps, think of it as a computer algorithm capable of partially rewriting itself as a result of its own assessment of its functioning in response to internal and external inputs.