Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Indestructibility of Virtue and Happiness

A reader of this site worries that by recommending that we improve the external circumstances of our life, I misunderstand the good life the Stoics are recommending. That is a good life is a life in which arete and eudaimonia, once attained, are permanent and indestructible.

This view, the permanence of virtue and happiness, is indeed a well-attested dogma of the old Stoa, though Epictetus does not emphasize it. See, for example, DL. VII. 128.

The reader is correct is that I do not believe virtue or happiness can ever be counted as an enduring, much less indestructible, state. My grounds are shallowly empirical, not apriori. Many of us, I think, have watched virtue and happiness erode and fail. Name any virtue you wish—courage, temperance, piety, justice, prudence—and we can tell unhappy stories of war and disease and old age destroying these qualities in exemplary human beings. These were not of course the ideal Stoic sages, but I am speaking now of real men and real lives. Nothing about virtue and happiness seems permanent.

The Stoic summum bonum is the inner tranquility of a life that flows smoothly and naturally. Ataraxia is not an indestructible state. I have known people who have retreated to Trappist monasteries and Buddhist temples in search of it. This was not an unwise move because our externals have a great deal to do with how enduring our calm and tranquil life can be. Tranquility, however, is not the special preserve of the monastics. In fact, the most tranquil people I have known were people with successful marriages and careers who were doing professionally what they loved to do. The monastics, by contrast, were, at least in my experience, on the whole a much less tranquil and happy lot.

I am not challenging the Stoic view of the summum bonum. I am suggesting that externals are vital to protecting the fragility of our flourishing. Please do not quote Stoic dogma to me about flourishing under any conditions. Zeno and Chrysippus and Epictetus did not grow up in an Nazi death camps. I have spoken to people who did ( vide R Vrba’s Ich Kann Nicht Vergessen ). You can survive under such conditions, you do not flourish.

The idea that you can attain and sustain a inner calm by neglecting your externals is a very dangerous hypothesis. No recipe is surer to provoke and secure an unhappy and unvirtuous life than neglecting your externals. None of the Stoic philosophers did so, it seems, though they seemed to have felt free to preach a gossip they did not themselves live.

I do not offer this view of externals as dogma, but as my experience of the world and how we must live in it. If you can attest a very different experience of the world, I should be very pleased to hear about it.

2 Comments:

Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Dave and Henry,

My apologies. A previous listing of this post, with your comments, has somehow managed to delete itself as I tried to fix a few typos.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

I am able to recover my first comment, tho if there was a second, I no longer have it...

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>>>The idea that you can attain and sustain an inner calm by neglecting your externals is a dangerous mistake. No recipe is surer to provoke and secure an unhappy and unvirtuous life than one that recommends you neglect your externals. None of the Stoic philosophers did so...<<<

Indeed they did not. I suspect that was because they did not actually advocate neglecting externals.

>>>... though they seemed to have felt free to preach a gossip they did not themselves try to live.<<<

I wonder where you have found such preaching, or evidence of it. I have not, as far as I can remember, come across the attitude you are criticising -- not in the Stoics, anyway.

We do find it in the Cynics, I think, who advocate dismissing all concern for externals. They think they have a ‘short-cut to happiness’ as Epictetus calls it, and I see no reason to doubt that this was indeed their experience.

No one, no Stoic, no Cynic, is telling you that you should give up externals, or reduce them to a minimum, or neglect them. It seems clear enough that that approach would not work for you, given your values and wider beliefs. But that does not mean that the Stoic or Cynic approach cannot work for other people.

I am confident that people can be very different in their outlooks and dispositions, whereas you seem to think that whatever it true for you must hold true for everyone else.

8:41 AM  

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