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Comments on A.A. Long Interview

From Registry Report, Issue #13

Bold = Original questioner
Green = A.A. Long
Regular = DT Strain response

So you think one can turn ancient Stoicism into a genuine contemporary way of life?

"If you try to turn it into a practical ethics, then clearly some things have to be given up. The Candidean optimism, the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds, doesn't fit our world. It doesn't fit Darfur."

I'm curious as to why Darfur would be some astounding revelation to early Stoics. Surely they had known of massacres and abuses, disease, death, etc. In fact, if any philosophy was crafted specifically as a means to get by in a harsh world, it is Stoicism.

I don't think a Stoic would phrase it as "the best of all possible worlds". By looking at other possibilities, that's playing the "what if" game - a big no no for Stoics. There are no "if's" worth ruminating over, there is only one "is" and that is the one we must accept. Rather, what Long is no doubt referring to is the Stoic notion that the universe, as it is, in inherently good. This is a technical matter that has to do with the Stoic take on what "good" means, as being in accordance with Nature. Of course, Nature is in accordance with Nature and therefore by definition Good. But deeper than this, we might be tempted to site barbaric and heinous incidents as proof that not everything that happens is good, but imagine what it would take to ensure that none of those things happened. We would find a much less dynamic world of less intrinsic freedom and choice. There is no life without death, no freedom to do good without the freedom to do evil. Surely horrible incidents were not news to the Stoics. That being the case, Long's claim that our world is somehow so different that this aspect of Stoicism would have to be thrown out seems somewhat flippant.

"The theism has to go. You could reinterpret it, so that when Stoics talk about God, you could instead talk about perfect rationality."

Perhaps Long views theism as inherently incompatible with the contemporary life. While not a theist myself, I'm not so convinced that it is yet so alien to contemporary life that I could flatly say it would have to be thrown out in order that Stoicism be considered a genuine contemporary way of life. That being said, I do talk about the rational order of the universe when touching on matters of the Logos. But even here, I'm not certain there weren't at least some prominent historic Stoics that didn't view it in similar impersonal terms. In any case, I view this possible range of interpretations on theism on of the best things Stoicism has going for it today.

" go back to the question of can Stoicism be a practical ethics. Stoic ethics don't make sense unless you have a) universal determinism and b) universal providence.

If you believe these two things, then the main axioms of Stoic ethics are the only viable way to live. If you jettison one or both of them, then it doesn't make sense to say that humans can flourish under all circumstances."

If I understand long correctly here, he means that if we are to accept that Stoic practice will lead to flourishing, then we need to believe that there is a direct mechanism which is absolute (a deterministic universe) and will therefore guarantee that x will lead to y. Secondly, we will need to know that some guiding inherently good hand will ensure that we flourish. I would like to hear more argument from Long on this.

In any case, it seems to me that the deterministic nature of our universe is only important insofar as it is 'determined' by something other than our will - be that Newtonian-like mechanism, chaos, or quantum randomness. In all of these cases, the key truths remain - that there are things out of our control and it's best to recognize that fact and live in acceptance and accordance with it (not that this is the totality of Stoicism of course). As for the second, this seems to suppose some sort of just deserts working in the universe. I think a good understanding of the inherently beneficent aspects of the virtuous life make this unnecessary. There is a purely naturalistic take on karma, for example, and I think a similar flavor can account for these concerns in Stoicism.

Lastly, I'd be interested to hear what Long thinks of as "flourishing". If we measure flourishing by health, wealth, relationships, and the like, then certainly flourishing with virtue alone is not always possible - even improbable. But if Long considers "flourishing" in a more Stoic sense of the word, then I think these issues to will dissipate.

So could you live by Stoic values?

"I can't agree that all values beyond the self are indifferent. I prefer the Aristotelian idea that there are goods and bads external to oneself. It's the notion of a child dying of malnutrition, and we could have done something about it. For the Stoics, that child is a matter of indifference. Whatever happened, it was meant to be so."

Long speaks here in casual language, but uses a technical term "indifferent". This mismatch of casual/technical language can create misunderstandings. I'm assuming long knows the distinction so I hope he has not used the phrase "matter of indifference" to generate a connotation or feeling in the reader which is at odds with the actual substance of the Stoic view on dying children.

Absent in this statement is the notion of the dispreferred indifferent, or the fact that what is an indifferent is a category of things, and not a reference to the attitude of the observer. More importantly, we should note that virtue itself, the core focus of Stoic ethics, consists of the correct selection between preferred and dispreferred indifferents, thus elevating the matter considerably.

As for that which is "meant to be so", this may be the case, but we can never know such a thing except after the fact. At the point of decision, it is the top priority to make the virtuous decision. Whatever then flows after that would be what was 'meant' - a matter of the causal and complex unfolding of events according to natural law (the Logos). To resign to that attitude at a point of decision where the will has the power to act, is to invert (and pervert) Stoic ethics.

"There's the point of view of the potentially virtuous agent, who can suffer any situation and use it as an opportunity to practice virtue. But what about the purely passive victim, the child?"

I might suggest that it is not the parallel suffering of the observer that will help the child, but the intense ethical aim of the observer to act virtuously on his or her behalf that will help. Stoicism seems to provide for these evaluations and even duties. Should a Stoic fail to act to save innocent children from harm where possible, they will have committed an unvirtuous act - the only true evil in the Stoic worldview.