I recently purchased the new Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and had been enjoying it greatly until I read something I couldn’t agree with or even understand:

What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny. And when we describe things as “taking place,” we’re talking like builders, who say that blocks in a wall or a pyramid “take their place” in the structure, and fit together in a harmonious pattern. For there is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes. . . . Zeus himself [ ] would not have brought this on anyone unless it brought benefit to the world as a whole. 

Marcus Aurelius says there are two reasons why we should embrace what happens to us. One is that what happens to the individual is (somehow) a cause of well-being and coherence of the world as a whole. The other is that “[i]t was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all.” Meditations, 5.8.

I simply can’t fathom the notion of some predetermined fabric of existence that we are now watching unfold. Did it happen already, in some distant time and place, and we are reliving it? Does the Man Upstairs, God, “Zeus,” or whoever, have source code for some grandiose software that is now running? And the age-old question–how does our free will interact with a scheme that is predetermined? I honestly just don’t get it. So I put down the Meditations and backed away slowly, confused and deflated.

As it happened, I had also been leafing through Seneca’s letters and recently came across something interesting in Letter 33 (“On the Futility of Learning Maxims”).  Essentially, Seneca advises Lucilius not to lean too heavily on the wisdom of past thinkers: “The truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating.”

Here is a sobering reminder to absorb what we read and develop our own lines of thinking:

For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a notebook knowledge. “This is what Zeno said.” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion?

The conclusion of Letter 33 made my rebellious heart sing:

Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.

If one of the most revered Stoics questions the notion of a single path to truth, then perhaps I myself can take a shortcut and bypass the entire issue of fate, predetermination, a “single harmony,” a “thread . . . spun long ago” and still glean much of value from other Stoic writings.

Yet something about this feels wrong, akin to “cherry-picking” ideas that support what I already believe. It reminds me of a lawyer who emphasizes the things that support her argument and ignores or downplays the significance of the things that do not. It’s perhaps not immoral, but it can be demoralizing. Regardless, there are inconsistencies within Stoicism; it is not a monolith; should I feel inauthentic or “non-Stoic” because I think Marcus A. was a bit off in one snippet of his Meditations (which he did not even intend for publication)?

I was further buoyed when I reread last night in Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne  (see Chapter 12) that Stefan Zweig had extracted some general rules from Montaigne’s Essays, even if Montaigne did not frame them as such. One of these was “Be free from fate; be master of your own life.” And yet Bakewell highlights other characteristics of Montaigne’s work that comport with Stoic ideals, notably his refusal to despair about religious wars that raged around him and his commitment to rationality amid fanaticism and turmoil. Montaigne greatly admired his contemporary, the humanist Justus Lipsius, who wrote works “designed to revive ancient Stoicism”; according to Bakewell, the admiration was mutual. I have a goofy admiration for Montaigne (sadly, not reciprocated), so if he did not feel bound by fate, then that should be enough for me.

Do you have any examples of Stoic thought that you find hard to reconcile with what you believe, or hard to reconcile with what other writers have said?

5 thoughts on ““Not Our Masters, But Our Guides”: On Disagreeing with Wise Men

  1. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, as an atheist Stoic myself.

    Pretty much everybody agrees that atheistic modern Stoicism is a valid and meaningful project, and is a legitimate successor to ancient Stoicism. We just have to be fair, and admit that when we discard Providence we *are* dropping something that the ancients *did* genuinely find meaningful and important.

    The traditional Stoics (like Chris Fisher over at http://www.traditionalstoicism.com/) would certainly have plenty to say about Providence and its role in the classical Stoic system. They know far more about the ancients than I do, so I can’t really argue.

    But what I’ve been wondering about is this: The basic dogma underlying Stoicism, if I am to believe Pierre Hadot’s distillation of the ancient schools down to characteristic “existential choices,” is the claim that virtue is the only good. Or, as Hadot puts it, that “the only evil is moral evil and that there is no good but moral good—namely what we call duty or virtue.”

    Now, my question is—how does virtue relate to Providence? It seems to me that when Marcus or Epictetus tells us to take comfort in the idea that Zeus has orchestrated a plan for our lives, and that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that they are in some respects talking about *externals.*

    But if I really, truly believe in the central claim of Stoic ethics—that externals are indifferent—than shouldn’t the way I choose to live my life be the same *regardless* of whether this is the best of all possible worlds?

    It seems to me that the Stoic’s remarks on Providence are intended to help *motivate* people to practice virtue when it’s hard, even when they are unsure about whether virtue is the highest good.

    This would suggest that Providence (and physics more generally) is not essential to the Stoic moral world view—it’s more of a tool that can help us live up to it when we struggle.

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    1. On second glance, it seems that what you took issue with the passage wasn’t so much Providence as determinism. Perhaps you and I “backed away slowly, confused and deflated” from that passage for entirely different reasons ;).

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      1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It appears Stoicism would be at odds with determinism. I think it is the foresight or foreknowledge implicit in Providence that I don’t understand. (The Latin etymology of providence has given me a clue as to its meaning.) If time is linear, and events unfold as they typically do, and humans make decisions every day on whether or to what degree we will be virtuous, and if we reap the rewards or problems that come when we exercise virtue or not…then what is Providence’s role? (But personally, this is a rather big question mark that extends far beyond Stoicism and encompasses belief in God, religion, and faith; apparently, “Stoic ideas about providence influenced Christianity.”) http://www.britannica.com/topic/Providence-theology

        Maybe you’re right, it was a motivational element to Stoicism. I like that idea. Something to fall back on when the prokopton’s faith wavered. Let’s face it, it’s not so easy to be virtuous. It’s not even so easy to figure out what’s in our control and what’s not, and that seems like as good a starting point as any for the novice.

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      2. “It appears Stoicism would be at odds with determinism.”

        It depends on what you mean by determinism. Very few philosophers of any kind have ever claimed that determinism undermines the importance of moral choices. My understanding, from the various summaries I’ve read of the early Stoics, as that they were the original ‘compatibilists’ in Western philosophy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism).

        That also seeped into their theology: an immanent God works his Providence *via* cause and effect, not through miracles. You see this idea today in some Christian thought, especially theistic evolution.

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