‘How to Set Stoic Goals’ by Rob Thompson

How to Set Stoic Goals

by Rob Thompson

Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.

Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.

For many years goals fixated me. I’ve long been a planner and a goal setter. In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps. Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this.

I’ve been learning a different way over the last few years. It’s a radical shift in thinking and doing, to a freer-flowing mode of being. I’ve realized two things:

  1. Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).
  2. Goals are not necessary (I thought they were for a long time, but they’re not).

To illustrate these points, take a typical day:

I wake and have a goal to exercise for a fixed period of time. Some days I hit my goal and I allow myself to feel good as I drive to work. If I woke later than planned and didn’t hit my exercise goal, I drove to work feeling bad. Once in my car, I have a goal to get to my job by a certain time. At work, goal achievement links to every activity. After work I go to the supermarket. I have a goal of buying everything on my shopping list. Across the whole day I try to walk far and long enough to hit a 10 000 step goal. I try to get eight hours sleep. In other words, I’m attempting to hit a goal even when I’m not conscious! During my evening meditation, I reflect back and decide if the day was a success or not. Areas for improvement revolve around the question, did I meet all of my goals or not?

So it’s fair to say that almost every activity we do has a purpose, a goal in mind. Do you define success as achieving similar goals? But what would happen if we gave up on goals? Could you still be a success? What would a life without goals be like?

Realise this: We often think goals are necessary to achieve something, but in reality they’re not.

Goals, as I define them, are something that has a set outcome … but why is that outcome the only good outcome? There are many, many great outcomes, and having a focus on one is too limiting.

Goals are completely made up, with not a lot of information about what will happen in the future as we work on them. We invent them, out of some fantasy of how we want the future to go, but in truth they’re not realistic. And we can’t predict or control how the future will go, so setting goals is a useless activity.

Without any specific goals you have to work out what success means for you, then ask if this definition is acceptable or not. What’s the point in chasing a goal, if when you get there you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted in the first place?

What does success look like?

I’ve realised that there are lots of ways of deciding what success looks like without goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon in less than 4 hours and cross the finish line in 3:59 you can say you were successful. Or you could say you were successful if you completed a marathon, the time being irrelevant. Or success could be that you tried to complete a marathon, regardless of if you finish or not. In all these scenarios you’ve tried your best, and whatever happens you’ve been a success. What more can you do than your best? Celebrate this effort, you deserve it.

If success for you is setting a goal and then achieving it, despite what life throws at you, then prepare yourself to deal with the negative feelings if you don’t perform to your desired level. On the other hand, if success is about doing your best then you will never fail and you can be happy with what you have done. By adopting this approach then you can deal with the uncertainty of life. Oliver Burkeman writes in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.

The Stoic Reserve Clause

So goals are attempts to deal with the discomfort of uncertainty. Why not embrace this uncertainty instead? To the Stoics acknowledging uncertainty became known as a “reserve clause” (exceptio). They combined intention and action together. From Seneca:

The Sage does not change his decision, if everything remains entirely what it was when he took it …. Elsewhere, however, he undertakes everything “with a reserve clause” … in his most steadfast decisions, he allows for uncertain events.

The safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune], though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: “I shall sail unless something happens”; and “I shall become praetor unless something prevents me”, and “My business will be successful unless something interferes”. That is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man against his expectations.

Marcus advises us:

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have some to you in the past and will come again in the future.

Also:

Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue. Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that the object of your existence is attained.

The Stoic understands that there are events outside of his control which affect actions and intentions. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals. Define success before you start on any activity and also work out what success will mean to you. There are choices. Success can be meeting the targets set, or effort, or both.

So how does it work? Well, to be honest, there’s no one way. But it goes a little something like this:

There are shades of grey and different levels and stages of success. Learn to accept that because you have made an effort this is more important than criticising yourself for not reaching total success. Once you do this then you can wake every day and feel a sense of gratitude. Grateful that you’re alive.

Then ask, “What do I feel like doing today?” At this point there are no constraints, but the question is important.

Start working on an activity you’re excited about, have fun doing it. Is that thing you’re doing a destination, a goal? Well, in some ways, yes, but it’s not fixed. There’s no set plan, and the destination doesn’t matter as much as the process, the journey.

An understandable mistake is to focus on results instead of the journey that achieves the results. The more time you spend in the journey itself, the more beneficial the results. The more time you spend focused on the results, the more negative the results.

As time passes you might shift as you go, depending on the flow of ideas. Working with others who might have ideas you didn’t foresee, on things that happen along the way. You couldn’t have predicted these things when you got started. So you have to adapt — no plan can predict all this, no goal would be adequate to the task.

You might even completely shift, if something new comes up, if a new opportunity presents itself. You let go of your idea of what today was going to be, because these ideas of what should be are lightly held. They mean nothing; the important thing is the flow.

No destination or goal matters if they are all good. Each step along the way, then, becomes the destination, and is exactly where you should be. Goals are a big illusion that our society believes in. You learn to be flexible instead of fixed. Learn to be good at change and uncertainty, instead of fearing it. And try your best while acknowledging what is outside of your control. If you can do this then there is no failure.

When we fixate on goals, we shut ourselves off to new opportunities that open up in different directions. These are opportunities that we couldn’t have foreseen when we started out. But because we’re fixated on the goal, we don’t allow ourselves to go in this new direction.

When we fail to reach this fantasy outcome (which is often), we feel bad. But if we let go of the fantasy, we can just enjoy the work.

When we fixate on achieving a future outcome, we are not looking at where we are, nor are we happy with where we are. We can’t be, because we are looking at the future goal, and this is what motivates us (not enjoying the moment).

When we have a future-oriented mindset, it doesn’t end if/when we achieve the goal. We achieve the goal, then immediately look to the next goal.

Always remember: the journey is all. The destination is beside the point.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu

How do you measure success? Do you use the reserve clause idea? Are you a goal setter, or not?  Please leave a comment below.

Rob Thompson lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. A couple of years ago he realised that he had fewer years ahead of him than behind him. This forced him to reflect on the meaning in his life. He started to question just what matters. In coming to terms with “himself” he realised that a large body of work could help. After some reading and reflection he found Stoic philosophy to make most sense. He maintains a blog, Prokopton.com which sets out to use this ancient wisdom in a practical way. By writing on Prokopton.com he hopes to keep himself accountable. He want to track his progress, construct a coherent world-view and give something back to wider community.

73 thoughts on “‘How to Set Stoic Goals’ by Rob Thompson

  1. Nigel Glassborow

    Like everything in Stoicism there is no one answer. There is the balance of ‘acceptance’ against one’s duties and roles that one has been presented with within the family and the life as a member of society etcetera. All of which will produce goals that will require the setting of targets and the like and the need to strive to achieve the target (and not just being in an acceptance mode while on a journey) if one is to be the responsible citizen that Stoicism encourages.

    The point is that the Stoic will set targets and goals but will follow the Stoic training and will not beat themselves up if they fail to meet targets or goals – they will simply resolve to try to learn from anything that prevented the goal being achieved and resolve to try to do better next time if such is within their power.

    This article does offer some ideas for achieving the balance between acceptance and striving, but I feel that the wording may appear to offer too much of a laissez-faire attitude for the follower of the Stoic ideas.

    Nigel

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      “responsible citizen” as opposed to what? The term sounds like something out of the law – that same law the original Stoics would have abolished realising that the law courts of men are worthless institutions that cause rather than resolve social conflicts. But then I suppose one could point to that interesting problematic in which the Stoics believed in determinism yet wished to hold men responsible for their actions at the same time! Of course, like all ancient schools of thought, and most modern ones too, the Stoics divided men up into good and bad. They were unable to see, so it seems, that we are all good and bad and indifferent at once. There is no good man. That is pure invention. Likewise there is no evil men. In the same way there is no “responsible citizen”. We are each one of us mixtures of the responsible and the irresponsible – or whatever other opposition to the former you care to enumerate.

      Reply
      1. Nigel Glassborow

        Archie,

        Thank you for your comments. They cover many misconceptions about Stoicism.

        Where you question the idea of ‘the good citizen’, would you have people ignore their responsibilities to their family, their parents, their neighbours and the like. Of course the perfect ‘good citizen’ is possibly unlikely, but in this respect, all that Stoicism really asks is that a person at least tries to live as the social animal that they are, especially if they wish to experience ‘the good flow of life’ (eudaimonia as the Stoics see it).

        Many of the ideas behind the laws of the land are based on Stoic principles. You appear to blame the system when maybe you ought to reserve your criticism for the way ‘bad’ men abuse it, and I am not talking about the ‘accused’ but rather those legal professionals who have no interest in justice, being only interested in how devious they can be and how much they can earn.

        There is no conflict between Stoic determinism and the individual being responsible for their attempts to interact with the rest of life. Stoicism offers a soft determinism whereby we are part of that which determines moment by moment what is to be. The only matter that is firmly determined is that which has already happened and that which we are faced with at any given moment. The past has been determined and is unchangeable.

        True there is the principle of cause and effect, but this is a purely a physical concept. When it comes to conscious input, that can add a whole new dimension. Stoicism is in part about understanding what it is that we have to accept and where it is that we are able be part of the process of determining what will be in the next moment. The future is not predetermined.

        As to the question of ‘good’ men and ‘bad’, strictly speaking the Stoic makes no such value judgement. They recognise a person who is striving to live life well (as Stoics see matters) and they recognise a person who has not thought about how to live life and so is swept along by their impulses and so suffers because they are not harmonising with the world around them. These are matters of observation and are not judgements.

        Your objections are all addressed by Stoicism. All one needs is a proper understanding of its whole sphere of teachings.

        Nigel

        Reply
  2. Archie Lochus

    Nigel,

    Thank you for your response to my observations.

    When you say “They cover many misconceptions about Stoicism” I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean that my observations are misconceived? Or that you recognise truth in them? The expression is somewhat ambiguous and equivocal.

    Moving on…

    You are mistaken, people have no responsibilities to their families, parents, etc.. People go through the motions, they behave towards other people as per they have been indoctrinated for instance, by example, by training, by education, by law, by morality, by the chain of causes and events, by circumstances, by heritage, by threat, by torture, and so on. The whole notion of responsibility is false. Men are no more responsible for their actions than are the gods. In fact if anything it is the gods – I use that term advisedly – who, as it were, control events. Or if you will the First Cause, the Father of all, is responsible. But how can an individual man be responsible? He is at the mercy of greater and mostly invisible powers.

    Now I know the Romans were big on responsibilities and duties and legislation and war; they handed this stuff over to succeeding Western imperialists such as the British and currently the US but that doesn’t mean there is anything more, that is, anything of real depth and truth, to such notions. They are simply the accrued baggage of ages and human beings would be a darn sight better off were such superfluities completely dismantled so that we might start off anew. Of course, how that might be done and the result of such action is impossible to imagine or predict. But there needs to be an occasional revolution to clear out the useless junk, to clean off the barnacle encrusted exterior, as it were, that has attached itself to the body politic and that as a result has brought with it all sorts of false ways of thinking and assorted distortions.

    Correction: for ‘an occasional revolution’ read ‘perpetual revolution’.

    The notion of human responsibilities moreover implies human rights and there is ample extant evidence available to demonstrate the fact that the only people with rights in the ancient world were the mighty, the kingly, the aristocracy, and their ilk.

    If you read Epictetus, a slave who bowed down before his masters, you will soon discover just how socially responsible people really are, that is, were, in his time. Nothing has changed. The natural state of people is little different from that of animals. Yes, there is a social animal of sorts in amongst all things human. But there is a social animal of sorts in amongst wolves and foxes too. I do recommend you read Epictetus. Not just the manual, but the diatribes too. These will give you an idea of the Roman world he inhabited as well as a taste of his strange thinking.

    Eudaimonia, by the way, is an unachievable ideal. It’s just another carrot dangled before the donkey to get it to move forward, to exercise control over it. But where is the donkey going? Nowhere of its own free will. Just like the man, in fact, who drives it. He, like the donkey, has no free will or choice only the illusion of such.

    I don’t think you’re right when you say that bad men (alone) abuse the system. All men – yes, lawyers too – abuse the system and all men believe themselves to be good and to be in the right even those that society’s moralisers and legislators would have us believe are evil monsters. Things aren’t simple and clear-cut as the Stoics and Socrates or Epictetus – if you will – would have us believe. Such simplistic characters don’t exist in the real world only in ancient philosophy, influenced no doubt by ancient theatre; and even now we still think like our primitive forbears. Regard for example the modern medium of film – and modern media generally, which is full to overflowing with black and white hats, pandering as it does to the ‘-ists’ that crowd out our world.

    Look it’s well-known amongst those who have studied the matter in any depth that the Stoics believed in punishment for wrongs committed: they believed that men were responsible for their actions and that they should suffer punishment accordingly. It wasn’t enough for the Stoic to call a man bad and to say that he was hurting himself alone: they wanted blood and guts. They wanted to see the proverbial bad man suffer. Why? Because they felt deep down that their idea of what is and of what is not under one’s control is a sham. The Christians used similar hocus-pocus about heaven and hell and getting in God’s good books. One has to admire the ‘criminal’ who is about to be hanged on the gallows when he tells some churchy person, who tries to persuade him that he can save his soul, to get lost.

    My objections are not satisfactorily addressed by Stoicism: Stoicism fell apart centuries ago. It was replaced by a code of ethics that rejected distinctions of class and birth; that appealed to the mass of the oppressed poor. Perhaps you are confusing Stoicism with Cynicism which preceded Stoicism and outlived it too.

    Regards,

    Archie

    Reply
    1. Nigel Glassborow

      Wow Archie,

      What a pessimistic view you have of mankind. And by the way, I have read all of Epictetus that I can lay my hands on and I see a different picture to yours.

      You say, “Men are no more responsible for their actions than are the gods.” So every mass murderer is innocent and should not appear before the courts?

      You say, “people have no responsibilities to their families, parents, etc.. ” I hope you have told your family and friends that you have no regard for how you treat them. Read the Stoics and you will see that an individual is responsible for how they treat their parents even if the parent has not acted responsibly in how they have treated their child. ‘It is your responsibility to be the good son and your father’s responsibility to be the good father.’

      You mistake and misunderstand that which an individual is responsible FOR due to their own volition and that which they are responsible TO by way of their roles in life.

      I am left to wonder why your interest in Stoicism if you think it is so flawed.

      I would suggest that you need to re-read all about Stoicism, or you need to leave Stoicism well alone. It could be dangerous in the hands of a person with such anti-society views as yours.

      Reply
    2. Nigel Glassborow

      By the way Archie, I thought you had died before Stoicism came on the scene, so what do you know of it. 🙂

      Nigel

      Reply
      1. Archie Lochus

        Art: As Mark points out there are problems with posting. Maybe you’ll come across this reply, maybe not.

        Nigel: Archie says, “I don’t think to myself, what is my duty, what my responsibility, I just act”.

        Art: Nigel, Of late my partner was rushed off to hospital and I am looking after her elderly mother, etc. I haven’t asked myself What is your duty here; what your responsibility? I have acted. I didn’t think about duties and responsibilities. I leave that sort of irrelevance to those with more time than sense on their hands.

        Nigel: OK, I know that he qualifies this a bit further. I also accept that it is difficult to have a proper discussion without being misunderstood.

        But I again question Archie’s interest in Stoicism.

        Art: My interest in ancient philosophy is now largely meta-ethical. Not only would it be silly of me to call myself a Stoic – (even Late Stoics, so-called, such as Marcus Aurelius never called himself a Stoic; Epictetus tells us that he has never yet seen a Stoic; Seneca perhaps best exemplifies that peculiarly eclectic phase of ancient Roman philosophy: a phase in which the Stoic, the Epicurean, the Academic, the Sextian, the Cynic, the Pythagorean, the Peripatetic, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all, are patchworked together pretty much inextricably. As for the Middle Stoa, Posidonius and Panaetius represent a massive departure from the Early Stoicism of Zeno and Cleanthes and even their successor (after a gap) Chrysippus; there was of course Cicero, an arrivist who fancied himself an author in the Platonist mould / tradition, when in truth he was a compiler of poor-quality dialogues in which the likes of Cato and Brutus and their ilk became stand-ins for Socrates; do I need to go on?) – it would be downright dishonest.

        Nigel: Stoicism is about moving beyond the ‘I just act’ that is little more than what a computer bot does.

        Stoics are gamers in the game of life – we are not bots.

        Art: The Stoics fudged the issue of free will and determinism. They were NOT meta-ethicists. They followed what was already given without questioning things too deeply. They drew from various sources mostly Cynic to create Stoicism. Stoicism in their hands was a bastardised form of Cynicism. It was Cynicism grossly compromised. They were materialist / monists only apparently and determinist too but they seriously compromised their determinism when they introduced the notion of free will into the equation. Mainly, as I previously pointed out, because they saw men as good and bad and they held the bad responsible for their badness. Just like most people today do. Epictetus even holds the victim responsible; presumably a woman who was raped by some psychopath would be regarded by him as being just as responsible as the rapist.

        The fact is (ro)Bots are subject to cause and effect and so are we. We can’t escape this subjection. The Stoics, for all their talk of the soul as body, were clearly believers in some sort of invisible and immaterial stuff that interacted with the perceivable body.

        The rest of your post which attempts somewhat laughably to ridicule my stance, and which posits unoriginal stuff and nonsense about the Stoic principles (which are obviously descended from Zoroastrian dualism) and so on, might all be easily dealt with, but I can’t say any more at present because I’m having problems getting this site to publish my thoughts, and in any event why should I help someone who has such a bad overweening attitude?

        Regards,

        Art

        Reply
  3. Hubert Eerdekens

    Hi! I wish to respond briefly to the comments from Archie and Nigel. In advance I apologize for my English, my native language is Dutch.

    First observation: I do not think Archie’s view is pessimistic, rather realistic.

    Second observation: I am not so convinced that man has free will, whatever the Stoics may say about it. The attempts of Chrysippus to save the individual free will are still controversial and subject to debate.

    We are less free than we think.

    Best regards to both of you.

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      Hubert, You’re quite right about Chrysippus’s failed attempts to compromise Stoic determinism. We have no free will, but try telling this to modern self-styled Stoics!
      Best wishes, Archie

      Reply
  4. frida

    You have an adequate discussion I think of how to approach external obstructions to goals but can your points be equally applied to internal obstructions, such as weakness of will and procrastination? Sometimes we sabotage our own plans and prevent ourselves from achieving our goals. I feel like a reading of this article would say that a stoic should not really try to overcome her weakness of will and bad work habits but just “roll with them.” For example, a stoic student might set a goal “I will study an hour a day until the exam, unless I find something more pleasing to do.” But I’m not sure if this is an acceptable goal, even though the student cannot fail in achieving it, because we all know its going to end with procrastination and a painful all-nighter before the exam. I’m sure stoics have an answer to this, but I’m only just learning about the tradition, so I’m curious about what you think.

    Reply
  5. Archie Lochus

    Hi frida, The word ‘goals’ is just another word for ‘ideals’ and we all know that the Stoic sage was never a reality but merely an ideal. Which is all very nice and cosy for the Stoic as he sits in his ivory citadel contemplating his navel. But meanwhile people are killing each other and the planet is being destroyed. Ah, but then the Stoic dismisses the real world as being none of his / her proper concern. Archie

    Reply
  6. Mark

    AL: Where did you get the idea that the Stoic dismisses the real world as being none of his proper concern? A key plank in the Stoic platform is the belief that man is a social creature and thereby embraces the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. The fact that none of us (Stoic or otherwise) manages to execute those duties perfectly seems a poor excuse for not making the effort. (And I’m pretty certain “perpetual revolution” doesn’t offer much in the way of improvement.)

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      Mark. Nietzsche clearly pointed out how the (Roman) Stoics sought to create a world in their own image… Note how warmongers and suicides such as Cato are extolled as examples of virtuous men. Was he dutiful and responsible? Probably to the extreme. He was also a coward. The reality of war, that is, its disastrous effects on the lives of ordinary folk, is conveniently overlooked by such men, (army generals and politicians.) The modern American Stoic likewise sees the world in his own warmongering fighter-pilot gun-lobby image. The things of this world don’t matter to the Stoic. The only thing that matters to him is his Stoic ideals. The idealist sees not the complete picture. I ask you, how can a man be dutiful and responsible AND believe in living the cosmopolitan life? But then Stoicism is rife with contradictions.Best wishes, Archie.

      Reply
  7. Mark

    That’s quite the broad brush you’re working with, AL. I don’t know where you’re getting the “warmongering” stuff. Is that all Nietzsche, or can you cite Stoic sources?

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      Hi Mark.

      Look it really would take too long to respond to your question. The kind of answers your questions raise and demand cannot be answered in a few sentences. With the utmost respect I can only say to you that when you’ve been looking into Stoicism for as long as I have (50 years) my seemingly broad brush will not any longer appear thus and so.

      I think Chomsky speaks in a similar vein when he speaks of “concision”.

      Best wishes,

      Archie

      Reply
      1. Mark

        Oh, OK. I thought that since you raised the subject, perhaps we could discuss it and look at some sources, but if there’s no time, there’s no time.

        Yours is an indefensibly bleak picture of human possibilities, Archie. The world’s a rough place, no doubt, but I’ve seen too many instances of human goodness to chuck the whole project overboard as a bad job. Whatever the final boundaries of determinism, we are each of us free to make better choices today in the many matters, large and small, that make up the fabric of our lives. If there is no possibility of change for the better, why bother reading philosophy at all, and what is there to hope for from your prescribed “perpetual revolution” (which just sounds like a different kind of warmongering)?

        I’ve been looking into the Stoics for only twenty years, so maybe I’m still in the honeymoon phase. Perhaps thirty years from now (I’ll be close to ninety), I, too, will succumb to absolute cynicism. I have reason to hope that won’t happen. But if it does, I doubt it will be because of anything I found in the Stoics (I’ve been through all the main sources multiple times, and my reading comprehension is pretty good).

        Carry on,
        Mark

        Reply
        1. Archie Lochus

          This is a big subject Mark, too big for this form of (electronic) communication. There has to be face to face discussion for real communication to occur and to be meaningful and even then differences of opinion will arise. You must have noticed how people misunderstand one another and misconstrue what the other man is saying on the Internet?

          Prichard’s essay, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” is worth reading. I’m surprised that so few of us seniors get to feel a “sense of dissatisfaction” with moral philosophy. To blithely and unquestioningly accept what moral philosophers tell us is not rational to my mind. (And yet the Stoics pride themselves on their rationality.) I was trained to look at stuff critically and not just accept what I was told whether by the Stoics or anyone else.

          I mentioned Chomsky previously and his book “Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies” (and there is a movie of same, “Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and the Media” on YouTube) is another line of thought that really has to be taken into account. The Epictetean idea that some things are and some things are not under our control just isn’t true. It’s a lie that needs to be exposed.

          Of course if one is into the Stoics as a kind of self-help therapy – which many are – then there’s not much to discuss.

          I don’t think my view of humankind is “indefensibly bleak” at all.

          I don’t think to myself, what is my duty, what my responsibility, I just act, and not in accordance with my nature but in accordance with who I am, in line with my genetic inheritance, my education in the broadest sense of the term, my habits, the social system I accidentally find myself in, and so on. As I said, Mark, this is a huge subject, and all soundbite discussion on forums like this is futile: the only thing one succeeds in doing is opening a huge can of worms and upsetting people.

          Best,

          Archie

          Reply
          1. Mark

            It is indeed difficult to have a satisfying discussion about complex ideas in an online forum; I almost never attempt it. You popped the lid on this can of worms yourself, though, so you might have expected some close questioning.

            I will take a look at the Prichard essay, but I don’t like your suggestion that I’ve read the Stoics “blithely and unquestioningly.” You don’t know what I’ve taken on board from the Stoics (or elsewhere) and what I’ve rejected, so your assumption that my study has been uncritical misses the mark completely. I could make the same charge about you and your enthusiasm for Chomsky, but then I, too, would be speaking out of ignorance. It’s on craggy shoals of this sort—incomplete communication and unfounded assumptions voiced as fact—that the barque of online conversation typically founders.

            Take care,
            Mark

          2. Nigel Glassborow

            Archie says, “I don’t think to myself, what is my duty, what my responsibility, I just act”.

            OK, I know that he qualifies this a bit further. I also accept that it is difficult to have a proper discussion without being misunderstood.

            But I again question Archie’s interest in Stoicism. Stoicism is about moving beyond the ‘I just act’ that is little more than what a computer bot does.

            Stoics are gamers in the game of life – we are not bots.

            Archie appears to say that he surrenders his will to his life’s history – he appears to claim that his surrenders his every action to the product of outside influences and influences that are beyond his control and influences from before he was even born.

            He appears to claim that he has no real influence over his actions – that he has no SELF-control, no will. He appears to claim that his every action is just an unintentional accident of circumstances.

            Yet Stoicism says that we have been given the ability to join in with the Will of the whole (the active principle of the Divine Fire) in determining what the future holds. Stoicism teaches us to think and then act according to our judgements – and that requires that we do more than act according to where we are being driven by our own misconceptions and events.

            Stoicism advises us to think before we act and that part of what needs to guide our thoughts are our understandings as to our responsibilities and duties to ourselves, to others and to the Whole.

            Archie may have studied Stoicism but he has demonstrated his almost total lack of understanding of the teachings of Stoicism.

            All we are being offered are his own personal views that have nothing to offer when it comes to a discussion on Stoicism.

            Nigel

        2. Archie Lochus

          Mark,

          For some queer reason I am being denied the opportunity to reply to your post of 11th Dec, 2015 at 16:23 (below.)

          Firstly, let me say that it appears you read what I wrote “blithely and unquestioningly” since I DID NOT say that YOU in particular had read the Stoics “blithely and unquestioningly”! It was a general observation. And it’s more than likely true. What I don’t see is how or why you choose to take exception to it. The world doesn’t revolve around you.

          Secondly, I DON’T have any enthusiasm whatsoever for Noam Chomsky; what gave you THAT impression?.

          So what is it with you? You accuse me successively of working with a broad brush, of having an indefensively bleak view of humankind, of being a Chomsky enthusiast, what next?

          It seems to me, Mark, that you are not reading me closely at all. Ever heard of the Straw Man logical fallacy?

          Regards,

          Archie

          Reply
          1. Mark

            I got it ALL wrong, eh? Well, at least we were both right about the inherent pitfalls of online conversation.

            But I’m sticking with my use and spelling of the adverb “indefensibly.” As Merriam-Webster is my witness.

            Thanks,
            Mark

        3. Archie Lochus

          Please accept my apologies Mark. I got it wrong. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the v and the b being next to each other on the keyboard or maybe senility is creeping up on me. But I messed up. “Indefensibly” is perfectly correct: you never wrote “indefensively”.

          All the best,
          Art

          Reply
          1. Mark

            Thanks for your note, Art. No apology necessary. Sorry, too, if I did some unwarranted impugning. I’m not so great at these forums…get a little too wound up. I’m better when I stick to my books and personal conversations. Have a good evening/night/morning, wherever you are.

            Mark

          2. Archie Lochus

            Mark,

            No, thank YOU for your kind thoughts / gentle words. I get wound up too. You just don’t know who you’re dealing with here. It’s a strange means of communication, this, and it takes time to break its ice. I agree with you about sticking to one’s books and about engaging in truly personal conversations. Problem is when you mention Stoicism to most people they tell you they really don’t want to know. And Stoics do tend to preach, they’re almost like Christian missionaries in this, and people understandably don’t like it when others, their equals, do preach to them. That’s a problematic that Stoicism will probably never really surmount. People must be left to find their own way through the forest. All one can do is walk with them. The minute one attempts to convert them they turn away. Thus it was that Socrates, when people approached him asking for introductions to the philosophers, didn’t get mad and say, What the hell do you think I am, then? but walked with them and introduced them.

            Best wishes,
            Art

          3. Mark

            Art, I was looking for a “reply” link below your last post (12th Dec, 2015, at 10:56). Alas, no reply link appears there, so I’m replying here. The forum software seems a little wonky in that regard.

            In any case, I just wanted to agree with you. We’ve gained a lot with the internet, no doubt about it, but it falls far short of offering anything like the pleasure of real-world conversation and the thoughtful, patient exchange of ideas with another in-the-flesh person. It’s regrettable.

            Regards,
            Mark

  8. Nigel Glassborow

    Archie,

    I find it strange when people hide behind the image of others.

    Archilochus (c. 680 – c. 645 BC) a Greek lyric poet from Paros is apparently noted for being “the archetypal poet of blame — his invectives were even said to have driven his former fiancée and her father to suicide.”

    There is nothing to be said to someone who is so locked into the view of one individual that they try to take on their identity.

    You have nothing worthwhile to offer Stoicism by way of discussion or criticism. You seem to be out to try to boost you own lack of self esteem by taking on the guise of another and trying to feel important by cobbling together all sorts of irrational ideas and insults against a school of thought of which you are ignorant and misinformed about.

    Come be a man – be yourself. Come out from hiding behind some pseudonym – that is if you can face your own self criticism.

    Nigel

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      Dear Nigel,

      “Hide behind the image of others”? What, because I prefer privacy; because I don’t want my real name plastered all over the Internet? So why is that so objectionable to you? I would remind you that since time immemorial people have used pen names and in this connection I refer you to the Wikipedia article on pseudonyms:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudonym

      You are of course referring to yourself when you speak of being “locked into” a certain rigid view or identity. (I have read some of your posts on the Yahoo Stoics site; posts which betray a distinct inflexibility on your part where certain specific aspects of the Stoic corpus are concerned.)

      I on the other hand keep my options open; I refuse to lock myself into any fixed position.

      You must have gathered by now that I am extremely conversant on the subject of the Stoics.

      By the way I should just let you know that the Stoic school of thought was itself over its brief history a “cobbling together” of disparate ideas. Compare the “Stoicism” of Socrates with that of Epictetus. They don’t have much in common at all.

      Instead of fussing over trivial matters like identities try combating my valid criticism of the school of thought that beguiles you.

      Best wishes,

      Archie

      Reply
      1. Nigel Glassborow

        Art,

        Out of politeness, just to let you know that your post dated 10th has only just appeared on my email list. I had not seen it before.

        As it is I would have dealt with any valid criticism of Stoicism if I had seen you post any.

        Nigel

        Reply
          1. Nigel Glassborow

            Art/Archie,

            As an aside, I am sure that it was a bit of a G(l)ich signing off with ‘in haste’ – you may wish to Ed(it) your posts a little more carefully in future.

            You could after all be mistaken for others who have also used your system of confrontation and used the same turn of phrase as you do – people who have spent much time ‘hiding in caves’ for fear that if their true identities were to be exposed they would be shamed by the views they have expressed in such a secretive manner.

            This is the problem with using assumed identities. No one can trust anything you say as being true or see it as being worthy of any serious consideration. Nor can they be sure that you are not someone who is already known to us under another guise who is just out on some ego trip.

            Have a care that your subterfuge does not come back and bite you.

            Nigel

          2. archielochus

            Nige,

            Your advice is appreciated only because I quite like the ‘you’ that comes across but I must correct you on your misspelling of ‘glitch.’

            Arch

  9. Mark

    Art, you said to Nigel, “Of late my partner was rushed off to hospital and I am looking after her elderly mother, etc. I haven’t asked myself What is your duty here; what your responsibility? I have acted. I didn’t think about duties and responsibilities. I leave that sort of irrelevance to those with more time than sense on their hands.”

    I have a question. It’s going to sound flippant, perhaps, but your answer will help me better understand your point of view. The question is this: Why not just leave the elderly mother to fend for herself? Plenty of people seem content to abuse or neglect their elders or other close relations (we hear of mothers throwing newborns in the trash, fathers beating and killing their own children, etc.). Why are you bothering to help the aged mother?

    Reply
  10. Archie Lochus

    Good question Mark!

    I don’t feel I am responsible for the old girl, I don’t owe her any duty or allegiance. If I weren’t here she would be nothing to me, just another human on this overcrowded planet. We are not blood relations. I don’t believe in any God so I’m not doing it to get in His good books. I’m not doing it hoping that if ever I get into difficulty someone will help me. I can’t think of any motive other than that of being charitable (which sounds dreadful) or altruistic. I like the old girl too. I like chatting to her and joking with her. I don’t belong to any religious sect but I do like the story of the good Samaritan. Life is hard and may go under. I suppose one is engaged in a kind of battle situated within a pretty hostile environment. One looks after oneself and those nearest and dearest. Yes, I have been affected by some Stoic stuff I’ve read, especially by some of the stuff in Epictetus. But I would not call myself a Stoic. Even the criminal has a moral code of sorts, even the monster. I suppose I pity my fellows too. So it’s complex. A mixture of pity, charity, friendship, a kind of belief in mutual aid, survival. I’m not sure about moral reciprocity though. People don’t seem to return kindnesses so maybe we have to be satisfied with the Stoical belief in virtue as its own reward. With the notion that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. But duty no, duty has all sorts of connotations many people might find insulting. Also I’m no patriot. I believe in the notion of cosmopolitanism, one world, no countries, no borders. And I don’t believe in indoctrination, in teaching or preaching. I try too to avoid setting an example to others which is just as arrogant. I just go about my own small business quietly and without making a fuss as far as that is possible.That’s the short answer, Mark.

    Best wishes,
    Art

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      An even shorter answer, Mark, is the prayer of Jesuit S. Ignatius Loyola:

      “To give, and not to count the cost
      to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
      to toil, and not to seek for rest,
      to labor, and not to ask for any reward,
      save that of knowing that we do thy will”

      I learned that as a young child in school and the things one learns as a child do tend to stick. I labour (what else is there to do?) and don’t ask for any reward.

      But again I must emphasise this I don’t believe in God: to speak of “God” is for me to speak of the inexpressible and unfathomable abyss of existence.

      Reply
  11. Mark

    Good stuff, Art. Myself, I don’t find terms like duty, responsibility, and allegiance off-putting. I would submit, too, that though you might prefer to say you simply act without considering duty and responsibility, you actually have given quite a bit of thought to those things (more thought than most, if I’m any judge) and that when you act, you are putting them into practice. (For instance, your statement “one does look after those nearest and dearest” certainly sounds like one formulation of a duty.) So no, thoughtful people don’t always explicitly discern and enumerate their motives, duties, etc., before taking action; they act out of the convictions they have come to hold (and which they could enumerate if pressed).

    To consider it from another angle, if we found a man in your same position who refused to render even the basics of care to an elder in his charge, I would be perfectly comfortable saying that man was derelict in his duty.

    Thanks, too, for the Ignatius quote. It’s a good one.

    Take care,
    Mark

    Reply
  12. Archie Lochus

    Mark,

    I don’t know if you’ve read any early psychology books, I’m thinking of say Dr Paul Dubois, who was an admirer of Epictetus… anyway, in one of his books,”Self-Control and How to Secure it”, there is a chapter entitled “Egoism and Altruism” which is worth reading.

    He says, for instance:

    “In the family we owe duties to others, and the circle of our preoccupations widens; it stretches to a certain number of loved beings. There is altruism in this feeling, but marital or family egoism is what dominates; it is little better than personal egoism, because the circle is still too small.”

    I think this book is available on the archive.org site if you’re interested in reading the whole chapter.

    Best,

    A.

    Reply
  13. Mark

    I’ve not read Dubois, Art. I’ll pop over to archive.org–one of the web’s most useful sites–and give it a look.

    Carry on,
    Mark

    Reply
  14. Archie Lochus

    Mark,

    Dr Dubois was clearly a very humane thinker. The thought-provoking chapter in “Self-Control”, “The Act”, is worth reading. In fact it should be compulsory reading for all modern “Stoics” who seem to almost blindly accept the (Epictetean) notion that there is some sort of “spark” of deity within us that is somehow free of the causal net. To my mind the ancient Stoics, (I’m thinking of Chrysippus,) were too ready to condemn men as responsible for their own ills. (Maybe I’m a little too ready to condemn him!) The reality is never so simple. Epictetus seems to have been aware of this “problem” also for he speaks of men being too ready to condemn those who are blind in their governing faculties for their “moral” blindness. I would add that there are no “criminals” in the animal kingdom; no terrorist either. These notions are the inventions mostly I think of the various priestly classes throughout the ages who sought control over the masses.

    Anyway, that’s my two penneth worth for the moment.

    Best wishes,
    Art.

    Reply
    1. Mark

      Hi Art:

      Surely the reason there are no criminals (or terrorists) among animals is because they lack our self-reflexive higher consciousness (“the knowledge of good and evil,” as Genesis would have it). Along with clear benefits, our exceptional rational capacity and self-awareness also deliver responsibilities, particularly when we come together to live in society. I don’t believe we arrived at concepts such as “criminal” and “terrorist” through priestly machinations so much as through experience–through the long, fraught history of our attempts to live together as rational, social beings. Some people just don’t play well with others.

      I read the Dubois chapter and enjoyed it–an interesting thinker. He’s squishier on personal responsibility than I would agree with, and the idea of moral weakness being hereditary seems a little shaky, but I like his stress on the necessity of moral education in helping to curb problems of criminality and such.

      Take care,
      Mark

      Reply
      1. Archie Lochus

        Hi Mark,

        I’ve kept the following notes as short and succinct as possible.

        To open, I think the point I was trying to make is, the notion of criminals is an entirely fictitious / fictional one but one which we have come to accept as fact. It’s a bit like the way we believe in countries and their borders. Unlike humans the birds of the air don’t recognise any difference between say Germany and France, and thus they have no need of language.

        In fact it is probably language, the rational faculty so-called, that is the root cause of human ills. If we didn’t have language things would be very different.

        Again, there are no criminals in the natural world. And even though we have speech and language we are still animals and part of the same natural world as the other animals. There is but one animal kingdom not two, that is, human beings do not constitute one separate class distinct from all the rest of the animals. Suffice to say we animals, insects, flora, etc., are all in this together. I therefore think it quite wrong when we place ourselves on a pedestal, when we think of ourselves as gods or higher beings.

        In a sense, Mark, we’re probably saying the same thing; however, although the animals might be lacking in the knowledge of good and evil, we might be lacking in the (blissful) ignorance of same.

        Now I cannot see how any individual man can be held responsible for his actions. For me he is merely one of innumerable channels through which the causal net operates. We are way too ready to praise and blame. We are too ready to hold individuals to account. In my view an individual is perhaps one per cent responsible for his actions while society and humanity in general is ninety-nine per cent responsible. As I said before, we are all in this together. It is wrong to single out individuals and “monsterise” them.

        Moving on, no individual is free of this causal net. And that includes not just his material being but his mental being too. Every man is physically and mentally conditioned in a multitude of ways by a multitude of factors. What of the word “free”? It originally meant “dear” or “friend” as opposed to “slave” or “enemy.” It distinguished the master and those of his bloodline from those not of his bloodline. Over time this distinguishing label “free” came to be used in abstract senses. The spurious notion of “free will” came into being.

        Here is my basic interpretation of Epictetus’s “moral purpose: man’s “prohairesis” is his deliberative faculty. This faculty is analogous to a judge sitting on the bench viewing the court proceedings from his elevated position and slowly deliberating upon the proceedings. He weighs up the arguments in the scales of justice (libra) and comes to a decision. (Needless to say his decision is always arbitrary, always a toss of the coin, because it is impossible for him to be impartial, for him to keep himself out of the judgment.)

        Then there is the highest “judge” of all: Zeus, who watches the comings and goings of men and metes out rewards and punishments (divine justice) as he sees fit.

        This deliberative faculty is also the only free faculty according to Epictetus. It’s associations with freedom are evident in such words as “liberty” “liberal” “liberate” “deliverance”.

        The words “hairete” and “arete” are closely related too. Thus Epictetus can speak of moral purpose as the only virtue (or vice when perverted):

        “what faculty is it that uses the services of the rest in this way? Moral purpose. What is it that attends to everything? Moral purpose. What is it that destroys the whole man, sometimes by hunger, sometimes by a noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff? Moral purpose. Is there, then, anything stronger than this among men? Yet how can the things that are subject to hindrance be stronger than that which is unhindered? What are by their very nature capable of hindering the faculty of vision? Both moral purpose and things that lie outside its sphere. The same hinder vision; and so it is also with speech. But what is by its very nature capable of hindering moral purpose? Nothing that lies outside its sphere, but only itself when perverted. For this reason moral purpose becomes the only vice, or the only virtue.”

        The whole shebang is linked, everything falls into place very nicely. Only none of it is true. It is a story, a dream, a beautiful one, but nothing more than that. There is no moral purpose, no free will, and no virtuous act. The trap that has us ensnared is language.

        In the ancient world it was the priestly classes, the lawmakers, the philosophers, the historians, the educated ruling classes, that wrote. Their writings were naturally biased in their own interests.

        That’s all for now, Mark.
        Best wishes,
        A.

        Reply
  15. Archie Lochus

    A further thought: freedom is good, slavery is evil. What do the Christians pray? Deliver us from evil. In other words deliver us from slavery. What does Fate reply? Sorry, no can do. That is your lot. Neither Epictetus nor Jesus can deliver us from this bondage. In chains we are born and in chains we die.

    Art

    Reply
  16. Mark

    You have some interesting opinions, Art. I don’t think we have much overlap in our views, but I do want to send some more thoughts in reply to your post. I’m heading into a busy weekend, though, so it’ll be a few days. Thanks, Mark

    Reply
  17. Mark

    Hi Art. Merry Christmas to you, too! I hope you have a good one.

    Following are a few thoughts—a little disorganized, but somewhat coherent, I hope. As I suggested in my last notes, we don’t agree on much. I appreciate the civil conversation we’re having, but it would be a more fruitful and satisfying experience if we could have it in person, perhaps over a pint. That said…

    You said >> “There is but one animal kingdom not two, that is, human beings do not constitute one separate class distinct from all the rest of the animals. Suffice to say we animals, insects, flora, etc., are all in this together. I therefore think it quite wrong when we place ourselves on a pedestal, when we think of ourselves as gods or higher beings.”

    Clearly we are animals, not gods; no argument there. But just as it would be wrong to claim that our bigger brains make us gods, it would be silly to pretend that the gulf between humans and the non-human animals—in terms of reasoning power, self-consciousness, etc.—is anything short of vast. Yes, a crow will fill a glass tube with pebbles to raise the water inside to drinking level; a chimp will poke a stick into a termite mound looking for a meal. Worthy accomplishments both, but hardly on a level with the Large Hadron Collider, the Goldberg Variations, or our ability to snap high-resolution photos of Pluto. I don’t see anything inherently pernicious in recognizing (and even celebrating) this distinction, and I happen to believe that the extra “powers” of homo sapiens bring with them added responsibilities.

    You said >> “The notion of criminals is an entirely fictitious / fictional one but one which we have come to accept as fact.”

    I would not argue that there are people who are criminals _in their essence_. That seems an undecidable question, and largely moot. But the fact is, _criminality_ exists and has to be dealt with. As Dubois says: “Does this [a man’s being driven to commit a crime due to ‘primitive mentality and contingent causes’] mean that the man ought to remain unpunished…[that] he is beyond reproach? Not at all; his act is contrary to the welfare of society, which has the right to repress him, even to punish him, as much to waken in the guilty person moral clear-sightedness which was lacking as to give a salutary warning to those who would be tempted like him to obey the simple motives of feeling.”

    It’s nothing to do with “monsterising” people. I don’t know how a belief such as yours translates into real-world policy, i.e., what you imagine its practical ramifications to be. Labels don’t really matter, so we don’t have to call them criminals or terrorists, as long as we have a way of repressing and, we can hope, reforming people who murder, rape, pillage, etc. I’m unapologetically against those sorts of things.

    The theory that the “causal net” creates/determines a man’s life, choices, etc., with only negligible input (or responsibility) from the man himself is a skewed view of the situation, in my opinion. You say that a man is perhaps one percent responsible for his actions while “society and humanity in general is ninety-nine percent responsible.” Certainly we all operate within a milieu in which the baseline conditions are established without our vote or our assent—as the rules of a sport determine, without input from the players, the overall play and shape of a game—but within that milieu, we have considerable choice-making powers. How else explain the fact that people from similar backgrounds/families/environments can take very different paths through life? How is it that the social environments from which criminally-inclined persons spring consist primarily of law-abiding citizens? In any case, we are involved in a cosmos, as Dubois suggests, in which people can/should be taught morals and in which we must all work to look beyond the “simple motives of feeling.”

    This is a pragmatic view, in my opinion. We live and act in the actual world, not in a meta-abstraction. I’m sure your friend, the elderly mother, appreciates the fact that you address her needs by means of your actual ethics, not your meta-ethics. Cooking and eating real food certainly beats reading cookbooks and studying nutrition.

    Is it difficult to be impartial when exercising our prohairesis? Sure it is. But that’s no reason not to give it our best shot, doing our best to clarify our perceptions and improve our choice-making. I vastly prefer an auto mechanic who studies his craft and approaches my car repairs with his best efforts over one who simply throws up his hands and says “Why bother?” Don’t you want to live in a world in which people at least make the effort?

    Gotta wrap this up… I have a practical turn of mind, and I’m more trusting than you seem to be in our ability to think things through, using both language and our reasoning powers. I don’t agree at all with your opinions about “lack of moral purpose, no free will, and no virtuous act.” I don’t believe we are ensnared in a trap of language. Sure, our use of language can be complicated and troublesome, but it’s proven to be a useful tool overall. And of course using language to make claims about the unreliability of language is inherently problematic.

    I’ve enjoyed talking with you, Art. I can’t keep up these long posts—I’m far too slow a writer, and this format is too tedious and impersonal for me. It would’ve been better over that pint. Enjoy your Christmas.

    Reply
    1. Archie Lochus

      Oh Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark! Your extreme anthropocentrism is showing!

      Do you honestly believe that men alone were responsible for these things you mention: “Large Hadron Collider; Goldberg Variations; high resolution photos of the planet Pluto?”

      Methinks Socrates would have had little difficulty in demolishing this view!

      The fact is men do not live apart from the environment. They are utterly dependent on the air they breathe, on the water they drink, on the meat and vegetables they eat. Without bees and other insects there would be no plants and animals, (including humans.) As I said before we’re all in this together but I have no intention of labouring this point especially since it seems to fall on your deaf ears. I would just remind you of the disastrous results of this arrogant belief in human superiority and supremacy: global warming and the destruction of the planet.

      Moreover, Epictetus, who dismissed the Acropolis as pretty bits of stone on a pretty rock, would have had no hesitation in dismissing these material things you mention as essentially worthless: pretty bits of metal, pretty bits of noise, and pretty pictures.

      I think also that the mistaken notion that one man is somehow responsible for his actions or “crimes” needs to be thrown out with all the other garbage we have inherited from our primitive ancestors. You cannot separate individual men from the whole body of humankind.

      The very moment that happened injustice was born. No man or group of men has any God-given right to judge or try or lynch any other. Ignorant men take these things upon themselves.

      There is a very impressive passage in Tolstoy, _Resurrection_ I must draw your attention to:

      ‘Ask him how he thinks one should treat those who do not keep the laws,’ said the Englishman. Nekhlydov translated the question. The old man laughed strangely, showing his regular teeth. ‘The laws?’ he repeated with contempt. ‘First _he_ robbed everybody, took all the earth, and all rights away from men—took them all for himself—killed all those who were against him, and then he wrote laws forbidding to rob and kill. He should have written the laws sooner.’ Nekhlydov translated. The Englishman smiled. ‘Well, anyway, ask him how one should treat thieves and murderers now?’ Nekhlydov again translated the question. ‘Tell him he should take the seal of Antichrist off from himself,’ the old man said, frowning sternly; ‘then he will know neither thieves nor murderers. Tell him so.’ ‘He is crazy,’ said the Englishman, when Nekhlydov had translated the old man’s words; and shrugging his shoulders he left the cell. ‘Do thine own business and leave others alone. Every one for himself. God knows whom to execute, whom to pardon, but we do not know,’ said the old man.

      On the subject of the good, the bad, and the monstrous… wasn’t Saddam Hussein made into a monster by the powers that be? And all because he rejected being paid for Iraqi oil in US Dollars? Didn’t the same thing happen with Gadaffi? Isn’t Bashar al-Assad just one in a long line that the powers that be have sought to destroy? Here comes the crunch: was Nero really bad? Was Julius Caesar? Was Joe Stalin? And what about Winston Churchill? The light begins to dawn: he was no better or worse than the rest.

      But I have nothing further to say to you, Mark, except again to wish you well for the festive season and beyond.

      Archie

      Reply
      1. Mark

        Good effort, Art, but yes, we’re both apparently spinning our wheels. Merry Christmas, from this hopeless anthropos.

        Reply
  18. Mark

    Art, an addendum:

    This question occurred to me on my walk today: In a cosmos with “no moral purpose, no free will, and no virtuous act,” What can it possibly mean to speak of its being “wrong” to “monsterise” people or to complain about warmongering or about the ancient lawmakers’ being biased? In a universe with no perch from which to judge, Whence come those judgments?

    My knowledge of philosophy is narrow and shallow, but those sorts of complaints certainly have the ring of circularity to me. How would you answer that quibble?

    Back to trimming the tree…

    Reply
      1. Mark

        If your worldview doesn’t allow us to make moral judgments, by what standard do you judge people as monsterisers, warmongers, etc.?

        Reply
        1. Mark

          e.g., you said ” It is wrong to single out individuals and “monsterise” them.”

          Who are you to talk of right and wrong?

          Reply
          1. Archie Lochus

            The question, “Who am I to talk of right and wrong?” is a strange one; a conversation stopper. I am nobody, who are you to ask me such a question?

        2. Archie Lochus

          On the face of it that seems like a good question, Mark, but it is also something of a loaded one and naturally I am hesitant to answer such for fear of entrapment.

          Reply
          1. Mark

            Art, you said >>
            “The question, ‘Who am I to talk of right and wrong?’ is a strange one; a conversation stopper….who are you to ask me such a question? ”

            A strange question? It’s at the very heart of the subject we’re discussing. Who am I to ask? I’m the guy whom you’ve been trying to convince of a worldview in which it is not possible (or at least not seemly) to make judgments about others. But you’ve been making them throughout our conversation, and I think it’s fair to ask you to explain the discrepancy.

  19. Mark

    i.e., I wasn’t trying to be arch, Art. I meant only that within the world you’ve posited—where none of us is allowed to make moral judgments—why are you an exception?

    I think my posts are sometimes a little too telegraphic. Sorry about that.

    Reply
  20. Archie Lochus

    Mark,

    I don’t think I’ve said that no one is allowed to praise and blame, reward and punish, love and hate, and that I am the exception to this rule.

    I think that just as it is in our nature to eat and drink it is also in our nature to be opinionated.

    My position is that we should not be so quick to judge others. That we should instead look at ourselves and stop criticising the actions of our neighbours.

    That _doesn’t_ however include moral or legal or political systems of thought that are imposed upon us. I think it perfectly valid to criticise such systems.

    For me the problem is we have inherited faulty and dilapidated moral and political systems which speak of an illusory free will and thus individual responsibility.

    Does that explain my position better?

    Art.

    Reply
    1. Mark

      [Having a little trouble posting. Apologies if this gets posted twice.]

      OK, Art. It was your tendency to make absolute statements (“There is no moral purpose, no free will, and no virtuous act”) coupled with your clear double standard about the acceptability of labeling/judging others (“criminals,” no; “monsterisers,” yes) that led me to raise the question. These are quibbles with your rhetorical strategy more than anything else, I suppose, which seems to be one of staking out extreme positions—a common enough approach in online comment threads, but one that can naturally lead to those kinds of self-contradictions. I have no doubt your daily life is a much more measured and nuanced affair than your rhetoric would suggest.

      I have no argument with any of these statements:
      -we should not be quick to judge others
      -we should look to ourselves
      -we should criticize any moral or legal or politicial system with which we disagree

      I think your position about “no individual responsibility” is far too extreme, for all the reasons I’ve already written about here. And I expect its application in your day-to-day life is considerably more nuanced, though I suppose I could be wrong about that.

      I think I’m finished with the conversation, Art. Thanks.

      Take care,
      Mark

      Reply
      1. Archie Lochus

        Mark,

        I had trouble posting too! I lost a good post and sent the less good one above in its stead.

        No, I still stand by the statement that there is no moral purpose, no free will, and no virtuous act in the real world. These things exist nowhere other than as ideas in the world of men. I don’t see how that can be disputed.

        And that’s the first time in 70 years anyone ever accused me of applying double standards! I don’t deny that I am a supporter of underdogs and will discriminate positively in their favour. In a world where might is right, and where there is no justice, I feel I have to speak on behalf of the underprivileged, the oppressed, the abused, the poor, the sick, and so on.

        We do criminalise and make monsters out of our brothers and sisters. That is a fact, not my humble opinion. The elitist system we live and die under is a bad one for the few – politicians, the media, bankers, decide for the majority of mankind. No wonder there is gross inequality everywhere you look.

        How can an individual who is say, young, black, poor, uneducated, fatherless, with a mother who had, say, to whore on the streets, and who thus neglected her child, be held responsible for his behaviour? What chance, for example, has such a person in a social system where Old Etonian / Oxbridge educated white men with influential friends in the City flourish?

        But I don’t want to rant. Yes, I’m finished with the conversation too, Mark.

        Best wishes,

        Archie

        Reply
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  22. al hannigan

    Re the above discussions
    I am clearly out of my league with the obviously very intelligent and well educated writers who have been going back and forth in this column and I will not be surprised if I am attacked for not being a true Stoic, philosopher or just smart enough yet I still feel the urge to comment. One advantage I may have is that I am aware that there is a great deal I do not know and that much of what I think I know is questionable.
    Anyway here goes. I found the back and forth very interesting and entertaining.
    I also found the progression of the discourse from very cautious,highly intellectual writing to attacks on each other’s personality, knowledge etc. to apologies for doing that followed by more polite conversation humorous. The notion, expressed at times ,that if only the writers could get together in person, things would be so much better, is in my opinion,unlikely. I envision something more like the Gore vs Buckley debate.
    I am curious if any of the writers are familiar with the latest research on the brain and especially the question of free will. David Eagleman’s book The Brain dispels the notion of free will and should direct some important light on the subject.
    Another source that might shed more light is integral philosophy as developed by Ken Wilbur.
    Al Hannigan (real name)

    Reply
    1. archielochus

      Hi there Al,

      I for one am not going to attack you “for not being a true Stoic” since there is no such a thing anyway. Marcus never called himself a Stoic; Epictetus asked that someone show him a Stoic but no one was able; Diogenes the Cynic couldn’t find an honest man anywhere; and yet for some “herd-instinct reason” (the only way I can describe the current phenomenon in which hordes of the great unwashed appear to be jumping on a kind-of ancient Stoic bandwagon) many of the people on this and numerous other similar-ish sites speak of themselves as “Stoics”. Worse than this, with all their presuppositions, and misuses of language, they think themselves somehow superior to the generality of humankind: which of course they’re not.

      No, I am not familiar with the latest research on the brain; but I am familiar with the notion of free will in my own humble way! I will certainly take a peek at David Eagleman’s book as well as the subject of “integral philosophy as developed by Ken Wilbur” as soon as I can find the time.

      To return to the subject of free will; it seems that slowly but surely the critical thinkers amongst us are beginning to move away from the traditional mythological belief in free will that we’ve inherited from our ancestors. This is surely partly due to the realisation that something has got to be done about a failed system of justice that is basically all about punishment and retribution. People tell you you’re responsible for stuff because you possess free will, the ability to make reasoned decisions / choices, but that assertion is now being shown to be one that is way out of kilter.

      There are some good books on the subject such as Norm Haughness, The Grandest Illusion; Richard Oerton, The Nonsense of Free Will; Sam Harris, Free Will; and others. Some of the greatest thinkers have seen the illusion for what it is: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, etc.

      Many of the ancient philosophers were little more than self-appointed reformers of manners and morals; now is the time for modern philosophers to begin the enormous task of reforming this ancient philosophical heritage we continue to irrationally cling onto. And where better to begin than by exploding the myth of free will?

      Regards,

      Archie

      Reply
      1. Nigel Glassborow

        Ah! Archie and possibly Al,

        Such self-delusion. There is no science that can explain how each of you could have been ‘forced’ by your brains to choose to submit the posts you have.

        Your posting such has been an example of your freedom to choose to use your own free-will.

        Archie, with his concern about punishment of criminals, rightly or wrongly, comes across as possibly trying to excuse some criminal action or such as having been out of his control, but it is his free-will and freedom of thought that denies self-responsibility and blames the rest of society and history for every action the individual undertakes – not the facts.

        If a person uses denial of free-will and hence a denial of self-responsibility to help them get through life and to cope with their Jiminy Cricket yelling in their ear, fine. But they need to be aware that at some time such a line of thought is liable to come back and bite them. At some time they will have to face up to their responsibilities and or may even suffer at the hands of someone who, like them, refuses to take responsibility for their own actions.

        The irrational denial of free-will by so many so called experts is little more than an interest in writing ‘sensationalist’ pseudo-science to titillate the many would be intellectuals and so make themselves a lot of money through the sale of their hyped up books that have little of worth to offer. They feed on their readers’ egotism whereby the reader thinks that in reading such drivel that they can be seen as intellectuals, whereas their uncritical acceptance of the mush they have been sold backfires and demonstrates their biases, blind spots and ignorance as to the realities of life.

        Now the question is, is what I have written the result of my free-will or have I been forced to write it in the manner I have by the circumstances of my life and by the programming of my brain and all of the history of existence that led up to my being as I am?

        Have I just insulted you both, or must you accept what I have said without argument or complaint because what has been written had to be written and to argue or complain would be to suggest that I could have done otherwise – that is, that I could have used my free-will and so have been as truthful while being less blunt? 😉

        Nigel

        Reply
  23. archielochus

    Nigel,

    [I’m having difficulty posting. Everything is okay at my end. I know my posts are frequently moderated. I may be wrong but I have to surmise that ex-Stoic whistle-blowers like me are seen as a threat by those who want to exploit Stoicism and the gullible herd in order to gain a livelihood and / or achieve fame for themselves. So now you know.]

    Antisthenes is reported to have said:

    “It is better to fight with a few good men against all the wicked, than with many wicked men against a few good men.”

    You with your blithe condemnation of determinism and your foolish belief in free will belong in the camp of the vengeful great unwashed; I, on the other hand, stand firmly in the camp of the enlightened few.

    That is the difference between us.

    Regards,

    Arch

    Reply
      1. archielochus

        Hi Mark,

        Hope you’re keeping well!

        An interesting take on the subject of what I call the “free will citadel” is Rudolf Bultmann’s. He says:

        “According to Greek thinking man cannot really be touched by encounters but encounters can only be for him occasion and material for unfolding and shaping his timeless nature. In principle the future cannot bring anything new in so far as man is independent of time in realising his real nature. This thought was consistently developed by the Stoic philosophers. Their ideal of the wise man is the man who is independent of all that can encounter him good as well as evil because he is untouchable in his interior in his mind. He lives completely unhistorically enclosing himself against everything that the future may bring.”

        It seems to me that Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus may well have cut themselves off from the mundane historical world, even whilst living in it, preferring the untouchable (so they believed / imagined it to be) world of the inner citadel / ivory tower. That would fit too with the idea of virtue alone being sufficient for eudaimonia. Stoicism or rather the individual Stoic viewed in that light is something / someone apart / detached from the real world.

        Best,
        Arch

        Reply
        1. archielochus

          PS Come to think of it this inner citadel of the Stoics might be compared with Kant’s noumenal world… in which case for him free will would have surely been a “thing-in-itself”. Certainly he was familiar with Stoic literature.

          Reply
    1. Nigel Glassborow

      But surely Arch, according to you we do not have the free-will to choose which side we are on. 🙂

      As to your claim to being one of the ‘enlightened few’, you only confirm my point about your self-delusion.

      I think you need to consider the idea that just because you are in a hole and have a spade it is no reason to keep digging an ever deeper hole. Your rants are proving to be a good advert for the rationality of Stoicism.

      Keep up the good work. while I nip off to have a bath. 🙂

      Nigel

      Reply
      1. archielochus

        Nige m’dear,

        Seems you’re beginning to get the hang of it!

        All I’m doing here is sowing the seed. (Or as you “Stoics” would have it, the _logoi spermatikoi_.) What happens after that, well, what happens after that is in the lap of the gods of the harvest.

        Suffice to say you’re confused now but when you eventually get round to reading up on the subject, which you undoubtedly will, you’ll begin to see that I’m not here to hinder but to help, that there’s rhyme in my reason.

        Best wishes,

        Arch

        Reply
        1. Nigel Glassborow

          Archie,

          Having read up on the subject a number of times I can’t say I see any rhyme in your reason – in fact I can’t say I see any rational reasoning in your reasoning at all.

          You are getting more and more irrational every time you post anything.

          I repeat my advice – stop digging.

          Nigel

          Reply
  24. Akash

    Rob, great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your post made me think of the Bhagvad Gita and Korzybski’s General Semantics. Donald Robertson has written about the porous nature of the term “Stoic”. I find it fascinating and validating to see Stoic ideas show up in different times and places. I think that calling attention to these other sources of Stoic thinking (in spirit) could serve to enrich and enliven neo-Stoicism.

    Reply

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