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Louis Lavelle on the Stoic Wisdom
The Stoic disciplines take us to a place worth visiting, but not all the way.
I am a lover of the Stoics. Why waste time on New Age hucksters when one can read Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius? But while the Stoics can take us a good stretch down the road to wisdom, they cannot bring us to the end — a fact long appreciated by first-rate minds. In late antiquity, Aurelius Augustinus offered a critique of the Stoics in Book XIX, Chapter 4 of The City of God, a critique worthy of being called classical. We will have to examine that critique one of these days. But today I want to draw your attention to some passages from Chapter 10, Section 4 of Louis Lavelle's The Dilemma of Narcissus (Allen & Unwin, 1973, tr. Gairdner):
The Stoics claimed that happiness depends on accurately distinguishing between the things which depend on us and those which do not. Govern the former by reason, and ignore the latter — this was their principle of supreme wisdom, to the practice of which our will should be unceasingly applied.
But hiding behind this apparent humility there is the spirit of sovereign pride and contempt, contempt for all those things which do not depend on us but of which our life is nevertheless composed, and with which it is inextricably entwined. It is impossible to assert that we can remain indifferent to them . . . . (p. 154)
There are things that are in our power, and things that are not. The flood that sweeps away my house is not in my power; but my response to the flood is. I can make myself miserable by blaming other people, from the president on down; or I can limit my suffering by taking control of my own mind. Your insulting me is not in my power; but whether or not I let it affect me is in my power.
The Stoics had an important insight into the mind's power to regulate itself. When you really understand their point it can come as a revelation. I was once thinking of a dead relative and how he had wronged me. I began to succumb to negative thoughts, but caught myself and suddenly realized that I am doing it. I saw that I was allowing the negative thoughts to arise and that I had the power to blot them out. The incident was years in the past, and the malefactor was long dead. So the mental disturbance was my own creation. My sudden realization of this — aided no doubt by my reading of Stoic and other wisdom literature — caused the disturbance to vanish.
The Stoics discerned the mind's power to regulate itself and master its thoughts, rather than be mastered by them. They saw that, within certain limits, we create our own reality. Within limits, we can make ourselves miserable and we can make ourselves happy. There is an inner citadel into which one can retreat, and where a very real peace can be enjoyed -- assuming that one is willing to practice the Stoic precepts rather than merely read about them.
What Lavelle sees, however, is that Stoic practices take one only so far along the road to happiness. He sees that Stoicism cannot be a final solution since it rests on a denial of our finitude. In theistic terms, it rests on a denial of our creatureliness, our dependence on God. (A materialist could perhaps agree with the general point by substituting dependence on matter for dependence on God.)
My creaturely finitude is reflected in the fact that I have no control over either my existence or my nature or essence. Thus it was little more than existentialist braggadocio and romantic posturing when Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) claimed that "existence precedes essence" in a sense to deny that there is any pre-given human nature, and that "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself."
The truth is that we have a nature whether created by God or 'created' by material forces, and this nature prescribes limits to our freedom. As prescribing limits to our freedom, our nature is not within the control of our freedom. We cannot lift ourselves into an enduring happiness by our own bootstraps. We are kept in check by constraints not of our own making and not in our control, except in part and on occasion.. Tranquillitas animi is a wonderful thing, and partially attainable by Stoic and cognate methods including those of the Buddhists; but it can't be worth that much if a stomach cramp or a blow to the head can interrupt it. I can to a certain extent identify with the hegemonikon or guiding element within me which stands above the fray, observing it. I am that ruling element, that transcendental witness. But I am also this indigent body, this wholly exposed mass of frailties. And try as I might, I cannot dissociate myself from it. The ideal of the Sage who negotiates with perfect equanimity fortune and misfortune alike is unattainable by us. In the end, the precepts and practices of Stoicism leave us in the lurch.
We cannot save ourselves via the path of political activism as many 20th century Communists learned the hard way. But a wholly self-reliant quietism is also a dead-end. We cannot be lamps unto ourselves. If salvation is to be had, it must come from Elsewhere. "Only a God can save us," Heidegger said in his Spiegel interview near the end of his life. Nur ein Gott kann uns retten. But I don’t think he had the God of Christianity in mind.