–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Self-Sufficiency and Human Flourishing

by | Jun 13, 2024

It is no secret that Massimo Pigliucci is a practicing modern Stoic. Indeed, working within and promoting the modern Stoic form of life has become his chief project, including a very well-received and popular book of the same name, published by Basic Books. Massimo and I have done two video dialogues on the subject.

It is also no secret that I have a number of problems with Stoicism as a philosophy of life, many of which I have raised with Massimo. But there is one in particular that stands out for me and that is whether human flourishing is self-sufficient. Massimo thinks it is. I don’t. But this is not just a disagreement between the two of us: it represents a fundamental difference between the Stoic understanding of flourishing and the Aristotelian one.

First, let’s be clear on what is meant by ‘human flourishing’. The Greek term, for which this is our best translation, is ‘Eudaimonia’. It is often translated as ‘happiness’, an unfortunate concession to readability that may have permanently compromised our understanding of the concept, even among those who are perfectly aware of the more literal translation, as Massimo certainly is. 

‘Happiness’ in modern English indicates pleasure or good feeling and is subjective: what makes one person happy may not do so for another. Happiness in this sense is self-sufficient, insofar as I can always find the sunny side of something and thereby make myself feel good about it and about myself more generally. If I have a mediocre tennis career or fail to succeed as a scholar, I may nonetheless be happy, if I am able to convince myself that “it’s the effort that counts, and I did my best” or “everything happens for a good reason” or some other such thing. 

But Eudaimonia is not like this. To have lived a eudaimonic life is to have actually flourished; to have lived a life that is rightly characterized as excellent; as having been worth living, as Socrates would put it. Eudaimonia is a normative concept, which means that unlike the modern concept of happiness, it is not supposed to be subjective. And given that the success and failure it imagines occur in the world and among other people and thus, depend on things other than oneself and one’s efforts, the eudaimonic life cannot be self-sufficient.  

Being an excellent tennis player depends in part on the quality of my opponents and making it in my career depended on the judgments of journal editorial boards concerning my work, the financial health of my home institution, the interests and desires of the students who pursue degrees at Missouri State (my former employer), and more. To have flourished in one’s life would seem, at a minimum, to involve success in these sorts of activities and relationships – it is the flourishing of a human life, after all – and clearly, such success depends on variables beyond one’s own efforts, which include a certain level of material well-being, positive native endowments – whether in physical appearance, intelligence, or the like – and more generally, good luck. 

Stoics reject this. In particular, they reject the idea that success in the actual world, among actual people, is necessary for human flourishing. Instead, they define ‘Eudaimonia’ so as only to indicate virtue, which is characterized in terms of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. The question of whether one has flourished then, is entirely a matter of whether one has been wise, courageous, temperate, and just in the conduct of one’s life, and not whether in doing so, one has actually accomplished the things one set out to do. For the Stoic, all those actual accomplishments and the external variables upon which they depend, are deemed “preferred indifferents,” meaning that while one might legitimately hope for them, they are irrelevant to one’s flourishing, and failing to have or accomplish them should be treated with “equanimity.” The virtues themselves, which non-Stoics would say are valuable, in part precisely because they make success in one’s endeavors and relationships more likely, thereby become fetishized, in that they are torn from the context of their employment and treated as ends in themselves.

This is why Massimo can cite approvingly Cicero’s claim that for an archer, shooting at a target, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired” or suggest that in dieting, I should be focused not on whether I’ve actually lost a certain amount of weight, which, obviously depends on various factors that I do not control, but on whether I’ve done my best, which does not. 

It is worth noting that in ordinary discourse, such statements are commonly offered as consolation in the face of failure. “You did your best” is what one says to a kid, when his Little League team loses a game or to a friend who wasn’t chosen for a role in a play for which she auditioned. The aim of such talk is to help the other person feel better after having failed. It is not to suggest that they’ve actually won, when they’ve lost, or that succeeding just is trying your best. Such claims would make no sense, given the nature of the endeavors involved: one engages in archery to hit targets, not to try and hit them; one diets in order to lose weight, not to try and lose it; one plays baseball games in order to win them, not try to win them; and one auditions for roles in plays to get those roles, not to try and get them. Consequently, success in these endeavors cannot consist of trying to accomplish them, but only in the actual accomplishment of them.

And yet, this is precisely what the Stoic is telling us that a flourishing life is like: one in which a person has tried to do various things, not in which he has actually accomplished the things he has tried to do. It is a very odd conception of excellence, and in truth, I don’t think it really is one. Rather, what Stoicism describes is an effective way to be happy with one’s life (in the modern sense of the term), regardless of whether it is an excellent one or not, and in that sense it is a useful discipline that no one should dismiss. But it is not an account of flourishing in any meaningful sense, for flourishing, in both its technical and ordinary senses, clearly indicates actual success in some endeavor, not merely the earnest and diligent pursuit of it.  

It is telling that Massimo’s main objection to Aristotelianism – according to which flourishing means that one actually has succeeded, as opposed to merely trying to – is that it is elitist and unfair, for it confirms my suspicion that rather than an account of Eudaimonia, Stoicism really offers consolation in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune. After all, plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are real and true, which means that the point of saddling Aristotle with such labels isn’t to indicate that he is wrong or that the Stoics, whose philosophy is neither elitist nor unfair, are right. Rather, it is to make the point that the Stoic philosophy is more agreeable, in that embracing it will make one feel better about oneself than if one follows the path set by Aristotle. But though this may very well be true, it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not one has, in fact, flourished in the living of one’s life.

Those who study ancient civilization distinguish the  Classical period of ancient Greece from the Hellenistic, the latter which, both in its arts and its philosophy, reflects a society in turmoil and decline. The Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies-under-siege,” and I would argue that the chief indication of this is precisely their retreat into the self, of which the doctrine of “indifferents” is a very clear expression. The idea that flourishing is entirely self-sufficient reflects a siege mentality, broadly construed, its purest expression, of course, being the monastic, cloistered life that emerged in the early Christian Middle Ages.  

Such an outlook makes sense in times of social disintegration, in which it functions as a kind of existential self-defense program. There was an appropriateness, then, to the development and adoption of these philosophies in the Hellenistic period or in the later days of Rome or in the Dark Ages. In the contemporary world, such an outlook would make sense if one was living in Rwanda or Sierra Leone or Syria. But it seems inappropriate – indeed, it seems rather weird – to adopt such a view of one’s life in a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world. One can see the reason for refusing to invest oneself and one’s emotions too much in “externals” in a world in which a person is stalked by tragedy and has every reason to doubt whether he will ever enjoy tangible success in his life. One reasonably adopts such a posture to protect oneself, in short, when one is in extremis. But it is difficult to see why such a philosophy would be reasonable for modern, bourgeois Westerners, who decidedly are not in any such condition.