Monday, February 13, 2017

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

Recently, I’ve been working on not only gaining a deeper understanding of Stoicism, but also how to use in modern life, as well as attempting to figure out if there is anything of the modern world that could be of some use to Stoicism. This attempt, of course, has me seeing Stoicism of today as two different schools: New Stoicism and Traditional Stoicism. The following, of course, may be a gross generalization that could be dispelled with a little work, but I find that the best way to find answers is to sometimes be wrong on the internet.

Traditional Stoicism

I also call this “religious” Stoicism, not because Stoics from this camp follow one faith or another, but rather they’re attempting to keep the physics side of Stoicism alive. This means keeping the idea of Providence going.

To the Traditional Stoic, dropping this aspect of Stoicism effectively changes it from a philosophy to a form of CBT psychology. You won’t find anyone (that I can tell) arguing that this isn’t useful, but rather that it just isn’t Stoicism.

This school, as far as I can tell, is attempting to fit new ideas into the framework of an old philosophy. They don’t ignore science or anything like that, but they also don’t ignore the physics of Stoicism. Providence is real and, through the use of both science and philosophy, attempt to prove this.

This school’s biggest challenge is overcoming the skepticism of most modern people. Providence, seemingly, plays no part in today’s world. Atheists find no need to for it and it seems a lot of theists see divinity more as a form of prosperity (“Pray to God for x, and pray like you mean it, and you’ll get x in some form or another!”).

New Stoicism

If Traditional Stoicism is about fitting new ideas into an old philosophy, New Stoicism is about fitting an old philosophy into new ideas. The Roman Stoics all but abandoned the logic side of Hellenistic Stoicism, and New Stoics abandoned the physics side.

A majority of New Stoics are atheist or agnostic (and before that debate starts, yes, I’m aware you can be both). For them, divinity just simply isn’t needed for Stoicism to exist. If, after all, an atheist derives the same benefits from Stoicism as one that believes in Providence, at what point did it stop being a valid philosophy?

This school’s biggest challenge is accounting for individual suffering. It can be hard to take Stoicism’s “medicine” about evil and overcoming it when the big Doctor in the sky isn’t around to dispense the treatment. When you try to take the cosmos as a whole, the atheist perspective can leave it a little cold whereas with the Providential view, the universe “provides” for you.

Final Thoughts

This is, as stated, my starting thoughts in this new understanding of Stoicism. I want to explore the way of the old schools and see if they can withstand the test of time. Personally, I think both schools have valid points about the other: I’m leery about outright ignoring one aspect of Stoicism, but it’s also hard to accept that the universe is looking out for us.

Monday, January 23, 2017

On the Dichotomy of Control vs. Trichotomy of Control

Side Note: I actually wrote this sometime last year and, as it turns out, never posted it. So here goes.

This essay, as the title points out, is a look at the Epictetus's dichotomy of control and Irvine's trichotomy of control. More to the point, just who the hell has it right, anyway?

Let's look at Epictetus first.

Epictetus is pretty straightforward about things. He says there are some things in our control and some things not in our control. And that's it. Okay, it's a little bit more than that, though not much more.

See, there's only two things in our control: our opinions and our will. So whatever isn't our opinion isn't in our control. Will is our ability to attempt influence over the world, including our own actions.

Irvine is more nuanced in his idea. To him, there's three things: things in our control, things not in our control, and things that we have limited control over.

The example he gives is someone practicing for a tennis match. According to Irvine, by practicing, our tennis player is exerting some control over the outcome because the player is improving their game. Ultimately, however, winning the match comes down to a lot of uncontrollable factors, such as if the weather plays in anyone's favor, if the opponent is better or cheats, whatever.

The problem with Irvine's trichotomy is that the third category – things we have limited control over – is actually a part of things we have control over. Think about it: we have control over if we practice or not, because it's of our opinion that we can improve our game and we have the will to make ourselves to it. But as Irvine himself points out, the outcome isn't up to the tennis player. So did the tennis player really exert control over fate? No. All they did was improve themselves, not their outcome.

Personally, it feels like Irvine is attempting to lessen the feelings of fate in Stoicism. If we have limited control over the world around us, it isn't as big or strong as it seems.

What it comes down to is Irvine's trichotomy tries to make more categories of control than needed. For clarity, let's go back to an old Stoic staple, the Stoic archer.

The old Stoics said that the archer didn't have any control over if their arrow hit the target or not. All the archer had control over was how much effort they put into doing their best. Practicing archery is one such way the archer could put effort into hitting the target. Yet there isn't any amount of practice that will make that arrow hit.

This doesn't make the archer's practice worthless. For what it's worth, the archer improves by practicing. And while the archer that does practice has a better chance of hitting their target, once that arrow leaves, it isn't up to the archer anymore.

Of course, for all the blustering I just did, there's one caveat that turns all this around and makes Irvine right.

See, for Epictetus to be right, you have to accept the traditional Stoic position on fate: that everything is up to the gods. No amount of practice would matter. If the gods wanted you to hit your target or win your tennis game, so be it. You could practice, but it was for your own sake.

However, a lot of atheist Stoics don't buy this concept of fate. For them, fate is more along the lines of probability. You have a certain odds of doing something and a certain odds of doing said thing successfully. So, going back to the archer, you have certain odds of hitting the target. You can't know the exact number, of course, as it involves a lot of unseen factors. However, you can improve your odds in different ways, such as practicing, buying a better bow, better arrows, and so on. In this case, Irvine is right. We can change the odds – perhaps even in our favor – and so we have some control over the world around us.

At the end of the day, how you see fate determines who is right and who is wrong. Believe fate is divinely determined and Epictetus is right. Believe fate is numbers and Irvine is right.

I'll be frank. When I started out on this, I was attempting to prove Irvine wrong. In fact, over at the Mountain Stoic (who has a wonderful post on this very subject), I commented that I disagreed with Irvine. However, having taken the time to think over how things played out, I found myself having no choice but to agree with Irvine. I'm an atheist Stoic, you see. I'm one of those that see fate as probability. Given that you can change probability into your favor (such as by practicing), I had to concede. For me, Irvine is right: I do have some control over external events.

However, this doesn't mean I have to get wrapped up in the outcome of said external events. I still don't have the ability to make something happen. I can only improve the odds of making something happen.

And I've yet another thought one the subject (I didn't think I'd be so divided by this!). Whilst working, I got to thinking about the fact that we can't actually know the odds to any event. Sure, there are some smart people out there that can make a good guess at it. But as anyone who's lost a sure bet knows, there isn't anything concrete about odds.

Now, seeing as the numbers are a total mystery to us and even something that is “sure” to happen can be screwed up, I think it's fair to say that we don't really know the numbers. And what is the difference between not knowing the numbers and having no control over the outcome? Nothing.

In this sense, Epictetus is right. No amount of planning can give you a sureness to the world around you. You can, however, have a sureness about the fact you practiced. In fact, you can say that at the very least, you tried to improve your odds and still accept that it's not up to you to succeed in what you do.

Okay, that's it. I'm done. Here's what I got.

The Dichotomy is right if: you think something like God or Fate controls everything or you think the uncertainty of odds makes it impossible to put the odds in your favor due to too many other unforeseeable events.

The Trichotomy is right if: you think that, despite being able to know the odds, you think you can influence them through your actions.

For me, the dichotomy, at the end of the day, proves true.

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

Recently, I’ve been working on not only gaining a deeper understanding of Stoicism, but also how to use in modern life, as well as attempti...