The Immortal Stoic

Stoicism has been all the rage lately, and some would go as far as to argue that it has been all the rage for centuries now, evolving alongside us as it begins to take on new meanings to the new minds that embrace the sentiments of Seneca or musings of Marcus Aurelius. 

It’s a peculiar thing to be able to observe how certain philosophies live and certain philosophies die — how some ideologies can adapt and survive or even mount a popular resurgence whilst others get covered by the sands of time only hoping for an eventual exhumation. 

“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” 
– Marcus Aurelius

Then there’s Stoicism. Much like the ideal stoic, it has marched on through the tides of our history, as unwavering as it is dynamic and as unflinching to change as it is versatile in its application.

Somewhat miraculously, Stoicism hasn’t changed all that much; in essence, it hasn’t changed at all. Our modern perceptions have reconfigured it only slightly and, even so, such reconfiguration doesn’t reverberate too far from the original echoing of almost two millennia prior. 

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
– Seneca

I recently had the chance of picking the mind of an expert when it comes to Stoicism, Professor of Philosophy Massimo Pigliucci, author of works such as How to Be a Stoic, a Handbook for New Stoics and a Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living

Professor Pigliucci is well steeped in the nuances of the Stoic way of life, so I sought to elucidate a bit about how this philosophy can be overlaid upon more modern discussions of causality and volition, on consciousness and perception. 

Ultimately, I had found that they don’t necessarily run against the grains of our contemporary trends of thought; in fact, Stoic philosophy seems to compliment many facets of our current belief structures and modern philosophical perspectives — the likely reason why it thrives across the spans of time. 

“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”
– Epictetus

Q. The first question I have for you revolves around the way that the Stoics would have approached the idea of causality. Specifically, I’m wondering how an ancient Stoic would reconcile the individual dichotomy of control and the over-arching rationality (or power of) the Logos — the active form of reason and rationality that governs the Universe. 

The Stoics seemingly placed a lot of weight into the web of cause and effect, and while the general attitude behind the dichotomy of control has lived on to become a focal point of modern Stoic sentimentality, their relationship with notions of fate and/or causality has received less attention.

Do you feel that they limited themselves in the way they believed in cause and effect or their dichotomy of control? Or do you feel it would have been more liberating because it anchored the dichotomy of control on a much more sturdy foundation, one almost divinely structured?

A. Interesting question. The Stoics did pay a lot of attention to causality, with Chrysippus — the great logician and third head of the Stoa — writing extensively about it (unfortunately, only fragments have arrived to us).

Their universe was deterministic, in the specific sense that everything happens as a result of a cosmic web of cause-effect. Including human actions. However, the Stoics also discriminated among different kinds of causes, for instance local vs universal, proximal vs remote, and — crucially — internal vs external.

Which brings us to the question of free will (a term not used by the Stoics, who preferred “prohairesis,” usually translated as volition, i.e., the ability to make decisions). By modern standards, the Stoics were compatibilists about free will: they thought that determinism does not preclude human decision making, properly understood.

Chrysippus proposed an analogy to make the point. Consider a cylinder, perhaps made of metal. Put it on a flat surface and then give it a push. What happens? The cylinder rolls. Why does the cylinder roll? Well, obviously because I just pushed it. Yes, but that’s only part of the causal explanation. An additional part is that it is in the nature of cylinders to roll when pushed. If you push a cube, it’s not going to roll. So the cylinder rolls because of a combination of external (my push) and internal (its nature as a cylinder) causes.

The analogy with human will is that it too is the result of a — much more complex! — combination of external and internal causes. Our decisions are influenced by all sorts of external factors. But they are also processed by our internal mechanisms, specifically our “ruling faculty” (hegemonikon), which nowadays we would identity as the fronto-parietal lobes of our brain.

A major difference with the cylinder, though, is that human reason is recursive: it can be applied to itself. Which means that we can change our internal causal structure by experiencing, learning, and reflecting on things.

Hence the Stoic fork, also known as the dichotomy of control. The things that Epictetus says are “up to us,” such as our considered opinions, endorsed values, and decisions to act or not to act, are the result of processes that take place in the hegemonikon. Everything else happens outside, and so can be influenced by our actions, but is not, strictly speaking up to us.

It’s a beautifully coherent system, which — when properly updated to modern language — also happens to be in line with the majority view among modern philosophers, as well as with the available empirical evidence from cognitive science.

Q. The Stoic ideas of the hegemonikon and the concept of kataleptic phantasia (the latter of which may sometimes be interpreted ambiguously) I’m curious to know how you’d describe these concepts as an integral part of Stoic nature and, if so, how would you say that they relate to the operating consciousness of a traditional Stoic. In other words, how the two concepts play into the cognitive and perceptual nature of the Stoic mind. 

A. I’m not sure that the concept of kataleptic impressions is ambiguous. Epictetus gives clear examples:

“‘Feel, if you can, that it is now night.’ That is impossible. ‘Put away the feeling that it is day.’ That is impossible.” (Discourses I.28)

If it is now day, we cannot convince ourselves that it’s actually night. Or vice versa. That’s because we are having a kataleptic impression about which part of the day we are currently experiencing. That is a kind of impression that is simply undeniable.

Of course, non-sages are nevertheless fallible, so they may think they are experiencing a kataleptic impression, but they may be mistaken. The classic example is narrated by Diogenes Laertius:

“One day when a discussion had arisen on the question whether the wise man could stoop to hold opinion, and Sphaerus had maintained that this was impossible, the king, wishing to refute him, ordered some waxen pomegranates to be put on the table. Sphaerus was taken in and the king cried out, ‘You have given your assent to a presentation which is false.’ But Sphaerus was ready with a neat answer. ‘I assented not to the proposition that they are pomegranates, but to another, that there are good grounds for thinking them to be pomegranates. Certainty of presentation and reasonable probability are two totally different things.’” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.177)

Sphaerus was not a sage, so he could simply assent to impressions that seemed reasonable to him, as much as they had the appearance of a kataleptic impression.

As for the hegemonikon, it is, as Marcus Aurelius (VII.28) calls it, our “ruling faculty,” meaning whatever is the seat of the will. It’s function is to exercise our prohairesis, a term used by Epictetus (e.g., Enchiridion 14) to mean what we nowadays call volition.

When I say, with Larry Becker (in his A New Stoicism) that we have the power to change our internal causal structure, what I mean is that the hegemonikon is capable of recursively applying it’s faculty of judgment to its own previous judgments, thereby improving the faculty itself.

In modern terms, we might say that we learn how to arrive at better decisions because our frontal lobes are capable of generating self-reflecting judgments. The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes. The frontal lobes are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events. That sounds to me very much like what the Stoics were talking about whenever they used the term hêgemonikon.

The better our hegemonikon works, the more likely we are to arrive at correct opinions. The Stoic sage is a person who has perfected her ruling faculty to the point where all her perceptions are kataleptic. If you ask me, though, sages are only ideal individuals, they don’t actually exist.

Q. Lastly, I’m curious to know why you think there has been an apparent surge in interest towards Stoicism, whether we’re talking about the last several years, last several decades or last several centuries. 

A. That’s a tough question. Without sociological studies we can only guess. My hunch is that it is the result of a number of factors: a resurgence of interest in practical philosophy, possibly related to the decline of mainstream religions; the fact that Stoicism speaks to times of turmoil when people feel things are largely outside of their control; the concerted effort of a small number of dedicated practitioners, such as Don Robertson and the Modern Stoicism group; and the amplifying effect of social media.