It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.
What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue.
One further preliminary. I make no particular claim that my interpretation of Stoicism is the one that is most consistent with their writings. This would be difficult, because what we have of their writings is in an abysmal state. It is true that we have substantial texts by the later Stoics Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and (sort of) Epictetus, but the theoretical value of these works is, in my opinion, low. The writings of the more important earlier Stoics, especially Chrysippus, are almost entirely lost, and we are dependent on secondary sources for what they said. Moreover, there were many Stoic philosophers, and we should not expect them all to have said exactly the same things. In any event, what interests me most is the logic of their position and how it can be made most consistent and sensible (and yet still recognizably Stoic). It is always better to “Steel Man” another’s view, not Straw Man it. So that’s the spirit of what follows.
The Stoics were hard determinists, so hard that they believed in a theory of “eternal recurrence,” according to which the entire course of the universe down to the last detail would be repeated in cycles forever. So, the exact path of every raindrop down a window, every blink of your eyes, and every thought you ever have will be repeated an infinite number of times in the future—and of course have already happened an infinite number of times in the past. Accordingly, they did not believe in free will.
There seem to be two basic motivations for denying free will. One is to deny responsibility for our actions. This motivation seems to be more popular than philosophical. In any event, most determinist philosophers seem to have the second motivation, which is taking intelligible causation seriously. A cause is intelligible only to the extent that it explains why the event in question had to happen. Any leeway or wiggle room in the event—any aspect that is not determined by the cause—is left still unexplained. So, to hold that every event in the universe is fully intelligible commits you to determinism. This is why Spinoza, for example, was a determinist, and it’s why the Stoics were determinists. They held that the universe is fully rational and intelligible. Everything happens for a reason, no exceptions. The universe is governed by logic, which they identified with God. God and Nature itself are one and the same (again, like Spinoza), and they are rational. We are rational too, which is why we can understand the world.
But if determinism is true and everything you will ever do has been laid down before you were even born, then what is the effing point? Isn’t it true, as Smith says, that “Stoic philosophy leaves us with no power to impact events”? And that, “strictly speaking, nothing is up to us”? And in that case isn’t Smith right to ask, “what use is [Stoic advice] or anyone’s advice for that matter”?
I think the Stoics can provide pretty good answers to these questions. Let’s start with the “what’s the use?” question, since I suspect this is the main sticking point. If the action you take in any situation or the outcome in any scenario is fated in advance, then what is the point of bothering about it? After all, what you will do and how things will turn out will be the same either way, so why should you concern yourself about it? The answer is, because the outcome matters and because you don’t know in advance what it will be. (Strictly speaking, for the Stoics the outcome actually does not matter—for reasons having nothing to do with their determinism. But for them your action does matter, which amounts to the same thing for present purposes. I will ignore this quibble from here on.) It may be true that if you could know for certain in advance what will happen, like Oedipus and the Oracle foretelling some of his actions, then you may as well sit back and watch events unfold. But this is never our situation. Therefore, since you do not know what the outcome will be in any situation you face, you have a reason to do anything that will raise the epistemic probability of events unfolding in accordance with your preferences.
For example, suppose you have a rotten tooth that is causing you excruciating pain. Assuming you are a determinist, would it be rational to say, “My toothache will either be cured or not, and it is fated either way, so I’ll just sit here and eventually find out which!”? Clearly not. Although the outcome may be fated either way, you don’t know which way. But you do know that, if your tooth is going to be fixed, the causal agency of its fixing is most likely to run through your own actions. It is much more likely to get fixed, and much faster, if you go to the dentist than if you just sit on the couch waiting. Therefore, you have a reason in this case to go to the dentist. The fact that you are a determinist does not change that.
Thus, Smith is wrong to suggest that a determinist has no use for anyone’s advice. The more knowledge you have of the world, and the more wisdom you have concerning effective decision making and action, the more efficacious you will be at steering events in beneficial directions. This is a mere truism, and the (supposed) fact of predetermination does nothing to change it.
Indeed, as a thinking human agent, you are an important channel of causation in the world around you. Imagine a robot with a central controller. The controller is, let us say, a processor equipped with data about the world around it and programs for its guidance and decision making. Clearly, the controller will be more efficacious the more powerful it is, and the better its data and programming. We do not have to suppose that the controller has “free will” in order for this to be true. Moreover, the controller has a kind of “agency” in that it processes information and decides what course of action the robot will take. The alternatives it decides between are far more sophisticated than those of a rock rolling down a hill. That’s why we call it a “controller.” Of course, that doesn’t make it free. The point of talking about a robot with an onboard controller is just to emphasize that it is not free. But it hardly follows that the quality of the “advice” (data and programming) it gets makes no difference.
Thus, Smith is also wrong to suppose that Stoicism leaves us with no power to impact events. We do impact events, just as the robot does. We do not change what is predetermined, but we impact events in the sense that the causation of events is channeled through us. And again, since we do not know what is predetermined, we have a reason—just because we are an important channel of causation—to exert ourselves to be as knowledgeable and wise and good as we can.
Smith cites the unfortunate image of the dog tied to a cart. A dog tied to a cart goes along with the cart willy-nilly. The choice the dog has is to trot along willingly or be dragged. According to the Stoics (supposedly—the passage was written by a Christian opponent of the Stoics over 400 years after the writers he is attacking were dead), the human situation is no different. The only power we have is in our attitude toward the inevitable course of events. Namely, we can be complacent or resentful, but we can have no impact on what will happen, so we may as well be complacent. As should be clear by now, in my view nearly everything about this image is wrong. First, it presents us as passive spectators of events, dragged along uninvolved like a dog tied to a cart. But the truth is that we are agents that are causally involved in generating the course of events. We are more like the cart than the dog. Moreover, in the sense in which we have no choice about things—that our actions are not free—that goes for our attitude as much as anything else. For the Stoics, our souls are as deterministic as anything else. So the idea, which Smith alludes to repeatedly, that for the Stoics our souls (and thus our attitudes, judgments, values, etc.) might be “up to us” (i.e., free) although our actions are not, will not do in my opinion.
If the dog-and-cart image were correct, then we would be passive spectators not only of events around us, but even of our own actions. This would seem to imply that the morally perfect Stoic Sage might, for example, be a criminal! Raised in a bad household, perhaps, the individual grows up to be a murderous robber, but having read Stoic philosophy, his soul trots complacently beside the “cart” of his murders and robberies, reflecting that he is powerless to influence the course of events and must accept whatever comes. But this is quite contrary to Stoic doctrine. The Stoics believed that it matters very much what you do, and they held that the Sage always acts with perfect propriety. The Stoic Sage therefore would never murder or rob anyone (barring exceptional circumstances in which that would actually be appropriate). The actions of the Sage are always morally perfect because his wisdom and knowledge are perfect. That is what makes him a Sage. He is not a dog tied to a cart but a robot with a perfectly programmed and informed and functioning controller.
Still, there may be a nagging question as to why anything matters if everything is fated in advance. Why does it matter whether you are a Sage and do only appropriate actions, if this is predetermined and you cannot change it? It matters because it is good. A Sage functions well and is happy, and that is better than to function poorly and be unhappy. Think of the beauty of a newly opened flower or of a healthy, powerful tiger. These are good, and we can appreciate and admire them for that. And this is so even though it was predetermined. The flower and the tiger have no free will, they are not the ultimate causes of their goodness, and in that sense they are not responsible for it, but their goodness exists and is worthwhile all the same. Likewise, you cannot change your destiny or become a Sage if it is not predetermined that you will be one. But since you cannot know that you will not be one, and since it is much better to be one than not—indeed, since for the Stoics nothing matters other than being a Sage—you have reason to hope to be one and to expend every ounce of energy in the attempt.