Stoicism and Amor Fati

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I was taking a look at Massimo Pigliucci’s article Did the Ancient Stoics Believe in a Living Cosmos? Does It Matter? published in Medium and I thought his Stoicism 2.0 wasn’t a radical departure from Stoicism. I’m not sure I would sell it as Stoicism 2.0 since it appears to retain basically everything except for the universe being a sentient organism, which if you read the article dooms the Stoic concept of amor fati, that you should love whatever fate brings you. I know for many that’s like a super big deal to throw out the idea of a sentient universe. But what I like about the Stoics is that they seemed like the kind of people willing to change their minds and they were great at using multiple arguments to back their conclusions.

My favorite thing about Stoicism is how it still retains a lot if its Cynic roots. Stoicism was able to take Cynicism and give it a robust philosophical system. Cynicism was all about seeking virtue and seeing oneself as a “citizen of the world,” as Diogenes put it. While Zeno of Citium agreed with the Cynics that virtue is the only good, he was clever enough to see that certain indifferents did matter and were preferred over other indifferents and so he made a careful distinction between preferred/dispreferred indifferents and virtue/vice. To be virtuous is to maintain a good will and good judgment and anything external to our judgment or will is indifferent (including random thoughts that pop into our mind that we didn’t voluntarily create) . Things indifferent or adiaphora in ancient Greek simply means that they make no difference to our eudaimonia (eudaimonia is often translated as flourishing, excellence, or happiness). Zeno knew that even though we don’t need indifferents like health, wealth, or reputation to be eudaimonically happy, he did believe that they were preferred since they allow us to carry out our Stoic duties. And that was an important philosophical revolution that made Stoicism move beyond Cynicism.

That’s like my favorite part of Stoicism, the whole Cynic origin and how it evolved. The physics stuff is also interesting. Massimo discusses what the Stoics got right with regard to physics. They got the universal cause-effect right, they got materialism right, and I, personally, think they were right about free will being compatible with a deterministic universe (I don’t really like the term “free will,” I like “self-control” better). The Stoic Chrysippus was a bit obsessed with trying to prove that the universe was determined and basically formalized propositional logic in an attempt to use it to prove determinism and free will compatibilism. Interesting story, propositional logic disappeared from history until the logician Gottlob Frege basically reinvented it in the 19th/20th century.

My second favorite part about Stoicism is that it uses an awesome origin story for how virtue is the only good. It reminds me of Piaget’s theory of childhood development. The Stoic Hierocles’ discusses this concept of oikeiosis, which means familiarization or concern or love, and the idea is that when we’re young we care a lot about our own survival but as we grow we learn to love our parents or our family. And as time goes on we make friends and then we begin to care about our own community, and this logically extends to concern or love of humanity. The whole idea is that humans blossom like flowers do. Obviously things can go wrong and flowers might not blossom, which is the same for humans. But the Stoics seemed to believe in this natural predisposition to become outwardly concerned with everyone as well as our community, family, or ourselves. Some might think this is ridiculous and think you can’t get an ought from an is. But I’ll tell you one thing, I feel like there’s something about the familiarization/love/concern story that makes it seem like a very good candidate for getting an ought from an is.

So why am I going on and on about all these things I love about Stoicism? Because the providence or galactic organism doesn’t matter to me as much as these other ideas. Also, I don’t think it’s a huge loss to exchange amor fati for enduring and renouncing. But, guess what? I’m not entirely sold on the idea that the universe isn’t sentient in some form. I do wonder if it could be sentient in some manner. I feel like it’s still too early to say the universe is cold and indifferent. Like, it seems like the laws of physics have to have some kind rhyme or reason behind them. You never know what we’ll discover.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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