Reading about Stoicism, I have encountered a criticism to which I cannot form a strong counter-argument. Did anyone or can anyone provide a rebuttal to the following argument against Stoicism?

There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can't be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and, in a bad world, useful; but it is neither quite true nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (The PDF link will take a few minutes to load.)

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    Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to tell us a little more about why 'rebutting' stoicisim might have become interesting to you? – Joseph Weissman Jan 1 '14 at 17:53
  • Well I may be poking at the state of happiness as telos, which as you know, I am not in a position to say... – Adam Uraynar Jan 1 '14 at 18:00
  • In so far as the author's (is it Russell? You might say so) argument is not included, it's harder to rebut, until you include it. I take it you're looking for a stoic endorsements of it not mattering if we are unhappy and of their own sincerity. – ChristopherE Jan 1 '14 at 18:19
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The natural rebuttal to Russell here is that he has misunderstood the Stoic understanding of Happiness. In choosing their actions and goods in a principle of "Rational decision in accordance with nature", Stoics do not deny what would make them happy. Happiness for the Stoics just is making that choice willfully.

Perhaps Russell might be right were he to say that rational decisions in accordance with nature may not give as much scope for pleasure, in a sense in which pleasure extends to things like delight and lust. But for the Stoic, that's not a real kind of happiness. You can still as a Stoic enjoy, for example, food, substances and pursuits in accordance with your own personal nature, without being dominated by the passions that might drive us to pursue these things at the expense of other aspects of our natural selves. Giving in to temptation, while maybe fun, doesn't ultimately yield true happiness, which the Stoics would say is reached through rational choice rather than impulse.

(SEP Stoicism)

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    I believe the Stoic sage is interested in obtaining 'ataraxia' or tranquility like the Epicureans and the Pyrrhonians. However, unlike them, they believed it is obtained by 'apatheia' or absence of passion. – Michael Lee Jun 21 '14 at 23:35

I think Russell is right. Stoicism is balm for people when they are experiencing unhappiness. The only criticism of Russell's statement could be that he doesn't make this point at the outset, but initially angles that it could be useful to all and then finds fault. This is what the causal curious reader would find upon picking up a book on Stoicism. It would be better if they knew it as a remedy from the outset.

The extract says:

There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can't be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and, in a bad world, useful; but it is neither quite true nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere.

The second sentence doesn't follow from the first; simply because one is good, does not imply that being unhappy doesn't matter; it maybe that the stoics were saying that by being good one can be happy, or rather contented; or it maybe that the stoics were saying that being good is within ones own hands, whereas being happy has an element of chance, fortune and circumstance; which is in no mans hands, but the gods.

It seems likely, too, we ought to distinguish between the stoics use of the word good, and the Christian conception of this; particularly as he grew up in a Christian household.

Its also not clear to me, that Russell was particularly taken by the Antiquity, at least when I read this book he skipped through antiquity at quite a rapid rate.

Russell's own life and experience seem to be quite pertinent. His own liberally- minded parents died when he turned four, leaving him (against his parent's wishes) in the care of a despotic Victorian grandmother, so repressed that he could not bring himself to ask were the bathroom was, when he wrote his Oxbridge entrance exams at sixteen. He remained a severely repressed virgin into his twenties. The discovery of sex and physical pleasures was a joy that he enthusiastically celebrated almost to the end of his life, at 98. The opening sentence to the "What I have Lived For" Prologue to his 3 volume Autobiography is: "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." He goes on to make it very clear that the love he is talking about is erotic and physical (though his marriages and other liaisons do include strong intellectual components).

Thus, Russell's very fundamental values, especially in their development as a reaction to Victorianism would tend to oppose the tenets of stoicism and related creeds of self-repression. Fundamentally, especially as we come to ever more fully appreciate the falseness of the mind-body dichotomy at the root of much of philosophy, I find myself in substantial agreement with Russell.

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    While biographically interesting, there seems to be little mention of how one might counter Russell's criticism of stoicism in this. – virmaior Jun 27 '16 at 0:24

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