By Chet Yarbrough
The Practicing Stoic
By: Ward Farnsworth
Narrated by John Lescault
Ward Farnsworth (Author, Dean of the University of Texas School of Law)
No one is a stoic. At best, Ward Farnsworth argues one can only be a “practicing” stoic.
Who among us is a stoic? Who is free from passion, and unmoved by joy or grief? Possibly a psychopath. Who can supersede natural laws? No one. To live as a sentient being entails passion, joy, grief, and experience of things beyond our control.
Only a computer can be passionless, relentlessly reasonable, and programmed to acknowledge things beyond its control. In theory, a computer may be programmed to be a stoic. Farnsworth explains–a human will only be able to “practice” stoicism. Farnsworth notes no human is preternaturally capable of being a stoic.
The question is why would anyone want to practice stoicism? Farnsworth infers the practice of stoicism offers potential for living a good and fulfilling life.
Farnsworth explains one becomes a “practicing” stoic in the realization that death comes to all human beings.
However in being a practicing stoic, Farnsworth notes–humans can only strive to be morally good. Why does a stoic strive to be morally good? Farnsworth explains in being morally good, one gains peace of mind. Peace of mind offers happiness or what the classical Greeks called eudaimonia. In a practicing stoic’s view of living, it matters not whether one is rich or poor.
Here is where capitalists gag, the homeless scowl, and the poor spit. Having peace of mind is easier when one is rich. As Farnsworth notes, one might agree but he notes many who are rich are not happy.
One asks oneself, how happy can the homeless and abject poor be? Farnsworth suggests the rich never think they are rich enough. Fair enough, but the rain, cold, and desert sun have little affect on the rich.
Farnsworth explains the stoic argues “what we think” is key, whether rich or poor. The practicing stoic believes wealth, poverty, and life are ephemeral. Farnsworth implies knowledge of life’s temporality sets one free. Free to what? Reject the cold or heat of the sun when you are homeless? It is difficult to see how the homeless and poor can achieve peace of mind by changing “what they think” about the cold and heat or a hard bench in the park.
Farnsworth’s rejoinder might be that a practicing stoic would only be concerned about what they can control, not what they cannot.
That seems disingenuous because weather is an example of a life circumstance that is out of one’s control. Nature detrimentally affects the homeless and poor, regardless of how they think about it.
There is also the question of free will. Humans choose a path when opportunity knocks. Some choose to take opportunity; others pass. The stoic answers yes, we choose but the result is either/or–happiness or trial (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy).
One either seeks happiness or trial based on their choice. Farnsworth explains the stoic returns to the goal of happiness based on thinking and acting morally. If all humans were practicing stoics, one might argue there would be no homelessness or poverty. World history shows no culture exhibits that characteristic. It begs the question of “thinking differently” offering “peace of mind” when it is zero or one hundred ten degrees outside.
Does recognition of ephemerality achieve happiness? Farnsworth says not in and of itself because recognizing ephemerality of life and circumstance requires moral thought and action.
Reality is that thought and action require a minimal level of human economic security. Economic security is talked about by governments but rarely implemented.
Farnsworth notes many contradictions in the history of stoicism. He notes how a leading proponent of stoicism, Seneca the Younger, is incredibly rich when stoics abjure wealth. Seneca consulted Nero who was one of the most corrupt leaders of Rome. Seneca talked the talk of a classical practicing stoic, but did he live it? How can Seneca be an exemplar of stoicism when he counseled a brutal dictator, owned slaves, and lived in luxury?
Farnsworth suggests the history of Seneca is too unclear to offer an answer. Seneca may have been a moderating influence on Nero. He may have counseled Nero to act morally without success. He may have used his wealth to benefit society. This is not a very defensible argument, but it is consistent with a belief that one can, at best, only be a practicing Stoic.
Farnsworth offers a good understanding of the history of stoicism and the stoic philosophy in “The Practicing Stoic” but it seems more attuned to those who have than those who have-not. Interestingly, Farnsworth teaches law which gives some understanding of how and why a lawyer should represent the guilty as well as the innocent. It is a matter of practicing stoicism.
The best one may gather from Farnworth’s history of the stoics is that those who-have may realize how important it is to be more helpful to those who have-not. When homelessness and poverty are eliminated, a stoic philosophy offers great appeal.