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From Vol. 3, Issue 6, June 2021

Stoic Sages vs. Stoics-to-be


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“On the one hand we have the crowning heights of sagehood, on the other there are the daily doldrums of the work of selfimprovement. ”

Stoic contradictions

Henryk Elzenberg once wrote that a part of the allure of Stoicism is that it is “full of subtle, sophisticated contradictions”. I like this point and I like to study these contradictions since I believe that the power of ideas comes from an openminded study of their weak points rather than from pretending that they don’t exist. The Stoic paradox I’d like to discuss today is the tension between the concept of a Stoic sage and the rest of us, that is the merely aspiring Stoics-to-be.

The Stoic sage

The Stoic sage is a position unattainable in life yet easily comprehensible in theory. A sage is a person who has mastered all the teachings of Stoicism and who truly follows them. And even more than that. A sage has actually transformed herself and made the Stoic principles her own principles. She ultimately reinvented herself as a Stoic.

Importantly, in Stoicism a sage is not just a motivational story or a vague promise of some kind. The concept of a sage is deeply embedded in the root of the doctrine.

Think of the Stoic concept of virtue for instance. It’s an either-or, all-or-nothing type of concept. You either have it all, or you don’t at all. You have been patient (brave, resilient etc.) enough or haven’t. The same holds for the sage. You either are one, or you are not. You either have transformed yourself completely or you haven’t. The ancients put the matter quite starkly. If you fall short of being a sage – then you are a fool, no matter how close to sagehood you came. The ancients didn’t like degrees or shades of gray.

The ‘all or none’ approach

The problem – of course – is that such approach is not particularly relevant to daily life. Daily life is teeming with contradictions even more than theory is and it doesn’t fall neatly into sharp categories. The ancient Stoic promise that if you once become a sage then you are a sage forever may look good on paper, but it never works in actual life. It’s never part of an actual day-to-day experience.

Two basic problems

The problem is twofold here. First, no one really attains sagehood ever because it is too difficult. The bar is too high; the proposed standards are almost impossible to live by. And this is something that the ancients knew well and they made it explicit in their writings. Cato was a true sage back in the good ol’ days but Seneca is merely a Stoic wannabe – it is Seneca who wrote in this fashion himself.

cling to Stoicism are, well, moments. I don’t know about you but in my own experience I ascend to the elated level of Stoic bliss only now and then. And these are ascents really. Each of them comes after a period of long exertion, the moment on the top is brief, and then the unavoidable descent comes. Oftentimes it’s more like a dive, well into the deeply non-Stoic valleys of anxiety.

Am I a false Stoic?

What then? Am I a false Stoic? Are we all? On the one hand we have the crowning heights of sagehood, on the other there are the daily doldrums of the work on selfimprovement. The thing is that we need to somehow stick to both. After all the ancients themselves wrote a lot on the necessity of painstaking, day-to-day moral progress. But how are the two views agreeable? Do I work slowly on my path to sagehood only to reach some kind of epiphany at some point which makes me a perfect Stoic forever? If this is so, let it be clear that I haven’t reached it yet. Or maybe we need to change the picture and think of the moral perfection not as a pinnacle that we aspire to but more like a spatialtemporal object which we build step by step throughout the entire lifetime?

There is no yes-or-no answer

The meaningful answer to these dilemmas is that there is no yes-or-no answer. If we want to follow the Stoic path – which we do! – we need to make it work both ways. We need to learn to integrate these seemingly contradictory positions. We need both the timeless perfection of a sage and the daily toil which consists of trying and failing. This discrepancy is the most human experience of all and trying to grasp it in a Stoic manner means that we have just made another step towards sagehood.

Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?