From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023
On responsibility in Reformed Stoicism
Responsibility as a boundary
The concept of responsibility in Stoicism is usually studied in terms of a boundary, a line between the things we are responsibility for and the things we aren’t. Another viewpoint is responsibility understood as response-ability, i.e., human ability to craft in a specific manner our response to external (and internal) stimuli, events, and occurrences. These are both insightful and inspiring avenues of thought and indeed Stoicism may be conveniently expressed in these terms. I would like, however, to put forward a bit of a different take.
Autonomy and responsibility
One – often passed over – aspect of Stoic responsibility is that it is intertwined with Stoic autonomy. What does it mean?
An important tenet of modern Stoicism – or at least my version of it, the so-called Reformed Stoicism – is that it accounts for personal freedom and choices much more so than the original doctrine had. On one hand, this is a reflection of the Zeitgeist we live in, with its appreciation of diversity and personal choices. On the other hand, it is, in my view, a consistent and logical interpretation of the ancient teaching. We ought to, after all, live in conformity with Nature.
What “Nature” is that? As readers of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, we get the impression of some kind of a universal, cosmic Nature, Nature of the universe as such, with its laws, regularities, with things being kindled and then fizzling out. The nature of humans in this picture is a common nature of us all as rational (or at least reasonable) creatures. We should all follow the same basic rules, we all share the same path to Stoicism.
Values and goals - individual choices
A vital revision in the 21st century, though, is that we need to leave more room for personal choices, preferences, and idiosyncrasies. Lawrence Becker wrote on this, arguing that there are much more ways of life agreeable with Stoicism than we usually think. The Stoics can be soldiers and poets, lawyers and workers, conservatives and liberals – all according to personal inclinations. Why is that? Because defining the values we strive to uphold and the goals we shoot at is a matter of individual choice.
The reasoning behind this is as follows. Choosing my own values and goals is – dichotomy of control! – within my power. It is me who decides it. If I intend to live by the liberal, conservative, etc. values and if I define becoming a lawyer, soldier, CEO, and so on as my goal in life – these are my choices and no one else’s. If I manage to succeed in these endeavors is not up to me, of course, but the very act of choosing them is 100 per cent within my power. The finishing touch in crafting and calibrating them is mine and mine only. It is the perfect example of how the dichotomy of control is applied.
Choice comes with responsibility
Yet it comes with responsibility! True, the choice of goals and values is mine, but mine is also the responsibility for them. Have I chosen them prudently? Are they consistent with each other? Are they consistent with my talents, skills and ambitions? Will they serve me and others? Are they legal? Are they moral? And finally: are they Stoic values and goals?
This is the basic trade-off of human life: autonomy and freedom come with responsibility. This is also a trademark of Reformed Stoicism. Part of living a Stoic life is that we largely define for ourselves what that path is and what it means to us. And it is up to us whether or not this adds up to a meaningful life.
Responsibility for the consequences
I – and only I – choose my own values and goals, but it is also me who is responsible for the results. This responsibility cannot be transferred out. We cannot rely too much on the “universal nature,” or on the cosmic harmony of things. No one will save us from responsibility. This is the lesson that the 20st century taught us and this is the sensitivity typical of life in the 21th. We have the autonomy to decide and define the path of our life – but we also take the responsibility for it.
Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, and promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?