Friday, August 8, 2008

The Stoic Path: Suffering

My previous post solicited a question: "Can a Stoic be happy by preventing needless suffering?" My answer to this was, yes. Of course there is a Stoic twist (please see the response for the fuller argument). The twist is a variation to the Stoic response to one of the most profound existential human questions: Why do bad things happen to good people?

The Stoic response to this is always a shocker for the non-Stoic. The Stoic inverts the question by denying the premise. Bad things do not and cannot happen to good people, because good people are immune from harm.

The Stoic response begins by asking what it is we mean by the concepts of good and bad. For the non-Stoic something is good if it makes us feel good (physically or emotionally). Something is bad if it makes us feel physically or emotionally bad. In other words good things and bad things are things that turn on feelings or on physical sensations. These feelings and sensations are most often identified with pleasures and pains. But Stoics never identify pleasures or pains with the concepts of good or bad.

The Stoic reserves the term good for that which is truly good. And that which is truly good is that which is truly beautiful. And that which is truly beautiful is that which is truly perfect. And that which is truly perfect is nature and nature's law. And the first duty of the Stoic is to live according to nature and nature's law. When we do this we appreciate and understand that what is truly good about good people is the fact that what is fully human in us is the same perfect natural law that is at the center of what defines our human nature. Because that law is perfect it is immutable and immune from harm. This is so because something that is truly perfect cannot be changed. Bad things cannot happen to good people because truly good people are invincible from these sorts of harms. By the same token, that which is good in us is also immune from suffering, because that which is most human in us is governed by a law that cannot be altered, distorted, maimed or destroyed.

Russell McNeil is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained

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