Episode 1 - Tue Søvsø - Stoicism & the Pandemic


Sahana: Hi everyone! Welcome to In-Limbo Conversations. Today, we have with us Tue Søvsø. He is a doctoral scholar with the research training group 'Philosophy, Science and Sciences' at Humboldt University of Berlin and The Free University of Berlin. His primary area of research is stoicism. Also joining me today is my colleague Alan Isaac.

In our In-Limbo Conversation with Tue today, we will be talking about stoicism in relation to the pandemic situation. So, let's get right into it.

Alan: Hi! We came across, when Sahana was compiling the CoViD philosophy doc that she was telling you about, we came across your article in De Gruyter that was talking about how a Stoic would approach, what is the Stoic approach to this current pandemic and you start off by talking about virtue- what virtue is for them, what is "the good thing" in a sense. So, what is the relationship, if you could tell us, the relationship that Stoics have between virtue and happiness? And perhaps, how that helps them to navigate a situation like we have right now?

Tue: What is odd about the Stoics is that they identify being virtuous as being happy. So, they believe that the moment you become virtuous, you also become happy and happiness depends on nothing else than being virtuous. And that is quite a bold claim even in antiquity where there was, in Western thought, a broad consensus that the main ingredient of being happy would be related to how you act and that is being virtuous, acting in the right way. But most philosophers prior to the Stoics had stopped short of simply identifying acting rightly and being happy.

The Stoics took this jump which was quite significant for their philosophy but in a sense, they immediately step back from the jump as well. So, they take the bold claim that you have to act right in order to be happy and this is the only thing that determines your happiness but in the following sentence, more or less, they specify that none of us are able to achieve this kind of happiness. Because virtue is so ridiculously demanding on the Stoic conception that no known human being has ever achieved it and so, in that sense, it's a problematic ideal, even within Stoicism. But it structures, as I read their writings on virtue and on sage, a virtuous person, it structures their thought; more than setting up a real ideal for everyday action, it is a way for them to think about what, action under ideal circumstances, should look like. Is that helpful in spelling it out?

Alan: Yes. And how would that relate to them trying to navigate, say, the pandemic situation right now, or what would that happiness or that ideal virtue that structures this whole thing- how would they see that if they had to navigate a thing like this?

Tue: What I find really helpful about the Stoic conception of virtue is basically two things. First of all, it provides a standard for us to check our actions against and a standard that is based in their conception of human nature. That is, in its own way, problematic but it gives you a starting point for thinking about how you ought to act. So, the Stoics are naturalists in the sense that they take human nature, in a specific sense, to be normative for our actions. The way that we have been created, according to the Stoics, by nature puts restraints on how we should act. So that’s the one thing you can get from the Stoic conception of virtue in trying to navigate a situation- a guidance or a set of standards for how to act.

And on the other hand, I find the Stoic idea that virtue is not within our reach, at least for the vast majority of us, it is not within our reach, relieving. This idea that there are these standards that we should meet but none of us actually do - I like that combo - insisting on the normativity of these standards and the binding nature of these standards on the one hand, but at the same time, giving us a bit of leash to be human in the latter sense of being fallible. So I think that is one of things that you can take from their conception of virtue in navigating situations of crisis - and the Stoics are interesting in this respect because we have written testimony of people using this philosophical tradition in these kinds of circumstances. So, people like Cicero who is not a Stoic but very attracted to Stoicism - he uses Stoic ideas in dealing with the very troubled times he lived through, in the whole of the Roman Republic, and the Civil Wars. And later, people like Epictetus who was a former slave and finally, Marcus Aurelius who is normally regarded as the last of the Stoics, the ancient Stoics, who actually lived through a pandemic himself and lost several children. So, all people who have been living in troubled times and especially, in the writings of these, you can see that this conception of virtue has provided guidance in their everyday life.

Alan: That's quite interesting. I would like to move that a bit forward. I am pretty sure since you have been working in Stoicism for some time, you have also seen- you have probably seen something that I have come across is that a lot of self-help today tends to latch on to the Stoics and to take a lot from, a lot of self-help today is based on Stoicism- if not completely but take a lot from them. But they change it. They don't take it as it is, wholesome, they take certain aspects of it and so, if we could talk about that- because that also relates to the pandemic as well because I have come across- I have seen a lot of articles which talk about how to deal with the pandemic as a Stoic or how Marcus Aurelius went through the pandemic. There is a lot of that. I would like to talk about the whole connection that we, as modern-day people seem to have, our inclination towards self-help and why we look towards, say, Stoicism for certain things. So, there is this fabled idea of Stoics as self-reliant and you know, inward and quelling all passions through reason. There is this stable idea of them that is well-known, and generally this is the idea that you put out as a Stoic. But then there is also this less well-known gregariousness of theirs - they have this certain kind of outwardness - like you were talking about in the beginning, the nature of human. I think there is this term they have - oikeiôsis - that is kind of affinity, the larger affinity that they have to that. So, in the modern understanding, that is kind of something that is almost opposed to each other- how can someone who is so self-reliant also have this idea? So, as modern people, what are we missing there? How does it connect for the Stoics and what are we, from a modern perspective, missing out on?

Tue: Thank you. That is actually a really interesting question. It is one of the things that has been, that actually got me into Stoic studies- the curiosity about these questions. I think- I must say- I am not awfully well-acquainted with modern Stoicism but-

Alan: I wouldn't say "modern Stoicism" but what we see as Stoicism. Like, the modern idea of Stoicism more than-

Tue: Modern appeals to Stoicism, perhaps, is more correct. I think one thing that is very prominent is, I should point out, is this dichotomy of control- this idea is very central to Stoic thinking and is connected to the conception of virtue that we started out discussing- this idea that since the only thing that matters is how you act, you should focus only on how you act. And this ties in with their physics and their conception of nature as a whole, that the only thing that you can control is how you act and everything external to your agency is outside of your control and therefore, you should also let go of it. So, then you should only focus on your actions and keeping them right. And I think there is a real danger in taking that idea out of its complete Stoic context- I think you are absolutely right there- the Stoics were famous as well for insisting that their philosophy constitutes a system.

There is this famous claim in Cicero that goes that you cannot remove a single brick from the great construction of Stoicism without all of it falling together, right? And I think there is a lot of truth in that actually. Because one thing, at least I often miss in modern appeals to Stoicism, is the conception of the self which is behind this dichotomy of control. So, I think you can, taken out of context, the claim that you should only worry about your actions, and how you act, can be construed in a very individualistic way. So, basically, you can read it, if you want, as an exhortation to simply mind your own business, right? And you can- because of the infamous Stoic doctrine of indifference, their claim that everything but your agency is indifferent to your happiness including your relations with other people. Because of that infamous claim, you can read the Stoics as actually telling you to mind your own business and try to become completely independent of the external world. But in Stoicism, the thing that actually guards against that, I think, is their conception of the self. If they have such a thing, it's- I am aware that it is a problematic term, so maybe I should rephrase and instead of saying their 'conception of the self', more- their 'conception of human nature' and you are right there, that a very pervasive feature of that conception is the claim that humans are not only gregarious, because bees and ants are as well but they are social and I think they take this to be just as essential for their conception of human nature as the claim that we are rational. And it is the claim that we are rational that supports their claim that we have control over our actions. But the claim that we are social, as I read their philosophy, is the claim that limits this claim about happiness only depending on your rational agency, in the sense that, you are bound on the Stoic conception of human nature to interact with the world, and you are an embodied and engaged subject in the world and I think that is something that is often missed when you focus too much on the practical ethics of Stoicism because it informs their practical ethics but it's not easily integrated into modern categories and modern interpretative schemes- the way that this conception of nature informs their practical ethics. So, I think it is a very fascinating question- exactly how they spell this out- and it is quite- it is one of the things that I am struggling a lot with, in my doctoral thesis. I think one thing that is very central to this Stoic conception is the idea that they don't, in contrast to modern conceptions of sociability, they don't conceive of us humans as subjects in the first instance, with clear boundaries- I take them to have a fluid idea of what it means to be a human being.

So, the- you mentioned the Stoic theory of oikeiôsis, and I take- one of the basic claims of that theory actually to be that we feel attachment towards ourselves. And that is how I would translate oikeiôsis. So, the idea that the moment we are born, nature has created us in a way that makes us sense ourselves, that there is something there and to feel attached to that something. But a further claim that is part of that theory, is that we also sense the world around us and that this feeling of attachment that we feel towards ourselves results automatically in a similar attachment to other things. And it is quite controversial, of course, how strong that attachment is and that is one of the things that critics of the Stoics, particularly in antiquity, started questioning. Because obviously, you are attached in different degrees to even different parts of yourself- your hair and nails mean less to you than your legs and arms. But I take the Stoic claim that we are social to be actually, that we are social beings, to be that our feelings of attachment towards others are in principle just as strong as our feelings of attachment towards ourselves. And the moment you realise that- I think you can start understanding how you can combine this care for your own self or your own happiness with genuinely sociable lifestyle because if part of taking care of your own happiness is the taking care of happiness of others or part of your self is your social network and the world that you are a part of. Taking care of your own happiness means taking care of others and the world, just in the same way it means taking care of your own organs. I think this is a very central tenet in Stoicism and it's- I agree with you-it's often missed when we talk about Stoicism and especially, when we talk about applied Stoicism in our modern context-because it is so foreign to us- starting with the individual-

Alan: The interesting point you bring up is we don't really investigate the idea of the self, roughly speaking, or at least like you said, the conception of human nature as we have, versus what the Stoics had, and that is something that I don't think gets any investigation in the modern day for example. I think that is quite interesting.

I will be honest. Because I kind identify with Stoics a bit, I do have a bit of a crusade against this modern bastardization of the Stoics. I am going to stick with that line a bit, if you don't mind.

Tue: Yes.

Alan: There is also this idea that people have that Stoicism is kind of like a fatalism. I think we touched on this when you told us before that there is this idea that Stoicism is fatalism where you just sit back and take what comes to you and especially, with the pandemic, I have seen a few articles, I have seen a few videos, there are lot of YouTube videos nowadays, where people just go like 'Stoicism just means that you sit back and take what comes.' Is that really the case with the historic Stoics, were they the kind of people who would just sit back and be like 'This is my fate. Let me accept.' or were they bit different?

Tue: So, that is one of these interesting paradoxes in Stoicism. You have this really strong doctrine of fate and the belief that everything is determined. It's a really deterministic system and you can't fight it in a sense, so you might as well accept it. This is often illustrated with this famous picture of a dog that is tied to the car and it can choose either to follow or to resist and no matter what, it's dragged behind the car. But that picture is not by a Stoic writer. It is a Christian describing the Stoics and we have no means of making sure it is from a Stoic text. It is not obvious that he did. But I think you are absolutely right. I think it is a very tempting reading of the Stoics at the first sight but again I think it should be resisted. I think you are right there. It is also one of my personal crusades- the first one is the individualistic reading of Stoicism that you mentioned in your previous question and the second one is this one and I think most researchers in Stoic studies would agree that that is not the way to read them. Susan Bobzien, in her book on Stoic determinism, is at the neck of the argument about why this is not the way it should be. So, that's the technical formulation of why they are not committed to fatalism, although they are determinists. But I think there is actually a simpler way of putting it. The central notion in Stoic ethics is this idea of your agency or how you act- they call it your impulses. So, the idea that you should control your impulses in the right way and the moment you succeed to perfection in controlling them, you are virtuous. But most of us aren't but we have control of our impulses as rational beings and therefore we can actually go some way in controlling them and setting them straight so that they become natural in the Stoic sense so they come into accord with human nature and again I think this is the right perspective to view this question in Stoicism. So, everything is determined and, in that sense, you might as well just lean back and accept your fate? But on the other hand, part of what is determined is also that you have been created as a human being with impulses and reason to control those impulses and therefore, it is also part of your fate to act and on the same note, it is part of your fate to act with reason. So, it is part of your fate to think about how you ought to act and to do your best to act rationally and I think this removes the fatalism from the Stoic picture in a sense. You can't just accept part of the package that has to do with everything already having been determined because you don't have access to that grand scheme of nature. You don't know what is determined, you have only been given a partial perspective, as an imperfect rational being and not a God. So what you have to do if you want to accept the natural order is to act in the way that nature has created you and that is to have impulses, that is to care for others. Because you are a social being, you are a part of the world and you show care towards the world. I think that is actually one of the things I took with me from my supervisor in Copenhagen- that this idea of care is extremely central to understanding the whole Stoic perspective. This care is simply a part of human nature and animal nature in general. Because we have that instinct, we have this inclination to show care. This is actually what the theory of oikeiôsis is supposed to argue Because we have that from nature, we have to do so and that is also part of fate. Yah. Does that?

Alan: So if you were to pull out something practical that we can apply nowadays, you could say that the Stoics do not tell us to completely sit back but that you have a duty, an imperative to act and to help your fellow people which again, like you said, goes back to our last question. It is part of the larger thing that you have to be part of the society and you have to help the others in order to help yourself. Your happiness comes from a larger system and from a larger society where people are there. So I think if people were to look at the Stoics, I think this is a much better message than the message that generally gets put out, where you just sit back and do that. If you actually go and see- you realise that to really be happy, you have go out and help others and be part of the world. I wonder why that message doesn't come out as much.

Tue: I agree. I like these Stoics, my Stoics- as I read them- better. I think there are few researchers on Stoicism who would disagree that this is part of their conception and that is where the conception of fate becomes constructive, in the sense that, it's in that light that you should see this idea that it is only your actions that you are responsible because nature has been made or simply is, it exists in a form where what you have been given this inclination to care and act, to reason about how you act- but you haven't been given the ability to control the outcome of your actions. So I think this is the happy message that Stoics want to convey- that you are responsible for how you act, but you are not responsible for the result of your actions, at least not fully responsible. There are plenty of external factors that could determine the result of your actions and you are not responsible for those but you are responsible for reacting and that is what in the end matters- both for your happiness and for the moral value of your action. To finish the thought about fatalism, I think I would, to some degree, agree that they were fatalists but, in the sense, that they were realistic about our abilities as humans. The basic spirit informing their ethics is the idea that you should accept the world as it is- that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to improve it, but the basic mood in Stoicism is ‘Don't be too ambitious in trying to change the world because that's outside your control- you are in charge of your impact on the world and that is what you should care about’. I think this a more correct way of looking at their fatalism.

Alan: I do like this version of the Stoics a bit more. It is a lot more rounded. I wish this was put out in the forefront a bit more than what we generally get. Why do you feel like the modern day self-help industry or even us, humans, because we consume it- why do you think we tend to move towards the Stoic ideals as much as we do- because we have to kind of agree that it's popular, it's not something underground, it's quite popular, something that gains traction quite a bit, especially in the last few years. Is there anything you see about us, and about our modern world that probably pushes us towards that, especially like in moments of crisis like we have right now?

Tue: Actually, I thought a lot about that and I haven't really reached any good answers. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it. I think one thing that plays into it is that you can read it in very individualistic terms- so, it fits in well with the whole idea of the way that you achieve virtue is through exercise and that ties in nicely with a broader idea in, at least in Western societies, about this sort-of self-perfection. There is this idea that your main project in life is improving yourself, being the best version of yourself and so on. At least in a very selective reading, it fits in nicely with this idea. I agree with you that it is a very dubious way of reading the Stoics because they have a pretty strong conception of human nature and what they take to be significant, the thing that you should improve, is exactly the things that make you human- the generic human nature, not your individual nature. While they acknowledge that humans are different and that you should accept your strengths and weaknesses as an individual, the elements of your nature that they take to be normative are the ones you share, according to the Stoic, with every other member of the species. I share your concern about the interest that is being shown in Stoicism, at least in some of it, to the extent that when we only take part of the package and you focus on this self-improving element, you at least run into the danger of ignoring what I would take to be the more important message of Stoicism- the cosmopolitanism. The idea that humans are social beings, the idea of responsibility towards others and society and the world as a whole. A lot of people who take an interest in Stoics and Stoicism acknowledge these aspects of Stoicism as being important and they welcome these aspects of their thinking. But I agree with you that it is often not recognised just how central these are to Stoicism and in my reading of the Stoics, these are actually the most central parts of their philosophy.

Alan: I love how the idea ties in with this individualistic notion that we seem to have in this modern day. Do you think that has anything to do with the modern idea of masculinity that we have? It's very skewed towards male groups, they have this very strong Stoic identity where, in literature also, there are description of heroes and men as Stoic. That probably also feeds into these ideas very well.

Tue: This is also a very paradoxical part of Stoic legacy. On the one hand, you have this in the ancient traditions as well, with Cato the Younger throwing himself on the sword rather than submitting to Caesar and the idea of hero cult, soldier morality. I think Stoicism has definitely been used for these ideas during the centuries and probably still is today. I believe that it has also tentatively at least been introduced in military and police training in some countries. But it is paradoxical because, like you mentioned, that this is very tied to traditional idea about masculinity but for the Stoics, they were actually pretty keen on pointing out that generic human nature is shared across sexes- both sex and gender. So, they simply don't recognise either biological sex or gender or any other social roles as morally relevant distinctions. In that sense, we can learn so much more from them. They are much more progressive. I don't identify as a Stoic but they had really interesting ways of thinking about these questions and they did reach some conclusions that I am personally in agreement with. It is puzzling how they came to occupy this role in modern discourse and you are right that this strand in modern interest in Stoicism that goes more towards a very traditional and conservative idea.

Alan: You made a great point about how we can learn to be more progressive from them. Most of the stuff that I have read about Stoics is how they have been very progressive, how some of them would sot of raise their voice against slavery or fight for equality of genders. It is quite interesting to think about why only a certain thing is filtered down and why the rest doesn't seem to have space in our modern discourse.

Tue: There is a note on that. I think it's actually also part of the ancient Stoic legacy. So it's their own fault, so to say, to some degree at least- because I think it ties in with their doctrine of indifference. On the one hand, they insist that these socially constructed or social roles are indifferent- in this sense, you can combine Stoicism with ideas about social constructivism and so on. But on the other hand, calling them indifferent could also mean- why try to change it? And this is a problematic part, especially of the Roman Stoic legacy- that the people who raised their voice against slavery in their writings tend to be slave owners themselves, who didn't go out afterwards and free their slaves. My favourite example is Marcus Aurelius who writes these really wonderful meditations about the community of humankind and for all we know, he might have gone just directly out of the tent and order the massacre of thousands of Germanic wives and children- because he was on that campaign while writing the Meditations. So, I think this is an inherent part of the Stoic legacy as well- this doctrine of indifference is very problematic. On the one hand, it lets you question all kinds of institutions and yourself as well- you question your own values and priorities but on the other hand, it does encourage you to not care about the things you are supposed to be indifferent to.

Alan: So, my interest with all of this is partially because I kind of work with narrative and how narratives work in larger contexts and smaller contexts and one of the interesting things for me is seeing how an idea travels through the ages, if you will. In that sense, it is quite interesting. As you keep pointing out, it is very paradoxical. Not only the positions that they have but also what filters down the ages to us and all of those things and that's pretty interesting. Thank you for that. I would like to end with, like I just have one more question, and I would like to end on a light note, jolly note by talking about death.

You can't escape death if you want to talk about Stoicism. It is foundational to them I guess and to relate it to the present-day, a lot of people look at Stoicism to deal with feelings of or thoughts of death or actual deaths in their lives, of their loved ones. In this context, another thing you see levelled against Stoicism is the idea that it's callous or apathetic at best but also, at its worst, it's romantic, it's glorifying death in certain senses. That's another perception that people have about Stoicism. What do you feel about that?

Tue: That is actually part of the reason why I work on Cicero and his engagements with Stoicism because I think he is one of the ancient writers who discussed these issues with most sensitivity. I think he has great sensibility to these questions, to the problematic character of these questions. I think regarding their attitude to death- of course, they are infamous for claiming that it's indifferent and so, you should try to train yourself or accustom yourself to the idea of your death so that you do not place so much significance on it. Their interest in death is mainly motivated by death being really the major human concern, especially in a society like the ancient Western European societies where it was omnipresent. Marcus Aurelius losing his kids and of course, in Seneca, there is all this material on how to deal with death. On one hand, I find their approach very inspiring- it is part of what I sensed might be useful in dealing with a pandemic as well- this idea that instead of trying to repress or otherwise get rid of your negative emotions, the Stoic idea, as I read it, is that you should try to accept it and try to develop them in a constructive direction. So on one hand, they would grant that fear of death is natural because it is obviously against our natural instinct- we try to avoid death- in that sense, death is natural, our fear of death is natural. But at the same time, dying is also part of our fate, so we should accept it as well. The way they claim that we can do so is by working with our conceptions. So this is how I read the Stoic spiritual exercises- when you have this negative emotion, the fear of death, what you should try to do is not to get rid of it, you should try to exercise the way you entertain that thought, that fear. So, you should try to move yourself towards a view that death is not something bad or terrible. It's something that you should try to avoid but which you cannot avoid always and forever- so you should also accept it as a fact. I like this this approach and I think it has a lot of possibility, in the sense that, they insist that this is something that takes daily exercise and it is very hand-on. Every time you feel this fear, you should try working with it, reformulating it in more constructive terms. On the other hand, I think Cicero was quite right in pointing out that this might just be too simple a view of the human psyche. This is what I take his main criticism against Stoicism to be and the reason why he sometimes sides with Platonism instead. For the Stoics, if you succeed in changing your value judgments, you have completely changed your behaviour because the only thing that determines your behaviour are the impressions that you have and the impulses that follow from them. So, it all happens in one place. And against that, Plato of course claimed that soul has actually three parts that can motivate action, so there are more factors that can influence how you act and feel. This is what Cicero draws on- there is this wonderful passage in Book V of his Tusculan [Questions] where he puts this in the sense that the Stoic conception of virtue and that the supremacy of reason controlling our action, the sole importance of reason creates a wonderful picture and when you hear it, you hear these descriptions, you are completely convinced. But the moment you turn away and you feel real pain, you realise that it is only a picture. I can sympathise with that- on one hand, the Stoic approach is really promising and very powerful tool, for the negative emotion and on the other hand, I wonder whether, through introspection, whether it is enough to completely change my emotions. I think this approach is powerful but it underestimates the importance of bodily influences and instinctual reactions. Paradoxical, because that is the starting point of their theory- that we have these instincts but I think they overestimate our power to control these instinctual reactions.

Alan: Thank you Tue, because I think through discussing with him, I am hoping that people can see that there is more to Stoicism than, which is already rewarding, whatever is out there but if you really go into it, there is probably even more that you can pull out and I would like to thank Tue for showing us that and talking us through that.

Tue: Thank you both of you for giving me this opportunity to talk about it and for your wonderful questions. I really enjoyed it. It was very interesting as well.

Alan: Hopefully it lets people deal and think about our present situation a bit more. It was wonderful. Thank you!


Read more about Tue Søvsø's research at: https://ancient-philosophy.hu-berlin.de/en/ancient-philosophy/people/students/people/students/people/students/tuesovso.

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