“Why would you embrace Stoicism? What about your humanity?

I’ve run into this charge several times. Inevitably, people who know only a little bit about Stoicism will say something like the above, as if, by being a Stoic, I am “severing a part of myself,” to paraphrase one of my interlocutors, or that I am “disdaining my humanity,” to paraphrase another. This is all quite typical of the charges leveled against Stoicism; that it is cold, inhuman, overly rational, disdainful of emotions, yada yada yada. What I would like to do in this post is first examine some possible motivations for making these accusations, and second, analyze whether or not such claims are accurate.

In the first place, I sense two things behind such accusations. The first is an emotional revulsion against the idea of “suppressing” (note the scare quotes) our emotions. The second is a kind of envy, mixed with incredulity of an obnoxious kind. The first thing – that is, the revulsion against emotional suppression – arises simply from ignorance of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism does not seek to turn us into emotionless automata, any more than Epicureanism seeks to turn us into hedonistic degenerates. Rather, Stoicism embraces control of the emotions, by means of reason. This leads into the second motivation, which is a simple case of envy, mixed with incredulity. The vulgar person sees the advice of Stoics and says, “No one can possibly do that. Nobody can let go of things outside of their control. Why, these Stoic types are just bluffing. They’re pretentious. They act as if they’re in control of themselves, but they’re really not, because nobody is.” It’s as if the person in question believes that Stoicism is impossible because he, himself, cannot stomach the idea of self-control in any form whatsoever. When a person without self-control sees a person who has it, he immediately feels two things. The first thing he feels is envy, because he lacks self-control and cannot stand to see someone who doesn’t. The second thing he feels is incredulity, because he generalizes from his own case; “If I can’t control myself, then it’s obvious that nobody can, and anyone who claims to is just pretending.”

Now, as to whether these accusations are accurate. This is a more difficult question, because it turns on a fine distinction between two senses of the word, “humanity.” Does a Stoic lose his “humanity?” It depends on the sense of the word. If “humanity” means “emotions in general,” then no, Stoics do not lose their humanity. They merely learn how to control it. If “humanity” means the uncontrolled expressions of their emotions, and the surrender of all rational control to emotional impulses, then yes, we Stoics lose our “humanity.”

Yes, you read that right. I am reminded of a quote from Karl Kraus:”When a man is treated like a beast, he says, ‘After all, I’m human.’ When he behaves like a beast, he says ‘After all, I’m only human.'” Do you see the problem? Too often, “humanity” is used as an excuse for people to undergo the worst kinds of self-indulgence. If that’s what “humanity” is, then good riddance.


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