Sunday, 4 January 2015

Tough Luck


Originally published in The Philosophers’ Magazine as part of a themed section on luck (2011), I was asked to write something about Stoic attitudes towards luck.

There is a sense in which all of Stoic philosophy is about luck. Strictly speaking this is not true, of course, as the ancient Stoics developed a philosophical system addressing a wide range of topics (from logic to politics, astronomy, and grammar), but if one were forced to try to summarize the general thrust of Stoicism in just a few words it would be tempting to say that it is most concerned with luck.

Let me try to flesh this out some more. Like the majority of other ancient philosophers the Stoics are eudaimonists and so the goal of their philosophy is happiness or wellbeing. The way in which the Stoics think we can achieve wellbeing is by looking closely at our relationship with the external world and at the way in which we ascribe value to things. In particular they suggest that we ought never to ascribe value to external objects, situations, or even people. The only thing that has genuine value for the Stoics (or ‘goodness’ in their technical terminology) is virtue, which might be glossed as an excellent internal mental state. Conversely the only thing that is truly bad is having a terrible mental state. By happy coincidence, our internal mental state is practically the only thing that we can claim to have any control over, the Stoics suggest, making our wellbeing completely within our grasp. All those other things like wealth, success, health, and family that fate, fortune, and luck can withhold from us or take from us turn out to be completely unnecessary for a happy and good life. The essence of Stoicism, then, is the claim that in order for us to achieve happiness or wellbeing we must completely rethink our notion of luck.

In particular the Stoics suggest that we ought to reject our everyday notion of ‘bad luck’. Usually we talk in terms of being unlucky or having bad luck when some unfortunate event occurs, or something we hold to be valuable is taken away from us, or even when we fail to attain something that we hold to be valuable. In short we think we experience bad luck when we lose or fail to attain some external that we think can contribute to our happiness. According to the Stoics such negative judgements are wholly misplaced for no external object or state of affairs can either bring us happiness or impinge on our happiness. Only our internal mental state can do that. Once we have the correct mental state we shall realize that these supposed instances of ‘bad luck’ are no such thing; indeed, they ought to be of no consequence to us at all.

If one accepts this way of thinking then it is equally so that there is no such thing as ‘good luck’. When we say that someone is lucky or has experienced good luck we suppose that something of real value has been gained or retained. Yet as we have seen, the Stoics will argue that this also mistakenly ascribes value to externals. I can experience neither ‘bad luck’ nor ‘good luck’ for whatever the external world might throw at me it can never take away or supply anything of genuine consequence for my happiness.

There are two ways in which one might unpack this doctrine, both of which I suspect will seem unpalatable to most modern readers. The first would be to emphasize the fact that the Stoics also believe that the universe is providentially ordered. Without going too far into Stoic cosmology and theology, for our present purposes we can simply note that the Stoics claim that everything that happens is part of a determined and providential plan expressing the will of a divine rational principle within Nature. So, if it comes pass that by beloved pet cat should die today, not only should I not be upset because the loss of my cat ought not to affect my virtue, but I should also welcome the death of my cat as a necessary part of a rational and providential divine plan. If ‘welcome’ is too strong a word, I ought at the very least calmly to accept his death today as a necessary and inevitable moment in the order of events.

A second way to read the Stoic position would be to remain agnostic about the existence of providence, as indeed a number of ancient Stoics occasionally did, and treat external events and states of affairs as just chance and random occurrences. On this reading, there is certainly no reason for me to welcome the death of my cat, or even to accept it as something necessary; I might instead see it as a completely random event. Nevertheless I still ought to remain undisturbed by his death, ever conscious of the fact that this cannot impinge on my inner virtue, which, in turn, secures my happiness.

In the first reading, there is no good or bad luck for whatever happens is the necessary product of divine providence; in the second reading there is no good or back luck because whatever happens is of no significance for us. Strictly speaking the first reading is the orthodox Stoic view, although ancient Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius do sometimes write as if adopting the second reading, either because they are trying to persuade someone who doesn’t accept the existence of providence or because they themselves are conscious of the limits of their own grasp of the way the universe works.

Many of these issues are explored in Seneca’s essay On Providence, in which he tries to answer the question why it is that good people suffer misfortunes in a supposedly providentially ordered world. As one would expect, Seneca challenges the assumption standing behind the question: “nothing bad can happen to a good man … adversity’s onslaughts are powerless to affect the spirit of a brave man”. The fact that here and throughout On Providence Seneca refers to ‘adversity’ suggests he is closer to the second reading of the Stoic position that I outlined a moment ago. Even so, Seneca goes on to argue that these adverse events not only don’t affect the virtuous but are also genuinely positive for the rest of us too. We should approach any adversity we encounter in our lives as a “training exercise”. Like wrestlers who welcome strong opponents, we too ought to welcome the challenges that life throws at us as opportunities to develop our character. What we might be inclined to think of as ‘bad luck’ should instead be embraced as valuable experience. Here Seneca comes closer to the first reading of the Stoic position, and indeed he goes on to suggest that we ought to think of these sorts of so-called adversities as not only positive but also deliberately sent by divine providence.

As Seneca develops his thoughts about the positive nature of what we might ordinarily call adversity or bad luck he suggests that it can have two distinct positive roles: it can train virtue and it can test virtue. Those of us who are a long way from having an excellent mental state (and that’s almost all of us, according the Stoics) ought to welcome adverse events as a form of training. I have already noted Seneca’s use of an analogy with wrestling but now he uses use the more graphic image of medical cautery. Poverty, hunger, or bereavement are all painful but necessary cures that will toughen us up and make us better prepared to cope with these same things in the future. It might be objected here that Seneca vacillates between the two readings of the Stoic position. If adversities such as poverty, hunger, and bereavement are not really bad at all, then why do we need to be trained to endure them? Surely we shouldn’t be thinking of these things as needing to be endured at all, if they cause us no genuine harm. That would certainly be true if we had mastered virtue, but while we are still imperfect, I take it that these sorts of events will continue to feel unwelcome for some time to come, and the sceptic will of course say that they will always feel unwelcome because they are genuine evils. But note that if one were to follow that sceptical line of thought then Seneca still has something to say to us: such adversities may well be genuine evils but if that is the case then all the more reason to train oneself to be able to bear them more effectively. The only serious training available is to suffer them first hand, so suffering them does have its benefits.

As well as training the imperfect, these adverse events also test the perfect. Seneca quotes the Cynic philosopher Demetrius: “nothing seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity”, adding himself “for he has not been allowed to put himself to the test”. We only find out who we are and what we are made of when we are put to the test. If we were never to experience any kind of bad luck in our lives then we would never know how we would respond. Only when faced with a real challenge do we find out who we really are, and that may be someone quite different from who we thought we were. In any case such adversities are an inevitable part of life, so wanting to avoid them completely simply displays a failure to grasp the nature of the real world. It is part of the human condition to be tested in this way: things will not always work out they way we would like, our plans will be thwarted some times, our loved ones will die. Given these are simply facts about the way the world works that reflect our limited power to control events, the real choice left to us is to decide whether to learn from such experiences or simply moan about them. As Seneca puts it, “disaster is virtue’s opportunity”. As for those who have never faced disaster, “no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself”.

So, Seneca suggests that truly great people will delight in bad luck, treating it as both further training and an opportunity to show their true worth. If one is minded to believe in divine providence then, given these benefits of adversity, one might even see bad luck as a gift or blessing from the gods. We should think of such tests as compliments, a bit like the soldier who is selected by his commander for an especially difficult mission.

If this sounds a bit extreme, Seneca goes even further. Not only should we welcome what we might ordinarily call bad luck; we should also shun what we usually think of as good luck: “the greatest danger comes from excessive good fortune”. The worst thing that can happen to us is to be blessed with a life of unending luxury, comfort, and wealth, for such a life would make one weak and lazy. But worst of all, the longer we experience a comfortable and easy life, the harder it will hit us when our luck finally changes, as it surely one day will.

So, turning all of our ordinary thinking about good and bad luck on its head, Seneca argues that the truly unlucky are those that have never experienced adversity. As for us, we ought not only to welcome what we ordinarily call bad luck but also be very wary of good luck. The traditional problem of evil that opens Seneca’s essay – why bad things happen if the universe is providentially ordered – simply vanishes, for those supposedly bad things are in fact of great service to us. The same thought was expressed many centuries later by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he wrote “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”. This line of thinking offers a powerful challenge to how we ordinarily think about luck, even if we might not be entirely convinced.