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Ayn Rand and Stoics

Ayn Rand and Stoics

April 8, 2024

Ayn Rand and the Stoics

This article is based on a longer version published at The Prophet of Causation.

Stoicism is worth understanding because it was the dominant philosophy of the late Classical era, to the point of being expounded by the last of the Five Good Emperors at the height of Rome’s power. It was also a predecessor of Ayn Rand’s theories and possibly an influence on them, particularly in its treatment of emotions and the relationship of reason to emotion.

Yet there are some big differences, particularly one underlying theme that gives seemingly similar ideas a very different meaning in the two philosophies.

The big insight of the Stoics is the dependence of emotions on ideas. Here is Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.

This is a profound observation, so far as it goes. In The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth sums it up:

The Stoic claim, in other words, is that our pleasures, griefs, desires, and fears all involve three stages rather than two: not just an event and a reaction, but an event, then a judgment or opinion about it, and then a reaction (to the judgment or opinion). Our task is to notice the middle step, to understand its frequent irrationality, and to control it through the patient use of reason.

The point is not just that there is a middle step, but that the middle step is cognitive. It is a form of reasoning. (The Stoics are a precursor to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and frequently cited as such.)

I was particularly struck by this passage from Seneca:

Nothing is so difficult, so far out of reach, that the human mind cannot conquer it and make it familiar with constant practice; no emotions are so fierce and independent that they cannot be tamed by training….

People have learned to run on tightropes; to carry enormous burdens, scarcely within human capacity to support; to dive to immense depths and stay underneath the water with no chance to breathe. There are a thousand other instances in which persistence surmounts every obstacle, showing that nothing is difficult if the mind orders itself to endure it.

And elsewhere, “How many men train their bodies, and how few train their minds!”

There is clearly a connection here to Ayn Rand’s view that emotions are the automatized products of thinking and can ultimately be reprogrammed by changing your thinking.

We can notice some more specific parallels with Ayn Rand. The Stoics particularly opposed, as emotions based on irrational reasoning, such reactions as envy, conformity, and the desire for fame. Here is Seneca:

How much do we acquire simply because our neighbors have acquired such things, and because most men possess them!

In this respect, the character in Ayn Rand’s fiction who seems most like a Stoic, with this kind of placid indifference to fame, fortune, and the opinions of others, is Howard Roark. When Roark’s nemesis Ellsworth Toohey challenges him to “tell me what you think of me,” and Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you”—that is exactly the kind of response the Stoics would applaud.

But the Stoic philosophy is very different from Ayn Rand’s in some intriguing ways.

The foundation of the distinctive Stoic outlook is the distinction between “what is up to us” and “what is not up to us.” Here is how it is stated by Epictetus:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.

You can start to see the problem. What is up to us is only subjective feelings within our own minds, while everything else, anything having to do with the physical world, is considered entirely outside our control.

It has frequently been observed that this defeatist Stoic outlook corresponds with a collapse in the political fortunes of the Greeks. Epictetus, for example, was born into slavery. His philosophy is an attempt to cope with this loss of a sense of personal agency. Yet the Stoics applied this well beyond the context of slavery. Marcus Aurelius, after all, was an emperor. Yet the Stoics tended to think that we are all the slaves of fate.

This is the big contrast to Ayn Rand that Aaron Smith focuses on, pointing out that the Stoics were determinists. He quotes an analogy attributed to the early Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus.

When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.

Most contemporary fans of the Stoics choose to disregard this part of the philosophy. Yet the imprint of the Stoics’ original determinism is still reflected in attitudes of passivity and detachment.

“Freedom is obtained,” said Epictetus, “not by satisfying desires, but by removing them.” The Stoics advocated an attitude of detachment that can only be described as the repression of one’s normal desires. Here is a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius:

The thought might occur to us, when eating fancy foods, that “this one is the corpse of a fish, this one the corpse of a bird or a pig”; or again, that “this fancy wine is the dribble of a bunch of grapes, and this purple robe is sheep hair dyedwith shellfish blood”; or, about copulation, that “this is the rubbing of a little piece of entrail and, along with some convulsion, an excretion of mucus.” Impressions like these are the ones that penetrate to the heart of thing and let us see what they really are. We should do the same in all areas of life, and, whenever things appear too highly valued, we should lay them bare in our minds, perceive their cheapness, and strip off the prestige they have traditionally been assigned.

Think of this as the Stoics’ guide to sucking all the joy out of life.

This offers the most intriguing contrast to Ayn Rand. Her heroes usually project the same kind of serenity the Stoic is supposed to be working for, but without the attitude of detachment—in fact, while being committed with passionate intensity to the pursuit of their goals. How is that possible?

In Ayn Rand’s philosophy (as for Aristotle before her), the basic fact about human nature and the starting point of ethics is that we are goal-pursuing beings. Human life is conditional. It requires constant action in pursuit of the goals that will provide us with the things we need to survive. And the more goals we pursue, the farther and more doggedly we pursue them, the better. That is the fundamental difference between Ayn Rand and the Stoics.

The Stoics argued that if you start pursuing one goal that is beyond the “natural” bare minimum of human needs, you will then have to pursue another, and then another, and so on, so that our desires will have “no place to stop.” Ayn Rand’s answer is, in effect: Yes, but in a good way. It is good to have no limit to the height of one’s achievement, to break new ground and create new things and still not exhaust what is possible to man.

So, if we are putting everything we have into pursuing unlimited goals, does that dooms us, as the Stoics claim, to a state of constant anxiety?

In Ayn Rand’s fiction, her heroes are able to achieve a certain indifference to losses and setbacks, not because these things are outside their control but because they have so much control. Her characters are not fundamentally afraid of failing, because when they do, they know they have the ability to recover.

Consider what Francisco D’Anconia says to Dagny Taggart when he is trying to recruit her to the strike.

[W]e who’ve been called “materialists” by the killers of the human spirit, we’re the only ones who know how little value or meaning there is in material objects as such, because we’re the ones who create their value and meaning. We can afford to give them up, for a short while, in order to redeem something much more precious. We are the soul, of which railroads, copper mines, steel mills, and oil wells are the body…. You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production. Wherever you are, you will always be able to produce.

“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you”—that sure seems like a direct answer to the Stoics.

Of course, reality is complex, humans are fallible, and a rational man recognizes the possibility of failure at any particular task. But he retains a confidence in his ability to succeed in general—and that confidence is what helps him maintain equanimity in the face of setback. 

Now consider the promise of Stoicism, as expressed by Seneca: “Here is the result of wisdom: a constant and unvarying kind of joy. The mind of the wise man is like the heavens beyond the moon: the sky up there is always clear.” Ayn Rand promises the same thing, but through a different and in many respects an opposite method.

The fundamental difference between Ayn Rand and the Stoics is precisely the central issue I am addressing in my book: the causal outlook and specifically the teleological outlook, in which man is setting goals and then enacting the causes necessary to achieve them.

She summed up this outlook in the words of a Spanish proverb: “Take what you want—and pay for it.” Compare this to a similar formulation from Seneca.

So in all our plans and activities, let us do just what we are accustomed to do when we approach a sidewalk vendor who is selling some merchandise or other: let’s see what it will cost to get this thing we have our hearts set on…. I can show you many things whose pursuit and acquisition has cost us our freedom.

If Howard Roark is the Ayn Rand character who represents the best elements of Stoicism, Dominique Francon is the one who most literally represents the Stoics. She is echoing Seneca when she tells Alvah Scarret her approach to life: “I take the only desire one can really permit oneself. Freedom, Alvah, freedom…. To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.” But this implies that Roark is Ayn Rand’s rebuttal of the Stoics’ philosophy.

For Ayn Rand, the need to pay for what you want is viewed as a license to pursue it. Take what you want! For the Stoics, the cost of one’s goals is viewed as a reason to shrink from pursuing them. Ayn Rand urges us to pay the price for our desires, no matter how great, and even to find an extra pleasure in setting the most extravagantly costly goals. The Stoics view almost any price as too great, so they urge us to diminish our desires.

There are many parallels between Ayn Rand and the Stoics because they are two variations on a theme, two responses to the same issue—but they arrive at opposing answers.

Stoics tell us to seek serenity and relief from suffering by renouncing man’s teleological nature. Ayn Rand tells us to seek a confident serenity and not mere relief of suffering, but the exhilaration of action, by embracing our teleological nature.

Robert Tracinski
About the author:
Robert Tracinski

Rob Tracinski studierte Philosophie an der University of Chicago und ist seit mehr als 25 Jahren als Autor, Dozent und Kommentator tätig. Er ist Herausgeber von Symposium, einer Zeitschrift für politischen Liberalismus, Kolumnist für die Zeitschrift Discourse und schreibt The Tracinski Letter. Er ist der Autor von Wer ist eigentlich John Galt? A Reader's Guide to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

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