Skip to main content

Rational and Irrational Striving

In the opinion of the Stoics there are two forms of striving - a bad one and a good one. The bad is bad because it's irrational - it strives for something because it mistakenly think it is good (wealth, reputation etc). This version of striving is normally called desire in English translations. Since it assumes that something necessary for our happiness lies outside of ourselves it creates all forms of turmoil in the soul (and is, thus, seen as a passion). This is why the Stoics think that the first stage out of three in the process towards wisdom is to stop desiring anything. However, this does not mean that we should stop striving for anything. The good version of striving is normally called wish in English translations. There are several forms of wish but they all have in common that they do not assume that anything necessary for our happiness lies outside ourselves. The wise person would prefer to get food and water, for example, but if he is stranded in the wilderness, he doesn't despair because he knows that life itself is a preferred indifferent - something to strive for but not a any cost - and that the most important for a Stoic at all times is clear thinking.

The same logic applies even to goals such as contributing to the common good and securing the happiness of our loved ones. We should do our best to reach those goals - but we can't do more than our best. The wise person knows that ultimately we can't control the outcome of our actions and that this is why the outcome is not essential for our happiness. So - the wise person definitely has goals and works actively to achieve those goals - but if they can't be achieved, the wise person does not despair in any way but turn to other goals instead.

Mosaic depicting the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, from Aldborough, about 300-400 AD, Leeds City Museum


  1. As hinted above, desire is the root of all turmoil in the soul. Desire is in itself an irrational striving for something - it is to want something more than it is worth to want that thing. As such it always contains an element of fear - which is fear of the pain of not being able to have the desired thing (with pain being the realisation that we can't have something which we desire). Pleasure is the unhealthy experience of getting what we desired :-)

    All of which explains why - for the Stoics - the first step in the progress towards wisdom is to stop desiring.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Aristotle on happiness and external goods

According to popular opinion both in ancient Greece and today, happiness requires things such as wealth, good health, good looks, friends, family and good reputation. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus Socrates challenges those beliefs by claiming that none of those things are good, if they are not used wisely. In fact, Socrates claims that a person who has wisdom doesn't need any of those things at all since he or she can turn any situation into something beneficial for him- or herself.

"If wisdom is present, the one for whom it is present has no need of good fortune".

- Socrates in Euthydemus, 279E

In other words, Socrates claims that wisdom is a sufficient requirement for happiness (and a necessary requirement too, of course). Aristotle famously challenges that claim. But what exactly does he say? Let's have a look.

"we suppose happiness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person’s fortunes often turn to and fro. For clearly, if we t…

A documentary about the relationship between Seneca and Nero

A few years ago PBS did a series in four episodes called "The Roman Empire in the First Century"

Episode 3 is about Nero's reign but they tell the story by focusing on the relationship between Seneca and Nero. They do a fairly decent job and mostly present Seneca as a Stoic who tries to play the part assigned to him by fate as well as possible. The text is very pompous, though (to say nothing about the music!). Sigourney Weaver is narrating and sounds like she's quite uncomfortable about the whole thing. Every time a person is mentioned or quoted they show a bust of that person - if one is available - and every single time Seneca is mentioned, they show the "pseudo-Seneca" bust from Herculaneum even though everyone now agree that it is not a representation of Seneca.

All in all a pretty strange experience. It's incredibly rare that anyone mentions Seneca in anything about Rome produced for television so they deserve lots of credit for that - and also fo…

How to win people over to virtue: Socrates vs Seneca

"To give a benefit is a social act that wins someone over."

- Seneca, On Benefits 5.11.5
One of the things I find extremely interesting about Seneca's thoughts on "winning someone over" is how radical an improvement it is to Socrates' ideas (as he is portrayed by Plato). As Socrates sees things, a wise person should try to persuade as many people as possible to become as wise as possible - by engaging in critical, philosophical discussion with them. Winning people over is done by challenging their assumptions vigorously and making good philosophers out of them. A major goal with this activity is to contribute to the best possible society since a society consisting of critical thinkers who have thought a lot about what is good for human beings - and tested their ideas in extensive critical debate with each other - will be the best society. Interestingly - and tellingly - Plato seemed to deeply doubt that it is possible to teach people virtue at all. Either t…