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

Stoicism and Evil Governments

This article claims that a Stoic has no reason to get depressed by bad political conditions since an evil government is not really a bad thing for a Stoic - since nothing can be bad for a Stoic except his own bad choices. Even so, the article claims, a Stoic acknowledges that an evil government is capable of doing "terrible things" to people. To make this line of thinking work we have to think of ourselves as Stoics who can't be harmed by an evil government - since nothing can be bad for us as Stoics except our own bad choices - and other people as non-Stoics who will suffer terribly if they are oppressed by the evil government. In my opinion, this interpretation of Stoicism is flat out wrong. First of all, an evil government is indeed a bad thing. The Stoics distinguish between internal good/bad things such as our own good or bad choices and external good/bad things such as other people's happiness or unhappiness: "some bad things are in the sou

Not wanting is just as good as having

" Not wanting is just as good as having ."  - Seneca, Letters 119.2 The reason that not wanting is just as good as having is, of course, that both when we have something and when we don't want that thing we don't need that something. In both cases we are in a state (in regard to that thing) where we don't feel that our life is incomplete due to not having that thing. However, simply being in a state of "not having" does not equal being content, happy, wise. A person who does not have something is not content if that person is in a state of wanting what he or she hasn't got. To be content, happy, wise is to fully understand that we always already have all we need for happiness in ourselves. A stoic does not want food, health, wealth etc. Wanting  something is to desire   that thing - which is to suffer from the false belief that the thing is question is a necessary condition for happiness. A Stoic knows that the only  thing which is necessary fo