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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.


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