#3: Don’t Mistake Stoic Realism for Idealism

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Against a grey background, we see the red flame that represents the Logos (the spirit of reason that animates the Universe). In front of that, we see a badly-drawn representation of a human brain - on which there is a lightbulb that is lit, representing thought. Some of the rays from the lightbulb's glow gradually blend into the flame, representing how our reasoning faculty is part of the Logos. This image is for articles in this blog dealing with logic and critical thought.
While people who don’t understand Stoicism or the Stoic mindset might confuse a Stoic with an idealist – in reality, a well-trained Stoic is not that at all, but the ultimate realist.
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Whether it’s trying to save healthcare, or trying to get a charity up and running, or even trying to survive in hostile circumstances – a Stoic can keep struggling when many people would give up. This can cause some people to think that a Stoic is a sort of an idealist – someone who is overly-optimistic of the ideal external result of a situation being tenable.However, contrary to that impression, you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere more stone sober a realist than the well-trained Stoic. This is because Stoics rigorously train to overcome emotional haywires and other bad habits that interfere with one’s ability to perceive reality accurately – or at least as accurately as the senses allow.

For example, one obstacle that many people face with regards to accurate perception of reality is wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is when we believe that something is one way because the alternative we perceive as being so awful as to be unthinkable.

However, as we train in Stoic philosophy, we learn to see externals as not being inherently good or bad, but merely preferred or dispreferred. As such, the impetus to engage in wishful thinking decreases as one’s training progresses.

Tribalism also messes with people’s ability to perceive reality in a number of ways. For starters, it encourages us to skew our perceptions to see those from rival groups in the most negative light possible and their interests as less than legitimate. A classical example of this is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not just the vast majority, but an extreme majority of those involved champion either the interests of Israelis or the interests of the Palestinians. Whichever side’s interests they champion, they demonstrate a down-right reckless disregard for the interests and needs of the other side.

Many Israelis see Palestininas as being less-than-human and having little purpose to their existence other than destroying Israel and massacring her people. Likewise, many Palestinians tend to see Israelis in pretty much the same light. There are people who see past all this nonsense – but they seem to be extremely rare and outspoken.

And this isn’t just among Israelis and Palestinians themselves. It seems as though the vast majority of outsiders who weigh in on the conflict pick one side, and show extreme disdain for the needs and often even the humanity of those on the other. No wonder there isn’t peace there!

Stoicism, however, includes the teaching of Cosmopolitanism – the idea that all things in the Universe are inherently connected, part of a whole called the “Cosmopolis”. For a beginner, that’s just an abstract idea – but as one progresses in Stoic training, this teaching becomes more and more a part of how one thinks. As a result, the temptation to look down on members of rival groups and their interests just because they are a rival group decreases.

Another way in which tribalism messes with our mind is by pushing us to agree with the views and opinions of those within our own group. The untrained mind feels that disagreeing with those within your group compromises your ability to belong to the group, and sees not-belonging as a horrible thing. Therefore, someone with an untrained mind will play whatever tricks on themself that they need to in order to avoid detecting any disagreement with fellow insiders.

In Stoic training, however, one learns to appreciate how external things such as the approval of one’s peers, and even one’s belonging to a particular group, are not truly things that one needs, but are merely preferred indifferents. As one comes to appreciate this, the need to agree with your peers (except in so far as they truly are right) gradually disappears.

In addition to overcoming emotional obstacles to our clear perception of reality, Stoics have from the earliest times also rigorously done exercises to train the faculty of reason itself. Stoics also trained the ability to see past assumptions that are so ubiquitous in our mind that we make those assumptions without even realizing it.

To make a long story short – for Stoics, realism isn’t merely a goal. Rather, realism is something that Stoics hone as an art. That said, a well-trained Stoic will often act in ways that could cause them to be confused with an idealist by someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on inside their head.

While a well-trained Stoic’s actions can externally appear similar to those of an idealist, the distinction lies in the motives for the actions.

Both a Stoic realist and an idealist might be seen working toward a goal that appears to be a longshot. However, the idealist invests energy toward that goal out of a delusion that the chances of external success are higher than they are. The Stoic, on the other hand, holds no such delusion – but isn’t deterred by the low chances of external success. Our philosophy teaches us that the external outcome we’re working to isn’t what matters – it’s just a preferred indifferent. It is doing our own part toward the goal faithfully to the best of our ability that is within our will. Therefore, it is only that which, by our philosophy, can possibly be an inherent good.

Take, for example, a charity for a cause that isn’t popular enough to attract many well-monied donors, and who’s success is threatened by other factors as well. An idealist might work to build the charity out of an irrational belief that the Universe will assure success in all the uphill battles that must be fought and won for it to succeed.

A Stoic, on the other hand, would (upon having examined the situation) know full well that raising the funds will be difficult and may fail, and that several other things also could derail the effort. However, if they see the charity as being a deserving one, they might work to build it anyway. They would not work out of any delusion that the Universe has promised to assure that the charity will get off the ground. Rather, they would work out of the realization that such external success isn’t theirs to demand in the first place. All they would desire is to do their own part faithfully – and let fate unfold as it will.

This unfettered realism would actually put the Stoic at a greater advantage than the idealist in the daunting endeavor. For one thing, a Stoic’s realization that raising money will be an uphill battle would free them to consider innovative means of fund-raising. Likewise, the Stoic would be able to look for ways to minimize the risk of anything else that would threaten to derail the mission. The idealist, on the other hand, would be at a disvantage looking for solutions to these problems out of a lack of acceptance that such problems exist to begin with.

Another example of this can be found if we revisit our earlier example of the Isreal-Palestine conflict. An idealist working for peace in the region can easily be deluded into thinking that there is one side which, if they just laid down their arms and gave the other side everything they’ve been calling for, there will be peace. A Stoic, on the other hand, will realize how nieve this view is. This will allow the Stoic to search for solutions that take the needs and concerns of both sides into account rather than just the needs and concerns of one side.

The Stoic will also be aware of how entrenched the mutual distrust is in both sides of the conflict – as well as how hard it will be to convince each side of the other’s very legitimacy. This will allow the Stoic to avoid mistakes that an idealist might make in that area as well.

But more critically, however, when time goes on and experience shows the idealist how unwarranted their optimism was, they risk becoming jaded and giving up. The well-trained Stoic, on the other hand, bears no such risk. Since they never had any delusion that the Universe will assure the charity’s success in the first place, they don’t risk the shattering of a delusion that they never had.

So while an idealist’s vigor rests precariously on the delusion that things will go as they prefer in the end – the Stoic’s solace is on a much firmer foundation, the understanding that doing their own part is the only thing in the equasion that is truly theirs.

“Life of Riley” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

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