1. Stoicism as Agency

Stoicism is often mischaracterized as a state of being unfeeling, free of passions, or being indifferent. This idea is far from true, particularly in the way Marcus Aurelius presents it in The Meditations. Rather, Marcus’ stoicism seems most about agency, the capacity of an actor to choose an action or a response given a situation. “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength,” he wrote.

Knowing this, Marcus, having learned of his tutor’s passing, still wept.

Marcus Aurelius - Biography, Meditations & Death - HISTORY

The Meditations is perhaps better described as a book on living more agentially; or more specifically, how to come to understand, and flirt with, the boundaries of one’s own personal agency to exist and flourish in a harsh, often uncaring, but ultimately faultless world. This notion of stoicism as agency is perhaps best summed up in a single line in Book V: where a man can live, there he can also live well. Marcus does not propose that a man must live well; but that he can or may. Thus, he proposes living well, however it may be defined, is always a readily available option to be voluntarily taken. For Marcus, the question isn't “why do we not live well?” but instead “why do we not choose to live well?”

A well-worn counterargument might be that we are unable to live well because of our unfortunate circumstances. Tragedy, physical ailments, poverty: all are reasons that can be offered for why one cannot live well. But for Marcus, the circumstances are irrelevant. He writes, but he must live in a palace; well then, he can also live well in a palace. The contrast of must against can is of high importance; with it, Marcus asserts circumstances, whether tragic or auspicious, prevent no man from living well. If circumstances prevent no man from living well, then man's right to choose to live well is independent of his position or status as slave or as a member of the royal court. The proper conclusion is that man always has the option to live well regardless of his circumstance, but often does not take it.

But this is not to argue that one must become dogged in his choosing to behave or respond in a certain way. Conversely, if man believes he must always choose to respond in a certain way, he becomes a prisoner of his own mental devices. If a man has decided in his mind that his only option is to be happy at all costs, this is no choice. To choose to always be happy is to set up an internal guidance system with the sole objective of “being happy.” By declaring this as an over-reaching output for his responses, he has chosen to stop choosing. Instead of being led by his external circumstances, he is now kept immobile by his internal commitments; he has removed degrees of freedom from himself and become less of an agent. Many have come to be hopeless in their dogged pursuit of happiness[1]. Opulent Caesar, it is important to note, may himself not always be living well.

Whether internal or external, if a man cannot live well because of such forces, it is in many ways because he did not choose to. Agency only lives where man can choose. From this perspective, stoicism takes on a different dynamic than the common understanding of “being stoic.” In my reading, stoicism is a dynamic that stresses personal choice over impulsion or compulsion. By framing our internal representations of emotional and personal condition as a result of choice, it gives us permission to freely paint our experiences despite our circumstance. And by extension, much of our notions about ourselves, our anxieties, and our fears can also become a matter of choice. When personal circumstances are thought of from a perspective of agency, it can allow one to step “outside” of one’s heuristic purview, our preprogrammed nature, and ask, “Is this actually what I truly want to do?”

It is not that we must never feel afraid, angry, or joy over the course of our lives. What I argue for is that we commit to actions with some level of wherewithal, some level of agency, to choose as people, not collapse as dominoes in a premeditated line. If even the smallest amount of freedom exists at this fleeting moment in time, then it is a freedom worth pursuing – it might be argued that this is the one, true freedom we possess[2]. When Marcus wept, he did it because he was free.

Knowing this, the wrong question would be to ask, “How do I become a good agent?”

It isn’t about being “good,” lest you become a prisoner to “goodness.” It is about being an agent and making a conscious choice to act in the world. By making a choice, neither fully driven by emotion or circumstance, we are more fully prepared to accept the consequences of those actions. If we are making agentic choices, then we naturally should be well prepared to accept whatever comes our way, for we’ve exercised freedom in having done so. It is this exercise of agency, no matter how small your capacity for freedom may seem in comparison to the circumstances, through which we may find a way to live well.

[1] While it is true that Bertrand Russell translated Epitectus as saying of the Stoic, "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy…” the word happy here is actually a poor translation of eudaimonia, which is not equivalent to happiness, but closer to flourishing or living well.

[2] See Hilary Bok’s essay Freedom and Practical Reason

Question: How do we find and expand this capacity for freedom in an ever-encroaching digital world?

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