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  • Stoic Pragmatism
  • John Lachs

Whatever specific beliefs pragmatists share concerning experience, knowledge, value, and meaning, they generally agree that a central part of the business of life is to make life better. James speaks of the ideal of meeting all needs, Royce of defeating evil, and Dewey of making experience richer and more secure. They are at one in thinking that human intelligence can make a vast difference to how well we live, and they extol the possibility of improving our circumstances. They tend to be dissatisfied with the status quo and see indefinitely sustained amelioration as the solution to our problems.

Stoics, in sharp contrast, are quick to call attention to the limits of our powers and recommend accepting them without complaint. They tend to think that only our beliefs and attitudes fall securely in our control. Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius agree that anything we would consider an improvement of the human condition is temporary and that, in any case, fulfilling our desires accomplishes little. The key to living well, they maintain, is control over self, not over circumstance, and they embrace inner calm in the face of whatever misfortune befalls us.

Even such a brief characterization of these two great philosophical traditions makes it clear that pragmatic ambition and stoic equanimity appear to be incompatible values. Pragmatists and stoics seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former busy trying to improve the conditions of life and the latter adjusting their desires to the course of nature. Much as Dewey's language is grating to contemporary ears, he comes close to capturing the apparent difference between the two sets of beliefs and practices in his famous contrast of the civilized and the "savage" attitudes to life. He writes:

A savage tribe manages to live on a desert plain. It adapts itself. But its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are, a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use. A civilized people enters upon the scene. It also adapts itself. It introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, [End Page 95] those which are growing there. As a consequence, the wilderness blossoms as a rose.

(Dewey 1966, 47–48)

I think that this radical distinction between the stoic and the pragmatist is misleading and inaccurate. My argument is designed to bring the two views closer together than it has been supposed possible. First, I will try to show that there are times at which the pragmatic attitude is inappropriate and good sense requires that pragmatists believe and act like stoics. If intelligent pragmatists have to be stoics from time to time, then pragmatism and stoicism are not incompatible, after all.

The second stage of my argument aims to connect pragmatic and stoic attitudes more closely by showing that the usual distinction between them as active and passive is ill-conceived. In fact, if we pay careful attention to the writings and practices of stoics, we recognize that they are disposed to undertake action and improvement no less than do pragmatists. The difference between them is not primarily in what they do, but in their motivation for doing it.

Finally, I will proceed to connect stoic and pragmatic ideas even more intimately. I will show that in every case in which we wish to improve something, we have to accept the conditions that make amelioration possible. We must be satisfied, among other things, with the tools at hand, the skills with which we handle them, the circumambient situation, and the range of our prospects. In this way, every improvement relies on what cannot at the time, or perhaps ever, be improved upon, but must be embraced without complaint.

None of this means, of course, that there are no differences between what pragmatists and stoics believe. On the contrary, there are important disagreements, but they are of a sort whose presence does not make the constructive combination of the two positions impossible. I want to show that a view we might call "stoic pragmatism" is not only possible, but also...


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pp. 95-106
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