On What Grounds do the Stoics Claim that a Wise Person would be Happy Even when Under Torture? Can we Find their Arguments Convincing?

The Stoics, who followed the teachings of Zeno, based their ethical system around the idea that we should live in accordance to virtue and nature (although both terms are more or less equivalent) so that we may live a happy life. In order to achieve this ideal of a happy, or ‘good’, life we must act in accordance with what comes to us via the higher levels of our souls that is the rational part of the soul, or the logike psuche. Zeno, and his disciples, held the view that the emotions are nothing more than impulses of desire and therefore products of irrationality as opposed to rational processes, hence the whole ethical system boiled down to living a life free from emotion equating the ‘good’ life with one that is apathetic. However this view has been put under fire by asking whether or not a true Stoic could continue living a state of happiness if they were under torture or would they buckle under the impulses caused by the pain they would be suffering? It seems that the Stoic wise person could not be happy as was claimed when under torture.

Before and during the time Zeno and the Stoics were around it was held “that an animal’s first [or primary] impulse is to preserve itself”[1] however “the Stoics claim that what some people say is false, viz. that the primary [or first] instinct of animals is to pleasure”[2], or in other words animals are driven primarily towards what brings them happiness. But what exactly is happiness? According to some sources “Zeno defined happiness in this manner: ‘happiness is a smooth flow of life’”[3], by a smooth flow of life some argue what is meant is a life in which we “live according to virtue”[4], whilst others argue that a smooth flow of life is one where we live “in agreement with nature”[5]. Although Diogenes Laertius argues that “Zeno first said that the goal was to live according to virtue…to live according to virtue is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature”[6] or in short to live in accordance with nature is to live according to virtue, since the Stoics believed that the cosmos was perfectly rational and divine as quoted by Diogenes Laertius “God is an animal, immortal, rational and perfect in happiness, immune to everything bad…the cosmos and the things in the cosmos[7]. Thus to be happy the Stoics believed we become like the cosmos rational and immune to everything bad. But what did the Stoics mean by ‘things that are bad’?

It was argued that what was ‘good’ were virtues and for the Stoics some virtues were placed higher than others, often called the primary virtues of which there are four, “the primary are these: prudence, courage, justice and temperance. Forms of these are magnanimity, self-control, endurance, quick-wittedness and deliberative excellence.”[8], since the virtues are what is ‘good’ it seems reasonable to claim that what is ‘bad’ must be their opposite, the vices, although for the Stoics there was also a third category of things known as indifferents which were neither good nor bad, “the virtues…are good; and their opposites…are bad; neither good nor bad are those things which neither benefit nor harm, such as life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good reputation, noble birth, and their opposites.”[9] As one of the forms of the primary virtues is self-control the Stoics argued that we ought to gain self-control by mastering the irrational impulses that are the emotions, or passions as some called them, for “they say that a passion is an impulse which is excessive and disobedient to reason…that is why every passion is a ‘flutter’”[10], hence as the emotions are disobedient to reason and we must be like the rational cosmos in order to lead a ‘good’ life then we ought to master the emotions via the virtue of self-control. But if put under torture could we really be capable of mastering our emotions enough to become indifferent to the pain we would be suffering?

The Stoics claimed that we could as we have two parts the soul and the body and “the soul is more important than the body, they also say that the things of the soul…have more value for the natural life than bodily and external things”[11], therefore we must first preserve the virtues before trying to preserve our health, life, wealth and all other indifferents so as long as we continue to suffer without yielding to our emotions and surrender to our torturer in the name of health, life, pain et cetera then we continue to live in accordance with nature as we remain rational beings who have mastered our emotions as “pain is a contradiction of the soul disobedient to reason”[12]. The Stoics even took this philosophy in so far as life itself could be sacrificed if it came into conflict with preserving the virtues which enabled us to live a ‘good’ life so not only could be remain under torture but we could also remain happy should be die due to the torture we were being put under. But does this system hold as a viable ethical system?

Kant disagreed with the Stoics on the point that the ‘good’ life came from chasing virtues, instead Kant argued that the ‘good’ life was one where we obeyed the moral law out of the fact that it contains its own value, as he explains in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals “the moral worth of an action done out of duty has its moral worth…in the maxim…with which the action is decided upon…not in actualizing the object of the action”[13]. However Kant does agree that the moral law runs in accordance with reason as the moral law comes a priori and therefore based upon reason alone as the moral worth of an action can “be found…in the principle of the will…the crosswords between its a priori principle…and its a posteriori motivation”[14], thus for Kant the moral action is one based upon reason (the a priori principle) and not emotion (the a posteriori motivation) although emotion does act as a secondary drive for moral action.

From this it would seem that Kant would argue that if under torture we could remain happy as long as we manage to retain our self-control over the emotions and follow our moral duty to obey reason alone, however Kant would not take it to the extreme lengths the Stoics do in denying that we ought to yield should the torture reach a point where our health, or life, comes under threat as reason would tell us that the body, which makes up what Kant calls the phenomenal self, is just as valuable as the mind (or soul), which makes up the noumenal self, as both are two sides of the same thing living in co-existence, so should one perish the other would follow resulting in the end of our rationality which must be preserved according to the Stoics.

The Epicureans took a different view on what was meant by a happy life as one Epicurean said “we are asking what is the final and ultimate good…Epicurus places this in pleasure”[15] thus the happy life was the pleasurable life and not one that was in accordance with reason, yet the Epicureans still claimed a life pursuing pleasure was a life in accordance with nature as “of the natural desires some are necessary and some merely natural; and of the necessary some are necessary for happiness and some for freeing the body from troubles”[16] and as the desires usually provides pleasure upon satisfaction then when we have satisfied the natural desires then we are happy. But just what did the Epicureans mean by ‘natural desires’?

By natural desires what is meant is everything we want “for the sake of being neither in pain nor in terror…so when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasure of the profligate…but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul”[17], thus the natural desires are food, shelter, warmth, water and the freedom from fear of attack but not luxury, wealth, honour or things similar. In this sense Epicurean ethics asks us to behave in an animalistic manner instead of trying to achieve some divine unity with the cosmos. However some Epicureans argued that it was acceptable to desire pain if it were to yield a greater quantity of pleasure after, one Epicurean who followed this view was Cicero who claimed “sometimes circumstances of such a nature occur that he can pursuer some great pleasure by means of effort and pain”[18].

Thus the Epicureans would argue that under torture you could not be happy as you would be suffering pain either of the body, the soul or both and as pleasure is what brings happiness, and there is no pleasure in pain then no happiness can come from torture. However if we were undergoing the torture in hope that we might gain some great pleasure at the end then it could be argued that we could be happy under torture, a couple of examples might be if the torture was self-inflicted such as exerting our self physically during a race to obtain the honour of the crowd at the races end and this honour would bring us pleasure then it might be argued that this torture makes us happy. Another example is if we were in a African nation were we had to endure the torture of walking several miles to obtain fresh water then we could be happy under torture as the clean happy would bring great pleasure once obtained.

Aristotle also looked at what was the highest ‘good’ having stated in the beginning of Nicomachean Ethics “what is the highest of all goods…there is very general agreement…that it is happiness”[19]. He later came to the conclusion that “the good…is thought to reside in the function”[20] with the function of humans to be “an activity which follows or implies a rational principle”[21]. By putting these three statements together we can conclude that Aristotle saw happiness as being the highest ‘good’ and that was acting upon rational principles, similar to Kant and the Stoics. However, unlike Kant and the Stoics, acting upon rational principles did not mean denying irrational impulses or chasing pleasure as the Epicureans did, instead Aristotle claimed that the rational act which would deliver us at happiness was contemplation as “we assume the gods to be above all other beings blessed and happy; but what sort of actions must we assign to them?…If we were to run through them all, the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of gods. Still everyone supposes that they live and therefore active…now if you take away from a being action…what is left but contemplation?”[22]  Thus happiness was found in living a life of contemplation as this was a life as close to the gods as we could possibly achieve.

So it would seem that if we were to find ourselves under torture we could not fully take part in a contemplative life as our struggle against the pain we would be experiencing would intervene causing our concentration to wane, hence if we could not fully partake in a contemplative life then we could not be happy. Instead Aristotle would argue that instead of enduring the torture we ought to think rationally as to how we could escape the torture so that we may return back to our life of contemplation, and therefore back to the happy life contrary to the Stoic position and even the Kantian position.

Another way to look at Stoic ethics is to view it from the political perspective in relation to freedom, as there are a number of ways to look at political freedom (liberty). The reason why it is notable to look at freedom in this way is because “freedom crops up more frequently in the writings and speeches of politician…it is almost universally accepted as being morally ‘good’”[23], hence the happy life should be thought of as the free life. But what is generally meant by freedom in this sense? Generally “freedom means to do as one wishes”[24] or in other words being able to act in such a way that is unhindered by any interfering force. Such a view of freedom comes under what is termed negative freedom which argues that freedom is “an area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”[25], therefore if under torture we could not be happy as our freedom to act is being obstructed by the torturer be they another agent or ourselves.

Another way to view freedom is from the idea of positive freedom which “consists of ‘being one’s own master’”[26], this notion of being one’s own master is two-fold first “positive freedom links…to the notions of personal autonomy”[27] so that we can act as self-determining agents instead of being dictated to by an external force. This being the case then if under torture then our freedom would become diminished as our autonomy is relinquished to the torturer; consequently we could no longer partake in the happy life.

The second face of positive freedom, sometimes seen as perfect freedom, revolves around the Stoic idea of removing ourselves from our emotions as “‘perfect freedom’ means doing the will of God…rather than indulging our ‘immoral’ drives, inclinations and passion”[28], even though it appears to be rooted within religion if we look at it from a Stoic perspective where God is the cosmos as for the Stoics “God is an animal, immortal, rational and perfect in happiness, immune to everything bad…the cosmos and the things in the cosmos[29], hence perfect freedom can be seen as living and apathetic life in accordance with nature just as the Stoic argue we ought to. So if we are perfectly free then we are able to be happy when under torture.

To conclude the Stoic wise person could not be happy under torture because despite being free from his emotions he would be upset by the fact that he has submitted his autonomy and ability to act unhindered to another force. However if the Stoic wise person has placed himself under torture by his own choice then he/she has acted within their own autonomy and it was done in the hope of obtaining some great pleasure after then it could be argued that the wise person could be happy under torture otherwise the happiness would not be present.


  • Aristotle, 1998, Nicomachean Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Cicero, ‘On Goals’ in Inwood. B and Gerson. L, 1997, ‘Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (2nd Edition)’, Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Diogenes Laertius, in Inwood. B and Gerson. L, 1997, ‘Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (2nd Edition)’, Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Heywood. A, 2004, Political Theory an Introduction (3rd Edition), Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Kant. I, 2002, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Translated by Zweig), Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Stobaeus, ‘Anthology’, in Inwood. B and Gerson. L, 1997, ‘Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (2nd Edition)’, Indianapolis: Hackett

[1] Diogenes Laertius, 7.85

[2] Ibid, 7.85

[3] Stobaeus, Anthology, 2.6e

[4] Diogenes Laertius, 7.87

[5] Stobaeus, Anthology, 2.6

[6] Diogenes Laertius, 7.87

[7] Ibid, 7.147

[8] Ibid, 7.92

[9] Ibid, 7.102

[10] Stobaeus, Anthology, 2.10

[11] Ibid, 2.7b

[12] Ibid, 2.10b

[13] Kant. I, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 2002, 4:399-4:400

[14] Ibid, 4:400

[15] Cicero, On Goals, 1.29

[16] Diogenes Laertius, 10.127

[17] Ibid, 10.128-10.131

[18] Cicero, On Goals, 1.32

[19] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1095a

[20] Ibid, 1097b

[21] Ibid, 1098a

[22] Ibid, 1178b

[23] Heywood. A, Political Theory an Introduction, 2004, pg.254

[24] Ibid, pg.254

[25] Ibid, pg.258

[26] Ibid, pg.260

[27] Ibid, pg.263

[28] Ibid, pg.264

[29] Diogenes Laertius, 7.147

Posted on November 3, 2012, in ethical/political, philosophical and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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