The Stoic Difference Between “Need” and “Want”
In 1765 the French writer Denis Diderot acquired a new robe. His old robe — that he loved — had become a little tatty so the luxurious new robe was welcome. But the gift had unexpected consequences.
Diderot’s other possessions suddenly looked tawdry compared to his new robe. Nothing he had lived up to the elegance of his new acquisition. What was once “harmonious” became “discordant”.
Diderot went on a spending spree, replacing a straw chair with a chair of Morrocan leather. He replaced his writing table with an expensive one and even replaced the art on his walls. The new gown had, in effect, set off a chain of desires that landed Diderot in debt.
“I was absolute master of my old dressing gown”, Diderot wrote, “but I have become a slave to my new one.”
The Difference Between Wants and Needs
Our needs can be tended to, our wants multiply as we fulfil them. This is because needs are innate and wants tend to be socially motivated.
If I wanted something I wouldn’t be free. My decision would be driven by desire, not by requirement. You can only be free through not wanting something, through not taking any choice at all. The less you want, the freer you are.
This must seem absurd. Being free is surely about choice, after all. But there are different senses of freedom. Bondage can take material and immaterial forms.
Freedom is also a relative and not an absolute. The mind can be a prison for the rich man or an open vista for the lowly prisoner. To explain why it’s worth thinking for a moment about our place in a universe of cause and effect.
Free Will and Determinism
Throughout the history of philosophy, there has been a long debate that will perhaps never be settled. It’s the idea that in a material universe in which everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, how could we possibly have free will?
Surely, if everything is governed by cause and effect, we are too. Everything we do — and our future ahead of us — is governed by causes that are out of our control. In fact, do we even have control over anything?
There are three broad positions to take about human agency in a universe of cause and effect:
Hard Determinism is the belief that free will is impossible. The hardest determinists would argue that your life — every action and thought — has been mapped out since the beginning of time.
Libertarianism (not to be confused with political libertarianism) is the idea that we have free will. We can make choices in our lives that are influenced by, but not determined by, the external universe. Libertarianism would hold that we are wholly responsible for our actions.
Compatibilism takes for granted the idea that we live in a deterministic universe of cause and effect. However, it tries to reconcile an idea of human free will with the acceptance of determinism. Compatibilism can be thought of as “soft determinism”.
Most Stoics fall into the position of compatibilism, some are “hard determinists”, but none would believe in Libertarianism.
The reason for this is that the Stoics were “pantheists”: they believed God was in all of nature. If God is in all of nature, then nature must be determined, there can be no room for “free will” in a universe that is all God because God is perfection.
The Stoics conceive of the universe as ruled through a divine “logos” (a word that is not easily translated, meaning language or logic pertaining to speech) through which everything — including human life — plays out in perfection.
The universe may seem flawed to us, but we have only a partial understanding of it because we are but a fragment of the whole. As a fragment of the whole, we simply could not stand apart from the universe to be free of the causal connections that make it up.
The Free Will Problem
The problem with free will is that it is logically incoherent. To have full control of your destiny, you would have to be the cause of yourself. Nietzsche, criticising free will, likened the idea to Baron Von Munchausen pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair.
There must be a cause to “me”, that makes “me” think I’m free, but the cause means I’m not fully free because that cause is extraneous to my will. Even if I “caused” myself, something would have had to have caused me in the first place to cause myself. And so we have an infinite regression. I simply could never be an entirely free agent.
Most practising Christians believe in free will. After all, if you sin, you go to hell and if and you are good, you go to heaven. You would necessarily need free will to be judged in the afterlife fairly. But because of the contradictions of fully free will, it takes a supernatural God to bequeath free will on human beings.
This brings us to the problem of responsibility and, ultimately, evil. If my life is determined by extraneous forces of cause and effect, I cannot ultimately be held accountable for my actions. Christianity’s answer to this problem is God and the human soul. Evil is the unavoidable consequence of having free will.
Materialist philosophies struggle with the problem of evil. If we were to accept determinism, we’d have to accept that all people are ultimately innocent, even if they commit terrible crimes.
Stoicism and Determinism
Chrysippus of Soli was probably the most famous Stoic in antiquity. He isn’t famous anymore because his writings have been lost. All that we know of his work is through later writers like Cicero.
Chrysippus became head of the Athenian Stoic school in around 230 BCE and is believed to be the most formidable and prolific of the Stoics. He is credited with creating Stoicism as we understand it, building on the doctrines of Zeno of Citium, its original founder.
Stoicism as a young philosophy was challenged by the other schools in Athens. Notably the Academy, the well-established school founded by Plato, and the Skeptics, a school of thought that made a virtue of doubt, questioned the Stoic worldview.
The Stoic school had derived from the Cynic school, an earlier established philosophy that centred on ethics. The Stoics were often challenged by opponents to respond to the problem of free will because of their pantheistic conception of the world (as explained above).
In defending Stoicism, Chrysippus created a full philosophical system that had three equally important parts: logic, ethics and physics. Under the philosopher’s leadership, the Stoicism became a fully-fledged system of thought. Chrysippus’ explanation of fate sat at the junction of all three branches of Stoic thinking.
The philosopher made a distinction between internal (mental) and external (physical) causes. To illustrate his point he used the visual metaphor of the cylinder. If we push a cylinder on a flat surface it will roll forward. Our push was one necessary cause to get the cylinder rolling.
However, the cylinder’s shape — an intrinsic property — is what was sufficient to make it roll. If you pushed a cube, it would not roll, because it’s not in a cube’s nature to roll.
Now, let’s elevate this very simple example to a more complicated human situation. Let’s say I offer a bribe to a prison guard to get a friend out of jail.
My wad of cash is necessary for the guard taking the bribe — it is an external cause — but it is not a sufficient cause for the bribe to happen. What is sufficient for the successful bribe is the prison guard’s lax moral judgement.
Like the shape of the cylinder allows it to roll, the guard has to have an internal makeup to make the decisions they do. Our actions are determined by a complex set of external and internal causes.
However, because of the distinction between internal and external, the Stoics hold that our actions belong to us. Chrysippus describes decisions as “primary” causes for our actions.
The Stoics avoid using the words “free will” in the context of fate. Whether or not the guard takes the bribe is “up to him”, but it’s not a free choice. The guard’s choice is determined by their internal make-up.
We have “character”, that is a combination of complex internal and external causes that create our dispositions.
We are not characterless beings that react to external stimuli in an entirely predictable way like the cylinder. But neither are we characterless beings that make entirely spontaneous choices without external influences. We simply could not exist in such a bubble for all the reasons we’ve been over.
To the Stoics, an ethical judgement is really all we have control of. The word the later Stoic Epictetus used for this is “prohairesis”. Prohairesis ultimately comes down to character.
But this comes only half-way to responsibility. If our character is embedded in a web of causes, then it too is caused. So we still arguably have no control over our judgements. If the prison guard has no ultimate control over how he judges a bribe offer, how could he be morally culpable for taking the bribe?
This is where Chrysippus gets fuzzy. Cicero even remarks that Chrysippus attempting to “strike a middle path” between free will and determinism “slipped into such difficulties that he wound unwillingly confirming the necessity of fate.”
From my perspective, Chrysippus’ idea holds up. We too easily slip into the idea that “will” is a unitary thing, when it’s a whole multitude of things that have various degrees of “freedom”.
Our “will” or “character” is determined, but it is more or less determined. We are more or less responsible for our actions, but never entirely responsible.
This is where our special nature as social animals comes into play. Quite rightfully, in the eyes of the law, we allow diminished responsibility to children and the mentally ill.
We should think of “free will” in terms of lesser or greater freedom of will depending on the development of character. Reflection is important in cultivating virtue. My experience of life will allow me to reflect on what I could have done better.
The culpability of a sinner should be judged based on how developed in character they are, mitigating factors should be considered.
Seneca, a Stoic philosopher and a Roman Senator, argued that justice should be about correction, not punishment. Punishment presumes total culpability, whereas correction enlightens the criminal to their wrongdoings, forcing the development of character.
The degree of freedom we have (and therefore responsibility) in a given situation depends upon two things: how narrow the choice permitted to us is, and how cultivated our faculty for judgement is. The Stoics paid a lot of attention to the latter.
The Double-Bind of “Freedom”
The goal of Stoicism is “virtue” — that is to live in accordance with nature. Everything in the universe has an orientation, the word the Stoics used for this is oikeiôsis. Nature’s (or God’s) oikeiôsis set for mankind is rationality, something no other creatures have.
To Want is to desire, to need is to require. The source of desires is external, the source of needs internal. For example, if I am thirsty, a glass of tap water would be necessary to quench my thirst.
An expensive bottle of water would be sufficient but not necessary to quench my thirst. What would make me want to drink the expensive water?
It wouldn’t be an internal need. It would be an externally caused desire. That externally caused desire could be the desire to impress somebody, or because the expensive water’s marketing made me think I’d be a better person if I drank it.
There is an emotional dimension to a desire, it’s a dissatisfaction with whatever is within reach. Emotions (or passions, as the Stoics labelled them) are bad judgements, the Stoic ideal can also be characterised as apatheia, meaning freedom from the passions (literally: “without passion”).
In his Discourses, as recorded by Arrian, Epictetus said of desire:
“Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire”
Freedom is rational self-sufficiency. The desire for material wealth, sex, fame and luxury is impinged upon us by extraneous causes — we are by necessity dissatisfied when we desire.
Desire can be hard to fight. It is a “passion” that will inevitably rise up within us, but always remember that you have control over your emotions. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations:
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.”
In effect, the Stoics argue that the more rational you are, the freer you are. The rational choice is easy because there is only one choice: the necessary choice.
Freedom is, therefore, a double-bind: freedom is choice but to be truly free we should avoid choice. Our reason would dismiss desire as unnecessary to live in virtue and as freely as possible.
There’s not much choice in not wanting, but wanting is not something that a rational person would choose.