Reason follows in fortune’s train

“Fortune is often found in Reason’s train.”

Montaigne, Essays


For years, I’ve been stuck. I haven’t been able to make much progress in my estimation of the relative merits of Stoicism and tragedy.

One of the goals of Stoicism is to immunize the practicing Stoic against luck (tuche). Since external goods are beyond his control, he should not value them; these he should classify as “preferred indifferents.” Although he would prefer to be healthy, he knows better than to make the mistake of valuing health for its own sake or for the sake of something else. It is not something he should strive for nor it is something he should he mourn over once it is gone.

Tragic playwrights tell a much different story, however. They insist that some of the most important things in life are subject to chance. Love, for instance, despite the fact that it ultimately leads to grief. They thrust upon us the metaphysical thought that our lives are entangled in suffering, some of which we have contributed to unwittingly. You recall Oedipus, don’t you?

Naturally, we think love is a good thing, and yet the beloved shall one day be gone, and when this happens our lives shall soon enough come undone. But then if we’re Stoics, we may not love as deeply as we think we ought. And yet if we’re tragic poets, then we may love fully but only with the taint of death on your lips. The conflict seems at once intractable and undeniable.

Reader, you will have noticed that the larger problem alluded to is that of suffering. What should our stance toward suffering be?

More recently, I’ve begun looking at the problem from another angle. I’ve begun flirting with Sacks’ and Vallaint’s ideas about adaptation and resilience. These thinkers grant the premise that external items (e.g., lovers) and contingent things (e.g., our vision) matter to us, but they claim that we are capable of resilience in the face of misfortune. Though we may lose external items or contingent things, we can be resilient, such resilience being a form of adaptation.

I wonder, then, whether the antinomy between Stoicism and tragedy can be overcome in a Montaignean fashion: not with reason working on the “front end” to safeguard us against all forms of suffering (read: Stoicism) and not by tragedy compelling us to suffer interminably (read: Medea), but with reason working on the “back end.” In this capacity, reason teaches us how to bend like a reed when we are confronted by transformative events. My current proposal–allow me to float it your way–is that we regard resilience as a kind of happiness. If we do so, we won’t find that life will be any easier (let’s acknowledge as much), yet we may discover that our lives, if they are lived well, may become works of arts: self-portraits fashioned by chance, time, and technique.

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