A good idea from ... the Stoics

Alain de Botton
Sunday 11 April 1999 00:02 BST

THERE would be few great human achievements if people didn't refuse to be disappointed. The motor of our ingenuity is the question, "Does it have to be like this, could it not be different?" - from which arise political reforms, punctual trains, scientific leaps, better relationships. But sadly, the very side of us which tries to improve things is also responsible for our useless fury in cases where altering reality is not an option.

It was to teach us to be more "philosophical" about frustration that the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome came up with an image to evoke our condition. They argued that we were all like dogs tied to a cart. The leash is long enough to give us some leeway, but too short to allow us to go wherever we please. The philosopher Zeno wrote: "When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don't want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined."

A dog will naturally hope to go where it wants. But, as Zeno's metaphor implied, if he cannot, then it is better for the animal to trot with the cart than be dragged and strangled by it. Though the dog's impulse may be to fight against the sudden swerve of the cart in an awful direction, its sorrows can only be compounded by its resistance. Better to go in a bad direction without a pain in the neck than to be strangulated.

To reflect that we are never without a leash around our necks may help to reduce the violence of our mutiny against events which veer out of our control. The wise learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than exhaust themselves in protest. When told that his luggage has been lost, a wise man will resign himself at once to the fact. This was how the founder of Stoicism responded to the loss of his luggage: "When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, `Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.'"

Whatever the similarities between ourselves and a leashed dog, we have one important advantage: reason. While the animal often can't even grasp that he is tied to a leash, our reason enables us to see when our wishes are in conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessity.

We are powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude to them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that the Stoics thought we could find freedom. It might sound like a recipe for passivity; encouragement to resign ourselves to situations that might be overcome. But the Stoics were more subtle. It would be no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it wasn't as to rebel against something when it was. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.

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