Kant, the Stoics, Summum bonum, and Happiness

So, a while ago I came across a comment somewhere that Kant was criticizing the Stoics for focusing too much on happiness, which greatly puzzled me. I’m now in the middle of reading “Critique of Practical Reason” and have now come across that section, and now things make more sense. While Kant harshly criticized Epicurus for making virtue all about happiness, he rather profusely compliments the Stoics for avoiding that mistake. His criticism is, in fact, more tied up in his own views of the summum bonum, or good life, and the relation between happiness and virtue.

His main criticism is that both the Epicureans and the Stoics invalidly combine the notions of virtue and happiness into, at least, a pair of directly related things. For the Epicureans, happiness defines virtue, which Kant completely denies. However, the Stoics let virtue define happiness, which is a lesser mistake, but still a mistake for Kant. Kant argues that the two are separate things but that, in general, both are required for the summum bonum, and for the Stoics they would at least run into problems if — as it usually does — acting virtuous didn’t make people “happy” in the sense of being happy. His main complaint is that happiness isn’t really something under our control and isn’t universalizable as it depends too much on individual traits, and a set of universal rules thus aren’t going to be able to provide it.

The thing is, though, I think at least the Roman Stoics had that problem solved, starting from principles from the beginnings of Greek Stoicism. Their idea of happiness is more a notion of contentment with what you have, and they generally had a stronger notion of the things that would normally define “happiness” as being out of our control than even Kant did. From this, their radical move is to say that if you aren’t happy — or rather content — with the rewards a virtuous life gives you, that’s a problem with you, not with virtue. And not a problem in the sense that you need to go to a therapist or something, but that you don’t have the proper attitude or view on what has value, and so are valuing things that don’t really have value. A big part of this is that you are placing too much value on the things that you cannot control, and so would be constantly striving to achieve things that, in practice, you can’t actually achieve.

This is what I love the indifferents for. Pretty much all of the things that you can be denied by the whims of fate fit into the indifferents. Which means, if you follow along with Seneca, that it’s not necessarily bad to have them but lacking them should not make you “unhappy” either, as long as the reason you don’t have them is either that you chose virtue over them, or that the whims of fate kept them from you. If you are missing indifferents because you acted stupidly or didn’t seek them out, then you can be upset about that … but upset with yourself for what you yourself chose to do or not to do. If you’ve made your choices and are happy with them, then a lack of the indifferents should not disturb you. You did the best you could, and that is what you got. Take it and move on.

This is how I think the Stoics can reply to Kant wrt the summum bonum. For them, both virtue and happiness/contentment follow from the same basic principle of the Logos. Once we understand what really has value, what we can and can’t control, and what attitudes we should have to these things, then we would act virtuously and also be content with the results of our actions. So it is less that virtue and virtuous acts make us happy, but that once we can gain enough understanding to know what virtue is and how to act virtuously we also would have enough understanding to gain happiness as well, by taking the proper actions and, more importantly, having the proper attitudes.

Thus, the Stoics avoid the trap that Kant claims they fell into by deriving both aspects of the summum bonum from the same source. Once we understand that source, we cannot fail to achieve both virtue and happiness. If we are failing at one or the other, all it means is that we haven’t understood the base principle properly yet.

So I think that, in opposition to Kant, if the summum bonum is to be the combination of virtue and happness then the Stoics don’t invalidly derive one from the other. Instead, they avoid the trap by deriving both from a higher principle. And, in so doing, might solve all of Kant’s issues with the summum bonum.

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