It's Stoic Week: When Should I Assent?

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Happy Stoic Week everybody! I hope you're all enjoying it without growing too emotionally attached. This week, like everything, is transitory.

Ironically, Stoicism itself has proven to be pretty long-lasting. The ancient Greek philosophical school spread throughout Rome and is still practiced today by dozens of people around the world. Modern Stoics seem to focus on the philosophy's ethical teachings, insisting that we remember our role in the world, that pain isn't really so bad, and that virtue is the best thing to pursue. Stoicism is a rich source for really practical advice about embracing one's fate, tempering one's desires, and finding peace with others.

While I'm sure the Stoics would be pleased (but not overly pleased!) that their work survived so long, they may be a bit confused. While ethics was of utmost importance to many Stoics, a basic tenet was that all branches of philosophy are inter-connected. How can you act ethically without understanding the world in which you're an actor? How can you know what is good/right without Having an understanding of knowledge? With that in mind, for this Stoic Week, let's try to give this interconnectedness its due by posing the question "When should I assent to something?"

Faced with deciding whether or not something is true, a classic Stoic response is to withhold judgement. The idea is that if you want to be a sage (perfect at reasoning), you should refrain from agreeing or disagreeing with something until you have enough facts. Is the total number of stars even or odd? *shrug* What is the least number of pebbles it takes to make a heap? *shrug*.

This can only go on for so long before the sage just looks like an idiot. Surely the perfect embodiment of reason would agree to something. Worse, how can you complete your Stoic duty without believing that you know how to do it? In order to act for good, you need to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately, you need to believe something.

Here's where it gets interesting. Most Stoics, particularly the early Greek ones, believed that a sage could be justified in agreeing with something iff they have good reason to believe it. The Stoics developed a rich system of logic to allow for inferences based on sensory impressions. Iff you can reach a conclusion by applying logic to a sensory impression that is based on the something real, they you can assent to that conclusion.

But this straightforward idea didn't sell as well in Rome. With one foot in Stoicism and the other in the Skeptic tradition, Cicero pointed out that - from the point of view of the would-be-assenter - we have no way of knowing whether our sensory experiences are in fact based in reality. You may think you saw your friend repairing a fence, but it could have been an evil twin imposter! Because any accurate sensory impression could be indistinguishable from an inaccurate impression, the perfect sage could never assent to anything.

Rather than seeking certainty, Cicero advocates looking at things probabilistically. Sure it *could* be an evil twin, but it's probably just your friend. As a basis for acting ethically, just go with what you know is probably true. Honestly, it's all we have.

But is that right? Some Stoics would go on to insist that we really can rely on some sensory impressions. To take a modern example, hold out your hand. Can you really fail to assent to the proposition "There is my hand."?

So join us in talking about empirical justification and its role in deciding how to act. Maybe you can get just a little closer to being a perfect sage, right here during Stoic Week.