Stoicism and ἀκρασία


ἀκρασία (akrasia) means “to be without might,” and it’s often used in the case of a lack of moral will.  Other Hellenic schools said we might know what the appropriate course or action might be, but through weakness of will, we fail.  This failing is caused, they say, by ἀκρασία.

socrates_lawThe Stoics, however, deny that this occurs.  Instead they hearken back to Socrates who said that knowledge of virtue was sufficient.  If we are doing something else then we don’t really know.  If we truly believed that virtue were the highest good, then some temporary pleasure or social capital would not keep us from it.  Socrates is reported to have denied ἀκρασία. in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras.

Since we clearly often fail, we must not really get it.  We don’t know.

The Stoics denied ἀκρασία, they denied that you could know and not do.  The Stoics saw themselves, as most Hellenic schools, as the ideological inheritors of Socrates’ teachings, so on the face it’s not a surprise they too would deny the akratic position.  Indeed, there are other reasons as well.  The Stoics claimed that man is so constituted that he might become a Sage, even if he does in fact falls short of that mark.  ἀκρασία hold a seed of poison which makes that an untenable proposition.

What we have, goes back to the core question of good and evil.  In the wake of how thoroughly the Abrahamic faiths have shapped the cultural waters, the nature of good and evil is an important question to re-evaluate.  zoaAs early Christianity marched westward, it picked up bits and pieces of the native cultures with which it came in contact.  This was, objectively, and excellent method of proselytizing.   In the Old Testament, you’ll find mention an adversary of God, but the figure of Satan as we know it today is not to be found.  The idea of an ultimate evil to parallel the ultimate good is found in Zoroastrianism, and one of things it contributed to Christian thought.

The Stoic position is quite different.  Evil isn’t a “force” in the universe.  Instead, it is simply the shadow cast by interfering with the light.  The nature of rational creatures and free will is such that we miss the mark on occasion.

Epictetus reminds us of this in Enchiridion 27:

“As a mark is not set up for the purpose of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.”

The question of Good and Evil in Stoicism is large enough to merit it’s own discussion.   So for the moment if we allow that the common western (read: Abrahamic) interpretation is not the only one (and maybe not the correct one), let’s take it for granted the Stoics do not assent to a force of evil per se operating in the cosmos.  We’ll look at Stoic Good and Evil in a latter post.

ἀκρασία allows for a fundamental weakness in humans.  An Original Sin of sorts which despite knowing virtue (really knowing it) we choose something else.  This is entire in contrast to the Socratic (in this case optimistic) position that virtue is a type of knowledge, that it can be taught, and when it is understand it is unassailable.

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