Look at this beautiful clip of Martha Nussbaum being interviewed – surely one of the weirder and more wonderful bits of TV philosophy. She’s talking about the difference between the Aristotelian and the Stoic conceptions of eudaimonia (or a good life): the Stoics claim that the good man can maintain his virtue and happiness in ANY circumstances, however dire. Aristotle (and Martha Nussbaum) claim that, unfortunately, the good life is, to some extent, at the mercy of fortune, and such terrible things can happen to us that we are destroyed.
I actually think humans can cope with some pretty terrible things – look at the example of James Stockdale, who used Stoic philosophy not just to cope with seven years imprisonment and torture by the VietCong, but actually to thrive, and use the opportunity to assert his freedom, dignity and agency. The example of Viktor Frankl also comes to mind – he did not allow the horror of the Holocaust to reduce him to an animal, but asserted his moral freedom in the face of barbarism. That’s what the Stoics meant.
But Nussbaum is right, probably, that the Stoics go too far in asserting human invulnerability to Fortune. Sadly, fortune can rob us of our capacity for moral freedom, because it can rob us of our capacity for rationality – as we are now finding out, with the rising epidemic in Alzheimer’s and dementia. So it’s not enough to assert our dignity as humans through our rationality, because that rationality is fragile, and will one day leave us, while we remain as persons.
This brings us to the ideas of Jean Vanier – see my interview with him below – and the idea of even mentally handicapped people still being persons worthy of love and respect. Nussbaum has also asserted that every human has dignity, whether mentally handicapped or not. But if we don’t base that dignity on reason (as the Greeks and Kant did), then what do we base it on?