Criticizing an Objectivist Lecture on Stoicism

Criticism of an Objectivist lecture on Stoicism by Aaron Smith.

Table of Contents

Minor Edits have been made to the original version

I watched a lecture by Aaron Smith that made some criticisms of Stoicism from an Objectivist perspective and wanted to comment. I'm someone who likes Ayn Rand's philosophy and also has gotten a lot of value from Stoicism. While I don't subscribe to Stoicism as an overall philosophy of life, I am sympathetic to its advocacy of the possibility of getting rid of negative emotions (meaning those emotions involving some element of suffering, such as anger, worry, and despair). This is a very controversial view that I think Objectivists should be more open to based on my understanding of Objectivism and of the psychology of Objectivist heroes, but I generally see modern Objectivists advocating a sort of emotional conventionalism that I don't agree with. So the purpose of this article is to use my reaction to Aaron Smith's lecture to discuss these issues and advocate for exploring a Stoic perspective on emotions. First I'll lay out Smith's view. Then I'll discuss some of the problems of negative emotions which I think Stoicism can help with, which I think Smith undersells. Then I'll discuss some examples in the Objectivist literature that I think reflect a Stoic attitude. Then I'll address a hard case for the Stoic perspective on emotions. My purpose isn't to lay out a grand unified theory of Objectivism and Stoicism but merely to indicate that I think there is some affinity and grounds for further exploration and synergy (as opposed to the more combative, competitive and critical tone which organized Objectivism has been taking towards Stoicism). I'm presuming some knowledge of Stoicism and Objectivism here - this isn't an introductory and self-contained piece.

Smith's View

Starting around 30 minutes in the lecture, Smith makes several related claims. He says (my transcription throughout) that "Valuing necessarily involves attachment" and that

To value something just is to acknowledge its importance to you and that it makes a difference to you whether you get it or not. It means desiring it and acting to gain and or keep it, not with dispassionate attachment, but with interest and investment. You can't value something without being attached in some way. So I think if the idea is to detach yourself from these things, it means to not value them. It means a life where you do not value these things.

Rand defined value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." ("The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness). Smith clearly has Rand's conception in mind (though he adds the idea of desiring to his definition, but I think desiring something is implied and so that's a reasonable addition). Where I would push back is on the necessity of attachment in valuing. Based on the rest of the discussion, attachment seems to involve suffering in Smith's conception. He continues:

And the second thing I'll say is that why are they so scared of pain and loss? Why is the idea, let's eliminate all these so-called negative emotions? I don't like that term. They're negative in the sense that it doesn't feel good, you know, to have them, to experience them. But they're a necessary concomitant of valuing. If your wife dies and you get yourself to the point where you don't experience grief, did you care anyway? Didn't you get yourself to a situation where it doesn't matter that much to you? You just got a puppy and it gets hit in the road and run over or something and you're like, "Eh, I knew it was mortal." Then you just don't really care that much about it, right? So the idea, if you get yourself to the point where you can strip away and not have to feel negative emotions, I don't think the result is that you feel positive emotions. Like wiping off the mud from your boots and underneath it's a nice shiny boot. I don't think that's what you get. I think what you get is the elimination of positive emotions. I mean, emotions are not things to get rid of or to dampen. You can experience emotions in an irrational way, for sure, and they can take control of you and you live in anger all your life. And yeah, of course, there are ways to do that. But emotions are the form in which you experience your connection to your values. Extirpating the ones that hurt weakens our connections to our values. To get yourself to the point where you no longer grieve the loss of a child or feel disappointment in failing to attain something important you wanted in life is to get yourself to not care about these things. What's left is not positive feeling, but the placid calm of spiritual death.

The first point I'm going to make is that I think Smith dramatically understates the significant downsides of negative emotions. They commonly lead to things like domestic violence, murder, and wasted lives. These are big problems not to be waved away. If you don't understand this point, it's difficult to understand why Stoics would want to minimize negative emotions. So I'm going to start my discussion there.

Extended Grief and Despair

Smith believes that experiencing certain negative emotions is a concomitant of valuing, and that a failure to experience those emotions indicates a failure to value. "If your wife dies and you get yourself to the point where you don't experience grief, did you care anyway?" I think Smith would agree that if one only grieved very little for one's wife, that would indicate that one did not care very much. So there isn't just an issue of grieving vs not grieving at all, but a proportional relationship between the extent of grieving and the extent of caring. One implication of this is that if one experiences a greater and more prolonged grief, then that can indicate a greater valuing of the person whose loss one is grieving. So all people whose grief endures less than that of the longest grieving person might be said to have loved their loved ones less than that longest-grieving person. Therefore, if we truly want to be able to demonstrate how much we cared for someone, we should allow their loss to utterly psychologically break us for life, for that will demonstrate the full measure of our devotion to and love for them.

This, I hope, strikes one as very perverse, and yet I think it is an implication of Smith's perspective. It is also a view that a Stoic actually confronted, in the form of a grieving mother who was still lost in the throes of grief years after her son's death and whom Seneca tried to console. People being lost in grief and despair for years is a common occurrence. Smith acknowledges that "You can experience emotions in an irrational way", but he gives no principles for addressing this particular irrationality (of being lost in despair), and in fact his perspective encourages and inflames said irrationality.

If grief and loss is a requirement of valuing, by what principle could one limit the experience of such loss? Any limitation would necessarily be asking people to value their loved ones less. One can make a principled argument for asking people to limit the experience of loss as much as possible, but that runs contrary to what Smith is saying about the necessity of grief and loss. (One can also say that one should only grieve for a "conventional" period of time, but I don't think that's very principled or convincing).

People stay lost in grief for extended periods of time because they agree with arguments along the lines Smith is advocating. They are attached to their grief as a reflection or indication of their love. Seneca mentions this when discusses how the mother he is trying to console is handling her grief:

Three years have already passed, and still your grief has lost none of its first poignancy, but renews and strengthens itself day by day, and has now dwelt so long with you that it has acquired a domicile in your mind, and actually thinks that it would be base to leave it.

(emphasis added).

He hits much the same point when, in his consolation, he discusses the example of a different Roman mother handling grief:

I do not say that she lacked the courage to shake off her grief, but she refused to be comforted, thought that it would be a second bereavement to lose her tears,

(emphasis added).

These quotes indicate that extended periods of grief have become an object of attachment for the mothers being discussed. They are actively wanting to stay in the grieving state and think that leaving it would itself be bad, a loss. This is the sort of perspective that is enabled by advocacy of pain and loss as a necessary concomitant of valuing.


Jealousy is fear of a type of loss. Roget's Thesaurus: "Fearful of the loss of position or affection: clutching, possessive." It is very common for people in our culture to think that while jealousy carried to excess can be bad, if you aren't at least a little jealous, you don't actually care about the person. So this is related to the idea Smith discussed in criticizing Stoicism that if you are totally indifferent to the loss of someone like a spouse, you didn't really care about them. While some people think a bit of jealousy is good and necessary, I think a perspective that views jealousy very negatively is also common, partially because it's pretty clear to people the harm that jealousy can cause, because it manifests so clearly and so often. People do things like engage in domestic violence or even commit murder in a jealous rage. Does the fact that their fear of loss was so strong as to motivate them to commit murder merely show the extent of their love and valuing, of which the jealous, murderous rage was a mere necessary concomitant? I hope your answer is "no". I think if one wants to criticize Stoicism, one needs to deal with issues like this – the real harm caused by things like jealous rage, which Stoicism offers some techniques for managing – rather than just cherry picking some examples on which Stoicism sounds particularly harsh and then letting that be one's case. A token acknowledgment that emotions can be irrational does not suffice either. "You can experience emotions in an irrational way, for sure, and they can take control of you and you live in anger all your life" says Smith. OK, and what's the superior (relative to Stoicism) Objectivist program for dealing with that extremely serious issue? Because Stoicism has techniques widely written about and discussed, and as someone who has been engaging with Objectivism for over 20 years, I have not seen that the Objectivist armamentarium for dealing with such problems is nearly as accessible and developed. Perhaps Objectivism could gain some value from Stoicism here?

Objectivist Examples of a Stoic Approach to Emotions

I think that if one looks at the actual content of Objectivism, and in particular certain scenes with or discussions of Objectivist heroes, one can see scenes that are at least compatible with a Stoic approach to emotions and valuing. I've got some examples below.

Roark and the Temple of the Human Spirit

I've written about this scene before and am just going to copy/paste and add a bit of commentary (inner quotes in bold):

There's a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that I think can be connected to the idea of preferred indifferents. To understand the meaning of this scene, it really helps if you’ve read the novel, so what follows is more of a reminder for people who have read it and not a summary for people who are unfamiliar with it. Roark is an architect who erected a temple to the human spirit for a client. Roark wasn’t aware that the temple job was part of a big plan by a villain, Ellsworth Toohey, to try to destroy him, and now Roark is dealing with that plan (e.g. getting sued by his client and attacked in the press). Here's the scene (between Roark and Dominique, with Roark speaking first in the excerpt below):
“I want you to know. What you’re thinking is much worse than the truth. I don’t believe it matters to me—that they’re going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don’t even know I’m hurt. But I don’t think so. If you want to carry it for my sake, don’t carry more than I do. I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain. You mustn’t look like that.”

> > “Where does it stop?”

> > “Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important.”

> > “You shouldn’t have built it. You shouldn’t have delivered it to the sort of thing they’re doing.”

> > “That doesn’t matter. Not even that they’ll destroy it. Only that it had existed.”

> > She shook her head. “Do you see what I was saving you from when I took commissions away from you? ... To give them no right to do this to you.... No right to live in a building of yours ... No right to touch you ... not in any way....”

Roark’s attitude is that the campaign against him and even the destruction of the temple he built don’t really matter. I don’t think he is saying that those things are completely 100% irrelevant to him. I think he’d prefer that the temple wasn’t ruined and that there was no campaign against him. But he thinks those things are not fundamentally important. They’re closer to an annoyance than something that is bothering him much. The building continuing to exist in the manner he designed it would be nice, because he could then continue to enjoy it. And there being no campaign against him would say something good about the world and would make it easier for him to get clients and whatnot. But those aren’t fundamental issues. The fact that he got to design and build it - to exercise his virtue - is what really matters fundamentally. His knowledge of that fact puts things in perspective and limits the degree to which he can be bothered by matters of lesser concern.

In light of the current discussion, I just add this question for consideration: does Roark's relative indifference to the Temple's destruction mean he didn't value it, didn't care about it, that it was nothing to him? Perhaps one could say "yes; what really mattered to him was building it, not the Temple itself." But I don't think that's quite right. I think he did value it, but just not in such a way that its destruction could cause him much suffering. The primary value for him was exercising his virtue in building the Temple; the Temple itself was nice, and was valued, but was fundamentally secondary. This is a very Stoic perspective.

YouTube Commenter with Rand Quotes About Roark

A YouTube comment from @koreysamuelson5156 on Smith's video directed me to some comments about Roark that Rand made in Journals of Ayn Rand (so thanks for that Korey!). This seemed like the most notable bit:

Nothing can really touch him. He is concerned only with what he does. Not how he feels. How he feels is entirely a matter of his own, which cannot be influenced by anything and anyone on the outside. His feeling is a steady, unruffled flame, deep and hidden, a profound joy of living and of knowing his power, a joy that is not even conscious of being joy, because it is so steady, natural and unchangeable. If outside life brings him disappointment—well, it is merely a detail of the battle. He will have to struggle harder—that’s all. The world becomes merely a place to act in. But not to feel in. The feeling—the whole [realm] of emotions—is in his [power] alone. He is a reason unto himself. He cannot feel differently. He was born that way.

I think that the bits about "How he feels is entirely a matter of his own, which cannot be influenced by anything and anyone on the outside.", the indifference to external disappointment, and especially "The feeling—the whole [realm] of emotions—is in his [power] alone." are very compatible with a Stoic approach to emotions and valuing. Rand's description of Roark is not of someone whose capacity for valuation is inextricably mixed up with a vulnerability to feelings of loss regarding the things he values. Outside disappointments are "merely a detail of the battle". And yet Roark still experiences a "profound joy" and not the placid calm of spiritual death that Smith talks about. I think Smith should explain how he interprets Roark given Roark's characterization in the novel and descriptions like Rand's above. From my perspective, Roark's attitude seems very compatible with Stoicism.

Galt Torture Scene

A climactic scene in Atlas Shrugged involves John Galt being tortured by the government using a device called the Ferris Persuader. The machine breaks down, and a mechanic comes to repair it, but can't figure it out:

“Do something!” Ferris was crying to the mechanic. “Don’t just stand there! Do something! Fix it! I order you to fix it!”
“But I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” said the man, blinking.
“Then find out!”
“How am I to find out?”
“I order you to fix it! Do you hear me? Make it work—or I’ll fire you and throw you in jail!”
“But I don’t know what’s wrong with it.” The man sighed, bewildered. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s the vibrator that’s out of order,” said a voice behind them; they whirled around; Galt was struggling for breath, but he was speaking in the brusque, competent tone of an engineer. “Take it out and pry off the aluminum cover. You’ll find a pair of contacts fused together. Force them apart, take a small file and clean up the pitted surfaces. Then replace the cover, plug it back into the machine—and your generator will work.”
There was a long moment of total silence.
The mechanic was staring at Galt; he was holding Galt’s glance—and even he was able to recognize the nature of the sparkle in the dark green eyes: it was a sparkle of contemptuous mockery.
He made a step back. In the incoherent dimness of his consciousness, in some wordless, shapeless, unintelligible manner, even he suddenly grasped the meaning of what was occurring in that cellar.
He looked at Galt—he looked at the three men—he looked at the machine. He shuddered, he dropped his pliers and ran out of the room.
Galt burst out laughing.

Galt demonstrates a certain indifference to his predicament. He was just being tortured and is giving them instructions on how to fix the machine. He's laughing at the situation. Is this apparent indifference because Galt doesn't value his life? No. I think he has a clear-eyed, full context understanding of the situation (namely, that the people torturing him are metaphysically dependent on him, and that he is making this clear enough to get the point through to fairly unintelligent people). This understanding results from ideas which are deeply integrated into this psyche and allow him to face even torture with resilience and laughter.

Interestingly, Seneca wrote specifically of how to handle torture. He made it clear that he thought torture was undesirable, but that it, like anything else, was an opportunity for practicing virtue:

I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage.

I think Seneca would have appreciated Galt's calmness and laughter on the rack.

The Case of the Dead Spouse

Meaning in Cultural Context vs What's Possible

I want to return to a point we saw Smith raise earlier – the issue of a dead spouse and one's reaction to them. Smith asked, "If your wife dies and you get yourself to the point where you don't experience grief, did you care anyway?" One initial distinction I would make in discussing this issue is what such a reaction could potentially mean in the context of a very enlightened person, versus what it would likely mean in our current cultural context. I would concede that, given people's existing ideas and emotional reactions and whatnot in the culture, if one did not have a strong emotional reaction to one's wife dying, that would likely mean that one did not actually care about them. But that is a separate issue from what such a reaction could indicate in the context of an ideal Stoic (or "Stoic Sage"). In other words, we need to avoid judging the significance of the emotional reactions of a Stoic Sage by the significance of those same reactions in the context of a less enlightened person, because the significance of such reactions changes dramatically given the different context.

Keeping Relevant Context at the Ready

The unemotional Stoic Sage's lack of reaction does not indicate indifference to their wife's death. Instead, it simply indicates that they've been able to integrate certain ideas so deeply into their psyche that they are the Sage's automatic emotional reactions. These ideas might say things like:

  • people being values in your life for a while is better than them not being values in your life at all, so rather than mourn their loss, you should appreciate the time you did have them in your life. You came out ahead for having had them in your life, not behind.
  • all people are mortal and so death is (currently) an inevitable part of life.
  • the loss of a good person from your life is an objective loss, but time spent in emotional pain over the loss is just aggravating the loss.

So the difference in emotional reaction for the Stoic Sage isn't an issue of being hard-hearted and not caring but simply having a different perspective that is well-integrated into their worldview. The well-integrated bit is important – even if someone agreed with some or all of the above intellectually, it is easy (and understandable) to drop the context of those ideas in the middle of a major loss. The Stoic Sage, however, like Galt on the torture's rack or Roark contemplating the destruction of the Temple, doesn't drop the context of their philosophical ideas in the midst of a great external stress, but keeps them ever-present, and this allows them to react differently.


I think that there's a lot of points within Stoicism worth criticizing, particularly once you get past the psychological/emotional content and into areas like metaphysics. I also think there are some potential dangers involved in making changes to one's psychology using Stoic ideas, which I might talk about at some point. That said, I am unsatisfied by the quality of criticism coming from mainstream Objectivist sources. I also think Objectivism is missing an opportunity to engage with a tradition that can actually help people better understand the psychology of Rand's heroes. I think there is a frequent issue that Objectivists struggle with where Rand's heroes seem cold, unrealistic, or other such things. This attitude does not generally reflect a rejection of such heroes on an intellectual or rational level, but on an emotional level. There is a big "gap" between emotions as people typically experience them in our culture and emotions as Rand's heroes seem to experience them, and I think that this "gap" makes it difficult for many Objectivists to fully take on board and integrate Objectivism in their lives in a deep way. I think Stoic ideas about emotions and values can help with this problem. I think mainstream Objectivism should be trying to exploit this and other values from Stoicism instead of (poorly) fighting with Stoicism from the perspective of being a competitor.

Acknowledgements: My thinking about Stoicism has been developed by reading the originals (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) along with modern Stoics (especially William B. Irvine and Donald Robertson). My thinking about Objectivism has been developed by reading Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. My thinking about both topics and many others has been further developed by my past participation in the Critical Fallibilism community and engagement with the ideas of Elliot Temple. Note that any errors are my own.