In The Stoic Ideal, I stated that the Stoic ideal is "is for us impossible, and so no ideal at all." The ideal of the Stoic sage is the attainment of a state of god-like impassibility by means of a retreat into the inner citadel of the self, a retreat of such a nature that one is no longer affected -- unless the sage wants to be affected -- by anything not in his power. My double-barreled thesis, aphoristically put, is that (i) Stoic impassibility is for us humans an impossibility, and thus (ii) cannot be an ideal for beings of our constitution. In illustration of my thesis I adduced Jesus on the cross: Jesus died in agony like a man, even though, if he was God, he could have realized the Stoic ideal. Of course my argument was not the following:
1. Christianity is true and Jesus is our Exemplar
2. Jesus did not exhibit on the cross or elsewhere the behavior of a Stoic sage
3. The Stoic ideal cannot be our ideal.
I did not argue this way because this is not the way philosophers qua philosophers argue. They argue from premises that do not rest on faith. My argument was this:
4. What is not in our power to achieve cannot be an ideal for us.
5. Stoic impassibiity is not in our power to achieve.
3. The Stoic ideal cannot be our ideal.
The evidence for (5) is overwhelming. I have never met a Stoic sage, and neither have you. Some people are more stoic than others, and there are some Stoic philosophers about; but a philosopher is not the same as a sage. A philosopher is a mere aspirant, a seeker of wisdom; a sage has reached the goal.
The background assumption, (4), is open to question. I have deployed this principle in other contexts, and it seems to me to be a sound one. It is a generalization of the 'ought' implies 'can' principle: if I morally ought to do X, then it must be in my power to do X. Contrapositively, if it is not in my power to do X, then I have no moral obligation to do X. My principle is a generalization of the familiar Kantian principle because it covers not only the obligatory but also the supererogatory. So I call it the Generalized 'Ought' Implies 'Can' Principle. Roughly, an action or state is supererogatory if it is good to do or achieve but not bad to leave undone or unachieved. But an astute reader took issue with my principle that genuine ideals must be achievable:
I wonder, do you really want to discriminate against ideals that may be practically impossible for us to achieve?
Take anamartia. Errorlessness. Every time I go out on the tennis court I aim for an errorless set & match. Never gotten close. Every time I write a long document (under time pressure) I try for an errorless document, but there are always some mistakes & typos. I don't want to back off and accept a certain error rate as OK. It isn't OK. In principle and ideally I could be errorless and that's what I want to be. That ideal motivates me. I keep trying. I am not discouraged.
It is not clear that this is a counterexample to my principle. The reader says that he "could be errorless" in his slinging of words or hitting of balls. If that means that he has the ability to be errorless, then I say that errorlessness is a genuine ideal for him, even if he has never yet achieved errorlessness. (Something can be achievable by a person even if it has never been achieved by that person.) Surely my man ought to strive to perform to the very best of his abilities. If 'ought' is too strong, then I say his striving to perform to the best of his abilities is better than his not so striving. Either way, errorlessness is a genuine ideal for him. It is a genuine ideal for him because it is achievable by him. But he said, "in principle and ideally." Those are vague phrases in need of analysis.
To be errorless in principle could mean that a) there is no narrowly-logical or broadly-logical bar to his being errorless; b) there is no nomological bar to his being errorless; c) both (a) and (b). Clearly, errorlessness is possible for my reader in either or both of these senses. Neither the laws of logic nor the laws of physics rule out his being errorless. But satisfying the logical and nomological conditions does not suffice to make errorlessness a genuine ideal for him. For that more is needed: he must have the ability to be errorless and be in circumstances in which his abilities can be exercised.
So I stick to my claim that nothing can be a genuine ideal for a person unless it is concretely achievable by that person given his actual abilities and circumstances and not merely achievable 'in principle' by that person.
It may help if we distinguish two senses of 'ideal.' In one sense of the term, any desirable goal that one sets for himself is an ideal. But that is a use of 'ideal' so loose as to be useless. Suppose I desire to slice two hours off my marathon time the next time I run that distance. In one sense, that would be an 'ideal' time for me. But in the strict sense in which I am using the word, such an accomplishment is not achievable by me and so no ideal for me at all. But it may be an ideal for you.
I am tempted to insist that (4) is a self-evident practical principle, as self-evident as the principle of which it is the generalization. I rather doubt that I can prove it using premises more evident than it, but talking around it a bit may help.
Ideals must be realizable if they are to be ideals. The ideal 'points' to a possible realization. If that be denied then it is being denied that the ideal stands in relation to the real when the ideal has its very sense in contradistinction to the real. At this point I could bring in analogies, though analogies seldom convince. The possible is possibly actual. If you say X is possible but not possibly actual, then I say you don't understand the notion of possibility. Or consider dispositions. If a glass is disposed to shatter if suitably struck, then it must be possible for it to shatter. Analogously, if such-and-such is an ideal for a person, then it must be possible -- and not just logically or nomologically -- for the person to realize that ideal.
I believe this is an important topic because having the wrong ideals is worse than having no ideals at all. Many think that to be idealistic is good. But surely it is not good without qualification. Think of Nazi ideals, Communist ideals, leftist ideals and of their youthful and and earnest and sincere proponents. Those are wrongheaded ideals, and some of them are wrongheaded because not realizable. The classless society; the dictatorship of the proletariat; the racially pure society; the society in which everyone is made materially equal by the power of the state. Ideals like these cannot be achieved, and if the attempt is made terrible evils will be the upshot. The Commies broke a lot of eggs in the 20th century (100 million by some estimates) but still didn't achieve their fabulous and impossible omelet.
Their ideals were not realizable, not warranted by the actual facts of human nature.
I suggest the same is true of the ideal of Stoic impassibility: it is not warranted by the actual facts of human nature. This is not to say that most of us would not be a lot better if we were more stoic and detached in our responses to what is not in our control.