Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?

by Christopher Gill
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The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.

The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues, wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.

The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.

This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.

First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.

Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.

How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.

Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.

This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.

What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.

Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.

I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.

Further Reading

A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.

Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.

Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).

This post is the transcript of Professor Gill’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Hard Truths and Happiness by John Sellars

Hard Truths and Happiness

by John Sellars

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There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.

Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.

What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.

In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.

I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.

There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).

Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.

This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.

Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.

But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature.

By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.

Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)

To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:

Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)

Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).

Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.

What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.

The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.

The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world.

I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to life well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works.

This post is the transcript of the talk  Prof. Sellars had intended to provide at the Stoicon 2016 conference.  He was unfortunately not able to attend this year.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  This article appeared originally in his blog, Miscellanea Stoica.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

Interview: Ronald Pies

Interview with Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Ronald PiesQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a psychiatrist, medical ethicist, amateur philosopher, and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In short, I can’t quite figure out what to do with myself!

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

Having retired from clinical practice, I no longer have occasion to use Stoic principles in my psychotherapeutic work, but I did make use of those principles for many years. Of course, the overlap between CBT, REBT and Stoicism has been discussed many times, and the parallels are very clear–even though the Stoic tradition has many rich layers of spiritual meaning not intrinsically a part of CBT and REBT. (That said, Albert Ellis, PhD –the “father” of REBT– explicitly acknowledged his debt to Epictetus, as you know).

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I think I came to Stoicism via REBT, and later, via Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) and the rabbinical tradition. As I try to show in my book, The Three-Petalled Rose, there is an immense amount of “overlap” between the rabbinical tradition and that of the Stoics. And while Maimonides is usually associated with Aristotle, much of his work as a physician (and arguably, as the “Father of Psychosomatic Medicine”) drew on ideas developed much earlier by the Stoics.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Although I am indebted to the Stoics for their cognitive approach to what might be called “human happiness” (or better, eudaimonia), I am most appreciative of their ethical and moral framework; in particular, the idea that the person of virtue cannot be harmed by anything (e.g., the opinion of others, misfortune, etc.) so long as he or she continues to be guided by virtue. And I am also grateful, in particular, to Marcus Aurelius for his views on “duty”; e.g., “I do my duty. Nothing else troubles me.” Clearly, this overlaps with the Stoic view of happiness or eudaimonia.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

As the world seems to grow more chaotic and brutal by the day –and, yes, I know Stephen Pinker has argued against this view– I find a greater need than ever for Stoic principles of reason, moderation, restraint, and tolerance. Stoicism, it seems to me, is a bulwark against extremism in all its vile forms – and this is a great gift bequeathed to us in our rough and ramshackle times.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

As I confront my own aging, and the illness and frailty of family and friends, I am comforted by the wisdom of Seneca (cf. On the Shortness of Life) and Cicero (cf. On Old Age). And Stoic principles help me cope, nearly every day, with “the slings and arrows” life sends our way, from professional disappointments to personal losses. Perhaps most important, the Stoic emphasis on “gratitude” helps sustain me through rough times. Here, the Stoics are at one with the rabbis of the Talmud; e.g., “Ben Zoma says, Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion.” [Pirke Avot 4.1]

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

There are so many, it’s very hard to choose one or two! I suppose if forced, I would pick that of Marcus Aurelius: “There is but one thing of real value – to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.”

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

There are many excellent introductions to the topic, including but not limited to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford U. Press, 2008). But it’s hard to beat Marcus Aurelius himself, especially in the translation of his Meditations titled, The Emperor’s Handbook, vibrantly translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks (Scribner, 2002)

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Yes, Donald – I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and others who post on the “Stoicism Today” website, and for this opportunity to share a bit of my own perspective. So, thank you!


Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Stoic Theology, Science, and Love: Thoughts on Stoic Week 2016 by William O. Stephens

Stoic Theology, Science, and Love: Thoughts on Stoic Week 2016

by William O. Stephens

WOS 2016 May

I’ve been studying and writing about Stoicism since about 1988. I’ve been professing about Stoicism to undergraduate students at Creighton University in Nebraska since 1990. When the opportunity to participate in Stoic Week 2016 arose, I figured that it was high time for me take the plunge. I’m glad I did.

When completing the online questionnaire, the first thing that struck me was how clear and well-crafted the questions were. I was also impressed with how the framers of this questionnaire combined items that test one’s beliefs in Stoic doctrines with items that test one’s psychological dispositions. This is as we should expect. Stoic thinking inspired the contemporary psychological theories of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Thus, the scientific application of Stoic therapies is entirely appropriate. But what surprised me in taking the Stoic Week questionnaire was the item that tested my belief that the universe is an enormous, rational, living being that can accurately be called ‘God.’

On the one hand, the surviving fragments certainly seem to indicate that both the earliest Stoics (Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Chrysippus) held this theological belief. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is an earnest expression of this theological belief, for example. What about the later Roman Stoics? To judge from their writings, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius also believed that Zeus was the Right Reason steering the cosmos. Indeed, Epictetus argues that since sheep produce wool and milk, and we can make clothes from their wool and cheese from their milk, divine providence exists. Epictetus believes that Zeus our cosmic Father. Zeus makes plants grow and fruit. Zeus gives us animals so that we can domesticate them and sustain ourselves using them as we wish. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, seems to grant the possibility that the atomists are right, and that there is no divine providence. But, Marcus reasons that if it is all just atoms swerving together and apart, then morality itself disappears. Marcus cannot countenance such a world, so he clings to the theological belief that the universe is rationally organized by a supreme Stoic ‘God.’

So, must a modern stoic share this theological belief in a god responsible for plants, the domestication of some nonhuman animals, and the organization of the universe? Surely not. Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism was published in 1998. Becker offers a contemporary stoicism (uncapitalized) free of theological commitments. Becker’s neostoicism is about perfecting one’s agency in order to live one’s life as well as possible. To live well means to live virtuously and happily, making the best decisions every day all things considered. The lessons Becker draws from the ancient Stoics are aimed at this practical, entirely secular endeavor. Becker shows that one can adopt the ethics of the ancient Stoics without buying into Stoic theology. A modern stoic who takes science seriously avoids the problems of explaining how Zeus makes trees give fruit and how Zeus makes sheep produce wool and milk for our clothes and cheese. Modern stoics can praise Charles Darwin and the science of evolution in lieu of singing a hymn to the Zeus of Cleanthes.

On the other hand, ancient Stoicism exerted a wide, deep, and lasting influence on early Christianity. My students didn’t know that the Serenity Prayer derives from the ancient Stoics. Thus, the appearance of the Serenity Prayer in Stoic Week is apt:

God, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
the courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to tell the difference.

For a modern stoic, prayer is silly. If God helps those who help themselves, then really we have to help ourselves because no one and nothing else will. So, for a modern stoic, the Serenity Prayer really just amounts to urging oneself to be serene, courageous, and wise. It made sense for the early Christians to appropriate the wisdom of the Stoics and theologize it. But a scientific-minded modern stoic needs no theology at all to apply Stoic therapies to her daily living. Psychological health need not appeal to bad metaphysics. The ancient Stoics were physicalists who believed that human souls were as physical as human bodies. But a modern stoic can dispense with the notion of a soul and turn to our best empirical neuroscience instead.

What a modern stoic cannot dispense with is love. That’s why it was so appropriate for the theme of Stoic Week 2016 to be love. The ancient Stoics were, of course, philosophers. To be a philosopher is to be lover of wisdom. Thus, Stoics love wisdom. Indeed, the Stoics argued that our special human ability is reason, and the perfection of reason is virtue. The Stoics further reasoned that a virtuous person has a well-toned soul. Again, Stoic physicalism insists that the soul is a physical thing, not a non-physical phantom as the Platonists believed. The virtuous person, the Stoics believed, has a well-toned, well-conditioned soul, and this psychic disposition is what they called wisdom. Thus, the Stoic wise person—the sage—is possessed of the virtue of wisdom. This wisdom is then applied to all the different spheres of activity in life. Wisdom applied to our appetites for food, drink, and sex is what is called temperance. Wisdom applied to our interactions with other people and the distribution of resources is what is called justice. Wisdom applied to what we ought to be confident about and what we ought to be cautious about is what is called courage. So, then, how is a modern stoic to think about love?

The Stoic Week 2016 theme of love invokes quotations from Marcus Aurelius about benevolence and kindness towards others and treating others fairly and impartially. This is a decent understanding of how Marcus thinks about justice. But the Stoic Week authors go astray when they present Stoic love simply in terms of justice. There are many different kinds of love. Philanthropy, the love of human beings, is only one of them. There is also our love of friends. The love we have for our friends is not modulated by concerns of justice. We give our friends gift and we are partial to them. There’s nothing wrong with our partiality for our friends. We do not violate justice by being partial to our friends. Nor do we violate justice by being even more partial to our closest loved ones, spouses, and children. This love for our spouses, domestic partners, and children is what most non-philosophers regard as “real love.” So it is disappointing that the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 make no mention whatsoever of how a Stoic loves his significant other, children, or parents.

Are there ancient Stoics who discuss the love of parents for their children? Most certainly. Epictetus, the slave turned famous teacher, says that once you have a child, it is no longer in your power not to love that child. The bond between parent and child is both natural and strong, and Epictetus recognizes this. Now Epictetus chose not to marry and have children. Instead, he devoted decades of his life to teaching Stoicism to students. Late in life Epictetus adopted an orphaned child and welcomed a woman into his home to help him raise and care for his adopted child. Was Epictetus derelict in his duty by not marrying and reproducing when in his prime? His master Musonius Rufus argues explicitly that people (including Stoics) have a duty to marry and beget LOTS of children for the good of the state and the good of the human race. So why didn’t Epictetus heed this advice of his teacher? Though we can only speculate, I will make bold to offer an explanation of this.

Epictetus argues that only the wise know how to love. He reasons as follows.

  1. People are earnest about bad things, or things that in no respect concern them, or good things.
  2. People are earnest neither about bad things nor about things that in no respect concern them.
  3. Hence, people are earnest only about good things. [From 1, 2, disjunctive syllogism]
  4. If one is earnest about a thing, then one loves that thing.
  5. Hence, people love good things. [From 3, 4, modus ponens]
  6. If one has knowledge of good things, then one knows how to love (good things).
  7. If one is unable to distinguish good things from bad things or from things that are neither, then one does not know how to love (good things).
  8. The wise person has knowledge of good things, bad things, and things that are neither.
  9. Hence, the wise person knows how to love (good things).
  10. The non-wise are unable to distinguish good things from bad things from things that are neither.
  11. Hence, the non-wise do not know how to love (good things). [From 7, 10, modus ponens]
  12. Therefore, only the wise person knows how to love (good things). [From 9, 11]

This argument is remarkable. Epictetus believes that unless you know that the only truly good thing is virtue, that the only truly bad thing is vice, and that everything else (life, death, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, political clout, political powerlessness, health, illness, etc.) is neither good nor bad, then you have no power to love. This is because the only truly lovable thing is goodness, virtue. Non-Stoics who think they love pleasure are mistaken, because pleasure is not a good thing. To think you love beauty is a mistake, since one can only be earnest and take seriously virtue, moral integrity, wisdom. To successfully love, Epictetus argues, is to love good things. Fame, celebrity, health, beauty, and wealth are all fleeting baubles, according to the Stoics. The only truly admirable thing is virtue (wisdom). The only thing that wins the respect of a Stoic is honesty, integrity, courage, justice, temperance, and all the other names we have for the one state of mind called ‘virtue’ or ‘wisdom.’

So, then, this bring us back to the love of others. Many non-stoics believe that the way to love others is to improve their material conditions. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Liberate captives. Treat the sick. Empower the oppressed. (Or: teach the hungry how to fish.) While these acts of humanitarianism are certainly dictated by a Stoic’s commitment to justice, they are motivated by benevolence, kindness, and/or a sense of fairness. Social justice goes hand in hand with philanthropic benevolence. But the virtue of benevolence is directed toward all human beings, not any one or few specific individuals.

Were there individuals that Epictetus loved prior to his adoption of the orphaned child? I think the evidence is clear. These were the individuals sitting in his classroom. Epictetus loved his students. He loved his students as their teacher and mentor. I suggest that in teaching them Stoicism, he believed that he was best equipping them to pursue wisdom and become virtuous. Only by gaining wisdom could his students learn what was good, what was bad, and what was neither. Only by becoming Stoics could they develop the ability to love good things. Thus, the way that Epictetus loved others was by teaching them the Stoic wisdom they had to gain in order to be able to love others too.

Whether we love others and treat them in loving ways is up to us. Whether others love us and treat us in loving ways is up to them, not us. Again, we discover another gem of Stoic wisdom from Epictetus: Love others freely. Don’t make your love of them conditional upon them loving you. What is lovable in others is their goodness, honesty, candor, sincerity, generosity, courage, perseverance, faithfulness, decency, integrity, kindness, affection, warmth, and fairness. Virtue is to be taken very seriously. Virtue is lovable. Epictetus tried to model to his students being serious about becoming the very best person he could possibly become. That is what good role models do. The best teachers inspire us to become better persons. Thanks to his student Arrian writing down the lectures he heard from his master Epictetus, we modern stoics can continue to be inspired by the great teacher Epictetus even today. And while the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 do a good job of featuring generally apt quotations from Marcus Aurelius and to a lesser extent Seneca and Musonius Rufus, it’s unfortunate that the Discourses of Epictetus were so neglected as a source of Stoic wisdom on this year’s theme of love.

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine

Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott

by William Irvine

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Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

Audio Recordings from Stoicon 2016

Audio recordings from Stoicon 2016, available for download as MP3 files.

Stoicon 2016 was a huge success!

You can now download MP3 audio recordings of the talks below…  Here’s the opening talk by Massimo Pigliucci called “Stoicism 101”.

Stoicon 2016 Logo

You can download the files by right-clicking on the speaker’s name and selecting the Save link as… or Download option from your browser’s context menu.

  1. Donald Robertson
    Stoicism, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Therapy
  2. Julia Annas
    Is Stoic Virtue as Off-putting as it Seems?
  3. William Irvine
    On Becoming an Insult Pacifist
  4. Lawrence Becker
    Stoic Ethics-in-Action
  5. Debbie Joffe Ellis
    Albert Ellis, A Model of Resiliency, Compassion, and Stoicism in Action
  6. Christopher Gill
    Can you be a Stoic and a Political Activist?
  7. Cinzia Arruzza
    Let us Take Care of Ourselves, Stoic Exercises and Foucault
  8. Jules Evans
    Stoicism as a Wellbeing Intervention in the Workplace, prisons and Mental Health Charities
  9. KEYNOTE – Ryan Holiday
    The Daily Stoic: Practical Philosophy for Pragmatic People

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report 

by Tim LeBon

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This report gives the demographics for Stoic Week 2016 which took place between October Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October. Future reports will follow providing analysis of how taking part affected well-being.

The headlines are:

  • The ratio of males to females was 66% to 33%.
  • Over 43% of respondents are from USA.
  • The majority of respondents have never participated in Stoic week before.
  • Less people completed the questionnaires compared to last year (1798 down from 2503) although the numbers registering for Stoic Week actually increased (3365 up from 3080).

Below are 5 tables summarising all the facts and figures and 2015 comparisons

 

Gender Total % 2015 %
Male 1183 66 65
Female 602 33 34
didn’t say 13 1 1

Table 1: Stoic Week 2016 by gender

 

Age Total % 2015 %
over 55 234 13 17
46-55 314 17 18
36-45 382 21 23
26-35  455 25 25
18-25 394 22 16
Under 18 17 1 2

Table 2: Stoic Week 2016 by age

 

Location Total   % 2015 %
USA 774 43 42
Australasia  85 5 5
Canada 215 12 16
Europe (outside UK)) 310 17 15
UK 255 14 17
Africa 10 1 1
Asia 51 3 2
South & Central America 54 3 1
Other 36 2 2

 Table 3: Stoic Week 2015 by geographic location

 

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Total % 2015 %
0 1389 77 78
1 253 14 16
2 101 6 4
3 48 3 2
4 12 1 0

Table 4: Stoic Week 2016 : Previous participation

 

Knowledge of Stoicism Total     % 2015 %
None 202 11 13
Novice 594 33 32
I know a bit  705 39 38
I know quite a bit but not an expert 288 16 16
Expert 13 1 1

Table 5: Stoic Week 2016 : Self-rating of knowledge of Stoicism

 

Whilst the overall picture is not unhealthy, here are some questions to consider – answers please in the comments section!

  • Why does Stoic Week seem to appeal more to men? How can we get the gender ratio more equal?
  • Can Stoic Week spread to other geographical areas? What would facilitate this?
  • Is it realistic to expect people to participate more than once in Stoic Week? If so, would changing the materials help?
  • What should we base the handbook on next year? We’ve had Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should it be based more on Seneca? Or is it fine as it is?

Let us know your thoughts.