New Video: Chris Gill on Stoic Ethics – How to Relate to Other People (Stoic Week London Day)

Chris Gill on Stoic Ethics – How to Relate to Other People

Hear Chris Gill give us a talk on one of the most important part of living the daily life of a Stoic – namely, how can we engage with other people? Please also find a script of the talk below.

Stoic Ethics: How to relate wisely to others

One of the key messages of Stoic ethics – perhaps the key message – is that all human beings are capable of achieving happiness by their own efforts. This is because happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia) depends ultimately not on acquiring external things such as money or status, or even health or the well-being of our families, but on developing virtue or the virtues. The virtues are the set of qualities that are essential to a human life, qualities such as wisdom, courage, self-control and justice. Stoics believe that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing these virtues. In that sense, we all have the basis for creating our own happiness: it is ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’. They also believe that virtue alone is ‘good’ in a complete sense, whereas the other things which we value – which it is natural for us to value – such as health are of a lesser value, they are (in Stoic terminology) ‘preferred indifferents’. (See A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge 1987 = LS, sections 58, 60-1, 63.)

But if this is right, the question naturally arises: what value do we place on relationships with other people?  If our happiness depends on ourselves and not, ultimately, on others and on their survival and wellbeing, what room is there for love and commitment to others? Some modern scholars (such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum) have questioned whether there is room for love in the full sense within Stoicism, and they talk about Stoic ‘detachment’ from other people. They refer especially to Stoic ideas about accepting the death of those who are close to us, ideas I’ll discuss a bit later. In ancient Greece and Rome, incidentally, nobody, as far as I know, criticised the Stoics for ‘detachment’ of this kind: so this is a purely modern view. (R. Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind, Oxford 2000: 181-4, M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge 2001. 359-60).

I think the view that the Stoics are ‘detached’ from other people is mistaken, and that Stoicism places a very positive value on interpersonal and social relationships. However, I recognise that there is a challenge we need to try to meet: to show how the idea that happiness depends ultimately on us is compatible with giving a profound value to other people and our relationships to them.

One way of approaching this question is through Stoic ideas about ethical development. Stoics believe that our whole life as human beings – and not just our youth or middle adult years – can and should consist of an on-going process of ethical development or self-transformation. The target or norm for this process is achieving wisdom, and so enabling wisdom and the other virtues to shape all aspects of our lives. This is a perfect or ideal goal and none of us will achieve it fully, though aiming for this goal is still the best way for us to live our lives.

This process of development is sometimes subdivided in ancient Stoic writings into two strands: one centres on the idea I outlined at the start, that happiness depends on developing the virtues in ourselves. Stoics believe that as human beings, we are instinctively or naturally attracted towards things such as health and property; as we develop as rational moral agents, we learn how to select such things properly. We gradually learn that what matters, ultimately is not acquiring these things for their own sake but doing so wisely or in a way that expresses our growing understanding of the virtues, so that the things other than virtue become secondary (‘preferred indifferents’). (LS 59D = Cicero On Ends 3.17-22.)

The other strand in our development is a social one. Stoics believe that all animals (and not just human beings) are instinctively motivated to care for others of their kind, a motive shown most clearly in parental love for offspring. Human beings, as rational animals, are naturally able – and, the Stoics, think naturally motivated – to express this motive in more complex ways than other animals. One way is sustained involvement in family, friendship and communal or political life. The other is coming to recognise that all human beings, as rational animals who share this capacity for ethical development, are like brothers and sisters to us, or like fellow-citizens in a world-community. (LS 57F = Cicero, On Ends 3.62-8, On Duties 1.12, 50-3.)

This view of human development raises two important questions. In social development, how should we interpret the relationship between local and universal involvement? More broadly, how should we interpret the relationship between the two strands in development, between development in moral understanding and development in social involvement? These are quite challenging questions and ones not addressed directly in surviving Stoic theoretical writings; but there is much Stoic material relevant to them, especially in Stoic writers on practical ethics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

I take first the question of the relationship between the two aspects of social development. Should we suppose that, as we develop ethically, we are meant to stop caring about our family and friends and care only about humanity in general, or at least to draw no ethical distinction between the two groups of people? I am pretty sure this is not what the Stoics have in mind. Stoic writings sometimes talk about extending outwards the circles of our concern from family to humankind (LS 57 G) – but this makes no sense unless we still have a special concern for our family and friends. Stoic teachers also suggest that we should use the idea of the brotherhood of humankind as a way of guiding and regulating our more local relationships. If we are inclined to become angry and irritated at others’ wrongdoing or to cheat or short-change other people in our financial and business life, we should check this inclination by reminding ourselves that they are our brothers and sisters in humankind (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1, Cicero, On Duties 3.21, 3.50-7, esp. 52, 53.) So the Stoic view is that we should try to develop both kinds of relationships, with family, friends and community, and with humanity in general (including specific people falling outside our local circle) and do so in a sustained and deeply thought-out way. Also, we should use both kinds of relationship to inform and enrich each other. This seems to me very valuable advice in the modern world where we are often trying to juggle and make sense of the interplay between local and global relationships.

What about the question of the relationship between the two strands in ethical development – the social strand and the development of moral understanding? I think the same general principle holds good. These two strands are not meant to be quite distinct and separate, as though you could carry through one kind of development but not the other. Rather, the idea is that they are interconnected and contribute significantly to each other. Take first development in moral understanding. Although this is something that each of us must undertake for ourselves (and so it falls ‘within our power’), it is hard, or even impossible, to imagine how we could do this without social involvement, and without also developing in our social relations. This applies especially to virtues that are clearly social in character, such as courage and justice, but in different ways to all the virtues. We develop our understanding of the virtues by observing, and interacting with, other people who seem to embody the virtues in their lives – Marcus writes powerfully about this in Book 1 of his Meditations. Also, family and communal life are contexts in which we begin to learn, by our own actions and feelings, what it means to try at least to embody the virtues ourselves. On the other side, our social involvement will only form a proper part of our ethical development if we bring to bear in this context our growing understanding of what is truly valuable in human life.

This is all a bit abstract so let’s try to make it more specific (these examples allude to, or adapt, some striking passages in Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.11 and 3.3.5-10). Let’s imagine an aspiring Stoic father (or mother) with a very sick child. Will he or she stay by the bedside and do all he can to make the child better – or will he think that health is only of secondary value (compared with virtue) and so it doesn’t much matter whether he stays by the bedside or not? Of course, he or she will stay by the bedside and do all they can for the child. He will do that because health is something we are all naturally inclined to promote, in the Stoic theory of value; and he will do it because it is the appropriate thing to do as a way of trying to express virtue. This is a rather straightforward case, so let’s imagine something slightly more complex, a father or mother with a rather older or adult son or daughter. Suppose it becomes clear that the son values the relationship between them only in terms of the external goods he gets from the relationship – money or status, for instance. What does the aspiring Stoic father do now? He needs to change the way he acts towards the son, and to try to get his son to change the way he thinks about what is valuable. This may lead to conflict; but the conflict is unavoidable if the father is to act according to his own developing moral understanding and if he is to try to develop his son’s understanding also. And, on a Stoic view, the greatest benefit that any person can confer on another is to encourage their development of virtue and so their movement towards happiness.

What then of the criticism of Stoic ethics I mentioned earlier – that the Stoics advocate ‘detachment’ from other people? I hope it is becoming clear that this criticism is misplaced; but let’s take a moment to consider a point which has led especially to this criticism – Stoic acceptance of the prospect of death, including the death of those close to us. Consider this passage from Epictetus:

… whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’? Or similarly to your friend, ‘Tomorrow, you’ll go abroad, or I will, and we’ll never see one another again.’ (Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.88; see also Handbook 3.)

Epictetus knows his advice is shocking – he calls it ‘ill-omened’ (Discourses 3.24.89); but what underlies this advice if it is not, as the critics of Stoicism think, advocacy of detachment from other people? Partly, this is an example of ‘preparation for adversity’, a theme prominent in Stoic advice for facing death (Cicero, Tusculans 3.28-31, 52).  Epictetus reminds his listeners of something that is indeed a fact – though one we mostly prefer to ignore – that death is just as much a part of our life-cycle as birth (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.4, also 4.23, 12.31-6). It follows that, in any close relationship, such as a family or friendship, one partner will inevitably die before the other. Also, Epictetus assumes the Stoic framework of value, according to which our death – or that of someone close to us – is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing (in Stoic theory, the only really ‘bad’ thing) would be that we – or the other person – should become utterly corrupt morally, say, a mass murderer or a master criminal (On the Stoic theory of value, see LS 58, 60). Epictetus is assuming the general point I made earlier: that we should bring to bear on our social relationships our developing moral understanding, our grasp of what is and is not most valuable in life, given our human existence as integral parts of the natural universe, which includes death as well as birth. Of course, it is hard for us in such situations to apply this principle consistently, as the Stoics are well aware. But this does not mean the principle itself is not well-grounded. And what is involved is not a policy of detachment but an attempt to develop towards wisdom while being profoundly involved in human relationships.

Further Reading:

On Stoic thinking on social relationships and on the relationship between development in ethical understanding and developing the way we conduct social relationships, see the introductions to the Oxford World Classic translations of Epictetus, Discourses, xiv-xvi, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations,  xvi-iii, xix-xx, and the introduction to C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford, 2013), xxxiv-xlix. See also, especially on Roman Stoicism, G. Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility and Affection, Chicago, 2005, esp. chs. 2, 4-5.

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

'Loser!' by Erik Wiegardt

“Loser!”

Erik Wiegardt

What are you supposed to do when Nature made you one way and the world wants you to be another? The guy who said, “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell, had a cushy career as a professor at a private university, lots of fame and fortune from his lectures and books, and a beautiful and accomplished wife. But what do you do when you follow your  bliss and get nothing?

So, what are you supposed to do when the world begs for accountants, computer whiz-kids, engineers, nurses and doctors, and you have no talent for any of these jobs? What are you supposed to do when your natural abilities lead you to exactly those things the world doesn’t want and you’re revolted by those occupations that it does?

Are you supposed to keep trying time and time again to fit your round peg into the world’s square hole—like some certifiably insane person? Are you supposed to accept your fate, bitter though it may be, and live a life of mediocrity with “Loser” tattooed across your forehead?

Epictetus said that if I tried to do any work for which I had no talent, then I would do a lousy job of it and not have any time left over to do what I could do well. Oh goody—another follow-your-bliss endorsement. That’s great if fate showers you with good fortune, but what if it doesn’t?

Maybe it would  be better to be a mediocre accountant, living a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, than to be an excellent Tiddly-winks player always unemployed and a burden to society and your family, because you can’t make a living, so you turn to alcohol or even stronger drugs just to feel good about yourself for a few minutes before returning to a life of poverty and shame? What are you supposed to do?

What can you do when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place? Really, there’s only one good solution: be a Stoic. The world always needs Stoics. Why? Because anyone who is able to shoulder his or her responsibilities and maintain a noble character regardless of their station in life is a joy and a credit to the human race.

Be a Stoic. Ignis aurum probat. The refining fire of adversity will only make the gold of your character shine all the brighter. Ignis aurum probat. If you are doing the best that you can to take care of your corner of the world, no matter how large or small, you will acquire another kind of greatness.

Marcus Aurelius, Caesar, Roman Emperor of the world, didn’t like his job either. It wearied and depressed him. He didn’t like treacherous back-stabbers and sycophants, and he didn’t like the cruelty of warfare, and yet he lived in the midst of palace intrigue and on foreign battlefields for years on end, most of his life. He wanted to be a Stoic philosopher, not an emperor, but he could only fit in the consolations of philosophy for a moment here and a moment there. He used these moments used to write his Meditations.

Marcus didn’t like being emperor, and there were no doubt times when he didn’t think he was very good at it, but in fact he was. His Stoicism guided his actions and his naturally kind heart made him one of the five great Roman emperors of history. To us Stoics, he was the greatest of them all.

Be a Stoic. A noble character will make it possible for you to excel in life regardless of the position fate has for you. Even if your talents are mediocre, even if you never know fame or fortune, even if some days it takes everything you’ve got just to put one foot in front of the other, when you’re a Stoic you are the best that you can be, and there is no higher calling. More than anything else in the world today we need Stoics. The day you become a Stoic you stop being a loser. I guarantee it.

This extract is an excerpt, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from Battle of Mount Whitney and Other Essays: Stoic Philosophy in Practice.

About the author: Erik Wiegardt was born in Walla Walla, Washington, USA, and lived most of his life on the Pacific Rim. Education in his formative years was in Protestant parochial schools in rural towns in Oregon and California. He is a graduate of Portland State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree with two majors in General Studies emphasizing Psychology and Literature; the Oregon Military Academy, where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army Infantry; and the University of Oregon, where he received a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Sculpture with a thesis in Sound Sculpture.

Erik has worked in a number of occupations, including laboratory analyst at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at North American Aviation in Los Angeles where he performed quality control studies on the escape rocket module of the Apollo Moon Rockets. He is a Vietnam Era War veteran and received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for participation in Operation White Coat, a biological warfare unit.

Other employment includes mortician’s assistant, insurance executive, baker, restaurant waiter, Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, English teacher in Japan, display designer for Macy’s and Nordstrom, advertising copy writer, and Senior Probation Officer for the County of San Diego, California.

Erik has been a Stoic for more than 50 years, and works full time for the Stoic community. He is the founder of the cybercity New Stoa, the eMagazine “Registry Report,” the College of Stoic Philosophers, the eJournal “The Stoic Philosopher,” and the Marcus Aurelius School. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, a practitioner of oriental medicine.

'Vampires & Werewolves' by Erik Wiegardt

 Vampires & Werewolves

Erik Wiegardt

See Video No. 16 in the above playlist for a ‘video essay’ of this piece…

I don’t often watch horror movies, but my wife was out of town visiting her sister, and I was at the public library when I saw this vampire movie starring Ethan Hawke sitting there on the shelf . . . . Isn’t Ethan Hawke a great name? I’ve always liked that name. So anyway, I checked it out and brought it home.

It was pretty good, actually, for a horror movie. This one was set in the future, all glass and chrome, and almost everybody was a vampire then. I don’t know how that happened. There were a few regular humans left. Most of them were hooked up to blood-sucking machines to feed the vampires. Some of the normal humans had escaped and were in hiding. I jumped and yelled at all the scary parts. Lots of blood, of course.

I once saw an Abbott and Costello comedy about vampires and werewolves. Now there’s an original idea: combining comedy and horror. Who would have thought horror could be funny? The movie was in black and white. I think Bela Lugosi was the vampire. I didn’t recognize the werewolf.

The vampire seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, but the werewolf was such a tortured soul. I guess that’s because being a vampire is full-time job and being a werewolf only happens when there’s a full moon. The rest of the time they feel bad about all the evil they’ve done. Most of the time werewolves have the conscience of a human being, but vampires only have the conscience of a bat.

I think scary stories are written mostly for children. Some people get a laugh out of scaring children. I’m not sure why. Some people think it’s important to scare children into being good. This has been going on for a long time in just about every culture, I guess. If you don’t behave and do what you’re told the wicked witch is going to throw you in her pot and eat you for supper. That sort of thing.

Some religious people like to scare their children with stories of Satan and his vast army of devils who have nothing better to do than to tempt nice people like you and me into being as bad as they are. If you like being bad, then you can join them in hell when you die. I guess that’s where all the really bad stuff happens. I can’t tell you about what they do in hell, because I don’t know. I’ve never been there.

There are really bad people, but they didn’t get that way because they were bitten by vampires or werewolves or talked into being bad by servants of Satan. I don’t believe there is any evil in nature; only in the choices human beings make as they go through life. People do bad things because they believe that what they are doing is in their best interest. They lie to avoid being found out—and they become a liar. They steal to get something they don’t want to work for—and they become a thief. They kill because someone really makes them mad—and they become a murderer.

That’s all that evil is. People making choices they think are in their best interest, but end up showing their ignorance and destroying their good name and noble character. They ignore the voice inside of them that encourages them to live a life of greatness because they would rather have a new car.

There is no evil in Nature, because the other animals don’t have the same choices we do. Bats that bite only do so because it’s what they do to eat and survive. Same with wolves. Same with every other carnivore on the planet, but it doesn’t make them evil. Everything on this planet takes nourishment from everything else on the planet. That’s the way things are here in a material plane of existence. It’s a little scary living here, sometimes, but life is not a horror story—unless you make it so.

This extract is an excerpt, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from Battle of Mount Whitney and Other Essays: Stoic Philosophy in Practice

About the author: Erik Wiegardt was born in Walla Walla, Washington, USA, and lived most of his life on the Pacific Rim. Education in his formative years was in Protestant parochial schools in rural towns in Oregon and California. He is a graduate of Portland State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree with two majors in General Studies emphasizing Psychology and Literature; the Oregon Military Academy, where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army Infantry; and the University of Oregon, where he received a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Sculpture with a thesis in Sound Sculpture.

Erik has worked in a number of occupations, including laboratory analyst at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at North American Aviation in Los Angeles where he performed quality control studies on the escape rocket module of the Apollo Moon Rockets. He is a Vietnam Era War veteran and received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for participation in Operation White Coat, a biological warfare unit.

Other employment includes mortician’s assistant, insurance executive, baker, restaurant waiter, Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, English teacher in Japan, display designer for Macy’s and Nordstrom, advertising copy writer, and Senior Probation Officer for the County of San Diego, California.

Erik has been a Stoic for more than 50 years, and works full time for the Stoic community. He is the founder of the cybercity New Stoa, the eMagazine “Registry Report,” the College of Stoic Philosophers, the eJournal “The Stoic Philosopher,” and the Marcus Aurelius School. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, a practitioner of oriental medicine.