'The Musonius Rufus Diet' by Kevin Vost

The Musonius Rufus Diet

by Kevin Vost

Roman Food

And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many. First of all, the man who eats more than he ought does wrong, and also the man who wallows in the pickles and sauces, and the man who prefers the sweeter foods to the more healthful ones, and the man who does not serve food of the same kind or amount to his guests as to himself. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture XIIIB on Food [1]

Please do not let this title alarm you and perturb your Stoic tranquility!  Musonius Rufus (c. 20-30 AD – 101 AD), Epictetus’ revered teacher and mentor, would not have us counting calories, carbohydrates or any such thing. (Calories and carbohydrates would not be discovered until more than 1,700 years after his death, and even if he knew about them, he surely would have felt we have more important things to do!)  Indeed, I speak here of diet not in the sense of some exotic, time-limited food regimen designed to take off a few pounds, but diet in the sense the usual or habitual food and drink comprising one’s daily sustenance. The Stoics saw philosophy as an art of living that should guide all of our human behaviors and seek to harmonize them with nature. As several of Musonius’s discourses on food, clothing, housing, and even shaving show, Stoicism was (and is) a practical philosophy for living a good life; therefore, even the most mundane and seemingly un-philosophical of topics make fitting grist for the Stoical mill.

What Has Food to Do with Philosophy?

A great deal, according to Musonius, who apparently spoke frequently and fervently on this topic that he considered no small matter for any philosopher. Musonius believed that habits of eating and drinking either build up or tear down the very foundation of the virtue of temperate self-control (sophrosyne, in the Greek). There’s an old adage advising would-be brides that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” For Musonius, the way to a man’s or a woman’s self-control is through his or her esophagus and stomach! “Indeed the throat was designed to be a passage of food, not an organ of pleasure, and the stomach was made for the same purpose as the root was created in plants. For just as the root nourishes the plant by taking food from without, so the stomach nourishes the plant by taking food and drink which are taken into it.”[2]

Musonius devotes a two-part discourse (Discourses or Lectures 18A & 18B) several pages long to the topic of food, as preserved in a collection of, in essence, his post-lecture Q & A periods consisting of 21 discourses, or lectures, collected by a contemporary of his named Lucius and extracted in the fifth century AD by the Greek Joanne Stobaeus.  He gives several specific dietary recommendations, including a diet based on vegetables and grains and limited in meat (which he considered a heavy food, the digestion of which “darken the soul” and slow down our thinking abilities.  As for a summary in Musonius’ own (translated) words:

To sum up the question of food, I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should for that purpose eat only that which requires no great outlay, and finally that at table one should have regard for a fitting decorum and moderation, and most of all should be superior to the common vices of filth and greedy haste.[3]

Musonius Rufus Guts Gluttony before the Medieval Church Fathers

Musonius’ sage advice on the proper attitude and behavior toward food presages in many ways the advice of the Christian who five centuries later popularized the famous list of the “seven deadly sins,” Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 AD). Gregory, in his Moralia on the Book of Job, listed seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, sloth, and vainglory.[4] When St. Gregory, and later St. Thomas Aquinas, expounded upon the varieties of the sin of gluttony, they defined gluttony as an inordinate or irrational desire for food and described dangers of eating too much food, too-expensive food, too-daintily-prepared food, and of eating too quickly or eating too often. In the 13th century, St. Thomas cited an old medieval verse that summed up the various forms in which gluttonous behaviors are expressed: “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily.

Well, we find these concerns in Musonius’ back in the first century AD eighteenth lecture as well. He warns of the gluttony of eating more than we should; of eating luxurious, gourmet foods, indeed, of “wallowing in the pickles and sauces”; of being a picky eater; of preferring sweet foods to healthy ones; of eating greedily and at “unseasonable times.” He minces no words, and warns us that gluttony makes us more like pigs or dogs than rational human beings.  He advises us to train ourselves to appreciate simple foods. Indeed, he lauds the example of the Spartan, who, upon seeing some finicky man refuse to eat an expensive bird, declared, “I could eat a vulture or a buzzard.”[5]

And here is where our great Stoic philosopher and our great medieval Catholic theologians share an even more important common ground on gluttony. St. John Cassian (360-435 AD), Eastern desert monk turned abbot in Marseilles, France, wrote in his Conferences about eight vices. Now vices are essentially bad habits, dispositions, or tendencies, the opposite of the good habits that are the virtues. Cassian’s list, echoing an even earlier list of eight “disturbing” or “assailing” thoughts expounded by desert monk Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 AD), would later be adapted a bit by Gregory and Thomas, as noted above, and become widely known as the seven capital vices (and even more widely known as the seven deadly sins – sins being acts of vice, literally vicious acts.) The connection with Musonius here is not so much this list of bad thoughts, vices, or sins, but the way in which they interact.  Hear Cassian on this point:

Although these eight vices, then, have different origins and varying operations, yet the first six — namely, gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, and acedia (anxiety, or weariness of the heart) — are connected among themselves by a certain affinity and, so to speak, interlinking, such that the overflow of the previous one serves as the start of the next one. For from an excess of gluttony there inevitably springs fornication; from fornication, avarice; from avarice, anger; from anger, sadness; and from sadness, acedia. Therefore these must be fought against in a similar way and by the same method, and we must always attack the ones that follow by beginning with those that come before. For a tree whose width and height are harmful will more easily wither up if the roots which support it are exposed and cut beforehand, and pestilential waters will dry up when their rising source and rushing streams have been stopped up with skillful labor. [6]

Note then how these vices act in a sense like eight deadly dominoes, each on setting up the man in its thrall to fall into the next one.

Later, Gregory would state in his Moralia that “unless we tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely, our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.”

Our Stoic Musonius Rufus, 500 years before Gregory, (and 300 before Cassian) also saw gluttony as a gateway sin of sorts. The temptations of gluttony are before us every day, and if our powers of self-control are eroded through gluttony they will not rise to the challenge in other more important areas of our lives. Musonius warns that,

Although there are many pleasures which persuade human beings to do wrong and compel them to act against their own interests, the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat. We encounter the other sources of pleasure less often, and we can therefore refrain from indulging in some of them for months or even years. But we will necessarily be tempted by gastronomic pleasures daily or even twice daily, inasmuch as it is impossible for a human being to live without eating. Consequently, the more often we are tempted by gastronomic pleasure, the greater the danger it presents. [7]

For the great Catholic theologians, gluttony is a turning-away from the true good of God for the sake of lesser goods that can do our bodies harm; and our foundational Roman Stoic held virtually the same view. He warns that some intemperate men “resemble pregnant women…they cannot tolerate ordinary food; they have ruined their digestive system.”[8]

Citing Socrates before him, who said we should eat to live rather than live to eat, this is why Musonius counseled a moderate intake of simple, inexpensive, natural, healthy foods (No wonder Musonius explained in Discourse 11 that the best job for a philosopher was that of a farmer!).

The Original “Mediterranean Diet”

It is always an interesting thing when modern scientific research “discovers” what ancient philosophers discovered long ago through ordinary experience examined by rigorous reasoning. The modern, so-called “Mediterranean Diet” is patterned after the kinds of foods and drinks traditionally consumed by the peoples of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (like Greece and Italy, of course). The base of this diet’s pyramid is formed by a daily predominance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, herbs, spices, and olive oil, with at least a few weekly servings of fish and other seafood, less frequent and moderate portions of eggs and dairy foods including yogurt, a very limited intake of meat and sweets, and the optional consumption of red wine in moderation.

The Mayo Clinic and many other respected medical sources tout this as one of the world’s healthiest diets for maintaining ideal bodyweight and reducing the risk of heart and other diseases. When U.S. World and News Report gathers nutritional experts to rank the world’s best and worst popular diets among dozens of contenders each year, the Mediterranean Diet comes in each year in the very top few.

How fascinating to consider that the Mediterranean Diet and a so-called, “Musonius Rufus Diet” would be just about the same thing!  Indeed, Musonius warns against food imported from distant lands and he notes that people who eat the normal, inexpensive foods of their own region are healthier and stronger than those who crave exotic foods not a part of the standard Mediterranean fare.  He even declares that slaves and country people who eat such simple native foods are healthier, sicker less often, less fatigued by labors, work harder, and become stronger than their masters and people who live in the city.

On Enjoying the Banquet of Life

The Musonius Rufus Diet, then, is a diet of sensible moderation, of asking yourself how much you need rather than how much you desire, of appreciating simple, natural foods, and of gratitude toward God and table manners towards one’s fellows fitting to a being made in God’s image. It is a diet that builds both a temperate soul and a tempered body that will serve as the foundation for acquiring and expressing all of the virtues. As Musonius’ star student Epictetus would later advise us, comparing life itself to a banquet:

Remember, you must behave as you do at a banquet. Something is passed around and comes to you: reach out your hand politely and take some. It goes by; do not hold it back. It has not arrived yet: do no stretch out your desire out toward it, but wait until it comes to you.[9]

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, the University of Illinois at Springfield, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. He has served as a research review committee member for American Mensa and as an advisory board memory of the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainers. Dr. Vost is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).

[1] Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus Fragments (New Delhi, India: Isha Books, 2013).

[2] Lutz, 88. I’ll note here as well that while our word gluttony derives from the Latin word “gula” for throat or gullet, the Greek term for it was gastrimargia, literally “gut madness!”

[3] Lutz, 90.

[4] Pride is often included in the list instead of vainglory. Gregory, like St. Thomas Aquinas after him, included vainglory among his seven, identifying pride as a yet more profound sin, one that gives rise to the deadly sin of vainglory and to all the others.

[5] Lutz, 22.

[6] St. John Cassian, The Conferences (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 183-196: http://www.pigizois.net/agglika/on_the_eight_deadly_sins.htm.

[7] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (CreateSpace.com, 2011), 73.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Nicholas B. White, trans. The Handbook (Encheiridion) of Epictetus, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 15.

'Stoicism and Celebration' by Helen Rudd

Stoicism and Celebration

by Helen Rudd

A lady in the village where I live wrote a poem about how we need to celebrate more which I agree with.  So what I do is, every day at 10am I celebrate something.  It could be something major or something small, for example I could be at home on a lovely sunny day and at 10am I could go into the garden and listen to the birds singing and celebrate that.  Or I may have just had a lovely phone call from a friend which is something to celebrate.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Stoicism recently and because my daily celebration has helped me so much I wondered if I could relate it to modern day Stoicism.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve found that Stoicism has been a huge help in my recovery from a traumatic brain injury and I’ve become really interested in learning about how it can be applied to modern day life through the excellent ‘Stoicism Today’ website, the people who run it, and the Stoic weeks that are organised.

So this is my own view on the celebration idea. One of the activities in Stoic Week was to take time out in the middle of the day to meditate.  I did find it ever so effective but it didn’t necessarily fit in with my day, so this is a way of reflecting to fit in with what I’m doing.  I’ve come to the conclusion that adapting is a way of being Stoic so by reflecting on something in a way that suits what you’re doing at that moment seems quite appropriate. Celebrating doesn’t have to be done in a big way, it can just be done quietly in your own mind.

In my own way I’ve had to adapt since my accident. One of the things I used to do was running in my local half marathon but because of my balance and spatial awareness problems I can’t do this any more. I’ve discovered though that I can run on the spot indoors so that’s what I do now as cardio vascular exercise. Perhaps I could do it at 10 o’clock one morning and celebrate that! Stoicism is about accepting that there are some things you can’t change; it’s the way you deal with it that matters. I can’t change the fact that part of my brain has been damaged so I have to adapt.

A lot of people see Stoicism as ‘stiff upper lip’ but by celebrating something once a day I don’t see it as that. I think it’s recognising that yes, there are problems, so you go out of your way to just think of something good. I’ll never forget the kindness of one lady who posted a reply to one of my early blogs when I was trying to get my head round what had happened to me and find a way to cope.  She said ‘Be like the headland, with wave after wave breaking against it, which yet stands firm’.  I now read one of the Marcus Aurelius meditations each day and I was really pleased to see that this is one of his meditations. I often find myself thinking of it because it’s such a strong image (and I live round the corner from the sea!). So I got to thinking how the celebration idea could fit in with it, and I see all the problems going on both personally and globally as the breaking waves and the headland as the celebration.

So I’d recommend celebrating something every day at a time to suit yourself, and do something physical or just reflect quietly just as it suits you at the time.  It means that you don’t take things for granted, perhaps it may be something as simple as enjoying a nice cup of coffee.  I know myself that tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock I’ll be able to look back on writing this blog and see how far I’ve come since my accident 10 years ago and how terrible I felt when I was just starting to learn about Stoicism.

About the author: After Helen Rudd’s traumatic brain injury in 2006 she was in a coma for three weeks and was severely depressed when she realised how much her life had changed, mainly because she was no longer able-bodied.  Through stoicism her life has opened up and she now makes the most of every day.

You can read more of Helen’s reflections on living the Stoic Life:

Reflection One;  Reflection TwoReflection Three

'Why Is Ancient Philosophy Still Relevant?' by Massimo Pigliucci

Why is Ancient Philosophy Still Relevant?

by Massimo Pigliucci

School of Athens
Raphael’s The School of Athens – Ancient philosophy in a picture.

Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.

Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?

And yet, I’m clearly not the only one here. Setting aside that a sizable number of people these days seem to be interested in Stoicism in particular (the Stoicism Facebook page is over 12,000 strong and growing), there has been a resurgence of virtue ethics in general (mostly in the guise of Neo-Aristotelianism), and of course millions of people around the world still find valuable guidance in the sayings of Buddha or Confucius. Why?

It isn’t that these people are ignoring science, cognitive or otherwise. I, for one, was initially trained as a biologist, and I fully appreciate what modern science can tell us about human life and flourishing. I am also a 21st century philosopher, so I am cognizant of Hume, Kant, Mill, and so many others, all the way to Peter Singer.

And yet, there is clearly something that the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle), the Buddhist, the Confucianists and so forth clearly got right. There is something they thought about and taught to their students that still resonates today, even though we obviously live in a very different environment, socially, technologically, and otherwise.

The answer, I think, is to be found in the relative stability of human nature. This is a concept on which the Hellenistic philosophers relied heavily, though they didn’t use that specific term.

For Aristotle, humans were essentially rational (meaning capable of reason) social animals. The Stoics agreed, and in fact their theory of oikeiosis (“familiarization”) was essentially an account of developmental moral psychology: young humans have a natural propensity toward self-regard and regard for those who are close to them (mostly, their kin). Over time, this natural morality gets extended further and further, to friends and others living in the same polis, and — ideally — to the whole of humanity. The process is made possible by the fact that reason builds on a natural instinct, nurturing it and developing it over time.

(Crucially, although other primates seem to share in our natural instinct for sociability, they are incapable of extending it by reason.)

But these days the concept of human nature is seen with suspicion by both biologists and philosophers — though for different reasons.

Biologists ever since Darwin have moved away from the simplistic notion that anything complex (like a human being) can possibly be characterized by a small set of essential properties. And rightly so. Homo sapiens is the result of a gradual process of biological evolution, a cluster in evolutionary space, distinct from other such clusters (other species of Homo, now extinct, as well as chimpanzees, bonobos and so forth) only by degrees, not by sharp boundaries.

Philosophers, by and large, have become even more skeptical of the whole idea, or at the least such has been my experience over the years. Some simply accept biologists’ rejection of essentialism, concluding (erroneously, I think) that therefore one cannot properly speak of human nature. Others, more drawn to the so-called Continental approach, are suspicious of past (and, indeed, current) use of notions like that of human nature to buttress racism and misogyny. Certainly these are well-founded fears, unfortunately, but again they do not license a wholesale rejection of the concept.

I think the modern philosopher who got closest to a reasonable account of human nature was also the one that is famous for most drawing from the science of his time: David Hume.

I can do no better than to summarize a lovely paper by Michael Gill published a number of years ago in Hume Studies. Gill bases his analysis on what Hume writes in the aptly titled, given our topic, Treatise of Human Nature, and sets it against the background of a controversy concerning the origins of human sociability then raging among Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

Gill’s main thesis is that Hume developed a “progressive” account of human nature distinct from that of the three philosophers just mentioned, who agreed that human beings are social, but disagreed on the origins of our sociability: for Mandeville it is self-interest; for Hutcheson and Shaftesbury it is natural benevolence.

Shaftesbury presented as evidence of our benevolent nature the fact that we derive so much pleasure from friendship and other social interactions, and even from the very fact of doing good deeds. Similarly, Hutcheson said that we have an innate sense of public good (we feel good when others are happy, cringe at others’ misery) and moral good (approve of virtue and disapprove of vice).

Mandeville was of a very different opinion, according to which our basic nature is selfish (a la Hobbes) and we organized in groups only to protect ourselves, first from natural dangers, then increasingly from each other. Modern society’s complex “commerce” and “standards of politeness” are made possible by our ability to communicate and write, but are still rooted in our original selfish nature.

What about Hume? On the one hand, he was no egoist (in the Hobbesian sense), as he thought humans are endowed with natural virtues. On the other hand, he squarely said that justice is not natural, but rather the result of (cultural) “artifice.”

A major part of Hume’s argument is that justice is not common among pre-civilized humans, and it requires training. It cannot, therefore, be natural. (Yes, I know, modern readers rightly cringe at this sort of statement, but bear with me a little longer, it will be worth it.)

To understand Hume’s further discussion we need to keep in mind that for him a virtue consists of having a certain motive for action (this is very close to Lawrence Becker’s take on Stoicism and virtue). Now the motive for justice cannot be regard for justice, on pain of circularity. It can’t be self love either (although it did exist in pre-civilized humans, and is therefore natural, according to Hume), since this will often be in conflict with justice. Hume also rejected regard for public interest as a motive for justice, thus apparently (but only apparently!) landing squarely in Mandeville’s camp.

Indeed, Hume went so far as to conclude that “In general, it may be affirm’d, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, or services, or of relation to ourself.” (Again, something the Stoics would agree on.) Emotions about other human beings, maintained Hume, are always directed at particular individuals, not at humanity in general. The converse is true as well: we don’t get a sense of justice by generalizing our feelings for particular individuals, because sometimes we ought to and do behave justly toward people we deeply dislike.

Hume agreed with Mandeville (and with Hobbes) that we have developed societies because we would otherwise have a hard time surviving on our own. So, societies originated out of the self interest of individuals. The fact that justice then also arises from selfish motives can be derived from the observation that we simply wouldn’t need justice if we were naturally disposed to respect the interests of others.

Where Hume began to diverge from Mandeville is with the latter’s contention that, essentially, we are all hypocrites when we talk about morality. For Hume, rather, people have genuine moral feelings of justice. Hume’s middle way between Mandeville on one hand and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury on the other, is the idea that we initially want justice for selfish reasons, but eventually develop a mental association that leads us to approve of justice even when it runs counters to our selfish motives. (The major difference between Hume and Stoic oikeiosis here is that the Stoics emphasized the role of reason, not just habit, in the process.)

To recap the situation so far: Hume agreed with Mandeville that justice is an artificial virtue originating in self interest; but he also agreed with Hutcheson and Shaftesbury that people exhibit genuine non self interested feelings of justice. All three of his predecessors would have thought these two positions to be mutually incompatible.

One way to look at this is that the three in question adopted (different) static, “originalist,” views of human nature. Hume, by contrast, upheld a dynamic, progressive view, where originally selfish motives can develop into genuinely altruistic ones.

The Humean engine for this change is his famous principle of association: we begin by disapproving of acts of injustice that do not affect us (because they tend to be harmful), and we end up conjoining disapproval and injustice in general. Which means we develop a broader disapproval of all unjust acts, including those that benefit us. This mechanism, says Hume, applies not just to justice, but to all morally relevant sentiments.

Gill makes a final interesting point by drawing a distinction between two senses in which one may ask about the “origins” of something: chronological and functional. For instance, we could ask what is the origin of the Constitutional powers of the American government and provide two very distinct, not mutually exclusive, answers: they came from a Constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787; and they are rooted in consent of the people (at least in theory). The first answer is chronological, the second is functional.

Gill suggests that the three pre-Humean philosophers simply assumed that chronological and functional explanations coincide in the case of moral sentiments, while Hume’s innovation consisted in decoupling them. Here is how Hume himself very clearly put it: “Thus self-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice; but a sympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation which attends that virtue.”

What are we to make of the Humean solution to the Mandeville-Hutcheson-Shaftesbury debate, from our post-Darwinian perspective? Roughly speaking, we could say that both Mandeville, on one hand, and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, on the other, were early versions of what today we would call biological determinists — they only disagreed on the qualitative nature of that determinism (selfish for Mandeville, benign for the other two).

Hume’s position, however, can be updated in a more nuanced and interesting way, from the vantage point of modern biology and social science. At the risk of stretching Hume’s own intention, I am going to suggest that his acknowledgement of a “natural” status for our moral feelings is a due and reasonable concession to the “naturist” camp in the nature-nurture debate. There is no getting around it: human beings are a particular biological species, characterized by a historically inherited genetic environment that constrains the way we act, feel and think. What elevates this to the lofty status of “human nature” is that our closest evolutionary cousins (bonobos, chimpanzees, and other great apes) have a significantly different genetic and behavioral repertoire.

But Hume’s principle of association can be profitably recast as an embryonic theory of cultural evolution (and personal development), according to which we are capable of generating novel (genuine) feelings out of a combination of experiences and our ability to reflect on those experiences.

If Hume is even approximately right, and I think he is, that goes some way toward explaining why ancient wisdom is still relevant today: because human nature changes slowly, since it is rooted in the particularities of the human gene pool, which impose constraints on just how different people can be once we abstract from the historical peculiarities of any given culture.

The reason Epictetus, Epicurus, Buddha, Confucius and a number of others still resonate with us in the 21st century is because they got something profoundly right about the nature of humanity in the place and time in which they lived. And since such nature — as non essentialistic and slowly evolving as it is — has apparently not changed drastically over the past several millennia, here we are, still studying Epictetus and the others, and still gaining from them the kind of insight that made Arrian take the detailed notes that eventually turned into the Discourses and the Enchiridion as we know them today.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is an evolutionary biologist and a philosopher of science, whose writings can be found at platofootnote.org. He has written or edited ten books, most recently Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (University of Chicago Press). He grew up in Rome, reading Seneca and Cicero, but re-discovered Stoicism only recently. He sports two philosophy-related tattoos…

'Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia' by Leah Goldrick

Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia

by Leah Goldrick

Parenting

As the mother of a baby, I often hear admonitions and complaints from fellow parents about how hard parenting is and how stressful it can be to take care of children, particularly babies and toddlers. Sleep deprivation, constant work, loss of former lifestyle, expense, societal disregard for the importance of parenting, and lack of paid parental leave all top the list of concerns.

Much of what is said about the difficulty of modem parenting certainly has merit, but griping seems to have become endemic among parents, obscuring what should be a predominately joyful experience and a precious gift to family and society. This phenomenon is what Ross Douthat of the New York Times comically terms, “The parental pity party.”

Practising Stoics know that the quality of our thoughts about something dictate how we feel about it. With the right attitude, parenthood need not be a constant struggle; it can be fertile ground for eudaimonia, or a contented state of human flourishing, regardless of inherent hardships. This 2300-year-old philosophy is particularly applicable to common concerns that parents face today.

Concentrate Every Minute like a Roman on Doing What’s in Front of You – Focusing on the Present

Babies and small children require non-stop care. Parents often grumble about the amount of work that is involved in taking care of children, and how it must be accomplished in spite of everything else we have to do during the course of our busy day.  With the responsibility of having a baby in the house, it often happens that an entire day, or even a week will pass without me being able to cross various tasks off of my growing to-do list, which can be very discouraging.

Rather than thinking of childcare as labor, or as an impediment to achieving other goals, perhaps we should focus on present moment, on being with the child. Marcus Aurelius implores us to:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. … do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable… If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” [1]

Focusing on the present moment has helped to prevent me from being overwhelmed by responsibilities and anxieties about the future. Rather than the endless mental chatter of “Will the baby go down for his nap? Will I be able to get anything done today?” I concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. I am able to enjoy what I am doing more and not get bogged down by a pressing list of tasks and concerns.

Think That Being Inferior is Preferable to Being Ambitious – Societal Disregard for Parenting

One dilemma that American parents face is that society doesn’t seem to place as much value on the act of raising children as it does on pursuing a successful career or earning money. This is evidenced by the fact that the United States is the only country in the developed world without any paid parental leave. There is also a common tendency to look down on stay at home parents of both genders.

The later Stoic philosophers, including Seneca and Epictetus, deeply valued parenting as a gift to society. Musonius Rufus, best known for being Epictetus’ tutor, advocated for the philosophical education of women and pointed out that philosophy was particularly applicable to the raising of children and management of the household.

Like Musonius, we must remember that regardless of cultural paradigms, philosophy applies just as much to the domestic aspects of life as it does to our career or financial matters. His comments on the necessity of virtue for raising children and running a household could today apply to either gender:

In the first place a woman must run her household and pick out what is beneficial for her home. In these activities I claim that philosophy is particularly helpful, since each of these activities is an aspect of life, and philosophy is nothing other than the science of living, and the philosopher, as Socrates says, continually contemplates this, ‘what good or evil has been done in his house.[2]

Now, wouldn’t the woman who practises philosophy be just, and a blameless partner in life, and a good worker in common causes, and devoted in her responsibilities towards her husband and her children, and free in every way from greed or ambition? Who could be like this more than the woman who practises philosophy, since she must inevitably think that doing wrong is worse than being wronged, because it is more disgraceful to do wrong, and to think that being inferior is preferable to being ambitious, and in addition, to love her children more than her own life. [3]

Endure and Renounce – Adjusting Your Attitude

A popular parenting book entitled All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, stresses that parents are often less happy than their childless peers because of their expectations about parenting. The author, Jennifer Senior, posits that parents often believe having children will make them happier, but the reality of dirty diapers and 3:00 AM awakenings is vastly more difficult than they had anticipated. Many parents are well into their 30s and financially independent by the time they have children, and are distressed at having to give up the lifestyle, hobbies, freedom and income that they once had.

I can say that I sometimes experienced similar feelings as a new parent, but when I changed my expectations about what life with a baby would be like, my attitude transformed. Rather than ruminating on the fact that I can’t easily go hiking, mountain biking, or out for dinner like I used to, I remember Epictetus’ instruction, “Endure and renounce.” [4]

By bringing our values into accord with the Stoic virtue of sophrosyne, or moderation, we remember that life isn’t about being entertained and having fun; such things are indifferent for our happiness. Since only virtue is necessary for happiness, being good and doing good, our lives shouldn’t be spent in pursuit of indifferent distractions.

I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything; I am able to be of service to my son. Being of service to others is a good, and that is enough. Our lives as parents should be as simple and unstressful as possible.  This may mean living on less money, saying no to unnecessary obligations, or finding satisfaction and joy in small things. According to Seneca “What is good is that I choose well.” [5]

Quickly Return to Yourself – Remembering What You Can Control

Many aspects of parenthood are out of our control. We do not control our child’s temperament, his sleep, his health, and so on. While sleep deprivation is a given, a baby’s sleep, or lack thereof, is not fully within our control. It is easy to feel frustrated after pulling yourself from your warm bed in the middle of the night for the fifth time, and equally hard to be philosophical when operating on very little sleep. Parenting well, indeed living well, relies on being able to keep your emotions in check and your perspective on a situation relatively placid even if the situation is difficult.

According to Marcus Aurelius, “When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” [6]

Instead of thinking, “Dear God, why won’t my son sleep?” I try to remind myself that not only is this is phase quite temporary, but it’s in a baby’s nature to wake up at night. I cannot control his nature. I find it helpful to keep my thoughts confined to what I can control; how respond to him.

Since I cannot change my son’s nature, I also don’t worry about comparing his sleep habits to those of other babies, or about trying to “train,” him to sleep. I try not to become frustrated each time the situation changes, because like everything in life, it is transitory.

Rather than worrying about the pressure of culture to produce a perfect child, who always sleeps through the night, remember, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.” [7]

It is Difficult to be Good at Helping – Reflecting on Mistakes

Certainly no one can be the perfect parent, always mentally tranquil and perfectly composed, given the inherent frustrations involved with raising children. The best we can do is to be good helpers and role models for our children, continually striving for excellence.

Even Seneca admits that it is difficult to be good at helping others. But if we are to help, he advises that we should do so graciously, rather than complaining about our situation.  “We are evasive and assist only grudgingly. No wonder that our reticence sticks out more in people’s minds than the fact that we eventually relented; no wonder that we are not held in esteem for such ungracious giving.” [8]

It is inevitable that as parents, we will fail to live up to the Stoic ideal, or occasionally gripe about our lives. Fortunately, each day provides a new opportunity to meditate on and improve our conduct, to find joy, and to learn from our mistakes. “How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.” [9]

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

References

[1] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 2:5.

[2] Lutz, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates (1947).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion (2004).

[5] Seneca, Letter 92. 11-12

[6]  Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 6:11

[7] Ibid., 6:52

[8] Seneca, On Benefits, I.1.8.

[9] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 11:7

'Stoic Philosophy and Anger' by Greg Sadler

 

Stoic Philosophy and Anger

by Greg Sadler

The_Rage_of_Achilles_by_Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo

Anger has been one main subject of my philosophical research, writing, and practice for roughly a decade. Several different motives steered me in that direction, one of which, I must admit, is a particularly personal one. From childhood on, I found myself struggling with my own anger. Studying what other people had observed, argued, mulled over, and advised in dealing with this difficult emotion proved useful for me, when I could put into practice. Attaining something like a virtuous disposition with respect to anger remains, for me, a “work in progress.”

Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy in a pluralistic department – which meant that there was quite a bit of discussion and debate not just between people who shared a common project and perspective, but between philosophers and philosophers-in-training working and arguing from very different bases – I found another motive for examining philosophical approaches to anger.  I was surprised by how frequently anger and other rancorous emotions arose – and then were displayed, acted upon, or even (rather implausibly) denied – not only among my fellow graduate students, but even among the professors.

Knowing that I experienced problems in addressing my own emotions well, I imagined that in a field in which rationality is so highly valued, and ethical comportment and critical (including self-critical) thinking were routinely espoused as ideals, the other members of the department would be much better off than I with respect to anger. A much longer and more detailed story could be told about how I learned this, but suffice it to say, that assumption was not borne out. So, that presented me with a sort of paradox, one I wanted to explore and understand.

Another motivation for focusing a considerable portion of my attention upon anger coalesced through the process of studying what classic philosophical texts, thinkers, and even schools had to say about anger. Many of them situated that emotion in particular, and the emotions, desires, and drives more generally, within a broader philosophical framework focused upon providing a fuller understanding of human nature, particular human beings, the broader social world, and ethical concerns.

I found myself drawn in to study of these more comprehensive philosophical perspectives, in part because they often offered quite complex and sophisticated views to explore, and in part because they proved very suggestive and insightful, but often fragmentary and unsystematic. Much of my academic writing involves what I like to call jokingly “philosophical detective work”, in which I attempt to reconstruct a systematic perspective through exegesis of a body of philosophical work. Put in a different way, I try to assemble a puzzle in which only a portion of the pieces are present, and I need to fabricate some of the missing pieces based upon the materials available.

The Stoics were in certain respects latecomers to the scene of Ancient Greek philosophy, emerging as a distinct school after other main schools – whether Socratic (Plato’s Academy, the Cynics, Aristotle’s Lyceum) or non-Socratic (Pyrrho’s Skepticism, Epicurus’ Garden) – at the very least had a significant head start. But they quickly developed into a distinctive philosophical school of their own, with substantive contributions to make.  More importantly here with respect to anger in particular, they articulated what would become one of the main philosophically-focused positions on that emotion in ancient Greco-Roman culture (one which would also go on to inform late ancient and medieval Christian discussions of anger as well).

This post will be the first in a series I intend to write – making use of my prerogative as editor of Stoicism Today to contribute entries to the blog – focused specifically upon what Stoics thought and taught about the emotion of anger. As a side note, I intend to alternate these upcoming discussions about Stoics on anger with more or less monthly posts attempting to address matters that people find obscure or problematic about Stoicism (for example, what Epictetus has to say about “general conceptions” and how they don’t conflict with each other – or a recent complaint made in the Stoicism Group in Facebook that classic Stoics provide no way of addressing moral dilemmas).

It is indeed unfortunate that we possess such a small portion of the ancient Stoics’ texts. Imagine if we could read through Zeno’s work On the Emotions, or his Ethics, or perhaps even his On Duty – all lost to us, but known to have existed at one time through the listings Diogenes Laertes provides us. We might also find relevant and useful discussions in his student, Cleanthes’ On The Virtues, On The End, On Conduct, and On Friendship – who knows what we might have to work with and consider, since we possess only the titles? Imagine what interesting passages we might find within Chrysippus’ massive catalogue of works!

We do get some doctrines of key Middle Stoa representatives like Panaetius and Posidonius mediated through Cicero’s surviving writings (as well as a few other authors), but it would certainly be preferable to possess the originals. Who knows what insights about anger we might find in the full text of Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics, or in his other writings? Given how many Stoic writers and teachers there were in antiquity, one could go on and on with this line, which risks transforming into a dismal litany of loss.

On the brighter side, we do at least have a good representation of works from the Late Stoa – Seneca’s various works and letters, the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, supplemented by Musonius Rufus’ own Discourses (or Lectures) – and those do comprise substantial bodies of philosophical literature. Among those, we are fortunate enough to have one work specifically devoted to the topic of anger by Seneca. There are a number of discussions bearing on anger, either directly or by implication, contained within the other texts of the Late Stoa.

The Stoics staked out a rather uncompromising but coherent position grappling with the emotion of anger, viewing it as a passion that could never prove good, rational, or morally legitimate. In this, they set themselves at antipodes from the wider culture of antiquity, which occasionally glorified instances of anger, at other times saw it as a sign of virility or spiritedness, but also worried about its tendencies towards excessiveness.

The Stoics also ended up distancing themselves from other main philosophical schools, in particular the Aristotelians, since Aristotle himself had articulated a conception of a right mean with respect to feeling anger, the virtue of “mildness” (praotes). Epicureans developed what they took to be a middle position between the Aristotelians, who gave far too much legitimacy to a troublesome emotion and the Stoics, who declared that anger always represented or stemmed from a moral failure.

Cicero himself, who develops an eclectic position that differed from the Stoics at multiple points, did nevertheless adopt a Stoic position on anger. The Stoic position represented what many regarded – then and perhaps even now – as an extreme one , but they provided powerful and persuasive reasons for the stance that they adopted.

I should make clear at this point that my own stance, as a philosopher, is an eclectic position resembling the one Cicero works out.  While not a Stoic in an orthodox sense, I draw extensively upon Stoic thinkers on many topics where I find their doctrines and overall system useful. On this particular topic of anger, though, I do part company with both Cicero and the Stoics, and tend more towards the Aristotelian position on the emotion. Still, I view what the Stoics have to say as well worth taking into consideration – as valuable, and on some points superior to what Aristotle and his successors have to say. You might say that I see them as not merely useful, but essential, dialogue-partners as I continue to think out – and live out – a philosophical perspective on this all-too-human emotion.

In the months to come, I plan to author a series of posts here in Stoicism Today setting out and explaining some of the key contributions that Stoic philosophers have to make in understanding anger, starting out with Epictetus’s discussions of anger in his Discourses in early May.

I realize that in this post, while I’ve considerably talked up the Stoics as a particularly useful resource for understanding the anger, at this point I have yet to provide any detailed or substantive discussion of their positions on the emotion. Until the next installment in this series, for those who are particularly interested in the topic, I have several video lectures available discussing the Stoics’ positions on the emotion of anger.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.