Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems? by Julia Annas

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems?

by Julia Annas

hercules and hydra

Stoic ethics can be more or less off-putting depending on which aspect of it you encounter, or encounter first. Many people responded to Admiral Stockdale’s reliance on Epictetus to survive captivity and torture, and similar accounts can draw people into Stoic ethics in a way that gets them to see what is inspiring about it. Stoicism is sometimes encountered by people who are suffering, or in terrible circumstances, and they come to see how Stoicism can help them come through without being irreparably broken.

But many of us are not in terrible circumstances, and we hope to enter Stoic ethics through the gate of their account of virtue. We want to be better people and to live better lives, and we ask how the Stoics see this project. And we run into a problem. Stoic accounts of virtue are notoriously abrasive and off-putting to someone who is not already committed to finding it worthwhile to explore Stoicism. The Stoics have a number of theses about virtue which are basic to their ethics, and they are notoriously repellent to the non-Stoic. This is not just our problem as citizens of the 21st century; this is a feature of Stoicism that was found off-putting in the ancient world.

Firstly, for Stoics virtue is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness. To understand this, of course, we have to become aware that what the Stoics mean by virtue and by happiness are not what immediately springs to mind for us. Happiness is not a feeling or a mood, as so many recent books on happiness assume. It is eudaimonia, the flourishing of a whole life. Happiness, in this sense of eudaimonia, is our final end, the ultimate expression of our attempt to live a good life and to appreciate good values. So, if virtue is necessary and sufficient for that, it’s clearly the most important thing for us to be thinking about and trying to achieve in our lives. We come to Stoicism wanting to find out the right way to achieve happiness, eudaimonia , because this – how best to live – is the entry point to ethical reflection in the ancient world. We are told that what is necessary and sufficient for that is for us to become virtuous. So we turn eagerly to find what virtue is, since it is all-important for us to become virtuous.

What do we find? The Stoics tell us that there are no degrees of virtue; everyone is either virtuous or vicious, and given their demands on virtue, we are all vicious. Only the sage – the completely virtuous person – is virtuous, and, given that the sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix, we are all stuck with being vicious. If we’re not already Stoics we don’t really know even how to process these ideas. Why do the Stoics apparently make it so difficult for us to understand; why are the main things they say about virtue so much at variance with common-sense and ordinary beliefs?

The Stoics aren’t elitist about virtue; they think it is open to anyone in any walk of life. But this makes it even odder that their views about virtue are so off-putting, especially to ordinary people without philosophical training. We might start to wonder whether they really care about non-Stoics becoming Stoics. There is a contrast here with the Epicureans, who thought that becoming an Epicurean was urgent for non-Epicureans. A 2nd century CE Epicurean called Diogenes in the city of Oenoanda (in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) was distressed that his fellow-citizens’ lives were going so badly and unhappily, and so from ‘love of humanity’ he set up, at vast expense, a massive stone inscription, like a large permanent billboard, so that people using the market to shop and meet would have to encounter the truths of Epicureanism, which he was convinced would cure them. (Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 3)

By comparison the Stoics seem to wait for us to come to them, and then to be willing to accept off-putting theses if we are seriously trying to become virtuous through Stoicism. We lack helpful Stoic discussion that helps us much if at all by way of easy introduction to Stoic ideas about virtue. And this is disconcerting. Thoughts about virtue and happiness are the starting point for ethical theories in general in the ancient world, and increasingly today many people find that they want to know what an ethical theory has to tell them about happiness and virtue.

So it is alarming to find, when you are aiming to become a Stoic, and to understand what is required of you, that:

  • There are no degrees of virtue
  • There are no degrees of vice
  • There is no state between virtue and vice; if you are not virtuous you are vicious.
  • Only the sage is virtuous. But
  • The sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix;
  • So, we are all vicious.[1]

To start with, there are no degrees of virtue. Either you are virtuous, or not; there is no such thing as being more virtuous or less virtuous. So, despite having rethought your life so as to give more money, more time and more energy to good causes, you are no more generous than you were. Despite your rethinking your priorities and your best efforts to live up to this, you are no more honest, brave or tactful than you were. Only when you become completely generous, honest, brave, tactful and have all the rest of the virtues in the right way will you become virtuous, that is, generous, honest, brave and tactful.

Nothing, it appears, could be more off-putting to a beginner; it doesn’t matter how hard, and how intelligently, you try, you will still be no braver, more tactful or whatever other virtues you aim for. (The beginner can be told that there are other reasons, elsewhere in the system of Stoic philosophy, for accepting this. For example, virtue requires knowledge, and knowledge does not, for the Stoics, come in degrees. But this hardly helps the beginner focus on becoming virtuous.) Since your best efforts don’t make you any more virtuous, why bother?

The flip side of this is no more encouraging. We ordinarily believe that most of us may be mediocre or even moderately bad, but not as bad as Hitler or Stalin, but the Stoics insist that there are no degrees of vice. They express this idea by appealing to cases where difference is not a matter of degree. A stick is either straight or it is crooked. (Diogenes Laertius, 7, 127) Blind puppies are just as blind the day before they see as they were at birth. (Plutarch, comm. not. 1063 A-B) If you are underwater in the sea, you drown whether you are an arm’s length from the surface or 500 fathoms down. (Plutarch, op.cit.) When you are not yet at your destination, you are not there, however far or near you are to it. (Diogenes Laertius 7, 120) With vice the claim that there are no degrees may seem even more offensive than with virtue. We may put up with being told that neither we nor anyone else is virtuous, but the levelling claim about vice leaves us wondering what the difference is between us and people that are extremely bad. Again, we find ourselves wondering what the point is of trying to improve, if however hard we try we are still no less vicious than the worst people.

Both of these off-putting theses can, however, be explained in ways that do make good sense. The idea that there are no degrees of virtue does not mean that there cannot be degrees of progress towards virtue. And the Stoics do believe this, since they talk about the person who is making progress in living better, the prokopton or ‘progressor’. When you reorder your priorties and try to live up to your new commitments, you are progressing towards virtue, and there can certainly be degrees of that. You may have progressed a little, or a lot. Given this, the Stoics can after all make distinctions among people who are progressing. We do this all the time, of course. Generally this takes the form of comparing our own progress with that of others, usually in a way which is unfavourable to ourselves: we find others to be better than we are in a variety of ways.

We look up to people who are braver, or more generous, or just nicer to others, than we are, and we are inspired to be like them in those ways. (We also compare ourselves favourably with others, since we can usually find people around us who are stingier or more cowardly than we are; but this obviously does nothing for our own ethical progress – it is likely to be counter-productive for that.) The Stoics are quite aware of the way we improve ethically by aspiring to become more virtuous than we are. Their theory allows for this – we just have to be careful how we conceptualize what we do. We are not becoming more virtuous, or increasing in degrees of virtue; we are progressing by degrees towards virtue, which is itself not a matter of degree.

Similarly we can draw distinctions between people even if there are no degrees of virtue. Strictly speaking, Plato was no more virtuous than the horrible tyrant Dionysius. But Plato at least was improving, whereas Dionysius was in a hopeless condition in which he could not improve. (Cicero, De Finibus 4, 56) Someone near the surface of the sea is more easily rescued than someone at the bottom. Someone near their destination has less distance to traverse than someone setting out. Distinctions that we make by talking about some people being more or less virtuous than others can be made in other ways. So the Stoics are not just flouting common sense; they can explain how their position is compatible with views we have about virtue and vice. But we still haven’t seen the point of the claim that there are no degrees of virtue.

The Stoics are insisting that virtue is an ideal that we work towards, not an endeavour that we have already made strides in. An ideal can inspire us to aspiration even if it is not something we can ever achieve, and it’s important for the Stoics that we think of it that way. Talking of virtue and vice having no degrees, and no state between them, emphasises the point that virtue is a state we are always trying to reach; there is no point when we can say, ‘Well, that was hard work, but I’m finally there; now I’m brave (generous, tactful or whatever).’

Becoming virtuous is life-long learning. This is an idea that we may find disconcerting; we almost certainly don’t want to think that we have to go on becoming virtuous right up to the day we day. The Stoics are aware of this, and want to counter it: by denying that virtue has degrees they keep right in front of our eyes the point that Stoicism is a continuing way of life. It’s not a Teach Yourself programme, where you teach yourself a subject which you then know, like learning a language, and then move on to do something else, fortified by what you have learnt. It’s a way of life which is a way of continually being and improving yourself. The initially off-putting views about virtue keep us aware of this.

It’s still hard to make sense of probably the most off-putting claim of all: only the sage is virtuous. (‘Sage’ has a lot of unfortunate suggestions, but at least it is gender-neutral, so is an improvement on the former use of ‘the wise man’ or ‘the virtuous man’.) When we put this together with the point that the sage is rarer than the mythical phoenix, we see that we are all vicious, the noblest among us as much as the thugs. The sage is the person who is completely virtuous, and this is a stage that none of us will reach. The early Stoics make things worse for us here by dwelling, frequently and prominently, on the thought that it is only the sage who is really what other people only think they are. The sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only general, the only money-maker and so on. Only the sage knows how to rule like a king, cure like a doctor, command like a general, and so on. Our sources for early Stoicism repeat and emphasise this point, sometimes at length.

This claim was widely ridiculed in the ancient world. Ancient authors point out that it is peculiar, to put it mildly, that the sage is the only king when he has no political authority, the only rich person when he is in rags, and so on. Plutarch, a 2nd century CE philosopher, tells us about a Spartan king, Eudamidas, who took a plain blunt approach. When a Stoic claimed that only the sage was a general, the king remarked that he couldn’t believe that, coming from someone who had never been in battle. (Sayings of Spartans 220e). Moreover, if the sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only lawgiver, cook, carpenter, rich man and so on, he will have to be absurdly omnicompetent. To function in all these ways, he or she will have to have the practical knowledge of how to cure people, cook food, manage money, make laws and so on. Lucian, a 2nd century CE satirist, claims, in his dialogue Philosophies for Sale, that the Stoic sage knows everything . So he will know how to cook, how to build, how to cure and so on – So Stoicism is a real bargain! (Philosophies for Sale 20).

The sage is the ideal virtuous person, as already noted – so aren’t the Stoics just taking over the idea of the virtuous person whom we should emulate? Sometimes we find this idea in ancient writers. We find it, for example, in Cicero, when he is setting out Stoic ethics in the person of Cato, in the third book of his work On Moral Ends. The Stoic sage, says Cato, is dignified and noble, and has a character which is constant. He is more truly a king than King Tarquin, the last king of Rome, driven out for his pride and cruelty. He is more truly rich than Marcus Crassus, a billionaire contemporary with Cicero who was notorious for his indifference to ethics in making money. (On Moral Ends III 75-76.) It looks as though the sage is brought in to make the point that we should aspire to be virtuous in what we do, rather than proud and dishonest. But this doesn’t get the sage right. The sage is, after all, the only king, and by comparison even the best king of Rome would not really be a king. He is the only rich person, and by comparison even the most honest and scrupulous billionaire would not really be rich. We are left with the full off-putting force of the Stoic theses about virtue.

Some passages about the sage suggest that the idea is that as we improve in virtue we get to be more reflective about our activities, and so we acquire expertise about things that we previously did just as a matter of routine. Money-making, for example, and household management are regularly treated by Plato and Aristotle as something beneath the intellectual level, and notice, of the sage. The Stoics, however, throw out an intellectual bridge, claiming that running a household is not just a sub-theoretical knack, but ‘a state both theoretical and practical concerning what is advantageous for the household’, and that money-making is ‘experience of acquiring money from the right sources…..in collecting, preserving and spending money with a view to being well off’. So ‘only the virtuous person is skilled at money-making, recognizing what the sources are from which one should make money, and when and how and up to what point.’ (Arius 11d) Here a practical skill is intellectualized as a way of showing how its correct performance might indeed be one which requires the achievement of virtue. There are other passages to the same effect. It turns out, for example, that running a symposium and managing a love affair can both be described as virtues in terms of their intellectual basis. (Arius 5b9; see 5b12 for prophecy and being a priest)

This idea of intellectualizing roles applies fairly well to roles like king, general or carpenter, where there is a skill which can be performed well or badly, and the virtuous person will perform it better, because she has greater understanding of what is important, and the values involved in the situation. There are other cases, though, where this move is not available, for example the claim that only the sage is free. The sage is free, we are told, in the true sense of freedom, for only he has achieved true internal freedom, which is freedom from the passions and from the pull of conventional motivations. Here there is no attempt to provide a bridge from the everyday notion. The same is even more obviously true of the claims that only the sage is beautiful, tall and strong, even if by ordinary standards he is ugly, small and weak. He is rich, even if in rags, a king, even if without power, and so on. (Diogenes Laertius VII 122, Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, esp. 16-25, Arius 11g,k,m)

What is going on when we are told that only the sage is free, rich and so on? The Stoic idea of ethical improvement focuses, more than some other ethical theories do, on improvement as a whole. Virtue requires more than being good in one area of your life while letting things slide in another. You have to have the right kind of understanding of value over your whole life to be virtuous. (This is one reason why it is so difficult.) The virtuous person has an understanding of what in life is valuable, with the crucial insight that the value of virtue is different from the value of everything else, and that it should always take priority.

In one sense this understanding will be the same in everyone – it is the understanding which enables the virtuous person to discern what is right in each situation and to act accordingly. But in another sense the understanding will be different for everyone, because we live in a variety of societies and cultures. Some of us have different roles from others – we are teachers, firefighters, plumbers, professors and so on. And each of us has our own individual aspects of personality. So each of us will embody and express the understanding that the virtuous person has in our own situation and context, in our own roles and in a way influenced by our own personality traits. The Stoics say that the virtuous person will do everything well, as an expert musician plays all pieces well. (Diogenes Laertius VII 125, Arius 5b10). Virtue is the same in everyone in the way that the musician’s skill is the same skill in all her performances. But each performance is of a different piece of music.

When we take this into account, we can see that for the Stoics the sage is an ideal, but can’t be thought of as a single figure to imitate or emulate. The sage is the only king, but this is no use to me if I’m not a king; I’m a doctor. But the sage is the only doctor too, so I should emulate the sage – that is try to become virtuous, as a doctor. Kings and doctors have to aim to become virtuous – to take virtue as their ideal to pursue – in their own ways of life. But they are both taking the sage as an ideal – that is, trying to be virtuous, aiming continually to improve and to live better.

So the sage doesn’t have to be the person who knows this and that and the other thing, who knows what a doctor knows and what a plumber knows and what a general knows. The sage is the ideal of having a single kind of knowledge – the understanding which the virtuous person has. But this will be embodied differently, and so take different forms, in different people, depending on their role, situation and personality. So the Stoics keep insisting that the sage is the only king, doctor and so on – it’s a way of pointing out that whether you’re a king or a doctor your ideal is to be a virtuous king, a virtuous doctor and so on.

The sage is an ideal, but a more demanding and austere ideal than other ethical theories have. Virtue is all or nothing, not something we can have degrees of. We have to achieve it as a whole, and hence over our whole life. It’s a total transformation, one which makes all virtuous people share the same understanding in their different contexts. This is another way in which the Stoics underline the demandingness of their ideal, and the distance we are from it. We tend to think that we are pretty good people because in some areas of life we are good – generous, say, while conveniently forgetting that in other areas we aren’t – we’re disloyal, say. No, say the Stoics, you are virtuous (or not) as a whole.

So: is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems? I’ve tried to show that it is not elitism, or perversity, or not caring about attracting people to Stoicism, which makes the Stoics talk about virtue the way they do. They want to alert us from the start to the fact that Stoicism is demanding. It’s a way of life, and for it to do you any good it has to be the way you live, the way you live all of your life, not something you can treat like a self-improvement course. We might think that they should have had better PR to attract people to Stoicism. But they thought that you should clearly see, right from the start, that you’re being asked to transform your whole way of life. Why pretend that it’s easy?

[1] I’m not here going to follow up the thesis that all the vices and all the virtues are equal. Discussing this would require going into more technical Stoic discussion than would be helpful here. Also, I take it that this thesis doesn’t introduce a distinct way of being off-putting from the ones I do look at.

This post is the transcript of Professor Annas’ presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of the conference can be viewed here (Dr. Annas’ presentation begins at 28:25)

Julia Annas is Regents Professor in Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She previously taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She was the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published several books and many articles on ancient philosophy, especially ancient ethics, and in recent years has also published on contemporary virtue ethics.

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine by Eric O. Scott

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine

by Eric O. Scott
justice statue

This past weekend I had the good fortune to attend “the largest gathering of Stoics in the history of the world”—Stoicon 2016, held in New York City. The conference was stimulating and thrilling in many ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary talks, parallel sessions, and the opportunity to meet a number of people whom I knew through their books and/or the online community. A special thanks to the generosity of Ryan Holiday, moreover, for giving every single conference participant a free hardback copy of his new devotional book, The Daily Stoic!

Last weekend, however, was also a moment where I became acutely aware that the modern Stoic community can do much better in the way that it approaches the topic of Justice.

 

The Need for Justice

We Stoics always have to navigate a fragile balance when we present our ideas to the world. Many of our most powerful and appealing psychological tools revolve around accepting events that happen and recognizing that they are ultimately outside of our control. The reason that Stoicism is relevant to such a large and diverse array of people today is exactly because it purports to offer a powerful solution to almost any source of distress: “retire into yourself” (Meditations, 7.28).   We are perpetually at risk, however, of having our doctrine of “indifference” toward externals misconstrued for a “neglect” of externals. The benefits of inner peace speak for themselves—but the extreme emphasis that our philosophy puts on personal virtue as an “inner citadel” puts us in an understandably delicate position, politically speaking.

Any speech extolling the merits of inner peace and apatheia goes wrong—and in fact becomes positively toxic—the moment that the audience begins to suspect that our school advocates for complacency in the face of social injustice. A great deal of the world’s harms are not inevitable, and in fact are immanently preventable (fate permitting), if only we humans could get our act together.   If Stoicism teaches that we should be passive toward these fixable harms, or if our school is quick to “blame the victim” for their own unhappiness while simultaneously ignoring injustice, then our philosophy is immoral, and ought to be immediately rejected as such.

Of course, Stoicism teaches no such thing! To the contrary, we believe that no man or woman can be moral (or Happy) unless they work tirelessly for the benefit of all humanity. Justice and Benevolence must be a guide to all of our actions—“any action of yours,” in fact, “which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart!” (Meditations, 9.23).   We do not believe that our doctrine of inner peace is mutually exclusive with Justice in any way whatsoever. “It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind,” says Epictetus, “the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible” (Discourses, 2.5.9).

People are right to be concerned, though, that Stoicism might teach an inappropriately shallow sort of fatalism. The more unilateral emphasis we put on the inner fortress as a shield against injustice, the more rational reason people have for fearing that we are abandoning our natural responsibility to work diligently in defense of the downtrodden. Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I believe that contemporary Stoics need to be absolutely unambiguous about the fundamental moral imperatives that are essential to our ethics. Say it loud and clear: the way that we treat each other—and the way that we allow others to be treated by our society—is not “indifferent” at all. Stoicism is a system of virtue ethics, not only therapy, and as such it demands that each practitioner strive to be a force for Justice and Benevolence at all levels of society.

 

The Need for Charity

There is a little anecdote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, where we find Zeno confronting a man who had been strongly critical of Antisthenes. Zeno apparently felt that the man had not done his due diligence as a critic, and he reprimanded the man strongly for it: “are you not ashamed,” he said, “to pick out and mention anything wrong said by Antisthenes, while you suppress his good things without giving them a thought?” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.19). Donald Robertson likes to retell this story and interpret it as illustrating a strong normative principle: if we are going to criticize a person or school, we ought to engage the best of their thinking along with the worst, and to acknowledge what their ideas have to teach us about virtue. This is an idea that philosophers sometimes refer to as the “principle of charity.” Far from prohibiting or undermining criticism, the principle of charity is supposed to make us better, more just, and more incisive critics of flawed ideas.

Threading the needle of Stoic Justice becomes doubly difficult when a Stoic tries to go about offering advice to activists about how they can better run their movement. In many cases, criticism of activism effectively amounts to telling victims of hardship, injustice, and oppression how we think they ought to bear their plight more virtuously. This is a very difficult thing for anyone to do in a fair and sensitive way—it requires a lot of research and a generous dose of the principle of charity. It is virtually impossible to achieve, moreover, if it is not clear whether you actually, in fact, care about the injustice in question in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of can of worms that Bill Irvine stirred up at Stoicon 2016 in his presentation on what he has called “insult pacifism.” If you missed the talk, it closely follows a post he published the previous week on the Oxford University Press blog, titled “How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech?

Irvine’s central point is that we can teach people to be resilient to injustice. Insults don’t need to be emotionally damaging, and when we judge them to be inherently bad and horrible, we end up suffering unnecessarily. Channeling the advice of the Stoics, Irvine argues that a stance of non-retaliation, or of “receiving these people’s insults as jokes” (as Seneca puts it in De Constantia), can not only protect us from emotional disturbance, but can in fact send a highly effective normative signal: “on failing to provoke a rise in his target,” says Irvine, “an insulter is likely to feel foolish.”

I am completely on board with the notion of insult pacifism. I was raised to value the principle that evil is best repaid with kindness (Romans 12:20), and “that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). I’m delighted at Irvine’s effort to popularize similar Stoic ideas in his books and elsewhere.   In my own personal practice, in fact, I am currently trying to use pacifism toward automotive insults to counter my own tendency toward road rage: pacifism comes highly recommended when you are barreling down the highway in a 3,000 pound projectile!

Irvine’s manner of treating the topic leaves a great deal to be desired, however, and I fear that it only reinforces the notion that Stoics are disinterested in Justice in general, and that modern Stoicism, far from taking a charitable interest in contemporary activism, is indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of marginalized people.

 

Irvine’s Criticism of Social Justice

First, Irvine’s Stoicon presentation is lopsided in that he is largely silent on the need for Stoics to work for Justice at all—a weakness that is shared by his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t (Oxford University Press). But his approach indeed becomes “worse than silence” when he chooses to frame his talk as a one-sided criticism of contemporary social justice activism.

In the chapter of his book titled “Societal Responses to Insults”—which could have included a discussion on how we can work to make the world a better, more Just place for everyone—Irvine opts only to zero in on what he calls the “political correctness code” that emerged in the 1970’s and has since, in his opinion, gotten way out of hand. “If Stoic philosopher Epictetus had been alive to watch the rise of hate speech laws, and, more generally, the political correctness movement,” concludes Irvine, “he would have shaken his head in disbelief. According to him, the best way to spare people the pain of being insulted is not to change the world so that they never feel insults; it is instead to change people so that they are, in effect, immune to insults” (p. 182).

Now, there is plenty worth criticizing when it comes to activism on college campuses and society more broadly. Whatever nuances may be involved, I don’t for a moment pretend that all of the widely publicized cases in which students have inappropriately stifled free speech, inhibited their own exposure to challenging ideas, or capriciously assaulted the academic freedom of university professors in the name of “safe spaces” are defensible (if this specific issue is of relevance to you, I encourage you to have a look at the 102-page report that PEN America released this week; a short summary can be found here). I myself accept the Stoic view that anger is always irrational and vicious—a position which, if I’m not careful, easily gets me into hot water with the activist community!

The problem is not that Irvine has criticized these abuses of popular social justice ideas, or even that he apparently finds the concept of microaggressions to be useless (though, personally, I would implore him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater). Rather, the problem is that, in the same way that he has approximately nothing to say in defense of Justice despite our school’s well-known reputation for a shallow fatalism, Irvine chooses to show no sympathy—and instead only active contempt—for the fundamental concerns that motivate activism.

For contrast, I invite you to have a look at the nuanced criticism of trigger warnings that Massimo Pigliucci wrote last year—which delved headlong into similarly sensitive waters, but only served to spark a very productive and cordial conversation among a diverse readership. I think it forms an exemplary model of how Stoics can treat such difficult topics while remaining true to Zeno’s advice, and while making it clear that we do care deeply about Justice.

Irvine, meanwhile, admits that he is “puzzled” by the surge in concern over social justice issues on college campuses. He is perplexed that students feel “humiliated and even downtrodden” by the behavior of their peers, when in previous decades these issues were not very high in the public consciousness. Rather than engaging the many complex reasons that these students and other activists might give for their societal concerns, Irvine chooses to blanketly suggest that the systemic injustice so many are working to dismantle is simply a product of the imagination of feeble-minded youths: the infamous “hypersensitivity” of the activist. He lays the blame for the most recent round of sensitivity in efforts to teach people to recognize microaggressions, which are “such will-o’-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them.” And the idea of microaggressions, he believes, is motivated—not by a concern that the longstanding systemic injustices that plague the United States are enabled and aggravated by deep and pernicious social norms—but by a singular and simple purpose: to find new and innovative ways to feel “insulted.”

In short, just as Zeno worried, Irvine opts to “pick out and mention” everything that is wrong with contemporary activism, but to “suppress the good things without giving them a thought.” He allows the imprudent behavior of a misguided minority of activists—behavior which otherwise very much deserves to be criticized—to completely overshadow and eclipse the efforts of those who are working seriously and virtuously to bring Justice to the world. This approach is incomplete, reactive, and cavalier, and it is doubly problematic in a talk that explicitly purports to give marginalized people advice on how best to cope with oppression and hate speech.

Pigliucci, meanwhile, also strongly rejects what he sees as the general thrust of student activism with regard to trigger warnings. But he takes care to acknowledge the legitimate concerns, where they exist, that motivate the various voices involved in the controversy. Faculty have a human and professional duty, he says, “to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns.” The result is not just a presentation that is less likely to offend, but one that comes across as better researched, commonsensical, and highly persuasive. These are the fruits of charity.

No doubt, Irvine only meant to use a few vicious behaviors by some college students as an illustrative example for his ideas. I’m sure that Irvine does believe that Justice is important (even if he chooses not to emphasize it for fear of exacerbating existing abuses in the activist community). Instead, however, his contribution to Stoicon gave a strong impression that modern Stoicism is indifferent or even hostile to the social concerns of historically marginalized groups and minorities—such as women, people of color, and LGBTs. Between his deafening silence on the moral imperative to Justice and his uncharitable characterization of activist’s concerns, his presentation lends credence to the erroneous idea that because Stoics believe that “true freedom is internal freedom,” they also believe “the external sort does not really matter.”

 

The Alienating Effect on Minorities

As Irvine delivered his pithy summary of campus activism, the predominantly white male audience laughed heartily—oblivious, it seems, to the sensitivity of the subject.

In the meantime, my wife—a black, female graduate student who is probably better educated in the scientific literature on microaggressions than both Irvine and 90% of the Stoicon audience—was having a very different social experience. She had come along to New York as a favor to me, to see what this philosophy is that I’ve become so interested in lately, and to learn about how it relates to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and REBT. But in that moment, she became acutely aware of one simple fact: it did not appear that ethnic minorities or their distinctive concerns are welcome or wanted, much less understood, in the modern Stoic community. “Alienating” is perhaps too weak a word to describe how she experienced Stoicon.

Stoicism is remarkable among the world’s major religio-philosophical traditions for its history of including the voices not just of emperors and wealthy statesmen but also of people with physical disabilities, mental illness, and chronic pain, victims of torture and PTSD, and prisoners serving life sentences. But when marginalized people encounter Stoicism today, do they come away believing that Stoicism has something to offer them? Or do they come away with the impression—right or wrong—that Stoicism is just one more system created by privileged people who are out of touch with the severity of the world’s fixable injustices?

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

 

Stoics for Justice

Stoicism is not a political theory. I agree with Pigliucci when he says that demanding a specific social vision from our school is a “category mistake.” To the contrary, he says that “one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better.”

I believe that Stoicism can do amazing things in the world of politics and philanthropy if we create a space for those “constructive dialogues” to take place—especially if those dialogues are rooted in Zeno’s principle of charity, and if they implement the Socratic model, in which we “stop at point after point, and make out what each person is willing to admit and what he denies” (Cicero, De Finibus, 2.3).

Moreover, I strongly suspect that the Stoic emphasis on the four cardinal virtues offers a uniquely powerful antidote to the pervasive miscommunication, polarization, and rancor that seemingly attend all political arguments. A Stoic is someone who cares about personal resilience and Temperance, but who also cares deeply about Justice. If we present ourselves this way, the world should never have reason to be confused on this point, or to doubt our support for both social justice (whatever exactly that means) and personal virtue. Our school teaches that virtue is one, after all, and that if we separate it into pieces, we destroy it.

In my opinion, Stoicon left something to be desired when it comes to getting these values across (notwithstanding Christopher Gill’s excellent and helpful presentation on the history of Stoic activism). But the conversations at Stoicon were neither the first nor the last word on the matter.

That is why, starting now, some of us are coming together to form a Facebook group called “Stoics for Justice,” as a space to push Stoic philanthropy forward and to find ways of working together to pursue the “common benefit” (as Marcus liked to say). Whether you prefer radical activism aimed at disrupting oppressive power structures, or whether you see your role in the world as focused on community building, education, and hands-on philanthropy—or, yes, even therapeutic training in becoming resilient to insults—you should be able to find a role to play in any hypothetical Stoic-led movement for Justice and Benevolence.

Come join us at Stoics for Justice and let us know how you think we might move Stoic philanthropy forward on the issues you care about most!

Thank you to Kristen de K., John Martin, Charmika Stewart, and Arianna Scott for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is interested in moral practice as a way of life, and in how secular and religious people can find common ethical ground (a question which Socrates raised in Plato’s Euthyphro). In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Reflections on STOICON 2016 by Greg Sadler

Reflections on STOICON 2016

by Greg Sadlerstoicon

We’re now well into Stoic Week 2016 – starting the second-to-last day for many of us when this post comes out – and just seven days has passed since what turned out not only to be an excellent conference but also a historical occasion. Apparently STOICON 2016 was the largest gathering of Stoics in the world, not just today, but ever!

When it comes to an event of that magnitude, nobody really gets to see or participate in everything of course. But, perhaps in some respects the viewpoint and experience I had is representative enough for my reflections to be of some interest or use – at the very least in provoking some conversation. I got to attend a range of excellent talks by quite a few speakers (If you’re curious, Massimo Pigluicci provides overviews of the main talks here).  I also got to engage in some great (though all too short) discussions with a fellow participants intensely interested in modern Stoicism, meet a number people I’d only interacted with previously through correspondence, and absorb some of the energy and excitement (which admittedly helped a bit, since I was a bit sleep-deprived by the day of the conference!)

I also had the chance to see STOICON from another set of angles as well. Fortunately the organizing and running of the conference – months of painstaking work having been done behind the scenes by that point – were already expertly handled by the New York hosts, particularly Massimo Piglucci, Greg Lopez, and Amy Valladares (with many other people supporting). When it comes to conferences, or any similar events with almost innumerable “moving parts” (especially when many of those parts are complicated human beings), there’s nearly always some opportunity for the planners to have the dichotomy of control drilled home to them experientially. From my perspective – and doubtless the New York team might view this very differently – things went quite smoothly through the day.

So for myself, as a speaker, it was a very enjoyable, fairly stress-free conference (meaning that from a Stoic perspective, what stresses I did experience stemmed from my own judgements, assumptions, and reactions – I’m still someone who needs to make considerably more progress!). I got to meet and interact with – at least a bit in some cases – the other speakers, and many of the other people who were there for the talks and workshops. Everything I needed for my own workshop fell into place, so all I needed to do was engage with the participants who had selected that workshop, talk about Stoic views and practices bearing on anger, and carry out some very enjoyable conversation in the session. The only downside was not being able to attend any of the other workshops, but that was a situation every other person attending the conference was in.

All told then, from the multiple overlapping perspectives of a participant in the conference, a member of the modern Stoic community, and a workshop provider, STOICON 2016 was an excellent conference. I had actually prepared myself mentally for a number of manners in which matters out of my control might go contrary to my desires and expectations – I’m definitely not at a point of having extricated my desires and aversion from all manners of things strictly speaking indifferent, I have to admit – for instance, how to respond if the handouts useful for my workshop weren’t available, or what to do if all the available places for lunch were simply mobbed, or any number of other sorts of events along those lines. That negative visualization didn’t turn out to be needed, but it’s a good practice as we all likely know, and as with any practice, engaging in it more often is integral to doing it better when it turns out to be needed.

There are a number of interesting developments and prospects that were either in the works by, or got discussed in the course of, or ended up emerging in one way or another from bringing all these people interested in Stoic philosophy and its modern applications together. I’ll mention several of them here.

First, STOICON – particularly in conjunction with the associated Stoic Week, this Stoicism Today blog, and the Stoicism Facebook group – provides an index of how large and diverse the modern Stoic movement (or if you like, community) really is. I’d add several other qualifiers as well: healthy. . . thriving . . . productive. . . even exciting. There were over 330 attendees at this STOICON itself – the meeting space was packed, and buzzing with conversations! There’s thousands of people participating in Stoic Week itself, with quite a few organizations and institutions offering places for people to work through the handbook and exercises together. The Stoicism Facebook group has over 15,000 members. Stoicism Today regularly gets an average of over 1,000 reads per day, and considerably more this time of the year.

These are important parts of what we might call the “big contemporary Stoic picture”, but just parts. There are so many other sites, organizations, and groups that it would require a lengthy post just to try to comprehensively list them. I counted 13 different groups devoted specifically to Stoicism on Meetup.com, and many other philosophy-related meetups also feature discussions or events centered on Stoicism. Also on Facebook, you’ll find the smaller, but also quite excellent group devoted to Applying Stoicism. There’s a very active Stoicism sub-Reddit, and you can find interesting groups on Google+ and LinkedIn as well. There’s also an app that’s been discussed here previously in Stoicism Today, PocketStoic, a host of blogs and podcasts devoted to Stoicism (perhaps we’ll do a round-up of those in the coming weeks or months) and a promising new organization, the Stoic Fellowship.

That last part brings me to the second interesting development. Stoic Fellowship in particular focuses on providing support and resources that can be used in developing local Stoic organizations. It’s wonderful that we have a yearly event like STOICON, and the blog, and the group, and that there are meetups around the world, but creating yet more local, regular opportunities for face-to-face interaction with other people interested in Stoicism seems like an excellent idea to me. Imagine a vast network of groups and organizations connected together in a number of different ways, affording still more people a chance to learn about, to discuss, to practice Stoicism – that is hopefully where we are currently headed! Who knows – we might even start to see additional regional versions of STOICON, like the one happening today in London, getting planned in various parts of the world for next year.

The third development that I’ll mention here is that, in the coming months, I’m hoping to get most ( or even better, all) of the speakers at this year’s STOICON to contribute posts that provide some of the content discussed during their talks and workshops. I have to admit that, as editor of Stoicism Today, following up on this excellent suggestion made by one of the conference-goers is not without some self-interest on my part – I would have liked to attend every one of the workshops, and I’m hoping to get some insight into what they did and discussed as I read those posts. So, keep an eye out for some excellent guest posts here by the conference presenters!

To bring this to a close, as I said at the start, nobody really gets a completely encompassing view on an event like STOICON. So, it would be particularly interesting to read about the reflections and experiences of others who attended the conference – comment away! And of course, that’s not to say that anyone else who finds these developments interesting – whether they could be at STOICON this year or not – shouldn’t equally chime in, or carry out the conversation, in the comments.

'Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Vol. II' Available for Free During Stoic Week

‘Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Vol. II’ Available for Free During Stoic Week

Until Friday 21st October, the Kindle digital version of Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Vol. II is available for free.

For Amazon UK, click here. For Amazon US, click here.

The contents are set out in the post here detailing the release.

About the book: Stoicism, the classical philosophy as a way of life practised by the Greeks and Romans, continues to resonate in the modern world. With over forty essays and reflections, this book is simultaneously a guide to practising Stoicism in your own life and to all the different aspects of the modern Stoic revival. You will learn about Stoic practical wisdom, virtue, how to relate wisely to others and the nature of Stoic joy. You will read of life-stories by those who practise Stoicism today, coping with illness and other adversities, and of how Stoicism can be helpful in many areas of modern life, from cultivating calm in the online world to contributing new solutions to the environmental crisis. And, just like the ancient Stoics did, key questions modern Stoics often ask are debated such as: Do you need God to be a Stoic? Is the Stoic an ascetic? Containing both practical wisdom and philosophical reflection, this book – the second in the Stoicism Today series – is for anyone interested in practising the Stoic life in the modern world.

Stoic Week 2016 Starts Monday!

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Today as this post appears, STOICON 2016 will very shortly be starting in New York City.  It provides one of the high points of the year for the worldwide Modern Stoicism community.  STOICON is not only a wonderful conference with a lineup of engaging speakers providing talks, workshops, and discussions, but it also effectively kicks off International Stoic Week 2016!

 

The Stoic Week Course

What we might call the “main main event”, the entirely FREE online Stoic Week class – providing a beautiful new class site, complete with handbook, audio files, forums for discussion, just to mention a few features – is still enrolling (so, if you’re finding out about this late, don’t fret about it – there’s still time for you to sign up and get in the class!)  It starts on Monday, October 17, and ends on Sunday, October 23.

Having participated in the class myself, I highly recommend it to anyone.  As a teacher and a scholar, I can attest that what you’re getting in this this one-week course Donald Robertson has designed and developed is a brilliant adaptation of classic Stoic philosophy to the context of modern life – precisely the sort of thing the ancient Stoics would be doing were they around to do so today.  It’s eminently accessible for beginners, but has a lot to offer intermediate and expect-level students and practitioners.  I know that I learn quite a bit doing the course myself each year.  So if you’re someone who reads this blog, this is definitely a course you’ll want to take.

Institutions or Organizations Engaging In the Class

The Stoic Week online class offers opportunities to meet, learn, and interact with people all over the world.  In certain locations, there is also another great opportunity, provided by local organizations or institutions, to work through the Stoic Week class together.  At present, here are the organizations and institutions that

Grand Valley State University Classics Department – the contact person is Peter Anderson

Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania – the contact person is Andrew Winters

Marist College Honors Program – the contact person is James Snyder

Bates College – the contact person is Michael Hanrahan

Manchester Stoics Meetup – the contact person is Brenda Lanigan

Brisbane Stoics Meetup – the contact person is Alex Magee

In-Person Events:

There are several events already scheduled during Stoic Week itself to commemorate, celebrate, and continue building community.  If you know of any other events that belong on this list, feel free to contact me, or even better, enter them into this form.  I’ll be updating this post over the course of Stoic Week, to include any new events that come to my attention.

16 October, 2 PM: Post-STOICON/Pre-Stoic Week Meetup (New York City, USA). To celebrate the end of STOICON ’16 and the beginning of Stoic Week ’16, the New York City Stoics Meetup will host a Stoic Walking tour through parts of NYC, with wha promise to be some engaging thematic conversations held along the route. – the organizer/contact person is Greg Lopez.

16 October, 3 PM: Stoicism and Love (London, UK).  The London Stoics Meetup will be hosting a discussion on that very topic (the theme for Stoic Week this year) – the contact person/organizer is Carmello Di Maria.

18 October 12:00 PM:  Stoicism Across the Disciplines: A Panel Discussion (Lewiston, ME, USA) – Bates College faculty will lead an informal discussion of Stoicism across intellectual disciplines at the Benjamin Mays Center- the organizer/contact person is Michael Hanrahan.

18 October, 6:00 PM:  Struggling With Anger? Useful Stoic Perspectives and Practices (Milwaukee, WI, USA).  For local residents of my home city (a place where it’s clearly needed), I’ll be providing the same workshop I’m leading out at STOICON – the organizer/contact person is me, Greg Sadler.

19 October, 5:00 PM: Vidas Estoicas (Bogata, Columbia)  The members of the research group, Peiras, will be providing a discussion focused on classical Stoicism, its doctrines and figures, and its potential for transforming contemporary everyday life at the Edificio de Posgrados de Ciencias Humanas, Salón Oval, Universidad Nacional, Miércoles – the organizer/contact person is Andrea Lozano Vasquez.

19 October, 7:30 PMWhat is The Place for Stoicism in Today’s Society? (Oxford, UK).  The Philosophy In Pubs, Oxford Meetup is hosting a discussion with Daniel Robertson about Stoicism Today – the organizer/contact person is Ben Clark.

20 October, 7:00 PM: Stoic Week Discussion (Slippery Rock, PA, USA)  Professor Andrew Winters will be discussing with the public what it is like to live as a Stoic in a modern world – the organizer/contact person is Andrew Winters

20 October, 6:30 PM: Discussing Stoic Daily Habits (Manchester, UK). The Manchester Stoic Meetup will be holding its monthly discussion, discussing precisely that, daily habits that help one live the Stoic life – the organizer/contact person is Brenda Lanigan.

20 October, 6:00 PM It’s Stoic Week: When Should I Assent? (Chicago, IL, USA). The Chicago Philosophy Meetup is having a session about Stoicism – the organizer/contact person is Ivan.

22 October, 2:00 PM-7:30 PM: Stoic Guidance for Troubled Times (London, UK). A smaller, but looking-to-be-excellent STOICON conference at Queen Mary University, with presentations by Jules Evans, Christopher Gill, Tim LeBon, Donald Robertson, and Gabrielle Galuzzo – the organizer/contact person is Jules Evans.

23 October, 5:00 PM: Stoic Week Wrap-Up (New York City, USA).  The New York City Stoics Meetup will host a meeting for an hour of open discussion and followup – the organizer/contact person is Greg Lopez.

23 October, 2:00 PM, Stoic Week Catch-Up (Brisbane, Australia).  The Brisbane Stoics will also be hosting a meeting to discuss and compare experiences from Stoic Week – the organizer/contact person is Alex Magee

Enrol now for Stoic Week 2016

Stoic Week 2016 starts on October 17th. Stoic Week is a completely free-of-charge, international, online event, open to everyone, including complete newcomers to the subject. See our Official Press Release for more information.

Enrol for Stoic Week

Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

Stoic Week HandbookStoic Week this year begins on 17th October.  You can enrol now.  However, the web version of the Stoic Week 2016 Handbook will be available one week early, on the 10th October.  So you have the option of reading it in advance to prepare.

When Stoic Week officially begins, enrolled participants will also be given access to the following offline versions of the handbook:

  • AZW3 and MOBI for Kindle
  • EPUB for other e-readers
  • PDF for printing

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • What is Stoicism?
  • Stoic Week: Your Daily Routine
  • The Stoic Self-Monitoring Record
  • Monday: Life
  • Tuesday: Control
  • Wednesday: Mindfulness
  • Thursday: Virtue
  • Friday: Relationships
  • Saturday: Resilience
  • Sunday: Nature
  • After Stoic Week
  • Appendix: Further Reading