Stoicism and the “Inadequacy of the Invincible” by Massimo Pigluicci

Stoicism is not new to criticism. Many of the fragments of Stoic texts that we have, especially referring to the early Stoa, are actually from authors who were not just critical, but seriously pissed off at, the philosophy. And now that Stoicism seems to be on the upswing again, the critics have come out of the woodworks once more. There is, of course, much value in serious criticism of one’s philosophy (for instance, from the likes of Martha Nussbaum), and the Stoics themselves repeatedly took good ideas from whenever they found them, be that the Cynicism so admired by Epictetus, or even the Epicureanism in which Seneca made a number of forays “not as a deserter, but as a scout” (II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 5).

Some of the modern critics have tried to top Sextus Empiricus’ famous “Against the Professors,” managing to express a level of venom probably better suited to other targets. Here, for instance, is my response to Existentialist philosopher Sandy Grant, who I think managed to write one of the most uncharitable recent commentaries on Stoicism. (Then again, none other than Bertrand Russell himself, one of the philosophers who most influenced me early on, botched the job fantastically in his History of Western Philosophy.)

I wasn’t going to respond to the latest entry in the genre, “The inadequacies of the invincible: on the failure of Stoic ethics,” published over at Medium by an anonymous writer (at least, I couldn’t see any byline on the piece itself) who turns out to be Michael Gibson of San Francisco (he was copied on a tweet I received about the piece). That’s because there is only so much time in the day, and so much point in rebutting one’s opponents instead of practicing one’s philosophy. Besides, the piece is long and meandering, not providing a tight and compelling argument. But far too many people have tweeted it to me asking what I thought about it, so here we go.

Gibson begins by recounting the famous tale of James Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam and endured seven years of torture and partial isolation as a prisoner of war in the ironically named “Hanoi Hilton.” You can read Stockdale’s story in his own words here and here. Gibson, stunningly, claims that Stoicism didn’t help Stockdale, a conclusion contradicted in plain words by the Vice Admiral himself, who went on for years teaching the philosophy and recalling how Epictetus had been his constant guide and companion throughout his tribulations.

Gibson then writes:

what you or I might call the goods of life  – wealth, health, family, lovers, and friends  –  the Stoic is morally indifferent to … the Stoic cultivates a moral, and therefore, emotional detachment from them, knowing that the sum of his worth factors no possessions in.

The first bit is on target, and moreover seems to me to be the right stand. While everyone (including the Stoics) care about wealth, health, etc., it seems very reasonable to think that one’s morality should not be affected by them, meaning that we shouldn’t do immoral things to secure such externals. The second bit is a straightforward non sequitur: just because I think that the moral dimension is orthogonal to the dimension of external goods it doesn’t follow that I should not give a damn about my family, my lover, or my friend. It only follows, again, that my concern should never compromise my moral integrity (e.g., I shouldn’t give a job to my lover on the ground that she is my lover, that’s nepotism, something that not just the Stoics frown upon).

Cataclysm, poverty, imprisonment, undeserved notoriety, bodily harm  – the Stoic sees as neutral raw material. How do you conduct yourself undergoing these supposed bad things? How do you respond to them? That’s the crux of it all.

Yes and no. True, any adversity is for the Stoic one more chance to exercise virtue (talk about a constructive positive attitude!), but that material is not “neutral,” as evidenced by the Stoic phrase “dispreferred indifferents”: indifferent from the standpoint of one’s moral character, but dispreferred nonetheless. I explained this concept in detail by using the modern idea, derived from behavioral economics, of lexicographic preferences, which I think captures the essence of Stoic thought on the matter.

The second part of Gibson’s essay is entitled “Epictetus comes to the market,” and it is here that the rubber really hits the road. Like Sandy Grant before him, Gibson really hates the commercialization of Stoicism in the style of TED talks and Ryan Holiday’s books. As if other philosophers, for instance Existentialist ones, didn’t give TED talks or write successful books (and more power to them, I say).

Gibson gets nasty here. Referring to Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, he says “along the way you suddenly awake from this carnival to realize how far you’ve come from the Stoa.” Well, for one thing, if Gibson is objecting to getting paid for teaching Stoicism, that’s been done since at least the time of Chrysippus. If instead he is worried by the fact that an author becomes famous and influences others, Seneca was both very famous and very influential.

I suspect the real problem here is that Gibson, like Grant before him, simply expresses disdain for what he sees as an oversimplification and commodification of philosophy. I can understand that, and Ryan’s style is certainly not my own. But this cannot possibly be an indictment of the philosophy in question, and moreover I’m having a hard time imagining exactly what is wrong with popularizing an idea (and making money while you do it), so long as you are not distorting that idea beyond recognition, or somehow profiting from your doings in an unethical way (which would violate the Stoic discipline of action).

I think this is part of a broader attitude, very common especially (but as Gibson’s case demonstrates, not only) among academics: that writing about science, philosophy, or any other “serious” field, is tainted if the writing becomes popular, and especially if it produces financial rewards for the author. But, again, why, exactly?

I teach philosophy at a university in New York, and I make good money as a result (otherwise I couldn’t possibly afford to live in the city). I also give public lectures (for which sometimes I’m paid) and write books for general audiences, and I feel no guilt at all when my bank tells me that my paycheck is in, or when my publisher sends me royalties. Once more: if someone is doing a bad job, or is profiting from it in a morally questionable fashion, by all means go after him. If not, your complaining begins to sound like a lot of sour grapes.

In a bizarre and sudden twist, Gibson then pins the tragic death by suicide of the brilliant American writer David Foster Wallace (who suffered from depression), on Stoicism, calling the resemblance between some of Wallace’s writings and Epictetus’ ideas “the canary in the coal mine.” This is so strange that I’m not even sure how to reply, but I’ll try.

To begin with, while Stoicism can be useful to people who suffer from mental disabilities (see this essay, for instance), it is certainly no substitute for therapy or medical cure. And even less so is it a magic wand that can solve everyone’s problems. It’s a philosophy of life, meant to help us see things in a different fashion and to act accordingly. To pretend otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest. Moreover, neither I nor, probably, Gibson, know enough about Wallace to really arrive at sensible judgments, and as Epictetus reminds us:

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? (Enchiridion 45).

The same applies to anything people do, whether it appears to be vicious, nonsensical, or simply sad and misguided.

In the next section of his long article, Gibson says:

We have become a society dissatisfied with the way things are, but instead of risking change to a external world that angers us or saddens us or bores the hell out of us, we choose to focus on how we respond to it. We choose, instead, to Netflix and chill. Sometimes with pills.

And from there he implies (but, curiously, never actually clearly states) another predictable, and unfounded, accusation against Stoicism: that it is a philosophy of quietism. Forget Cato the Younger picking up arms to counter the tyranny of Caesar, or Marcus Aurelius passing laws for the improvement of the conditions of women and slaves throughout the empire. Forget that one of the four cardinal virtues is that of justice, which informs the discipline of Stoic action. Or ignore that the Stoics (and the Cynics) introduced the revolutionary, and very dangerous to Greco-Roman society, concept of cosmopolitanism. What are facts and arguments, when one simply knows the truth about a philosophy he despises?

Want more examples of strawmen in Gibson’s account? Easy, just proceed to the next section of his essay, where we find this: “To omit friends from an account of what truly matters  – as the Stoics do –  was for Aristotle to paint a thin portrait of a life that was not worth living.” Never mind that Seneca wrote a famous letter to Lucilius about true and false friendship, another one on philosophy and friendship, a third one on grief for lost friends, and two letters of consolation to his friends Marcia and Polybius. Here are excerpts to give you an idea:

Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. (III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. (LXIII. On Grief for Lost Friends, 7-8 )

Does that seriously sound to you like someone who “omits friends from an account of what truly matters”?

And then we get this gem from Mr. Gibson:

The rise of Stoicism™ is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy.

Ah, the old “civilization in decline” trope. And notice the snarky “Stoicism,™” of course. This is hardly serious criticism. To teach endurance is not “sour grapes,” it is developing a life skill that will prove useful under a wide variety of circumstances. Stoicism became popular in Rome during the late Republic and the early Empire, hardly a “civilization in decline,” whether or not 21st century America qualifies as such. And if there is an attribute that simply doesn’t even begin to fit the Stoics is “decadent.”

I happen to think that the core value of Stoicism are, in fact, exactly what our (or any, really) civilization is in dire need of: the idea that if one doesn’t act morally then external goods are meaningless; the notion that some things are up to us and others aren’t, so that we can focus where we most make a difference; the concept that we are all members of the same polis, and that we ought to help each other to survive and thrive; and the idea that we should use a bit more reason in dealing with the complex problems that life presents us with. That, not Gibson’s caricature, is what Stoicism is about.

This piece was originally published in How To Be A Stoic.

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 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…


Editor’s postscript:  As one of the earlier mentioned people who urged Massimo to author a response to Gibson’s criticisms of Stoicism (both ancient and modern), I was pleased that he agreed to step into the lists again to champion the philosophy.  I think his response is entirely on-point, but I would like to add a few remarks, reflective of the initial conversation we had about the piece in the medium of Twitter.

As a scholar who admits being almost equally attracted to Aristotelian and Stoic perspectives, I also intended to weigh in about the contrast drawn between those perspectives in Gibson’s piece.  It appears, however, that a few references to Aristotle’s views in the initially published version – about which I intended to raise several criticisms – are no longer there in the current version of the piece.  There remains one interesting passage, however, in that respect:

The Stoics parted company from Aristotle and his students — not without controversy — by distilling the practice of virtue solely down to the exercise of the will and the purification of motive

I wouldn’t say that this is really the main juncture where Stoics and Aristotelians parted ways on virtue.  Setting aside the issue of whether either Aristotle or the Stoics had anything like a concept of “the will” as later thinkers would understand it (simple answer: no, not quite yet, but close. . . ), the real sticking points in ancient times concerned two main matters.

The first was whether virtue was sufficient for happiness.  Stoics said Yes, and that you didn’t need other things, though if you did have them, you’d certainly enjoy them.  Aristotelians said that virtue was central to happiness, but that you also did need friends and some measure of external goods.  Their views were close enough that some claimed that they really espoused the same position, with the difference being a verbal rather than substantive one.  That interpretation is mistaken, to be sure, but it does indicate that the distance between Stoics and Aristotelians is not as vast as Gibson might depict it.

The second issue had to do with the emotions and their place in virtue.  Here there is clearly a substantive disagreement between Stoics and Aristotelians, at least on some points, or rather about certain emotions. In broad terms, Aristotelians view the virtues that bear upon emotions as involving a number of “rights” (e.g. right object, time, intensity, reason, etc.) coalescing around a moderate emotional response.

So, an Aristotelian does think that there are occasions when one ought to get angry.  Stoics think anger is always something bad.  Speaking as someone who works specifically on Aristotle and anger, though, I can add that he also specifies that most anger turns out to be bad, and that the person with a virtuous disposition with respect to anger is “prone to forgiveness.” (If you’d like to hear a discussion about how Aristotle thinks anger seduces practical rationality, here’s a recent talk on that topic).

As a last point on a different issue, it’s interesting that Gibson stresses that Stockdale made a point of not talking about Stoicism with others in his extreme prison conditions.  That was certainly his choice.  It wasn’t that of other people in other prisons, as I found when I taught at Indiana State Prison.

In the six years when that was my full-time occupation (teaching in Ball State University’s long-since-phased-out college education program), I would estimate that I had dozens of conversations about Stoic philosophy, most of them initiated by my inmate students, who studied Stoic texts on their own.  These men not only found Stoic concepts and application useful for their own admittedly less-drastic (though still pretty tough) situations, but shared these texts back and forth, argued with each other about them back in the cell blocks, and then told me about portions of those conversations.

I think we can draw an analogy here.  Just as Stoics would point out that a particular response or course of action was not simply inevitable – for example, since Socrates did not fear death, it isn’t necessary that any one of us fear death – we might view talking or even teaching about Stoicism in a similar light.  It’s interesting that in his situation, Stockdale deemed it a more prudent course not to talk about Stoicism.  But that doesn’t mean that somehow that becomes the more authentically Stoic course.

  • Greg Sadler, Editor of Stoicism Today

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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