Stoic Inner Citadels by Greg Sadler

The image of each person having an “inner citadel” within their mind, which can be drawn upon as a resource and refuge, has proven particularly attractive to Stoics both ancient and modern.  That particular image of a walled-off interior space, and its catch-phrase from one classic Stoic text even furnished Pierre Hadot a title for his book, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus in fact invokes this idea at several points.  The citadel or fortress image comes up in this passage:

Remember that when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there, the mind is invulnerable. It does nothing against its will, even if its resistance is irrational. And if its judgment is deliberate and grounded in logic . . . ? The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.

Meditations, 8.48

Another passage dealing with the same idea frames this in terms of an internal refuge:

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.

Meditations 4.3

Reading this can provide consolation to those who feel themselves surrounded, set upon, tempted, and frustrated by the surrounding world.  And indeed, there is a common conception of Stoicism as if it were largely reducible to this theme, this promise, this movement within oneself.  The world, with all of its problems and its people, meets one with hostilities and humiliations.  No matter what one tries to plan, to predict, to control, the world keeps serving up defeats.  So, why not follow Epictetus’ advice?

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer.

Enchiridion 19

Withdraw your desire and aversion, he tells us, from those things that you don’t control and either other people or the workings of the world get to determine.  Focus on what is in your control, that is, what is within, and you’ll find yourself free, happy, undisturbed.  Isn’t that the central idea of Stoicism?

That is indeed how Stoicism has come to be portrayed, not just by some modern interpreters of Stoic philosophy and practice, but even more so by both admirers and critics of the Stoics.  It is a commonplace in histories of philosophy from the 19th century onward that Stoicism represented a withdrawal from a world and society that had come to be viewed as unpredictable, unmanageable, and unfree – finding the good within oneself – and also at the same time a way of steeling oneself to perform one’s duties as best one could – producing the good outside oneself in one’s actions. 

This motif is echoed in the William Ernst Henley poem, Invictus, which gets brought up quite a bit as inspiration.  He “thank[s] whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul,” and ends by asserting:  “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”  Everything else may have fallen apart, failed, or even attempted to crush this undefeated person, but they can at least claim one place where they are master and captain.  Despite the rhetorical flourish, it isn’t their fate – they don’t control that after all – but just their soul.

We might also think about Admiral James Stockdale’s discussions of how he applied Stoicism to survive within the intentionally harsh and hellish environment of North Vietnamese prison camps.  His essay discussing how he applied Stoic philosophy (and in particular that of Epictetus, and specifically that drawn from the short Enchiridion), Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, in fact ends by citing Henley’s Invictus.  In Stockdale’s case, he is already caught within an extensive external citadel, with walls turned inward, confining the prisoners. 

Notice though that Stockdale’s account doesn’t portray the would-be-Stoic as having this inner citadel that can provide a perfect refuge from the torture, deprivation, beatings, insults, and outright attempts to break a person.  Instead, he highlights the needs to develop indifference towards what lies outside of one’s control, and nevertheless to “play the game well” with those indifferents, to “stay off the hook” by avoiding compromises.  He admits: “The key word for all of us at first was ‘fragility.’”  Stockdale derived and practiced other lessons that have to do with one’s interiority

Epictetus: “For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus: “The judgment seat and a prison is each a place, the one high, the other low; but the attitude of your will can be kept the same, if you want to keep it the same, in either place.”

There is nothing by itself wrong, bad, or false in the metaphor itself of the inner citadel.  In fact, this same general trope gets used by many other non-Stoics down to the present.  One might think of the “interior castle” of the Christian writer Theresa of Avila, or the recent invocation of a “memory palace” in the BBC Sherlock series. So many other authors have highlighted the dimension of interiority as essential to human nature that one could likely compile an entire book simply out of those references.  And they equally referenced a possibility of deliberately withdrawing into that space.

The problem with the image of the inner citadel lies in its uncritical and often thoughtless invocation and use. Real Stoics – Marcus Aurelius included – don’t actually think that all of us just happen to have this wonderful, peaceful, safe place inside of ourselves that we can at will slip into.   As prudent readers, we ought to keep in mind that, although we may have the impression that Marcus is writing directly to us, what we actually have in his Meditations is his thoughts quite literally “to himself”.  He can remind himself of this all-too-easily overlooked possibility of retreating within an interior space of the self precisely because he has studied Stoic philosophy and has chosen to diligently apply it in practice within the scope of his life. 

He has been practicing a set of disciplines, engaging in spiritual practices, rooted in a systematic philosophical perspective.  Marcus may not be the legendary Stoic sage or “wise person”, but he certainly is one of the people working at and working through Stoicism, a prokopton or proficientes, a practitioner improving his own grasp of the “art of life”.

The image of a fortress and of protective walls within is used by Epictetus as well, in book 4 of his Discourses:

In this way, also, those who occupy a strong city mock the besiegers; “What trouble these men are now taking for nothing: our wall is secure, we have food for a very long time, and all other resources.” These are the things which make a city strong and impregnable: but nothing else than his opinions makes a man’s soul impregnable. For what wall is so strong, or what body is so hard, or what possession is so safe, or what honour so free from assault?

Notice the proviso in the first passage of Marcus above – “when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there”.  The ordinary person’s mind, without some training, is not going to have such a fortress available for them.  The mind not only needs to have undergone considerable development, through ongoing study, understanding, and practice of Stoic philosophy.  When one begins the ongoing and repeated process of looking within oneself, it is common to discover that one is worse off than one initially thought.  And this extends to the fortifications and defenses already set up within oneself by what Stoics called the vices.

In his long chapter examining the topic of what freedom is in book 4 of his Discourses, Epictetus develops this metaphor in a different way.

How then is a citadel demolished? Not by the sword, not by fire, but by opinion. For if we abolish the citadel which is in the city, can we abolish also that of fever, and that of beautiful women? Can we, in a word, abolish the citadel which is in us and cast out the tyrants within us, whom we have dally over us, sometimes the same tyrants, at other times different tyrants? But with this we must begin, and with this we must demolish the citadel and eject the tyrants, by giving up the body, the parts of it, the faculties of it, the possessions, the reputation, magisterial offices, honors, children, brothers, friends, by considering all these things as belonging to others. – 4.1

“With this we must begin”. The very process of using Stoic philosophy to recognize how badly off one is initially, and then to make progress towards freedom, virtue, and living in accordance with nature, involves identifying the tyrants already within us, and the citadels within which they reside and rule.  In order to have the newer, peaceful inner citadel at our disposal, we will likely have to wage long campaigns and sieges against the fortifications of enemies already established within us. 

Notice that, as the passage continues, after those other citadels have been neutralized, their traces nevertheless still remain inside our minds, and for quite a while, a person might remain warily on guard against them.  Epictetus points out:

And if tyrants have been ejected from us, why do I still shut in the citadel by a wall of circumvallation, at least on my account; for if it still stands, what does it do to me? Why do I still eject guards? For where do I perceive them? Against others they have their fasces, and their spears, and their swords. But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God.

After the long struggle against our mistaken views on matters, our misdirected desires and aversions, and the long-established habits that support and consolidate them, for some time, we will still have to remain on guard against temptations to fall back into those, to allow those to dominate and to determine.  The tyrants and guards may be driven out, but so long as the ruins of the walls remain, so long as the rudiments and roots of the vices remain, when we retreat within, we will need to keep up our vigilance, our attentiveness, our mindfulness – however you’d like to call it – against their return.

Clearly what we have in this image of the inner citadel as employed in Stoic philosophy is something considerably more complex and ambiguous than the notion of an inner retreat, walled off from the world. We might want to remind ourselves, whenever we are tempted to use it as an escape or a compensation against what we encounter outside ourselves, that not all interior citadels are spaces of refuge.  Many of us still have the work to do of identifying and tearing down those that do lie inside us, but are peopled by our own enemies within.  And we also have another labor, that of shoring up, expanding, and perhaps for some even building for the first time, a genuinely Stoic inner fortress.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Modern Stoicism – The Organization and What It Does

Modern Stoicism, Ltd has been an official non-profit organization since incorporating in 2017. Those of you who started reading Stoicism Today, participating in Stoic Week or the SMRT course, or going to the international Stoicon conferences before that likely remember that time of transition. But as Stoicism worldwide attracts more and more interest, and many new people start studying, practicing, and inquiring about it, we thought that it is probably time to provide an overview about the Modern Stoicism organization.

Sometime down the line, we’ll likely produce a sort of mini-documentary about the rise of interest in contemporary applications and interpretations of Stoicism over the last few decades and how that brought together a number of philosophers, psychotherapists, and professionals from other fields into a growing conversation about ancient Stoicism adapted to modern times. Suffice it to say that – as far as the Modern Stoicism organization goes – the original conference in 2012, and the following “Live Like A Stoic” week that came out of it, are one main starting point.

From that point onward, the working group regularly held an annual conference with talks, workshops, and symposia – what developed into Stoicon – and hosted the online class called “Stoic Week”, which did indeed (and still does) invite people to incorporate Stoic ideas and practices into their daily life to see what differences it makes for them. They also started the blog you’re reading right now, Stoicism Today, originally edited by Patrick Ussher. And from early on, the team began engaging in quantitative research about the effects of practicing Stoicism.

Over the years, the organization and the community it serves has grown considerably. New members came on while some of the original founders retired from the team. Additional projects were undertaken, and many of them came to be integral and recurring parts of our work. We consolidated the Stoicism Today blog with the Modern Stoicism website, and built up a significant base of readership. We actually do so many different things now that it might be hard to keep track of some of them – all the more reason for providing an overview here!

Modern Stoicism’s Mission

Every company has a set of purposes. These provide an ethos, a mission, a direction, and accountability.  For Modern Stoicism, there are six main purposes

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

Those are some significant tasks, and keep all of us on the team continually busy and occupied. Some of us focus more on certain of these tasks, and the things we do also often favor one of these purposes more than the others. But that is the scope of our activities and planning.

Stoic Week, SMRT, and Other Potential Courses

Each Fall, Modern Stoicism selects one week to run the free online course that is, straightforwardly enough, called “Stoic Week”. This year, Stoic Week is planned to run from Monday October 19 to Sunday Oct 25. Participants are provided with a Stoic Week Handbook (which we update and revise a bit each year), a set of guided meditations voiced by Donald Robertson, and access to the online course site. Each day has a particular theme, specific exercises, and readings to engage with.

The Stoic Week course is largely intended for newcomers to Stoicism, or for people who might have read some Stoic literature but haven’t actually tried putting it into consistent practice. I personally find that it’s also a useful exercise for those who have been studying and practicing Stoicism for some time, as a bit of a regular “tune-up”.

Donald Robertson (and this year, collaborating with him, Tim Lebon) also provides on a more occasional basis a more in-depth and longer class called Stoic Mindfulness and Resiliency Training, or SMRT for short. That course is also provided free to the public worldwide. We always announce when SMRT course is coming up in the Modern Stoicism social media and here in Stoicism Today, so that anyone interested can sign up with plenty of lead time.

We have been kicking around the idea of designing additional courses with different focuses connected to Stoicism. As soon as we’ve arrived at any decisions about those, and committed to the work required to develop, host, and run those courses, you’ll find out about here

One key aspect to the courses that we provide about applying Stoic principles and practices is gathering data that we can use to determine with some scientific rigor whether or not practicing Stoicism really does make a difference for people (it turns out that it does). We’ll say a bit more about that below.

Stoicon (and Stoicon-X) Conferences

One of the coolest things – in my view – that Modern Stoicism does is holding annual conferences, called Stoicons (Stoic + Con – or “get your Stoic On”), where those attending have the opportunities to hear a variety of established and up-and-coming speakers give talks about Stoicism. They also get to engage in more intensive hands-on workshops with some of the speakers and to meet and have conversations with others as interested in Stoicism as they are. These usually take place the weekend before Stoic Week in the Fall.

In the past, Stoicons have been hosted in London, New York, Toronto, and Athens. This year, due to COVID-19, Stoicon will be virtual, and we will have much more information coming out about that here when the schedule has been entirely worked out. Suffice it to say that we won’t be allowing a contemporary plague to prevent us from getting together as the modern Stoic community in some way this year! Once we’re able to resume meeting in person (hopefully in 2021), the plans are for Stoicon to alternate between Toronto and London locations.

For a number of years, around the time when Stoicon and Stoic Week take place, there have also been smaller, more local Stoicon-X events. Think of them as analogous to TED-X events in comparison to the big TED conferences. In the last few years, Stoicon-X events have taken place in London, New York, San Leandro, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Newton, Toronto, Moscow, Madrid, Athens, Brisbane, and Bogota.

Just as with the main Stoicon, this year Stoicon-X events will have to be virtual, but that isn’t preventing a number of the local organizations that have previously hosted them – and even some newcomers – from starting their planning for online Stoicon-X events. This will likely have the effect of making the local Stoicon-Xs a bit more international, which strikes me as a good thing for the worldwide modern Stoicism community. There has already been one so far this year, officially hosted in Ghent, and featuring Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson.

There are, it should be pointed out, some clear guidelines for what can count as – and call itself – a “Stoicon-X” event. This year, Modern Stoicism will be expecting local Stoic communities who wish to host a Stoicon-X event, and to bill themselves as such, to sign an agreement with Modern Stoicism. This will ensure that those events will be done for the public interest rather than for profit, and that certain standards will be met.

Stoicism Today – The Blog and the Books

As mentioned above, early on, Patrick Ussher – one of founding member Christopher Gill’s graduate students at the University of Exeter – started a blog called Stoicism Today. It had several different functions – publishing work on Stoicism, publicizing activities like Stoicon and Stoic Week, and providing notices about modern Stoic events or writings. Under Patrick’s editorship, it developed a solid base of readers and became one of the premiere places online to go to for quality pieces on modern Stoicism.

In 2016, Patrick stepped down as editor, and I took up that role. We also moved the blog over from the University of Exeter website to its present location. Since then, we’ve published hundreds of posts, some of them contributed by Modern Stoicism team members. The vast majority of posts, however, are contributed by guest authors, many of whom I’ve worked with to develop or improve their essays prior to publication. (If you’re interested in contributing a post, here’s something you’ll want to read).

Like the Modern Stoicism organization itself, Stoicism Today has a set of purposes that guide its activities:

  • to increase public awareness of the Modern Stoicism organization and its activities (including Stoic Week, STOICON, and the SMRT course).
  • to be an online magazine, posting articles on a wide variety of topics relating to the practice and interpretation of Stoicism, written by a wide variety of authors.
  • to publicize courses, workshops, and other opportunities for studying and practising Stoicism
  • to allow for conversation between members of the public on a wide range of topics related to Stoicism
  • to publish articles of good quality from the blog in a regular Stoicism Today series of books

Some years back, Patrick Ussher published two full edited volumes of selected essays from Stoicism Today. My colleague Leah Goldrick and I are currently at work on a new volume of selected essays from Stoicism Today, and the plans are to publish new volumes on a regular basis once we bring volume 3 out.

Modern Stoicism Videos, Podcast, and Patreon

Modern Stoicism has its own YouTube channel, where viewers can find a number of useful or interesting videos about a wide range of topics.

In particular, if you couldn’t make it to the annual Stoicons to hear the talks and workshops – or you want to go back over them at your leisure – you can do so by checking out their playlists (these even include some Stoicon-X materials as well)

We have also recently started a Modern Stoicism podcast, which is being produced by Adam Piercy. He’s started by interviewing members of the Modern Stoicism team, but will be moving on to carry out regular interviews with a number of other people active in the modern Stoic community. Here are the first several episodes:

You can expect to see a number of new podcast episodes coming out regularly over the next few months.

Modern Stoicism also has a Patreon page where people can become supporters of the organization and all of the work that we do. It’s a great way to chip in a bit each month to help us as an organization, and there’s also some perks that patrons can enjoy as well.

Partnerships and Local Organizations

One of the main organizations that Modern Stoicism, Ltd has been partnering with for several years is the Stoic Fellowship. This is a worldwide organization whose main mission is promoting and supporting local Stoic groups, meetups, and organizations. Some of the Modern Stoicism team are also quite active in leadership in the Stoic Fellowship, most notably Greg Lopez.

The Stoic Fellowship has a number of committees devoted to helping in-person (and now virtual) Stoas carry on their own work, including their own Stoic Week events and Stoicon-Xs. The Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism understandably fit together well, carrying out complementary functions.

Modern Stoicism is also partnering with the relatively newer Aurelius Foundation, established in London, and aimed at “shar[ing] Stoicism to help young people consider their journey through life and to support them in planning and living a life that contributes to the greater good.”

Another important new partner organization – which, since it was established by Donald Robertson and Adam Piercey, might be viewed as an offshoot of Modern Stoicism Ltd. – is Modern Stoicism Toronto.

There are several other local organizations founded and run by members of the Modern Stoicism team, all of which have been doing online meetings recently:

If you go to the Stoic Fellowship site, you’ll find dozens more local Stoic organizations as well.

Research On Stoicism

Quite a few of the members of the Modern Stoicism team engage in academic research and writing about various topics and issues connected with Stoicism. Major scholars on ancient philosophy have been featured as plenary speakers at Stoicon – these include Anthony Long, Julia Annas, Margaret Graver, and (remotely) Lawrence Becker. In addition, we are fortunate to have several other major scholars of ancient philosophy on the team itself, including Christopher Gill and John Sellars. All of these authors engage in substantive academic research on Stoicism, and do so in ways that also inform more popular thinking and practice.

But there’s another kind of research that is also very important to the work and mission of Modern Stoicism, and that is quantitative psychological research on the effects of actually practicing Stoicism. That is precisely why, when we run courses like Stoic Week or SMRT, we gather a variety of types of data. The hopes are to be able to demonstrate in scientific ways that Stoicism can actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. Tim Lebon carries out nearly all of the work involved in that, and if you’ve been reading Stoicism Today for any length of time, you’re familiar with the reports he has been producing for years now. Here’s something Tim himself had to say:

“We are continuing to build an evidence base for the benefits of Stoic practice through our annual Stoic weeks and  month-long Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT). These consistently show that practicing Stoicism regularly even for as short a time for a week improves well-being for most people. As mentioned above we will shortly be publishing the results from SMRT 2020 which initial analysis suggests will be very significant.We are most interested in hearing  from other researchers and potentially collaborating with them and advising them.

At present Stoic research that is ongoing includes

  • Raymond DiGiuseppe with Tim LeBon validating the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS) scale and producing subscales
  • Alexander Maclellan on Stoicism and cognitive efficiency 
  • Megan Brown on Stoicism and Empathy in medical students”

You can follow the research publications here. And if you have would like to contribute to Stoic research or have any questions, please contact Tim LeBon  by emailing him.

So this hopefully gives you some sense of the vast amount of work and activities that Modern Stoicism carries out. If you’d like to help us continue on with this work, consider becoming a monthly Patreon supporter, or make a one-time donation. All of the money donated to Modern Stoicism, Ltd goes to supporting the work that we do and the courses, posts, podcasts, and more that we provide.

Ru Paul the Drag Queen as Source of Contemporary Stoic Wisdom by Craig Moreau

Image by Damien Rosenblatt

Who comes to mind when you think of your Stoic role models? How many of them are contemporaries? How diverse are those role models? Would you say the people you draw inspiration and wisdom from is cosmopolitan? Or is it fairly uniform, and perhaps, made only of marble?

The role models we look towards to help shape our Stoic practice are incredibly influential. In How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci writes

Observing and imitating role models, then, is one powerful way to work on our own virtue. We do something like this in modern societies as well, whenever we hold up public figures to our younger generations”

Pigluicci, p. 132

The names Pigliucci does offer are those who have lived through incredible circumstances: a fighter jet being shot down over North Vietnam, imprisonment in apartheid South Africa, and practicing feminism under an oppressive and violent regime (Stockdale, Mandela, and Yousafzai, respectively).  While the individual character of these individuals shows us exemplars of virtue, I find it hard to access the violent contexts that highlighted these individuals. Similarly, I doubt I will soon be in a situation where I will need to comfortably gut myself ala-Cato.

So where should turn to for perhaps less ennobled but no-less wise examples? In a critique of contemporary celebrity culture, Pigliucci rightly observes:

We glorify actors, singers, athletes, and generic ‘celebrities,’ only to be disappointed when—predictably—it turns out that their excellence a reciting, signing, playing basketball, or racking up Facebook likes and Twitter followers has pretty much nothing to do with their moral fiber.

Pigluicci, p. 132

However, by removing all celebrity, we falsely generalize all people who are celebrities as lacking moral fiber. We need not limit whom we can look to based off their quantity of Twitter followers. Instead, when celebrities do demonstrate moral fiber, we should pay attention and consider their character before we assenting to the view that pop-culture is necessarily a vacant space for philosophy.  

While not closing off the incredibly powerful examples of our contemporary Catos in Stockdale and Youafzai, I think that we can also include in our role models those who represent Stoic living as can be found in the less-overtly violent, and arguably more accessible world of popular culture.

In agreement with Pigliucci that generic celebrity should not be glorified, or character measured by the amount of social media likes, I will however depart from the unstated belief that pop-culture is vacant when it comes to finding philosophers and Stoic wisdom.

Instead, I want to pivot away from depending on the level of the Stoic sage (Socrates) as the only one to whom we can turn for a living example. Sagehood is helpful for creating an ideal that we can strive for in our continued growth as Stoic practitioners, however if our eyes are always locked onto the image of someone possibly mythical and always unattainable, our ears and eyes may miss out on the Stoic wisdom that can be found in our non-mythic present.

I’ve selected for the focus of this essay the Stoic wisdom of Ru Paul Charles for three important reasons.

  • One, he offers a novel take on Stoic wisdom that I think can offer helpful inroads to understanding contemporary Stoic practice as its articulated by a contemporary personality
  • Two, as a person who is also queer, a person of color, and a drag queen, I believe his perspective adds much to our understanding of cosmopolitanism and Stoicism’s charge to treat everyone with dignity.
  • Third, I would like to take part in efforts to update Stoicism by [challenging] the classical canon’s naturalistic and homophobic arguments that fail to consider non-reproductive variations on sexuality as part of our shared humanity.

Additionally, as an addendum my third point, I hope to raise some flags (rainbow flags to be specific) to the possibility that contemporary Stoicism should re-center its practice on cosmopolitanism and move away from discourses of manliness and emperors as our exemplars. As I hope to show you, a Drag Queen can teach us much about what it really means to be a “man” and act with courage, and, more importantly, how to be a good person.

I. Who do you think you are? Ru Paul & Epictetus Discuss Identity

In one of Ru Paul’s more famous songs, Born Naked, the chorus intones the following lines:

Who do you think you are?
I’m telling the truth now
We’re all born naked
and the rest is drag.

Inherent in this quote is an essential understanding of our shared humanness. What drag is covered by “the rest” includes, broadly, every type of identifier that people tend to thrust upon themselves but which are ultimately constructed identities. That is, we are all humans and every label after that is drag—our nationalities, sexual, racial, and occupational identities, as well as the often implied class distinctions intertwined within those descriptors. Do these identities exist? Yes, but what Ru Paul is saying in this song is that most of our identities are socially, culturally and historically created. What we are most concretely are humans. It follows that if we all share this common, concrete humanity, the constructed identities that follow, i.e., our drag, impede us from connecting with one another and recognizing that we are all brothers and sisters in a cosmic, yet tangible level.

When I recently read Epictetus, I couldn’t help but hear Ru Paul’s song in the back of mind. Take Epictetus’s observation in Discourses, 1:29:

The time will soon be coming when the actors think that their masks, and high boots, and robes are their very selves. […] If one deprives a tragic actor of his high boots and mask, and brings him on the stage like a ghost, has the actor disappeared or does he remain? If he has his voice, he remains

Here, we see Epictetus stripping down the actor to her most essential: the human voice. When read alongside Ru Paul, we can see how Epictetus’s lesson of the actor can be read simultaneously as metaphor, in addition to its more obvious observations on materialism. In other words, our identities are not are material appearances (boots and robes) nor are our identities the figurative masks we wear; who we really are is most visible in our voice—what we say and don’t say—as our actions do really speak volumes.

Ru Paul, who might as well be responding to Epictetus, mentions in a YouTube video

I think there are really just two types of people on the planet: people who understand that this is a play we’re doing, and that the characters we play are really not real; and then there are people who think that the characters that they play, or what it says on their driver’s license, is who they are—which we know, is not really true.

Where Ru Paul leaves off, and where Epictetus continues, is that we spend our time not building identities but in doing good; he tells us to “take off your senatorial robe, dress in rags, and step forward” and do whatever we are doing the best that we can (1:29, 45).

What all of this discussion on clothes, appearances, material and immaterial presentation offers practicing Stoics is an inroad to embracing our cosmopolitism. If we recognize that our outward material appearance, even “the name on our drivers license” is not who we are, it can help us realize the same in others. In sum: just as our materials and names do not make us who we are, the names and materials (or lack of) do not make our neighbors who they are. If we can recognize the truth that we are all common relative to each other, that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag, we can avoid assenting to our judgments about others, and in doing so, be one step closer towards embracing each other as brothers and sisters.  

II. Ru Paul, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero Walk Into a Bar: On True Wealth

In her 2014 book, Workin’ it!, Ru Paul observes:

true wealth is having the knowledge to maneuver and navigate the mental obstacles that inhibit your ability to soar.

Within these words there are several elements that connect to Stoic practice, specifically the key virtue of wisdom. In Ru’s definition, for us to acquire wealth we must achieve what is commonly called praxis: the ways in which theory is realized through actions. Knowledge functions as theory but is realized through our “maneuvers” and “navigation.” The actions we perform, maneuvering and navigating through life, help us overcome our obstacles so that we may soar as intended.

An immediate connection from Ru Paul’s comment on wealth as knowing what to do with obstacles calls forth Marcus Aurelius’s oft-quoted “an obstacle on its path helps it on its way” (5:20). However, just prior to this famous meditation, the Emperor Marcus observes of those obstacles:

these may hinder one or other of my actions, but they are not hindrances to my impulses or my disposition, because I have the power to act with reservation and turn circumstances to my own advantage.

Meditations, 5:20

What Marcus Aurelius describes is Ru Paul’s notion of wealth; wisdom is demonstrated as one recognizes the knowledge that they have the agency to act despite mental and physical barriers that appear to obstruct us on our way. What Ru Paul adds to our understanding of the obstacle is the way mentality is that its cultivation offers us the only true sense wealth we will ever know. In short, true wealth is practicing Stoic wisdom.

True wealth is also addressed in Cicero’s Paradoxa Stoicorum, notably paradox six, titled “The Wise Man Alone Is Rich.” When considering not how to define wealth, but how to evaluate one’s richness, Cicero compels us to recognize that “It is your own mind, and not the talk of others, nor your possessions, that must pronounce you to be rich […]” (Paradox VI).

Here we see the perspectives brought forth thus far (that wealth is the praxis of our knowledge and action to navigate our obstacles) as a type of richness that equates to wisdom. The wise person uses her agency to declare herself as rich independent of her possessions or the words of others. She is rich according to her own mind. From that mind we exercise our knowledge in relation to obstacles, whether they be maneuvered around, navigated through, or turned into an advantage.

These three authors, one a proclaimed Stoic, one a quasi-Stoic, and one a Drag Queen, all offer perspectives on the greatest immaterial wealth we have: our rational minds, aka, our “ruling center.” Our ration can help us remain level-headed, can help us recognize our agency, and ultimately can help us soar. It is these qualities that make us truly wealthy and guide us in the pursuit of wisdom.

III. Making Room for Queerness: An Update to Contemporary Stoicism

I have placed Ru Paul in conversation with three key writers from the Roman Stoa, in part because of my familiarity with Classical Rome over Greece, in an attempt to call attention to some of our canonical figures’ more problematic notions of cosmopolitanism. Namely, the fact that the ancients had a different notion of sexuality compared to how we think of it, and tended to view sex, and sexual orientation, in terms of acts that were “manly” and those that were not.

What I want to avoid is discussing Stoic sex (that is perhaps another essay) and instead raise some important issues about context; just as slavery in the canon is present and problematic, so is Stoicism’s sometimes subtle, often overt, fear of queerness present and problematic. When we glorify the Romans, Emperor Marcus Aurelias in particular, we tend to be forgiving of his writings as emblematic of his socio-cultural historic context. However, we should read Marcus and others with their context as we examine our own. If we do not return to what we are forgiving, we fail to update the philosophy for our contemporary moment and perhaps miss out on opportunities to practice courage by confronting the problems inherent in our own socio-cultural historic moment. What we ought to privilege is the caretaking of the philosophy, not the memories of the individuals whom we find ourselves quoting.

The words “no results found” is a frequent finding on Stoic blogs when I search for “gay,” “queer” or “LGBT”. In the searches I have done, gay representations are usually in reference to therapeutic connections (e.g., Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)), somewhat reinforcing archaic arguments that, for gay people, our queerness is something to be medicalized and treated as opposed to accepted as part of the natural human condition. However, in an online symposium published out here in Stoicism Today, focused on “Stoicism and Women”, Andi Sciacca wisely answers if Stoicism can hold value for women by saying that it “Holds value for people—and women are people.” I would say the same applies to us queer folk.

In that spirit, I have deliberately placed a drag queen in conversation with classical Stoic philosophers for the purpose of making some of you potentially uncomfortable. Ideally, you can recognize that your discomfort is somewhat intertwined with your own cultural-socio historically based aversion to same-sex desire. (Likewise, you ought to then recognize that such a fear is therefore not rationally based…) We can understand Stoic philosophy when we include in our cosmopolis  our queer brothers and sisters—and not as a secondary class of others—but as equals and family with perspectives that can sharpen our world-view. And yes, should the question ever be asked while walking under the modern Stoa, I believe with Sciacca that Stoicism can help people, and would add that it can help people who also happen to be queer as they navigate the complexities of queer life and flourish in that life.

To appreciate the justice we claim to seek, we must reckon with the heteronormative and downright offensive language in our prided classical texts. For example, Marcus Aurelias often bemoans “catamites,” aka, those who have (mostly receptive) anal sex, as unnatural beasts (Book 4, among others). Likewise, Epictetus often takes similar naturalist arguments to reinforce the notion that procreation (and thus heteronormativity) is ideal, and in doing so, does not recognize that same-sex desire also falls under the natural order, as it has always been a part of the human condition in the same way the human condition is composed of a variety of skin tones and eye colors.

As a person who identifies as gay and practices Stoicism, I have to wrestle with the fact that on one hand, I value the wisdom offered by Stoicism while on the other hand I often have to read those bits of wisdom against the background of a masculine, misogynist antique culture. As we continue to study and practice Stoicism in our current moment, I hope that we do not evangelize the past as an ideal, but read with critical minds the words of our teachers and show courage when we challenge some of the taken-for-granted wisdom in what they teach. If drag queens can teach us anything, it is that what’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.

List of Sources

Aurelius, M. (2011). Meditations. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.

Cicero, M. T. (2014). Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Vol. 23). Delphi Classics.

Epictetus (2014). Discourses, fragments, handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.

Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a stoic: Using ancient philosophy to live a modern life. Hachette UK.

RuPaul. (2014). Workin’It!: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style. HarperCollins e-Books.

RuPaul’s Let The Music Play—Born Naked Featuring Clairy Browne. (2014, October 14). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-Wjho9DBh0

Craig Moreau is a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University where he studies language and innovation. His non-academic work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Electric Literature, and Lambda Literary, among others. You can view his publications at www.CraigTheWriter.com.

Marcus Aurelius, The Stormlight Archive, and Navigating Coronavirus by Frank Ó’hÁinle

Just as a quick notice to people who have not yet read the Stormlight Archive epic fantasy series: This post will not contain any spoilers to the series and consists primarily of a discussion of the general motivations and themes from the books. On a further note, I am extremely jealous of you all for getting the opportunity to read Sanderson’s magnum opus for the first time.

The times we now live in are unprecedented in the modern age, what is being asked of us is also something very few of us could have imagined at the beginning of the year, as the wistful tune of Auld Lang Syne faded into a chorus of cheering and celebrations on New Years Eve. In the last week I finished my undergraduate degree, an effort which has brought all of the stress, anxiety, delirious joy and tough periods of acclimatization to the man I would like to think I have started to become through my actions, thoughts and words.

In the week that has passed without this external pressure to constantly tackle assignments and complete exams in less than ideal circumstances, I have been able to examine the situation which has now engulfed the entirety of the planet. As I now possess the requisite time to return to my passion for writing, I would like to share with you all my thoughts on the pandemic in a stoic context, along with giving you all one out-of-left-field book recommendation in the process.

The Way of Kings was written by Brandon Sanderson and published to universal acclaim in 2010, long before we had ever imagined our modern world as being as fragile as it is now proving to be. This gargantuan piece of literature truly redefines the meaning of epic fantasy in terms of scale and also, in my eyes at least, how impactful a philosophy, even if it may be fictional, can be if encountered at the right time in a person’s life. You may rightfully be questioning why I am mentioning this work of fiction in a post on Stoicism, but in the days since I finished my legal studies I have returned to this work and its sequels and found a number of parallels with the ethos it provides and Stoicism with one character in particular – Dalinar Kholin – drawing further comparisons with Marcus Aurelius in my eyes. To avoid spoilers, I will however keep my inspection of the source work as basic as possible but would highly recommend The Way of Kings and the works of Sanderson to just about anyone.

Just like our own world in the present moment, the world of Roshar is in a less than desirable position and at times seems to be on the verge of collapse, yet as has been shown by our ability to come together in times of crisis, the unwillingness of people to fall into despair remains. In this fictional work an organisation known as the Knights Radiant help keep the world in question from falling into darkness. This group has a few mantras which they live by, they are also as varied as the members of the organisation itself. The most important words they are expected to live by however are as follows, “Life beforeDeath, Strength before Weakness, Journey before Destination.”

Examining the meaning behind these words, it is further elaborated that even the act of simply living, that act of persistence despite all else and the constant difficulty and despair which may pervade our lives in times such as these, is an act which should be commended. This is mirrored in our own world by Lucius Annaeus Seneca who allowed that, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” Yes, times remain uncertain and no end is in sight at present, yet while we are here, we must live.

We live for those on the frontlines who are facing a pandemic which they were in no way prepared for prior to those heady early days of 2020. We live for those we have lost, and we live for those we may yet lose. While we are here and while we can we live because with every life comes a chance to do good, even in isolation we can make this world a better one through our thoughts and actions, particularly in the simple act of staying at home and giving our immensely heroic frontline workers a fighting chance. “Life before Death” allows that while living is not always easy it remains our duty to live well while we can and do what we ought to while we’re here, not only for those we care for but also for those unknown to us who require the best version of ourselves at any given moment.

With their mantra of “Strength before Weakness,” the Radiants were always reminded that all of us are weak at some stage in our lives, but while we are still standing and while we have the opportunity we should lend a hand to the fallen. Muhammad Ali once allowed that, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” The coronavirus has left many of us on our knees; emotionally and physically people are struggling across the globe. I can imagine that some of you now reading this may be in a similar position even.

Yet while we are still standing and while we can, we should lend a figurative, and definitively not a physical hand, to those we can. Even the smallest of acts can make a huge difference; helping with an elderly neighbour’s groceries, checking in on those who may be struggling or in my case setting up a virtual running club to help my friends through their exams. While our sacrifices may seem minimal in the grand scheme of things, when compared to healthcare workers and others on the frontline, it is alright to feel overwhelmed.

There is no shame in feeling weak at a time like this, there can be no strength without weakness and in accepting the fact that we are all weak at some point in our lives and reaching out to another for help or encouragement, is one of the truest forms of resilience any of us are truly capable of. Just as Marcus Aurelius noted in the Meditations, “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

“Journey before Destination.” While a world without the impacts of Covid-19 may seem to have occurred in another millennium, it is vital to remember that this is part of our journey, and at present a challenge we all must face. One of the primary Stoic teachings relates to amor fati or a love of one’s fate, which is at present of the utmost importance to us all. The several-month-long period we have been forced to endure without the presence of our loved ones, without the capability to embrace or even contact those we care for and countless other sacrifices we have all been forced to make, remains only a small part of our journey in the greater context of our lives.

There are always dark moments in our lives, and while it may remain a cliché to state that the night is darkest before the dawn, I have found to date that we cannot truly enjoy the light without the presence of darkness. No life is truly bereft of such trying and at certain points heart-breaking times, but at the same point no life is ever truly complete without it either. Right now we must accept that the journey is the more important aspect, the destination that final goal which at present for one of the few times in human history is a shared one of an end of this pandemic, is of secondary importance. Who we are and who we become as a result of the journey we embark upon is what counts, as my great mentor Marcus Aurelius once stated, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

With the mention of the long deceased yet ever-present Roman Emperor, I would like to neatly segue into a brief discussion of the true Stoic in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar Kholin. While the two characters are far from mirror images of each other, they are two men I have come to admire greatly, despite the fact that one of them is a fictional character. When we are introduced to Dalinar he is a man struggling with the virtues he has imposed upon himself at a time of unprecedented change in his own country and world as a whole. He has been pushed into a position he never actually wished to attain, but ensures that while he can he will do his utmost in the role for the good of his people. Having accepted that there is no one else as capable as himself in the position and to shirk this responsibility would lead to the suffering of many others. With this acceptance of responsibility comes consequences of which Dalinar is to pay dearly, but he would never have been capable of making any other decision and as such accepts this as part of the journey he has deigned to undertake.

If this sounds familiar to anyone who has taken an active interest in Stoicism, and in particular the life of Marcus Aurelius, it is because the two men shared a sense of duty and an unwillingness to take the darker of two paths even when virtue was not convenient to them. Marcus was a bookish, philosophically inclined young man who would have much preferred to have been allowed to become a scholar and a philosopher. However, he was given the unfortunate burden of becoming Emperor of Rome. A position he had never desired nor actively sought out, but one which he could not turn away from, as to do so would cause the lives of all Roman citizens to be lessened as a result.

For 19 long years the philosopher held the Empire together despite barbarian invasions, plagues, civil wars, and the full scope of human ineptitude being on display for the entirety of his reign. All those who associated with the Emperor did so to curry favour or because they desired something. All the while Marcus ensured that he would do the right thing and pushed such desires to the back of his mind comparing himself to a watchman who had been left on guard while the rest of the Empire slept. How alone must he have felt? How unbearable must this situation have been for a man who wished to be left alone with his books? Yet he did what was required of him regardless of circumstance, regardless of desire, unwilling to let the lives of others be lessened due to an unwillingness to do what he must on his part.

Dalinar too, like Marcus, felt alone during his journey, he was constantly ridiculed by others as being insane or in clinging to a philosophy which his peers now deemed irrelevant as they clung to material items in order to show off their status and privilege. Yet Dalinar accepted that in the end we will all die, we will all face whatever has to be met at the ends of our lives and our achievements like those of so many others who lived before us will shrink into obscurity and seem so small come the end of our days. Rather it is the way we live day in and day out which will be most important when our final days approach and our time here comes to a close. The choices we make when no one is watching, the way in which we treat others and particularly the responsibility we take for what we have done and what we must do in our darkest hours. A way of living of the utmost importance in our current set of circumstances.

We may be ridiculed and deemed ridiculous particularly at present, when so many claim this pandemic’s severity is being overexaggerated despite the evidence that people are dying and suffering across our world. Yet when we know what is the right course of action, the action which is required of us in that given moment, we know that what we are doing is right and will not let our emotions, whether they be of frustration or embarrassment to dictate what we do and who we are.

Self-control is a Stoic’s strength. Not every emotion has to be acted upon, but it can be accepted and turned to something more productive than an outburst. In becoming who we wish to be we may be deemed a hypocrite, particularly at present when some of us may have underestimated the impact and severity of the virus, before making beneficial changes to our actions and decision making. Yet in the end as Dalinar noted about himself throughout the course of Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, “Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.” Right now, many of us feel like hypocrites due to our early dismissal of the pandemic, but it is a part of the journey we all must accept right now for the benefit of others.

What Dalinar and Marcus both held in common is that despite how long and dark the road may seem, the most important thing we can do is to take responsibility for who we are, the actions and missteps included. While constantly moving forward towards being that better person who actively makes this world a little better just by coming through this way. In this pursuit of betterment and in a time when it seems so easy to plateau and stagnate in our development, there is no harm in acknowledging that things will be difficult but our next step is the most important and our capacity to be a good person remains, regardless of circumstance.

Just to finish I would like to quickly thank Brandon Sanderson for his wonderful work which encapsulates so much of what makes the fantasy genre wonderful in my eyes, while simultaneously providing an example of the power of Stoicism to drive a person to be better even in the most trying of circumstances. It is a series which I would recommend to anyone who’s interest has been piqued by my superficial analysis of some of its core themes and my favourite fictional character.

Right now in our own world however, we are all a little scared, we face a level of uncertainty and doubt which cannot be so easily allayed as reading this article and deciding that it has all become so much easier to face. This virus may continue into the end of the year, separating families and loved ones, taking the lives of the most vulnerable of our society and putting an almost unbearable pressure on our frontline workers all across the globe. Yet there remains little we can do to outrightly take on the virus, this is an enemy of which few living have any relatable example in their own lives.

We cannot storm the beaches of Normandy as some of our ancestors were asked to do, we cannot march for freedom against the unfair laws of biased administrations as some of those who have now passed once accepted as their responsibility. Right now all any of us can do is to stay at home, to continue to follow the guidelines set out by our governments and above all else to be kind to one another in these trying times, this is all we have control of right here and now. Things may seem dark and we may be becoming fed up with our current lot, but courage remains stronger than fear and in this very moment through our own humanity and capacity to be better we can hold back the tide, until this virus can finally be vanquished.

Feel free to contact me if you would like a further discussion of any of the points I have raised within this piece or even need a helping hand through difficult times.

Ní néart go cur lé chéile.

Frank Ó’hÁinle has recently completed his undergraduate degree in Law and History at the University of Limerick and is currently preparing to sit his Fe-1 exams (Irish equivalent of the Bar). He remains an aspiring author despite the intense exam workload and hopes to produce something more substantial in the future, at present however his focus is firmly placed upon his fledgling legal career. You can contact him with any queries on his piece or stoicism more generally.