“ ’Are Stoics Ascetics?’ A rebuttal.”
by Kevin Patrick
Editorial Note: This piece has been written as a response to the previous post by Piotr Stankiewicz. The numerals in square brackets refer to the author’s footnotes.
In an article previously posted by the Stoicism Today blog [i], Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz makes his case for a modern, hedonic Stoicism by asserting the ancient Stoics were not ascetics. I will be rebutting that claim as ungrounded in the Stoic literature by showing that in fact the opposite was argued by our classical sources, and more specifically that the ideas contained in Dr. Stankiewicz’s article are a divergence from the Stoicism of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. I suspect that his position also entails a misunderstanding of the purposes of ascetic practice as an end in and of itself, rather than as a means to an end.
Stankiewicz’s argument lies in something which he calls the “ascetic misinterpretation.” While he is correct that there are several stereotypes of Stoicism, he misidentifies those stereotypes and uses that as an argument. Since nowhere does he actually support this ascetic misinterpretation, at best it’s an unsubstantiated assertion. The most common stereotype of Stoics is that they are emotionless and unfeeling, not that they were ascetics. It’s incorrect to call the asceticism of the classics a stereotype, as I will support, because it was a stated truth.
Stankiewicz states that modern Stoics have not “done all that is possible” to combat these stereotypes. Contributors to this blog and others have made an effort to discuss eupathe [ii] and focus on the actual doctrinal positions of impressions, judgments, and emotions. While is probably true that not “all that is possible” has been done, a good faith effort has been made by modern Stoic writers to combat the stereotype of the unfeeling philosopher. But ultimately, the views of others are not “up to us,” and we live our lives and follow our philosophy attentively regardless of the stereotypes… or at least we should.
“Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life. A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence.”
Setting aside that such rhetorical flourishes (like parentheticals!) are not an argument; why might this be the common conception of Stoicism? I would suggest, in this specific case, that it is because this is precisely what the classical Stoics themselves have told us it is. Let’s look at some examples in the order Dr. Stankiewicz lays out. We will first start out with Musonius Rufus. Additionally, there is no quashing of proto-impressions, but the assent to adequate impressions and thus judgments according to our nature, an important distinction. On to the rigors of the philosophic life…
Musonius’ suggestions are the end-result of a process through which he attempted to apply his philosophy to real issues of human life. It is not mere academic musing, but the process of “doing” philosophy as a way of life. This process of training for virtue carries through from Musonius, to Epictetus, to Marcus; and, if we’re open to it, down to the modern Stoic prokopton as well.
In Lectures XVIII A [iii] and B [iv], Musonius lays out clear prescriptions for philosophers. They include abstaining from the consumption of animal-flesh, eating foods which are simple, inexpensive, easy to acquire, and fitting for humans. The issues with food are paramount, since we are presented with this choice several times a day. Unlike some of the other, less frequent pleasures of life, this one is ever-present and so require extra diligent attention.
“Thus the oftener we are tempted by pleasure in eating, the more dangers there are involved. And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many.”
Not only is the danger of immoderation present, but there is also the danger of not acting in accordance with nature. While the specifics of what that means are debatable, it is fair to say that the manner, the material, and the setting of our eating are all opportunities for non-virtuous habits to be formed. Musonius is particularly concerned with the formation of habits, so something we engage in twice or three times a day is ripe for his notice.
Musonius also counsels us on the virtuous use of human sexuality, which is best put in context of seeing the family unit as foundational to society. Musonius was living in a decadent and turbulent time, not too unlike ours. For him, a bolstering of the family has consequences in the community, the state, and the world. Musonius’ ethics are often communitarian in focus, and noting that context often shows his suggestions in a slightly different light than at first glance they might appear to be. Musonius argues for what likely seems to us a very socially conservative view of virtuous sexual practice in Lectures XII [v] and XIII A [vi] and B [vii]:
“Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.”
Musonius doesn’t have much to say about rock ‘n roll, he does mention frugal living in Lecture XIX [viii] and XX [ix]. The following well captures the spirit of the piece:
“[I]t is possible for us to eat quite safely from a wooden table without longing for one of silver.”
It may even be safer, as Epictetus would learn latter in regards to his lamp [x].
Epictetus picks up in this vein in Book III, Chapter 1[xi], as noted in Arrian’s Discourses. Epictetus argues against finery in dress, and even uses his own bearded, cloaked figure as a counter-example to the figure cut by the dapper and fashionable young man in question. While Musonius offers the most explicit suggestions, Epictetus takes up the motivation behind Musonius’ suggestions: training.
To say that the Stoics were not ascetics, when their primary ethical focus was on training seems off to me. Asceticism comes from the Greek ἄσκησις (áskēsis) meaning training [xii]. The Stoic philosopher is called προκοπτόν (prokoptôn)[xiii] or the ‘one making progress.’ Stoic asceticism is not an end in and of itself, but a means whereby one inculcates virtue. As Dr. Stankiewicz notes, these things are external to us and necessarily indifferent from our moral will. Yet, as those making progress, we train and make progress in part by manipulating those very indifferents[xiv].
Epictetus advises us to, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and thence proceed to greater.” In situations where we are not yet up to snuff, such as in weighing certain judgments and impressions, he advises us to abstain from those judgments all together. There’s a lesson here. We train by manipulating our externals, and we delay or abstain in situations above our practice.
Marcus notes in Book I of his Meditations[xv] that he is explicitly thankful for the opportunity “to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.” Grecian discipline likely refers either to the paideia [xvi] or the agoge [xvii]; both of which contained clearly ascetic practices. Despite living in a palace as emperor, the ascetic rigor of his youth, until the intervention of family member, stuck with Marcus for the rest of his life.
It is a far more arduous task to mine the Stoic sources for evidence of hedonism and sensuality than it is for asceticism. The message of Stoicism for personal development, which is not a misinterpretation, is that even while engaging in the world and exercising our social roles that we can live conformably to nature. We can be just, self-controlled, courageous, and wise in the here and now. That does not mean that all of the trinkets, sweet and soft foods, luxurious items and decorations should be taken up by philosophers. Just the very opposite! While living in the world, we can dress for protecting of the body and modesty, not vanity. We can eat healthy, natural, and fitting foods, not for the pleasure of the tongue but nourishment of the body and training for the soul. We can exercise justice in our lives, not bend to political or social pressures. We can be courageous every day in the practice of becoming better people, not coast on a misapprehension of indifferents.
We inculcate the virtue of self-control (σωφροσύνη/sophrosyne) [xviii] by actually regulating our passions [xix], i.e. saying ‘no’ to some things and using moderation for others. How can we learn to be just unless we practice justice? How can we learn to be courageous unless we face down our fears relative to moral issues? We must actually practice denying the impressions that indifferent things are goods by denying them. It is one thing to say, “I don’t value all these adornments of sensuous living;” but the possibility for self-deception in that is high if one doesn’t also practice not-valuing them. The Stoic Sage may be able to indulge in every earthly pleasure and maintain a philosophical outlook and a soul in a state conformable to nature. But we are not Sages: and our methods as prokoptontes are necessarily designed towards our own state.
In Enchiridion 34 [xx], Epictetus gives us nothing else but an endorsement to ascetic practice:
“[T]hink of the two periods of time, first, that in which you will enjoy your pleasure, and second, that in which, after the enjoyment is over, you will later repent and revile your own self; and set over against these two periods of time how much joy and self-satisfaction you will get if you refrain.”
Stankiewicz’s position falls into the more common trap and misinterpretation, that since externals are indifferent to us, we should go ahead and indulge in all of those things for which we have a proclivity. Yet, indulgence also trains our moral will, and we must ask ourselves what that training is getting us. Is it conducive to Stoic virtue, or is it conducive to something else entirely? Is it within the rigors of the Stoic school, or is it merely a cover for our vices? The Stoic conception of preferred indifferents are preferred insofar as they are conducive to virtue, not our mere liking or vicious desire.
The purpose of these examples is to show the tip of the ice berg relating to the advocacy for strict training in classical Stoic sources. While it is possible to live well in a palace, it might not be advisable. To suggest that since it is possible there is an open permission for the sensuous enjoyment of luxury misses the point entirely. It’s possible to live well in a palace, only because living well has nothing to do with the palace. It is only by training our ruling faculties to live in accordance with nature that we can have a flourishing and excellent life.
Stankiewicz’s article asked a core question, “Are Stoics Ascetics?”
That answer, for most modern Stoics, is “no.”
But they ought to be.
Kevin Patrick is a Tutor and Mentor at the College of Stoic Philosophers, and runs mountainstoic.wordpress.com. When he’s not philosophising, he is a Statistician attached to the US Navy and a writer.