From the Cosmos to Cracks in Bread: Things of Beauty for Stoics – by Gregory Sadler

This is a transcript of Gregory Sadler’s talk at Stoicon 2023, which can be viewed here. This article first appeared on Dr Sadler’s Medium page, here.

Thanks so much. That’s a very nice introduction, and my talk, you could say, is a little less ambitious than almost everyone that I’ve heard so far. It’s just looking at types of matters that Stoics describe as beautiful. Obviously if you wanted to be comprehensive in this, we’d need a whole seminar, because they say so many things about beauty.

And so many things are beautiful, so we’re just going to look at a selection of examples drawn from the three Stoic thinkers that I think almost everybody is the most familiar with, which would be Seneca and Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. We’re looking at examples that are coming directly from their texts. I’ve put them into kind of an order, and hopefully it’s one that has a good flow and makes sense for people.

So we’re we’re taking a little bit of an itinerary here, and I’ll just note very briefly several times terminology has come up. Almost all of the examples that we’re looking at in Epictetus’ and Marcus Aurelius’ Greek are using the word kalon. There’s a few where that’s not the case. And then Seneca’s tend to be pulcher, “beauty,” “beautiful”. So these are the the things that we’re going to be looking at.

The general plan is to begin with some common instances and features of beautiful things, and then widen our scope as far as it can possibly go to the entire cosmos itself; then descend through us human beings, and get down to really humble and seemingly unbeautiful things, and think about what the Stoics have to tell us about them. What we can do at the end is think about how we can have good or bad, or wise or foolish responses to beauty — something that we’ve already had a lot of discussion of already, including in the last presentation.

We can cull out some guidelines, which again I think is something we’ve been hearing about a good bit already, about how we can properly and positively appreciate beautiful items without getting sucked into, let’s call it, the seductive side of beauty, more problematic instances.

So there are two passages I’d really like to start with and one of these is from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations book 4. He says

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was — no better and no worse. This applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life — physical objects, artworks. Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does — or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it? Or gold, or ivory, or purple? Lyres? Knives? Flowers? Bushes? (4.20)

So what we’ve got here are references to beautiful things in what he calls “ordinary,” or we could say even “common” (koinon) life, the most common sorts of things. Things that we are all accustomed to calling “beautiful.” So, he talks about emeralds and other precious things. Now you know, that’s changed culturally over time. Not too many of us are walking around with gold, or emeralds, or anything like that, and we can reproduce some of these things by industrial processes, so perhaps their value has come down a bit.

But fine works of craftsmanship, like a great musical instrument, or a knife, or pick whatever else you want. We go into people’s houses and we talk about the moldings as being beautiful, or landscaping, gardens, all of these sorts of organic things that we look at. We might think about beautiful animals as well.

Notice the point that he’s making here. All of these are beautiful in themselves. They’re sufficient in themselves, whether we praise them or show contempt for them, or just ignore them entirely. So as many of the speakers have noted, beauty for the Stoics is something that’s real. It’s out there, it’s available to to us, even if we don’t necessarily have the right kind of subjective responses to them. That would be the praising, or grasping it.

Notice as well that there’s an analogy that’s being drawn here with justice, with truth, with kindness or, better put, goodwill (eunoia), and shame or humility (aidos), these moral qualities that we’re looking for in in people.

That’s a great stage setter. And then Seneca adds something that I think is really good to remind ourselves of. We’re going to talk about this a little bit more in the end. In Letter 76 he says that

Sometimes from an extremely beautiful object one experiences great joy even in a tiny space of time (76.28).

So out of something that is really striking us, we have gaudium, joy which is one of the good emotions for Stoics. This is a proper affective response to things. Notice that he says even if just for a short time, exiguo tempore ac brevi in Latin. I think that’s a great reminder we don’t always have to “be on” when it comes to the perception of beauty. Sometimes it’s enough just to have experienced it for a short period, and then we can remember it over time.

Let’s zoom out and think in terms of the biggest object we could possibly take in — the entire world, the entire universe. This is not a uniquely Stoic thing by any means. Other philosophers before the Stoics are looking up at the heavens, or looking at the Earth, and saying: “Holy crap! This is beautiful. This is amazing. Let’s take this in.”

And it’s not just philosophers. It’s people of all walks of life who are grasping this. We can look at the the sky. We can look at the landscape. We can look at physical processes and find something there. And we can ask ourselves: “Okay well, what makes the world or the universe beautiful?” And just pause for a moment, and think about your own experiences of natural beauty. What did they encompass?

Certainly there was an aspect of the senses taking things in. We never see the whole universe. We never even see the entire landscape, in part because our eyes are right in the front of our head. I suppose a horse probably takes in a little bit more than we do, because they’re a prey creature rather than a predator creature like ourselves, but they don’t take in everything either. So we’re extending ourselves out into the universe through our minds, and we’re we’re imagining something. The force of impressions or appearances (phantasiai) is is part of beauty for this, and what are the Stoics actually seeing.

I’m going to have a little play on words here. The Greek word for universe is kosmos. That’s also the Greek word for order, and proportion, and arrangement. So we can say that it’s actually the “cosmos of the cosmos” that is being grasped both through our senses and our imagination, and our rationality. It’s also that we’re grasping something like a divine rationality at work. This could raise some problems for modern Stoics who think that the universe doesn’t contain any elements of that, and we can talk about that a bit later. Certainly for Seneca, certainly for Epictetus, certainly for Marcus Aurelius that was part of it.

I’ve got two passages here from Seneca that I want to put before you. But you know, we could easily bring up similar passages from Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. If you’ve ever read Seneca’s Letter 65, which I highly advise that you do — he’s talking about Plato and Aristotle and their notion of causes there, and he brings them together in a beautiful harmonization, and say then says that they’ve gotten things wrong and here’s the Stoic point of view on it, you know, typical Seneca.

There he tells us that God made this wonderful full universe and he did so by using a model, a Platonic form, essentially an exemplar, and he says

The model — which is to say, that according to which he [God] made such a vast and supremely beautiful piece of work…(65.9)

The entire universe — for Seneca, the entire cosmos is something that is beautiful and it’s modeled after something even further, even deeper, an an idea in the divine mind.

In On Benefits — Seneca says things like this in many places — he clarifies even further.

[The gods] give us the second rank in this supremely beautiful home and to put us in charge of the earth (2,29.3).

This is a typical ancient Stoic point of view. Rational beings are in charge of things. We’re sort of like God’s deputies. So we better not screw it up, of course! And we get to apprehend this amazing, beautiful cosmos that we we exist in, that we have a job in. So here we can start thinking about us human beings, and we have multiple, and complex, and interconnecting parts to play in relation to beauty.

One of these is that we are creators and producers of beauty. We produce things that we consider to be beautiful when we work with materials that we consider precious. Setting the emerald in the gold necklace, that’s that’s nice, right? Maybe we make a beautiful gold statue of Seneca. We could do that as well, although that should be pretty indifferent from a Stoic perspective.

We also produce beautiful items of usefulness or attractiveness, like lyres — not so much today, more guitars, or pianos, or things like that. Or knives and other implements. Your KitchenAid mixer, if it’s well-designed, could be an object of beauty. or through what we do with the physical world, engaging in gardening, and landscape, and arrangement.

But we’re also participants in the beauty of the entire cosmos that we noted earlier, by being part of it, by taking up our parts as rational beings within it, as not mere animals, but as something that has a greater purpose. And by appreciating this universe as well — another term for that is “witnessing” or “understanding.” Epictetus tells us we human beings don’t merely take in appearances, and grasp them and respond to them. We understand them, and this is part of our relation to the the divine ordering of the universe.

Seneca in Letter 115 says:

If we could consider the mind of a great man, o what a beautiful sight we would see. . . We will see that beautiful sight [virtue], even though it may be covered with dirt (115.3,6).

We would see that beautiful sight, and by that he means virtue, even though it may be covered with dirt. Now this is a recent translation. The Latin for that is sordido, grime, kind of scum, and and things like that. So even though we don’t see the the virtue untarnished, unblemished, we can still see it there. And now notice there’s also an “if” there as well. Obviously we can’t open up somebody’s head and peer inside and see the virtue shining in there. But we we do see it through what people do, as we’ll talk about in just a moment.

Seneca in On Benefits also says something really quite remarkable:

the power of the honorable to attract the minds of men is immense: its beauty floods our minds and sweeps us along, enchanted with wonder at its brilliance and splendor. . . The most beautiful things are in fact often accompanied by a host of added attractions, but it is beauty that leads and the attractions follow along (4,22.2-4).

There are many different beautiful things. And when it comes to people, we can find their bodies attractive. We can find their sense of humor great. Or all sorts of other things like that. But it’s really inner beauty which shows itself externally that we can be amazed by, and dazzled by, and attracted to, or even sometimes — Seneca doesn’t talk about this here — pained by when we find that we ourselves don’t measure up to those whom we emulate.

In On Shortness of Life, another thing that Seneca says is really quite cool.

We are led by the work of others into the presence of the most beautiful treasures, which have been pulled from darkness and brought to light (14).

What are these most beautiful treasures? They are the words, the thought, the lives being offered to us of people long gone. The possibility of a relationship with ancient thinkers who can actually give us, as Seneca will say, more life and a beautiful life on that way. So notice that beauty understood in this sense, in other human beings, has the capacity to motivate us. It can jar, it can rearrange, it can fit into our motivational structures. It can give us pleasure, it can give us joy, it can provoke desire. Not all desire is going to be bad in relation to beauty. We should desire some of the types of beauty that are out there. It can lead to emulation.

Now when we think about ourselves, because we’re human beings as well, we don’t know ourselves perfectly. We’re all a little bit of a mystery to ourselves, so long as we’re not the sage. And you know if anybody is, go ahead and chime in and let us know, because it’d be kind of cool to meet a sage. But I’m not going to hold out too much hope for that here. We do have a different kind of access to ourselves than we do to other people. We can’t peer inside our own heads, but we we know what’s going on in there a lot of the time.

So we can ask: well, what makes us genuinely beautiful, as opposed to the things that are beautiful in our bodies, or in our possessions? We might want to recall Enchiridion 6. There’s a really funny passage there. Epictetus is going to say: if a horse wanted to get worked up, literally elated at, epairomenos in Greek, because it realized that it’s beautiful, which I suppose could happen. It doesn’t happen all that often, but if a horse was going to prance around and act as if it’s really a big deal, that’s fine, right? That’s a horse thing. but for you to be elated because you own a beautiful horse that’s just ridiculous. The horse isn’t you. That beauty doesn’t belong to you at all even if you have like a title to it.

And so he asks about what is us there. And here he says one thing that sometimes I think gets people a bit confused, when they only focus in on passages like that about use of appearances (phantasiai). Not all that is up to us. That’s not everything that we do, but that’s a really important thing. This actually addresses a lot of the questions that people are asking about the use of the indifferents, or our relation to them. Many of them are are indifferent, and that that is up to us, and that is part of how we become beautiful.

In Discourses 3.1 Epictetus is going to give us a lot more, let’s say, focused teaching about this. He’s talking about the context of what makes a person beautiful and he begins by talking about dogs and horses. What makes those animals beautiful. He says it will be correct to pronounce each of them beautiful so far as it is developed suitably to its own nature. We can talk about this in terms of many of the things that people have brought up. Proportion, function, all of those sorts of things.

Just as a digression there is a beautiful two-year-old cat that I was hanging out with yesterday at a cat shelter. And she’s beautiful in a sense, because she is just a brute. She’s super-strong, super-fast, very dominant when it comes to other cats, loves to play. Well that’s the way a cat ought to be at that age, right? We could go on and on, and talk about all sorts of other kinds of animals as well. Now what about us? We’re not dogs or cats, or horses or any of those sorts of things.

So Epictetus is talking to a guy who comes into his school and he’s a little bit too dressed up, a little bit too put together, and he says:

it will be correct to pronounce each of them beautiful so far as it is developed suitably to its own nature. . .If you make yourself such a quality, you know that you will make yourself beautiful; but while you neglect these things, though you use every contrivance to appear beautiful, you must necessarily be deformed. . . For you are not flesh and hair, but faculty of choice [prohairesis]. If you take care to have this beautiful, you will be beautiful (3.1.3-9)

Because that’s what you truly are. And so if we want to be beautiful, we have to think about our rational and social nature, about the virtues, about our character, about the use of appearances and indifferents, and about our relationships and roles, our connections to other people.

Notice we’re going back to another theme that came up at the very beginning of this conference. These things are up to us. These are within the scope of our — whatever you want to call it — control, power, business, the ep’ hēmin. Notice that there are interconnections here. We haven’t just started with the cosmos, then we got cosmic beauty, and then the beauty of other people, then our own beauty. These are all interconnected with each other.

We take part in society. We take part in a cosmos as rational beings, and that means developing the virtues. That means making beautiful choices, that means sometimes also finding the spots of ugliness within ourselves, and looking at those and figuring out how we’re going to address those.

Now we get to things that might be a little bit ugly, or have the potential for that. Marcus Aurelius in Meditations 3.2, a passage that we’ve already talked about a little bit.

We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just byproducts of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse our appetite without our knowing why. Or how ripe figs begin to burst. And olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay gives them a peculiar beauty. Stalks of wheat bending under their own weight.

The furrowed brow of the lion. Flecks of foam on the boar’s mouth. And other things. If you look at them in isolation there’s nothing beautiful about them, and yet by supplementing nature they enrich it and draw us in.

And anyone with a feeling for nature — a deeper sensitivity — will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly — things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.

So notice what he’s talking about here. There’s this availability of beauty everywhere. We have to make ourselves capable of grasping it. We have to have not just a deeper understanding, but a deeper – the word there is ennoian, a common concept that we can tap into as human beings. A feeling, a pathos, we need as well. Notice there’s nothing in these things that is going to make us that way: it’s up to us and how we look at it.

There’s a passage I want to bring up just to tie all of this together, and then we’ll jump into some good discussion hopefully. Epictetus, as you know, wants us to be purple threads. He says:

I want to be the purple, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. . . What good does the purple do to the garment? What, but to be beautiful in itself, and to set a good example to the rest? (Disc.1.2.18)

Now you could interpret this as, “Well, there’s purple threads and that’s great. And then there’s the white garment, and that’s all crap. Don’t be a white-garment person!” But no, it’s a cohesive whole. It’s not a contrast here of good versus bad, or wise versus stupid, or anything like that. He is saying: you can be the purple thread, and then you provide a good example, and you beautify the rest.

And I want to say, although Epictetus doesn’t say this, maybe we can think of the purple-thread person as also one who provides us with an example for how to genuinely appreciate the beauty that’s out there, waiting for us to grasp it and respond to it in our lives. So do we have guidelines for this? There have been a lot of that have been given, I think, that are very helpful here. So I’m just going to say three quick things, and then maybe others will have guidelines they want to bring up.

We do need to direct ourselves towards the right kinds of beauty, and to be open to recognizing them. The beauty of the cosmos, the beauty in other people that is not just of their faces, or clothing, or bodies, or things like that.

We also have to avoid certain mindsets that I think are quite prevalent in our own time, that want to control, or to consume, or to commodify beauty.

And then the other thing that we have to do is extricate ourselves from excessive and irrational responses to what we take as beautiful. Epictetus gives us an example of this in the Enchiridion, when he says: You see a beautiful body? You’ve got Temperance to help you deal with that right? You have the capacity to to do all of these sorts of things.

So that is all that I have for you. I think I’ve taken up a little bit more time than I was supposed to. Hopefully we’ll have some good Q&A and we can maybe derive some new guidelines as well.

Q: Is there anything imaginary that is beautiful to classic Stoics?

A. Yeah! So “imaginary” as in not really existing. I suppose we could talk about narrative figures in fiction, like in drama, right? It’s kind of funny because in a lot of cases Epictetus will say that the Iliad is just a bunch of connected appearances. But Seneca wrote plays, so presumably he thought there was some value there. And I think we could look at at fictional characters, and at things that they’re going through, and say: Aha! there’s some beauty there. Perhaps beauty in terms of virtue, or other things as well.

Like we could say, the relationship between people of love could be beautiful. You think of Perseus’ poem where he has — and I’m not counseling this as as a great example for all of us — but Cato and his wife. They’ve been separated from each other, but they still love each other. Well there’s a kind of beauty there. Cato was a real person but Perseus’s Cato is not real. He’s an imagination, so maybe that would be an answer.

Q: Do you think that the beauty of virtue is one of the core arguments for why virtue is the only good?

A.That is actually a great question, and I won’t be able to explore that fully. But I do see in a lot of Stoic texts — think about Marcus’s reminder to himself in the morning, right? The people who are screwed up don’t realize that the good is the beautiful. So there’s this great overlap with the genuinely beautiful, and there is a beauty to virtue. And it’s got multiple affective elements to it.

This is where — I think it’s Seneca’s Letter 120 when he’s talking about where we get our ideas of the virtues from can be quite helpful. He says it’s according to “analogy,” and what he means by analogy there is something like a grasping a rudimentary thing. So we see somebody — you know this isn’t what we see all the time — there’s this guy defending the bridge against the enemy, and he’s displaying this remarkable courage. And we’re like: “Holy crap! Look at that guy!” We we respond to it, and we grasp the virtues in that way.

We do have definitions of virtue, but we really do need instances and examples that you and I can relate to as as human beings, right? So that might play into that well.

Q: You said something like our virtue does sometimes come out in our physical being — did you say something like that?

A. Well, no. I mean we do virtue through our bodies, we could say. And we can tell whether somebody is virtuous sometimes by what they say. But obviously, if they just tell you “I’m courageous” that doesn’t make them courageous. We see it in their actions, and the patterns of those those actions, and then the words that go along with them. There has to be kind of a consonance between those, a consistency, and that’s how we actually witness virtue. We we can’t ever like look inside with some sort of e-ray for moral purpose and find the virtue lurking in the heart, or the the head, or whatever it happens to be. We have to go by outward appearances.

I don’t even know if we can like look inside ourselves, with the inner eye or whatever metaphor we want to use, and see the virtue shining within us. I think we have to see it in in what we do over, and over, and over again. And that’s manifest in this physical world that we exist in. So it might not be physical beauty in a conventional sense, but but maybe a Stoic will see things other than physical beauty even if they’re observing the same behavior as as a non-Stoic, you know.

Just to say — before we totally run out of time — how you use whatever measure of physical beauty you have could be how you demonstrate virtue. Are you full of yourself, and expecting people to fall all over themselves doing nice things for you if you happen to be attractive, for a little while? That would be unvirtuous right? Being attractive and yet behaving like a decent human being, well that would be at least on the way to virtue.

Gregory Sadler was the editor of Stoicism Today from 2016 to 2022. After a traditional academic career of teaching, research, faculty development, and institutional leadership, he founded the company ReasonIO, started a popular philosophy YouTube channel, and began working with clients as an APPA-certified philosophical counselor. He is the author of Reason Fulfilled By Revelation, and is engaged in several book projects. His work also includes public speaking, philosophy tutorials, ethics consulting, and academic coaching.

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