Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit
by Leah Goldrick
The harsh truth is that many students around the world will never receive any philosophical education whatsoever. Philosophy is often viewed as a useless exercise reserved for scholars in ivory towers. Curricula for primary school aged children is rare, especially in the United States, and some academics question whether pre-adolescents are even capable of philosophical inquiry.
That assertion likely rests on the premise that philosophy is ultimately something more theoretical than practical. It overlooks the potential for discerning parents and caregivers to teach young children how a philosophical outlook can make their lives happy and meaningful.
Where can parents find a curriculum that might help kids to develop a strong character and deal with the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them? What if such a formula is a ready-made for introducing young children to philosophy at home, through hands on activities and dialogue?
The Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30–100) has been called the Roman Socrates. He was well known in antiquity for his integrity, as well as for having been the teacher of the more famous Epictetus. He was viewed as something of a radical for arguing that both girls and boys should receive the same early education:
That there is not one set of virtues for a man and another for a woman is easy to perceive. In the first place, a man must have understanding and so must a woman, or what pray would be the use of a foolish man or woman? Hence I hold it reasonable that the things which have reference to virtue ought to be taught to male and female alike; and furthermore that straight from infancy they ought to be taught that this is right and that is wrong, and that it is the same for both alike; that this is helpful, that is harmful, that one must do this, one must not do that. From this training understanding is developed in those who learn, boys and girls alike, with no difference.
Musonius’ pedagogy is based on Stoic ethical theory, which emphasizes virtue as the natural human state, and happiness the result of becoming good or having an excellent character, which is achieved through habitual preparation. He states:
How could we become prudent if we had come to recognize what things are truly good and what evil, but had never had practice in despising things which only seem good? Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.
Musonius thought that a sense of noble purpose instilled in the young, protects them from mistakes which make life unnecessarily difficult:
Well then, if it is necessary for both [boys and girls] to be proficient in the virtue which is appropriate to a human being, that is for both to be able to have understanding, and self-control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other, shall we not teach them both alike the art by which a human being becomes good? Yes, certainly we must do that and nothing else.
I believe that Musonius Rufus’ 2000 year old educational blueprint has a lot to offer astute modern parents and caregivers who wish to guide their young children towards a resilient and philosophical view of life.
One quick word of caution, though, before we delve into the specific lessons that a Stoic parent might teach. We as parents must set a good example. While it’s not about being the perfect parent, there is no use in teaching standards which we don’t at least try to live up to. Children are quick to spot hypocrisy, so don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes to your child. It facilitates the process of learning about virtue.
Drawing on Musonius’ apothegms which survived antiquity, we can derive some character-building exercises useful for laying the groundwork necessary for excellence. Musonius specifically suggests education based on each of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.
Dikaiosune, meaning justice or integrity in ancient Greek, is a personality trait in Stoic ethics, rather than an external condition which is imposed on us, as in the modern sense. Justice is translated as empathy, fairness, kindness, regard for others, and philanthropy. Musonius has a good deal to say about the virtue which is helpful for guiding young children, including “To shun selfishness and to have high regard for fairness and, being a human being, to wish to help and to be unwilling to harm one’s fellow men is the noblest lesson, and it makes those who learn it just.”
He goes on to say:
Are not all these [material] things superfluous and unnecessary, without which it is possible not only to live but also to be healthy? Are they not the source of constant trouble, and do they not cost great sums of money from which many people might have benefited by public and private charity? How much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people. How much nobler than spending money for sticks and stones to spend it on men.
Look for creative ways to help children learn to value kindness and generosity over consumerism. Explain to your child that advertisements are designed to get their money. “Those five dollars you have in your pocket – they want that!” Explain that what is truly important is being kind and charitable when you can afford to be, rather than accumulating things you don’t really need. Consider having your child assist an elderly relative, pick out some of their toys to donate to a charity, or perhaps save some of their money to give to a good cause of their own choosing.
Andreia is often translated into English as courage or determination. This virtue involves confidence, love of work, bearing hardships, and perseverance in things that we would like to avoid. This particular verse illustrates the importance of grit and working actively to provide for yourself:
Speaking generally, if one devotes himself to the life of philosophy and tills the land at the same time, I should not compare any other way of life to his nor prefer any other means of livelihood. For is it not “living more in accord with nature” to draw one’s sustenance directly from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source? Is it not more like the life of a man to live in the country than to sit idly in the city, like the sophists? Who will say that it is not more healthy to live out of doors than to shun the open air and the heat of the sun? Tell me, do you think it is more fitting for a free man by his own labor to procure for himself the necessities of life or to receive them from others?
You might encourage determination by having your child help with some reasonable activity for his or her age, such as cooking, chores, gardening, or yard work. Children can build confidence by acquiring these life skills. Gardening is especially educational for children since it involves delayed gratification, and occasionally, the lesson that hard work doesn’t always lead to a reward. Determination is required while seeding, watering and cultivating plants, and only later enjoying the food that you have grown. Emphasize the importance of working hard to take care of yourself and your household, and of persevering through any setbacks and disappointments that arise. Children should be praised for success, but also for conscientious efforts that are not successful.
Like other Stoics, Musonius Rufus valued moderation, or sophrosyne in ancient Greek. Sophrosyne consists of tempering your emotions, not eating too much, frugality, and carrying yourself with a certain poise and gravitas. Moderation is about knowing the middle in your activities, so to speak. On emotions, Musonius states:
Words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.
Children are little people with big emotions, and they need help dealing with them until they are old enough to exercise self-restraint. Parents should wait until children are calm to offer correction or help navigating strong emotional reactions. Suggest taking some deep breaths or a perhaps time out until the child is able to discuss the situation calmly. Ask your child whether, for example, their angry reaction was particularly helpful. Were their words hurtful to someone else? Did they make a good decision? What can they do differently in the future? If you as the parent overreacted or got angry, apologize and offer to do better next time.
Musonius also advised temperance with regards to food, asking:
What else is gluttony but intemperance in the matter of nourishment, causing men to prefer what is pleasant in food to what is beneficial? Exercising moderation and decorum in eating, demonstrating one’s self-control there first of all, not an easy thing to do, but one which requires much attention and practice.
Teach your children that eating is primarily about nourishing the body rather than enjoyment. You only get one body, and it’s important to keep it in good health. Speak with them about why certain foods are healthy and nutrient dense, and why others, primarily sugary and processed foods, are not. An occasional treat is ok, but we should encourage children to eat a variety of natural, healthy foods rather than habituating them to gorge on junk. You must set a good example of healthy eating yourself.
The final Stoic virtue is Phronesis, prudence or wisdom. Wisdom is often defined as excellent character, good judgment, noble purpose, resourcefulness, and acceptance of things that we can’t control. Musonius suggests that each person’s nature should inform their sense of noble purpose in life and that we should live by method to develop excellence:
The best viaticum for old age…the very one that is best for youth too, namely to live by method and in accord with nature. You would best understand what this means if you would realize that mankind was not created for pleasure…For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence; consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue. Then, indeed, it is that he is justly praised and takes pride in himself and is optimistic and courageous, characteristics upon which cheerfulness and serene joy necessarily follow.
The method Musonius refers to may be the Stoic practice of evening review, which involves reflecting on what you did well or poorly each day, and figuring out how to improve your conduct going forward. At the dinner table, or at bedtime, talk with your child about how the day was for both of you, discussing what went well and what went badly. Did you miss any opportunities to do something good for your personal growth? It is helpful for children and parents alike to reflect on their own conduct, comment on their personal shortcomings, and brainstorm solutions for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something we acquire overnight; we are always working towards it.
“For only in this way will philosophy be of profit to anyone, if to sound teaching he adds conduct in harmony with it.” – Musonis Rufus
Pritchard, M. (2002). Philosophy for Children. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/children/
Lutz, C. (1947) Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. Yale Classical Studies 10 3-147.
King, C. (2011) Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics.