Professor Margaret Graver is the keynote speaker at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto . We are all eagerly looking forward to her plenary address, titled “The Dispassionate Life”. Below is an interview about her longstanding interests in, and scholarship on, Stoicism.
How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m a professor at Dartmouth College, which gives me the privilege of teaching young adults how to read ancient texts accurately and attentively. Born in Louisiana, I now live year round in New Hampshire, where I love the mountains and the lakes in summer. Swimming with the loons, picking blueberries from your kayak. In winter I can at least say that I don’t mind shoveling snow.
As a scholar, I work in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, with a particular interest in Stoic views on the nature and management of the emotions. I have three books out. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4 gives an annotated translation of a text by Cicero that is actually one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I know, particularly for anyone who has struggled with grief.
Stoicism and Emotion is a more comprehensive study that concentrates on the early period of Stoicism. In addition to the main emotion theory, it treats such related topics as freedom of the will and character development. Most recently, I have worked with A.A. Long on a complete translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. The letters are a fascinating glimpse into Roman life as well as a wonderful topic-based exploration of Stoicism. I’ve loved working on an accurate translation that would have a contemporary feel. Now, as I write this, I’m at work on two other projects. One is a broad-based study of Seneca’s philosophy of values, the emotions, and literature, and the other is on Cicero’s relationship to Stoic ethics.
When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
It was really Seneca that drew me in. I had been studying classical literature at Brown, and one day picked up a volume of the Letters, wanting to get back into Latin prose after doing an awful lot of Greek poetry. What caught my attention was the structure of that book, how Seneca makes it feel natural and right to read one letter a day, so that the book becomes a life companion as well as an educator. The fuller understanding of the Stoic system came later for me. Of course I have been much enriched by conversations with other scholars. While I was still in graduate school it was especially Martha Nussbaum and Victor Caston, then over the years Brad Inwood, Chris Gill, Tad Brennan, and Tony Long have all taught me a great deal, and these are only a few of many. Students, too, both my own students and those from other schools, and adult learners – they are always showing me new perspectives, so that I feel like I am rediscovering the subject every day.
What are the most important aspects of Stoicism to you?
The rule of reason. Yes, there are other things in human nature besides our ability to reason, and those are important too. But this is fundamental. We don’t like being deceived; we don’t wish to be mistaken. Epictetus: “Try to believe that it is night.” When the sun is shining in the window, you just can’t do it—you can’t make yourself accept views that contradict each other, just because you are fundamentally a rational creature. All of Stoicism comes down to this. Getting things right, discerning what is true from what only seems true, getting to a point where your actions and even your feelings are based on reality—this is just a better way for a human being to live.
The immediate extension of that is the Stoic way of thinking about values. The idea that things like playing fair, speaking the truth, facing up to challenges, being kind and gentle, really matter and matter in a completely different way from what you own, what people think of you, even how long you live—that is the very core of their ethics. And that much seems to me very straightforward and correct. What that actually looks like in any given situation is a lot harder, though.
In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
The toughest problems facing us today have to do with the fragmentation of the media, the ever more staggering inequalities of wealth and privilege, and hatred and mistreatment based on ethnicity. To some extent, any system of ethics should be able to suggest some ways forward. But there are some key elements of Stoicism that speak directly to these issues.
- First and foremost, intellectual independence. Stoicism is all about thinking for yourself, using your own mind and not just passively accepting the views other people want you to hold. In ancient Stoicism there was no party line, no orthodoxy. Everyone respected and studied the views of Zeno and Chrysippus, and there were some points that were held in common. But there was also a lot of divergence—each author is working out their own version of Stoicism that makes sense to them, because that is what they have to do.
- Next, values based on character and not on externals. All of us are constantly bombarded with the message that what matters is what you have, how you look, what jobs and degrees you hold, what influence you can wield. And people are judged accordingly. The ancient Stoics resisted those sorts of messages—they saw them as the prime cause of unhappiness. They spoke of the “transmission of error,” or just “corruption,” that gets to us already when we’re very young and trying hard to do what people expect of us. Not that it’s wrong to get your degree, earn your living, care for your family—that’s exactly what we should be doing most of the time. But those things in themselves are not where happiness lies, and they’re certainly not what defines a person. Remember when character was something most people looked for in a political leader? We could go back there—and we could make the same demand of ourselves.
- The other big one is what the Greeks called philanthropia, the attachment to the human. In Stoic thought all rational creatures are akin to one another by virtue of their rationality. That’s actually encoded in human nature: the way children bond to their caregivers, the naturalness of connecting to other people just because they’re near at hand. Of course our first and strongest ties are to our families and our immediate communities, and that is fine. But we can also learn to recognize a bond of shared humanity with those who are more distant, “draw the circles inward,” as Hierocles says. This business of othering, of in-grouping, of sending the refugees back where they came from—Stoicism is diametrically opposed to all of that.
What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?
Don’t know if I can do just one. Here are three.
Have you no hands? Wipe your own nose, then, and don’t blame God.
You just can’t beat Epictetus! Sit down and pray that your nose may not run? No, you have hands. The point is that we have to take responsibility for our own emotional well-being—and we are equipped to do that, if we make the effort.
Do you ask what progress I have made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.
I love the idea that moral progress involves becoming your own friend. Of course we still want to have other people to be our friends, that’s a given and is very important in Stoic thought. But it’s rare to find somebody who is such a true friend that they will tell you the things you really need to hear. Even if you’re lucky enough to have such a friend, it’s hard to spend enough time with that person. But you can learn to be that sort of friend to yourself, and then you will never be without a friend.
The other thing I really like about this quotation is that we even know about it. It’s by Hecaton of Rhodes, an important author in his time but we have hardly any of his work. We happen to have this bit because Seneca encountered it in his own reading, liked it, and quoted it in one of the Letters.
Real joy is a serious matter.
Seneca has many beautiful ways of speaking about the joy that comes with wisdom. In the 23rd letter, more than anywhere else, he brings out the fact that there are feelings that are more worth having than what our culture calls happiness or fun. Think of the change agent speaking the unpopular truth, the soldier laying her life on the line, the nurse who’s there for the dying patient. Do they sense the goodness that is there? I think they do. Are they smiling and having a good time? We don’t need that.
What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
Get yourself a copy of the Letters on Ethics and read it a bit at a time. Not straight through necessarily—each letter takes up a different topic, so you can do very well working from the Table of Contents. Find the parts that really interest you, and let it spread from there. The beauty of Stoicism is that it’s quite systematic, so if you grasp some points and think hard about those, you begin to understand even some points you haven’t yet studied.
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
Just a tip of the hat to Chris Gill, who first put the bug in my ear to do something on the 3rd and 4th Tusculan Disputations of Cicero. That text taught me so much about the emotions in Stoicism and has inspired most of what I’ve done since.