On Judge Kavanaugh, and Why We Need a Stoic Sage on the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Pies

Americans seem to agree on very little, these days, as was vividly demonstrated by the recent appointment of Judge Bret Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I suspect that almost any American acquainted with the term “stoic” would agree that Judge Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee1 was, well— not very “stoical.”

To be sure: Kavanaugh was dealing with a situation that virtually anyone would find emotionally overwhelming, and that few of us could face with equanimity. And yet, I want to argue that the kind of person we need on the Supreme Court is one who embodies the even temperament and high moral values of the ancient Stoic philosophers.

But wait—aren’t “stoics” people who deliberately quash all their emotions and never allow themselves to feel joy or sadness?  Aren’t they, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, obsessed with logic at the expense of intuition and empathy? Why would we ever want such an emotionally stunted individual on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, after all, deals with such emotionally-charged issues as abortion, religious freedom, and gun control?

But, as most readers of this website know, the popular stereotype of Stoics and Stoicism is far removed from the school of philosophy that flourished in ancient Athens and Rome, and which profoundly influenced modern-day figures like Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who endured seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.2,3

No, the ancient Stoics—men like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca—did not believe in suppressing emotion or eradicating joy and sadness. Rather, they argued that maintaining the proper mental attitude would lead, quite naturally, to a state of equanimity and emotional balance. The proper attitude, for the Stoic sage, meant seeing the world for what it is: a place filled with unpleasant people and events, but also a place of joy—if only we keep a clear head, and act in accordance with Nature and virtue.  For the Stoic, it is not things or events or people that upset and unhinge us, but our attitude toward these things. As Marcus puts it:

Things do not touch the soul…our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within…4

The Stoics placed little value on material possessions, fame, or wealth, arguing that acting in accordance with virtue was the only lasting and genuine good. Indeed, the Roman statesman Seneca taught that:

A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.5

The Stoics had a keen awareness of human mortality, and its central role in shaping our behavior. Marcus Aurelius cautioned that:

since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.4

Finally, the Stoics believed in the sacredness of the common bond that unites all human beings. As Marcus Aurelius put it:

A man’s joy is to do what is proper to man, and man’s proper work is kindness to his fellow man.6

Some people link the Stoics with a kind of fatalism or determinism—as if the Stoics believed we must accept things as they are, no matter how bad, and have little power to change them. This, too, is a misunderstanding of Stoicism. It’s true that the Stoics saw the universe as strictly governed by the law of cause and effect. But as the scholar of Stoicism, A.A. Long has pointed out:

…fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do.  We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we [make] and by the responses we give to our circumstances.7

The Stoics firmly believed in opposing cruelty and injustice, while also acknowledging that sometimes our best efforts will fail.8

 Judge Kavanaugh Measured Against the Stoics

Now as to Judge Kavanaugh: I do not know whether he does, or does not, embody Stoic virtues in his everyday life, or in his approach to interpreting the law. Yet for me, as an ethicist—and entirely apart from the allegations of sexual abuse made against him— Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised serious questions regarding his temperament and character. The historian Nils Gilman, writing in The American Interest, makes important points about the kind of person we ought to appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a number of quintessentially Stoic traits. A Supreme Court justice, Gilman writes,

…must be above suspicion, at numerous levels. Politically, they must seem reasonable and neutral. Intellectually, they must be clear and open-minded. Morally, they must be above reproach… Instead [in Judge Kavanaugh], we were greeted by a man barely able to contain his emotions, claiming partisan victimhood, and all but explicitly vowing revenge. This…was simply an unacceptable moral posture for anyone seeking a Supreme Court appointment, regardless of the underlying truth of the charges leveled against him. What Kavanaugh’s speech indicated—what it in fact performed—was a traducing of the moral values we expect a Supreme Court justice to embody: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and yes, sobriety (in the moral sense). Even if he was a man wronged, Kavanaugh’s conduct was, to use a moral concept often deployed in the military, “unbecoming” of a Supreme Court Justice.9

The Stoic Sage and the Supreme Court

In an important discussion of the “Stoic Sage”, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci raises many caveats, if not objections, regarding the whole notion of the “Sage.”10 He cites the wonderfully acerbic comment by Cicero:

It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence. (On Divination 2.61).

For the Stoics, perhaps Socrates came as close to being a Sage as was humanly possible.

Notwithstanding these concerns, we can arrive at least a rough “character sketch” of the Stoic Sage, in terms relevant to the sort of person we ought to seek for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. A short list of requisite traits would surely include the five cited by Gilman: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety. But a much more comprehensive list can be extrapolated from the virtues Marcus Aurelius lists, at the beginning of his Meditations. (These are essentially the principles of character and comportment that Marcus himself absorbed from the most important people in his life). As I would summarize the most important of these character traits, they include:

  • Showing good morals and the governance of one’s temper
  • Acting with modesty
  • Showing piety, beneficence, and abstinence (not only from evil deeds, but from evil thoughts), and simplicity in one’s way of living
  • Avoiding partisanship (“…to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights…”)
  • Enduring labor and having few desires
  • Refraining from meddling in other people’s affairs, or readily listening to
  • Not busying oneself about trifling things
  • Refraining from showing oneself off as a disciplined and benevolent person
  • Being easily pacified and reconciled with respect to those who have offended one, once they have shown a readiness to be reconciled
  • Maintaining undeviating steadiness of purpose, and remaining oneself, even under adverse conditions (“…to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness…”)
  • Looking to nothing else but reason as a guide
  • Being both “most resolute” and yet yielding, and not peevish in giving instruction
  • Conveying gravity without affectation
  • Looking carefully after the interests of friends, and tolerating ignorant persons, and “those who form opinions without consideration”.
  • Never showing anger or any other passion, yet being affectionate toward others
  • Refraining from fault-finding and chiding others in a reproachful way
  • Loving truth and justice, and respecting the freedom of the governed
  • Maintaining cheerfulness, mildness of temper, sweetness and dignity, in all circumstances; and doing one’s duty without complaining
  • Taking reasonable care of one’s bodily health
  • Being “…able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess.”

[Quoted material is from the translation by George Long 4]

I leave the reader to decide how close Judge Kavanagh came to evincing one or more of these traits in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (A full transcript of his opening statement and a short video clip are available online, via the New York Times11). My own impression of Kavanagh’s demeanor and comportment before the Committee is similar to that of Nils Gilman. I do not believe that Judge Kavanagh demonstrated anything like “solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety.”

That said, it is possible that in his comportment “on the bench”, and in the substance of his judicial rulings, Kavanagh exhibits some or even all of the traits Marcus Aurelius embraced. Certainly, some colleagues have attested to Kavanagh’s good character. For example, Sarah Day, who worked with Kavanagh at the White House between 2002-2006, described him as:

…smart, funny and kind. He is generous with his time, compassionate towards others, diligent in his work, and the kind of person you hope will advance to the highest levels of his profession…He is a thoughtful leader, a champion of others, and exactly the type of person you hope would be nominated to the position of associate justice.12

Perhaps. We will need to reserve final judgment until we have more “observational data”, based on Kavanagh’s comportment, demeanor, and, of course, the quality and tenor of his judicial decisions, after sufficient time on the Supreme Court. Indeed, a rush to judgment would be both unfair and “un-Stoic”. As Marcus cautions us:

A man must be well informed of many points, before he can pronounce surely about the actions of others. (Meditations, Book 11, no. 18).13

That said, it remains unclear whether, in approving Kavanagh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate was “well informed of many points”, or whether it acted largely out of haste, passion, and ignorance.

 

References

  1. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/27/652366140/kavanaugh-and-christine-blasey-ford-testify-before-senate-judiciary-committee
  2. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/how-to-be-a-stoic/?_r=0
  3. https://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/stoicism1.pdf
  4. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by G. Long. Boston, Shambhala, 1993. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.1.one.html
  5. Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969.
  6. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Translated by A.S.L. Farquharson. New York. Knopf, 1946.
  7. https://modernstoicism.com/stoicisms-ancient-and-modern-by-tony-a-a-long/
  8. Pies R: Everything Has Two Handles. Hamilton Books, 2008
  9. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/10/03/being-morally-serious-about-the-supreme-court/
  10. http://brewminate.com/on-the-nature-of-the-stoic-sage/
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html
  12. https://www.centralmaine.com/2018/09/10/another-view-above-all-else-kavanaugh-a-good-man/
  13. http://files.libertyfund.org/files/2133/Aurelius_1464_LFeBk.pdf

Ronald Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine. He is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

22 thoughts on “On Judge Kavanaugh, and Why We Need a Stoic Sage on the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Pies”

  1. In light of the unfortunate tone and tenor of most comments, I have decided to post this brief closing note, in lieu of the longer piece I had planned.

    First, I would respectfully suggest reading the conclusions contained in a letter presented to the United States Senate on Oct. 4. and signed by over 2400 law professors, re: Judge Kavanaugh’s temperament [1]. I also recommend perusing the letter signed by more than 350 female Alaska attorneys and sent to both Sen. Murkowski and fellow Alaskan GOP Senator Dan Sullivan [2]. Both letters broadly support the main conclusion of my essay, and actually go much further than merely “raising questions” re: Judge Kavanaugh’s suitability for the U.S. Supreme Court.

    I also want to note that the Stoic sages did not offer “counsels of perfection”—only of very high standards. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius is keenly aware of human imperfection, and that the would-be sage is likely to fall short from time to time. He writes, “Be not disgusted, nor discouraged, nor dissatisfied, if you do not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when you have failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what you do is consistent with human nature…” (Book 5, no. 9, G. Long translation).

    It is certainly possible that the “greater part” of Judge Kavanaugh’s life, temperament, and character are consistent with the virtues and values of Stoicism– which, however, were certainly not on display in his Senate testimony. We can suspend final judgment on this question until we have seen much more of the man—his demeanor, habits, behaviors, and principles.

    Respectfully,
    Ronald W. Pies MD

    1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/03/opinion/kavanaugh-law-professors-letter.html
    2. https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/410031-hundreds-of-female-alaska-attorneys-call-on-murkowski-sullivan-to-vote-no-on

    For further reading:

    https://aeon.co/ideas/anger-is-temporary-madness-heres-how-to-avoid-the-triggers

    http://virtueethicsdigest.blogspot.com/2014/11/aristotle-on-anger-virtue-and-vice.html

    Telushkin J: A Code of Jewish Ethics. Vol. 1. Bell Tower, 2006. [The rabbinic view of anger is somewhat different and more nuanced than that of the Stoics; it is perhaps closer to that
    of Aristotle:
    [A]ny one can get angry – that is easy…but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” [Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2]

  2. They aspire to Stoa, and they esteem objectivity and the “Logos”, but let the subject move to politics, (especially the American type) and an ugly gash tears right through the fabric of this high philosophy. Most of us are not who we pretend to be; oh well…so much for Zeno – what else is there to play with?

  3. Temperance! Temperance! Temperance!

    When did Temperance become the the most important virtue? Would you choose someone with Temperance over someone who has no Wisdom. Someone who is courageous but displays no Justice?

  4. Thanks again to those who have taken the time to comment. If I may, I’d like to encourage everyone to “take a deep breath” and reflect a bit on the intent of my essay. I am planning a longer follow-up piece that will address some of the readers’ comments in much more detail, but for the moment, I would like to clarify some issues.

    The intent of my article was to use Stoic values and virtues as a kind of lens, through which we can examine Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate. The central question I raised was, “To what degree did Kavanaugh’s presentation comport with the Stoic virtues of moderation, self-control, solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety?” I concluded that–within the narrow confines of this Senate testimony–Kavanaugh fell far short. I said that this raises “serious questions regarding his temperament and character.” I stand by that claim—and I am far from alone in making it [more on this later].

    But raising “serious questions” about someone’s temperament and character is not an “attack” on that person’s character. I made it quite clear that “I do not know whether [Kavanaugh] does, or does not, embody Stoic virtues in his everyday life…” and acknowledged that he could turn out to be the very person of good character that Sarah Day described. By the way, I agree with Dr. Ellis that “character” is not some immutable inner “essence”, but rather, “a person’s tendencies and behavior (both of which can change over time).” Perhaps, if I knew Judge Kavanaugh personally, I might conclude—as did Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, that “…Brett Kavanaugh’s a good man. It just may be that…he’s not the right man for the court at this time…” [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/05/us/politics/lisa-murkowski-brett-kavanaugh-vote.html].

    I also want to acknowledge that Judge Kavanaugh was indeed subjected to some unfair and prejudicial treatment, and that some of his opponents used language to describe him that was quite “un-Stoic” and quite unjustified. But from the Stoic perspective, this does not relieve the Judge of his responsibility to respond rationally, courteously, thoughtfully, and with dignity of bearing. The Stoics would not be impressed or persuaded by “what about?” arguments; e.g., “Yeah, Kavanaugh got really angry and upset, but what about Senator So-and-So? He was vicious and unfair to Kavanaugh!”

    Sorry–but that line of argument just doesn’t wash in Stoic teaching. I did not defend, nor do I accept uncritically, vicious and unfair attacks on Judge Kavanaugh, and there were indeed some such attacks. But that in no way gets the Judge off the Stoic hook. I am sure that some readers who commented could write eloquent essays on the very un-Stoic people who went after Kavanaugh–and that’s fine. But that was not my intent in writing this piece nor is it relevant to our assessment of Kavanaugh’s comportment and demeanor, as judged by Stoic standards of conduct. And yes–for sure, those are “lofty” standards that few of us (including this writer) would find easy to meet. But if we can’t hold a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court to such high standards, to whom can we apply them?

    Finally, the issue with Judge Kavanaugh is not whether he, or anyone, has the right to defend their reputation; but rather, the manner in which they do so. The basic Stoic view on how we should respond to those who treat us unfairly, attack our reputation, etc. is summarized in two quotes: the first from Marcus Aurelius, the second from Musonius Rufus:

    “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.” (Meditations, Farquharson, 82)

    “It is characteristic of a civilized and humane temperament not to respond to wrongs as a beast would, and not be be implacable toward those who offend; but to provide them with a model of decent behavior…” [from “Musonius Rufus”, translated by Cynthia King, preface by William B. Irvine, p. 51]

    I hope this brief note will encourage a respectful and temperate exchange of views, and I thank readers for their comments to date.

    Ron Pies

    1. That is an exceedingly high standard to meet consistently. Although Marcus Aurelius wrote plenty it is doubtful his behavior met that standard at every given moment. Meanwhile, we have plenty of evidence that Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior has.

  5. Watching this from the UK, I find it incredible that an academic would think that posting a one sided character assassination of Kavanaugh on an international site concerned with philosophy would be well received.
    It seems further evidence that academia is in a bubble/echo-chamber and not connected to the wider world.

    I look forward to YOUR article, Prof. Pies, on the character of Ford.
    Lots to consider – fear of flying, enclosed spaces, repressed memories.

    I will not hold my breath.

  6. Gregory,

    I think you should come back here and respond to myself and others regarding the fact you do not call into question any aspect of the behaviour of democrats. The allegations were and remain unproven, pursuit of the claims has also been dropped. Stoics practice and advocate justice – guilt by accusation is not justice. Yet you have nothing to say on this.

    I often find many of your posts politically partisan and stoicism is co-opted to meet that end. The same thing was evident in your post on Jordan Peterson which I commented on..

    The left is currently in a state of mild hysteria. Here’s a challenge. Write an article on how their response in the current political climate is un-stoic.

    1. Alan,

      It’s clear that you didn’t even read the word “by” in the title of the piece. The author is Ronald Pies.

      Nor, do you seem to realize that the Peterson pieces are multiple, by several authors, all of which you can determine by looking at the title and reading the name after “by”.

      If you’d like to submit a draft for a piece meeting your desired goal of going after Democrats, feel free.

  7. I agree with the comments first made, although it is not my task to choose a supreme court judge for the USA. Regrettably, what might be called emotionalism is in vogue, and public figures are now, it seems, judged by the wrong criteria. Which does leave us a problem, however: given that two candidates both express appropriate stoical virtues, how is one to choose between them for the post in question? We don’t want everyone to be too self-effacing and, in a word, stoical! I fall back to a generally acceptable criterion. A sense of humour, as shown, for example, by Ronald Reagan, and even, as I recall, by Barry Goldwater, is a useful asset.

  8. Thank you Dr Pies ! Your clear, incisive, objective and rational view on the Cavanagh matter, the concise yet substantial explanations you give, along with the references to ancient wise people whose sagely status is firmly established, is informative, refreshing and appreciated greatly. One of the responding comments to your article by Chuck includes his dislike for your attacking Cavanagh’s character. Even though you used the word ‘character’ in your piece, perhaps Chuck’s definition, and yours, and mine, of that word differ! Some may understand it to mean the essential essence of a person – the subtle implication here being that it is a somewhat permanent state while the person lives !… Others, and I include myself here, see it as referring to a person’s tendencies and behavior (both of which can change over time if the person desires to change them). In any case, I agree with your view, and hope that many people read it and think about the material therein.
    Debbie Joffe Ellis.
    PS. In case any readers here are interested in a tangential piece that hones in on more psychological aspects related to the situation prior to the Cavanagh appointment, I add the link here:
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tried-and-true/201810/the-malady-thinking-it-hurts

  9. I appreciate the comments by Mr. Diaz and Chuck. I also understand that the issue of Judge Kavanaugh and his appointment is capable of stirring up strong emotions–even on a website dedicated to Stoicism! I will await some further comments from readers before responding to some of the substantive issues and questions being raised. Please note that, as per my standing policy regarding online exchanges, I generally reply directly only to fully signed comments. Thanks to readers for their understanding and patience, and thanks to Greg Sadler for the opportunity to discuss this issue. **

    Best regards,
    Ron

    Ronald W. Pies, MD

    **P.S. Bullet point 6 under Marcus’s character traits should read:
    “Refraining from meddling in other people’s affairs, or readily listening to slander.”

  10. I am surprised Mr. Kavanaugh’s response to the vicious character assassination attempts by the hateful and politically motivated Liberal Senators and the Liberal mass media doesn’t meet your Stoic standards.

    I’m not sure who on Earth could have been able to handle that slander.
    Maybe the Dalai Lama ?

    What kind of justice system can allow “guilty until proven innocent” especially without
    ANY corroborating evidence? And 34 years ago to boot.

    If this kind of “justice” was allowed to be the norm, it would be open season on anyone

    1. “What kind of justice system can allow “guilty until proven innocent” especially without
      ANY corroborating evidence? And 34 years ago to boot.”

      I have seen this comment made a number of times, and I think it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what these hearings were.

      Kavanaugh was NOT going through a criminal trial. He was going through a job interview. It was one that was extremely intense, as the stakes were extremely high–but it remains a job interview.

      This is significant because the nature of allowable evidence, and even what can be considered or discussed, is different in a criminal trial vs. a job interview. For example, one’s character is rarely a relevant consideration in a criminal trial; it is a prime consideration in a job interview. Criminal trials have statutes of limitations; job interviews do not. “Innocent until proven guilty” is only applicable to criminal proceedings, not job interviews.

      We hold people guilty without adequate criminal evidence all the time. If someone tells you (assuming you’re a woman) “Don’t be alone with Bill” would you demand legally-admissible evidence? Or would you simply avoid Bill? Similarly, if someone were to say “That restaurant is horrible! I ate there twice, and got sick both times!” would you wait until the health inspector issued his report, following due process of law? Or would you avoid eating there? Freedom of Association trumps Innocent until Proven Guilt as far as voluntary relationships are concerned (legal issues are of course NOT voluntary, and one does NOT have the right to refuse to associate with the judges, jurists, police, and other court officials that have proper jurisdiction).

      I’m not saying that what the Democrats did was good. I’m not sure where I stand on the statute of limitations for sexual assault; I agree that for many of the things brought up three decades seems too long. People do change after all. Nor do I think that Kavanaugh will make a good Supreme Court justice. My point is just that we need to make the proper criticisms. If you evaluate a fish by the standards of a monkey, the fish will always fall short.

  11. As a neophyte stoic or, perhaps more honestly a “wannabe”, I typically await with some anticipation the weekly post for both insight and encouragement. I have sought something good, true or useful in each post regardless of its quality and refrained from comment due to my assessment of my own poor intellectual underpinnings in stoicism and my daily behavioral failings in applying what I do understand. I break from silence to applaud this article and ask two questions.

    First the applause: this article absolutely served as an exercise in observing my own reactions and practicing detachment and reflection. My conclusion is that your point could have been better served without the attack (subtle though it may be) on Kavanaugh’s character and the assumption that the behavior he exhibited was somehow not strategic and justified. At best, you could have applied your measure to all sitting Justices’ behaviors or, if possible, how stoic philosophy might inform or reflect the different approaches to constitutional interpretation. Not well played.

    My questions based on my reflections:

    Is tactically releasing an emotional response to achieve one’s strategic intent a violation of stoic principles or actually an expression of stoicism since it implies control?

    Is choosing to remain detached and not achieve a strategic intent a desireable purpose?

    I realize these questions may be elementary for this forum

    1. This is a very good question. One can experience often, that by remaining calm and equanimous people tend not to give one’s words the necessary attention. So it is often necessary to pretend being angry or otherwise emotionally affected in order to make a point. However I am personally not very good in pretending emotions and therefore this strategy is not very helpful to me.
      But the question remains, whether it is acceptable for a Stoic to pretend emotions, for example during a speech, in order to persuade others. Or is pathos in general an unacceptable mode of persuasion for a Stoic?
      Cicero certainly used pathos and ethos in his speeches, but he was no formal Stoic. I am not sure what the Greek Stoics thought about this question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.