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.
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by G. Long. Boston, Shambhala, 1993. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.1.one.html
- Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969.
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Translated by A.S.L. Farquharson. New York. Knopf, 1946.
- Pies R: Everything Has Two Handles. Hamilton Books, 2008
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.