On Stoic Etiquette
Contrary to some popular oversimplifications, the ancient stoics did not try to ignore, deny, or “bottle up” their emotions. Nowhere, in fact, do we find Epictetus arguing that emotions are directly under our power. More accurately stated, the stoics, in recognizing that persons within a passionate state of mind are easily out of control, accordingly procured a philosophy whereby the removal of false belief served as a form of preventative medicine. They thus attempted, as Martha Nussbaum suggests, “to extirpate the passions,” precluding them through the precautionary measure of strict adherence to reason. By exercising and disciplining their governing principle, that of dealing with impressions, the stoics aligned their will to get and their will to avoid to those things that are under their power while they also remained indifferent to all those things beyond it. Passions diminished and dissipated largely as a consequence.
It should come as no surprise, then, the stoics did not seek or require hermetic reclusion to practice their virtues nor did they value peace of mind at the price of worldly renunciation. They managed to integrate a reasonable emotional life with the demands of public action and even political service. Said simply, they understood that eventual outcomes and the opinions of others are beyond control but none of this gives license for dereliction of duty to the larger world.
Regarding appropriate behavior at public gatherings and in social life, Epictetus offers abundant guidance for any would-be stoic. I quote at length the advice given in entry #33 of The Handbook.
“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks—these are topics that arise everywhere—but above all do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison…For your body take just so much as your bare needs require, such as food, drink, clothing, house, servants, but cut down all that tends to luxury and outward show. Avoid impurity to the utmost of your power before marriage, and if you indulge your passion, let it be done lawfully. Do not be offensive or censorious to those who indulge it, and do not be always bringing up your own chastity.…In your conversations avoid frequent and disproportionate mention of your own doings or adventures; for other people do not take the same pleasure in hearing what has happened to you as you take in recounting your adventures.” (1940, pp. 478-479)
Within this detailed and nuanced description of idealized Stoic manner, we find suggestions regarding demeanor and interpersonal competencies. We come across advice for concerning oneself with others’ well being while also respecting their privacy, and we gain instruction regarding appropriate abstention from personal posturing and pretentiousness. Stoicism admonishes against ostentation and self-aggrandizing social behavior, because (a), the opinions of others are beyond one’s control, and (b), people have duties to the larger communities in which they are imbedded. Such counsel fundamentally stresses that people know their place in the larger social world and that they concern themselves with only what is properly under their jurisdiction. Here “jurisdiction” means both one’s inward governing principle and well as one’s actions in the wider social world.
Stoic etiquette outlines how the will to get and/or the will to avoid occur in particular cases, situations most often involving others on social occasions. The stoic demand is to respect all people regardless of office, social status, sex, or nationality. Paying respect to another out of mere social grace is one thing (and may beappropriate), but to place others on a pedestal (or to belittle them) due to their station in life is quite another. The key issue, perhaps obviously, is not a blind obedience to social convention nor is it a dogmatic compliance to custom. It is how well one’s governing principle can be integrated into the demands of social life.
In The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum writes, “For Stoicism, getting it right is not simply a matter of getting the general content of an act right. Right content by itself makes only a kathekon, or acceptable act. To become katorthoma, or fully virtuous act, an action must be done as the wise person would do it, with the thoughts and feelings appropriate to virtue” (1994, p. 339). The mere outward appearance of fitting in with propriety does not pass the test for stoic virtue. Virtuous action, more than doing what is socially appropriate, necessarily includes, and is guided by, reason. The right act, in order to be right, needs to be commissioned by right-minded thought about the issues at hand. And this insight, properly understood, helps to clarify how “dealing with impressions” informs and undergirds social interaction and public life in the ancient stoic world.
More about Corey: Corey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Duquesne University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012). A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.
Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here.
‘On Stoic Etiquette’ is adapted from “Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism” (2010) by Corey Anton, copyright (©) Duquesne University Press.