Online Symposium – Stoicism and Courage

We have received some initial contributions for our third online symposium here at Stoicism Today (as well as promises by others to send in a contribution later down the line), and I’ve taken the opportunity as editor to set down some thoughts of my own as well. The topic this time nicely dovetails with the upcoming online Stoicon-X event “Courageous Paths to Flourishing,” hosted by Modern Stoicism, coming up on October 1 (you can find out more and get tickets here).

We put out an initial call for contributions to a set of potential writer along these lines:

The online symposium would consist in a set of posts, each of which would include multiple contributions on the topic.Harald and I would like to invite each of you to contribute a short piece (400-1200 words) to our online symposium, focused on the Stoic virtue of courage. Here’s a set of potential topics (though contributions could be on other courage-related matters):

Why courage is needed for happiness, freedom, or flourishing
What the Stoics understand courage to be
Any one of courage’s subordinate virtues and why it matters
The difference between real courage and what passes as courage
Particularly striking examples of courage
Why courage isn’t the same as “manliness” for Stoics

Now that we have our first few submissions, we’re opening up the opportunity to contribute to anyone who would like to send in their well-considered thoughts about the topic of Stoicism and courage.  You can do so by emailing your 400-1200 word draft to both Harald Kavli and myself.  We’ll be happy to see your thoughts on these matters, and quite likely so will our readership!

With no further ado then, here are our first three entries in this online symposium!

Gregory Lopez – Courage Needs Company

Do you think the world would be a better place if people were more courageous?

I don’t. Not necessarily.

For people who steadfastly aim to benefit others but are hindered by fear, we’d be better off if such people had more courage. But what about the selfish or the cruel? Would the world be better served if people like that were more courageous? Is the world really in want of courageous grifters and brave psychopaths? I don’t think so.

So it seems that courage is a mixed bag. And I think Socrates would agree. In Plato’s Laches, Socrates asks the titular interlocutor for a definition of courage, and Laches comes up with courage being “endurance of the soul.” This sounds right on the surface until Socrates digs deeper.

Socrates points out that courage comes in two flavors: “wise” and “unwise” courage. The former can be good, benefiting the person who has it and those around them. But the latter can be evil and hurtful, and since courage is supposed to be a virtue, and all virtues are noble, mere endurance of the soul can’t be the virtue of courage since the greedy and cruel can have this character trait.

But the form of wisdom Socrates uses at this point of the dialogue — phronesis or practical wisdom — isn’t necessarily good either. Socrates gives the example of a soldier who stands firm because he knows his side is stronger and the opposing side has little chance of winning. The soldier is indeed exhibiting endurance of the soul through practical wisdom. Yet this doesn’t seem virtuous at all.

So it seems that both flavors of courage aren’t virtuous.

After Laches admits that he doesn’t really know what courage is, Socrates turns to another interlocutor, Nicias, who brings up another definition: that courage is knowledge about the grounds for fear and hope. In other words, courage is understanding what’s reasonable to hope for and to fear.

This sounds like an even more promising definition than Laches’s, but Socrates takes it down by exposing an apparent contradiction in Nicias’s reasoning. After getting Nicias to agree that courage is only a part of virtue, Socrates then argues that hope and fear are nothing more than expecting future good things or bad things, respectively. And to expect good and bad things, one must know what makes them bad or good in the first place. But how can one only know what’s good and evil in the future? Why not present and past good and bad things, too?

Nicias agrees that if one knows about what’s good and evil, that knowledge should be just as applicable to the past and present as it is to the future. But this leads to a contradiction: they started off saying that courage is just part of virtue, but knowing about the grounds for what makes things good or bad wouldn’t just be part of virtue: it would be virtue in its entirety! Thus, the brave person would not merely be brave: they would be entirely virtuous.

This leads Nicias to admit that they still don’t know what courage is since he meant only to describe a part of virtue but ended up describing all of it. The Stoics, however, resolve this apparent contradiction by biting the bullet through their doctrine of the unity of the virtues: someone who has the virtue of courage really would have all of the virtues. Courage, on its own, isn’t really a virtue. Instead, it is just one aspect of a virtuous character: one that is prosocial and rational. If someone seems courageous while not seeming just or temperate or practically wise, then you are mistaken in calling the person brave. Courage can’t be good on its own.

Courage needs company.

Judith Stove – Love, Loss, Encouragement: Seneca’s Ad Marciam as Intervention

The letter of Seneca to his friend, the noblewoman Marcia, is an example of the genre of consolatio, ‘consolation.’ This name (in both Latin and English) suggests a fairly passive communion in grief. Yet one of the dictionary definitions of the verb consolari is ‘to encourage.’ This captures Seneca’s active purpose. Through ‘unearthing’ Marcia’s latent courage, Seneca attempts to rescue her from the state of paralysis induced, three years prior, by the death of her adult son Metilius. This essay will read Ad Marciam as training – ‘boot camp,’ replete with military rhetoric – aimed at making Marcia once more fit for virtuous family life.

Seneca’s earliest readers will have recalled the locus classicus of such counsel: the sea goddess Thetis’s appeals to her son Achilles to cease from grieving the death of his friend Patroclus, in Homer’s Iliad (18.22 and following). Virgil too treated the theme in depicting the relationship between Venus and her son Aeneas in Rome’s national epic. Both Achilles and Aeneas require maternal interventions to be redirected to their destined and glorious careers. With daring, given the Roman patriarchal context, Seneca reverses these gender roles. On this reading, he sets Marcia in the position of the hero whose grief has rendered him powerless: Achilles’ courage, his conduct in war (en polemōi, 18.106), is for now occluded by his despair. As Thetis would secure fresh armour for Achilles to enable him, once again, to exhibit the heroic traits which now waste in abeyance, Seneca will ‘arm’ Marcia with case studies (exempla) and arguments to support her return to active duty.

His project begins with reminding Marcia that she does, in fact, possess the strength required to meet the challenge. Seneca plays with the notion of female weakness only to dismiss it as a factor in Marcia’s case – and to note that even men succumb to grief. Marcia, however, has a character of ‘antique virtue,’ including ‘strength of mind (robur animi),’ and ‘your virtue (virtus tua, 1.1).’ In this way, Seneca suggests, she already possesses the resources to enable her to move forward. Seneca reminds Marcia of her courage in breaking the law by preserving the works of her late father, historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus, which in 25 CE had been burned by decree of the Senate. Marcia’s bravery, then, had exceeded that of many men. Through her courage, Seneca writes, Marcia had ‘unearthed’ (eruisses, 1.4) her father, and such violent disruption, it is implied, will be required once more.

The greatness (magnitudo) of Marcia’s mind gives Seneca scope to be harsh. He will combat (confligere) her exhaustion and her tears; he has pointed out the scar (cicatricem) of her survival of her past sorrow (1.5). As the Achaean chiefs had in vain tried to change Achilles’ mood, so, Seneca tells us, Marcia’s friends had previously attempted to reason with her; neither this nor her love of study has helped. A brutal image rounds out the section: ‘I can’t at this point address such a longstanding depression politely or gently – it’s got to be smashed’ (Non possum nunc per obsequium nec molliter adsequi tam durum dolorem; frangendus est, I.8).

Seneca goes on to link Marcia’s situation with those of two other famous Roman mothers from recent history. Augustus’s elder sister Octavia spent the rest of her life mourning for Marcellus, while avoiding his portraits: ‘I won’t say lacking courage to rise up, but refusing to be assisted’ (2.4). As Achilles had suffered ‘survivor guilt’ in outliving Patroclus, Octavia’s persistence in grief imposed it, unreasonably, on her family at large.

By contrast, Augustus’s wife Livia lost Drusus, yet was happy to talk about him and see his portraits: ‘she lived with his memory’ (cum memoria illius vixit, 3.2). She had sought support from Augustus’s consultant Stoic philosopher Areus early in the grieving process. Areus’s counsel, as Seneca transmits it, emphasized the social impact so key to the Stoic account of the virtues (as, for example, outlined in Cicero’s version, following Panaetius, of the development of virtue in human communities, On Duties 1.11). As Livia had been Marcia’s friend, Seneca argues, her ‘problem’ (negotium, 6.1) also was addressed by Areus.

Seneca deals with the claim that grieving is ‘natural.’ Accepting the Stoic location of humanity in the animal kingdom, he draws attention to how animals grieve: deeply, but with short duration (7.1-2). It is in Marcia’s power to end her grief, and Seneca – in the persona of commander or surgeon – orders her to take control: Ipsa illi renuntia (8.3). In a vivid, gender-switching image, he sketches Marcia as a poorly equipped soldier attempting to scale a wall in a city under siege, imagining that she will escape unscathed from the universal hail of death (9.3). The passing of time, on its own, imparts the pressure of a rearguard action: ‘We’ve got to move, they’re on our tail’ (Festinandum est, instatur a tergo, 10.4). Fortune will abuse our bodies ‘cruelly’(10.6): Seneca’s insistence on warfare underlines the urgency of his appeal.

Further exempla drive home the message. Generals such as Sulla and Aemilius Paulus were bereaved fathers who continued their public duties (12.6, 13.3). As for Roman matrons, Cornelia refused to describe herself as unhappy, having given birth to the Gracchi. Another Cornelia, whose son was murdered, endured his death with ‘great courage’ (magno animo) even lacking the closure of justice (16.3-4).  Metilius’s two young daughters can represent great comfort (magna solacia, 16.7) if Marcia has the courage to look to the future, cherishing them as she loved their father.

Human life, Seneca stresses, is an entry into a vast fabric of infinite variety. Reminding us once more of the scenes depicted on Achilles’s new shield, Seneca describes mountains, rivers and fields, and every kind of activity: ‘you will yourself be both a spectator and a participant in great endeavours’ (et spectator et pars magna conantium, 18.7). But there will also be wars, poison, disasters, and suffering. We take the risk, as our parents took it in conceiving us. Time is an irrelevant dimension: all things human are perishable, specks in infinite time and space (21.2). Where Thetis had been preoccupied with the fated short duration of Achilles’s life, Seneca reminds Marcia that Metilius had lived as long as he needed to (vixit enim quantum debuit vivere, 21.4).  Like his exemplary forebears Achilles, Aeneas, and the historical Drusus, Metilius’s life was perfect, in the sense of complete.

Finally – and this is the hardest yet most essential thing for Marcia to accept – Metilius no longer needs her. The great finale sees Cordus welcoming his grandson to the celestial realm: ‘We are all together in one place’ (Coimus omnes in unum, 26.3). Seneca’s sublime ‘view from above,’ like a Roman funeral ritual, unites ancestors with descendants, in recognition of their virtue and of the enduring cycles of the cosmos. This joyous postlude lends closure to the severity of earlier imagery. As recently argued in the context of grief counselling, ‘Death may end a life, but not necessarily a relationship’ (Neimeyer 2013, quoted in through the Ad Marciam, Seneca works, adroitly and with love, to give Marcia the strength to reframe her relationship with Metilius.

Greg Sadler – Courage And Human Emotions

Many people associate the virtue of courage primarily with one emotion, namely fear.  The accounts of just what courage is do vary. Some people might think courage means either not feeling fear at all or repressing one’s fear to the degree that one doesn’t feel it. Others emphasize that the courageous person does feel fear, but finds a way to push through it, to act as one ought to, or as a dangerous or scary situation requires, despite feeling some measure of fear.  The ancient Stoics did think that courage bears upon the emotion of fear, and helps us properly understand and deal with our feelings, situations, and choices when that feeling of fear arises.

One of the aspects of Stoic ethics that I find particularly attractive is that each of the cardinal virtues – courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice – is treated as a complex disposition, ranging over a wide scope of characteristic matters.  Each of those four primary virtues gets analyzed into an entire set of subordinate virtues that are constituent parts or modalities of that main virtue.  Courage as a fully developed virtuous disposition, for example, involves a number of character traits.

Classical authors discussing this provide differing through complementary breakdowns of the sub-virtues of courage, and to keep this short, I’ll just mention a few of these that are especially relevant (if you’d like a full discussion of those, you can watch this session on courage). One of these is magnanimity or greatness of soul (megalopsukhia).  Another is perseverance or endurance (karteria). And another is industriousness, or more literally, love of labor (philoponia).

What do these have to do with adopting Stoic attitudes and responses toward fear and with other emotions that we feel, you might ask? Quite a bit, as it turns out. And before we briefly answer for each of these sub-virtues, we should also bring to mind something that Cicero tells us in On Duties book 1, specifically about courage and emotions.  Courage not only applies to fear, but also to excessive desire (cupiditas), pain or grief (aegritudo), excessive pleasure (voluptas) and to anger (iracundia). Each of these can be problematic and require the curb of courage.

Magnanimity can help us not worry or be fearful over things that don’t really matter that much, and to adopt productive viewpoints and decisions about things that, through it, we realize do matter. It can also thereby help us rise above these other emotional responses, to help put them, and what they suggest to us, into proper perspective, so that we aren’t led astray by strong desires or excessive enjoyments.

Endurance, which Arius Didymus characterizes as “knowledge ready to persist in what has been correctly decided,” proves very useful, and not just in dealing with matters, experiences, people, and situations that we may find provoke or produce fear in ourselves. It helps us stand up to the demands of desires, to continue on when we are feeling upset, to resist allowing frustrations or irritations to break through into full-blown anger.

I would argue that industriousness, characterized as “knowledge which is able to accomplish what is proposed, without being prevented by the toil” is required to keep working through what needs to be done. This involves not allowing oneself to be derailed by feelings of fear or desire, pleasure or pain, or even the various modalities of anger, that might arise within us.  It is what Marcus exemplifies and appeals to, without naming it as such, when he tells himself that rather than dozing in a nice warm bed, it is time to get up and face the tasks of the day like a human being.

There is another set of emotional responses the industriousness bears upon as well, that I expect all of us are familiar with.  Boredom with the tasks before us, distractedness that draws our attention away, unwillingness to stick with work and see it completely through – each of these is something that calls for us to apply industriousness to, and thereby choose and enact courage for ourselves and for those who might be affected by our failure to fulfill commitments we have made.

I’ll close on precisely that point. Being courageous sometimes does mean standing up to and dealing with one’s fears, but it can just as often – and just as much – involve resisting other emotions that stand in the way of getting our work accomplished.  Making the choice to bring one’s wandering attention back to the task at hand, persevering in tasks that might be boring or unpleasant but that do need doing – for Stoics those just as much represent courage as do instances of resisting fear.


Greg Lopez is the founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. He is also on the team for Modern Stoicism, and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci, with whom he co-authored A Handbook for New Stoics.

Judith Stove is a writer and researcher based in Sydney, Australia, author of two books on Jane Austen’s life and times. Her current research interests include classical virtue ethics and their later receptions, and women writers of the long eighteenth century. Judith spoke on ‘Women and Stoicism’ as part of Stoicon-X Australia 2020. Further information and a selection of Judith’s articles can be accessed here, and she may be emailed here.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

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