Who comes to mind when you think of your Stoic role models? How many of them are contemporaries? How diverse are those role models? Would you say the people you draw inspiration and wisdom from is cosmopolitan? Or is it fairly uniform, and perhaps, made only of marble?
The role models we look towards to help shape our Stoic practice are incredibly influential. In How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci writes
Observing and imitating role models, then, is one powerful way to work on our own virtue. We do something like this in modern societies as well, whenever we hold up public figures to our younger generations”Pigluicci, p. 132
The names Pigliucci does offer are those who have lived through incredible circumstances: a fighter jet being shot down over North Vietnam, imprisonment in apartheid South Africa, and practicing feminism under an oppressive and violent regime (Stockdale, Mandela, and Yousafzai, respectively). While the individual character of these individuals shows us exemplars of virtue, I find it hard to access the violent contexts that highlighted these individuals. Similarly, I doubt I will soon be in a situation where I will need to comfortably gut myself ala-Cato.
So where should turn to for perhaps less ennobled but no-less wise examples? In a critique of contemporary celebrity culture, Pigliucci rightly observes:
We glorify actors, singers, athletes, and generic ‘celebrities,’ only to be disappointed when—predictably—it turns out that their excellence a reciting, signing, playing basketball, or racking up Facebook likes and Twitter followers has pretty much nothing to do with their moral fiber.Pigluicci, p. 132
However, by removing all celebrity, we falsely generalize all people who are celebrities as lacking moral fiber. We need not limit whom we can look to based off their quantity of Twitter followers. Instead, when celebrities do demonstrate moral fiber, we should pay attention and consider their character before we assenting to the view that pop-culture is necessarily a vacant space for philosophy.
While not closing off the incredibly powerful examples of our contemporary Catos in Stockdale and Youafzai, I think that we can also include in our role models those who represent Stoic living as can be found in the less-overtly violent, and arguably more accessible world of popular culture.
In agreement with Pigliucci that generic celebrity should not be glorified, or character measured by the amount of social media likes, I will however depart from the unstated belief that pop-culture is vacant when it comes to finding philosophers and Stoic wisdom.
Instead, I want to pivot away from depending on the level of the Stoic sage (Socrates) as the only one to whom we can turn for a living example. Sagehood is helpful for creating an ideal that we can strive for in our continued growth as Stoic practitioners, however if our eyes are always locked onto the image of someone possibly mythical and always unattainable, our ears and eyes may miss out on the Stoic wisdom that can be found in our non-mythic present.
I’ve selected for the focus of this essay the Stoic wisdom of Ru Paul Charles for three important reasons.
- One, he offers a novel take on Stoic wisdom that I think can offer helpful inroads to understanding contemporary Stoic practice as its articulated by a contemporary personality
- Two, as a person who is also queer, a person of color, and a drag queen, I believe his perspective adds much to our understanding of cosmopolitanism and Stoicism’s charge to treat everyone with dignity.
- Third, I would like to take part in efforts to update Stoicism by [challenging] the classical canon’s naturalistic and homophobic arguments that fail to consider non-reproductive variations on sexuality as part of our shared humanity.
Additionally, as an addendum my third point, I hope to raise some flags (rainbow flags to be specific) to the possibility that contemporary Stoicism should re-center its practice on cosmopolitanism and move away from discourses of manliness and emperors as our exemplars. As I hope to show you, a Drag Queen can teach us much about what it really means to be a “man” and act with courage, and, more importantly, how to be a good person.
I. Who do you think you are? Ru Paul & Epictetus Discuss Identity
In one of Ru Paul’s more famous songs, Born Naked, the chorus intones the following lines:
Who do you think you are?
I’m telling the truth now
We’re all born naked
and the rest is drag.
Inherent in this quote is an essential understanding of our shared humanness. What drag is covered by “the rest” includes, broadly, every type of identifier that people tend to thrust upon themselves but which are ultimately constructed identities. That is, we are all humans and every label after that is drag—our nationalities, sexual, racial, and occupational identities, as well as the often implied class distinctions intertwined within those descriptors. Do these identities exist? Yes, but what Ru Paul is saying in this song is that most of our identities are socially, culturally and historically created. What we are most concretely are humans. It follows that if we all share this common, concrete humanity, the constructed identities that follow, i.e., our drag, impede us from connecting with one another and recognizing that we are all brothers and sisters in a cosmic, yet tangible level.
When I recently read Epictetus, I couldn’t help but hear Ru Paul’s song in the back of mind. Take Epictetus’s observation in Discourses, 1:29:
The time will soon be coming when the actors think that their masks, and high boots, and robes are their very selves. […] If one deprives a tragic actor of his high boots and mask, and brings him on the stage like a ghost, has the actor disappeared or does he remain? If he has his voice, he remains
Here, we see Epictetus stripping down the actor to her most essential: the human voice. When read alongside Ru Paul, we can see how Epictetus’s lesson of the actor can be read simultaneously as metaphor, in addition to its more obvious observations on materialism. In other words, our identities are not are material appearances (boots and robes) nor are our identities the figurative masks we wear; who we really are is most visible in our voice—what we say and don’t say—as our actions do really speak volumes.
Ru Paul, who might as well be responding to Epictetus, mentions in a YouTube video
I think there are really just two types of people on the planet: people who understand that this is a play we’re doing, and that the characters we play are really not real; and then there are people who think that the characters that they play, or what it says on their driver’s license, is who they are—which we know, is not really true.
Where Ru Paul leaves off, and where Epictetus continues, is that we spend our time not building identities but in doing good; he tells us to “take off your senatorial robe, dress in rags, and step forward” and do whatever we are doing the best that we can (1:29, 45).
What all of this discussion on clothes, appearances, material and immaterial presentation offers practicing Stoics is an inroad to embracing our cosmopolitism. If we recognize that our outward material appearance, even “the name on our drivers license” is not who we are, it can help us realize the same in others. In sum: just as our materials and names do not make us who we are, the names and materials (or lack of) do not make our neighbors who they are. If we can recognize the truth that we are all common relative to each other, that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag, we can avoid assenting to our judgments about others, and in doing so, be one step closer towards embracing each other as brothers and sisters.
II. Ru Paul, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero Walk Into a Bar: On True Wealth
In her 2014 book, Workin’ it!, Ru Paul observes:
true wealth is having the knowledge to maneuver and navigate the mental obstacles that inhibit your ability to soar.
Within these words there are several elements that connect to Stoic practice, specifically the key virtue of wisdom. In Ru’s definition, for us to acquire wealth we must achieve what is commonly called praxis: the ways in which theory is realized through actions. Knowledge functions as theory but is realized through our “maneuvers” and “navigation.” The actions we perform, maneuvering and navigating through life, help us overcome our obstacles so that we may soar as intended.
An immediate connection from Ru Paul’s comment on wealth as knowing what to do with obstacles calls forth Marcus Aurelius’s oft-quoted “an obstacle on its path helps it on its way” (5:20). However, just prior to this famous meditation, the Emperor Marcus observes of those obstacles:
these may hinder one or other of my actions, but they are not hindrances to my impulses or my disposition, because I have the power to act with reservation and turn circumstances to my own advantage.Meditations, 5:20
What Marcus Aurelius describes is Ru Paul’s notion of wealth; wisdom is demonstrated as one recognizes the knowledge that they have the agency to act despite mental and physical barriers that appear to obstruct us on our way. What Ru Paul adds to our understanding of the obstacle is the way mentality is that its cultivation offers us the only true sense wealth we will ever know. In short, true wealth is practicing Stoic wisdom.
True wealth is also addressed in Cicero’s Paradoxa Stoicorum, notably paradox six, titled “The Wise Man Alone Is Rich.” When considering not how to define wealth, but how to evaluate one’s richness, Cicero compels us to recognize that “It is your own mind, and not the talk of others, nor your possessions, that must pronounce you to be rich […]” (Paradox VI).
Here we see the perspectives brought forth thus far (that wealth is the praxis of our knowledge and action to navigate our obstacles) as a type of richness that equates to wisdom. The wise person uses her agency to declare herself as rich independent of her possessions or the words of others. She is rich according to her own mind. From that mind we exercise our knowledge in relation to obstacles, whether they be maneuvered around, navigated through, or turned into an advantage.
These three authors, one a proclaimed Stoic, one a quasi-Stoic, and one a Drag Queen, all offer perspectives on the greatest immaterial wealth we have: our rational minds, aka, our “ruling center.” Our ration can help us remain level-headed, can help us recognize our agency, and ultimately can help us soar. It is these qualities that make us truly wealthy and guide us in the pursuit of wisdom.
III. Making Room for Queerness: An Update to Contemporary Stoicism
I have placed Ru Paul in conversation with three key writers from the Roman Stoa, in part because of my familiarity with Classical Rome over Greece, in an attempt to call attention to some of our canonical figures’ more problematic notions of cosmopolitanism. Namely, the fact that the ancients had a different notion of sexuality compared to how we think of it, and tended to view sex, and sexual orientation, in terms of acts that were “manly” and those that were not.
What I want to avoid is discussing Stoic sex (that is perhaps another essay) and instead raise some important issues about context; just as slavery in the canon is present and problematic, so is Stoicism’s sometimes subtle, often overt, fear of queerness present and problematic. When we glorify the Romans, Emperor Marcus Aurelias in particular, we tend to be forgiving of his writings as emblematic of his socio-cultural historic context. However, we should read Marcus and others with their context as we examine our own. If we do not return to what we are forgiving, we fail to update the philosophy for our contemporary moment and perhaps miss out on opportunities to practice courage by confronting the problems inherent in our own socio-cultural historic moment. What we ought to privilege is the caretaking of the philosophy, not the memories of the individuals whom we find ourselves quoting.
The words “no results found” is a frequent finding on Stoic blogs when I search for “gay,” “queer” or “LGBT”. In the searches I have done, gay representations are usually in reference to therapeutic connections (e.g., Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)), somewhat reinforcing archaic arguments that, for gay people, our queerness is something to be medicalized and treated as opposed to accepted as part of the natural human condition. However, in an online symposium published out here in Stoicism Today, focused on “Stoicism and Women”, Andi Sciacca wisely answers if Stoicism can hold value for women by saying that it “Holds value for people—and women are people.” I would say the same applies to us queer folk.
In that spirit, I have deliberately placed a drag queen in conversation with classical Stoic philosophers for the purpose of making some of you potentially uncomfortable. Ideally, you can recognize that your discomfort is somewhat intertwined with your own cultural-socio historically based aversion to same-sex desire. (Likewise, you ought to then recognize that such a fear is therefore not rationally based…) We can understand Stoic philosophy when we include in our cosmopolis our queer brothers and sisters—and not as a secondary class of others—but as equals and family with perspectives that can sharpen our world-view. And yes, should the question ever be asked while walking under the modern Stoa, I believe with Sciacca that Stoicism can help people, and would add that it can help people who also happen to be queer as they navigate the complexities of queer life and flourish in that life.
To appreciate the justice we claim to seek, we must reckon with the heteronormative and downright offensive language in our prided classical texts. For example, Marcus Aurelias often bemoans “catamites,” aka, those who have (mostly receptive) anal sex, as unnatural beasts (Book 4, among others). Likewise, Epictetus often takes similar naturalist arguments to reinforce the notion that procreation (and thus heteronormativity) is ideal, and in doing so, does not recognize that same-sex desire also falls under the natural order, as it has always been a part of the human condition in the same way the human condition is composed of a variety of skin tones and eye colors.
As a person who identifies as gay and practices Stoicism, I have to wrestle with the fact that on one hand, I value the wisdom offered by Stoicism while on the other hand I often have to read those bits of wisdom against the background of a masculine, misogynist antique culture. As we continue to study and practice Stoicism in our current moment, I hope that we do not evangelize the past as an ideal, but read with critical minds the words of our teachers and show courage when we challenge some of the taken-for-granted wisdom in what they teach. If drag queens can teach us anything, it is that what’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.
List of Sources
Aurelius, M. (2011). Meditations. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.
Cicero, M. T. (2014). Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Vol. 23). Delphi Classics.
Epictetus (2014). Discourses, fragments, handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.
Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a stoic: Using ancient philosophy to live a modern life. Hachette UK.
RuPaul. (2014). Workin’It!: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style. HarperCollins e-Books.
RuPaul’s Let The Music Play—Born Naked Featuring Clairy Browne. (2014, October 14). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-Wjho9DBh0
Craig Moreau is a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University where he studies language and innovation. His non-academic work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Electric Literature, and Lambda Literary, among others. You can view his publications at www.CraigTheWriter.com.