Are Stoics Ascetics?
by Piotr Stankiewicz
A few days ago I befriended an intelligent young woman on Facebook. We first met following the recent publication of my book on Stoicism, so in her view I was “a practicing Stoic,” “a Stoic evangelist,” or at least a representative of the Stoic way of life. It was telling that she found it surprising that I was on Facebook in the first place. She was also confused that my wall was not a potpourri of inspirational quotes, fancy fonts and pictures of stacked rocks. Why was that? That friend of mine has fallen prey to a common misunderstanding of Stoicism, one which I will call the ascetic misinterpretation.
It is no wonder that this misinterpretation is there. It’s a price tag for being around for 2000 years: persisting and deceptive stereotypes about Stoicism have accumulated over time and now we have to deal with them. Also, neither our ancient “Founding Fathers” nor the folks that foster interest in Stoicism these days have done all that’s possible to nail down and avoid the ascetic misinterpretation. Of course, we should condemn no one for caving in to it, since this misreading has became quite a commonplace (I myself had to go through quite an intellectual struggle before I myself overcame the false barrier of seeing Stoicism in this light). Yet, it is my understanding that it is our duty to right this false reading.
The gist of the ascetic misinterpretation is simple: Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life. A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence. Stoicism is sometimes accompanied with a hermit’s tinge, i.e. an assumption that the Stoic way of life entails some degree of reclusiveness and detachment from society (or at least from Facebook). Furthermore, it is often followed by an expectation that Stoicism offers a clichéd cure for the “craziness” of modern life: that only a tranquil abode of a withdrawn and simple life constitutes a proper remedy for the dynamic, vibrant and perpetually chanding contemporary world.
But it is not so. Stoicism is not asceticism and a Stoic is not a monk. In fact, it is the school of the pale Epicureans that is closer to the ideal of abstemiousness. The Stoic proposal is far broader and it extends far beyond the narrow passage of the ascetic way. The history of transmission of Stoic ideas, the piercing lack of many ancient sources and some intricacies of the doctrine account for the popularity of the ascetic misinterpretation. And yet, the time has come to disavow it.
Generally speaking, Stoicism doesn’t constrain us to a single, ascetic path. Stoicism is rather about redressing balance and boosting these aspects of human experience which are underrepresented in a given place and time (to paraphrase Henry Elzenberg’s words). Speaking metaphysically, we, the Stoics, reject transcendence. We assent that the only actual realm of existence is the earthly, material world of common experience. Thus, our human destiny and duty is to thrive in this world, in the circumstances and conditions we actually find ourselves in. Escape is not an option. Mentally and spiritually we must be here, we mustn’t retire to daydreaming, prayer, mysticism or thoughts about afterlife. We must face the lushness, diversity and – yes! – sensuality of life and we have to live and thrive inside this world, accepting it as it is. Unlike a monk, a Stoic doesn’t dodge the myriad of different aspects of the earthly and sensual life.
Perhaps the most essential argument for this is the following. Stoic ethics isn’t about separating good elements of the world from the evil ones and then embracing the former while forgoing the latter. No. It’s quite the contrary: for us, there is no good or evil outside the moral realm. All physical objects, all external conditions and all outside events are absolutely neutral. They are neither good nor bad. This includes all the things that an ascetic vows to renounce: wealth, sensual pleasures and all worldly well-being. None of these are intrinsically bad things. They are just raw material which human actions transform into good or evil output. Thus, when it comes to things and events that the earthly life presents us with, we may say that the Stoic solution is not to withdraw from them, but rather to wisely use them.
At this point our Stoic pantheism kicks in: we don’t worship any transcendent, supernatural God or gods. Instead, we are focused on this world: natural, self-evident and accessible to everyone in the everyday experience. We don’t worship the “natural world” in any religious sense, but we do respect it in the sense that we don’t a priori discard any aspect of the world (the way the ascetics do). We intend our ethics to apply to all realms and walks of life, not just to some selected subset. Our ethics can be put to good use by a secluded hermit and by the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There is no necessity to restrict ourselves to the former option. All possible circumstances are eligible conditions for Stoic ethics.
These points don’t exhaust all that I have to say against the ascetic misinterpretation. Yet, I hope they provide an outline of my anti-ascetic stance. For the record, I’m tempted to mention, as a closing argument, that the ancient Stoics themselves provided a wide array of explicit suggestions that they didn’t have any harsh ascetism in mind. As Seneca put it “I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet” (On the Happy Life, XXV.2).
A beard doesn’t constitute a philosopher, they used to say in antiquity. Today, we can append it with this: a simple life doesn’t constitute a Stoic. Living a quiet, frugal life, withdrawn from sensual fulfilment and disengaged from the political turmoil of our time is a variable totally independent from living stoically. They are like two circles which can but don’t have to intersect. The crucial paradox of Stoicism, that there is no good or bad except for moral actions, should serve as a reminder that Stoic ethics is all about agency, agency, agency, and not about the outward circumstances in which agency is exercised. The circumstances are beyond our control and the only thing we can – and should – control is how we approach these circumstances. And there is no necessary reason to actively make them tougher on us. We boast that our ethics works well always and for everyone: for a rockstar just as well as for a scrawny anchorite.
Thus, I assured my friend that there is no need for me to cancel my Facebook account. Marcus Aurelius says that “it is possible to live in a palace, [so] it is also possible to live well in a palace” (Meditations, V.16). Accordingly, it is also possible to live well with and on Facebook. We, the new Stoics, are bound to no fetish (like an emotionless look on the face, or ritual disdain for social media) and we also know no bound for our virtue to let us thrive. We can live a plethora of different lives and we will be able to live them well and fruitfully. A withdrawn, ascetic life is a perfectly viable and legitimate option, but it isn’t any more necessary or required for us than a life of a soldier, vagrant preacher, journalist, entrepreneur, civil servant or philosophy teacher. This is, and always has been, the utter Stoic premise and promise: to be able to live well and happily no matter what circumstances and walk of life the fate puts us in. And this is the credo we intend to live up to, the credo we mean to promote, the credo we will carry on into the new millennium of the Stoic thought.
About the author:
Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a philosopher from Warsaw, Poland. Author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”); he currently works on making his two books on Stoicism available in English. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com
Author’s note: this post is a very brief presentation of the issue. A more detailed discussion of the ascetic misinterpretation of Stoicism, along with the discussion of conservative misinterpretation [equally important in my view] will be found in my two Stoic books, hopefully forthcoming soon.