Stoicism: A Kinder, Gentler Model for Creativity by Kathryn Koromilas

When I saw Piotr Stankiewicz’s Does Happiness Write Blank Pages: On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity appear on my social media feed, I had a dramatic reaction: “No! Piotr, no. It is unhappiness that writes blank—very, very blank—pages.” I was, of course, talking about me (as a creative does—me, me, me). And, I was, of course, talking about my own creative block, my trying to write the pages of the next great novel, but writing nothing at all, coming up blank. In his foreword to Stankiewicz’s comprehensive, complex, and fascinating thesis, the late Lawrence C. Becker, states what we all know too well: “Seeking to write the Great American novel, usually leads to despair, not happiness.”

Me. In a nutshell. Only that—given my birthplace—I was seeking to write the Great Australian Novel. Not important.

What is important, is that I, like anyone whose rational faculties are still functioning, and who wants to live a good, happy, and productive life, turned to Stoicism. Just like Stankiewicz—who is a poet (Romantic, I bet) as well as a philosopher—I was utterly “captivated” by the promise of this “optimization project” (110) called Stoicism. I was completely captivated “by the grandiose ambitions of the Stoic ethics which promise freedom from fear and doubt” (xxii). And I desperately wanted to rid myself of the fear and doubt that had so clouded my creative pursuits. In banal terms, I had writers’ block. In other, more real terms, I was depressed. In short, I wanted Stoicism to fix me—bring me happiness—so that I could start writing again.

What was I thinking? Didn’t I know that happiness does not have a reputation for leading us towards artistic heights? And the Stoics? They are not known for their creative talents! But a blocked writer will do anything to fill those white pages.

Speaking of white pages, Stankiewicz adopts Henry de Montherlant’s famous “happiness writes in white ink on white pages” phrase “as a tagline for the commonplace intuition that a content life cannot produce meaningful works of art.” Where does this commonplace intuition come from? This is, of course, the Romantic model of creativity, which emerged in 18th century Europe and shifted the burden of creative responsibility from the “gods” to the individual. The Romantics, to bring in an encyclopaedic description from the Britannica Online, were preoccupied with “the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure” and were focused on “passions and inner struggles” and a “new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator” who shuns “formal rules and traditional procedures…”

With that sort of a worldview, no wonder misery has prevailed over happiness for the last 200 years of our creative history. But the art, the art! Genius. Disruptive. Groundbreaking. New. Original. Unique. Singular. Montherlant’s ‘happy white writing’ then suggests that happiness does none of the creative breaking of new ground; it does nothing at all.

I don’t know much about Montherlant’s life but according to his New York Times obituary he killed himself in 1972 after having “sometimes praised and always defended suicide as a noble gesture, or man’s right, and a thing much better than ‘facing the void of inactivity’.” That’s the ultimate choice for the Romantic—produce genius or die.

The Romantics praised action over inaction, passion over calm, emotion over reason, chaos over order. Quite the opposite of the Stoics, weren’t they! So, what has Stankiewicz concluded about Stoics and creativity? To be clear, when Stankiewicz talks “creativity,” he is talking about the Romantic model (after all this is the most persistent, lingering, beguiling model we’ve inherited). It is the model of creativity that Steiner called “the highest capacity that human beings possess” (xvii); the creativity that Elzenberg called “the highest, most perfect embodiment of the sense of life;” the creativity that Pope called “invention,” the “highest capacity of man, a near-divine attribute.” It is the type of creativity, with all due respect, that Marcus Aurelius “lacked…completely.” Namely, “artistic creativity.”

This is how Stankiewicz goes about his exploration into whether artistic creativity is compatible with Stoicism. He embarks on an “intellectual inquiry” and his methodology is a “step-by-step” (21) approach in which he identifies several themes normally associated with creative motivation and output and then proceeds to argue whether these themes (motivations/outputs) are consistent with Stoic philosophy and practice, that is, with a Stoic life.

The themes, or artistic motivations, considered are, in order of appearance: fame (26), profit (30), preservation (42), expression (50), cognition (62), revolution (70), axiology (84), autotherapy (89), and didacticism (97). More specifically, “fame” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to “gain the acknowledgment and praise of fellow human beings,” such as “being famous,” or being “bestowed with prestigious accolades or even the “silent admiration” of the masses (26). “Profit” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to gain a “financial reward,” which could be money, material goods, earthly profits, such as a physical paycheck for a written text or physical performance (30). “Preservation” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to express or “capture some specific fragment of the universe and preserve it (42),” such as writing the Great American Novel or being the “Voice of a Generation” (47). “Expression” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to express the individual self, the unique and singular self of the artist (50), to narrate the artistic self or, even, to create the artist’s self-identity through the creative act (51). “Cognition” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to gather knowledge of the world through the creative act (62). “Revolution” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to transform the world, to change it, say at the socio-political level (70) where art is produced to achieve an end, that is, where artistic creativity “focuses on bringing about a concrete social or political transformation” (85). “Axiology” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to “reshape the world” by adding value to it. Value is added by producing works of art that are valuable (not just beautiful) in themselves (85). “Autotherapy” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity “as a remedy to the personal experience of [the] meaninglessness of life (89) as in when Nietzsche says, in his The Birth of Tragedy, that at the point “when the will is in the highest danger, art approaches, as a saving, healing magician” (89).  Finally, “didacticism” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity as a “tool which serves to transmit and propagate knowledge, ideas, and wisdom” (97).

Of course, no creative artist’s motivations can be known in full, and most, surely, vacillate between one or more of these themes or even, at times, some themes appear most pronounced and urgent and, at other types, subdued, mixed, and hybrid. But, I certainly know what my motivations have been over the years and I’ve entertained almost all of the above. All, that is, apart from the “profit,” “didactic,” and “autotherapeutic” themes/motivations—I have always (until quite recently) vehemently eschewed these motivations. Speaking as the Romantic idealist—Art for money? No! Art for preaching? No! Art for self-obsessed, narcissistic, boring therapy? No!

Interestingly, though maybe not surprisingly, these “ordinary,” “mundane,” “non-Romantic” (107) creative motivations are the most consistently Stoic. Art for profit? Why, yes. Stankiewicz argues that, although Stoics train themselves in abstinence as a way of preparing themselves “for possible privations” they do not actually preach an ascetic lifestyle—that’s the “ascetic misinterpretation of Stoicism” (30). In fact, Stoics don’t reject monetary or other externals at all. Rather, they make wise use of them (39). Everything, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, can be “material for virtue, both rational and political” (39).

Art for didactic purposes? Yes. Stankiewicz (via Foucault and Hadot) argues that the Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius, adopted a “highly refined literary form” to record his thoughts and reflections. The form was meant to formulate rules for living with utmost precision to “ensure their psychological efficacy and persuasive force” (101). This, confirms Stankiewicz, is the “gist of the didactic theme” (101).

One of the most provocative teachings in Stoicism concerns our relationship with other human beings; a relationship which is often difficult and frustrating. As Stoics we are reminded that we are all made to live with each other. To this end, Marcus Aurelius tells himself (and us) to either teach our fellow humans or endure them. Literary excellence, then, is a way of communicating the rules of life with the most “striking maxims,” to quote Hadot, so that they can help us and our fellow humans when facing life’s difficulties.

Art as therapy? Maybe. Stankiewicz (via Foucault’s “The Care of the Self”) explores (in much more complexity than I can here) a “fundamental parallel” between autotherapeutic texts and Stoic texts (90). This is the common goal of “curing the hurting self.” In fact, the Stoic texts abound in medical metaphors: “put a scalpel to the wound; open an abscess; amputate and evacuate the superfluities” (90). That said, the Stoic remedy is a clear, consistent, philosophical path towards living the virtuous life but nowhere does the path include “living a creative life” (95).

The creative, autotherapeutic remedy is less philosophically consistent. For example, the Romantic creative could well desire a cure for their misery and thus produce great art, but then find that in order to continue producing great art, they must choose to continue suffering in actuality or even feign suffering. In On Anger, Seneca writes: “Often the pretense of passion will do what the passion itself could not have done.” 

Which brings me back to the relentless and unforgiving Romantic model of artistic creativity. Most of the motivations for creativity I’ve ever entertained have been Romantic motivations: I want to be a respected and admired novelist! I want to win that novel writing award! I want to write the Great Australian Novel! I want to be the Voice of my Generation! I want to write something vastly important and meaningful and valuable! I want to write my unique story!

A recipe for misery, indeed. Here is what Stankiewicz via the Stoics has concluded about these motivations.

First of all, my longing to be an admired and respected writer depends, obviously, on the minds, expectations, and reactions of others. If we know anything at all about Stoicism we all know about the dichotomy of control and how this simple maxim manages to clarify a whole lot of Romantic notions about the world and our central and unique place in it:

In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion; and in a word whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.

That’s Epictetus, and that’s the first thing he tells us, via Arrian, in his Handbook. Creating art, then, in order to win the good opinion of others is not consistent with Stoic philosophy and practice. Moreover, Seneca, quotes Stankiewicz, goes on to say that “praise is not a good” (28) and, worse, provokes us with this: “What can be more scandalous than a philosopher affecting popularity and applause.” Well, what can be more scandalous than a mediocre Australian writer trying to win popularity and applause…

That said, I often find that Stoicism oversimplifies things and that can be frustrating. Today, given our expanded reach—in terms of social, intellectual, and geo-mobility, individual choice, attainment of knowledge and skills—I feel that the dichotomy of control is less a dichotomy and more a continuum; but that might be my Romantic notions again. Take, for example, literary awards, competitions, and prizes. For the most part, these set clear and specific guidelines for what is a prizeworthy piece of work. Moreover, there are genres which clearly provide a model for what is acceptable and what is not. Given this level of transparency, don’t I have more control of the production of a work that might meet these guidelines and, therefore, be worthy of popularity, applause, and—why not—a literary award? What, then, does depend on me and what does not?

Moving on. What of my desire for posthumous fame; to be remembered after I’m gone, to make my living and my artistic pursuits somehow meaningful if they (and I via them) live on after my physical death. Again, not Stoic at all. “He who has vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon” (29). And to top all of that off we have Marcus Aurelius, in his infinitely melancholy tone (remember for a Romantic, melancholy is cool!), sounding not unlike Hamlet: “Where are they all now? Smoke and ash and a tale, or not even a tale. How many after being celebrated by fame have been given up to oblivion; and how many who have celebrated the fame of others have long been dead?” (43). It is thus inconsistent with Stoicism to write for posthumous fame. You just can’t depend on anyone to live long enough to remember you or to keep your books stocked on bookstore and library shelves.

Next. What does Stankiewicz and the Stoics say to my desire to write that Great Novel and to be heard as the Voice of My Generation? What of my desire to express my own uniqueness and singularity and thus be saved from oblivion? Un-Stoic! They say. It certainly seems quite plausible for me (for us) to wish to preserve something unique about a given moment in the world’s history—our own individual stories, “grand histories, objects and events of every kind, deeds, nations, religions, churches, cities” (42). Given the perishability (43) of beings and buildings and historical periods, it makes sense to want to keep a record of this. Marcus Aurelius, again, was obsessed by this: “Where are they all now?” (43).

But is artistic creativity which is focused on the preservation of unique, individual stories consistent with Stoic philosophy? The argument is complex, but in brief, no, says Stankiewicz. I think it goes like this. According to the Stoics, the universe is founded on the concept of the eternal return (44): “the universe we live in is just one instance in an infinite series of universes that have been coming one after another for an eternity to come.” So, although at the “local” or individual level, beings perish, “nothing ultimately disappears in the bigger picture” and nothing is ultimately forgotten. There is nothing new in the world (45). Everything is always the same (46). So, to expect to surprise with one’s unique little story and to deserve preservation or to be surprised by some unique work of art so much so that the work must be preserved because it is so surprising and unique and singular, is incoherent, “ridiculous” (48). In the Stoic universe, writes Stankiewicz, “there is no need for an artist to preserve anything. Everything preserves itself” (47). Ouch.

Fine. Next. What of my desire to write something meaningful, and important, and valuable? Not Stoic! Says, Stankiewicz. First of all, the notion of art as an axiological pursuit (a kind of ethico-aesthetic pursuit), a pursuit that adds “axia” or “value” to the world is preposterous! Now, this one is really hard for me to fathom. After all, I’m a Keats fangirl and have lived a lifetime chanting “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” and the purpose of Romantics such as Keats was to create such beauty and truth to add even more beauty and truth to the universe.

In the Stoic view, however, “the universe is by default excellent. It is intrinsically and absolutely perfect” (85) so no poet can add anything at all. You can’t add perfection to absolute perfection, even if you are Keats.  According to Epictetus, the universe is a “living being, rational, animate and intelligent” (85). If the world is perfect, writes Stankiewicz (again with much greater complexity and comprehensiveness than I can possibly relate here—I strongly recommend to everyone interested in how Stoicism can be applied consistently to our modern-day living and our modern-day angsts to purchase or borrow and read this book), then no artistic endeavour can possibly or necessarily make the world axiologically greater.

One argument after the other and the Romantic in me is deflated, defeated. Stankiewicz’s verdict is unequivocal: Stoicism and the Romantic model of creativity contradict each other. These two modes of life cannot go together. These two “great manifestations of the human spirit…cannot be embraced simultaneously.” The hard truth is that a “Romantic poet and a Stoic cannot be rolled into one” (108).

I must say (in fact, Stankiewicz says it for me) it is not without a “bit of sorrow” that we must come to this conclusion. So, if I aspire to Stoicism, I must give up on my Romantic creativity? This is quite a devastating defeat. Can’t we keep the Romantic divine and have Stoicism make us happy? Doesn’t Stoicism promise universality—that one can achieve virtue and, therefore, happiness under any circumstances? If the sage can be happy on the rack, if Sisyphus can be happy pushing up the same boulder for eternity, can’t I be happy as a miserable Romantic creative?

I have certainly seen the unhappy Romantic at work. I have met some of these human gods and watched them work, falling in love with them. Years later, as we talk more and more about mental health and creativity, I learn that the genius that I saw was also the paranoid schizophrenia of the one boy and the bipolar disorder of the other. On the Romantic view, the paranoia of the schizophrenic can write some genius dialogue. On the Romantic view the mania of the bipolar can produce some genius music. Both boys have since sought treatment to produce good, consistent work—it’s not all white lines on white pages—but also rejected treatment to descend into misery again only to be saved again.

Theirs was not the Stoic cure—Stoicism, Stankiewicz quotes from Becker, may not be able to bring happiness to all psychological conditions—there are exceptions to Stoic universality. In fact, some agents—creative agents with compulsive, obsessive, or addictive personalities—may logically reject the promise of Stoicism. Stoicism is not for everyone. Stankiewicz concludes that the human spirit will never fit into the one “narrow logic of any particular expression.” Thus, some of us will become Stoics, some of us may become Romantic artists. Some, like me, might spend a lifetime coveting the Romantic model, but ultimately coming to terms with the fact that she is much more suited to the Stoic way.

The Stoic way is a kinder, more gentle way of doing creativity and of living creatively. That sounds odd, to be sure, for Stoics have been charged with being inhumane, insensitive, and cold-blooded. I’ve said that myself. But you may have noticed that beyond the strict guidelines of conservative Stoic practice, there is something happening in the world of creative thinking and Stoicism might well have a role to play. Stankiewicz has certainly invited the Stoics to the discussion.

One contribution that comes to mind is Elizabeth Gilbert’s discussion of creativity in her book, Big Magic, which shifts away from the Romantic model of creativity in favour of an older, clearly classical model, with some very clear, though not consistent, Stoic notes. The subtitle for her book “Creative Living Beyond Fear” suggests that it could quite well be read as the pop companion to Stankiewicz’s theoretical treatise. After all, Stankiewicz’s personal commitment to this exploration, like Gilbert’s (and like mine) stems from wanting to live creatively without the fear and doubt (and misery) we’ve inherited from the Romantics. Stoicism can, if nothing else, treat this.

Stankiewicz in no way suggests a superficial or dishonest appropriation of Stoicism, but certainly suggests that as modern Stoics we must be “far more flexible than [our] ancient counterpart[s].” The Stoic creative “must be less of a fixed and immutable rock, which antiquity used to praise, and more of a malleable, self-aware, and self-conscious person which is capable of defining and re-defining herself.” If the Romantic is to happily transform into a Stoic, she will keep her “capacity and right to narrate a new story about herself…to change her identity if necessary…to shape her own evolution” (112).

I can live, and create, with that.

Kathryn Koromilas is a writer who leads the Stoic Writing Scene and The Stoic Writer, and participated in Stoic Week 2018. You can read her stories and find out more about her work at her website.

2 thoughts on Stoicism: A Kinder, Gentler Model for Creativity by Kathryn Koromilas

  1. Kim Wade says:

    I enjoyed this article. Life is balance. Romanticism and Stoicism are like two sides of a coin. Being like the coin with both characteristics, it’s about finding understanding and balance.

  2. Rich.Rich says:

    “That sounds odd, to be sure, for Stoics have been charged with being inhumane, insensitive, and cold-blooded.”
    Anyone who ever charge Stoicism as being such hasn’t really studied it sufficiently. Being cheerful is a preferred state for Stoics.

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