Women And Stoicism (part 3)

Earlier this year, we published two posts containing excellent invited entries in an online symposium, focused specifically on the issue of “women and Stoicism”. The next three contributions by Liz Gloyn, Debbie Joffe Ellis, and Andi Sciacca bring that online symposium to a close, but leave some important issues still open for discussion. (Comments are welcome, and a great way of adding to the conversation, but do make sure to give the Comments Policy a read).

The general question to which all of the forum contributors responded to was: “Is Stoicism something equally useful for men and women?” In my call for contributions, I suggested a set of more specific questions that the authors might consider addressing, which included:

  • Does Stoicism seem to appeal to men more than to women in the present?  If so, why?
  • Are there challenges women face that Stoicism would be particularly apt or helpful with?
  • Does modern Stoicism have a “women problem”, in any sense one would like to give that term?
  • What should we make of the emphasis upon traditional gender roles of some of the Stoic authors (e.g. Epictetus or Seneca)?
  • Can one be equally a feminist and a Stoic?  Are there important tensions that have to be addressed?
  • what should we make of the use of Stoic authors and texts to promote misogynist “red-pill” movements and attitudes (sometimes called “broicism”)?

Here are the final three entries!

Liz Gloyn

One frequent challenge to the applicability of Stoicism in the modern world is that Stoicism is inherently misogynistic. Seneca, for instances, talks disparagingly about “womanly” grief and other “womanly” behaviour (e.g. Consolation to Helvia 3.2, Consolation to Polybius 6, On Constancy 19.2); this is taken as evidence that he devalues women and that we should be deeply sceptical of the philosophy he espouses. Yet we must remember that he belongs to a culture which uses certain gendered words in a derogatory way. His adherence to social convention doesn’t mean he consciously agrees with this linguistically embedded sexism.

Compare the modern insult “you throw like a girl”. While Anglo-American society is becoming aware of the sexist implications of this statement, someone who uses this idiom is not irredeemably sexist. However, conscious-raising conversations around the use of language were not happening in first century AD Rome. Modern Stoics thus need to balance historical awareness of sexism embedded in the Latin language with the potential of the ideas Seneca uses it to explore.

This is especially clear in his Consolation to Helvia. This fascinating piece of writing has received little attention; I can’t help wondering if its marginalisation is related to its addressee – Seneca is not only writing to a woman, but to his own mother. He writes between 41 and 49 A.D. from his exile on Corsica, and seeks to comfort Helvia for his own absence – an undertaking he admits is probably unique in the genre of consolations, usually written to console someone on the death of a close relative (1.2). This text not only shows us that Stoicism is just as useful for women as it is for men; it makes it clear that this idea originates from the ancient Stoics themselves, even if they did not follow through its implications to their logical conclusions.

The most striking thing about the Consolation is how that Seneca presents Helvia as an intellectual equal. As he imagines what she misses in his absence, he focuses on their shared intellectual life (15.1):

So now I lack the embrace of my dearest son; I cannot enjoy his presence or his conversation. Where is he? The sight of him cheered up my sad face, I entrusted all my worries to him. Where are the conversations, of which I could never get enough? Where are the studies, which I entered into more gladly than a woman, on more intimate terms than a mother? Where is he, coming to meet me? Where is that always boyish joy at seeing his mother?

Helvia refers to a joint pursuit of philosophical study which is intertwined with her maternal affection for her missing son; her longing for her intellectual peer and her son are almost inseparable. That said, the comment that she enters into her studies “more gladly than a woman” is precisely the kind of thing taken to prove Stoicism’s inherent misogyny. Yet within the Consolation, he critiques women who do not put philosophy at the centre of their lives, and thus fall into moral traps which Helvia avoids (16.1-5); this mirrors the scathing disapproval he offers of men who do not prioritise philosophical living and thus waste their time with things which won’t bring them happiness elsewhere in his writing. We must thus read this particular comment as part of Seneca’s broader didactic programme rather than as a specific indictment of women.

The supposed disjointedness of the text has often struck readers – after beginning with an address to Helvia outlining his reasons for writing, Seneca undertakes what appears to be a long digression on Stoic ideas about exile before devoting the last third of the consolation to practical advice on how Helvia might comfort herself. A common reaction is that the more theoretical section on exile has been designed for the wider readership of the consolation, not Helvia herself – but this reading rests on the assumption that Helvia would not have been interested in philosophical texts! As Seneca makes clear, Helvia has been his companion in his studies, and he urges her to go back to them (17.4-5):

The foundations of all disciplines are in place – now return to them: they will keep you safe. They will console you, they will please you; if they come into your mind in good faith, grief will never enter there again, and nor will anxiety or the unnecessary bother of pointless suffering.

Seneca sees no conflict in advising Helvia to seek respite in the presence of her children and grandchildren at the same time as continuing her philosophical education. The only tension between family life and Stoicism is Seneca’s father’s reluctance to allow his wife to pursue her studies in any depth (17.4), which Seneca now rejects. Philosophy has the potential to serve a meaningful role in Helvia’s life, and Seneca thinks she is fully capable of taking advantage of all that it has to offer.

Despite his use of language which reflects the embedded sexism of his time, Seneca sees Stoicism as having real value for Helvia. Yes, she is framed as an outstanding woman – but Seneca frames his male addressees who pursue philosophy in a similar way, for instance calling his father-in-law Paulinus a racehorse in comparison to pack-donkeys (On The Shortness of Life 18.4). What makes Helvia exceptional is not that she has overcome her gender, but that she has understood the importance of pursuing her Stoic studies, a challenge which requires people of any gender to discard socially inculcated values concerning what truly matters in life. 

Debbie Joffe Ellis

Many people may consider Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) to be a form of Neo-Stoicism combined with therapeutic techniques, with a manner of vigorous encouragement that is imbued with humanistic elements and saturated with acceptance and compassion for individuals, others, and life itself.

Its creator, my late husband, Albert Ellis PhD created REBT in the 1950s, and changed the world of psychotherapy. In his writings, and in the lectures and workshops he and we presented, we regularly credited Stoicism and the writings of the Stoic Philosophers as having inspired certain elements of his approach. This brief piece will speak of REBT’s views about issues pertaining to women. The other contributors to this forum on Women and Stoicism have written specifically on Stoic views, and I will be focusing here simply on the REBT views.

REBT’s assertions and recommendations about dealing with disturbed emotions, and its ‘how-to’s’ of experiencing more joy than misery in life, appears to appeal to both men and women equally. Gender doesn’t have a monopoly on the human tendency to think in both rational and irrational ways, and to make choices about which we will adopt. REBT reminds us that each person is responsible for creating his or her emotional destiny. REBT incorporates the Stoic stance that it is not an event or the behavior of other people that creates our emotional response, but our attitude or ‘perception-of’ the event or the words/actions of others, that creates the consequential emotions.

One of the profound gifts of REBT is that it clearly and precisely distinguishes between the healthy and unhealthy negative emotions (negative here implying unpleasant but NOT bad) and the techniques and tools for creating the healthy ones. It asserts that we create the unhealthy negative emotions when we think in irrational ways which include harboring demands, blowing things out of perspective, having low frustration tolerance and damning ourselves, others and life itself when things don’t go the way we think they should. The unhealthy negative emotions include anxiety, panic, depression, rage, shame and guilt.

Conversely REBT reminds us that when we think in rational ways when an adverse or unwanted event happens, we create the healthy negative emotions, which include concern, sadness, grief, disappointment, healthy anger, and regret. The elements of rational thinking include having preferences, refraining from stereotyping and overgeneralizing and thinking in absolutistic ways, having a sense of humor and keeping things in healthy perspective, having high frustration tolerance, and very importantly – adopting attitudes of unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other acceptance and unconditional life acceptance.

Both women and men have equal capacity to harness their awareness, to think about their thinking, and to choose to think in healthy and life-enhancing ways in order to enjoy life more and suffer less.

In terms of issues that women face and that men do not – inequality would be high on the list when it comes to work role opportunities and pay. Though some improvements have been seen in recent decades in some countries, they are hardly sufficient.

In the case of a woman facing inequality in the work place, or in any other place for that matter, REBT certainly would encourage her to seek out and take any actions that she could take in order to receive equal conditions and payments. However REBT would encourage her to do so from a place of healthy emotion. If she comes from an unhealthy and self-defeating place of rage for example – she may make the situation worse for herself.

To prevent this, telling herself rational wisdom such as:

  • I can stand what I don’t like, I just don’t like it.
  • Life is often unfair and is often unjust, however I can make effort to create change while focusing on what still is good in my life.
  • No one can make me miserable without my consent, and I choose to do what I can about this situation, while accepting the reality that it is as it is at present – without liking it, and to empower myself by creating steady emotions through clear thinking.
  • Much civil change for the better has taken a long while to establish, and with persistence, and by refusing to catastrophize, I can continue to do my best to create healthy changes in my life, my society, my world.

REBT can be considered feminist in nature. From its get-go in the late 1940’s, Albert Ellis fought strongly for equal rights for women, and also for gay people, for people of every gender choice, for civil liberties, for an end to censorship, for the legality of inter-racial relationships – and more. Interested readers can learn more about his activities through reading All Out! – An Autobiography and/or some or many of his many other published books and articles.

Albert Ellis was vigorous and persistent in writing about and talking about the need for equality in ALL ways for women, including in the bedroom. He was part of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and beyond, and educated women and men about the ways to pleasure a woman, about female orgasm, about relationship health and well-being, and about related topics that were not widely talked about at that time.

If he were around now, as he did all of his working life, he would loudly and passionately oppose the right of anyone other than a woman herself to make a decision about abortion.

Many women in this day and age who are part of religions or cultures, in which they are treated in second class ways, may choose to rebel and leave them, but many do not want to leave for a variety of reasons – despite any misery, anxiety or depression they may be experiencing. REBT would educate them that if they choose to remain in the relationships or family situations in which they are not treated as equal citizens – that they could nonetheless choose to empower themselves internally by mindfully accepting their situations, without liking them, and to find and focus-on elements of their lives for which they can be grateful – despite and including the injustices they may face. It would not be appropriate for an REBT therapist to instruct them to leave a situation, unless their lives were in danger, but the therapist can help them to feel like survivors and victors and NOT victims – despite their circumstances.

In this strange and unique day and age, when it seems like many things old are new again – not only for women, but also for men (and I am not referring to the good things!), it is vital that people who want to experience greater joy in life and less misery, make the effort to think in rational ways, thereby experiencing healthy emotions – despite and including any rotten circumstances. Then the actions we take may have a better chance of creating greater harmony locally and globally. In the profound words of Albert Ellis – let’s ‘push our arses’ to achieve more of that!

Andi Sciacca

When I was first asked the question “Does Stoicism hold value for women?” my reply was immediate–and then I realized that my response could make me appear to be a bit tone deaf, out of touch, or even disloyal to my sex. In the context of recent indictments of Stoicism as an oppressively anti-woman philosophy, I do believe that yes, even in this age of #metoo #timesup #thefutureisfemale #believewomen #keepyourlawsoffmybody politics, the answer to whether or not Stoicism (especially Modern Stoicism) holds value for women is simply, “Of course it does. Modern Stoicism holds value for people–and women are people–so, yes–Modern Stoicism holds value for women. Obviously.”  

But that got me thinking–is it so obvious? Is the value of Modern Stoicism actually as accessible to others as it seems to me? And, perhaps the better question might be this: Does it serve us in any way to try to identify whether or not ways of thinking / being in the world are best viewed through a lens that is, itself, far too complicated to be distilled into a simple category? Meaning this: Isn’t the only question I can really answer–honestly, effectively, with any kind of integrity or authority–whether or not Modern Stoicism has any value for *this* woman / person / me?

With that in mind, I do want to say, unequivocally, a few things.  

First, that I am not reducing this important conversation to a relativist position–nor am I falling back on the highly restrictive (and not particularly useful) framework of identity politics.

Second, while I am not sure that a truly useful, definitive answer exists, I do think there is great merit in asking the question.

And third, I am not automatically taking a contrary response to (nor dismissing) anyone who thinks or feels differently than I do. There are numerous excellent posts and articles on this issue–some occurring in this very post and in the post that preceded it earlier this year. However, there are other people writing with a self-proclaimed authority on the issue that are really, really getting it wrong.

That said, you might be wondering what I might know about or have to say about this issue–or why I am making these claims. For starters, I am confident that Modern Stoicism has value for women because it is an opinion born from my experience. In my conversations with my philosopher-husband, in my work with our local chapter of The Stoic Fellowship, in my participation in ongoing discussions with other members of the Modern Stoic community, and, in my own personal course of study, at no point have I ever felt that there was a disconnect between my ability to access the value of the community as a biological woman and the ability of any other person to access that same value.

However, when I review the regularly occurring commentary on the Facebook groups–or get sent copies of the (seemingly endless) Petersonesque blogs about #broculture obsessions with Modern Stoicism and red pill / blue pill arguments that seems to consistently posit Modern Stoicism as just one more weapon in an arsenal of alt-right hyper-masculinity, I am definitely in the minority (at least among those taking the time to post / argue / respond). It would seem that my experiences with Modern Stoicism and the Modern Stoic community are very different than those of at least some of my contemporaries, colleagues, and peers.

Are there people are using the Modern Stoic ideas and ideals to secure their own positions in a Masters of the Universe sort of way? Of course. That exists (unfortunately) within any intellectual or theoretical arena. But is Stoicism inherently anti-woman or anti-person? No. Absolutely not.

And taking that first question further, are there some ideas and ideals that lend themselves more toward (or are even based upon) the oppression, subjugation, or devaluing of an entire group of people? Of course. Again, is Stoicism one of those? No.

Perhaps it’s easiest to attempt to agree on this: Until things change dramatically in our pursuit of a more just world, there will always be those who attempt to use ways of thinking to negatively impact the ways of being for both individuals and large groups of people. That is wrong. But that is not uniquely connected to Modern Stoicism.

And so, with the scene set, for this woman / person / thinker, I would suggest that it might be most useful to ask not whether or not Stoicism has value for women, but instead to consider the following three, more important / relevant questions below, only one of which I’ll address in this post (saving the other two for a future read). These questions are:

  • First, where are we at risk of misunderstanding Stoic writings in ways that serve only to polarize through misguided interpretations regarding the treatment of women?
  • Second, are there any specific lessons that might help us best understand how to apply the principles of Modern Stoicism in ways that encourage a better treatment of persons in our desire to understand one another with respect to our differences?
  • And third (and lastly, for now), what value does Modern Stoicism bring us as we attempt to navigate toward fairness in an unfair world?

If you’re in the blogosphere on a regular basis, the answer to the first question might seem to be, well, everywhere. But that is truly an unfair representation. There are many good (if not great) writings that are treating this issue in both intelligent and sensitive ways.

One example would be Massimo Pigliucci’s review (from roughly a year ago) of a text focused on Stoicism and Feminism, which points out the limits of culture and time, as offering opportunity for improvement within the Stoic community as we continue to view the teachings in partnership with other theoretical frameworks. Other examples of this kind of work can be found in texts by Larry Becker, Margaret Graver, Donald Robertson, as well as in posts from authors in Stoicism Today. Again, these are but a few, of many, that once can easily find if one simply looks for them.

So it is not that I am against those authors who would choose to take a position opposite my own. In fact I encourage critical debate, when it is done well. What is most concerning to me are those writers, bloggers, and pontificators who tend to bluster, assume, and–most troubling to thinking people–insert anachronistic interpretations and meanings where they simply do not belong.

As an example, when you do a simple search of the keywords stoicism and feminism, you will see that one of the recent posts that claims a good deal of web traffic was penned by Medium contributor “Hey Francesca” (AKA F.C. Archer) on the P.S. I LoveYou blog. The title is catchy, bold, and wholly inflammatory: Be wary of men who love Stoic philosophy. The example she uses to explain why this is so critical is taken from Epictetus:

But tell me this: did you never love any person, a young girl, or slave, or free? What then is this with respect to being a slave or free? Were you never commanded by the person beloved to do something which you did not wish to do? Have you never flattered your little slave? Have you never kissed her feet? And yet if any man compelled you to kiss Caesar’s feet, you would think it an insult and excessive tyranny. What else, then, is slavery? Did you never go out by night to some place whither you did not wish to go, did you not expend what you did not wish to expend, did you not utter words with sighs and groans, did you not submit to abuse and to be excluded?

Our blogger’s take on this passage is that it makes Epictetus “fucking creepy”(as she writes). Then she goes on to make the claim that this passage is also a clear indiction that he was blaming this unnamed female subject for entrapping him and causing him to fall for her. She even connects this to the idea that Epictetus is responsible for perpetuating the same kind of justification that blames rape upon the woman.

But from a purely text-based analytical perspective, what this author does, when making this claim, is to miss the point of the passage entirely. Simply put, the sex / gender of the slave is inconsequential to the point Epictetus is making. His query is not about the role of sex or gender in commanding acts that are of a subservient nature to the one whom is beloved (and possessed). Rather, it’s about the exchange of power and the decision to expend what [one] did not wish to expend by kissing feet or flattering those who are to be in / of service.

This position is highly problematic by itself, but continues on to indictments painting all men who read the Stoics (or engage in the study of classical philosophy, quite frankly) as misogynists. Yes, read that again. That is her claim, but as absurd as this may be, she goes still further. In fact, what concerns me more is the fact that this is an author (with over three thousand followers on Medium) who not only makes these absurd claims, but also admonishes any woman among her readers and followers who might question a man about their interest in Stoicism to remember that–unless these men fess up to their bullshit–they are either a closeted woman-hater, or a liar, or someone in denial. She writes, “It is not their conscious intention that you must fear. It is the subconscious at work that you must be aware of.”


So let’s question, push, and encourage healthy conversations about the spaces that greater inclusion should occupy within Stoicism. Let’s do what we need to do in order to insure that others who have occupied (and even continue to occupy) positions of subordination and marginalization have a space (or better space) at the table. Let’s use the writings of Stoics like Epictetus to help us solve problems in communication, in relationships, in social causes. And let’s not use cheap shots to discount an entire (and rich, engaging, and thoughtful) framework like the Modern Stoicism movement as an out-of-control kegger, ruled by fratty Chads, trying to make people (women) like me into slaves or missing persons.

Let’s, instead, take the good counsel offered in Epictetus’ Enchiridion and remember what he wrote in chapter 38, particularly as we make every reasonable effort to protect the ruling faculty of our minds…

When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

Liz Gloyn is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London; she is author of The Ethics of the Family in Seneca . Follow her on Twitter at Dr. Liz Gloyn.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe.

Andi Sciacca is the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  She owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at European Graduate School.

6 thoughts on Women And Stoicism (part 3)

  1. Jacqueline Sergio says:

    Thank you, Dr.Gloyn, for your comments on Seneca’s Consolation to Helvia. The relationship between mother and son(s) has held powerful meaning, and I cannot emphasize too strongly, gratitude for me.

  2. Zenox says:

    Thanks for this thorough analysis, was pleasant to read and instructive

  3. Mel Ellis says:

    Great piece by Debbie.
    It strikes me that poor old Musonius Rufus never seems to get a mention.
    “Women as well as men have received from the gods the gift of reason.”
    “For all human tasks…are a common obligation and are common for men and women, and none is necessarily appointed for either one exclusively.”
    Can anyone point me to the article on Modern Stoicism that makes the opposite case to this series of articles, please? Otherwise I think we have crossed the introspection/navel-gazing boundary.

  4. Paul Regan says:

    I very much appreciated these three contributions.

  5. […] “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 […]

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