Justice is one of the fundamental Stoic virtues, together with practical wisdom (or prudence), courage, and temperance. And yet there is rarely talk, in Stoic circles of social justice, in the contemporary sense of the term. This, I will endeavor to argue, should be neither surprising nor problematic, but at the same time I do think that we need to clarify what is a reasonable Stoic take on social justice, which I will also attempt to do here.
One of the things I truly enjoy about Stoicism is its alleged “paradoxes.” Cicero wrote a whole book to explain them, and they still puzzle people when they first (and second, and third) encounter them. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the Stoics perversely enjoyed to present their doctrines in the form of short phrases that would appear puzzling, and which therefore invited further discussion and clarification — thus avoiding the reduction of their philosophy to a “bumper sticker” version. If you wanted to understand Stoicism, you needed to slow down and wrap your mind around it, no shortcuts allowed.
STOICON ’16 just ended in New York City, and according to one of our speakers, Bill Irvine, it was the largest gathering of Stoics, ever: 331 attendees. It was, more importantly, an amazing opportunity to meet and mingle with people from different parts of the world who are interested in, or regularly practice, Stoicism as a philosophy of life. All the talks, and one of the workshops, will soon be available as video on YouTube (stay tuned for announcements!), but let me give you a flavor of what happened this past Saturday in the Big Apple, just to whet your appetite.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy, with little tolerance for logic chopping and hair splitting. As Epictetus put it: “We know how to analyse arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses I, 1.32). This is why people interested in Stoicism don’t just read classic and modern authors, they partecipate in practical exercises, such as those offered during Stoic Week, the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course, and local initiatives such as Stoic Camp.
The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is a remake of the classic 1960 movie starring You Brinner, Steve McQuinn, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, among others. Both of those are in turn based on the classic Japanese movie The Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune. (Yet another, animated, take on the same story was produced in 1998 with the title A Bug’s Life, featuring Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, and many others.) Why so many versions of the basic, simple story? Because it is a timeless tale of injustice, oppression, and fighting against inconceivable odds; a tale that, as it happens, also features a number of Stoic themes.
We have reached the end of this short series looking into the life and philosophy of Cato the Younger, one of the classic Stoic role models. Following Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s book, Rome’s Last Citizen, we started with indicative, symbolic, even, episodes from Cato’s childhood, examined his conscious embracing of Stoicism, saw him commanding the respect of his troops but also weeping at the death of his half-brother, clashing with his friend-and-rival Cicero, and finally choosing suicide — by gruesome means — in order not to concede a political advantage to his arch-enemy, Julius Caesar.
This mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of the quintessential Stoic role models, began with a look at episodes from his childhood, and continued with his embracing of Stoicism as a young man, his first time as a military commander, the contemporaneous death of his half-brother, and the epic clash with his friend and rival, Cicero. I am going to bring the series to an end with two more entries — like the other ones inspired by the reading of Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s Rome’s Last Citizen. In this episode of the Cato chronicles we’ll look at his legendary death, and in the next and last installment to his afterlife, so to speak, i.e., his legacy through history and all the way to modern times.