Stoic practical advice, I: duty and social relations

canstockphoto4341112I’m going to start a series of posts summarizing and briefly discussing part III of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which focuses on Stoic advise on a number of practical issues. This is a very good example of just how much Stoicism is a practical philosophy, meant to help people in their everyday living.

The chapter on duty (#9) argues that loving mankind is a moral duty, regardless of how unpleasant many people can actually be, and of just how much they can disturb your ataraxia. Indeed, Irvine begins with a (partial) list of how many people, and on how many occasions, perturb our tranquillity, from being cut off in traffic to annoying colleagues or relatives.

Irvine also points out that the Stoic quest for ataraxia didn’t make practitioners of the philosophy into a bunch of hermits, self-excluded from the world. On the contrary, Stoicism is an inherently social philosophy, because reason (the use of which is the primary Stoic concern) tells us that human beings are social animals, and ought to behave accordingly.

The chapter depicts Marcus in an interesting fashion: it’s clear from his writings in the Meditations that he really didn’t like a lot of his fellow humans, but that he also considered it his duty not to retire to his palace and delegate others to do what was expected of a Roman emperor: “What is significant is that despite these feelings of disgust, Marcus did not turn his back on his fellow humans … Marcus … concludes that doing his social duty will give him the best chance at having a good life. This, for Marcus, is the reward for doing one’s duty: a good life.”

Chapter 10 is on social relations, and the take home message is that we need to be selective about the company we keep and the social occasions we participate to.

To begin with, Stoic advice says that we need to mentally prepare to dealing with others before the actual occurrence, so that we are in a better position to handle whatever unpleasantness may arise. More importantly, it is incumbent on us to choose the right friends, especially people who share our Stoic values and who, ideally, are better than ourselves, so that we can learn from them (Aristotle would have called these “virtues of friendship”).

According to Seneca, we need to avoid people who “who are melancholy and bewail everything, who find pleasure in every opportunity for complaint.”

Epictetus gives similar advice, saying that we should stay clear of people who indulge in conversations that are not conducive to virtue, such as talk of gladiators, horse races, athletes, eating, drinking and other people (i.e., gossip). I don’t know many today who chat about gladiators (or even horse races), but the other categories seem to still be incredibly popular subjects of “conversation.”

Marcus’ advice is interesting: we should reflect on the fact that other people likely find us annoying, which is a way to develop tolerance and understanding toward those we consider insufferable. He also says that people don’t chose to have the faults they have, but that they can change, and that indeed it is our (social) duty to help them change.

Apparently, the Stoics didn’t have a particularly high opinion of sex (here, my friends, I part company with the orthodoxy!). Musonius recommended it only within marriage, and then only in order to procreate, thus anticipating a doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Epictetus agreed, though he added that it is not proper to boast of one’s chastity, or to belittle others for not abstaining also. However, he didn’t go as far as Epicurus, who said: “sexual intercourse has never done a man good, and he is lucky if it has not harmed him.”

Marcus uses his famous technique of dissecting things into their detailed constituents in order to remind himself that sex isn’t a particularly attractive thing after all, but rather just “friction of the members and an ejaculatory discharge.” Apparently, Buddhists also use a similar technique when confronted by an attractive woman they find themselves lusting for. They “might advise [the person] to think not about her as a whole, but about the things that compose her, including her lungs, excrement, phlegm, pus, and spittle.”

I said above that I dissent from this negative attitude about sex, so let me explain. First off, we need to understand that the Stoics, unlike, say, the Puritans, were not motivated by prudishness. It was just a matter that lusting after the other sex is emotionally disturbing and not conducive to virtue. On that, I actually agree.

But it doesn’t follow that joyous sex with a stable partner shouldn’t be considered a “preferred indifferent,” as the Stoics put it. Here again I find Seneca a much more moderate Stoic, and one that better translates to modern times. He was clear that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life, so long as one does not confuse them for the only true good, the pursuit of virtue.

One thought on “Stoic practical advice, I: duty and social relations

  1. On behalf of those who are not attractive enough and/or lucky enough to have a sexual partner, I appreciate the Stoics’ philosophy that we don’t need to rely on the quality of our relationships to lead to us to a eudaimonic life.
    I have spent far too many years feeling bad that I will never have happiness without specific relationships (a stable partner, awesome sex life, children, etc.) that are out of my control. Now I am coming to understand that those things are “preferred indifferents” and not central to my joyful experience and human worth in this world. What a profound relief this wisdom is.

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