Marcus Life: a harsh criticism of Stoicism (and a long response)

Stoicism invented hereOne more on Frank McLynn’s lopsided biography of Marcus Aurelius, which the author uses in part to lob serious — and largely unfair and badly informed, I think — criticisms to Stoicism, a doctrine he clearly loathes. Still, the intellectually serious, and in fact Stoic, thing to do is to take a look at what an unsympathetic commentator has to say about the philosophy and use the occasion to reflect and learn. (Previous commentaries on the book have appeared here, here, and here.) The most comphehensive attack that McLynn mounts on Stoicism is contained in the first Appendix to the book, entirely devoted to demolish the Stoic way of thinking, and it is to this appendix that I devote my attention.

McLynn begins with a brief historical note on the origin of Stoicism and its similarities with Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism, for instance in the notion of eternal recurrence, which the Stoics treated as part of their cosmology (the universe begins with a conflagration and ends in another one, which sets the conditions for the next conflagration, and so forth — not very different in principle from some modern models in cosmology, though probably not the way things actually work in nature).

The first actual attack comes when McLynn tells his readers that Stoic ethics is all about virtue and intentions, not about consequences:

“For example, if a wise (that is, virtuous) man saw his child in danger of drowning, he would try to save it, but if he failed he would accept the outcome without tears, lamentation, distress or self-pity. Since everything that happens is governed by divine providence, his failure, and the drowning, must have been for the best, even if he could not see why. Since moral virtue is the only good, and wickedness the only evil, by definition the child’s death could not have been evil.”

Well, not quite. The providence view of things is one way to interpret Stopic doctrine, but as Marcus himself wrote repeatedly in the Meditations (and a biographer of his ought to know this), there is also the mechanistic interpretation available: things happen because of a universal web of causal interactions, which Stoics like Chrysippus spent a significant amount of time discussing in detail, for instance differentiating among distinct types of causality, especially what we today might label as proximal and distal causes.

As for accepting the outcome of things without tears and lamentation, let’s remember that that would be the reaction of a Sage, i.e., a Stoic characterized by perfect equanimity (and please do notice that the Sage would indeed try to do the right thing, that is, to save the child!). In general, to us imperfect human beings the advice is to behave toward our own tragedies in the same way in which we react to other people’s tragedies: as Epictetus wrote, when someone else’s spouse dies, we sympathize, but also say that such is life and that the person eventually needs to move on. But when it comes to our own tragedies, we behave as if they marked the end of the world. More equanimity would lead us to both empathize more with other people’s losses and to handle our own better. Seems like good advice to me.

McLynn characterizes Stoicism as an extreme version of a morality of intentions, where consequences don’t matter at all. But this is a caricature: yes, a person’s moral character is judged by her intentions and behaviors, but those are in turn aiming at obtaining certain (preferred) consequences. To draw a sharp line between intentions and consequences is thus misleading, because the consequences one aims at are a reflection of one’s character. Of course from a Stoic perspective the emphasis cannot be on consequences because those are largely outside of our control. Indeed, one could turn the criticism around and argue that it is moral philosophies like utilitarianism (where the consequences are the focus of moral evaluation) that are in trouble, precisely because the outcome of one’s action isn’t under one’s control, so that it makes little sense to lay moral blame (or praise) based on outcomes rather than intentions.

After, correctly, distinguishing between “stoicism” (i.e., going trough life with a stiff upper lip) and “Stoicism” (the philosophy), McLynn adds: “Stoicism does not require us simply to accept whatever happens, but to be happy about it.”

But this statement is predicated on an ambiguity in the use of the word “happiness.” First off, as is well established in the scholarship about Greco-Roman philosophy, “eudaimonia” should not be translated as happiness (arguably, it shouldn’t be translated at all, since the word has no direct correspondence in English). Second, if one interprets the goal of Stoic practice as achieving happiness in the ordinary sense of the term one fundamentally misunderstands what Stoicism (and, indeed, all eudaimonic philosophies) was all about. The actual idea is closer to accepting what happens (with the caveat that one actively attempts to influence it) because to do otherwise — to rail against the cosmos after the fact — is an irrational waste of mental energy.

“Stoicism aimed at the elimination of the emotions, even though its defenders say it is only passions that they tried to abolish.”

I find this to be extremely puzzling: McLynn is unwilling to take the Stoics at their own word, even though they spent a significant amount of time explaining what they meant when they talked about emotions. (Also notice that “passion,” the actual Stoic word, doesn’t quite directly translate to the modern English “emotion,” which means that treating them as interchangeable is inaccurate.)

“Stoics committed the fundamental fallacy of thinking that the emotions could be the hand-maidens of reason; as the great eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume later pointed out, the reality is the other way about: emotions are primary and reason is the moderator.”

With all due respect to Hume, who is one of my favorite philosophers (and who, by the way, was very sympathetic toward Stoicism), he certainly didn’t have the last word on the subject. And while some modern psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, do (over)emphasize the role of emotions a la Hume, research in cognitive science actually seems to back up much of the Stoics’ early insights.

“Politics, family, health are all ‘indifferent’ phenomena. Even if you are rich, healthy and brave, you will still be unhappy if you are unjust or intemperate.”

Another example of what happens when one plays on the ambiguity of words’ meaning. The Stoics made very clear what they meant by “indifferents,” and what they said was that one’s moral character is going to be negatively affected if one goes after wealth, health, etc. without concern for one’s virtues. Moreover, they distinguished between preferred and dispreferred indifferents (which McLynn neglects to tell his readers), a distinction that would make no sense if said indifferents didn’t make a positive (or negative) contribution to our lives.

That said, it must be acknowledged that the Stoics did have a devious preference for such verbal “paradoxes,” and they were known for it even in antiquity — Cicero wrote a whole book by that title (in which, as a non-Stoic, he actually explained and defended the Stoic position). But the Stoics did this on purpose, as a pedagogic aid. The idea was to avoid their philosophy being reduced to what we today would call sounce bites. Instead, they opened the conversation with something that sounded paradoxical or weird; that got people’s attention, leading the way for the Stoic teacher to then elaborate and explain things. It’s a technique that I still use today in my college classes, regardless of what the specific topic may be.

Here is another example of McLynn’s possibly willful distortion of Stoicism: “Death is anyway unreal: if we are dreading it, by definition we are still alive and death is absent; if death has come, then by definition we are no longer conscious.”

Again, not quite. Yes, the Stoics (and the Epicureans, for that matter) did make that argument in order to convince people not to be afraid of death. But this doesn’t make death “unreal,” it simply makes it something of which it is irrational to worry about. And both the Stoics and the Epicureans were keenly aware of the fact that people engage in all sorts of questionable and sometimes self-destructive behavior precisely because they are afraid to die. Liberate yourself from such fear (admittedly, not an easy thing to do!) and you will see the world in an entirely different way.

Next, McLynn takes on the famous Stoic idea that “representations” or “impressions” ought to be the subject of rational judgment, and that we sometimes should withdraw “assent” in order to arrive at a better understanding of the world:

“Stoics applied the doctrine of ‘representations’ to explain the ethical mistakes people made. Most so-called misfortunes, like death, are ‘representations’ or judgements that have no basis in reality; they are not objective, they are value-judgements.”

This explanation is misleading: it isn’t that death, for instance, has “no basis in reality.” It is that we are faced with two things: I) the objective biological fact of death; and II) our subjective judgment of whether such fact is “good” or “bad” or indifferent. This is most obviously true: Hitler’s death was a fact, which most of us judge as good, though neo-Nazi think it was bad. The Stoics are simply telling their students that they should work on refining their judgments of events, without falling into the common habit of reacting without thinking and evaluating.

When talking about the idea of a Sage, i.e., an ideal Stoic, McLynn confuses things further: “Understanding true happiness means asceticism, self-training and self-restraint; the sage should always metaphorically live on bread and water, even if not actually.”

It is definitely true that a prokopton (a student of Stoicism who is making progress) is to exercise self-restraint, as part of the practice of the four virtues. But asceticism has nothing whatsoever to do with Stoicism. Rather, it was advocated by the Cynics, the Stoics’ immediate intellectual ancestors in one of the lines connecting the various eudaimonic schools with the teaching of Socrates.

McLynn further tackles the relationship between Stoicism and material wealth by making predictable fun of Seneca’s alleged hypocrisy. McLynn is, of course, one of a long line of people to do that, and he probably has a point. But regardless of how well one can judge the character and circumstances of a man who lived two millennia ago, this sort of statement is downright bizarre:

“Chrysippus, the great codifier of Stoicism, authorised materialism and profiteering, and also advocated private property and the market.”

“Profiteering”? No. That would mean behaving unjustly in order to increase one’s material possessions, thus violating the practice of two of the fundamental virtues: justice and temperance. Then again, there is nothing in Stoicism that requires its practitioners to do away with private property or material possessions. Once more: Stoics are not Cynics!

“Seneca argued for suicide in all the following cases: if your fatherland or friends required it of you; if a tyrant forced you to do dishonourable things; if, afflicted by an incurable disease, the body was letting the soul down; if you were destitute or indigent; or if you went mad.”

This is true and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best and most modern features of Stoicism. But McLynn doesn’t like the fact that the Stoics disagreed amongst themselves on the specific details, that they refused to “issue moral blueprints.” On the contrary, it seems to me that this is one of the commendable things about virtue ethics in general: it is clear enough on how we should approach life, but also sensible enough not to provide too many specifics — unlike deontological and utilitarian approaches. Life is just to complicated for that.

McLynn chastises Stoicism for not being a pacifist philosophy, and that is true enough, though hardly unique at the time, or since, really. And I’m personally not at all convinced that pacifism is a practicable approach to human problems. But that doesn’t make one into a war monger, as Marcus Aurelius’ own reluctance to engage in frontier campaigns clearly shows.

McLynn also makes fun of Stoicism because it allegedly spun a number of charlatans during the Empire, people pretending to be Stoic philosophers in order to make a living while fooling naive students. Perhaps, but this is neither specific to Stoicism, nor to those times (just think of the number of phony televangelists that thrive on various modern versions of Christianity). And it certainly represents no serious argument against the philosophy itself.

Next, the author charges Stoicism with intellectual dishonesty: “Stoicism was supposed to be an egalitarian doctrine. It stressed that slaves were reasonable and, in a masterpiece of condescension, announced that even women — creatures of emotion par excellence — were educable, even if the process was strenuous,” anew yet the reality on the ground was much less favorable to both slaves and women.

True enough, although Stoicism in general, and a number of prominent Stoic teachers in particular (e.g., Musonius Rufus, Epictetus) were far ahead of their time in this respect. It is also true that Marcus, even though he was the most powerful man in the Western world, did not attempt any major structural reform in favor of women and slaves (though he did forcefully prosecute people who treated their slaves inhumanely and protected women’s embryonic rights to property). But this is presentism on a massive scale: even our self-congratulatory enlightened 21st century society hasn’t achieved equality for women (not to mention a number of minorities), and slavery is still alive and well in several spots on the planet (in fact, depending on how one defines “slavery,” the wealth of the West is built on it in this age of globalization). So, by all means, let us point out the limitations of our philosophy, and certainly of individual practitioners, but let us do so in a way that does justice to the historical context and that recognizes the not at all negligible positives.

“Stoicism, which by its implications preached political quietism as well as a bogus egalitarianism … As a social philosophy, the creed suffered from the unconquerable disability that it never viewed human beings as social animals, but merely as atomic individuals.”

You can directly feel the venom here, especially in the first sentence. But, again, this is a badly distorted view of the historical and philosophical reality. Some Stoics were indeed politically and socially conservative (Cato, for instance), while others were what we today would consider liberal, even radical (e.g., Zeno himself, as well as Musonius). And the whole idea of Hierocles’ circle unmistakably shows that the Stoics very much treated people as social animals, and not as atomic individuals. But this does bring up an important point that needs to be addressed: Stoicism, as well as pretty much all the other eudaimonic philosophies, were not “social” philosophies in the modern sense of the word. Their goal was to teach people how to live their own life, and to treat them as failed social philosophies is a category mistake (like asking the color of triangles, since triangles qua geometrical figures aren’t defined by their color).

This may fairly be treated as a limitation of the eudaimonic, indeed of the virtue ethical, approach. Then again, one’s limitation is another’s strength. One of the things that I appreciate the most about modern Stoicism (and which was true of the ancient variety as well) is precisely its ability to offer a big tent, politically, ideologically, and even metaphysically: one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better.

McLynn soldiers on with his all-encompassing critique, moving to Stoic metaphysics: “At a more general philosophical level, Stoicism was impaled on the classic free will/determinism dilemma.” But as he himself seem to dimly recognize, this objection applies widely to the overwhelming majority of moral philosophies (except nihilism, really): “The suspicion arises here of a desire to rescue Stoicism by mere verbal legerdemain, and a similar criticism applies to those who espouse ‘compatibilism’.”

Compatibilism isn’t a matter of “mere verbal legerdemain,” but a serious philosophical position in the free will debate. And if anything the Stoics should be credited with a very early understanding of the pervasiveness of cause and effect. Moreover, they had an argument against the related worry of fatalism, which they aptly labeled “the lazy argument.” In developing the argument, Chrysippus introduced the concept of “co-fated” events, which we would refer to as co-caused, as in the context of a large web of causation.

McLynn then tackles another aspect of Stoic metaphysics (all of this, remember, in an Appendix to a book on the life of Marcus Aurelius): “The mind/body problem, one of the constants in the history of philosophy, is never addressed systematically by the creed, which tacks in and out of different perspectives, at one moment materialist, at another Gnostic.” This is incorrect, as argued by Anthony Long in a nice essay in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. I will refer the interested reader to my summary of that chapter, which draws the similarities and differences between the Stoic approach and that of the most Stoic of modern philosophers, Spinoza. (Interestingly, McLynn does cite Long, from his book on Epictetus, but entirely out of context.)

There is more: “First of all there is the conflict between theism and pantheism, and then between monotheism and polytheism.” Except that there is no conflict, and it is consequently not the case that “even the most enthusiastic defenders of Stoicism have been inclined to throw up their hands in despair at this point.” Stoic theology presented a type of pantheism, not theism, which means that it makes precisely no sense to ask whether Stoics were monotheists or polytheists, since that distinction does not apply to a metaphysics where God is immanent in the very fabric of the universe.

“The Stoic doctrine of ‘following Nature’ also engenders myriad problems. Does the prescription mean that we have to follow Nature, or only that that is preferable? Do we have a choice or not? … One could just as well derive this cracker-barrel philosophy from the maxims on old-fashioned tea chests.”

“Cracker-barrel philosophy”? Doesn’t sound to me like the words of a dispassionate critic who really wishes to understand why the subject of his biography was so taken by such apparent nonsense. Again, McLynn is unbelievably casual here, not even bothering to explain to his readers what “following nature” meant for the Stoics (to apply reason to social living, since human beings are by nature social and capable of rationality). To answer his additional questions: it is a prescription if one wishes to live like a Stoic, and yes we do have a choice, since we can reject the Stoic way of life if we are so inclined.

A bit later McLynn returns to the issue, and gets it smashingly wrong: “Following Nature is vitiated by circularity. If you argue that whatever is, is right, and also argue for design in the cosmos, the only logical conclusion is that our minds must be in error when we see injustice in the so-called divine order.”

But since following nature does not mean that whatever is, is right, the conclusion doesn’t follow. That said, McLynn has a point, of sorts, about the issue of divine order. If one is inclined toward a providential interpretation of Stoicism (not everyone is, see my link above to Marcus’ repeated open consideration of the alternative view) then in a sense we are mistaken to interpret “bad” things as inherently bad. The analogy often brought up by the Stoics is that of a foot’s relationship to the whole body: the foot, from its own perspective, may think it unfair that it has to step in the mud. But this is of course necessary so that the whole body can get where it wants to go. This, however, does not entail a passive acceptance of injustice — as McLynn repeatedly argues. The Stoics very much fought (with weapons as well as with words) to change things for the better, an attitude that would make no sense if they really thought that “whatever is, is right.”

Toward the end of his caustic essay, McLynn goes Nietzschean on his readers: Stoicism was mistaken, he says, in thinking that humans seek happiness. As Nietzsche says: “Men do not seek happiness but power; that is, for the most part, unhappiness.” Maybe, though this seems hardly to describe the majority of human beings. The more pertinent question, however, is: should they?

Finally, we are treated to one more gem and a parting shot. Here is the gem: “The idea of love as mere friction between bodies is a joyless tenet and the enemy of all significant art and literature.” This refers to Marcus’ famous “decomposition” exercise of the sexual act in the Meditations. But, again, this is woefully missing the point. To begin with, there are suggestions that Marcus’ specific approach to sexuality was informed by his own reluctance (or simple lack of interest) toward it (despite siring a whopping 13 children), and hence not an accurate reflection of the broader philosophy of Stoicism. More importantly, though, the context is, again, missing. A more charitable and reasonable interpretation of that sort of decomposition exercise (which Marcus applies to other issues, not just sexuality, and which is recommended also by Epictetus) is to remind ourselves that the things we lust for, often inordinately, are really quite insignificant or even ridiculous when seen in another light. The idea isn’t to do away with sex (and much less love, a positive Stoic passion), but rather to control runaway lust.

And finally here is McLynn’s summary of his whole view of Stoicism: “Stoicism, with its ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to psychology and philosophy, lacks all nuance. It denies human nature by recommending what most sane people would regard as chimerical: braving torture, mocking death, conquering sexual passions. It subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible.”

The latter is patently false. As for the rest, I just can’t recognize Stoicism in McLynn’s cartoonish distortion of it.

10 thoughts on “Marcus Life: a harsh criticism of Stoicism (and a long response)

  1. “because the outcome of one’s action isn’t under one’s control, so that it makes little sense to lay moral blame (or praise) based on outcomes rather than intentions.” Not under one’s control, but also not beyond one’s ken, sometimes the outcome of a contemplated action is all too apparent. If rational actors carry out an action which has a predictably bad outcome, I question the degree to which they can claim moral praise because the did so in pursuit of what they considered a “good” intention. cf Sam Harris v Noah Chomsky.

    BTW I find the ‘virtue ethics’ side of Stoicism somewhat troubling in so far as the proper discernment of virtue is fraught with difficulties.


  2. Virtue,

    Not sure what to tell you about your problem with virtue ethics. If you reject that, you reject not just Stoicism, but pretty much all of the Hellenistic philosophies. Which is fine, of course, but it’s the sort of meta-discussion that goes well beyond the scope of this post.

    As for carrying out actions that are going to predictably have bad outcomes, then a virtue ethicist would indeed blame the agent, since acting that way is definitely not virtuous.


  3. I can’t help but wonder: why write about a subject one has such a strong distaste for? Unless it’s an obligation…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Stoicism was mistaken, he says, in thinking that humans seek happiness.”

    Which might be a valid point, if happiness were the avowed goal of Stoicism. Just one more reason why that’s not a very good way to translate the word “eudaimonia”!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a bit confused : Do you still consider this book to be the definitive biography of Marcus Aurelius ? Have you read the biography of Aurelius by Anthony Birley ?


  6. Hilton,

    I’m not sure there can be such a thing as the definitive biography of anyone, really. For one thing, future historians and archeologists are likely to discover additional interesting things about Marcus and his time, which may change our perception of him. Second, our perception is inescapably biased by our own times and sensibilities, both of which will change, eventually.

    As for Birley’s book, it’s on my reading list…


  7. Do you still strongly recommend reading the McLynn biography of Aurelius ? Is there an email where I may contact you , Professor Pigliucci ? I have a story to relate regarding physical injury and philosophy that you might find of interest.

    Thank you for your work.

    Kind regards ,

    ~ Hilton


  8. Hilton,

    I still think it’s worth reading McLynn’s book, if nothing else to get a contrarian view of Stoicism and exercise one’s critical thinking faculties, and patience…

    You can write to me at Massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, I usually have very little time for one-on-one correspondence, so keep that in mind.


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