Bertrand Russell got Stoicism seriously wrong

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t resist, I went back to the book, and oh boy…

A good way to convey my dismay is to say that — now that not only I am a practicing Stoic and have been seriously studying the philosophy for several years, but I’m also a professional philosopher — if Russell had written the thing today you would suspect that he got his information out of a bad Wikipedia page. He manages to repeat every single misconception that people have about Stoicism, not even pretending to take a charitable approach to the subject. So here it goes, with a little be of regret and disappointment, my criticism of Bertrand Russell’s criticism of Stoicism.

Bertie begins on the wrong foot when he says that Stoicism is “emotionally narrow, and in a certain sense fanatical … [something that] appealed to rulers” (241). Odd, considering that the Stoics themselves presented their philosophy as one of love, aimed at cultivating positive emotions. Of course, if by emotionally narrow Russell meant that the Stoics didn’t think there was much good to be found in the expression of negative emotions like anger and hatred, yeah, sure. I’ll take that sort of emotional narrowness any day, though.

As for appealing to rulers, Epictetus was a slave, Zeno a merchant, Cleanthes a pugilist, and Chrysippus a long-distance runner. A number of emperors (e.g., Domitian) actively persecuted the Stoics (including both Musonius Rufus and Epictetus) because of their annoying habit of speaking truth to power, and a group of Stoic philosophers organized the opposition against Nero.

“The main doctrines to which the school remained constant throughout are concerned with cosmic determinism and human freedom.” (242)

There were many other doctrines that characterized Stoic thought throughout, such as the idea of living according to nature, and the dichotomy of control. Russell sees the two notions he mentioned as inherently and possibly even trivially contradictory, apparently without realizing that many contemporary philosophers take a similar position, known nowadays as compatibilism about free will. Moreover, as I pointed out in a recent essay, it is at least doubtful to link the Stoic position to determinism. The Stoics believed in a universal web of cause and effect, but the concept of cause-effect is neutral with respect to whether the universe is deterministic or not, depending on how exactly causes generate the corresponding effects.

“The course of nature, in Stoicism as in eighteenth-century theology, was ordained by a Lawgiver who was also a beneficent Providence.” (242)

Not exactly. That makes the Stoics sound very much like Christians, but in fact there was no concept of a Lawgiver in Stoicism, and Providence — while an accepted idea — was definitely not beneficent. The Stoics were pantheists who believed that god is the universe, so both the “laws” of nature (really, cause-effect) and “Providence” were the result of the fact that the cosmos behaves like a giant organism of which we are tiny but important (because we are capable of reason) parts.

“In the life of an individual man, virtue is the sole good; such things as health, happiness, possessions, are of no account.” (243)

This is a common misunderstanding of the “preferred indifferents,” and Russell’s description here wouldn’t be able to separate Stoic from Cynic philosophy. And yet the two are very different.

“There are obvious logical difficulties about this doctrine. If virtue is really the sole good, a beneficent Providence must be solely concerned to cause virtue, yet the laws of Nature have produced abundance of sinners.” (243)

Except that Providence, as I said, is not beneficent. Notice again the vocabulary used by Russell (“sinners”), which makes the Stoics sound like Christians.

“[If the] world is completely deterministic, natural laws will decide whether I shall be virtuous or not. If I am wicked, Nature compels me to be wicked, and the freedom which virtue is supposed to give is not possible for me.” (244)

That’s why I said above that it is a mistake to conflate cause-effect with determinism. See my discussion, linked above, of Chrysippus’ “rolling cylinder” metaphor and his distinction between external and internal causes of human behavior.

“If illness is no evil, the medical man might as well stay comfortably at home. To the Stoic, his virtue is an end in itself, not something that does good.” (244)

Again, see preferred indifferents. It should be pretty clear at this point that Russell is determined to be as uncharitable as possible toward the Stoics, a very un-philosophical attitude.

“There goes with this a certain coldness in the Stoic conception of virtue. Not only bad passions are condemned, but all passions.”

No. Just no.

“As for public life, it may be your duty to engage in it, since it gives opportunities for justice, fortitude, and so on; but you must not be actuated by a desire to benefit mankind, since the benefits you can confer — such as peace, or a more adequate supply of food — are no true benefits.”

This is such a trivialization of the discipline of action, the accompanying virtue of justice, and the Stoic concepts of cosmopolitanism and oikeios that it is hard to take Bertie seriously and keep reading. But kept I did.

Having finished botching his general introduction to Stoicism, Russell continues with a philosopher-by-philosopher synopsis, at least acknowledging the great contributions of the Stoics, and in particular Chrysippus, to logic (Russell’s own field of philosophical inquiry).

Bizarrely, at 246, Russell says that what “was fatal to such philosophies as his [Posidonius] was not Christianity but the Copernican theory.” Really? Unless I got my history completely wrong, all Hellenistic schools were closed by Christians, most famously by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 529. That’s a full millennium before publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.

Surprisingly, Russell gives a bit of a break to Marcus, saying that “his only son Commodus, who succeeded him, turned out to be one of the worst of the many bad emperors, but successfully concealed his vicious propensities so long as his father lived” (248). Then again, he immediately falls back on another myth: “[Marcus] persecuted the Christians, because they rejected the State religion,” which is not supported, and indeed contradicted, by the historical evidence.

And he’s not done with Marcus: “He is a pathetic figure: in a list of mundane desires to be resisted, the one that he finds most seductive is the wish to retire to a quiet country life” (248). A pathetic figure? One of the great Roman emperors, who successfully navigated wars and pestilence against all odds, and despite no initial military experience? I wish some of our contemporary political leaders were that “pathetic.”

“The Stoic ethic suited the times of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, because its gospel was one of endurance rather than hope” (249).

Notice, again, the Christian vocabulary (“gospel”). Besides the fact that it is hard to see what, exactly, is wrong with endurance, one cannot read Seneca seriously and conclude the guy had no hope for the betterment of humanity, despite his own disastrous interactions with Nero. And of course Stoicism is much older than Epictetus and Marcus, so it suited a variety of times (including Republican and early imperial Rome, during which the Romans were very confident of their power to change and rule the world). But if by “hope” Russell means an attitude of optimism detached from the realities of the human condition, then, again, I’ll take a gospel of endurance any day.

Bertie, however, treats Epictetus in a benign fashion: “There is great sincerity and simplicity in the writings which record the teaching of Epictetus. His morality is lofty and unworldly; in a situation in which a man’s main duty is to resist tyrannical power, it would be difficult to find anything more helpful. In some respects, for instance in recognizing the brotherhood of man and in teaching the equality of slaves, it is superior to anything to be found in Plato or Aristotle or any philosopher whose thought is inspired by the City State” (251).

Near the end of the chapter in the History of Western Philosophy, Russell returns to territory he has already threaded upon: “[there are] inherent contradictions in Stoic ethics and theology. On the one hand, the universe is a rigidly deterministic single whole, in which all that happens is the result of previous causes. On the other hand, the individual will is completely autonomous, and no man can be forced to sin by outside causes” (253). Once more: the Stoics did not believe in determinism, but in cause-effect, and the two are not the same thing (Russell ought to have known this, since he is famous for one of the early modern theories of causality). And Chrysippus’ rolling cylinder’s metaphor makes clear that the Stoics saw internal and external causes as interacting. Indeed, the point of Stoic training was to increase one’s prohairesis, or volition, i.e., to shift the balance from external to internal causes. But causes they remained nonetheless.

Russell then moves to raise a standard objection to the Stoic approach about prohairesis: “We all know, as a matter of empirical fact, that dyspepsia, for example, has a bad effect on a man’s virtue, and that, by suitable drugs forcibly administered, will-power can be destroyed. … It has become clear, not only that sufficient torture will break down almost any man’s fortitude, but also that morphia or cocaine can reduce a man to docility” (253). Well, yes. But the Stoics didn’t promise miracles, only a way to improve people’s abilities to retain as much agency and develop as good a capacity of judgment as humanly possible. The Sage may be “happy” on the rack, but he feels pain nonetheless.

Here, for instance, is Seneca: “There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow” (LXVI. On Various Aspects of Virtue, 19).

Russell maintains that the Stoics didn’t see patent contradictions in their doctrines because “like many other people, they had two systems of ethics, a superfine one for themselves, and an inferior one for ‘the lesser breeds without the law'” (253). This spectacularly misses the point that the Stoics held themselves to a high standard while actually actively trying to abstain from passing judgement on others, as Epictetus reminds us: “Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45) That is, they tried to be charitable about other human beings’ motives and actions. Hardly a fault.

“There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and, in a bad world, useful; but it is neither quite true nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere.” (255)

The “sour grapes” objection is a common one, but it doesn’t stick in the face of this sort of thing from Seneca: “Socrates did not blush to play with little boys, Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII)

Of course we can be happy in the sense of enjoying things, but we can also be good, and the latter is more important than the former. Having a good time at the expense of our moral character is something that, I’m sure, Russell himself would not have approved of.

This strange chapter of the History ends on a somewhat positive note for the Stoics: “By nature, the Stoics held, all human beings are equal. … This was an ideal which could not be consistently realized in the Roman Empire, but it influenced legislation, particularly in improving the status of women and slaves.” (255) Well, at least that.

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Categories: Ancient Stoicism, Critics of Stoicism

22 replies

  1. Again a very interesting blog. As I didn’t get a lot of course about stoics during my university years, I take your blog as a class and I learn so much from you. So thank you a lot for sharing. I have one question: who is your favourite stoic philosopher and why?

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  2. Snap! When I was young, I also read Russell’s Autobiography and essays such as Why I am not a Christian and was captivated by the first and enormously helped by the second. He became a hero to me and I found, amongst many things to admire, his opposition to the 1st world war (to the extent that he was locked up for 6 months) inspirational.
    Like you, I re-read his chapter on the Stoics more recently and was horrified to find he had got them so wrong. The only way I can explain this is that I get the feeling that until recently, the academic community was not terribly interested in those schools of thought they could not read about first hand and did not devote themselves to secondary sources in the same way that they did with Plato and Aristotle.
    There is a silver lining though. Even if one disagrees with Russell, his prose style is so clear, precise and limpid that everyone (Christians included!) can come away from reading him with benefit. The only trouble is that when you try to emulate him, you find you need to think as clearly as him in order to achieve it.
    His Stoics chapter (especially on emotions) is very disappointing. 3/10 Bertie, See me. Roger.

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  3. Henceforth, I shall approach Russell’s accounts of other philosophers with extreme caution. How would you rate his equally scathing chapter on Aristotle’s Ethics?

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  4. Excellent piece here, Massimo. I think there is one point where I would disagree to some extent – though not by way of defending Russell’s take – and that is on the notion of law.

    You write that there’s “no concept of a Lawgiver in Stoicism. . . .”

    We do have references to a lawgiver – i.e. God – in Epictetus at a number of points. One might say: well, that’s Epictetus, and we know he’s more pious in tone that many of the other Stoics. But, really, that notion of a law that is there, from the divine, woven into the fabric of reality – that’s there from the start.

    Diogenes Laertes, in his discussion of what the Stoics mean by living in accordance with nature, references “the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things”. We find similar passages in Cicero’s various presentations of Stoicism as well.

    The Stoics are an important early chapter in the development of the notion of “natural law”. I’d say that their notion of a “lawgiver” as Zeus is not that distant from how 18th century Deists – like Thomas Paine, in his Age of Reason – depicted God. In that view, God sets up the natural laws that govern the universe, and also establishes a moral law, and then that’s it. No revelations, no changes in it, just laws governing the universe as a whole and the development of human nature – and those are discoverable by human reason.

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  5. Delightful takedown! Very well timed for me, as I just opened my copy of HistoryOWP last week and encountered the same disappointment you describe!

    Always appreciate you fighting the good fight of philosophical debate! If you’re taking votes, I’d love to see a response to Nussbaum’s critique of apatheia next (assuming you haven’t already responded to her somewhere). She’s the one that’s been giving me cognitive dissonance about Stoicism lately, as I work my way through her Anger and Forgiveness.

    PS: I’m 160 pages into your new book, and loving it. It was like the day a new Harry Potter novel comes out—I couldn’t do anything but read! Your writing is good enough to challenge my Prudence in time management, haha.

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  6. Nicely written article but well it shouldn’t be a surprise though. I also have very high respect for Russell, but if you read his History of Western Philosophy, it’s a heavily flawed piece of work (though worth reading in my opinion) There are many philosophers he misunderstands badly, though that may partly be due to the fact that scholarship on those thinkers and academic reputation have progressed so much over the past half-century.

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  7. Russell got other things wrong. First, plenty of classical era Greeks and Romans believed in a heliocentric solar system.

    Second, maybe, to speak of autobiography, Russell disliked Stoicism because he was a well-known “Bloomsbury circle” … “aesthete.”

    That said, on the Greek vocabulary into English, Massimo, “εὐαγγέλιον” or “gospel” (“good news,” to be literal[istic]) was used in many aspects outside Christianity. It was used for royal and imperial pronouncements, among other things.

    http://blog.adw.org/2014/11/does-gospel-simply-mean-good-news-or-have-we-unintentionally-defined-ourselves-into-a-corner/

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  8. On the larger issue, if one uses “gospel” as a translation of “εὐαγγέλιον” for some of its original uses outside the New Testament (ῆ καινῆ διαθήκη — and what do Jews call it?), I would be relatively comfortable using “gospel” to talk about Stoicism.

    Given that, with its emphasis on the brotherhood of man, and things like the Stoic diatribe (the basis of Paul’s moral pronouncements in his letters), one can certainly argue, bilingual pun intended, that Stoicism was the most “evangelizing” of the ancient Greek philosophies.

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  9. Donald,

    It’s actually worse. One can make a decent argument that Epictetus, who was a major philosopher until the 19th century included, was eclipsed because of the analytic turn in academic philosophy initiated by the likes of Russell…

    Maylynno,

    I’ve answered that question, here: http://tinyurl.com/zh59vml

    Paul,

    Right, all Russell’s accounts should be approached with caution. He did not really do much better on Aristotle either.

    Greg,

    You make a good point, but if we agree that for the Stoics God = Zeus = Nature, then there is no lawgiver, just laws in the modern sense of the term, that is, natural, right? The way Russell talks about it makes it sound very Christian.

    E.O.,

    Very much appreciate the kind words about my book! I haven’t gotten around to Nussbaum yet, but I’ll get there. But she is more positive about Stoicism in her most recent book, right?

    Saphsin,

    Yes, the scholarship on a number of philosophers wasn’t that good back then. I also wonder whether Russell didn’t write the History in a hurry to make some money, since that was the time he was stranded without a job in the US, at the outbreak of WWII. (He was fired by City College, were I work now, because a woman sued the university alleging that he was incompetent to teach moral philosophy, since he had just published Marriage and Morals…)

    Socratic,

    Thanks for the note about the use of “gospel.” I knew of that secondary usage, but I didn’t think it was that common. Russell does, however, mentions the Christians directly several times in the chapter on Stoicism.

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  10. Massimo: You can tell Coel that biblical scholarship is still valuable!

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  11. Still today in modern Greek, Massimo, αγγελία without the prefix is the normal word for “announcement.” Obviously, in modern Greek, the word εὐαγγελία is also listed by Google Translate as “announcement.”

    If one looks for “proclamation,” the most common is προκήρυξη, which is related to the classical (and Biblical) κηρυγμα, normally “preaching” in the NT.

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  12. I need an edit button. It’s not “obviously” on εὐαγγελία, but it is still used; I was going to type “obviously it’s not” before checking. Now, how common that is today? Probably not.

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  13. @Massimo,

    “But she is more positive about Stoicism in her most recent book, right?”

    Yes and no. Her view of anger is so close to Stoicism that much of the book basically reads like a modern Stoic text (and it is definitely enriching my own Stoic practice! Great read).

    But she is still staunchly opposed to the doctrine of indifferents and to apatheia in general, and she believes that Stoic view removes any logical basis to motivate us to work against injustice.

    She says that the Stoics’ “reply” to this accusation “was unsuccessful: for they actually believed that injuries other people can inflict are not serious wrongs, so they really had no resources for addressing them, or motivating others to do so. The Stoics would have held that the values expressed in [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] speech are altogether erroneous but then they are bound to hold that his protreptic to pursue justice is also inappropriate” (p. 38).

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  14. Hmm, okay. Just out of curiosity, what’s your take on that sort of criticism?

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  15. The Stoics held that while receiving injury is no evil, trying to cause injury is an evil to the evildoer. So we should pursue Justice for our own good, which is our good character. The victims of injustice, when they lead the movements, may not be able to expect it to work…but if it does, they will improve the societal distribution of preferred indifferents, and if it doesn’t, at least they get to show others how unnecessary some of these rules are and that questioning them and getting pushback for doing so is no evil when done with good intentions. In other words, they can be role models for the rest of us. If everyone has their fair share of the preferred indifferents, it won’t guarantee that their lives will be better, sure. But letting go of their attachment to privileges maintained via oppression, and opening themselves up to more friendly relationships with the formerly oppressed, will make the lives of the former oppressors better if a justice movement succeeds.

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  16. @Massimo,

    Kind of you to be curious of my opinion. I suppose that when I hear someone suggesting that Stoic values leave “no resources” for motivating people to act against injustice, three distinct thoughts come to mind (each of which is kind of their own separate comment):

    ——————
    1. First there is the principle of the thing.

    Julie’s comment already hit this on the head. It seems like Nussbaum’s critique is neglecting the all-important “selective value” or “planning value” that Stoicism places on externals. “Materials are indifferent,” said Epictetus, “but the use that one makes of them is by no means indifferent (Discourses, 2.5.1).

    By neglecting selective value, she is actually trying to critique the Stoics with the same argument the Stoics used against the Cynics, Pyrrho, and Aristo (ex. De Finibus, 3.12): if you don’t make distinctions between externals “to be promoted” (according to nature) and externals “to be demoted” (contrary to nature), then you’ve abolished the grounds for choice—which is the grounds for virtue itself!

    Justice is very much “according to nature,” and therefore it is very much a thing “to be promoted”—it definitely has a kind of value, and we can’t exercise virtue without acting on that awareness.

    ——————
    2. Eupatheia.

    Yes yes, Nussbaum could say, I know all about the Stoic view of rational action and treating externals as material for virtue to act upon. But their idea of “selective value” is disconnected from the passions, and without emotions, it is very difficult to motivate people toward right action. The Stoics argued that “people can be moved by principles, without the emotion” (her words, p. 38), but abstract principles aren’t going to motivate people like an MLK speech!

    To this I would say I don’t believe that Stoicism actually teaches that we should be “moved by principles, without emotion.” That sounds suspiciously Platonic. I think that cultivating healthy approach-oriented emotions (to use modern psychological terms) is very important to putting Stoic virtue into practice.

    In this case, just like the eupathos “Wishing” corresponds to the pathos “Desire,” I think there is a eupathos that corresponds to anger (which Nussbaum agrees is a species of Desire). I call it “urgency.” A Stoic is more than ready to intentionally cultivate a sense of “urgency” to help sustain her commitment to selecting good actions.

    The cognitive content of “urgency” goes something like this: “shoot! I gotta make sure I’m doing every I can to do something about this situation!”

    It’s the next logical step after proto-anger, or what Nussbaum calls “transition-anger:” an emotion she says consists entirely in the thought “how outrageous! Something should be done about that.”

    ——————
    3. Patheia.

    Okay, Nussbaum might say, sound enough, but on a pragmatic level, I’m not convinced that this “urgency” is something that you can maintain without admitting—at a deep, emotional level—that justice really is “good” and injustice really is “bad.”

    This is where the conversation gets trickiest, IMO. Do passions—emotions that treat externals as truly good and bad, and outcomes as worth really, fully celebrating and grieving—usually motivate us toward our duty, or do they primarily hold us back from duty?

    Stoics are fond of arguing that we need to detach ourselves from externals, celebrating only our choices, specifically so that we are free to work hard, to take risks, to put moral principles ahead of personal comfort, and to be consistent in doing what needs done! “As long as these things have hold of us,” says Seneca, “you may say, ‘These are your duties to your father, those are wha you owe to your children, and these to your friends and guests,’ but greed will hold us back in the act of trying” (Letter 95.37).

    On the flip-side, Nussbaum has a point that the passions can sometimes help get us off our butt and motivate us to do something important that we otherwise might be blind to.

    But, as my friend Sophia has argued in a lovely blog post (http://virtualstoa.org/2017/02/05/why-stoicism-is-great-for-activism/), apatheia is also “great for activism.” A Stoic activist, Sophia argues, “is at lower risk of being discouraged by setbacks,” “is harder to intimidate,” and “is less likely to be emotionally manipulated into bad decisions,” etc. Passion might get you to attend a protest, but a certain degree of self-sacrificing detachment can help you be willing to invest in the “long haul.”

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  17. Nicely put, thanks! I would only add that whatever the ancient Stoics meant, 21st century Stoics are not bound by it. We can interpret and update, while retaining enough of the core ideas to still call it Stoicism.

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  18. Reblogged this on Ordinary Philosophy and commented:

    I’m an admirer of Bertrand Russell in some ways, and not in others. For one, I, too, have discovered over time that Russell had gotten some things very wrong about some philosophers and their ideas, and had to overcome some of the prejudices his History of Philosophy had instilled in me. Thanks for the defense of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci! This essay serves as a good introduction to Stoicism as well.

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  19. I recently picked up a copy of Russell’s Wisdom of the West, an illustrated history of western philosophy published in 1959. While he devotes most of the four pages on Stoicism to its history, Russell repeats his uncharitable arguments against Stoicism. “But quite apart from the logical difficulties in the theory, there are, it would seem, plain factual mistakes. It is much to be feared that misery on the whole is not conducive to enhancing virtue or ennobling the soul. Besides, it is one of the melancholy discoveries of this progressive age of ours that with sufficient skill it is possible to break probably anyone, however strong his fibre.”

    Russell advances the myth about Marcus Aurelius persecuting Christians: “He persecuted the Christians, not from malice, but because their rejection of the state religion was a troublesome source of dissidence. In this he was probably correct, though at the same time persecution is always a sign of weakness on the part of the persecutor. A society firmly established and confident of itself has no need to persecute heretics.”

    Russell accuses Stoic ethics of being deterministic, writing, “Admirable though some of these suggestions might be as precepts for dignified living, there are serious flaws in the doctrine as an ethical theory. For if the world is ruled by law it is of small avail to preach the supremacy of virtue. Those who are virtuous will be so because it is the way it had to be, and likewise for the wicked. And what are we to make of the Godhead which preordains evil?” Russell believes this determinism led to inconsistencies in how Aurelius governed, and, ignoring the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism, accuses Stoic virtue of being asocial, arguing, “It is worth noting that in spite of subscribing to the general stoic theory of the Good, Marcus Aurelius held a view of public duty which is more in line with that of Plato. Man being a social creature, it behooves us to play our part in the body politic. This underlines on the ethical plane the difficulty about free will and determinism we have hinted at earlier. For we have seen that on the general stoic view a man’s virtue or vice is a private matter which does not affect others. But on the social view of man, the ethical qualities of each can have a very definite effect on everyone else. Had the Emperor taken a laxer view of his duties, there would undoubtedly have been far more strife than existed already. No very convincing solution of this difficulty was ever produced by stoicism.” Thus in Russell’s view, whatever success Aurelius enjoyed in lessening strife was not because of but rather in spite of Stoicism.

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  20. Thank you for correcting the record, and thanks again, as always, for your enlightening essays. As ever, your sincere admirer and eager student – Amy

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  21. I’ve read that Russell wrote this for money since he had been blackballed for his antiwar activities. It usually is described as a “potboiler” meaning it was meant to stir up things rather than as a serious work of history. I recently started rereading it, but just about all of it is polemical rather than historical.
    To me, Russell is paradoxical since he had a thin theory of morality but strode the world like a prophet against war.

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  22. Jbonni,

    If I got my chronology right, Russell was stuck in the US during the war because he was fired from City College (where I work!) for incompetence. (He wasn’t incompetent, but a prudish woman filed a lawsuit against the College based on Russell’s publication of On Marriage and Morals, and this being the US…) He couldn’t go back to the UK, and nobody would offer him a job while in the US. He eventually did get a teaching appointment at Harvard.

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