When 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.