I am running a mini-series of posts on the concept of the Stoic Sage, the perfectly wise person. Though interesting in terms of understanding Stoic philosophy, the Sage is, as Seneca puts it, as rare as the phoenix (once every 500 years), if it is possible at all. A much more important and practical concept in Stoicism is that of role models, people who we know personally, know of through other sources, or even fictional characters, who are not perfect, and yet provide a reference point to adjust our own moral compass. As Seneca says:
“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty, 10)
Accordingly, I have a special category on this blog devoted to Stoic role models, with the latest entries so far being a fictional one, the Greek mythological hero Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans). Here, though, I want to explore the result of a group exercise I did with my students during this past summer’s Stoic School in Rome. I asked the group to give a few minutes of thought to the matter and then propose several people who they might adopt as personal role models. The exercise is interesting in part because it tells us a bit about who we are and how we understand Stoic philosophy. You can do it yourself as a small exercise in self-discovery.
Here are some of the entries from the school, listed in alphabetical order and grouped by non-fictional (historical vs contemporary) and fictional. I added links to entries that may be less familiar to some readers (and of course you can look up any of them on your own):
Historical non-fictional role models
Cato the Younger
Diogenes of Sinope
Hypatia of Alexandria
Contemporary non-fictional role models
Historical fictional role models
Penelope of Ithaca (Odysseus’ wife)
Contemporary fictional role models
Go over these lists and reflect a bit about each entry. Why would that person or fictional character be a good Stoic role model? Would you adopt her/him as your personal “Sage on the shoulder”? Who else would you add to the lists?
The idea, remember, is not that we are looking for a perfect individual. Both real life and fictional role models have their flaws, because they are human. Moreover, we are not looking necessarily for a single individual, as different models may suit different circumstances, or moods, or just distinct phases of your life.
A good Stoic role model does not have to be someone following Stoic philosophy. Moreover, some notable Stoics are not on the lists, beginning, predictably, with Seneca. He would not have put himself there anyway:
“Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8-9)
The lists include men and women (notice two from antiquity: Porcia Catonis and Hypatia of Alexandria), as well as entries from outside the Western canon. They are, obviously, highly incomplete, not just because I gave my students only a few minutes to come up with the names, but also because the candidates reflect the particular composition of my group at the school (remarkably international, yes, but certainly not a sample of all world’s cultures).
Here are my own picks, one from each of the four lists. I will briefly explain my choices, again as an exercise in self-discovery:
Epictetus, Malala Yousafzai, Odysseus, and Spider-Man.
Epictetus was my first introduction to Stoicism. He comes across as a bit harsh sometimes, but I love his sense of humor and relentless insistence that his students practice, instead of just study the theory. More importantly, in terms of what we know of his biography, he was born a slave around 50 CE and suffered much under his first master (who allegedly broke his leg, maiming him for life). He was eventually freed by his second master, Nero’s secretary Epaphroditos, and started teaching in the streets of Rome. That didn’t go so well, as he got punched in the face by people who didn’t want to be annoyed. He regrouped, learned from experience, and founded his own school. He was then exiled by the emperor Domitian around 93 CE, aged 43, and moved to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece. He re-established his school, which became one of the most successful and sought after in all of antiquity. We are told that he lived a simple life with few possessions, thus practicing his more Cynic-like brand of Stoicism. In his old age he adopted a friend’s son, who would have otherwise ben left to die, and raised him with the help of a woman whom he may have married. Again, practicing Stoic compassion until the end, around 135 CE, in his mid to late 80s.
Malala Yousafzai, presumably, needs no introduction. Here is what I write about her in How to Be a Stoic: “Malala was eleven years old when she anonymously began writing a BBC blog detailing the harshly regressive approach of the Taliban toward women’s education in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, where her family ran a chain of schools. Malala was then featured in a New York Times documentary, which caused both her initial rise to fame and her targeting by the Taliban. On October 9, 2012, a coward boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her three times. Amazingly, Malala survived the ordeal, eventually making a full recovery.”
“That experience alone would have been enough to put her on the same level as Priscus [one of the courageous Stoics mentioned by Epictetus] and so many others over the centuries and across cultures who have dared to stand up to repression and barbarism. But it turns out that the shooting was just the beginning for Malala. Despite further threats by the Taliban against her and her father Ziauddin, she has continued to advocate publicly and vociferously on behalf of young girls’ education, and her activism has been credited with helping to pass Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. In 2014, at age seventeen, she became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize, for peace. I am confident that she will keep up the struggle throughout what I hope will be a long and eudaimonic life. (Incidentally, she recently enrolled in Philosophy at Oxford.) Did Malala make a difference? Yes, both in practice (in that respect she was luckier than Priscus) and as a role model for others — “a fine example to the rest” — as Epictetus would have put it, indeed.”
I have already written extensively about Odysseus and why he was a role model not just for the Stoics, but also, remarkably, for the Epicureans, and the Cynics (he was also well regarded by Plato). He has been an influence on me since I was a kid.
And so has been my last entry in the list: Spider-Man. I’m talking about the early versions of it, not so much about the movie characters, or the most recent developments in his long career (after more than half a century, Marvel, understandably, has to invent something new to keep selling comic books, but sometimes they risk betraying fundamental aspects of the original character. I mean, “Parker Industries”? Making Peter into a hippier and more environmental friendly version of Tony Stark??).
Spidey is clearly moved by virtue ethical, if not necessarily Stoical, precepts. He is one of the reliable moral compasses of the Marvel universe (together with Captain America, also on the list above, and Sue Richards, the “Invisible Woman” of the Fantastic Four). His most famous stock phrase is “with great power comes great responsibility,” which can easily be read in a Stoic framework: having super-powers is a preferred indifferent, but if you have them, you then have to use them virtuously, to help others. And that’s what Spidey does all the time, regardless of who the others are (cosmopolitanism), and occasionally at great personal cost (the death of his aunt May, as well as of two of his girlfriends, Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane). Besides, Spidey’s sense of humor would have probably pleased Epictetus.
So, who are your role models, and why?