So, who’s your role model?

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

Giordano Bruno
Buddha
Cato the Younger
Diogenes of Sinope
Epictetus
Heraclitus
Hypatia of Alexandria
Jesus
Marcus Aurelius
Porcia Catonis
Socrates
Baruch Spinoza

Contemporary non-fictional role models

Hanna Arendt
Vasili Arkhipov
Viktor Frankl
Mahatma Gandhi
Melinda Gates
Helen Keller
Dalai Lama
Nelson Mandela
Florence Nightingale
Rosa Parks
Carl Rogers
Vandana Shiva
Edward Snowden
James Stockdale
Malala Yousafzai
Simone Weil

Historical fictional role models

Heracles
Odysseus
Penelope of Ithaca (Odysseus’ wife)

Contemporary fictional role models

Captain America
Spider-Man

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?

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Categories: Stoicism & pop culture, What Would a Stoic Do?

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22 replies

  1. Glad to see Helen Keller as I have other disabilities. I can only suggest names: Leopold Bloom, Alan Turing, Maria Callas: a detailed study of these characters would explain why they can be models.

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  2. A role model is someone you consciously imitate.
    Massimo, from your remarks your choices seem like those that you admire but not those you’d be trying to walk in the shoes of.
    For me, I admire many characters, real and fictional, like Sherlock Holmes, Superman, George Washington and others but don’t really see myself as becoming like them. ?

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  3. Recently i saw the movie The good, the bad and the ugly. I admire the way Clint Eastwood (the good) always keeps calm and collected and speaks only when necesarry. He might seem stoic in the modern meaning of the word, but for me he is a good rolemodel.

    Just like Epictetus says:

    Immedialtly prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

    Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necesarry, and in few words. We may, however, enter, thought sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasionn calls for it, but not on the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of man, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation, bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

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  4. Batman in the Dark Knight where he trades his reputation for the common good, having borne the loss of Wayne Manor with equanimity? I only really know Spiderman from the films where seems like Aeneas – he does the right thing but generally has a whine about it. He doesn’t seem to be a “happy warrior”, but I don’t know if that is necessary for the sage – does he have to enjoy being the sage? A historical possibility might be the Earl of Shaftsbury since he was certainly influenced by the Stoics, or William Wilberforce, although his inspiration was avowedly Christian.

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  5. Glad to see the Buddha (a.k.a. Gotama) on the list, as he is definitely one of my role models (along with Nagarjana, another Buddhist figure).

    As for why I choose Gotama as a role model, suffice it to say that I appreciate his focus on the problem of human suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha) and at least one of his proposed solutions (viz. mindfulness exercise) has proven helpful to me over the years. And, as it turns out, his teachings (Dharma) converge with Stoic thought in some places, even as they part ways elsewhere.

    But what’s more important than my personal preference is that Stoics live up to their cosmopolitan word, which entails looking “outside the Western canon”, as you put it. In fact, I recently added Owen Flanagan’s latest book to my wish list for more or less that same reason.

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  6. For me, it’s not one character but a whole nation: the British. OK, certainly not all of them, but many British have a stoic approach to life. Please take a look at this picture – an excellent example of taking care of the things one can control, and remaining indifferent to the things one can’t:

    https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/img/photo/2011/07/world-war-ii-the-battle-of-britain/w21_00725131/main_900.jpg?1420520466

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  7. i think the most obvious fictional sage would be a certain vulcan from a mid 60s television series.he is not a perfect example but i would say that any person who wanted an example of stoicism in fiction could do worse that to be like spock. sherlock holmes appears to be a real bastard in many respects- not a stoic but just a semi autistic self centered genius, for a living stoic i might nominate sam harris- he has certainly displayed a stoic affect when dealing with his enemies and his writings often display a stoic mindset.

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  8. Professor Pigliucci I found the following characters from the Marvel Comics universe to exhibit Stoic virtues: The Silver Surfer, The Watcher, and Dr. Strange.

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  9. @Stephen: I was thinking of Mr. Spock, too, at first. But then I found this quote (from the original Star Trek series), which is only ‘Stoic’ in the way that most people think about it – as being anti-emotional.
    And, after having read Massimo’s book, we know this is certainly not a real stoic characteristic.

    Here’s the quote: “May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with Humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”

    So, he is not a Stoic, first because he dislikes emotions (ALL emotions, as he often shows on other occasions), but also, because they irritate him (although they also ‘fascinate’ him, at the same time).

    So, he gets irritated by things he cannot control (the emotions of others), which is certainly not a sign of a good Stoic.

    I rest my case 🙂

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  10. I think these are the people I have to some extent, attempted to emulate, or have at least wished to emulate, in the sense that I recognise in them, their stoic qualities, even if they might not call themselves stoic or be recognised as stoics by others.

    Historical non-fictional role models
    Epictetus is definitely my first choice, though I do have a

    Contemporary non-fictional role models
    Well known figures – Noam Chomsky is the most clear cut choice for me, although if I’m honest, I’d say Bruce Springsteen has had as much if not more impact on me, personally. When I write that, I don’t mean either of them personally (though both seem to be very decent people), as I don’t know them, but their work and the way they have presented their work, and the ideals they have projected.

    I am also going to mention someone who I know personally, but who is not famous. I believe it is really important to think of people who are maybe less well known, as role models if they fit that bill. He is East Timorese by birth, and was in East Timor from the time of the invasion and almost all of the subsequent 25 years of genocidal atrocities, carried out by the invaders. Durning this time, when still a child, he witnessed horrifying rapes, the beating and then subsequent immolation of his father, as a warning to other villagers not to resist, and the kidnapping of his pregnant mother (Amnesty International were part of a campaign to secure her release, thankfully the was eventually successful). He eventually escaped East Timor, after escaping with his Grandfather, to live in the mountains, for several years. He came to England, and lived with us for a few years, until the Timorese referendum, when he decided to go home. He really spoke about what he lived through, but when he did, he did so with a quite and dignified, almost shy, stoicism. It was rare I saw him without a smile, and he was daily, an entirely gracious and caring friend. He called me brother and my partner sister as a matter of course, and I eventually learned to feel natural, doing the same. He never expressed bitterness, though often he expressed surprise at the casualness of violence he’d witnessed and and the attitude to it of certain politicians we met during our time together, who could have brought the arming and training of his country’s invaders, to an end. One of the most vine things I saw was when one day he asked how to use photoshop. A day later, in his room there was a simple picture he’d made, over his bed. His father and him, stood together, by the grave of his father. Even typing this now, 20 years on, I still feel that overwhelming sense that I was in the presence of greatness.

    Historical fictional role models
    Sancho Panza or maybe Candide. On bad days, Prince Myshkin!
    (I also think that the Jesus that we know of through the Biblical accounts is both a fictional figure, and also a very interesting role model in certain respects, but in others, I’m not so sure).

    Contemporary fictional role models
    The Man – from The Road by Cormac McCarthy or Holly Sykes from David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks. Both resonate with me. Both seem to be stoic in in certain key ways.

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  11. I would pick Noam Chomsky. I admire his intellectual honesty and dedication to the use of reason.

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  12. After much thought, I want to put forward my dad as a role model. Part of me resisted doing this because at times his actions have also been a source of pain for me. However, my reasoning reminds me that he’s human and not perfect. He is a role model for me in several ways. From a young age he talked to me about life issues and we had good, heated debates. He’d prod my thinking and bait me to ask “why”? He encouraged me to examine life and use rationale thinking. At certain points he would tell me “Some things you just have to accept”. I hated that but as I got older his words helped me through some tough things that I could not change. When my dad was about 60 I asked him what he was most proud of in his life. He said “I suppose I should say ‘my kids’, but what I’m most proud of is that I haven’t gotten jaded by life”. Thirty years later he is still fresh and engaged in life – on life’s terms. Finally, when I call my dad he always says “everything is great”, that he loves me and is thankful that I called. He’s determined to stay positive and he is living the last days of life to the maximum.

    When it comes to fictional characters, Spiderman is my favourite. I’m not sure if he’s a role model but as a kid I was jealous of his girlfriend. I know, not very stoic.

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  13. Jbonni,

    I find it interesting you assume that I just admire, but do not wish to imitate, those people.

    A lot hinges on what “imitate” means, of course. I’m not about starting to jump off buildings in search of supervillains, but I both admire and try to imitate Spider-Man’s courage and sense of justice. Same for all the others. Epictetus is a particularly good role model for me, since he spent his life teaching.

    Stephen,

    Ah, I think I’m going to part ways about Harris, I do not have a high opinion of him: http://tinyurl.com/ycryr8u6

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  14. Jocko Willink (retired Navy SEAL) is often thought of teaching Stoic values although he is not a follower of the philosophy. He also has spoken about it on his podcasts. Although Jocko does not have the fame of others on the lists provided, he is one that should be on that list in my opinion.

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  15. I vote for Musonius Rufus, whose description by Cora E. Lutz is nothing short of heroic — Stoically speaking, of course.

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  16. My favorite Stoic model is a fictional character, Nell from Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” From the lowest social stratum of her world, with the help of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (a kind of interactive Kindle e-reader), she turns herself into an admirable character who understands under the most trying circumstances that no one can degrade you through their actions so long as you don’t psychologically or emotionally allow their actions to undermine the self you have fashioned. She also exercises her virtue by taking action to bring about the good on a personal and political level. An amazing character in one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

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  17. I guess it’s easier to admire fictional characters in this respect because we usually get to see their story in context and with real people it’s hard to know how Stoic they are day to day. But yes, Malala is definitely a personal hero.

    I like the superheroes you mention, Spiderman, Batman, Capt. America, and I like the new Ms. Marvel. I also would put Capt. Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation in there. Here’s some of his best stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jph2qWXJ-Tk

    I also really like Mark Watney, the main character in The Martian(book and film) who seems to have a perfect Stoic attitude to all that comes his way.

    Thanks!

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  18. From Star Trek, I think I would choose, other than the Vulcans, Chakotay from Voyager.

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  19. I would say Frank Zappa and I am serious. Knowledge of his music and philosophy would make that evident to anyone.

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  20. My personal hero is Spinoza and I think he exemplifies the qualities of the Stoic sage. An excommunicated Jew living in the Netherlands during the height of European religious intolerance and persecution, he nevertheless made many good friends (whom he cherished and to whom we are grateful for the posthumous publication of the “Ethics”) and was much involved in the developing science of his day. He corresponded regularly with Henry Oldenburg,the first Secretary of the then newly founded Royal Society,and Christiaan Huygens remarked on the quality of his telescopic lenses.
    While the “Ethics” is his primary work(and for me the metaphysics’s by which I judge all others) it is the “Theological-Political Treatise” that was most influential to me. I am a cradle catholic and as I continued to explore religion and philosophy in my adulthood I found it harder and harder to reconcile my values with the Church’s teaching(particularly after having children and knowing they would question matters I had learned to live with). It was then that I discovered the TTP and its criticism of the bible and religion was revelatory to me. The fact that it was one of the earliest and strongest defenses of free speech and democracy was no less important.
    By the way Massimo,in the last few years your two blogs have been a daily destination for me. I know I speak for many of your readers when I say your writing has been an inspiration and guide for me. While I know you would be reluctant to acknowledge it you are also worthy of appellation “sage”.

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  21. David,

    I am very very far from being a Sage! But I’m glad my writings are being helpful to you and others. Cheers!

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