Stoic movie review: RBG

It has been some time since my last Stoic movie review (about Imperium), but a couple of nights ago I saw an inspiring, if flawed, documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, simply entitled RBG, which is well worth considering here. Hell, I’m also going to add Justice Ginsburg to my list of Stoic role models.

(The flaw, by the way, was a bit too much lingering on old photos of Ginsburg as a beautiful young woman, and not enough in-depth treatment of the issues she has fought for throughout her life.)

Ginsburg’s story is inspiring to anyone who cares about justice, equality under the law, and women’s rights. The documentary does a good job at tracing both her personal life and career in that respect. When she went to Harvard Law School the Dean asked her and all the other eight female students (against five hundred men), “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” She ignored him and went on to be featured on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review, the first woman to accomplish such feat.

After she got her degree, no law firm in New York hired her, on the sole ground that she was a woman, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected her for a clerkship position for the same reason in 1960. She then began an academic career, soon landing a post as assistant professor at Rutgers University, in 1963. However, she was told that she would be paid less than her male colleagues, since her husband had a well-paid job. She nevertheless stayed at Rutgers until 1972, obtaining tenure in 1969. In ‘72 she became the first tenured woman at Columbia, where she remained until 1980.

RBG overcame all these obstacles to her career because she was determined to make a difference. In 1972 she became general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the chief organizations I support financially precisely because I think they do such a vital job within American society. In her capacity at the ACLU she argued five sex discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court, and won, changing not just the plaintiffs’ lives, but the entire American legal landscape when it came to women’s rights.

Ginsburg then was appointed by President Carter to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, and elevated to the Supreme Court (the second woman ever) by President Clinton in 1993. Initially, she was a rather moderate (though left of center) Judge on the Court, but after the conservative appointments made by President Bush (the second) she consciously moved to the left, sensing an imbalance that would negatively affect the lives of millions. Accordingly, while she wrote several majority opinions during her first years on the Court, she has recently become famous (some call her “notorious”) for authoring scathing dissenting opinions, often aimed at reminding Congress that they have both the duty and power to change the law, if the Supreme Court arrives at decisions that are patently unjust, based on the majority’s interpretation of the Constitution.

Now, why do I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Stoic role model, and have included the documentary about her in my Stoic movie reviews? Three reasons, all of them explored in the film. First off, and most obviously, she embodies at least three of the Stoic virtues: courage, justice, and temperance. The above biographical sketch should leave no doubts about her commitment to social justice, in a sense that is aligned with the Stoic conception of it, and which unfortunately is easily forgotten by a number of self-professing modern Stoics: we are all human beings, members of the human cosmopolis, to be treated fairly and equally. But she also clearly showed plenty of courage, standing up for the right thing to do, both in terms of her own professional career and on behalf of millions of women, for many decades. She did all this in the right major, rarely if ever departing from a no-nonsense approach that would calibrate her reactions to the problem at hand, thus practicing the virtue of temperance. (I cannot comment on her practical wisdom, as that one is a virtue that is usually deployed only by people who consciously think of themselves as Stoics.)

Second, her firm rejection of anger as a useful emotion. The documentary mentions this several times, adding that she inherited the attitude from her mother. Anger, as Seneca puts it, is temporary madness, and not conducive to act reasonably, even when it may be justified by an injustice. RBG has suffered plenty of personal injustices, and has fought on behalf of many others treated unjustly, throughout her life. And yet she has managed to maintain her calm in the midst of plenty of storms, a most Stoic trait.

Finally, and most surprisingly, her apparently genuine friendship with the now deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite their diametrically opposite positions on all sorts of social issues, they were warm toward each other, went on vacation trips together, and made several joint public appearances. I have to admit that I probably would not have the fortitude to stomach a friendship with a person like Scalia, who I found to be despicable. But that’s because I’m not a sage, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a better Stoic than I am. Her behavior toward Scalia embodies the difficult to internalize Stoic notion that nobody does evil on purpose, but only because they are misguided. As Marcus says:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

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11 thoughts on “Stoic movie review: RBG

  1. frabjoushellion

    Fabulous movie and very important for women. I disagree that the early photo passages (not that many) exhibit a flaw. For women, what counts is the fact that she pioneered, despite her good looks. In other words, her looks were, to her, inconsequential. Yet, her lovely, seemingly unthreatening demeanor could well have eased her way into the bastions of power. It’s all a part of the package, the dynamo that is RBG.

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  2. Thomas Lasch

    She’s a hell of a Lawyer. RBG gets a lot of flack nowadays for her outspokenness which many consider injudicious from a Justice on the Supreme Court. I tend to agree with that. But it is not her whole life’s story wherein her work as a trail blazer in her profession and with the ACLU (Whom I also have some differences with as opposed to their glory days which ended when she left them IMO). I thank you for reminding me of this. It can be difficult to see the whole picture of a person.

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  3. Chuchu

    Nice one Massimo!

    I have a question but not to RBG directly. You mentioned that she could be considered to be a stoic role model as she showed lots of 3 of the 4 virtues. I remember you wrote in one of your articles that all virtues must be practiced at the same time? I mean a drunk soldier can be courageous but not wise. I’m sure RBG had plenty of prudence or else she wouldn’t have swallowed the insults nor stay at a University that clearly paid her less based on her gender. It’s just I personally think the virtues would only work if they are practiced together, or else they can be open for abuse.

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Chuchu,

    excellent question, thanks for bringing that up. A Stoic role model does not have to be a Stoic, so it is acceptable if s/he does not follow Stoic doctrine. In this particular case, I simply don’t know whether RBG practices phronesis or not. Remember that that’s the virtue that tells you what is truly good or evil, and that is, only those things that are within your control. Only your own bad judgments are evil (for you) and only your own correct judgments are good (for you).

    So, Stoics accept the unity of the virtues, but someone does not have to follow Stoic philosophy in order to be considered a Stoic role model, which is why this series of posts does not limit itself to Stoic practitioners.

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  5. danblinn

    I was privileged to be admitted before the Supreme Court in 1998. I was part of a group, and we were treated to a discussion with the chief clerk before our admission ceremony. He told us that our name would be called and that we should then stand. He told us that RBG would probably look at us and smile. And that is exactly what happened. Eight justices ignored the ceremony and either chatted among themselves or reviewed their notes about the case arguments that would begin in a few minutes. One justice looked each of us in the eye, smiled, and nodded. That is the type of person RBG is. She recognized that, although admission ceremonies may be trivial and routine matters for the Court, they are a big moment for the individual being admitted. She made my moment more special.

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  6. labnut

    So, Stoics accept the unity of the virtues,
    This is a fascinating subject which was debated in depth during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, being the subject of hundreds of manuscripts(Bejczy-The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages).

    I think the Stoic position is that Wisdom is the unifying force of the four cardinal virtues?

    Another point of view is that charity(love) is the unifying force. Hugh of Saint Victor wrote that “the virtues appear as lifeless limbs, cut off from the trunk of charity.“. He defined virtue as “as “a rationally ordered affect of the mind”“.
    Throughout Hugh’s writings, the intellectual and the affective life appear as two distinctive realms which together make up the inner person: while our intellectual capacities lead to understanding and truth, we should embrace love and virtue through our affective skills.

    Still another point of view, put forward by Peter Abelard, viewed justice as the executor of prudence’s precepts, with fortitude and temperance assisting justice against fear and cupidity, respectively.

    Likewise Aquinas describes prudence as perfecting reason and justice as doing the good (boni factiva); fortitude and temperance are conservativae huius boni in that they protect the human being against the passions

    Finally, Philip the Chancellor argues that the cardinal virtues fulfil the four necessary conditions of virtue : knowing (prudence), willing (justice), perseverance (fortitude), and moderation (temperance). Philip believes that all four cardinal virtues underlie any of the other moral virtues.

    I am inclined to this last point of view. The unity of the four cardinal virtues consists in the fact that all must be present in any virtuous act. In other words, a fully virtuous act can be recognised by the presence of the four cardinal virtues(perhaps in varying degrees).

    This would be in line with what Chuchu said “I remember you wrote in one of your articles that all virtues must be practiced at the same time?

    In agreement with Hugh, I also believe that charity(love) is the perfection of virtue. It is the golden thread that animates the virtues.

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  7. labnut

    my post on the unity of virtues and how they are related to the rest of the Stoic system is here:

    Thanks, that is very elegant. I see the same subject has come up on PF, where Gadfly expresses doubts about the unity of virtue. Perhaps I should continue the discussion there, since this essay is more about the movie.

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