Author Archives: Massimo

About Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, V: the imperfect imperial family

Octavian Augustus

Octavian Augustus, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, was the first Roman emperor. The battle of Actium of 31 BCE, where he defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, marked the end of the Hellenistic period and the rise of the new empire. While Octavian had hardly been a particularly ethical individual in his youth, as emperor he set up his family as a model of moral behavior, and — to his credit — oversaw a long period of Pax Romana, which is still today celebrated by that beautiful monument in Rome known as the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace).

But the imperial family was a human family, and thus obviously imperfect, sometimes more so, at other times less. Liz Gloyn, in the fifth chapter of her fascinating The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, takes a close look at how the Stoic philosopher portrayed the imperial families he was actually acquainted with, as well as those he head read about, reminding his readers that domestic happiness is elusive for anyone but the wise person. This was true especially for imperial families, since their obvious preoccupation with power set up a difficult tradeoff with what should have been their primary concern instead: virtue.

Octavian Augustus didn’t limit himself to build public monuments like the Ara Pacis to celebrate the new era, but promulgated laws to enforce a stricter view of morality, particularly when it came to the family. For instance, his Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus made procreation an explicit part of the definition of marriage, with penalties for people who did not marry or have children. In 2 BCE he declared himself Pater Patriae, father of the nation, putting forth an explicit analogy between the family and the state.

The reality, of course, was complicated. For one thing, the Julio-Claudians, the first imperial dynasty, was plagued by internal power struggles between the two branches, the Julians and the Claudians, and that struggle very clearly undermined the image of pietas (devotion to gods and country) that Augustus wished to project (that, and the fact that his own youthful “indiscretions” were not so easily forgotten).

For his part, Seneca had a vantage point that included a close look at the inner workings of Nero’s family, including both the complicated, shall we say, relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina, as well as the latter’s unusual marriage to her uncle, Claudius.

Seneca uses different imperial families as either good or bad examples for his pedagogical purposes. For instance, in De Ira, he refers to an episode involving Augustus, presenting it as a case of restrain and justice. The story goes that the emperor was dining at the house of the patrician Vedius Pollio, when one of Pollio’s slaves broke a glass. The angry master cruelly fed the slave to lampreys. In response, Augustus ordered every glass in the household to be smashed, had the lamprey pit filled, and gave a stern lecture to his host.

But Seneca also uses the imperial family in a series of exempla mala (bad examples), a standard Stoic tool for moral teaching, just as important as the exempla (positive examples) that are scattered throughout Seneca’s writings. The crucial point, again, is that there is a tension between the pursuit of power in politics and being virtuous. Seneca, however, also very clearly states that the wise person should be engaged in affairs of the state, so this isn’t a counsel for political disengagement. Rather, it advances the idea that only a virtuous person can be a good politician. Where “good” means virtuous and good for the state, not just successful at obtaining and wielding power. If only modern politicians were paying attention…

We have seen how Seneca uses his letter of consolation ad Marciam to talk about the relationship between mother and son, but it also includes a pair constituted by an exemplum and an anti-exemplum, both drawn from the imperial family. Specifically, he contrasts the measured grief of Livia after the death of her son Drusus with the immoderate grief displayed by Octavia following the death of her son Marcellus. Liz drily notes that it may not have been by chance that Livia was a Claudian while Octavia was a Julian, thus revealing Seneca’s own political leanings.

A crucial point made by Gloyn is that the fusion of the two branches of the dynasty often meant that a member of one branch would publicly grieve for the death of a member from the other branch, while secretly being relieved that a potential obstacle to advancement had been removed. This sort of attitude is entirely incompatible with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the appropriation of other’s concerns as if they were our own, a concept that Seneca repeatedly makes use of whenever he writes about family relations.

One of the problematic examples used often by Seneca is the relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia. Julia’s adultery conflicts directly with the carefully constructed image of the ideal family that the emperor wants to project, and the father-daughter conflict couldn’t be, again, further away from the ideal of oikeiosis. In Augustus’ case, political expediency has overcome familial affection for his daughter. Interestingly:

“Seneca deploys Stoicised doublespeak in his use [in De Clementia] of the honorific civic title to which Augustus was entitled. Naming Augustus divus invokes a heavy Stoic irony, since that ascription is followed by a list of things that make him suffer.” (p. 221)

An imperial figure that appears an unexpectedly large number of times (sixteen!) in Seneca’s writings is Gaius Caligula, for whom Seneca reserves a particular tone of disgust and outrage. The most obvious example is found in another letter of consolation, ad Polybium, where Seneca attacks Caligula’s reaction to the death of his sister Drusilla:

“When his sister Drusilla died, Gaius Caesar, that man who could no more grieve than rejoice as befits a princeps, fled from the sight and society of his citizens; he did not attend his sister’s funeral rites, he did not make funeral offerings to his sister, but in his Alban home he made light of the evils of that most bitter funeral with dice, gaming board and other pastimes of this kind. … May this example be far off from every Roman man, either to divert his grief with ill-timed games, or to provoke it with the foulness of dirt and neglect, or to amuse it with the sufferings of others, not a human comfort at all.” (XVII.4-6)

This is a splendid example of Seneca’s humanity. Far from counseling suppression of emotions and enduring life with a stiff upper lip, he condemns Gaius for his lack of appropriate feelings given the occasion, not to mention the despicable example that he, the alleged pater familias of the nation, is giving to the Roman people.

Another graphic example is found in De Ira, where Caligula is condemned in no uncertain terms by Seneca for his cruelty:

“Why do I examine ancient matters? Only recently on a single day Gaius Caesar fell upon Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and son of his procurator, and others, both senators and knights, with whips, and tortured them, not for interrogation’s sake but for his mood’s; then he was so impatient of putting off pleasure, which his cruelty used to demand in great amount without delay, that while walking with matrons and other senators in the open promenade of his mother’s gardens, which separates the portico from the river bank, by lamp-light, he beheaded certain of them.” (III.18-3-4)

This can also be read as a not so subtle critique of the general Roman figure of the pater familias, not just the imperial one. According to Roman law, the head of the household had literal power of life and death on anyone living under his roof. Not just slaves, but his wife and children as well. On occasion, such power was horribly abused, just in the manner in which Caligula is abusing his powers as head of state, and doing so, of all places, in the garden of her recently deceased mother, Agrippina.

“Gaius represents the complete failure of the imperial family to provide ethical support. Seneca highlights this breakdown by showcasing Gaius’ degradation and moral failings in contexts where he is aided and abetted by his family. He demonstrates what happens when a family becomes concerned with power rather than virtue — it has catastrophic consequences both for individual members and for the unfortunate state in which they reside.” (p. 231)

While Seneca is often — rightly — criticized for having abetted some of Nero’s abuses, particularly the latter’s murder of his mother, Liz’s analysis in this chapter makes very clear that Seneca rather courageously and not at all subtly attacked the official model of the imperial family from the point of view of Stoic ethics, finding it woefully deficient. He should get credit for this achievement as much as for his failings.

(next: rewriting the family)

A Stoic watches the World Cup

Russia’s Yuri Gazinsky’s header against Saudi Arabia, the first goal in the 2018 World Cup.

Yes, of course I sat myself in front of my television set last Thursday at 11am New York time to watch the opening game of the World Cup (the modifier “soccer” is unnecessary, everybody knows what I’m talking about). I was not alone: the forecast is that by the end of the tournament, on July 15th, 3.4 billion people will have tuned in. That’s half the world’s population.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many Stoics watched Russia vs Saudi Arabia (final score a whopping 5-0 for the hosts), or will watch any of the remaining 63 games. More importantly, I was wondering how a Stoic should watch them, or even whether he should. Stay with me, it may sound like it, but this is not one of those killjoy posts one expects if one knows little of actual Stoicism (the philosophy) as opposed to stoicism (the stiff upper lip & down with emotions attitude).

To begin with, soccer (or football, as the rest of the world rightly calls it) has been the topic of philosophical writings before. Indeed, there is a nice and accessible collection of essays on the topic, edited by Ted Richards for Open Courts, which includes titles like “Nietzsche’s Arsenal,” “Plato and the Greatness of the Game,” “Why playing beautifully is morally better,” “Kant at the Maracanã,” and “Kierkegaard at the penalty spot,” among many others. But there is no entry for Stoicism.

That may be because of this sort of quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“From my tutor [I learned] not to have sided with the Greens or the Blues [at the chariot races] or the gladiators with the long shield or short ones.” (Meditations I.5)

Or perhaps this one, from Epictetus:

“Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk about people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them.” (Enchiridion XXXIII.3)

Obviously, we don’t have gladiators nowadays (thank Zeus!), but you get the point. I will, however, argue that these two passages are not about rejecting the enjoyment offered by a harmless pastime like modern football, but rather, respectively, about approaching it in the right way, and keeping it in the right perspective.

Before I explain what I mean, let me remind you that watching sports is, at best, to be classed among the preferred indifferents, i.e., the sort of thing that doesn’t make you a better or worse person (despite what some hooligans may think of fans of a rival team). That is, the activity is morally neutral, and moreover, the outcome is most certainly not under your control. As I had to remind myself when I saw Sweden (Sweden!!) eliminate Italy before the Azzurri could get to the final round of this year’s competition.

Now, I have come to divide the preferred indifferents into two categories (Diogenes Laertius does something like this in his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VIII.102): those that can be used well (or badly), and are therefore opportunities to exercise virtue; and those that are completely neutral. My choice of, say, chocolate over vanilla gelato is completely neutral in that sense. But my decision to eat gelato, with a certain frequency, and in certain quantities, is a preferred (or dispreferred) indifferent. Why? Because if I do it infrequently and in small portions I am thereby exercising one of the four virtues, temperance; while if I eat it frequently or in large portions I am failing at the exercise of temperance. I’m not kidding, that’s why Musonius Rufus says that we have multiple occasions to practice temperance every day: one per meal (Lectures 18B.4).

So I am going to suggest that football, like any other spectator sport, is a preferred indifferent in the sense that it provides not just entertainment and some needed R&R, but also opportunities to exercise virtue.

Incidentally, if you are (mistakenly) convinced that Stoics are not into R&R, just consider this quote from Seneca:

“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)

A bit of rest, relaxation, and entertainment are just as crucial to the human mind as food and water are to the human body, so let’s drop all this nonsense about Stoics not appreciating the good things in life.

But we do try to appreciate them reasonably, and in moderation — i.e., virtuously. Which brings me back to the two quotes by Marcus and Epictetus above. Let’s start with Marcus. He is reminding himself that he should not hope for the Green or the Blue team to win, but only desire what actually happens: be glad for whatever team ends up winning, since that was the way the cosmos arranged things, and what’s the point of wishing otherwise? Football is often referred to as a gentlemen’s (these days, really, a gentlepeople’s) sport, because at its best it is about fairplay and the serene acceptance that sometimes you win and at other times you lose (the English version of the mid 19th century did not have referees…).

But of course we are not sages, so I very much wanted, for instance, Portugal to beat the crap out of Spain in last Friday’s game. (Don’t ask, it’s irrelevant.) What actually unfolded was one of the best and most exciting games I have seen in a long time, with Portugal going up 1-0 after a few minutes, Spain equalizing, then 2-1 for Portugal, then 2-2 and 2-3 (advantage Spain), and finally 3-3. (All Portuguese goals were scored by an unstoppable Ronaldo.) I was able to channel my inner Marcus and remind myself that one can prefer certain outcomes, but that the virtuous thing to do is to accept whatever happens with equanimity, especially since I had no control at all over the final score. I succeeded, and I managed to thoroughly enjoy the experience as a result.

What about Epictetus? What he is saying in that quote is that we should strive not to talk too much when in other people’s company (because we are not as interesting to others as we are to ourselves), and also to try to raise the level of the conversation whenever possible, so that everyone can benefit. Hence the advice not to talk about sport or food, and especially not to gossip.

Again, I’m no sage, so I occasionally do talk about sports (I mean, I’m writing a whole post about them…). But I have always recognized Epictetus’ point, before I ever heard of the guy. There is not much sense in over-talking about a game. It’s an enjoyable experience, and it’s fun to comment on it with friends while it’s happening. But doing “Monday morning quarterbacking,” as the Americans put it (referring to the other football) is really rather silly. So I am training myself to speak less (it’s hard for me) and better. You may want to give it a try, it feels more deeply satisfying, at the end of the evening.

So, which virtues does watching a football game exercise? I submit all of them, especially if one goes to the stadium to watch it live, or if one is in mixed company, meaning in the presence of fans of the opposing team. Let’s see:

  • Practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence): this is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for me. Whether “my” team wins or not falls under neither category, which means that I should accept whatever outcome with equanimity.
  • Temperance: I will watch selected games (because too many would use up a lot of time, the only commodity, according to Seneca, that we never get back), and participate in the excitement with moderation (unlike, say, a hooligan who gets drunk, annoys other people, and possibly even smashes things).
  • Courage: to clap for the opposing team, or one of their players, whenever they deserve it, even though my friends and co-fans will give me dirty looks or be embarrassed by my behavior.
  • Justice: treat both the players and the fans of the other team as human beings, members of the same cosmopolis, not to be called names, shouted down or, of course, subjected to violence.

Now if you would excuse me, Sweden is about to play South Korea. Go South Korea!

Stoicism and relationships: three models

Xanthippe pours the contents of a chamber pot on Socrates’ head

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking of relationships of late, from a Stoic perspective. In part this has been spurred by my reading of Liz Gloyn’s superb The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, regarding which I’m running a multi-part commentary. I recently also ran one of my Stoic School of Life meetups in New York in which we discussed the function of role models in Stoic moral development. So why not combine the two? Does Stoic lore provide us with examples of relationships we could reflect on and, perhaps even use as guidance? As it turns out, it does, and I have picked three in particular to discuss here.

Before we get started, however, a due caveat: all three examples are, not surprisingly, of heterosexual relationships where the man is the philosopher and the woman is the “partner” (well, actually, in one both of them are philosophers). But I suggest that this is an irrelevant detail that reflects the culture of Greco-Roman times, not anything inherent in Stoicism. So below feel free to imagine the three cases as reversed (i.e., still heterosexual, but with male and female roles switched), or as instances of non-heterosexual couples. It really doesn’t matter, the same lessons can be learned, and the same principles apply.

Case study I: Socrates and Xanthippe

Socrates is the Stoic role model par excellence, and the Stoics explicitly declared their philosophy to be Socratic. He was famously married to Xanthippe, who was much younger then he, possibly as much as 40 years. She gave him three three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. It is likely that she was from a family of higher social status than Socrates, based both on the root of her name (hippo, for horse, a common feature of Athenian aristocratic names), and that their first son was not named Sophroniscus, after Socrates’ father.

Xanthippe, according to multiple sources, had a temper, and that was why Socrates liked her. In a classic story they had a fight and Socrates left the home, but Xanthippe was not done yet and poured the content of a chamber pot on his head. Socrates’ comment was “after thunder comes the rain.”

Xanthippe is mentioned both in Plato’s Phaedo and in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Symposium, and in these sources she is portrayed as a devoted mother and wife. In the Symposium, Antisthenes (later the founder of Cynicism), a student of Socrates, claims that she is “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” Socrates concurs, but adds:

“It is the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: ‘None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,’ he says; ‘the horse for me to own must show some spirit’ in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.” (Symposium 17-19)

In other words, Socrates and Xanthippe — despite all odds — had a successful relationship, and part of it was due to the fact that she was sharp and of strong character, and that Socrates used her as a test of his virtue, specifically of his ability to deal with human beings even when they were difficult.

The message: a relationship does not have to be perfect to work, and so long as your partner is virtuous s/he is worth sticking with. One can embrace one’s partner difficult character in order to test and improve one’s virtue, and — apparently — age differences don’t matter!

My personal experience: I have had one important relationship that felt relevantly similar, and it lasted for a good number of years. But in the end I was not enough of a Socrates, I must admit.

Case study II: Seneca and Pompeia Paulina

Pompeia was an educated Roman woman, part of a circle of aristocrats who attempted to live according to ethical principles (presumably inspired by the Stoicism of her husband) even under the tyranny of Nero. When Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide (because he was thought to be implicated in the failed Pisonian conspiracy), Pompeia sought to die together with her husband. Seneca apparently objected, though according to one source she was saved by Nero’s guards, since the emperor didn’t think it would be good publicity for the already troubled regime if she died too.

Liz Gloyn, in the book mentioned above, comments that

“[Seneca] reasons with her but respects her choice as rational after articulating the opposing side of the argument. He balances the spouse’s duty to educate and clarify with respect for Paulina as an autonomous moral agent. Her decision is based upon her evaluation of life as an indifferent, and her preference for a death that has glory rather than an ignoble life.” (pp. 145-146)

Pompeia is also mentioned in De Ira, and the portrait that emerges is one of a trusted companion who understands the philosopher even in his quirky rituals. Consider this passage, where Seneca famously describes the exercise known today as the evening meditation, or the philosophical diary:

“What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore’?” (On Anger III.36)

Seneca and Pompeia formed an asymmetric couple, not only because Seneca was a man in imperial Rome (and therefore afforded social privileges closed to a woman), but because he was a worldly politician, businessman, playwright, and philosopher. That kind of asymmetry is not at all unusual even today. And yet he found delight in her (though occasionally, as Gloyn points out, he had to get away to retreat into himself and recover serenity), and she was loyal (to the end, literally) and supportive. As Gloyn puts it: “Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

The message: good relationships don’t have to be symmetrical, one can be happy in situations where the two partners are very different and yet have manage to achieve calm and stability. So long, of course, as there is reciprocal growth through virtue.

My personal experience: I have had two long term relationships that roughly followed this model. They ended for different reasons, but I am still very grateful to the two persons in question for the (different) models of virtue they presented me with, even though at the time I wasn’t yet thinking in Stoic terms.

Case study III: Crates and Hipparchia

We finally come to my own favorite model of a Stoic relationship: Crates and Hipparchia (who were both Cynics, actually). Epictetus cites them as a laudable example, and an exception to the general Cynic custom of not marrying in order to avoid the obstruction of “externals” to the Cynic mission. (The Cynics were famous pain-in-the-ass philosophers, think of them as itinerant monks who knock at your door and ask you why you are not living according to virtue…).

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ You’re referring to a special case in which the marriage was prompted by love, and you’re reckoning on a wife who was herself another Crates.” (Discourses III.22.76)

Hard to imagine higher praise for both the relationship (“it was prompted by love”) and for Hipparchia (“who was herself another Crates”).

Hipparchia was from Maroneia, but her family moved to Athens. She was probably attracted to Cynicism because her brother, Metrocles, was already a student of Crates. She fell in love with Crates, who was the most famous Cynic of the time (he was Zeno of Citium’s first teacher), and significantly older. Both her family and Crates himself attempted to convince her to give up the idea of marriage to the philosopher, as the life of a Cynic was hard and simply scandalous from the point of view of good society.

Crates at one point stood in front of her, got rid of his clothes, and told her, in an attempt to dissuade her: “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.” But Hipparchia was stubborn, and in love. She threatened to kill herself if she could not marry Crates, and eventually prevailed.

She began to wear men’s clothes and live with her husband in poverty, sleeping in Athens’ stoas and porticos. Crates referred to their marriage as “cynogamy,” or dog-coupling (“Cynic” meant dog-like, because of the school’s adherents lifestyle). Together they practiced “anaideia,” or shamelessness, including, it is said, coupling in public.

Crates and Hipparchia had a daughter and a son, which was very unusual for practicing Cynics. Also unusually for a Cynic, and for a woman at the time, Hipparchia wrote books and engaged in correspondence with other philosophers, like Theodorus the Atheist. Unfortunately, none of her writings survive.

Apparently, Theodorus did not appreciate Hipparchia’s challenges, and dismissively said to her:

“Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” Entirely unfazed, she replied: “I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?” (Diogenes Laertius VI.98)

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, likely knew Hipparchia, and it is very possible that his own radical conceptions of the relationship between men and women, as well as of the equality of women in the ideal Stoic Republic, were inspired by seeing the example of Crates and Hipparchia.

Although we know that there were other women who were attracted to the Cynic life style and philosophy, Hipparchia is the only woman among the 82 philosophers whose lives and opinions are recounted by Diogenes Laertius, a testimony to her lasting influence.

Indeed, she became so famous that her native city — allegedly (there is no independent confirmation) — changed name, as testified by a letter attributed to Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous of the Cynics:

“You did well when you changed the name of the city and, instead of Maroneia, called it Hipparchia, its present name, since it is better for you to be named after Hipparchia, a woman, it’s true, but a philosopher, than after Maron, a man who sells wine.” (Epistle 43)

We do not know how she died, but this epigram by Antipater of Sidon may as well have been written on her tomb:

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic. Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not; But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground, My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”

The message: the members of a couple can be equal, devoted to their own pursuits, and yet able to share them with their partner, making their independent mark on the world while at the same time drawing love, support, and comfort, from their relationship. This seems to still be, even today, a radical concept, but it is certainly a model I can sign onto!

My personal experience: I have never had a relationship of the Crates-Hipparchias type. They were rare even then…

Virtue ethics is a big tent: a response to Edith Hall

Zeno vs Aristotle

Classics professor Edith Hall has recently published a fascinating article in Aeon entitled “Why read Aristotle today?,” on the reasons we should adopt Aristotle as a guide to a happy life. In the article, it transpires that she really doesn’t like Stoicism, so that prompted some reflection on my part on both Aristotelianism and Stoicism.

I have adopted Stoicism as a personal philosophy of life because it spoke to me from the moment I heard of a strange thing called “Stoic Week.” It has been only four years, really, and my life has changed, mostly for the better (and the non-mostly part isn’t Stoicism’s fault anyway!). Several things attracted me to the philosophy, and the more I study it, the more my initial hunch is confirmed. Three in particular: the idea of “living according to nature,” the practice of the four virtues, and the dichotomy of control. I have come to think of these elements respectively as the fundamental axiom of Stoicism, its moral compass, and its key to serenity.

The fundamental axiom: to live according to nature means to take seriously human nature, specifically the fact that we thrive only in the context of a society and that we are capable of reason. Three things follow: we are all members of the same human cosmopolis; consequently, we should try to practice oikeiosis, the “appropriation” of other people’s concerns as if they were our own; and, therefore, a good human life consists in applying one’s reason to improve society. These three points are the basis of the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism.

The moral compass: the practice of the four cardinal virtues (which turn out to be among a small subset of virtues recognized cross-culturally) of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. This practice is an incredibly effective way to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is important, and to navigate even complex situations in the most ethical way. Any time you have to make a decision, just ask yourself: is this good or evil (practical wisdom)? Am I being as courageous as the occasion requires? Am I acting justly with respect to others? Am I doing this in the right measure? You’d be surprised how easy it is to figure out what the right thing to do is, with this compass in hand (whether we actually do it or not, of course, depends on the progress we have made).

The key to serenity: while the primary goal of Stoicism is to live a virtuous, and therefore meaningful life, the Stoics also aimed at ataraxia, i.e., tranquillity of mind. Epictetus promises that we will reach this state if we internalize the basic idea of the dichotomy of control: some things are up to us (our values, judgments, and opinions) and other things are not up to us (everything else). Focus therefore on what is under your power, and simply accept with equanimity that things sometimes go your way, and that at other times they don’t. (Again, it takes practice to get reasonably good at this.)

There are, of course, several things about which I disagree with the ancient Stoics, and a number of areas where the original philosophy, to remain alive, needs to be updated. One of these things is the idea that Stoicism is “the” philosophy to follow. We know from sources such as Diogenes Laertius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero, that the Stoics engaged in fierce verbal battles with all the major Hellenistic schools, from the Epicureans to the Aristotelians to the Academic Skeptics. There is good evidence, discussed in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, that these debates influenced and over time modified the positions of the various schools, including the Stoics themselves. Seneca, after all, wisely wrote:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I have slowly come around the notion that many (though not all) religions and philosophies of life have core teachings that are helpful to people and that — if practiced consistently — would lead us to build a better world. I don’t think it is a coincidence that there are so many similarities, not just across the Greco-Roman philosophies, but between Aristotelianism and Confucianism as well as Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism, not to mention Christianity. Indeed, Epictetus might have been on to something like an ecumenical philosophy when he wrote:

“For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honorable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases … Jews, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans. They don’t dispute that what is holy should be preferred above everything else and in every case pursued; but they argue, for example, over whether it is holy or unholy to eat pork.” (Discourses I, 22.1-4)

So, while my personal choice is Stoicism, I fully believe that there are many paths to wisdom and a life worth living, and that each of us has to choose (or build) the path that resonates with us, given not just the specific content of the philosophy, but also our personal character and culture of provenance.

That is why I was a bit disappointed by Hall’s essay. She does make a masterful case for why we should, indeed, read Aristotle, who has much to teach us about the route to happiness. Heck, she almost convinced me to switch camps and become a peripatetic! (No, not really, but still, the essay is very good.)

Yet, Hall apparently felt it necessary to begin with a nasty dig at Stoicism:

“Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blog posts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.”

I guess since Stoicism, surprisingly, is the successful kid in the room at the moment, one has to take it down a notch or two before advancing one’s own preferred philosophy.

But Hall’s treatment of Stoicism is way off the mark. Briefly:

  • Carnegie may have been inspired by Marcus Aurelius, but Stoicism is not a form of self-help. It is an all-encompassing philosophy of life, which is made very clear by “self-styled” (why the rhetorical dig?) Stoic organizations throughout the world.
  • Ancient Stoicism was anything but pessimistic and grim. The Stoics believed that the Logos, the principle of rationality, permeated the universe, and they conceived of it as god. Accordingly, we are literally bits and pieces of the divine, hardly a grim picture of ourselves. While most (but not all) modern Stoics have abandoned pantheism, we still think that life is an amazing thing, very worth living to its fullest, no matter what one’s special circumstances might be.
  • Stoicism did not denounce pleasure, it simply advised moderation. Seneca writes about the need to dance and drink wine, even to intoxication, from time to time (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII).
  • Stoicism most certainly does not predicate the suppression of emotions, as discussed in detail, for instance, in Margaret Graver’s book. The Stoics thought of their approach as a philosophy of love, and cultivated joy (Seneca, Letters XXIII.3) and other positive emotions, while staying away from the unhealthy ones like anger, hatred, and fear.
  • Stoics were not resigned to accept misfortune, as is very clearly demonstrated by several of their role models, like Cato the Younger, and by their fierce fight against the tyranny of three emperors. They did, however, accept misfortune with equanimity, because what is the point of complaining about the inevitable?
  • The Stoics very much advised us to get involved in the “fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving.” That was the whole point of Epictetus’ role ethics.
  • As for human agency, the Stoics were what we today would call compatibilists about free will, a commonly accepted position in contemporary philosophy. And the chief aim of Stoic training was, and still is, precisely to improve and refine aagency

I’m sure Hall will disagree with my response, just as I (or others who are better qualified) can martial a number of objections to her view of Aristotle. But that is not the point. Let a thousand philosophies bloom instead. Aristotle’s your guy? Excellent! Do you prefer Epicurus? Go for it! Epictetus really does it for you (as he does for me)? Wonderful! Or perhaps Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Jesus, and so forth. Just go for it and try to live a meaningful and ethical life.

Mind you, not all philosophies or ideologies will do. There is no such thing as a good fascist or a eudaimonic Nazi (or Stalinist, or Maoist), and some religions are cultish and rather dangerous (e.g., Scientology).

I am not arguing that there are no substantive differences among the many possible legitimate alternatives. This is one reason I tend to be somewhat skeptical of “eclectic” approaches that mix and match from different traditions. But hey, if that’s your cup of tea, by all means, drink it!

Virtue ethics, the broad family to most Greco-Roman philosophies belong, has the potential to really change both individuals and, in bottom-up fashion, society. For the better. If more people took seriously the idea that a good life (eudaimonia) requires an ethical approach, and that such a life is possible for anyone willing to work on their character and attitudes, reflecting — at least from time to time — on why we do what we do, this would be a far better place than we have managed to make it so far. And it really wouldn’t matter if you got there by way of Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius.

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, IV: the desirable contest between fathers and sons

Aeneas and his son Ascanius

What is the best relationship between fathers and sons? Certainly not the one that was characteristic of ancient Roman society. The pater familias, the father of the family, had literal power of life and death over everyone in his household, including his sons and daughters. Although rarely fully deployed during the imperial period, such power was absolute, and backed by the law. It is against this cultural backdrop that Liz Gloyn — in the fourth chapter of her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca — discusses the Stoic approach to father-son relationships, through the work of the Roman Stoic. Indeed, Seneca wrote an entire book, De Vita Patris, specifically about his father, but it unfortunately has not survived. So Gloyn focuses on De Beneficiis (On Benefits) as her main source in this regard.

Despite their power within the household, Roman fathers were expected to take an interest in the moral development of their sons (daughters, of course, were hardly in the picture, with the due notable exceptions). One way of doing so was to write treatises on certain topics, addressed to the next generation. Seneca himself, together with his two brothers, received collections of legal writings from Seneca the Elder, which were meant as instructive for them. Fathers, Liz notes, were not simply expected to function as teachers, but also as moral role models, after whom their sons could pattern their own behavior. In fact, exempla, i.e. the examples offered by one’s ancestors, were meant to stimulate a sort of cross-generational competition, whereby young men would aspire to themselves become examples for future generations.

Now, the Stoics were big into role models, and so the idea of exempla should have fit nicely with their approach to moral development. The problem is that classic Roman exempla were focused on political achievement and service to the State, not on virtue. In Stoicism, of course, politics and service are preferred indifferents, to be pursued only if they bring about virtue. Moreover, the father-son relationship in ancient Rome was very much hierarchical, as mentioned above, which did not fit well with the Stoic conception of equality among moral agents. According to Gloyn, Seneca once again deploys the Stoic notion of oikeiosis (moral appropriation, concerns for others) in order to completely reinterpret how fathers and sons should relate to each other.

The starting point is an analogy between virtuous interactions and playing catch with a ball, introduced by Chrysippus, and which Seneca appropriates. In the game, players have to cooperate to keep the ball in play, and moreover they have to adjust their passes to the physical characteristics and abilities of their fellow players. In a similar fashion, “players” in the “game” of moral improvement have to adjust their interactions to the level of moral development of the people they interact with. Fathers, being naturally more advanced, will largely play a role of teachers to their sons, but the play is still reciprocal — both parties learn and improve — and the goal is to augment everyone’s proficiency, not just the student’s.

Why is the book called “on benefits”? Because according to Seneca major societal problems occur due to the fact that people don’t know how to give and receive benefits correctly to and from others:

“The majority of De Beneficiis considers questions of how to give benefits, to whom one should give benefits, and what state of mind and internal disposition should govern our attitude towards benefits.” (p. 172)

And the major problem is the internal disposition of the agent. One should accept benefits with gratitude, and should give them because he wants to help others, not because he is expecting a return, either directly or indirectly. In the latter case, we speak of a business transaction instead.

In the third book of De Beneficiis, Seneca discusses at length how father-son benefit interactions should work. The traditional view was that, since fathers create their sons, the relationship is unidirectional. Not so, responds Seneca, since a father can only claim responsibility for the birth of a son, but not for everything that the son will later accomplish in life:

“A mother and father’s lying together is a most insignificant benefit unless others are added which followup this gift’s beginning and make it firm with other obligations. It is not to live that is good, but to live well. But I live well. Yes, and I could have lived badly; and so this much is yours, that I live. … A father gave life to his son, yet there is something better than life; therefore the father can be surpassed, because he gave a benefit than which there is something better.” (III.31.3-4, III.35.1)

What is that “something better” than life? The phrase signals to the reader a switch to a Stoic perspective, since the answer is virtue. Seneca continues by making an analogy between the benefits given by a father to his son and those that the son may receive from a doctor (restored health), or a sailor (being brought somewhere). By the very fact that he makes the analogy, Seneca is radically undermining the traditional view, saying in effect that the father-son relationship is no different in kind from the relationships we have to all other people — a clear example of the principle of oikeiosis.

From the point of view of oikeiosis, with its concentric circles of concern made famous by Hierocles, the relationship between father and sons is special not in a qualitative sense, but only because it begins early on in life, and therefore plays an important role in our early moral development.

“If Seneca’s hypothetical father and son are guided by oikeiosis in their perfect performance of benefits, then the implication is that oikeiosis is at the core of any perfectly performed beneficia exchange – that is, those who give benefits correctly have expanded their sense of their own interests beyond themselves, at the very least to include those of their neighbours.” (p. 187)

Again, this is radical, even from a modern perspective. We still cling today, in a sense, to the old Roman idea that one of the most important things fathers give their sons is wealth, in the form of paying for their education, and eventually of inheritance. For Seneca, instead, those are just preferred indifferents, and the true legacy of a parent is bringing his son in an oikeiotic relationship with the parent and then with the rest of the world. Needless to say, everything we have seen above ought to be applied — in modern context — to the relationships between both mothers and fathers and their sons or daughters. The theory is precisely the same.

There is one more important thing noted by Liz in this chapter. There are two additional works by Seneca where he uses the father-son relationship for moral purposes within a Stoic framework, and they are rather surprising. De Clementia is a book dedicated to the young Nero. While it is often seen as yet another example of Seneca’s hypocrisy and support of the increasingly tyrannical regime, it is actually a thinly veiled threat to the emperor himself: Seneca uses the example of a good father as analogous to the role the emperor should play within the State. But he then contrasts this with the case of a tyrant, who will fear being killed by his own bodyguards.

The second relevant work other than De Beneficiis is De Ira (On Anger), where the figures of fathers and rulers are set in opposition to each other. Seneca goes through five exempla, in each of which a ruler kills the sons of some of their citizens, with the predictably ensuing consequences, when the fathers react to the deaths of their sons.

As I’ve written before, and as he himself admitted, Seneca was no sage. But one cannot help the feeling that he doesn’t get enough credit for just how bold he was in some of his writings in speaking truth to power, in an environment, remember, where plenty of others had lost their lives for doing the same.

(Next: the imperfect imperial family)

The growing pains of the Stoic movement

Modern Stoicism is a thing. It has been in the page of major newspapers (e.g., here), magazines (e.g., here), and assorted news outlets (e.g., here). Stoic Week and Stoicon are annual international events, and a number of new books about Stoicism have been published both by popularizers and scholars. There are Stoic blogs (like the one you are reading), podcasts (here is my own, in case you haven’t checked it out), and Facebook pages. Since the goal of Stoicism is to make us better people, more sensitive to injustice, and more helpful to the human cosmopolis, this is largely a good thing.

I say largely because just like in any other successful movement, it was inevitable that modern Stoicism would eventually spun a number of sub-groups, some of which are in danger of turning a good thing into something debatable, or even downright despicable. At the cost of going to be accused of gatekeeping, exclusionary attitude and so forth, I’m going to spell out my two cents about this, in the spirit of stimulating an open and frank discussion among people who genuinely care.

What’s happening to Stoicism is by all means not peculiar to it. Take Christianity, for instance. It has its “mainstream,” both Catholic and Protestant, but it also has its fundamentalism (a word that originally simply meant “a return to the fundamentals”), as well as its corruptions, like the abomination known as “prosperity gospel,” or the “muscular Christianity” anti-immigration and misogynist movement of the late 19th century.

So what is there to be concerned for modern Stoics? The first, though admittedly least problematic, stop, is “traditional Stoicism.” These are people who think that a religious belief in the divine and in providence is an inevitable component of Stoicism, without which one has simply betrayed the ancient philosophy for one’s “assumed” modern worldview. Traditional Stoics accuse the rest of us of changing things around to make the philosophy “more palatable” to modern sensitivities.

It is undeniable that the ancient Stoics frequently invoked “god” and did believe in some sort of “providence.” Nobody can read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and miss that. At the same time, it is also very clear that the ancient Stoics themselves did not see an unavoidable connection between their idea of providence and their ethical practice, as Marcus Aurelius repeats several times in the Meditations. Moreover, “the divine” for the Stoics had a very specific meaning: they were pantheists, not theists, meaning that for them god is immanent in the universe, indeed it is the universe itself, permeated by a rational principle known as the Logos. God, for the ancient Stoics, is made of matter, and has little to do with most modern conceptions of the term. Moreover, “providence” was not a Christian-type plan, but the result of the fact that the Cosmos is a living organism that does its thing (see this, chapters 5-8). We don’t understand what our part in that thing is, just like the cells of our body don’t understand what the body is doing. For the Stoics there was no afterlife, no long-term survival of the soul (which was also made of matter), and — pace the famous Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes — no god who is going to answer our prayers. In his Republic, Zeno explicitly said that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic community,

What bothers me about traditional Stoics, however, is not their metaphysical beliefs, as much as I think they are unsustainable in the light of modern science (of course, they would say that this is simply a reflection of my “assumed” worldview). Indeed, a major reason I embraced Stoicism is precisely because I think it is compatible with a number of metaphysical positions, from pantheism (obviously) to deism, from theism to atheism. It’s a big tent, which is consistent with the Stoics’ own concept of cosmopolitanism. But traditional Stoics seem to act in an exclusionary manner, thinking of themselves as holding to The Truth, and everyone else as either wrong or, worse, moved by an agenda of political correctness. Come back to the big tent, brothers and sisters, there is a lot of space over here.

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Meditations, XII.14)

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

Let me turn now to the Stoic equivalent of the prosperity gospel. No, I’m not talking about Ryan Holiday. Even though some of his writings have a mixed business / self-help flavor to it, I’ve met Ryan and I’ve seen him talk about Stoicism. He knows his Marcus Aurelius, and he understands the distinction between a philosophy of life and a bag of tricks: the former includes the latter, but the latter does not the former make. Still, we have also seen an avalanche of “Stoicism for business” and “Stoicism for success” articles, which not only have just a superficial relationship with Stoicism, but in fact constitute a perversion of it. Once again, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal and societal moral improvement. Personally, the focus is on understanding and practicing the dichotomy of control and deploying the four cardinal virtues in everything we do. Societally, things will improve — according to the Stoics — from the bottom up, so to speak: Zeno’s ideal Republic, essentially a peaceful anarchy of wise people, will be realized because we all, individually, do our part to make human society better.

None of this has anything to do with the dogged pursuit of externals, such as money, fame, or success. These are all classed by the Stoics among the preferred indifferents, i.e., things that may be pursued secondarily, so long as they don’t get in the way of practicing virtue. And speaking of practice, the Stoic “bag of tricks” was never meant to advance your business career or make your team win the SuperBowl. Indeed, the Stoics would have been appalled by such applications. The only point of the evening reflection, the exercises in self-deprivation, the premeditatio malorum, and so forth is to allow you to internalize the dichotomy of control and to make you a better person. Period. This is entirely analogous to Christianity: regardless of what you may think of the merits of the religion, being a Christian is about bettering yourself and helping others. It has nothing whatsoever to do with accumulating reaches and property, or any other measure of “success.”

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses, I.1.5)

“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)

Dulcis in fundo (L., the sweetest for last, except that this is here meant entirely sarcastically), there is the apparent popularity of Stoicism in the men’s rights movement (MRM) and allied sub-movements (like incels, MGTOW, etc. — it’s hard to keep up with the burgeoning acronyms and abbreviations). This is one reason Jordan Peterson is so often talked about in Stoic circles, though the phenomenon is certainly not limited to him. The people I’m referring to love to point out that courage is a Stoic virtue, since they associate it with “manliness.” But they entirely forget that courage, in Stoicism, is a moral virtue, and it is impossible to decouple it from justice which, curiously, hardly goes mentioned in the same quarters. (Besides, the Stoics believed in the unity of virtue, so one should strive to be simultaneously courageous, just, temperate, and prudent.)

“Manly” Stoics of course also point out that “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which means man. While this is true, they also conveniently forget that vir was the translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence. And they entirely skip on the several quotes from the ancient Stoics — from Zeno to Seneca to Musonius Rufus — that very clearly talk about the intellectual equality between men and women. True, Greco-Roman society was certainly sexist, and so were some of the Stoics themselves, but the theory (and some of the practice) was way ahead of its time. And why on earth would we want to model 21st century behavior on the worst of what our forebears did and thought?

“I know what you will say, “You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.” Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XVI)

“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)

I am not the Pope of Stoicism. Thank Zeus we don’t have a Pope or anything like that. And of course I could be wrong, both in terms of my understanding of the history and of the philosophy of Stoicism. But at the very least all Stoic practitioners should seriously and thoughtfully engage in discussions of these issues, and honestly trying to do their best not just to further the philosophy itself, but to contribute to the welfare of the human polis and the ethical stewardship of the world in which we live.

Seneca to Lucilius: old age and death

The 26th letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius begins in this fashion:

“I give thanks to myself, in your presence, that I do not sense any impairment in my mind, even though I do in my body. Only my faults have grown old, and those parts of me that pay service to my faults.” (XXVI.1-2)

When he wrote his letters Seneca was living the last years of his life, and even though he had of course no knowledge that those years would come to an abrupt end once the order to commit suicide had been delivered by Nero’s guards, he felt it in his bones. Still, he is thankful that his mind is still sharp, even though his body is decaying, as befits a Stoic who puts premium on his faculty of judgment and considers the body a preferred indifferent. I find it endearing that Seneca immediately mentions his faults, that persist because there are parts of him that keep paying service to them. We try to become better people, but we are still very fallible humans.

“My mind tells me to ponder the matter and to discern what of my tranquility and moderate habits I owe to wisdom and what to my time of life; also, to distinguish carefully between things I cannot do and things I do not want to do.” (XXVI.3)

This is a dense passage, addressing two separate issues. The first one is the open question of how much his serenity of mind and temperance of habit is the result of his own efforts at becoming more virtuous, or simply of the fact that he is getting old. The answer, for most of us, is probably an inextricable combination of the two, though there certainly are examples of old people who are neither serene nor temperate.

The second part is a reminder to himself of a version of the dichotomy of control: some things are simply not in our power, so we don’t get to take credit for not doing them. What we should focus instead is on the bits that are under our control, because we are definitely responsible for those. This is the virtue of practical wisdom, or phronesis in Greek (and prudentia in Latin): it is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the knowledge that the only truly good and truly evil things are those that fall under our control. Our own correct judgments are the only good (for us), and our own incorrect judgments are the only evil (for us).

“It is a very big problem, you say, for a person to wither and perish and — if I may speak accurately — to melt away. For we are not knocked flat all at once; rather, we waste away a little at a time, as each day erodes our strength.” (XXVI.4)

A quick and sudden death is easy and preferable, but the reality is that most of us will decay slowly, losing both our physical and likely mental strength in the process. That’s the hard challenge of nearing the end, and that’s why how we approach death is the ultimate test of our character. How will we react to our increase dependency on others? Is it better to hang around until the very last minute, or walk through the open door, as Epictetus puts it, while we are still in control? Hence this interesting bit of self doubt:

“I am unafraid as I prepare myself for that day when the artifices and disguises will be stripped away and I shall make judgment of myself. Is it just brave talk, or do I mean what I say? Were they for real, those defiant words I spoke against fortune, or were they just theater — just acting a part?” (XXVI.5)

It’s good practice to ask ourselves the same question, not just about death, but about how we conduct ourselves every day: are we really trying, however imperfectly, to live the Stoic life, or is it just talk? As all Stoics, Seneca puts limited value in theoretical learning (as important as it is). The proof, as we say, is in the pudding:

“Lectures and learned seminars and sayings culled from the teachings of philosophers and educated conversation do not reveal the mind’s real strength. For speech is bold even where the speaker is among the most timorous. What you have achieved will be revealed only when you breathe your last.” (XXVI.6)

Setting aside the substance of what Seneca is saying here, let’s pause for a second to appreciate the beauty of his writing. This why pretty much all translations of Seneca are good, because it is almost impossible to botch the job when one is served with such astounding prose.

“You are younger than I, but what does it matter? Years are not given out by quota. There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.” (XXVI.7)

This is a crucial, and so commonly underappreciated point. We often speak of someone dying “prematurely” if they die young, or even young-ish. But we based that on statistical expectations. From the point of view of the Logos, the cosmic web of cause and effect, there is no such thing as too early or too late. Things happen when they happen. And this bit of theoretical understanding has the potential to be of enormous practical interest, if we internalize the thought and act accordingly: do not waste time, for the simple reason that you don’t know how much of a reserve you have in the bank.

Seneca then quotes the archrival Epicurus, who tells us to “rehearse for death.” Seneca explains to his friend that this is really an injunction to rehearse for freedom, because death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds. Life itself is a preferred indifferent, for the Stoic, and too much love of life is not a good thing, as it can lead us to act unvirtuously. Which explains the concluding words of the letter:

“There is but one chain that binds us: the love of life. That, admittedly, we may not discard; yet we must lessen it.” (XXVI.9)

Nope, Jordan Peterson ain’t no Stoic

People have been asking my opinion — from a Stoic perspective — about Jordan Peterson for a while now, and the time has finally come. The impetus derives from a recent article by Justin Vacula published at the Modern Stoicism blog, which takes a cautionary positive approach to Peterson, and draws parallels between his views and our philosophy. (See here for a response by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, much milder than the one you are about to read.) In this post I wish to push back against Vacula’s interpretation, explain why I think Peterson is not a good point of reference for Stoic practitioners, and more generally ponder what does it mean for X (where X is a person, a fictional character, or a position) “to be Stoic.”

First, though, a few preemptive caveats. Peterson, to my and Vacula’s knowledge, does not claim to be a Stoic, nor does he acknowledge any influence of Stoicism on his writings. So this is rather an exercise in whether, and to what extent, his ideas are “Stoic” in the broad sense of the term.

Also, several people, including Vacula, keep repeating that it is “un-Stoic” to criticize, and even more so to “insult” other people. They get that from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where he repeatedly reminds himself to keep calm when dealing with annoying others, and to look first at his own shortcomings. This is certainly good advice, but it seems like we forget that the Stoics were very vocal in their criticism of other people’s philosophies (the Epicureans, the Aristotelians, the Academic Skeptics), as well as political positions (heck, Cato the Younger started a war to oppose Julius Caesar!). Not to mention that Epictetus often refers to his students as “fools.” What distinguishes Stoic criticism is not its alleged gentleness, but the fact that it is supposed to be done virtuously, that is in the pursuit of truth or justice (or both), and by deploying good arguments and whatever empirical evidence happens to be germane to the issue at hand.

Okay, now back to Vacula’s portrait of Peterson and his alleged Stoic leanings. Peterson is important because he is influential. As Vacula (and a recent New York Times article) points out, his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, his 12 Rules book is an Amazon bestseller, and countless young people feel inspired by him. So, he is a cultural force to be reckoned with, and that’s why we are doing the reckoning. The question at hand is not whether there are some similarities between what Peterson writes and what the Stoics teach. Such similarities are indubitably there. Then again, “pick yourself up and do the right thing,” or “endure what life throws at you” are not exclusively Stoic concepts. They are found pretty much everywhere, in one form or another, from Christianity to Judaism, from Buddhism to Confucianism. And yet I’m not aware of anyone making the argument that Peterson is a Stoic-Christian-Judeo-Buddhist-Confucian. The issue, rather, is whether there are sufficient deep similarities between Peterson and Stoicism. I will argue that not only the answer is no, but that the sort of worldview Peterson advances is, in fact, anti-Stoic.

The first bit of Petersonian advice we encounter in Vacula’s post is “clean your room and get your life in order.” Which is good advice, the sort that my mom used to give me. But that didn’t make her a Stoic. The crucial part of the Stoic advice is that it tells us how to get our life in order: by practicing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance; and it explains to us why we ought to do it: because virtue is the only thing that is always good (it can’t be used for bad, by definition), as argued by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

Peterson, by contrast, gets this imperative from his adoption of Carl Jung’s views about the perennial opposition between logos and eros, where logos represents order, and it is masculine, while eros represents chaos, and it is feminine. From which Peterson further derives that it is both good and natural for men to control women (order has to overcome chaos). Why is it natural? Because Peterson buys wholesale the most crude version of evolutionary psychology, according to which gender roles have been pretty much fixed since the Pleistocene. From this perspective, according to Peterson, the apogee of American cultural life was back in the ‘50s, and we ought to get back to that place.

But all the above, so far as I can tell, is a lot of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical nonsense. Jung pretty much invented wholesale entirely un-empirical concepts like archetypes, espoused certifiably pseudoscientific notions like that of “synchronicity,” and liberally borrowed from mythology and Eastern mysticism (he compared the logos-eros dichotomy to the yin-yang one). There is not a shred of evidence to think that any of this is a decent description of the actual human condition, and particularly of the differences between men and women (not to mention that there is no mention of other genders, which Peterson, again pseudoscientifically, simply denies out of existence).

As for evolutionary psychology, it is a rather controversial discipline, about which I have written in depth — as an evolutionary biologist — in both Making Sense of Evolution and Nonsense on Stilts. Suffice to say here that while some evopsych research is certainly well done and interesting, the field is highly speculative at best when it comes to the evolution of gender roles. And as any Philosophy 101 course will teach you, even if gender roles evolved by natural selection that tells us zero of interest about how we ought, ethically, to reconsider them in contemporary society. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once put it, he chose a life without children in order to dedicate himself to his writing and his friends. And if his genes don’t like it, they can go jump into the lake.

As Vacula acknowledges, Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on how to climb social hierarchies, which he regards as natural and inevitable (the second characteristic obviously does not follow from the first one). He thinks that women ought to be dominated by men, and he maintains that white privilege is a myth. This is one of the most un-Stoic aspects of his thinking. The Stoics were among the first cosmopolitans, thinking that women ought to be educated in philosophy because they are just as capable as men, that all humans are equal, and that our duty is to cooperate — not compete — with fellow human beings. They imagined an ideal society, in Zeno’s Republic, that is very far from the capitalism that Peterson prefers. Indeed, it looks like an anarchic utopia, where wise men and women live in harmony because they finally understood how to use reason for the betterment of humankind.

Vacula, in his positive take on the Peterson-Stoicism connection, did not comment at all on political and social involvement. Probably because Peterson does not come out particular well in that department, and he certainly doesn’t come out as Stoic. Here he is, from 12 Rules:

“Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today… Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? … Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”

This sounds deceptively Stoic, but the deception is dangerous. First off, notice that we are told not to go out and make noise about changing the world until our own household is in perfect order. Well, then, since it will never be (we are not sages), I guess we are not authorized to invest time and energy into questioning our social systems and try to change them for the better. How convenient, for someone who clearly benefits from said social order.

Peterson’s advice plays into one of the worst stereotypes about Stoicism, that it is an inward-looking, quietist philosophy. But it is not. The virtue of justice requires us to try to change things for the better, for everyone. Historical examples like those of Cato the Younger, as well as recent ones lie Nelson Mandela (who was inspired by Marcus’ Meditations) are obvious pointers. When Peterson tells us that self-improvement is “more important than any possible political action” he is simply wrong. For Stoics the two go hand in hand: we improve ourselves as we improve the world, and vice versa. Cosmopolitanism, not egoism.

Vacula then claims that another similarity between Peterson and the Stoics is that they both tell us to overcome obstacles by way of a strong mindset, and to be courageous. And isn’t endurance a Stoic attribute? Is courage not a Stoic virtue? Yes, but Stoics believe in the unity of virtue, which means that one simply cannot talk about courage as isolated or distinct from justice (and prudence, and temperance). But as we have just seen, there is little if any talk of justice in the Stoic sense in Peterson. Being courageous for a Stoic doesn’t just mean to “pick up your damn suffering and bear it,” as Peterson puts it. That’s yet another false stereotype about Stoics: the stiff upper lip caricature. We are supposed to endure because it is the virtuous thing to do in order to be able to help others, not to show ourselves just how tough and “manly” we are.

Speaking of manly, Peterson is very popular in the “men’s rights” movement. These are people that are appropriating a distorted view of Stoicism as they love to point out that virtue comes from the Latin “vir,” meaning man. They seem to forget two other crucial bits of information. First, that “vir” was the Latin translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence, and is not limited to men. Second, as I have already pointed out, that the Stoic virtues are a package. One is not virtuous if one is courageous but lacks justice, temperance, or prudence.

Peterson does say a number of fairly sensible things, like “If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. … Had you been there [in Nazi Germany], the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.” Indeed. But this is far from an original concept. It’s what philosopher Thomas Nagel famously described as “moral luck” in a classic paper published back in 1979, and of which Peterson seems to be entirely unaware.

Vacula praises Peterson for questioning popular opinions, again drawing an analogy with the Stoics in this respect. But questioning popular opinions is not an intrinsic good, it depends on which opinions one is criticizing and why. And here we come to the infamous case that actually catapulted Peterson to fame: his public criticism of Canada’s bill C-16, because of its stultifying political correctness. The bill added gender expression and identity to the list of criteria one cannot not be discriminated by in accordance to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.

What about Peterson’s cool head in the face of hostile (and certainly unprofessional) questioning by the host of a famous Channel 4 interview that went viral, thus further increasing his fame? Good for him, but as Don Robertson often remarks, that’s stoicism, not Stoicism. It’s always commendable not to lose one’s temper, but this is not a philosophical position, it’s just commonsense.

Vacula is somewhat regretful that Peterson initially rejected the “men going their own way” (MGTOW) movement, only belatedly agreeing that they have a point in wanting nothing to do with relationships and marriage because, you know, society and the law are so unfair to men these days. Setting aside that it is entirely ludicrous to even suggest that women in contemporary society are unjustly preferred over men (I guess that’s why there is still so much violence against women, pay inequality, discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion, etc. etc. etc.), it is most certainly un-Stoic to want to create divisions from other human beings. Every Stoic we know of has emphasized the importance of relationships, and Seneca has gone so far as suggesting that marriage (or a committed relationship, in modern terms) is a major occasion to become more virtuous and to help another human being to do the same.

There are a number of other decidedly un-Stoic aspects of Peterson’s opinions, like his strange idea that conversation is made possible with men (but impossible with “crazy” women) by the always present threat of violence:

“I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassing against me. And the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women. And so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. … There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away. Or at least the threat is there.” (full transcript here)

What sort of cardinal virtue, I wonder, is Peterson deploying here?

The Stoics were great logicians. They believed that one has to make careful arguments based on empirical evidence in order to arrive at the best judgment a human being can muster. And arriving at good judgments is the whole point of one of Epictetus’ three discipline, the discipline of assent. Here too Peterson fails miserably. I mentioned above his reliance on mythology, which he takes from Jung. One interviewer finally asked him why people should believe in myth. Here is his response (longer transcript in the article by Robinson linked below):

“Well, what are you going to take seriously, then? You’re going to take nothing seriously. Well, good luck with that, because serious things are coming your way. If you’re not prepared for them by an equal metaphysical seriousness, they will flatten you.”

This is an egregious example of really, really bad reasoning. Peterson is committing not one, but two logical fallacies that I train my students to spot and avoid. First, the idea that if one does not take myths seriously then one does not take anything seriously is an obvious non sequitur, it simply does not follow. Second, the suggestion that serious things are coming (which serious things, by the way?) is a red herring, a distraction. Sure, “serious” things may be coming (e.g., financial collapse, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war?), but that has nothing at all to do with whether it is sensible for people to take myths seriously or not.

But at least, says Vacula, Peterson rails against the damn post-modernists. Surely the Stoics would agree, as they battled the post-modernists of their time, the Academic Skeptics. As a scientist and philosopher I am no fun of post-modernism (see chapters 10 and 11 of my Nonsense on Stilts), but here is a pretty good example of post-modernist obfuscatory language, let’s see if you can guess the author:

“Procedural knowledge, generated in the course of heroic behavior, is not organized and integrated within the group and the individual as a consequence of simple accumulation. Procedure ‘a,’ appropriate in situation one, and procedure ‘b,’ appropriate in situation two, may clash in mutual violent opposition in situation three. Under such circumstances intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict necessarily emerges. When such antagonism arises, moral revaluation becomes necessary. As a consequence of such revaluation, behavioral options are brutally rank-ordered, or, less frequently, entire moral systems are devastated, reorganized and replaced. This organization and reorganization occurs as a consequence of ‘war,’ in its concrete, abstract, intrapsychic, and interpersonal variants. In the most basic case, an individual is rendered subject to an intolerable conflict, as a consequence of the perceived (affective) incompatibility of two or more apprehended outcomes of a given behavioral procedure. In the purely intrapsychic sphere, such conflict often emerges when attainment of what is desired presently necessarily interferes with attainment of what is desired (or avoidance of what is feared) in the future. Permanent satisfactory resolution of such conflict (between temptation and ‘moral purity,’ for example) requires the construction of an abstract moral system, powerful enough to allow what an occurrence signifies for the future to govern reaction to what it signifies now. Even that construction, however, is necessarily incomplete when considered only as an ‘intrapsychic’ phenomena. The individual, once capable of coherently integrating competing motivational demands in the private sphere, nonetheless remains destined for conflict with the other, in the course of the inevitable transformations of personal experience. This means that the person who has come to terms with him- or herself—at least in principle—is still subject to the affective dysregulation inevitably produced by interpersonal interaction. It is also the case that such subjugation is actually indicative of insufficient ‘intrapsychic’ organization, as many basic ‘needs’ can only be satisfied through the cooperation of others.”

It’s from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, in the section entitled “The Great Father.” And as far as I can see — and I looked hard — there is no meaning in the above (if you think you can do better, by all means, please translate into English). It could easily have been produced by the online postmodern generator. How is procedural knowledge generated by “heroic behavior”? What on earth is “intrapsychic conflict”? Why does all of that necessitate “moral revaluation”? What does it mean to “brutally rank order” behavioral options (as opposed to nicely rank order?)? Which behavioral options? Why is “war” in scare quotes? How can it be both concrete and abstract? Are outcomes “apprehended”? By whom? Why is “moral purity” in scare quotes? Oh no, wait! Now “intrapsychic” is in quotes too. Because it means something different from intrapsychic without quotes? What does it mean to be subject to “affective dysregualtion”? And now even “needs” is in scare quotes? (Oh, and “phenomena” is plural, not singular.)

Finally, the Stoics practiced humility, because we are all unwise, always making mistakes, everyone of us metaphorically drowning because we still have not gotten to the surface, where the sage dwells. Not so Peterson, who is absolutely convinced of the immense value of his discoveries. In a letter to his father included in Maps of Meaning he writes:

“I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing.”

Well, I can agree on two things: whatever he saw, he did not see it clearly. And he certainly did not convey it comprehensibly.

I hope to have martialed enough evidence to show that Jordan Peterson is no Stoic, and that his philosophy is, in fact, anti-Stoic. Why, then, is he so influential? Why are we spending so much energy and time talking about him? I really can’t do any better than put the answer as commentator and critic Nathan Robinson did recently in what is the best and most in-depth critique of Peterson I’ve seen so far:

“If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like ‘if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of’ or ‘many moral values are similar across human societies.’ Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured.”

You know what Socrates used to call this sort of person? A sophist. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment.


P.S.: since I’ve been exposed to Peterson’s supporters a number of times over social media, I can anticipate some of the obvious objections: (i) If you think that I mischaracterized him or quoted him out of context, it is entirely useless to simply say so and walk away. Please, provide a detailed explanation of why you think so, as well as a better, more fair interpretation of the same passages I quoted, or the same notions I described. (ii) If you think Peterson is being criticized out of “envy” then you have no idea of critical discourse works. It’s still a criticism, and it needs to be answered, regardless of the real or imaginary motivations you attribute to the critic. (iii) If your response is along the lines of “yes, but he has made a difference for many young people,” that may be true, but there are positive differences and negative ones, and there are good and bad reasons why young people are influenced. The goal here is to steer them toward the good ones and away from the bad ones.

P.P.S.: please stop using lobsters as idealized examples of how human beings should behave, just because they are hierarchical animals. It’s really, really bad biology (and bad science is another un-Stoic thing). Lobsters are invertebrates, incredibly evolutionarily remote from us. And they don’t have shoulders. Plus, those t-shirts really look silly. Continue reading

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)

Stoic advice: how do I balance career and life?

M. writes: I am 28 years old, doing my PhD in evolutionary biology. I have a young family and am often struggling to combine the different aspects of my life with my own values, and as a result make mistakes on a regular basis. Now, one would think that a scientist is mostly guided by logic and rational thinking, and that this therefore makes him well suited to Stoicism. But my impression is that a lot of fellow scientists are anything but logical and rational thinking, and I know that I am often not. There are so many potential frustrations, e.g., financial insecurity, short contracts, low chance to get a permanent job, unfair judgment of success by publications, or simply that an experiment hasn’t worked for the 100th time.

All of the above should be considered non-preferred indifferents, since I do not have any control over a lot of these issues, or maybe a small portion of control. And I do try to accept the risks and potential pitfalls of my choice to pursue a PhD. At the same time, I try to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I think to myself, ‘If I am going to decide to carry on with science with a PostDoc, then I surely need to make smart decisions, so prepare yourself, network, choose the right lab. However, often enough I find myself in a place of utter frustration about the circumstances. ‘Why have I just spent ten hours in the lab working hard, without getting any scientific or personal benefit from it, and have not spent it with my child and wife?’ ‘If the chances of success are low and unfair, wouldn’t I be better off in a normal job (whatever that is…)?’

So my questions are: how would a prokopton deal with the inner discourse of scientific fascination and (potential) negative real-world consequences? and what are some steps I can take to counteract improve the odds, to continue on with my scientific career?

To begin with, know that your situation is far from unusual, and it actually is very similar to my own early career path, back in the 1990s. I came to the United States on a six-month fellowship, without assurance of further funding down the road. I got a postdoc position thanks to my PhD advisor, but it was guaranteed only for a year, which meant either obtaining more funds or getting a job in that short period. Then came the low paid tenure track position (but hey, at least it was tenure track, which is more than a lot of young colleagues are likely to obtain now). Peace of mind only came in my late ‘30s, once I secured tenure and could engage in better long term planning. Even so, my daughter grew up far from me, and a marriage that I thought would be the thing ended in part for reasons related to my career. Indeed, the first decision I made that prioritized quality of life over work came only in my mid-40s, when I decided to move to New York City without a job at a local university. All of this to say that I have a lot of sympathy for what you are going through.

That said, you seem to have a good grasp of Stoic theory: yes, career, quality of life, and even your family are all preferred indifferents, meaning — of course — not that you don’t care about them, but that they do not affect your value as a person. One can have all of that and be a shitty human being, and one can lack all of it while being virtuous and living a life worth living.

Also, as you note, those externals are outside of your control, as you do not determine any of those outcomes. Yes, you can influence the odds of succeeding at a career as a scientist, and you can work on your family relations. But ultimately only your efforts are under your control, not the actual outcomes. That is why the Stoics counsel to focus on those efforts, but then to accept whatever outcome with equanimity, as getting angry or frustrated at the lack of success only adds self-inflicted injury to the already existing one.

Understanding the above is no rocket science. Putting it into practice is very hard. Which is why Epictetus says:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

But he also explains what it means to practice:

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I, 4.20)

What he means is that you can’t afford to be a weekend Stoic, so to speak. You need to be mindful, in the Stoic sense, every day, every minute. That experiment failed for the 100th time? Repeat to yourself: “it was just an experiment, my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, if I may, change experiment, approach things from a different angle, there is no sense in wasting more time and resources in pursuit of something that stubbornly refuses to work.)

Did you not get that job interview or grant funded? Repeat to yourself: “it was just a job interview (or a grant proposal), my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, again, consider seriously if it is worth submitting the same proposal again, rather than writing a new one; or, more pointedly, if you are applying for the right jobs with the right resume.)

As you say, you knew going into this that the odds were low and the amount of sacrifice required high. Don’t misunderstand me: I wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world. But I got lucky, as it takes talent, effort, and luck to succeed in academia, with the latter playing by far the largest role, unfortunately. Early on, I did have to consider alternative career paths, in case my first choice stubbornly refused to work out. Lucky for me I never had to go for plan B, but it is always wise to have a plan B.

And of course this isn’t true only in academia. If you wanted to become an actor, a writer, a musician, a painter, or an athlete, you’d be facing far worse odds and an even more demanding set of sacrifices. I realize that to be told “it could be worse” is meager consolation, but Stoics are supposed to look at reality as it is, to the best of our knowledge, not as how we wished it would be.

Which brings me to the trade-offs between your career path and the rest of your life, particularly your family. There the major Stoic resource is Epictetus’ role ethics, a development of a previous version of the concept by Panaetius. I covered Brian Johnson’s brilliant book on this topic in six posts, though the book itself is well worth reading.

Basically, Epictetus thought that we have three sets of roles: the fundamental one as a human being, a member of the human polis; the roles that are assigned to us by the Logos (being a son, being born in a certain society); and the roles that we choose based on our character and preferences (our career, but also our relationships).

The primary role is that of a human, and it trumps all others. Every time you make a decision, Stoically speaking, you should ask yourself whether you are doing right by humankind. After that, each role tells you what to do by its very label (allowing, of course, for personal interpretation of each role as broadly defined by society):

“And next, if you’re sitting on the council of some city, remember that you’re a councillor; if you’re young, remember that you’re young; if an old man, remember that you’re an old man; if a father, remember that you’re a father. For each of these names, if carefully considered, indicates the actions that are appropriate to it.” (Discourses, II.10.10-11)

Neither Epictetus nor I can tell you what to do. It is up to you to navigate the complexities of your life. But Stoic principles provide a framework, a compass of sorts, to help you in that navigation. So you need to ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice not just personally, but also in terms of your family, in order to pursue your chosen career. What are your duties to yourself, to your partner, to your children, if you have any? While you consider this, remember:

“You’re the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you’ll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices. … Only, consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure, man, that you don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I.2.11,33)

I truly and sincerely wish you the best of luck.