Category Archives: Modern Stoicism

Stoics should be vegetarian

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter over at Modern Stoicism summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“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 think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which — to be sure — is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes: “The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.”

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea — which the ancient Stoics surely did have — that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

“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)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason — given contemporary scientific knowledge — very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

The evolution of ancient Stoicism, and why it matters today

the ancient theater at Pergamon (photo by the Author)

Modern Stoics are interested in picking up the ancient tradition while at the same time updating it and molding it to modern times. For some reason, this is often considered a controversial thing, with flying accusations of cherry picking and dire warnings about the result not “really” being Stoic enough. But this is rather baffling, as philosophies, like (and more readily than) religions, do evolve over time, and indeed some of them have this attitude of constant revision built in. Just consider one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“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)

(For one concerted effort at updating Stoicism see here; for some of the predictable growing pains of the movement see here; and check here for a smorgasbord of our modern critics.)

In fact, ancient Stoicism itself underwent a number of changes that are well recorded in both primary and secondary texts. The early Stoics used a different approach and emphasis from the late ones, and there were unorthodox Stoics like Aristo of Chios (who was closer to Cynicism and rejected the importance of physics and logic in favor of ethics), Herillus of Carthage (who thought that knowledge was the goal of life), and Panaetius (who introduced some eclecticism in the doctrine). There were heretics who left the school, like Dionysius of Heraclea, who suffered from a painful eye infection and went Cyrenaic.

Even within the mainstream, though, one gets fairly different, if obviously continuous, pictures of Stoicism moving from the early Stoa of Zeno and Chrysippus to the late Stoa of Seneca and Epictetus, with major differences even between the latter two. While an accessible scholarly treatment of this can be found in the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (especially chapters 1 and 2), I want to focus here on some obvious distinctions among the early Stoa, Seneca, and Epictetus, distinctions that I think both illustrate how Stoicism has always been an evolving philosophy, and provide inspiration to modern Stoics who may wish to practice different “flavors” of the philosophy, depending on their personal inclinations and circumstances.

I. The early Stoa: live according to nature and the four virtues

The major sources we have about the philosophy of the early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno of Citium circa 300 BCE to when Panaetius (who is considered to belong to the middle Stoa) moved to Rome around 138 BCE, are Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, and a number of Stoic-influenced works by Cicero.

Reading through these sources, it is quite obvious that the early emphasis was on the teaching of the fields of inquiry of physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) and logic (including rhetoric and what we would call cognitive science) in the service of ethics:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (DL VII.39-40)

This changed in the late Stoa, as we shall see, when physics and logic were largely (though not completely) set aside, in favor of the ethics. But for the early Stoics, a reasonable understanding (logic) of how the world works (physics) lead to the famous Stoic motto: live according to nature.

“Nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life … for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.” (DL VII.86-87)

What about the virtues? Both the early and late Stoics subscribed to the Socratic doctrine of the unity of virtue, but the early ones were more keen then the late ones to talk about separate virtues (as we’ll see below, Seneca usually refers to “virtue” in the singular, and Epictetus hardly even mentions the word):

“Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: [practical] wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.” (DL VII.92)


“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence [i.e., practical wisdom], justice, fortitude [i.e., courage], and temperance.” (Cicero, On Invention II.53)

And how did they define the virtues?

“Prudence [practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … Temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (On Invention II.54)

It should be noted that courage has an inherently moral component to it, it doesn’t refer just to rushing into a situation regardless of danger:

“The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right.’” (Cicero, On Duties I.62)

II. Seneca: virtue and role models

When we move to Seneca, the emphasis shifts rather dramatically. Even though Seneca wrote a book on natural science, the overwhelming majority of his writings are on ethics. He rarely mentions individual virtues, talking instead of virtue in the singular. Consider:

“There is the whole inseparable company of virtues; every honourable act is the work of one single virtue, but it is in accordance with the judgment of the whole council.” (Letters LXVII. On Ill.10)


“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Letters LXXI.32)

Moreover, Seneca puts a lot more emphasis than earlier Stoics on the importance of role models:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)

That is why I devoted an entire section of this blog to the exploration of role models, both ancient and modern. They are a great practical tool not just because they provide us with examples of ethical behavior to use as inspiration and to do our best to imitate, but also because our very choices of role models tell us a lot about our values and help us reflect on them.

As Liz Gloyn has commented in her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, one can read the 124 letters to Lucilius as a bona fide Stoic curriculum, and it does not look at all like something Zeno or Chrysippus would have used. One gets a distinctive impression that Seneca has decidedly moved away from theory and into pragmatics, which foreshadows, of course, the great late innovator of Stoicism, Epictetus.

III. Role ethics and the three disciplines

Among modern Stoics Epictetus is most famous for his clear statement of the dichotomy of control (see Enchiridion I.1), which with him becomes a dominant component of Stoic philosophy, and which underlies his famous three disciplines: desire, action, and assent.

“There are three departments in which a man who is to be good and noble must be trained. The first concerns the will to get and will to avoid; he must be trained not to fail to get what he wills to get nor fall into what he wills to avoid. The second is concerned with impulse to act and not to act, and, in a word, the sphere of what is fitting: that we should act in order, with due consideration, and with proper care. The object of the third is that we may not be deceived, and may not judge at random, and generally it is concerned with assent.” (Discourses III.2)

The dichotomy of control, the all-important distinction between what is in our power (our values and judgments) and what is not in our power (everything else) is an application of the virtue of practical wisdom, to which Cicero above referred to as the knowledge of things that are truly good or bad for us. It is most directly connected to the discipline of desire, which trains us to desire what is proper (i.e., what is under our control) and not what is improper (what is not under our control), but it really underlies all three Epictetian disciplines.

Epictetus, like Seneca before him, emphasizes practical philosophy, telling his students over and over that if they were there just to learn Chrysippus’ logic they were wasting their time (and his):

“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)

Which is presumably why he developed an elaborate type of role ethics, as brilliantly discussed by Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. Brian points to this passage in the Discourses were Epictetus lays out the primary role of being human, contrasted with the secondary roles we all take on, some because we choose them, some because they are assigned to us by circumstances:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

This, according to Johnson, is a sophisticated elaboration of and advancement upon Panaetius’ four personae, a theory used by Cicero in the first volume of De Officiis: our universal nature as rational agents; what we can be by way of our natural dispositions; what we are as a result of external circumstances; and the lifestyle and vocation we choose.

This is why Brian disagrees with the famous — and widely accepted in modern Stoic circles — notion proposed by Pierre Hadot of a tight relationship among the three disciplines of Epictetus, the classical four virtues, and the three fields of inquiry (physics, logic, and ethics). I summarized Hadot’s approach here (see especially the diagram accompanying the post), but the more I think about it the more it seems both too neat and too strained. Too neat because it seeks to make coherent sense of different ideas that were deployed by the Stoics in a different manner when teaching five centuries apart from each other; and too strained because there just isn’t any good way to make things fit given that there is precious little evidence that Epictetus was thinking about the four virtues (or even the three fields of inquiry) when he articulated his three disciplines.

The upshot: a curriculum for modern Stoicism

If my analysis is even approximately correct, then this is a reasonable way to summarize the evolution of ancient Stoicism:

I want to stress that the implication is most definitely not that later iterations are better than early ones. “Evolution” here simply means what the root of the word indicates: change over time. In fact, I think these three approaches are different ways of interpreting the same basic Stoic philosophy, by putting the emphasis in different places as a function of the style of the teacher and the audience of students one is addressing. Ancient Athens was culturally distinct from imperial Rome, and Seneca definitely had a distinct temperament compared to Epictetus.

What does it all mean for modern students of Stoicism? The next slides is my own attempt at reorganizing the same material in a way that makes sense for contemporary audiences and could serve as the basis for a curriculum in modern Stoicism.

To begin with, notice the distinction between a theoretical and a practical approach (first row). Both should be deployed, as Stoicism is not just a bag of tricks, it is a coherent philosophy of life. A modern Stoic would be well served from learning the basics of natural science, developing a grasp of our best ideas about how the world actually works, so to avoid as much as possible buying into questionable views of reality. She should also acquire basic training in critical reasoning, so to be able to distinguish sense from nonsense and arrive at the best possible judgments in her life. The idea is the same one informing the ancient notion that in order to live a good life one has to appreciate how the cosmos is put together and has to be able to reason correctly about it.

The practical counterpart of the curriculum could be based on the Epictetian disciplines, which still provide a useful framework to actually practice Stoic philosophy, especially when tackled in the sequence envisioned by Epictetus. We still need to get better at redirecting our desires away from things that is improper (Stoically speaking) to want and toward things that is proper to want. The next step is to put our newly acquired practical knowledge into action, by behaving properly in the world, which largely means treating others justly and fairly. Finally, for the advanced students (as Epictetus suggested), we can refine our practice by paying careful attention to what exactly we should or should not give assent.

The second row in the diagram draws a parallel between two ways of thinking about how to live a eudaimonic life. On the left we have the theoretical understanding: we want to live following the best part of human nature, which for the Stoics very clearly meant to apply reason (our most distinctive faculty in the animal world) to improve society (because we are highly social beings who only thrive in a group). On the right we see Epictetus’ very practical way to put this into action: his role ethics. Notice two things, however: first, the most fundamental of our roles is that of a human being, which implies a cosmopolitan (as opposed to a nationalistic) stance. Second, that our specific roles in society can be interpreted creatively, which means, for instance, that just because one is, say, a mother, it does not follow that one should behave as a patriarchal society would want her to behave. If patriarchy is unjust (and it is), then a Stoic woman is under ethical obligation to play her role as mother to her children creatively, and if necessary in opposition to accepted social norms. (Needless to say, this applies to fathers and their role, and to pretty much any other role we play in life, whether given or chosen.)

The final row in the slide recovers a theoretical role for the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, because I find them useful in order to provide a general framework for thinking about how we ought to behave. The practical counterpart is Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: every time we remind ourselves that some things are up to us and others are not, we then have to decide how to act on the first set and how to best ignore the second set. And our moral compass is provided by, you guessed it, the four virtues.

As you can see, Stoicism has always been a dynamic philosophy, responding to challenges from rival schools (Academic Skeptics, Epicureans, Peripatetics), to changing cultural milieu (Athens, Rome), and as a function of who was practicing and teaching it (Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus). There is no reason why this should not continue into the 21st century and beyond, now that we are responding to new challenges (Christianity, Existentialism, even Nihilism), that the culture has changed again (and has become more global), and that new teachers have emerged (Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, hopefully yours truly, and many, many others). However you do it:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Were the ancient Stoics feminist? Should the modern ones be?

Woman with wax tablets and stylus, Roman fresco, Pompeii

The short answers to the title questions are: not really, and of course yes. At least, that’s the conclusion of a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoicism and feminism published in a paper by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford in Symposion, 1, 1 (2014): 9-22. And I think they are right.

The basic thesis put forth by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford is that ancient Stoics had an uneven track record when it came to women, with some positions that can readily be understood as proto-feminist, and others not so much. But the authors also separate the philosophy from the specific times and people that practiced it in ancient Greece and Rome — just as we sensibly do for other philosophical and religious traditions. So they ask whether Stoicism as a philosophy has the tools that are required in order to endorse a full fledged feminism in modern times. And their answer is definitely yes.

I think this is a very important paper, and deserves to be more widely read, for two reasons: (i) it reminds us modern Stoics that the ancients are, as Seneca famously put it, our guides, not our masters; and (ii) it significantly helps the ongoing project of updating Stoicism for the 21st century, which has been carried out most exemplarily by Larry Becker.

The first task Aikin and McGill-Rutherford set themselves is to show the existence of two strands of ancient Stoic thought, when it comes to women’s issue: a progressive one, and a “misogynist” one. I put the latter term in quotation marks because from now on I will use “sexist” instead, which I think is more appropriate. Misogyny refers to the hatred of women, which I don’t think is a label that can be fairly applied to the Stoics; sexism, by contrast, is precisely what you get from the readings of Seneca, Epictetus, and others.

(The Merriam-Webster defines misogyny as “hatred of women; from the Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman; first used around 1656. By contrast, it defines sexism as “unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially: unfair treatment of women; 1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially: discrimination against women; 2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex; from sex + -ism, as in racism; first used in 1963.)

A footnote in the paper pretty nicely summarizes the author’s point as far as ancient Stoicism is concerned, and I will therefore quote it in full: “Like Socrates’ views on women guardians, Zeno’s early views on liberty were more for minimizing social strife than for the sake of women’s liberation. Similarly, Musonius holds that women should learn philosophy, because such training would make them better (wiser and more dutiful) housewives (Stobaeus 2.31.127). Seneca, despite holding that women have the same native capacity for virtue, nevertheless also holds that there are special impediments to virtue that come with being a woman: lack of self-control (Ad Helv. 14.2), credulity (De Cons. Sap. 19.2), and simple-mindedness (Ad Marc. 16.3). And Epictetus standardly references women as the kind of humans who can’t keep their emotions in check (D 3.24.53) or as the kind of pretty trophy one would want when living the life of externals (D 4.94). This is not to mention all the standard usages of casually [sexist] phraseology. ‘Philosophize like a man, don’t simper like a woman’ (Seneca: De Const. I.1.2).” (note 3)

Let’s take a specific example from Epictetus:

“Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of ‘mistresses’ by men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place all their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them see that they are valued solely for displaying decent, modest and discreet behavior.” (Enchiridion XL)

Here we have a condemnation of the objectification of women (the progressive element), but also a call for women to be decent, modest and engage in discrete behavior (the sexist element).

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford find it a “mystery” that the Stoics only addressed an audience of men, but that’s one of the least convincing of their points, in my opinion. At the time that was, unfortunately, the standard attitude, though of course the Stoics can be faulted for not going against the general approach. More convincingly, they point out that both Cicero (not a Stoic!) and Seneca consistently use feminine adjectives to denote moral failings, and masculine ones to denote virtuous behaviors. Moreover, Epictetus dismisses Epicureanism as a philosophy not befitting even women.

Hierocles is another one who puts forth a problematic view of women as individuals who “fulfill the orders of the master of the house” (Stob. Anthol. 4.28.21, and see Engel 2003, 284). Though to be fair, Hierocles is arguably the most conservative of the ancient Stoics of which writings have survived. (Then again, we do owe him the beautiful image of the contracting circles of concern that is often used to visualize the crucial Stoic concept of oikeiosis, which in turn is the basis for Stoic cosmopolitanism, and — as we shall see below — of modern Stoic feminism.)

The major issue that Aikin and McGill-Rutherford identify with ancient Stoicism treatment of women is what they refer to as the “social standing problem.” Several Stoics were explicit in acknowledging the importance of circumstances to help us practice virtue: Seneca, for instance, says that we should avoid being hungry or tired, since that helps controlling our anger (De Ira III.9.5), and most famously the entire first book of Marcus’ Meditations is a long list of thanks to people who have taught him how to be virtuous. The idea, then, is that since women were generally not afforded the kind of social status that people like Seneca and Marcus had by default, the Stoics failed to recognize that there was a built-in disadvantage for women when it came to practicing virtue.

This is an important and fair point, but it is mitigated by a couple of observations, I think. First, that the Stoics also insisted that it is possible to be virtuous even under extreme circumstances, for instance in the case of a slave, like Epictetus himself. Second, there were a lot of men who not only did not enjoy the social status of Seneca or Marcus, but who also had a significantly lower social status than patrician women, several of whom, during the empire, managed to reach financial independence, control over their inheritance, and a degree of education. Still, these caveats aside, Aikin and McGill-Rutherford’s main point holds.

We now come to the positive part of the paper, where the authors begin to construct an argument that Stoicism qua philosophy does have the tools to call for a modern progressive feminism.

They begin this by providing two interpretations of the famous Stoic imperative, live according to nature. Interestingly, they distinguish between what they call a “thin” and a “thick” version of Stoic naturalism (though they use the word “teleological” for the latter, which I will avoid here because I don’t think their reasoning depends on a particular concept of providence). Thin naturalism simply means to accept what is natural and deal with it, which is something very much like what Epictetus says we should do in the Manual:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion VIII)

Thick naturalism, by contrast, means that one finds a normative element in nature. When Marcus, in Meditations II.16 and IX.1, says that injustice is unnatural, he is deploying a thick version of naturalism:

“Our soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any other person or moves against him with the intention of causing him harm, as is the case with those who lose their temper.” (Meditations II.16)

Both elements of naturalism are present in Stoic philosophy, which is the reason why still today if people emphasize thin naturalism they end up talking about “stoicism” rather than “Stoicism.” Now consider again oikeiosis: if the process is an example of thin naturalism, then we don’t have reason to invoke social reform or a change of the status quo. But if we take it to be stemming from a thick naturalistic conception, now we have the philosophical tools to invoke social change.

As the authors put it: “The Stoic [thick] natural view is that women have rational natures and a capacity for reasoned choice. The consequence is that from the perspective of the goods relevant to moral goodness, women are men’s equals and deserve the same respect and dignity that men are afforded. And this is precisely why Musonius Rufus holds that women deserve to be taught philosophy, why Seneca holds that women have the same capacities for virtue as men, and why Epictetus criticizes the sexualization of young women. What is valuable in women, their capacity for rational choice, is not being respected. Culture criticism is necessary in those cases, and the Stoics consistently came to criticize their own cultures for these failings.” (pp. 18-19)

Why, then, can we not consider them full fledged feminists? Because they failed to follow through the logical implications of their own philosophy, limited — as we all are — by their own culture and time.

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford point out something that even a number of modern Stoic practitioners too often forget. They rightly claim that we have duties to each other qua rational creatures, and that these duties include the respect of each other’s choices. Externals are indifferent, of course, to our own practice of virtue, but that does not license inaction in the face of injustice. Justice — let us never forget — is one of the four cardinal virtues! There is a difference, they maintain, between recognizing that we are not actually truly harmed (according to Stoic philosophy) by being treated unjustly (because our virtue remains intact) and being complicit in the unequal treatment of anyone. Including, obviously, women.

Here is a poignant passage from the paper that should be framed by anyone who practices modern Stoicism: “The Stoic can have a critique of the institution of slavery or any other unjust treatment of people, but then also have strategies for life that makes it so that when injustices happen to us, we can endure them. Epictetus prepares to go to the baths by readying himself for the rude and raucous behavior of others. When he goes and is splashed or has someone act inappropriately around him, he must understand that he signed up for the whole experience. And so he is ready to endure what must be endured. But this is not an endorsement of the rude or raucous behavior.” (p. 19)

“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Enchiridion IV)

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford conclude: “We identify the correct conditions for justice, but we prepare ourselves for when injustice arrives. There is, then, living in accord with what is (thin naturalism’s acceptance of what is), and living in accord with what natural reason requires (recognizing the ways one’s culture can fail to manifest divine reason).” (p. 20)

The upshot is that Stoicism qua philosophical framework, independently of the specific ways it was instantiated in Greco-Roman times, does have the resources to welcome women (and any other group) in its fold, and — more importantly — to call for social change. The intrinsic respect that Stoicism accords to the human capacity for reason (Epictetus’ prohairesis) is the very same respect for human choice that is at the core of feminism.


Post scriptum: It occurred to me that precisely the same argument made by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford about the difference between what the ancient Stoics wrote and what is logically entailed by Stoic philosophy applies to social justice as well.

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.

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

Stoicism and Emotion, VI: traits of character

the judgment of Paris

The judgment of Paris, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1892

The scene is Mount Olympus. Zeus and the other gods are contemplating the ongoing Trojan war, and the father of the gods remarks to Hera, his wife, and Athena, his daughter: “Perhaps it’s time to give up: make peace for real, and let Troy stand.” This does not go down well with either wife or daughter, who have been supporting the Achaeans against Troy, with Aphrodite on the other side. (This disputes among the goddesses, as is well known, stems from Paris being asked to make the impossible judgment of which of the three was the most beautiful one.)

Margaret Graver, in the sixth chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, uses the story as a way to introduce her discussion of character. (Check the other entries in this series here.) Hera and Athena react very differently to Zeus’ comment. Athena — allegedly the goddess of wisdom, let us not forget — just murmurs to herself and glares at her father. Hera, by contrast, goes into one of her usual, and often barely provoked, rages. A major explanation (though, admittedly, not the only one possible, given their different relationship to Zeus) for the contrasting reactions to the same provocation is character. Athena is able to control her anger, while Hera very clearly is not. Hera is in fact best described as irascible, i.e., prone to anger. Which, needless to say, is a major character flow as far as the Stoics are concerned.

As Graver points out, character is central to Stoicism because it bears the full import of moral responsibility, as explained for instance by Chrysippus in his famous metaphor of the rolling cylinder. Now, at the coarsest level the Stoics only recognized two types of character: the just one and the unjust one. The Sage is just, everyone else isn’t. But at a finer grained level they were interested in individual differences in character, and that’s the major focus of this chapter of the book:

“Just as one may observe variations in the sea floor without disregarding the fact that all of it is equally underwater, so it is possible in this system to differentiate one personality from another even where all concerned have the same overall moral standing.” (p. 134)

In other words, the fact that all of us ordinary people are equally non-wise doesn’t mean we don’t have individual personality traits. In order to show that the Stoics’ philosophically rigorous analysis of character can allow for that sort of variety, Graver goes into the distinction between two kinds of conditions. Some conditions can vary in degree, others can’t: you can be more tall or less tall, for instance, but you can’t be more or less pregnant. Conditions that can scale up or down are called scalar conditions; those that can’t are non-scalar.

For the Stoics, wisdom is a non-scalar condition, since wisdom consists in coherence among all a person’s beliefs and judgments — a set of beliefs is either coherent or it’s not, just as a math problem is either correct or incorrect. And virtue is wisdom, since it consists in knowledge of how to live. So either you have wisdom, or you don’t. But it doesn’t follow that everyone who is not wise is completely alike. There are other kinds of personality traits that are scalar conditions: we can have them or not have them, and we can have them in greater or lesser degree.

Graver explains that in the ancient texts, the word for non-scalar traits is diatheseis, and the word for scalar traits is hexeis. One rather technical, but highly informative paragraph from Stobaeus’ summary of Stoic ethics gives examples of both good and bad mental characteristics that count as either diatheseis or hexeis.

“Some of the goods having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the virtues are diatheseis, but the habitudes, like prophecy and so forth, are hexeis, while activities in accordance with virtue, like a prudent action, an exercise of self-control, and so on, are neither. Likewise, some of the bad things having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the vices are diatheseis, but proclivities, like enviousness, tendency to grief, and so on, are hexeis, as also are the sicknesses and infirmities. Activities in accordance with fault, like an imprudent action, an unjust action, and so on, are neither.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.5f; 70-71W; cf. D.L. 7.98)

Notice that tendencies toward certain emotions (envy, grief) figure among the bad hexeis. These kinds of traits are especially important for Stoic living, because they quantify levels of negativity of which we need to be aware. Left unchecked they can easily generate powerful emotions capable of ruining our chances at eudaimonia.

Margaret takes a close look at the items in Stobaeus’ list and organizes them in a couple of useful diagrams (a classification of good and bad traits of character, if you will). Consider, for instance, what Stobaeus says about the bad traits called “sicknesses”:

“A ‘sickness,’ they say, is a desirous opinion which has hardened into a condition and become entrenched, according to which people suppose that things which are not choiceworthy are extremely choiceworthy; for instance, fondness for women, fondness for wine, fondness for money. And there are conditions opposite to these which come about through aversion; for instance, hatred of women, hatred of wine, hatred of humanity.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.10e (93W); similarly Seneca, Moral Epistles 75.10-12)

Graver points out that in Stoic philosophy to say that an indifferent is not choiceworthy does not mean that it should not be pursued, as even Sages have preferences (and dis-preferences). For instance, most of us would probably agree that it is preferred to have some money as opposed to being poor. But that preference slides into a sickness when one becomes fond of money for its own sake, and even worse if one attempts to get more money by unjust means. And the word “sickness” here is particularly appropriate, given that the Stoics thought of philosophers as doctors of the mind, often drawing direct analogies with the medicine of the body.

Next is an analysis of “proclivities,” which Chrysippus explains are tendencies toward specific emotions, or towards action contrary to nature (in the specific Stoic sense of the term). What, precisely, is the difference between sickness and proclivity? Margaret explains:

“A person with a ‘sickness’ is especially concerned about some one object type and experiences a range of emotions concerned with that object. Someone with a proclivity, by contrast, experiences one emotion more than all others and must therefore experience it in connection with a wide range of objects.” (p. 142)

In one case, someone is fixated on a certain object, money for instance, and becomes upset when they can’t get it, thrilled when they do get it, fearful of losing it, and so on. In the second case, someone has a tendency toward a certain reaction, anger for instance, and becomes angry about all sorts of things. This account gives the Stoics a neat cognitivist theory of the non-wise conditions.

The last bit of the chapter is about the personality traits of virtuous people. Still working with the summary in Stobaeus, Graver shows that while all wise people are alike in being wise, they can also have individual characteristics. These are called “habitudes” (epitēdeumata) and are classified as scalar hexeis.

“Fondness for music (philomousia), fondness for literature (philogrammatia), fondness for horses (philippia), fondness for hunting with dogs (philokunēgia), and, in general, the things that are said to be encyclical skills are called by Stoics ‘habitudes’ but are not said to be forms of knowledge; rather, they are classed among the worthwhile conditions.” (Stobaeus Ecl. 2.7.5b11; 67W)

A habitude doesn’t engage the emotions in the same way that the sicknesses and proclivities do. It seems to be just a behavior pattern, a tendency to spend time in one way rather than another. Two people can both be wise without knowing exactly the same things; after all, they might live in different surroundings. At one point, a habitude is called “a road that leads toward what is in accordance with virtue.” Interestingly, the same Greek word, hodos, means both road and method. Also interestingly, the Stoics did not claim that all wise persons would cultivate the same habitudes: the road to virtue is made of many paths.

“One wise person may be fond of music but not of dogs, while another, equally wise, devotes herself to horses, or to a variety of pursuits. Such preferences are not what it is to be wise; rather, they are personality traits of the wise, products of their varied experience.” (p. 147)

One final word to clear up possible misunderstanding: the wise person understands that music, or dogs, or whatever, are not good in and of themselves (only virtue is). Which means that she can be fond of music, dogs, etc., without for that reason coming to think that not being able to pursue those interests is an evil. By avoiding mistakes about the value of externals, the wise have freed themselves of the emotional disturbances that such mistakes inevitably produce.

What do I disagree about with the ancient Stoics?

How to be a Stoic (this blog) is meant to chart and share my progress in the study and practice of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. So far, I have published a whopping 365 posts since the inception of the blog, in March 2015 (and that output doesn’t count my book, by the same title). A fair question, which I’ve been asked a number of times both in person and online is: what, if anything, do I disagree with the ancient Stoics about? Moreover, how does that affect the idea that I am, in fact, practicing “Stoicism”? Good questions, let me answer them.

To begin with, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. Religions too, of course, change over time, but usually with much resistance. After all, their precepts are supposed to have been dictated, or at least inspired, by gods, and who are we as mere human beings, to alter those? Philosophies of life do not, obviously, suffer from that problem: philosophies are meant to change and update themselves with new insights and even new discoveries, especially a philosophy like Stoicism, which includes the field of study of “physics,” i.e., all the natural sciences and metaphysics. Surely that field has changed a lot since the time of Zeno of Citium.

Indeed, the Stoics themselves were very clear about the necessity to update their view of the world, as well as on the fact that they were not enslaved to whatever their predecessors happened to believe. In letter XXXIII to Lucilius Seneca writes:

“The truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating. What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” (10-11)

I belong to that posterity Seneca is talking about, so I feel free to accept or reject whatever I find sensible in his teachings, those of Epictetus, and so forth. The problem, though, is that the development of Stoicism has been “interrupted,” so to speak. While Buddhism, say, or Confucianism, or Christianity, have developed as continuous (and more or less highly branching) traditions since their inceptions, Stoicism as an active school of thought died around the II century CE.

True, it has in the meantime influenced major thinkers, from many of the Church Fathers to Descartes and Spinoza, and it even underwent a brief revival during the Renaissance. But it is only with the modern efforts of people like Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine and others that it has been reborn like the Phoenix and has become a viable philosophy for modern living. That leaves a gap of 18 centuries, during which both philosophy and especially science have progressed quite a bit. I see that gap as an opportunity to reshape things while keeping the spirit of ancient Stoicism as alive as possible.

[A fairly useless debate often arises at this point: “but is it still Stoicism?” Who knows? And who is to tell? Is modern Christianity really Christianity? What about modern Buddhism? I think that so long as people are inspired by these traditions and they keep an honest attitude toward maintaining what they see as the core of those traditions, then all is fine and good. But if you are interested in pointless debates about the true nature of philosophies and religions, the Sophistry Club is meeting around the corner. Have fun!]

All the above said by way of a preamble, here are some things that I reject or significantly alter with respect to the teachings of ancient Stoicism.

First up: pantheism and the related concept of providence. The early Stoics believed that the universe is like a living organism, endowed of a capacity to act rationally (the Logos). We are bits and pieces of that organism, which makes sense of one of their recurring metaphors, presented here by Epictetus, quoting Chrysippus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

I am a scientist and a secularist, I do not believe that modern science and philosophy support pantheism, or any kind of theistic metaphysics, for that matter. I respect people who do hold such beliefs, and I have written that Stoicism is effectively neutral on this matter. But so far as we can tell from the point of view of 21st century knowledge, the universe is neither an organism nor a mechanism (as in Newton’s). It’s a manifestation of laws of nature whose origin still eludes us, and which have resulted in the organic evolution of sentient beings at least one of likely suitable billions of planets scattered throughout the cosmos. There is no rhyme or reason for this, other than the universal web of cause and effect, and there is no particular meaning to our lives, other than the one we construct as social and intelligent beings.

A position like mine (which is very similar to the one espoused recently by Larry Becker) is often taken to be irreconcilable with ancient Stoicism, but this is patently false. The Stoics themselves, including most prominently Marcus, but also Epictetus and Seneca, were keenly aware that their ethics would withstand a radically different “physics,” as in the oft-repeated “gods or atoms” phrase by Marcus. It is, therefore, not as much of a stretch as one might think to re-conceive the Logos as the (factual) observation that the universe is indeed structured in a rational manner (otherwise the very practice of science could not possibly succeed). And “providence” simply becomes the outcome of cause-effect relations, toward which a Stoic attitude remains the best available option, in my mind.

Second: the exact recurrence of things. The ancient Stoics believed that the cosmos originated in a fire that reset everything, but also that the new cycle would repeat the previous one in every detail. So would the next cosmic conflagration, and so on for all eternity. Interestingly, a similar model has been presented in modern cosmology, though astronomers thinks that if it is correct, each episode would actually be different because of small (quantum) fluctuations in the initial conditions.

Regardless, I’m going to go with whatever cosmologists tell us, and if it turns out that there is no eternal recurrence, whether precise or not, it doesn’t matter. It is another bit of Stoic physics that has no impact on what’s really important: the ethics. Besides, my astronomer friends keep changing their mind about how the universe really originated, and how it will end up, every few years. The debate is fascinating, but it would be unwise, at the moment, to bet on a particular outcome.

Third: the possibility of perfect human knowledge. As part of their studies in the field of “logic” the Stoics developed a sophisticated type of epistemology, i.e., a theory of human knowledge. I think they got a lot of things right, but they were a bit too optimistic about the ability of even the Sage (i.e., the perfect Stoic, whatever that means) to acquire certain knowledge. Mind you, they didn’t think of Sages as superhuman, but they believed it was possible for them not to make mistakes in the use of their faculty of judgment (prohairesis). The Skeptics chastised the Stoics for that, and the debate between the two schools gradually led to a softening of the Stoic position. I don’t think there is much at stake here, though. I can’t make sense of what “perfect knowledge” means. Insofar as I’m concerned, human beings are capable of remarkable feats of reason (think of our accomplishments in science, mathematics, and logic), and yet can easily fool themselves into believing all sorts of nonsense. It is what it is, and it’s not important as far as Stoic ethics is concerned.

Fourth: virtue is all or nothing. This one used to bother me more than it does now. Following ancient Stoicism, only the Sage really has virtue, and the rest of us — missing it — are equally wretched. This is the basis of the famous “drowning man” metaphor: it doesn’t matter whether you drown in meters or inches of water, you are still drowning. My early reaction to this was that the notion isn’t very tenable, but that it has the value of teaching us some humility (we are all bad, none of us is a Sage). More recently, though, in the course of my commentary on Becker’s A New Stoicism, I came up with a visual metaphor that actually makes sense of the ancient seemingly contradictory notions that virtue is all or nothing, and yet we can (and should) make progress toward it. Take a look here.

Lastly (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, by the way): sex. Here the Stoics gave completely contradictory advice. Specifically, there was a huge difference between the Zenonian approach (early Stoa) and the Roman imperial one (late Stoa): apparently, and logically enough, the early Stoics were much more “Cynical” then the later, rather prudish, Romans. Take a look at some pertinent quotations from the early Stoics:

“[Chrysippus in his work on Commonwealth] praises Diogenes for saying to the bystanders as he masturbated in public, ‘Would that I could thus rub the hunger too out of my belly.’” (Plutarch, De Stoicorum repugnantiis 1044b-1045a)

“[Zeno says] penetrate the thighs of … a female any more or any less than those of a male.” (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism III.245-246)

“In the Republic [Zeno] lays down community of wives [i.e., free love] … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.33)

“It is also [the Stoics’] doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.133)

Now compare the above to the much more restrictive Roman take:

“If you consider sexual passion to have been bestowed on mankind not for the sake of pleasure, but for the continuance of the race, all other desires will pass harmlessly by one who is safe even from this secret plague, implanted in our very bosoms.” (Seneca, To my Mother Helvia, on Consolation, XIII)

“Men who are neither licentious nor wicked must consider only those sexual acts which occur in marriage and which are carried out for the creation of children to be right.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XII.1)

“When you yield to carnal passion you must take account not only of this one defeat, but of the fact that you have fed your incontinence and strengthened it.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.18)

“If any one does own to incontinence, he brings in passion, to give him the excuse of involuntary action. Injustice is in no circumstances conceived as involuntary. There is an involuntary element, they think, in jealousy, and for this reason this too is a fault which men confess.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.21)

My own compromise is along the following lines, drawn from my interpretation of Stoic general precepts: sex is ethical only within a committed relationship and for reciprocal pleasure, since it is part of what keeps a relationship healthy. How and with whom it is done is entirely irrelevant from a philosophical perspective, and many types of relationships are ethically compatible with Stoicism.

I’m sure that more reflection would highlight other points of disagreement I have with the ancient Stoics. Nonetheless, I do think there is a strong core to Stoic philosophy, especially in its ethics, that is easily retained and tweaked for modern sensibilities. Most importantly, for me, the idea that we are social animals capable of reason, and that it is our duty to apply it to improve the human polis. As Marcus puts it:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Disciplines, fields, and virtues: the full Stoic system in one neat package

The invention of StoicismI’ve been studying Stoicism as a practical philosophy fairly intensely for several years now, and up until recently I accepted what has become received wisdom in the modern Stoicism community about the relationship among three important components of Stoic philosophy: the practical disciplines as laid out by Epictetus, the four cardinal virtues, and the three fields of study comprising the classical Stoic curriculum. Such received wisdom comes from the work of Pierre Hadot, as articulated in detail in The Inner Citadel (full pdf here). Hadot develops a correspondence between the disciplines and the fields of study within the context of his discussion of the philosophy of Epictetus (ch. 5), and he also constructs a correspondence between the virtues and the disciplines when he discusses Marcus Aurelius (ch. 9). I have summarized his take in this post, which is accompanied by what I was hoping to be a handy diagram to put the whole thing together.

Even though something definitely appealed to me in the idea of drawing correspondences among those three aspects of Stoic theory, something also struck me as not quite right. For one thing, there are four virtues, three disciplines, and three fields, which really clashes with my sense of symmetry. More importantly, I noticed that every time I had to explain the whole system to someone, I would have to pause and try to remember, or reconstruct, Hadot’s explanation for it. That is not a good sign, it means that the system does not come natural to me, that there is something that does not feel quite right about it.

During a recent discussion at the New York City Stoics meetup, facilitated by my friend Greg Lopez, we were talking about this with our special guest, Brian Johnson, author of the excellent The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (my six-part commentary of that book is here). In it, Brian argues that Hadot’s interpretation is forced, and does not quite reflect Epictetus’ own philosophy. At some point during the conversation, it struck me not only that Brian was likely to be right, but that I had also developed a somewhat clear idea of why. I am going to present that idea below, in the hope that it may be useful to others to better understand Stoicism as whole.

First, though, a quick recap of the three components of Stoicism among which we want to figure out the proper relationship: the disciplines of Epictetus, the cardinal virtues, and the classic fields of study.

Epictetus’ three disciplines: these concern desire (of what is and is not appropriate to want), action (regarding our relations to others), and assent (to give to or withdraw from “impressions,” i.e., our initial, automatic judgments about the importance of things).

Here is how Epictetus puts it in the Discourses:

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent. Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions [i.e., the first one]. … The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships. … The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.1-5)

Notice here that Epictetus basically lays out a sequence for his Stoic curriculum: the most important thing, and the first one to study, is how to properly direct our desires and aversions. Which should train ourselves to desire only whatever is under our control, and to treat everything else as not being up to us. Once we muster that, we are ready to properly act within the world. It is important here that Epictetus reminds his students that we don’t want to be “unfeeling like a statue” — so much for the stereotype of the unemotional Stoic. It is, finally, only the advanced student that can tackle the third discipline, that of assent, which allows us to arrive at good judgments.

The four virtues: as is well known, there are four virtues in Stoic philosophy: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. There are several definitions of them in the Stoic canon, but perhaps the most compact and informative ones are found in Cicero’s De Inventione (On Invention):

“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence [i.e., practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … [And] temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (II.53-54)

Keep these definitions in mind, we will come back to them.

The three fields of study: finally, a quick look at the three fields, in the summary provided by Diogenes Laertius in The Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (VII.39-40)

Diogenes then goes on explaining in detail the parts of each of the three fields, from which it is clear that: (i) “physics” is the study of how the world works (i.e., our natural science and metaphysics combined); (ii) “logic” is the study of how to reason well (which today would include formal and informal logic as well as psychology, with its understanding of cognitive biases); and (iii) “ethics” is much broader than today’s concern with right and wrong, and it is actually conceived as the study of how to live your life well.

The problem with Hadot’s system: we are now in a position to recap Hadot’s suggested correspondence among the disciplines, the virtues and the fields, after which we will see why Johnson rejects it, and examine my substitute proposal.

Here is my rendition of the Hadotian system in the earlier post linked above:


The general idea is that the discipline of desire is related to physics because one needs to understand how the world works in order to figure out what is and is not proper to desire; these two, in turn, are connected to the virtues of courage (to accept the dictates of the cosmos) and temperance (to regulate one’s actions accordingly). The connection between ethics and the discipline of action is the most obvious one, since action regulates how we interact with others; the corresponding virtue is, naturally enough, justice. Finally, assent is linked to the study of logic because perfecting reasoning improves our judgment, and hence allows us to properly examine our impressions; the relevant virtue is practical wisdom, which steers us through morally complex situations.

It’s a neat system (except for the asymmetry, noted above, between the number of virtues and the rest), but it finds little evidential support in Epictetus. Johnson points out that Epictetus usually does not mention the fields, except, interestingly, logic. Regarding the latter, he holds an interesting position: on the one hand, he makes fun of those among his students who are into logic chopping:

“If I admire the interpretation [of a philosophical treatise], I have turned into a literary critic instead of a philosopher, the only difference being that, instead of Homer, I’m interpreting Chrysippus.” (Enchiridion 49)

On the other hand, he also clearly thinks that without logic there simply is not philosophizing at all:

“When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not.” (Discourses II, 25)

I’m going to make a note of this quote for the next time someone asks me what logic (and, by extension, philosophy) has ever done for them…

Johnson has additional worries about Hadot’s system, for instance that the connection between physics and the discipline of desire especially seems to be forced. Interested readers are referred to pp. 79-80 of his book. Indeed, if one reads chapter 5 of The Inner Citadel, it is pretty clear even to the casual observer that he struggles mightily to connect physics and desire. Another worry correctly expressed by Johnson is the fact that Epictetus does not use the virtues in his teachings, deploying instead his rather novel approach of role ethics; on this, see mostly chapter 1 of The Role Ethics of Epictetus, especially the last part of it. As for Marcus, Hadot himself traces the concepts in the Meditations to an amalgam of traditional Stoicism, influences from Epictetus, and even Platonism. Marcus was not a philosopher, and it is hard to construct a system of any sort from what is, after all, his personal diary.

For these reasons, and as a result of my own reading of all the above authors, both modern and ancients, I find myself in agreement with Johnson that Hadot’s quasi-neat system of correspondence among disciplines, fields, and virtues is a bit artificial and strained. What then?

A new way to conceive of the full Stoic system: it occurred to me that there is plenty of evidence that the Stoics thought of each of the three subject matters we have been discussing in a rather unitary, holistic, fashion: they argued, most famously, for the unity of virtues, which I propose to represent as a tetrahedron with four faces (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance), all aspects of a fundamental object, which we can simply call virtue. Here is the visual:

The four virtues as a tetrahedron

The reasons the virtues are deeply interconnected is because it makes little sense to try to use them separately. Consider: courage is not just physical bravery, but rather the moral courage to stand up for what is right. But how does one know what is right? That falls under the domain of the virtue of justice. Then again, as Cicero clearly says above, practical wisdom (prudence) is the virtue that tells you what is good, what is bad, and what is neither, surely pertinent knowledge to exercise justice. And it takes all three to practice temperance about one’s own passions, because one has to know the difference between good and bad, have the courage to act on it, and do so with the general welfare in mind. You simply can’t have one without the others.

The three fields of study, while formally distinct, were also deeply interrelated. The Stoics very clearly did not study physics and logic for their own sake (see my discussion of curiositas vs studiositas). Here, for instance, is Seneca to his friend Lucilius on the subject:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.” (LXXXIX.42-45)

The above description, unfortunately, can still be applied, almost two millennia later, to much of what goes on in modern academic philosophy departments, but that’s another story…

Their holistic thinking is why the Stoics came up with a number of metaphors to make clear the interconnectedness of the three fields, the best of which is, in my opinion, that of the garden as presented by Diogenes Laertius. Logic is necessary to keep out the weeds of bad reasoning; physics nurtures our understanding of reality; and ethics applies both reasoning and understanding to the crucial task of living well.

The Stoic garden

What about the three disciplines, then? They too are conceptually distinct and yet obviously tightly interconnected, as it is clear from Epictetus’ treatment of them and the explicit sequence he lays out in the Discourses, mentioned above. This is a diagram to grasp the basic idea:

Epictetus three disciplines

If my analysis (built on Johnson’s critique of Hadot) is correct, then a better way to look at the relationship among the disciplines, the virtues, and the fields of study is an integrated one, reflecting the recurrent Stoic way of treating things as conceptually distinct and yet practically deeply connected. Here, then, is my attempt at how we should see the full shebang:

The full Stoic system

Briefly, on the left we have Stoic theory, comprising of course the fields of study of logic and physics (which inform each other), but also ethics (which is informed by the other two). On the right side is Stoic practice, which can be conceptualized either in terms of the virtues (lower part of the diagram), as in classical Stoicism, or in terms of the disciplines (upper part of the diagram), as emphasized by Epictetus. The virtues reinforce themselves, but could also be understood as reference points that make it possible to actually practice the disciplines (though, alternatively, one could follow Epictetus’ original alternative based on his theory of roles). Conversely, the disciplines are what makes the virtues useful in real life, giving them substance, so to speak. Finally, notice that the three areas of study inform both the articulation of the disciplines and the nature of the virtues.

There are two main reasons so many people have been attracted to the system of Stoic philosophy over the past 23 centuries: it is eminently practical, and it has a beautiful internal coherence. The diagram above should make clear why.


Important note on terminology: throughout this essay I have avoided the word “topoi” (sing., topos) because it has been used confusingly in the public literature, including, unfortunately, by myself. Sometimes people use it to refer to the disciplines (desire, action, and assent) and sometimes to the fields of study (logic, physics, and ethics). Johnson, for instance, uses “topoi” in reference to the disciplines, while Robertson, in his Stoicism and the art of Happiness, applies the word to the fields of study. I checked Hadot’s treatment of the matter in The Inner Citadel, and it turns out there is a good reason for the confusion: it originated with Epictetus himself! Hadot writes: “In order to designate these exercises [the three disciplines], Epictetus uses the word topos, a term traditionally used by the Stoics — at least since the time of Apollodoros of Seleucia — who flourished at the end of the second century BCE — to designate the parts of philosophy [the three fields].” So it appears that part of the basis for Hadot’s suggestion of a correspondence between disciplines and fields is the fact that Epictetus used for the former the word traditionally employed for the latter. At any rate, to avoid any further confusion, I adhered to the English words “disciplines” and “fields (of study).”

Becker’s A New Stoicism, X: Virtue ethics, political philosophy, and how to live well

We have arrived at the end of my extended commentary of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism. Let me stress one more time that this is the book to read if one is seriously interested in a philosophically coherent update of Stoicism for the 21st century. There is absolutely nothing else like it, period. It is, however, a difficult book to get through, especially the extensive commentaries at the end of each chapter, not to mention the appendix devoted to a presentation of a Stoic system of formal normative logic. That is precisely why, with Larry’s approval and help, I wrote these ten posts. Needless to say, the reader will be well served to use this collection as a guide, not a substitute, for reading the actual book.

That said, time now to tackle the last bit, an important postscript to the revised edition of A New Stoicism, which deals with three important topics that Larry had left out of the first edition, and did not feel would fit organically within the main text of the second one: the relationship between Stoicism and virtue ethics more generally; the question of whether a eudaimonic philosophy like Stoicism has enough to say about social and political philosophy; and why Stoicism has a lot to contribute to practical living in modern times. I will summarize and briefly comment on each of these topics, though I wish Larry had devoted significantly more space to them. Next book, perhaps.

Stoicism and virtue ethics broadly construed

Virtue ethics has seen a renaissance in moral philosophy ever since the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others (see this nice summary). That is because it provides a valuable alternative to the two dominant modern approaches: Kantian deontology and utilitarianism (in their many varieties, see this article by John-Stewart Gordon for a discussion). But plenty of people have noted issues with the chief version of modern virtue ethics, which is based on Aristotle. In particular, its foundation on a teleological view of human nature that is no longer tenable according to modern science (see this video discussion with my colleague Dan Kaufman).

While it is true that the ancient Stoics in turn relied on a “providential” view of the cosmos rooted in their pantheism, two major differences with Aristotelianism make Stoicism a far more palatable candidate for a modernized virtue ethics: (i) the ancient Stoics themselves clearly saw that the specific details of their metaphysics were ultimately irrelevant to the question of how to live their lives (see here, for instance); and (ii) Stoicism provides a thoroughly naturalistic account of ethics, based on the so-called cradle argument which we have already discussed, and which turns out to be eminently compatible with the findings of modern cognitive psychology. This leads Larry to write:

“Ethical theory makes a great deal of sense to me when it is grounded in the reality of the human condition and our developing understanding of the physical and social environments we inhabit. It makes much less sense when it is done a priori or tethered only to our intuitions.” (p. 226)

One area I’m going to respectfully disagree with Becker is toward the end of this first section of the postscript, where he hints at the possibility that virtue ethics, particularly Stoic virtue ethics, might provide us with a framework capable of unifying the three major traditions in moral philosophy:

“[Stoic agentic activity] has to unify consequentialist concerns about always acting so as to promote the best consequences, with our deontological concerns about always acting on principle with respect to moral requirements and prohibitions, and with our virtue theoretic concerns about always acting in (good) character.” (p. 227)

Well, yes. But I’m pretty sure both utilitarians and deontologists would recoil in horror at the suggestion! And, I think, for good reasons. Even though Larry is here magnanimously stating that virtue ethics would provide a unifying approach “without definitely subordinating one type [of moral philosophy] to the others,” it seems to me that it is (Stoic) virtue ethics that would do the unifying, and that such a feat would be made possible by a focus on virtuous agency, thus implicitly putting virtue ethics at the forefront of the allegedly egalitarian solution. I don’t think this really matters a lot, though. The point, which is well taken and should be kept in mind by critics of virtue ethics, is that our approach of course includes both deontological components (because we recognize duties toward others) and utilitarian ones (because we are concerned with the consequences of our action). But the central focus remains on the improvement of our own character, as the surest way to contribute to the betterment of the human polis.

Stoic politics and social philosophy

One of the most persistent (and frustrating, if your Stoic progress is not sufficiently advanced) objections to Stoicism is that it has no concern, or provides us with no tools, for social and political philosophy. The philosophy is too vague, or individualistic, or even egoistic, say the critics. And this despite a significant literature to the contrary.

An obvious observation that should address these concerns a bit is that one of the four Stoic virtues is that of justice, connected to Epictetus’ discipline of action — which is meant explicitly to regulate our interactions with others in a just way. As Larry puts it:

“From Socrates onward, it has been argued that those virtues [like justice] defeat radical amoralists like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic and ground strong political duties that involve self-sacrifice for the good of one’s family, neighbors, and fellow citizens.” (p. 228)

In the modern parlance developed by Becker throughout the book, strong agency, virtue and eudaimonia are tightly interrelated (see here), so that a Stoic simply cannot go through her life by exercising virtue only for her own sake, it automatically includes regard for others. This is a consequence, again, of the cradle argument referenced above, which is often presented in terms of oikeiôsis, the gradual “appropriation” of others’ concerns that is the basis for Stoic cosmopolitanism (see here).

One thing I need to add to Larry’s treatment here, and on which I hope to expand soon in a forthcoming post. I don’t think Stoicism entails a particular type of social philosophy (say, liberal progressivism), though it is incompatible with a number of them (no Stoic Nazis!). As usual, people will say that that’s a bug, and I respond that it is a feature. I don’t see why liberal progressives (among whom I count myself) should be the only virtuous political agents around. I think one can be a virtuous conservative, libertarian, and a number of other things. Specific solutions to social-political issues will come, as Becker clearly states, from the virtuous application of practical reason. And no particular ideological group has a monopoly on that.

Stoicism as a guide to living well

Finally, Larry tackles the recent growth (which mostly happened after the first edition of A New Stoicism, back in 1998) of the modern Stoicism movement, which has resulted in widespread interest in Stoicism as a practical philosophy for the 21st century — and which is the raison d’être of this very blog.

He mentions a number of available resources for those interested in learning and practicing Stoicism, including — very kindly — my own How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern life (but also books by Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, Chris Gill, and even Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, whose main character turns around his life through the discovery of Stoicism).

Interestingly, Becker then turns to one of the underestimated ancient Stoics, Panaetius, an exponent of the so-called Middle Stoa and Posidonius’ teacher (the latter, in turn, was Cicero’s teacher, which is why Cicero wrote a lot, and sympathetically, about Stoicism). The reason for the neglect is that we only have fragments of Panaetius’ writings, but one of the important ones comes from Cicero’s On Duties. That’s the bit where Cicero presents Panaetius’ theory of ethical social roles, and it is worth considering as a possible framework for modern living as well (here is my summary of Brian Johnson’s treatment of the other major theory of roles in Stoic ethics, the one articulated by Epictetus).

Cicero summarizes the four roles in this fashion:

“It should also be understood that nature has endowed us with two roles, as it were. One of these is universal, from the fact that we all share in reason and that status which raises us above the beasts. … The second role is the one which has been specifically assigned to individuals. … To the above-mentioned two roles, a third is appended, which some chance or circumstance imposes; and a fourth as well, which we take upon ourselves by our own decision.” (On duties 1.107, 110–11, 114–17)

Long and Sedley, in their The Hellenistic Philosophers (sec. 66, at E), explain:

“[It is] Panaetius’ almost certainly original doctrine that proper functions are specifiable by reference to ‘four roles’ which each person has. … The word translated ‘role’ is persona (the Latin for an actor’s mask), and Panaetius’ theory intriguingly anticipates modern conceptions of personality and role play. Roles one and two refer respectively to the shared rationality of all human beings (‘universal nature’) and the physical, mental and temperamental nature of the individual. … Equally impressive is the clarity with which he distinguishes the entirely accidental determinants of personal identity (role three) from the career and specializations people choose for themselves (role four). … Collectively the four roles offer an account of the general considerations people should review in deciding on their proper functions — what I ought to do as a member of the human race, as the person with my natural strengths and weaknesses, as unavoidably involved in these external circumstances, and with the lifestyle and bent I have chosen for myself.”

Larry’s postscript ends with a brief but illuminating discussion of the relationship among Stoic teaching, training, and “therapy,” as well as their joint consequences on the idea of Stoic moral education. Stoic teaching should consist of presenting to students the three classical fields (physics, logic, and ethics), to emphasize how coherent and attractive Stoic philosophy really is. Stoic teaching should also include an outline and justification of our ideas on the development and structure of virtue.

In terms of training, this includes the application of principles and precepts to hypothetical and actual cases, along the model presented by Epictetus’ Discourses. A second aspect of Stoic training should comprise the mental as well as physical rehearsal of one’s activities, including such things as the evening philosophical diary as well as exercises in self-denial (see here for a list and discussion of practical Stoic exercises).

Finally, addressing Stoic therapy, Larry correctly points out that to talk in those terms is actually somewhat problematic. If someone suffers from organic problems that affect one’s mentation, then philosophy isn’t going to do it, one needs psychological or even psychiatric help (see this discussion). Of course, as I’ve argued on several occasions, philosophy and therapy may be complementary, and a prokopton may prefer, if she needs therapy, a cognitive approach inspired by Stoic insights, such as REBT and CBT. Whatever one does, once the therapy has succeeded in putting out, or at least controlling, whatever fire was raging in one’s mind, one still needs a compass to navigate life in a eudaimonic fashion. And Stoicism has been the best compass around for more than two millennia.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, IX: Happiness

We are reaching the end of my extended commentary on the second edition of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism, a book aiming at taking several steps toward updating Stoic philosophy for the 21st century, and a must read for anyone seriously interested in Stoic theory. This post will cover the last chapter of the book, on happiness, while the final entry in the series will deal with an important postscript Larry wrote, about virtue ethics, virtue politics, and Stoicism as a guide to living well.

To begin with, “happiness” for Stoics is really eudaimonia, i.e., it does not refer to a temporary state of mind (“I’m happy that I got a job!”), but rather to our satisfaction with the entire trajectory of our lives. It is, therefore, a reference point for navigation, the “polestar” of not just our ethical theory, but our whole way of life. Why take the the entirety of our life as the reference frame? Because whenever we focus too much on individual episodes we eventually realize that something that seemed at the time to be a catastrophe was actually quite bearable, trivial, even. Similarly, we achieve a goal that we thought was crucial, life changing, even, but it soon turns out to be just another step forward, not really as momentous as it initially looked. In other words, keeping an eye on the broad picture helps us put things into a better perspective, as well as assess more rationally the significance of what happens here and now.

When it comes to the meaning of life, Becker acknowledges that the ancient Stoics believe in an organic universe, i.e., a universe conceived as a living being, capable of rationality (the Logos). This brought comfort because they conceived of individual human beings as bits of the Logos, and of our lives as made meaningful by the fact that we play an (unknown) part in the doings of the cosmos.

Be that as it may, Larry immediately adds, this pantheistic “god” did not answer to prayer (pace Cleanthes hymn to Zeus, which is not really a prayer — see Enchiridion LIII.1), and more importantly did not give any clear guidance on action. Epictetus, arguably the most pious sounding of the Stoics, repeatedly tells his students that they need to figure things out for themselves, which is why a major goal of Stoic training is to refine as much as possible one’s prohairesis, i.e., the ability to arrive at correct judgments.

Epicurus, Becker reminds us, rejected the idea of a general meaning of life, and both Marcus (see here) and Panaetius seem to have harbored significant doubts. Regardless, actionable meaning for the Stoic comes from within, not without. It lies in our practice of virtue, with the goal of living a eudaimonic life, a life actually worth living. The cosmos may or may not play a further role, it does not really matter in practice.

Next, there is the perennial issue of preferred indifferents, which Larry deals with in the following fashion:

“It is true that Stoic happiness does not necessarily include nonagency pleasures — all the other possibilities for what we ordinarily call having a good time. But it is highly misleading to go on to say that such pleasures are superfluous, or that they “add” nothing to virtue. They do not add virtue to a virtuous life, but they add something else to it. … The pleasures of virtue are never to be traded for nonagency ones, but among virtuous lives, those with nonagency pleasures, and nonagency goods generally, are preferred to those without them. Further, with virtue held constant, the more nonagency goods the better.” (p. 158)

Indeed, once again, Stoics are neither Cynics nor Aristotelians. We neither think that externals are necessary for a eudaimonic life (like the Aristotelians), nor do we believe they get in the way of it (like the Cynics). This is one of the chief reasons Stoicism resonates with me: it is at the same time a demanding moral philosophy, and yet one that takes seriously that a human life can certainly be augmented by things other than virtue (though it doesn’t have to, in order to be worth living).

Becker is also clear that there is no single recipe for which combination of non-agentic (i.e., external) goods is going to work for each of us. So long as we stay away from pursuits that positively harm our moral character, whatever combination of activities and externals happens to work for each of us is fine. There are many different kinds of good Stoic lives. (Again, refreshing compared to the rigidity of the Aristotelian recipe, which tolerates different life styles, but really insists that the preferred one is the life of contemplation.)

How much control can, or indeed should, we strive to exert over our lives? Despite his insistence on keeping an eye on the full trajectory, Larry is also clear that he is not suggesting that we develop detailed and rigid, Soviet-style, many-years plans for our existence. Life is too complex and variable for anything like that. Instead — in perfect Stoic fashion — he introduces a helpful analogy.

Imagine you are piloting an airplane. The airplane represents the character that you wish to develop as an agent. Clearly, you want your plane to be responsive to your commands so that you can not only set a route, but also make adjustments, and even occasional major changes of course, depending on the external conditions. (I am very much conscious of this as I am writing while in a flight from Brussels back to New York, and we are experiencing some significant turbulence…) Here is how Becker puts it:

“A fixed-wing aircraft is said to have positive stability if it stays in, or returns to, straight and level flight unless pressure is continuously applied to the controls. It has neutral stability when it holds any given attitude (roll, pitch, yaw) in which it is placed, tending neither to exaggerate that attitude nor to return to straight and level flight. It has negative stability when it deviates from any given flight attitude unless corrective control is continuously applied. At the theoretical limit of either positive or negative stability, an aircraft is virtually uncontrollable.” (p. 160)

The same goes with our lives. What we are striving for here is not control in the sense of determining everything that happens to us. Epictetus clearly argued that that’s just wishful thinking, of the dangerous kind (Enchiridion I.1-3). Instead, we want our lives to be “maneuverable,” so to speak, capable of returning to whatever main path we decided after proper adjustments have been made for local turbulence. Sometimes the path itself will have to be altered, a change of course made necessary by the fact that the goal is to keep flying well and safely, not necessarily to reach a particular predetermined destination.

There is an important caveat introduced by Larry at this point in the discussion, one that signals a certain degree of departure, perhaps, from ancient Stoicism, and yet makes perfect sense and is worth emphasizing. While developing agency means aiming at the ability to optimally control our character, and therefore our responses — including our emotions — it does not follow that we should wish to exercise such control all the time, but only when practical reason demands it.

The example conjured by Becker is that of a woman who is affected by grief, being at this moment distraught by some tragedy that has happen to her recently. But she is in a lounge at her work place, in a uniform, maybe she is a doctor. Suddenly an emergency occurs, a new patient is brought in, and she needs to snap out of her situation and take action. She does so, because practical reason demands it. She is able automatically, effortlessly, perhaps, to set aside — to control — her emotion because she is needed in order to save a life. Once the emergency is over, she may or may not resume her grieving, depending on the new situation. That, and not a hypothetical state of perennial detachment, is what Stoic training is attempting to achieve:

“Being overcome by emotion is no more problematic for a Stoic than being overcome by sleep. Sometimes sleep is dangerous (think of trying to avoid hypothermia), or a dereliction of duty, even when it is desperately needed. So too for all-consuming grief, or lust. But at other times luxuriating in sleep or passion is a harmless pleasure, much preferred to the tightly controlled variety.” (p. 163)

Next, Larry takes up the famous “Sage is happy even on the rack” problem, which, as he drily puts it, is the sort of thing that our ancient brethren have done much to invite sarcasm about. He rightly points out that nothing in Stoic philosophy has ever implied that practicing Stoicism makes one into a superhuman, immortal or invulnerable. Extreme pain, or brain damage, can and will destroy human agency, no matter how many premeditatio malorum you carry out. Under those circumstances the Stoic has limited choices: the prospect of recovering her agency, should the condition in question be reversible; or the hope to get the death she prefers if the circumstances allow it. These aren’t particularly satisfying answers to how a Sage will fare on the rack. But it is so, Becker says, because the example is hardly informative of the overall philosophy.

A Sage — which, remember, is as rare as the phoenix, according to Seneca (Letters to Lucilius, XLII.1) — is different from the rest of us because her agency has passed the healthy or even fit levels, and has been developed to the point of virtuosity. Even so, the Sage will suffer on the rack, and she will be different from the rest of us only insofar as she is capable of maintaining her agency under extreme conditions, or to recover it as quickly as possible after she goes through severe traumas. That’s it, and yet, it is a lot. Not a superhuman, but a virtuoso level of humanity.

Larry proposes a sort of classification of different kinds of good Stoic life. The primary type is one in which Stoic virtue is achieved and sustained. It is primary because, as we have seen, virtue is good in and of itself, since it is inextricably linked with both virtuous agency and eudaimonia.

The secondary kind of good Stoic life is available to the person who is making progress toward virtue. She has not developed it to the level of virtuosity, so she is a prokoptousa, not a Sage. Full virtue has not been achieved, and it is not stable, it is an ongoing project.

The tertiary type is available to someone who is not currently on the Stoic path, but for whom that path is still an open possibility. Obviously, not everyone is a Stoic, and we should remember that:

“Stoicism is cosmopolitan and is quite alert to the fact that most people have other conceptions of a good life, many of which are internally coherent, conscientiously and firmly held. … Deeply held religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or agentic commitments fundamentally at odds with Stoicism have always been present. These are not necessarily cases of truncated psychological development. They are often simply divergent from Stoic development.” (p. 168-169)

This is a strong reminder that Stoics do not proselytize, though we happily engage in discussions of our philosophy with people who may be interested. Moreover, practicing Stoicism means that we need to cultivate tolerance and acceptance toward other ways of conducting life, so long as they are not destructive (as for instance some religious or political fundamentalisms are — a Nazi Stoic is inconceivable).

What happens when we disagree with someone’s choice of a life path? I am going to transcribe exactly what Becker says, because it ought to be kept constantly in mind during our interactions with others:

“It may be that [someone] will eventually adapt to her new circumstances by giving up Stoicism altogether and embracing the notion that what the Stoics regard as only preferred indifferents can actually give her a very good life. Stoics would disagree (silently) about the theoretical point but not try to argue her back into distress. They, too, would much prefer that her life seemed good to her. Stoics are not cruel, though they can be clumsy. The same point can be made about people who willingly take paths away from Stoicism toward other accounts of the good life. When reasoned discussion fails, Stoics wish their critics well and go about their business.” (p. 169)

That last line, I think, should be tattooed on our forearms, or at least framed and placed in a prominent place on our desks.

Larry then tackles the issue of whether a Stoic should desire a long life. The ancients, especially Seneca, clearly answered in the negative (Letters to Lucilius, XCIII.2). For Seneca there is no such thing as a premature death, as we die whenever the universe decides it, and the worth of a life is not measured by its duration, but rather by its quality (Letters to Lucilius XCIII.4). Becker would not necessarily disagree, I think, with the basic concept, but he argues that while we can exercise our virtuous agency, there will be reason to do so for as long as possible. We tend to think of our lives in terms of narratives, and here is where the Stoic may diverge from some other people, propelled by a different conception of what makes human life meaningful:

“Lives often end too soon in narrative terms because they are incomplete, and they are too long when they go on pointlessly after they are complete.” (p. 170)

And what makes a life complete or not, in a narrative sense, is how the agent herself conceives of her life. Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, lived until he was 98 (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.28). One version of his end says that he starved himself to death (Lives, VII.31), presumably because he reached the judgment that he could not longer be useful. Which brings us to the next topic in chapter 7: suicide.

Larry’s position is very clear, and I find myself in complete agreement:

“Stoicism endorses the permissibility of suicide, but not a requirement of it. It is permissible when suicide becomes the only available way to act virtuously — the only act that is consistent with Stoic virtue itself, or the pursuit of it.” (p. 170)

Again he proposes an analogy with sleep: sometimes we may resist it because there is some important project that needs to be completed. But there will be other cases where in fact we should welcome sleep, because resisting it would either be futile or dangerous.

The ancient Stoics explicitly admitted the possibility (though, again, not the requirement) of suicide in a small set of circumstances: on behalf of one’s country, on behalf of one’s friends, or to avoid severe and indeterminate pain or suffering (which would permanently cripple our virtuous agency). Becker adds that suicide must be the last available option, and that it is always to be decided upon by following the virtue of justice, which means, he points out, that suicide in order to commit murder is out of the question.

What about assisted suicide? The ancient Stoics did not have a problem with it, and in fact Epictetus promptly goes to help a friend when he hears that the friend has decided to starve himself to death (turns out, though, that the friend did not have a good reason to end his life, and Epictetus reproached him — Discourses II.15.4-13). However, our forerunners would not have wanted to put a friend or relative in jeopardy for assisting, if the practice were against the law of the land. The just thing to do would be to reform the law. This has obvious practical consequences for the ongoing debate on assisted suicide, and it seems to me that the Stoic position is precisely the one outlined here by Larry.

One more, very important, point about suicide:

“Stoic virtue ethics includes awareness of the damage to others that can be done by a suicide, especially within a circle of family and close friends. This is one of the factors that determines whether one’s suicide is permissible in the first place.” (p. 172)

The chapter ends with a brief discussion of joy as an aspect of eudaimonia. The idea is that exercising virtue in itself brings joy (though we do not do it because of that), even within the context of an otherwise miserable life. If her circumstances are not miserable, however, the Stoic will experience joy just like any other human being. Socrates, Becker reminds us, could make himself at home at a rowdy banquet, and not by declining the wine. The Stoic understands — pace Epicurus — that filling one’s life with pleasures and joy is not her proper aim, but she would be foolish to avoid them for that reason.