Category Archives: Psychology

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


Achilles was not a Stoic (and neither was Paris)

Achilles and Patroclus, sculpted by Malcolm Lidbury

I’ve always been fascinated by the two great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, ever since I read them as a kid. I re-read them several times since, in various translations, both in Italian and English. The very fact that epic poetry dating, in its earlier written version, to the 8th century BCE can still move us today is a testament to the genius of Homer (whoever he, or they, was/were).

Though both poems are chock full of larger-than-life figures, two are most likely to strike people’s imagination: Achilles in the Iliad, and, obviously, Odysseus in the homonymous epic. As we have discussed in the past, Odysseus was considered a fascinating character by all the major philosophical schools, each (selectively) interpreting his story in a way consonant with their framework. For the Stoics, Odysseus was a role model. I guess that explains also my own admiration for the King of Ithaca.

But what about Achilles? I must confess, I never liked the guy. All brawns and no brains (exactly the opposite of Odysseus), he never appealed to my nerdy self. And I always thought his treatment of Hector’s body after their epic battle was irredeemably shameful. More recently, though, I started thinking about him specifically from a Stoic perspective. Particularly the pivotal episode near the beginning of the Iliad, when Achilles gets pissed off at Agamemnon, the head of the Greek expedition to Troy (and brother of Menelaus, the husband that Helen left for Paris, thus allegedly triggering the war itself).

It’s worth recounting the episode in some detail. Agamemnon has taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Chryseis’ father, however, is a priest of Apollo, and he asks the god to return his daughter. Since Agamemnon refuses, Apollo sends a plague to the Greek camp to make a convincing case. The prophet Calchas diagnoses the problem correctly, but refuses to speak up unless he secures Achilles’ protection. When the hero grants it, Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis. Petty as he usually is, he takes revenge on Achilles, demanding the latter’s battle prize, Briseis, in reparation for the loss of Chryseis. It is now Achilles’ turn to get pissed off and petty: out of spite, he goes on strike and refuses to lead the Greeks into battle. Hence the famous opening lines of the Iliad:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”

(Sounds better in Italian, I think: “Cantami, o Diva, del pelide Achille / l’ira funesta che infiniti addusse / lutti agli Achei.”)

That rage quickly leads to the death of Achilles’ intimate friend, Patroclus, who had donned Achilles’ harmor to lead the Greeks in a desperate attempt to push back the advancing Trojans, and was killed by the Trojan prince Hector (who will later, in turn, be killed by Achilles).

What would the Stoics think of Achilles’ behavior? One clue is in the word “rage” used by Homer: as we know, the Stoics thought that anger was the most devastating of the pathē, the unhealthy emotions, to be avoided at all costs. But we don’t have to speculate much, as Epictetus addresses the episode directly:

“And when did Achilles come to grief? When Patroclus died? Far from it. But rather, when he himself yielded to anger, when he wept over a young girl, when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed.” (Discourses I.29-24-25)

The “citadel” being razed here is not Troy, but the very same one so often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations: our ruling faculty, the hêgemonikon, a term closely related to Epictetus’ favorite one, prohairesis (our capacity of judgment). Achilles’ true loss did not occur when his friend was killed, but when he himself lost the way of reason (assuming he ever had it, since there is little evidence of that).

The same section of the Discourses provides several other examples of this most human of tragedies. Aside from Medea, whom we have recently discussed, Epictetus describes Paris, the instigator of the war, in the same fashion:

“Did Paris suffer his great disaster when the Greeks arrived and ravaged Troy, and when his brothers perished? Not at all, … his true undoing was when he lost his sense of shame, his loyalty, his respect for the laws of hospitality, his decency.” (Discourses, I.29-22.23)

Menelaus is up for a similar treatment as well:

“If an impression, then, had prompted Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have come about? Not only the Iliad would have been lost, but the Odyssey too!” (Discourses I.29-13)

That is, both poems — and thus, more generally, all human tragedies — are the result of a series of misjudgments made by the main actors. Had they used their prohairesis correctly, or kept their hêgemonikon in working order, none of that would have happened. (Of course, we would have lost two of the masterpieces of human art, but so be it.)

Should we, then, be angry at Paris, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and so forth? No, says Epictetus:

“Why should you be angry with [them], then, because, poor wretch[es], [they] have gone astray on matters of the highest importance, and have changed from human beings into vipers? Shouldn’t you, if anything, take pity on [them] instead? And just as we pity the blind and the lame, shouldn’t we also take pity on those who have become blinded and crippled in their governing faculties?” (Discourses I.29.9)

[I have slightly altered the above to refer to multiple characters, as the original passage talks about Medea, but it’s clear that Epictetus applies the same reasoning to all the others as well.]

So all those people, as strong (or beautiful) and brave as they are, are really cripples. They suffer from amathia, or un-wisdom. They are deeply flawed human beings who think they are doing what is right and just, or what they ought to do, because their are blind and lame in their souls. But how is it possible that so many famous figures keep making such horrible mistakes? Surely they see the truth but fail to act accordingly. No, they truly think that they are right in doing what they do:

“For what reason do we give our assent to something? Because it appears to us to be the case. If something appears not to be the case, it is impossible for us to give our assent. And why so? Because that is the nature of our mind, that it should agree to things that are true, not accept things that are false, and suspend its judgement with regard to things that are uncertain. What is the proof of that? ‘Form the impression, if you can, that it is night at present.’ That is impossible. ‘Put aside the impression that it is day.’ That is impossible. So whenever anyone assents to what is false, one may be sure that he does not willingly give his assent to falsehood.” (Discourses I.29.1-4)

This is a profound insight, which however, whenever I write about it, encounters a lot of resistance from people. The common stance is that of course those who do bad things are evil, and not just mistaken. Because if that were not the case, then Epictetus would be right, we would have to pity, not hate them, and we can’t have that, can we?

If we did shift from anger and hatred (righteous, as we may think they are) to pity and compassion, then we would have to stop dehumanizing “evil” altogether, and admit that those people are just like us, only more flawed than normal, pathologically so, perhaps, but sick, not evil. We would have to admit that — while of course those people need to be stopped from injuring others — retribution is just revenge, which is both unvirtuous and ineffective. We would have to revise our whole way of dealing with crimes, focusing on rehabilitation as much as it is possible, and — failing that — on compassionate confinement. Because as Epictetus puts it right at the beginning of that section of the Discourses:

“Am I any better than Agamemnon and Achilles, to be satisfied by impressions alone, when they caused and suffered such evils by following their impressions? … What do you call those who follow every impression that strikes them? Madmen! What about us, then; do we act any differently?” (Discourses I.29.31-33)

Seneca on anger: the Medea


Medea played by Maria Callas in the homonimous movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969)

Medea is one of those perennially fascinating characters of Greco-Roman lore: a “barbarian” (i.e., non-Greek) who falls in love with the argonaut Jason, helps him steal the fabled golden fleece by betraying her father and killing her brother — on condition that Jason later marry her. Once back to safety, Jason decides that it is proper for him to marry a Greek princess, Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Blinded by furor at the betrayal, Medea kills Glauce, her father Creon, and then the two children she had had with Jason, in what she thought was “just” punishment for her former lover.

The classical tale is told by Euripides, who first produced it in 431 BCE. But Seneca rewrote the story (full text here), in a version that is both more sympathetic to the title character, and that is used to teach a dramatic lesson about Stoic precepts, especially concerned with the pathos (unhealthy emotion) of anger. I came across a fascinating paper by Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich, published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy in 2017, which analyzes Seneca’s Medea in light of the same author’s systematic treatment of anger in De Ira (which I have covered in three installments here).

Braicovich begins by suggesting that Medea is the fulfilment of a promise made by Seneca in De Ira, where he says:

“It’s necessary to prove [anger’s] disgusting and bestial character and to make you see how monstrous it is for one human being to rage against another, and how violently anger attacks, dealing destruction at the cost of its own destruction and seeking to sink those whom it can drown only if it drowns with them. … We’ll succeed in avoiding anger if we promptly lay out before us all of anger’s vices and form a sound estimation of it. It must be arraigned before us and condemned; its evils must be searched out and made plain; it must be set side by side with the worst vices, so the sort of thing it is becomes clear.” (III.3.2, III.5.3)

In other words, the Medea, according to Braicovich, is a didactic account of the content of De Ira, an example of philosophy explicated by way of drama. Braicovich presents a handy list of the basic elements of anger according to Seneca, which can guide us in reading both De Ira and Medea. The list includes:

(i) unlike other pathos, anger expresses itself in a multiplicity of guises;

(ii) anger attacks anything in sight, once it has been deprived of its original target;

(iii) a person under the spell of anger acts diametrically opposite to the way of the sage, with great emotional fluctuations;

(iv) the angry person is willing to sacrifice his own life or well being in the name of revenge, or what he perceives as “justice”;

(v) the angry person’s understanding of what counts as just reparation is entirely disproportionate to the original offense;

(vi) once unleashed, anger is not responsive to reason, and it cannot be controlled;

(vii) anger can be restrained, often temporarily, only by another passion.

Interestingly, Braicovich maintains that what we should be paying special attention while reading Seneca’s Medea is not so much the obvious, i.e., what Medea does, but the unstated: what she fails to do because she cannot bring herself to do it. Specifically, she is not able to let go of her hatred, to forgive Jason for his betrayal, to adopt Stoic indifference to the failure of another human being, which, after all, is not under her control, and should therefore not affect her eudaimonia.

An important point to highlight is that, contra to what the Chorus itself hints at in the play, Medea is actually not mad at all. Rather, her conclusion that the just way to avenge herself lies in killing the queen and her own two children is the result of careful reasoning she has with herself in a monologue, reasoning that includes two premises: (i) an injury has been committed; and (ii) revenge must be obtained. This is in accordance to the Stoic theory of psychology, according to which emotions are partly cognitive in nature, and the pathos are, therefore, the result of bad reasoning. (See the book by Margaret Graver on emotions in Stoicism; and also modern findings from cognitive science, in agreement with the basic Stoic notion.)

Medea does not want irrational revenge, she wants revenge that is informed by justice, proportioned to the crime committed by Jason (in her mind). This, according to Braicovich, makes the Medea more a play about justice, revenge, and punishment, than about irrationality and emotions:

“That her criteria of what constitutes due reparation is completely disproportionate is, incidentally, what Seneca intends to stress: angry people are — among other things — terrible judges of the actual relevance and consequences of (what they perceive) as injuries or injustices. … Medea is not unresponsive to every reason, she is just unresponsive to right-reason.” (p. 112)

In De Ira, Seneca describes precisely this unresponsiveness of anger to reason, by way of a three-step analysis:

“To make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement — a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that ‘I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed’ or ‘this man should be punished, since he’s committed a crime.’ The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. We cannot avoid that first mental jolt with reason’s help […]. That second movement, which is born from deliberation, is eradicated by deliberation.” (II.4.1)

(Incidentally, I recommend, if one is so inclined, to read Braicovich’s full paper, particularly the citations from Seneca, which are given first in the original, beautiful Latin, then translated into English in footnotes.)

Braicovich points out that Seneca is able to do in the Medea something he could not quite achieve in De Ira: bring up, in dramatic fashion, the distance separating what anger actually is (to the reasonable external observer) and what the angry person (mistakenly) thinks it is. Not only Medea doesn’t think that what she is doing is irrational, she thinks it is moral!

The paper also discusses Seneca’s response to Aristotle, who famously argued that a bit of anger is a good thing, now and then. (See my take here.) There are, fundamentally, two classes of reasons why Seneca thinks the Aristotelian analysis fails: (i) anger is inadvisable on practical grounds, because the angry person ends up doing things that will likely injure herself or her loved ones (obviously, in the case of Medea); and (ii) anger is an illegitimate, because unjust, response to an offense, and therefore inadmissible on ethical grounds.

If not anger, then what? Seneca says we should replace that destructive emotion with a range of alternatives, which include: indifference, forgiveness, and repaying aggression with friendship (note that these are in order of increased commitment on the part of the injured party, and so more and more difficult to implement).

Braicovich rightly observes that Seneca’s deeper message is not just that anger is destructive for the individual, it undermines the very basis of a society based on reasoned discourse. In his time as in modern ones, it is politicians who often react in anger, or — worse, cynically exploit the anger of the masses — and create dangerous situations that easily bring about injustice, if not outright war.

But, a reasonable objection might go, isn’t Seneca approach dangerously close to letting people get away with an injustice? Aren’t indifference, forgiveness, and friendship to the offender ways in which we forgo the right to just redress? Not at all. One of the virtues of Stoicism is justice, but guided by reason. As the Roman writer eloquently put it:

“An objection: ‘Are you telling me that a good man doesn’t become angry if he sees his father being murdered, his mother raped?’ No, he will not become angry, but he’ll be their champion and defender. Why are you afraid that a proper sense of devotion won’t goad him sufficiently, even without anger? … A good man will follow up his obligations undisturbed and undeterred, and in doing the things worthy of a good man he will do nothing unworthy of a man.” (III.12.5-6)

And this ought to be a fortiori true in the case of a just state.

Stoicism and Emotion, IX: the tears of Alcibiades, or of Stoicism and remorse

Socrates teaches Alcibiades

Socrates teaches Alcibiades, by François-André Vincent (1776, the angel-like figure on Socrates’ shoulder is, presumably, his daimon)

Alcibiades, the ward of the famous Athenian statesman Pericles, was nineteen years old when Socrates made him cry. Alcibiades (on whom I’m seriously thinking of writing a book) was handsome and smart, and one of the most promising of Socrates’ pupils. On that occasion, however, Socrates shows him clearly just how short of virtue he is, in response to which Alcibiades weeps and begs his mentor to help him live a virtuous life. (We know from subsequent history that it didn’t work out too well.) This is the setting for the last chapter of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, and therefore also for the last of this series of commentaries on her book.

Alcibiades’ reaction presents an interesting structural problem for the Stoic account of emotions. Normally, Stoic theory treats emotional reactions like weeping and begging as inappropriate, because one is reacting to an object outside one’s control as if it were a genuine good. Here, though, Alcibiades’ affective response is triggered by something that is under his control (his character) and that is, in fact, the chief good (virtue, or in his case, lack thereof). So what Alcibiades is experiencing seems to come from a correct assessment of the situation, just like the eupatheiai (the positive, healthy emotions) of the wise person. And yet his response is not that of a wise person. What gives?

To get the problem, it’s helpful to think about why the wise person of Stoic theory does not ever feel remorse (for which the Greek word is metameleia):

“Remorse is distress over acts performed, that they were done in error by oneself. This is an unhappy emotion and productive of conflict. For the extent to which the remorseful person is concerned about what has happened is also the extent to which he is annoyed at himself for having caused it. … [The Stoics] hold that the person of perfect understanding does not repent, since repentance is considered to belong to false assent, as if one had misjudged before.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.11i; 102-3W and Ecl. 2.7.11m;113W)

Remorse, then, is an affective response (“an unhappy condition”), and one that is not compatible with wisdom, because it comes from the belief that what you did was a mistake. But the non-wise (i.e., pretty much all of us) frequently do experience remorse, because we are prone to give assent to false propositions.

One can think of remorse as the judgment that “Because I acted badly, it is now appropriate for me to feel mental pain.” Is this judgment true or false? If the Stoics hold that it is necessarily false, then they need to explain what is wrong with it, since an ordinary person like Alcibiades obviously does act badly at times, and the Stoics’ own theory holds that acting badly is bad for us. Then again, if the judgment may sometimes be true, then it looks as if some forms of emotional response must actually be appropriate for non-wise people.

Provisionally, one could posit that just as the wise person has eupatheiai or good affective responses for present goods (e.g., a virtuous activity in the present) and also for prospective goods and evils, so also the ordinary person might have correct – but still not wise – emotional responses to present evils (her own faults) and again for prospective goods and evils, as follows:

positive emotions among wise and non-wise

Margaret begins the analysis by examining what she terms strategies of consolation. Consolation in times of grief was a standard philosophical practice, famously engaged in by Seneca in three letters to his friends Marcia and Polybius, and to his mother Helvia. Cicero, in his third Tusculan Disputation (at 77), contrasts two approaches to consolation by the early Stoics, Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

Cleanthes, following basic Stoic philosophy, thought that grief is the result of a mistaken judgment (that the object of grief is a true evil, rather than a dispreferred indifferent). It follows that the way to console the grieving person is to attempt to persuade him that he has made an error of evaluation. This, however, will not do, because the distressed person is unlikely to listen to that sort of argument, at least not while he is experiencing the distress. Here Chrysippus sounds eminently pragmatic:

“During the critical period of the inflammation one should not waste one’s efforts over the belief that preoccupies the person stirred by emotion, lest we ruin the cure which is opportune by lingering at the wrong moment over the refutation of the beliefs which preoccupy the mind.” (Origen, Against Celsus 8.51 (SVF 3.474), from Chrysippus, On Emotions, book 4).

Instead, Chrysippus suggests an approach to consolation that skirts the question of whether the bereavement was really an evil and concentrates on convincing the grieving person that mental pain is not, in fact, an appropriate response to evil. This looks at first like a good solution: after all, true grief has both components, a belief about value and a belief about the appropriate response, so removing either belief should work for consolation. The aim is strictly pragmatic, to get the person to calm down for now, in hopes that there may be an opportunity later on to explain why death isn’t really a bad thing.

The strategy runs into trouble, however, when it’s applied to something like remorse. Unlike the person who is weeping because someone has died, the remorseful person has a correct evaluation of the situation. Since the Stoic philosopher now agrees that something bad is present, it’s less clear why she should even be trying to eliminate the feeling of distress.

This focuses our attention squarely on the question of affective response itself. Are the Stoics only saying that the ordinary emotions are wrong because they are based on false judgments of value, or do they also mean to say that the feelings involved in emotion are just inherently wrong?

In the latter part of the chapter, Margaret isolates the specific belief-components that give rise to the feeling-laden response to a situation. These can be presented in two versions, one that applies to all forms of affective response and then a more specific version for mental pain.

[A] (general): If something which is either good or evil is either present or in prospect, it is appropriate for me to undergo some sensed psychophysical movement.

[B] (distress-specific): If an evil is present, it is appropriate for me to undergo a contraction; i.e., to experience mental pain.

Margaret’s position is that the Stoics should not categorically rule out either version, on penalty of running into inconsistencies in their philosophy. To begin with, an across-the-board denial of [A] would mean that normal affective responses are never appropriate in human beings. They would have to say that there is no right way for us to use a capacity that is inherent to human nature, a design feature of the species or (as we might say nowadays) a part of our evolutionary endowment. It really would turn Stoics into the sort of inhuman robotic caricature that they are so often (unjustly) accused of aspiring to.

What about [B], the distress-specific case? Could it be that other categories of feeling have a good use, but mental pain does not? After all, the eupatheiai or “good emotions” of the Stoic sage include forms of feeling that correspond to delight, fear, and desire, but none that corresponds to distress. Does this mean that the feeling of distress is inherently wrong?

Here I find Graver’s analysis both very clever and convincingly rooted in Stoic literature. She argues that the Stoic view is based on a counterfactual statement. The wise person would agree that IF an evil were to be present, THEN it would be appropriate to undergo a “contraction,” i.e., feeling mental pain. But of course the wise person, by definition, is never in the presence of true evil (since the only true evil is lack of virtue), and so the situation remains, for them, a hypothetical. Still, they retain the capacity for mental pain, even if they never have occasion to feel it. The ordinary person does have those occasions, both when we think we are in the presence of evil but really aren’t, and when we are in the presence of a true evil; that is, a moral evil. In the latter case, the feeling of distress is indeed appropriate.

This means that Socrates was entirely right in rebuking Alcibiades, causing in him the “biting” of shame. Indeed, the best known example of a Stoic teacher who uses Socrates’ approach is Epictetus, who often berates his students, presumably with the aim of making them ashamed of their patent lack of wisdom. The goal, of course, is not shame for its own sake, but nudging students to redouble their efforts to improve. What is being deployed here, however, is a prospective, not reactive, form of affect:

“Crucially, moral shame is a eupathic response, a species of caution rather than of fear. … Epictetus clearly holds that ordinary imperfect people have the capacity to be mortified at the prospect of justified censure for their actions in prospect. That capacity may be underdeveloped or willfully ignored, but in many, perhaps most cases it remains available to us and can assist us in choosing appropriate actions.” (p. 208)

What about apatheia, then? Remember that the pathē that Stoics wished to eliminate do correspond to some of what we today call emotions, but that not every emotion is considered a pathos, and therefore not all of them are subject to elimination. The best human condition, that of wisdom, would still have room for many strong feelings, including joy, eagerness for what is good, love, and friendship. Moreover:

“We should remember that the attainment of apatheia is not in itself the goal of personal development. For the founding Stoics the end point of progress was simply that one should come to understand the world correctly. The disappearance of the pathē comes with that changed intellectual condition: one who is in a state of knowledge does not assent to anything false, and the evaluations upon which the pathē depend really are false. … The central and indispensable point of the Stoics’ contribution in ethics and psychology [is] that no rational being wants to believe what is false.” (p. 210)

Stoicism and Emotion, VIII: city of friends and lovers

the completed arch metaphor“Some things are transformed by growth. After many additions which merely increase them in size, the final addition works at last a change: it imparts to them a new state of being, different from before. It is a single stone that makes an arch — the keystone, which is slotted in between the sloping sides and by its coming binds them together. Why does the final addition accomplish so much, though small in itself? Because it is not only an addition but a completion.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII.15-16)

This beautiful metaphor by Seneca sets the tone for the beginning of Margaret Graver’s treatment of friendship and love in her book on Stoicism and Emotion, which we have been discussing of late. The last stone in the arch represents human maturation: when our character is well formed we get to realize a number of potentialities that had been there from the beginning, but could not be actuated. Our opinions are brought into harmony with each other and with the world, we no longer assent to false notions, and we acquire inner stability and beauty. It is important to note that the mature human being – that is, the wise person – is still a human being: the finished arch is made of the same materials as the unfinished one. And yet the final state is quite different from the previous ones. The same holds true for mature relationships, including relationships with friends and lovers.

The Stoics thought that things like marriage and political action are in accordance with human nature. We are rational, communal, and gregarious animals, which means that we want relationships with others. Remember also that we have a natural tendency toward ethical and intellectual development, because of innate tendencies and preferences that are the starting point of virtue, and because of an natural orientation (oikeiôsis) toward others. Moreover, this sense of kinship with others is extended by way of reason to the entire membership in the human polis, the basis of the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism. There is a problem, though:

“Until wisdom is actually attained … the usual epistemic limitations remain in force. The natural sense of attachment is subject to perversion, as are all the starting points, and for this reason the imperfect person’s sense of what is appropriate in dealing with others is quite unreliable.” (p. 177)

One consequence of this is that we can’t live a good life just by going with the strong emotions that come out of our personal relationships. As Epictetus told the sick child’s father, reacting emotionally to the situation sometimes gets in the way of the more truly human response, which is to think about what the other person actually needs. But it doesn’t follow that wise relationships have to be devoid of feeling. Some of the texts Graver looks at suggest that there is an affective dimension even in the ideal form of Stoic friendship. The point isn’t to suppress emotions, it is to develop the proper emotions:

“The ideal form of human relationship is conceived not only as a mutual disposition to act in one another’s best interests but also as a disposition to respond affectively to one another. We are to imagine the wise interacting with one another in daily life and, in the context of those interactions, experiencing feelings of warmth and affection.” (p. 179)

An important point made by Margaret is that for the Stoics friendship was an intrinsic good, that is, something that is good in and of itself, not just because it allows us to exercise our virtue (like other, instrumental goods do, such as wealth, education, and so forth). Stobaeus says that a friend is “choiceworthy for his own sake” (Ecl. II.7.11c; 94-95W), while Cicero states that among the wise each person “values his friend’s reason equally with his own” (On Ends II.70). When Zeno was asked “what is a friend?” he replied “another I” (Diogenes Laertius, VII.23). Indeed, in Zeno’s Republic the wise persons are all, naturally, friends, and each wishes good things for the others, for their own sake:

“The notion of a community of the wise was important in Stoic political thought at all periods, whether that community was conceived as in Zeno’s Republic, as an idealized version of existing Greek cities, or in a broader sense as comprising all wise persons wherever they happen to live.” (p. 182)

One radical claim made by the Stoics is that there is no trade-off between friendship and the self-sufficiency of the individual. Seneca makes two distinct arguments in this regard, one a bit more convincing than the other. They are both found in the ninth letter to Lucilius, on friendship.

The first argument is that the wise person can rise above the loss of a friend due to the knowledge, which the wise person possesses, of what is truly good. Seneca elaborates by way of a fascinating analogy:

“Here is what it means to say the wise person is self-contained: there are times when he is content with just part of himself. If infection or battle took off his hand; if an accident cost him an eye, or even both eyes, the remaining parts of himself would be sufficient for him; he would be as happy with his body diminished as he was with it whole. Still, although he does not feel the want of the missing limbs, he would prefer that they not be missing.” (Letters, IX.4)

A friend, here, is akin to a part of ourselves, obviously signifying a very intimate relationship indeed. And yet, though we do not prefer it, we can live a good life even without an eye or a limb. And so it has to be with the death or the departure of a friend. As Stoics, we accept what happens with equanimity, without foolishly wishing for things that cannot be had.

The second argument is that it is not a particular friend that is good, but friendship itself. Which means that friends can be replaced by new ones. Again, Seneca deploys an analogy, this time less successfully:

“But in truth he will never be without a friend, for it rests with him how quickly he gets a replacement. Just as Phidias, if he should lose one of his statues, would immediately make another, so this artist at friend making will substitute another in place of the one who is lost.” (Letters, IX.5)

Phidias was a famous Greek sculptor, whose statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The problem with the analogy, as Graver points out, is that statues are objects, for which one does not have the sort of affection that can compare to friendship (unlike, again, the regard we have for parts of our own body). Following the analogy, friends are passive recipients of our practice of virtue, and not therefore valuable in themselves.

What does work, however, is the general argument to which the analogy with Phidias’ statues does not render justice. It is true even for us non-wise people that there is a value in friendship that transcends the individual friend, just like there is a value in love that transcends the individual lover. Several people can be our friends, or our lovers, and yet that does not diminish their importance to us, both intrinsically, for who they are, and in terms of the general relationship (friendship, love) that we have with them. (See this post for the difference between True Love and fungible love.)

Speaking of love, the last part of Margaret’s chapter is devoted to that topic, and there too we find a number of notions that would surprise the naive outsider, like the fact that a number of the early Stoics, including Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, wrote treatises on erotic love. Just like friendship, love is obviously a matter of affective response, but it has to be of the right, that is, virtuous, kind:

“There are two senses in which one may speak of the ‘erotic person’; one in reference to virtue, as one quality of the righteous person, and one in reference to vice, as if blaming someone for love-madness.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65W)

The vice aspect of eros manifests itself whenever someone is uncontrollably drawn to someone else. While this notion has been romanticized ever since Sappho, it is of course an emotion akin to strong hunger, and it is not what the Stoics are after.

But there is a normative type of eros, which is a kind of resolve, a future-directed impulse, the object of which is not intercourse per se, but rather friendship of a special kind:

“It is [the Stoics’] doctrine that the wise person behaves not only in the manner of a thoughtful and philosophical person but also in the manner of a convivial and erotic one. … The wise person is also an erotic person and will fall in love with those worthy of love.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65-66W and 2.7.11s; 115W)

Graver goes into some detail in explaining why such love is often directed at a young person, who will be guided by the wise one toward the acquisition of virtue. And no, in context it doesn’t sound at all like what you may be thinking here.

The important point is that the object of virtuous erotic love is the forming of a friendship, which the wise person recognizes as a good to be realized in the future. Such love is not just something that is selected because it exercises our virtue; it is a genuine affective response, one of the eupatheiai or positive emotions:

“If love is indeed eupathic then there is no reason to deny that it, like other eupathic responses, involves feelings similar in kind and intensity to the feelings ordinary people experience in emotion. In general what distinguishes the eupatheiai from the pathē [i.e., the unhealthy emotions] is not the kind of the psychophysical change they produce but their correctness as judgments: pleasure is irrational uplift, joy a rational uplift. As a judgment, eupathic love is very different from desire, for it is directed at an object that really is a prospective good according to the Stoic theory of value. … Eros does not require justification; it is a good thing in its own right, as are all the eupatheiai. The wise fall in love for no other reason than that it is their nature to want to be intimate with those whom they see as beautiful.” (p. 188-89)

What about the rest of us, non-wise people? Margaret concludes the chapter by remarking that what is proper for every human being is not just concern for others, but affectively engaged concern. That’s a fundamental component of human nature. The problem arises because the non-wise may make mistakes about the object of their affective responses, which is why at times we may be able to do more good by setting aside our feelings. But having strong feelings is not, per se, an indication of error of judgment.

Stoicism and Emotion, VII: the development of character

waiter in bad faithThe phrase “bad faith” is usually associated with Existentialist philosophy, and particularly with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and their famous example of the waiter who tries a bit too hard and artificially to be a waiter. When someone is in bad faith, existentially speaking, he is responding to pressure from social forces, adopting false values, and thereby disowning his innate freedom, which results in him acting inauthentically.

Interestingly (though Existentialism and Stoicism actually share a number of commonalities), the phrase “bad faith” features at the very beginning of chapter 7 of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, on which I have been commenting for a while now. Specifically, what the author is suggesting is that the Stoics wished to pre-empt the bad-faith excuse that our behavior is (entirely) caused by forces outside our control, a point related to the Stoic rebuttal of the (in)famous “lazy argument.” As we have already discussed, the Stoics were indeed determinists, but distinguished a number of causes at work in the universe, and when it comes to human behavior they made the point that some of these causes are external (and hence truly outside of our control), but some are internal, constituting our character (and at least in part under our control). Chrysippus used the famous analogy of a cylinder that rolls when pushed because of a combination of two causes: one is the external push, but another is its internal nature of being a cylinder. If it were a cube, say, it wouldn’t roll, even in response to the very same external push. As Margaret puts it:

“One might say that the causal history supplied for emotional responses addresses the question ‘why does the cylinder roll?’ and answers it, in brief, by pointing out that the cylinder is round. By contrast, the causal history of character addresses the question ‘why is the cylinder round?’” (p. 149)

And it is to that second causal history that we now turn. To begin with, remember that Stoic philosophy maintains that the human mind is geared toward doing good, that is, toward acting virtuously. (They thought this was the result of a providential universe in the form of a pantheistic god, we today might say that human beings are pro-socially inclined as a result of evolution by natural selection.) But if that is the case, then why is it that virtuous behavior is so infrequent? Plato blamed the influence of the Sophists and the shifting opinion of popular assemblies; Epicurus said it was the fault of bad cultural influences, particularly poetry and drama. But the Stoics knew that these answers are insufficient and set out to do better.

The first step is the Stoic developmental account of human character, famously presented by Cato the Younger in book III of Cicero’s De Finibus. Even young children, says Cato/Cicero, do not seek pleasure for its own sake (take that, Epicurus!), but rather whatever aids them in the goals of self-preservation and self-improvement. For instance, they keep trying to learn to walk, all the while experiencing pain and frustration when they repeatedly fall down. Our native endowment also includes a tendency to learn, make connections, and react positively to people who are truthful to us and negatively to those who try to trick us. (For a modern version of the argument, see my discussion of chapter 6 of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.)

“Natural preferences for self-preservation, for understanding, and for order and control thus work together to establish in one’s life the stable and coherent systems of belief and action which constitute the human good. … While this account of intellectual maturation employs a broadly empiricist model of knowledge acquisition, it also makes use of innatist elements, preferences and tendencies which are simply part of human nature.” (p. 152)

Graver also points out that Cicero makes the link between normal human character development and the virtues very explicit in his On Duties: prudence (practical wisdom) develops from an innate preference we have for understanding; justice is the result of an innate tendency toward sociability; courage from a propensity toward mastering situations; and temperance from a preference for order. What, then, keeps going so predictably wrong for so many people?

A summary of a two-cause explanation is given by Diogenes Laertius:

“The rational animal is corrupted sometimes by the persuasiveness of things from without, sometimes through the teaching of our associates. For the starting points which nature provides are uncorrupted.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers VII.89)

A later commentator on the Stoics, Calcidius (circa 400 CE) agrees, and presents the Stoic two-cause account of human failure to behave virtuously again in terms of the attraction of “things themselves” (e.g., the lust generated by a potential sexual partner) and “the transmission of rumors” (i.e., popular opinion, even and especially by our parents and other caretakers).

In a sense, we go wrong because early on we commit a natural logical fallacy: Calcidius says that we learn to associate nice with good and troublesome with bad, and eventually come to believe that those general correlations actually signal causal connections. We come to love things like glory, since we are told that it is good, and since it brings about good things, instead of its close but virtuous kin, honor (which we are also, typically, taught is good, but is more troublesome to achieve). And we mistakenly assume that praise is a good thing in itself, rather than thinking about what a knowledgeable observer would praise us for.

“Since the happy person necessarily enjoys life, [people] think that those who live pleasurably will be happy. Such, I think, is the error which arises ‘from things’ to possess the human mind. But the one which arises ‘from transmission’ is a whispering added to the aforementioned error through the prayers of our mothers and nurses for wealth and glory and other things falsely supposed to be good.” (On the Timaeus of Plato 165-66; SVF 3.229)

We find yet another rendition of the two-cause argument in Cicero’s On Laws. Cicero’s Stoic-informed view is minimalist about human nature: we have a tendency, which we possess even without being taught, to favor the development of justice. However, things can easily go wrong, mostly through a perversion that results from “customs and fase opinions.”

Specifically, Cicero lists six objects that people commonly mistake for goods and evils: pleasure and pain, death and life, honor and disrepute. These are closely associated with an object for which we have a natural affinity: health, preservation of our natural state, and moral excellence (positives), and bodily harm, the dissolution of our nature, and moral turpitude (negatives). Our problem is that too often we confuse things from the first group with things from the second group, without realizing that we should care about the latter, not the former.

But Cicero’s most elaborate presentation of this material, according to Graver, is found in the third book of the Tusculan Disputations. He argues that we are born with the seeds of virtue, but that we go off the rails because of the bad counsel of a number of people who are influential on us from early on, including parents, teachers, and even books of poetry. Interestingly, though, Cicero also maintains that the most dangerous influence of all is that of the cheering crowd, and the most susceptible to it are talented individuals who go into politics, who wind up ruining both themselves and their country. Sounds familiar? It seems like things have not changed that much in the last couple of millennia after all.

In the end, the picture that emerges is that the Stoics, like Plato before them, regard moral error as the result of lack of guidance, or exposure to bad guidance, coupled with natural mistakes of reasoning, not as the predictable outcome of an intrinsically evil nature. I have pointed out that this view is not very dissimilar from the one espoused many centuries later by David Hume, who interestingly wrote a favorable essay about the Stoics, even though he personally preferred the Skeptics among the ancient philosophers.

But the Stoic account of character development is more sophisticated than just claiming that people make mistakes because they confuse similar yet distinct things, or that they are influenced by the bad opinion of others. The twofold cause gets us into the realm of error, but the formation of specific tendencies toward poor reactions and downright bad behavior owes a lot to our own lack of mental discipline. We find this point both in Cicero (in Tusculan Disputations IV) and very explicitly in Epictetus:

“When once you have desired money, if there is an application of reason, which will lead you to recognize the evil, the desire stops and our directive faculty (hēgemonikon) governs as at the start, but if you do not apply anything in the way of therapy, it no longer returns to the same [condition], but when it is again stimulated by the corresponding impression it is kindled into desire more quickly than before. And if this keeps happening, it thereafter becomes callused, and the infirmity gives stability to greed.” (Discourses II.18.8-10)

The analogy with a callus is important: our character is molded continuously, by repeated decisions of our ruling faculty. Every time we judge correctly, we channel our character toward virtue; every time we judge incorrectly, we channel it away from virtue. And it is in this sense of a continuously sustaining internal cause that we are morally responsible for what we do or don’t do. Just as a callus, once formed, alters our sensitivity to continued touch experiences, so our character, once altered in a given direction, makes it more likely for us to keep moving in that direction. We, however, as rational agents, are capable to reverse the trend, so to speak, and actively decide to steer our character back onto a virtuous path.

“Each of us can take charge of the formation of a healthful character for ourselves. Conversely, if we fail to take charge in this way, we contribute by omission to the vice-ridden character we end up with. For however it was that we first fell into error, it is only through subsequent laxity that the error becomes entrenched.” (p. 167)

Crassus, Margaret reminds us, was a notorious example of unvirtuous Roman, because he was greedy. The cause of his greediness was to be found in a combination of earlier circumstances and his persistent and repeated (and erroneous) judgment that money is good for its own sake. That string of judgments had gradually formed a “callus” in his character, which made him greedy as a matter of moral disposition. Even so, Crassus was also a human being capable of reason, and so he was continually responsible for his judgments and the ongoing shaping of his character. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the antecedent and the sustaining causes of our character.

Metaphysically, this is a brilliant move, because as Graver puts it:

“The Stoics’ distinction between antecedent and sustaining causes gives them a way to respond to the concerns [of ultimate reductionists]. They can allow that a person’s character is the product of a variety of formative influences; indeed as determinists they should insist on this. … Each of us is shaped at least in part by genetic factors, as well as by the physical environment, by the way we are treated within the family, and by our education, role models, and so forth. Rarely do we have any control over these matters which, collectively, supply the makings of our adult selves. One could consider them a form of luck. On the Stoic scheme, however, all these influences which are outside our control come under the category of antecedent causes, not sustaining causes. … The direct cause is always the sustaining cause, which maintains the state over time, and that cause consists in one’s own psyche. … To say that we are rational creatures is to say that we are capable of reviewing and correcting our own beliefs, whether or not we do so in fact.” (pp. 169-170)

We may be, ultimately, the product of Zeus or the Big Bang, in the sense of antecedent causes. But who we continue to be is the result of an ongoing dynamic process, which is sustained by every single decision we make. Make good decisions, then, and you will be a better human being.

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.