Category Archives: Social living


Welcome to How to Be a Stoic! It began back in March ’15 as a blog to track my personal journey into modern practical Stoicism. The blog has now moved to Patreon and I hope you will follow me there.

However, the full archive of 425 posts and a whopping 4,600 comments will remain permanently available for free. You will also find here links to a number of podcasts and guest articles I wrote about Stoicism, collections of essays, practical meditations, suggestions for books, a Stoicism 101 section, and information about my contemporary school of Stoicism — the Stoa Nova. These pages will keep being updated as new material becomes available.

I hope you will enjoy this site and that it will help you in your continuing quest for understanding and practicing this ancient philosophy.


Massimo Pigliucci

(the City College of New York)

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 Ethics of the Family in Seneca, VI: rewriting the family

Seneca wrote his famous letters to Lucilius near the end of his life. They are not just philosophical letters to a friend, but a structured curriculum in Stoic philosophy, as the entries are meant to be read in sequence, with the reader assuming the role of Lucilius. Moreover, Seneca is careful not to alienate his readers by presenting himself as perfect. On the contrary, he is a flawed fellow proficiens. He has a headstart on us, but we can catch up.

This is the setting for the last chapter of Liz Gloyn’s excellent The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, which I have been commenting on for the past several weeks. In the course of the 124 letters, Seneca manages, among several other things, to redefine the role of the family in Roman society from a Stoic perspective, even though he never mentions any of Lucilius’ relatives, and his own family appears only rarely, for a total of four times.

The first twelve letters, on Liz’s reading, are essentially programmatic statements, orienting the reader and making him aware of what he is committing to. Letter IX is interesting, because there Seneca rebukes Epicurus, in response to a question posed by Lucilius. Epicurus had apparently criticized Stilbo (or Stilpo), who had lost his family, and yet seemed to think he could live on his own. Seneca explains the Stoic perspective by means of a treatment of the concept of apatheia (lack of negative passions), non-suffering, and self-sufficiency. Stilbo does experience the loss of his family as a loss, but he does not thereby lose his moral composure, despite his bereavement. Seneca summarizes the right Stoic attitude in this fashion:

“As long as he [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.” (IX.17)

This is an interesting point, which Gloyn analyzes in detail, even down to the specific Latin terms used by Seneca in describing the Stilbo episode. The rather surprising idea is that losing one’s family could provide, from a Stoic perspective, sufficient reason to commit suicide. But, as the example of Stilbo shows, it does not have to, as one can survive the loss and continue his pursuit of virtue. This is really fascinating to me, since it shows that according to Seneca even the wise person can be driven to “the open door” (as Epictetus calls it) by such a gigantic loss. And exiting through the door would be considerate acceptable, under certain circumstances, even though it is certainly not required. Love for one’s family is a positive emotion, and thus not to be curtailed by a Stoic.

To be unambiguously clear, though, the circumstances around the loss of one’s family would have to be right to make using “the open door” virtuous — there would have to be something in play which made the preferred indifferent of life cease to be the preferred option in an individual’s life. So it’s not that any familial loss at all allows us to consider suicide as a valid option, but that such a loss is categorised by the Stoics as one of the possible things which could create a situation where suicide became a rational option.

The next appearance of family in the Letters occurs in a tight sequence: XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII. Here, however, Seneca warns Lucilius that one’s family can just as well become an obstacle to the practice of virtue. Lucilius’ parents are well meaning, and accordingly they pray so that he could achieve glory and gather honors. But of course these are externals, which are merely preferred indifferents, and should not be our main focus in life. Which means that Lucilius’ parents are praying for the wrong thing, even though out of good intentions. That’s why the proficiens should choose his own, philosophical, family, and chart his path independently of what society expects from him.

Letter XXXIII contains one of the clues that Liz focuses on for her contention that the entire collection is really a curriculum in disguise. In the early letters, Seneca often closes with a “gift” to his friend: a quote from a wise person, which turns out to be Epicurus, from the homonymous rival school. But around this time in the sequence Seneca stops quoting Epicurus, and Lucilius complains. Seneca then explains that it is time to move away from aphorisms and become more autonomous in our quest for wisdom. Too much reliance on the words of others means that one will never attain his own mental independence.

The notion that the proficiens should supplement (or even replace) her own family with one chosen on purpose on the basis of philosophical considerations is fleshed out in letter XLIV:

“Socrates was not of patrician rank. Cleanthes was a water carrier and hired himself out to water a garden. Philosophy did not receive Plato noble but made him so. Why then should you despair of becoming equal to these men? All these are your ancestors if you behave in a way that is worthy of them; and so you will behave, if you immediately convince yourself that you are surpassed in nobility by nobody.” (XLIV.3)

These people are our philosophical ancestors, and it doesn’t matter whether our biological family is of high rank or not. Socrates, Cleathes, Plato and all the others surely are, and all we have to do is to “adopt” them, so to speak.

Three letters later, Seneca clearly includes slaves within the family, and argues that they should be treated as human beings, with inherent worth:

“Do you not see even this, how our ancestors took away all spite from masters, and all indignity from slaves? They addressed a master as the ‘father of the family,’ and the slaves as ‘members of the household,’ which custom even continues in mimes up to the present day; they established a holiday not as the only day on which masters ate with slaves, but as the one on which they did so without fail; they allowed slaves to bear honours in the household and to administer justice, and considered that the household was a miniature state.” (XLVII.14)

This is by no means a rebellion against the institution of slavery (which was, by contrast, openly called an evil by Zeno of Citium), but it is nonetheless a rather remarkable passage for the time and cultural milieu.

Another letter dealing with the family is L, but there the passage I prefer is one in which Seneca engages in a bit of self deprecating humor:

“If I ever wish to be entertained by a fool, I do not have to look far — I laugh at myself.” (L.2)

We get a reference to the always present doctrine of oikeiosis, or natural affection guided and enlarged by reason, in letter LXVI, when Seneca tells Lucilius that a parent ought to treat all his children equally:

“Surely no one would make such an unjust appraisal of his own children so as to love a healthy son more than a sick son, or a tall and nobly built son more than a short or average-sized one?” (LXVI.26)

The idea is that we should try, as Gloyn puts it, to treat our children on the basis of their (potential) inner virtue, not based on external attributes, such as their looks, or their athletic prowess.

In Letter LXX, Seneca provides yet another contrast meant to highlight that family members sometimes can give good advice and sometimes they fail to do so. It’s the story of the young Drusus Libo, who was in the middle of a trial where he was expecting a death sentence. He was wondering whether to kill himself as many of the Roman aristocrats did before sentence was passed. His aunt Scribonia counseled against walking through “the open door,” but Libo followed his own free judgment instead, disregarding his relative’s advice. The episode can usefully be contrasted with the one pertaining Paetus and his wife Arria. Paetus was ordered by the emperor Claudius to commit suicide, but could not find the courage. So she provided the example for him to follow: she stabbed herself, handing him the dagger with the gentle words “Paete, non dolet” (Paetus, it doesn’t hurt). Arria then, considered by Pliny the epitome of Stoic womanhood, becomes Scribonia’s antithesis.

But one also has duties to one’s family, and sometimes those duties preclude us from walking through the open door. This is explicitly put forth by Seneca in Letter LXXVIII:

“I often entertained the impulse to break off my life; the old age of my most tender father restrained me. For I thought not about how bravely I could die, but how little he would have been able to miss me bravely. And so I ordered myself to live. Sometimes even to live is to act bravely.” (LXXVIII.1-2)

I love the beautiful phrasing, as is often the case in Seneca, but the bottom line, as Liz points out, is that we as moral agents need to consider our duties toward our families as factors in our decisions, so long as we don’t let us be misled by family members into making an ethically inadvisable choice, in terms of our Stoic framework. Again emphasizing her reading of the Letters as a curriculum, Gloyn comments that by now “readers are sufficiently far along the Epistulae Morales’ developmental path to engage with the family both as a constructive and destructive influence on the proficiens’ virtue.” (p. 271)

The next pertinent section of that curriculum is comprised of Letters LXXXVIII, XCIV and XCV, where Seneca discusses children’s moral education, once again putting the family at the center of early moral development, as he has done through several of his other writings, magistrally explored by Gloyn in the book. The central concept is that the only true liberal education is one that is centered on ethics, the idea being that if education does not allow one to live a meaningful life than it has failed its main purpose. How I wish we moderns would take such advice to heart, instead of squandering countless resources into “educating” people, by which we just mean putting them in a position to get a job as one of many cogs in a giant societal money-making and soul-crunching machine.

According to Seneca, it all begins with the family, who has the duty to lead the child through the early stages of her moral development. But the family also has a duty to then provide the child with the means for further instruction, and a major component of such instruction takes the form of philosophical precepts, which the child and then young adult can learn from tutors and philosophers.

In Letter XCIV Seneca first considers Aristo’s criticism of relying on precepts, and then explains how they ought to be used: they are not supposed to be rules to be followed blindly, without understanding. Rather, they are what we would call heuristic devices, quick reminders of how to act virtuously in specific situations, based, however, in a comprehension of the philosophy from which they stem. Liz explains: “Marriage offers the case study for how precepta can help us. As a rule of thumb, adultery by either spouse is always unacceptable. This precept acts as a prompt for the overarching rule that applies to all marriages, namely that humans need reminding that adultery is bad for both men and women regardless of the dynamics of individual relationships.” (p. 274) (On why the Stoics disapprove of cheating on one’s spouse, and why they were right despite some currently fashionable psychological advice, see here.)

“It will be of no benefit to give precepts unless first you have removed the things that will stand in the way of precepts.” (XCV.38)

In other words, people need to internalize the idea that cheating is unacceptable, not simply repeat the notion and yet deep down remain convinced that it is somehow okay, or not a big deal.

In Letter IC, Seneca returns to the topic of grief, using the specific example of Marullus, who had lost his son. Gloyn comments that this is yet another occasion that could superficially be read as a case of Stoic heartlessness, since Seneca is criticizing Marullus for grieving. But a closer look clearly shows that the target of Seneca’s reproach is not grief per se, but what we might call performative grief, i.e., indulging in emotional distress, either in order to cultivate self-pity or, worse, to elicit other people’s sympathy. Seneca instead advises Marullus to take comfort in the memory of his son, to recover the important distinction (to the Stoic) between self indulgent and virtuous grieving.

Letter CIV is particularly interesting because of Seneca’s description of the tender behavior of his wife Paulina, as he is about to depart for his villa at Nomentum. While he apparently needs a break from domesticity in order to focus on his work, he also describes in detail how her caring for him revitalizes his zest for life. In the same letter, Seneca argues that the best kind of travel, at any rate, is the one we do with our minds, when we read books and thus come closer to our philosophical meta-family, to Cato, Socrates, Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and all the others. I cannot emphasize how often I have taken refuge and comfort in such extended family, which I have been able to build over decades of my life, picking and choosing from two and a half millennia of great minds produced by humanity.

Near the end of his curriculum for Lucilius (and for the rest of us) Seneca returns to the concept of oikeiosis, in Letter CXXI. He focuses on what Liz labels personal, as distinct from social, oikeiosis (the latter being the concept famously embodied by Hierocles’ metaphor of contracting circles of concern). As living organisms, early on we acquire a sense of our physical selves and an urge to care for it. That inborn sense of self-preservation allows us to love ourselves, but it soon becomes the emotional source we build on in order to begin loving others.

Gloyn concludes her analysis with a useful summary of the main tenets of Seneca’s epistolary curriculum: “Each family member, whether sibling, spouse, parent, aunt or uncle, occupies the same relational position to the aspiring sage, and thus has the same potential to offer good (or indeed bad) advice. Similarly, every issue is of equal moral importance. While suicide may appear of greater consequence than dietary habits, both are equally valid fields for the exercise of virtue.” (p. 288)

Or to put it even more simply: we can and should learn from anyone, but not everyone will give us virtuous advice. And every aspect of our life is a manifestation of the cosmic gym in which we are constantly given the opportunity to exercise and improve our virtue.

What Would a Stoic Do? Dating

“Dating” is a word I was not familiar with before coming to the United States. Especially with the advent of modern dating apps, it essentially means that you are trying out different people to see who “wins” the alleged honor of being your (next) partner. Except, of course, that you are playing the same game from the point of view of the other person, as the honor in question better be reciprocal. The dynamics of dating in this modern fashion are different from the traditional approaches, like meeting someone at a party, or — Zeus forbid — approaching a random stranger at a bar. And I have done enough app-mediated dating to be induced to reflect on the practice from a Stoic perspective. So, how should a Stoic look for a partner after having signed up on OKCupid, eHarmony,, or Tinder?

I am going to suggest three lenses, so to speak, through which to examine the question: the concept of preferred indifferents, the dichotomy of control, and the four cardinal virtues. I think they are best considered in that sequence if we want to get clear on how a Stoic should enter the dating game.

I. A partner is a preferred indifferent. Please don’t put things this way to your date, as it really doesn’t sound romantic, and it is labile to be seriously misunderstood if the other person is not a proficiens (as Seneca calls a student of Stoicism). Preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, of course, include anything that is not concerned with the improvement of our character and our judgments, i.e., anything that does not have directly to do with virtue. But virtue makes no sense unless it is exercised in a particular context or situation: one cannot be courageous without doing anything, or temperate without moderating herself at something specific, and so on. Which means that even though being with a partner is, in itself, a preferred indifferent, it is nonetheless a very intimate interaction with another human being, an interaction that therefore offers countless opportunities to exercise virtue. (On this, see also my post on relationships.)

Moreover, take a look at what Seneca says about how a wise person regards having or losing friends:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (Letters IX.3)

This is a crucial insight, which applies a fortiori to one’s romantic partner. We are supposed to be sufficient to ourselves, meaning that we don’t depend on others for our eudaimonia. That’s because a eudaimonic life — for the Stoic — is a life of virtue, and the exercise of virtue depends only on us. But we are human beings, so we very much desire, as Seneca says, friends, neighbors, associates, and especially romantic partners. There is no contradiction, then, in striving to be self-sufficient and yet desiring to share one’s life with someone. Indeed, I would argue that it is a very healthy attitude to bring into a relationship.

II. Whether she likes you or not is outside of your control. Now that we have concluded that of course Stoics would engage in dating, let us turn to one of the fundamental pillars of our philosophy: the dichotomy of control. Just as a quick refresher, here is Epictetus’ version of the doctrine:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

Clearly, whether someone who agrees to go out with you for a drink or a coffee ends up liking you enough to go out a second time, and then a third, and so forth, and perhaps, eventually become a long term partner, is most definitely not up to you. It is up to her. What is up to you, however, is to do your best given the circumstances, which may include dressing appropriately in order to make a decent first impression, engaging the other person in interesting conversation, being attentive to her desires, and so forth.

None of this, however, guarantees you anything. At all. That is why Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life suggests that one way to put into practice the dichotomy of control is to internalize our goals, shifting away from the outcome (which is not up to us) and focusing instead on the effort (which is up to us.) This is also Cicero’s advice, in the third book of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

So, a repeat date is to be chosen, not to be desired, meaning that it is your target, metaphorically speaking, but you should not attach your worth as a person to actually hitting that target. If things don’t go well, there will be other people, and other dates.

One more thing: I mentioned above that a key ingredient is to engage the other person in an interesting conversation. Epictetus has a lot to say about this:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — commonplace stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. … In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.2 & 33.14)

I honestly don’t know what else to add here. Epictetus got it exactly right, two millennia before OKCupid and

III. Engage in virtuous dating. As proficientes (the plural of proficiens above), of course, we are supposed to engage in anything, not just dating, in as virtuous a manner as we can muster. But we are talking about this strange 21st century meeting-for-mating ritual, so let’s be specific.

IIIa. Exercise prudence. I’m talking about prudentia here (or phronesis, for the Greeks), often translated as practical wisdom, not the contemporary English language sense of the word (though, of course, you may want to be “prudent” also in the latter sense, since after all you are going out to meet a stranger). Prudence is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for you, and that knowledge is deeply rooted in the dichotomy of control: the only truly good things for you are your own good judgments, opinions, values, and goals. Similarly, the only truly bad things for you are bad judgments, opinions, values, and goals. The rest is, you guessed it, a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

This means that while on a date you should be concerned not with whether you achieve your external goal (say, for the other person to agree to a second date, or whatever, depending on which stage of dating you are at). Rather, your goal should always — and only — be to express good judgments, opinions, and values while on the date. That’s it! Easy no? (No, not really, as the notion is simple to grasp, but exceedingly difficult to consistently put into practice.)

IIIb. Practice courageous and just dating. Courage, for the Stoics, isn’t just of a physical nature, but first and foremost moral. It often includes saying or doing things that make you uncomfortable, if it is the right thing to do. This means that you have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is in the first place, which is why I coupled the cardinal virtues of courage and justice in this section. According to the Stoics, you can’t really be courageous in an unjust fashion. (Technically, you can’t practice any of the four virtues in isolation, since the Stoics accepted the doctrine of the unity of virtue, but let’s set that aside for now.)

For instance, if you know you don’t actually like someone you are on a date with, as a person, and yet you find him attractive, resist the temptation to play around with him in order to get into bed once or twice. That would be using another human being as an object (that’s why the practice is called “objectification”), which is not nice, and you probably wouldn’t want it done to you. (You may think that you do, but trust me, you really don’t. It is never a good feeling to simply being used, under false pretense, by someone else.)

This means you may have to have the courage to do the right thing, thank your date for having come out with you, but abstaining from promising any follow-up if you don’t actually mean it, and even less so if said follow-up would be just to satisfy your sexual desires, and not because you are interested in the person in question.

IIIc. Temperance: go nice and easy. There is an old Frank Sinatra song that goes like this:

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy for us to fall in love
Hey, baby, what’s your hurry?
Relax ‘n’ don’t you worry, we’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance
That’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops
Along the way

The problem now, of course
Is to simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time

Yeah, I know, Frank was most definitely not known for going nice and easy on anything. But the sentiment is right, and besides he didn’t write the lyrics (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, and Lew Spence did).

The idea is to apply the fourth cardinal virtue: temperance, that is, doing things always in the right measure, neither too little, nor too much. My experience is that there is next to zero danger of doing too little in dating situations, but there is a constant temptation to do too much. Too much talking (especially about oneself, see above), too much drinking, or too much physical contact (especially if the other person has not given a clear go ahead signal or consent, and only up to the point where she hits the brake).

So, take it nice ‘n’ easy, enjoy some virtuous Stoic dating, and good luck finding your soulmate!

(Bonus material: did you know where the notion of a soulmate comes to begin with? It’s articulated by Aristophanes in the Platonic dialogue Symposium, where one even gets sex lessons from Socrates! Here is a lovely animated video about it.)

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

Octavian Augustus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(next: rewriting the family)

A Stoic watches the World Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps this one, from Epictetus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (On Tranquillity of Mind XVII)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism and relationships: three models

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

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

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

Case study I: Socrates and Xanthippe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case study II: Seneca and Pompeia Paulina

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

Liz Gloyn, in the book mentioned above, comments that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case study III: Crates and Hipparchia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeneas and his son Ascanius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Next: the imperfect imperial family)

The growing pains of the Stoic movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ethics of the family in Seneca, III: the mystery of marriage

How do the Stoics think of marriage (or, in modern terms, stable monogamous relationships)? That’s the topic of the third chapter of Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. It turns out that here, as in several other aspects when it comes to the conception of the family, Seneca is subtly subversive, if one reads him carefully. We will see just how subversive when we get to the chapter on the character of the imperial family, but for me this has so far been the most refreshing aspect of reading Gloyn’s book. Even modern practitioners tend to under-appreciate just how revolutionary Stoic ideas were in the ancient world.

Marriage was, of course, central to Roman society, and among the upper classes was perceived as an instrument to achieve political power and social influence. Contra common misconception, women were given a noteworthy degree of autonomy and power in the late Republic and especially during the empire, though of course Roman society was still fundamentally patriarchal. Seneca, however, reconceives marriage from a Stoic perspective, making it into a fundamental opportunity for both members of the couple to practice virtue and to help each other become more virtuous. This is radically at odds with marriage seen as a means to socio-political ends.

Earlier Stoics, Liz reminds us, held a variety of opinions about marriage. Zeno of Citium, for instance, said that women should be held in common in the ideal Republic (I suspect this is to be interpreted in terms of equality, as he also said that women should wear the same clothes as men, and that they should be instructed in philosophy). Cicero, on his part, has Cato the Younger say, in book III of De Finibus, that Stoics should not only engage in politics, but also marry and have children, a position held also by Musonius Rufus, Hierocles, and Epictetus.

What’s novel in Seneca is his focus on marriage as a reciprocally virtuous activity, and his clear positioning of women as active participants in the relationship:

“Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

Gloyn’s analysis is mostly based on the partly preserved De Matrimonio, which we only know through secondary (Christian) sources, specifically Jerome of Stridon (347-420 CE). It needs, therefore, to be handled with care, as we cannot be certain of the extent to which we have Seneca’s own words or Jerome’s paraphrases of them. Liz’s book contains an appendix with the extant fragments and translation of De Matrimonio.

Marriage, for Seneca, is of course a preferred indifferent, meaning that it is neither good nor bad in and of itself:

“And just as riches, honours, the health of our bodies and other things which we call indifferents are neither good nor bad, but become either good or bad by use and by chance, as if placed in the middle, so too are wives placed on the border of good things and bad things; however, it is a serious matter for a wise man to be uncertain about whether he is about to marry a good or a bad woman.” (V.23)

It is a “serious matter” for the wise man because women are independent moral agents, and they therefore contribute equally to the virtuousness of the relationship.

Seneca then criticizes Chrysippus — thus showing that the Stoics engaged in healthy internal debates — for writing to the effect that marriage should be constrained by local religious traditions. On the contrary, for Seneca entering in that sort of relationship with another human being is part of what it means to “live according to nature,” and therefore transcends cultural norms and religious customs.

Seneca also has harsh words for those who marry for convenience, for instance to avoid financial penalties (the Romans since Octavian Augustus had enacted laws favoring marriage and procreation), or for political gain. Entering and exiting marriage too quickly is also not the Stoic thing to do:

“We read about certain women, divorced on the second day of the marriage, who married again at once: each husband should be rebuked, both he who was so quickly displeased and he who was pleased so quickly.” (V.36)

Notice here that Seneca is criticizing the husbands first: a quick divorce means that one is too easily displeased, and agreeing to marry someone who had just been divorced means one is too easily pleased. The problem being, of course, that many people are under the misguided impression that pleasure is a true good, and act accordingly.

Seneca also argues that the wise person loves by exercising the virtue of temperance. He says that to love someone else’s spouse is, obviously, disgraceful, but so is to display too much lust for one’s own spouse, as this may lead us to lose sight of the true value of marriage (virtue), and — as he puts it — treat instead our partner “as an adultress” (or adulterer).

Fine, I can hear the objection here: how unromantic! But we all know of dysfunctional relationships were people are driven by passion (in the unhealthy sense of the word), and otherwise abuse each other, and certainly do not model virtue for each other or for their children. As always, remember that Stoicism is not about suppressing one’s emotions, but rather about shifting our emotional spectrum from negative and destructive emotions to positive and constructive ones.

One of the virtues Seneca associates with a good marriage is that of pudicitia, a word later used by Christian writers to mean modesty, and usually associated with women’s inferior role within the relationship. Not so for our Stoic author:

“In one of the Epistulae Morales, [Seneca] includes two types of pudicitia in a list of virtues he needs to perfect the teachable character given to him by nature. He defines the two kinds as ‘that which is restraint from someone else’s body, and that which is care of one’s own body.’ Seneca has no difficulty in assuming he might demonstrate pudicitia as a man; he also shows awareness of the multifaceted nature of the virtue, articulating its concern with both outer activity and inward disposition.” (p. 132)

Seneca says that a major threat to pudicitia is what he calls “aliena libidine,” literally “another’s person’s lust,” but meaning that if we are so strongly attracted by someone who is not our partner we are dragged along by lust, in a sense captive of our own emotions. That’s why the right approach is not to practice pudicitia because we are afraid of repercussions (legal or otherwise), but genuinely because we think it is unvirtuous to feel (and act) otherwise.

So according to Gloyn, Seneca’s talk of pudicitia is not meant to downgrade women’s moral status, since he uses the same vocabulary for men as well. The very same mental state that leads to virtuous action can be attained by men and women alike. Indeed, he very clearly criticizes men for a double standard in terms of virtue (a double standard that persists to this days, unfortunately):

“The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women.” (V.28)

And consider this passage, where Seneca mocks the Roman propensity for the husband to “guard” his wife, so that she does not engage in unacceptable behavior:

“What good is a careful watch when an impudica wife cannot be guarded and a pudica wife ought not to be? For the necessity of chastity is a treacherous guard, and only the woman who could do wrong if she wished to should be called pudica.” (V.54.6-7)

Liz remarks that this makes sense if Seneca saw women as active, independent moral agents, capable of seeking (and holding onto) virtue on their own, without their men “guarding” them. Indeed, she claims that Seneca is both making a strong (if implicit) case for the equality of women, and reminding us that without the possibility of choosing wrong, there is no virtue. Virtue is not the notion that we always do right by default, without effort. It’s the notion that we choose to do right, because we agree that that is the rational thing to do.

In a sense, Seneca’s take on marriage and love is no different from that of the early Stoics. As Gloyn reminds us:

“And the wise man will love those young people who, through their appearance, display a nature well-disposed to virtue, as Zeno says in the Republic and Chrysippus in the first book of On Lives, and Apollodoros in the Ethics.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.129)

This is the Stoic concept of eros, which is aroused not by the alluring appearance of the other person, but by the promise of virtue that is evident in the proficiens (the one who makes progress) that we elect as a partner to help us on our own path to virtue. (Incidentally, “young people” in the quote above is gender ambiguous, and it reinforces the idea that same-sex relationships were acceptable, if framed within a virtuous context.)

Liz then discusses what we know about Seneca’s own relationship with his wife. For instance, in De Ira, he describes a peaceful evening scene, where his wife knows of and respects his habit of taking a few minutes to go over his day, interrogating himself as to what he had done well and what he needs to improve. She does not do this because Seneca instructs her, but because she is his confidante, privy to this nightly ritual (“moris iam mei conscia”).

We get another glimpse of the relationship between Seneca and his wife Paulina thanks to Tacitus’ description of the scene of Seneca’s suicide (which is more sympathetic than the version we find in Cassius Dio, notoriously critical of Seneca), a suicide ordered by Nero because of Seneca’s alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy:

“When he attempted to send away his friends after a farewell dinner, Paulina refused to leave and begged that she should be allowed to die with him. Although he tried to persuade her otherwise, she insisted, and eventually convinced him to allow her to join him in death. In the event, Nero’s soldiers saved her, to make sure that Nero did not come out of the incident looking any more of a villain than he already did. … He reasons with her but respects her choice as rational after articulating the opposing side of the argument. He balances the spouse’s duty to educate and clarify with respect for Paulina as an autonomous moral agent. Her decision is based upon her evaluation of life as an indifferent, and her preference for a death that has glory rather than an ignoble life.” (pp. 145-146)

Gloyn concludes her chapter by reiterating that Seneca’s treatment of marriage as a relationship of virtue between morally equal partners is in stark contrast with the standard utilitarian view of marriage in Roman society, and therefore strongly countercultural. Wealth and ancestry don’t matter (in the sense of being preferred indifferents), and they can positively get in the way of what does matter, the mutually reinforcing pursuit of virtue.

(Next: the desirable contest between fathers and sons)