Category Archives: Social living

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)

The ethics of the family in Seneca, II: band of brothers

the Gracchi brothers

The Gracchi brothers

Last time we have examined Seneca’s treatment of motherhood as discussed in Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. The second type of family relationship we’ll look into is that between brothers, for which Gloyn mostly uses the third of Seneca’s letters of consolation, to Polybius. This is a somewhat controversial letter, as Seneca clearly had a personal motive to write it: Polybius had lost a brother, which is the manifest reason Seneca writes to him. But he was also magister a libellis, the magistrate in charge of petitions addressed to the emperor Claudius, who had sent Seneca into exile. Sure enough, the consolation also includes a good degree of praise for Claudius, obviously with the aim of ingratiating the emperor (whom Seneca later on criticizes harshly in his Apocolocyntosis). Liz finds a creative way to interpret Seneca’s words about Claudius in the letter to Polybium coherently with the alleged main purpose of the letter, consoling Polybium, and with Stoic philosophy more generally. I admire her attempt, though for once I have trouble sympathizing with Seneca. Nonetheless, the letter is interesting in its own regard for what it tells us about how Seneca conceived of the bond of brotherhood, and we shall discuss it from that angle.

To begin with, Seneca uses the word pietas to characterize the relationship between brothers. This is a reciprocal virtue that is supposed to hold between any family members, but the Romans idealized the relationship between brothers and made it the model for all other close relationships, including friendship. (This despite — or perhaps because — the fact that, ahem, Rome was founded on a fratricide…) Indeed, there were “fraternal” (from the Latin word for brother) orders, such as the Fratres Arvales, that were built on the idea that its members would behave as brothers toward other members, even though they did not have blood relations. Seneca himself had by all accounts an affectionate relationship with his brothers, who supported each other in private as well as political life.

As he did in his letter to Marcia, which we discussed last time, Seneca helps himself to the Stoic idea of a cosmopolis, framing familial brotherhood as part and parcel of the more general notion that we are all brothers and sisters. As he puts it elsewhere:

“Let us embrace two states in our minds — one great and truly shared in which gods and men are held together, in which we do not look to this or that corner, but measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other into which the circumstance of our birth enrols us.” (De Otio, IV.1)

Gloyn immediately makes a parallel with Epictetus’ well known conception of the different roles we play in society, which I have discussed when covering Brian Johnson’s book on that topic.

In the ad Polybium, Seneca draws his interlocutor’s attention to the idea of a cosmopolis inhabited by sages, not because he thinks he or Polybium are actually sages, but because they can both derive inspiration and consolation from the thought of a perfect society of wise people:

“Let tears flow, but let them stop as well; let growns be drawn out from your deepest soul, but let them be ended too; govern your mind so that you are able to commend yourself to wise men and to brothers.” (XVIII.6)

Philosophy, for Seneca, equips us to deal with adversity of any kind, but he says very explicitly that its point is not to turn us into unfeeling and caring robots, contra one of the most pernicious stereotypes about Stoicism:

“I would never demand from you that you do not grieve completely. I know that certain men can be found, with harsh rather than brave wisdom, who deny that the wise man will feel pain. To me, these men do not seem to ever have fallen into misfortune of this kind, or else fortune would have beaten arrogant reason out of them and forced them even unwillingly to admit the truth.” (XVIII.5)

Next is were Liz is very charitable (perhaps, as I said, too charitable) to Seneca. She suggests that Seneca portrays the emperor Claudius as a figure endowed with divine power within the Stoic universe, symbolizing reason itself, which makes possible the creation and continuation of the cosmopolis. Never mind that the actual Claudius — despite the magistral dramatic interpretation by Derek Jacobi — was nothing like a paragon of reason and virtue. Still, Claudius can offer consolation to Polybius because he too has lost his brother, Germanicus.

Gloyn then builds a good argument to the effect that Seneca is using both the concept of cosmopolis and that of oikeiôsis — again, as he did in the ad Marciam — to encourage Polybium to see things from a broader perspective, considering not just his actual brother, but to expand his circles of “appropriation” further and further from his immediate family. Seneca says that Polybius has an obligation to model good behavior, to be an exemplum, for everyone. Regardless of how much progress we have made toward virtue, unless we are sages we can all use good examples to imitate. But just as in the letter to his mother, ad Helviam, Seneca also stresses that our impact is greatest with people who are close to us, toward whom we have a special duty to model virtuous behavior. Because of his focus on brotherhood, incidentally, Seneca again flaunts standard Roman moral education, which relied on the almost mythical figure of the stern pater familias, more than on brothers and mothers.

Liz quotes Martha Nussbaum here, to the effect that for the Stoics, relationships that we normally think of as strongly asymmetrical and hierarchical were no such thing. For instance, the relationship between teacher and pupil, which in standard Roman conception was very much one way, is presented by the Stoics as far more symmetrical (thus anticipating modern pedagogical approaches), a situation in which the student has a duty to develop his own skills, not simply to absorb whatever the teacher tells him. (Note to self: must bring this up with my own students…)

Back to Seneca’s secondary motives for writing the letter, Gloyn points out that having established that virtue is a collaborative project, and that brothers have a duty to help each other, it makes sense that Seneca expects his cosmopolitan brother, Polybius, to intercede with Claudius (remember, bearer of reason and virtue!) in order to recall Seneca from exile. (As we know, historically Seneca was indeed recalled from Corsica, but through the influence of Agrippina, Nero’s mother, who in the meantime had married her uncle, Claudius.)

Interestingly, one of the approaches Seneca uses to plead his case with Polybius is the observation that he has been relegated to an awful place, surrounded by people whom he cannot engage in philosophical discourse. This sounds pretty snoddy, of course. And moreover, isn’t the place where one lives a preferred or dispreferred indifferent for the Stoics? Doesn’t Marcus say that one can live well “even in a palace,” if one has too? (Meditations, V.16) Yes, but Liz wants to read philosophy, and not just personal gain, in Seneca’s writings, so she points out that:

“From a Stoic perspective Seneca’s complaint is fully justified. One of the necessary conditions for maintaining his animus [mind], and thus his ability to engage with reason, is interaction with his spiritual brothers who help him continue to progress toward virtue; isolation actively hinders that process. Without his animus, Seneca is unable to access the broader network of the cosmopolis or to develop ‘the possibilities inherent in our rational nature’ in his journey toward sagehood.” (p. 107)

Perhaps, but it still smells more like special pleading to me than what a Stoic would coherently going to argue. (And, to be fair, Epictetus also warns us about the quality of the company we keep, in Enchiridion XXXIII.6) Then again, I made the point before that Seneca was no sage, and that he knew it very well. So let’s cut the fellow a bit of slack, shall we?

Gloyn uses Seneca’s Stoic plea with Polybium, together with similar references he makes in both the other two letters of consolation, to ask a serious question about Stoic philosophy in general: is Seneca implying that one cannot become virtuous unless one is nurtured by a family (mother, brothers, or, as we shall see soon in this series, father)? Her argument is that a family is not necessary, but the proficiens does need some sort of supportive network, of which a family is just the most common type, in order to develop virtue:

“Since the family is the first community we belong to, or even unknowingly or for a brief period of time, it serves as the paradigmatic community through which ideas of moral growth are articulated. Other forms of community can provide the support required for ethical development, as the Epistulae Morales demonstrate; however, the prominence of the biological family and its relationship to virtue in the consolation is caused by the comfort that the texts offer for the loss of family members.” (p. 108)

But hold on a minute! Doesn’t this make Stoicism pretty much indistinguishable from Aristotelianism? Aren’t the Peripatetics the one who argue that some externals are necessary for the eudaimonic life? Yes, but the Stoics never argued — and they couldn’t have, on penalty of absurdity — that virtue develops in a vacuum. At the very least one needs teachers or models, a functional developing brain, and language (without which there is no philosophy, only instinct).

What differentiate the Stoics, then, is what happens after the developmental stage: for Aristotle one cannot be eudaimon unless he continues to have at least some externals (wealth, health, good looks…) throughout his life. For the Stoics, only virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, understood as the life worth living. The rest is preferred, but not required. (For more on this see here and here, as well as my detailed treatment of Larry Becker’s book.)

(Next: the mystery of marriage.)

The ethics of the family in Seneca, I: model mothers

ethics of family in SenecaWhat did the Stoics think about the family? Good question, and it depends on which Stoics we are talking about. The early ones, Greek, and directly influenced by the Cynics, and thus of rather free customs? Or the late ones, Roman, and definitely more prudish? They certainly had widely different opinions about sex, for one. This new series of commentaries will focus on what Seneca had to say about the family, based on a delightful book by Liz Gloyn, from the University of London: The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (Cambridge Press, 2017). There are six chapters in the book, covering mothers, brothers, father vs sons, marriage, and even the imperfections of the Imperial family. Let’s get started with Gloyn’s treatment of the concept of motherhood, as exemplified in two of Seneca’s three letters of consolation: to his friend Marcia, and to his own mother, Helvia.

Perhaps the two most fundamental points made by Gloyn in her reading of the Consolatione ad Marciam and the Consolatione ad Helviam are that Seneca’s view of the role of mothers in the family diverges substantially from the standard Roman take at the time (in what we would today perhaps call a more progressive direction, though don’t think radical feminism); and that such divergence is the direct result of Seneca’s application of the fundamental Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, the “appropriation” of feelings toward others that is the basis for the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism. Motherhood, then, becomes the starting point for the path toward virtue that characterizes the Stoic proficiens (the Latin term for prokopton, the one who makes progress).

In fact, both letters of consolation, according to Gloyn, depart radically from the well established genre: in ad Marciam, Seneca acknowledges the standard practice of giving precepts followed by examples, and then ignores it. In ad Helviam, since it addresses exile rather than death, he needs to deploy different kinds of arguments to console his mother. Seneca, it turns out, was far more radical and original than he is usually given credit for.

Contra common stereotype, Gloyn points out, Roman women had a significant amount of power and autonomy during the empire, since they could inherit and dispose of their inheritance, thus being financially independent. They were also expected to be of moral guidance to their children, indeed much more so than taking care of all the other mundane aspects of child care that modern parents engage in, because those were deputized to slaves. (Obviously, we are talking about patrician women, here.)

The mother-son bond in particular was very strong, even after the son had left the household, as he was expected to regularly pay visits to his mother, for instance. In return, a mother’s social status was heightened by her son’s achievements, so there was a lifelong collaboration between the two, in a sense.

I think Gloyn is right in applying the lens of oikeiôsis to Seneca’s analysis of the family, and in particular of motherhood, even though he does not mention the concept explicitly in the two letters of consolation we are examining now:

“Oikeiôsis describes the process which gives an individual the ability to care for others. This process starts at the very beginning of a being’s existence, with the awareness of self and a desire to preserve that self as best fits the constitution of the individual. … The initial realisation of concern for one’s own well-being then develops into a concern for the well-being of others, best exemplified by the devotion of parents to their offspring.” (p. 34)

Obviously, then, the process of oikeiôsis normally begins within the family, and makes the family — and, in the Roman context, mothers — a crucial engine for moral development toward virtue. Importantly, Seneca famously tells Marcia (at XVI.1) that women have the same capacity as men to be virtuous, as well as to endure grief and hardship. It is a rare statement, in antiquity, of the equal worth of women from an intellectual (since virtue is the result of applied reason) and moral perspectives.

Marcia had lost one of her sons, Metilius, and was still grieving after three years, which is what prompts Seneca to write to her (a politically dangerous move, by the way, since Marcia was the daughter of the historian Cremutius Cordus, who had committed suicide after being accused of treason). Seneca begins by acknowledging the usual pattern of consolation letters, whereby precepts precede examples, and then immediately announces that he will go about it the other way around.

The Stoics had a reputation, shall we say, for being frank about the human condition (especially Epictetus!), so it is no surprise that Seneca also reminds Marcia of the reality of the situation: death is part of life, even when it is unexpected, as in the case of a parent whose son dies. Still, it is natural for parents — mothers as well as fathers — to grieve for their offspring, a point he had made even about the wise man in Letters IC.18. In the specific case of Marcia, Seneca draws a parallel between the woman and Nature herself: she, like Nature, gives birth; but what is borne also must die, thus continuing the endless cycle and recycle that is a fundamental component of the cosmos.

“Marcia as mother figure in the consolation reveals two things about Stoic motherhood. First, she can take consolation from her similarity to Nature. Second, she demonstrates that mothers perform the role of Nature for their children — as Nature cares for us, so mothers care for their offspring.” (p. 42)

Interestingly, Gloyn points out that ad Marciam serves as a double consolation, as Seneca actually spends a significant amount of time talking about Marcia’s father, who as I said was prosecuted for treason (because in his historical writings he praised Brutus and Cassius, two of the conspirators against Julius Caesar). Seneca’s tone here is yet another strong hint that suicide is admissible for the Stoics, in order to escape intolerable situations.

The fascinating thing, which lends support to Gloyn’s interpretation of the letter of consolation, is that Seneca brings up earlier, and spends more time on, Marcia’s father than her son, who after all is the alleged reason for the letter in the first place. This is better understood, again, within the framework of oikeiôsis, as the mother-son relationship is just as important — from the point of view of virtue — as that of the mother to her own father:

“The parent–child relationship occupies the same circle of proximity as the child–parent relationship [in Hierocles’ famous metaphor]. Her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her parents should be the same as her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her children, for they stand in the same relation to her.” (p. 45)

Indeed, at XXV.3 Seneca explicitly directs Marcia to behave as if both her father and her son were watching over her, united by the same bond of family and virtue:

“So conduct yourself, Marcia, as if you were placed under the eyes of your father and son, not as you knew them, but so much more noble and stationed in the highest place.”

It is noticeable that Seneca departs significantly from the standard Roman view here. He does not agree with the idea that losing a son is far more tragic than losing a father because, as the Romans saw it, the mother’s prospects for social prestige would be hampered far more by the first than by the second loss. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the fact that a loss has occurred of two human beings toward whom Marcia had a similar relationship and bond. This is also a strategic move: instead of giving Marcia a lecture based on precepts, Seneca subtly draws her attention to the fact that she overcame her grief for the death of her father; similarly, she can do it with the death of her son.

The second letter of consolation, to his mother Helvia, is obviously very different, both because of who the recipient is, and because of the underlying theme: exile rather than death. That said, let us remember that for the Romans there was a close kinship between exile and death, where the former was perceived as a kind of living death, which is why to be punished by exile was far graver than it may sound to our modern ears.

Seneca starts out by assuring his mother that he is not suffering in exile, in great part because his study of philosophy prepared him for just such eventuality. He then goes on to praise his mother for having selflessly managed the interests of her sons over the years. While this may sound natural to us, Seneca stresses that she did so with no regard to her own advantage, which was not the Roman way. But it is, again, what one would expect on the basis of the principle of oikeiôsis, whereby the interests of others, especially when they are close to our direct circle of influence, are literally to be taken as if they were our own interests. Sure enough, Seneca points out that Helvia took pride in the achievements of her brother too, as if he were no different from her sons. Another departure from standard Roman attitude. And the picture is further reinforced by Seneca’s description of the relationship he and his brothers have with their mother: one of open intellectual dialogue, frequent association, and mutual trust. Seneca even regrets that Helvia’s husband did not allow her to pursue the study of philosophy, which would have further enriched their relationship, as well as helped Helvia in the current situation:

“Would that my father, the best of men, had been less given to the custom of the ancestors and had wanted you to be educated with the principles of wisdom rather than be introduced to them! You would not now have to obtain help against fortune but produce it.” (XVII.4)

In fact, he advises his mother to get back to such studies now. Moreover, as Gloyn says:

“Seneca requires Helvia to play an active role in her own consolation by putting the theory of oikeiôsis into practice: he encourages [her in her role of] grandmother to step into the shoes of a deceased mother [her daughter] and provide a young girl with moral guidance that would otherwise be absent.” (p. 56)

Another novel characteristic of ad Helviam is that Seneca doesn’t use examples of virtuous behavior from the past — as he does in ad Marciam — but rather from his own family, including, for instance, his aunt, who he describes as having stepped into the role of mother, when it was necessary. He attributes to his aunt the Stoic cardinal virtues of prudence, moderation, courage, and justice, thus stressing both the general message that the family is the locus where we learn the first steps in the lifelong process of oikeiôsis, and his unusual view of women as (at least potentially, and actually in some specific instances) equal to men when it comes to virtue:

“Virtus has multiple meanings, as it can refer either to the specific virtue of ‘manliness’ or courage, or to moral excellence more generally … For Seneca not only to attribute virtus to his aunt but to encourage his mother towards the same characteristic indicates a slippage of conventional gender boundaries.” (p. 61)

According to Gloyn, Seneca’s approach here is unique among extant Stoic sources. He sees the family — men and women — as a crucial source of moral education, from which it is particularly appropriate to draw examples to follow, as these examples will be far more effective than distant role models, like the classic one of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers.

(Next: a band of brothers, De Consolatione ad Polybium)

From virtue to social justice?

Is there a connection between Stoicism and social justice, understood in the modern sense of the term? I’m not talking about the (often pejorative) term “social justice warrior,” with its very particular political meaning, but rather of the general philosophical concept, which has a long and complex history: “Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.” (Wiki article) Typical names that come up in this context are those of philosophers like John Rawls and Thomas Pogge. More generally, though, is Stoicism leaning toward particular political positions? If the Stoics advised us to “follow nature,” and if reality — as the comedian Stephen Colbert once joked — has a liberal bias, does that mean that a modern Stoic is committed to be a progressive liberal in political terms?

Well, it’s complicated. My general take about the relationship between Stoicism and both religion and politics is that the philosophy is compatible with a number of positions in both areas of concern, though obviously not all. (It is hard to imagine a fundamentalist Christian Stoic, for instance, since the notion that evolution did not take place, or that the Earth is only millennia old, flies in the face of the best science, and Stoics ought to be scientifically as informed as possible — see the field of study of “physics.” Similarly, it is hard to imagine a Stoic Nazi, as that political ideology is incompatible with any reasonable understanding of the virtue of justice, not to mention with the concept of cosmopolitanism.) But can we say anything more about this crucial topic? I believe we can, but not everyone is going to like my take…

A major resource about social justice within Stoic philosophy comes from the so-called cradle argument, the Stoic take on moral developmental psychology. A modern version is found in Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (see this commentary), but the classic rendition is located in Cicero’s De Finibus, as explained by his friend, Cato the Younger:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution. … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction. … Man’s first attraction [thus] is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.5-21)

The logical progression implied in these passages can be summarized as follows:

(human infant) selfishness > (young child) instinctive concern for care takers and close others > (age of reason, 7+) concern for others begins to expand due to reason > (adult) further expansion of concern for others, abstract thoughts > (prokopton / prokoptousa) conscious practice of virtue, cosmopolitanism > (Sage) perfected virtue

What this does is to establish that — according to Stoic philosophy — human beings come to be concerned about others by a combination of two processes: our natural instincts as social beings, and our capacity to reason about our problems. Hence Marcus’ injunction to:

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

Great, but what does this mean, in practice? Here, of course, we run into the classical limitation (in some people’s views) or advantage (in other people’s view) of virtue ethics in general, not just Stoicism: it does not provide us with specific answers to particular questions, but only with the general framework and the tools to arrive at those answers on our own.

For instance, Epictetus puts forth a theory of social roles (as discussed by Brian Johnson in his book, commentary here):

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)

This is often interpreted as supporting a rather socially conservative take on life, whereby we are stuck into pre-determined roles, which are to be played according to the general directions issued by society. But that is far too simplistic an understanding of Epictetus in particular, and of Stoicism more generally. For one thing, Epictetus tells us that the most fundamental role, the one that overrides all others, is that of a human being:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4)

Setting aside the obligatory reminder that “divine” here just means natural, this is a pretty clear call for unselfish behavior, for deploying reason to figure out how to best help the human polis.

Still, we are short on specifics, and what I’ve said so far is arguably compatible with a number of progressive liberal policies, but also with some libertarian or conservative ones, to use the parlance of contemporary American politics. As it should be. One of the things that makes Stoicism a timeless philosophy — just like the case of, say, Buddhism, or Christianity — is precisely the fact that it sets out general principles from which reasonable people may derive specific actions to carry out. The trouble is that reasonable people may reasonably disagree on what such actions ought to be, because the principles (not just Stoic ones, but pretty much any sufficiently broad and interesting principle) underdetermine, as philosophers are want to say, the ways to implement them. Contra much current political “discourse” (to use the term charitably) there often isn’t a single solution to complex problems, and the possible solutions are probably not going to be simple anyway.

So how do we then bridge the gap between Stoic precepts (or, generally, virtue ethical ones) and specific policies concerning social justice? By moving into the empirical domain, and specifically by applying inductive reasoning to observations about human affairs. Crucially though, this isn’t a simple matter of handing over ethical decisions to disciplines such as economics, or psychology. It is, rather, an approach that requires us to take on board research in those disciplines while being informed by an ethical perspective (in our case, specifically a Stoic one).

Consider economics, for instance, and in particular the issue of social responsibility on the part of corporations, as reflected in the debate between supporters of stockholders and stakeholders theories. Stockholders theory is also known as the Friedman doctrine, named after economist Milton Friedman: “This approach views stockholders as the economic engine of the organization and the only group to which the firm must be socially responsible. As such, the goal of the firm is to maximize profits and return a portion of those profits to stockholders as a reward for the risk they took in investing in the firm. Friedman advocates that the stockholders can then decide for themselves what social initiatives to take part in rather than having their appointed executive, whom they appointed for business reasons, decide for them.” (Wiki article)

Contrast the above with the tenets of shareholders theory, often associated with the work of R. Edward Freeman: “In the traditional view of a company, the stockholder view, only the owners or stockholders of the company are important, and the company has a binding fiduciary duty to put their needs first, to increase value for them. Stakeholder theory instead argues that there are other parties involved, including employees, customers, suppliers, financiers, communities, governmental bodies, political groups, trade associations, and trade unions.” (Wiki article)

It should be clear at first glance that stockholders theory is typically favored by conservatives and libertarians, while stakeholders theory is the go to framework for liberal progressives. Who is right? The answer depends on the interrelation of values and empirical evidence. While it may superficially appear that the values underlying the two approaches are mutually incompatible, a closer look reveals that they share at least one fundamental value in common: consent. What stockholders theorists object to is the idea that decisions about the company’s management be imposed on owners by people outside the company itself, who have not invested money (and hence taken on risks) in the company. Similarly, stakeholders theorists are also concerned with consent, this time of people outside company management (workers, citizens of the local community) who are going to suffer potentially grave consequences from actions imposed by stockholders without broader consultation. Violation of consent results in potential loss of money for stockholders, and in potential loss of jobs, or a lowered quality of life, for stakeholders.

One approach informed by Stoic philosophy here is that the virtue of justice requires that we treat others with fairness, while the notion of cosmopolitanism means that we should consider all people involved as equally deserving of regard. This, however, does not necessarily favor stakeholders theory, as it may at first appear. It only means that we can reasonably remind stockholders in a particular company that they will also at the same time be stakeholders from the point of view of other companies in which they are not invested. It would then be unreasonable (i.e., a violation of the logos) for any corporate manager to actually think that a company ought to be able to do whatever necessary to maximize profit, even at the cost of the world going to hell in a handbasket, as they say. (The point here is not that some managers won’t actually believe that, or behave accordingly, but rather that they ought — on the basis of reason — not to believe or behave that way.)

In practical terms, the two sides are not as far from each other as it may seem. Let’s take a specific example: Apple has recently gotten into trouble in terms of public perception because of the famous Paradise Papers, showing that the company has looked for places where to store huge amounts of money it saved over two decades during which it benefited from artificially low taxes in Ireland. If Apple brought that money back to the US it would face a huge tax bill.

Clearly, that would go against the interest of the company’s stockholders. Equally clearly, it would benefit a large number of stakeholders, for instance the taxpayers of the United States of America (or even all of its citizens, who would presumably benefit from services that could be paid for with that tax money).

Apple, however, has raised a standard corporate defense of its practices, arguing that “it pays every dollar it owes in every country around the world.” This is probably true, meaning that there is no evidence that Apple has engaged in illegal practices. The fact remains, though, that Apple’s behavior has arguably been unethical, knowingly taking advantage of a loophole that allowed them to pay taxes at the ridiculously low rate of 0.005% (for comparison, the recent rate in the US has been 35%, and is about to be lowered by a new Republican bill to 20%, which is still 4,000 times higher than what Apple got away with. And before anyone thinks that Apple is an anomaly, it isn’t. The very same discussion is currently going on within the European Community concerning Google).

At this point, there are two possible courses of action we as a society can take against Apple. On the one hand, we can use stockholders theory against them, in a sort of socio-financial judo move, and start a boycott until the company decides to do the right thing. The idea here is that company management is bound, legally and morally, to maximize stockholders’ profit, and if that profit is going to be hampered by an international boycott, then management will act accordingly. On the other hand, invoking stakeholders theory, we could push for legislation — in either or both the US and the European Community — that closes the loophole and makes such actions illegal and punishable by fines against the company and/or jail for its managers.

My point is that Stoic philosophy should lead one — regardless of political inclinations — to conclude that Apple has indeed misbehaved. If Apple were a person (I mean a physical person, not the legal Fiction according to which a corporation is a “person”), we would conclude that its character is deeply flawed and that its actions need to be opposed.

But which of the two approaches outlined above is the right way to go? Stoicism cannot answer that question because its precepts underdetermine the two possible courses of action. The answer must come from available empirical evidence and the application of inductive reasoning to it. In the past, have boycotts worked? Under what circumstances, and to what extent? Crucially, do they tend to work better or worse than the introduction of new legislation? What are the limitations of the latter, considering that large corporations increasingly influence the political process and convince legislators to write laws that favor them?

I don’t have the answer, because the problem is complex and the relevant information hard to come by and subject to disputation. Nonetheless, there is going to be an empirical answer, if only couched in probabilistic terms. As a Stoic, then, I will favor whatever actual course of action is more likely to result in correcting the problem that my virtue ethical grounding has identified, regardless of which side of the political spectrum favors which solution.

This approach, I believe, is generalizable to any societal problem, in the following three-step fashion that relates the procedure to the three fields of study constituting the Stoic curriculum:

(I) Use the philosophical framework to decide in broad terms what is the virtuous thing to do (Stoic ethics);

(II) Acquire as much relevant empirical evidence as possible (Stoic physics);

(III) Use your reason to determine the best empirical way to improve the ethical situation (Stoic logic).

Or as Marcus put it:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (Meditations IV.13)

Living according to nature

Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus

The ancient Stoics were famous, or infamous, depending on whom one asks, for promulgating doctrines that sounded “paradoxical.” Indeed, Cicero wrote an entire book called Paradoxa Stoicorum (my commentary here), in which he tried to explain six of them. “Paradox” here, however, does not literally mean something that is logically contradictory, or that otherwise appears to violate the laws of logic. Rather, it simply means a notion so odd that it is hard to imagine that serious philosophers — such as the Stoics certainly were — ever actually said that. The Stoic motto “live according to nature” certainly falls into this category. And yet, it is a fundamental aspect of Stoic doctrine, so it is important to understand exactly what the Stoics said, and what they meant by it.

One thing the phrase does not mean is that we should go running naked into the nearest forest, stopping to hug trees from time to time. Another thing it does not mean is an appeal to nature. The latter is a well known informal logical fallacy, and according to G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica of 1903, it consists in claiming that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural,’ or bad because it is ‘unnatural.’” (This is related to, but not the same, as David Hume’s is/ought gap, often referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. We will turn to that one in a minute.)

It should be pretty obvious that appealing to nature to determine what is good or bad is not a sound procedure. Vaccines are “unnatural,” meaning that they are human creations (of course humans themselves are part of nature, but you see the distinction), and yet they are good for us, anti-vax pseudoscientific nonsense notwithstanding. By contrast, tsunamis are most definitely natural, and yet they are bad for both human beings and other animals on earth who happened to be so unfortunate as to experience their effects.

The Stoics, as we shall see, were not invoking a logical fallacy when they exhorted us to live according to nature. What they were doing, however, is much closer to rejecting David Hume’s postulation that there is an unbridgeable (or at least, very hard to bridge) gap between is and ought, i.e., between facts about the world and moral values. Here is how Hume himself famously put it, in A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

In truth, it is not clear here whether Hume is saying that the is/ought gap cannot be bridged, or simply warning us that if one wishes to bridge it then one ought (ah!) to provide explicit arguments, and not just accomplish the feat by sleight of hand. In a talk that I gave earlier this year at Oxford (slides here; video here) I argued for the latter, and connected this to two facts about Hume: (i) he developed a theory of human nature that is compatible with a naturalistic understanding of ethics, and hence with a bridge between is and ought; and (ii) he was actually sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, though not a Stoic himself (see this previous post).

Hume proposed a “progressive” theory of human nature as part of a debate he was involved in with some of his most esteemed contemporaries, Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and the Earl of Salisbury, Anthony Cooper. (I discuss that debate and Hume’s view of human nature here.)

Briefly, Mandeville argued that human beings are naturally self-interested, while Hutcheson and Cooper thought that we are naturally benevolent. Hume came down somewhere in the middle, suggesting that human nature is really a mix of the two, as we both have instincts that are aimed at self preservation as well as instincts that make us a naturally social and cooperative animal. Our social virtues, Hume added, then develop further because of reflection, cultural forces, and habit:

“’Tis by society alone [that man] is able to supply his defects. … By society all his infirmities are compensated and tho’ in that situation his wants multiply every moment on him, yet his abilities are still more augmented and leave him in every respect more satisfied and happy than ‘tis possible for him in his savage and solitary condition, ever to become.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 479)

Hume scholar Michael Gill explains: “People initially care about justice [and other socially valuable virtues] because it accords with self-interest, [Hume] tells us here. But over time, they develop mental associations that lead them to approve of justice even when it does not promote their self-interest, and to disapprove of injustice even when it does promote their self-interest.” (Hume’s progressive view of human nature, Hume Studies XXVI.1:87-108, 2000)

As we shall see, this is the Enlightenment version of the Stoic “cradle argument,” and does, in fact, provide the basis for a philosophically sound bridging of the is/ought gap. It is also part of the justification for the Stoic dictum that we should live according to nature.

Let’s turn now to the Stoics. In volume III of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil; my commentary here and here), Cicero imagines Cato the Younger explaining things to him:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.5)


“Man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.21)

It should be clear why this is essentially Hume’s view or, rather, the other way around, since Hume not only lived 18 centuries after Cicero, but we have direct evidence that he was influenced by the Stoics. It should also be clear why this is often referred to as the cradle argument: it is a developmental account of how we gradually move from purely selfish interests to more and more socially oriented ones, as a result of upbringing (chiefly, teachings from our caretakers), as well as our own ability to reflect on what makes sense and what doesn’t, and to behave accordingly.

The other major source on the Stoic idea of living according to nature is Diogenes Laertius, who in book VII of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers wrote:

“An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends: his words are, ‘The dearest thing to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof’; for it was not likely that nature should estrange the living thing from itself or that she should leave the creature she has made without either estrangement from or affection for its own constitution. We are forced then to conclude that nature in constituting the animal made it near and dear to itself; for so it comes to repel all that is injurious and give free access to all that is serviceable or akin to it.’ For [animals], say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. So too Cleanthes in his treatise On Pleasure, as also Posidonius, and Hecato in his work On Ends. Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De Finibus; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things … Diogenes [of Babylon] then expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is natural. Archedemus says the end is to live in the performance of all befitting actions.” (VII.85-88)

Several things need to be observed in the long passage above. To begin with, again, this is a developmental account of human social psychology. Second, Diogenes tells us that this notion appeared at the very beginning of Stoic philosophy, with Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, respectively the first, second, and third heads of the Stoa. Finally, living according to nature in the sense above leads us to live virtuously, because the virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) are the means by which we rationally govern our intercourse with fellow human beings. Or as Socrates says in the Euthydemus (see separate essay here), virtue is the chief good because it is the only thing that can never be used for ill (unlike wealth, health, education, and all the other preferred indifferents).

As I have explained in a series of recent posts, the cradle argument has been reconstructed in a philosophically sound way, and one moreover that agrees with modern cognitive science, by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism:

“We may begin life as greedy little egoists, but it is clear enough that we soon spontaneously develop matching affective responses to what we read as signs of others’ pleasures and pains. Cognitive development is relentlessly recursive — ‘leg over leg’ as Piagetians say — in the sense that whatever conceptual schemas we develop and whatever content we acquire in them themselves become the objects of (and determinants of) our subsequent development. As we develop and begin to use the ability to represent this purposive activity symbolically … and begin to manipulate those symbolic representations logically, a secondary form of agency arises, driven by this representational and logical activity. … The process of deliberation and choice becomes a determinative condition of (some of) our conduct.” (Ch. 6)

My original research background is in evolutionary biology, and it is interesting to me that the above meshes very nicely with what primatologists have discovered about our close evolutionary kins over the past couple of decades or so. Just check out Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers” for a good sense of a combined scientific and philosophical approach to the evolution of morality. Studies conducted on chimpanzees, macaques, rhesus monkeys, and capuchin monkeys show the presence in social primates of four building blocks of morality: empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity, and peace making. So the life sciences tell us that the building blocks of morality are found (and presumably selected for) in non-human social primates. In the light of modern science, the phrase “live according to nature” takes an enlarged, empirically substantiated meaning.

It is also interesting to note that the words “ethics” and “morality” themselves have revealing roots: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character; the second one is from the Latin moralis, which has to do with habits and customs. Ethics or morality, in the ancient sense, then, is what we do in order to live well together — just like our primate cousins, except of course that unlike bonobos and capuchin monkeys, we can articulate and reflect on our own behaviors, which leads us to the more sophisticated, rationally based sense of living according to nature that the Stoics were defending.

As for modern cognitive sciences, which I see as an extension of the life sciences to the special case of humans, Jean Piaget found that young children are focused on authority mandates, and that with age children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality. Famously, Lawrence Kohlberg expanded upon Piagetian notions of moral development to arrive at his three-level classification of attitudes toward morality:

Subsequently, Elliot Turiel has argued for a social domain approach to social cognition, delineating how individuals differentiate moral (fairness, equality, justice), societal (conventions, group functioning, traditions), and psychological (personal, individual prerogative) concepts from early in development throughout their lifespan. Over the past 40 years, research findings — including cross-cultural studies — have supported this model. (The Handbook of Moral Development, edited by Melanie Killen and Judith Smetana, summarizes the relevant literature while covering a large range of related topics. Also, I am aware that Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s original articulation of their ideas has been criticized, but the general picture seems to hold as much as anything else in developmental moral psychology.)

The way I see it, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and philosophy provide us with a fuller picture of ethics. The first one tells us something about why we have a moral instinct in the first place (we are inherently social animals, so natural selection favored the evolution of pro-social behaviors); the second one informs us about how modern human beings, with their large brains and cultural milieu, develop complex views of morality from infancy through adulthood; and the third one helps us further develop the logical consequences of our own thinking about how to relate to others, for instance arriving at the related Stoic principles of oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism, famously articulated by Hierocles with his ideas of a series of contracting circles of concern:

We can therefore, and without fear of committing any logical fallacy, happily agree with Epictetus:

“What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.” (Discourses I.1.17)