Category Archives: Social living

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)

Stoic Q&A: what about slavery?

Slavery in Ancient Rome

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

B. writes: one thing that I continue to struggle with is the notion of Amor Fati. I know that Epictetus was a slave and embraced Stoicism, but I find it difficult as an African-American to embrace this philosophy which is quite silent about slavery. I know this has been touched on a bit by a number of authors (and that Stoicism did not have the time to evolve like other philosophies or religions over the past few centuries or millennia on this issue), but I find it hard to love fate in the context of American chattel slavery. And I don’t know what to do with this and Stoic philosophy. This is not helped by the fact that most of my Stoic heroes or modern-day exponents are White straight men who may face personal challenges — like all humanity — but do not face systematic oppression or marginalization in the ways that other groups do.

I have heard that Nelson Mandela was inspired by Stoicism, but I have not deeply researched to what extent it informed his actions. Maybe all philosophies of life break down at some point? Maybe Stoicism is great at the individual level, where pragmatic action can be directed locally towards the most useful ends? Or maybe a Stoic sensibility and perspective can enable someone to have the courage to fight (in sort of a Cato way) for justice? And I wonder if this raises a larger question about the inherent benevolence of Nature and how even bad things serve some greater purpose — which I cannot accept in general and which sounds repugnant in the context of American slavery and the manifestations of racial subjugation.

These are all excellent and rather tough questions. Let me try to break them down and at least begin to address a number of them, though you should consider this only part of a long, overdue, and complex conversation.

Let’s start with “amor fati.” Although the specific phrase is often repeated by Nietzsche, the concept can be traced back to Marcus and Epictetus:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” (Enchiridion VIII)

It’s a tricky idea, because if read at face value — in both Epictetus and Nietzsche, for that matter — it implies a sort of passivity and quietism. But we know from the broader context of Stoic (and Nietzschean) writings, as well as from the personal stories of many Stoics (and of Nietzsche) that that can’t be the right interpretation. Rather, amor fati is best understood within the basic concept of the dichotomy of control, and it is therefore an exhortation to accept what one cannot change, as part of what Providence or the universe throws at us (I’ll come back to this distinction near the end).

The tricky part is that we don’t really know what we can influence or not. Slavery, as a social institution, is clearly not “up to us” in the sense that we don’t have complete control over it, like we do over our values and judgments. But we can surely influence how society is structured, or how people think about social institutions. The way Stoics deal with this issue is by deploying the famous metaphor of the archer (in Cicero’s De Finibus, III), reminding ourselves that efforts to change things are up us, while outcomes are not. We should therefore strive to make this a better world, but also accept with equanimity the possible failure of our attempts. (The only alternative would be to get angry at our failures, which would simply make a bad situation worse, adding a self-inflicted injury.)

Seneca does talk about slavery, for instance in Letter XLVII to Lucilius, “On master and slave”:

“‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. As a result of the massacres in Marius’s day, many a man of distinguished birth, who was taking the first steps toward senatorial rank by service in the army, was humbled by fortune, one becoming a shepherd, another a caretaker of a country cottage. Despise, then, if you dare, those to whose estate you may at any time descend, even when you are despising them.” (1, 10)

This passage is not only a testament to the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism — where every person, no matter her stature in life, is deserving of respect — but points to a major difference between the ancient and the modern (i.e., Colonial) concepts of slavery. This difference is also discussed by Mary Beard in her wonderful SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The Colonial idea of slavery was intrinsically racist, founded on the conceit that some people are literally sub-human, not worthy of the same consideration as the rest of us. That was not the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, where one could become a slave by losing a battle. Both the Athenians and the Romans lost hundreds of thousands of their own to enslavement by others, so they were very conscious that slavery was a result of accident, not a sign of inferiority. (Needless to say, this does not excuse the institution, but the difference is often neglected, and people simply confuse the Ancient and the Colonial concepts.)

Epictetus too talks about slavery, most famously in Discourses I.2, entitled “How one may preserve one’s proper character in everything.” I related before how Brian Johnson, in his incisive The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, discusses the part where Epictetus compares two slaves who are being asked to hold their master’s chamberpot. One of the slaves has the sort of character that cannot abide by such demeaning task, and Epictetus essentially says that the slave should rebel, a very rare, even dangerous, proposition to anyone at the time to utter:

“A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is since that is the operative and necessary capacity in these two conflicting roles. … Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.”

That said, it is certainly the case that no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery. But it is rather unfair to criticize Stoicism in particular for this failure. Every single ancient philosophy and religion, including Christianity, has incurred in the same failure. Indeed, a few months ago I was in Rome and visited the Ara Pacis Museum, built around the altar to peace ordered by Octavian Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The exhibit concluded with a bit on Christianity, and reminded visitors not only that Paul and several other Church fathers had written in support of slavery, but that the early Popes and cardinals actually owned slaves, and thought it perfectly normal to do so. Modern Christians, of course, reject slavery, and so do modern Stoics, and I think you should keep that in mind in your evaluation of the philosophy, as it would be rather odd to judge Christianity by its modern outlook, while holding modern Stoics to what the ancients thought, or failed to think.

In terms of Stoic role models, yes, most of them are white men, no way around it. But I would suggest that this is simply a historical accident — rather like saying that most Confucian philosophers are Chinese — instead of an indictment of the philosophy. Indeed, it is precisely by spreading Stoicism among women, transgenders, blacks, Hispanics, and so forth that we will see the emergence of new role models. Mandela himself, incidentally, was not a Stoic, but Martha Nussbaum (in this article, and in the book it refers to) tells the story of how he was inspired to set aside his anger and embrace an attitude of forgiveness and peace by reading a smuggled copy of Marcus’ Meditations. Perhaps you yourself can be a role model to others, by exemplifying Stoic philosophy with your own behavior.

You mention that Stoicism is an individual-level philosophy, and that is certainly the case. Indeed, all ancient virtue ethics was individual-level, not recipes for the organization of society. These were personal philosophies, aiming at improving ourselves first and foremost. Society, then, becomes better from the bottom up, so to speak, because more and more individuals act for the common good — a major point of Stoicism. One may see this as a limitation of virtue ethics in general, and of Stoicism in particular. Then again, given the questionable record, ever since the Enlightenment, and up to the 21st century, of top down philosophies (e.g., communism, neoliberalism, no to mention of course several flavors of fascism) to bring about justice and happiness, perhaps it is time to give the botton up approach a new chance.

In this respect you are correct in linking the virtue of justice (and the related Epictetian discipline of action) with the courage to fight against tyranny and injustice. Surely if more people took this seriously, instead of simply starting entirely pointless hashtag campaigns meant more to signal their own virtue to the in-group than to effect any actual change, the world would be a bit better. Moreover, keep in mind that Stoicism, as I’ve written recently, is not a magic wand: it isn’t, by itself, goin to solve the world’s problems. That is up to the collective efforts of humanity, not to any individual. Again, by comparison, you could just as easily declare Christianity, Buddhism and so forth an abject failure because after thousands of years of existence we still have wars and injustices, sometimes even — ironically — in the very name of those religions.

Finally, a comment on the idea of Providence and the inherently benevolent nature of the cosmos. The ancient Stoics were, as is well known, pantheists. They believed that god is made of matter, and it is co-extensive with nature itself. The reason Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus at times sound almost Christian, however, is not because they believed in anything like a personal God with a plan, but rather because the universe, for them, was a living organism. We, as part of that living organism, therefore have a “function” that helps the whole. We may not like our individual function, but there is comfort in the idea that it serves the evolution of the cosmos. Epictetus explains this by reminding his students of the famous metaphor of the foot stepping into the mud for the good of the organism, first introduced, apparently, by Chrysippus:

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

While some modern Stoics are pantheists, and others are theists, both Lawrence Becker and I, among several others, think that modern science has pretty much dispensed with the idea of the universe as a living organism. The universe is what it is, and things happen because of the cosmic web of cause and effect (recognized by the ancient Stoics too). So there is no consolation to be had from that quarter. But we do not need it, as Marcus himself very clearly realized 18 centuries ago:

“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)

Regardless of whether there is a plan or not, in other words, and whether the plan is the result of the intentions of a deity or the byproduct of the doings of a cosmic organism, it simply does not matter. We still need, as human beings, to get up in the morning and do the job of human beings. And what is that, exactly?

“It is a proper work of a man to be benevolent to his own kind, to despise [i.e., not be attached to] the movements of the senses, to form a just judgment of plausible appearances, and to take a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things that happen in it.” (Meditations, VIII.26)

Let’s get to work, shall we?


Post Scriptum: thanks to Don Robertson for reminding me of this passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, where he seems to suggest (second part) that the Stoics actually directly condemned slavery:

“They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being lordship; and this too is evil.” (VII.1.121-122)

Stoicism on romantic love and commitment

I often learn about Stoicism by confronting what I think is a likely Stoic position on a particular issue with what other philosophies’ take is on that same position. Hence my ongoing series on Stoicism and its alternatives. (Not to be confused with my other ongoing series, on Stoicism and its critics.) Now, if there is a topic on which both ancient and modern Stoic authors don’t write a lot is love, romantic and otherwise. So let’s get to it, by way of comparing my views with those of my friend and colleague Skye Cleary, who has written a really nice essay about relationships and commitment in the latest issue of the New Philosopher. (Not yet available online, keep an eye on the site, and while you’re at it, subscribe to the magazine)

Skye’s piece, which won the New Philosopher’s Writers’ Award, is entitled “Can we make love stay?” and is written from an Existentialist perspective. (Spoiler alert: the answer turns out to be possibly, but it’s hard…) Skye begins with the commonsense observation that when we fall in love it feels like it will last forever. And yet, both demographic statistics and human neurobiology tell us that that’s far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to research by Helen Fisher on human hormonal profiles, the “high” of romantic love lasts on average between six and 18 months. After that, either the couple breaks up, or they move to a phase of attachment (which may last several more years, or a lifetime). That latter phase is, in fact, a more mature form of love, but it is definitely not the heady hormonal and emotional cocktail of the beginnings.

(Fisher’s Anatomy of Love contains lots of interesting science, but — as usual with contemporary mixes of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology — it needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt.)

So what’s the problem? As Skye summarizes it: “We keep promising ‘till death us do part’ even when we know there’s a pretty good chance love won’t last.” That, in a nutshell, is the problem, and Skye briefly lists a number of potential solutions: “not making any commitments, making short-term commitments, commit knowing that we might have to break our word, or commit with lots of caveats.”

She further nails the issue when she reasons that the problem, ultimately, is that there seems to be a contradiction between committing to future actions (and feelings) when that future is, in fact, uncertain. Should commitment be absolute, no matter what — which would seem a rather foolish way to proceed — or should it be conditional on future developments, which begins to sound like no commitment at all?

One of the early Existentialist philosophers was Søren Kierkegaard, who thought about this matter and arrived at one possible solution: leap into marriage (and, ultimately, religion), commit not to a lover, but to love itself. Skye, however, is duly unimpressed: “the problem is that there is something insidious and zombie-like about performing loving actions without passion for the beloved.” That is, pace Kierkegaard, it makes no sense to commit to the idea of love regardless of the particular person one happens to be implementing that idea with.

But Skye rejects also what she calls the “ultra-rational” approach, i.e., pledging commitment only if one is absolutely sure that things will work out. This is in a sense the opposite of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and it is probably accurate to describe it as “ultra” rational. As such, it may be interpreted to be close to the Stoic position, given the emphasis of the school on reason, but I don’t think it is.

Allow me a short detour into a series of posts I have been running at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato (devoted to general philosophy). I have been writing about Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a must-read for anyone interested in the very idea of reason, its applicability, and its limits. Julian makes a profound distinction between reason and logic. Skye’s ultra-rational individual comes across as a Spock-like figure (remember, Spock is often misunderstood as a quintessential Stoic!) who acts in life on the basis of strict evidentiary and logical reasoning. And yet, even Spock, later in his career, had to admit that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

Baggini’s point is that reason is far broader than formal logic, that to apply reason means to arrive at good judgments based on a combination of logic and evidence, but also personal experience and values. That’s why the Stoics thought that the study of “logic” and “physics” are both instrumental to ethics, but by themselves are insufficient to achieve wisdom. As Epictetus puts it:

“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)

Let me recap so far: the Stoic position clearly cannot be Kierkegaard’s, which even Skye, as an Existentialist, rejects anyway. But it is not to be found in its opposite, “ultra-rational” extreme, either. What then?

Skye turns to another giant of Existentialism, Albert Camus, who also rejected Kierkegaard. As she summarizes it: “what’s important is being able to stand on the ‘dizzying crest’ of absurdity. Sisyphus embraces his torture of endlessly push the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. Just as the absurd hero finds revolt, freedom, and passion in his lucidity, this is how we ought to approach relationships: we embrace the absurdity of love and give it our best shot.”

I never understood why Camus and the Existentialists are so fond of Sisyphus. If they actually took a look at the myth as it is usually recounted, they’ll discover that he is no hero at all. To begin with, Sisyphus was a bit of a rascal, to put it mildly. He was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) and very much devoted to self-aggrandizing and deceit. He was punished by Zeus for, among other misdeeds, performing the impious act of killing travelers passing by his city. Because of that Sisyphus was forced to eternally roll the boulder up, a constant reminder of the hubris of thinking himself cleverer than Zeus. He didn’t have a choice, he didn’t revolt, and he had no passion for the task. Indeed, he was supervised by Persephone in the Underworld, to make sure he did what he was supposed to do.

At any rate, a Stoic informed by modern science would say that there is absolutely nothing absurd about love. Its biological origins lie, of course, with the need for reproduction and the raising of a family (it may be no coincidence, as Fisher points out, that many relationships last 4-5 years, the time it took in human prehistory to get a child to be sufficiently independent as not to need both parents to stick around). But the modern concept has evolved culturally a great deal, to represent and satisfy a wide range of human needs for companionship, sharing one’s goals and projects, and so forth. The fact that it doesn’t (always) last is a fact of nature, which the Stoic would accept rather than indulge in Disney-like wishful thinking (not that that’s what Skye does in her piece). Here is Epictetus on wishing things to be different when they cannot be:

“If you long for your son or your friend [or your partner], when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24.86)

While Stoicism is most definitely not a passive philosophy (along the lines of “que sera, sera”), it is one founded on realism, meaning that we try to differentiate between the things we can actually control and change and those we cannot (as in Enchiridion 1.1, and analogously to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer). Which means what, exactly, in terms of love and commitment?

I think a more productive way to address the issue Skye (and a lot of us) is concerned with is not by asking “how do I make love last?” or “should I commit till death us do part”? Nor is the solution to think in terms of conditional commitments, commitments with caveats, or commitments until things change. Rather, we should ask ourselves what, exactly, should we commit to.

My answer is: justice, as in one of the four Stoic virtues. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, but hear me out. “Justice” for the Stoics doesn’t mean (only) social justice, though it can and should also be interpreted that way. It is, rather, the idea that we ought to treat others with fairness, as human beings with their inherent moral worth. That applies to all our relations, but especially to the close ones, and therefore to love for a partner.

This means, for instance, no cheating (contra to what some modern psychologists seem to think). It also means to treat our partner kindly and lovingly, to do our best to be helpful and supportive. This is what is known as the discipline of action, which regulates all our dealings with others:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Seneca is talking about friendship here, but this goes a fortiori for a loving relationship. He also says, again about friendship, but mutatis mutandis:

“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment.” (Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Meaning that one needs to be careful whom one commits to, but once you do commit, you have to do it wholeheartedly. And, I maintain, that is what love is, after Fisher’s initial rush of hormones: a solid relationship based on trust, compassion, and friendship. Of course there is no guarantee that it will last a lifetime. Some do, others don’t. Therefore, it is unwise to “commit” to a specific length of time, come what may. But we can, indeed ought to, commit to be as good to that person as we can. To use the old Stoic metaphor of the archer:

“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)

To aim for our relationship to last until death us do part is within our power. To make sure it does is not. Commitment is to the goal, not the outcome, and the commitment is difficult enough work for a mere human as it is. Let the goal come (or not) as it pleases the universe.

Stoicism and politics: between the Scylla of the New Left and the Charybdis of the alt-right

When I came to the United States from Italy, back in 1990, I was warned that Americans don’t like to talk about politics, religion, or sex. To which I obviously replied: what on earth do you talk about, then?? Since this post is about one of those taboo topics, it’s going to be a really tricky one, so please bear with me until the end, then go for a walk, take a few deep breadths, and only then, if you still feel like it, come back and comment on it.

To tackle politics, especially within the context of a blog devoted to the fundamentally non-partisan (as I see it, more below) practice of Stoicism is a very delicate matter. But if one’s philosophy of life has nothing to say about the polis and how to run it, then it has a gigantic lacuna that should make you question the very use of it. Besides, the Stoics were very clearly pro-socially oriented: the concept of oikieios is about bringing other people closer to your sphere of concern; the idea of cosmopolitanism, which they developed, is that we are all in the same boat together, and we therefore need to agree on how to steer it; the discipline of action is about how to interact socially in a constructive way; and the virtue of justice concerns how to ethically treat others. All of this has to do with politics, defined in the Aristotelian fashion: the Greek politika means “affairs of the cities,” which the Romans later expanded to the res publica, “the public thing.”

I have argued in the past that Stoicism is compatible, at least to some extent, with a broad range of metaphysical views, and therefore religions. (Though not all of them, and not everyone agrees.) Similarly, it seems to me that Stoicism is compatible with a similarly broad range of political positions and social policies. Just looking at the ancient Stoics, Cato the Younger and Hierocles were pretty “conservative” by modern standards, while Zeno and Musonius Rufus were fairly “liberal” (yes, I’m aware that those labels are both anachronistic and imprecise, but I think you know what I’m getting at). And I don’t see why one couldn’t be a mainstream libertarian and a Stoic (indeed, an interesting little know fact is that the libertarian Cato Institute is named after Cato the Younger, though by way of a circuitous route).

At a personal level, one of the main reasons I’m into Stoicism is because I regard it as a big tent. I’m a progressive liberal atheist myself, but I don’t wish to create a club that excludes virtuous Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists and so forth, or conservatives, centrists, libertarians, anarchists, etc. either.

All of the above said, I do think that there are some political ideologies that are not compatible with Stoicism, or at least are difficult to reconcile with it. I can’t imagine a Nazi or fascist Stoic, for instance, and I’ve argued that Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” ain’t Stoic either. Here I will suggest that two additional contemporary political positions in are at odds with Stoic principles: some versions of the New Left that focus almost exclusively on identity politics (which I associate in the title with the Scylla monster faced by the Stoic role model Odysseus), and the so-called alt-right and its close kin, the men’s rights movement (which I link above to the other monster faced by Odysseus, Charybdis — bonus points if you can figure out why this particular coupling, rather than the reverse, see here for a clue).

Let me take on Charybdis first, since it ought to be easier. The alt-right is, among other things, a white supremacist and anti-immigration movement, while the men’s rights stuff is inherently sexist. If you disagree with either of these characterizations, I can’t help you, they seem to me both crystal clear and undeniable, and I will not argue for them, I will simply treat them as given.

What’s the problem? Beginning with the alt-right, it goes against the Stoic ideals of cosmopolitanism and of the equality of all humans, as in the following, for instance:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)

“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Seneca, Letter XLVII. On Master and Slave, 10)

The men’s rights stuff, instead, implicitly or explicitly denies the equality of men and women (and other genders, one should obviously add), which is instead affirmed by plenty of Stoic sources:

“Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men — the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 3.1)

“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 honorable and generous action.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia XVI)

The bit that worries me in particular, as far as the Fifth Stoa (as I shall call modern Stoicism from now on) is concerned is that I have seen increasing attempts by people who are into alt-right and/or men’s rights to appropriate Stoicism for their own purposes. Here is a nice article by Jules Evans that provides a good analysis of the problem.

Jules says: “Some of them are drawn to classical virtue ethics like Stoicism because it offers a way to feel strong in a chaotic world. Clearly, they misinterpret ancient philosophy. … Some alt-righters in the manosphere are drawn to ideas from classical philosophy and modern therapy, which help people take control of their emotions.”

Julian believes, perhaps optimistically, that one can actually use alt-right’ and men’s rights’ interest in virtue ethics as a wedge and a teaching tool, explaining to these people that Stoicism didn’t just talk about courage (and even then, it was moral courage, not just the physical variety), but also about justice, for instance. He aptly quotes Epictetus on this: “A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path — he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity” (Discourses II, 12.3-4).

I think that is the proper Stoic attitude, but Jules’ piece also validates both my analysis of and my worry about these movements.

So much for Charybdis. Let’s turn now to Scylla. There has been much talk about rampant “political correctness” on university campuses, the creation of “safe zones,” the “deplatforming” of invited speakers, and the “cultural appropriation” of this or that ethnic food, dress, or whatever. Here is what pointed critic Jonathan Haidt has to say about it, and here is my more moderate (though substantially similar) take. (And if you want yet another one, here is what seven professors teaching in relevant fields in the humanities think about trigger warnings in particular.)

Concerning the more limited issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces, I must say that as a Stoic I do not seek any such thing. (Then again, I’m obviously “privileged,” in the relevant lingo.) I abstain from judging others about it, but Epictetus is pretty clear on what the Stoic response is to insults:

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Easier said than done, you say. Right, but that’s the point. Stoic practice (or the serious practice of any philosophy of life or religion) is demanding. But it is rewarding. Moreover, it is not at all clear to me why practicing endurance is somehow equivalent to engaging in a quietist philosophy, as some of our critics have misguidedly maintained.

The broader issue of identity politics is far more complex. The idea has a long and convoluted history, and it is actively debated in moral and political philosophy. My take on it is that there is nothing wrong with identity politics if it is understood as a temporary focus on groups (women, blacks, gays, transgender, and so forth) who have been historically, and currently still are, discriminated against. If there is a problem, one concentrates one’s resources and attention on the problem, not on whatever else may be going well, or at least not as badly.

But if identity politics is used as a way to shield anyone, belonging to any group, from reasoned criticism, then that’s when I get off the boat. Moreover, my goal as a Stoic is that of achieving a truly cosmopolitan society, one that is color-, gender-, etc. blind. A society where we are truly each other’s brothers and sisters, regardless of our cultural and/or biological identity.

Let me be clear about what I mean here. By color blind I do NOT mean a society where everyone conforms to the norm and cultural differences are squashed. Cultural differences are the lifeblood of human creativity, they need to be nurtured and protected, not eliminated or neutered. I DO mean, however, a society where nobody has special privileges or protections, because everyone has the same rights and opportunities. The first model (the one I reject) may be summarized by the American phrase “melting pot,” which conjures up the image of a place where diverse people all get assimilated into the same featureless soup. A Borg version of the American dream, if you will. The second model (the one I support) is best thought of — to stay with food analogies — as a tossed salad. What makes a great tossed salad is precisely the fact that there are varied and contrasting ingredients, each retaining its own identity, and yet all contributing to the delicious flavor of the full ensemble.

Of course, none of the above ought to be interpreted as “the” Stoic take on these issues. There is no such thing. Stoicism is an evolving philosophy, and just as Posidonius disagreed with Chrysippus, I expect plenty of prokoptontes of the Fifth Stoa to disagree with me on any or all of what I wrote here (or elsewhere, for that matter). But so long as this disagreement is civil and constructive, we will all be better off for it:

“Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for people learn while they teach.” (Seneca, Letter VII. On Crowds, 8)

Insult Pacifism: Bill Irvine replies to Eric Scott

[This guest post is a response to a critical essay by E.O. Scott, who wrote it in response to W. Irvine’s original post in the Oxford University Press blog. My commentary on Bill’s post and his subsequent talk at STOICON ’16 can be found here.]

By William Irvine

Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk on what I call “insult pacifism.” As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

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Stoicism after the elections

The US Presidential elections are over, and Donal J. Trump is the unlikely winner. Moreover, the Republican party now has control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving it pretty much absolute power to pursue its agendas. Add to this the recent “Brexit” vote in the UK, and this hasn’t exactly been a good political season for socially progressive cosmopolitans such as myself. So be it, reality is what it is, and there is no sense in wishing it away.

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Stoicism and social justice

Justice is one of the fundamental Stoic virtues, together with practical wisdom (or prudence), courage, and temperance. And yet there is rarely talk, in Stoic circles of social justice, in the contemporary sense of the term. This, I will endeavor to argue, should be neither surprising nor problematic, but at the same time I do think that we need to clarify what is a reasonable Stoic take on social justice, which I will also attempt to do here.

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