Category Archives: Stoic Q&A

Stoic Q&A: can virtue justify evil?

which role model?

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

V. writes: My question is: can Stoic virtues be used as excuses to conduct evil deeds? I’m asking this question for several reasons. First, in the current political climate, the term “loyalty” frequently comes up and is often labelled a “virtue.” Loyalty isn’t a Stoic virtue, and in fact I wonder if it’s a virtue at all or it is just tool to keep people under control. Historically, people have often done evil things under the cover of “loyalty,” particularly “loyalty to my country.”

However, this does make me question the philosophical concept of virtue, and whether it can be used to be a cover for evil deeds. Let’s look at the Stoic virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Say that somehow I managed to get into Adolf Hitler’s head and had a conversation with his rather deranged soul. Please understand that I think Hitler did very evil things, yet he would plausibly think of himself as a virtuous man, because he thought that the German people were truly superior, and that if the world were controlled by a superior race, this would benefit humanity as a whole.

Back to modern days, I could list many evil things done under the flag of “loyalty is a virtue.” I’m wondering if Stoic virtues are any different? Can they also be used as a cover to conduct evil deeds? Would it be better to not have “virtues” at all?

This is a great question, even though I am weary of an increasingly popular informal logical fallacy, sometimes referred to as “reductio ad Hitlerium” (I’m not making this up!), the idea that an example based on Hitler somehow trumps everything else. But let’s go with it, because if the Stoic concept of virtue can withstand a reductio ad Hitlerium, then we are in good shape!

You may recall from previous posts (e.g., here and here) that the Socratic-Stoic idea is that nobody commits evil on purpose, only out of “ignorance.” Ignorance, however, does not mean lack of information, or even of formal education. The Greek word is amathia, which translates best to un-wisdom. And yes, even Hitler did what he did because of amathia. Even he probably (I’m guessing here) did not go up to his mirror in the morning, looked at his reflection and broke into an evil laugh, wondering with eagerness what sorts of mayhem he could get away with today. As you say, he had a (highly twisted, deranged) conception of the superiority of the German “race,” which — coupled with a sort of Social Darwinism — led him to truly believe that the world would be better off under the German boot. Horrifying tragedy for millions of people followed from such spectacular lack of wisdom, as we all know.

This, it turns out, is a really hard to accept example of a Stoic paradox (literally meaning, from the ancient Greek root, uncommon opinion), as I experience every time I tweet something about amathia: people love to think that “evil” is a metaphysical essence that affects specific individuals, I suspect so that they can demonize said individuals and not bother with a more nuanced analysis of what happened and what made it possible (after all, Hitler didn’t do the Holocaust by himself).

On my part, the concept that bad things are done out of lack of wisdom has been liberating, as it has allowed me to confront and resist injustice, while at the same time not forget that even people who do really bad things are still human beings, made of the same flesh and bones as everyone else, and at least potentially capable of the same sparks of intelligence and empathy as I am.

But let’s go back to the broader question of whether virtue can be used as an excuse to do bad things. Empirically, as you point out, the answer is clearly yes. And indeed, nationalism is a very common occurrence of this phenomenon. In my How to Be a Stoic I mention the famous phrase, often brought up in the United States, “my country, right or wrong” (ch. 13, p. 154). The original attribution of the quote is to Stephen Decatur, a US naval officer who allegedly said in an after-dinner toast in 1816: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our Country!”

Now compare this to a similar remark made by US Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in front of the Senate, on 29 February 1872: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

The contrast between these two uses of the expression is precisely the one you are getting at: Decatur undoubtedly thought what he was saying to be obviously virtuous, but the real virtue lies in Schurz’s version. How can we tell the difference? That’s the tricky part. There is no hard and fast rule. Anyone can claim the mantle of virtue, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is justified in doing so. One has to reflect on the specific issue, make an argument for why what one is saying or doing is indeed virtuous. And listen to others who think otherwise, weighing their arguments properly.

There is, in other words, no shortcut to virtue, no certainty in virtue ethics, no simple algorithm that will guarantee you a virtuous outcome. This is why the Stoics insisted that only the sage is truly virtuous, while the rest of us are — at best — proficientes: those who make progress. And how do we know that we are making progress? Because we confront ourselves with others, as we are all doing on this blog, or on the Facebook Stoicism page. That is also why the concept of role models is so crucial to Stoic practice. As Seneca aptly puts it:

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


Stoic Q&A: Seneca’s parting words to his wife?

Seneca Hardship and HappinessS. writes: I have read your post discussing Seneca’s life and among other topics his death, and to which extent it is to be understood as being deliberately directed or “theatrical.” Regardless of the authenticity, when I personally first came in contact with Stoicism, what has been ascribed to Seneca as his words to his wife before his death made an impression that has stuck with me since.

My first interpretation of the words, “What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears,” was that one needs to accept and anticipate the sufferings and harshness of life. And that this “regulating” of one’s expectations through reason is essential, and lets you remain composed when faced with (inevitable) adversities.

After having read up on Stoicism however, I have become unsure of how to look at Seneca’s words. The idea of acceptance of tragic events outside of our control resonates with me personally, and from my understanding, with Stoic philosophy in general. At the same time, the quote seems to imply that the hardships of life are not indifferent, but rather that they “call for tears.”

I have found a few potential interpretations (for example, being “accommodating,” as Epictetus puts it, toward non-Stoics, or simply the fact that Seneca was the less strict of the Roman Stoics regarding human emotional reaction), but it would be very interesting to read your take on this quote!

Good question. Let’s begin, however, by getting the record straight. Although the quote in question is a famous one, Seneca did not utter it to his wife before dying. Instead, it is found in the letter of consolation to Marcia, a friend of Seneca who lost one of her sons, and was still grieving inconsolably two years later. The broader quote is (in the Chicago Press translation):

“What need is there to shed tears over life’s individual stages? For the whole of life requires tears. New misfortunes will assail you before you have dealt with the old. … And then, why this forgetfulness about your own condition? You were born a mortal and you have given birth to mortals: though you yourself are a decaying, feeble body, repeatedly targeted by diseases, did you hope that from such a weak material you had carried in your womb something robust and everlasting?” (XI.1)

Given both the extended quote and the context — a letter of philosophical consolation to a bereaved friend — I’d say that your first explanation, that Seneca is being accommodating toward a non Stoic, is right. And he should be, since Stoicism is supposed to be practiced in order to improve oneself, not to beat others on the head with a metaphorical stick for being “bad Stoics.”

As you say, Epictetus puts the point explicitly:

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

I hasten to say that this isn’t a matter of being condescending, but of recognizing that not everyone agrees with the Stoic precept that the only true good lies in one’s good judgments and the only true evil in one’s bad judgments. It is an example of Stoic compassion, not of Stoic arrogance.

That said, I think there is something also in your second explanation, that Seneca is a bit less strict than other Roman Stoics, particularly Epictetus. The reason I love Epictetus is because he is straightforwardly blunt in his pronouncements. He tells it like he sees it. Seneca, by contrast, is more nuanced, at times writing in ways that are remarkably close to Epictetus’ style, at other times showing more of a compassionate attitude toward fellow human beings. This was likely a result of their respective roles (teacher in one case, politician and writer in the other) as well as of the different settings (a Stoic school for Epictetus, a letter of consolation for a friend in the case of Seneca). They therefore can be positioned as interestingly different interpreters of the same Stoic doctrines, which reinforces the important point that Stoicism isn’t a monolithic thing, to be read as if it were scriptures.

Lest anyone think Seneca is treating Marcia differently because she is a woman (after all, he occasionally does indulge in cringeworthy comments on women), here he is actually at his best in this respect:

“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.” (Consolation to Marcia, XVI)

Let me finally address your observation that talk of life requiring tears seems to imply that there are other things that are bad, besides one’s own incorrect judgments. I think the Stoics here have good resources to deploy: the loss of a son is a highly dispreferred indifferent. The way I like to explain this is in terms of lexicographic preferences: there are certain goods that fall into the top category, others that belong a slightly lower category, and so forth, until things that are neutral. Then there are the sets of things that are mildly bad, worse, really worse, and finally truly evil.

The Stoics think that the top and the bottom categories in this series are occupied respectively by the only true good (virtue) and the only true bad (un-virtue). But a son’s life surely is in one of the high categories, definitely not far below the very top. Still, goods within a given category are not fungible with goods in another, higher, category. So while losing a son is “bad,” it is not the ultimate bad, which amounts to behaving unvirtously.

If one looks at things that way, it makes perfect sense for Seneca to agree with Marcia that what befell her is worthy of tears, and yet at the same time to maintain that the only intrinsic evil would be for her friend to act contrary to virtue.

Stoic Q&A: is love part of what is true, good, and desirable?

Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse

Jason and Medea, by John William Waterhouse

L. writes: I recently stumbled upon your article/essay “Stoicism on Romantic Love and Commitment” and while it was a marvelous read (you even got me to agree with Camus, which was a first) it hasn’t answered the questions that made me look up how Stoicism handles love.

The initial spark stems from this Wikipedia article on Marcia, Cato the Younger’s second wife, particularly the final passage which states: “In her Masters of Rome series of novels, Colleen McCullough suggests that Cato gave Marcia to Hortensius simply because he could not reconcile his passion for her with his Stoic ideals, that he never let her go emotionally, and that he took her back at the first opportunity.”

Love, to me, is a possessive act of visualization and to some extent even reverence. The cruelest acts can be justified for love, and it makes me wonder how a Stoic would harmonize his many-headed temperate virtues, being Charybdis, with the Scylla that makes love. Is love part of what is good and true and desirable, despite it being the root of much unhappiness?

Cato the Younger is a Stoic role model, as repeatedly emphasized by Seneca, but he was not a Sage, just someone with an exceptional integrity of character and a commitment to his philosophy of life. Another famous instance in which Cato behaves not exactly as a Stoic is expected to was his breakdown when his half brother Caepio, to whom he was very close, died.

Are Stoics, then, supposed not to feel normal human emotions, like love and grief? No, as Seneca himself explicitly writes:

“For one must indulge genuine emotions; sometimes, even in spite of weighty reasons, the breath of life must be called back and kept at our very lips even at the price of great suffering, for the sake of those whom we hold dear.” (Letters to Lucilius, CIV. On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 3)

Or consider Epictetus:

“I must not be without feeling like a statue, but must maintain my natural and acquired relations, as a religious man, as son, brother, father, citizen.” (Discourses III, 2)

That said, the love of another person is, strictly speaking, a preferred indifferent in Stoicism, meaning not that it doesn’t matter, but that it does not make you, per se, a more (or less) virtuous person. Why? Because one can love virtuously or unvirtuously, which implies, logically, that love cannot be the highest good (only wisdom is). Indeed,from this perspective, love is yet another arena in which the Stoic can exercise her character, for instance by being lovable to her companion, trustworthy, and so forth. All of which requires at the very least the virtues of courage (to do the right thing), justice (to know what the right thing is), and temperance (to do things in right measure). And, very likely, the fourth virtue as well, prudence (practical wisdom), which tells us how to navigate complex situations, such as those often arising in relationships, in the most ethical way possible.

The problem with certain (romantic) conceptions of love is that it is made into an absolute. “Love conquers all” is one of the silliest phrases in popular culture. Not only because it is obviously empirically false, but because it leads us to subvert our priorities: people do all sorts of bad things for love, or what they think is love.

The classic example in Stoic lore is, of course, Medea, the tragic character of one of Euripides’ tragedies, later rewritten by Seneca. Here is what Epictetus says about her:

“I want something and it doesn’t come about: who could be more wretched than I? I don’t want something and it comes about: who could be more wretched than I? It was because she was unable to endure this that Medea murdered her children.” (Discourses II.17.18-19)

What is it that Medea wanted to come about? That Jason (the Argonaut) married her, a “barbarian,” which he didn’t. What did she not want to come about? That Jason married a “proper” Greek princess instead, which he did. Of course most of us are not going to react as madly as Medea, but, as you say, how much suffering does love actually bring? Yes, it can also bring much joy. Which is precisely why it is classed by the Stoics among the “indifferents,” those things that can be used either for good or for bad, depending on one’s character.

So in answer to your question: is love true, good, and desirable? Love may or may not be true, depending on circumstances; it is good only insofar as it is preferred to its absence, but not as the overarching goal of your life; and it is desirable to the extent that it does not make you an unvirtuous person. Some may find this picture unappealing and cold, but I think it is actually liberating. Love is an important component of a flourishing life, but it doesn’t determine whether we are good people or not, and it should not control us to the extent of turning us away from the path of virtue.

Stoic Q&A: what is the (Stoic) key to happiness?

eudaimoniaD. writes: In one interview you said that in your opinion the key to happiness is finding something we enjoy doing, finding a sense of meaning in what we are doing in terms of the occupation we may select. But would not the Stoic say that by chance, lottery, or destiny we find ourselves in a given situation and that we should just do our best there, independently of our occupation, and that really a happy life would consist in developing our moral character as the main goal and key to happiness? If you are for instance growing up somewhere where you are unfortunately not having the means of getting a decent education, so that some personal goals may be out of reach, would it not be — under the Stoic perspective — right anyway to solely work on your moral character in order to be good, kind, fair, courageous, etc.? So would not the Stoics in general downplay our profession (outside of our control) and see it more as a means to survive? Would not they recognise our profession as a preferred indifferent?

I am very glad you asked this question, because it gives me an opportunity to clear some common misconceptions in what I think the ancient Stoics were saying, and certainly in the way a modern Stoic should interpret the philosophy. One key to the answer is to draw a distinction between happiness and eudaimonia. The Greco-Roman word did not translate to the modern English happiness, certainly not in the context of discussions about the life worth living, as Socrates would put it.

Indeed, the term eudaimonia is so unwieldy for modern translations that even some psychologists have given up and use the Greek word instead. Still, the usual approximate translation of eudaimonia is flourishing, which is what I meant when I used the word happiness in that interview. In order to flourish, I would agree with the Aristotelians, one needs some external conditions to be met, including the sort of opportunities for education, wealth, health and so forth that you allude to.

But as I have pointed out before, the various Greco-Roman philosophical schools differentiated themselves precisely on the basis of what they meant by eudaimonia. In particular, the Aristotelians, the Stoics and the Cynics differed in interesting ways, along a continuum that locates Stoicism in the middle of a conceptual space occupied by the other two schools (see this post as well, particularly the first slide).

At one extreme of the continuum we find the Aristotelians, with their above mentioned contention that eudaimonia is flourishing, and hence requires a significant component of externals. That sort of position means — as you correctly point out — that one needs a bit of luck to be eudaimon. At the opposite extreme are the Cynics, for whom the life worth living (please notice the different wording now, not “flourishing,” but “worth living”) is one of virtue. Indeed, everything else, for the Cynics, positively gets in the way, which is why they famously did not marry (except for Crates, Zeno’s teacher, who was, however, married to another Cynic, Hipparchia of Maroneia), did not own property, and lived in the streets (hence their name: “cynic,” in ancient Greek, means dog-like).

What about the Stoics? They carved themselves a conceptual niche, so to speak, in between the above mentioned schools, by way of articulating the difference between virtue (which is central) and externals (which are preferred, but indifferent to virtue). So the scenario you envisage near the end of your letter is a situation in which the Stoics would still say that one’s life is worth living (because we have opportunities to practice virtue), but not one conducive to flourishing (or “happiness” in the broad sense of the term), because lacking in externals.

Another way to look at it is from the point of view of Epictetus’ role ethics, as described by Brian Johnson in his book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (which I have commented on here). Epictetus makes distinctions among different roles we play in society. The most fundamental role, and the one which takes precedence over all others, is that of a human being. After that, we have a variety of additional roles, some that we choose (being a parent, our profession, etc.), and some that are “given” to us by the universe (being someone’s child, being born in a particular place and society, etc.). Playing the basic role of a human being is the same as practicing virtue, under all circumstances. The other roles leave space for pursuing our particular projects, but obviously within the constraints of whatever cards Fate hands us. So, for a Stoic, life is almost always worth living (there are special circumstances when suicide is admissible), but it isn’t always a happy one.

Stoic Q&A: the four virtues

The four virtuesI was planning on writing a post on the definitions of the four cardinal Stoic virtues: practical wisdom (or prudence), justice, courage, and temperance, because discussions (and confusion) often arise about them among people interested in modern Stoicism. But Don Robertson beat me to it, and he has done such an excellent job (here) that it would be futile for me to repeat or trying to improve on his effort. (However, this post of mine may be useful; also, a good Wiki summary is here; and here are Plato’s Definitions of philosophical terms, a little known but very useful resource.)

Nonetheless, because the topic is so crucial, I am transcribing the definitions below, from Don’s post, for easy consultation by my readers. I refer you to Don’s commentary for in-depth explanations. As he points out, other than Plato’s Dictionary, the pertinent sources are the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and from Stobaeus; modern commentaries are found in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and Anthony Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. (Below, boldface indicates the bits that are particularly relevant to Stoicism.)

Phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

Dikaiosynê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

Sôphrosynê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

Andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

BONUS I: Aretê (virtue/excellence)

The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

BONUS II: Eu̯dai̯monía (“happiness”/fulfillment)

The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

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)

Stoic Q&A: on the limitations of the Stoic approach to human relationships

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

Beginning this week I am starting a new column at the blog, aimed at both people who are just beginning with Stoicism and at more advanced prokoptontes who have questions on either Stoic theory or practice. If you have a question, or more than one, as in the case of the reader featured this week, feel free to submit it at the email address above.

So, to inaugurate the column, K. asks a whopping four, interrelated, questions:

I) I recently went back to school to become a psychotherapist, and have now been practicing for three years. To better help my patients I have been thinking about how philosophy can tell us what constitutes the good life, the mentally healthy life, and what are the best ways to get there. My intuition is that Stoicism and Stoic-derived therapies (CBT, mindfulness based therapy, etc.) offer value in the short term, but only very limited value over the long term. And from what I can tell, the research on the long term efficacy of CBT is mixed and not particularly impressive. This all makes me wonder if people improve clinically and also get closer to the good life by having stronger relationships, by becoming more attached, not by becoming more able to reduce the passions or subjugate them to rational thought.

Yes, therapy typically offers short term solutions, but a philosophy of life is much more than a therapy. Think of the difference as analogous to the distinction between going to a doctor because we have developed a physical problem (say, high cholesterol) due to a bad diet, and adopting a healthy eating style as a regular, day to day feature of our lives. The doctor can help you fix the cholesterol problem, by making emergency adjustments to your diet, telling you to exercise, or giving you pills. But if you simply return to your old habits once the cholesterol levels are down, you will gradually inch your way up to the problem again. The only long term solution is to make a permanent shift to a healthy eating regime. Similarly with therapy vs philosophy. A therapist may be able to help you with a specific problem, like a certain degree of depression, but once your mental faculty are restored to a normal level of functionality you still need to make decisions about what to do in your life and how to set your priorities. That’s where philosophy comes in.

Regarding your concluding remark, the Stoics think that human nature is fundamentally social, so of course the good life includes friends and other relationships. Seneca says that even the Sage can do without friends but prefers not to:

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (Letter IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

But relations are “preferred indifferents” in the strict sense that they may be morally good or bad. For instance, an abusive relationship is not good, and so it is better to do without it; by contrast, a true friendship is to be sought out. Also, and I will return to this below, the Stoics most definitely do not seek to suppress emotions, only pathē, the unhealthy passions, such as fear, hatred, and anger. Indeed part of the goal is to nurture eupatheiai, the healthy emotions.

II) More generally, out of the clinical realm, I wonder if Stoicism is always correct about the good life. Are not extreme emotional reactions to attachment losses good (not just unfortunately hard or impossible to avoid), even in cases where one can truly say “it is not and was not in your control that you lost so and so or such and such” or “it is your reaction to the loss which is painful, not the loss itself, and you can control your reaction over time.” You seem to think Epictetus’ view on the irrationality of grief over losing a child is too extreme, which is obviously wise, but is there a principle within Stoicism that states when extreme, prolonged emotional reactions are part of the good life and when they aren’t? Or are you stating we need to limit how and when we should be Stoic. Is the answer that some extreme emotional reactions are unavoidable so therefore understandable and not ideal, but the person would be better off without them? If so, if a pill could remove, say, grief from a parent who has lost a child, before any grief is felt, would Stoicism imply the pill should be taken? That seems clearly wrong, no? Or is a Stoic attitude to minimize and gain control over the passions only one part of a good life that needs to be done only some of the time — which seems more correct to me — where the other part consists in (somehow) valuing extreme emotional reactions and extreme attachments even to things that will be taken away?

Different Stoics had a distinct take on this, and I find Seneca to be the most compassionate as well as the most reasonable by modern standards. When he writes to Marcia in consolation for the loss of her child he strikes a good balance between the sternness of Epictetus and the danger of letting oneself go entirely by actually wallowing in one’s emotional distress:

“Let others use soft measures and caresses; I have determined to do battle with your grief, and I will dry those weary and exhausted eyes, which already, to tell you the truth, are weeping more from habit than from sorrow. … What, I pray you, is to be the end of it? All means have been tried in vain: the consolations of your friends … literature … [etc.]. Even time itself, nature’s greatest remedy, which quiets the most bitter grief, loses its power with you alone. Three years have already passed, and still your grief has lost none of its first poignancy … and has now dwelt so long with you that it has acquired a domicile in your mind. … All vices sink into our whole being, if we do not crush them before they gain a footing; and in like manner these sad, pitiable, and discordant feelings end by feeding upon their own bitterness, until the unhappy mind takes a sort of morbid delight in grief.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, I)

These aren’t the words of an uncaring individual who just tells you to get over and be done with it. Seneca is worried that his friend has descended into what we today would call depression, and he is trying to shake her up and bring her back.

But this isn’t really a clinical question. The point isn’t whether we feel better by indulging in grief, saying, or by overcoming it. It is a philosophical choice one is making: that of accepting that death, even of loved ones, is a fact of life, and can be approached with equanimity, which does not mean not caring, but rather accepting what happens when it is inevitable. This, in turns, leads to a degree of serenity in the face of adversity. Moreover, according to Seneca, we have a duty toward others, which is why in the same letter to Marcia he tells his friend that she has to emerge out of her grief and re-engage with society, with her other children, and with her husband.

There is no precise metric of just how much one should concede to natural emotion and when it is time to intervene, but that is true in modern psychology as well, no? We think it normal for someone to feel sad at the loss of a loved one, but if that sadness continues for a long time and begins to get in the way of the individual’s ability to function, we call it depression and being to intervene. The Stoics may have set the threshold differently, but the concept is very similar.

As for pills, they are the sort of urgent intervention we may use in therapy, if needed, but no, they are not a philosophical answer. Part of the point of philosophy, and in particular Stoic philosophy, is that virtue lies in overcoming our shortcomings. No pain, no gain. Think of it as the difference between a body builder who works hard at the gym vs one who takes a shortcut and pumps a lot of steroids into his body. Which one is doing the right thing? Which one is going to be healthy?

III) Is it not a good thing for children that their parents feel attachments that a Stoic might argue are bad for the parents? Is it not good for children to have parents who are concerned and emotionally moved to be concerned about the child’s well-being, even when that is out of the parent’s control?

Again, nothing in Stoicism says one should not feel for one’s children, friends, etc.. Indeed, Seneca explicitly says that not having those feelings is inhuman:

“Am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. That would mean lack of feeling rather than virtue.” (Letter XCIX. On Consolation of the Bereaved, 15)

The idea, rather, is to internalize the notion that everything we have in life is not really ours, it is on loan from the universe, as Epictetus puts it. This means two things: that we should be willing to let it go when the universe reclaims the loan, but also that we should enjoy it all the more while we have it, precisely because it will not last forever and we have no idea when it will go away. Impermanence is what makes life meaningful, and an awareness of impermanence is what allows us to live our life to the fullest:

“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24.86)

As I write in my book, I have actually experienced the difference between a pre-Stoic and a Stoic attitude when my parents died. My father passed away more than a decade ago, way before I embraced Stoicism as a philosophy of life. It was a traumatic experience that I did not handle well, particularly because I was in denial until very late into his struggle with cancer. As a result I postponed visits, feeling that there will always be another time, until there suddenly wasn’t.

When a similar thing happened to my mother several years later, I reacted very differently. I was consciously present because I knew the universe was about to reclaim her. So I made an effort to spend time with her and to come back to visit with urgency, precisely because I knew time was running out. As a result, her death was less traumatic to me (not in the sense that I cared less, but in the sense of less emotionally distressing), and I got to tell her things that I didn’t get to tell to my father.

IV) In general, I agree with your conclusion that Stoicism does not imply that we should avoid emotion entirely, like Spock. But I don’t see how Stoic principles logically cohere with our strongly intuitively motivated beliefs about the value, the goodness, of certain intense attachments (e.g., mother and baby,) that are bound to create passions that the Stoic seems to think the good life seeks to always, always avoid.

Well, strong intuitions can be wrong. That’s the whole point of using reason to guide our action, right? I don’t think there is a necessary contradiction between a natural attachment to a child or a partner and the ability to react with equanimity to our losses. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy to teach that, the other big one being Buddhism, though I understand that Taoism has similar tenets. Even the Abrahamic traditions have something like that. People in many manifestations of those traditions focus on celebrating the life of the departed, and say things along the lines of “it was the will of God,” to console each other. None of this is meant to turn people into robots. It is instead meant to provide us with better tools to handle the human condition.