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)
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