Category Archives: Stoic role models

Stoic movie review: RBG

It has been some time since my last Stoic movie review (about Imperium), but a couple of nights ago I saw an inspiring, if flawed, documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, simply entitled RBG, which is well worth considering here. Hell, I’m also going to add Justice Ginsburg to my list of Stoic role models.

(The flaw, by the way, was a bit too much lingering on old photos of Ginsburg as a beautiful young woman, and not enough in-depth treatment of the issues she has fought for throughout her life.)

Ginsburg’s story is inspiring to anyone who cares about justice, equality under the law, and women’s rights. The documentary does a good job at tracing both her personal life and career in that respect. When she went to Harvard Law School the Dean asked her and all the other eight female students (against five hundred men), “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” She ignored him and went on to be featured on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review, the first woman to accomplish such feat.

After she got her degree, no law firm in New York hired her, on the sole ground that she was a woman, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected her for a clerkship position for the same reason in 1960. She then began an academic career, soon landing a post as assistant professor at Rutgers University, in 1963. However, she was told that she would be paid less than her male colleagues, since her husband had a well-paid job. She nevertheless stayed at Rutgers until 1972, obtaining tenure in 1969. In ‘72 she became the first tenured woman at Columbia, where she remained until 1980.

RBG overcame all these obstacles to her career because she was determined to make a difference. In 1972 she became general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the chief organizations I support financially precisely because I think they do such a vital job within American society. In her capacity at the ACLU she argued five sex discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court, and won, changing not just the plaintiffs’ lives, but the entire American legal landscape when it came to women’s rights.

Ginsburg then was appointed by President Carter to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, and elevated to the Supreme Court (the second woman ever) by President Clinton in 1993. Initially, she was a rather moderate (though left of center) Judge on the Court, but after the conservative appointments made by President Bush (the second) she consciously moved to the left, sensing an imbalance that would negatively affect the lives of millions. Accordingly, while she wrote several majority opinions during her first years on the Court, she has recently become famous (some call her “notorious”) for authoring scathing dissenting opinions, often aimed at reminding Congress that they have both the duty and power to change the law, if the Supreme Court arrives at decisions that are patently unjust, based on the majority’s interpretation of the Constitution.

Now, why do I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Stoic role model, and have included the documentary about her in my Stoic movie reviews? Three reasons, all of them explored in the film. First off, and most obviously, she embodies at least three of the Stoic virtues: courage, justice, and temperance. The above biographical sketch should leave no doubts about her commitment to social justice, in a sense that is aligned with the Stoic conception of it, and which unfortunately is easily forgotten by a number of self-professing modern Stoics: we are all human beings, members of the human cosmopolis, to be treated fairly and equally. But she also clearly showed plenty of courage, standing up for the right thing to do, both in terms of her own professional career and on behalf of millions of women, for many decades. She did all this in the right major, rarely if ever departing from a no-nonsense approach that would calibrate her reactions to the problem at hand, thus practicing the virtue of temperance. (I cannot comment on her practical wisdom, as that one is a virtue that is usually deployed only by people who consciously think of themselves as Stoics.)

Second, her firm rejection of anger as a useful emotion. The documentary mentions this several times, adding that she inherited the attitude from her mother. Anger, as Seneca puts it, is temporary madness, and not conducive to act reasonably, even when it may be justified by an injustice. RBG has suffered plenty of personal injustices, and has fought on behalf of many others treated unjustly, throughout her life. And yet she has managed to maintain her calm in the midst of plenty of storms, a most Stoic trait.

Finally, and most surprisingly, her apparently genuine friendship with the now deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite their diametrically opposite positions on all sorts of social issues, they were warm toward each other, went on vacation trips together, and made several joint public appearances. I have to admit that I probably would not have the fortitude to stomach a friendship with a person like Scalia, who I found to be despicable. But that’s because I’m not a sage, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a better Stoic than I am. Her behavior toward Scalia embodies the difficult to internalize Stoic notion that nobody does evil on purpose, but only because they are misguided. As Marcus says:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

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Susan Fowler as a modern Stoic role model

Susan FowlerBy all accounts Susan Fowler is a remarkable woman. She also happens to be a Stoic, and modern Stoicism certainly needs both contemporary role models and more women. Which is why I decided to profile Fowler on How to Be a Stoic.

Her basic story is well known (and it may soon be the subject of a Hollywood movie, not necessarily an unqualified blessing). Fowler grew up in the rural town of Yarnell, Arizona, the second of seven children by her fundamentalist parents. Her father was an evangelical preacher at the Assemblies of God, and her mother homeschooled her. Feeling deficient in her education, Fowler began to pay frequent visits at the local public library, and eventually picked up Plutarch and the Stoics, which she explicitly credits with directing her focus on what she could actually control in her life.

Eventually, she prepared herself for an exam of admission to university, and was accepted at Arizona State with a full scholarship. But she did not have the necessary prerequisites in math and physics to study astronomy, as she desired. So she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, a top notch private school, where she encountered the same resistance until she successfully appealed to the President of the University. She ended up graduating in physics.

After working as platform engineer and as engineer for data infrastructure, Fowler landed a job at the transportation company Uber. In February 2017 she wrote a blog post about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the company. The post went viral, and led to external probes that confirmed Fowler’s accusations and resulted in the ousting of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, and the removal of tech investors Dave McClure and Justin Caldbeck.

In August of the same year Fowler petitioned the Supreme Court to take her experience into consideration while deliberating on the constitutionality of a (unconscionable, in my modest opinion) corporate practice that requires people to forfeit their right to collective bargain in order to receive a contract of employment.

As a result of her public social actions, Fowler has received a number of recognitions, including being named one of top business and cultural leaders in 2017 by Vanity Fair, and being featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue for 2017.

But what I found most fascinating is a recent post published by Fowler on her blog, entitled “Twenty books that shaped my unconventional life.” She starts at the bottom, steadily proceeding toward n. 1. The list includes Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust (n. 19), The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (n. 18), The Aenied of Virgil (n. 15), Plato’s Republic (n. 13), The Trial by Kafka (n. 12), War and Peace by Tolstoy (n. 11), Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (n. 8), Plutarch’s Lives (n. 7), and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (n. 3), among others she shares with my own list of favorites.

But what struck me the most were n. 4, 2, and 1 on Fowler’s top 20. Respectively: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. It’s worth reading in full what she has to say about these three entries:

“The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-king, have been my constant companion over the years as I sought to find my place in the world around me. Who better to learn how to structure your life from than one of the wisest, most humble, most self-aware leaders who has ever lived? My journey toward self-awareness, toward applying philosophy to my everyday life, was entirely inspired by Marcus Aurelius.”

“Marcus Aurelius was my first introduction to Stoicism, but it was Epictetus’ The Enchiridion that had served as my guide to living a good, intellectually rich life. Epictetus’ teachings are life-changing if you apply them to your life, and it is Epictetus’ own life story that gives them such significance to me: he was a crippled slave, and he found a way to live that would allow him to be free in all the ways that mattered. We live in circumstances that are so far beyond our own control, and so often we fight them relentlessly, only to lose and become bitter and miserable because they are beyond our control. Epictetus offers freedom to every one of us: determine for yourself, he says, what is yours and what is beyond your control, and then work and care only for the things that are yours, and you will always be free. What is ours? Our minds, our thoughts, our actions, our intellectual pursuits. If we cultivate those things, nobody can ever take away our freedom.”

“No book has shaped my life more than Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I believe with all of my heart that it is the greatest thing that has ever been written, and there is no way that I can do it justice except to encourage everyone I know to read it. It is the answer to the question of how we should live our lives, a powerful call to spend our days on things that truly matter. I have been meditating on this book and learning from it for so long that Seneca has become my closest friend and wisest mentor. He has done for me what Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and Aristotle did for him: he has not forced me to die but has taught me how to die, he has not exhausted my years but has contributed his years to mine, and he has never once sent me away empty-handed.”

That’s why Susan Fowler has become one of my Stoic role models.

Stoic role models: Ulysses in Seneca and Dante, and the difference between curiositas and studiositas

The rock of Gibraltar, one of Hercules’ pillars

I have recently written three essays about Odysseus as interpreted philosophically by the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, a reflection of my interest in the idea of Stoic role models, as well as my personal passion for the cunning Greek hero. While those three entries were based on a highly recommended book by Silvia Montiglio (which covers also Platonism), this last entry in the quadrilogy moves forward about a millennium, to see how the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri treats Ulysses (as he was known by the Romans) in Inferno 26, one of the most beautiful passages in the Divine Comedy. This will also give us a chance to look at the surprisingly similar way in which Seneca treats Ulysses, from a Stoic perspective.

My main source for this post is a scholarly article by Gabriel Pihas, published in 2003 in Dante Studies, the Annual Report of the Dante Society, and entitled “Dante’s Ulysses: Stoic and Scholastic models of the literary reader’s curiosity and Inferno 26.” (You can read Pihas’ paper online for free here.)

Ulysses is an important figure in Dante’s Comedy. To begin with, he is the only ancient mythological character that has a major role, all the other main figures being historical individuals, and usually Dante’s own contemporaries. More importantly, Ulysses plays the part of Dante’s consciousness in the poet’s version of a debate that began with Aristotle’s Poetics, continued with Seneca’s discussion of literary studies in his letter on curiosity to Lucilius (CXXXVIII, On Liberal and Vocational Studies), and characterized an important phase of Scholasticism near the end of the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas was seen as a dangerous, possibly heretical, exponent of the nouvelle vague.

The fundamental opposition in Canto 26 of Inferno is between curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and curiosity for things that are morally relevant, what Aquinas referred to respectively as “curiositas” and “studiositas.” As Pihas puts it: “In Inferno 26, curiosity is fundamentally understood, following Seneca, as a problem of the seduction of language and rhetoric, both in philosophic disputation and in poetry. Calling curiosity into question [via his dialogue with Ulysses] is Dante’s form of literary-philosophical self-consciousness.”

At the beginning of 26, Dante almost falls into the pit where Ulysses is being punished, because of his irrepressible interest in the fate of the Greek hero. This is usually interpreted as a metaphor to remind the reader of Ulysses’ own downfall, brought about by his own curiosity about the world. In the version of the story that Dante relates, Ulysses left Ithaca again, after his return home and the punishment of the suitors. He headed toward Hercules’ Pillars (the Strait of Gibraltar), intent on navigating the open ocean to see what lies beyond. And he and his crew perish during the ambitious attempt.

Pihas points out that Seneca’s letter mentioned above is the inspiration for Dante’s encounter with Ulysses, and possibly even for the famous opening lines of the Comedy itself, which find Dante lost in the middle of a forest, a metaphor for what we would today call his midlife crisis, and which is the trigger for his journey of spiritual rediscovery:

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”

Back to Seneca, here is what he writes to Lucilius about Ulysses:

“Do you seek out where Ulysses’ wondering took him more than try to end our own perpetual wanderings? We don’t have the leisure to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm, or somewhere outside the sea of the world we know … when everyday our souls are running into our own storms, and driven into all the evils that Ulysses ever knew. We are not spared those beauties or enemies that attract the eyes. We too have to contend in various places with savage monsters rejoicing in human blood, insidious voices that flatter our ears, shipwrecks and all manners of misfortune. What you should be teaching me is how I may attain such a love for my country, my father, and my wife, and keep on course for those ideals even after a shipwreck.”

Dante, in Inferno 26, is burning from the desire of asking Ulysses precisely the question that Seneca tells Lucilius should not distract us, because it is mere self-serving curiosity: how did Ulysses die?

Before we accuse Seneca — and therefore Dante — of anti-intellectualism, Pihas remind us that Seneca — and obviously Dante — were not anti-literature. Seneca wrote tragedies, among other things. But they both thought that literature (and philosophy) have to have a moral component, otherwise they deteriorate into simple escapism.

The way Dante brilliantly presents this concern to his readers is by allowing Dante-the-character to be tempted by curiositas while at the same time as Dante-the-author reminds us that our focus should be on studiositas:

Then it pained me, and now it pains me once again,
As I direct my mind to what I saw,
And I rein in genius more than I usually do,
That it not run where virtue not guide it;
So that, if good star or better thing
Has given me the good, I not envy myself of it.

Seneca made the same point in depth in his letter:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.”

It is hard to read the above and not imagine the Sophist Protagoras has a precursor of modern postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, or to think that what Seneca is railing against is what Dan Dennett refers to as “chmess,” i.e., difficult, but ultimately pointless philosophizing.

And as Pihas tells us: “Ulysses resembles the philosophers’ in Seneca’s letter insofar as he wishes to go beyond moral reality into a ‘world behind the Sun, without people.” Dante, by contrast, is more concerned with the damage that curiositas can do in the hands of fraudulent politicians, of the kind that sent him into exile from his native Florence (Seneca would have approved of such concern, given his own exile to Corsica at the hand of Claudius). In this sense, then, Inferno 26 is very relevant to contemporary culture: it is a warning that we are led into escapism (bad movies, constant social networking on the internet, not to mention “reality” television), because that serves the interests of the powerful by distracting us from their moral corruption.

At this point Pihas’ paper takes a bit of a different turn, examining Thomas Aquinas’ contribution to the debate on curiositas vs studiositas. I will not go into the details, because it doesn’t really pertain directly to either Ulysses or Stoicism, but it is interesting in terms of a broader understanding of the cultural and intellectual contexts.

Indeed, it had been Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, published a few decades before Dante began writing the Comedy, that presented curiositas as the “evil twin” of studiositas.

Aquinas provides a useful taxonomy of curiositas, which he divides into four categories: (i) zeal for the useless, e.g., love poetry; (ii) interest in the illicit, e.g., fortune telling or superstition; (iii) desire for knowledge of creatures without reference to their end in God; and (iv) interest in what is beyond our capacity to know. By contrast, says Pihas, “studiositas is thoughtfulness about the appetite for knowledge. Note too that Aquinas was actually attempting to save philosophy, and particularly the new studies of the recently rediscovered Aristotle, from the censorship of the Church, which had been suspicious of new ideas since Augustine’s condemnation of philosophy as a distraction from theology.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to Aquinas’ specific classification, nor do I feel bound to agree with Seneca just because I am a Stoic, the basic idea does seem sound to me. There are things that are worth pursuing and others that are useless or even dangerously distracting. And since we all have limited time and resources available, it is wise to keep that distinction in mind.

Here is another insightful commentary by Pihas: “What binds play and the desire for knowledge, and what makes both dangerous, is the idleness from which they may originate. Both curiositas and excessive play are daughters of acedia … [which] may be translated as ‘sloth’ or sometimes as ‘despair,’ but it borders on the modern meanings of boredom and melancholy. It is potentially nihilistic … it is an appetite for nothing.”

There is much to chew on here, but again I do not want the reader to be left with an impression of general anti-intellectualism, which would be a bizarre thing to attribute to intellectual giants like Seneca, Dante, and Aquinas. Ultimately, each of us will need to use practical wisdom to determine where the line lies, in our life and experience, between curiositas and studiositas. And it is up to us individually to navigate it in pursuit of a eudaimonic life.

It seems fit, however, to conclude with the lines from Inferno 26 that so inspired me when I was a teenager and read them for the first time. It’s Ulysses’ speech to his comrades, to convince them to follow him to the limits of the known world:

“O my brothers, who have reached the west, through a thousand dangers, do not deny the brief vigil, your senses have left to them, experience of the unpopulated world beyond the Sun. Consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Virtue and knowledge indeed.

Odysseus and the Epicureans

Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis

Odysseus was one of the classic role models for the Stoics. And he was my favorite mythological hero when I was a kid. Both excellent reasons for this mini-series on the legendary Greek hero and how he has been interpreted through the lenses of a number of Hellenistic philosophies. These notes are based on my reading of the excellent From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio. We have looked at how the Cynics and the Stoics tackled the question of Odysseus, and it is now the turn of the Epicureans. I am skipping Montiglio’s treatment of the Platonists, but I will conclude next time with a jump forward in time, to Dante’s take on Ulysses in the Divine Comedy, where Cato the Younger — another Stoic role model — is also featured, as the only pagan outside of Hell.

Montiglio begins the chapter with Heraclitus’ famous accusation that Epicurus used Odysseus’ praise of feasting and singing to further his nefarious philosophy: “What Odysseus said falsely, unwisely, and hypocritically at the court of Alcinous, Epicurus pronounces as the goal of life, and claims to be speaking the truth.” But this doesn’t make much sense once we consider that the Epicureans’ praise of pleasure was not at all concerned with feasting and singing as if there were no tomorrow: “the kind of pleasure Epicurus deems the end of life is a permanent repose of the mind (‘katastematic’ pleasure), not the enjoyment derived from pleasurable activities (‘kinematic’ pleasure).”

Indeed, Montiglio adds, the only Epicurean author of which we have inherited a direct treatment of Odysseus is the Syrian Philodemus, who actually mocks the Greek hero “for his bottomless belly”: “By dissociating his Epicurean value-system from Odysseus’ parasitic hunger, Philodemus strongly suggests that Odysseus’ supposed hedonism was targeted by opponents of Epicureanism as evidence for the ‘shamefulness’ of that doctrine, rather than being exploited by the Epicureans themselves to defend it.”

Turns out, it is the Stoic Seneca who probably correctly described the Epicurean take on Odysseus’ stories, when he pointed out that the Epicureans “praised the condition of a state at peace” in their treatment of the episode in which Odysseus arrives in the country of the Phaeacians.

Indeed, the same Philodemus mentioned above wrote On the Good King, where he criticizes the Phaeacians as “luxurious” (thus, again, rejecting the image of Epicureans as hedonists), but praises them for their rigorous physical training and the consequent securing of peace. And Odysseus is likened to them and in particular to their king Alcinous, because he, too, was physically vigorous and presided over a peaceful kingdom. All of this makes sense, for Montiglio, because Philodemus was writing within the historical context of the late Roman Republican period, in the midst of civil war.

“Philodemus [made his treatise appealing to the Roman elite] by avoiding any reference to a specific political contingency and by drawing his examples from the Homeric world, whose multiple rulers could be proposed as models to a Roman aristocrat less offensively than a single monarch. Of all the Homeric heroes Odysseus was the most suitable to embody the ideal ruler in this context because he was not the king of kings but a primus inter pares, as it were, and the most effective and cooperative of all his peers.”

Philodemus in turn influenced a young Virgil, whom he knew personally, and consequently Virgil’s picture of Ulysses in the Aeneid is — Montiglio claims — less negative than it is often assumed.

Philodemus praises Odysseus for the firm intervention he makes in the Iliad to restore order to the Greek camp, thus helping to secure Agamemnon’s imperiled leadership. This very much appealed to Virgil, who wrote his poem within the context of the Pax Romana imposed by the first emperor, Octavian Augustus.

In On the Good King, Philodemus, an Epicurean, praises Odysseus for not claiming to be better than the heroes of earlier times, in contrast with Hector’s prideful defiance of the gods. Odysseus also corrected Achilles, for both his anger against Agamemnon and his excessive grief over Patroclus. His appeal to moderation in mourning is proverbial, and would have been appreciated by the Stoics as well.

Both Plutarch (a middle Platonist, not an Epicurean) and Philodemus, moreover, approve of Odysseus’ reassurance of his companions when they are steering their ship near the monster Charybdis. At first glance, it may appear that the hero is vaingloriously boasting of the wit that got him and his shipmates out of trouble in the episode of the Cyclop Polyphemus, but “this kind [of] self praise belongs to a man who offers his virtue and knowledge to his friends as security to lift their spirits. For at critical moments an important element for success is the respect and confidence placed in a man who has the experience and abilities of a leader.” Odysseus, that is, is boasting for the practical purpose of injecting courage in his crew, not out of vain pride. Moreover, for the Epicureans it was also important that Odysseus was praising intellectual, not merely physical, talent, since the emphasis on the former is what distinguished the sect from that of the Cyrenaics.

As Montiglio writes: “This preference for mental qualities over physical ones even on the battlefield resonates with the Socratic tradition, especially with Antisthenes, who reconfigured the very notion based on Odysseus’ intelligence against Ajax’s brutish force.”

In an “interlude” within the chapter, Montiglio seeks to explain why Philodemus presents Odysseus to his fellow Romans not as an impossible ideal, a Socrates, say, but rather as a practical model of political virtue. Throughout the Homeric poems, Odysseus acknowledges the mutability of human affairs, and braves whatever Fate throws at him in the best way he can.

Again in the episode of his visit to the island of the Phaeacians, his compassion shines through: “This picture of Odysseus accords with the humane sympathy he shows for his victims already in the Odyssey. At the court of Alcinous he asks the bard to sing of the ruse of the Wooden Horse, his major feat in the war. His response to the song is poignant and disquieting: he weeps like a woman who clings to her dying husband while the enemy drags her into slavery … As many a reader has seen, by means of this simile Odysseus is portrayed in the act of identifying with the victims of the war he won, especially the weakest ones, the Trojan women doomed to be enslaved. The celebration of his major achievement in the war draws tears of empathy from him. He feels no joy or pride.”

For the Epicureans, friendship and mentorship were crucial to a life worth living. Accordingly, Philodemus also sees Odysseus as a good teacher and friend, who knows when it is time to speak frankly and when that is not, in fact, appropriate: “His ideal is not an Achilles-type, for whom outspokenness is a rigid principle, but a flexible, sensitive teacher-friend-doctor, who knows when and how frank speech is beneficial.”

Moreover, Ulysses repeatedly deflects flattery, because he knows himself, and a man who is following the Delphic Oracle’s advise to Socrates needs no flattery. Odysseus is also praised for his solitary and rather unemotional stance: “This role of Odysseus as unemotional friend is in keeping with his fundamental solitude. In the Iliad Odysseus has no personal friend and shows no special attachment to anyone. There is no Patroclus, no Pylades, no Pirithous, no Euryalus at his side. His association with Diomedes is no intimate friendship, but the relationship between a mature man and his young and ambitious apprentice.” There is a big difference between this sort of solitary demeanor and that of Achilles, a tragic figure. Achilles cannot be anyone’s mentor, because he is unconcerned with other people’s welfare (except that of his lover and friend, Patroclus).

Overall, then, we have seen that the three sects we examined — the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — each found a way to interpret the figure of Odysseus, sometimes twisting the earlier sources a bit, in a way congruous with their respective teachings. The Cynics emphasized the episode of Odysseus in rags. The Stoics paid particular attention to his ability to accept circumstances and deal with them in the best way he can. And the Epicureans emphasized his humility and love of peace.

Of course, there is no truth of the matter about who Odysseus really was, since he is a mythological figure. Accordingly, it makes little sense to criticize, say, the Cynics for twisting the “facts” to fit their philosophy, as that is the role of mythological figures: to be reinterpreted in new ways by successive generations. Indeed, what we learn from Montiglio’s philosophical journey is how members of different Hellenistic schools saw themselves and what they thought was important or valid, in a sense using their treatment of the story of Odysseus as a mirror through which to better understand the differences among those schools. It is a testament to the art of Homer and the ancient poets who put together the original Epic Cycle, of which the Iliad and Odyssey are two of the twelve parts, that three millennia later we can still appreciate one of the most enduring creations of their lyrical imagination.

Odysseus and the Stoics

IMG_8352We have recently examined how the Cynics, the cousins and partial inspiration of the Stoics, treated the mythical figure of Odysseus as a role model. It is now the turn of the Stoics themselves, as part of my commentary on From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio (the book also has a chapter on Plato’s view of the Greek hero, which I am skipping for the purposes of this blog).

The Stoics were apparently enthusiastic about Odysseus, beginning with the founder, Zeno, who in fact wrote five books of Homeric Problems. Ulysses, as the Romans called him, embodied a major tenet of Stoicism: the obligation to cheerfully submit to one’s Fate — while at the same time also unequivocally showing that this “submission” doesn’t equate to quietism. Just think of all the heroic efforts that Odysseus makes on behalf of his companions and in pursuit of the ultimate goal to get back home. That is why Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Dio Chrysostom all commented favorably on the legend of Odysseus.

One difference between the Cynic and Stoic treatments is the episode in which the hero dresses like a beggar in order to begin his revenge against the suitors, once back in Ithaca. While the Cynics did like the image of the king-beggar, it did not really fit well with their overall philosophy, because Odysseus didn’t choose a minimalist existence, he simply wore the clothes of a beggar in an instrumental fashion. This was not a problem for the Stoics, however, who taught that one has to adapt to the circumstances, especially in order to follow the will of the cosmos (which in the episode is personified by the goddess Athena, who helps Odysseus).

In fact, says Montiglio, “‘The beggar’ is … one of the many roles Odysseus teaches us to play as directed by destiny. The Stoics exhort us to be like good actors, to interpret as well as we can the part(s) assigned to us by fate.” But she immediately adds: “The Stoic imperative of detachment from externals does not entail that we should be uncommitted to our roles: on the contrary, we should play them as seriously as possible but always remembering that we are wearing masks, and that each mask might be changed.” Moreover, Odysseus is a good role model for the Stoic because he is committed to play well his roles while at the same time not confusing any specific role with who he more fundamentally is: “Odysseus is and is not the character he plays: he is, as a committed performer of life’s script; he is not, because his ‘moral purpose’ extends beyond each role and protects him, so to speak, from them.”

When Dio (who was a Stoic with strong Cynic leanings) writes, referring to Odysseus: “prudence is the safest wall, for it does not fall down or fail; one must set up walls in one’s impregnable reason,” Montiglio reminds us that this sort of talk is very similar to what we find in Marcus Aurelius and his famous idea of an inner citadel: “The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.” (Meditations, VIII.48)

Similarly, when Montiglio says that “Odysseus in rags is an athlete of life, training himself to endure so-called misfortunes (of which poverty is a major one) and to reject pleasures,” one is reminded again of Marcus: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61) That is why in antiquity Ulysses became the epitome of the dictum that virtue is schooled in misfortune, a theme that also recurs in Seneca: “No wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences. If the inner part be safe, man can be attacked, but never captured.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 19)

Maximus of Tyre wrote of Odysseus: “he rejected an immortality that came at the cost of inactivity, and the loss of all opportunity to exercise his virtue in action,” which dovetails nicely with the Stoic idea that hardship is to be endured for the sake of virtue, not fame, the latter being a preferred indifferent.

Another reason Odysseus was a favorite of the Roman Stoics in particular is that Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Favorinus, and Dio Chysostom had all been persecuted and exiled, just like the Greek hero had been persecuted by Poseidon and exiled to a number of places, including Circe’s and Calypso’s islands. “For Musonius,” writes Montiglio, “Odysseus embodies the truth that people can profit from exile: ‘Alone, naked, and shipwrecked’ when he landed at Phaeacia, he ‘gathered enormous wealth.'”

At the same time, Epictetus uses Odysseus to illustrate his idea that we are not meant to stay in one place for our entire existence: “And that human beings, in addition to being noble-minded by nature and capable of feeling contempt for all that lies outside the sphere of choice, also possess this further quality, of not being rooted down or attached to the earth, but being able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle. It was something of this kind that happened to Odysseus, ‘Cities of many men he saw, and learned their ways.'” (Discourses III.24.12-13).

Epictetus — one of the most Cynic-like of the Stoics — however, has a problem with Odysseus’ strong longing for his home and his wife, which are only preferred indifferents, after all. Here Seneca, as usual, comes across as more approachable. Writes Montiglio: “Seneca reinterprets Odysseus’ love for fatherland and family as the call of duty, which Stoically includes service to fatherland and family.”

Another interesting aspect of the myth of Ulysses, as far as the Stoics were concerned, was his relationship with knowledge. Was he curious for curiosity’s sake (which wouldn’t sit well with the practically oriented Stoics), or was his curiosity an aspect of his practical virtue? Both Zeno and Epictetus criticize what they saw as Odysseus’ excessive curiosity, and so did Dio.

And Seneca writes: “We have no time to hear lectures on whether Odysseus was tossed about between Italy and Sicily or beyond the known world (for so long a wandering could not have taken place in such a limited space); we ourselves are tossed about by storms every day, and our badness thrusts us into all the ills Odysseus encountered.” (Letter LXXXVIII.7)

Nevertheless, even for Epictetus, says Montiglio, “Odysseus … turns out to be the paradigmatic pursuer of wisdom because he did not pass by the Sirens with his ears plugged, but both listened to their song and sailed forth: that is, he was able to apply the right dose of dialectics to his philosophical goal.”

Finally, and rather interestingly, the Cynics (and then later the Stoics) had interpreted Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who was wise and virtuous, as the personification of Philosophy itself. Which explains why Bio the Cynic said: “it is fine to travel around many cities, but profitable to live in the best one.”

Odysseus and the Cynics

Odysseus and the Cyclop

“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy, II.1)

The Stoics thought that role models are important, because that’s how you pattern your behavior toward virtue. One can explain, perhaps, what it means to be virtuous, but it is far more efficient and inspiring to study the biographies and follow the examples of great men and women. While the classical role models of ancient Stoicism were Socrates (of course), Cato the Younger, and the demigod Hercules, I want to propose a series of posts on Odysseus, the mythical Greek warrior who single handedly won the Trojan War by way of his cunning stratagem of the wooden horse, and whose further exploits are recounted in the immortal poem by Homer that refers to his name (check this superb translation by Robert Fagles, with an excellent introductory essay and notes by Bernard Knox). Besides, I’ve been fascinated by Odysseus since I was a kid, and a recent book by Silvia Montiglio, From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, gave me a perfect excuse to indulge my love for he who the Romans called Ulysses.

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Seneca on Cato: the best quotes

Cato (left) and Seneca (right)

The Stoics were big on both real life (Socrates) and fictional (Heracles) role models. That’s because virtue ethics is focused on the improvement of the individual character, something that can be achieved only by practice after other people’s examples. For the Stoics (unlike for Aristotle) virtue is both technē (i.e., craftsmanship) and epistēmē (i.e., knowledge), which is why John Sellars famously suggested that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living.” (For more on the specific Stoic version of virtue ethics see here and here.) For Seneca (not a role model himself), the most recurrent example of someone to emulate was Cato the Younger, the famous arch-enemy of Julius Caesar. (See here for my multi-part series on Cato.) So this post is an homage to both Seneca and especially Cato, listing the best quotes from all the works of Seneca (Delphi complete edition) that I could find in which the Roman statesman mentions his fellow Stoic. Enjoy.

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