Category Archives: Stoicism & pop culture

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)


So, who’s your role model?

I am running a mini-series of posts on the concept of the Stoic Sage, the perfectly wise person. Though interesting in terms of understanding Stoic philosophy, the Sage is, as Seneca puts it, as rare as the phoenix (once every 500 years), if it is possible at all. A much more important and practical concept in Stoicism is that of role models, people who we know personally, know of through other sources, or even fictional characters, who are not perfect, and yet provide a reference point to adjust our own moral compass. As Seneca says:

“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.” (Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

Accordingly, I have a special category on this blog devoted to Stoic role models, with the latest entries so far being a fictional one, the Greek mythological hero Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans). Here, though, I want to explore the result of a group exercise I did with my students during this past summer’s Stoic School in Rome. I asked the group to give a few minutes of thought to the matter and then propose several people who they might adopt as personal role models. The exercise is interesting in part because it tells us a bit about who we are and how we understand Stoic philosophy. You can do it yourself as a small exercise in self-discovery.

Here are some of the entries from the school, listed in alphabetical order and grouped by non-fictional (historical vs contemporary) and fictional. I added links to entries that may be less familiar to some readers (and of course you can look up any of them on your own):

Historical non-fictional role models

Giordano Bruno
Cato the Younger
Diogenes of Sinope
Hypatia of Alexandria
Marcus Aurelius
Porcia Catonis
Baruch Spinoza

Contemporary non-fictional role models

Hanna Arendt
Vasili Arkhipov
Viktor Frankl
Mahatma Gandhi
Melinda Gates
Helen Keller
Dalai Lama
Nelson Mandela
Florence Nightingale
Rosa Parks
Carl Rogers
Vandana Shiva
Edward Snowden
James Stockdale
Malala Yousafzai
Simone Weil

Historical fictional role models

Penelope of Ithaca (Odysseus’ wife)

Contemporary fictional role models

Captain America

Go over these lists and reflect a bit about each entry. Why would that person or fictional character be a good Stoic role model? Would you adopt her/him as your personal “Sage on the shoulder”? Who else would you add to the lists?

The idea, remember, is not that we are looking for a perfect individual. Both real life and fictional role models have their flaws, because they are human. Moreover, we are not looking necessarily for a single individual, as different models may suit different circumstances, or moods, or just distinct phases of your life.

A good Stoic role model does not have to be someone following Stoic philosophy. Moreover, some notable Stoics are not on the lists, beginning, predictably, with Seneca. He would not have put himself there anyway:

“Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8-9)

The lists include men and women (notice two from antiquity: Porcia Catonis and Hypatia of Alexandria), as well as entries from outside the Western canon. They are, obviously, highly incomplete, not just because I gave my students only a few minutes to come up with the names, but also because the candidates reflect the particular composition of my group at the school (remarkably international, yes, but certainly not a sample of all world’s cultures).

Here are my own picks, one from each of the four lists. I will briefly explain my choices, again as an exercise in self-discovery:

Epictetus, Malala Yousafzai, Odysseus, and Spider-Man.

Epictetus was my first introduction to Stoicism. He comes across as a bit harsh sometimes, but I love his sense of humor and relentless insistence that his students practice, instead of just study the theory. More importantly, in terms of what we know of his biography, he was born a slave around 50 CE and suffered much under his first master (who allegedly broke his leg, maiming him for life). He was eventually freed by his second master, Nero’s secretary Epaphroditos, and started teaching in the streets of Rome. That didn’t go so well, as he got punched in the face by people who didn’t want to be annoyed. He regrouped, learned from experience, and founded his own school. He was then exiled by the emperor Domitian around 93 CE, aged 43, and moved to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece. He re-established his school, which became one of the most successful and sought after in all of antiquity. We are told that he lived a simple life with few possessions, thus practicing his more Cynic-like brand of Stoicism. In his old age he adopted a friend’s son, who would have otherwise ben left to die, and raised him with the help of a woman whom he may have married. Again, practicing Stoic compassion until the end, around 135 CE, in his mid to late 80s.

Malala Yousafzai, presumably, needs no introduction. Here is what I write about her in How to Be a Stoic: “Malala was eleven years old when she anonymously began writing a BBC blog detailing the harshly regressive approach of the Taliban toward women’s education in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, where her family ran a chain of schools. Malala was then featured in a New York Times documentary, which caused both her initial rise to fame and her targeting by the Taliban. On October 9, 2012, a coward boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her three times. Amazingly, Malala survived the ordeal, eventually making a full recovery.”

“That experience alone would have been enough to put her on the same level as Priscus [one of the courageous Stoics mentioned by Epictetus] and so many others over the centuries and across cultures who have dared to stand up to repression and barbarism. But it turns out that the shooting was just the beginning for Malala. Despite further threats by the Taliban against her and her father Ziauddin, she has continued to advocate publicly and vociferously on behalf of young girls’ education, and her activism has been credited with helping to pass Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. In 2014, at age seventeen, she became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize, for peace. I am confident that she will keep up the struggle throughout what I hope will be a long and eudaimonic life. (Incidentally, she recently enrolled in Philosophy at Oxford.) Did Malala make a difference? Yes, both in practice (in that respect she was luckier than Priscus) and as a role model for others — “a fine example to the rest” — as Epictetus would have put it, indeed.”

I have already written extensively about Odysseus and why he was a role model not just for the Stoics, but also, remarkably, for the Epicureans, and the Cynics (he was also well regarded by Plato). He has been an influence on me since I was a kid.

And so has been my last entry in the list: Spider-Man. I’m talking about the early versions of it, not so much about the movie characters, or the most recent developments in his long career (after more than half a century, Marvel, understandably, has to invent something new to keep selling comic books, but sometimes they risk betraying fundamental aspects of the original character. I mean, “Parker Industries”? Making Peter into a hippier and more environmental friendly version of Tony Stark??).

Spidey is clearly moved by virtue ethical, if not necessarily Stoical, precepts. He is one of the reliable moral compasses of the Marvel universe (together with Captain America, also on the list above, and Sue Richards, the “Invisible Woman” of the Fantastic Four). His most famous stock phrase is “with great power comes great responsibility,” which can easily be read in a Stoic framework: having super-powers is a preferred indifferent, but if you have them, you then have to use them virtuously, to help others. And that’s what Spidey does all the time, regardless of who the others are (cosmopolitanism), and occasionally at great personal cost (the death of his aunt May, as well as of two of his girlfriends, Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane). Besides, Spidey’s sense of humor would have probably pleased Epictetus.

So, who are your role models, and why?

Stoic emotions and the Green Lantern universe

Hal Jordan was a fighter jet test-pilot, indeed he was the second in his family to embrace that risky career, after his father. One day an alien named Abin Sur crashed on earth, and was left dying near his spaceship. Sur was wearing a special ring, which detached itself from its owner and sought a worthy being nearby to replace its former owner. It found Hal Jordan, who thus became the Green Lantern, a member of a special police corps insuring justice and peace in the galaxy. Hal became the Green Lantern in charge of patrolling sector 2814, which includes planet Earth.

This, at least, is one version of the multiple stories from DC Comics that have been describing how our hero came to be since its origins back in 1940. Why on earth am I writing about the superhero Green Lantern within the context of Stoicism? Because the Green Lantern universe is a good example of how we can use pop culture to get across some of the most counterintuitive concepts of Stoic philosophy, in this case the issue of how Stoics treat emotions.

As is well known, a common misconception about Stoicism is that it seeks to suppress emotions, and many of its ancient as well as modern critics keep harping on this point.

The fact is, however (as I explain in my Stoicism 101 video) that Stoicism distinguishes three general classes of emotions:

(I) Propatheiai, which are basically our instinctive reactions to events, generating what Epictetus calls “impressions.” So for instance I may look at an attractive woman passing by and have the impression of lust.

(II) Pathē, i.e., unhealthy emotions, generally translated with the word “passion,” which did not have the positive connotation for the Stoics it has today. If I “assent,” as Epictetus says, to my propatheiai about the attractive woman, then I develop a desire to get in bed with her. (Which is not good because I am in a committed relationship.) Notice that while I have no control over the feeling of lust, the further feeling of desire is actually a result of combining the initial lust with a judgment that it is a good thing.

(III) Eupatheiai, the sort of mature emotional response that results from a correct cognitive analysis of the raw material. In this case, I may turn my lust into an experience of aesthetic appreciation, at the same time preventing it from degenerate into an unhealthy desire.

In a sense, then, this is the process as it goes according to Stoic principles:

The Stoics themselves came up with a famous classification of the basic negative and positive emotions, in this manner:

Notice that three of the pathē have their corresponding eupatheiai, but not pain, because the completely virtuous person (i.e., the one that cultivates the eupatheiai) does not experience pain. The emotions listed in the table are the broad categories, and the Stoics did recognize a number of others, as discussed by Tad Brennan in chapter 10 of the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (e.g., jealousy, regret and mourning are all types of pain).

The ultimate goal for the Stoic practitioner, the prokoptôn, is to achieve apatheia, which, despite obviously being the root of the English word apathy, means nothing of the kind. It is rather translated as freedom from disturbing desires and emotions, the so-called passions, a freedom that results from the development of a sense of equanimity toward whatever the universe throws at us.

As modern Stoics, of course, we are not bound to the specific classification and list of emotions provided by the ancients. As Seneca says: “the truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating. What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” (Letter XXXIII, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, 10-11)

It is in that spirit so eloquently articulated by Seneca, then, that as a modern Stoic I re-interpret the ancient philosophy by applying its basic precepts to a modern understanding of things. And here is where Green Lantern comes handy.

Later on in the saga of our hero we learn that there are a number of galactic corps besides the green one, each associated with a particular color, each color representing the dominant emotion that defines the corps and that gives special powers to its members. Green, for instance, is the color of willpower (admittedly, not really an emotion, more on this in a minute), and accordingly that’s the origin of Green Lantern’s superpowers.

Now take a look at one version of the emotional spectrum represented by the totality of the corps in the Green Lantern universe:

The emotions to the left of willpower, i.e., rage, avarice, fear, are negative, they are disruptive, and represent a range from which we should get away. The emotions on the right of the central one, i.e., hope, compassion, and love, are positive, and we should strive toward them.

It doesn’t matter, of course, that technically some of these are not really emotions as understood by modern psychology, nor that they do not match with the original Stoic classification. We are talking superheroes and pop culture, after all!

What does matter is the basic concept: our judgment (green power) is the pivotal element that allows us to shift our emotional spectrum from negative to positive emotions, from pathē to eupatheiai.

Accordingly, here is my (partial) rendition of a modern Stoic’s take on emotions, inspired by the Green Lantern comic book:

So keep training your judgment, Epictetus’ faculty of prohairesis, to move away from (disruptive) desire, fear, and pain, and toward love, compassion, and joy.

Stoic movie review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is a remake of the classic 1960 movie starring You Brinner, Steve McQuinn, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, among others. Both of those are in turn based on the classic Japanese movie The Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune. (Yet another, animated, take on the same story was produced in 1998 with the title A Bug’s Life, featuring Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, and many others.) Why so many versions of the basic, simple story? Because it is a timeless tale of injustice, oppression, and fighting against inconceivable odds; a tale that, as it happens, also features a number of Stoic themes.

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Stoic movie review: Imperium

Imperium movieImperium is a well acted, deeply disturbing movie about the little talked about topic of domestic terrorism, particularly of the “white supremacy” type. It features an idealistic FBI agent, Nate Foster (played by the excellent Daniel Radcliffe, he of Harry Potter memory), who is enlisted in an undercover operation by higher level operative Angela Zamparo (played by the ever fascinating Toni Collette). Agent Foster is a good Stoic character, and the very end of the movie (minor spoilers ahead) could have been written by Seneca.

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Stoic movie review: Captain America’s Civil War

Marvel Civil WarPerhaps against my own better judgment, I went to see Captain America: Civil War. I couldn’t really avoid it. I was in Italy with my brother, who is a big fan of comic books, and I have, after all, taught an entire course on superheroes (and supervillains) and philosophy… Indeed, I used the Marvel “Civil War” saga with my students to highlight the complexities of ethical decision making. (Warning: this post includes spoilers of both the movie and the graphic novel on which it is based.)

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Stoic comedy: The Michael Connell special

Michael ConnellWhat, you say? Stoic comedy? Isn’t that almost the definition of an oxymoron? Not for Melbourne-based comedian Michael Connell it isn’t! I was first made aware of Michael when he did this funny bit for a past edition of Stoic Week, and I’ve been in touch with him ever since, even giving him some feedback (from the philosophical, not comedic, side of things) on his Stoic-related routines.

Well, now his brand new all-Stoic special has been released on YouTube, and I’d like to present some of the highlights and invite people to check out the full 31′ of it. I will make a concerted effort not to spoil his jokes, of course.

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