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)