Stoics were well known in antiquity for the use of metaphors, as well as for developing concepts that to others sounded rather paradoxical, or even downright nonsensical. Cicero went so far as to write an entire book entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum.
I maintain, though, that the Stoics weren’t fools, and understood perfectly well how some of their notions came across to non-Stoics. However, they used such “paradoxical” ideas and strange metaphors as a pedagogical tool to draw others into considering their philosophy seriously, rather than reducing it to what we today would call a bumper sticker version.
the Rock of the Sybil at Delphi
As part of my sabbatical devoted to writing How to Be a Stoic (the book, scheduled to be out for Basic Books in late April) I spent a few days in Greece with the primary intent of going after Epictetus. I visited Nicopolis, the Roman town where he went after he was exiled by Domitian in 93 CE. There he established his school and eventually died, probably around 135 CE, when he was about 80.
On my way to Nicopolis (modern day Preveza, in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece), I rented a car from Athens and drove the 370 or so kilometers with my friend Tunc, stopping at Delphi. I had been there before, but the place truly is magical, and was certainly worth a visit on our way to the Ionian coast.
I have now studied and practiced Stoicism seriously for more than a year and a half. I still have a long way to go on both theory and praxis, but I have gradually accumulated a number of favorite Stoic reminders, as well as developed my own summaries of Stoic doctrine and list of concepts I find particularly useful. Here they are, presented as a vademecum, a handy reminder that one can bookmark or print out and keep in one’s pocket.
I have always been a philosophical fan of David Hume. His clear writing, commonsense approach to things, rejection of abstruse philosophizing, embracing of science, and constructive skepticism have been the sort of traits I have aspired to, however imperfectly (no, I assure you this ain’t false modesty), throughout my career. Hume’s idea that a wise person proportions beliefs to evidence, later popularized (and somewhat distorted) by Carl Sagan in the motto “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” has guided me for many years, hopefully leading me to make as sound judgments as possible, as well as to change them when the cumulative evidence requires it. Add to this that le bonne David, as he was known in the Parisian salons of the Enlightenment, had a generally mild and pleasant character, and you get the features of an intellectual role model. A Stoic, however, David Hume certainly wasn’t. Or was he?
While going through my notes for the book I’m writing during my sabbatical here in Rome (entitled, of all things, How to Be a Stoic, and to be published next year by Basic Books), I was reflecting on a 2005 paper by Katherine Dahlsgaard, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in Review of General Psychology, entitled “Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History.”
The point of the paper is to conduct a qualitative comparative analysis of the concepts of virtue across a number of cultures with a long tradition of written philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, “Athenian philosophy” (mostly Plato and Aristotle), Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The results are well worth discussing.
the Roman god of Virtue
Is virtue — in the Greco-Roman sense of the term — the sort of thing that can be taught? Short answers: no, though it’s complicated (Socrates). Yes, though it’s tough (the Stoics). Since the idea that virtue can be learned is central to Stoic teachings, and since the Stoics very clearly thought themselves as the intellectual heirs of Socrates, the issue deserves some further discussion.
Stoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.
Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus
Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.
Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?
statue of Arete in Ephesus (Turkey)
We have recently examined a very seldom used, yet crucial, word in ancient philosophy, and Stoicism in particular: amathia, meaning ‘disknowledge’ instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs. In other words, the opposite of wisdom (sophia).
This post is concerned with two more words that are, I think, crucial in order to properly understand virtue ethics in general, and Stoicism in particular: eudaimonia and arete. (Spoiler alert: this week’s “crucial words” series will end on Saturday, with a whopping five more words! Stay tuned…)
Amathia. It is often translated as “ignorance,” as in the following two famous quotes from Socrates:
“Wisdom alone, is the good for man, ignorance the only evil” (Euthydemus 281d)
“There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance” (in Diogenes Laertius, II.31)