Category Archives: What Would a Stoic Do?

Stoics should be vegetarian

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter over at Modern Stoicism summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which — to be sure — is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes: “The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.”

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea — which the ancient Stoics surely did have — that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason — given contemporary scientific knowledge — very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

What Would a Stoic Do? Dating

“Dating” is a word I was not familiar with before coming to the United States. Especially with the advent of modern dating apps, it essentially means that you are trying out different people to see who “wins” the alleged honor of being your (next) partner. Except, of course, that you are playing the same game from the point of view of the other person, as the honor in question better be reciprocal. The dynamics of dating in this modern fashion are different from the traditional approaches, like meeting someone at a party, or — Zeus forbid — approaching a random stranger at a bar. And I have done enough app-mediated dating to be induced to reflect on the practice from a Stoic perspective. So, how should a Stoic look for a partner after having signed up on OKCupid, eHarmony,, or Tinder?

I am going to suggest three lenses, so to speak, through which to examine the question: the concept of preferred indifferents, the dichotomy of control, and the four cardinal virtues. I think they are best considered in that sequence if we want to get clear on how a Stoic should enter the dating game.

I. A partner is a preferred indifferent. Please don’t put things this way to your date, as it really doesn’t sound romantic, and it is labile to be seriously misunderstood if the other person is not a proficiens (as Seneca calls a student of Stoicism). Preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, of course, include anything that is not concerned with the improvement of our character and our judgments, i.e., anything that does not have directly to do with virtue. But virtue makes no sense unless it is exercised in a particular context or situation: one cannot be courageous without doing anything, or temperate without moderating herself at something specific, and so on. Which means that even though being with a partner is, in itself, a preferred indifferent, it is nonetheless a very intimate interaction with another human being, an interaction that therefore offers countless opportunities to exercise virtue. (On this, see also my post on relationships.)

Moreover, take a look at what Seneca says about how a wise person regards having or losing friends:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (Letters IX.3)

This is a crucial insight, which applies a fortiori to one’s romantic partner. We are supposed to be sufficient to ourselves, meaning that we don’t depend on others for our eudaimonia. That’s because a eudaimonic life — for the Stoic — is a life of virtue, and the exercise of virtue depends only on us. But we are human beings, so we very much desire, as Seneca says, friends, neighbors, associates, and especially romantic partners. There is no contradiction, then, in striving to be self-sufficient and yet desiring to share one’s life with someone. Indeed, I would argue that it is a very healthy attitude to bring into a relationship.

II. Whether she likes you or not is outside of your control. Now that we have concluded that of course Stoics would engage in dating, let us turn to one of the fundamental pillars of our philosophy: the dichotomy of control. Just as a quick refresher, here is Epictetus’ version of the doctrine:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

Clearly, whether someone who agrees to go out with you for a drink or a coffee ends up liking you enough to go out a second time, and then a third, and so forth, and perhaps, eventually become a long term partner, is most definitely not up to you. It is up to her. What is up to you, however, is to do your best given the circumstances, which may include dressing appropriately in order to make a decent first impression, engaging the other person in interesting conversation, being attentive to her desires, and so forth.

None of this, however, guarantees you anything. At all. That is why Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life suggests that one way to put into practice the dichotomy of control is to internalize our goals, shifting away from the outcome (which is not up to us) and focusing instead on the effort (which is up to us.) This is also Cicero’s advice, in the third book of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

So, a repeat date is to be chosen, not to be desired, meaning that it is your target, metaphorically speaking, but you should not attach your worth as a person to actually hitting that target. If things don’t go well, there will be other people, and other dates.

One more thing: I mentioned above that a key ingredient is to engage the other person in an interesting conversation. Epictetus has a lot to say about this:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — commonplace stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. … In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.2 & 33.14)

I honestly don’t know what else to add here. Epictetus got it exactly right, two millennia before OKCupid and

III. Engage in virtuous dating. As proficientes (the plural of proficiens above), of course, we are supposed to engage in anything, not just dating, in as virtuous a manner as we can muster. But we are talking about this strange 21st century meeting-for-mating ritual, so let’s be specific.

IIIa. Exercise prudence. I’m talking about prudentia here (or phronesis, for the Greeks), often translated as practical wisdom, not the contemporary English language sense of the word (though, of course, you may want to be “prudent” also in the latter sense, since after all you are going out to meet a stranger). Prudence is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for you, and that knowledge is deeply rooted in the dichotomy of control: the only truly good things for you are your own good judgments, opinions, values, and goals. Similarly, the only truly bad things for you are bad judgments, opinions, values, and goals. The rest is, you guessed it, a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

This means that while on a date you should be concerned not with whether you achieve your external goal (say, for the other person to agree to a second date, or whatever, depending on which stage of dating you are at). Rather, your goal should always — and only — be to express good judgments, opinions, and values while on the date. That’s it! Easy no? (No, not really, as the notion is simple to grasp, but exceedingly difficult to consistently put into practice.)

IIIb. Practice courageous and just dating. Courage, for the Stoics, isn’t just of a physical nature, but first and foremost moral. It often includes saying or doing things that make you uncomfortable, if it is the right thing to do. This means that you have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is in the first place, which is why I coupled the cardinal virtues of courage and justice in this section. According to the Stoics, you can’t really be courageous in an unjust fashion. (Technically, you can’t practice any of the four virtues in isolation, since the Stoics accepted the doctrine of the unity of virtue, but let’s set that aside for now.)

For instance, if you know you don’t actually like someone you are on a date with, as a person, and yet you find him attractive, resist the temptation to play around with him in order to get into bed once or twice. That would be using another human being as an object (that’s why the practice is called “objectification”), which is not nice, and you probably wouldn’t want it done to you. (You may think that you do, but trust me, you really don’t. It is never a good feeling to simply being used, under false pretense, by someone else.)

This means you may have to have the courage to do the right thing, thank your date for having come out with you, but abstaining from promising any follow-up if you don’t actually mean it, and even less so if said follow-up would be just to satisfy your sexual desires, and not because you are interested in the person in question.

IIIc. Temperance: go nice and easy. There is an old Frank Sinatra song that goes like this:

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy for us to fall in love
Hey, baby, what’s your hurry?
Relax ‘n’ don’t you worry, we’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance
That’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops
Along the way

The problem now, of course
Is to simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time

Yeah, I know, Frank was most definitely not known for going nice and easy on anything. But the sentiment is right, and besides he didn’t write the lyrics (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, and Lew Spence did).

The idea is to apply the fourth cardinal virtue: temperance, that is, doing things always in the right measure, neither too little, nor too much. My experience is that there is next to zero danger of doing too little in dating situations, but there is a constant temptation to do too much. Too much talking (especially about oneself, see above), too much drinking, or too much physical contact (especially if the other person has not given a clear go ahead signal or consent, and only up to the point where she hits the brake).

So, take it nice ‘n’ easy, enjoy some virtuous Stoic dating, and good luck finding your soulmate!

(Bonus material: did you know where the notion of a soulmate comes to begin with? It’s articulated by Aristophanes in the Platonic dialogue Symposium, where one even gets sex lessons from Socrates! Here is a lovely animated video about it.)

A Stoic watches the World Cup

Russia’s Yuri Gazinsky’s header against Saudi Arabia, the first goal in the 2018 World Cup.

Yes, of course I sat myself in front of my television set last Thursday at 11am New York time to watch the opening game of the World Cup (the modifier “soccer” is unnecessary, everybody knows what I’m talking about). I was not alone: the forecast is that by the end of the tournament, on July 15th, 3.4 billion people will have tuned in. That’s half the world’s population.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many Stoics watched Russia vs Saudi Arabia (final score a whopping 5-0 for the hosts), or will watch any of the remaining 63 games. More importantly, I was wondering how a Stoic should watch them, or even whether he should. Stay with me, it may sound like it, but this is not one of those killjoy posts one expects if one knows little of actual Stoicism (the philosophy) as opposed to stoicism (the stiff upper lip & down with emotions attitude).

To begin with, soccer (or football, as the rest of the world rightly calls it) has been the topic of philosophical writings before. Indeed, there is a nice and accessible collection of essays on the topic, edited by Ted Richards for Open Courts, which includes titles like “Nietzsche’s Arsenal,” “Plato and the Greatness of the Game,” “Why playing beautifully is morally better,” “Kant at the Maracanã,” and “Kierkegaard at the penalty spot,” among many others. But there is no entry for Stoicism.

That may be because of this sort of quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“From my tutor [I learned] not to have sided with the Greens or the Blues [at the chariot races] or the gladiators with the long shield or short ones.” (Meditations I.5)

Or perhaps this one, from Epictetus:

“Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk about people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them.” (Enchiridion XXXIII.3)

Obviously, we don’t have gladiators nowadays (thank Zeus!), but you get the point. I will, however, argue that these two passages are not about rejecting the enjoyment offered by a harmless pastime like modern football, but rather, respectively, about approaching it in the right way, and keeping it in the right perspective.

Before I explain what I mean, let me remind you that watching sports is, at best, to be classed among the preferred indifferents, i.e., the sort of thing that doesn’t make you a better or worse person (despite what some hooligans may think of fans of a rival team). That is, the activity is morally neutral, and moreover, the outcome is most certainly not under your control. As I had to remind myself when I saw Sweden (Sweden!!) eliminate Italy before the Azzurri could get to the final round of this year’s competition.

Now, I have come to divide the preferred indifferents into two categories (Diogenes Laertius does something like this in his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VIII.102): those that can be used well (or badly), and are therefore opportunities to exercise virtue; and those that are completely neutral. My choice of, say, chocolate over vanilla gelato is completely neutral in that sense. But my decision to eat gelato, with a certain frequency, and in certain quantities, is a preferred (or dispreferred) indifferent. Why? Because if I do it infrequently and in small portions I am thereby exercising one of the four virtues, temperance; while if I eat it frequently or in large portions I am failing at the exercise of temperance. I’m not kidding, that’s why Musonius Rufus says that we have multiple occasions to practice temperance every day: one per meal (Lectures 18B.4).

So I am going to suggest that football, like any other spectator sport, is a preferred indifferent in the sense that it provides not just entertainment and some needed R&R, but also opportunities to exercise virtue.

Incidentally, if you are (mistakenly) convinced that Stoics are not into R&R, just consider this quote from Seneca:

“Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (On Tranquillity of Mind XVII)

A bit of rest, relaxation, and entertainment are just as crucial to the human mind as food and water are to the human body, so let’s drop all this nonsense about Stoics not appreciating the good things in life.

But we do try to appreciate them reasonably, and in moderation — i.e., virtuously. Which brings me back to the two quotes by Marcus and Epictetus above. Let’s start with Marcus. He is reminding himself that he should not hope for the Green or the Blue team to win, but only desire what actually happens: be glad for whatever team ends up winning, since that was the way the cosmos arranged things, and what’s the point of wishing otherwise? Football is often referred to as a gentlemen’s (these days, really, a gentlepeople’s) sport, because at its best it is about fairplay and the serene acceptance that sometimes you win and at other times you lose (the English version of the mid 19th century did not have referees…).

But of course we are not sages, so I very much wanted, for instance, Portugal to beat the crap out of Spain in last Friday’s game. (Don’t ask, it’s irrelevant.) What actually unfolded was one of the best and most exciting games I have seen in a long time, with Portugal going up 1-0 after a few minutes, Spain equalizing, then 2-1 for Portugal, then 2-2 and 2-3 (advantage Spain), and finally 3-3. (All Portuguese goals were scored by an unstoppable Ronaldo.) I was able to channel my inner Marcus and remind myself that one can prefer certain outcomes, but that the virtuous thing to do is to accept whatever happens with equanimity, especially since I had no control at all over the final score. I succeeded, and I managed to thoroughly enjoy the experience as a result.

What about Epictetus? What he is saying in that quote is that we should strive not to talk too much when in other people’s company (because we are not as interesting to others as we are to ourselves), and also to try to raise the level of the conversation whenever possible, so that everyone can benefit. Hence the advice not to talk about sport or food, and especially not to gossip.

Again, I’m no sage, so I occasionally do talk about sports (I mean, I’m writing a whole post about them…). But I have always recognized Epictetus’ point, before I ever heard of the guy. There is not much sense in over-talking about a game. It’s an enjoyable experience, and it’s fun to comment on it with friends while it’s happening. But doing “Monday morning quarterbacking,” as the Americans put it (referring to the other football) is really rather silly. So I am training myself to speak less (it’s hard for me) and better. You may want to give it a try, it feels more deeply satisfying, at the end of the evening.

So, which virtues does watching a football game exercise? I submit all of them, especially if one goes to the stadium to watch it live, or if one is in mixed company, meaning in the presence of fans of the opposing team. Let’s see:

  • Practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence): this is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for me. Whether “my” team wins or not falls under neither category, which means that I should accept whatever outcome with equanimity.
  • Temperance: I will watch selected games (because too many would use up a lot of time, the only commodity, according to Seneca, that we never get back), and participate in the excitement with moderation (unlike, say, a hooligan who gets drunk, annoys other people, and possibly even smashes things).
  • Courage: to clap for the opposing team, or one of their players, whenever they deserve it, even though my friends and co-fans will give me dirty looks or be embarrassed by my behavior.
  • Justice: treat both the players and the fans of the other team as human beings, members of the same cosmopolis, not to be called names, shouted down or, of course, subjected to violence.

Now if you would excuse me, Sweden is about to play South Korea. Go South Korea!

Stoicism and relationships: three models

Xanthippe pours the contents of a chamber pot on Socrates’ head

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking of relationships of late, from a Stoic perspective. In part this has been spurred by my reading of Liz Gloyn’s superb The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, regarding which I’m running a multi-part commentary. I recently also ran one of my Stoic School of Life meetups in New York in which we discussed the function of role models in Stoic moral development. So why not combine the two? Does Stoic lore provide us with examples of relationships we could reflect on and, perhaps even use as guidance? As it turns out, it does, and I have picked three in particular to discuss here.

Before we get started, however, a due caveat: all three examples are, not surprisingly, of heterosexual relationships where the man is the philosopher and the woman is the “partner” (well, actually, in one both of them are philosophers). But I suggest that this is an irrelevant detail that reflects the culture of Greco-Roman times, not anything inherent in Stoicism. So below feel free to imagine the three cases as reversed (i.e., still heterosexual, but with male and female roles switched), or as instances of non-heterosexual couples. It really doesn’t matter, the same lessons can be learned, and the same principles apply.

Case study I: Socrates and Xanthippe

Socrates is the Stoic role model par excellence, and the Stoics explicitly declared their philosophy to be Socratic. He was famously married to Xanthippe, who was much younger then he, possibly as much as 40 years. She gave him three three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. It is likely that she was from a family of higher social status than Socrates, based both on the root of her name (hippo, for horse, a common feature of Athenian aristocratic names), and that their first son was not named Sophroniscus, after Socrates’ father.

Xanthippe, according to multiple sources, had a temper, and that was why Socrates liked her. In a classic story they had a fight and Socrates left the home, but Xanthippe was not done yet and poured the content of a chamber pot on his head. Socrates’ comment was “after thunder comes the rain.”

Xanthippe is mentioned both in Plato’s Phaedo and in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Symposium, and in these sources she is portrayed as a devoted mother and wife. In the Symposium, Antisthenes (later the founder of Cynicism), a student of Socrates, claims that she is “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” Socrates concurs, but adds:

“It is the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: ‘None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,’ he says; ‘the horse for me to own must show some spirit’ in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.” (Symposium 17-19)

In other words, Socrates and Xanthippe — despite all odds — had a successful relationship, and part of it was due to the fact that she was sharp and of strong character, and that Socrates used her as a test of his virtue, specifically of his ability to deal with human beings even when they were difficult.

The message: a relationship does not have to be perfect to work, and so long as your partner is virtuous s/he is worth sticking with. One can embrace one’s partner difficult character in order to test and improve one’s virtue, and — apparently — age differences don’t matter!

My personal experience: I have had one important relationship that felt relevantly similar, and it lasted for a good number of years. But in the end I was not enough of a Socrates, I must admit.

Case study II: Seneca and Pompeia Paulina

Pompeia was an educated Roman woman, part of a circle of aristocrats who attempted to live according to ethical principles (presumably inspired by the Stoicism of her husband) even under the tyranny of Nero. When Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide (because he was thought to be implicated in the failed Pisonian conspiracy), Pompeia sought to die together with her husband. Seneca apparently objected, though according to one source she was saved by Nero’s guards, since the emperor didn’t think it would be good publicity for the already troubled regime if she died too.

Liz Gloyn, in the book mentioned above, comments that

“[Seneca] reasons with her but respects her choice as rational after articulating the opposing side of the argument. He balances the spouse’s duty to educate and clarify with respect for Paulina as an autonomous moral agent. Her decision is based upon her evaluation of life as an indifferent, and her preference for a death that has glory rather than an ignoble life.” (pp. 145-146)

Pompeia is also mentioned in De Ira, and the portrait that emerges is one of a trusted companion who understands the philosopher even in his quirky rituals. Consider this passage, where Seneca famously describes the exercise known today as the evening meditation, or the philosophical diary:

“What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore’?” (On Anger III.36)

Seneca and Pompeia formed an asymmetric couple, not only because Seneca was a man in imperial Rome (and therefore afforded social privileges closed to a woman), but because he was a worldly politician, businessman, playwright, and philosopher. That kind of asymmetry is not at all unusual even today. And yet he found delight in her (though occasionally, as Gloyn points out, he had to get away to retreat into himself and recover serenity), and she was loyal (to the end, literally) and supportive. As Gloyn puts it: “Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

The message: good relationships don’t have to be symmetrical, one can be happy in situations where the two partners are very different and yet have manage to achieve calm and stability. So long, of course, as there is reciprocal growth through virtue.

My personal experience: I have had two long term relationships that roughly followed this model. They ended for different reasons, but I am still very grateful to the two persons in question for the (different) models of virtue they presented me with, even though at the time I wasn’t yet thinking in Stoic terms.

Case study III: Crates and Hipparchia

We finally come to my own favorite model of a Stoic relationship: Crates and Hipparchia (who were both Cynics, actually). Epictetus cites them as a laudable example, and an exception to the general Cynic custom of not marrying in order to avoid the obstruction of “externals” to the Cynic mission. (The Cynics were famous pain-in-the-ass philosophers, think of them as itinerant monks who knock at your door and ask you why you are not living according to virtue…).

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ You’re referring to a special case in which the marriage was prompted by love, and you’re reckoning on a wife who was herself another Crates.” (Discourses III.22.76)

Hard to imagine higher praise for both the relationship (“it was prompted by love”) and for Hipparchia (“who was herself another Crates”).

Hipparchia was from Maroneia, but her family moved to Athens. She was probably attracted to Cynicism because her brother, Metrocles, was already a student of Crates. She fell in love with Crates, who was the most famous Cynic of the time (he was Zeno of Citium’s first teacher), and significantly older. Both her family and Crates himself attempted to convince her to give up the idea of marriage to the philosopher, as the life of a Cynic was hard and simply scandalous from the point of view of good society.

Crates at one point stood in front of her, got rid of his clothes, and told her, in an attempt to dissuade her: “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.” But Hipparchia was stubborn, and in love. She threatened to kill herself if she could not marry Crates, and eventually prevailed.

She began to wear men’s clothes and live with her husband in poverty, sleeping in Athens’ stoas and porticos. Crates referred to their marriage as “cynogamy,” or dog-coupling (“Cynic” meant dog-like, because of the school’s adherents lifestyle). Together they practiced “anaideia,” or shamelessness, including, it is said, coupling in public.

Crates and Hipparchia had a daughter and a son, which was very unusual for practicing Cynics. Also unusually for a Cynic, and for a woman at the time, Hipparchia wrote books and engaged in correspondence with other philosophers, like Theodorus the Atheist. Unfortunately, none of her writings survive.

Apparently, Theodorus did not appreciate Hipparchia’s challenges, and dismissively said to her:

“Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” Entirely unfazed, she replied: “I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?” (Diogenes Laertius VI.98)

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, likely knew Hipparchia, and it is very possible that his own radical conceptions of the relationship between men and women, as well as of the equality of women in the ideal Stoic Republic, were inspired by seeing the example of Crates and Hipparchia.

Although we know that there were other women who were attracted to the Cynic life style and philosophy, Hipparchia is the only woman among the 82 philosophers whose lives and opinions are recounted by Diogenes Laertius, a testimony to her lasting influence.

Indeed, she became so famous that her native city — allegedly (there is no independent confirmation) — changed name, as testified by a letter attributed to Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous of the Cynics:

“You did well when you changed the name of the city and, instead of Maroneia, called it Hipparchia, its present name, since it is better for you to be named after Hipparchia, a woman, it’s true, but a philosopher, than after Maron, a man who sells wine.” (Epistle 43)

We do not know how she died, but this epigram by Antipater of Sidon may as well have been written on her tomb:

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic. Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not; But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground, My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”

The message: the members of a couple can be equal, devoted to their own pursuits, and yet able to share them with their partner, making their independent mark on the world while at the same time drawing love, support, and comfort, from their relationship. This seems to still be, even today, a radical concept, but it is certainly a model I can sign onto!

My personal experience: I have never had a relationship of the Crates-Hipparchias type. They were rare even then…

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?

What Would a Stoic Do? On moral luck

Back in 1979 philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a landmark paper entitled “Moral Luck.” In it, Nagel argued that we should be much less cocky about our own moral integrity when judging other people, for the simple reason that the fact that we are acting morally and they aren’t may reduce to a difference in external conditions, not in the fiber of our respective characters.

For instance, people sometime seem to think that they would obviously not have allowed Hitler or Mussolini to rise to power, that they would have certainly stood up and be counted in opposition to a tyrannical regime. But Nagel argues that it is far more likely that most of us would have acted in precisely the same fashion as millions of Germans and Italians did at the time. We are just lucky that circumstances have not tested us. (Yet, one might argue, given the current political landscape in the US at least.)

While Nagel is not a Stoic (that I know of), this certainly fits with the Stoic idea that one doesn’t blame others for what they do, precisely on the ground that we seldom know enough about them to really arrive at a sound judgment of their actions:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

More recently, Robert J. Hartman has published an article in Aeon magazine on the very same topic, entitled “Moral luck: How to tell a bad person from a person who did a bad thing.” The article is related to the promotion of Hartman’s new book, In Defense of Moral Luck: Why Luck Often Affects Praiseworthiness and Blameworthiness (Routldge, 2017).

Curiously, the article does not actually mention Nagel (I don’t know about the book, I haven’t read it yet). In it, Hartman imagines a series of hypothetical situations to get across the fact that we have conflicting intuitions about moral luck. He then considers several philosophical responses to this apparent paradox, and defends one in particular. Since one of the positions considered, and discarded, is the virtue ethical one, I will present Hartman’s argument and then suggest that the Stoic response is actually the most valid among those on offer.

Consider, says Hartman, two people, named Killer and Merely Reckless. They both go to a party, they drink too much, and they get into their cars, on the way home. However, a pedestrian happens to cross Killer’s path, the latter loses control of his car, and ends up killing the pedestrian. Merely Reckless, meanwhile, makes it home and goes to sleep, having not had the bad luck of a sudden encounter with a pedestrian.

Our intuition — and indeed our laws — are such that Killer is considered more blameworthy than Merely Reckless. But why, really? They both made the same wrong judgment of getting into their cars while drunk. The only difference between the two cases was luck. Why would a mere matter of chance change our moral calculus? Sure, the consequences of those actions turned out to be very different, but the intentions and actions of the two moral agents, and therefore their moral responsibility, one would think, were the same. Normally, we don’t punish people for being unlucky.

This is the paradox, in a nutshell. Hartman introduces three more hypothetical individuals to further refine his argument: Fumbles, who is also drunk and attempts to drive, but loses his keys on the way to the car and ends up taking a taxi instead; Night Blind, who has the same character and beliefs of the others, but suffers from a condition that makes it impossible for her to drive at night, thus not presenting her with the chance to encounter the unexpected pedestrian in the first place; and Works Tonight, again with the same character and beliefs of the others, but who missed the party (and hence the potential encounter with the pedestrian) because he was asked by his boss to stay at work and skip the party. I will refer you to Hartman’s article for the details, but you can easily guess which possible objections each character is designed to forestall. The conclusion remains the same: the difference between killing or not killing the pedestrian, for all people in the story, comes down to luck, not character.

Why does this matter? Because in order to begin to dissolve the paradox, Hartman distinguishes between two types of moral evaluation: being to blame for bringing about an event vs being a bad person. Arguably, at least on the basis of what we know of the story, none of the five individuals mentioned above is a (really) bad person. But one of them did bring about a particular event (the killing of the pedestrian) which is morally blameworthy.

I have no objection to the distinction Hartman draws here (between a given action and a given character), and in fact I find it useful. But now let’s proceed to his analysis of how different philosophical positions would balance the two types of moral evaluation.

* The skeptical response bars luck from affecting moral responsibility in all cases. Every kind of luck must be factored out of moral evaluation. None of the five people is morally responsible, despite the unfortunate outcome of Killer’s specific actions.

* The character response is that people fundamentally deserve praise and blame only for their character traits. According to this view, Killer, Merely Reckless and Fumble deserve equal blame because they have the same character. Night Blind is blameless, but only because of circumstances affecting her constitution. (Hartman doesn’t mention Works Tonight, but I would assume he is as blameworthy as the first three, since luck affected his specific actions, not his constitution.)

*The acts response is that people fundamentally deserve praise or blame only for what they actually do. Killer and Merely Reckless are equally to blame for their actions, despite their different outcomes. Everyone else is blameless because they did not actually get into the car (though for various reasons, some affecting their actions, others their constitution).

* Finally, the moral luck response is that some kinds of luck in results, circumstance and constitution affect the praise and blame a person deserves. This yields a chain from the most morally blameworthy to the least for our people, in this fashion: Killer > Merely Reckless (because only the first one actually kills) > Fumbles (because only MR actually gets in the car and drives drunk) > Night Blind (because the latter doesn’t even think about getting into the car). Again, Works Tonight is left out by Hartman, and I think this is telling, because the moral luck response just doesn’t know what to do with him.

Hartman prefers the moral luck response, finding one fault or another with the remaining three possibilities. I will again direct the reader to the full article for his reasoning. But it seems to me instead that the character response, which of course is the virtue ethical one, is the best. Let’s analyze it from the Stoic point of view, taking Stoicism as a representative example of virtue ethics.

The Stoic take, I think, would be rather simple. All the people with the same character are equally imperfect moral agents. That, contra what Hartman suggests, includes Night Blind, since not being able to drive at night is not a character trait (though it is a physiological one). That’s because luck truly has no moral valence. Indeed, we should actually pity Killer, rather than differentially blame him. After all, he didn’t do anything different from the others, and yet the horrible consequences of his actions will daunt him for the rest of his life. This, it should be obvious, is not an excuse for drinking and driving, but only a call to be forgiving of our fellow human beings when the only difference between what they did and what we would have done is only and exclusively a matter of (bad) luck.

There is one serious objection to the Stoic / virtue ethical / character response: just like a physiological impairment outside of her control is what distinguishes Night Blind from the rest, isn’t also “character” one of those things outside of our control? Isn’t it the result of a genetic lottery (chance) and the environment in which we happen to be raised (also chance)? Or, as Socrates famously asked: can virtue be taught? (My answer: yes, to a point.)

In this regard the Stoics had a well thought out developmental theory of moral progression, summarized for instance by Cicero:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution. … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction. … [Hence] man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ — in Stoic phraseology ennoia — and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake.” (De Finibus III.5-21)

That is, we begin life as selfish individuals concerned about our own preservation, then naturally (i.e., instinctively) expand our concern to our care takers, but then gradually begin to deploy reason to further enlarge our moral sphere, in a fashion famously described by Hierocles. That is, our characters are something that begins with the combined lottery of nature and early nurture, but is then more and more shaped by our own choices and practices. (This, of course, is related to the issue of free bill, volition and causality, discussed from the Stoic perspective here.)

That’s what makes the difference between Night Blind and a sixth character in our story — which is my invention, not Hartman’s: Making Progress. Making Progress used to be a wild party animal, getting drunk and then, thoughtlessly, getting into her car to drive home. However, at some point she happened on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses, read it, and gradually began to practice Stoic philosophy. Her newly found ability to reflect on her motives and actions, her appreciation of the dichotomy of control, and her striving to be as virtuous a person as she can be, have led her to decide ahead of time whenever she goes to a party: either she is going to drink but not drive, or the other way around. That is a morally praiseworthy choice, I should think.

Now suppose Making Progress is leaving a party, has not taken a single drink, and is perfectly alert when she gets into the car and begins the drive home. Nevertheless, a pedestrian crosses the street at the last minute, impossible to see for Making Progress because of the lighting conditions. She hits the pedestrian, who dies as a result of the accident. I would hope we all agree that Making Progress is absolutely not to blame for the death of the pedestrian, she (and more so the pedestrian) was just really, really unlucky.

And when it comes to luck, as Seneca reminds us: “Men make a mistake, my dear Lucilius, if they hold that anything good, or evil either, is bestowed upon us by Fortune; it is simply the raw material of Goods and Ills that she gives to us — the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill” (Letter XCVIII. On the Fickleness of Fortune, 2).

What Would a Stoic Do? Stoicism on the plane

A few days ago I boarded an American Airlines (well, I booked through British, but these days airlines are whatever it is they are…) flight from New York to Rome, where this week I will be teaching my first Summer course on Stoicism. By any standards, it was a pretty typical, uneventful flight, with a little bit of turbulence here and there, the usual substandard (and now increasingly “standard”) airline service and “food,” and so forth. And yet, it also turned out to be a pretty good chance to practice some elementary Stoicism.

My practice began shortly after I sat down in a lateral three-seat row, where, fortunately, I was able to book myself an aisle seat. (This simple accomplishment is increasingly difficult to realize, because airlines are now selling all sorts of “extras,” from the privilege to board ahead of others so that you have a chance of finding space for your luggage to, yes, the ability to get a much coveted non-middle seat, especially on intercontinental flights). The guy next to me immediately turned on his overhead ventilation (even though the cabin’s temperature was already very much on the coldish side), directing it mostly at my left arm.

After a short time during which I gauged just how much this annoyed me, I politely asked him to re-orient the fan on himself, away from my now freezing arm. His first response was “well, I need it on.” I pointed out — again, politely — that there was no contradiction between our diverging needs, since it is easy to redirect the fan appropriately. He did, barely moving it.

The air was still coming pretty much straight on my arm. So after another minute or two I reopened the conversation (again, politely), and asked him to make an additional effort in the same direction (i.e., away from me!). He grudgingly (and, once more, barely) obliged, muttering “you may have to use your blanket.” All of this, mind you, and we hadn’t even left the ground.

At that point I analyzed my options from a Stoic perspective. I wasn’t going to let the guy irritate me for the whole flight, I had better things to do, like write an entry for this blog (not this one, one of last week’s Stoic advice marathon), as well as get at least 2-3 hours of sleep so that I wouldn’t be completely jet lagged during my first day in Rome.

At the same time, I wasn’t going to let my harm freeze and “stoically” (notice the small-c) get through the night. I briefly considered calling the flight attendant and let her settle the matter, but then I thought this was simply far less important than it appeared at first. I took my blanket, wrapped it over my shoulders (rather than around my legs, as usual) and tested just how uncomfortable I was.

Turns out, this was actually a very good idea. I had a reasonably comfortable flight, did not freeze, and was able to sleep for several hours. Indeed, I will adopt the technique on future flights quite regardless of my neighbor’s behavior and fan orientation!

Let’s pause for a moment and notice that this is not an example of “quietism,” of laying down and taking an injustice in the name of maintaining a stiff upper lip. It was simply a deliberate judgment concerning what the situation was, what options were available to me, and which course of action was both efficacious and worth pursuing. Had the guy, say, aimed the fan straight at my face, I would not have pulled a blanket over it, and I would have asked the flight attendant to either address the situation or move me to another seat.

A little later on (by this time we were in the air, about to leave the air space of Canada), the flight attendant passed by, bringing us drinks, then our meals, and finally picking up the resulting litter. In the course of these operations, she twice spilled something on me (remember, I was in the aisle seat, so she had to reach over to serve the guy next to me). On the first occasion this was a bit of water, the second time some of the litter generated by my neighbor’s meal.

Rather than getting upset, starting yelling at her, or whatever it is some people do under similar circumstances, I shook the water off my jeans (in the first instance) and picked up the litter and handed it to her with a smile (in the second instance).

Again, this was not a example of being passive and take abuse for the sake of acting “stoically” (small-s), but rather the recognition that flight attendants have a stressful job (my brother is one, so I know) and that small incidents like those can easily happen.

The result of my actions was stunning. Not only the woman in question sincerely apologized, both times, for her clumsiness (which was at least in part actually my neighbor’s clumsiness), but she later on returned to my seat, leaned over, and with a broad smile said “sweetie, you tell me whatever you need for the rest of the flight and I will bring it to you, I really appreciated what you did.” Turned out that I didn’t need anything special for the rest of the flight, but that sincerely felt thanks was very welcome. When we landed in Rome she smiled at me again on my way out, clearly relieved that she had not ran into a jerk instead.

The moral of this story can be summarized in a couple of quotes from Marcus. Regarding my neighbor on the plane:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

Regarding my interaction with the flight attendant:

“He who follows reason in all things is both tranquil and active at the same time, and also cheerful and collected.” (Meditations, X.12)

Well, I certainly can’t claim to be tranquil, collected and cheerful under all circumstances. But it took surprisingly little to act that way on my flight to Rome, which made the experience just a little bit better for both myself and a fellow human being.

Epicureans and the experience machine

The Epicureans are a much maligned group. Arguably, they were misunderstood by many of their contemporaries, and there were certainly smeared by the early Christians, who focused on the Epicurean idea that pleasure was the highest good in order to paint them, unfairly, as a bunch of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” hedonists. The actual Epicurean position was much more subtle, emphasizing lack of mental distress more than what we moderns call pleasure.

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What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.

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The Stoic Pledge

keep calmStoicism is a philosophy of life aimed — like all Hellenistic philosophies, but also Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and a number of others — at providing both a general framework and specific guidance on how to live. During the past two and a half years I’ve taken it pretty seriously, both in terms of studying ancient and modern authors, and especially in terms of practice. After all, as Epictetus puts it: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

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