Were the ancient Stoics feminist? Should the modern ones be?

Woman with wax tablets and stylus, Roman fresco, Pompeii

The short answers to the title questions are: not really, and of course yes. At least, that’s the conclusion of a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoicism and feminism published in a paper by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford in Symposion, 1, 1 (2014): 9-22. And I think they are right.

The basic thesis put forth by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford is that ancient Stoics had an uneven track record when it came to women, with some positions that can readily be understood as proto-feminist, and others not so much. But the authors also separate the philosophy from the specific times and people that practiced it in ancient Greece and Rome — just as we sensibly do for other philosophical and religious traditions. So they ask whether Stoicism as a philosophy has the tools that are required in order to endorse a full fledged feminism in modern times. And their answer is definitely yes.

I think this is a very important paper, and deserves to be more widely read, for two reasons: (i) it reminds us modern Stoics that the ancients are, as Seneca famously put it, our guides, not our masters; and (ii) it significantly helps the ongoing project of updating Stoicism for the 21st century, which has been carried out most exemplarily by Larry Becker.

The first task Aikin and McGill-Rutherford set themselves is to show the existence of two strands of ancient Stoic thought, when it comes to women’s issue: a progressive one, and a “misogynist” one. I put the latter term in quotation marks because from now on I will use “sexist” instead, which I think is more appropriate. Misogyny refers to the hatred of women, which I don’t think is a label that can be fairly applied to the Stoics; sexism, by contrast, is precisely what you get from the readings of Seneca, Epictetus, and others.

(The Merriam-Webster defines misogyny as “hatred of women; from the Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman; first used around 1656. By contrast, it defines sexism as “unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially: unfair treatment of women; 1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially: discrimination against women; 2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex; from sex + -ism, as in racism; first used in 1963.)

A footnote in the paper pretty nicely summarizes the author’s point as far as ancient Stoicism is concerned, and I will therefore quote it in full: “Like Socrates’ views on women guardians, Zeno’s early views on liberty were more for minimizing social strife than for the sake of women’s liberation. Similarly, Musonius holds that women should learn philosophy, because such training would make them better (wiser and more dutiful) housewives (Stobaeus 2.31.127). Seneca, despite holding that women have the same native capacity for virtue, nevertheless also holds that there are special impediments to virtue that come with being a woman: lack of self-control (Ad Helv. 14.2), credulity (De Cons. Sap. 19.2), and simple-mindedness (Ad Marc. 16.3). And Epictetus standardly references women as the kind of humans who can’t keep their emotions in check (D 3.24.53) or as the kind of pretty trophy one would want when living the life of externals (D 4.94). This is not to mention all the standard usages of casually [sexist] phraseology. ‘Philosophize like a man, don’t simper like a woman’ (Seneca: De Const. I.1.2).” (note 3)

Let’s take a specific example from Epictetus:

“Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of ‘mistresses’ by men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place all their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them see that they are valued solely for displaying decent, modest and discreet behavior.” (Enchiridion XL)

Here we have a condemnation of the objectification of women (the progressive element), but also a call for women to be decent, modest and engage in discrete behavior (the sexist element).

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford find it a “mystery” that the Stoics only addressed an audience of men, but that’s one of the least convincing of their points, in my opinion. At the time that was, unfortunately, the standard attitude, though of course the Stoics can be faulted for not going against the general approach. More convincingly, they point out that both Cicero (not a Stoic!) and Seneca consistently use feminine adjectives to denote moral failings, and masculine ones to denote virtuous behaviors. Moreover, Epictetus dismisses Epicureanism as a philosophy not befitting even women.

Hierocles is another one who puts forth a problematic view of women as individuals who “fulfill the orders of the master of the house” (Stob. Anthol. 4.28.21, and see Engel 2003, 284). Though to be fair, Hierocles is arguably the most conservative of the ancient Stoics of which writings have survived. (Then again, we do owe him the beautiful image of the contracting circles of concern that is often used to visualize the crucial Stoic concept of oikeiosis, which in turn is the basis for Stoic cosmopolitanism, and — as we shall see below — of modern Stoic feminism.)

The major issue that Aikin and McGill-Rutherford identify with ancient Stoicism treatment of women is what they refer to as the “social standing problem.” Several Stoics were explicit in acknowledging the importance of circumstances to help us practice virtue: Seneca, for instance, says that we should avoid being hungry or tired, since that helps controlling our anger (De Ira III.9.5), and most famously the entire first book of Marcus’ Meditations is a long list of thanks to people who have taught him how to be virtuous. The idea, then, is that since women were generally not afforded the kind of social status that people like Seneca and Marcus had by default, the Stoics failed to recognize that there was a built-in disadvantage for women when it came to practicing virtue.

This is an important and fair point, but it is mitigated by a couple of observations, I think. First, that the Stoics also insisted that it is possible to be virtuous even under extreme circumstances, for instance in the case of a slave, like Epictetus himself. Second, there were a lot of men who not only did not enjoy the social status of Seneca or Marcus, but who also had a significantly lower social status than patrician women, several of whom, during the empire, managed to reach financial independence, control over their inheritance, and a degree of education. Still, these caveats aside, Aikin and McGill-Rutherford’s main point holds.

We now come to the positive part of the paper, where the authors begin to construct an argument that Stoicism qua philosophy does have the tools to call for a modern progressive feminism.

They begin this by providing two interpretations of the famous Stoic imperative, live according to nature. Interestingly, they distinguish between what they call a “thin” and a “thick” version of Stoic naturalism (though they use the word “teleological” for the latter, which I will avoid here because I don’t think their reasoning depends on a particular concept of providence). Thin naturalism simply means to accept what is natural and deal with it, which is something very much like what Epictetus says we should do in the Manual:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion VIII)

Thick naturalism, by contrast, means that one finds a normative element in nature. When Marcus, in Meditations II.16 and IX.1, says that injustice is unnatural, he is deploying a thick version of naturalism:

“Our soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any other person or moves against him with the intention of causing him harm, as is the case with those who lose their temper.” (Meditations II.16)

Both elements of naturalism are present in Stoic philosophy, which is the reason why still today if people emphasize thin naturalism they end up talking about “stoicism” rather than “Stoicism.” Now consider again oikeiosis: if the process is an example of thin naturalism, then we don’t have reason to invoke social reform or a change of the status quo. But if we take it to be stemming from a thick naturalistic conception, now we have the philosophical tools to invoke social change.

As the authors put it: “The Stoic [thick] natural view is that women have rational natures and a capacity for reasoned choice. The consequence is that from the perspective of the goods relevant to moral goodness, women are men’s equals and deserve the same respect and dignity that men are afforded. And this is precisely why Musonius Rufus holds that women deserve to be taught philosophy, why Seneca holds that women have the same capacities for virtue as men, and why Epictetus criticizes the sexualization of young women. What is valuable in women, their capacity for rational choice, is not being respected. Culture criticism is necessary in those cases, and the Stoics consistently came to criticize their own cultures for these failings.” (pp. 18-19)

Why, then, can we not consider them full fledged feminists? Because they failed to follow through the logical implications of their own philosophy, limited — as we all are — by their own culture and time.

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford point out something that even a number of modern Stoic practitioners too often forget. They rightly claim that we have duties to each other qua rational creatures, and that these duties include the respect of each other’s choices. Externals are indifferent, of course, to our own practice of virtue, but that does not license inaction in the face of injustice. Justice — let us never forget — is one of the four cardinal virtues! There is a difference, they maintain, between recognizing that we are not actually truly harmed (according to Stoic philosophy) by being treated unjustly (because our virtue remains intact) and being complicit in the unequal treatment of anyone. Including, obviously, women.

Here is a poignant passage from the paper that should be framed by anyone who practices modern Stoicism: “The Stoic can have a critique of the institution of slavery or any other unjust treatment of people, but then also have strategies for life that makes it so that when injustices happen to us, we can endure them. Epictetus prepares to go to the baths by readying himself for the rude and raucous behavior of others. When he goes and is splashed or has someone act inappropriately around him, he must understand that he signed up for the whole experience. And so he is ready to endure what must be endured. But this is not an endorsement of the rude or raucous behavior.” (p. 19)

“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Enchiridion IV)

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford conclude: “We identify the correct conditions for justice, but we prepare ourselves for when injustice arrives. There is, then, living in accord with what is (thin naturalism’s acceptance of what is), and living in accord with what natural reason requires (recognizing the ways one’s culture can fail to manifest divine reason).” (p. 20)

The upshot is that Stoicism qua philosophical framework, independently of the specific ways it was instantiated in Greco-Roman times, does have the resources to welcome women (and any other group) in its fold, and — more importantly — to call for social change. The intrinsic respect that Stoicism accords to the human capacity for reason (Epictetus’ prohairesis) is the very same respect for human choice that is at the core of feminism.


Post scriptum: It occurred to me that precisely the same argument made by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford about the difference between what the ancient Stoics wrote and what is logically entailed by Stoic philosophy applies to social justice as well.

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, VI: rewriting the family

Seneca wrote his famous letters to Lucilius near the end of his life. They are not just philosophical letters to a friend, but a structured curriculum in Stoic philosophy, as the entries are meant to be read in sequence, with the reader assuming the role of Lucilius. Moreover, Seneca is careful not to alienate his readers by presenting himself as perfect. On the contrary, he is a flawed fellow proficiens. He has a headstart on us, but we can catch up.

This is the setting for the last chapter of Liz Gloyn’s excellent The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, which I have been commenting on for the past several weeks. In the course of the 124 letters, Seneca manages, among several other things, to redefine the role of the family in Roman society from a Stoic perspective, even though he never mentions any of Lucilius’ relatives, and his own family appears only rarely, for a total of four times.

The first twelve letters, on Liz’s reading, are essentially programmatic statements, orienting the reader and making him aware of what he is committing to. Letter IX is interesting, because there Seneca rebukes Epicurus, in response to a question posed by Lucilius. Epicurus had apparently criticized Stilbo (or Stilpo), who had lost his family, and yet seemed to think he could live on his own. Seneca explains the Stoic perspective by means of a treatment of the concept of apatheia (lack of negative passions), non-suffering, and self-sufficiency. Stilbo does experience the loss of his family as a loss, but he does not thereby lose his moral composure, despite his bereavement. Seneca summarizes the right Stoic attitude in this fashion:

“As long as he [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.” (IX.17)

This is an interesting point, which Gloyn analyzes in detail, even down to the specific Latin terms used by Seneca in describing the Stilbo episode. The rather surprising idea is that losing one’s family could provide, from a Stoic perspective, sufficient reason to commit suicide. But, as the example of Stilbo shows, it does not have to, as one can survive the loss and continue his pursuit of virtue. This is really fascinating to me, since it shows that according to Seneca even the wise person can be driven to “the open door” (as Epictetus calls it) by such a gigantic loss. And exiting through the door would be considerate acceptable, under certain circumstances, even though it is certainly not required. Love for one’s family is a positive emotion, and thus not to be curtailed by a Stoic.

To be unambiguously clear, though, the circumstances around the loss of one’s family would have to be right to make using “the open door” virtuous — there would have to be something in play which made the preferred indifferent of life cease to be the preferred option in an individual’s life. So it’s not that any familial loss at all allows us to consider suicide as a valid option, but that such a loss is categorised by the Stoics as one of the possible things which could create a situation where suicide became a rational option.

The next appearance of family in the Letters occurs in a tight sequence: XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII. Here, however, Seneca warns Lucilius that one’s family can just as well become an obstacle to the practice of virtue. Lucilius’ parents are well meaning, and accordingly they pray so that he could achieve glory and gather honors. But of course these are externals, which are merely preferred indifferents, and should not be our main focus in life. Which means that Lucilius’ parents are praying for the wrong thing, even though out of good intentions. That’s why the proficiens should choose his own, philosophical, family, and chart his path independently of what society expects from him.

Letter XXXIII contains one of the clues that Liz focuses on for her contention that the entire collection is really a curriculum in disguise. In the early letters, Seneca often closes with a “gift” to his friend: a quote from a wise person, which turns out to be Epicurus, from the homonymous rival school. But around this time in the sequence Seneca stops quoting Epicurus, and Lucilius complains. Seneca then explains that it is time to move away from aphorisms and become more autonomous in our quest for wisdom. Too much reliance on the words of others means that one will never attain his own mental independence.

The notion that the proficiens should supplement (or even replace) her own family with one chosen on purpose on the basis of philosophical considerations is fleshed out in letter XLIV:

“Socrates was not of patrician rank. Cleanthes was a water carrier and hired himself out to water a garden. Philosophy did not receive Plato noble but made him so. Why then should you despair of becoming equal to these men? All these are your ancestors if you behave in a way that is worthy of them; and so you will behave, if you immediately convince yourself that you are surpassed in nobility by nobody.” (XLIV.3)

These people are our philosophical ancestors, and it doesn’t matter whether our biological family is of high rank or not. Socrates, Cleathes, Plato and all the others surely are, and all we have to do is to “adopt” them, so to speak.

Three letters later, Seneca clearly includes slaves within the family, and argues that they should be treated as human beings, with inherent worth:

“Do you not see even this, how our ancestors took away all spite from masters, and all indignity from slaves? They addressed a master as the ‘father of the family,’ and the slaves as ‘members of the household,’ which custom even continues in mimes up to the present day; they established a holiday not as the only day on which masters ate with slaves, but as the one on which they did so without fail; they allowed slaves to bear honours in the household and to administer justice, and considered that the household was a miniature state.” (XLVII.14)

This is by no means a rebellion against the institution of slavery (which was, by contrast, openly called an evil by Zeno of Citium), but it is nonetheless a rather remarkable passage for the time and cultural milieu.

Another letter dealing with the family is L, but there the passage I prefer is one in which Seneca engages in a bit of self deprecating humor:

“If I ever wish to be entertained by a fool, I do not have to look far — I laugh at myself.” (L.2)

We get a reference to the always present doctrine of oikeiosis, or natural affection guided and enlarged by reason, in letter LXVI, when Seneca tells Lucilius that a parent ought to treat all his children equally:

“Surely no one would make such an unjust appraisal of his own children so as to love a healthy son more than a sick son, or a tall and nobly built son more than a short or average-sized one?” (LXVI.26)

The idea is that we should try, as Gloyn puts it, to treat our children on the basis of their (potential) inner virtue, not based on external attributes, such as their looks, or their athletic prowess.

In Letter LXX, Seneca provides yet another contrast meant to highlight that family members sometimes can give good advice and sometimes they fail to do so. It’s the story of the young Drusus Libo, who was in the middle of a trial where he was expecting a death sentence. He was wondering whether to kill himself as many of the Roman aristocrats did before sentence was passed. His aunt Scribonia counseled against walking through “the open door,” but Libo followed his own free judgment instead, disregarding his relative’s advice. The episode can usefully be contrasted with the one pertaining Paetus and his wife Arria. Paetus was ordered by the emperor Claudius to commit suicide, but could not find the courage. So she provided the example for him to follow: she stabbed herself, handing him the dagger with the gentle words “Paete, non dolet” (Paetus, it doesn’t hurt). Arria then, considered by Pliny the epitome of Stoic womanhood, becomes Scribonia’s antithesis.

But one also has duties to one’s family, and sometimes those duties preclude us from walking through the open door. This is explicitly put forth by Seneca in Letter LXXVIII:

“I often entertained the impulse to break off my life; the old age of my most tender father restrained me. For I thought not about how bravely I could die, but how little he would have been able to miss me bravely. And so I ordered myself to live. Sometimes even to live is to act bravely.” (LXXVIII.1-2)

I love the beautiful phrasing, as is often the case in Seneca, but the bottom line, as Liz points out, is that we as moral agents need to consider our duties toward our families as factors in our decisions, so long as we don’t let us be misled by family members into making an ethically inadvisable choice, in terms of our Stoic framework. Again emphasizing her reading of the Letters as a curriculum, Gloyn comments that by now “readers are sufficiently far along the Epistulae Morales’ developmental path to engage with the family both as a constructive and destructive influence on the proficiens’ virtue.” (p. 271)

The next pertinent section of that curriculum is comprised of Letters LXXXVIII, XCIV and XCV, where Seneca discusses children’s moral education, once again putting the family at the center of early moral development, as he has done through several of his other writings, magistrally explored by Gloyn in the book. The central concept is that the only true liberal education is one that is centered on ethics, the idea being that if education does not allow one to live a meaningful life than it has failed its main purpose. How I wish we moderns would take such advice to heart, instead of squandering countless resources into “educating” people, by which we just mean putting them in a position to get a job as one of many cogs in a giant societal money-making and soul-crunching machine.

According to Seneca, it all begins with the family, who has the duty to lead the child through the early stages of her moral development. But the family also has a duty to then provide the child with the means for further instruction, and a major component of such instruction takes the form of philosophical precepts, which the child and then young adult can learn from tutors and philosophers.

In Letter XCIV Seneca first considers Aristo’s criticism of relying on precepts, and then explains how they ought to be used: they are not supposed to be rules to be followed blindly, without understanding. Rather, they are what we would call heuristic devices, quick reminders of how to act virtuously in specific situations, based, however, in a comprehension of the philosophy from which they stem. Liz explains: “Marriage offers the case study for how precepta can help us. As a rule of thumb, adultery by either spouse is always unacceptable. This precept acts as a prompt for the overarching rule that applies to all marriages, namely that humans need reminding that adultery is bad for both men and women regardless of the dynamics of individual relationships.” (p. 274) (On why the Stoics disapprove of cheating on one’s spouse, and why they were right despite some currently fashionable psychological advice, see here.)

“It will be of no benefit to give precepts unless first you have removed the things that will stand in the way of precepts.” (XCV.38)

In other words, people need to internalize the idea that cheating is unacceptable, not simply repeat the notion and yet deep down remain convinced that it is somehow okay, or not a big deal.

In Letter IC, Seneca returns to the topic of grief, using the specific example of Marullus, who had lost his son. Gloyn comments that this is yet another occasion that could superficially be read as a case of Stoic heartlessness, since Seneca is criticizing Marullus for grieving. But a closer look clearly shows that the target of Seneca’s reproach is not grief per se, but what we might call performative grief, i.e., indulging in emotional distress, either in order to cultivate self-pity or, worse, to elicit other people’s sympathy. Seneca instead advises Marullus to take comfort in the memory of his son, to recover the important distinction (to the Stoic) between self indulgent and virtuous grieving.

Letter CIV is particularly interesting because of Seneca’s description of the tender behavior of his wife Paulina, as he is about to depart for his villa at Nomentum. While he apparently needs a break from domesticity in order to focus on his work, he also describes in detail how her caring for him revitalizes his zest for life. In the same letter, Seneca argues that the best kind of travel, at any rate, is the one we do with our minds, when we read books and thus come closer to our philosophical meta-family, to Cato, Socrates, Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and all the others. I cannot emphasize how often I have taken refuge and comfort in such extended family, which I have been able to build over decades of my life, picking and choosing from two and a half millennia of great minds produced by humanity.

Near the end of his curriculum for Lucilius (and for the rest of us) Seneca returns to the concept of oikeiosis, in Letter CXXI. He focuses on what Liz labels personal, as distinct from social, oikeiosis (the latter being the concept famously embodied by Hierocles’ metaphor of contracting circles of concern). As living organisms, early on we acquire a sense of our physical selves and an urge to care for it. That inborn sense of self-preservation allows us to love ourselves, but it soon becomes the emotional source we build on in order to begin loving others.

Gloyn concludes her analysis with a useful summary of the main tenets of Seneca’s epistolary curriculum: “Each family member, whether sibling, spouse, parent, aunt or uncle, occupies the same relational position to the aspiring sage, and thus has the same potential to offer good (or indeed bad) advice. Similarly, every issue is of equal moral importance. While suicide may appear of greater consequence than dietary habits, both are equally valid fields for the exercise of virtue.” (p. 288)

Or to put it even more simply: we can and should learn from anyone, but not everyone will give us virtuous advice. And every aspect of our life is a manifestation of the cosmic gym in which we are constantly given the opportunity to exercise and improve our virtue.

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, Match.com, 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 Match.com.

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.)

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, V: the imperfect imperial family

Octavian Augustus

Octavian Augustus, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, was the first Roman emperor. The battle of Actium of 31 BCE, where he defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, marked the end of the Hellenistic period and the rise of the new empire. While Octavian had hardly been a particularly ethical individual in his youth, as emperor he set up his family as a model of moral behavior, and — to his credit — oversaw a long period of Pax Romana, which is still today celebrated by that beautiful monument in Rome known as the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace).

But the imperial family was a human family, and thus obviously imperfect, sometimes more so, at other times less. Liz Gloyn, in the fifth chapter of her fascinating The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, takes a close look at how the Stoic philosopher portrayed the imperial families he was actually acquainted with, as well as those he head read about, reminding his readers that domestic happiness is elusive for anyone but the wise person. This was true especially for imperial families, since their obvious preoccupation with power set up a difficult tradeoff with what should have been their primary concern instead: virtue.

Octavian Augustus didn’t limit himself to build public monuments like the Ara Pacis to celebrate the new era, but promulgated laws to enforce a stricter view of morality, particularly when it came to the family. For instance, his Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus made procreation an explicit part of the definition of marriage, with penalties for people who did not marry or have children. In 2 BCE he declared himself Pater Patriae, father of the nation, putting forth an explicit analogy between the family and the state.

The reality, of course, was complicated. For one thing, the Julio-Claudians, the first imperial dynasty, was plagued by internal power struggles between the two branches, the Julians and the Claudians, and that struggle very clearly undermined the image of pietas (devotion to gods and country) that Augustus wished to project (that, and the fact that his own youthful “indiscretions” were not so easily forgotten).

For his part, Seneca had a vantage point that included a close look at the inner workings of Nero’s family, including both the complicated, shall we say, relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina, as well as the latter’s unusual marriage to her uncle, Claudius.

Seneca uses different imperial families as either good or bad examples for his pedagogical purposes. For instance, in De Ira, he refers to an episode involving Augustus, presenting it as a case of restrain and justice. The story goes that the emperor was dining at the house of the patrician Vedius Pollio, when one of Pollio’s slaves broke a glass. The angry master cruelly fed the slave to lampreys. In response, Augustus ordered every glass in the household to be smashed, had the lamprey pit filled, and gave a stern lecture to his host.

But Seneca also uses the imperial family in a series of exempla mala (bad examples), a standard Stoic tool for moral teaching, just as important as the exempla (positive examples) that are scattered throughout Seneca’s writings. The crucial point, again, is that there is a tension between the pursuit of power in politics and being virtuous. Seneca, however, also very clearly states that the wise person should be engaged in affairs of the state, so this isn’t a counsel for political disengagement. Rather, it advances the idea that only a virtuous person can be a good politician. Where “good” means virtuous and good for the state, not just successful at obtaining and wielding power. If only modern politicians were paying attention…

We have seen how Seneca uses his letter of consolation ad Marciam to talk about the relationship between mother and son, but it also includes a pair constituted by an exemplum and an anti-exemplum, both drawn from the imperial family. Specifically, he contrasts the measured grief of Livia after the death of her son Drusus with the immoderate grief displayed by Octavia following the death of her son Marcellus. Liz drily notes that it may not have been by chance that Livia was a Claudian while Octavia was a Julian, thus revealing Seneca’s own political leanings.

A crucial point made by Gloyn is that the fusion of the two branches of the dynasty often meant that a member of one branch would publicly grieve for the death of a member from the other branch, while secretly being relieved that a potential obstacle to advancement had been removed. This sort of attitude is entirely incompatible with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the appropriation of other’s concerns as if they were our own, a concept that Seneca repeatedly makes use of whenever he writes about family relations.

One of the problematic examples used often by Seneca is the relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia. Julia’s adultery conflicts directly with the carefully constructed image of the ideal family that the emperor wants to project, and the father-daughter conflict couldn’t be, again, further away from the ideal of oikeiosis. In Augustus’ case, political expediency has overcome familial affection for his daughter. Interestingly:

“Seneca deploys Stoicised doublespeak in his use [in De Clementia] of the honorific civic title to which Augustus was entitled. Naming Augustus divus invokes a heavy Stoic irony, since that ascription is followed by a list of things that make him suffer.” (p. 221)

An imperial figure that appears an unexpectedly large number of times (sixteen!) in Seneca’s writings is Gaius Caligula, for whom Seneca reserves a particular tone of disgust and outrage. The most obvious example is found in another letter of consolation, ad Polybium, where Seneca attacks Caligula’s reaction to the death of his sister Drusilla:

“When his sister Drusilla died, Gaius Caesar, that man who could no more grieve than rejoice as befits a princeps, fled from the sight and society of his citizens; he did not attend his sister’s funeral rites, he did not make funeral offerings to his sister, but in his Alban home he made light of the evils of that most bitter funeral with dice, gaming board and other pastimes of this kind. … May this example be far off from every Roman man, either to divert his grief with ill-timed games, or to provoke it with the foulness of dirt and neglect, or to amuse it with the sufferings of others, not a human comfort at all.” (XVII.4-6)

This is a splendid example of Seneca’s humanity. Far from counseling suppression of emotions and enduring life with a stiff upper lip, he condemns Gaius for his lack of appropriate feelings given the occasion, not to mention the despicable example that he, the alleged pater familias of the nation, is giving to the Roman people.

Another graphic example is found in De Ira, where Caligula is condemned in no uncertain terms by Seneca for his cruelty:

“Why do I examine ancient matters? Only recently on a single day Gaius Caesar fell upon Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and son of his procurator, and others, both senators and knights, with whips, and tortured them, not for interrogation’s sake but for his mood’s; then he was so impatient of putting off pleasure, which his cruelty used to demand in great amount without delay, that while walking with matrons and other senators in the open promenade of his mother’s gardens, which separates the portico from the river bank, by lamp-light, he beheaded certain of them.” (III.18-3-4)

This can also be read as a not so subtle critique of the general Roman figure of the pater familias, not just the imperial one. According to Roman law, the head of the household had literal power of life and death on anyone living under his roof. Not just slaves, but his wife and children as well. On occasion, such power was horribly abused, just in the manner in which Caligula is abusing his powers as head of state, and doing so, of all places, in the garden of her recently deceased mother, Agrippina.

“Gaius represents the complete failure of the imperial family to provide ethical support. Seneca highlights this breakdown by showcasing Gaius’ degradation and moral failings in contexts where he is aided and abetted by his family. He demonstrates what happens when a family becomes concerned with power rather than virtue — it has catastrophic consequences both for individual members and for the unfortunate state in which they reside.” (p. 231)

While Seneca is often — rightly — criticized for having abetted some of Nero’s abuses, particularly the latter’s murder of his mother, Liz’s analysis in this chapter makes very clear that Seneca rather courageously and not at all subtly attacked the official model of the imperial family from the point of view of Stoic ethics, finding it woefully deficient. He should get credit for this achievement as much as for his failings.

(next: rewriting the family)

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…

Virtue ethics is a big tent: a response to Edith Hall

Zeno vs Aristotle

Classics professor Edith Hall has recently published a fascinating article in Aeon entitled “Why read Aristotle today?,” on the reasons we should adopt Aristotle as a guide to a happy life. In the article, it transpires that she really doesn’t like Stoicism, so that prompted some reflection on my part on both Aristotelianism and Stoicism.

I have adopted Stoicism as a personal philosophy of life because it spoke to me from the moment I heard of a strange thing called “Stoic Week.” It has been only four years, really, and my life has changed, mostly for the better (and the non-mostly part isn’t Stoicism’s fault anyway!). Several things attracted me to the philosophy, and the more I study it, the more my initial hunch is confirmed. Three in particular: the idea of “living according to nature,” the practice of the four virtues, and the dichotomy of control. I have come to think of these elements respectively as the fundamental axiom of Stoicism, its moral compass, and its key to serenity.

The fundamental axiom: to live according to nature means to take seriously human nature, specifically the fact that we thrive only in the context of a society and that we are capable of reason. Three things follow: we are all members of the same human cosmopolis; consequently, we should try to practice oikeiosis, the “appropriation” of other people’s concerns as if they were our own; and, therefore, a good human life consists in applying one’s reason to improve society. These three points are the basis of the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism.

The moral compass: the practice of the four cardinal virtues (which turn out to be among a small subset of virtues recognized cross-culturally) of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. This practice is an incredibly effective way to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is important, and to navigate even complex situations in the most ethical way. Any time you have to make a decision, just ask yourself: is this good or evil (practical wisdom)? Am I being as courageous as the occasion requires? Am I acting justly with respect to others? Am I doing this in the right measure? You’d be surprised how easy it is to figure out what the right thing to do is, with this compass in hand (whether we actually do it or not, of course, depends on the progress we have made).

The key to serenity: while the primary goal of Stoicism is to live a virtuous, and therefore meaningful life, the Stoics also aimed at ataraxia, i.e., tranquillity of mind. Epictetus promises that we will reach this state if we internalize the basic idea of the dichotomy of control: some things are up to us (our values, judgments, and opinions) and other things are not up to us (everything else). Focus therefore on what is under your power, and simply accept with equanimity that things sometimes go your way, and that at other times they don’t. (Again, it takes practice to get reasonably good at this.)

There are, of course, several things about which I disagree with the ancient Stoics, and a number of areas where the original philosophy, to remain alive, needs to be updated. One of these things is the idea that Stoicism is “the” philosophy to follow. We know from sources such as Diogenes Laertius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero, that the Stoics engaged in fierce verbal battles with all the major Hellenistic schools, from the Epicureans to the Aristotelians to the Academic Skeptics. There is good evidence, discussed in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, that these debates influenced and over time modified the positions of the various schools, including the Stoics themselves. Seneca, after all, wisely wrote:

“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 have slowly come around the notion that many (though not all) religions and philosophies of life have core teachings that are helpful to people and that — if practiced consistently — would lead us to build a better world. I don’t think it is a coincidence that there are so many similarities, not just across the Greco-Roman philosophies, but between Aristotelianism and Confucianism as well as Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism, not to mention Christianity. Indeed, Epictetus might have been on to something like an ecumenical philosophy when he wrote:

“For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honorable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases … Jews, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans. They don’t dispute that what is holy should be preferred above everything else and in every case pursued; but they argue, for example, over whether it is holy or unholy to eat pork.” (Discourses I, 22.1-4)

So, while my personal choice is Stoicism, I fully believe that there are many paths to wisdom and a life worth living, and that each of us has to choose (or build) the path that resonates with us, given not just the specific content of the philosophy, but also our personal character and culture of provenance.

That is why I was a bit disappointed by Hall’s essay. She does make a masterful case for why we should, indeed, read Aristotle, who has much to teach us about the route to happiness. Heck, she almost convinced me to switch camps and become a peripatetic! (No, not really, but still, the essay is very good.)

Yet, Hall apparently felt it necessary to begin with a nasty dig at Stoicism:

“Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blog posts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.”

I guess since Stoicism, surprisingly, is the successful kid in the room at the moment, one has to take it down a notch or two before advancing one’s own preferred philosophy.

But Hall’s treatment of Stoicism is way off the mark. Briefly:

  • Carnegie may have been inspired by Marcus Aurelius, but Stoicism is not a form of self-help. It is an all-encompassing philosophy of life, which is made very clear by “self-styled” (why the rhetorical dig?) Stoic organizations throughout the world.
  • Ancient Stoicism was anything but pessimistic and grim. The Stoics believed that the Logos, the principle of rationality, permeated the universe, and they conceived of it as god. Accordingly, we are literally bits and pieces of the divine, hardly a grim picture of ourselves. While most (but not all) modern Stoics have abandoned pantheism, we still think that life is an amazing thing, very worth living to its fullest, no matter what one’s special circumstances might be.
  • Stoicism did not denounce pleasure, it simply advised moderation. Seneca writes about the need to dance and drink wine, even to intoxication, from time to time (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII).
  • Stoicism most certainly does not predicate the suppression of emotions, as discussed in detail, for instance, in Margaret Graver’s book. The Stoics thought of their approach as a philosophy of love, and cultivated joy (Seneca, Letters XXIII.3) and other positive emotions, while staying away from the unhealthy ones like anger, hatred, and fear.
  • Stoics were not resigned to accept misfortune, as is very clearly demonstrated by several of their role models, like Cato the Younger, and by their fierce fight against the tyranny of three emperors. They did, however, accept misfortune with equanimity, because what is the point of complaining about the inevitable?
  • The Stoics very much advised us to get involved in the “fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving.” That was the whole point of Epictetus’ role ethics.
  • As for human agency, the Stoics were what we today would call compatibilists about free will, a commonly accepted position in contemporary philosophy. And the chief aim of Stoic training was, and still is, precisely to improve and refine aagency

I’m sure Hall will disagree with my response, just as I (or others who are better qualified) can martial a number of objections to her view of Aristotle. But that is not the point. Let a thousand philosophies bloom instead. Aristotle’s your guy? Excellent! Do you prefer Epicurus? Go for it! Epictetus really does it for you (as he does for me)? Wonderful! Or perhaps Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Jesus, and so forth. Just go for it and try to live a meaningful and ethical life.

Mind you, not all philosophies or ideologies will do. There is no such thing as a good fascist or a eudaimonic Nazi (or Stalinist, or Maoist), and some religions are cultish and rather dangerous (e.g., Scientology).

I am not arguing that there are no substantive differences among the many possible legitimate alternatives. This is one reason I tend to be somewhat skeptical of “eclectic” approaches that mix and match from different traditions. But hey, if that’s your cup of tea, by all means, drink it!

Virtue ethics, the broad family to most Greco-Roman philosophies belong, has the potential to really change both individuals and, in bottom-up fashion, society. For the better. If more people took seriously the idea that a good life (eudaimonia) requires an ethical approach, and that such a life is possible for anyone willing to work on their character and attitudes, reflecting — at least from time to time — on why we do what we do, this would be a far better place than we have managed to make it so far. And it really wouldn’t matter if you got there by way of Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius.