The ethics of the family in Seneca, III: the mystery of marriage

How do the Stoics think of marriage (or, in modern terms, stable monogamous relationships)? That’s the topic of the third chapter of Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. It turns out that here, as in several other aspects when it comes to the conception of the family, Seneca is subtly subversive, if one reads him carefully. We will see just how subversive when we get to the chapter on the character of the imperial family, but for me this has so far been the most refreshing aspect of reading Gloyn’s book. Even modern practitioners tend to under-appreciate just how revolutionary Stoic ideas were in the ancient world.

Marriage was, of course, central to Roman society, and among the upper classes was perceived as an instrument to achieve political power and social influence. Contra common misconception, women were given a noteworthy degree of autonomy and power in the late Republic and especially during the empire, though of course Roman society was still fundamentally patriarchal. Seneca, however, reconceives marriage from a Stoic perspective, making it into a fundamental opportunity for both members of the couple to practice virtue and to help each other become more virtuous. This is radically at odds with marriage seen as a means to socio-political ends.

Earlier Stoics, Liz reminds us, held a variety of opinions about marriage. Zeno of Citium, for instance, said that women should be held in common in the ideal Republic (I suspect this is to be interpreted in terms of equality, as he also said that women should wear the same clothes as men, and that they should be instructed in philosophy). Cicero, on his part, has Cato the Younger say, in book III of De Finibus, that Stoics should not only engage in politics, but also marry and have children, a position held also by Musonius Rufus, Hierocles, and Epictetus.

What’s novel in Seneca is his focus on marriage as a reciprocally virtuous activity, and his clear positioning of women as active participants in the relationship:

“Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

Gloyn’s analysis is mostly based on the partly preserved De Matrimonio, which we only know through secondary (Christian) sources, specifically Jerome of Stridon (347-420 CE). It needs, therefore, to be handled with care, as we cannot be certain of the extent to which we have Seneca’s own words or Jerome’s paraphrases of them. Liz’s book contains an appendix with the extant fragments and translation of De Matrimonio.

Marriage, for Seneca, is of course a preferred indifferent, meaning that it is neither good nor bad in and of itself:

“And just as riches, honours, the health of our bodies and other things which we call indifferents are neither good nor bad, but become either good or bad by use and by chance, as if placed in the middle, so too are wives placed on the border of good things and bad things; however, it is a serious matter for a wise man to be uncertain about whether he is about to marry a good or a bad woman.” (V.23)

It is a “serious matter” for the wise man because women are independent moral agents, and they therefore contribute equally to the virtuousness of the relationship.

Seneca then criticizes Chrysippus — thus showing that the Stoics engaged in healthy internal debates — for writing to the effect that marriage should be constrained by local religious traditions. On the contrary, for Seneca entering in that sort of relationship with another human being is part of what it means to “live according to nature,” and therefore transcends cultural norms and religious customs.

Seneca also has harsh words for those who marry for convenience, for instance to avoid financial penalties (the Romans since Octavian Augustus had enacted laws favoring marriage and procreation), or for political gain. Entering and exiting marriage too quickly is also not the Stoic thing to do:

“We read about certain women, divorced on the second day of the marriage, who married again at once: each husband should be rebuked, both he who was so quickly displeased and he who was pleased so quickly.” (V.36)

Notice here that Seneca is criticizing the husbands first: a quick divorce means that one is too easily displeased, and agreeing to marry someone who had just been divorced means one is too easily pleased. The problem being, of course, that many people are under the misguided impression that pleasure is a true good, and act accordingly.

Seneca also argues that the wise person loves by exercising the virtue of temperance. He says that to love someone else’s spouse is, obviously, disgraceful, but so is to display too much lust for one’s own spouse, as this may lead us to lose sight of the true value of marriage (virtue), and — as he puts it — treat instead our partner “as an adultress” (or adulterer).

Fine, I can hear the objection here: how unromantic! But we all know of dysfunctional relationships were people are driven by passion (in the unhealthy sense of the word), and otherwise abuse each other, and certainly do not model virtue for each other or for their children. As always, remember that Stoicism is not about suppressing one’s emotions, but rather about shifting our emotional spectrum from negative and destructive emotions to positive and constructive ones.

One of the virtues Seneca associates with a good marriage is that of pudicitia, a word later used by Christian writers to mean modesty, and usually associated with women’s inferior role within the relationship. Not so for our Stoic author:

“In one of the Epistulae Morales, [Seneca] includes two types of pudicitia in a list of virtues he needs to perfect the teachable character given to him by nature. He defines the two kinds as ‘that which is restraint from someone else’s body, and that which is care of one’s own body.’ Seneca has no difficulty in assuming he might demonstrate pudicitia as a man; he also shows awareness of the multifaceted nature of the virtue, articulating its concern with both outer activity and inward disposition.” (p. 132)

Seneca says that a major threat to pudicitia is what he calls “aliena libidine,” literally “another’s person’s lust,” but meaning that if we are so strongly attracted by someone who is not our partner we are dragged along by lust, in a sense captive of our own emotions. That’s why the right approach is not to practice pudicitia because we are afraid of repercussions (legal or otherwise), but genuinely because we think it is unvirtuous to feel (and act) otherwise.

So according to Gloyn, Seneca’s talk of pudicitia is not meant to downgrade women’s moral status, since he uses the same vocabulary for men as well. The very same mental state that leads to virtuous action can be attained by men and women alike. Indeed, he very clearly criticizes men for a double standard in terms of virtue (a double standard that persists to this days, unfortunately):

“The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women.” (V.28)

And consider this passage, where Seneca mocks the Roman propensity for the husband to “guard” his wife, so that she does not engage in unacceptable behavior:

“What good is a careful watch when an impudica wife cannot be guarded and a pudica wife ought not to be? For the necessity of chastity is a treacherous guard, and only the woman who could do wrong if she wished to should be called pudica.” (V.54.6-7)

Liz remarks that this makes sense if Seneca saw women as active, independent moral agents, capable of seeking (and holding onto) virtue on their own, without their men “guarding” them. Indeed, she claims that Seneca is both making a strong (if implicit) case for the equality of women, and reminding us that without the possibility of choosing wrong, there is no virtue. Virtue is not the notion that we always do right by default, without effort. It’s the notion that we choose to do right, because we agree that that is the rational thing to do.

In a sense, Seneca’s take on marriage and love is no different from that of the early Stoics. As Gloyn reminds us:

“And the wise man will love those young people who, through their appearance, display a nature well-disposed to virtue, as Zeno says in the Republic and Chrysippus in the first book of On Lives, and Apollodoros in the Ethics.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.129)

This is the Stoic concept of eros, which is aroused not by the alluring appearance of the other person, but by the promise of virtue that is evident in the proficiens (the one who makes progress) that we elect as a partner to help us on our own path to virtue. (Incidentally, “young people” in the quote above is gender ambiguous, and it reinforces the idea that same-sex relationships were acceptable, if framed within a virtuous context.)

Liz then discusses what we know about Seneca’s own relationship with his wife. For instance, in De Ira, he describes a peaceful evening scene, where his wife knows of and respects his habit of taking a few minutes to go over his day, interrogating himself as to what he had done well and what he needs to improve. She does not do this because Seneca instructs her, but because she is his confidante, privy to this nightly ritual (“moris iam mei conscia”).

We get another glimpse of the relationship between Seneca and his wife Paulina thanks to Tacitus’ description of the scene of Seneca’s suicide (which is more sympathetic than the version we find in Cassius Dio, notoriously critical of Seneca), a suicide ordered by Nero because of Seneca’s alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy:

“When he attempted to send away his friends after a farewell dinner, Paulina refused to leave and begged that she should be allowed to die with him. Although he tried to persuade her otherwise, she insisted, and eventually convinced him to allow her to join him in death. In the event, Nero’s soldiers saved her, to make sure that Nero did not come out of the incident looking any more of a villain than he already did. … He 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)

Gloyn concludes her chapter by reiterating that Seneca’s treatment of marriage as a relationship of virtue between morally equal partners is in stark contrast with the standard utilitarian view of marriage in Roman society, and therefore strongly countercultural. Wealth and ancestry don’t matter (in the sense of being preferred indifferents), and they can positively get in the way of what does matter, the mutually reinforcing pursuit of virtue.

(Next: the desirable contest between fathers and sons)

Achilles was not a Stoic (and neither was Paris)

Achilles and Patroclus, sculpted by Malcolm Lidbury

I’ve always been fascinated by the two great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, ever since I read them as a kid. I re-read them several times since, in various translations, both in Italian and English. The very fact that epic poetry dating, in its earlier written version, to the 8th century BCE can still move us today is a testament to the genius of Homer (whoever he, or they, was/were).

Though both poems are chock full of larger-than-life figures, two are most likely to strike people’s imagination: Achilles in the Iliad, and, obviously, Odysseus in the homonymous epic. As we have discussed in the past, Odysseus was considered a fascinating character by all the major philosophical schools, each (selectively) interpreting his story in a way consonant with their framework. For the Stoics, Odysseus was a role model. I guess that explains also my own admiration for the King of Ithaca.

But what about Achilles? I must confess, I never liked the guy. All brawns and no brains (exactly the opposite of Odysseus), he never appealed to my nerdy self. And I always thought his treatment of Hector’s body after their epic battle was irredeemably shameful. More recently, though, I started thinking about him specifically from a Stoic perspective. Particularly the pivotal episode near the beginning of the Iliad, when Achilles gets pissed off at Agamemnon, the head of the Greek expedition to Troy (and brother of Menelaus, the husband that Helen left for Paris, thus allegedly triggering the war itself).

It’s worth recounting the episode in some detail. Agamemnon has taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Chryseis’ father, however, is a priest of Apollo, and he asks the god to return his daughter. Since Agamemnon refuses, Apollo sends a plague to the Greek camp to make a convincing case. The prophet Calchas diagnoses the problem correctly, but refuses to speak up unless he secures Achilles’ protection. When the hero grants it, Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis. Petty as he usually is, he takes revenge on Achilles, demanding the latter’s battle prize, Briseis, in reparation for the loss of Chryseis. It is now Achilles’ turn to get pissed off and petty: out of spite, he goes on strike and refuses to lead the Greeks into battle. Hence the famous opening lines of the Iliad:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”

(Sounds better in Italian, I think: “Cantami, o Diva, del pelide Achille / l’ira funesta che infiniti addusse / lutti agli Achei.”)

That rage quickly leads to the death of Achilles’ intimate friend, Patroclus, who had donned Achilles’ harmor to lead the Greeks in a desperate attempt to push back the advancing Trojans, and was killed by the Trojan prince Hector (who will later, in turn, be killed by Achilles).

What would the Stoics think of Achilles’ behavior? One clue is in the word “rage” used by Homer: as we know, the Stoics thought that anger was the most devastating of the pathē, the unhealthy emotions, to be avoided at all costs. But we don’t have to speculate much, as Epictetus addresses the episode directly:

“And when did Achilles come to grief? When Patroclus died? Far from it. But rather, when he himself yielded to anger, when he wept over a young girl, when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed.” (Discourses I.29-24-25)

The “citadel” being razed here is not Troy, but the very same one so often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations: our ruling faculty, the hêgemonikon, a term closely related to Epictetus’ favorite one, prohairesis (our capacity of judgment). Achilles’ true loss did not occur when his friend was killed, but when he himself lost the way of reason (assuming he ever had it, since there is little evidence of that).

The same section of the Discourses provides several other examples of this most human of tragedies. Aside from Medea, whom we have recently discussed, Epictetus describes Paris, the instigator of the war, in the same fashion:

“Did Paris suffer his great disaster when the Greeks arrived and ravaged Troy, and when his brothers perished? Not at all, … his true undoing was when he lost his sense of shame, his loyalty, his respect for the laws of hospitality, his decency.” (Discourses, I.29-22.23)

Menelaus is up for a similar treatment as well:

“If an impression, then, had prompted Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have come about? Not only the Iliad would have been lost, but the Odyssey too!” (Discourses I.29-13)

That is, both poems — and thus, more generally, all human tragedies — are the result of a series of misjudgments made by the main actors. Had they used their prohairesis correctly, or kept their hêgemonikon in working order, none of that would have happened. (Of course, we would have lost two of the masterpieces of human art, but so be it.)

Should we, then, be angry at Paris, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and so forth? No, says Epictetus:

“Why should you be angry with [them], then, because, poor wretch[es], [they] have gone astray on matters of the highest importance, and have changed from human beings into vipers? Shouldn’t you, if anything, take pity on [them] instead? And just as we pity the blind and the lame, shouldn’t we also take pity on those who have become blinded and crippled in their governing faculties?” (Discourses I.29.9)

[I have slightly altered the above to refer to multiple characters, as the original passage talks about Medea, but it’s clear that Epictetus applies the same reasoning to all the others as well.]

So all those people, as strong (or beautiful) and brave as they are, are really cripples. They suffer from amathia, or un-wisdom. They are deeply flawed human beings who think they are doing what is right and just, or what they ought to do, because their are blind and lame in their souls. But how is it possible that so many famous figures keep making such horrible mistakes? Surely they see the truth but fail to act accordingly. No, they truly think that they are right in doing what they do:

“For what reason do we give our assent to something? Because it appears to us to be the case. If something appears not to be the case, it is impossible for us to give our assent. And why so? Because that is the nature of our mind, that it should agree to things that are true, not accept things that are false, and suspend its judgement with regard to things that are uncertain. What is the proof of that? ‘Form the impression, if you can, that it is night at present.’ That is impossible. ‘Put aside the impression that it is day.’ That is impossible. So whenever anyone assents to what is false, one may be sure that he does not willingly give his assent to falsehood.” (Discourses I.29.1-4)

This is a profound insight, which however, whenever I write about it, encounters a lot of resistance from people. The common stance is that of course those who do bad things are evil, and not just mistaken. Because if that were not the case, then Epictetus would be right, we would have to pity, not hate them, and we can’t have that, can we?

If we did shift from anger and hatred (righteous, as we may think they are) to pity and compassion, then we would have to stop dehumanizing “evil” altogether, and admit that those people are just like us, only more flawed than normal, pathologically so, perhaps, but sick, not evil. We would have to admit that — while of course those people need to be stopped from injuring others — retribution is just revenge, which is both unvirtuous and ineffective. We would have to revise our whole way of dealing with crimes, focusing on rehabilitation as much as it is possible, and — failing that — on compassionate confinement. Because as Epictetus puts it right at the beginning of that section of the Discourses:

“Am I any better than Agamemnon and Achilles, to be satisfied by impressions alone, when they caused and suffered such evils by following their impressions? … What do you call those who follow every impression that strikes them? Madmen! What about us, then; do we act any differently?” (Discourses I.29.31-33)

Seneca to Lucilius: the effective teaching of virtue

Scipio Africanus, Stoic role model

Is it possible to teach virtue? Opinions differed among the Greco-Roman philosophers, as I have discussed in an earlier post. The Stoics, of course, answered in the positive, but they were not blind to the difficulties inherent in the task, as is clear from letter XXV from Seneca to Lucilius, which in the wonderful Chicago Press edition carries the title “Effective teaching.”

Seneca recounts the situation of two mutual friends, who, he says, need to be treated differently because of where they are in their life stages. With one of them, Seneca thinks harsh measures ought to be put in place, adding that if he doesn’t offend his friend, then he doesnt’ love him. I suspect this sort of attitude is difficult to implement nowadays, given our culture’s current penchant for easy offense. Then again, Seneca was talking about a friend who he genuinely wanted to help, not a stranger he actually aimed at hurting.

Seneca anticipates Lucilius’ objection: are you seriously thinking of taking on a pupil who is 40 years old? He is set in his ways, and one can mold things only whey they are soft. To which comes the reply:

“I don’t know if I will succeed, but I would rather fail in my endeavor than in my duty to him. Nor should you give up hope: even long-term invalids can be cured if you take a stand against intemperance, and if you force them repeatedly to do things and put up with things against their will.” (XXV.2)

Notice the standard Stoic analogy between philosophical and physical health, but also the acknowledgment that, while it may be more difficult than if one starts earlier in life, it is still possible at any age to help people we care along the path of virtue.

The second friend needs a gentler treatment, continues Seneca, because he is still capable of blushing, which means he has retained a sense of right and wrong, and is concerned about it:

“We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (XXV.2)

The second part of the letter turns to helping out Seneca himself, as well as Lucilius: just because they are conscious of the importance of virtue it doesn’t mean that they are ipso facto virtuous. As he often does in the early letters, Seneca quotes the rival Epicurus, not being shy to borrow from the latter’s philosophy, since the truth is public property. The quote is rather indicative of Epicurus’ own approach to things (recall that he was among the few ancients who actually went around claiming to be a sage): “do everything as though Epicurus were watching you.”

This is interesting because it’s a clear indication of an exercise that modern Stoics refer to as “the sage on the shoulder,” the idea — supported by empirical evidence in social psychology — that we behave better if we imagine that there is someone watching what we are doing. And Seneca is explicit in his instructions to Lucilius:

“Put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong.” (XXV.6)

Cato, of course, is Cato the Younger, the arch-enemy of Julius Caesar, and a frequent role model for Seneca. Scipio is the legendary Scipio Africanus, a Roman general and consul who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, during the Second Punic War. And Laelius was Gaius Laelius Sapiens (Laelius “the wise”), a Roman statesman of the II century BCE. The point is that all these people were known for their virtuous character, and are therefore apt to be role models for Lucilius (and the rest of us). Seneca even suggests that the choice of a role model depends on our own personality: for some a hardened soul like that of Cato will do, others might want to go with the gentler Laelius.

Role models play a huge part in Stoic ethical teaching, because — as Seneca says elsewhere — they provide us with a ruler against which to measure just how crooked our own character still is, as well as a pointer for the direction to take in order to further our self-improvement. So, pick your Cato, Scipio, or Laelius; or perhaps a modern role model, like Susan Fowler; or a fictional one, like Spider-Man (the ancients often used Odysseus); or simply look up to a friend or relative you think is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Role models don’t have to be perfect, no human being is. But it’s precisely because of their imperfection that their examples provide us with realistic goals, helping us to become better human beings here and now.

The ethics of the family in Seneca, II: band of brothers

the Gracchi brothers

The Gracchi brothers

Last time we have examined Seneca’s treatment of motherhood as discussed in Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. The second type of family relationship we’ll look into is that between brothers, for which Gloyn mostly uses the third of Seneca’s letters of consolation, to Polybius. This is a somewhat controversial letter, as Seneca clearly had a personal motive to write it: Polybius had lost a brother, which is the manifest reason Seneca writes to him. But he was also magister a libellis, the magistrate in charge of petitions addressed to the emperor Claudius, who had sent Seneca into exile. Sure enough, the consolation also includes a good degree of praise for Claudius, obviously with the aim of ingratiating the emperor (whom Seneca later on criticizes harshly in his Apocolocyntosis). Liz finds a creative way to interpret Seneca’s words about Claudius in the letter to Polybium coherently with the alleged main purpose of the letter, consoling Polybium, and with Stoic philosophy more generally. I admire her attempt, though for once I have trouble sympathizing with Seneca. Nonetheless, the letter is interesting in its own regard for what it tells us about how Seneca conceived of the bond of brotherhood, and we shall discuss it from that angle.

To begin with, Seneca uses the word pietas to characterize the relationship between brothers. This is a reciprocal virtue that is supposed to hold between any family members, but the Romans idealized the relationship between brothers and made it the model for all other close relationships, including friendship. (This despite — or perhaps because — the fact that, ahem, Rome was founded on a fratricide…) Indeed, there were “fraternal” (from the Latin word for brother) orders, such as the Fratres Arvales, that were built on the idea that its members would behave as brothers toward other members, even though they did not have blood relations. Seneca himself had by all accounts an affectionate relationship with his brothers, who supported each other in private as well as political life.

As he did in his letter to Marcia, which we discussed last time, Seneca helps himself to the Stoic idea of a cosmopolis, framing familial brotherhood as part and parcel of the more general notion that we are all brothers and sisters. As he puts it elsewhere:

“Let us embrace two states in our minds — one great and truly shared in which gods and men are held together, in which we do not look to this or that corner, but measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other into which the circumstance of our birth enrols us.” (De Otio, IV.1)

Gloyn immediately makes a parallel with Epictetus’ well known conception of the different roles we play in society, which I have discussed when covering Brian Johnson’s book on that topic.

In the ad Polybium, Seneca draws his interlocutor’s attention to the idea of a cosmopolis inhabited by sages, not because he thinks he or Polybium are actually sages, but because they can both derive inspiration and consolation from the thought of a perfect society of wise people:

“Let tears flow, but let them stop as well; let growns be drawn out from your deepest soul, but let them be ended too; govern your mind so that you are able to commend yourself to wise men and to brothers.” (XVIII.6)

Philosophy, for Seneca, equips us to deal with adversity of any kind, but he says very explicitly that its point is not to turn us into unfeeling and caring robots, contra one of the most pernicious stereotypes about Stoicism:

“I would never demand from you that you do not grieve completely. I know that certain men can be found, with harsh rather than brave wisdom, who deny that the wise man will feel pain. To me, these men do not seem to ever have fallen into misfortune of this kind, or else fortune would have beaten arrogant reason out of them and forced them even unwillingly to admit the truth.” (XVIII.5)

Next is were Liz is very charitable (perhaps, as I said, too charitable) to Seneca. She suggests that Seneca portrays the emperor Claudius as a figure endowed with divine power within the Stoic universe, symbolizing reason itself, which makes possible the creation and continuation of the cosmopolis. Never mind that the actual Claudius — despite the magistral dramatic interpretation by Derek Jacobi — was nothing like a paragon of reason and virtue. Still, Claudius can offer consolation to Polybius because he too has lost his brother, Germanicus.

Gloyn then builds a good argument to the effect that Seneca is using both the concept of cosmopolis and that of oikeiôsis — again, as he did in the ad Marciam — to encourage Polybium to see things from a broader perspective, considering not just his actual brother, but to expand his circles of “appropriation” further and further from his immediate family. Seneca says that Polybius has an obligation to model good behavior, to be an exemplum, for everyone. Regardless of how much progress we have made toward virtue, unless we are sages we can all use good examples to imitate. But just as in the letter to his mother, ad Helviam, Seneca also stresses that our impact is greatest with people who are close to us, toward whom we have a special duty to model virtuous behavior. Because of his focus on brotherhood, incidentally, Seneca again flaunts standard Roman moral education, which relied on the almost mythical figure of the stern pater familias, more than on brothers and mothers.

Liz quotes Martha Nussbaum here, to the effect that for the Stoics, relationships that we normally think of as strongly asymmetrical and hierarchical were no such thing. For instance, the relationship between teacher and pupil, which in standard Roman conception was very much one way, is presented by the Stoics as far more symmetrical (thus anticipating modern pedagogical approaches), a situation in which the student has a duty to develop his own skills, not simply to absorb whatever the teacher tells him. (Note to self: must bring this up with my own students…)

Back to Seneca’s secondary motives for writing the letter, Gloyn points out that having established that virtue is a collaborative project, and that brothers have a duty to help each other, it makes sense that Seneca expects his cosmopolitan brother, Polybius, to intercede with Claudius (remember, bearer of reason and virtue!) in order to recall Seneca from exile. (As we know, historically Seneca was indeed recalled from Corsica, but through the influence of Agrippina, Nero’s mother, who in the meantime had married her uncle, Claudius.)

Interestingly, one of the approaches Seneca uses to plead his case with Polybius is the observation that he has been relegated to an awful place, surrounded by people whom he cannot engage in philosophical discourse. This sounds pretty snoddy, of course. And moreover, isn’t the place where one lives a preferred or dispreferred indifferent for the Stoics? Doesn’t Marcus say that one can live well “even in a palace,” if one has too? (Meditations, V.16) Yes, but Liz wants to read philosophy, and not just personal gain, in Seneca’s writings, so she points out that:

“From a Stoic perspective Seneca’s complaint is fully justified. One of the necessary conditions for maintaining his animus [mind], and thus his ability to engage with reason, is interaction with his spiritual brothers who help him continue to progress toward virtue; isolation actively hinders that process. Without his animus, Seneca is unable to access the broader network of the cosmopolis or to develop ‘the possibilities inherent in our rational nature’ in his journey toward sagehood.” (p. 107)

Perhaps, but it still smells more like special pleading to me than what a Stoic would coherently going to argue. (And, to be fair, Epictetus also warns us about the quality of the company we keep, in Enchiridion XXXIII.6) Then again, I made the point before that Seneca was no sage, and that he knew it very well. So let’s cut the fellow a bit of slack, shall we?

Gloyn uses Seneca’s Stoic plea with Polybium, together with similar references he makes in both the other two letters of consolation, to ask a serious question about Stoic philosophy in general: is Seneca implying that one cannot become virtuous unless one is nurtured by a family (mother, brothers, or, as we shall see soon in this series, father)? Her argument is that a family is not necessary, but the proficiens does need some sort of supportive network, of which a family is just the most common type, in order to develop virtue:

“Since the family is the first community we belong to, or even unknowingly or for a brief period of time, it serves as the paradigmatic community through which ideas of moral growth are articulated. Other forms of community can provide the support required for ethical development, as the Epistulae Morales demonstrate; however, the prominence of the biological family and its relationship to virtue in the consolation is caused by the comfort that the texts offer for the loss of family members.” (p. 108)

But hold on a minute! Doesn’t this make Stoicism pretty much indistinguishable from Aristotelianism? Aren’t the Peripatetics the one who argue that some externals are necessary for the eudaimonic life? Yes, but the Stoics never argued — and they couldn’t have, on penalty of absurdity — that virtue develops in a vacuum. At the very least one needs teachers or models, a functional developing brain, and language (without which there is no philosophy, only instinct).

What differentiate the Stoics, then, is what happens after the developmental stage: for Aristotle one cannot be eudaimon unless he continues to have at least some externals (wealth, health, good looks…) throughout his life. For the Stoics, only virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, understood as the life worth living. The rest is preferred, but not required. (For more on this see here and here, as well as my detailed treatment of Larry Becker’s book.)

(Next: the mystery of marriage.)

Stoicism and natural law

natural lawFor some time people have asked me to comment on the relationship between the concept of natural law (and the related one of natural rights) and Stoicism. Part of the reason is that I profess to be a Stoic, and yet I reject the idea of natural law, which if didn’t exactly originate with the Stoics, was certainly greatly elaborated put on the map by them. What gives? The final prompt to sit down and write this was actually a recent, shall we say forceful exchange that I have had with Skeptic’s editor Michael Shermer, who is an advocate of natural rights. (The article that started our discussion was published in Scientific American; here is my first response; this is Michael’s response to me; and this is my response to his response.) This post will not cover the full history and philosophical debates on natural law (a comprehensive article can be found here), but will rather focus on the early versions of the concept, and especially on Stoicism — ancient and modern.

Ius naturale, or lex naturalis, asserts that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature, endowed by God or other transcendent source, but understandable by way of human reason. In a sense, then, moral natural law is something like scientific laws: in traditional views, up to Newton included, laws of nature in the scientific sense were thought of as being given by a Creator God (that is why they were referred to as “laws”), but human beings are smart enough to grasp them. My critical argument later in this post hinges on two propositions: I reject the notion of transcendent sources, and I don’t think natural moral laws — whatever they may be — are anything like laws of nature in the scientific sense.

Alfred Whitehead famously said that much of Western philosophy can be understood as a series of footnotes to Plato. Sure enough, people have attempted to pin the origin of the concept of natural law on Plato. The major sources are the Symposium and the Republic, especially the latter, in which Plato develops his idea of the Forms, and particularly the Form of the Good. This has (somehow) mind-independent existence, and yet can be grasped by human beings (especially philosophers, when they manage to get out of the mythical cave). The ideal Republic, says Plato, is “a city which would be established in accordance with nature.” (428e9) Still, Plato certainly did not have an explicit theory of natural law, and uses the term only rarely (in Gorgias 484 and Timaeus 83e).

The next, more convincing, candidate, is Aristotle. He does talk about natural rights in the Nicomachean Ethics (book V), but a lot of what is attributed to Aristotle in this case is the result of a conflation between natural law and natural rights by Thomas Aquinas, who also influenced (not for the better) the early medieval translations of Aristotle, once his works were recovered through the influence of the Muslim world. Still, Aristotle does explicitly talk about natural law in his Rhetoric, where he distinguishes between a “particular” law that varies from country to country and a “common” law that is in accordance to nature. However, some scholars suggest that Aristotle treated natural law as a potential strategy in rhetorical discourse, not as a thick metaphysical concept.

Which brings us to the Stoics and to Cicero, who really put the concept on the map. The ancient Stoics, as is well known, were pantheists. They thought that the universe is a living organism, which they called god. We are literally bits and pieces of the divine, and very special bits and pieces at that, since we participate in the highest version of the all-pervading pneuma (breath), the Logos, the ability to think rationally. For the Stoics, then, natural law simply meant the workings of the cosmos, which we are capable of apprehending via our sharing in the Logos. To live according to nature, for them, meant to live following an understanding of human nature, and human nature is the nature of a social being capable of reason.

“And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things. … Diogenes [of Babylon] then expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is natural. Archedemus says the end is to live in the performance of all befitting actions.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.85-88)

As I’ve pointed out in the past, this is not a simple appeal to nature, which would be a logical fallacy. The Stoics were too damn good logicians to fall for that! They did argue that whatever is natural is good, as it manifestly isn’t (anger, for instance, is natural, but the Stoics famously thought of it as a destructive emotion, to be avoided). Rather, the thought is more sophisticated: it begins with certain observations about the nature of the world and of humanity, and works its way, by philosophical reasoning, to what it means to act in a way that is consonant with both.

English historian A.J. Carlyle highlighted one of the major consequences of Stoic thought about natural law:

“There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness as the change from the theory of Aristotle to the later philosophical view represented by Cicero and Seneca. … We think that this cannot be better exemplified than with regard to the theory of the equality of human nature.” (A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, vol. 1. Edinburgh. pp. 8–9, 1903)

For his part, Charles H. McIlwain observes:

“The idea of the equality of men is the most profound contribution of the Stoics to political thought … its greatest influence is in the changed conception of law that in part resulted from it.” (The Growth of Political Thought in the West: From the Greeks to the End of the Middle Ages. New York. pp. 114–15, 1932)

Cicero also thought that natural law obliges us to work for the betterment of humankind. In De Legibus he argued that both justice and law originate in nature, and that it is the human mind that can grasp what nature tells us and act accordingly. In De Republica he writes:

“There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong. It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones. No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether. Neither the people or the senate can absolve from it. It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.” (V.29-30)

And here is where I’m going to disagree. First off, if we want to draw an analogy between moral and scientific natural laws we immediately get into trouble, because of what Cicero writes here: “It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones.” That certainly goes for moral law, but not for scientific ones. You may disagree with the law of gravity, say, but you will nonetheless going to comply with it. This is an important disanalogy, because it hints at the idea that the word “law” is used in multiple ways, and that one should think of natural moral laws as more akin to what is called positive law (i.e., the kind of laws we come up with to regulate actual societal interactions) than to something unavoidable (or inalienable) like scientific laws.

Second, and more important, I am not a pantheist, so I don’t think that the universe is an organism with its own aims, an organism whose intentions need to be read by human mind so that we can act accordingly. The universe just is, and it is indifferent to us, it provides neither guidance nor hindrance, from a moral perspective.

But if that is the case, why do I still call myself a Stoic? What happened to “live according to nature”? I still think the Stoics got enough right to feel comfortable within their philosophy. What they got right is the idea that morality is about improving social living, that human beings are quintessentially social animals (we do not flourish, and in fact barely survive, in isolation), and that we are indeed equipped with the ability to reason about things. So it is still perfectly coherent to say that living according to nature means to apply reason to social living, just as Marcus says:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it? … Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.13 and IV.24)

The problem is that reason and facts about human nature are not in a simple, one-to-one correspondence. You can’t read what you ought to do straight from what is. You can, however, bridge the so-called is/ought gap, by using facts about human nature as empirical axioms, and then deploying a particular philosophical framework, such as Stoicism, to arrive at guidance for ethical action. The upshot is that you can still do Stoic philosophy. The catch is that there is more than one way to translate facts about human nature into philosophical moral precepts (in philosophy this phenomenon is called under-determination). Which means that if Stoicism doesn’t do it for you, you can try Buddhism, or Christianity. Heck, even Epicureanism might do it! From this perspective, it makes no sense to ask whether Stoicism is “true” (that’s a category mistake). But it makes sense to say that it is beautiful, coherent, and useful.

Seneca on anger: the Medea


Medea played by Maria Callas in the homonimous movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969)

Medea is one of those perennially fascinating characters of Greco-Roman lore: a “barbarian” (i.e., non-Greek) who falls in love with the argonaut Jason, helps him steal the fabled golden fleece by betraying her father and killing her brother — on condition that Jason later marry her. Once back to safety, Jason decides that it is proper for him to marry a Greek princess, Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Blinded by furor at the betrayal, Medea kills Glauce, her father Creon, and then the two children she had had with Jason, in what she thought was “just” punishment for her former lover.

The classical tale is told by Euripides, who first produced it in 431 BCE. But Seneca rewrote the story (full text here), in a version that is both more sympathetic to the title character, and that is used to teach a dramatic lesson about Stoic precepts, especially concerned with the pathos (unhealthy emotion) of anger. I came across a fascinating paper by Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich, published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy in 2017, which analyzes Seneca’s Medea in light of the same author’s systematic treatment of anger in De Ira (which I have covered in three installments here).

Braicovich begins by suggesting that Medea is the fulfilment of a promise made by Seneca in De Ira, where he says:

“It’s necessary to prove [anger’s] disgusting and bestial character and to make you see how monstrous it is for one human being to rage against another, and how violently anger attacks, dealing destruction at the cost of its own destruction and seeking to sink those whom it can drown only if it drowns with them. … We’ll succeed in avoiding anger if we promptly lay out before us all of anger’s vices and form a sound estimation of it. It must be arraigned before us and condemned; its evils must be searched out and made plain; it must be set side by side with the worst vices, so the sort of thing it is becomes clear.” (III.3.2, III.5.3)

In other words, the Medea, according to Braicovich, is a didactic account of the content of De Ira, an example of philosophy explicated by way of drama. Braicovich presents a handy list of the basic elements of anger according to Seneca, which can guide us in reading both De Ira and Medea. The list includes:

(i) unlike other pathos, anger expresses itself in a multiplicity of guises;

(ii) anger attacks anything in sight, once it has been deprived of its original target;

(iii) a person under the spell of anger acts diametrically opposite to the way of the sage, with great emotional fluctuations;

(iv) the angry person is willing to sacrifice his own life or well being in the name of revenge, or what he perceives as “justice”;

(v) the angry person’s understanding of what counts as just reparation is entirely disproportionate to the original offense;

(vi) once unleashed, anger is not responsive to reason, and it cannot be controlled;

(vii) anger can be restrained, often temporarily, only by another passion.

Interestingly, Braicovich maintains that what we should be paying special attention while reading Seneca’s Medea is not so much the obvious, i.e., what Medea does, but the unstated: what she fails to do because she cannot bring herself to do it. Specifically, she is not able to let go of her hatred, to forgive Jason for his betrayal, to adopt Stoic indifference to the failure of another human being, which, after all, is not under her control, and should therefore not affect her eudaimonia.

An important point to highlight is that, contra to what the Chorus itself hints at in the play, Medea is actually not mad at all. Rather, her conclusion that the just way to avenge herself lies in killing the queen and her own two children is the result of careful reasoning she has with herself in a monologue, reasoning that includes two premises: (i) an injury has been committed; and (ii) revenge must be obtained. This is in accordance to the Stoic theory of psychology, according to which emotions are partly cognitive in nature, and the pathos are, therefore, the result of bad reasoning. (See the book by Margaret Graver on emotions in Stoicism; and also modern findings from cognitive science, in agreement with the basic Stoic notion.)

Medea does not want irrational revenge, she wants revenge that is informed by justice, proportioned to the crime committed by Jason (in her mind). This, according to Braicovich, makes the Medea more a play about justice, revenge, and punishment, than about irrationality and emotions:

“That her criteria of what constitutes due reparation is completely disproportionate is, incidentally, what Seneca intends to stress: angry people are — among other things — terrible judges of the actual relevance and consequences of (what they perceive) as injuries or injustices. … Medea is not unresponsive to every reason, she is just unresponsive to right-reason.” (p. 112)

In De Ira, Seneca describes precisely this unresponsiveness of anger to reason, by way of a three-step analysis:

“To make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement — a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that ‘I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed’ or ‘this man should be punished, since he’s committed a crime.’ The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. We cannot avoid that first mental jolt with reason’s help […]. That second movement, which is born from deliberation, is eradicated by deliberation.” (II.4.1)

(Incidentally, I recommend, if one is so inclined, to read Braicovich’s full paper, particularly the citations from Seneca, which are given first in the original, beautiful Latin, then translated into English in footnotes.)

Braicovich points out that Seneca is able to do in the Medea something he could not quite achieve in De Ira: bring up, in dramatic fashion, the distance separating what anger actually is (to the reasonable external observer) and what the angry person (mistakenly) thinks it is. Not only Medea doesn’t think that what she is doing is irrational, she thinks it is moral!

The paper also discusses Seneca’s response to Aristotle, who famously argued that a bit of anger is a good thing, now and then. (See my take here.) There are, fundamentally, two classes of reasons why Seneca thinks the Aristotelian analysis fails: (i) anger is inadvisable on practical grounds, because the angry person ends up doing things that will likely injure herself or her loved ones (obviously, in the case of Medea); and (ii) anger is an illegitimate, because unjust, response to an offense, and therefore inadmissible on ethical grounds.

If not anger, then what? Seneca says we should replace that destructive emotion with a range of alternatives, which include: indifference, forgiveness, and repaying aggression with friendship (note that these are in order of increased commitment on the part of the injured party, and so more and more difficult to implement).

Braicovich rightly observes that Seneca’s deeper message is not just that anger is destructive for the individual, it undermines the very basis of a society based on reasoned discourse. In his time as in modern ones, it is politicians who often react in anger, or — worse, cynically exploit the anger of the masses — and create dangerous situations that easily bring about injustice, if not outright war.

But, a reasonable objection might go, isn’t Seneca approach dangerously close to letting people get away with an injustice? Aren’t indifference, forgiveness, and friendship to the offender ways in which we forgo the right to just redress? Not at all. One of the virtues of Stoicism is justice, but guided by reason. As the Roman writer eloquently put it:

“An objection: ‘Are you telling me that a good man doesn’t become angry if he sees his father being murdered, his mother raped?’ No, he will not become angry, but he’ll be their champion and defender. Why are you afraid that a proper sense of devotion won’t goad him sufficiently, even without anger? … A good man will follow up his obligations undisturbed and undeterred, and in doing the things worthy of a good man he will do nothing unworthy of a man.” (III.12.5-6)

And this ought to be a fortiori true in the case of a just state.

The ethics of the family in Seneca, I: model mothers

ethics of family in SenecaWhat did the Stoics think about the family? Good question, and it depends on which Stoics we are talking about. The early ones, Greek, and directly influenced by the Cynics, and thus of rather free customs? Or the late ones, Roman, and definitely more prudish? They certainly had widely different opinions about sex, for one. This new series of commentaries will focus on what Seneca had to say about the family, based on a delightful book by Liz Gloyn, from the University of London: The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (Cambridge Press, 2017). There are six chapters in the book, covering mothers, brothers, father vs sons, marriage, and even the imperfections of the Imperial family. Let’s get started with Gloyn’s treatment of the concept of motherhood, as exemplified in two of Seneca’s three letters of consolation: to his friend Marcia, and to his own mother, Helvia.

Perhaps the two most fundamental points made by Gloyn in her reading of the Consolatione ad Marciam and the Consolatione ad Helviam are that Seneca’s view of the role of mothers in the family diverges substantially from the standard Roman take at the time (in what we would today perhaps call a more progressive direction, though don’t think radical feminism); and that such divergence is the direct result of Seneca’s application of the fundamental Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, the “appropriation” of feelings toward others that is the basis for the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism. Motherhood, then, becomes the starting point for the path toward virtue that characterizes the Stoic proficiens (the Latin term for prokopton, the one who makes progress).

In fact, both letters of consolation, according to Gloyn, depart radically from the well established genre: in ad Marciam, Seneca acknowledges the standard practice of giving precepts followed by examples, and then ignores it. In ad Helviam, since it addresses exile rather than death, he needs to deploy different kinds of arguments to console his mother. Seneca, it turns out, was far more radical and original than he is usually given credit for.

Contra common stereotype, Gloyn points out, Roman women had a significant amount of power and autonomy during the empire, since they could inherit and dispose of their inheritance, thus being financially independent. They were also expected to be of moral guidance to their children, indeed much more so than taking care of all the other mundane aspects of child care that modern parents engage in, because those were deputized to slaves. (Obviously, we are talking about patrician women, here.)

The mother-son bond in particular was very strong, even after the son had left the household, as he was expected to regularly pay visits to his mother, for instance. In return, a mother’s social status was heightened by her son’s achievements, so there was a lifelong collaboration between the two, in a sense.

I think Gloyn is right in applying the lens of oikeiôsis to Seneca’s analysis of the family, and in particular of motherhood, even though he does not mention the concept explicitly in the two letters of consolation we are examining now:

“Oikeiôsis describes the process which gives an individual the ability to care for others. This process starts at the very beginning of a being’s existence, with the awareness of self and a desire to preserve that self as best fits the constitution of the individual. … The initial realisation of concern for one’s own well-being then develops into a concern for the well-being of others, best exemplified by the devotion of parents to their offspring.” (p. 34)

Obviously, then, the process of oikeiôsis normally begins within the family, and makes the family — and, in the Roman context, mothers — a crucial engine for moral development toward virtue. Importantly, Seneca famously tells Marcia (at XVI.1) that women have the same capacity as men to be virtuous, as well as to endure grief and hardship. It is a rare statement, in antiquity, of the equal worth of women from an intellectual (since virtue is the result of applied reason) and moral perspectives.

Marcia had lost one of her sons, Metilius, and was still grieving after three years, which is what prompts Seneca to write to her (a politically dangerous move, by the way, since Marcia was the daughter of the historian Cremutius Cordus, who had committed suicide after being accused of treason). Seneca begins by acknowledging the usual pattern of consolation letters, whereby precepts precede examples, and then immediately announces that he will go about it the other way around.

The Stoics had a reputation, shall we say, for being frank about the human condition (especially Epictetus!), so it is no surprise that Seneca also reminds Marcia of the reality of the situation: death is part of life, even when it is unexpected, as in the case of a parent whose son dies. Still, it is natural for parents — mothers as well as fathers — to grieve for their offspring, a point he had made even about the wise man in Letters IC.18. In the specific case of Marcia, Seneca draws a parallel between the woman and Nature herself: she, like Nature, gives birth; but what is borne also must die, thus continuing the endless cycle and recycle that is a fundamental component of the cosmos.

“Marcia as mother figure in the consolation reveals two things about Stoic motherhood. First, she can take consolation from her similarity to Nature. Second, she demonstrates that mothers perform the role of Nature for their children — as Nature cares for us, so mothers care for their offspring.” (p. 42)

Interestingly, Gloyn points out that ad Marciam serves as a double consolation, as Seneca actually spends a significant amount of time talking about Marcia’s father, who as I said was prosecuted for treason (because in his historical writings he praised Brutus and Cassius, two of the conspirators against Julius Caesar). Seneca’s tone here is yet another strong hint that suicide is admissible for the Stoics, in order to escape intolerable situations.

The fascinating thing, which lends support to Gloyn’s interpretation of the letter of consolation, is that Seneca brings up earlier, and spends more time on, Marcia’s father than her son, who after all is the alleged reason for the letter in the first place. This is better understood, again, within the framework of oikeiôsis, as the mother-son relationship is just as important — from the point of view of virtue — as that of the mother to her own father:

“The parent–child relationship occupies the same circle of proximity as the child–parent relationship [in Hierocles’ famous metaphor]. Her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her parents should be the same as her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her children, for they stand in the same relation to her.” (p. 45)

Indeed, at XXV.3 Seneca explicitly directs Marcia to behave as if both her father and her son were watching over her, united by the same bond of family and virtue:

“So conduct yourself, Marcia, as if you were placed under the eyes of your father and son, not as you knew them, but so much more noble and stationed in the highest place.”

It is noticeable that Seneca departs significantly from the standard Roman view here. He does not agree with the idea that losing a son is far more tragic than losing a father because, as the Romans saw it, the mother’s prospects for social prestige would be hampered far more by the first than by the second loss. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the fact that a loss has occurred of two human beings toward whom Marcia had a similar relationship and bond. This is also a strategic move: instead of giving Marcia a lecture based on precepts, Seneca subtly draws her attention to the fact that she overcame her grief for the death of her father; similarly, she can do it with the death of her son.

The second letter of consolation, to his mother Helvia, is obviously very different, both because of who the recipient is, and because of the underlying theme: exile rather than death. That said, let us remember that for the Romans there was a close kinship between exile and death, where the former was perceived as a kind of living death, which is why to be punished by exile was far graver than it may sound to our modern ears.

Seneca starts out by assuring his mother that he is not suffering in exile, in great part because his study of philosophy prepared him for just such eventuality. He then goes on to praise his mother for having selflessly managed the interests of her sons over the years. While this may sound natural to us, Seneca stresses that she did so with no regard to her own advantage, which was not the Roman way. But it is, again, what one would expect on the basis of the principle of oikeiôsis, whereby the interests of others, especially when they are close to our direct circle of influence, are literally to be taken as if they were our own interests. Sure enough, Seneca points out that Helvia took pride in the achievements of her brother too, as if he were no different from her sons. Another departure from standard Roman attitude. And the picture is further reinforced by Seneca’s description of the relationship he and his brothers have with their mother: one of open intellectual dialogue, frequent association, and mutual trust. Seneca even regrets that Helvia’s husband did not allow her to pursue the study of philosophy, which would have further enriched their relationship, as well as helped Helvia in the current situation:

“Would that my father, the best of men, had been less given to the custom of the ancestors and had wanted you to be educated with the principles of wisdom rather than be introduced to them! You would not now have to obtain help against fortune but produce it.” (XVII.4)

In fact, he advises his mother to get back to such studies now. Moreover, as Gloyn says:

“Seneca requires Helvia to play an active role in her own consolation by putting the theory of oikeiôsis into practice: he encourages [her in her role of] grandmother to step into the shoes of a deceased mother [her daughter] and provide a young girl with moral guidance that would otherwise be absent.” (p. 56)

Another novel characteristic of ad Helviam is that Seneca doesn’t use examples of virtuous behavior from the past — as he does in ad Marciam — but rather from his own family, including, for instance, his aunt, who he describes as having stepped into the role of mother, when it was necessary. He attributes to his aunt the Stoic cardinal virtues of prudence, moderation, courage, and justice, thus stressing both the general message that the family is the locus where we learn the first steps in the lifelong process of oikeiôsis, and his unusual view of women as (at least potentially, and actually in some specific instances) equal to men when it comes to virtue:

“Virtus has multiple meanings, as it can refer either to the specific virtue of ‘manliness’ or courage, or to moral excellence more generally … For Seneca not only to attribute virtus to his aunt but to encourage his mother towards the same characteristic indicates a slippage of conventional gender boundaries.” (p. 61)

According to Gloyn, Seneca’s approach here is unique among extant Stoic sources. He sees the family — men and women — as a crucial source of moral education, from which it is particularly appropriate to draw examples to follow, as these examples will be far more effective than distant role models, like the classic one of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers.

(Next: a band of brothers, De Consolatione ad Polybium)

Stoic advice: is it ethical to self-promote?

self promotion[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My question has to do with “career” and what it takes to get ahead. I am 46 and have not had a traditional career but have managed to work in fields that, at least on paper, were in accordance with my values and interests. Until now. I am finding myself in a place where I need to change jobs as I feel stuck in one that does not fulfill me completely. But, in today’s job market, sending cv’s and application letters does not seem to be enough. I’ve already done that and have not been called once for an interview. My profile and work experience are — I, maybe presumptuously, believe — varied and interesting but I don’t get called, while acquaintances with a similar or less qualified profile are reaching top positions.

They seem to be able to use connections, to show their ambitions, to walk on other people’s feet in a way I am not. So apart from working on the envy I regularly, shamefully, feel, I have been reflecting on the moral aspect of it. In my view, my accomplishments, experience, dedication to my work, concrete results in the projects I have led should speak for themselves. I should not need to move heaven and earth, to get vague contacts to make recommendations for me, or to pull strings to get an interview. But these and putting yourself “out there” seem to be the only way to succeed. In any case, be it pride, fear, or a will to act in accordance with some principles, but I am very reluctant to do that. Yet the result is also frustration. What is the Stoic take on that?

I face a similar situation myself, pretty much every day. Not because I’m looking for a job, as thankfully I have a great one that I have no intention to leave, fate permitting. But because I have decided long ago that an important part of what I want to do in life is public outreach. And you ain’t gonna do much of that if you ain’t got a public.

Like you, I feel like my writings — which I consider not stellar, but nevertheless above average — should speak for themselves. People should read my blogs and my books, and come to my lectures (I’m writing this in St. Louis, MO, right before giving a talk at the Society for Ethical Culture here, and just after a stint, last night, at the local Skeptics in the Pub).

And yet my success is modest, and I see a number of writers (I could give you names, but that would be petty) who are doing much better than I am, even though their writings are — in my opinion — no better, and sometimes decidedly worse, than mine.

Moreover, whenever I get a new book contract (at the moment I’m co-writing a book of Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez) the publisher, naturally, wants to know how I am going to sell it. They send you the dreadful “author’s questionnaire,” which is a long document where you need to list every media outlet that might be interested in promoting your book, every personality that may endorse it, every newspaper or magazine that may (favorably, of course!) review it.

And then there is the social media aspect. Few people would read my blog posts, or buy my books, if I did not regularly promote them on my Twitter account (speaking of which, here it is!) or my “official” Facebook page (here!). (What the hell, I even have a Google+ page.)

All of the above just to make the point that your situation is actually fairly common, and that I have asked myself the same question, though the stakes for me are lower than for you. My answer to myself, Stoically speaking, is to apply the test of virtue: selling books, reaching a wider audience, or — in your case — getting out of a job you don’t like — are all preferred indifferents. Should we pursuit, them, then? There is a two-step procedure we can apply: first, does the pursuit of said preferred indifferents run against our own practice of virtue? Second, if the answer to the first question is no, does such pursuit allow us to be more virtuous?

The first question is more fundamental because a Stoic should never pursue, under any circumstances, a course of action that is not virtuous, i.e., not prudent, temperate, just, and courageous. Let’s apply this to your situation: asking people you barely known for recommendations, networking, and generally putting yourself “out there” is not cowardly or unjust (so long as you are not doing it by unfairly undercutting others). It is temperate if you do it up to a point, as I strive to do with respect to my publishers’ analogous demands. As for prudence (i.e., practical wisdom) again, so long as you are not acting unethically (for instance, by overselling yourself, or misrepresenting your abilities), you should be good.

The second test is more stringent, setting a higher bar. Suppose you succeed in finding a new job, starting a new career. Is this going to improve your chances of acting virtuously? Maybe, maybe not, depending on what career we are talking about, and how you would pursue it. You don’t provide any information about either your current or potential new career, so it is hard to advice in that respect. But you can use the same criteria, based on the exercise of the four virtues, to answer the question for yourself.

As I said, the second test is more stringent than the first one, but if you really think your new career would be better just for you personally, the first bar is sufficient: so long as you don’t do anything unvirtuous, and so long as your new quest does not distract you from acting virtuously, your are good. The second bar is for advanced students, so to speak.

Another way to look at your conundrum is in terms of Epictetus’ role ethics, which I have discussed in six posts. Epictetus recognized that we have three classes of roles in life: the general role we play as human beings qua members of the human cosmopolis; roles that are given to us (e.g., being someone’s son); and roles we choose (e.g., our career). His take was that the first role trumps all others, so that if in order to be a good son, say, or a good employer, you have to do something unjust, you simply don’t. Your given roles tend to carry a certain duty to perform them: you did not ask to be born, but your parents gave you life, and you owe them something just because of that (although your duties in that respect have limits). Your chosen roles also carry duties, for instance toward your employer (though, again, within limits).

It is your faculty of prohairesis, or judgment, that allows you to navigate the inevitable trade-offs among these roles, which is why its improvement is a major goal of Stoic training. Just remember Epictetus’ words:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Stoicism and Emotion, IX: the tears of Alcibiades, or of Stoicism and remorse

Socrates teaches Alcibiades

Socrates teaches Alcibiades, by François-André Vincent (1776, the angel-like figure on Socrates’ shoulder is, presumably, his daimon)

Alcibiades, the ward of the famous Athenian statesman Pericles, was nineteen years old when Socrates made him cry. Alcibiades (on whom I’m seriously thinking of writing a book) was handsome and smart, and one of the most promising of Socrates’ pupils. On that occasion, however, Socrates shows him clearly just how short of virtue he is, in response to which Alcibiades weeps and begs his mentor to help him live a virtuous life. (We know from subsequent history that it didn’t work out too well.) This is the setting for the last chapter of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, and therefore also for the last of this series of commentaries on her book.

Alcibiades’ reaction presents an interesting structural problem for the Stoic account of emotions. Normally, Stoic theory treats emotional reactions like weeping and begging as inappropriate, because one is reacting to an object outside one’s control as if it were a genuine good. Here, though, Alcibiades’ affective response is triggered by something that is under his control (his character) and that is, in fact, the chief good (virtue, or in his case, lack thereof). So what Alcibiades is experiencing seems to come from a correct assessment of the situation, just like the eupatheiai (the positive, healthy emotions) of the wise person. And yet his response is not that of a wise person. What gives?

To get the problem, it’s helpful to think about why the wise person of Stoic theory does not ever feel remorse (for which the Greek word is metameleia):

“Remorse is distress over acts performed, that they were done in error by oneself. This is an unhappy emotion and productive of conflict. For the extent to which the remorseful person is concerned about what has happened is also the extent to which he is annoyed at himself for having caused it. … [The Stoics] hold that the person of perfect understanding does not repent, since repentance is considered to belong to false assent, as if one had misjudged before.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.11i; 102-3W and Ecl. 2.7.11m;113W)

Remorse, then, is an affective response (“an unhappy condition”), and one that is not compatible with wisdom, because it comes from the belief that what you did was a mistake. But the non-wise (i.e., pretty much all of us) frequently do experience remorse, because we are prone to give assent to false propositions.

One can think of remorse as the judgment that “Because I acted badly, it is now appropriate for me to feel mental pain.” Is this judgment true or false? If the Stoics hold that it is necessarily false, then they need to explain what is wrong with it, since an ordinary person like Alcibiades obviously does act badly at times, and the Stoics’ own theory holds that acting badly is bad for us. Then again, if the judgment may sometimes be true, then it looks as if some forms of emotional response must actually be appropriate for non-wise people.

Provisionally, one could posit that just as the wise person has eupatheiai or good affective responses for present goods (e.g., a virtuous activity in the present) and also for prospective goods and evils, so also the ordinary person might have correct – but still not wise – emotional responses to present evils (her own faults) and again for prospective goods and evils, as follows:

positive emotions among wise and non-wise

Margaret begins the analysis by examining what she terms strategies of consolation. Consolation in times of grief was a standard philosophical practice, famously engaged in by Seneca in three letters to his friends Marcia and Polybius, and to his mother Helvia. Cicero, in his third Tusculan Disputation (at 77), contrasts two approaches to consolation by the early Stoics, Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

Cleanthes, following basic Stoic philosophy, thought that grief is the result of a mistaken judgment (that the object of grief is a true evil, rather than a dispreferred indifferent). It follows that the way to console the grieving person is to attempt to persuade him that he has made an error of evaluation. This, however, will not do, because the distressed person is unlikely to listen to that sort of argument, at least not while he is experiencing the distress. Here Chrysippus sounds eminently pragmatic:

“During the critical period of the inflammation one should not waste one’s efforts over the belief that preoccupies the person stirred by emotion, lest we ruin the cure which is opportune by lingering at the wrong moment over the refutation of the beliefs which preoccupy the mind.” (Origen, Against Celsus 8.51 (SVF 3.474), from Chrysippus, On Emotions, book 4).

Instead, Chrysippus suggests an approach to consolation that skirts the question of whether the bereavement was really an evil and concentrates on convincing the grieving person that mental pain is not, in fact, an appropriate response to evil. This looks at first like a good solution: after all, true grief has both components, a belief about value and a belief about the appropriate response, so removing either belief should work for consolation. The aim is strictly pragmatic, to get the person to calm down for now, in hopes that there may be an opportunity later on to explain why death isn’t really a bad thing.

The strategy runs into trouble, however, when it’s applied to something like remorse. Unlike the person who is weeping because someone has died, the remorseful person has a correct evaluation of the situation. Since the Stoic philosopher now agrees that something bad is present, it’s less clear why she should even be trying to eliminate the feeling of distress.

This focuses our attention squarely on the question of affective response itself. Are the Stoics only saying that the ordinary emotions are wrong because they are based on false judgments of value, or do they also mean to say that the feelings involved in emotion are just inherently wrong?

In the latter part of the chapter, Margaret isolates the specific belief-components that give rise to the feeling-laden response to a situation. These can be presented in two versions, one that applies to all forms of affective response and then a more specific version for mental pain.

[A] (general): If something which is either good or evil is either present or in prospect, it is appropriate for me to undergo some sensed psychophysical movement.

[B] (distress-specific): If an evil is present, it is appropriate for me to undergo a contraction; i.e., to experience mental pain.

Margaret’s position is that the Stoics should not categorically rule out either version, on penalty of running into inconsistencies in their philosophy. To begin with, an across-the-board denial of [A] would mean that normal affective responses are never appropriate in human beings. They would have to say that there is no right way for us to use a capacity that is inherent to human nature, a design feature of the species or (as we might say nowadays) a part of our evolutionary endowment. It really would turn Stoics into the sort of inhuman robotic caricature that they are so often (unjustly) accused of aspiring to.

What about [B], the distress-specific case? Could it be that other categories of feeling have a good use, but mental pain does not? After all, the eupatheiai or “good emotions” of the Stoic sage include forms of feeling that correspond to delight, fear, and desire, but none that corresponds to distress. Does this mean that the feeling of distress is inherently wrong?

Here I find Graver’s analysis both very clever and convincingly rooted in Stoic literature. She argues that the Stoic view is based on a counterfactual statement. The wise person would agree that IF an evil were to be present, THEN it would be appropriate to undergo a “contraction,” i.e., feeling mental pain. But of course the wise person, by definition, is never in the presence of true evil (since the only true evil is lack of virtue), and so the situation remains, for them, a hypothetical. Still, they retain the capacity for mental pain, even if they never have occasion to feel it. The ordinary person does have those occasions, both when we think we are in the presence of evil but really aren’t, and when we are in the presence of a true evil; that is, a moral evil. In the latter case, the feeling of distress is indeed appropriate.

This means that Socrates was entirely right in rebuking Alcibiades, causing in him the “biting” of shame. Indeed, the best known example of a Stoic teacher who uses Socrates’ approach is Epictetus, who often berates his students, presumably with the aim of making them ashamed of their patent lack of wisdom. The goal, of course, is not shame for its own sake, but nudging students to redouble their efforts to improve. What is being deployed here, however, is a prospective, not reactive, form of affect:

“Crucially, moral shame is a eupathic response, a species of caution rather than of fear. … Epictetus clearly holds that ordinary imperfect people have the capacity to be mortified at the prospect of justified censure for their actions in prospect. That capacity may be underdeveloped or willfully ignored, but in many, perhaps most cases it remains available to us and can assist us in choosing appropriate actions.” (p. 208)

What about apatheia, then? Remember that the pathē that Stoics wished to eliminate do correspond to some of what we today call emotions, but that not every emotion is considered a pathos, and therefore not all of them are subject to elimination. The best human condition, that of wisdom, would still have room for many strong feelings, including joy, eagerness for what is good, love, and friendship. Moreover:

“We should remember that the attainment of apatheia is not in itself the goal of personal development. For the founding Stoics the end point of progress was simply that one should come to understand the world correctly. The disappearance of the pathē comes with that changed intellectual condition: one who is in a state of knowledge does not assent to anything false, and the evaluations upon which the pathē depend really are false. … The central and indispensable point of the Stoics’ contribution in ethics and psychology [is] that no rational being wants to believe what is false.” (p. 210)

Susan Fowler as a modern Stoic role model

Susan FowlerBy all accounts Susan Fowler is a remarkable woman. She also happens to be a Stoic, and modern Stoicism certainly needs both contemporary role models and more women. Which is why I decided to profile Fowler on How to Be a Stoic.

Her basic story is well known (and it may soon be the subject of a Hollywood movie, not necessarily an unqualified blessing). Fowler grew up in the rural town of Yarnell, Arizona, the second of seven children by her fundamentalist parents. Her father was an evangelical preacher at the Assemblies of God, and her mother homeschooled her. Feeling deficient in her education, Fowler began to pay frequent visits at the local public library, and eventually picked up Plutarch and the Stoics, which she explicitly credits with directing her focus on what she could actually control in her life.

Eventually, she prepared herself for an exam of admission to university, and was accepted at Arizona State with a full scholarship. But she did not have the necessary prerequisites in math and physics to study astronomy, as she desired. So she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, a top notch private school, where she encountered the same resistance until she successfully appealed to the President of the University. She ended up graduating in physics.

After working as platform engineer and as engineer for data infrastructure, Fowler landed a job at the transportation company Uber. In February 2017 she wrote a blog post about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the company. The post went viral, and led to external probes that confirmed Fowler’s accusations and resulted in the ousting of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, and the removal of tech investors Dave McClure and Justin Caldbeck.

In August of the same year Fowler petitioned the Supreme Court to take her experience into consideration while deliberating on the constitutionality of a (unconscionable, in my modest opinion) corporate practice that requires people to forfeit their right to collective bargain in order to receive a contract of employment.

As a result of her public social actions, Fowler has received a number of recognitions, including being named one of top business and cultural leaders in 2017 by Vanity Fair, and being featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue for 2017.

But what I found most fascinating is a recent post published by Fowler on her blog, entitled “Twenty books that shaped my unconventional life.” She starts at the bottom, steadily proceeding toward n. 1. The list includes Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust (n. 19), The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (n. 18), The Aenied of Virgil (n. 15), Plato’s Republic (n. 13), The Trial by Kafka (n. 12), War and Peace by Tolstoy (n. 11), Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (n. 8), Plutarch’s Lives (n. 7), and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (n. 3), among others she shares with my own list of favorites.

But what struck me the most were n. 4, 2, and 1 on Fowler’s top 20. Respectively: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. It’s worth reading in full what she has to say about these three entries:

“The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-king, have been my constant companion over the years as I sought to find my place in the world around me. Who better to learn how to structure your life from than one of the wisest, most humble, most self-aware leaders who has ever lived? My journey toward self-awareness, toward applying philosophy to my everyday life, was entirely inspired by Marcus Aurelius.”

“Marcus Aurelius was my first introduction to Stoicism, but it was Epictetus’ The Enchiridion that had served as my guide to living a good, intellectually rich life. Epictetus’ teachings are life-changing if you apply them to your life, and it is Epictetus’ own life story that gives them such significance to me: he was a crippled slave, and he found a way to live that would allow him to be free in all the ways that mattered. We live in circumstances that are so far beyond our own control, and so often we fight them relentlessly, only to lose and become bitter and miserable because they are beyond our control. Epictetus offers freedom to every one of us: determine for yourself, he says, what is yours and what is beyond your control, and then work and care only for the things that are yours, and you will always be free. What is ours? Our minds, our thoughts, our actions, our intellectual pursuits. If we cultivate those things, nobody can ever take away our freedom.”

“No book has shaped my life more than Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I believe with all of my heart that it is the greatest thing that has ever been written, and there is no way that I can do it justice except to encourage everyone I know to read it. It is the answer to the question of how we should live our lives, a powerful call to spend our days on things that truly matter. I have been meditating on this book and learning from it for so long that Seneca has become my closest friend and wisest mentor. He has done for me what Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and Aristotle did for him: he has not forced me to die but has taught me how to die, he has not exhausted my years but has contributed his years to mine, and he has never once sent me away empty-handed.”

That’s why Susan Fowler has become one of my Stoic role models.