Stoicism and Emotion, VIII: city of friends and lovers

the completed arch metaphor“Some things are transformed by growth. After many additions which merely increase them in size, the final addition works at last a change: it imparts to them a new state of being, different from before. It is a single stone that makes an arch — the keystone, which is slotted in between the sloping sides and by its coming binds them together. Why does the final addition accomplish so much, though small in itself? Because it is not only an addition but a completion.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII.15-16)

This beautiful metaphor by Seneca sets the tone for the beginning of Margaret Graver’s treatment of friendship and love in her book on Stoicism and Emotion, which we have been discussing of late. The last stone in the arch represents human maturation: when our character is well formed we get to realize a number of potentialities that had been there from the beginning, but could not be actuated. Our opinions are brought into harmony with each other and with the world, we no longer assent to false notions, and we acquire inner stability and beauty. It is important to note that the mature human being – that is, the wise person – is still a human being: the finished arch is made of the same materials as the unfinished one. And yet the final state is quite different from the previous ones. The same holds true for mature relationships, including relationships with friends and lovers.

The Stoics thought that things like marriage and political action are in accordance with human nature. We are rational, communal, and gregarious animals, which means that we want relationships with others. Remember also that we have a natural tendency toward ethical and intellectual development, because of innate tendencies and preferences that are the starting point of virtue, and because of an natural orientation (oikeiôsis) toward others. Moreover, this sense of kinship with others is extended by way of reason to the entire membership in the human polis, the basis of the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism. There is a problem, though:

“Until wisdom is actually attained … the usual epistemic limitations remain in force. The natural sense of attachment is subject to perversion, as are all the starting points, and for this reason the imperfect person’s sense of what is appropriate in dealing with others is quite unreliable.” (p. 177)

One consequence of this is that we can’t live a good life just by going with the strong emotions that come out of our personal relationships. As Epictetus told the sick child’s father, reacting emotionally to the situation sometimes gets in the way of the more truly human response, which is to think about what the other person actually needs. But it doesn’t follow that wise relationships have to be devoid of feeling. Some of the texts Graver looks at suggest that there is an affective dimension even in the ideal form of Stoic friendship. The point isn’t to suppress emotions, it is to develop the proper emotions:

“The ideal form of human relationship is conceived not only as a mutual disposition to act in one another’s best interests but also as a disposition to respond affectively to one another. We are to imagine the wise interacting with one another in daily life and, in the context of those interactions, experiencing feelings of warmth and affection.” (p. 179)

An important point made by Margaret is that for the Stoics friendship was an intrinsic good, that is, something that is good in and of itself, not just because it allows us to exercise our virtue (like other, instrumental goods do, such as wealth, education, and so forth). Stobaeus says that a friend is “choiceworthy for his own sake” (Ecl. II.7.11c; 94-95W), while Cicero states that among the wise each person “values his friend’s reason equally with his own” (On Ends II.70). When Zeno was asked “what is a friend?” he replied “another I” (Diogenes Laertius, VII.23). Indeed, in Zeno’s Republic the wise persons are all, naturally, friends, and each wishes good things for the others, for their own sake:

“The notion of a community of the wise was important in Stoic political thought at all periods, whether that community was conceived as in Zeno’s Republic, as an idealized version of existing Greek cities, or in a broader sense as comprising all wise persons wherever they happen to live.” (p. 182)

One radical claim made by the Stoics is that there is no trade-off between friendship and the self-sufficiency of the individual. Seneca makes two distinct arguments in this regard, one a bit more convincing than the other. They are both found in the ninth letter to Lucilius, on friendship.

The first argument is that the wise person can rise above the loss of a friend due to the knowledge, which the wise person possesses, of what is truly good. Seneca elaborates by way of a fascinating analogy:

“Here is what it means to say the wise person is self-contained: there are times when he is content with just part of himself. If infection or battle took off his hand; if an accident cost him an eye, or even both eyes, the remaining parts of himself would be sufficient for him; he would be as happy with his body diminished as he was with it whole. Still, although he does not feel the want of the missing limbs, he would prefer that they not be missing.” (Letters, IX.4)

A friend, here, is akin to a part of ourselves, obviously signifying a very intimate relationship indeed. And yet, though we do not prefer it, we can live a good life even without an eye or a limb. And so it has to be with the death or the departure of a friend. As Stoics, we accept what happens with equanimity, without foolishly wishing for things that cannot be had.

The second argument is that it is not a particular friend that is good, but friendship itself. Which means that friends can be replaced by new ones. Again, Seneca deploys an analogy, this time less successfully:

“But in truth he will never be without a friend, for it rests with him how quickly he gets a replacement. Just as Phidias, if he should lose one of his statues, would immediately make another, so this artist at friend making will substitute another in place of the one who is lost.” (Letters, IX.5)

Phidias was a famous Greek sculptor, whose statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The problem with the analogy, as Graver points out, is that statues are objects, for which one does not have the sort of affection that can compare to friendship (unlike, again, the regard we have for parts of our own body). Following the analogy, friends are passive recipients of our practice of virtue, and not therefore valuable in themselves.

What does work, however, is the general argument to which the analogy with Phidias’ statues does not render justice. It is true even for us non-wise people that there is a value in friendship that transcends the individual friend, just like there is a value in love that transcends the individual lover. Several people can be our friends, or our lovers, and yet that does not diminish their importance to us, both intrinsically, for who they are, and in terms of the general relationship (friendship, love) that we have with them. (See this post for the difference between True Love and fungible love.)

Speaking of love, the last part of Margaret’s chapter is devoted to that topic, and there too we find a number of notions that would surprise the naive outsider, like the fact that a number of the early Stoics, including Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, wrote treatises on erotic love. Just like friendship, love is obviously a matter of affective response, but it has to be of the right, that is, virtuous, kind:

“There are two senses in which one may speak of the ‘erotic person’; one in reference to virtue, as one quality of the righteous person, and one in reference to vice, as if blaming someone for love-madness.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65W)

The vice aspect of eros manifests itself whenever someone is uncontrollably drawn to someone else. While this notion has been romanticized ever since Sappho, it is of course an emotion akin to strong hunger, and it is not what the Stoics are after.

But there is a normative type of eros, which is a kind of resolve, a future-directed impulse, the object of which is not intercourse per se, but rather friendship of a special kind:

“It is [the Stoics’] doctrine that the wise person behaves not only in the manner of a thoughtful and philosophical person but also in the manner of a convivial and erotic one. … The wise person is also an erotic person and will fall in love with those worthy of love.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65-66W and 2.7.11s; 115W)

Graver goes into some detail in explaining why such love is often directed at a young person, who will be guided by the wise one toward the acquisition of virtue. And no, in context it doesn’t sound at all like what you may be thinking here.

The important point is that the object of virtuous erotic love is the forming of a friendship, which the wise person recognizes as a good to be realized in the future. Such love is not just something that is selected because it exercises our virtue; it is a genuine affective response, one of the eupatheiai or positive emotions:

“If love is indeed eupathic then there is no reason to deny that it, like other eupathic responses, involves feelings similar in kind and intensity to the feelings ordinary people experience in emotion. In general what distinguishes the eupatheiai from the pathē [i.e., the unhealthy emotions] is not the kind of the psychophysical change they produce but their correctness as judgments: pleasure is irrational uplift, joy a rational uplift. As a judgment, eupathic love is very different from desire, for it is directed at an object that really is a prospective good according to the Stoic theory of value. … Eros does not require justification; it is a good thing in its own right, as are all the eupatheiai. The wise fall in love for no other reason than that it is their nature to want to be intimate with those whom they see as beautiful.” (p. 188-89)

What about the rest of us, non-wise people? Margaret concludes the chapter by remarking that what is proper for every human being is not just concern for others, but affectively engaged concern. That’s a fundamental component of human nature. The problem arises because the non-wise may make mistakes about the object of their affective responses, which is why at times we may be able to do more good by setting aside our feelings. But having strong feelings is not, per se, an indication of error of judgment.

Marcus Aurelius: a guide for the perplexed

Marcus Aurelius a guide for the perplexedMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, one the few philosopher-kings (well, okay, emperor) in the history of the world, is a fascinating figure. Despite being one of the most famous Stoics, he was not a philosopher and teacher like Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus. Unlike Seneca, he wrote just one book, the Meditations, which was actually addressed to himself, meant as a personal diary of philosophical reflection, not to instruct others, let alone as a treatise on Stoic philosophy. He was by all accounts an extraordinary man, who tackled some of the greatest challenges the Roman empire had to face, including a war against the irreducible Parthians, another one against a coalition of German tribes led by the Marcomanni, an internal rebellion by one of his most trusted governors, and a plague that killed two or three million people. He did not want to be emperor, but he leaned on his philosophy to do the best job he could. And ended up in the disastrous choice of his son Commodus to take up the purple mantle (but see here for a nuanced analysis of that episode), a decision that ended the prosperous and relatively peaceful age of the five good emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

My friend and collaborator Greg Lopez chose Marcus as this year’s theme for his regular Stoic meetup in New York City, and I will focus on the Meditations in the upcoming Summer Stoic School in Rome. So it makes sense we started things off by reading William Stephens’ concise but highly informative Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012). The book is logically organized in five chapters: the first one provides readers with the biography and historical context of Marcus’ life; the second one discusses the two major influences in the Meditations: the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and, of course, Epictetus; the third through the fifth chapters develop three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy: wholes and parts; time, transience, and eternity; and virtues, vices, and junk.

I want to comment here on the influences of Heraclitus and Epictetus on Marcus, briefly cover the three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy, and then point out a nice feature of the last three chapters of Stephens’ book, which I definitely recommend, even for people who are somewhat familiar both with Stoic philosophy and with Marcus Aurelius in particular.

Heraclitus is the oldest known source about the Logos, a crucial, complex Stoic concept, which was common to a number of Greco-Roman philosophies, and which was later imported into Christianity. It’s not obvious what Heraclitus meant by the term, in part because he wrote in a rather obscure fashion, in part because we only have fragments of his works, and in part because the term Logos had several related meanings. Here is Heraclitus, quoted by Stephens:

“Although this logos holds forever [is true], people ever fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard. Although all things come to pass in accordance with this logos, people are like the untried when they try such words and works as I set forth, distinguishing each according to its nature and telling how it is. But other people are oblivious of what they do awake, just as they are forgetful of what they do asleep.” (p. 49)

Nonetheless, Stephens provides a nice summary of the major meanings of Logos in Heraclitus. It can mean: (i) Heraclitus’ own discourse; (ii) the nature of language; (iii) the structure of the psyche; or (iv) the cosmic law according to which everything happens. It is the latter two meanings that Marcus deploys in the Meditations, as he regards the Logos as a universal principle regulating the world, and also as the principle that makes possible our “ruling faculty” (the Hêgemonikon), the improvement of which is a major goal of Stoic training. Nowadays, we may interpret the Logos as the observation that the laws of nature are rationally understandable, or (not mutually exclusively) the biological structures that make possible for human beings to exercise judgment (i.e., the frontal lobes of the neocortex).

Most interestingly, fragment XXX from Heraclitus concerns the idea that human beings ought to work for each other’s benefit, precisely because they all partake in the Logos. This idea is taken up repeatedly by Marcus, for instance here:

“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)

Heraclitus is also famous for his concept of panta rhei (everything flows):

“One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.” (p. 62)

This is one of the earliest known articulations of a position termed process metaphysics, which nowadays is very popular among philosophers, in part because it accords well with the findings of modern science, especially fundamental physics. Again, here is Marcus deploying the concept:

“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?” (Meditations, VII.18)

This is not only a profound insight into the nature of things, but also a source of consolation: change, including our death and decomposition, is both natural and necessary, if the universe is to work. Just as astronomer Carl Sagan famously reminded us that we are literally made of stardust, so we are reminded by Heraclitus and Marcus that the elements that make up our body will be recycled in the universal flow of things.

The second major influence on Marcus, apparent all over the Meditations, is that of Epictetus. Indeed, Marcus acknowledges it right at the beginning, in book I, where he thanks his teacher Quintus Junius Rusticus for having given him his own copy of the Discourses. As Stephens points out, Epictetus is mentioned directly in VII.19, and he is paraphrased in the last seven entries of book XI, which concludes with a reference to brief dialogue that is likely taken from a lost book of the Discourses.

“Epictetus’ direct, unvarnished style of calling a spade a spade seems to have influenced Marcus’ method of clear-eyed scrutiny of objects in front of him.” (p. 68)

One of the ways in which Epictetus influences Marcus is in a certain degree of disdain for the body. This doesn’t come from any misguided sort of dualism, but rather from the observation that while we share the possession of a body with all other animals, human beings are unique in having a mind capable of rational thought. And it is this, together with our sociality, that for the Stoics defined human nature, and hence what it means to “live according to nature.”

Another important aspect of Marcus’ philosophy is the idea — again derived directly from Epictetus, but of course part of the general Stoic view — that death is a natural phenomenon, not to be feared. Indeed, Marcus even directly endorses Epictetus’ famous “open door” policy, i.e., the notion that suicide is admissible under certain circumstances. As Stephens puts it:

“Marcus repeats this Open Door Policy of Epictetus when he writes ‘If the smoke makes me cough, I can leave’ (V.29). Thus, like Epictetus, Marcus accepts the Stoic doctrine that suicide under extreme circumstances of suffering can be morally permissible — at least for the person who is making progress in virtue. Moreover, Marcus and Epictetus both derive consolation from the fact that we are free to exercise our own judgment about what degree of suffering we will tolerate and what degree of suffering we need no longer endure. We have the power to decide when to exit the smoky house of life. The question is not whether we mortal beings will die. The question is when and how it is appropriate for us to exit life.” (p. 73)

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters of the book then zoom into the details of Marcus’ philosophy, by focusing on three major recurring themes in the Meditations: Marcus’ use of mereology, i.e., the branch of metaphysics that is concerned with the identification of parts and their relationship to the whole; the interrelated notions of time, transience, and eternity; and the relationship between virtue and vice (and what Stephens calls “junk”). There is no space here to treat any of this in depth, but let me give a flavor of how the author proceeds, keeping in mind that his goal is to show that Marcus — even though he is not a philosopher, and he is writing for himself — nonetheless articulates a coherent, and at times original, philosophy of life.

Marcus’ use of mereology is what allows him to analyze the component parts of certain objects, reflect on their relations to the whole object, and draw philosophical conclusions pertinent to his view of life. For instance, in VII.23, he notes that the universe is made of a large number of individual objects, including all living beings (horses, trees, human beings). All these objects contain the universal matter, and as he says, “it does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart.” In other words, death is a kind of cosmic recycling, to which the cosmos are indifferent:

“Every portion of me will be reassigned as another portion of the world, and that in turn transformed into another. Ad infinitum. I was produced through one such transformation, and my parents too, and so on back. Ad infinitum.” (V.13)

Mereology comes into play also when Marcus wants to remind himself that we, as individual human beings, are limbs of the social body, and that we therefore have to work together for the betterment of the whole body, i.e., the polis.

“We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.” (II.1)

The second theme, that of time, transience, and eternity, is explored by Marcus in order to quell his own fear of mortality, to achieve serenity of mind, and to develop a sense of equanimity toward people and events. Here, of course, is where we find his use of Heraclitus’ metaphor of time as a flowing river. The idea is that once we fully appreciate the infinity of time, we realize how silly it is to get upset about the minutiae of our puny everyday life, regardless of how disproportionately large they may loom in our thoughts whenever we let go of the view from above.

Another consequence of this perspective is that it exposes pride in one’s accomplishments, and especially seeking fame, for the empty things they are: everyone we know will soon be dead and forgotten, and so will we. What we do matters in the here and now, because it is helpful to others, not because it will be remembered for a little bit longer by people who we will not know. The real gift is the present, over which we have control (in the sense of controlling our judgments and actions). The past and the future are infinite, and we have no control over them.

The third theme is that of virtue, vice, and junk. Here, according to Stephens, we see some of the more mature and sophisticated aspects of Marcus’ philosophy. One manifestation of this is his analysis of the nature of things, aiming at discerning whether they are truly important or not. These are the bits in the Meditations where we get the reminder that precious marble is nothing but hardened dirt, gold and silver are just residues mined from the earth, the prestigious purple dye worn by the emperor is just the blood of a shellfish.

“With this strategy, Marcus shatters the rosy-colored lenses through which we prefer to view the things we so intensely desire. He insists on seeing these pleasures for what they really are.” (p. 133)

As we know, the implication of this approach is not that external objects do not matter, but rather that they are merely preferred indifferents, things that are not good in themselves, and which certainly take a backseat when compared to the chief good: virtue. To pursue them for their own sake, therefore, becomes a vice. It is like going after junk rather than something of true value.

Let me conclude by giving you just one of several examples in the book where Stephens goes through a particular section of the Meditations and reconstructs the formal structure of Marcus’ argument. This is a useful exercise for two reasons: first, it allows us to examine the argument more carefully, to see whether it is valid and sound. Second, and I think actually more importantly, it dispels the common notion that the Meditations is written somewhat casually, and that it is not a serious book of philosophy. It is, but since Marcus was writing to himself, not to an audience, we have to do the work necessary to appreciate his thinking.

My preferred example is in the context of Marcus’ discussion, in VIII.17, of the idea that it is futile to lay blame, regardless of what particular metaphysical view of the world (the Stoic, the Epicurean, or any other one) we happen to hold. Here is Stephens’ reconstruction of the full argument:

1. The matter is either in our control or in the control of someone else.

2. If it’s in our control, then we can handle it appropriately without blaming ourselves.

3. If it’s in the control of someone else, then we could blame either atoms (if the
Epicureans are right about how the cosmos works) or the Logos (if the Stoics are right about how the cosmos works), or no one and nothing.

4. It’s stupid to blame atoms (since they have no intentionality).

5. It’s stupid to blame the Logos (since the cosmos — which for the Stoics was a living organism — knows best what should happen).

6. Hence, if it’s in the control of someone else, then blame no one and nothing.

7. Therefore, blaming is pointless.


Stoicism and Emotion, VII: the development of character

waiter in bad faithThe phrase “bad faith” is usually associated with Existentialist philosophy, and particularly with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and their famous example of the waiter who tries a bit too hard and artificially to be a waiter. When someone is in bad faith, existentially speaking, he is responding to pressure from social forces, adopting false values, and thereby disowning his innate freedom, which results in him acting inauthentically.

Interestingly (though Existentialism and Stoicism actually share a number of commonalities), the phrase “bad faith” features at the very beginning of chapter 7 of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, on which I have been commenting for a while now. Specifically, what the author is suggesting is that the Stoics wished to pre-empt the bad-faith excuse that our behavior is (entirely) caused by forces outside our control, a point related to the Stoic rebuttal of the (in)famous “lazy argument.” As we have already discussed, the Stoics were indeed determinists, but distinguished a number of causes at work in the universe, and when it comes to human behavior they made the point that some of these causes are external (and hence truly outside of our control), but some are internal, constituting our character (and at least in part under our control). Chrysippus used the famous analogy of a cylinder that rolls when pushed because of a combination of two causes: one is the external push, but another is its internal nature of being a cylinder. If it were a cube, say, it wouldn’t roll, even in response to the very same external push. As Margaret puts it:

“One might say that the causal history supplied for emotional responses addresses the question ‘why does the cylinder roll?’ and answers it, in brief, by pointing out that the cylinder is round. By contrast, the causal history of character addresses the question ‘why is the cylinder round?’” (p. 149)

And it is to that second causal history that we now turn. To begin with, remember that Stoic philosophy maintains that the human mind is geared toward doing good, that is, toward acting virtuously. (They thought this was the result of a providential universe in the form of a pantheistic god, we today might say that human beings are pro-socially inclined as a result of evolution by natural selection.) But if that is the case, then why is it that virtuous behavior is so infrequent? Plato blamed the influence of the Sophists and the shifting opinion of popular assemblies; Epicurus said it was the fault of bad cultural influences, particularly poetry and drama. But the Stoics knew that these answers are insufficient and set out to do better.

The first step is the Stoic developmental account of human character, famously presented by Cato the Younger in book III of Cicero’s De Finibus. Even young children, says Cato/Cicero, do not seek pleasure for its own sake (take that, Epicurus!), but rather whatever aids them in the goals of self-preservation and self-improvement. For instance, they keep trying to learn to walk, all the while experiencing pain and frustration when they repeatedly fall down. Our native endowment also includes a tendency to learn, make connections, and react positively to people who are truthful to us and negatively to those who try to trick us. (For a modern version of the argument, see my discussion of chapter 6 of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.)

“Natural preferences for self-preservation, for understanding, and for order and control thus work together to establish in one’s life the stable and coherent systems of belief and action which constitute the human good. … While this account of intellectual maturation employs a broadly empiricist model of knowledge acquisition, it also makes use of innatist elements, preferences and tendencies which are simply part of human nature.” (p. 152)

Graver also points out that Cicero makes the link between normal human character development and the virtues very explicit in his On Duties: prudence (practical wisdom) develops from an innate preference we have for understanding; justice is the result of an innate tendency toward sociability; courage from a propensity toward mastering situations; and temperance from a preference for order. What, then, keeps going so predictably wrong for so many people?

A summary of a two-cause explanation is given by Diogenes Laertius:

“The rational animal is corrupted sometimes by the persuasiveness of things from without, sometimes through the teaching of our associates. For the starting points which nature provides are uncorrupted.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers VII.89)

A later commentator on the Stoics, Calcidius (circa 400 CE) agrees, and presents the Stoic two-cause account of human failure to behave virtuously again in terms of the attraction of “things themselves” (e.g., the lust generated by a potential sexual partner) and “the transmission of rumors” (i.e., popular opinion, even and especially by our parents and other caretakers).

In a sense, we go wrong because early on we commit a natural logical fallacy: Calcidius says that we learn to associate nice with good and troublesome with bad, and eventually come to believe that those general correlations actually signal causal connections. We come to love things like glory, since we are told that it is good, and since it brings about good things, instead of its close but virtuous kin, honor (which we are also, typically, taught is good, but is more troublesome to achieve). And we mistakenly assume that praise is a good thing in itself, rather than thinking about what a knowledgeable observer would praise us for.

“Since the happy person necessarily enjoys life, [people] think that those who live pleasurably will be happy. Such, I think, is the error which arises ‘from things’ to possess the human mind. But the one which arises ‘from transmission’ is a whispering added to the aforementioned error through the prayers of our mothers and nurses for wealth and glory and other things falsely supposed to be good.” (On the Timaeus of Plato 165-66; SVF 3.229)

We find yet another rendition of the two-cause argument in Cicero’s On Laws. Cicero’s Stoic-informed view is minimalist about human nature: we have a tendency, which we possess even without being taught, to favor the development of justice. However, things can easily go wrong, mostly through a perversion that results from “customs and fase opinions.”

Specifically, Cicero lists six objects that people commonly mistake for goods and evils: pleasure and pain, death and life, honor and disrepute. These are closely associated with an object for which we have a natural affinity: health, preservation of our natural state, and moral excellence (positives), and bodily harm, the dissolution of our nature, and moral turpitude (negatives). Our problem is that too often we confuse things from the first group with things from the second group, without realizing that we should care about the latter, not the former.

But Cicero’s most elaborate presentation of this material, according to Graver, is found in the third book of the Tusculan Disputations. He argues that we are born with the seeds of virtue, but that we go off the rails because of the bad counsel of a number of people who are influential on us from early on, including parents, teachers, and even books of poetry. Interestingly, though, Cicero also maintains that the most dangerous influence of all is that of the cheering crowd, and the most susceptible to it are talented individuals who go into politics, who wind up ruining both themselves and their country. Sounds familiar? It seems like things have not changed that much in the last couple of millennia after all.

In the end, the picture that emerges is that the Stoics, like Plato before them, regard moral error as the result of lack of guidance, or exposure to bad guidance, coupled with natural mistakes of reasoning, not as the predictable outcome of an intrinsically evil nature. I have pointed out that this view is not very dissimilar from the one espoused many centuries later by David Hume, who interestingly wrote a favorable essay about the Stoics, even though he personally preferred the Skeptics among the ancient philosophers.

But the Stoic account of character development is more sophisticated than just claiming that people make mistakes because they confuse similar yet distinct things, or that they are influenced by the bad opinion of others. The twofold cause gets us into the realm of error, but the formation of specific tendencies toward poor reactions and downright bad behavior owes a lot to our own lack of mental discipline. We find this point both in Cicero (in Tusculan Disputations IV) and very explicitly in Epictetus:

“When once you have desired money, if there is an application of reason, which will lead you to recognize the evil, the desire stops and our directive faculty (hēgemonikon) governs as at the start, but if you do not apply anything in the way of therapy, it no longer returns to the same [condition], but when it is again stimulated by the corresponding impression it is kindled into desire more quickly than before. And if this keeps happening, it thereafter becomes callused, and the infirmity gives stability to greed.” (Discourses II.18.8-10)

The analogy with a callus is important: our character is molded continuously, by repeated decisions of our ruling faculty. Every time we judge correctly, we channel our character toward virtue; every time we judge incorrectly, we channel it away from virtue. And it is in this sense of a continuously sustaining internal cause that we are morally responsible for what we do or don’t do. Just as a callus, once formed, alters our sensitivity to continued touch experiences, so our character, once altered in a given direction, makes it more likely for us to keep moving in that direction. We, however, as rational agents, are capable to reverse the trend, so to speak, and actively decide to steer our character back onto a virtuous path.

“Each of us can take charge of the formation of a healthful character for ourselves. Conversely, if we fail to take charge in this way, we contribute by omission to the vice-ridden character we end up with. For however it was that we first fell into error, it is only through subsequent laxity that the error becomes entrenched.” (p. 167)

Crassus, Margaret reminds us, was a notorious example of unvirtuous Roman, because he was greedy. The cause of his greediness was to be found in a combination of earlier circumstances and his persistent and repeated (and erroneous) judgment that money is good for its own sake. That string of judgments had gradually formed a “callus” in his character, which made him greedy as a matter of moral disposition. Even so, Crassus was also a human being capable of reason, and so he was continually responsible for his judgments and the ongoing shaping of his character. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the antecedent and the sustaining causes of our character.

Metaphysically, this is a brilliant move, because as Graver puts it:

“The Stoics’ distinction between antecedent and sustaining causes gives them a way to respond to the concerns [of ultimate reductionists]. They can allow that a person’s character is the product of a variety of formative influences; indeed as determinists they should insist on this. … Each of us is shaped at least in part by genetic factors, as well as by the physical environment, by the way we are treated within the family, and by our education, role models, and so forth. Rarely do we have any control over these matters which, collectively, supply the makings of our adult selves. One could consider them a form of luck. On the Stoic scheme, however, all these influences which are outside our control come under the category of antecedent causes, not sustaining causes. … The direct cause is always the sustaining cause, which maintains the state over time, and that cause consists in one’s own psyche. … To say that we are rational creatures is to say that we are capable of reviewing and correcting our own beliefs, whether or not we do so in fact.” (pp. 169-170)

We may be, ultimately, the product of Zeus or the Big Bang, in the sense of antecedent causes. But who we continue to be is the result of an ongoing dynamic process, which is sustained by every single decision we make. Make good decisions, then, and you will be a better human being.

Stoic Q&A: Seneca’s parting words to his wife?

Seneca Hardship and HappinessS. writes: I have read your post discussing Seneca’s life and among other topics his death, and to which extent it is to be understood as being deliberately directed or “theatrical.” Regardless of the authenticity, when I personally first came in contact with Stoicism, what has been ascribed to Seneca as his words to his wife before his death made an impression that has stuck with me since.

My first interpretation of the words, “What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears,” was that one needs to accept and anticipate the sufferings and harshness of life. And that this “regulating” of one’s expectations through reason is essential, and lets you remain composed when faced with (inevitable) adversities.

After having read up on Stoicism however, I have become unsure of how to look at Seneca’s words. The idea of acceptance of tragic events outside of our control resonates with me personally, and from my understanding, with Stoic philosophy in general. At the same time, the quote seems to imply that the hardships of life are not indifferent, but rather that they “call for tears.”

I have found a few potential interpretations (for example, being “accommodating,” as Epictetus puts it, toward non-Stoics, or simply the fact that Seneca was the less strict of the Roman Stoics regarding human emotional reaction), but it would be very interesting to read your take on this quote!

Good question. Let’s begin, however, by getting the record straight. Although the quote in question is a famous one, Seneca did not utter it to his wife before dying. Instead, it is found in the letter of consolation to Marcia, a friend of Seneca who lost one of her sons, and was still grieving inconsolably two years later. The broader quote is (in the Chicago Press translation):

“What need is there to shed tears over life’s individual stages? For the whole of life requires tears. New misfortunes will assail you before you have dealt with the old. … And then, why this forgetfulness about your own condition? You were born a mortal and you have given birth to mortals: though you yourself are a decaying, feeble body, repeatedly targeted by diseases, did you hope that from such a weak material you had carried in your womb something robust and everlasting?” (XI.1)

Given both the extended quote and the context — a letter of philosophical consolation to a bereaved friend — I’d say that your first explanation, that Seneca is being accommodating toward a non Stoic, is right. And he should be, since Stoicism is supposed to be practiced in order to improve oneself, not to beat others on the head with a metaphorical stick for being “bad Stoics.”

As you say, Epictetus puts the point explicitly:

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

I hasten to say that this isn’t a matter of being condescending, but of recognizing that not everyone agrees with the Stoic precept that the only true good lies in one’s good judgments and the only true evil in one’s bad judgments. It is an example of Stoic compassion, not of Stoic arrogance.

That said, I think there is something also in your second explanation, that Seneca is a bit less strict than other Roman Stoics, particularly Epictetus. The reason I love Epictetus is because he is straightforwardly blunt in his pronouncements. He tells it like he sees it. Seneca, by contrast, is more nuanced, at times writing in ways that are remarkably close to Epictetus’ style, at other times showing more of a compassionate attitude toward fellow human beings. This was likely a result of their respective roles (teacher in one case, politician and writer in the other) as well as of the different settings (a Stoic school for Epictetus, a letter of consolation for a friend in the case of Seneca). They therefore can be positioned as interestingly different interpreters of the same Stoic doctrines, which reinforces the important point that Stoicism isn’t a monolithic thing, to be read as if it were scriptures.

Lest anyone think Seneca is treating Marcia differently because she is a woman (after all, he occasionally does indulge in cringeworthy comments on women), here he is actually at his best in this respect:

“I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (Consolation to Marcia, XVI)

Let me finally address your observation that talk of life requiring tears seems to imply that there are other things that are bad, besides one’s own incorrect judgments. I think the Stoics here have good resources to deploy: the loss of a son is a highly dispreferred indifferent. The way I like to explain this is in terms of lexicographic preferences: there are certain goods that fall into the top category, others that belong a slightly lower category, and so forth, until things that are neutral. Then there are the sets of things that are mildly bad, worse, really worse, and finally truly evil.

The Stoics think that the top and the bottom categories in this series are occupied respectively by the only true good (virtue) and the only true bad (un-virtue). But a son’s life surely is in one of the high categories, definitely not far below the very top. Still, goods within a given category are not fungible with goods in another, higher, category. So while losing a son is “bad,” it is not the ultimate bad, which amounts to behaving unvirtously.

If one looks at things that way, it makes perfect sense for Seneca to agree with Marcia that what befell her is worthy of tears, and yet at the same time to maintain that the only intrinsic evil would be for her friend to act contrary to virtue.

Stoic advice: impostor syndrome

impostor syndrome[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.]

A. writes: I’m a researcher in Physics and a big fan of your work in philosophy of science and, more recently, Stoicism. I would like to ask you if you have any references on Stoic responses to two struggles that are dear to us in academia: i) frustration due to working hard and not achieving the desired outcome, and ii) feeling one doesn’t deserve what one has in life (“impostor syndrome”). I understand the basic premises to counter these feelings (we are not really in control of the outcome etc.), but I would like to know if you have more specific references, not necessarily to ancient Stoic thinkers.

Yes, I’m all too familiar with the two feelings you are referring to, both because of direct personal experience, and because I’ve talked to plenty of graduate students and young colleagues who have had them at one point or another during their career. They don’t seem to affect senior faculty much, possibly because of a combination of getting older and caring less, becoming wiser, and simply getting used to it.

You are correct, of course, that the first go-to for the Stoic is the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus in Enchiridion I.1, and the beautiful metaphor of the archer attempting to hit a target, in Cicero’s De Finibus III.22. But you are familiar with them, so I will not repeat those quotes here.

Instead, I would like to shift the discussion to the other pillar of Stoic philosophy (other than the dichotomy of control): the idea that virtue is the chief good, because it is the only thing that can only benefit and never hurt us, as explained by Socrates in the Euthydemus. Everything else, as you know, is a preferred or dispreffered indifferent, which Cicero tells us should be chosen (or un-chosen), but not desired.

From that perspective, being emotionally attached to a particular outcome, say a grant proposal getting funded, or a paper being accepted for publication, is a mistake, because those outcomes do not improve our virtue. What does the latter, instead, is the way we handle the situation. Every obstacle, Marcus Aurelius would say, is simply a sparring opponent the universe throws our way during that continuous training exercise that we call life.

I have learned that lesson early on in my academic career, way before I turned to Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Please indulge me to briefly recount a personal anecdote. When I was in graduate school in biology, at the University of Connecticut, my advisor and I submitted what we thought was an important paper to the premier journal in evolutionary biology. It was reviewed very positively by two anonymous referees, but a third one slammed it. We asked the editor of the journal at that time to ignore the third referee, on the grounds that she obviously had an axe to grind (later on we found out who that person was, and our hypothesis was clearly confirmed).

The editor, however, acted conservatively and rejected the paper. At the time I thought this was a major blow to my career, and for weeks I went around alternating between the two feelings you describe: (i) Why did this not work, despite literally years of efforts that went into the research, and what I thought was a first rate paper resulting from that effort? (ii) Perhaps I was really not cut out for this job after all, maybe I should just quit and do something else.

Fortunately for me, my advisor had significant experience and accumulated wisdom. We talked it over while drinking a couple of beers and decided to send the paper, as it was, to the premier journal in an allied field, ecology. It was accepted immediately with only minor changes, a rare occurrence in science.

Not only that, complete vindication came many years later, when I was a full professor at the University of Tennessee. Out of the blue I received an email from the former editor of the journal that rejected our paper. It was a heartfelt apology, explaining that he had made a serious error of judgment, and that he was glad that his mistake had not negatively affected my career.

There are several lessons here. First off, while it is always a good idea to question one’s own work, and to be open to outside criticism, if you are a professional in a given field there probably are good reasons to think you know what you are doing, especially when your work gets repeatedly validated externally.

Second, I greatly admire the editor in question. Not because he came around to see that my advisor and I were right. But because he had the intellectual honesty and humility to admit his mistake, years later, and with absolutely nothing to gain from it. That is what I call a virtuous person, regardless of whether he practices Stoicism or not.

Third, my advisor and I turned an obstacle into a new path by deciding to send the paper to an equally prestigious journal in a similar field — as opposed to the thing that is often done, sending the paper to a lesser journal within the same field. As Marcus puts it:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

Over the course of my career, spanning now more than three decades across two academic fields, I have had a few other episodes like the one reported above, and of course countless minor setbacks. But that particular incident did something to my psyche that has remained with me to this day: I have developed the ability of absolutely not caring an iota about what my colleagues think about the worth of my work, especially when their opinions are expressed anonymously. Again, please understand that I don’t mean to say that I refuse to learn from others, or that I think my work is always worthwhile and top notch. I just mean that I take failures as part and parcel of what an academic career, and more broadly a life, is made of. There is no sense in regretting mistakes, only in learning from them. And it isn’t very useful to second guess one’s own worth, so long as one honestly tries to do one’s best.

So take those failures, and those moments of doubt, as additional opportunities to exercise virtue and become a better human being:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

Stoicism and Emotion, VI: traits of character

the judgment of Paris

The judgment of Paris, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1892

The scene is Mount Olympus. Zeus and the other gods are contemplating the ongoing Trojan war, and the father of the gods remarks to Hera, his wife, and Athena, his daughter: “Perhaps it’s time to give up: make peace for real, and let Troy stand.” This does not go down well with either wife or daughter, who have been supporting the Achaeans against Troy, with Aphrodite on the other side. (This disputes among the goddesses, as is well known, stems from Paris being asked to make the impossible judgment of which of the three was the most beautiful one.)

Margaret Graver, in the sixth chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, uses the story as a way to introduce her discussion of character. (Check the other entries in this series here.) Hera and Athena react very differently to Zeus’ comment. Athena — allegedly the goddess of wisdom, let us not forget — just murmurs to herself and glares at her father. Hera, by contrast, goes into one of her usual, and often barely provoked, rages. A major explanation (though, admittedly, not the only one possible, given their different relationship to Zeus) for the contrasting reactions to the same provocation is character. Athena is able to control her anger, while Hera very clearly is not. Hera is in fact best described as irascible, i.e., prone to anger. Which, needless to say, is a major character flow as far as the Stoics are concerned.

As Graver points out, character is central to Stoicism because it bears the full import of moral responsibility, as explained for instance by Chrysippus in his famous metaphor of the rolling cylinder. Now, at the coarsest level the Stoics only recognized two types of character: the just one and the unjust one. The Sage is just, everyone else isn’t. But at a finer grained level they were interested in individual differences in character, and that’s the major focus of this chapter of the book:

“Just as one may observe variations in the sea floor without disregarding the fact that all of it is equally underwater, so it is possible in this system to differentiate one personality from another even where all concerned have the same overall moral standing.” (p. 134)

In other words, the fact that all of us ordinary people are equally non-wise doesn’t mean we don’t have individual personality traits. In order to show that the Stoics’ philosophically rigorous analysis of character can allow for that sort of variety, Graver goes into the distinction between two kinds of conditions. Some conditions can vary in degree, others can’t: you can be more tall or less tall, for instance, but you can’t be more or less pregnant. Conditions that can scale up or down are called scalar conditions; those that can’t are non-scalar.

For the Stoics, wisdom is a non-scalar condition, since wisdom consists in coherence among all a person’s beliefs and judgments — a set of beliefs is either coherent or it’s not, just as a math problem is either correct or incorrect. And virtue is wisdom, since it consists in knowledge of how to live. So either you have wisdom, or you don’t. But it doesn’t follow that everyone who is not wise is completely alike. There are other kinds of personality traits that are scalar conditions: we can have them or not have them, and we can have them in greater or lesser degree.

Graver explains that in the ancient texts, the word for non-scalar traits is diatheseis, and the word for scalar traits is hexeis. One rather technical, but highly informative paragraph from Stobaeus’ summary of Stoic ethics gives examples of both good and bad mental characteristics that count as either diatheseis or hexeis.

“Some of the goods having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the virtues are diatheseis, but the habitudes, like prophecy and so forth, are hexeis, while activities in accordance with virtue, like a prudent action, an exercise of self-control, and so on, are neither. Likewise, some of the bad things having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the vices are diatheseis, but proclivities, like enviousness, tendency to grief, and so on, are hexeis, as also are the sicknesses and infirmities. Activities in accordance with fault, like an imprudent action, an unjust action, and so on, are neither.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.5f; 70-71W; cf. D.L. 7.98)

Notice that tendencies toward certain emotions (envy, grief) figure among the bad hexeis. These kinds of traits are especially important for Stoic living, because they quantify levels of negativity of which we need to be aware. Left unchecked they can easily generate powerful emotions capable of ruining our chances at eudaimonia.

Margaret takes a close look at the items in Stobaeus’ list and organizes them in a couple of useful diagrams (a classification of good and bad traits of character, if you will). Consider, for instance, what Stobaeus says about the bad traits called “sicknesses”:

“A ‘sickness,’ they say, is a desirous opinion which has hardened into a condition and become entrenched, according to which people suppose that things which are not choiceworthy are extremely choiceworthy; for instance, fondness for women, fondness for wine, fondness for money. And there are conditions opposite to these which come about through aversion; for instance, hatred of women, hatred of wine, hatred of humanity.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.10e (93W); similarly Seneca, Moral Epistles 75.10-12)

Graver points out that in Stoic philosophy to say that an indifferent is not choiceworthy does not mean that it should not be pursued, as even Sages have preferences (and dis-preferences). For instance, most of us would probably agree that it is preferred to have some money as opposed to being poor. But that preference slides into a sickness when one becomes fond of money for its own sake, and even worse if one attempts to get more money by unjust means. And the word “sickness” here is particularly appropriate, given that the Stoics thought of philosophers as doctors of the mind, often drawing direct analogies with the medicine of the body.

Next is an analysis of “proclivities,” which Chrysippus explains are tendencies toward specific emotions, or towards action contrary to nature (in the specific Stoic sense of the term). What, precisely, is the difference between sickness and proclivity? Margaret explains:

“A person with a ‘sickness’ is especially concerned about some one object type and experiences a range of emotions concerned with that object. Someone with a proclivity, by contrast, experiences one emotion more than all others and must therefore experience it in connection with a wide range of objects.” (p. 142)

In one case, someone is fixated on a certain object, money for instance, and becomes upset when they can’t get it, thrilled when they do get it, fearful of losing it, and so on. In the second case, someone has a tendency toward a certain reaction, anger for instance, and becomes angry about all sorts of things. This account gives the Stoics a neat cognitivist theory of the non-wise conditions.

The last bit of the chapter is about the personality traits of virtuous people. Still working with the summary in Stobaeus, Graver shows that while all wise people are alike in being wise, they can also have individual characteristics. These are called “habitudes” (epitēdeumata) and are classified as scalar hexeis.

“Fondness for music (philomousia), fondness for literature (philogrammatia), fondness for horses (philippia), fondness for hunting with dogs (philokunēgia), and, in general, the things that are said to be encyclical skills are called by Stoics ‘habitudes’ but are not said to be forms of knowledge; rather, they are classed among the worthwhile conditions.” (Stobaeus Ecl. 2.7.5b11; 67W)

A habitude doesn’t engage the emotions in the same way that the sicknesses and proclivities do. It seems to be just a behavior pattern, a tendency to spend time in one way rather than another. Two people can both be wise without knowing exactly the same things; after all, they might live in different surroundings. At one point, a habitude is called “a road that leads toward what is in accordance with virtue.” Interestingly, the same Greek word, hodos, means both road and method. Also interestingly, the Stoics did not claim that all wise persons would cultivate the same habitudes: the road to virtue is made of many paths.

“One wise person may be fond of music but not of dogs, while another, equally wise, devotes herself to horses, or to a variety of pursuits. Such preferences are not what it is to be wise; rather, they are personality traits of the wise, products of their varied experience.” (p. 147)

One final word to clear up possible misunderstanding: the wise person understands that music, or dogs, or whatever, are not good in and of themselves (only virtue is). Which means that she can be fond of music, dogs, etc., without for that reason coming to think that not being able to pursue those interests is an evil. By avoiding mistakes about the value of externals, the wise have freed themselves of the emotional disturbances that such mistakes inevitably produce.

Seneca to Lucilius: courage in a threatening situation

Silver denarius of Metellus Scipio

Silver denarius of Metellus Scipio, Stoic role model

What to do when we are about to face a difficult situation, even a threat to our wellbeing, such as a lawsuit, or a disease? Seneca tells Lucilius in Letter XXIV that most people would counsel their friends to think positive, as we would say today, to fix their attention on the hopefully likely good outcome, trying to steer the mind away from the negative possibilities. But that’s not what the Stoic philosopher tells his friend to do:

“But what I will do is lead you down a different road to tranquility. If you want to be rid of worry, then fix your mind on whatever it is that you are afraid might happen as a thing that definitely will happen. Whatever bad event that might be, take the measure of it mentally and so assess your fear. You will soon realize that what you fear is either no great matter or not long lasting.” (XXIV.2)

This is what Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, calls “negative visualization,” even though Don Robertson, who is familiar with the modern version of the technique in cognitive behavioral therapy, points out that strictly speaking the Stoics thought the only negative (memeaning truly bad) thing that could befall someone is to act unvirtuously. Be that as it may, the idea is not to indulge in negative thoughts for their own sake, and even less so to dwell on possible tragedies that may struck us. Rather, it’s a matter of being mentally prepared for the worst, in order not to be shocked if and when it comes. As Seneca himself says elsewhere, a prepared mind is better able to withstand an unfavorable turn of events.

The letter continues with a series of example of people who have embraced a difficult situation with courage, including Publius Rutilius Rufus, who was exiled to Smyrna when he was falsely accused of extortion of the populations of the province of Asia, which he was actually trying to protect; and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, who was defeated by Caesar along with Cato and decided to commit suicide, famously departing from his soldiers with a nonchalant “Imperator se bene habet” (“Your general’s just fine”). But of course the greatest example of them all is the philosophical father of all the Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism:

“Socrates lectured while in prison, and although there were people there to arrange an escape, he refused to leave; instead, he stayed, meaning to do away with humankind’s two greatest fears: death and imprisonment.” (XXIV.4)

Seneca then reminds Lucilius of Cato’s own suicide, and the fact that he retired to his room for the last time in the company of a book by Plato and his dagger, “the one so that he would be willing to die, the other so that he would be able.” (XXIV.6) And a few lines later we also find the famous description of Cato’s last hour that has become standard Stoic lore: when his self-inflicted wound was about to be held in place by his physician, who had rushed into the room, Cato literally tore his guts from himself, throwing them on the floor and thus accomplishing his goal.

Of course, not many of us are likely to ever face a tyrant in battle, or to be sent into exile for having done the right thing. But these examples are meant to remind us that others have withstood far more difficult situations than the one that may be keeping us up at night right now. If they were able to summon so much courage and do the right thing, surely so can we? If it isn’t Caesar you are facing in the battlefield, but rather your boss who is unfairly berating a coworker, does it really take that much effort to stand up and say the right thing?

The letter also containes with the following advice:

“Your clear conscience gives reason to be confident; still, since many external factors have a bearing on the outcome, hope for the best but prepare yourself for the worst. Remember above all to get rid of the commotion. Observe what each thing has inside, and you will learn: there is nothing to fear in your affairs but fear itself.” (XXIV.12)

That last phrase, of course, was repeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of his inaugural address, on 4 March 1933, without attribution. Roosevelt was telling his fellow Americans, still in the midst of the great depression, that they had to endure and refuse to be paralyzed by unjustified terrors, relying instead on reason to overcome their problems and prosper again. How very Stoic of him.

Later on Seneca reminds his friend that whatever we may have to endure, others have alredy done it, and if someone else bore it well, so can we:

“‘I shall become poor.’ I will be one among many. ‘I shall be exiled.’ I’ll think of myself as a native of my place of exile. ‘I shall be bound.’ What of it? Am I now unfettered? Nature has chained me to this heavy weight that is my body. ‘I shall die.’ What you are saying is this: I shall no longer be susceptible to illness, to imprisonment, to death.” (XXIV.17)

A remarkable call to Stoic resilience, followed by an even more remarkable section in which Seneca says that fear of the afterlife is for children, or for simple minded people who actually believe in Cerberus, the hound of Hades who guards the entrance to the Underworld. In reality,

“Death either consumes us or sets us free. If we are released, then better things await us once our burden is removed; if we are consumed, then nothing is waiting for us at all: both goods and evils are gone. … We die every day, for every day some part of life is taken from us. Even when we are still growing, our life is shrinking. ” (XXIV.18, 20)

After citing (favorably) Epicurus, ad he often does in his early letters, Seneca says that a person of courage does neither love nor hate life, and knows when it is time to leave the party (as Epictetus would later put it). By the end, he sounds almost existentialist, or even nihilist, though he attributes to unspecified “others” this parting thought:

“‘How much more of the same things? I mean, how long will I wake and sleep, eat and grow hungry, grow cold and grow hot? Nothing has an ending: everything is connected to the rest of the world. Things chase each other in succession: night comes on the heels of day, day on the heels of night; summer yields to autumn, autumn is followed hard by winter, which then gives way to spring. Everything passes only to return. I do nothing that is new, see nothing that is new. Sometimes this too produces nausea.’ There are many who feel, not that life is hard, but that it is pointless.” (XXIV.26)

Stoic Q&A: is love part of what is true, good, and desirable?

Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse

Jason and Medea, by John William Waterhouse

L. writes: I recently stumbled upon your article/essay “Stoicism on Romantic Love and Commitment” and while it was a marvelous read (you even got me to agree with Camus, which was a first) it hasn’t answered the questions that made me look up how Stoicism handles love.

The initial spark stems from this Wikipedia article on Marcia, Cato the Younger’s second wife, particularly the final passage which states: “In her Masters of Rome series of novels, Colleen McCullough suggests that Cato gave Marcia to Hortensius simply because he could not reconcile his passion for her with his Stoic ideals, that he never let her go emotionally, and that he took her back at the first opportunity.”

Love, to me, is a possessive act of visualization and to some extent even reverence. The cruelest acts can be justified for love, and it makes me wonder how a Stoic would harmonize his many-headed temperate virtues, being Charybdis, with the Scylla that makes love. Is love part of what is good and true and desirable, despite it being the root of much unhappiness?

Cato the Younger is a Stoic role model, as repeatedly emphasized by Seneca, but he was not a Sage, just someone with an exceptional integrity of character and a commitment to his philosophy of life. Another famous instance in which Cato behaves not exactly as a Stoic is expected to was his breakdown when his half brother Caepio, to whom he was very close, died.

Are Stoics, then, supposed not to feel normal human emotions, like love and grief? No, as Seneca himself explicitly writes:

“For one must indulge genuine emotions; sometimes, even in spite of weighty reasons, the breath of life must be called back and kept at our very lips even at the price of great suffering, for the sake of those whom we hold dear.” (Letters to Lucilius, CIV. On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 3)

Or consider Epictetus:

“I must not be without feeling like a statue, but must maintain my natural and acquired relations, as a religious man, as son, brother, father, citizen.” (Discourses III, 2)

That said, the love of another person is, strictly speaking, a preferred indifferent in Stoicism, meaning not that it doesn’t matter, but that it does not make you, per se, a more (or less) virtuous person. Why? Because one can love virtuously or unvirtuously, which implies, logically, that love cannot be the highest good (only wisdom is). Indeed,from this perspective, love is yet another arena in which the Stoic can exercise her character, for instance by being lovable to her companion, trustworthy, and so forth. All of which requires at the very least the virtues of courage (to do the right thing), justice (to know what the right thing is), and temperance (to do things in right measure). And, very likely, the fourth virtue as well, prudence (practical wisdom), which tells us how to navigate complex situations, such as those often arising in relationships, in the most ethical way possible.

The problem with certain (romantic) conceptions of love is that it is made into an absolute. “Love conquers all” is one of the silliest phrases in popular culture. Not only because it is obviously empirically false, but because it leads us to subvert our priorities: people do all sorts of bad things for love, or what they think is love.

The classic example in Stoic lore is, of course, Medea, the tragic character of one of Euripides’ tragedies, later rewritten by Seneca. Here is what Epictetus says about her:

“I want something and it doesn’t come about: who could be more wretched than I? I don’t want something and it comes about: who could be more wretched than I? It was because she was unable to endure this that Medea murdered her children.” (Discourses II.17.18-19)

What is it that Medea wanted to come about? That Jason (the Argonaut) married her, a “barbarian,” which he didn’t. What did she not want to come about? That Jason married a “proper” Greek princess instead, which he did. Of course most of us are not going to react as madly as Medea, but, as you say, how much suffering does love actually bring? Yes, it can also bring much joy. Which is precisely why it is classed by the Stoics among the “indifferents,” those things that can be used either for good or for bad, depending on one’s character.

So in answer to your question: is love true, good, and desirable? Love may or may not be true, depending on circumstances; it is good only insofar as it is preferred to its absence, but not as the overarching goal of your life; and it is desirable to the extent that it does not make you an unvirtuous person. Some may find this picture unappealing and cold, but I think it is actually liberating. Love is an important component of a flourishing life, but it doesn’t determine whether we are good people or not, and it should not control us to the extent of turning us away from the path of virtue.

Julian Baggini on Stoicism and the problem with self-help

self helpFreelance philosopher and author Julian Baggini has a problem with self-help, with philosophy when it comes close to self-help, and therefore, apparently, with Stoicism. I take what Julian says seriously, since he is a thoughtful person, the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine (for which I occasionally write), and the author of a number of really, really good books that ought to be read widely. For instance, over at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato, I devoted a whopping eleven posts to an in-depth discussion of his marvelous The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Nevertheless, in what follows I’m going to push back on Julian’s take on self-help type philosophy in general, and Stoicism in particular, focusing on two short articles he wrote: “Should we be more Stoic?,” co-authored with Antonia Macaro (who, interestingly, recently published More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age), and “The problem with self-help.” (Notice that the first piece is from 2013, the second one from this year.)

“Should we be more Stoic?” was written on the occasion of the very first Stoic Week, and is part of a long running series of columns by Macaro and Baggini published in the Financial Times and eventually in book form. Macaro’s take is that there is a lot more to Stoicism than a bag of tricks or some useful therapeutic techniques, and I couldn’t agree more. However, she advises “unashamed cherry-picking” because “we live in very different times and it would be unreasonable to take on chapter and verse of Stoic philosophy.”

Well, yes, we live in different times from those of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, but only up to a point, really. Human nature hasn’t changed, and the following premeditatio malorum by Marcus still very applies today:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

That is why Stoicism (like Buddhism, the other subject of Macaro’s own book, written a few years after her column) is still so very pertinent today. And while it is certainly the case that one should not take onboard wholesale a philosophy that got started 23 centuries ago (see here, for instance), it doesn’t follow that one should do unashamed cherry-picking. First, because Stoicism is a coherent system of thought, not really amenable to too much cherry-picking; second, because cherry-picking is a close companion to pure and simple rationalization, where one ends up “picking” what is convenient and neglecting what is harder and yet useful.

But it is Baggini, in that column, that fires heavy shots against Stoicism. He begins by stating that “when it comes to adopting any kind of philosophy, the lower case is king,” continuing: “the only followers philosophers should have are the kind that follow up and through, and not simply after.” Well, Seneca himself agreed when he said:

“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 [Stoic] 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)

So much for just following after instead of up and through. Baggini insists: “Given that more than two millennia have elapsed since the Stoics developed their ideas, it would seem especially odd to relight their torch and carry it through the streets of our modern cities. The idea that the driving forces of the universe are reason and fate, for example, should have been exploded by the discovery of the Big Bang.” But this betrays a somewhat superficial acquaintance with Stoic philosophy, both ancient and modern. Few modern Stoics accept the original pantheism and the idea of a living universe animated by the Logos. And even the ancient ones openly admitted that their metaphysics under-determined (to use a modern philosophical term) their ethics. That’s why Marcus has several “gods or atoms” passages in the Meditations. Moreover, remember that the crucial part of the Stoic curriculum, even in ancient times, was the ethics (how to live your life), not the physics (natural science and metaphysics) and the logic (logic, rhetoric, and cognitive science). The three are certainly connected, but they don’t admit of a simple linear mapping onto each other.

Julian is right when he says that “we can adapt and borrow any particular Stoic methods that work. But that no more makes you a Stoic than practising meditation makes you a Buddhist.” But this would imply that therefore there are no modern Buddhists, only meditators. Or perhaps that Buddhism-the-philosophy is quaint and obsolete, and that only meditating techniques ought to survive. That is a strange and hard proposition to defend, though. Philosophies, like religions, evolve and adapt to new times and new knowledge, but they are useful insofar they still provide their adopters (or followers, in the case of religions) with a framework for navigating the world, a moral compass, as it were, which goes well beyond whatever practical techniques may have been developed within such philosophies and religions in the course of millennia.

Baggini concludes the first article by stating that “Stoicism itself stands or falls – or more likely limps along – on the soundness of its arguments, not its effect on our psychological wellbeing.” Again, true. But there ain’t no limping going on here, and if one needs any convincing that 21st century Stoicism is alive and logically sound, then I suggest a good reading of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (or, if you are in a bit of a hurry, of my author-approved ten part series on the book).

The second, more recent piece I want to comment on is a solo production by Julian, written five years after the first article, and focusing on the “problem” of self-help. It begins by paying homage to concert pianist James Rhodes, who doesn’t like the idea of self-help because “the ‘good-enough human being’ should indeed be good enough. … There is a huge amount of space between happiness and unhappiness and someone in between is OK.”

Good enough “should” indeed be good enough? On what grounds? I know what Rhodes and Baggini are complaining about, as I’m not a fan of the standard self-help genre where one is promised the Moon if only one adopts seven habits, follows ten rules, or asks himself who moved his cheese. But as Julian himself immediately adds, there is nothing wrong with the idea of self-help per se, the issue is how it is done and for what purpose. A tendency of self-help authors to over-claim and over-simplify is certainly both common and damnable. But one can hardly accuse the Stoics of ether sin, unless one utterly misunderstands (which Baggini does not) passages like this one from Epictetus:

“If you regard only that which is your own [i.e., under your control] as being your own, and that which isn’t your own [i.e., not under your control] as not being your own, as is indeed the case, no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.” (Enchiridion, III)

Julian writes: “these books assume we know what we want and what a good life looks like and simply help us to close the gap between life as it is and life as we’d prefer it to be. That’s why I think philosophy is not ‘self-help’ in the contemporary sense. Philosophy asks us to question what it means for a life to go well, what it means to be a good person. Not only might it provide no help reaching our current goals, it might even make us change them.” There is a lot packed in here, both exactly right and exactly wrong. I don’t see as inherently objectionable to write books that are prescriptive rather than just descriptive. That’s what philosophy (unlike psychology) does, so it is strange for a philosopher to complain about books that tell people what a good life is. Socrates would certainly have written one such book, had he written anything at all. The problem is with the distorted potrary of the “good” (meaning, worth living) life which many modern self-help books present to their readers: it’s all about money, success, getting laid, and feeling “happy.” All things that the Stoics classed at best as preferred indifferents, which when pursued as a major goal distract us from what is really good about human life.

“Philosophy helps us to live better because living better doesn’t mean feeling better,” says Baggini, “if instead we’re reading self-help books, we’re allowing our pursuit of happiness to get in the way of our pursuit of the truly good life.” Indeed, completely agreed. But then it is strange, if not downright contradictory for him to write: “[That’s] why, for all its virtues, I was irritated by Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which had in large type on its back cover just one quote from Epicurus: ‘Any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless.’ There goes Kant’s Critique, Descartes’ Meditations, Berkeley’s Treatise, etc, etc..”

I’m not a fan of de Botton, though I think he gets a bad rap from academic philosophers, largely because he is so successful and popular (Baggini himself has made a career as a freelance philosopher, and he is good at it, so perhaps he should be more charitable toward fellow travelers). And I’m also not, broadly speaking, on the side of Epicurus. But just as Seneca puts it when he explains to his friend Lucilius why he often quotes Epicurus in his letters:

“It is my custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy.” (Letters to Lucilius II.5)

In the specific case, Epicurus had a point, and he was speaking specifically — like the Stoics often did, including Seneca and Epictetus — of people who are interested in philosophy for the sake of hair splitting, engaging in logic chopping as a sport, with no thought toward searching for truth or improving themselves. As for Kant, Descartes, Berkeley, and many others, I’m pretty sure they were convinced that their work would make this a better world, which is why they were interested in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. I’m guessing that de Botton chose that quote by Epicurus to make the point that much modern (academic) philosophy has instead devolved into precisely the sort of hair splitting and logic chopping that we should all find objectionable. Including Julian.

Stoic Q&A: what is the (Stoic) key to happiness?

eudaimoniaD. writes: In one interview you said that in your opinion the key to happiness is finding something we enjoy doing, finding a sense of meaning in what we are doing in terms of the occupation we may select. But would not the Stoic say that by chance, lottery, or destiny we find ourselves in a given situation and that we should just do our best there, independently of our occupation, and that really a happy life would consist in developing our moral character as the main goal and key to happiness? If you are for instance growing up somewhere where you are unfortunately not having the means of getting a decent education, so that some personal goals may be out of reach, would it not be — under the Stoic perspective — right anyway to solely work on your moral character in order to be good, kind, fair, courageous, etc.? So would not the Stoics in general downplay our profession (outside of our control) and see it more as a means to survive? Would not they recognise our profession as a preferred indifferent?

I am very glad you asked this question, because it gives me an opportunity to clear some common misconceptions in what I think the ancient Stoics were saying, and certainly in the way a modern Stoic should interpret the philosophy. One key to the answer is to draw a distinction between happiness and eudaimonia. The Greco-Roman word did not translate to the modern English happiness, certainly not in the context of discussions about the life worth living, as Socrates would put it.

Indeed, the term eudaimonia is so unwieldy for modern translations that even some psychologists have given up and use the Greek word instead. Still, the usual approximate translation of eudaimonia is flourishing, which is what I meant when I used the word happiness in that interview. In order to flourish, I would agree with the Aristotelians, one needs some external conditions to be met, including the sort of opportunities for education, wealth, health and so forth that you allude to.

But as I have pointed out before, the various Greco-Roman philosophical schools differentiated themselves precisely on the basis of what they meant by eudaimonia. In particular, the Aristotelians, the Stoics and the Cynics differed in interesting ways, along a continuum that locates Stoicism in the middle of a conceptual space occupied by the other two schools (see this post as well, particularly the first slide).

At one extreme of the continuum we find the Aristotelians, with their above mentioned contention that eudaimonia is flourishing, and hence requires a significant component of externals. That sort of position means — as you correctly point out — that one needs a bit of luck to be eudaimon. At the opposite extreme are the Cynics, for whom the life worth living (please notice the different wording now, not “flourishing,” but “worth living”) is one of virtue. Indeed, everything else, for the Cynics, positively gets in the way, which is why they famously did not marry (except for Crates, Zeno’s teacher, who was, however, married to another Cynic, Hipparchia of Maroneia), did not own property, and lived in the streets (hence their name: “cynic,” in ancient Greek, means dog-like).

What about the Stoics? They carved themselves a conceptual niche, so to speak, in between the above mentioned schools, by way of articulating the difference between virtue (which is central) and externals (which are preferred, but indifferent to virtue). So the scenario you envisage near the end of your letter is a situation in which the Stoics would still say that one’s life is worth living (because we have opportunities to practice virtue), but not one conducive to flourishing (or “happiness” in the broad sense of the term), because lacking in externals.

Another way to look at it is from the point of view of Epictetus’ role ethics, as described by Brian Johnson in his book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (which I have commented on here). Epictetus makes distinctions among different roles we play in society. The most fundamental role, and the one which takes precedence over all others, is that of a human being. After that, we have a variety of additional roles, some that we choose (being a parent, our profession, etc.), and some that are “given” to us by the universe (being someone’s child, being born in a particular place and society, etc.). Playing the basic role of a human being is the same as practicing virtue, under all circumstances. The other roles leave space for pursuing our particular projects, but obviously within the constraints of whatever cards Fate hands us. So, for a Stoic, life is almost always worth living (there are special circumstances when suicide is admissible), but it isn’t always a happy one.