The Good-Humored Stoic

Correcting some misunderstandings about the philosophy.

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I've written a book about the philosophy of the ancient Stoics (you can see reviews here and buy it here; a Kindle version will be available in October). Eugene has kindly invited me to talk about it here this week. Monday's post explained the book's general approach. Yesterday's post summarized the most practical teachings of Stoicism. Today I want to mention some of the many common misconceptions about the philosophy and counter them with things the ancient Stoics actually said.

[1.] Stoicism has sometimes been thought to counsel a kind of withdrawal from the world. Stoics only fuss about what they can control; does that mean they ignore the larger demands of their times? Quite the contrary. Two of the most important ancient Stoics were Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the Younger, both of whom gave their lives to public affairs. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was one of the good Roman emperors. As Thomas de Quincey later described him:

It must be remembered that Marcus Aurelius was by profession a Stoic; and that generally, as a theoretical philosopher, but still more as a Stoic philosopher, he might be supposed incapable of descending from these airy altitudes of speculation to the true needs, infirmities, and capacities of human nature. Yet strange it is, that he, of all the good emperors, was the most thoroughly human and practical. —de Quincey, The Caesars (1851)

Someone who rightly understands Stoicism shouldn't find that observation strange at all. Stoicism isn't just compatible with public life; the philosophy calls for it:

"Epicurus says: 'The sage will not engage in public affairs unless he must.' Zeno says: 'The sage will engage in public affairs unless he cannot.'" —Seneca, On Leisure 2.2

(Zeno of Citium was the founder of Stoic philosophy.) As for Seneca, he was an advisor to Nero, and has been much criticized for serving an emperor of odious reputation—an early version, perhaps, of a story that remains familiar now. (This was another claim of the Stoics: once you've seen a certain amount of life, little is new; the same patterns just recur in new masks.) Seneca's role in the court of Nero was once the subject of a picturesque account by Plutarch:

Anyone who is quick to anger should abstain from rare and curiously wrought things, like drinking-cups and seal-rings and precious stones; for their loss drives their owner out of his senses more than do objects which are common and easily procured. This is the reason why, when Nero had an octagonal tent built, an enormous thing and a sight to be seen for its beauty and costliness, Seneca remarked, "You have proved yourself a poor man, for if you ever lose this you will not have the means to procure another like it." And indeed it did so happen that the ship which conveyed it was sunk and the tent lost. But Nero remembered Seneca's saying and bore his loss with greater moderation. —Plutarch, On Controlling Anger 13 (461f-462a)

Nero was a prolific executioner—of his rivals, of his first wife, of his mother, and of various others (finally including Seneca, who was said to be part of a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, and whose suicide Nero therefore directed; the incident is the subject of a fine allusion in The Godfather Part II). So one may wonder if Plutarch wrote that passage with some irony. But what the "greater moderation" of Nero looked like in this case is not recorded.

[2.] Some imagine Stoicism to be a grim or humorless approach to life. Again, not at all; Stoics are more likely to be distinguished by mild humor in the face of things regarded as grim by others. What Stoics do favor is moderation, not because they don't believe in pleasure but because moderation makes lasting and natural pleasures possible. Stoics generally are supposed to be of good cheer, and Seneca said that some of them need to lighten up:

Games will also be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives it balance. The more damp and the drier natures, and also the cold, are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness.—Seneca, On Anger 2.20.4

We must be indulgent to the mind, and regularly grant it the leisure that serves as its food and strength. —Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind 17.7-8

Stoics especially value good humor as an alternative to anger in response to a provocation. Seneca recounts a political example from Cato, a Stoic hero:

As Cato was arguing a case, Lentulus—that violent partisan, remembered by our fathers—gathered as much thick saliva as he could and spat right in the middle of Cato's forehead. Cato wiped off his face and said, "I'll assure everyone, Lentulus, that they're wrong when they say that you're not worth spit." —Seneca, On Anger 3.38.2

This last passage involves a pun that does not translate well literally. Cato really told Lentulus that they were wrong to say he had no mouth; it was a play on words in Latin. I've sought to suggest something equivalent in English. In any event, it's too bad for our political culture that the spirit of Cato is in such short supply.

[3.] Some people imagine that Stoicism involves for an unfeeling approach to other people. Not so:

Further characteristics of the reasoning soul are love of its neighbors, truth, compassion . . . . —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.1.2

This is the first promise that philosophy holds out to us: fellow-feeling, humanity, sociability. —Seneca, Epistles 5.4

I should not be unfeeling like a statue; I should care for my relationships both natural and acquired—as a pious man, a son, a brother, a father, a citizen. —Epictetus, Discourses 3.2.4

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, many Stoic teachings overlap with the central teachings of other philosophical or religious traditions, and these are examples. But the Stoics tend to get there by a route that involves reason rather than faith, and that many people find more appealing on that ground. It is true, though, that Stoics often describe emotions such as anger as mistakes. So what's the difference between feelings that the Stoics welcome and emotions that they don't? I will talk more about this tomorrow.

The notes above are all condensed excerpts from The Practicing Stoic. If you like what you see here, you would probably enjoy the book.

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  1. Yet even more stoicism is in ever-greater need, in the era of Trump! How else will we muddle through these mad times?

    1. With spit aplenty for foreheads and more.

    2. What mad times? And for that matter, what muddling? Trump, Pelosi, Sanders, none of that lot can affect my happiness outside of what I allow them to. Assuming that any of them matter at all gives them a great deal more power over me than I’m willing to.

      Hate spilled by those who think it acceptable to denigrate and dehumanize those with whom they disagree? Still meaningless. The opinion of a faceless, identitiless, moniker on my computer screen means nothing. “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.”

  2. Hello Professsor,

    I ordered your book a couple of days ago and received it via Amazon Prime this afternoon. Looks fascinating so far.

    I’ve often explained to people that stociism does not mean “grim acceptance,” just as epicureanism dos not mean gluttony, quaaludes, hookers, and blow. (And as skepticism does mean rejection of everything and as cynicism does not mean what most people today think it means.)

    I’m also influenced by the pre-Socratics, notably Heraclitus. The emphasis on transformation over object very much reflects some modern trends in computer programming, oddly enough. Mappings or arrows or changes over static (seme root as stoic, of course) objects in formal ontologies a la Aristotle.

    But I am also very much influenced by Nietzsche. Flipping ahead in your book, i’ve seen quotes from Schopenhauer but few if any from Nietzsche.

    I’ll try to understand why you didn’t quote more from my favorite stoicist.

    –Tim May, once a “Reason” reader, in around 1972-74, still a believer, Intel in early years, crypto and Cypherpunks and “Crypto Anarchist Mainfesto” and Bitcoin, etc.

    1. I’ve found that Stoicism mixed with a good sized dollop of David Hume has taught me more about software development than actual software development has.

  3. These be times to test the soul of the most stoic stoic. I anticipate the next 60 days politically to be on par with trying to navigate the Hindenburg through a spectacular fireworks show in the midst of a gasoline downpour.

    I might be a semi-Stoic along the lines of Cal Coolidge (this may be misattributed and not spot-on accurate):

    “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, nine of them will run in the ditch before reaching you.”

    1. “These be times to test the soul of the most stoic stoic.”

      Once you understand that no mere politician has the power to affect your happiness outside of what you give, it becomes much easier to ignore Washington Theater. Trump is a lot of bad things, but like the cannibal’s mother-in-law he, too, shall pass.

      “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, nine of them will run in the ditch before reaching you.”

      That’s not at all “semi” Stoic. Seneca counseled to not worry overly much about troubles that haven’t happened yet, and therefore may not at all.

  4. “Stoicism isn’t just compatible with public life; the philosophy calls for it:”

    In one of his earlier letters to Lucilius, Seneca actually called for a withdrawal from public life in order to focus on the study of philosophy. It’s one of the areas where I heavily disagree with Seneca. Rather than withdrawing to study philosophy alone, you should make everything you do a part of that study.

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