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The Transformation of Stoicism Over The Centuries: An Interview With Historian Ada Palmer


Ada Palmer is a Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. She did her Ph.D at Harvard, during which she spent time researching and studying in Florence and Rome, then co-authored The Recovery of Ancient Philosophy in the Renaissance: A Brief Guide with James Hankins. Her debut novel Too Like the Lightning was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. At the core of all of Ada’s work is her interest in the relationship between ideas and historical change, and much of her research focuses on how the ancient texts, including stoicism, have transformed over the centuries.

In our interview with Ada below, she details the historical surge of Stoicism analogous to the philosophy’s modern resurgence, the rediscovery of Marcus Aurelius and his Meditationsthe number of techniques she uses in the challenging pursuit of inner tranquility, three updates that pure classical stoicism needs in response to major new concepts that didn’t exist in antiquity, and much more. Please enjoy this in-depth interview with the great Ada Palmer!

Can you tell us about your first encounter with the Stoics? Do you remember how you were introduced to them or which Stoic you read first? What was your reaction?

I read Cicero first but in Latin class, where I fell in love with his voice (and forever succumbed to imitating his long, elaborate sentences), but wasn’t encouraged to think of him as a philosopher until much later.  I encountered the classical philosophical schools first in college, in great books courses and then philosophy courses, where I read Marcus Aurelius and some Seneca, and then again in graduate school as a teaching assistant for a course on European intellectual history ancient to early Enlightenment.  I remember my adviser was delighted to find a student who had my unusual depth of knowledge of ancient as well as early modern thought, and felt he couldn’t have taught that course without such a student.  So Latin and History were the feeders for me.

Your research focuses on how the ancient texts, including stoicism, have transformed over the centuries. What can we learn from the different ways it’s been perceived? Also curious if there are any historical analogs to the philosophy’s more modern resurgence?

The biggest historical analog is the Renaissance, which transformed Stoicism greatly, much as we’re doing now. And the important parallel there is that big resurgences don’t come because a new book has been discovered, rather books tend to get new waves of dissemination because some cultural moment makes people suddenly excited by them. Just as there have been Penguin Classics editions of all the ancient Stoics for many decades before the recent surge in popularity (and people have been buying and reading them, just mostly scholars), similarly the works of ancient Stoics, and other ancient authors, were around in libraries throughout the Middle Ages, and were being read, just not on the scale or for the reasons they came to be read in the Renaissance.  This may sound familiar, but early Renaissance Italy, after the Black Death, had a strong sense of crisis and apocalypse: that violence and wars were getting worse, that outside invaders (France, Spain, the Ottomans, the Holy Roman Empire) were encroaching more and more on weakening city-states, and that the whole society might soon be overrun, ending life as the Italians knew it. Petrarch (1304-1374) and others argued that this desperate time called for desperate measures, and a moonshot-level effort to make Florence and Italy stronger. Their moonshot was reviving antiquity, looking to ancient sources to recreate the achievements, technologies, and especially the educational system which had reared great Italian leaders like Caesar, Seneca, and Cicero, with the idea that if Italy’s ruling elites received the same education they might have similar political success. I mean ‘moonshot’ seriously here and the investment level was the same, since it cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to, for example, fund a ship to go to Constantinople, seek scholars and Greek tutors, purchase rare manuscripts, and regain ancient sources, but desperate nobles, merchant princes, and frightened republics were willing to invest in what felt like an exciting chance. And at the same time that it offered the hope of political restoration, this new interest in ancient thought also offered the promise of personal philosophical guidance and happiness, which was the center of so many ancient philosophies including Stoicism.  I want to stress here that Medieval people also studied and used ancient sources to a huge extent but, like those who bought Penguin Classics of Cicero in the later 1900s, their goals were different and less shaped by crisis than those in the Renaissance.

The surge of Renaissance interest ended up transforming Stoicism twice, once in the early Renaissance but again toward the end. Early in the Renaissance scholars like Petrarch had the same expectations that Medieval and some late antique scholars did, that the best and wisest parts of ancient philosophy would also be compatible with Christianity.  The logic was fairly simple (and remember they don’t have our modern sense of cultural relativism): if there is one truth, and all wise people move toward that truth and are attempting to describe it, then all wise people’s writings are actually describing the same thing, and if there are differences between them those are only minor.  Think of five people sketching the same object—variations in their artistic skill or angles of vision may result in what seem like differences, but you can reconstruct the original object by comparing all the sketches and discarding the differences.  This is how early Renaissance people thought they could sort through the various ideas of different ancient thinkers to arrive at truth, and coming from a Christian context they threw Christianity in the mix, and thus assumed that the ancient ideas that more resembled Christianity must be the correct and important ones.  This led to two things.  A) Renaissance people ranked the value of ancient texts differently from the way we do, putting the most trust in late works shaped substantially by Christianity (like Plotinus) and less in the ones we consider more pure reflections of ancient thought. (B) They assumed that whenever they found new ancient texts they would generally agree with Christianity, that the bits that did agree with Christianity were the authentic ones, and that the passages that contradict Christianity were either garbled or somehow secondary. And they assumed this BEFORE they read the many new texts (like Marcus Aurelius) that were brought to Italy by moonshot-funded expeditions.  As a result, the early Renaissance produced a hyper-Christian version of stoicism, focusing on ethics and Providence and ideas of divine perfection, and largely ignoring things like monist physics, imminence, and the idea that there’s no individual afterlife.  The second transformation came as, over the course of the Renaissance, more and more texts appeared and bright young scholars educated with the new texts, and with better and better understandings of ancient sources, began to realize that Petrarch and his peers were wrong, that stoicism and other ancient schools differed enormously, both from each other and from Christianity, and that these weren’t all sketches of one object from different angels but rather wholly separate models of how the world could work.  This is how the Renaissance surge of interest in stoicism both created some of the most christianised Stoic writings we’ve ever seen, but also paved the way toward the next stage of reception when stoicism was again considered as its own thing largely separate from, and incompatible with some aspects of, Christian thought.

One thing you’ve said is that Marcus Aurelius was very late in being rediscovered. Why do you think that was?

Great question, two reasons: first the Meditations are in Greek, not Latin, and knowledge of Greek was lost for so long in the West, so everything in Latin had more circulation than Greek for a number of centuries.  The second (related to the first) is that the Meditations survived in only two copies, so it took a long time for anyone to find them, and even longer for people to start to think this new strange source was as important as the Latin sources that everyone already knew and loved.  Imagine trying to get High School English programs to give up teaching Shakespeare to teach some newly-discovered contemporary and you get the idea.  Cicero and Seneca were read in schools throughout the Middle Ages as models of good Latin rhetoric as well as moral education.  Much like today they were standard textbooks, so there was literally no Latin-educated person in Europe who had not read some Cicero and been taught to use him as the model for good Latin style.  There was also an assumption at the time—voiced by Cicero himself—that inner virtue was essential to persuasive rhetoric, thus that anyone with a wicked interior self could not form beautiful persuasive language, and conversely that the ability to craft persuasive rhetoric as Cicero did was proof of inner virtue.  The reasons people believed this were complex but it had a lot to do with the somewhat Platonic notion that truth and beauty emanate from the same (divine) source, and thus that an ugly soul could not give words persuasive beauty.  (This is the same reason they think all the sketches are sketching one object).  So Cicero was a standard for moral education and authoritative political advice.  Not all of Cicero circulated in the Middle Ages—many of his letters, for example, were unknown before Petrarch—but it meant he was already known and trusted, so his new works had an automatic audience, like a new Stephen King novel. 

Seneca was a Medieval superstar author as well, especially (counter to what we expect) a set of spurious works attributed to him which we no longer consider to be genuine Seneca, but which until at least the later 1500s, they were much more popular and influential than what we consider real Seneca.  The most popular, counted by number of manuscripts and popularity of early printed versions, was probably the forged letters between Seneca and Saint Paul in which the two debate ethics and Christianity, which fed into a Medieval idea that Seneca himself had secretly converted to Christianity but not revealed it out of fear of Nero, and that in fact the reason Nero ordered Seneca’s death was that he found out Seneca was a Christian.  That’s very much not the Seneca we believe in today, but Seneca the Secret Christian (or at least Seneca the person so interested in Christianity that he debated with St. Paul) was what people encountered in the Middle Ages and was why he was able to be celebrated as a paragon of teaching virtue even in militantly Christian Europe.  The other spuria were mostly collections of moral maxims, some taken from Seneca’s actual works but rearranged after his death, focusing on popular topics like virtue or patience. Petrarch in the later 1400s while evaluating the relative merits of the Greeks and the Latins (comparing Herodotus to Livy for history, Demosthenes to Cicero for rhetoric etc.) says that the one arena in which the Latins are purely superior to the Greeks is moral education, because only the Latins have Seneca.

You’re quoted in the recent New York Times article on why Stoicism has become popular in Silicon Valley, and one of the things you mentioned is how sad the lives of some of those very successful, very rich (mostly) men look to you. It almost sounds like an observation Seneca would have made about some of the soft elites of Rome. Do you think that sort of existential emptiness (and the corresponding search for something hardier and more resilient) is a timeless part of the human experience?

I know a number of successful and wealthy Silicon Valley people, and some of them are very happy, but others are not, it’s a mixture like any subsection of our culture. But I think the challenge is that unhappiness when one is wealthy and successful in business exposes our culture’s myths about happiness. Advertisements, history textbooks, political rhetoric, so many aspects of America repeat the idea that if you’re successful in business and become rich then you’ll be happy, and that this is the win condition of life, the American dream to “make it big.”  So when you have made it big and you’re still unhappy, you can’t believe in that myth anymore and have to face the fact that, while some happiness does come with having enough money to live comfortably and escape the fear of living hand to mouth, having lots and lots of money is no more satisfying in itself than scoring lots of points in a videogame — you have the high score badge, congratulations, but when you leave the console, it’s all hollow.  There are many people who have found happiness using the power that money gives in powerful ways (to change the world, to develop new technologies, to explore, to focus on art and creation, etc.), but for some who don’t feel creative or inventive vocations it becomes hollow, especially those who remain in the high score competition (common on Wall Street as well as in Silicon Valley), working all day to score points, then lying in bed at night finding the high score badge hollow.  Seneca, today as ever, is great at pointing this out, that wealth and power in themselves do not grant happiness in themselves, and that we have to seek it other ways. For Seneca that way is internal self-mastery and seeking a mental state that conquers desire and anxiety; for Voltaire it was “cultivating the human garden” i.e. working to improve the world, help people, and create art; both of these approaches (best in combination) are what I see most of my happier wealthy acquaintances do.

You also spoke about how “Stoicism is about achieving interior tranquillity.” Talk about that a little. How do we get there? How do you get there in your own life? How do you achieve it in what seems like a very busy life in academia as well as a novelist?

I’m certainly far from achieving consistent inner tranquility myself, which, of course, is normal, the exercises are for winning small battles, using a wise maxim to help you push the inner storm away in a particular dark moment, where all Stoics agree that achieving real constant unwavering inner tranquility is a rare achievement—worth pursuing, but rare. And that that’s okay.  I do have a lot to wrestle with in the tumults of academia, publishing, constant deadlines, and I’m also disabled, a chronic pain sufferer, and need a lot of self-mastery on the long days when I know deadlines are looming but I’m in too much pain to work (which I discuss on my blog).  So I use a variety of different techniques to battle the gloom, “morbid thinking” and other mental effects of chronic pain. I self-monitor carefully, keeping an inner lookout for when I find myself dwelling on something that’s upsetting me, and I have a sort of triage of responses.  I ask myself (A) can I find an actionable solution to the problem?  If not (B) can I get myself to stop worrying about the problem and let go?  Can I laugh at the problem?  Can I ask myself whether this will really matter in a year or five years?  Sometimes that alone can break the spell, but if it doesn’t this is where I find the maxims, especially the vivid images, often help. 

One of my favorites is the stoic image of life as being like being a guest at a banquet.  Many great platters are being passed around for you to take from, but occasionally one arrives already empty, everyone else has already taken it all.  It’s easy to be angry, and it is unfair, but the food wasn’t yours to begin with, it was a gift from your host, and you didn’t really need it, there is plenty of other food.  Sometimes just thinking about that can make me less upset by something.  It’s amazing how that kind of reframing, zooming out, or changing perspective can sometimes dispel the stormy thoughts that are really what are causing one’s unhappiness. And while stoic maxims are great at this, simpler things, even gamification can do it.  I and some friends did an experiment once where there was one red light on our daily commute that was always red and it really annoyed us and meant that the minute each day we spent waiting a that light was a really gloomy, angry one—not good for the inner self. So we borrowed from a board game we’d been playing (Arkham Horror) which has various events trigger “doom tokens” and we made up the joke that the light had to be red or doom would advance, and that if we ever came to the light and it was green it meant we’d gotten a “doom token.”  It was incredible how instantly it dispelled my (and all of our!) resentment toward that red light, and genuinely made us happy when it was red.  (When it was green we decided going to the grocery store would be the equivalent of the Elder Sign which is the game’s opposite of a “doom token” so we had a way to resolve it constructively when the light was green).  It was a vacuous game and yet that daily deep annoyance was gone as in a puff of smoke.  It’s an intentionally silly example of how stoic maxims and especially reframing, but also other systems that reframe problems, can help reduce the number of minutes we feel various forms of unhappiness in daily life.

Now, sometimes those reframing strategies don’t work.  Sometimes there weren’t other platters to come our way, that was the only solution to a serious problem.  Or sometimes there were other platters but one still can’t stop dwelling on it.  This is where practical self-care can help (having a meal to get your blood sugar up, exercise for endorphins, entertainment to change the mood, music), or what I call action care, where I try to banish the stormy thoughts by working on something that I can make progress on: I can’t solve this fight with a friend until the friend calms down enough to talk to me, but I can grade these papers, or edit this chapter, or write this op-ed, or do this interview about Stoicism, and the positive feeling of accomplishment can help banish the storm.  Teamwork too, working with friends, makes a big difference.

Above all, though, at the heart of stoicism is learning to watch for storms, self-monitoring, noticing unhappiness, and remembering that, while you may not have power over the cause, there are various ways to exert power over the unhappiness itself, and if you can that can negate, or at least mitigate, the real negative consequences for you.  Remembering that our inner experience is just as actionable as our outer experience is the heart of how stoics and many ancient eudaimonist systems help us take better control of our inner experience, and protect ourselves from harm.  Harm wears you out, grinds you down, makes you less able to act and achieve and live, be it the huge harm of mourning a friend or the tiny harm of that red light, and any small amount you’re able to mitigate makes you that much stronger.

There’s a sense that you see Stoicism as a somewhat flawed or incomplete philosophy. Why do you think that is? What do you feel Stoicism is missing for our modern life?

I don’t think it’s flawed as much as in need of updating. All philosophies and belief systems from 1,000+ years ago need to be updated somewhat, whether it’s Pythagoreanism or Christianity, to reflect new historical realities, scientific knowledge, and especially technological possibilities.  If nothing else, ancient cultures never imagined a world in which the literacy rate would be so high, or where books (which used to cost as much as a house!) could be owned by anyone, so their ideas about who can be educated, and thus who the audience of their philosophy could be, was very narrow.  So, to quote Galileo “If Aristotle were alive today he would change his mind,” i.e. the great Stoics themselves would adapt and expand stoicism if they were around today to see the changes, and we need to make those adaptations when we want to apply it to our own lives and era.  There are a number of updates that pure classical stoicism needs, basically to incorporate or respond to major new concepts didn’t exist in antiquity (or the Renaissance) I’ll focus on three.

First: Anthropogenic progress. Classical stoicism predates the concept—ubiquitous today—that the human experience changes with each generation, and that human action advances this and can affect it intentionally.  Antiquity did have the idea of society developing over time—movement from a golden age to a silver age to ages of bronze and iron explored in Lucretius and elsewhere—but it isn’t until the works of Francis Bacon c. 1600 that we get the idea that there can be systematic and intentional progress, scientific progress, technological progress, which matures in the enlightenment into the idea that there can even be major intentional social change, new political orders, new mores and ethics.  Projects like the Enlightenment’s effort to fundamentally change the human condition just hadn’t been imagined.  Thus, when the ancient stoics say the world is perfect and everyone does the best by doing the duty we’re born to, they didn’t have the idea that, for example, human action might someday be able to eliminate slavery, reduce working hours and improve nutrition, or introduce a new and more humane legal system.  They never imagined, for example, that a health care system might someday reduce infant mortality, so they simply offered advice on how to get over the grief of losing a child without thinking it could ever be avoided.  The stoics weren’t anti-progress any more than they were pro-progress, the system simply never had to address the idea of progress, and many of the system’s social recommendations, which all assume the status quo, need to be reexamine and updated now that we live in an era where projects like medical research or sanitation can increase the sum total of human happiness and decrease the sum total of human pain on a scale never imagined in the past. Would Seneca and Cicero advocate pursuing such projects alongside attempting to be as happy as possible in the world as it is?  I think they would have, and that modern stoics need to adjust stoic advice to incorporate the idea of progress.

Second: Universal Education and Equal Capacity.  The stoics never met the concept that “All men are created equal.”  They never met the Enlightenment idea that education can be expanded to empower the entirety of a society to become philosophically and politically active and to take part in world-changing movements.  They never considered the idea that the highly stratified society they came from could change.  They dealt with social mobility on a micro-scale, the question of former slaves advancing to high status or powerful men falling into exile or slavery, but not the idea that there is a potential for equalization of all humans.  Even Plato, who argues that reincarnation means that men and women are equal and that sometimes a golden philosophical soul might be born by chance to parents of a baser nature, Plato still believed, as the stoics did, that golden children were usually born to golden parents, and that only a tiny sliver of humanity was capable of being dominated by reason and thinking philosophically—the vast majority (all ancient thinkers agreed) were dominated by the appetites and passions and could never live the philosophical life that leads to happiness.  The idea that nature is inherently hierarchical, and that there was what we might call an innate biological inequality among humans, different strata that were genuinely radically different in capacities, went virtually unquestioned through all European pre-modern thought until (again) the Enlightenment, and even the Renaissance focused on educating elites and a few brilliant kids who might advance into those elites, not everyone.  Thus, as with progress, stoicism is neither pro-equality nor anti-equality, it dates from a world in which no one imagined equality could ever be possible, and Cicero and Seneca never wrestled with questions of equality, what it means for the world, how to advance toward it, or what it means for everyone, not just a few, to be able to pursue happiness.  Again, if they were here today they would need to engage with the idea, and modern stoics need to update the system to respond to it.

Third: Utilitarian/Consequentialist Ethics.  Until c. 1500, there were only two branches of ethics, deontology and virtue ethics.  The names can be a bit confusing, but deontology is any ethical system which judges the rightness or wrongness of a deed based on whether it does or doesn’t follow an external set of rules, whatever those rules may be.  An ethics based on the laws of your government, on the Ten Commandments, on “laws of nature” deduced from observation of animals in the wild, all of these are examples of deontology.  Was it forbidden?  Then doing it is bad, that’s deontology.  Virtue ethics is an ethics which judges action based on the internal character and intentions of the person doing the deed: what did you intend? Did you will evil or not?  When we draw ethical distinctions between murder and manslaughter, for example, in which both are killing a human but the interiority was different—an accident vs. intentional homicide—that is virtue ethics.  Ancient philosophers debated the tensions between these systems when they looked at things like whether it is a good act to obey an unjust law.  But starting with Machiavelli and advancing toward modernity a third branch developed, utilitarian or consequentialist ethics which judges an action based on the result, the earthly effects.  The trolley problem and other famous consequentialist ethical thought experiments simply didn’t exist in the days of Seneca and Cicero who never engaged with the question of what to do if killing one person would save ten lives, or (from Machiavelli’s examples) if illegally executing an ambitious noble before he could disrupt the government would bring peace to your city-state and prevent a civil war.  Stoic ethics focuses on duty and on resignation, but doesn’t grapple with consequence, and thus, like any pre-Machiavelli ethical system, needs to be expanded and reexamined with questions like the trolley problem.

This is why my favorite recommendation is to take ancient eudaimonist (happiness-seeking) philosophies that focus on interiority, tranquility, and addressing the feelings inside us that cause pain, but to hybridize them with later philosophers like those of the Enlightenment who can bring us up-to-date to a world where we know humans do have the power to change our world, that we are constantly doing so, and that we need to incorporate that into our ethics.

And one final question, our readers are pretty familiar with Stoicism. What are some other schools of thoughts that you recommend that they pick next? Or even specific philosophers or books?

Sure.  I’ll go chronologically.

For other classical sources, Sextus Empiricus’s Handbook of skepticism can be great—skepticism was another system very like stoicism focused on helping you address inner pain, especially curiosity which they saw as a form of pain (a useful way to think about it), and the pain of turning out to be wrong. Being proved wrong does indeed generate pain, and often makes us irrationally cling to our ideas, so it can be great for self-improvement and happiness learning to exercise skepticism and do stoic-like skeptical exercises to remind yourself that your own beliefs are also unproved and could, and indeed should, be attacked and replaced by better ones over time as we learn more.  For a modern summary of ancient philosophy and its patterns I can recommend my own blog (especially the pieces on ancient philosophy and on the concept of progress), as well as Pierre Hadot’s What Is Ancient Philosophy?

I also think it’s very useful to see how stoicism and Christianity become entangled in the later Roman Empire, for which reason I strongly recommend Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which (as we learn from manuscript evidence) was the most widely read book in Europe for a full millennium.  Boethius was a Roman noble who lived just after Rome was conquered (what we would call the fall of the empire), and worked for the new gothic conquerors, who continued to rely on Roman elites to run the infrastructure of a large and unwieldy kingdom.  Boethius was a Christian but also an ardent student of ancient philosophy, and realised a lot of ancient wisdom was being lost as times changed and knowledge of Greek was fading, so between his political duties he worked hard to translate what he thought were the most precious parts of ancient thought from Greek into Latin, producing the version of Aristotle’s works on logic that was used throughout the Middle Ages (the Organon), and translating the only bits of Plato the Middle Ages had.  He also wrote works of Christian theology, but late in his career he was accused of graft and other crimes, and sentenced to death. His Consolation was written in prison as he awaited a gruesome execution, and in it he has Philosophy (personified) talk to him about his fears and griefs and help prepare him to face death peacefully.  It’s a fascinating work because it feels at once Christian and not—it talks about creation, Providence, predestination, souls, but in language that’s extremely classical and Platonic, and doesn’t mention the trinity, Christ, or anything that couldn’t be in a Neoplatonic work.  It’s a powerful book in itself but also shows how, with this as their major textbook, Medieval and Renaissance people developed their strong sense that ancient and Christian thought were intertwined.

To get a sample of what the Renaissance does with stoicism and hybridizing it with other systems, I would recommend letters, which more than treatises where were a lot of Renaissance philosophy advanced. There’s a great collection of Marsilio Ficino‘s letters called Meditations on the Soul, and the I Tatti Renaissance Library has a good collection of the letters of Petrarch.

Finally, for what we don’t get from stoicism, one wants to turn to the 17th century and the Enlightenment when progress, consequentialism, and ideas of universal education were developing.  For this I cannot recommend enough a series of audio lectures by Alan C. Kors called The Birth of the Modern Mind which you can get from The Teaching Company (his Voltaire series is also brilliant) and which introduces the innovations and major thinkers of what the Enlightenment adds to earlier philosophy, from Bacon, Descartes and Galileo through Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  For Enlightenment philosophy, I recommend Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters or Letters on England, or his wonderful Philosophical Dictionary, which are much easier to understand than Candide which relies so much on knowing very specific details of 18th century context.  I also recommend Diderot, including his political writings and the Encyclopedia excerpts, but also and especially his secret philosophical works, Rameau’s Nephew, D’Alambert’s Dream, and Jacques the Fatalist.  These are works Diderot himself considered too dangerous to publish in his lifetime, since they question, not only Christianity, theism, politics, and social mores, but critically examine the Enlightenment itself, speculating about the possible negative effects of such a radical transformation as what he and his peers were attempting, and addressing questions such as whether humans are inherently philosophically inconsistent, if so whether that might be a good and natural thing rather than a bad one, and whether the new world that would come as a result of progress might be so different as to be frightening to the very people who attempted to create it, but nonetheless better and thus worth making. These are works that address a lot of what stoicism doesn’t, so make good partners as well as being powerful in themselves.