I initially connected with Jennifer Baker through her piece on Stoicism with the unexpected title “Can Charlie Brown be Happy?” I had a million questions and I’m sure you do too.
Before we get to that, a bit of background. Jennifer is currently a professor at the College of Charleston where she teaches courses on ethical and political theory, environmental ethics and philosophy, business ethics, bioethics, and American philosophy. Her research is on virtue ethics, and she looks to ancient ethical theories as positive examples of how ethics ought to be done today. She has a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Arizona and B.A. in Philosophy from Brown. She is also behind the blog “For the Love of Wisdom.”
We touch on why she focuses on Stoic ethics, her favorite book recommendations, her thoughts on ‘lifehacks’ and why Pat Tillman is a Stoic example that she uses her Philosophy 101 course.
This and much more, in our interview below. Enjoy!
You teach ethics at Charleston and you focus particularly on Stoic ethical theory, which I really wanted to explore with you. Can you tell us what that looks like day to day? What questions do you raise? And why did you choose Stoic ethics in particular?
Well I focus on Stoic ethics since I got convinced by my advisor in graduate school, the outstanding scholar Julia Annas, that the Stoics had a fuller account than Aristotle. I took undergraduate courses in philosophy from (the similarly outstanding) Martha Nussbaum. At the time, she was staunchly Aristotelian and in class she set up a kind of contest between the two: either the Stoics were right, or Aristotle, not both at once. I left her thinking Aristotle’s account was the obvious winner, went to graduate school with the aim of coming to understand Aristotle better (and in Greek), but once Annas explained the Stoics as well as she did, I was sold.
So now I teach Stoicism as much as I can. In my advanced ethics courses we will read Annas and Larry Becker along with other books in contemporary ethics. I have certainly created some life-long hard-core fans of Annas and Becker and the Stoics in doing this. With such complex readings, we just do our best to keep up and to critically evaluate the many claims as they come. (Links to these books below.)
I always do a unit on the Stoics in Philosophy 101 courses. It does take some preparation. I warn them that Stoic virtue (and Aristotelian for that matter) is not going to map on to the religious views we tend to associate with goodness today. I warn students that it is extremely counter-cultural view, given the current ethos. I like to use Pat Tillman’s choice to leave the NFL and a multi-million dollar contract as an example. Who recommends we do something like that, these days? We’re told to be prudent and to stick with any multi-million dollar contracts we have. We’re used to people lecturing others about what they should do, we are not used to people just going ahead and doing the right things themselves. (I make a case that Tillman is a lot like a Stoic, and one bit of support for this is that he never suggested that his teammates, the other football players, our big obvious warrior-types in society, join the military like he did. I write about Tillman at PsychologyToday.com here.)
Another way I highlight stoicism’s newness begins by telling them a story about an earlier class. In it, I forgot to set up a question. “Turn to your neighbors,” I said, “and argue over whether, if you had the money for either, you’d choose a Hyundai or the BMW.” The class was silent and then started to laugh. I had forgotten to mention that we were reviewing the Stoics! Until doing that, the question seems like a mistake, pointless to ask. But from a Stoic perspective the students can see it: we are more free in a (reliable) inexpensive non-glamourous car than we are in a nice one. Why? It is too tempting to associate your worth with a nice car. I ask the class if they’ve ever had a “jalopy” (I mean an unimpressive car, I usually get a laugh there too as they haven’t heard that word) or if they’ve only been in nice cars. There is always a mix of experiences. But they confirm that a person who is used to driving around in a “jalopy” has no trouble taking a ride in nice car. The person used to the nice car, on the other hand, will feel a little ashamed, look around, and consider alternatives before driving around in a car that isn’t nice. That’s actually a lack of freedom, I explain. At that point, we can debate which car to pick as it had become a meaningful question.
And here is how I find the students reacting. I’ll quote a few students who were asked what changed their minds in a Philosophy 101. (Here is a link of anonymous responses I got from students taking Philosophy 101.)
~Stoicism because that is the way I would like to live my life in the future. I would like to be carefree and not worry about material things.
~Before this class I tried to be optimistic about things that would happen. After learning about the Stoics, I found it easier to tell myself things could go wrong..
~The Stoics. I should be content with what I have.
~Before this class I feared death because I never experienced it first-hand (no close family member or anything). Now, since I have decided to take on a more stoic mindset, I think I am more prepared for death and how I should handle it.
~ I realized my upbringing was loosely stoic, never talking about yourself and hard work was continually stressed.
You also sent me a forthcoming piece on Stoicism and economics. If I understand correctly, you are one of the few scholars in the world who explores this intersection. Other than Seneca’s somewhat suspect policies—kicking off the Boudica Rebellion as a result—I had no idea they did intersect. Walk us through what you’ve discovered and how you arrived at the point that this was a topic you wanted to explore deeply?
Ancient economics has not been over-studied, that is for sure. And the application of ancient economic thought is even more rare. Given the insights of modern day economics, it can seem like anything older is just mistaken. But markets are under-conceptualized, today, in this sense: we don’t have very coherent things to say about their role in our lives and their good. We either have a bunch of complaints without giving them credit for the vast increases in material welfare they’ve brought about. Or defenders of markets give up on the idea of traditional ethics, and suggest, because markets are so great all ethical bets are kind of off.
So I see the Stoic approach to indifferents as a huge help to problems that exist in our thought about markets. Material welfare is an indifferent. Economists study and model indifferents. Indifferents are crucial for populations, a matter of life and death, but that does not mean they amount to virtue or can replace virtue.
We have to explain markets in moral terms or we are giving people no real advice about how to act in markets, but a lot of approaches assume this means that markets need to be sanitized or limited to ethical inputs. I just don’t see that markets require virtue to work.
The right thing to do is to pursue indifferents in an ethical way, and it is crucial to recognize that means at times indifferents (material welfare) might not be pursued by the virtuous. Or, they might come about through the efforts of the non-virtuous. The Stoics have this wonderfully comprehensive take on markets where they ought to be regarded as part of not tidy ethics but nature. It’s a complicated proposal but I think in the end it serves us a lot better, and will give us far more clarity about markets and the way we act in them, than explanations that focus on self-interest or greed.
On your blog, you look into “how various ideas from philosophy might be applied to our lives.” Lately it seems that there seems to be a trend in the Stoicism community to reject that idea. Or at least to be a bit of a war between the practical side and the academic side. How do you think about all these? What’s your opinion of “lifehacks?”
Oh gosh, who doesn’t love a lifehack? Did Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, report the first one when he told of his teacher, a Cynic philosopher, drinking water using his hands, rather than a mug? He is said to have smashed his own cup at the realization that he didn’t need it.
I certainly think lifehacks can be defended philosophically and ought to be. I also think, from a Stoic perspective, there is no reason to reject ideas borrowed from other approaches. They always did that and the idea that we have to put ideas to a test of livability is as key to virtue ethics as anything else.
One of the Stoic authors I like to focus on is Musonius Rufus. He would use the theory of Stoicism to defend practical advice. He argued, for example, that we should educate daughters like sons. He argued that you could still be virtuous and be married. (I write about that here.)
These would be life hacks, right? “Educate your daughters.” “Go ahead and get married.” It did not matter for him where the good advice came from, in fact he’d work with the advice people had already heard and internalized, and sort through it. So advice from all over would be part of the process. It seems to me there was never such a thing as “pure Stoic” life advice. (I have an academic article, behind a paywall of course on this issue.)
I’ve worried before about trends like “bucket lists,” but only because advocates might promise happiness, and the role of virtue gets left out of the advice. (I write about that here.) But it’s all one wonderful, shared experiment. Who are we to learn from but others trying things out? I like to promise my students that if people can be happy without virtue, the type of virtue ethics I work on is in trouble. But let’s see if that can happen.
I think we learn from others’ experiments all the time. I think of Jim Rome, the sportscaster, all the time because I once overheard him describing the motivational benefits of a cold shower in the morning. Is he a Stoic? I don’t know! I’ve never done more than overheard my husband listening to his show. It doesn’t matter. That’s still exactly the kind of tip that a Stoic can use.
Your journey through philosophy has started over two decades ago at Brown. Looking back through all these years, what have been the most influential ideas that have stayed with you and really changed how you see and think about the world?
I suppose the ultimate test of Stoicism is when you have “hard times.” I have had “hard times” and to be honest it isn’t as if Stoicism pulled me out of grief or anything like that, but I did not recognize that they were wrong about it either. I was bereft but left with my agency. What struck me was surprise that more people did not “act out” in grief, with so little left to care about, what would acting terribly matter? It seemed like the Stoic were right that all we really have, since it can be all taken from us in a moment, is our agency and that choice to not lash out when we’ve been so deeply hurt.
What is your favorite Stoic quote? And are there any Stoic exercises that you try to routinely practice?
One favorite is:
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine. – Epictetus
I try to do Stoic exercises, and it’s especially easy to do this with three children, as so many relevant issues require discussion anyway. I think we model a lot of Stoic influence.
- I kind of naturally imagine the worst, and that does help you to appreciate every single time they come back home.
- We try to make failures productive, we joke that our family motto is “we could have screwed that up worse” (and then a high five). It’s a way to stay cheery after something doesn’t go well. The idea is that we know we will get chances to fix things.
- We try not to over-promise and to be clear-eyed about our limitations. We admit to a lot. If I forget something, I say I did. As an academic, I am perfectly honest with editors about my progress if I am nearing a deadline– that kind of thing. With the children, getting them to be honest in this way takes some pressure off them when it comes to their performances and puts the pressure where I think it should be: on their integrity and ability to be frank.
- We also really discourage gossip or complaints about others. I really think people lose track of the point of their lives when they make gossip a kind of recreation or way to bond with their own loved ones. We call each other out if anyone says something mean about someone else. It isn’t fun, but I know it’s good for us.
- If one of us experiences something harsh or hateful or dismissive we focus on how to learn from that. I think parents can really encourage the idea that we are dependent on others liking or approving of us, and we just haven’t done that. I wrote about this at PsychologyToday.com here, because I think such obvious mistakes are made when it comes to this.
I try to model a better way to react. If I’m upset at something someone has done, I try to focus (and talk about) what is making me react that way. We encourage taking action, too. We can all stop interacting with someone, once we see a bit of hostility from them. This would be what I call “Stoic forgiveness” (it needs a catchier term). It isn’t exactly sympathy, but instead a recognition of something like “people show you if they are struggling, and being a target for them is not a way to help.” I think these kind of ideas are having an impact, because my two older children have gotten through the toughest years for social issues and I cannot recall them ever complaining about getting left out or when someone doesn’t like them. Anyway, I sure hope it works. I hope they stay cheerful and resilient, I hope they become ethically brave.
And as a final question, I was hoping we’d get some book recommendations from you. Can you suggest to the Daily Stoic readers any books that you think they’d particularly enjoy? It could be your favorites on virtue ethics, philosophy, Stoicism, etc. Up to you!
Here is a set of readings I’d recommend to anyone interested in ancient ethics, it’s heavy on the Annas.
I think of her The Morality of Happiness as the very best source we have on virtue ethics. It’s an amazing read, a way to get a graduate school education through a book.
Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism is my favorite work on Stoicism. It’s a type of Stoic approach, not the only one possible, but it has the great virtue of being an updated account. (He keeps references to the ancients in the large appendix.) If readers are biased against anything historical (and so many ethicists in philosophy are), Becker will solve that problem. His work also seems to satisfy critics of Aristotelian approaches, like John Doris.
Martha Nussbaum, of course, is must read. She writes in such an engaging manner you hardly notice that philosophy is usually difficult to get through, or how philosophical she is making you as you read. Her The Therapy of Desire is an unforgettable, life-changing read.
Dan Russell’s work is incredibly astute and he take a Stoic turn in his Happiness for Humans.
And the other academics working on Stoicism are just excellent as well (Tad Brennan, Brad Inwood). But the books above would be a good place to start.
I’d also encourage those interested in Stoicism to take a look at work in behavioral science. I am big George Ainslie fan, and wish his approach were given more attention by ethicists or Stoics in general. His papers are collected here.
And as for me, I am finishing a monograph titled “Stoic Economics,” based on the papers I’ve been writing for a few years. But the books I’ve been handing out most recently, are yours! I am a big fan and very grateful for your books. In graduate school, we used to think there was just no way to make stoicism a more popular movement. We tried to think of ways to get the “word out” and just came with nothing. And then there was Ryan Holiday, for whom I think us Stoics-fans should be very grateful!