This is a guest post by Ward Farnsworth. Ward is the dean of the University of Texas School of Law, as well as the author of a new book, The Practicing Stoic. After our well-received interview with Ward, we wanted him to clear up in more depth how Stoicism is often misunderstood.
My new book, The Practicing Stoic, seeks to weave the words of the ancient Stoics, and those who have been influenced by them, into an accessible modern course on the subject. This post, adapted from the book, mentions a few of the many common misconceptions about the philosophy and counter them with some things the ancient Stoics actually said.
1. Stoicism has sometimes been thought to counsel a 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 of course the founder of Stoic philosophy.) As for Seneca, readers of the Daily Stoic all know he was an advisor to Nero, and has been much criticized for serving an emperor of such 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.
Further characteristics of the reasoning soul are love of its neighbors, truth, compassion, and valuing nothing above itself. . . . — 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
Many Stoic teachings overlap with the central teachings of other philosophical or religious traditions, and these are examples. But the Stoics are able to get there by a route that involves reason rather than faith, and that many people find more appealing on that ground.
These notes were adapted from The Practicing Stoic.