Saturday was Women’s Equality Day and it happened to fall just as the controversy about a memo from an employee of Google about female programmers is finally dying down. If the ancient Stoics were here they would have shaken their heads at that entire fiasco. First, they wouldn’t let the scribblings of anyone, let alone some random employee at a tech company, get them so upset. And second, they would have said to that random employee, “What the hell are you so worked up about, man?”
They would have disliked the memo because it tried to argue about averages, as if they mattered in any practical way. The Stoics had no time for that nonsense—they cared about the individual. They would have agreed with Theodore Roosevelt’s point when he was asked about the then controversial movement for women’s suffrage. He said he didn’t understand the big deal, because whatever differences there might have been between genders, it paled between the differences he saw between “men and other men.” Point being: It doesn’t matter what group anyone is a part of—it only matters what they do with their individual capacities and potentials.
The Stoics were shockingly early to the notion of equality of the sexes. As Musonius Rufus put it, “not men alone, but women too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.” More important, they believed that everyone and anyone was capable of excellence, regardless of station, origin, or gender. Epictetus was a slave, Marcus was emperor, Cato’s daughter was a woman and so was Seneca’s mother Helvia, who he wrote often about Stoicism—all were expected to rise to their particular occasions and we admire them because they did.
The next time you find yourself drawn into some idiotic debate about racial differences, about gender, about immigration, about identity, resist the mistake of applying labels and make judgements from them. There are brilliant men out there and utterly incompetent ones. There are brilliant women and utterly incompetent ones. (And this is true for every other kind of category.) We are all equal in that way. The only inequality that matters—that we should judge people on—is what they do as an individual.