Book Review: Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? by Piotr Stankievicz

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?  Piotr Stankievicz

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity is a new book by Piotr Stankievicz, a Polish poet and philosopher.  He’s also a member of the Modern Stoicism team responsible for organizing Stoicon and Stoic Week.

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? tackles the question of whether Stoicism, as a philosophy of life is actually incompatible with artistic creativity, as some people assume. For example, Nietzsche is quoted in one of the book’s epigraphs:

[For those] whose work is of the spirit […] it would be the loss of losses to be deprived of their subtle irritability and be awarded in its place a hard Stoic hedgehog skin.

Nietzsche really excels at misunderstanding the Stoics, and he appears to have had, at best, a very superficial acquaintance with the philosophy and its surviving texts. The ancient Stoics don’t use this “hedgehog” phrase but they do repeatedly explain that their goal is not to be like a man made of stone or iron, with a hard heart. Even the ideal Stoic Sage still experiences feelings, such as irritation, but he’s not overwhelmed by them and he chooses not to indulge or perpetuate unhealthy passions.

Nevertheless, people do frequently question whether Stoicism is compatible with creativity or not. This question is related to a broader one about whether the ideal of “happiness” (eudaimonia) conflicts with artistic creativity. We all agree that great artists are often unhappy people, the argument begins, and so to be truly creative one must suffer and be unhappy, comes the conclusion – although, on closer inspection, it should be obvious this is a non sequitur.  Another of the book’s epigraphs provides a clear example of this sort of fallacious reasoning from the pseudo-intellectual provocateur Slavoj Žižek: “The root of all human creativity lies in pursuit of unhappiness.” It’s the familiar cliche of the tortured artist, but turned by Žižek into a ludicrous overgeneralization.

Stankievicz’s book seeks to critically evaluate this assumption.  It opens with a foreword by Lawrence Becker, who sadly passed away not long before I began writing this review. Becker makes it clear that he agrees with the central claim of the book: that there is no inherent conflict between Stoic philosophy and the human capacity for creativity.

Stoic Attitudes Toward the Arts

I think Stankiewicz interprets the ancient Stoics as holding a more negative attitude toward the arts than I detect in their surviving writings. My own interpretation would be that the Stoics were very wary of the persuasive power of the arts, especially rhetoric. However, it seems to me that they were nevertheless more interested in the arts, and had more to say about them, than most other schools of ancient philosophy.  Often the Stoics drew direct inspiration from philosophical wisdom expressed in poetry.  For example, the Handbook of Epictetus concludes with a series of quotes, including the following one from Euripides: 

But whoso nobly yields unto necessity,
We hold him wise, and skill’d in things divine.

There are many such quotes scattered throughout the surviving Stoic writings: Homer and Euripides perhaps being their favourite poets. 

However, the Stoics also made use of tragic poetry in a somewhat more paradoxical way.  Plato had argued that plays should be banned from the ideal republic, in part because tragic characters such as Achilles and Oedipus set a bad example by irrationally overreacting to various misfortunes.  The Stoics, by contrast, appear more willing to engage constructively with the tragedies.  However, they do so by viewing them as though they were case studies in psychopathology rather than as providing role models for emulation.  The tragic heroes are viewed as causing their own suffering because of the misplaced values they hold.  The Stoics thereby salvage the tragedies by reading them more critically.  

Stankievicz, adopting a more negative view of the Stoics’ attitude toward the arts, writes that we have “direct, explicit and abundant textual evidence that the ancient Stoics expressed reluctance, aversion and even open hostility to art.”

Marcus Aurelius pithily sums up performances “in the amphitheater and such places” as “wearisome” and includes them in a lowly company of “the idle business of show, plays on the stage, flocks of sheep […] a bone cast to little dogs, a bit of bread into fish-ponds, laborings of ants an burden-carrying.” Another juxtaposition is even more straightforward: “Neither tragic actor nor whore.” Marcus’ disdain of theater closely parallels Epictetus’ advice that “it is not necessary to go to the theatres often.”

I’m not sure these remarks are actually all intended to express hostility, or even aversion, to art, though. It seems to me that when Marcus refers to performances in the amphitheater he’s talking about the gladiatorial games, to which the histories document his aversion. When he refers to human affairs, viewed from a cosmic perspective, as being like “plays on the stage”, it seems to me that’s no more a criticism of theatre than when we call someone a “drama queen” today.   Perhaps Marcus didn’t attend theatrical performances often but he did attend them sometimes, when in Rome, and from his letters to Fronto we can see that he clearly enjoyed reading poetry.

Stankievicz also quotes Henryk Elzenberg saying that Marcus Aurelius completely lacked artistry.  That strikes me  as a very odd and untrue remark.  Marcus had learned to paint as a teenager – he was actually introduced to philosophy by his painting master. There are clearly passages in The Meditations that exhibit an artist’s eye, e.g., his references to the beauty to be found in imperfections such as the foam on the mouth of a wild boar, the wrinkles in roaring lion’s forehead, the lines on the face of an elderly man or woman, and the cracks on the crust of a loaf of bread. (Perhaps these were things he’d painted in his youth.) Marcus also lead a troupe of dancers in his youth: the College of the Salii or leaping priests.  He presumably had this experience in mind in those passages where he refers to dancing. 

Marcus received extensive training in both Greek and Latin rhetoric from the two leading teachers of his day: Herodes Atticus and Marcus Cornelius Fronto.  Indeed, there are several passages in The Meditations that clearly show Marcus’ talent as a writer (2.17, for example).  Moreover, Marcus was highly praised by Fronto for the eloquence of his speeches.  So I find it difficult to classify him as someone entirely lacking in artistry or harbouring a general aversion to the arts.  His relationship with the arts seems more nuanced than this would imply.

The ancient Stoics in general cannot be said to have been entirely averse to the arts.  The Stoa Poikile itself has been described as resembling an art gallery. Its wall was adorned with four huge paintings by some of the finest painters of the time. It was against the backdrop of these great works of art that Zeno and later Stoics lectured, discussed philosophy, and presumably read aloud from their various writings on poetry, rhetoric, aesthetics and painting. For example, Zeno wrote five volumes on Homer, a book titled Of the Reading of Poetry and even a Handbook of Rhetoric.  Cleanthes wrote The Hymn to Zeus and other pieces of poetry.  He also wrote a book on Homer, and one titled On Beauty.  The poet Aratus, whose Phenomena survives today, was also a student of Zeno.  Chrysippus was actually mocked for quoting Euripides so extensively that he reproduced nearly the entire text of The Medea in his own writings.  He also wrote a book titled Against the Touching up of Paintings, one On Poems, and two volumes called On the Right Way of reading Poetry, as well as four volumes on rhetoric.

Seneca wrote some excellent plays, several of which survive today, as Stankievicz elsewhere notes. Seneca’s nephew, Lucan, another Stoic, wrote the epic poem Pharsalia, about the Roman civil war, the text of which largely survives today. His friend Persius, another Stoic, wrote satires many of which survive. Other Roman poets, including Horace, were also students of Stoicism, and draw upon its ideas in their writings.

In other words, despite their reservations about conventional forms of rhetoric and the persuasive influence of the arts in general, the Stoics clearly encouraged their students to study Homer, Euripides, and other poets, and to learn their own somewhat plain and unaffected style of rhetoric.  (Although Stoic rhetoric was reputedly less polished than traditional styles, it did classify artistic distinction in the use of language as a virtue of speech.)  The Stoics themselves also wrote plays and poetry in a variety of styles.  

Elsewhere, Stankievicz quotes Seneca (and Cleanthes) expressing a positive attitude toward poetry that is employed for didactic purposes:

When salutary precepts are […] expressed in verse, they descend the readier into the hearts even of the unskillful. For, according to Cleanthes, as our breath gives a more clear and shrill sound when driven through the passage of a trumpet […] so our understandings are rendered more clear, when confined to the strict laws of a verse. The same things are heard with less attention, and affect us less, when delivered in prose or common discourse, than when decorated with poetical Numbers.

Perhaps it would have been interesting for him to have said a bit more about the Stoic use of tragic characters such as Medea for the purposes of teaching lessons about the passions.  We’ve seen that Chrysippus had a great deal to say about Euripides’ Medea, although his commentary is now lost.  However, Epictetus refers to the character several times and Seneca even wrote his own version of the tragedy.  So this play, in particular, seems to have had an enduring fascination for the Stoics.

Conclusions

Stankievicz considers several distinct “themes” or motivations for creating art and evaluates each in relation to Stoic philosophy:

  • Fame
  • Profit, e.g., financial gain
  • Preservation of the artistic object
  • The artist’s self-expression
  • Gathering together knowledge about the world or human nature (the “cognitive theme”)
  • Revolution, i.e., transforming the world
  • Making the world a better place (the “axiological theme”)
  • Restoring meaning to the artist’s own life (the “autotherapeutic theme”)
  • Teaching others (the “didactic theme”)

He draws two main conclusions. The first is that some understandings of the motivations behind artistic creativity listed above are compatible with the Stoic goal of life, whereas others are not.  More specifically:

Artistic creativity is incompatible with Stoicism if it is understood as means of seeking fame […], increasing the overall value of the universe […], preserving some element of the universe […], or expressing the individuality of the artist ([…] although the incompatibility is less evident here). On the other hand, artistic creativity is a legitimately Stoic endeavor if it is understood as means of seeking profit […], comprehending the world […], changing it ([…] this case is not fully unequivocal, though), or as means to teach people […]. Finally, there is no clear answer as to artistic creativity understood as autotherapy […]

His second major conclusion is that the Romantic conception of artistic creativity is definitely incompatible with Stoicism, although the “ordinary” conception of creativity is not. Stoics can be artistically creative but a Stoic could not, he thinks, ever be a Romantic poet. 

I’m not sure I follow his arguments for one or two of the specific “themes” or motivations (or his criticisms of what he dubs the “ascetic misconception” of Stoicism) but the two overall conclusions he draws about the compatibility of Stoicism and creativity seems reasonable.  My own view is that the ancient Stoics viewed creativity as good insofar as it’s in the service of wisdom and virtue.  They mainly use poetry either to illustrate wisdom sayings or to provide examples of the unhealthy passions, which they study critically from the perspective of their cognitive theory of psychopathology. 

I think anyone interested in philosophical aesthetics would find this book rewarding, especially if they’re also interested in Stoicism.  It raises some interesting questions, which I hope will inspire more discussion of these aspects of Stoic philosophy in the future.

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  1. I think the author is correct in the view that a stoic would not have made much of a romantic poet. Similar to our current historical time; where those of a stoic bent are repulsed or at the least not attracted to the overwrought emotionalism seen and heard on media of all sorts, the mindset and philosophical orientation of practicing Stoics seek more rational and balanced expressions of the human condition expressed in the artistic form. Unfortunately, these can be hard to come by in the current age. Just thinking out loud.

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