The Stoic Obsession with Figs

How a Philosophy of Life Came From a Snack

How a Philosophy of Life Came From a Snack

To look for the fig in winter is the act of a madman… — Marcus Aurelius

Figs are in season again here in Athens. When they’re spotted in the local groceries it’s a cause for excitement. Who would have thought we’d miss them so much when they weren’t available? Of course dried figs are available year round but, trust me, that’s definitely not the same!

Learning philosophy, or the love of wisdom, requires patience, says Epictetus, because “the fruit of a man’s mind” does not ripen overnight.

“Nothing great”, said the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, is produced immediately, not even figs (Discourses, 1.15). In other words: Rome wasn’t built in a day! Suppose you make it known that you really are craving a fig right now. Epictetus would reply, we’re told, that you need to learn to be patient. It takes a long time for figs to grow and ripen, he says.

Some of his students were maybe taking that a bit too literally because he’s careful to spell out that he means it as a metaphor for life in general — he’s doing philosophy not planning his grocery shopping. Learning philosophy, or the love of wisdom, requires patience, says Epictetus, because “the fruit of a man’s mind” does not ripen overnight. Indeed, the essence of training in Stoicism, the “discipline of desire”, is about being able to want something without becoming upset about not having it — replacing irrational demands with rational preferences, as cognitive psychotherapists say today.

Zeno on Figs

The Stoic love of figs goes right back to the founder of the school, the Phoenician philosopher Zeno, who hailed from the town of Citium, in Cyprus. We’re told that after being shipwrecked near Athens, losing his entire fortune, and taking up the life of a Cynic beggar-philosopher there, he would decline most invitations to Athenian homes for supper. Instead, he “he was fond of eating green figs” and would rather be found “basking in the sun”, outdoors. That sounds like paradise but it’s probably meant to show that he was able to enjoy the simple things in life. In ancient Athens, figs literally grew on trees all over the place and so, for a while each year, they were as freely available to everyone as fresh air and sunshine.

Zeno’s contemporary, the satirical poet Philemon of Soli, wrote of him in a lost play called Philosophers:

This man adopts a new philosophy.
He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets
Disciples. One sole loaf of bread his food;
His best dessert dried figs; water his drink. — Quoted by Diogenes Laertius

So apparently, Zeno was known for enjoying fresh figs when they were in season but he wouldn’t turn his nose up at the dried variety when that’s all that was available. He probably inherited this habit during his time training as a Cynic, before founding the Stoic school, as the most famous Cynic of all, Diogenes of Sinope, was also known for eating figs.

According to one story, his most famous successor, the third head of the Stoic school and its greatest intellectual, Chrysippus of Soli, died laughing at one of his own jokes about a donkey eating figs.

After an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman [who looked after him], “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died. — Diogenes Laertius

I think this joke was funny, in part, because the Stoics often used figs as a metaphor for something that it’s pointless worrying about. Perhaps only a drunken ass would think someone else’s figs are worth stealing.

The Price of Figs

Fig trees bear a lot of fruit. Although figs are sometimes a bit pricey today, to the ancient Athenians figs, like nuts, were symbolic of something “ten a penny” — trivial and abundant. In modern English some people still say I could not give a fig! — usually when talking about the news or other people’s opinions.

The Greeks and Romans liked to watch children scrambling for a handful of little treats. Epictetus reminds his audience of up-tight Roman elites that:

A man scatters dried figs and nuts: the children seize them, and fight with one another; men do not, for they think them to be a small matter. — Discourses, 4.7

He goes on to say that his students should view money, government positions, and suchlike in the same way: “to me these are only dried figs and nuts.” The Stoics loved the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus who went even further: human opinions are toys for children!

Suppose the emperor is scattering around these sort of favours and you lose out for some reason, and fail to get anything. If you have any sense, and you’re being philosophical about things, you’ll be no more perturbed than if you failed to catch some figs or nuts. Of course, if a fig happens to land in your lap, says Epictetus, that’s a nice treat. You should be grateful: “take it and eat it; for so far you may value even a fig.”

However, it’s not worth stabbing people in the back, or demeaning yourself, just to grab some favours from the emperor, and more than it would be to grab some dried figs and nuts being thrown around. Incidentally, around the time we believe Epictetus was saying this the emperor of Rome was Trajan and, for a while, one of the students in the audience listening to all of this was reputedly a young social-climber by the name of Hadrian.

Figs in Winter

To look for the fig in winter is the act of a madman and such is he who looks for his child when it is no longer allowed. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.33

I’m confident that anyone, Greek or Roman, reading this passage in Marcus Aurelius would be reminded of the myth of the goddess Demeter, and the Eleusinian Mystery religion based on her story. Allow me to explain…

Demeter was the “grain mother”, the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She was also responsible for teaching mankind how to cultivate fig trees — so the fig was one of her symbols.

After he finished writing The Meditations, Marcus went to Athens for the first time, where we know, from several sources, that he was initiated into the Mysteries at the nearby temple of Demeter in Eleusis. Indeed, he became a major patron of the Eleusinian Mysteries. There’s a bust of Marcus Aurelius that still survives today, sitting right there in Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina). We can see it’s surrounded by poppies, another symbol of Demeter. People going to Eleusis to be initiated, after 176 CE, walked through a massive stone gate, constructed by Marcus, with his image crowning it.

Marcus, who was obviously really into the Eleusinian Mysteries, clearly knew all of this.

The main myth around which the mysteries were based was the abduction of Demeter’s virgin daughter, Persephone, by Hades, the tyrannical god of the Underworld. Demeter searched the earth in vain looking for her daughter, and had some adventures along the way. Eventually, Zeus felt sorry for the grieving mother and ordered Hades to return her daughter. He agreed but tricked Persephone into eating six pomegranate seeds, which meant she had to spend six months of each year in the Underworld. Demeter was forced to reconcile herself to only having her beloved daughter with her part-time — so she knew a thing or two about loss. Of course, this is universally agreed to be a metaphor for the cycles of growing and harvesting crops, particularly grain, sacred to Demeter, but also her figs. Marcus, who was obviously really into the Eleusinian Mysteries, clearly knew all of this.

When Marcus talks about wanting your child to be with you when they’re no longer around being as irrational as craving fresh figs in winter, he’s quoting the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The “highest discipline” of Stoicism, says Epictetus, “which stands as it were at the entrance” is that we must learn to view the things we enjoy, or desire, as temporary — so that we don’t freak out when we lose them. He even says, somewhat notoriously, that when we kiss our children, friends, or brothers — Roman men kissed their friends on the lips — we should remind ourselves that they are mortal.

Do you also remind yourself in like manner, that he whom you love is mortal, and that what you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. — Discourses 3.24

Figs and grapes were both associated with the Eleusinian Mystery religion and familiar symbols of the cycles of nature. Demeter, famously, was deprived of her beloved daughter, Persephone, just as nature deprives us of fresh figs and grapes except when they’re in season.

So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter. For such as winter is to a fig, such is every event which happens from the universe to the things which are taken away according to its nature.

Epictetus says that people are frightened to talk about death. The Greeks and Romans didn’t even like to say the name of Hades. However, Epictetus thinks this is an irrational superstition, and philosophy requires that we talk about and face our mortality.

Say that even for the ears of corn to be reaped is of bad omen, for it signifies the destruction of the ears, but not of the world. Say that the falling of the leaves also is of bad omen, and for the dried fig to take the place of the green fig, and for raisins to be made from the grapes. For all these things are changes from a former state into other states; not a destruction…

This is a major theme of Stoicism: that death is not a catastrophe but merely a natural process, the inevitable change of one thing into another.

In Meditations 3.2, Marcus Aurelius, who had studied painting in his youth, muses that figs, when they are very ripe, burst open. Although, in a sense, this is a flaw, a natural sign of their impending decay, like the lines on the face of an elderly man or woman, it can potentially be seen as something quite appealing and even beautiful. Birth and death are both part of the cycle of nature. Sometimes the greatness of a thing, or a person, lies precisely in the way that it meets its end — think of the “noble death” of Socrates, going out in a blaze of philosophical glory.

Taking the Good with the Bad

In Meditations 4.6, Marcus speaks of the Stoic doctrine that we should be prepared to accept as inevitable the way foolish people do foolish things, or vicious people do vicious things, and so on. He compares this to fresh figs, which naturally contain an acrid juice that can, sometimes, slightly burn the lips and tongue. In other words, every rose has its thorn. An ancient Greek or Roman wouldn’t get angry with a ripe fig for burning his lips— that’s just how things are in nature. It would be childlike to act surprised and bitterly resent something like that happening from time to time because that’s life. He returns to this metaphor several times:

Consider that he who would not have the bad man do wrong, is like the man who would not have the fig tree to bear [acrid] juice in the figs, and infants to cry, and the horse to neigh, and whatever else must necessarily be. For what must a man do who has such a character? If then you are irritable, cure this man’s disposition. — Meditations, 12.16

Marcus says again later that someone would rightly be ashamed if he was surprised at the way a fig-tree produces figs because that’s common knowledge. And yet people act surprised when they encounter misfortunes or setbacks in life that they could easily have anticipated (Meditations, 8.15).

The Bigger Picture

The fresh fig was as freely available as fresh air and sunshine in ancient Greece, except when it wasn’t in season. Even beggars, like the Cynics, could feast on figs, which kept them healthy. Dried figs were thrown to children as small gifts. So they became a metaphor for trivial things in life. Nevertheless, we become attached to them, and crave fresh figs when they’re not available. Like Demeter, goddess of the mysteries, we must learn to enjoy our loved ones, the fruits of the harvest, and other good things in life, without attachment, knowing that they won’t always be around.

The tiny seed of a fig becomes a metaphor for another important concept from Stoic philosophy in Meditations 10.17. Here it symbolizes our place in the vastness of the universe. All individual things, says Marcus, are no more than a fig seed in comparison to existence considered as a whole.

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