Stoic Book Review: More Than Happiness by Antonia Macaro

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age is a new book by existential psychotherapist Antonia Macaro.  Macaro is also the co-author, along with philosopher Julian Baggini, of The Shrink and the Sage, based on their Financial Times column.

Macaro says that the philosophy she most identifies with is actually Aristotelianism but that over the years she’s found herself repeatedly coming back to both Stoicism and Buddhism, and wrestling with their doctrines. She notes that both Stoicism and Buddhism have influenced modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). She also observes that philosophies such as Aristotelianism and Epicureanism, which were contemporaries of ancient Stoicism, have not experienced a similar resurgence of interest for some reason. She suggests that, paradoxically, this might be because these philosophies of life appear somewhat less radical and demanding than Stoicism and Buddhism.

Her stated goal in this book is to extract beneficial aspects of the two philosophies, Stoicism and Buddhism, that are compatible with a modern naturalistic worldview. Macaro is also right to emphasize from the outset that there are many different versions of Buddhism and there are also some variations in the doctrines of the Stoic school. So she has to choose an interpretation of each to focus on because it would be impossible to compare every version of these philosophies. Buddhism, in particular, is an extremely diverse tradition both in terms of theory and practice.

The first chapter provides a simple and highly readable introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism. She raises the question as to what extent antiquated-sounding religious and metaphysical doctrines are necessary to the modern reception of both philosophies.  Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the causes of human suffering. Chapters 4 and 5 with their solutions. The second part of the book then focuses on what useful elements may be extracted from both philosophies by those who reject the ancient metaphysical teachings in favour of a modern naturalistic perspective.

I thought this was an excellent book and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about what Stoicism and Buddhism have to offer us today as guides to living.  It was beautifully written and very clearly explained the key concepts.  I’m more into Stoicism than the author, though, so there are a couple of points I want to make about her interpretation of that philosophy.  In my opinion, Macaro is actually more of a Stoic than she realizes.  I’ll explain some of my reasons for saying that…

Does Stoicism Advocate Eliminating All Emotions?

There’s a common misconception that the ancient Stoics advocated the elimination of all of our emotions.  That would obviously be a concept antagonistic to modern psychotherapy and something very few people would find appealing today.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how a philosophy like that could have been popular at any point in time.  However, Macaro does seem to portray Stoicism as advocating the complete elimination of all of our emotions.

For instance, she sums up the goal of Stoicism as “eradicating the emotions and achieving freedom from disturbance.”  This notion recurs in various guises throughout the book.  For example, she also writes “For the Stoics, there is no such thing as an appropriate emotion.” Later in the book she appears to write of the emotions in general:

Famously, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle called for their moderation rather than eradication. It is inappropriate emotions and excessive attachments that we should endeavour to change.

That’s not quite right, though. The latter description could just as easily be applied to the Stoics because their goal is not to eradicate emotion per se but rather to correct the mistaken beliefs underlying certain emotions described by them as unhealthy, excessive and irrational, and thereby transform them into more healthy, moderate, and rational ones.

I think Macaro has perhaps been too influenced by reading Martha Nussbaum’s account of Stoicism, which also interprets the philosophy as advocating the complete “extirpation” of all emotions, in general terms. Many readers notice that Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire seems to contradict this view at times by also acknowledging the Stoic theory of eupatheiai or healthy emotions.  Nussbaum doesn’t really explain how the Stoics could have advocated both the attainment of healthy emotions and the eradication of emotion in general.  Macaro’s book contains similarly conflicting statements about what the Stoics believed. Nussbaum is certainly a respected classicist, although her area of expertise is more Aristotelianism than Stoicism and many people have questioned her interpretation of the Stoics, which seems to have been influenced by her personal preference for Aristotle’s philosophy.  I don’t think many (any?) people in the modern Stoicism community actually read the Stoics in this way.

I wish Macaro had been able to read the recent book on Stoicism by Brad Inwood, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale, and expert on Stoicism.  She would then have been able to compare his more balanced (and more accurate) account of Stoicism against Nussbaum’s portrayal of them. Inwood, pace Nussbaum, makes it very clear this notion of complete “extirpation” (or elimination) of emotions is indeed just a common misinterpretation of Stoicism and that it’s definitely not what the ancient Stoics actually believed:

There is a stereotype of Stoicism familiar to everyone, the claim that Stoicism involves being relentlessly rational, but without a trace of emotion—Mr Spock from Star Trek, only more so. That this isn’t the right view of Stoicism is now generally understood, and specialists will even point out that the passions (pathē) from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological. The wise person may well be perfectly rational, but that doesn’t deprive him or her of all affective or emotional experience.

Inwood, Stoicism, 2018

In passages like the following, though, Macaro seems to be saying the opposite: that she reads Stoicism as advocating the ideal of totally depriving us of all our emotional experience:

We don’t have to agree with the Stoic ideal of freeing ourselves from all emotion [italics added], but we can agree that we shouldn’t get too joyful or distressed about things that are relatively unimportant.

I think part of the confusion here is caused by the too heavy-handed translation of apatheia as “freedom from emotions”:

The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being ‘free from emotions’ (which is what the term literally means), although different Stoics held different views on what exactly this involved.

The word literally means not being in a passion (pathos), though, something slightly different from “emotion” in the modern sense.  To be more specific, what the Stoics have in mind are irrational, unhealthy, and excessive feelings (both emotions and desires), which are potentially under voluntary control, and from which we suffer. They don’t just mean “emotion” in general.  Cicero mentioned the problem of translating pathos from Greek Stoicism into Latin.  He explains that these “passions” make the lives of most people a misery and that he was tempted simply to translate this term as “illness” but thinks “emotional disturbance” or “perturbation” better captures the Stoics’ meaning and makes more sense as a general term (De Finibus, 3.35).  Indeed, the word pathos is also the source of our modern term “pathological”, as in “psychopathology” or mental health problems.  In ancient Stoicism it specifically denoted unhealthy emotions not unlike those addressed in modern psychotherapy.

Moreover, Diogenes Laertius also tried to explain how the Stoics distinguished what they meant by the apatheia of the wise man from the same word used in a different, more negative sense:

They say the wise man is also without passions [apathê], because he is not vulnerable to them. But the bad man is called “without passions” in a different sense, which means the same as “hard-hearted” and “insensitive”. (7.117)

Diogenes Laertius

Note that the wise man isn’t even said to be completely devoid of (unhealthy) passions here but to be free from them in the sense of not being vulnerable to their influence. The same word is used to call vicious men hard-hearted and insensitive (lacking in love or affection) but we’re explicitly told here that that’s not what the Stoics meant when they talk about the apatheia of the Sage. Epictetus says something quite similar, that Stoics ought not to be free from passions (apathê) in the sense of being unfeeling “like a statue”, and he adds that this has to do with engaging in “appropriate action” and maintaining one’s natural and acquired relationships, as a family member and a citizen (Discourses, 3.2).

Cicero also portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise as saying that it would be the greatest possible mistake to try to eliminate feelings of friendship, because even animals experience natural affection for their offspring, which Stoics viewed as the foundation of human love and friendship (Laelius, 13). We would not only be dehumanising ourselves by eliminating natural affection between friends, he says, but reducing ourselves below animal nature to something more like a mere tree-trunk or a stone and we should turn a deaf ear to anyone who foolishly suggests that the good life entails having “the hardness of iron” in terms of our emotions. Seneca, too, says:

There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)

Seneca elsewhere explains that whereas the Epicureans mean “a mind immune to feeling” when they speak of apatheia, this “unfeelingness” is actually the opposite of what the Stoics intended (Letters, 9). “This is the difference between us Stoics and the Epicureans; our wise man overcomes every discomfort but feels it, theirs does not even feel it.” The virtue of the Sage consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity, while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world. And, again, elsewhere he wrote:

I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. I remember that he is made up of two parts: the one part is irrational, — it is this that may be bitten, burned, or hurt; the other part is rational, — it is this which holds resolutely to opinions, is courageous, and unconquerable. […] You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. (Seneca, Letters 71)

Even the Stoic wise man experiences a range of natural sensations and emotions.  Indeed, similar figures of speech about the goal not being to become like a man as unfeeling, hard-hearted, or unemotional as stone, are scattered throughout the Stoic sources. It sounds to me like it had long ago become a familiar or cliched way in which they distanced themselves from what they saw as a common misinterpretation of their philosophy.

Elsewhere in her book, Macaro appears to contradict her depiction of Stoicism as advocating “freeing ourselves from all emotion” when she acknowledges that the Stoic ideal consisted in experiencing certain “good passions” (eupatheiai).

But even more important is cultivating what could be called ‘calm emotions’. For the Stoics, these were joy, wishing and caution. These are supposed to be a rational alternative to ordinary kinds of emotions: joy replaces pleasure, wishing replaces desire and caution replaces fear. But these are not, as one might think at first sight, just milder, more reasonable versions of their nefarious counterparts. Rather, they occur only in relation to virtue and/or lack of it, resulting in the limited emotional palette of joy at having acted virtuously, wishing that we were more virtuous, or caution when our virtue is in danger. No emotions other than the calm variety are considered legitimate.

She adds “There is another stumbling block: for the Stoics, only the sage is able to experience these calm emotions.” This is partially true but misleading.

The Stoics clearly believed that the rest of us are capable of experiencing healthy emotions, which is precisely what Macaro seems to be interpreting them as denying here. All of the major surviving Stoic sources describe the experience of natural healthy emotions. For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to love and friendship, cheerfulness or joy, and also a healthy sense of shame or aversion to vice as within the range of emotions experienced by someone practising Stoicism. The love or joy of a Sage might be perfect and our own glimpses of healthy, rational, and moderate versions of these feelings may be imperfect but the Stoics certainly don’t advise us simply to eliminate them. Rather they acknowledge that rational beings have the seeds of virtue already within them and as such are capable of glimpsing perfect wisdom. So we should, of course, nurture the attitudes that underlie these healthy and praiseworthy emotions.

Marcus Aurelius therefore praises his Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, in Book 1 of The Meditations, for being “free from passions and yet full of love” (philostorgia).  He obviously cannot mean free from all emotion.  Marcus clearly does not think that a Stoic like Sextus should have sought to eradicate this rational love, and purged it from his heart, just because it’s inferior to the ideal love expressed by the perfect Sage. Passages like these appear to provide evidence that Macaro’s interpretation of Stoicism, which she feels to be very much at odds with common sense, is also at odds with what the Stoics actually believed.  For instance, Marcus mentions “love” far more times throughout The Meditations than he mentions virtue and at no point does he indicate that he interprets Stoicism as requiring him to eradicate the healthy, rational sort of love from his heart. On the contrary, he clearly aspires to cultivate more of these feelings.

Conclusion

Surely most readers of Macaro’s book will be puzzled as to how she can both claim that Stoicism advocates an ideal that requires “freeing ourselves from all emotion” and also that it “[sees] a place for ‘calm emotions’”? These two statements, and the others like them scattered throughout the text, are bound to seem at odds with one another.  Moreover, as Prof. Inwood put it, this notion that Stoicism advocated eradicating all trace of emotion is mistaken because “the passions from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological.”

Without going into too much detail, although she touches on the subject, I also think Macaro’s account of Stoicism doesn’t fully recognize the significance of the concept of proto-passions (propatheiai) and the sense in which it conflicts with the claim that Stoicism advocates the elimination of all emotion.  I also think she overstates the extent to which Stoicism advocated asceticism.  I’d probably advise readers who are particularly interested in Stoicism to look at a wider range of commentaries to get a more rounded and balanced picture of the philosophy.  

Overall, though, with those reservations in mind, I’d recommend this book. It’s very easy to read and I’m actually in agreement with much of what it says about both Stoicism and Buddhism.  I think most readers will find aspects of this book helpful in their daily lives.

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.

Audio Version of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Roman Emperor Audio CoverThe digital audio version of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is now available to pre-order from Audible.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor on Audible

This book’s particularly well suited to audio because the final chapter was written specifically so that it could be read aloud, a bit like a cross between a story and a guided meditation exercise.

You can also pre-order the audio CD version from Amazon US.

Roman Emperor Cover Audio CD

Save $5 on Pre-orders of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorUse the coupon code NOVBOOK18 to claim your $5 discount off my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, if you pre-order today from Amazon.  (Terms and conditions apply.)

Table of Contents
Introduction
1. The Dead Emperor
    The Story of Stoicism
2. The Most Truthful Child In Rome
    How to Speak Wisely
3. Contemplating the Sage
    How to Follow Your Values
4. The Choice of Hercules
    How to Conquer Desire
5. Grasping the Nettle
    How to Tolerate Pain
6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations
    How to Relinquish Fear
7. Temporary Madness
    How to Conquer Anger
8. Death and the View from Above

Book Review: Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall

Aristotle's Way by Edith HallAristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life is a new book by Edith Hall, professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London.  As the title makes clear, it’s a book about how Aristotle’s philosophy can provide practical guidance for living, aimed at a general readership.

I really enjoyed this book and I think others will too.  I found it very readable and Hall is clearly an authority in this area.  She’s written about Aristotle in quite a conversational style but she clearly cares deeply about the material.  She mentions that she travelled to eight different places where he lived as part of her research into his life and philosophy.  She tries hard to make Aristotle’s ideas accessible to modern readers who are unfamiliar with classical literature or academic philosophy and I think she  succeeds very well.  My own area of interest is Stoic philosophy and its practical applications to modern living so the similarities and differences between the Stoics and Aristotle are particularly interesting to me.  I’ll touch on some of those aspects below as I describe a few of the key ideas from Hall’s book.

The chapter titles are fairly self-explanatory and provide a convenient overview of the main topics covered in the book:

  1. Happiness
  2. Potential
  3. Decisions
  4. Communication
  5. Self-knowledge
  6. Intentions
  7. Love
  8. Community
  9. Leisure
  10. Mortality

Hall begins by explaining that although most of us seem to agree that happiness is desirable, the word itself is somewhat ambiguous and has acquired several quite distinct meanings.  In a sense, the rest of the book can be understood as an attempt to explore Aristotle’s concept of happiness (eudaimonia) and its implications for different areas of our lives.  However, according to Hall, John F. Kennedy captured the essence of Aristotelian happiness in a single sentence: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.”  The first and simplest point to observe about this, as Hall notes, is that Aristotelian virtue ethics is traditionally contrasted with certain forms of hedonism.  There’s more to life than the pursuit of pleasure.  A genuinely fulfilled life also requires actualizing our potential as rational beings, which is basically what Aristotle means by virtue (arete), although pleasure also plays a part in this.

Hall explains the Aristotelian principle known as the “Golden Mean”, according to which virtue lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency, which constitute vice in relation to some character trait or quality.  For instance, courage is understood as the middle state between the vices of rashness and cowardice, the former resembling an excess of courage and the latter a deficit.  Vengeance, likewise, is okay in moderation according to this view.  As Hall puts it: “people who have no desire whatsoever to get even with those who have damaged them are either deluding themselves or have too low an estimate of their own worth.”

This differs from the ethical position adopted by Socrates, and later by the Stoics, who said that the desire for vengeance is inherently foolish and vicious.  The desire for revenge is just wrong, according to this view, even if it’s relatively moderate in nature.  For example, in Plato’s Crito, Socrates asks whether it is right, as the whole world says, to  attempt to get even by repaying evil with evil.  Doing evil, or harm, to others, he says, is the same thing as doing them an injustice, which would be wrong.

Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. […] Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return. (Crito, 49c)

When I studied Aristotle at Aberdeen University, a few decades ago now, Ian Fowley – an elderly philosopher who looked remarkably like Socrates – liked to describe the principle of the Golden Mean as follows…  If you were throwing a party and uncertain how many bottles of wine to purchase for your guests, Aristotle’s advice would be like saying “don’t buy too many, but don’t buy too few either – the right amount being somewhere between these two extremes”.  Perhaps that might sound wise, in a sense, but it’s a bit too vague to be of very much help when it comes to practical decision-making.

As Hall explains, Aristotle thinks we should be angry with our enemies but not too much, just the right amount.

The truly great-souled man will get to the point of serenity where he “does not bear grudges, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them.” On the other hand, Aristotle does think that there is a time and a place not only for vengeful feelings such as anger, but for vengeful action. […] In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics he even argues that revengeful feelings can be virtuous and rational.

The Stoics, by contrast, believed that anger is temporary madness and that the wise do not indulge in this sort of vengeance.  Stoics accept their initial feelings (propatheiai) of anger as something involuntary, natural, and morally indifferent.  However, we shouldn’t continue to fan the flames of our anger voluntary but rather learn to take a step back from it and regain our composure before deciding what action to take next.  For the Stoics, the distinction between virtue and vice is more qualitative than quantitative.  The full passion of anger is always irrational, and unphilosophical, because it entails a desire for the other person to suffer harm.  The wise man, by contrast, wishes that his enemies would improve and become wise themselves.

I find that today some people tend to be more drawn to the Stoic perspective and some to the Aristotelian way of looking at anger.  Some people just don’t get very angry, and they seem to get along fine in life.  Other people get quite angry but appear able to deal with it constructively.  What I’ve learned, though, from my experience as a cognitive therapist, though, is that strong feelings such as anger tend to introduce various cognitive and attentional biases.  These potentially hamper our ability to deliberate clearly about difficult situations and to engage in rational problem-solving.  And once we begin to entertain feelings of anger they can easily begin to skew our judgement.

I’m definitely more inclined toward the Stoic perspective, which inspired the theory and practices of modern cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy.  However, I can see the merits of both points of view, Stoic and Aristotelian, and I think they provide a great opportunity for discussion, comparing them to one another and teasing out the subtle differences.   However, Hall’s short appraisal of Stoicism is surprisingly negative and somewhat dismissive:

Other ancient philosophical systems have found advocates in modern times, especially the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. But Stoicism does not encourage the same joie de vivre as Aristotle’s ethics. It is a rather pessimistic and grim affair. It requires the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommends the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active, practical engagement with the fascinating fine-grained business of everyday living and problem-solving. It doesn’t leave enough room for hope, human agency or human intolerance of misery. It denounces pleasure for its own sake. It is tempting to agree with Cicero, who asked, “What? Could a Stoic arouse enthusiasm? He will rather immediately drown any enthusiasm even if he received someone full of zeal.”

I think these are criticisms worth hearing and each of these points about Stoicism deserves to be answered.  For example, you might say Stoicism lacks joie de vivre, although a profound type of joy (chara) is actually one of the core positive emotions (eupatheiai) endorsed by the Stoics.  For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to such joy.  He even specifies several psychologically insightful means of cultivating this healthy emotion.  I doubt most modern followers of Stoicism would say that Stoicism is any more “grim and pessimistic” a philosophy than Aristotle’s is.  It doesn’t really advocate the “suppression of emotions” any more than cognitive therapy does but rather the transformation of unhealthy emotions into more natural and healthy ones by disputing the irrational beliefs underlying them.

The ancient Stoics also didn’t really recommend the “resigned acceptance of misfortune”, in the negative sense Hall appears to have in mind.  Rather they taught that emotional acceptance of events beyond our direct control should be combined with a commitment to practical action in accord with justice  and other ethical values – something Epictetus calls the “Discipline of Action”.  For instance, when the Marcomanni and their allies launched a massive invasion of Pannonia, and penetrated into Italy, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius didn’t respond with “resigned acceptance” and inaction.  Instead, he “donned the military cape and boots”, rode out from Rome to lead the counter-offensive, and ended up commanding the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier throughout a series of wars that lasted nearly a decade.  Indeed, the Stoics were well-known for actively (even stubbornly) engaging in various political struggles and military enterprises, often risking their lives in doing so.  They were definitely not passive doormats.

Likewise, the Stoic attitude toward pleasure is more nuanced than Hall perhaps implies.  Pleasure (hedone) isn’t “denounced” but classed as an “indifferent”, neither good nor bad.  In fact, denouncing pleasure as bad would be a fundamental mistake according to the Stoics.   On the other hand, it’s true that indulging excessively in pleasure by treating it as something more important than wisdom or virtue was a vice denounced by the Stoics.   On the other hand, as noted earlier, the Stoics place considerable importance on a healthy form of cheerfulness or joy (chara), which complements the exercise of wisdom and virtue.  So the Stoics weren’t joyless; it would be much closer to the truth to say they thought we shouldn’t treat bodily pleasures (and things like flattery) as if they were the goal of life.  These pleasures aren’t bad in themselves but rather craving them to excess is a vice, especially if we do so at the expense of more important things.

Of course, there are some ambiguities in these ancient texts and there’s scope for reading them in more than one way.  I’m somewhat more inclined to favour Stoicism and read it in a sympathetic light.  Hall’s bound to do the same with Aristotle.  For example, she acknowledges she’s somewhat sidelining his problematic views about the inferiority of slaves and women, although this arguably has wider implications for the modern reception of his ethical philosophy.  I think the most important thing is that dialogue continues between Stoic, Aristotelian, and other philosophical perspectives.  We have the most to gain by encouraging an intelligent comparison between these ethical perspectives, especially given the growing number of modern readers interested in applying them in their daily lives.  As it happens, Marcus Aurelius, though a Stoic, mentions Aristotelian ideas favourably and one of his closest friends and advisors, Claudius Severus, was an Aristotelian philosopher.  Marcus praised Severus in The Meditations, mentioning how grateful he was for the opportunity to learn about politics from him.  Indeed, I suspect that whether someone engages with Stoicism or Aristotelianism, or Epicureanism, they’re likely to end up better off than someone who doesn’t think about ethical philosophy at all but rather goes along uncritically accepting some of the values prevailing in modern society.

Venting memeI want to talk briefly about an Aristotelian concept that’s long been associated with psychotherapy.  Hall mentions that Aristotle’s Politics refers to “a certain catharsis and alleviation accompanied by pleasure”, which has been taken as the inspiration for Freud’s theory of emotional catharsis.  A “cathartic” in medicine is a purgative, a drug that supposedly cleanses poisons from the body by inducing defecation, a bit like a laxative.  Freud originally believed that venting strong emotions had a cathartic effect, somehow purging them from our minds.  However, although he endorsed emotional catharsis in his first book on psychotherapy, Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud actually abandoned the method before long.  He concluded that venting alone was of little therapeutic benefit unless accompanied by insight into the source of our emotions.  In the 1960s and 1970s, several psychotherapists, such as Arthur Janov the founder of Primal Scream therapy, attempted to rehabilitate the notion of catharsis as a psychological therapy.  However, it ultimately it failed to gain clinical support.  Indeed, Freud and Janov developed their ideas without any scientific evidence, prior to the use of clinical trials in psychotherapy.

It’s beyond question that venting (catharsis) of emotions such as grief or anger often makes clients temporarily feel better.  However, feeling better and getting better are two very different things.  Researchers have been unable to find robust support for emotional catharsis having genuine long-term psychological benefits.  Indeed, in relation to both grief and anger, studies have shown that repeated venting is sometimes more likely to do people more harm than good.  It seems that venting an emotion can simply reinforce it, like exercising a muscle or repeating a habit, rather than “getting it out of our system”.  In other words, if Aristotle really believed in a psychotherapeutic mechanism of catharsis, as Freud initially did, it seems he may have been mistaken.  Perhaps his Golden Mean could be applied here: a little bit of emotional venting is natural and harmless, and suppressing our feelings is often unhealthy, but venting too much or too often isn’t usually therapeutic also be unhealthy.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book and I’d definitely recommend it to other people.  Even though I’m more partial to Stoicism, I found it interesting and valuable to compare what I’ve learned from Stoicism and cognitive therapy with what Hall says about the ethical and psychological guidance found in Aristotle’s philosophy.  It’s very easy to read and that’s quite an achievement with a topic of this nature.  I don’t remember Aristotle ever being quite as much fun as this when I was a student.  It does read like a mixture of what you’d expect from a conventional self-help book and what you might obtain from a good introduction to classical philosophy.  These elements are combined very well, though, and I think it will satisfy people approaching the book from different perspectives: whether they’re more into ancient philosophy or the self-improvement aspect.

Order Your Signed Copy of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorSome of you have have contacted me about obtaining signed copies of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  I’m pleased to announce that you can now order your copy by phone or email from Ben McNally’s bookstore and they will ship it to you as soon as it’s available.

Email: info@benmcnallybooks.com
Tel: 1-416-361-0032
Mon-Fri 9-6, Saturday (except long weekends) 11-5, Closed on Sunday
Web: benmcnallybooks.com

Ben runs one of Toronto’s finest general interest bookstores, specialising in history, biography, fiction, poetry, and special orders.

Ben McNally

Just give them or a call or send an email to request your signed copy and they’ll be happy to assist.

Hope you enjoy the book!

Donald Robertson Signature

Jon Meacham on Marcus Aurelius

While I was researching my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I stumbled across a Newsweek article about Marcus Aurelius, from 2010, written by author and political commentator Jon Meacham.  Meacham won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his biography of US president Andrew Jackson.

Meacham’s article, A Case for Optimistic Stoicism, was inspired by the attempted Al Qaeda bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was bound from Amsterdam to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in the US.  I wanted to write a little about this article because I think it deserves to be read and because it seems to me that Meacham has actually understood the essence of Stoicism better than many others who have attempted to write about it.  Though he’s not a scholar of this particular subject he clearly “gets it” and the Stoic doctrine he gets is one that’s really quite central to the whole philosophy.

Meacham was reading the Gregory Hays translation of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius when he heard about the attack.  He was immediately struck by the relevance of Marcus’ Stoic reflections as America once again faced the renewed threat of terrorism.  In particular, the following words resonated with him at that moment:

If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever.  The same substance, the same form. All of it.

Meacham sounded jaded by the “mindlessly divided” nature of the political response to the incident.  The same old finger-pointing and political point-scoring.  Politicians using a threat as an opportunity to squabble among themselves rather than addressing the real issues at stake.

He reasoned that threat is always present, lurking somewhere during times of apparent peace.  Americans were deluding themselves to think otherwise.  Crises are inevitable.  With The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his hands, Meacham could only wish that instead of the embarrassing display of Democrats and Republicans scrambling to opportunistically exploit the event Americans should learn, like the Roman emperor, to embrace a philosophy of optimistic Stoicism.

Meacham understands Marcus Aurelius.  He says that a proper grasp of the Stoic philosophy of The Meditations would require adopting a world view which calmly accepts the stubborn intransigence of human affairs, and their darker side, but also retains a hopeful sense of their possibilities.  Not just Stoic acceptance of a passive kind, as people sometimes assume, but an attitude of hopeful and determined action.  True Stoics balance resignation and calm realism, the Stoic Discipline of Desire, with relentless idealism and a serious commitment to moral principles, the Discipline of Action.  That paradox is the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.  Stoics quietly accept life’s misfortunes without complaint but they nevertheless remain committed to doing good, for the common welfare of mankind.

As Meacham notes, Marcus Aurelius wrote that human beings were made to help one another – a theme that he returns to many times throughout The Meditations.  The wise man, Marcus says, can be recognized by the affection he exhibits toward his neighbours, and through his humility and truthfulness.  The only true good is virtue, which leads to universally admired character traits such as justice, self-control, courage, and freedom.  The only true evil is vice, the opposite frame of mind.

Meacham also spots the Roman emperor’s striking remark that we cannot go around expecting to achieve Plato’s ideal republic in political life – it’s unrealistic to demand that we live in a Utopia.  Nevertheless, says Marcus, rather than simply abandoning our ideals – like so many people do when they become disillusioned with modern politics –the Stoics advise us to work toward justice and our political ideals more patiently.  We should accept the imperfections around us while maintaining our goal of making progress toward something far better, even if it’s only one small step at a time.  Indeed, Marcus says that this Stoic willingness to keep working steadily toward a beautiful ideal while nevertheless accepting reality warts and all, is the secret of fulfilment in human life.

Meacham realized as he watched the news that day that despite the duty of government to strive for its people’s safety, America was facing the horrifying reality of a war without end against enemies who could appear anywhere:

No matter how many camps we blow up, no matter how many operatives we kill or imprison, and certainly no matter how much screening we do at airports, we will never render America totally safe. No matter. We must press forward on all fronts. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. […] As Marcus Aurelius would understand, a never-ending war is not a war we should not fight: it is just a war that never ends. The sooner we accept this, the better.

That’s what I would simply describe as a philosophical attitude toward the stark reality of terrorism.  One type of folly denies the reality of these threats and buries its head in the sand.  Another type of folly accepts them but exaggerates our inability to cope and throws its arms up in the air in despair.  What people find so difficult about Stoicism is that it does neither of these foolish things.  Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius could walk and chew gum.  They could calmly accept adversity while nevertheless patiently fighting back against it, even though the odds seemed stacked against them or the battle seemed interminable.  Life, as Marcus said, is warfare.  It never ends.  The good man accepts this, without complaint, and he remains at his post anyway, standing guard against the enemy.

In 1712, Thomas Addison wrote a play called Cato, a Tragedy, which celebrated the great Roman Stoic hero, Cato of Utica.  It contains many Stoic themes including the striking lines:

Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it.

George Washington was reputedly so inspired by this play that he had it staged for his army camped at Valley Forge.  That was the philosophy he felt they needed to inspire them.  We don’t give up just because we’re facing an overwhelming threat.  The goal of life isn’t to win, because that’s not always up to us, but rather to deserve to win, something eminently under our control.  We can be victorious over fortune in that respect, right now, even when engaged in a war without end.  As soon as we turn our back on the true goal, though, we’ve already lost everything for which it’s worth putting up a fight in the first place.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Book Review: Unshakeable Freedom by Chuck Chakrapani

Chuck Chakrapani, Unshakeable FreedomUnshakeable Freedom:Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life (2016) by Chakrapani is a recent book on Stoicism, written as in introduction to applying the philosophy as a form of self-help or self-improvement.  Chuck’s also published his own editions of several Stoic classics and a book about the origins of the philosophy called A Fortunate Storm (2016).

The first thing I wanted to say is that this book is probably one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I’ve read.  I think it’s very well-written.  The philosophy seems crystal clear and the use of examples from various famous philosophers and modern role models makes it engaging and easy to read.  I really think Chuck has a way of expressing Stoic ideas that’s very clear and concise.  I would definitely recommend that people who are new to the subject start with a book like this.  I read the whole book in an afternoon, on my Chromebook Flip, while wandering around Athens.  (Between chapters, incidentally, I had a chance to visit the Benaki Museum, where they have a statue of an unnamed Athenian philosopher from the reign of Marcus Aurelius.)

Unknown Athenian PhilosopherI find that some self-improvement books have one idea, which they flog to death.  Chuck’s book manages, though, to present lots of different ideas very simply and effectively.  Some books on Stoicism also short-change the reader, I feel, when it comes to the actual psychological techniques used in the ancient philosophy.  Chuck includes quite a variety of Stoic exercises, though, both old and new.  I’m not sure how he managed to cover so much ground so well in so few pages but he did, and I find that very impressive.  He even includes a review of the ground he’s covered, and the exercises, in the final chapter.

The whole book revolves around the central theme of inner freedom, and what that means for Stoics.  For instance, the six “Big Ideas” he lists in the book include:

  1. Problems are only problems if you believe they are.
  2. Leave your past behind.
  3. Don’t let the indifferents rob your freedom.
  4. Where there is fear, freedom is not.
  5. You can never lose anything because you don’t own anything.
  6. Life is a festival.  Enjoy it now.

The twelve psychological exercises he includes are called:

  1. The anticipatory prep technique (“Morning Meditation”)
  2. Course correction (“End-of-day Meditation”)
  3. Passion counter
  4. Pause and examine
  5. Two handles (not to be confused with fork handles)
  6. Entitlement challenge
  7. Praemeditatio malorum (“Negative Visualization”)
  8. Impersonal projection
  9. Cosmic view
  10. Marcus’ Nine
  11. Sunbeam visualization
  12. South Indian monkey trap visualization

Chuck ChakrapaniI also wanted to mention that despite being a fairly simple (I suppose “non-academic”) introduction this book presents Stoicism in a pretty accurate manner.  Some of the introductory books and articles really bastardize Stoicism pretty badly, unfortunately, and that spreads a lot of confusion among people in online communities.  But Chuck’s book is spot on because it’s written by someone who actually cares about the philosophy and has taken time to try to understand how to live in accord with its principles.  I always feel you can tell whether an author is just winging it or if they’ve really put their own ideas into practice.  A lot of self-help books, including some on Stoicism, don’t pass the smell test in that regard.  You can tell that Chuck’s book is based on his experience of Stoicism, though, and that he’s sincere in his attempt to look at life through a Stoic lens.

He addresses some common misconceptions.  For example, he makes it clear that Stoicism isn’t about repressing all of our emotions but rather replacing unhealthy emotions with healthy ones.  And he clearly explains the tricky Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”.  Although things like health, wealth and reputation are “indifferent” in the sense that they don’t contribute to the goal of life nevertheless it’s natural and rational to prefer health over sickness, wealth over poverty, and so on, within reasonable bounds.  Stoics do care about these “externals”, in a sense, but not enough to get upset about losing them.  Many people ignore that concept although it’s really the very essence of Stoic Ethics and therefore the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.   That leads them to exaggerate the “indifference” of Stoicism in a way that invites criticism (and is really more like earlier schools of philosophy such as Cynicism).  Chuck’s book presents a more accurate, balanced, workable, and realistic version of Stoicism, though.  That’s another reason why I think it’s a good introduction.

So I better conclude…  I once had a friend who worked in the British Library who thought that there were far too many books in the world and it would be better if most of them were just shredded.  Although I can’t bring myself to advocate book burning nevertheless I have felt myself becoming ever so slightly more sympathetic toward his point of view over time.  I’m in good company at least, because our Stoic friend Marcus Aurelius also thought he’d do well to put his books away for a change and get on with life.  I’ve had to read too many books as a student and then for my research as a writer and trainer.  This one was not a chore, though, but a pleasure to read.

Professional film critics, I notice, are rather preoccupied with the length of films.  Just as the time flies by in some movies, though, some books are quicker and easier than others to read.  I read this book in a few hours because it was worth reading, and a pleasure to read, and not overly-long either.  That matters to me because I know that if I recommend The Road Less Travelled to someone, they’re unlikely to get past the first few chapters.  (And that’s a hugely overrated book anyway, IMHO.)  Chuck’s book is a page-turner that gives you more bang for your buck.  Sorry to have wasted your time but it’s probably easier to read than my review to be honest!  I know that if I can persuade someone to read this – and they should – then they’ll probably get through it in a few hours, enjoy the whole thing, and come away with an accurate and workable idea of Stoic philosophy.  So please do just go and read it. 

(After watching this video of Chuck talking at Stoicon in Toronto….)

Stoic Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

AntifragilePeople have been telling me to read Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder (2014) by Nassim Taleb since the book came out because  he’s into Stoicism. I’ve finally had a chance to read it so here’s my latest quasi-review. I say that because rather than talk about the whole book I’m just going to write a bit more informally about my impressions, mainly regarding what he says about Stoicism.

First of all, though, a caveat. Taleb’s writing has a reputation for being hard to review.  His style (it seems to me) is idiosyncratic, disorganized, bombastic, refreshing, confrontational, iconoclastic, etc.  Arguably that makes the book more engaging, although it can also be frustrating at times.  Maybe in smaller doses. (Likewise, I don’t mind the occasional song by Björk but I don’t know if I could sit through a whole album.)

Nassim Taleb

Although you can kind of get a rough sense of what he’s talking about fairly easily, on close inspection it’s often surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what he means.  (Maybe that explains why he seems to think most other people are stupid.)   I don’t think I’m the only one, though, because other reviewers seem to have the same problem. Also when I spoke to some fans of his work about bits that seemed confusing it turned out they couldn’t make any more sense out of it than me. Having read the book fairly closely, it seems to me that Taleb is often quite unclear about key concepts and sometimes he does appear to use arguments that are incomplete or not entirely convincing.  He doesn’t seem to like copy editors because their “interventionist” approach stifles his creativity, which is fair comment.  Although like most things in life there are pros and cons to that strategy, and in a few places an editor’s corrections might potentially have been helpful to the reader.  Then again, that’s the guy’s writing style so take it or leave it.

I think it’s fair to say that Taleb has become notorious for his rather scathing attacks on people (e.g., “Fragilistas”) who he thinks are idiots.  (Or who happen not to agree with him, depending on how you look at it.)  Well, you know, call me old fashioned but, whatever he thinks, that doesn’t really seem to me to be the healthiest attitude for an author to adopt.  I’m pretty sure it just stifles discussion and proper evaluation of his writing.  Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people out there, including plenty of academics, who say things so stupid it barely seems worth anyone’s effort to respond.  However, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with people who get on your goat.  Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…

Taleb’s basic concept is that although we all know roughly what it means for something to be fragile we don’t have a word for its opposite. We say that something that isn’t fragile is “robust” or “resilient” but that’s just the absence of fragility, says Taleb, not its opposite. Something fragile is easily broken by knocks, something robust is impervious to knocks. Something that’s the opposite of fragile, though, would actually benefit from knocks and grow stronger. So he coins the term “antifragile” to denote this new concept – voila! 

(I’m still undecided about whether this basic premise actually makes sense, to be honest, because, to cut a long story short, whereas Taleb talks about something going from being “fragile” to “antifragile”, I wonder whether we’d not find it more natural, at least in some of these cases, to relabel the stimuli that we were formerly fragile toward as having gone from being “harmful” to “beneficial” – it’s a two-term relationship after all that we’re describing and yet Taleb is focusing on how we label one side but not really how we might shift our way of labelling the other instead.  A normal serpent is fragile with regard to having its head chopped off but the mythical Hydra, to borrow an example from his book, is antifragile because it grows two heads for each decapitation, and just gets stronger.  Fair enough, but wouldn’t it be just as easy, if not easier, to say that whereas decapitation is harmful for most creatures it’s actually quite beneficial for the Hydra, who, paradoxically, gains strength as a result?  That doesn’t require a neologism: it’s just the way we label the stimulus that’s changed not the way we label the subject.  Like I said, though, I’m still mulling this over…)

Anyway, that’s really the main theme that runs through the entire book, with a lot of interesting digressions, anecdotes, and other bits and pieces of advice: from weight-lifting to holiday itineraries and beyond.

Now, Taleb says repeatedly that nature herself is the best example of something antifragile. Presumably, in part, because species adapt to adversity and grow stronger as a result. So although he doesn’t say this himself, or explain why he doesn’t say it, a number of reviewers seem to have noticed that “antifragility” resembles the concept of evolution or survival of the fittest through natural selection. The difference is that antifragility is being used more broadly as a way of understanding life and society in general, on many different levels. So it’s surprising that Taleb never touches on “Social Darwinism”, if only to clarify the distinction between his new concept of “antifragility” and the various philosophical ideas that fall under that heading.  (Note: I should mention that Taleb has an ethic that says it’s wrong to maintain your own antifragility at someone else’s expense.)

Throughout the book Taleb marvels at how others have completely failed to grasp the concept underlying his neologism even though it’s been staring them in the face all along. That’s fair enough in a way. However, from the outset, as someone who’s worked and written in this area, I couldn’t help but think that the concept of emotional resilience and the closely-related idea of posttraumatic growth (PTG) in modern psychology are surely kind of similar to what he’s talking about. In psychology the concept of “resilience” sometimes covers both what Taleb means by it and what he calls being antifragile.  We also talk about the concept of “thriving”, which seems akin to what he has in mind.  Eventually, Taleb says he discovered the concept of posttraumatic growth (when someone grows stronger following a trauma) and he concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.

However, he never really returns to the subject and basically ignores all of the scientific research on posttraumatic growth, and related findings in psychology. Surely some of his readers must be left thinking: “Huh? So if this is what you’re talking about, what do all the scientific studies actually tell us about it?” A quick search of PubMed, incidentally, shows that there are currently 843 books and scientific journal articles listed that mention posttraumatic growth.

Now, I understand that Taleb has an ambivalent relationship with empirical research – sometimes he uses it, sometimes he criticizes the whole idea.  However, I still think we’ve a right to expect more than a fleeting mention of the fact that there’s a whole field of research already dealing with this subject. It seems to me that overall the findings don’t really correspond very closely with what he’s written about it. For example, one of the most consistent findings both from studies on resilience and posttraumatic growth is that the presence of strong social support is a predictor of good mental health and wellbeing following trauma, either through resilience or growth. However, Taleb barely mentions the role of social support in his discussion of antifragility. Perhaps he would happily dispute the relevance of psychological studies in this area or challenge their findings but then he should probably be more explicit about that, for the sake of his readers.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is his use of Stoic philosophy. First, though, another (minor) digression. As I was reading Antifragile, although it contains many interesting examples, it struck me that there seemed to be other obvious examples of the central concept that I was surprised Taleb didn’t mention. The main one is this. For most of my adult life I’ve been a trainer of sorts, in various different contexts. I’ve always gathered very detailed feedback from students and read it very closely. When running a new course, I’ll gather quantitative and qualitative feedback mid-course so that I have the opportunity to make changes on the fly. Some of my colleagues (and competitors) don’t do that.  I’ve always felt that by avoiding the (perceived) harm (to one’s fragile ego) of reading negative comments they’re basically paying a huge price by missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve as a trainer. It prevents their teaching style and their course content from evolving. Put another way: inviting criticism is antifragile. (It seems to me anyway.)  It can be painful but it makes you stronger.  Avoiding exposure to criticism or attacking your critics to shut them down would, by contrast, be fragile – indeed, we often say someone like that has a fragile ego.

As I read Taleb’s Antifragile I noticed that I kept thinking of the following maxim from Epicurus: In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. It seems to me that someone who lives by that philosophy will be antifragile, at least in one important respect. He actually turns what looks like failure into victory and considers himself to have benefited every time he’s defeated in an argument.  He turns chicken shit into chicken soup, to borrow an expression from, of all people, Roger Stone.  Or as Epictetus put it, like the magical wand, the caduceus, of Hermes, through his philosophy he touches misfortune and turns it into good fortune.

Let’s repeat that: “In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.”  I think we’d all be able to admire that guy.  Who would deny that genuinely being able to look at things that way would demonstrate tremendous strength of character, humility, and wisdom? For an Epicurean who really assimilated that maxim, in Taleb-speak, there would be no downside to being proven wrong and losing an argument, only an upside: learning. I was half-expecting Taleb to mention that quote, as it’s reasonably well-known. Here’s the question, though.  Does Taleb’s own fairly aggressive style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down “Fragilistas” and idiots that he disagrees with, run contrary to that nugget of philosophy?  I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do think it would be a very interesting quote for him to get his teeth into, though.  It seems to be the sort of thing he likes.

Addendum in the Middle

I’m just going to arbitrarily inject this sort of addendum or footnote that occured to me after I finished…  Bear with me because this might seem like an odd question but: Why is this a noun?  (“Antifragility”, “the antifragile”, or an adjective, “antifragile”?)  I’d rather it was a verb, to be honest.  Maybe Taleb’s book reminded me slightly of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (yes, we’re going back a bit now!).  I’m constitutionally suspicious of nouns, and adjectives are just as bad.  I’d rather talk about what someone is doing than what they are.  We tend to find in psychotherapy that makes a crucial difference: “I am tense” versus “I tense my…”    (What are you tensing?  How?  Where and when?  Why don’t you stop?)

“Verbification” or “verbing”, we call it.  The most famous example is probably the way therapists teach clients to say they’re actively “catastrophizing” a situation or “decatastrophizing” it rather than just “this is a catastrophe!”  If I was going to coin a new term for the opposite of fragile, I’d start by verbing it somehow.  This guy is fragilizing himself… at these times, in this way, etc.  Now he’s beginning to antifragilize his investments or his relationships or whatever…  (I know people hate that but I’m not sorry because I find it actually works quite well as a way of clarifying our thinking, like Korzybski’s General Semantics claims.)

Come to think of it, insofar as decatastrophizing in cognitive therapy goes beyond reduction of threat appraisal and into constructive re-appraisal of our coping ability, it probably already transgresses into what Taleb calls being antifragile.  People start to see situations they worried about excessively not only as bearable but also as potentially having some positive aspects or opportunities for them.  That reminds me of another little-known Stoic technique.  Epictetus said that one of his political heroes, Paconius Agrippinus, a member of the Stoic Opposition against Nero, used to write “eulogies” to himself actually praising the misfortunes that befell him, such as being exiled from Rome.  He not only moderated the downside of adversity but actively sought out an upside, even in the face of extreme situations, and he did it in the form of a semi-formal exercise, like writing a Stoic “consolation” letter to himself re-appraising both the downside and upside.

Anyway, back to the quasi-review…

Taleb on Stoicism

Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Some people have even told me that they were introduced to Stoicism by reading his books. Antifragile has references to Stoicism scattered throughout but Chapter 10, which is entitled “Seneca’s Upside and Downside”, is largely dedicated to Taleb’s interpretation of Stoicism.

Antifragile features a (fictional) Italian-American character called Fat Tony. Taleb opens his chapter on Seneca by stating that “A couple of millennia before Fat Tony, another child of the Italian peninsula solved the problem of antifragility.” That’s one for the editor: Seneca wasn’t born on the Italian peninsula. He was actually a child of Cordoba, in the Roman province of Hispania, or modern-day Spain. Anyway, that’s trivial.  What matters is that Taleb makes it clear that, in his view, Seneca exemplifies antifragility. Indeed, he says that Seneca “solved the problem of antifragility […] using Stoic philosophy”.

Taleb thinks that academics have generally dismissed Seneca as “not theoretical or philosophical enough” because of his practical focus. Not a single commentator, he says, has noticed that Seneca articulated the concept of “asymmetry”, which is the key both to robustness and antifragility.  Taleb thinks that most other philosophers begin with theory and then try to apply it to practice. However, he’s a big fan of Seneca because he believes that he did the opposite and started with practice before developing his theory. “To become a successful philosopher king”, Taleb says, “it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher”, which is quite a nice way of putting it.

I think most people would find that a reasonable, and not entirely novel, point. However, I’m not really convinced that it describes Seneca any more than any number of other philosophers, especially his fellow Stoics. Taleb doesn’t really provide any explanation for why he believes Seneca stood apart from the rest in this regard, except that he was very wealthy.

Much of Seneca’s wealth, perhaps most of it, was given to him by Nero, and if you were cynical you might say it took the form of massive bribes in exchange for Seneca writing propaganda speeches, etc., in support of an oppressive and tyrannical political regime. Seneca later panicked when Nero began killing more people and tried to give the money back – the most obvious explanation being that he was worried Nero was about to have him killed in order to seize it back anyway. That’s presumably always a threat that hangs over your head when you’re paid millions by a dictator who’s carrying out summary executions of his political enemies – he may be tempted to claw back the money later by having you put to death.  Are there other interpretations of Seneca’s actions?  Sure but the point is that Taleb’s maybe a bit hasty to class him as a pragmatic hero.

Taleb describes the “traditional” understanding of Stoicism as being about “indifference to fate – among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos”, which is true. He sets that aside, though, to focus more on what the philosophy says about handling our material possessions.

It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition [or Citium], the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck […] he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy.

Zeno had several famous teachers before he founded the Stoic school. One was Stilpo the Megarian. (Taleb calls him Stilbo, which is just an alternate spelling used by Seneca.) When Stilpo was told that his city had been sacked, his property seized, and his wife and children killed, he reputedly said “I have lost nothing”, nihil perditi, “I have all my goods with me.” Like the Stoics, He also believed that virtue is the only true good. Taleb says that this “I lost nothing” reverberates through Seneca’s writings as though it’s the cornerstone of his whole philosophy.

That’s partially true but not entirely so.  For Stoics in general, wealth is “nothing” in one sense, in terms of the supreme goal of life, but in another sense it has an inferior sort of value, for practical purposes.

Zeno introduced this distinction between two types of value, which formed the basis of Stoicism and distinguishes it from the Cynic school that preceded it, and probably also from the Megarians like Stilpo. Only virtue and vice, qualities of our own character and voluntary actions, can be intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense of the word. Everything else is “indifferent” in that regard. However, said Zeno, it is reasonable to prefer life over death, friends over enemies, wealth over poverty, within certain bounds, as long as we never sacrifice wisdom or virtue for the sake of these “external” things.

He therefore described them as having an inferior sort of “value” (axia), incommensurate with our supreme good in life. I don’t think Taleb’s aware of this, although it’s arguably the central doctrine of Stoicism, and so he perhaps misinterprets Seneca and the Stoics slightly as a consequence of this omission. As Cicero points out in De Finibus, Stoic Ethics without any distinction between the value of different externals would effectively just be a rehash of Cynicism. What made Stoicism what it is, a distinct school of philosophy that went by a new name, was Zeno’s introduction of this doctrine of “preferred indifferents” or “selective value”.

For example, one of our most important sources for information on the early Stoic school is Diogenes Laertius, who explains the doctrine of “preferred indifferents” as follows:

Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by [NB:] wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts – as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.

Diogenes gives the following examples of things (including wealth) classed as having value or being preferred by the founders of Stoicism:

Thus things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth; and in the sphere of external things, [NB:] wealth, fame, noble birth, and the like. To the class of things “rejected” belong, of mental qualities, lack of ability, want of skill, and the like; among bodily qualities, death, disease, weakness, being out of condition, mutilation, ugliness, and the like; in the sphere of external things, [NB:] poverty, ignominy, low birth, and so forth. But again there are things belonging to neither class; such are not preferred, neither are they rejected.

Cicero confirms that it was Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, who coined the term “preferred things” (ta proegmena) for use in this technical sense, although later generations of Stoics seem to have been free to argue over the fine details of which things were classed as “preferred” and the precise hierarchy of their value.

Taleb quotes Seneca as saying of a man who lived lavishly “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.” According to Taleb, this aspect of Stoicism, that discourages us from becoming too enslaved to wealth and luxury, is the key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.

Stoicism, seen this way, becomes pure robustness – for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate, is robustness.

Random events don’t affect someone who is robust, according to Taleb’s definition, one way or the other. They are too strong to suffer from the losses incurred by misfortune. However, they are also not greedy for the rewards of good fortune. They remain impassive with regard to the ups and downs of fate.

Whereas the Stoics describe many techniques to help attain this state of mind, though, Taleb is more interested in advocating the outlook on life, and doesn’t actually say as much about how to actually get into that frame of mind. He mainly describes a method favoured by Seneca, which is usually known as the praemediation malorum or premeditation of adversity.  We could say “premediation of bad things” but that’s slightly misleading, as the whole point for Stoics is that we should train ourselves to realize the’re not really intrinsically bad at all but things indifferent, in their technical sense of the word mentioned above.

Seneca on Premeditation

Taleb says that we should first learn robustness from “the great master” Seneca, or “how he advocated the mitigation of downside” and “protection against harm from emotions”. Then we can proceed to learn how Seneca teaches us to go beyond robustness and actually achieve antifragility.

Taleb says that success brings a kind of asymmetry in the sense that you have more to lose than to gain, which constitutes an important form of fragility.

There is no good news in store, just plenty of bad news in the pipeline. When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.

Rich people, he says, are trapped by their wealth, which causes them emotional stress.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. [sic, surely he intended to write this the other way around?]

Taleb adds that our dependence on external circumstances, or rather the emotions arising from this dependence, constitutes a form of slavery.

He quotes the Roman poet Livy to illustrate this asymmetry: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” Suppose you’re a millionaire. The potential benefit of gaining another half a million dollars would now be small compared to the pain caused by losing exactly the same amount. That’s a negative asymmetry, which Taleb says makes your situation fragile.

Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

Taleb says that before starting his last job he wrote a resignation letter and kept it locked in his drawer, which allowed him to feel a sense of psychological freedom. He also says that as a trader, each morning he would assume that the worst possible thing had happened, so that he could view the rest of the day as a bonus, something he describes as the “discipline of mental write-off”. He reckons that an “intelligent life” entails emotional positioning through exercises like these in order to remove the sting of pain caused by losses. That’s the secret of being emotionally robust in the face of “volatility”, i.e., uncertainty and risk.

Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

That’s the quote from Taleb on Stoicism that people seem to cite most often, incidentally.  He’s right that Stoicism is not actually about the elimination or “extirpation” of all emotions but rather the transformation of irrational and unhealthy emotions into rational and healthy ones. You could call that their “domestication”, as he does.

He mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:

Seneca proposes a complete training program to handle life and use emotions properly—thanks to small but effective tricks. One trick, for instance, that a Roman Stoic would use to separate anger from rightful action and avoid committing harm he would regret later would be to wait at least a day before beating up a servant who committed a violation. We moderns might not see this as particularly righteous, but just compare it to the otherwise thoughtful Emperor Hadrian’s act of stabbing a slave in the eye during an episode of uncontrolled anger. When Hadrian’s anger abated, and he felt the grip of remorse, the damage was irreversible.

Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.

That’s how Taleb believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?

Seneca’s Money

Taleb claims that psychologists and intellectuals in general have a mental block that prevents them from recognizing the concept of antifragility: “I don’t know what it is, but they don’t like it.” (Apart from the hundreds of scientific texts in the field of psychology that refer to posttraumatic growth?) The same mental block, he says, prevents them from considering that Seneca “wanted the upside from fate”, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

As we’ve seen, though, Taleb is arguably overestating the difference between Seneca and other Stoics in this regard.  More or less every academic text on Stoicism (that I’ve ever read) acknowledges that the Stoics assigned value (axia) to externals, and considered wealth preferable to poverty. So it’s not really that every academic is stubbornly denying or overlooking that Seneca saw some value in wealth.  It’s just that Taleb, as far as I can tell, seems to be unaware of the aspect of Stoic Ethics that, from Zeno on, assigned an, albeit inferior, sort of value to money, and preferred it to poverty, within reason.

It’s true that the Stoics did sometimes embrace “voluntary hardship”, like the Cynics before them, and lived like beggars.  They describe this more ascetic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue”, though, not suited for everyone.  (Much as Christians thought of monasticism as suited only for some.)  If that seems paradoxical, it’s not really.  Just remember that although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue. Indeed, Taleb does note that Stoicism can make you actually desire catastrophes, which you can embrace as a challenge in life.  (“Bring it on!”)

So if the Stoics renounced wealth, sometimes, it wasn’t because they thought it was “bad” but because they thought that doing so could potentially strengthen their character.  Wealth, in general, is viewed by them as potentially useful in life.

Taleb is more interested in Seneca than the other Stoics partly because he was one of the super-rich.  He says that Seneca speaks to him because he “walked the walk” and focuses on the practical aspects of Stoicism such as how to take a trip, how to handle committing suicide, and how to cope with adversity in life such as poverty.  Taleb recommends reading Seneca to his friends because he’s an eminently practical philosopher. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of course, also deal with very similar practical advice.)

However, Taleb says that “even more critically” Seneca speaks to him, and his friends, because he describes how to handle immense wealth. That’s perhaps a fair comment, although it’s probably not the reason most ordinary people give for reading Seneca.  Indeed, Taleb says that although “on paper” Seneca followed the Stoic tradition, in practice he did something slightly different, which, Taleb claims, “commentators have completely missed”.

If wealth is so much of a burden, while unnecessary, what’s the point of having it? Why did Seneca keep it?

Taleb says that Seneca called wealth the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. That’s something most of the other Stoics could have just as easily said, as we’ve seen. However, Taleb assumes that Seneca is unique among Stoics in holding the view that wealth can potentially be an advantage.

Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances […]. Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty.

As I noted earlier, I think this idea that Seneca was unique in preferring wealth to poverty stems from something Taleb seems to have missed.  He’s right that Zeno and more or less all Stoics taught that wealth isn’t necessary, and is ultimately indifferent with regard to the supreme goal of life.  Nevertheless, more or less all Stoics agreed that in another sense wealth is “preferable” to poverty, and therefore has value (axia), just not comparable to that of our supreme good.  Seneca isn’t unique in this regard, in other words.

Taleb says in the passage quoted above that “most [Stoics] were poor”.  Sometimes he even appears to believe that Seneca was exceptional among them for being very wealthy.  That’s not quite right, though. Zeno was a wealthy Phoenician merchant who lost his fortune at sea, by some accounts. However, by other accounts he was later quite wealthy. One explanation for that apparent contradiction is that we know one of Zeno’s most devoted students, later in life, was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. He’s reputed to have donated a huge sum of money to the school after Zeno’s death, when his successor Cleanthes was the head. So Zeno had an extremely wealthy and powerful friend.

King Antigonus was seemingly very devoted to Zeno, whom he admired above all other philosophers, but he played the following trick on one of his favourite Stoic students, Persaeus:

And Antigonus once, wishing to make trial of [Persaeus] caused some false news to be brought to him that his estate had been ravaged by the enemy, and as his countenance fell, “Do you see,” said he, “that wealth is not a matter of indifference ?”

Whether or not Zeno accepted patronage from Antigonus we’re told Cleanthes later did. Later Stoics were not all poor. Many subsequent Roman Stoics came from the elite equestrian and senatorial classes, most of whom were comparable to modern millionaires or billionaires. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was emperor of Rome, and therefore not short of a bob or two.

In any case, Taleb notes that Seneca was (allegedly) the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Seneca’s net worth of 300 million sesterces was equivalent to the annual salary of about 330,000 legionaries. At a very rough estimate, that would be maybe nine billion US dollars today.  Perhaps much more depending on how we try to convert it into modern currency.  Of all the famous Stoics, Seneca has the most mixed reputation because of his perceived love of money and luxury, his adultery, and his involvement with Emperor Nero’s violent and oppressive regime.

He was criticized for being a hypocrite by the historian Cassius Dio, for example. Seneca has been banished for alleged adultery with Julia, the sister of the Emperor Claudius. Dio says he didn’t learn his lesson or show much wisdom on his return as he later had an affair with Agrippina, the mother of Nero, “in spite of the kind of woman she was and the kind of son she had.” He adds:

Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them. In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it — the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.

So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:

We start with the following conflict. We introduced Seneca as the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. His fortune was three hundred million denarii [sic] (for a sense of its equivalence, at about the same period in time, Judas got thirty denarii, the equivalent of a month’s salary, to betray Jesus). Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs).

Again, one for the copy editor. A denarius was a silver coin worth about four sesterces, which were minted from brass during Nero’s reign. According to Cassius Dio, Seneca was already super-rich but Taleb’s just quadrupled his wealth. That seems to be another mistake, albeit a trivial one.

Taleb also says that the following passage from Seneca’s On Benefits shows that he was engaged in a cost-benefit analysis:

The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.

So, according to Taleb who highlights the expression “clear gain”, Seneca adopted an attitude of disregarding the pain of the downside while retaining enjoyment of the upside.

So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.

On the contrary, though, it sounds very typically Stoic to me. As we’ve seen, right from the outset, Zeno and other Stoics considered wealth preferable to poverty, within reason. Wealth typically (but not always) gives us more control over other externals, so it’s natural and reasonable to prefer that as a means of exercising wisdom and justice in life. However, if we happen to lose our wealth, like Zeno, that’s not worth getting upset about because all that ultimately matters is that we do the best we can in life, whatever our circumstances.

Overall, Taleb interprets Seneca as meaning something that he sums up in a single rule called “Seneca’s asymmetry”. If you have more to lose than to gain from volatility, the ups and downs of the proverbial Wheel of Fortune, that’s a negative or bad asymmetry, and you are fragile, according to Taleb. However, if you have nothing to lose and only things to gain then you have a positive or good asymmetry and you are antifragile.

This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:

Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry.

Whereas:

Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.

In his glossary at the end of the book, Taleb specifies that he calls this both the “Fundamental Asymmetry” and “Seneca’s Asymmetry”, and defines it as follows:

When someone has more upside than downside in a certain situation, he is antifragile and tends to gain from (a) volatility, (b) randomness, (c) errors, (d) uncertainty, (e) stressors, (f) time. And the reverse.

Conclusion

Well we made it!  Sorry if that was hard going in places, gentle traveller.  I’ve included more quotes than normal because I thought they were necessary.  I’d rather let Taleb speak for himself than risk putting words in his mouth and being accused of getting it wrong.  So you can see what he says above.

Overall, I quite liked Antifragile.  I do enjoy reading an author with a distinctive voice.  It’s impossible surely to read Taleb, though, without thinking from time to time “Surely this doesn’t make sense!”, closely followed by “Oh shit, I can already imagine him shooting me down in flames and calling me an idiot and a Fragilista for disagreeing with him!”

Well tough luck because he deserves to have people disagreeing with him, in my opinion.  He’s definitely not always right.  His acerbic style probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  His interpretation of Stoicism, though, is unusual and interesting.  It also seems to me to be incorrect.  He’s  got a lot to say, nevertheless, and he’s worth reading, and that’s probably what matters most at the end of the day.