In “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor,” Mr. Robertson, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, shows how Marcus’ example can be of use to the rest of us. Marcus’ worldview was not an idle intellectual exercise, he argues, but a form of wisdom forged by real-world experiences of friendship, loss and crisis.
I’m glad that people appreciate the connections made between Marcus’ life and his use of Stoicism, in the book. I tried to extract practical advice that is still relevant today, in dealing with problems like unhealthy desires and bad habits, managing anger, conquering fears and anxieties, living with chronic pain and illness, dealing with loss, and even coming to terms with our own mortality.
As he shares fragments from Marcus’ life, Mr. Robertson distills the emperor’s philosophy into useful mental habits—the core lessons of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” are more behavioral than historical. […]
The book combines philosophy, psychology, and ancient history, so it required a lot of research and was quite an undertaking to write. So I’m pleased that reviewers feel it comes together.
Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.
I’ve always felt like what I’m doing, in a sense, is introducing people to this vast treasure trove of wisdom and beautiful writing, which we have inherited from Stoics like Marcus Aurelius.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual is a new book by Ward Farnsworth. Farnsworth is Dean of the University of Texas School of Law. He has previously written books on rhetoric, one specifically about the use of metaphor. This book struck me first and foremost as having been written with exceptional verbal clarity and precision. Perhaps that’s due in part to the author’s knowledge of rhetoric and his interest in the law.
I really enjoyed the book. It’s a valuable and well-written addition to the growing body of literature on Stoicism. In addition to being very nicely written, it’s also very well-organized and it includes many quotes from ancient Stoics and related thinkers that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers interested in Stoicism. So it definitely adds something – it’s not just another beginner’s guide to Stoicism.
The content consists of quotations from various relevant authors – from Epictetus and Cicero to Montaigne and Schopenhauer. Some of these were taken from existing translations and some are new. They’re organized thematically in chapters about the topics of judgement, externals, perspective, death, desire, wealth and pleasure, what others think, valuation, emotion, adversity, virtue, and learning. Farnsworth includes his own commentary, which I found insightful, original, and therefore quite valuable.
He concludes with a chapter called Stoicism and its critics which cites important criticisms of Stoicism made by other authors. These are addressed and, again, this is worth reading because it dispels several common misconceptions about Stoicism such as the idea that Stoics are cold-hearted, unemotional, or lacking compassion.
I particularly liked his point that the goal of Stoicism resembles the sort of emotional response we’d expect someone to have to distressing events if they could have lived much longer and experienced them enough times to become used to them. He explains the Stoic attitude to consoling grieving friends as follows…
Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor – a very good one let’s say – who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion [passion] would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.
In conclusion, I’d definitely encourage others interested in Stoicism to read this book. It’s probably one of the best books on the subject that I’ve read recently. As I mentioned above, it’s very well-written, using admirably precise language, and the selection and organization of quotes from the primary sources was very well done. Those of you who have read some books on Stoicism already will definitely find this a fresh take on things and I’d also think that newcomers to the subject would enjoy it and find it accessible.
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. Stoicism is more consistent, although there’s clearly a difference in emphasis, for example, between Epictetus and Seneca. This may be an indication that they represented different types of Stoicism. We’re told, indeed, in one ancient source that by the Roman Imperial period, Stoicism had divided into three main branches represented by the followers of the last three scholarchs of the school: Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater of Tarsus, and Panaetius of Rhodes.
The first chapter of Macaro’s book 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 now 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, at least in some instances, 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 certainly don’t get the impression that many (any?) people in the modern Stoicism community actually read the Stoics as advocating the total extirpation of all emotions.
I wish Macaro had been able to read the recent book on Stoicism by Brad Inwood, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale, who is much more of an expert on ancient Stoicism than Nussbaum. 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.
I would say, pace Macaro, that the word literally means not being in a passion (pathos), something slightly different from what she seems to mean by being “free from emotions”. 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)
Nussbaum, and Macaro, seem to interpret the word as meaning unemotional, which is more like the second meaning above (“hard-hearted” or “insensitive”). We’re told emphatically that’s not what the Stoics meant, though.
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. He goes so far as to warn us that 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, therefore, 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, probably because this lack of emotion was an idea more associated with earlier traditions, such as Cynicism, rather than with the Stoics themselves.
Elsewhere in her book, like Nussbaum, 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 to try 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, for example, 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 but “passions” here are clearly a specific class of unhealthy and irrational emotions. Moreover, 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.
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’”? On the face of it, these two statements and the others like them scattered throughout the text are 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 certainly does touch 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 therefore 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. It’s very well-written, as I mentioned above, and even where I disagree with the interpretations of Stoicism it contains, I certainly think they’re worth reading and evaluating. Most people will read this as a general introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism, for daily life, and they’ll definitely get a lot out of it in that respect.
Aristotle’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:
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.
I 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.
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.
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.)
I 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:
Problems are only problems if you believe they are.
Leave your past behind.
Don’t let the indifferents rob your freedom.
Where there is fear, freedom is not.
You can never lose anything because you don’t own anything.
Life is a festival. Enjoy it now.
The twelve psychological exercises he includes are called:
The anticipatory prep technique (“Morning Meditation”)
I 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….)
People 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’m calling this a “sort-of” review, not a full review, 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.
EDIT: This was a rough stream-of-consciousness review but it’s caused so much debate that I feel the need to highlight at the very beginning (and end) what I’m saying Taleb got wrong about Stoicism. He seems oblivious to the basic Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”, which is generally considered to be the very essence of their ethical philosophy, and what distinguishes Stoicism from opposing schools of thought. Oddly, he thinks that the very thing that defines Stoicism, in other words, was somehow unique to Seneca, which means he ends up completely misrepresenting Stoicism in general.
Taleb’s Opaque Writing Style
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.)
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. (And, as I discuss below, there are some quite basic mistakes here that a good editor would potentially have stopped ending up in print.) 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 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. Personally, I don’t think it’s healthy to dismiss most critics as just not “getting” what you mean, and it’s definitely not a good idea to attack them or try to intimidate them with insults. That risks creating an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where genuine flaws in a book, or theory, can become all-too-easily masked and critics silenced — it’s ultimately healthier to encourage serious critics of your work. Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…
The Concept of Antifragility
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. 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. Taleb’s own example here, in fact, seems to undermine his claim that a neologism is required. 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, although I think he should still have clarified the difference between what he’s saying, at times, and similar things said in the past by Social Darwinists.)
Dismissing the Research on PTG and Resilience
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 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 actually concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.
Surprisingly, though, he never 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. If you were writing a book all about a new concept you thought you’d discovered and belatedly realized that there was entire field of psychology, with hundreds of studies, already dealing with what you concede to be a broadly similar concept, wouldn’t you go away and read up on it and then go back and revise your book in light of that realization? Taleb didn’t, for some reason.
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. I think, in reality, that most serious readers of his book will probably have read works by other authors, such as Martin Seligman, which deal with related topics, such as emotional resilience and posttraumatic growth. So they’re likely to end up asking themselves how Taleb’s concept of antifragility compares to the research in this area and why there seem to be differences.
Taleb’s unStoic Hostility to Critics
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 (“ad hominem” heavy) style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down individuals who disagree with him as “fragilistas” and “charlatans”, 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.
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 Seneca
Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. (It does come across, as we’ll, see as if that may possibly be because he’s not read them, or any other books on Stoicism.) 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”. (Edit: After I wrote this, Taleb replied to a Tweet, and what he said was a little opaque but he seemed to be claiming he didn’t mean this remark about Seneca’s birthplace literally — still I think most people will surely read it as meaning Seneca was born in the Italian peninsula, which would be a historical error.)
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. (I think anyone reading this is bound to think: “Are you seriously claiming to have read every single commentator on Seneca?”, because that seems extremely unkilely, especially in light of both his historical and philosophical mistakes here.) 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. (Obviously, there were other wealthy philosophers, including seveal other famous Stoics, such as Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius.)
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. This fundamental distinction, which Taleb doesn’t seem to know about, is considered to be the essence of Stoic philosophy by most modern academic scholars, and was seen as central to distinguishing the philosophy from other schools in antiquity.
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 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’s actually, in this regard, a better interpreter of Stoicism than some academics, although, as we’ve seen, he gets other bits of the philosophy wrong.
Taleb 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 he believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?
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 Taleb already noticed 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 overestimating 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. I can’t say what Taleb has and has not read but it definitely comes across as though he’s never actually read any modern academic commentaries on Stoicism. I think most of his serious readers who are into Stoicism, though, will have read books by the likes of respected scholars such as John Sellars and Pierre Hadot, etc., and so they will certainly have a more accurate understanding of Stoicism, in this regard, than Taleb exhibits.
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 shortcomings in Taleb’s familiarity with the subject. 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. In other words, Taleb says “previous Stoics [to Seneca] claimed to prefer poverty to wealth” although that’s actually the opposite of what they believed.
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 sloppy mistake, albeit maybe 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.
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.
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. To sum up, there are several historical and philosophical errors in Antifragile’s account of Stoicism. Some of them are just silly mistakes, like calling Seneca “a child of the Italian peninsula”, quadrupling his wealth, and portraying him as the only Stoic who wasn’t poor.
The most serious mistake he makes, though, consists in getting the central ethical doctrine of Stoicism completely back to front. Taleb says that “previous Stoics [to Seneca] claimed to prefer poverty to wealth“. In fact, from Zeno onward their philosophy was distinguished from other sects by its emphasis on the concept of “preferred indifferents”, i.e., that it is reasonable to prefer wealth to poverty, and the same goes for other external goods. Wealth is just the most common example. This distinction applies across the board to all other “external” advantages in life. That’s not a trivial mistake. It changes Stoicism into a completely different philosophy and totally misrepresents what ancient authors, and modern scholars, generally take to be one of its central principles.
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!” (Edit: he later called me a “charlatan” for saying he got Seneca “completely wrong” – some things never change, I guess.)
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.
(Note, I edited this article, pretty slightly, after it came up again in discussion – mainly to clarify some points.)
I wanted to write a quick review of Derren Brown’s recent book called Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine (2016) because I think it’s very well written and worth reading. I’ve decided to focus on what he says about Stoicism because, well you know, that’s what I’m into. Stoic philosophy has obviously been a major influence on his own philosophy of life and it’s a theme that runs through most of the book. If you’re interested in Stoicism, in other words, I’d recommend reading this book, although there’s certainly a lot of other good stuff in there as well.
Brown is a celebrity in the United Kingdom but people in other parts of the world may not be as familiar with his work. He’s basically a mentalist. (That’s not an insult, it’s a type of illusionist.) He’s well-known from British television for shows that combine elements of mentalism and stage hypnotism, and stuff about the psychology of suggestion. They’re done in a pretty creative and modern style.
Now, at the outset, I should probably explain that I actually hate magicians. Or rather, I hate magic; I’ve met a few magicians over the years and I get along with them surprisingly well in person. And “hate” is too strong a word – I just find people pulling rabbits out of hats, etc., mildly annoying. And as soon as someone pulls out a pack of cards and says “Watch this…” I begin secretly planning my escape route from the building. (So, yes, magic is something I have to learn to cultivate Stoic indifference toward.) I quite like Derren Brown, though, even though I’m not really into magic, because I get the impression he’s as much of a nerd about the history of philosophy and psychology as I am. That said, I’m one of those cynical (small c) people who reckon you can’t just take everything that professional illusionists say at face value. (I know, right?) If you’re in that game you’re basically the boy who cried wolf. “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “No honestly, this time I’m telling you the truth.” Perhaps because of that, though, what Brown’s written is actually a more personal, thoughtful, and sincere book than you’d normally expect from (broadly speaking) the self-help genre.
Overall, I see Happy as being one of a growing number of books that adopt a sort of contrarian or skeptical approach to traditional self-help, especially toward positive thinking. Brown diplomatically uses Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) as an example because most reasonable people seem to agree that’s basically mumbo jumbo but he presumably has in mind a much broader category of self-help and New Age hokum. Another example of the emerging skeptical-about-self-help genre would be Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012), which also finds Stoic philosophy a more palatable alternative to positive thinking. As it turns out, Stoicism particularly appeals to people who are disillusioned with conventional self-help literature, especially the more Pollyannaish end of the spectrum.
Anyway, Brown’s book explores the concept of happiness from a number of angles, drawing on a wide range of influences from philosophy, literature, and modern psychology. He relates many vivid anecdotes from his own life and shares his thought processes as he works through various questions about the meaning of happiness. I thought the style of writing was very appealing and the author really finds a distinctive voice, which is sometimes difficult when discussing these subjects.
There’s a great deal I could say about Happy. I like books that contain a lot of ideas – I tune out when an author just draws out one idea for hundreds of pages. This book is stuffed full of Brown’s musings about happiness and the meaning of life and his attempts to weigh up and assimilate the implications of various bits and pieces of psychological research and philosophical wisdom. So there’s too much to choose from as a reviewer! I’d love to say more about the psychological observations in the early chapters or the later ruminations about death but, for now at least, I’ll focus on what he actually says about Stoicism.
Basically, he’s obviously really into Stoicism but he also says that “to merely label oneself a ‘Stoic’ is to renounce one’s own voice.” I can see his point but I feel that’s an overgeneralization. It depends on your personality. Some people identify too much with labels and are restricted by them. For other people it’s just a convenient way to describe conclusions they’ve arrived at for themselves, like calling yourself a “vegetarian” because that happens to be the simplest way to explain the fact that you’ve decided not to eat meat. Names don’t have to be a prison for us unless we turn them into one. There’s an important difference between believing something because it conforms to a label you’ve attached to yourself and doing it the other way round by using a label for yourself because it happens to describe what you believe. Consider the following interaction… “Hello, is that Fred Fawcett the plumber? I’ve got a bit of an emergency here. There’s water gushing through my ceiling and I can’t swim.” “Well, yes, this is Fred but I don’t really like to attach labels to myself… I prefer to think of myself more as someone who’s exploring a range of creative existential possibilities…” [Phone hangs up.] Labels aren’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes they’re helpful. Calling yourself a Stoic, IMHO, doesn’t have to mean renouncing your own voice. It just means you happen to agree with their core values.
Anyway, labels or not, I’m going to argue that Derren Brown is actually more of a Stoic than he seems to realize. So here goes…
Happy on Stoicism and Happiness
The seventeenth and final chapter of the book opens with the following words:
The Stoics have given us a means of increasing our happiness by avoiding disturbance and embracing what they called ‘virtue’. Through taking to heart their pithily expressed maxims, echoed in future generations by subsequent philosophers, we might move in greater accordance with fate and align ourselves more realistically with the x=y diagonal of real life, where our aims and fortune wrestle with each other constantly. We have seen the wisdom of not trying to control what we cannot, and of taking responsibility for our judgements. Otherwise, we harm ourselves and others by becoming anxious, hurtful or intolerable. We have learnt to approach happiness indirectly, concentrating instead upon removing hindrances and disturbances and achieving a certain psychological robustness.
Then he weighs up some criticisms of Stoicism as a philosophy of life:
Stoicism offers us great lessons and helpful threads to weave through our lives. As I hope I’ve shown, it is at its best neither cool nor detached but rather open, porous and connected easily to life. Yet if we have a lingering doubt about its all-encompassing wisdom, it is perhaps because some part of us remains unmoved. It may seem an odd question to ask at this point in the book, but is happiness truly what we should seek? And if so, is it in its richest form synonymous with an avoidance of disturbance?
In other words, he’s asking whether “happiness”, construed in terms of tranquillity, is the real goal of life.
Now, the Greek word conventionally translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, which literally means having a good relationship with our daemon, our divine inner nature. It doesn’t mean “happiness” in the modern sense of merely “feeling good” but rather in the now archaic sense of being blessed or fortunate, the opposite of the word “hapless”, meaning wretched or unfortunate. The old translation of eudaimonia as “happiness” is therefore the source of much confusion. Nowadays it’s often rendered as “flourishing” instead. (I sometimes also translate it as “fulfilment”.)
The easiest way to define what eudaimonia meant in ancient Greek philosophy is to point out that it denotes the condition of someone living “the good life”, i.e., the best possible life. Put another way, it describes someone who possesses all the things we consider intrinsically good in life. Sometimes that may have been thought to include positive feelings like joy and tranquillity but for the Stoics the main, and usually the only, constituent of eudaimonia is “virtue” (arete), another confusing word by which they actually mean a sort of moral or practical wisdom that causes us to excel as human beings, and which we typically admire in others when we see it. (So sometimes arete is better translated as “excellence”.) It’s about reaching our potential, not just feeling good.
Psychotherapists used to talk to clients about the difference between merely “feeling better” and actually “getting better” – they’re not necessarily the same thing. That’s an important distinction because feelings can be misleading. In fact, one of the recurring strategies employed by Socrates in the dialogues was to ask people to distinguish between appearances and reality, e.g., between people who merely appear to be our friends and people who actually are our friends. Happiness, as people tend to mean the word today, i.e., “feeling good”, is merely the appearance of flourishing. The Stoics believe our goal is to attain real flourishing, though. That requires using reason to evaluate our lives rather than just allowing our feelings alone to guide us. Of course, sometimes our feelings are a good guide but often they’re not, especially when we happen to be depressed, angry, or anxious. Sometimes appearances are misleading. Sometimes people who seem friendly turn out to be our enemies, and vice versa. It’s the gift of reason, of course, that allows us to question appearances and try to look beyond them.
Happy on Stoicism and Tranquillity
Whereas the Epicureans equated eudaimonia with feelings of pleasure (hedone) or tranquillity (ataraxia), the Stoics disagreed and equated it directly with wisdom and virtue. Moreover, they firmly believed that virtue must be its own reward. As the philosopher Julia Annas puts it:
If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)
However, Brown presents Stoicism as a “formula for tranquillity” and I think that lies at the heart of his reservations about it as a philosophy of life. He may be influenced, in doing so, by William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009), one of the bestselling books on the subject. You have to be looking quite closely perhaps to spot this but Irvine himself actually mentions in passing that his version of “Stoicism” is not Stoicism as conventionally understood because he replaces the goal of virtue with that of tranquillity.
The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)
Notably, he claims that he’s doing this because, in his words, it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).
I have to say that my own experience has been different. Remember that Stoic virtue actually means living rationally and in accord with practical wisdom. I’ve spoken to countless people about Stoicism over the past twenty years or so – last year, for example, seven thousand people enrolled on Stoic Week and many provided us with detailed feedback on their experiences and attitudes toward the philosophy. I’ve found that they’re typically drawn to the philosophy precisely because it offers a rational guide to life, and promises a sense of deeper fulfilment. People for whom tranquillity or peace of mind is the main goal are more drawn to Epicureanism, as you might expect. In fact, I’m certain that if we asked the community of Stoics online a great many would say, pace Irvine, that “virtue” in the ancient sense of the word is actually something they’re very interested in. I’d say it’s more unusual for people to approach Stoicism purely as a means of securing mental tranquillity.
Irvine, as we’ve seen, acknowledges that ancient Stoicism was more concerned with virtue. I think people realize that when they turn to the primary sources, such as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and, in fact, that’s part of their enduring appeal. If Irvine is right about it being unusual for people today to be interested in virtue, in the ancient sense, then why do so many of them still love reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius? And why aren’t they all just reading the Epicureans instead? (Side note: Sometimes people assume that I hate Irvine’s book when in fact I’ve been recommending it to people for years, with the caveat that they should take note of the bit where he says himself that it’s “unlike” what we normally mean by Stoicism – there’s a world of difference between disagreeing with something and disliking it!)
Now, here’s the thing: based on what he’s written in Happy, I suspect that Brown is one of those people who would, on reflection, come to see wisdom and virtue (getting better) as healthier goals than tranquillity (feeling better). Particularly toward the end of Happy, when he mentions his reservations about Stoicism, his thinking seems to be heading in that direction. Ironically, though, that would be more in agreement with ye olde Stoicism as conventionally understood by all the famous Stoics: the “virtue is its own reward” philosophy described above by Julia Annas rather than Irvine’s more tranquillity-centric version.
One of the issues with making tranquillity (or indeed anything except virtue) the supreme goal of life is that virtue then becomes merely an “instrumental” good, i.e., a means to some other end. If circumstances arise, though, where tranquillity (or whatever) could be achieved without virtue then, according to that philosophy, virtue potentially loses all value. However, that seems to fly in the face of most people’s moral intuitions. For instance, if generally being nice to people happened to lead to lasting tranquillity that might seem workable as a philosophy of life. Suppose we suddenly discovered a drug that could induce a healthy state of tranquillity, though, with no side-effects. Wouldn’t that make being nice to people become redundant in the eyes of this philosophy? (This notion that virtue might just be a means to an end was originally associated with the Sophists, incidentally, although it was later reprised by the Epicureans, whereas virtually every other school of Greek philosophy treated virtue as an end in itself.)
Another difficult thought experiment for philosophies that make tranquillity the number one goal in life is how they’d feel about the possibility of being a happy brain in a vat. Suppose we could just stick your brain in a vat and pump it full of tranquillizers. You’d be guaranteed a perfectly tranquil existence and as an added bonus let’s say you’d live twice as long as normal. Shouldn’t we all be falling over ourselves to opt for that if tranquillity is the supreme goal in life? Another worrying thought experiment for this philosophy is: what if it turned out to be more conducive to your tranquillity to collaborate with an oppressive regime like the Nazis than to defy them? It boils down to the underlying issue that if you’re going to say that something is the supreme good in life then, by definition, you have to be willing to say that you’d sacrifice everything else for the sake of it. Stoicism arguably gets round the Nazi-colllaborator problem, incidentally, because its supreme goal encompasses social virtues (justice, kindness, fairness) that entail being nice to other people, etc., and not just throwing them under the bus for the sake of a quiet life. Of course, this is a massive can of worms so having cracked it open just enough to be annoying, I’m going to move on to something else because I don’t have space to deal with it properly…
I should emphasize that there’s a big difference, as we’ll see, between making it our goal to achieve tranquillity, in the sense of total peace of mind, and wanting to overcome the troubling desires and emotions the Stoics call “passions”. I hate to break it to you but a certain amount of pain, discomfort, grief, and anxiety, is perfectly natural in life and not necessarily bad for you, in the grand scheme of things. Stoic virtue, in part, means not worrying about it any more than is necessary, but not completely avoiding or eliminating those feelings because, after all, to some extent they’re not “up to us”, as Epictetus puts it. Sometimes that’s described as the difference between ataraxia and apatheia. Ataraxia is usually translated “tranquillity” and it literally means “not disturbed”, pure and simple. It’s true that Epictetus sometimes used this word but it’s more associated with the Epicureans who made it the goal of life. Apatheia, on the other hand, is the word more associated with Stoicism and it’s a bit harder to translate because it’s a more nuanced concept. (It’s the root of our “apathy” but forget that because it’s not really what it’s about.) It literally means, very simply, “freedom from passion”, which for the Stoics was about not indulging in worrying or ruminating about things in an unhealthy and irrational sort of way. As we’ll see, though, the apatheia of the Stoic Sage, or wise man, does not exclude ordinary feelings of pain, anxiety, grief, frustration, etc., insofar as these are natural and occur automatically. It’s not a complete absence of unpleasant feelings, in other words. Personally, I’d say it’s a much healthier and more realistic goal than perfect tranquillity, which, as a therapist, sets alarm bells ringing for me because it sounds like a classic perfectionism and a recipe for neurosis.
Some reviewers, myself included, have argued that Irvine’s version of Stoicism ends up being, in some respects, more like Epicureanism. The ancient Stoics, especially Epictetus, do refer to tranquillity as a good thing in life. However, it’s generally understood that positive feelings like these were a byproduct of wisdom, for Stoics, rather than the goal of life itself. That’s important because trying too hard to be tranquil tends to backfire psychologically, mainly because it seems to be an attempt to control feelings over which we lack control. Over the past few decades a growing body of psychological research has pointed toward the risks associated with “experiential avoidance” or the intolerance and avoidance of unpleasant feelings. So encouraging clients to actively accept automatic feelings of anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings has become a mainstay of what we call the “third-wave” of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). There’s good reason therefore to believe that making your supreme goal in life tranquillity, i.e., the avoidance of unpleasant feelings, actually undermines emotional resilience and increases the risk of developing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression in the long-run.
I can’t go into this in full here because it would take far too much space so I’ll try to very briefly describe some of the reasons for this concern. First of all, there’s just the fact that we have an emerging body of research converging on the finding that emotional suppression can be counter-productive. However, we can also try to explain this problem in everyday terms to some extent. When we view something as very “bad” we tend to instinctively focus more attention on it, and we do so more frequently and for longer periods of time. We’re hard-wired to pay attention to threats. That makes sense if there’s an angry sabre-toothed tiger on the horizon – you should forget about everything else and keep your eye on him until he leaves. However, that instinct goes pretty haywire if we do something that probably only humans can do and start viewing our own inner thoughts and feelings as bad or threatening. Paying attention to our inner experiences tends to amplify them, creating a vicious cycle. If your whole philosophy of life is that tranquillity is supremely good that implicitly (or explicitly in the case of Epicurus) commits you to the view that disturbances or unpleasant feelings are supremely bad. For instance, agreement with the statement “anxiety is bad” has been found to correlate with a number of psychological problems. So following the kind of philosophy that views anxiety and other unpleasant feelings as supremely bad potentially constitutes very toxic advice.
Likewise, the Stoics would perhaps say that the Epicureans and others who make feelings the goal are confusing cause and effect, by mixing up being healthy with its typical consequence: feeling healthy. One of the problems with that is that we might come to view other causes as having the same or similar effects – and providing a convenient shortcut. Again, I’m having to simplify for the sake of brevity but if you wanted tranquility more than anything you could potentially get it more quickly and easily from (futuristic) tranquilisers. At least in theory, one day you may be able to get it by such artificial means more safely and reliably. Alcohol and narcotics are also tempting ways to get there.
However, undoubtedly the quickest and surest path to short-term tranquillity – the veritable royal road – is good old-fashioned avoidance. Agoraphobic? Just don’t step outside your front door. Problem solved! Of course, now you’ve got a much bigger problem but if you’re intolerant of anxiety you can bet that from time to time avoidance is going to feel like a very appealing solution despite the fact that it probably strikes everyone else as obviously pathological. You might feel less anxious, but your quality of life is going to suck, and in reality you’re vulnerability to panic attacks is probably just being made much worse. Scared of public speaking? Just throw a sickie when you have a looming presentation at work. Problem solved. Not really, though; you’re likely heading for even bigger problems if you keep that up. It’s maladaptive coping. Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, Brown ends up worrying that Stoicism might actually lead to avoidance:
The Stoics tell us to ‘remove disturbances’, but for some this might come to mean ‘hiding away safely’ where nothing can harm them. This is a meagre substitute for flourishing. Our ultimate aim is maybe not so much to be happy as to live fully and make sure we are moving forward.
The former, again, sounds much more like Epicureanism to me than Stoicism. In fact it sounds like a Stoic criticism of Epicureanism. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down lecturing in a public space near the Athenian agora where he would engage strangers and philosophers of other schools in debate. Epicurus stayed outside Athens doing philosophy in a secluded private garden with a close circle of friends where the motto was reputedly “live in obscurity” (lathe biosas). At least according to some accounts he advised his followers not to marry or engage in public life whereas the Stoics did the opposite and advised their students to marry, have children, and engage in public life, for the common good, if nothing prevents them. If you have a philosophy that makes preserving your own tranquillity the most important thing in life it might seem logical to live like a monk. However, if your philosophy makes flourishing as a human being and fulfilling your potential the main thing then you’re probably going to want to engage with other people and the world around you.
The priority for Stoics, indeed, is not the avoidance of disturbances but the cultivation of wisdom and the other virtues, such as justice, courage, and temperance. Ironically, to exercise those virtues, as Seneca realized, we have to actually have unpleasant feelings. To exhibit the virtue of temperance we need at least a glimmer of desire to overcome. To exercise courage we have to actually experience some anxiety.
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)
I think Brown noted earlier in the book that the Stoics were known for being courageous political and military leaders. They didn’t typically seek to hide away in seclusion, quite the opposite, because theirs was a philosophy of action. Epictetus, for instance, asked his students: “Would Hercules have been Hercules if he’d stayed at home snuggling under his blankets instead of going forth to endure vicious men and defeat the most fearsome monsters?” (I’m paraphrasing him slightly.) That’s precisely because virtue, fulfilling our potential, is infinitely more important to the Stoics than maintaining their inner peace or tranquillity.
Stoicism and Accepting Anxiety
Brown concludes by arguing that “the Stoics can’t always be right” in the sense that sometimes, rather than seeking tranquility, we should be willing to acceptanxiety and other unpleasant feelings. One reason he gives is that sometimes we can learn from these feelings. However, he also implies that it can be healthy just to sit with anxiety rather than trying to fix it, and he rightly observes that the need to fix or control it is one of the things that actually fuels our anxiety in the first place.
Wholeness cannot be found in the mere avoidance of troubling feelings, however helpful the tools of the Stoics are for reassessing attachments and finding one’s centre of gravity. To live without anxiety is to live without growth. We shouldn’t try to control what we cannot, and we must take responsibility for our feelings. But the reason for this is to walk out into the world with strength, not to hide from danger.
If you feel anxiety, let it sit. See if it is amenable to the lessons we have learnt from the Stoics. You don’t need to fix things that lie outside of your control. You also don’t need to fix the anxiety: it is a feeling that you have; it is therefore not you. The need to fix, to control is what fuels the anxiety in the first place. Let it be, and it will lose its excessive force. Then, once you are no longer running away with it, or trying to remove it, you might even welcome it.
Why? Because the Stoics can’t always be right. We cannot demand from them a formula for our happiness, because no such formula exists; happiness is messy and fuzzy and active. […] The final call, then, is not to merely seek tranquillity but, from its strong shores, to welcome its opposite.
I think what’s missing from this is the distinction the Stoics make between voluntary and involuntary emotions (propatheiai). That’s not well explained in many books on the subject but it’s extremely important if we want to understand Stoicism as a psychological therapy, and I think it probably answers some of Brown’s criticisms. Our main sources for this are Seneca’s On Anger and a remarkable anecdote about an unnamed Stoic teacher during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, told by the Roman author Aulus Gellius, in which he quotes a one of the lost Discourses of Epictetus. There are also references to this notion scattered throughout other sources, including The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)
He’s talking about accepting painful sensations, with studied indifference, rather than trying to resist them as something bad or harmful, but the same point applies to the first flush of anxiety or grief.
Put very simply, the Stoics thought there were good, bad, and indifferent emotions, or at least that’s one way of putting it. Good emotions are based on underlying wisdom and justice, courage, and moderation. They include a healthy aversion to wrongdoing, a sense of deep joy in things that are truly good, and feelings of affectionate goodwill toward ourselves and others. Bad emotions, the ones the Stoics have most to say about, are irrational and excessive feelings of hatred, greed, indulgence, fear, anguish, and so on. These “passions” are not really emotions as we normally think of them today, though. They refer to feelings that we’re allowing ourselves to indulge in. The best analogy would be the difference between feeling anxious versus actively worrying or feeling down versus morbidly ruminating about things from a negative perspective. Although they often feel out of control, in a sense they’re voluntary and conscious processes, which we can learn to stop. The Stoics contrast these “passions” with the propatheiai or “proto-passions”, also called the “first movements” of passion. These are our automatic emotional reactions to events, such as blushing, shaking, stammering, turning pale, sweating, jumping out of our skin, and so on. Seneca compares them to blinking when a finger is moved toward our eye. They’re reflex-like and involuntary. I tend to call them involuntary “reactions” as opposed to voluntary “responses”.
We’re told these automatic emotional reactions (propatheiai) are inevitable, and because they’re not “up to us” we’re not to view them as bad or harmful but rather to actively adopt an attitude of “indifference” toward them. We’re to accept them as natural. I think the Stoics would also say that these are analogous to the sort of emotions exhibited by some non-human animals, particularly other higher mammals. Problems arise when we amplify, distort, or perpetuate our natural emotional reactions, though, by ruminating about them. Seneca says a deer may be startled by a predator and flee in terror but it relaxes and returns to grazing as soon as the threat has gone. Man, by contrast, would still be worrying about it weeks later. The ability to use language and reason, as he puts it, is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse in this respect.
Gellius concludes his story about the anonymous Stoic teacher caught in the storm, summing up what he’d read in the lost Discourse of Epictetus:
That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named [such as being caught in a storm] chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness [a natural reaction] than because we believe [foolishly] that those [frightening] things are what they seem. (Aulus Gellius)
Of course, nothing is truly frightening for a Stoic because death is an indifferent. So he would naturally turn pale and feel anxiety in a storm like everyone else, but he would realize that the thing he’s anxious about isn’t worth fearing, and he’d therefore recover more quickly afterwards by not dwelling on it or lamenting the experience too much.
So, basically, the Stoic philosophy teaches us to accept automatic emotional reactions, such as grief or anxiety, as natural in life. We’re to view them as neither good nor bad, but indifferent. What we’re to avoid doing is adding to them by imposing more negative value judgements. We should accept them and then let go of our response to them. That means neither struggling to suppress them nor indulging in them and perpetuating them but just allowing them to run their course naturally. The Stoics refer to giving our “assent” to our initial automatic thoughts and feelings and being “swept along” or “carried away” by them into full-blown passions. The wise man, though, suspends his assent, and avoids going along with these initial automatic impressions and proto-passions, although he accepts their occurrence as natural and indifferent.
So that’s the Stoic theory of emotion. There’s a trigger, followed by automatic thoughts and feelings, which we should accept as natural and indifferent because they’re not “up to us”, and then there are the more conscious and voluntary thoughts we have in response, adding layers of value judgements to the original experience – that’s the part we should learn to prevent because it’s potentially under our control. That’s a more nuanced interpretation of Stoicism than you find in most books on the subject but it’s actually what the philosophy taught. I’m still in awe of how far ahead of its time it was because it happens to resemble, in particular, Aaron T. Beck’s “revised” model of anxiety, which is kind of state-of-the-art cognitive therapy.
So, in conclusion, I’m sorry this review is four times longer than it should have been but, you know, that’s what happens when the book’s interesting and it’s about my pet subject. Hopefully, somebody somewhere will find something of value in the ramblings. In case you’ve forgotten, I said I liked this book and I’d recommend that you read it, especially if you’re interested in Stoicism.
Brad Inwood is professor of philosophy and classics at Yale University. He is the author, or co-author, of several academic works on Stoicism and other forms of Hellenistic philosophy, including The Stoics Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (2008), an invaluable resource for anyone interested in early Stoicism.
His latest book, though, applies his scholarly credentials to the task of providing a short layman’s introduction to the subject of Stoicism. First of all, I’d like to say that I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Stoicism. It’s a great little introduction. There are more books and articles appearing on Stoicism now, many of which can be quite unreliable. However, this is an authoritative introduction written by an academic philosopher and classicist specializing in the subject. Inwood gives a balanced overview of Stoic Ethics, Physics and Logic. As he describes, Physics and Logic are areas of Stoicism often neglected by modern students of Stoicism. It does perhaps become slightly more “academic” in places, which might not suit everyone’s tastes. This is inevitable to some extent, though, especially where he’s attempting to explain concepts in ancient logic. Nevertheless, overall, I think most intelligent readers will follow this book and benefit from it as an introduction.
Because he’s writing for a wider audience, Inwood also discusses the current resurgence of interest in Stoicism. He mentions my writing and the work of the Modern Stoicism organization, of which I’m a member, as well as others who have been involved with our work on Stoicism or who are part of the wider movement, such as Ryan Holiday and Lawrence Becker. For example, referring to the modern-day growth of interest in Stoicism as a guide to self-improvement he writes:
Some relatively recent books underline the point: Elen Buzaré’s Stoic Spiritual Exercises (explicitly building on the work of Pierre Hadot) and Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the author is a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive-behavioural therapy and has published an essay in Stoicism Today: ‘Providence or Atoms? Atoms! A Defence of Being a Modern Stoic Atheist’). Add to that The Daily Stoic website and the book of the same title by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman offering sage advice for every day of the year and it seems that Stoicism is all around us.
That brings me to one of the central questions that Inwood raises in the book. The vast majority of people today who embrace Stoic ethics as a guide to life have little or no interest in ancient Stoc Physics and Logic. These are topics still being researched by academic philosophers like Inwood but they’re largely neglected by modern followers of Stoicism and the self-improvement literature in this area.
What About Stoic Physics and Logic?
In Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, I stated my belief that Stoic Ethics can be of value today without belief in the dogmas of ancient Stoic Physics or studying Stoic Logic. Inwood points out that some of the earliest and most influential authors to have influenced the modern resurgence of interest in Stoicism as a guide to life also placed more emphasis on the practical applications of Stoicism than upon the ancient theories underlying it:
[Pierre] Hadot is at times quite frank about his belief that the underlying theories don’t matter to philosophy as a way of life, claiming that the spiritual exercises come first and the doctrines are worked up later to support them (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 282). [James] Stockdale doesn’t even mention underlying doctrines in physics, logic, and ethics—he wouldn’t have found any in the Handbook and it served his purpose well just as he remembered it.
Inwood notes that the early Greek Stoics appear to have stated that Ethics, Physics and Logic were closely interconnected. (At least some of them, that is, but we can’t say for certain that all Stoics would have agreed with this.) However, the bulk of the surviving Stoic texts come from the Roman Imperial period, several centuries after the school was originally founded. The “Big Three” Stoic authors most people are familiar with today are Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Their works focus primarily on applying Stoic ethics as a guide to life. They do mention other aspects of Stoicism – Seneca wrote about Stoic Physics to some extent – but most of their surviving writings focus on applying ethics. That has perhaps contributed to the modern perception of Stoicism as primarily an ethical discipline, and the closely-related conception of it as a psychological therapy. These writings also represent the most accessible aspects of Stoicism. By contrast, most of the evidence relating to ancient Stoic Physics and Logic is fragmentary and more abstract or technical in nature, requiring greater scholarly effort to interpret.
Inwood notes that even these three Stoics appear to place varying degrees of importance on the more theoretical aspects of philosophy:
Marcus that technical expertise in logic and metaphysics is dispensable for the true Stoic. In general, where Marcus encourages the idea, adopted enthusiastically by Pierre Hadot, that the fundamental message of Stoicism, a moral creed, is somehow independent of physics and seriously argued theoretical enquiry, Seneca does just the opposite.
Inwood notes that although scholars are still fascinated by the fragments on Stoic Physics and Logic, for most people today “it would be hard to make the case that learning the details of ancient Stoic cosmology or mastering Chrysippus’ syllogistic theory would be part of a plan for living a better life, for achieving happiness or balance or contentment.”
Large Stoicism versus Minimal Stoicism
Inwood argues in this book that even early Greek Stoicism, in a sense, accommodated this sidelining of Physics and Logic. From the time of Zeno, the founder of the school, Stoicism appears to have been divided into at least two distinct strands. Zeno taught a threefold curriculum based on Ethics, Physics and Logic but one of his most famous students, Aristo of Chios, rejected the value of studying Physics and Logic. Inwood calls this the Minimal Stoicism strand. About a generation later, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school argued for a broader and more scholarly approach, which came to exemplify the reinvigorated Large Stoicism branch of the school, as Inwood calls it.
Modern Stoics aiming primarily to improve human lives through moral betterment, setting aside physics and logic, can see themselves as the heirs of Aristo’s tradition, one that goes back to the early days of the school. It’s not just our modern reliance on Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca that feeds this movement; a narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.
So modern Stoics, according to Inwood, are in good company in this respect and stand in a tradition that formed an important part of the early Greek Stoa before the time of Chrysippus. However, as Inwood observes, although Aristo’s Minimal Stoicism was somewhat eclipsed in popularity by Chrysippus’ Large Stoicism, it certainly didn’t disappear without a trace. His influence was felt throughout the entire history of the ancient Stoic school, right down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, almost five centuries later. Indeed, one of Marcus Aurelius’ private letters suggests that he became fully converted to the life of a Stoic philosopher after reading Aristo’s writings. If that’s correct, it would help to explain his relative lack of interest in Stoic Physics and Logic.
Nevertheless, Inwood wrestles somewhat with this question as to whether or not philosophers who insist that the goal of life is to live according to nature could ignore the study of nature. How else, he asks, can we know what to follow? And how can we embrace reason and philosophy as a way of life without studying logic?
A modern Stoic, then, might well be missing something if they are too steadfastly devoted to Minimal Stoicism or to practical ethics alone. Here, then, there are interesting questions to ask about the relationship between our two ways of engaging with Stoicism. How much of ancient Stoic logic does the modern Stoic need? Arguably none, as long as they are dedicated to living a fully rational life and have embraced today’s current best canons for reasoning as a guide and constraint. To the extent that Stoic logic played a supporting role in the ancient school we should be able to replace it with modern theories and practices of reasoning—as indeed many modern Stoics in practice do.
Things are more complicated, he admits, when it comes to the question of Stoic Physics.
Ancient Stoics, from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, thought of ethical progress within the context of a natural philosophy that rested on a kind of cosmic holism, deterministic and providential, guided by a divine intelligence with which human beings need to align themselves. Stoic physics claimed that humans have access to a godlike rationality which mirrors the reason that runs the world, that as a species we are superior to everything else in nature, that all other animals exist to serve our interests. All of nature is made of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and consists of a unique and finite cosmos with our earth at the centre. And so on. Ancient Stoic physics, then, is clearly obsolete and no reasonable person can believe in it any more. (italics added)
Modern Stoics, he says, surely cannot aspire to follow ancient Stoic Physics and theology in their daily lives! Inwood thinks “no reasonable person” today would endorse ancient Stoic Physics as he concludes that it provides “no fit guide for modern rational life”. Nevertheless, there are certainly a handful of people around who claim to do so. (Perhaps he’s unaware of them.) So I’d qualify that slightly by saying that the vast majority of people today probably don’t agree with the whole of ancient Stoic Physics, or even its most prominent doctrines. Those today who do believe that the universe is governed by a benign Provident being don’t usually refer to him as Zeus, don’t sing hymns to him like Cleanthes’ and don’t normally practice divination rituals. Clearly even they feel the need to modify ancient Stoic Physics and theology quite substantially to adapt them to modern tastes.
So modern Stoics may be understood as heirs of Aristo and his ancient followers, who adhered to Minimal Stoicism. However, Inwood wonders whether there’s still a possibility of salvaging Large Stoicism for an agnostic or atheistic worldview by replacing Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus’ belief in a universe ordered by Zeus, the divine father of mankind, with a modern scientific view of nature. He refers readers to the work of the philosopher Lawrence Becker whose A New Stoicism (1998) attempts to provide a contemporary reworking of Stoic Ethics founded on modern logic and scientific psychology rather than ancient theological Physics.
If the fulfilment of a rational human being is to be found in using our reason to understand the world and to navigate our way within that world, then many if not most of us could embrace that aim. The Stoic ‘life according to nature’ could still be with us after all; it’s just that our modern conception of the natural world, our sense of what ‘the facts’ really are, has matured. Perhaps we don’t have to abandon natural philosophy to connect with Stoicism today; perhaps we just have to live according to our current understanding of nature rather than the obsolete cosmology that gave such comfort to Marcus Aurelius.
As Inwood points out, if we did retain the notion of following nature as an adherence to science and facts, we might retain determinism but we’d lose the ancient world’s comforting belief in Providence, the notion that we have a place assigned to us in the universe organized by a benevolent divine plan. “But would the result still be Stoicism?” he asks. His answer is that Becker’s version of Large Stoicism is certainly very different from that of Chrysippus but he leaves it up to the reader to decide if his philosophical project is successful or not.
We could, he says, just accept ancient Minimal Stoicism and just embrace Stoic Ethics without worrying too much about the other parts of the Stoic curriculum. However, Inwood thinks it’s still worth striving for an updated version of Large Stoicism, like Becker attempted, which finds some role, albeit a fundamentally transformed and modernized one, for Physics and Logic.
Even if Stoicism for the modern world were significantly transformed by swapping out an obsolete understanding of the natural world for one based on our current best science, it would, I contend, still be worth doing. The intellectual attraction of ancient Stoicism as we’ve come to understand it in modern academic study lies above all in its integration, in its vision of a way of life rooted in the use of reason to navigate life and fulfil our nature as human beings, in the context of the best available understanding of our place in the world. Ancient Stoics believed, and so perhaps may some of us, that the good life is better to the extent that it encompasses everything that we can know about our place in the world. That, of course, is the vision of Large Stoicism, the vision of Cleanthes and Chrysippus, not of the Minimal Stoicism we discover in the philosophy of Aristo. Even for those of us who limit our exploration of Stoicism to Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca, this should still be the vision that inspires. For despite their apparently lop-sided focus on ethics they were nevertheless all adherents of Large Stoicism, believers in the providentially organized world that passed for the best science of their own day. It would be a lost opportunity if we were to respond to the obsolescence of ancient Stoic physics by pulling in our horns and settling for Minimal Stoicism. If there is any value in the arcane reconstructions of the ancient school for the modern thinker intrigued by Stoicism, it lies in this grand, integrative vision of a good human life, guided by the relentless and unsentimental use of reason in a quest for the best available understanding of the orderly world around us.
Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life. The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.
Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, or identifying with the welfare of others. In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition. We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.
Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope. In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles. It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.
There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read. It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity. That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.
I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator. I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day. There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.
The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women. From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama. Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course. (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.) However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.
That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful. Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more. That’s a good thing. As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people. Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire. That’s why I think this is a book worth reading. It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.
The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary. Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects. Although the book is designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada. I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book. The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history. These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers. The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius. However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.
I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy. It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world. Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.