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Courses Socrates

Enroll now for How to Live Like Socrates – Live from Athens

I am delighted to announce that I will be running my elearning course How to Live Like Socrates, which lasts four weeks, starting on Sunday 4th September. Enroll now if you want to join us! I will be delivering the webinars live from Athens, the birthplace of Socrates!

This is the first time I’ve run the course in over two years. It used to run 2-3 times per year but I’ve been busy writings books. I am currently working on a new book about Socrates. So some of that original material will find itself into the course this time around!

Donald Robertson Signature
Donald at the Acropolis in Athens

Categories
Events Socrates

Register Now for “How to Think Like Socrates!”

Our virtual conference on the Socratic Method will take place on 27th August, so make sure you register now.

How to Think Like Socrates

Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

When you register you’ll have the option to donate an amount of your choosing (or even nothing).* All proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be provided afterwards if you book your tickets now.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.

Speakers

  • Opening Keynote: “Socrates and Alcibiades: How to Think About Statesmanship”, Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be Good: What Socrates Can Teach Us About the Art of Living Well (30 min)
  • “Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, president of Plato’s Academy Centre (20 min)
  • “Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness (20 min)
  • “How to Question Like Socrates”, Christopher Phillips, PhD, author of Socrates Cafe and Soul of Goodness, founder of SocratesCafe.com (20 min)
  • “Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • “Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International (20 min)
  • “Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • Closing Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method (30 min)
  • Q&A with Panel (20 min)

NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

Who will be hosting?

Our hosts will be Donald Robertson, the president of the Plato’s Academy Centre, and Anya Leonard, the founder and director of the Classical Wisdom website.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.

FAQ

  1. Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.
  2. Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.
  3. How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.
  4. Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.

Thanks

We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

Categories
Marcus Aurelius Socrates Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius on Socrates

What the Stoic Emperor Learned from the Athenian Philosopher

In 175 AD, probably for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, set foot in Athens. It was in fact a pilgrimage for him. During of the “War of Many Nations” he’d been fighting along the Danube frontier, he had taken a sacred oath that he would travel to Athens, if victorious, and be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Although these rites ended with initiation at the Temple of Demeter in nearby Eleusis, they began in the centre of Athens, outside the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, the ancient home of Stoic philosophy.

As Marcus stood upon the Stoa Poikile, he would have gazed across the Agora where Socrates once discussed philosophy, and where he was later put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Beyond the Agora, Marcus would have seen the Temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. At that time a colossal statue of the goddess of wisdom looked down on Athens, from atop the Acropolis. Most of the drama of Socrates’ life had unfolded within the bounds of the Agora, under the gaze of Athena.

It must have been a humbling experience for Marcus to know that he was walking in Socrates’ footsteps. According to the Historia Augusta, the emperor had “ever on his lips” the saying attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Republic that “those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.”

Read the rest of this article on Medium…

Categories
Events Socrates

Announcing: Socratic Method Virtual Conference

How to Think Like Socrates

Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

Tickets now available on EventBrite. Payment is by donation, an amount of your choosing, and all proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be available afterwards to everyone booking tickets in advance.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.

Program

  • “Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness
  • “Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
  • “Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International
  • “Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
  • “Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, president of Plato’s Academy Centre
  • Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method

NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.

FAQ

Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.

Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.

How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.

Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.

Thanks

We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

Socratic Method Virtual Event
Categories
Socrates Stoicism Stoicism

Interview with Ward Farnsworth

Thought you might be interested in today’s latest article from The Plato’s Academy Centre, this new interview with Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practising Stoic and The Socratic Method.

…the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics.

Ward Farnsworth

Ward talks in this interview about his love of the Socratic Method and the influence of Socrates on the Stoics. Read the Interview

You’ll find dozens of articles about philosophy and its modern applications now on our new website, which launched officially at the start of the year. If you’re interested, you can also find details of how to support us in our project to bring philosophy back to the grounds of the Plato’s Academy in Athens.

Finally, stay tuned for details, including program of speakers, coming very soon for our inaugural virtual conference in May this year!

Regards,

Donald Robertson

Categories
Socrates Stoicism

Socrates and the Plague of Athens

4×5 original

[Socrates] was so orderly in his way of life that on several occasions when pestilence broke out in Athens he was the only man who escaped infection. — Diogenes Laertius

In 430 BC, Athens was devastated by plague. We don’t exactly what caused it but it’s been speculated that it was a form of typhus, typhoid, or possibly smallpox. What happened during the Athenian Plague seems to foreshadow aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our own experiences probably also help us to better understand what the ancient Athenians must have been going through. I won’t labour the obvious parallels but rather I’ll just tell the story and mention some comparisons briefly along the way…

The epidemic spread throughout the Mediterranean but Athens, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region, was hit hardest of all. Attica, the area encompassing Athens, had a total population of roughly a quarter of a million, including thousands of foreign residents and maybe a hundred thousand slaves. The disease was apparently brought into the Greek port of Piraeus by travellers and merchants, from whence it quickly escalated into an epidemic, tearing through the population of neighbouring Athens.

After the first outbreak began to relent, the Athenians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, though, there were two further major outbreaks of the plague in Athens, occurring in 429 and 427 AD. Altogether, it killed approximately one third of the population, including Pericles himself, their most senior statesman and general. Even worse, the plague struck at the outset of the lengthy Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens and her allies, known as the Delian League, faced Sparta at the head of the rival Peloponnesian League.

The Spartans and their allies had just invaded Attica, the area surrounding Athens, when the plague struck the city, but it didn’t really affect the Peloponnese region, where Sparta is located. The Spartans occupied Attica for 40 days, we’re told, before departing, possibly frightened off by the plague affecting Athens. So the plague’s effect on the war was very one-sided. As we’ll see, the philosopher Socrates, was caught right in the middle of all this.

Read the rest of this article on Medium.

Categories
Socrates Stoicism

Stoicism and the Military

When I first became involved with teaching Stoicism, I noticed that the audience at talks and conferences was quite a mixed bunch. At first there were mainly classicists and academic philosophers and then psychotherapists like myself, and some research psychologists, became interested in Stoic philosophy. Then I began to notice quite a few life coaches and people involved in corporate training, some sports coaches, and also a number of men and women who were serving in the military.

Each of these groups approaches Stoicism from a different perspective. However, the wonderful thing is that they will all happily sit around and discuss philosophy because they have enough common ground, a shared interest in Stoic literature and ideas. There are also some prominent figures in the modern Stoic community who approach the philosophy from a military perspective.

Continue reading this article free of charge on Medium.

Categories
Courses Socrates

Free Socrates Comic Strip

I’ve just added my new Socrates web comic strip to the free Crash Course in Socrates.

This course is suitable for everyone. If you want to quick introduction to Socrates, this is definitely the best place to start. You’ll also get some bonus resources including the new Socrates comic strip, famous quotes, recommended reading lists, a quick quiz to consolidate your learning, and other information to get your studies started.

I’ve deliberately made this as short and sweet as possible because it’s a “crash course” – a starting point. I’ll direct you toward other resources if you want to learn more, which I assume you probably will. Ready to begin? Just hit the enroll button on the main page.

Categories
Socrates Stoicism

The Stoic Philosophy of Michael Cohen?

Today I was trying to write an article discussing my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius when something caught my attention.  It was the story of a lone figure facing his destiny in court.  One of the historic turning points following a period of intense political turmoil.  He speaks in paradoxical language about wisdom, virtue, freedom, and the meaning of life…

No, it wasn’t Socrates in Plato’s Apology.  It was Michael Cohen, aka Donald Trump’s erstwhile fixer and (sort of) lawyer.  As I was listening to the news today, I realized, to my surprise, that Cohen’s sentencing statement contained references to a way of looking at events that resembled the ancient doctrines of Socratic and Stoic philosophy. 

In case you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the past couple of years, the news is that Cohen has pled guilty to eight criminal charges: five counts of tax evasion, one count of making an excessive campaign contribution, one count of causing an unlawful corporate campaign contribution and one of making false statements to a federally insured bank.  Today (12th Dec) was his day in court to be sentenced and also his big chance to summon up all of his rhetorical powers and try get himself out of the pickle he’s in. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Cohen’s sentencing statement gets off on a philosophical footing.  It opens with a famous quotation from Viktor Frankl, the author and existential psychotherapist, who survived the Nazi concentration camps:

I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to, the personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America. Viktor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “There are forces beyond your control that can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Michael Cohen
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Frankl didn’t seem to realize this but the Stoics had already made this one of the central principles of their philosophy.  “It’s not things that upset us,” said Epictetus, the most famous of all Roman Stoic teachers, “but our judgements about them.”  According to the Stoics, and Frankl, we’re not free to control the events that befall us but we are free to decide how to respond, and how we think about them.  Apparently this is also Cohen’s philosophy and he wanted to make that clear to the judge, his family, and everyone else who was listening, presumably up to and including President Trump whom Cohen has implicated in some of these crimes.  Cohen’s words here allude to the fact this has already led to the current President of the USA being named in court filings as an unindicted co-conspirator.  That’s possibly about as close as a sitting president can get to actually being indicted for a federal crime. 

What Cohen seems to be trying to say here is that his willingness to voluntarily plead guilty should prove that he’s now taking full ownership for the crimes he committed.  (Although, that said, a lot of people believe there are plenty of other crimes he could have pled guilty to but hasn’t.)

That’s just the beginning, though.  Cohen immediately follows up the quote from Viktor Frankl with a philosophical paradox worthy of Socrates himself:

Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate.

Michael Cohen

He’s implying that by finally taking responsibility for his crimes, and confessing them publicly in court, he’s made his life mean something once again.  Paradoxically, the day they sentence him to prison, he says, will be the day he regains his existential freedom.  This was the part that caught my attention when I heard it on the news.  Cohen’s saying that true freedom comes from within.  Even the most powerful ruler in the world can be imprisoned by his own passions and vices, if he’s a tyrant.  On the other hand, even though he’s chained and thrown in prison, a wise man can achieve true freedom, within his own mind, by liberating himself from falsehood and embracing the truth.  

Whether he realized it or not, Cohen is actually uttering one of the famous paradoxes of Stoic philosophy.  Only the wise man is really free and everyone else is enslaved.  Even when the wise man is imprisoned by a tyrant or sentenced to death like Socrates, he is still freer than everyone else, including his oppressors.  The man who is bitter, though, and hates his situation in life, is in a prison of his own making, even though he might be serving at the court of a great king, who lives in a fine palace.

What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. […] Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. 

Epictetus

Indeed, Cohen goes on to make it clear that from the day he entered Trump’s service until this very moment, when he publicly disowns him in court by confessing to the crimes they committed together, he’s been living in a psychological prison of his own making.

I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired. In fact, I now know that there is little to be admired. I want to be clear. I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today, and it was my own weakness, and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light. It is for these reasons I chose to participate in the illicit act of the President rather than to listen to my own inner voice which should have warned me that the campaign finance violations that I later pled guilty to were insidious.

Michael Cohen

It turns out that like Socrates, Cohen has an “inner voice” or daimonion that warns him not to undertake certain actions.  Socrates listened to his when it told him not to accept favours from the powerful and thereby make himself indebted to them.  Cohen says his mistake, by contrast, was to ignore his own inner voice and go down the “path of darkness” by agreeing to commit various crimes on behalf of Donald Trump.

Trump keeps calling Cohen weak, because he’s flipped and turned witness against his former boss.  However, in another paradox worthy of Socrates and the Stoics, Cohen agrees that he was “weak” but only in the past when he was acting the tough guy as Trump’s fixer.  

Recently, the President Tweeted a statement calling me weak, and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass. My weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands. I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am.  

Michael Cohen

Cohen is saying that true weakness consists in acting viciously, through moral blindness.  True strength consists in freeing yourself from mental and emotional imprisonment by taking responsibility for your actions, and speaking the truth about them when it matters.  Cohen is saying that whereas he previously thought strength meant being a “loyal soldier to the President” he now realizes that was actually just weakness, and true strength would have consisted in finding the courage to say no to Trump and exposing his crimes much earlier, for the sake of his country.

Cohen promised the judge that he would stay on the straight and narrow road going forward: “I now know that every action I take in the future has to be well thought out and with honorable intention because I wish to leave no room for future mistakes in my life.”  He apologized to his family and the people of the United States in general, for his lying to them, but he didn’t actually apologize to Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, or the other women who were direct victims of his actions on behalf of Donald Trump.  

I found this statement fascinating.  It left me with a lot of unanswered questions, though.  Did he even write it himself?  Does he really mean all the things he said today in court?  I recently wrote an article about Socrates, the Stoics and Roger Stone, another of Trump’s associates whose time in the spotlight is presumably coming up very soon.  Stone has made a career out of being a self-described political “dirty trickster” and revels in his infamy.  In his recent book, he brags shamelessly about his use of the “Big Lie” technique pioneered by the Nazi propagandists:

Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.

Roger Stone

For all we know, Cohen shares the same shamelessly cynical philosophy of life, which Stone implies was the key to Trump’s electoral success.  I’d like to think Cohen’s more sincere and, for instance, he really meant his closing words:

Most all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States. You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust. I want to thank you, your Honor, for all the time I’m sure you’ve committed to this matter and the consideration that you have given to my future. […] And I thank you, your Honor, I am truly sorry, and I promise I will be better. 

Michael Cohen

The judge didn’t seem persuaded, though.  He sentenced Cohen to three years in federal prison, which could have been worse but still clearly wasn’t the news for which he or his lawyers had been hoping.  Cohen said he was ready to take responsibility for his crimes, though, and accept his fate.  The real test of his newfound Stoicism therefore will be whether, as Epictetus puts it, he can write poetry contentedly while serving time inside.

And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison.

Epictetus
Michael Cohen’s sentencing.
Categories
Books Socrates Stoicism

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

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?  Piotr Stankievicz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoic Attitudes Toward the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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