In one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes that everything physical is as transient as a stream rushing past us, everything belonging to the mind is as insubstantial as vapour and deceptive as smoke or mist, and that…
…life is warfare, and a sojourn in foreign land. — Meditations, 2.17
Only one thing can save us from all this confusion: philosophy, the love of wisdom.
He goes on to say many striking things about the philosophy he followed, called Stoicism. However, many scholars have been struck by the oddness of this apparent allusion to his own situation, in a book that’s notoriously vague about time and place.
Indeed, Marcus was literally engaged in warfare, in a foreign land, when he wrote this. Nearby in the text we find the rubric “At Carnuntum”, the name of the Roman legionary fortress in Upper Pannonia where Marcus had stationed himself during the early stages of the First Marcomannic War. (Today Carnuntum is in Austria, near Vienna.)
As emperor, and commander-in-chief, he was responsible for the largest army ever amassed on a Roman frontier, numbering approximately 140,000 men altogether. Throughout his reign, Marcus was engaged in almost constant warfare, following the Parthian invasion of Armenia in 161 CE, and the invasion of the Danube provinces, and northern Italy, by the Marcomanni and their allies in 167 CE. The Meditations is believed to have been written some time between the years 170 and 175 CE, which happen to coincide with the middle and end of the First Marcomannic War. There don’t seem to be direct or explicit references in The Meditations to the war. Nevertheless, there are several curious allusions to military life.
Donald Robertson’s book [Stoicism and the Art of Happiness] was highly recommended by the Stoic community on Reddit. The book has great reviews and as one reader wrote, “In my opinion, Robertson is superior to Hadot, Long, or any other writer on Stoicism because of his psychotherapy background and his ability to reach the common man.”
Across the board, I would say the most useful tool that I have found for impulse control or emotional reactivity where you get steered by your emotions, as opposed to the other way around, is looking at Stoicism and something called CBT, which is cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s actually a great book on this, which I recommend called – it’s a bit of a mouthful, so don’t mind the title – The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Subtitle: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.
It’s written by Donald J. Robertson. You can just look up Donald Robertson. The cover has what looks like a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the middle of two chairs, one on either side. But it’s a fantastic book. I would suggest people check it out. If you want an overview of Stoicism which is used by top NFL teams right now, a lot of the CEOs I know of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley because it makes them better competitors, you can check on Tao of Seneca. It’s a free introduction to all of this stuff that I put out there, which has no trick, no nothing. It’s just something I think is valuable and should be out in the world.
This won’t be a long response. The essence of her argument appears to be that Stoicism advocates self-inflicted suffering and that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obsessed with it for that reason. Of course, the premise is false. Stoicism does not advocate self-imposed suffering. Her examples are things like the following:
They [Silicon Valley types] sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.
Stoics didn’t sit in painful, silent meditation for weeks on end. They didn’t normally seek notoriety either. Some modern followers of Stoicism, myself included, fast. That’s not the same as starving yourself. Lots of people fast for health reasons and thereby develop self-discipline and acquire other benefits. The Stoics would be against unhealthy forms of fasting, which is what I take “starving” yourself to mean. The ancient Stoics didn’t take cold showers but they did sometimes bathe in cold water. Some modern Stoics, myself included, regularly take cold showers. That’s hardly unusual either – so do lots of other people. It’s healthy, it wakes you up better than a cup of coffee, and it arguably leads to a greater ability to endure cold and other forms of physical discomfort. (I’m pretty happy walking around Toronto without a jacket in the snow because it doesn’t feel very cold to me, although everyone else seems to be wrapped up in thick jackets.) So people don’t do it just to “suffer” but because it’s good for them both in terms of physical health in terms of developing strength of character and self-discipline, etc.
Not all modern Stoics take cold showers or fast, though – I’m guessing less than 5% of them do. The ones who do are no more “obsessed with suffering” than are people who do Pilates, lift weights, walk long distances, go camping in the wilderness, or follow diets. Lots of people do things that require self-discipline and endurance because they consider them healthy or beneficial in certain respects. The Stoics don’t follow regimes in terms of eating, sleeping, or exercising primarily to improve their physical health. They’re supposed to be doing it mainly to improve their character by developing self-control and endurance, etc. However, they choose disciplines that are healthy rather than ones that are unhealthy because physical health is a “preferred indifferent” in Stoicism, i.e., something that’s preferable to its opposite despite not being among the most important things in life. If you’re going to develop self-discipline, in other words, you might as well train yourself to do something healthy rather than unhealthy, even if health isn’t your main reason for doing it.
Anyway, we’re clearly told that this is an article about Stoicism…
So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.
A word of advice to readers… Articles like these which claim to be discussing Stoicism (or any similar topic) but make no reference whatsoever to the relevant primary sources should set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear that the author actually researched the subject by reading the Stoics as there’s literally no mention of anything they wrote. Seriously, there’s not a single quote from a Stoic in the entire piece. Yet their philosophy is being criticized. It is, in fact, being totally misrepresented.
As for the other mistakes in the article, I’ll just cover those by providing a list with brief comments:
“Virtue of suffering” – Suffering is not a virtue in Stoic ethics; it would either be classed as something bad or indifferent depending on whether we’re talking about emotional suffering (pathos) or unpleasant physical sensations such as pain, cold, or discomfort.
Cicero – Cicero was not a Stoic but rather a follower of the rival Academic school, albeit one who admired some aspects of Stoicism. The article almost acknowledges this but not clearly enough as it seems to focus on him as its main example of a historical proponent of Stoicism.
“tenets of stoicism” – The word “stoicism” (lower-case) denotes the modern concept of a psychological personality trait or coping style in which upsetting emotions are concealed or suppressed, like having a stiff upper-lip. The word “Stoicism” (capitalized) denotes an ancient Greek school of philosophy. They’re two very different things.
“Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy ‘for a moment’ for years now — or two decades, by one count.” – I don’t know how you’d quantify this but Stoicism has gone through various periods of popularity. I’d say the seeds of it’s modern resurgence were planted in the late 1950s with, among other things, the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy, during which authors such as Albert Ellis drew inspiration from Stoicism in developing modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). That reinvigorated interest in Stoicism as a form of psychological self-help from the 1980s onward around the time CBT went mainstream. (Indeed, publication data from Google Ngram shows that the popularity of Stoicism began rising in the late 1970s, four decades ago.)
“Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome” – There’s no question that Stoicism was popular with wealthy and powerful Roman elites. However, it’s not a “Roman” thing. Right from the very outset, early Greek Stoicism was popular with the ruling elite. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, taught King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia and other early Greek Stoics had wealthy and powerful students. Moreover, Stoicism was not confined to the elite. Zeno, by some accounts, lost his fortune at sea and lived like a beggar. Cleanthes, his successor as head of the school, was an ex-boxer who watered gardens at night to earn a living. Epictetus, the most famous Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, was a crippled former slave who lived in relative poverty.
“Joe Lonsdale […] sexual abuse” – This comes across as an ad hominem argument against the philosophy, i.e., one of the figures the author associates with Stoicism in the article has been criticized on the grounds listed. How does that actually reflect on Stoicism, though? Is Joe Lonsdale even a Stoic? (Not as far as I’m aware after searching on Google.) Is this meant to discredit Stoicism through some kind of guilt by association?
“Cicero Institute” – The whole article seems to be premised on the notion that the Cicero Institute has got something to do with Stoicism. Does it, though? I can’t actually see any mention of Stoicism anywhere on their website despite using a Google site search for the keyword .
My new book about Stoicism comes out soon so I thought I’d say a bit about the process of writing it. (Sometimes people ask me how I ended up writing these books or what the process is like.) The book’s called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. You can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores. (Incidentally, I’m writing this blog post during a layover at Frankfurt airport on the way from Athens to Toronto – I thought I’d try to do something constructive with the time!)
Let’s start at the beginning… When I was a little boy I really wanted to be a writer. At primary school in Scotland, when I was about ten years old, we used to write short stories. The kids would get to vote for which ones the wanted to hear each week and the “winner” would stand at the front of the class and read their creation aloud. Mine were quite popular so the other kids kept asking me to do more. It was kind of addictive. And I wasn’t much good at anything else, to be honest.
Somewhere along the way I lost interest in writing, though. Or rather I became more interested in reading philosophy. Then I wanted to become a counsellor or a psychotherapist. So after finishing my degree in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, I moved to London and before long started working as a counsellor in high schools and with a youth drugs project. After a few years I became a psychotherapist with a private clinical practice in Harley Street. Then one day someone called me out of the blue and asked me to run a training course for other therapists. So I wound up as a trainer and for about fifteen years, in addition to treating clients, I ran a training school in London teaching other therapists, counsellors, and life coaches.
I’ve been studying, writing about, and talking about Stoicism for roughly twenty years as well. I’ve written five books, on philosophy and psychotherapy, and dozens of articles in magazines and journals. The books were all quite different. First of all, I edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scot who invented hypnotism. My first book as an author, though, was just an attempt to make sense out of hundreds of pages of notes I’d compiled about Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). (At one point my Psion computer died and I completely lost years of notes – poof!) Then I was asked to write a self-help book on emotional resilience for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, which follows quite a strictly organized format. That was good but it didn’t really allow me to write in my own style. I also wrote a book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness for the same series. And a manual for the evidence-based practice of clinical hypnosis, based on a cognitive-behavioural approach. I put a lot of work into that but it wasn’t the sort of book that I really wanted to write either.
The first book proposal that I ever wrote was for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which the publisher turned down twice. I asked them what sort of books they wanted people to write and they replied saying they wanted a book called The Philosophy of CBT. So that’s how my first book (as an author) came about. (Incidentally, you hear a lot about authors struggling to get their first book deal but publishers are sometimes begging for people to write books on certain subjects and can’t find anyone to do it.) Over a decade later, though, I still felt the Roman Emperor title was good and had a ring to it. So I decided to write it. There are already several good introductions to Stoicism and books on Stoicism as self-help. I wanted to write about Stoicism but it had to be a different sort of book.
Since she was about three or four years old, I’ve been telling my daughter, Poppy, stories about Greek heroes and philosophers. I realized that other people liked these stories too. In the ancient world, philosophical wisdom was often communicated in the form of anecdotes about the lives of famous philosophers such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. For example, we have a treasure trove of this stuff in a book called The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. So I decided to write a book about Stoicism that focused more on stories about the lives of philosophers.
Marcus Aurelius is the Stoic about whom we know the most. That’s simply because he was a Roman emperor. There are several histories (Cassius Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta) that survive today and describe his reign, and a few other minor sources. However, I found it frustrating that modern biographies of Marcus didn’t really try to interpret his life in relation to his philosophy, which we know so much about from his private notes The Meditations. So I finally set about writing a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which describes events from Marcus Aurelius’ life and links them to concepts and practices from Stoic philosophy. I also drew on my training in psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to help me explain how these could help people today.
So how did I actually go about writing the book? What was the process like? Well, I’d already been researching this subject for about twenty years: gatherings notes and writing shorter pieces, giving talks, etc. I began by writing two sample chapters based on major events in Marcus’ life to see if I could make them work as stories: the Antonine Plague and the civil war with Avidius Cassius. I wanted to stick as closely as possible to the historical information available but didn’t want to spoil a good story. So I inserted pieces of dialogue or minor details where necessary and in cases where there’s some ambiguity in the historical account I’d settle on one interpretation rather than disrupting the narrative by worrying about which was right. My goal wasn’t to “do history” but to inspire readers and provide them with one possible account of Marcus’ life that would help them visualize his philosophy more clearly as a way of life. So I’d describe these as works of historical or biographical fiction, albeit so faithful to the surviving Roman histories that they’re probably about 99% history and about 1% fiction.
I also compiled a huge document organizing all the key information about Marcus’ life that could potentially be used to write the book. I planned everything in (too much) detail. Then I started again from scratch, confident that I had all the key facts, that I could now picture the overall structure of the book, and that I could weave the events into stories, which I’d describe as a series of historical vignettes about major events in Marcus’ life. I reread The Meditations several times in different translations, brushing up on my (pretty sketchy) ancient Greek and studying the parallel Greek and English texts to tease out subtle connotations where possible that would complement my narrative. Sometimes people ask me how many times I’ve read The Meditations. I’ve honestly no idea; I’ve lost count – lots and lots of times. I also read all the available English biographies of Marcus Aurelius’ life and made detailed notes on anything that could be incorporated into the book I was planning. (One of my favourite books about Marcus is an obscure 18th century French work of historical fiction called The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius.)
I find it difficult to write at home so I’d often go away for a week or more and stay in the countryside or anywhere I could focus completely on my research and writing. I try to minimise distractions so I’d eat very simple food each day that didn’t require much preparation, e.g., boiled eggs, peanuts, coffee and apples. Sometimes I booked into AirBNBs that were actually just a fifteen minute or so walk from where I live because I found that being in another environment helped me focus even if it were just a few streets from home. It also gave my girlfriend a break because I’m pretty sure she was fed up hearing about the Antonine Plague and intricate details about Roman military formations.
I find that after months of writing it becomes difficult to concentrate when reading through a chapter for the zillionth time. So I would print each chapter and read it aloud from the hard copy. For some reason, I find that timing myself reading or writing with a stopwatch also helps remind me to stay focused. When the final draft of the manuscript is nearly ready I like to read the entire thing cover to cover to make sure that the whole book is coherent and there’s no unintentional repetition. Sadl, though, that’s beyond my ability in terms of concentration. So I paid a local bartender who’s interested in philosophy, Maria, to read it to me while I made notes on a second paper copy. After each chapter, she’d also silently mark up a printout to indicate which parts she felt were good and which might potentially be removed. Her comments were very helpful. (Sometimes I’d even read a chapter to our dog just to trick myself into concentrating for a bit longer, although Mookie wasn’t able to offer very helpful feedback.) My editor and agent also helped a lot with advice and feedback, of course.
I’ve practised self-hypnosis for many years, since I was about fifteen years old. So I made a recording that I would listen to for twenty minutes each day, designed to help me become more focused on writing and to view the book from different perspectives to help my creativity, etc. I don’t think I’d have managed to write this book without using that method.
Regarding the content, I wanted to begin the book with something dramatic. After some initial thought, I realized, paradoxically, that I should open with the death of Marcus Aurelius. Then I could return to his childhood and work through the major events of his life as if he were remembering them in subsequent chapters. That created a problem, though. How would the book end? I started writing before I knew the answer to that question because I felt sure that somehow a solution would present itself along the way. And it did. At least, I found a way to end the book that satisfied me as the author. Spoiler alert: The final chapter is written in a very different style from the rest of the book. It was actually intended to be read aloud or listened to in an audio recording. It’s intentionally written to resemble a guided meditation exercise. I read it aloud many times until I was completely satisfied with how it sounded. It weaves together many different Stoic ideas from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as well as a few from other sources.
So I hope you enjoy what I’ve written. It was a long journey. At times I felt quite exhausted but I’m glad I made it to the end. I’m confident that I’ve created something very different from anything I’ve ever written before. And anyone can read this book. If you’re completely new to Stoicism it will provide you with a compelling introduction, and inspire you, I hope, in the way that only the life of a great philosopher, like Marcus, really can. If you’ve read lots of books on Stoicism I’m sure you’ll find this is an original perspective and that it contains many details about Marcus’ life and his philosophy that aren’t well-known. I know from my research that people who read this book find that they’re able to get a lot more out of reading The Meditations. It makes me very satisfied to think that a book which has already benefited so many people so profoundly could be introduced to the reader afresh by exposing new layers of meaning.
Diogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.
Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.
The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him. The next sentence reads:
Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.
Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?
She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books. The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though. Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three. How much older than him could she have been then? It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:
Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades. Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.
We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.
He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].
This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.
It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name. However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity. He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:
When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go. On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.
This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy. His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead. We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.
Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister? We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus. We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism. Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:
Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.
And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here. There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king. Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.
The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:
Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.
These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox. When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so. If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies. Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.
So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows… It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him. Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli. They probably had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens.
Perhaps she attended his lectures. Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted during the Hellenistic period.
We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king. However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV. Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism. If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them. Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.
I arrived in Athens last night so this morning I decided to head straight for the Stoa Poikile, the home of Stoicism. A Greek stoa is a colonnade: basically a row of columns supporting a roof. The Stoa Poikile had a wall on one side giving shade, so it’s described as a portico or a plain old “porch”. It’s also a bit like the ancient equivalent of what we might call a covered “arcade” today. Stoa Poikile literally just means “painted porch” therefore. It was so called because of the highly-regarded paintings that adorned the wall. It was originally called the Porch of Peisianax, after the Athenian statesman who commissioned it in the 5th century BC. (That’s my Photo of the Stoa Poikile in Athens, the other photos in this post are from the web.)
The part of the Athenian agora where it was located is now an archeological site in the middle of the city, although there’s not a whole lot to see there except the rubble walls of lots of ancient Athenian shops and many ruined wells, descending into the river that runs below. There’s a bar situated beside and above the ruins, the Poikile Stoa, which is named after the ancient Stoa Poikile. There wasn’t a lot of philosophy going on inside, though. There was an assortment of classical paintings.
I asked the barman where exactly the ruined foundations of the Stoa Poikile were among the rubble below. His version of the story was that the archeologists originally believed they’d found it but it turned out just to be the wall of another shop. So they don’t know exactly where it is. He said they know it must be somewhere nearby so they want to tear down his bar and “keep dig, dig, dig” underneath. He was a bit annoyed about this and, pointing down toward the rubble, he ruefully observed: “Where you gonna drink beer? You can’t drink beer in this, eh?” Another young Greek at a table nearby having a drink with a young woman added: “We’re Greeks but we don’t know anything about history anymore; nobody cares”, shrugging and shaking his head sadly. Someone else told me that the Stoa Poikile is there alright but they heard only a third of its ruined foundations remain. (By some accounts the picture here shows what’s left of the Stoa Poikile beside the ruins of some nearby shops.)
Anyway, there’s not much to see down there anymore. Although the nearby reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus, another colonnade, probably looked fairly similar to the one we’re after. (It’s shown in this picture.) Perhaps so little remaining of the Stoa Poikile is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that even great architecture eventually crumbles, disappears, and is forgotten.
We know that Zeno chose this as the home of his school, who were at first called Zenonians and later became known simply as the Stoics after the stoa where they gathered. There are a few notable things about that…
Stories about the Stoa
The Stoa Poikile was a public building, a sort of porch offering protection from the sun. The Cynics reputedly slept on such porches and it’s tempting to wonder whether Zeno, who had been a Cynic himself for many years, may have slept here at some point in his life, perhaps before founding his school. It’s very public and situated among the shops on the edge of the Athenian agora, precisely where Socrates used to mingle with craftsmen discussing philosophy. Zeno was undoubtedly aware of that historical connection and probably saw himself as teaching in public as Socrates had done before him. By contrast, other schools of philosophy were typically located in gymnasia, or public spaces set aside for exercise and training, away from the hubbub of the marketplace. Women were strictly prohibited from entering the grounds of gymnasia, although it’s not clear whether some may have been permitted to go to the Stoa Poikile, given that the Stoics appear to advocate teaching philosophy to women. (There’s a story that two women attended Plato’s Academy but had to disguise themselves as men to do so.) Then again, women generally seem to have had limited access to the agora as well. The Stoa Poikile was presumably a more open and public location than a philosophical school built in the grounds of a gymnasium, though. Some have even seen the name “Stoic” as implying something like “philosophy of the street”.
Moreover, whereas other schools were named after their founders, such as Pythagoreanism or Epicureanism, the Stoics rejected this notion. I think that’s because the Stoics insisted that none of them, not even Zeno, were perfectly wise. Unlike the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, who did consider their founders to be perfect sages, the Stoics didn’t memorize Zeno’s teachings by rote learning. Instead they were encouraged to employ the Socratic method and think for themselves, something we tend to think of now as a hallmark of true philosophy. Zeno, incidentally, used to pace rapidly up and down the length of the Stoa Poikile while discoursing on philosophy, according to Diogenes Laertius, “his object being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers”.
The Stoa Poikile was, in a sense, a sort of Athenian art gallery. Its wall was decorated with four large plates painted by Micon of Athens, Polygnotos of Thasos, and perhaps others. They depict:
The mythic battle between Theseus and the Amazons, a scene which may have been in Cleanthes’ mind, the second head of the Stoa, when he wrote that virtue is the same in men and women
The legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks led by Agamemnon, after its defences had been breached by the Stoic hero Odysseus using the “Trojan Horse” trick
The real, historical Battle of Oenoe where the Athenians defeated the Spartans, although the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans for their self-discipline
The historical Battle of Marathon (490 BC) where the Athenians won a great victory against the Persian army, during the reign of King Darius I
So Zeno lectured in front of these four huge paintings depicting various real and imaginary battles. Possibly Epictetus was influenced by something the early Greek Stoics had said about the Amazonomachy scene dominating the location of their school, for instance, in Discourse 2.16. He tells his own Stoic students “nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica” but that instead of defeating monsters and barbarians to clear the region around Athens, they should clear away the evil things within themselves, such as sadness, fear, desire, envy, and intemperance, etc. Epictetus also brings up the Trojan War several times, such as at Discourses 1.28 when he says:
When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men, this is being besieged, this is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.
Were scenes such as these, which he discusses with his Stoic students, also discussed by the early Greek Stoics while they paced up and down before Polygnotus’ famous painting, which actually depicted the fall of Troy?
Given this visual backdrop to the Athenian Stoic school, it’s perhaps no surprise, indeed, that a range of both artistic and military metaphors find their way into Stoic writings I like to imagine, for instance, that Zeno might have told his students that although the scenes of battle depicted looked realistic and showed graphic violence, no sane person was afraid of them, because they realize they’re just pictures (impressions) and not the things they represent, to borrow a phrase used centuries later by Epictetus. That’s just speculation, of course. Although, Marcus Aurelius, who painted himself and was actually first introduced to philosophy by his painting master, appears to be referring to visual aesthetics in the following remarkable passage:
And ears of corn bending towards the earth, and the wrinkled brows of a lion, and the foam dripping from the jaws of a wild boar, and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe, he will find scarcely anything which fails to please him in some way by its presence, even among those that arise as secondary effects. Such a person will view the gaping jaws of wild beasts in their physical reality with no less pleasure than the portrayals of them displayed by painters and sculptors, and he will be able to see in an old woman or old man a special kind of mature beauty, and to look on the youthful charms of his slave boys with chaste eyes. And one could cite many similar examples, which will not seem persuasive to everyone, but will only strike home with those who are genuinely familiar with nature and all her works. (Meditations, 3.2)
Note: Marcus says here that the Stoic wise man will regard the gaping jaws of ferocious beasts such as lions and wild boars with the same indifference that he views their depiction by artists and sculptors. Could this remarkable idea go back to something Zeno may have said about the paintings on the porch Marcus, of course, also says that “life is warfare”, a theme that may have occurred to Zeno and his students as they met each day to discuss philosophy before a backdrop depicting the carnage of ancient warfare.
Finally, Diogenes Laertius adds a shocking historical detail: “It was the spot where in the time of the Thirty 1,400 Athenian citizens had been put to death.” If this is true, Zeno would have also known about it, and it therefore perhaps inspired some of the Stoic thoughts about the theme of death. The Thirty Tyrants were basically a puppet oligarchic regime or junta installed over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War by the victorious Spartans. They were vastly unpopular because they soon turned to into brutal tyrants, rounding up and executing foreign residents (metics, immigrants) and democrats. They carried out summary executions of the wealthy in order to line their own pockets by seizing their assets. Zeno would have known that Critias, the head of the Thirty Tyrants, and a former pupil of Socrates, allegedly tried to pass a law banning his old teacher from discussing politics or philosophy, because he was criticizing the regime indirectly. Socrates said that a good shepherd does not diminish thus the size of his flock, which Critias rightly took to be a criticism of the mass executions being carried out by him. Socrates seems to have ignored this ban. Critias then employed a tactic used on others and ordered Socrates to join a small posse to arrest and summarily execute an innocent man called Leon of Salamis, another foreign resident, perhaps with democrat sympathies. Socrates simply refused. Critias had hoped either to implicate him in his crimes or, if he refused, to be provided with a pretext for executing him, for disobeying a direct order. However, the oligarchy was overthrown by a democrat uprising before they could have Socrates executed, so he got away by the skin of his teeth.
Anyway, Zeno was probably also aware that Socrates had risked his own life defying the orders of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in this way. This famous example of courage in the face of injustice, demonstrated by Socrates, was likely also in his mind as he lectured every day at the Stoa Poikile, the scene where such executions were carried out. I was tempted to tell my barman friend that 1,400 ancient Athenians were summarily executed on the ruined porch underneath his establishment, probably by strangulation rather than hemlock like Socrates, but I’m not sure he would have wanted to know that.
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 say that because rather than talk about the whole book I’m just going to write a bit more informally about my impressions, mainly regarding what he says about Stoicism.
First of all, though, a caveat. Taleb’s writing has a reputation for being hard to review. His style (it seems to me) is idiosyncratic, disorganized, bombastic, refreshing, confrontational, iconoclastic, etc. Arguably that makes the book more engaging, although it can also be frustrating at times. Maybe in smaller doses. (Likewise, I don’t mind the occasional song by Björk but I don’t know if I could sit through a whole album.)
Although you can kind of get a rough sense of what he’s talking about fairly easily, on close inspection it’s often surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what he means. (Maybe that explains why he seems to think most other people are stupid.) I don’t think I’m the only one, though, because other reviewers seem to have the same problem. Also when I spoke to some fans of his work about bits that seemed confusing it turned out they couldn’t make any more sense out of it than me. Having read the book fairly closely, it seems to me that Taleb is often quite unclear about key concepts and sometimes he does appear to use arguments that are incomplete or not entirely convincing. He doesn’t seem to like copy editors because their “interventionist” approach stifles his creativity, which is fair comment. Although like most things in life there are pros and cons to that strategy, and in a few places an editor’s corrections might potentially have been helpful to the reader. Then again, that’s the guy’s writing style so take it or leave it.
I think it’s fair to say that Taleb has become notorious for his rather scathing attacks on people (e.g., “Fragilistas”) who he thinks are idiots. (Or who happen not to agree with him, depending on how you look at it.) Well, you know, call me old fashioned but, whatever he thinks, that doesn’t really seem to me to be the healthiest attitude for an author to adopt. I’m pretty sure it just stifles discussion and proper evaluation of his writing. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people out there, including plenty of academics, who say things so stupid it barely seems worth anyone’s effort to respond. However, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with people who get on your goat. Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…
Taleb’s basic concept is that although we all know roughly what it means for something to be fragile we don’t have a word for its opposite. We say that something that isn’t fragile is “robust” or “resilient” but that’s just the absence of fragility, says Taleb, not its opposite. Something fragile is easily broken by knocks, something robust is impervious to knocks. Something that’s the opposite of fragile, though, would actually benefit from knocks and grow stronger. So he coins the term “antifragile” to denote this new concept – voila!
(I’m still undecided about whether this basic premise actually makes sense, to be honest, because, to cut a long story short, whereas Taleb talks about something going from being “fragile” to “antifragile”, I wonder whether we’d not find it more natural, at least in some of these cases, to relabel the stimuli that we were formerly fragile toward as having gone from being “harmful” to “beneficial” – it’s a two-term relationship after all that we’re describing and yet Taleb is focusing on how we label one side but not really how we might shift our way of labelling the other instead. A normal serpent is fragile with regard to having its head chopped off but the mythical Hydra, to borrow an example from his book, is antifragile because it grows two heads for each decapitation, and just gets stronger. Fair enough, but wouldn’t it be just as easy, if not easier, to say that whereas decapitation is harmful for most creatures it’s actually quite beneficial for the Hydra, who, paradoxically, gains strength as a result? That doesn’t require a neologism: it’s just the way we label the stimulus that’s changed not the way we label the subject. Like I said, though, I’m still mulling this over…)
Anyway, that’s really the main theme that runs through the entire book, with a lot of interesting digressions, anecdotes, and other bits and pieces of advice: from weight-lifting to holiday itineraries and beyond.
Now, Taleb says repeatedly that nature herself is the best example of something antifragile. Presumably, in part, because species adapt to adversity and grow stronger as a result. So although he doesn’t say this himself, or explain why he doesn’t say it, a number of reviewers seem to have noticed that “antifragility” resembles the concept of evolution or survival of the fittest through natural selection. The difference is that antifragility is being used more broadly as a way of understanding life and society in general, on many different levels. So it’s surprising that Taleb never touches on “Social Darwinism”, if only to clarify the distinction between his new concept of “antifragility” and the various philosophical ideas that fall under that heading. (Note: I should mention that Taleb has an ethic that says it’s wrong to maintain your own antifragility at someone else’s expense.)
Throughout the book Taleb marvels at how others have completely failed to grasp the concept underlying his neologism even though it’s been staring them in the face all along. That’s fair enough in a way. However, from the outset, as someone who’s worked and written in this area, I couldn’t help but think that the concept of emotional resilience and the closely-related idea of posttraumatic growth (PTG) in modern psychology are surely kind of similar to what he’s talking about. In psychology the concept of “resilience” sometimes covers both what Taleb means by it and what he calls being antifragile. We also talk about the concept of “thriving”, which seems akin to what he has in mind. Eventually, Taleb says he discovered the concept of posttraumatic growth (when someone grows stronger following a trauma) and he concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.
However, he never really returns to the subject and basically ignores all of the scientific research on posttraumatic growth, and related findings in psychology. Surely some of his readers must be left thinking: “Huh? So if this is what you’re talking about, what do all the scientific studies actually tell us about it?” A quick search of PubMed, incidentally, shows that there are currently 843 books and scientific journal articles listed that mention posttraumatic growth.
Now, I understand that Taleb has an ambivalent relationship with empirical research – sometimes he uses it, sometimes he criticizes the whole idea. However, I still think we’ve a right to expect more than a fleeting mention of the fact that there’s a whole field of research already dealing with this subject. It seems to me that overall the findings don’t really correspond very closely with what he’s written about it. For example, one of the most consistent findings both from studies on resilience and posttraumatic growth is that the presence of strong social support is a predictor of good mental health and wellbeing following trauma, either through resilience or growth. However, Taleb barely mentions the role of social support in his discussion of antifragility. Perhaps he would happily dispute the relevance of psychological studies in this area or challenge their findings but then he should probably be more explicit about that, for the sake of his readers.
Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is his use of Stoic philosophy. First, though, another (minor) digression. As I was reading Antifragile, although it contains many interesting examples, it struck me that there seemed to be other obvious examples of the central concept that I was surprised Taleb didn’t mention. The main one is this. For most of my adult life I’ve been a trainer of sorts, in various different contexts. I’ve always gathered very detailed feedback from students and read it very closely. When running a new course, I’ll gather quantitative and qualitative feedback mid-course so that I have the opportunity to make changes on the fly. Some of my colleagues (and competitors) don’t do that. I’ve always felt that by avoiding the (perceived) harm (to one’s fragile ego) of reading negative comments they’re basically paying a huge price by missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve as a trainer. It prevents their teaching style and their course content from evolving. Put another way: inviting criticism is antifragile. (It seems to me anyway.) It can be painful but it makes you stronger. Avoiding exposure to criticism or attacking your critics to shut them down would, by contrast, be fragile – indeed, we often say someone like that has a fragile ego.
As I read Taleb’s Antifragile I noticed that I kept thinking of the following maxim from Epicurus: In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. It seems to me that someone who lives by that philosophy will be antifragile, at least in one important respect. He actually turns what looks like failure into victory and considers himself to have benefited every time he’s defeated in an argument. He turns chicken shit into chicken soup, to borrow an expression from, of all people, Roger Stone. Or as Epictetus put it, like the magical wand, the caduceus, of Hermes, through his philosophy he touches misfortune and turns it into good fortune.
Let’s repeat that: “In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.” I think we’d all be able to admire that guy. Who would deny that genuinely being able to look at things that way would demonstrate tremendous strength of character, humility, and wisdom? For an Epicurean who really assimilated that maxim, in Taleb-speak, there would be no downside to being proven wrong and losing an argument, only an upside: learning. I was half-expecting Taleb to mention that quote, as it’s reasonably well-known. Here’s the question, though. Does Taleb’s own fairly aggressive style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down “Fragilistas” and idiots that he disagrees with, run contrary to that nugget of philosophy? I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do think it would be a very interesting quote for him to get his teeth into, though. It seems to be the sort of thing he likes.
Addendum in the Middle
I’m just going to arbitrarily inject this sort of addendum or footnote that occured to me after I finished… Bear with me because this might seem like an odd question but: Why is this a noun? (“Antifragility”, “the antifragile”, or an adjective, “antifragile”?) I’d rather it was a verb, to be honest. Maybe Taleb’s book reminded me slightly of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (yes, we’re going back a bit now!). I’m constitutionally suspicious of nouns, and adjectives are just as bad. I’d rather talk about what someone is doing than what they are. We tend to find in psychotherapy that makes a crucial difference: “I am tense” versus “I tense my…” (What are you tensing? How? Where and when? Why don’t you stop?)
“Verbification” or “verbing”, we call it. The most famous example is probably the way therapists teach clients to say they’re actively “catastrophizing” a situation or “decatastrophizing” it rather than just “this is a catastrophe!” If I was going to coin a new term for the opposite of fragile, I’d start by verbing it somehow. This guy is fragilizing himself… at these times, in this way, etc. Now he’s beginning to antifragilize his investments or his relationships or whatever… (I know people hate that but I’m not sorry because I find it actually works quite well as a way of clarifying our thinking, like Korzybski’s General Semantics claims.)
Come to think of it, insofar as decatastrophizing in cognitive therapy goes beyond reduction of threat appraisal and into constructive re-appraisal of our coping ability, it probably already transgresses into what Taleb calls being antifragile. People start to see situations they worried about excessively not only as bearable but also as potentially having some positive aspects or opportunities for them. That reminds me of another little-known Stoic technique. Epictetus said that one of his political heroes, Paconius Agrippinus, a member of the Stoic Opposition against Nero, used to write “eulogies” to himself actually praising the misfortunes that befell him, such as being exiled from Rome. He not only moderated the downside of adversity but actively sought out an upside, even in the face of extreme situations, and he did it in the form of a semi-formal exercise, like writing a Stoic “consolation” letter to himself re-appraising both the downside and upside.
Anyway, back to the quasi-review…
Taleb on Stoicism
Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Some people have even told me that they were introduced to Stoicism by reading his books. Antifragile has references to Stoicism scattered throughout but Chapter 10, which is entitled “Seneca’s Upside and Downside”, is largely dedicated to Taleb’s interpretation of Stoicism.
Antifragile features a (fictional) Italian-American character called Fat Tony. Taleb opens his chapter on Seneca by stating that “A couple of millennia before Fat Tony, another child of the Italian peninsula solved the problem of antifragility.” That’s one for the editor: Seneca wasn’t born on the Italian peninsula. He was actually a child of Cordoba, in the Roman province of Hispania, or modern-day Spain. Anyway, that’s trivial. What matters is that Taleb makes it clear that, in his view, Seneca exemplifies antifragility. Indeed, he says that Seneca “solved the problem of antifragility […] using Stoic philosophy”.
Taleb thinks that academics have generally dismissed Seneca as “not theoretical or philosophical enough” because of his practical focus. Not a single commentator, he says, has noticed that Seneca articulated the concept of “asymmetry”, which is the key both to robustness and antifragility. Taleb thinks that most other philosophers begin with theory and then try to apply it to practice. However, he’s a big fan of Seneca because he believes that he did the opposite and started with practice before developing his theory. “To become a successful philosopher king”, Taleb says, “it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher”, which is quite a nice way of putting it.
I think most people would find that a reasonable, and not entirely novel, point. However, I’m not really convinced that it describes Seneca any more than any number of other philosophers, especially his fellow Stoics. Taleb doesn’t really provide any explanation for why he believes Seneca stood apart from the rest in this regard, except that he was very wealthy.
Much of Seneca’s wealth, perhaps most of it, was given to him by Nero, and if you were cynical you might say it took the form of massive bribes in exchange for Seneca writing propaganda speeches, etc., in support of an oppressive and tyrannical political regime. Seneca later panicked when Nero began killing more people and tried to give the money back – the most obvious explanation being that he was worried Nero was about to have him killed in order to seize it back anyway. That’s presumably always a threat that hangs over your head when you’re paid millions by a dictator who’s carrying out summary executions of his political enemies – he may be tempted to claw back the money later by having you put to death. Are there other interpretations of Seneca’s actions? Sure but the point is that Taleb’s maybe a bit hasty to class him as a pragmatic hero.
Taleb describes the “traditional” understanding of Stoicism as being about “indifference to fate – among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos”, which is true. He sets that aside, though, to focus more on what the philosophy says about handling our material possessions.
It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition [or Citium], the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck […] he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy.
Zeno had several famous teachers before he founded the Stoic school. One was Stilpo the Megarian. (Taleb calls him Stilbo, which is just an alternate spelling used by Seneca.) When Stilpo was told that his city had been sacked, his property seized, and his wife and children killed, he reputedly said “I have lost nothing”, nihil perditi, “I have all my goods with me.” Like the Stoics, He also believed that virtue is the only true good. Taleb says that this “I lost nothing” reverberates through Seneca’s writings as though it’s the cornerstone of his whole philosophy.
That’s partially true but not entirely so. For Stoics in general, wealth is “nothing” in one sense, in terms of the supreme goal of life, but in another sense it has an inferior sort of value, for practical purposes.
Zeno introduced this distinction between two types of value, which formed the basis of Stoicism and distinguishes it from the Cynic school that preceded it, and probably also from the Megarians like Stilpo. Only virtue and vice, qualities of our own character and voluntary actions, can be intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense of the word. Everything else is “indifferent” in that regard. However, said Zeno, it is reasonable to prefer life over death, friends over enemies, wealth over poverty, within certain bounds, as long as we never sacrifice wisdom or virtue for the sake of these “external” things.
He therefore described them as having an inferior sort of “value” (axia), incommensurate with our supreme good in life. I don’t think Taleb’s aware of this, although it’s arguably the central doctrine of Stoicism, and so he perhaps misinterprets Seneca and the Stoics slightly as a consequence of this omission. As Cicero points out in De Finibus, Stoic Ethics without any distinction between the value of different externals would effectively just be a rehash of Cynicism. What made Stoicism what it is, a distinct school of philosophy that went by a new name, was Zeno’s introduction of this doctrine of “preferred indifferents” or “selective value”.
For example, one of our most important sources for information on the early Stoic school is Diogenes Laertius, who explains the doctrine of “preferred indifferents” as follows:
Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by [NB:] wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts – as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.
Diogenes gives the following examples of things (including wealth) classed as having value or being preferred by the founders of Stoicism:
Thus things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth; and in the sphere of external things, [NB:] wealth, fame, noble birth, and the like. To the class of things “rejected” belong, of mental qualities, lack of ability, want of skill, and the like; among bodily qualities, death, disease, weakness, being out of condition, mutilation, ugliness, and the like; in the sphere of external things, [NB:] poverty, ignominy, low birth, and so forth. But again there are things belonging to neither class; such are not preferred, neither are they rejected.
Cicero confirms that it was Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, who coined the term “preferred things” (ta proegmena) for use in this technical sense, although later generations of Stoics seem to have been free to argue over the fine details of which things were classed as “preferred” and the precise hierarchy of their value.
Taleb quotes Seneca as saying of a man who lived lavishly “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.” According to Taleb, this aspect of Stoicism, that discourages us from becoming too enslaved to wealth and luxury, is the key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.
Stoicism, seen this way, becomes pure robustness – for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate, is robustness.
Random events don’t affect someone who is robust, according to Taleb’s definition, one way or the other. They are too strong to suffer from the losses incurred by misfortune. However, they are also not greedy for the rewards of good fortune. They remain impassive with regard to the ups and downs of fate.
Whereas the Stoics describe many techniques to help attain this state of mind, though, Taleb is more interested in advocating the outlook on life, and doesn’t actually say as much about how to actually get into that frame of mind. He mainly describes a method favoured by Seneca, which is usually known as the praemediation malorum or premeditation of adversity. We could say “premediation of bad things” but that’s slightly misleading, as the whole point for Stoics is that we should train ourselves to realize the’re not really intrinsically bad at all but things indifferent, in their technical sense of the word mentioned above.
Seneca on Premeditation
Taleb says that we should first learn robustness from “the great master” Seneca, or “how he advocated the mitigation of downside” and “protection against harm from emotions”. Then we can proceed to learn how Seneca teaches us to go beyond robustness and actually achieve antifragility.
Taleb says that success brings a kind of asymmetry in the sense that you have more to lose than to gain, which constitutes an important form of fragility.
There is no good news in store, just plenty of bad news in the pipeline. When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.
Rich people, he says, are trapped by their wealth, which causes them emotional stress.
Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. [sic, surely he intended to write this the other way around?]
Taleb adds that our dependence on external circumstances, or rather the emotions arising from this dependence, constitutes a form of slavery.
He quotes the Roman poet Livy to illustrate this asymmetry: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” Suppose you’re a millionaire. The potential benefit of gaining another half a million dollars would now be small compared to the pain caused by losing exactly the same amount. That’s a negative asymmetry, which Taleb says makes your situation fragile.
Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).
Taleb says that before starting his last job he wrote a resignation letter and kept it locked in his drawer, which allowed him to feel a sense of psychological freedom. He also says that as a trader, each morning he would assume that the worst possible thing had happened, so that he could view the rest of the day as a bonus, something he describes as the “discipline of mental write-off”. He reckons that an “intelligent life” entails emotional positioning through exercises like these in order to remove the sting of pain caused by losses. That’s the secret of being emotionally robust in the face of “volatility”, i.e., uncertainty and risk.
Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
That’s the quote from Taleb on Stoicism that people seem to cite most often, incidentally. He’s right that Stoicism is not actually about the elimination or “extirpation” of all emotions but rather the transformation of irrational and unhealthy emotions into rational and healthy ones. You could call that their “domestication”, as he does.
He mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:
Seneca proposes a complete training program to handle life and use emotions properly—thanks to small but effective tricks. One trick, for instance, that a Roman Stoic would use to separate anger from rightful action and avoid committing harm he would regret later would be to wait at least a day before beating up a servant who committed a violation. We moderns might not see this as particularly righteous, but just compare it to the otherwise thoughtful Emperor Hadrian’s act of stabbing a slave in the eye during an episode of uncontrolled anger. When Hadrian’s anger abated, and he felt the grip of remorse, the damage was irreversible.
Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.
That’s how Taleb believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?
Taleb claims that psychologists and intellectuals in general have a mental block that prevents them from recognizing the concept of antifragility: “I don’t know what it is, but they don’t like it.” (Apart from the hundreds of scientific texts in the field of psychology that refer to posttraumatic growth?) The same mental block, he says, prevents them from considering that Seneca “wanted the upside from fate”, and that there is nothing wrong with that.
As we’ve seen, though, Taleb is arguably 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.
It’s true that the Stoics did sometimes embrace “voluntary hardship”, like the Cynics before them, and lived like beggars. They describe this more ascetic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue”, though, not suited for everyone. (Much as Christians thought of monasticism as suited only for some.) If that seems paradoxical, it’s not really. Just remember that although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up. That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent. It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue. Indeed, Taleb does note that Stoicism can make you actually desire catastrophes, which you can embrace as a challenge in life. (“Bring it on!”)
So if the Stoics renounced wealth, sometimes, it wasn’t because they thought it was “bad” but because they thought that doing so could potentially strengthen their character. Wealth, in general, is viewed by them as potentially useful in life.
Taleb is more interested in Seneca than the other Stoics partly because he was one of the super-rich. He says that Seneca speaks to him because he “walked the walk” and focuses on the practical aspects of Stoicism such as how to take a trip, how to handle committing suicide, and how to cope with adversity in life such as poverty. Taleb recommends reading Seneca to his friends because he’s an eminently practical philosopher. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of course, also deal with very similar practical advice.)
However, Taleb says that “even more critically” Seneca speaks to him, and his friends, because he describes how to handle immense wealth. That’s perhaps a fair comment, although it’s probably not the reason most ordinary people give for reading Seneca. Indeed, Taleb says that although “on paper” Seneca followed the Stoic tradition, in practice he did something slightly different, which, Taleb claims, “commentators have completely missed”.
If wealth is so much of a burden, while unnecessary, what’s the point of having it? Why did Seneca keep it?
Taleb says that Seneca called wealth the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. That’s something most of the other Stoics could have just as easily said, as we’ve seen. However, Taleb assumes that Seneca is unique among Stoics in holding the view that wealth can potentially be an advantage.
Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances […]. Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty.
As I noted earlier, I think this idea that Seneca was unique in preferring wealth to poverty stems from something Taleb seems to have missed. He’s right that Zeno and more or less all Stoics taught that wealth isn’t necessary, and is ultimately indifferent with regard to the supreme goal of life. Nevertheless, more or less all Stoics agreed that in another sense wealth is “preferable” to poverty, and therefore has value (axia), just not comparable to that of our supreme good. Seneca isn’t unique in this regard, in other words.
Taleb says in the passage quoted above that “most [Stoics] were poor”. Sometimes he even appears to believe that Seneca was exceptional among them for being very wealthy. That’s not quite right, though. Zeno was a wealthy Phoenician merchant who lost his fortune at sea, by some accounts. However, by other accounts he was later quite wealthy. One explanation for that apparent contradiction is that we know one of Zeno’s most devoted students, later in life, was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. He’s reputed to have donated a huge sum of money to the school after Zeno’s death, when his successor Cleanthes was the head. So Zeno had an extremely wealthy and powerful friend.
King Antigonus was seemingly very devoted to Zeno, whom he admired above all other philosophers, but he played the following trick on one of his favourite Stoic students, Persaeus:
And Antigonus once, wishing to make trial of [Persaeus] caused some false news to be brought to him that his estate had been ravaged by the enemy, and as his countenance fell, “Do you see,” said he, “that wealth is not a matter of indifference ?”
Whether or not Zeno accepted patronage from Antigonus we’re told Cleanthes later did. Later Stoics were not all poor. Many subsequent Roman Stoics came from the elite equestrian and senatorial classes, most of whom were comparable to modern millionaires or billionaires. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was emperor of Rome, and therefore not short of a bob or two.
In any case, Taleb notes that Seneca was (allegedly) the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Seneca’s net worth of 300 million sesterces was equivalent to the annual salary of about 330,000 legionaries. At a very rough estimate, that would be maybe nine billion US dollars today. Perhaps much more depending on how we try to convert it into modern currency. Of all the famous Stoics, Seneca has the most mixed reputation because of his perceived love of money and luxury, his adultery, and his involvement with Emperor Nero’s violent and oppressive regime.
He was criticized for being a hypocrite by the historian Cassius Dio, for example. Seneca has been banished for alleged adultery with Julia, the sister of the Emperor Claudius. Dio says he didn’t learn his lesson or show much wisdom on his return as he later had an affair with Agrippina, the mother of Nero, “in spite of the kind of woman she was and the kind of son she had.” He adds:
Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them. In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it — the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.
So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:
We start with the following conflict. We introduced Seneca as the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. His fortune was three hundred million denarii [sic] (for a sense of its equivalence, at about the same period in time, Judas got thirty denarii, the equivalent of a month’s salary, to betray Jesus). Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs).
Again, one for the copy editor. A denarius was a silver coin worth about four sesterces, which were minted from brass during Nero’s reign. According to Cassius Dio, Seneca was already super-rich but Taleb’s just quadrupled his wealth. That seems to be another mistake, albeit a trivial one.
Taleb also says that the following passage from Seneca’s On Benefits shows that he was engaged in a cost-benefit analysis:
The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.
So, according to Taleb who highlights the expression “clear gain”, Seneca adopted an attitude of disregarding the pain of the downside while retaining enjoyment of the upside.
So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.
On the contrary, though, it sounds very typically Stoic to me. As we’ve seen, right from the outset, Zeno and other Stoics considered wealth preferable to poverty, within reason. Wealth typically (but not always) gives us more control over other externals, so it’s natural and reasonable to prefer that as a means of exercising wisdom and justice in life. However, if we happen to lose our wealth, like Zeno, that’s not worth getting upset about because all that ultimately matters is that we do the best we can in life, whatever our circumstances.
Overall, Taleb interprets Seneca as meaning something that he sums up in a single rule called “Seneca’s asymmetry”. If you have more to lose than to gain from volatility, the ups and downs of the proverbial Wheel of Fortune, that’s a negative or bad asymmetry, and you are fragile, according to Taleb. However, if you have nothing to lose and only things to gain then you have a positive or good asymmetry and you are antifragile.
This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:
Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry.
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.
Overall, I quite liked Antifragile. I do enjoy reading an author with a distinctive voice. It’s impossible surely to read Taleb, though, without thinking from time to time “Surely this doesn’t make sense!”, closely followed by “Oh shit, I can already imagine him shooting me down in flames and calling me an idiot and a Fragilista for disagreeing with him!”
Well tough luck because he deserves to have people disagreeing with him, in my opinion. He’s definitely not always right. His acerbic style probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His interpretation of Stoicism, though, is unusual and interesting. It also seems to me to be incorrect. He’s got a lot to say, nevertheless, and he’s worth reading, and that’s probably what matters most at the end of the day.