The first review of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius has been posted on Amazon. The book is due out on 2nd April but you can pre-order now, and advance review copies have already been sent out.
To mark the publication of the revised second edition of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald will be giving a talk and signing copies of the book at Ben McNally’s independent bookstore in downtown Toronto. The store are also taking pre-orders for signed copies of the forthcoming How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
Event: Stoicism and Death
The philosopher Seneca said that to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave. The Stoics taught that the wise man (or woman) enjoys life but is unafraid of dying. Donald will provide an introduction to Stoicism focusing on its relevance to modern life. This will be followed by a discussion of the Stoic practice of contemplating one’s own death.
It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things. For example, death is nothing terrible, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgement that death is terrible, this is the terrible thing.Epictetus
The Stoics believed that our fear of death is the most fundamental form of human anxiety and that by overcoming it we master many unhealthy fears and desires. Contemplating death, by viewing each day as if it could be our last also helps us, they said, to remain more fully grounded in the present moment and make the most of life.
It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last day.Musonius Rufus
The Stoic teacher Epictetus reminded his students that Roman emperors and generals celebrating a triumph were accompanied by a slave whispering the words memento mori in their ears, “remember you must die”, encouraging them to remain grounded and self-aware.
For Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, contemplating the bigger picture is the secret to mastering our fear of death. He quoted Socrates who asked whether human life can seem like a big deal to a great-souled individual, a philosopher, who has embraced the whole of time and reality in his thoughts. Socrates concluded that to such a person not even their own demise will seem frightening.
Come along and learn about Stoicism and its ancient philosophy of death.
Time/Date: 2-4pm, Saturday 2nd February
Venue: Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street, Toronto, ON M5H 4B2. (Map)
Mon-Fri 9-6, Saturday (except long weekends) 11-5, Closed on Sunday
RSVP now on Meetup if you’re thinking of attending.
Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist, trainer and writer. He’s the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Donald was born in Scotland but has been living in Canada since 2013.
More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age is a new book by existential psychotherapist Antonia Macaro. Macaro is also the co-author, along with philosopher Julian Baggini, of The Shrink and the Sage, based on their Financial Times column.
Macaro says that the philosophy she most identifies with is actually Aristotelianism but that over the years she’s found herself repeatedly coming back to both Stoicism and Buddhism, and wrestling with their doctrines. She notes that both Stoicism and Buddhism have influenced modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). She also observes that philosophies such as Aristotelianism and Epicureanism, which were contemporaries of ancient Stoicism, have not experienced a similar resurgence of interest for some reason. She suggests that, paradoxically, this might be because these philosophies of life appear somewhat less radical and demanding than Stoicism and Buddhism.
Her stated goal in this book is to extract beneficial aspects of the two philosophies, Stoicism and Buddhism, that are compatible with a modern naturalistic worldview. Macaro is also right to emphasize from the outset that there are many different versions of Buddhism and there are also some variations in the doctrines of the Stoic school. So she has to choose an interpretation of each to focus on because it would be impossible to compare every version of these philosophies. Buddhism, in particular, is an extremely diverse tradition both in terms of theory and practice. Stoicism is more consistent, although there’s clearly a difference in emphasis, for example, between Epictetus and Seneca. This may be an indication that they represented different types of Stoicism. We’re told, indeed, in one ancient source that by the Roman Imperial period, Stoicism had divided into three main branches represented by the followers of the last three scholarchs of the school: Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater of Tarsus, and Panaetius of Rhodes.
The first chapter of Macaro’s book provides a simple and highly readable introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism. She raises the question as to what extent antiquated-sounding religious and metaphysical doctrines are necessary to the modern reception of both philosophies. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the causes of human suffering. Chapters 4 and 5 with their solutions. The second part of the book then focuses on what useful elements may be extracted from both philosophies by those who reject the ancient metaphysical teachings in favour of a modern naturalistic perspective.
I thought this was an excellent book and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about what Stoicism and Buddhism have to offer us today as guides to living. It was beautifully written and very clearly explained the key concepts. I’m more into Stoicism than the author, though, so there are a couple of points I want to make about her interpretation of that philosophy. In my opinion, Macaro is actually more of a Stoic than she realizes. I’ll now explain some of my reasons for saying that…
Does Stoicism Advocate Eliminating All Emotions?
There’s a common misconception that the ancient Stoics advocated the elimination of all of our emotions. That would obviously be a concept antagonistic to modern psychotherapy and something very few people would find appealing today. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how a philosophy like that could have been popular at any point in time. However, at least in some instances, Macaro does seem to portray Stoicism as advocating the complete elimination of all of our emotions.
For instance, she sums up the goal of Stoicism as “eradicating the emotions and achieving freedom from disturbance.” This notion recurs in various guises throughout the book. For example, she also writes “For the Stoics, there is no such thing as an appropriate emotion.” Later in the book she appears to write of the emotions in general:
Famously, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle called for their moderation rather than eradication. It is inappropriate emotions and excessive attachments that we should endeavour to change.
That’s not quite right, though. The latter description could just as easily be applied to the Stoics because their goal is not to eradicate emotion per se but rather to correct the mistaken beliefs underlying certain emotions described by them as unhealthy, excessive and irrational, and thereby transform them into more healthy, moderate, and rational ones.
I think Macaro has perhaps been too influenced by reading Martha Nussbaum’s account of Stoicism, which also interprets the philosophy as advocating the complete “extirpation” of all emotions, in general terms. Many readers notice that Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire seems to contradict this view at times by also acknowledging the Stoic theory of eupatheiai or healthy emotions. Nussbaum doesn’t really explain how the Stoics could have advocated both the attainment of healthy emotions and the eradication of emotion in general. Macaro’s book contains similarly conflicting statements about what the Stoics believed. Nussbaum is certainly a respected classicist, although her area of expertise is more Aristotelianism than Stoicism and many people have questioned her interpretation of the Stoics, which seems to have been influenced by her personal preference for Aristotle’s philosophy. I certainly don’t get the impression that many (any?) people in the modern Stoicism community actually read the Stoics as advocating the total extirpation of all emotions.
I wish Macaro had been able to read the recent book on Stoicism by Brad Inwood, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale, who is much more of an expert on ancient Stoicism than Nussbaum. She would then have been able to compare his more balanced (and more accurate) account of Stoicism against Nussbaum’s portrayal of them. Inwood, pace Nussbaum, makes it very clear this notion of complete “extirpation” (or elimination) of emotions is indeed just a common misinterpretation of Stoicism and that it’s definitely not what the ancient Stoics actually believed:
There is a stereotype of Stoicism familiar to everyone, the claim that Stoicism involves being relentlessly rational, but without a trace of emotion—Mr Spock from Star Trek, only more so. That this isn’t the right view of Stoicism is now generally understood, and specialists will even point out that the passions (pathē) from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological. The wise person may well be perfectly rational, but that doesn’t deprive him or her of all affective or emotional experience.Inwood, Stoicism, 2018
In passages like the following, though, Macaro seems to be saying the opposite: that she reads Stoicism as advocating the ideal of totally depriving us of all our emotional experience:
We don’t have to agree with the Stoic ideal of freeing ourselves from all emotion [italics added], but we can agree that we shouldn’t get too joyful or distressed about things that are relatively unimportant.
I think part of the confusion here is caused by the too heavy-handed translation of apatheia as “freedom from emotions”:
The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being ‘free from emotions’ (which is what the term literally means), although different Stoics held different views on what exactly this involved.
I would say, pace Macaro, that the word literally means not being in a passion (pathos), something slightly different from what she seems to mean by being “free from emotions”. To be more specific, what the Stoics have in mind are irrational, unhealthy, and excessive feelings (both emotions and desires), which are potentially under voluntary control, and from which we suffer. They don’t just mean “emotion” in general. Cicero mentioned the problem of translating pathos from Greek Stoicism into Latin. He explains that these “passions” make the lives of most people a misery and that he was tempted simply to translate this term as “illness” but thinks “emotional disturbance” or “perturbation” better captures the Stoics’ meaning and makes more sense as a general term (De Finibus, 3.35). Indeed, the word pathos is also the source of our modern term “pathological”, as in “psychopathology” or mental health problems. In ancient Stoicism it specifically denoted unhealthy emotions not unlike those addressed in modern psychotherapy.
Moreover, Diogenes Laertius also tried to explain how the Stoics distinguished what they meant by the apatheia of the wise man from the same word used in a different, more negative sense:
They say the wise man is also without passions [apathê], because he is not vulnerable to them. But the bad man is called “without passions” in a different sense, which means the same as “hard-hearted” and “insensitive”. (7.117)Diogenes Laertius
Nussbaum, and Macaro, seem to interpret the word as meaning unemotional, which is more like the second meaning above (“hard-hearted” or “insensitive”). We’re told emphatically that’s not what the Stoics meant, though.
Note that the wise man isn’t even said to be completely devoid of (unhealthy) passions here but to be free from them in the sense of not being vulnerable to their influence. The same word is used to call vicious men hard-hearted and insensitive (lacking in love or affection) but we’re explicitly told here that that’s not what the Stoics meant when they talk about the apatheia of the Sage. Epictetus says something quite similar, that Stoics ought not to be free from passions (apathê) in the sense of being unfeeling “like a statue”, and he adds that this has to do with engaging in “appropriate action” and maintaining one’s natural and acquired relationships, as a family member and a citizen (Discourses, 3.2).
Cicero also portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise as saying that it would be the greatest possible mistake to try to eliminate feelings of friendship, because even animals experience natural affection for their offspring, which Stoics viewed as the foundation of human love and friendship (Laelius, 13). We would not only be dehumanising ourselves by eliminating natural affection between friends, he says, but reducing ourselves below animal nature to something more like a mere tree-trunk or a stone. He goes so far as to warn us that we should turn a deaf ear to anyone who foolishly suggests that the good life entails having “the hardness of iron” in terms of our emotions. Seneca, too, says:
There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)
Seneca elsewhere explains that whereas the Epicureans mean “a mind immune to feeling” when they speak of apatheia, this “unfeelingness” is actually the opposite of what the Stoics intended (Letters, 9). “This is the difference between us Stoics and the Epicureans; our wise man overcomes every discomfort but feels it, theirs does not even feel it.” The virtue of the Sage consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity, while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world. And, again, elsewhere he wrote:
I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. I remember that he is made up of two parts: the one part is irrational, — it is this that may be bitten, burned, or hurt; the other part is rational, — it is this which holds resolutely to opinions, is courageous, and unconquerable. […] You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. (Seneca, Letters 71)
Even the Stoic wise man, therefore, experiences a range of natural sensations and emotions. Indeed, similar figures of speech about the goal not being to become like a man as unfeeling, hard-hearted, or unemotional as stone, are scattered throughout the Stoic sources. It sounds to me like it had long ago become a familiar or cliched way in which they distanced themselves from what they saw as a common misinterpretation of their philosophy, probably because this lack of emotion was an idea more associated with earlier traditions, such as Cynicism, rather than with the Stoics themselves.
Elsewhere in her book, like Nussbaum, Macaro appears to contradict her depiction of Stoicism as advocating “freeing ourselves from all emotion” when she acknowledges that the Stoic ideal consisted in experiencing certain “good passions” (eupatheiai).
But even more important is cultivating what could be called ‘calm emotions’. For the Stoics, these were joy, wishing and caution. These are supposed to be a rational alternative to ordinary kinds of emotions: joy replaces pleasure, wishing replaces desire and caution replaces fear. But these are not, as one might think at first sight, just milder, more reasonable versions of their nefarious counterparts. Rather, they occur only in relation to virtue and/or lack of it, resulting in the limited emotional palette of joy at having acted virtuously, wishing that we were more virtuous, or caution when our virtue is in danger. No emotions other than the calm variety are considered legitimate.
She adds “There is another stumbling block: for the Stoics, only the sage is able to experience these calm emotions.” This is partially true but misleading.
The Stoics clearly believed that the rest of us are capable of experiencing healthy emotions, which is precisely what Macaro seems to be interpreting them as denying here. All of the major surviving Stoic sources describe the experience of natural healthy emotions. For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to love and friendship, cheerfulness or joy, and also a healthy sense of shame or aversion to vice as within the range of emotions experienced by someone practising Stoicism. The love or joy of a Sage might be perfect and our own glimpses of healthy, rational, and moderate versions of these feelings may be imperfect but the Stoics certainly don’t advise us to try to eliminate them. Rather they acknowledge that rational beings have the seeds of virtue already within them and as such are capable of glimpsing perfect wisdom. So we should, of course, nurture the attitudes that underlie these healthy and praiseworthy emotions.
Marcus Aurelius, for example, praises his Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, in Book 1 of The Meditations, for being “free from passions and yet full of love” (philostorgia). He obviously cannot mean free from all emotion but “passions” here are clearly a specific class of unhealthy and irrational emotions. Moreover, Marcus clearly does not think that a Stoic like Sextus should have sought to eradicate this rational love, and purged it from his heart, just because it’s inferior to the ideal love expressed by the perfect Sage. Passages like these appear to provide evidence that Macaro’s interpretation of Stoicism, which she feels to be very much at odds with common sense, is also at odds with what the Stoics actually believed. For instance, Marcus mentions “love” far more times throughout The Meditations than he mentions virtue and at no point does he indicate that he interprets Stoicism as requiring him to eradicate the healthy, rational sort of love from his heart. On the contrary, he clearly aspires to cultivate more of these feelings.
Surely most readers of Macaro’s book will be puzzled as to how she can both claim that Stoicism advocates an ideal that requires “freeing ourselves from all emotion” and also that it “[sees] a place for ‘calm emotions’”? On the face of it, these two statements and the others like them scattered throughout the text are at odds with one another. Moreover, as Prof. Inwood put it, this notion that Stoicism advocated eradicating all trace of emotion is mistaken because “the passions from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological.”
Without going into too much detail, although she certainly does touch on the subject, I also think Macaro’s account of Stoicism doesn’t fully recognize the significance of the concept of proto-passions (propatheiai) and the sense in which it conflicts with the claim that Stoicism advocates the elimination of all emotion. I also think she overstates the extent to which Stoicism advocated asceticism. I’d therefore advise readers who are particularly interested in Stoicism to look at a wider range of commentaries to get a more rounded and balanced picture of the philosophy.
Overall, though, with those reservations in mind, I’d recommend this book. It’s very easy to read and I’m actually in agreement with much of what it says about both Stoicism and Buddhism. I think most readers will find aspects of this book helpful in their daily lives. It’s very well-written, as I mentioned above, and even where I disagree with the interpretations of Stoicism it contains, I certainly think they’re worth reading and evaluating. Most people will read this as a general introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism, for daily life, and they’ll definitely get a lot out of it in that respect.
What does Michael Cohen’s sentencing statement in court today have to do with Socrates or Stoic philosophy?
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 intense 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 by using a little oratory to 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
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 to 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 elicit 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
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.
Stankievicz considers several distinct “themes” or motivations for creating art and evaluates each in relation to Stoic philosophy:
- 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.
This book’s particularly well suited to audio because the final chapter was written specifically so that it could be read aloud, a bit like a cross between a story and a guided meditation exercise.
You can also pre-order the audio CD version from Amazon US.
I recently arrived in Toronto, where I’ll be staying for a while, and I’ve been invited to give a talk by Peter Limberg of the Toronto Stoics group.
I’ll be talking about Stoicism’s relevance for our emotions and relationships in the modern world, and how to apply its concepts and techniques in practice. Please don’t forget to RSVP via the webpage below if you’re interested in coming along and joining the conversation. Look forward to meeting you there! 🙂
Use the coupon code NOVBOOK18 to claim your $5 discount off my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, if you pre-order today from Amazon. (Terms and conditions apply.)
Table of Contents
1. The Dead Emperor
The Story of Stoicism
2. The Most Truthful Child In Rome
How to Speak Wisely
3. Contemplating the Sage
How to Follow Your Values
4. The Choice of Hercules
How to Conquer Desire
5. Grasping the Nettle
How to Tolerate Pain
6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations
How to Relinquish Fear
7. Temporary Madness
How to Conquer Anger
8. Death and the View from Above
Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is underway. Just over 3,000 people have enrolled to take part this year. Tim LeBon has already got some initial data from the questionnaires. This word cloud shows the main reasons people gave for taking part:
Most participants were aged 26-55.
When asked where they live the top five responses from participants were:
- United States 37.2%
- United Kingdom 22.5%
- Canada 7.8%
- Australia 3.5%
- Germany 3.1%
31.8% said they had no knowledge of Stoicism or would describe themselves as novices. 58.8% had never taken part in SMRT or Stoic Week before. However, 26.9% had taken part in SMRT or Stoic Week “more than five” times already. So there’s both a lot of newcomers and a lot of people who repeat these courses more or less every year. 45.7% of participants said that they didn’t consider themselves Stoics or weren’t sure, whereas the rest identified themselves as being Stoics to some degree.
We have a lot of other data from responses to the SPANE and Satisfaction with Life questionnaires, and Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) but I’ll leave that for another article.
Some of you have have contacted me about obtaining signed copies of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I’m pleased to announce that you can now order your copy by phone or email from Ben McNally’s bookstore and they will ship it to you as soon as it’s available.
Ben runs one of Toronto’s finest general interest bookstores, specialising in history, biography, fiction, poetry, and special orders.
Just give them or a call or send an email to request your signed copy and they’ll be happy to assist.
Hope you enjoy the book!