The ancients can't help us. Yes, they can

(Plato surrounded by students in his Academy in Athens. Mosaic (detail) from the Villa of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii, 1st century B.C. Roman National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You may have noticed that ancient wisdom is back with a vengeance. I'm not talking just about the stunning resurgence of Stoicism. Princeton University Press has been publishing a highly successful series based on how the ancients lived, which includes title like "How to Be a Bad Emperor" (on Caligula, so we can learn about tyrants), "How to Grow Old" (based on Cicero's On Old Age), and "How to Die" (based on the writings of Seneca). There are many, many more examples to go by.

But -- predictably -- success attracts criticism, one example of which is a recent essay by Carlos Fraenkel (the James McGill Professor at McGill University in Canada), published in the Times Literary Supplement under the title "The ancients can't help us now."

Fraenkel's first salvo is a personal story he recounts as an example of why the ancient utterly fails us today: "Once a student came to my office. She'd been one of my liveliest interlocutors in class: smart, sharp, curious. 'I won't be able to get my final paper to you in time,' she apologized. Then she pulled out a medical note from her backpack. 'I'll be having surgery -- a brain tumor,' she said. An awkward silence followed. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She was waiting for me to comfort her. I wanted to, of course. But nothing came to mind. I remember thinking how absurd it would be to quote the Phaedo's 'philosophy is a preparation for death.' From Plato to Boethius there's a small library of philosophical consolations. I'd once taught a class on it. But none of it seemed helpful. I grabbed for the Kleenex box, mumbling how sorry I was."

This, of course, proves absolutely nothing. Of course Fraenkel's move was the right one, given the circumstances. Sometimes, in the moment, the only thing you can do is to remain silent and offer a box of Kleenex. Indeed, Epictetus advised us to do something along those lines:

"When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, 'What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.' As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too." (Enchiridion 16)

Do you see the difference? The idea is that of course if someone is not schooled in philosophy as a way of life, or does not accept the precepts of your own philosophy, it would be callous to give them a sermon about your favorite sage. Imagine, for instance, if I were distraught because my father died and a Christian came to me -- an atheist -- and said: "don't worry, your dad is in heaven, smiling down at you." Come to think of it, that actually happened, at my father's funeral. And it was supremely irritating, because I don't believe my father is anywhere anymore. That undoubtedly well intentioned Christian would have done well to take Epictetus' counsel and keep her ideas about heaven to herself.

However, suppose the student in question were a practicing Stoic instead. Or a Christian (which the author may not remember, is also "ancient"). Or a Buddhist. Plenty of people embracing one or another of those philosophies would have found comfort in a similar situation. So that example is entirely irrelevant to the point under discussion.

Fraenkel then turns his attention to the meat of the matter: his criticism of the project pursued by a number of scholars -- from Pierre Hadot to Alasdair Macintyre -- to detach ancient ethics from ancient metaphysics in order to make the Greco-Romans more palatable to modern audiences. This is a project that I am involved in myself, for instance with my new book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living, a reimagining and updating of Epictetus' Enchiridion. Though I don't think we need to detach ancient ethics from metaphysics, as much as to revise and update both.

Fraenkel picks on three schools of thought in particular: "For Plato a wise life is a life centered on contemplating eternal forms. ... For Aristotle a wise life is a life centered on cultivating reason: to do things virtuously -- from eating and drinking to studying nature -- means to do them rationally. ... For the Stoics, finally, a wise life consists in living in agreement with nature. By this, they mean a life aligned with the Divine Mind's providential plan that permeates every part of the universe."

From this, Fraenkel jumps to the following conclusion: "Once we remove the metaphysics and cosmology -- forms, celestial spheres, the Divine Mind, purposeful order -- the conceptions of the wise life proposed by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics collapse, including the tools they offer for finding peace of mind and consolation."

But this is a colossal non-sequitur, as Fraenkel would know if he had paid any attention to the vast literature on Neo-Aristotelianism (notice the prefix, "new") or Modern Stoicism (I'm not aware of anyone currently attempting to revive Platonism, but see below).

Let me briefly attempt to illustrate how one could reasonably update all three of these philosophies to the 21st century.

Platonism: this philosophy has already been "updated" because it has been incorporated into Christianity under the name of Neo-Platonism. The world of Ideas becomes the eternal world of God, and sure enough the highest kind of Christian life is one of contemplation of God. On a day to day basis, you live your life following the Ten Commandments and being inspired by the life of Jesus. It doesn't work for me, but it works for abut 2.3 billion current adherents to the faith.

Aristotelianism: one doesn't have to buy into Aristotle's teleological metaphysics to think that human beings are distinct from all other animal forms precisely because of our astounding ability to think rationally (which, of course, doesn't mean we manage to be rational all the time, or even most of the time). And yes, it is rational to do things virtuously, to moderate our urges and to treat other human beings well -- because we are a highly social species whose members only thrive when embedded in a cooperative society.

Stoicism: about that philosophy, of course, I literally wrote books. But "living according to nature" is actually not difficult to update at all. I don't believe in a universal rational mind, so I cannot avail myself of the Stoic concept of Providence. But I still believe that we should live according to both universal and human nature -- just like Chrysippus argued. Living according to universal nature, in the 21st century, means to "follow the facts" as Larry Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism. That is, live by being aware of how the world actually works, instead of engaging in wishful thinking (like the millions of people who just wish the covid-19 pandemic went magically away). Living according to human nature means taking seriously the fact that we are highly social animals capable of reason and act accordingly, using reason to improve society.

Fraenkel ends his essay with the following plea: "At least when it comes to peace of mind, our best bet may be a change of attitude: instead of seeking consolation in philosophy, let's minimize the need for it -- by promoting science, technology, medicine and good social policies. ... We should be working at removing the reasons for fear rather than honing the tools to cope with it."

We absolutely should be working at removing the reasons for fear, and science, technology, medicine, and good social policies are certainly a good bet. But they cannot be the whole answer, on penalty of scientism. No matter how good our science will get, we will still face disease and death. And it is philosophy, not science, that can prepare us for it. Regardless of how pleasant our lives will be made by technology, we will always face failure and disappointment, either because of the course of events we cannot control, or because of the actions of our fellow human beings. Philosophy prepares us to face such failures and disappointments, not science. 

Moreover, let us not forget that science and technology are not unqualified goods, as they have been responsible for our major problems as well: we face the possibilities of nuclear armageddon and global climate collapse precisely because we insist in focusing on science and technology at the expense of philosophy and wisdom. The Greeks had a word for this: hubris. But what did they know, right?

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