Stoic advice: we cannot have children, now what?

B. writes: My wife and I cannot have kids. I know that having a family is a preferred indifferent for Stoics. But I'm still looking for some text or any reading that I can go through in order to gain a bit of perspective about this personal issue.

The Stoics have quite a bit to say about the family, and much of it may sound a bit, shall we say, conservative, from a modern perspective. For instance, several Stoic authors favor sexual relations only within a marriage, and for procreation purposes at that! Take a look at this:

Men who are neither licentious nor wicked must consider only those sexual acts which occur in marriage and which are carried out for the creation of children to be right. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XII.1)

Of course, as modern Stoics we could simply ignore Musonius -- and Seneca, and Epictetus -- when they say this sort of thing, explaining their position as stemming not from something actually entailed by the logic of Stoic philosophy, but from their own quite typical Roman puritanism.

Such dismissal is supported by the fact that exponents of the early Stoa give completely contradictory advice:

In the Republic [Zeno] lays down community of wives [i.e., free love] … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.33)

There is no question that the Greek Stoics were far more permissive, when it came to sexual relations, then their Roman counterparts, possibly for a couple of different reasons: the fact that the two societies were different in that respect (the Romans did think of the Greeks as rather dissolute…), but also the fact that the early Stoa was more directly influenced by the Cynics (after all, Zeno’s first teacher was Crates of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher). For instance:

[Chrysippus in his work on Commonwealth] praises Diogenes for saying to the bystanders as he masturbated in public, ‘Would that I could thus rub the hunger too out of my belly.’ (Plutarch, De Stoicorum repugnantiis 1044b-1045a)

Nevertheless, I think that any modern Stoic needs to separate the issue of what individual ancient authors said from what the philosophy itself, then properly updated and practiced today, entails. I have argued, for instance, that modern Stoics should be inclined toward vegetarianism and should certainly support feminism, even though the ancients were neither (though some of them were vegetarians, and the attitude of ancient Stoics toward women was remarkably progressive by the standards of the time).

Arguably the best treatment I know of concerning the topic of Stoicism and the family is Liz Gloyn’s book, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. Liz goes in detail into Seneca’s writings, exploring not just the importance of the family in general, but the nature of specific familial relationships, such as mother-son, father-son, among brothers, and so forth. Three major things can be extracted from her analysis:

1. Stoicism considers the family important because it is in line with the general concept of “living according to nature.” This doesn’t imply that the nuclear family as understood by the Romans, say, is the way to go. But familial relationships are natural (particularly the one between parents and children) and good (if carried out virtuously). They are necessary, of course, to continue the human species, which itself is part of the web of cosmic cause-effect known as the Logos.

2. Also, the family is -- typically, not necessarily -- the place where we begin our process of oikeiosis, the natural mechanism that allows us to begin to care about others, and that nudges us toward ever expanding circles of virtuous behavior, from ourselves and our family all the way out to the entire world, resulting in Stoic cosmopolitanism.

3. The family, though, has its limits as a locus for nurturing our virtue, and Seneca in more than one place tells Lucilius that at some point we need to choose our own teachers and even expressly go against our parents’ wishes, since typically these focus on externals like wealth and fame, rather than virtue.

Of course, having a family is not mandatory, as Epictetus tells his students when talking about the Cynic life style, in Discourses III.22. It is interesting to note, however, that the reason the Cynics are exempt from having families (with the famous exception of the Cynic couple, Crates and Hipparchia) is because they have something better -- meaning more virtuous -- to do with their life (namely, playing perennial gadflies, reminding the rest of us that we are wasting our time pursuing externals). In a modern context, therefore, it comes down to why one does or does not want children. The only good reason for wanting them -- from a Stoic perspective -- is to contribute positively to the human cosmopolis. The only good reason for not wanting them is that we think we can make worthwhile contributions of other kinds.

But of course the problem you and your wife have is not one of want, but one of opportunity. Simplicius, in his Commentary on the Enchiridion, tells us that Epictetus lived to an old age, and that when he was already of advanced age he adopted the child of a friend, because the child risked being left to die (we are not told of the specifics of the case). That was certainly a virtuous reason to adopt, and I wonder whether you and your wife have considered adoption as an alternative. While obviously an adopted child would not propagate your genetic line (the reason natural selection made us instinctively prone to have children in the first place!), for a Stoic that doesn’t matter in the least, so long as we are helping another human being and striving to augment the degree of virtuousness in the world.

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