Is “X” Stoic?

(Temple A at Laodiceia, photo by the Author)

Since I started practicing and writing about Stoicism, one of the most frequent questions I see asked around is: “is X Stoic?,” where “X” can be anything from an annoying internet meme to a scene in a movie, to a major philosophical or ethical position, like vegetarianism, or feminism. Let us therefore get down to figure out once and for all what the proper answer to this vexing question is…

One way to answer “is X Stoic?” is that the question itself is not Stoic, in a sense. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal development, which means that the moral agent (that’s you, or me, or whoever is asking the question) is at the center of it. This is to be understood in contrast with universalist philosophies like Kantian deontology and utilitarianism, which seek a “view from nowhere” in order to answer moral questions regardless of specific circumstances. Kant’s categorical imperative is valid always and for everyone (well, everyone who follows Kantian deontology). Similarly, utilitarian calculus makes no distinction between people, it is supposed to be applied at the level of the entire population.

But virtue ethics - of which Stoicism is one instantiation - is not about answering general moral question. It’s about how to become a better person. So, really, the proper way to phrase things would be: “is X going to make me a better person?”

Let’s take a specific example: feminism. For the purposes of the current discussion, I am understanding feminism in a minimalist fashion, essentially adopting the Oxford definition: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Rather than asking whether the notion of equality of rights is a Stoic concept, we should ask whether favoring equality of rights makes us better persons. The answer, I think, is unequivocally positive. Why? Because one of the fundamental doctrines of Stoicism is cosmopolitanism, the notion that all human beings are endowed with a capacity to think rationally, and that we ought to use this capacity in order to build the most flourishing human society that is possible to build. Moreover, one of the cardinal virtues is that of justice, dikaiosynê which Plato defined, in part, as:

The state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; social equality. (Definitiones)

Distributing to each according to what they deserve is essentially the concept of fairness. And notice the bit about social equality. Recall that both Plato and the Stoics explicitly said that women have the same capacity as men to reason and learn philosophy, and that they should therefore be educated accordingly, as well as given responsibilities analogous to those of men in the running of the Republic.

Now notice what has happened in the course of our discussion, though: we started by rephrasing the question more properly as “is X going to make a better person?” Having answered in the affirmative, we then needed an account of why that is the case, and we provided one that invokes basic principles of Stoic philosophy.

This means that it does, in fact, make sense to ask whether a given notion - feminism, vegetarianism, and so forth - is congruent with Stoic principles. Some notions will definitely fail the test. I have argued that Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is one of these. If you don’t buy that, perhaps you will nonetheless agree that there cannot be such a thing as a Stoic Nazi. Why not? One could argue that at least some Nazi thought that what they were doing was virtuous, and therefore ethically justified. Yes, but thinking something doesn’t make it true. Nazism is fundamentally at odds with cosmopolitanism, for one, and it sits extremely uncomfortably with pretty much all the practices that Epictetus & co. proposed under the general rubric of the discipline of action.

Incidentally, people tend to forget that the ancient Stoics were very much politically involved. Cato the Younger, Seneca’s preferred role model, started a revolution against what he perceived as the tyranny of Julius Caesar. And several Stoic philosophers and senators died or were sent in exile (including Musonius Rufus and Epictetus) for participating in what is informally known as “the Stoic opposition” against the tyranny of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian.

In other cases, the answer is going to be “it depends.” For instance, I tend to lean toward the vegetarian end of the dietary spectrum, in part for ethical reasons. But I will make exceptions if, say, a close friend or relative invites me for dinner and unwittingly presents me with a meat-based dish. While in general I think vegetarianism does make me a better person, upsetting grandma during the holidays does not. So I will retain the general principle but behave flexibly when other factors temporarily become relevant. If my grandmother were to pretend an oath from me that I will always eat meat, regardless of circumstances, my judgment would change again, concluding that my virtue would now be better served by upsetting grandma. And so forth.

In yet more cases - unfortunately all too frequent on social media - the question is just silly, for instance when it comes to internet memes, trivial behaviors, or behaviors that have no moral valence, so much so that the Stoics wouldn’t classify them even under preferred or dispreferred indifferents. (E.g., is eating dark chocolate gelato Stoic?) The virtuous thing to do there is, I think, to simply ignore the question and get down to more interesting business.

One more observation: if there is one thing that is definitely un-Stoic is to beat other people up (metaphorically) by telling them that what they are doing is not Stoic. Stoicism, again, is a philosophy of personal development, absolutely not to be used as a tool to chastise others whenever they do something we don’t approve of. As Epictetus constantly reminds us, their business is up to them, and you will be violating the dichotomy of control - arguably the most basic principle of Stoicism - by pretending otherwise.

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