Martha Nussbaum on Stoicism: a respectful reply

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is a powerhouse of modern philosophy. Among other things, she has won the American Philosophical Association’s Philip Quinn Prize, the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, and the Don M. Randel Prize for Achievement in the Humanities from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her many books include The Therapy of Desire, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, and the very recent The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. She has published internationally renowned work in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, feminist philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy and the arts. So, when she speaks, or writes, the sensible thing to do is to listen carefully.

That said, I’m going to take issue with and respectfully push back against some remarks Nussbaum made about Stoicism in a recent interview with 3AM Magazine. Both the magazine and the full interview are well worth reading, but I will focus here on the bits about Stoic philosophy.

Nussbaum begins by praising Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism:

“The Hellenistic thinkers (the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics) all thought that philosophy should be not merely theoretical, but also practical. … The Stoics, like Aristotle, think that people should be in charge of their own critical thinking and should address their own emotions with introspection but also with good rational arguments that can be shared with others. This is the approach I follow.”

And moreover:

“There are then all sorts of things the Stoics offer us that are useful today, and that greatly influenced early modern Western philosophy. They were great thinkers about the nature and structure of emotions. They were great thinkers about logic, about the philosophy of language, about knowledge, about ethics. … Often puzzling locutions in Descartes or Spinoza become clear as day once we see that they are using technical terms of the Stoics, and so forth.”

So far so good. What’s the problem, then?

“We need to make a big distinction: between the Stoics’ descriptive theory of what emotions are, and their normative theory of what we ought to do about them. I accept the descriptive theory with many modifications, but I reject the normative theory.”

She is right in accepting the descriptive theory -- yes, with modifications, since it was first articulated over two millennia ago -- because it is, in fact, backed by modern cognitive science and put into practice by cognitive behavioral therapy. Which, incidentally, makes it a bit odd to reject the normative part, since it works, empirical data in hand.

“The descriptive theory says that emotions are evaluative appraisals that always ascribe to things outside a person’s own control great importance for a person’s own flourishing. I think this is basically correct and deeply insightful. However, in Upheavals in Thought I identified four gaps.”

What are the four gaps Nussbaum identified in Stoic philosophy, and what are modern Stoics to do about them?

(i) “Since this theory survives only in fragments, it must simply be made much more systematic and elaborate.”

Indeed. That’s precisely the project being currently pursued by a number of philosophers and cognitive therapists interested in Stoicism, including, for instance, Lawrence Becker in his A New Stoicism (chapter-by-chapter commentary here).

(ii) “We must reject the Stoics’ notion that only human adults have emotions, and we must adjust the theory to make room for the evident fact that animals have all kinds of emotions. So the theory can’t be based upon language, or hold that emotions are propositional attitudes.”

Here we need to be careful, as the word “emotion” is imprecise. Modern cognitive science makes a distinction between instinctive feelings (what the Stoics called proto-emotions) and cognition-driven full fledged emotions. Very clearly, we share the first ones with many animal species and with very young human babies. But it’s also clear that the Stoics were aware of this. Indeed, they built on such knowledge to argue that an inclination to “virtue” (we would say pro-social behavior) is natural in human beings, and it needs to then be nurtured and expanded by reason once we are capable to reflect on things.

In book III of De Finibus, Cicero has Cato the Younger explain:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution; while on the other hand it conceives an antipathy to destruction and to those things which appear to threaten destruction.”

So, clearly, for the Stoics we do have natural feelings, both positive and negative, since the moment we are born. And the description of these feelings is not dissimilar, behaviorally, from what we observe in other mammals. Of course of all animals species on planet Earth only we then develop a complex language and the ability to reflect, articulate our thoughts to others and, most crucially, actively alter, our emotional judgments. So Nussbaum is incorrect when she says that we should not think of emotions as a type of cognition. We should, instead, follow the Stoics (and modern cognitive science) in distinguishing between the proto-emotions that we have in common with other animals and with human babies, and the fully formed, cognitively influenced emotions of older human children and adults.

Nussbaum then continues her four-step analysis:

(iii) “The Stoics didn’t investigate the ways in which different cultures shape emotions differently, so we must do so, aided by anthropology and history.” 

Fair enough, but this poses no in-principle problem to a modern Stoic program. Especially when we consider that empirical research shows that the Stoic emphasis on a small number of fundamental virtues (four in our system) to guide us through life in an ethical manner is actually shared, with due variations and shifts in emphasis, cross-culturally. Moreover, modern Stoics do not pretend to assume that Stoicism works for everyone, but that is not an indictment of the philosophy (no more than it would be for someone to say that Christianity, or Buddhism, don’t work for everyone).

(iv) “The Stoics lacked interest in infancy and childhood and did not describe the development of emotions over time, so we must also do that — aided by both psychoanalysis and literature.”

Respectfully, I don’t think that’s quite right. The Stoics did pay attention to the development of emotions, from their famous “cradle argument” (shared with the Epicureans, though the latter used it to arrive at different conclusions) to a fairly sophisticated theory of moral development in terms of oikeiosis (“appropriation” of other people’s concerns). That’s why, for instance, Seneca puts such an emphasis on the family as the place where moral development begins, as beautifully detailed by Liz Gloyn in her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (chapter-by-chapter commentary here)

But yes, again, the project of modern Stoicism is definitely one of updating things, though based more on modern biology, psychology, and neuroscience than on psychoanalysis (the Freudian and Jungian bits are pretty much pseudoscience, at this point) or literature (which can explore what authors think they know about the subject matter, but not really discover new aspects of it).

Let’s take stock so far. Nussbaum accepts the Stoic descriptive account of ethics, but -- strangely -- rejects its prescriptive counterpart. I say strangely because one would think that a good description would then lead to a good prescription. Indeed, all Hellenistic philosophies were predicated on just such an assumption, they only differed in their descriptive accounts. Moreover, she identifies four gaps in ancient Stoicism’s descriptive theory, which I have argued either are not actually there (at least not in the way she presents them) or at any rate don’t create an insurmountable obstacle for a modern Stoic, who is very much interested in updating the system with the intervening results from philosophy and science.

Before I proceed to discuss the remaining criticisms raised by Nussbaum against Stoicism, however, let me make a general point. She, as well as other recent critics, like Aristotelian scholar Edith Hall, often forget that nobody, not even themselves, simply takes any ancient philosophy as it was back then and transplants it to modern times without updates or qualifications. Modern Aristotelians like Hall (and Nussbaum) are really Neo-Aristotelians, for example because, I imagine, they don’t accept Aristotle’s account of teleology, i.e., of the natural function of things. Similarly, modern Christianity is not the same thing that Paul of Tarsus wrote about; and neither is modern Buddhism what it was two millennia ago. And yet, when it comes to Stoicism, somehow what Epictetus said is taken to be written in stone, unchangeable, and therefore irrevocably damning. 

This attitude may stem from a number of not mutually exclusive reasons: (a) the necessity to reject the only Hellenistic philosophy that, against all odds, is actually seeping into wider public consciousness, in order to advance one’s own preferred alternative; or (b) an uncharitable reading of the Stoics themselves (e.g., Epictetus was certainly the most blunt of them all; but why not turn to the much gentler spirit of Seneca?); or (c) the simple historical fact that many other traditions (Christianity, Buddhism, though not Aristotelianism) have continued to evolve organically while Stoicism has been interrupted since the third century or thereabout.

That said, back to Nussbaum, and to her crucial rejection of the prescriptive part of Stoic philosophy:

“The Stoics thought that people simply should wean themselves from all attachments to things outside their own rational will, and that way they would get rid of all the emotions. I think that they were right to urge people not to be hung up on money and power, but totally wrong when they asked them not to be deeply attached to loved ones, family, children, and also one’s own country or city or whatever. … So I think that the Stoics are mostly wrong, though about anger they have some extremely valuable insights.”

She then ends that part of her interview with 3AM with a mention of the fact that Gandhi’s normative views were, in fact, very similar to the Stoics’. Okay, then, I’ll take Gandhi’s endorsement!

Seriously, let me parse very carefully this last quote by Nussbaum, because it encapsulates a number of standard criticisms of Stoicism, which I think are off the mark. To begin with, she comes close to committing a category mistake: prescriptive accounts in ethics cannot be right or wrong. Rightness and wrongness are descriptors that attach to facts, so that one can say -- as Nussbaum does say -- that the Stoics got their descriptive theory of emotions largely correct. Factually correct, that is. But when it comes to normative judgments, they can only be coherent or incoherent, and they can work or not work. Calling them wrong (or right) seems, well, wrong!

Nussbaum agrees that the Stoics had “extremely valuable insights” into anger, and I assume she means more valuable than the standard Aristotelian view that a little bit of anger is a good thing. For Seneca, anger is temporary madness, takes over reason, and is to be avoided at all costs. And Nussbaum herself has written sympathetically about the Stoic take (including its prescriptive part!) before.

The crux of her criticism seems to reduce to a single point: while it’s good to advice people not to be attached to things, money, reputation, power and the like, it’s not good to advise them not to be attached to friends, family and other loved ones. Well, setting aside that this criticism would hold just as well against Buddhism and Taoism, for instance, did the Stoics actually advise that? Did they tell us to get rid of all emotions, as Nussbaum brazenly states?

Not really. Margaret Graver wrote a whole book on Stoicism and Emotion (chapter-by-chapter commentary here) that effectively debunks the notion that the Stoics advocated suppression of emotions. Rather, their training aimed at shifting our emotional spectrum, away from unhealthy emotions like anger, fear and hatred, and toward the mindful cultivation of healthy emotions like love, joy, and a sense of justice. They even used distinct words for the two classes (as I’m sure Nussbaum knows well): pathē (from which our modern “pathology” comes from) and eupatheiai (which literally means good emotions!).

The standard passages everyone taking Nussbaum’s position refers to are from Epictetus, for instance:

“So, too, in life, when you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, never let your imagination run free, or your transports carry you as far as they might wish, but hold them back, restrain them, like those who stand behind generals, when they’re hiding in triumph and keep reminding them that they’re mortal.” (Discourses III.24.85)

This is no doubt blunt, perhaps uncomfortably so for modern sensibilities. But one thing to keep in mind is that in the time of Epictetus one’s loved ones truly could drop dead at any moment. The emperor Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the Western world, with access to the best medical care available (his personal physician was the famous Galen) lost ten of his 14 children before adulthood. And that was the emperor… So let’s give Epictetus a bit of a break here, he was reacting to his time and situation.

But why take that as the only pertinent statement, representative of the entire Stoic approach? Why not, for instance, look at Seneca, who talks a lot about grief and friendship, using the sort of compassionate language that I think would reconcile Nussbaum with the Stoics. For instance:

“Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.” (Letters LXIII.7-8)
“‘But,’ say you, ‘sorrow for the loss of one’s own children is natural.’ Who denies it? Provided it be reasonable? For we cannot help feeling a pang, and the stoutest-hearted of us are cast down not only at the death of those dearest to us, but even when they leave us on a journey.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, VII)
“I know, indeed, that there are some men, whose wisdom is of a harsh rather than a brave character, who say that the wise man never would mourn. It seems to me that they never can have been in the position of mourners, for otherwise their misfortune would have shaken all their haughty philosophy out of them, and, however much against their will, would have forced them to confess their sorrow.” (To Polybius, On Consolation, XVIII)

Does this sound to you like someone who is counseling emotional detachment and the suppression of feelings? “Let us greedily enjoy our friends,” precisely because the nature of things is that nothing and no one lasts forever. Panta rhei, as Heraclitus famously put it. Seneca explicitly agrees that sorrow for one’s lost loved ones is natural, and he calls “harsh, not brave” those who pretend otherwise.

Even Epictetus’ mention of the Roman custom of having generals going through a triumph accompanied by a slave who would whisper in their ears “remember, you are a mortal,” is a clear reference to the actual objective of Stoic practice: to develop equanimity in the phase of adversity. The Stoics teach us that everything we think we owe, from property to loved ones, is actually only on loan from the universe, and the universe can recall the loan at any moment and for no apparent reason, so we must be prepared. When Epictetus says:

“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24.86)

he is being a realist, not a jerk. We do love other people, and that’s a crucial and inalienable part of what it means to be human. But wisdom lies in understanding and accepting reality, so that we don’t hope for figs in winter. And we are entitled to enjoy those fruits at the right time, during the summer of our lives.

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