Stoicism and creative works

[Michelangelo’s Pietà, Wikipedia]

What is the Stoic attitude toward creative works, from art to music to literature? Whenever this kind of question is asked we should first and foremost remember that, in a sense, it is the wrong question to pose. "Is X Stoic?" is a misleading way to begin an inquiry, because the point of Stoicism in particular, and of virtue ethics in general, is not to provide universal answers to our questions, but rather to offer a framework so that we, individually, work our way to reasonable answers, and in the process become better human beings.

That said, of course, some general considerations do apply pretty much uniformly from a Stoic perspective. For instance, Stoics ought, politically speaking, to fight against tyranny, as the famous "Stoic opposition" against the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian did. So what can we say about the Stoic attitude toward creative works?

Let me begin with a couple of case studies, and then move to the development of a broader conceptual framework inspired by Stoic philosophy.

The first obvious example is none other than Seneca the Younger, the ancient Stoic author of whom we have by far the most extensive surviving writings. In Stoic circles, he is usually talked about in terms of his famous Letters to Lucilius, a sort of informal Stoic curriculum. Or because of one of his masterpieces, On Anger. But Seneca also wrote ten tragedies, my favorite being the Medea.

Seneca's tragedies were rediscovered by 16th century Italian humanists, and greatly influenced the two great traditions of Renaissance European theater: Elizabethan tragedy and French neoclassical tragedy. That influence is particularly evident in the very first English tragedy, Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, not to mention in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Hamlet.

Seneca's Medea, however -- just like all his other tragedies -- is not a simple adaptation of the Greek original, in this case by Euripides. It is an explicit moral tale informed by Stoic principles. As Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich put it in a paper published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy: "[For Seneca] It’s necessary to prove [anger’s] disgusting and bestial character and to make you see how monstrous it is for one human being to rage against another, and how violently anger attacks, dealing destruction at the cost of its own destruction and seeking to sink those whom it can drown only if it drowns with them. … [The moral is that] We’ll succeed in avoiding anger if we promptly lay out before us all of anger’s vices and form a sound estimation of it. It must be arraigned before us and condemned; its evils must be searched out and made plain; it must be set side by side with the worst vices, so the sort of thing it is becomes clear."

Braicovich maintains that what we should be paying special attention to while reading Seneca’s Medea is not so much the obvious, i.e., what Medea does, but the unstated: what she fails to do because she cannot bring herself to do it. Specifically, she is not able to let go of her hatred, to forgive Jason (he of the Argonauts) for his betrayal, to adopt Stoic indifference to the failures of another human being, which, after all, are not under her control, and should therefore not affect her eudaimonia.

Contra what the Chorus in the tragedy hints at, Medea is actually not mad at all. Rather, her conclusion that the just way to avenge herself lies in killing the queen and her own two children is the result of careful reasoning she has with herself in a monologue, reasoning that includes two premises: (i) an injury has been committed; and (ii) revenge must be obtained. This is in accordance to the Stoic theory of psychology, according to which emotions are partly cognitive in nature, and they are, therefore, the result of bad reasoning. (See the book by Margaret Graver on emotions in Stoicism; and also modern findings from cognitive science, in agreement with the basic Stoic notion.)

The point is: Seneca's tragedies are creative works of fiction, but it isn't art for art's sake, as they have an underlying moral purpose.

My second example is Seneca's own nephew, the poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, known as Lucan. He is considered one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial period, known particularly for his epic, Pharsalia, a poem rife with Stoic themes. Its subject matter is the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompei the Great for control of the Roman Senate and Republic, but its unquestionable hero is Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Caesar the would-be tyrant, and a Stoic martyr. Indeed, the poem includes this famous line: Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni (The victorious cause pleased the gods, but the vanquished [cause] pleased Cato), in which Cato ends up as the moral winner, even when compared to the gods.

Lucan didn't criticize just the tyranny of Julius Caesar, but that of Nero -- the emperor under whose reign he was living -- as well. One of Lucan's works was De Incendio Urbis (On the Burning of the City), referring to the famous fire that engulfed Rome in the year 64. Nero was famously blamed for that horrific catastrophe.

The year after the fire, Lucan joined the Calpurnian conspiracy against the emperor. When the conspiracy failed, he was obliged by Nero to commit suicide, at the age of 25. So was his uncle Seneca, also accused of being part of the same conspiracy.

From the examples we have discussed so far it is clear that artistic work may have a place in a Stoic's life, without any tensions with her philosophy. But it is also obvious that what Seneca and Lucan did was art with a moral purpose, not for its own sake. What about just enjoying human creativity on its own terms? Much ink has been spilled about these two modes of artistic creativity, and it is a fact that some art -- but, obviously, not all -- has always been conceived with a moral or political purpose, from antiquity through the Middle Ages to modern times.

The sculpture of Athena Parthenos by Phidias, one of the greatest achievements of Ancient Greek art, is one example. So are medieval cathedrals, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Pietà, as well as some classical music. Even today, English teachers claim -- and there now is scientific evidence to back them up -- that reading (some) fiction actually contributes to making you a better person. Which is one way to defend the university from increasing cuts to the humanities.

That said, and contra popular misconception, Stoics have no objection to the pursuit of some activities for their own sake, in moderation. Here is Seneca, for instance:

"Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine. At times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases." (On Tranquillity of Mind XVII)

So how do we make sense of all of the above in terms of the general principles of Stoic philosophy? Let's start with the standard distinction between things that are good/evil and things that are preferred/dispreferred:

"Of things that are, some, [the Stoics] say, are good, some are evil, and some neither good nor evil (that is, morally indifferent). ... For, say they, such things (as life, health, and pleasure) are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, though falling under the species or subdivision 'things preferred.' ... Things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.101, 102, 106)

The set of things that are truly good or evil is a very small one, in Stoic philosophy: there is only one truly good thing, virtue, and only one truly evil thing, vice. Everything else, as we have just seen, falls into the category of (morally) indifferent things. That category, however, is itself split into things that it is rational to prefer (life, health, pleasure) and things that it is rational to disprefer (death, sickness, pain).

Creative projects -- no matter whether suffused with ethical meaning or not -- clearly fall into the preferred / dispreferred category, since they are not, per se, virtuous of vicious. 

That said, creative works that carry ethical valence can be preferred (if they embody a positive ethical lesson) or dispreferred (if they embody a negative ethical lesson). For instance, a tragedy like Seneca's Medea is a preferred indifferent, because it is a creative work that aims at teaching people about Stoic values. By contrast, a Netflix series that glorifies serial killers, say, is a dispreferred indifferent, because it is a creative work that teaches negative ethical values, whether on purpose or not. 

(This is why Plato, in the Republic, is famously skeptical of "the poets" and excludes them from the ideal state: they have too much power to emotionally manipulate their audiences, which they don't always use for good ends.)

What about creative works that are ethically neutral, such as an abstract painting, or a jazz piece? Recall Seneca's quote above: sometimes we just need to engage in some R&R, and so long as we don't overdo it, not only there is nothing objectionable to it, but it may actually contribute to our soundness of mind, and therefore our soundness of character.

I try to live by the above precepts. I spend most of my time reading and writing things that are good for my character and (I hope) that of others. But I do listen to music, go to museums or the theater (well, not in the middle of a pandemic!), and read books that do not have ethical valence. I have also become more selective, however, with certain creative works that would make Plato nervous. For instance, I stopped watching the series "Dexter," despite the excellent writing and acting, because it was making me sympathetic to a serial killer (yeah, I know, one who only kills other serial killers; still). I also try to watch only series or movies that are of good quality, as well as read books that fall into the same category. That's because life is too short to litter it with too much junk mental or emotional food.

Just keep in mind that what I sketched above is not the Stoic way of approaching the issue. But it is a way that I think is compatible with Stoic principles. And that will still give you plenty of opportunities in life to enjoy creative works.

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