There is no darkness at the heart of Stoicism

Ever since embracing Stoic philosophy as my own moral compass to navigate life in the most eudaimonic way possible I discovered that there are plenty of critics of Stoicism (see also here). Which is particularly disconcerting given the tiny fraction of people actually practicing Stoicism. I mean, c’mon, judging from the sheer number of such critics one may think that Stoic philosophy is about as popular as Christianity or Buddhism!

Be that as it may, the latest entry in this strange canon is a book review by University of Houston’s Robert Zaretsky, published in the prestigious Los Angeles Review of Books. The book being reviewed is How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, by Anthony A. Long (Princeton University Press). I commented on Long’s manuscript before publication for Princeton Press and clearly liked it, as I wrote in my endorsement: “There really isn’t anything else out there quite like this book. A.A. Long, one of the most respected scholars of Stoicism, has produced a fresh, accessible translation of Epictetus’s famous manual, with an introduction that makes the philosopher's wisdom, and Stoicism more generally, accessible to all. I will recommend this edition to friends, colleagues, and anyone who might benefit from a well-thought-out and provocative philosophy of life.” Indeed, as soon as I got my copy of the printed version I gave it to my daughter.

Zaretsky, rather strangely, begins his review of How to Be Free by arching back to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was back in college. The Memoirs are written as a fictional letter from Hadrian to Marcus, whom he picked to be in the imperial line of succession, given that Hadrian had no sons of his own. In Yorcenauer’s book, Hadrian chides Marcus for being “almost too sober a little boy” and for his zealous practice of “the mortifications of the Stoics.”

Of course, we don’t know what Hadrian actually thought of Marcus’ Stoic leanings, but - to be frank - if one has to compare the two men one would have to recall that Hadrian has been described as some who “adroitly concealed a mind envious, melancholy, hedonistic, and excessive with respect to his own ostentation; he simulated restraint, affability, clemency, and conversely disguised the ardor for fame with which he burned” (from Varius multiplex multiformis in the anonymous, ancient Epitome de Caesaribus, 14.6: trans. by Thomas M. Banchich). Interestingly, Marcus pointedly does not mention Hadrian in the long list of people who influenced him positively at the beginning of the Meditations. Perhaps Hadrian would have benefited from a bit of Stoic practice after all.

Zaretsky points out that what Epictetus and a lot of other ancient philosophers, not just the Stoics, but the Epicureans, the Skeptics, the Platonists, and so forth, were doing was quite different from what modern academic philosophers do. The point of ancient philosophy was not to engage in endless theoretical discussions where the person best able to split logical hairs would prevail, as is clear from this exhortation from Seneca, quoted in the review article:

Why are you making up little games? You have no time for joking around; you have been summoned to assist those in need. You have promised to aid the shipwrecked, the captive, the sick, the impoverished, and those who must stretch out their neck for the axe. Where are you wandering off to? What are you doing? (Letters to Lucilius, XLVIII.8)

Philosophy was supposed not just to inform people, but to transform their lives. One would think, then, that the current resurge of Stoicism would be a good thing, an example not just of philosophy going back to its roots, but of actually being useful! Zaretsky even remarks that Stoicism (and Epicureanism) openly acknowledged that women are just as capable of rationality as men, so that they can study philosophy. Heck, Plato included them on par with men in his Republic, and apparently so did Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

What’s the problem, then? It begins with some of the usual misconceptions about Stoicism creeping into Zaretsky’s review. For instance, he writes: “[For the Stoics] things indifferent cover those things we tend to care about, but on further reflection reveal themselves to be inconsequential, like the color of my car or the color of my skin. But, more provocatively, things indifferent also cover my social or legal status. What if my skin color condemns me to a life of slavery? As a former slave, Epictetus’s answer is blunt: physical enslavement, as anyone who has attained Stoic wisdom knows, is a thing indifferent.”

No, no, no. Zaretsky is completely confusing two different categories: neutral things and indifferent things, and he doesn’t seem to understand what “indifferent” means for a Stoic. The color of my car is an entirely neutral thing, it literally does not matter, except as a reflection of a personal aesthetic preference. It is no concern whatsoever to the philosopher, understood here as anyone actually practicing a philosophy of life.

Physical enslavement, by contrast, is “indifferent” in the very specific sense that it does not affect one’s moral status: just because someone is a slave it doesn’t mean that he is a bad person, or a good one, for that matter. Slavery and moral goodness/badness are logically orthogonal, i.e., independent of each other. So Epictetus is absolutely not saying that it doesn’t matter whether one is a slave or not. Indeed, the condition is very clearly classed among the dispreferred indifferents, meaning things with negative axia, i.e., negative value. If one can get out of slavery one should. Moreover, the Stoics were among the few in ancient times to openly and clearly condemn slavery as a social evil:

[The Stoics] declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being lordship; and this too is evil. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.1.121-122)

Seneca, for his part, wrote:

‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. As a result of the massacres in Marius’s day, many a man of distinguished birth, who was taking the first steps toward senatorial rank by service in the army, was humbled by fortune, one becoming a shepherd, another a caretaker of a country cottage. Despise, then, if you dare, those to whose estate you may at any time descend, even when you are despising them. (Letters to Lucilius, XLVII.1, 10)

So to say - as Zaretsky does - that one’s status as a slave is just as indifferent to the Stoics as the color of one’s car (or chariot) is nonsense on stilts.

Zaretsky also claims that it is not surprising that Stoicism appealed to “a certain class” of ancient Romans, just as it appeals to “a certain class” of modern Americans. But, once again, he is wrong. Stoicism’ appeal clearly cuts across classes. While Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, Epictetus was a slave; Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, was a pugilist, poor enough that he had to work at night to be able to afford philosophy during the day. Likewise, if you go to the modern Stoicon events, or frequent the 44,000+ Stoicism Facebook page, you will encounter people from a variety of walks of life, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and genders. Stoicism is helpful to whoever has encountered or will encounter difficulties in life (i.e., everyone), and to whoever wishes to live a moral life (hopefully, a lot of people, and not drawn from just one class).

Zaretsky finally gets to what he considers the “darkness” at the heart of Stoicism, which, once again, he introduces by way of the fictional Hadrian, whom Yourcenar imagines saying of Epictetus: “[he] gave up too many things, and I had been quick to observe that nothing was more dangerously easy for me than mere renunciation.”

That Epictetus lived a rather minimalist life is well known. That he did so because he was strongly influenced by the Stoics’ cousins, the Cynics, and that minimalism is not an essential component of Stoicism, is also well known and pointedly ignored by Zaretsky. Here is Seneca’s take:

Our clothes should not be fine, but neither should they be filthy; we should not own vessels of silver engraved with gold, but neither should we think that the mere fact that one lacks gold and silver is any indication of a frugal nature. The life we endeavor to live should be better than the general practice, not contrary to it. (Letters to Lucilius, V.3)

Does that sound to you like preaching a lifestyle of excessive renunciation, as (fictional) Hadrian accuses the Stoics of doing?

But a bigger criticism, as usual, comes when Epictetus says that we should not be too attached not just to material possessions, but to people as well. And indeed, Epictetus’ way of put it is jarring:

Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.’ (Enchiridion 11)

The underlying idea, though, is hardly different from that of other philosophical or religious traditions that nobody would have label dark, such as Buddhism. What Epictetus is saying was not just a direct reflection of his own time - when someone might indeed lose one’s child or wife in the blink of an eye - but more importantly of a fundamental fact of life: the people we love can be snatched from us at any moment, in any manner. To remind ourselves that they have been returned to the cosmos, that they were never “ours” in the first place, is not just a way to blunt the pain of the loss, it is also a strong reminder to enjoy them while they are still with us. As Epictetus says (in Discourses III.24.86), to want someone when he is gone is just as foolish as to desire a fig in winter. But there is a positive flip side to that coin: we know that winter is coming, so we better enjoy our loved ones here and now, during the good season.

Near the end of his review, Zaretsky goes back to criticizing Stoicism for being a quietist philosophy: “Does not Stoicism, which tells us that economic, political, and social issues are things indifferent, thus encourage forms of political resignation? Is there not the danger that Stoics, in the wide swath they cut with the blade of things indifferent, are in fact conspiring with forms of slavery we could and should resist?”

No, absolutely not. Not only Zaretsky, again, does not understand what “indifferent” means for the Stoics, he has also apparently studied very little Greco-Roman history, or he would have realized that Stoic practitioners started revolutions (Cato the Younger) and opposed tyranny even though it cost them exile or their lives (the Stoic opposition against Nero, Vespasian and Domitian). These are hardly people who are politically resigned, or who do not resist what ought to be resisted.

Stoicism may not be for everyone. And it certainly isn’t the only viable philosophy that has the potential to lead one to live a life worth living. But to criticize it on the basis of specious arguments born of ignorance is unconscionable. Zaretsky, deploying an overused quip, says of Epictetus’ text that it is “all Greek” to him. So, apparently, is the rest of Stoic philosophy, even when magistrally explained in plain English by Anthony Long.

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