When the Stoics Make a Bad First Impression

Despite all the glowingly positive things I have to say about Stoic philosophy on this blog, the truth is that Stoicism made a really bad first impression with me. It’s been a lesson to me in the dangers of judging a philosophy too quickly!

Like perhaps most people, my early exposure to the Stoic writers left me with the impression that they were a pretty cheerless, risk-averse bunch who suppressed their emotions and had strangely stiff notions of what “appropriate” behavior ought to be.

They struck me as obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and as indifferent to the events around them. Epictetus’ Enchiridion 1, probably the most famous summary of Stoic practice, did nothing for me at all. I didn’t see the big deal about the dichotomy of control (what is so great about cutting yourself off from the outside world?). And when I got to Enchiridion 33, where he basically straight-up recommends that we be no fun at parties and enjoins us not to “laugh much, or at many things, or without restraint,” I had had enough.

The Stoics, it seemed to me after reading the Enchiridion along with first book or so of the Discourses and Meditations, made a lot of interesting and valuable off-hand remarks, and maybe they had good tools for handling ourselves in extreme situations (like prison, or severe physical disability). But I wasn’t living in an extreme situation, and their philosophy as a whole struck me as way too interested in buying a self-centered version of “freedom” at the cost of our “humanity.” Besides, I had no idea what to do with their frequent references to the gods.

In short, I accepted the common idea that Stoicism is a philosophy for “Dark Days”—or “slave morality,” in Nietzsche’s terms—and that it had little to offer people who are interested in acting to change the world in positive ways.

And if you had showed me Crantor’s anti-Stoic argument from the 3rd century B.C.E. (which is preserved in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, 3.6), I would have agreed with it:

This absence of pain comes at a high price: it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.

All this changed when I came in contact with the modern Stoicism movement and its interpretation of Stoicism as a radically positive, joyful, life-affirming, active, socially engaged, and morally-motivated way of life (see Why I Became and Modern Stoic).

It turns out that my first impression of Stoicism, while an understandable reaction to some of its most famous surviving texts, was almost completely wrong.

Part of the problem is Epictetus himself. He’s the most famous Stoic today, but his treatment of Stoicism’s goals and motives is highly selective, sometimes obscure, notoriously stern, and only covers a tiny slice of the full philosophy’s program for ethical cultivation.

  • First and foremost, Stoicism is actually all about cultivating human excellence, and especially moral excellence: Courage, Temperance, Prudence, and Justice. Fascinatingly, Epictetus almost never mentions this directly, but every other Stoic text we have goes on and on about how virtue is the highest good, how becoming a good person is the single most important part of Stoic ethical teachings, and how we should train ourselves to be the best that we can be in all aspects of life. I found all this quite appealing, and the ancients presented these ideas in a more practical and actionable way than the more vague ethical principles I’ve found in, say, Secular Humanism.
  • Instead of being “obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions,” then, it turns out that the Stoics were driven by the inherent aesthetic beauty of an honorable moral character. In the 2018 keynote talk at Stoicon in London, the most renowned professional scholar of classical Stoicism, A. A. Long, recently emphasized this point:

The Greek Stoics expressed the restriction of goodness to virtue in the striking words monon to kalon agathon, literally: “Only what is beautiful is good”. How are we to understand these words? What has beauty to do with goodness, happiness, and the virtues of character? Were the Stoics saying that they could or should try to win beauty competitions? If the competition were for ethical beauty, then absolutely yes!

  • And it turns out, that far from inviting us to withdraw from the world in a sort of narcissistic fear of of pain, Stoicism in fact calls us (more, they claimed, than any other ancient philosophy) to a tremendous amount of kindness, action, and service devoted at benefiting our fellow human beings, and, if necessary, to be willing to endure intense amounts of stress and discomfort to do so. To quote Long again:

Stoic philosophy from the outset, unlike its Epicurean rival, was socially and politically engaged. It was designed for action in the world and, at the limit, for exemplifying something splendid. That is why Socrates and Cato, in their very different ways were exemplary. Seneca served for years as an imperial adviser, Epictetus trained young men who would enter public or military service, and Marcus Aurelius was emperor. When Cicero at the end of his life inveighed against Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (vainly pleading for the continuance of the Roman Republic and against one-man rule) he turned to upper case Stoicism, writing it into De officiis, which he dedicated to his feckless son.

This understanding of Stoicism has led me personally to argue that consistent Stoic practitioners ought to take social justice concerns seriously, and actively look for ways to engage in positive social roles at all layers of society.

Overall, I’ve found Stoicism to be a satisfying ethical and spiritual tradition that fills my need (as a secular person) for a way of life that calls me to aspire to moral improvement, that offers a community of likeminded people to support me in that journey (see the Stoic Fellowship), and that provides a framework for thinking about important questions.

There are still rough spots, which you can find in some other posts I’ve written:

And I still think Epictetus was off his rocker when he told us not to laugh!

But I’ve reached the point where I appreciate the way that such texts challenge me to consider aspects of the ethical life that I might otherwise overlook.

As some modern Stoics have it, for example, Epictetus meant only to call us to give up such behaviors temporarily as a training exercise, to ingrain in ourselves a belief that a life in pursuit of virtue and duty is the best life there can be.

I’ve even come around to finding power and value in good old Enchiridion 1, which reads in part:

Since you are aiming, then, at such great things, remember that you’ll have to exert no small effort to attain them, and that you’ll have to renounce some things altogether, while postponing others for the present.


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