Stoic Practical Philosophy: A Guide for Life?
When I see an attractive woman on the street, I do not imagine what she would look like undressed. I do not imagine myself climbing into bed with her. I do not imagine what would happen next. Instead I say “Wait a minute, impression, let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me test you.” In his Discourses (II.18), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus presents a cogent, yet also entertaining guide to living the virtuous life. Seneca, in an address to the Emperor Nero (De Clementia 2.5.2 ff.), deals with a common criticism of Stoic philosophy: that it is unlikely to give good advice to rulers. Yet it is a philosophy which is wonderfully rich in offering advice for daily living, irrespective of our station in life. Although the founder of Stoic philosophy was Zeno of Citium, the school claimed a Socratic pedigree via the Cynic Antisthenes, who was a senior follower of Socrates and the teacher of Zeno’s own mentor, Crates. The last significant Stoic philosopher was the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (120–180 AD). Despite its antiquity, Stoic philosophy can offer concrete help to us today. In the figures of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, we have evidence for the application of this practical philosophy at both ends of the social scale, that of a former slave who was expelled (in a purge of philosophers) from Rome and the Roman Emperor himself.
Despite their conversational style and appearance of dealing with the problems of daily life, Epictetus’ Discourses are not actually addressed to us, but rather were intended as supplementary training, delivered in the afternoons to students at his philosophical school in Nicopolis, after they had already completed classes in more theoretical aspects of philosophy. These lectures were recorded by Epictetus’ student, Arrian, in eight books (four of which survive). Arrian later assembled, as a series of philosophical maxims in the Encheiridion (Handbook), invaluable precepts which should be “ready at hand”. The study of theoretical philosophy should help us to become morally better people — Epictetus sharply criticises a philosopher for committing adultery — yet the practical application is dependent upon theoretical study, for us just as much as for Epictetus’ original students. For example, Epictetus admonishes his students for viewing the study of logic as unnecessary: without knowledge of logic, it is impossible to prove whether one needs knowledge of logic or not (Diss. II. 25). That said, those who study (theoretical) philosophy for the sake of studying theoretical philosophy, rather than to become better people have confused means with ends. “At a banquet, do not say how one ought to eat, but eat as you ought . . . For sheep do not bring grass to their shepherds and show them how much they have eaten, but they digest their fodder and then produce it in the form of wool and milk” (Encheiridion 46, translations of Epictetus are by Matheson). The value of a philosophical education is exhibited by leading a more virtuous life, not by the ability to cite Stoic maxims. “Philosophy does not promise to secure to man anything outside him. If it did it would be admitting something beyond its subject-matter. For as wood is the material dealt with by the carpenter, bronze by the statuary, so the subject-matter of each man’s art of living is his own life” (Diss. I. 15). Philosophy should not even be pleasant; Epictetus admonishes students for coming to his lectures expecting to be entertained. The philosophy school is like the doctor’s clinic; one goes there in order to be healed and leaves it. not in pleasure, but in pain (Diss. III. 23).
What can the Stoics offer us, then, in terms of a guide to life? Epictetus assumes a cognitive model in which we make use of impressions in order to produce a lekton (or sayable) to which we then assent or dissent. This ability to choose is our prohairesis (capacity for choice of volition) with which we should identify ourselves. As Epictetus tells us, “you are neither hair nor flesh but prohairesis. Make that beautiful and you will be beautiful” (Diss. III. 1). This self-identification with our prohairesis involves taking stock of what is “up to us” (ta eph’ hēmîn). Happiness can be attained by focusing only on those things which are in our power. The early Stoics (such as Zeno/Chrysippus) explain this in terms of a dog tied to a wagon. The dog can be dragged along by the wagon against its will or run along freely of its own accord. In any case, it will follow the wagon, but its attitude lies under its control.
Epictetus presents a similar model. Using our prohairesis in an appropriate manner relies upon the correct use of impressions. Epictetus offers a type of cognitive therapy: If you have a favourite cup, think of it simply as an object, you will not be upset then if it gets broken. If you have a wife, think of her as a human. You won’t be upset, then, if she dies (Ench. 3). The sort of detachment that this involves means that Stoic philosophy can be perceived as cold. For example, Epictetus tells a student whose mother misses him that her feelings are not his responsibility: the emotions experienced by others do not fall into the realm of what is “up to us” (Diss. III. 24).
However, that conceals the manner in which Stoicism encourages us to strive for morality along two different poles: in an abstract sense extending communal obligations towards the wider human community and in an embedded sense, meaning that whether we act virtuously or not is dependent upon the relationships which we have; to be virtuous as a father, mother, son, daughter etc. The first sense involves accepting our responsibilities not merely as members of the community which we simply happen to be a part of, but to adopt the obligations of world-citizenship. The second sense is that we have specific obligations related to the role that we have been assigned: “a living thing must incline to that side where “I” and “mine” are, if they are in the flesh, the ruling power must be there; if in prohairesis, there, if in externals, there. If, then, I identify myself with my prohairesis, then and only then shall I be a friend and son and father in the truest sense” (Diss. II. 22, trans. Matheson, modified). Marcus Aurelius sums this up when he points out that his duty is to do both what is good for Rome and what is good for the universe (Mediations VI. 44).
Epictetus presents the case of a father who, overwhelmed by emotion, abandons his sick daughter and refuses to return home until he learns that she is well. Like Socrates, Epictetus denied the possibility of akrasia (intemperance). They deny that someone can decide that a particular course of action is the better course and then not pursue it through weakness of will. Instead those who pursue a morally undesirable course assume that it is the best course for them. For Epictetus this is because they make incorrect use of their impressions. What needs to be done is to convince them that their assessment of the situation is wrong. This is illustrated by the manner in which Epictetus counsels the father who has abandoned his child, until he realises that he chose the wrong course of action (Diss. I. 11). Epictetus is also fond of using examples from literature: Paris runs away with Helen, the wife of his host Menelaus. If Menelaus had made correct use of his impressions, instead of going to war with Troy, he would have decided that he was better off being rid of such a wife (Diss. I. 28). Epictetus claims that a similar process would have prevented Medea from murdering her own children in order to wreak vengeance upon her husband, Jason (Diss. I. 28).
We might not be the ideal philosopher like Socrates or an Olympic athlete (and indeed most of us are definitely neither), but this should not stop us from competing in a contest far more important than the Olympics each time it comes up. While the early Stoics denied the significance of moral progress on the grounds that it made little difference if one was to drown just beneath the surface of the sea or at a much greater depth, Epictetus instead offers the possibility of habituating ourselves to become better. The angry man should attempt to lose his temper only every second day, then every third and fourth day and finally he will arrive at the point where he manages to avoid being angry for thirty days in a row (Diss. II. 18). We should habituate ourselves both to test impressions and to replace impressions which lead us away from virtuous conduct with noble ones (Diss. II. 18).
This element of habituation can also be found in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well” (Meditations V.16; trans. Long). Another valuable Stoic insight is the notion that we must play whatever role we are given to the best of our ability. Otherwise we are like an actor who demands that he should play the role of a king rather than a beggar (Ench. 17, Diss. I. 29.). What is important is not the role that the actor plays, but rather that he plays the role which he has been given well. For Marcus, philosophy was his mother and politics his step-mother (Meditations VI. 12); he had to serve both. But even if his role demanded that he serve as an Emperor commanding troops on the frontiers of the Empire, rather than as a philosopher, he could still play this role well. In fact, the Meditations illustrate how habituation could work for the practicing Stoic. Written over the span of a couple of decades over the course of different military campaigns, the text consists of a series of notes intended for personal use in which Marcus practices the exercise of gratitude (Mediations I) and the exercise of virtue in the face of pressing concerns such as the death of his children.
Of course, as is typical with any high-minded aspiration, there was a dichotomy between what some of its prominent preachers advocated and what they actually did. Seneca the Younger’s recall of the loan of forty million sesterces made to the Britons is claimed by Cassius Dio as one of the factors triggering Boudica’s uprising against the Romans. Another famous case is that of the Stoic philosopher, Cato the Younger, whose wealthy friend, Hortensius, wanted to marry his daughter, Porcia. Since Hortensius was about forty years older than Porcia, who was already married in any case, Cato instead divorced his wife, Marcia, so that Hortensius might marry her. After his death, Cato remarried Marcia, now the heiress of Hortensius’ vast fortune, or at least re-established her in his household. (The scene is forever immortalized in Lucan’s Pharsalia.) Naturally such behaviour was scandalous in elite Roman society, illustrated by Caesar’s famous quip that Cato had lent his wife when she was young, so that he might take her back when she was rich (cf. Plut., Cat. Min. 52.4). At least, Cato was highly regarded by Dante, being placed by the great poet in Purgatory (most prominent figures from classical antiquity, being unbaptised, were of course consigned to Limbo.)
That Stoic philosophy can actually function as a guide to life, even (or especially) under extreme circumstances is illustrated by the case of US Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale. The name may well be familiar since Stockdale was Ross Perot’s vice- presidential candidate in the 1992 election. Stockdale was the highest-ranking US officer held as a prisoner for war at Hao Lo Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”) from 1965–1973, including four years of solitary confinement at a facility in the courtyard of the North Vietnamese Ministry of Defence. Later as a Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he praised the profound effect that the tenets of Epictetus’ philosophy, which he had studied at Stanford a few years previously, had upon his life in prison. For the next three years on board the USS Oriskany, his reading consisted of Epictetus’ Discourses and Encheiridion along with Xenophon’s Memorabilia. (His non-philosophical reading consisted of the Iliad and Odyssey, but Stockdale presents this as background reading for his understanding of Epictetus!) This does not sound like a very impressive volume of texts to read over a three year period, but as the Stoic philosopher Seneca tells us, to really digest an author we need to read slowly and not jump about from one author to another, lest we cause ourselves to vomit (Letters 2. 2–4). Of course, this has an excellent military precedent: Frederick the Great also took his copy of Epictetus with him on campaign. In Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in the Laboratory of Human Experience, Bond Stockdale recounts the Stoic doctrines which he particularly drew upon after his A-4 fighter-bomber was shot down over a small village in Vietnam: “What is not up to you? beyond your power? not subject to your will in the last analysis? For starters, let’s take “your station in life.” As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life” (Courage under Fire, p. 8). Bond Stockdale credits Epictetus with the insight that shame had a far more profound effect on him that the pain that he underwent during his rounds of torture. The shame of stating that he was a criminal under torture initially formed a barrier between him and his fellow prisoners. Yet Epictetus tells us that even Zeus cannot constrain our prohairesis.
Another particularly touching passage is Stockdale’s attempted suicide. Caught with a note that would compromise some of his fellow-prisoners and aware that he is likely to break under torture, which may result in some of their deaths; Stockdale decides that there is nothing left but to “check out”. (Stockdale’s life was subsequently saved by his Vietnamese captors.) Cato’s and Seneca’s high profile suicides have associated this manner of death very strongly with the Stoics; in fact the Stoics generally disapproved of suicide unless the circumstances of life were such as to indicate that it was warranted. Epictetus generally counseled his students against it saying “men, wait for God” (Diss. I. 9). The scene, as Stockdale presents it, is reminiscent of another of Epictetus’ maxims: that it is possible to leave a room full of smoke. The difficulty of convincing others, though, that philosophy could ever be practical is neatly summed up in Stockdale’s wry comment: “Did I preach these things in prison? Certainly Not” (Courage Under Fire, p. 19).
Stockdale’s experience later served as the inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full (1998), depicting the conversion of Croker, an Atlanta businessman to Stoicism, and his subsequent decision to become a televangelist presenting a programme entitled “The Stoic’s Hour”, which placed the spotlight on Stoic practical philosophy in the American mainstream media for a time. Epictetus, in particular, has long enjoyed a certain popularity in the United States; Thomas Jefferson regularly cited him in his correspondence and the works of Epictetus were amongst the first set of volumes that Jefferson acquired for the library of his newly-founded University of Virginia.
Stockdale’s reputation (amongst the general public) suffered as the result of an ineffective interview during the 1992 presidential campaign, despite his many achievements (such as serving as President of both the Naval War College and The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina). The American political commentator, Dennis Miller, noted that for all his accomplishments, Stockdale had committed the “one unpardonable sin” in modern culture, being bad on television. I am sure that the Stoics would have had much to say about that!
Epictetus, The Discourses and Manual, together with fragments of his writings, trans. P. E. Matheson, 1916.
Stockdale, J. B. Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1993.