Who Wants to Be a Stoic?

01 February 2022

What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life? They offer us a set of powerful strategies for becoming indifferent to pain, suffering, and even death. But can we really live by those strategies? And if we could, would we really want to? This week we’re thinking about the Stoic philosophy of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus is probably best known for the Meditations, a book designed to help him remember his (largely Stoic) beliefs, arguments, and slogans, so he could remain tranquil and act kindly under any conditions.

The project is compelling, the slogans brilliant, the ideas fascinating—but much of what we hear is also pretty radical. For example, Marcus thinks you should stay cool, calm, and even chipper when you’re being eaten by a wild beast.

What’s Marcus’s argument for this? Well, he seems to think that getting eaten by a lion, or not getting eaten by a lion, is not the kind of thing we should care very much about. Sure, all things considered it’s preferable to remain uneaten. But the only thing that’s really good for us is virtue, and the only thing that’s really bad for us is vice.

Plus, since the universe is ruled by a kind of providence, there’s definitely an excellent reason for you to be someone else’s lunch right now, even if you can’t quite figure out what it is. So if you find yourself in a lion’s mouth, Marcus would recommend you stop being emotional and start using your reason. You’ll realize you’re not being harmed in any serious way, if at all.

This argument is, to say the least, pretty counterintuitive: it seems to follow that if you, say, took a bullet for a friend, that wouldn't just be good for them; it would also be good for you.  In fact it would mostly be good for you!  It would increase your virtue, and virtue is what really matters.

Counterintuitive or not, there's something extremely appealing about the view: if you could get into the Stoic mindset, you'd probably end up with less stress and sadness in your life. You wouldn’t be so afraid of death, and you wouldn’t be so distraught when things went badly for you, or when people you love passed away.

But this, as I see it, is where the real problem comes in. Do we really want to feel no pain when we lose a loved one? “What harm is done,” Stoic philosopher Epictetus asked, “if right when you are kissing your child you whisper and say ‘tomorrow you will die’?”

I guess he thought this was a rhetorical question, but I kind of want to say “a lot of harm. A really big, giant, monster truckload of harm.” Stoicism might help us become calm, tranquil, and unflappable—but do we want to end up calm, tranquil, unflappable robots?

Our guest this week is Rachana Kamtekar from Cornell University. She’s an expert on ancient philosophy, and has written about Marcus Aurelius. I’m looking forward to hearing from her exactly how to stay calm while my leg is being chewed off by a lion, though hopefully I’ll never have to put that knowledge into practice...

Photo by StevoLeBlanc on Pixabay

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 -- 11:44 AM

Though I find stoicism

Though I find stoicism archaic from my limited viewpoint, it appears to be alive and well, a priori; fortiori; and posteriori from that of others. Here is what I mean, in part. As I have asserted before, extremism pervades, who we are and how we behave. If one is not a radical, reckless risk-taker one is not worth associating with. This is mass and pop culture, but not new culture. And so, we underwent the 'no fear' t-shirt phenomenon and other matters, possibly ignored. Should one be willing---even eager---to put one's self in harm's way? Stoicism seems a means of saying, ' oh well, it is all worth it to be in with the in-crowd'. Really? Sure. People fall off mountains taking 'selfies'; fall into pits, while talking on their cell phones. Failure to pay attention demands stoicism. Wait! Are you kidding me? No. i am not. Pay attention.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, February 3, 2022 -- 4:04 PM

Is saying 'tomorrow you will

Is saying 'tomorrow you will die' to your child a virtuous deed? If that will cause life-limiting harm, then no, it is not, and no Stoic would do this. At the same time, instructing your child of momento mori is one of the duties of parenthood, as is fostering their self-expression and prospects. If saying momento mori is a RBGMTOH (really big, giant, monster truckload of harm), then let us assume - Josh Landy is no Stoic because he does not see virtue at issue so much as upset. How, so ever, British of him and what a RBGMTOH that is.

There is a passivity to providence in Marcus Aurelius' world that isn't present in our own. We have the benefit of a more significant measure of the world. If you are reading this, you too likely have access to this knowledge of things. These things have started to instruct us in how to live, turn right in 100 meters, eat this not that, you are a lousy no good and clumsy writer... In the world of Epictetus and then Marcus Aurelius, this was a privilege extended to a paltry few. This period was also when Christians were first thrown to the lions, philosophically if not literally. Social justice was not separated from justice in that world. Nor was social justice present in colonialism. America shook that yoke by imposing it on Africans, then newly come immigrants - and if anti-immigration advocates have their way - the middle and lower classes. In our world, activity is required to tread water. Not engaging ensures tithing your yoke to the knowledge of things that are controlling the human course of action whether you create an account or not.

There is no god but in the measurable, the providence of material learning and the unmeasurable fictions that align to that learning. Not causing upset - reaching for a state of ataraxia - when there is no social justice is a RBGMTOH. It is why Brexit is misplaced; shunting parentless children to Texan religious "charities" is misguided, and fighting wars with "volunteer" soldiers is a mistake.

I don't know if Josh is an Epicurean or a misplaced fictionalist; he would probably say both. But Stoicism got the short stick in this post and Marcus Aurelius the long one in the show. A modern stoic would see the virtue of matching sticks before throwing stones.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, March 6, 2022 -- 7:22 AM

You can 'ding' me for this if

You can 'ding' me for this if you wish. But I remember lots of useless information, from a fun, but turbulent time. The 1970s. Lots of us still love posters. Stoicism reminds me of one: two vultures on the branch of a dead tree, eyeing the desert floor below. One says: patience, my ass-I'm gonna KIlL something!

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Markuslenda212's picture


Tuesday, March 26, 2024 -- 12:46 AM

Marcus Aurelius a great human

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Sunday, April 7, 2024 -- 2:29 PM

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