GUEST POST: Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism
by Catherine Wilson
Stoicism is a comprehensive philosophy reaching from logic and epistemology into metaphysics and ethics and Epicureanism is equally comprehensive. The Epicureans and Stoics saw themselves and were seen as rival schools, and their differences were the subject of important dialogues by Cicero. Kant mused that the Stoics had the better ethics but no account of moral motivation, while the Epicureans, in declaring pleasure to be the only true good and pain the only true evil, had worse ethics, but a better account of moral motivation, insofar as they claimed that crime never paid off in the long run. Massimo and I continue in this ancient tradition of dialectic, with reference to the moral and political issues of special interest to us today.
The final chapter of my book How to be an Epicurean was called “Should I Be a Stoic Instead?’ There I noted that Stoicism is “dignified, uplifting, and indeed optimistic,” that its assertion of natural human equality is praiseworthy, and that there are considerable areas of overlap between the two philosophies. The avoidance of mental distress, insofar as it is within our power, is a goal of both. But my aim was to show that there are real differences — that you have a choice. Above all, I wanted to show that Epicureanism was a substantial moral philosophy not reducible to atheism plus a frivolous hedonism.
Zeno of Citium, the original Stoic, contrasted virtue with pleasure. I see the pernicious effects of this contrast reverberating down through the centuries in such social evils as militarism, anti-feminism, and the indifference to human deprivation and suffering in conservative politics. At the same time, I am sure that if Epicureanism had been the favored philosophy all along, we might well be facing a different set of pernicious effects to which Stoic ideas would a serve as a bracing detox. For now, I’m just trying to enter a plea for my own side.
Massimo argues in his recent essay that, like many other commentators, I have got Stoicism wrong. He takes up three main points: my claim that the Stoics overestimated the powers of the mind, that they taught that all griefs and passions need to be repressed, and that their ethics is individualistic and rights based. I contrasted these philosophical stances with the Epicurean appreciation of mind-body intermingling and dependency, their estimate of the value of even the ‘bad emotions,’ the pathē, and the Epicurean analysis of ethics and social justice as relational and welfarist. I’ll deal with these points in turn, but first a few general comments.
Epicurus lived his philosophy. By “living apart,” as he recommended to his followers, he avoided political responsibility. But he also avoided being drawn into the world of intrigue, assassination, poisons, and executions that characterized ancient political society. When the king serves you a dinner consisting of your murdered children and proposes to entertain you with their severed heads, the Stoic — Seneca says — must remain calm and impassive. The Epicurean asks why you are dining with the king in the first place and why you ever let your children into his orbit.
Seneca’s actions in real life — his luxurious living, his complicity in Nero’s murders and crimes, his authorship of bloody, violent tragedies — all this explored recently in the remarkable book by Emily Wilson (no relation) suggest strongly that his philosophy existed in Seneca’s head and not in his life. His praise for Epicurus, though I quoted it approvingly in my book, was very much in his head — and not consistently there either. He portrays in characteristically lurid tones the opposition between virtue and pleasure:
“Virtue is something lofty, exalted and regal, unconquered, untiring. Pleasure is something low, slavish, weak, decrepit, whose place and home are the brothels and taverns. Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate house, defending the city walls, dusty and sunburnt, hands callused. Pleasure you will find most often seeking out darkness, lurking around the baths and sweating rooms and places that fear the magistrates; soft, languid, reeking of wine and perfume, pallid or else painted and made up like a corpse.” (De vita beata 7.3)
This is selective quotation to be sure, but nowhere in the writings of the Epicureans do you find anything so nasty with a definite anti-female vibe. Compare the quotation about sex from Marcus Aurelius (Meditations VI.13) that Massimo cites in his essay. I don’t see the basis for reading it as a warning about excess. For Epicurus and his follower Lucretius, sex can leave you jealous, confused, and perhaps angry, but not disgusted.
According to many people’s testimony, Stoic practices of psychological discipline have helped them to be less upset about how their lives are going and less trouble to their fellows. There is no reason to doubt this, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Descartes originally formed a plan to read Seneca with the psychologically troubled Princess Elizabeth, but after looking into it, he gave up that plan. His Passions of the Soul argue in place of Stoic (and faux-Cartesian) mind-body dualism that we are one with our bodies and that a person cannot, by mental effort, stop feeling what they feel.
As Massimo points out, Seneca said this too, but Seneca has never been regarded as a consistent Stoic. Let’s look at some representative statements about the powers of the individual mind that get quoted a lot. Here is Epictetus (in his Discourses as translated by George Long, New York, 1904)
“No man then has the power either to procure for me good or to involve me in any evil, but I alone myself have power in these things.” (Bk IV, XII)
“What has happened? Your son is dead. Nothing more? Nothing. Your ship is lost. What has happened is your ship is lost. A man has been led to prison. What has happened? He has been led to prison. But that herein he has fared badly, every man adds from his own opinion.” (Bk III, VIII)
And here is Marcus Aurelius on the “inner citadel:”
“Remember that the governing self becomes invincible when it withdraws into itself and is satisfied with itself, doing nothing which it does not will to do. … On this account the understanding free from passions is a citadel of refuge; for man has nothing stronger into which to retreat and be thereafter inexpugnable.” (Meditations, VIII.76)
The image of the self as an impregnable fortress and a refuge is neither psychologically realistic nor consistently helpful in dealing with sticks and blows of fortune that affect us all — illnesses and impairments, unrequited love, children in trouble, debts, violence in the home, the frustrations of dealing with organizations and bad bosses. The external world and people in it are constantly impinging on us; the “things that are really mine,” that are closest to my heart, can be and often are touched. Can we really choose not to be hurt by opposition to our hopes and desires and expectations? In times of trouble, my fervent desire is to get out of my own head, not deeper into it.
One might concede that these Stoic statements are exaggerations but insist that the real kernel of the Stoic position is that we have more control than we are inclined to think. There are people for whom rage is a way of responding to adversity that looks from the outside involuntary and uncontrollable. And there are people whose romantic obsessions give them no peace. Such people sometimes can and sometimes do acquire poise and equilibrium. But the Epicurean suggests that they will change not because they cannot be hurt or because they have chosen not to be hurt but because their external circumstances are no longer fueling the fires of their passions. To change your feelings, change your life. Speak up, move out, avoid running into that person. What’s in your head — a more calm and objective perspective on things — will follow.
In Letter 116 to Lucilius, Seneca tells him that “The question has often been raised whether it is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all. Philosophers of our school reject the emotions; the Peripatetics keep them in check. I, however, do not understand how any half-way disease can be either wholesome or helpful.” According to some interpreters, the only emotions the Stoics considered as needing to be extirpated were the “bad” ones: anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity. But Seneca also condemns grief over the death of friends and dejection at loss of reputation as “vices” in this letter. As Cicero put it in his Tusculan Disputations (IV: XXVIII) “[T]he most effectual cure is [according to the Stoics] to be achieved by showing that all perturbations are of themselves vicious, and have nothing natural or necessary in them.” After the unexpected death of his young daughter, Cicero found it impossible to give his allegiance to their philosophy.
For other interpreters, the undesired pathē include lust, fear, delight and distress. Here I side with Descartes who, while agreeing with Seneca that it is essential to master the impulse to strike out in anger when hurt and to avoid excess, declared in the conclusion to his treatise that the passions are “all by nature good.” (Philosophical Writings, tr. Cottingham et al., Cambridge 1985, I:403). “All the good and evil of this life” he continues, depends “on the passions alone.” (Ibid. 404) The most passionate people may experience the most bitterness, but they are at the same time “capable of enjoying the sweetest pleasures.” Like contemporary psychologists, Descartes maintained that the passions give us essential information, and that includes the “bad” ones. If we did not feel anger, how would we know that our (often legitimate) interests have been harmed? That someone has treated us cruelly or deceitfully for their own advantage and should be made accountable? How would we know that we want to be the companion and helpmeet of this other person if we did not feel powerful desire? Without lust and delight — and all the forms of rapture and intoxication life has to offer — it would not, as Bernard Williams pointed out, feel worth living.
What about Stoic benevolence? The Stoics emphasized the interconnectedness of all humanity, the “expanding circle” of concern and care. Marcus describes the universe as a “single substance of densely interwoven things.” This is a lovely image, ranking with the passages in his Meditations on the flight of a flock of swallows, the cracks in baking bread, the “foam on the mouth of the wild boar.” But Marcus’s detachment and sense of beauty and oneness were probably chemically induced. As the great historian of Rome, Thomas W. Africa, established in a classic paper, Marcus was an opium addict. He was also a military commander, albeit a reluctant one, engaged in the territorial/ethnic battles of the Roman empire against the Germanic Vandals, Sarmatians, and others. So much for densely interwoven things.
Epicurus refers to the “cry of the flesh, not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold” (Maxim 33, tr. Inwood, Epicurus Reader, Indianapolis, 1994). Is there in Stoicism any sense of the miseries of poverty, illness, and deprivation? The sufferings of the body are nowhere described as real evils. Oddly, Epictetus describes a poor man who is extremely bothered by being pitied (Bk IV, Ch VI). He is advised to stop worrying about what other people think of him.
In my book, I presented the Epicurean view of justice as a convention to prevent one person from harming another. Justice is not some kind of transcendental abstraction. The Epicurean framework can be applied concretely to groups as well as to individuals. Justice is a set of arrangements to stop white people hurting black people, the rich hurting the poor, heterosexuals hurting homosexuals, the clever ones hurting the gullible ones. Determining what is just is not simple in practice: any group can complain of victimization, even, as we’ve seen recently, the billionaires facing a 2% tax proposal, but I cannot think of a better foundation for personal and social ethics than the prevention of distress and the removal of impediments to the realization of other people’s legitimate (again a concept for negotiation) interests.
I conceded in my book that the apolitical, withdrawn stance of Epicureanism is not suitable to our age. Political activism, taking to the streets, running for office, or exposing the malice of social media are imperative if we are to dethrone the oligarchs currently running the show. I also pointed to the resources of Epicureanism in its presentation (see Book V of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things) of the origins of civilization in the seizure of power by cliques of aristocrats and their exploitation of a confused and manipulated populace.
Finally, Massimo brings up the topic of Stoic suicide as a rational response to some forms of painful and hopeless disability. While Epicurus did say that if you were tired of living it was because you had chosen a bad way of life, I discuss suicide in Ch. 8 of my book. There I agreed that in dire cases “you commit no moral injury if you ingest too many sleeping pills or enlist the help of a sympathetic doctor” (p. 140). As painful as suicide is for those left behind, which is what makes it a moral issue, we should remove the stigma of suicide when it is caused by intolerable psychological suffering that no drug or therapy or other human intervention can relieve. To a very ill person, the Stoic thought that the “door is open” can be not only a psychological help as a fallback but a motive to stay on this side of that door for now.
Having insisted on some of the real differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism, it is time for me to stress again the common elements. The Epicureans and the Stoics agree in their admiration for human resilience. Despite the slings and arrows of ordinary life, we can usually climb back up on our perches after being knocked off. We are helped by friendship, the greatest good in human life, according to Epicurus, which is perhaps what professional therapy and practical philosophy are in the end offering. Both literature and good applied philosophy tell us: “You are not alone; we have been through all this — or worse — too, and look, here we are!” They remind us that, as Epicurus says, we took pleasure in life before all this happened, and in time we will come to take pleasure in it again.
I want to thank Catherine for having taken the time to go through my original essay in response to her treatment of Stoicism in her book, How to Be an Epicurean. Hopefully her book, my How to Be a Stoic, and this exchange will provide interested readers with plenty of resources to make up their minds about the value of Epicureanism and Stoicism, and to decide whether either is a suitable philosophy of life for them.
That said, let me add a short commentary to what you have just read above, to further clarify a few points.
(1) Catherine writes early on in her essay: “Zeno of Citium, the original Stoic, contrasted virtue with pleasure. I see the pernicious effects of this contrast reverberating down through the centuries in such social evils as militarism, anti-feminism, and the indifference to human deprivation and suffering in conservative politics.” But this is a bit of a non sequitur. There is no evidence that I’m aware of, and no particular reason to believe, that adopting a Stoic philosophy leads to militarism, anti-feminism, or indifference to human deprivation. On feminism in particular, as an example, see this post.
(2) “Epicurus lived his philosophy. By ‘living apart,’ as he recommended to his followers, he avoided political responsibility. But he also avoided being drawn into the world of intrigue, assassination, poisons, and executions that characterized ancient political society.” Well, sure, but that’s a bit too high a price to pay, no? It’s easy not to dirty one’s hands if one simply refuses to wade into the mud.
(3) “When the king serves you a dinner consisting of your murdered children and proposes to entertain you with their severed heads, the Stoic — Seneca says — must remain calm and impassive. The Epicurean asks why you are dining with the king in the first place and why you ever let your children into his orbit.” Because sometimes you just can’t avoid the actions of tyrants, as plenty of modern examples testify. It is a luxury that often requires money or power to be able to stay aloof in the Epicurean fashion.
(4) “Seneca’s actions in real life — his luxurious living, his complicity in Nero’s murders and crimes, his authorship of bloody, violent tragedies — all this explored recently in the remarkable book by Emily Wilson (no relation) suggest strongly that his philosophy existed in Seneca’s head and not in his life.” That’s a common, yet uncharitable take on Seneca. As other biographers (see here and here) have pointed out, Seneca was a man living in complex times and faced with near impossible odds. He successfully reined in Nero for the first five years of his principate, which were actually prosperous for Rome. And he attempted several times to retire and distance himself from the emperor once things got out of control. And let’s not forget that in the end he paid his debt with his life. Moreover, of course the inconsistent actions of a single man do not thereby a philosophy condemn.
(5) “This is selective quotation to be sure, but nowhere in the writings of the Epicureans do you find anything so nasty with a definite anti-female vibe.” There is no question that most of the ancients, including the Stoics, were far from being feminists. Then again, we should always be wary of judging past cultures by our own standards. And Catherine conveniently makes no reference to the unusually pro-women writings of the Stoics, including Seneca (see link on feminism above).
(6) “Compare the quotation about sex from Marcus Aurelius (Meditations VI.13) that Massimo cites in his essay. I don’t see the basis for reading it as a warning about excess.” It’s clear from his letters to his friend and mentor Fronto.
(7) “[Descartes’] Passions of the Soul argue in place of Stoic (and faux-Cartesian) mind-body dualism that we are one with our bodies and that a person cannot, by mental effort, stop feeling what they feel.” The Stoics were most certainly not dualists! Nor did they argue that we can stop feelings things (pain, for instance) by sheer mental effort. They only said that we can decide to regard our feelings differently, and that this choice has consequences for how we navigate life.
(8) “The image of the self as an impregnable fortress and a refuge is neither psychologically realistic nor consistently helpful in dealing with sticks and blows of fortune.” And yet, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is inspired by Stoic psychology, is the most efficacious kind of evidence-based psychotherapy. It works.
(9) “Can we really choose not to be hurt by opposition to our hopes and desires and expectations?” We cannot avoid out automatic reactions, as the Stoics clearly acknowledged. But we can train ourselves to change our judgments about things.
(10) “To change your feelings, change your life. Speak up, move out, avoid running into that person. What’s in your head — a more calm and objective perspective on things — will follow.” Again, this is the opposite of CBT. And CBT works. It is, moreover, a bit of a false dichotomy, as Stoics also work to change the circumstances, whenever possible. They just accept that sometimes it isn’t possible.
(11) “According to some interpreters, the only emotions the Stoics considered as needing to be extirpated were the ‘bad’ ones: anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity. But Seneca also condemns grief over the death of friends and dejection at loss of reputation as ‘vices’ in this letter.” According to pretty much every interpreter, not just some. For details see Margaret Graver, Stoicism and Emotion. Grief and distress at loss of reputation are two very different cases. First off, in his letters of consolation Seneca condemns excessive grief, not grief per se. And yes, being distraught at loss of reputation is to put too much stake in the opinions of others, according to the Stoics.
(12) “If we did not feel anger, how would we know that our (often legitimate) interests have been harmed?” The Stoics too use the initial feeling (what Seneca calls “the first movement”) of anger as a warning bell. They just think it’s not a good idea to act while in the throws of the full blown emotion.
(13) “Without lust and delight — and all the forms of rapture and intoxication life has to offer — it would not, as Bernard Williams pointed out, feel worth living.” I don’t know about lust, which often leads to really unhealthy situations, but the Stoics think love and joy are positive emotions, so again careful not to confuse the pathe and the eupatheiai.
(14) “But Marcus’s detachment and sense of beauty and oneness were probably chemically induced.” The story of Marcus being an opium addict has been debunked. Africa’s paper had been rejected already on the basis of a detailed analysis by Pierre Hadot in The Inner Citadel. See also the most recent book by Don Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, where he comments on this using the writings of Marcus’ own physician, Galen.
(15) “[Marcus] was also a military commander, albeit a reluctant one, engaged in the territorial/ethnic battles.” That’s another example of presentism, using the word “ethnic” to imply a similar system of values to the one we hold today. Marcus was a man of his time, Stoicism does not pretend to transcend that. Nevertheless, his wars were defensive, and he was happy to arrive at generous compromises whenever possible, and even to resettle his former enemies within the Roman Empire, rather than making them slaves.
(16) “Is there in Stoicism any sense of the miseries of poverty and deprivation?” Yes! For instance, Seneca’s bit about slavery in Letter 47.
(17) “Justice is not some kind of transcendental abstraction.” Nor did the Stoics ever say that.
(18) “I cannot think of a better foundation for personal and social ethics than the prevention of distress and the removal of impediments to the realization of other people’s legitimate (again a concept for negotiation) interests.” Setting aside that Stoics are not in the business of denying the importance of preventing distress and nurturing people’s legitimate interests, how about a sense of fairness and compassion? Both are positive Stoic emotions.
In the end — as Catherine agrees — there is much of value in both philosophies, just like there is much of value in many other philosophies of life. We just need to be clear and charitable about what each entails, and then make up our mind about which works better for us.