Almost Too Sober: On the Appeal of Stoicism

Robert Zaretsky contemplates “How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life,” a selection of Epictetus’s thought translated by A. A. Long.

Almost Too Sober: On the Appeal of Stoicism

How to Be Free by A. A. Long and Epictetus. Princeton University Press. 232 pages.

SOME OF US want to be rock stars or rocket scientists when we grow up, while others want to be actors or athletes. Marcus Aurelius, though, wanted to grow up to be a Stoic. That, at least, is the impression Marguerite Yourcenar gives us in her novel Memoirs of Hadrian. This brilliant reimagining of the Roman imperial period is cast as a letter written by the dying Hadrian to the teenage Marcus Aurelius he has chosen to succeed him. While Hadrian admires his “dear Mark,” he also chides him. He was, Hadrian recalls, an “almost too sober little boy” who had grown into a young man a tad too zealous in his practice of “the mortifications of the Stoics.”

What would Hadrian — or, at least, Yourcenar’s Hadrian — have made of our current craze with Stoicism? While it is too late for many of us to grow up to become Stoics, more than a few of us want to finish up as Stoics. Princeton University Press’s new edition of Epictetus’s Encheiridion and selected Discourses, titled How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, is the latest entry in a wave of works, both popular and scholarly, on Stoicism. Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life and Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness are fresh additions to the former category, while A. A. Long’s classic Stoic Studies and Pierre Hadot’s La citadelle intérieure: Introduction aux Pensées de Marc Aurèle are notable examples of the latter category.

How to Be Free seeks to bridge the worlds of both kinds of readers. Translated and introduced by Long, a renowned scholar of Stoicism and classics professor at UC Berkeley, the work presents the Greek text and English translation on facing pages. While the original text is, well, Greek to me, Long’s translation is sharp and straightforward — qualities always associated with Epictetus’s teachings. Like Socrates, Epictetus did not write down his words; it is thanks to his student Arrian — who became one of Hadrian’s closest aides — that we have the Encheiridion (or “handbook”) and Discourses. But whereas, in Plato’s writings, Socrates often serves as a proxy for his student’s own philosophical agenda, Arrian’s transcription of this freed slave’s words seems free of invention.

Most important, Socrates and Epictetus — though separated by more than four centuries — are alike in the coherence between their convictions and actions. One of the few, and certainly best known (if not substantiated) of episodes we have from Epictetus’s life occurred when he was still a slave. In a fit of rage, his master began to twist his leg. In a calm voice, the slave warned him that the leg would break. The master, ignoring the warning, broke Epictetus’s leg, prompting the maimed man to declare in an even voice: “Did I not tell you it would break?”

It is not clear whether Epictetus’s lameness was a result of his master’s inhumanity or, more prosaically, the consequence of arthritis. What is clear, though, is that Epictetus’s experience as a slave shaped his philosophy. The term philosophy now generally brings to mind an academic discipline, whose practitioners publish peer-reviewed journal articles and academic monographs that reexamine questions ranging from epistemology and ontology to linguistics and metaphysics or, more broadly, reassess the history of their profession. As anyone familiar with this world can report, its language and concerns are often difficult and demanding. This is not, by itself, a problem: readers of Joyce and Woolf, Dickinson and Faulkner, treasure the moments of luminous truths and insights these writers conjure in their difficult and demanding works.

But I am not alone, I suspect, in thinking that academic philosophers, with a few important exceptions, are mostly wanting when it comes to lasting truths or insights. All too often their present world seems light-years distant from the world in which I live and for which I would welcome the wisdom their profession supposedly offers. As Hadot declared in a series of interviews with the American philosopher Arnold Davidson: “The historian of philosophy must cede her place to the philosopher — the philosopher who must always remain alive within the historian of philosophy. This final task will consist in asking oneself, with unflinching candor, the decisive question: ‘What is it to philosophize?’”

In his revelatory writings on ancient Greek and Roman schools of philosophy, Hadot argues that it is not what passes for philosophizing nowadays. Rather than offering, as do modern philosophy departments, a smorgasbord of courses in various sub-disciplines, the ancient philosophical schools offered what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” — namely, the means to change the way you saw the world and the power to change your very self.

While there was no shortage of such schools — Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics, Platonists, and Aristotelians all had their shingles out — they all promised not only to inform their students about a particular philosophy, but also to transform them by it. In this sense, a novice’s choice of a particular school was existential. The urgency of, say, Albert Camus’s voice in The Myth of Sisyphus — no one, he reminds us, “ever died for the ontological argument” — had been sounded more than two millennia earlier by the Roman statesman, writer, and philosopher Seneca. Berating those philosophers who busied themselves batting around theoretical questions, he roared: “There is no time for playing around […] You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe […] What are you doing?”

As we learn from the Encheiridion, Epictetus was not one for playing around. He warned his students:

Do you suppose you can go in for philosophy and eat and drink just as you do now or get angry and irritated in the same way? You are going to have to go without sleep, work really hard, stay away from friends and family, be disrespected by a young slave, get mocked by people in the street, and come off worse in rank, office, or courtroom, everywhere in fact.

For Epictetus, Stoicism was not a pastime, but instead it was a set of rigorous practices. With the goal of rebooting one’s life, it is far more demanding, at least from a practical perspective, than the more recondite philosophical schools that have followed. If the Stoics had recruiters, they would have warned that philosophy is the hardest job we’ll ever love.

In both its original Hellenistic and subsequent Roman iterations, Stoicism fastened onto reason’s decisive role in our lives. The compass of our rational faculties allows women and men — Stoicism, along with Epicureanism, was exceptional in its refusal to relegate women to an inferior position — to navigate a world in which we are carried aloft by vast and immovable forces. We cannot master these circumstances, but we can master our attitude toward them. These happenings, for Stoics, are identified mostly as “things indifferent” — namely, events and facts that, in and of themselves, are neither intrinsically bad nor good.

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. The Stoic knows she must “remove goodness and badness from the things not up to us and ascribe it only to the things that are up to us.” Nearly everything that is external to us — the world’s unfolding warp and woof — is not up to us, but instead to nature.

Crucially, what is up to us is our outlook. By dint of our reason, we can grasp and assent to the way of the world. Though it requires a lifetime of effort to scale these philosophical heights, once I scramble to the summit I will see that mere material and physical things cannot breach what Marcus Aurelius calls the “inner fortress” of my self. And it is within that fortress, whether I am a senator or slave, rich or poor, a centurion or courtesan, that I cultivate what the Stoics called ataraxia, or serenity.

That Stoicism held such great appeal for a certain class of Romans is hardly surprising. Not only did it reflect and reinforce the battery of values, or mos maiorum, that defined the life of a proper thinking Roman, but it also provided a modicum of agency and freedom in a world of imperial domination. Equally unsurprising is that Stoicism now enjoys a revival with a certain class of Americans. In our world of institutional bureaucratization, social fragmentation, and political polarization, the therapeutic promise of Stoicism holds much attraction. It is telling, in this regard, that the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy like Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck were deeply influenced by the ancient Stoics.

Yet there is darkness at the heart of Stoicism — a darkness that, in Yourcenar’s novel, Hadrian glimpses. While he admires the example set by Epictetus — the crippled old man, Hadrian reports, seemed to “enjoy a liberty which was almost divine” — the emperor tells Marcus Aurelius that he nevertheless refuses to embrace either the man or his philosophy. Epictetus, Hadrian muses, “gave up too many things, and I had been quick to observe that nothing was more dangerously easy for me than mere renunciation.” The emperor is on to something. The reach of Stoic renunciation, unflinchingly acknowledged by Epictetus, is much further than most of us would ever wish to go. In one of his prosaic similes, he compares the Stoic’s life to a voyage on a ship commanded by nature. Just as a voyager on a real sea voyage might disembark at a port to gather “a little shellfish and vegetable,” he must be prepared to drop these things and return to the ship at a moment’s notice. So, too, on the ship of life, the Stoic, during a port of call, might gather “a little wife and child.” Ah, but don’t treasure these souvenirs, for “if the captain calls you, run to the boat and leave all those things without even turning around.”

In the Encheiridion, Epictetus — a childless bachelor, mind you — multiplies such examples. Should I want my wife and children to live, not to mention flourish, he lectures me for being “silly” because I want things to be up to me that are not up to me. Should one of my children or wife die, I must never say “I have lost” them. They were never mine in the first place, which is why I should instead say that they have been returned. Classicists like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Sorabji rightly question the consequences and costs of Stoic renunciation. Not only is it good to have attachments to those we love, but it is also necessary; without these attachments, we might enjoy greater security and even serenity, but we would also experience less humanity. We would be, quite simply, less human.

There are other big questions raised by this small handbook. 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? Is it really silly to wish with all your heart that your children not only survive you, but flourish as well? Once you put down Epictetus, you might wish to ask yourself whether you side with Hadrian, who accepted his own vulnerability and mourned the loss of his beloved Antinous, or “dear Mark,” who sought to evince his vulnerability by instead loving mere humanity.


Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. His new book, Catherine & Diderot: An Empress, A Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment, will be published this winter by Harvard University Press.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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