Gregory Hays, translator of Marcus Aurelius, does a hack job on Stoicism

[image: coin representing Marcus Aurelius, minted circa 180 CE, photo by the Author; this is essay #278 in the Figs in Winter series]

Gregory Hays is the author of a deservedly celebrated translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. (Though he does take liberties with the text, which is why I prefer the Robin Hard translation.) So I was interested when more than one person told me that Hays recently published a long article on modern Stoicism in the New York Review of Books, with the unpromising title “Tune out & lean in.” Unfortunately, my take on the article is that it is a hack job. Let’s see why.

The article is allegedly a review of a whopping six books about Stoicism: That One Should Disdain Hardships (Yale Press, a collection of the lectures of Musonius Rufus), How to Keep Your Cool (Princeton Press, an edited version of Seneca’s On Anger), How to Be Free (Princeton Press, a new translation of Epictetus’ Enchiridion), The Pocket Stoic (by John Sellars, Chicago Press), Stillness Is the Key (by Ryan Holiday, Penguin), and Not All Dead White Men (by Donna Zuckerberg, Harvard Press). But if you expect to find out much about any of said books by reading Hays’ “review” you’ll be sorely disappointed.

The article begins reasonably enough. Hays identifies Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, as the pivotal moment that made Stoicism cool again. Which is way of an oversimplification, but we can go with it as a first approximation. He then, correctly, describes the questionable fashion among entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley types to latch on to what they think is Stoicism but are in fact just Stoic techniques. Not the same thing, just like practicing meditation doesn’t make one a Buddhist. As he puts it, “Instead of wondering ‘Who moved my cheese?’ they can ask ‘What things are in my control?’”

Shortly thereafter Hays makes fun of people who buy “memento mori” medallions and, in the same paragraph, also disdainfully mentions Stoic Week and Stoicon, two serious and useful events organized by the Modern Stoicism group. (In that paragraph I’m also mentioned as a “luminary” of the movement, which somehow I get the impression ain’t meant as a compliment.)

Even so, the article maintains some balance when Hays goes on to mention the pivotal role played in the early phases of modern Stoicism by the French scholar Pierre Hadot, author of The Inner Citadel and Philosophy as a Way of Life. Hays even manages to be somewhat charitable to the controversial Ryan Holiday, correctly, in my opinion, stating that “one might suppose that Holiday’s work represents a dumbing-down of Stoicism — the reduction of great works of ancient thought to shallow self-help manuals. This is not the case. Holiday’s adaptations may emphasize professional success over virtue, but in other ways they are very much in the spirit of his ancient models: to a perhaps surprising degree, Stoic treatises really are self-help manuals.”

We are then treated to a basic outline of how ancient practical philosophy worked and the people that lived it — from Plato to Aristotle, from Cicero to Augustine. And of course there is the obligatory mention of the influence of Stoicism on modern cognitive behavioral therapy. By this point I was beginning to wonder whether I should finish the long article, since nothing so far had been news to me, when I suddenly perked up while reading: “Committed Stoics could be tiresome people, in real life as well as on the page.” Which is followed by a fairly brutal put down of one of ancient Stoicism’s role models, Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar. After that Hays moves to attack modern Stoicism by way of its alleged association with the “red pill” manly-men movement. And it only goes further downhill from there. Very quickly.

Bizarrely, Hays writes: “The link between Stoicism and autocracy is in some sense a natural one. Stoicism, after all, is about being in control of one’s own thoughts and emotions, an absolute ruler in the citadel of the mind.” He then moves on to highlight Seneca’s sexism. And the alleged elitism of Stoicism. You know, it was practiced by emperors and senators, and the former slave Epictetus is, predictably, the exception that confirms the rule. And the Stoics didn’t speak out against slavery! Stoicism is all about oneself, not giving a fig leaf about the rest of society — that’s why Michel Foucault wrote about it in The Care of the Self. “Reminded that Black lives matter, the Stoic may respond that no lives matter (very much); it’s all in how you see it!” Concluding this bizarre essay with “Unhappy is the land in need of heroes,” said Brecht’s Galileo; unhappy too, perhaps, the society that produces Stoics.” All of this, I neglected to mention earlier, from an associate professor of Classics (at the University of Virginia).

Okay, let’s take a deep breadth and examine Hays’ major complaints about Stoicism to see how they hold up to a bit of critical scrutiny. I’ll go through them systematically, for future reference when similar complaints are brought up by critics of Stoicism.

I. Silicon Valley Stoicism. It is certainly the case that there is a lot of misunderstanding of Stoicism in some quarters, particularly among entrepreneurs. If you get into Stoicism because you wish to become rich and famous you understood nothing about the philosophy. Wealth and fame are, at best, preferred indifferents, meaning that they are okay so long as they are entirely subordinate to the only thing that matters: your betterment as a human being.

It follows that if in your pursuit of billions you exploit your workers, you ain’t no Stoic. Similarly, if you use your money to corrupt the political process in your favor, you ain’t no Stoic.

Stoicism isn’t the only philosophy that suffers from this type of misappropriation. Ever heard of the prosperity gospel? But such misappropriations tell us nothing about the nature of Stoicism, or Christianity. More on why Silicon Valley misunderstands Stoicism here.

II. The commercialization of Stoicism. This point is related to the one above, but it seems to me to be far less problematic. Sure, we live in an era where everything becomes commercialized, including philosophies and religions. Again, look at Christianity. Have you been to the gift shop at the Vatican Museums? People feel better if they can sport a symbol of what they believe in, and so long as they don’t confuse the symbol for the real thing, or don’t substitute wearing a cross or medallion for actually behaving in a Christian or Stoic matter, why raise a fuss?

Full disclosure: as part of my collection of Greco-Roman antiquities, I own a real coin minted during the reign of Commodus, with the likeness of his father, Marcus Aurelius. Guilty as charged.

III. What is wrong with Stoic Week and Stoicon? I honestly don’t understand why Hays seems to be critical of organized events like Stoic Week and Stoicon. They are put together by dedicated people — including a good number of serious scholars and cognitive behavioral therapists — who know what they are doing. And these events help thousands to get on a better life path. What’s the problem?

IV. Down with self-help? “Self-help” has a partially deserved bad reputation, because a lot of it is about trivial “advice” or gimmicks. But let us be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. People do need help, and good books written by psychologists or philosophers may be able to bring it. What Hays is arguing is similar to saying that because there is a lot of crappy music out there I shouldn’t listen to Beethoven. The hell with that!

V. Cato the Younger and Stoic role models. There is no question that Cato the Younger was an aristocrat that was in favor of keeping the status quo near the end of the Roman Republic. Then again, his rival in the Senate, Julius Caesar, was also an aristocrat, who was bent on achieving absolute personal power, the Republic be damned. The reason Cato is a Stoic role model is not because of his political opinions, but because he had a reputation — even among his enemies — for a high degree of integrity and honesty. And because he preferred to die rather than being exploited for political purposes by Caesar.

One of the major reasons I like Stoicism is precisely because the philosophy can be embraced by people of a variety of political stripes, so long as they are genuinely interested in improving themselves ethically and in doing what they understand to be the right thing. We can, and should, freely disagree on what that thing actually is. (Important caveat: some political positions are indeed completely incompatible with the philosophy. A Stoic fascist makes no sense.)

VI. Stoicism vs ‘Broicism. A misunderstanding of Stoicism that is more even pernicious than the Silicon Valley variety is the version embraced by people who identify with the so-called Men’s Rights movement and similar misogynist outlooks.

This is a misunderstanding, as opposed to a logical extension, of Stoicism for a variety of reasons. To begin with, these people focus on only one of the four cardinal virtues, courage, at the expense of the others, especially justice. Moreover, courage for the Stoics is willingness to do the right thing regardless of personal cost, and the right thing is to treat every other human being, regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc., in the same way, with fairness. Why? Because Stoicism is a cosmopolitan philosophy, regarding everyone on Earth as a fellow brother/sister. Concepts like “men’s rights” or the rights of “incels” are sheer nonsense from a Stoic perspective. More on ‘Broicism here. More on Stoicism and women below.

VII. Stoicism and autocracy. Autocracy? Holy Roman Eagle! Zeno of Citium, in his Republic, described the ideal Stoic society as an enlightened anarchy, where everyone is equal to everyone else and there is no need of laws because people have learned to settle their disagreements by way of reason. Utopian? You bet. Autocratic? Obviously not.

Of course it is true that several ancient Stoics lived under an autocratic regime that they did not challenge, namely the Roman Empire. But some lived in democratic Athens. And they all despised and actively opposed — risking exile or death — anyone they regarded as a tyrant, from Julius Caesar to Nero, from Vespasian to Domitian. I’m sorry this isn’t good enough for Hays, but it will have to do.

VIII. Stoicism and elitism. Was Stoicism the “religion” of the Roman aristocracy? Setting aside that it wasn’t a religion, yes, Stoic philosophy was popular among the Roman elite. That doesn’t make it elitist, though, no more that chess is elitist only because it may be preferred by certain groups or others. That is, elitism was an accident of history, not an intrinsic feature of Stoicism.

Hays conveniently dismisses the counterexample of Epictetus, a slave, because you know, he was the slave of a rich person. No kidding, usually it’s rich people who get to own slaves. But — surprisingly for a classics scholar — he incorrectly claims that that’s the only available counterexample. I guess he forgot that Zeno was a merchant who lost everything in a shipwreck and then turned to philosophy. Or that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, had to work at night as a water carrier in order to apply himself to the study of philosophy.

There is also an elementary fallacy at play here. Of course the people whose writings we know of were part of the elite. That’s just how history works. The Christian theologians of the Middle Ages were people who could afford to spend their time writing treatises, either because they were wealthy or because they were sheltered by the structure of the Church. That doesn’t mean Christianity appealed only to the rich and powerful.

IX. Stoicism and slavery. When one is short on arguments one should bring up either Hitler or slavery. They trump everything. But slavery was an unavoidable component of the economy of the ancient world, not just in imperial Rome, but also in democratic Athens, in Egypt, in Mesoamerica, and pretty much everywhere else. As such, it was taken for granted by most people.

But not by the Stoics. Hays himself mentions one of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius where he makes a strong point that slaves are human beings as everyone else (as opposed to counting collectively as 3/5 human, for purposes of representation, in the early United States), and that they ought to be treated accordingly. That said, Seneca’s was indeed not a criticism of slavery as an institution.

But when Zeno of Citium, according to Diogenes Laertius, says that slavery is “evil” that begins to sound much more like a comprehensive rejection of the notion itself. And when Epictetus implicitly condones a slave’s rebellion against his master, if what the master is asking is a violation of the slave’s integrity and dignity, that’s pretty dangerously subversive.

Also, we need to do what Hays persistently refuses to do: disentangle the cultural mores specific to a given time and people from what is actually logical entailed by the precepts of a philosophy, or religion. A cosmopolitan philosophy aims at a society that is the antithesis of a slave holding one, regardless of what the current conditions on the ground happen to be.

X. Stoicism and women. There is no question that certain passages in Seneca, and to some extent Epictetus, are cringeworthy, as when they exhort their readers not to be “womanly,” meaning silly or weak. But the Stoics also, consistently, and repeatedly, claimed that women have the same intellectual capacities of men, and that they ought to be treated in the same way. Epictetus says it. Musonius Rufus, his teacher, says it. Seneca says it in multiple places. And, again, we find Zeno describing a completely egalitarian society.

Modern scholarship on Stoicism and feminism is clear that it is, of course, anachronistic to speak of ancient Stoic feminism. But the philosophy does logically entails feminism, understood as the radical notion that women are human beings and should have the same rights as men. The ancient Stoics didn’t write about transgender issues either, but the same principle applies: they are human beings, so the virtue of justice, and the principle of cosmopolitanism, mean that we ought to treat them with dignity, fairness, and respect.

XI. Stoicism and the care of self. Somehow, care of the self has become a bad concept. Probably because under that heading people nowadays do all sorts of silly or crazy things, like going shopping as a cure to stress. (Excellent for the those in charge in a capitalist and ultra-consumerist society!) But for the Stoics taking care of oneself explicitly means to continuously strive to become a better, more ethical human being. Trips to the spa are not part of the deal.

Moreover, the Stoics don’t draw the sharp modern distinction between selfishness and altruism. Since we are all deeply interconnected by way of the cosmic web of cause-effect, literally when we “help” ourselves we help the entire cosmopolis, and vice versa.

Two more pieces of evidence: one of the famous three disciplines of Epictetus is explicitly aimed at how to behave prosocially, that is, how to treat others justly. And Marcus Aurelius, who was famously influenced by Epictetus, repeatedly tells himself to act according to “the reason of a social animal.”

XII. Stoicism and social movements. But what about Black Lives Matter, or any other movement aiming at social change? They are great, and Stoics are duty bound to support them (because of the virtue of justice). But Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a political or social philosophy. It would be just as strange to ask what are Buddhists or Christians doing about Breonna Taylor. The answer is: what every decent human being ought to do: protest, march, support the movement with one’s time and/or money. And that, ultimately, is what Stoicism is all about: to help us become as decent human beings as we can.


P.S.: I just re-read Hays’ introduction to Stoicism in his translation of the Meditations. There is not a critical word about either the philosophy or its major historical exponents. I truly wonder what changed his mind so dramatically.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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