Twenty-First Century Stoic
November 1, 2010 8:39 AM   Subscribe

William B. Irvine has written a three-part essay (1, 2, 3) for BoingBoing summarizing his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. The Philosophers' Magazine has also commented on the revival of Stoicism.

The classical Stoic texts such as Epictetus' Discourses, Handbook and Golden Sayings; Seneca's Moral Letters; Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are available online. So are non-Stoic texts like Diogenes Laërtius' Lives and Lucian's satire Sale of Philosophies.

Modern resources include James Stockdale's Courage Under Fire, about how stoicism helped him endure life as a POW; resources like the Stoic Place and Stoic Foundation; communities such as the New Stoa and Stoic Forum; and even YouTube and Twitter. Previously.
posted by TheophileEscargot (42 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

Of course stoicism is coming back: it's practically the official philosophy of empire.
posted by kenko at 8:58 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sad derail out of the gate, but nice post, T.E. Anyone interested should most definitely check out the Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius. Fantastic translation.

I know what you are getting at historically, kenko, but surely you could have repressed your urge to snark, you know: act stoically.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:00 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I wonder what it would be like to hear Irvine and Gil Fronsdal ( have a forum. I find that folks like Fronsdal dedicate a lot of time to practical mindfulness and give people a lot of room to use what Irvine sees as common comtemplative practice without a lot time given to rebirth or afterlife. Looking forward to examining more tools for the kit. Thanks for the post.
posted by drowsy at 9:12 AM on November 1, 2010

I wanted to back-up joe lisboa's recommendation of the new Hays translation. I don't know Greek, so can't judge the translation per se, but found the introduction very useful and the translated text clear. One thing that was a bit different is that he doesn't smooth over the sometimes ragged state of the text in its received form--coming from other translations, I wasn't even aware that in some places, entries are broken off or appear somewhat mangled.
posted by Paquda at 9:12 AM on November 1, 2010

I know what you are getting at historically, kenko, but surely you could have repressed your urge to snark, you know: act stoically.

I think it really is true, though, and not just historically. Political hopelessness encourages coping by, among other things, restricting the field of one's desires to those things directly under one's control anyway. (Just as does physical hopelessness in Stockdale's case.) The other Hellenistic philosophies are pretty similar in this regard. It's not insignificant that Stoicism came up in the Roman Empire, rather than the Roman Republic.

(This is a very nice post.)
posted by kenko at 9:19 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Of course, kenko. I thought you were trying to make an oblique political point about (presumably) American empire instead of addressing the substance of the (agreed, very nice) post.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:24 AM on November 1, 2010

Of course stoicism is coming back: it's practically the official philosophy of empire.

You know, I've wondered about this too.

It seems like on the one hand, there's something really liberating and almost anarchistic about Stoicism — proper Stoicism, not just "grin and eat more shit" — if you arrive at it yourself. But on the other hand, presenting someone else with the Stoic virtues as a solution to their problems is a great way of keeping them from rocking the boat or getting out of line.

I'm clearly not the first person to be puzzled by this, but it sure is an interesting puzzle.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:24 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm no philosopher, but I don't think stoicism ever went away. Existentialism *is* stoicism, isn't it?

You got your reason telling you what's right. You try to do that. No rewards, no punishments, just what's right because it's right.

With a passel of failures and shortcomings.
posted by Trochanter at 9:25 AM on November 1, 2010

(My sister the Buddhist tells me their are a lot of similarities there, too)
posted by Trochanter at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2010

It looks like an interesting first glance a mash-up of Taoism, Mindfulness, Vulcan, and CBT. As a quasi-existentialist, some of the 'acceptance of your pre-ordained circumstance' talk rubs me the wrong way, but I'll investigate the links (and Meditations) further.
posted by rocket88 at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2010

kenko: “Of course stoicism is coming back: it's practically the official philosophy of empire.”

That's silly. There hasn't been a single time in the history of the world when stoicism has been endorsed by an empire, nor has it ever itself endorsed an empire. I can't imagine any sense in which you can say that stoicism is "practically the official philosophy of empire," aside from the fact that one particularly wise and circumspect emperor of Rome happens to have been a noted stoic. And even he didn't publicly espouse stoicism.
posted by koeselitz at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2010

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason.

The BB editors and moderators could benefit from studying this.
posted by Ratio at 9:38 AM on November 1, 2010

Existentialism *is* stoicism, isn't it?

Only in a very restricted sense. There are enormous differences between them--existentialism, if it can be taken as a coherent body of doctrine, believes that man is absolutely free, whereas Stoicism does not recognize the existence of free will at all.

That's silly. There hasn't been a single time in the history of the world when stoicism has been endorsed by an empire, nor has it ever itself endorsed an empire. I can't imagine any sense in which you can say that stoicism is "practically the official philosophy of empire," aside from the fact that one particularly wise and circumspect emperor of Rome happens to have been a noted stoic. And even he didn't publicly espouse stoicism.

Stoicism was very popular among Imperial Roman elites, and training with a Stoic teacher (including Epictetus himself) was a standard part of many young aristocrats' educations. So in that sense, it is fairly safe to say that it was a quasi-official philosophy, especially since the public discourse of Imperial Rome was shaped by Stoic orators.
posted by nasreddin at 9:55 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Excellent post, TheophileEscargot. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 9:59 AM on November 1, 2010

Yeah, but it wasn't publicly espoused; and it was more complex than simply an official philosophy. All I mean is that it's sort of unfair to simply dismiss hundreds of years of thought by labeling it 'imperial.'
posted by koeselitz at 10:00 AM on November 1, 2010

At the same time, the idea that the Stoics embraced joy isn't quite correct. There are some fairly sophistical arguments that joy was compatible with ataraxia (how else are you gonna sell your philosophy?) but strictly speaking strong emotions of any kind are incompatible with Stoic epistemology, which is the foundation of Stoic morality.

(What that means is this: I have opinions about things. In fact, these opinions, as judgments about the world, are all I know of the world. Opinions, though, are fundamentally "about" me, in the sense that they are reflections of my emotional investment in something. The wise man gets rid of all opinions and therefore does not have emotional investment in anything, which is what prevents his vision from becoming distorted.)

Obviously, a living person cannot be a Stoic wise man, and many Stoics seem to have acknowledged something like this. What's interesting, though, is that according to the fundamental tenets of the system one does not get closer and closer to becoming a wise man. In other words, someone who's gotten rid of 95% of his emotional responses isn't any better than someone who is totally emotional, because the existence of judgments fatally compromises your epistemological standpoint. Stoicism thus seems to have been an ethical system that was deliberately designed to fail. The Skeptics had a great parody of the Stoic wise man: since they thought all knowledge was opinion, and the wise man had no opinions, he was unable to know anything at all and basically wandered around in a daze.

I love Hellenistic philosophy.
posted by nasreddin at 10:07 AM on November 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if any of these links mention Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full", but it is possibly the best-selling Stoic-themed book of our time. The whole story turns on the two main characters' discovery of Epictitus, and their "born-again" conversion to the his philosophy. (Stoic reviews of "A Man in Full" here and here.)
posted by Faze at 10:15 AM on November 1, 2010

There hasn't been a single time in the history of the world when stoicism has been endorsed by an empire, nor has it ever itself endorsed an empire

Yes, "official" was a very poor choice of word.
posted by kenko at 10:23 AM on November 1, 2010

For instance, from the Handbook:
34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.
In general, I think that the "Stoicism is only about rejecting negative emotions" position is a kind of lame and self-serving cop-out. The whole point is that freedom comes from restraint, and that you have to be able to reject the lure of pleasure in order to be able to resist pain.
posted by nasreddin at 10:25 AM on November 1, 2010

posted by AugieAugustus at 10:37 AM on November 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

Sharon Lebell's The Art of Living was my first introduction to Epictetus.
A VERY user friendly translation.
Highly recommend if you're just getting your feet wet.
posted by willmize at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2010

Stoicism? Bah. How about some good old fashioned cynicism instead?
posted by idiopath at 11:02 AM on November 1, 2010

Excellent post. If there were such a thing, I'd nominate it for Best of the Blue.

And though I've just started looking into the three main links above, I think there's a chance that I may already be a stoic and not even know it. I'm going to try and learn more and see what the deal is, and ultimately I think that's the best compliment anyone can give a MeFi post.

(Big Thanks to Theophille and the rest of you guys for some thoughtful discussion and additional material.)
posted by indiebass at 11:17 AM on November 1, 2010

Hopefully this isn't too tangential, but the relationship between Greek thought and Buddhism is fairly well established. I think this was the Wikipedia article of the day a couple of years ago. I read it stoically, and it's a very interesting story.
posted by sneebler at 7:49 PM on November 1, 2010

Several years ago there was a free electronic newsletter, The Stoic Voice Journal, that published a few translations and commentaries along with a selection of essays and poems inspired by Stoicism. The contents of the journal include a translation of Simplicius' well regarded commentary on the Enchiridion - web archive, Yahoo! Group.
posted by BigSky at 8:35 PM on November 1, 2010

Stoicism and Modern Art. What isn't to like about empire?
posted by b1tr0t at 8:58 PM on November 1, 2010

From the essay:

Thus, when I found myself in a predicament -- being stuck in traffic, for example -- I followed the advice of Epictetus and asked myself what aspects of the situation I could and couldn't control. I couldn't control what the other cars did, so it was pointless -- was in fact counterproductive -- for me to get angry at them. My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation.

I've never heard of Epictetus, nor do I know all that much about Stoicism. But the examples given are interesting and useful, and rather like what you might find in a book on Positive Psychology.

I'm not sure about it as an over-arching philosophy, but it seems like a good collection of tactics for improving the quality of everyday life at least.

As for whether it's particularly fitting for the times... well I guess cultures swing between periods where they're running away with optimism about what can be achieved whether materially or socially and periods when they're finding it hard to believe in any progress at all. If the description of Stoicism in the essay is accurate, it seems Stoic ideas would be useful in either mood, but people are more likely to actually be open to them when things aren't going so well.
posted by philipy at 9:40 PM on November 1, 2010

Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, but he was compromised in many ways - i.e. he was human, with human failings. His son, Commodus, was a real piece of work, rebelling against his father's life and teachings. You can lead them to water, but you can't make them drink. btw, I love the Meditations - a very inspiring work, and a healthy table setting of good advice to live one's life by.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:11 PM on November 1, 2010

I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap.

"Guys! Guys! I think I might like to be a Zen Buddhist!"
"Do you know anything about Zen Buddhism?"
"...I'll be right back!"


"Guys! Guys! I'm totally a Stoic now!"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, every couple of days I imagine what life would be like if you were all dead. Also, I try to act like less of a dick by trying not to talk about myself all the time!"
"Anyways, off to write a book about how I'm totally a Stoic now!"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:12 AM on November 2, 2010

I expected from the Philosopher's Magazine link a bunch of stuffy old analytics decrying any sort of philosophy relevant to people's lives, and I was not disappointed:
Yet, if you started delving into Stoic literature, you might find some of the advice repugnant, even shocking. In Epictetus, for instance, you would find this exhortation: “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you are kissing; and then you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”
Someone help me, what exactly is repugnant about this? What on earth are they talking about?
posted by shii at 1:14 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, it's advocating that you withdraw your emotional attachment to your family, for the sake of avoiding emotional disturbance if they die. Don't love your kid more than you love other humans, because if you do, you're subject to the possibility that the kid will die and that will make you sad. To prevent sadness, don't love your kid.

Some possible sadness is worth risking, in order to live a fully human life, no?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:19 AM on November 2, 2010

To prevent sadness, don't love your kid.

I don't know if that was the intended meaning, as after all I know very little about Stoicism. But I am reminded of something I read - probably in some Hindu or Buddhist text - which said something like:

If a scripture says that fire is cold or water is not wet, the intended meaning is clearly not the apparent one

I'd guess that the intended message was not supposed to be "To prevent sadness, don't love your kid". Maybe it was something like "To avoid unbearable heartbreak, and cherish the time you have together all the more, remind yourself from time to time that all life is transient."

Anyway, to properly understand a system of thought that is alien to you, it's necessary to make an effort to work out what it's trying to get at, and that probably takes assuming that there is something of value in there to be gotten, if only you could figure out what.

In this case, I'd guess that there might be distinctions being made between different types of love, maybe between some concept of "authentic, healthy love" and "selfish attachment" or some such, which we are not aware of because we don't know the nuances of the terminology being used.
posted by philipy at 12:30 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

James Stockdale's Courage Under Fire, about how stoicism helped him endure life as a POW

It turns out that James Stockdale's real name is actually James Bond Stockdale, no guff.
posted by storybored at 1:09 PM on November 2, 2010

Excellent timing for this. I'm currently reading, "Life, Sex and Ideas" by AC Grayling.

Book report!

He dismissed pure stoicism by saying, "When stiff upper lipped Englishmen met whirling Dervishes or dancing Bantu, they thought them incontinent and therefore unable to govern themselves; and thought it a kindness as well as a convenience to colonise them."

"We have hearts within/Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts," wrote Elizabeth Barret Browning, thereby putting her finger on why it is essential to allow the emotions their place: for there has to be room for warmth and vividness, generosity and passion, which sometimes goes against prune-faced providence, and changes the world for the better as are result.
posted by dogbusonline at 1:39 PM on November 2, 2010

Well, I was trying to spell out what someone might find to be "repugnant" about the quoted passage. I should have been clearer: I am no expert on the Stoics, so didn't mean to giving the real gloss of the passage; I don't know its context etc.

Thinking about what the passage means...

Quickie summary of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Stoicism:

Happiness is our proper goal, where happiness means living in accord with what's natural for us We humans have a natural impulse toward things that are appropriate to our natures, and this changes as we age (as children, toward warmth and food, as adults, toward family members and rational goods). Bringing our choices in line with our natural impulses is virtuous, and choosing virtuous goals (rather than our actually attaining those goals) is what's needed for virtue and happiness.
5. Ethics
The Greek term ‘oikeion’ can mean not only what is suitable, but also what is akin to oneself, standing in a natural relation of affection. Thus, my blood relatives are—or least ought to be—oikeioi. It is partly in this sense that we eventually come to the recognition—or at least ought to—that other people, insofar as they are rational, are appropriate to us. [and thus a fitting object of morally virtuous choice (at least at an intermediate stage??]] [...]

[A]lso the perfection of our own rational natures [is appropriate to us]. Because the Stoics identify the moral virtues with knowledge, and thus the perfection of our rational natures, that which is genuinely good is also most appropriate to us. So, if our moral and intellectual development goes as it should, we will progress from valuing food and warmth, to valuing social relations, to valuing moral virtue. Ideally, we'll have the recognition that the value that moral virtue has is of a different order to those things that we were naturally attracted to earlier.
So it sounds from that as if we pass through a phase when we properly value/choose/accede to our impulse toward family members, and then we move on to a stage when we properly value/choose/accede to our impulse toward perfecting our rational faculties as a higher goal than family. (It's not totally clear to me from the SEP article whether the "valuing rationality" stage makes all the previous values subordinate to rationality, though that would be my first interpretation.)

There's a further section that seems relevant here:
[We have a natural impulse to choose things that are in accord with nature...] For my foot too, if it had intelligence, would have an impulse to get muddy. (Epictetus, 58J) We too, as rational parts of rational nature, ought to choose in accordance with what will in fact happen [...] since this is wholly good and rational: when we cannot know the outcome, we ought to choose in accordance with what is typically or usually nature's purpose, as we can see from experience of what usually does happen in the course of nature. In extreme circumstances, however, a choice, for example, to end our lives by suicide can be in agreement with nature.
So how does the Stoic recommend I respond to recognizing my family's mortality? If they are mortal, they will die. Does the virtuous person have an impulse toward hastening that? (Or indeed hastening one's own end?) It seems like this better not be the consequence! So, what's the limit of this "impulse toward predictable future events"?
[...] For the most part, [the Stoic sage's] knowledge of nature and other people will mean that she attains the things that she selects. [But] Her conditional positive attitude toward them will mean that when circumstances do conspire to bring it about that the object of her selection is not secured, she doesn't care. She only preferred to be wealthy if it was fated for her to be wealthy. These reflections illustrate the way in which the virtuous person is self-sufficient (autarkês) and this seems to be an important component of our intuitive idea of happiness. The person who is genuinely happy lacks nothing and enjoys a kind of independence from the vagaries of fortune. [...]
What does this tell us about how to weigh our family's mortality? I can only prefer they continue to live if it's fated for them to continue to live? So I must accede in their eventual deaths, which are fated... would this preclude medical treatment? Seems like we don't want that as a consequence.

Another way to make yourself self-sufficient and insulted from the vagaries of fortune is to tune yourself to not care (in the spirit of Buddhist avoiding attachment) about things ordinary people care about. This is what I was suggesting in my gloss of the quote above. Here's the SEP on stoic detachment from passions:
[According to the Stoic view on emotions/passions...] The passions or pathê are literally ‘things which one undergoes’ and are to be contrasted with actions or things that one does. Thus, the view that one should be ‘apathetic,’ in its original Hellenistic sense, is not the view that you shouldn't care about anything, but rather the view that you should not be psychologically subject to anything—manipulated and moved by it, rather than yourself being actively and positively in command of your reactions and responses to things as they occur or are in prospect. It connotes a kind of complete self-sufficiency.

The Stoics distinguish two primary passions: appetite and fear. These arise in relation to what appears to us to be good or bad. They are associated with two other passions: pleasure and distress. These result when we get or fail to avoid the objects of the first two passions. What distinguishes these states of soul from normal impulses is that they are “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason” (Arius Didymus, 65A). [...] The Stoics call a passion like distress a fresh opinion that something bad is present (Andronicus, 65B)[...] Given the Stoics' view about good and bad, as against merely indifferent things, the only time that one should assent to the impression that something bad is present is when there is something which might threaten one's virtue, for this and this alone is good. Thus all passions involve an element of false value-judgement [which occurs in tandem with "shrinking" or "swelling" sensations in one's heart, "one's commanding faculty"]. [...]

It is important to bear in mind that the Stoics do not think that all impulses are to be done away with. What distinguishes normal impulses or desires from passions is the idea that the latter are excessive and irrational. [...Eg, running down a steep slope, I might be unable to stop, and then] My running is excessive in relation to my initial impulse. Passions are distinguished from normal impulses in much the same way: they have a kind of momentum which carries one beyond the dictates of reason. [...]

Even in antiquity the Stoics were ridiculed for their views on the passions. Some critics called them the men of stone. But this is not entirely fair, for the Stoics allow that the sage will experience what they call the good feelings (eupatheiai, Diog. Laert. 65F). These include joy, watchfulness and wishing and are distinguished from their negative counterparts (pleasure, fear and appetite) in being well-reasoned and not excessive. [...] The species under wishing include kindness, generosity and warmth. A good feeling like kindness is a moderate and reasonable stretching or expansion of the soul presumably prompted by the correct judgement that other rational beings are appropriate to oneself.[...]
So. Do you know what the Stoic view on the proper attitude toward family was, that would explain that quote?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:52 PM on November 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the links, by the way; it's nice to have a short thing by Stockdale, I may end up assigning that one of these days.

It's funny to reflect on Stockdale because he first came into my consciousness during the ludicrous Vice Presidential debate in 1992, and I remember my dad just shaking his head because he knew Stockdale's whole backstory and knew him as this heroic but also intellectually impressive figure. This speech was given in 1993, and the prepared speech at least is cogent, so Stockdale must have still been in better command of himself generally at that time than how he came across in the debate.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:24 AM on November 3, 2010

I planned not to comment on this, but I think I might have some things to add.

First, I decided to concentrate on web-based resources, but books are also useful: here's a good reading list. In particular, the works of Musonius Rufus have been out of print for years, but are now available in a new edition.

Also it's hard to understand stoicism outside of the context of the other contemporary philosophies. Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life seems to do that best.

In this period all philosophers thought of philosophy as a practical as well as theoretical exercise, with the aim of improving one's character.

All the schools of philosophy had their own conception of the "Sage" or "Wise Man". This wasn't supposed to be a person you might plausibly meet in the street, but a person with a perfect character, analogous to a bodhisattva in Buddhism or a saint in Christianity. As you improved yourself you would become more like a Sage, and the different schools argued between themselves about what a Sage was really like, but you weren't seriously expected to become one.

So that can be a source of confusion if you plunge straight into the original texts and think you're expected to become a Sage straightaway. You're actually only supposed to become a "Progressor", someone moving towards that status.

Second, I think the "philosophy of empire" idea is a bit exaggerated. Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism in Athens around 300BC. Athens' empire had effectively ended in 404BC when they lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. While the texts we have tend to date from the Roman Empire, I think that partly reflects the way empires are effective at getting lots of copies of books spread over a wide area, so they're more likely to survive.

Even when it comes to stoic influence in the Roman Empire, stoicism was only one of several schools of philosophy, and philosophy was not universally popular. It happened several times that the Emperor exiled all the philosophers from Rome: for instance Domitian did that in 90AD. Philosophy was seen as a useful way to learn and build character, but also as a potential threat to the authorities. For instance, it was Cato the Younger's stoic philosophy that led him to resist the power of Julius Caesar.

Third, I think that Stanford Encyclopedia article is a bit confusing. Jan Garrett's Basic Ideas might be more accessible.

In the book, Irvine says that he thinks recognizing the mortality of loved ones helps him appreciate them better: a parent is more likely to spend time with their child if they're aware of mortality.

Stoics certainly don't want to hasten the death of loved ones. Suicide is considered acceptable in some circumstances, such as in extreme old age or if very ill. Epicetus says:
Friends, wait for God. When He gives the signal, and releases you from this service, then depart to Him. But for the present, endure to dwell in the place wherein He hath assigned you your post. Short indeed is the time of your habitation therein, and easy to those that are thus minded. What tyrant, what robber, what tribunals have any terrors for those who thus esteem the body and all that belong to it as of no account? Stay; depart not rashly hence!
Irvine puts more emphasis on the "negative visualization" technique than most. Other books on practical stoicism like Everything Has Two Handles by Robert Pies and Stoic Serenity by Keith Seddon don't so much. But which techniques and exercises are helpful depends on the individual. If you think that you're prone to take your blessings for granted, and be devastated when they vanish, then negative visualization may be very helpful. But if you're prone to worrying about the big things already, you should concentrate on keeping your fears in proportion.

The Stoic position on the family was favourable: they thought that it was natural to have affection for your family members. However they also had a doctrine of "Oikeiosis" or bringing-into-the-household, that meant you should try to treat people more distant from you as if they were in a closer group. Hierocles says:
Each one of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles, some smaller, others larger, the latter enclosing the former on the basis of their different and unequal dispositions relative to each other. The first and closest circle is the one which a person has draws as though around a center, his own mind. This circle encloses the body and anything taken for the sake of the body. For it is virtually the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. Next, the second one further removed from the center but enclosing the first circle; this contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The next circle includes the other relatives, and this is followed by the circle of local residents, then the circle of fellow tribesmen, next that of fellow citizens, and then in the same way the circle of people from neighboring towns, and then the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. Once these have all been surveyed, it is the task of a well-tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to draw the circles together somehow towards the center, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones.
So, while they were pro-family, they were not pro-family to the point of the exclusion of others.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:21 AM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is turning out to be one of the most thoughtful and stimulating of MeFi threads.

I did a little bit of reading, and dug out my copy of Marcus Aurelius.

One important thing I gleaned is that the words "nature" and "natural" as used by Stoics may well not mean what we'd typically mean nowadays. They likely meant something like "playing its proper role within the whole, for the good of the whole".

My favorite quote from Marcus Aurelius is one about getting out bed in the morning.

Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm?

In current terminology we might well say "it's only natural to want to stay in a nice comfortable bed as long as possible", but maybe in Stoic terms they would define the natural thing as getting up and getting on with "what I was born for".
posted by philipy at 11:50 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

fwiw, zadie smith places mark zuckerberg as a stoic :P
Perhaps this is the disjunct between real Zuckerberg and fake Zuckerberg: the movie places him in the Roman world of betrayal and excess, but the real Zuckerberg may belong in the Greek, perhaps with the Stoics (“eliminating desire”?). There’s a clue in the two Zuckerbergs’ relative physiognomies: real Zuckerberg (especially in profile) is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus (only facially, mind—his torso is definitely not seven times his head). Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in. Zuckerberg, with his steady relationship and his rented house and his refusal to get angry on television even when people are being very rude to him (he sweats instead), has something of the teenage Stoic about him. And of course if you’ve eliminated desire you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

It’s that kind of kid we’re dealing with, the kind who would never screw a groupie in a bar toilet—as happens in the movie—or leave his doctor girlfriend for a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s this type of kid who would think that giving people less privacy was a good idea. What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday.
posted by kliuless at 2:46 PM on November 6, 2010

also btw...
Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith
posted by kliuless at 11:22 AM on November 13, 2010

oh and...
On coding, and writing contracts
posted by kliuless at 4:22 PM on November 13, 2010

Just read Irvine's book, so glad I discovered this post as I now have links to read for days. I'm particularly interested to hear if anyone has discovered similar modern takes on epicureanism.
posted by proj at 5:52 PM on November 24, 2010

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