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A Stoic Primer

By: J. Jackson Barlow
January 30, 2019

he Stoics are in an odd position, loved by those who malign them and maligned by those who love them. At least as long ago as the days of Cicero, they were presented as humorless and pedantic, but also brave, dedicated, and principled. In The Practicing Stoic Ward Farnsworth, Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, has not tried to change this image, or even explain, develop, or advance Stoic thought. Nor does he aim to solve problems or resolve disagreements among Stoic thinkers. He rather re-describes Stoic thought for readers who are not students of Classics or Philosophy, or particularly knowledgeable about those subjects. He provides beginners with a selection of Stoic (or Stoic-like) texts, and invites them to probe more deeply on their own.

This gives the book its charm. Most excerpts are brief, and generally clear. The works of modern writers (Farnsworth chooses Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer) are included to show how Stoic thinking has persisted in the modern world. It is not a bad introduction; readers get names, titles, and passages that ease them into an examination of Stoic thought.

And yet the general approach to Stoicism is decidedly un-Stoic. Of most concern is the way Farnsworth downplays the centrality of virtue in Stoic thought. He makes this clear in his introduction when he says that as human beings we “react to our judgments and opinions—to our thoughts about things, not to things themselves.” Since we cannot change the things, we must change our opinions about the things. As he goes on to say, “it all begins with the idea that we construct our experience of the world through our beliefs, opinions, and thinking about it—in a word, through our judgments—and that they are up to us.”

It is not fully clear, and Farnsworth never tries to make it clear, whether this beginning state is strictly interior—we construct a world inside our heads—or if there is an objective world to which we must at some point reconcile our thinking. Evidence that the book tends toward the former, though, is the book’s apparent understanding that the primary effort of Stoicism is to rearrange perceptions in a way that they will not cause distress to the Stoic: “it is an instruction to take more responsibility than usual for one’s thinking–to treat how we talk to ourselves as a choice…treating thoughts and judgments as matters of choice is central to the practice of Stoicism but something that many people rarely do and some never do.” Approaching it in this way, Farnsworth details Stoic thinking over the course of nine issue-specific chapters, beginning with Death and Desire and concluding with Virtue and Learning.

The persistent problem of the book, to repeat, is its exiling of virtue to the periphery of Stoic concerns, treating it as one concern among many. In contrast, according to the Stoics, we need to adjust our thinking about things for the sake of virtue. There is an objective world and an objective standard for leading a “life according to nature.” Knowledge of that world is partly or mostly hidden, and the standard of virtue is neither obvious nor easy. To live a virtuous life, we must be prepared to be attacked, to be estranged from our friends, and to be considered odd and priggish. Stoicism thus can be understood as an elaboration of and an answer to Glaucon’s demand at the beginning of Plato’s Republic to show us a person bereft of every benefit save virtue alone. Clearly such a life isn’t for everyone, even though it would make everyone happy were they to practice it. To understand virtue as part of the effort to redirect our thinking, rather than the reason for redirecting our thinking, distorts Stoic teaching.

Farnsworth seems to dismiss the thought that virtue is even an important enough principle to argue for:

I…will venture that the efforts of the Stoics to prove that we should pursue virtue, as they define it, are not likely to be compelling to anyone who is not already sympathetic to their claims.

This relegation of virtue to the periphery makes it problematic to recommend the book as an introduction to Stoicism, unless the reader plans to proceed to the Stoic philosophers themselves. Yet why read the Stoics if one is not already sympathetic to their claims? Might it be for a stern nudge toward our best life? What argument can lead us to recognize this need?

The book begins with an assurance that “Stoicism contains some of the finest and most durable wisdom of any age,” leading a reader to wonder what the mediocre and flimsy wisdom of an age might look like. Complex and wordy, the book reflects the latest jargon of the academy and cautiously breaks no new ground. Worse, it leaves out the arguments. It is simply not an imaginative or lively approach to Stoicism, especially to Stoic ethics, and makes it painfully obvious why people might want to avoid the Stoics.

More puzzling is the absence of modern thinkers in the Stoic tradition, for example the 17th century Neostoics, or 21st century writers in philosophy and psychology who have tried to make Stoicism newly relevant. An older example would be the complete absence of St. Paul, very possibly the most quoted Stoic of them all. Any meaningful discussion of Stoic thought seems to require at least some attention to its compatibility with Christian thought. Paul’s reconciliation of his Stoic training with his Christian faith has had an enduring influence on the Western world. It is not just that a neophyte could read this book and never get a hint that Paul had deep knowledge of Stoicism. It is that one could read the book and fail to understand how Stoicism might contribute to or be compatible with Christian doctrine.

In the end, I wonder if the book might not contribute to someone actually understanding less about Stoicism after reading it. It is far from clear that Stoicism can be understood from excerpts torn from the context of their surrounding arguments. Readers might come away thinking that the critics are on to something when they say that Stoics are rigid, bad politicians, and generally not fun. To be sure, the Stoics could be ponderous. But their ponderous arguments were meant to be the key to a better life. This is what many have admired about Stoicism even as they distanced themselves from its practice. The Stoics took seriously the idea of Socratic dialectic, including internal dialectic, as the means to self-improvement. That dialectical give and take is completely missing here.

Stoicism is not a body of precepts but a way of living. To present it as a body of precepts, as the book does, is to ignore its method, or really its essential point, and most emphatically its “practice.” Cicero admired his Stoic friends for their adherence to principles, many of which Cicero the theorist shared. But Cicero the politician could not stand to be unpopular. That is, he could not stand to be a Stoic in practice. And this is the point—when you’re a Stoic, you’re a Stoic all the way. It would be nice if one could pick Stoicism up casually, over a weekend, and live with it for a while to see how it fits. Certainly this volume allows one to try Stoicism on for size. Perhaps it will attract some readers to explore Stoicism more fully. At its best—as Farnsworth understands—this is an introductory anthology, not a digest of Stoic thought and certainly not a complete one. As a work with such a restricted mandate, it cannot harm and may be helpful if supplemented. One hopes that interested readers will work on that supplementary reading and discourse. What is the place of virtue in human life and what sorts of arguments will lead us to our best selves? These are questions worth investigating.