The Soul of Stoicism

People sometimes ask me what I think about Stoicism (not the phenomenon of physical and emotional fortitude, which I would call stoicism with a small “s”, but the Greco-Roman philosophical school that has undergone a recent revival). At the risk of alienating those of my readers who lean in the direction of Stoicism, I’ve decided to write a few blog posts on the topic, starting with this one.

Although I have benefited from reading and reflecting on the likes of Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, and recent authors like William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life) and Pierre Hadot (The Inner Citadel), there are aspects of Stoicism that simply don’t resonate with me. One of these is the rather elemental matter of Stoic views about the human person. This is a large topic and I try to keep my blog posts short, so what follows is a mere overview of my thoughts.

As I see it, Stoic philosophy encourages a somewhat disintegrated description and experience of what it is to be a human being. It does this by strongly separating the soul from the body; according to the Stoics, the true foundation of personhood is the soul, whereas the body is a mere material substrate. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius quotes Epictetus as saying “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.” I, however, prefer a more integrated or fundamentally Aristotelian viewpoint, in which all aspects of the person cohere and accord.

To expand: in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes the importance of understanding each thing in its essence (Chapter III, Section 11 – using the rendering from Pierre Hadot’s excellent book The Inner Citadel as translated by Michael Chase):

One must always make a definition or description of the object which is presented in a representation, so as to see it in itself, as it is in its essence, in its nakedness, in its totality, in all its details. One must say to oneself the name which is peculiar to it, as well as the names of the parts which compose it, and into which it will be resolved.

He later provides several examples of this approach to definition (Chapter VI, Section 13):

How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods: “This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.” Similarly, “This Falernian wine is just some grape juice,” and “This purple vestment is some sheep’s hair moistened in the blood of some shellfish.” When it comes to sexual union, we must say, “This is the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.” How important are these representations which reach the thing itself and penetrate right through it, so that one can see what it is in reality.

As I see it, Marcus simply misses the appropriate level of description here. It’s as if he said that food consists of molecules, therefore a bowl of mud should be just as nutritious as a bowl of stew. To assert that the essence of your friend or spouse or child is their flesh and bones – their mere matter – misses everything that truly matters about human relationships and the many affordances of social interactions. Furthermore, the Stoics apply the same logic to your relationship with yourself: “in reality” you are just blood and guts, but the soul can rise above its disgusting origins by turning against the body and anything that involves the body (the physical sensation of holding a loved one, the quickening pulse you feel when you’re excited about seeing a long-lost friend, etc.).

To my mind, this line of thinking sets up an unhealthy dynamic of self-denial and even a kind of internal dis-integration. We humans are embodied creatures and our real-life experience is so intimately integrated that we would never be aware of a deep-seated opposition between our bodily, mental, emotional, and psychological aspects unless some big idea person dreamed it up.

I’d like to reiterate that I don’t condemn the entire philosophy of Stoicism and that I have found value in several aspects of Stoicism. I’ll describe these more fully in a future post…

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