‘Cicero on Living a Stoic Life’ by John Sellars

Cicero on Living a Stoic Life

Cicero (Bust in Capitoline Museum) looking rather stony faced.

Cicero (Bust in Capitoline Museum) looking rather stony faced.

By John Sellars

    What is involved in living a Stoic life? In his book On Duties (1.107 ff.) the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero outlines a theory involving four distinct rules for living a life. This is known as the four personae theory and it is usually supposed that Cicero is following a now lost work by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. There are scholarly debates about how closely Cicero follows Panaetius and to what extent Panaetius might be deviating from the orthodox Stoic view, but putting those questions to one side Cicero’s account is on its own terms an interesting window on what might be involved in living a Stoic life.

We have, Cicero says, two natures, one common and one individual. Our common nature as human beings offers one sort of guide to how to live. The fact that we are rational, social animals gives us one set of pointers to what a life in accordance with nature might look like. However we also each have our own individual natures, the specific set of character traits that we have not chosen and that make us who we are. Some people are loud and outgoing; others shy. Some are sporty and physical; others intellectual and bookish. Some are artistic by nature; others more inclined to technical problems. None of us chose the particular set of strengths and weaknesses that we have; they have been given to us by nature.

Central to Cicero’s account is the claim that a life in harmony with nature ought to be sensitive to these aspects of our individual nature. It is not simply a question of following universal guidelines about being rational or virtuous; it is also about being sensitive to who we are as individuals. There is of course the possibility that the two might come into conflict with one another, in which case Cicero says that universal nature comes first: ‘Each person should hold on to what is his as far as it is not vicious … we must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature; but while conserving that, let us follow our own nature’.

So, while our primary commitment ought to be to universal nature, we ought also to be true to ourselves, our unique individual natures. Living in harmony with nature is as much about living in harmony with our own nature as it is conforming to Nature with a capital ‘N’. Of course this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given that the former is merely a local expression of the latter.

1466 Illuminated Copy of De Officiis (On Duties)

1466 Illuminated Copy of De Officiis (On Duties)

What we need, then, is plenty of self-knowledge about who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and enough self-belief to remain true to what we find rather than trying to be like other people: ‘everyone ought to weigh the characteristics that are his own, and to regulate them, not wanting to see how someone else’s might become him; for what is most seemly for a man is the thing that is most his own. Everyone, therefore, should acquire knowledge of his own talents, and show himself a sharp judge of his own good qualities and faults’.

So far I’ve mentioned just two elements and at the outset I said there were four. The other two, which Cicero introduces later, are chance or circumstance and our own pursuits. Chance or circumstance refers to the aspects of situations that are out of our control. Someone might be a naturally gifted opera singer but find themselves at home with small children unable to realize that talent. Others might by nature be gifted sportsmen but due to injury be unable to compete any more. Chance can throw up situations in which we are unable to remain true to our individual natures, although if one buys the broader Stoic view of fate one would have to accept that these chance situations are also ultimately the product of Nature.

Our own pursuits includes things like the career we choose for ourselves. Cicero says that this is the one of the four elements where we actually have some choice. We decide whether to train as a doctor or a bricklayer. Cicero suggests that this ought to involve significant deliberation. However it is not clear just how much choice there really is, as the sort of deliberation Cicero has in mind ultimately boils down to self-examination so that we can find out who we really are. The person well suited to become a doctor may not be well suited to the life of a bricklayer, and vice versa. As Cicero puts it, ‘in such deliberation all counsel ought to be referred to the individual’s own nature’. But we also need to take into account the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves: ‘Nature carries the greatest weight in such reasoning, and after that fortune’.

So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his websiteand also see his blog on Stoicism.

‘Meditation on Past Evils: A Neostoic Spiritual Exercise’ by John Sellars

Meditation on Past Evils: A Neostoic Spiritual Exercise

by John Sellars

Justus Lipsius - 16th to 17th Century Philologist and Humanist - in his finery.

Justus Lipsius – 16th to 17th Century Philologist and Humanist – in his finery.

    Much has been written about the Stoic idea of premeditation on future evils: pre-rehearse potential bad events so that if they come you are better prepared to deal with them and, if they don’t, be all the more grateful for your good fortune. But what about past evils? Is there anything to be gained from reflecting on evils that have already happened?

    In the sixteenth century Justus Lipsius thought there was. Lipsius was a Humanist and committed to Stoicism His On Constancy of 1584 is a dialogue about how Stoicism might help people then caught in the middle of horrific religious wars. He went on to produce an important edition of the works of Seneca in 1605 and published with it two volumes that, for the first time, tried to bring together all the surviving evidence for the early Stoics, in 1604. In the history of Stoicism he is probably the most important figure after the ancient Stoics.

Lipsius’s On Constancy is an attempt to offer remedies for public evils, that is suggestions to help people trying to cope with adverse situations out of their control. One of his remedies tries to show that the public evils then afflicting people are, when put into an appropriate historical context, neither especially grievous nor unusual. Lipsius the Humanist thinks that the study of history can offer us therapeutic benefit. What follows is somewhat brutal, but that is part of the point. Lipsius recounts the death tolls of wars recorded in ancient historians. In the wars of the ancient Jews 20,000 died at Caesarea, 13,000 at Scythopolis, 2,500 at Ascalon, 2,000 at Ptolomais, 50,000 at Alexandria, 10,000 at Damascus, and so on and on. He then turns to Greek and Roman history. Drawing upon the ancient historian Procopius and other sources, Lipsius continues with graphic descriptions of ancient plagues and famines, of which just one gruesome example from a famine should be enough: ‘Two women (I quake to speak it) killed seventeen men in the night by treachery and did eat them; at length they themselves were slain by the eighteenth, who perceived the matter.’

Cruelty is nothing new either, Lipsius says, citing examples from the historian Valerius Maximus. Lipsius draws on his impressive knowledge of ancient history and literature to furnish us with numerous examples to support his claim that public evils such as civil war, tyranny, famine, and plague are by no means limited to the present age. All of these public evils are constant features of history and so we should not be surprised to find them in our own time. Indeed, it would be truly miraculous if our own time were exempt from such events. All countries and all ages have had their share of public evils; so must our country and our age.

This strategy involves a version of an idea known as ‘moral distance’. This is the idea that we tend to care more for those things closer to us than those far away, and it is traditionally credited to David Hume. Our natural sympathy for those closest at hand, it is suggested, is a distortion that we must overcome when making moral judgements. Lipsius’s version is different though: his aim is to show that moral distance can distort our perception of public evils, making our own immediate troubles appear much more significant than they actually are. If we step back and consider those evils within a wider historical context we shall see that in fact they are neither especially grievous nor unusual. This shares something with what Pierre Hadot called ‘the view from above’, but in this case proposing a wider historical perspective rather than a wider geographical view.

Lipsius was not wrong when he said that all ages have their share of public evils. For us the Holocaust has come to be seen as the archetypal example, and for good reason. Reflecting on horrific events from the past such as the Holocaust is important for a number of obvious and well-known reasons: some things should never be forgotten. For Lipsius this sort of reflection on past evils can also be a chilling way to put our current troubles into stark perspective.

One of the infamous piles of shoes, representing the scale of human loss focalised through the normal and every-day.

One of the infamous piles of shoes, representing the scale of human loss focalised through the normal and every-day.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website, and also see his blog on Stoicism