Holiday and Hanselman’s Lives of Stoics (Portfolio, Sept) profiles Stoic philosophers to consider different paths to living a good life.
What is Stoicism?
RH: In the English language, stoicism has come to mean the unfeeling endurance of pain. There’s a big distinction between that and Stoicism, which is a philosophy that guides one in the world. Every situation we face, every day we go through the world, we’re supposed to act with courage, justice, moderation, and wisdom. Obviously that’s very different from gritting your teeth and taking it.
SH: Some people talk about Stoicism as an operating system. Virtue happens to be the best operating system for human beings. And if we spend some time cultivating virtue, cultivating our own character, we will have a much smoother flow of life, as well as a lot less anxiety and turbulence.
You make the distinction between a philosopher’s words and work. Can you speak about that?
RH: This distinction is important and unfortunately, I think, largely responsible for why philosophy does not feel relevant to most people. If someone was really struggling with a problem, almost no one would think “I need to talk to someone with a doctorate in philosophy.” But in the ancient world, philosophers were guides to being a good person. This idea of “Let’s look at what someone did, rather than just what they said” is the focus of the book.
Seneca’s attempts to bridge that gap seem to be the most resonant still today.
RH: Seneca particularly embodies the tension between words and work. On the one hand he’s probably the most brilliant and persuasive writer of all the stoics. When it came time to applying the philosophy, this is where it gets tricky, and very modern. Seneca is a senator and he runs afoul of the powers that be. He’s exiled. He comes back, but the catch is he has to be Nero’s tutor. Seneca was ambitious, wealthy, famous. He embodied many of the modern aspirations as well as the flaws and failing that come along with those ambitions.
Did other figures stick out as particularly modern?
SH: One figure that jumped out at us was Publius Rutilius Rufus. He was an amazing figure living during the breakdown of the republic and took up a crusade against growing endemic corruption in Roman society. In particular what tax collectors were doing to the poor. Of course, the payback he got for this crusade against corruption was he himself was brought up on false charges. When you read these passages about how the powers that be turned against him, you can’t help but think about the very times we’re living in now and what happens when whistleblowers try to deal with corruption in public life.