Classically Inclined

November 10, 2015

A seasonal Movember post on philosophical facial hair

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:06 pm
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Tis the season for people to start doing extravagant things with their facial hair – yes, Movember is upon us. It will not surprise you to learn that the question of whether to beard or not to beard was also asked in antiquity, in particular in terms of whether a philosopher should have a beard or not. If you think of the statues of philosophers you see in museums, or at least the statues that are represented as being of philosophers, they tend to have a prolific growth of facial hair to their credit. For some in antiquity, possessing a beard was seen as a defining characteristic of being a philosopher – beardedness somehow became equated with possessing wisdom.

Alas for those currently cultivating their facial foliage, it turns out that the connection isn’t quite that simple. This post is a quick round-up of some things that the Roman Stoics have to say about what’s going on with beards, gender and wisdom.

The division between those with beards and those without isn’t just between the wise and non-wise – it’s also seen as a dividing line between men and women, although again, having a beard isn’t in and of itself enough to make you a man. Having a beard is described as natural or according to nature. The Stoics are very keen on the idea that if something is according to nature, then it’s also in accordance with virtue, which makes the deliberate distinction between men and women caused by facial hair something to be valued. In Musonius Rufus’ On Cutting The Hair (Discourse 21), he compares the beard to the crest of the cock or the mane of the lion. Epictetus uses the same imagery in Discourses 1.16.12, again to emphasise the difference between the male and the female of the species.

There are always those who aren’t so happy with their stubble, which turns out to be a sign of a deeper existential malaise. In Discourses 3.1, Epictetus critiques a young man for depilating himself and confusing the natural boundary between the genders. However, he then goes on to remind his victim that he is not human by virtue of his hair, but by virtue of his moral purpose (proairesis). While the young man’s attitude to his bodily hair is a symptom of his confusion about how the world works, he needs to do more than cultivate a healthy beard to address the underlying problem. Indeed, while Epictetus attacks the youth for his excessive personal care regime in this discourse, in Discourses 4.11 he expresses a different view – he would rather have an over-coiffured youth come to learn philosophy than one with ‘his moustache reaching down to his knees’, because at least he would be able to point the first student in the correct direction of what is good and beautiful (to kalon).

The Roman philosophers are also aware of the tension between the beard as an emblem of the philosopher and the fact that simply having a beard is not enough to make one a philosopher. Epictetus says that his beard and his rough cloak identify him as a philosopher to the young man attacked for depilation (3.1.24). He lists growing a beard, along with composing philosophical treatises, as one of the marks of philosophising which Epicurus demonstrated but attributed to the flesh (sarx) rather than his moral purpose (proairesis; Discourses 2.23.21). He implies that a philosopher should reject the threat of having his beard shaved, even if such an action could result in the philosopher’s decapitation (Discourses 1.2.27). Yet  in Discourses 4.8, he parallels philosophy to music and carpentry to illustrate that simply taking on the attire of a trade is not enough to make one a practitioner of that trade. The beard signals an affiliation with the philosophical life, but it holds no guarantee that its wearer will actually be living in accordance with that philosophy.

Epictetus’ comments reflect anxiety about balancing what is according to nature with the requirements of society and the line between acting like a philosopher and merely looking like one. Seneca makes a similar observation early in the Epistulae Morales, when he encourages his addressee Lucilius to continue with his philosophical studies (5.1-3). He draws a distinction between moral improvement and simply adopting the trappings of so-called philosophers; Lucilius should not deliberately present himself in a way that arouses comment. Among the things Seneca discourages him from are an outspoken hatred of silver, a bed put on the earth, messy dress sense, uncut hair – and a more unruly beard. The danger of this sort of thing is that it puts off precisely the people whom the philosophers want to reach most: the decision to look so out of step with the world around them means ‘ordinary’ people run a mile from any philosophy that seems to require them to behave so outlandishly.

Given the various attempts at facial hair that will be materialising over the coming months, and the varied range of responses they are sure to generate among the friends and acquaintances of Movember participants, I suspect the power of the beard to overstep the common boundaries of good taste is about to be tested to its limits once again. Perhaps we might bear in mind the warning that just to wear the beard isn’t the same as having the inner disposition associated with it. The Movember Foundation focuses on four key areas of men’s health – prostrate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity. If you are participating in Movember, or somebody you know is, then take Seneca’s advice and think about the hidden ways in which you’re committed to improving those problems, which will last beyond the application of the razor on 1st December and the eventual donning of the charity Christmas jumper.

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July 6, 2015

June is busting out all over…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:28 pm
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…and it’s taken me until July to blog about it. Such is the life of a new mum. I type this with infans in his sling, finally having the nap he has resisted all day, while I reflect upon the changes and developments that have happened in my life over the last twelve weeks.

Arguably the most significant of these is the arrival of the new small person, who is growing and thriving at a slightly alarming but very encouraging rate. We’ve all got the hang of the basics now, so it’s a matter of doing the day-to-day living, which is demanding but rather less intense than the first six weeks or so. That the final output of my maternity leave, when it finishes in September, should be a happy, cheerful and generally content baby looks like a goal that is on track.

However, I will happily own up to the fact that the itch to get back on with research work has already returned, reinforcing my personal conviction that a year’s worth of maternity leave would have had me climbing the walls. I’ve already been surprisingly productive – I finished off the science fiction piece, have done more work for the Family Archive project, and have sorted out the edits to an article about writing for the Companion to the World of Roman Women that started off as a series of blog posts on here.

Most importantly, however, last week I signed and posted back my contract with Cambridge University Press for a book provisionally entitled The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

As you will probably have guessed, this is going to be the book version of my PhD thesis, and I’ve spent the time since submission in 2011 working on getting the manuscript into a good enough shape for publication. In fact, I’m still working on revising the manuscript, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, but now there’s an end date for the manuscript to be finished, and everything feels more… real.

When I graduated, I said that my life goals for the next few years were a baby, a book and abode. It looks like the most elusive of those three is finally getting closer. I may write more about the process of getting here at some stage, but right now, I’m going to go and help infans (who has woken up since I started writing this post) practice rolling onto his side.

March 16, 2015

Why calling Seneca a hypocrite isn’t very helpful

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:52 am
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“There’s a review of Emily Wilson in today’s paper,” said G, waving a copy of the Observer.

“There’s a what?” I said, groggily, looking up from my yoghurt and about to rush off to church choir practice.

He passed the paper over, and lo and behold, it was a review of Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life, which in its online incarnation appears to have gained a new title – in the print edition of the Observer, the title is “A great Stoic and a serious hypocrite”, which sums up the attitude of the review rather better.

Reading the review had the effect of waking me up, mainly by making me rather cross. For several reasons. But the one G picked up on when he asked “so, is Seneca a hypocrite?” is the one on which I’m going to base this post. Seneca has had a long history of being accused of hypocrisy, starting in antiquity – Dio Cassius regales us with some particularly scandalous tales, including that bit about Seneca nearly bankrupting Britain by calling his loans in, and the usual ‘pandering to freedmen’ stuff that the Claudian period generates because Claudius actually set up a system of governmental officials who (shock horror!) weren’t senators. But Cassius Dio is writing at least a hundred years after Seneca’s death, and appears to assume that working the imperial system then was like working it in his period, when the political and moral ground had undergone some really big shifts. So that’s problem number one – the juicy evidence for Seneca’s hypocrisy comes from someone writing much later, with a bit of an axe to grind.

But the fair question remains of whether Seneca compromised his philosophical beliefs by working with Nero, and by retaining his status as a member of the senatorial elite. There are two good reasons grounded in Stoic doctrine that show attacking him on these grounds rather misses the point.

One. The Stoics had a doctrine of indifferents. That is, they said the only important thing was virtue. Everything else – good and ill health, good looks, wealth and poverty, marriage and bachelorhood, and, well, everything else – was an indifferent. Having or not having a particular indifferent did not make the slightest bit of difference to your ability to achieve virtue (and thus happiness). They complicated this a bit by then saying that some indifferents were preferred; that is, if everything was equal and your pursuit of virtue was not harmed by either choice, then it made sense to select one of the pair rather than the other. So if you had the choice between health and being poorly, for instance, you’d take health. Similarly, if you had the choice between wealth and poverty, you’d take wealth, providing the way of getting the money didn’t involve you doing something morally dubious (betraying a friend, for instance, or killing an innocent person). Stoicism doesn’t support a push towards compulsory poverty, like the later Franciscans or the earlier Cynics. The only ethically problematic thing about having money is becoming too dependent on it, forgetting that it’s an indifferent like any other, and starting to pursue it for its own sake.

But what, for instance, if your money came from, oooh, supporting a tyrant? And being part of that tyrant’s inner circle? Let us for a moment put aside the fact that Nero’s first few years of rule are generally credited with being not too bad, which sort of undermines the view that Seneca knew he was supporting a corrupt regime from the get-go. OK, there’s an ethical problem here – Seneca’s wealth and influence derives from his support of an emperor of dubious habits. Yet on what grounds would we call him a hypocrite? Hypocrisy is claiming to hold certain character traits and standards but not living up to them; hypocrisy is criticising other people for behaving in the way one happily does oneself. So we need to find evidence of Seneca presenting himself as morally superior to other people in his presentation of Stoic philosophy, and boom, there’s our evidence for hypocrisy.

But this is emphatically not what Seneca says anywhere in his extant work. The yardstick for moral achievement within Stoicism is the wise man or sage, who has got perfect grasp of reason, thus only makes rational decisions, and so is perfectly happy. The sage is famously rarer than a phoenix. Seneca never claims to be a wise man – in the On the Blessed Life, he explicitly says “I am not a wise man” (non sum sapiens). He never claims to have reached moral perfection. When he writes to his addressee Lucilius in the Moral Letters, he’s very careful never to claim ethical superiority – he has been doing this Stoicism thing for longer, which gives him a bit of an edge on knowing the material, but he’s still fallible and capable of making mistakes and irrational choices. When somebody is so open about his own moral faults and failings, even if not specifically the ones which revolve around his relationship with Nero, it’s a bit difficult to find the leverage to justify the charge of hypocrisy.

Basically, going back to this old chestnut as people have a depressing tendency to do demonstrates the importance of reading Seneca’s philosophical convictions against the historical background to get a better understanding of what’s going on in his actions and the decisions he makes. It’s not a neat answer, and it’s not a comfortably judgemental answer (because we all feel better when we can castigate someone else’s failings – well-known sayings about eyes, planks and motes come to mind). But it is one that recognises the complexity of the man and does him justice.

August 6, 2014

New publication: My family tree goes back to the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:57 pm
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, at the minute I am elbow-deep in assessing the revisions needed for chapter six of the book manuscript. I have just realised that I haven’t officially announced that a version of that chapter is already out in publication, as of a few months ago!

“My family tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca’s approach to the family in the Epistulae Morales” appears in Seneca Philosophus, a volume that came out of a conference in Paris about Seneca as a philosopher which I was unable to attend because – cheerful irony of ironies – it took place on the weekend of PhD graduation, so I kind of needed to be on another continent. However, I wrote to the conference organiser because I wanted sight of the paper she’d given, explaining what my interest was – and, lo and behold, she asked whether my book would be finished in time for consultation for the conference volume. As that was totally out of the range of possibility, I said so and sent her my Epistulae Morales chapter in PDF form instead. She then invited me to contribute it to the conference volume as it would make a good addition to the range of pieces talking about the letter collection.

Given that I had no idea how long it would take me to get the PhD into a book manuscript shape, I jumped at the chance to get some of my research out, and in a volume that contains some of the most significant scholars currently writing on Seneca, no less. So it’s out there, and in a book! Which is very exciting.

Of course, this now leaves me in a slightly perplexing place with what is now chapter six of the book manuscript. There are several discussions that didn’t make it into the Family Tree chapter, not least because of reasons of length, and because the argument that chapter makes had to stand alone rather than finish off the dissertation as a whole. I got some very good feedback on the Family Tree chapter as a stand-alone piece that I’m incorporating into the revised chapter six, but I’m also realising just how much I need to do in order to make sure that it does what I need it to do in terms of the overall book’s direction. It says a lot about the progress I’ve made over the last few years that I’m seeing so many different things I want to change and improve compared to the first time that I revised it – the only downside is that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Never mind – the chapter is out there, if anyone wants to read it and get a head-start on the book!

December 7, 2013

My failure at Stoic Week

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:57 pm
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Stoic Week 2013 finished on Sunday. I said I was going to take part – and I have to admit that my participation was a complete and utter failure.

Before I think about why, I want to direct you towards Edith Hall’s critique of the project, because she raises some interesting points about why we might want to reconsider introducing Stoicism to a society that’s very slowly starting to get better about dealing with the nastier parts of the human hindbrain rather than repressing them. I’m not sure I agree that Stoicism calls for a Victorian-style suppression of the viler beast within. After all, this is also the philosophy that tells us the best guide to how we should live virtuously is to live according to nature (kata phusin or secundum naturam), and that points us to the affectionate relationship between mammals and their offspring as not only evidence of the providential arrangement of the world, but also a model for our own relationships with our children (check out De Natura Deorum 2.128 and environs, although apparently since fish abandon their eggs they’re a special case). Her comments about the problems of reintroducing a philosophy that relies upon the ability of its adherents to use their resources and leisure to devote time to doing philosophy are, however, right on the money.

Which brings me to why I think I failed Stoic Week. As I mentioned in my last post about this, we moved house during Stoic Week. We also had to deal with a bathroom renovation which was supposed to be finished on the day we moved in but is, as I type, still in progress upstairs (don’t ask). I started off doing my morning exercises diligently, but plenty of things demanded my attention at lunchtime, and before I knew it even the morning exercise got squeezed out. (The evening reflection didn’t stand a chance.)

Why did I fail at Stoic Week? Simple. I was in the middle of a massive emotional, physical and practical upheaval, handling lots of unexpected events, running myself ragged trying to keep up. These are not the optimal conditions in which to begin a new spiritual or mental discipline. I can almost see Seneca shaking his head – of course it was pointless to try and pick up Stoicism in the middle of a crisis. Stoicism is supposed to be there to get you through a crisis; it’s no good trying to reinforce the roof when the water is already pouring through. The aim is to establish good habits during a period of comparative calm, so that one deals with the day-to-day emotional disturbances and disruptions first, and thus has the resources to not be floored when the tidal wave of unexpected chaos hits. That’s why running through things that might go bad during the day and rehearsing one’s potential responses to them is such an important mental exercise within the Stoic tradition, and why some richer Stoics went so far as to regularly schedule a few days of living in conditions that mimicked poverty (or at least what they thought poverty looked like).

Here is where I think I tie in with Edith’s critique. In order to have the time and resources to find this period of relative calm to get your philosophical bedrock established, you need to have the luxury of creating that space. No job which sets demands for you; no colleagues or students with expectations of work to be completed by fixed deadlines; certainly no children or people for whom you are the primary care-giver; and ideally all the minutiae of life, like laundry and cooking, handled by somebody else. On reflection, it’s not surprising that one of the articles going around Twitter in the early days of Stoic Week was about how Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, found Stoicism so helpful.

November 24, 2013

Stoic Week 2013

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:13 pm
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As those of you who frequent Twitter will have noticed, tomorrow marks the beginning of the second Live Like A Stoic Week, coordinated by a team at Exeter working on Stoicism Today to research whether Stoicism still works in the modern world. I meant to get involved last year, but life intervened. Life is again intervening this year, but as I type, my little printer is preparing the Stoic Week Booklet and I have just diligently filled out all the pre-Stoic Week measurement scales.

I am, of course, not the target audience for this exercise in any way, shape or form. I spend most of my intellectual research time hanging out with Seneca, one of the best plain-speaking Stoics out there. One of his major goals is to communicate what Stoicism can do for you clearly, effectively and persuasively to a highly educated Roman audience who may not automatically be on side. It’s quite hard to spend most of your time reading this stuff without it getting to you. I’m also quite well disposed to Stoic thought generally; the first time I read the discourses of Epictetus, a slightly later Roman Stoic, I was struck by how contemporary a lot of what he was saying felt and how it resonated with my situation (I was a MPhil student at the time, but we can draw a veil over that). What will be different about this week is seeing whether I can actually put some of this stuff into practice in a conscious instead of an unconscious way. As I keep telling people, ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism are ways of life that not only explain how the universe operates but also affect how their adherents live. The challenge of putting that into practice is not a bad reminder for me that these words mean something – I’ve said them so often that there’s a risk I’m forgetting how much they actually matter.

Besides my professional studier-of-Stoics identity, I also worry a little that my week is not going to be typical. I am, as some of you will have noticed, in the middle of a house move. My study is in boxes around me as I type. Much of the last month has been spent trying to get a bathroom refitted (without much success so far). I’ve spent the weekend packing and cleaning, and next Saturday we will move and spend the rest of the weekend unpacking. So this is not a week in which I can apply Stoicism to my usual tranquil(ish) routine and see if it makes a difference. It is a week in which, actually, a bit of Stoic detachment and awareness of what is and isn’t within my control might not be a bad thing – but it’s also a week in which Stoicism is going to get a proper test, in circumstances which are rather trying. After all, moving house is meant to be one of the most stressful life events that one ever goes through. Let’s see how Stoicism and I stand up to the challenge together.

November 13, 2012

Seneca and writing for multiple audiences

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
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In the process of tidying up the Ad Polybium article and working on turning the first three chapters of the dissertation into the first three chapters of a book, one methodological theme has been making its presence known again and again. It’s something I find I’ve hinted at in the dissertation itself, but one of the referees for the Ad Polybium article gave me the language to talk about it in a rather more sophisticated way. It’s the issue of what can be called “two-level discourse” and how that relates to philosophy.

Let’s start with the idea that a text can be multilayered. We’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that a text can have multiple meanings – George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, can be read as a fictional story about rural agricultural life or as a metaphor for life in the Soviet state, depending on the amount of background information a reader has available to inform their reading. The same principle applies to films (which are also texts, in the theoretical ‘everything is a text’ sense) – when I saw the recent remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), I saw a parable of the adolescent girl’s struggle to come to terms with menarche, which may not have been a univerally shared interpretation…

This idea, which works well (as Animal Farm demonstrates) for political writing, transfers to philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Most of our evidence for hardcore Stoic theory in the Roman period comes from Cicero, who was not a Stoic himself, but wrote a number of dialogues outlining Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic theories and their flaws. Seneca also has some moments of heavy doctrinal theorising – On Benefits is full of it, which makes it heavy going in places, and some of the Moral Epistles are fairly dense. But, in the main, Seneca doesn’t write doctrinal tracts designed to lay out the practical workings of Stoicism. What he does instead is write work which on one level wants to be accessible and relevant to the average reader, and also seeks to speak on another level to those who are aware of the Stoic importance of seemingly everyday terms.

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June 27, 2012

Judging Stoic Influence

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:30 am
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I’m in the middle of revisions for the ad Polybium article, which are taking me a while to get back into – such are the consequences of letting the research wheels stop during the middle of term and the resulting dissipation. But never mind, I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things now. One of the things the article tries to do, in a very small and modest sort of way, is point out that the ad Polybium is a Stoic text. But what does being a Stoic text actually mean?

This is the sort of question that generates heated discussion at conferences, particularly when people are talking about Seneca’s tragedies. The tragedies are the sensible place to start because they exemplify the problem particularly clearly(and if you’re into this sort of thing, check out the article by Hine in the further reading at the bottom of this post, because he provides brilliant summary of the various arguments involved). We know that the Seneca who wrote these plays was a committed Stoic – but does our knowledge of his philosophical convictions change how we interpret the plays? Are they deliberately written to promote Stoicism? To illustrate the horrors of lives lived against Stoic doctrine? To show that Stoicism doesn’t work? Does Seneca expect the people who consume his plays to be fully aware of a Stoic framework, entirely unaware of it, or a mix of the two?

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