Stoicism is having a cultural moment - from Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss to Massimo Pigluicci in the New York Times and Maria Popova on Brain Pickings, the Stoics are getting name-checked and highlighted left and right[1]. Modern adoptees are quick to distinguish our modern adjective "stoic" from the classic Stoic attitude to emotion, but classics like Epictetus' Handbook do seem to be pretty cold towards love and relationships:

Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand take your share politely. It passes: don't try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don't project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. So act likewise with regard to your children, to your wife, to public office, to riches, and the time will come come when you're worthy to have a seat at the banquets of the gods. And if you don't take these things when they're in front of you, but view them with contempt, then you'll not only share in the banquets of the god, but also in their rule.

That's a little brutal. I'm still a fan[2], but I like to take a more pragmatic view: I'll try on insights from the Stoics, but shed them if they don't feel right. What I've done piecemeal and by intuition, Martha Nussbaum has done with great clarity and discipline across a broad swath of life in her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness.

Nussbaum addresses anger , which she defines as taking joy in the prospect of retribution at someone who has committed an act that you believe has harmed you. In her analysis, she distinguishes between anger being well-grounded and justified. While there are many cases where the target caused deliberate, substantive harm, making anger well-grounded, Nussbaum rejects the idea that the anger is justified as a rational response. We may not be able to control our initial tendency towards anger[3], but we should not endorse it as correct.

I am saying something very radical: that in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger's idea of retribution or payback is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare. So anger, (if we understand it to involve, internally, a wish for retributive suffering) quickly puts itself out of business, in that even the residual focus on punishing the offender is soon seen as part of a set of projects for improving both offenders and society -- and the emotion that has this goal is not so easy to see as anger. It looks more like compassionate hope. When anger does not put itself out of business in this way -- and we all know that in a multitude of cases it does not -- its persistence and power, I claim, owes much, even perhaps everything, to one of two pernicious errors: either to a fruitless focus on magical ideas of payback, or to an underlying obsession with relative status, which is the only thing that really makes sense of a retaliation as ordinarily conceived.

She divides her analysis into three realms: intimate relationships, casuaul acquaintances (the "Middle Realm", in her terms), and the political. In the case of minor damage -- rudeness from a loved one, aggressive driving, having water spilled on one's laptop at a conference[4] -- Nussbaum agrees with the Stoic principle that external goods (like reputation, or clean clothes) are nice-to-have but not worthy of attachment.

Should one yield immediately to the irrationality of life? The world often poses that question. But the belief that the world ought to be rational, and that simply pointing out that something is irrational will effect change, is a Senecan recipe for constant anger, and for dreams filled with irritating people who ought to be no part of one's inner life.

However, she rejects absolute detachment from those goods. Our reputation, health, and trust in our relationships all have essential value. The Stoics have their metaphysical reasons for considering virtue the sole good, but Martha Nussbaum is solidly utilitarian. Our material and social well-being are critical to our happiness; grief is therefore appropriate when that well-being is damaged. It's also important to call out wrong-doing and pursue justice, for the sake of preventing future damage, but she recommends letting the law pursue the offender, as an impartial third-party less likely to escalate in retaliation. The alternative is to risk the cycles of retribution common in honor cultures.

Outside of mathematics, I'm skeptical of attempts to derive everything from a small set of axioms (even if the exercise can be interesting). Stoic metaphysics leans a little too far in that direction, so I'm grateful to Martha Nussbaum for offering another path to similar ideas -- one that better fits my temperment. Philosophy books can be intense, but Anger and Forgiveness was quite readable and practical -- I highly recommend it.


  1. Or at least in my Twitter stream and RSS feeds. ↩︎

  2. As my heavily creased and flagged copy of Seneca's Letters from a Stoic will attest. ↩︎

  3. From personal experience, it is in fact critical that you not try to suppress the experience of anger. That doesn't mean you have to endorse it, but the initial, involuntary feeling of anger is a physiological brute fact. Clenching your teeth against it will not help you move past anger to a more useful stance. ↩︎

  4. Personal experience, Velocity New York 2014. I am proud to say that I handled it without any anger, though I can't say the same for how I react to other drivers... ↩︎