Where have all the stoics gone?

From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper.

From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness.

From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrongdoing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.


These are the opening lines of the second century work that came to be called Meditations, penned in Greek by the Roman philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius. These words fill me with longing for my family back in India and Brunei. It’s not just due to the distance that bars the joy of being together. I don’t constantly embody these listed virtues – often far from it. But my very recognition of and aspiration towards them is rooted in my fortune of an attentive upbringing by decent and principled adults, a fact I only fully grasped myself, like countless others, with the ripening of years. The esteemed Classics scholar, Diskin Clay, summed up the core of Meditations in this way:

The virtue of honesty, truthfulness, and a courageous recognition of reality (aletheia) combine into one of the most important of the virtues of the Meditations, integrity. These virtues connect with Marcus’ deep sense of responsibility to and tolerance for his fellow human beings.

As has been chronicled elsewhere in the Winter 2016 edition of C2C Journal, it seems as if it is the antithesis of these ‘Marcus virtues’ that are falsely held up as vehicles of tolerance and responsibility to others. The tetrad of honesty, truthfulness, a courageous recognition of reality, and integrity, appear to be forgotten. The fruits of this forgetfulness don’t look promising. We can reasonably guess that what is happening in our post-secondary institutions are both symptoms of and predictions for our society at large.


The personal irony is that it was the opportunity to study at a Canadian university that motivated my 17-year-old self to leave all that I knew behind and move nearly 15,000 kilometres away. I was no pilgrim of privilege; the move demanded everything from me and my family, materially and emotionally. I still recall with a chuckle the naïve frisson I experienced on discovering, in those early days, that the Latinate etymology of alma mater meant “nourishing mother.” A notion that would probably strike the majority of students today as laughable. I had very idealistic notions of universities in the West, being impressed by thumbing through glossy brochures at my Bruneian high school.

After a dozen years in Canada, as I ponder my own journey as an immigrant, I realize that many of the ‘Marcus virtues’ that helped me to survive and thrive require practice and cultivation. Which is both good (that they are not innate and can be developed) and bad (they require the hard work of being valued, the harder work of being taught, and the hardest work of being lived out). They are already difficult enough per se, but they become impossible when they aren’t even affirmed as virtues, which seems to be the case on campuses today.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes these traits tick.

‘No thief can steal your will’ — Epictetus, quoted in Meditations

One of the key characteristics that Marcus Aurelius emphasizes is “self-mastery.” There is a sturdy confidence in Stoic thinking on the ability of a person to will themselves to desirable traits. Paul Tough, writing in his book How Children Succeed, expanded on the notion of self-control and willpower in helping build the type of character that led to academic success. Tough cites Angela Duckworth, an expert on motivation, who observed that: “To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

A crucial building block of character is something Duckworth defined as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” She labelled this as “grit.” Fundamental to grit is a non-voguish virtue: loyalty. In the early twentieth century, American socialists exhorted their faithful to “wash the flag, not burn it.” Implicit in this sentiment is a very important distinction. Loyalty (or patriotism or a fondness for Western Civilization), does not mean docility, a dumb allegiance that fails to question. But its position of critique is tied to a dedication to the object of criticism; it does not seek its wholesale destruction. You criticize because you care. You don’t lose hope that reform, renewal and yes, even redemption is possible. But this type of “critical thinking” seems to have been abandoned on many campuses, and in its place a radical rejection seems to have momentum. One of Duckworth’s aphorisms is: “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” Enthusiasm only has the lower demand of energy, but endurance asks the harder assent of loyalty.

‘The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing’ – from Meditations

For Aurelius, the stoic life was not achieved without struggle, and persistence, or without loyalty to a group and ideas. Even more importantly, the maintenance of loyalty requires the aid of others.

J.D. Vance, whose Hillbilly Elegy should be on the year-end reading list for anyone who wants to understand what happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, explained in an interview with the Hoover Institution what he owed to his displaced and dispossessed Appalachian community and their values in shaping his conservative ideals:

…liberals tend to have a certain discomfort with talking about actors other than the state and other than the individual. If you read this book [Hillbilly Elegy] the theme that runs throughout it is that family is an important actor, that community is an important actor, that neighbourhoods, that churches are important actors. That’s a long way of saying that culture matters in a way that is distinct from the way an individual acts, and the way the state acts.

Motivational expert Angela Duckworth, and writers Paul Tough, and J.D. Vance, from left to right. (Images: CC by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation / Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0. / Ryan Lash, TED)

One of the great tensions in life is between self-preservation and solidarity. And the non-individual, non-state spaces that Vance refers to – frequently mediating the major part of our lives – help us grapple with that conundrum. This is a tension that needs to be taut, for lived life can’t cope with a chaotic unravelling. This is why Charles Taylor, the Canadian Catholic philosopher, in speaking about meaningful political engagement, advocates “localism and subsidiarity,” with the view that problems should be ironed-out by those closest to it. It might mean a “political life centered on local schools, town governments, voluntary associations, and churches.” When I look back to my own time as an undergraduate, it was my involvement in the many campus clubs and other aspects of student life such as athletics and residence that helped form my closest friendships, salved my loneliness, and helped me thrive. I could say the same for my adult life today. Maybe this is where the hope for students today lie. And not just the clubs and associations sanctioned by campus authorities, but in the ones you can form on your own, if need be.

One of the things these civic spaces also do for us is that they help us move past ourselves. Marcus Aurelius’ notion of self-mastery was not egoist. He advocated humility:

Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny — what fraction of that are you?

He also preached an attachment towards others:

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you — but your love must be genuine.

Duckworth notes a strong correlation between grit and selflessness by observing that “grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.”

The other disservice we do to young people by propagating a grievance-first-and-last mindset is to deprive them of the opportunity to persist in a discipline, to learn a craft, to accept that while not all problems are solvable, this still need not be a cause for despair. As the philosopher Alain de Botton notes, our vocations and purpose, like romantic love, “is in essence a skill we need to learn, rather than an enthusiasm we simply experience.”

The final point I want to press is that the neglect of the Marcus virtues, particularly in shirking a “courageous recognition of reality,” enfeebles our moral sense, short-circuits our mutual trust, and robs us of an ability to “stand ready for what comes”; the true ambition of Stoic thought.

Lewis Mumford, writing in The New Republic in 1940, castigated the liberalism and liberals of his day on the dangers of appeasement: “[T]heir complacency, their emotional tepidity, their virtuous circumspectness, their unwillingness to defend [Western] civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for rectifying these faults, means barbarism tomorrow.”

I neither fancy myself an alarmist nor a seer. Yet it is quite clear to me, with much still unsaid, that our present cultural hedonism is a self-inflicting wound, and a cul-de-sac of futility. Our campuses and culture need to become reacquainted with the virtue of grit: honesty, truthfulness, a courageous recognition of reality, and integrity. That maybe the notion of an alma mater, “a nourishing mother,” need not – some fine day – be a laughing matter.

Like this article?


Leave a comment