by Leonidas Konstantakos & Kai Whiting
Monday, 7
June 2021
Debate
14:33

What Mary Beard doesn’t understand about Stoicism

There is nothing fascistic about the ancient philosophy
by Leonidas Konstantakos & Kai Whiting
Mary Beard next to the Coliseum in Rome while filming with the BBC. Photograph: Caterina Turroni/BBC

In an interview last week with The New York Times Magazine, the Cambridge professor Mary Beard took a few big swings at Stoicism. She said that she found it “mystifying” that people could be interested in “a philosophy that, if you looked at it really hard, was nasty, fatalistic, bordering on fascist.”

She singled out second century emperor Marcus Aurelius for particular criticism:

What comes out in Marcus Aurelius particularly is rather clichéd thoughts: Never take a major decision when your mind is troubled. We can all agree with clichés like that. And they come with the rubber stamp of great antiquity because they were written by an emperor — an emperor who was about as brutal in massacring the enemy as Julius Caesar. But we tend to forget that side of him because he’s a bearded “philosopher.” It’s not very salutary to look at your Amazon ratings, but I always feel terribly pleased — though it doesn’t happen often — when I’m higher up than Marcus Aurelius.
- Mary Beard

As two authors who just wrote a book about how Stoicism can contribute to a better world, we find such remarks to be at complete odds with Stoic philosophy and the ancient philosophers who developed it.

Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, described his utopian vision for the perfect Stoic society as a place where there was no hierarchy, no private property, and no currency. He promotes an anarchical political world, where there are no temples, marriages, courts of law, or armies. Hardly what one could call borderline fascist.

Fascism is intrinsically associated with a belief in the superiority of one’s national state identity. This is the polar opposite to Zeno’s cosmopolitan ideal that gives primary importance to one’s humanity. Stoicism is open to all, not just Athenians or Romans, not just men, and not just the rich. How is this borderline fascism?

This cosmopolitan understanding of the world is also expressed by the much later Roman Stoic philosopher and physically disabled ex-slave, Epictetus:

When one is asked where one is from, never reply “I’m Athenian” or “I’m Corinthian,” but rather “I’m a citizen of the universe.” For why say, in fact, that you’re Athenian rather than just a citizen of that corner in which your poor body was thrown down at the time of your birth?
- Epictetus, Discourses 1.9

While Mary Beard might be critical of the most famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (presumably due to his role in leading the Marcomannic Wars), she seems to ignore his reconciliations with conquered tribes and his respectful attitude towards his foreign enemies. Marcus’ cosmopolitan side wasn’t for show. In fact in his personal journal, he states that those who take pride in killing their fellow human beings are no better than spiders who take pride in catching flies (Meditations 10.10). Marcus’ humane treatment of those he fought against, by incorporating many of them into the Empire and giving some of them Roman citizenship, lies in sharp contrast to Julius Caesar, who publicly gloats of his war crimes during his conquest of Gaul.

If Beard had taken a more generous view of Marcus, she could just as easily have singled him out for his kind treatment of orphans, for the times he liberated slaves, or his restraint when dealing with rebellion. In short, Mary Beard may call Stoicism “nasty”, but it is our view that Stoic philosophy is precisely what is needed to counter chauvinism, fascism, and sectarianism. This is because Stoicism is inclusive of everyone, regardless of gender, race, or nationality.

Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos are co-authors of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in.

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Mark Benson
Mark Benson
1 year ago

Stoicism is the opposite of identity politics and runs against the current woke orthodoxy.
Therefore the only acceptable response if you want (or need) to retain the approval of your peers (and keep those BBC appearances rolling in) is to label it facism, the catch-all term for “I don’t like” among a certain type who lack the ability for nuance.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Benson
janeleaper
janeleaper
1 year ago

I cannot fully account for Mary Beard’s antipathy to Stoicism ad Marcus Aurelius in particular, but I don’t think it has anything to do with ‘woke’. She got into hot water a couple of years ago for being rather too understanding of the Oxfam workers who took sexual advantage of local women in disaster zones. Definitely no Woke there.
I think her attitude is drawn partly from a strand of British academia, which has long had a rather disdainful view of Stoicism and Marcus. For example Bertrand Russell , in his History of Western Philosophy describes Stoicism as ’emotionally narrow’ and ‘fanatical’, and he describes Marcus Aurelius as a ‘pathetic figure’.
She has a point about the contrast between Marcus the military commander and Marcus the philosopher. It is difficult to relate the Marcus of Meditations with the Emperor depicted on the Aurelian column cutting off a prisoner’s head.
But her comparison with fascism is strange, from an academic, and rather silly. Beard herself has emphasised that whatever else the Romans were, they were not racists.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  janeleaper

I would have thought that in comparison to Marcus Aurelius, Bertrand Russell was a modest little man with much to be modest about.

As to the beheading on the Aurelian Column aren’t you being a little disingenuous? That depiction is surely allegorical?

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago

“much to be modest about” is correct – “modest” is, sadly, not correct. On the contrary Bertrand Russell kept giving the country the “benefit” of his opinions – which he assumed to be automatically correct (due to his high opinion of himself).
A war commander has to be prepared to kill – to order other men to do what you shrink from yourself, is no good. The Germanic tribes had attacked – they had invaded Italy itself, that meant that blood had to be shed. Sadly even when their lives were spared they tended to rebel – once taking over an Italian city.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
1 year ago
Reply to  janeleaper

I am no expert on Mussolini, but was fascism racist? Or rather nationalist? I remember reading G Gentile, the philospher of fascism, and a Platonist, and did not notice racism. Maybe someone can enljghten me.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

There is a confusion between Fascism and National Socialism – partly because of the Marxist habit of referring to National Socialism as “Fascism” .

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago
Reply to  janeleaper

Fascism was an obsession with the state – it was German National Socialism that was obsessed with race (looking back to earlier German thinkers going all the way back to the philosopher Fichte). As for “pathetic figure” – that is a good description of Bertrand Russell himself, a person who first wanted to surrender to Nazi Germany and later wanted to surrender to the Soviet Union.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
1 year ago

What her comment in the New York Times magazine reveals is hubris.
I don’t think that’s a stoic virtue that Marcus Aurelius would recognise.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Never could stand Beard Talking on Rome as it is always ‘Rome through Beard’s eyes’, she cannot be historian, she has to allow her views in.
As far as Stoicism, it is far from Liberalism as one could be. Liberalism teaches relative morality and situational ethics. It teaches correct and incorrect as the political form of good and evil. Liberalism is a form of Nihilism coupled with Utilitarianism and Hedonism. I doubt Beard can even grasp such a philosophy as Zeno’s.

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I thought the whole idea of history today is to beat on the dead for not being “woke”. It used to be about seeing things through different mindsets…

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I saw her on question time, she came over as rather stupid. Don’t know about her academic qualifications ( and there are several ‘experts’ who seem to know very little about their subject )but she seems to be someone who ticks boxes for her views rather than value of her research unlike the more typical female historian Cecil Woodham-Smith. I thought Bethany Hughes seemed better at conveying story of ancient history & shes prettier ( which counts on a visual medium)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

There have been a number of historian males making documentaries on ancient Britain (on Youtube) who dress student casual and endlessly preen, shake their long hair like a vain woman, always command the camera’s attention, and generally make it impossible for me to watch as they are so annoying.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I used to find Neil Oliver a bit like that but he’s starting to grow on me.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

What you describe would not be recognised as liberalism by such men as Prime Minister Gladstone – you are describing a modern thing that falsely used the word “liberalism”.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

If you read Beard’s Magnum Opus, S.P.Q.R., you will note that on page 17 she reveals herself as “ Happily a child of my times”.
That translates as born 1956, privately educated, Cambridge in the mid 70’s and thus the High Priestess of Woke*.

She “bridles” whenever she hears anyone talking of the ‘great Roman conquerors or the ‘great’ Roman Empire. In short, she hates them!

Thus it should come as no surprise that she is equally dismissive of a man who many other regard as one of the greatest of Roman Emperors.

(* Perhaps, ‘Virgo Vestalis Maxima’= The greatest of the Vestal Virgins maybe more appropriate.)
(**Constantine seems to have disappeared from the caption photograph!)

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago

She has some children, so no virgin.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

Metaphorically speaking!

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago

The key to Ms Beards views are summed up in the statement that she is delighted when she has sold more books than someone who has been dead for 1800 years and wrote in a language only a minority of people can know understand ( and which you don’t need to know to read Classics at Princeton now).
Me Me Me. Look at wonderful marvellous daring brilliant Me. Please.

neil.mack
neil.mack
1 year ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

Marcus Aurelius would certainly sell more copies if his stuff was as tirelessly puffed by the BBC as Mrs Beard’s potboilers are.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

If barbarians were invading the land, burning towns and sacrificing the people to their Gods, who would rather as leader of the defence – Mary Beard or Marcus Aurelius? I think the answer is clear. I would also prefer Marcus Aurelius as the ruler in peace time.

Ocxl Ocxl
Ocxl Ocxl
1 year ago

well said,lets see who out of the two authors is still higher in the ratings in a few thousand years

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago

…in breaking news, Zeno of Citium is suing John Lennon over his song ‘Imagine’…

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

And Marcus Aurelius is suing Mary Beard for defamation, and will call Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a witness.

neil.mack
neil.mack
1 year ago

Mrs Beard does however wear a badge with an image of Mao Tse-tung, who in her asinine philosophy was presumably never nasty or fascistic.
A publicity hungry fool.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago
Reply to  neil.mack

Just the largest scale mass murderer in human history. To wear the image of such a man is an act of wickedness (not foolishness) by Mary Beard.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

I have a superficial acquaintance with the Epictetus discourses, but even that feeble penetration leads me to understand that the prof has it wrong.
Where is the fatalism? I am going from memory here, but doesn’t the slave Epictetus talk about how one might, as a slave, refuse to hold the toilet for the master? It is so long since I read it, and I hope I am not getting it wrong, but I think the conversation goes something like:

Hold the sh)t box.
No.
But I am the master and you are the slave.
And?
Well, I can have you put to death for refusing to hold the sh)t box, so you better hold it.
And when did I say I wanted to live for ever?

That is not a fatalistic attitude, it is the attitude embodied by Thomas à Becket when he consciously yielded to the assassins’ blade.
in fact, now I think about it, there is a direct line reaching from Epictetus to Saint Thomas.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

Oh, and it isn’t ‘awaiting for approval’. It is either ‘awaiting approval’ or ‘waiting for approval’.

I told you that the other day, and yet ‘awaiting for approval’ is still being used.

That tells me that either nobody is looking at this sort of thing, or that whoever is looking is too arrogant to accept he or she might have got it wrong.

Does it matter? Yes, it does matter. It matters a lot.

Surely you are joking, Miss Swann, there are more important things to worry about.

I am not joking,Mr Algorithm-Manager, not when you tell me moderation is costing such a lot of money you need me to pay for the privilege of filling these gaps below the line.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kremlington Swan
regnad.kcin.fst
regnad.kcin.fst
1 year ago

A lot of people don’t like Stoic ideas because Stoicism is the antidote of Woke, victimology, and whining. Beard sounds like the Whiner in Chief. Stoics would not support her.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
1 year ago

It’s a favourite parlour game in our house: “What Mary Beard doesn’t understand about….” and fill in the blank. We call it: “Shooting fish in a barrel”.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

The one time I write something measured and reasonably serious, the computer says no.
How irritating.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Thanks for the link to Beard’s interview.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

I find anachronism possibly the most cringe inducing phenomenon.

regnad.kcin.fst
regnad.kcin.fst
1 year ago

Te-Nehesi is clearly a Major League Whiner.

R S Foster
R S Foster
1 year ago

…I suspect the thing Mary Beard, and indeed many women hate…is the association between Stoicism and the other Martial Virtues that Marcus Aurelius exemplified. Like many people living safely in the West, she has long ago forgotten that she can do so safely because Orwell’s “Rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on… (her)…behalf”.
They believe that Soldiers cause wars…not understanding that the disciplined violence of both soldiers (and indeed some policemen) are the one thing that stand between them and the “War of all against all” so rightly feared by Thomas Hobbes. People now feel so safe in this Country that they have come to imagine that peaceful discussion is the natural disposition of humanity. I fear that they are now so lacking in imagination that they will continue to delude themselves that this is the case…until it is not…

Last edited 1 year ago by R S Foster
Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
1 year ago

I’m sure Mary Beard understands barely anything at all.

T Doyle
T Doyle
1 year ago

Beard is boring old lefty.

Kate Lane
Kate Lane
1 year ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Not boring. Gives us something to tut about.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
1 year ago

In two-thousand-and-twenty-woke, being colorblind/genderblind is actually considered fascist by intersectional race-essentialist academics like Beard, who sell the divisive lie that hyper-focusing on immutable characteristics is the only way forward.
It’s the complete inversion of the MLK post-racial “dream” we were all rallied behind up until about 10 years ago. So it’s no wonder that these snakes who are in the business of inverting things, would do the same to the definition of stoicism.

Marcia Sielaff
Marcia Sielaff
1 year ago

She apparenty is aligned with academics of today whose knowledge/opinion of Western philosophy is, to the least, biased. She demonstrates either a remarkable ignorance of Stoic philosophy or a biased view.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
1 year ago

For a supposedly great Classicist Mary Beard is guilty of the most absurd howlers. Comparing Marcus Aurelius (who had defend against invasions of Italy itself) with the brutality of Julius Caesar (who boasted of killing a million Gauls and enslaving another million) is demented. And confusing Stoicism with “Fascism” shows Mary Bear does not understand either.
The same law for all, freedom of speech and a kingly government that ranks above all the liberty of the governed (Marcus Aurelius) does not sound very much like “Fascism” – although the political opinions of Marcus Aurelius were almost the opposite of the collectivism of Zeno of Citium . Marcus Aurelius was utterly different to “Fascism” i.e. a belief that the state should dominate all aspects of life.- nothing outside the state (“totalitarianism” as he called it) was the central creed of Mussolini, totally opposed to the limited government view of Marcus Aurelius. Zeno of Citium seems more like Richard Wagner (or rather Wagner was more like Zeno of Citium) with the hostility to private property, currency, and-so-on.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

I have a superficial acquaintance with the Epictetus discourses, but even that feeble understanding leads me to think that the prof has it wrong.
Where is the fatalism? I am going from memory here, but doesn’t the slave Epictetus talk about how one might, as a slave, refuse to hold the toilet for the master? It is so long since I read it, and I hope I am not getting it wrong, but I think the conversation goes something like:
Hold the toilet for me.
No.
But I am the master and you are the slave.
And?
Well, I can have you put to death for refusing to hold the toilet, so you better hold it.
And when did I say I wanted to live for ever?
That is not a fatalistic attitude, it is the attitude embodied by Thomas à Becket when he consciously yielded to the assassins’ blade.
in fact, now I think about it, there is a direct line reaching from Epictetus to Saint Thomas.

Edit: new post because the old one is, for reasons known only to the algorithm, awaiting approval.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kremlington Swan
Vóreios Paratiritís
Vóreios Paratiritís
1 year ago

It’s enough to make you want to throw women out of the academy.