So this is interesting.
Another article about the “Stoicism” of a historical figure. Fine, whatever floats people’s boats. Each to their own.
Then read the comments and things explode. This dead pale male, as significant as he was, wasn’t the most exemplary human being to make a representative of philosophy.
The “hero” of this story, “Josh 12”, points out in the comments that Jefferson hypocritically ignored his own “life advice” in the article.
Then Josh gets to the main point: It’s better to read the philosophy itself than to put people on pedestals as exemplifying a philosophy:
“I’d rather go to epictitus who was a slave then to Jefferson for his interpretation of those ideas filtered through that mess of a brain.”
Josh is accused of an ad hominem attack by the author, Donald Robertson (whose book, How to Think Like an Emperor, is excellent and I recommend it.)
That’s what we call the ad hominem fallacy, though. The idea that certain beliefs are false because one of the people holding them may have had a bad character. No matter how strongly we feel about Jefferson’s character, including his private life, it doesn’t actually make any difference to the value of the Stoic (or Epicurean) ideas he happened to have written about.
Fair play to the author for taking the time to respond to comments. But Josh is not calling out the philosophy, he’s calling out the article’s premise. It’s pretty clear that Josh is keen on Epictetus.
Josh’s comment is not an ad hominem attack, it’s calling out a flawed argumentum ad verecundiam. This is the “appeal to authority” fallacy that attempts to promote an idea or doctrine by using the example of a well-regarded person or organisation that held that idea.
I suspect the article was written without the knowledge of the Jefferson-Hemmings controversy (“controversy” being a euphemism for impregnating a slave 30 years your junior, a slave that likely would not be in a position to resist your sexual advances). And what implicitly underpins the “takeaway” of this article is an assumption that Jefferson was of good character and worthy of utmost respect.
The point of the article is to juxtapose Stoicism (rather tenuously) with Thomas Jefferson. There’s no reason to do that except to make one more appealing by association with the other. i.e. to make Stoicism more attractive to people who like Thomas Jefferson. Hence, it’s an argumentum ad verecundiam.
If it “doesn’t make any difference” how good or bad the person is “to the Stoic ideas”, as the author explains, then why not write an article like The Stoicism of Stalin, The Stoicism of Mr Bean, or The Stoicism of Pol-Pot? If that’s ridiculous then why is The Stoicism of Thomas Jefferson any less ridiculous? Because Jefferson is one of the good ones, right?
I’m sure we can cherry-pick some quotes here and there from Stalin or Pol-Pot’s writings that broadly align with Stoic doctrine in the same way that Jefferson’s maxims do. I’m sure Mr Bean is very Stoic in the way he handles his daily misfortunes and challenges.
I’m English, I barely know anything about Thomas Jefferson (we don’t get taught about the American Revolution at school, because that’s one we lost), so this isn’t about how good or bad Jefferson was. I won’t wade into that debate. This about what I call “pedestalling” and the enduring folly of heroism.
Thomas Jefferson, like everybody who has ever existed, was a complicated person. Human beings are a mess of contradictions. Some of us lead worse lives than others. What matters are ideas and actions. There are no infallibly wise people, but there is wisdom.
Philosophy Isn’t Advice
The author admits here that Jefferson criticized the Stoics but also wrote some Stoic-sounding maxims, which, looking at this list, are mostly just platitudes that get endlessly repeated in different guises. For example, “never trouble another for what you can do yourself.”
Who would ever publicly advise the opposite, without sounding like a horrible person? Like, “put your feet up and let others do your work.” And what counts in the “doing” here? Does it not leave a bad taste in the mouth that a slave owner, who no doubt had unpaid skivvies running simple errands for him, would write such advice?
These rules are not characteristically “Stoic”, they are as much Epicurean, Calvinist, Christian, Muslim or Hindu (take your pick) as they are Stoic. They are just innocuous pieces of life-advice. To call these pieces of advice Stoic is to conflate life-advice with philosophy.
The problem with conflating philosophy with life-advice is that you stop being philosophical and enter the danger zone of sophistry (the bad kind).
The difference between philosophy and life-advice is that philosophy has a criterion of defensibility. When Epictetus says we shouldn’t be troubled by unfortunate events, it’s not just good advice, it’s rooted in the Stoic understanding of the universe.
Epictetus could justify such an idea with argumentation grounded in a coherent and cohesive understanding of said universe. (The universe is a perfect organism, therefore everything that plays out, plays out for the best. You are part of that universe therefore everything that happens to you is for the best, no matter how it feels to you in your limited understanding of the universe).
And this gets to the nub of the matter. Philosophy is an activity. It’s not quantitative information in the form of advice like “don’t procrastinate” or “don’t be lazy”. It’s a qualitative life-long striving to understand and to act on that understanding — why should I not procrastinate? Why should I not be lazy? What does “lazy” or “procrastination” even mean?
A Stoic philosopher would consider these questions because that’s the point of philosophy. Is that “overthinking” it? Well yeah, of course it is. Nobody innovates by underthinking. Overthinking is also why real philosophers have been the object of derision and ridicule throughout history — from Socrates in 410 BCE to Judith Butler in 2021 CE.
The Stoics considered Socrates to be their forefather. “The gadfly of Athens” (so called because he admitted himself he was a pain in the ass) was despised and loved in equal measure. He questioned everything. He questioned courage, he questioned knowledge, he questioned love. He was a hypocrite’s worst nightmare. His questions were so dangerous to the status quo that he was executed. It was a fate he bravely met with a calm temperament. Why? Because he questioned death.
Philosophers — Stoic or otherwise — aren’t here to make you richer or to stop you procrastinating, they’re here to question if being rich is really that desirable, or if the task at hand is really worthwhile. By doing so they extend the bounds of the thinkable. They are camped out on the frontier, waiting for the rest of us.