November 12, 2016 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Stoic Mockery

Key ideas of this discourse

Stoicism grew out of Cynicism. Take Cynicism, cut out its ascetic aspects, add a few more flourishes, and voila! You have Stoicism. Diogenes the Cynic was a famous philosopher of his day.

According to legend (of which there are many versions), Alexander the Great went to see him. He found Diogenes laying the sun. The conversation between them went something like this:

“I am Alexander the Great.”
“I am Diogenes, the dog.”
“Can I do anything for you?”
“Yes, move over, don’t hide the sun.”

So here was Alexander, with his power and ability to bestow gifts on others, trying to impress Diogenes. Diogenes couldn’t have cared less. If Alexander was proud of being the “Great,” Diogenes was proud of being a “dog” (The term Cynic actually meant “dog” or “doglike.”) The Emperor could indeed do something for Diogenes. Such as getting out of the way. The Emperor had nothing that Diogenes wanted. It was Diogenes’ way of telling the Emperor that the Emperor was no richer than him, a mendicant.

Stoics probably inherited the sense of mockery from the Cynics. Here is Epictetus addressing his students, who are presumably richer and more powerful than him,

“You have utensils of gold, but your opinions, your beliefs, your pursuits, your desires, are of earthenware.” (Discourses, Book III.9.18-19.)

Even the gentle Marcus Aurelius couldn’t resist this:
“You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves.” (Meditations, VIII.53)

Seneca’s mockery went even further, extending into a full-length play, Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii. The work relates to the death of Claudius, his ascent to heaven and judgment by the gods, and his eventual descent into Hades. At each of these stages, Seneca mocks the late emperor’s personal shortcomings such his incoherence, arrogance, and cruelty.

Stoic philosophers considered what others did as irrelevant. Stoics neither craved others’ approval nor rejected it. It just didn’t matter to them. They weren’t trying to establish that they were superior to anyone else, because what others thought meant nothing to them.

There is no evidence that the Stoics were arrogant. So why did they mock the rich and powerful?

One way to understand this is to see such mockery as a teaching device. The statement of Diogenes “Move over, don’t hide the sun” is probably a much more powerful way of indicating that what he was enjoying at the moment (sun shining on him) was so satisfying that Alexander, with all his wealth and power, could add nothing to it. A gracious, “No, thank you,” wouldn’t have made the point so effectively.

Seneca’s satire could be the result of his inability to mock cruel emperors during their lifetime. Epictetus was never one to mince his words. Marcus Aurelius was probably mocking himself.

So I suspect what the Stoics were trying to point out to others through mockery was the absurdity of the way they lived.

Mockery may be a teaching device, but is it a good one? Or an effective one? Probably not, especially not these days. It will neither win friends, nor influence people. But the Stoics lived in a different time and they couldn’t have cared less. Even if their head was chopped off.