From Vol. 4, Issue 11, November 2022
“If you do desire possessing quotes that you can stock up within your mind, the best, the most reliable, the most intelligent way to do that is. . . don’t focus primarily on quotes."
Stoic quotes and the internet
Early in his epistolary exchanges with his friend Lucilius, Seneca responds to a request that he share “maxims” or “sayings” from the Stoics. These are what many people nowadays would more likely call “quotes”. By the end of letter 33, he gives in and provides a few, but before that he sets down some good reasons for not doing so. We can extend those reasons into the present, and extend them a bit further in our present time, which is marked so deeply by our internet-mediated culture. We spend a significant time in a set of overlapping and interactive media that any prudent Stoic would exhibit some reasonable caution and concern towards.
Thousands of fake quotes circulate endlessly through the internet, many of them falsely attributed to Stoic authors, or presented as if they are genuine expressions of Stoic philosophy and practice. People and platforms that claim they are about Stoicism post and repost these without bothering to check for sources, or even to consider whether the sentiments expressed in the quote would actually fit into a Stoic perspective, or instead contradict it. And it isn’t just those with a superficial understanding of Stoicism. I’ve seen longestablished, popular, and one would think well-researched sites like the Daily Stoic occasionally sharing “Stoic” quotes that definitely are not!
Stoicism is a complex system of interconnected ideas
One of the points Seneca makes in that particular letter, as well as in many other places, is that Stoicism is a complex system of interconnected and mutually-informing ideas. Although it certainly can be useful to have “ready at hand” a particular thing to say to oneself in challenging situations, those are just Stoic ideas used as tools for gradually, cumulatively, thoughtfully developing an entire way of living for oneself. They’re not really “life-hacks” (a silly, non-Stoic metaphor) or effectively short-cuts to the goals Stoicism guides us towards, like happiness, freedom, tranquility, or a smooth flow of life. Ideas and practices drawn from Stoic philosophy, or passages pulled out from actual Stoic writings, can of course be used in isolation from each other, but they wind up being incredibly more useful, meaningful, and effective when grounded within the larger matrix of Stoicism.
Implications for us
What implications does this have for us in the present? It’s not that quotes are bad as such. We don’t need to say things like “any real student of Stoicism won’t look at, let alone repost quotes”. They can certainly serve legitimate purposes, not least getting people initially interested in learning more about Stoicism.
But any time we see someone sharing a quote purportedly expressing or representing Stoicism, particularly when it is being attributed to a Stoic author without explicitly telling you where in their works it appears, we should do what Epictetus suggests we do with any impression or appearance. Don’t give it automatic assent. Unless you’ve actually devoted the time to reading and rereading, studying the author in question, you don’t actually know whether they said anything remotely like what the quote says they did.
Understand the quotes in their proper context
If you do desire possessing quotes that you can stock up within your mind, the best, the most reliable, the most intelligent way to do that is. . . don’t focus primarily on quotes. Instead devote the time you might fritter away looking through various quote sites or seeking them out in social media to simply reading through the available works of the Stoic philosophers, building up the network of key Stoic ideas, examples, distinctions, arguments, reasonings, conversations, and the like within your own mind. For anyone who aims to pursue philosophy as a way of life, reading itself, as Pierre Hadot rightly points out, was regarded as an important or even indispensable spiritual exercise.
So whatever term we want to use – quotes, maxims, sayings – if we aim to live a Stoic life, we will want to situate those short verbal statements within their larger and more encompassing contexts. More simply put, we will need to be readers (and rereaders) of the classic Stoic texts genuine quotes come from.
Greg Sadler of ReasonIO is an educator and the editor of Stoicism Today (ModernStoicism.com).