By Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, Co-Authors of ‘Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in‘
Professor Nancy Sherman recently stated that contemporary forms of Stoicism have become an industry. And a mega-industry at that. While many of these forms have little to do with Stoic philosophy, she is right. It is also clear that most modern-day popularizers and academics linked to Stoicism happen to be men (in fact, we are two men). In extreme cases, fans of popularized Stoicism even champion the misogynist idea that only men can be virtuous (within the Stoic community we call this group the “Broics”). Yet the ancient Stoic philosophers themselves, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger make it clear that the ability to act virtuously is not contingent on one’s sex or gender identity.
Musonius, in particular, advocated for women to be taught philosophy so that, like men, they too could progress towards a life well-lived. He did so because he believed that women had received the same cognitive abilities and natural inclinations towards virtue as their male counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Musonius’ views, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by Stoicism. She likewise emphasized the overarching goal of, and human capacity for, a flourishing life. Like Musonius, she believed that all humans could learn to act rationally and morally.
The Roman historian Plutarch and the biographer Diogenes Laërtius also highlight that the quest for virtue doesn’t only concern men. Plutarch documents the stories of the powerful Spartan queens Agiatis, Archidamia, and Agesistrata[i]. His point was to illustrate the fact that these women led by example when attempting to bring about much needed socioeconomic and land reforms in Hellenistic Sparta.
Similarly, Diogenes Laërtius dedicated time and effort to recording the story of the Stoic founder Zeno of Citium’s philosophical foster-mother and Cynic philosopher, Hipparchia[ii]. Diogenes also highlights the fact that Stoic philosophy owes its very existence to the wisdom of the Oracle, one of the most powerful of women’s voices in all of history[iii]. Zeno spoke with the Oracle, and her words inspired him to read the wise texts of the ancients, which then led him to teach what became Stoicism, on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile).
The fact that there is so little ink dedicated to any of these women in contemporary Stoic books, blogs, and social media posts suggests, to us at least, a lack of knowledge, not a lack of interest. So, let’s play our part in changing that.
What did the Ancient Stoics say about women?
In his Discourses 3.1, Musonius Rufus very explicitly states that there is no difference between men and women in terms of their ability to act rationally and virtuously:
Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men—the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful… In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women[iv].
He explained, in the very same lesson, the value of being a philosophically educated woman. Specifically, he stated that a woman who has studied philosophy is a better manager of the estate and is more likely to be happy and self-reliant. He also labeled women who truly understand philosophy as “philosophers,” not simply as “educated.” Clearly, Discourses 3 lies in direct contrast to any contemporary claims which hold that Stoicism is only for men, or that it is only of value if you happen to be a man! In Discourses 4.3, Musonius justifies his claim for equal education:
Someone might say that courage is an appropriate characteristic for men only, but this is not so. It is also necessary for a woman—at least for a most noble one—to be courageous and free from cowardice so that she is overcome neither by pain nor by fear.
It isn’t just Musonius who expects women to receive a philosophical education. Epictetus too, albeit in a much more matter-of-fact tone, also makes it clear that women (and men) should be taught philosophical principles[v], if they are to understand what constitutes an “appropriate act” (kathekonta). He evidently sees no reason why women cannot be philosophers. Seneca also shares similar sentiments when it comes to the education of his mother. Far from wishing to deny her a good education, or thinking that it was inappropriate for her to have obtained one, he writes in a public letter to her (Consolation to Helvia 17):
“If only my father, who really was the best of men, had resisted the tradition of his ancestors and let you make a thorough study of philosophy, rather than just a smattering! Thanks to your keen intellectual appetite, you learned more than one could have expected in the time[vi].
Of course, we should highlight that these examples of discussions about women are being held entirely by men. It is important that we acknowledge this if we are to be intellectually honest about Stoicism’s past and work towards equality in the future. We aren’t raising these examples to suggest women in philosophy need the validation or approval of ancient philosophers, but rather to dismiss those who would invoke these same philosophers for sexist and exclusionary reasons[vii].
Queen Agiatis’ Story
Agiatis, the 3rd century BCE Spartan Queen, plays a significant role in Stoicism’s history. Yet, while the Sparta of Hollywood holds center stage amongst contemporary Stoic groups, she is barely mentioned. This is despite her role in standing up against a murderous oligarchic regime, and passing socioeconomic and land reforms in the name of justice. We highlight this irony in our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, for what could be more Stoic or Spartan than having the courage to take the fight to the powerful, even at great personal cost?
Agiatis accomplished all this when her world was turned upside down following the murder of her husband, King Agis IV, and her in-laws by Leonidas II. This left Agiatis with little option but to marry the son of Leonidas II, the future king Kleomenes III. As we explain in our book:
Even though Agiatis, out of love and devotion to the memory of her dead husband, Agis, grieved deeply over his demise, she agreed to marry Kleomenes and become his wife. She did her royal duties well and showed genuine affection to Leonidas’ son, who equally doted on her. However, Leonidas didn’t count on Agiatis’ loyalty to Sparta and her commitment to bring Agis’ social, political, and educational reforms into fruition. He also severely underestimated her ability to keep the ball firmly in her court and beat him at his own game. Agiatis countered Leonidas’ power moves by encouraging Kleomenes to become the hero who would restore Sparta to its former glory. Kleomenes eagerly listened to her, and he often asked her about Agis’ character strengths and flaws and his notions for reform. Before long, Agis’ plans became Kleomenes’ vision.
We told Agiatis’ story precisely because it is such a strong example of Stoicism. It also proves the ancient Stoics claims that an educated woman who courageously stands up for justice is an asset to her community, her family, and herself.
New Female Stoic Stories
We feel that it is particularly appropriate to briefly mention how women are contributing to Stoicism and moving the philosophy forward today. Firstly, it is not coincidental that we used Cynthia King’s or Emily Wilson’s translations of the classic Stoic texts. Equally, we could have chosen a passage from Sharon Lebell’s extremely accessible re-interpretation of Epictetus’ words in her book Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. We might have also chosen to highlight Liz Gloyn’s work on The Ethics of the Family in Seneca or Julia Annas’ excellent book Intelligent Virtue.
Outside of academic endeavors, women are increasingly contributing to the conversation about, and application of, Stoic principles in everyday life. Kathryn Koromillas and Brittany Polat just organized the first all-women Stoic conference, which had a peak attendance of 220 people. Eve Riches and Brittany Polat run Stoic Car, an initiative that gives caregivers Stoic-based tools to better handle the pressures that teaching, volunteering and formal/informal forms of personal care typically involve. Meredith Kuntz provides help and support to parents who want to practice Stoicism in the family home. Kellys Rodriguez is the leader of the Madrid Stoic group and has begun to work with us to develop contemporary Stoic material that is written in the Spanish language and built upon Hispanic culture. All these initiatives highlight the fact that women are increasingly at the forefront of developing practical tools that are rooted in Stoic philosophy. In short, Stoic women are finding their voices and it’s about time they were heard.
Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com
Leonidas Konstantakos is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He teaches in the international relations department at Florida International University.
[i] See Plutarch’s Life of Agis and Life of Kleomenes.
[ii] See Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 6.96-98
[iii] See Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 7.2
[iv] All translations of Musonius Rufus’ Discourses are from Cynthia King (2011)
[v] Specifically Discourses 3.24.22
[vi] Taken from: Emily Wilson’s (2015). Seneca: A Life. Penguin UK.
[vii] See Donna Zuckerberg’s (2018) Not All Dead White Men Harvard University Press for more information.