Smith Snark on Epictetus

stoics stoicism smith snark epictetus

Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

The second entry in a new series on Adam Smith getting snarky. We're looking at people and ideas that Adam Smith disagreed with vehemently. What were the issues and did Smith play fair in his criticisms? Our second entry on Epictetus asks Adam Smith, "What’s the Problem with Stoicism?"
It’s shortly after his famous juxtaposition of the Chinese earthquake and the pinky that Adam Smith introduces his critique of Stoicism, the philosophy founded by the first-century CE Roman slave, Epictetus. For Smith, it is one of the schools that attempts to correct our “natural inequality of our passive feelings by diminishing our sensibility to what peculiarly concerns ourselves.” 
It was surprising to me, on my first read, to find Smith critical of both Stoics and “all the ancient sects of philosophers” who counseled an indifference to personal suffering by remembering that we are not the first to suffer, nor will we be the last. There’s a Smith who seems to approve of emotional repressions that we might call stoic. Back in Book I of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he tells us: “We reverence that reserved, that silent and majestic sorrow, which discovers itself only in the swelling of the eyes, in the quivering of the lips and cheeks, and in the distant, but affecting, coldness of the whole behaviour.”
But there’s no doubt that Smith has a serious problem with Epictetus. Later in on this passage, he goes on to make a statement that would have been deeply controversial in his own times: that various French playwrights and the scandalous English novelist Samuel Richardson are “much better instructors than Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus,” naming the three most important Stoic philosophers.
So what’s the problem with Stoicism, a school that teaches us to regard ourselves as a “citizen of the world” and a “member of the vast commonwealth of nature,” and maybe have a little more regard for the recent victims of a stampede in South Korea than for our pinky fingers? After all, it’s a moral trajectory that Smith clearly thinks we should undertake.
In a recent paper published in the History of European Ideas, "Adam Smith, Anti-Stoic" Michele Bee and Maria Pia Paganelli argue that Smith’s anti-Stoicism falls out of his view that societies are evolving out of a need for the kind of self-command that characterized early classical civilization. Epictetus, a slave, may have needed to believe that nothing really belonged to him but his integrity in order to preserve his sanity, but a certain level of political freedom and economic prosperity diminish the need for the kind of displays that Smith associates in his own times with the hardscrabble lives of the indigenous peoples of North America. For the victim of torture, in the Roman world or elsewhere, there’s no point in seeking sympathy from his tormentors: there’s no chance they might offer it. So an attitude of mockery and indifference to physical suffering is the only thing that’s likely to gain their approval.
But I can’t help wondering if Smith’s disapproval runs a little deeper. His primary beef is with Epictetus, who famously suggests in his most popular work, the Enchiridion, that we extend our indifference past our pinky fingers to our loved ones. Has your wife died? he asks his followers. No, she is merely returned. Has your child died? Perhaps you can guess the reply.
It’s not clear that Smith considers this an adequate reply even in ancient times to the problems of being human. He goes onto remark, 
“The man who should feel no more for the death or distress of his own father or son than for those of any other man’s father or son, would appear neither a good son nor a good father. Such unnatural indifference, far from exciting our applause, would incur our highest disapprobation.” 
 Smith worries that the “stoical apathy” to one’s own sufferings, which is admirable in some ways, ill equips one to feel for others. Indifference to our own feelings might never produce that turning outwards that is ultimately the real source of self-command, as he makes clear in a later critique of Stoicism: 
“Our sensibility to the feelings of others, so far from being inconsistent with the manhood of self-command, is the very principle upon which that manhood is founded.” 
If we can’t even bring ourselves to be upset about the death of our nearest and dearest, what are the chances that we’ll care about the victims of an earthquake in China? For Smith, there’s a natural evolution: we learn to care about our pinky fingers. Then we learn to care about our family members. Then, maybe, we learn to care about a more global humanity. Our regard for universal humanity then teaches us to care less for ourselves by showing us how little a lost pinky matters in the grand scheme of things. But for Smith, we can’t start there. In fact, he associates a cynical, stoical apathy with the young, who haven’t yet learned that real self-command comes, paradoxically, from a deep care for the feelings of others. It is only in maturity and perhaps from loss of people that we genuinely care about that real self-command arises.

Want more from AdamSmithWorks?  
Doug Den Uyl's Smith Snark on Shaftesbury
Shannon Chamberlain's Father's Day Advice from Adam Smith
Edward J. Harpham’s A Mother’s Suffering through the Eyes of Adam Smith
Leonidas Montes’ The Importance of Self-Command
Garret Edwards’ Happiness in Times of Crisis
Video: An Animal That Trades: Sympathy

Even More from Liberty Fund:
Epictetus on one’s inner freedom that is immune to external coercion on the Online Library of Liberty
Podcast: Led By Truth, Inspired by Beauty with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (author of Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living), hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II on Law&Liberty
Chapters where David Hume mentions Epictetus in his Essays: Of Moral Prejudices, The Skeptic on EconLib
EconTalks with Ryan Holiday: Discipline Is Destiny (2022); Stillness Is the Key (2019); Ego is the Enemy (2016)