Bookless, Breadless, and Threadless


The one is a philosopher without a tunic, and the other without a book. Here is another half naked Bread. I have not, he says, and I abide by reason. And I do not get the means of living out of my learning, and I abide by my reason.

Meditations 4.30

In ancient Grecoroman culture, some people made much of the tunic in that because it exposed your shoulders.

It tested your resilience to cold weather and the elements in general. To be a philosopher preaching simple living, and to be wearing very fancy clothes created a hypocrisy. Marcus struggled with this early on, before he was emperor even, because his teachers and mentors, some of them anyway, were men who lived simple lives, kept plain homes and wore plain clothes and spoke in plain language. On the other hand, he was in line to be emperor as decided by Hadrian. And an emperor couldn’t be an emperor in rags.

He had to dress like an emperor. Likewise, philosophers were always writing books and carrying them around. Have you ever looked at Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens? You’ll recognize it when you Google it. You might not know the name, but you’ll recognize the painting if you look close.

There are no fewer than a dozen books, papers, scrolls, and chalk tablets hidden among the many tunics and robes. Marcus likely had a difficult relationship with books as well. Certainly as a child with good teachers and mentors, he would have been encouraged to read books freely. But who has the time for reading books when you’re fighting wars, dealing with floods and epidemics, and losing many of your children before they reach adulthood? Probably not Marcus.

And yes, all of those things happen to him and more. And what of food or hear of bread? Well consider diogenes. I know Eric Wood. That guy lived in a pot on the street with a dog and a lantern that knowing Diogenes probably didn’t even work and was full of bumblebees he would release on anyone who he thought wasn’t philosophizing hard enough, just a madman riding around on the back of a dog carrying a buzzing lantern of raging bees.

It’s probably not true, but it’s fun to imagine. But that’s not my point. My point is Diogenes was broke and probably hungry quite frequently, and he was one of the wisest men of his age, as you’ve learned from Eric. They constructed a statue of him when he died because people liked him so much and appreciated his wisdom so much. Marcus is, I think, making a point about the fact that wisdom doesn’t live in books and warmth doesn’t come from clothes, and fulfillment doesn’t come from food.

It comes from the logos. I think that’s uncharacteristically poetic for Marcus, but I like it. I like it. But I also feel like maybe we need to point out that true as it may be and in the words of PO the kung fu panda, we can’t just live on dew and universe juice or in this case, the logos. Being able to find contentment, whether naked, hungry or bookless, is certainly possible.

But maybe let’s not test it if we don’t need to. Don’t get me wrong, the Premeditations of evil is important. That’s premeditate malorum, and we want to cultivate a mind capable of enduring in the most extreme of situations. But I also think we don’t want to get too complacent about the quality of our lives just because we could technically handle it psychologically. Bookless, breadless and threadless is a combination of scenarios I think we should all view as disproved, at least generally speaking.

And the biggest reason I’m making note of this is that when we think, well, who cares? We can survive anything, it becomes very easy to say, and so, too, should everyone else be able to survive anything. And that’s just one really short step away from help yourself. You have everything you need. If you’re in a bad spot in life and you’re miserable, that’s your own fault for being too weak to be otherwise.

That escalated pretty quickly, and we see that happen in Broicism, right? These dude bros who think that’s exactly what Stoicism is all about. But remember, Stoicism capital S isn’t about not caring it’s about caring in an appropriate way, developing a virtuous character, and serving the cosmopolis for its betterment. It is a bit hard to do that last part if you’re a naked bookless, starving man or woman on the street. So, yeah, we could absolutely endure hunger and cold and being apart from our lovely book collections.

And we should understand that’s part of the point of Stoicism to be ready for that should it come to pass. But I don’t think it’s necessary for us to wave that fact around as if it were a point of pride or that it makes us superior to others in some fashion. Certainly other philosophies would help people to become more resilient. We’re not unique in that way. To be fair, I don’t think that’s what Marcus is trying to do here.

But I do think sometimes about what the Broicism ambassadors are trying to do. And I like to remind you all that they’re doing it so you know a broic brocopton when you see one and don’t allow them to lead you off of your path. And actually, that reminds me of Pinocchio. I trust that you’ve seen it. Remember the kid that is constantly egging Pinocchio on to participate in the debauchery of Pleasure Island?

Well, that kid thought he had it all figured out, didn’t he? That kid definitely subscribed to Broicism. He thought he knew what life was about, and he thought he had a great handle on it. But where did that land Pinocchio, that cute but naive wooden puppet? Well, eventually it landed him in Monstro’s belly, but first it found him with a pair of donkey ears and a tail because he was acting like a jackass by following a jackass.

Resilience is important, but resilience isn’t the Stoic identity. Notice that resilience is not one of the cardinal virtues. I bet you’ve never thought of that. Wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice. Not wisdom, bravery, temperance, and the unbreakable king of the cold showers and sheer willpower.

Stoicism’s focus isn’t and hasn’t ever been on developing a resilient character. It’s been about developing a virtuous character. Resilience is a side effect and also a series of lame motivational posters that many first time startup CEOs hang all over. There are 300 square foot corporate headquarters. So stay focused, practice prosecut, be a committed per capita, and don’t make a big to do about what you think you can endure and how the universe is all the sustenance you need.

That’s gloating. And stoics. Don’t gloat.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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