Whilst in the process of tricking myself into believing I was not profusely procrastinating online one-day last week, I had the sudden intuition to search for a topic I had not yet come across during my still somewhat new but increasingly thorough study of stoicism. The topic was women in stoicism or female stoics. Unfortunately, as with much of the history we have available, there are much fewer records and stories in existence of women who practiced stoicism in ancient Greco-Roman times for the benefit of their own lives and the lives of others as there are of famous men like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or the slave turned philosopher-teacher Epictetus. I did however come across a Reddit post from someone looking for the same, which led me to the story of Arria the Elder from a book titled Roman Stoicism, by E. Vernon Arnold, published by Cambridge University in 1911;
Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina during the reign of Claudius, which would place the timeframe of this story between 41 and 54 AD. Arria and her husband are introduced in the chapter as heads of a famous stoic family occupied in a conspiracy against the emperor. The following passage describing Arria, which is quoted directly from the book, left a profound impression on me:
"In the reign of Claudius we find Stoics engaged in actual conspiracy against the emperor. The name of Paetus Caecina introduces us to a famous Stoic family, for his wife was Arria the elder. Pliny tells us, in the authority of her granddaughter Fannia, how when her husband and son both fell sick together, and the latter died, she carried out the whole funeral without her husband's knowledge; and each time that she entered his sick chamber, assumed a cheerful smile and assured him that the boy was much better. Whenever her grief became too strong, she would leave the room for a few minutes to weep, and return once more calm. When Scribonianus in Illyria rebelled against Claudius, Paetus took his side; upon his fall he was brought a prisoner to Rome. Arria was not allowed to accompany him, but she followed him in a fishing boat. She encouraged him to face death by piercing her own breast with a dagger, declaring 'it doesn't hurt,' and upon his death she determined not to survive him. Thrasea, her son-in-law, tried to dissuade her. 'If I were condemned, would you,' said he, 'wish your daughter to die with me?' 'Yes,' said Arria, 'if she had lived with you as long and as happy as I with Paetus.'
In my own personal opinion, that is fucking beautiful. A pure, genuine display of her true love and devotion to her husband as well as their shared philosophy and approach to life.
In the first part of the story, Arria displays incredible stoic ability and strength by deliberately lying to her husband about the death of their son, realizing that nothing can be done to bring him back and that no good would come of telling him the truth; doing so will only make him weaker in his illness and more likely to die of a broken heart. For me personally, controlling my emotions in front of my wife is a challenge when life brings hardship, and this is true for much scantier of affairs than something as tragic as losing a child. Being in the company of a loved one with whom you share trust and vulnerability makes it very easy to fall on them for comfort when facing adversity, even when this comfort may come at the cost of having a negative impact on their own lives. Arria’s husband Paetus’ survived the illness that claimed the life of their son, but this may not have been the case if Arria had not mastered the ability to manage her emotions to the extent she had. Accepting her son’s fate in the stoic fashion of amor fati, she turned her full attention to doing what was in her own power to help increase the odds of her beloved husband’s chances of survival. By doing so she exercised what Epictetus referred to was in her dichotomy of control, making the best use of the present to avoid further suffering in the future, while accepting and letting go of what could not be changed in the past.
In the second part of her story, we are once again met with bewilderment at the mental capacity of this astonishing woman. Arria helps her husband accept the horrible fate that has been forced upon him, and afterward decides to join him by ending her own life despite herself being free of any of the charges conscripting her husband to death.
Our modern society would most likely interpret this in a much more negative light than I or someone practicing stoicism would, suggesting instead that Arria was absolutely insane for choosing to kill herself after her husband had; she still had a lot to live for with her daughter and son-in-law alive who clearly cared deeply for her, and being a woman of nobility she most likely would have been left with a vast estate upon her husbands death. She could have remarried, today’s millennial would say, and enjoyed the rest of her life in happy companionship like they do in the happy-go-lucky romantic comedy films where two widowed seniors find love late in life and go around crossing cheesy items off their bucket list (on that note, check out The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on Netflix, fantastic film) “Nay!” The Stoics would say; our lives do not depend solely on seeking enjoyment and avoiding pain at all costs. Rather, we should seek to practice virtue in every situation that presents itself, even in a situation as delicate as deciding to take one’s own life.
To understand Arria’s seemingly irrational decision to kill herself after her husband had been forced to do so, it is helpful to take a quick look at how the ancient Stoics felt about suicide. Stoics believed suicide was readily available option to achieve freedom, or what they considered the ultimate goal of life, apatheia. The best way to translate apatheia is ‘without suffering’ or ‘without passions,’ for it was their belief that untamed and uncontrolled emotions are the cause of all unnecessary suffering in our lives.
As Arria put in such beautifully elegant fashion when reasoning with her son-in-law Thrasae, upon being asked if she would want her daughter to die in the event he were condemned to a similar fate : 'Yes, if she had lived with you as long and as happy as I with Paetus.' Arria knew that living on without her husband would bring suffering she did not wish to endure, and because she had already lived a long and happy life with her husband she was able to take ownership of the fact that continuing to press on in life was not something that would bring her apathea. Ending her own life, however, would.
This stoic sentiment is presented anecdotally by Epictetus in Discourses (1.24.20):
“Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game is no longer fun for them, ‘I won’t play any more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, say, ‘I won’t play any more,’ and leave, but if you remain, don’t complain.”
And Seneca, bluntly, with:
“Can you no longer see a road to freedom?
It’s right in front of you. You need only turn over your wrists”.
This idea comes into direct conflict with most Judeo-Christian ideologies, which dictate that suicide is a mortal sin. (Ironically, many of Stoicism’s principals are present throughout Christianity and aided in it’s founding, but we’ll save that for another blog post). Stoics, however, saw self-destruction as a tool that could be used to achieve freedom when things become unbearable, but also as the reason for why we should live life in full force if we decide to stick around and ‘play the game.’ Arria, therefore, ended her life virtuously, honoring her philosophy while releasing herself to ultimate freedom and apatheia. And for this reason, as well as those above, she was a bad-ass stoic as well as an incredibly powerful human being.