Originally written August 2020
Musonius Rufus Would Never File a Lawsuit for Assault
Musonius Rufus argues “he would never file a lawsuit against anyone for assault” 1 and that by pressing charges, a philosopher would demonstrate he is disturbed, upset, or feeling revengeful by the assault.
His argument could be framed with the following:
1) If a Stoic is assaulted, then he will retain his equanimity.
A Stoic is assaulted.
Therefore, a Stoic retains his equanimity.
2) If a Stoic files a lawsuit, then he loses his equanimity.
A Stoic files a lawsuit.
Therefore, a Stoic loses his equanimity.
This essay will briefly explore a key assumption in Rufus’ argument and then refute it by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity. This will be demonstrated by exploring the possibility that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather would file a lawsuit out of a sense of duty to justice and social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help society by educating the person who has carried out the assault.
Musonius Rufus’ Assumption
Musonius’ argument seems to be strictly based on the premise that if you file a lawsuit, then this equates to feeling injured or insulted. If, however, he were to limit his recommendation that a Stoic would take jeering, beating, being spat upon and outright assaults with perfect indifference, then his point would be entirely defensible from a Stoic perspective. But in his argument, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that since a person is filing a lawsuit, then that person must be doing so out of revenge or spite or being insulted. He says, “Indeed, plotting how to bite back someone who bites and to return evil against the one who first did evil is characteristic of a beasts, not a man.” 1 But how do we know the reasons for someone filing a lawsuit? Musonius seems to be mind-reading and assuming as to why a person is filing a lawsuit. Per Musonius’ logic, the only reason a person would file a lawsuit is so that they can plot how to bite back.
However, he opens the door related to two other Stoic duties: upholding justice and educating others, which are valid Stoic reasons as to why a person could file a lawsuit. He says, “A beast is not able to comprehend that many of the wrongs done to people are done out of ignorance and lack of understanding. A person who gains this comprehension immediately stops doing wrong.” 1
If a Stoic can find a way to educate the person who has assaulted him, ought he to try? And if this education leads to upholding justice (the assaulter “immediately stops doing wrong”), is it not the Stoic’s duty to pursue and uphold justice, no matter what form it takes and who the victim is?
And if we can prove that filing a lawsuit would lead the assaulter out of ignorance and into understanding, and if the Stoic can file said lawsuit with perfect indifference and with the sole intention of upholding justice and educating the assaulter, then we can show that at least in some circumstances, Rufus ought to ignore his own argument.
This essay will next explore the path to upholding justice and educating the ignorant, via filing a lawsuit with indifference.
Virtue is the Sole Good – A Duty to Uphold Justice
Without having to delve into a deep philosophical, divine discussion around justice, for the sake of this argument, I propose the concept of justice is based on the aim of humans living in harmony with each other.
Humans can live in harmony based on laws and rights and justice as defined from a commonly accepted dictionary: 2
the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity
the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
conformity to this principle or ideal
Included in the above definition is an implication of action. For as many laws that are agreed upon, those laws ultimately mean nothing unless they are enforced.
A society without laws, is beholden to tyrants and anarchists, in which case there is no justice. Similarly, a society with laws, but with no law enforcement, would also soon devolve into a society with no justice. For this reason, the French philosopher Pascal Blaise noted, “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.” 3
If a Stoic, whose aim is to live a life of virtue, agrees that virtue is the sole good; and as part of living a life according to virtue, the Stoic subscribes to living by and in support of justice, then one could say it is the Stoic’s duty to support and uphold the laws of society.
Therefore, if a society deems that physical assault against an innocent person is against law and justice, then a Stoic’s duty would be to uphold the law regardless of who is involved. If upholding the law includes the prosecution of or the filing of a lawsuit against the perpetrator, then a Stoic’s duty would include such action.
Failing to support such action would erode justice and encourage law-breaking by society’s members. As more laws are ignored, the harmony of society breaks down and anarchy and tyranny rise.
Consider what a Stoic ought to do if he witnessed a rape or an assault. Would a good Stoic ignore this? Or would he intervene to uphold the law for the sake of justice?
One bleak example of people failing to uphold justice is found in the tragic story of Kitty Genovese. After finishing her shift at a bar, she returned to her neighborhood, in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. After parking her car, she walked toward her residence, and then was attacked by Winston Moseley, who stabbed her twice, with a hunting knife. She cried out for help, after which a neighbor yelled out the window, and Moseley ran off. She continued to cry for help as she tried to return to her apartment. But no definitive action was taken by neighbors, many of whom thought the cries and yells were domestic fights or drunken quarrels. Mosely, seeing that no one was aiding Genovese, returned, murdered, and raped her. 4
Genovese’ story shocked New York City and the United States – shocked at how many neighbors failed to definitively act to not only uphold justice, but to render aid to a victim of an injustice. This outrage lead to several psychology studies, which named this behavior the Bystander Effect. One psychologist bleakly noted,
In his book, Rosenthal asked a series of behavioral scientists to explain why people do or do not help a victim and, sadly, he found none could offer an evidence-based answer. How ironic that this same question was answered separately by a non-scientist. When the killer was apprehended, and Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman asked him how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, the psychopath calmly replied, 'I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do’ 5
For justice to be upheld, action must be taken, based on established legal and moral laws. If a Stoic’s duty is to uphold justice, then he must uphold laws where injustices have been committed against others and even himself.
To put a theoretical emphasis on this point, assume Genovese survived the assault and was a Stoic. If she took Musonius’ teaching seriously, she would not file a lawsuit. Moseley would supposedly not be held accountable for his assault and would perceive that people “wouldn’t do anything.” He would potentially never be corrected and could go on to commit more assaults. Affirming and upholding justice is a Stoic’s duty and a commitment to maintaining a harmonious society, regardless if he is the victim or not.
Next, this essay will explain how upholding justice, in some cases, begins the process of educating others and how filing a lawsuit may be the catalyst for moral growth.
Stoic ethics is based on the idea of oikeiôsis which is “the basic desire or drive in all animals (including human beings) for self-preservation.” 6 Furthermore, Stoics put a premium on rational self-preservation over physical self-preservation. By focusing on one’s rational nature, one begins to live according to nature.
Stoic ethics further elaborate on the concept of social oikeiosis wherein the Stoic widens his “circle of concern” and care for others – including desiring that others, too, are preserved both physically and rationally. 6 Ultimately, the Stoic views all humans as fellow citizens of the cosmos. And as the Stoic develops the view of his place in the cosmos, he begins to see how others too, may live under a common, rational set of laws. And if those laws are broken, then it does not preserve a rational society. On this basis, Marcus Aurelius notes “What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either.” 7
As an example, we may assume that war does not benefit or preserve humanity, therefore war does not benefit or preserve the human. From this starting point, we can walk it down to a minute level. Nuclear war, regional conflicts, border skirmishes, riots, mobs, and plundering do not benefit humanity nor the human. Going even further down the spectrum, we can argue that widespread abuses, assaults, and bullying, also do not benefit humanity and therefore do not benefit the human.
Therefore, in the intermediate circles of concerns for others, a Stoic’s duty is to act rationally and think of ways to preserve those who need it. One way to accomplish this is through education. A Stoic’s ethics ask him to consider ways to care for the human and for humanity through education.
Consider this argument:
If a Stoic always educates others, then he will help educate a person who assaults him.
If he helps educate a person who assaults him, then the assaulter may become a better citizen.
Therefore, if a Stoic always educates others, then a person who assaults him may become a better citizen.
If it can be demonstrated that filing a lawsuit becomes the catalyst for the moral education of the assaulter, then a Stoic should file a lawsuit against the assaulter. The assaulter not only becomes enlightened himself but could then be a person who upholds justice and goes on to help others, which benefits society.
Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the One
Instigating wars, conflicts, assaults, and bullying for immoral reasons is not good for the rational soul. The highest good or summum bonum of philosophy, including Stoicism, is eudaimonia – which generally translates into happiness or even well-being or flourishing. 6 For Stoics, arete is the sole good and all vice is to be avoided to achieve eudaimonia. Therefore, people will not achieve eudaimonia by creating conflict for immoral reasons. As a result, a Stoic would never engage in such behavior. And as a Stoic widens his circle of concern (social oikeiôsis), he would make efforts to teach and educate others to also not engage in such behaviors, so that they too can attain the summum bonum.
Therefore, if a Stoic knew, that someone’s life could be turned around or turned away from a life of instigating assaults, and if that path included filing a lawsuit against that person, he ought to do so.
Seneca offers a wise approach for educating others. While some people are very receptive to moral education, others are not. For those who assault a Stoic and perhaps are receptive to a moral education, all that may be needed is to talk to them and to help them see a better way. There would be no need to file a lawsuit for assault. However, for those not very receptive, it would take concentrated effort and a stronger catalyst. Seneca states:
Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.
"But what, then," people say, "have not certain persons won their way to excellence without complicated training? Have they not made great progress by obeying bare precepts alone?" Very true; but their temperaments were propitious, and they snatched salvation as it were by the way. For just as the immortal gods did not learn virtue having been born with virtue complete, and containing in their nature the essence of goodness – even so certain men are fitted with unusual qualities and reach without a long apprenticeship that which is ordinarily a matter of teaching, welcoming honourable things as soon as they hear them. Hence come the choice minds which seize quickly upon virtue, or else produce it from within themselves. But your dull, sluggish fellow, who is hampered by his evil habits, must have this soul-rust incessantly rubbed off.
It will therefore be of no avail to give precepts unless you first remove the conditions that are likely to stand in the way of precepts; 8
For some, such as repeat offenders or those who may not be mentally fit, filing a lawsuit could help with treating this “soul-rust.”
As an example of a lawsuit beginning the reform process, consider the abuses committed by Catholic priests. For years, despite knowing that the abuse needed to stop, many continued to perpetrate and hide the assaults and abuses carried out by Catholic priests. Over the course of ten years, the leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston tacitly admitted moral injustices by hiding the abuses through “private negotiations that never brought the parties near a courthouse.” 9 As the church quietly settled these assaults, the injustices continued and many priests who would have otherwise began to receive a more profound moral education, continued in their ways of error. It was only after the Boston Globe newspaper shed greater light on the abuses, which ultimately lead to the full uncovering of the assaults, which lead to lawsuits, which lead to actual reform in both the individual priests and the Catholic church. One article succinctly describes the moment when lawsuits became the catalyst for reform:
By the end of January, the documentary damage was essentially done. But by then, the first of hundreds of victims had begun contacting the paper with their stories. A further spate of civil lawsuits against the archdiocese followed, and the Globe reporters' hard work was finally crowned when an exasperated judge ordered the archdiocese to make public every single private church file kept on every Boston priest ever accused of sexual abuse. 10
What should a Stoic do if he were assaulted by a Catholic priest? From a social oikeiôsis point of view, the Stoic ought to ignore Musonius Rufus’ advice. Instead, he ought to consider if filing a lawsuit would prevent future abuses committed by the priests – for the sake of the well-being of the priest. Given priest would be in a Stoic’s circle of concern, and if the Stoic would want the priest to achieve eudaimonia, and if the lawsuit would definitively be the catalyst for moral reform and education for the priest, then the Stoic must file the lawsuit.
Indeed, a philosopher may keep his equanimity by not filing a lawsuit for revenge, but rather he would do so with the intent to help the perpetrator begin the process of moral education. Furthermore, the Stoic would not only be caring for the one, but he would be also caring for the many.
Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the Many
In the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded, agent Smith has gone rogue after being severed from the matrix. In a memorable scene, we observe his ambitious plan to replicate himself hundreds of times, by shoving his hand into the chest of bystanders, who then morph into a copy of agent Smith. 11 How efficient it would be to expand our circle of concern for others if a Stoic sage could simply copy her wisdom onto others so violently and swiftly! As comical as that idea may seem, the end goal is somewhat similar. Stoics want to spread wisdom through education and care for others; and by caring for the one, they care for the many either directly or indirectly.
Continuing with the example of the Catholic priest abuse, and asking the question if a lawsuit should be filed or not; it is not a stretch to think how filing a lawsuit not only would be the catalyst for moral education for the abuser, but the lawsuit would also prevent further injustices for many future, potential victims.
Consider the data on the number of abuses from the year 1970 to the year 2019. Abuses continued for decades until the scandal was blown wide open leading to many public lawsuits. Close to 2,000 abuses were documented in the years 1970-1974 and then dropping to about 120 after the Boston Globe investigation blew things open. In the ensuing years, after the lawsuits became public, the number of allegations has dropped to 2 in the year 2019. 12
One could reasonably argue, that had the lawsuits not been filed, hundreds of victims would have been abused and assaulted in the last decade. To bring this point back to what a Stoic should do after having been assaulted, if he were to follow Musonius’ advice to never file a lawsuit, then the Stoic would have failed in his duty to social oikeiôsis and circle of concern for others. Therefore, if a Stoic is assaulted, they must not only face the abuse with equanimity, but must also consider what actions he could take considering his duty to those in his circle of concern. If a lawsuit will prevent further injustices to many, then the Stoic ought to file a lawsuit.
In sum, this essay has attacked Rufus’ assumption that simply because a person has filed a lawsuit, that does not equate nor imply the person is intending to “bite back” at their assaulter. Furthermore, the essay has attempted to refute Musonius’ argument by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity. First by showing that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather out of a sense of duty to justice. Secondly, a Stoic could also file a lawsuit out of a duty to social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help not only the individual, but also society through the means of educating the person who has carried out the assault.
1 Rufus, C. Musonius, Cynthia Ann Kent King, and William Braxton Irvine. Essay. In Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, 50-51. United States: Createspace, 2011.
2 “Justice.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 30, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice.
3 Pascal, Blaise, and M. Kaufmann. Essay. In Blaise Pascal Thoughts: Selected and Translated, 56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
4 “Murder of Kitty Genovese.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, August 23, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese.
5 Takooshian, Harold. “The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, March 24, 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/not-just-bystander/201403/the-1964-kitty-genovese-tragedy-what-have-we-learned.
6 Sellars, John. Essay. In Stoicism, 108, 123, 131. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
7 Aurelius, Marcus, Martin Hammond, and Diskin Clay. “Book 6, 54.” Essay. In Meditations. London: Penguin Classics, 2014.
8 “Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 95.” Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 95, v. 34-38 Wikisource, the free online library. Accessed August 30, 2020 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_95.
9 Carroll, Matt, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michae Rezendes. “Scores of Priests Involved in Sex Abuse Cases - The Boston Globe.” Edited by Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V Robinson. BostonGlobe.com. The Boston Globe, May 30, 2012. https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/special-reports/2002/01/31/scores-priests-involved-sex-abuse-cases/kmRm7JtqBdEZ8UF0ucR16L/story.html.
10 Henley, Jon. “How the Boston Globe Exposed the Abuse Scandal That Rocked the Catholic Church.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 21, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/21/boston-globe-abuse-scandal-catholic.
11 Silver, Joel (Producer), & The Wachowskis (Directors). (2003). The Matrix Reloaded [Motion Picture], United States, Warner Bros. Pictures
12 “Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.” Accessed August 30, 2020. https://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-requested-church-statistics/.