Stoics on Stuff: Consolations on Attachment and Loss

Nancy Sherman will give GW Philosophy's 2023 Elton Endowed Lecture

Professor Sherman headshot
Professor Nancy Sherman

The GW Philosophy Department proudly presents our 2023 Elton Endowed Lecture featuring Professor Nancy Sherman, Georgetown University.

Topic: Stoics on Stuff: Consolations on Attachment and Loss

The ancient Stoics offer lessons for modern resilience. They do so by forcing us to rethink our views on attachment and loss. Pushing the Socratic view to an extreme, the Stoics hold that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness. External goods are “indifferents,” they say, preferred or dispreferred, but themselves not the kinds of things that can make or break our happiness. We may lose our homes and homeland to natural disaster or war, our loved ones to disease and untimely deaths, but for the wise person, they don’t affect happiness in the way that compromises of character can.

The view strikes many of us as inhumane and the ugly side of an overly harsh Stoicism. We may rehearse “bads” as a kind of pre-exposure therapy. But to claim there are no real harms or moral injuries, individual or collective, in the wake of significant loss is quite another matter.

Still, the Stoic view gives us space to wonder if we don’t at times underestimate our adaptiveness. What are Stoic lessons for building healthy sturdiness?