Parenting basics

The art of parenting

I’ve just finished reading John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. He describes the ancient Stoic view of the ultimate goal of philosophy, as well as several analogies they used to explain their philosophy. I’d like to extend the metaphor and look at how parenting can also be considered an art, according to the Stoic definition.

You might already know that Stoic philosophy is not just about theoretical knowledge. More than anything else, it’s about practice: putting that knowledge to good use in real life. The ancients called it a techne, which means an art or craft. Sellars explains that the term techne covers different types of arts, including productive arts (like shoemaking and building), acquisitive arts (like hunting), theoretical arts (such as mathematics), performative arts (music and dance), and stochastic arts (medicine, navigation). It is these last two, performative and stochastic arts, that Stoic philosophy most resembles.

Philosophy is like medicine because both of these fields require both theoretical knowledge and practical expertise. Several ancient commentators (Cicero and Galen, for example) compared practicing Stoicism to practicing medicine: you must learn the theory first, but your knowledge is no good if you can’t apply it in real life. Medical doctors aim to heal the body, and philosophers aim to heal the soul. So far the analogy works. However, according to Sellars, the analogy breaks down when you think about the goal of Stoic philosophy, which is cultivating eudaimonia. An ideal doctor cannot always cultivate health because of factors beyond his control–there are some patients she just cannot save. But the ideal Stoic can always achieve eudaimonia. So there is a crucial difference between the art of medicine and the Stoic art of living.

So the Stoic art of living, Sellars argues, is actually analogous to a performative art such as music or dancing.

In this case, the art aims at nothing beyond its own activity, and the actions that constitute this activity are its “product.” A possessor of this type of art can be identified simply by their ability to practice the art well. (p. 70)

The Stoic tries to transform his or her soul, which automatically transforms his or her actions. So ultimately, the Stoic art of living is directed at transforming your soul, which is the same thing as cultivating wisdom or human excellence.

This might seem like a kind of obscure academic argument. But I think it’s a very helpful way of looking at both Stoicism and parenting, and in particular Stoic parenting. If your goal as a parent is “to raise good kids”, you might fail due to factors beyond your control. Even a perfect parent may not produce ideal children. Like a good doctor, you could do everything right and still fail to save the patient.

But if your goal is to be a good parent–that is, to practice Stoic virtue as a person and parent–then you can succeed no matter what else happens. Your kids might have their problems, but at least you will know that you’ve been the best parent you could be. You will have tried to be wise, just, courageous, and self-disciplined, and you will have tried to be a good role model to your kids. And hopefully along the way you will have found tranquility and happiness, too.

So instead of emphasizing the product of parenting–kids who meet certain expectations of success–we might want to start thinking of parenting as a performative art. To re-purpose Sellars’ words, parenting is an art that “aims at nothing beyond its own activity,” and a good parent “can be identified simply by their ability to practice the art well.” It’s just like Epictetus said, right? Some things are up to us, and other things are not. All we can do is play our role to the best of our ability, and love our kids while we’re doing it.