Stoicism in the Gioia Family
My brother Dana tells how our LA childhood gave us a direct connection to an ancient Roman worldview
I often try to predict future trends in popular culture. But sometimes they’re so unexpected, nobody can see them coming.
Consider the recent resurgence of Stoic philosophy. This disciplined (and sometimes painful) worldview flourished in ancient Greece and Rome. But it seems a poor fit with Millennials and Gen Z.
Stoicism is the exact opposite of today’s consumer culture. It tells people to want less, not more. It promotes endurance, not indulgence. It advocates self-control, not selfishness. Turn off the Nintendo—turn on the cold shower.
But Stoicism is having its moment. It’s like Ozempic for the modern soul.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
These severe precepts for restrained living are more popular now than at any point in my life—probably because our culture offers so little guidance on building strength of character, fortitude and courage, patience and restraint (and other favorite Stoic virtues).
But I have an edge here. That’s because I have my own family Stoic to turn to for advice.
My brother Dana has recently released two publications on Seneca, the great Stoic thinker of ancient Rome—who has somehow become an influencer in contemporary culture.
Dana’s translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules, released in April, is an outstanding introduction to the dramatic work of this even-tempered ancient.
And a few days ago, Dana released Sentences from Seneca—which features selected aphorisms and an excellent essay.
I’ve learned many useful things from these works. For example, if I ever take another job as boss, I’m putting this Seneca quote on my office door.
And I almost want to go on a cruise vacation, just so I can use this line at the buffet table.
But I especially enjoyed Dana’s account of his childhood connections to ancient Rome, which I’m sharing below with his permission.
It’s just a short passage, but it evoked pleasant memories from my own earliest days. And some painful ones, too—but, hey, it wouldn’t be stoicism if it didn’t sprinkle a few stones in our shoes.
If you want to know more about Dana (who has been a major character in my own life story), see my previous post on him, entitled “I Need to Tell You About My Interesting Brother.”
Consider giving a gift subscription to The Honest Broker to family or friends.
Seneca and Me
[An Extract from Sentences from Seneca By Dana Gioia]
I was raised at the end of the Roman Empire in 1950s Los Angeles. I heard Latin every morning at Mass, and dialects of the empire were spoken by my friends and relations. My father’s family conversed in Sicilian. My mother’s family and our neighbors spoke Spanish. We started learning some Latin in parochial school, and we sang medieval hymns in our parish church. Roman numerals were carved beside the entrance of our church and parish hall to commemorate the years of their construction. I finished eighth grade in MCMLXV—a very good year.
Both sides of my family had practiced trades that Seneca would have understood. My father’s people had made wine and olive oil in a small Mediterranean port. My mother’s people had herded cattle on the dry plains of northern Mexico and the American Southwest. The two families did not get along, but we could all agree on one thing: Mexicans and Italians were both Latins.
In my childhood world, the Caesars did not seem much more remote than the Presidents. We heard about Roman emperors in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. We saw them in movies about gladiators. We learned about saints who had been martyred by the emperors, especially Nero. All roads once led to Rome, and Saints Peter and Paul had followed them to establish our Church. For the next three hundred years, nearly every Pope had been martyred, but eventually Christianity not only triumphed but replaced the Empire itself. As Roman Catholics, we were all Romans, right? Especially us Latins. To make it official, I studied Latin till I was eighteen. I read Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and even parts of St. Jerome’s Bible in Latin. After graduation, I became the first person in my family to go off to college.
In my freshman year at Stanford, I read Seneca for the first time. The Western Civilization class studied the Greeks for three months—Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Then we spent one week on the Romans—just a bit of Seneca and Lucretius. It was quite a blow to a Latin like me. The curriculum made it clear that the Romans were considered second-rate. I didn’t feel Seneca was a disappointment, but my instructor did. It surprised me, but he had given me the opportunity to read the texts; I was free to form my own opinion. I loved both writers.
Reading Seneca, I immediately recognized the men of my Sicilian and Mexican families. I knew the word stoic but nothing about Stoicism as a philosophy. In Roman Stoicism, I saw the hard wisdom of the men who had raised me. They had suffered sorrow, poverty, and discrimination. Some had been beaten, extorted, or unjustly arrested. They took pride in their capacity for work and self-sufficiency. They remembered their troubles and deprivations, but they did not define themselves by their trauma. They were fatalistic but happy. They controlled their passions and bore suffering without complaint. No one had much money or property, but they felt what they had sufficed. They were suspicious of luxuries. They viewed their troubles with laughter rather than anger.
Stoicism wasn’t a philosophy. It was my family.