This issue is a sensitive one. A recent, and in many cases current, history of aggression, abuse, violence, and more has made this a debate topic which is heated. The mere discussion can be interpreted as a challenge to identity, personhood, and more. I’m hoping that as philosophers we can by-pass the majority of that nastiness. That being said …
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about in my study of Stoicism deals with sex and gender. Musonius has a very forward thinking position on men and women regarding education (Lecture 3), in that he argues while their bodies are different their souls and reason are of the same sort. Despite this, Musonius is not a feminist in the way most folks understand that word today. He sees a division of labor (Lecture 4), for instance, as a natural feature of human society. This sort of biological determinism (if that’s a thing), I suspect is unacceptable to modern, third-wave feminists.
Musonius (Lectures 1 and 2) and Epictetus (Discourses 2.16 and 3.24) use the word “effeminate” as a pejorative or at least as a harsh criticism. The word in 2.16 is μαλακία, which can also be translated as ‘softness.’ Every translation I’ve seen uses the word “effeminacy” here, however. And in 3.24 is ἀποθηλύνω, which can be “to make effeminate, to enervate, or to weaken.” One might conclude that there are some negative value judgments being implied here.
Their position is that male and female are static categories, binaries. However, the lesson I’ve taken from the works (an interpretation, clearly) is somewhat different than the one a cursory textual reading might leave the reader with.
Let’s look at an example, both teachers discuss the beard. By my reading, both Musonius and Epictetus see the male beard as formed by nature, that is God, the ordering principle of the universe. To remove it, then, is impious. Their position is that the bodies of men and women are formed to specific purposes, and to alter that is not man’s role.
It’s not bad to be womanish if one is a woman, I think they would say, if asked. As men, philosophers should not remove a part of the body for mere fashion. They say something like, “to be smooth is a woman’s nature, whereas hair suits a man.” While most men are generally more hirsute than are women, women of course are not hairless. There is a spectrum of hair growth for humans.
If you’ll permit some paraphrasing and reducing, then the general rule here is that treatment of the body and one’s role in society based on it contribute to piety/impiety.
The ancients’ views on sex, gender, and what constitutes “natural” are admittedly different than the general Western conception today. That presents an issue with which we must wrangle. We must reconcile the two, somehow.
Their position is complicated. Male homosexual activity is mentioned in the Discourses and Cynic Epistles pretty casually. It doesn’t’ appear to be too much of an issue. I’m not sure, though, that any modern conception of an LGBTQ person fits neatly into these ancient ideas. Which leads to the question, what does the modern conception of homosexuality and the issues facing trans folks mean for modern Stoics using ancient texts? I’m not sure, but I’m positive the debate would be useful, if not easy. It’s probably one the Stoic community should have.
If we read in Musonius and Epictetus that one shouldn’t cut off the beard due to impiety, what does that mean for someone transitioning from male to female or female to male? What does that mean for folks who identify as non-binary?
The classics’ opinions seem at odds with ours, and it’s one of those things we have to weigh, test and then either accept, modify, or cast aside. We lack a 2300 year tradition, we’re all trying to incorporate ideas over an 1800 year gap. That’s messy.
My personal leanings are “personal choices, personal nature, and virtue are up to the individual,” and to leave it at that. People I’m close to have had to handle these issues themselves within the wider western culture, but I’ve not spoken with someone who ascribes to Stoic philosophy and also handles these issues on a personal level. I can see why my position of “it’s basically not ‘up to me’ ” might seem unfulfilling, or maybe even a cop-out of sorts. That’s not my intent.
One of the things about Stoicism which is attractive is its openness. We’re not going to kick someone out of the Stoic tent for this person’s or that person’s perception of a violation of what Epictetus or Musonius says. That kind of enforcing of moral prescriptions is not what we’re doing here.
I don’t recall any others tackling this issue head-on, and I’m interested in other folks’ thoughts.