Is Stoic Practice Just Easier For Certain People? by Leah Goldrick

A reader of my blog recently wrote to me to ask if I think that practicing Stoicism is easier for men. The poor woman had experienced terrible postpartum depression after the birth of her son and still wasn’t feeling like herself several years later. She was very distressed about how her depression has affected her Stoic practice. Her husband on the other hand, seemed to have no problem being nonplussed about almost everything. He was calm even even in the face of things that caused her to feel depressed.

Her question was timely for me. I’m pregnant, and I have been finding myself more upset than I might typically be in various circumstances. This concurrence of events lead to me thinking about what they might mean in a Stoic context.

Now, to be clear, even though these experiences I just mentioned – pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period – are uniquely female, I prefer to frame the question in terms of personality or temperament rather than in terms of gender. I’m more interested in analyzing how Stoicism can help both males and females than I am in focusing on gender differences, which has unfortunately become a wedge issue.

So, does Stoic practice in fact come more naturally to people with certain temperaments or abilities? The question ultimately raises a series of other questions. First, how much control do we have over how the body affects the mind at various times during our lives? Do our temperaments actually matter to Stoic practice? And finally, are Stoics born or made? Let’s examine these ideas in more detail.

Can We Control How the Body Affects the Mind?

In the Discourses 1.1, Epictetus establishes his famous dichotomy of control, arguing that some things are up to us and others are not. The body is categorized by Epictetus as not in our control or at least not fully within our control. But Epictetus suggests that the mind is within our control.

This leads us to wonder how much control we have over the various ways the body might affect the mind – in terms of hormone changes, neurochemistry, blood sugar levels, and and other bodily functions which can directly affect our mood and emotions. It seems clear that we don’t have complete control over the biological functions that can trigger irrational emotions or passions – defined by the Stoics as anger, hatred, fear, depression, strong desire, and so forth.

But this isn’t the whole story. Regardless of where our emotions come from, the Stoics argued that the first movement of passions is largely involuntary. This is true for everyone, not just for people currently experiencing mood issues and frequent irrational emotions. In On Anger II.4.1-2, Seneca suggests:

I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.

So while we might not be able to avoid all of the physical or biochemical triggers of our passions, we have control over the second and third stages where reason comes into play. We can take a step back and deliberate with ourselves as Seneca suggests. We might remind ourselves that we are probably feeling especially irritable because we haven’t eaten in many hours and our blood sugar is low – a phenomenon colloquially referred to as being “hangry.” Or we may have woken up in a very sad mood. We can remind ourselves of the things that we have to be grateful for in our lives.

Maybe this is easier said than done, but we do have some control over our thoughts and we can work to direct them as Seneca suggests. And while this whole process of managing assent to emotions is more involved for those who seem to experience frequent irrational passions, there is a positive dimension here too; it means that we will have more opportunity to better ourselves using Stoic techniques, which segues nicely into the next topic.

Do Our Temperaments Matter When it Comes to Practicing Stoicism?

In Discourses 1.2, on how a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character, Epictetus notes that while our natural strengths and weaknesses do affect us, we should nonetheless stay true to our own characters rather than seeking perfection:

But that which is great and superior perhaps belongs to Socrates and such as are like him. Why then, if we are naturally such, are not a very great number of us like him? Is it true then that all horses become swift, that all dogs are skilled in tracking footprints? What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me; for I shall never be a Milo [a great athlete], and yet I do not neglect my body; nor shall I be a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we neglect looking after anything because we despair of reaching the highest degree.

The sense of this passage seems to be that first of all, there are few who are great like Socrates – both extremely rational and willing to die for integrity. He is the exception rather than the rule. But the rest of us shouldn’t give up on trying to lead a good life because we aren’t just like Socrates or yet a sage.

Epictetus may not be Socrates, but that is no reason for him not to be the best Epictetus possible. He need not compare himself to anyone exceptional in order to be virtuous, or give up on trying to improve himself just because he isn’t the epitome of perfect reason.

Are Stoics Born or Made?

Epictetus continues to offer insight into the question of how we develop excellence. He implies that Stoics are made via practice regardless of any seeming good fortune in terms of temperament or ability (Discourses 1:2):

Some person asked, how then shall every man among us perceive what is suitable to his character? How, he replied, does the bull alone, when the lion has attacked, discover his own powers and put himself forward in defence of the whole herd? It is plain that with the powers the perception of having them is immediately conjoined: and, therefore, whoever of us has such powers will not be ignorant of them. Now a bull is not made suddenly, nor a brave man; but we must discipline ourselves in the winter for the summer campaign, and not rashly run upon that which does not concern us.

Here Epictetus notes that the great strength of the bull didn’t just appear overnight. Even though he may have been born a bull, it took the him years of development, building his muscles and so on, to become the mature creature that he is today.

Like the bull, we aren’t born brave or born Stoic philosophers. We must build ourselves up in order to become what we are meant to be, which requires work over the course of many years. Epictetus goes on to suggest that we make use of the challenging times in our lives to develop necessary courage and discipline. We can work at responding to challenges with increasing levels of virtue and skill, while turning our attention away from things beyond our control.

So yes, perhaps there are those rare individuals who possess naturally equanimous temperaments or special abilities. But that is no reason for us to measure ourselves by their standard, or to give up on becoming the best version of ourselves that we can. Other people’s good fortune is squarely beyond our control. And as Epictetus notes, even these seemingly exceptional people didn’t just become excellent overnight – they spent years developing into what they are. We must conclude that all of us must work to better ourselves regardless of any good fortune in terms of temperament or ability.

Epictetus leaves us with an optimistic message which shuts down any notions of perfectionism. There is no point in beating ourselves up over our shortcomings. Regardless of our individual struggles or our natural temperaments, as long as we are making progress, that is good enough for Epictetus. It should be good enough for us too.


Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She is a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics, which now has an associated YouTube channel.

Dealing With Difficult People at Work: Stoic Strategies by Greg Sadler

As editor of Stoicism Today, each year I ask those who spoke or gave a workshop at the main Stoicon or at one of the Stoicon-X events to provide a piece for our readership, the vast majority of whom cannot attend these events.  Just to put it into perspective, the attendees at Stoicon number in the hundreds.  A big Stoicon-X event might get a hundred.  By contrast most of our blog posts here get tens – and occasionally, hundreds – of thousands of reads.  So when our presenters and organizers are good enough to supply transcripts or summaries  of their talks, workshops, or other activities, I’m very happy to set them here in Stoicism Today.

As a fairly recent addition (joining officially in 2016) to the Modern Stoicism team, I have also  greatly enjoyed participating in Stoicon 2016 and 2017 (and in Stoicon-X Toronto 2017).  At both of those Stoicons, I provided one of the workshops during the breakout sessions.  Accordingly, after having asked many of our speakers to make their own contributions here in Stoicism Today, it is about time for me to put in the work required to add my own piece here about my 2017 Stoicon workshop, “Dealing With Difficult People at Work:  Stoic Strategies”.

If you’d like to see a videorecording of that workshop session, you can do so here.

Structure and Motivation of the Workshop

When Donald Robertson proposed “Stoicism at Work” as the theme for Stoicon 2017, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on for the workshop.  There are a lot of challenges, irritants, and obstacles that arise within the context of modern work.  Some of the most difficult stem from our interactions and relationships with other people.  I’ve certainly dealt with – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so! – many difficult people in my own career.  And many of my own clients come to me troubled by how to handle these sorts of workplace issues.

I should mention that in its original design, the workshop was a team presentation, with my wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, as my co-presenter.  We designed the workshop together, and had planned to deliver it that way as well.  Unfortunately, due to some health matters at the time, she wasn’t cleared to fly to Toronto.  Given Andi’s qualifications, work-experience, and talents (which would require another blog post to outline), the workshop attendees perhaps got the proverbial short end of the stick with just me presenting!

Clearly difficult people at work was good topic to center upon in workshop format. After all, Stoic philosophy is practical, and should be providing help for people struggling with life-issues. I’d written a post in the series we ran leading up to Stoicon 2017, “Dealing With The Unduly Demanding In the Workplace,” addressing one particular type of “difficult person” – drawing in part on personal experience – and I was looking forward to discussing additional aspects of the workshop with the conference-goers.  As it turned out, the workshop was a big draw.  The room was packed with participants, and they brought some excellent questions, observations, and stories to the session!

The workshop was 90 minutes long, ranged over a lot of material, and included a number of side-discussions, so I am just going to summarize it here, talking about some portions in a bit more detail.

We originally divided the workshop up into the following activities:

  • Discussion – challenges for the Stoic and Stoicism in the workplace
  • Exercise – what main challenges are you encountering?
  • Presentation – several common types of difficult people in workplaces
  • Exercise – your top three difficult persons
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices within situations involving difficult people
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices before and after situations involving difficult people
  • Role-Playing Exercises – using Stoic strategies
  • Time Dedicated to Q&A and Discussion

The role-playing exercises would have required both Andi and I, so they were dropped from the actual workshop as delivered.  As it turned out, each part of the workshop drew us into a good bit of discussion, so we used all the time allotted even without those exercises.

The discussions were particularly engaging, I would say, for several reasons.  First, work and the people of the workplace are matters practically everyone can relate to.  As far as I know, there weren’t any participants in the workshop who didn’t already have considerable experience stemming from their working life.  Second, aggravations, challenges, and difficulties in the workplace are practically speaking, if not infinite, certainly vast in both quantity and type!  So there was a lot of “raw material” that we could apply Stoic principles and practices to, and that leads into the third reason.  As it turns out, although the ancient Stoics have no contact with or awareness of  the modern workplace – how could they? – they actually say quite a lot that turns out to be quite useful in dealing with difficult people.

Some Challenges in Applying Stoicism in the Workplace

Before launching into the workshop proper, I thought it could be useful to pause and consider a few common challenges that can arise when we are attempting to apply our Stoic practices and principles to the workplace environment.  The goal was not to attempt resolving these – there was definitely not enough time for that! – but just to highlight them so that they were out in the open.  Each of these probably merits a good bit of further discussion later on and elsewhere.

The first of these has to do with “indifferents” – adiaphora, in Greek – those things that, strictly speaking don’t have moral value in themselves, whether positive or negative.  At first glance, it can seem as if nearly everything that goes on, motivates people, or has some place, in the modern workplace is really some type of indifferent from the Stoic perspective.  Money, perks, positions, reputation, products and services, even the proverbial “bottom line”.  We can ask ourselves how Stoic we being if we focus on those sorts of matters.  An initial answer might be “not at all,” and we might then feel as if we ought to withdraw our attention or care from those.

A closely connected second matter – really another way of looking at those same things – is that those indifferents are also “externals,” and strictly speaking seem to be things that lie outside of our control, our power, or our business, if you like (all three of those are decent ways to translate Epictetus’ “ouk ep humon” in the dichotomy of control passages).  So should practitioners of Stoicism allow themselves to become concerned about those things outside of the scope of our agency?

Third, turning to one matter that clearly is up to us, and has intrinsic moral value – whether or not we develop and display the virtues – how do we translate these into the workplace?  Can we really make it all about virtue?  Or expanding and unpacking it a bit, should we make it all about our duties, or fulfilling our roles?

Fourth, if we make virtues, duties, and roles central in how we approach the workplace – and particularly our fellow human beings in the workplace – aren’t we setting ourselves up for exploitation  by others in that workplace?  Do we put ourselves at a disadvantage by being too understanding or accommodating, by fulfilling our duties, even if others don’t reciprocate?

To raise a fifth concern, justice is one of the four virtues for the Stoics.  And there can be a lot of things in the workplace that either seem or actually are unjust.  To what extent are we called upon, if we want to practice Stoicism, to say something or do something about the injustices we run across?

A sixth difficulty almost goes without saying – but it can be easy to forget, especially for people starting out in practicing Stoicism.  The other people in in any given workplace are very likely not going to be Stoics. It is possible that you might find some allies or supporters, but often you’ll find people motivated in all sorts of other ways, many of which are going to be quite at odds with Stoicism. And quite a few of them will turn out to be difficult people for the would-be-Stoic!

A Partial Typology of Difficult People

When it comes to general types of people – classifying them along the lines of their characteristic behavior, motivations, choices, priorities, emotional responses, or practical reasoning – there are a vast variety.  Really, that’s not a surprise, when you consider how adaptable human beings are, and how many different things we take an interest in, or orient ourselves by.  You can run into all sorts in the workplace.

Some of them definitely fall into the broad category of “difficult people”.  That is a relational and also a relative term.  People are more or less difficult, and they are difficult for or to some people, and not to others.  I provided what is admittedly only a partial listing sorting out a number of different kinds of troublesome people – I’m sure others can contribute many other additional overlooked categories to this enumeration!  Here are those that I brought up as classes of people who make the workplace difficult, some of which we discussed in the workshop:

  • Chronically negative people
  • Drama kings and queens
  • Bullies, sadists, and abusers
  • Unduly demanding people
  • People with annoying traits or habits
  • Disorganized, unprepared, and flakey
  • Greedy, self-centered, and exploitative
  • Contentious and argumentative people
  • Status-obsessed and overly competitive
  • Entitled, unmotivated, and lazy people
  • The incompetent and uncoachable
  • Over-social, hyper-sharing, and gossipy
  • Passive-aggressive and victims
  • Rageaholics, over-sensitive, and other angry
  • Back-stabbers and promise-breakers
  • Bad influences and enablers
  • Controllers, corallers, and “team-builders”

I should point out a few things about these categories.  First, although I have given them what I hope are fairly clear and suggestive names, each could use a bit of explanation (which in interests of space, I won’t attempt here).  Second, some of them might overlap or bland into each other, in two ways.  They might intersect to some degree conceptually.  and of course, in real live persons, any given human being might fit into multiple categories.  Third, you can find difficult people who can be rightly placed in these rubrics at any level of a company, organization, or institution.  They might be a boss, an executive, a manager, an employee, a customer, a vendor, a supplier, even a temp.

From a Stoic perspective the question isn’t whether such people exist.  It isn’t even whether labeling them in these ways is somehow wrong, or unfair, or offensive – read around in Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, and see how many people they are willing to label along similar lines!  The real question is how we can deal with those difficult people in productive and positive ways.  What resources does Stoicism afford us?

Useful Stoic Practices In Dealing With The Difficult

A good portion of the workshop was devoted to precisely that question.  What practices can we draw upon from Stoicism that will enable us to better handle situations involving difficult people in the workplace?  I broke those practices down into two sets – those to use within situations, and those better used before or after situations.  We had a good bit of discussion about some of these, as you’ll find when watching the recording of the workshop session.

Here are some of the useful practices that can be used within situations, with some brief explanations:

  • Dealing with appearances as such – not immediately giving assent to impressions or appearances that present themselves to you, but instead seeing them in proper perspective.
  • Deconstructing things into their parts – taking matters you find troubling, provocative of negative emotions, or appealing to your desires, and reminding yourself of what they really are.
  • Distinguishing what is or isn’t in your control – employing and reminding yourself of the dichotomy of control, and as best you can dissociating your desires and aversions from those that are not in your control.
  • Picking things up by the right handle – choosing how you frame the matters that you encounter in ways that you will be able to effectively deal with those matters, for instance by focusing upon your own duties and roles.
  • Understanding others without excusing – realizing that people think, feel, talk, and act as they do because that seems good or reasonable to them, even if it isn’t, and even if it is dead wrong.
  • Reminding self of values and costs of things – these costs include, for example, what it takes for you to be undisturbed by what would otherwise set you off.
  • Focusing on bigger-picture perspective – reminding yourself that if you step away from your personalized perspective things and people will not seem as important or as disturbing.
  • Sticking up for what is right in right ways – using the virtues as a guide, restricting excesses and properly orienting the stands that one feels compelled to take.

Here are some of the others that can be used before and after situations:

  • Examining your own desires and aversions – this sort of honest self-scrutiny allows you to really grasp what motivates you.  Those motivations might be healthy and rightly directed, or they might need some work on your part, if you are finding yourself overly invested in what you could look at as indifferents.
  • Reminding yourself you deal with people – before and after you wind up in difficult situations, you can remind yourself of precisely that truth, that you are dealing with actual human beings who have their own histories, habits, relationships.  These are rarely people as you would want them to be.
  • Working to gradually change your habits – generally they ways in which we think and feel are in part products of habits we have developed.  In dealing with difficult people, we may have already developed bad habits that continue to make those situations difficult for us
  • Engaging in negative visualization – both as a regular practice, and before going into a situation that you know will likely involve difficulty, you can imagine what might occur in that situation, consider whether it is likely to be as bad as you fear, and think about what resources you have to deal with it.
  • Reminding yourself of larger part-wholes – as human beings, from the Stoic perspective, we are all parts of larger wholes, just as the organs of our body are parts of a greater whole.  Taking that perspective can help us see others and ourselves as involved in something bigger.
  • Spending some time with the virtuous – especially when dealing with difficult people, we need to involve ourselves with people who provide us with positive interactions.  This can be done in person, through various media, or even virtually when we read and place ourselves in conversation with Stoic authors.
  • Tracking and reflecting on how you do – engaging in some daily reflection and self-scrutiny, whether just mentally or in journaling, allows you not just to track your progress.  It also can help you to gradually gain insights about additional things you might need to focus on.
  • Taking joy in your progress and successes – this I think is particularly important, not least since you are likely not going to get much of this from others.  Stoicism views positive emotions like joy as good for us, and feeling genuine happiness when we succeed or make progress helps keep us engaged in doing that more and more.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

On Vegetarianism and Stoicism by Jeremy Corter

Recently, I got into a debate over vegetarianism on a Stoic group on Facebook about the morality of eating meat. One gentlemen insisted that eating meat was against human nature and that, given our intelligence, we shouldn’t debase ourselves in partaking meat. Many, including myself, disagreed with him. But despite his occasional insulting words (calling people who ate meat “corpse-eaters”), I found it difficult to defeat his arguments. After all, he was correct in saying we could get everything we need from eating a plant-based diet (complete nourishment, health, and even pleasurable food) and what’s more, there does seem to be a bit of a Stoic tradition of vegetarianism. I thanked the man for arguing his point, because it got me wondering: why does it seem that of the handful of Stoics we know of, half were vegetarians for at least some time in their lives? And why of those, only one, Musonius, made it a point of discussion?

Eat Your Veggies?

As it turns out, Stoicism and vegetarianism might not mix so well together after all.

On the surface, there seems to be some correlation. Zeno ate a simple diet that contained no meat, Seneca wrote about eating a vegetarian diet in one of his letters, and Musonius Rufus straight out told his students eating meat tainted the soul. However, any correlations break down quick. Zeno’s “vegetarianism” seemed about living simply rather than sparing animals (and, as we’ll get to, he might have argued against vegetarianism). Seneca was a vegetarian, and stopped being one, before becoming Stoic, so Stoicism didn’t influence his decision. It is only Musonius where we see a Stoic teach vegetarianism, but even here, his teachings might have been a mix of several schools when it comes to this point.

What is Vegetarianism, Anyway?

According to The Vegetarian Resource Group,

Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, and poultry. … Among the many reasons for being a vegetarian are health, environmental, and ethical concerns; dislike of meat; non-violent beliefs; compassion for animals; and economics.

Of course, it isn’t so much the question of what vegetarians eat, but rather why. Is a person vegetarian because they don’t eat meat, or are they vegetarian for the reasons why they don’t? It would seem to me that vegetarianism isn’t defined simply by the lack of meat-eating, but also by the reasons.

To me, it’s like the question, “If someone acts like a Stoic, but doesn’t know about Stoicism, are they Stoic?” Simply acting Stoic isn’t enough because one can disagree with Stoic philosophy and still end up acting like one. So, a person eating a vegetarian diet may disagree with the reasons why people end up vegetarian. They just happen to not to eat meat. This is important because, as we’ll get to shortly, the early Stoics may have argued against not eating animals. This is even the case for Zeno, who famously didn’t eat much at all, let alone meat.

The Early Stoa: Zeno’s Simple Diet and…Cannibalism?

Zeno, according to Diogenes Laertius, ate a simple diet:

He used to eat little loaves and honey and to drink a little wine of good bouquet.

Zeno’s eating habits were well-known enough to earn him a jab by the comedian poet and playwright Philemon. In a piece titled Philosophoi (Philosophers), Philemon wrote:

This man adopts a new philosophy.
He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets
Disciples. One sole loaf of bread his food;
His best dessert dried figs; water his drink.

Zeno had a bit of a reputation with his diet, at least enough for it to mentioned by a few people. However, while there is no mention of meat consumption in any of this, we mustn’t take this to mean that Zeno espoused vegetarianism. In fact, according to Johannes Haussleiter, in his book Der Vegetarismus in der Antike[1], the early Stoics argued against vegetarianism.

Now, to be sure, Zeno himself doesn’t seem like he stood against vegetarianism. While Theophilus of Antioch states Zeno advocated for cannibalism—a decidedly anti-vegetarian idea—Johannes believes Theophilus’s statement is likely made up, though as we’ll see, the issue isn’t gone for good. Johannes goes on to say that if Zeno were asked about vegetarianism, he would have taken a practical stance, which would have ended up with Zeno becoming more of a random vegetarian. By this, Johannes means to say that Zeno’s diet was about frugality, not protecting animals. It makes sense that, if meat was available to him, Zeno would have allowed himself to eat it. This is illustrated by a story Diogenes writes about Zeno. At a dinner party, Zeno prepared to eat a big fish by himself to cure a glutton, by not offering him any. It’s still foggy at this point, but if Zeno is willing to eat animal meat to make a point, it’s hard to pin him as a strict vegetarian.

Where we see anti-vegetarian ideas take shape starts more with Chrysippus. According to Cicero, writing in De Legibus, he quotes Chrysippus as saying:

For the convenience and benefit of man, nature has given such abundance of things that their products have been given to us intentionally, not by accident; not only what fruits and berries produce through the fertility of the earth, but also the animals, because it is clear that they are created partly for the benefit of man, partly for their benefit, partly for food.

We also see another philosopher, Porphyry, argue against Chrysippus in his book, On Abstinence from the Flesh of Living Beings. That book, from what I can see, is only in Latin. However, Johannes provides a quote of Chrysippius from that book that also provides a bit of an idea of how the early Stoics thought about using animals as food:

The gods created us humans only for their sake and for us, but the animals only for our sake: the steeds, that they lead the wars with us, the dogs, that they help us hunt, panthers, bears, and lions for the exercise of our bravery, but the pig—and therein lies the most agreeable favor of the gods—was created only to be sacrificed, and God, as it were, added salt to his flesh, by giving us a wealth of food. But in order to have abundance of soup and subsidiary dishes, he has created all sorts of shells, snails, jellyfish, and various kinds of birds, for no other reason than to offer a great part of himself to enjoyment, still surpassing the mother’s breast and with these joys and pleasures filling the earthly space.[2]

Here we see that Chrysippius saw the animals as created for us and to be used by us. Horses went to war with us, dogs helped us hunt, and the more dangerous animals made us braver. The others? To eat for enjoyment.

And, as another blow to the idea that the early Stoics were against meat-eating, the idea of cannibalism is brought up yet again, this time by the more reputable sources of Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empiricus. Diogenes states that Chrysippius “gives instructions in a thousand lines to consume the dead.” And Sextus states in Against the Mathematicians:

In the work on righteousness, Chrysippus asserts that if a part of the limb useful for food is chopped off, one should not bury it or throw it away, but consume it so that it becomes another part of ours.

Seneca: Vegetarian and Stoic (Just Not at Once)

We now look at Seneca the Younger, a man who admits being a vegetarian in his youth.

In Letter CVIII, he writes about how, after exposure to Pythagorean philosophy, he adopted vegetarianism for some time. eating meat was akin to cannibalism. Seneca seemed to find it quite enjoyable, too, but he was forced to stop. This is what he says in his letter about his vegetarianism:

I was imbued with this teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of a year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy. I was beginning to feel that my mind was more active; though I would not to-day positively state whether it really was or not. Do you ask how I came to abandon the practice? It was this way: The days of my youth coincided with the early part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Some foreign rites were at that time being inaugurated, and abstinence from certain kinds of animal food was set down as a proof of interest in the strange cult. So at the request of my father, who did not fear prosecution, but who detested philosophy, I returned to my previous habits; and it was no very hard matter to induce me to dine more comfortably.

According to James Romm, in his book Dying Every Day, a bit of xenophobia took hold of Rome and led to Jewish rites being banned. Because vegetarianism “looked uncomfortably similar to a kosher [diet],” Seneca’s father might have pushed him more on fears of prosecution than Seneca lets on. Still, it seems rather clear that Seneca was, at some point during his life, a vegetarian. However, this doesn’t support the idea that Stoics were vegetarians down the road.

Remember, Seneca learned of vegetarianism from his teacher, Sotion. While Sotion did teach Seneca about Stoicism, he used Pythagorean arguments for vegetarianism. As we saw, there simply weren’t any early Stoic arguments against meat-eating, so we can’t say that Stoicism influenced Seneca in this regard. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter all that much if Seneca ever returned to his vegetarian ways when he got older. The fact doesn’t change: it would have been the Pythagoreans, not the Stoics, that gave him his vegetarian foundation.

The Emperor and the Slave

Now, while Musonius Rufus is next in line when it comes to the Stoics, we’re going to save him for last, as he is the only one out of the group that advocated for vegetarianism in his teachings. For now, we’ll turn our attentions to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

We don’t have direct evidence from Epictetus about whether he followed his teacher or not when it comes to vegetarianism. However, we do know that, unlike Musonius, Epictetus makes no provisions against eating meat. In fact, the only thing Epictetus calls for is its moderation, in the Enchiridion:

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

Epictetus also points out that some animals were made to be eaten, as per Providence, as seen in the Discourses:

Well then God constitutes every animal, one to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use; for which purposes what need is there to understand appearances and to be able to distinguish them?

This line is like the one Chrysippius gives, reinforcing the idea that the Stoics believed that the animals were given us for our own use, including the eating of. It seems the only rule that Epictetus gives towards meat is moderation.

When it comes to Marcus Aurelius, we enter some muddy waters. His Mediations refers to animals and meat in a few different places. In Book 10, we see a statement that seems vegetarian in nature:

A spider is proud when it has caught a fly, and another when he has caught a poor hare, and another when he has taken a little fish in a net, and another when he has taken wild boars, and another when he has taken bears, and another when he has taken Sarmatians. Are not these robbers, if thou examinest their opinions?

The wording sounds as if anyone taking a life—from flies all the way up to people—are nothing more than robbers. Even in the case of spiders catching food, he seems to have little respect for anything that takes a life. Yet, a few lines later, we get this:

Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams.

In this instance, we see a different attitude towards slaughtering animals. Now, there’s an insult to the man who is aggrieved for acting like a pig getting slaughtered with reluctance. If we remember the Chyrsippus quote from before, pigs were “created” to be sacrificed. A man feeling aggrieved about anything is like the pig trying to fight its fate. Why use this analogy if he didn’t believe it was a proper one? At the very least, it doesn’t reflect a vegetarian view of pigs.

Another passage shows Marcus having to deal with meat:

When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are.

It seems indictive from the wording (say “we” instead of “others”) that Marcus was reminding himself that, when he was eating meat, he should remind himself of what it truly was. Interestingly, when I debated the vegetarian mentioned in the beginning, he also made the same point (and led to his “corpse-eater” comments). It seems that at least some vegetarians would agree with how Marcus views meat, though it seems clear it didn’t stop Marcus from eating meat.

Musonius Rufus: Vegetarian or Raw Foodist?

Of all the Stoics whose writings still exist, Musonius stands above the others in many ways. He’s more practical than Seneca, more prescriptive than Epictetus, and more of a common man than Marcus. And, unlike everyone else, he is the only one to teach vegetarianism as part of his lessons.

In Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings, there is a two-part lecture that Musonius gives about food. It’s made clear that he thinks meat isn’t human food, but it’s also clear that cooking isn’t the best for people, either:

And what is suitable for us is food from things which the earth produces: the various grains and other plants can nourish a human being quite well. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals which we don’t slaughter. The most suitable of these foods, though, are the ones we can eat without cooking: fruits in season, certain vegetables, milk, cheese, and honeycombs. … Even those food that requiring cooking, including grains and some vegetables, are not unsuitable; all are proper food for a human being.

These few lines tell us two things about Musonius: he wasn’t a vegan and he thought raw foods were best, though not totally against cooking some foods. But, we still must answer a critical question: was Musonius a vegetarian for the typical vegetarian reasons, or is he more like Zeno, his diet less about animal welfare and more about simplicity?

As it turns out, Musonius is more like Zeno in that it isn’t about the animals, but he has a different reason than Zeno in his choice. Musonius thought that meat was “too crude and more suitable for wild beasts.” He also said that meat slowed our mental activity and that the fumes from cooking the meat is “too smoky and darken the soul.” He also asserts that because humans are the most like the gods, we should eat like they do. As “the vapors coming from earth and water are enough for them”, we, too, should only eat “the lightest and more pure food.” Ultimately, this will make our soul “both pure and dry” which, quoting Heraclitus, will make it “best and wisest.”

Moreover, Musonius’s real disdain seems more about the act of cooking and gluttony. He laments the popularity of cookbooks and complains that there are “more cooks than farmers.” As for gluttons, he states “they resemble pigs or dogs more than humans.” He makes no mention about the welfare of animals and often uses the imagery of animals to insult people.

Vegetarianism and Stoicism: Not So Perfect Together?

When I first started this piece of writing, I saw what seemed to be evidence that Stoics were vegetarian, and that Stoic philosophy supported this. After doing some better research, I see a new, more nuanced picture.

Simply put, Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca, as we’ve seen, are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.

The thing is, there seems to be two parts in which we can view vegetarianism. There’s the philosophy part, which often deals with the welfare of animals and the impact of the meat industry on animals, people, and the planet. This is the part where Stoicism and vegetarianism don’t mix. The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

But there’s also the diet part, which can be simply taken as not eating meat. What we see here isn’t a contradiction between vegetarianism and Stoicism, just a lack of opinion. The Stoics may have believed that animals were there for our use, but none ever went out of their way state that one must eat meat. As we saw, Seneca and Musonius were vegetarians. It isn’t that they didn’t have reasons to be vegetarian. They simply didn’t have any Stoic reason to.

Is Vegetarianism Stoic?

Is X Stoic?  This is a question heard, perhaps, one too many times. And, honestly, it’s a senseless question. Nothing but Stoicism is Stoic. But I suppose the real question that’s being asked is would Stoics approve of x. This is the question that started the debate I had about vegetarianism to begin with.

The thing is, no matter how you look at it, the Stoics don’t “approve” of anything besides virtue. From TVs to jokes, the Stoics made it clear that anything that isn’t virtue isn’t good and anything that isn’t vice isn’t bad. In short, it’s all indifferent.

Diet is no exception.

No, vegetarianism isn’t Stoic. They wouldn’t approve of it, either. They won’t give you thumbs up and tell you not eating meat is the right, Stoic thing to do. But they aren’t against vegetarianism, either. What they’ll tell you is that animals are here for our use, but it’s up to you if eat them or not. You might think of some virtuous reasons to be a vegetarian, but they’ll remind you that it isn’t the same as being virtuous. Like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.

Granted, the Stoics did have some outline some rules about eating, but outside of Musonius, there aren’t any true dietary restrictions. The Stoic “diet” is one of practicality and simplicity. Zeno ate frugally, which would preclude expensive, luxurious items. Epictetus proscribes moderation. Musonius believes food that are easy to get are the best. All of these can be used to justify almost any diet, not just vegetarianism.

So, eat your meat. Or don’t. Neither option is particularly Stoic.

Works Cited

  • Der Vegetarismus in der Antike by Johannes Haussleiter
  • Discourses by Epictetus
  • Dying Every Day by James Romm
  • Enchiridion by Epictetus
  • Letters from a Stoic by Seneca the Younger
  • Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings by Cynthia King
  • Vegetarianism in a Nutshell by The Vegetarian Resource Group

[1] This text only exists in German, so Google Translate was used to interpret text. I will avoid direct quotations from the book, paraphrasing Johannes Haussleiter where need be.

[2] Translated from German, so this may not be 100% accurate.

Jeremy Corter has been a life-long lover of philosophy. He runs a Stoicism blog, The Mad Stoic, which he sometimes remembers to update.  You can also find him online on Twitter and Google+

Nope, Jordan Peterson Ain’t No Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

People have been asking my opinion – from a Stoic perspective — about Jordan Peterson for a while now, and the time has finally come. The impetus derives from a recent article by Justin Vacula published here in the Stoicism Today blog, which takes a cautionary positive approach to Peterson, and draws parallels between his views and our philosophy. In this post I wish to push back against Vacula’s interpretation, explain why I think Peterson is not a good point of reference for Stoic practitioners, and more generally ponder what does it mean for X (where X is a person, a fictional character, or a position) “to be Stoic.”

First, though, a few preemptive caveats. Peterson, to my and Vacula’s knowledge, does not claim to be a Stoic, nor does he acknowledge any influence of Stoicism on his writings. So this is rather an exercise in whether, and to what extent, his ideas are “Stoic” in the broad sense of the term.

Also, several people, including Vacula, keep repeating that it is “un-Stoic” to criticize, and even more so to “insult” other people. They get that from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where he repeatedly reminds himself to keep calm when dealing with annoying others, and to look first at his own shortcomings. This is certainly good advice, but it seems like we forget that the Stoics were very vocal in their criticism of other people’s philosophies (the Epicureans, the Aristotelians, the Academic Skeptics), as well as political positions (heck, Cato the Younger started a war to oppose Julius Caesar!). Not to mention that Epictetus often refers to his students as “fools.” What distinguishes Stoic criticism is not its alleged gentleness, but the fact that it is supposed to be done virtuously, that is in the pursuit of truth or justice (or both), and by deploying good arguments and whatever empirical evidence happens to be germane to the issue at hand.

Okay, now back to Vacula’s portrait of Peterson and his alleged Stoic leanings. Peterson is important because he is influential. As Vacula (and a recent New York Times article) points out, his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, his 12 Rules book is an Amazon bestseller, and countless young people feel inspired by him. So, he is a cultural force to be reckoned with, and that’s why we are doing the reckoning. The question at hand is not whether there are some similarities between what Peterson writes and what the Stoics teach. Such similarities are indubitably there. Then again, “pick yourself up and do the right thing,” or “endure what life throws at you” are not exclusively Stoic concepts. They are found pretty much everywhere, in one form or another, from Christianity to Judaism, from Buddhism to Confucianism. And yet I’m not aware of anyone making the argument that Peterson is a Stoic-Christian-Judeo-Buddhist-Confucian. The issue, rather, is whether there are sufficient deep similarities between Peterson and Stoicism. I will argue that not only the answer is no, but that the sort of worldview Peterson advances is, in fact, anti-Stoic.

The first bit of Petersonian advice we encounter in Vacula’s post is “clean your room and get your life in order.” Which is good advice, the sort that my mom used to give me. But that didn’t make her a Stoic. The crucial part of the Stoic advice is that it tells us how to get our life in order: by practicing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance; and it explains to us why we ought to do it: because virtue is the only thing that is always good (it can’t be used for bad, by definition), as argued by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

Peterson, by contrast, gets this imperative from his adoption of Carl Jung’s views about the perennial opposition between logos and eros, where logos represents order, and it is masculine, while eros represents chaos, and it is feminine. From which Peterson further derives that it is both good and natural for men to control women (order has to overcome chaos). Why is it natural? Because Peterson buys wholesale the most crude version of evolutionary psychology, according to which gender roles have been pretty much fixed since the Pleistocene. From this perspective, according to Peterson, the apogee of American cultural life was back in the ‘50s, and we ought to get back to that place.

But all the above, so far as I can tell, is a lot of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical nonsense. Jung pretty much invented wholesale entirely un-empirical concepts like archetypes, espoused certifiably pseudoscientific notions like that of “synchronicity,” and liberally borrowed from mythology and Eastern mysticism (he compared the logos-eros dichotomy to the yin-yang one). There is not a shred of evidence to think that any of this is a decent description of the actual human condition, and particularly of the differences between men and women (not to mention that there is no mention of other genders, which Peterson, again pseudoscientifically, simply denies out of existence).

As for evolutionary psychology, it is a rather controversial discipline, about which I have written in depth – as an evolutionary biologist – in both Making Sense of Evolution and Nonsense on Stilts. Suffice to say here that while some evopsych research is certainly well done and interesting, the field is highly speculative at best when it comes to the evolution of gender roles. And as any Philosophy 101 course will teach you, even if gender roles evolved by natural selection that tells us zero of interest about how we ought, ethically, to reconsider them in contemporary society. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once put it, he chose a life without children in order to dedicate himself to his writing and his friends. And if his genes don’t like it, they can go jump into the lake.

As Vacula acknowledges, Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on how to climb social hierarchies, which he regards as natural and inevitable (the second characteristic obviously does not follow from the first one). He thinks that women ought to be dominated by men, and he maintains that white privilege is a myth. This is one of the most un-Stoic aspects of his thinking. The Stoics were among the first cosmopolitans, thinking that women ought to be educated in philosophy because they are just as capable as men, that all humans are equal, and that our duty is to cooperate – not compete – with fellow human beings. They imagined an ideal society, in Zeno’s Republic, that is very far from the capitalism that Peterson prefers. Indeed, it looks like an anarchic utopia, where wise men and women live in harmony because they finally understood how to use reason for the betterment of humankind.

Vacula, in his positive take on the Peterson-Stoicism connection, did not comment at all on political and social involvement. Probably because Peterson does not come out particular well in that department, and he certainly doesn’t come out as Stoic. Here he is, from 12 Rules:

Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today… Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? … Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

This sounds deceptively Stoic, but the deception is dangerous. First off, notice that we are told not to go out and make noise about changing the world until our own household is in perfect order. Well, then, since it will never be (we are not sages), I guess we are not authorized to invest time and energy into questioning our social systems and try to change them for the better. How convenient, for someone who clearly benefits from said social order.

Peterson’s advice plays into one of the worst stereotypes about Stoicism, that it is an inward-looking, quietist philosophy. But it is not. The virtue of justice requires us to try to change things for the better, for everyone. Historical examples like those of Cato the Younger, as well as recent ones lie Nelson Mandela (who was inspired by Marcus’ Meditations) are obvious pointers. When Peterson tells us that self-improvement is “more important than any possible political action” he is simply wrong. For Stoics the two go hand in hand: we improve ourselves as we improve the world, and vice versa. Cosmopolitanism, not egoism.

Vacula then claims that another similarity between Peterson and the Stoics is that they both tell us to overcome obstacles by way of a strong mindset, and to be courageous. And isn’t endurance a Stoic attribute? Is courage not a Stoic virtue? Yes, but Stoics believe in the unity of virtue, which means that one simply cannot talk about courage as isolated or distinct from justice (and prudence, and temperance). But as we have just seen, there is little if any talk of justice in the Stoic sense in Peterson. Being courageous for a Stoic doesn’t just mean to “pick up your damn suffering and bear it,” as Peterson puts it. That’s yet another false stereotype about Stoics: the stiff upper lip caricature. We are supposed to endure because it is the virtuous thing to do in order to be able to help others, not to show ourselves just how tough and “manly” we are.

Speaking of manly, Peterson is very popular in the “men’s rights” movement. These are people that are appropriating a distorted view of Stoicism as they love to point out that virtue comes from the Latin “vir,” meaning man. They seem to forget two other crucial bits of information. First, that “virtus” was the Latin translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence, and is not limited to men. Second, as I have already pointed out, that the Stoic virtues are a package. One is not virtuous if one is courageous but lacks justice, temperance, or prudence.

Peterson does say a number of fairly sensible things, like:

If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. … Had you been there [in Nazi Germany], the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

Indeed. But this is far from an original concept. It’s what philosopher Thomas Nagel famously described as “moral luck” in a classic paper published back in 1979, and of which Peterson seems to be entirely unaware.

Vacula praises Peterson for questioning popular opinions, again drawing an analogy with the Stoics in this respect. But questioning popular opinions is not an intrinsic good, it depends on which opinions one is criticizing and why. And here we come to the infamous case that actually catapulted Peterson to fame: his public criticism of Canada’s bill C-16, because of its stultifying political correctness. The bill added gender expression and identity to the list of criteria one cannot not be discriminated by in accordance to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.

What about Peterson’s cool head in the face of hostile (and certainly unprofessional) questioning by the host of a famous Channel 4 interview that went viral, thus further increasing his fame? Good for him, but as Don Robertson often remarks, that’s stoicism, not Stoicism. It’s always commendable not to lose one’s temper, but this is not a philosophical position, it’s just commonsense.

Vacula is somewhat regretful that Peterson initially rejected the “men going their own way” (MGTOW) movement, only belatedly agreeing that they have a point in wanting nothing to do with relationships and marriage because, you know, society and the law are so unfair to men these days. Setting aside that it is entirely ludicrous to even suggest that women in contemporary society are unjustly preferred over men (I guess that’s why there is still so much violence against women, pay inequality, discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion, etc. etc. etc.), it is most certainly un-Stoic to want to create divisions from other human beings. Every Stoic we know of has emphasized the importance of relationships, and Seneca has gone so far as suggesting that marriage (or a committed relationship, in modern terms) is a major occasion to become more virtuous and to help another human being to do the same.

There are a number of other decidedly un-Stoic aspects of Peterson’s opinions, like his strange idea that conversation is made possible with men (but impossible with “crazy” women) by the always present threat of violence:

I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassing against me. And the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women. And so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. … There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away. Or at least the threat is there. (full transcript here)

What sort of cardinal virtue, I wonder, is Peterson deploying here?

The Stoics were great logicians. They believed that one has to make careful arguments based on empirical evidence in order to arrive at the best judgment a human being can muster. And arriving at good judgments is the whole point of one of Epictetus’ three disciplines, the discipline of assent. Here too Peterson fails miserably. I mentioned above his reliance on mythology, which he takes from Jung. One interviewer finally asked him why people should believe in myth. Here is his response (longer transcript in the article by Robinson linked below):

Well, what are you going to take seriously, then? You’re going to take nothing seriously. Well, good luck with that, because serious things are coming your way. If you’re not prepared for them by an equal metaphysical seriousness, they will flatten you.

This is an egregious example of really, really bad reasoning. Peterson is committing not one, but two logical fallacies that I train my students to spot and avoid. First, the idea that if one does not take myths seriously then one does not take anything seriously is an obvious non sequitur; it simply does not follow. Second, the suggestion that serious things are coming (which serious things, by the way?) is a red herring, a distraction. Sure, “serious” things may be coming (e.g., financial collapse, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war?), but that has nothing at all to do with whether it is sensible for people to take myths seriously or not.

But at least, says Vacula, Peterson rails against the damn post-modernists. Surely the Stoics would agree, as they battled the post-modernists of their time, the Academic Skeptics. As a scientist and philosopher I am no fan of post-modernism (see chapters 10 and 11 of my Nonsense on Stilts), but here is a pretty good example of post-modernist obfuscatory language, let’s see if you can guess the author:

Procedural knowledge, generated in the course of heroic behavior, is not organized and integrated within the group and the individual as a consequence of simple accumulation. Procedure ‘a,’ appropriate in situation one, and procedure ‘b,’ appropriate in situation two, may clash in mutual violent opposition in situation three. Under such circumstances intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict necessarily emerges. When such antagonism arises, moral revaluation becomes necessary. As a consequence of such revaluation, behavioral options are brutally rank-ordered, or, less frequently, entire moral systems are devastated, reorganized and replaced. This organization and reorganization occurs as a consequence of ‘war,’ in its concrete, abstract, intrapsychic, and interpersonal variants. In the most basic case, an individual is rendered subject to an intolerable conflict, as a consequence of the perceived (affective) incompatibility of two or more apprehended outcomes of a given behavioral procedure. In the purely intrapsychic sphere, such conflict often emerges when attainment of what is desired presently necessarily interferes with attainment of what is desired (or avoidance of what is feared) in the future. Permanent satisfactory resolution of such conflict (between temptation and ‘moral purity,’ for example) requires the construction of an abstract moral system, powerful enough to allow what an occurrence signifies for the future to govern reaction to what it signifies now. Even that construction, however, is necessarily incomplete when considered only as an ‘intrapsychic’ phenomena. The individual, once capable of coherently integrating competing motivational demands in the private sphere, nonetheless remains destined for conflict with the other, in the course of the inevitable transformations of personal experience. This means that the person who has come to terms with him- or herself—at least in principle—is still subject to the affective dysregulation inevitably produced by interpersonal interaction. It is also the case that such subjugation is actually indicative of insufficient ‘intrapsychic’ organization, as many basic ‘needs’ can only be satisfied through the cooperation of others.

It’s from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, in the section entitled “The Great Father.” And as far as I can see – and I looked hard – there is no meaning in the above (if you think you can do better, by all means, please translate into English). It could easily have been produced by the online postmodern generator. How is procedural knowledge generated by “heroic behavior”? What on earth is “intrapsychic conflict”? Why does all of that necessitate “moral revaluation”? What does it mean to “brutally rank order” behavioral options (as opposed to nicely rank order?)? Which behavioral options? Why is “war” in scare quotes? How can it be both concrete and abstract? Are outcomes “apprehended”? By whom? Why is “moral purity” in scare quotes? Oh no, wait! Now “intrapsychic” is in quotes too. Because it means something different from intrapsychic without quotes? What does it mean to be subject to “affective dysregualtion”? And now even “needs” is in scare quotes? (Oh, and “phenomena” is plural, not singular.)

Finally, the Stoics practiced humility, because we are all unwise, always making mistakes, everyone of us metaphorically drowning because we still have not gotten to the surface, where the sage dwells. Not so Peterson, who is absolutely convinced of the immense value of his discoveries. In a letter to his father included in Maps of Meaning he writes:

I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing.

Well, I can agree on two things: whatever he saw, he did not see it clearly. And he certainly did not convey it comprehensibly.

I hope to have marshaled enough evidence to show that Jordan Peterson is no Stoic, and that his philosophy is, in fact, anti-Stoic. Why, then, is he so influential? Why are we spending so much energy and time talking about him? I really can’t do any better than put the answer as commentator and critic Nathan Robinson did recently in what is the best and most in-depth critique of Peterson I’ve seen so far:

If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like ‘if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of’ or ‘many moral values are similar across human societies.’ Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured.

You know what Socrates used to call this sort of person? A sophist. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment.


P.S.: since I’ve been exposed to Peterson’s supporters a number of times over social media, I can anticipate some of the obvious objections: (i) If you think that I mischaracterized him or quoted him out of context, it is entirely useless to simply say so and walk away. Please, provide a detailed explanation of why you think so, as well as a better, more fair interpretation of the same passages I quoted, or the same notions I described. (ii) If you think Peterson is being criticized out of “envy” then you have no idea of critical discourse works. It’s still a criticism, and it needs to be answered, regardless of the real or imaginary motivations you attribute to the critic. (iii) If your response is along the lines of “yes, but he has made a difference for many young people,” that may be true, but there are positive differences and negative ones, and there are good and bad reasons why young people are influenced. The goal here is to steer them toward the good ones and away from the bad ones.

P.P.S.: please stop using lobsters as idealized examples of how human beings should behave, just because they are hierarchical animals. It’s really, really bad biology (and bad science is another un-Stoic thing). Lobsters are invertebrates, incredibly evolutionarily remote from us. And they don’t have shoulders. Plus, those t-shirts really look silly.


Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?” by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.

To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.

In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.

So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.  One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.

Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.

In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.

Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality.  This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.

Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.

A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.

Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?

Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:

for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.

Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.

The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.

Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.

Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.

Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.

Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.

In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

Jordan Peterson and Stoicism by Justin Vacula

Clinical psychologist and Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson has had a major impact on public discourse evidenced by his presence in online publications, his extremely popular YouTube channel with almost one million subscribers, and acclaim surrounding his new book ’12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ which is currently the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.

Members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group share work from Jordan Peterson including many of his classroom and public lectures and are left asking if Jordan Peterson is a Stoic identifying parallels between the work of Peterson and Stoic authors. Fans of Jordan Peterson who are unfamiliar with Stoic Philosophy can benefit a great deal from engagement with Stoicism.

People find a great deal of inspiration and practical solutions to personal struggles while becoming more familiar with the work of Jordan Peterson and engaging with Stoic Philosophy. People hunger for a new approach to life, guidelines by which to structure themselves, especially after personal tragedy or stagnation. People are moved by messages of self-improvement and character-building found within Stoic content and Jordan Peterson lectures which urge that growth, positive change, is possible if a good effort is made.

When I use the word “Stoic,” I reference the practical philosophy of life popularized by Ancient thinkers including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius I’ll later detail – not a common usage which people may understand as merely being resolute in the face of challenge (see Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman in which he maintains such a undaunted disposition) or a severely misguided interpretation – one being detached from positive or negative emotions.

I don’t recall Jordan Peterson mentioning influence from Stoic thinkers or Stoic Philosophy in his content, but I see many parallels between his work and central themes in Stoicism. Perhaps Jordan Peterson won’t identify as a Stoic, but he can surely find himself in general agreement with major Stoic themes and appreciate the philosophical tradition – now undergoing a modern rebirth – which resonates with segments of Peterson’s audience.

Let’s explore the parallels and differences between Stoicism and the work of Jordan Peterson. I’ll use examples from Stoic texts and lectures of Peterson in addition to recurring themes in Stoic works and Peterson’s thoughts to discover the degree of Stoicism within Jordan Peterson.

Clean Your Room/Get Your Life In Order

Stoicism challenges us to be accountable, to take responsibility in our lives, so that we can work toward a life of contentment pursuing virtue. Self-improvement; having a proper mindset; and working to rid ourselves of unproductive desires (i.e. want of fame, wealth, jealousy) and intense negative emotions (i.e. despair, hatred, and anger) is required for a properly-oriented life on the Stoic view. Stoic writers  focus on common human concerns which continue to exist in our modern era. (If you wish, you can listen to past episodes of my podcast, including #47, #36, and #31 , focused on coping with guilt, negative emotions, and death.

Applying Stoic wisdom to everyday life can help modern people, as Jordan Peterson would say, rescue their fathers (and themselves) from the belly of a whale or be reborn like the mythical pheonix. (I talk more about being reborn like a phoenix following tragedy in episodes 44 and 22 of my podcast). Peterson urges individuals to be self-reflective and work to fix their lives rather than being resentful, complaining, and being critical of the world while not working to change one’s own mindset or improve their condition.

Stoic writers and Peterson advocate for an attitude of gratitude – appreciating what is going well and not overlooking positive elements of life – and note that complaining, especially about things outside of our control, is largely unhelpful. For Peterson and Stoic writers, instead of complaining, taking action to improve ourselves and create order in our lives can be an antidote or response to chaos.

Similar to Stoic writers, Peterson focuses on finding personal fulfillment in excellence of character and success, but there is divergence in that Peterson – unlike Stoic authors – often focuses on climbing what he calls dominance heirarchies, engaging in completion to rise to the top of a field of focus. Dominance hierarchies are absent from Stoic texts which mainly focus on character excellence through virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom seeing virtue as the only good or prime good, doing good for goodness’ sake regardless of who may be watching, a reward, reputation, or status. One may ascend to the top of hierarchies through hard effort and achieve mastery by following Stoic wisdom, but this is not the focus for Stoics.

Marcus Aurelius, in Book VII of his Meditations, talks about changing our mindset to remove unproductive, negative, inaccurate thoughts so that we can improve our lives. He writes:

it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame […] To recover your life is in your power.

We can avoid “being moved by the desires as puppets by strings” as Marcus notes in Book VI by taking action, taking on responsibility, and evaluating our lives so that we can improve – to notice our shortcomings and create a plan of action.

Epictetus, in Book IV Chapter IV of his Discourses, titled “To those who have set their hearts on a Quiet Life” urges us not to procrastinate or spend forever preparing to change, but rather to take action, use our time well, and act before it is too late. He writes,

…read, hear, prepare yourself. You have had sufficient time for that […] Come now to the contest. Show us what you have learned, how you have trained.

Taking action to improve our lives rather than making excuses, even if starting with small steps, will offer many benefits and is preferable to misery.

In his letter “On Wisdom and Retirement,” Seneca calls for us to recognize our past deficiencies and work to make changes in the present, without procrastinating, to live a better life. He writes,

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur. Our time of life is the best possible for these pursuits; for the period of boiling and foaming is now past. The faults that were uncontrolled in the first fierce heat of youth are now weakened, and but little further effort is needed to extinguish them.

Jordan Peterson, talking about making positive changes in our lives, says,

Put yourself together and then maybe if you put yourself together – you know how to do that – you know what’s wrong with you if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things you could, like, polish up a little bit that you might even be able to manage in your insufficient present condition.

Peterson further encourages us to take a self-inventory, similar to the urging of Stoic authors, in order to rid ourselves of vice and personal shortcomings,

You also have to allow yourself to shake off those things about you that you might be pathologically attached to, habits and people for that matter, ways of thinking, all of those things. You have to allow yourself to shake those off. […] You let all that nonsense burn away.

Life Is Not A Dance, But We Can Prevail And Find Meaning Amidst Suffering

Many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures focus on the horrors of the 20th century including genocide and war. Reflecting on experiences in his clinical practice, Peterson discusses suicidal intentions, depression, trauma, drug abuse and many significant personal challenges people face in modern times. Suffering, Peterson notes, reflecting on the human condition, is a necessary part of life; we’ll all experience personal challenges, pain, loss of loved ones, and other struggles.

Peterson urges us to acknowledge our suffering, work to improve ourselves, help make the world a better place, help others, and not languish in a role as a defeated victim. We can rise above suffering to be heroic, Peterson argues, drawing upon characteristics of role models – fictional and real – and engaging in important personal quests to respond well to suffering. By helping ourselves, we can help others.

Stoic authors and Peterson call for acceptance when considering suffering in a life including change, difficult people, tragedy, and death. (See episode 17 of my podcast which explores Stoic ideas on acceptance). Such suffering in life is inevitable and natural given the nature of existence; the frailty of the human body; lack of wisdom; and element of chance, fate, or fortune.

Stoic authors and Peterson would agree that we can rise to challenges in life by viewing inevitable adversity as a means to better ourselves, test our resolve, and develop effective means to cope rather than engaging in unproductive thoughts or maladaptive coping skills. We can see, as author Ryan Holiday, echoing themes within Marcus Aurelius’ writings, the obstacle as the way, something we can overcome.

We should avoid, Stoic writers note, creating problems for ourselves by amplifying our personal struggles or having thoughts – impressions – which do not align with reality. With a proper mindset, we can more effectively overcome daily challenges, be more resilient, and find purpose in life. Here, Stoic thought and Peterson’s general message greatly overlap. Stoic writers and Peterson urge people to overcome adversity by having a strong mindset, making changes where possible, and being courageous.

Seneca, in his letter titled “On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus” from his Letters to Lucillius urges us to self-reflect and improve even amidst what seem to be hopeless situations. Seneca writes:

regulate your character, rouse your courage, and stand firm in the face of things which have terrified you.

The ideal Stoic sage, one who has embodied Stoic wisdom to be resolute amidst suffering, may appear “unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amidst the storm” as Seneca writes in his letter titled “On the God Within Us.”

Marcus Aurelius, in book VII of his Meditations writes:

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.

Rather than lamenting certain happenings in life, merely complaining, we can work to “[b]e like the promontory against that which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it” as Marcus notes in Book IV encouraging an attitude of resilience – responding to suffering we ought to, Marcus says, “bear it nobly.”

In responding to suffering, Peterson notes: 

Pick up your damn suffering and bear it and try to be a good person so you don’t make it worse. […] There’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die. You know, you too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it’s going to be unfair. It’s like, yah, no wonder you’re resentful. It’s like act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.

Peterson, acknowledging that there is a great deal of suffering in life, says,

So what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together, for Christ’s sake, so that when your father dies, you’re not whining away in a corner and you can help plan the funeral and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim.

Humans Have The Capacity To Strive Toward Good (and Evil)

Jordan Peterson, reflecting on World War II, notes that many concentration camp guards were, at least at one point, common people like us. Might we, like them, follow orders instead of rebelling and take part in or directly commit great atrocities given certain pressures? Given a degree of courage, instruction, and commitment, both Stoic thinkers and Peterson believe that we have the capacity to achieve a life of virtue, to strive toward a good life instead of embodying the darker parts of human nature. Peterson mentions influence from psychologist Carl Jung – our shadow side, the darker sides of our personalities, this potential monster within.

If we align ourselves with positive characteristics – “following nature” or “living in accordance with nature” as Stoic writers mention – using our reasoning capacity to have proper judgments about the world and putting right principles into action, we can actualize potential and strive toward the highest good (virtue). It’s important to recognize our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, so that we do not descend into chaos.

Peterson, like the Stoics, does not believe that people are unchangeable or that progress is impossible. He aims to help others, educate people about what a good life can look like, inspires people to make positive changes, and helps people set realistic goals in the process of self-improvement. Peterson and Stoic authors note that although change can be difficult and gradual, we should embark on journeys of transformation to better ourselves while being mindful of and avoiding pressures from society which can lead us astray.

In recognizing that people have the capacity for good and ill action, we can better deal with difficult people, pity them, avoid certain people, and surround ourselves with the best of friends setting personal boundaries, being careful in our interactions, and carefully evaluating others’ character.

In Book III, Chapter 25 of Epictetus’ Discourses, titled “To Those Who Fail to Achieve Their Purposes,” Epictetus notes that “good fortune and happiness itself” is at stake when considering determination toward progress. It’s in our power to improve ourselves, to strive toward good, and “even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest.”

In his letter titled “On Self-Control,” Seneca talks about how people can exercise moderation and orient towards a good life. People may choose to engage in poor behavior rather than make better decisions. He writes of people falling short of the good life:

It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Peterson, talking about humans’ capacity for wrongdoing, reflecting on people who think they would have resisted Nazi power if they were present in Nazi Germany, notes,

If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. […] Had you been there, the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

On Peterson’s view, we can avoid the darker impulses within human nature by “aiming at the highest possible good.” He says:

If you manifest yourself properly in the world […] there is no more effective way of operating in the world that to conceptualize the highest good that you can and strive to attain it. There’s no more practical pathway to the kind of success that you could have if you actually knew what success was.

Question Popular Opinion

Jordan Peterson, in addition to receiving praise, has been vilified in popular media following his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16 concerning what he dubbed government-compelled speech in regards to gender pronouns; criticism of modern feminist positions; opposition to what he calls neo-Marxist postmodern leftists; identity politics; and political correctness. Peterson spends a considerable amount of time constructing arguments supplementing his skepticism and notes the danger of popular opinion which could lead people astray from reason.

Peterson diverges from Stoic writers when engaging in name-calling or ascribing ill-motives towards groups of people he disagrees with. For example, Peterson has noted that left-leaning individuals are not well-intentioned and want to destroy society – perhaps in a self-admitted state of anger (Peterson notes he has struggled with this), being quick to judge, and considering the most extreme examples of certain groups Peterson falters.

Peterson also castigated individuals branding themselves as MGTOW or men going their own way – those who have decided to walk away from marriage, cohabitation, and traditional relationships with women noting laws they see as heavily biased against men, unfair legal systems in the Western world. MGTOW talk about men finding their own purpose in life apart from getting married, having children, and sacrificing their own wants and needs for the benefit of women in a society they see as gynocentric – focused on women. Like Peterson, MGTOW question common opinion.

Peterson called MGTOW “pathetic weasels” and seemed to shame MGTOW noting, “maybe if you made the right sacrifices you wouldn’t have so much trouble with women […] it’s not the women, it’s you.” Later, Peterson said he was too dismissive of MGTOW noting agreement with their arguments against laws in the West, but then talked about MGTOW being “pernicious” consisting of bitter and resentful young men who are looking for a rationale to write off all women because of rejection they faced in dating.

Peterson mentions clients in his clinical practice who have experienced ruin following divorce and said of MGTOW, “they have a point […] the court systems are staggeringly anti-male, absurdly, horribly anti-male.” Can Peterson have more compassion for men who have gone their own way and better understand their perspectives? Stoic authors call for a less judgmental approach than one Peterson deployed when talking about MGTOW.

A more Stoic response would be to refrain from name-calling and simply responding to ideas. Peterson could engage more with MGTOW listening to, for example, content creators SunriseHoodie and huMAN, to get a better idea of the community and ideas he is dismissing. Even better, finding solutions to injustice, particularly relating to law, or warning people about dangers they could face, further dissuading them from engaging in risky situations like marriage would be optimal. After all, one of the cardinal Stoic virtues is justice.

Peterson, a married man with children who seems to have a successful, fulfilling relationship and family may be quick to write off perspectives of MGTOW who instead see relationships and marriage in current society as a significant threat to personal fulfillment. Stoic authors, after all, encourage us to challenge our impressions, the way we view reality, to have an attitude of humility and open-mindedness.

Stoic writers and Peterson, remind us that what is popular is not always right and can lead to disastrous consequences. (I talk about Stoic perspectives on the dangers of prioritizing popular approval in episode #40 of my podcast.)  Should we prioritize the wrong things – not have proper aims in life – we are more prone to squander our time, compromise our character, be taken advantage of by others, harm others, and have distorted beliefs. Without a solid foundation from which to draw, perhaps just doing what feels good or mindlessly mimicking others, we can find ourselves unfulfilled and without direction.

We might fail to, as Peterson encourages, speak the truth and not voice disagreement or even question commonly held beliefs because of potential social consequences. Peterson believes that not speaking out carries its own risks – we might be complicit in a lie and compromise our own standards. Speaking the truth, questioning popular opinion, can be liberating and lead to social good although there may be initial or ongoing discomfort.

However, as Stoic writers note, we’re to carefully pick our battles, be prudent, and not be chiefly concerned with approval from others or appearing to be agreeable.

Seneca’s letter “On Crowds” talks about the dangers of engagement with the masses:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger […] you should not copy the bad simply because they are many.

On the topic of conforming merely to fit in, to gain approval of others, especially when we act unvirtuously, Seneca urges us to “scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority.”

In Book IV Chapter 8 of his Discourses, Epictetus quotes a Philosopher who says, “I knew that what I did rightly I did for my own sake and not for the spectators.” Seneca urges us to be our own spectators and seek our own applause in his letter “On the Healing Power of the Mind.”

Stoic authors, like Peterson, also rail against vice, advocate for moderation in life, urge us to question our desires, not look for happiness in external things, and identify that which we should avoid. Peterson and Stoic authors do not see happiness as a hedonistic pursuit; they warn of the dangers which can come about in being overly focused on wealth and material goods.

Although Jordan Peterson does not consider himself a Stoic or mention Stoicism as an inspiration, there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson relating to getting one’s life in order; prevailing amidst suffering; capacity for people to strive towards the good; and questioning public opinion. Surely, fans of Jordan Peterson’s work and even Peterson himself could benefit from study and application of Stoic Philosophy.

I welcome feedback from fans and critics of Jordan Peterson. Perhaps Jordan Peterson would be willing to engage with the Stoic community.

Justin Vacula is the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast. He also serves as an counselor-in-training intern in a school-based behavioral health program while studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. He hosts monthly meetings for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, and plays poker at various casinos in the Eastern United States.

Modern Stoicism Now Has A Patreon Page For Contributions

Modern Stoicism Ltd. now has set up a Patreon page – for anyone who would like to make a regular monthly contribution to assist the organization in its many ongoing activities, here is the link to that page.

As many of Stoicism Today’s readers may know, last year the Modern Stoicism team incorporated officially as a not-for-profit organization (you can read about that here).   Every member of the Modern Stoicism team is a volunteer, so it is largely donations and contributions that allow us to carry out the work and projects helping people get introduced to, and then deepen their understanding and practice of, Stoicism in the contemporary world.

For a number of years, supporters of Modern Stoicism were able to make contributions via the Paypal link.  Now with Patreon, it becomes possible to make a regular monthly contribution, and also to receive some perks as a donor as well.  We will be continuing to build out the Modern Stoicism Patreon page more fully over the next week or so – so keep an eye out for that!

As mentioned, Modern Stoicism is involved in a number of projects.  This blog you are currently reading – Stoicism Today (containing over 500 articles on Stoicism) – is one of them, as is this larger Modern Stoicism website itself.  If you are considering becoming a Patreon supporter you might well wonder what else we do.  Here are our main activities:

  • We host an annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • We also carry out a longer and more intensive Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • There is also a Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • We hold an annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life.  In recent years, it has been hosted in Toronto, New York City, and London, and it offers an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • Videos, transcripts, and summaries from talks and workshops at Stoicon are compiled and made public in our course site and in Stoicism Today.
  • We also help to promote the annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing the series of Stoicism Today books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings is another main service we provide to the worldwide Stoic community

Our team of nine active members on the steering committee includes psychotherapists,  philosophers,  researchers, authors, course developers, and content producers  (many of the team members wearing more than one hat!) – and they work together to further the goals of the Modern Stoicism organization, which are:

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

These points encapsulate what Modern Stoicism as an organization is all about – and will continue to focus on going forward.   If you view these goals and projects as valuable – or if you benefit from the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a supporter on Patreon!

The Stoic Professional by Dan Greller

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was developed in a vastly different era. The world of antiquity lacked the skyscrapers, smart phones and email that characterize the world of the modern professional. In this post, I’ll attempt to draw a line between the challenges of that ancient world and those of the modern workplace. I’ll make the case that Stoic philosophy has aged gracefully and applies equally to a technically advanced world that the ancients could never have envisioned.

The world of the modern professional has vast differences from those of ancient Greece or Rome. Most notably, advances in transportation and communication technologies have created a world that would be unimaginable to Marcus Aurelius. These advances have led to some marked differences in how work is conducted as well as to the pace of activities. The most significant difference would involve interconnectedness. The development of modern communication capabilities such as email, smart phones and collaboration software make us accessible in real-time, around the clock. The next major difference involves the pace of activity. In many professional settings, there is an increased expectation of rapid results, instant responses and, in general, a reduced time-to-market. In the competitive world of modern business, this pressure is relentless, with increasingly short “cycle times”.

Despite these new developments, many of the same challenges existed in the ancient Stoic world. The ancients needed to deal with difficult and petty people, political rivals, and highly stressful situations – including near constant warfare. Marcus, as emperor of Rome, would seem to be in an enviable position of power, immune to the vicissitudes of life. Instead, he faced the constant weight of high office. He dealt with a variety of ominous matters. These included such existential threats as wars, assassinations threats, and mutinous rivals. He also dealt with the mundane yet disturbing matters of adjudicating disputes, granting approvals and interacting with coarse ungrateful people.

Let’s consider some challenges of the modern work world and how we can apply Stoic wisdom as a practical tool.

Starting the Day

Our workday struggles often start with the simple sounding of our morning alarm. Often, we fight to simply get out of bed and face the harsh realities ahead. This is further exacerbated by dreary weather, the fact that it’s a Monday or by the realization that you have a high pressure deliverable in the upcoming workweek. Marcus experienced that same sense of dread and recognized the natural comfort of simply staying in bed. But the Stoics were keen on the idea of playing a role that had been assigned to them by nature. They believed that it was critical to perform this role with excellence, enthusiasm and acceptance. Marcus exhorted himself as follows:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . . So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Although you are not the ruler of an empire, you too have a critical role to play professionally. By embracing that role and understanding its importance to your organization, you establish purpose and motivation to move forward with your day.

Getting out of bed is simply the first of many challenges that we will face across the work day. Our next challenge can simply be our trip to work. Our frustrations can range from being cut off in traffic to that ‘jerk’ that holds up the line by taking too long to order their latte. Marcus also understood that he would likely have to deal with a series of jerks over the course of the day,

“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil”

Don’t allow the anticipation of morning stresses to damper the enthusiasm and energy needed to start your workday. As a source of comfort, recognize that people have been dealing with these same issues since ancient times. Leverage Marcus’ quotes as fuel to power you forward.

Arriving at Work

Upon arriving at work, we are often met with a series of immediate stressors. Our inbox may be full, with new requests from co-workers in other time zones or from those who simply get in earlier. A glance at your calendar may show a day packed with meetings, with some requiring critical advance work.

While Marcus may have faced numerous challenges as the Emperor of Rome, he probably didn’t face the barrage of real-time issues confronting today’s professional. Nevertheless, an excellent Stoic thought is that of limiting one’s scope of focus to not be overwhelmed by a difficult and pressing situation. Marcus counsels us:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”.

Often, we let the enormity of a situation paralyze us, keeping us from immediate, constructive action. For example, we may have an assignment to produce a critical presentation for senior management. Our mind instantly shifts into overdrive, ruminating over a series of rapidly changing fears. “Will I be able to source the appropriate data for this presentation?” Do I have the latest corporate standard template to use for my slides?” “Will I be able to finish all of this in time?” Our natural tendency is to allow these thoughts to overwhelm us leading to unhelpful actions such as procrastination. Marcus’ suggestion is as follows –

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

His message here is to focus your energy on a single item, completing that task with excellence. You can break down a large, complex “crisis” into a series of manageable tasks. Focus on each one, without allowing the overall issue or subsequent tasks to distract or disquiet you. In the case of the aforementioned presentation, turn your “fears” into a checklist. Attack each item with unwavering focus and confidence. By “zooming in”, we can approach our challenges with greater clarity, effectiveness and equanimity.

Rightsizing our Concerns

Another way to put difficult challenges into perspective is through a Stoic exercise that modern Stoics have named the View from Above. It is derived from Meditations 7.48 where Marcus states:

“That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries”.

Marcus is again describing how trivial human drama can appear when imagined from afar. In the modern world we can go beyond mere imagination. Most folks today have traveled on an airplane, with many professionals doing this routinely. Viewing the world from 35,000 feet can create an amazing sense of perspective. Flying over a major metropolitan area, one is technically viewing millions of lives, with all of their attendant drama and intrigue. But at that height, they are all reduced to indistinguishable dots. Any one person, structure or geologic feature is inconsequential relative to the enormity of the landscape. The world you are viewing has existed for billions of years. The troubles that anyone on that “view below” is experiencing are tiny and ephemeral – and so are yours.

 Many times at work, we will lament our situation. Perhaps we have a demanding and unsympathetic boss. We may feel under appreciated, having been passed up for a recent promotion. Perhaps our teammates are unhelpful, competitive and snarky.

It’s easy to take a “woe is me” perspective, bemoaning our fate and fantasizing about a more ideal work life. The Stoics had a valuable approach to dealing with this situation. They advised that one imagine that they are an actor in a play. One has been assigned a particular role. Now it’s your duty to perform your role with excellence and professionalism. As Epictetus counsels:

Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.

Focusing on what you can control

On a similar note, the Stoics looked, in general, to accept a fate driven world. They counseled that a peaceful person would accept things as they are. As Marcus describes –

that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him

A normal reaction at this point, would be for readers to challenge the notion of fate, misunderstanding it as cynical and unhelpful. It seems to contradict the conventional notion of taking control of your career and directing your own success and satisfaction. Here it is helpful to understand what may be the most fundamental Stoic principle – control.

The Stoics believed much of what disturbed people stemmed from agonizing over things that were outside of their control.

In his opening passage in The Enchiridion, Epictetus advises –

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

The Stoics used the example of an archer to demonstrate this concept and separate our intentions and actions from the ultimate outcomes. An archer should do everything possible to hit the target. This could include training, using proper technique and focused attention. But ultimately, there is no guarantee of a bullseye every time. Something as simple, and uncontrollable as a wind gust, could blow your shot off course.

In much the same way, as committed professionals, we should practice our craft with seriousness and care. But we should understand that there are always many factors outside our control that can impact an outcome. While we may strive to complete a task with excellence, and truly believe we have met our objectives, we can’t control the opinions of others. A boss or peer may take a negative view of our work through ignorance, competitiveness or by simply having a different perspective. We may work earnestly for years, marching on a path of career progression and have our advance abruptly halted by corporate event such as a bankruptcy, acquisition or office relocation.

The Stoics would counsel that we should simply focus on our own professional excellence, measuring ourselves by how true we remain to our committed ethical values. The rest is up to fate, not within our control and not worth our worry.

Anxiety Over the Thoughts of Others

Another area of stress in the modern workplace involves reputation. Often, we are highly concerned about the views that others have of us. One particular way we see this involves public speaking or formal presentation work. Many professionals find this extremely stressful. Epictetus breaks down the anxiety of public performance through the lens of a concert musician:

Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received — and the latter lies outside his control

Epictetus notes that the fear of being poorly received, and having a diminished reputation, creates the performer’s (or speaker’s) anxiety. But ultimately that audience reception is outside your control. All you can do is simply prepare and perform to your best ability. If you can adopt that mindset, than your next public presentation should be no more stressful than your rehearsal in front of a mirror.

In addition to concerns about our performance, we have a general tendency to obsess about the thoughts and actions of others. A particular driver of disquietude in the modern workplace is social media. Many professionals follow their colleagues on Facebook and other popular platforms. Many firms also have their own internal social media platforms. While the ancients didn’t have these modern tools in place, the notions of gossip, bragging and social envy were equally prevalent. As Marcus advises:

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

 Our takeaway here is consistent with other Stoic principles. We don’t control the thoughts and reactions of others. We should simply focus on our own excellence and tune out the bleating of the herd.

Dealing with change

Perhaps we are able to put some Stoic wisdom to work, getting through our typical workday with composure and effectiveness. In today’s fast paced world, as soon as we’ve adjusted to our circumstances, we’re faced with a new set of challenges. As mentioned earlier, another hallmark of the modern world is an accelerating pace of change. This creates great uncertainty for people as firms, professions and job roles move rapidly in and out of favor. It’s hard to scan the news without seeing another dystopian story about the elimination of a class of jobs or an entire industry. The Stoics also viewed the world as being in constant flux. They saw this as natural, understandable and to be fully accepted. Marcus notes:

Often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider this which is near to thee, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? for they vex him only for a time, and a short time.

When you’re confronted with uncomfortable changes, view them as necessary and natural. Don’t resist changes and ruminate over them. Instead, embrace the Stoic metaphor of life as a flowing river, with constant, inevitable transitions.

Benevolent Leadership

For those professionals who rise to a level of leadership, a different challenge emerges. Now, you can be that same uncaring boss that you complained about earlier in your career. One needs to look no further than the latest news story to see disturbing examples of successful leaders in government or in the corporate world acting arrogantly or abusing their power. In his time Marcus was as powerful as any leader alive today. He understood the grave responsibilities that came with that power. He recognized the temptation to act corruptly and selfishly that came with virtually unchecked authority. He thus counseled himself as follows:

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor’, avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work….the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

Marcus is reminding himself to maintain his character, continue to embrace important virtues, especially the Stoic cardinal virtue of justice. We too can embrace these ideals, remembering our own roots and never allowing our values to be perverted by our own success or power.

Putting it all Together

The present world can feel like a daunting place, with new, unique challenges. Our work lives have been transformed by technology and the social pressures of modern culture. Studying and applying Stoic philosophy can act as a comforting counterbalance. The ancients faced similar problems, even if they were embodied in different forms. Stoic wisdom is valued today because it is has a universal and timeless essence. As you are confronted with an issue at work, ask yourself “how would the Stoics have handled this?” This will lead you back to a powerful toolkit that will serve you well.


 Dan Greller is an information technology professional who has worked in a number of corporate settings over the last 35 years. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to work, drawing inspiration from economics, psychology and philosophy. He views Stoicism as a helpful framework for establishing greater professional effectiveness and for maintaining personal equanimity.

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Walter J. Matweychuk

This post is the transcript of Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk’s presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference in Toronto, Canada. Video recording of this talk and others are available in the Stoicon 2017 Resources site.

I am a clinical psychologist who was drawn to begin to study Stoic philosophy a few years ago to better understand the pioneering form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). That distinct and pioneering approach to CBT is named Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT’s creator was Dr. Albert Ellis, a very well-known American clinical psychologist who parted company with the Freudian approach to psychotherapy way back in 1955. Dismayed by the inefficiency of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, which he had been formally trained in, Ellis turned to his lifelong passion for philosophy to create a more effective psychotherapy. Albert always said that his brainchild was an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophy which heavily borrows from Stoic philosophy.

I had the pleasure of being formally trained by Ellis, and I practice REBT in an outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Every day I use this philosophical approach to psychotherapy on a wide range of clinical problems with people of various backgrounds, educational levels, and degrees of functional impairment. Over the course of my 27-year career, I have witnessed the way clients and patients come to help themselves using REBT. I have seen how people who diligently work at understanding and implementing the core principles of REBT come to liberate themselves. These people learn how not to disturb themselves when they encounter various types of adversity which renders them more effective at changing whatever they can change when facing difficult problems common to the human condition. I assume that anyone who is interested in Stoic philosophy, who uses Stoic philosophy to help themselves through the journey of life, will also very much like and benefit from learning REBT. REBT largely overlaps with Stoic philosophy and can be a very useful compliment to the practicing Stoic. My goal today is to introduce to the core principles of REBT using the words and quotations of Epictetus.

When Ellis departed from psychoanalysis in 1955, his new practical approach to psychotherapy was game-changing. Unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies that followed in its wake and were primarily developed in the confines of academia, REBT was established in the rough and tumble streets of Manhattan in New York. Ellis was a private practitioner who worked from dawn to dust helping people with multiple problems that were often quite challenging. Over his long life, it is estimated that Ellis had over 180,000 hours of face to face clinical contact helping people and he wisely turned to philosophy to find answers to their problems and for his personal strength, meaning, and happiness.

Epictetus taught that:

“It is not events that disturb people, but it is their judgments concerning them.” Enchiridion 5. He then goes on to add “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” Enchiridion 1(5).

Consistent with Stoic philosophy REBT argues that adversity in and of itself is insufficient to produce maladaptive, self-defeating emotional disturbance. In REBT emotional disturbance is defined as emotional and behavioral reactions that are self-defeating, unhealthy, and undermine our primary goals of survival and happiness. Ellis argued that all other goals and values were subsumed under these two overarching goals.

Ellis presented the relationship between our tacit attitudes and the subsequent emotional and behavioral reactions we display when we encounter adversity using what came to be known as the ABC theory of emotional disturbance.

Before introduction to REBT theory, people will often wrongly believe that their emotional upset is a result of encountering adversity. People will attribute adversity, assigned the letter (A), as the direct cause of their Consequential Emotional and Behavioral Reactions which I will here assign the letter (C). Ellis in keeping with Stoic Philosophy showed people that is not adversity (A), but our Basic Attitudes at point (B), in the ABC model which largely produce our consequential emotional and behavioral reactions (C).

REBT distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. It is important to note that healthy negative emotions are not to be erased or eliminated. The experiencing of healthy negative emotions in the face of adversity is good and self-helping and result when our desires, wishes, wants, and preferences are undermined by the presence of adversity. Healthy negative emotions result in motivation that leads to productive action to change what can be changed.

There are essentially eight healthy negative emotions which include concern, sadness, remorse, disappointment, sorrow, productive anger, relationship preserving jealousy, and productive, motivating envy. In contrast to these healthy negative emotions are eight unhealthy and self-defeating negative emotions which are anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, hurt, unproductive anger, relationship interfering jealousy, and unproductive, self-disturbing envy.

The primary characteristic of unhealthy negative emotions is that they are self-defeating. These negative feelings interfere with a person’s ability to live well with that which cannot be changed. They also undermine effort to improve things. Unhealthy negative emotions often lead to excessive behavior (e.g., aggressive behavior) or lead to self-defeating avoidance and escape behavior that is unhealthy such as excessive use of alcohol, sex, exercise, or procrastination. Most importantly unhealthy negative emotions are likely to interfere with a person experiencing some degree of happiness in the presence of unchangeable adversity.

By contrast, the essential characteristics of healthy negative emotions are that they provide us important feedback that what we value, want, desire, and prefer is not occurring. These feelings motivate us to change what can be changed and to get more of what we want and less of what we do not want. Healthy negative emotions do not undermine our efforts to achieve our goals and allow us to live well with adversity when it cannot be changed. Essentially despite the presence of negative emotion which is associated with being blocked or obstructed by adversity the individual can still have some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity. Learning how to experience some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity is an important skill to cultivate because the human condition is such that new problems manifest themselves throughout our lifespan. If we do not learn how to have some degree of equanimity or happiness despite the never-ending parade of problems that occur in life we are likely to have a pretty dismal existence.

Epictetus said:

 “Remember that you are an actor in a play, the nature of which is up to the director to decide. If he wants the play to be short, it will be short, if he wants it long, it will be long. And if he casts you as one of the poor, or as a cripple, as a king or a commoner – whatever the role assigned, the accomplished actor will accept and perform it with impartial skill. But the assignment of roles belongs to another. (Enchiridion 17)

Epictetus also said,

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” Enchiridion 8

Inspired by Epictetus, REBT also encourages acceptance. We are very precise in our definition of what it means to accept things. In our view, acceptance means to acknowledge that something exists which is against our goals & values and that it would be preferable for this particular reality not to exist. However, in REBT we acknowledge that it does not logically follow to conclude that the negative reality must not exist. Furthermore we in REBT encourage firm determination to change the existing negative conditions if they can be changed and to have determination to adjust constructively with conditions that cannot be changed.

Epictetus taught:

 “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgment that death is frightening now that is something to be afraid of. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves that is, our judgments accountable.

In REBT we emphasize what is called the Principle of Emotional Responsibility. Like Epictetus quoted above, we teach that humans largely disturb themselves about adversity. Emotional disturbance does not happen to us. We are not victims of misfortune so much as victims of our rigid and extreme attitudes we hold towards what other people do to us and what fate throws our way. In REBT we argue the individual nearly always has some degree of emotional choice in how he reacts to adversity.

As a result of this view the REBT psychotherapist will challenge the person experiencing emotional disturbance with questions such as “How are you angering yourself about your colleague’s misbehavior?” or “What attitude could you adopt to help you respond productively to this adversity and to live well despite its continued existence in your life?”. Leading REBT psychotherapist Dr. Windy Dryden restates Epictetus’s famous dictum this way, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their rigid and extreme attitudes concerning them.”

Epictetus taught:

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation…” Enchiridion 20

In REBT we teach this idea of complicity in our self-defeating emotional reactions by introducing to the client the ABC model of emotional disturbance. This framework helps the client see that their rigid and extreme attitudes, assigned the letter B, come between adversity, assigned the letter A, and their emotional and behavioral reactions, assigned the letter C. Prior to REBT therapy clients will think “My colleague made me angry because he absolutely should cooperate with me on this project!” This statement shows that the client’s model of emotion is that A (adversity) directly leads to C (emotional and behavioral consequence). The client sees himself as a victim of misfortune.

In REBT therapy we teach that healthy emotional reactions are the consequence of relinquishing rigid and extreme attitudes towards adversity and replacing them with flexible and non-extreme, healthy attitudes towards it. So the individual is encouraged to adopt a position such as “I wish my colleague would cooperate with me on this project, but he does NOT HAVE to cooperate with me. I will choose a healthy attitude towards his uncooperative behavior and then take steps to influence him to cooperate to whatever extent I can.” As a result of this flexible attitude towards a negative state of affairs, the individual will lead to healthy, productive negative feelings of disappointment, sorrow, concern and\or productive anger.

Ellis held that all humans are born and reared to hold, to greater or lesser extent, rigid and extreme attitudes. Fortunately, Ellis taught that humans also were born and reared to hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes. In his view irrational, self-defeating attitudes and rational, self-helping attitudes are part of the human condition and both are rooted in our biology. This view, therefore, implies that we will never eliminate the irrationality that lurks within us. We can greatly reduce the intensity, frequency, and duration of its expression in our lives but we will always remain fallible, humans despite having the potential for significant growth and self-actualization.

Epictetus emphasized that

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” Discourses 1.2.32

Like Epictetus, Ellis argued that humans can train themselves, through much work and practice, to detect, challenge, and relinquish rigid and extreme attitudes that underpin emotional disturbance. He emphasized deliberate effort at adopting healthy, self-helping flexible and non-extreme attitudes. He also warned that because our self-defeating rigid thinking was biologically rooted we need to guard against backsliding as we can easily return to previous counterproductive ways of thinking, emoting, and behaving. Here again the way to prevent backsliding through work and practice of rational thinking, emoting and behaving, much like Epictetus advocated.

Unlike other modern cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies that have followed REBT, I argue that REBT is both a philosophy and a system of psychotherapy. As psychotherapy, it teaches people to question and relinquish their rigid and extreme attitudes and to adopt flexible and non-extreme attitudes. As a philosophy, it suggests values to live by which I will cover towards the end of today’s presentation.

Epictetus taught that “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.” Discourses 1.29.35 REBT also encourages the active study and use of the rational attitudes discussed in the psychotherapy session. To this end, clients are encouraged to reflect on their rigid and extreme attitudes when they are in their home environment to help themselves when they disturb themselves between sessions. We encourage clients to study REBT and to gain a firm understanding of its core ideas through home study that can take the form of reading self-help books on REBT or listening to instructional audio on REBT like those found at my website Like Epictetus we want the client to live and act in a way consistent with REBT philosophy and to forcefully dispute their rigid attitudes when disturbed, to practice through repetition healthy, rational attitudes, and to strive to live in harmony with them when the going of life gets rough!

The theory of REBT holds that four attitudes are responsible for nearly all non-psychotic emotional disturbance. One attitude is primary, and three derive from it and are secondary. Ellis humorously named the core attitude “musturbation” but also referred to it as “Demandingness.” He argued that absolutistic, rigid, dogmatic, anti-scientific attitudes were at the core of emotional disturbance. These attitudes can be expressed in different ways with words like (absolutely) must, (absolutely) should, (absolutely) have to, and (absolutely) need to. Ellis taught clients to assume that just about all their dogmatic musts fell under three major headings as follows:

  1. “I absolutely must perform well on important projects and be approved of by significant people or else I am an inadequate and unlovable person!”
  2. “Other people, particularly those I have cared for and treated well, absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly, or else they are rotten individuals who deserve to suffer!”
  3. “The conditions under which I live absolutely must be easy, unfrustrating, predictable, secure, and enjoyable or else the world’s an awful place, I can’t stand it, and I’ll never be happy!”

From these three musts at the core of emotional disturbance, three extreme secondary attitudes arise. These derivative attitudes are:

  1. It is awful, terrible, the end of the world (Awfulizing)
  2. It is intolerable, unbearable, I cannot stand it (Discomfort Disturbance)
  3. The Devaluation of self, others, life (Disturbance related to Human Worth

REBT teaches that if rigid attitudes are the core of disturbance, then flexible attitudes are at the center of emotional health. The characteristics of these healthy flexible attitudes are that they are empirically valid, logical and promote adaptation to the circumstances of life. They are typically expressed with words like want, wish, prefer, and desire. For example, in reference to the previously mentioned individual who has been angering himself over a colleague’s uncooperative behavior in the workplace, this man could move towards greater tolerance and emotional equanimity by holding the attitude “I want and strongly prefer that my colleague cooperate with me on this project, but it does not follow that he absolutely must cooperate with me on this project.”

As for the three derivatives non-extreme attitudes that derive from this healthy attitude of desiring and preferring cooperation from one’s colleague, those attitudes would be:

  1. It is bad, undesirable, inconvenient, etc. but not awful, terrible or the end of the world that I do not have his cooperation on this project.
  2. My colleague’s lack of cooperation is uncomfortable but not unbearable, intolerable, or something I cannot survive and live with as I do this project.
  3. My colleague is doing a bad deed by not cooperating with me but is not a bad person. His bad behavior is proof he is a fallible human, not proof he is a bad human. I can unconditionally accept him as a person while strongly condemning and never liking his bad, uncooperative behavior.

An alternative way of understanding the philosophy of REBT is that through the adaptation of flexible and non-extreme attitudes the individual to adopt a philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance (USA), unconditional other acceptance (UOA), and unconditional life acceptance (ULA).

Epictetus taught:

 “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be your own; and you will be all the witness you could desire.” Enchiridion 23

In my view this quotation is similar to REBT’s view of unconditional self-acceptance.

Epictetus goes on to say:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” Discourses I.18.13

In this quote I think we see Epictetus teaching a view of others that is highly consistent with REBT’s view of unconditional other-acceptance.

Epictetus also teaches:

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: This is the path to peace.”Enchiridion 8

I think this view by Epictetus is very close to REBT’s concept of unconditional life-acceptance.

Earlier I pointed out that unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies which followed it, REBT has and articulates specific philosophical values. Ellis argued that by striving to adopt these values a human would be moving towards emotional well-being and self-actualization. Here you see REBT going beyond the treatment of emotional disturbance and pointing the way towards emotional health and life satisfaction. Depending on your definition of what constitutes a philosophy, one could argue that it is the articulation of these guidelines that makes REBT more than a psychotherapy and perhaps a philosophy. These values include:

  1. Self-interest (enlightened self-interest)
  2. Social interest
  3. Self-direction
  4. High frustration and discomfort tolerance
  5. Flexibility in thinking, open to change, unbigoted
  6. Acceptance of Uncertainty
  7. Commitment to creative and meaningful pursuits
  8. Scientific thinking
  9. Self, Other and Life Acceptance
  10. Calculated Risk-taking
  11. Long-range hedonism (hedonic calculus)
  12. Nonutopianism & nonperfectionism related to self, others, and life
  13. Self-responsibility for own emotional disturbance

(REBT’s Principle of Emotional Responsibility)

Time does not allow me to point out the overlap between most REBT’s values for emotional well-being and those found within Stoic philosophy. I have already attempted to point out how discomfort tolerance, self/other/life acceptance, and the Principle of Emotional Responsibility can be seen in the quotations of Epictetus. I would show how REBT’s value for long-range hedonism is consistent with the words of Epictetus as shown in this quote:

 “As with impressions generally, if you get an impression of something pleasurable, watch yourself so that you are not carried away with it. Take a minute and let the matter wait on you. Then reflect on both intervals of time: the time you will have to experience the pleasure, and the time after its enjoyment that you will beat yourself up over it. Contrast that with how happy and pleased you’ll be if you abstain. If the chance to do the deed presents itself, take extra care that you are not overcome by its seductiveness, pleasure, and allure. Counter temptation by remembering how much better will be the knowledge that you resisted.” Enchiridion 34

I would like to close my presentation today by asserting that you consider adding REBT to your study of Stoicism. I believe that REBT is very consistent with many of the teachings of Stoic philosophy. I attempted to use Epictetus’s own words to support my view. I will add that like Stoicism, REBT is a tough-minded philosophy that holds up well when your worst nightmare or adversity occurs. I think REBT can help you as you strive to live virtuously as a fallible human in a challenging world.

For those of you who are mental health professionals or involved in philosophical coaching my recently published book, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide may be useful to you if you wish to go beyond today’s presentation. For those of you who are not mental health professionals but wish to learn more about how you can use REBT in your life you may want to go to my website There you will find a number of audios and videos you can listen to at no charge. Finally, Ellis was a prolific writer of self-help literature and here a couple of three of the many titles that might be useful to you in learning to apply REBT to your problems of everyday living include:

  1. How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable (A. Ellis)
  2. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything! (A. Ellis)
  3. How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You(A. Ellis)

Thank you for your attention.

Walter Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and REBT practitioner.  He teaches for New York University, maintains the website, and is the co-author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide.

Stoic Echoes in the Upanishads by Eric O. Scott

What is the cause of the cosmos? Is it Brahman?
From where do we come? By what live?
Where shall we find peace at last?
What power governs the duality
Of pleasure and pain by which we are driven?
—The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.1

When you subscribe to a tradition as rich and universally relatable as Stoicism, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels to Stoic doctrines in other philosophies, books, movies, and poems.  If we were keeping score, I would probably nominate Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” to take top points for the most “Stoic-non-Stoic” writing ever to impact a culture, and whole books could be (and have been) written on the intersection between Stoic and Christian ethics.  We all like to compare and contrast new ideas against what we know and understand, and—as any moderator of a modern Stoic social media group knows—the list of objects we could substitute into the formula “How is Stoicism like X?” is effectively endless.

When it comes to Eastern traditions, Buddhism certainly takes the cake as far as being the most-discussed philosophy in the modern Stoic community (I count at least eight articles on Buddhist links in the Stoicism Today blog alone, and our Western Buddhist brothers and sisters, for their part, have also noticed the common ground).  Taoism is a close second, thanks to the (at least superficial) similarity between Laozi’s ziran/wuwei and Zeno’s injunction to “follow nature.”  Confucianism gets mentioned occasionally (though not often enough, in my opinion) for the close common ground it shares with Greco-Roman virtue ethics.

Amidst all this bustling conversation in today’s “Fifth Stoa,” Hindu philosophy often goes under-appreciated, I think.  A few months ago, inspired in no small part by Peter Adamson’s spectacular History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast and book series, I undertook to read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (which is sometimes known as the “Upanishad of the Upanishads”)—the famously beautiful texts that form the cornerstone of Indian philosophy—and what I found there pretty much knocked my socks off.

Reading the Upanishads is an amazing and sublime experience for anyone, whether you are an expert or a novice on Indian thought, and whether you are a theist, are sympathetic to mysticism, or are a secular atheist like myself.  As a practicing Stoic, moreover, I can’t help but notice substantial similarities in the questions, solutions, arguments, and metaphors that both traditions share in common.

Granted, traditions as distant divergent as Hinduism and Roman Stoicism no doubt have more differences than similarities, and it is extremely difficult (some say impossible) to really compare two lived traditions of life practice in a remotely comprehensive way.  It’s not that I put a very great or profound weight on the similarities between these two different traditions, or that I believe they are more similar than any other pair of philosophies.  We must always be cautious, I hasten to add, about the misconceptions we might get by trying to fit distant square pegs into familiar round holes.  But I do find it exhilarating to point out the shared problems and values that humans come to emphasize, even across vast geographical and cultural distances.   Collecting the “seeds of virtue,” as the ancients would say, that humans exhibit all across the world is an excellent way to go about learning about new cultures—and, I would add, to learn about ourselves in the process.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me share a number of significant (if arbitrary and unsystematic) correspondences to the Upanishads that struck me—a practicing modern Stoic born and raised in the American Midwest—as eerily familiar, even profound during my amateur tour of the Indian classics.  As I read, the sheer number of connections grew at a much faster rate than I anticipated, and when I started to haphazardly jot them down, I realized that the common ground between the Stoic and Hindu classics is much weightier than I anticipated.


Overall, I’ve noticed correspondences in three broad areas: resilience and happiness, ethical action, and theory versus practice.

Under resilience and happiness, I noticed that both traditions recognize right out the door that their value system will need to be defended against skeptical readers who ask challenging questions.  Like Stoicism, the Upanishads deny that externals have genuine value, and they insist that happiness comes from some unassailable place within ourselves.  They even invent some of the same metaphors that the Stoics used later to drive home this point: where the Stoics have an “inner citadel,” the Upanishads give us the “city of Brahman,” and where Stoic determinism gives us a “dog tied to a cart,” the Upanishadic view of the body gives us an “ox tied to a cart.”

When it comes to ethical action, both traditions position themselves as a “middle way” that balances unhealthy (and amoral) detachment from the world against irrational and destructive passions.  The Upanishads present an idea of socially-engaged, “detached action” that inspired no less than the likes of Ghandi.  Like the Stoics, moreover, they suggest that our natural human emotions and senses—while not ultimate goods in themselves—are meant to help inform and motivate our actions toward moral excellence.  The Upanishadic of view of Karma also turns out (unexpectedly, in my perhaps naïve view) to have a strong parallel to the role that moral habituation plays in the Greek view of ethical development.  And the Stoic ethic of cosmopolitan love, with its basis in the universal Logos shared by all humankind, turns out to have a startling similarity to the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain notion of ahimsa, which the Upanishads attribute to humankind’s universal share in the Self (Atman).

Finally, the famous Stoic emphasis on the primacy of practice over theory is strongly mirrored in the Upanishads.  And while their metaphysics and epistemology appear very different on the surface—with the Stoics emphasizing reason, argument, and materialism, in contrast to the Upanishads‘ meditation, non-cognition, and universal Self—I found that the mystic emphasis on consciousness as the fundamental property of the universe feels quite similar, on some level, to the Stoic fascination with the Logos that structures the cosmos and underlies our human capacity for thought.

That summarizes the story I want to tell.  The rest of this essay will go through and explain each of these purported correspondences in more detail.

Resilience and Happiness

Preempting Skeptics

Both the Upanishadic and Stoic traditions advocate for the extirpation of emotions and values that many people normally associate with happiness and flourishing.  This means that, at their core, texts in both traditions tend to be aware that readers may very well be skeptical of the values they present.

For instance, in one of the longest and most famous of the Upanishads—the Chandogya Upanishad—no less than the god Indra himself gives voice to such skeptical concerns. Each time Indra repeatedly approaches the god Prajapati to become enlightened, he comes away dissatisfied by Prajapati’s answers.  Finally, when Prajapati tries to tell him that realizing Brahman is like “sleeping soundly, free from dreams, with a still mind,” Indra has had enough (8.11.1):

The state of dreamless sleep is very close to extinction.  In this knowledge I see no value.

This exchange struck me as closely related to the initial objections that people often have (starting with Crantor’s famous objection to Stoicism in the 3rd century B.C.E.)  to the Greek doctrine of apatheia.  If pursuing philosophy means suppressing our natural human emotions and instincts, then that sounds like the opposite of healthy flourishing!   Both traditions handle this objection in part by agreeing with it:  suppression of human nature is indeed unhealthy, but that is not what we advocate.  Whatever you may need to sacrifice to follow our path, great, genuine happiness and flourishing is nonetheless to be found without the attachments and passions that we have rejected (via, say, the eupatheia, or the lasting joy found in moksha).

Externals Aren’t the Point

Both traditions share a de-emphasis on the inherent value of pleasure and external things.  Both see externals as natural and worth enjoying, but teach that there is something more important and deeply joyful than pleasure.  See especially the remarks that Yama (the god of death) makes after testing Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad:

Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.
Those who are wise recognize this, but not
The ignorant.  The first welcome what leads
To abiding joy, though painful at the time.
The latter run, goaded by their senses,
After what seems immediate pleasure.
Well have you renounced these passing pleasures
So dear to the senses, Nachiketa,
And turned your back on the way of the world
That makes mankind forget the goal of life.

We can easily see connections here to the way the Greeks discuss joy, flourishing, and the human telos.  Both traditions also emphasize the control of the passions, and the existence of a form of consciousness that can rise above sense impressions.  Both teach that this higher part of our existence is part of our fundamental nature.

Happiness is Invulnerable

Along a similar vein, both teach that we can find true happiness by seeking something that we carry within us already.  “Seek and realize the Self!” says the Chandogya Upanishad  (8.7.1):

Those who seek and realize the Self fulfill all their desires and attain the goal supreme.

Moreover, in the ensuing interaction between the gods Indra and Prajapati, we see the same insistence as in the Greeks that the answer to our life’s fulfillment ought to be something that is preserved in the face of any misfortune.  Much like in Stoic syllogisms, Indra rejects the body as the ultimate Self, because it can be injured and become blind or lame; he rejects dreams, because we can experience pain and injury even in dreams, etc.  At each step, he repeats “in such knowledge, I can see no value.”  Like the philosophers of ancient Greece, he is looking for a source of consolation that is utterly invulnerable to misfortune.

Citadels, Dogs, and Carts

Interestingly, I noticed two key metaphors that the two traditions seem to have independently invented: the citadel and the cart.

The Stoic image of the inner citadel is comparable to the comforting role that the “city of Brahman” plays in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.5).  Just like the Stoics use the ultimate value and invulnerability of virtue as the basis of their consolations, the Upanishads emphasize the permanence and supreme value of the Self (Atman):

Never fear that old age will invade that city; never fear that this inner treasure of all reality will wither and decay.  This knows no age when the body ages; this know no dying when the body dies.  This is the real city of Brahman; this is the Self, free from old age, free from death and grief, hunger and thirst.

Something very similar to the Stoic “dog and cart” metaphor appears in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.2):

In that state, free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing.  They know the Self is not this body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to its cart.

The Katha Upanishad also uses a vivid depiction of a chariot and horses to describe the parts of the Self.  This is awfully similar to Plato’s famous chariot allegory, though used to different effect.  Granted, the Stoic and Platonic views of human nature differ substantially, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.


Finally, both traditions share an interest in death meditation.  Notably in the Katha Upanishad (1.6):

like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again .

Ethical Action

The Middle Way

A second critical objection that both traditions must fend off is the question of how, once we accept the claim that what is really valuable comes from within, can we motivate a life of action and ethical engagement with the external world?

The Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita respond to this challenge by emphasizing the need for a combination of detachment and action.  The basic argument is that we are wretched if we neglect either one.

An especially stirring statement of this principle is found in the Isha Upanishad.  Mahatma Gandhi famously considered the Isha, which is one of the shortest of the Upanishads, to be the most important summary of Hindu philosophy.  Here is what it has to say about action:

In the dark live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real.  The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.

This suggests that the life of an enlightened Sage assumes the form of a middle way between total detachment and totally attached action.  For me, this passage in the Isha evokes Epictetus’ remarks about the similar balance Stoicism aims to strike (Discourses, 2.5.9):

It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind, the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible.  For otherwise it would be impossible for us to be happy.

Stoicism too, of course, positioned itself as a middle way between Cynicism (which they considered overly detached, sometimes to the point of amorality) and the Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Cyrenaics, who they viewed as falling into the opposite extreme.

Detached Action

The notion of “detached action” also plays a key role at the beginning of the Gita.  This component of Indian tradition established very early on that we should do good for its own sake, not out of concern for external reward or even Karma.  The parallel here to Greco-Roman virtue ethics is strong and obvious.

On that note, the god Yama briefly mentions that our emotions toward external things help “prompt us to action” (Kata Upanishad, 2.1).   This is also a popular interpretation of Stoic proto-passions—the idea being that our natural human emotions serve as information processors or warning signals that may help focus our attention and prompt us toward our duty.

Moral Habituation and Karma

The concept of moral habituation, which is absolutely fundamental to much of Greek ethics (from Socrates and Aristotle to the Stoics), makes an appearance in the Upanishads as part of the explanation for how the law of Karma operates (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5):

As a person acts, so he becomes in life.  Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad.

This argument did a great deal to demystify Karma for me.  Rather than a cosmic “scorekeeper” that somehow tracks our actions and pays out rewards, the Upanishads describe Karma as the natural results of a process of moral habituation:

We live in accordance with our deep, driving desire.  It is this desire at the time of death that determines what our next life will be.  We will come back to earth to work out the satisfaction of that desire.

While the Stoics weren’t generally sympathetic to the Pythagorean theory of a cycle of rebirths, this view of Karma nonetheless resonates with the Stoic focus on training our desires and aversions to be directed at what is truly valuable in life.

Cosmopolitanism and Ahimsa

The Upanishadic case for universal love is based on the idea that we love others because the universal Self (Atman) lives in all of us (the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.5):

Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it.

And again in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7.4):

When you look into another’s eyes, what you see is the self, fearless and deathless.  That is Brahman, the supreme.

This tradition is what gave rise to the famous concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), so prevalent across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Both ahimsa and the rationale behind it strike me as remarkably similar to the Stoic notion that humanity belongs to one family because of our mutual share in the Divine Reason (Logos).  The analog to ahimsa, then, is the cosmopolis.

Unlike ahimsa, however, classical Stoic cosmopolitanism (like Western tradition more broadly) excludes concern for animals (since animals do not share in Reason).  Most contemporary Stoics, I think, consider this a clear shortcoming of our tradition: we are very much interested in expanding the sphere of Stoic Justice to explicitly include concern for animals (see for instance Leonidas Konstantakos’ essay, “Would a Stoic Save the Elephants?“).  Whether we can do that by appealing to a more general notion of the Logos that includes animals, or whether we need to rely on additional moral arguments, is a question I hope today’s Stoics will work on and flesh out.

Theory versus Practice

Going Beyond Books

Wisdom is found in practice and self-understanding, not in book smarts.  Epictetus’ remarks about the inadequacy of simply mastering Chrysippus’ logic (as impressive a feat as that may be) find a parallel in the incomplete education of Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad (chapter 6), and to the impressive resumé of Narada, who has, it seems, learned absolutely everything except how to live a good life (7.1.2–3):

I know the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—and the epics, called the fifth.  I have studied grammar, rituals, mathematics, astronomy, logic, economics, physics, psychology, the fine arts, and even snake-charming.  But all this knowledge has not helped me to know the Self.  I have heard from spiritual teachers like you that one who realizes the Self goes beyond sorrow.  I am lost in sorrow.  Please teach me how to go beyond.

Along these lines, the Mundaka Upanishad also draws an interesting distinction between “higher” and “lower” knowledge (1.4–5).

The illumined sages say
Knowledge is twofold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
Rituals, astronomy, and all the arts
Can be called lower knowledge.  The higher
Is that which leads to Self-realization.

Consciousness and Logos

The tradition of Stoic physics is one that brings us right up to the edge of mystic territory, even if it stops short of entering into the same sorts of meditations or conclusions that we associate with mystic tradition proper.  As such, Stoicism shares with the Upanishads (and other mystic traditions) a fascination with consciousness, and a belief that consciousness (or something closely related to it) is a fundamental aspect of the universe.

“All reality is consciousness,” says the Aitareya Upanishad, in one of the four great utterances that are considered to sum up Upanishadic philosophy.


The ecumenical view I have presented here notwithstanding, in the last analysis it may very well be that the differences between Stoic and Hindu traditions dramatically outweigh their similarities.  The cultural context, metaphysical assumptions, and matrix of background models and questions that each of these literatures arose in were entirely different.  Here I haven’t attempted anything resembling a proper introduction to the traditions inspired by the Upanishads and how their special characteristics differentiate them from Greek and Western thought.  But to highlight one fundamental difference, the Upanishadic approach to knowledge and to ultimate human flourishing places heavy emphasis on using meditation to look into ourselves to discover the essence of both our nature and cosmic reality.  Take for instance, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (1.2,11):

In the depths of meditation, sages
Saw within themselves the Lord of Love,
Who dwells in the heart of every creature…

In deep meditation aspirants may
See forms like snow or smoke.  They feel
A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.
They may see within them more and more light:
Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon.  These are signs
That they are well on their way to Brahman.

This idea is of meditation and self-realization is a (if not the) major unifying theme of the Upanishads, and it does not strike me as at all equivalent to the Stoic aspiration toward virtue, or toward using scientific inquiry to understand the cosmic Logos.  It thus seems to represent a fundamental difference between the two traditions’ methods and aim.

Nevertheless, by taking the time to think about the common ground between a few of these foundational books from human history, I’d like to think that I’ve learned more, not just about Indian philosophy and what it considers important for human life, but about Stoicism too, and what makes the path of the prokopton valuable and meaningful.  If resilience and happiness, ethical action, and a practical approach to theory are what jump out to me as salient when I compare the Stoics to the Upanishads, it suggests that those three kinds of activity are the pillars of what really matters in Stoic practice.  All the other details—whether it is the logic of Chrysippus, or the “Vedas and linguistics,” or “even snake-charming”—is secondary.


Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.