Stoic Week Participants: Please Fill in the Questionnaires As Soon As You Can

Stoic Week 2015 Questionnaires 

If you intend to take part in Stoic week, please can you spend a few minutes (less than 15) helping us by filling in the questionnaires. 

This is important to us because it helps us research the effect being Stoic has on people. This year the SABS scale, which gives an indication of how Stoic you are, has been enhanced. We intend to give everyone who fills in the questionnaires both before and after Stoic week individualised feedback about their final scores in the SABS scale.

To complete the questionnaires visit:
http://tinyurl.com/StoicWeek2015Q
or
http://timlebon.checkboxonline.com/StoicWeek2015.aspx

Your help is  much appreciated

With kind regards
The Stoicism Today Project Team

Starting Stoic Week 2015

Start Stoic Week 2015 by reading this blog post.

Stoic Week Handbook 2015Welcome to Stoic Week 2015: Modern-day Meditations Inspired by Marcus Aurelius!

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person.

We’d like to keep track of the number of participants so please take a moment to enrol on the Modern Stoicism e-learning site if possible.  (If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to create an account on the site.)

Modern Stoicism

The e-learning site, managed by Donald Robertson, has many other resources to help you get the most out of Stoic Week 2015.  It also hosts the discussion forums where you can meet other participants and share your Stoic journal entries for the week, if you wish.  Take a moment to introduce yourself!  At the time of writing, over 2,400 people have already enrolled in advance to take part and we look set to exceed last year’s total of 2,650 participants.

Once you’ve registered (or if you choose not to) you can complete the preliminary questionnaires for Stoic Week 2015 prepared by Tim LeBon:

Preliminary Questionnaires

Collecting data like this is of tremendous importance to the future continuation of Stoic Week.  (We’re interested in the mean scores rather than your individual responses but you can choose to skip this step if you really want to.)   It allows us to measure to what extent Stoic Week has an effect and to gather basic demographic information on the type of people who take part.  In previous years, participants have enjoyed completing these forms because they found them insightful, especially the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) developed by our own Stoicism Today team.

The Stoic Week 2015 Handbook will be available on Modern Stoicism in HTML format, and also for download in EPUB, MOBI (Kindle), PDF, and plain text (MarkDown) formats.  That means you can read it on a mobile device, even if you’re offline, on a train for instance.  If you’re completing the questionnaires it’s essential that you do so before downloading or reading the Handbook, or starting the Stoic Week exercises.

The Handbook will be available a day or two before Monday 2nd November, the official start of Stoic Week, to give people time to read the initial sections before they begin putting it into practice.  We’ll announce via social networks, our blogs, and Modern Stoicism, when it’s ready for download.  If you register at Modern Stoicism, though, you’ll receive an email notification.

Stoic Week events in Pennsylvania at Slippery Rock University

Attention Pennsylvania Stoics!

For any Stoics in or near Pennsylvania, The Philosophy Department and Philosophy Club are having their inaugural Slippery Rock University Stoic Week series of events.

Please click on the link to see all the details.

Pennsylvania Meeting

Highlights include:

November 2nd – 6th
Live Like a Stoic for a Week
Attend Information Meeting or contact Dr. Andrew Winters

November 12th
Keynote Address – “Stoic Tests: A Study Guide”
Dr. William B. Irvine

A Stoicism panel, and more!

Be there if you can make it, and if not share on social media to those in the area who might be interested.

Stoic Week 2015 & Stoicon Press Release

Move over mindfulness, the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism is making a comeback!

Stoicon

 

STOICON 2015 is an all-day conference taking place at Queen Mary, University of London on November 7 2015. The full schedule is here. It’s the third annual conference of the Stoicism Today research project, which brings together classicists, philosophers and psychotherapists to explore the relevance of Stoic philosophy to modern life. This year, STOICON speakers include BBC historian Bettany Hughes, psychotherapist and author Vincent Deary, New York skeptic Massimo Pigliucci, and many others. Members of the public can buy tickets here (contact Jules.evans@mac.com for concessions if you’re unemployed or a student). Journalists can be accredited and attend the one-day event for free.

We’re also running our annual free online week-long course on Stoicism, ‘Stoic Week’, from the 2nd to the 9th of November. Over 2000 people have already enrolled – we’re aiming to beat last year’s total of 2600 people taking part. Participants fill in psychometric questionnaires at the beginning and end of the week to allow us to assess the impact of practicing various Stoic exercises. You can enroll for the course here.

As Medium magazine noted this month, Stoicism is ‘having a cultural moment‘, as people rediscover its wisdom and therapeutic usefulness. Our project has explored how Stoicism directly inspired both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and modern resilience psychology. Its insights are increasingly influential in sports psychology – some of the success of Superbowl-winning Patriots last season has been put down to the fact that many of the team read Ryan Holiday’s guide to Stoicism, ‘The Obstacle is the Way’, while the Premiership-winning rugby team Saracens also has a regular philosophy group where players and staff discuss insights from ancient philosophy. Stoicism is also very popular with entrepreneurs – Tim Ferriss, start-up guru, says ‘for entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend’. It’s popular with celebrities, from Derren Brown to Elle Macpherson, with comedians (John Lloyd, Alexei Sayle and Adrian Edmondson are all fans) and with the military (both the Navy Seals and the SAS now teach Stoic insights to new recruits). It’s attracting the interest of the general public – Massimo Pigliucci’s New York Times article earlier this year, ‘How to be a Stoic‘, was the NYT’s most emailed story that week. And it is beginning to be taught and discussed in schools, where it fits well with the contemporary emphasis on teaching resilience and character.

Jules Evans, philosopher at Queen Mary and organizer of STOICON, says:

‘For the last few years, a group of us here in the UK have been exploring the therapeutic usefulness of Stoicism, and working for its revival in modern culture. You could say that Stoicism is the European version of mindfulness, although far fewer people in the West know about it. We’ve had some success in making Stoicism better known, and the revival is now going transatlantic, and beginning to take off in a big way in the US as well. Stoicism is incredibly accessible, wise, and it really works, particularly in difficult life situations. I’d really encourage you to come along to the event and / or to enroll in the week-long course.’

We can help journalists get quotes and interviews with other STOICON speakers, such as Professor Chris Gill, Massimo Pigliucci, or philosopher William Irvine, and there are vibrant Stoic Facebook and Reddit pages where ordinary Stoics can be contacted for quotes about how the philosophy helps them. There is also an online group, NewStoa, which can provide comment. We can also put you in touch with a prison philosophy group which explores Stoic philosophy, and with sports-teams who use it to improve their performance. You are also welcome to attend the STOICON conference for free, although it would be great if media organisations could mention Stoic Week and Stoicon before the week, to help encourage participation.

Contact: jules.evans@mac.com, mobile 07912 611 482

Stoic Event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Attention Wisconsin Stoics!

Title:  Four Components of a Happy Life – A Stoic Week 2015 Event

Location:  Hudson Business Lounge, 310 N Broadway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202

Date/Time:  Thursday, November 5, 7:00-8:30 PM

Event Description:  As a part of the international celebration of Stoic Week 2015, Greg Sadler will be providing a free public lecture on Stoic ideas and techniques focused on living a happier life. The lecture portion will be followed by some Q&A and discussion. In the talk, he will introduce Stoicism as an influential ancient school of Philosophy that continues on today, practised worldwide as modern reinterpretations of classic Stoicism. After briefly discussing some of the key figures associated with the Stoic perspective, Greg will focus on four key components of Stoic practical philosophy – readily applicable today – that they viewed as central to living a happier life. The event will be Greg’s first in his new shared workspace at the Hudson Business Lounge in Milwaukee. Space will be limited to the first 50 participants. Handouts providing additional information about the materials discussed will be provided to participants as well.

The event will be video-recorded.  The video will be one of the seven that Greg will be producing and releasing during Stoic Week (the others are going to focus largely on Cicero’s discussions of Stoic philosophy this year).  There will also be an online follow-up session for YouTube/G+/FB followers on the afternoon of the 8th, using a G+ Hangout.

Be there if you can make it, and if not share on social media to those in the area who might be interested.

Events in New York During Stoic Week

Attention all Stoics in the Big Apple!

The New York City Stoics will be holding two meetups bracketing Stoic Week 2015 to provide in-person support and discussion for the event.

1st November – Introduction to Stoic Week 2015: http://www.meetup.com/New-York-City-Stoics/events/226162709/

8th November – Stoic Week 2015 debriefing: http://www.meetup.com/New-York-City-Stoics/events/226163620/

Be there if you can make it, and if not share on social media to those in the area who might be interested.

'Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Sourced here.
Sourced here.

The ancient Stoics never had to worry about problems of biological extinction and resource sustainability on a scale such as ours (although they perhaps noticed the extinction of several species due to the hunts in the Coliseum). But if the newsreels are correct, elephants could be extinct in the wild in as little as four years. All of them hunted to death for their tusks, and sometimes their meat. But if a sage were arguing for saving the wild elephants (assuming a sage would), what would that argument look like? Presumably a Stoic argument for keeping the pachyderms from environmental decimation wouldn’t appeal to the reader’s emotions by discussing the methods in which elephants are hunted and slaughtered for the ornamental value of their ivory. A Stoic probably wouldn’t see anything honorable in inciting pity by merely presenting the gruesome pictures of butchered elephants with their faces hacked off, allowing poachers a larger take of the ivory (since humans routinely slaughter other animals anyway). Boogeymen only scare children. So would a Stoic save the elephants (inasmuch as a Stoic could), considering the severe Stoic doctrine of ‘indifferents’? The fundamental tenet holds that nothing except virtue and vice has any moral value, and that nothing bad happens when any animal dies. Does a sage hold it even when an entire species goes extinct?

Since Stoics typically denied any justice existed between men and animals (or any irrational living thing), it may be objected that this poses a significant problem for any Stoicism-inspired environmental ethics. For instance, Chrysippus ‘excellently remarked’ that everything in the world was created for the sake of men and gods, and that men could therefore use animals for their own ends. In fact, Chrysippus believed pigs’ salty flesh was evidence that they were providentially appointed to be human food! In that case, wouldn’t the Stoics accept the slaughter of elephants for the sake of profit from the ivory trade, or for beautiful ivory decorations and furniture? Or at least in order to eat them?

Unlike an argument for Stoic moral obligations to others, it is difficult to propose one for Stoic natural rights. Our concept of environmental ethics, let alone any modern concept of animal rights, would certainly seem bizarre to them. It is Theophrastus, not the Stoics, who is the patron philosopher-saint of animals. However, it is in the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, what is appropriate, to a rational animal that may give the best reasons to produce environmental virtue ethics, and in turn, provide methods to save the elephants (e.g. by educating ivory-buyers, donating money or providing mercenaries to protect the animals, perhaps even farming them, or much less subtly, commandeering them). The reasons are anthropocentric in that they revolve around what has preferred value for us humans, but for the Stoics who are intellectual kin to the rational principle of the universe, why should that be a refutation?

Hierocles, as an orthodox Stoic, understood the entire universe as an organism. This pantheistic universe is identical with Zeus, and everything in it is a part of Zeus. Humans are also a part of the divine organism, but are different than other living things in that we are imbued with a spark of Zeus’s divine reason. That is, we are a part of the universe that can reason- we participate in Zeus’s mind. We can figure out the way the world works. Ever the naturalists, Stoics observed the nature of every part of Zeus, including the living parts, to understand what is natural and appropriate to them. Humans are no exception, and so the Stoics understood that willingly perfecting that which is appropriate for human rationality and sociability is to be prudent, just, moderate, and courageous. These things make up human virtue, the only human good in the Stoic worldview, and to be virtuous is to have perfectly developed the moral character.

Hierocles takes this to be the best starting point for ethics. To know what is in fact appropriate for humans, and to select them, is of utmost importance for a flourishing life. To live according to nature then, to live virtuously, means perfecting our choices in accordance to what is appropriate to ourselves. Appropriation leads the animal to self-preservation, which in turn leads naturally to concern for externals, including the other people around us. If choosing the correct things for our human nature is our appropriate disposition to external property, and (as humans) if affection is our appropriate disposition to our children, and (as living things) if self-preservation is our appropriate disposition to ourselves, then it follows that we humans must consider our external environment carefully and choose the correct external things for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones. That is, for the Stoics our natural disposition necessarily requires us to be virtuous (prudent/just/moderate/courageous) about externals.

The important part here is to understand our roles as humans, and our moral concern for those around us. The upshot of Hierocles’s philosophy follows from his view of the appropriate acts of a human being- a social, rational animal. Here is his model:

Each one of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles, some smaller, others larger, the latter enclosing the former on the basis of their different and unequal dispositions relative to each other. The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a center, his own mind. The circle encloses the body and anything taken for the sake of the body. For it is virtually the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. Next, the second one further removed from the center but enclosing the first circle; this contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The next circle includes other relatives, and this is followed by the circle of local residents, then the circle of fellow-tribesmen, next that of fellow-citizens, and then in the same way the circle of people from neighboring towns, and the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. (Stobaeus 4.671, 7-673, 11 [Long & Sedley 349-50])

For most, it may seem odd that caring for ourselves leads so naturally to caring for others. However, Hierocles uses the natural sociability of humanity to turn from his view of the human condition (from perception of the world, to self-perception, to self-preservation) to get to the pith of his virtue ethics that considers the fundamental nature of humanity. In his view, in order to progress toward human virtue we then ought to:

…draw the circles together somehow toward the center, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones… it is incumbent on us to respect people from the third circle as if they were from the second, and again to respect our other relatives as if they were those from the third circle. For although the greater distance in blood will remove some affection, we must still try hard to assimilate them. The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person… (Ibid.)

He understands that our social roles, and our affections, endear us to those (in various senses) closest to us more than to those further out, but a good person will vigorously attempt to reduce the moral distance between ourselves and others. So our ability to understand and deliberately affect the world leads us to our obligations. We flourish when we take into account Hierocles’s concept of incorporating the outer rings of social relationships into our inner rings of moral concern. In a sense, we consciously keep moving others into us.

Hierocles’s paradigm, despite its incompleteness, provides general guidelines for the new Stoics two millennia later. Our modern understanding of biological kinship with the other animals (and indeed all life on Earth), along with our modern understanding of our chemical relationship to the Earth,  and the modern environmental challenges our species and many others face would have been enough for Hierocles to add a few more circles to his model had he known about them. At any rate it is enough for the new Stoics to add them, in light of humans’ common evolutionary kinship with the planet. Another great Stoic contemporary of Hierocles, Epictetus, adds to the moral obligation that Hierocles exhorts:

Furthermore you are a citizen of the world and a part of it, not one of the underlings but one of the foremost constituents. For you are capable of attending to the divine government and of calculating its consequences. What then is a citizen’s profession? To regard nothing as of private interest, to deliberate about nothing as though one were cut off [i.e. from the whole].” (Discourses 2.10.1-12 [Long & Sedley 364])

Environmental ethics can (and should) be based on the Stoic concentric circles of moral concern, but would the Stoics themselves have accepted an environmental virtue ethics? Can we call a modern claim Stoic even if the ancient Stoics might have laughed it away? In fact, a moral philosophy that incorporates animals, plant life, and natural resources (however strange this may have sounded to an ancient Stoic ear) may actually be loyal to the implications of ancient Stoic doctrine. Where we can no longer defend the ancient anthropocentric claim of animals and the rest of the world being created for the sake of man, the Stoics today can reinterpret that anthropocentrism to show that self-preservation still leads to universal concern. The Stoic is a person of social action, and there are few problems as universal and deserving of our concern as that of our environmental plight. Admittedly, it still remains to be seen how useful Stoic environmentalism can be by learning what exactly these policies might look like, and how possible or practical they would be to ratify and enforce.

Positing the universe as a super-organism did not end with the ancient Stoic Hierocles, and super-organisms are now seen as biological facts of nature. A Stoic virtue ethics approach to our modern problems deeply considers our intricate connections with our environment, our living universe, and offers us harmony with our extended family and our home: all life on Earth, and our land and air. But how can we begin putting into practice an environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s paradigm that is not trite or sentimental to the point of meaninglessness? Fortunately the Stoic himself provides us with some advice as to how we may get closer to virtue, and to incorporate the distant circles of relationships into our closer ones, by our own inherent impulse to preserve ourselves. The continuation from Hierocles’s quote above becomes our starting point for action:

The principle and practical point has been discussed. But it is necessary to add in also usage in regard to modes of address, calling cousins, uncles, and aunts “brothers,” “fathers,” and “mothers,” and still others “cousins,” in whatever way their ages may run, for the sake of the affection in the names. For this kind of address is a by no means faint sign of the concern we feel for each and at the same time can excite and intensify the above-indicated contraction, as it were, of the circles. (Stobaeus 4.84.23 [Ramelli 93])

In attempting to discover a land ethic the emphasis has typically been placed on utilitarian consequences or the supposed rights of the environment and/or future generations, and the Stoic Hierocles’s paradigm has been woefully overlooked. For our Stoic philosophical ancestors, the problem about choosing to slaughter elephants for the sake of profit, greed, or gaudy ivory decorations would’ve been about what these decisions do to us, to our characters. If the Stoics were to have our modern understanding of evolutionary biology, and therefore a view of the biological relationships we share with all life on earth, they would have incorporated a few more circles into their model. They would not have treated animals like elephants as moral agents with rights, but certainly as preferred indifferents whose welfare we are obligated to take into account, along with our own. The fact that these animals don’t have logos doesn’t mean that we have no obligation toward them. There is in fact a heartening anecdote about the Stoic Cleanthes who, counter to some other Stoics, changed his view on non-human animals when he observed that ants “possess the elements of reason” in their interactions with members of another colony. Knowledge gained through observation changed Cleanthes’s opinions. We’ve learned much more about our natural world through human observations since the early Stoics, and we should also revisit and, if necessary, revise the old doctrines. Like Seneca quipped, “Zeno is our friend, but Truth is a greater friend.”

In a very real sense, separated by mere chance, time, and circumstance, other animals on this planet are our kinsmen, and even plants are our (no longer so distant) cousins. In another sense, the Earth is our mother and the universe is our City, its ruling faculty is our Father Zeus. The new Stoics, per the advice of Hierocles, can start by using inclusive terminology when referring to the outer circles of our ecological family, and educate the young in our inclusive paradigm of progression toward virtue: how social, rational animals ought to behave toward their family members and their surroundings. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically… [We] are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” The ancient Stoics agreed, and added that we are responsible for our world, insofar as our judgments and choices are involved. The upshot is that Stoics need not challenge the most fundamental doctrines in order to find reasons to protect the fellow-inhabitants of our planet and universal city. Human oikeiosis provides perfectly good motivation to take care of our land and resources. I challenge you new Stoics to conduct your ‘appropriate actions’ by implementing Stoic environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s concentric circles of moral concern and, Zeus permitting, save our elephant kinsmen from unnecessary suffering and extinction in the wild.

References

Long, A. & Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ramelli, I. (2009). Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Leonidas became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

'"Are Stoics Ascetics?" A Rebuttal' by Kevin Patrick

“ ’Are Stoics Ascetics?’  A rebuttal.”
by Kevin Patrick

Editorial Note: This piece has been written as a response to the previous post by Piotr Stankiewicz. The numerals in square brackets refer to the author’s footnotes.

In an article previously posted by the Stoicism Today blog [i], Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz makes his case for a modern, hedonic Stoicism by asserting the ancient Stoics were not ascetics.  I will be rebutting that claim as ungrounded in the Stoic literature by showing that in fact the opposite was argued by our classical sources, and more specifically that the ideas contained in Dr. Stankiewicz’s article are a divergence from the Stoicism of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus.  I suspect that his position also entails a misunderstanding of the purposes of ascetic practice as an end in and of itself, rather than as a means to an end.

Stankiewicz’s argument lies in something which he calls the “ascetic misinterpretation.”  While he is correct that there are several stereotypes of Stoicism, he misidentifies those stereotypes and uses that as an argument.  Since nowhere does he actually support this ascetic misinterpretation, at best it’s an unsubstantiated assertion.  The most common stereotype of Stoics is that they are emotionless and unfeeling, not that they were ascetics.  It’s incorrect to call the asceticism of the classics a stereotype, as I will support, because it was a stated truth.

Stankiewicz states that modern Stoics have not “done all that is possible” to combat these stereotypes.  Contributors to this blog and others have made an effort to discuss eupathe [ii] and focus on the actual doctrinal positions of impressions, judgments, and emotions.  While is probably true that not “all that is possible” has been done, a good faith effort has been made by modern Stoic writers to combat the stereotype of the unfeeling philosopher.  But ultimately, the views of others are not “up to us,” and we live our lives and follow our philosophy attentively regardless of the stereotypes… or at least we should.

“Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life.  A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence.”

Setting aside that such rhetorical flourishes (like parentheticals!) are not an argument; why might this be the common conception of Stoicism?  I would suggest, in this specific case, that it is because this is precisely what the classical Stoics themselves have told us it is.  Let’s look at some examples in the order Dr. Stankiewicz lays out.  We will first start out with Musonius Rufus.  Additionally, there is no quashing of proto-impressions, but the assent to adequate impressions and thus judgments according to our nature, an important distinction.  On to the rigors of the philosophic life…

Musonius’ suggestions are the end-result of a process through which he attempted to apply his philosophy to real issues of human life.  It is not mere academic musing, but the process of “doing” philosophy as a way of life.  This process of training for virtue carries through from Musonius, to Epictetus, to Marcus; and, if we’re open to it, down to the modern Stoic prokopton as well.

In Lectures XVIII A [iii] and B [iv], Musonius lays out clear prescriptions for philosophers.  They include abstaining from the consumption of animal-flesh, eating foods which are simple, inexpensive, easy to acquire, and fitting for humans.  The issues with food are paramount, since we are presented with this choice several times a day.  Unlike some of the other, less frequent pleasures of life, this one is ever-present and so require extra diligent attention.

“Thus the oftener we are tempted by pleasure in eating, the more dangers there are involved. And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many.”

Not only is the danger of immoderation present, but there is also the danger of not acting in accordance with nature.  While the specifics of what that means are debatable, it is fair to say that the manner, the material, and the setting of our eating are all opportunities for non-virtuous habits to be formed.  Musonius is particularly concerned with the formation of habits, so something we engage in twice or three times a day is ripe for his notice.

Musonius also counsels us on the virtuous use of human sexuality, which is best put in context of seeing the family unit as foundational to society.  Musonius was living in a decadent and turbulent time, not too unlike ours.  For him, a bolstering of the family has consequences in the community, the state, and the world.  Musonius’ ethics are often communitarian in focus, and noting that context often shows his suggestions in a slightly different light than at first glance they might appear to be.  Musonius argues for what likely seems to us a very socially conservative view of virtuous sexual practice in Lectures XII [v] and XIII A [vi] and B [vii]:

“Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.”

Musonius doesn’t have much to say about rock ‘n roll, he does mention frugal living in Lecture XIX [viii] and XX [ix].  The following well captures the spirit of the piece:

“[I]t is possible for us to eat quite safely from a wooden table without longing for one of silver.”

It may even be safer, as Epictetus would learn latter in regards to his lamp [x].

Epictetus picks up in this vein in Book III, Chapter 1[xi], as noted in Arrian’s Discourses.  Epictetus argues against finery in dress, and even uses his own bearded, cloaked figure as a counter-example to the figure cut by the dapper and fashionable young man in question.  While Musonius offers the most explicit suggestions, Epictetus takes up the motivation behind Musonius’ suggestions:  training.

To say that the Stoics were not ascetics, when their primary ethical focus was on training seems off to me.  Asceticism comes from the Greek ἄσκησις (áskēsis) meaning training [xii].  The Stoic philosopher is called προκοπτόν (prokoptôn)[xiii] or the ‘one making progress.’  Stoic asceticism is not an end in and of itself, but a means whereby one inculcates virtue.  As Dr. Stankiewicz notes, these things are external to us and necessarily indifferent from our moral will.  Yet, as those making progress, we train and make progress in part by manipulating those very indifferents[xiv].

Epictetus advises us to, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and thence proceed to greater.”  In situations where we are not yet up to snuff, such as in weighing certain judgments and impressions, he advises us to abstain from those judgments all together.  There’s a lesson here.  We train by manipulating our externals, and we delay or abstain in situations above our practice.

Marcus notes in Book I of his Meditations[xv] that he is explicitly thankful for the opportunity “to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.”  Grecian discipline likely refers either to the paideia [xvi] or the agoge [xvii]; both of which contained clearly ascetic practices.  Despite living in a palace as emperor, the ascetic rigor of his youth, until the intervention of family member, stuck with Marcus for the rest of his life.

It is a far more arduous task to mine the Stoic sources for evidence of hedonism and sensuality than it is for asceticism.  The message of Stoicism for personal development, which is not a misinterpretation, is that even while engaging in the world and exercising our social roles that we can live conformably to nature.  We can be just, self-controlled, courageous, and wise in the here and now.  That does not mean that all of the trinkets, sweet and soft foods, luxurious items and decorations should be taken up by philosophers.  Just the very opposite!  While living in the world, we can dress for protecting of the body and modesty, not vanity.  We can eat healthy, natural, and fitting foods, not for the pleasure of the tongue but nourishment of the body and training for the soul.  We can exercise justice in our lives, not bend to political or social pressures.  We can be courageous every day in the practice of becoming better people, not coast on a misapprehension of indifferents.

We inculcate the virtue of self-control (σωφροσύνη/sophrosyne) [xviii] by actually regulating our passions [xix], i.e. saying ‘no’ to some things and using moderation for others.  How can we learn to be just unless we practice justice? How can we learn to be courageous unless we face down our fears relative to moral issues?  We must actually practice denying the impressions that indifferent things are goods by denying them.  It is one thing to say, “I don’t value all these adornments of sensuous living;” but the possibility for self-deception in that is high if one doesn’t also practice not-valuing them.  The Stoic Sage may be able to indulge in every earthly pleasure and maintain a philosophical outlook and a soul in a state conformable to nature.  But we are not Sages:  and our methods as prokoptontes are necessarily designed towards our own state.

In Enchiridion 34 [xx], Epictetus gives us nothing else but an endorsement to ascetic practice:

“[T]hink of the two periods of time, first, that in which you will enjoy your pleasure, and second, that in which, after the enjoyment is over, you will later repent and revile your own self; and set over against these two periods of time how much joy and self-satisfaction you will get if you refrain.”

Stankiewicz’s position falls into the more common trap and misinterpretation, that since externals are indifferent to us, we should go ahead and indulge in all of those things for which we have a proclivity.  Yet, indulgence also trains our moral will, and we must ask ourselves what that training is getting us.  Is it conducive to Stoic virtue, or is it conducive to something else entirely?  Is it within the rigors of the Stoic school, or is it merely a cover for our vices?  The Stoic conception of preferred indifferents are preferred insofar as they are conducive to virtue, not our mere liking or vicious desire.

The purpose of these examples is to show the tip of the ice berg relating to the advocacy for strict training in classical Stoic sources.  While it is possible to live well in a palace, it might not be advisable.  To suggest that since it is possible there is an open permission for the sensuous enjoyment of luxury misses the point entirely.  It’s possible to live well in a palace, only because living well has nothing to do with the palace.  It is only by training our ruling faculties to live in accordance with nature that we can have a flourishing and excellent life.

Stankiewicz’s article asked a core question, “Are Stoics Ascetics?”
That answer, for most modern Stoics, is “no.”

But they ought to be.

Kevin Patrick is a Tutor and Mentor at the College of Stoic Philosophers, and runs mountainstoic.wordpress.comWhen he’s not philosophising, he is a Statistician attached to the US Navy and a writer.


[i]   https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/10/03/stoic-avoidance-of-asceticism-by-piotr-stankiewicz/

[ii]  http://philosophy-of-cbt.com/2012/10/18/the-system-of-stoic-philosophy/

[iii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/18-0

[iv] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/18-1

[v] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/12

[vi] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/13-0

[vii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/13-1

[viii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/19

[ix] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/20

[x] http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.mb.txt

[xi] http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.3.three.html

[xii] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=a)%2Fskhsis&la=greek&prior=ai(/resis

[xiii] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=prokopto%252Fn&la=greek

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adiaphora

[xv] http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.mb.txt

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paideia

[xvii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agoge

[xviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophrosyne

[xix] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/06

[xx] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/epictetus/the-manual/34

'Are Stoics Ascetics?' by Piotr Stankiewicz

Are Stoics Ascetics?

by Piotr Stankiewicz

A common image for a Stoic? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Sourced here.
A common image for a Stoic? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Sourced here.

A few days ago I befriended an intelligent young woman on Facebook. We first met following the recent publication of my book on Stoicism, so in her view I was  “a practicing Stoic,” “a Stoic evangelist,” or at least a representative of the Stoic way of life. It was telling that she found it surprising that I was on Facebook in the first place. She was also confused that my wall was not a potpourri of inspirational quotes, fancy fonts and pictures of stacked rocks. Why was that? That friend of mine has fallen prey to a common misunderstanding of Stoicism, one which I will call the ascetic misinterpretation.

It is no wonder that this misinterpretation is there. It’s a price tag for being around for 2000 years: persisting and deceptive stereotypes about Stoicism have accumulated over time and now we have to deal with them. Also, neither our ancient “Founding Fathers” nor the folks that foster interest in Stoicism these days have done all that’s possible to nail down and avoid the ascetic misinterpretation. Of course, we should condemn no one for caving in to it, since this misreading has became quite a commonplace (I myself had to go through quite an intellectual struggle before I myself overcame the false barrier of seeing Stoicism in this light). Yet, it is my understanding that it is our duty to right this false reading.

The gist of the ascetic misinterpretation is simple: Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life. A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence. Stoicism is sometimes accompanied with a hermit’s tinge, i.e. an assumption that the Stoic way of life entails some degree of reclusiveness and detachment from society (or at least from Facebook). Furthermore, it is often followed by an expectation that Stoicism offers a clichéd cure for the “craziness” of modern life: that only a tranquil abode of a withdrawn and simple life constitutes a proper remedy for the dynamic, vibrant and perpetually chanding contemporary world.

But it is not so. Stoicism is not asceticism and a Stoic is not a monk. In fact, it is the school of the pale Epicureans that is closer to the ideal of abstemiousness. The Stoic proposal is far broader and it extends far beyond the narrow passage of the ascetic way. The history of transmission of Stoic ideas, the piercing lack of many ancient sources and some intricacies of the doctrine account for the popularity of the ascetic misinterpretation. And yet, the time has come to disavow it.

Generally speaking, Stoicism doesn’t constrain us to a single, ascetic path. Stoicism is rather about redressing balance and boosting these aspects of human experience which are underrepresented in a given place and time (to paraphrase Henry Elzenberg’s words). Speaking metaphysically, we, the Stoics, reject transcendence. We assent that the only actual realm of existence is the earthly, material world of common experience. Thus, our human destiny and duty is to thrive in this world, in the circumstances and conditions we actually find ourselves in. Escape is not an option. Mentally and spiritually we must be here, we mustn’t retire to daydreaming, prayer, mysticism or thoughts about afterlife. We must face the lushness, diversity and – yes! – sensuality of life and we have to live and thrive inside this world, accepting it as it is. Unlike a monk, a Stoic doesn’t dodge the myriad of different aspects of the earthly and sensual life.

Perhaps the most essential argument for this is the following. Stoic ethics isn’t about separating good elements of the world from the evil ones and then embracing the former while forgoing the latter. No. It’s quite the contrary: for us, there is no good or evil outside the moral realm. All physical objects, all external conditions and all outside events are absolutely neutral. They are neither good nor bad. This includes all the things that an ascetic vows to renounce: wealth, sensual pleasures and all worldly well-being. None of these are  intrinsically bad things. They are just raw material which human actions transform into good or evil output. Thus, when it comes to things and events that the earthly life presents us with, we may say that the Stoic solution is not to withdraw from them, but rather to wisely use them.

At this point our Stoic pantheism kicks in: we don’t worship any transcendent, supernatural God or gods. Instead, we are focused on this world: natural, self-evident and accessible to everyone in the everyday experience. We don’t worship the “natural world” in any religious sense, but we do respect it in the sense that we don’t a priori discard any aspect of the world (the way the ascetics do). We intend our ethics to apply to all realms and walks of life, not just to some selected subset. Our ethics can be put to good use by a secluded hermit and by the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There is no necessity to restrict ourselves to the former option. All possible circumstances are eligible conditions for Stoic ethics.

These points don’t exhaust all that I have to say against the ascetic misinterpretation. Yet, I hope they provide an outline of my anti-ascetic stance. For the record, I’m tempted to mention, as a closing argument, that the ancient Stoics themselves provided a wide array of explicit suggestions that they didn’t have any harsh ascetism in mind. As Seneca put it “I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet” (On the Happy Life, XXV.2).

A beard doesn’t constitute a philosopher, they used to say in antiquity. Today, we can append it with this: a simple life doesn’t constitute a Stoic. Living a quiet, frugal life, withdrawn from sensual fulfilment and disengaged from the political turmoil of our time is a variable totally independent from living stoically. They are like two circles which can but don’t have to intersect. The crucial paradox of Stoicism, that there is no good or bad except for moral actions, should serve as a reminder that Stoic ethics is all about agency, agency, agency, and not about the outward circumstances in which agency is exercised. The circumstances are beyond our control and the only thing we can – and should – control is how we approach these circumstances. And there is no necessary reason to actively make them tougher on us. We boast that our ethics works well always and for everyone: for a rockstar just as well as for a scrawny anchorite.

Thus, I assured my friend that there is no need for me to cancel my Facebook account. Marcus Aurelius says that “it is possible to live in a palace, [so] it is also possible to live well in a palace” (Meditations, V.16). Accordingly, it is also possible to live well with and on Facebook. We, the new Stoics, are bound to no fetish (like an emotionless look on the face, or ritual disdain for social media) and we also know no bound for our virtue to let us thrive. We can live a plethora of different lives and we will be able to live them well and fruitfully. A withdrawn, ascetic life is a perfectly viable and legitimate option, but it isn’t any more necessary or required for us than a life of a soldier, vagrant preacher, journalist, entrepreneur, civil servant or philosophy teacher. This is, and always has been, the utter Stoic premise and promise: to be able to live well and happily no matter what circumstances and walk of life the fate puts us in. And this is the credo we intend to live up to, the credo we mean to promote, the credo we will carry on into the new millennium of the Stoic thought.

About the author:

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a philosopher from Warsaw, Poland. Author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”); he currently works on making his two books on Stoicism available in English. Feel free to contact him at mikolaj.piotr@gmail.com

Author’s note: this post is a very brief presentation of the issue. A more detailed discussion of the ascetic misinterpretation of Stoicism, along with the discussion of conservative misinterpretation [equally important in my view] will be found in my two Stoic books, hopefully forthcoming soon.