From The Three Petaled Rose by Ronald Pies

This post is a summary of Dr. Ronald Pies’ talk at the STOICON 2017 conference.

My book, The Three-Petalled Rose, attempts an analysis and synthesis of three great spiritual traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I have called this synthesis “JuBuSto.” This was also the topic of my presentation in Toronto this past Fall. I began my book by proposing that “…the synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism can create a healthy, fulfilled and flourishing life.” Here, I review the main themes explored in my book and lecture.

First, I discussed a theme common to all three traditions; namely, that our happiness and fulfillment in life is critically dependent on the quality of our thinking.  I suggested that, in effect, we create our own happiness by thinking “good” thoughts– and create our own misery by filling our minds with “bad” thoughts.  More specifically, Judaism emphasizes rational understanding, without which we are spiritually and emotionally “lost”. Thus, I cited the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Elazar that,  “…any person who lacks understanding eventually goes into exile…” Similarly, the Buddhist text, the Dhammapada teaches us that “we are what we think…..with our thoughts we make the world.”  I also cited the Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah (1918-92) as saying,

We want to be free of suffering…but still we suffer. Why is this? It’s because of wrong thinking. If our thinking is in harmony with the way things are, we will have well-being.

In the Stoic tradition, too,  pride of place is given to thinking clearly.  Epictetus reminds us that

It is not he who gives abuse….who offends us; but the view that we take of these things as insulting or hurtful…” and urges us “….not to be bewildered by appearances.

Moreover, all three spiritual paths emphasize that we often sabotage our chances for living the “good life” through our own distorted thinking. Echoing the views of many modern cognitive-behavioral therapists, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Gelberman tells us that, “Of all the tyrants in the world, our own attitudes are the fiercest warlords.”

Similarly, the Buddhist monk, Chagdud Tulku teaches that

Hell is the reflection of [the] mind’s delusion, of angry thoughts and intentions and the harmful words and actions they produce.

He adds—once again sounding much like our modern cognitive therapists:

It’s our failure to understand the essential nature of an emotion as it arises that gets us into trouble. Once we do, the emotion tends to dissolve.

Indeed, we are often our own worst enemies, as the great Buddhist sage, Santideva (7th c. AD), put it:

Eager to escape sorrow, men rush into sorrow; from desire of happiness, they blindly slay their own happiness, enemies to themselves.

I went on to discuss “the common bond of humanity” as an idea central to all three of our traditions. Thus, Judaism teaches us that we are all created “in the Divine image”, and that, as Rabbi Moseh Lieber puts it,

 …we must treat people properly because all people play a role in God’s plans; nobody was created for naught, be it a fool, an ignoramus, or even an evil person. They are all part of the Divine Scheme…

Similarly, Buddhism emphasizes the essential unity of mankind, and, indeed, all sentient beings. This attitude is expressed in the concepts of Buddha nature, suffering, and compassion. As B. Allen Wallace puts it,

…all sentient beings, including humans, are endowed with Buddha-nature…[defined as] the potential for full awakening…

All human beings experience suffering (dukha), and thereby have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to cultivate compassion for every other human being. This concept is also stressed in Stoicism, and is given a rather spiritualized treatment in the writings of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred…for there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures, and one truth…

The importance of moral obligations appears as a prominent theme in all three traditions, and is intimately connected with the achievement of a “flourishing life.” That is, living ethically is not merely an obligation; it is also a kind of portal into the realm of self-realization. To put it in more colloquial terms, if you live ethically, you will live well and fully. Thus, the Talmud teaches us that “The reward of a good deed is a good deed”—in effect, behaving ethically is its own reward. Furthermore, as Rabbi Alexander Ziskin observes, fulfilling a commandment “…is a time to feel great joy at your relationship with God.”

Among the elements of Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” are right speech, right conduct, and right vocation,  all considered under the rubric of sila (the code of conduct that leads to virtue). Sila, in turn, is the key to living the fulfilled life, according to Buddhist teachings.  As Wallace succinctly puts it,

The Buddhist view is simple: non-virtuous behavior leads to misery, virtuous behavior leads to joy.

The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron defined the essence of the Buddha’s teachings with equal brevity: “…it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible.”

For the Stoics, too, the key to living “the good life” lies in living the morally responsible life. Every other notion of “the good” proves to be illusory. Thus, Seneca writes in one of his letters, “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” Similarly, Epictetus argues that “The good for human beings lies in this one thing alone: for each of us to perfect our moral character…” In sum, the JuBuSto tradition emphasizes that only by living ethical lives can we achieve genuine happiness and become fully human.

All three of our traditions stress the importance of reducing, or modulating, what I have termed “desires and attachments.” While none of the traditions argues for the total elimination of desires, each admonishes us to “detach” ourselves from intense and overwhelming cravings. From the Jewish perspective, probably nobody has put the matter more clearly than Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed: “All the difficulties and troubles I meet [in daily life] are due to the desire for superfluous things…the more I desire to have the superfluous, the more I meet with difficulties.”

Maimonides the rationalist is joined by Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the mystic, in pointing to the dangers of excessive attachments and desires. Nahman tells us that, “Worldly desires are like sunbeams in a dark room. They may seem solid, but the person who tries to grasp a sunbeam finds nothing in his hand. The same is true of all worldly desires.”

The Buddhist tradition is, if anything, even more focused than the rabbis on the dangers of “grasping onto things” (upadana). As Ajahn Chah puts it,

The extraordinary suffering is the suffering that arises from what I call upadana, grasping on to things.  This is like [receiving] an injection with a syringe filled with poison.

At the same time—and in this, the rabbis would  concur—Buddhism teaches that there’s nothing inherently wrong in enjoying life’s pleasures, or even indulging in an occasional luxury. In fact, as Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron, points out, “…it’s attachment that makes us restless and prevents us from enjoying things.” In effect, we become so fixated on the object of our attachment that we can barely appreciate it.

Buddhism goes on to teach us that the way to reduce excessive attachment is by realizing the impermanence of everything—including, of course, our own lives.  As Aitken Roshi tells us, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” (italics added)

The Stoics, too, emphasize simplicity, lack of pretension, and non-attachment to fame,  fortune and status symbols. For the Stoics, the only real “good” in life is virtue. As Marcus Aurelius puts it,

There is but one thing of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.

It follows, then, that acquiring possessions, wealth, honor, prestige, and influence are merely illusory goods. But like the rabbis and the Buddhist sages, it is not “things in themselves” that are judged unworthy of the fully-developed person; rather, it is our intense attachment to these things. Thus, in describing his father, Marcus Aurelius writes,

 My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. (1.23).

I next discussed the attitude of the three traditions toward impermanence and mortality. All three recognize that our earthly existence is alarmingly short (though a proper understanding of life might lead us to be far less “alarmed”). In the Jewish tradition, we are put here on earth in order to refine our moral character and serve God. As Rabbi Moshe Lieber teaches us,

Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather [spiritual] treasure; once the time is up, [one] can no longer earn anything.

Given that we never know when our “time is up,” we must treat every day as if it were our last. Thus, as Rabbi Lieber puts it, the righteous person

…must always assume that today is the last day of his life and not push off his repentance. Hence, he will spend all his life in perpetual self-improvement.

Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that,

Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death…[Judaism’s] central concern is not how to escape death but rather, how to sanctify life.

This teaching is very close in spirit to the Buddhist teaching in the Dhammapada:

Neither father, sons nor one’s relations can stop the King of Death…[One] who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to Nirvana.

Buddhism, however, takes a somewhat different attitude than Judaism when it comes to placing value on our earthly existence. Whereas in Judaism, life is sanctified and valued as an opportunity to perfect ourselves in God’s ways, Buddhism sees earthly existence in more detached terms—not fundamentally different than other things governed by anicca (impermanence). Thus, Ajahn Chah writes,

Suppose you were sick and had to go into the hospital. Most people think, “Please don’t let me die, I want to get better.” That is wrong thinking, [and] it will lead to suffering. You have to think to yourself, “If I recover, I recover; if I die, I die.” This is right thinking…

Though this is not the typical attitude of Judaism—at least in modern times—I noted a similar sentiment in the viduy prayer in Judaism, said when the person is near death; i.e., the righteous Jew says to God, “May it be Your will to heal me. But if death is my lot, then I accept it from Your hand with love.”

 Thus, both Judaism and Buddhism share with Stoicism a certain reserve toward earthly existence, as expressed by Marcus Aurelius: “[T]he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.” But for Marcus, as for the rabbis and Buddhist sages, this equanimity does not relieve us of our ethical responsibilities. Marcus admonishes us,

Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regard every act and thought accordingly.

By this, Marcus means that we must live honorably, reasonably, and in accordance with Nature, at all times. He cautions us,

Don’t act as though you’ll live to be a thousand…in what remains of your allotted time, while you still can, become good. (4.17).

Seneca sums up the Stoic view of mortality when he writes, “The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live, and in spite of that, is not reluctant to die.”

I went on to explore the importance of gratitude in the three traditions, and found that each places great importance on this quality of mind. In the Talmudic tradition, gratitude is expressed for whatever one has been allotted in life, as when Ben Zoma asks, “Who is rich?” and replies, “One who rejoices in one’s portion.”

Perhaps reflecting a much earlier Stoic teaching, the 13th century sage, Jacob Anatoli taught that, “If a man cannot get what he wants, he ought to want what he can get.” (Toperoff 1997, p. 197). In the Jewish tradition, it is impossible to conceive of “the flourishing life” without the capacity to feel thankfulness and gratitude. I cited the Yiddish proverb about being grateful: “If you break a leg, be grateful that you didn’t break both legs!” Or, as a cartoon by Mankoff in the New Yorker put it—showing a woman standing next to her worried-looking husband—“But why not be happy about all the diseases that you don’t have?”

In Buddhism, too, gratitude (katannuta) is a foundational virtue. This is summed up in the saying attributed (perhaps spuriously) to the Buddha:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little; and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick; and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.

And, as Phillip Moffit observes, gratitude yields additional rewards. It becomes part of a “virtuous cycle” and is an integral part of the flourishing life:

Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy

 For the Stoics, gratitude is summed up in Seneca’s teaching, which sounds remarkably like Jacob Anatoli’s comment:

It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.

And, I took note of Cicero’s gratitude, in the midst of his old age, for the “…supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon…”

Finally, I explored the foundational value of self-restraint, and in particular, the necessity of controlling our anger. All three of our traditions would concur in arguing that no one who seeks a flourishing life can give vent to uncontrolled anger. The rabbinical tradition emphasizes the virtue of being slow to anger, and recognizes that the total elimination of all angry feelings is virtually impossible for all but a few saints and sages—and even some sages doubt that the complete eradication of anger would be entirely a good thing. The rabbis also recognized the element of narcissism in unbridled anger, which is compared to “worshipping idols.”

Similarly, in the Dhammapada, the Buddhist tradition holds that,

A man is not on the path of righteousness if he settles matters in a violent haste. A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence, and peace.

Buddhism holds that patience is the antidote to anger and aggression, and urges us to look deeply within ourselves to find the real cause of our anger. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, “You yourself may have created the hell inside you.”

The Stoics, too, saw intense anger as a genuine evil—even one that could “beget madness,” as Epicurus put it.  Furthermore, the one who is overcome by anger forgets important truths about our place in the overall order of things. As Marcus Aurelius observes,

I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids and lower rows of teeth…


Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something…you’re forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it, and that the present moment is all you have, to live and lose.

Modified and condensed from The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse), 2013. References available upon request to the author (

Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.


The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver

This post is the transcript of Professor Gravers’ plenary address at the STOICON 2017 conference

Remembering the conference theme, let’s start with the word “professional.” What associations do we have with this word? What expectations does it place on us? Are those reasonable and fair expectations, and if so how do we equip ourselves to meet them? These are questions I invite you to reflect on during the talk.

Meanwhile here is another set of words to think about. Unmoved, apathetic, calm, impassive, serene, unflappable, tranquil, unfeeling, placid, unsentimental, unemotional, unruffled.

Where are we on these words? If you are like me and like my students, you can easily identify several of these words as negative words that you would not want to hear applied to yourself. Others are more complimentary; some might even be neutral. But the point of interest here is that if you make the effort to strip away the positive or negative valence of these words, all of them mean pretty much the same thing: they describe a person who doesn’t respond emotionally in situations where many people would. So this is the first challenge for this group. Let’s see if we can make the effort to get past some of those preconceived notions of what people ought to be like, and think clearly about what concepts underlie our words.

My topic for this afternoon is the dispassionate life, defined for the moment as a life that is not susceptible to usual emotions (anger fear grief) in the kinds of situations that most often trigger those responses. My objectives are two.

First, I want to probe this very notion of a dispassionate life. What actually does it mean? I maintain that although this idea of a dispassionate life sounds like just one idea, in fact it is more than one. I want to go back to the origins of this idea in Greek philosophy, show you a little of the history of it, and begin to sort through the different things “dispassionate” can mean. I think this operation is extraordinarily important for the group that’s assembled here. Some people may be here precisely because they are interested in getting closer to a life free of emotional disturbance. Others may be sceptical about Stoicism precisely because they think such a life would be wrong. Either way, we need some clarity on what the ancient Stoics had in mind when they put forward their claim that the best human life would be dispassionate.

Second, I mean to share some information about techniques that were on offer in ancient texts for bringing oneself closer to the dispassionate life. These hold considerable theoretical interest, whether or not we think that any of them would actually be helpful for a modern person.

It’s worth pointing out that while virtually all the Greek philosophers were strongly interested in mental health, they weren’t the equivalent of our mental health professionals. They were theorizing about human beings generally, not about people who were in crisis or were having highly unusual emotional problems. So what I say here should be thought of as relating to ordinary mental health.

With that said, let me take you back to ancient Greece. In the next thirty minutes or so, I want to walk you through three different groups or schools of philosophers, each of which advocated for its own version of the dispassionate life. First will be the Cynics, kynikoi or dog-philosophers, associated with Diogenes of Sinope; second the Epicureans and their predecessor Democritus; and third the Stoics.

Ancient Terms For Emotion

We’re going to need some terminology. Our word “emotion” is a class term, it names the category whose members are anger, grief, fear, delight, eagerness, and whatever else we think is of that kind. If we look for equivalent words in Greek as spoken in the fourth century B.C.E., we find two possibilities.

One is pathos, etymologically ‘a way of being affected’; corresponding to the Latin word affectus. The other is tarache, etymologically ‘a disturbance’, for which the Latin equivalent is perturbatio.

In what follows I will not attempt to distinguish these two terms. Some authors favor one or the other, but as far as I can tell the meaning is the same or at least near enough to allow for the comparisons we’ll be making here.

The same goes for two terms that are derived from the emotion words: apatheia, from pathos, which I’ll usually translate “impassivity” and similarly ataraxia, from tarachē, which I’ll usually translate “non-disturbedness”. For our purposes today, both these terms mean essentially “absence of emotion.” These two terms alternate in the record for the three philosophies we’ll be looking at.

An Objection

Now, before I go any further, let’s check in with the opposition. Not everybody in the ancient world favored the idea of a dispassionate life. The philosophers who called themselves Peripatetics had objections to it, and so did many of those who called themselves Platonists—though Stoics were also heirs of Plato in their own way. A leader of the post-Platonic Academy, a philosopher by the name of Crantor, put the case against apatheia in terms we can all recognize.

Crantor was writing around 300 B.C., in a consolatory essay—that is, a kind of open letter addressed to someone recently bereaved, offering them the comforts of philosophy. Crantor’s consolation must have said, as most of these pieces do, “it’s OK to cry for a while, anyone would”—but then he turns philosopher and adds,

I cannot by any means agree with those who extol some kind of impassivity (apatheia). Such a thing is neither possible nor beneficial. I do not wish to be ill, but if I am, and if some part of my body is to be cut open or even amputated, let me feel it. This absence of pain comes at a high price: it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.

For Crantor, then, the experience of emotion is both a necessary and a desirable part of being human: eliminating it is “neither possible nor beneficial.” We need to have sensations of grief when calamities befall us, just as we need to feel pain when our bodies are injured. Otherwise we would have lost the responsiveness to stimuli that is essential to human nature: we would be “numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.” This is a powerful objection. It’s one that has occurred to me and I’m sure equally to you and to everyone who has an interest in ancient Stoicism. As we go forward, I want you to keep that objection in mind.

The Cynics: the Thickened Skin

Let’s get started then with our dog-philosophers. Kynes are ‘dogs’; hence kynikoi or Cynics. The English word “cynical” is related but not at all helpful in trying to understand these people.

What you need to know is that there was a succession of public personalities showing up in various Greek cities under this label: Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is often named as an important influence, but Diogenes of Sinope was the iconic figure, and others followed in his footsteps including Crates of Thebes and his life-partner Hipparchia, Bion, Menippus, and various others on into the Roman empire.

These are mostly solitary figures, not a school as such, and not a fully developed system of philosophy either. What held them together was a handful of slogans and practices that point to a distinctive ideology. The Cynics imitated Diogenes in living what they considered to be a life according to nature. That is, a completely no-frills life, with possessions at an absolute minimum: no house, clothing only as required by the cold, the simplest possible food, such as can be acquired by begging in the street. Sleeping on the ground. No shoes, ever. No career, no religion, no use of money, no marriage: all of those things are products of convention, not of nature. It is the life of a dog, completely unembarrassed, all the body functions performed in public, unconstrained by any cultural expectations.

What’s to be gained by this sort of life? Positive ideals for the Cynics are expressed in terms like karteria, toughness; ischus, strength; sophrosyne, self-control; autarkeia, self-sufficiency; parrhesia, speaking one’s mind – but above all, karteria. Going without shoes wasn’t just a matter of avoiding all the cultural baggage that shoes represent. If you walk barefoot long enough, eventually the skin of your feet will become hard and tough, and you won’t feel the stony ground.

And along with those, over and over, apatheia, the very hallmark of Cynicism. Antisthenes imitates Socrates’ impassivity and thus becomes “the first founder of Cynicism”; Diogenes of Sinope is characterized by impassivity more than any other trait; Bion of Borysthenes takes up the accoutrements of the Cynic and thus is converted to impassivity.

What sort of impassivity is this? We can take our cue from the exercises Cynics used in training. There were physical exercises – for instance embracing marble statues in the dead of winter, to train one’s body to endure the cold. Analogous to these were the mental exercises. My favorite: requiring a pupil to carry a stinky piece of cheese through a crowded city street, until he learns not to be embarrassed by it. In a word, manageable discomforts, regularly repeated, as a means of toughening oneself up, to a point at which even much greater calamities are no longer felt.

The approach reminds me quite strongly of a practice that’s known to have been around in Athens at the same time as Diogenes, though not specifically linked to him or any of the Cynics. This is the pre-rehearsal of future ills, an idea known already to the playwright Euripides, as you see in this fragment preserved from one of his lost plays. No doubt it was old even for him – “I learned this from a wise man,” says the character, as if it had already been around for a long time. In this technique, one is supposed to ponder daily every calamity that can happen — the premature death of a family member, the loss of one’s home, and so on – the idea being that if some such event comes to pass, one will be ready for it and not emotionally destroyed by it.

Those familiar with modern cognitive behavioral therapy will recognize the idea of desensitizing oneself to a stimulus by repeated exposure to it under controlled circumstances.  So this is one version of the dispassionate life. We can refer to it as “the thickened skin”. Apatheia in this conception is a matter of hardening the boundaries of the person, to make us less responsive to stimuli. It is the psychological equivalent of the toughened feet of the Cynic, and it is an important part of what Diogenes was after.

This brings me back to the objection of Crantor, to the view that apatheia is neither harsh nor beneficial, that it’s better to be able to feel things. What do the Cynics have to say to this? Do they concede that their approach “means being numb in body and in mind scarcely human”?

Quite the contrary! Their response is to turn the tables. Why should anyone say that the feet of human beings are naturally tender, as if we were all born wearing shoes? Why not say rather that toughness is our natural state? For them, the asceticism that restores that toughness is “a short-cut to happiness”: if people find that road too difficult, it may not be the Cynic apatheia that is to blame, but the softening influence of our cultural institutions. Such is the Cynic conception of impassivity.

The Atomists

The goal of Democritus’s ethics was a good state of mind, euthumia, defined as “a calm and stable existence, not disturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion.” Notice the terminology: a state free of both emotion, pathos and disturbance, tarache; also, the emphasis on fear and superstition as the main sources of disturbance. But there’s another word here that interests me: calm. That word is actually a metaphor in Greek: calm, galene, is the condition of a lake or the sea when it is without waves, not stirred by any gale or storm. That metaphor is used also by Epicurus, and I maintain that it is the key to the atomists’ approach. For this reason my nickname for Dispassionate Life #2 will be STILL WATERS.

Let’s reflect for a minute on this image of the tranquil lake. Why are the waters still? Is it because there is a hard shell on the lake that protects it from anything that might stir it up? No, the water is open to the sky. It could be moved, if some gust of wind sprang up – but in fact there is no wind, not today.

And that is the Epicurean contention. The vast majority of Epicurus’s arguments were aimed at convincing the hearer of four things: first, that there is no reason for superstitious fear of divine powers – gods do exist, but not the sort of gods that could ever hurt us or even interact with us. Second, that death cannot harm us: we merely cease to exist, and what’s the harm in that? Third, that everything we really need for life is obtainable without strenuous effort, and fourth, that poverty, physical discomfort, and even pain are not such a big deal that we need to be anxious about them.

The scientific side of Epicureanism, their theories about atoms and void, are all directed toward these ends. For instance, using atomic physics to supply explanations for lightning and thunder, so that we don’t need to believe that God is out to get us; or explaining what happens at death in terms of the physical dissolution of the human psyche, so that we see how little we have to worry about.

That’s just a quick sketch of Epicurean thought, but it’s enough to give us a sense of how Epicurus might respond to the objection put by Crantor. Crantor’s complaint had been that the dispassionate life is a bad idea because it makes us insensitive, “numb in body and in mind scarcely human.”

Epicurus can respond that on his understanding of ‘dispassionate,’ the natural sensitivity of the human being is still fully operational. It’s just that the Epicurean has a correct understanding of the world and realizes that there is no reason be disturbed by it. The Epicurean mind is a quiet pool not because it can’t feel the wind, but because it realizes that no wind is blowing.

In fact Epicurus needs that water to be able to move with the breezes, for two reasons: first, because we rely on sense-perception to give us information about the world, and second because we rely on our capacity for pleasure and pain to guide our actions.

And this leaves us with a question. Given that the Epicurean’s mind is capable of being distressed, what if something happens that even Epicurus recognizes as a real source of mental pain. Because such things can happen in his world. At the very least, the death of friends or family members is a real loss to the Epicurean. Can Epicurus say, then, that the dispassionate life remains available in all circumstances?

Well, it seems there was a back-up plan. We have it in a passage of Cicero, talking about the Epicurean approach to grief management. The term is “redirection”.

As for the means of easing distress, Epicurus holds that there are two: distracting the mind from the thought of suffering, and redirecting it to the contemplation of pleasures. For he claims that the mind is capable of listening to reason and following where reason leads. Reason forbids us to direct our attention toward what is troubling, draws us away from painful thoughts, and dulls the vision with which we contemplate our sufferings. From all of this it sounds the retreat, and urges us rather to concentrate on pleasures of every sort.

In a word, Epicurus relies on a kind of visualization technique, drawing on our capacity to manipulate our inner attention. It is in a way the inverse of the old pre-rehearsal of future ills strategy. Rather than confronting painful thoughts in an attempt to desensitize oneself, Epicurus favors turning the mind away from them and focusing on the pleasurable elements of our experience.

Impassivity and the Stoics

I now want to set both Dispassionate Life #1 and Dispassionate Life #2 in relation to the Stoic conception of apatheia or impassivity. Of course that very phrase brings to mind the notion that’s out there in the culture of what it is to be a Stoic. We’ve all heard it, how Stoics are or want to be impervious to pain, something like the rock of Gibraltar, or my personal favorite, J.C. Taylor’s “Stoic pig.”

That reading of Stoicism and emotion was around even in the Roman world. The portrait of Cato in Lucan’s Pharsalia is a kind of parody of that sort of stoical Stoic – not very different from the “Stoic pig”. But the real Stoics didn’t see it that way. Here’s Seneca in one of his essays:

There are things that strike the wise person even if they do not overthrow him, such as physical pain, loss of a limb, loss of friends and children, and during wartime the calamity of his fatherland in flames. I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we do not endow him with the hardness of stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what you endure is not virtue at all.

Seneca is very clear that the rock-of-Gibraltar notion of impassivity is the Cynic notion and not the Stoic conception at all. For Seneca, the Cynic position does indeed “go beyond human nature.”  In the Letters on Ethics, he draws an explicit comparison between Stoic and Cynic understandings of apatheia:  

Our position is different from theirs, in that our wise person conquers all adversities, but still feels them; theirs does not even feel them.

And in fact Seneca frequently goes out of his way to remark that the wise person “feels” not just adversity but all kinds of things. His is a sage who blushes, trembles, laughs and cries, gets irritated and can turn white as a sheet. Often what Seneca is talking about is involuntary feelings that occur in the absence of assent, sometimes called ‘pre-emotions’, ‘protopassions, or ‘first movements.’

I should explain that the early Stoics worked with a careful analysis of mental events in terms of the beliefs one is committed to with each type of response. Even the simplest action reflects a judgment that one’s situation calls for a certain kind of response. And affective responses, which include the emotions, likewise reflect a judgment that ones situation calls for such a response because there is value in it — because something good or bad for oneself has just occurred or is about to occur. But some reactions occur without any judgment having been made at all.

Fans of Epictetus will find the same idea in Fragment 9, where he says that “even the wise person’s mind necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while” but  “not because he opines that something evil is at hand.”

So this gives a kind of answer to Crantor’s complaint.  But so far it is only a partial answer. A response that doesn’t commit you to anything is unobjectionable but necessarily also brief, trivial and ineffectual. That’s not all of what Crantor is after when he says “let me feel it.”   It also doesn’t touch the depth of Stoic concern about the ordinary emotions.

To get the real answer, we have to talk about the value term that is implied in affective response. And now at last we are ready to talk about dispassionate life #3, and to give it its name …

The Well-Placed Heart

A well-placed heart is a heart that is set upon those objects that are of genuine value for a human life. What are those objects of value?  The Stoic position, and a constant theme in Seneca and Epictetus, is that there are two different classes of object that matter to a human being, but that they matter in very different ways.

One thinks first of what are called external objects, which is to say, objects  external to one’s own sphere of control, also called indifferents. Examples include the money and resources a person controls, what other people say about them, and in general how people around them might behave.

This kind of object will often be quite appropriate for a Stoic to try to get or to avoid, following what accords with our nature or is contrary to it. But it is a central postulate of Stoic ethics that external objects are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad for us. They do not in themselves make the difference in what sort of life a person has. For this reason they are also referred to as indifferents.

In contrast to these are things within our sphere of control, what I like to call integral objects of concern. Integral objects are features of one’s own character and conduct: whether one is kind, whether one is fair, whether one behaves well in whatever situation presents itself. It is this sort of object that Stoics regard as the true goods and bads of human life.

Now, a basic descriptive claim of Stoic psychology is that it is the external objects that are the typical objects of the emotions we experience. The experience of fear necessarily involves thinking that something outside your sphere of control is a threat to your well-being. Grief necessarily registers a loss that you can’t do anything about.

The ancient Stoics reasoned that because these kinds of objects are not the true goods of human life, the ordinary emotions are simply wrong and stand in need of correction.

On the other hand, if the response is toward integral objects, it can be fully justified. The objection isn’t to the feeling itself—the ability to feel things is part of our design. The problem is the misjudgment of value that underlies typical emotional reactions. It’s like the old saying: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The Stoic sage, what I refer to as the Person of Perfect Wisdom, has this right, doesn’t react emotionally to things that aren’t integrally important, but does experience deep and urgent feelings when the object is own activity and that of friends. These are the feelings designated “good emotions” or eupatheiai. It seems that the Stoic sage had not only the trivial pre-emotions but also quite a range of vigorous, full-scale affective responses toward integral objects of concern, objects both within herself and within her perfected relationships. The ancient reports list numerous examples: various forms of joy in response to the many good aspects of the wise person’s life; powerful motivations to do good or to form good relationships; aversions from any action that doesn’t belong in a good life.

But is that category of feeling accessible also to us? Can a person who isn’t the sage, who hasn’t perfected her rational nature, train her sights on those proper objects of concern and respond to those in the way that the Stoic sage would?

In the first instance, the answer has to be no. After all we aren’t people of perfect wisdom, and our friends aren’t either. Even our best ideas and efforts are still susceptible to error; they have to be different from what a perfect mind would experience. But this is a place where I think the modern Stoic might push back against the ancient position.

In the last chapter of Stoicism and Emotion, I take the view that even if the original Stoics didn’t fully articulate this part of their philosophy, the position they take on the emotions does have room for ordinary people to have some powerful and important feelings about the integral objects of concern.

Because the fact is, the emotions of familiar experience are not solely concerned with objects external to our sphere of control. Very often they are directed also, or even primarily, at integral objects, through a phenomenon that I’ll call “compounding.”

This is something I can access from my own inner experience as I imagine you do in yours. My grief for the loss of my mother is very much compounded with sorrow over the ways I might not have come through for her. My frustration at meeting resistance from a colleague is very much compounded by  distress that I haven’t been able to establish good communication with that person. And I wonder whether that integral component might not be the real driver in many if not all of our most serious anxieties and griefs, even angers, just as it is in some of our greatest satisfactions.

But we’re a mess: our motives are always very mixed, and often unknown to us. What we have on our hands, then, is not a project in eliminating or shielding ourselves from circumstances that tend to trigger emotions. It’s rather about purifying our response to them. And that’s not going to come about just through desensitization or visualization exercises.

Affective response implies a judgment of value: If I read the system correctly, the only viable approach within Stoicism is to work on the way we make judgments – that is, to take up the challenge of improving our reasoning abilities.

We’ve heard the word “reason” a lot today – and as far as I’m concerned we can hardly hear it too much. It’s a much needed corrective to what’s coming at us from the surrounding culture, where appeals to reason are scarcely to be heard anymore. For Stoics, ancient and modern, reason is the most essential of all our capacities, it’s the central fact about human nature and the only thing that can make us happy.

And while we are none of us perfectly rational, it is quite possible to improve our rational activity, through study, through self-examination, through  values clarification of the kind Chris Gill was talking about earlier.

The nightly self-examination that Seneca describes in writing about the management of anger is just one element of a process that requires a great deal of work in every moment of our lives.

As we begin to think more clearly about what really matters for a human being, the emotions begin – at least begin— to fall into line.

So there is a certain kinship with the Epicurean approach. We’ve seen how Epicurus taught his followers to think of their mind as a calm lake, realizing that the usual objects of fear are not really anything to worry about. Similarly, it is very important for the developing Stoic to come to the realization, through philosophical reasoning, that many of the things we might have thought were major concerns really aren’t that important.

And, remarkably, the Cynics are here as well. You remember that positive values for the Cynics included especially karteria or toughness and its correlate, ischus or strength.  You remember also the Cynic claim that it is the strong and tough condition that is the natural one for human beings. These claims have their counterpart within Stoic thought, in the way that Stoics think about how reason operates.

A central concept of Stoic physics is that of tonos or “tension”: the tight connections among those rational principles that hold the very universe together. But there is also tonos within the human mind. That psychic “tension” is understood as a grasp of central truths and values and as the ability to establish relations between those truths and values and our action-guiding beliefs.

As a characteristic of persons, Chrysippus speaks of eutonia or “good tension,” or more colorfully, of “having good tendons.” He writes,

In the case of the body we speak of tensions which are either ‘lacking in tension’ or ‘good tensions,’ referring to the way our tendons are when we are or are not able to perform tasks. In the same way, perhaps, the tension of the mind is called a ‘good tension’ or a ‘lack of tension.’ For…. by analogy, there is some such way for the tendons to be in the case of the mind. It is in this connection that we say, metaphorically, that some people are ‘without tendon’ and others ‘have tendons.’ One person retreats in the presence of what is frightening, another slackens and gives way when rewards or penalties are offered, and there are many similar cases ….

“Tension” here is a metaphor. We’re not talking about strength of body, nor even about strength of will as that phrase is usually understood. The essential Stoic idea is not about suppressing feelings that you have, but about learning to care more about the things that are worth caring about. Strength of reason gets the priorities right, and therefore gets the emotions right. That is a quite distinct understanding of what it is to live a dispassionate life.

In closing I’ll take us back to our word “professional.” I hope that in the talk today I’ve given voice to some of the thoughts that occur to you when you read this word professional: thoughts maybe about being calm and focused on what you’re trying to achieve; thoughts about your own abilities and the things you can control; thoughts about what really matters.

I wish you all well as you consider the ways you might take something back from this conference to your own place of work, and I thank you for your attention.

Margaret Graver is Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth College.  She is the author of Stoicism and Emotion and Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, and the translator of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics .  She gave the keynote address at Stoicon 2017.

The Red Band: A Stoic Criticism of the Red Pill by Vadim Korkhov

The Red Pill is the title of a movement and part of a broader movement called Men’s Rights Activism (MRA).  In recent years, its presence has escalated rapidly on the internet in parallel with right-wing nationalism.  Its major presence is on the social media and news site Reddit.  There, it holds a moderated discussion board where men come both to learn of its principles and teachings as well as seek advice for their own circumstances.

Red Pill, and the “Manosphere” (the collection of doctrines that springs from MRA), believe themselves to be inheriting an ancient masculine tradition whose roots go back to Stoicism, and the principles therein.  Red Pill claims to reflect Stoic teachings and values but falls far short of them, using them merely to establish clout.  Here I will go about explaining theRed Pill, both in its explicit claims and in its implicit ones, and demonstrate that it is little more than an outlet for disaffected and frustrated men, eager to blame others for their ills and desperate to cling to principles that further their anger.

What Red Pill Truly Is.

Red Pill has few comprehensive and systematic doctrines.  To sort out its guiding principles, one has to read their extensive literature and view YouTube videos by gurus.  Based on outward claims by its authorities, Red Pill is admittedly not a philosophy, but rather a “praxeology”.  Despite sounding like it was derived from Ancient Greek, and therefore lending more credence to the Red Pill claim of inheritance from ancient tradition, praxeology is a coined term from the 19th century that was supposed to refer to the science of human action.  The term never came into much use by science and was instead adopted by the Austrian School of Economics, from which much modern American right-wing economics is derived.  This is another nod to Red Pill as a derivative of broader right wing political movements.

As far as Red Pill claims not to be based on principle, but action, its goal is simple and spelled out on its Reddit sidebar. Red Pill is an amoral strategy to maximize sexual opportunity for a man with a woman.  In this, it prescribes a set of techniques, directed both outward with action, and inward to character building, that it believes will vastly enhance sexual opportunity for men.  The approaches espoused by Red Pill are nearly all derived from the Seduction Community (also called Pick-Up Artists – PUA).  But whereas PUA was solely interested in maximizing sex, Red Pill demands more.  In fact, Red Pill despises PUA, calling it a traitor to masculinity.

Red Pill believes that men have lost touch with their masculinity due to the shift in the social expectations of modern Western culture, and that these masculine features are those craved by women.  These features include a strong unshakable character and leadership quality, among others.  These have been lost in the quest for equality of the sexes, which women don’t actually want, despite the claims of feminists.  And that if only men would seize upon their masculinity, without apology, they would gain the adoration of women.  Thus, from the outset, Red Pill quickly distorts its claim of being merely a set of actions.  It is, indeed, a philosophy.

The core of the assertion of Red Pill is the implication that men have surrendered themselves to feminism, and that feminism is really just a disguised effort to subvert domination by men for domination by women.  In their view, feminism is really nothing more than a subversion of the positive role of masculinity which has transformed men from their rightful place as leaders of civilization to its servants, so that women can replace them as leaders.  This is called the “Feminine Imperative” and the demands of equality are nothing more than a test (“shit test”) to see which men are brave enough to resist it and gain a woman’s admiration for the defiant act of courage.

In their view, it was men who built Western civilization into the greatness that it is, and that, despite some flaws, the old social order is preferable to the new social order of feminism. Red Pill waxes nostalgically about the old social order of masculine dominance, hoping to restore it so that men may take more leadership of themselves and their social spheres.  But until that happens, each man must restore this social order within themselves and their immediate circle.  There is no claim to justice here. Red Pill derides what it believes is feminism’s attempt at usurpation of the man for the favor of woman, while it hypocritically asserts man’s leadership to the expense of a woman’s will and liberty.  Each is just a faction, aiming to assert power and nothing more.

Reading Red Pill tracts and literature, as well as the many threads on message boards, one notices the recurrent theme of men’s anger and resentment.  There is the premise of bitterness of men who believe they have suffered humiliation and stagnation at the hands of women, and their inability to compete with women.  They are drawn to Red Pill for its easy answer of casting blame on others – women.  It is not that men have done wrong, so they say, but that men have been made to believe the lies of the feminine imperative, and Red Pill will reveal these lies to them.  The truth will be revealed and it will be terrifying but liberating, and will finally allow man to assert his will when he was once just a slave.

The origin of the term “red pill” is from a scene in the film The Matrix, where the character Neo must decide if he wants to learn the unpleasant truth by swallowing the red pill, or accept a pleasant lie by swallowing the blue pill.  Many men who have been indoctrinated into Red Pill become angry at themselves for being victims of lies for so long.  Their leaders actually encourage this anger, advising neophytes to use it for good purpose, such as in exercise or leadership.  They once again betray their lack of awareness of Stoic doctrine, which says that anger is a destructive and not a useful emotion.  Conspiracy theories like to take simple truths and make them more elaborate.  The simple fact is that most of these men have had bad relationships with women that they’ve generalized upon all women, and are determined to take revenge by taking a position of dominance over them — cruel dominance if necessary.

Dominance is the key feature of Red Pill, whereby all aspects of a relationship with a woman are measured by who makes decisions and who has power, and how to play power games to divert as much power onto the man.  One adage holds that the one who cares least about a relationship controls the relationship.  There is no room for a relationship built on mutual benefit or cooperation – only obedience.

One cited power structure is the “captain and first mate” scheme.  The man is the captain of the ship – the household – and the first mate is the woman.  Both are leaders of the household and while the first mate can discuss orders with the captain, the captain’s orders are final.

Both men and women are caricatured.  Men are defined as “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Omega”, in order of leadership role.  Women defined as seeking wealth and social status by attachment to powerful men – never love – and to use their sexuality as leverage.  The terms “alpha male” and “beta male” are derived from zoology referring to social animals where a single powerful male is solely allowed to mate with all the females of the group.  The wisest alpha male realizes how to leverage his desirability to women by his social status, just as the wisest woman leverages her sexuality for a man’s social status.

Both genders are expected to be “hypergamous” – to leave their partners once they no longer serve their useful purpose and seek others.  Although women are usually accused of this more, Red Pill encourages men towards this same behavior.  For women, their biological agenda is to seek out the fittest male with which to produce fit children, and also to provide for her and these children.  For men, the goal appears to be to find a woman to satisfy his sexual cravings with enthusiasm, and most of all without complaint.

To gain sexual favor with women, there are a wide assortment of tricks and tips, all adopted from PUA, which strive to subvert a woman’s judgement to have sex with a man without getting to know him well.  Readers who are interested are free to seek out relevant sources of information on Seduction, and it is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on them.  Although some tactics are clearly aimed at self-improvement, such as integrity, character, and confidence, many are gimmicks such as the best approaches, controlling the “frame” of a conversation, and sexual escalation.

One aspect, often called “inner game”, involves focusing on one’s inner demeanor, confidence, and poise so as to increase one’s attractiveness with the opposite sex, but not to better oneself for its own sake.  Thus there is the reliance on an external – the value judgement of a woman.  Lost in this advice is the focus on the person of the man, his character, his value as a human and not merely a sexual object, and his value as a productive member of society.  Most proscriptions devolve to the appearance of social status, wealth, and power, not virtue, since that’s all that RP believes women care about.

Once again, despite its claims, Red Pill does not understand Stoicism.  Social status, wealth, and power are typical externals that are derided by Stoicism as being wasteful endeavors that are largely outside one’s power, yet Red Pill encourages their pursuit.  If they were really interested in applying Stoicism to approaching the opposite sex, one might imagine they would advise sticking to one’s virtue and integrity while eschewing material goods and vain reputation, and letting those women who value those things come to you.

How The Red Pill Is Not Stoicism.

Red Pill believes itself the inheritor of an ancient masculine philosophical tradition, specifically Stoicism.  But what it is actually doing is selectively using and misusing some aspects of Stoicism to gain standing for its flawed doctrines.  While some of its approaches have a hint of Stoicism, they are very selective, with Stoicism often serving as a point of awe and admiration by Red Pill practitioners.  In actuality, it does not resemble Stoicism despite its claims in the following ways:

  • There is no appeal or effort towards justice. Red Pill is just an amoral sexual strategy.  It cannot be amoral and also Stoic because, in Stoicism, virtue is regarded as the sole good.  Feminism is claimed to be an injustice, but Red Pill simply wants to replace it with the old social order of the domination of men in place of the domination of women.  It favors a social order based solely on obedience of one group to another, with contrived justifications such as “men built civilization.”  There is no effort made to justify obedience for deserved reasons, such as wise leadership.
  • There is no appeal to wisdom. There is only a striving towards superficial wisdom, like approaches and conversational framing.  Nor is there insistence on gaining to know a woman as a person, and not as a sexual target. Red Pill generally sees wisdom in narrow terms of what is immediately useful, without any long term foresight.
  • There is almost no mention of the dichotomy of control. The only mention of the dichotomy of control is that if one approach fails, try another.  However, little is offered on alternatives to standard Red Pill dogma.  For the most part, if you fail at something, it is just your fault for being either too stupid or too weak to apply Red Pill methods properly.  This is demonstrated when men ask for advice from others in message boards, where they are usually derided for weakness or lassitude.  This tends to discourage advice seeking and favors posts on boasting success
  • There is no sense of community. The community is nothing more than a sexual marketplace, where people are selling sex for wealth and status, and social bonds nothing more than goods and services in a market.  Outside of the sexual marketplace, society is nothing more than a game of dominance, with some having more power than others, and some commanding, whether or not they deserve that privilege, and others obeying, whether or not they deserved this subservience.

On the other hand, Red Pill does resemble Stoicism in the following ways, which makes it appear as if one derives from the other, and in this way, may make it attractive.

  • Courage is favored. A true alpha male is one who is not afraid to be daring.  He stands up to adversity and intimidation.  No woman is out of one’s league, and no challenge is impossible.  This factor is one of the most pushed in Red Pill circles.
  • Temperance is encouraged. Men do not whine and cry “like women” and accept, with calm reservation, whatever situation they’re in.  There is also a strong focus on athleticism, albeit less for one’s health and more for one’s attractiveness with women.  On the other hand, temperance is betrayed when men are encouraged to gain social status, wealth, and power, and not necessarily for personal benefit, but to be attractive to women.
  • There is some allowance for the Stoic principle of Providence. One commonly repeated maxim is that a woman is never “yours” but only borrowed for a time, until she is another man’s.  But here there is a betrayal, because this also discourages long term relationships, the very antithesis of community.  Stoicism at least only acknowledges that a family can be ended with death, but not so casually disposed of as divorce or lack of interest in the partner.

To summarize, Red Pill only resembles Stoicism in its regard towards some internalized goals of the man – character and strength of will – in order to maximize his perceived attractiveness in the eyes of women.  Internalized goals of personal improvement are only incidental to the goal of sexual attractiveness, and therefore, nothing more than vanity.  The pursuit of virtue is not the primary motive, only sexual attractiveness is.  What few virtues are cultivated are also incidental.  There is an obsessive focus on vanities and externals, including sex itself, which is not only an external but depends also on the cooperation of another who is entirely outside of one’s control.  The focus on externals explains why many Red Pillers are inherently insecure and constantly seek to put down others who challenge them.

Dr. Vadim Korkhov is a critical care physician who works in the ICU of a major urban hospital in the US.  He developed an interest in ancient Greece and Rome from an early age, and earned a BA in Classical Civilization from NYU.  He developed an interest in philosophy from a colleague, in more recent years, which led to his immersion in Stoicism. 

Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom by Greg Sadler

Growing up as I did in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s, you might think it a foregone conclusion that I would become a Packers fan.  For those readers unfamiliar with the American context, that’s our NFL football team, based in the small city of Green Bay (though playing some games in Milwaukee during my teenage years).  And I have indeed been a fan of our home team since my childhood.  During Fall and Winter, my wife and I watch as many of the games as we can – much easier to do, since we moved back to Milwaukee from where we were working in New York – and we engage in considerable conversation about the various aspects of the sport with our friends, neighbors, and family.  I even recently joined the “NFC North Trash Talk Division” Facebook Group (where I generally don’t post or comment, but do check out what members are saying).

Because of my commitments to and work with Stoic philosophy and practice, I get quite a few questions about being a sports fan in general, and more specifically about being a fan of NFL football.  To some people, sports just seem a silly or even irresponsible waste of time, unworthy of the attention of anyone with serious intellectual or practical pursuits.  Among them are the commenters who make the now-stale jibes about “sporting sports hard today, while we watch sportsball” and the like.  Others wonder how someone who studies and applies Stoicism –I don’t claim myself to be a Stoic, but I do draw heavily on their thought – could possibly get anything out of watching the Packers play, let alone care enough to engage in discussions about the team, their prospects, and the sport of football.

Let’s put the question bluntly. Aren’t these two things basically incompatible – a serious commitment to Stoicism, on the one hand, and being a genuine, committed fan of a sports team, on the other?  This is a topic to which I found myself devoting a considerable amount of reflection – particularly over the course of our now-losing 2017 season – and my answer is No.

In fact, as I’ll explain a bit later, since incorporating Stoic insights and practices into my own life, I’ve found watching my home team play a much more enjoyable experience, and I’d even say that I’ve become a better fan in the process.

Growing Up Green And Gold

The Packers were a spectacularly bad team during my formative years as a child, then a teenager, and then a young man.  They had won the first two Super Bowls, in 1966 and 1967, under the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, and all of the adults remembered those “glory years” quite well.  I was born in 1970, and that decade was not a good one for the Packers.  They had two winning seasons, one in 1972 and the other in 1978.  To their credit, they never dipped below winning four games in any of those seasons, but my most consistent memory of those days involves a lot of disappointment, frustration, and nostalgia.  Not just felt by the adults, but especially by us kids.  We would watch game after game, with the adults talking up how great the Packers had been, hoping that “this will be the year”, and see them lose more often than not.  They exemplified the quip about “managing to snatch defeat out of the mouth of victory.”

The 1980s were a little bit better in certain respects, since there were not just two winning seasons – 1982 and 1989 – but also (from 1981-1985) four seasons where the Packers managed to break even, winning as many games as they lost.  Comparatively, that felt like progress.  But that was also the decade when our closest rival, the Chicago Bears, were hot – they won the 1985 Super Bowl – and routinely pushed the hapless Packers all over the gridiron.  You’d see quite a lot of Blue and Orange (the Bears’ colors) up here in Wisconsin.  There were even more fair-weather-fans up here who switched to the much more successful Dallas Cowboys.

Looking back on it, growing up as a “Packer backer” in the 1970s and 1980s – not to mention growing up in Wisconsin at that time in general – functioned as an induction to what gets called “lower-case-s” stoicism.  This is that overall attitude of toughness, overcoming obstacles, enduring, stuffing down emotions, not displaying pain.  It is quite commonly referenced in the present as a “personality trait.”  That comportment was what the ball-players displayed on the field, and – particularly (though not exclusively) for us boys – it was what adults often demanded of us.  It actually served one well for the weekly ritual of watching the game together.  If you just expected the Packers to probably lose, the palpable disappointment in the air (and sometimes even rage) wouldn’t get to you as much.

The lower-case-s version of “stoicism” is something quite different from the actual ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  Although in certain contexts it may prove a useful disposition, it often hinders or prevents personal growth, productive and rich relationships, or even a cheerful engagement with life.  As far as sports and fandom go, while stoicism might be useful when sitting on a cold bench and cheering the team through inclement weather, a stoic attitude seems almost the antithesis of fun.  And quite honestly, quite often being a Packers fan – which was what was expected – back in those years was anything but enjoyable. It sometimes felt more like a never-ending obligation that, by virtue of growing up in this state, and within a family that stuck with the home team, you were just stuck with.

From 1992 on – my junior year in college – things changed, and the Packers developed into a powerhouse team.  There were a number of reasons for that, but I’m less interested in looking at those, and much more interested in the effects that success had.  From 1992 to 2004 – with the exception of 1999 –  the Packers racked up one winning season after another.  They went to the playoffs ten times, and won the Super Bowl in 1997.  There was a bit of a rough patch, with losing seasons in 2005 and 2008, and then from 2009 up to this year, the Packers have not only had winning seasons, but went to the playoffs every year, and even won yet another Super Bowl in 2010.

2017 has been a very rough year for the team, and consequently for their fans.  Our star quarterback, Aaron Rogers, had his collarbone broken during a rough sack, and that seriously handicapped the team. His replacement, Brett Hundley – who had been mentored by Rogers to step in for precisely this sort of situation – proved a major disappointment when given the opportunity. There have been a number of other issues as well.  The once impressive Packers defense has been weak, giving up far too many points, failing to stop passes and runs, and missing tackles.  The offensive line failed to protect the quarterback and to open up lines for the run game.  The rosters have been decimated by injuries.  One could go on and on.

What’s particularly interesting to see – from a Stoic perspective – are the reactions exhibited by many of the fans.  After two decades, they have become accustomed to seeing the Packers dominating their division rivals, consistently winning games and seasons, and going on yearly to participate in the playoffs.  Expectations have been raised, and when – as is the case this year – they cannot be met, the fans experience and exhibit all manner of negative emotions.

Each of these emotional responses – and the judgements typically associated with them – are familiar to students of Stoic philosophy.  I’ll just mention one example.  The Stoics distinguished a number of distinct sorts or modalities of anger (see for example, the discussions in Diogenes Laertes, Cicero, and Arius Didymus), and all of those show up in the reactions of Packers fans in the present.

“We deserve a team that goes to the playoffs every year!” is the judgement.   As strange as that may sound, I do hear quite a few people saying that.  Since we are definitely not making the playoffs – and might even have a losing season – this leads to anger, and then settling on targets for their outrage.  That often takes the form of demanding that someone be fired – the head coach, for instance, or the defensive coordinator, or the general manager.

Fear is another emotion that arises while watching the very game itself, and for many fans this interferes with their enjoyment that should be their prime reason to view it.  I have known some usually quite rational people who lapse into strange (and sometimes, I suspect, made up on the spot) superstitious behavior and attitudes while a football game is on.  Some get upset if you to speculate about the score, or what the teams might do next, fearing you might “jinx” the game.

Packer games are serious business for many people here in Wisconsin.  But it is possible to maintain perspective and equanimity while participating in this communal sports-watching. For me, a game remains just a game – even if I allow myself to get drawn into the general excitement in years when the Packers move from success to success.  And when current fans start complaining loudly about lackluster performance, I remember back to those years of my youth, when we dutifully watched a team that we hoped might do better than their usual, but fully expected not only to lose the game but to play poorly at points as well.  I remind myself that the very nature of the sport is that teams rise and fall.  After all, I grew up during one of those long periods when the Packers did poorly.  That lends a certain, very useful, perspective.

Should A Stoic Be A Sports Fan?

Up to this point, as I’ve narrated a bit of Packer history, reflected on my own Wisconsin upbringing, and mentioned a few insights from Stoicism, I haven’t really discussed the main question that I started with – is a commitment to upper-case-S (i.e. the genuine article) Stoicism compatible with being a sports fan?  Or is fandom something that, as a person makes progress along the Stoic path, they would necessarily need to leave behind?

It really depends on what we understand being a “fan” to involve.  The understanding some people have of what it means for them to be a fan clearly does include some elements that are quite frankly not only incompatible with Stoicism, but with other forms of virtue ethics as well.  The term “fan” is believed to derive, as a shortened form, from the longer word “fanatic,” and there certainly are many contemporary fans whose behavior, language, priorities, and attitudes exemplify that original meaning.

If you think about what professional team sports – particularly those that enjoy a massive fan base – entail, then from a capital-S Stoic perspective there are a number of problematic aspects.  Consider just a few, stemming from Epictetus’ teachings about the dichotomy of control and the right use of appearances.

Being a football fan carries the risk of placing undue emphasis on a combination of things that are outside our control.  Our own body is something, strictly speaking outside our control, and that goes all the more for what other people’s – for example those of your own favored team – do or don’t do, suffer or strive for.  Add an opposing team, or weather and field conditions, and you have a prime example of the type of thing Epictetus counsels us against allowing our desire and aversion to reach out to.  Other externals include social status (i.e. bragging rights) the thoughts and feelings of other people, and winning itself – the Greeks had a name, philonikia, for the desire for beating others.

Stoics don’t believe that a person should simply shun externals, or even not care about them at all – that’s not what Stoic “indifference” (adiaphoria) really means.  But it is vitally important to assign them their proper place in the scheme of things.  Whether or not one’s local team wins or loses isn’t something that should really matter for the Stoic, and it definitely should not be assigned a higher value than, for example, spending quality time and developing good relationships with family members and friends, let alone cultivating the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  The “bonding” that people claim occurs through watching games together, or the instant camaraderie available when encountering a fellow fan (as a Packer backer, I can count on finding some fellow fans practically anywhere in the USA) is often very shallow, and can easily become a substitute getting in the way of things that should matter more to the Stoic.

Some fans not only allow their desires and aversions to become deeply entangled with the externals of professional sports, they go beyond this by assenting to a deeply irrational judgement, i.e. that anything they think, say, do, or feel can in some way influence the outcome of a game.  Motivated by hope and fear, they avoid saying certain things – even demand that others don’t say them – or they wear or refrain from wearing some article of clothing.  I’ve even known a family where one member was not allowed to be in the room watching the game with the rest of them, because they had the belief that if he was permitted to join them, the Packers’ play would suffer.  All of this, from a Stoic perspective, represents a sort of low-grade insanity.

Going even further, there are fans who keep themselves “informed” – and get themselves quite worked up – about all sorts of other aspects of the game, their team, its prospects, and its management.  During the off-season, they read, watch, or listen to the plethora of media available about the players and their lives, plans for the coming season, speculations about drafts, trades, and free agency.  Some of them memorize statistics of various sorts.  Those who develop sufficiently strong opinions express them – often contentiously – to whoever will listen, at work and at home, in their social media, and if they really hit the jackpot,

Strictly speaking, from a Stoic perspective everything that happens concerning one’s sports team is really just a vast complex of “appearances” or “impressions” (both of these English terms translate the Greek phantasiai, which can also mean “imaginations”).  Consider what Epictetus says about the drama and epic poetry and performances of his own time.

The Iliad consists of nothing but such appearances and the use [khresis] of appearances. It seemed to Paris that he should carry off the wife of Menelaus. It seemed to Helen that she should follow him. If, then, it had seemed to Menelaus that it was an advantage to be robbed of such a wife, what could have happened? Not only the Iliad had been lost, but the Odyssey too.

And what tragedy has any other origin? The Atreus of Euripides, what is it? Appearance. The Oedipus of Sophocles? Appearance. The Phoenix? The Hippolytus? All appearance. Who then, think you, can escape this influence? What are they called who follow every appearance? Madmen. Yet do we, then, behave otherwise?

This line of reasoning quite arguably applies to football games themselves, along with the constant commentary on them by the sportscasters, and the talk and cheering (or boos, or angry expostulations) of the fans.  But this realization that all of this is just appearances applies equally to everything else concerned with NFL football (or any other sport for that matter), from commercials advertising jerseys and other game wear, to shows on sports talk radio, to “how ‘bout them Packers” small talk chitter-chatter.  Stoic philosophy doesn’t tell us to entirely dissociate ourselves from these complexes of appearances, of course, but it does urge us to use them rightly, as well as to understand them.  And adequate understanding and proper use would seemingly rule out much of what passes for football fandom.

There are a number of other key dimensions of Stoic doctrine that might seem to be incompatible with football fandom.  One that particularly stands out, in my view, is the committment to an attitude of cosmopolitanism.  Being a fan of a team arbitrarily associated with a geographical region, with all of its inherited rivalries and animosities with other teams and their fans, seems highly irrational.  Fan loyalties can last a lifetime, over multiple crosscountry moves, taking on an aspect that almost appears a sort of patriotism.  But, what is one proud of in this?  How well a team plays a game against other teams?  The record they rack up?  Whether they have a legacy of competing in the playoffs or winning the Super Bowl?  The colors associated with them?  The stadium they play in (generally financed by regional taxpayers)?  These don’t seem like the sorts of things a Stoic should really care about or value, do they?

Why Stoicism Makes For Better Fans

There are quite a few discussions bearing upon sports of various sorts, and particularly on those interested in those sports, in classic Stoic texts.  Some of these are quite perjorative.  Marcus Aurelius expresses gratitude towards his first teacher for leading him:

Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games (1.5)

Within his list of injunctions in the Enchiridion, Epictetus advises:

Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes. . . (33)

Seneca draws an illuminating contrast in his Letters:

For although the body needs many things in order to be strong, yet the mind grows from within, giving to itself nourishment and exercise. Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself. (Letter 80)

Clearly, engaging in sports and athletic training, let alone spending time focused on watching athletic contests, is something tangential to the good life, and development of good character, as the Stoics conceived of it.  Going too far – and that is easy to do in our contemporary society – in devoting one’s time and attention to professional sports draws one away from the Stoic path.

But perhaps there are multiple ways to be a fan of a football team, or more generally to take an interest in any sport, contest, or team.  After all, we do see Epictetus making analogy after analogy between Stoicism in its practice and both the training and the competition involved in the rough wrestling of his times.  It seems likely that he spent a considerable amount of time observing these athletes, and perhaps even enjoyed watching them.  With a model like that – and mind you, I’m not claiming that Epictetus was a “fan” – there is room for thinking that some sort of fandom would be fully compatible with Stoicism.

Epictetus uses a yet more promising metaphor in book 2 of the Discourses, in a discussion bearing upon the “use of” or “dealing with” (khresis) matters that are externals, indifferent, and outside our control.  He affirms the traditional Stoic doctrine that these sorts of things do not have value in themselves, but reminds us that our use of them – what we make of them, or how we deal with them – is something in our control, and can be good or bad.  Notice what he uses to illustrate this point:

This you may see to be the practice of those who play skillfully at ball. No one strives for the ball itself, as either a good or an evil; but how he may throw and catch it again. Here lies the address, here the art, the nimbleness, the skill; lest I fail to catch it, even when I open my breast for it, while another catches it whenever I throw it. But if we catch or throw it in fear and trembling, what kind of play will this be? How shall we keep ourselves steady, or how see the order of the game? One will say, throw; another, do not throw; a third, you have thrown once already. This is a mere quarrel, not a play. (2.5)

He goes on to tell us that the “ball” in this case can be all sorts of matters.  In the case of Socrates, he played ball skillfully at his trial, maintaining his character when faced with unjust charges and the threat of execution.  He knew that the outcome of that forensic sporting match was not up to him, but he played his part to the best of his ability.  The ball in that case, Epictetus tells us was:

Life, chains, exile, a draught of poison, separation from a wife, and leaving his children orphans.

He concludes that we should exhibit care and attention with respect to the play, but remain indifferent about the ball itself.

What if we turn the metaphor around, and make the ball a literal one, the proverbial pigskin?  What lesson does this then contain for the football fan?  It is possible to root for one’s team, to desire that they play well, even to delight in their play, without getting wrapped up in what the ultimate outcome of the game – not to mention what the record is for the season –  happens to be.

In any contest – barring a tie – one of the teams has to win and the other has to lose. That is the nature of the game and its rules.  And some teams will go on to compete for the championship one year, while others watch from the sidelines.  Again, that is simply the way things are.  If I choose to place my desire and aversion into how my team does, whether in the entire game, or even in a particular moment, I am setting myself up for being troubled, for feeling fear, anger, disappointment, inordinate desire, and other problematic emotions.

Adopting a Stoic perspective, in my own experience, not only makes being a fan much more enjoyable, but arguably allows one to be a better fan in a number of respects.  It induces a much more realistic perspective on the prospects for one’s team, its players, and the events that are going to happen – from injuries to bad calls, to missed tackles and dropped passes – on “any given Sunday”.  Not stressing out over the outcome of the game, or even whether this or that drive will be successful, frees one up to appreciate the play of the game better.  Even watching the Packers lose to a team that, on the day of the game, happens to be a better team (or at least to play well) can feel all right. After all the team that plays better deserves to win. And it is, in the end, just a game.

What is the role of a fan, Epictetus might ask one of his students?  Is it to get upset and curse the referees? To call for the firing of the coach, a player, the general manager?  To demand that one’s own team win all or most of the games, and go on to the playoffs every year?  Or is it rather to show up, tune in, and support the team?  To cheer on the team, and to rejoice when they play well, when they display skill and sportsmanship, when they strive to do difficult things on the field.  Is it to berate and hate the fans of other teams?  Or is it instead to share a common experience, an activity of watching, cheering, and enjoying the game with others, those wearing your colors and those wearing the other team’s?

The last point I will make is that, from a strictly Stoic perspective, it is not only possible to feel emotions while watching one’s team play.  Feeling positive emotions would be an integral part of Stoic fandom.  A desire, a joy, even a cautiousness that remain within the scope of reason – these are what the Stoics called the eupatheia, the “well-felt emotions” – these are what I myself experience these days when we turn on and watch the game.  That certainly feels better than the negative emotions I felt until fairly recently – and works better than the lower-case-s stoicism I learned in my youth – when continuing to partake in our Wisconsin tradition of being a Packers fan.

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.

Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom by Antonia Macaro

The intriguing similarities between early Buddhism and Stoicism are not a well-kept secret. How to go about even beginning to map them is not so easy. A systematic approach to listing all the similarities and differences would probably take several PhDs. When I finally resolved to attempt the daunting task of comparing the two systems, after years of thinking about it, I decided the only way to do it was to adopt a broad brush approach. Here I will sum up some of my conclusions.

Life is Dukkha

The starting point for both Buddhism and Stoicism is the human condition and the suffering state of humanity. Most of us tend to believe we will be happy when we achieve certain worldly things – wealth, comfort and material goods, success and popularity, romantic relationships and so on. In practice it’s not that easy, as happiness has a persistent habit of eluding us. Almost as soon as we achieve these things, we start wanting something else. It’s been called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Ultimately, of course, all of us will lose everything, and this is hard to accept.

It’s impossible to go through life without constantly failing to get or losing the things we want and being afflicted with those we don’t want. The Buddhist word for this is dukkha: suffering, or unsatisfactoriness. In the timeless words of the Buddha, ‘birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha’. While the Stoics didn’t have a similar word for this sorry state of affairs, their writings eloquently capture the impermanence and uncontrollability of worldly things.

There is an Alternative.  Both Buddhism and Stoicism speak to this unsatisfactory and pained state and see themselves as offering an alternative to it. Their most pressing message is that we are systematically deluded about what is genuinely valuable in life. Therefore they urge us above all to see through the delusion that worldly goods, impermanent and outside our control as they are, can make us happy ever after.

Ultimate Aims

If the pursuit of worldly goods is not the path to the good life, what is? In one sense Buddhism and Stoicism diverge substantially on this, as we would expect of traditions born in completely different cultural spheres. In Buddhism the highest ideal is that of nirvana, in Stoicism that of ‘living in accordance with nature’.

Nirvana is a complex ideal, which has several aspects: cognitive, experiential, ethical and existential. Through the experience of nirvana a person (usually a monastic) comes to ‘see things as they really are’. This has existential implications in that after nirvana the endless chain of rebirths, which is assumed in Buddhism, is said to cease. If, like me, you are sceptical about the concept of rebirth, you could focus on the ethical transformation that endures once the experience has ended.  For instance, the unwholesome states of greed, aversion and delusion are completely conquered and replaced by non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.

The Stoic ‘living in accordance with nature’ instead refers to conforming to the providential rational principle that orders the world. This means coming to see that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and acting accordingly – always remembering that we have complete control over our faculty of choice but no control over external goods. All the worldly things that dazzle and lure us are in fact indifferent, so we should not overvalue them or spend too much effort pursuing them, certainly not if this clashes in any way with virtue. The litmus test for this is the presence of emotions – a sure sign that we are valuing things incorrectly.

Then there is the issue of self or soul. Buddhism is said to deny the ‘self’. In reality the Buddha never denied there was such a thing as a functioning self, it’s just that this breaks down into components, much like a chariot is made up of pole, axle, wheels and so on. We’d be wrong to conclude there is no such a thing as a chariot, we only need to realise it has no lasting essence. What the Buddha denied was more like what we might mean by ‘soul’. The Stoics did posit a soul, but this wasn’t incorporeal, and it’s not clear to what extent it endured after death.

Overall, the two traditions have quite different visions of the good life, although it is worth noting that both require a complete reassessment and challenge of our default priorities, leanings and desires. But while the ultimate promise of Buddhism and Stoicism may differ, if we leave metaphysics behind and concentrate on how to live, the two traditions converge again.

Ethical Action

Beyond the metaphysics, what matters in both traditions is endeavouring to be a good person, cultivating the dispositions and intentions to act well. This is what produces real happiness, as opposed to the bogus ordinary version that depends on the impermanent and unreliable things of the world happening to go our way. The joy that arises from virtue ‘never ceases or turns into its opposite’, says Seneca. Pleasure and joy spring from thinking good thoughts, speaking good words and doing good deeds, says the Buddha.

Arguably, in both Buddhism and Stoicism the highest ideal is that of equanimity. This is not valued just because it might ‘feel nice’, but because it is a lived expression of having adopted the right principles. (Incidentally, this makes claims that the traditions offer prototypes of contemporary psychotherapy problematic.) In Stoicism, this means having come to value things appropriately, and understood that external things are neither good nor bad. In Buddhism, it is about truly understanding that all phenomena are dukkha, impermanent and lacking a stable core.

In practice, in both traditions equanimity means being steady and even-minded in the face of the ups and downs of worldly fortune. This is achieved by turning away from and drastically reducing our desires for the shifting and unsatisfactory things of the world that most people value and pursue without questioning. In Buddhism these are referred to as the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics would agree.

Equanimity on its own risks sliding into indifference, and in both Buddhism and Stoicism it is balanced with compassion. In neither tradition is compassion seen as any kind of ‘feeling with’ another person; instead it is more to do with understanding someone’s predicament and being motivated to help. While acknowledging the importance of compassion, both traditions recognise it is a slightly tricky virtue, as we have to be aware of the danger of taking it too far and being pulled into unwholesome mental states, or into adopting a mistaken worldview. Just like equanimity needs compassion, compassion needs equanimity. It seems to me that the two sit in a slightly uneasy embrace, though, potentially pulling us in different directions.

Daily Practice

How do we transform ourselves from the benighted creatures who run after the wrong things and suffer to wise beings who see things for what they are, value them accordingly, and are able to maintain equanimity in the face of worldly upheavals? Even though in both Buddhism and Stoicism intellectual understanding is crucial, equally crucially it must be complemented by some kind of discipline that helps to put theory into practice.

The practices of the two traditions have a different emphasis. In Buddhism there are two main kinds of meditation, to some extent complementary: one based on concentration and aiming at tranquillity, the other based on the realisation of impermanence and aiming at insight.

The Stoics didn’t, as far as we know, have that kind of meditation practice, and their training was primarily based on reasoning. But meditation is a vague word, which has come to be identified with the Buddhist kind but could just as well refer to the Stoic exercises of memorising texts, looking ahead to the day to come and back to the day just gone, visualisations, preparing for the worst and so on.

A practice common to both traditions is the contemplation of death, which aims to bring home the impermanence and unpredictability of all things, including ourselves. These meditations range from those that don’t spare the gory details to gentler reminders of mortality: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you’, says Seneca, ‘so you must wait for death at every point.’ The Buddha, for his part, advises similar daily recollections: ‘I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid ageing. I am of the nature to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.’

The main aim of daily practice is to become increasingly mindful of the automatic leanings towards pleasure and away from pain that normally rule us. By building up our awareness we can begin to create some space between impulse and behaviour, and so increase the scope for an ethical and wholesome response to life events.

In conclusion, away from the metaphysics there is a lot of commonality between Buddhism and Stoicism. Do we really need the metaphysics anyway? I personally don’t think so but it is ultimately an individual choice. In any case I believe we should take care in adopting ideals of equanimity. Yes, most of us could definitely do with more equanimity. We do tend to be pushed around by questionable feelings based on mistaken values, as both Buddhism and Stoicism tell us. We should question our value system and aim to live an ethical life. We’d do well to adopt some version of a daily discipline to help us along. But the ideal of complete equanimity runs the risk of alienating us from aspects of our humanity that are indeed impermanent and outside our control, but can also be precious and make life worth living


Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.

A Stoic Perspective on News by Leah Goldrick

News is pretty much ubiquitous in this digital age. We are barraged with information constantly through many sources – our smart phones, social media, TV, websites, papers, and magazines.

Unless we are very careful, news consumption can easily cause us to lose equanimity. Negative thoughts trigger a stress response by the body’s limbic system. According to a study published in The British Journal Of Psychology [1], people who consume negative news stories tend to feel more anxiety, and to sensationalize unrelated events in their own lives afterwards.

What is the proper Stoic position regarding consumption of news, especially negative news? Should we choose to avoid the news altogether knowing that current events are not in our control? What’s a Stoic to do?

News and the Discipline of Assent

We can either master our response to news, or allow our response to take control of us via our emotions. The process by which this happens is largely unconscious, but needs to be made explicitly conscious for a prokopton (one making progress). What usually happens is something like this; we hear an inflammatory story about Donald Trump, or our political party (if we have one), or a humanitarian disaster, and we just react. We become upset, angry, sad, or maybe even all three at once.

If we get upset or angry over the news, we have essentially assented to an irrational (contrary to our nature as social animals) judgement. It takes intellect to actually break down information piece by piece, what is commonly called critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t easy to do when we are emotional, because emotionalism overrides proper intellectual process.

The Stoics called such proper intellectual process the discipline of assent, which involves making accurate decisions about the external world. The discipline of assent involves protecting ourselves from incorrect and hasty judgments which lead to irrational emotions. If we form incorrect judgements about a situation, it can lead to anger, worry, and so on which damage our equanimity.

The unconscious process of reacting emotionally to news stories actually represents a failure of this discipline. A prokopton (a person devoted to making progress) should always stop and ask whether assent to a news story should actually be given in the first place, rather than unconsciously reacting. Consciously engaging with news using the discipline of assent can stop the process of becoming irrational in its tracks.

Our judgements about something form our emotions. We perceive an external thing or event, known as an impression. The impression combines with an unconscious value judgment to form a proposition in our mind. “Event Y is reported to be happening, which is bad.” If we agree to the proposition that we form in our mind, the Stoics called this assent. When we assent to something, we experience confirmation in the form of an emotion. We can also choose to not give assent, or to withhold judgement.

In the Discourses, Epictetus notes:

Impressions come to us in four ways. Things are, and appear so to us; or they are not, and do not appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Thus it is the task of the educated man to form a right judgment in all these cases; whatever the difficulty that afflicts us, we must bring forward the appropriate aid against it.[2]

A prokopton’s response to news impressions should be to stop, think, and question our involuntary value judgements. Rather than assenting to what is being presented, we might ask ourselves if a story is particularly partisan or biased. We might go to the source to see if the facts are accurately reported. We might wonder if the seeming negativity or emotionalism of the story isn’t being played up to increase ratings or to sell ads. Often we might find the wisest thing to do is to withhold assent in response to the unverifiable.

News is About Things Beyond Our Control

News essentially causes us to focus on outside events which are beyond our control. We chat with coworkers about the latest disturbing headlines, or grouse about politicians that we don’t like, as though we actually have some control over what is going on. But we don’t. Not unless we somehow are in a position to influence the situation directly through our actions, and even then, the outcome of situation is not within our control.

In the Enchiridion, Epictetus explains his famous dichotomy of control. All things in life essentially fall into two distinct categories, those things which are up to us and those that are not up to us:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. [3]

Clearly news falls into the not up to us category. All external events do not depend on us, and therefore have no moral value. However most of us regularly behave as though things outside of our control, like events in the news, are somehow up to us. If we perceive events in the news as within our power, we may start to worry about them unnecessarily. According to Epictetus, it’s irrational and pointless to do so:

“If you regard that…which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings…” [4]

The Stoics believed that we should show courage in the face of actual danger, but that does not include worry about exaggerated or removed threats that we hear about in mass media. The solution, according to Epictetus, is to not worry about anything that is beyond our control:

“There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” [5]

Prosoche and News Consumption

 Because the process of reacting emotionally to news is so unconscious, it takes a lot of discipline in order to overcome this habit. Knowing that news is beyond our control, and and using the discipline of assent are the first and second steps in a Stoic response to news. Exercising prosoche is the third. Prosoche is essentially discretion and attention to our affairs, ensuring that we continue to make progress.

News consumption can be a double-edged, even for a Stoic. On one hand, assuming that we avoid rushing to judgment, becoming angry, worried, or imagining that we somehow have any control over the situation, news can be helpful for identifying areas in the larger community where our help might be needed. News can also be a valuable training tool for learning how to maintain equanimity in the face of potentially upsetting events. We as prokoptons should not worry about the things that most people do as a result of their consumption of news media. According to Musonius Rufus:

“How could we acquire courage if we had merely learned that the things which seem dreadful to the average person are not to be feared, but had no experience in showing courage in the face of such things?” [6]

On the other hand, we probably all have plenty of opportunities each day to practice Stoic principles without having to force ourselves to stay equanimous in the face of a never-ending news cycle. There are some challenges that we can’t escape, but we don’t have to subject our self to every potentially upsetting report.

Using prosoche, we may decide to strictly limit news consumption; the rational for this decision is a matter of doing what is necessary for us to maintain eudaimonia. We only have a limited amount of time and energy; we need to ask whether it is best spent consuming news. Seneca warns:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.[7]

Strictly limiting news consumption is a perfectly acceptable decision. It’s up to us to find a balance for ourselves. Marcus Auelius recommends that we look inside ourselves for the source of our strength and meaning in life:

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” [8]

In the end, news consumption is a personal choice involving prosoche on the part of the individual Stoic. If we choose to consume a lot of news, we have to remain hyper rational and vigilant – don’t slip back into annoyance, worry, unconscious consent and senseless time wasting digesting the latest headlines.


  2. Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. I, Ch. 27
  3. Epictetus, Enchiridion 1
  4. ibid.
  5. Epictetus, Golden Sayings and Fragments.
  6. Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments, 16
  7. Seneca. On the Shortness of Life
  8. Marcus Aurelius, Mediations.

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 used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

A Stoic Values Clarification Dialogue and Workshop by Christopher Gill and Tim LeBon

Rather than give you an account of what took place in Toronto – though we will both offer our reflections on it at the end of this article-  we thought it would be more true to the spirit of the Toronto Stoic Values Clarification workshop to make this more interactive. You can, however, hear the original workshop at

“What’s most important for you in life?”

That’s quite a big question, so it might help to spend a few moments on each of these Values Clarification Exercises.

1. Consider different areas of life such as family, career, recreation, spirituality and relationships.

What are the most important areas for you, and what is important in these areas?

For example, someone might answer:  family- “being a good parent” and  career – “being successful”

2. What would you like said at your 80th party about how you have lived?

3. If you had 6 months to live, how would you want to spend that time? What would you do more of? What would you stop doing?

Now reflect further on your answers and see if you are in a good position to answer the big question, in one sentence if you can:

The most important things in life for me are:


We wonder what sort of answer you have given? Have you talked about feeling happy, being successful, and having good relationships – fairly conventional answers. Or have you decided that it is important to develop wisdom, self-control, justice and courage – more Stoic answers?

Either way, we’d like you to consider this dialogue between a Stoic sage (played by Chris in our workshop) and “everyman”, played by Tim.  As you read it, think about how much you are persuaded by Chris’s arguments, and what further questions you would want to ask.

Chris (the Stoic): So, Tim, what do you think are the most important factors in leading a good life?

Tim:  (representing someone with a conventional view of the good life): Well, for me, I would say being happy and not getting too stressed out.

Chris: The Stoics would agree with you about this – happiness is for them too the good life and if we become happy we will also be less stressed or emotionally disturbed. But – more surprisingly perhaps – they think that happiness depends entirely on being virtuous. It does not depend on having other things normally seen as good, such as health, or wealth, or even the wellbeing of those we love. Stoics regard those things as having real value; they are things it is natural for us to want to have. But having them does not make you happy (in their sense) nor will it by itself bring peace of mind. For this reason they call these things ‘preferable indifferents’. They are genuinely preferable to have but they make no difference as far as happiness is concerned.

Tim: Hmm, I’ll have to think about that. … OK so let me give you an example of a recent occasion of what I mean by happiness.  I was having a nice meal with old friends, we ate well, had a glass or two of wine and talked philosophy.  I would have expected you philosophers to approve – but are you saying that evenings like that are just “preferable indifferents”? I’m not convinced.

Chris: Actually there is nothing ‘just’ about ‘preferable indifferents’ – they have real value and they can be part of a happy life. But the Stoics’ point is that being happy does not depend on experiences like this. You might be happy and not have this kind of experience and you might have this kind of experience and not be happy overall. Whereas happiness does depend on having and using the virtues – and without the virtues you will not be happy. This is because they see virtue as a skill or expertise in living or a knowledge of how to live properly. If you have this expertise, you will make proper use of all such experiences and of all ‘indifferents’ (preferable or not) but if you don’t have it you will not be able to use any of them properly. You will ‘foul up’ and make a mess of your life – including what seem to be the nice bits, like your evening with the friends.

Tim: OK, that’s interesting. So you are saying that evenings like that are indeed part of the good life but that I will not reliably have evenings like this unless I have the right skills – the virtues as Stoics would say. Is that right?

Chris: That’s right. Without the right skills (the virtues) you will mess up your nice evenings – also you will not be able to deal with difficult and demanding days at work. The Stoics see virtue as the knowledge of how to use all things and all situations well. That’s why the Stoics think virtue is the only thing that is really good, and why other things often regarded as good (like your nice evening) are preferred indifferents.

Tim:– OK can you spell that out a bit more? I’m not sure I had to be that virtuous to enjoy that night  – other than making sure I didn’t drink too much or say the wrong thing …

Chris: But actually saying the right things and not drinking too much are ways of expressing the virtues. They express two of the four generic or cardinal virtues – namely moderation or self-control which covers knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing desire and justice, which covers dealing with other people properly. The other two cardinal virtues are wisdom, forming correct judgements, and courage, facing danger in the right spirit. The Stoics see these virtues as a matched set, covering the four main areas of human experience (there are many subdivisions of these virtues). They also see them as interdependent so that you cannot have one virtue without having them all. So on that evening if you lived well you expressed moderation and justice, but also good judgement and maybe courage as well (in the background). By the way, the Stoics have lots of images of the ideal ‘wise person’, and these include images of him or her at a symposium – doing just the sort of things you did – but doing them well not badly.

Tim:  So according to the Stoics someone who has these four cardinal virtues will also have more of these “preferable indifferents” like health, wealth and friends than someone who doesn’t?

Chris6: Well no, or not necessarily. The expertise is not skill in getting as many of the preferable indifferents as possible and getting them for yourself- even though these preferable indifferents have real value, which the virtuous person needs to recognise. The skill of virtue lies in correct selection between indifferents – which may mean choosing to have fewer preferred indifferents or giving more to other people than yourself. In fact, the Stoics think that the virtuous person is someone who can be happy without any specific type of indifferent – or indeed any indifferents – if circumstances require. So we have the powerful image of ‘the wise person happy on the rack of torture’ (being happy while being tortured) – as well as the image of the wise person being an adroit and agreeable participant in a symposium which I mentioned earlier. The point is that happiness does not depend on having the preferred indifferents but on the right use of them or right selection of them by the exercise of virtue.

Tim: So what would you say about the existence of people we could all think of who seem to be happy in a conventional sense – they have wealth, lots of pleasure  – but don’t seem to exercise much virtue?

Chris: But if their happiness depends on those things (wealth, pleasure) it is unreliable – what if they lose them and have no personal strength (no virtues, in other words) to deal with this loss? Whereas developing the virtues is under our control and so Stoic happiness is not fragile.

Tim: OK, I can agree that without the virtues happiness is more fragile. But what about the opposite? People who do exercise virtue well but suffer great misfortune?  Why should I want to be virtuous and on the rack rather than having a nice evening out with my friend?

Chris: Nobody chooses to be on the rack of torture (though you might choose to act with integrity rather than cowardice and so end up on the rack).  People don’t usually choose to be refugees or starving or politically oppressed – but most of the population of the world find themselves in this situation and even those of us in affluent, democratic, countries experience bereavement, illness, and other forms of loss. The hard question is: can we achieve happiness under these circumstances and what does it depend on? And the Stoic answer is it depends (solely) on whether you do or do not have virtue.

Tim: OK, so in what sense is a Stoic happy when they are rack? Presumably they are not feeling tingles of pleasure instead of pain?

Chris: No, of course they feel pain like everyone else. The difference is they do not regard the pain as being bad (of course they would rather not have the pain, it is a ‘dispreferred indifferent’) – whereas they regard the cowardice that would have enabled them to escape the torture as genuinely bad.

For the Stoics what count as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things depends on their ideal of what makes a life worthwhile as a whole, what they would regard as a properly human or ‘natural’ life, and this determines their attitude and response on any one occasion. So the wise person on the rack can set the pain aside because she is aware of acting according to her best principles, her beliefs about what makes a life worthwhile. If she can live up to her ideals, this will bring her happiness, not just looking for localised good times here and there.

Tim:  So living virtuously often goes hand in hand with what we conventionally count as happiness, and even if it doesn’t the Stoic will be happy in a sense because they are leading a good life?

Chris: Yes – exactly – one of the Stoic definitions of happiness is ‘a life according to virtue’. This doesn’t  mean that Stoics try to be virtuously only instrumentally, to try to gain happiness. They aim to be virtuous for its own sake; and leading a life according to virtue is also a happy one – the two ideas are inseparable.

Also, the Stoics do not think that virtue is something forced on people by social pressure or conditioning. The virtues are the fullest expression of our nature as human beings. So they also call happiness ‘the life according to nature’ (meaning, partly at least, human nature). They also think that living a virtuous life brings with it enjoyment – real enjoyment or what the Stoics call ‘good emotions’ including joy. So in this respect the Stoic view of happiness is not so far from the modern one though it is different in other ways. However, Stoics do not aim to be virtuous just for the sake of getting these ‘good emotions’ or achieving peace of mind; these things are consequences of being virtuous, and follow when virtue is chosen for its own sake.

Tim: Can I just check that I understand this? Suppose my friend upsets me. A few days later they need my help. The Stoic would say I should help the friend, not because on balance it will bring me more pleasure in the future, but because that’s what friendship requires, and that’s the sort of person I would want to be?

Chris:  “Yes Tim, I think you’ve got it! To go back to your original definition of the good life, yes of course enjoy a night out with friends, but the Stoic would say there’s more to being a good human being than that!  Actually there’s a lot more I could add about Stoic values –  such as wisdom meaning trying to change only those things under your control and a cosmopolitanism belief in a brother and sisterhood of man.  But I do think we’ve made a start today Tim in helping you think about values in a more Stoic way. What do you think?

Tim:  You’ve certainly given me a lot food for thought. According to you, I might need to make a paradigm shift from aiming for happiness in the conventional sense to aiming to be virtuous. In doing so I am actually quite likely to be happy in the conventional sense, but that’s not the point. The point is I will be living as a human being should. So maybe I ought to devote more energy earning about Stoicism and how to develop the virtues and less on how to enjoy myself.  But what does everyone else think?


Are you convinced by Chris’s arguments? Do you think there are any difficult questions Tim could have asked that he didn’t? What comments or questions have you got about this dialogue? Please use the comments section below to ask us whatever you like relating to the dialogue.

It might help for you to reread the dialogue and then to have a look at this Outline of the Dialogue which summarises the main arguments.

Tim: Tim states a conventional view of the good life -“being happy and not getting too stressed out”

Chris: Chris introduces the Stoic view that  although the conventional goods are of value they are not really good, they are ‘preferred indifferents’. Virtue is of a different magnitude of value and “trumps” conventional goods.

Chris : The Stoic view on happiness  and virtue is elaborated. Virtues are skills in living properly. Virtues are necessary and sufficient for happiness.

Tim – Chris – Tim:  Further discussion of the idea that the virtue consists in skill in living and in the right use of our experiences and that this is what our happiness depends on. Tim wonders whether virtues are really relevant to his example of an evening out with friends

Chris introduces the 4 “cardinal virtues” each with their own domain  – wisdom (making judgements), courage (danger), self-control  (desire) and justice (other people). Stoics believe the virtues are interdependent – you need all of them to act properly in line with any of them.

Chris corrects  a possible misunderstanding.  The role of virtue is not to get as much of the conventional goods (indifferents) as possible. The virtues are good for their own sake

Tim introduces a possible problem for the Stoic – a happy but unvirtuous person. Chris counters that the happiness of such a person is fragile.

Tim suggests another  potential problem.  You can be virtuous but suffer great misfortune. Chris replies that although a Stoic would prefer not to be tortured, there are more important things for them than how they feel – namely living up to their ideals & being virtuous.

Tim , who seems to understand the Stoic view better now, gives an example that seems to support the Stoic view, namely how we generally regard  friendship.

Chris  is happy that the Stoic position is now better understood and points out that there is of course more to Stoicism than these ideas, though these are a useful start.

Tim though not committing himself fully to the Stoic view agrees he has been given a lot of food for thought.  He understands that Stoicism requires a big shift in the way we think about happiness and the good life, and if he is to follow Stoicism he still has a lot to learn.


Before going on to the next section, it’s important to spend a few moments reflecting on how much you agree with the Stoic arguments.

Now it’s time to reconsider your original answer to the question, “what’s important in your life?”

Think about how each of the Stoic virtues could be important for you, bearing in mind the answer you gave about what is important in life.

Do this for each in turn for each virtue:

Wisdom (right judgement)  – (for example: if your original answer was “being a good parent”, wisdom is important because without right judgement, I am unlikely to be a good parent)

Courage (facing danger)

Justice (dealing well with other people)

Self-Control (dealing well with desires)

Reflecting on the argument in the dialogue, how much you think living accordingly to the virtues is  important for its own sake, not just instrumentally to help you get conventional goods? Do you agree that being wise, self-controlled, courageous and just is more important than feeling good and being successful?


Having considered Stoicism, I now believe that  the most important things in life for me are:

How much have you been influenced by the Values Clarification exercises and the Dialogue? What can you do to live your life closer to your vision of what is important in life?

We hope that this proves to be a fruitful exercise. We also invite you to use the comments section below to give us your feedback on the whole exercise.


Here are our reflections on the workshop in Toronto: We were both very happy with the way the workshop went, especially the very lively Q & A after we re-enacted the dialogue.

The questions asked included:

  1. Did Seneca show virtue in killing himself?
  2. Are love and compassion included in virtue? Are the Stoic virtues the same as modern ‘moral qualities’ or different?
  3. Why should I be virtuous rather than not virtuous?
  4. Can people be harmed as a result of having virtues?
  5. How should we define the virtues?
  6. Is virtue compatible with the pragmatic demands of practical and professional life?
  7. How are the virtues interconnected? Are they really interdependent, as the Stoics think?
  8. Suppose virtue is not really the same as happiness, will we be better people if we believe (falsely) this is the case?
  9. What is the connection between being a virtuous person and having emotions?
  10. Would this approach work if you were working with less willing pupils than “Tim” (including children)?

We tried to answer some of these questions in the dialogue, especially as regards what we think the virtues are and the close linkage between virtue and happiness.  Again, you might like to provide your own answers to these questions in the comments section below.

We wonder if this format might be developed and used in future Stoicons and even perhaps on-line. The best questions – and their answers – could be woven into a longer dialogue, which could be a useful resource for those who wish to learn more about Stoicism.

Perhaps in any future sessions we could ask people to provide written feedback to help us assess how useful they found the session, and whether their ideas had been changed at all. Ultimately, however, the point of the exercise was not to convert people to Stoicism, but rather to help them reflect on whether Stoic ideas can fit with their worldview.

Time did not allow us to tackle the final stage of the Values Clarification exercise, namely making plans to put the values in action. This question did come up in conversation with participants afterwards, and of course the answer, if the values are Stoic, is to read Stoic writings, to download the Stoic Week Handbook and do the exercises. (Tim adds): As a positive psychologist I also take a great interest in current empirical work taking place on how to develop the virtues.  I believe a synthesis of Stoic philosophy and empirical psychology could be very helpful.

An audio recording of the original Toronto Values Clarification Workshop can be found at

Please help us to continue the dialogue in the comments section below.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  His website is

Resources From Stoicon 2017 Now Available!

As has been the case each succeeding year, we had some excellent talks and workshop sessions at Stoicon 2017 and the Stoicon-X that followed the next day.

It was hosted in Toronto, and had over 400 attendees – it’s still growing in numbers each time – but the worldwide Modern Stoic community is far vaster than that, so until now, those who weren’t able to go to the actual events have largely had to be content – for the time being – to peer in through the media of one video (my workshop presentation) and a few summaries and transcripts (those by Massimo Pigliucci and William Stephens).

We are very happy to announce that we have now assembled videos, handouts, slides, and other resources from Stoicon 2017 into one place.

Here’s where you can find all of that material!

You’ll also find some bonus material, from the Toronto Stoicon-X – videos of some of the “Lightning Round” talks that participants gave there.  We hadn’t originally planned on videorecording those, but decided to right on the spot – and I shot them with my low-tech flipcam – so they’re a bit less polished.  But the talks are very engaging, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we did at the event!

The Power of Negative Thinking by Peter Lyons

I distrust the cult of the power of positive thinking. There is something about it that invites passivity. Don’t be negative. Always agree with the situation and just look on the bright side. Be compliant and don’t make a fuss. We can all be winners if we just work harder and keep a positive attitude. The is the simplistic mantra of the modern market ideology that has come to dominate our reality in recent decades.

Putting aside what it actually means to be a “winner” in this age of casino capitalism, the cult of passive positivity denies reality. It has a saccharine unpalatable flavour that invites disillusionment and an unquestioning submission to authority. Those in authority know best so just look on the bright side and get on with it. What’s wrong with a healthy dose of realistic negativity?

I equate the power of positive thinking with the new age mantra of “mindfulness”. They are used to sell “self help” books that for some reason cram the shelves at airport bookshops. I have always wondered why such literature predominates in these venues. Maybe travel invites a contemplative mindset. Maybe the thought of tonnes of metal, people and luggage staying airborne requires positivity for those who really think about it.

Yet there is much more going on here. These mantras of positivity and mindfulness are not just simplistic slogans designed to sell self help books at airports. They are not just for calming the nerves of jittery travellers. They are stepped in philosophical traditions that predate the emergence of Christianity.

The cult of positive thinking is actually a sad inversion of a tradition promoted by the classical philosophy of stoicism. Stoicism has a bad rap these days likely due to the fact that early Christianity borrowed a number of its traditions then prohibited its teachings. It then largely disappeared as a practical approach to healthy living. Being a stoic became associated with denying emotions and feelings. It became a descriptor for the emotionally crippled.

Stoicism is actually a much more subtle and relevant and beautiful approach to life than this caricature portrays. It is a practical philosophy used as a pathway through life by many early Romans, including slaves and Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors, was a disciple of Stoicism.

It could be argued that Stoicism is more relevant in this age than in the past few millennium. The grip of faith based religion has weakened considerably in many developed countries in the past few centuries. The Reformation and general acceptance of Darwin’s teachings on evolution corroded the Church’s authority in the West. Yet people still seek a set of beliefs and values to guide them through life. They want to know the best way to live their short tenure on this earth. Those who find it impossible to embrace a doctrine based on faith and revealed truths seek answers elsewhere. The study and practice of Stoicism can provide answers. It can help answer the age old question of “what is a good life?” The answers it provides are based on reason rather than faith. The recipe is there for those who want it.

The irony is that an adherence to stoic ideas does not preclude religious faith. Stoicism does not preach exclusivity. Stoicism does not actually preach at all. People find it, it doesn’t actively seek them. It is not a cult or a sect or a proselytizing religion. It is a way of approaching life in a rational , calm, humanistic manner that anyone can take or leave. It’s their choice, as it should be. Trying to impose stoic beliefs on others contradicts the core Stoic belief of recognizing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the beliefs of others. But you can influence them.

The current mantra of positive thinking is largely a product of modern capitalist mythology. We can all be winners in life if we simply set our minds to it. The definition of a winner in our modern version of capitalism is ill defined. One version is currently living in the White House.

The cult of unquestioning positivity is a puerile denial of human reality. It was championed by authors such as Horatio Alger in 19th century America and later, Dale Carnegie. Alger wrote quasi inspirational novels about young orphans from impoverished backgrounds who reached positions of great wealth and power through sheer grit and determination. It was wonderful stirring stuff designed to inspire the masses. Alger was eventually discredited for an unhealthy interest in young people. But his legacy lives on in attacks on government assistance to the needy. We are all meant to be self reliant. Just be positive and work harder. This is a sad denial of much of the positive collective action of the 20th century particularly in areas such as education and healthcare.

I like the ancient stoic inversion of the power of positive thinking. They taught the power of negative visualisation. To overcome the nasty, short and brutal nature of ancient life they taught the need to appreciate that things can always be worse. That life and most things in it are transitory. That we are all irrelevant in the general scheme of things. So don’t sweat the small stuff, just appreciate the miracle of your own existence and make the most of it. It is a precious gift so make sure to live as good a life as possible. Things seldom turn out as bad as we think.

An unfortunate human mental affliction is the fear that others are living a better life. That somehow we have been cursed and others blessed by fortune. They are better looking, richer, healthier so have better relationships, marriages and careers. That there is someone out there living the perfect life. We inflict this belief on each other through the daily facades we maintain. It is quite a laughable belief when you break it down.  It denies the reality of nature and human existence. Stoicism provides a far better lens on reality. To read the writings of a Roman Emperor such as Marcus Aurelius is a precious insight. It reveals he suffered many of the same fears, frustrations and failings as many of us. Just a good man in a different age in a different job who sometimes wondered why he should get out of bed in the morning.

As for the recent popularity of “mindfulness,” it is neither recent nor original. The Stoic philosophy was teaching this concept over two thousand years ago. Mindfulness simply means appreciating the moment, being in the moment and reacting appropriately. Not overreacting at poor service in a restaurant or a perceived slight on social media, being appropriate in your actions in the here and now. Not succumbing to negative emotions such as anger or jealousy or envy.

Just recognising and controlling your own emotional responses to external factors. Recognising that you cannot always control what happens to you but you do have control over how you respond to situations. The essence of stoicism is recognising what you can and can’t control. What you can control is your reasoning, actions and reactions. This is crucial to living a good life.

Sadly in our modern age dominated by the need for constant connection and instant gratification we have lost sight of ancient traditions such as mindfulness and the power of negative visualisation. The ancient thinkers can teach us a lot.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom, New Zealand. He has written several Economics texts and numerous articles for mainstream media.

Do People Commit Evil Out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci

This post is the transcript of Professor Pigliucci’s’ presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference.  A videorecording of the talk will be available in the coming weeks.  The slides can be downloaded here.

Epictetus wrote:

For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right. (Discourses, II.26)

It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during  the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea:

Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her  — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent:

What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!):

Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.

Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity”; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty member in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’ (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm. (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.

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.