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.


  1. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x/abstract
  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 http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification

“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 http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification

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 tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

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.

Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting

Sustainable development is an important concern of the 21st century and is one that this article will hopefully show can and should be navigated with a stoic framework. Environmental degradation can be measured using footprints of all sorts: carbon, water, ecological and material. These footprints are enlarging, which shows that humankind’s impact on the planetary system is increasing to the detriment of the other beings we share space with [1]. Consequently, it is of no coincidence that there are serious talks and working groups proposing that the current geological epoch is no longer the Holocene but rather the Anthropocene [2]. The “anthro-” prefix reflects the growing realisation and physical evidence that human activity, more than any other force of nature, is driving the climate.

When hearing about global warming, mass extinction, deforestation and pollution many of us point a finger at an economic system built on consumerism. We consider the mantra of growth as the culprit of environmental degradation and in some instances social ills. We almost certainly agree that the Pareto Principle applies to wealth acquisition because of the focus and favouring of the rich individuals and corporations when it comes to say tax breaks and tax havens. But for all the finger pointing, a 21st century stoic led philosopher would not state that systems are teleological; in the sense that they do not have reasons, purposes or inclinations. Rather, they would reflect on the fact that in a human made system, it is the collective virtue of those that create systems and not the system itself, which direct them.

The near-universal acceptance of money and the capitalist-consumerist ideal is something that Harari, in his book Sapiens [3], argues most people (unfortunately) live up to, more so than say their Christian, Buddhist, or dare I say stoic, ideals. Certainly, the authority given to the market as a ruler of the Earth, rather than a subject reined in by its physical limitations, bears an uncanny resemblance to Spinoza’s god in Ethics [4] to the point of being able to quote it almost directly:

“Money is to be], endowed with human freedom, to take care of all things for men, make all things for their use and direct all things for the use of men in order to bind men and be held by men in the highest honour.

The privilege given to money and thus intrinsically economic growth, to be upheld above all else, is found even in the unlikeliest of places, should we agree that, by definition growth cannot be sustained. The bias towards growth and the valuing of growth first and foremost is clearly seen in the language of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals declaration [5] where the term is mentioned 17 times in contradictory phrases (sustained growth, being sustainable) such as this one:

Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity (Point 27)

The overemphasis on growth and its rhetoric not only continues to go unnoticed even in the most socially aware circles (one would at least hope) but also crowds out environmental goals which continue to be less in number, less well-defined and more often than not addressed as secondary points under a socio-economic banner [6]. The push for growth at the expense of environmental concerns seems to me, at least, to be the antithesis of achieving the United Nation’s long –held target of “reversing the depletion of environmental resources” or combating climate change.

The axiom that “growth is good” and thus “more growth is better” is also sketched out in the economic models that dominate our thinking processes. The so-called environmental Kuznet’s curve (Kuznet, the economist who developed the metric of GDP and warned against its use as a measure of wellbeing), for example, is established on the premise that environmental degradation is the cost of progress. The problem is that growth is considered limitless and a preference that must be favoured and sustained over all else. For its devotees, and there are enough of them, it is only growth that will un-do this mess (for a comic look at the absurdities of this proposition please see here.).

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of the aforementioned belief it is hard to see growth for what it is. It is even harder to argue against its necessity, beyond a certain point of meeting basic needs, to further degrees of wellbeing and fulfilment. Critiques of the aforementioned growth hypothesis are downplayed, considered politically unsound, or at the very least, engaged in wishful thinking. So even, when empirical evidence shows that a one percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.6 percent growth in material consumption, and that a one percent growth in GDP leading to a 0.5 to 0.7 percent increase in carbon emissions [7,8], proponents of sustainability still call for growth, proclaiming greener alternatives such as decoupling and not a paradigm shift towards prosperity without growth as the answer.

Stoic Considerations: Virtue and Physics

It is hard to imagine a philosophical framework further away from Stoicism then the status quo described above. For a Stoic, it is virtue and not growth that must be placed above all in our progress towards eudaimonia. And, it is virtue, not money that is the ultimate source of a life worth living.

In my opinion, it is our moral obligation as students of Stoicism to ask ourselves if we believe in the neoclassical economic view of preferences. We are called to question the underlying assumption that utility is gained when we add more of x and y to our possession. For a stoic, at best, x and y if things (and not virtues) are preferred indifferents, as long as having them does not diminish our virtue and (perhaps) improves our life. And in such case, we shouldn’t prefer having more of them or having them at all. At worse, x and y undermine our virtue because in purchasing them we buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese factories, Brazilian rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York.

At the same time, Stoicism doesn’t call us to abandon capitalism (which in its simplest form is a way of distributing goods through the market rather than central government) or refrain from consuming in a way that Diogenes of Sinope would approve. Rather, and as Massimo Pigliucci states in How to be a Stoic [9]:

Stoicism is about developing the tools to deal as effectively as humanly possible, with the ensuing conflicts, does not demand perfection and does not provide specific answers: those are for fools, who think the world is black and white, good versus evil, where it is always possible to clearly tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is not the world we live in, and to pretend otherwise is more than a bit dangerous and not at all wise.

So, if a student of Stoicism is not charged with coming up with a specific answer, how can our philosophy offer solutions to the sustainable development debate? Other than demanding of ourselves that which is virtuous, a practice that involves making tough and sometimes inconvenient choices, we are also called to “follow nature” or to study “physics”. To paraphrase Lawrence Becker [10], it is our duty to come to terms with the nature of reality and those facts that dictate our physical existence and our mental representation of the world. It is in undertaking this exercise that useful insights provide us with the means to tackle the complexity of sustainability.

In my opinion, understanding physics starts at the first and second law of thermodynamics for it are these that provide an absolute mark of where possibility begins and ends, regardless of how efficient our technologies become. The second law also demonstrates that there is an un-negotiable qualitative change in the universe. It bestows society with a non-arbitrary sense of economic value. It states that in every irreversible transaction, such as mining for precious metals or contaminating the ocean depths, quality (exergy) is lost and that it is lost forever [11]. It provides irrefutable evidence that we are transgressing planetary boundaries [12] and that with every subsequent dig for more gold, more oil and more stuff, we are simply accelerating towards our own unvirtuous demise.

The encroachment of human activity on every corner of the globe is perhaps best seen through the lens of material consumption. Just sixty years ago relatively few elements were used widely to support most applications. Fast forward until today and, in the name of enhanced performance, complex mixtures of up to two-thirds of the periodic table have become the norm as our “needs” have proliferated [13,14].

Our physical limits, meanwhile, haven’t changed; we still inhabit a small planet and whilst are always able to create more money (making our obsession with it all the more incongruous), we cannot create more space. Sure, techno-optimists having silenced Malthus’ [15] alarmist predictions will point to our ability to overcome nature’s limits but what they are really demonstrating to us is our ability to re-shape nature, to crush her, in order to make, not more space per se but more space for us. That aside, population bombs are a moot point, if not a red herring.

Population growth is not a problem when compared to the population’s demand for growth. The richest citizens of the 21st century want more interesting materials to fulfil and excite them. Some, if Ray Kurweil’s dream is anything to go by, look to materials to advance their abilities beyond their humanity and even beyond the grave [9, 16]. These Homo Deus request deeper holes and extended plots to commemorate their latest success via towering monuments and testaments (skyscrapers, pen houses, etc.) to their wealth, extravagance and sense of self-importance.

To give some perspective on the matter, material stock, which includes buildings, increased 23-fold from 1900 to 2010, in line with GDP (27-fold) over the same period whilst the amount of primary material input used to build up or renew stocks rose from 1 Gt/year to 36 Gt/year [17]. These figures, if nothing else, reflect the considerable effort and resource society expends to build, enlarge and maintain what they already have. They demonstrate that Kahneman et al. [18]’s microeconomic behavioural study on endowment effect and loss aversion is prevalent at all levels and that a Stoic perspective on loss is very much needed to re-address the balance:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are. If you have a favourite cup or mug, say that it is not your favourite, then when it breaks you won’t be disturbed. – Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Ch 3. [19,20]

Changing the way we view materials

Practicing un-attachment when things break (or die) in order to curb the desire to hang onto what is lost or what has now passed, is only one piece of the sustainable materials puzzle. We ought to, as stoics and as members of society at large, deeply and deliberately consider the nature of the materials, with regards to how their extraction, manufacture, use and disposal affects the world around us. We should delve into the nature of our individual and collective desires which lead to the existence of products in the first place.

Under capitalism and the supply and demand function, something is produced as soon as there demand for it, at a price agreeable to both the producer and consumer. This price does of course fluctuate and is a driver for a more efficient means of production in order to make the product more competitive. Yet, as an academic devoted to sustainable energy and materials, I am far from satisfied with the so-called law of supply and demand. Firstly, because, unlike the aforementioned Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Motion, it is not a law at all (economists borrowed from Physics to enhance the credibility of their theories, which they turned into laws). It is not a law precisely because it is not subject to a physical limit (i.e. the true nature of things) but rather the whims of the consumer and the marketing expertise of the producer who tells the consumer that what they sell is far from a preferred indifferent but an absolute necessity.

Importantly and despite claims to the contrary, neither material consumption nor material efficiency tell us what materials are destined for nor whether their production is beneficial. This is because consumerism or market values, including the price mechanism, tell us nothing as to the service materials provide. They can’t answer the harder and more important questions of; “How can materials provide individuals with what they really (or think they) want?” “How should materials be used to support societal goals and aspirations?” and “Besides profit, why should we make this product?”

In my team’s and I research, we realised that a concept was needed to move even the hardened members of sustainability community to do what students of Stoicism put into practice daily: ascertaining the nature of a thing and the virtue of possessing (producing) it. We put together a (hopefully) complete list of material services (Figure 1) and defined them as “Those benefits that materials contribute to societal wellbeing, through fuels and products (regardless of whether or not they are supplied by the market) when they are put to proper use”.

Figure 1. Material services at a glance. Note: Some services can be placed in more than one category depending on the exact nature of the service provided * Health aids include glasses, wheel chairs, etc [14].

From Theory to Practice

Sustainable theory is one thing, putting it into practice is much better. It is also much more in line with Stoicism:

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?  – Epictetus, Discourses I, 29.35

The nature of materials and material services, as opposed to energy, which is another major concern within the sustainability discourse, is that whilst one cannot distinguish one kWh from another or dictate energy policy from a non-political occupation, everyone regardless of societal position has the ability to choose what they put in their mouth or upon their back. Both clothing and food choices are to be made daily and although we may not think about it, they are statements (overtly made or otherwise) of who we are and what we value.

Let’s take vegetarianism as an example of food as a material service. When we abstain from meat, we are also turning away from mass produced meat products, which in all instances cause suffering (the animal is slaughtered against its will) and in more than enough cases involve cramped conditions and the destruction of familiar/communal animal ties (the young are forcibly separated from their mother and herd). We are likewise making a statement about the unacceptability of deforestation and environmental activist murders by unscrupulous ranchers in Latin America [21,22]. We are rejecting the use of agricultural land to feed animals when we can more efficiently use that same land area for crops that we eat directly and thus feed more people with less waste.

In abstaining or curbing meat we are also be taking a stand against shady industry practices that are detrimental to our health (one just needs to think back to the outbreak of mad cow disease and the reasons behind it) or be thinking about the effect that animal fat has on our arteries and our wellbeing generally. Certainly, Stoic thought lends itself well to plant-based diets as Seneca, Rufus and this Modern Stoicism article testifies.

That said vegetarianism, or even veganism, isn’t a blanket solution of course. There are some key ethical concerns to be navigated when it comes to mass soya production, some of which is undertaken in vulnerable areas and has led to Brazilian rainforest encroachment and devastation in a similar way to beef cattle [23]. There is also the issue of genetically modified soya crops. One thus should also look at the origin of soya (Italy is a key producer, for example) to ensure that one particular set of poor behaviour is not simply replaced by another.

Clothing is another material service which requires some thought. Both slave and child labour are unacceptable side effects of the cheap throw-away fashion industry. Fair trade cooperative sourcing provides one way to steer clear of such practices as does paying special attention to labels or, in the absence of a suitable alternative, simply buying less.  Research into smaller grassroot initiatives, such as the British based The Hemp Trading Company (THTC), is also a way to challenge the mass produced fashion label and the indiscriminate chemical spraying of cotton fields to devastating social and environmental effect.

In the end, Stoicism may not provide specific answers but it does provide a philosophical framework to do more than scratch at the surface, in search for virtue and a truer understanding of the nature of things. And that is precisely what we need to arrive at to move the sustainability discourse forward.



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Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subject is sustainable energy and materials. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting