Let’s Take Care of Ourselves by Cinzia Arruzza

Four years ago I taught an undergraduate course on the Care of the Self. The course was based on selections from Roman Stoic texts, two of Plato’s dialogues, and from some of Michel Foucault’s late writings. Teaching this course marked my first real encounter with Stoicism. Of course, not in the sense that I hadn’t studied Stoic texts before – studying ancient philosophy is my profession –, but in the sense that for the first time these texts started talking to me beyond the narrow boundaries of historical philosophical interpretation. In other words, they started telling me something about my own way of life. I am quite confident that this was the effect of working with my students through Michel Foucault’s lectures.

In the last years of his life, before dying of a HIV related illness in 1984, Michel Foucault undertook an investigation into Greco-Roman philosophy. In 1982 he delivered a series of lectures at the Collège de France in Paris, published after his death and translated into English under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject. These lectures may not be entirely satisfying from the viewpoint of the exactitude and rigor of his interpretation of Stoic texts. And yet they are powerful, and at least part of their power resides in the fact that Foucault started studying the ancients in order to find answers to contemporary questions, both ethical and political ones, questions concerning power and freedom, autonomy and heteronomy in the age of modernity. Through Foucault’s lectures, Stoic ethics ceased being a dead object of study to me, and rather began a form of interrogation about what Plato considered to be the most important of questions: ‘How ought we to live our life? What shall we make of ourselves?’

As the title of Foucault’s lectures makes clear, their main object of investigation is the subject. In the first lecture, Foucault articulates the guiding thesis of his research. First of all, that the main concern of ancient philosophy is the ‘care of the self’, rather than the ‘knowing yourself’ imperative. The care of the self includes both sets of theories and of practices aiming at forming specific kinds of subjects. Secondly, according to Foucault, for Greco-Roman philosophers knowledge is an activity of self-transformation, insofar as the subject ought to transform itself in order to gain access to the truth. This turn to ancient philosophy represented an element of partial discontinuity in Foucault’s own work. As he explains in an interview:

Up to that point I had conceived the problem of the relationship between the subject and games of truth in terms either of coercive practices – such as those of psychiatry and the prison system – or of theoretical and scientific games – such as the analysis of wealth, of language, and of living beings. In my lectures at the Collège de France, I tried to grasp it in terms of what may be called a practice of the self . . . .It is what one could call an ascetic practice, taking asceticism in a very general sense – in other words, not in the sense of a morality of renunciation but as an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being. (‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, in M. Foucault, Ethics. Subjectivity and Truth 1997, pp. 281-282 )

In Foucault’s view there is no essence of the human being: human beings are fundamentally what they do make of themselves throughout history. In his previous research, Foucault had focused on the power relations, institutions, and discourses that constitute us as subjects, that is, that have made and make us into the kind of human beings we have become. The turn to the Stoics, on the contrary, allows Foucault to take a different angle and to analyze philosophical practices and discourses that enable us to rather constitute ourselves as subjects in an active way, that is, to shape ourselves, to transform ourselves, carving in this way a greater space for freedom. Following the French classicist Pierre Hadot’s research on this matter, Foucault paid great attention not just to Stoic arguments, but to their practices and exercises, which he called ‘technologies of the self’ and which, in his view, had a great influence on the history of Western philosophy, morality, and spirituality. These exercises are integral part of the care of the self as they are the actions by which a Stoic would purify and transform herself.

Here is how Foucault summarizes the way Stoic exercises combine with theoretical arguments to give birth to a form of knowledge that is different from a standard modern understanding of knowledge:

First it [i.e. knowledge] involves the subject changing his position, either rising to the summit of the universe to see it in its totality, or striving to descend into the heart of things. In any case, the subject cannot properly know by remaining where he is. . . Second, on the basis of this shift in the subject’s position there is the possibility of grasping both the reality and the value of things. And what is meant by “value” is the place, relations, and specific dimension of things within the world, as well as their relation to, their importance for, and their real power over the human subject insofar as he is free. Third, this spiritual knowledge involves the subject’s ability to see himself and grasp himself in his reality. It involves a kind of “self-viewing”. . . . Fourth, and finally, the effect of this knowledge on the subject is assured by the fact that the subject not only fins his freedom in it, but in his freedom he also finds a mode of being, which is one of happiness and of every perfection of which he is capable. (M. Foucault, The Hermeneutic of the Subject, New York 2005, p. 308)

What Foucault means by ‘spiritual knowledge’ does not have to do with religion or mysticism: what he means is knowledge as entailing self-transformation, both as a precondition to achieve knowledge and as its end-result. Let me analyze now three different exercises in order to see how they entail the four elements identified by Foucault, namely: 1) the subject’s change of position; 2) the evaluation of things on the basis of their reality within the kosmos; 3) self-seeing; 4) and self-transformation through the effect of knowledge:

Let us begin with the Meditation on Death, an exercise consisting in considering every of our days as our last day. Seneca gives an example of this exercise in his Letter XII:

[D]eath ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive summons is not determined by our precedence in the register . . .Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up to the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives. (Seneca, Letter XII, in Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, London 2004)

The point of the exercise is not simply that we should free ourselves from the fear of death, but also that the meditation on death provides us with a rule concerning how we ought to live our day: not wasting our time, not postponing to tomorrow the tasks we are supposed to accomplish today, not having expectations concerning tomorrow, evaluating each of our actions as we were at the point of dying. One may wonder why living every day as if it were the last should motivate us to achieve moral perfection: the thought of death could, indeed, paralyze us with fear and anxiety, or develop in us an acute sense of the meaningless of existence.

In Seneca the exercise presupposes the notion that our individual death is part of a larger rational order of things, which we ought to accept precisely because it is rational, hence good. While our death does not depend on us, what we can determine is how we ought to die and live the death and life that fate has allotted to us, for it is only this ‘how’ that is morally meaningful to us. In the exercise we are required to adopt the viewpoint of the cosmic order of things – which also orders our death – rather than our individual viewpoint. This exercise, therefore, entails all four of Foucault’s elements.

The invitation to adopt the viewpoint of universal reason is at the core of another exercise that we find both in Seneca and in Marcus Aurelius, ‘the view from above’:

One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2011)

The aim of this exercise is to learn to look at our own life not from the viewpoint of our subjective experience, but from a viewpoint seemingly external to us, far above, in order to be able to correctly position human existence, and therefore our own existence, within the universe. This exercise should, therefore, liberate us from perturbations, anxieties, fears, and frustration arising from the excessive centrality we attribute to our personal experiences whenever we lose the sense of our relation to the whole or we lose sight of our smallness within it.

Here, once again, one might wonder why looking at ourselves and other human beings from above should have this purifying effect on our passions. As in the case of the meditation on death, I could, for example, fall into nihilism or existential angst the moment I realize how small and insignificant my life is within the infinity of time and space. Think of the first season of True Detective: Rustin Cohle is acutely aware that human beings are less than dots in the infinite universe, but this awareness leads him to a bitter nihilism, to considering human existence as merely futile, at least until the final episode in which he rediscovers some form of rationality in the universe.

So, what is that makes ‘the view from above’ work? In Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the efficacy of this exercise presupposes two correlated notions: the first is that the cosmos is rationally ordered and that everything in it is rationally interwoven. The second is that in order to avoid perturbations we ought to look at ourselves and at what happens to us through the eyes of the cosmos. Insofar as the cosmos is rational, this also means appraising the rationality of our own place within this well organized whole. Moreover, insofar as the cosmos is rational, looking at ourselves and at the other human beings through the eye of the cosmos also means to adopt the gaze of universal reason. Finally, the more we do the exercise and acquire the habit of correctly judge our own position within the larger whole, the more we train our ruling core, hence transforming ourselves.

Let me give you the third and final example, this time from Epictetus. This is a different exercise from the two I have mentioned so far, for it requires rather that we pay attention to each and every impression we receive from the world around us:

As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or a beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away. What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you. (Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.14, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2014)

The aim of this exercise is to train our ruling center – our rational soul – to correctly evaluate the impressions received from the world. Here, once again, a change of position of the subject is required, insofar as she has to look at impressions in a different way, by pausing on each and every one and interrogating herself concerning their nature. To correctly evaluate impressions means to correctly grasp the place they occupy in the whole and evaluate the power they have on us. Moreover, to correctly judge also means to be able to deal with our impressions ‘according to nature’. The nature of our mind is to assent only to the true and to strive only for the good. Why? Because our mind is part and parcel of universal reason, it shares its same nature, but while universal reason does not make mistakes, we do, out of ignorance and because of the influence of passions. By training our mind to correctly judge impressions, we are therefore striving to make our mind as similar as possible to cosmic reason. Hence we are striving both to knowledge and to transform ourselves.

Of course, some problems arise with Foucault’s interpretation of the Stoics when we start asking what we should mean by ‘self’ in the Stoics. When a Stoic takes care of herself, what is she taking care for? When she transforms herself through these practices, what is the self that she is transforming and what is the self that is the outcome of this transformation? Pierre Hadot, for example, criticized Foucault for misunderstanding what ‘self’ means in Stoic philosophy. Contrary to Foucault’s insistence on Stoic exercises as a form of ‘cultivation of the self’, Hadot argues, the aim of the exercises is the withdrawal in the interiority of the self, but with the ultimate goal of going beyond the individual self, of fully identifying oneself with nature. As Hadot clarifies:

The preceding remarks are not intended to be relevant only to an historical analysis of ancient philosophy. They are also an attempt at defining an ethical model which modern man (sic!) can discover in antiquity. What I am afraid of is that, by focusing his interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self – more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence – M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic. In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth century style. (P. Hadot, ‘Reflections on the Idea of the “Cultivation of the Self”, in Philosophy as a Way of Life 1995, p. 211)

In other words, Hadot is worried that, by emphasizing excessively the notion of cultivation of the self, Foucault ends up interpreting Stoic exercises as entirely focused on the personal self and as articulating a form of individualism that only belongs to modernity. Moreover, he is worried that Foucault misunderstood pleasure for happiness, and that – as a consequence – his reading of the Stoics is influenced by aestheticism.

In the conclusion of this short lecture, let me try to partially defend Foucault’s position and to explain why I think that his lectures on the Stoics are relevant. Hadot is certainly right that Foucault makes mistakes of interpretation. This, however, may not be significant, because Foucault is not really doing history of philosophy in his lectures, he is rather appropriating and using some aspects of Stoic philosophy for a different purpose. The reason why he is interested in retrieving and analyzing that form of knowledge that he calls ‘spiritual’ is that he thinks that the Stoics provide us with a possible alternative ethics, an ethics that opens up a space for freedom within the network of power relations in which we are immersed. This ethics is based on the practice of fashioning ourselves, for our relationship and our actions towards others will descend from this self-fashioning.

The Stoics provide us with an example of the possibility of living one’s life and shape oneself according to the tenets and rules deriving from one’s philosophical commitments, rather than from traditional culture and society, without for this reason withdrawing from society. This has little to do with Dandyism, in spite of Foucault’s perhaps misleading use of the formula ‘aesthetics of existence’. Rather, Foucault is trying to identify in the care of the self a form of resistance, which can also allow us to play a critical role towards the society in which we live and the power relations in which we are immersed – as his lectures on parrhesia, or frankness of speech, show. Perhaps this could be exemplified through the formula “we cannot change our surroundings without also changing ourselves”. Or that we should already embody as far as possible the change we want to see in the outer world.

Foucault’s reading of the Stoics may have important flaws, but his insight into the way in which Stoic philosophy can become relevant to the way we address today the issue of power and of what we ought to make of ourselves in our relation to power has contributed to make Stoic philosophy alive again. At least for me.

This post is the transcript of Professor Arruzza’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

Cinzia Arruzza is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.  Her research interests include ancient metaphysics and political thought, Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, feminist theory and Marxism. She is the author of Plotinus, Ennead II.5: On What Is Potentially and What Actually (Parmenides Publishing 2015) and she is currently completing a book on tyranny in Plato’s Republic, under contract with Oxford University Press.

Stoic Week 2017 Report (part 4 of 4) by Tim Lebon

This article is the fourth part of the report on Stoic Week 2016. The previously published parts of the report summarised the demographics, the level of happiness and Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week, the impact of taking part in Stoic Week on well-being.

This report is divided into two sections:

  • Participant feedback at the end of Stoic week on various parts of the materials[1] and their experience.
  • Overall conclusions and recommendations

You can StoicWeek Report Part 4 2016.

Participant Feedback

How useful were the audio recordings?

As in previous years participants were invited to listen to a number of audio recordings. Table 1 below shows participants’ ratings of the recommended audio recordings. The early and morning meditations were part of the recommended daily routine, the Stoic Attitudes meditation was an optional additional resource and the View from Above was part of the programme for Sunday (Nature).

How useful was this recording (on a scale of 0-5?)

0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating (out of 5) No of people who listened to it (/294)
Stoic Attitudes Meditation 2
4 115
Early Morning
3.9 113
Late Evening
4 106
View from Above
4 111

Table 1: Ratings of Audio recordings of Meditation Routine Audio Recordings, Stoic Week 2016

All the recordings received good ratings, averaging around 4 out of 5. Similar numbers reported listening to each recording.

How useful were the recommended Daily Stoic Exercises?

Table 2 below shows how highly participants rated each of the daily Stoic exercises as well as the number of people who completed each activity and their ratings of the exercises.

  How useful was this exercise (leave blank if you did not do to it) on a scale from 0 (not at all useful) to 5 (extremely useful)?  
Daily Stoic Exercise 0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating /5 No of people who did activity
Stoic Self-Monitoring Record 1
3.8 136


Monday: Life – writing your own meditations 1
4.1 216


Tuesday :Control –What is in our control and wishing with reservation 0
4.2 240


Wednesday: Mindfulness – Stoic Mindfulness and examining your impressions 0
4.2 240


Thursday: Virtues: Virtue and values clarification 0
4.1 222


Friday: Relationships: Relationships with other people and Society and the Circle of Hierocles 2
3.9 226


Saturday: Adversity: Preparing for Adversity 0
4.1 219


Sunday: Nature and the view from above 1
4 205


Table 2: Ratings of Daily Stoic Exercises in Stoic Week 2016 (294 respondents) 

The activities which had the highest rating and were also the most popular were Tuesday – What is in our control and Wednesday – Stoic Mindfulness. It should be noted that all the activities had a high approval rating (3.8 or more out of 5). A large percentage of participants completed each activity.

In which areas of life was Stoic Week most helpful?

  How much has Stoic Week helped in this area? (leave blank if not relevant)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating


(2015 rating in brackets)

Relationships (friendships, getting on with people) 2


Becoming a better person 0


Becoming wiser 1


Knowledge of Stoicism 2


Other 1


Overall 0


Table 3: Ratings of how useful Stoic Week was in various areas of life?

As shown in table 3 (above), Stoic Week achieved an 82% usefulness rating overall (4.1/5). The area where Stoic Week was judged to be of most use was Knowledge of Stoicism, followed closely by becoming a better person and becoming wiser. Despite the theme of Stoic Week 2016 being love, relationships still received the lowest rating (3.6, the same as in 2015). The “other” ways in which Stoic Week helped people included “accepting myself”, “removing worrying thoughts”, “ reducing anxiety”, “structuring a daily practice” and “handling adversity”.

Some participants provided further information about exactly how Stoic Week helped, for example


  • “definitely pausing before speaking more!”
  • “Being less critical”
  • “Letting go of the effects of awful people”
  • “My wife and I did it together this year”
  • “I don’t usually think much about relationships, so this was all kind of new.”

Becoming a Better Person

  • “Less impulsive”
  • “More introspective”
  • “Has helped me to not be emotionally hijacked in various social scenarios, thus allowing me more focus to be a better person.”

How long did participants spend on Stoic Week each day?

The average time spent by participants came out as an impressive 37 minutes (very similar to last year’s figure of 36 minutes). As shown in Figure 1 (below), most participants reported spending over half an hour on Stoic Week each day. A significant number of people spent longer each day.

Minutes per day % No of people
Less than 5 minutes 12% 5
5 -15 12% 33
15 -30 28% 77
30-45 27% 73
35-60 13% 35
More than an hour 19% 51

Table 4: How long did you spend on Stoic Week activities each day?

Which formats for the Stoic Week Handbook proved to be most popular?

As shown in table 5   (below), 39% of participants reported using the website, 36% of participants used the pdf booklet. whilst 10% used Kindle and 13% epub.[2] Compared with 2015, this shows a small but definite shift away from the pdf booklet towards epub and html.

Format % 2015 comparison  
1. HTML / Website (Modern Stoicism or other) 39 32
2. EPUB 13 8  
3. PDF 36 49
4. MOBI (Kindle) 10 10
Other 2 2

Table 5: What was the main format you used for accessing Stoic Week?

Which of these formats would be useful for you in accessing Stoic Week?

Format % 2015 comparison
Android App 34 37
IOS App 37 36
Mobi format booklet 12 12
Epub format booklet 15 12
Other 2 2

Table 6: Which formats would be useful for accesing Stoic Week?

When participants were asked which formats would be useful, a sizeable number of people requested an App, with Android and IOS in roughly equal demand. About a third as many people would like to see a booklet made available in mobi or epub format. It is debatable as to how much added value an App would bring. One view is that what people really value is push notifications which could be provided in other ways (e.g. by text or email). Your further thoughts would be valued.

Feedback on the Questionnaires

Some people appreciated having the feedback from the SABS questionnaire, which can provide pointers about areas of Stoicism to work on. There were also some criticisms as detailed below.

  • It would be good to have a list of the stoic attitudes published online
  • Found a few questions ambiguous. Also easy to game if you were so inclined.
  • It was informative
  • Personally would appreciate more distinction between what I BELIEVE vs what I PRACTICE. I believe in Stoicism but have a hard time practicing and some questions made it unclear whether it was referencing what I believe or what I actually practice.
  • They are useful but SABS is far too long (though assume you are looking to select items that “work”). The positive and negative affect measures refer to the previous 4 weeks so will pick up feelings before Stoic Week even when measured afterwards – hence diluting the effect. For people (such as myself) who already practice Stoicism, I wouldn’t expect Stoic Week to have much effect – so seems important to control for level of previous practice when analysing the effects.
  • Pretty good questions related to Stoicism.
  • Its interesting to gauge ones qualities and understanding
  • Useful

There is room for refinement of the questions so they are in some cases clearer and less ambiguous. The SABS questionnaire is long but as the commentator realised, this is deliberate as we are in the process of working out which questions are most relevant. The final version to be used with the general public should be shorter and in more simple a language. The suggestion about controlling for previous level of Stoicism is a good one. This could be done by looking at the scores of those who were the least Stoic at the beginning of Stoic week and/or who had not done Stoic week or attempted to practice Stoicism before.

Overall Conclusions and Recommendations

Drawing together the above feedback and the other qualitative feedback (found in the full report) with the findings report in the first 3 parts of these report, the most significant findings from Stoic Week 2016 are as follows:

    • 77% of respondents were participating in Stoic Week for the first time.
    • The ratio of males to females was 66% to 33%
    • Over 43% of respondents were from USA
    • Less people completed the initial set of questionnaires compared to 2015 (1798 down from 2503) although the numbers registering for Stoic Week actually increased (3365 up from 3080)

Analysis from initial set of questionnaires taken at the start of Stoic Week

  • There is a correlation coefficient of .4 between Stoicism and well-being. Given the size of the sample (nearly two thousand), the chances of this association being accidental is less than one in a million.
  • Stoicism does go with positive emotions as much as with the reduction of negative emotions.
  • There is only a weak association between stated knowledge of Stoicism and average well-being (a correlation co-efficient of about .1) , whereas it’s nearly four times higher for people who practise Stoicism.
  • The over 55s were the most Stoic and in general the older people are, the more Stoic they are.
  • The Americas win the contest for most Stoic geographic areas The UK (stiff upper lip notwithstanding) trails the field.
  • SABS with by far the strongest association with well-being (however it is measured) item 22 , asking about ruminating and worrying. Stoic virtues also do very well, with courage, practical wisdom , compassion, self-control and fairness all scoring highly. Cognitive distancing (item 24) scores well, as does using the Stoic Ideal Advisor and items to do with seeing humanity as connected and Stoic Cosmopolitanism.

Analysis from second set of questionnaires taken at the end of Stoic Week

  • For the fourth year running, taking part in Stoic Week led to a significant increase in well-being on all measures. The results were remarkably similar to 2015.
  • The SABS items that showed the biggest increase, cognitive distancing and reducing rumination, are both significantly related to improvements in mental health as well as well-being.
  • Those who change most in their degree of Stoicism changed substantially more in terms of well-being than those who changed least in their degree of Stoicism. This supports the hypothesis that the change in well-being is largely attributable to participant’s being more Stoic.
  • A cause for concern is the reduced number of participants completing the questionnaire after Stoic Week.

Summary of qualitative feedback

  • Most participants gave a high rating to experience overall and the materials used, including the audio recordings and daily exercise.
  • Participants additionally reported Stoic Week to be helpful in helping them to be better people, to become wiser, with relationships and to become more knowledgeable about Stoicism.
  • There was a slight shift away from using the pdf booklet towards using other formats
  • There were some specific suggestions to improve formatting and structure of the handbook
  • There was a desire expressed to be notified more on a daily basis during Stoic Week
  • Some people would like the opportunity to interact more within a more private network group
  • Many participants were very grateful for the opportunity to take part in Stoic Week and described the ways in which they had benefited

Pulling these ideas together, there follows some recommendations for future Stoic weeks

  • Repeat the experience – a lot of people took part and benefited
  • There is a case for doing something different so that people who participated in previous years will learn something new. Perhaps a Stoic handbook based on Seneca could be developed
  • There is a good case for longer experiences of Stoicism than one week. The SMRT course already addresses this, and this should be run again and incorporate the same research that is used for Stoic week.
  • In addition, it would be desirable to do a follow-up (e.g. 3 or 6 months) to see if the benefits have been maintained or not. This would be particularly relevant for the SMRT course.
  • There was an issue this year with some people not receiving notifications on a daily basis. In fact, mails were sent automatically, so it is not clear why they were not all received. Perhaps there was an issue with spam filters which needs to be addressed. Perhaps there are other “push notification” options available from WordPress other than email.
  • People should be encouraged to use formats other than pdf unless printing, as pdf is designed mainly for printing.
  • Regarding the questionnaires, there was a much reduced number of people filling in the questionnaires at the end of the week. This may have been partly due to people not receiving daily emails, or perhaps for other unknown reasons. There is a case for ensuring we can notify people about filling in the questionnaire, which we cannot do at present if they provide only a pseudonym and have not registered with Stoicism Today.
  • The SABS questionnaire should be continued to be developed and the feedback provided to people is thought useful. However there is scope for the questions to be less ambiguous in some cases.
  • Some thought should be given to how to make Stoic week more known or more appealing to those who do not take part so much currently
  • As technology changes, there will be scope for integrating new opportunities (e.g. private social media groups, videos, push notifications so people can be reliably informed each day) and these should be investigated

[1] To view the Stoic Week 2016 materials see http://modernstoicism.com/q_lesson_page/introduction-to-stoic-week/ Registration may be required.

[2] Epub is an open standard used for example on iBooks on Apple devices and Google Books on Android.

Applying Stoicism: The Stoic Career by Travis Hume

We live in a world in which events constantly interplay. Our circumstances are a product of this world process; of things coming, interacting, and going. Many of the systems of which we are a part are directed by individuals acting upon various motivations. These systems result in conventional occupations: teaching, business, medicine, writing, soldiering, the arts, sciences, and others.

The conditions in which we are born and raised account for some roles we hold. In addition to these are roles gained through our pursuits. Roles may seem to complement, contradict, or rarely influence one another. The available means and methods to fulfill our roles vary. We alone choose the manner in which we make use of the means, and which methods to employ. In short, the roles we possess may be the result of forces entirely outside our control (e.g., being a brother or sister), or from pursuits facilitated by others (e.g., becoming a manager); individually, we choose our approach to the duties entailed in these roles.

The conventional challenges and rewards of roles serve as material for the practicing Stoic’s ultimate pursuit: “Living in accordance with Nature.” That is, “Eudaimonia.” – a state of tranquility, fulfillment, and intellectual and emotional self-sufficiency. Our duties, entailed by our roles, may be used to cultivate the Virtues: characteristics that are beneficial to human beings as social and rational animals. “Living in accordance with Nature,” i.e. attaining “Eudaimonia,” is accomplished through consistent, deliberate self-improvement.

With time, care, and effort in applying Stoic philosophy, it will become clear that many current and potential roles may be used for this self-improvement. The collective, conventional challenges entailed in our duties lose much of their bite, and peace of mind is no longer gained or lost as fortunes change. With conscious practice, a Stoic moves the locus of control and value from externals to within themselves, binding it to their exercise of choice. The difficulty of maintaining this control varies according to the severity of difficulties at hand, the number and extent of currently held roles, and the practicing Stoic’s skills in understanding and applying their philosophy to given circumstances.

Prior to pursuing a new role, the practicing Stoic makes an assessment of their current relevant skills, the type of interactions between the role in question and currently held roles, and the characteristics that may be improved through the potential role. The Stoic understands that human beings have physiological limits, and will take care to balance their roles to ensure free time is available. The Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed this in book VIII of The Meditations: “Be not a sluggard in action, nor confused in conversation, nor wandering in imagination. Briefly, neither contract into yourself, nor boil over in spirit, nor in your mode of life leave no room for leisure.”

If very little free time is available due to holding excessive numbers of roles (regardless of good intentions), it undermines the Stoic’s ability to properly fulfill their duties, and the overall quality of their efforts will suffer. At best, the consequence is an increased risk of improperly applying Stoic philosophy. At worst, the physiological strain will compromise the Stoic, greatly limiting their ability to help themselves, much less others. This idea was adhered to even among the most industrious ancient Stoics, such as the Stoic statesman and military official Cato the Younger, who drank socially during discussions on philosophy, and reserved time for vacations.

The primary motivation behind pursuing new roles will be self-improvement – learning to “live in accordance with Nature.” External considerations, such as an increase in pay, authority, or notoriety may be considered preferentially, but will never rival or supersede this core motivation. The Stoic schoolmaster Epictetus stresses this, as put in writing by his student Arrian in Book IV of The Discourses:

I don’t call a man industrious just because he reads or writes a great deal, not even if he works all night, unless I know what he is working at. If the object of his work is his Governing Principle, if he is working to make his life a natural one, then I call him industrious.

It falls to the practicing Stoic to identify whether self-improvement remains a core motivation, concerning their pursuits. External rewards are meant to serve as tools for self-improvement, and not as ends in themselves.

In the course of a role, a Stoic will choose speech, behaviors, and actions that prioritize philosophical consistency and appropriate intention over personal comfort and external advantages. For example: A workplace accident occurs ten minutes before the current shift is supposed to end, and a Stoic and their coworker witness it. According to workplace rules, due to the nature and severity of this particular accident, a lengthy document must be submitted. The coworker suggests cleaning up the accident without documenting it, to save time. While it is possible that the accident will still be discovered after being cleaned up, it is very unlikely.

There are several considerations in this situation. It is clear that the coworker prefers “saving time” over fulfilling this particular job expectation. The full, true motivation of the coworker, however, is known only to them. The Stoic may find that they too would prefer to head home on time. In this circumstance, the philosophically consistent choice is to follow through with the documentation, while briefly explaining the basis of the decision to the coworker.

Personal integrity is a fundamental moment-to-moment consideration, as detailed by the Stoic advisor and playwright Seneca in book V of the Epistles:

Every action in life is regulated with consideration of the honorable and the base. The rationale for acting or not acting is controlled by this consideration. A good man will do what he thinks honorable even if it is laborious, he will do it even if it be damaging to him, even if it be dangerous to him. On the other hand he will not do what is base, even for money, for pleasure, or power. Nothing can deflect him from the honorable, nothing tempt him to what is base.

If it is the case that the negligent behavior of the coworker may result in a dangerous situation being mishandled for the sake of convenience, it falls to the Stoic to inform a supervisor in addition.

Choosing to document the accident despite having the option of avoiding it serves several purposes. The first, the act of following through with the duty despite a preference to do otherwise earns the Stoic experience in acting upon deliberate choice. Acting in the face of the preference in order to do something difficult also builds corresponding characteristics: Fortitude, patience, and courage. The act of doing something difficult despite being able to avoid it is a reward that will remain with the Stoic in the form of having “consciously done the right thing for its own sake,” i.e. a deliberate act to cultivate Virtue.

The Stoic schoolmaster (and Epictetus’ teacher) Musonius Rufus touches on this in “XLXI” of the fragments of his lectures, as put down by his pupil Lucius:

If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains.

The coworker may be moved by the approach to make a similar choice in the future.

In the previous example, the Stoic overcame a desire to avoid a challenge, choosing instead to make use of it as material for self-improvement. Other examples include: (1) Approaching a supervisor over concerns about unsafe workplace conditions, despite potentially drawing negative attention from the supervisor themselves. (2) Gathering data on questionable decisions by one’s organization’s administration –decisions that may lead to significant job losses – and presenting an argument for the defense of the positions if the data does not reflect a need for the losses. (3) Taking it upon oneself to complete a personal project intended to streamline a part of one’s organization, even if it proves time-consuming.

As social and rational animals, effective self-improvement depends in large part on conduct in relation to others. With very rare exceptions, most roles concern other persons, and the roles held by those persons. The role of the Stoic is to use conventional roles for self-improvement, while simultaneously aiding others. The Stoic becomes a leader by example as the result of fulfilling duties to the best of their ability. – potentially inspiring others to aim for the same.

The Stoic career is one of life-long self-development. The work centers on cultivating Virtue and reigning in personal Vice (Virtue’s opposite) through careful self-management. External rewards and difficulties ultimately serve as material for philosophical practice. The Stoic pursues opportunities that will provide further means to test, refine, and apply their grasp of their philosophy. Further, the practicing Stoic comes to see their efforts as contributions to the well-functioning of the universe of which they are a part. As a result, success ceases to depend on increasing fame, wealth, or power, instead resting squarely on self-improvement, appropriate intentions, and deliberate exercise of choice.

Travis Hume is a special education paraprofessional, and the creator, administrator, and writer of the facebook group Applying Stoicism. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

Stoicism, Parenthood, and Adoption by Pete Abilla

When Vice Admiral James Stockdale whispered to himself before becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”, he was unknowingly also describing parenthood. In a similar vein, a parent might say to herself “I’m leaving the world of being single and entering the world of marriage and parenthood.”

While parenthood is nothing like the suffering and depravity that one goes through as a prisoner of war, the lessons that Vice Admiral James Stockdale learned from Epictetus that helped him get through and come out better for having gone through that experience, are just as relevant to help a parent get through the ennobling and difficult experience of parenthood.

In this article, I wish to describe how I’ve applied Stoic principles to parenthood. Indeed, Stoic principles are both practical and effective and are absolutely relevant in parenthood.

My Story: Entering Parenthood with no Instruction Manual

My wife and I were married young – I at age 22 and she at 21. Shortly after our marriage, we had our first child, followed by 2 more and then we had twins after that. Getting married young while I was still an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student, had its challenges. Add children to that equation and it doubled the challenges we faced.

At the time, financial challenges seemed to be at the forefront of my mind: how do I support my young and growing family while still in school? To make ends meet, I was fortunate to have a scholarship, but I also worked 20-30 hours per week while carrying a full undergraduate and graduate school load.

But in retrospect, quality time with my wife and family was really the scarce resource. Money is fleeting and we got through just fine with the meager income I was bringing in. We were happy with what we had. But because I was busy with school and work, I should’ve been more concerned with the time I was away from my family rather than money concerns.

Seneca, in his discussion regarding the shortness of life, says:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

He’s right. In retrospect, I should’ve protected my time better and spent more of my time with the people I love.

Increase our Family Size by 80% through Adoption

After having 5 children, I thought we were done. But, my wife felt differently and, even though I denied it at the time, I knew we weren’t done either.

After some discussion, we felt a calling to add to our family through adoption. While we were deliberate and purposeful in our decision to adopt, I can’t really think of any rational reason why we did so. As anti-stoic as that seems now, we both just felt the need to serve humanity in a unique way. For us, that was to be through adoption. I guess, it’s not as anti-stoic as it seems. After all, Marcus Aurelius was fond of declaring that we were made for each other, to serve one another. In his words, “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”

So, after going through the difficult, expensive, and patience-testing process of adoption, we were very fortunate to have been able to adopt 4 more children within 3 years.  If you’ve lost count, I don’t blame you. That brings our family size to 9 kids. Our oldest is now 18 and youngest is 7.

Kids are People too, but Smaller: Expect Hard Times

Kids are developing little human beings. As such, they’re full of wonder, questions, energy, and innocence. Sometimes, they’re pretty hard to deal with. But, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Why? Because children are just a smaller version of grown-ups – and, we know through experience, adults aren’t the easiest to get along with.

Gratefully, Marcus Aurelius gave us an exercise to put us in the right frame of mind that is helpful for dealing with children as well as adults:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly . . .

Like adults, some kids are messy, impatient, unruly, disobedient, etc. In sum – being a parent is the perfect laboratory to exercise stoicism. If one can deal with difficult children with dignity and virtue, then dealing with adults will be a doable task to be sure.

Eat Your Vegetables or I’ll Make You: Do what is in Your Control

Kids need guidance, coaching, and teaching. They also have free will and sometimes they want to exercise their free will in ways that we, as parents know, are not productive or will be harmful to themselves. There’s a point where they need to learn on their own. As parents, what we can do is provide guidance and simultaneously allow them their agency. But how is this possible?

One way we’ve done this is to provide options to our children. For example, every Saturday we have family jobs where we clean the house, do chores, basic stuff. One daughter is normally really good about helping out, but this particular Saturday she was really cranky. When it was time to work, she didn’t want to do her assigned job.

I stepped back. Took a deep breath. Remembered Epictetus. Then, I offered her options. I named 4 or 5 jobs and she can pick any of them. To my surprise, she was cool with that. She chose the job she wanted to do and simultaneously she fulfilled her duty as a family member by helping around the house.

This is how we’ve applied Epictetus’ admonition to do what is in our control. In this instance, I didn’t force her to work. I simply offered her options of work, and she chose one. She exercised her agency and I did what was in my control and I didn’t use coercion or force.

In the beginning of the Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches us the following:

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

My daughter felt heard and validated. She exercised her free will. And, as her parent, I was able to get her help to clean the house and teach her the principle of work and cooperation.

Marcus Aurelius believed that we, humans, were actually made to work together – to cooperate. In his words,

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

Working together in society is important, but it is even more so in a family.

Teach Resilience Over Mashed Potatoes

Parents learn from their children but parents are also teachers. Epictetus discusses the role of imitation and how we imitate those that are above us. In the Discourses, Epictetus describes a situation where the governor of Epirus favors a comedian at a play. He then uses that situation to teach an important lesson by asking the governor: “For whom have the many to imitate, but you, their superiors?” (Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 4).

What he is trying to say is that those above us have an obligation to model the right behaviors for those that are below us. This is a great lesson especially for parents and children. One way we’ve tried to apply this practice in our family is to have healthy discussions at the dinner table.

For example, during dinner I might ask:

  • What challenges did you have at school today? What did you learn? What did you do to overcome the challenge you faced?
  • What experiences did you have today where you really enjoyed what you were learning or doing? What if you were thinking of something else? Would you have enjoyed the present moment as much as you did?

Questions like these are great because they cause us all to reflect on our day and they usually generate very healthy dining table discussion.

Every moment can be a teaching moment. We need to remember to model the right behaviors for our children, knowing full well they will grow up to imitate what they saw us doing. Questions relevant for parents are:

  • Am I modeling the right behavior for my children?
  • What are my children growing towards? Do I want them to grow up to be like me? If not, what changes can I make in my behavior so they will grow up to be the people they can be proud of?

What is in our control is how we behave and what we think and do. Our children notice everything we do. If we want them to grow up to be virtuous and good human beings then, we too, must model the behavior of good, virtuous human beings.

Parenthood is a Laboratory – A Really Messy One

Children present dozens – no, hundreds . . . no, thousands – of opportunities to either get angry, impatient, upset, frustrated, or mad. Or, you can view each situation an opportunity to exercise a virtue and improve upon a character flaw, which we all have.

Epictetus gives us some guidance:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use… If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.

A few practical examples:

  • Your child throws a tantrum in public, exercise patience and gain practice reasoning with the unreasonable.
  • Your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, exercise the use of logic and present options to the child and teach them about consequences of their actions.
  • Your teenager comes home after curfew, explain to them that their actions affect others and teach them to own up to their actions by manfully accepting their consequences.

There are many more examples that life as a parent provides. . . .

Parenthood is Hard and Kids will Humble You: Enjoy Every Minute

With all the trials, tribulations, and humbling experiences that parenthood brings, with the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable. In fact, Marcus Aurelius tells us so:

Concentrate every minute… on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions… You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?

A number of years ago when my twins were two years old, my son got into the peanut butter. No, it wasn’t a small jar either – it was one of those massive Costco jars of peanut butter that was designed to feed an army.

The picture this post starts with is of my son – playing with peanut butter. I swear, I turned my back to do something and within 120 seconds, he was in the peanut butter.

Instead of being angry at the mess I’d have to clean, I made the choice to enjoy the moment, take a picture for posterity, and show gratitude that I was given the chance to experience something so funny and memorable.

We have no promise of tomorrow. Only today. So, God willing, enjoy the time that you have with your children. They are a gift and we have been called to be good, virtuous stewards. Enjoy every moment and do well.

In Seneca’s words, “[Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

Pete Abilla is a struggling stoic. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and they are the proud parents of 9 wonderful kids. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Mathematics from Brigham Young University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Computer Science from The University of Chicago. He owns a tutoring marketplace that has over 100,000 private tutors. You can find him on Twitter  and connect with him on Linkedin.

Stoic Week 2016 Report part 3 (of 4) – Impact on Well-Being by Tim LeBon

This report forms the third part of the report on Stoic Week 2016, which took place in first week of November.

Nearly two thousand participants took three established well-being questionnaires as well as the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale. [i] Well-being and the degree of Stoicism were measured before and after Stoic Week, allowing us to assess the impact of doing Stoic Week on self-reports on well-being and on levels of Stoicism.

Overall Findings 

In terms of improvements in well-being over Stoic Week, the results were remarkably similar to those of Stoic Week 2015 and 2014, with increases in well-being ranging from 10-15% in the week depending on the scale being used. This replication of previous findings gives us further increased confidence in the reliability of the findings. Table 1 below shows the overall outcome results.

Stoic Week


Stoic Week


Stoic Week 2014
No of participants 1803 2503 1953
Increase in Flourishing 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 14% 14% 16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 15% 29% 29%

Table 1: Overall Findings

Impact on Flourishing

Participants reported on average a 10% overall increase in Flourishing.[ii] Table 2 below shows the impact of Stoic which on each element of Flourishing. 

Flourishing Scale Item 2016








1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
7. I am optimistic about my future. 10 12 11 18 Optimism
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3. I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
8. People respect me. 9 7 7 5 Respected
5. I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 6 7 8 5 Competent

 Table 2: Impact on Flourishing

As in previous years, results suggest Stoicism has a particularly large positive impact on purpose and meaning (item 1), with social relationships (item 2) also showing particularly significant improvement.

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Participants reported an average 15% increase in satisfaction with life overall as measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale.[iii].

Table 3 below shows which aspects of Satisfaction with Life increased the most. As one might anticipate given Stoicism’s teachings, the theme of acceptance (question 5) showed by far the biggest increase – 24%.

Percentage change by each question 2016 % increase 2015 % increase


2014 %
2013 % increase Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 24 20 17 17 Acceptance
4. I am satisfied with my life 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
2.The conditions of my life are excellent 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 10 13 13 11 Needs met

Table 3: Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Impact on Emotions

There was a substantial increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions as reported by participants who took part in Stoic Week. There was a greater shift in negative emotions than positive emotions (14% as opposed to 10%) as measured by the SPANE.[iv] The positive emotions that showed the biggest changes in 2016 were “contented “(15%) followed by “joyful” (12%). All the negative emotions showed a significant reduction of between 14 and17%. Tables 4 and 5 below shows the impact of Stoic Week on positive and negative emotions.

Positive Emotions 2016 % change 2015 % comparison 2014 % comparison 2013 % comparison
Overall positive 10 10 11  


Contented 15 14 14 12
Joyful 12 13 13 12
Happy 7 11 9 9
Good 8 9 10 7
Pleasant 9 9 10 8
Positive 10 8 13 8

Table 4: Impact on Positive Emotions


Negative   Emotions 2016 %
2015 % comparison 2014 %
2013 %
Overall negative -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 5: Impact on Negative Emotions


Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS)

Comparisons in SABS scores before and after Stoic Week allow us to assess whether participants changed with respect to being Stoic taking part in Stoic Week. It also enables us to see in which ways they became more Stoic.

Table 6 below gives the changes in average scores for each item between the beginning and end of Stoic Week for 2016. Overall there was an 11% increase in assenting to Stoic attitudes and behaviours. [v]

Item number SABS item wording

Those items in italics have been reversed scored, so a high score still indicates a more Stoic attitude or behaviour.

% Change Average Score at start of Stoic week (completers only) Average score at end of Stoic Week
1 As long as you have the right attitude,  you can lead a good life  even in the worst of conditions, such as being tortured or being held prisoner 8 5.3 5.7
2 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing 10 5.7 6.3
3 It can sometimes be a good thing to get angry when people are really rude, selfish or inconsiderate 15 4.2 4.8
4 It’s  more important to feel good than to do good. 7 5.4 5.8
5 Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control. 7 6.0 6.5
6 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset 16 4.0 4.6
7 What is called “morally right” and “morally wrong” is in reality just a matter of personal or cultural 5 4.2 4.4
8 The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions 9 5.9 6.4
9 You should go wherever your emotions leads you 2 5.7 5.8
10 Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom 9 5.7 6.2
11 I think about my life as an ongoing project in ethical development 13 5.5 6.2
12 To flourish as a human being all you need is rationality and a good character; things like money, status, health and good luck are not essential 15 4.9 5.7
13 I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare. 8 5.5 5.9
14 The cosmos is a  single, wise, living  thing 11 3.9 4.3
15 I  try to anticipate future misfortunes and  rehearse rising above them 16 4.9 5.6
16 I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time. 6 5.4 5.7
17 If I was honest I’d have to admit that I  often do what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing 15 3.4 4.0
18 I am good at controlling my urges and impulses when that’s better for me in the long run [this item is excluded from SABS total as items 32 and 33 better measure a specifically Stoic concept of self-control] 14 4.3 4.9
19 I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life. 17 4.7 5.5
20 It is possible to control how other people behave towards you 13 4.9 5.5
21 I treat everybody fairly even those I don’t like or don’t know very well 10 5.1 5.6
22 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future 24 3.6 4.4
23 I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions. 13 5.2 5.8
24 When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent 28 4.2 5.3
25 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment 17 4.8 5.6
26 Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death 20 4.5 5.4
27 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 13 4.7 5.3
28 I care about the suffering of others and take active steps to reduce this 8 5.2 5.6
29 Happiness depends on things going well for me and my family 11 3.8 4.2
30 We have to accept that some things that matter a lot for our happiness are outside our control 17 2.9 3.4
31 When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” and then look for the option that a good and wise person would choose. 12 5.0 5.6
32 I sometimes have thoughts or urges it would be unwise to act on, but I usually realise this and do not act on them 6 5.2 5.5
33 My beliefs about what is best determine my wishes and motives 9 5.1 5.6
34 When making an important decision I try to predict the consequences of my actions and aim to balance the long-term happiness of myself and others -12 2.6 2.3
35 My good name and what other people think about me matters a lot. 20 3.5 4.2
36 I am upset when I hear of the suffering of others 6 2.5 2.6
37 There’s no overall plan to the universe. 12 3.2 3.6

Table 6: Impact of taking part in Stoic Week 2016 on Stoic attitudes and behaviours


The SABS items that showed the biggest increases are both strongly related to improved mental health.

  • Cognitive Distancing (item 24). This is important because it allows people to take a step back, not automatically assenting to unhelpful judgements.
  • Reducing rumination (item 22). Dwelling on negative thoughts for a long time is strongly associated with depression.

All SABS items moved in the expected direction with the exception item 34, an item added in SABS v3.0 which measures a utilitarian concept of practical wisdom. Perhaps the reason for this item not changing in the expected direction is that the utilitarian concept of practical wisdom incorporates some ideals to which Stoics would assent  – such as reflection and benevolence.

The 11% change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

The hypotheses that it is a change in Stoicism that mediates the change in well-being was further tested by examining the differences in well-being changes for those 100 participants who changed most according to the SABS against the 100 who changed least in SABS score. If it is the level of Stoicism that is causing the change in well-being, one would expect significantly more improvements in well-being in the group who have experienced most SABS change. This turned out to be the case. The 100 participants who experienced the most changes in SABS score and hence the biggest changes in being Stoic increased in Satisfaction with Life by 20% and in Flourishing by 13%. The 100 participants who experienced the least changes in SABS scores showed increases of only 10% and 5% in Satisfaction with Life and flourishing respectively.

The SABS analysis also allows us to see which areas of Stoicism participants were most and least Stoic in at the end of Stoic week.

By the end of Stoic Week, the items whereby people were most Stoic were:

  • Item 5: Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control.
  • Item 8: The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions

The items where participants scored lowest in SABS scores were:-

  • Item 34: When making an important decision I try to predict the consequences of my actions and aim to balance the long-term happiness of myself and others  (utilitarian practical wisdom)
  • Item 36: I am upset when I hear of the suffering of others

Both these items are non-Stoic and for many people not intuitively wrong or unethical i.e. many people would agree with them. Perhaps there is room for the Stoic Week materials to clarify exactly why these items are not in accord with Stoicism.

Completion Rate

The completion rate in 2016 was significantly lower than in previous years, being only 15% compared to 29%. The reason for this is unclear. The same technology was used as in 2016 and the materials were very similar. Whilst there were still a large enough completers for the findings to be statistically significant, it is obviously a cause for concern that this figure reduced so significantly. A further discussion about how to increase the number of people completing Stoic Week will be in part 4 of this report.


For the fourth year running, taking part in Stoic Week led to a significant increase in well-being on all measures. The results were remarkably similar to 2015. The SABS items that showed the biggest increase, cognitive distancing and reducing rumination, are both significantly related to improvements in mental health as well as well-being. Additional analysis this year, comparing changes in well-being of those who changed in Stoicism most with those who changed least, further supports the hypothesis that the change in well-being is largely attributable to participant’s being more Stoic. One cause for concern is the reduced number of participants completing the questionnaire after Stoic Week.

[i] Details of these four questionnaires are given in Appendices A-D.

[ii] See Appendix A for a description of the Flourishing Scale.

[iii] See Appendix B.

[iv] See Appendix C.

[v] See Appendix D for details of the SABS 3.0.

For a downloadable version of this report, complete with appendices, Click Here.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on tim@timlebon.com. His website is http://www.timlebon.com

What Would Stoics Say about the U.S. 2016 Election? by Temma Ehrenfeld

On the morning after the United States election this year, like many people I know, I was afraid to get out of bed.

But I had had good fortune. At “Stoicon” in New York in October, I’d picked up The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and had begun reading a quote each morning.  So, still in bed, I read the day’s entry: “All is fluid.” “The universe is change. Life is opinion.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b)

It could hardly have been more apt. Over the coming months, I came to believe that the decisive issues in this election are also the most important issues in Stoicism.

“Life is opinion” is a vague phrase, but it had an obvious painful meaning now. The morning before, people had been visibly elated on the streets around my local polling place on the Upper West Side. I overheard a conversation in which someone said, “I can’t wait until I can ignore Donald Trump.”

For decades we New Yorkers knew him as a shady tycoon with bad taste. On my morning bike ride, I pass a row of mammoth apartment buildings he owns. When people from out of town asked me about Trump, I’d report a visit to a friend who had just moved into one of those buildings. As the elevator stopped on her floor, she was saying, “Wait until you see the view,” when we all walked out and saw a large turd in the hallway.

In my circle of opinion, Trump couldn’t win. How could so many Americans hold opinions we thought unthinkable? Because “life is opinion.” My brief life, and their brief lives.  Nothing I thought certain was certain. What could I count on? “The universe is change.”

The pundits say that Americans elected Trump because he promised “change,” desirable unto itself, startling the entire world with their choice.  Human beings both crave and fear change. Donald Trump has become the epitome of that ambivalence.

The Stoics teach that change in itself is neither good nor bad—yet inevitable. It isn’t wise to choose a candidate who has never held political office for the mere sake of change, but wise to make your peace with change when it comes.

If you are excited at the prospect of a Trump administration, now is not the time to gloat for the same reason “Blue State liberals” shouldn’t despise you. The wheel will turn, and turn again.

I continue to read a Meditation every day, and the habit has served me well. On November 17, Seneca: “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” (Moral Letters, 103, 4b-5a) No, I wasn’t allowed to rail about idiots who had elected a protofascist. November 27, Marcus Aurelius: “How satisfying it is to dismiss and block out any upsetting or foreign impression, and immediately to have peace in all things.” (Meditations, 5.2). I stopped reading news about the transition that day.

Two days later came more permission to hide from the news, if only for a time: Marcus Aurelius: “Don’t lament this and don’t get agitated.” (Meditations, 7.43.) Ryan and Stephen spoke to me like dear friends: “There’s that feeling we get when something happens: It’s all over now. All is lost. What follows are complaints and pity and misery—the impotent struggle against something that’s already occurred….[what’s coming next] could be the darkness before the dawn. If we’re Stoic, there is one thing we can be sure of: whatever happens, we’re going to be OK.”

It’s as if they knew that November 2016 would be rough for much of the country. But of course, any month can be rough, as the Stoics knew especially well.

“To read or not to read” the news became a question much discussed on Facebook and elsewhere. As some of my friends were saying (and the Stoics agree), we have a duty to be engaged citizens, to love our country. I received urgent messages from people I respect asking me to make phone calls or sign petitions demanding a recount or urge electors to change their votes.

The Stoics also teach us to avoid distractions. I chose to stay out of those protests; they seemed clearly to be ways of coping. To me, the real question was “What did the voters who chose Trump mean to tell us?”

Stoicism has much to tell us on that point. Donald Trump does not do well on Stoic measures, except for one: he scorned the approval of official approval-givers. As the song goes, he did it “My Way.” We all should note the power of that stance. (To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable. I myself believe in approval from respected sources and crave it—Stoicism is an antidote).

The public discussion focused on character, a choice the Stoics would applaud. People disliked both candidates for perceived greed and dishonesty, serious faults to Stoics. However, the outcome didn’t turn on the character of the candidates. It turned, I argue, on our sources of self-respect.

As a celebrity, our President-Elect benefited from a special kind of familiarity: people trusted him because they’d seen him for years in their homes on their television screens. Hillary Clinton was also familiar, but from the despised world of politics and policy-wonks, the “insiders.”

If the pundits are correct, voters who felt that they had been treated as “losers” and “outsiders” saw a man of fame and fortune, a “winner,” who was also paradoxically an “outsider” like themselves, declaring himself on their side.

The Stoics teach resoundingly that this logic is wrong. Fame and wealth, they say, are fleeting and worthless, victories in a war not worth winning. In any case, you can’t get respect, or self-respect, by association.

In the present moment, we hear, too many Americans and British feel like “losers” because of declining income and respect for their traditional work. So they blame immigrants. The Stoics are right here, too: they insist on the value of meaningful work. If your industry is in decline, and you can’t earn a good living or you don’t have a job, life is harder. But if you are doing what you can you are not a “loser.” You are also not an “outsider.” You are inside the circle of your own judgment and bonds to your community and loved ones.

How I wish we all felt this in our bones.  Stoics don’t cuddle up to celebrities. They also don’t bathe in self-pity within bubbles.

Soon after the election, I attended a party full of people lamenting Trump’s victory. I wandered into a back room, where I found the hostess—call her Nancy–sitting alone. I’d met her only once before. She invited me to sit beside her. I asked her if she was having a good time. With a strange look on her face, she said, “Do you really want to know?”

I nodded. “I voted for Trump,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told.” I nodded.

“I’m so hopeful,” she said. “I think he’ll really make a difference.” She glowed like a woman in love.

The Stoics teach us to spread wisdom rather than seethe inside when we disagree. But they also teach us to be kind.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6: “All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way”

I knew what to do. As a journalist, I’m trained to listen to people with whom I don’t agree. I was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to do what I do well. I was also grateful to be at her party, which was warm and fun. My judgement: to listen, which would build good in the present moment and express my gratitude. I kept my face welcoming and listened to her reasons for deeply admiring Donald Trump.

I did make one, indirect, attempt to teach my wisdom: I told her that my monthly health insurance cost had dropped by $100 a month when the Affordable Care Act passed, and I was scared it would go up again. She said, “Don’t worry; he’s going to make health insurance better.”

The Stoics teach us to be careful to whom we extend our friendship. I choose to keep up friendships with people despite disagreements about politics. Should you drop those friends? Should you avoid family members whose politics offend you? If the disagreement is profound, one can find quotes in the Stoic literature to make either case. But the message is clear: first, tend your own garden.

You might think, “My Dad always thought my brothers deserved more freedom and respect than I did, so he’s proud to have as his President a man who thinks it’s OK to boast about assaulting women.” Or, “My sister can’t handle debt and she blames Mexicans for our financial troubles.”

Remember Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2: “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinions, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control…everything not of our own doing.”

As I read Epictetus, he would advise you to monitor your own attitudes about women and men and to let your Dad keep his. You might take more responsibility for your own finances, knowing that you may soon have to help out your sister. While we school ourselves not to fret over things we can’t control, we must also anticipate the worst. Know that calamity can come to you and act accordingly.

Taking a role in public life is also a Stoic value. I recently chose to write an op-ed that ran on the opinion page at the Wall Street Journal. I write for other conservative publications. I say what I think, and if my audience disagrees with me on other matters, that’s okay. Perhaps my words will get through. We all can choose how to best use our abilities to be useful during this political season.

The Stoics often suffered exile. That—and other influences, as well as all the talk of fleeing to Canada—inspired me to begin applying for my Canadian citizenship card (my mother was Canadian and my brother holds dual citizenship). I got only half-way through the process, during the election and then afterwards, began to worry that Canada would tighten up the rules. Next time, I will be more diligent. Stoic lesson learned.

I’ve pursued the application, which is taking some effort. Is this a good use of my time or a distraction? One could argue either case. I want to be prepared for a calamity when leaving my home becomes the best option. The Stoics embraced exile, a time to pursue philosophy. The truth is that I’m lucky; I can write anywhere. Writing is what I do best, though sometimes I am sick of it and want to be a dancer, a photographer—anything else. Love your fate, the Stoics say. Joy comes from practicing your virtues.

Our Stoic teachers insist that we can be happy in a world that feels unsafe. But I believe that a Trump administration will cause many other people to suffer more than they might have. It’s true I don’t know whether the total amount of suffering is bound to increase over the long run as a result of the recent turn of events, though it strongly seems that it will.

I asked Gregory Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, what he thought about the question of others’ suffering. In an email, he responded that Stoics recognize that intentionally harming others or simply taking actions that make harm foreseeable is “morally wrong.” Indeed, people who act unjustly are also damaging themselves. Many people I know intuitively agree; they think that as our President, Trump will bring about his own undoing.

“Wait and see” say my most serene confidantes, my 87-year-old father and my mother’s best friend, a 70-something economist.

What will happen? No one knows.

“If the breaking day sees someone proud,
The ending day sees them brought low.
No one should put too much trust in triumph,
No one should give up hope of trials improving.
Clotho mixes one with the other and stops
Fortune from resting, spinning every fate around.”
– Seneca, Thyestes, 613

Temma Ehrenfeld is a ghostwriter and journalist in New York drawn to psychology and philosophy. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, and Fortune and her literary work in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Chicago Literary Quarterly, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Prism International. She blogs at Psychology Today and is shopping her first novel, The Wizard of Kew Gardens.  See more of her work and reach her through her website. 

The Triteness and Hypocrisy of Marcus Aurelius: Thoughts on Mary Beard, SPQR and Stoicism by Kevin Kennedy

Like many other members of the new Stoicism movement, I have a great interest in ancient Roman history. The Roman Empire is not only a fascinating subject in its own right, but knowledge of it also can help us gain a more profound understanding of Stoic philosophy. One of the world’s foremost experts on Roman history today is Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge university. In her books and her BBC documentaries, Beard presents the complexities of ancient Roman society in a way that is not only educational but also entertaining. So it was with tremendous joy that I recently found myself able to sit down with her latest work, a general history of Rome titled SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus:  “The Senate and the People of Rome”).

To be sure, I began reading SPQR  with a few caveats in mind. I knew that this was going to be a book that focused more on the politics, society, economy and everyday life in Rome than on its schools of philosophy, Moreover, I was aware that Beard was no fan of Stoicism. Whenever I see her name, I still have to think about a review she wrote several years ago of three biographies of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How Stoical was Seneca?” The reviewed authors all viewed Seneca as a hypocrite and Beard agreed with them. For her, Seneca only affected a virtuous life to divert attention from his involvement with the tyrant Nero and from his amassment of enormous wealth by dubious means.

Beard even mocked Seneca’s suicide. (Nero believed Seneca was part of a conspiracy against him and commanded that he kill himself.) After failing to draw enough blood by slashing his veins (“he was so old and emaciated the blood hardly escaped”), Seneca took hemlock, offering a libation to Jupiter. This was, so Beard, an obvious attempt to emulate Socrates’ legendary death. But the poison also failed to achieve the desired effect, so Seneca ordered his servants to bring him into a hot bath, where he suffocated in the steam. Beard saw something comical in all this. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death, she writes, he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. Seneca was for Beard a poor exemplar of Stoic philosophy, which she seemed to dislike as much as she disliked him:

Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.

And yet, with all this in mind, I was still not prepared for what I discovered in SPQR:

There are occasional examples of outstanding imperial virtue too. The philosophical Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, cliché as much of it is (‘Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you’) still finds many admirers, buyers and advocates today, from self-help gurus to former US president Bill Clinton.

In truth, it is not necessary for a scholar to sympathize with Stoicism in order to write a first-rate history of ancient Rome (which is what SPQR is). What a reader can expect, however, is that a historian has some understanding of Stoicism before comparing it to contemporary self-help literature or former American presidents with obvious self-control issues. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain trite observations which are repeated over and over?  Well duh! The repetition of philosophical principles was necessary, the Stoics taught, because we tend to keep forgetting them.

As those of you reading this now know, my  initial response to Beard’s comment was a decidedly non-Stoic one. I felt a twinge of anger and responded in a mocking tone. Had I remembered my Stoic principles, however, I would have realized that it was my own self who had decided that Mary Beard had somehow offended me and all modern-day Stoics. I also would have considered how to respond in a more mature manner. Now that I have taken a moment to regain my composure (cognitive distancing: another trite Stoic principle), I will attempt  to do just that.

When Marcus Aurelius was writing what came to be known as his Meditations or “Thoughts”, he was not composing a philosophical treatise intended for academic discussion; instead he was keeping a private journal intended to help him live a more virtuous life. This was (and remains) common Stoic practice. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, stressed the importance of this exercise to his students: Let these things be ready at hand, night and day. These things write, these things read: of these things talk both to yourself and to others. (Discourses, 3:24). The purpose of this practice is described well by the writer Jules Evans. As he put is, Stoics keep journals full practiced a form of “autosuggestion”:

The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around – that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”. We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.

Another passage of SPQR which might irritate modern-day Stoic readers comes when Beard discusses Marcus Aurelius’ military exploits:

And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus would be less admiring if they reflected on the the brutality of the suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up the commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.

First, as a scholar of German history, I wince every time other historians use the term “the Germans” in this anachronistic way. “The Germans,” as a distinct ethnic-cultural nation, did not emerge until the Middle Ages, at the earliest.  “Germanic” would be more accurate for the ancient world. But I digress. More important is Beard’s suggestion that, since Marcus Aurelius engaged in brutal warfare, he violated his Stoic principles and was therefore, like Seneca, some kind of a hypocrite.

Marcus Aurelius was not always a mild-mannered philosopher, but an emperor and a general who also committed acts of violence that would make us blanch today? If I may be allowed one more un-stoical response: Another shocker! Anyone who has devoted any amount of serious study to the history ancient Rome knows this. Marcus Aurelius was responsible for things that today would get him sent to the International Court of Criminal Justice at the Hague. But Marcus Aurelius did not reign in the twenty-first century. He was a man of his time, and the ancient world was a very violent place.

In contrast to many other Roman emperors, however, Marcus never prosecuted wars of conquest. His wars were purely defensive — and necessary. Several times in the course of his reign, Germanic tribes invaded the Roman empire, pillaging and murdering local populaces, and setting off a wave of panic that reached the city of Rome itself. As a Stoic, he knew that the gods or the fates have entrusted each one of us with certain duties and responsibilities which we must carry out as best we can. As emperor, it was Marcus’ chief duty to protect the empire. He  discharged his duty, trying to maintain his humanity as far as possible.

While it is true that  his armies repelled the invaders with great brutality, the ancient accounts report that Marcus was also magnanimous to the Germanic tribes once they had been subdued. It is also important to remember that, despite certain similarities, Stoics are not Christians. Being a Stoic does not mean that one has to be a pacifist as well. (Christians themselves, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have also historically honored Christ’s pleas for love, peace and forgiveness more in the breach than in the observance.) Perhaps this is why Stoicism has traditionally found a receptive audience within the military. In any case, by guiding his troops into battle, Marcus was honoring his Stoic principles, not betraying them.

If I may conclude on another digression: While Mary Beard herself may be no admirer of Stoicism and the Stoics, she has, in the past few years, exhibited some public behavior which Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have found commendable. In 2013 Internet trolls reacted to some of Beard’s television appearances with vile, obscene, misogynist comments on Twitter. Beard responded by publicly naming and shaming them. Most remarkably, however, she later forgave her trolls and even befriended some of them. As she said, people shouldn’t be punished forever for solitary acts of stupidity: In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’. Mary Beard’s dignified and generous response to her tormentors is worthy of a philosopher. Perhaps, somewhere along the way of her decades spent studying ancient Rome, she acquired some Stoic habits of mind after all.

And I would highly recommend all fellow modern Stoics to buy a copy of SPQR. Not to learn about the ancient Roman Stoics, but to discover the fascinating world in which they lived.

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.