Stoic Week 2018 will take place Monday Oct 1st– Sunday Oct 7th. Stay tuned for more information. Here’s some general information about Stoic Week in the meantime.
Sharon Lebell, who spoke at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto, has kindly donated fifteen signed copies of her much loved book on the Stoicism of Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness. We’re holding a free prize draw, which ends soon. So please register below if you want to take part.
Full details via the link above. Thanks for your support!
We are in the process of migrating all user accounts from the Modern Stoicism WordPress site to our new Learn Modern Stoicism site hosted by Teachable. This is an e-learning site that we will use to deliver Stoic Week, SMRT, and to provide resources such as videos from conferences.
All users of this site should have received three emails recently:
- An announcement from this domain (modernstoicism.com) saying that your account is being migrated to our new Learn Modern Stoicism site hosted by Teachable.
- A system-generated email from Learn Modern Stoicism (learn.modernstoicism.com) asking you to confirm your email for the account.
- An announcement from the new domain Learn Modern Stoicism (learn.modernstoicism.com) explaining the migration process.
All user accounts have now been removed from Modern Stoicism. If you’re having problems logging into Learn Modern Stoicism just get in touch. Alternatively, you can just set up a new account on Learn Modern Stoicism.
We’ve been planning to migrate accounts for a long time. The existing WordPress site was suffering from performance problems as the numbers of users grew. We currently have nearly 14,000 registered users, which is likely to grow in advance of Stoic Week 2017.
The main benefits of moving to Teachable are:
- The site is faster and more stable
- It’s more responsive and works better on mobile devices
- We have greater capacity to add larger numbers of new users
- Videos (hosted by Wistia) will stream faster and be more responsive
- We benefit from the e-learning features of Teachable
- The email notification system in Teachable works better
- There’s also an integrated iOS app for Apple users (an Android app will follow eventually)
I hope that information is of help. Please get in touch if you have any more questions.
Article announcing Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 with details of live webinar sessions, etc.
Enrolment is now open for the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course. This is a free eLearning course, which Donald Robertson has been running once or twice each year for Modern Stoicism since 2014. You can access the preliminary area now and the four weeks of the course will officially begin on Sunday 16th July, when enrolment will close. This year over 500 people enrolled within the first 48 hours after it was announced on social media. Around 650 people are now enrolled and we anticipate that will have increased to nearly 1,000 by the course start date.
SMRT was designed as an alternative to Stoic Week, which is more intensive, and lasts for weeks rather than one. It was modelled on training methods for other psychological skills, such as treatment protocols for clinical trials on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). It is not a general introduction to Stoicism. If that’s what you’re after try Stoic Week first. However, if you want a “deep dive” into core Stoic psychological skills then SMRT may be just what you’ve been looking for!
Or follow this link: Enrol on Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training.
In the first year, over 500 people took part in SMRT and data was collected from participants, using the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) and a battery of validated outcome measures of the kind used in research on CBT and positive psychology. You can download a PDF of our report here showing the findings in detail:
We were actually quite taken aback by the findings. They are consistent with the data we’ve collected from Stoic Week participants over the years and we’d expect four weeks of intensive training to produce bigger improvements than one week. However, the results from SMRT were more impressive than we had anticipated. Improvements were found on the Satisfaction with Life Scale (27%), scale of positive emotions (SPANE_P, 16%), scale of negative emotions (SPANE_N, 22.7%),
and Flourishing Scale (17%). These changes were almost double the size of those found in Stoic Week.
This year SMRT will be essentially the same except that we’re hoping to include four live webinars, hosted by the course creator and facilitator, Donald Robertson. Donald will be reviewing the materials for the week, providing tips, and answering questions you post in the the live chat area. Don’t worry if you miss one of the webinars, though. They’re not absolutely essential and you’ll be able to access them later to replay a recording.
Donald recently did a 20 minute Facebook Live session about Modern Stoicism in general, touching on Stoicon, Stoicon-x, Stoic Week and SMRT. This Wednesday at 2pm Eastern Time, you’re invited to join him for a “pilot” webinar session using YouTube Live. You can follow the link below right now to set up a reminder for yourself on the YouTube page.
Donald will be testing the software out by giving a brief overview of SMRT and answering some of your questions about the course live on video. A recording of this session will also be made available afterwards.
Interview with Greg Sadler about his interest in Stoicism.
Dr. Sadler will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.Gregory Sadler is the Editor of Stoicism Today and the president of ReasonIO. His popular philosophy-focused YouTube channels contain over 100 video lectures on Stoic philosophy.
How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m a guy who keeps pretty busy! I’m the current editor of Stoicism Today, a member of Modern Stoicism, and the co-organizer of the MKE Stoic Fellowship. All of those are volunteer positions, so I earn my living with my company ReasonIO, engaging in philosophical counseling, online teaching, public speaking, tutorials, and consulting. Through the Institute for Priority Thinking, I do ethics training and executive coaching. I also produce YouTube videos on a variety of philosophical thinkers and texts. After about a decade as a professor, I left the academy to do philosophy in more public, practical, and professional settings, but I still keep professionally active, by publishing and presenting in my field.
How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?
At times quite openly, and at other times, smuggling it in! When I’m training corporate clients in, for example, understanding and dealing with anger, they’re much less interested in where the ideas came from, and much more interested in what’s effective and applicable. Stoicism figures heavily into my work as a philosophical counselor, and I incorporate Stoic philosophy into a considerable portion of my public speaking, and teaching. I should mention, though, that rather than being exclusively a Stoic, I’m what you call an “eclectic” (much like Cicero), or if you like, a “pluralist”. I integrate and draw upon multiple approaches – Stoic, Aristotelian, (later) Platonist, even dialectical and existentialist – within my work.
When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
A long ways back, but at first only superficially. I’d say that I was attracted to some Stoic ideas – without knowing where they came from – back in my high school and Army days. And then I encountered Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some modern treatments of Stoic ideas as an undergraduate philosophy major. But it was really only in my graduate studies that I’d say I really began to understand and appreciate Stoic philosophy’s scope, depth, applicability, and systematic nature. That happened through getting my hands on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses. I got a second major spur to seriously studying Stoicism, once I became a professor, with my ongoing work on treatments of anger, emotion, and rationality.
What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
That is a hard one for me to answer. Stoicism really is a systematic philosophy, and in my view – here a lot of people will say I’m dead wrong! – there isn’t just one single doctrine that is the most central. That said, if I had to pick one thing that I personally find most interesting about Stoicism, for me it would be a notion that we find most explicitly developed in Epictetus. It’s what he calls prohairesis, and what we often translate as “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”, or (a bit misleadingly) “will”. This is the very core of the human person, and it is what we are working on – using itself to work on itself – when we are engaging in the kind of self-improvement Stoicism suggests we focus on.
In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
The very number of people who are interested in Stoicism at present – and who stick with it over time – should tell us something! People from all walks of life and with all sorts of backgrounds are finding aspects of Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful or liberating when applied to their own lives. It’s one thing for academics and other professional practitioners to be interested in a philosophical approach, or even to apply it in their lives and talk about it with each other. It’s something entirely different when a philosophy from two millennia back has something to say to a much wider audience in our present-day culture.
How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
Not as much as it ought to have, or I’d have liked it to have! Oh – you were asking “How?”, not “How much?” I’d say that it has helped me place matters into perspective – with things that I do still sometimes let myself get quite affected by, more than I’d like. Getting angry, for instance: I do a lot of work on anger, and that was originally motivated by wanting to better understand and deal with my own feelings, responses, habits, and assumptions.
What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?
It’s one from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:
“When you are about to put your hand to some undertaking, remind yourself what sort of undertaking it is.”
We have a choice, but it is one that we have to make over and over again. What do we allow our desires and aversions to focus upon? For the Stoic, the way Epictetus puts it, it is keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature. If we can stick with that – which isn’t easy, I’ll admit! – we’re going to be all right.
What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
I’m a big believer in going to the original sources. There is a lot of excellent “secondary” literature on Stoicism available, most of which has been written in the last three decades. I’ve also produced a number of videos on Stoic thought – and have plans to create hundreds more – but that’s more or less like secondary literature as well. There’s nothing like actually reading the “big three” – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – and seeing for oneself what they taught and thought firsthand. You could add what we have of Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, and the very informative presentations of Stoic thought by Diogenes Laertes and Cicero.
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
Indeed I do! I think it’s quite astounding how quickly modern Stoicism has developed into a worldwide community of practice, connected up with each other in large part through the internet. It’s truly inspiring just to witness how many people have found Stoic philosophy to be useful to incorporate within their own lives. I’m also very pleased to to get to play my small part in the larger mission of the Modern Stoicism organization. I think there’s great things ahead for decades to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what shape those take.
It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love.
Every song you hear seems to say, Merry Christmas.
May your New Year dreams come true.
By now, you’ve perhaps heard that old Frank Sinatra tune, the Christmas Waltz – whether on the radio, while shopping, piped in somewhere as background – at least several times this holiday season. It expresses a rather optimistic ideal for what the holidays could be like, but goes further than that, presenting an imaginary image in three lines to the listener as revealing the true and underlying reality of “that time of year”. The experience most (perhaps all) of us have, each successive holiday season, does not always match up to this.
Fortunately, for many, the holidays do provide moments or periods of joy, of reconnection, of excitement, of giving and receiving genuine affection (not to mention, for many, gifts or presents). But it is also quite often – even for those looking forward to them – a stressful time. Bringing one’s family together for a common meal, for exchanging and opening gifts, for celebration carries with it risks of all sorts. Disagreements, disappointments, tensions, even all-out-holiday brawls (when you have them, it is better to conduct the “sharing of grievances” earlier during Festivus!)
Renewed (or more acutely felt) grief at being reminded of the absence of those who have passed away – which some feel more acutely during the holidays – is just one common mode of sadness or pain that arises for some during the holidays. Loneliness is another that descends upon many who don’t have a strong circle of family or friends to share fellowship with. Some are estranged, others bear hidden grief, anger, sadness, or fear which they feel they must keep to themselves. The holidays can also be a very busy time, filled with parties, last minute shopping, decoration, meals, travel, each of which can produce its own stresses and frustrations, particularly when our expectations run high.
As I blocked in the schedule for posts in Stoicism Today months back, and saw that we would be publishing on the 24th, Christmas Eve, I thought it might be fitting for me to author a piece on Stoicism and the holidays. There were several reasons, to which a particularly personal one has recently been added. To start with, there have been some discussions and queries about what Stoicism might have to say about various holidays in the Facebook Stoicism group, so I pledged that I’d write something on that topic. But, it also struck me that precisely because of the holidays – and given that a good bit of our readership does tend to be from countries where Christmas does get celebrated (at least with parties, and time off from work), guest authors might be less enthusiastic about having their post run on a day it might draw less readers.
As it turns out, for several reasons, this year we will be having a rather low-key Christmas in our own household. And so, a good bit more of the Stoic advice and reflections I’d intended to provide here ends up being personally needed and applicable this time around. It’s a busy time, not only because of holidays, but because it is the end of the year itself, so for those who have their own businesses (at least of certain types), not to mention other obligations and commitments, there’s a lot of work yet left to finish. We still have yet to put up, or even unpack, any decorations as I write this, days before Christmas. There have also been some ongoing medical issues of various severity on one side of our family, which mean some of the celebrating will likely occur in the hospital. On the other side of our family, the manners in which the holidays and everyone’s schedule fit into the calendar rules out any big family gathering we could participate in.
Which Holidays Do I Mean?
There’s a first issue, I think, that bears being mentioned, and that can be put precisely as that question – which (and whose) holidays am I discussing here? Over the last hundred or so years, Christmas effectively became what we might term a “joint-use” holiday, celebrated by most of those for whom it was a central occasion of the liturgical year, Christians – there’s a long, complex story to be told about that, which I skip over here – but also by many other people as well. As always, someone will no doubt feel the need to pedantically point out that Christians coopted an already existing Roman holiday, the Saturnalia. What is interesting about that is not who gets to call “original dibs”, metaphorically speaking, on the day of the year, but that Saturnalia and Christmas thereby already provide an example of an earlier, similar “joint-use”.
You see, for many in our contemporary culture, Christmas long ago became a “secularized” holiday, quite literally, an aspect of the age and its dominant culture. It involves a whole host of festive symbols and decorations, to be sure, that can be traced back into Christian usages and innovations – sometimes deliberate reinterpretations of pre-Christian, pagan customs (the whole issue of evergreen boughs, wreaths, trees, and the like, involves a murky and complicated tale) – but many people enjoy those with little to no reference to Christianity. Many, if not most, people get some vacation time, get invited to parties and gatherings, watch at least some “Christmas special” content, end up hearing Christmas songs (some of which have clearly religious origins and themes, and others of which focus on other aspects of the season and holidays).
There are also a number of holidays celebrated by other religions, groups, and communities in our multi-cultural societies. I’ll undoubtably leave someone out in just naming a few here, and no offense is intended in not attempting a comprehensive list. The Jewish holiday time of Hanukkah begins this year on this very day, the 24th. The African-American holiday time, Kwanza, begins its celebrations on December 26. the Winter Solstice, celebrated by people ranging from neo-pagans to secular humanists, occurred back on the 21st. Festivus – the recently coined holiday “for the rest of us” – took place yesterday on the 23rd.
By this time of year, at least here in the USA, there has usually been some unpleasantness and discord over precisely whose holidays the season is supposed to be about. It tends to center primarily around whether we refer to Christmas or to “The Holidays.” For instance, is it proper to wish someone “Merry Christmas,” when one is a Christian and the other person is not? Or must one instead go with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays”? People do get quite worked up over these matters. And as an added complication, there’s debate over the role of Santa, the propriety of gift-giving, what sort of decorations are appropriate, and so on.
I’d like to suggest that a practicing Stoic would deliberately steer clear of involvement in those intractable and perennial disagreements. There’s little point, nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, in getting involved in the issue, whether in face to face conversation, in various online media, or even just within the play of one’s own emotions. If other people want to contest what we might call the “holiday space”, using their time at the end of the year in that way, that is something up to them, and doesn’t have to be taken on as a concern for a Stoic. It is just as possible to go into a situation in which people deliberately wish each other greetings intended to push each other’s figurative buttons and press their claims, as it was in Epictetus’ time to enter the public baths, reminding oneself that what one really wants to do is maintain one’s interior dispositions in accordance with nature (as best one can!).
Wishing another person well, by whatever greeting one chooses to employ, can be taken by the recipient in a way that focuses on the fact that another person is wishing him or her well. Alternately, it can be taken by the recipient as an attempt by the holiday well-wisher to foist values and beliefs the recipient does not share onto him or her. This is a prime example of the famous dictum of the “two handles.” One has a choice about which handle to take, and the Stoic exercising prudence will take the handle the matter can be successfully carried by.
Participating In the Festival
Whatever holiday one has in mind during the holiday season, there’s typically quite a few things that, from a Stoic perspective, may strike one as irrational, silly, focused far too much on externals, even a waste of one’s time, or an imposition upon one. Interestingly, Epictetus discusses situations like that in several passages of the Discourses. In one, he says:
When the children come up to us and clap their hands and say “Today is the good Saturnalia,” do we say to them, “All this is not good?” Not at all, but we too clap our hands to them. (1.29)
This is an analogy, adduced in order to suggest how we can approach those who we think would be better off taking a Stoic point of view, but who are not ready to do, or perhaps who will always be resistant to it. But we could take it more literally. There’s no point to being a morose, lecturing spoiler, insisting on playing a role of the austere, joyless Stoic (which is, after all, not really what Stoicism is about) when it comes to holidays. One can participate in the “holiday spirit” cheerfully without thereby losing oneself or abandoning one’s established way of life.
Epictetus draws upon the Saturnalia in another analogy a bit earlier in book 1.
At the Saturnalia a king is chosen by lot. The king gives commands: “You drink, you mix wine, you sing, you go, you come” I obey, so as not to be the one to break up the game. (1.25)
He sees a value there in “not breaking up the game,” one that can easily be transferred to holiday rituals, traditions, and celebrations. In fact, later in book 4, Epictetus notes that taking part in a festival is not just a matter of not disrupting or denigrating it in ways that might affect others, but can also offer its own enjoyable experience. Immediately after once again reminding us about the need to focus on what lies within our control, what is a matter of moral purpose or the faculty of choice (prohairesis), he says to the person who complains because he has to live his life out in the midst of a turmoil:
Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival. There too, one person shouts this and another that; one does this and another that; one jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths. And yet, who does not take delight in the Olympic festival and leave it with sorrow. . . . If you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people. For what is pleasanter to a person who loves his or her fellow human being than the sight of large numbers of them? (4.4)
Simply put, a Stoic following Epictetus’ advice will be at antipodes from a Scrooge (at least the one at the start of A Christmas Carol) . He or she might think some of what is going on is “humbug”, but won’t feel the need to make an issue of that at the time, and will participate with good cheer in the festivities.
Celebrating The Holidays
By the time I write this, those who have those temptations thrust in their faces have hopefully made it through the notorious office holiday parties. Sometimes they can be great fun with one’s colleagues and co-workers. In other cases they can prove a dull obligation, but what one really has to watch out for are those parties where the drinks flow freely, people indulge past the point of moderation and conviviality, and craziness ensues. From a Stoic perspective, of course, that’s just one occasion where whatever level of the virtue of temperance a person has developed needs to be drawn upon during the holiday season.
There are usually ample opportunities to indulge oneself. Candy, cookies, and other sweets become nearly ubiquitous at this time of year. This is also a time when all sorts of other traditional dishes and treats get bought, prepared, and consumed (in our family, it tends to be meat-pie, i.e. tourtiere, with oyster soup, and sometimes smoked salmon). With parties and other festivities also often comes a potential for overindulgence in all sorts of other things that provide pleasures of the body as well. It’s useful to keep in mind Seneca’s advice about Saturnalia conduct in his 18th Letter to Lucilius:
[T]his is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.
Notice that he frames the Stoic attitude in two possible ways. One can refrain entirely, hold oneself aloof from the physical accoutrements of shared celebration. Or one can enjoy them, but in a reasonable, moderate manner.
It isn’t just the attraction to these-days-easily-accessible pleasures that may pose a challenge to the committed Stoic during the holidays – one made a bit more difficult by the very departures from the everyday routines that accompanies this end-of-the-year interval of time. For many, the holidays involve getting together with friends and family. And while in some cases, those get-togethers are very enjoyable – even something one eagerly anticipates in months prior – for many others, those interactions prove much less enjoyable, edifying, or even healthy.
This is where the Stoic “reserve clause” can come in very handy. That’s shorthand for deliberately and sometimes explicitly saying “fate willing” as a reminder that many things lie outside of our control. Within the matrix of the family – particularly for those whose main face to face contact with their family occurs largely at occasional events and holidays – there are common pitfalls for which the reserve clause can prove useful.
Some place unduly high expectations upon how things will pan out over the holidays, raising their hopes that, for example, “This Christmas is going to be the best ever!” Considered closely, that set of expectations seems likely to be disappointed, as plans go awry, people don’t react as one would like, or in short, events go contrary to expectations. All of these provide occasions to remind oneself that some things are indeed outside of one’s control, and that one’s genuine good or bad lie involves what is within one’s control – or as Epictetus likes to frame it, what lies within the domain of one’s faculty of choice.
Here also, I think, is where it becomes useful to keep in mind the Stoic understanding of duties and their connection with roles and relationships. As human beings, we exist within a matrix of relationships, many of which we find ourselves saddled with because of matters that we had little to no choice about. Much of our family relationships are of this sort. We do, however, have some measure of choice in how we live out our roles and relationships. We don’t get to decide, of course, how others will behave towards us.
We are prone to disappointment – particularly over the holidays – over gulfs that emerge between the relationships we do experience and the relationships we might like to imagine, or to hope for, with our family members (or sometimes with friends as well). But in certain respects, that’s up to them. If a sibling, a parent, a child – or extending these considerations beyond the family, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor – doesn’t choose to live out (or even understand) the role that comes with that relationship, then from a Stoic perspective that is indeed something bad. But it’s not primarily bad for you. It’s bad, as Epictetus says, for the person who damages or even destroys that person with him or herself, for example the parent, the sibling, the friend, or the neighbor. What is up to us, however, is how we conduct ourselves, how we choose to think about the situation, and thereby also what we feel.
Being Alone Over the Holidays
There can be stresses, conflicts, and disappointments that mar one’s pleasant (but not realistic) hopes and expectations about what the holidays will hold. But for some people in particular, there is much less to look forward to, and those days and nights might even become something one comes to dread, or to want to get through as quickly as possible. There are a number of people who find the holidays difficult for a variety of reasons.
Foremost among these, perhaps, is loneliness. Feeling isolated from others, particularly at a time of year when relationships, parties, family, traditions, and the like receive so much stress – not only in actual life but also in the songs, movies, and shows about the holidays – can produce a painful sense of being alone, even being the one person you know who is on his or her own, forgotten, cut off from others. That certainly is a painful condition – something that I think not only I and many others can say from experience, but also a matter the classic Stoic authors likely could relate to at some point in their own lives.
Although I don’t expect that it provides an immediate or easy consolation, what Epictetus has to say about solitude may prove helpful, at least to some. He writes, arguably from his own experience, about a state of eremia, which can be translated as “solitude,” “forlornness”, or “loneliness”. When we feel this way, what underlies it is a sense that we are bereft of those from whom we might get some help, share something, find some personal connection. Epictetus notes that this can occur, even when we are surrounded by other people (3.13).
This is a point where reminding ourselves that we are not entirely on our own can be useful. Contemporary Stoics are not all theistic in their worldview, but can at least appreciate the idea that a human being is part not only of whatever community he or she happens to live in, but also a larger, more universal community that Epictetus declares is one of “gods and human beings” (2.6). So although we may be in some respects on our own, and feel lonely, Stoicism offers a perspective from which we can view ourselves as integrated parts of a larger whole of humanity.
There’s much more that could be said, but these reflections seem like a fitting place to bring this post to a close. So, let me wish all of you readers, on behalf of the entire Stoicism Today team, a holiday season in which you enjoy what the good emotions have to offer, you find the best part of yourselves through successfully living out your roles and relationships, you manage to maintain your moral purpose, and during which relaxation readies you for facing the new year to come!
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.
“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is independent, elevated, fearless, and unshakeable, a mind that exists beyond the reach of fear and of desire, that regards honour as the only good and infamy as the only evil, and everything else as a trivial collection of things, which come and go, neither subtracting anything from the happy life nor adding anything to it, and do not increase or diminish the highest good? It is inevitable that a man with such a grounding, whether he wills it or not, will be accompanied by continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness that comes from deep inside him, since he is one who takes pleasure in his own resources and wishes for no joys greater than those of his own heart.”
– Seneca, On the Happy Life 4. (translated J. Davie)
“‘I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? [Jeeves] said. “Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.’”
I breathed a bit stertorously. ‘He said that, did he?’
‘Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.’”
– P.G. Wodehouse The Mating Season
Are Stoics happy? When reading Seneca, you may become convinced that a profound happiness must accompany anyone who has developed the independent, elevated and fearless mind of a Stoic. The novelist P.G Wodehouse provides a different perspective. Who is right? Armchair philosophising cannot provide the answer. It is an empirical matter and in the twenty-first century we have access to methods of investigation that were not available to the Roman Stoics. For several years the Stoicism Today project has been working on this question – this article provides an update on some of the latest findings.
The focus in this article is what we can learn from the results of the questionnaires given to participants at the start of the Stoic Week that took place between Oct 17th and 23rd, 2016. Stoic Week has become an annual event in which anyone with access to the internet is invited to “live like a Stoic” for a week. To do this participants download and read a free booklet and audio materials carry out Stoic exercises daily and, if they are kind, help us with our research by filling in questionnaires at the start and end of the week.
This year participants completed the SABS scale (the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale v3.0), a measure designed by the Stoicism Today team to measure someone’s level of Stoicism and three validated well-being scales which measure Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing and Positive and Negative emotions respectively. In this way it is possible, by using the statistical method of correlation, to ascertain whether Stoic attitudes and behaviours go with happiness, as Seneca would have us believe – or perhaps not, as P.G. Wodehouse implies.
Your questions answered
This year the main findings are being presented as answers to questions people have asked in past years. Detailed facts and figures can be found in the appendices at the end.
Q: Are Stoics happy?
A: Our analysis suggests that in general the more Stoic one is the happier one is too.
Taking an average of the 3 well-being scales, 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.
Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It could be that the association exists because the happier one is, the more Stoic one is, or possibly something else (such as income) could be driving both higher levels of happiness and Stoicism. However, once this strong correlation between well-being and Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week and a significant increase in well-being during Stoic Week (which has been found to be the case in previous years, this years findings will be reported in part 3 of this report) , it would not be unreasonable to infer some causation going in the direction of practising Stoicism and being somewhat happier. This seems to be true however we define happiness, though we should also note that the association is stronger for flourishing (happiness in the round) than for life satisfaction.
Seneca 1 P.G Wodehouse 0?
Q: Hold on, Isn’t Stoicism all about being virtuous and not about happiness? Don’t Stoics go so far as to say that happiness is a “preferred indifferent”. So why are you bothering to do this research?
A: It’s true, the convinced Stoic would say that this finding itself is a preferred indifferent. They would doubtless be pleased that Stoicism goes with happiness, but would argue that this isn’t the main reason you should be Stoic.
However this is not the whole story. We have the testament of Seneca (quoted above) as well as Epictetus who often pointed out that Stoicism leads to greater happiness and more tranquillity. They realised that many of their audience were not convinced Stoics. Practical wisdom necessitated pointing to Stoicism’s positive side-effects (happiness and tranquillity) to win over converts. I would argue that today we are in much the same situation as the Roman Stoics. Most of our audience are not convinced Stoics either. But their interest may be piqued when by learning that Stoicism may make you happier. Certainly they will also be reassured by learning that Stoicism is unlikely to make you miserable or emotionless. If we would like Stoicism to be promoted in companies, government and within the NHS, these findings about the relationship between Stoicism and well-being become all the more important.
Q: I can believe that Stoics are less unhappy, but you’re not claiming that Stoicism actually goes with positive emotions too, are you?
A: Actually our analysis suggests that Stoicism does go with positive emotions as much as with the reduction of negative emotions.
The SPANE scale allows us to measure the relationship of Stoicism with various emotions, positive and negative. Table 1 shows the correlation coefficient[i] between emotions and Stoicism.
|Emotion||Correlation with Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours|
Table 1 : Correlation of SABS 3.0 scores and SPANE items
So perhaps Seneca is exaggerating only a little when he says that Stoicism leads to “continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness”
Seneca 2 P.G Wodehouse 0?
Q: Are those who know a lot about Stoicism (without practising it) happier?
A: No. 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.
Q: Which has more impact on happiness, Stoic behaviours or attitudes?
A: Behaviours are significantly more impactful – a coefficient of .38 as opposed to.29 for attitudes.
Q: You previously published a report on the demographics of Stoic Week 2016. Can you now tell us anything about which groups are most and least Stoic?
A: Yes, absolutely, what would you like to know?
Q: Do you get more or less Stoic as you get older?
A: Interestingly, there seems to be quite a strong relationship between age and Stoicism. The under 18s (admittedly a very small group) were by far the least Stoic. The over 55s were the most Stoic and in general the older people are, the more Stoic they are. The average SABS scores for each age group are as follows:
|Age||Average SABS score|
Table 2: Relationship between Age and degree of Stoicism
Q: Which area of the world is most Stoic?
A: The Americas win . The UK (stiff upper lip notwithstanding) trails the field.
|Region||Average SABS score|
Table 3: Relationship between geographic region and degree of Stoicism
Q: Are men or women more Stoic?
A: Our data suggests that men are marginally more Stoic, averaging 164.5 on the SABS scale as opposed to 161.5 for women.
Q: In what ways are people most Stoic?
A: The items which score highest are given in table 4 below.
|No.||SABS Item||Average score (0-7)|
|5||Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control.||5.97|
|8||The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions||5.78|
|2||It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing||5.65|
|10||Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom||5.59|
Table 4: The ways in which participants are most Stoic
Q: If you had to ask one question to find out if someone was Stoic that didn’t mention the word “Stoic” what should it be?
A: Surprisingly, I should ask them whether they believe that “Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death” (item 26). This has a correlation coefficient of .6 with the SABS scale as a whole, higher than any other SABS item.
Q: Surely PG. Wodehouse was right about something? You have to agree that there are some parts of Stoicism which seem pretty implausible these days – like destiny and “the great web”. Does your research shed any light on this?
A: It is indeed possible to dig deeper and find the associations between specific elements of Stoicism and well-being. Table 5 below shows the items most associated with well-being.
(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)
|Correlation with average well-being|
|22||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future||Non-Stoic Rumination and worry (reverse scored)||0.47|
|27||I do the right thing even when I feel afraid||Stoic Courage||0.31|
|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||Cognitive Distancing||0.29|
|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||Stoic Practical Wisdom||0.26|
|19||I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life||Ideal Stoic Advisor||0.24|
|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||Stoic Humanity Connected||0.24|
|25||Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment||Stoic Brotherhood on Humankind||0.24|
|11||I think about my life as an ongoing project in ethical development||Stoic Ethical Development||0.23|
|28||I care about the suffering of others and take active steps to reduce this (||Stoic Compassion||0.23|
|23||I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions||Stoic Mindfulness||0.22|
|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||Non-Stoic Short- term hedonism (reverse scored)||0.22|
|26||Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death||Stoic coping with death||0.21|
|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||Stoic Self Control||0.20|
|6||If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset||Non-Stoic Upset is Inevitable (reverse scored)||0.20|
|21||I treat everybody fairly even those I don’t like or don’t know very well||Stoic Fairness||0.20|
Table 5: SABS 3.0 Items most associated with well-being
As in previous years, the 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.
(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)
|Theme||Correlation with average well-being|
|16||I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time||View from Above||0.09|
|10||Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom||Virtue is Wisdom||0.10|
|8||The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions||What we can control||0.11|
|5||Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control||Focussing on what we can control||0.13|
|14||The cosmos is a single, wise, living thing||Wise Cosmos||0.13|
Table 6: SABS 3.0 Items least associated with well-being
The above 5 items all have a positive association with well-being, but it is fairly weak relationship. Contemplating the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time (item 16) as in the View from Above is not especially associated with well-being, despite the popularity of the View from Above meditation. Item 14, “The Cosmos is a single, wise living thing” most closely resembles the Stoic idea satirised by PG. Wodehouse. To be fair to Wodehouse it is one of the least strong predictors of well-being, although it is still a positive association. Perhaps on this one point, we should concede a tie.
The final score – Seneca 3 PG. Wodehouse 1
[i] A correlation coefficient of 1 would indicate a perfect relationship, 0 no relationship at all – a negative number indicates an inverse relationship
For a PDF file of the full report, including appendices, click here.
The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not mean that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.
The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.
The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.
This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.
First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.
Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.
How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.
Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.
This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.
What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.
Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.
I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.
A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.
Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.
Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).
This post is the transcript of Professor Gill’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference. The video of talk can be viewed here.
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.
There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.
Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.
What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.
In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.
I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.
There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).
Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.
This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.
Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.
But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature.
By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.
Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:
When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)
To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:
Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)
Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).
Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.
What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.
The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.
The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world.
I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works.
This post is the transcript of the talk Prof. Sellars had intended to provide at the Stoicon 2016 conference. He was unfortunately not able to attend this year.
John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living. This article appeared originally in his blog, Miscellanea Stoica. Read more about John’s work on his website.
Interview with Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles and The Three-Petalled Rose.
I’m a psychiatrist, medical ethicist, amateur philosopher, and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In short, I can’t quite figure out what to do with myself!
Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?
Having retired from clinical practice, I no longer have occasion to use Stoic principles in my psychotherapeutic work, but I did make use of those principles for many years. Of course, the overlap between CBT, REBT and Stoicism has been discussed many times, and the parallels are very clear–even though the Stoic tradition has many rich layers of spiritual meaning not intrinsically a part of CBT and REBT. (That said, Albert Ellis, PhD –the “father” of REBT– explicitly acknowledged his debt to Epictetus, as you know).
Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
I think I came to Stoicism via REBT, and later, via Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) and the rabbinical tradition. As I try to show in my book, The Three-Petalled Rose, there is an immense amount of “overlap” between the rabbinical tradition and that of the Stoics. And while Maimonides is usually associated with Aristotle, much of his work as a physician (and arguably, as the “Father of Psychosomatic Medicine”) drew on ideas developed much earlier by the Stoics.
Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
Although I am indebted to the Stoics for their cognitive approach to what might be called “human happiness” (or better, eudaimonia), I am most appreciative of their ethical and moral framework; in particular, the idea that the person of virtue cannot be harmed by anything (e.g., the opinion of others, misfortune, etc.) so long as he or she continues to be guided by virtue. And I am also grateful, in particular, to Marcus Aurelius for his views on “duty”; e.g., “I do my duty. Nothing else troubles me.” Clearly, this overlaps with the Stoic view of happiness or eudaimonia.
Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
As the world seems to grow more chaotic and brutal by the day –and, yes, I know Stephen Pinker has argued against this view– I find a greater need than ever for Stoic principles of reason, moderation, restraint, and tolerance. Stoicism, it seems to me, is a bulwark against extremism in all its vile forms – and this is a great gift bequeathed to us in our rough and ramshackle times.
Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
As I confront my own aging, and the illness and frailty of family and friends, I am comforted by the wisdom of Seneca (cf. On the Shortness of Life) and Cicero (cf. On Old Age). And Stoic principles help me cope, nearly every day, with “the slings and arrows” life sends our way, from professional disappointments to personal losses. Perhaps most important, the Stoic emphasis on “gratitude” helps sustain me through rough times. Here, the Stoics are at one with the rabbis of the Talmud; e.g., “Ben Zoma says, Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion.” [Pirke Avot 4.1]
Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?
There are so many, it’s very hard to choose one or two! I suppose if forced, I would pick that of Marcus Aurelius: “There is but one thing of real value – to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.”
Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
There are many excellent introductions to the topic, including but not limited to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford U. Press, 2008). But it’s hard to beat Marcus Aurelius himself, especially in the translation of his Meditations titled, The Emperor’s Handbook, vibrantly translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks (Scribner, 2002)
Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
Yes, Donald – I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and others who post on the “Stoicism Today” website, and for this opportunity to share a bit of my own perspective. So, thank you!
Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.