A Stoic Approach to Problems from Nick Saban by Alec Bowling

I am not a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. I don’t have houndstooth pajamas. I don’t bow my head, fold my hands, and say “roll tide” before every meal. In fact, as a college football fan, it sort of annoys me that Alabama has been such a juggernaut these past several years, battering teams left and right and generally making the sport more predictable.

Not that they should be faulted for that. That’s a big part of the reason I’m intrigued by their coach, Nick Saban. I won’t be smiling as Saban leads Alabama to win three out of the next five national championships, but in the words of the fictional anchorman, Wes Mantooth: “goddamn it do I
respect you.”

In the fall of 2017, Alabama beat Texas A&M by only 8 points, a margin that was a misstep from the weekly lashings they had been doling out on their SEC foes. Saban’s team had a number of players native to Texas, who were returning to their home state for the first time since the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. When a reporter asked if this may have impacted their focus, Saban had the following to say:

It’s kind of like my dad used to tell me when I used to go to work at the station, my girlfriend broke up with me so I was treating the customers bad.

He said – ‘What’s wrong with you today?’

I said ‘My girlfriend broke up with me.’

He said ‘Well, you’ve got one problem, but if you keep treating the customers bad you’re going to have two more. I’m going to fire you and then I’m going to whip your ass for getting fired.”

In the wake of a hurricane, some might look at this sentiment as uncaring or mean. But often, as many of us have experienced, the difficult thing to say is the right thing to say. I don’t know the answer to whether this was the right thing to say at the right time, but I do know that there was, and is, great wisdom in this line of thinking.

The crux of what Saban is saying is that using unfortunate events that happen to us as an excuse to neglect other areas of our life is entirely counterproductive and a very effective form of self-sabotage. The practical application of this wisdom struck me this morning. I had had a terrible time getting to sleep the night before, so I was up and running on maybe 3 hours of sleep.

I was pissed off and the last thing I wanted to do was work hard. I don’t have the energy, I thought. How can I be expected to do good work on such little sleep, I thought. Then it hit me – I have one problem right now: a lack of sleep. But, if I let that be an excuse for not working hard at today’s work, I’m going to be facing many more problems.

A project falls behind on its deadline. That’s two problems now. A detail gets missed on a document to a client, and I look bad in front of my boss. Now I’ve got thee problems. You get the idea.

As I was thinking through this, all these gears lined up in my brain and I began to realize that this line of thinking echoes Stoicism in many ways.
One place I see this reflected is in Meditations: Book 6, Chapter 2. Marcus Aurelius says the following:

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
Cold or warm.
Tired or well-rested.
Despised or honored.
Dying… or busy with other assignments.

For so many of us (myself certainly included), our work ethic is conditional. Our moral duty is conditional. We have no problem doing the right thing as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us in any way. But that is not a sustainable way to live, as life rarely caters to our whims.

Nick Saban is a model of success in many avenues. How to coach. How to run an organization. The right things to value. The right way to live. His six national championship wins attest to that, in addition to him being nearly universally lauded as the greatest college football coach of all
time. Marcus Aurelius ruled over almost the entirety of Europe and North Africa and is widely considered one of the greatest Roman emperors.

Now, a core tenet of stoicism is the defeat of your emotions with reason. And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death. What Saban provides here is the knife with which to kill them.

Let’s look at a scenario. Say you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. You are immediately struck many negative emotions, including resentment, frustration, and entitlement. Now, you don’t want to work as hard. Your internal monologue tells you things like, “Oh, it’s not like I’m going to get noticed anyway,” or, “I’m gonna take it easy today. I’m too angry, I can’t get work done like this.” For various reasons, you are tempted to neglect your duties.

But of course there is the other part of your mind telling you to press on. To do the right thing. To work hard in spite of the recognition. Problem is, we are often dealt such strong blows that it’s incredibly hard to conquer them through mere moral obligation. Sometimes, our selfishness is almost overwhelming. In these instances, this teaching from Saban is helpful.

Don’t do the right thing because you should. Don’t do the right thing because someone is telling you to. Don’t do the right thing to make someone else happy. Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you are just going to have more shit to deal with.

It’s certainly not something to put on a bumper sticker, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a last line of defense against our selfishness. It in fact turns our selfishness to our advantage.

A bit more optimistically, Marcus also says the following:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

But it’s nicer in here …

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

With this logic, we can substitute basically any word for ‘nice.’ You might say: helping that person would be hard. So you were born to only experience “easy” things?

You might say: my current situation is comfortable. So you were born only to be comfortable? That’s your purpose in life? This wisdom is effective because it helps to strip our situation of unhelpful emotion. It turns our
self-interest to an advantage, rather than our notion of what we ‘should’ do, which can often times frustrate us further. Our situation becomes unemotional, amoral, and practical. The correct next steps become clear immediately.

In my own predicament, being exhausted from a lack of sleep, this wisdom didn’t magically inject me with four additional hours of sleep, but it gave me something perhaps just as valuable – clarity and focus.

The next time you are faced with a problem, ask yourself: how many problems do I want to have?

Your car transmission dies and you’re angry. Do you want to create more problems by letting your frustration out on the mechanic who had nothing to do with it?

Your husband took too long getting ready and now you’re late for dinner with friends. Do you want to create more problems by speeding and potentially getting a ticket?

The people behind you are talking loudly during the movie. Do you want to add problems by not enjoying the film or getting into a needless confrontation?

You forgot about a test tomorrow and now only have 5 hours to study. Do you want to only have 4 hours to study because you spent an hour beating yourself up over forgetting?

Frequently, we use bad things that happen to us, problems, to be a license to neglect other areas of our life. Doing so feeds our pride, our idea that our lives are Greek tragedies, which in its own twisted way is gratifying (perhaps because it makes our failure extraordinary in our minds, and thus, it makes us extraordinary in some warped way). But in doing so, we only serve to create more problems, more pain, and more distance between ourselves and the people we want to be. To overcome this we must remember that we are just people and that problems are an everyday occurrence for every person who’s ever existed – even the important ones.

And to all of this, Saban might ask: how many problems do you want to have? When faced with the seed of a problem, we are the gardeners. We control whether that problem grows into a Redwood tree of more problems, or withers in the soil. When faced with a problem, ask yourself: do I want more problems? If the answer is no, proceed accordingly.


Alec Bowling is a marketing executive in New York City, a career field in which a stoic mindset is a must have.

Should a Modern Stoic be Vegetarian? by Massimo Pigliucci

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter in Stoicism Today summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which – to be sure – is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes:

The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea – which the ancient Stoics surely did have – that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason – given contemporary scientific knowledge – very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.


Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Philosophy as the Act of Choosing by Brittany Polat

As I’ve been practicing Stoic philosophy, I’ve come to realize that Stoicism isn’t really about virtue – it’s more about using good judgment to seek virtue. I’m not the first person to see things that way. “Do you want to know what philosophy promises the human race?” Seneca says to Lucilius. “Good judgment.”[i]

Virtue doesn’t exist in isolation, in some kind of pure form (sorry, Plato), although of course the concept of virtue can still be a useful one for us. In the world of humanity, virtue resides in virtuous actions, thoughts, and motives. When I think about my own actions, for example, I can’t separate my own virtue (or lack thereof) from the way I think and act. Could I be virtuous if I act viciously? Or could I actually be vicious if I act and think virtuously? I don’t see how that is possible. In a very real sense, as Epictetus says, we are our choices:

For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.[ii]

These are strong words. We are not merely the sum of our choices, or the product of our choices; we are our faculty of choice.

After pondering this somewhat bizarre line of thinking, and trying to put it into practice, I’ve realized that Epictetus is right. (Of course he’s right–has he ever been wrong about human nature?) And this leads us to an even stranger meta-conceptual truth about Stoic philosophy: philosophy is the act of choosing to do philosophy. By making the choice to use your reasoning ability to seek out the best, most virtuous behavior, you are doing philosophy. Why? Because you are trying to bring your thoughts, actions, and motivations in line with your beliefs about what is true and good.

Let’s think about it this way. Say you are confronted with an irritating situation, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Most people don’t realize it, but we have a choice about what to think and feel in this situation. The non-philosopher will probably take the conventional route of feeling angry. The Stoic philosopher, who knows that this is merely a dispreferred indifferent and not a cause for anger, has a choice. He can choose the conventional option and become angry, or he can choose the Stoic option and not feel irritated at all.

What does he decide? Hopefully he will choose the Stoic option – and in making that choice, he is doing philosophy. He is bringing his thoughts in line with what he believes to be true. He is using his reasoning ability to become more virtuous. That is philosophy in action.

Epictetus speaks in the highest possible terms about our faculty of choice –prohairesis. Not only does discussion of the “sphere of choice” pervade his basic philosophical precepts, but he uses superlatives mainly for speaking of the gods and choice. Here is but a small sampling of his dictums related to choice (I have added italics for emphasis):

The gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven’t placed within our power.[iii]

The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and that of the bad likewise. What are externals, then? Materials for our choice, which attains its own good or ill through the way in which it deals with them.[iv]

Consider who you are. First of all, a human being, that is to say, one who has no faculty more authoritative than choice, but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection.[v]

Where does the good lie? ‘In choice.’ Where does the bad lie? ‘In choice.’ And that which is neither good nor bad? ‘In things that lie outside the sphere of choice.’[vi]

What is it that makes use of everything else? Choice. What is it that takes charge of everything else? Choice. What is it that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through a noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff? Choice. Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?[vii]

But if you ask me, ‘What is the most excellent of all things,’ what am I to say? The faculty of expression? I cannot, but must rather say the faculty of choice, when it becomes right choice. For it is choice that makes use of the faculty of expression, and of all the other faculties, both great and small. If it be rightly directed, a person becomes good; if it be badly directed, he becomes bad. It is through choice that we encounter good fortune or misfortune, and that we reproach one another or are pleased with one another. It is this, in a word, that brings about unhappiness when neglected, and happiness when properly tended.[viii]

In this line of thinking, philosophy is not the pursuit of virtue, but first and foremost the act of choosing to pursue virtue. That decision must come before everything else. We must choose to leave behind convention and unexamined impressions. We must actively decide to engage our reasoning ability to make the wisest possible choice in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves.

If you read the Discourses with this in mind, you notice that this is what Epictetus recommends. All of his advice to his students centers around the act of choosing to do philosophy. His more specific recommendations – for example, making proper use of impressions, remaining vigilant, or practicing the disciplines of desire, impulse, and assent – are specific ways of exercising the capacity for choice. These are ways of breaking down the problem of choice, of dealing with the problem of choice, and of knowing what we should choose. Choice is a very tricky problem, and it must be carefully examined. We must have the discourse to talk about it, and we need many psychological tools to help us use our capacity for choice wisely.

For example, when we are confronted by a disturbing impression, what should we do? Throw it away. But first we must make the choice to do philosophy at all. As always, we have a choice: we could do what most people do, and let the impression get the better of us. That choice does not qualify as philosophy, because we have not applied our reason to seek out virtue. But if we make the decision to apply reason and examine our impression, we have made the decision to do philosophy. It’s entirely possible that we do not have appropriate knowledge and wisdom to act in a sage-like manner. But simply by making the decision to apply our reasoning in the service of virtue, we have done philosophy.

If it seems strange to us to think about philosophy as basically a capacity for rational choice, that’s because we’re not used to seeing it in that way. For a very long time in the West, it is religion that has been used as a guide for proper thought and action, not so much philosophy. But why shouldn’t philosophy (rather than religiosity, intuition, or moral convention) guide our every thought and action? We have revived Stoicism for modern times. Maybe we need to revive the centrality of choice, too.

Putting Philosophy To Use

It’s possible that I’m reading too much into Epictetus’ words, and this isn’t really what he was talking about. I have no way of knowing what he meant to say in those famous lectures. Maybe I’m way off the mark. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it matters. What interests me, and probably most modern Stoics, is applying ancient wisdom to live better lives today. And I believe that focusing on philosophy as choice can help us a great deal. I have already felt a profound difference in my own Stoic practice as a result of this new perspective.

When you picture your Stoic practice as a series of moment-by-moment choices, your philosophy becomes urgent, vital, almost alive. Philosophy isn’t something that you just practice sometimes, like you might practice tennis or piano. Philosophy is something that you practice every minute of your life. This is because every moment requires a decision from you. What do I do in this moment, in this situation – practice philosophy or not? Do I make the effort to bring my thoughts and actions in line with my principles, or do I let it slide? Seeing philosophy as a choice forces you to confront your principles daily and hourly. There is nowhere to hide.

And not only does philosophy become necessary – inescapable – but it also becomes more possible. It’s not some grand venture that you might get around to when you’re better prepared. It’s a simple choice you have to make right now. Do you practice philosophy, or do you not? If you do not consciously choose in this moment to practice philosophy, then by default you are not practicing philosophy. It’s a binary choice. There is no in-between.

Epictetus, and also Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, provide us with a great deal of helpful advice about how to make the right choice. This is why we read their works today. The doctrines, the psychological techniques, the external body of work that we call Stoic philosophy, is essential to help us on the path to wisdom. We need the theory in order to know what virtue is, and how we should apply it in specific situations. Epictetus is quite clear that theory is necessary to support action. At one point he says that the task of philosophy is in establishing standards, so that we may know how to judge things properly.[ix] But what is the task of the philosopher?

My principal task in life is this: to distinguish between things, and establish a division between them and say, ‘External things are not within my power; choice is within my power.’[x]

We must make the choice to choose.

At first, this way of seeing philosophy might seem exhausting in its insistence for action. How could anyone ever hope to reach this standard? To be virtuous, you would have to bring every choice you ever make in line with virtue. Yes, exactly. That’s why only the perfectly virtuous person is wise, and the rest of us are drowning below the surface. Only the sage knows how to align every choice with wisdom. Only the sage knows how to direct every thought toward what is noble and true–to always say yes to philosophy, even unto the moment of death.

And yet, this is what it would mean to be truly free: to maintain your capacity for choice up until the very end. “For my part,” Epictetus says, “I’d wish that death may overtake me when I’m attending to nothing other than my power of choice, to ensure that it may be unperturbed, unhindered, unconstrained, and free.”[xi] Epictetus may not have considered himself a sage, but he continues to inspire and show us the path to virtue.

On a practical note, I think that the rest of us can still make progress in our capacity for choice by viewing every moment as an opportunity for philosophy. I was delighted to learn that the root word of prohairesis is something like “grabbing.”[xii] What better metaphor do we need than reaching out and grabbing philosophy?

When you are confronted with a choice – do I see this as distressing or not? Do I respond the Stoic way or the non-Stoic way? – you can always reach out and seize the philosophical response. I’ve started keeping this choice before my eyes at all times as I go about my daily business. I find that when it put things in terms of a binary choice, the decision is much easier. I don’t have to do anything complicated or grand. All I have to do is choose philosophy.

[i] Seneca, Selected Letters, 48.7.

[ii] Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1, 40.

[iii] 1.1, 7

[iv] 1.29, 1-2

[v] 2.10, 1

[vi] 2.16, 1

[vii] 2.23, 17-18

[viii] 2.23, 27-29

[ix] 2.11, 24

[x] 2.5, 4

[xi] 3.5, 7

[xii] Greg Sadler, “What Does Epictetus mean by Prohairesis?”, PocketStoic. Available at https://medium.com/pocketstoic/what-does-epictetus-mean-by-prohairesis-cd23fed321d


Brittany Polat practices Stoicism daily with her three young children and describes her experiences at apparentstoic.com. Her book on Stoic parenting, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, is scheduled to appear in 2018.

Stoic Values Clarification (part 2) by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

Two members of the Modern Stoicism team, Chris Gill and Tim LeBon, began a “Socratic Dialogue” about Stoic values as part of their workshop on Stoic Values Clarification in Stoicon 2017 in Toronto. The dialogue proved so fruitful that they decided to continue it here. . .

Tim (continuing his role as everyman):  Chris, it’s good to meet up again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation … I agree with your Stoic view that without the virtues, a life pursuing happiness is fragile. I also agree that the virtues are very important in their own right. The thing I’m struggling with is this idea of “preferable (or preferred) indifferent”. I just can’t head my head round it. How can I be indifferent about something I prefer to happen? If I care about the well-being of my children, for example, how can I be indifferent?

Chris (the Stoic): Good to follow up our earlier conversation.

The Stoic idea of “indifferents” has always been controversial, but I think it contains some valuable insights. The point is not about you or me being indifferent. It is about things being indifferent or not. Rephrased, it is about what makes the difference (or not) as regards happiness or the good life. Virtue, the Stoics think, really makes the difference between being happy (in their sense) or not, whereas other things do not.

Of course, people naturally want well-being for those they love. And Stoics think that, other things being equal, we should do all we can to promote this. But in the end what makes the difference, as regards our happiness and those of others, is whether we act virtuously or not. For instance, if we try to combine promoting our children’s welfare with acting criminally, we will not bring about our happiness or theirs, the Stoics think.

Does this help?

Tim: I think it may. It’s the “indifferent” part I was having problems with. So it’s not about me being indifferent, it’s about the thing being ultimately irrelevant to my moral worth? Is that right? Could I replace “Preferable indifferent” with “Preferable but irrelevant to my moral worth?”. If so, that would make a lot of sense. Being healthy, wealthy, and having friends and relatives flourishing are all preferable but clearly not relevant to my moral worth.

Chris: Yes, that is more what the Stoics think.  “Moral worth” is what the Stoics would have called what is “good”, whereas being healthy and so on are not good in themselves but rather things we would reasonably prefer to have or to experience.

Two qualifications, however. “Moral worth” in modern terms suggests acting on behalf of others, rather than oneself. Stoics think that virtue does not just make you act well towards others but also makes you act well on your own behalf. Virtue benefits you as well as others.

Also, preferable things are not entirely irrelevant to moral worth. How you decide to act as regards preferable things is a key part of exercising virtue. But preferable things are “indifferent” because they do not determine your happiness or the opposite, whereas virtue does.

Tim: Before we go on to other things, a point about terminology. Chris, the phrase “preferred indifferents” is very unnatural in English. Can you tell us something about its origins in Greek or Latin, and what various other translations might be possible (perhaps less literal ones).

Chris: Yes, the ancient critics of Stoic ethics said this too about the Greek terms. Well, the term “indifferent”, as I have just explained, stems from the idea things like health and wealth do not determine happiness or its opposite, i.e. they do not make the difference between them, whereas virtue does. So they are “indifferent” in this sense. But some indifferents have positive value (it is natural to want to have them) such as health, wealth and the well being of our families. So the Stoics call them “preferred” or “preferable”, that is, things it is natural to prefer to have rather than not. All a bit clumsy, I’m afraid, but I hope the meaning is clear enough. Any other terminology, such as “bodily and external goods” (the Aristotelian phrase) gets the ideas wrong.

Tim: This is rather subtle, isn’t it?  Time for a recap I think. After our earlier discussion, I was happy with the idea that without virtue happiness is fragile. I also agreed that the virtues are intrinsically good. I am not sure I am quite there yet with the idea that virtues are the only thing intrinsically good thing.

In particular I was struggling with the idea that things other than virtues, such as our family and friends faring well, are just “preferable indifferents”.  I am reassured by the clarification that the Stoic is not indifferent to the welfare of their friends and family.  I still have a bit of a problem with the notion that friends faring well and my health are pretty much irrelevant to my happiness. I think this may be because I have a modern understanding of the term “happiness”, as by definition implying feeling good. I was more comfortable saying these things make no difference to my moral worth. You then reminded me that it’s not just about benefiting others, as “moral worth” implies. So what if I say that I agree that having or not having the preferable indifferents  makes no difference to my ability to excel at living well ? Is that a bit closer to the Stoic view?

Chris: That is much closer to the Stoic view. Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call “feeling happy”, but the Stoics think the “mood” part of happiness depends on the “life” part, that is, how you actually live. Virtue is expertise or knowledge in living well. And if you have virtue, you will be able to live well, whatever the situation you find yourself in – that is part of your expertise.

This may help with the “preferred indifferents”. A happy (good human) life will normally include caring for others, such as one’s partner and children. Stoics think it is natural for people to do this, and natural to want them to flourish. The virtuous person will do this expertly, in the way a good human being should. But his or her happiness (i.e. leading a good life) does not depend on their flourishing. Even if they suffer illness or, at worst, death, the virtuous person will deal with this as well as anyone can (that is, expertly). That is why their flourishing is a “preferred indifferent”, which does not mean it has no value (it does). Happiness (i.e. living well) depends on virtue (expertise) and not on things that just happen to us and which we cannot influence.

Tim: Thanks, that’s helpful.  I was thinking about this the other day just after playing bridge at my club and thought of an analogy – I wonder if you think it could be useful. At some card games, like bridge, you often have a trump suit. When there are trumps, the lowest trump beats the highest card of any other suit. I was wondering if we could think of virtues as being like trumps, and the indifferents as being like cards in the other suits. If, for example, spades are trumps, then the two of trumps beats the ace or king of diamonds, in the same way that being virtuous (even in a small way) is more important than, for example, becoming very rich or very famous. We could think of life as a game where the purpose is to live well, the virtues are  the trump suit, and the indifferents are of value, but not as much value as the virtues. Could that work?

Chris: That’s an interesting suggestion. Certainly, Stoics think that any exercise of virtue “trumps” acquiring any preferred indifferent, however great, if acquired without exercise of virtue. I’m a bit worried, however by your final suggestion: that both virtue and indifferents have value but the virtues, as trumps, have more. What the Stoics actually said was that preferred indifferents have value (they are worth pursuing), but that the virtues are good; that is, the value of virtue is different in kind not just in degree.

Why different in kind? Part of the reason is the difference between virtues as executive skills or forms of expertise and indifferents as conditions of life (being rich, famous, healthy, having a flourishing family or not). But also virtue/expertise is good because it always benefits us and other people, and exercising it makes life go well under any circumstances. That is not true of indifferents; their contribution to a happy life depends on how they are used. That is why the value of virtue differs in kind from that of indifferents.

Tim:  Are you saying that we have two things here – things that are good and things that are of value? Or is it that living according the virtues is reliably and always good, whereas pursuing the indifferents is only good if done in a virtuous way?

Chris: I think the key point is that “good” means “beneficial”. The virtues (always) benefit us because they enable us to achieve happiness. The preferred indifferents are not in themselves beneficial; they have a positive value, but whether they contribute to a happy (well-lived) life depends on how they are used. So there are two different kinds of thing: virtues (good) and preferred indifferents (valuable but not good). The good human life may have preferred indifferents within it but they do not make the life good; that is the role of the virtues.

Tim: When you say preferred indifferents are valuable, is it more accurate to say “potentially valuable?”

Chris: Yes, I think that is right. In general, preferred indifferents, such as health and property, have value in themselves – natural value, the Stoics say, that is, value for human beings in general. But whether or not that value is realised in any given situation depends on whether it is used in a virtuous way or not. If we decide to gain money in a criminal or exploitative way, the money does not have value, in the Stoic sense, and does not contribute to a good life.

Tim: Can I take you back to an earlier point you made. You said “Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call ‘feeling happy’, but the Stoics think the ‘mood’ part of happiness depends on the ‘life’ part, that is, how you actually live”. Is this an empirical claim about mood depending on virtue? If so, that would be something that could be tested by modern empirical science in a way that was not possible for the ancient Greeks or Romans?

Chris: For the Stoics this claim was based on philosophical grounds. They defined happiness in a certain way (the best possible human life) and saw having good emotions (including joy) as a corollary or by-product of leading this kind of life. They did not conduct empirical studies to support this claim. However, they did think it was true and that it corresponded to human nature and human behaviour as they saw it in real life. In the modern world, of course, we can conduct such empirical studies and the questionnaires and surveys that we carry out in connection with Stoic week aim to bring out the link between adopting Stoic ethical principles and our pattern of emotions and moods. I guess we should bear in mind that for the Stoics virtue and happiness are ideal states, rarely if ever reached, and the achievable aim is to make progress in the right direction. But the Stoics thought it makes a big difference which direction we point our lives in – towards virtue or vice – so making progress certainly matters for them.

Tim:   This has been very helpful, Chris, I wonder if we have time today for just one more thing. What does Stoic decision-making look like? Conventional decision-making might involve weighing up all the consequences of a choice and choosing the one that has the most overall benefit. For example, if I am choosing between two jobs, I might weigh up money, fringe benefits, travel time and perhaps, if I am ethically minded, the benefit the work may bring to others. In other words, the conventional decision-maker would give a large weighting to preferable indifferents.   How would a Stoic make this decision?  How much would the indifferents count for? And does the Stoic use practical wisdom when making the choice between two indifferents?

Chris: In many ways, Stoic decision-making is just like conventional deliberation as you describe it. Stoics should take account of the relative value of things like health and money and status, and they should also take account of the impact of the decision on themselves and on others. So they do give weight to preferable indifferents, and to the value they have for us and for others. But they also know that what really matters is making the decisions virtuously – that is, wisely, justly, bravely, and with self-control. That is what they are aiming at – not just to pile up preferred indifferents for themselves. The overall aim is to lead the best possible human life, which they also see as the happy life. And the way to do that is to make practical decisions virtuously. Of course, this depends on learning about what makes for virtuous action, and what counts as a good human and happy life. But that’s what Stoic ethics is all about!

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

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

Is Stoic Practice Just Easier For Certain People? by Leah Goldrick

A reader of my blog recently wrote to me to ask if I think that practicing Stoicism is easier for men. The poor woman had experienced terrible postpartum depression after the birth of her son and still wasn’t feeling like herself several years later. She was very distressed about how her depression has affected her Stoic practice. Her husband on the other hand, seemed to have no problem being nonplussed about almost everything. He was calm even even in the face of things that caused her to feel depressed.

Her question was timely for me. I’m pregnant, and I have been finding myself more upset than I might typically be in various circumstances. This concurrence of events lead to me thinking about what they might mean in a Stoic context.

Now, to be clear, even though these experiences I just mentioned – pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period – are uniquely female, I prefer to frame the question in terms of personality or temperament rather than in terms of gender. I’m more interested in analyzing how Stoicism can help both males and females than I am in focusing on gender differences, which has unfortunately become a wedge issue.

So, does Stoic practice in fact come more naturally to people with certain temperaments or abilities? The question ultimately raises a series of other questions. First, how much control do we have over how the body affects the mind at various times during our lives? Do our temperaments actually matter to Stoic practice? And finally, are Stoics born or made? Let’s examine these ideas in more detail.

Can We Control How the Body Affects the Mind?

In the Discourses 1.1, Epictetus establishes his famous dichotomy of control, arguing that some things are up to us and others are not. The body is categorized by Epictetus as not in our control or at least not fully within our control. But Epictetus suggests that the mind is within our control.

This leads us to wonder how much control we have over the various ways the body might affect the mind – in terms of hormone changes, neurochemistry, blood sugar levels, and and other bodily functions which can directly affect our mood and emotions. It seems clear that we don’t have complete control over the biological functions that can trigger irrational emotions or passions – defined by the Stoics as anger, hatred, fear, depression, strong desire, and so forth.

But this isn’t the whole story. Regardless of where our emotions come from, the Stoics argued that the first movement of passions is largely involuntary. This is true for everyone, not just for people currently experiencing mood issues and frequent irrational emotions. In On Anger II.4.1-2, Seneca suggests:

I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.

So while we might not be able to avoid all of the physical or biochemical triggers of our passions, we have control over the second and third stages where reason comes into play. We can take a step back and deliberate with ourselves as Seneca suggests. We might remind ourselves that we are probably feeling especially irritable because we haven’t eaten in many hours and our blood sugar is low – a phenomenon colloquially referred to as being “hangry.” Or we may have woken up in a very sad mood. We can remind ourselves of the things that we have to be grateful for in our lives.

Maybe this is easier said than done, but we do have some control over our thoughts and we can work to direct them as Seneca suggests. And while this whole process of managing assent to emotions is more involved for those who seem to experience frequent irrational passions, there is a positive dimension here too; it means that we will have more opportunity to better ourselves using Stoic techniques, which segues nicely into the next topic.

Do Our Temperaments Matter When it Comes to Practicing Stoicism?

In Discourses 1.2, on how a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character, Epictetus notes that while our natural strengths and weaknesses do affect us, we should nonetheless stay true to our own characters rather than seeking perfection:

But that which is great and superior perhaps belongs to Socrates and such as are like him. Why then, if we are naturally such, are not a very great number of us like him? Is it true then that all horses become swift, that all dogs are skilled in tracking footprints? What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me; for I shall never be a Milo [a great athlete], and yet I do not neglect my body; nor shall I be a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we neglect looking after anything because we despair of reaching the highest degree.

The sense of this passage seems to be that first of all, there are few who are great like Socrates – both extremely rational and willing to die for integrity. He is the exception rather than the rule. But the rest of us shouldn’t give up on trying to lead a good life because we aren’t just like Socrates or yet a sage.

Epictetus may not be Socrates, but that is no reason for him not to be the best Epictetus possible. He need not compare himself to anyone exceptional in order to be virtuous, or give up on trying to improve himself just because he isn’t the epitome of perfect reason.

Are Stoics Born or Made?

Epictetus continues to offer insight into the question of how we develop excellence. He implies that Stoics are made via practice regardless of any seeming good fortune in terms of temperament or ability (Discourses 1:2):

Some person asked, how then shall every man among us perceive what is suitable to his character? How, he replied, does the bull alone, when the lion has attacked, discover his own powers and put himself forward in defence of the whole herd? It is plain that with the powers the perception of having them is immediately conjoined: and, therefore, whoever of us has such powers will not be ignorant of them. Now a bull is not made suddenly, nor a brave man; but we must discipline ourselves in the winter for the summer campaign, and not rashly run upon that which does not concern us.

Here Epictetus notes that the great strength of the bull didn’t just appear overnight. Even though he may have been born a bull, it took the him years of development, building his muscles and so on, to become the mature creature that he is today.

Like the bull, we aren’t born brave or born Stoic philosophers. We must build ourselves up in order to become what we are meant to be, which requires work over the course of many years. Epictetus goes on to suggest that we make use of the challenging times in our lives to develop necessary courage and discipline. We can work at responding to challenges with increasing levels of virtue and skill, while turning our attention away from things beyond our control.

So yes, perhaps there are those rare individuals who possess naturally equanimous temperaments or special abilities. But that is no reason for us to measure ourselves by their standard, or to give up on becoming the best version of ourselves that we can. Other people’s good fortune is squarely beyond our control. And as Epictetus notes, even these seemingly exceptional people didn’t just become excellent overnight – they spent years developing into what they are. We must conclude that all of us must work to better ourselves regardless of any good fortune in terms of temperament or ability.

Epictetus leaves us with an optimistic message which shuts down any notions of perfectionism. There is no point in beating ourselves up over our shortcomings. Regardless of our individual struggles or our natural temperaments, as long as we are making progress, that is good enough for Epictetus. It should be good enough for us too.


Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She is a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics, which now has an associated YouTube channel.

Dealing With Difficult People at Work: Stoic Strategies by Greg Sadler

As editor of Stoicism Today, each year I ask those who spoke or gave a workshop at the main Stoicon or at one of the Stoicon-X events to provide a piece for our readership, the vast majority of whom cannot attend these events.  Just to put it into perspective, the attendees at Stoicon number in the hundreds.  A big Stoicon-X event might get a hundred.  By contrast most of our blog posts here get tens – and occasionally, hundreds – of thousands of reads.  So when our presenters and organizers are good enough to supply transcripts or summaries  of their talks, workshops, or other activities, I’m very happy to set them here in Stoicism Today.

As a fairly recent addition (joining officially in 2016) to the Modern Stoicism team, I have also  greatly enjoyed participating in Stoicon 2016 and 2017 (and in Stoicon-X Toronto 2017).  At both of those Stoicons, I provided one of the workshops during the breakout sessions.  Accordingly, after having asked many of our speakers to make their own contributions here in Stoicism Today, it is about time for me to put in the work required to add my own piece here about my 2017 Stoicon workshop, “Dealing With Difficult People at Work:  Stoic Strategies”.

If you’d like to see a videorecording of that workshop session, you can do so here.

Structure and Motivation of the Workshop

When Donald Robertson proposed “Stoicism at Work” as the theme for Stoicon 2017, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on for the workshop.  There are a lot of challenges, irritants, and obstacles that arise within the context of modern work.  Some of the most difficult stem from our interactions and relationships with other people.  I’ve certainly dealt with – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so! – many difficult people in my own career.  And many of my own clients come to me troubled by how to handle these sorts of workplace issues.

I should mention that in its original design, the workshop was a team presentation, with my wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, as my co-presenter.  We designed the workshop together, and had planned to deliver it that way as well.  Unfortunately, due to some health matters at the time, she wasn’t cleared to fly to Toronto.  Given Andi’s qualifications, work-experience, and talents (which would require another blog post to outline), the workshop attendees perhaps got the proverbial short end of the stick with just me presenting!

Clearly difficult people at work was good topic to center upon in workshop format. After all, Stoic philosophy is practical, and should be providing help for people struggling with life-issues. I’d written a post in the series we ran leading up to Stoicon 2017, “Dealing With The Unduly Demanding In the Workplace,” addressing one particular type of “difficult person” – drawing in part on personal experience – and I was looking forward to discussing additional aspects of the workshop with the conference-goers.  As it turned out, the workshop was a big draw.  The room was packed with participants, and they brought some excellent questions, observations, and stories to the session!

The workshop was 90 minutes long, ranged over a lot of material, and included a number of side-discussions, so I am just going to summarize it here, talking about some portions in a bit more detail.

We originally divided the workshop up into the following activities:

  • Discussion – challenges for the Stoic and Stoicism in the workplace
  • Exercise – what main challenges are you encountering?
  • Presentation – several common types of difficult people in workplaces
  • Exercise – your top three difficult persons
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices within situations involving difficult people
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices before and after situations involving difficult people
  • Role-Playing Exercises – using Stoic strategies
  • Time Dedicated to Q&A and Discussion

The role-playing exercises would have required both Andi and I, so they were dropped from the actual workshop as delivered.  As it turned out, each part of the workshop drew us into a good bit of discussion, so we used all the time allotted even without those exercises.

The discussions were particularly engaging, I would say, for several reasons.  First, work and the people of the workplace are matters practically everyone can relate to.  As far as I know, there weren’t any participants in the workshop who didn’t already have considerable experience stemming from their working life.  Second, aggravations, challenges, and difficulties in the workplace are practically speaking, if not infinite, certainly vast in both quantity and type!  So there was a lot of “raw material” that we could apply Stoic principles and practices to, and that leads into the third reason.  As it turns out, although the ancient Stoics have no contact with or awareness of  the modern workplace – how could they? – they actually say quite a lot that turns out to be quite useful in dealing with difficult people.

Some Challenges in Applying Stoicism in the Workplace

Before launching into the workshop proper, I thought it could be useful to pause and consider a few common challenges that can arise when we are attempting to apply our Stoic practices and principles to the workplace environment.  The goal was not to attempt resolving these – there was definitely not enough time for that! – but just to highlight them so that they were out in the open.  Each of these probably merits a good bit of further discussion later on and elsewhere.

The first of these has to do with “indifferents” – adiaphora, in Greek – those things that, strictly speaking don’t have moral value in themselves, whether positive or negative.  At first glance, it can seem as if nearly everything that goes on, motivates people, or has some place, in the modern workplace is really some type of indifferent from the Stoic perspective.  Money, perks, positions, reputation, products and services, even the proverbial “bottom line”.  We can ask ourselves how Stoic we being if we focus on those sorts of matters.  An initial answer might be “not at all,” and we might then feel as if we ought to withdraw our attention or care from those.

A closely connected second matter – really another way of looking at those same things – is that those indifferents are also “externals,” and strictly speaking seem to be things that lie outside of our control, our power, or our business, if you like (all three of those are decent ways to translate Epictetus’ “ouk ep humon” in the dichotomy of control passages).  So should practitioners of Stoicism allow themselves to become concerned about those things outside of the scope of our agency?

Third, turning to one matter that clearly is up to us, and has intrinsic moral value – whether or not we develop and display the virtues – how do we translate these into the workplace?  Can we really make it all about virtue?  Or expanding and unpacking it a bit, should we make it all about our duties, or fulfilling our roles?

Fourth, if we make virtues, duties, and roles central in how we approach the workplace – and particularly our fellow human beings in the workplace – aren’t we setting ourselves up for exploitation  by others in that workplace?  Do we put ourselves at a disadvantage by being too understanding or accommodating, by fulfilling our duties, even if others don’t reciprocate?

To raise a fifth concern, justice is one of the four virtues for the Stoics.  And there can be a lot of things in the workplace that either seem or actually are unjust.  To what extent are we called upon, if we want to practice Stoicism, to say something or do something about the injustices we run across?

A sixth difficulty almost goes without saying – but it can be easy to forget, especially for people starting out in practicing Stoicism.  The other people in in any given workplace are very likely not going to be Stoics. It is possible that you might find some allies or supporters, but often you’ll find people motivated in all sorts of other ways, many of which are going to be quite at odds with Stoicism. And quite a few of them will turn out to be difficult people for the would-be-Stoic!

A Partial Typology of Difficult People

When it comes to general types of people – classifying them along the lines of their characteristic behavior, motivations, choices, priorities, emotional responses, or practical reasoning – there are a vast variety.  Really, that’s not a surprise, when you consider how adaptable human beings are, and how many different things we take an interest in, or orient ourselves by.  You can run into all sorts in the workplace.

Some of them definitely fall into the broad category of “difficult people”.  That is a relational and also a relative term.  People are more or less difficult, and they are difficult for or to some people, and not to others.  I provided what is admittedly only a partial listing sorting out a number of different kinds of troublesome people – I’m sure others can contribute many other additional overlooked categories to this enumeration!  Here are those that I brought up as classes of people who make the workplace difficult, some of which we discussed in the workshop:

  • Chronically negative people
  • Drama kings and queens
  • Bullies, sadists, and abusers
  • Unduly demanding people
  • People with annoying traits or habits
  • Disorganized, unprepared, and flakey
  • Greedy, self-centered, and exploitative
  • Contentious and argumentative people
  • Status-obsessed and overly competitive
  • Entitled, unmotivated, and lazy people
  • The incompetent and uncoachable
  • Over-social, hyper-sharing, and gossipy
  • Passive-aggressive and victims
  • Rageaholics, over-sensitive, and other angry
  • Back-stabbers and promise-breakers
  • Bad influences and enablers
  • Controllers, corallers, and “team-builders”

I should point out a few things about these categories.  First, although I have given them what I hope are fairly clear and suggestive names, each could use a bit of explanation (which in interests of space, I won’t attempt here).  Second, some of them might overlap or bland into each other, in two ways.  They might intersect to some degree conceptually.  and of course, in real live persons, any given human being might fit into multiple categories.  Third, you can find difficult people who can be rightly placed in these rubrics at any level of a company, organization, or institution.  They might be a boss, an executive, a manager, an employee, a customer, a vendor, a supplier, even a temp.

From a Stoic perspective the question isn’t whether such people exist.  It isn’t even whether labeling them in these ways is somehow wrong, or unfair, or offensive – read around in Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, and see how many people they are willing to label along similar lines!  The real question is how we can deal with those difficult people in productive and positive ways.  What resources does Stoicism afford us?

Useful Stoic Practices In Dealing With The Difficult

A good portion of the workshop was devoted to precisely that question.  What practices can we draw upon from Stoicism that will enable us to better handle situations involving difficult people in the workplace?  I broke those practices down into two sets – those to use within situations, and those better used before or after situations.  We had a good bit of discussion about some of these, as you’ll find when watching the recording of the workshop session.

Here are some of the useful practices that can be used within situations, with some brief explanations:

  • Dealing with appearances as such – not immediately giving assent to impressions or appearances that present themselves to you, but instead seeing them in proper perspective.
  • Deconstructing things into their parts – taking matters you find troubling, provocative of negative emotions, or appealing to your desires, and reminding yourself of what they really are.
  • Distinguishing what is or isn’t in your control – employing and reminding yourself of the dichotomy of control, and as best you can dissociating your desires and aversions from those that are not in your control.
  • Picking things up by the right handle – choosing how you frame the matters that you encounter in ways that you will be able to effectively deal with those matters, for instance by focusing upon your own duties and roles.
  • Understanding others without excusing – realizing that people think, feel, talk, and act as they do because that seems good or reasonable to them, even if it isn’t, and even if it is dead wrong.
  • Reminding self of values and costs of things – these costs include, for example, what it takes for you to be undisturbed by what would otherwise set you off.
  • Focusing on bigger-picture perspective – reminding yourself that if you step away from your personalized perspective things and people will not seem as important or as disturbing.
  • Sticking up for what is right in right ways – using the virtues as a guide, restricting excesses and properly orienting the stands that one feels compelled to take.

Here are some of the others that can be used before and after situations:

  • Examining your own desires and aversions – this sort of honest self-scrutiny allows you to really grasp what motivates you.  Those motivations might be healthy and rightly directed, or they might need some work on your part, if you are finding yourself overly invested in what you could look at as indifferents.
  • Reminding yourself you deal with people – before and after you wind up in difficult situations, you can remind yourself of precisely that truth, that you are dealing with actual human beings who have their own histories, habits, relationships.  These are rarely people as you would want them to be.
  • Working to gradually change your habits – generally they ways in which we think and feel are in part products of habits we have developed.  In dealing with difficult people, we may have already developed bad habits that continue to make those situations difficult for us
  • Engaging in negative visualization – both as a regular practice, and before going into a situation that you know will likely involve difficulty, you can imagine what might occur in that situation, consider whether it is likely to be as bad as you fear, and think about what resources you have to deal with it.
  • Reminding yourself of larger part-wholes – as human beings, from the Stoic perspective, we are all parts of larger wholes, just as the organs of our body are parts of a greater whole.  Taking that perspective can help us see others and ourselves as involved in something bigger.
  • Spending some time with the virtuous – especially when dealing with difficult people, we need to involve ourselves with people who provide us with positive interactions.  This can be done in person, through various media, or even virtually when we read and place ourselves in conversation with Stoic authors.
  • Tracking and reflecting on how you do – engaging in some daily reflection and self-scrutiny, whether just mentally or in journaling, allows you not just to track your progress.  It also can help you to gradually gain insights about additional things you might need to focus on.
  • Taking joy in your progress and successes – this I think is particularly important, not least since you are likely not going to get much of this from others.  Stoicism views positive emotions like joy as good for us, and feeling genuine happiness when we succeed or make progress helps keep us engaged in doing that more and more.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

On Vegetarianism and Stoicism by Jeremy Corter

Recently, I got into a debate over vegetarianism on a Stoic group on Facebook about the morality of eating meat. One gentlemen insisted that eating meat was against human nature and that, given our intelligence, we shouldn’t debase ourselves in partaking meat. Many, including myself, disagreed with him. But despite his occasional insulting words (calling people who ate meat “corpse-eaters”), I found it difficult to defeat his arguments. After all, he was correct in saying we could get everything we need from eating a plant-based diet (complete nourishment, health, and even pleasurable food) and what’s more, there does seem to be a bit of a Stoic tradition of vegetarianism. I thanked the man for arguing his point, because it got me wondering: why does it seem that of the handful of Stoics we know of, half were vegetarians for at least some time in their lives? And why of those, only one, Musonius, made it a point of discussion?

Eat Your Veggies?

As it turns out, Stoicism and vegetarianism might not mix so well together after all.

On the surface, there seems to be some correlation. Zeno ate a simple diet that contained no meat, Seneca wrote about eating a vegetarian diet in one of his letters, and Musonius Rufus straight out told his students eating meat tainted the soul. However, any correlations break down quick. Zeno’s “vegetarianism” seemed about living simply rather than sparing animals (and, as we’ll get to, he might have argued against vegetarianism). Seneca was a vegetarian, and stopped being one, before becoming Stoic, so Stoicism didn’t influence his decision. It is only Musonius where we see a Stoic teach vegetarianism, but even here, his teachings might have been a mix of several schools when it comes to this point.

What is Vegetarianism, Anyway?

According to The Vegetarian Resource Group,

Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, and poultry. … Among the many reasons for being a vegetarian are health, environmental, and ethical concerns; dislike of meat; non-violent beliefs; compassion for animals; and economics.

Of course, it isn’t so much the question of what vegetarians eat, but rather why. Is a person vegetarian because they don’t eat meat, or are they vegetarian for the reasons why they don’t? It would seem to me that vegetarianism isn’t defined simply by the lack of meat-eating, but also by the reasons.

To me, it’s like the question, “If someone acts like a Stoic, but doesn’t know about Stoicism, are they Stoic?” Simply acting Stoic isn’t enough because one can disagree with Stoic philosophy and still end up acting like one. So, a person eating a vegetarian diet may disagree with the reasons why people end up vegetarian. They just happen to not to eat meat. This is important because, as we’ll get to shortly, the early Stoics may have argued against not eating animals. This is even the case for Zeno, who famously didn’t eat much at all, let alone meat.

The Early Stoa: Zeno’s Simple Diet and…Cannibalism?

Zeno, according to Diogenes Laertius, ate a simple diet:

He used to eat little loaves and honey and to drink a little wine of good bouquet.

Zeno’s eating habits were well-known enough to earn him a jab by the comedian poet and playwright Philemon. In a piece titled Philosophoi (Philosophers), Philemon wrote:

This man adopts a new philosophy.
He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets
Disciples. One sole loaf of bread his food;
His best dessert dried figs; water his drink.

Zeno had a bit of a reputation with his diet, at least enough for it to mentioned by a few people. However, while there is no mention of meat consumption in any of this, we mustn’t take this to mean that Zeno espoused vegetarianism. In fact, according to Johannes Haussleiter, in his book Der Vegetarismus in der Antike[1], the early Stoics argued against vegetarianism.

Now, to be sure, Zeno himself doesn’t seem like he stood against vegetarianism. While Theophilus of Antioch states Zeno advocated for cannibalism—a decidedly anti-vegetarian idea—Johannes believes Theophilus’s statement is likely made up, though as we’ll see, the issue isn’t gone for good. Johannes goes on to say that if Zeno were asked about vegetarianism, he would have taken a practical stance, which would have ended up with Zeno becoming more of a random vegetarian. By this, Johannes means to say that Zeno’s diet was about frugality, not protecting animals. It makes sense that, if meat was available to him, Zeno would have allowed himself to eat it. This is illustrated by a story Diogenes writes about Zeno. At a dinner party, Zeno prepared to eat a big fish by himself to cure a glutton, by not offering him any. It’s still foggy at this point, but if Zeno is willing to eat animal meat to make a point, it’s hard to pin him as a strict vegetarian.

Where we see anti-vegetarian ideas take shape starts more with Chrysippus. According to Cicero, writing in De Legibus, he quotes Chrysippus as saying:

For the convenience and benefit of man, nature has given such abundance of things that their products have been given to us intentionally, not by accident; not only what fruits and berries produce through the fertility of the earth, but also the animals, because it is clear that they are created partly for the benefit of man, partly for their benefit, partly for food.

We also see another philosopher, Porphyry, argue against Chrysippus in his book, On Abstinence from the Flesh of Living Beings. That book, from what I can see, is only in Latin. However, Johannes provides a quote of Chrysippius from that book that also provides a bit of an idea of how the early Stoics thought about using animals as food:

The gods created us humans only for their sake and for us, but the animals only for our sake: the steeds, that they lead the wars with us, the dogs, that they help us hunt, panthers, bears, and lions for the exercise of our bravery, but the pig—and therein lies the most agreeable favor of the gods—was created only to be sacrificed, and God, as it were, added salt to his flesh, by giving us a wealth of food. But in order to have abundance of soup and subsidiary dishes, he has created all sorts of shells, snails, jellyfish, and various kinds of birds, for no other reason than to offer a great part of himself to enjoyment, still surpassing the mother’s breast and with these joys and pleasures filling the earthly space.[2]

Here we see that Chrysippius saw the animals as created for us and to be used by us. Horses went to war with us, dogs helped us hunt, and the more dangerous animals made us braver. The others? To eat for enjoyment.

And, as another blow to the idea that the early Stoics were against meat-eating, the idea of cannibalism is brought up yet again, this time by the more reputable sources of Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empiricus. Diogenes states that Chrysippius “gives instructions in a thousand lines to consume the dead.” And Sextus states in Against the Mathematicians:

In the work on righteousness, Chrysippus asserts that if a part of the limb useful for food is chopped off, one should not bury it or throw it away, but consume it so that it becomes another part of ours.

Seneca: Vegetarian and Stoic (Just Not at Once)

We now look at Seneca the Younger, a man who admits being a vegetarian in his youth.

In Letter CVIII, he writes about how, after exposure to Pythagorean philosophy, he adopted vegetarianism for some time. eating meat was akin to cannibalism. Seneca seemed to find it quite enjoyable, too, but he was forced to stop. This is what he says in his letter about his vegetarianism:

I was imbued with this teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of a year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy. I was beginning to feel that my mind was more active; though I would not to-day positively state whether it really was or not. Do you ask how I came to abandon the practice? It was this way: The days of my youth coincided with the early part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Some foreign rites were at that time being inaugurated, and abstinence from certain kinds of animal food was set down as a proof of interest in the strange cult. So at the request of my father, who did not fear prosecution, but who detested philosophy, I returned to my previous habits; and it was no very hard matter to induce me to dine more comfortably.

According to James Romm, in his book Dying Every Day, a bit of xenophobia took hold of Rome and led to Jewish rites being banned. Because vegetarianism “looked uncomfortably similar to a kosher [diet],” Seneca’s father might have pushed him more on fears of prosecution than Seneca lets on. Still, it seems rather clear that Seneca was, at some point during his life, a vegetarian. However, this doesn’t support the idea that Stoics were vegetarians down the road.

Remember, Seneca learned of vegetarianism from his teacher, Sotion. While Sotion did teach Seneca about Stoicism, he used Pythagorean arguments for vegetarianism. As we saw, there simply weren’t any early Stoic arguments against meat-eating, so we can’t say that Stoicism influenced Seneca in this regard. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter all that much if Seneca ever returned to his vegetarian ways when he got older. The fact doesn’t change: it would have been the Pythagoreans, not the Stoics, that gave him his vegetarian foundation.

The Emperor and the Slave

Now, while Musonius Rufus is next in line when it comes to the Stoics, we’re going to save him for last, as he is the only one out of the group that advocated for vegetarianism in his teachings. For now, we’ll turn our attentions to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

We don’t have direct evidence from Epictetus about whether he followed his teacher or not when it comes to vegetarianism. However, we do know that, unlike Musonius, Epictetus makes no provisions against eating meat. In fact, the only thing Epictetus calls for is its moderation, in the Enchiridion:

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

Epictetus also points out that some animals were made to be eaten, as per Providence, as seen in the Discourses:

Well then God constitutes every animal, one to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use; for which purposes what need is there to understand appearances and to be able to distinguish them?

This line is like the one Chrysippius gives, reinforcing the idea that the Stoics believed that the animals were given us for our own use, including the eating of. It seems the only rule that Epictetus gives towards meat is moderation.

When it comes to Marcus Aurelius, we enter some muddy waters. His Mediations refers to animals and meat in a few different places. In Book 10, we see a statement that seems vegetarian in nature:

A spider is proud when it has caught a fly, and another when he has caught a poor hare, and another when he has taken a little fish in a net, and another when he has taken wild boars, and another when he has taken bears, and another when he has taken Sarmatians. Are not these robbers, if thou examinest their opinions?

The wording sounds as if anyone taking a life—from flies all the way up to people—are nothing more than robbers. Even in the case of spiders catching food, he seems to have little respect for anything that takes a life. Yet, a few lines later, we get this:

Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams.

In this instance, we see a different attitude towards slaughtering animals. Now, there’s an insult to the man who is aggrieved for acting like a pig getting slaughtered with reluctance. If we remember the Chyrsippus quote from before, pigs were “created” to be sacrificed. A man feeling aggrieved about anything is like the pig trying to fight its fate. Why use this analogy if he didn’t believe it was a proper one? At the very least, it doesn’t reflect a vegetarian view of pigs.

Another passage shows Marcus having to deal with meat:

When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are.

It seems indictive from the wording (say “we” instead of “others”) that Marcus was reminding himself that, when he was eating meat, he should remind himself of what it truly was. Interestingly, when I debated the vegetarian mentioned in the beginning, he also made the same point (and led to his “corpse-eater” comments). It seems that at least some vegetarians would agree with how Marcus views meat, though it seems clear it didn’t stop Marcus from eating meat.

Musonius Rufus: Vegetarian or Raw Foodist?

Of all the Stoics whose writings still exist, Musonius stands above the others in many ways. He’s more practical than Seneca, more prescriptive than Epictetus, and more of a common man than Marcus. And, unlike everyone else, he is the only one to teach vegetarianism as part of his lessons.

In Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings, there is a two-part lecture that Musonius gives about food. It’s made clear that he thinks meat isn’t human food, but it’s also clear that cooking isn’t the best for people, either:

And what is suitable for us is food from things which the earth produces: the various grains and other plants can nourish a human being quite well. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals which we don’t slaughter. The most suitable of these foods, though, are the ones we can eat without cooking: fruits in season, certain vegetables, milk, cheese, and honeycombs. … Even those food that requiring cooking, including grains and some vegetables, are not unsuitable; all are proper food for a human being.

These few lines tell us two things about Musonius: he wasn’t a vegan and he thought raw foods were best, though not totally against cooking some foods. But, we still must answer a critical question: was Musonius a vegetarian for the typical vegetarian reasons, or is he more like Zeno, his diet less about animal welfare and more about simplicity?

As it turns out, Musonius is more like Zeno in that it isn’t about the animals, but he has a different reason than Zeno in his choice. Musonius thought that meat was “too crude and more suitable for wild beasts.” He also said that meat slowed our mental activity and that the fumes from cooking the meat is “too smoky and darken the soul.” He also asserts that because humans are the most like the gods, we should eat like they do. As “the vapors coming from earth and water are enough for them”, we, too, should only eat “the lightest and more pure food.” Ultimately, this will make our soul “both pure and dry” which, quoting Heraclitus, will make it “best and wisest.”

Moreover, Musonius’s real disdain seems more about the act of cooking and gluttony. He laments the popularity of cookbooks and complains that there are “more cooks than farmers.” As for gluttons, he states “they resemble pigs or dogs more than humans.” He makes no mention about the welfare of animals and often uses the imagery of animals to insult people.

Vegetarianism and Stoicism: Not So Perfect Together?

When I first started this piece of writing, I saw what seemed to be evidence that Stoics were vegetarian, and that Stoic philosophy supported this. After doing some better research, I see a new, more nuanced picture.

Simply put, Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca, as we’ve seen, are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.

The thing is, there seems to be two parts in which we can view vegetarianism. There’s the philosophy part, which often deals with the welfare of animals and the impact of the meat industry on animals, people, and the planet. This is the part where Stoicism and vegetarianism don’t mix. The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

But there’s also the diet part, which can be simply taken as not eating meat. What we see here isn’t a contradiction between vegetarianism and Stoicism, just a lack of opinion. The Stoics may have believed that animals were there for our use, but none ever went out of their way state that one must eat meat. As we saw, Seneca and Musonius were vegetarians. It isn’t that they didn’t have reasons to be vegetarian. They simply didn’t have any Stoic reason to.

Is Vegetarianism Stoic?

Is X Stoic?  This is a question heard, perhaps, one too many times. And, honestly, it’s a senseless question. Nothing but Stoicism is Stoic. But I suppose the real question that’s being asked is would Stoics approve of x. This is the question that started the debate I had about vegetarianism to begin with.

The thing is, no matter how you look at it, the Stoics don’t “approve” of anything besides virtue. From TVs to jokes, the Stoics made it clear that anything that isn’t virtue isn’t good and anything that isn’t vice isn’t bad. In short, it’s all indifferent.

Diet is no exception.

No, vegetarianism isn’t Stoic. They wouldn’t approve of it, either. They won’t give you thumbs up and tell you not eating meat is the right, Stoic thing to do. But they aren’t against vegetarianism, either. What they’ll tell you is that animals are here for our use, but it’s up to you if eat them or not. You might think of some virtuous reasons to be a vegetarian, but they’ll remind you that it isn’t the same as being virtuous. Like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.

Granted, the Stoics did have some outline some rules about eating, but outside of Musonius, there aren’t any true dietary restrictions. The Stoic “diet” is one of practicality and simplicity. Zeno ate frugally, which would preclude expensive, luxurious items. Epictetus proscribes moderation. Musonius believes food that are easy to get are the best. All of these can be used to justify almost any diet, not just vegetarianism.

So, eat your meat. Or don’t. Neither option is particularly Stoic.

Works Cited

  • Der Vegetarismus in der Antike by Johannes Haussleiter
  • Discourses by Epictetus
  • Dying Every Day by James Romm
  • Enchiridion by Epictetus
  • Letters from a Stoic by Seneca the Younger
  • Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings by Cynthia King
  • Vegetarianism in a Nutshell by The Vegetarian Resource Group

[1] This text only exists in German, so Google Translate was used to interpret text. I will avoid direct quotations from the book, paraphrasing Johannes Haussleiter where need be.

[2] Translated from German, so this may not be 100% accurate.

Jeremy Corter has been a life-long lover of philosophy. He runs a Stoicism blog, The Mad Stoic, which he sometimes remembers to update.  You can also find him online on Twitter and Google+

Nope, Jordan Peterson Ain’t No Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

People have been asking my opinion – from a Stoic perspective — about Jordan Peterson for a while now, and the time has finally come. The impetus derives from a recent article by Justin Vacula published here in the Stoicism Today blog, which takes a cautionary positive approach to Peterson, and draws parallels between his views and our philosophy. In this post I wish to push back against Vacula’s interpretation, explain why I think Peterson is not a good point of reference for Stoic practitioners, and more generally ponder what does it mean for X (where X is a person, a fictional character, or a position) “to be Stoic.”

First, though, a few preemptive caveats. Peterson, to my and Vacula’s knowledge, does not claim to be a Stoic, nor does he acknowledge any influence of Stoicism on his writings. So this is rather an exercise in whether, and to what extent, his ideas are “Stoic” in the broad sense of the term.

Also, several people, including Vacula, keep repeating that it is “un-Stoic” to criticize, and even more so to “insult” other people. They get that from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where he repeatedly reminds himself to keep calm when dealing with annoying others, and to look first at his own shortcomings. This is certainly good advice, but it seems like we forget that the Stoics were very vocal in their criticism of other people’s philosophies (the Epicureans, the Aristotelians, the Academic Skeptics), as well as political positions (heck, Cato the Younger started a war to oppose Julius Caesar!). Not to mention that Epictetus often refers to his students as “fools.” What distinguishes Stoic criticism is not its alleged gentleness, but the fact that it is supposed to be done virtuously, that is in the pursuit of truth or justice (or both), and by deploying good arguments and whatever empirical evidence happens to be germane to the issue at hand.

Okay, now back to Vacula’s portrait of Peterson and his alleged Stoic leanings. Peterson is important because he is influential. As Vacula (and a recent New York Times article) points out, his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, his 12 Rules book is an Amazon bestseller, and countless young people feel inspired by him. So, he is a cultural force to be reckoned with, and that’s why we are doing the reckoning. The question at hand is not whether there are some similarities between what Peterson writes and what the Stoics teach. Such similarities are indubitably there. Then again, “pick yourself up and do the right thing,” or “endure what life throws at you” are not exclusively Stoic concepts. They are found pretty much everywhere, in one form or another, from Christianity to Judaism, from Buddhism to Confucianism. And yet I’m not aware of anyone making the argument that Peterson is a Stoic-Christian-Judeo-Buddhist-Confucian. The issue, rather, is whether there are sufficient deep similarities between Peterson and Stoicism. I will argue that not only the answer is no, but that the sort of worldview Peterson advances is, in fact, anti-Stoic.

The first bit of Petersonian advice we encounter in Vacula’s post is “clean your room and get your life in order.” Which is good advice, the sort that my mom used to give me. But that didn’t make her a Stoic. The crucial part of the Stoic advice is that it tells us how to get our life in order: by practicing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance; and it explains to us why we ought to do it: because virtue is the only thing that is always good (it can’t be used for bad, by definition), as argued by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

Peterson, by contrast, gets this imperative from his adoption of Carl Jung’s views about the perennial opposition between logos and eros, where logos represents order, and it is masculine, while eros represents chaos, and it is feminine. From which Peterson further derives that it is both good and natural for men to control women (order has to overcome chaos). Why is it natural? Because Peterson buys wholesale the most crude version of evolutionary psychology, according to which gender roles have been pretty much fixed since the Pleistocene. From this perspective, according to Peterson, the apogee of American cultural life was back in the ‘50s, and we ought to get back to that place.

But all the above, so far as I can tell, is a lot of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical nonsense. Jung pretty much invented wholesale entirely un-empirical concepts like archetypes, espoused certifiably pseudoscientific notions like that of “synchronicity,” and liberally borrowed from mythology and Eastern mysticism (he compared the logos-eros dichotomy to the yin-yang one). There is not a shred of evidence to think that any of this is a decent description of the actual human condition, and particularly of the differences between men and women (not to mention that there is no mention of other genders, which Peterson, again pseudoscientifically, simply denies out of existence).

As for evolutionary psychology, it is a rather controversial discipline, about which I have written in depth – as an evolutionary biologist – in both Making Sense of Evolution and Nonsense on Stilts. Suffice to say here that while some evopsych research is certainly well done and interesting, the field is highly speculative at best when it comes to the evolution of gender roles. And as any Philosophy 101 course will teach you, even if gender roles evolved by natural selection that tells us zero of interest about how we ought, ethically, to reconsider them in contemporary society. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once put it, he chose a life without children in order to dedicate himself to his writing and his friends. And if his genes don’t like it, they can go jump into the lake.

As Vacula acknowledges, Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on how to climb social hierarchies, which he regards as natural and inevitable (the second characteristic obviously does not follow from the first one). He thinks that women ought to be dominated by men, and he maintains that white privilege is a myth. This is one of the most un-Stoic aspects of his thinking. The Stoics were among the first cosmopolitans, thinking that women ought to be educated in philosophy because they are just as capable as men, that all humans are equal, and that our duty is to cooperate – not compete – with fellow human beings. They imagined an ideal society, in Zeno’s Republic, that is very far from the capitalism that Peterson prefers. Indeed, it looks like an anarchic utopia, where wise men and women live in harmony because they finally understood how to use reason for the betterment of humankind.

Vacula, in his positive take on the Peterson-Stoicism connection, did not comment at all on political and social involvement. Probably because Peterson does not come out particular well in that department, and he certainly doesn’t come out as Stoic. Here he is, from 12 Rules:

Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today… Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? … Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

This sounds deceptively Stoic, but the deception is dangerous. First off, notice that we are told not to go out and make noise about changing the world until our own household is in perfect order. Well, then, since it will never be (we are not sages), I guess we are not authorized to invest time and energy into questioning our social systems and try to change them for the better. How convenient, for someone who clearly benefits from said social order.

Peterson’s advice plays into one of the worst stereotypes about Stoicism, that it is an inward-looking, quietist philosophy. But it is not. The virtue of justice requires us to try to change things for the better, for everyone. Historical examples like those of Cato the Younger, as well as recent ones lie Nelson Mandela (who was inspired by Marcus’ Meditations) are obvious pointers. When Peterson tells us that self-improvement is “more important than any possible political action” he is simply wrong. For Stoics the two go hand in hand: we improve ourselves as we improve the world, and vice versa. Cosmopolitanism, not egoism.

Vacula then claims that another similarity between Peterson and the Stoics is that they both tell us to overcome obstacles by way of a strong mindset, and to be courageous. And isn’t endurance a Stoic attribute? Is courage not a Stoic virtue? Yes, but Stoics believe in the unity of virtue, which means that one simply cannot talk about courage as isolated or distinct from justice (and prudence, and temperance). But as we have just seen, there is little if any talk of justice in the Stoic sense in Peterson. Being courageous for a Stoic doesn’t just mean to “pick up your damn suffering and bear it,” as Peterson puts it. That’s yet another false stereotype about Stoics: the stiff upper lip caricature. We are supposed to endure because it is the virtuous thing to do in order to be able to help others, not to show ourselves just how tough and “manly” we are.

Speaking of manly, Peterson is very popular in the “men’s rights” movement. These are people that are appropriating a distorted view of Stoicism as they love to point out that virtue comes from the Latin “vir,” meaning man. They seem to forget two other crucial bits of information. First, that “virtus” was the Latin translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence, and is not limited to men. Second, as I have already pointed out, that the Stoic virtues are a package. One is not virtuous if one is courageous but lacks justice, temperance, or prudence.

Peterson does say a number of fairly sensible things, like:

If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. … Had you been there [in Nazi Germany], the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

Indeed. But this is far from an original concept. It’s what philosopher Thomas Nagel famously described as “moral luck” in a classic paper published back in 1979, and of which Peterson seems to be entirely unaware.

Vacula praises Peterson for questioning popular opinions, again drawing an analogy with the Stoics in this respect. But questioning popular opinions is not an intrinsic good, it depends on which opinions one is criticizing and why. And here we come to the infamous case that actually catapulted Peterson to fame: his public criticism of Canada’s bill C-16, because of its stultifying political correctness. The bill added gender expression and identity to the list of criteria one cannot not be discriminated by in accordance to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.

What about Peterson’s cool head in the face of hostile (and certainly unprofessional) questioning by the host of a famous Channel 4 interview that went viral, thus further increasing his fame? Good for him, but as Don Robertson often remarks, that’s stoicism, not Stoicism. It’s always commendable not to lose one’s temper, but this is not a philosophical position, it’s just commonsense.

Vacula is somewhat regretful that Peterson initially rejected the “men going their own way” (MGTOW) movement, only belatedly agreeing that they have a point in wanting nothing to do with relationships and marriage because, you know, society and the law are so unfair to men these days. Setting aside that it is entirely ludicrous to even suggest that women in contemporary society are unjustly preferred over men (I guess that’s why there is still so much violence against women, pay inequality, discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion, etc. etc. etc.), it is most certainly un-Stoic to want to create divisions from other human beings. Every Stoic we know of has emphasized the importance of relationships, and Seneca has gone so far as suggesting that marriage (or a committed relationship, in modern terms) is a major occasion to become more virtuous and to help another human being to do the same.

There are a number of other decidedly un-Stoic aspects of Peterson’s opinions, like his strange idea that conversation is made possible with men (but impossible with “crazy” women) by the always present threat of violence:

I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassing against me. And the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women. And so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. … There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away. Or at least the threat is there. (full transcript here)

What sort of cardinal virtue, I wonder, is Peterson deploying here?

The Stoics were great logicians. They believed that one has to make careful arguments based on empirical evidence in order to arrive at the best judgment a human being can muster. And arriving at good judgments is the whole point of one of Epictetus’ three disciplines, the discipline of assent. Here too Peterson fails miserably. I mentioned above his reliance on mythology, which he takes from Jung. One interviewer finally asked him why people should believe in myth. Here is his response (longer transcript in the article by Robinson linked below):

Well, what are you going to take seriously, then? You’re going to take nothing seriously. Well, good luck with that, because serious things are coming your way. If you’re not prepared for them by an equal metaphysical seriousness, they will flatten you.

This is an egregious example of really, really bad reasoning. Peterson is committing not one, but two logical fallacies that I train my students to spot and avoid. First, the idea that if one does not take myths seriously then one does not take anything seriously is an obvious non sequitur; it simply does not follow. Second, the suggestion that serious things are coming (which serious things, by the way?) is a red herring, a distraction. Sure, “serious” things may be coming (e.g., financial collapse, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war?), but that has nothing at all to do with whether it is sensible for people to take myths seriously or not.

But at least, says Vacula, Peterson rails against the damn post-modernists. Surely the Stoics would agree, as they battled the post-modernists of their time, the Academic Skeptics. As a scientist and philosopher I am no fan of post-modernism (see chapters 10 and 11 of my Nonsense on Stilts), but here is a pretty good example of post-modernist obfuscatory language, let’s see if you can guess the author:

Procedural knowledge, generated in the course of heroic behavior, is not organized and integrated within the group and the individual as a consequence of simple accumulation. Procedure ‘a,’ appropriate in situation one, and procedure ‘b,’ appropriate in situation two, may clash in mutual violent opposition in situation three. Under such circumstances intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict necessarily emerges. When such antagonism arises, moral revaluation becomes necessary. As a consequence of such revaluation, behavioral options are brutally rank-ordered, or, less frequently, entire moral systems are devastated, reorganized and replaced. This organization and reorganization occurs as a consequence of ‘war,’ in its concrete, abstract, intrapsychic, and interpersonal variants. In the most basic case, an individual is rendered subject to an intolerable conflict, as a consequence of the perceived (affective) incompatibility of two or more apprehended outcomes of a given behavioral procedure. In the purely intrapsychic sphere, such conflict often emerges when attainment of what is desired presently necessarily interferes with attainment of what is desired (or avoidance of what is feared) in the future. Permanent satisfactory resolution of such conflict (between temptation and ‘moral purity,’ for example) requires the construction of an abstract moral system, powerful enough to allow what an occurrence signifies for the future to govern reaction to what it signifies now. Even that construction, however, is necessarily incomplete when considered only as an ‘intrapsychic’ phenomena. The individual, once capable of coherently integrating competing motivational demands in the private sphere, nonetheless remains destined for conflict with the other, in the course of the inevitable transformations of personal experience. This means that the person who has come to terms with him- or herself—at least in principle—is still subject to the affective dysregulation inevitably produced by interpersonal interaction. It is also the case that such subjugation is actually indicative of insufficient ‘intrapsychic’ organization, as many basic ‘needs’ can only be satisfied through the cooperation of others.

It’s from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, in the section entitled “The Great Father.” And as far as I can see – and I looked hard – there is no meaning in the above (if you think you can do better, by all means, please translate into English). It could easily have been produced by the online postmodern generator. How is procedural knowledge generated by “heroic behavior”? What on earth is “intrapsychic conflict”? Why does all of that necessitate “moral revaluation”? What does it mean to “brutally rank order” behavioral options (as opposed to nicely rank order?)? Which behavioral options? Why is “war” in scare quotes? How can it be both concrete and abstract? Are outcomes “apprehended”? By whom? Why is “moral purity” in scare quotes? Oh no, wait! Now “intrapsychic” is in quotes too. Because it means something different from intrapsychic without quotes? What does it mean to be subject to “affective dysregualtion”? And now even “needs” is in scare quotes? (Oh, and “phenomena” is plural, not singular.)

Finally, the Stoics practiced humility, because we are all unwise, always making mistakes, everyone of us metaphorically drowning because we still have not gotten to the surface, where the sage dwells. Not so Peterson, who is absolutely convinced of the immense value of his discoveries. In a letter to his father included in Maps of Meaning he writes:

I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing.

Well, I can agree on two things: whatever he saw, he did not see it clearly. And he certainly did not convey it comprehensibly.

I hope to have marshaled enough evidence to show that Jordan Peterson is no Stoic, and that his philosophy is, in fact, anti-Stoic. Why, then, is he so influential? Why are we spending so much energy and time talking about him? I really can’t do any better than put the answer as commentator and critic Nathan Robinson did recently in what is the best and most in-depth critique of Peterson I’ve seen so far:

If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like ‘if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of’ or ‘many moral values are similar across human societies.’ Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured.

You know what Socrates used to call this sort of person? A sophist. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment.


P.S.: since I’ve been exposed to Peterson’s supporters a number of times over social media, I can anticipate some of the obvious objections: (i) If you think that I mischaracterized him or quoted him out of context, it is entirely useless to simply say so and walk away. Please, provide a detailed explanation of why you think so, as well as a better, more fair interpretation of the same passages I quoted, or the same notions I described. (ii) If you think Peterson is being criticized out of “envy” then you have no idea of critical discourse works. It’s still a criticism, and it needs to be answered, regardless of the real or imaginary motivations you attribute to the critic. (iii) If your response is along the lines of “yes, but he has made a difference for many young people,” that may be true, but there are positive differences and negative ones, and there are good and bad reasons why young people are influenced. The goal here is to steer them toward the good ones and away from the bad ones.

P.P.S.: please stop using lobsters as idealized examples of how human beings should behave, just because they are hierarchical animals. It’s really, really bad biology (and bad science is another un-Stoic thing). Lobsters are invertebrates, incredibly evolutionarily remote from us. And they don’t have shoulders. Plus, those t-shirts really look silly.


Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?” by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.

To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.

In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.

So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.  One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.

Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.

In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.

Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality.  This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.

Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.

A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.

Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?

Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:

for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.

Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.

The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.

Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.

Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.

Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.

Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.

In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

Jordan Peterson and Stoicism by Justin Vacula

Clinical psychologist and Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson has had a major impact on public discourse evidenced by his presence in online publications, his extremely popular YouTube channel with almost one million subscribers, and acclaim surrounding his new book ’12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ which is currently the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.

Members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group share work from Jordan Peterson including many of his classroom and public lectures and are left asking if Jordan Peterson is a Stoic identifying parallels between the work of Peterson and Stoic authors. Fans of Jordan Peterson who are unfamiliar with Stoic Philosophy can benefit a great deal from engagement with Stoicism.

People find a great deal of inspiration and practical solutions to personal struggles while becoming more familiar with the work of Jordan Peterson and engaging with Stoic Philosophy. People hunger for a new approach to life, guidelines by which to structure themselves, especially after personal tragedy or stagnation. People are moved by messages of self-improvement and character-building found within Stoic content and Jordan Peterson lectures which urge that growth, positive change, is possible if a good effort is made.

When I use the word “Stoic,” I reference the practical philosophy of life popularized by Ancient thinkers including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius I’ll later detail – not a common usage which people may understand as merely being resolute in the face of challenge (see Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman in which he maintains such a undaunted disposition) or a severely misguided interpretation – one being detached from positive or negative emotions.

I don’t recall Jordan Peterson mentioning influence from Stoic thinkers or Stoic Philosophy in his content, but I see many parallels between his work and central themes in Stoicism. Perhaps Jordan Peterson won’t identify as a Stoic, but he can surely find himself in general agreement with major Stoic themes and appreciate the philosophical tradition – now undergoing a modern rebirth – which resonates with segments of Peterson’s audience.

Let’s explore the parallels and differences between Stoicism and the work of Jordan Peterson. I’ll use examples from Stoic texts and lectures of Peterson in addition to recurring themes in Stoic works and Peterson’s thoughts to discover the degree of Stoicism within Jordan Peterson.

Clean Your Room/Get Your Life In Order

Stoicism challenges us to be accountable, to take responsibility in our lives, so that we can work toward a life of contentment pursuing virtue. Self-improvement; having a proper mindset; and working to rid ourselves of unproductive desires (i.e. want of fame, wealth, jealousy) and intense negative emotions (i.e. despair, hatred, and anger) is required for a properly-oriented life on the Stoic view. Stoic writers  focus on common human concerns which continue to exist in our modern era. (If you wish, you can listen to past episodes of my podcast, including #47, #36, and #31 , focused on coping with guilt, negative emotions, and death.

Applying Stoic wisdom to everyday life can help modern people, as Jordan Peterson would say, rescue their fathers (and themselves) from the belly of a whale or be reborn like the mythical pheonix. (I talk more about being reborn like a phoenix following tragedy in episodes 44 and 22 of my podcast). Peterson urges individuals to be self-reflective and work to fix their lives rather than being resentful, complaining, and being critical of the world while not working to change one’s own mindset or improve their condition.

Stoic writers and Peterson advocate for an attitude of gratitude – appreciating what is going well and not overlooking positive elements of life – and note that complaining, especially about things outside of our control, is largely unhelpful. For Peterson and Stoic writers, instead of complaining, taking action to improve ourselves and create order in our lives can be an antidote or response to chaos.

Similar to Stoic writers, Peterson focuses on finding personal fulfillment in excellence of character and success, but there is divergence in that Peterson – unlike Stoic authors – often focuses on climbing what he calls dominance heirarchies, engaging in completion to rise to the top of a field of focus. Dominance hierarchies are absent from Stoic texts which mainly focus on character excellence through virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom seeing virtue as the only good or prime good, doing good for goodness’ sake regardless of who may be watching, a reward, reputation, or status. One may ascend to the top of hierarchies through hard effort and achieve mastery by following Stoic wisdom, but this is not the focus for Stoics.

Marcus Aurelius, in Book VII of his Meditations, talks about changing our mindset to remove unproductive, negative, inaccurate thoughts so that we can improve our lives. He writes:

it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame […] To recover your life is in your power.

We can avoid “being moved by the desires as puppets by strings” as Marcus notes in Book VI by taking action, taking on responsibility, and evaluating our lives so that we can improve – to notice our shortcomings and create a plan of action.

Epictetus, in Book IV Chapter IV of his Discourses, titled “To those who have set their hearts on a Quiet Life” urges us not to procrastinate or spend forever preparing to change, but rather to take action, use our time well, and act before it is too late. He writes,

…read, hear, prepare yourself. You have had sufficient time for that […] Come now to the contest. Show us what you have learned, how you have trained.

Taking action to improve our lives rather than making excuses, even if starting with small steps, will offer many benefits and is preferable to misery.

In his letter “On Wisdom and Retirement,” Seneca calls for us to recognize our past deficiencies and work to make changes in the present, without procrastinating, to live a better life. He writes,

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur. Our time of life is the best possible for these pursuits; for the period of boiling and foaming is now past. The faults that were uncontrolled in the first fierce heat of youth are now weakened, and but little further effort is needed to extinguish them.

Jordan Peterson, talking about making positive changes in our lives, says,

Put yourself together and then maybe if you put yourself together – you know how to do that – you know what’s wrong with you if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things you could, like, polish up a little bit that you might even be able to manage in your insufficient present condition.

Peterson further encourages us to take a self-inventory, similar to the urging of Stoic authors, in order to rid ourselves of vice and personal shortcomings,

You also have to allow yourself to shake off those things about you that you might be pathologically attached to, habits and people for that matter, ways of thinking, all of those things. You have to allow yourself to shake those off. […] You let all that nonsense burn away.

Life Is Not A Dance, But We Can Prevail And Find Meaning Amidst Suffering

Many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures focus on the horrors of the 20th century including genocide and war. Reflecting on experiences in his clinical practice, Peterson discusses suicidal intentions, depression, trauma, drug abuse and many significant personal challenges people face in modern times. Suffering, Peterson notes, reflecting on the human condition, is a necessary part of life; we’ll all experience personal challenges, pain, loss of loved ones, and other struggles.

Peterson urges us to acknowledge our suffering, work to improve ourselves, help make the world a better place, help others, and not languish in a role as a defeated victim. We can rise above suffering to be heroic, Peterson argues, drawing upon characteristics of role models – fictional and real – and engaging in important personal quests to respond well to suffering. By helping ourselves, we can help others.

Stoic authors and Peterson call for acceptance when considering suffering in a life including change, difficult people, tragedy, and death. (See episode 17 of my podcast which explores Stoic ideas on acceptance). Such suffering in life is inevitable and natural given the nature of existence; the frailty of the human body; lack of wisdom; and element of chance, fate, or fortune.

Stoic authors and Peterson would agree that we can rise to challenges in life by viewing inevitable adversity as a means to better ourselves, test our resolve, and develop effective means to cope rather than engaging in unproductive thoughts or maladaptive coping skills. We can see, as author Ryan Holiday, echoing themes within Marcus Aurelius’ writings, the obstacle as the way, something we can overcome.

We should avoid, Stoic writers note, creating problems for ourselves by amplifying our personal struggles or having thoughts – impressions – which do not align with reality. With a proper mindset, we can more effectively overcome daily challenges, be more resilient, and find purpose in life. Here, Stoic thought and Peterson’s general message greatly overlap. Stoic writers and Peterson urge people to overcome adversity by having a strong mindset, making changes where possible, and being courageous.

Seneca, in his letter titled “On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus” from his Letters to Lucillius urges us to self-reflect and improve even amidst what seem to be hopeless situations. Seneca writes:

regulate your character, rouse your courage, and stand firm in the face of things which have terrified you.

The ideal Stoic sage, one who has embodied Stoic wisdom to be resolute amidst suffering, may appear “unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amidst the storm” as Seneca writes in his letter titled “On the God Within Us.”

Marcus Aurelius, in book VII of his Meditations writes:

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.

Rather than lamenting certain happenings in life, merely complaining, we can work to “[b]e like the promontory against that which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it” as Marcus notes in Book IV encouraging an attitude of resilience – responding to suffering we ought to, Marcus says, “bear it nobly.”

In responding to suffering, Peterson notes: 

Pick up your damn suffering and bear it and try to be a good person so you don’t make it worse. […] There’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die. You know, you too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it’s going to be unfair. It’s like, yah, no wonder you’re resentful. It’s like act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.

Peterson, acknowledging that there is a great deal of suffering in life, says,

So what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together, for Christ’s sake, so that when your father dies, you’re not whining away in a corner and you can help plan the funeral and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim.

Humans Have The Capacity To Strive Toward Good (and Evil)

Jordan Peterson, reflecting on World War II, notes that many concentration camp guards were, at least at one point, common people like us. Might we, like them, follow orders instead of rebelling and take part in or directly commit great atrocities given certain pressures? Given a degree of courage, instruction, and commitment, both Stoic thinkers and Peterson believe that we have the capacity to achieve a life of virtue, to strive toward a good life instead of embodying the darker parts of human nature. Peterson mentions influence from psychologist Carl Jung – our shadow side, the darker sides of our personalities, this potential monster within.

If we align ourselves with positive characteristics – “following nature” or “living in accordance with nature” as Stoic writers mention – using our reasoning capacity to have proper judgments about the world and putting right principles into action, we can actualize potential and strive toward the highest good (virtue). It’s important to recognize our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, so that we do not descend into chaos.

Peterson, like the Stoics, does not believe that people are unchangeable or that progress is impossible. He aims to help others, educate people about what a good life can look like, inspires people to make positive changes, and helps people set realistic goals in the process of self-improvement. Peterson and Stoic authors note that although change can be difficult and gradual, we should embark on journeys of transformation to better ourselves while being mindful of and avoiding pressures from society which can lead us astray.

In recognizing that people have the capacity for good and ill action, we can better deal with difficult people, pity them, avoid certain people, and surround ourselves with the best of friends setting personal boundaries, being careful in our interactions, and carefully evaluating others’ character.

In Book III, Chapter 25 of Epictetus’ Discourses, titled “To Those Who Fail to Achieve Their Purposes,” Epictetus notes that “good fortune and happiness itself” is at stake when considering determination toward progress. It’s in our power to improve ourselves, to strive toward good, and “even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest.”

In his letter titled “On Self-Control,” Seneca talks about how people can exercise moderation and orient towards a good life. People may choose to engage in poor behavior rather than make better decisions. He writes of people falling short of the good life:

It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Peterson, talking about humans’ capacity for wrongdoing, reflecting on people who think they would have resisted Nazi power if they were present in Nazi Germany, notes,

If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. […] Had you been there, the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

On Peterson’s view, we can avoid the darker impulses within human nature by “aiming at the highest possible good.” He says:

If you manifest yourself properly in the world […] there is no more effective way of operating in the world that to conceptualize the highest good that you can and strive to attain it. There’s no more practical pathway to the kind of success that you could have if you actually knew what success was.

Question Popular Opinion

Jordan Peterson, in addition to receiving praise, has been vilified in popular media following his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16 concerning what he dubbed government-compelled speech in regards to gender pronouns; criticism of modern feminist positions; opposition to what he calls neo-Marxist postmodern leftists; identity politics; and political correctness. Peterson spends a considerable amount of time constructing arguments supplementing his skepticism and notes the danger of popular opinion which could lead people astray from reason.

Peterson diverges from Stoic writers when engaging in name-calling or ascribing ill-motives towards groups of people he disagrees with. For example, Peterson has noted that left-leaning individuals are not well-intentioned and want to destroy society – perhaps in a self-admitted state of anger (Peterson notes he has struggled with this), being quick to judge, and considering the most extreme examples of certain groups Peterson falters.

Peterson also castigated individuals branding themselves as MGTOW or men going their own way – those who have decided to walk away from marriage, cohabitation, and traditional relationships with women noting laws they see as heavily biased against men, unfair legal systems in the Western world. MGTOW talk about men finding their own purpose in life apart from getting married, having children, and sacrificing their own wants and needs for the benefit of women in a society they see as gynocentric – focused on women. Like Peterson, MGTOW question common opinion.

Peterson called MGTOW “pathetic weasels” and seemed to shame MGTOW noting, “maybe if you made the right sacrifices you wouldn’t have so much trouble with women […] it’s not the women, it’s you.” Later, Peterson said he was too dismissive of MGTOW noting agreement with their arguments against laws in the West, but then talked about MGTOW being “pernicious” consisting of bitter and resentful young men who are looking for a rationale to write off all women because of rejection they faced in dating.

Peterson mentions clients in his clinical practice who have experienced ruin following divorce and said of MGTOW, “they have a point […] the court systems are staggeringly anti-male, absurdly, horribly anti-male.” Can Peterson have more compassion for men who have gone their own way and better understand their perspectives? Stoic authors call for a less judgmental approach than one Peterson deployed when talking about MGTOW.

A more Stoic response would be to refrain from name-calling and simply responding to ideas. Peterson could engage more with MGTOW listening to, for example, content creators SunriseHoodie and huMAN, to get a better idea of the community and ideas he is dismissing. Even better, finding solutions to injustice, particularly relating to law, or warning people about dangers they could face, further dissuading them from engaging in risky situations like marriage would be optimal. After all, one of the cardinal Stoic virtues is justice.

Peterson, a married man with children who seems to have a successful, fulfilling relationship and family may be quick to write off perspectives of MGTOW who instead see relationships and marriage in current society as a significant threat to personal fulfillment. Stoic authors, after all, encourage us to challenge our impressions, the way we view reality, to have an attitude of humility and open-mindedness.

Stoic writers and Peterson, remind us that what is popular is not always right and can lead to disastrous consequences. (I talk about Stoic perspectives on the dangers of prioritizing popular approval in episode #40 of my podcast.)  Should we prioritize the wrong things – not have proper aims in life – we are more prone to squander our time, compromise our character, be taken advantage of by others, harm others, and have distorted beliefs. Without a solid foundation from which to draw, perhaps just doing what feels good or mindlessly mimicking others, we can find ourselves unfulfilled and without direction.

We might fail to, as Peterson encourages, speak the truth and not voice disagreement or even question commonly held beliefs because of potential social consequences. Peterson believes that not speaking out carries its own risks – we might be complicit in a lie and compromise our own standards. Speaking the truth, questioning popular opinion, can be liberating and lead to social good although there may be initial or ongoing discomfort.

However, as Stoic writers note, we’re to carefully pick our battles, be prudent, and not be chiefly concerned with approval from others or appearing to be agreeable.

Seneca’s letter “On Crowds” talks about the dangers of engagement with the masses:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger […] you should not copy the bad simply because they are many.

On the topic of conforming merely to fit in, to gain approval of others, especially when we act unvirtuously, Seneca urges us to “scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority.”

In Book IV Chapter 8 of his Discourses, Epictetus quotes a Philosopher who says, “I knew that what I did rightly I did for my own sake and not for the spectators.” Seneca urges us to be our own spectators and seek our own applause in his letter “On the Healing Power of the Mind.”

Stoic authors, like Peterson, also rail against vice, advocate for moderation in life, urge us to question our desires, not look for happiness in external things, and identify that which we should avoid. Peterson and Stoic authors do not see happiness as a hedonistic pursuit; they warn of the dangers which can come about in being overly focused on wealth and material goods.

Although Jordan Peterson does not consider himself a Stoic or mention Stoicism as an inspiration, there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson relating to getting one’s life in order; prevailing amidst suffering; capacity for people to strive towards the good; and questioning public opinion. Surely, fans of Jordan Peterson’s work and even Peterson himself could benefit from study and application of Stoic Philosophy.

I welcome feedback from fans and critics of Jordan Peterson. Perhaps Jordan Peterson would be willing to engage with the Stoic community.

Justin Vacula is the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast. He also serves as an counselor-in-training intern in a school-based behavioral health program while studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. He hosts monthly meetings for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, and plays poker at various casinos in the Eastern United States.