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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will happen? No one knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism Today Is Relocating by Gregory Sadler

As the editor of Stoicism Today, I’m very pleased to announce that, after considerable planning and preparation, the Stoicism Today blog is officially moving to this new virtual location.  This decision wasn’t taken lightly – after all, it is quite a bit of work to move an established blog! – but there are some compelling reasons for making this shift, which I’ll discuss below.

First though, I’d like to stress that, although the aesthetics of the blog are somewhat different on this new site where it is hosted, Stoicism Today remains the same blog.  All of the previous entries over the last four years have been migrated over to this new location.  In fact, for most of them, all of the discussions carried out in the comments have been imported as well.  The continuity extends to the staff as well – it’s still myself as editor, and Tom McConnell as editorial assistant – and the input we get from the editorial committee.

Why change anything then?  Why move to another location?  It is really a matter of exercising prudence, when it comes down to it.  The Stoic community has been growing in numbers and in  the complexity of its interconnections worldwide over the last decade, especially in the last five years.  “Stoicism Today” – both as the blog itself, and as the loose organization that originated and supports Stoic Week, Stoicon, and a number of other initiatives – has also been developing in the process.

The project group is assuming a more formal and official structure as an organization, Modern Stoicism, a charitable incorporated organization based in the UK, with an associated core group (the “steering committee”) worldwide who work out decisions by consensus – the people who you’ll see listed on the “Modern Stoicism Group” page on this new hosting site.

There are a number of main activities this group is routinely involved in.  The Stoicism Today blog is one key part of that.  You see members of the group occasionally contributing pieces to the blog, but they actually do considerably more than that behind the scenes, advising me as the editor, sending good prospects for entries my way, and collaborating to publicize events and classes.  The annual Stoicon conference itself is one prime example of that, but we also strive to promote other events where people can learn about, discuss, and practice Stoicism.  The two flagship online classes – the Stoic Week class, and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) – are another main area, involving a lot of work and collaboration (the lion’s share of which falls upon Donald Robertson).

As the community of people interested in Stoicism has built up online (with a lot of healthy connections to face-to-face meetings, events, and groups), it hasn’t just grown in sheer numbers of people involved, or even the number of different venues – it’s also a matter of the complexity of the overlaps, interconnections, shares, and so forth between people, organizations, and forums where interactions take place.  Members of the “Stoicism Today” (or “Modern Stoicism” – whichever you like) project group are quite often, if not at the center of things, certainly playing significant roles.  You’ll also notice quite a few of the guest contributors to Stoicism Today similarly involved in the contemporary Stoicism community.

One main goal is for Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism to remain just as centrally involved in the ongoing – and very exciting – activities, conversations, and developments of the larger contemporary Stoic community.  So, it was decided by a good deal of conversation, thought, and eventually consensus, that now would be a particularly propitious time to reorganize and restructure matters.

In some cases, this also involves consolidating matters that were originally based on different online platforms.  And that’s precisely what we’re doing in this case.  You’ll now be able to read the Stoicism Today blog itself on the same site that you’ll use to participate in the Stoic Week or SMRT courses, or to check for events, or look for resources – or even (hint, hint) to donate and support the ongoing work of the organization.

To bring this last entry here to a close, on behalf of Stoicism Today, I’d like to express a bit of gratitude. Thanks to the University of Exeter for hosting this excellent and needed online publication from its inception to now!  Thanks to the previous editor, Patrick Ussher, and to Tom McConnell, for all of their hard work building up this important forum for contemporary Stoicism!  Thanks to the members of the Stoicism Today project team for thought-provoking articles, organizing events and classes, and for invaluable advice!  Thanks to all of the guest contributors who labored over their own posts, enriching the ongoing conversation of this forum!

A last set of thanks must go to all of you readers of this blog.  We’re happy that Stoicism Today has drawn such a faithful and engaged audience over these last four years!  Now, as we cross the threshold into a new year, we invite you to follow us over to the new site where Stoicism Today will continue to publish weekly posts for the modern Stoic community.

Hard Truths and Happiness by John Sellars


There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.

Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.

What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.

In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.

I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.

There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).

Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.

This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.

Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.

But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature.

By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.

Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)

To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:

Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)

Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).

Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.

What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.

The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.

The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world.

I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works.

This post is the transcript of the talk  Prof. Sellars had intended to provide at the Stoicon 2016 conference.  He was unfortunately not able to attend this year.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  This article appeared originally in his blog, Miscellanea Stoica.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

Stoic Theology, Science, and Love: Thoughts on Stoic Week 2016 by William O. Stephens

WOS 2016 May

I’ve been studying and writing about Stoicism since about 1988. I’ve been professing about Stoicism to undergraduate students at Creighton University in Nebraska since 1990. When the opportunity to participate in Stoic Week 2016 arose, I figured that it was high time for me take the plunge. I’m glad I did.

When completing the online questionnaire, the first thing that struck me was how clear and well-crafted the questions were. I was also impressed with how the framers of this questionnaire combined items that test one’s beliefs in Stoic doctrines with items that test one’s psychological dispositions. This is as we should expect. Stoic thinking inspired the contemporary psychological theories of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Thus, the scientific application of Stoic therapies is entirely appropriate. But what surprised me in taking the Stoic Week questionnaire was the item that tested my belief that the universe is an enormous, rational, living being that can accurately be called ‘God.’

On the one hand, the surviving fragments certainly seem to indicate that both the earliest Stoics (Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Chrysippus) held this theological belief. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is an earnest expression of this theological belief, for example. What about the later Roman Stoics? To judge from their writings, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius also believed that Zeus was the Right Reason steering the cosmos. Indeed, Epictetus argues that since sheep produce wool and milk, and we can make clothes from their wool and cheese from their milk, divine providence exists. Epictetus believes that Zeus our cosmic Father. Zeus makes plants grow and fruit. Zeus gives us animals so that we can domesticate them and sustain ourselves using them as we wish. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, seems to grant the possibility that the atomists are right, and that there is no divine providence. But, Marcus reasons that if it is all just atoms swerving together and apart, then morality itself disappears. Marcus cannot countenance such a world, so he clings to the theological belief that the universe is rationally organized by a supreme Stoic ‘God.’

So, must a modern stoic share this theological belief in a god responsible for plants, the domestication of some nonhuman animals, and the organization of the universe? Surely not. Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism was published in 1998. Becker offers a contemporary stoicism (uncapitalized) free of theological commitments. Becker’s neostoicism is about perfecting one’s agency in order to live one’s life as well as possible. To live well means to live virtuously and happily, making the best decisions every day all things considered. The lessons Becker draws from the ancient Stoics are aimed at this practical, entirely secular endeavor. Becker shows that one can adopt the ethics of the ancient Stoics without buying into Stoic theology. A modern stoic who takes science seriously avoids the problems of explaining how Zeus makes trees give fruit and how Zeus makes sheep produce wool and milk for our clothes and cheese. Modern stoics can praise Charles Darwin and the science of evolution in lieu of singing a hymn to the Zeus of Cleanthes.

On the other hand, ancient Stoicism exerted a wide, deep, and lasting influence on early Christianity. My students didn’t know that the Serenity Prayer derives from the ancient Stoics. Thus, the appearance of the Serenity Prayer in Stoic Week is apt:

God, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
the courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to tell the difference.

For a modern stoic, prayer is silly. If God helps those who help themselves, then really we have to help ourselves because no one and nothing else will. So, for a modern stoic, the Serenity Prayer really just amounts to urging oneself to be serene, courageous, and wise. It made sense for the early Christians to appropriate the wisdom of the Stoics and theologize it. But a scientific-minded modern stoic needs no theology at all to apply Stoic therapies to her daily living. Psychological health need not appeal to bad metaphysics. The ancient Stoics were physicalists who believed that human souls were as physical as human bodies. But a modern stoic can dispense with the notion of a soul and turn to our best empirical neuroscience instead.

What a modern stoic cannot dispense with is love. That’s why it was so appropriate for the theme of Stoic Week 2016 to be love. The ancient Stoics were, of course, philosophers. To be a philosopher is to be lover of wisdom. Thus, Stoics love wisdom. Indeed, the Stoics argued that our special human ability is reason, and the perfection of reason is virtue. The Stoics further reasoned that a virtuous person has a well-toned soul. Again, Stoic physicalism insists that the soul is a physical thing, not a non-physical phantom as the Platonists believed. The virtuous person, the Stoics believed, has a well-toned, well-conditioned soul, and this psychic disposition is what they called wisdom. Thus, the Stoic wise person—the sage—is possessed of the virtue of wisdom. This wisdom is then applied to all the different spheres of activity in life. Wisdom applied to our appetites for food, drink, and sex is what is called temperance. Wisdom applied to our interactions with other people and the distribution of resources is what is called justice. Wisdom applied to what we ought to be confident about and what we ought to be cautious about is what is called courage. So, then, how is a modern stoic to think about love?

The Stoic Week 2016 theme of love invokes quotations from Marcus Aurelius about benevolence and kindness towards others and treating others fairly and impartially. This is a decent understanding of how Marcus thinks about justice. But the Stoic Week authors go astray when they present Stoic love simply in terms of justice. There are many different kinds of love. Philanthropy, the love of human beings, is only one of them. There is also our love of friends. The love we have for our friends is not modulated by concerns of justice. We give our friends gift and we are partial to them. There’s nothing wrong with our partiality for our friends. We do not violate justice by being partial to our friends. Nor do we violate justice by being even more partial to our closest loved ones, spouses, and children. This love for our spouses, domestic partners, and children is what most non-philosophers regard as “real love.” So it is disappointing that the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 make no mention whatsoever of how a Stoic loves his significant other, children, or parents.

Are there ancient Stoics who discuss the love of parents for their children? Most certainly. Epictetus, the slave turned famous teacher, says that once you have a child, it is no longer in your power not to love that child. The bond between parent and child is both natural and strong, and Epictetus recognizes this. Now Epictetus chose not to marry and have children. Instead, he devoted decades of his life to teaching Stoicism to students. Late in life Epictetus adopted an orphaned child and welcomed a woman into his home to help him raise and care for his adopted child. Was Epictetus derelict in his duty by not marrying and reproducing when in his prime? His master Musonius Rufus argues explicitly that people (including Stoics) have a duty to marry and beget LOTS of children for the good of the state and the good of the human race. So why didn’t Epictetus heed this advice of his teacher? Though we can only speculate, I will make bold to offer an explanation of this.

Epictetus argues that only the wise know how to love. He reasons as follows.

  1. People are earnest about bad things, or things that in no respect concern them, or good things.
  2. People are earnest neither about bad things nor about things that in no respect concern them.
  3. Hence, people are earnest only about good things. [From 1, 2, disjunctive syllogism]
  4. If one is earnest about a thing, then one loves that thing.
  5. Hence, people love good things. [From 3, 4, modus ponens]
  6. If one has knowledge of good things, then one knows how to love (good things).
  7. If one is unable to distinguish good things from bad things or from things that are neither, then one does not know how to love (good things).
  8. The wise person has knowledge of good things, bad things, and things that are neither.
  9. Hence, the wise person knows how to love (good things).
  10. The non-wise are unable to distinguish good things from bad things from things that are neither.
  11. Hence, the non-wise do not know how to love (good things). [From 7, 10, modus ponens]
  12. Therefore, only the wise person knows how to love (good things). [From 9, 11]

This argument is remarkable. Epictetus believes that unless you know that the only truly good thing is virtue, that the only truly bad thing is vice, and that everything else (life, death, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, political clout, political powerlessness, health, illness, etc.) is neither good nor bad, then you have no power to love. This is because the only truly lovable thing is goodness, virtue. Non-Stoics who think they love pleasure are mistaken, because pleasure is not a good thing. To think you love beauty is a mistake, since one can only be earnest and take seriously virtue, moral integrity, wisdom. To successfully love, Epictetus argues, is to love good things. Fame, celebrity, health, beauty, and wealth are all fleeting baubles, according to the Stoics. The only truly admirable thing is virtue (wisdom). The only thing that wins the respect of a Stoic is honesty, integrity, courage, justice, temperance, and all the other names we have for the one state of mind called ‘virtue’ or ‘wisdom.’

So, then, this bring us back to the love of others. Many non-stoics believe that the way to love others is to improve their material conditions. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Liberate captives. Treat the sick. Empower the oppressed. (Or: teach the hungry how to fish.) While these acts of humanitarianism are certainly dictated by a Stoic’s commitment to justice, they are motivated by benevolence, kindness, and/or a sense of fairness. Social justice goes hand in hand with philanthropic benevolence. But the virtue of benevolence is directed toward all human beings, not any one or few specific individuals.

Were there individuals that Epictetus loved prior to his adoption of the orphaned child? I think the evidence is clear. These were the individuals sitting in his classroom. Epictetus loved his students. He loved his students as their teacher and mentor. I suggest that in teaching them Stoicism, he believed that he was best equipping them to pursue wisdom and become virtuous. Only by gaining wisdom could his students learn what was good, what was bad, and what was neither. Only by becoming Stoics could they develop the ability to love good things. Thus, the way that Epictetus loved others was by teaching them the Stoic wisdom they had to gain in order to be able to love others too.

Whether we love others and treat them in loving ways is up to us. Whether others love us and treat us in loving ways is up to them, not us. Again, we discover another gem of Stoic wisdom from Epictetus: Love others freely. Don’t make your love of them conditional upon them loving you. What is lovable in others is their goodness, honesty, candor, sincerity, generosity, courage, perseverance, faithfulness, decency, integrity, kindness, affection, warmth, and fairness. Virtue is to be taken very seriously. Virtue is lovable. Epictetus tried to model to his students being serious about becoming the very best person he could possibly become. That is what good role models do. The best teachers inspire us to become better persons. Thanks to his student Arrian writing down the lectures he heard from his master Epictetus, we modern stoics can continue to be inspired by the great teacher Epictetus even today. And while the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 do a good job of featuring generally apt quotations from Marcus Aurelius and to a lesser extent Seneca and Musonius Rufus, it’s unfortunate that the Discourses of Epictetus were so neglected as a source of Stoic wisdom on this year’s theme of love.

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine


Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report 

by Tim LeBon

cropped-socrates-v1 2

This report gives the demographics for Stoic Week 2016 which took place between October Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October. Future reports will follow providing analysis of how taking part affected well-being.

The headlines are:

  • The ratio of males to females was 66% to 33%.
  • Over 43% of respondents are from USA.
  • The majority of respondents have never participated in Stoic week before.
  • Less people completed the questionnaires compared to last year (1798 down from 2503) although the numbers registering for Stoic Week actually increased (3365 up from 3080).

Below are 5 tables summarising all the facts and figures and 2015 comparisons


Gender Total % 2015 %
Male 1183 66 65
Female 602 33 34
didn’t say 13 1 1

Table 1: Stoic Week 2016 by gender


Age Total % 2015 %
over 55 234 13 17
46-55 314 17 18
36-45 382 21 23
26-35  455 25 25
18-25 394 22 16
Under 18 17 1 2

Table 2: Stoic Week 2016 by age


Location Total   % 2015 %
USA 774 43 42
Australasia  85 5 5
Canada 215 12 16
Europe (outside UK)) 310 17 15
UK 255 14 17
Africa 10 1 1
Asia 51 3 2
South & Central America 54 3 1
Other 36 2 2

 Table 3: Stoic Week 2015 by geographic location


Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Total % 2015 %
0 1389 77 78
1 253 14 16
2 101 6 4
3 48 3 2
4 12 1 0

Table 4: Stoic Week 2016 : Previous participation


Knowledge of Stoicism Total     % 2015 %
None 202 11 13
Novice 594 33 32
I know a bit  705 39 38
I know quite a bit but not an expert 288 16 16
Expert 13 1 1

Table 5: Stoic Week 2016 : Self-rating of knowledge of Stoicism


Whilst the overall picture is not unhealthy, here are some questions to consider – answers please in the comments section!

  • Why does Stoic Week seem to appeal more to men? How can we get the gender ratio more equal?
  • Can Stoic Week spread to other geographical areas? What would facilitate this?
  • Is it realistic to expect people to participate more than once in Stoic Week? If so, would changing the materials help?
  • What should we base the handbook on next year? We’ve had Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should it be based more on Seneca? Or is it fine as it is?

Let us know your thoughts.