Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not mean that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.

The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.

The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.

This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.

First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.

Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.

How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.

Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.

This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.

What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.

Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.

I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.

Further Reading

A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.

Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.

Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).

 

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

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

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems? by Julia Annas

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems?

by Julia Annas

hercules and hydra

Stoic ethics can be more or less off-putting depending on which aspect of it you encounter, or encounter first. Many people responded to Admiral Stockdale’s reliance on Epictetus to survive captivity and torture, and similar accounts can draw people into Stoic ethics in a way that gets them to see what is inspiring about it. Stoicism is sometimes encountered by people who are suffering, or in terrible circumstances, and they come to see how Stoicism can help them come through without being irreparably broken.

But many of us are not in terrible circumstances, and we hope to enter Stoic ethics through the gate of their account of virtue. We want to be better people and to live better lives, and we ask how the Stoics see this project. And we run into a problem. Stoic accounts of virtue are notoriously abrasive and off-putting to someone who is not already committed to finding it worthwhile to explore Stoicism. The Stoics have a number of theses about virtue which are basic to their ethics, and they are notoriously repellent to the non-Stoic. This is not just our problem as citizens of the 21st century; this is a feature of Stoicism that was found off-putting in the ancient world.

Firstly, for Stoics virtue is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness. To understand this, of course, we have to become aware that what the Stoics mean by virtue and by happiness are not what immediately springs to mind for us. Happiness is not a feeling or a mood, as so many recent books on happiness assume. It is eudaimonia, the flourishing of a whole life. Happiness, in this sense of eudaimonia, is our final end, the ultimate expression of our attempt to live a good life and to appreciate good values. So, if virtue is necessary and sufficient for that, it’s clearly the most important thing for us to be thinking about and trying to achieve in our lives. We come to Stoicism wanting to find out the right way to achieve happiness, eudaimonia , because this – how best to live – is the entry point to ethical reflection in the ancient world. We are told that what is necessary and sufficient for that is for us to become virtuous. So we turn eagerly to find what virtue is, since it is all-important for us to become virtuous.

What do we find? The Stoics tell us that there are no degrees of virtue; everyone is either virtuous or vicious, and given their demands on virtue, we are all vicious. Only the sage – the completely virtuous person – is virtuous, and, given that the sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix, we are all stuck with being vicious. If we’re not already Stoics we don’t really know even how to process these ideas. Why do the Stoics apparently make it so difficult for us to understand; why are the main things they say about virtue so much at variance with common-sense and ordinary beliefs?

The Stoics aren’t elitist about virtue; they think it is open to anyone in any walk of life. But this makes it even odder that their views about virtue are so off-putting, especially to ordinary people without philosophical training. We might start to wonder whether they really care about non-Stoics becoming Stoics. There is a contrast here with the Epicureans, who thought that becoming an Epicurean was urgent for non-Epicureans. A 2nd century CE Epicurean called Diogenes in the city of Oenoanda (in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) was distressed that his fellow-citizens’ lives were going so badly and unhappily, and so from ‘love of humanity’ he set up, at vast expense, a massive stone inscription, like a large permanent billboard, so that people using the market to shop and meet would have to encounter the truths of Epicureanism, which he was convinced would cure them. (Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 3)

By comparison the Stoics seem to wait for us to come to them, and then to be willing to accept off-putting theses if we are seriously trying to become virtuous through Stoicism. We lack helpful Stoic discussion that helps us much if at all by way of easy introduction to Stoic ideas about virtue. And this is disconcerting. Thoughts about virtue and happiness are the starting point for ethical theories in general in the ancient world, and increasingly today many people find that they want to know what an ethical theory has to tell them about happiness and virtue.

So it is alarming to find, when you are aiming to become a Stoic, and to understand what is required of you, that:

  • There are no degrees of virtue
  • There are no degrees of vice
  • There is no state between virtue and vice; if you are not virtuous you are vicious.
  • Only the sage is virtuous. But
  • The sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix;
  • So, we are all vicious.[1]

To start with, there are no degrees of virtue. Either you are virtuous, or not; there is no such thing as being more virtuous or less virtuous. So, despite having rethought your life so as to give more money, more time and more energy to good causes, you are no more generous than you were. Despite your rethinking your priorities and your best efforts to live up to this, you are no more honest, brave or tactful than you were. Only when you become completely generous, honest, brave, tactful and have all the rest of the virtues in the right way will you become virtuous, that is, generous, honest, brave and tactful.

Nothing, it appears, could be more off-putting to a beginner; it doesn’t matter how hard, and how intelligently, you try, you will still be no braver, more tactful or whatever other virtues you aim for. (The beginner can be told that there are other reasons, elsewhere in the system of Stoic philosophy, for accepting this. For example, virtue requires knowledge, and knowledge does not, for the Stoics, come in degrees. But this hardly helps the beginner focus on becoming virtuous.) Since your best efforts don’t make you any more virtuous, why bother?

The flip side of this is no more encouraging. We ordinarily believe that most of us may be mediocre or even moderately bad, but not as bad as Hitler or Stalin, but the Stoics insist that there are no degrees of vice. They express this idea by appealing to cases where difference is not a matter of degree. A stick is either straight or it is crooked. (Diogenes Laertius, 7, 127) Blind puppies are just as blind the day before they see as they were at birth. (Plutarch, comm. not. 1063 A-B) If you are underwater in the sea, you drown whether you are an arm’s length from the surface or 500 fathoms down. (Plutarch, op.cit.) When you are not yet at your destination, you are not there, however far or near you are to it. (Diogenes Laertius 7, 120) With vice the claim that there are no degrees may seem even more offensive than with virtue. We may put up with being told that neither we nor anyone else is virtuous, but the levelling claim about vice leaves us wondering what the difference is between us and people that are extremely bad. Again, we find ourselves wondering what the point is of trying to improve, if however hard we try we are still no less vicious than the worst people.

Both of these off-putting theses can, however, be explained in ways that do make good sense. The idea that there are no degrees of virtue does not mean that there cannot be degrees of progress towards virtue. And the Stoics do believe this, since they talk about the person who is making progress in living better, the prokopton or ‘progressor’. When you reorder your priorties and try to live up to your new commitments, you are progressing towards virtue, and there can certainly be degrees of that. You may have progressed a little, or a lot. Given this, the Stoics can after all make distinctions among people who are progressing. We do this all the time, of course. Generally this takes the form of comparing our own progress with that of others, usually in a way which is unfavourable to ourselves: we find others to be better than we are in a variety of ways.

We look up to people who are braver, or more generous, or just nicer to others, than we are, and we are inspired to be like them in those ways. (We also compare ourselves favourably with others, since we can usually find people around us who are stingier or more cowardly than we are; but this obviously does nothing for our own ethical progress – it is likely to be counter-productive for that.) The Stoics are quite aware of the way we improve ethically by aspiring to become more virtuous than we are. Their theory allows for this – we just have to be careful how we conceptualize what we do. We are not becoming more virtuous, or increasing in degrees of virtue; we are progressing by degrees towards virtue, which is itself not a matter of degree.

Similarly we can draw distinctions between people even if there are no degrees of virtue. Strictly speaking, Plato was no more virtuous than the horrible tyrant Dionysius. But Plato at least was improving, whereas Dionysius was in a hopeless condition in which he could not improve. (Cicero, De Finibus 4, 56) Someone near the surface of the sea is more easily rescued than someone at the bottom. Someone near their destination has less distance to traverse than someone setting out. Distinctions that we make by talking about some people being more or less virtuous than others can be made in other ways. So the Stoics are not just flouting common sense; they can explain how their position is compatible with views we have about virtue and vice. But we still haven’t seen the point of the claim that there are no degrees of virtue.

The Stoics are insisting that virtue is an ideal that we work towards, not an endeavour that we have already made strides in. An ideal can inspire us to aspiration even if it is not something we can ever achieve, and it’s important for the Stoics that we think of it that way. Talking of virtue and vice having no degrees, and no state between them, emphasises the point that virtue is a state we are always trying to reach; there is no point when we can say, ‘Well, that was hard work, but I’m finally there; now I’m brave (generous, tactful or whatever).’

Becoming virtuous is life-long learning. This is an idea that we may find disconcerting; we almost certainly don’t want to think that we have to go on becoming virtuous right up to the day we day. The Stoics are aware of this, and want to counter it: by denying that virtue has degrees they keep right in front of our eyes the point that Stoicism is a continuing way of life. It’s not a Teach Yourself programme, where you teach yourself a subject which you then know, like learning a language, and then move on to do something else, fortified by what you have learnt. It’s a way of life which is a way of continually being and improving yourself. The initially off-putting views about virtue keep us aware of this.

It’s still hard to make sense of probably the most off-putting claim of all: only the sage is virtuous. (‘Sage’ has a lot of unfortunate suggestions, but at least it is gender-neutral, so is an improvement on the former use of ‘the wise man’ or ‘the virtuous man’.) When we put this together with the point that the sage is rarer than the mythical phoenix, we see that we are all vicious, the noblest among us as much as the thugs. The sage is the person who is completely virtuous, and this is a stage that none of us will reach. The early Stoics make things worse for us here by dwelling, frequently and prominently, on the thought that it is only the sage who is really what other people only think they are. The sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only general, the only money-maker and so on. Only the sage knows how to rule like a king, cure like a doctor, command like a general, and so on. Our sources for early Stoicism repeat and emphasise this point, sometimes at length.

This claim was widely ridiculed in the ancient world. Ancient authors point out that it is peculiar, to put it mildly, that the sage is the only king when he has no political authority, the only rich person when he is in rags, and so on. Plutarch, a 2nd century CE philosopher, tells us about a Spartan king, Eudamidas, who took a plain blunt approach. When a Stoic claimed that only the sage was a general, the king remarked that he couldn’t believe that, coming from someone who had never been in battle. (Sayings of Spartans 220e). Moreover, if the sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only lawgiver, cook, carpenter, rich man and so on, he will have to be absurdly omnicompetent. To function in all these ways, he or she will have to have the practical knowledge of how to cure people, cook food, manage money, make laws and so on. Lucian, a 2nd century CE satirist, claims, in his dialogue Philosophies for Sale, that the Stoic sage knows everything . So he will know how to cook, how to build, how to cure and so on – So Stoicism is a real bargain! (Philosophies for Sale 20).

The sage is the ideal virtuous person, as already noted – so aren’t the Stoics just taking over the idea of the virtuous person whom we should emulate? Sometimes we find this idea in ancient writers. We find it, for example, in Cicero, when he is setting out Stoic ethics in the person of Cato, in the third book of his work On Moral Ends. The Stoic sage, says Cato, is dignified and noble, and has a character which is constant. He is more truly a king than King Tarquin, the last king of Rome, driven out for his pride and cruelty. He is more truly rich than Marcus Crassus, a billionaire contemporary with Cicero who was notorious for his indifference to ethics in making money. (On Moral Ends III 75-76.) It looks as though the sage is brought in to make the point that we should aspire to be virtuous in what we do, rather than proud and dishonest. But this doesn’t get the sage right. The sage is, after all, the only king, and by comparison even the best king of Rome would not really be a king. He is the only rich person, and by comparison even the most honest and scrupulous billionaire would not really be rich. We are left with the full off-putting force of the Stoic theses about virtue.

Some passages about the sage suggest that the idea is that as we improve in virtue we get to be more reflective about our activities, and so we acquire expertise about things that we previously did just as a matter of routine. Money-making, for example, and household management are regularly treated by Plato and Aristotle as something beneath the intellectual level, and notice, of the sage. The Stoics, however, throw out an intellectual bridge, claiming that running a household is not just a sub-theoretical knack, but ‘a state both theoretical and practical concerning what is advantageous for the household’, and that money-making is ‘experience of acquiring money from the right sources…..in collecting, preserving and spending money with a view to being well off’. So ‘only the virtuous person is skilled at money-making, recognizing what the sources are from which one should make money, and when and how and up to what point.’ (Arius 11d) Here a practical skill is intellectualized as a way of showing how its correct performance might indeed be one which requires the achievement of virtue. There are other passages to the same effect. It turns out, for example, that running a symposium and managing a love affair can both be described as virtues in terms of their intellectual basis. (Arius 5b9; see 5b12 for prophecy and being a priest)

This idea of intellectualizing roles applies fairly well to roles like king, general or carpenter, where there is a skill which can be performed well or badly, and the virtuous person will perform it better, because she has greater understanding of what is important, and the values involved in the situation. There are other cases, though, where this move is not available, for example the claim that only the sage is free. The sage is free, we are told, in the true sense of freedom, for only he has achieved true internal freedom, which is freedom from the passions and from the pull of conventional motivations. Here there is no attempt to provide a bridge from the everyday notion. The same is even more obviously true of the claims that only the sage is beautiful, tall and strong, even if by ordinary standards he is ugly, small and weak. He is rich, even if in rags, a king, even if without power, and so on. (Diogenes Laertius VII 122, Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, esp. 16-25, Arius 11g,k,m)

What is going on when we are told that only the sage is free, rich and so on? The Stoic idea of ethical improvement focuses, more than some other ethical theories do, on improvement as a whole. Virtue requires more than being good in one area of your life while letting things slide in another. You have to have the right kind of understanding of value over your whole life to be virtuous. (This is one reason why it is so difficult.) The virtuous person has an understanding of what in life is valuable, with the crucial insight that the value of virtue is different from the value of everything else, and that it should always take priority.

In one sense this understanding will be the same in everyone – it is the understanding which enables the virtuous person to discern what is right in each situation and to act accordingly. But in another sense the understanding will be different for everyone, because we live in a variety of societies and cultures. Some of us have different roles from others – we are teachers, firefighters, plumbers, professors and so on. And each of us has our own individual aspects of personality. So each of us will embody and express the understanding that the virtuous person has in our own situation and context, in our own roles and in a way influenced by our own personality traits. The Stoics say that the virtuous person will do everything well, as an expert musician plays all pieces well. (Diogenes Laertius VII 125, Arius 5b10). Virtue is the same in everyone in the way that the musician’s skill is the same skill in all her performances. But each performance is of a different piece of music.

When we take this into account, we can see that for the Stoics the sage is an ideal, but can’t be thought of as a single figure to imitate or emulate. The sage is the only king, but this is no use to me if I’m not a king; I’m a doctor. But the sage is the only doctor too, so I should emulate the sage – that is try to become virtuous, as a doctor. Kings and doctors have to aim to become virtuous – to take virtue as their ideal to pursue – in their own ways of life. But they are both taking the sage as an ideal – that is, trying to be virtuous, aiming continually to improve and to live better.

So the sage doesn’t have to be the person who knows this and that and the other thing, who knows what a doctor knows and what a plumber knows and what a general knows. The sage is the ideal of having a single kind of knowledge – the understanding which the virtuous person has. But this will be embodied differently, and so take different forms, in different people, depending on their role, situation and personality. So the Stoics keep insisting that the sage is the only king, doctor and so on – it’s a way of pointing out that whether you’re a king or a doctor your ideal is to be a virtuous king, a virtuous doctor and so on.

The sage is an ideal, but a more demanding and austere ideal than other ethical theories have. Virtue is all or nothing, not something we can have degrees of. We have to achieve it as a whole, and hence over our whole life. It’s a total transformation, one which makes all virtuous people share the same understanding in their different contexts. This is another way in which the Stoics underline the demandingness of their ideal, and the distance we are from it. We tend to think that we are pretty good people because in some areas of life we are good – generous, say, while conveniently forgetting that in other areas we aren’t – we’re disloyal, say. No, say the Stoics, you are virtuous (or not) as a whole.

So: is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems? I’ve tried to show that it is not elitism, or perversity, or not caring about attracting people to Stoicism, which makes the Stoics talk about virtue the way they do. They want to alert us from the start to the fact that Stoicism is demanding. It’s a way of life, and for it to do you any good it has to be the way you live, the way you live all of your life, not something you can treat like a self-improvement course. We might think that they should have had better PR to attract people to Stoicism. But they thought that you should clearly see, right from the start, that you’re being asked to transform your whole way of life. Why pretend that it’s easy?

[1] I’m not here going to follow up the thesis that all the vices and all the virtues are equal. Discussing this would require going into more technical Stoic discussion than would be helpful here. Also, I take it that this thesis doesn’t introduce a distinct way of being off-putting from the ones I do look at.

This post is the transcript of Professor Annas’ presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of the conference can be viewed here (Dr. Annas’ presentation begins at 28:25)

Julia Annas is Regents Professor in Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She previously taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She was the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published several books and many articles on ancient philosophy, especially ancient ethics, and in recent years has also published on contemporary virtue ethics.

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine by Eric O. Scott

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine

by Eric O. Scott
justice statue

This past weekend I had the good fortune to attend “the largest gathering of Stoics in the history of the world”—Stoicon 2016, held in New York City. The conference was stimulating and thrilling in many ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary talks, parallel sessions, and the opportunity to meet a number of people whom I knew through their books and/or the online community. A special thanks to the generosity of Ryan Holiday, moreover, for giving every single conference participant a free hardback copy of his new devotional book, The Daily Stoic!

Last weekend, however, was also a moment where I became acutely aware that the modern Stoic community can do much better in the way that it approaches the topic of Justice.

 

The Need for Justice

We Stoics always have to navigate a fragile balance when we present our ideas to the world. Many of our most powerful and appealing psychological tools revolve around accepting events that happen and recognizing that they are ultimately outside of our control. The reason that Stoicism is relevant to such a large and diverse array of people today is exactly because it purports to offer a powerful solution to almost any source of distress: “retire into yourself” (Meditations, 7.28).   We are perpetually at risk, however, of having our doctrine of “indifference” toward externals misconstrued for a “neglect” of externals. The benefits of inner peace speak for themselves—but the extreme emphasis that our philosophy puts on personal virtue as an “inner citadel” puts us in an understandably delicate position, politically speaking.

Any speech extolling the merits of inner peace and apatheia goes wrong—and in fact becomes positively toxic—the moment that the audience begins to suspect that our school advocates for complacency in the face of social injustice. A great deal of the world’s harms are not inevitable, and in fact are immanently preventable (fate permitting), if only we humans could get our act together.   If Stoicism teaches that we should be passive toward these fixable harms, or if our school is quick to “blame the victim” for their own unhappiness while simultaneously ignoring injustice, then our philosophy is immoral, and ought to be immediately rejected as such.

Of course, Stoicism teaches no such thing! To the contrary, we believe that no man or woman can be moral (or Happy) unless they work tirelessly for the benefit of all humanity. Justice and Benevolence must be a guide to all of our actions—“any action of yours,” in fact, “which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart!” (Meditations, 9.23).   We do not believe that our doctrine of inner peace is mutually exclusive with Justice in any way whatsoever. “It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind,” says Epictetus, “the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible” (Discourses, 2.5.9).

People are right to be concerned, though, that Stoicism might teach an inappropriately shallow sort of fatalism. The more unilateral emphasis we put on the inner fortress as a shield against injustice, the more rational reason people have for fearing that we are abandoning our natural responsibility to work diligently in defense of the downtrodden. Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I believe that contemporary Stoics need to be absolutely unambiguous about the fundamental moral imperatives that are essential to our ethics. Say it loud and clear: the way that we treat each other—and the way that we allow others to be treated by our society—is not “indifferent” at all. Stoicism is a system of virtue ethics, not only therapy, and as such it demands that each practitioner strive to be a force for Justice and Benevolence at all levels of society.

 

The Need for Charity

There is a little anecdote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, where we find Zeno confronting a man who had been strongly critical of Antisthenes. Zeno apparently felt that the man had not done his due diligence as a critic, and he reprimanded the man strongly for it: “are you not ashamed,” he said, “to pick out and mention anything wrong said by Antisthenes, while you suppress his good things without giving them a thought?” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.19). Donald Robertson likes to retell this story and interpret it as illustrating a strong normative principle: if we are going to criticize a person or school, we ought to engage the best of their thinking along with the worst, and to acknowledge what their ideas have to teach us about virtue. This is an idea that philosophers sometimes refer to as the “principle of charity.” Far from prohibiting or undermining criticism, the principle of charity is supposed to make us better, more just, and more incisive critics of flawed ideas.

Threading the needle of Stoic Justice becomes doubly difficult when a Stoic tries to go about offering advice to activists about how they can better run their movement. In many cases, criticism of activism effectively amounts to telling victims of hardship, injustice, and oppression how we think they ought to bear their plight more virtuously. This is a very difficult thing for anyone to do in a fair and sensitive way—it requires a lot of research and a generous dose of the principle of charity. It is virtually impossible to achieve, moreover, if it is not clear whether you actually, in fact, care about the injustice in question in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of can of worms that Bill Irvine stirred up at Stoicon 2016 in his presentation on what he has called “insult pacifism.” If you missed the talk, it closely follows a post he published the previous week on the Oxford University Press blog, titled “How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech?

Irvine’s central point is that we can teach people to be resilient to injustice. Insults don’t need to be emotionally damaging, and when we judge them to be inherently bad and horrible, we end up suffering unnecessarily. Channeling the advice of the Stoics, Irvine argues that a stance of non-retaliation, or of “receiving these people’s insults as jokes” (as Seneca puts it in De Constantia), can not only protect us from emotional disturbance, but can in fact send a highly effective normative signal: “on failing to provoke a rise in his target,” says Irvine, “an insulter is likely to feel foolish.”

I am completely on board with the notion of insult pacifism. I was raised to value the principle that evil is best repaid with kindness (Romans 12:20), and “that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). I’m delighted at Irvine’s effort to popularize similar Stoic ideas in his books and elsewhere.   In my own personal practice, in fact, I am currently trying to use pacifism toward automotive insults to counter my own tendency toward road rage: pacifism comes highly recommended when you are barreling down the highway in a 3,000 pound projectile!

Irvine’s manner of treating the topic leaves a great deal to be desired, however, and I fear that it only reinforces the notion that Stoics are disinterested in Justice in general, and that modern Stoicism, far from taking a charitable interest in contemporary activism, is indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of marginalized people.

 

Irvine’s Criticism of Social Justice

First, Irvine’s Stoicon presentation is lopsided in that he is largely silent on the need for Stoics to work for Justice at all—a weakness that is shared by his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t (Oxford University Press). But his approach indeed becomes “worse than silence” when he chooses to frame his talk as a one-sided criticism of contemporary social justice activism.

In the chapter of his book titled “Societal Responses to Insults”—which could have included a discussion on how we can work to make the world a better, more Just place for everyone—Irvine opts only to zero in on what he calls the “political correctness code” that emerged in the 1970’s and has since, in his opinion, gotten way out of hand. “If Stoic philosopher Epictetus had been alive to watch the rise of hate speech laws, and, more generally, the political correctness movement,” concludes Irvine, “he would have shaken his head in disbelief. According to him, the best way to spare people the pain of being insulted is not to change the world so that they never feel insults; it is instead to change people so that they are, in effect, immune to insults” (p. 182).

Now, there is plenty worth criticizing when it comes to activism on college campuses and society more broadly. Whatever nuances may be involved, I don’t for a moment pretend that all of the widely publicized cases in which students have inappropriately stifled free speech, inhibited their own exposure to challenging ideas, or capriciously assaulted the academic freedom of university professors in the name of “safe spaces” are defensible (if this specific issue is of relevance to you, I encourage you to have a look at the 102-page report that PEN America released this week; a short summary can be found here). I myself accept the Stoic view that anger is always irrational and vicious—a position which, if I’m not careful, easily gets me into hot water with the activist community!

The problem is not that Irvine has criticized these abuses of popular social justice ideas, or even that he apparently finds the concept of microaggressions to be useless (though, personally, I would implore him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater). Rather, the problem is that, in the same way that he has approximately nothing to say in defense of Justice despite our school’s well-known reputation for a shallow fatalism, Irvine chooses to show no sympathy—and instead only active contempt—for the fundamental concerns that motivate activism.

For contrast, I invite you to have a look at the nuanced criticism of trigger warnings that Massimo Pigliucci wrote last year—which delved headlong into similarly sensitive waters, but only served to spark a very productive and cordial conversation among a diverse readership. I think it forms an exemplary model of how Stoics can treat such difficult topics while remaining true to Zeno’s advice, and while making it clear that we do care deeply about Justice.

Irvine, meanwhile, admits that he is “puzzled” by the surge in concern over social justice issues on college campuses. He is perplexed that students feel “humiliated and even downtrodden” by the behavior of their peers, when in previous decades these issues were not very high in the public consciousness. Rather than engaging the many complex reasons that these students and other activists might give for their societal concerns, Irvine chooses to blanketly suggest that the systemic injustice so many are working to dismantle is simply a product of the imagination of feeble-minded youths: the infamous “hypersensitivity” of the activist. He lays the blame for the most recent round of sensitivity in efforts to teach people to recognize microaggressions, which are “such will-o’-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them.” And the idea of microaggressions, he believes, is motivated—not by a concern that the longstanding systemic injustices that plague the United States are enabled and aggravated by deep and pernicious social norms—but by a singular and simple purpose: to find new and innovative ways to feel “insulted.”

In short, just as Zeno worried, Irvine opts to “pick out and mention” everything that is wrong with contemporary activism, but to “suppress the good things without giving them a thought.” He allows the imprudent behavior of a misguided minority of activists—behavior which otherwise very much deserves to be criticized—to completely overshadow and eclipse the efforts of those who are working seriously and virtuously to bring Justice to the world. This approach is incomplete, reactive, and cavalier, and it is doubly problematic in a talk that explicitly purports to give marginalized people advice on how best to cope with oppression and hate speech.

Pigliucci, meanwhile, also strongly rejects what he sees as the general thrust of student activism with regard to trigger warnings. But he takes care to acknowledge the legitimate concerns, where they exist, that motivate the various voices involved in the controversy. Faculty have a human and professional duty, he says, “to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns.” The result is not just a presentation that is less likely to offend, but one that comes across as better researched, commonsensical, and highly persuasive. These are the fruits of charity.

No doubt, Irvine only meant to use a few vicious behaviors by some college students as an illustrative example for his ideas. I’m sure that Irvine does believe that Justice is important (even if he chooses not to emphasize it for fear of exacerbating existing abuses in the activist community). Instead, however, his contribution to Stoicon gave a strong impression that modern Stoicism is indifferent or even hostile to the social concerns of historically marginalized groups and minorities—such as women, people of color, and LGBTs. Between his deafening silence on the moral imperative to Justice and his uncharitable characterization of activist’s concerns, his presentation lends credence to the erroneous idea that because Stoics believe that “true freedom is internal freedom,” they also believe “the external sort does not really matter.”

 

The Alienating Effect on Minorities

As Irvine delivered his pithy summary of campus activism, the predominantly white male audience laughed heartily—oblivious, it seems, to the sensitivity of the subject.

In the meantime, my wife—a black, female graduate student who is probably better educated in the scientific literature on microaggressions than both Irvine and 90% of the Stoicon audience—was having a very different social experience. She had come along to New York as a favor to me, to see what this philosophy is that I’ve become so interested in lately, and to learn about how it relates to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and REBT. But in that moment, she became acutely aware of one simple fact: it did not appear that ethnic minorities or their distinctive concerns are welcome or wanted, much less understood, in the modern Stoic community. “Alienating” is perhaps too weak a word to describe how she experienced Stoicon.

Stoicism is remarkable among the world’s major religio-philosophical traditions for its history of including the voices not just of emperors and wealthy statesmen but also of people with physical disabilities, mental illness, and chronic pain, victims of torture and PTSD, and prisoners serving life sentences. But when marginalized people encounter Stoicism today, do they come away believing that Stoicism has something to offer them? Or do they come away with the impression—right or wrong—that Stoicism is just one more system created by privileged people who are out of touch with the severity of the world’s fixable injustices?

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

 

Stoics for Justice

Stoicism is not a political theory. I agree with Pigliucci when he says that demanding a specific social vision from our school is a “category mistake.” To the contrary, he says that “one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better.”

I believe that Stoicism can do amazing things in the world of politics and philanthropy if we create a space for those “constructive dialogues” to take place—especially if those dialogues are rooted in Zeno’s principle of charity, and if they implement the Socratic model, in which we “stop at point after point, and make out what each person is willing to admit and what he denies” (Cicero, De Finibus, 2.3).

Moreover, I strongly suspect that the Stoic emphasis on the four cardinal virtues offers a uniquely powerful antidote to the pervasive miscommunication, polarization, and rancor that seemingly attend all political arguments. A Stoic is someone who cares about personal resilience and Temperance, but who also cares deeply about Justice. If we present ourselves this way, the world should never have reason to be confused on this point, or to doubt our support for both social justice (whatever exactly that means) and personal virtue. Our school teaches that virtue is one, after all, and that if we separate it into pieces, we destroy it.

In my opinion, Stoicon left something to be desired when it comes to getting these values across (notwithstanding Christopher Gill’s excellent and helpful presentation on the history of Stoic activism). But the conversations at Stoicon were neither the first nor the last word on the matter.

That is why, starting now, some of us are coming together to form a Facebook group called “Stoics for Justice,” as a space to push Stoic philanthropy forward and to find ways of working together to pursue the “common benefit” (as Marcus liked to say). Whether you prefer radical activism aimed at disrupting oppressive power structures, or whether you see your role in the world as focused on community building, education, and hands-on philanthropy—or, yes, even therapeutic training in becoming resilient to insults—you should be able to find a role to play in any hypothetical Stoic-led movement for Justice and Benevolence.

Come join us at Stoics for Justice and let us know how you think we might move Stoic philanthropy forward on the issues you care about most!

Thank you to Kristen de K., John Martin, Charmika Stewart, and Arianna Scott for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is interested in moral practice as a way of life, and in how secular and religious people can find common ethical ground (a question which Socrates raised in Plato’s Euthyphro). In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit by Leah Goldrick

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit

by Leah Goldrick

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The harsh truth is that many students around the world will never receive any philosophical education whatsoever. Philosophy is often viewed as a useless exercise reserved for scholars in ivory towers. Curricula for primary school aged children is rare, especially in the United States, and some academics question whether pre-adolescents are even capable of philosophical inquiry.

That assertion likely rests on the premise that philosophy is ultimately something more theoretical than practical. It overlooks the potential for discerning parents and caregivers to teach young children how a philosophical outlook can make their lives happy and meaningful.

Where can parents find a curriculum that might help kids to develop a strong character and deal with the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them? What if such a formula is a ready-made for introducing young children to philosophy at home, through hands on activities and dialogue?

The Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30–100) has been called the Roman Socrates. He was well known in antiquity for his integrity, as well as for having been the teacher of the more famous Epictetus. He was viewed as something of a radical for arguing that both girls and boys should receive the same early education:

That there is not one set of virtues for a man and another for a woman is easy to perceive. In the first place, a man must have understanding and so must a woman, or what pray would be the use of a foolish man or woman? Hence I hold it reasonable that the things which have reference to virtue ought to be taught to male and female alike; and furthermore that straight from infancy they ought to be taught that this is right and that is wrong, and that it is the same for both alike; that this is helpful, that is harmful, that one must do this, one must not do that. From this training understanding is developed in those who learn, boys and girls alike, with no difference.

Musonius’ pedagogy is based on Stoic ethical theory, which emphasizes virtue as the natural human state, and happiness the result of becoming good or having an excellent character, which is achieved through habitual preparation. He states:

How could we become prudent if we had come to recognize what things are truly good and what evil, but had never had practice in despising things which only seem good? Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.

Musonius thought that a sense of noble purpose instilled in the young, protects them from mistakes which make life unnecessarily difficult:

Well then, if it is necessary for both [boys and girls] to be proficient in the virtue which is appropriate to a human being, that is for both to be able to have understanding, and self-control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other, shall we not teach them both alike the art by which a human being becomes good? Yes, certainly we must do that and nothing else.

I believe that Musonius Rufus’ 2000 year old educational blueprint has a lot to offer astute modern parents and caregivers who wish to guide their young children towards a resilient and philosophical view of life.

One quick word of caution, though, before we delve into the specific lessons that a Stoic parent might teach. We as parents must set a good example. While it’s not about being the perfect parent, there is no use in teaching standards which we don’t at least try to live up to. Children are quick to spot hypocrisy, so don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes to your child. It facilitates the process of learning about virtue.

Drawing on Musonius’ apothegms which survived antiquity, we can derive some character-building exercises useful for laying the groundwork necessary for excellence. Musonius specifically suggests education based on each of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.

 

Justice:

Dikaiosune, meaning justice or integrity in ancient Greek, is a personality trait in Stoic ethics, rather than an external condition which is imposed on us, as in the modern sense. Justice is translated as empathy, fairness, kindness, regard for others, and philanthropy. Musonius has a good deal to say about the virtue which is helpful for guiding young children, including “To shun selfishness and to have high regard for fairness and, being a human being, to wish to help and to be unwilling to harm one’s fellow men is the noblest lesson, and it makes those who learn it just.”

He goes on to say:

Are not all these [material] things superfluous and unnecessary, without which it is possible not only to live but also to be healthy? Are they not the source of constant trouble, and do they not cost great sums of money from which many people might have benefited by public and private charity? How much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people. How much nobler than spending money for sticks and stones to spend it on men.

Look for creative ways to help children learn to value kindness and generosity over consumerism. Explain to your child that advertisements are designed to get their money. “Those five dollars you have in your pocket – they want that!” Explain that what is truly important is being kind and charitable when you can afford to be, rather than accumulating things you don’t really need. Consider having your child assist an elderly relative, pick out some of their toys to donate to a charity, or perhaps save some of their money to give to a good cause of their own choosing.

 

Determination:

Andreia is often translated into English as courage or determination. This virtue involves confidence, love of work, bearing hardships, and perseverance in things that we would like to avoid. This particular verse illustrates the importance of grit and working actively to provide for yourself:

Speaking generally, if one devotes himself to the life of philosophy and tills the land at the same time, I should not compare any other way of life to his nor prefer any other means of livelihood. For is it not “living more in accord with nature” to draw one’s sustenance directly from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source? Is it not more like the life of a man to live in the country than to sit idly in the city, like the sophists? Who will say that it is not more healthy to live out of doors than to shun the open air and the heat of the sun? Tell me, do you think it is more fitting for a free man by his own labor to procure for himself the necessities of life or to receive them from others?

You might encourage determination by having your child help with some reasonable activity for his or her age, such as cooking, chores, gardening, or yard work. Children can build confidence by acquiring these life skills. Gardening is especially educational for children since it involves delayed gratification, and occasionally, the lesson that hard work doesn’t always lead to a reward. Determination is required while seeding, watering and cultivating plants, and only later enjoying the food that you have grown. Emphasize the importance of working hard to take care of yourself and your household, and of persevering through any setbacks and disappointments that arise. Children should be praised for success, but also for conscientious efforts that are not successful.

 

Moderation:

Like other Stoics, Musonius Rufus valued moderation, or sophrosyne in ancient Greek. Sophrosyne consists of tempering your emotions, not eating too much, frugality, and carrying yourself with a certain poise and gravitas. Moderation is about knowing the middle in your activities, so to speak. On emotions, Musonius states:

Words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.

Children are little people with big emotions, and they need help dealing with them until they are old enough to exercise self-restraint. Parents should wait until children are calm to offer correction or help navigating strong emotional reactions. Suggest taking some deep breaths or a perhaps time out until the child is able to discuss the situation calmly. Ask your child whether, for example, their angry reaction was particularly helpful. Were their words hurtful to someone else? Did they make a good decision? What can they do differently in the future? If you as the parent overreacted or got angry, apologize and offer to do better next time.

Musonius also advised temperance with regards to food, asking:

What else is gluttony but intemperance in the matter of nourishment, causing men to prefer what is pleasant in food to what is beneficial? Exercising moderation and decorum in eating, demonstrating one’s self-control there first of all, not an easy thing to do, but one which requires much attention and practice.

Teach your children that eating is primarily about nourishing the body rather than enjoyment. You only get one body, and it’s important to keep it in good health. Speak with them about why certain foods are healthy and nutrient dense, and why others, primarily sugary and processed foods, are not. An occasional treat is ok, but we should encourage children to eat a variety of natural, healthy foods rather than habituating them to gorge on junk. You must set a good example of healthy eating yourself.

 

Wisdom:

The final Stoic virtue is Phronesis, prudence or wisdom. Wisdom is often defined as excellent character, good judgment, noble purpose, resourcefulness, and acceptance of things that we can’t control. Musonius suggests that each person’s nature should inform their sense of noble purpose in life and that we should live by method to develop excellence:

The best viaticum for old age…the very one that is best for youth too, namely to live by method   and in accord with nature. You would best understand what this means if you would realize that mankind was not created for pleasure…For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence;  consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue. Then, indeed, it is that he is justly praised and takes pride in himself and is optimistic and courageous, characteristics upon which cheerfulness and serene joy necessarily follow.

The method Musonius refers to may be the Stoic practice of evening review, which involves reflecting on what you did well or poorly each day, and figuring out how to improve your conduct going forward. At the dinner table, or at bedtime, talk with your child about how the day was for both of you, discussing what went well and what went badly. Did you miss any opportunities to do something good for your personal growth? It is helpful for children and parents alike to reflect on their own conduct, comment on their personal shortcomings, and brainstorm solutions for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something we acquire overnight; we are always working towards it.

“For only in this way will philosophy be of profit to anyone, if to sound teaching he adds conduct in harmony with it.” – Musonis Rufus

 

References:

Pritchard, M. (2002). Philosophy for Children. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/children/

Lutz, C. (1947) Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. Yale Classical Studies 10 3-147.

King, C. (2011) Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision by Travis Hume

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision

by Travis Hume

[Picture] Applying Stoicism, The First Decision - Stoicism Today Article

Four years ago, I was wholly dissatisfied with life. I held no strong wish to be wealthy, powerful, or well-known. I had no definitive dream to pursue besides bits and pieces of things I found interest in – activities that were more hobbies than pursuits. There appeared no clear means by which I could reinvigorate and point myself in the “right direction.” The basis for my pursuing my college education was little more than a guess of my “intended” career based on my personality traits, and a fear of a presumed, alternate lifetime of menial work.

In my own words at the time, I did not know who I was, what I was meant to be doing, and the means to discern an answer to either. I was adrift, basing all choices loosely on others expectations and a haphazard assumption of the progression of life. In rough order, I was “supposed” to attend college, get a career, buy a house, marry, have children, then retire. I knew no alternative paths, and believed there likely to be none. Concerning college, I was skeptical of others suggestions to “follow your interests and let the rest fall into place,” because of a seemingly equally pervasive counter-claim that “the point of college was to lead to a well-paying career.”

I possessed only rudimentary skills with math and the sciences, so my career options were (in my eyes) limited to the arts or psychology. My decision to pursue a bachelors in psychology was founded entirely on the premises that “I thought too much” and others “often seemed to open up to me.” I did not enjoy my studies, and struggled daily against thoughts that perhaps menial work was the only thing I was suited for. I thought often on my fate and the world I inhabited; whether my choices were meaningful or meaningless.

Early in my degree I was forced by general education requirements to take an intro to philosophy course. I held a negative bias against attending the course that I did not understand or try to explain. I did not believe that philosophy had any real-world application or meaning. I believed that I would hear “old men arguing over what is good or evil,” and “that I should just take their word for it.” It followed that that was my initial view of the lessons.

Each discussed philosopher and their respective theories seemed to blend together, with the exception of one: A philosopher named Epictetus. Epictetus, the professor said, claimed that virtue (being a good person) was the only truly good thing, and vice (being a bad person) was the only truly evil thing. Further, the philosopher claimed that money, power, and fame had no value in themselves, and would never bring a person peace or make them happy. These ideas deeply resonated with me, but conflicted with my long-held beliefs of “the way things were.” Reacting to the resulting discomfort, I raised my hand and asked “Wouldn’t it be really depressing to think like that all the time?” The Professor smiled, looked down, half-nodded, shrugged, and continued the lesson. Epictetus was rarely covered the remainder of the semester, and my brief, inner conflict subsided accordingly for a time.

The discomfort emerged again when, in a span wherein I had no outstanding personal needs, it occurred to me that I nevertheless felt dissatisfied. I meekly resisted uncomfortable thoughts that arose from this realization, countering “everyone feels this way sometimes,” “that’s just life,” asking myself “who else says otherwise?” Recalling Epictetus, I considered the possibility that I was mistaken about the nature of things. I was aware to some degree that my original thought process had been instilled by twenty-odd years of social and media influences. The alternative thought process that Epictetus proposed seemed immediately attractive, such as a potential belief that it is sufficient for happiness to do the right thing for its own sake.

“Perhaps there is something to philosophy that I’m not seeing,” I recall thinking. I searched for my intro to philosophy book and set a goal to read it in its entirety over the next several months. Notably, I avoided the section on Epictetus until the very end, for two reasons: A desire to give a “fair shake” to other philosophers’ theories, and a fear that the feeling originally drawn from listening to Epictetus’ claims would amount to little. Occasionally, I came close to recovering the desired “hit home” feeling while reading other philosophers works, but I did not succeed in matching it. I read Epictetus’s section last, comprised of a very brief history on his life and the Enchiridion, the “Handbook,” a highly condensed version of his lessons, The Discourses.

As I read the Enchiridion, the “hit home” feeling fully resurfaced. I found that I could not decisively argue against the claims that Epictetus was making, finding the internal rebuttal that “no-one believes or thinks this way” to be brittle and unconvincing. I asked myself: “What if it is really possible to think this way?” “Is it possible to apply something that is 2,000 years old?” According to Epictetus, it was, but only if I dedicate myself completely to incorporating the principles he described. I decided “if I am really going to apply this, I have to give it my all.”

From that day forward I sought to discern how Stoicism could be applied to my life, from moment-to-moment decision making, to responses to significant life events. Stoic principles became the foundation and driving force behind a new, earnest pursuit to involve myself in volunteering efforts for special needs organizations, participation in student government, residence life involvement, university representation work, engagement as a student leader, and commitment to a high-intensity exercise and nutrition regimen. Stoicism enabled me to discover and tap into a previously wholly unknown skill-set and self-sustaining source of drive. In time, I became determined to one day teach others in its use, so that others may benefit from it as I did.

The decision to take up Stoicism as a philosophy of life is not a light one. It tasks the bearer, daily, to assess, shape, and refine themselves. It does not serve as a cure-all, and cannot function as a band-aid – it is a craft, with the mind as its material, and the individual’s life as its testing grounds. In exchange, it provides a world-view in which little is taken for granted, and virtuous action is sufficient for enduring peace of mind, personal strength, and well-being. Drawing from Epictetus: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

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

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness by Mary Braun

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness

by Mary Braun

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The first time I tried Buddhist meditation, I immediately felt my trachea shrink. Only a tiny, insufficient bit of air could move in or out. To learn Buddhist meditation, I had listened to a podcast. It said to notice and accept without judgement whatever happened. So, that is what I did. I noticed and accepted that my attempt to meditate had the effect of breathing powdered cement.

Being the diligent sort, I tried meditating again the next day. Again I got to notice and accept without judgement the sensation of being strangled. And again the third day.

I could not understand what was going on. I knew that I could not be getting into any physiologic trouble within two breaths of sitting down. I knew I should be able to sustain myself in a seated position, breathing comfortably for several hours. Using all my Stoic techniques that I did not yet know were Stoic, I convinced myself that I would sit for ten breaths regardless of how sure I was that I would suffocate. Ten breaths in and out. This was all I could manage for several days. With more practice of living with insufficient oxygen, I could go for twelve breaths, then twenty. Eventually I got to the point where it no longer felt like the Buddha was Darth Vader using the Force to strangle me from a distance

At the time, I was fresh out of medical school. My new situation allowed some scary thoughts to arise, such as, “you probably just killed Mrs. Smith by increasing her insulin.” Buddhist meditation allowed me to gain distance from these thoughts, and the added distance improved my equanimity. Even after the disturbing, rookie doctor thoughts stopped coming around, I found Buddhist meditation helpful for my overall equanimity, so I continued it.

As happens with many Stoics, my Stoic practice developed spontaneously as a response to difficulties in my life. I was orphaned when I was seven, causing the life I had known to evaporate. In order to survive this loss, using my own intuition I developed some potent Stoic techniques for tolerating difficult situations. Unfortunately, I did not develop any techniques for avoiding difficult situations. Thus my personal brand of Stoicism carried me straight from suboptimal foster care right into a bad marriage.

A couple of decades and several life changes later, my boyfriend introduced me to Stoic philosophy. I was shocked to discover how much of my self-developed philosophy of living and coping techniques those ancient Greeks had known about all along. Thus, well into middle age, I started the formal practice of Stoic philosophy. Those ancient Greeks had a trick or two to teach me. My life got even better with their help.

At this point, I rely on my Stoic techniques when things start to go wrong inside my head. Earlier this week, a dying patient was reviewing his life with me. He told me about how much he valued the teamwork he and his wife shared to raise their children. It is a beautiful story and my eyes start to fill with tears. No problem so far. I am not expected to be without feelings, but if my feelings take control of my thinking, I cannot focus enough to be a good doctor.

As I listen to my patient talk about how raising their children deepened his relationship with his wife, I realize the one thing I wanted most out of life was to raise my kids well. I married and had children with a man who always had his way and whose method of childrearing I disagreed with. I could not figure out how to challenge his child rearing ideas or how to divorce him for twenty five years. Now I am too old to have more children, and will never get to have the experience of raising a child with a partner. I didn’t get a father; I only got a mother for seven years. Life couldn’t even deliver me a decent husband. I don’t ask for much. My eyes are dripping tears now and I realize that I am not paying any attention to my patient.

I need to pull myself away from the attraction of self-pity and into the present. Even if I had the skills to turn my feelings off, that would not be helpful; I need them in order to take care of my patient. I remind myself of the Stoic maxim: “It seemed so to you at the time.”

I have a sense that I am shoving my foot in a slamming door. If I can keep the door from closing, I can maintain control of myself, and my equanimity will be only briefly disturbed. It feels as though the force of emotion that wells up must be countered with something forceful. If what I bring to bear on it is not forceful, it will fail. Once the tears start forming, my Buddhist practice has nothing to offer me. Once I have started to lose my equanimity, my emotions flood me if I attempt to use Buddhist techniques. I have found that only Stoic techniques overcome the waves of emotion. Buddhist techniques feel more general and unfocussed.

What my Buddhist meditation practice does offer me is a decrease in my overall reactivity. When I am meditating regularly, I am less apt to be bothered by the unavoidable emotional events of life. This pattern has repeated itself a dozen or more times. I fall away from my meditation practice. I become more easily riled. I recognize this and resume meditating. Things improve until I fall away from my meditation practice again.

I asked people on the Facebook Stoicism Group about their experiences, and learned this is typical. The only consensus was that Stoic mindfulness practices are useful for the immediately present threat to equanimity, and Buddhist mindfulness practices help strengthen equanimity overall.

It is not surprising to me that Buddhist meditation works well for us on a daily basis because it has been honed over thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people. What is surprising to me is that it does not always work well for me and my Facebook friends. It surprises me that our Buddhist practice fails us in the pinch.

Why does Buddhism not include techniques like “Amor Fati” or negative visualization? Are these incompatible with the Buddhist philosophy? I do not know enough about Buddhism to answer that.

It seems to me that if there were a significant fraction of people whose needs were not being met by Buddhism, and that there were non-Buddhist techniques that met their needs, then Buddhism would have figured out how to respond to them. Either these techniques would have been incorporated into Buddhism or variant forms of Buddhism would have developed that were compatible with these techniques. I think it is more likely that the Buddhist techniques worked well enough for most people in the society in which Buddhism developed.

When I receive a disturbing impression and begin to formulate my response to it, Buddhism would say that I need to distance myself from that nascent thought and to examine it scientifically as I would someone else’s emotion. So far, this is very similar to the Stoic teachings on disturbing impressions as I understand them. Buddhism recommends that I next lean into the unpleasant emotion, to really examine it, get to know it and to realize that it will pass soon. This technique results in me wallowing in my emotion as I wait for it to pass. I become so attracted to it that I will grasp it firmly and become unable to function. Perhaps if I practiced this technique for decades, it would work, but the dying patient in front of me does not have decades while I grapple with my inner demons.

Stoicism offers me techniques that I can use right in the moment. Instead of leaning in, I counter the emotion with a maxim that I have prepared and have at the ready for whenever disturbing emotions arise. The part of my mind that is not wrapped up in my personal tragedy can recite Stoic maxims forcefully to counter the attraction of “I didn’t get and I want.” Stoicism gets between my mind and the idea it is about to grip onto and stays my grasp before it happens. For me, for the most disturbing impressions, this is what works.

There is an idea in neurology of over-learning. Things which one repeats thousands of times during one’s lifetime such as the ABC’s or the response to “how are you today?” are over-learned. When a person is demented and has lost the ability to think in any meaningful fashion, they can often still recite the ABC’s or other over-learned phrases. It seems to me that when I am caught by my deep feelings of deprivation and grief that I am like a demented person and can only say over-learned things. The little bit of my brain that is not sucked into the black hole of “I lack” can barely squeak out “It seemed so to you at the time.” If it can however, it breaks the spell and the attractiveness of the disturbing impression is diminished.

Another common observation is that Western culture has more emphasis on independence and individuality. It seems likely that this emphasis develops minds that are more likely to work with individually oriented techniques. Stoicism emphasizing my personal inner citadel rather than Buddhism emphasizing dissolution of myself feels more comfortable to me. When I am most in pain, standing steadfast against an ocean crashing against the seawall of my personal virtue makes me feel less pain whereas the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism simply frustrate me.

I find that Buddhist techniques on an ongoing basis combined with Stoic ones on an as needed basis work best for me to maximize my equanimity. I do not have a good explanation for why. I am more at peace, at rest and am flourishing more than ever before in my life.

This reminds me of another Stoic technique that I practice. It has a Buddhist analog: I am grateful.

 

Mary Braun, MD is a board certified hospice and palliative care physician. In her work she helps people make decisions about their medical treatment, helping them elucidate their values, preferences, and goals given the constraints of their medical situation and their limited time to live. Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism as a child. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She finds Stoicism essential, not only for her personal life, but also to avoid having patients, their loved ones, and herself becoming overwhelmed by the difficulties of taking care of the sickest and most fragile patients in the medical system.

'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.

 

Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.

 

Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.

 

Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.