Forgotten Realms? Stoic Philosophy’s Potential For Modern Secular Humanism by Sascha Rother

Studying philosophy should be of great value for all Secular Humanists. It represents a cultural endeavor to examine the human condition seeking answers to existential questions, answers that are not necessarily atheistic, but in many cases non-theistic or at least agnostic in their outlook. Moreover, philosophies, in particular those of Graeco-roman antiquity, offer elaborate world-views, showing people how to lead the “good and happy life”, which makes them especially attractive for adherents of a more practical Humanism.

It is therefore not surprising that, with the growing number of non-religious people, and people looking for ethical values outside (their) religion, there has been another renaissance of books written on that topic, further accompanied by talks, discussion groups in social media, as well as international activities (e.g. Stoicon). Although one can find offerings of this kind on almost every major ancient philosophical school (especially books on living), two schools nowadays particularly stand out: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Being a Secular Humanist myself, I came across Stoicism about three years ago, and reading the works of the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as well as partaking in Stoic Week, I became attached to that philosophical tradition. Since then, I have been trying to communicate the ideas of Stoicism within the Humanist community, but found only a few, interested in this matter. Those with whom I could discuss it in more detail seemed rather skeptical, or even opposed to Stoicism; instead, they quite fervently sided with Epicurus. Looking at material of various Humanist organizations, and books by various authors, I soon realized that this was not by all means a national peculiarity: Stoic philosophy seems to have relatively little place within the Secular Humanist community. In contrast, Epicurean thought seems to thrive, and citations of his philosophical works regularly appear in all kinds of Humanist publications.

In his “Very Short Introduction” to Humanism the philosopher Stephen Law even considers Epicurus to be virtually the greatest among the predecessors of modern (i.e. secular) Humanism, since he adopted Democritus´s atomic model, and because of his criticism of religion and its belief in gods. Interestingly, however, although he does mention Seneca and Cicero, he does not say anything about Seneca´s close affiliation to Stoicism, nor does he say anything about the influence of Stoic thought (at least in part) on Cicero´s philosophical and political works. Given the fact that communities of Secular Humanists are predominantly atheistic in their outlook – in fact many advocate the natural sciences as the best way to understand the human existence, and there is a strain of Humanists who propose what they call Evolutionary Humanism – could it then be that there is some bias in their reception of classic ancient philosophies?

To clarify things, it is not my aim to refute Epicureanism, nor do I want to persuade Secular Humanists not to read his works or those of related authors; as Seneca used to say, “there are a lot of good ideas” to be gained from it, so “one should not trouble themselves where they come from”. Rather, I want to encourage Humanists of all sorts to study Stoic philosophy, as still today it is one major root of our understanding what humanism is about. To do this, I will address the area of physics (without theology), theology, and ethics, putting Epicurean and Stoic perspective side by side, and see if there are misconceptions on both sides.

As I already mentioned, philosophers, such as Stephen Law, but also others (like German philosopher, author, and speaker of the secularist Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, Michael Schmidt-Salomon), argue that Epicurus is the primary source for modern Humanism due to his advocating the atomistic word-view of Democritus. Schmidt-Salomon goes even further attributing him almost first-hand authorship of evolutionary theory. Now, two questions may be asked here: firstly, whether from a scientific point of view these perspectives will entirely stand up to scrutiny; and secondly, whether Epicurus was indeed the only philosopher who could be regarded as an advocate of these ideas.

As to the first point, there is no doubt that the sources, which both Law and Schmidt-Salomon refer to, could be understood in a way that, from hindsight, allows for a modern scientific interpretation. In the letter to Herodotus phrases like “changes (i.e. in the matter) are achieved through rearrangement, adhesion, or dissolution of atoms” sound as if Epicurus is anticipating what we know as modern chemistry; however, other assumptions of Epicurus concerning the origin of atoms, their indestructability, as well as their proposed movements are likely to dampen such expectations.

This is still more the case if we look at Schmidt-Salomon´s claim that Epicurus in fact anticipated Darwin´s evolutionary theory. Again, although parts of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius refers to Epicurus natural philosophy and cosmology, can be read accordingly (“Survival of the stronger and more useful animals”), it lacks essential elements of Darwin´s theory, namely the common ancestry of all organisms. Quite to contrary, its vision of extinct (if we can attribute this term to him) animals shows a rather crude and, to a certain degree, almost mythological idea of what the selection process and genealogy of animals (and other organisms) might be like. This, however, is not surprising, as it took Darwin a five-years voyage, and more than 20 years of additional research, until he dared to publish what became to be the most important theory in modern biology.

To do Epicurus some more justice, we must add that Stoicism in this regard does not do any better. Even if we interpret the Stoic concept of the Heraclitian flow of the elements in an ecological fashion (i,e, the interdependency of organisms and matter exchange in ecological systems), something that John Sellars terms the Gaia hypothesis, we are certainly better off without it. Looking further into other areas of both, Epicurean and Stoic natural philosophy and cosmology (e.g. the nature of earth quakes), we perceive similar, but from a modern perspective crude ideas about how nature works. Finally, we have to acknowledge that over-extending the boundaries of philosophical arguments as deductive tools for natural phenomena will likely lead us astray.

So, if ancient theories (Epicurean and Stoic) about nature have only limited value for a proto-scientific, humanist world-view, can anything other be drawn from it? Again, in De Rerum Natura, and Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus, the reader is advised to study nature as a means to realize the rationality of nature and “thus to soothe the soul”. For the Stoics, nature as they perceived it held no miraculous components, as everything was governed by a rational principle, the Logos. So, if there was no need to worry about natural events, could there be any other value to studying nature? It seems that Seneca got it right, when in his treatise “On Earthquakes”(book 6 of his Naturales Quaestiones) he expressed the following:

[…] It is a worthy enterprise to investigate the causes behind these occurrences. What, you ask, will justify this effort? The reward will be to know Nature, and no prize is greater than this. The subject has numerous features which will prove useful, but the perusal of this material contains nothing more beautiful in itself than that by means of its own splendor it engages the minds of men and is cultivated, not for the sake of profit, but for the wonder it excites. […]

“Isn´t it wonderful?” Nothing other than this exclamation by the physicist Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot), who is often invoked by Secular Humanists of all sorts to emphasize the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of a world-view based on natural science, could have echoed more this statement by Seneca, which also alludes to the Stoic notion of humans being integrated parts of a greater whole.

If Epicureanism cannot rival Stoicism with regard to natural philosophy, maybe it will do so when we look at their theology? Wasn’t Epicurus an atheist per excellence, whereas Stoics were committed to a belief in a god/God? To be precise, Epicurus never denied the existence of gods. He actually had quite an exact idea what they were like (i.e. made of). And the Stoics?

Considering myself a 9.9 atheist on a 1-10 scale, I have to admit that it took me a while to get over this talking about God/god, especially when I started reading Epictetus; but also the question about a providential universe, as discussed from Seneca on to Marcus Aurelius might be potentially off-putting to strict non-believers. However, one must take into account that by “god/God” the Stoics did not understand a personal (monotheistic) Deity that intervenes into the affairs of human beings. Rather, the more or less equal use of the terms “god,” “logos,” cosmos,” “nature” suggests that everything, including the human condition, could be understood in a rational, yet overarching way.

The transcendent aspects of this might be attractive to some, whereas to others they are not. But do we necessarily have to buy it all? As we have already seen in the case of natural philosophy, we should be careful about any uncritical reception. Nevertheless, one might argue, Epicureanism and Stoicism were meant to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked for individual doctrines. I whole-heartedly disagree, and as I will now argue in the last part, we even have to do this for the sake of the most important part of Stoic philosophy, its ethics.

Both, Epicureanism and Stoicism were ethics-driven philosophies, meaning that physics (including theology), logic (i.e. cognition, thinking and language) were subordinated to the fundamental question as to how one should live the best life possible. For the Epicureans, pleasure and absence of pain were the ultimate goals in life. Everything else was to be seen in dependence of this principle, including virtue.

We must praise that which is noble, the virtues, and things of this kind, if they create in us the feeling of pleasure. If they fail to please us, we should not bother about them.

I encourage people to strive for endless pleasures, not for futile virtues, the fruit of which one can only hope to earn being full of restlessness.

Although Epicurus and adherents of his philosophy repeatedly tried to emphasize that by pleasure they primarily sought mental, not bodily pleasures (see: Letter to Menoeceus), we know from Cicero (in On Ends) that the ambiguous use of the word “pleasure” (Greek: hedoné) continuously raised problems, and apparently certain sayings by Epicurus also revealed this ambiguity to the term:

The beginning and root of all good lies in the belly; even wisdom and everything derived from it, is related to this pleasure.

Now, the Stoics would be the last to deny physical needs, and they readily acknowledged not only food, but also health as something that is naturally preferred by humans. However, it is also indifferent in relation to leading a good life – meaning for the Stoics a life, in which a person matures to the state, where they feel a strong inclination to care for the need of other human beings as much as for their own. The concentric circles of Hierocles give a good example of this attitude.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:  “Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another.”  This did not mean they were naïve concerning the potential malice which humans would often inflict upon each other, as he continued: either instruct them, then, or put up with them.”

We also find this attitude in another famous passage of his Meditations (II, 1):

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. But I […] then can never be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one that is akin (i.e. of the same mind and origin) to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together. […] To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature.

With this Marcus refers to the human nature particularly, but also to the greater nature, of which humans are a part. This is in stark contrast to Epicurus, one of whose fragments might be understood as a direct reply to the Stoic position:

Don´t let yourselves be fooled, you people, not be seduced, nor deceived! Believe me, there is no natural community for those endowed with Reason. Whoever says so, is cheating on you!

It is not surprising that from an Epicurean perspective the best life was conducted outside society, surrounded only by a lose array of like-minded friends; certainly, no philosophy probably had individualism spelled out larger than Epicureanism, and it is not surprising that the “pursuit of happiness” built into the American constitution by Jefferson bears these traits. It might also explain why many Secular Humanists, through their sense of non-religiousness, feel especially attracted to this kind of world-view. However, there is a bit of aloofness and self-indulgence to it, which in a way counteracts the claim of (modern) Humanism to strive for a better society.

But, looking at the US, and though-out world history, we also repeatedly find a strong emphasis on duty and public engagement (see e.g. T. Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic), and we encounter individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, who through their commitments did neither seek pleasure, nor try to avoid pain. Instead, and regardless of any cost, they decided to do what they felt was right.

…but if we imagine, I say, that they (i.e. the gods) take no counsel about our affairs, it is still possible for me to take counsel about myself, and it is for me to consider where my own benefit lies. And the benefit of every being lies in what accords with its own constitution and nature. Now my nature is that of a rational and sociable being. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe. So, what benefits these, is the sole good to me.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, 44)

As Marcus Aurelius rightly recognized, the Stoic tenet of virtue as the basis of a good human life stands firm with or without a divine stamp of approval (see also: W. Ferraiolo, 2015). His saying also reflects the notion that the fabric into which our individual existence is woven is not only affected by our relationships at a communal level, but that as human beings we also contribute to the well-being of all humans, as well as our planet.

Given the many global challenges we are facing today, there is great need for public engagement, and a renewed cosmopolitan outlook. In this regard, Stoicism has a lot to offer that modern Humanists might want to get to know and then incorporate.


Sascha Rother is a natural scientist by training and got his PhD in Biochemistry. Living with his family in the city of Hannover, located in northern Germany, he is currently working as a teacher at an integrated secondary school. In his free-time he volunteers for the German Humanist Association (HVD) of Lower Saxony, where he currently holds the office of the local chairman.

Tickets Now Available for STOICON 2017

Ticketing is now set up for the Stoicon 2017 conference, which will be held this year Saturday, 14 October in Toronto at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.  You can view the conference schedule, order tickets, or find more information by clicking here.  The central theme for Stoicon 2017 (and for Stoic Week) is Stoicism at Work.

Earlybird discount tickets are available for online purchase.  There are also discounted tickets available for students in full-time education and for those aged 65 or older.  There is also a discounted rate available for rooms at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.

If you are interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you. Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

The keynote speaker is Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College, author of the groundbreaking study Stoicism and Emotion.

Stoicon also features plenary addresses by Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Chuck Chakrapani, Ronald Pies, Walter Matweychuk, and Jules Evans.

The breakout sessions will include longer (45 minute) talks by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and 90 minute workshops by Christopher Gill & Tim LeBon, Col. Thomas Jarrett, Greg Sadler & Andi Sciacca, and Donald Robertson.

STOICON In Toronto – October 2017

Earlier this week, we announced some of the information for this year’s Stoicon conference, coming up this Fall – Saturday, October 14 2017. After several years of being held in London, last year’s conference took place in in New York City (and with over 330 attendees, was so far as we know the largest gathering of people interested in Stoic philosophy in history).  This year, Stoicon will be held in another major metropolis – Toronto – and we are expecting it to be just as engaging a conference as the previous ones!

The theme selected this year – for both Stoicon and Stoic Week – is “Stoicism at Work”, a topic quite timely in our present era.  The conference will take place at the Holiday Inn, Yorkdale in Toronto.

Tickets can be booked online via EventBrite.

We will be posting more details about hotel rates and tickets for Stoicon in the coming months, here in Stoicism Today.  Keep an eye out for details forthcoming about events on the Sunday following the conference as well!

The full schedule – Fate permitting! – for the conference is available.  The morning will be devoted to a set of plenary talks by expert Stoic writers, researchers, and practitioners (and of course, informal conversations over coffee during the breaks).  After a break for lunch, we then resume and break out into a set of smaller sessions.  These provide either longer (45-minute) talks or intensive 90 minute workshops, focused on the key themes of the conference.  Then, after a short break, we reconvene for a talk by the renowned scholar, Margaret Graver, and then carry on the conversations at the reception.


8 – 9am Registration and coffee

Plenary Sessions

  • 9am Introduction: What is Stoicism?
    Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
  • 9.30am How to be a Stoic: Conversations with Epictetus
    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic
  • 10am The Stoic Minimalist: Practicing Stoicism, Avoiding Controversies
    Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.30am Morning break (30 min.)

  • 11am Stoicism, Buddhism, and Judaism
    Dr. Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles
  • 11.30am TBC
  • 12pm Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
    Dr. Walter Matweychuk, author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
  • 12.30pm Stoicism and Sport
    Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

1 – 2.30pm Lunch break: 

2.30 – 4pm Parallel Talks & Workshops

  • Stoicism and Values Clarification (Workshop)
    Prof. Christopher Gill, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought
    Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy
  • Stoicism and Creativity (Talk)
    Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
  • Stoic Perspectives on Leisure, Work, Duty, Discipline, and Vocation (Talk)
    Stephen Hanselman, author of The Daily Stoic
  • Stoicism and Military Resilience (Workshop)
    Col. Thomas Jarrett, developer of Warrior Resilience Training
  • Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies (Workshop)
    Dr. Greg Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, co-founder of ReasonIO
    Andi Sciacca, COO of Big Mind Institute, co-founder of ReasonIO
  • Introduction to Stoic Psychological Skills (Workshop)
    Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 – 4.30pm Afternoon break

4.30 – 5.15pm Keynote: Stoicism & Emotion
Prof. Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion

5.15 – 5.30pm Closing

5.30 – 7pm Reception
For more information, please subscribe to this blog, follow us on Twitter, or on Facebook.  As noted above, additional information about the conference will be announced in the coming months.

Save The Date – STOICON 2017 In Toronto!

This October, the annual STOICON conference is moving to another metropolis – Toronto, Canada!  You’ll want to mark the date on your calendar – Saturday, 14th October 2017.  We’ll be publishing more details, including the full schedule for the conference, later on this week.

The main theme this year will be “Stoicism at Work.”  The conference opens with a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy followed by a series of talks by leading authors in the field of modern Stoicism.  In the afternoon, you will be able to choose between attending different parallel sessions, including an introductory workshop for newcomers to applied Stoicism.  The day concludes with the keynote presentation on Stoicism and Emotion by one of the leading experts in this area, Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College.

Stoicon is an annual international conference on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life, organized by Modern Stoicism, and 2017 marks its fourth year.  Our annual Stoic Week online course will also begin the following Monday, running from 16th – 22nd October.  If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you.  Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

The speakers for this year’s Stoicon include: Margaret Graver, Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Col. Thomas Jarrett, Ronald Pies, Walter Matweychuk, Jules Evans, Christopher Gill, Tim LeBon, Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hanselman, Chuck Chakrapani, and Greg Sadler.

For more information see the Stoicon 2017 page.

Resistance Is Futile: Stoic Counsel About “Externals” by William Ferraiolo

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” [Becker, p. 42]

“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”― Albert Camus, The Fall

Emotional and psychological attachment to futile endeavors assures frustration, anxiety, and discontent. Insisting that the external world must conform to one’s stubbornly held desires and pre-conceived expectations, virtually guarantees dissatisfaction. Such insistence is futile. I contend that unhealthy attachments of this nature are an astoundingly common, but readily eradicable, source of needless distress. Marvin Kohl mentions the Stoic attitude regarding futile endeavors:

Perhaps no school of philosophy in the ancient world placed greater emphasis on the importance of understanding and accepting the limits of human power than did the Stoics. For the Stoics maintain that in addition to knowing what is worth doing, wisdom, in some very fundamental way, consists in knowing what is and is not in our power, and not attempting to do what we cannot do. [2001, p. 75]

In particular, I contend that all psychological dependence upon such Stoic “externals” as the behaviors and cognitive states of persons other than oneself, are subsumable under the Becker epigraph (above) indicating the Stoic Axiom of Futility. In other words, we invite needless suffering when we tether our contentment to conditions, such as the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of others, that lie beyond our sphere of direct, practical control. Any attempt to govern another agent’s beliefs, desires, or behavior constitutes a futile effort to control phenomena that are, in the language of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, “not up to us”. There is a sense in which this is a trivial and obvious observation—we cannot control other people, their thoughts, etc. Nearly everyone understands this, and few would openly dispute any such assertion. Nonetheless, the pervasive and seemingly incorrigible insistence upon attempting to do so, and the tendency to become distressed at the failure of such attempts, warrants careful analysis and cries out for therapeutic counsel.

The effort to formulate and offer helpful counsel is not futile. Composing and communicating advice is, for all practical purposes, within my control (provided that brain and body do not fail me). Insisting upon the efficacy or acceptance of such counsel is, however, a quixotic and futile bit of stubbornness—destined to result in psychological and emotional distress. I can write this article defending and explaining a little valuable Stoic counsel as best I am able (and that effort is largely, if not entirely, “up to me”), but I am a fool if I allow my emotional well-being to depend upon the article being accepted at an academic conference, selected for publication, or upon anyone reading it, taking it seriously, or adhering to the counsel offered herein. The wise attitude regarding the acceptance of proffered counsel is rational detachment, and recognition that such matters are simply not within the counselor’s control. That is the Stoic’s advice—take it or leave it.

Futility and Discontent

Surely, some will contend, limiting our endeavors and concerns in this fashion is bound to stultify development and inhibit the kinds of hopes and dreams that have driven innovation, technological achievement, and nearly every form of advancement from which humanity has enjoyed benefit. We must dare, even in the face of futility, to risk failure. Only through such daring is real progress realized. Let us dare great deeds and, if we fail to achieve them, glory nonetheless in our valiant struggle and derive both pride and hope from “dreaming the impossible dream”. Don Quixote may be a tragic hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, precisely because he “tilted at windmills” and enlarged his spirit thereby. The inspiration is worth braving defeat and humiliation.

Our culture is, for good reason, saturated with expressions of admiration for those who dare, those who dream, those who persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles and brutally bruising travails. We Americans, after all, “Remember the Alamo!” The birth of the United States as a nation is inextricably dependent upon braving terrifying odds and summoning the courage to combat an ostensibly insurmountable challenge, an invincible adversary. Consider the stirrings conjured by a mention of Valley Forge. Who among us does not root for the underdog, and “hope against hope” when faced with a lost cause? Patron saints do not, after all, generally live lives of luxury, or die peaceful, gentle deaths. Does Stoicism counsel cowardice, acquiescence, and quietism? If so, then its counsel is ignoble at best, and is apt to diminish those who embrace it. Again, Kohl nicely articulates this ancient complaint:

Some thinkers may immediately object to this line of thinking and say that to be failure-proof one must have an unconquerable faith in being able to do anything one wants to do. Others may urge us to believe that invincible determination of purpose should be psychologically so fixed that we persevere until “either victory or death.” Still others, operating under the pretence of wisdom, may urge us to combine a false with a true statement. Here we are told that “you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all.” These extreme libertarians of choice reject the precept that one ought not try to do things that known to be impossible or, and more important, that very few things are, in fact, impossible. Like Nicholas Rescher, they are also inclined to believe as a general life stance that optimal results are attainable only by trying for too much. [2001, p. 78]

So goes a fairly standard objection against “lowering one’s aim” in order that one may avoid disappointment. First of all, it is practically impossible that any endeavor may be known to be futile. We have all heard “stranger things have happened,” or “nothing is impossible,” offered as encouragement and exhortation. Secondly, even a truly futile endeavor may have an ennobling quality not otherwise attainable—an ennobling power that countervails against the detriments of failure. We admire those who endure, those who strive, and those glorious “fools” willing to “fight the unbeatable foe”. Such sentiments may be poetic—but poetry often makes for lousy philosophy, and impractical counsel.

This objection is misguided on two fronts. As Kohl reminds us, the Stoics long ago argued that:

The point…is that to aim at what cannot be done is not only to invite failure but to waste precious time and energy that could have been effective elsewhere. To aim at the futile with indefeasible resolution and the profound conviction that one must persevere to “either victory or death” is to invite the latter and is, therefore, even more seriously normatively flawed. [2001, p. 78]

Every moment spent in pursuit of the impossible, the futile, is a moment lost to the effort to attain plausible (or, at the very least, possible) results. Our time and our energy are limited. It is irrational and self-defeating to sacrifice a potential benefit to the futile attempt to gain the unattainable boon. This is the classic “sucker’s bet”. Furthermore, successful ventures are not, inherently, less ennobling than are quixotic quests. The Alamo would still be worth remembering had Santa Ana’s legions faltered and turned back—perhaps even more so! Surely, failure is not a necessary condition for optimizing consequences over the long term, nor is it necessary for sublime experience. Were it so, we would be well served to aim for failure. This would, arguably, generate a paradox involving succeeding in the attainment of failure—or aiming to succeed at an endeavor that precludes the possibility of success. If such an effort is not, flat out, incoherent, it at least tends in the general direction of discomfiting cognitive dissonance. Is George Washington less worthy of our respect than is King Leonidas? Both are heroic and admirable—but Washington won. Would not Leonidas have preferred victory at Thermopylae?

Cannot Implies Ought Not

If Immanuel Kant is correct that “ought implies can,” then it follows that cannot implies ought not. This is a fairly straightforward application of modus tollens to the sphere of practical reasoning. It is impractical, and arguably incoherent to attempt what cannot be done. That is, one ought not attempt the impossible. In any such attempt, the agent wastes time, effort, and resources on a doomed endeavor. Those resources could have, otherwise, been devoted to some project with at least a hope of success. How much needless suffering has resulted from failure to desist in hopeless endeavors? Moreover, how much avoidable suffering might have been forestalled by a rational reallocation of the resources wasted in futile pursuits? No exact quantification is possible (any attempt to produce one would be futile), but we may safely conclude that “a lot” would serve as a modest and conservative answer. In A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker articulates the practical and logical problems with futile pursuits:

The point cannot be more straightforward: We reject the soundness of any normative proposition constructed from an agent’s endeavor to do (directly) what she believes to be impossible. We do this because such endeavors are incoherent, in the sense that their propositional representation always tacitly involves an inconsistent pair of propositions: one about impossibility, to the effect that there are no available means to achieve a given end; the other about a contrary possibility, to the effect that there is a course of conduct that might be a way to achieve the same end…But the system of normative logic constitutes a formal representation of practical reasoning, and practical reasoning aims to resolve such conflict and incoherence. [1998, p. 45]

Practical reasoning cannot countenance the ultimate impracticality of applied principles culminating in incoherence. One cannot, as the adage goes, “serve two masters” (one, at least, ought not to attempt to do so), and one certainly cannot abide by mutually inconsistent action-guiding propositions or maxims of conduct. The impossible, is for practical purposes, forbidden to the rational agent.

A Practical Test

The Stoics enjoin us to discontinue any and all concern with, and emotional or psychological attachment to, circumstances or endeavors that are known to be futile, or for which we have reasonably conclusive evidence of futility. This is wise counsel—all too frequently flouted or ignored. Sometimes, there really is no hope. It behooves us to identify such cases and respond with properly rational detachment. What, however, might constitute compelling evidence that any endeavor is, in fact, futile? There are, of course, some fairly obvious cases of physically, nomologically, or logically impossible achievements.

These are, however, not genuine options of the type William James held up as live possibilities. No one sincerely contemplates leaping the Grand Canyon at its widest point, without deploying some form of artificial propulsion. No one thinks, “I will broad jump that distance!” It is clearly impossible for any human to do so. Furthermore, any such attempt, far from being admirable or ennobling, is simply a suicidal exercise in foolishness. This is not an interesting case for practical counsel. No one needs pronouncements from a Stoic sage to dissuade obvious lunacy!

The interesting test case involves the endeavor that is not obviously impossible, but that may appear to defy reason. What test can distinguish the improbably from the unattainable? How, in actual practice, can one tell the difference? As is often the case with Stoic counsel, the answer is shockingly (and deceptively) simple: Will it to be so. What one’s will does not, at the moment in question, produce is, ipso facto, beyond the power of one’s will—at that moment.

This may seem a presumptuous determinism and, indeed, it may be. Luckily, practical purposes do not require us to settle recondite metaphysical disputes. Can I control, simply by exertion of my will, another person’s beliefs, behavior, attitudes, etc.? Those who would answer in the affirmative, thereby acquire the burden of proof. One may of course, speak, debate, threaten, and so on. All of these endeavors depend upon the cooperation of one’s interlocutor(s). As Epictetus reminds his students, such matters are simply not “up to us”:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs. [Enchiridion, I]

It is not mere coincidence that Arrian places this first on the Enchiridion’s list of admonitions to would-be Stoics. This is the sine qua non of Epictetan counsel’s efficacy. Know what is “yours” to control. Bend all of your cognitive efforts on the improvement and perfection of your “internals” (i.e. opinion, aim, desire, aversion, etc.). Know what is not yours to control. Embrace it, accept it, and do not allow yourself to be troubled by anything that is not “yours”. Stoic “externals” (i.e. body, property, reputation, office, etc.) are not “up to you,” and it is foolish to allow yourself to be concerned about them. Every moment of discontent caused by emotional attachment to the attitudes and behaviors of other persons, is a moment that might have been spent improving oneself.

We waste our lives insofar as we strive for the unattainable. Life is too short for constructing cloud castles. Our time is too valuable to be frittered away upon childish fantasy. Stoicism is largely about accepting the external world as it is, and resisting the urge to pine for a world that has not been, is not, and cannot be. The world will have its way. The Stoic is untroubled by the unfolding of events over which he has no direct control. The good Stoic is busy with self-governance and self-rectification. That is more than enough to occupy any rational agent. Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Epictetus strove after wisdom, virtue, and self-control. Choose the more admirable endeavor. Get to work.

Works Cited

Becker, Lawrence C. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press.

Camus, Albert (1958). The Fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Epictetus. Discourses and Enchiridion. Thomas W. Higginson (trans.). New York: Walter J. Black, Inc. (1944)

Harris, Sam. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

Kohl, Marvin. (2001). “Wisdom and the Axiom of Futility,” The Philosophical Forum, 32: 73–93.

Rescher, Nicholas. (1987). Ethical Idealism: An Inquiry into the Nature and Function of Ideals. Berkeley: University of California Press.


William Ferraiolo received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since that time, he has been teaching philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He is the author of Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Discipline.

Stoicism and Surgery by Robert S. Colter

As a professor of philosophy, and of ancient philosophy in particular, I have been studying Stoicism at some level for over 20 years. It is one thing to study it as a dry academic subject, and an entirely different thing to apply it to one’s own life, especially in the systematic way that Stoicism invites us to. I want to share a recent experience that, for me at least, was an example of how Stoicism can fit into one’s life, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I began writing this reflection from a hospital bed in Hamilton NZ. I just had my catheter removed (oh what freedom!), and was still awaiting the passing of wind (the lovely New Zealand euphemism for farting), the next great milestone to be achieved! What better time to reflect on Stoicism and its role in my week?

My week began with great excitement as I embarked upon a long-planned journey from my home in the US to NZ in order to, among other things, deliver a talk on Stoicism to a number of philosophers at a conference, as well as to do some sightseeing and other tourist activities. The journey is of course a long one, and I was a bit anxious about it, primarily about whether I would be able to sleep on the long flight over the Pacific. I did sleep a bit, although not as much as I hoped, and arrived in NZ in good spirits, looking forward to delivering my talk.

I was staying with a friend and colleague of long standing, and arriving at his home proceeded with my unpacking. We then had a nice lunch, went to the local campus where we worked on some projects for a few hours. Next we took a walk along the local river and park, enjoying the sights, and talking about the different varieties of flora and fauna to be found in NZ vs the US. All very pleasant (at least in a way appropriate for preferred indifferents) and exactly what I had been hoping for as the beginning of my visit. But there was a storm on the horizon that I could not yet see. I would soon have the opportunity to reflect on Zeno’s quip, after learning that he had lost everything in a shipwreck, “Fortune bids me to become a less encumbered philosopher.”

I had started to feel some discomfort in my abdomen sometime during our walk, and it was slowly increasing. I mentioned it to my companion, and we decided it must be the after effects of the long trip, and would soon pass, at least after a trip or two to the toilet. Seemed quite reasonable. So I proceeded to the event I had planned for the evening, but before the event was over, I found myself being attended to as I lay on the cold concrete, sweating and in pain. The fine people at that event delivered me to my friend’s home, where I made a number of futile attempts to use the toilet.

Soon the pain increased many fold, and I began vomiting, and the ambulance was called, and the Emergency Department, and pain, and … Those who may be medically inclined might recognize a likely culprit – an obstructed bowel (and please no witty comments about philosophy professors being full of shit).

I don’t remember too many details of those hours, but the ones I do recall are vivid. I recall, being bent over double by pain, saying to myself “you are but an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be” and “you are nothing to me.” Shockingly, I felt a shift in both my attitude and perception of the pain, albeit minor (it still hurt pretty severely!) and temporary (lasted for a few seconds). Later, with a bit more clarity, I was able to recall Epictetus words more fully, from the Enchiridion:

From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.” Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”

It took a while, but I was finally seen by the doctor, who proceeded to send me upstairs to the ward I still occupied several days later. There were a couple of days of attempts at non-surgical intervention, but in the end surgery was required. I was still hooked up to machines and my guts hurt. My family remained in the US, and I missed them (less stoically that I ought to have). I am all the way across the world from my home, and while perhaps no longer in deadly medical peril, still there is much discomfort, and many plans, including my return, remain up in the air.

Once again, I find some comfort in a number of stoic reflections: Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus keeps popping up:

Lead me, Zeus, and you too, Destiny,
Wherever I am assigned by you;
I’ll follow and not hesitate,
But even if I do not wish to,
Because I’m bad, I’ll follow anyway.

It is clear that I did not want to go through this medical emergency. My plans were wiped out. I did not give my talk, and I was unable to see all the sights I had anticipated. But none of that was up to me. The universe was in charge, and I am just a part of nature, and if this is what nature wills, the so be it. I can either choose to go along, or be dragged kicking and screaming.

Many times I faced more pain, even after surgery. And there was the loneliness, although I had daily visits from my friend and the nursing staff was wonderful. I found the following from Marcus helpful:

Everything that happens either happens in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it or in such a way that you are not. If, then, it comes about in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it, make no complaint, but bear it as your nature enables you to do; but if it comes about in such a way that you are not fitted by nature to bear it, again you should make no complaint, for it will soon be the end of you. Remember, however, that you are fitted by nature to bear everything that you can render bearable and endurable through the exercise of your judgement, by suggesting the idea to yourself that your interest or your duty demands it.

I will find the means to endure, or not. Many before me, and many still to come, have faced and will face trials such as mine, and even more severe. Thinking of these passage certainly decreased my anxieties and loneliness. I am no stoic sage, but these reflections give me at times some small comfort against the vicissitudes of life. But it is comfort that was not available to me before, and I am grateful for that.

I had found that I could endure. But then something even more unexpected occurred. A couple of days after surgery, I was conversing with my wife via Skype, and she noted, “You seem happy!” I was struck by this, since I hadn’t noticed it, and besides, what did I really have to be happy about, even if I had come to a point where I was no longer miserable?

I took a look around me. Perhaps like most of us, I often operate under the illusion that I have control of a great number of things in my life. I was raised in the mythology of the “self-made man” and the notion of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” My situation here, however, was different. I had been forcibly stripped of the idea that my zone of control extended much beyond my hospital bed. As Epictetus points out, not even my body is truly under my control, and that was certainly true in my case. I was attached to a number of tubes and hoses, so that I couldn’t even get out of bed without assistance. Even when I could get out to bed, I could barely manage to walk the 100 feet of hallway outside my room. And, of course, I was unable to even fart, despite my best efforts.

So, I was reduced to doing my best to make choices a virtuously as possible, even if I didn’t think of it that way. I decided to treat everyone on the hospital staff with kindness and respect. When I attempted to move around the ward, I tried to do so with courage, knowing that it would be painful and difficult. I decided to wean myself from the pain medications as soon as I could, so that my cognitive faculties might not be so muddled. But, I did not totally forswear the medications, since being in too much pain might also make it more difficult for me to make virtuous choices. My zone of control had been reduced to such choices, or at least I had been compelled to recognize that those were its limits all along! The following passage from Epictetus seemed to capture my situation rather well:

Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be; short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skillfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.

So, I could focus on what was mine, to play the part of the convalescent well. It was not my choice, but it was not mine to choose in the first place. And the result seemed to be that I was happy, as my wife seemed to note, or at least I was undisturbed and content with my lot, which may not be so far from happy.

As I finish writing this, some weeks after the incident, I can report that surgery was successful, and I am recovering nicely. I am thankful for the ways in which Stoicism, and especially these passages, have helped me through a difficult trial. I am now a bit more confident of my ability to remain in agreement with nature the next time something difficult occurs. And, perhaps I can even be content!

Robert Colter is Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. His research is in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of education. He is also the founder and director of the Wyoming Stoic Camp.

Event Announcement – Summer Stoic School / Scuola Estiva di Stoicismo

Spend three days in Rome (July 13-15) studying ancient and modern Stoicism! Join Massimo and a small group of prokoptontes (students of Stoicism) to dig into Epictetus’ Manual, learn about practical Stoicism and how to apply it to your life. While there, walk through the Roman Fori or visit the National Roman Museum, and of course enjoy traditional Roman cuisine and local wines (don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of being a Epicurean…)! Il corso sarà offerto sia in italiano che in inglese.

Vieni per tre giorni a Roma (luglio 13-15) a studiare lo Stoicismo antico e moderno! Unisciti a Massimo e ad un gruppetto di prokoptontes (studenti di Stoicismo) per imparare il Manuale di Epitteto e applicare lo Stoicismo alla tua vita personale. Mentre sei con noi, fai una camminata tra i Fori Romani, o visita il Museo Nazionale Romano, e ovviamente goditi la cucina tradizionale romana e i vini locali (non preoccuparti, non ti accuseremo di essere un Epicureo…)! The course will be offered both in English and in Italian.

For more information (books, activities, logistics, etc.) see the Meetup page for the school and feel free to email Massimo Pigliucci

Per maggiori informazioni contatta Massimo Pigluicci via email