Stoicism and Auschwitz by Piotr Stankiewicz

The general question that the modern take on Stoicism faces is – by definition – how can Stoicism be applied and useful in our own time?  A question which immediately follows is about if and how Stoicism should be adjusted to the specificity of our own times. My position in this regard is clear. We shouldn’t copy and paste the teaching of the ancients. Doing so would be counterproductive, or even naive. Also, my guess is that the Stoic Founding Fathers themselves wouldn’t have applauded it either. My position is that we need to add our own thought to the system. We need to think how the Stoic ideas can be translated into the conceptual framework of our own time and we need to consider how Stoicism should respond to the challenges of our times.

There is little doubt that Auschwitz and its legacy is one of these challenges. Auschwitz, which is both a singular event and a symbol of Auschwitz itself, Kolyma, Rwanda, and all other horrors of the 20th century, may be seen as a turning point in human history but also in the history of ethics. There is no denying that Auschwitz has profoundly changed the way we think. The questions of how it was possible, why it happened and – above all – what moral obligation it imposes on us are among the key questions of our time.

Interestingly, these questions are untouched in the present discourse on Stoicism. In my opinion this is a very serious shortcoming. If we want Stoicism to be a comprehensive system of modern living, if we want it to be truly relevant and fully up-to-date, then we just don’t have the luxury of not having a stance on this matter. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t pose a problem to Stoicism. It does, in a fourfold way at least.

First of all, according to the very basics of Stoic ethics, all people other than myself fall into the “not within my power” bracket. This is clear and unequivocal. Whatever exists and happens in the world can be categorized as either “within my power” (like my thoughts, values, life goals, my preferences and tendencies, my imagination and the story I tell myself about myself and about the world) or “not within our power” (like virtually all else, i.e. whatever happens beyond my mind, all physical objects, all other living beings, the phenomena of society, history and weather). That said, the core Stoic principle is to focus on the former and not bothered by the latter. Clean and simple.

The problem is that all fellow human beings, all of our family, friends and strangers are undoubtedly “not within my power” and thus we need to be indifferent to them. We shouldn’t hold that their well-being or lack thereof is in any way good or bad. Their life, health and happiness is not within our power, hence we needn’t be concerned about them. And this, certainly, constitutes the first chapter of the problem. Just consider it: this train of thought brings us directly to the conclusion that whatever happened to a prisoner of Auschwitz, it wasn’t evil since it didn’t concern our own moral virtue. And there is no need to explain why such a statement is hard to swallow for the 21st-century sensibility.

Second, in the traditional interpretation of Stoicism there is a certain tone of harshness, which sounds disturbing in the world after Auschwitz. For instance, let take a look at a passage from Epictetus (Discourses, I.28). “Wars and factions and deaths of many men and destructions of cities? […] Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows or storks? ‒ Is there any similarity between this and that? ‒ A great similarity. Men’s bodies perished in the one case, and bodies of oxen and sheep in the other. Petty dwellings of men were burned, and so were nests of storks. What is there great or dreadful about that?”

Now, let’s imagine that someone applies this “stork argument” to Auschwitz. Suggesting that “there is nothing dreadful” about what happened there because it’s just “men’s bodies perished” just as “bodies of oxen and sheep” is beyond any acceptable ethical discourse. And it holds, basically, for any other genocide or war of recent memory. Think about the war in Syria, the freshest of the sadly never-ending stream of pertaining examples. Do we really want to say that there is “nothing dreadful” in it, that “destruction of cities” and “dwellings of men being burned” are nothing else than “storks’ nests destroyed”? This reasoning is difficult to hold. It just don’t fit anymore in the way we think of ethics.

Third, another vital point of the Stoic teaching is that, in brief, adversities are challenges. In other words, it is a requirement of the Stoic ethics that all the mishaps, misfortunes and tragedies of human life should be treated like challenges, or even opportunities to practice virtue. In other words, whatever blows and arrows fortune throws at us, they aren’t actually blows and arrows, but rather softballs to exercise Stoic abilities. “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training,” says Seneca (On Providence, 2.2). Or, in the words of Epictetus, “[Make use of a difficulty] as an athlete makes use of a [sparring partner] to wrestle with” (Discourses, I.24).

This all sounds nice and neat, it seems to make perfect sense. And yet, again, the problem begins when we apply this line of thought to Auschwitz. The idea that the grounds of the camp were “mere training,” or that genocide is a fine sparring partner “to wrestle with,” seems off limits for the contemporary ethical thinking. To make it plain: imagine a TV studio in which a moral philosopher schools a Holocaust survivor: “you just should have become a Stoic and you would have been OK! And actually, you should be glad that you were imprisoned in Auschwitz, since this was a top-notch opportunity to practice your resilience.” This is downright unthinkable. And not even that. Notice that even a slight change in the title of this piece, turning it from “Stoicism after Auschwitz” to “Stoicism in Auschwitz” would be problematic.

Fourth and finally, there is the cosmic problem, so to speak. We need to remember that in the original view of the ancient Stoics the world, to put it concisely, was well organized and rational. It wasn’t random, chaotic or evil. It was purposeful and carefully organized towards good. The ancient Stoics admitted of course that evil things happened all the time, but, importantly, they all happened for a reason. All the flaws of reality were in there for purpose. They actually increased the grand total value of the world. As the famous metaphor went, the pains and inconveniences of life were just like occasional clumsy lines in a script. They are required for the harmony and completion of the whole work. When we take a larger look, the picture always turns out good.

But there is no good picture that Auschwitz is a part of! Whatever bigger image Auschwitz is a part of, it is indelibly and perennially stained. There is no “greater good” that could justify Auschwitz, or, in a stronger version, there is no conceivable amount of good that could – even theoretically – outweigh what happened there. From our modern point of view Auschwitz is the radical, cosmic evil, that cannot be rationally incorporated into any universal harmony. And the interpretation that it was actually a part of some “plan” and a necessary step towards some higher goal is plainly unacceptable.

How we, the Stoics, can respond to these problems? What sort of reinterpretation, maybe even a transformation of the Stoic doctrine is needed? Do we need a more emphatic version of Stoicism? Is it necessary to drop some part of the harsh traditional Stoic rhetoric and arguments? Do we require a milder strategy in teaching it, one which avoids pushing others too much about what the should and shouldn’t do? Should we consider letting go of the teleological view of the universe, just as Lawrence Becker proposes? Or maybe some combination of these is required?

I don’t know have the answers to these questions right now. Yet, I’m certain that the discussed problems constitute the key, defining challenges to our modern attempts to revive Stoicism. We need to address them. If, of course, we want Stoicism to be a serious, viable option and if we want to go forward and develop the doctrine.


Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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24 thoughts on “Stoicism and Auschwitz by Piotr Stankiewicz”

  1. In other words this is a refutation of Stoicism, since Piotr Stankiewicz seems to believe that Stoicism does not apply to real life and that the Stoic philosophers were just academics that were never really faced with people dying in front of them.
    He thinks that we need a more “emphatic version” of Stoicism, while this entire philosophy is about “apatheia”, the absence of “pathos”, i.e. emotions.

    I have to disagree with the article.

      1. You are right. I quoted from the article. I am quite sure Piotr Stankiewicz meant ’empathic’ (from Greek ’empatheia’). Otherwise the sentence would make no sense.

        1. Dear Mortan,

          thank you for your comment. But: I never say Stoicism doesn’t apply to real life! It’s said nowhere in my article! This is the whole problem: that we want Stoicism to be applicable in the post-Auschwitz world, but… there are the mentioned problems!

        2. You may be right.

          Aside, I don’t think the idea of a “more empathic Stoicism” is as incoherent as you suggest. Apatheia only requires the extirpation of the passions—it leaves plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to proto-passions and eupatheia.

          In this case, I’d say there is a lot to be said for the view that a Stoic should cultivate some natural emotional response—what I would call “proto-empathy” (or even “proto-sympathy”).

          But our intentional emotions and faculty of judgement, of course, should still be focused on forward-looking eupatheia (i.e. asking how we can take moral actions to help benefit others in the future).

  2. Piotr raises four great points here, and I appreciate this post. But I take issue with statements like “It just don’t fit anymore in the way we think of ethics.”

    I don’t think the 4 challenges Piotr raises *ever* “fit” with the way people thought about ethics. Not really. All four problems were just as pressing in ancient times as they are for us today.

    Re. (1) and (2), Epictetus—or perhaps Arian—simply *does* fail to qualify a lot of his remarks properly, and he comes across as looking at least superficially inhumane as a result. To make sense of Epictetus, one must repeatedly *pencil in* the qualifications that he left implicit. That’s true today (Massimo’s new book is precisely such a penciling!), but I think it was just as true in classical times.

    As evidence, I’d point out that “pencilling in qualifications” is exactly what we see Seneca doing over and over with Stoic doctrine. He works hard to make clear that while it sounds stern at first, Stoicism is in fact perfectly compatible with humanity and humaneness. He is “adding his own thought to the system,” as Piotr puts it.

    As to the issues of Panglossian theodicy (3) and (4), the analogy between the cosmos and a loving parent simply *is* very limited. Parents give children only what they can handle, so the child has a change to grow and learn from experience.

    …The cosmos, however, will gladly kill you without a moment’s thought…

    That’s the big, gaping hole in the theodicy that Seneca presents in On Providence, for instance. I don’t think that argumentative hole was any less obvious to Seneca’s ancient audience than it is to us today. The problem of evil was a big deal in those days too!

    That said, I’ll quickly grant that something like Auschwitz amplifies these concerns and gives them special force.

  3. I am glad to see Dr. Stankiewicz applying Stoic philosophy to such a central, ethical issue of our own time; namely, the Shoah (Holocaust) as epitomized in Auschwitz. However, I reach a very different conclusion from Dr. Stankiewicz, as regards the Stoic attitude toward the suffering of our fellow human beings. He writes:

    “The problem is that all fellow human beings, all of our family, friends and strangers are undoubtedly “not within my power” and thus we need to be indifferent to them. We shouldn’t hold that their well-being or lack thereof is in any way good or bad.
    Their life, health and happiness is not within our power, hence we needn’t be concerned about them.”

    Let’s stipulate that Stoicism constitutes a “big tent” and that there are sometimes significant differences among early and later Stoic philosophers. That said, the formulation above, presented by Dr. Stankiewicz, is not Stoicism as I understand it. For one thing,
    there is a difference between needlessly distressing ourselves over terrible events (including Auschwitz) over which we have little control; and being “indifferent” to the suffering of those affected by evil. I do not believe that Stoicism requires or even countenances indifference to the torture, killing, and suffering of our fellow human beings.

    In an epigram from Marcus Aurelius, we find the underlying view of later Stoicism re: the common bond that unites all “intelligent creatures”:

    “All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred . . . for there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures, and one truth . . .—Marcus Aurelius (transl. Farquharson, 45)

    And in Cicero, we find the further development of “natural law”, which constrains human behavior in ways that would never countenance genocide or Auschwitz:

    “…we are all subject to one and the same law of Nature; and if this…is true, we are certainly forbidden by Nature’s law to wrong our neighbors.” (from On Obligations).

    As Michael Grant summarizes Cicero’s views:

    “. . . all human beings, however humble, must count for something, must have some inherent value in themselves . . . [for there is a] spark off divinity [that] supplies an unbreakable bond of kinship between one man and another, irrespective of state, race, or caste, in a universal Brotherhood of Man; and it is right and necessary that brothers should receive decent treatment from one another.” (from the Introduction, p. 12, Cicero, Selected Works).

    Finally, there is Seneca’s famous statement on hatred, which–I think most historians would agree–was a central motivating force in the Holocaust:

    “Hatred is not only a vice, but a vice which goes point-blank against Nature. Hatred divides instead of joining and frustrates God’s will in human society. One man is born to help another. Hatred makes us destroy one another. Love unites—hatred separates. Love is beneficial—hatred is destructive. Love succors even strangers; hatred destroys the
    most intimate friendship. Love fills all hearts with joy, hatred ruins all those who possess it. Nature is bountiful, hatred is pernicious. It is not hatred, but mutual love, that holds all mankind together.” (from Davis, Greek and Roman Stoicism)

    In short, while pointless rage and emotional incontinence over tragic events are never favored by the Stoics, neither is indifference to the suffering of our fellow human beings.

    Ronald W. Pies MD
    (author, Everything Has Two Handles; and The Three-Petalled Rose).

    1. I wonder if you would agree that a Stoic would not judge events as virtuous or indifferent, buy as virtue, preferred indifferent, dispreferred indifferent and neutral indifferent. The difficulties of the binary judgement is what the Stoics were trying to avoid.

      1. Hi, Jbonni… sorry, I don’t know your name! I hope you will sign in with it.

        Others with greater expertise on the distinctions you note may wish to correct me on this point, but here is my understanding, with the caveat that “Stoics” and “Stoicism” covers a lot of philosophical territory!

        To oversimplify: the Stoic term “indifferent” was typically applied to “things” rather than to “events”. These things usually comprised states of being or qualities, rather specific occurrences (such as an act of genocide). The Stoic taxonomy of “indifferents” is nicely explicated by William O. Stephens [1]:

        “The Stoics maintained, quite controversially among ancient ethical thought, that the only thing that always contributes to happiness, as its necessary and sufficient condition, is virtue. Conversely, the only thing that necessitates misery and is “bad” or “evil” is the corruption of reason, namely vice. All other things were judged neither good nor evil, but instead fell into the class of “indifferents.” They were called “indifferents” because the Stoics held that these things in themselves neither contribute to nor detract from a happy life. Indifferents neither benefit nor harm since they can be used well and badly.
        However, within the class of indifferents the Stoics distinguished the “preferred” from the “dispreferred.” (A third subclass contains the ‘absolute’ indifferents, e.g. whether the number of hairs on one’s head is odd or even, whether to bend or extend one’s finger.) Preferred indifferents are “according to nature.” Dispreferred indifferents are “contrary to nature.” This is because possession or use of the preferred indifferents usually promotes the natural condition of a person, and so selecting them is usually commended by reason. The preferred indifferents include life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good reputation, and noble birth. The dispreferred indifferents include death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low repute, and ignoble birth.”

        It might be tempting to argue, on this basis, that the Holocaust/Auschwitz merely constituted an example of “death” on a very wide scale; and therefore, is an example of a mere “dispreferred indifferent.” But I think this is a misunderstanding of Stoic ethics and their concept of human rationality, “natural law,” and the “brotherhood of humankind” [see my earlier response to Dr. Stankiewicz]. I believe these constructs would lead the Stoic to condemn the Holocaust (and similar acts of brutality, savagery, genocide, etc.) as a kind of affront to “Nature” and to the common bond of humanity.

        In this regard, you may also want to read the essay by Prof. Chris Gill (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter) on this website [2]. Gill notes that

        “…the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind…can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us…as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable.”

        In short: I think we have good grounds for saying that Stoicism, broadly construed, would never be indifferent to the brutalizing and dehumanizing of our fellow beings–even as we Stoics restrain ourselves from becoming overwhelmed with hatred or rage in the face of such evil.

        I hope this helps clarify the issue a bit.

        Ron Pies

        1. Stephens W.O.
        2. Gill C:

        1. ronpies,

          Respectfully, I think you’ve got it incorrect.

          Events are indifferents. Just look at the Stephens quote: notice that he defines “indifferents” as everything except for virtue and vice. Events are not virtues or vices, therefore they are indifferent. The moral choices that other people make are also indifferents for you (though not for them!).

          That said, the Stoics definitely, absolutely would have condemned Auschwitz! No question there. It is indeed an “affront to ‘Nature’ and to the common bond of humanity,” as you put it. You’re definitely correct when you say that

          “Stoicism, broadly construed, would never be indifferent to the brutalizing and dehumanizing of our fellow beings”

          But the doctrine of “indifferents” was never intended to suggest that we should “behave with indifference” toward external things.

          1. Hi (is it Mr. Scott? I really appreciate seeing comments with full names. Thanks!).

            First, I’m glad we agree on the main point of discussion; i.e., that the Stoics as a group would not have been “indifferent” to genocide or the Holocaust, and would have condemned anything like Auschwitz as “para physin” [against Nature], even while maintaining their inner composure.

            Re: “indifferents” (t’adiaphora), I did not mean to exclude “events” from a possible list of “indifferents”; I meant only to say that, in general, the usual list of preferred or dispreferred indifferents consists mainly of “states of affairs” (such as health or illness), qualities (such as beauty or ugliness) and so on. You can find a typical list of these at:


            I take your point that, facing a specific “event” such as a house fire or a flood, Stoics would regard these as a kind of “indifferent”, as you suggest.

            Thanks again for your comment on the ethical issues!

            Ron Pies

        2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. However, the ancient world was pretty nasty, leveling and killing all the inhabitants of cities. Troy, Carthage Jerusalem. Is there any evidence that the Stoics taught that these mass slaughters were heinous in the way we think of the Holocaust?
          John Bonnice

          1. John,

            What do you mean by “heinous”? Words like that don’t map very well onto Stoic theory, since an idea like “heinous” collapses at least 3 Stoic ideas into one.

            Heinous might mean

            1) “very contrary to nature,” i.e. a dispreferred indifferent, perhaps to the point of triggering strong *proto-passions,*

            2) it might mean “something judged to be an evil, making us wretched (unhappy),” the object of a *passion,*

            3) or it might mean “something that we choose to vigorously opposed, if we are to avoid being wretched (unvirtuous),” in which case we should cultivate strong *healthy passions* toward doing our utmost for Justice.

          2. I was using ‘heinous’ in the everyday sense of shockingly evil. I’m not clear how Stoics would distinguish this, since the response can only be rational. Not even righteous anger is appropriate.

          3. Dear All, I’m not sure if I managed to follow the train of argument fully here. Not because you wrote something wrong, just because of the tree-maze of the comments 🙂

            Now, I’m not fully sure if this is what you propose, but I think one licit way to refute what I wrote is to say roughly this Mr Stankiewicz, nice argument you propose, but you forgot that Stoicism unequivocally condemns Auschwitz and any genocide because it is contrary to nature.” That’s a fine counterargument, I figure. The problem is: I don’t really believe in the soothing, comforting and ethically powerful understanding of nature. What can of argument can be used then? That is the question.

            I realize that these two points of doubt combined (Auschwitz and nature) are quite non-obvious for a Stoic, but well, this is what I think! (BTW: thank you all for the really insightful comments!)

          4. Piotr,

            I know you can’t reply to everyone in these comments, but let me share a counter-thought:

            “The problem is: I don’t really believe in the soothing, comforting and ethically powerful understanding of nature. What can of argument can be used then? That is the question.”

            That’s a deep issue, since it takes into the question of to exactly what extent the Stoics actually derived virtue ethics from their views on Providence.

            But regardless of whatever religious arguments they used, the Stoics certainly *also* offered a wealth of secular, humanistic arguments for Stoic ethics. From Chrysippus (who was the first to emphasize that “following nature” can mean following *human* nature) all the way through Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus, there is a strong tradition of offering justifications for Stoic physics that make no reference to Providence.

            The Stoics are the founders of Natural Law ethics, after all, which even today is seen as offering common ground among atheists and theists alike.

            So, Piotr, I guess I don’t really understand the problem. I don’t believe in a “soothing, comforting and ethically powerful understanding of nature” either (except to the extent that virtue ethics automatically allows us atheists to feel more grateful toward nature in some ways). But that doesn’t prevent me from viewing moral choice and action as the highest good, and from using the ancients’ own humanistic arguments to support that view.

  4. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

    1. Dear Alan, thanks for this comment. I’ve spend (not spilt) almost a full cup of coffee mulling over how to reply to this. And I think the best reply is this: Frankl can be perfectly right about it. But he was a Holocaust survivor himself. We aren’t. Do we have, then, the moral right to say what he said on the topic?

  5. I look forward to the day when Professor Stankiewicz’s books are available in English. My Amazon account and I are ready for them!
    His point about the need to update Stoicism is so well taken. This is a powerful philosophy we’ve got here, and it will be even more so once fully integrated into the context of the modern world.
    But moving forward requires sure footing, and it’s not clear that the professor’s characterization of Epictetus’ “stork argument” provides that. I’m only a layman, so take this with a grain of salt. But looking at the complete passage that refers to storks, it seems clear that Epictetus is talking about how to react when one’s own home is burned to the ground or when one’s own fellows are killed — not when these tragedies happen to others. The point is that we should retain our better qualities — sociability, trustworthiness, honesty, intelligence — even in the face of such disasters. This seems similar to the message offered by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and the psychotherapeutic philosophy of meaning that he developed as a prisoner in Auschwitz.
    The essay’s other points also seem to leave out important considerations. For example, where would we be if Churchill and Roosevelt had not risen to the challenges posed by Hitler? Isn’t that what Epictetus advocates? That we should confront adversity, rather than submit or run away?
    Professor Stankiewicz makes a good point about the Stoic principle that other people are beyond one’s power and therefore among life’s indifferents. We Stoics do need to get beyond the superficial here. I would suggest that the stepping stones to a deeper appreciation appear to lie with Marcus Aurelius and his emphasis on serving the common good, recognizing others as our brothers and sisters and the importance of responding to indifferents with love.

    1. David, thank you for you kind words. As soon as my books are out in English (which is quite unpredictable, but I’m adamant about making progress in that direction)… I will let you know. I mean I will spread the message, so if you remain hooked up to Stoicism – the word will get to you 🙂

      Now, to the substance. The “stork argument” is, as I take it, huh, it’s more of a manifestation of a certain attitude then a strict intellectual argument. In this light, I believe that we may BOTH be right here. You are right in what you say Epictetus advocates here, and I’m also right in stating that the way of presenitng this view is, well… troubling.

      When it comes to Churchill and Rossevelt the omission is deliberate. What would I have done in their shoes? Maybe it’s not the best Stoic response, but I think I would have resigned. These were posts to be filled by true statesmen, not mere philosophers like me 😉

      Of course, the last one is a joke. But not fully I think. Taking the right course of action requires bypassing moral virtues, at least sometimes. But once we say this – we depart from Stoicism.

      Thanks again (to you and others) for these witty remarks. I think I get a fine grasp of where the shortcomings of my essay are. Or, dropping the humility a bit, I get a grasp on how one needs to think about Stoicism if one wants to squash the issues I have raised. This is a precious lesson and one which can come only from a mind of another. Thanks!

  6. In the example Epictetus gives in Disc. 1.24, there is the training and then there is the real event that you should be trained to handle. There is a fight with a sparring partner for training and then there is the real fight. The training a Stoic does is to instill habits that will become operative in a real difficulty. Looking at everything as a training is the training. A bit paradoxical.

    1. Good essay. And an apt comment. Now we need to make the point that the training must be directed at developing the virtues, which include not only justice (including cosmopolitan benevolence), but temperance, courage, and practical wisdom. The epistemic dimension of practical wisdom is crucial here and includes getting rid of self-deception and denial of the facts. Courage is also crucial.

      1. Professor Becker, it is a honor to meet you here in this comment section! Thank you for your appreciating word. It means a lot 🙂 What you be kind enough and spell out a bit more what do you mean by “epistemic dimension of practical wisdom” in this context?