A Stoic for All Seasons Series: A Day at the Beach with Musonius Rufus by Kevin Vost

It is not good to be entirely without experience of cold and heat, but one ought in some degree to feel the cold in winter and likewise the heat in summer and to seek shade as little as possible. –Musonius Rufus, Lecture 19.

[I]ndeed, philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior. –Musonius Rufus, Lecture 4

One nice advantage of religious holy days and secular holidays is that they gives us the opportunity, year after to year, to think, honor, and feel gratitude, again and again, to men and women who have contributed in special ways across time to the common good of humanity.  I know of no official Stoic holidays, though I recall that Epictetus sometimes mentions the Roman feast of the Saturnalia in December that celebrated an ancient golden age under the rule of the god Saturn. I know too that Marcus Aurelius happened to die on St. Patrick’s Day (two centuries before Patrick was born).  In any event, I don’t see why we could not periodically celebrate some great Stoics at particular times of the year.

Now, we don’t know the exact dates of birth or of death for many of them, but since there are four great Roman Stoics from the period of the late Stoa (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), and these four are highly influential to modern Stoicism, I suggest that we could at least start our celebrations with a Stoic for all four seasons.  If it remains within my control, I hope to write a series of four brief articles for each of the four seasons, and I’m starting right now with Musonius Rufus (c. 25 – 100 AD). So, if you have an ear for classical music, get Vivaldi’s Summer going gently in the background and prepare to start the summer with me and the man who taught and inspired Epictetus, a man called by some, “the Roman Socrates.”

I chose the summer theme for Rufus, not because he wrote extensively about summer, though you can see from the opening quotation that I was able to track down one little nugget, (that I, a great fan of not only shade, but of icy air conditioning, will try to put into practice this summer). The main reason I settled on summer for Rufus is that I have often read about, and have sometimes been asked to compose “summer reading” lists.  I discovered Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius in my early 20’s and have enjoyed them for more than 30 years, but it was not until my mid-50s that I first read Rufus’s lecture fragments and sayings. I suspect he is still the least read and least known of the Roman Stoics (and would be intrigued by readers’ comments that might confirm or refute my suspicions), and though we do not have more than some dozens of pages of his philosophy, I have found them well worth the read, and re-read, and re-read, and I hope that you will too, if you have not already formed such a virtuous reading habit.

Rufus is one of the Stoic champions of the classic cardinal moral virtues. His teaching is rich in common sense and in focus on the practical application of philosophy for living a good and virtuous life.  In The Porch and the Cross, my book on the four great Stoics and how they have influenced Christianity, cognitive psychotherapy, and modernity in general, I concluded by choosing among many possibilities one word to capture the essence of each of the four great Stoics. For Rufus I chose the word “sanity.”  Rufus wrote that “thoughtlessness is very close to insanity” (Lecture 21) and I find him among the most thoughtful and sane persons I have ever read.

I must cut this praise short though and cut to the chase, for as Epictetus told us, “Rufus used to say, ‘If you have time enough to praise me, then I know what I am saying is worthless,” (Epictetus’ Discourses, 3. 23).  Rufus’s lessons are eminently worthwhile and he would clearly rather have us far too busy studying and living Stoic philosophy to waste our time even in well-deserved praise.  

Next, I’m going to provide just a few samples of Rufus’s wisdom about a couple of the topics he’s rightly most famous for: the intellectual and moral equality of women with men and the need for us students of philosophy to live out and practice every day of our lives the truths that we acquire. I start with my own paraphrased abridgements from a few of Rufus’s extant lectures and then the briefest of commentary, excerpted with slight adaptations from my The Porch and the Cross. Hoping these snippets will have whetted or re-whetted appetites for Rufus’s Stoic wisdom, I’ll conclude with a list of recommended summer reading.   

Lecture 3: Should Women Study Philosophy?

Absolutely!” declares Musonius. Women have received the same gift of reason from the gods that men have, the same senses, most of the same body parts, the same capacity to know right from wrong, and the same inclination to virtue. Women no less than men are pleased by good and just deeds and decry what is base and shameful. Why would it not be appropriate for women to seek to live honorably and learn how to do so? That is what philosophy is all about. Should not a woman be good like a man?  

A woman should have the practical prudence to manage a household or a state.  She must be self-controlled to remain free from sexual improprieties, to avoid being a slave to her desires, argumentative, extravagant, or vain, so that she can control anger, preserve over grief, and become stronger than any emotion that seizes her. Any person, man or woman, who has studied and practiced philosophy, will display such a beautiful character. A woman who studies philosophy will become just as well. A female philosopher would be a just and blameless spouse, co-worker, and mother, thinking it worse to commit a wrong than to suffer one, who would rather suffer with less than be greedy for more, who would love her children more than life itself.  It is appropriate as well for a woman to obtain the courage that training in philosophy brings. She will not bow down to the powerful and mighty, but will nurse and protect the children she brings forth, stand firm by her husband, and will not, due to haughtiness, shrink from work others might say is befit for only slaves.

Some said the study of philosophy might lead women to become haughty, quarrelsome, and frivolous, abandoning their proper duties, seeking out arguments or dissecting syllogisms in the marketplace, when they should be sitting at home spinning wool. Musonius said such actions are unworthy in men as well. True philosophical discussion is conducted for the sake of practical application. Women should do this just as men should and neither should abandon their duties to do it.  

Here Musonius comes to the quotation we used to start this very chapter: “Just as there is no use in medical study unless it leads to the health of the human body, so there is no use to philosophical doctrine unless it leads to the virtue of the human soul.” Philosophy is powerful medicine for the soul, good for what ails both men and women. So, Yes! Women should study philosophy. Musonius concludes: “The doctrine of the philosophers encourages a woman to be happy and to rely on herself.”

Lecture 4: Should Daughters Be Educated Like Sons?

Perhaps you have guessed from the lecture above where Musonius is going with this.  Contrary to the common Greco-Roman wisdom of his day, Musonius answers with another yes.

Trainers of dogs and horses don’t make distinctions in their training of males and females for the tasks they are to do, and neither should educators make distinctions in training human boys and girls in their main task of life, the acquisition of virtues. There is no one set of virtues for men and a different set for women. Both must be sensible and just. Lack of self-control from eating or drinking too much will be as shameful in a woman as it is in a man. Women need to be brave as well, and would not want to be inferior even to hens and other female birds that fearlessly do battle with any larger animal that threatens their chicks. Remember also the armed Amazon warriors. If some women lack courage, it’s not from their lack of natural endowment, but from their lack of practice.  

Philosophy provides such practice for courage and for all the virtues, so as far as the virtues are concerned, sons and daughters should have the same education. Some will then ask if men should spin wool with the women and women should pursue the same gymnastics as men. Musonius does not advise it. He notes that some tasks, because of innate differences in the builds and the bodily strength of men and women, tend to be better-suited to each sex, which is why people have traditionally spoken of “men’s work” and “women’s work,” but even here there may be exceptions. He is talking about equal education for both sexes in the things that matter the most – like learning what is helpful and what is harmful, what should be done, and what should not, how to endure hardships, to overcome fear of death, to discern what is honorable and what is base and shameful. No man is properly educated without philosophy — and no woman is either. Women, like men, should develop good character and practice noble behavior, “since indeed philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior.”

Lecture 5: Is Practice More Important Than Theory in The Pursuit of the Good Life?

We come to a point of the greatest importance to all four of our Greco-Roman Stoic moralists. To put it in a nutshell (well, three actually), Musonius poses three questions:

  • If you were ill, who would you choose between a doctor who can speak brilliantly about the art of medicine, but who has not treated sick people, or a doctor who cannot speak very well about medicine, but who is experienced in healing according to proper medical theory?
  • Who would you hire as your captain, a man who has never piloted a boat, but can speak authoritatively on naval theory, or a man who can hardly put two words together, but who has successfully sailed many ships?
  • Who would you hire to perform, a musician learned in musical theory who cannot play an instrument, or one who knows no theory, but plays a mean cithara or lyre?

Musonius assumes your answer in each case would be the person who has actual experience, the one who can clearly effectively practice, regardless of his capacity to preach. He applies this as well to philosophy, asking if it clearly isn’t better to be self-controlled and prudent than to be able to discourse about theories of temperance and prudence. Practice wins out over theory in philosophy because while understanding the theory behind virtuous actions enables one to speak about them, it is the practice of virtue that enables one to act virtuously. Theory is not without value, however, when it teaches one how to act and logically informs and comes before practice. Practical application should be in harmony with theory, but practice is more effective in leading people to action.

Lecture 6: How Does One Practice Philosophy?

It is one thing to know what the virtues of self-control, justice, courage, and wisdom are, and quite another thing live them. Anyone who claims to seek wisdom through philosophy must practice more fervently than one pursuing the art of medicine or any other specialized skill, because philosophy is of greater importance and difficulty than any other pursuit. Philosophy is the very art of living. How then does one practice and train?  

We must train according to the nature of what we are. Humans are a composite of body and soul, and both of them must be trained. Most attention should be directed to the higher part of the soul, but some care should also be given to the body, lest one will be lacking in his full humanity.  The philosopher must train his body in the capacity for virtuous work. The body is virtue’s instrument or tool. We train both body and soul when we discipline ourselves to withstand cold, heat, thirst, hunger, small portions of food, hard beds, to avoid pleasure and endure pain with patience.

The first step in training the soul is to make sure that the proofs of what things are truly good and evil are always ready at hand, and to accustom oneself to always distinguish truly good things from things that may appear good, but are not. The next step is to walk one’s thought, so to speak, never to run from what appears evil, but is truly good, nor to seek out what only appears to be good, while avoiding true evils and seeking true goods. All in all, a person practicing philosophy will seek to master himself, to overcome both pleasure and pain, to avoid clinging to life at all costs from a fear of death, and, in the case of goods or money, will not value receiving over giving.

A Bit of Commentary on Lectures 3 – 6

In his lectures endorsing female students of philosophy and the same fundamental moral training for males and females, we see Musonius’s clear declaration that men and women are endowed by the gods with the same gifts of reason and moral judgment.  Note as well, that Musonius’s lecture 4 espousing equal moral training of children of both sexes does not speak of the education of “girls,” and “boys,” but rather of “daughters” and “sons.” Recall the Stoics’ goal of living in accordance with nature, which requires the understanding of the nature of things, including human beings. Musonius does not speak of merely “girls” and “boys”, but of “daughters” and “sons,” because even here, in this lecture on education, he remembers human nature. He does not speak of abstract groupings of “gender,” nor of young male and female citizens, as if owned by some state, but first and foremost of the fact that every girl and every boy is someone’s “daughter” or “son.”

In this regard, Rufus echoes Aristotle, who called humans both “rational animals” and “political animals,” but wrote that “man is naturally inclined to form couples – even more than to form cities, inasmuch as the household is earlier and more necessary than the city…” Who more than a parent should care that their children are raised up in a way that will cultivate the seeds of virtue within them, and who is more ultimately responsible? Time and again Rufus’s “family values” ring loud and clear through his lectures, and the way to best protect and promote family life per Musonius is through the pursuit of the cardinal virtues and the wisdom that embodied Stoic philosophy.  

Lectures 5 and 6 make clear the value Musonius made of the practice of philosophy, valuing it so much higher than merely knowledge of it. The proof of a philosophy is in the pudding of actual virtuous lives lived out in accordance with reason and nature, bringing peace to the soul of the student of philosophy and benevolent deeds enhancing the lives of all of those around him or her. Still, Musonius does not by any means totally discount the role of knowledge and theory in living a life of virtue. We will better know what is truly good by a thoughtful search for the truth. But once a moral truth is found, it is far more important that is lived and not just learned.

I invite readers to ponder Musonius’ lectures as summarized above, or ideally as they are presented in full, to see what stands out as important to you, and I wonder what kinds of comments might you make and how Musonius’ wisdom might impact you this summer?

Recommend Reading for Your Stoic Summer

My own book that treats of Musonius Rufus in three chapters on his life, lectures, and his  philosophical legacy across time is The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).  I must note as well that Rufus is of enduring value and well worth the reading for Christians and non-Christians alike. My own resources on Rufus at the time of writing were the excellent Cora Lutz and Cynthia King translations of Rufus’s extant works cited in the footnotes of this article. The Lutz translation was originally published in 1947, and the edition I cited has the benefit of the original Greek and English translations on facing pages. The more recent King book provides a more modern preface and introduction, and also includes other sayings attributed to Rufus from additional secondary sources (including, foremost, Epictetus).  I also found J. T. Dillon’s Musonius Rufus and Education in the Good Life: A Model of Teaching and Living Virtue (University Press of America, 2004) a valuable resource on Rufus’s life and lessons.  Just this year, I have discovered and enjoyed Chuck Chakrapani’s Stoic Lessons: Musonius Rufus Complete Works (The Stoic Gym Publications, 2018).   

To conclude, I highly recommended that the next time you head for a chair on a hot sunny beach (or even for a recliner in an air-conditioned study), whether you are a woman or a man, young or old, religious or secularist, consider inviting Musonius Rufus to join you for a couple of well-spent hours heeding a voice of unusual clarity and sanity in a world that could certainly use some.  You can be sure he will not hog the beach umbrella or ask you to turn up the air.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, theology, and physical fitness, has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The Locus of Meaning by Dan Hayes

In the search for Human flourishing (eudaimonia), meaning or significance is a necessary component. Meaning is what makes you who you are, what story you tell yourself about yourself. People find meaning in many forms: people, philosophy, religion, work, money, experiences, among others. The problem is that many people find their meaning in things they have no control over. They define themselves by their wealth, their jobs, their possessions or relationships.

If a person defines their meaning based upon things they have no control over then when they lose that thing that defines their meaning, they themselves become undefined. They lose the motivating factor in their story of self. Meaning, therefore needs to emerge from the self, and not from an external. One should then define their meaning in the context of one’s thoughts and actions, your knowledge, desire, aversion and motivation. In short the seat of meaning should reside within the realm of control.

Our Meaning should propel us through life and comfort us when the eventual setback hits us. Our meaning should never be able to be taken from us. Our meaning informs our agency in the world. Our meaning needs to be broad in order to fit into the many roles we must take during our life.

We all will fill the role of learners, doers, and teachers in our lives. All these roles equal and necessary in life and our meaning should be able to feed into each one of these roles. Our meaning must not be static or brittle. We may have it shift over time, to fit the dynamic of our lives. One may find their meaning shifting from a builder to a nurturer over time and this is fine as long as you can shift the material manifestation of your meaning from one subject to another.

If one understands levels of abstraction, one can find the proper level where to place one’s meaning. Abstraction is used in science where the primitives of one discipline are explained by another. For example Atomic Theory describes the atoms and all their primitive parts, electron, proton, neutron, orbitals etc. Chemistry is one abstraction level up. Its primitives are the atoms themselves. It uses those atoms to build chemicals. Going up a level of abstraction again Biology uses chemicals as building blocks for living organisms. Cell walls are made up of lipids, chemicals lined up in sheets, and our DNA just very long sequences of nucleotides, just more chemicals.

There are three major places that one can place their meaning in the levels of inner and outer life. At the most base level we have that of the inner self, defined by one’s reason and faculty of choice. A level of inner thought and contemplation before any action with the outside world.

Abstracting up to the middle level and we have our roles and duties within the community of rational beings. Here in the middle we have general duty based categories such as caregiver, builder, protector, organizer.

Going up once more and we have the manifestation of those roles. This manifestation are one’s job, one’s wealth, ones relationships, whatever is the physical output of that role. One can work toward improving their faculty of choice, but in order to live in accordance with nature we must interact with our fellow human beings. We fulfill that interaction with our duties, roles and their manifestations. If we keep our meaning in the middle level it matters not which form its physical manifests takes. The base and middle levels are within the realm of control. The highest level of abstraction is not.

If one is a builder then if matters not if any and all of your creations are destroyed or go to ruin. It is not in your power to preserve earthly things, but it is in your power to do the action of building. Your purpose is to build and create, be you a workman or engineer, tinkerer or architect, designer or craftsman. Nothing should stop you from being your meaning. You should be able to transfer the subject of your meaning, to a multitude of things and never lament when those things cease to be.

Your next project is little more than a hovel – then build it the best you can. Take as much care for this hovel as you would the project of a lavash house. If it is your meaning and duty to be a builder than build everything you can with excellence (arete). This building is done – good, move on to the next one. Do not boast of the building as if it is your own. It is an indifferent. One need to look no farther than the ruins of once great civilizations and remember the words of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to see how fleeting that is. Instead, if you are to say anything at all, say that “I have done the best work I could.” and leave it as that.

This city has been razed to the ground. Do not lament for that which is lost. There are people here now that need you. Do your duty and build for your fellow man, they need shelter from the elements now more than ever. Infuse your meaning into that which is your duty. You are not the building, nor the employee, nor the proprietor. The building can fall, you can lose your job, your company can fold. None of these events can take your meaning from you as long as you don’t put your meaning in these things. Fortify yourself by placing your meaning firmly within the realm of that which you control.

One day a builder will find that through circumstances outside his control he can no longer directly build. This is no problem, for as long as the mind is sound the builder can move to becoming a teacher or mentor who builds the builder. His meaning is retained even though his duty has changed. He should feel no resentment, but instead embrace the change with equanimity. The meaning  flows like water into the vessel of the situation at hand.

On the other hand if his duty is to shift his meaning from one calling to another then the new meaning should also be self-defined within the world of the realm of control. Say now you have become an artist. Go forth and be the best artist that you can and fulfill your duty. If you become famous for your sculpture or paintings, or just have a regular job working to make art for marketing that matters not. Both can be good provided you act with excellence in your new meaning as an artist. You are not your art, you are your action. Pour your meaning into the action of work.

The existentialist philosophers sparred with this issue and came to varied conclusions. Albert Camus asserted that there is no meaning and that any attempt to assert meaning would only result in disaster. Here I disagree and am closer to Sartre’s position of “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that we create our own meaning and that there is no external meaning. That the meaning one has must be self defined. I assert that in order to maintain that meaning, the meaning has to be within one’s control. That in refinement to Sartre’s position, not only do we create our meaning but that a eudaimonic meaning must reside in the subset all possible locuses of meaning that are fully within one’s own control.

Of the things that are most correlated with a satisfying and meaningful life, one is contributing to something greater than yourself.  These projects are personal, where you can see them having an effect on society, that provide peak challenging experiences, and will matter to more than just you.2 These projects could be a job or charity work or some sort of political organization, and they all lie outside the sphere of choice.

In order to gain the benefits of these projects without the potential of distress from their external nature we should abstract the location of the meaning we gain from them. If one places their meaning in the project itself, then it can be taking away from you, or the project can fail. Instead abstract up a layer and instead place your meaning in the work of moving a project forward. If your charity organization folds, then you can look at it as meaningful work that was done and that you can do more meaningful work with another charity.  If your preferred political candidate fails, then work to promote another one for the next election. The outcome of the project does not matter, derive your meaning form your actions to promote a project.

When one looks at the research by Dr John T. Cacioppo and others, it indicates loneliness in older adults results in nearly doubling their mortality risk. They better define Loneliness as “perceived isolation and . . . more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships.” 1 If one moves their location of their desired social relationship away from an individual and towards a category, then one can change the location of the meaning one derives from specific relationships.

To be defined as the wife or husband of another results in an existence reliant on their spouse for meaning.  Here one has placed their meaning in an external. One’s meaning is dependent on the health and opinions of someone else, not on anything one controls. A Stoic can still love their spouse, but would be wise to define their meaning in this regard as not so specific. Rather make your meaning to be a dutiful and loving spouse, or go up a level of abstraction to define your meaning as love and care for others. This change in relationship desire removes the discrepancy of loneliness. Then when one passes on, as we all will eventually, we don’t lose our meaning as well. Keep your meaning to the level of abstraction that remains within your realm of control and reap the health benefits.

Finally those who place their meaning in money are truly lost. Not only is money an external but an external which has no objective value. It only has value due to our inter-subjective reality, i.e. it only has value due to our collective agreement that it has value. It is a second order external, it is outside our control and it is dependent on others collective subjective agreement about it.  At least first order externals like our bodies are only dependent on the physical world. A second order external is furthest from our control.

Those without meaning are like a ship out of harbor, beset by a storm. They are lost and in danger -in danger of being defined by others’ desires for them. In the storm they are at the mercy of the gust and waves, throwing them to and fro without direction of their own. The storms are jobs, money, relationships and any other other definition of meaning that on may take that can be taken away from them. If one has meaning that is dependent upon the self alone then they create a harbor against the worst storms and a harness for the storms that are advantageous and in harmony with your meaning.

Dan Hayes  is a Stoic Prokoptôn, a VR Software Developer, and a Landlord, seeking calm within the storm of life through wisdom.

1. Luo, Y.,  Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.

2. Martos T et al., “Life Goals and Well-Being: Does Financial Status Matter? Evidence from a Representative Hungarian Sample.” Soc. Indic. Res. 105, 561–8 (2012)

A Stoic Approach to Divorce and Child Separation by Stewart Slater

Nowadays, around half of all marriages end in divorce. The exact number varies from country to country and time to time, but having risen over the post-war era, it has broadly plateaued at a permanently high level.

Like many things, divorce exists on a spectrum. For every couple who adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow / Chris Martin model of “conscious uncoupling” and stay involved in each others’ lives, there is another which re-enacts the Michael Douglas / Kathleen Turner film The War of the Roses.

Things are more complex when children are involved and for every couple who manage to “co-parent” successfully, there is another where one parent is cut out of the children’s lives.

My divorce was the latter and I was that parent.

The settlement allowed me to send cards and presents to my children 4 times a year but there was no corresponding obligation on them. The situation continued for a couple of years until I learned that my children had moved school. Then I learned they had moved house.

I re-engaged my divorce lawyer, who in turn hired a detective. He found no trace of them but some hearsay evidence they had moved abroad to one of two countries.

The matter was turned over to the government, who, using the well established protocols for these situations, got in contact with the government of one of the other states. Finally, they were able to confirm that my children did actually live there.

Unfortunately, these things take time and my children were located just after my daughter’s 16th birthday and 16 is the age when child abduction law ceases to apply. So, while I have gained an idea of where my children are, I have also lost my ability to do anything to get them back. I may be able to establish some contact with my son, who is younger, but I have, probably, lost my daughter.

I developed an interest in Stoicism before my divorce and I’ve found it an enormous help during it. While I sincerely hope that no-one has to go through a similar experience, below are the 4 Stoic approaches that I’ve found the most useful.

1. The Dichotomy of Control

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1.

An obvious place to start. One of the core doctrines of Stoicism is to focus on what you control, and not to worry about what you do not. Epictetus in the passage following the above talks about judgement, impulse, desire, aversion and our mental faculties being in the former camp, while the latter consists of our bodies, material possessions, reputation and status.

A good example of his approach comes in book 4, chapter 1 of The Discourses where he writes in section 73:

Whoever told you ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I only said the will to walk could not be obstructed. Where the use of the body and its cooperation are concerned, you’ve long been told that that isn’t your responsibility.

If we do not control our own bodies and actions, then, a fortiori, we do not control those of others. Unfortunately, a divorce case, particularly involving children, involves a lot of other people. There’s one’s soon-to-be-ex spouse, one’s children, lawyers, a judge and any experts the court may choose to consult. One of them at least, will not have your best interests at heart. All of them have other things going on in their lives which may be more important to them than your case. They may well reach conclusions which strike you as illogical and ill-founded. And there is nothing you can do about it. The decision in the case will not be yours.

All you can do is choose the best lawyer you can, tell your side of the story to the best of your ability, try to rebut the other side’s arguments where possible and to cooperate with the process as far as you are able. After that, the matter is out of your hands. Accepting this is a key part of process. Ultimately, you do not control the outcome. In coaching parlance, all you can do is focus on the process and make sure you do your best.

As Epictetus says in The Discourses II.5.28ff:

Your job then is to appear before the court, say what you have to say and then make the best of the situation. Then the judge declares you guilty. ‘I wish you well, judge. I did my part, you can decide if you did yours.’ Because the judge runs a risk too, don’t forget.

2. “The Olympics have started”

There’s a Buddhist proverb which states that the 3 best teachers are failure, heartbreak and empty pockets. And divorce certainly offers all three. However, one of the tropes of Stoicism is that crises offer the chance to test oneself and improve one’s character. As we know, the philosophy has an intensely practical nature prizing action in the real world over “book-learning”.

‘Take the treatise On Impulse and see how well I’ve read it’ Idiot. It’s not that I’m after, I want to know how you put impulse and repulsion into practice, and desire and avoidance as well.

Epictetus, Discourses, I.4.14

Unfortunately, many of the virtues are only really called into action in unpleasant circumstances. We cannot show courage unless there is something to fear. Accepting a pleasant circumstance is much easier than accepting an unpleasant one. It is at difficult times that we have the most opportunity to learn and improve ourselves.

…Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 10

Divorce throws up many unpleasant circumstances, but that offers many opportunities to improve one’s character. Different parts of the process might call on different virtues and it helps to see each new event as a chance to work on a particular area. As Marcus Aurelius asks:

What is this which is now making its impression on me?…What virtue is needed to meet it- gentleness, for example or courage, truthfulness, loyalty, simplicity, self-sufficiency and so on?

Meditations III.11.2

Seeing divorce in that light serves to lighten the pain, and one can think that while one will come out of the experience poorer in many (indifferent) ways, one can also leave it a better person than one started. By seeing it as a training course in life’s gym, one can imbue the experience with positive meaning as it offers gains as well as the obvious losses.

3. The Role of Father

It is well established in behavioral economics that humans have an asymmetric approach to gains and losses. Countless experiments have shown that we would far rather give up an opportunity for gain to avoid a loss rather accept a potential loss as the price for an almost certain profit. Unfortunately, divorce involves a lot of losses

As well as the material factors, one also loses a role. One is no longer a spouse and the role (if it be such) of “ex-spouse” depends almost exclusively on the circumstances regarding the split. In my own case, not seeing my children also seemed to remove my role as a father. But is this really true?

At one level, certainly not. Whatever the current situation, nothing changes my genetic link to my children. But looking at it in that, purely biological light, seems unsatisfactory as it effectively equates fatherhood with sperm donation, and I think we would see the two in slightly different lights. But a more expansive definition such as “a male who brings up a child” seems flawed as well. A prisoner of war, for example, is not involved in raising their child, but we wouldn’t say that they stop being a parent during their incarceration.

Epictetus deals with parenthood in chapter 11 of Book 1 of The Discourses. There, he talks to a man who felt unable to stay with his sick daughter and describes his behavior as not a rational act” (Discourses, I.11.20)

Now, any definition of a role in terms of the actions it involves will fall foul of the Dichotomy of Control. As noted above, there are circumstances in which one will not be able to fulfill them. So, the role of fatherhood must be couched in terms of intentions and desires. A father is someone who, for example, wants the best for his children and endeavours to bring it about. It is in this second part that the father whom Epictetus meets fails because, by giving in to his worry, he acts in such a way as to reduce his ability to help and support his child.

This might seem a de minimis version of fatherhood and one might wonder if Hierocles’ Circle does not lay a similar burden on us towards everyone, not just our offspring. However, I think 2 points can be made in reply. Firstly, the Stoics obviously placed family relationships in a special position. The chapter referred to above is entitled Concerning Family Affection where he states:

Whatever is rational will not be in conflict with family affection Epictetus,

Discourses, I.11.18

In this, he seems to be following Musonius Rufus who writes in his lecture “What is the chief end of marriage?” :

He said that the chief end of marriage is uniting to live together and have children [i.e. form a family unit]

Musonius Rufus, Lectures XIII.A.1

Further, while we may, as human beings have an obligation to all other people, it is not clear that it is the same as that owed to our families. If I fail to buy my children a birthday present, I am probably a bad father. If I don’t buy a birthday present for every child in my town, it is not clear that I am, therefore, a bad person.

So, if fatherhood consists of trying to do one’s best for one’s genetic offspring, the change divorce has brought me is not a loss of my role, it is rather a change in the way I can fulfil it. Our performance of a role must be considered along with the realistic options we have at any point in time. It must take cognizance of our practical situation. For example, consider a father whose child is studying the Greeks. If he is well-off, he might take her to Athens on holiday, and spend a week seeing the Acropolis, the Agora and the museums to make sure she learns all she can about them. The next year, she studies the Romans, but in the intervening period, through no fault of his own, her father has lost his job, and his resources are more straitened. Instead of a holiday to Rome, maybe all he can do is take her to the local museum to see some relics. In the second year, he is doing less for his daughter, but he has not thereby become a worse father. He is still doing all he can, given the circumstances of his life.

My own situation means that I cannot do many of the things we traditionally associate with fatherhood. However, it does not stop me acting as a father. I can still endeavour to keep in touch with my children’s education, for example. I can still intervene with those in authority when I think it is to their advantage to do so. I can bear their interests at the forefront of my mind, even in matters of which they will be unaware and may never learn about. To misquote Dean Acheson, I may have lost my children, but I have not yet lost my role.

4. Praemeditatio Malorum

The previous sections have dealt with approaches to the problem, ways of thinking about it which have helped me accept the situation. In this last part, I will deal with a practice to help reduce distress.

Praemeditatio malorum or “the visualisation of evils” is a standard part of the Stoic therapeutic arsenal, consisting of intentionally imagining a situation which one fears or wishes to avoid. The idea is that by repeated consideration of an event, one habituates oneself to it, thereby reducing the distress it causes. If the event never materialises, then one has at least reduced one’s fear of it while if it does, not only should it cause one less distress, but by having rehearsed it beforehand, one should also be able to react better, if for no other reason than that it will not be a shock.

Not seeing my children is obviously a continual situation, rather than a single event, so is hard to visualise. I decided, therefore, to visualise dying on my own, having never seen them since we parted. As I was lying there, not feeling too good about things, I realised that, even in that extreme circumstance, I still had the opportunity to be virtuous. I could die well, with courage.

And if I could be virtuous then, then I could be virtuous at any time, no matter what was happening which I find a very comforting thought. As Stoics, we’re supposed to aim for virtue and no external circumstance whether it be divorce, loss or hardship can stop us unless we allow it. As Marcus asks:

Can there be anything then, in this happening which prevents you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, intelligent, judicious, truthful, honourable and free – or any other of those attributes who combination is the fulfilment of man’s proper nature?

Meditations, IV.49.2

And the answer is always, “No”.

Stewart Slater lives in the UK. He has a degree in Classics and has been a practising Stoic for several years

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 1) by Greg Sadler

In recent years, we have had a number of well-written and informative pieces discussing Stoicism and physical exercise or sport here in Stoicism Today.  These include pieces like:

One might wonder then:  Why another piece on the topic.  Hasn’t everything relevant already been said about the application of Stoic philosophy to matters athletic, sporty, or exercise-related in those excellent pieces here, as well as in myriad other pieces (ranging much more widely in quality) elsewhere? After all, once Stoicism became a hot topic – guaranteed to garner eyeballs on the internet – posts applying Stoicism to these matters of the body have practically exploded in number, popularity, and readership. Why write more of that sort of stuff, given how much of it is out there already?

Then again, perhaps a different sort of post would be better.  There’s always room for pieces narrating and sharing one’s own story, by way of inspiration and personal example.  After all, Stoicism is a philosophy of practice and that means that it applies to particular individuals, who live out and experiment with Stoicism’s general teachings.  Or maybe a more exegetical post tallying up and interpreting the many references to training, working out, and athletic contests could be of interest?

This post will be something a bit different. While it includes some brief discussion about what classic Stoics had to say about exercise, athletics, and the body, and a good bit of personal narrative, the goal is to provide something more broadly useful.  The audience I have in mind is less a high-performance athlete engaging and perhaps even competing in physical skills or sports.  It’s not even the person who already has exercise as a central component of his or her lifestyle.  It’s directed less towards readers in their teens and twenties – those years many of us look back on as ages of better bodily health which we may have taken for granted – and more aimed at an audience either approaching, solidly within, or past middle age.  That’s not to say that it might not be useful or of interest for the types of readers I’ve mentioned.

The reflections that follow stem from my own experiences, insights, and reflections having to do with exercise.  These are filtered  through Stoic philosophy and practices, which I have relied upon over roughly the last year-and-a half of workouts at the gym we belong to (the Wisconsin Athletic Club, with a number of locations here in the Milwaukee area).  My wife and I struggled for years to reincorporate consistent exercise into our busy lives.  When dealing with heavy workloads, health challenges, and a slew of family matters, it becomes easy to sketch out plans for getting back into shape. It is equally easy to sign up for a gym membership, and perhaps even to go a few times.  To stick with exercise, week after week, that’s considerably tougher.  For me, reincorporating exercise in middle age turned out to be much more difficult and demanding than it was in my youth.

My workouts at the gym are pretty straightforward and unambitious.  Some days, I make a circuit of 14-16 exercises using weights machines, generally doing three sets of 12-15 repetitions on each.  That takes me anywhere from 1 hour, if I’m really moving, to 90 minutes.  Other days, I put in an hour of cardiovascular exercise – 20 minutes on an elliptical, 20 minutes on a rowing machine, 10 minutes on a side-stepper, and 10 minutes on an inclined treadmill.  Those workouts, supplemented by daily walking and occasional hikes, are as much as I can fit in, and I find them sufficiently challenging to be entirely uninterested in adding anything along lines of advice well-meaning people frequently suggest.

During those workouts, I find myself with plenty of time to reflect and ruminate. Since I study, teach, and produce content about Stoicism, ideas and issues from that discipline are often in my thought.  Being at the gym also provides me with a lot of occasions to put Stoic philosophy into practice. I find myself having to deal with impressions, judgements, lines of thinking, emotions, desires, aversions, and my own habits. The fact that I have classic Stoic passages, principles, and practices ready at hand when I face these matters is, on the one hand, a sign that I am indeed making progress.  The fact that I still routinely need to use those is, on the other hand, a sign that I have a lot more progress to make.  

The reflections that follow may be useful for others who would like to bring Stoicism to bear on their own challenges in starting and sticking with regular physical exercise.  I suspect that, given the challenges they stem from these reflections may be pertinent to other domains of life as well.  In order to keep this piece to a reasonable length, I’ll discuss two of those sets of reflections today.  In the coming week, I will add a few shorter follow-up pieces about yet other reflections.

Considering the Body As Indifferent

Classical Stoic thinkers employ many analogies likening the training of the mind with that of physical exercise and discipline.  What did they think about training the body itself?  One might think that they are of two minds about this.  For example, you notice Epictetus asserting in Enchiridion 41 that one sign of an poorly developed person is spending much time on matters of the body.  These include eating and drinking, but also engaging in exercise (gumnazesthai). 

Seneca cautions Lucilius along these lines in Letter 15.

It is foolish. . . and unbefitting an educated man to busy oneself with exercising the muscles, broadening the shoulders, and strengthening the torso. . . . .Those who are obsessed with such a regimen incur many discomforts.

He does not suggest ignoring physical exercise, but rather placing it within a proper framework.

There are ways of exercising that are easy and quick, that give the body a workout without taking up too much time. . .  running, and arm movements with various weights, and jumping. . . Choose whatever you like and make it easy by practice.  But whatever you do, return quickly from the body to the mind and exercise that, night and day.

Within classical Stoic philosophy, there is a clear, consistent, and uncompromising viewpoint on the human body.  Those who focus upon it exclusively or even primarily are deeply mistaken, and whatever they may temporarily achieve or attain through the body, they are inevitably passing up any chance at real happiness, because they are closing themselves off to developing what really matters, and what we really do have some measure of control over.  This is our mind, and in particular the nexus at its core that Stoics call by various names (picking out distinctive functions):  the governing faculty, the rational faculty, the faculty of choice or will (prohairesis).  Prioritizing and valuing physical exercise for its own sake, or for the sake of ends it leads to as a means (being strong and tough, attaining a certain look or body type, becoming more physically attractive, competing with others, etc.) is not inherently or absolutely incompatible with developing and exercising one’s mental and moral capacities, but for many people it turns out to be so in their specific cases.

Strictly speaking, the body is what the Stoics classify as an “indifferent,” something that lacks intrinsic moral value, for good or for bad.  This is not to say that as an indifferent it lacks value altogether, but it does not have the same sort of positive or negative value as things that are genuine goods or bads.  In their teachings and advice, Stoics provided numerous examples of things that fit under this umbrella term of the indifferent.  Wealth and poverty, honor and disgrace, positions and powers or being a “nobody” – these are all commonplace examples.

Interestingly, if you look at many of the things that Stoics call “indifferents,” they pertain to the body in one way or another.  Life or death, sickness or health, pleasure or pain, strength or weakness, attractiveness or ugliness – the body is not just one thing that is an indifferent, but rather a nexus of all sorts of indifferents. Quite a few of these are interconnected with each other.  If we look at matters of the body along these Stoic lines, what do we make of hitting the gym then?  Doesn’t whether we go or don’t go – or whether we exercise hard or slack off – also become just a set of choices that bear upon indifferents, so that really, they don’t matter very much (or perhaps at all)?  In the grand scheme of things, does it matter at all if I do all of the repetitions in a set?  Does it matter if I skip one of the weights exercises on any given day, or just row for 15 minutes rather than 20? 

For Stoics, recognizing that things concerning the body are indifferents doesn’t lead them to think that how we approach them, how we deal with them, the decisions me make about them is itself something indifferent.  There is the entire dimension of “use” (khresis), about which Epictetus tells us:

Materials are indifferent, but the use that we make of them is not a matter of indifference.  . . . Are externals to be used carelessly?  Not at all.  This is again to the moral purpose an evil and thus unnatural to it.  They must be used carefully, because their use is not a matter of indifference, and at the same time with steadfastness and peace of mind, because the matter is indifferent

Discourses 2.5

In this discourse, Epictetus likens the conduct of one’s life to playing a game with a ball.  The ball itself is an indifferent, but the way one choses to play is up to one, and does have positive or negative moral significance.  One might look at one’s body in a similar light.  Whether one chooses to exercise or not, one can experience pain, bad health, weakness, obesity, and ultimately death.  In fact, as I often remind my students, you can get and maintain yourself in peak physical shape and get hit by a stray bus as you cross the street, or succumb to some unexpected pandemic.  In many ways the body and its many connected indifferents is really outside the scope of our control.  And yet, we can make prudent use of our bodies by engaging in regular physical exercise. We are responsible to some extent for the shape our bodies are in, and what we choose to do about that.

As a middle aged man, for whom physical exercise never comes as easily or effortlessly as I remember it did in my earlier decades, I have to remind myself that it is up to me what I do with this rather out of condition meat-machine I have been assigned.  In my own case, I also have to keep in mind that the current state of my body is a result of not making the right uses of it in terms of exercise in the past, but that it is possible in the present to choose, to commit, to “use” better.  Whether or not the parts of some  machine of metal, plastic, and rubber get moved in this way or that by my bodily effort – that is definitely something indifferent.  Whether or not my muscles, bones, circulatory system benefit in minor incremental manners from the physical activity I devote time to – that’s also indifferent.  But what I decide to do with this body that I have – that is something up to me, something that is not indifferent. 

Recognizing The Gym As Shared Space

One main way in which I make use of Stoic philosophy at the gym stems from a tendency that I have, and admit with some embarrassment, but which I suspect many people can easily relate to.  Nearly all of the exercises that I do at the gym are on machines.  Either they are weights machines or they are machines set up for cardio.  Like many gym-goers, I have my established routines for how I cycle through using each machine in turn.  I like to start my weight circuit with the rowing machine, then the pulldown, then the shoulder press, and so on.  I start my cardio workout on one of the elliptical machines, and then move on to a rowing machine.  There is no reason that the exercises that I do need to go in any particular order.  It’s just a matter of habits that I have generated for myself over time.

Here’s what I find myself experiencing, still far too often, but also find some remedies for in Stoic philosophy.  It is a set of needless and unproductive thoughts and associated emotions that arise within a particular context. These reveal some of my own assumptions as well, judgements that I am working to erode over time, because they are selfish, irrational, and harmful.  In a strict sense, considered in light of Stoic philosophy, they are also vicious – specifically foolish and unjust – and setting them down in print makes this pretty clear.  I have to go through a similar evaluative process when I identify them and bring them up for review in my own mind, usually as I’m laboring away at a physical exercise.

I will be on the machine that I’m currently using, laboring away at whatever exercise that machine is set up for, and I already have my eye on another machine – the one that comes next in my usual sequence.  If someone else is using it, and I am getting close to finishing with my current machine, I find myself feeling emotions like annoyance, anxiousness, and impatience, often directed at that person on the other machine.  It’s worse if there is some seeming legitimacy to those feelings – for example, when you see a person taking what appears to be an inordinately long time to knock out their sets, spending the intervals between dawdling on their phone.

Notice what I did just there, by using the term “dawdling”.  In Stoic terms, that’s a judgement or opinion (doxa or dogma, to use Epictetus’ terms) which might indeed be quite true, but which could also be false.  I’m assuming something, or most likely, quite a lot of things, in making that judgement.  It’s also a way in which I’m giving assent to what Stoics call an appearance or impression (phantasia), namely the impression that the person on the other machine is wasting time doing something unimportant on their phone, rather than getting on with the workout they ought to be engaging in, if they’re on that machine.  Practicing Stoicism means identifying when one is engaging in this sort of unfounded judgement-making, when one is reacting automatically or unconsciously to appearances, rather than taking a pause to test them.  It could be that the person is on their phone for good reason.  Perhaps they got an important text, or an email came through that has to be attended to.  Maybe they use an app to track their exercises. 

Let’s say that the person in question really is wasting time, watching videos on YouTube about something trivial and totally unconnected with exercise.  Let’s say that he or she is caught up in that, losing track of how much time is passing in between their sets.  Why should that be upsetting to me?  I rarely know any of the people I am sharing the gym space with. Nearly all of us have headphones in.  How is it any of my business whether that other person gets a good workout in?  It brings to mind Epictetus’ warning:

Somebody is hasty about bathing; do not say he bathes badly, but that he is hasty about bathing.  Someone drinks a great deal of wine; do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks a great deal.  For until you have decided what judgement prompts him, how do you know what he is doing is bad?  And thus the final result will not be that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to other things.

Enchiridion 45  

What other people do at the gym is really their own business.  So why then do I find myself having these responses – before I am even finished with my own exercise – to another person using the machine I intend to use next?  My desire is already stretching out into the near future to the thing I plan to use next.  It’s not unlike a person who already has a plate in front of him, with a dish he hasn’t finished yet, looking over at the next dish he wants to eat, and getting upset seeing other people eating it.  There’s something profoundly foolish about that, and even more so in the gym.  Someone else might eat all the deserts while I’m polishing off my main course.  But nobody is taking away my possibility of using an exercise machine by sitting on it.  I just have to be patient, and sooner or later the machine will be free.

When I examine my own thoughts about these matters, in the situation, what I realize is going on is that I have desires, emotions, and thoughts that from a Stoic perspective could use some serious work.  Human beings do tend to have a natural self-centeredness, not just in terms of what we desire and what we value, but also in the assumptions we make and the lines of reasoning we follow out, and I am no exception.  I have to remind myself in these situations that I am the one who is allowing myself to become upset by assenting to impressions I have of the situation, by failing to reflect upon what might or might not be the case, by investing my desires into things I have no control over, by making faulty assumptions about what ought to be the case, and by inconsistently acting as if I am – if not the center of the universe – at least the center of the gym.

Whether or not I do my exercises in the more or less arbitrary sequence that I have settled into is really unimportant.  The only thing that gives it some glamour of significance is my own desire to do my exercises in that order.  They can be shuffled around and no real harm will come to me.  The weights aren’t going to be less heavy if I do the leg press last instead of in the middle of my workout.  The rowing machine will function the same if I get on it at the end as well.  Nobody is hindering or preventing me from exercising by doing their own workout.

Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself – and Epictetus and Seneca frequently teach – that we are all parts of greater wholes, systems whose components can cooperate and harmonize with each other in productive ways, or oppose each other and create conflicts.  I’m not claiming that somehow the Wisconsin Athletic Club is an organization in which all of us members are working together for some common goal.  But what it does provide is indeed a space that we all share and have to take turns in.  It may sound quite silly, but I have to remind myself of the fact that I’m definitely not the only person there to get a workout, and that it’s irrational for me to be mentally laying claim on a machine that someone else is using, when I’m still using another machine – one that yet another person might also be waiting to use.

Through catching my own thought and emotional processes, recalling relevant Stoic teachings, and deliberately steering myself onto a path informed by those, I’ve noticed a difference over time.  I still do find myself falling into this dynamic of worry over being able to move right from the machine I’m currently using to the one that comes next in my workout routine – and I’m not happy to admit a foible like that – but it does happen less often.  And when it does arise, the emotional responses feel less intense and do not last as long.  The thought processes are more tractable to being brought in line with better practical reasoning.  And that is a sign that I’m making progress in developing what the Stoics call the ruling faculty of my mind, getting it too into better condition through appropriate and consistent exercise.

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

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – Stoicism, Pain, and Illness

Over the last several months, we here in the Modern Stoicism organization have published several posts about one of the perks for our Patreon supporters – discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve been publishing the full set of contributions to the panel in the Patreon site, and one of the experts’ contribution in a short mid-week post here. This time around, we’re doing something a little different. Down below, you’ll find the full panel discussion on the topic of “Stoicism, Pain, and Illness”

Before that, there’s two other matters to bring to your attention – just in case you missed them when we posted about them earlier this year.

First, here are the two earlier posts on other important topics

Second, if you’d like to suggest a passage or topic for our expert panel to consider, we now have a link set up for that – Suggest a Quote or Topic for Discussion

And now, with no further ado, on to the expert panel for May. Here’s the question: What insights does Stoicism provide to help us cope with Pain and Illness?

Chuck Chakrapani

Stoicism treats pain and illness as something that relates to your body. Your body nothing to do with the ‘true you’ which is your rational mind, your will. The mind is temporarily housed in the body, like a traveller in a hotel room. Pain and illness that affect the body have little to do with your mind which is forever unfettered and free.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 9

Pain and illness affect you only when you identify yourself with your body rather than your rational mind or will. While Epicurus argued all pain is bearable, the Stoics believed that the real you never suffer pain or illness. It is this lack of identification with the body that made them immune – not only to pain and illness but to death itself.

Massimo Pigliucci

There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. It is not only the sword and the battle-line that prove the soul alert and unconquered by fear; a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes.

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXXVIII.21

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a magic wand. So if someone thinks that adopting a Stoic outlook means that he will suddenly be free of pain and illness, they should think again. And of course the same could be said for someone embracing Buddhism, or Christianity, or any other framework to live one’s life.

The fact is that it is not in our power to avoid pain and illness. But as Seneca says in the quote above, it very much is in our power to react virtuously to such circumstances. Indeed, the entire 72nd letter to Lucilius is concerned with this topic, and is excellent reading for any student of Stoicism.

Most importantly, I think, we need not to allow ourselves to use our illness as an excuse to be rude or unkind toward others, particularly those who are actually taking care of us. It’s more common than you think: a friend of mine has worked in a clinic for the terminally ill, and told me that they have a chronic staff shortage due to high turnover, which is caused in part by the fact that the caretakers are subjected to constant abuse by the people they assist. Even dying is an opportunity to show kindness to our fellow human beings. As Seneca puts it in the same letter:

There are times when just continuing to live is a courageous action.

Letters, LXXVIII.2

Greg Sadler

Many of us suffer from pain and illness, some more often than others, and Stoicism can help us not only to endure these conditions, but also to reframe our approaches to them, so that we can realize them not to be the catastrophes that they readily appear to us.  Of course, it isn’t so simple as just reading some Stoic texts, or repeating “bear and forbear” like a mantra – there are no quick fixes.  But Stoicism offers us powerful tools for analysis of what really troubles us, and for changing the ways we look at those matters.

One aspect that adds additional suffering to those enduring pain and illness is a set of evaluative assumptions that often accompany those conditions.  These have to do with one’s value as a person.  And this dynamic extends much more broadly to other circumstances that we typically view as negative, for example, poverty, as Epictetus points out in Discourses 3.26. He asks the person who fears poverty what it is that they really feel fear over.  One of the answers that his probing analysis reveals has to do with a loss or lessening of social status.

Is that shameful to you which is not your own act? Of which you are not the cause? Which has happened to you by accident, like a fever or the head-ache? If your parents were poor, or left others their heirs, or though living, do not assist you, are these things shameful for you?

It is quite common for those who suffer from pain, or illness, or poverty to get an additional troubling condition foisted upon them by society and its members.  It’s very easy for people who are dealing with these sorts of matters to be looked down up, treated as less than a person, even by their own caregivers.  In this Discourse, Epictetus not only suggests that we ought to determine what really is shameful – which has to do only with what we choose and do, not with what happens to us – but that we even push back against other people’s judgements about our value and what it derives from.  

All too often, those who suffer from chronic pain or illness get the message that there is not only something wrong with their body – and that’s true – but that, because of that, there is something wrong with them – and that inference is false.  It is easy and understandable for a person who is suffering, and consistently getting those sorts of messages, to internalize them, and then create more suffering for themselves by repeating them to themselves.  Stoic philosophy and practice can help undo the damage caused by that dynamic, and restore some measure of psychological health in the process.

Tim LeBon

Stoicism can be a great help to those suffering from illness and pain.  As a CBT-therapist working in the NHS in the UK with people suffering from “long-term conditions” I regularly incorporate what I call “Serenity Prayer Stoicism” into my work.
When people have long-term illnesses or pain, they can be helped by thinking carefully about what they can and  what they cant control.  For instance, 

  • “I can’t control the fact that I have this condition but I can control how I respond to it”
  • “I can no longer gain pleasure and meaning in the way that I did, but that doesnt mean I can’t do so in other ways”
  • “I can’t control the fact that I will experience some pain. but by “pacing” my activities to the right level I can influence how much pain I am in”

These can all be incredibly helpful Stoic ideas which  can be incorporated into standard CBT.  Working as a therapist, it is ethically problematic to try to persuade people to change their value system, which is what one would need to do if one were to ask people to fully embrace Stoicism fully.

In other contexts than therapy, if   people do agree that virtue  is what matters most in life, then clearly this can help enormously in coping with illness and pain, Feeling good now becomes at best a preferred indifferent, and so pain and illness are not an obstacle to eudaimonia. Indeed, being ill and in painprovide new opportunities to exhibit the virtues. One can show courage in how one deals with pain, self-control in not complaining or not over-doing things, justice in being a good role model for people with your condition and wisdom in prioritising the virtues and in focussing on what you can control.

When about to be captured by enemy forces, James Stockdale, author of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, and Courage under Fire  famously whispered to himself “I’m entering the world of Epictetus”.. When ill or in pain, we could all benefit from engaging whole-heartedly with Stoicism.

Again, if you’d like to support all the work we do, as the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a monthly Patreon supporter!

Gratitude in my Attitude: How I Found my Way Into the Rooms of AA and the Stoics

My name is Frank and this is my experience with Alcoholic Anonymous and my recovery from alcoholism. I am not a spokesperson for AA nor do I hold a position in AA.

My last drunk was October 7, 2013, it was a boys’ night out. I was attempting to prove that I could handle my drinking like the other guys, so I took a cab so I didn’t have to worry about driving. I’d made it home with no consequences and was sitting in my La-Z-Boy in my tighty-whiteys, when the phone rang. It was the woman I was dating at the time. Apparently, I’d thought it would be a good idea to get into my car and drive over to her place, except that she lived 20 miles away, her exit was a cloverleaf and I could not get off the highway. I just kept getting on and off, on and off, until I ran out of gas.

The last thing I remember was sitting at home. When I woke up the next morning, she told me she’d found me on the side of the road and had brought me back to her place. We went to the gas station to fill up a gas can and when we got to my car, I saw that the driver’s side mirror had been sheared off. I must have hit something. Back home, I assumed the “Oh shit” position – my head in my hands, staring at the ground. I knew I had a problem but I didn’t know what to do.

I come from an Italian background and had grown up in the 1970s, in an average NYC household. Money was tight, religion was there but not forced, and drinking was the way I saw adults being happy and having fun. Making wine was a yearly event, and my first and fondest memory of alcohol and its effects were when I was around 10 or 11. My grandparents would come over and we would start by crushing the grapes, laughing and having fun. In 3-4 days, the aroma would waft up from the barrels in the garage. One of my chores was to churn the crushing, and when I did, the aroma would hit my lungs and I’d get lightheaded. I was never late for this chore. After 7-10 days, the sugar converted to alcohol and it was my job to scrape the crushing from the barrel after we took out the juice. My father and grandfather would put the barrel on its side so I could reach inside and scoop. The alcohol fumes were much stronger now, and I would be in the barrel up to my waist. It was beyond lightheadedness. The effervescence would fill my lungs and I would get the same feeling/sensation that I would chase until I made it into the rooms of AA.

There was plenty of debauchery, fear, pain, misery, shame, and guilt. Drinking cost me my marriage. I knew nothing about AA, or recovery but a couple of months before, a friend had given me a book called The Golden Book of Resentments. I’d never looked at it, until that day. I read Step One and said, “That will do it.”

I white-knuckled it for 3 months, but nothing got better. There was still plenty of fear and shame, and the thought of a drink ran through my head constantly. One day, I was talking to a friend and said, “I don’t drink anymore.” “I don’t drink, either,” she said. “What meetings do you go to?” “What do you mean, meetings?” “You don’t go to meetings?” she said. “Do you think you might want to go to one?” “Okay.” At this point I would try anything to feel better.

Funny, how the cosmos work. I hadn’t even known she was in AA. So, I called the friend who’d giving me the book, and said it was suggested that I go to a meeting. He said, “I think that’s a good idea,” and took me. At my first meeting I raised my hand and said, “My name is Frank. I’m an alcoholic.” Something shifted; I cried and felt a sense of relief. The obsession to drink lifted. I went to meetings and got a sponsor, who took me through the steps using the BB, and the 12 & 12. (BB is short for Big Book which is the basic text used by Alcoholics Anonymous.)

In the rooms of AA with the Twelve Steps and my sponsor I built the archway that I walked through a free man, and which led me to the Stoics. On my journey I was searching for anything that might help me spiritually because my childhood faith did not help nor did I want it. Then I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with what I was learning from going through the Twelve Steps. I read in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” I identified with these sayings and realized that they were along the same lines as the principles I was learning in AA. So I looked up Marcus Aurelius and discovered he was an emperor of Rome. The words “Stoic philosopher” appeared next to his name. So I began reading up on the Stoics.

I’d found out later in life that I was born with only one kidney, which led me to believe I was inadequate and not the same as everyone else. I felt abandoned by everyone, including the god of my childhood. When the doctor informed me about my kidney, he explained to me the importance of taking care of it. So, what did I do? Just what the BB describes as the alcoholic. I could not moderate or stop my drinking, even for a good reason. I made this realization early in my sobriety. It gave me the acceptance of being an Alcoholic, and the drive I needed to dive into AA.

As I looked to enhance my spirituality, I found the Stoics. The foreword of the 12 & 12 states that the basic AA principles were borrowed from religion and medicine. With that, I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with the basic principles of AA, and they also mentioned God, a God of my understanding.

This one got me: “Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting” (Marcus Aurelius). So, I looked up the Marcus Aurelius, learned he was Emperor of Rome and the words Stoic Philosopher appeared next to his name. I then looked up the Stoic Philosophy and found the stoics are pantheist, which is:

  1. A doctrine that identifies God as part of the universe or the universe is a manifestation of God.
  2. Worship that admits or tolerate all gods.

That hit me. I was reminded of when Ebby told Bill in the kitchen “Why not choose your own conception of God?” or when Bill uses the word cosmos or universe throughout the book.

When I read the quote from Marcus Aurelius on resentment, I realized the BB has a whole chapter on them and on pg. 64 is the statement, “Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” I had plenty of Resentments and realized they were holding me back.

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius

Brought me right to the BB pg. 23, There is a Solution. “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” I now understood that my mind & body were very sick.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson explained Stoicism in the way the BB explained how to recover from Alcoholism, so I kept going forward with my AA and Stoic schooling. In they are my defects and my assets of character so I read books, took courses and learned more about the Stoics and the 12 steps. I use some Stoic principals in my AA program, first and foremost Gratitude.

I look for gratitude in everything that happens, good or bad. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have many different views on gratitude, including amor fati translated “Love of one’s fate”, or the Stoic “Reserve Clause” meaning Fate Permitting. The BB pg. 53 tells me the gratitude I have for my new found belief is correct, and this quote reminds me to keep gratitude in my attitude: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others” (Cicero).

AA has keeping your side of the street clean or doing the next right thing. The Stoics have what is called the “reasoned thought or mind” and makes huge emphasis on humility. Marcus Aurelius wrote a journal to himself called The Meditations while he was emperor of Rome and they speak to his humility.

Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change-for it is the truth I seek , and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance.

Marcus Aurelius

In the mind of a disciplined and pure man, you will find no sign of infection, no running sores, no wounds that have not healed. It will not be this man fate quit life unfulfilled like the actor who fails to complete his lines and walks offstage before the play is ended. What is more, there is nothing obsequious or conceited about him; he neither depends on others nor is afraid to ask for help; he answers to no man for who he is and for what he does, yet he hides nothing.

Marcus Aurelius

Let your face shine with simplicity, modesty and indifference to whatever is neither virtue nor vice. Love your fellow man. Walk with God. All things are governed by laws, said Democritus.

It is enough to remember that there are but two laws: the moral laws of the gods and the physical laws of the atoms. These two are sufficient.

Marcus Aurelius

I had no idea what gratitude was, let alone how it worked. I’d actually never heard the words gratitude or grateful until I came in the rooms of AA. AA brought me gratitude, restored my relationship with my higher-power and put me on the path of being happy, joyous and free!

Frank, a very grateful alcoholic.

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Freelancing, Stress and Stoicism by Andrew Munro

The gig economy, talent economy, independent professionals, interims, locums  and freelancers – the media seems obsessed with the supposed evils and potential advantages of this brave new world. But, is it real, is it happier and what lessons could Stoicism have for adventurers in this new land?

Freelancing – The Figures

Freelancing, as a model of work, is growing. Of course, there have always been independent workers, from casual bar staff to your local, independent plumber, but a decade of empowering technology has made it much simpler for would-be independents and clients to connect.

In the US, there are now between 40 and 48 million independent workers (between 25 and 30 per cent of the US workforce, depending on the survey).

In the UK (calculated on a different basis), there are around 4 million self-employed solo workers, around 13 per cent of the workforce.

Those are substantial figures and on the increase all across the world.

Is it a happier life? For most, freelancing is a positive career choice (not employment of last resort). Research, like this recent report from FlexJobs, regularly reflects freelancers’ positive outlook.

The report found that:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

In general, then, we independents are a happy bunch.Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. There always seems to be some time-money tension; inevitably you’re worrying about one or the other.

Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work to do, but you feel guilty when your project pipeline’s a bit limp and saggy. And then there are sales calls to make, debts to manage and bills to pay. Oh, and difficult client to manage, too.

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are two of the most popular Stoic philosophers. Marcus was an emperor, Epictetus a slave. As a freelancer, you can feel like either or both … often on the same day.

What, then, can a 2,000-year old philosophy offer this new world of work?Stoicism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-discipline. In many ways, it’s perfectly aligned to those on an independent journey as “Me Inc.”

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can lighten your daily burden.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

As an independent, it’s all down to you. There’s no corporate comfort-blanket of admin, finance or marketing support; no holiday pay, sick pay or health insurance. You’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to own everything. Some things, simply, are beyond your control.

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[i]

And he warns:

If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings[ii]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases your overall stress levels. Let them go.

If you’re prone to worry, like a dog with a bone, try listing all your concerns on paper, then mark each as within or outwith your control. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

Email, phone, SMS and social media. Someone always wants an answer. And, everything is always changing. The ground moves, the unexpected happens.

Often, as a freelancer, you feel the need to respond to everything, immediately. The customer, after all, is king. You don’t want anyone to think you can’t cope or that you’re not interested.

When something happens unexpectedly, there is a tendency to respond immediately. But, the knee-jerk reaction isn’t always the right reaction. When we react instinctively, we can manufacture our own outrage and offence.

As Epictetus tell us:

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them [iii]

In other words, mind the gap between any stimulus and your response to it.

Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that the client’s slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A delayed purchase order is more often down to bureaucracy than a change of heart. After all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

Agility is valuable, but stubborn independence is not. Being freelance doesn’t need to mean being alone. You can respond with time and with help:

Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?[iv]

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

When you work on your own, wholly responsible for your success or failure, events can become magnified in your mind. Everything can seem of monumental significance. It can be difficult to keep some headspace, to keep things in their proper proportions.

But remember, even a missed deadline is seldom cataclysmic.

As the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  observed:

In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.[v]

Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

The first rule,” he writes, “is to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.[vi]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the wee, small, sleepless hours is often somewhat less significant in the cool, morning air.

Remember the Steely Dan song:

When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more.[vii]

Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight, some space and some coffee.

4.  Enjoy the moment

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. It’s much too easy to dwell on what we should have done yesterday and what we need to do tomorrow. It’s very much a human failing, as Roman philosopher Seneca observes,

Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present.[viii]

It can easily be a freelancer’s failing, too: How did I do? Did I do enough? Will they like what I sent? How do I get more business? What happens when this project is over? Planning is good, but fretting is pointless.“If you lay hands on today,” Seneca tells us, “you will find you are less dependent on tomorrow. While you delay, life speeds on by.”[ix]

Marcus agrees:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”[x]

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it is deeply pragmatic.

And, nature too

Stoics are very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. It’s a perspective that feels perfectly aligned with our current eco-aware times.

I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”[xi]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty. Don’t forget to use your freedom to enjoy your surroundings. Live the freelance dream a little.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, life’s goal is to live “in agreement with Nature”, which translates as living a virtuous life where the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  In many ways, it’s the flip-side of our first observation. You can’t control everything . . . but you can, and should, control your self: your responses, behaviours, and thoughts.

In Meditations, Marcus returns frequently to the concept of duty. That may not be surprising for a Roman emperor (and history remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of – often, the last of – the “good emperors”). His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[xii]

He also counsels himself:

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[xiii]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[xiv]

As a freelancer, reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

It’s also worth noting, in these virtue-signalling times, that “integrity” doesn’t need grim-faced declarations of self-denial. Seneca had little patience with the hair-shirt brigade.“Philosophy,” he said, “demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation – and even self-restraint can comb its hair.”

Finishing Thoughts: A Stoic Guide for the Stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.I was browsing in the beautiful, art deco, Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, when I came across a table display of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Series 1, Book 2 was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I started to flick through and I was hooked by its easily accessible, mostly “snackable” aphorisms. For an 1,800-year old text, it felt strikingly familiar and contemporary.

Meditations – which is many people’s first encounter with Stoic texts – has, for me, a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. It is intimate and applicable.

I’m no expert on Stoicism, but it’s a philosophy that sits well with me. I find it relevant and I draw on it increasingly in every day life as an independent professional. Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations ready at hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel the spider of stress crawl across your skin.

[i] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.1)

[ii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.3)

[iii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (5)

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.7)

[v] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[vi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[vii] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (1974), “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

[viii] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (5.9)

[ix] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (1.1)

[x] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[xi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[xii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[xiii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[xiv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)

Andrew Munro is a writer and independent professional. Through Burning Pine, he helps businesses to grow by telling their stories. He blogs on topics related to work and the freelance life at The Sovereign Professional.

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