Are Stoics Less Angry than Other People? Stoic Week 2019 Report (part 2 of 4) by Tim LeBon

One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so.  Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class.  Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports.  This is the second report for 2019, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.

Introduction

A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous Stoic Week reports.  This article analyses the findings from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week 2019, and will report on whether this relationship has been maintained. In 2019 we obtained additional information about the relationship between Stoicism and anger, as measured by the Anger Disorder Scale (ADS-S). A second innovation this year was the introduction of another iteration of  the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS v5.0). This report will indicate which of the 60 items of the new SABS scale are the most and least associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive and negative emotions and with anger – in other words, which items appear to be the most active ingredients of Stoicism in these respects. The other reports in this series will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3) and summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research (part 4). Details about the scales used are given in the Appendices of this report.

What Were My Scores Like Compared to the Average?

If you took part in Stoic Week, you will have been given average scores at the start of the week for other participants at the start of a previous Stoic Week for some of the measures. But we didn’t have the scores for Stoic Week 2019 then (obviously!), and we didn’t have comparative scores for the Anger Scale or for the new SABS scale. So, here you are. How do you compare with the average score?

  • Life Satisfaction (SWL)        23
  • Emotions (SPANE)             5
  • Flourish                                 43
  • Anger (ADS-S)                     34
  • Stoicism (SABS 5.0)             300

The New SABS Scale

Stoic Week 2019 saw the introduction of SABS 5.0, a 60-item questionnaire described in Appendix A. This scale builds on the work done with the invaluable work Ray DiGiuseppe and others to eliminate items with inferior psychometric properties. We are also working towards validating the SABS 5.0 and providing sub-scales (for example “Stoic Worldview” and “Values awareness and Stoic mindfulness”. As the work on subscales is still provisional, it will be reported at a later date.  

Stoicism and Anger

Theoretically, we would expect Stoic attitude to help with anger management. We would anticipate that Stoics would not just act in a less angry way, they would also get angry less often than non-Stoics because non-Stoics often get angry at things beyond their control.

Previous Stoic Week research results have indeed suggested a strong inverse relationship between Stoicism and anger. However, this has relied on the single anger item question in the SPANE questionnaire. Since anger management is potentially an important benefit of practising Stoicism, the relationship between Stoicism and anger warranted further investigation. Consequently, this year we asked participants to fill in a validated anger questionnaire, the 18-item ADS-S (see Appendix B) to understand the relationship between Stoicism and anger when anger is measured in a more robust manner and which also separates out the degree to which people feel anger, the degree to which they feel vengeful, and the extent to which they act angrily. Table 1 below gives the results.

Anger overall  (ADS-S) Anger-In (ADS-S subscale 1) Anger Vengeance (ADS-S subscale 2) Anger Reactivity (ADS-S subscale S) Anger single item (SPANE)
-.44 -.45 -.31 -.35 -.32

Table 1: Correlation and Stoicism and Anger at the start of Stoic Week 2019 (1725 participants)

The more sophisticated measure of anger provided by the ADS-S than the single scale item in the SPANE gives a significantly stronger relationship between Stoicism and a lack of anger (.44 compared to .32). The ADS-S divides anger into 3 subscales. Subscale 1, the anger-in scale, represents the degree to which people are likely to feel anger and repress, or not express their anger. Stoics are particularly less likely to do this (.45 correlation), putting a lie to the notion that Stoics repress feelings (the “stiff upper lip”). Stoics are also likely to be less vengeful (subscale 2) and less reactive with their anger (subscale 3). It will be interesting to see how the scales and subscales change when people try to practice Stoicism in Stoic Week. We would predict a reduction in anger and in particular, a large reduction in subscale 1 (anger-in).

Stoicism and Well-Being

We can tell how Stoic someone is by their score on the SABS 5.0. By measuring their well-being at the same time, we can determine the extent to which Stoicism is associated with well-being.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL)
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS 2019: 0.64
2018: 0.54 2017: 0.47
2019: 0.59 2018: 0.45 2017: 0.43 2019: 0.50 2018: 0.39 2017: 0.36

Table 2 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales (2019 Stoic Week compared to 2018 and 2017 Stoic Weeks)

As table 2 shows, Stoicism is associated to  a very high degree of Flourishing and a balance of positive over emotions and (to a slightly lesser degree) satisfaction with life. Over the years as we have worked to improve the SABs, the correlation coefficients are somewhat higher using the new SABS 5.0.

Stoicism and Emotions

We can also see which emotions are most associated with Stoicism. The trends found in previous years continue to be supported. Stoicism is not just associated with not feeling bad, it is also strongly associated with feeling contented and positive.

Emotion 2019 2018 2017 2016
Negative -.47 -0.35 -0.36 -0.29
Bad -.42 -0.31 -0.32 -0.28
Unpleasant -.39 -0.29 -0.27 -0.24
Sad -.38 -0.26 -0.28 -0.26
Angry -.32 -0.24 -0.27 -0.24
Afraid -.34 -0.24 -0.23 -0.26
Contented .49 0.36 0.33 0.35
Positive .49 0.36 0.32 0.31
Happy .43 0.35 0.29 0.28
Good .47 0.34 0.32 0.32
Pleasant .41 0.34 0.32 0.3
Joyful .41 0.32 0.28 0.26

Once again, as we have continued to revise and improve the SAB the correlation coefficients with the various measures emotions have increased.

Table 3: Correlation of SABS 5.0 scores and emotions as measured in SPANE

Degree of Stoicism and Well-being

The above findings lend considerable support to the view that Stoicism is associated with higher degrees of well-being and less anger. But how much difference does it make? We attempted to tease this out by looking at the differences in well-being for those who are the most and least Stoic. This is shown in table 4 below.

  Participant Scores
Ranking on the SABS 5.0 Life Satisfaction Emotions Anger Flourishing Stoicism
Top 10% 28 14 26 50 371
Top quarter 27 11 28 49 351
Top half 26 9 31 47 331
Average 23 5 34 43 300
Bottom half 21 2 37 39 269
Bottom quarter 19 0 39 37 257
Bottom 10% 17 -2 41 33 235

Table 4: Difference in life satisfaction, the balance of emotions, anger, flourishing according to the degree of Stoicism (Start of Stoic Week 2019, n=1725)

Those who are the most Stoic (top 10%) are much higher in well-being and lower in anger than the those in the top 10%. One possible way to read table 4 is to say that the biggest gains are to be made with those people who are least Stoic. If someone moved from the bottom half to just average levels of Stoicism, one would anticipate quite significant gains in well-being – assuming that causation goes in the direction of being Stoic to well-being, which may not be completely founded.

Stoicism’s Most Active Ingredients

Which Stoic attitudes and beliefs are most associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive emotions and the absence of anger? By finding the correlation between SABS 5.0 items and each measure, it is possible to answer these questions. Tables 5 -8 below provide the answers for each scale. Note that since these associations are correlations, we cannot be sure of the direction of causation, so these findings require a certain amount of qualification.

# SABS Item Life Satisfaction Correlation
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.42
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.35
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.35
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* 0.35

Table 5:  Most active Stoic ingredients of Life Satisfaction

If you wanted to look at one element of Stoicism indicative of satisfaction with life, it would be someone not dwelling on the past

# SABS Item Flourishing correlation
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.54
12 I usually do the right thing. 0.46
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.45
22 When making an important decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” 0.44
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.43
14  I am committed to helping humanity in general. 0.43
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43

Table 6:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of Flourishing

The single element of Stoicism indicative of flourishing is taking constructive action in a timely manner,

The absence of worrying is most associated with having a positive balance of emotions.

33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.56
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.56
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot.* 0.52
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.42

Table 7:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

# SABS Item Anger
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* -0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* -0.42
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* -0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* -0.34
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. -0.34
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. -0.33
15 I treat everyone fairly. -0.32

Table 8:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

Dwelling on the past is most associated with anger.

 

Conclusions

These findings are particularly significant as they indicate the association of degrees of Stoicism with other qualities such as life satisfaction and anger. A key finding is that Stoicism is not associated with repressing anger and so it puts a lie to the “stiff upper lip” notion. It also gives participants comparative scores for SABS 5.0 and the anger scale, which were not available at the time they took part in Stoic Week

 They are taken from a large sample (1765 participants) of varying demographics and allegiance to Stoicism. They are however, a self-selecting sample and more likely to be allied to Stoicism than the general public. Moreover, since they are correlational they do not indicate the direction of causation. The next report in the series will provide information about how these measures change after participants have taken part in Stoic Week.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Finding Your Inner GPS -How I Found Mine The Hard Way by Alkistis Agio

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We continue this year’s sequence of posts with one by Stoicon 2019 co-organizer Alkistis Agio, which follows below

Socrates…It seems that every story about Greek philosophy starts with him. He taught that:

No man can lead others, who cannot lead himself.

Think about it, it’s true: How can you lead others, if you can’t lead yourself ? How do you expect others to follow you if you haven’t decided where you want to go?

So where do you begin? The answer has always been one – Self-Leadership. Self-Leadership means having:

  • A developed sense of who you are, where you’re going, and what you are willing to do to get there, as well as…
  • The ability to influence yourself and others, in order to achieve your goals. 

Self-Leadership is probably the most important skill you can ever develop as a person and as a professional and it mainly involves our emotional intelligence. 

The importance of self-leadership, has been taught since the beginning of history, when the ancient Greek sages recited The Odyssey, the story of a sailor setting out on a journey. The sailor, Odysseus, yearns to reach his homeland. His goal is clear, but he has no control over the elements. The winds and the sea are not in his power. He has only his attitude and his skills with the sails, adapting them to the changing conditions, keeping his course, remaining calm when a storm hits and leading his team with virtue and ethos. This story represents the inner battle that is to be won, since the external battle is not fully in our control. 

“The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.” – Plato

In a moment, I will reveal to you the most powerful method in the world for self-leadership, based on ancient Greek philosophy. But first, I would like to share some of my journey with you. I promise, I will be mercifully brief. 

As I look back on my childhood, I can clearly see that I was introduced to Greek philosophy by my father. From a young age, instead of fairy tales like Cinderella, my father would read us bedtime stories from Aesop’s Fables, the Iliad and the Odyssey. 

Fast-forward to when I am about 22 years old. I am working at an international British bank in Athens. On the outside, I seem to ‘have it all’; an executive position with a good salary, luxury travels and friends in ‘high places’. On the inside, I feel frustrated and anxious about my career path. Why? Because I’ve chosen banking mainly to please my father, the CEO of a major bank in Greece. Whenever I express my deep interest in psychology and philosophy, he taps me on the shoulder and says, “My dear daughter it’s fine to read psychology and philosophy books but life is very harsh and you should keep your safe, practical job no matter what….”

Ignoring my inner truth, I stay on, feeling trapped like a hamster on a treadmill; I am unmotivated and it begins to show in a series of humiliating mistakes arising from my negligence. 

All these mistakes reach a climax one day; I’m called in to do an important presentation in front of the board of directors, for which I’m not prepared. My performance is so bad, I am so ashamed, that at the end of that day, I face my deepest fears and hand in my resignation.

Did things get better after that? Of course not. They got much worse. I had a dramatic argument with my father, who expressed his anger, disappointment and conviction that I was making a grave mistake in letting go of a promising career. He ousted me from his house, saying what amounted to“Tan I Epi Tas” (the ancient Spartan motto, ‘Return as a victor or upon your shield’). Looking back at that moment though, I believe that it was the best lesson my father could have taught me. He cut me loose and I had to stand on my own and look at my life in harsh, unforgiving terms. I was deeply shaken, but determined to go my own way. Without a plan, I left Greece with my meager savings and backpacked through Asia Minor and Europe.

Soon, my money ran out and I had to find work in various low-income jobs like waitressing, temping, yoga, etc. I even tried creating my own businesses, but these ventures left me in debt. I lived with constant fear & anxiety about money & my future. I had no purpose and no direction. It got so bad that finally, I couldn’t take it any more – I decided to return home, to Greece, with my head down, face my father and ask for help and forgiveness. 

Then, as I was on my way to get my return plane-ticket, I met a woman on the bus, who was working at a top leadership-training company teaching communication skills. By a freak of luck, she was leaving her position and looking for a replacement. I told her my story and she hired me on-the-spot! 

It was a breakthrough for me. I loved my job, & people told me that I was very good at it. Not only that – the founder, Dale Carnegie, was an ardent admirer of Greek philosophy. In his famous world-wide bestseller “How To Win Friends & Influence People”, he devotes a whole chapter to Socrates, openly admitting that he borrowed his ideas from the Master of Greek philosophy: 

“The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates….” – Dale Carnegie 

I had finally found my rightful place in life. A place where I could be happy & thrive. Now, why did I just share all of this story with you? Because it’s a great example of what you should never do. I was lucky. Making such dramatic changes in your life without having a clue as to where you are headed and what you want, and without any proper tools to help you along the way, is foolish, ineffective and can even be down right dangerous. It’s like getting in your car without a destination or a GPS and then just driving off… A cliff, usually. 

What if I told you though, that there is a type of GPS that can help get you to a place of thriving, happiness and freedom? A GPS inspired by the works of Socrates and Aristotle. As mentioned above, through my work in leadership training, that I was introduced to the works of the ancient Greek philosophers. 

They were eye-opening. One in particular stood out to me – Aristotle’s timeless manual on the Art of Persuasion: “The Rhetoric”. In it, Aristotle explains that there are three basic ‘traits’ an orator, a leader, anyone like you and me, must develop in order to influence and persuade others

  1. Ethos, which addresses the truth, credibility and integrity of the speaker.  
  2. Pathos, which addresses their emotional intelligence and use of imagination. 
  3. Logos, which addresses the logic, reason and common sense of their arguments. 

Over two millennia after he wrote it, Aristotle’s system is still the cornerstone of modern leadership skills training;His system on influence, is taught in MBA programs at top universities like   Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and INSEAD. It is through Aristotle that  the world’s top CEOs are initiated into the priceless ‘Art of Influence and Persuasion’.

For over twenty years now I have been teaching seminars about these principles of Aristotle to professionals all over the world, to help them to improve their influence and persuasion skills. And during these seminars, it began to dawn on me that these three great principles of Aristotle, go far beyond “How to Make Friends and Influence people…”, as Dale Carnegie would put it. 

To me, there is a deeper – more essential dimension to be discovered through these three principles; like a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s the treasure? Ethos, Pathos, Logos can serve as a golden ‘compass’ or G.P.S. for navigating through life’s perpetual challenges with stoic calm and certainty. By applying them, we can attain Self-Leadership, and take charge of ourself and our life.

This realization of the inner GPS gave me a solid foundation on which to build my life and practice. And more importantly, this was the “Shield” that I returned home with, to my father, who I had missed so much after my ten year ‘odyssey’.

The ALKISTIS Method as explained in my book THE STOIC CEO is the first-ever method of self-leadership development that effectively integrates the modern scientific, evidence-based techniques of neuro-coaching with the ageless wisdom of ancient Greek philosophy. (Especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoic school.)

Applied in practice, The ALKISTIS Method® leads to calm, confident, self-leadership, for both personal happiness and professional excellence, which the ancient Greeks called “Aristeia”.

I sincerely hope that you too will be inspired to become the outstanding person you are, on your journey to your Ithaca*.  (*Island-Kingdom in Homer’s, The Odyssey)

Alkistis Agio is a speaker, author, leadership trainer and coach with over 20 years experience in working with professionals to transform fear, frustration, anger and anxiety into calm, confident self-leadership.

Lest We Forget, to Live: Albert Camus and Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

Today marks sixty years since Albert Camus’s death in a car crash, aged 46.  New information sourced from KGB archives suggests that the Algerian-French author, philosopher, dramatist and activist was assassinated on Soviet orders.  If we know why the Nobel-Prize winning author of The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague and The Rebel died, however, Camus’s own philosophy of life is less widely appreciated. 

Due to the phenomenal success of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, published under the German occupation of Paris (1940-44), Camus was quickly touted an “existentialist” or “prophet of the absurd”.  Yet Camus always rejected both labels.  He would repeat that his formative philosophical and literary influences were the Greek poets and philosophers, hearkening back to his formative years in Algeria studying under Jean Grenier.  Camus would also point to the decisive importance for him of his own experiences growing up poor but surrounded by sunlight; and as a young footballer whose youthful idylls were cut short when he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at 17, and told by his physician that he may have only one week to live.

One needn’t be a Stoic to appreciate what a profound effect this latter experience had on Camus.  The young man himself turned at this moment of crisis to Stoicism, reading Epictetus in the hospital as he convalesced.[i]  Years later, confronting one of the many adversities that defined his life, he would cite Marcus Aurelius as a source of strength in his Notebooks:

‘Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well.’ ‘What prevents a work being completed becomes the work itself.’ ‘What bars our way makes us travel along it.’

It is too much to say that Camus was a Stoic.  Perhaps a neo- or para- Stoic is closer to the mark.[ii]  It is anyway little known that Camus was one of the small number of 20th century philosophers of note to have been directly influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy.  At the same time, many of Camus’ own independently-developed ideas read as uncannily familiar and sympathetic to students of the Porch. 

It is this little-remarked philosophical affinity that I want to explore here.

The Absurd and the Benign Indifference of Nature

Since Camus is so widely known for the idea of the absurd, we begin with this idea.   People suppose Camus’s idea of the absurd to be an expression of chic Parisian despair at the godless meaninglessness of human life.  Hence, they see his philosophy as wholly inconsistent with any ancient or premodern view of the world.

For Camus, though, the idea of the absurd involves the confrontation between our limited understanding and desire for unity and control, with a world which resists total human comprehension, in which innocents suffer, and in which death is an inevitable reality.  The natural world seems not to have been created wholly to serve human goals, Camus contends.  But this does not speak against a recognition of its larger worth and order. 

On the contrary, Camus sees our sense of natural beauty as one of the ways in which people experience the absurd.  Faced with a breathtaking landscape, Camus argues, the “inhuman” dimension of nature reveals itself to our contemplative regard.  It is a matter of what his character Meursault calls nature’s “benign indifference,” facing imminent execution in The Outsider and gazing up at the stars.  When we are moved by natural beauty, Camus writes, “the world evades us because it becomes itself again.”  We now see it shorn of the “illusory meanings” with which our all-too-human preoccupations have clothed it; not as meaningless, but as operating according to its own logics (or Logos), greater and other than our petty concerns.[iii]  

The very word “indifference”, so central to Camus’s thought, sounds very familiar to a Stoic audience.  Stoics know that to hold that external things are “indifferent” in terms of their ability to “make us happy” (or “unhappy”) in no way licenses any kind of solipsistic or misanthropic withdrawal from engagement with the world.  When one understands the larger order of nature, Marcus Aurelius claims, on the contrary, one can see beauty in the smallest things, like the broken crusts of baking bread or the gaping jaws of a wild beast.  As Camus concurs, we are awakened to such beauty precisely when we cease to refer everything back to our own egos, but view them with a certain disinterestedness.  “It is legitimate to glory in the diversity and quantity of experience,” Camus maintained, “only if one is completely disinterested in the object of one’s desires.”

Poverty, Sunshine, and Tuberculosis

As we mentioned above, Camus would always maintain that the bases of his philosophy lay more in his own specific experiences than in his formal education.[iv]  Camus’ father died in the trenches in 1914, when Albert was only one.  He was raised by his largely silent but devoted mother and his grandmother, in the sweltering heat of the poorest quartiers of French Algiers.  Albert was the first of his family to go to high school, let alone university.

In truly Stoic fashion, however, Camus credited his childhood poverty with shaping his conceptions of happiness, life, and philosophy.  Growing up poor, Camus claimed, enabled him to look down upon the riches that others envy and struggle for, as if these were the real bases of a good life.  It made him see, as Epictetus would concur, that such goods are at most preferable to have or attain, and that their very absence can be a source of inner wealth. 

“For me,” Camus echoes the old Stoic paradoxes, “the greatest luxury has coincided with a certain bareness”.  When it is inner strength or virtue that is at issue, “the under-worker at the Post office can be the equivalent of the conqueror”, in his eyes.  “What could a man want that is better than poverty?,” Camus asks his readers, quite seriously: “I do not say misery, any more than I mean the work without hope of the modern proletarian. But I do not see that one could desire more than poverty with an active leisure.”

The other experience which shaped the “royal privilege” (as Camus calls it) of this neo-Stoic disinterestedness towards external things is his lived experience of the imminence of death, because of the tuberculosis that continually dogged him throughout his short life.  In a remarkable fragment from his Notebooks, Camus writes of a memento mori few of us, preferably, will have to entertain:

The sensation of death which from now on is so familiar to me … to have a foreboding of death simply at the sight of a pocket handkerchief filled with blood is to be effortlessly plunged back into time in the most breathtaking manner: it is the terror of becoming [italics added].

Once we understand Camus’ sense that he could quite literallydie at almost any moment, we comprehend the urgency of his repeated stress upon the importance of memento mori throughout his work, most famously in the idea of “absurd freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus.  “There is only one liberty: in coming to terms with death,” Camus reflects in his Notebooks, evoking Seneca’s famous maxim: “the person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” 

But isn’t it a paradox for Camus to think that coming to terms with this inevitability is key to feeling truly free?, someone may ask.  If it is, it is again a very Stoic kind of paradox.  For Camus agrees with the Stoics that the “liberty” here is an inner affair.  It comes from being free from worry about what after all cannot be controlled, our mortality, instead focusing on what we can alter or affect.  As Camus enjoins himself in his Notebooks, always with his tuberculosis in mind: “The degradation involved in all forms of suffering. One must not give into emptiness. Try to conquer and ‘fulfil’ time. Time—don’t waste it.” Or again: “Don’t forget: illness and the decay it brings. There is not a minute to lose—which is perhaps the opposite of ‘we must hurry’.” 

Self-Writing, Forgetfulness, and Paying Attention

Perhaps the most remarkable contrast between Camus’ neo-Stoicism and the academic, theoretical philosophy predominant in his (and our) times, lies in how Camus, like the Stoics, conceived of philosophy as an ongoing exercise in learning how better to live, and to die.  The most remarkable source of testimony we have to Camus’ philosophical practice and self-conception is his extant Notebooks.[v]

The work of philosophy, for Camus as for the Stoics, involves trying constantly to have at hand (procheiron) one’s key ideas, faced with the challenges of existence.  “The primary faculty of man is forgetfulness,” Camus laments.  The force of habit and our immersion in a thousand distractions lulls the eye of our minds to sleep.  The wonder of beauty, the fugacity of time, the unique value and dignity of others—all of these realities are easily “crowded out” by the demands and vexations of everyday life: “… as everything finally becomes a matter of habit, we can be certain that [even] great thoughts and great actions … become insignificant …”  However, as a Camusian note from 1950 remarks, “with a strong memory, you can create a precocious experience.”[vi]  What is at stake in this philosophical cultivation of memory is a kind of ascetism, albeit one pursued in the name of self-fulfilment, not monastic self-denial:

One single, unchanging subject for meditation. Reject everything else. Work continuously, at a definite time, with no falling off, etc. (Moral training and asceticism too). A single moment of weakness and everything collapses, both practice and theory.

Camus calls the ideal mode of mindful awareness such an asceticism can create “lucidity” (lucidité) or “clear-sightedness” (clairvoyance).  And again, the way Camus describes its features sound familiar to modern practitioners of Stoicism. 

Firstly, there is a cultivated attention to the present moment: “a continued presence of self with self . . . not happiness, but awareness”, as Camus says: “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul . . .” Happiness itself, Camus remarks, is “a long patience.”

Secondly, there is a sense of life as a gift, one meriting that gratitude writ so large in book I of Marcus’s Meditations, wherein the philosopher-emperor patiently recalls and thanks each person who benefited him in his formative years.  So too, Camus will come to value above all a simple solidarity with others as amongst life’s greatest goods, given the realities of suffering, death, political polarisation and hatred:  “now I have learned to expect less of [people] than they can give—a silent companionship. And their emotions, their friendship and noble gestures keep their full miraculous value in my eyes: wholly the fruit of grace.” 

It is with such thoughts in view that we see why at the time of Camus’ death, he was working on a cycle of works led by The First Man exploring the different dimensions of love.

Memento Vivere

The 60th anniversary of Camus’ death falls at the beginning of another year, 2020, destined to be marked by division and acrimony.  The solidarity between peoples which Camus dreamed of, a secular “kingdom of man” or cosmopolis, seems every bit as idealistic now as it did when he envisaged it in the 1940s.  Different political actors have, and will continue, to claim Camus as one of their own, from conservatives to liberals and socialists: eloquent tribute to the power of his post-war political thinking and example.  Other voices blame Camus for his failure to secure a civilian truce in the Algerian conflict, and his continuing inability to accept the need for the complete end of French Algeria, with resettlement of the pied noirs in continental France. 

What we have aimed at here is to show how Camus, as well as a political thinker and actor, was also a philosopher in the ancient mould who conceived and tried to live an examined life profoundly close to, and influenced by, the model of the ancient Stoics: one characterised by inner discipline, attention to the present moment, openness to natural beauty, indifference towards externals, awareness of the limitations of human understanding and the inevitability of death, and a profound sense of sympathetic solidarity with others.  This side of our political divisions, as Stoics or just as human beings, different readers can still find wisdom in Camus’s philosophy of life, as well as his thought and example, sixty years after his premature passing. 

So, let me close in Camus’s own words, exhorting himself Stoically in his Notebooks in what became his final years, in words which can equally be read as exhortations to us all: 

Remain close to the reality of beings and things. Return as often as possible to personal happiness … Recover energy—as the central force. Recognise the need for enemies. Love that they exist … Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.   


[i] For a list of Camus’ references to the Stoics, see “Annex” in François Bousquet, Méditerranéen , Camus L ‘Ancien (Paris: Éditions Naaman, 1977), 112–113; on Camus’ reading of Epictetus in hospital, see the same text, page 35.

[ii] In what follows, we will opt for “neo-Stoic”, given the use of this term to describe earlier modern thinkers like Justus Lipsius who adapted Stoic principles whilst trying to reconcile them with other, independently-developed convictions and positions.

[iii] Readers unfamiliar with his work are referred particularly “Nuptials at Tipasa” (in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. P. Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), as he describes visiting Roman ruins in Algeria with a lover and bathing in the Mediterranean.  This piece, and Camus’ lyrical essays more widely, contain some of Camus’ most beautiful prose.  Tellingly, in his 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, it is again Marcus Aurelius who Camus cites to encapsulate the Greek attitude to existence with which he always identifies his own thought:

“Hellenism implies that man can be self-sufficient and that he has within himself the means to explain the universe and destiny … The line of their hills, or the run of a young man on a beach, provided them with the whole secret of the world.  Their gospel said: our Kingdom is of this world.  Think of Marcus Aurelius’s: ‘Everything is fitting for me, O Cosmos, which fits your purpose’.”

[iv] Camus’ lasting inability to “fit in” with the Parisian intellectual elites after 1941 looks back to his origins as a pied noir Algerian-Frenchman from the colonies.  Sartre would raise this background against him in their spectacular public falling out after Camus’ 1951 anti-Stalinist work The Rebel

[v] Commentators have wondered what to do with these fragmentary and aphoristic reflections, because so much of them is given over not to theoretical or literary developments, but to Camus’ own philosophical practice of trying to actualise, in life, his philosophical principles, just as Marcus Aurelius had done in his Meditations

[vi] Camus responds in the imperative, echoing Marcus Aurelius’s many injunctions to himself in his Meditations to “remember!”: “Cultivate one’s memory, immediately.”

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

The Stoic – January 2020

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership). The theme of this month’s issue is Stoic Skills.

Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2019 took place in October. We hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles exploring what we can learn from all the questionnaires many of you filled in for this year’s Stoic Week (Thank you!).  Today we will look at who took part. It’s the type of information journalists often ask, so it’s written in the form of Q & A, with the statistics relegated to tables at the end of the article.

Q:  How many people took part this year?

A:  1744 people completed the questionnaires. At least 4000 people started the questions, but  it does take about 20 minutes to complete and how could we expect people to have the virtues of patience persistence before doing Stoic week.

Q:  That’s quite a lot of people . If you don’t mind me pointing this out, this is half the number taking part last year. Do you think Stoicism is running out of steam?

A: Absolutely not. The number of attendees at Stoicons, and the plethora of Stoic blogs and books suggests quite the reverse. It could be that people being interested in Stoicism now have other ways of finding out about it that they didn’t have in 2012 when the first Stoic Week took place.  It’s also true that many thousands have already taken part in Stoic Week and can access the materials whenever they like, so do not have to register again (though, we do change the materials every year, so I would suggest it is still worthwhile).  The most simple and likely explanation for reduced numbers though is that because the organisers were so busy they didn’t spend quite so much time to promoting Stoic Week this time around. So perhaps that’s a lesson for next year for all of us.

Q:  In previous years more men have taken part than women. This bucks the general pattern for personal development courses where women usually outnumber men. Is this still the case?

A: This year 60%  of participants were men and 39% women. That’s slightly more equal than last year but there is still plenty of  room for improvement  (Table 1 at the end of the article gives the full figures). You can look at this inequality in two ways. You might say that since men are in general relatively less skilful at finding resources to help with personal development, it’s great that so many find Stoicism congenial. Whilst this is true,  I  worry that many woman might  think that Stoicism is a predominantly male philosophy  and so is not for them.

I would  encourage everyone, regardless of gender, to explore Stoicism, and refer sceptics to Massimo Pigluicci’s argument  that “broicism”  is not Stoicism. To quote Massimo, “the goal of Stoicism is not to become manly (vir), but rather to excel as a human being (arête).”

Q: How old is the average Stoic Week participant?

A: Probably about 40 years of age. Participation peaks in the 36-45 age group. Over 7% of participants are over 65 which is more than you would expect if the distribution was  random

Q: Does your data support the often-touted view that you get wiser as you get older?

A:  Actually it does, as long as you see the level of Stoicism as implying wisdom! Participants’ level of Stoicism (as measured by the SABS questionnaire) increases steadily with age, and the over-65s are a bit more Stoic (2%) than the 55-65 age group. See table 2  at the end of the article for the full details.

Q: I expect most participants are from the USA, UK and Canada still?

A: Yes, that’s still the case, comprising 39%, 19% and 9% of participants respectively.  77% of all participants come from those three countries -see table 3.

Q: And are they the most Stoic in that they have the highest SABS scores?

A: No. that honour goes to Ireland, then Poland then Spain. It would be interesting to know why this is the case – the sample sizes are small (15, 10 and 19) so it could be that the people taking part just happened to be hardened Stoics.

Q:  Which are the most Stoic of the countries with a large number of participants?

A: Americans seem to be a bit more Stoic than the French, British and Canadians, but there isn’t too much in it. Table 4 gives the full details.

Q: Are most people who take part in Stoic Week newbies?

A: Yes, 69% of people are taking part the first time.

Q: You said earlier that it is worth people doing Stoic Week more than once. Can you tell me whether people have done Stoic week a number of times become more Stoic (as indicated by higher SABS scores than those who have taken part  less often).

A: Yes indeed, the degree of Stoicism increases the more times people do Stoic Week – see table 5 for the detailed statistics.

Q: I would guess that most people who do Stoic Week don’t know much about Stoicism to start with?

A: Interestingly, it’s fairly even split between those who know a fair bit and those who know very little about Stoicism – see table 6. What will be interesting will be to see how much people know about Stoicism by the end of Stoic Week, which we will discover in a later report.

Q: Are most participants already Stoic?

A: Again, it’s fairly close between those who identify as Stoic (or more Stoic than not) and those who don’t think of themselves as being very Stoic at all -see table 7. Again, it will be fascinating to see how this changes after Stoic Week.

Q: Why did people take part in Stoic week?

A: To learn about how to practice Stoicism in their life – at least that’s my interpretation of this WordCloud :-

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics: Facts and Figures

Gender 2019 Average SABS 5.0 score   2019
% of participants
2018
% of participants
2017
% of participants
2016
% of participants
Male 302 60 62 65 66
Female 298 39 37 34 33
Decline to state 283 .75 1 1 1
Other 312 .6 1 0.5

Table 1: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS Score by Gender  (Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Age Average SABS score 2019 2019 % of participants 2018 % of participants 2017 % of participants 2016 % of participants
Over 65 316 7 7         –
56-65 310 15 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55)
46-55 305 19 20 18 17
36-45 298 23 22 22 21
26-35 296 20 23 27 25
18-25 288 15 13 15 22
Under 18 289 1 1 1 1

Table 2: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS score by Age 

Country No. of Participants %
United States 669 39
United Kingdom 336 19
Canada 157 9
Australia 68 4
Germany 45 3
Netherlands 44 3
Sweden 22 1
France 21 1
New Zealand 20 1
Norway 19 1
Spain 19 1
Brazil 18 1
Ireland 15 1
South Africa 15 1
Russian Federation 13 1
Italy 12 1
India 10 1
Poland 10 1

Table 3: Stoic week 2019 Number of Participants and % of total for all countries with 10 or more participants- 

Country Degree of Stoicism (average SABS score)
Ireland 321
Poland 310
Spain 307
United States 304
France 303
South Africa 302
Netherlands 301
Brazil 300
Australia 298
United Kingdom 297
Canada 297
Sweden 293
Germany 292
Norway 291
Italy 289
New Zealand 285
India 269
Russian Federation 268

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2019 Most Stoic countries (only including countries with 10 or more participants)

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Average SABS score (degree of Stoicism)   2019 % of total participants 2018 % of total participants   2017 % of total participants 2016 % of total participants
4 or more 339 4 2 1 1
3 320 5 3 2 3
2 314 8 6 5 6
1 308 16 17 13 14
0 293 68 73 79 77

Table 5: 2019 Stoic Week – Number of times participants have taken part in previous Stoic Weeks and – SABS scores and percentages of total participants

Knowledge of Stoicism 2019 % 2018 % 2017 % 2016   %
Expert .8 .8 0.5 1
I know quite a bit but not an expert 23 19 19 16
I know a bit 41 42 41 39
Novice 25 28 30 33
None 9.5 10 9 11

Table 6:  2019 Stoic Week  – Self-assessed Knowledge of Stoicism at the beginning of the week

Identification as a Stoic 2019 % 2018 %
I consider myself to be a Stoic   10.5 11
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 41 38
Neutral or I don’t know 34 37
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 9 10
Definitely not a Stoic 6 6

 Table 7:  Stoic Week 2019 :  Participants identification as a Stoic at the beginning of Stoic Week

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

This post is based on the workshop on this subject given at the Athens Stoicon (Oct 5 2019). Chris Gill provides the introduction and the section on the Stoics and Gabriele Galluzzo provides the section on Aristotle. This presentation was followed by a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

Introduction

The environmental crisis represents the biggest challenge to humanity today – perhaps ever. There are many practical responses being made as well as strong resistance to these responses. Theorists, including philosophers, are also working out how they can help: environmental ethics is an area of current intense activity. In this workshop, we are thinking about the intellectual and ethical resources in ancient philosophy that may help thoughtful people to respond appropriately to the scale of this challenge, looking to Aristotle, the famous 4th-century philosopher and pupil of Plato, and the Stoics (early third-century BC onwards) – both of whom founded their schools in the city of Athens where this year’s Stoicon was held.

These ancient philosophers did not, of course, experience the environmental crisis that we have produced in modern times; but their ideas may still help us deal with it. We do not have to adopt all their ideas, and some of what they say may be unhelpful for this purpose; but their standpoint may still offer us new insights. Here, we are not looking at these thinkers primarily as a source of emotional resilience (Stoicism is often seen as helping to support resilience in times of crisis) or as sources of ideas about the virtues, though that is an aspect of their theory that is potentially relevant to this topic. It is especially their thinking about nature and the linkage between nature and ethics that we are most concerned with here.

We want to see if there are dimensions of their view of humanity and nature or nature and ethics that we can adopt and use as the basis for modern thinking in a way that can help us respond positively and usefully to the environmental crisis.

Aristotle and the Environment

Traditionally, Aristotle is not often associated with environmental ethics. What seems to militate against the inclusion of Aristotle in the list of environmental thinkers is his insistence on the primacy of human beings over all other creatures (both living and non-living creatures). This view, which is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, is certainly testified to by a famous passage in Aristotle’s Politics:

We may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of human beings, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of human beings.

Politics, 1.8

Although Aristotle certainly held this anthropocentric view, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In general, it seems wrong to claim that anthropocentrism is incompatible with a genuine concern for the environment as a whole or for forms of life other than the human. It is often claimed, for instance, that we have a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. And this responsibility entails that we should preserve our planet in the same condition as we found it, if not in a better condition.

This argument in favour of caring for the environment, which seems to be right, entirely revolves around human beings, their moral obligations and their interest (the interest, for instance, of future generations). Thus, to hold that human beings are in some way or other superior to other creatures by no means entails that we should not care for them or for the environment.

Actually, on closer inspection, we can see that there are several strands in Aristotle’s thought that could be used to support a concern for the environment and forms of life other than the human. The Politics passage might be taken to imply that animals and plants do not have any intrinsic value, but only have instrumental value to the extent that they serve the interests of human beings. But this is certainly not Aristotle’s considered view. Scholars have emphasised that there are clear traces in Aristotle of a biocentric or life-centred approach, in which the central idea is that life (all forms of life, not just human life) has intrinsic value.

This approach mostly emerges in Aristotle’s physical and biological works, which are devoted to a comprehensive study of all forms of life on earth. One area of interest is the way that Aristotle understands the nature and development of living beings. Aristotle has a conception of the nature and development of living beings (and, in some sense, of the universe as a whole), which is called ‘teleology’. This is the idea that, by nature, all creatures have an end or goal to realise, which is the development and full realisation of their own nature.

Thus, all plants, as well as non-human animals and human beings, tend or strive by nature to become fully developed and well-functioning creatures. The activities that lead all creatures to develop into fully functioning beings are good; and the attainment of their nature is their goodness and excellence. As the application of categories such as goodness shows, non-human living beings are valuable, precisely because they tend and strive to achieve their own goodness. In this way, they are not only instrumental to human beings but have intrinsic value. They cannot be, therefore, ethically irrelevant.

This general line of argument can be further strengthened by looking at Aristotle’s approach to life more generally. Aristotle has a holistic approach to life and to the universe in general. When he studies the different forms of life, Aristotle considers them all together and emphasises what the different forms of life have in common (De anima, 2.1-4).

With plants, for instance, we share the capacity to take food, reproduce and interact with the environment. With non-human animals, we share, in addition to the basic capacities we share with plants, the capacity to perceive the world, to have desires and to move around to get the objects of our desires. Obviously, for Aristotle human beings have more capacities than other creatures (such as the capacity to think and speak, which implies many other ethically relevant capacities) and so they occupy the top place in the scale of nature. But the different forms of life have at least as many elements of continuity as they have of discontinuity.

Thus, Aristotle’s universe appears to constitute a system and organisation, in which the different inhabitants are necessarily interconnected and there are no radical breaks between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Metaphysics, 12.10). If this is the case, we can see how, in an Aristotelian universe, what happens in one part, layer or level of the world is relevant to, and affects, to some extent, what happens in the other parts, layers or levels. This holistic or interconnected approach invites us to think seriously about a certain number of environmental issues, such as the preservation of plant and animal species, as well as the preservation of the habitat that makes life possible.

It is not only in Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific approach to life that we may find inspiration to place concern for nature and the environment at the centre of our ethical and political agenda. Several aspects of Aristotle’s ethical thought invite similar conclusions. Here, clearly, the perspective is quite different from the biological works; and anthropocentric considerations play a significant role in this area of Aristotle’s thought. It is clearly our happiness as human beings that is at stake in Aristotle’s ethics and the way we make use of the resources that we have. But Aristotle’s approach to these issues shows how anthropocentrism and environmental responsibility are not necessarily incompatible. A couple of examples may illustrate this general point.

Aristotle is a eudaimonist: he believes, in other words, that happiness or flourishing is the goal of human life. He also believes that happiness or flourishing mainly consists in the possession and exercise of the virtues. Human beings are happy when they perform the activities that fully express their nature, and these are, for Aristotle, virtuous actions, both practical and intellectual. One of the distinguishing marks of Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics is the insistence on virtues that relate strongly to the (modern) idea of sustainability. For instance, Aristotle believes that an amount of money is necessary for a good life, as money removes obstacles to happiness and provides security (Nicomachean Ethics, NE, 1.8, 4.1). But Aristotle strongly insists that it is only some money (and not as much money as possible) that we need to be happy (NE, 3.7-9, 4.1):

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, insofar as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.

Politics, 1.8

Thus, some is enough, and self-restraint in material pursuit is at centre of Aristotle’s ethical thinking. And it is this notion of ‘enoughness’, as it were, that shapes Aristotle’s ethical approach as a whole. Thus, if we consider the problem of exploitation of the planet’s resources, an Aristotelian approach would certain encourage a sustainable use of such resources and strongly discourage consuming more than is actually needed. Some resources are necessary for collective or social happiness, but an increase in resources does not correspond for Aristotle to an increase in collective happiness. It follows that we can be equally happy, and arguably even happier, by using fewer resources than we do now or by using them in a sustainable way.

Aristotle’s ethical thinking offers a second, interesting line of argument to the same conclusion. This is not a point that Aristotle explicitly makes, but it seems to follow quite naturally from his general position. Aristotle argues that the happiness of a human being must be assessed on the basis of his or her life as a whole (NE, 1.7). It is not a short or long period of time that enables someone to be called happy, but their life as a whole. In the same context, Aristotle raises the apparently weird question whether someone’s happiness may be affected by what happens after his or her death (NE, 1.10). Aristotle’s answer to the question is open-ended, but it is still interesting that he raises the question at all.

The kind of situation that Aristotle has in mind is probably this. We have a moral responsibility to educate our children well because this is part of what it means to exercise our virtue. Suppose that we fail and our children misbehave after our death, this may have consequences for our happiness because, of course, if we fail in that crucial task, we cannot be said to have lived a good life.

Now, let’s suppose that, by analogy with Aristotle’s thought, we have a similar obligation to care about future generations, and that preserving the planet in a good condition is part of this care. It follows that, if we fail to preserve the environment in a good condition for future generations, we fail in our moral obligation, and this may have consequences for the extent to which we can be said to have led a good life and thus to have been happy. In this line of argument, preserving the environment is a component of what makes us flourish as human beings and so, ultimately, of our happiness. In all these ways, then, Aristotle’s thought can provide insights that we may be able to adopt and that may help us to adopt a more sustainable way of life and set of attitudes.

Stoicism and the Environment

As with Aristotle, there are some aspects of  Stoic thinking that are not helpful to us in our present situation, including the idea that Gabriele singled out at the start of his talk: the belief that other animals, as well as plants, exist for humans to use for our purposes. This attitude (we usually call it an ‘anthropocentric’ attitude) has come today to form part of the problem that we are trying to address. However, more closely examined, the Stoic viewpoint is not so much ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on human beings as a species) but ‘logo-centric’ or ‘reason-centred. Human beings are regarded by the Stoics as especially valuable in relation to other animals because of the possession of rationality, which is also shared with the universe as a whole. This is a rather complex idea whose implications I will explore in the course of my talk and which, I think, is potentially valuable for us too.

What are the Stoic ideas that are most helpful to us in confronting the environmental crisis? One idea centres on the place of human beings in nature and the ethical implications of this place. Modern moral theories tend to be framed in terms of relationships between human beings, and are then extended (sometimes) to animals or the environment, Stoicism sees human beings as an integral part of the universe as a whole and sometimes defines the best kind of life in terms of the universe or nature as a whole.

Happiness or the best kind of life is defined, typically, as the natural life, or the life according to nature; and this means, in part, that the best kind of life is one which exhibits qualities which are also present in the universe as a whole, namely rationality or order and providential care for ourselves and others. Aristotle also sees the happy life as one that is ‘according to nature’, but he mainly stresses the idea of living according to human nature (Aristotle, NE,1.7), whereas the Stoics go further in linking human happiness with nature as a whole. In this respect, the Stoic standpoint is not, in fact, anthropocentric: for them, the universe as a whole exhibits more fully qualities that we possess to a lesser extent. This viewpoint may help to counteract the modern tendency to see human beings as in some sense separate from nature or as uniquely valuable elements within it.

Secondly, the Stoic standpoint offers a distinctive way of formulating the idea that nature is inherently or intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable to us (humans). Some modern thinkers in environmental ethics also stress the importance of this idea as a corrective to modern anthropocentrism; but the Stoics provide their own way of framing and grounding this idea. The Stoics see nature not as ethically neutral, not as just a material object or a process; they see it as embodying in a strong form good qualities which human beings can also share, though less completely.

These good qualities are two-fold; the first is rationality, which the Stoics interpret in terms of structure, order and wholeness or, overall, consistency. Secondly, according to the Stoics, nature is good because it exercises providential care, not just for human beings and other animals, but also plants, and sea and air, all of which contribute to the totality of the universe (its order or rationality) and are to that extent good.

Nature’s providential care is expressed, for instance, in the fact that all animals are naturally motivated to take care of themselves (to preserve themselves) and to take care of others of their kind (their offspring, most obviously). In human beings, this motive of care for oneself and others goes much further than with other animals because of our distinctive rationality. So this is another way in which Stoic ideas can be useful to us now: in offering new ways in which we can see nature as a whole as inherently valuable (what is sometimes described as a ‘biocentric’ viewpoint) and not valuable only because nature is useful to us humans.

Also, I think the Stoic framework can be helpful in leading us to make the kind of response in action that is called for by the environmental crisis, and to conceive this response in a positive way.  The Stoics think human beings (like other animals) have an in-built instinct to take care of themselves and others of our kind. Because of our distinctive capacity for rationality this takes a complex form, that of developing the virtues, in a way that benefits ourselves as well as those affected by our actions.

The second aspect, developing our care for others, takes two main forms: involvement in family and communal life (including political life); and also coming to see all human beings as part of a single community or family as rational and sociable animals. I think that this Stoic idea can be especially helpful for us as we try to take action that addresses the environmental crisis. We need to view our actions not just as they affect our own family and community or even nation but as they affect humanity as a whole, seen as part of our broader family of humankind or as ‘citizens of the world’ (cosmopolitans). This can help us to adopt an attitude of care for people in other parts of the world who are already experiencing more than some of us the destructive results of climate change.

I see one further possible argument, which is based on Stoic ideas, even if it is not one the Stoics themselves put forward. One could argue that the rationality that makes humans special among animals carries with it the obligation to use this capacity not just for our own benefit or for our families and community or humanity in general but also on behalf of other aspects of nature which lack this capacity, that is, other animals, plants and the natural environment more generally. Put differently, we should use our special capacity to adopt, as far as we are able, the role of providential nature in taking care of these other elements. We should do so, especially, in the light of the damage that we have ourselves already done to the world. This line of thought is not, as I say, one the Stoics adopted but it is based on Stoic themes and represents another way in which their theory can be valuable for us in forming an appropriate ethical and intellectual response to the environmental crisis.

Further readings on Aristotle:

Further readings on Stoicism:

For the Stoic worldview, see Cicero, The Nature of the Gods Book 2.

For all aspects of the topic, see:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, especially sections 54 (theology), 57 (development), 63 (the end and happiness)
  • John Sellars, Stoicism, ch. 5 (Stoic Ethics).

See also:

  • C. Gill, ‘Stoicism and the Environment’
  • K. Whiting, ‘Stoicism and Sustainability’, Stoicism Today
  • S. Shogry, ‘Stoic cosmopolitanism and environmental ethics’, forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter

Amor Fati by Walter Matweychuk

Using Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I teach people that we disturb ourselves when we encounter adversity. REBT heavily borrows from a 2000-year-old philosophy known as Stoicism. Many people misunderstand Stoicism and wrongly believe it means to be emotionless. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that helps people live well in a challenging world and to engage with that world to better it if they can.

Currently, there is a great deal of interest around the globe in Stoicism. Since REBT derives from Stoicism, many of the Stoic teachings can be implemented using REBT. REBT and Stoicism go together, and in many ways, REBT is a modern version of Stoicism. The Stoics taught that one could flourish in life when they lived according to nature. To do this means to live a life where you pursue the four virtues of Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Proper Reasoning (also called Practical Wisdom).

Stoicism also advocated that we live happily with our fate expressed in the phrase Amor Fati, to learn to love one’s fate. “Amor Fati” does not mean one does not acknowledge their dissatisfaction with a set of circumstances. Loving one’s fate also does not necessarily mean to give up in resignation and avoid making those changes that are possible in the situation one finds themselves confronting. I believe that the Stoics, who were practical philosophers, would encourage us to change what we can and to live happily with what we cannot eliminate from our lives and thereby achieve Amor Fati.

REBT actively and explicitly teaches you how to follow this ancient piece of wisdom. In REBT, we assume that we can have some degree of happiness even when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards our difficulties and obstructions. REBT teaches that humans tend to disturb themselves and thereby render themselves unable to “love their fate” when we hold one or more of the following attitudes towards the adverse events of our life:

  1. I absolutely must do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and must never err.
  2. You, my fellow human, absolutely must treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuits as my well-being is what is supreme
    .
  3. Life absolutely must unfold as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. It absolutely must only be as complicated and challenging as I want it to be.

Each of the above attitudes is rigid, illogical, false, and self-defeating. Holding these attitudes will not allow you to have some degree of happiness as you encounter the adversities fate chooses to put in your way.

To help people learn to help themselves and thereby achieve Amor Fati, I teach them to question these attitudes and to revise them. Ellis called this process “disputing” because he wished to emphasize the critical analysis he was teaching and aiming at the self-disturbing attitudes the individual held. This process of critical examination of one’s reactions and underlying attitudes is not unlike what the ancient Stoics prescribed. The Stoics prescribed daily reflection in the morning and the evening, which can be called Stoic meditation. During such meditative and reflective practice periods, both the Stoics and REBT advocate that one becomes aware of the self-defeating nature of their emotional and behavioral reactions.

When we identify an instance of self-disturbance inconsistent with “Amor Fati,” REBT suggests that we search for the rigid “musts” that we hold and which creates our disturbed, self-defeating reactions. The Stoics advocated something similar when they promoted the use of proper reasoning. Once these rigid, self-defeating “musts” are acknowledged, they can be critically analyzed. Next the individual can attempt to rework them and transform them from an idea that is rigid and self-defeating to one that is flexible and self-helping while still possessing the wish or value embedded in the attitude.

The process of disputing your rigid musts involves asking questions like:

  1. Is this attitude helping me get more of what I want in this world and less of what I do not wish to get? How does it help me function in the face of adversity?
  2. Is this attitude true or false? Does this attitude have evidence that reveals it is true? What is that evidence?
  3. Is this attitude internally consistent and logical? Does the conclusion logically follow from any inherent assumptions with it?

When one uses these three questions against the rigid and absolute “musts” placed on one’s self, others, and their world or life conditions, it becomes clear that there are problems with this way of thinking. Absolute “musts” do not help us function in a maximally effective way in the face of adversity. A review of the available evidence will quickly show these attitudes are false, and they tend to be internally inconsistent and not logical.

Let’s take a look at three alternative attitudes that are functional, true, and internally consistent and logical. A period of Stoic meditation or REBT disputing would show that these attitudes are suitable alternatives to the three rigid musts. They are:

  1. I want to do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and to avoid making errors but cannot do this and do not have to do this. As a fallible human, I cannot perfect myself, but I can strive to do better and better. Better is achievable, and perfection is not.
  2. I certainly would like you, my fellow human, to treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuit because my well-being is of great importance to me, but I do acknowledge you do not have to do this. I recognize I am the center of my universe, not the universe. When you treat me poorly, I will note this and assert myself, but I will refuse to demand that you be as I want you to be because you do not have to be so. I will remain responsible for my emotional reaction to your misbehavior and refuse to condemn you, the fallible human who is liable for your misconduct towards me.
  3. I will keep my wish that my life unfolds as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. I also will continue to hope that my life is only as complicated and challenging as I want it to be, but I will always keep in mind that these conditions do not have to exist. Life and reality are as they are, and it is in my best interest to accept them as they are until I can influence them to my liking if I can. When I cannot change the conditions of my life I still can have some degree of happiness despite the deviation from my ideal conditions. In so doing, I will come closer to the Stoic goal of “Amor Fati.”

Both the Stoics and REBT acknowledge that disciplining our thinking takes practice. That is why the Stoics advocated one engage in a period of reflective preparation in the morning and a period of evening mediation to review what one did well and poorly earlier in the day. The famous Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, who was a practicing Stoic, reminded himself each morning that he would encounter all sorts of misbehavior as shown in the passage below taken from his diary:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

An updated version of this morning meditation could be something along these lines:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today do not have to be as I want them to be. They do not have to cooperate with me and treat me nicely. The never have to show me respect even though I will always welcome it. Others today will treat me poorly because they all are fallible humans just like me. They are not evil but may very well be emotionally disturbed.

I will first assume responsibility for my emotional and behavioral reaction to their conduct, and then when it is sufficiently important to me to do so, I will assert myself with them and sometimes even resist them in ways that are fair, humane, and law-abiding. 

People and life cannot disturb me. It is I who has the power and choice to disturb myself over what others do and the adversities I encounter each day. I will choose never to disturb myself regardless of what happens later today. I will strive to unconditionally accept myself when I error, unconditionally accept others when they misbehave, and unconditionally accept life when it is rough and unfair. I am responsible for my emotions, my conduct, and my life. I will always look for changing what I can change, which is my attitude towards both my mistakes and the obstructions others and life put in my way.

I will experience healthy negative feelings that motivate me to act in a socially acceptable way that helps me to put my interests first and the interests of others a close, not a distant second. In having this stance today, I will be better able to enjoy my life to the fullest as it is the only life I will likely ever have to experience. Amor fati.”

Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.

What Is a Stoic’s “Social Nature” by Will Johncock

We Are Naturally Social

I originally encountered Stoic philosophy many years ago when majoring in philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate. That I was studying sociology during this period is not irrelevant to my first experiences with Stoicism. This is because what initially caught my attention about the ancient Stoics was their emphasis on our inherently social or communal constitution. I rather hastily registered this principle as similar to modern sociological arguments about how we are each intrinsically shaped by our social environments.

As my familiarity with Stoicism developed over the ensuing weeks I soon realized how wrong this first impression was! Instead I came to grasp the significant differences between the Stoic sense of our essential social nature, and modern claims about how we are contingently constructed by the norms and structures of the societies into which we are born. In the spirit of this refined appreciation, I anticipate that clarifying in this discussion what our social nature means for the Stoics could assist others.

Stoicism’s emphasis on our social or communal predispositions does not inaugurate ancient concerns about social and political life. Turning to Plato’s Symposium as just one example we see that Socrates and the other interlocutors readily explore themes of civic virtue and values. I indeed would argue that the dialogic method via which Socrates generally explores philosophical questions necessarily has interpersonal and social conditions.

It is not uncommon in fact for Plato to describe, sometimes by analogy, individual states in terms of collective states. Take for instance his definition of happiness in the Republic. Individual happiness for Plato comprises the harmonious application of the soul’s various parts/faculties in a way that mirrors an idealized division of functions between classes or groups in a population. Then of course we have a work such as Aristotle’s Politics which considers how a political community relates to the fulfilment of citizens’ natural and virtuous ends.

This inadequately brief summary simply serves to recognize that pre-Stoic thought is rich with inquiries about collective life. Despite this ancient heritage, the Stoics nevertheless uniquely express something essential about our social or communal natures. As noted, this essential social quality will be distinguishable from modern ideas around how we are contextually socialized by the various communities in which we live.

The first point to make regarding our social nature for the Stoics is their belief that we are inherently designed for communal or collective existence. If we begin at ancient Stoicism’s Roman conclusion we find that Marcus Aurelius states plainly in Meditations that when we do “something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest” we have actioned what each of us “was designed for” (9.42,4). Elsewhere he describes this specifically with the term “nature” in that it is in our “nature to perform social acts” (8.12).

The influence of Epictetus is evident here. In his Discourses Epictetus proclaims that God’s design is of humans who “contribute something to the common interest” (1.19,10-19). The message is that our actions invoke a nature that looks beyond our own welfare or priorities to also consider our fellow humans. Because our nature reflects how we are “made in the interest of another” Marcus further grandly declares that we are “born for community” (5.16).

This theme of the welfares of ourselves and others becomes especially prominent when considering our inclinations toward self-preservation. Cicero in his De Officiis (On Duties) recounts how the Stoic follower, Cato the Younger, describes an individual’s self-preserving tendencies as  “identical” to what serves “the whole body politic” (3.6,26). The Stoic assertion is that such self-awareness is not exclusively an individualized prerogative but actually reflects how everyone is “bound to their fellow citizens” (3.6,28).

This is genuinely counterintuitive and requires more explanation. How can our self-preserving tendencies, our looking out for ourselves, reveal an underlying fellowship? A clue presents in Cato’s description of the “bond of mutual aid” (3.19,63). What we learn is that if it is in our human nature to care for another person’s welfare, likewise it is in their human nature to care for ours. Through this reciprocity a communal preservation of the self manifests.

We need to be careful with this sense of self-preservation though. For the Stoics self-preservation does not strictly refer to typical understandings around sustaining physical health and well-being. To self-preserve for the Stoics instead signifies living in accordance with nature. While that nature concerns our communal orientations as we have reviewed, what we are about to see is that such a nature also requires living rationally. It is through this intersection of community and rationality that the Stoic conception of our essentially social nature will diverge from modern impressions of the varied and contingent productions of our socialized selves and states by the societies in which we respectively live.

What Happens Socially Happens Externally

Our nature involves a communal and social existence for the Stoics. Nevertheless the contingent happenings of social life and our consequent socialization by those happenings also comprise much of what is outside our nature in their view. To appreciate this difference we can begin with Epictetus’ well-known distinction in the Enchiridion between what is, versus is not, in our control.

What is in our control for the Stoics is in our nature. Our attitudes and judgements are “within our control” and accordingly are internal to our nature. Such processes depend only on ourselves and so are internal to us. Conversely external features such as our body, our possessions, and socialized phenomena like our reputation are outside our control. Because our body changes, our possessions can be stolen, and we might be undeservedly spoken badly of by others, we have no control over these things. They are therefore outside our nature (1).

Epictetus even advises in the Discourses that if you “enter into social relations” with people who like to “gossip about shared acquaintances” you are vulnerable to harm. The harm eventuates if you become invested in what is beyond your control about such relations, as they externally distance you from your internal nature (3.16,4). Because we cannot control what happens in the external social arena, Epictetus demands that we should be indifferent to much of it. Marcus perpetuates this advisory, instructing in Meditations to “be deaf to gossip” (1.5). We also see in Seneca’s 7th letter “Avoiding the Crowd” the concern that “contact with a crowd is harmful” because of the external ways the many can “contaminate us” (7.2).

Being indifferent to what occurs socially and externally is within our internal control for the Stoics. Indifference does not entirely negate the presence of externalities in our lives. The earlier-raised topic of our health and well-being for example comes under what the Stoics variously categorize as a “preferred indifferent.” We can be physically healthy and even prefer healthiness over unhealthiness without being dependent on healthiness for our sense of internal self and living in accordance with our nature. By not being dependent on external contingencies our indifference accords with what the Stoics refer to as our “rational nature.” It is possibly surprising for the uninitiated reader of Stoicism to learn that within this rationality of our internal self, the essential nature of our communal and social self for the Stoics also operates. Indeed this rationality is the key to understanding our social/communal nature for the Stoics.

A Rational and Universal Community

The Stoics do not restrict their understanding of community to the usual definitions of people living together in the same geographic location, or being connected by shared interests and lifestyles. The Stoic idea of community instead involves something grander. We can begin to comprehend this Stoic community by considering what Stoicism believes we all primarily have in common; the just-discussed rational nature.

This rational nature for the Stoics is a fragment of God’s rationality. We each embody God’s rationality because it permeates the entire universe. To have a rational nature is our default mode and a fundamental Stoic principle. As Diogenes Laërtius reports in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the earliest Greek Stoics such as Chrysippus observe for example a “right reason which pervades everything” (7.53).

The concept of God’s rationality being omnipresent illustrates the Stoic belief in a pantheistic universe. If a divine rationality infuses the entire world furthermore, your internal rationality is in harmony with that world. These pantheistic conditions are why for Chrysippus our rational nature is a “common nature, and also human nature in particular” (7.53). There are equally traces of this impression in Seneca’s 95th letter “The Role of General Principles” when he states that this “universe you see, containing the human and the divine, is a unity” (95.51).

This notion of a universal harmony that is conditioned by a pantheistic rationality contextualizes the earlier discussion about self-preservation. Cato’s description of an impulse toward self-preservation has involved not only individual ends or outcomes, but also communal and mutual ones. Cicero describes in De Officiis (On Duties) howthis self-preserving tendency for the Stoics is “fully rationalized and in harmony with nature” (3.6,20). What we can thus now appreciate via the advent of a pantheistic universe is how this rationalized self-preserving inclination accords both with one’s own natural ends and a nature that is beyond an individual.

This shared rationality is crucial to the Stoics’ broader sense of community. Stobaeus notes the Stoic view that as our nature involves a common rationality, so such rationality underpins how the “virtuous benefit one another.” This translation comes from Anthony Long and David Sedley’s encyclopedic work The Hellenistic Philosophers. Long and Sedley commentate on this point that the “mutual betterment” between individuals arises via a “community of goods” which “belong” to all who live by the common rationality (377).

A possibly concrete direction of the virtuousness involved in our universally rational and social nature presents in Hierocles’ essay “How Should One Behave toward One’s Relatives?” Hierocles describes our interpersonal relations via concentric rings that encircle us. Our closest relations as Stobaeus’ Anthology informs us are for Hierocles in the inner circles. Conversely the outermost circle represents the “entire race of human beings” (4.84.23).

Hierocles notes that a virtuous and “well-tempered’ individual will not be content with this divided and somewhat anti-communal structure though. The Stoic citizen should instead feel a responsibility to bring people from the outer circles in closer. Hierocles bases this order on what he asserts are our rationally communal instincts, stating in his treatise “On Marriage” that “our entire race is naturally disposed to community” (4.67.21). The rational, just, and good response to the distinction between the circles is to reduce the distances between people.

The resulting conception verges on a theory of the oneness of all humanity. Even more spectacularly in terms of arguments around singularity, Marcus’ Meditations defines the universe as “one living creature” (4.40). If the terminology of a “living creature” seems abstract, it can help to appreciate Marcus’ pantheistic view that God’s rationality “activates” the material world (4.40). The world is alive because God’s rationality activates its otherwise material passivity. Given that this active principle (divine rationality) is shared by all things, it is the condition for a universal commonality and community. Pantheistic reason underpins a universal unification in which the “rational directly implies social” (10.2).

The Stoic impression of community therefore requires that what is internal about our individual rationality is also present in the universe around us. A life lived in accordance with nature is a life lived in accordance with the rationality of this universe, where “the nature of the Whole is what my own nature is” (2.9). Having appreciated this common dispersal of individual nature we can now consider how this “Whole” is portrayed not only as a “community” but also in terms of a “city” living.

Cities and Hierarchies

At first glance this ancient conception of our communal nature appears to pair with current human living arrangements when the Stoics discuss it in the context of a “city.” As with Stoic definitions of community, and of self-preservation, however, there is a “rational” condition to the Stoic understanding of the city community. Appreciating this condition requires inviting the second head of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, to the discussion.

Diogenes informs us in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that Cleanthes’ predecessor, Zeno, as well as his successor, Chrysippus, discuss in their respective works titled Republic what it means to live in a city (7.28-7.33). It is through Stobaeus’ account of Cleanthes’ position (as found in Long and Sedley’s aforementioned translations) though that the early Stoic correlation of the city with rationality becomes interpretable:

…a city is a habitable structure, in which people who take refuge have access to the dispensation of justice 

SVF 1.587

What can we interpret here regarding a Stoic connection between rationality and a city community? Firstly, the city “refuge” that Cleanthes describes is a world in which we can live in accordance with our nature. The city is the entire rational universe, evidenced in how Cleanthes and elsewhere Chrysippus both describe it as “administered” by God’s universal reason and perfect justness. While a city community in Stoicism can refer to a metropolis with a precise geography and “habitable structure,” it also denotes a pantheistic universal arena.

Marcus’ Meditations also recognizes this double sense of the city. The notion of a cosmic community of which we are all a part takes on citied themes when he describes how we are each an “inhabitant of this highest City, of which all other cities are mere households” (3.11,2). This highest city is the rational universe itself, the “dear city of Zeus” (4.23).

Modern theories about how our city environments socialize us in variously contingent ways typically reduce our everyday lives to sociologically discoverable, structurally ordered behavioral patterns. Marcus’ sense of the universally interwoven community in which we all exist also involves ordered and patterned descriptions of our behaviors. For the Stoic though this ordering marks a universe’s essential harmony rather than locally contingent constructions:

All things are meshed together, a sacred bond unites them…ordered together in their places they together make up one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things…one substance, one law, one common reason

Meditations 7.9

Marcus indeed rhetorically questions of anyone who doubts that our co-operatively ordered labors contribute to a universal community, “can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world?” (5.1,1). The universally collegial orderings among “all things” affirm how for Marcus the entire “universe is a kind of community” (4.3,2).

Despite this unity we must recognize that Marcus’ communal ordering hierarchizes certain creatures. While “all things collaborate in all that happens” (4.40), some things are not as rational as other things. Animate beings (primarily humans) for example are “superior to inanimate” aspects of the universe (5.16). These inferior things are in Marcus’ view “made in the interest of the superior” whereas the superior creatures are made “in the interest of each other” (5.16).

While this might seem like an exclusionary rather than a communal structure it in fact describes the ordered nature of a pantheistic, rationalized world. Every aspect of the world has a collegial role in the overall structure, where “its end lies in that to which its course is directed; and where its end is, there also for each is its benefit and its good” (5.16). Marcus here evidently draws on Epictetus’ similar descriptions of a ladder of existence that is based on different degrees of rationality.

In his Discourses Epictetus states accordingly that “creatures whose constitutions are different have different ends and functions accordingly” (1.6,14-20). It is only a human capacity for example to understand and appreciate God’s works in the world. This nevertheless is just one feature of a “Whole” collective design and order that involves the “universal accommodation of things to one another” (1.6,6).

This discussion has been a clarification of our communal nature for the Stoics. Modern perspectives on the inherently socialized status of the self often point to how the social environments into which we are born determine our social constitutions. For ancient Stoic arguments however there is an essential social nature to each of us that does not depend on, nor is even influenced by, the socialized arenas and arrangements that we each call home.

Will Johncock is the author of Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times . His next book Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (out early 2020) compares ancient Stoic philosophy and modern social theory on questions of the relationship between an individual and their collective environment.He has lectured at UNSW Sydney. You can find him on Twitter @willjohncock

How To Be A Stoic When You Don’t Know How by Chuck Chakrapani

This is a summary of a talk I delivered at Stoicon-X in Athens and Toronto. It is based on a 10-week course on Stoicism developed by the Stoic Gym and is available in a book form, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. The actual course expands on these ideas, and is supported by 30 readings along with 10 specific exercises, one for each week, to reinforce the principles outlined below.

Barebones Stoicism

Stoicism, like most philosophical systems, has scores of concepts which could be confusing to a beginner. If we want to understand the basics of Stoicism to apply it to our daily life without having to master too many of the concepts, we can start with answers to  some basic questions.

What is the purpose of Stoicism? Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy. So, Stoicism is a philosophy whose aim is to steer us toward a happy and flourishing life or the good life.

What is the raw material we can use to create the good life? The raw material of the good life is not what most people think it is. It is not money, education, fame, reputation, or any of those but what Stoics call impressions. All our thoughts are impressions: ‘it is too hot’, ‘it is too cold’, ‘he is stupid’, ‘she is beautiful’, etc., are all impressions. Impressions are stimuli as they appear to us.

Someone gives $10 to a charity. You can see it in many ways: ‘He gave $10,’ or ‘He cares about helping,’ or ‘He is so stingy.’ Such impressions are the raw material from which we need to construct the good life. We commonly accept our impressions to be true. However, to be happy, we need to judge the impressions to see if they correct or incorrect. If we consistently make correct judgments about our impressions, it will lead to the good life.

How do we make sure that our judgments are correct? To make sure our judgments are correct, we apply four special skills (known as ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can reinforce these skills through the use of three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

This, in essence, is how I see barebones Stoicism. (This is not the only way to understand Stoicism, but just one of the many possible ways we can frame our understanding.)

The Stoic house: A metaphor

From here on, I will the use the metaphor of a house, with the foundation going in four different directions, with four walls, three widows and a roof sloping in two directions.

The Foundation

What is happiness or the good life? It’s a life without friction, “a life that flows smoothly” (Zeno). This means that we are not at odds with ourselves or with the world. But our life seldom flows smoothly. It’s full of complaints: the wifi is too slow, the coffee is too cold, the room is too hot, I should have done this, she should not have done that, what if the interview doesn’t go well, I wish I had more money, this list of complaints is stupid … it goes on and on. We are not gliding on the highway of life but are stuck on a crowded city street full of potholes and stoplights with tailgaters behind us and erratic drivers ahead of us– and we are already late.

Why do we have all these problems? Why can’t we glide on the highway of life? Simple, the Stoics said. We have all these problems because we don’t live in accordance with nature. What does that mean?

Our problems are created by our inability to live in accordance with nature. Living in accordance with nature means two things: Living in accordance with human nature and living in accordance with the world outside of us. What is our nature? Rationality. What distinguishes us from all other animals is that we can use our reason – something that other animals cannot do. What is the nature of the world outside of us? The nature of the world is the totality of what’s happening, the way things are. Therefore, those who live in accordance with nature are not at odds with themselves or with the world.

Our problems are created by our reactions to what happens to us. We often believe that we are happy or unhappy because of what happens to us. In reality, we process what happens to us and label them good or bad. This is what leads to happiness or unhappiness. Two people may lose their jobs under similar conditions. One may think that it is disastrous and get depressed. The other person may look upon it as an opportunity to review one’s life and career path and perhaps find a better career alternative. Two people may get very similar medical reports highlighting some health issues. One may be dismayed to get such a report and the other might think that it is a good wake-up call to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Our happiness depends on how we react to what happens to us.

What we cannot control should be nothing to us. We spend a considerable part of our mental life trying to fix things that cannot be fixed. Let us look at some common expressions, “You shouldn’t have done that,” “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Of all days, why is it raining on my day off?” They are all expressions of trying to mentally rearrange what cannot be changed. We do it whether it is a minor crisis (“I should have taken the earlier train”) or a major one (“It’s terrible that I got sacked. Why me?”). Most of our problems will disappear if we learn not to fight or worry about what we cannot control. They are nothing to us.

We should act on what is under our control. While we are busy controlling what is not under our control, we fail to control what is under our control. When you lose your job, instead of spending the day trying to mentally justify why you shouldn’t have been fired, you can enjoy your next meal and look for another job. When you are sailing, you can blame the wind that is against you (not under your control) or adjust your sails (under your control). If we are after the good life, we not only need to ignore what is not under our control, but act on what is.

The Walls

The foundations, critical as they are, cannot make a house. The fundamental principles of Stoicism tell us what is under our control and what is not and what leads to unhappiness. But not everything that is under our control is worth doing. To decide whether our judgments are correct or not we need four special skills (also called ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. In our Stoic model, the walls of the house correspond to these virtues.

Special skill Purpose
Wisdom What to do and what not to do
Justice Who things belong to and who deserves them
Moderation What to choose and what not to choose
Courage What to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of

Wisdom answers the question of what to do and what not to do. We confine our actions to what is under our control and do not waste our time and energy on things not under our control. This is the first cardinal virtue of Stoicism and the basis of all other virtues as well. Wisdom tells us that externals such as wealth, health, and reputation are not under our control while internals such as what we choose to think, feel, and act upon are under our control. To act wisely means treating externals with indifference and valuing our thinking, feeling, and actions as the sources of our happiness.

Justice is giving everyone their due. It is the realization that we are not isolated islands in the sea of humanity but a part of a larger whole. We are a part of our family and friends, which are a part of the society we live in, which in turn is a part of the world, and so on. So, our connection starts with people who are closest to us and extends outwards. We cannot hope to be happy if what we do is not good for our society. The special skill of justice urges us to understand that

What is not good for the hive cannot be good for the bee.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

and develop a sense of justice that will eventually contribute to our happiness.

Moderation or self-control is the stabilizing influence. Its purpose is to guide us towards what we should choose and what we should reject. The skill of moderation avers that things carried to an extreme can be harmful. Stoicism is not ascetic, and it does not prohibit our enjoying a good meal or a glass of wine (as long as we don’t treat these things as indispensable for our happiness). However, even things that are not necessarily harmful such as food and drink, if indulged without restraint or can harm us and hinder our realizing eudaemonia.

We are often afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of and not afraid of things we should be afraid of. Courage is the special skill that shows us what is terrible that we should be afraid of and what is not terrible that we shouldn’t be afraid of.

We are afraid of things such as poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death.  We are less concerned about our judgments. The special skill of courage teaches us not to be afraid of things like poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death. They are all external to us. Things like illness and death are natural and therefore not terrible. Things we are commonly frightened about are not really frightening.  What is truly frightening, and we should be afraid of, are our bad judgments. As long as an external thing does not the relate of our judgment, we have nothing to be afraid of anything external.

The Windows

How do we develop these four special skills needed to achieve eudemonia? By practicing three disciplines: the discipline of assent, the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire. These are three windows of our Stoic house.

The discipline of assent: We defined impressions as ‘stimuli as they appear to us’. But impressions can be wrong. Someone who appeared rude to you because she ignored you may just be shy. Someone who you thought was unintelligent because he couldn’t focus on things could be going through a personal crisis. The discipline of action asks of us to review our initial impression to determine whether it is internal or external to us and whether we want to assent (agree with) our impression. A false impression will have no impact on us if we do not assent to it. So, the discipline of assent helps us to develop the skill of wisdom.

The discipline of action: When we understand that we are part of a larger whole, we act to make the whole better. So we act for the betterment of our family, friends, country, and the world. This is the discipline of action and it helps us develop the skill of justice.

The discipline of desire: To develop the skill of moderation we need to rein in our desires and to develop the skill of courage by not giving in to our aversions or fears. The discipline of desire, therefore, helps us hone the skills of moderation and courage.

The Roof

Now we come to the roof of our Stoic house. The roof is sloping in two directions, corresponding to our daily practice and enjoying the festival of life.

Daily practice. Stoic philosophy is not a theoretical discipline created for the intellectual enrichment of scholars, but a practical philosophy created for the life enrichment of its practitioners. Daily practices are ‘spiritual exercises’, as Pierre Hadot pointed out.  All theoretical principles we discussed thus far are of no value unless we put those principles into practice.

How do we put these principles into practice? There are many ways, such as:

  1. Doing Stoic exercises every day.  One way is to explore the Stoic exercises described in books, articles, and blogs and select a few exercises to do on a daily basis. They can include morning and evening meditations, premeditatio malorum (‘negative visualization’), and the like. They will all help.
  2. Reading Stoic materials regularly.  Or we may choose to read the Stoic literature first thing in the morning every day and think about it. This will help us remember Stoic principles when we need to use them.
  3. Using Stoic slogans. We can memorize a number of Stoic slogans and use them as occasions arise.
  4. Using metaphoric or humorous expressions. This usually makes light of the situation. For example, when we feel upset about any aspect of reality, we may want to repeat to ourselves the line from the song, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”:

“Cause I’m never gonna to stop the rain by complaining, because I am free.

When we try to control an external thing and it doesn’t work, we might want to say to ourselves

Well, that handle didn’t work! (This is in reference to Epictetus’ comment that everything has two handles. If one handle doesn’t work, try the other.)

When you catch yourself worrying about what is not under our control.

This none of my business. Who put ME in charge?

In general, it doesn’t matter which method you use – reading daily, practicing Stoic exercises everyday, using slogans, or using humor to deflate the problem – as long as it is practiced consistently.

Enjoying the festival of life. Eudemonia is more than simply not feeling miserable irrespective of what happens around us or to us. It is also about enjoying the ‘festival of life’.

Why not enjoy the festival of life when it is given to you to do so?

Epictetus

Above all, Lucilius, learn to feel the joy!

Seneca

But where is this festival of life happening? Right here, right now. We don’t need to go to exotic places or exquisite restaurants to feel the joy. The beauty is all around us. Marcus Aurelius ruled the largest empire the world had ever known until then and was the most powerful person in the world. He could have had any pleasure his power and wealth could buy. What did he find charming and attractive?

We should also remember the casual grace and charm of nature. A loaf of bread splits open in the oven; random cracks appear on it. These unintended flaws are right and sharpen our appetite. Figs, when they ripen, also crack open. Olives, when they are about to fall just before they decay, appear more beautiful. So are drooping stalks of wheat, the wrinkling skin of a staring lion, foam from a wild boar’s mouth, and many more such sights. There is nothing beautiful about these sights when we see them in isolation. Yet, due to some other process of nature, they become charming and attractive.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.1

This charming and attractive world, this ‘festival of life,’ is given to us. It is for us to enjoy it.

How To Be A Stoic When We Don’t Know How

The foundation of Stoicism is understanding that we need to live in accordance with nature, that we create our problems by our judgments about the world, and that we can mitigate our problems by ignoring what we cannot control and acting on what we can. To implement the fundamental principles, we need four special skills: wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can develop these four skills through three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

Once we understand the fundamentals and have methods of implementation, we can sustain them through our daily practice and learning to enjoy the festival of life.

This is the house of Stoics. This, in my view, is how to be a Stoic when we don’t know how.

Chuck Chakrapani is the editor of THE STOIC magazine and the author of many books on Stoicism including How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. He is the president of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.

The Post-Traumatic Stoic by Jennifer Hullinger

Having been born to abusive parents, fate was less than kind to me. Mom’s flavor of abuse was of bitterness and blame toward me for being stuck in a bad relationship. She expressed her disdain both passively through neglect, and actively through screaming matches. Dad expressed his resentment much more physically. The pungency of his words had a lengthy shelf-life, and he often dealt in bruises, gashes or broken bone. Most of their energy was spent lashing out toward each other than raising a daughter, which was both a blessing and a curse. They can’t abuse what they aren’t paying attention to, but still a lonesome existence. Some of my earliest memories were of Mom and Dad fighting. Trying to find sleep during shouting is a difficult task, one I rarely managed. Our extended family either couldn’t help the situation, or simply refused to even acknowledge it was happening.

In my youth, an ability to distinguish between good reasoning and the irrational had yet to develop. There was little strength within me to grasp anything that would help break my chains.There seemed no way of escaping this terrifying situation. All a child can do is endure, and perhaps seek an explanation, if not a way of coping with such a broken spirit. As I grew older I became quite influenced by my father’s religious discourse, reading the Bible often. Most of the time this was a form of punishment for behavior he deemed sinful, but honestly it was a brilliant way to pass the time. I secretly enjoyed this penalty. There are profound lessons in the Bible, some I still not only utilize, but appreciate: 

“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Proverbs 9:7-9

This passage made me realize that correction was not about bruising my ego, but an opportunity to achieve a growth in virtue. I still consider this passage when someone sheds a light upon an error in my thinking. Of course, it’s one of many portions of the text that I find useful and wise. However, there seemed to be something missing. What of the values I cultivated through my life’s experience? Despite the plethora of wisdom offered in Proverbs, I could not bring myself to agree with statements like:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.

Punish them with the rod and save them from death.

Beat them with the rod, and you will save them from Sheol.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 

Being hit as a kid was a traumatic, and very damaging to my emotional and physical wellbeing. I cannot in good conscience advocate rod usage of any sort as a productive discipline tactic. Upon reading this, I felt my thirst for wisdom had to be quenched from multiple founts of knowledge as opposed to one. Guidance suited for my personal experience needed to be further studied, and from as many sources as possible. Perhaps I could even find one that agrees with my principles regarding corporal punishment. However, while still living with Dad, my philosophical education was limited to Biblical or Bible-adjacent sources until I reached around thirteen years of age. 

In the forefront of this development, Mom frequented hospitals with various injuries courtesy of Dad’s rage. Typically the injuries were a broken rib or two, but if she “made him” really angry, he would inflict worse. Apparently the rod is not merely a utility for the discipline of children, but wives as well. Between these visits, Mom and I would run to the safety of her parents for a brief period of time, usually a weekend. After hearing his pleas for forgiveness, and inevitably our return, she would typically succumb. This pattern repeated until one fateful day, we left him and never returned.

Finally, after divorcing Dad, Mom decided to continue her college education. I was enrolled in public school again, which was pretty exciting for us both. We were able to bond over studies, pour over literature, and critique each other’s poetry. Mom and I deeply connected on this level, and whenever either of us found thought provoking text, we would read and discuss the material. The door opened wide; I couldn’t wait to walk right through to finding the key to personal freedom and contentment I so desperately needed. I had not anticipated just how many wonderful thinkers there have been throughout history. This was especially fun when she was taking History of Philosophy, or the semester I attended Applied Ethics. 

However, years of bondage and living in terror got the best of Mom, and she became more of a friend than a moral authority who provided a safe and loving environment for a child. She spent a lot of her time at various bars, sometimes having me tag along with the insinuation that it was a girl’s night out, but in truth I was her babysitter. She would get drunk, go through boyfriends like water, and leave me to fend for myself, sometimes for as long as a month. If I hadn’t made friends at school, I probably would have not had enough food to eat during the times mom would disappear.

Dad was no longer in the picture at all, and we were essentially isolated from the rest of the family still. As Mom took out years of frustration and trauma on me, emotional abuse didn’t cease, only the flavor changed from bitter to downright melancholy. She even revealed that I was the result of guilt she felt over an abortion long before her pregnancy with me. Basically letting me know, for sure, that neither one of my parents wanted me. The logical conclusion I came to at that time was: my mom suffered abuse because of me, a perception that rooted me in deep despair for years to come. Anger consumed my heart and haunted my soul. The particular wisdom I required would not arrive on my horizon until right after my marriage inevitably failed because I had not yet reigned in my feelings of rage and emptiness. Upon going back home to Mom, head hung in shame, with wrath still gripping my heart, I stumbled upon a passage in this book Mom had on her shelf called The Enchiridion, by Epictetus:

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

When I read this passage, it wasn’t some moment of clarity, but only furthered my rage. How dare he suggest that no one had harmed me! Whether out of my control or not, it still hurt. Who was this man to dare to deny me my suffering!? In a huff, I decided right then I was done with Stoics, and they had nothing to offer me in terms of real wisdom.

As time passed, and events progressed in my life, including university, a couple of kids, and the death of my mother, I stumbled across Stoic thought once more, rather by accident. By this time, I had already sought therapy to help me cope after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder around thirty years old. The clinician recommended a psychological treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This method, developed by Aaron Beck and inspired by Epictetus, works through emotions by questioning the thoughts behind them.

CBT challenges belief systems that are based on cognitive pitfalls such as catastrophizing, or generalizing. The goal is to realize how closely tied these set beliefs are to our perception of the world. Suddenly you see how important it is to pay attention to how you come to conclusions, and how the can often be in error. Why feel upset about a belief justified on a generalization, or any irrational, faulty opinion? Was fascinating to me how such a successful coping strategy was molded from Stoic reasoning. 

Enticed by how helpful CBT had been for me, I rethought my assessment of Epictetus, and upon discovering he had been a slave, embarrassment overwhelmed me. In my rage, I failed to see the ingenuity of the claim that provoked so much fury, and the reason for my reaction. Of course, the irony of getting offended by someone telling me that it was my view of things that offended me was not missed in retrospect. Still grants me a good chuckle looking back. Was only my view of this passage that bothered me. It just goes to show that sometimes the most important message of wisdom one can receive for their life struggles takes not only being offered, but also being prepared to accept. Often the most necessary step to take to avoid faulty reasoning is the most challenging, first you gotta be ready to admit you made an error. 

For years, the dominant motivation I utilized was fury, but I had grown so weary of this destructive dynamic. It was exhausting, and not at all making circumstance any easier. What kind of example did this offer my kids? I had to change; something had to give, if not for me, but for them. If there’s any type of therapy that offers tangible results to souls suffering from traumatic experience, it begs for attention. I can say, without hesitation, that CBT was a very successful tool for my healing process. However, it is best to talk to your clinician to see if this method would be appropriate for your own mental health care.  

After exposure to more Stoic application, my interest in the topic piqued. I began exploring other Stoic sources. A friend of mine referenced Seneca’s On Anger.  After reflection on this text, finally weary of my wrath, it seemed the next necessary step was to heed Seneca’s advice on avoiding rage. Having seen how untethered anger can manifest in adults, and the damage it can cause to others, the notions expressed in this essay felt so serendipitous.There was no way this rotten vice was going to be passed on to my children, and honestly I think perhaps my parents had fallen prey to their passion rather than merely inflicted pain upon me. 

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it.

On Anger, Section 8

This definitely highlights what I had found true of anger: it takes over the better parts of the person, the loving, caring, more reasonable ones. If I was going to conquer this passion, I had to rein it in before it began. But what of the powerful feeling I got from choosing anger as a motivator?

Finally, I ask, is anger stronger or weaker than reason? If stronger, how can reason impose any check upon it, since it is only the less powerful that obey: if weaker, then reason is competent to effect its ends without anger, and does not need the help of a less powerful quality.

On Anger, Section 8

After On Anger I couldn’t get enough of the Stoics. Knowing I had the power to stop my anger before it took over was a life-changing realization. In traffic, waiting rooms, when my toddler would throw a fit – any chance I got to practice stifling the rise of anger I took it. Instead of anger being a source of my weakness, I decided to allow it to be a source of celebration. This built up my sense of confidence, which obviously never can change the past, but did give me better tools to deal with the challenges my past offered. The dichotomy of control was a principle that opened my horizons:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, chapter 1

Seems like such a simple and obvious solution, but one I had completely missed through my struggle: focus on what you can control, and don’t worry so much about what you cannot. This is a practice that is constant in life, and while it’s not easy, this does place things in perspective. This notion of tranquility through acknowledging limits of my control, and sustaining focus upon thought quality pulled me out of the nagging despair I felt the majority of my life.

 Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things… An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 5

My entire life, I had given in to the notion that just because my parents treated me badly, I was worthless and unworthy of love. No wonder I felt so disturbed, angry, and unhappy! Instead of responding to a life I was actually granted, this projection dominated my view. After years of struggling with rage and powerlessness, arose an unfamiliar feeling of contentment in this realization.

Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived… Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 42

“It seemed so…” to me. Am I actually able to achieve happiness despite what fate had so coldly given me? I think so, and since beginning to put Stoic philosophy into practice, there have been some significant changes in my life. I no longer fly off the handle when circumstances don’t go the way I wanted them to, and give less significance to actions that are not my own. My concerns about gossip, hardships, illness and death are lessened significantly. These days, my focus tends to be on how I may think and act better. At times, I even find peace in moments, especially when striving toward values learned from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. One of the most important life lessons gained from my study of Stoic philosophy was to accept life as is.

To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Although I am no Sage by any measure, after years of clinging to a negative and defeatist view of life, Stoicism has helped me let go of one toxic element of life at a time. When successful in the practices learned from Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have reason to be proud of myself. Failure serves as a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of our own thoughts and actions. I still have a long road ahead of me to achieve anything resembling tranquility or Stoic right reason, but hopefully fate shall grant me the joy of breaking a very damaging, violent cycle.

Jennifer Hullinger is a mother of two, avid reader, and lover of wisdom. She runs a Youtube channel, Missus Snarky, where she and her friends share their political and philosophical views. Jennifer attended Sam Houston State University in Texas where she studied Psychology and Sociology, and has a real passion for knowledge.