Audio MP3: Chris Gill on a Stoic Sense of Purpose & Emotional Resilience

Chris Gill explores passages from Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus which discuss how to develop a Stoic sense of purpose, how to incorporate Stoic value in one’s life, and how to develop emotional resilience.

Click here to listen to Chris’ talk and click here for a handout of the passages he discusses. The talk was followed by a Q&A session with Chris Gill and Gill Garratt.

With thanks to Cristobal at KCL for recording this talk, which was delivered in November 2013 as part of international Stoic Week.

Features: What can the Stoics do for us? by Antonia Macaro

In this article, Antonia Macaro takes a discerning approach to adopting Stoicism to the modern-day. Read, and add your own ideas! How much Stoicism is enough? What do you take and what to you leave behind? Or do you take the whole thing, or just some specific kinds of advice which might be helpful? Join the debate below. 

Stoicism is not short of fans these days. Apart from cropping up in a number of books on popular philosophy, it is not infrequent to come across their ideas in all sorts of mainstream publications – The Guardian, Prospect, Psychologies, not to mention The Philosophers’ Magazine. This is not too surprising: especially the later texts by Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – burst with wonderfully apt advice on how to live. Far from the abstractions of some moral philosophy, which often gives little assistance on how to lead a good life, Stoic authors wrote about daily concerns, and so gained lasting relevance for many people.

Yet, if you started delving into Stoic literature, you might find some of the advice repugnant, even shocking. In Epictetus, for instance, you would find this exhortation: ‘If you kiss your child, or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you are kissing; and then you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.’ As for Marcus Aurelius, you would be told that sex should be thought of as ‘something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.’ Is Stoicism a life-affirming philosophy that can truly help us to live better lives in the modern world or a fiercely radical perspective, intriguing but too remote and demanding to have any real relevance to our daily conduct? Or both?

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'The Greatest of All Struggles' by Kevin Kennedy

The Greatest of All Struggles

Kevin Kennedy

“Thou wilt soon die, and thou art not yet simple, not free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, IV:30.

Reading the above passage this morning, I felt as though someone had just given me a swift  kick between the legs. Not that I expected to die anytime soon. (I’m 52:  an advanced age in Marcus’ day, but “the new 30” today.) Rather, I was wounded by the reminder that, despite all the years I had studied Stoic philosophy, I still all-too often allowed external events to disturb my peace of mind,  behaved unkindly to those close me, and failed to live according to reason and practical wisdom.

Aspiring to a Stoic lifestyle is easy, but only as long as we’re never challenged to put our philosophy into practice. Such was my case throughout most of my adult life, as I always lived alone, or, if I happened to be living with someone else, still acted as though I were single. But then, late in life, I met a woman whom I knew was “the One” and we had two children with each other. Suddenly my freedom had vanished, and I found myself facing responsibilities hitherto unknown to me. The greatest challenge was the task of staying home and taking care of our children on my own.  As their mother has a regular job, and I – an eternal doctoral candidate, frustrated writer, and part-time tour-guide – only find myself working irregularly, I am charged with staying home with the children for weeks or even months at a time. Practicing Stoic ataraxia (serenity) and prosoche (mindfulness) is of tremendous help when trying to be a good parent. Acquiring these habits of mind requires daily training. Alas, there come the days when it becomes far too easy to cast all of my Stoic principles to the wind.

Yesterday was such a day.

I found myself alone with the children again. Their mother had left for work some hours earlier, leaving me once more with the task of maintaining some semblance of order in our home. But all I saw was chaos. The dishes were piled high in the sink, the laundry was all over the bathroom, the toys were lying out all over the place, and a large pool of urine was spreading over the parlour floor (my one-and-a-half-year-old son had run away from me before I could put a fresh nappy on him). Our home had become the site for a reenactment of the Sack of Rome by the Vandals. The perfect opportunity for me to practice Stoic virtues, to do what was in my power to restore order and not worry about the rest, to remember that my children were simply being children, and, no matter what happened, to treat them with kindness and care. But I forgot all that. Instead, I allowed the reptilian portion of brain to highjack my mind, and give free reign to my irrational impulses.

I screamed, as loud as I could. Nothing verbal, more of a cry of desperation. AAAAAAGH. My son and my four-year-old daughter responded with stunned silence. There were no tears, only confused looks from small children trying to understand what their father had just done. I’ll never forget the fear in their eyes, though. That was much worse than the sound of crying. Worse still was the realization that I had abandoned my philosophy.  As Marcus Aurelius would have said, I was acting like a puppet on a string, allowing myself to be jerked around by irrational emotions. And then another passage from the Meditations came back to me: Let it be clear to you that the peace of green fields can always be  yours, in this, that, or any other spot; and that nothing is any different here from what it would be either up in the hills, or down by the sea, or wherever else you will. You will find the same thought in Plato, where he speaks of  living within the city walls ‘as though milking his flocks  in a mountain sheepfold’.  I had to get back to that place of peace, but first I had to make amends. So I apologized to my children, confessed to them that Papa had a little problem with his anger, and told them that, no matter what he said or did,  he still loved them very much.

Only now do I finally understand Marcus, when he says that  “the struggle against passion’s mastery” is “the greatest of all contests.” But even Marcus himself struggled to achieve peace of mind. As the Meditations show, some mornings he didn’t want to get up and go about his duties. He often thought the people he dealt with at court were cruel, duplicitous, and stupid. Some days he had trouble controlling his desire for beautiful girls and boys. Moreover, he constantly had to remind himself to remain calm and to accept whatever the fates sent his way. If the emperor of Rome still managed to remain a decent human being, despite all of his travails, then how hard can it be for the rest of us today?

This morning I also read an obituary in an online newspaper.  A cousin of mine, someone I had known well when I was very young, but hadn’t seen in over twenty years, had died. He was 60. Only eight years older than I am. While I may hope not to follow him to the grave in the near future, my time, viewed from a cosmological perspective, still remains very  short. Despite the moments when I fail to live up to the standards of Stoicism, I still  believe that it’s the best way for me to put whatever time I have left to good use.

More about KevinKevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, and tour-guide living and working in Potsdam, Germany. He specializes in the early modern history of Prussia, Germany, and Central Europe, but is also interested in urban studies, philosophy, and, of course, Stoicism. So far, he has written for the British periodical “History Today”, and has provided commentary for the Deutsche Welle radio programme “Inside Europe”.  He can be reached at

Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy

Carrie Sheffield wrote a piece about Stoic Week for Forbes Magazine in November 2013.  In this excerpt from that article, reproduced with her kind permission, Carrie explores five core Stoic ideals.

Want an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy


Richard Harris as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2000 blockbuster “Gladiator”

1. Immediately Recognize What Is Out Of Your Control.

A stoic leader realizes thatonly his thoughts and intentions are truly within his sphere of control;everything else is ultimately uncontrollable.

“Anyone in a leadership role must come to terms quickly with the paradox of their position: that leaders must wield power but that often so much that happens lies outside of their control,” Robertson toldForbes. “How do we accept the limits of our power without slumping into passivity?”

Robertson said people sometimes confuse stoicism with submissiveness, but calls this “a very superficial misunderstanding.” Students of ancient stoicism tended to be sons from wealthy, cosmopolitan families. Many went on to rule empires or advise great leaders in commerce and war.

“Can you point to a single historical stoic who sat on his hands?” quips Robertson, whose forthcoming book, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: A Teach Yourself Guide, is due early next year. “It’s just not in the nature of their philosophy to be doormats or stay-at-home types.”

Robertson gave an analogy by Cato of Utica that a stoic is like an archer who diligently and confidently notches his arrow and draws his bow but must accept that once his arrow has flown it could be blown off course or its target could move.

Stoic managers take great pains to aim well but must accept what happens with total equanimity.

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