What Motivates a Stoic?

What makes a Stoic get up in the morning? Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, explores what it is that motivates a Stoic.

On the Motivations of the Stoic

 As to the question of how a Stoic is motivated, there are several layers to consider.

The first, of course, is Virtue. We must remember that virtue is not something that one merely has, it is something that must be DONE. In order to have virtue, we must BE virtuous; we must be courageous in the face of challenges, we must be just in the distribution of goods and rights, we must be temperate in our dealings as well as our acquisitions, and most of all we must be wise in our choices of action.

Second, we need to remember that when the Stoics speak of ‘indifferents’, we mean things that, in their nature, have no MORAL value. Nevertheless, they have other kinds of value. Good food and clothing, shelter and safety, these things have great PHYSICAL value. Relationships, friends, art, music, these things have great EMOTIONAL value. Books, education, conversation, these things have a great INTELLECTUAL value. And while Virtue alone is in my control, these other things are to be pursued and managed by virtuous means.

Third, while I must remember that as a Stoic I am in control only of my own action, I am also part of a family, a community, a country. I am human, and being human means that all ideas of individuality are an illusion. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the very language we speak and that forms the framework of our thinking are inheritances of the culture and species and we are bound to support it return. As humans, we require basic needs to function. We can speak of being ‘rational’, but in reality, we require a functioning body to think clearly. To borrow from Maslow, we need to have our physical, safety, social and importance needs met before we can even consider attempting the so-called ‘self-actualization’ of the rational mind.

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Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part Three

Pamela Daw, who blogs at Musings of a Stoic Woman, explores how we can still try to live a good life in the face of a world which has overbearing inequalities at play.


EITHER teach them better if it be in thy power; or if it be not, remember that for this use, to bear with them patiently, was mildness and goodness granted unto thee. The gods themselves are good unto such; yea and in some things, (as in matter of health, of wealth, of honour), are content often to further their endeavours: so good and gracious are they. And mightest thou not be so too? or, tell me, what doth hinder thee?


So often in this life we are disconcerted by the spectacle of our less than stellar fellow humans prospering in life when other more “worthy” fellow travelers do not.  In trying to wrestle and deal with this reality in my own life the practice of determining what is “in my control” and what “is not in my control” has granted me a tool for reclaiming my balance and peace in the face of what appears to be rampant inequality and the capriciousness of Fate.

We have no control of outcomes in this life, nor do we have control over other humans.  When we relinquish these foolish attempts to control outcomes and others around us we are left with only ourselves to try to school.

Success, i.e. wealth, material things, stature, etc., is totally out of our control.  Like the athlete, all we can do is train ourselves towards our goals, becoming a worthy person in the process.  Winning the trophy is totally out of our control as there are many circumstances that may arise during the course of a race to cause the athlete to fall short of their goal.  We may never achieve the career goals that we have set for ourselves, have the family we hoped for, or the health that we wished for in our old age.  No matter how we live our lives these things are out of our control.  The only thing that we can do is to learn and live our lives in such a way as to make our goals possible with the understanding that the actual accomplishment of our goal is out of our control.

Continue reading “Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part Three”

What does 'living in accordance with nature' actually mean? By Michel Daw

The Stoic aim, to live in accordance with nature, sounds good, but is often perplexing. What exactly did the Stoics mean by it? Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, tackles this question.

What does ‘live according to Nature’ actually mean?

The Stoics have consistently stated that the core of their philosophy is to ‘Live according to Nature.’ This phrase has caused a great deal of discussion and misunderstanding over the millennia and no less so today. In this post, I am going to dig into what this actually means.

The word that is conventionally translated as ‘Nature’ is actually began as the Greek term ‘physis.’ Physis isn’t merely an object, as in the Natural world, nor is it a State, as in it’s a leaf’s natural color. Physis is a process, it describes the way in which things are intended by nature to change and grow. So our first clarification would rephrase the statement to ‘Live according to the way things are meant to change and grow.’

The phrase ‘live according to Nature’ is obviously directed at humans (you don’t have to tell a plant to live according to Nature, it will change and grow on its own.) Nor does the instruction mean to tell us to eat, breathe, bathe etc, as these are all ‘natural’ functions shared with other animals. By using the phrase, Stoics mean ‘live according to the way human nature is meant to change and grow.’ So what do we mean by ‘human nature’?

There are acutally two senses in which we can understand ‘human nature.’ First, each of us has a genetic structure that has been determined by evolution, a legacy of time and adaptation, and in a way of speaking we are ‘designed’ to fulfill determinate ends, to survive and flourish in our environments. We also exist at a precise time and place in history, and surrounded by cultural influences.

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Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part Two

Pamela Daw, who blogs at Musings of a Stoic Woman, explores a heartfelt response to grief.

At the Journey’s End

Today’s reading from Words of the Ancient Wise was:

HOW do we act in a voyage? What is in my power? To choose the pilot, the sailors, the day, the time of day. Afterwards comes a storm. What have I to care for? My part is performed. The subject belongs to another, to the pilot. But the ship is sinking: what then have I to do? That which alone I can do; I am drowned, without fear, without clamour, or accusing God; but as one who knows that what is born must likewise die. For I am not eternity, but a man; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. I must come like an hour, and like an hour must pass away. What signifies it whether by drowning or by a fever? For, in some way or other, pass I must. –

EPICTETUS. DISCOURSES. Book ii. §5. ¶2.”

My response to this was “Have courage to face the inevitable with reason and peace. Do what you can to influence or change your circumstances, but when you have done all that you can, act with dignity.”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I have recently experienced a momentous loss in my own personal life.  My mother passed away from a terminal form of cancer within four months of diagnosis.  The example that mother gave me of “grace under extreme adversity”, “peace when the storm of life is raging”, will stay with me for the rest of my life and with anyone who witnessed her incredible dignity and fortitude.    Upon her initial diagnosis she spoke with her doctors and specialists discovered that there was little medical intervention that would prolong her life considerably and made the choice to accept the inevitable and to spend what little time she had left with family and friends around her.  She chose not to rail at the circumstances or to fight the inevitability of death, but to accept things with serenity.  Her moments, although tinged with regret that she would not experience the future with those that she loved, were filled with important words, love and friendship.

Continue reading “Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part Two”

Stoicism: I'm Feeling it! by Michel Daw

In this guest post Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, discusses the (often unfairly stereotyped) view of Stoic emotions, and explores what is really going on.

Stoicism – I’m Feelin’ It!

One of the perennial challenges faced by modern Stoics is the question of the proper place of emotions. The very word ‘Stoic’ has come to mean a Vulcan like denial or suppression of human emotion. What follows is merely the beginning of a discussion in an attempt to correct, or at least modify, this view. 

The tale is told of one Stilpo, a wise man held up by the Stoics as an example of how a person should behave. One translations tells his tale in the following way:

Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: “I have all my goods with me!” There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. “I have lost nothing!” Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. “My goods are all with me!” In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.

This might lead some to think that this man was some kind of monster, and those who admired him fools at best. The blame lies in the translation.. Stilpo was not ‘happy,’ in our modern emotional sense, at the destruction of his city and family. The Latin word translated as ‘happy’ (beatus) can also mean ‘blessed’, and it is Seneca’s translation of the Greek word ευδαιμωνια (eudaimonia), which also translates (roughly) as flourishing, prosperous, blessed. You see Stilpo wasn’t cheerfully chatting away with his conquerors, he understood that those things that we truly his, his riches, his virtues, were always with him. Though he lose country and family and position, it has not made him a vicious man.

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Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part One

Pamela Daw, who blogs at Musings of a Stoic Woman, explores how Stoicism can help us to delineate what is really important in life, and not to become a slave to things which have no real intrinsic value. This post is called ‘The Tyranny of the Urgent’.  

Tyranny of the Urgent

O MORTALS, whither are you hurrying? What are you about? Why do you tumble up and down, wretches, like blind men? You are going a wrong way, and have forsaken the right. You seek prosperity and happiness in a wrong place, where it is not; nor do you give credit to another who shows you where it is. Why do you seek it without? It is not in body: if you do not believe me, look upon Myro, look upon Ofellius. It is not in wealth: if you do not believe me, look upon Croesus, look upon the rich of the present age, how full of lamentation their life is. It is not in power; for, otherwise, they who have been twice and thrice consuls must be happy, but they are not.

EPICTETUS. DISCOURSES. Book iii. §22. ¶3

In my Stoic reading this morning we studied the above noted passage from Epictetus.  My immediate thoughts in response were:

“The Tyranny of the urgent… our world moves at such a rapid pace. We fill our days in the pursuit of so many things that have no intrinsic value in the grand scheme of our lives. How many of us are ill from a lack of time spent in healthy pursuits? How many of us now reap the crop of the seeds that we planted in our past? Let us be ever mindful of our actions and the consequences that come from those actions. Let’s take the time to care for our bodies, and to nurture our souls to the best of our abilities. To pursue those pursuits that are the “big rocks” in our lives and not to get bogged down by the daily minutiae. To live in the present without regret from the past or fear of the future. To live a flourishing life, filled with joy and steadfastness.”

As a wife, mother, daughter, sister, business owner, friend, all of the various roles that I have in this life, what are my big rocks?  The largest rock in my life would be my amazing husband, Michel Daw, my rock of Gibraltar.  My first rock is him to continue to nurture our relationship.  My next rock would be my children, to be able to make time to continue to see them and spend quality time together even though they are grownup with their own households and careers.

Continue reading “Musings of a Stoic Woman: Part One”

New Series Tomorrow

From tomorrow, there will be a new six part series over three weeks featuring the work of Michel & Pamela Daw, a Stoic husband and wife team, who blog at Living the Stoic Life and Musings of a Stoic Woman respectively. Their posts will range from heartfelt responses to grief to tackling common misconceptions of Stoicism and what the life ‘in accordance with nature’ actually means, to considering how we can build lives around what really matters in life. Michel & Pamela also run a Stoic group where they live in Canada and hold regular meetings.

Ahead of that, here is a wonderfully concise infographic Michel created which encapsulates Stoic ethics….

Fatherhood & Stoic Acceptance – Jan Fredrik-Braseth

Fatherhood and Stoic Acceptance

Jan Fredrik-Braseth

Image Copyright: Dean White

Despite having studied philosophy for several years, I discovered Stoicism just a few months ago. My first meeting with Stoicism was through the participation in the “Stoic week 2013” arranged by the people behind the blog “Stoicism Today”. I was immediately inspired by the thoughts of the ancient Stoics, and I found I was in agreement with a lot of their ideas on how to live a happy life. I discovered that I had already adopted a lot of the Stoic mindset, and reading about Stoic philosophy added to, and strengthened, my already existing views on how to live a good life.

A couple of months before Stoic Week, I had become a father for the first time, and it turned my life upside down. I have always been very active and have several interests that I like to spend time on. I have, for several years, felt that I do not have enough time to do everything I want. Even in periods where I did not have a full-time job, I still felt the day was not long enough to let me do everything I wanted. Having a child forced me to make some major changes about how I was living my life. Suddenly I had to spend almost all my spare time taking care of my son, and this was really hard for me to handle.

I can remember that most of my frustration emerged when I tried to make him go to sleep. My son was not (and still is not) a very good sleeper. It could take more than an hour of hard work to get him to sleep. During that time I had to carry him around, or else he would just cry. I remember thinking things like: “Why can you not just go to sleep? I do not have time for this! I want to be able to do so-and-so”. The same thoughts also arose when doing other necessary activities with him. It was not that I did not want to spend any time with my son, but I also wanted to spend time on a bunch of other things, and those two did not go together.

Continue reading “Fatherhood & Stoic Acceptance – Jan Fredrik-Braseth”

Stoic Parenting: Praise the Process – Matt Van Natta

Stoic Parenting: Praise the Process

Matt Van Natta

There’s a growing body of evidence that praising children for attributes like intelligence or athletic ability backfires as a means of promoting achievement. Well meant praise can often send a message to a child that certain aspects of their life are fixed (“I’m smart at this, but I’m dumb at that.”), as pointed out in an article on the KQED MInd/Shift blog. If a child internalizes the belief that they are either naturally good at something or not, it undermines the determination that is necessary to learn, grow, and eventually master a skill. Thankfully, Stoicism offers a perspective and some exercises that complement these findings so that our own children avoid the pitfalls of such a poor perspective.

What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really aboutpraising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.

-Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford

Professor Dweck’s research shows that praise should be directed at the process of learning, rather than focused on the outcome. Pat your child on the back for engagement with a subject. Encourage their efforts to avoid frustration as they run into, then overcome, obstacles. Remind them that failure is a part of learning and then help them devise new strategies for success. Don’t simply proclaim, “you got the right answer, good job” and definitely don’t say, “you’re such a smart kid” and call it a day.

Historically, Stoicism has frowned on praising people. For instance, here’s Epictetus’ definition of a person succeeding at Stoicism,

The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense.

Enchiridion Chapter 48

To the ancient Stoics, praise had no utility. In book four of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius put it this way, “Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself… [What] is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed?” Of course, in the Roman court the praises Marcus overheard were not only useless, they were manipulative. Praise was politics, meant to sway people one way or the other. Parental praise, we can hope, is at least well meant but as we’ve seen, praise of the wrong type can be damaging.

The Praise the Process perspective actually fits easily within the Stoic framework. In book ten of the Meditations, Aurelius makes a rare positive comment concerning praise, “…a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.” The “accidents” Marcus mentions are the misfortunes of life. What is the Emperor willing to praise? A person’s ability to make good use of circumstances. He won’t congratulate you on your ‘natural’ intelligence, strength, or beauty, but he’ll applaud your wise actions. Wisdom, for Stoics, is not a internal trait of which you have a set amount, it is the manner in which you approach the circumstances of life. Wisdom is the process of living well. It’s worth praising that process.

So, outside of praising the process, what specific Stoic exercises can we parents use with our children to build some grit and determination into their perspectives?

Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.

Epictetus’ Discourses 3.10.2-3

The above quote supports a Stoic practice called the Evening (or Retrospective) Meditation. Many of us go through this process nightly before bed. I’d like to suggest bringing this meditation to the family dinner table.

The  Evening Meditation consists of reviewing three questions; What did I do today? What did I do amiss? What was left undone? The final paragraph of the KQED article says that Professor Dweck, “believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all.” As Stoic parents, we can practice this idea and grow in our philosophy while doing so. I suggest that as we gather our family around a meal, where we probably already ask, “what did you do today?” we add the questions, “What did you succeed at and struggle with today?” and “What needs to be done tomorrow?” We can share in the triumphs of our children’s day. We can share our own challenges so that our children understand that struggle is to be expected. We can plan together, as a family, our strategies to overcome obstacles big and small. In doing so, we build an understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of learning in our children (and ourselves) and they will be stronger for it.

Praise matters. Children need feedback to help them understand the world around them. Research shows that how we praise others is important. Like the ancient Stoics, we can choose to praise those things that lead to wisdom and, in doing so, we will help our children thrive.

About the author:

Matt Van Natta writes fiction, drinks coffee, beer, and whiskey, and contemplates the human condition. His thoughts can be found both at The Immoderate Stoic and at The Ethical Liver.

From the Immoderate Stoic: I’m not good at moderation. My wife and I have a motto,”It’s never too much, it’s only not enough.” This puts me at odds with stoic teaching, where moderation is one of the virtues. So I’m trying to find my way into a more stoic mindset. I’ve found nothing but joy and contentment through Stoic practices, so I don’t doubt the benefit of a bit more self-discipline. Still, I know my faults. I’m the Immoderate Stoic and this is my blog.