When I first heard of the stoics I had many mistaken ideas. First, that Marcus Aurelius was closer to Aristotle and I wanted as much to do with the former as I did with the latter. None. Second, like Tim Ferriss recently admitted on his podcast, I thought that Seneca was a Native American rather than an Ancient Roman. Finally, I viewed stoic thinking as indifferent and inhuman, lacking emotions like compassion and love. I’ve incrementally corrected these errors but more meaningfully, I’ve begun applying stoic thinking to my life. Like a mechanic who find the value in the leverage a wrench provides, I’ve using stoic thinking to leverage the best and worst moments of being a parent.
My daughters are four and six and as wonderful as they are, they sometimes do things I don’t like. It’s been in these moments of frustration, as emotions of anger, frustration, and impatience rush through my body, preparing to explode from my mouth, that I needed stoic thought. Before reading Meditations or Letters from a Stoic, I would only hope to escape from these emotions, like someone who runs from a small fire. With stoic thinking though, I draw on that wisdom like a firefighter who can carefully extinguish the blaze.
In Meditations Marcus Aurelius writes, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” He was writing about the Roman court but could easily have been referencing the little rascals in our homes. Our children won’t be like this everyday, but they will have moments. Sometimes I find myself frustrated by their actions, but they are children, and it’s wise to heed Aurelius’s words. If anything children have more of an excuse than the adults Marcus writes about. Children enter the world unable to live without us and we think in a few years time they will be able to live mistake free lives? At our house a constant challenge is not spilling drinks during meals. Each week it happens, and while the spilled milk remains the same, my frustration with each spilled cup has been less and less. I don’t expect my daugthers to be “jealous or surly,” though they can be on rare occasions, but instead I’ve morphed Marcus’s thoughts to include children. They will be mistaken prone and needy, and have many questions about things I’ve told them about a hundred times. This isn’t something to be perturbed by, so much as something to welcome as part of the condition of parenting.
Later in Meditations he writes that we should correct what we can and for a parent this is every moment. The adage Rome wasn’t built in a day is ironic as I use thoughts from those builders to raise my daughters. Marcus writes there will be some people we can’t change, and for them we can only wish them well. In parenting though, we get to embrace the challenge of helping them grow. Without this challenge it would be a dull life we lead.
Another quote from Meditations that has been paramount in my growth as a stoic and father is that “Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure.” This is true now that my daughters are entering elementary school, but more so when they were babies. For the last six years I’ve been a stay at home father, but the last two years have been the most joyful. Early on I was dismayed by what caring for babies required. There weren’t things that needed fixed, as I tend to orient myself towards. Rather, it was a test of endurance. Those moments when kids are small is the time to appreciate the little things rather than get caught up by the number of soiled diapers. Raising babies felt undurable, but the problem wasn’t the baby, it was my spirit. The stoic side of my thinking laughs at the weakness of my spirit when younger children, knowing now that we can endure.
From the stoics I’ve learned to develop the fortress of my soul and thoughts. Kids take over everything; social lives, extra bedrooms, sleep schedules, marriages. One area they can’t take over is what parents think and how they feel. This ethos has been best explained in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and it would be trite to say parenting is anything like that but the method applies to both. What a stoic mindset, and Frankl’s explanation has shared is the process dealing with any situation. It doesn’t matter if your biggest challenge is getting kids off to school when they don’t want to go. If that’s all you have to guard against, then guard against it well.
To have this thought, that we can endure and maintain our fortress of the soul we must remember to quantify external things as they are. Marcus Aurelius repeatedly goes back to considering things on a microscopic level. If, for example, it rains on your way to work and you end up late because of the weather, then there is really no reason to be upset. The weather is just a combination of molecules that precipitated at some part of the day, in the poor coincidence while you were driving. Parents of more than one children will see this when their children play nicely with each other, and then suddenly don’t. At our house this often means that someone found a long lost toy. It could have been hidden for months, never wondered about, and never sought after. But, if someone randomly stumbles across it and it ignites the powder keg known as “It’s mine, no it’s mine.” then parents can be quick to anger. This used to, and still happens to me, but less frequently and less severely. I can be more serene, knowing it was a random coincidence and it’s good practice in sharing.
Throughout Meditations is the idea of embracing what happens, whether it was something we desired or not. Toward the end of book four Marcus writes that even the unfortunate should be welcomed because it gives us practice. When the right clothes aren’t clean for school or someone is vomiting in the other room, we don’t need to wonder why all this is happening to us. Rather it’s like an emotional tornado has passed our spiritual fortress to see how well we have constructed it.
My oldest daughter is in first grade and like other parents I want everything to be perfect. I want her to get good grades, to have great friends, and be happy while at school. As most parents know, these things do not happen. Like a rare eclipse, it’s the odd day that everything is perfect, in school or out. When things didn’t go perfectly, or anywhere close, I could try to fix whatever didn’t work. Thinking like a mechanic in a factory, that if I got this one piece of the assembly line running differently then maybe tomorrow’s product would be a little better. This was part of the reason I wasn’t a great parent when my daughters were little. Now though, I realize the challenges of life are good. My daughters will never have a life without problems and rather than solve their problems, I’m teaching them how to do it themselves. I would never have thought to teach this alongside their alphabet and numbers if I didn’t learn it first through the stoics.
Each of these things about my daughters is really about me. It’s my journey through life that I can control. Like the captain of a ship who needs to work with and against the winds of our course. Stoic thinking is like making the journey with an old deckhand, someone who has been through these passages before and knows where the rocks are. He won’t tell me where they are, but can tell me how to fix the boat if we hit one.
About the author: Mike Dariano is a father and writer who is writing weekly reflections on Stoicism at MikeDariano.net and after reading a book a week wrote a book about how to Read More Books.
A while ago I had a deep existential crisis revolving around the thought – and especially the fear – of death.
The terror that arouse within my mind at the mere thought of being finally at some point annihilated accompanied me since childhood and once in a while it crawled out of the corner I had banished it into. Death, or rather being dead, that black never ending void I pictured it to be, was the worst thing I was able to imagine.
About two years ago I was alone for a few weeks. My girlfriend was out of the country, I had just recently moved out of a shared apartment into my own, had the time free from work or study, and generally am a rather reclusive person. In summary I had quite some time to spend alone to which I usually look forward. But not that time. The weeks before I already had these existential thoughts about life and death and the meaninglessness of it all spiking up occasionally. I tried to conquer it by reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphos” which didn’t quite work out.
I had gone through a decade of philosophical and spiritual disappointments ranging from Vedanta, Buddhism to Taoism, Western Magick, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and quantum woo woo. To me none of these were intellectually satisfying or brought about major deal-breakers in terms of their practical application as a philosophy of life. So I settled with a skeptical atheist mindset two years prior. Finally I was alone and the more time passed the more intense the thoughts about life and death surfaced in my mind. Having no distraction around I soon found myself totally immersed in them – desperately trying to find a solution to the anxiety they created. There had to be an answer. Something. I mean, literally millions, billions of people had been going through existence. Someone would have had to leave some advice on how to deal with it properly I could use.
Then, one night, I was totally overwhelmed by my obsession with death. The crisis had peaked and I sat crying in my apartment. Sobbing for hours, running around in circles, panicking at the thought of dissolving into nothingness. I thought, “That’s it, dude. You messed it up. Why did you have to go there? There’s no way back now.” But then I took all my courage together to have a last look at mankind’s thoughts on the matter. I must have overlooked something. So I fired up google and tried every combination of keywords I could think of that might reveal an answer to my question of how to confront my own mortality.
It took a while but then something appeared on my screen that caught my attention. There it said: “Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn.”
“Mhm. Clever.”, I thought to myself. Where is that from? Some dude called Montaigne from the 16th century quoting another dead dude. The title of the essay this was from: “That to study Philosophy is to learn to die”. Actually exactly what I was looking for. I just hoped that finally there was something in there. “Please not some puffed-up guy writing fancy thoughts. I can’t deal with that now.” I really had to pull myself together to force me through that text. But as I did I had one epiphany after the other and soon I found myself getting calmer. So I read it again. And again. And again. I read that essay at least five times that night. And then again first thing in the morning. And the next day. It was my medicine. Better than anything I had come across. Ever.
So after fighting back the terror it was time to build upon that. I wanted to find out who these guys were that came up with all this. There had to be a system to it. So I did some research and found out about cognitive therapies that allegedly were building upon some Greek philosophers. All right, I thought, I know about psychology (having studied that subject for some time), I trust science. Let’s try out that approach. Probably that will be more geared toward practical application than the old texts. And it hopefully wouldn’t have any ideological baggage or belief-systems tied to it.
I ordered a copy of Albert Ellis’ “A Guide to Rational Living”. It was a huge eye-opener to me. Things started to fall into place. I realized that for decades I had looked at the world through a perspective that had to cause me trouble. I was hooked. I reread it and then applied some of the techniques that Ellis described. After a few months of feeling much better altogether I had another look at the sources and started to read them instead. Seneca was the first author I stuck with. About a year later I had a look for online forums dealing with Stoicism and even registered at facebook just to take part in the Stoicism group there – because outside of that there didn’t seem to be much else.
There I learned about more and more sources and secondary texts and practices concerning Stoic philosophy, soaked it all up and cooked up my own practice from it. I had already been meditating for years with some interruptions and thought it would the time to take up that habit once again.
Naturally one of the central subjects I am and was most interested in is the Stoic view on death. The premeditation of death hence became my daily morning ritual and so a few months ago I realized that my fear of death and non-existence had waned immensely. A few weeks prior to writing this, after repeated reading of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” I even feel quite comfortable with the idea of dying.
Now it seems to me that life and death are both similarly just expression of the same ever lasting change that thelogos brings about within the cosmos. As the change of the elements created everything I needed to become the person that now has this short experience of being alive – I, too have to dissolve to pass that energy on to other things and creatures that will then take my place.
And what is this “me” anyway that I am so afraid of losing? Isn’t it just a spark of the big thing we call the universe? One thing, one being maybe, expressed in an infinite fractal of which I am a part? Won’t “I” be part of it after I die? Is it of any importance?
What is important is to live a life according to the rules of that universe. To just accept the things that I can’t understand nor change. Like death. I kinda understand it, I think. But I won’t be able to change it. Life and death happen on all levels, in every dimension: Things come into being and dissolve. The very definition of life is change. Without change, no growth, no perception, no sight, no taste, would be possible. Without change and hence death, even eating a plain slice of bread is impossible. The grain gives its life for me. I eat it and eventually die. And I give my energy and the components that make up my body back to the universe.
Everything is borrowed, Epictetus tells us. And indeed it is. When we lose someone – they are returned to the giver, the universe. And so we, too – are handed back over into the hands of the logos.
I don’t cramp in fear anymore by the thought of it. Actually I find it really natural, really. It’s the way things go. Everyone and everything obeys nature’s commands in this regard. To become sad or upset is both futile and ignorant.
“Who are you to accuse nature of her doings? Doings that brought you about? That feed you? That provide you with that very experience you call life?” I guess, I would be an idiot. And I don’t just say it. I mean it. And in these rare moments on my meditation-cushion, I even feel it. And I have to confess, that that is the greatest freedom I have yet come across: To see the beauty and simplicity in all of this.
So, yeah. I find that change of perspective I went through quite amazing and just wanted to share it in order to maybe inspire someone to try it out, too.
All that is left to do is to leave it at that and end this dilettante rendition of my short journey into Stoicism with a big “Thank you” to all the people who supplied me with their thoughts and helped me get and stay on this path.
Stoicism has been in the back of my mind since I was very young, initially for the obviously parochial reason that it was the prevalent philosophy among the ancient Romans, i.e., part of my broadly construed cultural heritage. (Then again it is for the same reason that Buddhism is very popular in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan.)
Lately, however, Stoicism has slowly moved to the forefront of my cognitive field of view, for a number of reasons. To begin with, I’ve been interested in philosophical counseling , to the point of having taken the American Philosophical Practice Association course , and having set up what is turning out to be a surprisingly successful and enjoyable practice . The more I see clients, the more I gravitate toward ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly Stoicism (with a sprinkling of virtue ethics and Epicureanism) as my preferred approach to “therapy for the sane.”
Moreover, last year’s vacation with my family touring Greece — paying specific (though certainly not exclusive) attention to important historical or philosophical sites — rekindled my passion for all things Greco-Roman (the photo accompanying this essay was taken by me at the Stoa, the open market in Athens where the first Stoic, Zeno of Citium, taught, and from which the school gets its name).
Meanwhile, I had also heard of “Stoic Week” an annual event (and associated sociological study) organized by the University of Exeter. My initial reaction to it was somewhat skeptical, but I’ve now become a regular follower of their Twitter stream and blog .
Finally — and I don’t mean to sound morbid here — but, I need to start preparing for my own death. I just turned 50, and though I fully expect (fate permitting, as the Stoics would say) to live a few more decades, death has always been on my mind, as it should be according to the followers of Zeno of Citium. So I have been searching for an approach that would help me in that direction, while at the same time also allowing me to improve my eudaimonic quest  in the meantime.
Now of course I’m not as naive as to think that one can rely on a single philosophical system as guidance to life, the universe and everything. Nor do I think that one can simply import ancient Stoicism in our technological, scientifically informed world and be done with it. So what I’m trying to develop is what others interested in the subject have been after for a while: a type of neo-Stoicism that maintains as much of value of the original idea as possible, but takes on board the best that humankind has been able to achieve and discover in the intervening 23 centuries. It’s an ongoing project, but I’d like to share a few components of it in this post, and likely others that will follow now and then .
The general theory of Stoicism is that we can, and indeed, ought to live our lives with structure and coherence, and that life is like an ongoing project aiming at an ideal (though likely unachievable) set of targets or aspirations. What matters, for the Stoics, is the way we go about achieving our goals, not so much what those goals are. This is done through the pursuit of virtue and excellence (arete, in Greek). The Stoics thought that the virtues express the fundamental qualities of a human life, and — like most other ancient Greeks — acknowledged the existence of four (so called “cardinal”) virtues: Courage, Justice, Self-discipline, and Wisdom.
For the Stoics, human beings are naturally social beings, and a good, eudaimonic life requires the development of an expanding circle of concern that starts with the Self (both mind and body) , easily and naturally includes family and friends, and one should practice its expansion to fellow citizens, humankind at large, and eventually nature as a whole. The Stoics referred to this concept as “philanthropy,” or love of humanity.
By and large, Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes good emotions and works toward controlling negative ones. In a sense, it is a philosophy of love and concern. Curiously, the most famous fictional Stoic is Spock from Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry said that he created Spock on the Stoic model, although he also added that he “took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy)” .
A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events). Happiness then is available to the person who focuses on what s/he can control. This is achieved by way of the general practice to “follow nature,” by which the Stoics didn’t mean anything like tree hugging or the Paleo diet, but rather both developing the natural human propensity for reason, and accepting that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works, and it is therefore irrational to oppose it or to become upset by it.
For the last 16 years I have been living with a chronic, fluctuating health condition. Over the last two years this has placed me under a form of house arrest. I have constant but changing symptoms and how I feel is unpredictable from one hour to the next, which makes any form of planning ahead very difficult.
What does my future look like?
Future Present – I stay mostly housebound with fluctuating symptoms and pay heavily for odd trips out
Future Dystopia – I slowly (or suddenly) deteriorate, unable to get to the toilet or feed myself
Future Utopia – I slowly (or suddenly) get better and resume normal life but without pressure to return to work too soon.
Future Upward Trend – over time I improve and regain independence but with lingering problems.
To what extent do I have control over these outcomes? And how likely are they relative to each other? I don’t know. I believe my actions do affect the likely outcome but I think some of it is down to chance (or what some people would describe as Fate). Being a psychology graduate I know that this type of lack of control over life’s circumstances also places my mental health in jeopardy, as an additional consequence of my physical health problems. In order to prevent depression creeping in I have been practicing different forms of meditation and relaxation techniques (including mindfulness and yoga nidra). I also have a sense that although I can do very little at the moment I want to invest my time in something that will last in the future. You could call this virtue (this is big with the Stoics), wisdom or resilience: if I can get through years of being housebound and remain psychologically healthy and good natured I’ll have learnt skills to improve my future life too. This is the context in which I took part in the Modern Stoicism course in May this year.
I found the course interesting, helpful and at times puzzling. At the time I was having significant difficulties reading the course material but I found that the team had created enough resources for me to pull together audio/visual content to understand (I still haven’t read any authentic Stoic texts, which you should bear in mind reading my interpretation). My impression is that the combination of ancient philosophy with modern psychological techniques does seem to have something new to offer to the chronic illness community in terms of practical wisdom.
What to expect: Modern Stoicism (as I encountered it on this course) involves meditations using ancient stoic ideas combined with modern psychological practices (such as relaxation induction) and some changes in routine thinking and actions. You can approach this in much the same way as mindfulness: some people engage in an occasional secular meditation practice other people may orientate their whole lives around it.
Helps with: Coping with adverse circumstances, such as chronic illness. However, Stoicism is not a cure for chronic illness and is not likely to relieve symptoms unless there is an indirect effect due to reduced stress (but it could help you be happier in spite of your symptoms).
Particular concepts which stayed with me:
What is important?
“Health, wealth, and reputation may sometimes be preferable in life but they’re not necessary to excel and flourish as a human being – all you truly need is virtue and strength of character.” Donald Robertson (?)
“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.” Epictetus, Enchiridion
Chronic illness certainly challenges health, wealth and reputation and I found myself returning to this idea, forming my opinion on it.
Contemplating the cosmos
Thinking about the universe first thing in the morning helps in two ways. Firstly my problems seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Then secondly, and almost contradictorily, I get a sense that my mind is as vast as the universe because it is able to hold such concepts, which is very freeing because I’m physically constrained to the house.
Premeditation of adversity
I often find instructions for positive thinking have the opposite effect on me and the stoic principle of imagining the worst is useful. I find this works well as morning and evening combination. In the morning I plan what I’d like to do for the day which provides a loose structure. I also imagine what could go wrong and plan for that as well (usually just health wise as in reality the possibilities for ill fortune are infinite!). An example might be that I’d like to write a blog post today but I can’t completely plan how to use my energy as answering the door to the postman and an unexpected phone call or a sudden migraine might wipe me out too much to write, so I plan to listen to a podcast instead if that happens. At the end of the day, I review how my day went especially how well I respond to my plans being thwarted by circumstance (my emotional response is more important than what I physically get done). I find I cope better with things going wrong if I do this.
The Good Life is in your Head
Chronic illness can leave you feeling fairly useless and unfulfilled. In Stoicism, virtue (self worth and morality) is based entirely upon your response to your circumstances. Initially I was concerned that this missed out social justice, but activism can be the outworking of your intellectual/emotional response if that is within your control, as long as you remember that the outcome of your action is not within your control. I can also be doing nothing in bed and potentially be more virtuous than a charity volunteer, if my response to events is exemplary.
Difficulties with Stoicism
I would not describe myself as a Stoic, as I do have some hesitations with the stoic outlook. Some Stoic concepts can be hard to accept and confusing, so I ended up spending too much mental energy thinking about them. For example:
Locus of Control and Fate
Nowadays we see that the distinction between what we can and can’t control is complex, so that very little is either completely in our control or out of our control. For example, genetics may predispose you to a health condition but your behaviour and uncontrollable environmental factors decide whether it is triggered. There can be a mind-body dualism in stoicism that is hard to accept in our world of PsychoNeuroImmunology and the science of gut microbiome influencing neurotransmitters which then effect our mood etc. Similarly, if you don’t believe in fate or destiny, it can be harder to accept your situation because potentially you could influence change in everything and nothing has been preordained. I found it confusing to distinguish what was in my control, although this was an interesting exercise and I do have plenty of time to think.
Coincidentally I got into modern stoicism at the same time as using a heart rate monitor to limit activity and found I was amalgamating these two very different approaches. An example of my daily rhythm was:
use the stoic morning guided meditation to plan my day, initially based on my morning heart rate as well as planning for setbacks if my symptoms are bad or heart rate unusually high for standard activities
have the mindfulness bell go off every hour or two and do the Right Now activity to quickly assess how I’m doing fatigue wise and remind myself of my Stoic plan for the day
use the afternoon meditation to get my attitude in line
use the evening stoic meditation to assess my pacing through the day and make journal notes on my heart rate through the day.
Stoics are very into separating out what you can control and what you can’t. What would Seneca, Epictetus or Zeno do with a heart rate monitor? Obviously the ancient Stoics didn’t have access to this technology but I found myself thinking about what it could offer their practices. I don’t completely agree with their ancient idea that the only things you can control are your own thoughts and emotions (not your body) and I think that Seneca with a heart rate monitor would become quickly convinced that his heart rate was indeed within his control. It could be influenced by strong emotions and physical actions. Would the heart rate would be taken on as a Stoic measure of control over emotions and self discipline in exercise? This is a playful thought experiment but it illustrates a bigger point that Modern Stoicism needs to take into account recent research/technology as well as ancient philosophy.
I have found exploring stoicism intellectually interesting, but more importantly, some Stoic practices are now shaping and enhancing the structure of my daily life. I have yet to achieve ongoing, self-controlled serenity in the face of adverse circumstances but I am gaining self awareness of the processes necessary for this.
This post is adapted from previous blog posts, you can read more on Tips for ME [link http://tipsforme.wordpress.com/tag/stoicism/]
About the author:
Jenny Horner lives in a small terrace house in England with her partner and Miniature Schnauzer. She is currently economically inactive and her in/activities mostly involve watching Netflix, tweeting Tips for ME and using relaxation resources. You can read more about her experience of navigating chronic illness at TipsforME.wordpress.com and contact her on @TweetTipsforME or email@example.com.
At the 2013 “Stoicism in Everyday Life” London public event, Richard Sorabji disagreed with the Stoic view that death is not a bad thing and that we should not grieve at the loss of others. He thought it was better to be “completely shattered” at the death of those we love than to be detached from them in life. What could the Stoics say in response?
First, Stoics do not encourage us to be emotionally detached from other people and indeed they urge us to do all we can for them during their lives. They present parental love as a primary example of what they see as the universal human motive to care for other people, and they also endorse other kinds of love which are consistent with leading an ethically good life. Marcus Aurelius´ Meditations bring out vividly the pleasure a Stoic can rightly take in the good qualities of those we know and care for. Nor do the Stoics think we should aim to be free from all emotions – only emotions which are inconsistent with following our ethical principles.
But shouldn´t acceptable emotions include grief at the death of those we have lost, as Sorabji says?
Not on the Stoic view. Here, we need to hold in mind the fundamental distinction stressed by Stoics such as Epictetus between what is and is not “up to us” or “within our power”. It is “up to us” to care for those we love during their lives (and ours), such as sick children, as Epictetus reminds us in Discourses 1.11. It is not “up to us” (“within our power”) to ensure that by doing so we will prevent their death (or ours). Death is a natural process that will – inevitably – occur to the one we love and us and everyone else. It is also one we should try to accept, as an integral part of the order of nature, even though it is also part of our in-built human nature to regard it as “preferable” (in the Stoic sense) that this should not happen.
This profound two-fold response, caring for others while accepting the prospect of their death (and ours) is brought out in a widely misunderstood passage in Epictetus, Handbook 3, and the longer Discourse 3.24 on which this is based. Epictetus recommends kissing your child, wife or friend, while remembering that they (or you) will inevitably die first and thus break the bond between you. But he does not go on to advocate emotional detachment from them, nor does this underlie the Stoic view that grief is misplaced. Grief rests on a confusion between what is and is not “up to us”. We can and should recall and value the person who is lost just as we should do all we can for them in life, since that falls “within our power”. But we should not direct our energies and emotions towards the thought that their death is bad, since the fact of their death does not fall “within our power”. Being “completely shattered” in this way, as Sorabji recommends, would only show that our sense of values – and of the underlying facts of human life – are indeed broken or “shattered”.
The Stoic view is demanding and less familiar than the one Sorabji advocates. But it rests on a set of ideas that are more coherent and credible than is often recognized.
Christopher Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter.
‘This blanket is a necessity; it keeps me from cracking up. It may be regarded as a spiritual tourniquet: without it, I’d be nothing, a ship without a rudder.’
Linus Van Pelt, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)
” When someone asked him if women also should study philosophy, he began to teach, along lines like the following, how they should do it. For one thing, he said, women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men – the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honourable or shameful. Likewise the female has also the same senses as the male: seeing, hearing, ability to smell, and the rest. Likewise, too, each has the same parts of the body, and neither one has more than the other. In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these.”
I remember it so vividly and the memory will always be etched in my mind. As a student of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy in Ireland, I had been introduced to the ancient school of Stoic philosophy. Since childhood I had been familiar with the term stoic, used in the verbal sense to describe a highly disciplined individual averse to outward displays of emotion. I especially associated it with a person who showed bravery in terms of adversity, a person in control of their own mind, a person who would be a tower of strength to those around them. We have all encountered such people, if we’re very fortunate it can be a family member we know as a child, maybe a teacher or mentor we learn from as a young adult, or maybe a wise spiritual person we turn to in the latter part of our lives.
The first Stoic I met was Marcus Aurelius, who wrote The Meditations day by day like a diary, giving an account of how he felt in varying circumstances, through the ups and downs of his everyday life, a response perhaps to his interminable inner voice. I have always written a daily diary but I learnt how to expand on this by using Stoic journaling techniques to record events either inside or outside my control. I discovered that writing about things I felt grateful for, instead of just thinking of them, made them more valuable. On a guided mindfulness walk through a leafy wooded glade I gained an even deeper insight into my love of nature and Stoic prosoche became a presence in my existence.
My next lesson was provided by Jules Evans in his book “Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations” and I yearned to learn more about the links between Ancient Philosophy and psychotherapy. At times I felt the occasional twinge of regret at not accepting my offer to study philosophy in my youthful days of 1982. But for Stoics, actions speak louder than words so it was time to dig deeper and go into Stoic rehabilitation. My participation in Stoic Week 2013 began. During a dreary, cold and damp Irish winter week I was provided with the tools and guidance to try as best as I could to “live like a Stoic”.
By now I was hooked, and my Stoic fantasy family was growing. Epictetus was on my left shoulder, advising against self-inflicted motherhood slavery while Musonius Rufus was on the right one, providing sage marriage guidance. Seneca accompanied me on a flight, his excruciatingly painful death helped to calm my anxious thoughts. I was rapidly gaining intellectual and experiential proof that the Stoics had the right approach to emotional wellbeing, but I started to self-examine once more and ask the big question – am I virtuous enough to be aspiring to these great heroes of antiquity?
I am human after all, I like to have fun and transcend my self through my love of humour, music, and especially dancing. Dancing, since being a small child has always been a way to reach the ecstatic. Would the logos hold sway if I was spied from above, dancing around in the privacy of my kitchen to Lady Gaga? Donald Robertson came to my rescue when I discovered the following in his book “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” –
“Socrates also taught his students that we should keep the body fit through appropriate physical exercise. He apparently favoured dancing alone, at daybreak, as a form of physical exercise, because it involved the whole body rather than just some parts.”
I pictured Socrates boogying on down as the sun rose, and breathed a sigh of relief. But I still was in a state of flux. In their quest for therapeutic treatment of the psyche did ancient Stoics look on the bright side of life? Would I be consumed by the Divine Fire if I seized the opportunity to see the funny side of our crazy world, and laugh instead of cry?
To my great joy I found an article by Dr. John Barnett, a research psychologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute and a member of the Stoic community. He writes of, “Chrysippus of Soli, the third head of the Stoic school. Legend has it that when he was 73 years old, he saw a donkey eating a plate of figs from a table in the garden. When the lady of the house came out and saw the donkey had eaten her figs, she was understandably outraged. Chrysippus, on the other hand, saw the humour in it, and said to her ‘he’s waiting for his wine!’ Chrysippus thought this incredibly funny – he laughed so hard he died.”
Stoicism is now part of me as I have found myself on a journey of self-discovery trying to grow into a philosophy to which I belong. Excellent articles and personal insights appear here regularly on the Stoicism Today website, and of special educational value are audio lectures by Professor Christopher Gill. My gratitude to this wonderful wealth of Stoic resources knows no bounds. Stoicism is so important to me that my journey won’t come to an end. To be at one with nature, in the search for tranquility by living a life of virtue is not an easy thing to aspire to, but the rewards are well worth the effort. More blows of fate and times of suffering lie ahead, but the great Stoics have given me access to a security blanket for my soul.
“The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things. Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is carried so far in opposition as to intend him no harm – such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger. A soul harms itself, thirdly whenever it dissimilates, doing or saying anything feigned or false. Fifthly, when it fails, to direct any of its own actions or impulses to a goal, but acts at random, without conscious attention – whereas even the most trivial action should be undertaken in reference to the end. And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state – the Universe”. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
About the author:
Alison has enjoyed an experientially rewarding life whilst working in the fashion, legal, sportswear and medical industries, and at home on the land, farming. She is now relishing every moment as an immature student, studying Philosophy and Psychological Studies through the Open University. She is accompanied on her adventure through life by her husband, and 2 teenage sons.
When I retired in 1995 I was looking forward to buying a dog and living near the sea. After a week I woke early one morning with a piercing whine in my head. I consulted my GP who said, “You have tinnitus. It is not life threatening but it is incurable and something you just have to live with. I can prescribe tranquilisers.”
Tinnitus is a deceptively pleasant word that trips from the tongue. However, it can lead to a life of disruption, lack of sleep and despair. I discovered that there was a correlation between severe tinnitus, from which I suffer, and depression and suicide. The future seemed bleak.
The sound was continuous and my sleeplessness was chronic. This left me exhausted during the day. My worst time came a few weeks later at Christmas. Sitting in a happy family group I felt alienated in my misery. How could I live with tinnitus and its effects?
One day I picked up Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic which I had bought when browsing in a bookshop. I had also bought Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” I began reading “Letters from a Stoic” again, this time underlining some passages.
When I came to “Letter LVI” it was about loud, constant and intrusive noise. I read, “For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.”
Seneca, who suffered severely from ill health, particularly asthma, wrote, “It was my Stoic studies that saved me.” Perhaps they could save me? I began studying the Stoics. Instead of being a passive victim I had an objective and I began feeling more optimistic. I wondered whether, and how, people in far more difficult circumstances than myself had been helped by Stoic thinking.
I read about W. E. Henley, who wrote “Invictus” in response to suffering a life of illness and pain. This poem has inspired many people including long term prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Admiral James B. Stockdale who said Epictetus had enabled him to survive a harsh prison regime in North Vietnam.
Epictetus, a Roman slave, was described by Simplicius as being weak in body and lame from an early age. His “Enchiridion” said, “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” And, “Illness interferes with the body, not with one’s faculty of choice, unless that faculty of choice wishes it.”
Epictetus’ philosophy about accepting what fate has dealt and turning the bad into good by skilful living appealed to me. “Seek not that the things that happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen be as they are.” Epictetus taught resilience by focussing on our attitudes and judgements which are up to us and which we can control. Those things which are not up to us are externals such as our body, our reputation, our property.
We can use our reason to keep tranquil. Epictetus often used sporting metaphors. “When a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man.” The match was intended to lead to added skill. To fail was acceptable because you could immediately try again.
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, was influenced by Epictetus’ philosophy. He said that it was pointless to worry about what you could not change and, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease to worry about things which are beyond our will.”
But these are words. Can they be used practically? Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” To the ancient Greeks Stoicism was a method to be lived and practised. When tinnitus hit me I needed the Stoics and I knew that for my condition they were the only game in town. I sought examples of those who had suffered and for whom Stoicism worked in practice.
On 15th November 1993 Admiral James B. Stockdale gave a speech at the Great Hall, King’s College, London. It was later printed as Courage under fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour by the Hoover Institution. Stockdale provided what I wanted because his test was severe and far beyond my own.
Stockdale was a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam. The villagers who caught him beat him so badly that he was lame for the rest of his life. He was tortured fifteen times, put in leg irons for two years, and put in solitary confinement for four years and in prison for seven years. He wrote that you can be reduced “by men to a helpless sobbing wreck – unable to control your own bowels – in a matter of minutes.”
Stockdale, even under torture, fought to preserve his “agency”: that aspect of the human mind that lay within its control and could be retained and exercised. Whatever his captors did to him, however cruel, he still had some control over his attitude. They could not remove that.
Stockdale remembered Epictetus’ sayings he had memorised while a pilot. At the end of his imprisonment he concluded that having tested Epictetus’ postulates “against demanding real life challenges……..I think he passed with flying colours.” Stockdale said that only Epictetus enabled him to survive the harsh prison regime.
In “Stoic Warriors” Professor Nancy Sherman who interviewed Stockdale said that, “I found it hard to keep track of when he was quoting and when he was speaking in his own voice.”
Lecturing to the USA military Nancy Sherman found that Stoicism had a strong appeal. War results in young men and women who are maimed and survive only as a result of modern medicine. Men return who do not have arms to hug their child. She writes, “When we arrived at Epictetus, many officers and students alike felt they had come home.”
As I read the Stoics again I had a new awareness. I learned that “controlling the emotions is difficult but it can be empowering.” Practice is essential. Seneca wrote, “Difficulty strengthens the mind as labour does the body.” Epictetus viewed difficulties as challenges. Whatever hand fate deals, accept it, and use it with skill.
I discovered that controlling my thinking affected my emotions and thus my attitudes to tinnitus. I discovered that perspective is important and the cosmos is unconcerned about my problems. What happens happens. Accept and deal with it. Focus on what you can affect and ignore the rest. To try to control what you cannot leads to frustration and misery.
I have not removed the problem of my tinnitus. I still have chronic sleep problems and the tiredness that ensues. But for much of the day I don’t notice my tinnitus. What has changed is my attitude. The fear has gone. Tinnitus, instead of dominating my life, has become of minor concern. I learned from Seneca that, “We suffer more often in imagination than reality.” The result is to add to the original problem. I can relax with tinnitus and often ignore it.
The practice of Stoicism means for me keeping track of my thoughts and controlling them. There are also techniques of deflection. Kayaking on a rough sea is a wonderful way to focus the mind. Hill walking with my dog has the same effect.
And I read the Stoics every day.
More about the author: “Apart from two years in the army, I worked in Local Government. I qualified in Social Work and retired as Assistant Director. Shortly after I retired I developed tinnitus. I moved, with my wife, to live near the sea in Pembrokeshire. I have pursued an interest in CBT, Mindfulness and Stoic Philosophy. Stoicism has been essential in helping me deal with tinnitus.”
Three Frequently Voiced Objections to Stoicism Answered by those Who Practise It
FVO No. 1:
“Doesn’t Stoicism just mean that you put up with things you shouldn’t? Don’t you need to try to change the world not just accept things?”
“You should accept the things you cannot change and change the things that are you are able to change but cannot accept.You need to know when to fight and when to hold back. There is no point in getting worked up about something you have no power over. To have no power over something literally means that you cannot change it. So, if you cannot change it – no matter how hard you try: Who would be helped by your strong emotions about it? Save your energy and peace of mind for things you can do something about. That’s Stoicism.”
“I would point to the Serenity Prayer as an example of Epictetus’ dichotomy in an accepted modern context.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Kevin Patrick Jr.
“As a Stoic, you can (and should) try to change the world for better, without trusting too much in getting it.”
FVO No. 2:
“You can’t just take some bits of Stoicism and call yourself a Stoic – you have to take it all or leave it.”
“All or nothing, eh? Sounds like just a “slippery slope” type logical fallacy — i.e., if you do “x” you have to do “y”. Very popular among lobbyists and politicians seeking to prevent something from happening. But really, you don’t have to do y if you do x — no basis for that assumption. As for whether certain people are labelled “Stoics” or not by certain other people, anyone who has taken the practices to heart would not care a whit what others choose as their labels. Wouldn’t a stoic just say ‘who cares what you call me?’”
“The “not a true Stoic” argument presumes a “necessary and sufficient” definition of Stoicism. However, as modern Stoics who supposedly value reason, we should update our beliefs in light of modern philosophy; and I hold that this view of language as containing necessary and sufficient definitions of words is highly problematic, as shown by the later Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers of language.
To use a phrase from Wittgenstein, my modern Stoicism certainly has a “family resemblance” to early Stoicism; it is inspired by it and retains many of its characteristics. But, I’ve adopted it specifically in light of modern science and philosophy. Indeed, I would hold that modern Stoics who buy into the ancient philosophy (which really doesn’t exist as a unified entity, either, as the philosophy was changed and adapted even in ancient times) wholesale are, ironically, not necessarily “living in accordance with reason” if they think the entire philosophy must be adopted without modification, given the huge advances we have made in philosophy (specifically logic and formal systems) and science since the time of the ancient Stoics.”
“For me the question is not “all or nothing”; that’s an extreme we can avoid. Likewise, it’s reasonable to avoid the opposite extreme of considering Stoicism infinitely malleable. In my opinion, we moderns do not have the right to add and extract whatever we wish from Stoicism and still lay claim to that name. At some point of divergence, intellectual honesty requires renaming the modernized philosophical conglomeration. Without being unnecessarily divisive, it seems essential to ‘Stoicism’ that it has some meaning, some differentiation from other philosophical systems. The question is, “What is essential to Stoicism?” I’m not convinced we moderns have adequately answered that question.”
“I think it depends on what kind of things you reject, and what kind of things you accept. Some parts are more crucial than others, such as reason, virtue. How other parts such as divinity and physics correlate with development can be discussed. But Stoicism is also an ideal view, and no Stoic ever called himself a full fledged wizard. But if the teachers were not fully developed, if not even they were real Stoics, then who is fully developed today? Nay, everyone is and will always be a Striving Stoic. That is the correct description.”
“I do think it’s important to have an understanding of how the physics and logic came together to inform the ethics. But, as Seneca, says, in Letter 33:
“But no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past….Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to every one. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.”We have a greater understanding of cosmology, physics, today. It is entirely reasonable to incorporate these into the philosophy. To fail to do so would be contrary to the aim.”
Kevin Patrick, Jr.
FVO No. 3:
“It is not good to be unemotional. You should feel grief if a loved one dies?”
“Grief is a completely natural response of the body and has to be felt. If you want to not feel emotions anymore, then your goal is to become a psychopath. Stoicism is not about avoiding emotions, it’s about how you perceive situations, guide your thoughts and expectations and thereby process your emotional responses. It is of enormous help when it comes to “letting go”. Let’s use your example. If a person you shared your life with dies, then grief is a legitimate response to your loss. You can push your emotions away and repress them (but then other psychological symptoms will occur), you can let the grief turn into something bigger and get stuck with it (and make it harder on yourself than necessary), or you can guide your thoughts and thereby let the grief pass its way out of your system in a more healthy way. For example, stoicism teaches you about how to guide your expectations, how to consider transience. It also helps with how we estimate the regrets we connect with the person that passed away (something that causes many people to have trouble with letting go). It’s about focussing your energy and attention on what you have power over and what not. These thoughts usually help with accepting the inevitable and letting nature go its cause and your tears and sorrow can ebb away with time just like they are meant to.”
In “Consolation to Marcia”, Seneca says one should grieve in moderation but overdoing would be unnatural. Makes perfect sense.
“As my mother eloquently described how we deal with death: ‘We grieve for an appropriate amount of time and move on’”
Kyle Patrick Flynn
And one final objection: ‘Why are Stoics ‘indifferent’ to things’?
“Indifferentss are an objective category of things which are neither good nor evil. Indifferent things are those which are beyond my control – which are ALL things external to my will. It has nothing to do with the Stoic’s attitude towards things, or indifference to things as an attitude. What is of importance to a Stoic is making virtuous choices, but ALL virtuous choices are the correct selections from among Indifferent (external) things. For example, I see a person drowning. Whether or not the person lives or dies is Indifferent. That is not to say I should be indifferent about it as an attitude. It is to say that it is objectively in the category of things which are external, out of my control, and therefore not relevant to what is good or bad. This is because there is only one good (my virtuous choice) and one evil (my vicious choice). While both the person living and dying are Indifferents, what is not indifferent is my choice to try to help them. The virtuous thing to do is to try to save them in the best, most vigorous, and effective way I can. That is why I try to save them – because it is virtuous for me to try. Whether or not I succeed is not up to me. That is a matter for the Logos (how natural law plays out in all of its complex variables). Therefore, whether or not I succeed is about external conditions (external to my will) and thus not within my control and thus an Indifferent. It is very common for people to read the word ‘Indifferent’ and think it has to do with an attitude of indifference. That is a misunderstanding.”
Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that “moves through all creation”. He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
It’s worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.
“Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail!
It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth. Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you. So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands, your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established, and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation, mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth, neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea, except what evil men do in their folly. But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable, and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you. For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one, so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.
This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches; though they are desirous of good things for their possession, they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law; and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another: some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired; others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives; and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body. They do these foolish things, time and again, and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning, rescue men from painful ignorance. Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts. and deign to rule all things in justice. so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return, and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals; for there is no greater glory for men or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos.”
To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can’t control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It’s a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates.
It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature.
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.
Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. “Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: “God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.”
Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind – the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are “children of Zeus”, he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God’s omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God’s life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: “If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?” Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!” He adds: “Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within.”
Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God’s purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God’s world and witnesses of God’s work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares:
Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.
Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:
[Stoicism] says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.
Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren’t embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: “Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers… are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted.”
I’ve laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together – physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot.
That, I fear, is what today’s atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.
The Argument Against
In Praise of Modern Stoicism
How many twenty-first century readers can accept the claims made in the following ancient Stoic passage quoted approvingly by Mark Vernon?
“The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you [Zeus] lead it and is willingly guided by you.”
How many of us can believe that the universe spins round the earth? How many of us believe that Zeus is in charge of our fate?
I imagine that very few modern-day readers will accept these and some of the other metaphysical claims made by ancient Stoics. Logic therefore dictates that we have a choice. We could discard Stoicism on the grounds that it is based on claims that we can no longer believe. The title of this article – “In Praise of Modern Stoicism” – suggests an alternative. Rather than abandon Stoicism we can and should develop and a modern, acceptable and helpful form of Stoicism. In this article I will be using the term “Modern Stoicism” to refer to the Stoic Programme developed by the Stoicism Today team since 2012, as described in the various Stoic Week Handbooks and associated material.
Two key questions for the modern practitioner of Stoicism are consequently:
1. Which parts of ancient Stoicism can be accepted? and
2. Which Stoic practices turn out to be helpful?
The first question has been well explored in an article on this site by Antonia Macaro. Macaro argues that a ”lot of [Stoicism’s] foundational beliefs, such as the ideas that our rationality is a fragment of the divine … clash with what we in fact know about the world.” She concludes however that some Stoic ideas are both acceptable and helpful.
“Most of us could probably benefit from adopting Stoic perspectives like questioning what is really valuable in life, reminding ourselves that a lot of the things we commonly worry about are not that important; the habit of scrutinising our emotions, remembering that we can have a degree of influence on how we feel by changing how we think; and accepting that much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.”
Such philosophical arguments can be taken stage further by conducting empirical research. This is a key part of the Stoicism Today project. The results so far are encouraging. I have summarized the findings as follows in an article written earlier this year.
“Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is helpful – Stoicism passed its initial test. Participants reported a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions and an 11% decrease in negative emotions [after engaging in Stoic practices for a week].
The development of the SABS (The Stoic Attitude and Behaviours Scale) has enabled us to go further and begin to understand which parts of Stoicism are most beneficial as opposed to the elements which may not really be “active ingredients”. As I wrote in my 2014 article, our findings so far suggest that four elements of Stoicism are the most helpful.
Stoic mindfulness – making an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
Stoic disputation of thoughts – reminding oneself that an upsetting thought is just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
Affinity with others – thinking of oneself as part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body.
Stoic Premeditation – trying to anticipate future misfortunes and rehearse rising above them.
These four elements of Stoicism happen to be amongst those emphasized in what Donald Robertson has called a “Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism”. Key parts of this “Modern Stoicism” are the morning Stoic preparation, an evening Stoic reflection on the day, and practicing “Stoic mindfulness” throughout the day. I agree with Mark Vernon that some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics including the idea of a divine purpose feature much less heavily than Stoic ethics and Stoic practices in “Modern Stoicism”. As the research shows, however, this Modern Stoicism has proved to be very helpful to the majority of participants.
The analysis of SABS items also allows us to make a tentative judgment on the extent to which logos-related attitudes and behaviors may be helpful. The analysis of data relating to 2013 Stoic week suggests that logos-related beliefs are moderately helpful, but much less so than the Stoic ideas listed above. The belief that “ There’s no overall plan to the universe” was inversely related to flourishing by a factor of .14, so it would seem it is somewhat conducive to flourishing to believe there is an overall plan to the universe. For the belief that “The cosmos is a single, wise, living thing” there was a similar positive association with flourishing (.16). However, three other Stoic attitudes and behaviours were much more significantly associated with flourishing (factors of .34 and .32 and .31 respectively). These were
I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare.
These three most helpful Stoic attitudes and behaviours are, of course, taught as part of Modern Stoicism.
Some of Mark Vernon’s comments convey a false impression of the scope and nature of Modern Stoicism. Vernon claims that Stoicism without God and the logos aims to “[turn] off and on [feelings of fear and anger] by some trained trick of the will”. This is not true. Modern Stoicism is a training in virtue, not in willpower. The virtuous Stoic doesn’t have an urge to feel fear and anger which they then repel by willpower. Instead, they form different value judgments about external events, so they don’t feel fear or anger in the first place. Neither is Modern Stoicism a “reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment” as Vernon suggests. Modern Stoicism involves character change rather than personality adjustment. The Stoic quotations and readings give the participant an understanding of acceptable Stoic ideas, particularly relating to ethics, nature, emotions and what can and cannot be changed. The meditations then give the participant the opportunity to develop the skills to be virtuous – they give you the chance to rehearse and reflect on your behavior. The Stoic Monitoring form is another tool to help people develop key skills, such as noticing what is within our control and what is not and responding appropriately. Use of social media allows people to discuss their progress with fellow participants. A virtuous character is being developed by a process of training and practice, based on Stoic principles.
So far I have argued that
1) Some parts of Stoicism, particularly those that relate to Zeus, fate and a divine purpose, will not be acceptable to many modern readers
2) The parts that remain of Stoicism form a substantial and coherent set of ideas and practices, as illustrated in the Stoicism Today blog and Stoic Week Handbook. This version of “Modern Stoicism” will continue to be refined and already includes some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics e.g. the ideas about nature and humans being social beings help reinforce Stoic Ethics.
3) Modern Stoicism aims to help people lead a flourishing life as well as be virtuous, and is committed to research to see whether its practices actually do work
4) The empirical research we have undertaken so far suggests that Modern Stoicism is indeed helpful
5) Whilst logos-related parts of Stoicism appear to be moderately associated with flourishing they do not seem to be the most “active ingredients” of Stoicism.
I will finish with three further comments in praise of Modern Stoicism and against the idea of including the logos in Modern Stoicism. Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.
Of course Vernon or anyone else is quite entitled to propose a version of Stoicism that includes elements of Christianity, but then they can hardly criticize anyone else for being unfaithful to ancient Stoicism.
Furthermore, were the logos to be included in Modern Stoicism it would make it less inclusive as well as less credible. Many readers would struggle to get past page 1 of the Stoic Week Handbook were it littered with references to Zeus, a divine providential Fate or even God. By diluting the religious component, Modern Stoicism is following the path of esteemed writers such as Viktor Frankl and Stephen Covey. Both Frankl and Covey were religious – Frankl was Jewish and Covey was Mormon – yet their most famous works (Man’s Search for Meaning and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People respectively)– were based largely on principles that don’t require religious faith. You can be religious and follow Modern Stoicism, but you don’t have to be.
A final objection to Modern Stoicism, hinted at by Vernon, is that that it shouldn’t call itself Stoicism. Personally, I like the term “Modern Stoicism”. It accurately conveys the idea that was is being taught is not identical to ancient Stoicism. At the same time the name “Modern Stoicism” also implies that Stoicism is being adapted to be helpful in the modern world. Now it could be argued however that just as Buddhism without Buddhist metaphysics is called “mindfulness”, so Stoicism without the logos and other elements of Stoic metaphysics should be called something else, perhaps “Stoic Mindfulness”. But, as Patrick Ussher has argued “all Stoic mindfulness .. is really about is remembering the key precepts of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice (Ussher, P. Was there a Stoic Mindfulness? in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (ed. Ussher, P.)). That’s also a good description of what Modern Stoicism is all about – remembering the key ideas of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice.
Mark Vernon’s Response
Mark Vernon adds the following as a ‘right to reply’:
On testing the benefits of Modern Stoicism, I would add more scientific caution. For example, my sense is that the experience of empirically investigating CBT increasingly suggests that the harder the evidence, the easier statistics are to amass and the more readily headlines can be produced; but the less insight and quality the supposed findings offer. It seems that the difficulties of doing science in the domains of wellbeing and mental health emerge particularly in qualitative studies and over the long term.On the subject of prayer and God, ancient Stoics most certainly did pray to and praise the logos. Seneca, for one, definitely has God in mind too, and he’s not much informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, about which he seems to have simply shared common Roman prejudices. I think the problem for us here is not just theological but also physical. The ancient view of nature is not the same as the modern scientific view, which is mechanical and dead, unlike the organic, living, soul-filled cosmos ancient ‘pantheism’ implies. Similarly, Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus needs to be read as metaphysical poetry not modern scientific theory, and perhaps moves even now when related to as such. Moderns need to approach ancient ideas about reasonableness with caution too. For us, reason tends to mean justified deductions or detached proofs, whereas in the ancient world reason implies a harmonious attunement with, and participation in, a pattern – or logos – much wider than humans can fully grasp.
Tim LeBon waived his right to respond further.
About the authors:
Mark Vernon used to be a priest in the Church of England and is now a writer, pursuing the ancient philosophers’ great question, how to live? His books cover subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and meaning, and he edits two series from Acumen, The Art of Living and Heretics. He also writes as a journalist, his work appearing regularly in the Guardian, TLS, Church Times and on the BBC. He is a keen blogger, and has also appeared on a wide range of platforms including at the Hay, Edinburgh International, Oxford and Dartington book festivals. His books have appeared in translation around the world. His studies began with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, followed by a PhD in philosophy – an academic journey that took him from the universities of Durham and Oxford to Warwick. Having lived in Germany, the North East of England, and spent extended periods of time in France, he now lives in south London.
Tim LeBon is a UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) registered therapist and works in the NHS in IAPT (the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies scheme) using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which he combines with a private practice as a counsellor and life coach in Central London. He is the founding editor of the journal Practical Philosophy and author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001), and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014). His website is www.timlebon.com.
I have been increasingly interested in ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian wisdom since high school but it was not before approximately two years ago upon reading the Jules Evans’ fantastic book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations when I rediscovered the Stoicism and started studying it again, as well as applying, well, doing my almost best to applying it to my everyday problems. I took an active part in the Stoic Week 2013 and was invited by Patrick Ussher, a very promising and enthusiastic PhD student at the University of Exeter who works on Stoic ethical development, to write a piece for his blog. I chose the topic on Stoicism and Global Ethic for Better Life and also promoted the Stoic ideas across my own country Slovenia (e.g. Filozofija za lepše življenje, Delo, November 22, 2013, p. 5).
Indeed, the contributions in the first volume Stoicism Today have been selected from the aforementioned blog which had almost 4000,000 hits in its first 18 months. The book has been edited by Patrick and has been written by 31 contributors from UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Norway, Germany and Australia.
This fantastic book is composed of eight parts: (i) Stoic Theory, (ii) Adapting Stoicism for the Modern Day, (iii) Stoic Advice, (iv) Life Stories, (v) Stoicism for Parents & Teachers, (vi) Stoicism & Psychotherapy, (vii) Stoicism & Mindfulness and (viii) Stoic Literature and Stoicism in Modern Culture. As succinctly explained in the Foreword by Stephen J. Costello, the book:
”reflects and represents a wide-ranging cornucopia of topics and themes, from Stoic ethics and emotions to fatherhood, feelings and Viktor Frankel, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general. As such, there is something in this eclectic compilation for everyone.”
Quite true, I fully agree, it is a very useful and interesting handbook which should be reread day after day, just like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. John Sellars explains to the beginners that Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years cherishing four central ideas: (i) Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason, (ii) emotions – they are the project of our judgements, so we should change the latter to change the emotions), (iii) nature – we must live in harmony with Nature and Cosmos and (iv) control – there are some things we have control over and others we do not. The Stoicism proved especially popular among the famous Romans, i.e. the statesman and lawyer Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. As a lawyer, just like Paul Bryson, I am also trying to cultivate the four qualities suggested by Zeno – wisdom, courage, temperance and justice – although I am not very good at it, but to use the words from Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, ”at least I’m trying.”
According to Stoicism, as correctly interpreted by Patrick Ussher, egoism cannot lead to happiness because we are social beings, the citizens of the world. This is, for instance, also proved convincingly and scientifically by Adam Grant in his bestselling book on altruism Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin Books, New York, 2013). We are not born just for ourselves, once upon a time said Cicero quoting Plato, but also for our families, friends and our homeland. Or in Seneca’s words: Alteri vivas oportet, si vis tibi vivere.
One of the unfortunate misconceptions is that Stoics are unemotional like robots but the truth is quite the opposite, namely the virtue of the Stoic ”consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world” (Donald Robertson). With the Stoic philosophy we can control our emotions because it is the art of not panicking or apatheia in Greek (Ryan Holiday). This is described perfectly by Chris Hadfield in his An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan, London, 2013) where he uses the prima facie paradoxical expression ”the power of negative thinking,” how to prepare for difficult situations with simulations, as ”fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” We should be prepared not to act like a puppet on a string, allowing ourselves to be jerked around by irrational emotions (Kevin Kennedy). The struggle against passion is indeed the greatest of all struggles.
Can we adopt Stoicism for the modern day? Robertson suggests the basic three-stage philosophical routine, i.e. the morning preparation, the Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) throughout the day and the night-time review. He reminds us of the beautiful Serenity Prayer which we might want to memorise or write down and contemplate each day:
Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Corey Anton explains how the Stoicism can also help us accepting death. To those who are not biased and narrow minded I recommend a shocking book by Eben Alexander Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012) which has been, of course, criticised, for example by Sam Harris in his Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014).
Amongst the most touching life stories are the catastrophic and at the same time optimistic and positive experiences by Helen Rudd who suffered a traumatic brain injury and Sam Sullivan who broke his spine in a skiing accident an lost the use of his arms, legs and body (he was even a Mayor of Vancouver, Canada, from 2005 to 2005!). They are both living examples of unbelievable power of will, love of life and endurance, proving ”that Stoicism is all about making the most of your resources” (Rudd).
Stoicism is useful for parenting (Matt Van Natta), coping with toddlers (Chris Lowe), for a better fatherhood (Jan Frederik-Braseth) and teaching (Michael Burton, Jules Evans). Moreover, it has been proved in practice that psychotherapy (for example, positive psychology, logotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy) can become more complete and wiser if it incorporates ideas from Stoicism (Tim LeBon, Stephen J. Costello, James Davinport). To paraphrase Lou Marinoff: ”The Stoics, not Prozac!”
Last but not least, the Stoic mindfulness appears to be more than the Buddhist state of mind, as it is ”about being aware of how to act well or ethically in the present, and not so much about the primacy of the experience of the present itself” (Patrick Ussher). However, both can serve the same purpose as it is shown lucidly by various writers in the wonderful book edited by Melvin McLeod, Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2006).
To conclude, I very much recommend the splendid book Stoicism Today to everyone, looking forward to a Stoic Week 2014 and Volume II. Congratulations to Patrick Ussher and the rest of the Stoicism Today team and the authors, and many happy returns!
About the author:
Marko Pavliha is professor of law, author and co-author of 27 books and numerous articles, as well as the former Minister of Transport and Vice-President of the Parliament of the Republic of Slovenia (2004 – 2008).