'Falling into Stoicism' by Mark Leggett

Falling into Stoicism

by Mark Leggett


“Do not dread death or pain- but rather dread the fear of death or pain”- Epictetus

Last year I read my first book on stoicism. One aspect that appealed to me was that those principles written about over 2000 years ago are still relevant today and can be experienced by normal people in their daily lives. In this article would like to relate an incident that occurred to me 16 years ago after which I ‘discovered’ some of the truths written about by the Stoics.

I had walked and run in the hills all my adult life but in 1998 was new to winter mountaineering. I had decided to climb Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain in February. In contrast to Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain) which is only a mile or so from the town of Fort William, Ben Macdui stands in the centre of a vast wilderness known as the Cairngorm Mountains. I started my hike from the car park at Linn of Dee near Braemar one Saturday afternoon and camped overnight at Derry Lodge- a disused hunting lodge set in a small pinewood. I was disappointed to find it was raining at this low level.

The next morning I rose and packed away my soggy tent and made my way through the trees and then through the open moor of Glen Derry, soon I was above the snow line. Turning left I climbed to the Hutchison Memorial Hut. The small bothy (editor’s note: a ‘bothy’ is a small shelter) was occupied and filled by a German tourist who had loads of kit spread over every surface; snow shoes, crampons, ice axe, walking poles, tent, sleeping bag, stove- he had everything. I chatted for a few minutes then carried on climbing up to towards Loch Etchachan. The significance of this was that the German might have been the last person to see me alive.

The weather got steadily worse as I climbed; thick snow underfoot and high winds. It was bitterly cold. Loch Etchachan was frozen over and covered with snow.

After many years hiking in hills I knew I was not a natural navigator but I could use a map and compass. I followed the frozen stream bed that fed into Loch Etchachan until it petered out then continued on a compass bearing for the summit.

'A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.
‘A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.

As I climbed the mountain the wind whipped the snow up into a fog until I was in a complete white out. A white out is similar to total darkness (an uncommon experience in our modern world where there is almost always some ambient light) only in a white out everything is white rather than black. The sky is white, the ground (covered in snow) is white and everything in between is white. Wherever you look its white – no horizon, no features, just white. Without any contrast or graduation in tone for the brain to use to detect distance or form one is effectively blind.

I religiously kept to my compass bearing and trudged blindly upwards. It took a while in the wind and snow carrying a heavy pack but eventually I was pleased to encounter the remains of a building – four low walls of dry stone half buried in the snow- that I remembered from previous ascents during the summer. I knew that this ruin was only a few hundred yards from the summit.

The summit was a wild inhospitable place. The trig point was completely encrusted in horizontal windblown icicles. It was extremely cold and blowing a gale. I didn’t stay long; no leisurely munching of sandwiches and admiring the view on this day!

I turned round and started my descent. All I had to do was reverse my compass bearing until I found the top of the frozen stream, follow that down to the frozen loch and then I would be safe. Buoyed up by my successful navigation on the way up, and having timed my ascent so I knew approximately how long it would take to get back to the stream, I was confident I would be ok.

However it all hinged on finding the top of the frozen stream which started as a mere depression in the snow. I had not considered how difficult (i.e. impossible) it would be to find this in white out conditions. If you look at a map of the area you will see that a change of direction is required at the stream because if one continues in a straight line there are some precipitous cliffs ahead. I descended until I was close to the point where I would have to turn, but became confused because I seemed to be climbing a mild incline. I say seemed to because in the white out conditions it was impossible to be sure, my legs were telling me from the increased effort that I might be climbing but apart from the compass in my hand I could see nothing.

Then I fell forward into the whiteness.

At first I thought that I might have tripped on a buried rock, or perhaps there was a small hole or dip in the snow, but when I carried on falling I knew what I had done. I had walked off the edge of the cliffs of Coire Sputan Dearg.

People asked me afterwards if I had fallen through a cornice of overhanging snow. Well I didn’t, I simply walked off a cliff because I couldn’t see the edge. I only fell for a second or two before slamming into the steep cliff side, bouncing, falling and bouncing again. I had seen these cliffs in the summer, I knew their height and steepness, I knew I was dead. This sounds dramatic, and obviously I didn’t die or I couldn’t be writing this, but at the time there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was about to die. It was NOT like being in front of a firing squad as the soldiers load there weapons ,hoping for a last minute reprieve, it was like being in front of a firing squad and hearing the command FIRE !, done deal ,no way out, end of story.

“Cease to hope…..and you will cease to fear. Widely different (as fear and hope are) the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.  “   Seneca

I am not a brave person, and several times in my life I have got myself into scrapes in the hills and scared myself witless. I don’t like taking risks and would even describe myself as a timid person. Rock climbing for example is not my thing; it is far too dangerous and scary. However on this occasion I felt no fear. I was looking death in the face and my only emotion was regret that it was all about to end. I believe that if I had fallen but ended up clinging to a cliff edge by my fingertips, with the possibility of survival or death, I would have been terrified. But because I thought death was inevitable I was not afraid.

“It’s not what happens to you but how you react that matters” Epictetus

I bounced and somersaulted through the air several more times before finding myself spread-eagled on a steep snow slope. By amazing good fortune I had fallen in the one area where the cliffs are less steep. When I realised I was alive I felt tremendous relief and elation , my back was hurting, my face was damaged and I was alone half way down a cliff in the Cairngorms miles away from anywhere, but I was alive. I could feel liquid running down my face. It was clear rather than bloody and I soon found I had no vision in my right eye, maybe the eyeball had burst? No matter -I was alive ! Hours later I found out that my eye was ok but the right side of my face had swollen up clamping my eyelids shut so I could see nothing out of that eye.

I don’t know how far I fell or how close to death I actually was. I know people have died falling from smaller cliffs and others have survived far greater drops. For me the two relevant factors were the absolute certainty that I was about to die followed very quickly by the miracle of my survival.

I tried to climb back up the cliff, but soon gave up as it was too steep and I had lost my ice axe in the fall. So I descended down to the valley – not easy on the steep terrain and icy snow with no axe and only one good eye.  Lower down I floundered my way through deep snow to Glen Luibeg.  Soon it got dark and it took a long while but eventually I reached my car at Linn of Dee and drove back to Braemar. There after scaring the people in the village shop with my swollen and bruised face I wound up in the police station where the village Bobby, who was also in the mountain rescue team, gave me a coffee and got the local G.P to examine me. The doctor managed to prise my eyelids apart and it was then that I found that my right eye was intact. He suggested that I spent the night in Braemar and that he had another look at me in the morning.

When going to the hills alone I always leave details of my intended route with a friend or my parents and phone them when I am back in civilization. So I went to the telephone box and called my friend and told her that I had had a fall but that I was alright. I found a ridiculously cheap room in the local hotel and got some food. The room had a television which at that time I didn’t have at home , so it was a great treat to watch TV , I also had  a bottle of whisky ( not ideal given the danger of concussion- but I was celebrating my survival ) so all in all it was a very pleasant evening.

When I got home the next day my friend told me what a terrible evening she had had, I was perplexed and asked her to explain. She told me that she had been very worried and upset after hearing about my fall and it had ruined an evening she had planned with friends. In contrast, I -the supposed traumatised victim-  had a great time !

“If you are distressed by anything external the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”. Marcus Aurelius

My face healed quite quickly although my right eyelid still droops when I’m tired, my back took months to come right, but apart from that I survived the incident unscathed. Overall it was a positive experience; I discovered that death is not necessarily a terrifying event but that it is the fear of death that is terrifying. By luck, on this occasion my opinion of the events was coloured by the seeming inevitability of my death and then my lucky survival. I learnt that day that it is not external events that cause mental anguish but one’s attitude to those events- and that is something that is in one’s own control. If I had been badly injured or permanently disabled by my fall I admit I might have been left with a different outlook but I think I would still have felt that overwhelming sense of joy when I discovered that I was not dead. It could so easily have been different.

Had I experienced fear or anguish I might have consequently had nightmares about falling and suffered post-traumatic stress. I might have never returned to the hills again. None of these occurred.

“It is not death that a man should fear. But he should fear never beginning to live.”

Instead that trip was the start of a love affair with the Cairngorms. Since then I have spent many carefree days wandering the tops in summer and winter. I learnt to navigate with more precision even in a white out (by counting steps to estimate distance). Some of the happiest times of my life have been on Ben Macdui and the surrounding peaks .I met my wife in the hills and a shared love of mountains help cement our relationship.

Of course I have a healthy respect for the dangers of hillwalking and running especially in the winter, and I definitely do not think that I’m invincible. In fact I do often contemplate death when in the hills especially after seeing a friend collapse and die on a mountain despite the desperate attempts of myself and others to revive him .I try to remember day to day how fortunate I am to have survived my fall and that all my life since then has been a bonus. I hope that when I do eventually meet my death I will be able to leave this world without fear or regret and without leaving behind too much hurt and pain. On that day on Ben Macdui I was doubly lucky , not only did I survive but I learnt a valuable Stoic principle. This was not through prior knowledge of the philosophy or through personal wisdom but sheer serendipity.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”  Marcus Aurelius

Mark Leggett is a veterinary surgeon  living on the west coast of Scotland. His passions are ultrarunning, mountains, and watercolour painting. He writes a blog. Mark did the artwork in this piece himself.

German Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.
Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.

The same interview in English was posted tomorrow.

Patrick: Erzähl uns ein wenig mehr über dich selbst, Bea.

Nach einer kurzen Zeit als Sekundarlehrerin in der Schweiz entschloss ich mich 1980, mein Hochschulstudium in Vancouver fortzusetzen. Dort verliebte ich mich in das Leben an der Westküste und genoss vor allem die Freizeit in der Natur. Ich ließ mich nieder, heiratete und erfreue mich nun an drei erwachsenen, unabhängigen Kindern, die momentan in New York, San Francisco und Vancouver leben.

Patrick: Wie war deine Erfahrung mit der Übersetzung dieses Buches? Wie war sie im Vergleich zu anderen Übersetzungsarbeiten?

Stoizismus heute stellte für mich eine gute Herausforderung dar. Einerseits hatte ich nie zuvor eine solch lange Übersetzung gemacht, andererseits wurden meine linguistischen Fähigkeiten durch die Komplexität der Materie und die verschiedenen Schreibstile der Mitwirkenden auf die Probe gestellt. In Bezug auf die im Buch verwendeten philosophischen Begriffe war es oft schwierig, zwischen zwei ganz guten, möglichen Übersetzungen eines bestimmten Wortes oder Ausdrucks zu wählen. Dank dir, Patrick, musste ich nie lange auf Klärungen oder Rat warten. Ich möchte noch hinzufügen, dass ich die Beiträge in diesem Buch höchst interessant fand. Die beruflichen und persönlichen Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse der Autoren faszinierten mich und motivierten mich täglich zur Weiterarbeit.

Patrick: Warst du mit dem Stoizismus schon vor der Übersetzung dieses Buches vertraut, und was fiel dir bezüglich der stoischen Philosophie während deiner Arbeit auf?

Ich war mit dem Begriff des Stoizismus vertraut und hatte schon über Stoiker gelesen, aber die Philosophie selbst kannte ich nicht wirklich. Bei der Übersetzung des Buches fiel mir auf, dass es zwischen den stoischen Praktiken und denen, die ich aus der Literatur über die Achtsamkeitsmeditation und die kontemplative Meditation kenne, Ähnlichkeiten gibt. Ich wurde beispielsweise an religiöse Lehren bezüglich der Prüfung des eigenen Gewissens erinnert, Lehren, die von den in diesem Buch beschriebenen stoischen Praktiken nicht so ganz verschieden sind.

Patrick: Gibt es Teile des Stoizismus, die du jetzt in Betracht ziehen würdest, in dein eigenes Leben zu integrieren?

Ich praktiziere seit gut zwei Jahren „Centering Prayer“ (Gebet der Stille), eine moderne Form des kontemplativen Gebets, und habe festgestellt, dass es mir hilft, mich in meine Mitte zu begeben und einen Zustand der inneren Ruhe, den ja auch die Stoiker anstrebten, zu erlangen. Ich scheine damit ähnliche Ergebnisse zu erzielen. Insbesondere genoss ich im vergangenen Frühjahr vier Tage in einer Einsiedelei der Camaldoleser Mönche hoch über der pazifischen Küste von Kalifornien. Es gibt keinen besseren Ort, um geistige Ruhe zu finden!

Patrick: Was sind deine wichtigsten Quellen der Inspiration für ein gutes Leben?

Meine wichtigsten Einflüsse sind die Schriften von 1) Pater Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., einem Trappistenmönch und Priester, der als einer der Architekten des „Zentrierenden Gebetes“ gilt, das 1975 aus der St. Josephs Abtei in Spencer, Massachusetts, hervorgegangen ist, und 2) Henri Nouwen, einem holländischen Priester, Professor und Schriftsteller, der durch die Werke von Thomas Merton, Vincent Van Gogh und Jean Vanier, alles Menschen, die ich ebenso zu bewundere, stark beeinflusst wurde. Schließlich glaube ich, dass ich auch von der Kunst und den Schriften meines verstorbenen Onkels, Pater Karl Stadler OSB (1921–2012), einem Benediktinermönch und Künstler vom Kloster Engelberg (Schweiz) beeinflusst wurde.

Beatrice Pires-Stadler ist Dozentin für Fremdsprachen und freiberufliche Übersetzerin (Deutsch/Englisch). Sie hat dreißig Jahre an einer kanadischen Universität gelehrt und lebt in Britisch Kolumbien, Kanada. Bea übersetzt besonders gern Bücher philosophischer/spiritueller Natur und Kinderbücher.

English Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.
Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.

The same interview in German will be posted tomorrow.

Patrick: Tell us a little bit more about yourself,

Bea. After a brief period as a high school teacher in Switzerland, I left Europe in 1980 to pursue advanced studies in British Columbia. There I fell in love with the west coast, enjoying the outdoors. I settled in the Lower Mainland, got married, and with my husband have three adult children who now live in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

Patrick: How did you find translating the book? How was it compared to other translation work you have done?

Stoicism Today presented a good challenge to me. Firstly, I had never done such a long translation before, and secondly, the complexity of the subject matter and the various writing styles of the contributors put my skills to the test. With respect to the philosophical terms used in the book, it was often difficult to choose between two perfectly good translations of a given word or phrase. Thanks to you, Patrick, I never had to wait long for clarification or guidance. Let me add that I found the various writings in this collection most interesting. The professional and personal experiences and insights of the authors intrigued me and made translating the book most enjoyable.

Patrick: Were you familiar with Stoicism before translating the work and what particularly struck you about the philosophy whilst translating it?

I was familiar with the term and had read about Stoics before, but I was not really familiar with their philosophy. In translating the book, I realized that there are similarities between stoic practices and those I am familiar with from the literature on mindfulness and contemplative meditation. I was also reminded of religious teachings on the examination of one’s conscience, for example, teachings that are not all that different from the stoic practices mentioned in the book.

Patrick: Are there any parts of Stoicism which you would now think of incorporating into your own life?

I have been practicing Centering Prayer, a contemporary method of contemplative prayer, for over two years and find that it helps me center myself and get to that state of calm the Stoics strive for. I seem to achieve similar results to those brought about by stoic practices. I particularly enjoyed spending four days at a Camaldolese hermitage high above the Pacific coast of California last spring. There is no better place to achieve mental calm!

Patrick: What are your main sources of inspiration for leading a good life?

My main influences are the writings of 1) Father Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., a Trappist monk and priest known as one of the architects of Centering Prayer, which emerged from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1975, and 2) Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born priest, professor and writer who in turn was heavily influenced by the works of Thomas Merton, Vincent van Gogh, and Jean Vanier, all people I equally admire.  Finally, I believe that I have also been influenced by the art and writings of my late uncle, Father Pater Karl Stadler OSB (1921–2012), a Benedictine monk and artist at Engelberg Abbey in Switzerland.

Beatrice Pires-Stadler is a language instructor and translator (German<>English) who taught for thirty years at a Canadian university.  She is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and lives in British Columbia, Canada. She particularly enjoys translating books of a philosophical/spiritual nature and children’s books.

'Some Tips For A Better Understanding Of Stoic Physics' by Elen Buzaré

Some Tips For A Better Understanding Of Stoic Physics

by Elen Buzaré

Editorial note: Readers of the blog may have grown weary of the intricacies of Stoic physics in recent days, but will I think nevertheless find Elen’s thoughtful reflections most interesting.

(From Héraclite, La lumière de l’Obscur, translation and commentaries by Jean Bouchart d’Orval, Les éditions du Relié, Sagesses, 1997)

I recently posted a message on the Facebook Stoicism Group to introduce to members the work of translation and commentaries of Heraclitus fragments by Jean Bouchart d’Orval.

As the concepts detailed in this book are not always very accessible, I tried to organise these notions on word format while translating them in English. I think that it may help modern stoics to develop a different view of stoic physics. At least, this may provoke debate and creative thinking.

Qualifying the stoic physics of pantheism always left me unsatisfied. Pantheism is a a very modern concept (17th century) that I believe does not give justice to what ancient Greek is conveying. I have been objected that Pantheism is the belief that the universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity. Pantheism is indeed derived from the Greek πᾶν pan (meaning “all”) and Θεός Theos (meaning “God”). This is perfectly true, however I am afraid that pantheism, because it tends to divinize the forces of nature, may be a way of « reifying » the Nature. And once you said that stoics were pantheists, then what ? This is a short cut.

That does not mean that modern stoics should set aside their Physics. Reality escapes from us. It is flowing while being in harmony with the order of things. This is why, stoic teaching tremendously uses Nature. If we look at Nature, we see the teaching. Nature is the reality itself, the fundamental order of things. If we leave this reality, we suffer.

This is what Heraclitus tried to explain to people of his era, 2 500 years ago. Jean Bouchart d’Orval introduces his view of Heraclitus to people of our era in a very different way from traditional scholars –apparently inspired from the Vedanta. He presents himself as having worked in his youth in nuclear physics fields in Canada but later decided to pursue to his questioning following the meditative practice and living in India for a few years. He does not claim to belong to any school, but his though is modulated by intuition of non-duality. He appears sometimes to be considered as a controversial person.

The following lines are not mine at all. I omitted references first of all because that would have made the reading absolutely painful but also because I simply reorganized notions related to ancient Greek philosophy that appears repeatedly throughout this book in a coherent manner. However, all credits belong to Jean Bouchart d’Orval.

There is nothing « to believe in » nor « to have faith in » in the following lines. I simply hope that it will encourage debate and intelligent reflection.

I – About the phenomenal world

Definitions :

« Phenomenon » (φανερόν – phanerôn) :

  • literally means « That is showing itself », « That is coming to appearance ».

« Nature » (ϕυσις- phusis):

  • It is not certain that the word « nature » is a good translation for phusis. The contemporary signification of « nature » means the whole of the phenomena of the universe, with its laws as studied by the sciences of Nature (chemistry, physics, biology, etc.).
  • Originally, the word phusis appeals to the idea of « to be born », « to grow ». Phusis may be « that which makes appear all that can be perceived », or « that which governs all things ».
  • Phusis is that is growing, that is spreading out, that is coming to appearance. That is the Real as it manifests itself in space and time.

« The World »:

  • The world is the « Great Living » and it appears as « world » when there is perception.
  • The manifested world is the gift of Reality, unexplorable and without access as Reality, but accessible as the « world ». It is not possible to say that Reality « is ». The verbs « to be » and « not to be » are not applicable to « That which is neither something nor nothing ». The emergence of the form is the manifestation of the reality, but it also provokes the retreat of the reality. A thing is always perceived as a thing, either way it could not be perceived. The reality manifests itself by removing itself, it comes to being, erasing itself in forgetting.
  • The manifestation of the Unique that we call « the world » is but movement and becoming

« All things » (τα παντα- ta panta) :

  • designates everything that is an object of perception, all the elements of the phenomenal world. In other words: everything that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • The  ta panta name « all things », all what is. In practical terms, it constitutes all that can be perceived, all of which we can say « this is ». The domain of the ta panta is very wide : it can be a table, a tree, an animal, a human being, an atom, a ray of light, a galaxy, an emotion, a thought, a desire, a state of mind, everything.
  • Are images formed on occasion of perception

Characteristics of « all things »:

  • Every «thing» has its contrary
  • Every «thing» knows an end
  • Every «thing» is conditioned and interdependent, ceaselessly moving. They are transient, ephemeral sparkles, flashes of the Unique. Each sparkle has a special colour, a particular identity, but as the Unique has no colour in itself, no distinctive sign, this sparkle is necessarily limited in time and space. « All things » are governed according to this way, not by will, but by factual situation.
  • All that is manifested holds by a dynamic balance of opposed energies, may it be in the « world », in our body or in our mind. This is only when one adopts an individual perspective that the contraries oppose themselves, that one is good, the other bad, that one is to select, the other to reject. The contraries are the instruments of the deployment of the Unique. It is out of the play of the opposites that harmony follows
  • No movement would be possible without opposed tensions
  • The more one is exploring the intimacy of matter, the more one is finding movement : the more one is approaching the infinitely small, the more the movement seems to be fast : cellular exchanges, intra-cellular exchanges, inter-molecular vibrations, movement of the electrons around the core of the atom, exchanges between protons and neutrons inside the core of the atom. Exchanges do not constitutes an important part of matter ; but the whole. That is why physicists are now more cautious with their images : they are more referring to energy patrons rather than to particles. All what one is designating as matter, or universe, is no more than process, links, exchanges. Nothing is static in the universe.
  • It is also true at our level of perception : the lack of exercise causes the degeneration of muscles, bones, cardio-vascular system and a weakening of the general organism, including the nervous system and the immune system. Each one of us can verify this. This is true of all process of life.

II – About the logos :

The logos is referred to different  designations: « That which is wise » (sophon), the Unique (Hen), the logos, « that which governs all things », « That which knows », The Divine, The Reality etc.

Definitions :

« λόγος– Logos » :

  • what the word « logos » designates is central to Heraclitus. Translators of Saint John’s Gospel rendered this word by « spoken word, language ». The philosophers translates this word by « discourse », « true discourse » but that does not help much. Before being « spoken word » or « discourse », logos initially means gathering. Legein means « to gather », « to collect », « to pick up » and its meaning later evolves in classical Greek to mean « speaking, saying something ».
  • Logos designates the movement of the « Unique » coming to visible.

Characteristics of the logos :

  • Is transcendent : transcendent does not mean disconnected of all things, separated from all things ; it means that it is not something and that it cannot be grasped. When all we know about water is ice, liquid water and water vapor, we cannot have an idea of what water is in itself and not as one of its forms. But water in itself is not separated or foreign to the waves, to the clouds or to the ice floe. In the same way, could that which is wise and « governs all things », « the One, the only Wise », be separated even for a split second from its own forms, which are « all things ».
  • According to Heraclitus, there is identity between the  panta and the hen (the Unique). The identity between « ta panta » and the « Hen » is the essence of knowledge, of wisdom. It is a true identity. All things do not come out the Unique, either created by the Unique, or fragment of the Unique. No : Heraclitus claims that there is only the Unique. « All things » is the « Unique ». Every « thing » is the image of the Unique, his visibility in the world of perception. The human being only knows images of reality : this is what he names things. He believes that all these objects are separated from each others and from himself. He identifies himself with his body, his thoughts, his preferences, his habits etc. This is the ordinary state of consciousness. This is the source of faintness, sufferings and neverending torments for human being of every era and cultures.
  • Yet the Unique is not a thing ; otherwise, Heraclitus would have only talked about the panta, and not about the Hen. This is why the Unique is « unexplorable and without access ». This is the main difficulty in the realisation of the Unique : at each stage, we may be tempted to objectivize it, to turn it into a thing, an object of perception, of knowledge, of discussion.
  • Is timeless, is always (eontos aei) that is « always true »
  • Governs all things through all things because it is the only reality of all things
  • The Unique does not exist as one of the elements of the phenomenal world, it is not « in the making ».
  • Needs no law to « regulate » the sparkles of his appearance. This is exactly the law of conservation of energy in modern science, that can be assimilated to law of action and reaction. This is a conservation of the whole, and not some will, that make all the elements to be regulated by an inexorable becoming. « In transforming itself it is resting ». The transformation of the elements is the expression of the essential untransformation of the Unique, which is the sole reality. Heraclitus employs the term kubernesai to significate « governs » : this corresponds to the action to guide a small boat by mean of a rudder. It is by leaning on the streams that it is possible to guide oneself on the waters. As soon as degeneration wins, a correction is applied naturally The universe is purposelessly governed by the mere fact that it is itself.
  • Is unintentional
  • Has no opposite
  • Is pure conscience and through the mechanisms of perception of this universe, most notably the nervous system of the human being, its true nature is shining, while being veiled by the illusory impression of existing as a person, an entity separated from the whole.
  • The fire is the Unique in his material aspect of dissolution and transformation. The fire represents for « all things » (ta panta) the extreme possibility, the destruction. That is why it is the judge of « all things ».
  • Lightning (keraunos) names the fire in all its shining purity. What are the features of lightning ? Imprevisibility, instantaneity and power. The human being generally thinks that he can control the main factors of his life ; he can at least believe it for a long period of time. He gets to sleep in an imaginary world, the one of his representations of reality and reassure himself cultivating the known : his own image of his body, his preferences, his opinions, his relationships, his friends, his house, his job, his country, his religion in short anything that contributes in making him believe that he is existing as an individual. This is only when life submits him to important clashes or conflicts that his concepts are shattered. This is the test of contraries. Death, disease, failure is lightning that strikes and takes out man of his drowsiness.

III – About the human beings :

There is neither chance nor a God to judge us. Individual freedom is a delusion, chance too. This is Human Being’s attitude that shapes his destiny. This behaviour is not the consequence of a choice, because there is only the Unique and all that is action-reaction is nothing less than the expression of the unity and indetermination of the Unique (the Unique is not something). Heraclitus observes that it is man, by his way of being, his attitude, who is doing the job. These are not our actions that enchain us, this is our way of being, our attitude. Our actions may belong to the past, but we are always carrying our attitude wherever we are going ; The act and its retribution are manifestation of Human being attitude, even if we do not comprehend it clearly.

There are two categories of human beings :

« The sleepings»:

  • They are «the sleepings » because they forget reality, they live in a personnel, or individual manner, stupidly waiting for the inevitable destruction of the body
  • They are also qualified as being « oi polloi » i.e. the multitude
  • They try to find it (i.e « that which is wise ») to the level of « all things » and so frustration and sorrow await them
  • They are established in duality
  • They are not skilled in the listening of the logos
  • They are living as if they had an individual consciousness
  • They are taking refuge in an individual world
  • They are living at the level of appearences
  • They are inhabited by horizontality.

« The sage » :

  • Is the egrègoros (i.e the awakened), the Best, the dry soul
  • Has a « dry soul » because this is the soul where any traces of ignorance has evaporated, under the prolonged action of the sun of Knowledge. On the contrary the humid soul is weak, softened by the energetic dispersion linked to the pursuit of pleasures.
  • Has accomplished the telos of the human incarnation
  • Perceives reality without mixing (samyoga) it, that is identifying it, with any form of the phenomenal world. The discrimination has come and it is the cessation (nirodha) of confusion (literal translation of samyoga), the abolition of ignorance (avidya).
  • Is listening to the logos : this means is « picking the gloom ». The listening is contemplation, which implies an absence of direction. What is an undirected listening ? Who can impose a direction to the listening ? Asking the question is already answering. An oriented listening is a listening of the known, of the thought, of the cerebral, of the memory, of habits. Some use the term « egoic seizure »
  • Is wise, sensible, has a healthy mind. Having a healthy mind is seeing clearly, that is keeping one’s attention on the reality and not living at the level of appearances. It would be possible to say « pick the reality as it is »
  • Is updating in space and time the deep vision
  • Is inhabited by verticality

Wisdom/Knowledge :

  • The knowledge is in fact a recognition (ginoskein).
  • Is what establishes ease, joy and serenity, not partially or temporarily, but definitively and in totality
  • Is the realisation of the Unique, that is the absence of ignorance. This knowledge is unshakable, even when the drama of the world is buzzing. The sleeping, however are getting by in their own mental enclosure, where every perception is interpreted in the frame of a subject/object relationship, which is the last thing that a human being questions.
  • Must not be mistaken with the accumulation of knowledge, erudition.
  • Freedom means total absence of constraints
  • As long as a thought, a situation, a desire is disturbing or menacing one’s serenity, this means that his realisation is not absolute and that the listening is still a necessity in order to definitively eliminate roving and confusion.

Truth (αληθεία – aletheia) :

  • Aletheia suggests the absence of covering, the absence of forgetting (lèthè). In his first light meaning, truth is not something, it is « that which is already here », « that which is always here ».

Meditation (askesis of listening to the logos, mindfulness)

  • Meditation is that which brings an inner liberation that has the same quality as the Unique : natural, unintentional, inherent
  • When meditation is as natural and devoid of intention in the nervous system of the human being, as is the manifestation of the world in the Unique, ignorance disappears and light is shining in all its brightness.
  • Realisation comes by imitating the manifestation, when there is no intention, however subtle may it be. This is total humility.
  • No matter the « objects », « impressions » or « thought » perceived : this is when the absence and the presence of theses forms, when registered, are nor seen as being different, when there is the Unique.
  • Do not consists in not having or having thoughts.

After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops  an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations. She also created  Yahoo ! Discussion group named Stoici Amici for French speakers. You can join here

Release of Stoizismus Heute: Eine Antike Philosophie Für Die Moderne Zeit!

I’m delighted to announce that the Stoicism Today book has just been released in German, translated by Bea Pires-Stadler. German readers of the blog can help spread the word about the book, available in kindle and paperback, by sharing it on social media.

Stoizismus Heute
Stoizismus Heute

The book is available on Amazon here, for €4.36.

Von stoischer Ethik zu Emotionen, von stoischen Bürgermeistern und Achtsamkeit zu praktischer Philosophie, Elternschaft, Psychotherapie und Gefängnissen, von Star Trek und Sokrates zu stoischen Rechtsanwälten, Literatur und dem Leben im Allgemeinen, dieses Buch vereint eine umfassende Sammlung von Reflexionen zu Möglichkeiten der stoischen Lebensweise in der heutigen Zeit. Sie finden Ratschläge zur Bewältigung von Widrigkeiten, Reflexionen zum Glück und guten Leben und eindrucksvolle persönliche Zeugnisse der Umsetzung des Stoizismus in die Praxis. Sie lesen aber auch über die Zusammenhänge zwischen Stoizismus und Psychotherapie, Stoizismus und Achtsamkeitsmeditation und die unerwarteten Orte, an denen der Stoizismus in der modernen Kultur erscheinen kann. Dieses Buch ist sowohl für Akademiker als auch Nicht-Akademiker von Interesse und stellt die vielfältigen Möglichkeiten dar, wie die 2.300 Jahre alte Philosophie als Lebensstil für die Anliegen und Bedürfnisse der heutigen Zeit relevant bleibt.

'Providence or Atoms? Atoms!' – Donald Robertson

Stoicism: Providence or Atoms?
Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

by Donald Robertson


Editorial note: this piece is best read alongside another by Chris Fisher which takes the same starting point, but comes to the opposite conclusions.

Although most (but perhaps not all, as we’ll see below) Stoics appear to have placed considerable importance upon belief in God (specifically, Zeus), there is some indication that others may have adopted a more agnostic stance, something relatively unusual for the period in which they lived.  This debate naturally interests modern Stoics, many of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves and seek to reconcile Stoic ethics and psychological practices with their own contemporary world-view.  It’s worth noting that Socrates was sometimes portrayed as a partial agnostic.  He admitted that certainty about the gods is impossible but chose to believe in them on the basis of probability.  He therefore appears to have been open to the possibility of atheism.  Yet the Stoics generally held him in high regard as perhaps the closest historical approximation to the ideal Sage.  Moreover, in explaining his view that Stoicism followed Cynicism as part of a direct philosophical succession beginning with Socrates, Diogenes Laertius emphasises the claim that Socrates was the first philosopher to eschew discussion of natural philosophy in favour of ethical questions directly related to problems of living.  (Natural philosophy or “Physics” included theology, as Diogenes acknowledges in discussing Socrates.)  He says that Socrates “discussed moral questions in the workshops and the market-place, being convinced that the study of nature is no concern of ours.”  Elsewhere he notes that despite this Socrates did say some things about “providence”, although the extensive discussions of cosmology and theology attributed to him in the Platonic Dialogues are not his own words but those of Plato, who reputedly being began using “Socrates” as a mouthpiece for doctrines that were actually Pythagorean in origin.

In my opinion Socrates discoursed on Physics [including theology] as well as on ethics, since he holds some conversations about Providence, even according to Xenophon, who, however, declares that he only discussed ethics. But Plato, after mentioning Anaxagoras and certain other Physicists in the Apology, treats for his own part themes which Socrates disowned, although he puts everything into the mouth of Socrates.

It was the early Platonic Dialogues, such as the Apology, and the writings of Xenophon, which reputedly provide a more authentic portrayal of Socrates, which the Stoics modelled themselves upon.  This Socrates was the one who expressed agnosticism or uncertainty over ultimate questions about the nature of the universe and the existence of the gods.

Moreover, several ancient Stoics appear to have questioned the importance of belief in God, at least to some extent.  Panaetius, the last “scholarch” or head of the Athenian school of Stoicism, who introduced it to Rome, is reported to have stated that discussion of the gods is “nugatory” or of negligible importance in relation to the Stoic way of life (q.v., Algra, ‘Stoic Theology’, in The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, 2003, p. 154).  Moreover, Aristo of Chios, an influential associate of Zeno, who perhaps leaned more toward Cynicism and rejected certain fundamental aspects of early Stoicism, held more sceptical views later reported by Cicero as follows: “Aristo holds that no form of God is conceivable, and denies him sensation, and is in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether he is, or is not, animate” (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.14).  His views appear to have been controversial within Stoicism, although they nevertheless had a lasting influence.  For example, some scholars interpret sources as suggesting that Marcus Aurelius was “converted” to Stoic philosophy after reading something by Aristo of Chios.  Moreover, the Stoic poet Lucan, nephew of Seneca, in his epic The Civil War (or Pharsalia) wrote:

No guardian gods watch over us from heaven:
Jove [i.e., Zeus] is no king; let ages whirl along
In blind confusion: from his throne supreme
Shall he behold such carnage and restrain
His thunderbolts? […]
Careless of men
Are all the gods.

It’s not clear if this was actually Lucan’s personal view, as a Stoic, but it’s nevertheless clearly a profound questioning of established theological assumptions, sounding more Epicurean perhaps than traditionally Stoic.  Curiously, Seneca, who may have exerted considerable influence over Lucan’s Stoicism, argues that the traditional Stoic role-model Heracles (the son of Zeus) might be obsolete and better replaced by the more-recent example provided by Cato the Younger in the Roman civil war.  Together, therefore, Seneca and Lucan appear to be suggesting, or at least flirting with the notion, that Stoics should model themselves on real historical exemplars, political and military figures like the Republican hero Cato, rather than mythological gods and demigods, like Zeus and Heracles.

Moreover, the fundamental question over the existence of God (or the gods) may have been given a kind of name or label in ancient philosophy.  About nine times in The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius alludes to contrasting viewpoints traditionally taken as characteristic of two opposing traditions in ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy: “God or atoms”.  Belief that God (or “Providence”) ordered the cosmos was taken to be characteristic of the broad tradition originating with Pythagoras and Socrates, and including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  By contrast, belief that the universe was due to the random collision of atoms, originating with Democritus, was characteristic of the Epicurean school, the main rival of Stoicism.

In his rigorous analysis of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the French scholar Pierre Hadot argues that the text clearly shows that Marcus views this as an allusion to a well-established line of argument, presumably one taught in Stoic schools of the period.  Although Marcus rejected the “atoms” (Epicurean) hypothesis, nevertheless, Hadot concludes that he seems to be arguing that even if someone were to accept this and reject Providence, the core of Stoicism, the Stoic ethical doctrines, would still remain true and compelling.

Marcus thus opposes two models of the universe: that of Stoicism and that of Epicureanism.  His reason for doing so is to show that, on any hypothesis, and even if one were to accept, in the field of [philosophical] physics, the model most diametrically opposed to that of Stoicism, the Stoic moral attitude is still the only possible one. (Hadot, The Inner Citadel, 1998, p. 148)

It’s well-established by scholars that the ancient Stoics, probably influenced by the example of Chrysippus’ extensive writings, frequently took it upon themselves to formulate arguments to persuade non-Stoics, or philosophers of opposing schools, of Stoic views, on their own terms, i.e., in their own language and based upon assumptions familiar to them.  The notion that Stoic ethics, the central doctrine of Stoicism, could be justified even on the basis of an atomistic and atheistic or agnostic world-view, was probably essential to arguments designed to win over followers from other schools, or non-philosophers, who did not have the same kind of belief in God as the founders of Stoicism and their more orthodox followers.

For example, some of Marcus’ comments about this “God or atoms” argument are as follows:

Recall once again this alternative: ‘if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms’… (iv.3)

Alexander of Macedon and his stable-boy were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same creative principle of the universe [God], or they were alike dispersed into atoms. (vi.24)

So Marcus argues that the Stoic’s attitude toward death should be the same whether he believes in God or not.

If the choice is yours, why do the thing?  If another’s, where are you to lay the blame for it?  On gods?  On atoms?  Either would be insanity.  All thoughts of blame are out of place. ( viii.17)

That is, whether a Stoic believes in God or not (in mere random atoms), either way he should not think in terms of “blame”.

It may be that the World-Mind [God] wills each separate happening in succession; and, if so, then accept the consequences.  Or, it may be, there was but one primal act of will, of which all else is the sequel; every event being thus the germ of another.  To put it another way, things are either isolated units [atoms], or they form one inseparable whole.  If that whole be God, then all is well; but if aimless chance, at least you need not be aimless also. (ix.28)

So the Stoic reminds himself that even if the whole universe is composed of aimless chance, or random atoms, rather than being steered by God, in any case, he should himself not act aimlessly.  In other words, we should make it our constant goal to pursue the good, to pursue wisdom and the other virtues, whether or not we believe in Providence.

Either things must have their origin in one single intelligent source [God], and all fall into place to compose, as it were, one single body – in which case no part ought to complain of what happens for the good of the whole – or else the world is nothing but atoms and their confused minglings and dispersions.  So why be so harassed? (ix.39)

Whether one’s fate is the product of an intelligent God or the mere random collision of atoms, in either case, the Stoic should not feel personally harassed.  (Because our only true good is virtue, which is under our own control, and external matters are morally indifferent.)

No matter whether the universe is a confusion of atoms or a natural growth, let my first conviction be that I am part of a Whole which is under Nature’s governance; and my second, that a bond of kinship exists between myself and all other similar parts. (x.6)

So the Stoic principle of kinship to all mankind, and to Nature as a whole, holds good, whether or not we believe in a provident God.  Likewise:

There must be either a predestined Necessity and inviolable plan, or a gracious Provident God, or a chaos without design or director.  If then there be an inevitable Necessity, why kick against the pricks?  If a Providence that is ready to be gracious, render thyself worthy of divine succour.  But if a chaos without guide, congratulate thyself that amid such a surging sea thou hast in thyself a guiding rational faculty [hêgemonikon].  (xii, 14)


[Thou must have this rule ready for use:] to realize that all that befalls thee from without is due either to Chance or to Providence, nor hast thou any call to blame Chance or to impeach Providence. (xii, 24)

Note that in this passage, Marcus appears to say that he must always have a rule ready-to-hand in his mind that says that events may be due either to Providence or, alternatively, to mere Chance.  That would appear to mean always accepting the possibility that Providence is not responsible for events, which arguably amounts to a kind of agnosticism.

In summary, Marcus appears to be trying to persuade himself:

  • That whether we are dissolved into God or dispersed among random atoms, either way all of us, whether kings or servants, face the fate in death.
  • That whether the universe is rule by a provident God or due to the random collision of atoms, either way it makes no sense to blame others for our actions.
  • Whether the universe is governed by God or due to the “aimless chance” movement of atoms, either way “you need not be aimless also.”
  • Whether the universe is governed by a single intelligent Providence or it is nothing but random atoms, in either case on should not be “harassed”.
  • Finally, whether the universe is a “confusion of atoms” or the natural growth (of a provident God?), either way I should be convinced that I am part of something bigger, and a kinship therefore exists between me and other parts.

Scholars disagree over Marcus’ intention in presenting himself with this dichotomous choice between “God and atoms”, however.  One common interpretation is that he is reminding himself that whether a creator God exists, or whether the universe is simply ordered by blind chance, in either case the practical (ethical) principles of Stoicism should still be followed.  For the Stoics, who were essentially pantheists, theology was part of the discipline of “physics”, because they were materialists, who viewed God as pervading, and ordering, the whole of nature.

Moreover, I believe that a remark made by Epictetus, whose philosophy Marcus studied closely may be read as shedding further light on the contrast between “God or atoms”.  In one of the fragments attributed to Epictetus (fr. 1) we are told he said the following:

What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth?  Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell?  It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them?  And ought we not to say that those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves.

It’s not clear how we’re to interpret this passage, and it may perhaps not be authentic.  However, if it comes from one of the two lost books of the Discourses, this may be the source of Marcus Aurelius’ comments about “God and atoms”.  What is clear is that in this passage, Epictetus says that questions concerning Nature (Phusis),  which the Stoics use as a synonym for God, are unnecessary and potentially distracting elements of philosophy.  He even says that whether Nature (God?) really exists or not, is a question about which there is no need for Stoics to bother themselves.  He also says that specific questions such as whether the universe is made of atoms or of elements such as “fire and earth”, are fundamentally indifferent with regard to Stoic ethics.  The Stoics believed that the universe is composed of a divine fire-like substance with causal powers (aka “pneuma”), identified both with God and the “spark” or fragment of divinity within humans, and the inert earth or matter upon which it acts.

Epictetus goes on to say that the elements of nature are “perhaps are incomprehensible to the human mind, but even if one should suppose them to be wholly comprehensible, still, what good does it do to comprehend them?”  As the Stoic thought God to be material, this might be read as a kind of agnosticism, which questions whether knowledge of God is comprehensible or necessary to the practical aims of Stoic philosophy.

Overall, I would say that the literature of ancient Stoicism suggests that Marcus Aurelius and perhaps also Epictetus believed that agnosticism or even atheism may have been consistent with the Stoic way of life.  What I haven’t attempted to do here is to argue at length for the philosophical consistency of an agnostic (or atheistic) form of Stoicism.  However, in this regard, I would begin by pointing to the argument that the central principle of Stoicism, that the only true good is wisdom (the cardinal human virtue or excellence), acceptance of which arguably does not require belief in God, and from which other Stoic principles may derive without the need for belief in God as an additional premise.

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

'Providence or Atoms? Providence!' by Chris Fisher

Providence or Atoms
A Very Brief Defense of the Stoic Worldview

by Christopher Fisher


Editorial note: Marcus Aurelius famously at times questioned his own Stoic world view that the universe was providentially ordered, wondering if instead nature was comprised of the movement of random atoms. In this piece, Chris Fisher defends the Stoic world view that the world is providentially ordered. In tomorrow’s piece, Donald Robertson takes a more sceptical approach, albeit from the same starting point.

‘If I know Providence, I know my good and can follow it; so, no complaint. If I know not my good, I do not in reality know Providence. So if I complain, I complain of a specter and not a Deity: I complain as an animal, not as a man.’

~ Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury[1]

Either providence or atoms. By repeated use of this simple disjunction, Marcus Aurelius condensed and contrasted the worldviews proposed by the Stoics and the Epicureans, and emphasized the importance of the choice for those who wish to live according to Nature. Marcus understood what many modern readers of Stoicism overlook: the choice between these opposing worldviews has psychological and ethical implications for anyone attempting to live the excellent and flourishing life described by the Stoics.

The division between the Stoics and Epicureans over the nature of the cosmos is renowned. This was not a sterile academic debate over the minutia of philosophical terms or concepts. It was a deep divide over how one should view the cosmos and live in it as a rational being. Each argued forcefully for their own worldview because they believed there were consequences to the lives of their practitioners. The chasm between the providentially ordered cosmos of the Stoics and the random atomic universe of the Epicureans was deep and wide, and it could not be bridged. Thus, as Marcus asserts, one must make a choice between them—either providence or atoms.

For the Epicureans, acceptance of providence invited the gods into the lives of humans, and this they believed was a primary source of psychological distress. Conversely, for the Stoics, a rational and providential cosmos provided psychological and emotional support which helped them live virtuously and flourish regardless of external circumstances. The Stoics revered an immanent God as the providential force within Nature; the Epicureans regarded the gods as disquieting intruders in our lives and celebrated their disinterest in human affairs. The difference between these worldviews is insurmountable; additionally, as Marcus Aurelius makes quite clear with his repeated use of the disjunction ‘providence or atoms,’ the Stoics considered the choice important.

What is Providence?

Our English word providence is derived from the Latin word providentia. Cicero and Seneca used providentia to translate the Greek word pronoia (προνοια).

Christopher Gill defines pronoia as ‘providential rationality and care.’[2] F. E. Peters defines pronoia as ‘forethought’ or ‘providence,’ and writes,

“The early history of the concept of providence is to be seen in the emergence, from Diogenes to Aristotle, of a notion of intelligent purpose (telos, q.v.) operating in the universe. In all of these thinkers it is clearly associated with the intelligent God whose features begin to appear in the later Plato… and in Aristotle. For the Stoics the immanent Logos governs all by nous and pronoia (D.L. VII, 138; SVF I, 176).”[3]

Providence entails the causal determinism of the mechanistic worldview used by modern sciences. Causal determinism is an ancient concept which simply means every event is necessitated by prior (antecedent) events. Stoics refer to this as a causal chain or web. Providence infers divine cause and purpose to this chain of events. Therefore, there are no accidents or miracles; just causes, which rely on prior causes, which ultimately rely on God as the ultimate cause.

Providence and Stoicism

Edward Arnold offers a beautiful portrait of providence within Stoicism,

It is a principal dogma of the Stoics that ‘the universe is ruled by providence.’ Cicero indeed assures us that the word ‘providence’ is merely an abbreviation for ‘the providence of the gods,’ and that the dogma really asserts that ‘ the universe is ruled by the gods with foresight’… If ‘providence’ is on the one hand interpreted as God’s providence, it is on the other hand equivalent to Nature, and again to the Mind of the universe; it is the Logos, the universal Law, the creative force; not merely an attribute, but a manifestation and bodily presentment of deity.[4]

Providence is central to Stoicism. Without providence, Stoic ethical theory losses much of its coherence, and the psychological consolations of its therapeutic practices are greatly diminished.

Marcus Aurelius understood its importance, and accepted the Stoic worldview, which includes a rationally ordered and providential cosmos.

Additionally, Marcus relied on the Stoic theory of psychology, which asserts that our emotions are connected to our value judgments. Therefore, he understood how one’s accepted worldview can affect their judgments of events in the world. In his Meditations, Marcus links acceptance of a providential worldview to a ‘cheerful mind’ (2.3) and sees within it a call to action (2.4). Again, in Meditations 4.3.5, he suggests our resentment of the circumstance of our lives is the result of denying providence.[5]

Likewise, Seneca emphasized providence by highlighting the causal link between the trials we face in life and the development of our personal virtue. Thus, Seneca declares, “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men”[6] as a source of consolation and inspiration for those who undergo seeming misfortunes in life. Approximately ten years prior to Seneca’s death a young slave was born in Asia Minor who would be tested by those fires of providence. His name was Epictetus, and he did indeed prove to be gold. As a result of his trials, Epictetus would come to esteem the subject of providence above all others.[7]

The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe… (Discourses 2.14.11)[8]

Epictetus also provides a defense of providence by linking it to his distinction between what is ‘up to us’ and ‘not up to us.’

What are we to do, then? To make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes. ‘How does it come, then?’ As God wills. (Discourses 1.1.17)

A strong reliance on providence was not unique to Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Quite the contrary. If anyone doubts the importance of providence in Stoicism consider the criticism offered by Plutarch,

…that the universal nature and the universal reason of nature are destiny and providence and Zeus, of this not even the Antipodes are unaware, for the Stoics keep harping on this everywhere…[9]

Plutarch complained that even those residing in the farthest corners of the earth had heard the Stoic arguments for providence, since they harped on them everywhere.

The debate over these opposing worldviews divided Hellenistic thinkers and philosophical schools. Moreover, history records the influence of this debate on Western thought since that time; it predates the Stoics and Epicureans and still reverberates just below the surface of thought and culture today.

For most people, however, providence is a foreign concept. It became a casualty of Western thought during the progression from the Enlightenment to modernity.[10] While the concept of providence is pervasive in the extant Stoic texts, and was the subject of several lost Stoic books, today one is unlikely to confront this concept outside of a seminary. Modern scientists and philosophers rely on the concept of causal determinism. Nevertheless, most reject teleology and the concept of a providential cosmos.

The Stoics recognized there is an intelligence in the order of the cosmos which infers meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, this idea is not given consideration by the majority of moderns studying and practicing Stoicism. Thus, the twenty-first century popularization of Stoicism is occurring without any discussion of providence in spite of the fact that this concept was traditionally considered essential. In part, this is a byproduct of our secular age.[11] The concept of providence evokes religious connotations and turns many moderns away without further consideration. Additionally, many modern popularizers of Stoicism are themselves atheists and are therefore steering modern Stoicism away from its foundational teachings in physics and theology and toward a recently envisioned secularized version of Stoic ethics. This is unfortunate primarily because providence plays a central role in Stoic practice and psychological well-being.

Certainly, one can benefit from the ethical practices of Stoicism without consideration of the Stoic worldview in general, or providence in particular. The creators and practitioners of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have aptly demonstrated that fact. Nevertheless, it appears the Stoics believed their conception of a providential cosmos fortified the thought changing power, and life changing effectiveness of their therapeutic practices. The extant texts support the idea that a proper understanding of providence will help the Stoic practitioner extinguish anger, overcome discontent with their life circumstances, and thereby help them develop the virtue necessary for a good flow in life (eudaimonia). There is no reason why modern Stoics cannot benefit in the same way.

Why Providence is Important

The concept of a providential cosmos provides psychological comfort and supports the ethical framework of Stoicism. When the threads of providence are unraveled from the fabric of Stoicism, the whole tapestry begins to fall apart, and the practitioner is left without the essential therapeutic tools the Stoics thought were necessary to face the vicissitudes of life.

The connection between modern cognitive therapies, such as CBT, and Stoicism is well documented.[12] Moreover, the connection between a person’s worldview and their perception of events is understood by CBT practitioners. As Jean-Baptiste Gouryat explains, cognitive therapy is based on three hypotheses, the first of which is, “one’s behavior springs from one’s view of oneself and the world, and our psychological difficulties and disturbances derive from these views and from our (misconceived) perception of external events.”[13] The Stoics also understood this connection, and relied a providential cosmos as the foundation for their therapeutic practices. Thus, Marcus could make the connection between an emotional state of discontent with life’s circumstances, and trust in a providential cosmos.

But perhaps you are discontented with what is allotted to you from the whole? Then call to mind the alternative, ‘either providence or atoms’ and all the proofs that the universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (Meditations 4.3.5)[14]

Christopher Gill suggests that Marcus repeats the ‘providence or atoms’ disjunction in the above passage, “and sometimes elsewhere” in Meditations, “simply to reassure himself of the providential nature of the universe (that it is a ‘kind of city’), as assumed in Stoic theory”[15] and “to reaffirm his conviction in the Stoic world-view and thus provide himself with ethical and emotional support.”[16]

Epictetus’ Prescription for Psychological Resilience

Epictetus’ Discourse, On Providence, opens with a powerful prescription for psychological resilience.

From everything that happens in the universe it is easy to praise providence, if one has within him two things: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of the things that happen to each person and a sense of gratitude. (Discourses 1.6)

Here, Epictetus prescribes two qualities one must develop for psychological resilience. The first involves taking a “comprehensive view of things that happen.” This ‘view from above’ allows us to consider events from the perspective of the whole rather than from our own individual self-interest. Once we understand the nature of the cosmos and our place in it, we begin to understand that external events are neither good nor bad, in a moral sense, because they are beyond our control. The only events which have moral implications for us are those we can control—our judgments. External events cannot harm our inner Self; only our thoughts about events can.

The second part of Epictetus’ prescription involves developing a “sense of gratitude” for everything that happens. Stoicism does not promote a shallow Pollyanna attitude which attempts to put a positive spin on events. Instead, the Stoic concept of providence offers insight and meaning about the nature of reality and human existence. The cosmic perspective helps us deal with life’s tragedies. How? By teaching us to take control of what is ‘up to us’—our judgements of events—and to love and praise what we cannot control—our fate.

Gratitude is what distinguishes a love of one’s fate from resignation and fatalism. There is no resignation in Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus because each embraced fate with a sense of gratitude and used it to fulfill their unique mission in life. This sentiment is eloquently expressed by Marcus Aurelius:

Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. (Meditations 4.23)

Life is often challenging and we do not control the circumstances we face; however, we do control our thoughts about those circumstances. Trials can make us bitter or they can make us better. The choice is ours. The analogy of a dog tied to a cart is prevalent in Stoic literature. However, our tendency is to focus on the dog being compelled or dragged, rather than on the freedom the dog has to willingly follow.

They too [Zeno and Chrysippus] affirmed that everything is fated, with the following model. When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.[17]

In this analogy, freedom can only be found by following where fate leads. By willingly following the cart, the dog creates slack in the rope which affords it freedom to move within the constraints of the rope’s length. Alternatively, if the dog resists, it will be dragged, yelping all the way. Analogously, our freedom comes from willingly following fate. By accepting the constraints determined by Nature and human nature, we discover the freedom of our unique individual nature and thereby become coauthors of our destiny. Or, we will be dragged through life, yelping all the way.


Those words from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title, have echoed in the minds of countless people who have questioned the meaning of life. Many of us have expressed a similar feeling at one time or another. Often, it is simply giving voice to a momentary frustration. Occasionally however, circumstances overwhelm us and the initial lament—“O me! O life!”—reverberates and develops into an agonizing and soul-searching questions, “Why me? Why this life?

Trust in a providential cosmos provides consolation for those who have felt the angst of Whitman’s refrain, by shining a light into the darkness of the existential abyss and allowing us to find purpose and meaning in our life.Whitman’s own answer is his poetic refrain is profound:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.[18]

We do not get to pick all the actors or write many of the lines in our play. We do not know how long we will be on stage, nor do we know how many of the scenes will be tragic or comedic. Nevertheless, the powerful play goes on and is incomplete without our participation. Nature casts each of us in a unique role where we may contribute a verse. Or, we can stomp our feet and cry because we do not like the play, or our role:

I don’t want a supporting role, I want the lead role!
— Then you will lament, and have a troubled mind.[19]

I don’t want these actors around me, I want different actors!
— Then you will lament, and have a troubled mind.

I don’t think what happens to my character is fair!
— Then you will lament, and have a troubled mind.

Providence requires our willing participation so we can become what Nature intends. As Epictetus points out in Discourses 1.6, Hercules was molded by his challenges. Without the lion, hydra, boar, and the unjust and brutal men, Hercules’ true nature would never have been known; those trials revealed his greatness. Likewise our trials will mold us and reveal our excellence of character. That is, if we focus on what is ‘up to us’ and trust the rest to a providential cosmos.

Come now, haven’t you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about? Haven’t you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage? And with endurance? If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about anything that may come to pass? What can disconcert or trouble me, or seem in any way distressing? Shall I fail to apply my capacities to the end for which I have received them, but instead groan and lament about things that come about? (Discourses 1.6.28-29)

In another passage, Epictetus likens providence to a trainer who prepares us for life’s hardship.

It is difficulties that reveal what men amount to; and so, whenever you’re struck by a difficulty, remember that God, like a trainer in the gymnasium, has matched you against a tough young opponent.

‘For what purpose?’ someone asks.

So that you may become an Olympic victor; and that is something that can’t be achieved without sweat. It seems to me that no one has had a difficulty that gives a better opportunity than the one you now have, if only you’re willing to tackle it as an athlete tackles his young adversary. (Discourses 1.24.1-2)

Providence or Atoms Today

Marcus Aurelius repeatedly reminded himself of the difference between the Stoic and Epicurean worldviews because he understood the choice between them made an important difference in his life. Our understanding of Nature has increased exponentially since the Hellenistic Age. Nevertheless, we face the same essential choice today—either providence or atoms? Either the cosmos is rationally ordered and providential; or, is it the result of meaningless, serendipitous, chance. Many mistakenly assume this is a religion versus science debate; it is not. One need not subscribe to any religion to assent to the idea of a rational, providential cosmos.

While Stoicism was a spiritual practice for the ancient Stoics, it bears no similarity to traditional religion beyond personal piety toward God. Stoicism is a philosophical system meant to be lived as a way of life. While some of its therapeutic practices are spiritual in nature, the path of Stoicism involves internal comprehension and coherence with Nature, rather than conversion and conformity to dogma. The philosophical God of Stoicism is not our grandfather’s God. Stoics trust in the rationality of their minds rather than revelation.

Human psyches need to be tethered to something lest they risk drifting aimlessly into the dark abyss of meaninglessness. Even some atheists are beginning to openly acknowledging that we are in need of something to fill the ‘existential vacuum’[20] left by the nineteenth century death of God. As Sam Keen observed,

We exist in a God-shaped vacuum. That which is no longer present (but is not completely absent) gives shape to our aspirations and longings.

Although longing seems to be perennial, the historical tide of faith ebbs and flows. Currently in the industrialized nations it seems to have receded, depositing its driftwood of nihilism and violence on the shore, leaving us devoid of a vision of the sacred that we need in order to create a hopeful society. We suffer from a spiritual autoimmune disease. Lacking antibodies of faith to keep us from despair, we attack ourselves.[21]

Keen further warns,

It is doubtful that the imperatives springing from modern secularism can create a civil community… I can’t help wondering if the idea of a secular civilization is an oxymoron, a failed dream of the Enlightenment.[22]

Sam Keen is not alone in his concern. The chorus of atheist and humanist voices, calling for something more than unbelief, has risen to a crescendo in recent decades. This is apparent from the titles of recently published books: In the Absence of God; Religion for Atheists; Religion Without God; The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality; etc. Even Sam Harris, one of the ‘Four Horsemen’ of New Atheism, recently published, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris is still opposed to traditional religions; yet, he reveals an epiphany he had about the ruins of those religions, “I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.”[23] Moreover, he now concedes, “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”[24]

At the dawn of this new millennium, many people are becoming aware of the existential vacuum we successfully ignored in the past. This may, in part, explain the recent widespread interest in Stoicism in the west, where an Epicurean mindset formerly reigned supreme. It appears the veneer of meaning left behind by our religious traditions is beginning to crack, and nihilism is leaching into our individual psyches and collective zeitgeist. Our “unacknowledged inheritance from a rich godfather”[25] has been spent; we are now spiritually bankrupt and forced to support our own psychological well-being without the ability to do so. Unexpectedly, many of us find ourselves vulnerable and longing for more than unbelief. Yet, we cannot return to the intellectual bondage of traditional religions our Enlightenment ancestors freed us from.

Fortunately, Stoicism offers us a way forward. It provides a meaningful, spiritual alternative without the supernaturalism, revelation, and dogma of traditional religion. Stoicism guides us along an ancient path, which circumnavigates the existential abyss of meaninglessness without requiring abdication of our rational mind. It begins by teaching us to use our rational faculty to distinguish between what is ‘up to us’ and what is not. Circumstances beyond our control can take away our wealth, health, good reputation, and loved ones. However, circumstances cannot affect our psychological well-being if we learn to judge them properly as things ‘not up to us.’

Once we understand the irrationality of attempting to control what is not up to us, we can begin to consider the path pointed to by the Stoics. At the beginning of the path we will need to get a clear picture of our human nature, and our unique individual nature. Next, we must excavate our desires and aversions since these distract us from the pursuit of our primary goal—the attainment of an excellent (virtuous) life.

Finally, we must grasp our expanded role as citizens of the cosmos. We are individuals; however, we are also interdependent social beings. Each of us is a part of the whole and virtue cannot be developed in isolation. Therefore, to practice the virtues of practical wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice, each of us must live in society as a friend, partner, spouse, parent, responsible citizen, etc.

The deep spiritual practice of Stoicism depends on trust in a providential cosmos. While the concept of providence is not difficult to grasp, many moderns attempting to practice Stoicism will find it difficult to assent to. Regrettably, many object to providence without giving it full consideration. This may be due to its religious implications, or because they simply do not realize how essential providence is to Stoic ethical theory and practice.

Trust in providence allows us to take a step back from our circumstances and view the whole of our life from a distance. We are often unable to see the whole picture because we are too close—too focused on the individual events. When we step back, a different picture begins to emerge. The threads of painful events and difficult circumstances are still there; yet, they are woven into the tapestry of our life. This perspective of the whole allows our judgments of the parts to dissolve into equanimity. Additionally, this panoramic view of our whole life, allows us to see the causal chain of providence playing itself out. We begin to understand how each of those events was a necessary causal link in the story of our life; they are now part of the person we have become. More importantly, a view of the whole may reveal a trajectory to our life we did not see before, and this may open our minds to new possibilities for our future.

The Stoic providential worldview deserves our honest consideration because of its inherent psychological power to change our lives.Providence can be a big pill to swallow for moderns because the concept is foreign to our secular age. Thus, we often resist fate and allow bitter circumstances to sit on our tongue like a dissolving pill, a little too long. We refuse to swallow until the bitterness becomes so unpleasant we cannot do otherwise. As a result, we often become discontented and angry about the circumstances of our lives.

Stoicism teaches us there is a better way. We can choose to follow the cart of fate willingly, with gratitude for the life we have been given. We can take control of what is ‘up to us’ and leave the rest to providence. Or, we can continue to get dragged through life yelping all the way. The choice is ours and the choice is critically important to our psychological well-being.

Either providence or atoms.


[1] Rand, B. (2005). The life, unpublished letters and philosophical regimen of Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury. London: Adamant Media Corporation. p. 44

[2] Gill, C. (2013) Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Books 1-6, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 90

[3] Peters, F. (1967) Greek Philosophical Terms, New York: New York University Press, p. 164

[4] Arnold, E. (1911) Roman Stoicism, Cambridge, MA: The University Press, pp. 203-4

[5] See Gill (2013) p. 121, for a superb analysis of this passage.

[6] On Providence 5.10

[7] Dobbins, R. (1998) Epictetus Discourses Book 1, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 101

[8] Hard, R. (2014) Epictetus: Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, with an introduction an notes by C. Gill, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (all quotations from the Discourses are from this translation)

[9] Cherniss, H. (1976) (ed.) Plutarch Moralia, xiii, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1050A-B

[10] See Lloyd, G. (2008). Providence Lost, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, for a brilliant historical analysis of the demise of providence in western philosophical thought.

[11] See Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, for a thorough exposition of our current secular age, how we arrived here, and what it means.

[12] Robertson, D. (2010). The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). London: Karnac

[13] Gourinat, J. (2009). Stoicism Today. IRIS, 1(2), p. 510.

[14] Hard, R. (2011) Marcus Aurelius Meditations, with an introduction and notes by C. Gill, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (all quotations from Meditations are from this translation)

[15] Gill (2013), p. 121

[16] Ibid, p. lxix

[17] Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1990). The Hellenistic philosophers. Cambridge: University Press, 62A

[18] Walt W. (1993) OH ME! OH LIFE!, Leaves of Grass, New York: Random House, p. 221

[19] see Enchiridion 1

[20] Frankl, V (1992). Man’s search for meaning, Boston, MA: Beacon Press

[21] Keen, S. (2010) In the Absence of God, New York: Harmony Books, pp.3-4.

[22] Ibid, p. 12

[23] Harris, S. (2014) Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 5

[24] Ibid, p. 6

[25] Keen, p. 12

Chris Fisher is a law enforcement detective in Florida, USA.  He studied Stoicism through the College of Stoic Philosophers, where he now mentors other students.  Chris is a board member of New Stoa, and a founding member of the Society of Epictetus.

'Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise' by Jen Farren

Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise

Jen Farren

Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation

In our world of non-stop noise, how can Stoic thinking help? 2,000 years ago Seneca wrote a very witty letter (Letter 56) about living above a noisy Roman bath house. It vividly paints his struggle to keep tranquil amid life’s din.

Here I am with a babel of noise going on all about me, I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse. Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years.”

He wasn’t exaggerating, the Roman city was astonishingly noisy:

Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions: carts clattering through the winding streets, curses hurled at some herd stuck in a traffic-jam would rouse a dozing seal or an Emperor.” (Juvenal Satire 3)

Seneca lists the noises he has to put up with: wagons, fountains, tools, pipes and flutes, a grunting, hissing weight-lifter, a slapping, pummeling masseuse, and the piercing yell of the barber’s clients as he plucks their armpits. His gripes continue:

“If on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that’s the end! Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap into the pool with a tremendous splash.”

Then there is the lure of drink and sausage sellers and the sound of a man reciting poetry to distract him from his work. The Romans believed that intellectuals needed quiet to concentrate. Laws were created to ban noisy workshops from setting up near to professors.

[Indeed many later thinkers have written of their hatred of noise – most notably Schopenhauer who became so enraged at the cracking of horse-whips in the street that he devoted a whole philosophical essay to it (On Noise) ranting: “it paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought.” Among many other Kafka, Proust and Wagner all demanded silence to create. A 2015 study has indicated that creative thinkers have a ‘leaky sensory gate’ – which lets them connect ideas in original ways, but can turn a ticking clock into a form of torture.]

But Seneca was not among them, and brags about his Stoic ability live with such a racket:

You must be made of iron, you may say, or else hard of hearing if your mind is unaffected by all this babel of discordant noises around you, when continual ‘good morning’ greetings were enough to finish off the Stoic Chrysippus! But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise than I do the sound of waves or falling water.”

He visualizes the noisy bath-house as an analogy for life:

The program of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, sometimes they will strike you by accident.”

He thinks people disturbed by noise (or life) simply lack self-control. Epictetus uses the bath-house to practice the rehearsal of difficulty – imagining the pushing, splashing and swearing that he is likely to find there to help him cope:

In life some things are unpleasant and difficult…Do you not bear uproar, and noise, and other disagreeable circumstances? But, comparing these with the merit of the spectacle, you endure them. Have you not received faculties to support every event?”

Seneca goes on to outline his view of the ‘sound mind’ – one free of noise!

“The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind….There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.

But life always involves noise of some sort– the only total silence is final. Silence can be a punishment from isolation. Conversely, as George Orwell pointed out we often use noise as a form of self-hypnosis in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts. So even if we can shut off the external noise our inner noise can be as destructive. As Seneca put it:

What is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? There is no such thing as “peaceful stillness” except where reason has lulled it to rest.”

But then, just as we are buying in to his argument, he ends with an abrupt about-face:

This is all very well but isn’t it sometimes a lot simpler just to keep away from the din?” I concede that, and in fact it is the reason why I shall shortly be moving elsewhere. What I wanted was to give myself a test and some practice. Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to when Ulysses found so easy a remedy for his companions even against the Sirens?” [1]

So did Seneca fail his test?  Not at all, Stoics are not Masochists – why struggle if an ordeal can be avoided? In the 1760s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote was also tormented by the noise of river boats and street carriages. Like Seneca he moved, but sadly his new home had a noisy cockerel next door. His neighbour refused to sell it, so Kant hit the road again.

Seneca’s advice is practical and realistic; be aware and keep a check on the unmeaning din (both inner and outer). His ideal ‘sound mind’ is when:

“Noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you.”

So, to put it another way – the wise are of sound mind, but sometimes the wise move house!

[1]The beeswax earplugs in The Odyssey protected the sailors from the tempting Siren-songs. Proust is known to have been a devotee of Quies earplugs.

Jen is a freelance writer and blogs from here: https://obscurantor.wordpress.com/