'Modern Stoic Responses to Terror' by Kevin Kennedy

“Barbarians at the Gates.” Stoic Responses to Islamist Terror and the Refugee Crisis

by Kevin Kennedy

This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?
This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?

Blood on the streets of what had just been peaceful neighbourhoods. The mutilated bodies of men, women and children, innocent victims of sudden violence, strewn among the wreckage. The survivors, wounded and terrified, trying to understand what has just happened to them. Only slowly will they realize that their lives have been shattered forever. But the state then responds quickly with all the armed force it can muster.  The perpetrators are either killed on the spot or hunted down and taken prisoner. Those captured are then sent to the capitol, where they paraded before a jeering crowd before being publicly executed. As readers will surely realize after the last sentence, this is not a description of the recent terror attacks in Paris. The event referred to is instead the invasion of the Roman province of Pannonia (the upper Danube region) by the Marcomanni and the Quadi (ancient Germanic tribes) sometime between 167 and 170 CE. The “Marcomannic Wars” (ca. 167-180)  in no way prefigured the current conflict with the terror group Daesh (better known as ISIS). Nevertheless, those of us interested in Stoic philosophy may find it worthwhile to consider how second-century Romans, living during the final flourishing of Stoicism in the ancient world, responded to a violent attack on their own way of life.

The Historia Augusta claims that the Marcomannic Wars had “surpassed any in the memory of man.” The Romans themselves, accustomed as they were to war, brigandage and violent crime, were shocked by the brutality of the attack. Even though the fighting never came close to the city of Rome itself, panic still broke out there, for this was the first time that Italy had been invaded in over 260 years. The man who had the task of repelling the invaders was the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 160-180 CE). Today Marcus is far better known as a philosopher than a warrior. While the Marcomannic wars have long been forgotten, Marcus’ philosophical journal, the Meditations, still enjoys great popularity. But Marcus spent much more of time fighting than philosophizing.  His valiant yet frustrating attempts to pacify the region only ended with his death. In the year 176 CE, however. Marcus decided he had achieved enough success to hold a triumph in Rome, which he celebrated together with his son and successor Commodus (reigned 180-192 CE). Victorious but traumatized, the Romans would never forget the Marcomannic onslaught. Proof of this can still be seen in Rome today at the Palazzo Colonna. Dominating this square is.the “Aurelian” column, dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and his triumph over the Marcomanni and the Quadi. The column, originally erected at the Campus Martius, the “Field of Mars” (dedicated to the Roman god of war), is some 30 metres tall. Running down the entire length of the column is an elaborate relief, comprised of many scenes from the wars Marcus fought: terrified women and children fleeing the attackers, the savage combat between the legions and their foes, as well as the gruesome retribution taken by the victorious Romans. To the side, impassively viewing the suffering, fighting and dying, is Marcus Aurelius himself. The Romans had repelled the “barbarians” — at least for the time being — and restored their sense of security. And how will we in the West today, the cultural heirs of Rome, confront our own security threats?

Comparing the Marcomannic Wars to 21st century Islamist terror may sound far-fetched. The Germanic invasions posed an existential threat to the Roman Empire. The attacks carried out by Daesh, however horrific, do not, as yet, have the power to bring about the decline and fall of Western civilization. And yet, this is exactly the comparison being made right now. Just as Rome fell because it allowed too many Germanic people to live within its borders, it is argued, so contemporary Western society is now threatened by its many Muslim inhabitants. Such rhetoric is not only coming from private citizens opinionating in their personal blogs, but also from serious thinkers writing in respected media sources. The well-known but controversial historian Niall Ferguson, for instance, compares the West to a tottering empire. As he views it, the distant shock to this weakened edifice has been the Syrian civil war, though it has been a catalyst as much as a direct cause for the great Völkerwanderung of 2015. As before, they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia — but this time they have come in their millions. Without using the actual word, Ferguson portrays the refugees as the new barbarians: an alien people who practice a religious faith hostile to Western values. His conclusion is clear. We should fear these people, prevent more of them from coming to our homelands, and roll back the influence of those who are already here. Otherwise we shall suffer the fate of the Romans.

Stoicism Today is a forum for philosophical matters; therefore the cogency of such arguments, as well as the proper political responses to terrorism and migration, must be discussed elsewhere. But there is a Stoic aspect to these matters. Like the ancient Romans in the aftermath of the Germanic invasions, many of us today in the West now live in an atmosphere of  fear and anger. The desire to eliminate threats to our physical safety and to punish those who assault us is natural.  As the ancient Stoics admonish us, however, we must not allow primordial passions to guide our thinking, but reason and practical wisdom. Stoics recognize the need to take a step back from our emotions, examine the representations of reality they create, and analyze their accuracy before formulating a reasoned response. Regarding the subject at hand, what is it exactly that demands a response from us? If we are not members of the military or the police, then most of us are only personally affected by the crisis when we personally encounter the refugees fleeing their homes in Syria to seek safety and shelter among us. And Stoic philosophy can be of great benefit here.

The greatest Stoic teacher we know of, Epictetus (lived c. 55-135 CE), claimed that Stoic principles make love in a house, concord in a state, peace among nations and gratitude to God (Discourses, Chapter V). That is to say, Stoicism holds out the promise of the community of all humankind. The goal of Daesh, however, is to destroy that community by sowing discord between Muslims and non-Muslims. As a BBC-journalist recently wrote, To maintain the flow of recruits in the long term, the jihadists need to make Muslims feel more vulnerable and alienated in Western societies. The greatest individual contribution a Stoic could make toward establishing world peace would be to cast aside his or her own fears and welcome all those now fleeing from violence and terror in the Middle East.  The presence of the refugees already here, as well as the fact that many more are on the way, are matters that lie beyond our personal control. What is up to us, however (no matter how we believe the refugee crisis should ultimately be addressed), is to show them the kindness all Stoics are expected to show every inhabitant of this planet. As Marcus Aurelius said, Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you. True, some terrorists may have hid themselves among the refugees. Reason nevertheless dictates that the majority of them have fled their homes because their lives were threatened. The few cases who might pose a danger to us are a matter for the authorities. Meanwhile, In order to live with the uncertainty, we need to have the courage of our convictions.

The problem is that we too often tend to cast aside our Stoic principles when remaining true to them requires an effort on our part.  As Epictetus also said, We indeed are able to write and to read these things, and to praise them when they are read, but we do not even come near to being convinced of them. (Discourses, Chapter V). The author of the essay you are now reading is as guilty of this failing as anyone else. I  live  in Germany and Sweden, the two European nations accepting the greatest number of refugees. (Sweden, with only 9 million inhabitants, has taken in more Syrian refugees per capita than any other country.). When I encounter refugees with what I would consider stereotypical features of conservative Muslims (men with beards, women with headscarves), I have to confess that my first reaction is a sense of unease. Who are these people? Why are they here? What do they believe? But then I try to step back and consider the soundness of my immediate reactions. Am I the type of person to judge others by their outward appearance? After all, my own grandmother never went out of the house without a headscarf, and she was a devout Protestant. Moreover, when I’m out on the streets of Gothenburg and Berlin, I see bearded hipsters by the score. But I have no fear of grandmothers or hipsters. What have these refugees done to deserve my apprehension? Are they not here precisely because they didn’t want to live in a land dominated by extremism? They have taken on incredible hardships to get here. (Many of them don’t get here at all.) While it is safe to assume that the refugees I see on the streets don’t share all of my values (which is the same case as with almost all of the native Europeans I meet), I have no rational reason to believe that they pose a threat to me, my family and friends, or European society in general. The immediate representation of “Muslims” in my head does not correspond to the reality of the individual before my eyes. These people are not barbarians. They are human beings.

Maybe now, more than ever, we need to rethink some famous words from that ancient “anti-terrorist” fighter Marcus Aurelius. They have been quoted time and time again, usually in reference to the tribulations of our daily lives. But before we reconsider them, let us imagine Marcus himself, a soldier who knew battle, blood and death. His experiences in war also found their way into his Meditations: Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to? When Marcus challenges us to remain decent despite the most unspeakable horrors, he speaks from experience. He prosecuted his wars with all the force needed to vanquish his enemies. But there is no evidence that he ever punished an entire people for challenging Rome. (As was common practice among Roman emperors and generals.)  And now consider this, perhaps the most powerful passage from the Meditations, in light of our own situation. Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say, rather, ‘How lucky I am that this has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.”

Kevin Kennedy is a 53-year-old German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He live with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.

'What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition' by Massimo Pigliucci

What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition

by Massimo Pigliucci

Editor’s Note: This piece comes from Massimo’s blog, How To Be A Stoic, and he has kindly let us post it here. 

TwitterI’m starting a new occasional series, entitled What Would a Stoic Do? The idea is to explore, based on actual (as opposed to hypothetical) situations, what the best Stoic response might be to things that happen in everyday life. Some of the examples will be drawn from my own experience, others from friends’ and relatives’, still more, perhaps, from the news.

The idea is that Stoicism is a living philosophy with practical value, not just a theoretical exercise, or a devout reading of ancient authors. As much as I enjoy the theory, as well as the readings, it seems like the point is to get down and dirty with real life, so here we go. Obviously, I very much welcome readers’ suggestions, as I certainly don’t consider myself an oracle (ah!) on what proper Stoic behavior would be under given circumstances. I’m here to learn.

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 4.20)

The first episode of this new series concerns Twitter, the popular social network on whose platform interactions among users are limited to 140 characters at a time. I have been using it since March 2010. So far, I have tweeted 20,200 times, have 11,700 followers, and follow 13 people.

Those stats are a reflection of how I use Twitter: i) as a way to alert people to my own work, or to work by people I think should be read more widely; and ii) to keep up with news in my own areas of interest (I follow a number of philosophers and philosophical organizations).

By its very nature, Twitter is most definitely not suited to discussions. While it is an interesting challenge to be able to come up with something clever and engaging to say in less than 140 characters, there simply is no way that sort of exchange, even prolonged, lends itself to anything thoughtful or insightful. Twitter, in other words, is a great platform to let people know about certain things, but a horrible one to engage in discussions about those very things. (Other social networks do not have that sort of limitation, especially Facebook and Google+, though even there it quickly comes down to just how much time one has or is willing to spend in order to talk to hundreds, or thousands, of strangers across the world, rather than getting on with one’s own life and business.)

I wrote all the above to provide some context and explain why I rarely answer people on Twitter, and usually do so only in response to specific questions concerning additional sources they are seeking. But occasionally I do engage in “twiscussions” (I believe this is a neologism, you’ve heard it here first!). And I usually regret it.

One such case occurred recently, after I sent out a link concerning a petition from a number of academics to world leaders, aimed at having the latter take the issue of global warming more seriously. (The petition was started by my colleague Lawrence Torcello, at the Rochester Institute of Technology.)

Predictably (this sort of thing has happened before), I received a relatively high number of negative, and in some cases downright nasty, comments from climate change “skeptics.” And that’s where things become delicate.

First off, it is easy, all too easy, to get upset or angry (at being called nasty names in public). Second, one is at a loss as how to respond properly (or whether to respond at all, or block some people, or “mute” others, and so on). Third, one gets discouraged by being reminded once more that even mainstream science and a rather mild open letter can be vehemently rejected out of hand by people who are otherwise intelligent and articulate about other topics.

What is a Stoic to do? Let us begin with the first problem: upset feelings, offense or anger. As Marcus, Epictetus and Seneca say a number of times (I’m paraphrasing here), get over yourself. If the insult where hurled at a rock, would a rock be worse off for it? No, it would continue to be a rock (which, admittedly, isn’t that exciting). The point is that negative opinions expressed by others need to be considered objectively, because they might have a valid point of criticism, but not subjectively, i.e., as “insults,” “offenses” and the like. Of course, we are all humans, not Sages, so we cannot avoid immediate emotions. (Actually, even the Sages can’t, since they too are human beings, they just know better how to react to those emotions.) The obvious counsel here, therefore, is to create a space between you and your emotions — say, by getting up and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes — until you have regained enough self control to inquire about the emotion in question and decide whether you want to give it “assent,” as the Stoics say, or not. This, I’m sure the reader knows, is much harder to do in practice than it sounds like, because social networking lends itself to immediate engagement, usually with regretful outcomes. Still, it seems like the Stoic thing to do (or to attempt to do, at the least).

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Second, how to respond properly. I think a Stoic here would have to reflect on what is the purpose of engaging others on Twitter, given the special characteristics of the medium. As I said above, my purpose is to alert people to interesting material, not to change their minds about any specific topic (for that I write books and blog posts). Seen that way, twiscussions are beside the point, and since they are more likely than not to generate ill feelings, they should probably be avoided altogether. Again, this is easier said than done, partly because the instinct of a teacher is to converse with people, and partly because we all think we know better than our antagonists, and if they just listened to us for a minute… What I try to do — if I absolutely feel like engaging — is to bring up a couple of points that my interlocutor may not have considered, and then explain that Twitter is just not a proper platform for involved conversations and bow out. But I should probably simply establish a policy of never answer a Tweet, even though there is a risk of coming across as rude or close minded. (Hmm, perhaps from now on I could simply respond with a link to this post, or would that be too self-conceited?)

Finally, how to deal with the feeling of discouragement at what one sees in response to one’s Tweet? Here again I think Stoic advise is very clear: we are responsible (at best, according to modern cognitive science) for our own opinions, not for those of others. The first part means that I need to listen carefully to what others are saying about my own opinions, because I may, of course, be wrong on certain issues. The second part means that I ought to internalize my goals, as Irvine nicely puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: again, my aim isn’t to change other people’s minds, but rather to put forth the best material available for public consumption. Whether others read and learn from such material, it is up to them, not me.

“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

Prof. Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He had done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and philosophy and the nature of pseudoscience. He has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.”

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in Philosophy Now and The Philosopher’s Magazine, among others. He edits Scientia Salon web magazine and co-hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

'Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death' by Elen Buzaré

Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death

by Elen Buzaré

Editor’s Note: Here are the PowerPoint slides of Elen’s presentation at Stoicon 2015, along with a PDF of instructions to introduce you to anakhoresis.

Click here to download the presentation: Body soul and spirit in Stoic and Christian meditation

Click here to download the PDF on Anakhoresis

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

'The Stoic Worldview' by John Sellars

The Stoic Worldview

 by John Sellars

Editor’s Note: This is a workshop that John Sellars ran at Stoicon 2015. The Stoicism Today team is endeavouring to have as much material as possible from Stoicon as possible posted on here, and this is the first piece

In my workshop at Stoicon 2015 I talked about Stoic physics and about its relationship with what we would today call religion and science. My aim was simply to try to give participants a sense of the broader ‘Stoic worldview’ beyond their practical advice about how to live well.

I. Bodies

The Stoics begin with the claim that only bodies exist (Cicero, Acad. 1.39). Everything that exists is a physical thing. Anything that has any kind of causal power must ultimately be a physical body. So, if the Stoics claim that virtue impels us to act, for instance, and so has some causal power, then virtue must be a body. And they think it is: virtue is an excellent mental state, i.e. the physical soul organized in an optimal way. Closely connected to this claim that only bodies exist, the Stoics reject the existence of universals (i.e. Plato’s Ideas or Forms). Only particulars exist. So when they talk of ‘virtue’ they are not talking about some general concept or abstract ideal, which doesn’t exist, but rather about specific virtuous actions or specific optimal brain states. (Talk of brain states might sound anachronistic but it is pretty much what they have in mind.)

II. Breath

They go on to claim that all bodies are composed of two principles or aspects: matter and ‘breath’ (pneuma) (Diog. Laert. 7.134). Matter is passive; breath is active. Breath is what makes things alive, and because everything is composed of both matter and breath, everything is alive. Breath comes in a variety of degrees of ‘tension’ (tonos) and the greater the tension the more complex the object. Inanimate objects such as stones have the lowest level of tension; living things such as plants have a higher degree; animals with the powers of sensation and movement are higher again; adult humans with rationality have the highest degree of tension. The higher the tension of the breath, the more complex the living organism will be (see Philo, in Long-Sedley 1987, 47P-Q). An important point here is that there is no difference in kind between a stone and a human being, only a difference in tension of breath (we might say a difference in internal organization or structural complexity; A.A. Long once proposed ‘wave-length’ as a way of thinking about this).

III. Nature and God

The physical world, Nature as a whole, is a continuum and is infinitely divisible; the divisions between physical objects are to an extent only relative. Ultimately there is just one physical thing, Nature, of which we are all parts. The breath that structures and animates all of Nature the Stoics call ‘God’. Some sources say God is the breath, the soul of the world, just as the breath in our bodies is our soul. Other sources identify God with Nature as a whole, with the breath being his soul and the matter his body (the difference is between God being an animating force within Nature or simply being Nature). So, Nature is a living organism comprised of a soul and a body, breath and matter, and because, by definition, there is nothing greater than this, it, if anything is, must be God. On either view, we are fragments of God. If God is the world soul, the breath animating all of Nature, then the breath that animates us, our soul, is simply one part of that.

IV How Religious?

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss. However the idea of a divine breath permeating Nature would later influence the Christian idea of a Holy Spirit (pneuma), and then would be interpreted by Church Fathers and others looking to harmonize Stoicism with Christianity right through to the seventeenth century. Perhaps that afterlife gives Stoic accounts of pneuma stronger religious overtones than they originally had. It is very hard to know. But again, Cleanthes’ Hymn appears quite sincere.

V. How Scientific?

When the Stoics developed this idea of the soul as breath permeating the body they were doing so in dialogue the science of their day. In the image they give of the human soul comprised of a commanding centre with tentacles spreading pneuma (breath) throughout the body was inspired in part by the work of early anatomists (esp. Praxagoras; also Erasistratus) who were cutting open bodies and finding arteries and nerves. Chrysippus located the commanding centre of the soul in the chest (following Praxagoras), which of course contains the heart and arteries leading off it that spread through the entire body. (Praxagoras thought that arteries were pipes also connected to the lungs, carrying pneuma.) A later Stoic disagreed with Chrysippus and said the commanding centre of the soul was in the head, which of course contains the brain with nerves leading off it spreading through the entire body. This shift in position may well have been prompted by further observations (i.e. dissections): the distinction between arteries and nerves was still unclear in Chrysippus’ day and he commented that the scientific evidence was only tentative and one ought to wait for further discoveries. The important point to make here is that all this talk of a soul pervading and animating the body was actually part of a first step towards developing an account of the brain and nervous system. As crude as it may have been, this was a theory based on the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the day.

VI. Some Concluding Comments

The Stoics give us arguments for why we ought to think that Nature is rational, alive, and intelligent. We have those properties, nothing without those properties can give birth to something with them; therefore they must be properties of Nature (Cicero, Nat. D 2.22). (There are philosophers of mind today who continue to argue against the claim that consciousness could be an emergent property.) The Stoics then call this living Nature ‘God’. If Nature (or the Cosmos) encompasses everything, and if only bodies exist, and if God is something than which there is nothing greater, then it looks as if God must be identified with Nature. God cannot be anything lesser than Nature and cannot be anything outside Nature. However it remains difficult to know how seriously we ought to take this: is it a devout pantheism (you really ought to worship Nature), simply a deflationary use of language (when you say ‘God’ what you really mean is Nature), or a cautious pragmatism (rather than deny the existence of God, let’s call Nature ‘God’)? We do know the Stoics repeatedly engaged with (what we would now call) the science of their day: Chrysippus drew on the anatomist Praxagoras, the Stoic Posidonius studied botany and geology, a later Stoic, Cleomedes, wrote on astronomy, and Seneca wrote not just his ethical works but also his Natural Questions (on meteorology). The Stoics wanted to understand Nature because Nature taken as a whole is the greatest thing there is and we are parts of it. They aspired to a ‘smooth flow of life’, which they defined as a life in harmony with Nature, something that will require at least some appreciation of how Nature works. Whether we choose also to call Nature ‘God’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Gaia’ is perhaps less important.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

'What is Stoic Virtue?' by Chris Gill

Marcus Aurelius and Stoic virtue

 by Christopher Gill

Editor’s Note: This is a workshop that Chris Gill ran at Stoicon 2015. The Stoicism Today team is endeavouring to have as much material as possible from Stoicon as possible posted on here, and this is the first piece.

Aim of workshop: Explain Stoic idea of virtue and virtue-happiness relationship, illustrate it by reference to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; consider how Stoic idea relates to modern thinking about morality and how it may be of value to us today.

I begin by explaining what ‘virtue’ means in Stoicism and then by outlining four distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue, taken in the context of ancient thinking on virtue. The first distinctive feature is the idea that the virtues form a matched set of qualities (unified or interdependent) central to leading a full human life.

What is ‘virtue’ in Stoicism? Virtue is a form or expertise or skill, knowledge how to live well in every way, a form of knowledge that shapes the whole personality and life. Virtue is analysed in terms of four generic or cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice, seen as either four aspects of a single form of knowledge or as interdependent. Why these four qualities? They are seen as ways of mapping the main areas of human experience and expertise – so taken together they make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. These generic virtues include many subdivisions. They are aspects of a single expertise or interdependent because the correct exercise of any one virtue depends on possessing and exercising the others too. Each of the virtues bears on our relations to ourselves and to others; although some virtues (e.g. justice) are more obviously self-related than others, their exercise affects what we are in ourselves and how we treat others. This is a fundamental characteristic of Stoic (and indeed most ancient) thinking on virtue, and is particularly important in thinking about the relationship with modern moral thinking, as brought out later.

Describing virtue as a form of ‘knowledge’ may make it sound purely rational or cognitive in a narrow sense. But it is crucial for Stoicism that these forms of knowledge shape the personality as a whole, including emotions and desires. This reflects Stoic thinking about human psychology according to which we function as unified holistic agents; our beliefs and reasoning shape directly how we feel and desire. This is the second distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue that I want to stress here. Stoicism holds that the development of virtue brings with it a radical change in our emotional life, so that we cease to feel what they regard as misguided or ‘bad’ emotions (‘passions’) and come to feel only the ‘good’ emotions. Misguided emotions, such as anger, fear, craving or appetite, are based on what they regard as false ethical judgements, and bring with them intense and disturbing psychophysical effects. Good emotions are based on sound ethical judgements (on the virtues), and are typically calmer as psychophysical experiences. Examples of these emotions are wishing (rather than intense craving), caution (rather than fear) and joy; also, towards other people, good will and affection. So the virtues, as forms of knowledge, carry with them a reshaping of the whole personality at the emotional level too.

The third distinctive feature of Stoic thinking on virtue is the belief that all human beings as such are capable of developing virtue. Developing virtue does not depend on possessing special inborn capacities or a specific social background or intellectual education (as most other ancient philosophies supposed). All human beings as such have ‘the starting-points of virtue’. What supports this claim? Partly, the Stoics think that all human beings have the in-built capacity to form ethical notions such as good and to give these notions content and to do so whatever social context they find themselves in. But also, and most importantly, Stoics stress the key role of development in ethical understanding. No one comes to acquire the virtues just like that; it is the outcome of a process of development – in most cases a life-long process of development, and one that may never be wholly complete. Development is conceived by them as having two interconnected strands: progress in understanding (in coming to understand what it means to have the virtues and how to exercise them) and progress in interpersonal and social relationships (leading us, among other things, to recognise all human beings as our brothers and sisters as fellow ethical agents. So what we all have as human beings is the capacity to set out and make progress on this life-long journey – which is also a journey towards virtue.

The fourth distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue is the idea that having and exercising the virtues constitutes, by itself, the best form of human life; in other words, it confers ‘happiness’ or eudaimonia. Happiness is conceived by them in objective terms (as a certain kind of life – the natural life for human beings to lead). However it is also seen as conferring certain positive subjective experiences  (which is how we tend to conceive ‘happiness’ today); these include the ‘good emotions’ such as joy mentioned earlier. The Stoic view is sometimes put in the form that ‘virtue is the only good’ or (in philosophical language), that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, i.e. all you need to be happy. The main contrasting view (held by some followers of Plato and Aristotle in the period when Stoicism was widely current, i.e. 3rd cent BC to 2nd cent AD) was that happiness depended on a combination of virtue and ‘external goods’ – these taken to include such things as bodily health, material prosperity and the wellbeing of one’s family. The Stoics also regarded ‘external goods’ as having a value which human beings naturally recognised. But they maintained that virtue had a substantively different kind or level of value; and that it was, by itself, sufficient to confer complete human happiness.

The Stoic view on this topic has often been seen as extreme or unrealistic: is it not obviously true that a life containing virtue and ‘external goods’ is better – happier in every sense – than a life containing virtue alone? What can support the Stoic view? A key support for their view is the belief that virtue (alone) provides a reliable and consistent basis for leading the best human life (that is, for happiness), whereas none of the external goods, taken on their own, do so. So virtue, alone, is tied to happiness in a causal way whereas this is not true of any of the external goods. In that sense, virtue has a value of a different kind from the external goods; and that is why the Stoics reject the idea that virtue plus the external goods confers a better human life (a more happy life) than virtue. We need to recall other distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue: that it is a form of knowledge or expertise, that this form of expertise shapes the whole personality (conferring the good emotions). We also need to be aware that virtue or the virtues represent the target or limit of human aspiration, not a standardly available quality. The idea that ‘the wise person’ (the ideal person in Stoicism) is happy on the rack of torture thus constitutes an ideal aspiration not an everyday occurrence. (However, I think some striking modern examples as well as ancient ones indicate it is not so far from normal human experience as is sometimes suggested.) So, overall, I think the Stoic view that virtue is the only (reliable and consistent) basis for happiness is a highly defensible one and that it is in fact much more difficult to maintain the opposing (Platonic-Aristotelian) claim than is often recognised.

I now look at some sections of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a private philosophical diary prepared for his own use by a second-century Roman emperor who was also a committed student of Stoicism. The passages chosen are designed both to illustrate the themes I’ve discussed; also to show how Stoic ideas were used in antiquity to provide an ethical framework for life, and so indicate how they can also be used by us today.

If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found … but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or positions of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.6, trans. Gill)

Nothing is so effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of function this particular thing contributes to what kind of universe and what value it has for the whole universe and for the human beings who are citizens of the highest city, of which other cities are, as it were, mere households; (3) and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of and how long in the nature of things it will persist, and what virtue is needed to respond to it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so on. (3.11, trans. Gill)

At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from all other concerns. (2) You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. (3) You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles. (2.5, trans. Gill)

The first passage conveys very clearly the idea that the virtues (justice, truthfulness and so on) are the only real good, the only proper object of human aspiration; also that, in comparison with virtue, the ‘external goods’ (such as praise of the many, positions of power, wealth and so on) are – relatively – trivial and valueless. The second passage (3.11) shows how this idea (that virtue is on the only good) can form the basis of a strategy for decision-making in specific situations. In any given context, Marcus advises himself to reflect on his situation and consider what virtue is needed to respond effectively to this situation, ‘such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness and so on’. The earlier part of the passage refers to the Stoic idea that the goal of ethical development, on the social side, consists, in part, in coming to view all human beings as fellow-citizens in the universe or fellow-members of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. So this is another way of saying that practising the social dimension of ethical development, of forming the virtues, as this is possible in each situation, should form part of the framework that should shape our decision-making in each situation. The third passage indicates in another way the significance of the link between virtue and happiness. Marcus urges himself to carry out his specific role in life (as a Roman and a man – and an emperor as he reminds himself elsewhere) in a way that uses this role as a way of expressing the virtues, including their other-related dimension (‘affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice’). To act in this way is to give a single-minded focus to virtuous action (‘to carry out each act as if it were the last of your life … freed from randomness’ and so on. To act in this way is also to achieve happiness, in the sense of leading the best kind of human life (‘the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles – Marcus uses the conventional language of Greco-Roman religion but he has in mind leading the best possible human life – the life according to nature, as Stoics describe it. At the same, this also produces a ‘smoothly flowing life’ (which echoes one of the Stoic definitions of happiness’.

Here are three more short passages which illustrate the virtue-happiness relationship in a different way. These are a few of the many passages in which Marcus encourages himself to anticipate his own death with an attitude of calmness, confidence and acceptance. What justifies this response is partly that death is a natural organic process, and one that should be accepted as such (like birth). But also Marcus can face death in this way because he has at least tried to use his life as a way of expressing the virtues; and the knowledge of oncoming death should not prevent him doing so until he dies – nor should he be frustrated that death will interrupt this process.

… accepting what happens and what is allocated to one as coming from the source from which one came oneself: and above all, waiting for death with a confident mind, since it is nothing but the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. (2.17.4, trans. Gill)

.. strive to live the life that is your own, that is, your present life, and then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you in calm and kindness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him. (12.3.4, trans. Hard, slightly modified).

“ ‘But my life is not worth living if this action is left undone’. – ‘Then depart with generous feelings in your heart, dying in the same spirit as one who achieves his purpose, and reconciled to what has stood in his way’”. (8.47.5, trans. Hard)

These passages also illustrate that ethical development, seeking to practice the virtues, carries with it a change in emotional register – in this instance, from the misguided emotion of fear or death to the good emotion of acceptance or even a kind of joy at the prospect of death, treated as a natural end to one’s life. So virtue, on this view, yields happiness in a subjective sense, in terms of the feelings and emotions generated, as well as in constituting what is objectively the best human life.

Stoicism was helpful to Marcus, clearly; but how can it help us? Well in principle, in exactly the same way as it was helpful to Marcus, in providing an ethical framework for living our lives and in setting out goals for aspiration that can help to shape our lives as a whole. That is partly why in the on-line ‘Stoic Week’ course this year we have made extensive use of Marcus’ Meditations as a source of passages and as a model of how to use Stoic ideas for life-guidance. It will be interesting to see from the feedback how effective people feel this framework has been for them.

I want to end my presentation by trying to respond to one of the potential problems that modern audiences may have with this kind of material. Although in modern life – and in some academic moral philosophy – we also use the virtue-happiness framework that is standard in ancient ethics, we also have other kinds of moral frameworks that are in some ways more prevalent and familiar.

In modern moral thinking we tend to operate with a contrast between selfish or egoistic and other-benefiting or altruistic motivation. Other-benefiting motivation tends to be defined in terms of doing your duty or performing right actions, or, alternatively, in terms of benefiting other people (sometimes of maximal benefit, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’). The challenge in modern moral thinking is usually seen as being to counteract selfishness or egoism and to promote altruism or the desire to benefit others. Stoic ideas about virtue (more generally, ancient Greek and Roman ideas) cut across the egoism-altruism distinction; the virtues relate to what we are in ourselves and in relation to others alike. The challenge in Stoicism is rather that of achieving expertise: developing and exercising consistently the kinds of knowledge that make up the virtues. Put differently, the challenge is to form correctly an understanding of what the virtues constitute and trying to live up to that understanding.

How do these two frameworks relate and what advantages does the ancient (or virtue-happiness) framework have for us moderns? First, we need to realise that the ancient (or specifically Stoic) framework does not simply ignore the kind of considerations given more prominence in modern moral thinking. Stoicism also recognises the importance of performing right actions or in doing your duty in a given situation. Stoicism also recognises – indeed gives a special importance to the other-benefiting dimension of ethical life (this is one side of ethical development as they conceive it). Their ideal of treating all human beings as our fellow-citizens or brothers and sisters in humanity stands up well in comparison with modern ideals of benefiting others (in principle as many others as possible), and going beyond the circle of those immediately linked with our lives. However, Stoicism does not present these ideals in terms familiar to us in modern moral terminology, but in terms of virtue, the virtue-happiness relationship and progress towards virtue and happiness.

Does their way of presenting ethics have positive advantages for us – as well as translating ideas we already think are important into other terms? There are several advantages, I think. The virtue-happiness framework makes the question of motivation central to ethics. There is little point in urging people to perform right actions or maximise benefit to others unless they also feel motivated to act according to these principles. The Stoic framework brings out how acting in this way can form part at least of the kind of life that constitutes happiness. The Stoic framework also stresses, more than most modern approaches, the central role of ethical development, and the idea that development is a life-long process not just part of growing up towards adulthood. Also, whereas modern moral thinking tends to focus solely on the other-benefiting dimension of human action, Stoic (and other ancient) frameworks see virtues as covering both self-related and other-related sides of human experience. Put differently, the Stoic framework seeks to ground ethical life in what we are, fundamentally, and not just in what we do in relation to others (though that is seen as a very important dimension of human life). Finally, Stoic (and other ancient) forms of ethics stress the idea that acting well depends on knowledge or expertise, on developing a profound ethical understanding (and one that affects our personality as a whole); and this too is a dimension of ethical life whose importance is not always recognised in modern accounts. So, overall, I think there are a series of ways in which ancient and especially Stoic ethics can be seen as making a positive contribution to modern thinking about ethics as well as providing an alternative framework for life-guidance.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Post Stoic Week 2015 Questionnaires

Post Stoic Week 2015 Questionnaires

For all those who participate in Stoic Week 2015, here is a link to the post Stoic Week Questionnaires, as constructed by Tim LeBon:

Stoic Week 2015: Post-Week Questionnaires

You will have reached the end of the questionnaire when you see a screen totalling your scores. Also, please use the same email address or pseudonym that you used when you took the pre Stoic Week Questionnaires.

Please take the time to fill this out, even if you haven’t been able to devote lots of time to Stoic Week. The results are extremely helpful for us, and we would really appreciate every filled out form.

The Stoicism Today Team

Stoic Week 2015 Demographics Report

Stoic  Week 2015 Demographics Report 

by Tim LeBon

Thank you all for completing the preliminary questionnaires. We had a massive 2503 valid completed questionnaires – an increase of about 66% over 2014.

In  a sentence: the  typical Stoic week follower is an American male aged between 26 and 35 who has never participated in Stoic week before and knows a bit about Stoicism (not a complete novice).

In more depth:

  • The ratio of males to females is 65% to 35%
  • There is an upside down U distribution of ages, with it peaking at 26-35 closed followed by 36-45
  • Over 41% of respondents are from USA, but in terms of per capita Canada is top (well done Donald!) and then the UK. There is scope for much more uptake in Asia, Africa and South America.
  • The majority of respondents have never participated in Stoic week before, about 22% have participated before
  • There is an upside-down U distribution of self-rated knowledge of Stoicism, with “know a bit about Stoicism” being most frequent.

Here are 5 tables summarising all the facts and figures.

Table 1: Stoic Week 2015 by gender




Male 1616 64.6
Female 868 34.7
didn’t say 19 0.8

Table 2: Stoic Week 2015 by age

Age Total %
over 55 416 16.6
46-55 446 17.8
36-45 565 22.6
26-35 618 24.7
18-25 406 16.2
Under 18 45 1.8
didn’t say 7 0.3

 Table 3: Stoic Week 2015 by geographic location

Location Total %
USA 1048 41.9
Australasia 126 5.0
Canada 398 15.9
Europe (outside UK)) 362 14.5
UK 412 16.5
Africa 18 0.7
Asia 56 2.2
South & Central America 34 1.4
Other 49 2.0

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2015 : Previous participation

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Total %
0 1941 77.5
1 402 16.1
2 111 4.4
3 43 1.7
Other 6 0.2

Table 5: Stoic Week 2015 : Self-rating of knowledge of Stoicism

Knowledge  of Stoicism Total %
None 328 13.1
Novice 788 31.5
I know  a bit 961 38.4
I know quite a bit but not an  expert 403 16.1
expert 23 0.9

An analysis of the relationship between Stoicism and well-being that can be gleaned from the preliminary questionnaires will be published next week.

I can be contacted on tim@timebon.com (http://www.timlebon.com)

Download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook

You can now download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook via the links in this blog post.

Stoic Week 2015 Handbook CoverThe Stoic Week 2015 Handbook is now available!

Before you download or read the Handbook, it’s very important that, if possible, you complete the following preliminary questionnaires:

Online Questionnaires

We’d also like you, if possible, to enrol on our e-learning site as this helps us track the number of participants and their level of involvement.  You’ll have access to the forums here, which are an important part of the course:

Enroll on the Stoic Week Course at Modern Stoicism

However, we appreciate that some people may be unable or prefer not to complete the questionnaires or register online.  The Handbook is also available for download, in a range of formats that can be accessed offline.  You can access EPUB, MOBI (Kindle) and plain text (MarkDown) versions of the Handbook from the Modern Stoicism website, via the link above.  You may also download the PDF version of the Handbook by clicking on the link below:

Stoic Week 2015 Handbook (PDF)