'Stoic Resilience in Face of Illness' by Carmelo Di Maria

Stoic Resilience in Face of Illness

by Carmelo Di Maria

2015 didn’t begin well for me – the end of a sentimental liaison had caused me a lot of turmoil on the emotional front (lots of sleepless nights, crying, rumination, loss of appetite, chain smoking… you name it).  The bright side of it, though, was that in an attempt to make sense of it all, I started devouring self-help books, especially those about relationships and the insecure attachment style (me) and narcissistic personality disorder (him). Fascinating reading, I tell you.

And it was in this frantic pursuit of enlightenment and self-amelioration that I eventually landed on the shores of ancient Rome and got acquainted with the Stoics. I started reading a lot on their philosophy of life and it was music to my ears. For starters I’ve always been a fan of CBT and the idea that the Stoics could be considered the forerunners of this psychotherapy school made me immediately warm up to them. In addition, I was already used to stick on the fridge nice philosophical maxims, so their pocket-sized pearls of wisdom fitted the purpose beautifully. I also happened to love their pragmatism, the idea that you could do routine exercises – like the mantra-like repetition of maxims, the morning and evening meditations, the ‘view from above’ meditation, the pre-meditatio malorum (meditation on adversities) –  with the aim of training your mind in a sort of mental fitness regime. Through their reflective meditations you could practice being more mindful of your thoughts and emotions, reframing some aspects of reality, making sure that your actions fall in line with your values and above all that you have values in the first place and that they occupy a prominent place in your life, ultimately you could practice how to become a better person.

Personal development had always been a constant in my life (I had been struggling with self-esteem and an anger management problem for years) so in a sense the Stoics were speaking a language I could completely understand. It was a question of nodding all the way.  But there was one thing that for me represented a revolutionary new way of thinking, i.e. the idea that some of the things generally most valued in life have no intrinsic value, namely: money, health, reputation, and everything else that lies outside our sphere of control. These things fall under the category of ‘externals’, things deemed outside our control and therefore ‘indifferent’. What are instead of the utmost importance, the Stoics thought, are our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, in a nutshell whatever is under our control and can lead us to live life according to virtue.

Health was the one aspect of life deemed by the Stoics ‘indifferent’ that stood out for me. Here were some people who were saying that if you’re suffering from ill health, it doesn’t really matter, it’s your attitude that count: ‘The thing that matters the most is not what you bear, but how you bear it’ (Seneca, On Providence) or ‘Remember too on every occasion which leads thee to the present difficulty to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations). This was very refreshing and comforting to hear for a person with two chronic conditions. So from a feeling of inferiority and impotence and of being somehow ‘less than’ when compared to healthy people, I began to see my value as a person reinstated and judged according to different standards: my resilience, my strength, my dignity, my ability to reframe things. I must say if I was yearning for a CBT fix, the Stoics were providing me with one of epic proportions, taking reframing to a whole new level. Money? Health? ‘That is nothing to me!’ This is how Epictetus was inviting his students to address aspects of life considered external, indifferent. The idea being that the only thing that matters is your character, being the best you can be and be strong in the face of adversity. It may sound a bit of a radical statement at first, but you can clearly see its value especially for somebody who is currently facing adversity. And whether you are indeed currently facing adversity or wise enough to prepare for it, Stoics suggested the practice of ‘pre-meditatio malorum’: imagining that something bad may happen to you and by so doing reaching the twofold goal of preparing psychologically for it, i.e. getting rid of the element of shock and surprise that might otherwise overwhelm you, and secondly appreciating your current situation. There have been times when I have meditated on my health condition worsening or even on my own death as a practice. The Stoics’ invitation to remember that ‘thou must die’ or otherwise known as ‘memento mori’ is something else that resonates me. Gone is the taboo typical of modern societies which makes death even more morbid and scary and in is a healthy realistic acknowledgement of death as a part of life: as Seneca said, life is a constant dying, each day that goes by means getting closer and closer to death. And if you’re ever despairing about your health condition, feel overwhelmed by a sense of injustice and anger, and are inclined to think ‘why me?’, the Stoics, on the back of their cosmopolitan view of the world and a sense of brotherhood in humankind, would be likely to reply: ‘Indeed, why not you?’

In sum, it seems to me that people with chronic conditions would derive a lot of comfort and a renewed sense of pride by adhering to a Stoic philosophy of life and following its precepts. All you need to do is showing resilience in crisis, acknowledging that some things like health are not under your control, but your attitude towards them are, not cursing your lot and instead accepting it with equanimity and good grace (‘Don’t demand that things go as you will, but will that they happen as they do, and your life will go smoothly’), taking inspiration from role models, historical figures and contemporaries alike, who may have faced adversity with strength and dignity.

The meditative practice of ‘A view from above’ is yet another invitation to distance oneself from an egocentric view of the world and embracing one of connected humankind. Incidentally, it is only by seeing it in the context of a big human melting pot that your pain becomes smaller and doesn’t morph into suffering. It is only by looking at the big picture and considering yourself as an infinitesimal part of the universe, a tiny grain of sand, and viewing your difficulties as nothing compared to all the misfortune on the planet and across the centuries, that you have any hope to minimise your suffering.

Where so much in the health literature seems to point at how to best manage your chronic condition, and patch things up as it were, but never highlights the strengths and qualities which can be derived from it (something referred to as ‘post-traumatic growth’ in certain quarters), stoicism allows us to take a different stance. The only good in life is virtue and you can be proud of yourself if you show courage, resilience and wisdom in the face of adversity.

And if the Stoics place so much importance on the meditation of adversities and on the reflection of life’s transiency, a chronic patient’s brush with mortality puts him/her in a position of advantage for carrying out both practices. He/she can more easily contemplate a deterioration of his/her health for example or meditate on death itself. Likewise, a person living with a chronic condition can more easily savour all the things in life one can be grateful for. A rose smells nicer when you happen to have a more vivid sense of how transient life is. Finally, if you are ever troubled by the brevity of life, make every day count, as Seneca suggests in the following two quotes:

‘Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little’ (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

‘Begin at once to live and count each separate day as a separate life’ (Seneca, On the Futility of Planning Ahead).

Because if it’s true that the Stoics bang on about ‘memento mori’ (remember that thou must die), the inevitable corollary is a resounding ‘memento vivere’ (remember to live).

Carmelo Di Maria is an Italian living in London. Loves to smile and have a laugh.  Taurean to the bone. Has a soft spot for parmigiana and rugged men. Hopes to teach one day a blend of mindfulness and Stoic reflective meditation to people with chronic conditions. Best thing that’s ever happened to him: his mum. (I could go on but I edit things down for a living).

'The Stoic Teacher by Mark Harding

Stay Stoic, Teacher!

by Mark Harding

Teacher with Students
Sourced here.

“Only the educated are free.” –Epictetus

Would Epictetus have thought a modern educator to be educated? If I understand  his teaching correctly, a sign of  the educated is knowledge of the difference between what is in one’s control and what is not. It would be helpful for educators to learn this difference in their working lives so as to create more fruitful relationships with students, for more effective teaching, and for the prevention of their own psychological burnout. In short, educators need to be rational pessimists and expect more will go wrong than right.

To go out on a limb a little bit, I think Epictetus would look with benign skepticism at the contemporary, good-hearted, well-intentioned teacher who expects to transform lives and be the Hollywood hero who drags the recalcitrant to a new and selfless understanding of truth, beauty, and justice. When I think of such a teacher, I am in a strange way reminded of the  time I heard the Buddhist view of selfish craving described as “wanting things to be different from the way they are”, or something close to that. This sounds a lot like Stoicism. It also sounds like something educators need to take to heart. The educator will meet the selfish, the lazy, the self-seeking, and, yes, the plain old stupid among his students, among his colleagues, and in the ranks of his bosses. Believe this will change, if you want. But it won’t.

My experience recently is that high school students fall into two broad groups: the narcissists (or the “children of Nero”) and the neurotics. Less and less can the teacher expect to see students who are not victims of celebrity culture, who have a realistic appraisal of their own abilities, and, most important, who have parents or guardians who love them unconditionally. The narcissists believe they are very important; the neurotics believe they are perpetually under threat. Sometimes the narcissistic child of Nero appears in preppy attire, sometimes in hip-hop attire, but is consistent in this attitude: the world must recognize his brilliance (and it is usually a “him”). The neurotic dresses in a drab and humble fashion, always feels inadequate and dodges responsibility — not wantonly, but fearfully. Any teacher who is not  burnt-out (and those are becoming fewer ) has a number of possible responses to these two cases, but in general the reflexive response to the narcissist is anger and indignation; to the neurotic, exasperation.

But what would be the appropriate mindful Stoic response, after the reflex? Marcus believed that people behave badly because they don’t know any better. I don’t think a modern Stoicism can accept his position, given what modern psychology knows about personality disorders. However, I still think the teacher needs to behave as if it were true. Even if the student is confrontational, abusive, and exploitative, the teacher must maintain his poise for the sake of his own dignity. After many years of classroom experience, I believe that very little will penetrate a shield of mindful, principled behaviour, at the same time admitting that I have failed to keep my equanimity many times in the past and continue to fail from time to time in the present. The narcissist knows that he does harm to others; the neurotic knows that he harms himself. The Stoic teacher knows he cannot change the thinking of either. The same teacher also knows that he can choose to demonstrate courage and resolve to the narcissist and understanding and compassion to the neurotic, and through his behavior show that an alternative is possible, while realizing that it will likely matter to no-one. The crucial point is that the teacher can choose how to behave and risk being thought an idiot. That may be the price of right living.

Such are interactions with two kinds of students, individually. But what of whole groups? Marcus’s remarks about the kinds of people he expects to meet during the course of the day are typical of anyone’s experience, but the secondary school teacher meets these in the form of 30 teenagers, several times a day. They have been indoctrinated to view education as a right, and therefore they have no need for gratitude. They have been led to believe that whatever emotion they feel is should be given expression, so they have no need for self-control. They are consumed in constant e-communication with each other, so they have no need for discretion. In this context, the teacher, as a babysitter, is overpaid, but as an entertainer, underpaid. Like the late-night talk show host, the teacher must keep class moving along from one form of trivia to another form of ephemera, full of colour and sound and laughter to dull the pain of actual learning. He must ensure the powerpoints are full of razzle-dazzle and are interrupted  frequently with video clips of animals doing what animals do. When the magic of rainbows and sweets  wears off, he must be the babysitter:  making sure nobody hurts anyone else and no crimes are committed, for the threat of liability governs current classroom management. Many of us entered the teaching profession with high ideals; many leave it bitter and cynical. It doesn’t have to be that way. We are dealing with human beings (and often, these days, damaged human beings), the easily distracted, the dedicated hashtag followers, those who have been raised by screen technology. Our job is similar raking leaves in a high wind. But what else is there to do? If the leaves scatter as we work, that is ultimately their business. Our disappointment or frustration is irrelevant.

Some of us take our frustration to our superiors, our principals, headmasters, and headteachers. I don’t think there is much point in doing so. A principal has one of the most thankless jobs in education. He is suspended between the political bosses and school reality, instructed to be effective in managing the academic tone of the school and in meeting the objectives of whatever political cabal is currently in power and whatever half-baked theory of education is in fashion. Educational fads over the past generation have  oscillated between traditionalism and progressivism, between streaming students by ability and allowing open access to subjects, between permissiveness and authoritarianism. What other major institution would change its mind as frequently as educational institutions do with so little evidence to support the change and so few resources to enable it? The only reasonable conclusion from this is obvious: schools are fundamentally political institutions with primarily political aims bookended by the election cycle. As such, schools will be the focus of gripes, petty jealousies, pet projects, fantastic dreams of perfect equity and social justice, demands for workplace skills, and, most of all, they will be the starting point for careerists who want to get out of the classroom as quickly as possible. (Some of us used to call this learning the ABC’s—“Anywhere But the Classroom”).

I have many times heard a teacher complain of a student to a principal: “He doesn’t belong here!” In positive instances, this is code for “I’ve become frustrated trying to meet his needs, without success.” In negative instances, it is code for “I’m too lazy to try to work with him. Give me different students.” And it would be great if every class were full of those who without fail bring their equipment, hand in assignments on time, and are deeply interested in the mutterings of the sage at the front of the room. Just as it would be a lovely world if the hospitals were full of well people. But the principal replies to the teacher that this is where the parents want their child to be, that the superintendent supports their choice, that he has a right to be there. A teacher deciding to rail or sulk about this makes about as much sense as getting angry at the weather. This student is part of the teacher’s working life, his parents pay their taxes—stop whining and get on with it. Maybe Epictetus has the right advice: “make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it comes.”

And we do have quite a bit in our power. We have our education, which should give us perspectives—psychological, historical, and philosophical—on our everyday experience. This should free our minds. Of course it isn’t easy. Why would anyone expect it to be?

Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.

Admin’s note: Due to a technical error, Mark’s piece was published twice today on the blog. Apologies for sending extra messages to subscribers’ accounts.

Christmas Break on Stoicism Today

Christmas Marcus Aurelius

We hope you have enjoyed the posts that have gone up in 2015; they’ve been interesting, thought provoking, and well-written. Stoicism continues to prove its relevance for people of the modern age. Stoic Week 2015 was also a resounding success, and is improving year on year.

There will be no more posts until December 30th, so until then we hope you enjoy Christmas. If you still want some Stoicism, see A Stoic Christmas Story, where Paul Bryson discusses being a Stoic at this time of year.

Seasons greetings, all!

'“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship' by Sherman J. Clark

“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship

by Sherman J. Clark

Stoicism is enjoying something of a popular renaissance, as books, blogs, and the like explore the stoic ethics of Epictetus and Aurelius as way of dealing with distress and misfortune. But stoicism is potentially strong medicine; and the cure, if fully digested, may be worse than the disease. Stoic insights, taken seriously, can have troubling implications, primary among which is the possibility that a life of true stoic virtue would be bleak and joyless. If we inure ourselves to distress, as stoic thought has us do, perhaps we also deny ourselves the possibility of joy.

Of course, the potential joylessness of stoic thought can simply be denied or disregarded as people take what comfort they will from a selective application of stoic principles. Those writing about stoicism often adopt this strategy, and simply assert that stoic thought need not be bleak. But hopeful assertions do not make the implications go away; and it is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully. Moreover, coming to terms with the potential bleakness of stoicism also sheds light on other potentially problematic aspects of stoic thought.

Indeed, the potential pay-off of confronting and resolving these questions is not merely a more coherent and attractive vision of stoicism. A deeper vision of stoicism offers an appealing if partial response to the seeming meaninglessness of modern life. If, as Dreyfus and Kelly put it in All Things Shining, Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age, perhaps stoic thought also offers us the means to stave off its unwelcome progeny.

As is often the case with difficult problems, the first step is to recognize its existence and severity. So here I begin by describing how stoic principles, if taken seriously, can lead not just to peaceful apathiea, but beyond that to empty malaise. I then consider the inadequacy of several familiar seeming-solutions to the problem. That allows for the identification of a form of deeply satisfying joy that flows from rather than denies the implications of stoic insights. In the process, it will also illuminate other seemingly strange or discomforting aspects of stoic thought.

The heart of the matter, or so I argue below, is this. True stoic joy—and thus, if one embraces a stoic view of human nature, true eudaimonia—flows not merely from renouncing or conquering concern for indifferent matters. Rather, it comes as a result of an appreciation for and sense of connection with the awesome beauty and order of the cosmos, compared to which the petty concerns of life—pleasure, pain, wealth, poverty, illness, health, fame, death, and the like—are seen as the nothings they are.

On this vision, stoic practices and development should focus not on overcoming distress directly but rather on nurturing our signal human capacity to appreciate and feel connected to the beauty order of the universe. And this we can best do in the company of friends. We thus inure ourselves to distress not by closing ourselves off from joy and from others, but rather by opening ourselves up—opening our eyes and minds to a deeper and more human form of shared happiness and thriving.

Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable?

Stoicism eases distress by reminding us that the things we tend to worry about—wealth, power, physical pleasure, and the like—do not really matter. They do not matter because they are not really ours—not “on us,” as Epictetus cogently puts it. They are not in our control; and beyond that, they are no part of what makes us better or worse as human beings—indeed no part of what makes us human at all. If we allow our happiness to depend on such things, we are neither free nor fully ourselves. So we should not care about those things. Instead, we should care only about what is ours and in our control—our judgements and attitudes and actions.

Moreover, for the thoughtful stoic, setting aside all other, external, things turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because those things are not capable of producing lasting well-being anyway. The mature stoic recognizes that wealth, power, and pleasure are illusory goods—promising satisfactions they are incapable of delivering, and in the process tempting us to stress and worry over the pursuit of things not worth pursuing. And so too are the opposites of these things merely illusory evils. Stoic insight reveals that misfortune, pain, even death, are nothing. So we should not care about such things—not let them worry us.

Much stoic thinking is focused on this aspect of stoicism—learning how to not allow seemingly-bad things to worry or distress us. It is seen as a set of tools for dealing with difficult circumstances. To some extent this focus makes sense. Letting go of the pursuit of fortune and pleasure is easier said than done; and becoming indifferent to misfortune and pain is even harder. For those suffering what they experience as misfortune, or living with stress and worry, peace of mind is a worthwhile goal, and not one easily attain. Nothing I say here is meant to dismiss the value of seeking tranquility through stoic thought.

But here I want to assume that goal attained. What follows? Assume you have freed yourself from worry over things that are neither truly yours not truly worthy of concern. You are indifferent to wealth, pleasure, longevity, and other such false goods; and you have no fear of poverty, pain, death, or other such seeming misfortunes. Now what? Or, given that no one will achieve perfect equanimity, perhaps we should rather put it this way: to the extent that you have achieved indifference to such things, what room is left for joy? If nothing is worth worrying about, what is or can be worth getting excited about?

One possible conclusion—the possibility to which I am seeking an alternative—is that nothing is worth getting excited about. Perhaps the stoic path, if pursued fully and honestly, leads not just to a place of serenity and peace of mind but also to some not-particularly-appealing territory somewhere between apathy and melancholy.

Hamlet is, on this as on so much, illuminating. Without describing the titular Prince as a stoic, which would rather beg the question at hand, we can see that he fully—perhaps too fully—grasps the essential stoic insight that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet II, ii, 247-48. Beyond that, he admires those whose character manifests an awareness of this insight, as evinced by the explicit reasons he gives for loving and admiring Horatio:

                                   ‘. . . for thou hast been—
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’                                                          Hamlet III, ii, 62-71.

We are not told how Horatio has achieved this ideal stoicism; but assume for our purposes that he has done so in the stoic way—by being aware at some perhaps-unexamined level that “Fortunes buffets and rewards” are not worth worrying about.

While we do not see much of Horatio’s inner life, we see plenty of Hamlet’s. And perhaps what we see there shows us what happens when the stoic awareness fueling Horatio’s equanimity is examined, and is followed to its conclusion by a more powerful mind. Hamlet recognizes that the things of this world or not worth worrying about, and recognizes further that this is because they are really not worth much at all:

‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
Hamlet I, ii, 133-34.

So, the question can be framed in this way. Can we be Horatio without becoming Hamlet? And should we want to? Can and should we take solace from the realization that the things of the world do not really matter, without facing the potentially bleak realization that the world and our lives in it are indeed “flat, and unprofitable”?

One possible answer is that we need not worry about the implications of having conquered fear and pain through stoicism, because no one will ever really conquer fear and pain. But that is like saying that we need not worry that we are climbing out of the frying pan into the fire because we will never get out of the frying pan anyway. If we hope that stoic thought can work to conquer distress, we need think about what happens when it does. Moreover, if we confront honestly the potentially bleak fact that the material concerns of this world truly are indifferent, we are then in a position to think about what is worth getting excited about.

Five Partial Responses

Aside from simply denying or deferring the problem, there are a number of familiar and seemingly appealing responses to the potential bleakness of stoic thought. I address five such below. Much more has and could be said about each; but for present purposes the bottom line is that none prove ultimately satisfactory, because none get to the heart of the matter.

The fact that many stoics are joyous

Epictetus, from what we can tell, seems to have been a cheerful enough fellow. And if you attend a conference of modern stoics you will find more cheerful Horatios sharing a pint than gloomy Hamlets bemoaning the meaningless of life. Doesn’t this demonstrate that stoic thought does not lead to bleakness? No. It is hopeful evidence, yes: but it does not answer the question. First of all, we do not know the inner lives of others; and many a cheerful pint-sharer, stoic or otherwise, has been known to face a demon or two when the party is over. More to the point, we have already granted that the stoic path is pleasant enough during its initial stages—when it leads us away from worry and distress. What we want to know is what happens if we continue down the road.

This question could of course be addressed as a matter of empirical psychology. Do people who find comfort and tranquility through stoicism also find apathy and malaise? As difficult as it would be difficult to isolate the impact of stoic ideas from other social and psychological factors, such research would be useful. But it would not resolve the question at hand. Grant that some can adopt stoic ideas a-la-carte, follow the path of stoicism only as far as they find it helpful, and thus avoid confronting the potential implications. Still, thoughtful and intellectual honest stoics will want to know. What happens if one takes stoic thought seriously? Does joy for a stoic require on-going denial and self-deception? Must we, like Claudius, view our philosophy through “an auspicious and a dropping eye”—trying not to confront the implications of what we hope will give solace?

The doctrine of preferred indifferents

A potential response from within stoic thought is the idea of so-called “preferred indifferents.” According this doctrine, although the things of this world are indeed indifferent, it is consistent with our proper functioning as human beings to prefer certain of those things to others. All else being equal, we can better practice virtue and thrive if we are healthy rather than ill, safe rather then in danger, fed rather than hungry. Grant then that the stoic need not scorn the goods the world offers, so long as he or she does not get attached to them—so long as he or she does not really allow those things to matter. But that leaves us where we began—facing the seeming fact that nothing is really worth getting excited about. However well the doctrine of preferred indifferents may serve as an explanation for the stoic’s participation in the ordinary pursuits of life, it provides no basis for him or her to take real joy in those pursuits.

Indeed, unless we are to imagine the mind as a sort of one-way valve—able to take joy from something without sorrowing at its loss—the doctrine of preferred indifferents offers no answer at all to the question of where and how the stoic might find joy. To the extent that stoic thought does its first job, and frees us from concern over worldly things, it thus also brings us face to face with the problem at hand.

Indifferent things as virtue-vehicles

A more promising, if still not-quite-adequate response is that even things that are themselves inherently meaningless can be valuable as vehicles through which we develop and display the virtues that make for a good and authentically-human life. An example, borrowed from Epictetus, is pick-up basketball, which I enjoy. Nothing hinges on the outcome of a game at the local gym or playground. It simply does not matter whether I win or lose—or even how well or poorly I play. But the activity provides a vehicle for the nurturing and display of things that do matter—not just physical skills and fitness, but teamwork, fairness, toughness and the like. These are real and valuable virtues—on stoic terms in particular.

This is an important and overlooked aspect of stoic thought, as it helps explain why the stoic should, as a normative matter, give care and attention to the things of this word, despite their intrinsic insignificance.  It does not, however, answer the question at hand. We still need to know—or may be driven to wonder—whether the virtues so-nurtured are capable of not just engendering admiration but also of bringing joy.

Joy through engagement

Epictetus’s ball game example might make one think that the answer is right before our eyes. While playing basketball, I do not tend to ponder the seeming bleakness of life. Rather, the experience is one that Csikszentmihalyi has described as flow—a feeling of full engagement in the activity and moment. This sort of experience is available not just through sports, of course, but through a wide range of activities that provide attainable but difficult and engaging challenges to occupy our thoughts. This might suggest that the answer to stoic malaise, or to malaise more generally, might simply be that—engagement. And so it might.

But at bottom this avoids rather than answers the question. Perhaps in the end all we can do about the potential bleakness of stoic thought is find ways to distract ourselves from it.  But if we want rather to confront and come to terms with the seeming pointlessness of life, engagement with inherently-pointless things cannot be the only or ultimate solution.

Joy through service

But that in turn suggests a deeper and potentially more satisfying response. Perhaps joy comes not merely through engagement, generally, but engagement with something worthwhile—in particular the service of others. Viktor Frankl put it this way:

“[H]appiness . . .  cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

 At some level, this is the most appealing response. And I would certainly never find fault with anyone who finds joy in the service of others.

But at a deeper level this too begs the question. Help others, yes. But help them do what? Serve a cause greater than oneself, yes. But what cause is worth serving? Recall that the stoic has fully recognized that the things most people care about—money, health, and the like—are not in fact worth caring about. They mean nothing. And to put the matter starkly, helping others do meaningless and pointless things cannot be a satisfying source of meaning and purpose. So then, perhaps the answer is to help others do things that are meaningful? And there’s the rub. We are back where we began—wondering what if anything really is worth doing.

Of course, we can forestall the question, perhaps indefinitely, by focusing on people’s basic needs. Just as one need not confront the ultimate implications of stoic thought while he or she is still just trying to overcoming distress, the survive-focused stoic can forestall the question of what is ultimately worth caring about by focusing on helping people get the basic necessities of life. Helping others—especially with their basic needs—is a good thing to do; no doubt about that. But it does not resolve the problem at hand.

Imagine that you live in world where everyone is entirely obsessed with painting their fingernails as brightly and colorfully as possible. That is how they measure success, what they worry about, and where they seek joy. You, the stoic, find that all completely pointless, and are glad to be free of any distress or worry over your fingernails; but, of course, nor are you able to take much joy from your fingernails. So you long for something more. Now imagine being told that you should find meaning, and thus joy, in helping other people paint their fingernails as rightly and colorfully as possible. Now, that might indeed be the right and best thing you could do, if others do indeed take joy in their fingernails—and if you believe them not capable of better; but it would not answer your problem.

Stoic Joy

The best answer, I believe—and the answer most consistent with stoic thought—is that true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight. The key is to recognize that the thoughtful stoic sees the universe not just as ordered but as awesome. Stoic joy, I suggest, is the joy of comprehension and connection—the deeply human satisfaction one gets from seeing and appreciating how it all fits together, and how one fits into it all.

Indeed one could argue that seeing and appreciating the order and beauty of the universe is not merely a particular good, the enjoyment of which is consistent with stoic principles, but is in fact a central component of eudaimonia. In Aristotelian terms, our distinctive human function as rational agents is the ability and desire to seek reasons for and make sense of our actions, and thus our lives. Thus the centrality of phronesis in Aristotelian virtue ethics.

But perhaps this capacity and inclination to make sense of our actions and our lives is really just a component—a self-regarding subset—of deeper and more distinctively-human capacity to find comprehend and make sense of our world as a whole. Whatever one thinks about the ability of other animals to do things that resemble deliberation, it seem safe to say that we are the only ones who wonder at things with no direct or obvious connection to our own lives. Our signal human capacity is perhaps not merely agency guided by practical reason, but wonder driven by love of comprehension—not merely phronesis but philosophia.

If so, the search for stoic joy is also the best way for stoicism to help us deal with misfortune and distress. Next to the rich and satisfying joy of even partially-comprehending and feeling connected to our awesome universe, the difficulties of life, even death, will be nothing to us. Stoic growth, therefore, should perhaps not be sought primarily through exercises designed to help us deal with distress directly. Rather, perhaps we should focus on learning, and helping each other to learn, how to see our world better and more fully.

Moreover, this shifts our focus outward and away from a self-centered focus on what we as agents do, towards a broader appreciation of a world in which we are just a small part.  It may seem as though the shift from seeing ourselves as feature actors to extras/audience is to diminish our role. But perhaps it is better seen as maturation. We are not child-star divas—only interested in the show if we can be the star. Stoicism is Copernican in this way—helping us understand ourselves better by forcing us to confront the initially-troubling but ultimately-liberating realization that we are not the center of the universe. Yes, “you may contribute a verse,” as Whitman put it; but the key is “that the powerful play goes on.”

If this sounds pale, too-passive, or inadequate, it is perhaps because we have not yet developed the capacity to see and appreciate how powerful the play really is. Stoic thought suggests that if we could only comprehend our world better, we would see that next to the chance to see and share in this exquisite order, the petty concerns of life are nothing at all.


And this helps illuminate how sciences can be understood as virtues. The key first step is to recognize that stoic virtues are not merely persistent habits of conduct. Stoicism is on this point more Platonic or Socratic than Aristotelian, in that virtues are better understood as insights, habits of mind, and resulting capacities. As the stoics framed it, living virtuously and well is a techne and an episteme, grounded in a set of attitudes—in particular an attitude of hypoexairesis, or lack of concern with external goods or outcomes.

The kinds of behavior typically identified as virtues are thus better conceived of as symptoms—external manifestation of internal orientations. Temperance (sophrosyne), for example, is the capacity to eschew what others crave, because you know that those things are not truly worth craving. Temperate conduct is merely what flows from this awareness and attitude. Courage (andreia) similarly manifests itself as the habit of conquering fear, but is more essentially a capacity grounded in an awareness—an awareness that the things people fear are not worth fearing.

Similarly, physics can be described as the capacity to grasp and appreciate the underlying beauty and order of our world. It is a techne and an episteme grounded in awareness of the world’s underlying unity and awesomeness. If so—and if the capacity to perceive and appreciate this beauty and order is indeed the central component of an authentically-stoic and deeply-human joy—then it makes sense to see physics as a central stoic virtue.

This vision is not limited to people who actually do physics at the highest level or for  a living. It suggests rather than the inclination and ability to see how well and wonderfully the world fits together is a crucial and vital skill for all who hope to live well and fully. That said, actual physicists do provide something of a paradigm. If you have ever seen one when he thinks himself on the verge of a breakthrough, you will know what I mean. He cares nothing for the petty concerns of the world. He just has something so much more awesome in view. He feels himself to be getting a glimpse of the cosmos, the logos.

Aurelius, in some sense the grimmest of stoics, devotes the great bulk of his Reflections to what we might call the negative side of stoicism—reminding himself in various ways that the things of the world do not matter and thus should not command are attention and should have no power to disconcert us. But there are two passages in the Reflections in which he explicitly takes up the question of what is worth our attention, and how a person who has fully internalized stoic insights can, by attending to those things, find joy.

The first is at 3.2, where he notes that “if a man has a deeper feeling for and insight into the workings of the whole” even the most common things in nature will have the capacity to bring joy—how grain grows, fruit ripens and decays, bread bakes, beasts feed, men and women age. These things, unnoticed and unappreciated by most, will call out to and inspire a person who is “truly attuned to nature and nature’s works.”

A second passage, at 8.26, is brief, and worth translating here in full:

‘It brings joy to a man to do a man’s true work. And a man’s true work is goodwill to his fellow man, disregard for the motions of the senses, skepticism about misleading impressions, and contemplation of the whole of nature and the things than happen according to nature.’

One word is in this paragraph is worth some attention—ἐπιθεώρησις, which I have translated here as “contemplation.”  This is a rare term in Greek, and one that Aurelius does not use elsewhere. It suggests more that mere observation, or even careful appreciation. There is also a connotation of desire and motivation, as emphasized by the play on the etymologically-unrelated verb ἐπιθέω which means to rush at or pursue. On this reading, what brings joy is not merely passive contemplation or even comprehension, but engaged appreciation.


Like much agent-centred thinking, stoic thought can appear intrinsically self-regarding or selfish. And at one level it is. Focusing on the virtue and thriving of the actor leaves open the possibility that others can be seen as mere instruments though which the virtuous actor achieves eudaimonia. The Roman Stoics repeatedly emphasize the duty to play one’s appropriate role in the community and care for others; but it is not clear that this commitment flows from rather than acts as a hedge against the implications of stoic thought. Moreover, if, as the stoic realizes, one’s own material circumstances—are not really worth worrying about, it is hard to see how other people’s material circumstances should provide any greater cause for concern.

I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior. Eudaimonist thinking does not work that. It is the case, however, that the understanding of stoic virtue described above does offer some hedge against the potential selfish implications of stoic thought.

If stoic virtue as a techne and an episteme grounded in certain attitude and aimed at a deep and satisfying appreciation of and connection to the beauty and order of our world, the virtuous stoic will be driven to concern for and connection for others. This is because the best way to see the order and beauty is with the help of others and the best way to see feel connected to the whole is thought connections with others. Stoicism may not require a sense of shared community responsibility; but it does call us strongly to it.

A desire to comprehend and appreciate the world motivates concern for others in several ways. Above all, learning is best done collectively. Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic. Socrates did not talk to himself. Second, learning calls for institutions and communities in which it can take place.

So, at the very least, our joyful stoic physicist needs a lab, a library, colleagues, grad students, and above all a community in which they can be brought together and brought to bear in the effort to see better and rejoice in the order and beauty of the universe. And if he is thoughtful, he will thus cultivate and care for the community that supports this effort. More deeply, less instrumentally, and framed in terms of eudaimonia, perhaps the full flourishing our nature as not just rational/knowledge-loving but also social/political animals calls on us not merely to see and appreciate the order and beauty of our world but also to engage in shared and mutually-supporting efforts to do so—and to structure our community life in ways that nurture that effort.

Recall also that the stoic joy described here is not just a product of contemplating the universe as if it were a thing apart, but also feeling one’s place in it, one’s connection to the larger whole. Connections then—relationships, friendships, family, love—are themselves a way of sensing the whole. Caring for others joins us to the whole, conquers isolation, and allows for reciprocal connection that can be felt as well as comprehended. Perhaps the true stoic is thus driven to connection and concern for others. And this is especially true if what joins us to others is our shared effort to learn, teach, and see. To Hamlet, Horatio was not just an ideal stoic; he was an ideal friend. And he was first a school friend—a fellow learner.

Consider, finally, the vision of stoic joy offered by Frost in his poem “The Star Splitter.” Near the beginning of the poem, Bradford McLaughlin gives up worrying about earthly things—represented by his farmhouse—which were bringing him little joy. Instead, he makes a dramatic, indeed stoic, turn away from such matters—reframing his concern about the seeming-foolishness of his own conduct as “curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

‘He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.’

Nor does he satisfy his curiosity alone. Near the end of the poem, the narrator joins him.

‘I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.’

In this vision, stoic apatheia is not itself the goal, or even a first step, but rather a consequence. A lack of concern for inherently-indifferent things comes as result of having something better on our minds. Stoic thought is in this sense what Socrates called for in the Republic—a turning of the soul, not a turning off. It is less renouncement than refocus, and thus leads not to apathy but engagement. It turns our attention to something which, if to it we can attune our minds, will not only reveal the meaningless things of the world to be beneath the concern of a human being, but can also reveal in their stead a meaningful and truly human joy.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

'Anger and Pre-Emotions' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Anger and Pre-Emotions

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Leonidas Konstantakos

For Seneca, it is by understanding what anger is that we can avoid it or seek the appropriate therapy. This implies that it can in fact be avoided. In De Ira, Seneca proposes a Stoic cognitive view of anger that consists of a series of physical and mental steps, or qualifications, to meet the definition. The cognitive aspects that define the emotion are within our control. Anger, for Seneca (and his view is quite orthodox Stoicism), is a species of desire- a desire to take vengeance for a (perceived) wrong. (1.2.3b) Moreover, anger involves various physical and mental phenomena (phantasiai, impressions in Stoic parlance) and beliefs or judgments about those phenomena. Let’s begin with the formulae for pathe, emotions, as viewed from within Seneca’s philosophical tradition.

The third scholarch of the Stoa, Chrysippus, had systematized the following criteria that must be met for a belief of judgement of this sort to be a pathos: 1) it must assert that something is good or bad; 2) it must be recently formed; 3) it must be false; 4) it incites an excessive impulse. (Gould, 191) The excessive impulse here means that it is irrational- excessive and disobedient to the dictates of reason.[1] By this criterion, in the grips of a passion we first assent to the impression that something is, say, a punch in the face. We may experience psychosomatic responses (a flash of spirited feelings, quickening of the pulse, etc.) due to the initial impression which is involuntary: the sense-perception of being struck, and the supervening bodily responses. What follows in anger is an assent to the impression that this is an undeserved offense[2] and that it is appropriate to seek retribution for the perceived harm. This leads to, but is not yet, anger. Anger manifests when these judgements become disobedient to reason- that is, they incite excessive impulses that are no longer controllable. By Stoic definition anger is always excessive and harmful.

The utility of Seneca’s discussion is that it allows us to be aware of the pre-emotions that lead to our false judgements and to anger if left unchecked. Seneca outlines the steps to anger in Book Two. The first part of the emotion, or pre-emotion, is what later came to be referred to by the Alexandrian Christian authors as propatheiai. These are the involuntary psychosomatic responses that are not under our control. When referring to anger, this initial phantasia is, for Seneca, merely the “first mental jolt produced by the impression of an injury.” (2.3.5) The pre-emotion, the impression (not the judgement) that one has been harmed, is not anger because by itself it does not yet involve the subsequent judgements. Reason cannot overcome them, although Seneca suggests that “perhaps their force can be lessened if we become used to them and constantly keep a watch for them.” (2.4.2) We perhaps cannot help that some things seem terrible (e.g. an assault) or that some things seem good (e.g. revenge), but as rational agents we can decide whether or not we assent or withhold assent to those impressions. In modern terms, Seneca’s discussion allows us to realize that we are experiencing the feeling of anger without necessarily having to experience the emotion of anger. By understanding our involuntary psychosomatic responses, and understanding that it is not necessarily the case that we have been offended, or at least that it is not the case that revenge is now appropriate, we need not experience these negative, destructive emotions.[3] We often confuse these initial responses for emotions and believe we must, or that it is appropriate to, act in a certain manner.

A vivid example can be borrowed from the popular psychological story, James and the Bear, for the sake of understanding Stoic propatheiai. If James were asked what falling in love feels like, he might give a description of his psychosomatic responses: weakening of the legs, shaking of the hands, dizziness, paleness, a sudden loss of mental ability, etc. Yet if James is asked what terror feels like, his list of psychosomatic functions may be identical, or at least overlap significantly. But when James walks through the woods and is suddenly confronted with a snarling bear, there is no question which of these previous emotions he is experiencing despite their similarity in feelings. It is in the judgements about the impressions (that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, and that it is appropriate to be terrified) that lead to the emotion of terror.[4] The initial impression of the snarling bear and the accompanying psychosomatic responses are involuntary, but the judgements that lead to the emotion are not. Similarly, when Seneca is confronted with an irritating impression (a slanderous insult, or to keep with our theme, a punch in the face) he can have the feelings of anger (which are unavoidable) and still understand that these feelings are not yet anger. He can judge that nothing evil is happening (due to his Stoic axiology) and not have to contend with the further belief that retribution is warranted. Also there will be no chance that these judgements will be carried to an excessiveness that is disobedient to reason, and hence Seneca will not experience the pathos of anger. The Stoic model is useful and plausible for anyone threatened with becoming angry, and can provide emotional therapy even for those who do not accept adiaphora- the Stoic axiological doctrine of the indifference of externals.[5]


Gould, J. (1970). The Philosophy of Chrysippus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Seneca. (2010). Anger, Mercy, Revenge; translated by Robert A. Kaster and Martha Nussbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Despite the focus on the Stoic account of emotion in recent years, it is important to note that the sufferer of the emotion is not healed when the emotion has passed due to time (2) or because it no longer excessive (4). The sufferer may still erroneously believe that there is good or evil present or in prospect, and this is the fundamental error, rather than any damage that the emotion can cause. Moreover, the sufferer may have the false belief that it is appropriate to be elated or angry or grieved. It is these false beliefs, and their extirpation, that are the foundational problems. The Stoics argue that this is the time for their cognitive therapy- after the impulse has downgraded from emotion to merely false beliefs about the presence or prospect of something good or bad, and the further judgment of the appropriateness of the emotion.

[2] By ‘offense’ I mean that we here judge the strike as something bad that has happened. This is the first of the false beliefs in the Stoic view. According to Stoic axiology (that only the agent’s own vice is a present evil), this judgment errs.

[3] Or any of the pathe, which by definition involve a false belief.

[4] The two need not coincide, e.g. the park ranger may have the (false) belief that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, but not have the further (false) belief that it is now appropriate to be terrified.

[5] That is, those who believe that it is not the case that there is no evil present- or more simply, those who believe e.g. being punched is a present evil. They may have this belief but realize that it is not the case that one must act in a certain manner (seek revenge). Moreover, non-Stoics can accept that pre-emotions are not yet anger and can only lead to the pathos of anger if they assent to the impressions.

Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

'Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox' by Greg Sadler

Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox

by Greg Sadler

Father_and_Daughter_at_RK_Beach_in_Visakhapatnam (1) (1)

Practically every time I’ve taught Stoic philosophy — whether in an Ancient Philosophy class, or more often in an Ethics or an Introduction to Philosophy class — among other texts, I’ve assigned my students Epictetus’ Enchiridion, literally, his “Handbook” — a selection of passages compiled from the much longer set of his Discourses, those hopefully being more or less representative sample of Epictetus’ oral teachings, recorded by one of his pupils and friends.  Invariably, perhaps because it is early on in the text, so it catches the eye of a reader not yet wearied, section three catches their attention, or at least the end line of it.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

To many — including myself — this seems so harsh a sentiment, rigidly consistent, but somehow unduly, unforgivably harsh.  This is a point where, I think, many people, repulsed, conclude that Stoicism is definitely not for them.  If it means abandoning the affection one feels ought to circulate within the family, between wife and husband, parent and child, then perhaps the perfectly free, untroubled, fully rational life that Stoicism holds out as a model is purchased at too high a cost.

Epictetus’ actual position is caricatured in the last line of that section — or rather in our inferences from it — but one would only know that by reading one’s way into his Discourses, rather than by confronting that passage with another chosen from the Enchiridion.  That fact may tell us something important about what was regarded as most important to communicate, to have ready at hand to remind oneself, to meditate upon — what selections made it into the shorter and much more widely read work.

But as it turns out, Epictetus very clearly does think that affection for spouses, children, even for friends or one’s country, is a component of the fully Stoic life — both as part of what the ideal of having one’s moral purpose in accordance with nature demands, and as something that befits our roles, our personae, and the offices and duties aligned with them.

First, though, consider a bit of his wisdom about costs, choices, commitments, and comprehensive ways of understanding and ordering one’s life:

To the rational animal only is the irrational intolerable; but that which is rational is tolerable. . . .  In short, if we observe, we shall find that the animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational; and, on the contrary, attracted to nothing so much as to that which is rational.

But the rational and the irrational appear such in a different way to different persons, just as the good and the bad, the profitable and the unprofitable. . . . But in order to determine the rational and the irrational, we use not only the of external things, but we consider also what is appropriate to each person. For to one man it is consistent with reason to hold a chamber pot for another, and to look to this only, that if he does not hold it, he will receive stripes, and he will not receive his food: but if he shall hold the pot, he will not suffer anything hard or disagreeable. But to another man not only does the holding of a chamber pot appear intolerable for himself, but intolerable also for him to allow another to do this office for him.

If, then, you ask me whether you should hold the chamber pot or not, I shall say to you that the receiving of food is worth more than the not receiving of it, and the being scourged is a greater indignity than not being scourged; so that if you measure your interests by these things, go and hold the chamber pot. “But this,” you say, “would not be worthy of me.” Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I; for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself; for men sell themselves at various prices.

So, one might reason, the price of contentment, the cost of employing my rational faculty or faculties to progressively make my own self, my way of life, my circumstances and relationships more and more fully in line with reason — for none of us start out entirely rational — is that I disentangle myself from whatever natural affections I’ve come to feel.

There certainly is a common image out there of Stoicism that interprets that philosophy, that deliberate mode of existence, along such lines.  A Stoic of that sort effectively withdraws his or her desires and aversions, fears and hopes, loves and hatreds, into him or herself, withdrawing from social or even familial bonds.

But, could that really be the good life, the more rational life, the life in which human beings are most fulfilled?  Epictetus himself doesn’t think so.   As a matter of fact, he addresses the issue of familial affection (philostorgia) at length in one of what might be called his “chew-someone-out discourses.  One of the people who came to consult him confesses:

I am so wretched about my children that lately, when my little daughter was sick and was supposed to be in danger, I could not endure to stay with her, but I left home till a person sent me news that she had recovered.

Epictetus asks him in response:

Well then do you think that you acted right?

And when the father attempts to excuse himself by saying that he acted naturally, he follows up:

But convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly.

The father tries the tack of saying that most fathers behave similarly, to which Epictetus responds:

I do not deny that: but the matter about which we are inquiring is whether such behavior is right; for in respect to this matter we must say that tumours also come for the good of the body, because they do come; and generally we must say that to do wrong is natural, because nearly all or at least most of us do wrong.

Several different senses of the term “natural” are in play here.  The father means by “natural” what most people — good or bad — tend to do.  One can also in this case speak of “natural” affection, concern, or fears towards or for one’s own child.  Then, there is the sense of “natural” as what ought to be the case, what would be most human, most rational, what would lead to or represent full development of a person.

Epictetus leads the man through dialogical question and answer to a point of realization:

Does affection to those of your family appear to you to be according to nature and to be good?

Well, is such affection natural and good, and is a thing consistent with reason not good?

Is then that which is consistent with reason in contradiction with affection?

You are right, for if it is otherwise, it is necessary that one of the contradictions being according to nature, the other must be contrary to nature. Is it not so?

Whatever, then, we shall discover to be at the same time affectionate and also consistent with reason, this we confidently declare to be right and good.

Well then to leave your sick child and to go away is not reasonable, and I suppose that you will not say that it is. . .  

This conclusion itself is an important achievement.  To fail to behave in an affectionate manner, along the lines that, even if one does not feel the appropriate emotion, one ought to act, one would be expected to act . . . to fail in that respect is actually to depart from the Stoic path.  In fact, one ought to feel affection — even though that does lay one in for possible loss, fear, trouble, when one’s child falls ill, or even dies.

Epictetus then continues the line of questioning.  He wants to know whether the father’s action is consistent with feeling affection towards his daughter, an emotional attachment which renders him vulnerable precisely because of the equal vulnerability of the one for whom he cares.

Did you, then, since you had an affectionate disposition to your child, do right when you ran off and left her; and has the mother no affection for the child?

Ought, then, the mother also to have left her, or ought she not?

And the nurse, does she love her?  Ought, then, she also to have left her?

And the pedagogue, does he not love her?  Ought, then, he also to have deserted her? and so should the child have been left alone and without help on account of the great affection of you, the parents, and of those about her, or should she have died in the hands of those who neither loved her nor cared for her?

Now this is unfair and unreasonable, not to allow those who have equal affection with yourself to do what you think to be proper for yourself to do because you have affection. It is absurd. Come then, if you were sick, would you wish your relations to be so affectionate, and all the rest, children and wife, as to leave you alone and deserted?

And would you wish to be so loved by your own that through their excessive affection you would always be left alone in sickness? or for this reason would you rather pray, if it were possible, to be loved by your enemies and deserted by them? But if this is so, it results that your behavior was not at all an affectionate act.

This highlights a critical point, passed over quickly above.  If it is not correct — at least in the case of Epictetus — to say that the Stoics regarded every emotion, every feeling, every affection as bad, it would be equally incorrect, or perhaps even more incorrect to swing to the opposite extreme and claim that every emotion or affection is therefore good.

A measure, a criteria, a sort of weighing and assessing is needed — one teased out by considering what being in accordance with nature really looks like — and Epictetus brings this concerned but off-base father to realize the irrationality of his own emotions, or, more properly, his response, what he does with and from his emotions.

This is far from an isolated or singular discussion, and Epictetus raises and explores similar issues, having to do with affection, familial or otherwise — in ways that display a much more favorable attitude towards such bonds than the first passage might seem to suggest — in many other portions of the Discourses.

Consider then that line again:

If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. 

Epictetus is not telling us: hold yourself back from your spouse, your child — or by extension, your parent, your friend, your family-member, your comrade, your lover, your companion, even your pet.

He is not counseling a cold prudence that calculates affection in the coin of probable loss, and therefore is never really there, present to the other, bonding with her or him.

He is emphasizing that we ought not imagine things — and likewise people — to be otherwise than they are, even if that fantasizing helps stave off the awareness that everything could be taken away at any time, the anxiety that this realization can produce or reveal.  We should look reality in the face, but also look our loved ones in the face in doing so, lovingly if we can, or affectionately at the least — to look at them as human, in the way a human ought to.


This post was originally published in Orexis Dianoētikē, Dr. Sadler’s main blog.

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, speaker, ethics educator, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 24,000 subscribers and 2.3 million views.

'Stoicism and the Human Condition' by John Sellars

Stoicism and the Human Condition

by John Sellars

John Sellars

A common remark about the recent revival of interest in Stoicism is that this is merely a reaction to current economic difficulties in parts of the developed world. In tough times people turn to Stoicism, so the story goes, but when all is well people have little interest in or need for Stoicism. This echoes Hegel’s account of Roman Stoicism written two centuries ago, claiming that their focus on self-transformation merely reflected the fact that they were powerless to change the world.

I don’t think this is right. Of course it may be true in some cases, but it hardly tells the whole story. Rather than see Stoicism as a response to current external circumstances, a sort of short-term therapy for current adversity, I would rather see it as a response to something more basic and fundamental about the human condition. The central ideas presented by the Roman Stoics all reflect in different ways on the fact that we are by nature finite beings, mortal and limited in our power.

Our lives are by their nature brief moments in time. As finite beings it is necessarily so that we cannot completely control the external world. We have no say whether we get ill or not, or precisely when we shall die. We can of course do what we can to influence these things, do things to secure our health, search for a cure for cancer, and so on, but we can never change the basic facts that we are mortal, we shall die, and all our loved ones will die. What time we do have is limited and we have no say over how much we shall have or when it will end.

This is not meant to sound overly pessimistic; it is simply stating a series of facts. Stoicism, like many other practically oriented philosophies, is a reflective response to these facts. Its insights can inform the way we look at both good and bad periods in our lives. Seneca advises that we reflect on how much is ultimately out of our control when things are going very well as much as when they are going badly. The successes we have are as much out of our control as our failures, both the product of chance and forces outside of us as much as they are due to our efforts. A Stoic attitude, then, ultimately ought to be one of humility in the face of forces much larger than ourselves. We are but momentary arrangements of matter soon to be dissipated and forgotten. As Samuel Beckett put it:

They give birth astride of a grave,
The light gleams an instant,
Then it is night once more.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:

Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.

These sorts of reflections have nothing to do with frustration about not being able to change the world for the better. Great wealth or political power do not make them go away, as the case of Marcus Aurelius himself amply illustrates. Instead they speak of something more fundamental about what it means to be a finite being, limited in power and duration, surrounded by forces that might overwhelm us at any moment.

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 a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections' by John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections

by John Sellars

John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). Some scholars have tried to downplay this remark, suggesting that as a rule members of all the Hellenistic schools had a strong sense of loyalty to the school’s founder, in this case Zeno of Citium.

Zeno founded the “school” in Athens around 300 BCE, after having studied with the Cynic Crates, the Megarian Stilpo, and Polemo in Plato’s Academy (Diog. Laert. 7.2). It was not Zeno but, so the story goes, the school’s third head Chrysippus of Soli who really developed Stoicism into a systematic body of thought. Chrysippus is reported to have written some 705 books (7.180). As Diogenes Laertius put it, “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa” (7.183). However the idea of a philosophy as an abstract system of thought is very much a modern one, gaining currency in the eighteenth century, even if the Stoics did emphasize the unity of their own philosophy (see e.g. Diog. Laert. 7.41-3). How unified Chrysippus’s “philosophy” was remains an open question. One of our most important sources is the later Platonist Plutarch who quotes seemingly contradictory passages from works by Chrysippus in order to show the contradictions inherent in Stoicism. Yet it is almost impossible to judge Plutarch’s claims when the quotations are all out of their original context. Contradictory passages might come from works written decades apart, for instance. If Chrysippus was the great philosopher many in antiquity claimed him to be then surely he could have developed his views and changed his mind over time. There may never have been a single unified thing that we could call “Chrysippus’s philosophy” consistently maintained over 705 books, even if some subsequent Stoics may have tried to summarize that vast output.

In the ancient world and for a long time after, histories of philosophy were written as histories made up of philosophers, not philosophies, with those philosophers grouped into schools. The story of the Hellenistic Stoa is above all a story about a series of individual philosophers who self-identified as “Stoics”. Initially this reflected the fact that the founding members of the school met at a particular place, the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in Athens, but over time came to reflect a commitment to a shared set of philosophical views. (It is worth noting that Zeno’s earliest followers called themselves “Zenonians”, only adopting the name “Stoics” later on (see Diog. Laert. 7.5). The change perhaps reflected a desire not to be bound by the doctrines of the founder.) Even so, as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another. Well-known examples include Aristo of Chios on the distinction between different types of “indifferents” (Diog. Laert. 7.160) and Boethus of Sidon on the cosmos being a living being (7.143). These both look like central Stoic doctrines, yet neither of these Stoics felt compelled to leave the school and they were not forced out by those they disagreed with either. Aristo is forever labelled a “heterodox Stoic” but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.

We might wonder whether there was indeed a core set of philosophical views to which all Stoics subscribed, or simply a set of philosophical family resemblances that meant no one doctrine was sacrosanct, or perhaps just an ever-developing tradition of thought that happened to be able to trace a line of succession back to Zeno’s gatherings at the Painted Stoa. However one might try to answer that question, the point I would like to make here is that the Hellenistic Stoa was itself a developing tradition of thought, founded by Zeno, strongly identified with Chrysippus, but embracing a wide range of other philosophers too, from Aristo and Cleanthes to Panaetius and Posidonius. In traditional accounts Panaetius and Posidonius are presented as so-called “Middle Stoics”, heterodox and eclectic when compared with their predecessors. The extent to which Posidonius, for instance, was heterodox has been challenged in recent years, but even if he were, the preceding variety and dispute within the school would not make him out of place. (To repeat: this is what philosophers do, they argue among themselves!) Even in the Hellenistic period, then, Stoicism was a rich and diverse movement, a complex living tradition.

The living tradition of masters and pupils who could trace their lineage back to Zeno was over by the end of the Hellenistic period. The last recorded heads of the school were Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Cicero, Acad. 2.69). Cicero, who wrote our earliest and in some ways most important accounts of Stoicism, visited Athens at a time when the Athenian schools were more or less at an end, but he did manage to attend the lectures of Posidonius in Rhodes, making him one of the last people to have first hand knowledge of the Athenian Stoic tradition. The first few centuries of our era saw many philosophers who explicitly identified themselves as Stoics but they now depended on texts for their knowledge of Athenian Stoic philosophy.

One of the first and most famous of these “text-based Stoics” was Seneca. Seneca embraced the title “Stoic” but was happy to draw on ideas from Epicurus when he found them reasonable (again: he was a philosopher, not a religious convert). He also studied in the philosophical school of Sextius, via whom he adopted a number of Pythagorean ideas and practices (and many of the practical exercises that Seneca exhorts and people now think of as distinctively “Stoic” in fact had their origins in Pythagoreanism). So Seneca drew on ideas from a number of sources but chose to self-identify as a Stoic. He was also in close contact with a number of others who embraced Stoicism, including his nephew Lucan, Cornutus, and the poet Persius who is reported to have owned a collection of more or less all of Chrysippus’s works. This was a new, local Stoic community of friends.

Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome and his lectures were attended by a slave called Epictetus, who would go on to found his own school in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece after gaining his freedom. Students at Epictetus’s school studied works by Chrysippus, while continually being reminded to apply Stoicism to their daily lives. Reports of Epictetus’s lectures were recorded by one of his students, the historian Arrian, and these proved to be a decisive influence on the young Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own notes “to himself” towards the end of his life. Again we see a mix of what we might call “text-based Stoicism” and the creation of new Stoic communities.

The texts of Chrysippus were still readily available during this period, as we can see from the frequent quotations in authors such as Plutarch and Galen; by late antiquity these were seemingly all lost. Since then the reception of Stoic ideas has been closely bound up with the transmission of texts either by later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) or by other, often hostile, authors reporting Stoic views. In the Latin West the principal sources were always Seneca and Cicero.

The reception of Stoic ideas since antiquity has differed from Roman Stoicism in two ways: first, later readers have taken Roman authors as their main source of information rather than having access to works by the Hellenistic Stoics; and second, the vast majority of those readers were for a very long time sincerely or otherwise publically committed to Christian doctrine and so did not affirm every Stoic idea they encountered. They welcomed some doctrines but rejected or were silent about others. In this they were no different from the Roman Stoics themselves or even many of the Hellenistic Stoics, as I have tried to show.

What does all this mean for the question “What is a Stoic?”? Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

The phrase “modern Stoicism” is a perfectly good one for referring to the recent upsurge of interest in Stoicism as a source of practical guidance for everyday life. It indicates that people don’t claim to be resurrecting an ancient system of thought as a whole, but instead taking what they find useful and applying it in a modern context. However it would be a mistake to think that “modern Stoicism” might be defined as a set of doctrines, in some way abstracting the core ideas of ancient Stoicism and updating them for the modern world, against which individuals might in some way be judged as “Stoics” or not (and which itself might be judged as not properly “Stoic” enough). Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.

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.

'How to Set Stoic Goals' by Rob Thompson

How to Set Stoic Goals

by Rob Thompson

Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.
Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.

For many years goals fixated me. I’ve long been a planner and a goal setter. In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps. Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this.

I’ve been learning a different way over the last few years. It’s a radical shift in thinking and doing, to a freer-flowing mode of being. I’ve realized two things:

  1. Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).
  2. Goals are not necessary (I thought they were for a long time, but they’re not).

To illustrate these points, take a typical day:

I wake and have a goal to exercise for a fixed period of time. Some days I hit my goal and I allow myself to feel good as I drive to work. If I woke later than planned and didn’t hit my exercise goal, I drove to work feeling bad. Once in my car, I have a goal to get to my job by a certain time. At work, goal achievement links to every activity. After work I go to the supermarket. I have a goal of buying everything on my shopping list. Across the whole day I try to walk far and long enough to hit a 10 000 step goal. I try to get eight hours sleep. In other words, I’m attempting to hit a goal even when I’m not conscious! During my evening meditation, I reflect back and decide if the day was a success or not. Areas for improvement revolve around the question, did I meet all of my goals or not?

So it’s fair to say that almost every activity we do has a purpose, a goal in mind. Do you define success as achieving similar goals? But what would happen if we gave up on goals? Could you still be a success? What would a life without goals be like?

Realise this: We often think goals are necessary to achieve something, but in reality they’re not.

Goals, as I define them, are something that has a set outcome … but why is that outcome the only good outcome? There are many, many great outcomes, and having a focus on one is too limiting.

Goals are completely made up, with not a lot of information about what will happen in the future as we work on them. We invent them, out of some fantasy of how we want the future to go, but in truth they’re not realistic. And we can’t predict or control how the future will go, so setting goals is a useless activity.

Without any specific goals you have to work out what success means for you, then ask if this definition is acceptable or not. What’s the point in chasing a goal, if when you get there you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted in the first place?

What does success look like?

I’ve realised that there are lots of ways of deciding what success looks like without goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon in less than 4 hours and cross the finish line in 3:59 you can say you were successful. Or you could say you were successful if you completed a marathon, the time being irrelevant. Or success could be that you tried to complete a marathon, regardless of if you finish or not. In all these scenarios you’ve tried your best, and whatever happens you’ve been a success. What more can you do than your best? Celebrate this effort, you deserve it.

If success for you is setting a goal and then achieving it, despite what life throws at you, then prepare yourself to deal with the negative feelings if you don’t perform to your desired level. On the other hand, if success is about doing your best then you will never fail and you can be happy with what you have done. By adopting this approach then you can deal with the uncertainty of life. Oliver Burkeman writes in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.

The Stoic Reserve Clause

So goals are attempts to deal with the discomfort of uncertainty. Why not embrace this uncertainty instead? To the Stoics acknowledging uncertainty became known as a “reserve clause” (exceptio). They combined intention and action together. From Seneca:

The Sage does not change his decision, if everything remains entirely what it was when he took it …. Elsewhere, however, he undertakes everything “with a reserve clause” … in his most steadfast decisions, he allows for uncertain events.

The safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune], though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: “I shall sail unless something happens”; and “I shall become praetor unless something prevents me”, and “My business will be successful unless something interferes”. That is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man against his expectations.

Marcus advises us:

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have some to you in the past and will come again in the future.


Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue. Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that the object of your existence is attained.

The Stoic understands that there are events outside of his control which affect actions and intentions. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals. Define success before you start on any activity and also work out what success will mean to you. There are choices. Success can be meeting the targets set, or effort, or both.

So how does it work? Well, to be honest, there’s no one way. But it goes a little something like this:

There are shades of grey and different levels and stages of success. Learn to accept that because you have made an effort this is more important than criticising yourself for not reaching total success. Once you do this then you can wake every day and feel a sense of gratitude. Grateful that you’re alive.

Then ask, “What do I feel like doing today?” At this point there are no constraints, but the question is important.

Start working on an activity you’re excited about, have fun doing it. Is that thing you’re doing a destination, a goal? Well, in some ways, yes, but it’s not fixed. There’s no set plan, and the destination doesn’t matter as much as the process, the journey.

An understandable mistake is to focus on results instead of the journey that achieves the results. The more time you spend in the journey itself, the more beneficial the results. The more time you spend focused on the results, the more negative the results.

As time passes you might shift as you go, depending on the flow of ideas. Working with others who might have ideas you didn’t foresee, on things that happen along the way. You couldn’t have predicted these things when you got started. So you have to adapt — no plan can predict all this, no goal would be adequate to the task.

You might even completely shift, if something new comes up, if a new opportunity presents itself. You let go of your idea of what today was going to be, because these ideas of what should be are lightly held. They mean nothing; the important thing is the flow.

No destination or goal matters if they are all good. Each step along the way, then, becomes the destination, and is exactly where you should be. Goals are a big illusion that our society believes in. You learn to be flexible instead of fixed. Learn to be good at change and uncertainty, instead of fearing it. And try your best while acknowledging what is outside of your control. If you can do this then there is no failure.

When we fixate on goals, we shut ourselves off to new opportunities that open up in different directions. These are opportunities that we couldn’t have foreseen when we started out. But because we’re fixated on the goal, we don’t allow ourselves to go in this new direction.

When we fail to reach this fantasy outcome (which is often), we feel bad. But if we let go of the fantasy, we can just enjoy the work.

When we fixate on achieving a future outcome, we are not looking at where we are, nor are we happy with where we are. We can’t be, because we are looking at the future goal, and this is what motivates us (not enjoying the moment).

When we have a future-oriented mindset, it doesn’t end if/when we achieve the goal. We achieve the goal, then immediately look to the next goal.

Always remember: the journey is all. The destination is beside the point.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu

How do you measure success? Do you use the reserve clause idea? Are you a goal setter, or not?  Please leave a comment below.

Rob Thompson lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. A couple of years ago he realised that he had fewer years ahead of him than behind him. This forced him to reflect on the meaning in his life. He started to question just what matters. In coming to terms with “himself” he realised that a large body of work could help. After some reading and reflection he found Stoic philosophy to make most sense. He maintains a blog, Prokopton.com which sets out to use this ancient wisdom in a practical way. By writing on Prokopton.com he hopes to keep himself accountable. He want to track his progress, construct a coherent world-view and give something back to wider community.