'The Police Officer as Stoic' by Peter Villiers

The Police Officer as Stoic

by Peter Villiers

Police officer

Albert Camus began his study of the rebel by asking:[1] “Who is a rebel”? The answer is someone who says no. We begin by asking: “Who is a Stoic?”. To which we answer, not necessarily someone who has read and absorbed the reflections of Marcus Aurelius, but again, someone who says no.

No to obsequiousness and flattery. No to career-mindedness. No to expecting that others, even members of his own profession, will understand and accept his values and motivation, which may be rather different to their own.  Most occupations, I would suggest, do not acknowledge and reward Stoicism. The Stoic, indeed, may be seen as eccentric; unsociable; not a team player: a useful person to have around during an emergency, perhaps, but not someone in whose presence others are always comfortable. The Stoic does what he believes to be right, not to impress others, but to impress himself.

Is virtue, then, its own reward? Not quite; for Stoicism does not rest upon any commonplace notion of reward or punishment, even if those concepts be individually generated and judged. The average police officer is not, we would suggest, a declared Stoic; and nor would it necessarily be beneficial if he were.

Nevertheless, the virtues of the Stoic are worth considering within the context of policing by consent. Police work is demanding. Contrary to its normal portrayal, the virtues it requires are patience; determination; the ability not to be deterred or distracted by irrelevant considerations; an awareness of human frailty and weakness, together with the ability to withstand a consequent assumption of cynicism – in a word, Stoicism.

These are not, however, the virtues for which police officers are necessarily rewarded; and the popular image in the media, in police recruiting publicity, and even in the carefully constructed memoirs of retired police officers, does not always reflect the reality of the work that will be encountered.

What do police officers actually do, on a day-to-day basis?  Work which, if they are honest, industrious and disinterested in their labour, reflects the virtues of Stoicism.


–     much of police work is dull;

–     nevertheless, it often presents a conflict of objectives;

–     the police do not direct the criminal justice system; and

–     victims are not always cared for, nor villains punished.[2]

How, then, are we to see police work as benefiting from being carried out from within a Stoical framework – especially as Professor Christopher Gill in his article on Stoic virtue, points towards a respect for justice as being one of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism? Let us examine the Stoic conception of justice a little further, within the context of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism.

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism Applied to Policing

Professor Gill explores the basis of Stoicism as resting on four values: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice. These four virtues are inter-related and mutually supportive, and none works on its own in the absence of the other three.How does this relate to policing?


A good police officer needs wisdom, in the sense of professional skill: what tends to be described in policing recruiting folklore as judgement.  A good police officer can prevent a riot, simply by the way in which he approaches a crowd; and a bad police officer can cause one.  What is the difference?  Something that cannot necessarily be taught, and is not necessarily acquired simply by experience: judgement.  (The capacity to reflect on experience, however, is an extremely useful characteristic in any police officer: and what are Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations but his own reflections on his own experience?  Was he the original ‘reflective practitioner’, and are we entitled to speculate as to how much he might have questioned the use of such a phrase?)


Courage is a necessary quality for any police officer: both physical courage and the moral courage to stand up for what he believes to be his duty, whether in the face of the mob or the disapproval of his own colleagues in the aftermath of an unpopular decision and action (such as in reporting one of them for a dereliction of duty.)

The Golden Mean

We may note here that Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean is of considerable value in considering the identification of the true meaning of courage.  We seek police officers who are neither recklessly impetuous (without fear, and therefore easily capable of putting their colleagues in avoidable danger), nor ‘lacking in moral fibre’, and therefore incapable of displaying courage when it is needed.

We may note, however, that the Stoically inclined police officer does not necessarily attack and blame his colleagues if they fail to show the qualities, in action, which he believes to be commensurate with good policing.  What counts is his behaviour.

Self-control or Moderation

Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing,[4] is supposed to have said that the police constable’s most important requirement was a perfect command of temper.  (We say ‘supposed’, for there is a certain element of myth about the foundation of the New Police, soon to become the Metropolitan Police Service under joint commissioners). Be they real or mythical, Peel’s words represent a fundamentally Stoic view, appositely expressed.


Police officers must desire to achieve justice (i.e. the notion that the guilty should be identified, arrested, tried, convicted and punished – and, we presume, that the virtuous should be rewarded), for otherwise their work lacks a justifying rationale.

Policing is in essence a moral activity, not in the sense that ethics and law coincide, although they should bear some relationship to each other, but in that a good police officer believes that criminal activity is not just illegal but wrong: although there is an infinitely adjustable scale of wrongness, and a working police officer makes good use of his discretion as to when and how to enforce the law.

We would expect the police officer to feel a healthy moral outrage at the carrying out of certain crimes, such as in the abuse of children; and to exercise an immoderate commitment towards their investigation.  As we have seen in regard to other virtues, however, moderation is generally desirable, and there is a fine but needed barrier between the passionate pursuit of justice and the blind desire for vengeance which is the hall-mark of the vigilante.

Police officers need to be aware that:

a) justice, however defined, cannot always be achieved;

b) that they play an investigative part in the criminal justice system, and not a judicial one.

Moreover, there is a necessary element of pragmatism to the police mentality.  The fundamental purpose of policing, where there is a conflict of objectives, is not to serve justice but to keep the peace.  Thus, for example, one does not arrest a leading criminal when his arrest at that time and place is likely to provoke a riot.  One hopes to do it later: for the police officer must be able to take a long-term view, and to cope with the frustration of his occasional inability to achieve a short-term objective.

Effective Policing by Consent Requires Stoic Qualities

The British police service attempts to put into practice the doctrine of policing by consent; and this places an additional demand on the virtue of the police officer. Before I can show how policing by consent requires Stoic qualities, let me explain in detail what policing by consent involves.

What does it mean, to police by consent?  In essence, it removes the supports of policing by authority on which the police officer might otherwise have relied, and places its major weight upon the shoulders of the individual police officer. Policing by consent rests upon the constitutional position of the police officer under common law, that he holds his powers as an individual and not as a subordinate.No one may order him to enforce the law, and to where, when and how it is his responsibility to do so.  Firstly, he has discretion, and there will be many occasions on which he may choose not to exercise his powers (but not to ignore his responsibilities.)  Secondly, although he has superior officers within the organisation, and the police service as a whole has some aspects of a military or paramilitary organisation, the image is a misleading one.  Senior police officers do not command, as do army officers; and the constable retains his original powers, for which he is accountable in court.  If asked: “Why did you arrest this man?”  The answer: “Because I was ordered to do so” is not the right answer. Furthermore, policing by consent is the opposite to policing by force, or, paradoxically, by authority. Policing by force is simply the exercise of brute strength; and, we would argue, the person being policed (the victim, as it were) is under no moral obligation to accept the dictates of the police officer, although he may well find himself physically compelled to do so. Policing by authority, however, is quite another matter; although it may also involve the use of force.  If the police force (or service: the choice of word is significant, at least in terms of aspiration) is policing by authority, then it has legitimacy, and the subject should accept the actions of the police officer as intended to serve the common good (provided, in modern terms, that those actions are within the law, and necessary, and proportionate – and so on.)

What does Policing by Consent Require?

What we shall argue is for key factors, a combination of which tends to suggest the presence of policing by consent, and an absence of a significant number of which may indicate or precipitate its withdrawal. Those factors are not necessarily constant over time, and nor are they finite in number. However, there is what we might call a critical combination of successful factors, which good police leaders need to keep in mind if they are to be able to continue to police without force, or with only such force as is tactically necessary.

                Those factors include:

  • upholding the rule of law, which means, most importantly, the police not seeing themselves as above the law;
  • not acting as a political police, but preferring to deal with ‘crime ordinary’;
  • maintaining a visible presence in the community;
  • remaining an unarmed and civil police, and not a paramilitary organization;
  • preferring to use persuasion rather than coercion where possible;
  • tending to use the official power of the law as a last resort;
  • attempting to balance the rival interests at stake in any conflict, and find a common sense solution in which no-one is an absolute loser;
  • emphasising the original authority and discretion of the constable as an officer of the law—which means considerable variation in how problems are dealt with;
  • playing a specific and constrained role in the criminal justice system;
  • defining its other duties inclusively rather than exclusively;
  • not being directly accountable to central government, but recognising and applying the principle of accountability in everything that it does;
  • attempting to be and remain locally recruited, responsive and accountable;
  • showing that the idea of the police as a friend in need is not entirely mythical.

Policing by consent is a renewable, organic and realistic doctrine. It implies that the police service engages with a dialogue with the public both as to its duties and modus operandi. That dialogue will, of course, include the propensity of the public to complain about the police. Complaints are a good thing, in that they indicate that the complainant believes that it to be both safe and worthwhile to make a complaint. The same logic applies to the police complaining about the public, for example in not volunteering information that would help to solve crimes.

Policing by consent is an organic doctrine. Its tenets cannot always be neatly separated into philosophy, doctrine or style; and it is not necessarily the case that top police leaders deal with policy, intermediate commanders with strategy, and more junior officers with tactics—although police training manuals would like to have us believe that this is so. In reality, policing by consent is an organic doctrine that cannot easily be separated into its constituent parts, nor applied by one section of a police service in isolation from its other parts.

Policing by consent is a realistic doctrine.One of the problems of the performance management culture, in its various manifestations, is the sometimes huge disparity between what the organization is supposed to be doing, according to its official policies, priorities and procedures, and what is actually going on. Our comments here are certainly not restricted to policing, but apply to other public sector organizations. We would suggest that what happens at street level is both the reality of policing, by definition, and more likely to correspond to the practice of policing by consent. Police officers are street-corner politicians, and their essential role is to negotiate between conflicting parties and find a way forward.[5]

The reality of policing by consent includes negative as well as positive factors. Policing by consent is not necessarily the best solution to any problem. It may not appear the most efficient way to make use of the resources available to the police; and it is bound to give rise to disparities between the apparent productivity of one force, unit or officer and another. We would argue, however, that improvements in efficiency do not necessarily lead to corresponding improvements in effectiveness; and that policing by consent is the most effective form of policing for the United Kingdom.

Returning to Stoicism: Why is Policing by Consent an Inherently Stoic Doctrine?

I now give three links between policing by consent and Stoicism, the first two being shared qualities of character which both require and the third being an example of the need to respond to a difficult situation with qualities that that situation demands.


Because, more than any other style of policing, it places a fundamental onus on the individual police officer to exercise his discretion on all occasions as to how to interpret and enforce the law.

A scrupulous and unaffected dignity

The police officer is, at least in theory, both omni-competent and autonomous; and his role requires the continuous exercise of judgement.  Moreover, there is an immense satisfaction to be obtained from proper police work, founded upon the principle of policing by consent, which allows the individual officer rise above, as it were, the inevitable restrictions and frustrations of his work.  As Gill puts it, translating Marcus Aurelius:

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

Listening and acting: a worked example

Policing by consent means, in effect, taking a variety of shades of opinion into account before choosing a course of action, and is therefore not always a popular option with the police service’s ‘natural’ supporters.  Consider the example of hunting.  Before hunting with dogs was banned under current legislation (2004), the police faced a considerable difficulty in policing hunts where protest was active.

The hunters, many of whom would have seen themselves as ‘natural’ supporters of the police, and indeed included magistrates, judges and police officers amongst their number, tended to see the role of the police as to ensure that protesters and ‘hunt saboteurs’ were stopped in their tracks and that the hunt was enabled to progress.  The protesters, on the other hand, and especially the saboteurs, tended to condemn hunting as a barbaric activity which should be stopped by any means possible.

And what of the police themselves?  My impression, from many conversations with police officers, was that they resented having their allegiance taken for granted – by either side.  Hunting was, before 2004, a lawful activity. On the other hand, peaceful and law-abiding protest was also a lawful activity: and a sensible police service supports and indeed facilitates the right to demonstration and legitimate if impassioned protest (and did so before the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into domestic law with effect from 2000 A.D. gave legal substance to what had been previously a common law tradition.)

What, then, are police officers to do, when faced with one group which is determined to sabotage the activities of another? It is here that Stoic qualities, once more, come into the picture. In short, the police officers are to look:

–    To do their duty honestly and vigorously, ‘without fear or favour’;

–    To be aware that they cannot please everyone, and that indeed by not ‘taking sides’ they are liable to be unpopular with both sides in any essentially arid confrontation; and

–    To be constantly aware that, if virtue is not necessarily its own reward, there is an absence of alternatives.  Policing by consent, whether in regard to managing protest, investigating domestic violence, or dealing with community conflicts, as well as an almost infinite range of other issues, requires a long term investment by the police officer, in the face of what may be unrealistic expectations – with the pay-off, as it were, remaining the sometimes somewhat grim satisfaction of doing one’s duty.


Police work, under any system or doctrine of policing, can place considerable demands on the individual police officer.Those demands are exacerbated under the doctrine of policing by consent, with its emphasis upon dialogue and negotiation, and its view of the exercise of brute force as a last resort – or rather, one of a range of tactics and possibilities open to the thinking police officer, rather than an immediate and obvious response (see, for example, controversies in the use of TASER.) The good police officer finds the golden mean in his choice of behaviour; does not expect too much of the public, or indeed of his colleagues on some occasions; and maintains a cautious and pragmatic optimism in his view of human nature. He is neither naive nor unduly cynical, and is prepared to accept failure as a part of his work.  Policing has been described as a Sisyphean task.  Is it?  Quite possibly: but it has to be done.

We could supply many references on the meaning and doctrine of Stoicism, as an academic pursuit.  Need we do so?  Let us rather conclude our main argument by saying what it means to be Stoic, as the adjective is used in everyday speech. To be Stoical means to be able to accept what fate has to offer, with neither despair nor disillusionment.  To accept disappointment, if not with equanimity, then with a full command of one’s emotions.  And to continue to believe in doing one’s duty.  In this sense, it is a good creed for a working police officer – whether policing by authority or consent. The rewards, in other words, come from within.


[1]  Camus, Albert (2000) The Rebel Penguin Modern Classics.

[2] (eds.) Adlam, Robert and Villiers, Peter (2003) Police Leadership in the 21st Century:Philosophy, Doctrine & Developments, Waterside Press, Winchester, p.3 and passim.

[3] Adlam and Villiers (2003).

[4] Ker Muir Jr., William (1977) Police: Street Corner Politicians, Chicago, p.7.

Peter Villiers served as a army officer in the 1970s, working closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the height of the troubles.  He went on to join the directing staff at the national police staff college at Bramshill in Hampshire, where he gained a wider knowledge of policing as a global enterprise; began to write about policing; and ended his formal employment as head of human rights.  He has published a large number of books, articles and essays on policing, ethics and human rights, some in company with his fellow tutor and author, Dr Robert Adlam. Peter Villiers is a Stoic by inclination rather than by training, what follows is a result of personal reflection rather than a course of study. It has become increasingly clear to him that the virtues of a Stoic are the virtues of a good police officer, and in this essay he relates those virtues to the requirements of policing by consent.

'Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism' by Garry Bannister

Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism

by Garry Bannister


If I were not a Buddhist, I would most likely be a Stoic. There are huge similarities between Modern Stoic philosophy and Western Buddhist teachings.  Amidst these there are three that I would like to examine in this essay. Firstly, the mutual belief in our innate ability to produce our own personal happiness. Like Buddhists, Stoics believe that happiness is not about the acquisition of assets such as money, celebrity or social position but by developing what we, in Buddhism, might call ‘skilful means’. In Stoic philosophy this same understanding is seen as learning how to develop the pertinent qualities that are essential for a human life; the development of ‘The Virtues’ such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.  Secondly, that all sentient beings are naturally beings who want to know and acquire a better understanding and a better world. This in Buddhist terms is known as ‘basic goodness’ or our ‘Buddha nature’.  Stoics would more probably refer to this phenomenon as a natural propensity to help others; an innate altruism which is common to all human and animal life. Like modern Western Buddhist practice, Stoics are encouraged to get involved in family life, in social and political activities[1] and to understand that we are, all of us, members of the one human family; we are brothers and sisters wherever we may be.  This is extremely close to the Buddhist teaching of ‘oneness’ and ‘non-separation’ or in modern philosophical terminology, the teaching of ‘non-duality’.  Finally, like Buddhists, Stoics, in their own particular way, affirm the importance of mind and hold that the universe itself is permeated by a providential principle of rationality and reason which in turn give shape and form to an intelligible universe, the understanding of which can generate a system of beliefs that informs our attitudes and desires in the most positively beneficial and constructive ways.

Before I start I want to explain clearly that the editor has asked me to write a account of my own personal Buddhist journey of 30 years in relation to what I have read and understood about Modern Stoicism.  I must also admit that I have only a nodding acquaintance with some of the principle themes of Modern Stoicism; only what I have gleaned from a very limited number of source-texts, academic publications and recently organised seminars. Therefore what I write is not in any way, shape or form a case of orthodox Western Buddhist teachings being compared to Stoicism but rather a few meagre offerings from one very idiosyncratic Buddhist practitioner.

It was a number of the fascinating articles that I read in the first publication of this journal that first attracted my attention to many aspects of Stoic Philosophy and which immediately inspired me to read once again the magnificently written Discourses of Epictetus [2] and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. [3]  However, my main focus in this short essay will be on the modern movement itself which is being impressively lead by Christopher Gill of Exeter University and by Patrick Ussher in a myriad of seminars and well-organized gatherings in Britain and now also in the US.

I preface my meanderings by saying that often where Stoicism draws a line in the sand, Buddhist practice and teachings do not.  There is a transcendence in Buddhist teachings that is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘crazy wisdom’ or Koans[4]. Both Modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism are, however, obviously firmly rooted in the natural world; in our private and public interactions, our relationship to our environment and neither speak of some other path or way forward rather than by advocating unequivocally the application of wisdom[5] to all our interactions with this world and in our personal relationships with one another; be those relationships private, professional, social, political or any other.

When I say Stoicism ‘draws a line’, I am not implying or trying to insinuate from my perspective that Stoicism is, in anyway, somehow less than Buddhism but rather that it focuses itself on a different set of outcomes.  The example, I would give here is the difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Jeep.  These both can travel equally well along the highway. However, off-road perhaps a Jeep might well be a better choice of vehicle. Then again, if I were planning a long journey across Europe, a Mercedes Benz, I imagine, would be a more preferable choice. But first all, let us look at what Buddhism and Stoicism have in common.

As soon as the Buddha, Siddhartha, sits under the Bodhi tree in order to attain enlightenment, it is said that the devil, Mara, who in reality represents the unruly inclinations of the human mind, brings before him his daughters.  At first, they try to seduce him and then, when this fails, attempt to induce fear and terror in the Buddha.  But Siddhartha remains completely unperturbed and free of his passions – both the lustful passions of desire and also any experience of revulsion, or the passions of aversion.  Now if we look at this tale in the light of what Epictetus tells us, we quickly discover that when the prokoptôn, or the person wishing to follow the Stoic way, embarks upon developing “The Virtues”, that person will, we are told, consequently bring about his or her own eudaimonia or happiness.  Like most Ancient Greek words, the word, eudaimonia, has a more differentiated meaning than its English equivalent.  Eudaimonia in its original Greek meaning is happiness as in a form of a ‘flourishing of life’. It is a happiness that has within its constituent parts ‘ataraxia’ – imperturbability, ‘apatheia’ – freedom from passion or aversion and ‘eupatheiai’ – a sense of good feelings.  So these aspects of the desired Stoic ‘eudaimonia’ or enlightened state, are also key in the relationship of Siddartha to the daughters of Mara where he shows both imperturbability ‘ataraxia’ and ‘apatheia’ leading subsequently to  ‘eupatheiai’  or in Buddhist terms Nirvana.  It is quite clear that so far there is complete concurrence here with Buddhist thinking.  Where perhaps, Buddhist thinking diverges from the Stoic world-view, is when Stoics speak of our inability to change certain things because they are “outside our power” to do so. Stoicism would certainly hold to the position of there being many things that cannot be changed or influenced such as the fact that we are all going to die, that we, as conscious beings, will cease to exist and this is outside of our control and so must be accepted as such, if we are to proceed wisely focussing our energies and attention on those things in our lives that can be changed.  For Stoics, this philosophy is about life now, at this very moment, and living each moment in the most wise and positive way. However, in my own personal Buddhist understanding there is no such thing as death.  Death, illness, the world itself are all part of mind – an illusion. So what then is real?  Only experience is real.  The experience of pain, joy, the physical world, the world of forms is very real but its actual essence is empty and devoid of any real substance.  This, I believe, is a massively significant difference between the two philosophies and has far-reaching consequences as Buddhism interprets the observable material world as a manifestation of mind rather than “a-thing-in-itself”. This Buddhist belief brings with it the understanding that there is nothing outside of awareness and consciousness. So in philosophical terms, if Buddhism might be placed closer to the solipsism of George Berkley, Stoics would most probably be nearer to the worldview of John Locke. [6]

There have been a number of heated discussions in the past couple of years between Modern Stoics, in regard to interpersonal detachment.  Professor Gill addresses this issue in one of his seminars on Stoicism where he raises the concerns of scholars such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum who consider that Stoic detachment might possibly hinder a fuller and more loving commitment to others due to a distancing of oneself or a remaining, to some extent, aloof from others.  In Stoic terms, Professor Gill directs our attention to two strands of development. Firstly, the development of wisdom and secondly our involvement in sustained interaction with those in our personal spheres and with those in public or global communities.  He points to the Stoic understanding that we are all brothers and sisters with one shared humanity and that Stoics have always maintained that there is an innate desire in humans and animals to look after and care for others. Wisdom dictates that there are no frozen truths in how to behave and he brings the example of a parent staying by the bed of its very sick child, rather than doing something “useful” like going to work.

However here again there is a notable difference in my Buddhist approach.  ‘Non-attachment’ in Buddhist terms is the realization that there is in fact no ‘other’ ‘oneness’ is ‘non-separation’ and so ‘non-attachment’ is our ability to let go entirely of any concept of duality, i.e. the mistaken idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a ‘me’ and a ‘what is not me’. We have seen this realization ermerge recently, albeit in a rather cloaked fashion, with popular protest slogans such as: “Je suis Charlie… Je suis Muslim… Je suis Juif… etc”. This solidarity phenomenon is now appearing spontaneously across the globe after major tragedies or any major acts of unethical aggression.  People instinctively feel today that they are one brotherhood and as Shakespeare’s Shylock put it so well “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”  This human unity of our nature and being is very clearly emphasized and understood by the Stoics, but unlike Buddhism, there is a recognized separation inherent in Stoic teaching – a ‘me’ and a ‘not-me’.  In Stoicism the world is populated by individuals working together to achieve a mutual happiness or flourishing, whereas in Buddhism – there is no self, merely habituations and there are no individuals – simply a deluded conscious awareness misguided by a misleading world of perceptions[7].  So when a Stoic speaks about ‘interpersonal detachment’ – it makes little sense to a Buddhist like me as there is nothing to be detached from, except perhaps, our deluded perceptions.  The central teaching in regard to ‘non-attachment’ in Buddhism is compassion and pure compassion is ultimate wisdom.  Chögyam Trungpa[8] once defined compassion as “fearless generosity” and this is what the Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ means in it fullest sense.

Now if we return to Stoic ‘interpersonal detachment’ we can perhaps now see that it is, in fact, a subset of ‘non-attachment’. And hence the principal of Buddhist non-attachment would, for me, provide a more comprehensive answer to those concerns raised by Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum.  If we ask ourselves what would the compassionate person do (i.e. the wise person) then there is no doubt that he or she would organise their actions in such a way as to lessen the distress and the pain of “others” no matter what “personal” cost (or courage) that might entail.

Finally, from what I have read on Stoicism, our belief-systems also enjoy other similarities. If Buddhism is, as the Dalai Lama suggests “a science of mind” then Stoicism is every inch a science of mind. Modern Stoicism is an uncompromising investigation into the workings and the relationships of mind with the world.  The belief in a Providential and rational world implies that the universe is intelligible and, according to the ancient Stoics at least, benign.  Both philosophies also construct their beliefs, not from sacred texts, but from negotiable beliefs that have been wrought and derived out of human experience.  Texts are, of course, consulted in both Buddhist and Stoic debates but are not the dogmatic glue of either philosophy.  In the case of Buddhism, the differing traditions have a wide variety of texts according to their specific lineages and as for the Stoics, they gather together their various strands of thought from a wide variety of sources that have been developed through wise and intelligent observations in all areas of human activity from the writings of Emperors to the deliberations of modern psychologists. But for both it is within the mind itself that all heaven and hell are created and reside. One very telling text from Marcus Aurelius explains clearly this central understanding in Stoic reasoning which I’m sure Modern Stoicism would also endorse. In this particular passage, Marcus Aurelius is observing how people are generally inclined to go off somewhere, to a different place far away; to a retreat or off to the coast in order to relax and find some peace. But in the text Aurelius wisely, to my mind, observes:

“…this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.  There is nowhere that person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.” [9]

If this excellent translation does not implicitly imply that we should seek solutions within oneself then Marcus Aurelius again emphasizes his point by recommending that we all should constantly give ourselves time-out for this inner personal retreat in order to renew and replenish our lives.[10]

And Aurelius is right, we are frequently inclined to think that if only we could manage to go somewhere else, or to acquire some particular item then we would achieve true contentment but my Buddhist practice has shown me over the years the exact opposite, i.e. that Nirvana is not achieved by the acquisition of anything material but rather by the removal of that which obscures and creates confusion.

So, if I’m correct, that the bedrock of Modern Stoicism is a deeply compassionate philosophy rooted in rationality, logic and analytical observation of the natural world around us, it is therefore, in its essence, fundamentally materialistic and follows to some greater or lesser extent a Feynmanian[11] attitude, whereas my understanding of Buddhism would be, hopefully, an eventual transcendence of the very beliefs and science that inform the precepts of my perceived worldview.  There is a wonderful and greatly celebrated Buddhist tale which, for me, quintessentially identifies this key and very basic distinction between the two philosophies.  And it goes like this:

Hui-Neng was totally illiterate and looked after himself and his elderly mother by collecting and selling firewood.  One day Hui-Neng was going about his business when he heard some verses being recited from the Diamond Sutra[12].  He was so impressed by this that he immediately went to the monastery of the 5th Patriarch, Hung-Jen.  Hung-Jen took Hui-Neng into his monastery to do menial tasks. Eventually however, it was time to choose a new Patriarch. Shen-Hsui was the most intellectually brilliant of all the monks in the Monastery and so he composed a poem to prove that he was worthy of the position:

“The Body is the Bodhi tree, The mind – a mirror bright, Take care to keep it dust-free, So it may reflect the light”

Shen-Hsui’s verse, like Marcus Aurelius in his meditations, urges us to maintain clarity in our thinking and constant vigilance in regard to our behaviour, for only then shall we cultivate and maintain a mind that is “in good order”.  Nonetheless Hui-Neng was not greatly impressed by this and so he decided to compose his own poem:

‘In truth there is no Bodhi tree, No mirror on a stand, There’s nothing there but emptiness, No place for dust to land.’

After reciting this poem, Hui-Neng was installed as the 6th Patriarch but he had to run for his life from the other monks and go into hiding. Buddhist practice is not about dealing with life, it is life. It’s aim is to reflect the true nature of the mind its reality which is, in Buddhist terms, absolute emptiness.

Therefore, may I end this short essay by commending all my Stoic friends whose philosophy in worldly terms offers, for all those who practise it correctly, clarity of mind, an ordered and purposeful life, but most importantly of all a deep inner eudaimonia or happiness that cannot and will not be frustrated by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.  I am firmly convinced that it is those who follow such a resourceful philosophy who will, in the end, achieve their personal dreams and aspirations by accessing their own maximum inner potential… fearlessly, wisely and of course, with good temperance. It is undoubtedly people with such a mindset as the Stoics, who will become the best captains of industry, the most honest politicians, the wisest and the wealthiest in this material world while alas, I and my Buddhist friends will be still up a mountain somewhere in Tibet, watching our village being ransacked by hostile invaders.  But, I suppose, that is why I am a Buddhist and not a Stoic.

Garry Bannister was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1953. His first encounter with Buddhism was at the age of 16 when a friend purchased a book of Buddhist Koans.  It was not until his mid thirties, however, that he became a practising Buddhist.  At first, it was Zen that attracted his interest because of its simplicity and minimalism.  Bannister has a wide experience in various western Buddhist teachings and presently practises Nichiren Buddhism. He attended Trinity College Dublin where he studied Irish and Russian. On receiving a scholarship, he went to Moscow State University where he graduated with an MA in Russian language and literature and also, later, successfully defended a PhD in comparative linguistics.  Bannister’s main interest today is the Irish language and its literature. He has many publications in this area and is presently working at St Columba’s College, Dublin.

Notes [1] The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1, Soka Gakkai: “No worldly affairs of life or work are ever contrary to the true reality….the Lotus Sutra  explains that in the end secular matters are the entirety of Buddhism.” (page 1126). [2] Our knowledge of the philosophy of Epictetus and his method as a teacher comes to us mainly via two works composed by his student Arrian, The Discourses and the Handbook. [3] One of my main references being Prof. Gill’s Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013). [4] A ‘koan’ is a story that points to the ultimate nature of reality. Paradox is essential as it transcends conceptual or logical thought. [5] I would argue that in both Stoicism and Buddhism wisdom is key because if we are wise then we will undoubtedly be courageous, just and capable of maintaining self-control. [6] This is a very loose comparison just to illustrate the huge chasm that lies between the metaphysical and the materialistic strands in philosophy. [7] In Mahayana schools reality is often described in terms of two truthsrelative and absolute. Relative truth can be either perverted relative truth or pure relative truth.  The example is often given of a person observing a rope and perhaps believing the rope to be a snake (i.e. perverted relative truth)or another person who sees the rope as a rope (i.e. pure relative truth… perhaps the stoic view?). Whereas absolute truth is the understanding or realization that there is no rope there at all. [8] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Tibetan monk who came to Britain in 1960’s an is the founder of Shambhala Buddhism in the West; one of the largest Western Schools of Modern Buddhism. [9] Prof. Christopher Gill – Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013); Book 4, section 3. [10] ibid. “So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself” [11] ‘Feynmanian’ –  a word I made up myself, based on the modus operandi of the world famous scientist, Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) whose approach to investigating all phenomena of the natural world was consistently rooted in factual observation. James Gleicksummed Feynman’s approach up as “What scientists create must match reality.” from ‘Genius, The life of Science of Richard Feynman’ (1992) page. 324. [12] The Diamond Sutra is a very ancient text containing a discourse between the Buddha and one of his senior monks, Subhuti

'How to Become Virtuous' by Tim LeBon

How to become virtuous – Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)

by Tim LeBon

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus AureliusMeditations 6.21

Many people are attracted to Stoicism because it seems to  offer something more profound than the usual self-help palliatives. Stoicism proposes philosophy as a foundation for wise living. One aim of the Stoicism Today project has always been to increase awareness of Stoic ideas and practices. The Stoicism Today team has written booklets, recorded guided meditations, started Facebook groups and given workshops at annual conferences to help spread Stoicism.  At the same time it has aimed not merely to disseminate information about Stoicism but also to test Stoicism out and develop it into a modern Stoicism. To this end the Stoicism Today team has designed and administered  questionnaires, emphasised  some elements of Stoicism more than others  and incorporated a number of ideas from contemporary psychology. Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.21) alludes to one way to achieve personal and philosophical growth, namely to treat criticism as useful feedback. In this article I want to tackle two criticisms of Stoicism. By addressing them I hope to  work towards making Modern Stoicism  even more wise and helpful.

Two comments about Stoicism have  given me particular cause for reflection. One came from participants at the  London Stoic Conference  of  2014.   They pointed out that whilst many speakers had talked the importance of virtue, they hadn’t fully explained what virtue was or how we could become more virtuous.  My Stoicism Today colleague Christopher Gill has since responded to the question  What is Stoic virtue?.[i]  He points out that the cardinal virtues are not plucked out of thin air.

“Taken together they [the virtues]  make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection”

The Stoic cardinal virtues then are key qualities required to flourish as a human being. Here I will look at the second part of the question – how to become more virtuous. To be sure there is already much in Stoicism and the Stoic Week handbook  about  developing virtue. This is not the place to rehearse the  plentiful advice contained in the handbook. On careful examination, though, it could be argued that much of this (for example counsel such as “control the controllables” and “only virtue really matters”) relates more to to Stoic wisdom  than the other specific virtues.  One approach would be to collect all the Stoic maxims we can find about specific virtues – and this would actually be a very useful thing to do – the question is – what else can we do?

How to best build justice, self-control, courage, wisdom and other virtues is essentially an empirical question. One of the key take-home points from contemporary psychology is this:- Whilst  some plausible methods  turn out to work well, other, equally plausible ideas do not.[ii] Thinking about how to develop virtue in our armchairs will only get us so far. A promising idea is to look at  modern evidence-based psychologies to see if they can tell us anything about how to develop virtue.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness

Two obvious candidates are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness.  Perhaps they could help us be more virtuous.  Although the focus of CBT is traditionally on reducing emotional distress rather than building virtue, CBT has a huge evidence base and should not be dismissed too lightly. We can certainly use CBT to help us develop the habit of thinking  more realistically and constructively, which is definitely part of wisdom.  Furthermore CBT practitioners have developed a large toolkit of techniques that can be adapted to build individual virtues. Behavioural experiments, guided discovery, exposure to feared situations, thought records and   formulation – to name but a few CBT tools – could all be adapted to help develop virtue. [iii] For example, to build courage you could challenge unhelpful negative thinking (“great harm will come to me if I tell the truth”) and develop behavioural experiments – for example “plan to do one act of courage today, record your predictions as to negative and most likely outcomes, note what happens and decide what you can learn from the experiment”. To build self-control you could learn to challenge thinking biases that contribute towards a lack of self-control. For example, you could challenge the short-term bias of the thought “What I gain in the short-term is more important than what I lose in the long-term”. CBT could also help you  environments more conducive to virtue. For example “In order to go out for a run every day I will put my running clothes next to my bed so I put them on when I get up.” Donald Robertson’s Stoic self-monitoring record sheet is an excellent example of  how  drawing  on CBT has already helped modern Stoicism teach us how to build the virtue of wisdom –  see also  my Stoic worry tree.

A second candidate is Mindfulness.  Mindfulness has become part of the Zeitgeist, there is proven benefits that it can help [iv], and there is a good argument for incorporating mindfulness  into Stoic Practice.[v]  Learning mindfulness – the capacity to take a step back and respond rather than react –  could certainly be a  useful part of virtue training. However, there is reason to doubt whether learning mindfulness is there is to learning to be virtuous.

One problem is that mindfulness without the rest of virtue mindfulness could actually do harm. As Mathieu Ricard  – a veteran of thousands of hours of mindfulness and a well-known exponent of mindfulness – points out – “a sniper waiting for his victim: … To succeed in his ominous goal, he has to ward off distraction and laxity, the two major obstacles to attention. The practice of mindfulness thus needs to be guided by right view and insight  …and motivated by the right intention”. In other words, mindfulness needs to be guided by virtue and wisdom –otherwise it can be used in the service of morally indifferent of even evil ends – such as becoming a more skilled sniper.

So far we have found two evidence-based psychologies that can help us provide tools to develop virtue – CBT and mindfulness. We can and should incorporate these ideas into our approach – but it would be even better if we could find an evidence-based approach already uses these ideas and is more focussed on building virtue rather than part of virtue. We will return to this quest, after considering the second criticism of Stoicism that has given me much food for thought.

This objection will already be   familiar to many readers. Some critics say that Stoicism  comes across as a cold, unemotional philosophy, perhaps thinking of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Unfortunately, this impression isn’t restricted to those who are ignorant of Stoicism. No less a philosopher than  Martha Nussbaum  has gone on record as saying that   ”Stoicism  is an anti-compassion tradition“. Of course, Nussbaum’s view is highly contentious. Unlike Epicureanism, its ancient rival, Stoicism has always had a strong political dimension. Hierocles’s concentric circles  provides ample  illustration of  Stoicism’s benevolent concern for the whole of mankind.  Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about Stoicism not really being compassionate, but about how Stoicism presents itself. Maybe Stoicism  needs to put its most compassionate foot forwards.

However it isn’t just compassion to others that’s an issue, it’s also compassion to oneself. A couple of years ago, after I gave a workshop which included the Evening Meditation exercise, someone came up to me and said “This is all very  interesting, Tim, but I’ve got a bit of  a history about being hard on myself, and my worry is that this material will make it worse”.  It has to be agreed that the language of Marcus and Epictetus does  not always appear very self-compassionate. To take a few  examples from Marcus’s Meditations

 “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul.” (2:6)

 “Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one” (10:16)

“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life”. (9.37)

It could very reasonably be argued that Marcus knew this was the best way of giving himself a good pep talk, and that he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else would be motivated by the same language. Marcus was, as far as we know, writing his Meditations purely for himself. However unlike Marcus, we are writing for a broader audience, including those who already have a tendency to be too self-critical. So perhaps we need to be mindful of the dangers of using compassionate language which isn’t compassionate.

So far we have looked at two  apparently separate topics. First, how to help people become more virtuous. Second, how Stoicism might benefit from presenting  itself in a more compassionate and self-compassionate manner. It would be very good news indeed if there was an evidence-based therapy that addresses both of these concerns.

Compassion-Focussed Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training

It’s entirely possible that there is such a therapy, and it’s name is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)  and its related set of practices Compassionate Mind Training(CMT).[vi]  CFT  is an integrative, evidence-based,   third-wave CBT therapy developed largely in the UK by psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues.  CFT draws on ideas from CBT and mindfulness as well as neuroscience (e.g. Porges’s polyvagal theory.), developmental psychology (e.g. attachment theory) and philosophy, especially Buddhist ideas relating to compassion.

 A key idea  is that we have three emotional regulation systems. These are

  1. The threat system, associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger, which motivates us to deal with threats
  2. The drive system, associated with dynamic positive emotions such as excitement and achievement which motivates us to move towards pleasure and success and
  3. The soothing  and affiliative system which is associated with calm positive emotions such as contentment and trust, which manages distress and promotes bonding. [vii]

Each state has typical emotions, motivations and neurochemistry. The ultimate aim  of  CFT/CMT is to develop a compassionate self which is strong enough to achieve optimal emotional balance between these three emotional systems.

In order to do this, CFT/CMT  takes people through a number of stages, as follows:-

1)       Clearing up misconceptions about what is meant by compassion. A key point is that there is much more to compassion than just being kind and warm. CFT/CMT follows the Dalia Lama in defining compassion as

“a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”.

To do this, you need much more than just sentimental warmth and kindness. If you ask people for examples of compassionate people, they will give you names like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and  Gandhi. These people may be are warm and kind, but they are also courageous, strong, wise and responsible.  When CFT/CMT tries to build compassion, it also tries to build these other qualities.

It was when reading this that I had one of those “Aha” moments. Virtue in ancient philosophy means justice, courage, wisdom and self-control. Compassion in CFT/CMT is sounding  a lot like like virtue in Stoicism and ancient philosophy. If CFT/CMT provides an evidence-based route to building “compassion”, could this help us with building virtue?

2)      The second stage of CFT/CMT is psychoeducation about the brain, including the new brain and old brain, the amygdala and the three emotional regulations systems. An important message here is that we all have “tricky brains” and many of us have difficult pasts.  The behaviours that cause  you problems are not your fault.  However learning to  deal skilfully with your reactions and tricky brain is your responsibility.   Note that CFT/CMT uses truly compassionate language – combining warmth and non-judgement with the need for courage and responsibility.

3)     The next [viii]  stage of CFT/CMT involves building up and strengthening the compassionate self. These include:-

  • Soothing Compassionate Breathing. Breathing more slowly and deeply than usual for a few minutes to get into the habit of getting the soothing and affiliative system on line
  • Safe Place Guided Meditation.  Imagining a safe, welcoming place to help get the soothing and affiliative system on line.
  • Mindfulness Learning how to choose a response rather than merely react
  • Ideal Compassionate Self Guided Meditation.  Having got the soothing system on line first with soothing breathing, imagining yourself having the qualities of compassion –kindness, confidence, maturity, strength and authority, wisdom and insight– and imagining acting in a compassionate way.
  • Ideal Compassionate Other Guided MeditationImagining compassion flowing to you from another ideally compassionate being, imagining what advice they would give you – to help you  build up the feeling of what it is like to feel compassion.
  • Compassionate Letter WritingUsing expressive writing to understand your problems compassionately and planning how to deal with them more skilfully.
  • Behavioural experiments Testing out more helpful strategies that cultivate compassion and self-compassion.

Can CFT/CMT help Modern Stoicism?

We are now in a position to explore whether CFT/CMT can help.   Modern Stoicism and CFT/CFT have many similarities but there are also important differences.

  • Stoicism is routed in philosophy, so we can expect  from Stoicism more insight into the nature of wisdom as well as the  many ancient practices and readings to develop it to draw on
  • CFT/CMT is routed in modern science, so we can anticipate that it is based on a contemporary understanding of the brain   (“in accordance with nature”) and will include  many evidence-based techniques

Table 1 below gives a more complete comparison of some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and CFT/CMT



Aims to build Stoic Wisdom and Virtue Aims to  build Compassion (which it turns out means building other virtues)
Early morning meditation & Negative visualisation  to help prepare for the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Self meditation to help prepare for difficult situations and build compassion and other positive qualities
Evening meditation & “sage on your shoulder” to help review the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Other meditation to help get a sense of compassion and reflect on how to deal well with difficult situations
Marucs Aurelius’s Meditations – his own personal diary to help him develop Stoic virtue Compassionate Letter Writing – expressive writing to help people develop a compassionate stance to themselves 
Recognises the need to be vigilant so “first  movements” so they don’t turn into full-blown negative emotions  Developing Soothing Compassionate Breathing & Mindfulness, first as exercises, then in difficult situations, to calm down the threat and drive systems and bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line so the compassionate self gets a chance to respond
To some extent, a reputation for being cold and unemotional Whole focus is on being more compassionate and self-compassionate
Based on ancient philosophy Based on  science including neuroscience and psychology

Table 1: Stoicism and CFT/CMT – a comparison

5 Practical Ideas for Modern Stoicism

I believe that there is the potential for a powerful synergy between Stoicism and CFT/CMT. To conclude, here are five  practical ideas which address the two concerns raised and could help Modern Stoicism be wiser and more helpful.

1)      Use the language of compassion and self-compassion

If we start to use more compassionate language, then there is less risk Stoicism will be confused with a non-compassionate or even anti-compassionate practice.  Here are some good sayings to try out

  • “We are all fallible human beings.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “You can’t choose what’s happened to you so far – your genes, your upbringing – but you can choose how you respond to it.”
  • “Work towards being the best possible version of yourself.”

All of these are often used in CFT/CMT  and would l I believe would sit well in Stoic Training.

2)      Learn soothing breathing and mindfulness so you have a better chance to notice the “first movements” and bring the green soothing system on line.  Here are some links to recordings:- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/resources/audio.htm

3)      Use CFT-informed Compassionate Self meditations as rehearsals for the day ahead and for challenges you face in general. These are eyes closed exercise, starting with soothing breathing. Like an actor, you  imagine yourself with all the elements of virtue – wisdom, courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You  imagine yourself behaving in a virtuous way, even when difficulties arises.  This is obviously similar to the morning meditation and negative visualisation – the value added is in incorporating ways to bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line and to rehearse using specific virtues.

4)      Use CFT-informed  ideal compassionate-other  meditations to review how you’ve done in the day in facing life’s challenges. Again, this is an eyes closed exercising starting with soothing breathing. You   Imagine an ideal virtuous other  – someone who fully embodies the virtues – wisdom (including Stoic wisdom), courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself  interacting with this being – and that they are encouraging you, being warm to you, and also helping you become the best version of yourself. [ix]

5)      Blending CMT/CFT/CBT/Mindfulness & Modern Stoicism

The Idea is to blend Stoic ideas about wisdom and other specific virtues using compassionate language and evidence-based methods like soothing breathing, mindfulness and compassionate self meditations.  Over Stoic week 2015  I wrote a script for several of these, on  self-control, the  serenity prayer (Stoic Wisdom) and Stoic compassion . Here I will give the full script and a recording on persistence, an important quality modern psychologists call  “grit”.

Modern Stoic Meditation on the Virtue of Persistence

Epictetus would  say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control.  Lack of persistence stops us from enduring hardships that we need to tolerate, lack of self-control stops us from resisting pleasures or other things we ought to resist.

‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”
Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Persist and Resist

  • At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”
  • For example, if you are running a marathon  and thinking “I  won’t be able to finish” remind yourself

                “This is just a thought, not a fact.”

  • As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback or an  obstacle . Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison.
  • Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
  • Thomas Edison suggested Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.
  • So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.
  • Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation informed by Stoicism and Compassionate Mind Training  to help us build up the virtue of persistence.
  • So think of something you want to achieve – it could be developing Stoicism into daily rituals, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, now close your eyes and prepare for this modern Stoic meditation.
  • First to help your mind be in a calm state, let’s try a few moments slow soothing compassionate breathing.
  • Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it!
  • Next  think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.
  • Finally imagine feeling satisfied for having persisted, despite the temptation to give up, putting into practice the virtue of persistence.

To conclude, in this article I have taken Marcus Aurelius’s advice to learn from criticisms of Stoicism to heart and explored how CFT/CMT can help develop modern Stoicism into a more compassionate practice that can develop specific virtues. We can now see that Marcus’s advice is itself an example of true self-compassion, meaning not sentimental warmth but a wise, responsible, courageous commitment to improving the well-being of oneself and others.

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.


[i] See Gill, G. (2015) What is Stoic Virtue? http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/11/21/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/

[ii] See LeBon, T. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology pp xi-xvi   (Hodder Teach Yourself Series, 2014) for some examples of how some very plausible ideas about personal development don’t actually work so well in practice.

[iii] See  LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 9 for more on the CBT toolbox.

[iv] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 10 for more on mindfulness.

[v] Though as Patrick  Ussher has argued, Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) has a bigger part of Stoic virtue, and is a bit different from mindfulness.

[vi] CFT was originally developed to help people who have particularly high degrees of shame and self-criticism, who often didn’t respond particularly well to standard CBT.  Of particular interest to us though is that is how CFT is now being extended to include broader populations. The training that is aimed at the general population as well as a clinical one is called Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and it is this  part of CFT that is particularly relevant to us here.  For the rest of this article I will refer to this approach as CFT/CMT, because our focus is more on helping the general population than on psychotherapy.

[vii] See http://media.psychology.tools/worksheets/english_us/emotional_regulation_systems_en-us.pdf

[viii] In CFT (as opposed to CMT) there would be aim important  third stage – understanding  your problems in terms of unhelpful – but understandable – strategies developed- often sub-consciously – to deal with threats your “tricky brain” didn’t have a better way to deal with. For example, someone who fears overwhelming emotions such as sadness and loneliness may have developed drinking as a means of avoiding these emotions This understanding of problems in a new way is called a compassion-focussed formulation

[ix] See http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/06/14/how-to-become-more-virtuous-and-less-like-basil-fawlty-tim-lebon/ for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.

'Stoicism and the Environment' by Chris Gill

Stoicism and the Environment

by Christopher Gill
(Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought, University of Exeter)

Sourced here.
Sourced here.


Can Stoic ethical ideas help us respond more effectively to the current environmental crisis, especially global warming, which seems to be largely a product of human action? This suggestion might seem implausible at first sight. The ancient Stoics had no experience of a crisis of this kind; so we cannot refer to their own discussions in the way we can on other topics. However, there are several Stoic ideas we can draw on to inform and deepen our own response to this crisis. My focus is on the ethical framework we should use for this purpose, rather than on the specific practical measures we can take, and on our response as individuals, rather than on government action. But I assume that the ethical framework we apply can help us to determine the specific measures we should take and that our response as individuals underlies what we urge governments to do on our behalf.

Of special value for this purpose is the Stoic ideal of the brotherhood of humankind, and the Stoic beliefs that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole and that human ethical life should consist in part in bringing our life into harmony with nature. However, to show how these ideas can be useful for this purpose, we need to put them in their context in Stoic ethics. Also, there are some more general features of Stoic ethics that are potentially valuable in this connection.

Thinking about environmentalism in terms of virtue and happiness

The Stoic ethical framework, as in most other ancient philosophical theories, and some modern ones, is couched in terms of virtue and happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia); it also gives a central place to development, conceived as a life-long process. The contemporary moral dilemmas generated by the environmental crisis are often formulated in terms of the question where our duty lies or whom (or what) we should benefit above all. Does our duty lie above all in doing what is best for our present way of life (our comfort and convenience and that of our families and businesses, as these currently function)? Or should our overriding duty be to the environment, or the planet, or future generations – actually not much in the future now that the signs of global warming are already obvious? Alternatively, should we benefit ourselves, our families and our businesses by continuing to act in our habitual way or should we modify our lifestyles in ways that will benefit humanity more generally, as well as other animals (now and in the future), by helping to reduce damage to the environment we all share?

However, an alternative (and perhaps compatible) way of framing the dilemma is in terms of virtue and happiness. Arguably, we should see the exercise of the virtues (analysed by the Stoics as subdivisions of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice) as including actions designed to minimise damage to the environment. This involves some extension to the normal way we think about the virtues, since we tend to think about them in terms of our relationship to other human beings. However, the environment crisis has a direct effect on other human beings and on ourselves: global warming carries the threat of massive disruption to existing modes of human life and resources and, in the longer term, to the maintenance of human life at all on earth. So this is a natural extension to the way we should think about what virtuous action involves.

What is the advantage of reflecting on this question in terms of virtue and happiness? One powerful reason for doing is that it can help to promote the motivation to act in an environmentally responsible way and to do so consistently. According to a number of ancient and modern ethical approaches, our happiness or flourishing, as moral agents or human beings, depends on developing and exercising the virtues. Stoicism holds this view in the strongest possible form, maintaining that happiness, or the best human life, consists in developing and exercising the virtues. Things other than virtue, such as health, property and a stable family life, while naturally pursued by human beings, are not integral to our happiness in the same way. So, if we accept that virtuous action includes acting in an environmentally responsible way, we will come to see such action as contributing to our happiness and the best human life. We will not see our situation as one in which we are forced to choose between acting in a way that promotes our own happiness and acting in a way that minimises harm to the environment or which benefits future generations of human beings. This is one advantage of adopting a virtue-ethics approach to this question, and especially of adopting in this context the Stoic view of the relationship between virtue and happiness.

The relevance of the Stoic theory of development to this topic

Stoic thinking on virtue and happiness is closely linked with a well worked-out theory of development (understood as ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarisation’, oikeiōsis). The Stoics set the bar for virtue, and thus happiness, very high, while still maintaining that all human beings are fundamentally capable of carrying out the developmental process that leads to virtue and happiness. Hence, in Stoic theory, ethical development is seen not just as a phase of human life (a normal part of growing up) but as a potentially life-long process. Put differently, ethical life (or just life, properly lived) is an on-going project of aspiration towards virtue and happiness.

How is the Stoic view of ethical development relevant to the question how we should respond to the environmental crisis? There are several relevant features. One is that, if we accept Stoic ideas about human psychology (though these have often been challenged in ancient and modern times), ethical development carries with it a progressive transformation of emotions and desires. By contrast with Platonic and Aristotelian thinking (and with comparable strands in modern thought), human psychology is seen as functioning in a unified or holistic way, so that changes in belief affect emotions and desires directly without the need for a distinct process of habituation of non-rational parts. On this view, changing our beliefs about what constitutes virtue and happiness brings with it a unified motivational response that shapes our actions directly. Hence, coming to believe that virtuous action (and the happy life) involves acting in an environmentally responsible way carries with it motivational change, which feeds directly into the actions we take.

A second relevant feature of Stoic thinking about development is this. Stoic theory presents the movement towards achieving virtue and happiness as highly demanding (one we are unlikely ever to complete), while stressing that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing in this way. Also, according to Stoicism, determining the specific actions in which virtue is properly expressed is not straightforward and is not subject to codified, exception-free rules or laws. Rather, a progressive movement towards gaining a better understanding of virtue forms an integral part of the process of ethical development. These features of Stoic thinking are also potentially relevant to our response to the environmental crisis. Although it is sometimes suggested that this crisis can be somehow managed in a relatively effortless way by technological progress, this seems to me largely wishful thinking. It seems much more likely that an effective response to this crisis will involve all of us in substantial changes in lifestyle, affecting how we travel (and how much), how we heat our houses (and how much), what we eat (and how much), and a great deal more. The Stoic view of ethical development as, on the one hand, demanding in its aspirations, and, on the other, requiring us to work out for ourselves the specific actions that virtue involves, thus offers a good general framework for an effective response to the environmental crisis.

The brotherhood of humankind

The Stoic theory of development also provides the framework for the two ideas which are potentially most useful for this question: the idea of the brotherhood of humankind and the belief that nature as a whole provides a moral standard. One of the two principal strands in ethical development is a social one, which takes its start from what Stoics see as a primary animal instinct (parallel to the instinct for self-preservation), namely the desire to benefit others of our kind. The clearest illustration of this instinct is parental love for offspring, which is shared by human and non-human animals. During human development, this is transformed into a more rational and structured pattern of motivation, with two main outcomes. One is reasoned engagement in family and community life, and the other is coming to recognise that all human beings are our brothers or sisters, or our fellow-citizens, in so far as they share this in-built capacity for rational ethical development. These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive (though we need to work out carefully the proper relationship between them). Rather, our commitment to our family and community is conceived as one aspect of the fellowship we have with humanity as a whole.

This idea is potentially valuable for us now as we reflect on the ethical challenges posed by global warming and related environmental problems. On the one hand, it makes good sense for us to work out strategies which can help to maintain the viability of our own families, communities and businesses (although the way these operate may need quite substantial modification, as already noted). On the other hand, our planning needs to take account of the global nature of the problem, and of the fact that decisions taken in any one context have serious implications for others. Also, and crucially, we need to recognise that human beings as such have a legitimate claim on our ethical concern, and not simply those human beings that fall within the current boundaries of our family, community or nation. Otherwise, appeals to act in an environmentally responsible way for the sake of humanity as a whole or for future generations will have little hold on us. Of course, adopting this view is highly demanding, and it still requires us to work out with care the specific actions with follow from it. But, as already stressed, these points are in any case fully recognised by the Stoic ethical framework; and taking effective action in this respect depends on our making ethical progress in general, including gaining a better understanding of what virtue and happiness involve.

Taking nature as a whole as an ethical norm

The second Stoic idea that has special value in this connection is that nature as a whole constitutes an ethical norm for human beings. ‘Naturalism’, in some sense, is a prevalent feature of ancient ethical thought. Aristotle, for instance, in a famous passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1.7), argues that, to understand what constitutes happiness (eudaimonia), it is useful to reflect on what is distinctive of human beings, so that we can define more exactly what counts as human happiness. However, the Stoics go further in this direction than Aristotle, claiming that, in reflecting on virtue and happiness, we should see ourselves not just as part of the human species but of the natural universe as a whole. They also maintain that the natural universe embodies characteristics which we should take as exemplary for our own lives and that we should work towards bringing ourselves into line with these features.

Determining just what the Stoics mean by these claims is not easy and has been much debated by scholars. I offer a possible interpretation, which is designed to show how these ideas can contribute to our efforts to respond properly to the environmental crisis. I think that the Stoics see nature as a whole as exhibiting two main characteristics which are also expressed in human life, at its best. One is order, rationality and structure, and the other is providential care. The Stoics think that nature as a whole embodies order, rationality and structure. They see this as manifested most clearly in the regular patterns of nature (the movements of the planets, cycle of seasons and so on), and in the seamless web of causes and effects that operates throughout the universe. Stoics also see order, rationality and structure as properties of human life at its best. These properties are expressed, for instance, in the virtues (seen by the Stoics as a coherent, interconnected set of qualities) and in the ordered structure of human life and happiness when these are consistently based on the virtues. The Stoics also believe that nature as a whole embodies providential care; this is manifested, for instance, in the fact that certain component parts of nature (human and non-human animals) are instinctively inclined to preserve their own lives and to care for their offspring. The distinctively other-benefiting motives that are characteristic of fully developed human beings (including ethical concern for human beings as such) are seen as an extension of the providential care that is in-built in nature as a whole. Ethical development thus enables human being to embody features that are characteristic of nature as a whole, and also to form a better understanding of those features and to use them as models for shaping their own lives and actions.

These are quite complex ideas and they may seem alien or unconvincing to us today. People may feel that the Stoic view of nature is not compatible with the modern scientific world-view – though that is a large question that would need separate consideration. However, it is worthwhile reflecting on these Stoic ideas to see how much of them we can accept and how far they help us to address the environmental crisis. In the first instance, it is useful to be reminded that human beings form an integral part of nature, even though we often act in the modern world as if we were somehow separate from nature or as if we relate to nature only as its master. It is also helpful to be confronted with the idea that nature as a whole should figure as part of our moral horizon and that morality is not just a matter of our relationship to other human beings. But the potential value of these Stoic ideas may go further, even if we have reservations about the credibility of the Stoic world-view. For instance, we may see the force of the idea that providential care for others is in-built in nature, as manifested, for instance, in the animal (and human) instinct to care for one’s offspring. And we may also accept the idea that ethical development, in its social strand, results in the expression of providential care for others (those who share our lives and also human beings more generally), and that this is an extension of a more general feature of nature. Indeed, we may also take this idea rather further than the Stoics themselves did, though in a direction consistent with their thinking. We may see the exercise of providential care by human beings as something that should be appropriately extended to nature as a whole, taking into account our special natural capacities for rationality, social organisation and technological skill. Regarding the environmental crisis, we have a special reason for doing so since our exercise of providential care is a matter of trying to repair the damage that we have done to the natural environment, above all in generating global warming by human action.

Similarly, we may feel able to accept the Stoic view that virtue and the happiness that depends on virtue constitute a kind of inner rational structure and order. We may also accept that this inner structure is characteristic of human nature at its best and that in this sense it is natural for us to develop this structure. We may also see the force of the idea that for human beings to develop in this way reflects a kind of structure and order in-built in nature as a whole (even if we have reservations about the credibility of this Stoic view in other respects). If, again, we extend this idea further than the Stoics did, though consistently with their approach, we may see this internal moral structure as one that is incomplete and deficient if it leaves out of account the fact that human life is situated within the natural environment as a whole. Virtues, in other words, need to be expressed in actions that affect nature as a whole and not simply those that affect human lives. In this sense, we need to work towards a view of virtue and happiness that is consistent with our understanding of nature as a whole and of our human life as an integral part of nature as a whole.

None of these ideas are easy or straightforward; but then neither is the situation in which we currently find ourselves, as we struggle to get to grips with the enormity of the threat to humanity and nature posed by global warming. My proposal is that there are several Stoic ideas on which we can draw to supplement and deepen our ethical response to this crisis, by adopting or extending Stoic ideas for this purpose.

Background Reading

I am not aware of any previous attempt to apply Stoic ideas to the environmental crisis. I list reading which relates to the various Stoic ideas used here for this purpose. On Stoic ideas about nature as a whole (as ordered and providential), about development, virtue and happiness, emotions and political ideals (including the brotherhood of humankind), see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 54, 57, 59 D, 61, 63, 65 and 67 (also Cicero, On Duties 1.11-14 and 53 on development and the brotherhood of humankind). On development and ethical ideals, see C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 129-66; also on these ideas, and nature as a norm, as understood by Marcus Aurelius, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford 2013), pp. xxxiv-xlix, lxiii-lxvii. For an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (Chesham, 2006), esp. chs. 4-5 on Stoic physics and ethics.

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