Welcome to the New Modern Stoicism

Welcome to the new, improved Modern Stoicism website.

Stoic Week 2016Welcome to the new Modern Stoicism website, for Stoic Week!

We’ve migrated the existing modernstoicism.com website from Moodle to WordPress.  We hope this new, improved version of the site will make your experience better during Stoic Week 2016.  Stoic Week begins on 17th October this year, but you can enrol right now to make sure you get notifications, etc.

If you were previously registered on Modern Stoicism you should receive an automatic email with a special hyperlink, inviting you to reset your password.  Your username will be the same, although if you previously authenticated with Google+ you may just have a generic username like “social_user_12”.  (You can’t change your username on WordPress but if you want you can just create a new account.)

If you didn’t receive an email and want to log into your account, you should just use the lost password feature to reset your password.  Remember to check your spam folder for emails and add our domain (modernstoicism.com) to your email client’s safe-sender list, if possible.

Thanks once again for your support,

Donald Robertson

Stoic Week Is Coming!

Stoic Week Is Coming!

by Greg Sadler



One of the high points to the year in the growing modern Stoic movement is International Stoic Week.  This year, Stoic Week runs from Monday, October 17 to Sunday, October 23, preceded by the STOICON conference in New York City on Saturday, October 15. Each year has seen growing participation worldwide in the free online Stoic Week class.  There are also a number of events and other ways in which people and institutions will be marking this international celebration of all things Stoic.

As more information about additional events, activities, and online resources related to Stoic Week becomes available, we will add them to our list and publicize them here in a second post that will appear just before Stoic Week begins. If you are hosting something Stoicism-related, and would like to let us know about it, here is the place to enter the information.

Here below is a not-yet-comprehensive list for Stoic Week 2016. Hopefully everyone interested in modern Stoicism can find at least one event near them or online in which they can participate, meet up with others who share their interests, and learn more about Stoic thought and practice!

The Stoic Week Class

17-23 October: Stoic Week Online Class – This is the one that got Stoic Week itself started! A free, online, week-long class hosted and developed by Donald Robertson (with contributions from Stoicism Today project members and many others), updated and improved each year.   Click here to find out more or to register.

Institutions or Organizations Engaging In the Class (so far)

The Stoic Week online class offers opportunities to meet, learn, and interact with people all over the world.  In some places there is also another great opportunity, provided by local organizations or institutions, to work through the class together.  At present, here are the ones we know of (if your institution or organization is doing this, and not on the list, contact me and I’ll make sure you get into the list).

Grand Valley State University Classics Department – the contact person is Peter Anderson

Marist College Honors Program – the contact person is James Snyder

Manchester Stoics Meetup – the contact person is Brenda Lanigan

Brisbane Stoics Meetup – the contact person is Alex Magee


In-Person Events (so far)

There are several public events scheduled during Stoic Week itself to commemorate, celebrate, and continue building community.   Here are the ones we’ve been able to find out about:

16 October, 2 PM: Post-STOICON/Pre-Stoic Week Meetup (New York City, USA). To celebrate the end of STOICON ’16 and the beginning of Stoic Week ’16, the New York City Stoics Meetup will host a Stoic Walking tour through parts of NYC, with wha promise to be some engaging thematic conversations held along the route. – the organizer/contact person is Greg Lopez.

18 October, 6 PM:  Struggling With Anger? Useful Stoic Perspectives and Practices (Milwaukee, WI, USA).  For local residents of my home city (a place where it’s clearly needed), I’ll be providing the same workshop I’m leading out at STOICON – the organizer/contact person is me, Greg Sadler.

20 October, 6:30 PM: Discussing Stoic Daily Habits (Manchester, UK). The Manchester Stoic Meetup will be holding its monthly discussion, discussing precisely that, daily habits that help one live the Stoic life – the organizer/contact person is Brenda Lanigan

22 October, 2 PM-7:30 PM: Stoic Guidance for Troubled Times (London, UK). A smaller, but looking-to-be-excellent STOICON conference at Queen Mary University, with presentations by Jules Evans, Christopher Gill, Tim LeBon, Donald Robertson, and Gabrielle Galuzzo – the organizer/contact person is Jules Evans.


Several Other Events Before Stoic Week

There are also some other Stoicism-connected events scheduled prior to Stoic Week that might be of interest.

30 September 7:30 PMUntroubled by Adversity: Epictetus (Cambridge, UK). The Cambridge Annual Lecture, The School of Economic Science, a lecture by Christine Lambie

10 October, 3:00 PM: Prohairesis in Epicetus’ Stoic Moral Theory (Milwaukee, WI, USA).  I’ll be giving a close reading workshop at Marquette University as part of the Midwest Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.

10 October, 6:30 PM: The Obstacle Is The Way, part 3 (Orlando, FL, USA). Orlando Stoic Meetup will be continuing their ongoing discussion of Ryan Holiday’s work, The Obstacle Is The Way – the organizer/contact person is Dan Lampert.

How to Enrol for Stoic Week 2016

How to enrol on Stoic Week 2016.

cropped-socrates-v1.pngStoic Week is a non-profit, international, online event that anyone can take part in.  It’s now in its fifth year and thousands of people from around the world take part each time.  Stoic Week is organised by Stoicism Today, a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists, including several well-known authors in the field.  For more information see the official press release.

Just create an account on this site and go to the Stoic Week Handbook page to enrol.

STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part II

STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part II

by Massimo Pigliucci


STOICON, the by now annual gathering of people interested in the theory and practice of Stoicism, is moving from London to New York, this year (and who knows where else in future editions, fate permitting). The event is scheduled for 15 October, and you can find more information here, tickets here, and even cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic, here.)

The purpose of this post (and of the one that preceded it) is to give you an idea of what the event will be like by introducing all our speakers and what they will be talking about, so that you can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give your reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

Let’s resume our gallery of speakers with Jules Evans, host of the last two STOICON events in London. He is interested in therapeutic practices from ancient philosophies and wisdom traditions, how individuals and organisations use them today, and how they inform public policy ideas about well-being, ethical resilience, flourishing and transcendence. His first book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, explored how people are rediscovering ancient Greek and Roman philosophies and how Greek philosophy (particularly Stoicism) inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s since been published in 19 countries and was a Times book of the year. At STOICON ’16 Jules will talk about his work teaching Stoicism in companies, prisons, mental health charities and sports teams — including his work with Saracens, the European champions of rugby. Imagine if Greco-Roman philosophy was as widely known and practiced as Buddhism and Yoga…

Next up is Bill Irvine, author of the popular and influential A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In graduate school and shortly thereafter, Bill’s research interests were like those of most philosophers. He was into “pure philosophy” — that is, in topics that are traditionally dealt with in philosophy and that are of interest primarily to professional philosophers. His doctoral dissertation was on phenomenalism, and his first publication was “Russell’s Construction of Space from Perspectives.” Since then, however, he has lost interest in “pure philosophy.” Instead, his research can best be described as hybrid of topics that lie on the border between philosophy and something else. Bill looks, in a philosophical manner, at things philosophers don’t normally look at. Many of his articles, for example, are on the ethical issues involved in finance. His first two books were on the ethical and political aspects of parenting. His book on desire has a philosophical component, but also a scientific and religious component. At STOICON ’16 Bill will talk about “Becoming an Insult Pacifist.” The Stoics spent a lot of time thinking about insults. Their goal in doing so was not to become proficient in inflicting them, but to lessen the harm they experienced when they were the target of them. As a result of their research, the Stoics advocated insult pacifism: when insulted, we should do nothing in response. We should simply carry on as if nothing happened. Alternatively, if we are feeling clever, we can respond to an insult by insulting ourselves even worse than our insulter did. We can, in other words, engage in self-deprecating humor. Bill has experimented with both of these strategies and in his talk will report on the results of these experiments. Insult pacifism, he has found, is effective because it catches insulters off guard. In his talk, Bill will also explore the psychology of insults. What is it that causes us to insult others? And how can insults — mere words — cause so much pain? It is an exploration that leads us to one of the core dilemmas of the human experience: it is hard to live without human companionship because we will experience loneliness; and it is hard to live with human companionship because we will thereby become the target of insults. The Stoics thought they had a solution to this dilemma: live among people and enjoy their company, but refuse to play the social hierarchy game.

We will also feature Cinzia Arruzza, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Her research interests include ancient metaphysics and political thought, Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, feminist theory and Marxism. Cinzia is the author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism, an accessible introduction to the relationship between the workers’ movement and the women’s movement, investigating the questions Why does gender inequality exist? and How does it relate to capitalism? At STOICON, Cinzia will give a talk on “Let us take care of ourselves: Stoic exercises and Foucault.” Stoic philosophy included both a set of complex theories and claims about a way of life, which the Stoic student would try to achieve through a set of practices. These included a number of exercises aiming at enabling the Stoic student to live and embody Stoic philosophy, in spite of the several occasions of perturbation presented by the world around us. To live a Stoic life meant to assimilate oneself, as much as possible, to the Cosmic reason and to the Reason common to all human beings. Michel Foucault, however, adopted the Stoic exercises within his theory of subject formation, trying to answer a different question: how can we take care of ourselves in such a way as to become beautiful selves and as to rethink the relation between individual subjectivity and collective political action?

Tim LeBon, our next speaker, is an experienced and accredited cognitive behavioral (CBT) therapist, psychotherapist, life coach, philosophical counsellor, author, and tutor in private practice in Central London. He specializes in helping people with depression, anxiety, decision-making, emotional issues, low self-esteem, stress, procrastination, creating a more meaningful life and relationships. Tim’s latest book is Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. Everybody wants to be happier and fulfill their potential, and for years many self-help books have claimed they know the answer. However, only in the last two decades has Positive Psychology started to provide evidence-based ideas that have been scientifically shown to work. In the book Tim shows his readers how they can use the tools coming from Positive Psychology to achieve their goals. At STOICON ’16 Tim will talk about “Trump for President? A Stoic Response.” Imagine Donald Trump becomes President. For those who disagree with his policies, what would be a good Stoic response? As a Brit who has just witnessed the varying strong emotions following after Brexit, Tim feels that Stoicism has a lot to offer to help us cope with events we don’t like. This workshop will present five Stoic strategies for dealing with adversities and then apply them to the result of the US Presidential election. In the interests of political balance, Tim will also explore how those who support Trump could best cope with Clinton becoming President.

Next: Don Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals, as well as a number of books. Don’s background in academic philosophy has helped him to appreciate the relationship between modern psychotherapy and ancient philosophy, a subject that he has frequently written about and lectured upon in training courses and professional conferences over the years. Don has published the excellent Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, a guide to finding a happier way of life that draws on the ancient wisdom of the Stoics to reveal lasting truths and proven strategies for enhanced well-being. By learning what Stoicism is, Don maintains, you can revolutionize your life, learn how to — properly — ‘seize the day’, how to cope in the face of adversity, and how to come to terms with whatever situation you’re in. At STOICON ’16 Don will talk about “Stoicism, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy.” The concept of “mindfulness” is popularly associated with Buddhism, although the English word didn’t gain widespread use as a description of a meditation practice until the late 1970s. There’s a great deal of evidence that mindfulness-related practices employed in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can have measurable benefits for our mental health. In the Stoic Week handbook, and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course, Don has made extensive use of mindfulness and CBT techniques as a way of applying Stoic strategies to daily living, reaching thousands of participants around the world. His talk will provide an overview of some of this work, its findings, and some of the ways in which practitioners have successfully combined elements of Stoicism, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy in practice.

Our next to the last entry is about Gabriele Galluzzo, a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy.  In the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, UK. Gabriele’s research interests focus on ancient metaphysics and its relationship with a number of other philosophical disciplines, including philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics and ethics. He is also interested in how ancient thought has influenced and can still make a contribution to contemporary philosophical debates. He has published extensively on Aristotle’s metaphysics and its reception in the Middle Ages and in contemporary philosophy. At STOICON ’16 Gabriele will talk about “Poor but happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on external goods.” Can we really be happy without health, money or friends? The Stoics famously claimed that we can, while Aristotle argues that we need at least some of these things to be happy. Who is right? Is Aristotle’s position more realistic? Or is there something to be said in favour of the Stoic view? The workshop will present and compare different approaches to external goods and bring out their consequences for our life and wellbeing.

Dulcis in fundo, as the Romans used to say, we will feature a special remote appearance by Lawrence Becker, the author of A New Stoicism. Larry is an American philosopher working mainly in the areas of ethics and social, political, and legal philosophy. He is the author of books and journal articles on justice, Stoicism, reciprocity, property rights, and metaethics. He was an associate editor of the journal Ethics from 1985-2000, and the editor, with the librarian Charlotte B. Becker, of two editions of the Encyclopedia of Ethics. Larry is a Fellow of Hollins University, where he taught philosophy from 1965-1989, and is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus from the College of William & Mary, where he was the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy from 1989-2001. At STOICON ’16, he will be joining us via Skype and chat with me on “Posidonius and Stoic ethics-in-action.”

Posidonius was a Greek Stoic philosopher, politician, astronomer, geographer, historian and teacher native to Apamea, Syria. He was acclaimed as the greatest polymath of his age, though unfortunately his vast body of work exists today only in fragments. Posidonius attempted to create a unified system for understanding the human intellect and the universe which would provide an explanation of and a guide for human behavior. For him, philosophy was the dominant master art and all the individual sciences were subordinate to philosophy, which alone could explain the cosmos. Posidonius was the first Stoic to depart from the orthodox doctrine that passions were faulty judgments and posit that Plato’s view of the soul had been correct, namely that passions were inherent in human nature. In addition to the rational faculties, he taught that the human soul had faculties that were spirited (anger, desires for power, possessions, etc.) and desiderative (desires for sex and food). Ethics was the problem of how to deal with these passions and restore reason as the dominant faculty. And Larry will take it from there and talk about why Posidonius’ insights are still very much relevant to the practice of modern Stoics.

Join us for STOICON ’16, it promises to be a great conference for anyone interested in Stoicism, and a splendid opportunity to meet fellow students, not to mention some of the leading figures in the modern effort to spread one of the most useful practical philosophies of all time.

Official Press Release: Stoic Week 2016

Official press release for Stoic Week 2016 and Stoicon.

cropped-socrates-v1.pngNow in its fifth consecutive year, International Stoic Week is an annual week-long series of free, online events aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy and guiding participants in the practice of applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.

This year, International Stoic Week is scheduled for October 17th-23rd, 2016, following the annual Stoicon Conference in New York City on October 15th. The theme will be Stoicism and Love. The organizing group, Stoicism Today, reports that participation in Stoic Week grew by 66% from 2014 to 2015. Record numbers are expected again this year, surpassing the 3,200 participants worldwide last year.

During Stoic Week, participants will have the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” by following the Stoic Week Handbook, which contains readings, audio, video, and optional group discussions – along with daily practical exercises that combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern psychology. The free Handbook is presented online with offline versions available in PDF, EPUB (mobile), and MBI (Kindle) formats.

Members of the Stoicism Today project (a collaborative group of philosophers, psychologists, and psychotherapists) are available to discuss Stoic philosophy, Stoic Week, and other related topics via interviews, lectures, and other appearances.

Participants are also encouraged to schedule their own Stoic Week events and share information with the Stoicism Today team for informing the wider Stoic community.

Follow Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

To support Stoic Week via donation, use their PayPal form.

Media Inquiries about Stoic Week should be directed to Donald Robertson, and inquiries about Stoicon to Massimo Pigliucci.

Also see our post on the Stoic Guidance for Troubled Times event at Queen Mary University of London on 22nd October.

Stoic Guidance for Troubled Times

Stoic Guidance for Troubled Times is a one-day public event being held at Queen Mary University of London.

Location: Queen Mary University of London, Arts 2 lecture theatre
Date/Time: 2-7.30pm, Saturday 22nd October, 2016
Cost: £15 including tea/coffee and evening drinks

Can the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism help us respond to acute political and personal problems? How does Stoicism reconcile the search for inner peace with affection, love, and social concern?

A series of talks, interviews, and question-and-answer sessions, with scope for audience participation and social breaks. One of a series of such public events at QMUL on Stoic guidance held since 2014.

The programme will include:

  • “Stoic responses to the Brexit vote or a possible Trump victory” with Tim LeBon, a psychotherapist and author of Positive Psychology.
  • Christopher Gill interviews Elena Isayev on her experiences with refugees in the West Bank and the Calais ‘jungle’.  Christopher Gill is an Emeritus Professor and author of several books on Stoicism; he has edited the Oxford World Classics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Elena Isayev is an Associate Professor who works on migration, refugees and asylum in the ancient and modern world.
  • “The value of Stoic messages in dealing with training, victory and defeat”, Jules Evans talks to member of the Saracens rugby club. Jules Evans is a philosophical writer and author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
  • “Stoic approaches to resilience and love” with Donald Robertson,  psychotherapist and author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness; he also designed a four-week course on promoting Stoic resilience.
  • “Stoic emotions – those we want to get rid of and those we want to develop” with Gabriele Galluzzo, a university lecturer and author of several books on ancient philosophy.

To book for this event go to…

Queen Mary University

Stoic Week 2016

The event forms part of ‘Stoic Week 2016’ – the fifth such event since 2012.  To follow this year’s week-long course on living a Stoic life go to…


Gaius Musonius Rufus

Corinth CanalGaius Musonius Rufus was one of the foremost Stoic philosophers of the Roman Imperial period.  He was even described as the “Roman Socrates”.  Little is known about his life or thought, however, apart from a handful of surviving lectures and sayings, and some scattered references about him by other authors.  Musonius is best known as the teacher of Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose books survive today.  (At least, we have four of eight volumes of Discourses recorded by Epictetus’ student Arrian.)

Several references to Musonius can be found in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius.  Apollonius of Tyana was an extremely famous Neo-pythagorean philosopher, and a contemporary of both Musonius and Epictetus.

Nero did not tolerate philosophy.  Its practitioners he considered inquisitive creatures who concealed a power of divination, and the philosopher’s cloak was once used in evidence as the proof of a diviner.  To mention only one, Musonius of Babylon [sic.], a man second only to Apollonius, was put into chains because of his wisdom and during his confinement was in danger of his life.  In fact he would have died for all his oppressor cared, if he had not had a very strong constitution.  (Life of Apollonius, 4.35)

Scholars consider the reference to Babylon here to be a corruption in the text and that the Musonius in question is indeed the Stoic, Musonius Rufus.  The grey cotton cloak was worn  by most philosophers, particularly Stoics and Cynics.

It was at this time that Musonius, who is reputed to have been the most outstanding philosopher that ever was, was jailed in Nero’s prisons.  He and Apollonius did not converse with one another openly, since Musonius was opposed to that in case they were both endangered.  They conversed, however, by letter through visits of Menippus and Damis to the prison.  I will leave aside the letters that concern unimportant subjects, and write down the essential ones and those that give an insight of greatness.

‘Apollonius greets Musonius the philosopher.
‘I want to come to you and share your convesation and your shelter, in order to do you a favour.  If you do not disbelieve the tale of Hercules rescuing Theseus from Hades, write to me what you have decided.  Goodbye.’

‘Musonius greets Apollonius the philosopher.
‘You will have everlasting praise for your plan.  But a true man undertakes his defence and shows his innocence.  Goodbye.’

‘Apollonius to Musonius the philosopher.
‘Socrates of Athens preferred not to be rescued by his friends, and so came to court and was executed.  Goodbye.’

‘Musonius to Apollonius the philosopher.
‘Socrates died because he had not prepared to defend himself.  I will defend myself.  Goodbye.’ (Life of Apollonius, 4.46)

Many supernatural powers were attributed to Apollonius and in these letters it’s suggested that he was offering to rescue Musonius from Nero’s prison.  Musonius refuses the offer, saying that unlike Socrates he is prepared and capable of defending himself before the court.  Musonius was exiled by Nero to the island of Gyaros around 65AD.

Musonius the Etruscan, too, often opposed Nero’s rule, but the emperor confined him on the island called Gyara.  The Greeks are so devoted to these sophists [wise men] that on occasion they all sailed to visit him, and now do so to see the fountain.  The island had been waterless before, but Musonius discovered a fountain about which the Greeks have as many stories as they do about the horse’s fountain on Helicon. (Life of Apollonius, 7.16)

At a later date, in Athens, Apollonius meets another philosopher, Demetrius, who said he’d met Musonius.  (We don’t know which Demetrius he means but it’s possibly Demetrius of Corinth, a famous contemporary Cynic.)  Musonius was in chains and performing hard labour, digging a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land that connects the Peloponnese peninsula to the rest of mainland Greece.  Being able to sail through a canal rather than around the Peloponnese would have been of great benefit to the ancient world.  In 67 AD, Nero commanded 6,000 slaves to dig the Corinth canal with pickaxes and spades but a year after work commenced he died and the project was abandoned.  The slaves and prisoners had progressed about one tenth of the way (700 metres).  Despite several attempts, the canal wasn’t completed until 1893.

Demetrius said he had seen Musonius at the Isthmus working in chains and compelled to dig.  He himself, naturally, had expressed outrage, but Musonius clutched his pickaxe and struck the ground vigorously, and then stood up and said, ‘Does it pain you, Demetrius, to see me digging the Isthmus for the good of Greece? What would you have felt if you had seen me playing the lyre like Nero?’  There are other even more admirable remarks of Musonius, but I had better not mention them.  I do not want to be thought to be drawing an unwise comparison between myself and the man who made them so offhandedly. (Life of Apollonius, 5.19)

There is a surviving satirical dialogue attributed falsely to Lucian, portraying Musonius at the Isthmus.

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision by Travis Hume

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision

by Travis Hume

[Picture] Applying Stoicism, The First Decision - Stoicism Today Article

Four years ago, I was wholly dissatisfied with life. I held no strong wish to be wealthy, powerful, or well-known. I had no definitive dream to pursue besides bits and pieces of things I found interest in – activities that were more hobbies than pursuits. There appeared no clear means by which I could reinvigorate and point myself in the “right direction.” The basis for my pursuing my college education was little more than a guess of my “intended” career based on my personality traits, and a fear of a presumed, alternate lifetime of menial work.

In my own words at the time, I did not know who I was, what I was meant to be doing, and the means to discern an answer to either. I was adrift, basing all choices loosely on others expectations and a haphazard assumption of the progression of life. In rough order, I was “supposed” to attend college, get a career, buy a house, marry, have children, then retire. I knew no alternative paths, and believed there likely to be none. Concerning college, I was skeptical of others suggestions to “follow your interests and let the rest fall into place,” because of a seemingly equally pervasive counter-claim that “the point of college was to lead to a well-paying career.”

I possessed only rudimentary skills with math and the sciences, so my career options were (in my eyes) limited to the arts or psychology. My decision to pursue a bachelors in psychology was founded entirely on the premises that “I thought too much” and others “often seemed to open up to me.” I did not enjoy my studies, and struggled daily against thoughts that perhaps menial work was the only thing I was suited for. I thought often on my fate and the world I inhabited; whether my choices were meaningful or meaningless.

Early in my degree I was forced by general education requirements to take an intro to philosophy course. I held a negative bias against attending the course that I did not understand or try to explain. I did not believe that philosophy had any real-world application or meaning. I believed that I would hear “old men arguing over what is good or evil,” and “that I should just take their word for it.” It followed that that was my initial view of the lessons.

Each discussed philosopher and their respective theories seemed to blend together, with the exception of one: A philosopher named Epictetus. Epictetus, the professor said, claimed that virtue (being a good person) was the only truly good thing, and vice (being a bad person) was the only truly evil thing. Further, the philosopher claimed that money, power, and fame had no value in themselves, and would never bring a person peace or make them happy. These ideas deeply resonated with me, but conflicted with my long-held beliefs of “the way things were.” Reacting to the resulting discomfort, I raised my hand and asked “Wouldn’t it be really depressing to think like that all the time?” The Professor smiled, looked down, half-nodded, shrugged, and continued the lesson. Epictetus was rarely covered the remainder of the semester, and my brief, inner conflict subsided accordingly for a time.

The discomfort emerged again when, in a span wherein I had no outstanding personal needs, it occurred to me that I nevertheless felt dissatisfied. I meekly resisted uncomfortable thoughts that arose from this realization, countering “everyone feels this way sometimes,” “that’s just life,” asking myself “who else says otherwise?” Recalling Epictetus, I considered the possibility that I was mistaken about the nature of things. I was aware to some degree that my original thought process had been instilled by twenty-odd years of social and media influences. The alternative thought process that Epictetus proposed seemed immediately attractive, such as a potential belief that it is sufficient for happiness to do the right thing for its own sake.

“Perhaps there is something to philosophy that I’m not seeing,” I recall thinking. I searched for my intro to philosophy book and set a goal to read it in its entirety over the next several months. Notably, I avoided the section on Epictetus until the very end, for two reasons: A desire to give a “fair shake” to other philosophers’ theories, and a fear that the feeling originally drawn from listening to Epictetus’ claims would amount to little. Occasionally, I came close to recovering the desired “hit home” feeling while reading other philosophers works, but I did not succeed in matching it. I read Epictetus’s section last, comprised of a very brief history on his life and the Enchiridion, the “Handbook,” a highly condensed version of his lessons, The Discourses.

As I read the Enchiridion, the “hit home” feeling fully resurfaced. I found that I could not decisively argue against the claims that Epictetus was making, finding the internal rebuttal that “no-one believes or thinks this way” to be brittle and unconvincing. I asked myself: “What if it is really possible to think this way?” “Is it possible to apply something that is 2,000 years old?” According to Epictetus, it was, but only if I dedicate myself completely to incorporating the principles he described. I decided “if I am really going to apply this, I have to give it my all.”

From that day forward I sought to discern how Stoicism could be applied to my life, from moment-to-moment decision making, to responses to significant life events. Stoic principles became the foundation and driving force behind a new, earnest pursuit to involve myself in volunteering efforts for special needs organizations, participation in student government, residence life involvement, university representation work, engagement as a student leader, and commitment to a high-intensity exercise and nutrition regimen. Stoicism enabled me to discover and tap into a previously wholly unknown skill-set and self-sustaining source of drive. In time, I became determined to one day teach others in its use, so that others may benefit from it as I did.

The decision to take up Stoicism as a philosophy of life is not a light one. It tasks the bearer, daily, to assess, shape, and refine themselves. It does not serve as a cure-all, and cannot function as a band-aid – it is a craft, with the mind as its material, and the individual’s life as its testing grounds. In exchange, it provides a world-view in which little is taken for granted, and virtuous action is sufficient for enduring peace of mind, personal strength, and well-being. Drawing from Epictetus: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Travis Hume is a special education paraprofessional, and the creator, administrator, and writer of the Facebook group Applying Stoicism. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

Epictetus, Anger Management, and Habit by Greg Sadler

Epictetus, Anger Management, and Habit

by Greg Sadler

Norman, a 55th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, waits to be unleashed and go after his target during training April 17. The Offutt K-9 unit performs regular training to maximize the dogs effectiveness in the field. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger)


In two posts earlier this year about Epictetus’s teachings bearing on anger, I outlined some  useful insights and advice he provides about dealing with anger. The first post focused on anger on the part of other persons, and the second started an examination of anger on one’s own part. I ended that post with two promises. The first was that I would revisit the strategies or approaches for dealing with one’s own anger briefly set out at the end of the earlier post. The second was that I would address the absolutely central role habit plays in Epictetus’ overall approach to anger. This third and final post makes good on most of those commitments, since in order not to presume overmuch on the reader’s patience in an already quite long post, I’ve decided to focus on just three Stoic-derived anger management approaches in particular.


Understanding Motivations of Other People

This one I’ve already discussed quite a bit in the two earlier posts of this series, but there remains more to be said about it. To start with a reminder, when we get angry, it is most often a response that we frame in relation to words or actions (and sometimes inactions) of other people. We take these as in some way damaging or demeaning, insulting or injurious to ourselves – or to someone or something else we care about or in some way identify with.  For those of us who struggle with anger (myself included), we can also get angry with things other than persons, down to household items or even meteorological phenomena. One might feel a sense of (entirely misplaced!) anger at the wind for blowing dust in one’s face, for instance (again, I have to admit to that one).

For the most part, though, anger arises through what either are interpersonal exchanges, actions, and relationships – or at least bear some resemblance to them (getting angry at what happens on television, for example) . These in turn reveal or at least suggest – we can get these very wrong – a deeper, more interior level of human motivations. A person’s mindset, what it is he or she thinks, assumes, values, desires is revealed through their actions and words. And when we find ourselves getting angry with a person, it is not simply over what he or she did or didn’t do, what he or she said or in some other way expressed. It is over what else gets signified or signaled by their choices, behavior, and communication. That is indeed what gets to us the most.

If we were to actually sit down with the person who angered us and discuss why they did or said what they did, in many cases we would find out that some mistaken assumptions were made on our own part. It’s all too easy to attribute to another person bad motivations that they don’t actually possess, and then interpret what we see them do through that distorting and darkening lens. Typically we don’t have the time or leisure to engage in that sort of discussion, and even if we did, once a conflict starts, communication often begins to spiral around the points of that conflict, making genuine dialogue difficult. More often, we’re in the case of having been affected by someone else’s words or actions, and then dealing with the ensuing emotion of anger on our own.

We can, however, still make some attempt to work out for ourselves what the motivation of the other person might be. And here is where the Stoic approach gets particularly interesting. Epictetus is not at all suggesting that we ought to simply “assume the best” of other people when it comes to their motivations. A person who behaves in an offensive manner liable to anger others might in fact be motivated to do precisely that. That person knows what he or she is doing – in a sense. He or she does mean to offend, the insult, to harm, to provoke. What Epictetus points out is that such a person mistakenly thinks that this is reasonable and a good course of action. That is the part of the person’s structure of motivation that he urges us to take into account. And in doing so – without having to deny that the person is doing something wrong or bad – we can lessen or even entirely calm the anger we are otherwise likely to feel towards them.


Reminding Ourselves of Our Shared Humanity

According to Stoic philosophy, human beings are sociable animals. Although we do have a natural inclination towards our own self-preservation, as well as for what is conducive to our own being – and corresponding inclinations away from what we take to harm us – as human beings the full realization of our nature occurs through our engagements with other people. For the Stoics (and they are not unique among virtue ethicists in this respect), this is a reflection of something distinctive to human beings: our rationality. We are sociable animals precisely because we are rational animals. You might say that to be fully (or even on the way towards fully) rational requires that we live in community and in concord with other rational beings. And insofar as we fall short of – or fail in – that aim, that is a sign of a yet imperfect development of our distinctive endowment of reason.

At a number of points, Epictetus draws contrasts between human beings and the other animals that lack the faculty of reason (and thereby also lack a free faculty of choice, i.e. prohairesis). For example, in the course of discussing the cycles of misguided action, anger, and reprisals narrated within the epic tale of the Illiad, he maintains that “wars and factions, and deaths of many men, and destructions of cities” are not “matters of great important,” when considered in a certain light. Considered in terms of bodies and other externals, those human tragedies are no worse than the death of other animals, and the destruction of their homes or habitats. But considered in a different light, there exists a gulf of difference between human beings and other animals.

Seek and you will find that he differs in some other respect. See whether it be not in his capacity for social action, in his faithfulness, his self-respect, his security from error, his intelligence. (1.28)

One important implication of this is that, when we find ourselves getting angry with another person, we ought to remind ourselves about the humanity the other person shares with us. This is something we remain capable of, even if the other person seems quite set upon not living up to the rational promise of their human potential. A bit earlier in that same chapter, he brings up the archetypical example of Medea, and asks: “Why are you angry with her, because the poor woman has gone astray in the greatest matters, and has been transformed from a human being into a viper?” (1.28).

Epictetus invokes this metaphor of a human being descending – or degenerating – to the level of an irrational animal in a number of passages. Near the end of 1.2, he suggests that those who incline to much towards the “paltry flesh” (sarkidion)

become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and hurtful, and other like lions, wild and savage and untamed, but most of us become foxes, that is to say, rascals of the animal kingdom. For what else is a slanderous and malicious man but a fox, or something even more rascally and degraded? (1.2)

In other passages, he brings up another animal we can become like, namely sheep. We do this when we “act for the sake of the belly, or of our sex-organs, or at random.” In those discussions, he also specifies what sort of behavior makes us like wild and aggressive beasts: “acting pugnaciously and injuriously, and angrily, and rudely.” He goes on to add that “some of us are wild beasts of a larger size, whole others are little animals, malignant and petty.” (1.2)

This animal imagery can prove useful for us, when we become angry, in visualizing something that otherwise can be difficult to wrap our heads around, that is, what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled by irrational emotions such as anger. In the heat of the moment, telling ourselves that, in becoming angry or acting upon anger, we are becoming irrational might not carry enough weight to move us out of that affective path. Confronting ourselves with these vivid metaphors of departing from our humanity in order to become dangerous beasts might, however, exert a stronger effect.


Rising Above Competition and Conflict

According to Epictetus , a considerable portion of conflict between human beings stems from valuing things that are externals as if they were genuine goods, which then inevitably brings those who value and seek them into competition with each other. Wealth, honors, social position, even the attention of others, all of these are in some respect limited resources, so that if one person gets more another person inevitably gets less. Against these, we might contrast something like knowledge. If I share my knowledge of, say, Stoic philosophy with you, it is not as if my store of knowledge is eroded or lessened in the process (in fact, as a teacher, I can say from experience that at times, this process increases it). We can share in the same knowledge, and even augment it through our communication. But it is not quite like that when it comes to who (if anyone) gets paid for that knowledge, or who gets credited with a reputation for possessing knowledge, or who receives a prestigious award.

If we value certain external matters highly, and conceive of them as genuine goods that we ought to pursue, we will sooner or later find ourselves in situations of competition and conflict with other people over those apparent goods.  This primes us for becoming angry with those other people, who we can easily construe as standing in the way of what we want, what we desire, what we . . . deserve. As we become angry, we can easily convince ourselves that the other person is wronging us simply by possessing or desiring the same thing that we do.

This is the nature of every being, to pursue the good and to flee from the evil; and to consider the man who robs us of the one and invests us with the other as an enemy and an aggressor, even though he be a brother, even though he be a son, even though he be a father, for nothing is closer kin to us than our good. It follows, then, that if these externals are good or evil, neither is a father dear to his sons, nor a brother dear to a brother, but everything on all sides is full of enemies, aggressors, slanderers (4.5)

One additional thing people tend to desire, particularly when conflict occurs, which can intensify this dynamic even more, is what is typically translated as “victory” (nike), but which we could just as well render as “winning”, or even as “being right” (generally meaning: being acknowledged by the other person as being right).

We can avoid a number of occasions not only for winding up in conflict with other people, but also for getting angry in the course of those conflicts, by realizing that if we do set or leave our desire and aversion primarily in external matters, we will inevitably be forced into this rivalrous relationship with other people. It may well be the case, of course, that other people do continue to view us as competitors, and therefore become angry with us and engage in attacks upon us. That imposes a decision upon us: should we retaliate, or should we rise above?


The Importance of Habit

One key common insight running through the various versions of ancient virtue ethics (for example, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and so on) is the importance of habits (hexeis, ethe, or diatheseis, in the Greek) in the formation, existence, and (possibly) reformation of a human personality.   Habitual dispositions form a significant portion of the fabric of the core of the human person that Epictetus calls the “prohairesis” (the “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”. You might say that the habits we develop – many of which can become so ingrained as to become, as Aristotle called it, “second nature” – connect up the past, present, and future, providing some measure of continuity to our lives, our choices, our actions.

That isn’t to say, of course, that habit is everything. With respect to certain aspects of anger, for example, some people may have more natural tendencies – temperaments, genetic lots, or whatever it is that we chose to call them – towards irritability and others correspondingly less. Our family environment, our experiences with other people, lessons we have learned from models and culture, traumatic events that have happened to us, all of these can become consolidated into lasting structures that involve habits, but are not identical with habits as such.

There is also an important reciprocity to point out between choices and actions, on the one side, and habits on the other. Habits do not arrive on the scene entirely developed (although to be sure, by the time we start paying adequate attention to them, it may certainly feel like that!). They are created over time by engaging in the same types of choices and actions, gradually becoming more and more stable, lasting, determinative. And in turn, habits once established make the choices and actions characteristically associated with the habit easier, seemingly more “natural,” than other (particularly opposite) choices and actions. In fact, when we are operating “on autopilot,” when we are reacting unreflectively, a habit may seemingly make the choice for us, leading to automatically doing the action, before we even think about it.

There are an additional two considerations, another two sides to the story, as well, which flesh out the role habits play in our moral life.  Human beings are creatures that feel, that is, that move within an entire affective dimension. We interpret the world, other people, and ourselves through a panoply of affects in the broadest sense of the term – though overarching moods, through lasting or fleeting feelings, through emotional responses that sometimes we recognize and sometimes we cannot even name. Another basic aspect of this is that we experience – continually through our lives, though not always centered on the same objects – desire and aversion.

We are also creatures who think. There is an essential cognitive dimension to human being, just as fundamental as the affective dimension. We not only perceive the world through the senses, but as we do so, we form judgements or opinions (doxai) about what appears to us, and we apply a variety of previously derived (or perhaps in some cases, already possessed, like the Stoic “general conceptions,” proleipseis) conceptions to matters. We likewise understand, reflect upon, have ideas about, or arrive at judgements about ourselves.

To bring what might appear to be simply a detour into basic philosophical psychology or anthropology to its conclusion, let me suggest a sort of visual model that may be useful when looking at the significance of habit for anger in Epictetus’ view. Imagine a tetrahedron, a four-sided, three-dimensional figure, extending to four equidistant points. Each of these represents one important and interrelated aspect discussed above. Habit is at one point. Choice is at another point. The two other points are filled out by Affect and Thought. All four of these dynamically interact with, reciprocally affect, or at times even determine, each other. Habit extends to – and encompasses or integrates – but does not simply assimilate the other key aspects, all of which go into making up what a human being is, at the core of his or her personhood.


Anger and Habit

Since habit plays such a central role in moral life, it is to be expected that Epictetus would have quite a bit to say about it, both on its own, and in relation to anger. He tells us, for example, in 3.12, that training (askesis) requires considerable attention to what habits we have already developed. One of the most overarching habits, by the time that a person encounters Stoicism is that of focusing “our desire and aversion solely upon external matters,” or rather, more literally, “using” (khresthai) desire and aversion on external things. This requires of us that we shift that orientation from the external, from what is not in our own but someone else’s control, to the internal. And that in turn, Epictetus tells us, must eventually be consolidated into “a contrary habit to counteract this [original, established] habit”.

How does that work concretely, with specific cases? We must examine, admit, and understand where our own particular weaknesses in relation to external things reside. He uses the examples of being inclined towards pursuing pleasure and being disinclined towards hard work (common enough cases, in my own experience!), and suggests that what the person who discovers these within him or herself needs to do is to “relocate [one]self over on the opposite side of the matter”. Moreover, one should do this “past the measure,” that is, towards what would be excessive for someone else not subject to that weakness.

“Different people will have to practice particularly to meet different things,” he concludes. And so, those who realize that anger is a problem for them will have to work to develop an array of responses, techniques, and strategies that eventually wean them away from following, acting upon, intensifying, or even falling into the emotion. This reworking of habits involved with anger often does feel extreme, unnatural, perhaps even unfair, to the person who begins to engage in it. But it is necessary.

In an earlier chapter (2.18), providing advice about “struggling with appearances” or “external impressions” (phantasiai), Epictetus first notes the general point that “every habit and capacity is confirmed and strengthened by the corresponding actions.” This leads quite naturally to the practical conclusion:   “if you want to do something, then make a habit of it; if you want not to do something, then don’t do it, and habituate yourself to do something else instead.” He then invokes anger as a specific example. “[W]hen you get angry [orgisthes], realize that not only has this evil befallen you, but also that you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the flame.”

One remedy in general for this is to apply one’s faculty of reason to understanding what is going on, why it is something bad, and what degree of choice one has in what one feels, thinks, chooses, or does. If we do this, when we are getting angry, or after we are already angry – for instance in applying one or more of the remedies discussed above – then we have some possibility of stilling the emotion or desire we are experiencing, and restoring our governing faculty to its “original authority,” that is, maintaining our own self-control.

If we don’t do that, however, it becomes very easy to be taken in by the appearances (for example, that the other person deliberately insulted us, as well as that the natural thing to do is to impose some sort of retribution), and our already established habits then steer us along a familiar and natural-feeling course that culminates in losing our temper and then acting out of anger. Over time, with repetition, the habit induces the person simply following emotion, desire, and habit to become angry more quickly, with less provocation. And then, after and in addition to that, the habit becomes strengthened within the person in yet other ways.

Certain imprints and welts are left behind on the mind, and unless a man erases them perfectly, the next time he is scourged upon the old scars, he has welts no longer but wounds. If therefore, you wish not to be hot-tempered, do not feed your habit, set before it nothing upon which it can grow. . . For first the habit is weakened, and then utterly destroyed. (2.18)

We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that giving in, on something we know full well to be a problem for us, doesn’t have all that much of an effect. It is tempting to tell ourselves that just this one time, we are justified, and that we are entitled to make an exception to the general rule we decided upon for ourselves. Many of us are also prone to admit failure in the present, but to console ourselves by telling a story in which down the line, in the future, we do manage to make progress. Epictetus cautions us:

[I]f you be defeated once, and then say that down the line you will overcome, and then do the same thing a second time, know that eventually you will be in such a bad and weakened habitual state [hexeis] that you will not even realize that you are going wrong, but you will start to offer arguments in justification [apologias] of your behavior. (2.18)

He also notes that we possess alternatives, options we can choose and are thus responsible for, when we do fail:

Behold, you have been dislodged, though by no one else but yourself. Fight against yourself, vindicate yourself for decency, for respect, for freedom. . . . First of all condemn what you are doing; then, when you have passed your condemnation, do not despair of yourself, nor act like the spiritless people who when once they have given in, surrender themselves completely, and are swept off by the current, as it were, but learn how the gymnastic instructor of boys acts. The boy he is training is thrown; “get up,” he says, “and wrestle again, till you get strong.” (4.9)

In Enchiridion, ch. 51, after pointing out our tendencies to delay and defer committing ourselves concretely to the Stoic path, he points out the importance of each moment at which we find ourselves: “remember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is lost or saved.”

All of these Stoic reflections about habits, choices, and consequences apply to anger. It is up to us, in the choices we make at determinate moments – when we first start to get angry, or when we realize that we are in a rage, even after we have acted upon anger and ought to set things right – how we form and reform our habits, what one might call the lasting but malleable armature structuring our faculty of choice.   Do we want to be angry people or calm, gentle, rational people? That choice is up to us to make.

The habits we already possess can admittedly render that choice a difficult one, making anger seem rational, natural, even required (if only in this circumstance, or this one time, or. . . )  But we do also possess the capacity to decide for ourselves, at each moment, what we will do with ourselves. Realizing this – both in the sense of grasping this intellectually and in the practical sense of gradually making it a reality – liberates us from the power anger otherwise exerts upon us and in our common social world.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.